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Commuting in Tokyo
During my trip to Japan for disaster relief, I spent some time commuting to the CRASH Japan office and decided to put together some vids about the train system. The result is a three part series providing some background and tips for commuting in Japan.

Part 1 - Determining Your Route

Part 2 - At the Station

Part 3 - Example Commute

The key items listed in these videos:
Posted 06/09/2011 08:38 AM in Japan, Travel, Videos
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Japan Trip Update 5/21/2011
Hi All, This week's update is kind of ginormous because there are just so many things to talk about. I broke it down into the following sections:
  • Sunday 5/15 - Morioka
  • Monday 5/16 - Miyako
  • Tuesday 5/17 - Yamada
  • Wednesday 5/18 - Otsuchi
  • Thursday 5/19 - Ofunato, Kesennuma, Ishinomaki
  • Personal Reflections
  • The Story of the Ryokan
  • Prayer Requests

Sunday 5/15 - Morioka
Sunday, John and I met up with four pastors and a couple from some local churches. After the earthquake, many roads were damaged but now, two months after the disaster, the vast majority have been fixed and you can travel at full speed on the highway.

After eight hours, we arrived at a church in Morioka, 2 hours inland from the coast. We met with volunteers from another church and a seminary. After an overview and slideshow of the local effects of the disaster, the 20 of us slept on the floor of the church.

Monday 5/16 - Miyako
Monday we drove east to Miyako on the coast. The Tsunami was reported to be 30 meters tall here, but the area we stayed in did not receive the full force. The downtown area saw 10 feet of water and primarily suffered water damage instead of destruction. Areas closer to the sea saw significant destruction, primarily to the first floor, though many buildings had to be condemned completely.

My team's job was to clean up of the kitchen in the ryokan where we stayed. We removed all debris and cleaned up any salvageable dishes, flatware and cookware. We pulled up damaged linoleum, cleaned the floor, laid down tarps and boarded up windows so the kitchen could be used until it was ready for full renovations. More details on the ryokan are available below.

Finally we hauled the debris to the temporary dump. There was a constant flow of trucks dropping off trash, rubble, cars, along with things you wouldn't think of, like an entire car wash machine! The debris at the dump gave just a glimpse of the immensity of destruction that the Japanese are facing.

Tuesday 5/17 - Yamada
Tuesday our team drove south to the next town, Yamada, which was hit much harder. Sections of the tide wall were pushed aside, over turned or sunk into the ground by the power of the tsunami. Whole blocks of buildings were swept away leaving crumbling concrete foundations and rubble. Boats of varying sizes were strewn on the side of the road or in the middle of a block. In one case, both a boat and a Porsche had been lifted up and left teetering precariously on the roof of a two story retirement home. Throughout the area, the pungent smell of rotting fish permeated the air.

We reported to the local government volunteer center where they assigned us to a destroyed hospital. For safety we wore water proof armored boots, work gloves and breathing masks. We met two women at the hospital. One woman's father was the hospital administrator and the other woman's husband was a doctor. Our job was to salvage their furniture and books from the second floor.

Most of the first floor was completely ruined. We walked past a file room filled with papers and x-rays. A door had been ripped off its hinges but was lodged in the ceiling, hanging on by the auto-closing arm. On the second floor the water had come up to waist level. Debris, office furniture and medical supplies were tossed throughout the hallway.

We hauled a couch and some book shelves downstairs to a waiting truck, then about 300 books and magazines (including three complete sets of encyclopaedias) from the administrator and doctor offices. The furniture was dropped off at one of the women's homes and the books were brought to another hospital where we carried them up another flight of stairs to their new home.

We said goodbye to the women, who were extremely thankful and on the brink of tears as we left. Meanwhile, other teams set up a free concert in the ryokan in Miyako. There they cooked dinner and handed out basic supplies for the community.

Wednesday 5/18 - Otsuchi
Wednesday we headed farther south to Otsuchi, another city that was hit very hard. Otsuchi has a large river that feeds into the ocean and the tsunami followed this river inland. Our primary task was to provide food and services to an entire community that lived on the side of the river.

By the river you could see the side of the road piled high with trash, debris and bags of mud. The water level reached the top of the first floor and even two months later, many people are just returning to their homes to begin the clean-up. We set up at a small convenience store that had just finished cleaning inside.

The team broke up and canvased the neighborhood, inviting everyone to come for a free spaghetti lunch and food, clothing and other supplies. We asked if anyone had any additional needs. One woman needed help removing floor boards so they could be cleaned and her foundation could be cleared of mud. John and I were given a pry bar and assigned this task while the rest of the team helped cook lunch.

The people in this neighborhood were extremely grateful and everyone we contacted showed up. Providing a free lunch doesn't sound like much, but when you have an endless list of things to do to return to normalcy, one less thing to worry about goes a long way. After handing out a couple dozen boxes of supplies, we told them to contact their local church if they had any additional needs.

Thursday 5/19 - Ofunato, Kesennuma, Ishinomaki
Thursday was our day to travel back to Tokyo. Instead of heading straight for the highway, we followed the coast south, passing through town after town that had been destroyed by the tsunami, each with its own unique story. Some towns dealt with huge fires that broke out from liquid propane tanks that ruptured. Some towns were partially protected by their sea walls but some towns had sea walls that were destroyed. Some towns lost roads and train lines.

Seeing the destruction from city to city gave us a chance to pray for the Japanese and reflect on all that we had seen. But there were also times that the shock was overwhelming and we rode in silence. The latest estimates say rebuilding these areas will take at least 6 years.

Personal Reflections
For me, the biggest impression was how fragile our lives are and how quickly our earthly posessions can be destroyed by the power of this Earth that God created. It reminds me of the parable from Luke 12:16-21 (NIV)
And he told them this parable: "The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, 'What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.'
"Then he said, 'This is what I'll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I'll say to myself, "You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry."'
"But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?'
"This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God."
We often live in this world gathering money and stuff and building walls to protect it. Yet it can all be taken from us, in a single moment. Can you imagine that? Your home, your school, your work, your car, your grocery store, your favorite restaurant: gone in an instant. What do you do when that happens? What can you count on?

Are we rich toward God? Are we building up treasures in heaven? Are we working for the Kingdom of God? Are we serving and building relationships with the lost? Are we sharing the Truth with those who have not found it? Or are we pursuing earthly things that do not last?

Those are questions that I know I need to pray and meditate on. How about you?

The Story of the Ryokan
During our travels, we stayed at a ryokan, a Japanese style inn. How this ryokan became a place for volunteers is an interesting story of God's divine provision.

The three story ryokan is located across the street from the sea wall. It is owned by the Abe's, a couple in their 70's. The tsunami came over the wall and heavily damaged the first floor and basement, destroying windows, doors and an entire interior wall. The husband was swept out of a second story window but was miraculously saved when his cell phone strap caught on something. His wife pulled him back into the building, breaking her leg in the process.

Weeks later, a team of American volunteers came to help clean up. It took them some time to find the building where Mr. Abe was waiting for them but by the end of the day they had boarded up the first floor and made significant progress cleaning it. It was at that time that the team discovered they had been working at the wrong building!

However, Mr. Abe was so appreciative of the help fromt he volunteers that he invited the team to stay at his ryokan which had a dozen usable rooms on the upper floors. After discussions with local church leaders, he opened up his ryokan to all volunteers from the church who in turn pay a reasonable amount to provide the Abe's with some much needed income.

Thus, a divinely blessed mix-up brought volunteers to the Abe's which in turn became a resource that allowed volunteers to stay in a better location in better conditions, saving precious travel time and allowing the volunteers to be better immersed in the community. I'm certain that God has and will continue to use this location to touch many more lives.

Prayer Requests
  • Pray for the emotional, physical and spiritual health of the Japanese. Many people have lost not only things, but family, friends and careers: literally their entire lives.
  • Pray that the hearts of the Japanese may be filled with love and hope from the volunteers serving them.
  • Pray for the volunteer teams coming from all over Japan and the world to serve
  • Pray that the Abe's would be blessed for opening up their home and business to volunteers
  • Pray for the governments, organizations, churches and individuals that have an immense amount of work to do to restore

Posted 05/22/2011 10:19 PM in Christianity, Japan, Travel
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Japan Trip Update 5/14/2011
I landed at Narita airport in Tokyo, Japan on Monday afternoon. A quick three hour commute got me to John's house (John is my friend and a Converge Worldwide missionary) where I would stay for the week.

For my first week I helped John with some IT related tasks for his ministry, then hooked up with CRASH Japan, a Christian relief organization that is setting up long term base camps for disaster response. CRASH is growing fast and needs a lot of volunteers in their headquarters which moved into a new building this month. 30-50 volunteers work in the HQ every day in the midst of renovations.

The needs change on a daily basis requiring flexibility and a willingness to serve in whatever capacity is needed. I was assigned to help maintain the database of volunteers and donors as well as to help develop a tool to aid with automatic translation between Japanese and English.

Today (Sunday) I will be heading up to the disaster area for a week with a local team to do more hands-on work. Specifically we will be driving to Miyako, which is about 100 miles north of Sendai (300 miles from Tokyo) and will take 8-10 hours.

Our main task will be to distribute supplies in the area though that may change on a daily basis as well. We may also be removing debris, cleaning, watching children or just helping people emotionally. More details below.

We will be staying in an old ryokan (Japanese inn) that survived the devastation and is owned by a couple who lived through the earthquake and Tsunami. Electricity has been restored in the building but there is no water so we will need to bring drinking water and travel 20 minutes to a public bath every day.

I am currently packing supplies for the trip which include rain gear, waterproof boots with armored soles (so we don't step on nails), safety goggles, particulate masks, work gloves, flash lights, sleeping bags, food and duct tape of course. This should be an interesting trip!

Prayer Requests:
  • For all the people we come in contact with, that we would be a source of comfort, hope and love for them
  • For the couple who owns the ryokan and are opening it up to volunteers
  • For opportunities to share the Gospel with those we meet
  • Health and safety for all the volunteers while we travel and serve
Thanks for your support. I will send another update after we return.

Here is some additional information from John.
John Back to Iwate, May 14th

John will be leaving today with Phil Tsai, short-term worker, to work with a Rengo Disaster Response team in Iwate prefecture from the 15th to the 19th. The eight member team will include Pastor Sasaki, Rengo Board member, Pastor Kurashima of the Masago church, Associate Pastor Yamauchi of the Chuo church, the Wakaos of the Ishikawa Kita church and Pastor Yokota of the Minami Urawa church. This team is loaded with pastors!

John and Phil will pick up Pastor Yokota and supplies and then rendezvous the rest of the team at the Morioka Bible Baptist Church in Morioka, Iwate Prefecture on Sunday evening where we will spend the night. From Monday we will be working in Miyako City, Iwate Prefecture distributing relief supplies, cleaning, removing debris, helping people emotionally, playing with kids, etc.

In this city of nearly 58,000 there are only two churches which together have only a weekly attendance of 39 people. Like the whole Tohoku region, this is a very unchurched and unevangelized area. We will be working with the Iwate 3.11 Church Network which is supporting relief efforts through local churches throughout Iwate Prefecture. Please pray for our hearts and our hands as we bring the love of Christ to this area.

Miyako lost more to 400 to the earthquake and tsunami and is the city where photos showed a waterfall-like tsunami over 124 feet high (about 10 stories) inundating the city. Photo video

Please pray for opportunities to share the love of Christ both in word and deed on this trip. Pray that we may make many smile with hope. Pray to that God would give both John and Phil wisdom and sensitive eyes this trip. After this month trip, Phil will be returning to Japan later in August with a Disaster Response Team from Chicago (and St. Louis). Maybe some want to join him.

Posted 05/14/2011 06:21 PM in Christianity, Japan, Travel
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If you are interested in doing relief work in Japan this summer (August 2011), please click here for more information!

Interested in supporting our team?
Additional Options

Click to donate:

eChecks preferred (no fees)

Posted 04/21/2011 00:08 AM in Christianity, Japan, Prayers, Travel
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Ignorance is Bliss
I'm usually a fan of educating people but this is a rare case where I think I would rather not know and would consider holding back to spare others. This is a tool that might help you when traveling, or might freak you out. You've been warned.

If you didn't heed my warning and would like some interesting history on the subject, read this PDF too.
Posted 10/08/2010 05:14 PM in Ramblings, Travel
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Another near accident. Learn to drive in the snow people!
Yesterday morning, after all the snow in the northeast (greatly exagerated in some areas, there were only 3-4" in the New Haven area) I was driving a couple co-workers to the client site in a Saturn Outlook (large, heavy, 7 passenger SUV with front wheel drive). I took my exit, a long sweeping cloverleaf ramp, behind three other cars going about 30.

Car 1, an old red compact, got a little wiggly and slammed on her brakes until she came to a complete stop in the middle of the road. Obviously, that exacerbated the situation instead of helping.

Car 2 had no choice but to brake and veer to the right to avoid a collision. They actually did an ok job, avoiding Car 1 and coming to a controlled stop on the shoulder.

Car 3 also slammed on their brakes, but swerved violently to the left causing the car's rear end to skid. The car slid to a stop, inches from the guard rail, perpendicular to the road, right in front of me.

So what was I to do? Obviously I hit the brakes, instantaneously setting off the ABS. With such a freaking large vehicle I knew there was no way I could stop. With Car 3 heading to the left and Car 2 heading to the right, I saw an opening.

I released the brake so I wouldn't skid and eased the steering wheel to the right and drove around Car 3, then turned back to the left, hugging the guard rail and quickly drove around Car 2 and Car 1.

While it wasn't as dramatic as my last near accident, my heart was beating pretty hard, though I didn't have any cool time-slowing-down effect. My co-workers complimented my quick thinking and we continued on our way.

A couple quick tips for anyone in a similar situation:
  • No sudden braking, you'll lock the tires and lose control (Car 1). Go easy on the brakes and don't expect ABS to save you since it is only marginally effective in low traction situations.
  • No sudden steering, you'll upset the car's balance and lose control (Car 3). Turn smoothly to help the car along the turn.
  • Your car is probably more capable of turning than braking, so evaluate options such as going around an obstacle instead of trying to stop (Car 2 and myself), keeping in mind the previous tip.
  • If you do lose a little traction, don't panic (Car 1). Instead, brake and steer lightly to maintain control and come to an easy and controlled stop in a safe place. The middle of the road is not a safe place.

Posted 02/12/2010 04:34 PM in Cars, Ramblings, Travel
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February Travel Plans
Here are my tentative travel plans for Feb 2010
  • 2/1 - Fly to Indianapolis, IN for work
  • 2/4 - Fly to Chicago, IL
  • 2/5 - Drive to Hustisford, WI for Ice Driving Class
  • 2/6 - Drive to Chicago, IL
  • 2/8 - Fly to New York, NY, drive to New Haven, CT for work
  • 2/11 - Drive to New York, NY for fun
  • 2/12 - Drive to Princeton, NJ or Boston, MA to visit friends
  • 2/13 - Drive to Hebron, NH for Ice Racing (maybe)
  • 2/14 - Drive to New York, NY, fly to Chicago, IL
  • 2/15 - Fly to Denver, CO for work
  • 2/19 - Drive to Colorado Springs, CO to drive up Pike's Peak
  • 2/20 - Drive to Denver, CO, fly to Chicago, IL
  • 2/21 - Fly to Los Angeles, CA for work
  • 2/25 - Drive to Anaheim, CA to visit family
  • 2/28 - Fly to Chicago, IL

Posted 02/02/2010 10:58 PM in Ramblings, Travel
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My best India story (TMI warning)
In Jaipur India, the group had recently finished lunch at LMB Restaurant. We were roaming the bazaars looking for deals when my stomach started grumbling a little. I ignored it for a while, but eventually, I knew I had to do something about it. I mentioned to the group that I REALLY had to go to the bathroom. The big question was what to do about it...

On a scale of 0-10 (with a standard McDonald's bathroom being a 5) a typical public bazaar bathroom in a developing nation probably rates a 1, not a pleasant choice in a small emergency. Another option was to walk 10 minutes back to the LMB Restaurant bathroom which rates about a 2. I chose that option.

Anna, a friend from KPMG, accompanied me into the restaurant. As I entered I told the manager that I had eaten there and needed the restroom. Then I remember that the restaurant has no TP, but fortunately Anna had an emergency travel roll with her that she gracefully offered. I quickly shuffled down the hallway to the men's room only to be cut off by a young boy who grabbed the only stall and proceeded to have the same issues that I was having. I had no choice but to wait. Or did I?

I shuffled back out and asked one of the waiters if there was another bathroom I could use, but there was not. So I returned to the hallway and waited for the boy to finish. A couple minutes passed after which the boy's father entered the bathroom to help him out. At that point, I decided it was time to take control of my own destiny.

After careful observation of other patrons, I discovered a slim window of opportunity: the women's bathroom was open. I knew from previous discussions with the group that there were two options, a Western style or a squattie potty. I decided on the squattie potty for the primary reason that you don't have to touch anything. I ran in and quickly locked the stall door.

I stood there for a moment contemplating whether there was a right way to use it as it's been a while since my last time. I was forced to make a snap judgement and decided to use it in the direction I happened to be in at the time. I squatted down, being careful not to touch anything (I will note that the women's bathroom rated a 3 compared to the men's).

I did my business, desperately clutching the small package of travel TP. When I was done, I opened the package and carefully unrolled the measly contents and discovered a scant three squares which kept rolling back up. After carefully folding each square one by one, I finally got them to a usable state and finished up.

I stood up and hit the flusher only to discover a half-hearted flow of water, unlike the squattie potties in Japan. It was at this moment that I realized that I had been facing the wrong way (I guess there really is a wrong way) and the water could not attain sufficient velocity. Just as I was becoming aware of this, the door to the bathroom opened and I heard the jingling of a (presumably) Indian lady walking in.

As the embarrassment crept over me, she attempted to open my stall. The stall was locked of course, but it still added to the overall shame of the situation. I attempted to flush again but the tank was extremely slow to refill so all I could do was cower quietly in my stall and wait. I don't know how long I was in there, but finally the lady finished and left.

I flushed again and only succeeded in removing 50% of my shame but I felt that I had to leave as quickly as possible. I stood on my tippy-toes and peered over the stall door to ensure I was alone, then made a mad dash for the door, fearing that another lady would catch me in the act.

I erupted into the hallway and was much relieved that no one was looking my way. I calmly strolled out of the restaurant, thanked the manager and proceeded outside to find Anna. She provided me with a small bottle of Purel, which I used most of, before returning to the group. I recounted my story to the group while turning beet red with embarrassment and spent the next few hours with an awkward gait...
Posted 12/16/2009 08:59 AM in Ramblings, Travel
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Going to Japan for this:

Posted 10/21/2009 09:56 PM in Christianity, Japan, Travel, Videos
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Westin Jersey City - Newport Review
4/5 479 Washington Boulevard
Jersey City, NJ, 07310
(201) 626-2900
Rating: Chopsticks of Pleasure
A nice new SPG Cat 4, a potentially cheaper option to a Manhattan hotel
To get to this hotel from the south, Google Maps told me to take Washington St, but it turned out to be one-way southbound so I had to go west to Marin Blvd north and then approach from 6th street. When I arrived at 1AM, there was no valet in site (much like the W at Union Square) and there were also a lot of people loitering outside. Apparently there had been a false fire alarm so there were a lot of disgruntled vacationers milling about the lobby slowing things down. I requested a Westin Workout room upgrade and was initially told they were all booked but they managed to find me one anyway.

The room was cleanly and tastefully decorated with typical classic Westin styling. The room was large and pretty new too. The bathroom was pretty big and had a nice double shower-head. My Westin Workout room had a treadmill, exercise ball, free weights and exercise bands. The Westin Workout rooms are on the lowest guest floor (6 in this case) so as not to disturb others which allowed me to get a run in the comfort of my own room at 1AM without fear of angry complaints.

The hotel does not have a shuttle to take you around Jersey city but despite the dodgy valet drop-off, valet service was much better. At $28, they usually had my car in 5-10 minutes since the garage was in the same building. Due to a mix-up, they only charged me for one night instead of two.

Overall, this was a very nice Westin and I would definitely return if staying in Jersey City. It's a viable cheaper hotel option for Manhattan as well, though you would need to allow extra time for Holland tunnel traffic.
Posted 08/19/2009 10:47 PM in New York, Reviews, Travel
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W New York - Union Square Review
3/5 201 Park Avenue South
New York, New York 10003
(212) 253-9119
Rating: Chopsticks of Indifference
Facilities live up to SPG Cat 6 rating but service lacks polish and valet parking is poor
This was my first hotel in NYC and I expected a big silver W in front like they have in some locations so I drove right by the hotel. I had to circle the block once before I saw the W flag a few stories up. Service wasn't quite what I expected from a SPG Category 6 hotel, though I did arrive at 3AM so I can't fault that. The only way to tell who the employees were was from a small W pin they wore. The valet assumed I was already checked in, but I was not and he had to get the attendant for me. The systems were down at that time and they couldn’t merge my two reservations so after 2 nights I had to get my key re-coded. The one time I went to the concierge to get a map, there was no-one in sight so I just used Google Maps on my phone.

In typical W fashion, the lobby is dark. The double sided elevators open into a similarly dark hallway leading to the rooms. My room has typical dark and modern W styling but nice big windows to let in lots of natural light. The room was clean and the W bed was super comfy. The bathroom was nice, though a tad small with the shower door hitting the sink. My one complaint was that the A/C was a little off. THe room was nice and cool but it felt clammy and humid. I like the Bliss toiletries so I kept them as I can’t stand the ginger stuff that I get at the Marriott I'm currently staying at in Hartford.

And now for parking... First, valet service is a whopping $55 per night, plus tax. When you call for your car they say 10-15 minutes, but I never waited less than 20 minutes. When I checked out, they hadn't billed me and correcting that took a long 10 minutes. Due to my dual-reservation problem they also mixed up the valet tickets and brought me a black Hyundai Sonata (I had a Grey Elantra). 15 minutes later they showed up with a Silver Hyundai Accent, saying it was the only other Hyundai they had. The bellman told me to go to the garage so after the valet shoved a bunch of someone's stuff in the Accent out of the way, I rode in awkward silence with the valet to the garage where I had to find my own car. When that was finally cleared up, I was 45 minutes late leaving the city to go to work.

Overall, I think the W in Union Square is a good hotel with nice rooms. Their service could use some polish and I guess that people who are paying big bucks may expect more but as a business traveler I'm ok with that. I would recommend this hotel if you don't have a car, however, if you do have a car, you may want to find a garage and park it yourself
Posted 08/10/2009 07:03 AM in Cars, New York, Reviews, Travel
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NYC Trip 1 (6/26-6/28)
At the end of June I had to fly to Chattanooga for work and stay through Friday. With a short weekend, I decided to fly back to Hartford and drive to NYC to visit Hewson and Celeste.

Thursday I got a text from Hewson asking if it was ok to have a dinner party on Saturday. Of course that was fine, but his next message was, "Tell us what you want and we'll make sure we get the ingredients for you." Apparently this dinner party would feature food from my own hands...

On Friday, after flying to Hartford I drove down to Brooklyn and arrived around 1AM after which we stayed up until 3 before I collapsed on their futon.

Saturday I woke up around noon and Hewson and I went to the city for some Ethiopian food. After that we went to Fairway Market to shop for the dinner party which was attended by Hewson's sister Maria, Celeste's childhood friend Antoinette and two of their other friends, Mike and Christine. For dinner I made fettuccini putanesca and farfalle with smoked salmon cream sauce while Celeste made strawberry shortcake for dessert.

Sunday we mostly chilled and played Wii before heading out for a pizza lunch and driving around Coney Island. After that we drove through Green Wood cemetery looking at the amazing mausoleums and tombs (apparently this was a nice way to spend your afternoons in the 70's or something). Also in the cemetery was Battle Hill, the site of the original battle for American independence from Britain.

4/5 50 Clinton Street
New York, NY 10002
(212) 477-2900
Rating: Chopsticks of Pleasure
A great place for a nice comfortable meal with a touch of molecular gastronomy and without the formal atmosphere of some fine dining establishments
After our afternoon, we went to Manhattan for dinner at WD-50. In terms of atmosphere, the restaurant has no dress code and allows walk-ins, giving it a nice comfortable feel. The tables actually have cutouts so the servers can stand by your table without blocking foot traffic. As a bonus, they had half price wines that night so (much to my surprise) we finished a bottle of a malbec and a rose.

Overall, I think the dinner was excellent (pics below). There were a couple dishes that were not that special, though there was some debate between us as to which ones they were. However, the final lamb entree was perfect and made the dinner worth it across the board. The two desserts after it were amazing as well. In the end, we were all quite happy, though the final bill did come out to $205 per person.

Pics are here
Posted 08/04/2009 09:04 PM in Dessert, Food, Pictures, Ramblings, Restaurants, Reviews, Travel
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My crazy travel schedule
The rest of this month is going to be a busy travel month and I'll be away from home for three weeks straight at some point, with tons of other events too. The main cause is a last minute work schedule change along with a wedding. So here is what my travel schedule will look like starting next week, which involves traveling somewhere every 2-3 days:
  • 7/20 Fly from Chicago to Hartford for work, staying at the Sheraton East Hartford
  • 7/22 Fly from Hartford to Philadelphia for work, staying at the Residence Inn in Plymouth Meeting
  • 7/24 Fly from Philadelphia to Washington DC for a layover
  • 7/24 Fly from Washington DC to arrive back in Hartford
  • 7/24 Rent a car and drive from Hartford to Manhattan, staying at the W at Union Square
  • 7/27 Drive from Manhattan back to Hartford, staying at Sheraton East Hartford
  • 7/30 Drive from Hartford to Brooklyn, staying at Hewson's
  • 7/31 Drive from Brooklyn to Jersey City, staying at the Westin Jersey City (attending a wedding and dining at Le Bernardin)
  • 8/02 Switch to W New York Tuscany to be closer to CT for the morning drive
  • 8/03 Drive from Manhattan to Hartford, staying at Sheraton East Hartford
  • 8/06 Fly from Hartford back home to Chicago
  • 8/10 Fly from Chicago back to Hartford for work (typical week)
  • 8/13 Fly from Hartford back to Chicago (typical week)
  • 8/17 Fly from Chicago back to Hartford for work (typical week)
  • 8/20 Fly from Hartford back to Chicago (typical week)
  • 8/21 Drive from Chicago to Lafayette, Indiana for the Subaru of Indiana Automotive (SIA) plant tour and test rides on the Subaru test track, staying at Courtyard Lafayette
  • 8/22 AutoX event at SIA plant, then drive back to Chicago
  • 8/24 Back to my typical travel schedule again

Posted 07/14/2009 10:37 PM in Ramblings, Travel, Work
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Air Traffic Control
A couple months ago my flight to Chicago had a medical emergency and we had to land in Cleveland to drop off a passenger. I decided to listen to Air Traffic Control (ATC) which is a feature offered by United. I found it pretty interesting and not at all like what you see in the movies.

One thing to note is that ATC is made up of several independent divisions. Here is a brief summary of all the divisions that my flight passes through on its way from Hartford to Chicago:
  • Taking off from Hartford we start with the Tower, which provides runway conditions and clearance for take-off.
  • Once the plane leaves the ground, we contact Departures which coordinates which way the plane turns and what bearing and altitudes it should take.
  • Once clear of the airport, we contact Boston Center to coordinate regional traffic, altitudes and flight conditions
  • Leaving the Northeast and passing through North Central, we contact Cleveland Center
  • Leaving North Central and crossing over the Canadian border, we contact Toronto Center
  • Crossing back into the US, we contact Cleveland Center again
  • Approaching the Chicagoland area, we contact Chicago Center
  • Approaching O'hare, we contact Chicago Approach for headings and runway assignment
  • After receiving runway assignments and headings, we contact O'hare Tower for clearance to land
  • Once we've landed, we contact O'Hare Ground for taxi and gate routing.

Below is a transcript of radio chatter from my flight, United 719. This starts soon after we contacted Cleveland Center. It's interesting to hear all the different people talking. For instance some people are friendlier than others and some have thick accents, like Korean 360 which obviously had a Korean pilot. It's also interesting to hear them announce "traffic" when routes intersect or run parallel within 2000 feet of elevation.

Numbers are constantly tossed back and forth and may refer to flights, speeds, headings, altitudes or radio frequencies. Sometimes they say the whole number and sometimes they read out the digits. Jargon is also pretty common, for instance saying puddle to refer to a puddle-jumper, a small propeller driven plane for short regional flights or heavy when referring to jumbo jets or cargo planes. They also use words to call out letters for instance Quebec for Q, Foxtrox for F, etc, particularly on the ground where every taxi-way and runway has a specific letter and number designation (more on that some other day). So it requires a basic understanding of what's going on and a good ear to figure things out sometimes.

One thing you can't see in this transcript is how crazy things get near Chicago where the traffic and congestion mean constant radio chatter. The radio is always on with updates from dozens of flights and you never know what you're going to hear when your crew switches channels. I really feel for the ATC controllers that have to work at O'hare. I actually heard pilots saying "Unbelievable!" to the ground control after having to back-track a route to get to their gate. The controllers have to be on top of things and there's very little breathing room with so much traffic and thousands of lives in their hands. My hat goes off to them.
(UA719) Cleveland Center we're experiencing moderate chop at 3-6.
(CleC) United 6, conditions?
(UA6) light chop last four minutes
(UA719) How is 4-0-0?
(CleC) light chop reported but that was 20 minutes ago
(UA719) Trying 4-0-0
(CleC) United 7-19, Status heading up there?
(UA719) It's been continuous chop all the way, United 7-19
(UA719) 7-19 now picking up light turbulence at 3-8-0
(CleC) Puddle 6-60, how is it where you are?
(660) at 3-6-0 had some chop while we leveled out but it's better now
(CleC) United 7-19, Puddle 6-60 says 3-6-0 is better now
(UA719) Going to 3-6-0 United 7-19
(CleC) United 7-19, Toronto Center says 3-60 should be a pretty nice ride soon
(UA719) Appreciate you checking for us, United 7-19
(CleC) 7-19, contact Toronto center 3492
(UA719) Toronto 3492, United 7-19
(UA719)Toronto Center, this is United 7-19 at 3-6-0 experiencing light chop
(TorC) United 7-19, hello, that should clear up for you in a little bit, it gets better as you head west
(UA719) Thanks
(TorC) United 7-19, traffic at 12 o'clock 1000 feet below
(UA719) Traffic ahead, United 7-19
(TorC) United 7-19 contact Cleveland Center 1-2-6-5-2
(UA719) 1-2-6-5-2 Cleveland, United 7-19
(UA719) Cleveland, United 7-19, 3-6-0 finally smooth
(CleC) 7-19, what was your condition?
(UA719) Well, it was 100 miles back, continuous light chop
(CleC) United 719, maintain 3-4-0
(UA719) 3-4-0, United 7-19
(CleC) United 719, contact Cleveland Center 1-3-3 dot 8-7
(UA719) 1-3-3-8-7, 7-19
(UA719) Cleveland Center, United 7-19 at 3-4-0
(CleC) United 7-19, maintain 3-2-0
(UA719) 3-2-0, 7-19
(UA719) United 719, at 3-2-0
(CleC) 7-19, Roger, no complaints
(CleC) United 7-19, descend at discretion, maintain 2-0-0
(UA719) with discretion, maintain 2-0-0
(CleC) United 7-19, contact Chicago Center at ????
(UA719) ????, United 7-19
(UA719) Chicago Center, United 7-19 descending to 2-0-0
(ChiC) United 7-19, 2-0-0
(ChiC) United 7-1-9, cross fire ??? at 0-0-niner thousand
(UA719) Cross fire at 9000 feet, united 7-19
(ChiC) United 7-1-9, contact Chicago Approach, 1-1-niner-0
(UA719) 1-niner-0 7-19 g'day
(UA719) Approach, United 7-19 at niner thousand
*lots of stuff*
(ChiA) bonzo?, United 7-19
(ChiA) United 7-1-9, descend and maintain 7000
(UA719) 7000, 7-19
Of course we had to turn off all electronics after this so that's all I could get.
Posted 06/25/2009 10:14 PM in Chicago, Geek Stuff, Hartford, Ramblings, Travel, Who knew?
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Americana Not-So-Express
I've complained a bit about my car service before, specifically about some poor drivers and making me wait a lot. They were better after I complained about it, but recently they've been making me wait again and all my co-workers seem to get picked up before I do. Unfortunately, this last month has gotten even worse.

In February, I requested a car for 6:00am and waited in my garage on a freezing February morning for 20 minutes. I called them and they said they wouldn't arrive until 6:45 which would cause me to miss my flight. I had to book a new flight for later that night and not being in person at the client site was not only inconvenient but a little embarrassing when the client asked my manager where I was.

Last week it happened again. They stood me up, but this time I set a 15 minute waiting limit. At 6:15 I called them and they didn't answer so I jumped in the car and drove myself to the airport. I ended up paying $120 for parking since I didn't have time to park in the farther long term lot.

They didn't even call me back until 6:45 which is simply unacceptable in my book. I didn't answer since I was boarding the plane but they apologized to my v-mail. I know that car services are suffering a little in this economy, but I can't support a business that is unable to to successfully execute on its only service. Looks like I'll be on the search for another company.
Posted 03/15/2009 10:54 PM in Ramblings, Travel
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Hartford Forever
As an update... there is currently a 50/50 chance that I'll be working in Hartford until the end of this year. If that happens, that will mean a full 2 years here, which would be my longest time ever in one location for work (aside from Chicago). So far, it looks like this will be my second year where I'll be away from home more than I'm at home. Crazy.
Posted 03/11/2009 09:49 PM in Hartford, Travel, Work
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Formosa Betrayed
About a month ago, my mom invited me to go to LA to see the world premier of the film, "Formosa Betrayed." It's an interesting movie focused on a murder that has ties to US-Taiwan politics. The premier will take place on 2/28, a nod to Taiwan's 228 Incident in 1947.

When I first heard about it, I wasn't sure I wanted to go but about two weeks ago my Mom said that she was going to LA alone and wanted me to mail my GPS to her as she would be driving between LA, Hollywood and Anaheim. As I've gotten older, I guess I've started worrying about my parents more so I decided to tag along. Little did I know the difficulties that would ensue.

First, I wanted to see if the ticket prices were reasonable from Hartford so I could do alternative travel through my company. They weren't. So I decided to buy a ticket myself using points. For 50,000 miles I could get a direct, first class, round trip ticket. I wasn't quite sure whether to go or not, so I didn't book it.

The next day after talking to my mom I decided to book the ticket for Thursday, 2/26, only to find that the first class seats were no longer available so I had to get a coach ticket, but still for 50,000 miles because all the 25,000 mile tickets were gone as well.

Things were pretty settled there as well, until last Thursday when I got a call from Countrywide. I was refinancing my home through them and I hadn't heard from them in almost three weeks. I finally got in contact with them on Friday and the reason they were calling was to set a closing date. My rate expires March 3rd, but since I travel every week, that means the only day I had left to close was today, 2/27, when I was supposed to be in LA.

I called AA and changed my flight to today so I could close on my mortgage in the morning. You can read my two previous posts to learn about the fiasco I went through with that. I hope this movie is worth the two day trip across the continental divide!
Posted 03/01/2009 02:05 AM in Finances, Movies, News, Ramblings, Taiwan, Travel
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Anatomy of a Points Whore
For the last year, I have stayed at the same Sheraton hotel in Hartford along with two or three of my co-workers. Now, Sheraton is one of the lower brands under Starwood Hotels and Resorts. Their other brands include Le Meridien, Four Points, Westin, W, St. Regis, The Luxury Collection, aloft and element. All of those are clearly better than your average Sheraton.

Unfortunately, the Sheraton in Hartford is below average. Starwood started a billion dollar rehab campaign in 2007 but with the downturn of the economy, I think rehab plans at this Sheraton were scrapped. As a result, the sink handles are falling off, the shower heads spray water every direction from the joints, the curtain rods are sagging, the rooms smell like smoke and the heaters either don't work or turn the rooms into saunas.

90% of my co-workers make fun of us for staying there because the hotel is so bad. So why do we stay there? The unanimous answer is POINTS. For the last 10 years, Starwood has repeatedly won several coveted Freddie Awards for their hotel loyalty program, Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG).

The main reason is because Starwood points are worth the most when it comes time to redeeming them. If you are a loyal customer, your points can add up fast, and you can get a good hotel for a reasonable number of points. On top of that, they offer options such as "Cash and Points" where you can book a room for 1/3 of the cash and 1/3 of the points you would normally use, which equates to just 2/3 of the actual value of the room, a pretty good deal.

SPG also has good bonus programs, such as Q4 last year when they had $25 Amazon gift certificates for every 5 nights or 2 stays. I actually know one guy who checked in and out every day to maximize his stays and therefore his rewards. But the best bonus program I've seen is for Q1 this year: 500 bonus points per night plus 5000 bonus points per 10 nights, with no limit.

Add on a SPG American Express card, where you get one point per dollar spent on your statement, plus one point per dollar spent on Starwood hotels. So, let me break down the points and bonuses that I get as a platinum SPG member.
  • Base Rate: 2 points per dollar = 618/week
  • Platinum Bonus: 1 point per dollar = 309/week
  • Platinum Amenity: 500 points per stay = 500/week
  • SPG Amex Points 1: 1 point per dollar = 309/week
  • SPG Amex Points 2: 2600 points per month = 650/week
  • Q1 Bonus 1: 500 points per night = 1500/week
  • Q1 Bonus 2: 5000 points per 10 nights = 1500/week
  • Local Bonus: 12000 points for 30 nights = 1200/week
So this adds up to 6,586 points per week, or at least 26,244 points per month. That's enough points for 8 Category 2 nights, 3 Cat 3 nights, 2 Cat 4 nights, 2 Cat 5 nights or 1 Cat 6 night. Not too shabby...
Posted 02/22/2009 09:01 PM in Ramblings, Travel
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10/15 - London
Jump to the pictures.

It was the last day of the trip for most of the group. My sister and I woke up at 5AM so we could get ready and pack. Then we caught a taxi to our parents' hotel where the whole group boarded a shuttle bus to the airport. We arrived 2 hours early to quell the worries of some nervous Asian travellers. I checked in and the British Airways representative let me check both of my bags all the way to Chicago, despite having a 20 hour layover in London (the policy is not to store luggage over 3 hours in London, if you remember my luggage fiasco two weeks earlier). After we were all checked in, our family camped out at Gloria Jean's for coffee and to eat some of the many baklava treats we had collected.

When it was time to head to the gate we left my sister at Gloria Jean's since her flight didn't leave for another 4 hours. The rest of us proceeded to the gate and had an uneventful British Air flight to London Heathrow's Terminal 5. There the whole group went through security to transfer to Terminal 4 where AA is located. I followed them, only to discover that it is extremely difficult to exit the departure area of Terminal 4!

I asked one airport employee how to get out to the city and they had me walking all over Terminal 4 before I found out I had to go backwards through security to return to Terminal 5 and then follow a different route to go through immigration and customs. Finally I got to the Tube (a route I remembered well due to my luggage fiasco two weeks earlier) and made it to my Hilton hotel.

After Gloria Jean's and snacks on the plane, I wasn't really hungry even though it was noon (3pm in Turkey) but I had a 1:00 reservation for Afternoon Tea at The Promenade in The Dorchester hotel, just down the street from my Hilton. It had gotten a good 20 degrees colder in London in the two weeks since I had been there so it was a brisk, but refreshing 5 minute walk. The Dorchester is a beautiful classically decorated hotel and makes you feel a bit regal when sitting in The Promenade, a long hallway full of couches and chairs for lounging and for Afternoon Tea.

Afternoon Tea proved to be quite nice and is much more elaborate than just tea. There was champagne, amuse bouche, finger sandwiches, a main course, dessert, pastries and finally a small pot of tea. Since I wasn't really hungry when I started, I ended up quite full, which did not bode well for my dinner plans.

I had two other things to do before dinner and I hoped that a decent amount of walking would let me build up an appetite before my 10:00pm reservation. First, I walked to the Green Park Tube which took me to Bond Street (one stop). I walked north to find La Fromagerie, a highly reviewed cheese and gourmet food shop. I took a few pictures of the area to help people locate it (see below). They have a a nice selection of locally produced foods from yogurts to cured meats to fresh vegetables to fruit preserves. They also have a small dining area for cheese flights and sandwiches. Of course, the main attraction is their temperature and humidity controlled, glass walled cheese room.

A small sign sets forth some rules, the most notable ones being: keep the door closed, maximum of 6 persons in the room (2 of which are the cheese mongers) and no pictures allowed without permission. I asked to try some smoked cheese and ended up buying a half pound of smoked cheddar. I also asked for any aged cheeses but since they tend to buy locally, there were no aged italian parmesans. The oldest thing they had was a 1.5 year aged Gruyere which was quite tasty and had lots of really tasty salt crystals in it so I bought a half pound of that as well. I also asked for permission to take photos, which they allowed after a couple seconds of contemplation.

After that I had to go clothes shopping because BA had unexpectedly allowed me to check both my big bags and I did not have any dress pants for dinner. I walked south to Marks & Spencer to buy some cheap khakis (cheap meaning 15 GBP, about $30) and since it was in the same direction as my hotel, I went ahead and walked all the way back. It was still a bit early so I took a nap for an hour before getting ready.

When 9:30 rolled around, I was still not hungry, but when you have a reservation at a three Michelin Star restaurant, you go anyway. I jumped in a cab and told him I was going to Restaurant Gordon Ramsay on Royal Hospital Road. After 10 minutes of driving and listening to his phone conversation with his wife, he dropped me off and I walked in. I immediately knew that I was in the wrong place. I was actually at Claridge's, one of Ramsay's one Michelin Star restaurants. It is another restaurant worth trying, but not where my reservation was. The hostess kindly called ahead to RGR to inform them I was on my way and I hopped into another cab.

I finally arrived at RGR where they promptly seated me in a corner overlooking the rest of the dining room. I was the only person eating alone and I think they took pity on me and were a little extra attentive, though you could potentially mark that as a sign of service. After ordering a Pilsner Urquell, I briefly perused the menu even though I knew I was going to order the Prestige Chef's Menu.

While I did so, I noticed the Maitre'D walking from table to table with a wooden box. When it was my turn, he approached my table and opened it. The top of the inside had a polished brass plaque lining it, which created a golden glow, just like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction. In the center of the box, sitting on a layer of Arborio rice, were three lumps. The Maitre'd explained that they were whole white truffles from Alba, Italy, the most expensive type and available just one month a year. I could have them shaved over a mushroom risotto for 25GBP ($50) a la carte or for 16GBP ($32) as a substitution for an appetizer on the Chef's Menu.

Personally, I think black truffles are a bit over rated and are a bit too earthy for my tastes, but the smell from these white truffles was heavenly. I thought to myself, "Hey, I'm at Gordon Ramsay's three star restaurant in London and I have an opportunity to try white truffles. How often does that happen?" I figured I was already spending an arm and a leg on the meal so I went ahead and ordered it.

You can read about the individual dishes below, but as I was eating, I was writing notes and taking pictures. The Maitre'D noticed of course and asked if I was a chef. I told him I was an aspiring cook, but not a chef. He asked if I'd like to see Ramsay's book about the restaurant. I knew the book he was referring to and gladly accepted the offer. He brought the autographed oversized silver book, "Gordon Ramsay: Three Star Chef" to my table and and indicated it was the restaurants only copy. I wish I could get a copy of my own but it's been out of print and sold-out for a while.

A couple courses later, I overheard the couple next to me talking about me taking photos, after which the gentleman leaned toward me and asked if I was taking pictures for a blog. We had a brief conversation about why I was in London and how I was enjoying my trip, and then the cheese cart came. I wanted to try some cheese (an additional 12GPB, $24) but I was way too full so I passed. Next were the dessert courses; of which there were quite a few. There were about as many pre-dessert, dessert and post-dessert courses as there were other courses on the tasting menu, but I'm fully in favor that!

In the end, the RGR meal was excellent and definitely one of my favorite meals of all time. It was a more traditional french 6-7 course meal instead of the over-the-top 10-20 course meals popping up in America and I like that. It's too bad the exchange rate was so bad, making my 160 GBP meal cost a whopping $331.29.

I returned to the hotel and watched an interesting documentary about how British Airlines has dropped in the rankings. BA now has the 3rd most cancelled flights in the world. BA also loses the most baggage in the world and that doesn't mean temporarily delayed or mis-routed, that means luggage that is straight up lost and never recovered or identified. In fact, they have an entire warehouse full of hundreds of thousands of unclaimed and unidentified luggage that they sell at auction after one year. Apparently the opening of Heathrow Terminal 5 was supposed to fix some of these problems but it ended up being a giant cluster. Apparently, BA is now becoming famous for UN-friendly customer service and policies. I can understand that given the issues I had in Athens...

Shortly after that, I fell asleep for the last night of my trip.

10/15 pictures are here.
Posted 02/09/2009 11:04 PM in Food, Pictures, Restaurants, Reviews, Travel, United Kingdom
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10/14 - Istanbul 3
Jump to the pictures.

Today was our free day to roam Istanbul. Our parents, who were staying near the historic district (Sultanahmet) on the south European side, went to the Grand Bazaar and Egyptian Spice Market. My sister and I, staying near the young, modern business district (Beyoglu) on the north European side, elected to explore modern Istanbul before venturing to the Spice Market. After being directed to the bus station by the concierge, we set off on foot.

Since the W doesn't have free breakfast or a concierge lounge, we decided to scope out a local eatery on our way to the bus. We found a pita shop called Karadeniz. I don't remember the exact location but the address appeared to be 50 and it was on Catlak Cesme Sokak. The staff didn't speak much English but they invited us in anyway. We watched as their baker made Ramazan Pidesi (Ramadan Pitas) at lightning speed, tossed them into the wood fired brick oven for a few minutes then extracted them, boxed them up and gave them to the delivery scooter driver.

We ordered a lahmacun, pita spread with ground lamb and spices before being baked and a tomato cucumber salad, as recommended by the owner/waiter. I also saw a large beverage dispenser filled with a white liquid. I pointed to it and the owner replied "aryran." I was hoping for sahlep, but decided to try it anyway. After looking at the menu, I found ayran with a picture of fruit yogurt on it. Basically it was an unsweetened yogurt drink, much like an Indian plain lassi.

After breakfast, the owner pointed us up a hill toward the bus stop we needed. Along the way we asked an Asian (of Eastern, Oriental descent) for directions. I was a little surprised when he didn't seem to know English but that's a pretty arrogant expectation on my part. He pointed us further up the hill and said "Thirty." We thought he meant 30 meters and were starting to doubt his direction after 100 meters or so. We exited a small park and suddenly found ourselves on a large, busy street where we found a bus stop with the number 30 on it. After asking if we could get to our destination, Istiklal Caddessi (Independence Avenue) a nice lady indicated we were in the right spot.

Five minutes later, bus 30 came along and we followed the lady onto the bus at which point the lady stopped and waved us off the bus. She turned to the bus driver and asked a question, then turned back to us and said, "Istiklal, no." Then the bus closed it's doors and left us. We were a bit confused until we asked another man who also didn't speak English but he indicated a different bus number (sorry, I don't remember what the right number is) and so we sat and waited for a good 20 more minutes before the correct bus came.

After a mere 10 minute ride (we probably could have walked) we arrived at Taksim square on the east end of Istiklal. In the center of the square was the Cumhuriyet Aniti or Republic Monument, commemorating the formation of the Turkish Republic and Mustafa Kemel Ataturk, the father of the Turkish Republic. Between the square and the end of Istiklal is the Taksim reservoir. Taksim means "division" or "distribution" and this reservoir once served as the central gathering and distribution point for northern Istanbul (hence the name Taksim Square).

Istiklal was a busy and bustling place with shops, vendors, cafes and restaurants on both sides. The large road, approximately four lanes across, is for pedestrians only, except for a ground level tram line that runs in the center. Shops range from high end fashion to Western fast food to century old establishments, while lacking some of the tourist traps common in the historical district.

After a stop at Saray Muhallabecisi for baklava, kataifi and other baked goods, we also stopped at Ali Muhaddin Haci Bekir for Turkish Delight and Halva. I also stopped at a random shop for dried mulberries and local chocolate variations. We also walked by Mado which makes sahlep ice cream but we weren't hungry enough to have any. Upon reaching the opposite end of Istiklal, we found the subway station for Tunel, a one stop train to Karakoy where we could transfer to the main tram line that we took before.

Our next stop was the Egyptian Spice Market where we took a little rest room break. For 0.50 YTL (just under 50 cents) you received entrance to the rest room and, if you needed paper, a single small square beverage napkin.

Inside the Spice Market is a dimly lit L-shaped hallway full of shopping tourists. There were shops for spices, pastries, honey, snacks, purses, cheese, caviar, clothing and plenty of other things. We ran into some of the parents who indicated that our parents were searching for caviar. We never managed to find them so we continued on our own. My sister picked up a purse, I picked up some honey.

We also found Gulluoglu, a famous baklavaci (balkava bakery). There they had plain baklava or baklava with walnuts, hazelnuts, pistachios, almonds or pecans. They also had kataifi and other baked desserts. It was hot and crowded in this tiny shop which made ordering a bit of an adventure but we eventually got a box of goodies.

Once we had finished exploring the inside of the Spice Market, we left via the exit at the bottom corner of the "L," and discovered tons more shops with tons more crowds, but I was looking for a specific shop, Namli Pastirmaci. It turned out to be a big store with tons of food products, including their flagship pastrami, many examples of which were hanging from the ceiling and walls as they cured.

Once we finished all of our shopping, we took the tram again to the Cemberlitas stop and walked to our parents' hotel. Unlike the W, their room was quite small and due to a malfunctioning air conditioner, their room was boiling hot, despite it being quite cool outside. We dropped off some stuff that we didn't want to lug back to the W and then we went out for dinner.

We walked towards Sultanahmet looking for restaurants. There was a decent looking seafood restaurant just a block from their hotel but we decided to keep looking for other local cuisines. We ended up walking a good 15 minutes and found ourselves near the tourist traps of Sultanahmet and decided to turn around and check out Ortaklara, a kofte restaurant we had passed. It turned out to be a pretty good choice as the restaurant had good pita bread, lahmacun and meat dishes. The entrees all tasted a bit similar with tangy tomato and yogurt sauces, but they were still good.

After dinner we dropped our parents back at their hotel then took the tram to it's northern point, Kabatas, where we got a taxi the rest of the way to the W. Including a generous tip we paid 15 YTL (just over $10), reasonable for two people. After dropping our stuff off, we decided to walk to a super market to pick up some drinks. The W is located at the edge of a high class shopping area surrounded by fancy hotels so we got to see lots of famous stores, including Jimmy Choo's, although the only reason I know him is because his son Danny Choo is the Dancing Stormtroooper in Tokyo.

At the supermarket we discovered that manti is so popular you can get it in bulk, along with halva and all your standard deli items. After picking up some drinks, we returned to the hotel to get some rest as we prepared to head back home in the morning.

10/14 pictures are here.
Posted 01/23/2009 00:56 AM in Food, Pictures, Restaurants, Reviews, Travel, Turkey
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Run in with a State Trooper
It was 9:00PM on a crisp winter night illuminated by a near full moon. I was heading east on I-70 to Eric and Caroline's in Effingham. The speed limit was 65 and I was driving 82. No, 83. No, 82. I had no need for cruise control.

I passed a white Chevy Impala who fell in line behind me. He was a cunning driver who followed me but gave me plenty of space, an excellent strategy since it allows the leading speeder to spring any speed traps. He stalked me from a distance for at least 20 minutes. I know this because watching the mirror is one of the more mentally stimulating activities available on a dark and inauspicious midwestern highway.

All of a sudden, something wasn't right with the picture stretched out in front of my headlights. Entering a lazy left turn, I noticed an 18-wheeler quickly but smoothly switching into the left lane. There was no one in front of him so I knew he was switching out of courtesy to some poor bloke on the shoulder. It could have been anyone but instinctively, I lifted up on the gas.

As the towering truck continued around the curve, I saw the bright red brake lights of a car on the shoulder, glowing like an evil beacon. I too switched to the left out of courtesy, then carefully watched the car as I passed. My suspicions were confirmed as I passed a State Trooper in a white Dodge Charger, sporting Illinois' yellow and brown state trooper stripe along it's shoulder line.

The adrenaline began to pump and my senses heightened as time slowed. Thanks to engine braking and my symmetrical AWD, I heard the whir of the gears winding down as the car coasted to 75, then 70 without touching the brakes. My eyes were riveted to my mirror as I switched back to the right lane.

The Impala passed the trooper and caught up to me. My avoidance of the brakes had caught the Impala off guard and he hadn't slowed much. I saw the trooper pull onto the highway and begin to follow us. What would he do?

My eyes remained focused on the trooper as the drama unfolded, like lasers painting the target of a guided missile in my mirror. Seconds passed, though they seemed like minutes or even hours in my adrenaline rushed mind. In that moment, my mind felt synchronized with the Impala driver. "Who would it be?"

Suddenly, an explosion of red and blue lights erupted from the trooper as he picked his target. In utter disbelief, neither car slowed down. The trooper was not pleased by this reaction and responded to the silent, "Who me? Couldn't be!" with flashing high beams.

The target was not me. As reality set in, the Impala began to slow and our mind meld was broken by the increasing distance. Even so, I knew what the Impala driver was thinking: "Why isn't HE getting pulled over?"

In the remaining 30 minutes of my trip to Effingham, I replayed the event in my mind. I can only surmise that the cop had clocked me with his radar gun after I had slowed down and then clocked the Impala before he had slowed down. If that truck had been in a slightly different position, if my instinct had kicked in a second later, if the Impala had been following a little closer or a little farther, if I had been using cruise control...

There were many tiny factors that created a perfect storm for that Impala. Perhaps one day we will meet again and the tables will be turned.
Posted 01/21/2009 09:34 PM in Cars, Ramblings, Travel
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Borrowing phones
Twice this week I've been approached by a complete stranger at the airport asking if I had a phone they could borrow. Am I being too paranoid because I've said no both times? I just don't feel comfortable giving my $300 phone to a stranger...
Posted 01/15/2009 10:35 PM in Geek Stuff, Ramblings, Travel
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Route 66 Roadtrip Part 3
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Day 3 of the trip had some difficulties. Leaving Flagstaff we headed to Williams, AZ for Pete's Route 66 Gas Station Museum. Before that, we stopped for our own gas where a mechanic pointed out that our right front tire was severely worn. I had checked that particular tire before the trip and estimated 10-20k more miles. Discovering that the tire was nearly bald was quite a surprise.

The mechanic offered to replace the tire for $269 plus tax. He graciously offered to waive any labor fees but a quick Google search of the exact tire model showed the tire cost $133 on-line. We thanked him and carefully drove back to Flagstaff for a AAA approved tire installer where they recommended two new tires, installation and an alignment for $389, a much more reasonable price. The result of the alignment showed that the right front toe was 5/32", 2.5 times over Volvo's maximum recommended value of 2/32" explaining the severe wear.

Two hours later, we were back on the road to Williams, AZ. Unfortunately a pending snow storm hit so we took pictures from the car and continued on to Kingman, AZ for lunch. Unfortunately, things didn't turn out so well there either.

I had three potential restaurants picked out for lunch in Kingman. One was closed on weekends and two were out of business, in addition to a fourth potential restaurant. Kingman seemed to be full of dead businesses and I was frustrated but we eventually settled on Silver Spoon Family Restaurant for lunch.

Our next stop was supposed to be Mojave National Preserve but due to the tire fiasco, we had to scrap those plans, in addition to plans to see the original McDonald's and a giant Route 66 coffee cup. Instead we set our sights on our destination in Anaheim, only to be hindered again by traffic after merging onto I-15. We finally arrived hours late and tired.

Pictures are here.
Posted 01/12/2009 02:00 AM in Cars, Food, Restaurants, Reviews, Travel
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Route 66 Roadtrip Part 2
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Today we got up at 7 AM to get a good start on our long day of driving (859 miles, 12-13 hours). After a free hotel breakfast. Our first stop was Conoco Tower, just over the border in Shamrock, TX. It may not sound special, but you may recognize it as the tower that inspired Ramone's Body Shop in the Pixar movie, Cars.

The next point of interest was the giant cross in Groom, TX, which is claimed to be the largest cross in the Western Hemisphere (large than the one in Effingham, IL?).

After that was lunch at Dyer's in Amarillo, based on some Chowhound recs. Unfortunately, I was a tad dissappointed. The brisket was dry and not very flavorful: it had a pink line that may have been the smoke line, but it was no more than one millimeter from the surface. The beef ribs, which are award winning, were better with a little more flavor and and more smokey pink, but they weren't spectacular. The one redeeming item was the straight beef that was tender and very flavorful.

Luckily the barbecue sauce, served warm in a Coronita (mini Corona) bottle, was the right amount of sweet and tangy, though not particularly stand-out. The potato salad and creamy coleslaw were decent but the beans were only so-so and a bit bland despite a good amount of meat. For dessert, the homemade cherry cobbler a la mode was good, though subtle so my sister thought it was a bit boring. If you savored the cherry flavor you could get a good taste of fresh cherries, though I could see it being better if it were a bit more tart or had a few more cherries.

The next stop was Cadillac Ranch, a set of 10 early style Cadillacs (with fins) half buried nose first in the ground, supposedly at the same angle as the Cheops Pyramid in Egypt.

Next we stopped at The Bent Door Philips 66 in Adrian Texas at the midway point of Route 66. Despite it being bought and partially renovated a few years ago, the location remains closed and run down and their blog hasn't been updated since early 2007.

After passing into New Mexico and Mountain Time Zone, we stopped in Albequerque to grab a quick dinner at Mary & Tito's Café. We ordered a Carne Adovada Sopapilla, which is kind of like a gigantic empanada, with red chili sauce. We also ordered chicharrones, which are a type of fried pork skins.

The sopapilla (kind of like a fried tortilla) was filled with marinated pork and cheese. The pork was very tasty, especially mixed with the cheese. The spices were not as strong as I would have liked (compared to say, tacos al pastor at El Tapatio) but it had a good salty flavor that balanced well with the sopapilla. The addition of lettuce, tomatoes and chili sauce really brought it together. Unfortunately, I felt that the chile sauce, no doubt made from fresh real chilies, could have benefited from a touch of salt or even better, an acid such as lime juice.

The chicharrones were pretty tasty and much to my surprise, they were not crispy like cracklin. The pieces included both skin and some underlying meat and were fried, but not enough to be crispy. The result is meaty cubes up to 3/4". They were pleasantly salty but we felt that they'd be better with some of the red chili sauce. Indeed they were better, but again we felt it could have used some lime juice.

Next we headed toward Arizona. After being pulled over by a cop and given a verbal warning for passing him at high speed on the highway, we stopped at the 2nd Largest Route 66 Map Mural. By this time it was extremely dark at night so we attempted to light up the area with our headlights with limited success. My mom's Nikon Coolpix couldn't quite get it right, but my Canon XSi managed to turn out some halfway decent pics using the on-board flash and a fairly high-speed lens.

On our way back to the interstate, we discovered the Wigwam Motel, which has rooms shaped like tee pees and inspired the motel in Pixar's Cars. Each room also had a classic car parked in front, including a truck just like Tom Mater.

Finally, we drove the last hour to Flagstaff to spend the night.

Pictures are here.
Posted 01/07/2009 09:58 PM in Cars, Food, Restaurants, Reviews, Travel
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Route 66 Road Trip Part 1
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Since our road trip to California would follow Route 66, we decided to see some interesting sites along the way. I found Waymarking.com, a great geo-caching site for finding interesting things. The first day of our trip to California took us down I-44 from St. Louis to Oklahoma City, passing Rolla, Springfield and Tulsa.

There are a few interesting things along the way, but we had to be selective so I chose things more Route 66 centric and close to the highway. Our first stop was the A&W family, saved and maintained from the days when figures were a common advertising medium. After that, there wasn't much until Oklahoma.

We stopped in Tulsa for a Country Fried Steak and pie dinner but since it was New Year's day, all of our choices were closed so we pressed on to Oklahoma City.

Just before Oklahoma city we got off the interstate and hopped on historic Route 66 where we stopped at Pops, a soda pop themed gas station, store and diner. They have unlimited, customizable fountain drinks and over 500 brands of soda available for purchase.

Beyond that, it's mostly the pictures that tell the story...

Pictures are here.
Posted 01/02/2009 12:26 PM in Cars, Food, Restaurants, Reviews, Travel
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10/13 - Istanbul Day 2
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I'll try to make this entry a little less verbose. This was our last morning on the cruise ship. We had to be off the ship by 9:00AM but we still managed to have a nice breakfast at the Grand Pacific. I also managed to use 26 of the last 27 minutes of over-priced internet access left on my account before getting shooed off the boat at 10:00 to meet up with the other families for our private bus tour at 11:00.

Since we spent a good amount of time at the Hagia Sophia the previous day, we requested that we focus on the Blue Mosque which was beautiful (see pics).

After that we went to the Topkapi Palace, where the Ottoman Sultans resided before it was converted to a museum in the 20th century. The palace was huge and there was so much to see and so little time. Unfortunately, there was just too much information and we only got the highlights from our tour guide as we had limited time (you could easily spend an entire day there alone). Check out the pics for some of the information that I managed to vaguely recall...

Next was the Basilica Cistern of Constantinople which didn't sound too interesting to most of us. I thought cisterns were just huge ceramic pots dug into the ground to store some water but I decided to tag along with my mom while 2/3 of the group lounged at a cafe instead. I was quite glad I did because the cistern was simply amazing. It wasn't just a ceramic pot, it was a 30 foot tall cavern stretching over 100,000 square feet to store fresh water for the entire ancient city. It was quite impressive and I managed to get some halfway decent pics despite the darkness.

After that we finished up our tour we were dropped off at the Aziyade Hotel with the rest of the group. The rooms were quite small so my sister and I we were quite thankful that we had a nicer hotel reserved for after dinner...

Meanwhile, the Aziyade hotel arranged for us to have dinner at Kalamar Restaurant. The restaurant sent vans to pick us up and drove us into a dark looking alley. We all got a bit worried that they were going to take us to some hole in the wall but we were pleasantly surprised when we turned the corner and found a nice city full of lit up restaurants. Dinner was quite good, though it took them a while to prepare the fish. Some people got a bit restless and felt the mezes were too sour, but I enjoyed it all quite a bit (see pictures).

After dinner, my sister and I hopped in a taxi which whisked us off the beautiful modern W Istanbul. It was quite a treat (paid by my SPG points) and we were quite impressed by the amenities. Pictures of the room are below with more pictures to come on the following day.

10/13 pictures are here.
Posted 01/01/2009 11:52 PM in Food, Restaurants, Reviews, Travel, Turkey
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Fording the Mississippi-Missouri River System
Since I have my STi down in St. Louis, I figured I'd venture out toward winery country and check out the curvy roads in the area with my sister. This time I checked out Google maps first and plotted a nice curvy looking route.

Much to my surprise, Callaway Fork Road turned out to be a very small gravel road. There were only a few small houses on the road. Not far down the road, we hit a slight snag. A large stream (incidentally called Callaway Fork, which eventually connects to the Mississippi-Missouri river system) went right over the gravel road for about twenty feet. It appeared that a slab of concrete had been laid about four inches beneath the surface so I went ahead and forded it without a problem.

After a scant 1/8 mile or so, the stream crossed the gravel road yet again. Why the builder of this simple gravel road chose to cross the stream twice in such a short distance is beyond me. This time the water looked deeper, perhaps six inches and it looked like loose pebbles on the bottom, but closer inspection revealed that there was a concrete slab under the pebbles so we braved that as well.

We continued for another mile until we discovered yet another section where the stream flowed for 30 feet over a concrete slab 8 inches deep this time. Having driven a Legacy Outback through at least 18" of water before and knowing where my air intake is located, we forded that as well without incident.

It was around here that we got stuck behind a couple of dump trucks. From this point on, we hit the stream five more times but three times there was a small concrete overpass instead of a slab and two times it was a mere two feet across and two inches deep. No problem. Apparently the gravel road is used primarily for quarry trucks and someone purposely laid concrete slabs and bridges as necessary to allow them to pass through.

After that we returned to paved roads and the rest of the drive along the Katy Trail to the wineries near Augusta was spirited and fun. Unfortunately, my car is now filthy from fording the streams and driving on gravel. The bottom half of my car is basically white now...

Posted 12/31/2008 03:43 AM in Cars, St. Louis, Travel
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Road Trippin'
My sister needs a car. My mom has an old car she no longer needs. It must be divine planning. All that remains is to get the car to Orange County so the three of us will hit the road on New Year's day. We've got hotels booked in Oklahoma City, OK and Flagstaff, AZ. Our first day will have about eight hours of driving; our second, thirteen hours; our third, seven hours. We should arrive Saturday afternoon.

Sunday afternoon I'll be flying straight to Hartford for work, then Thursday back to St. Louis so I can drive back up to Chicago. So that will be the third time I've been gone from Chicago for three weeks at a time in the last four months. Including my other regular work travel, that means I've been out of town much more than I've been in town.
Posted 12/27/2008 03:24 AM in Cars, Travel
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10/12 - Istanbul 1
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After sleeping in having another typical buffet brunch, my family and several friends joined the Bosphorous cruise. It started with a quick pass of the Blue Mosque, but since we had a more detailed tour of the Blue Mosque the next day, I won't talk about it here.

Our first stop was the Hagia Sophia, a Byzantine style basilica that was destroyed twice and re-built before being converted into a mosque and eventually being declared a historical monument and converted into a museum.

The Hagia Sophia was built primarily out of marble and you can see it throughout the building. The marble used to decorate the walls and columns is beautifully and carved with intricate detail. In addition to all the marble, there are beautiful paintings, stained glass and mosaics on the walls. Unfortunately, due to Islamic rules that forbid images of God (Allah) or people in the mosque, most images were destroyed or painted over.

A few particularly beautiful examples were preserved and simply covered up for historical purposes and have been revealed and restored since Sophia was turned into a museum. A few instances of Christian designs that were painted over have re-appeared through their outer layer.

Hagia Sophia is an extremely beautiful building with a very interesting history and definitely worth seeing with a guide. After that our tour bus took us to Stork's jewelry store for some personal service (Turkey is famous for their Turquoise). The most interesting thing was that the building used to be a prison for women. They didn't give us much more information than that, but from the outside you could see the very small windows.

The other nice thing about Stork's was that they brought us snacks. First they provided all of us with hot apple tea, which is very popular drink in Turkey. It's an apple-flavored tea pre-sweetened from a mix or served with sugar cubes. We also got some Turkish simit which was sliced and served with cheese.

The simit here was very different from the sesame rings in Greece. These were not as dry and had a texture similar to the inside of large pretzels. In addition to the simit were other mini simits, cookies and shortbread, all of which were better and less dry than the ones from the Izmir bakery.

Next was a cruise on the Bosphorous, but while we waited for our boat, we were tempted by a cart cooking up doner kabob. I asked our tour guide if it was safe and she said, "For me it is safe because I live here, although even I might get sick. But if you want, you can try."

Having tossed caution to the wind, my dad and sister had already ordered by the time the tour guide finished talking to me. The meat was tasty but I wish there had been a bit more. The bread, lettuce and tomatoes were pretty standard, but the sandwich definitely hit the spot.

The Bosphorous cruise was a bit windy and cold due to the October weather but it was a nice cruise and we got to see a lot of stuff. Unfortunately, I can't remember all the things we saw. There were several palaces and and mosques as well as a few schools and academies. The Bosphorous was not as calm as I expected. Due to the mixing of currents from the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara and the rocky bottom, the Bosphorous has continuously strong choppy waves and fast moving currents.

When people talk about Istanbul, they often talk about the European and Asian sides, which are separate by the Bosphorous. The Asian side is primarily suburbs while the European side holds the city centre, business district and historical district. The European side is also split in half by the Golden Horn, an inlet off of the Bosphorous. The historical district with all the monuments, Grand Bazaar and Spice market is on the south while the business district, shopping and downtown are on the north side.

After the boat tour, we returned to the cruise ship. The parents met for dinner but my sister and I decided to explore Istanbul a little. After getting directions from an immigrations officer, we walked 10 minutes to the Findikli tram stop. When we got there, we couldn't figure out where to get tickets. Since the tram operates on street level (like the San Francisco trolleys) we just walked onto the platform around the turnstiles.

Walking to the other end we found a cop but he didn't speak English. He figured out that we didn't have tickets. We offered to pay in British Pounds or American dollars but we had no Turkish Lira. Another passenger came to help translate and eventually the police officer just waved us off so we didn't have to pay.

The tram system is fairly new as it has recently been upgraded to cross the Golden Horn on the Karakoy bridge as part of a public transportation modernization program. Soon a new subway underneath the Bosphorous will connect the Asian side as well. We took the tram across the Karakoy Bridge and got off at Eminonu as there appeared to be lots of restaurants in the area.

Right outside the station were several small shops including a few food stands. One that caught our eye was a place selling Balik Ekmek. Balik means fish and ekmek means bread, so what you get is a fish sandwich. The vendor grilled fish fillets on a huge griddle with salt and pepper then put it on bread with lettuce, tomatoes and onions for a tasty sandwich. My sister and I bought one and sat on milk crates and buckets set up along the bridge. Next to the vendor was a man selling what I assume were stuffed mussels but we decided to keep exploring and passed on them.

After walking on the lower level of the Karakoy bridge, past all the neon lit restaurants, we stopped for some pictures and then headed back to the Eminonu station and walked along the tram line to the next station at Sirkeci, where the national train line also stops (which is the same line that ran the Oriental Express).

At the Sirkeci station we found Sirkeci Simit, a large modern restaurant which had the largest Kumpir display we had seen. Now, Kumpir is a special Turkish baked potato. After buying a ticket at the register we gave it to the Kumpir guy who went to pick up two large baked potatoes out of special tall oven. He cut them both in half, then scooped all the meat out of the second potato and whipped it with butter and cheese inside the first potato.

Following that, we had to choose our toppings. Our choices were: red cabbage cole slaw, carrot slaw, vegetable salad, hot dogs, peas, corn, pickles, cous cous, tzatziki sauce, red cabbage and ketchup. It sounds a big crazy, but in the end, it kind of just tastes like a nice warm potato salad since everything gets mixed together anyway.

After that we decided to try their equally crazy waffles which have a six flower petal design so you can choose six Nutella style spreads (we chose chocolate, hazelnut, butterscotch, strawberry, pistachio and caramel) garnished with maraschino cherries, kiwi, banana and nuts. It was a suitable sweet finish to our giant Kumpir potato and satisfied my sweet tooth pretty well.

After our food, I was super thirsty so I stopped at McDonald's for a Diet Coke and to see if they had any special Turkish items, which they did not. We looked at a few other shops before heading back to the Sirkeci tram stop. At this station we discovered that the ticket booth is located across the street and you pay for tokens that are accepted by the turnstiles. Despite it being dark, we didn't worry about our safety too much and made it back to the ship without a problem.

No gastro-intestinal issues either...

10/12 pictures are here.
Posted 12/15/2008 10:44 PM in Food, Pictures, Snacks, Travel, Turkey
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10/10 - Mykonos
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Mykonos is another beautiful Greek island, but unlike Santorini, it's pretty flat. It has similar winding streets that are described as "labyrinthine" and all walls are kept meticulously white. You can easily get lost in the city because of all the little paths that all look the same. The city has a night life as well and you can see that some stores and restaurants don't even open until the afternoon. Mykonos is particularly famous for two things: the windmills and Petros the pelican.

After another buffet breakfast, the whole group debarked and headed south from the port, then around the harbor to the west (map). My mom wanted to visit the island of Delos, but the ferries at the west end of the harbor only leave in the morning and we were too late.

While walking along the harbor my dad and I found that several stores sold cigars, including Cubans, which were proudly advertised. I'm not sure why Mykonos would sell Cubans and not other Greek isles, but we decided to buy some for fun. Prices varied widely, ranging from 12 to 20 Euros for a brand my dad says is famous (don't remember the name). We assumed that the stores along the harbor would be the most expensive, but the cheapest place we found also happened to be on the harbor at the west end. Several stores were sold out and since we are not cigar aficionados, we decided to buy a cheap Cuban to try. We never had a chance to sit down, relax and try it so I'll actually be trying it over Thanksgiving.

The group decided to separate so my sister and I picked a narrow street heading south west and quickly got lost (in a good way). We wandered around looking at shops and restaurants and exploring the maze like paths, taking time to snap some pictures of the narrow streets. We found some great restaurants on the western shore with tables just inches from the Aegean.

As we continued on our way we discovered the windmills at the southwestern side of the city. We hadn't been looking for them so it was quite a pleasant surprise to find them. My sister discovered that some of them are inhabited to this day! Looking back towards the city over the Aegean, we could see the restaurants we had just passed and saw them being batted by waves as the wind was picking up.

We headed back north east to explore more and found a few bakeries where we bought a few snacks including a spinach cheese pastry and some rice pudding. I asked for loukoumades but no one had them so I pretty much gave up. Then we headed back to the harbor to meet the rest of the group. At this point we were a little lost so we just headed in the direction of the sea was in and used that as our guide to get back.

Once the group was together again, we went to find the bus to Ornos beach. We asked a small shop where the bus station was and he said just up the hill to the left. We walked five minutes up the hill and to the left, then stopped to ask another person who said just up the hill. We repeated this about 3 more times before we finally found the bus stop (it was more like up the hill with 4 lefts and 4 rights).

We stopped for lunch along the way and picked up some gyros along with some fried fish and tomato keftedes (stuffed with rice). I was designated the coordinator and let me tell you that ordering lunch for 15 Asians in a Greek restaurant is a pain. The gyros only cost 2.5 Euros each but the meat was a bit salty and the pita a bit dry. Definitely not as good as the ones in Santorini. The fried fish was nice and fresh but had a ton of bones. It probably would have been more enjoyable if I was sitting down and could take my time with it, but we were standing in the street trying to share it quickly and that wasn't easy.

We finally found the bus stop. We bought tickets at a kiosk at the corner of the square and were lucky enough to be right on time for the hourly bus. At the beach we claimed some public beach chairs. One funny thing was the reed umbrellas which looked nice but were at the perfect height to hit with your head repeatedly. Watch your eyes, those reeds hurt!

We finally had a chance to sit and eat our tomato keftedes but I was a bit disappointed. After reading how great the tomatoes in Greece are supposed to be (though Santorini is supposed to be the best) these tomatoes seemed kind of bland. They weren't very tomato-ey (much like the ones you find in an American grocery store) and the filling wasn't very special. I think a little salt would have helped a lot.

After eating, we decided to play in the sand a bit with Tiffany and Daphne and we built several sand sculptures which got more and more detailed with every next project. After that we headed back to the "bus stop" which was just a flooded parking spot with a sign, purchased tickets at a kiosk across the street and waited for the next bus.

After arriving back we found some large octopus tentacles being hung to dry and a stone wall that I had seen being white washed a few hours earlier. I asked Daphne, who was wearing a bright pink sweater, to stand next to it so I could get a picture. Unfortunately it hadn't dawned on me that the newly white washed wall probably wasn't dry yet so she ended up with a little paint in her hair. Oops!

Next we found a gelato place called Pagato Mania which claims to make their own using fresh Greek milk. The large number of flavors was amazing and my scoop of dark cherry was excellent! After that we separated with the group again to wander the streets some more. We saw some awesome sea food on display including a giant tiger prawn, clams and urchin.

My sister also found a pelican! It turns out there are actually three pelicans in Mykonos (Petros, the original, died in 1986). It was quite large and was curled up because of the cold winds so at first we thought it might be fake. As we approached it, it's eyes opened and followed us but that's the only movement we detected in the five minutes that spent taking pictures.

Being the last day in Greece and with just an hour or two left, we decided to find a nice cafe and just relax and watch the sea. While looking at a couple cafes, I noticed a small sign at Gelarte cafe that said loukoumades. I hadn't noticed it before because it was only written in Greek. We went inside and discovered that this cafe makes them fresh while you wait so we quickly placed an order, informing the owner that we had been looking for loukoumades all over Greece.

We watched the woman drop batter into the deep fryer and cook the little donuts. One order had 12 but the lady accidentally made 13. Unfortunately, she threw the extra one away. :( After draining them, she placed them on a place and drenched them in honey, followed by ground walnuts and powdered sugar. They were absolutely delicious! Warm and crispy on the outside, hot and tender on the inside. There could have been more walnuts and less honey, but they were still excellent.

After relaxing for half an hour, we decided to head back to the ship. On the way we stopped at Mandarini bakery which had all sorts of delicious little pastries, but I was quite full so I saved them for the following day. Back at the ship we freshened up and watched the sunset.

I like these two pictures because they kind of look like fire, but they're actually sunlight coming through the edge of a cloud at sunset.

We decided to have a light dinner and elected to finally try the dinner buffet. Of course, light dinner and buffet are complete contradictions so that didn't work out so well. For the first time I discovered the pasta bar and invented my own pasta which took some effort since the pasta cook doesn't always know what you're trying to do.

My recipe was farfalle pasta with capers, garlic, tapenade and sundried tomatoes with pink sauce. The main problem is that the pasta chef uses too much sauce so I went back for a second bowl of the same pasta, but this time I instructed him to use the red sauce pan, but to add no additional sauce. The result was a nice pasta with lots of stuff but just a hint of red sauce. I mixed this with my pink sauce dish and the result was exactly what I wanted, a very light red sauce with just a touch of cream but lots of tasty bits.

After that I was full but went to the dessert bar anyway and ended up filling up a plate with coffee cheesecake, blueberry cheesecake, pumpkin pudding and peach cobbler which I took to my room and didn't eat until the following morning. None of them were spectacular, but the coffee cheesecake was pretty tasty.

10/10 pictures are here.
Posted 11/22/2008 05:06 PM in Food, Greece, Pictures, Restaurants, Reviews, Travel
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Paperless Boarding Passes Arrive!
I'm psyched that AA has rolled out paperless boarding passes in Chicago O'hare (and will be rolled out in Los Angeles and Orange County on 11/17). When you check-in on-line, a special bar code is sent to your PDA and airport security will have special readers to read them.

This means that if I'm in a rush, I don't to worry about printing a boarding pass or keeping my computer on. Instead I can check in on the way to the airport using my phone. In theory, this should work on my PSP as well. I'll be able to give it a try soon because I'm actually flying to Orange County (SNA) for Thanksgiving week. Unfortunately, I'm still bummed that I'm stuck taking United to Hartford...
Posted 11/13/2008 11:14 PM in Geek Stuff, News, Travel
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10/09 - Santorini
Sorry it took so long to post these...

Jump to the pictures.

Santorini was once a large island but after a volcanic explosion, the island collapsed, leaving a caldera with five islands. The main island on the eastern edge of the caldera is Thera, but many people simply call it Santorini. The second large island, on the western edge of the caldera is Therasia. In the center are two small islands created by magma flows: Nea Kameni and Palea Kameni. To the southwest is the smallest island, Aspronisi. BTW, it was this volcanic explosion which generated a tsunami at least 100 meters tall and is attributed for the destruction of Knossos and the Minoan civilization.

Our day started with a volcanic hiking tour to Nea Kameni, but first we had to get there. The port of Fira in Santorini is quite small so the ship had to simply weigh anchor off shore and use tenders, small transport ships, to ferry passengers to shore. During the morning, people who want to go ashore have to get a ticket for a specific tender, but since we were on a tour, we automatically got our own tender.

Nea Kameni is made primarily of volcanic rock. The island is quite beautiful in it's own special rocky way and there were several beautiful views. The island is still active with fumeroles and steam vents and three lava flows in the 20th century (the last was in 1950). After the hike we returned to the boat and sailed by the hot springs at Palea Kameni.

We returned to the ship to freshen up before hopping on a tender to Fira where we decided to take the donkeys up the switchbacks. The donkeys turned out to be 5 euros when the cable cars were only 4, but oh well, it was an experience. The main problem with the donkeys was the smell. They looked a bit greasy but even worse, there was manure everywhere. The entire way up the switchbacks, it was as if the cobblestone was grouted with dung.

I think that donkeys are probably at the bottom of the intelligence scale for beasts of burden. Unlike camels and horses which generally follow each other and stay relatively ordered, donkeys just sort of go wherever they happen to be pointed. When the guides yell at them, they just speed up and push on whatever happens to be in the way, whether it be other donkeys or an unfortunately pedestrian that decided to walk up or down the switchbacks. The donkeys didn't seem to have any qualms smashing my feet against the walls (luckily the stirrups were metal) or squashing pedestrians.

For lunch we decided to find a nice bakery to buy some snacks and then find a cafe with a view to sit and relax. The walkways of Santorini are very hilly and curvy so we wandered around quite a bit before finding a nice bakery with tons of selection. Unfortunately, I have no idea where it was.

After that we headed back where we came from and chose one of the dozens of restaurants with "the best view." It was a nice cafe but like many of the "nice view" restaurants, it was absurdly priced. My sister ordered a Greek fava spread, but it was not like hummus like I expected. It tasted more like a bean spread with olive oil. Personally, I was not a big fan, though my sister liked it. My cappuccino fredo (iced) was tasty but way too small. My sister's frappe with ice cream was good too, but alas, with a bottle of water, the bill came to over 20 euros, which is about $30.

After wandering around more looking for churches and various shops it was about time to head back to the boat. We had passed a few wonderfully smelling gyro restaurants for reasonable prices so we decided to get a couple to go and bring them to the ship. After walking down the switchbacks and not getting smashed by any donkeys, we arrived back at the port where we found out that the ship is pretty strict about not bringing food on board. My sister found a bench and ate our gyros which we both agreed were the tastiest we had so far.

We returned to the boat, got cleaned up then had a simple quick dinner at Blue Lagoon (the only 24 hour restaurant with a focus on comfort foods) after which we met up with our parents to play Mah-jong. I won a whopping 5 games in a row while I was dealer, unfortunately I started fading fast as I had developed a fever. I think it was from over-exerting myself with all the hill climbing on Santorini.

10/09 pictures are here.
Posted 11/11/2008 00:03 AM in Food, Greece, Pictures, Restaurants, Reviews, Travel
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10/08 - Iraklio
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While Egypt was great with it's food and excellent exchange rate, part of me was happy to return to Greece which is more modern and western, for instance random restrooms in Greece tend to be pretty nice and clean, more people speak English, etc.

The group decided to rent cars in Iraklio, Crete (also called Heraklion) but it took hours to get every one off the boat and agreeing on how to split up. The tough part was that the rental cars were quite small, fitting just four passengers instead of five.

My family got a Hyundai Atos Prime which I estimated to have 60-70HP only. I later looked it up and found it to have a mere 58HP. It was quite a small car and even with the seat all the way back, I was unable to straighten my legs, especially when driving. The pedals were so close that I could never rest my thighs on the seat.

The rental guy asked if I was comfortable driving in Greece and I told him that I had driven in Corfu to which he replied, "Corfu? They're civilized there!" That didn't worry me though and I will say that I rather enjoyed driving in Crete.

The main rule for driving in Crete is that you should drive as far right as you can unless passing. Often this means driving on the line or driving on the shoulder so that people can easily pass you on the left. There is no such thing as a person driving slowly in the left there and if you block others you will get flashed.

People pass others all the time on Crete and it's very easy b/c everyone else is driving on the right side. Even with only 58HP going up hill with four passengers, it was easy to pass. As a result, it's not uncommon for a two lane road to have four cars across: two cars going one way and two cars going the opposite way, passing each other.

Traffic was interesting as well. In general, no one yields right of way, you just have to force yourself into traffic and people will then slow down for you. Turning left onto a big busy street was a bit tough and I got honked at for waiting too long. Basically, as soon as there is the slightest gap between cars, you just force your way through and if you end up blocking traffic, oh well.

Our first stop was the Palace of Knossos. The Knossos civilization was considered one of the most advanced in the ancient world, but the civilization was mysteriously destroyed. Most historians believe that the volcanic eruption that created what is now Santorini was the cause. It is estimated that the explosion created a tsunami 30 meters tall, more than enough to wipe out Knossos on nearby Crete.

After Knossos we drove west to Rethymno where we had a very nice local meze lunch. After visiting the beach and driving by the Venetion fortress, we found ourselves low on time and had to head back. Unfortunately, our delays in the morning meant we didn't have time to check out Iraklio. My advice, if you ever plan to rent a car and drive around an Greek island, is to wake up early and make the most of your day!

Once we returned to the ship for an early departure, my sister and I sat on our balcony and watched as the ship left port before heading to Grand Pacific for dinner.

10/08 pictures are here.
Posted 10/28/2008 09:43 PM in Dessert, Food, Greece, Pictures, Restaurants, Reviews, Travel
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10/07 - At Sea
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Returning to the Greek Isles from Egypt meant another full day at sea so I'll talk about some of the other strange things around the ship at the end.

After stuffing ourselves repeatedly for days on end, I found that my appetite was not as strong as previously. I would get a little hungry, but would never just want to devour everything. In fact, sometimes I had to force myself to go to dinner, especially since my parents preferred to eat earlier to get the early bird discounts. In the following days, I even had to force myself to try local foods b/c I just wasn't hungry!

So on this day, my sister and I slept in again. We decided to skip breakfast and instead planned to meet our mom for a fancy jazz brunch at Le Bistro. They were charging the full $15 cover price so I wanted to get the most out of it, but I ran out of steam pretty quickly.

Brunch was a combination of a buffet and an a la carte menu. Either one alone would be enough for a full meal, but putting them both together is just an act of cruelty because you end up with one of two outcomes. 1) You feel guilty not eating enough and passing up all this good food and spending money or 2) You feel horrible eating WAY too much. No wait, there's one more option which is what happened to me: I felt horrible for eating WAY too much but also felt guilty b/c I should have been able to eat more!

After lunch my sister and I vowed to do something semi-active instead of sleeping. Of course we were so full that we had to spend some time watching some movies to digest before we managed to get ourselves to the ship's gym. The gym had several treadmills and a few bikes and elliptical machines, all overlooking the sea through large glass windows. They also had several weight machines and, much to my surprise, a set of free weights (dumb-bells).

After working out, I took a shower... which is a nice segue into another note about ship life. When they converted the ship to the Norwegian Jade (it was previously the Pride of Hawaii) they decided to remove the self-service laundry room and put in more staterooms. Being on vacation for three weeks and trying to pack light means that at some point, you have to do laundry somehow.

You could do it yourself in your sink, but that's pretty slow and tedious. But using the ship laundry service is expensive since they charge per the item. A pair of socks or knickers are $1.50, Regular shirts are $1.75 and pressed shirts are $2.50. Slacks and skirts go up from there, so laundry can add up pretty quickly. When the ship announced a special, all the clothes you can fit in a laundry bag for $19.99, my sister and I crammed our bag as full as possible.

That was two days ago so this was the day that our laundry was supposed to come back. Alas, it did not arrive on this day and unfortunately, this was also the day that I ran out of shirts. And socks. And knickers.

Since I had expected my laundry, I didn't bother hand washing anything as a backup, so I was stuck. I decided to hand washed a set, but they had to dry overnight, so what was I to do until then? The answer, if it isn't obvious to you, is disposable underwear.

Disposable underwear? I didn't know such a thing existed but apparently my Dad picked up a set when he was in China and they are a perfect last resort on a long vacation. They are made of the thinnest cotton possible and compressed into 1.5" long x 1" diameter rolls. I couldn't tell which direction was the front but I don't think it could have been any less comfortable either way. They were kind of like semi-translucent white speedos. I imagine this is what girls underwear must be like, except these were not flattering in any way. I actually considered going commando for a moment...

Next was dinner. It was about time for us to check out the Asian food selections. The Jade Garden offered Teppan-yaki, Shabu-Shabu, Sushi and Chinese/Pan-Asian fare. I really wanted to check out the Shabu-Shabu but I got poo-pooed by everyone else. They all said that the quality wouldn't be good, but since when is that important? Shabu-Shabu is all about the QUANTITY and based on some of the other patrons' carts of food, the ship would not have disappointed (ooh, with winter coming, I guess I'll have to satisfy my craving with a trip to Lao Szechuan in Chinatown).

I was so enamored by the Shabu-Shabu that a couple noticed me leaning over to look at their table. The wife smiled at me so I asked if I could take a look at their food. Apparently, you can pick from a few different themes for your Shabu-Shabu and they had picked noodles. Their spread included udon noodles, ramen noodles, bean noodles, rice noodles, shu-mai and dumplings, on top of chicken and Chinese cabbage. I assume they probably had a meat lovers theme too so I'm pretty bummed that I didn't get a chance to have it.

Our choice for dinner that night was sushi. The edamame was odd b/c it wasn't the same as what you get in a regular restaurant (which btw, don't look like the soy beans used to make soy milk which are yellow and rounder). These edamame looked like thin kidney beans, or maybe long red/green (azuki) beans. They tasted and had the same texture as azuki beans too, just not sweet. The miso soup was salty, but I thought it was acceptable. My mom, on the other hand, considered it inedible.

For the sushi, we found the quality of the fish to be good overall. An interesting item on the menu was a funny long Japanese name that was translated as crab. I had a hunch that it was just a way to make Krab sound better, and that turned out to be the case.

They also offered bonito as a sushi option. Normally, bonito is smoked, dried and shaved thin for use as the primary aromatic, along with kampyo (kelp), for dashi, the most basic Japanese stock and the primary ingredient in miso soup. To have it as a fresh fish seemed a bit odd to me so I tried it. It came seared on the outside and had a similar color and texture as tuna, but it was not as firm and slightly fishy tasting.

They also had an item listed translated as tuna belly, but it was not chu-toro or o-toro. When it arrived, it looked, smelled, felt and tasted exactly the same as regular tuna. The white tuna and hamachi were both good and the unagi was average, about the same as Todai in Schaumburg. My mom did not like the unagi, or the terriyaki sauce on it.

We also had California rolls but apparently the cucumber had seeds in it and my mom considered that unacceptable as well. For dessert we had green tea and coconut ice cream which were good, but most likely out of a 3 gallon tub (Edy's maybe? Nothing wrong with that!)

When the manager asked us how we were doing, my mom let him know about all the things she didn't like. This resulted in a rather long conversation where she explained all the things that seemed wrong. She was pretty nice about it and when the bill came several minutes later we discovered he had given us 50% off the bill.

The last note I wanted to make about living on a cruise ship is the strange emphasis on sanitation. Being on a ship with thousands of people for an extended amount of time makes disease transmission very easy. To reduce this, they've implemented some interesting sanitary measures.

Any person boarding the ship must use hand sanitizer and there is always someone standing at the gangway with an alcohol spray. Any person entering a restaurant must also use hand sanitizer and every entrance has an automated sanitizing gel dispenser. At buffets, passengers may not serve themselves: only gloved crew members can hand out dinnerware, handle tongs, touch food and pour drinks. On top of that, one of the first things they announced on day one was that passengers should avoid shaking hands with anyone.

It all sounds pretty OCD, but it's not. The handling of food at buffets makes sense, but the use of hand sanitizer is improper. A quick spritz of alcohol or a squirt of gel rubbed between the hands is not enough to sanitize your hands. The rule of thumb is soap or sanitizer must be in contact with your hands for 30 seconds to be sanitary (60-90 seconds to be considered sterile). A single squirt is not enough to last 30 seconds and may actually increase the chance that only resistant bacteria survive.

In reality, the sanitation policies on ships like this may be creating the perfect environment for a super bug, just like the resistant bacteria that have resulted from excessive and improper use of antibiotics. As usual, it's a ploy to make people think they're safer, regardless of whether they actually are. The funny thing is, now that I'm back to the real world, I'm less inclined to wash my hands than before the cruise!

10/07 pictures are here.
Posted 10/24/2008 07:03 PM in Egypt, Food, Greece, Pictures, Restaurants, Reviews, Travel
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10/06 - Alexandria
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In Alexandria, my sister and I signed up for a half day tour so that we would have free time to search for some local eats. After breakfast, we hopped on the tour bus and went the Alexandria catacombs.

The catacombs were pretty interesting, but they do not allow pictures inside. The catacombs are a family grave site that was accidentally discovered when a drunk man lost his donkey down a hole. When he sobered up the following morning and went to find his donkey, he discovered the tomb.

The tomb was of a Roman citizen who had moved to Egypt and begun to adopt Egyptian traditions. This is apparent in the primary tombs for the Roman and his wife which were decorated in a combination of Roman and Egyptian designs and artwork. Additionally, both bodies were embalmed in Egyptian fashion. After this time, the tombs were expanded for the rest of the family and possibly for public use as well.

With the temperature in the 90's and the sun beating down on us, I was eager to descend the spiral staircase surrounding the well to the bottom, unfortunately, the small passages full of tourists turned out to be hot, humid and stuffy. Several tour buses arrived at the same time so there were hundreds of people in the catacombs which had multiple passages and levels to accommodate hundreds of tombs. My sister and I explored several passageways before returning to the surface.

The next stop was the Alexandria National Museum. The building once belonged to the US Embassy but after they moved to a larger, newer building, this location remained uninhabited until Alexandria purchased it from the US at half the asking price. This building is fairly modern and, unlike the big museum in Cairo, is air conditioned. The three levels are dedicated to different eras in Egyptian history with the Pharaonic era in the basement, the Greco-Roman period on the ground floor and the Coptic (Christian) and Islamic periods on the first floor. I was pretty tired so after we perused the basement and first floor, I took a 15 minute nap on a bench while my sister explored the ground floor.

The next stop was the Montaza Gardens, which belonged to the Royal Family until Egypt became a Republic. Since then the grounds have been a national park and the Montaza Palace has been used for foreign dignities because the Egyptian President is not royal or divine and therefore should not be given such a luxurious residence.

The gardens are full of huge date palm trees and lie on the coast line where a boardwalk is decorated with lion sculptures leading to a hotel and lighthouse. On the other side of the gardens lies the Palace and another hotel and casino.

Next we piled back on the bus and drove on the Alexandrian coastal road along miles and miles of beaches. We saw all sorts of things from a statue of Muhammad Ali (founder of modern Egypt), the tram system, the football stadium, the Alexandria Library and more.

The next stop was Fort Qaitbay but we only had time to explore the boardwalk and vendors in the area outside of the fort. I saw some interesting ice cream carts and potato chips and some local sweets that some vendors were carrying around in clear plastic boxes. I didn't have a chance to buy any of them, besides the tour guide warned us about the lack of hygiene in Egypt, especially from random street vendors.

Our last stop on the tour was Abu el Abbas mosque. Our tour was almost 1 hour behind schedule (which is a good thing since it means our 4 hour tour was 5 hours) and my sister and I were concerned we wouldn't have enough time to explore Alexandria on our own so we requested that the tour guide leave us behind at the mosque. We then walked to a nearby bank to get some Egyptian pounds and then headed west in search of food.

We had only walked a couple blocks when we started smelling something tasty. It was a trio of small restaurants so we walked up to the single host desk and asked for a table. They stared at us blankly as they apparently knew no English. After some useless gesturing, they somehow figured out what we wanted and gave us a table.

A few moments later, the waiter came by and I asked what they had. His answer was, "Pizza, Koshari." At the mention of Koshari, a word I learned from Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations," I quickly repeated it and asked for one order. After the waiter left, my sister took a look at the restaurants sign and discovered that their logo was Fido Dido holding up a pizza.

When the waiter brought our koshari (see pictures) I read a list of Egyptian foods off my list to see if they had any of them. He acknowledged two desserts: belial and sahleb, both of which turned out to be excellent and tasty. In terms of local food, I think these three Egyptian foods top my list as my favorite items during the whole trip (and I'm starting to drool over them as I type this).

I finished the meal with a Turkish coffee and then we flagged down a taxi. The driver did not speak English but the tour guide had been nice enough to write down directions in Arabic so we could get back to the port. The driver took us there and waved us out of the taxi. We weren't sure how much the ride was so I just waived a 10 pound note ($2) which he grabbed and drove off with.

Back on the ship, we cleaned up and took a nap before heading to dinner at Paniolo's, the TexMex and tapas restaurant with the rents a few family friends. They were all interested in tapas so I went ahead and ordered two of everything for our appetizers. Unfortunately, they weren't that good. Most of us ate light for dinner since we'd all been eating a lot recently.

10/06 pictures are here.
Posted 10/21/2008 08:12 PM in Dessert, Egypt, Food, Pictures, Ramblings, Restaurants, Reviews, Travel
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10/05 - Cairo
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The ship docked in Alexandria but we took a 12 hour excursion to Cairo. The tour started at 7:15am, though my sister and I almost missed it because it was so early. We made it to the bus in time for the two hour drive to Cairo, or more specifically, Giza, where the major pyramids are.

Now, Egypt as a country is not that poor, but according to our tour guide, corruption has caused a huge gap between the lower class and upper class. As a result, the poor are extremely poor and it's quite apparent. Driving through Cairo you can see the poverty and the guides also warned us that everywhere we go, people would be doing their best to get money from us.

What that means is that if you ask someone to take a picture of you, or you ask someone to be in a picture with you, or you drop something and someone picks it up for you, they will expect a tip and be quite persistent about it. They will also hike up prices to make as much profit as possible, though they will negotiate back to a reasonable price. They will also be happy to accept any form of currency whether it be Euros, Dollars or British Pounds since they're all worth more than the Egyptian Pound.

For instance, I saw a couple having trouble pushing their baby stroller through the sand (who brings a stroller to the desert?) so an Egyptian man helped them pick the stroller up onto a walkway, after which he demanded a tip. Then there are the historical artifacts security guards who watch the pyramids. You are not allowed to cross lines, touch or climb on the pyramids or you will be reprimanded by security. However, they eagerly indicate they will let you go, or will allow you to cross lines if you simply provide them with a tip.

Once you've realized how things work, Egypt is not that difficult to navigate. Since we were on a guided tour, the day was pretty much laid out for us so I pretty much sat back and snapped an excessive number of pictures while absorbing random tidbits of info.

First we saw the most famous pyramids of Khafre and Khufu along with the Sphinx. We then drove to Saqqara to see the funery grounds of Ka-Gmni including hieroglyphics and artwork that still exhibits the original paint from thousands of years ago.

After that was a buffet lunch at a large restaurant. It didn't look like that good a place and I wasn't surprised that the food was a bit disappointing. Not only was most of the food mediocre, none of it was labeled so I have no idea what some of it was. One interesting thing about the restaurant was the traditional oven they had outside to bake a pita-like bread. Too bad none of that bread was at the buffet.

After lunch we checked out Zoser's Step Pyramid complex where a gust of wind blew away my sister's new visor. We then went on to the Jeep tour where we piled into a series of 4x4 vehicles. Most prevalent were Jeep Cherokees and Toyota Land Cruisers. My sister and I ended up in a Land Cruiser which is supposed to be the preferred model for nomadic Bedouins as the FJ chassis coded Land Cruisers are well known for their off-road abilities (hence Toyota's homage to the old Land Cruiser, by releasing the new FJ Cruiser).

The Jeep tour was pretty fun, particularly driving up and down blind dunes as can be see in the video below. I was fortunately enough to get the front seat, though the back was probably rougher. The people talking in the video are other passengers.

After the Jeep tour was the Camel tour. Getting on the camel was a bit hairy. They lay on the ground and when they get up, they lift up their back end first, then their front end, giving the sensation that you're going to fall forward off the camel, then back off the camel, before leveling out. The camel's gait isn't the most pleasant either, it's much less smooth than a horse and rocks quite a bit front and back, requiring you to shift your hips a lot to compensate. The saddles aren't that comfortable either and after 20 minutes I was starting to get saddle sore.

At the end of the camel tour, getting off the camel was equally precarious. There was no warning either; one second I was sitting on top of the camel, the next second I thought I was falling off as the camel pitched forward, then pitched backwards, then after leveling out the remaining foot of descent was even and smooth, like a hydraulic platform. You can sort of see it in this vid summary.

After the camel tour we went to a papyrus shop where they demonstrated how papyrus reeds were turned into paper then turned us "free" to browse the papyrus art so we could buy some. After that we took the 2 hour trip back to Alexandria. For dinner my family ate at Grand Pacific, the formal restaurant where we had an excellent meal.

10/05 pictures are here.
Posted 10/19/2008 02:01 AM in Egypt, Food, Pictures, Restaurants, Reviews, Travel, Videos
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Vacation Prayers
I'm back home, jet lagged of course, so I'm awake in the middle of the night thinking about the whirlwind of my vacation. I haven't spent much time contemplating all the wonders that I have seen. As I've rushed from location to location the events that have transpired just days ago already seem like distant dreams: vague memories of the staterooms on the ship, the historical sites, the beautiful skylines and the glorious foods fill my mind.

I'm already forgetting details that passed between my ears only to be let go without a thought as I pushed on to the next great thing. But the things I linger on most are the meals spent with family and friends, the miles walked through foreign streets together, the glorious sights we beheld in wonder together. I often fail to appreciate my family and friends until I find myself at home, in bed, alone in the darkness of a quiet night.

That's when I remember to thank God for the things He's given me: the opportunities, the memories, the grace, the love. I have no choice but to praise God for the wonders he has created throughout this world. Though I take them for granted or I let them pass by the narrow blinders of my small world without a thought, I thank God for them.

And I think about the other people I've seen too. The people of Greece, Egypt and Turkey live in countries steeped in history, culture and religion, yet they are equally lost without the knowledge of the one true God. I can't help but wonder what God's plan for them is.

I fear that as the night pulls me into slumber and the blur of errands, tasks, action items and to-dos greets me again in the morning, I will lose sight of all these things, but I guess the only thing I can do about it right now is pray.
Posted 10/17/2008 05:30 AM in Prayers, Ramblings, Travel
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Disembarking in Istanbul
Well, the cruise is over and I'm using my last 30 minutes of internet time. I'm hideously behind on my pictures since I have over 200 of Egypt alone from last week. I'm about to fill up another 4GB SD card too.

Things are a bit hectic trying to pack and organize things between the 17 people in our group so it hasn't quite hit me that there are only a few days left in my vacation. The thought of going back to work next Monday isn't too pleasant either.

Oh well. And in case you're noticing that I haven't had that much local food, don't worry, I've got lots more stuff coming.
Posted 10/13/2008 01:34 AM in Ramblings, Travel, Turkey
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10/04 - At Sea
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On our way to Egypt, we were at Sea for over 36 hours which means an entire day on the ship, so here's a chance for me to ramble on about some other topics. Honestly, I don't really remember what we did with our time primarily because we slept in until 10.

Getting out of our room by 10:30, there weren't many optiosn so breakfast was pretty typical: hit the buffet, make a bacon and egg sandwich, grab some pastries and off we go to... um... sit around on the ship.

Actually no, we didn't sit around the ship. After breakfast around 11:30 we went back to our room and napped for a few hours, finally catching up on the sleep we'd lost the last few nights from traveling and jet lag. In the afternoon my sister and I played Wii. The Medusa Lounge on the ship has "Whatever Rooms" that you can reserve and simply hang out in, but if you want, they also offer Karaoke and Wii. My sister hadn't played a Wii yet so we played some Wii Sports for an hour or so then watched a movie before heading to dinner.

So while I've got time, here is how meals work on Norwegian Free-Style cruises.
  • There is always at least one restaurant open 24/7 so yes, you can eat at any time of the day. On the Jade, this is the Blue Lagoon which serves simple food like paninis, fish and chips, etc.
  • There are only two buffet restaurants, all others are sit down. Garden Cafe and The Great Outdoors are actually the same restaurant, except one of them has tables and the food bars outside. Any dress code is allowed.
  • There are five restaurants that are completely included in the cost of the cruise: Grand Pacific, Alizar, Blue Lagoon, Garden Cafe and The Great Outdoors
  • Grand Pacific is the designated formal restaurant and does not allow jeans or shorts after 5.
  • All non-buffet restaurants do not allow shorts after 5.
  • Specialty Restaurants have cover charges that range from $10-$25 per person. Specialty restaurants include, Paniolo Tex Mex, Paniolo Tapas, Jade Garden Asian fusion, Shabu-Shabu, Teppanyaki, The Sushi Bar, Cagney's Chicago Steakhouse, Papa's Italian Ristorante and Le Bistro French.
  • All specialty restaurants (except Sushi and Cagney's) have 2-for-1 early bird specials from 5:30pm-6:30pm when all cover charges are discounted 50%
  • Soft drinks, alcoholic drinks and certain special items cost extra.
10/04 pictures are here.
Posted 10/12/2008 02:19 AM in Food, Greece, Ramblings, Restaurants, Reviews, Travel
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10/03 - Corfu
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In Corfu we started breakfast at the Grand Pacific restaurant, one of the free restaurants on the ship. See the pictures for details.

After breakfast we met up with the other families around 10:00 and went out to see Corfu. We decided to rent a car and drive around. There was a rental agency at the port with cars waiting, but they informed us they had only one car left for 60 euros, which was a discount off their normal 75 euro price. We tried bargaining down to 50 but they refused.

I then noticed another rental car agency, Sunrise Rent-A-Car, located outside of the port. It was only 100-200 feet away but on the other side of the fence. We decided to walk to Sunrise but the exit for the port was a good 1/8 mile away so we had to walk about 1/4 mile to get to Sunrise where we got a manual transmission car for 50 euros including insurance and taxes (auto transmission costs extra). We tried to bargain down since we only had a few hours of time and the woman said we could return the car without filling up the gas. We paid cash with no credit card authorization and were quickly on our way (credit card payments cost extra).

Our car was a red Hyundai Getz and turned out to be pretty comfortable for a compact. It wasn't a very fast car but for the most part did everything it needed to. I estimate it had 70-80 HP. The trickiest part was figuring out the roads which are written primarily in Greek and don't seem to follow a numbering system on these small islands. My sister worked hard as navigator though we still had to make several u-turns.

First we drove to Paleokastritsa to check out the Monastary of the Blessed Virgin, some mountain views and beaches. We had a beautiful drive there and stopped multiple times for pictures. Unfortunately, we misread a sign and didn't realize that we had made it to the Monastary at the top of a hill so we took several other pictures and descended only to discover our mistake. We decided not to back track and continued on our way.

Next we took the scenic route through Pelekas to Perama. We stopped several more times for views but since we were short on time we couldn't stop for lunch. When we arrived in Perama, we stopped at Achillion Palace and Mouse Island before driving back to Corfu Town.

In Corfu we attempted to drive to Old Town, only to get stuck in traffic. We followed it until the traffic ended, only to discover that the road also ended. It turns out that most of Old Town is pedestrian only roads so we had to make our way back out and formulate a new plan. We decided to take the coastal road to Old Town and park and walk the rest. Unfortunately, we lost a lot of time.

After driving around the New Venetian Fortress and taking pictures, we parked in an attempt to find the Temple of the Virgin Mary but only got far enough to find the Temple of St. Anthony before heading back to the ship.

One fortunate thing about our rental agency is that even though the shop is outside the port, we could drop the car off in the port, leave the keys under the floormat, leave the door unlocked and an attendant would find the car later. Since they did not have our credit card, this was not a worry for us and was actually quite convenient.

In retrospect, our biggest mistake was leaving the ship too late in the morning. With a big group of people, we didn't actually make a decision until 10:30 and probably didn't get into our rental car until almost 11:00. This resulted in a trip where we were constantly watching the clock. If we had left the ship at 8 or 9, we would have had more time at our destinations and time for lunch.

Also, my mom and sister think we should have went to Mount Repo instead of Perama. We wanted to do both but due to our schedule we could only do one and we were alreay en route to Perama before we realized the time constraint along with the slight more circuitous route required for Mount Repo.

For dinner we went to Papa's Italian Ristorante, again for an early bird special. This was my personal favorite restaurant because the food was all excellent and it really hit the spot, yet it did not feel excessively heavy. Much of the group was concerned about eating too much and I was the only one to order a pasta course in addition to an entree and just about everyone else regretted it. Despite having an extra course, I was still hungry at the end, not because I didn't eat a lot, but because it was all so good and tasty that I just wanted more. See the pictures for more specific details.

10/03 pictures are here.
Posted 10/11/2008 10:59 PM in Food, Greece, Ramblings, Restaurants, Reviews, Travel
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10/02 - Katakolon
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First, a quick stop for breakfast at the Great outdoors breakfast buffet. The funny thing about cruises is that they're ultra picky about hygiene and require everyone to use hand sanitizer before entering a restaurant, although they don't provide enough to properly sanitize your hands (your hands should remain wet for 30 seconds to be sanitized, 60 seconds to be sterile). In addition, only gloved staff may serve food from the buffet which reduces efficiency since there are usually only one or two attendants for any given section of food. The drink station is consistently busy serving coffee, tea, juice and water.

The food itself is decent, but obviously mass produced: not bad, but not particularly good, though I will say the best items on the bar are probably the fresh fruits, particularly the honey dew and green cantaloupe (musk melon?) which were consistently sweet and juicy. Bacon is a close second simply because, well, it's bacon.

The pastries vary from day to day but some are fairly bland. The tasty ones were strawberry and blueberry pastries or chocolate croissants. The everyday standards were cinnamon rolls, apple, lemon or poppy seed danishes and plain croissants. The most disappointing was the bear claw which had no flavor inside or out.

There were about a dozen types of yogurt. We tried the Passion Fruit Peach yogurt which tasted like a pretty basic mixed peach yogurt. The Mango yogurt was quite tangy and I personally thought it tasted more like Passion Fruit than the other yogurt. The last one I tried was from Turkey (I'm assuming based on the Arabic name) and was a tart plain yogurt. I was full by that time but I imagine it would be good with some marmalade or jam and might make a decent tzatziki sauce. However, it wasn't as flavorful and robust as the Greek yoghurt I had at the Heathrow Starbucks.

Other items varied greatly in quality. The 2.5" pate patty rounds were quite livery and not very tasty. I'm not surprised, I can't imagine that pate in 2.5" diameter cylinders is particularly high quality. The stewed plums were pretty good, much tastier than a prune. The raisin french toast is pretty good, despite every piece being the exact same sized isosceles triangle. The pancakes were pretty plain and a tad rubbery, but they made a decent McGriddle style sandwich with eggs and bacon.

Our first port stop was Katakolon (pronounced cut-TACK-oh-lo). This is a small town known primarily as the port of entry for visiting Olympia, the birthplace of the ancient Olympics. It is also known for its jewelry stores but my sister and I were not particularly interested in either of those.

There were three streets set up for tourists (read tourist traps) so we decided to start the day wandering aimlessly around the area to see what was there. Although the ambiant temperature was in the mid 70's, the strong sun beat down on us and made us quite warm as we wandered through the largest of the three streets. We passed store after store pawning off cheap trinkets and souvenirs that we mostly ignored.

We stopped at a couple shops selling Greek products such as herb and spice mixes, ouzo (anise infused liquor), honey, olive oil and boxed loukomi (Turkish Delight) but nothing interested us enough to purchase anything.

Pretty soon we arrived at the end of the tourist area where the primarily residential road was blocked off for construction. There, on the side of the road in a rather unassuming position was a small bakery called Psomi. We ventured in and found a tiny little sweet shop with just a couple display cases. One was filled with small buns and cakes that didn't look particularly special. The other was full of baklava and another pastry called ktaifi (sp?) which is composed of custard and tiny strings of dough. I only got a chance to try the ktaifibut my sister's favorite was the apricot baklava.

Next we wanted to check out the beach but it turned out to be pretty rocky and hard packed in this section of the town so we turned back and decided to look for some food. We passed a cafe on the main street serving gyros and other streets but due to it's proximity to the tourist traps it didn't look as cheap as we wanted. The prices were still decent at 5-6 euros per item but we decided to venture out a bit more.

At the end of the third tourist street we found a small cafe with a chalkboard sign listing Greek Coffee, Nescafe, Fresh Fish and Ouzo (sorry, forgot to get a picture and name) . It was not very full but there were some locals eating there so we decided to give it a whirl. We sat down at a table covered with a paper table cloth that was basically a gigantic sheet of Brawny or Dixie. Apparently the waiter did not speak English because he walked out of the restaurant and disappeared down the street.

A minute later the waiter reappeared followed by the owner who did speak some basic English. We asked for the fresh fish, ouzo and Greek coffee and she suggested a tomato salad as well. Within seconds, a small stray cat appeared, eagerly anticipating the arrival of some food. Equally random, a middle aged man sat down at the table next to us with a Heineken and a pack of cigarettes and began asking us where we were from and what our ethnicity was. He then started telling us all about his trips to Asia and how he was from Olympia and had carried the Olympic torch 4 or 5 times (his stories didn't seem to consistent).

Our food then arrived along with two additional stray cats. The fish turned out to be sardines that had been gutted and fried. They were sufficiently small that I could eat them whole without worrying about bones, although my sister decided not to attempt it and ate around the tiny spines.

The salty fish perfectly complimented the tangy tomato salad. It had red onions, olives, green peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes and a light vinaigrette. The tomatoes were just as bright red as the ones I saw in Athens Central Market and they were as good as I expected. Firm yet tender, vividly red inside and out, sweet and tasting like a sun ripened tomato should. I haven't had tomatoes that good in years! The onions were mild, the cucumber light and crisp and the peppers sweet.

For drinks, the Greek coffee, medium sweet, was tasty and had the traditional finely ground coffee at the bottom of the cup. I haven't figured out if you're supposed to drink that or not. The ouzo was interesting as it was served with a small dish of ice. When you drop the ice into the ouzo, it formed wisps of cloudiness that eventually turned all of the liquor a translucent white. The ouzo had a very strong anise/licorice flavor that my sister did not like. The stuff is pretty strong (38-48%) and is generally meant to be sipped while relaxing but as Americans we're always in a rush to the next planned event so trying to down the stuff quickly was a bit tough.

Meanwhile the three cats were doing their best garner attention and act cute by laying on their backs, mewing quietly but pitifully and staring at us with big sad eyes (like the Puss in Boots in Shrek). I was very tempted to give them our last sardine but they were so good that my sister stopped me and we ended up eating it ourselves. Sorry cats!

Also during this time, the Olympian sitting next to us offered to buy me another round of ouzo and provided us a postcard showing him at the Olympic torch ceremonies many years ago. He offered us the chance to hold an old Olympic torch and take pictures if we simply dropped by his Jewelery store. We smelled a tourist trap and politely declined. Happy with our lunch, we returned to the ship.

For dinner we had early bird reservations at Le Bistro, the French restaurant on board. To celebrate my mom's birthday, we had the whole group of 17 people join us. The restaurant was beautifully set up and I noticed the extremely fancy dinner plates. My mom noticed them too and also checked to see who made them and they turned out to be part of the Versace collection. See the pictures for descriptions of the individual dishes. Overall, we were quite pleased with the food. I will note that the main reason I ordered the cassoulet was because it was on Top Chef this year and I wanted to try it for myself.

10/02 pictures are here.
Posted 10/10/2008 02:29 PM in Food, Greece, Pictures, Restaurants, Reviews, Travel
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10/01 - Athens
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After losing time getting lost at the Acropolis, I decided to branch out and do some less touristy stuff in Athens while my sister went to explore the Acropolis on her own. My number one goal was to find Ktistakis a shop that specializes in Loukomades (Lokomathes?, a fried dough with walnuts and honey) and has a history dating back to 1912. All I knew was that it was near Omonia Square on Socratos street so I took the Metro there and started walking.

I walked a few blocks and didn't really see anything that would be a small bakery or shop so I walked around the block looking. Instead I happened upon a street vendor selling koulouri, a circular bread covered with sesame seeds. These are similar to pretzels but without the chewy shiny exterior. Mine was crusty on the outside but kind of dry on the inside. The taste of sesame was very pronounced and I think it would go very well with a drizzle of honey or even some mustard but the people I saw buying them didn't seem to require any such thing. I'm not a big sesame fan so next time I would probably pass on these but if you like sesame they would probably be pretty good.

As I munched on my koulouri, I returned to Socratos street and walked further down only to discover myself at the Athens Central Market, one of my key destinations. I happened upon a small corner shop and decided to moisten my parched mouth after the koulouri. I ordered a Frappe which is a whipped coffee drink. I didn't see exactly how they made it but I believe they mixed milk and espresso with a high speed shake machine to produce a nice airy, frothy head. Even after I finished drinking it there was a good inch of foam left in the cup. I would have liked to finish it but I had to continue exploring the market.

First I walked through the meat section where butchers displayed the finest cuts whether they be steaks or chickens or primal cuts or organs. Whole skinned animals dangled in clean glass and stainless steel display carts. All around me men were hacking away with long cleavers to chop up steaks according to their customers' orders. It seemed that just about everything was for sale whether it be heads or intestines or stomachs or brains or knuckles.

Peering between two carts I saw a small passage way leading to the sea food section so I darted through the narrow opening into a completely different world where stacks of styrofoam containers and piles of ice showcased the day's freshest sea fare. I saw fish, octopus, squid and even a basket of live snails that were crawling upon the very sign that pronounced the price of their lives.

I moved on to the rest of the market that was filled with small shops and vendors with various fruits, vegetables and other supplies. I saw a haloumi and sausage store and several egg shops that had stacks of eggs of various sizes and colors priced anywhere from 6 to 15 cents per egg. The produce also looked amazing, whether it be peaches or plums or apples or tomatoes. Several items were cut open so you could see their quality inside and out. The tomoatoes were so red, you knew they were vine ripened. I wanted to just buy one and eat it straight but I did not. I was lured by some delicious looking black (purple) figs which were so ripe they were bursting at a mere 2 euros per kilo.

One stand I saw had several piles of plants of herbs and by luck I happened to notice one bag labeled Tau-Sigma-Alpha-Iota, which spells TSAI. I thought it might be tea but wasn't sure until a tour guide later confirmed it, pronouncing it like chai.

The last stand I stopped by had a case full of small gelatin cubes marked 3.1 euros per kilo. It made me think of Turkish Delight but being in Greece I wasn't sure. The owner did not speak English so I pointed at a pink tray and a white tray and held up one euro after which he proceeded to pick up pieces and fill a small bag. The pink one turned out to have a very strong rose flavor, confirming that it was Turkish Delight. I liked it and so did my dad but my sister did not like the strong rose flavor. The white ones were coconut flavor but alas, I left the bag somewhere and never got to try it.

Having completed the market, I resumed my search for the loukomades. I returned to Socratos street and walked up and down again, even turning down some of the small alleys and shopping strips. With time running a little short, I stopped at a cafe and asked. I had to say the word a few times before the woman understood and told me to go up Socratos street. So I went and explored Socratos again, pushing farther north a couple blocks as well but still had no luck.

Next I stopped at a woman's fruit cart next to Omonia square. She was busy counting money from another customer and initially seemed a little annoyed that I didn't speak Greek. She didn't look up from her money and had a bit of a frown until she realized what I was asking for at which point she looked up with a smile and a glint in her eye. She pointed ambiguously down Socratos street north of the square so I returned to search again but to no avail.

Finally, I asked a security guard who said there was a bakery in the square that sold them. This didn't seem to match what anyone else had said but I followed his directions and ended up at a chain bakery. I asked a woman there if they had loukomades and she said yes so I ordered two. She gave me were two sugar coated doughnuts that had no walnuts or nuts of any kind. Perhaps these were some simplified version of loukomades or perhaps they were something completely different. Either way, they were not what I had hoped for and since it was time to return to my hotel, I reluctantly declared my quest a failure.

After checking out of the hotel my sister and I stopped at Starbucks. I ordered a Greek coffee and the barista told me that Starbucks' Greek coffee is no good because they use they wrong equipment and that I should go elsewhere. Since we really just wanted internet access I ordered a double iced espresso instead where I wrote the first three days of posts.

We returned to the hotel and with all of our baggage the hotel recommended that we take a taxi instead of the metro since it would only cost about 12 euros. We agreed and paid 15 after tip and arrived at our cruise ship with plenty of time to spare. In fact, it turns out there was a problem with the fuel ship which arrived three hours late so our departure was pushed from 6pm to 9pm.

For dinner we met up with our parents for the 2-for-1 early bird special at Tex Mex at Paniolo Salsa on the ship (more on how dinner works on the ship on a less eventful day). Take a look at the pictures for names, descriptions and thoughts on the dishes we ordered.

Afterwards we relaxed and got settled into our rooms, watched a movie and then slept early to prepare for our first day on the cruise.

10/01 pictures are here.
Posted 10/08/2008 02:27 PM in Food, Greece, Pictures, Restaurants, Reviews, Travel
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Tuesday 9/30 - Athens
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Shortly after falling asleep, my sister finally arrived around 3:30am. We talked for a bit and then she got settled in while I spent at least an hour attempting to fall asleep again. At 7:30 my alarm went off and I got up for a free continental breakfast on the Executive Level of the Marriott (yay for Gold status). The breakfast included a large cereal/muesli bar, a selection of cold cuts, cheeses and fruit as well as your standard continental bakery items. Pretty darn good for free.

I then ventured out to meet up with my parents and their friends at their hotel while my sister slept in. It's funny how much faster it is to get to the train station when you're not lost and lugging around crappy luggage. On the Metro I made my way to the Omonia (pronounced like Ammonia) and walked a couple blocks to the Best Western Zinon. It's an older hotel and it shows. The elevators have swing open doors and only hold four people and that's only if they're feeling very friendly. The inner doors are hinged like closet doors and open inward forcing the fourth passenger to squeeze against the other passengers to allow them to open and close. Also, the elevators don't differentiate between up and down when stopping at floors, you just have to ride it until it stops at the floor you actually want. The rooms are also tiny and the showers barely have enough space to turn around. I'm glad I stayed at the Marriott.

At 9:00 our private tour guide and bus showed up and we headed to Corinth. The tour guide provided some historical background as we visited the Corinth canal which is 4km long and 250 meters almost straight down to water level. We then continued on to Corinth to see the temple of Apollo as well as the Corinth Agora. Agora was the name of the public market which was so busy and crowded that the word agora became synonymous with crowds, hence the term agoraphobia, the fear of people and crowds. The Agora was also where the apostle Paul would have sold the tents he made to support himself while in Corinth. Next to the Agora were the ruins of an ancient church, believed to be the one that Paul started in Corinth and addressed in his two letters to the Corinthians, as well as the spot in the market that Paul is believed to have publicly preached.

We also learned that Corinth was destroyed by barbarians that killed all the men and enslaved all the women and children, leaving no one behind to rebuild the city. Today, the region is as famous for it's oil production as it's sun-dried raisins, pistachios and olives. Also at the peak of a mountain stands a strategic fortress that overlooked both the Aegean Sea and the Sardonic Gulf.

After our tour, we went to the Plaka market area surrounding the Acropolis. We found a restaurant to have lunch for decent prices, about 10 euros per person after the 10% discount the restauranteurs offered us as we walked by. I ordered a pork gyro since lamb wasn't offered. My pork was a bit under seasoned though the thick and flavorful authentic tzatziki sauce was delicious. Overall the food was good, but not great but at least prices were reasonable, though not cheap. I wasn't particularly surprised by this since the menu was available in 6 different languages which is a tourist trap warning sign.

Apparently pork is a traditional gyro meat in Greece, though chicken is quite common as well. I have yet to see the same lamb meat loaf cylinders that are common in America. I suppose that lamb loaf may be the American version that is purported to have originated in Chicago but I'll see what other regions in the Mediterranean have before I make my conclusions. Note that the pork and chicken cylinders are made by stacking slices of meat together on a spit and roasting them, unlike the American lamb loaf that is finely ground and formed into a cylinder around the spit.

After lunch the group walked up to the Acropolis to see the Parthenon and Athena's temple. It was a bit of a trek up the hill but there were some very nice views along the way. On our way down we split up and unfortunately our group took a wrong turn and ended up on the wrong side of the Acropolis. It took about 40 minutes to find our way back to the entrance we started at and about 20 more minutes to find the rest of our group. By that time I was completely pooped from walking up and down hills searching. I also missed my opportunity to go to the Athens central market, which might be closed on Wednesday, and some of the specialty shops I had hoped to visit.

My parents and I separated from the group to meet up with my sister and then we wandered around the Plaka looking at shops. As we were all tired and it was starting to get late, we chose a quick restaurant to eat at which had essentially the same menu as the lunch restaurant. Once again I had the pork gyros. This time the pork was well seasoned which was a dramatic improvement on the previous restaurant, except that the pitas, which came off a big stack in a plastic bag, were dry and tough. I also ordered a Cappuccino Fredo (iced, but unfortunately not frozen).

After dinner my sister and I sent my parents to their hotel in a taxi while we did some last minute exploring. We got some gelato for dessert (Hazelnut or her, Pistachio for me) and checked out a few other stores. I was interesting in buying some Ouzo, an anise flavored liquor and I also discovered that Absinthe liquors are easily obtainable (they are still outlawed in America even though the warning on the bottles indicate that the dangerous side affects of Absinthe no longer exist). If I can find a liquor store that ships to America, I'll buy a bit of both.

After that my sister and I hopped on the Metro and went back to our hotel to clean up and get a good night's rest. One last thing observation was the large numbers of stray animals. I knew about this from my research on Athens but seeing the actual problem up close was another thing entirely. Some of the dogs have survived pretty well and managed to stay pretty clean, but others are a little rough around the edges or even injured. In the highly trafficed tour areas (e.g. Corinth and the Plaka) the large numbers of humans mean that the dogs are quite tame and socialized and are not aggressive. In fact, if you feed them or offer to pet them, they seem pretty happy to sit down and soak it all in while they can. In the evening, they seemed to appear all over the place in the plaka and they'd simply lie in the middle of heavily trafficed walkways. There are also many stray cats and I even fed some leftover lamb from one of the other parent's dish to a skinny little cat, though they tend to stay in doorways and on the side of the road instead of lying in the middle. It's really kind of sad and every other dog I see I wish I could take home. I decided to take pictures of several of the animals and will share those tomorrow.

9/30 pictures are here.
Posted 10/02/2008 06:48 AM in Drinks, Food, Greece, Ramblings, Restaurants, Reviews, Travel
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Monday 9/29 - Travelling to Athens
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After 90 minutes of sleep, I headed to Heathrow with my crippled bag to catch my 8:20 flight to Athens. Of all the things to forget, I failed to check which terminal my British Airways flight was in. I knew they were in Terminal 4 or 5 but I wasn't sure which it would be. I chose 4 because it was the closer stop on the Tube but I turned out to be wrong. Unfortunately, to get to Terminal 5, I would have to back track to another station and then transfer to another train. I finally arrived at Terminal 5 at 7:15, perfect timing to check in. But the kiosk gave me an error and told me to go to "Zone A." I went to Zone A and the Queue Host (line manager) told me to go to customer service in Zone B where a single representative was trying to help a dozen people. I stood anxiously in line and watched as the minutes counted down.

It wasn't my turn until 7:50 and of course the flight had already been closed. The rep told me I should have gone to Zone A and now I had been dropped off the flight. Unlike AA which allows you to just jump on standby for another flight, British is very strict about this sort of thing. They basically assume it was your fault and cancel your ticket. Since it wasn't my fault that I had been mis-directed, they had to enact some absurd exception process.

First the rep flagged down a manager who told her to call some guy who handles this stuff. The guy didn't answer the phone so the manager escorted me to Zone A and handed me off to another guy who proceeded to call the same guy who handles this stuff who once again didn't answer. Then he called one of his friends in another department and called in a favor to get my ticket reinstated. Then, he called the first guy again, who finally answered after the phone rang for a good two minutes and had me put onto the standby list for the next flight. Then he called the second guy again to have my standby status upgraded to cleared. Then he could finally confirm a seat and check me in. It took at least 30 minutes to complete this process. I thought British Airways was supposed to have good service!

Since I had three more hours to kill, I decided to sit down for breakfast at Carluccio's, as recommended by the London Review of Breakfast. I had the colleccione which was toast with sauteed mushrooms, scrambled eggs, pancetta and roasted tomato. It was decently priced for the airport at 7£. They don't get any awards for presentation but the mushrooms and eggs were tasty. The toast was a bit tough, the pancetta was salty but not that flavorful (would have preferred American bacon) and the tomato was good but not roasted enough. But those were all minor gripes and I was pretty pleased with my breakfast.

I also ordered a coffee drink called Bicerin. It is a traditional Torino drink of espresso, Florentine drinking chocolate and cream that you mix together as you please. The drinking chocolate was pretty thick like a soft ganache and if I had let it cool more it would have been pretty solid. It was also a pretty cocoa intensive and not very sweet. That was mixed with the espresso and about half of the cream. I considered adding more sugar but thought I should probably enjoy it as it was served. I thought it was extremely tasty, though not very healthy.

I then proceeded through security where they have a nice automated tray return system so that trays are automatically moved back to the front of the line instead of having to wait for some non-observant TSA rep to realize there's a backup caused by a lack of trays. Then in my search for a power outlet for my laptop, I ended up at Starbucks and bought a yogurt so I could sit and mooch their electricity.

Starbucks has much nicer food products in Europe. Their yogurts and granola all looked excellent and had extra seeds mixed in for added fiber and nutrition. I chose a Greek yogurt with granola and honey and was wowed by how thick, rich and tangy the yogurt was. Mixed with the granola, sunflower seeds and honey, this was a delicious yogurt mix.

After losing track of time and almost missing my new flight to Athens, I finally settled in my flight. The British Air 757 I was on seemed nicer and roomier than any American 757s. I think I had one or maybe even two inches of extra seat width and I suspect that American planes have eight seats crammed in a row instead of the seven on this plane. I'll have to check SeatGuru to see.

To my surprise, breakfast was served on this flight and it wasn't a crummy continental breakfast (pun intended here too); it was a hot fish pie. I don't particularly like the sounds of fish pie on an airline because it makes me think of the movie Airplane. But this fish pie (cod and salmon) was very good. The sauce was tasty and there were big chunks of fish coated with panko crumbs (the one negative being that the panko wasn't crispy). The caesar salad, while simple, was good thanks to the tasty croutons and substantial parmaggiano shavings. The bread rolls, which were a wheat and white baked together, were pretty good. And the rice pudding was decent though it was basically standard strawberry sauce mixed into plain rice pudding. I guess that's the one place that British Air has good service.

I finally landed in Athens and found customs and immigration to be very easy. There was no form to fill out and it looked like any valid passport gained instant access to the country. There wasn't anyone in customs either, you just walked out from the baggage claim to the oustide world. I lugged my crippled bag to the Metro which was thankfully still open (it was supposed to be closed for construction but contractor issues have already postponed the start date which was originally April).

I arrived at my station and using my compass quickly determined which direction to head to find my hotel. I walked for 10 minutes but couldn't find it. The address, 115 didn't seem to exist. I walked back and forth for another 10 minutes until finally walking into a Peugeot dealer to ask for directions. Turns out that the numbers on one side of a street don't necessarily line up with the other side so even though I was at 110-120 on the north side, 115 on the south side was another 10 minutes farther down the road.

Then I had to find a pedestrian underpass to get to the other side and I found the sign but not the underpass. I spent another 5 minutes looking for that until I walked into a Citroen dealer and asked for help. Turns out the underpass was about 100 more meters past the sign. 10 minutes later I was across the street at the Marriott and I was soaked with sweat from dragging my stupid cheap-ass bag back and forth and up and down curbs because Greek drivers don't care if their parked cars block the cross walks (if there happens to be one at a particular street intersection) or fire hydrants for that matter. I finally got into my hotel room at 7:30 and decided to scrap my plans to go to the happening night spot for dinner and try to get some sleep.

9/29 pictures are here.
Posted 10/01/2008 06:41 AM in Food, Greece, Ramblings, Restaurants, Reviews, Travel, United Kingdom
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Sunday 9/28 - London
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My trip did not start off as well as I had hoped it would. First, they wouldn't let me check my big bag all the way to Athens because the layover was too long so I would have to pick it up in London. The 7 hour flight itself was fine for the most part. I seat 31B which is an exit row that has lots of leg room. Note that 31A has the emergency slide blocking it so if you want to stretch out you have to sit at a funny angle and then you feel lopsided for the rest of the day.

The AA 777s now have pseudo on-demand movies. Basically each title restarts every 15-20 minutes so you can start a movie almost whenever you want. You can choose to wait for the next one or start the one that is in progress. The one problem is that the controller is docked in the side of the arm rest. If you remove it, there's no problem but if you leave it you can accidentally hit a button and exit out of the movie. I did this and had to restart Hancock, then I did it again, and had to restart it again so I ended up losing about 45 minutes of movie watching time. Hancock was good overall, nothing all that special, but pretty entertaining. I also watched Swing Vote which was decent but lacked a lot of depth that I think it could have gone into. I wanted to watch Get Smart as well but b/c of my Hancock blunder, I didn't have time.

Food on the flight was decent. The choices were barbecue chicken and beef lasagna. I chose the latter which was fairly tasty, (almost as good as a Stouffer's frozen dinner, which are some of the tastiest ones out there since they're not geared as dieting dinners). The salad, dressing and bread were the exact same kinds that AA always uses that are fairly blah. Dessert was a little different though, it was an Oatmeal Chewie. It had a consistency like a brownie crossed with an oatmeal cookie and was pretty tasty in it's manufactured and shrink wrapped goodness.

Breakfast was a pretty simple continental breakfast: a single croissant. The croissant was actually pretty good: it was toasted and had a nice tender center with a flakey outside and was served with butter and strawberry jam. Airline water always tastes funky even though it's in a sealed container, maybe it's the container that tastes funky but it's been that way on AA for as long as I can remember. The strawberry yogurt was run of the mill pre-mixed which is slightly ironic since Britons and Europeans are more picky about their yogurt. For instance, I prefer Danon fruit on the bottom yogurt and one reason they make yogurt that way is to keep the sugars from the fruit separate from the active cultures so as not to interfere. Well in Europe, even fruit on the bottom yogurt causes too much interference so they actually sell yogurt that has the fruit flavors in a separate compartment so you can mix them just when you're ready to eat it.

After we finally landed in London, I picked up my bag and went to British Airways to see if I could check in the bag for the next morning and they said they only allow check-ins three hours before the flight. So I accepted the fact that I would need to lug around my big bag as well as my small bag and backpack. This is the first time I used my cheap new 25" bag and I didn't pack it all that full. In fact it weighed about the same as my small bag (which was extra heavy b/c of my laptop). So in preparation for the walk to the London Underground (Tube) I latched my small bag onto my big bag started walking. All of you who said I should invest in a good set of luggage instead of a cheap set, you were right. After walking through the terminal and through the hallways for about 10 minutes, I lost a wheel.

So now I have to carry the big bag on top of the little bag (a Samsonite) which seems to be holding the weight of both bags without a problem. Darn that ghetto generic Embark brand from target! Having to lug around a big bag was bad enough but to not have wheels for it has really made my plans to travel easily by subway and foot a big pain in the butt. Even my hands are feeling a bit raw from wrassling with the bag. I considered buying a new one but being in London, that's not a good idea as a decent bag could easily cost $200. I may try to buy a new one in Athens (or maybe Egypt where it would be cheap, but probably not any higher in quality).

So anyway, I finally checked in at my hotel and set out for Arbutus, a fairly fancy restaurant that has a cheap prix fixe lunch set. Of course, I wanted to be daring so I went a la carte. For my starter, I had Braised Pig's Head, Potato Puree and Caramelized Onions (see pics). There was a block of meat on the left of the plate (reminiscent of head cheese) which was tasty and reminded me of the ham hocks my mom used to make. The potatoes were very smooth and creamy. However, on the right side of the plate there was something on top of the caramelized onions. My guess is brains which I kind of had to choke down as the taste was as little too offal (pun intended).

For my main course I had the Plat du Jour (dish of the day): Elway Valley Lamb, Hot Pot "Breast and Sweetbreads." This was very tasty and had some fatty pieces of lamb and a whole sweetbread (referred to as a neck gland, haven't had a chance to look up which one it is) topped with gratin potatoes. The dish was a bit lamby plus some offal flavor, but pretty good overall. Unfortunately, I suddenly got really full halfway through and decided to stop. It was odd because 30 minutes prior my stomach had been growling like crazy. I think it was because my body considered it breakfast time and simply didn't want that much food.

After the main I had treacle tart for dessert which was simply the best I've ever had (ok, I've only had it once before, but it was absolutely delicious). I also had the house Apertif to drink which was Prosecco and pear puree.

Now, being extremely full and jet-lagged don't go together so well because I become extremely tired. I wandered around, checked out Chinatown a bit and then sat to rest in Hyde Park where I saw joggers, skateboarders, in-line skaters, horse riders and even a roller-skater (see below). Then things went downhill.

I was so full and exhausted that even though it was only 3:30, I went to my hotel room and plopped on the bed. I set my alarm for 4:30 so I could venture out to find La Fromagerie, a well known cheese shop. Well I woke up and was still very tired and very full, so I thought I'd sleep for another hour. The same thing happened an hour later, and every hour until 9:30pm. I finally made myself get up and despite the rest, I stumbled out of the hotel with bleary eyes. My mission was to find The Golden Hind, one of the best places in London for Fish and Chips. I wandered the area for an hour and never found it and by that time, all the restaurants I had passed started to close.

I headed back to the hotel and saw that Hard Rock Cafe was open but decided that wasn't worth going to. So I went to the concierge and asked who was open late and they told me what area to look in. However, by the time I found them, they too were closed. I headed back again and even Hard Rock was closed. So even worse, I ended up eating at Trader Vic's, one of the hotel's restaurants and I believe an American chain. I decided not to get too much and ended up with Singapore Noodles which were decent but a little light on the curry. I ordered my first European diet coke notied that it was much less fizzy than in the US. I also ordered Phoenix Beer which was smooth and crisp and doesn't seem very strong since I didn't have much problem finishing it.

I considered asking the cute Asian hostess to join me at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in three weeks, but decided against it. Then I returned to my room and of course I couldn't sleep. Luckily Gordon Ramsay kept me entertained with Kitchen Nightmares and The last episode of The F Word season 3 (he raised and slaughtered sheep this time). I finally went to bed at 4AM, just in time to get some shut eye before I had to get up at 5:30.

9/28 pictures are here.
Posted 10/01/2008 06:35 AM in Food, Ramblings, Restaurants, Reviews, Travel, United Kingdom
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In Athens
I wrote up my last couple days and prepared a bunch of pictures but the Marriott is charging 20 euros for internet so I haven't connected. I'm at a free terminal at Best Western so I don't have my laptop and can't upload the stuff. Maybe tonight if I can find an internet cafe near my hotel. I did manage to upload a few random pictures when I was at Heathrow though.
Posted 09/30/2008 01:02 AM in Greece, Travel
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Foreign Connectivity
Being in the UK makes it easy to post since everything is just as connected as in the US. Even my phone works normally on T-Mobile UK (except that the roaming charges are pretty steep). The Hilton wanted 20£ for internet which is pretty outrageous. I found a cafe that charged 1£ per hour but didn't have my laptop handy.

Now I'm at Heathrow airport and they have a Boingo hotspot which is about 6£ for a day, which is acceptable and Boingo is an American company that is supported by McDonald's and Starbucks. I could have used a T-Mobile hot spot, but I think they're a little more expensive.

Anyway, the point of all this is that after I leave the UK, I'm not sure how easy it will be for me to post, nor do I know how much time I have to post things, so you may see some other posts that I haven't published yet and have nothing to do with my vacation. Athens looks like it's fairly connected via Starbucks but Istanbul and Egypt look pretty questionable.
Posted 09/29/2008 05:00 AM in Geek Stuff, Travel, United Kingdom
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Ted Drewes
Chopsticks of Pleasure 6726 Chippewa
St. Louis, MO 63109
Rating: Chopsticks of Pleasure
The best darn frozen custard around (and most historical too).
I once met a guy who claimed to be a frozen custard connoisseur. One of his top picks for best custard? Culver's. That's like claiming that McDonald's makes the best ice cream. Yes, there's no doubt that it's great and tasty, but it just doesn't come close to the genuine homemade stuff.

On top of that, the guy had never heard of Ted Drewes. I can understand that your average person may not have heard of Ted Drewes, but to consider yourself a connoisseur of frozen custard and have no clue about it is just plain freakin' absurd.

If you like frozen custard, you HAVE to try Ted Drewes for both the wonderfully rich creaminess and for the historical Route 66 significance. On Alton Brown's Feasting on Asphalt, Ted Drewes was the number one most requested absolutely must see stop from his fans.

So when I went down to St. Louis for Labor Day, I made sure to swing by for a nice, rich, cold treat for a hot summer's day. Here are some pictures. Apologies that the close-up is a bit over exposed, I forgot to clear a setting that I changed on my new camera.

Posted 09/27/2008 07:12 PM in Dessert, Food, Ramblings, Restaurants, Reviews, St. Louis, Travel
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I'm a sad tourist
I've been trying to find some info on eating in Alexandria. I understand that Egypt is not well known for it's culinary delights and that it is generally a poor country, but I'm a little surprised how tough it's been. While there are some traditional restaurant recommendations on-line, there aren't as many as I expected. Just look at this pitiful list of top restaurants to eat at in Alexandria according to tripadvisor.com

I'm saddened that four of the top ten restaurants are American chains and even more saddened that one of them somehow earned the number one spot.
Posted 09/21/2008 06:47 PM in Food, Restaurants, Travel, Turkey
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My eyes are about to fall out
Normally, I spend the whole day at work staring at a computer screen. For that last two weeks when I go home or to the hotel, I also stare at a computer screen reading food reviews for all the places I'm visiting. There's so much info out there and so far I've found at least 150 different places that come highly recommended.

I have no idea how I'm going to choose between all of them and I'm starting to wish I could spend more time in Istanbul and London. I called AA and they said it would cost $900 to change the last leg of my return ticket, even though my entire 4 leg round trip only cost $1000. However, I can skip my morning flight in London and get on the standby list for a later flight without penalty. On top of that, most flights from LHR to ORD aren't full so that looks like a good option so I'll have time to check out Borough Market in London.
Posted 09/17/2008 11:32 PM in Geek Stuff, Ramblings, Travel, United Kingdom, Work
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T minus 11 days
My vacation is coming up in just 11 days. I'm totally looking forward to it and I've been doing a lot of research on what to do in our free time, particularly where to eat at the different docks. It looks like Istanbul is a big culinary destination and I wish I could change my ticket and stay another day, but then I'd miss my reservation at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London. Speaking of London, I still need to reserve a hotel for my first night...
Vacation begins on:

Posted 09/16/2008 10:21 PM in Food, Ramblings, Travel, Turkey, United Kingdom
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Sew-sew camera bag
To transport my camera around the Mediterranean, I need a camera bag. There are tons of bags out there and most of them are over-priced and have mixed reviews. I researched them on various sites and even visited camera stores in St. Louis and Chicago. The first tip is to buy on-line. The prices at camera stores are incredible (anywhere from 50%-200% higher than on-line) and sometimes I wonder how they stay in business.

I finally settled on a Canon back pack at Amazon. I wanted a back pack so that my shoulders wouldn't get too tired. I also wanted configurable padding and space for packing other items and for future expansion. And of course I wanted a reasonable price.

The Canon bag can be found for $35-45 on-line which is a pretty good price. Overall the reviews were pretty good for the bag, but there was one major issue: The zippers on the bag aren't very heavy duty and aren't very tight, making them too easy to unzip.

The problem is that the camera is held at the top of the bag so the weight could actually cause the zippers to unzip and dump the contents of the bag on the ground. That's a significant risk but it is easily mitigated.

Some people got around this by sealing the zippers with a carabiner but I decided to try another solution. As some reviewers noted, the bag needs a strap that wraps around the front to prevent it from opening all the way. This would make it easy to access the camera at the top of the bag while preventing it from opening all the way.

The interesting thins is that the bag has two extra straps on the sides that aren't very useful but are an excellent place to mount such a front strap. The question is where to get the strap.

When I received the bag, I found that it came with a buckle on the shoulder straps that clips across the chest in addition to a waist belt. The cross-chest strap seemed unnecessary to me so I decided to use those to build a front strap.

After cutting the stitches and removing the side straps, I reconfigured the cross-chest strap to anchor to the sides of the bag and wrap around the front. Once this was done I re-stitched the straps (note the blue stitches in the pictures).

I'm quite pleased with the result. The new front strap is perfectly positioned to allow quick access to the camera while keeping the rest of the bag secure but the clip is easy to release when needed. But, for security, I did end up buying a locking carabiner...
Posted 09/12/2008 10:06 PM in DIY, Geek Stuff, Pictures, Travel
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Second Poquonock Giant Grinder and Pizza Shop
Chopsticks of Pleasure 75 Old County Rd
Windsor Locks, CT
Rating: Chopsticks of Pleasure
Awesome hot grinders that are a good value.
Thursday afternoons as I head to the airport, I've started picking up dinner to eat on the plane so I'm not starving when I get home at 8 (assuming no delays). One great find about half a mile from the rental lots is the Second Poquonock Giant Grinder and Pizza Shop which does indeed have giant grinders (hot sandwiches and not that wimpy toasted stuff).

I ordered the half size veal parmesan grinder for about $6. It sounds a bit pricey for a sandwich but it's a nice thick and dense 8" long hot grinder that weighs about a pound so it's worth it. You'd have to be a little crazy to order a full size on your own.

The sandwich was very tasty with a good balance of meat, sauce, cheese and bread. The only problem was attempting to unwrap it from it's half-sheet size butcher paper int he confined space of an airplane seat. I'm sure the people around me were quite jealous. For dessert they also sell large pieces of baklava for just $2.50, though it is a tad low on syrup which made it a bit dry, but also meant it was not overly sweet.

Sorry that the unwrapped picture is so messy but I ate the baklava first which filled me up for a few hours during which the sandwich got a bit smashed in transit.

Posted 09/01/2008 02:22 PM in Food, Reviews, Travel
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Cops Galore
Driving down to St. Louis this weekend I saw a huge amount of cops. Even more than last year. Friday I saw five cops waiting to catch people and a few that had already pulled cars over. Coming home Sunday there were three waiting to catch people and few that pulled cars over.

On the last leg of my trip on 355N I noticed an unmarked car on the south-bound shoulder. I thought I was safe because it was on the other side, but that was actually a trap. Immediately after that, I saw a cop coming down the north bound ramp. He accelerated hard and swung over to the left lane behind a van that had just passed me. He turned on his lights to pull over the van just as we rounded a bend where I saw five other cars and cops on the side of the road. Good thing I was only going 65!
Posted 09/01/2008 01:59 AM in St. Louis, Travel
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Slow Food Nation
This weekend in San Francisco is Slow Food USA's Slow Food Nation, a festival that seeks to celebrate sitting at the table to enjoy unprocessed, healthy and sustainable food instead of the homogenization of modern fast food. If I had known previously, I probably would have gone there this weekend! There's also a Chicago Chapter with some local events coming up.
Posted 08/28/2008 08:53 PM in Food, Travel
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Grand Flights
I had a bottle of regular Grand Marnier at home that I've used mostly for cooking for the last few years. With just a little bit left and inspired by the Grand Marnier Centennaire I had at L2O, I decided I should finish it off. For the last month I've been sipping little glasses of it while doing various chores around the house. I think I've become quite a fan of it...

Now, I found a restaurant in Hartford called Peppercorn's Grill that has a Grand Marnier flight. You get three round bottom Grand Marnier shot-glasses with about 1.5oz each of classic Grand Marnier, Grand Marnier Centennaire (100th anniversary) and Centcinquantennaire (150th anniversary) in a Grand Marnier holder and a dessert of your choice for a very decent $25. If I had that Canon DSLR I could take a picture...

So I tried all three of them in different combinations to compare them. I started with the classic Grand Marnier which was basically the same as what I had at home. It has a nice light orange flowery bouquet and generates nice warming sensation as it coats your tongue. It finishes with a slightly rough spicy sensation.

The Centennaire is slightly darker and has a deeper bouquet reminiscent of dried apricots. The taste is smoother and deeper with more complexity.

The Centcinquantennaire is in between the two, not as floral as the regular and not as dark as the 100. I actually prefer the flavor of the 100, but the great thing about the 150 is how smooth and soft it is, it's very pleasant to drink. Even more shocking is how different the regular tastes after trying the 150. After the 100 or 150, the regular tasted rough and dry with a much sharper spiciness and a hint of chemical harshness. 100 or 150 is definitely the way to go.

Then there was the after taste. I'm not sure which one it came from since I tried them all but even 10 minutes after I left the restaurant I could still taste some Grand Marnier on the back of my tongue. It reminded me of the fruitiness of Haw Flakes and Chinese Gyem-seung-dee (salty-sour-sweet) preserved plums. Now I want some more...

Oh, yeah their homemade gnocchi of the day and the free Italian sundae were pretty tasty too.
Posted 08/26/2008 08:14 PM in Drinks, Hartford, Restaurants, Reviews, Travel
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Good to be a Geek
Lots of interesting geek news came out this week.

AA debuts in-flight WiFi access. It kind of makes you wonder why WiFi and cell phones are banned on other flights. Just remember that the ban actually originated from the FCC to reduce cellular network clogging and was then adopted by the FAA which expanded the ban to other broadcasting devices.

Sony announced the PSP 3000 with several minor enhancements. The most significant is probably the built-in microphone. While it doesn't appear that Sony wants to turn the PSP into a phone, the primary use of the mic will indeed be to support Skype and other VoIP services using it's WiFi capabilities.

Lastly, in light of all the iPhone issues, the first "gPhone" utilizing Google's Android operating system has been announced. T-Mobile will take pre-orders for the HTC Dream with Android (aka G1) in September with the phone to be delivered in October. Upgrade prices for existing customers (such as myself) and data plans sound pretty reasonable.
Posted 08/21/2008 11:13 PM in Games, Geek Stuff, Travel
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United Air Lines
It's been really interesting to observe the waiting lines at United. It was pointed out to me by a director and other people have noticed it as well. For whatever reason, the passengers who fly United are especially bad at lining up early and crowding the lines regardless of whether their boarding group is up. It happens on others but not to the extent I've seen at United.

10-15 minutes before boarding, United announces that they will start boarding in 10-15 minutes. They also display this on their status screens. At that moment people start crowding the gate. I don't get it. I'd much rather sit and relax while I wait for my group number to be called than stand with my bags for 15 minutes, especially if it won't let me board any faster.

The result of all this crowding is that people who cannot board invariably block the people who can board, making the boarding experience that much more inefficient and annoying, especially now that I've earned elite status and have to weave through all the people that have bunched up.
Posted 08/19/2008 10:14 PM in Travel
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No Reservations
I'm trying to make reservations for dinner when I'm passing through London on my way to and from my family's Mediterranean cruise. First on the list is Le Manoir aux Quat'Saison (2 Michelin stars) by Raymond Blanc, a celebrity Chef in the UK and host of Last Restaurant Standing (simply The Restaurant in the UK). Alas, Le Manoir has no reservations available because they reserve ALL seats for guest residents at Le Manoir hotel. I'm on the waiting list and at the mercy of whether a resident decides to cancel.

The second restaurant is Restaurant Gordon Ramsay (3 Michelin stars). Apparently, only three chefs currently have three Michelin stars in the UK. Per instructions, I called exactly 2 months ahead of the date and at 2:00PM UK time, the only slot left was at 10:00pm. Like many fine dining restaurants, they require a credit card to secure the reservation. The no-show fee is a whopping 150GBP ($280) instead of the standard $50 around Chicago.

My next task is to decide where to eat lunch, perhaps a famous London Fish and Chips establishment. I also need to figure out what to do about Le Manoir which is in Oxford. If I cannot get a reservation there, then that affects my hotel options. Perhaps I will go to another Ramsay restaurant such as Pétrus (two stars), Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's (one star), Maze (one star). If I'm not in the mood for a Michelin rated restaurant, perhaps I'll check out the slightly relaxed Boxwood Cafe or just drop by Plane Food at London Heathrow Airport Terminal 5 to see if I there's such a thing as decent airport food.

BTW, here are a couple handy links. To quickly determine exchange rates I usually use x-rates.com. And for calling internationally, I discovered this International Dialing Code at timeanddate.com which also provides many other international planning tools such as times and dates (obviously).
Posted 08/16/2008 11:03 PM in Food, Restaurants, Travel, United Kingdom
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Hartford Redemption?
I've started searching for more local eateries in Hartford based on Chow Hound suggestions.

The interesting thing is that some of the places I dislike so far received good reviews and recommendations. I feel like these people may be saying "this is a great restaurant... for Hartford." I suppose in comparison to what Hartford used to have they are good, but I don't think that being in Hartford is an excuse for not-so-good food so I remain skeptical in general.

But aside from that, I've found that there is actually a very large ethnic representation. There seem to be some more adventurous eaters on my new project in Hartford so I'm hoping that we'll be able to try some interesting places.
Posted 08/07/2008 11:22 PM in Food, Hartford, Travel
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Airline Baggage Woes
The carry-on bag situation continues to deteriorate as more airlines are starting to charge more for checked baggage. With some airlines now charging for even a single checked bag, more and more people are trying to carry their bags on and trying to carry on fuller and larger bags. On this morning's flight the overhead bins filled up before boarding group 2 was completed. The number of people attempting to rearrange bags in futility was much larger than normal and I fear it will only get worse.

The only consolation is that United saw that I was flying almost every week and gave me a "trial" upgrade to elite status which works out to receiving elite status about a month earlier than expected. Of course that means that I'm exempt from some of the new baggage fees, I get to board with group one and I have access to Economy Plus seating. That's a good thing since it looks like I'll be stuck on United for quite a while...
Posted 08/04/2008 08:09 PM in Travel
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New is the new Old
Some time in the last month, my 2007 Forester XT passed my 2004 WRX STi in mileage. In 15 months I have put 14,000 miles on my FXT, 10,000 of which was done in the first 6 months when I was commuting to Bensenville. My STi has just under 14,000 miles after 4.5 years. That's one reason I prefer travelling for work: less wear and tear and gas for my cars when I'm not here.
Posted 07/20/2008 10:58 PM in Cars, Travel
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CLEARing Airport Security
Since I've been talking about airport security, I suppose it's about time to talk about the CLEAR Card. It's a TSA approved traveler registration program that requires personal information, biometric information (fingerprint and retina scan) and a $128 annual fee. Currently it allows customers to speed through security primarily by skipping the security line, which isn't that different from elite airline membership levels. However, they are working to introduce lanes with special equipment to expedite the scanning process as well. There are also promotions such as a free introductory membership for Hyatt Gold Passport members at the Platinum or Diamond level or 1,000 bonus miles for Delta SkyMiles members.

The CLEAR program was been piloted and rolled out primarily on the east coast but they have been expanding ever since. There are currently 20 participating airports across the US, though some will not be active until later this year. Some airports only support itin specific terminals or at specific times but from those willing to give up personal information, CLEAR has received good reviews.

The one bummer is that no Chicago airport has decided to implement the program yet otherwise I would consider signing up. Here are a couple articles about it: OhMyGov.com | Road & Travel
Posted 06/28/2008 10:36 PM in Ramblings, Travel
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Security System?
A couple weeks ago I was standing in the security line in Hartford. The guy in front of me had a small pouch on a coiled cable dangling out of his shoulder bag. I mentioned it to him and he assured me that it was "part of [his] system." I watched him as he went through the security screening and came to the conclusion that his system sucks.

I know different people have different systems for getting through security but as the saying goes, the proof is in the pudding. If your system does not speed you through security, then it doesn't work.

The number one thing I notice is that everyone stands in line at security and shuffles along. When they finally get to the screening area, that's when they start preparing for security. Then they complain about wasting time in line. To me, it is obvious that the time spent waiting in line can easily be used to streamline the process. After 687,000 miles of traveling, here is the system I use to zip through security:
  • Check-in on-line whenever possible, otherwise check-in and check any bags as needed.
  • As I walk into the terminal or while checking in, I remove all metallic items (keys, phone, watch) and place them in my backpack or luggage. This way I can retrieve them at my leisure instead of using an additional bowl that I have to watch and scramble to collect.
  • As I wait to have my ID checked, I get out my ID and my boarding pass.
  • After having my ID checked, I return it to my wallet or bag and keep my boarding pass out.
  • While waiting for screening I untie and loosen my shoes and remove my laptop from my backpack. If I have liquids (in a clear zip top bag of course), I remove those as well.
  • When I arrive at the screening area, I take a single tray and put my laptop and liquids in it. I remove my shoes and place them directly on the conveyor belt first. Then I send through my backpack, the laptop tray, and any luggage in that order.
  • Keeping my boarding pass, I walk through the metal detector.
  • When my shoes come out, I place them on the ground and step into them.
  • When my bag comes out I unzip it.
  • When my laptop comes out, I drop it into my bag, zip it up and sling it over my shoulder.
  • When my luggage comes out, I grab it and walk out of the security area, passing 2-3 people who are still trying to gather their items
  • When I get to a clearing, I stop to tie my shoes.
  • When I get to my gate, I remove my keys, watch and phone from my bag and am back to normal.

Posted 06/23/2008 07:04 PM in Ramblings, Travel
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Hawaii Wrap Up
Finally got the last day done!
Sunday, May 11
More pictures and detailed reviews available here

Chopsticks of Pleasure 55519 Kuhio Hwy
Hanalei, HI 96714
Rating: Chopsticks of Pleasure
A bit of a hole, but the local food is great.
Chopsticks of Pleasure Poipu Shopping Village
2360 Kiahuna Plantation Dr.
Koloa, HI 96756
Rating: Chopsticks of Pleasure
Tasty, tropical and unique local spin on hotdogs
Chopsticks of Pleasure Mile 23
Kaumualii Highway
Waimea, HI 96796
Rating: Chopsticks of Pleasure
Rated the best in Kauai, their ice was so finely shaved it was like snow and their flavor and topping selection was excellent.
Chopsticks of Pleasure Kukui Grove Center
3-2600 Kaumualii Highway
Lihue, Kauai, HI 96766
Rating: Chopsticks of Pleasure
Pretty typical sushi train, good if you want to grab some quick sushi.

Posted 06/02/2008 07:05 AM in Food, Hawaii, Pictures, Restaurants, Reviews, Travel
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Americana Express
Recently, I've been taking a taxi to the airport instead of driving and parking. It's nicer because I can sleep on the trip and not have to ride the annoying O'Hare tram and sit in the cold while my car warms up. It's a bit more expensive, but since I pre-arrange the taxi, it's still a lot cheaper than grabbing a taxi at the airport where they get to charge meter-and-a-half for the burbs.

The tricky part has been finding a reliable taxi company. One around here is Taxi Mex but their cars are pretty run down and prefer me to use cash instead of credit card. But then I found one called Americana Express that has several Lincoln Towncars instead of your standard run down taxis. I gave them a call and was surprised to find the dispatcher had some sort of an Asian accent.

When the cab finally showed up, I found out that my cab driver was Korean. After a few more trips, I found that the entire driving staff is Korean, some who don't even speak English very well. But whatever, they seem to be pretty reliable so I've been sticking with them.

My one complaint is some of the drivers. The guy I get most often is pretty good, but every once in a while I'll get one of two that is really bad. First is the older guy who drives in the left lane going 60 and brakes hard when he sees brake lights, even if they're a quarter mile away. He also gets on the gas hard, resulting in a jerky ride that you just know is pissing everyone else off.

Then there's the younger guy who also brakes really early and hard and hits the gas hard too. But he's not as bad about it. What he is bad at, however, is staying in his lane. Even if another car is next to him he may still drift onto the line. He constantly goes from the left side of the lane to the right side and back. It had me wondering if maybe the steering on his minivan was a bit loose so the car would drift without his input. I dunno...
Posted 02/03/2008 02:58 AM in Ramblings, Travel
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Yes, you can drive through 18 inches of water.
Last night we had a little adventure on the way to P.F. Chang's for dinner. It was pouring down rain like crazy when we left and in addition to the poor condition of the Detroit roads, they also have an extremely poor water drainage system (most cities have separate water drainage and raw sewage systems, but Chicago doesn't. I wonder about Detroit...). Detroit's roads, in many cases, didn't seem to have drains at all! I saw one drain that was working and one drain what was flooding and otherwise there were 4-6 inch deep puddles all over the roads AND on the interstates! Talk about ghetto.

But here was our adventure. Driving down E Grand heading toward I-75, we noticed an aweful lot of people turning toward the I-75 entrance, then stopping, reversing out and driving away. Some of these were compacts, which was understandable, but we also saw a large number of SUVs stopping and reversing. There were four of us in the Subaru Outback and since we had all-wheel drive, we decided to take a better look. There was a good 40-50 foot diameter lake in the middle of the street under a bridge so there was no shoulder. The three passengers and I unanimously agreed that we could make it. I started driving in, but once we got in about 15 feet, I lost my nerve and slammed on the brakes (a rather poor judgement since it made the front dip deeper in the water) and started reversing back.

The guy sitting next to me was like "What the he** are you doing? Just go!" We sat in front of the lake for a minute trying to decide what to do. At about 15 feet into the lake the water had reached our headlights making it about 18 inches deep, and yet no water had seeped into the doors. One guy and I were skeptical about whether we could make it, one guy was pretty quiet and one guy was like "Dude, you can make it!"

I reversed out a little more and decided to build up some momentum and go for it. We hit the water going about 20 and made some huge waves. The car slowed down quite a bit but kept going until the water was over our headlights and starting to wash up on the hood a little, meaning the water was approximately 2 feet deep. By this time a van and sedan had pulled up to the water and were watching us to see what would happen. Well, we made it without incident. Not a drop of water seeped in through the doors and the engine didn't struggle at all.

Yeah, yeah, I'm sure someone's going to tell me how dumb that was and how some guy driving through the water in Chesterfield got his car swept into the creek where he drowned, but my co-workers assured me that there was no river or creek nearby. Worst case scenario would be that we'd get stranded in the middle and get wet and perhaps lose our laptops if the water got into the trunk. But otherwise, it was a rental car and we had our cell phones in case we needed to call for help. To be honest, I'm amazed that the engine didn't get water-logged at that depth since water was surely in the engine compartment. It was probably good that I had a full car because it gave us more weight to anchor us to the ground. It was quite an adventure and the van waiting for us decided to follow us after seeing our success. The sedan, however, with it's low clearance and engine wisely chose not to.
Posted 06/27/2002 08:38 AM in Cars, Travel
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