Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

The eclipse this past summer

As I alluded to in another blog post, the wife and I were down in Hood River, Oregon this past summer. We went down for a wedding on Mt Hood, but this just so happened to coincide with the total eclipse that occurred this year.

Originally, the wife and I were just going to watch it from the place we were staying because it was reasonably close to the zone of totality, and we didn’t want to fight traffic. But I suggested “Look, we’re right here. We’re only an hour away from the zone, and we’re probably going to hiking later on anyway. So why not drive south as far as we can until we get to the zone, and then pull over wherever we can and watch the eclipse?”

And that became the plan. We got in the car in the morning and started driving south, planning to get into the zone of totality and then pulling over to the side of the road. To our surprise, there was basically no traffic. We had heard that there were major traffic problems, but not for us.

I kept track on a map of where we were, and checked NASA’s webpage to see where the zone started. I roughly knew where we had to get to, and when we crossed the zone we found a lake with a whole bunch of others who were similarly there to watch the eclipse.


We parked in the parking lot with everyone else next to the lake, got out our lawn chairs, and looked up in the sky.

With our dark glasses, of course.


The above picture was taken about 30 minutes before the total eclipse, when the moon was about 98% covering the sun. I had always thought that it would get super-dark when the sun was almost covered, but it wasn’t. In the picture, it looks like it’s still the middle of the day. In fact, it never did get super dark.

The next picture is when the eclipse was about 20 minutes away, at 99% coverage. As you can see, it looks like dusk.


Finally, we came to the moment everyone had been waiting for, 100% total eclipse! It never got completely dark, although it was cold.

We were in the zone of totality but not the middle of the zone, so for us the total eclipse lasted around 30 seconds. I had enough time to take off my solar glasses, take this picture, tweet about it, and then it was over.


We waited around for another 15 minutes as some of the other cars cleared out, it began to warm back up, and then we left to do a day hike.

And that’s the story of the time we saw the total eclipse in Oregon.



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Hiking Haleakalā

I haven’t really written that much about it so far, but this past January the wife and I visited the island of Maui in Hawaii.

I had last been to Hawaii in 1995, so 22 years had elapsed between visits (closer to 21 years and 2 months since I went in December 1995, and returned in January 2017).

One of the activities that the wife and I did was go up Haleakalā, which is the tallest mountain on Maui. There’s one road that goes to the top, and it takes about an hour and a half to get up there since the road is fairly narrow and windy. On the way up, you go through multiple climate zones – from lush rainforest at the bottom of Maui, to temperate 2/3 of the way up, to a moonscape at the very top.

The coast of Maui, of course, is at sea level while the top of Haleakalā is at about 10,000 feet. The map below shows you the geography of the island, although obviously there is much more elevation distortion than what you can see on the map. I just couldn’t figure out how to make Google Maps make the elevation even more obvious. The red pin below is the top of the mountain.


To me, Maui looks like a turtle with the head in the northwest, and the body in the southeast. It has two sets of mountains – Haleakalā in the middle of the big part of the island (the turtle’s body) and then a set of mountains in the northwest (in the turtle’s head). Eventually as sea levels rise, the island will split into two, between the head and the body.

The rainiest part of the island is between Haleakalā and the town of Hana on the far east coast, about halfway up. That is, Hana itself is not nearly as rainy as the rainforest that is halfway up to the top of Haleakalā. This is one of rainiest places on earth, getting more than almost anywhere else in the world. You can see above how dark green it is, while the other edges of the island are more beige indicating how comparatively dry it is. It’s because the big mountain prevents rain clouds from getting over it, so to lighten up they have to dump their precipitation.

Anyhow, at the top of Haleakalā, there is a visitor center and you can go for a hike. But it’s cold. And windy. I brought along a winter jacket, and a couple of tuques, because I knew it would not be pleasant weather conditions at the very top.

I decided to take a picture of me at the top. I’ve done a number of hikes but this is the highest I have ever gone hiking. You can see in the picture below I’ve taken refuge out of the cold to take this picture in the visitor center to prove I’m up at ~10,000 feet above sea level.


So what’s the top of the mountain like, besides being cold and windy? Well, we went and January but there was no snow, so I’m assuming that snow at the top is rare. But if you wish, you can go for a hike and that’s what we did.

Now, some people for whatever reason can get altitude sickness. This is a general feeling of having the flu – fatigue, nausea, and headaches. I don’t get altitude sickness (at least, not at this height) but the wife did. We went down about 1500 feet on a hike (about 2-3 miles or so, I can’t remember) but on the way back up the wife took way longer than normal whereas I felt fine. There were other people on the trail as well who were clearly feeling the effects of altitude. I don’t know why I felt okay… but I did.

Anyway, on the way up I took a handful of pictures with my phone, and you can see it looks like what I imagine the surface of Mars looks like – all desert-like. The picture below looks pretty bad because I took three different photos and then tried to reconstruct them by globbing them together, whereas I should have just taken a landscape photo.

Oh, well.

The point is that (a) iPhone cameras are merely okay, and (b) the top of Hawaii looks way different than the bottom.


Believe it or not, the wife is on that long trail downwards. I’m not sure where, but it’s somewhere. Keep in mind that while it looks like a nice, sunny day, I’m wearing a fleece jacket and a pair of tuques to keep my noggin from freezing.

On the other hand, this landscape doesn’t look completely different than other places that we’ve hiked. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen this type of geography on other mountains that we’ve climbed in either New Zealand, Patagonia (South America), or even in Oregon or Washington.


The wife didn’t enjoy this hike nearly as much as I did. I kind of liked being at the top of the world (even though it’s still only 1/3 as high as Mt Everest). We eventually made our way back to the car, and headed back down the mountain where the wife felt better (I was fine the whole time).

And that’s the story of the time we went to the top of the highest mountain in Maui.


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Traveling on the cheap(ish)

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how I (and the wife) travel.

Before I met the wife, I did a number of trips:

  1. Italy and Switzerland in 2009
  2. Peru in late 2009
  3. China, Taiwan, South Korea in 2008
  4. Australia and Fiji in 2006
  5. England in 2005

After the wife and I got married in 2011, we did a couple of expensive trips:

  1. New Zealand in 2011
  2. Southeast Asia in early 2012
  3. Argentina and Chile in late 2012

Those three trips were not cheap. We flew regular airfare, stayed in normal hotels (or Vacation Rental by Owner, VRBO), and bought food frequently at restaurants.

Since that time, we’ve done several other trips:

  1. Vienna, Austria and Prague, Czech Republic in 2013
  2. Turkey in 2014
  3. Eastern Europe in 2015
  4. Germany in early 2016
  5. France in late 2016
  6. Hawaii in early 2017

We’ve been much more successful in driving down our costs in the later years than in the earlier years (both when I was single or married).


It’s done through multiple methods.

First, I get to travel for work.

I volunteer to go to conferences, but I also research them and present my bosses with the estimated cost, and the justification for why I should attend. I am also active in the email community so people know me, and they invite me to participate in panels or present at the conference.

When you are asked to present, and if I ask early enough to go, I usually get permission to attend. I understand work’s travel budgeting process, and I really am one of the best people from my team to attend. I bring a lot to the industry, and I bring a lot back.

This means that when me and the wife travel, my flight is covered, and at least part of the food and lodging is, too.

So that reduces part of the cost.

Second, we’ve gotten good at reducing flight costs in other ways.

If you sign up for a credit card, you often get a sign-up bonus of 25,000 to 50,000 (or even 100,000) bonus points once you spend a certain amount within 3 months, which is easy. Sometimes you get a free ticket, or travel companion ticket.

The wife and I have signed up for multiple credit cards over the past couple of years and taken advantage of the airline points (I even flew my sister down on airline points). That also helps to reduce the cost.

It hasn’t affected my credit rating, either. And since I no longer have a mortgage and have no plans to acquire more debt, even if it did I wouldn’t care (unless it meant I couldn’t get another card, but usually it means the interest rate is higher and that’s no problem because I pay in full each month).

That’s another way to reduce the cost of travel.

Third, we don’t stay in hotels most of the time.

For long term trips, nothing racks up your travel costs more than hotel bills. Whereas a flight may be $1000 for a trip to Europe, or $500 domestically, a hotel can run you $200-$250 per day in the United States and Europe. 5 days and you’ve exceeded your flight cost for overseas travel.

To get around this, we now use AirBNB. These are often 1/3 to 1/2 the cost of a hotel. This makes it much easier to slash the cost of your lodging (if you travel to see family, the cost is usually free; but you can’t go see family or friends everywhere you go, and you don’t want to overstay your welcome).

Fourth, the lodging can help reduce the food bill.

Part of the reason traveling is so expensive is that you have to pay for all of your meals, and that costs far more than when you are at home.

To get around this, we again leverage AirBNB. We will stay in places with a kitchen (if long-term) or provide breakfast. If it has a kitchen, we will frequently buy bread, milk, coffee, and fruit so we can eat breakfast in the hotel/AirBNB. Then we also sometimes pack a small lunch, although half the time we eat that are are still hungry by 1 pm.

Still, it reduces the overall cost of food by about 20%.

So there you have it. Using a combination of techniques, we’ve gotten good at international or long-haul domestic trips at keeping costs under control.

I was decent at it before, but we’re really good at it now.

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A few years ago when I was learning about architecture while we were in Europe, I picked up on various styles – Gothic style, Renaissance style, and Baroque style. I thought I was pretty smart for figuring this stuff out.

But this past year, I realized that I wasn’t entirely correct. Whereas I was right that Gothic is a style of architecture that is older than the others, the buildings in Europe that look Gothic are not always the oldest buildings around, they are neo-Gothic.

What do I mean?

Gothic cathedrals are characterized by tall windows that let lights in from certain angles. The following Gothic window is the remains of a church window in Budapest that was bombed in World War II, notice how long it is.


Here’s another Gothic window in the side of a building in Poland, you can see the building has a high ceiling and a tall window:


That’s the original, older Gothic style.

I would confuse the older style with the newer Gothic style. Below is a picture of Marienplatz in Munich. You can see all the intricate carvings, those are also Gothic:


And the parliament house in Budapest, Hungary is similarly in neo-Gothic style:


When I first saw neo-Gothic architecture, I was blown away because I thought “How could those medieval people have constructed such amazing buildings?”

Well, it’s because they didn’t. They may have started in the middle ages (like the Dom Cathedral in Cologne, Germany) but they didn’t finish then. Instead, during the mid-to-late 1800’s, Europe went through its Romantic period, a counter-movement to the Enlightenment that preceded it.

The Romantic period looked back to the past and romanticized it as better than it actually was. The European elite looked to the middle ages as source of inspiration and built their buildings in middle ages and Gothic style. You don’t see too much fancy carvings in original Gothic but you do on neo-Gothic, and that’s because the architects drew their inspiration from all the old legends and stories (e.g., Aesop’s fables, Grimm’s fairy tells) that did contain fanciful creatures like gargoyles. They also put a lot of fancy carvings and images of saints and political leaders as well.

When I first learned that neo-Gothic buildings were new, I was disappointed. What I thought was super-old was actually recent; instead of 800 years it was “merely” 150-200 years old which sounds less impressive.

But it is still impressive. I like neo-Gothic architecture, so much so that I have a mural of the Charles St Bridge in Prague pained on our dining room wall.

So no, it’s not that old. But it does draw inspiration from the past and it is older than any building in Seattle.

And that’s pretty great, too.

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The other day, I wrote that I had to buy a new hat while here in Germany because my current one wasn’t warm enough for a European spring.

24 hours later, I lost it.

I can’t remember exactly where it was, but the wife and I were coming back from the town of Baden-Baden in southwestern Germany. We had a session at the spa (warm water baths, the non-nude one), caught the bus and then caught the train.

While back in Frankfurt, I started looking for my hat. I checked my pockets, and then my backpack.


I must have lost it somewhere on the bus or something.

Even though I was annoyed I lost it, I wasn’t that upset. For one, it only cost me €3. For another, the hat was kind of small. It hurt my head when I put it on. I tried stretching it out but it wasn’t working. Maybe over time it would have expanded a bit. I don’t know. But it was squeezing my head, giving me a headache.

So… meh.

I ended up buying a new one today while in Rothenburg. Fits much better.

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An optical illusion

The other day the wife and I were traveling in Germany along the Mosel River Valley in western Germany where, in one of the towns, we came across a strange sight.

The following street performers were acting as statues, but they are in a position that is impossible to hold due to gravity. Here it is from two different angles:



As you can see, there’s one guy sitting on the ground and it’s a real person. He’s holding out a ball, and another guy is sit-standing on it. The illusion is that this should be impossible. That’s also a real guy, and it’s his real hand holding the ball… I think.

He’s doing the same thing, holding yet another ball with a third person sitting on that. That ball is definitely his real hand, I could see the fingers moving. The person on top would appear to be a woman. I couldn’t tell for sure, though, I think it’s supposed to look like a woman but I think it’s actually a prop.

I was trying to work out how this worked. My guess is that the lowest ball is a steel support structure that goes to the ground with a platform, and the lower guy is sitting on it to make sure it doesn’t tip. The middle guy is sitting on a chair made of steel and there is a brace which he rests his arm on. The person on top is a prop and is reasonably light.

I like the illusion, it’s hard to see how it works.

A few days later I came across this illusion:


This one I can figure out, I think that the guy is standing on a platform hidden by his clothes on a pole that goes up to his arm, across to the green pole, and counter-balanced by a base on the bottom which is covered by a blanket. The whole apparatus needs to be strong which suggests that it is heavy.

Looks convincing, though.

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The wife and I are currently traveling in Germany. Before we left, I checked the weather. Since this is currently the end of April (late spring), I figured the weather may be cool.

In Seattle, it was warm the day we left, going up to 24⁰ C. By contrast, the city in Germany we were going to – Cologne – was only going to be around 12-14⁰ C. Less warm, but not so bad. The forecast was less accurate as time passed, but it seemed to be dropping.

Well, we got to Cologne and it was colder. It warmed up during the week but towards the end it started cooling down.

We left Cologne and headed to the Rhine Valley and Mosel Valley in southwest Germany where it got even colder. Below’s a picture of me overlooking one of the castle. I’m wearing all of my warm clothes but I’m still a little uncomfortable.


Today, we headed to Frankfurt and while walking around town, it was really cold, windy, and rainy. I threw in the towel and bought another toque. The one in the picture is too thin (I lost my thicker one shortly before we left and didn’t have time to replace it).

I was prepared for cold weather. I brought a rain jacket, a heavier(ish) jacket, gloves, and a hat for my head. I also dress up in layers (I’m wearing four on my upper body in the picture). But the fact that didn’t have a warmer hat came back to haunt me. I figured that since it was later into spring I may be able to get away with it, but I was wrong.

I tested out my warmer hat today. It worked. But I hope that today is not the last day I need it.

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