Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

As the wife and I wandered around in London this past May, we stumbled across Kew Gardens which is a botanical gardens located in the western part of London around 11 miles from where we were staying. We had to take a couple of trains to get there. Most of the sights that the average visitor sees in London are concentrated within a 2 mile radius of the center of London, extending out from the UK Parliament building. But Kew Gardens is not close to that, it takes a little effort to get there. It’s also not one of the places that all the guidebooks tell you to go.

I used to live in England for 18 months, (technically 15 since I spent 3 months traveling around the world and wasn’t in the country) and I had been to London several times (I didn’t live there, I lived in a town about 90 miles west). But I had never heard of Kew Gardens.

We don’t normally visit botanical gardens, so we figured we check this one out.

I was amazed by it. There are lots and lots of little exhibits and greenhouses within it, including one where they grow a bunch of tropical plants despite it being the middle of London – a city not known for its tropical weather, or even nice weather. I thought that was cool.

But the place that blew me away was a little museum house that housed the paintings of a woman/philanthropist that traveled the world in the 19th century, taking pictures of all the places she had been to – The Marianne North Gallery. And, she had been to a lot.

Marianne North created a lot of paintings. According to the website, she did 883. I took a few pictures of some of the various walls.

I was so impressed by Kew Gardens and this museum that every time I hear that friends are going to London, I tell them to check this place out. I don’t think anyone ever does, but that doesn’t stop me from recommending it. It’s cheap to get in, and it’s not that busy.


In the picture above, you can see all the paintings by Marianne North on one of the walls; each wall had more paintings, and the building has several rooms. You can even go upstairs and look around the top.

The walls are divided into areas of the world, you can see in the picture above that they are divided into Singapore and Japan.


There’s also a lot of paintings of plants, like flowers, herbs, and trees. So many of them are native to the part of the world she visited.


I don’t remember what’s going on here, so I assume that this is the wife’s favorite picture.


Finally, I took a picture against a mosque, but I don’t know what country it’s from. However, it reminds me of the Blue Mosque in Turkey so that’s why I took the photo.

I remember thinking that North’s life work will live on decades and centuries after she has passed on. I then thought to myself that I don’t have anything similar. Sure, I’m fighting spam and malware, but that’s more of a treadmill than something that lasts and which others can admire long after I am gone.

I’m not always this impressed with the places I visit. For sure, I enjoy so much of what I go see – museums, theaters, restaurants, botanical gardens, even mountainous locations. However, what I like is the sense of wonder I get from going to out-of-the-way places that I had no idea even existed, and seeing that there is so much work put into it. I love having my expectations shattered.

That’s one of the best things about traveling.

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Over the past several years, whenever the wife and I have traveled, we’ve mostly stayed in AirBNB’s rather than staying in a hotel. I’ve even used this tactic when I travel (alone) for work in that I sometimes stay (by myself) in an AirBNB rather than a hotel where the conference is taking place. I’ve done this in San Francisco and in Philadelphia.

Yet this year, we’ve discovered that staying in a hotel is not so bad. There are advantages both ways.

For AirBNB:

  • It costs less, which is especially important if you are footing the bill
  • It’s a more authentic experience
  • You can sometimes get more stuff, that is, the host will give you travel tips and brochures

But there are drawbacks:

  • Sometimes you only get a single room in a house where the owner also lives
  • The facilities are sometimes underwhelming (lack of amenities like toilet paper, paper towels, etc.)
  • The location may be quite noisy

The wife always used to eschew hotels, but this year we stayed in one on four separate occasions – in Sonoma, CA in February; in London, England in May; and in New York, NY in September; and in Toronto, Canada in October.

The wife enjoyed the first one because there was a lot of on-site facilities like a spa and she had a free pass to go in and enjoy it. In the second one, it was a last-minute booking (we did it from the airport in London) and it was a nice location. It was in downtown London,  was a good location since it was close to everything, and had nice facilities. The wife keeps asking me “When are we going to stay in a fancy hotel again?”

In both cases, the cost of the hotel was either covered by another company, or by credit card points.

But what we both notice is that we like staying at slightly nicer places. We’ve stayed in lesser-quality places before and while that was fine in the past, we don’t care for it so much anymore. They are too noisy, or too hot, or not that clean, etc. I can put up with it for a while so long as I have free wifi and the place is not cold.

I didn’t think I would get pickier as I got older… yet, here I am.

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As I’ve posted before, this past September the wife and I went to New York City where I was invited to participate in a customer panel (that is, the company I work for is a customer of another company, so they flew a bunch of representatives down to NYC for a couple of days). This was right before we went to Toronto for another conference I attended for work.

For many years, I had heard about New York pizza. I was never sure why it was such a big deal. What differentiated it from normal pizza? Sure, I could have Google/Binged it, but I never did. I don’t eat that much pizza anyhow, so it never was a burning issue for me.

But while I was in New York, I had my first New-York-pizza experience (I had pizza in New York in 2007, but I don’t think it was what’s normally thought-of as New York pizza). What makes it so special? Well, assuming what I ate for lunch was representative of New York pizza and not just some particular restaurant’s style:

  • First, the crust is much thicker. Like, a half-inch thick. Most pizza you get from the store or order from a pizza place (Domino’s, Pizza Hut) is thinner that New York pizza. I had a piece of it that was a regular size, and I was basically full (I ate a 1/2 piece more). It was an ordeal eating the slice of pizza, it was so thick.
  • Second, it was way saucier than a normal pizza. I had to eat it with a fork and knife, it was so saucy and rich.

It’s really not similar to any pizza I normally eat. I’ve had Domino’s or Pizza Hut that people have ordered in; I’ve cooked frozen pizza I’ve gotten from Trader Joe’s; I’ve had cook-at-home pizza that people gotten from Papa John’s; I’ve gone to restaurants after hiking with the wife and ordered pizza. Not a single one of them was similar to New York pizza.

I don’t know that I would want all pizza I ordered to be like New York pizza, it’s just too rich for me.

But I sure am glad I tried it.


The picture above I got from Google, and would be an example of a thin-crust version of what I had.

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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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