Thursday, February 08, 2018

World tour: Bulgaria & Hungary

After Jerusalem, our next stop was Sofia, Bulgaria.  I had been looking forward to this stop because it would be my first extended visit to the Eastern Bloc since serving as a missionary in the former East Germany.  After all the warm temperatures around the Mediterranean, we were also excited for some cold weather.  Bulgaria did not disappoint.  The mountains around the city were beautiful and covered in snow.  Sofia has some huge, forested city parks which were great for walking on cold days.  Despite the cold, Haven insisted on doing laundry in shorts and bare feet:

And of course, the cold didn't prevent our customary visits to every nearby playground:

I loved it in Bulgaria.  The scenery was beautiful, the people were helpful when asked but mostly kept to themselves, everything cost half of what it does in America.  It was also fun to practice the Cyrillic alphabet.  There were no tourists anywhere and the whole country had a quiet, modest and unassuming feel.  I would definitely go back.

Oh, we also did our first escape room as a family.  Copyright laws don't seem to be enforced much in this part of the world, so ours had an Indiana Jones theme.  Honestly, it was more entertaining than the last film approved by Lucasfilm.  Fan fiction for the win.

As we left Bulgaria to fly to Hungary, we got held up at passport control.  The passport agent didn't believe that we had five children and insisted that Kinsey was too young to be their mother.  She kept checking Kinsey's birth date against the children's birth dates and asking the children how old they were.  She was friendly about the whole thing, just being cautious about child trafficking I suppose.

I don't have much to say about Budapest.  It was a busy, modern European city.  It had some cool, old buildings and the Danube was pretty.  It also has the best public transit I've ever seen: clean, fast, frequent trains, always on-time.  Budapest also has a really good model train museum: Miniversum.  The Parliament building was also nice:

Some random observations from our trip so far:

First, we've used six different ride-hailing apps in nine different countries.  Uber works in some but not in others.  Each country has its own app for connecting with the local taxi network.  This industry is ripe for consolidation.  Someday, someone will come along, buy up all the little guys, polish up the experience and make lots of money.  TaxiMe in Bulgaria was one of my favorite ride-hailing apps.  They implement surge pricing through a real time auction.  If you request a ride and don't get a cab, you can place a bid higher the standard fare to lure a taxi.  All passengers in the vicinity are bidding against each other to win a taxi's attention.  It was basically a double auction with TaxiMe acting as auctioneer and it was fun.  I found myself wishing the taxis were busy so I could play the "game".

Second, American credit card companies can be overzealous with anti-fraud measures when traveling in the Middle East or Eastern Europe.  We rarely have trouble paying in-person with a chip card, but are almost always refused when paying online.  On several occasions, I've had to route my Internet traffic through one of my US servers to circumvent the anti-fraud measures so that I can complete a transaction.  So their "security" is not very secure, but it does restrict foreign credit card transactions to only the tech-savvy.  Having a small wad of local cash has proven helpful in many instances.  Card companies give better exchange rates, but cash is handy as backup.

Next stop: Morocco

Saturday, January 13, 2018

World tour: Levant

After leaving Athens, our world tour continued in the Levant: a brief stop in Beirut followed by two weeks each in Jordan and Israel.  A couple months ago, we happened to be in Spain during Catalan independence.  This time we were in the Levant just as the US recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital.  It made the politics of the region especially obvious.

Here's Jericho on the terrace of the BYU Jerusalem Center describing some of Jerusalem's history. The Dome of the Rock is in the background.

Anyway, our flight from Athens to Amman was on Middle East Airlines through its main hub in Beirut.  We only spent 4 hours in the airport in Lebanon, but it was a fun introduction to the region.  There were European tourists wearing jeans and sweats, Lebanese business men wearing Italian suits, and Saudi women wearing abaya with niqab.  Signs were in Arabic or French with very little English and numbers all used the eastern Arabic system: ٠١٢٣٤٥٦٧٨٩.  Fortunately, the airport gates were all labeled with western Arabic numerals so we knew where to go.  The gate signs also served as a Rosetta stone so we could decipher eastern Arabic numbers.

Our flight path from Beirut to Amman is a good example of how this region's politics impact people's daily lives.  The distance from Beirut to Amman is only about 130 miles, as the crow flies.  Israel won't allow Lebanese planes to fly through their airspace.  Syria is in the middle of a civil war so they can't fly over Damascus either.  Instead, our flight flew over the Mediterranean to Tripoli then east through the mountains and deserts of Syria to cross Jordan's border.  Then they can fly freely into Amman.  On the positive side, the circuitous route gave us time to eat our in-flight meal:

I really liked Jordan.  It's only the second place on our trip so far to which I hope to return someday (Iceland being the other).  After arriving at the airport, we got a taxi to our apartment.  The driver of the small taxi assured us that all seven of us and our luggage could fit into his little taxi.  We managed to squish together with me in the front passenger seat and the other six of us on laps in the back seat.  As we got under way, the driver made known in very broken English and with a broad smile that if the police saw us, he would get in trouble so he expected us to pay the fare of two taxis instead of just one.  I smiled at his bargaining and assured him that we'd pay him a reasonable fare.  When we got to the apartment, I paid him what I had budgeted for the trip and he accepted with another big smile.  It was only about $40 and about half what we'd paid for two airport taxis in other countries but roughly double what he expected.

For the rest of our stay in Amman, we used Uber.  It's illegal in Jordan (driver subject to $200 fine and loses his car for two weeks), but in practice nobody seems to care.  Uber can get you almost anywhere in the city for $3.  The police almost caught us riding an Uber from the mall one day, but the driver had lived in Los Angeles and told the officer that we were his American friends.  He spent the rest of the trip telling me how much he liked America and how he hoped to return.  I assured him that we'd love to have him in our country again.

Bedouin are still prominent in Jordan.  For example, every morning a Bedouin man brought his sheep and goats to graze in the field across the street from our apartment.
Nearby restaurants would dump old bread into the field during the night and his sheep and goats would eat it the next morning.  When they were done, he'd move them elsewhere in the city to graze. Throughout the city, there are Bedouin living in tents and herding goats right next to luxury apartment buildings and shopping malls.

We visited Petra, which is really amazing.  The whole area looks like the red rocks of southern Utah, but the rocks are carved into buildings and decorative caves.

We planned to see more of Jordan, but half of us got colds and sore throats so we had to lay low for most of a week.  This is the first real illness we've had on the trip, which is great.

A few more random observations about Jordan:  The large shopping centers all have metal detectors as you walk in. There is always a male and a female security guard working together.  Male guests work with the male guard and female guests work with the female guard.  Jordan is a very modern and western feeling country, but you can clearly see the deference to Muslim modesty throughout the culture.  I loved hearing the Adhan (call to prayer) five times each day.  It was even played inside the grocery store so that everyone could hear it.  I expected people to drop everything and go pray, but they didn't.  Islam gives substantial leeway in when the prayers are performed so most people finish what they're doing and then go somewhere private to pray.  The large shopping centers all have dedicated prayer rooms so that guests don't have to leave the building to pray.  Oh, and spices, lots and lots of spices:

Jordan's pharmacy system is also really nice.  Pretty much everything is available without a prescription.  After being away from the States for three months, we'd run out of certain medications.  We tried to restock in Spain, Italy and Greece but they all required a prescription.  The Jordanian pharmacy gladly sold us what we asked for without questions.  The people in Jordan are also exceptionally hospitable.  When we arrived at our apartment, the landlord offered to walk 2-3 blocks with me to help me purchase a SIM card so one of our phones would work.  When I asked one driver if there was anywhere nearby to buy some lunch for the kids, he drove to an amazing schawarma restaurant, accompanied me inside, made some menu recommendations, translated for me as I ordered and walked me through the process of picking up the food from elsewhere in the restaurant.  The whole country was like this.  Most people spoke some English, but the ones who didn't all knew how to say "Welcome to Jordan".  About 30% of the country's population is refugees from elsewhere: Palestine, Iraq, Syria.  Welcoming people is a deep part of their culture.  They also like American movies.  We watched Star Wars: The Last Jedi in a beautiful theater in Amman.  The theater had assigned seats, like at an NFL game and Arabic subtitles, unlike an NFL game.

Depending on who you ask, Jordan has the second or third fewest water resources per capita of any country on earth.  In Amman, the water pipes are turned on once each week.  Each apartment has large water tanks on the roof which they fill up when the pipes turn on.  Not being familiar with the scarcity, we accidentally used up all our water 24 hours before the next delivery.  Our landlord graciously moved some water from another apartment in the building to help us out.  If there hadn't been water available in the building, you can hire private water trucks which can refill your tanks at market prices.  Quick economic tangent: as with most resource scarcities, the water scarcity in Jordan is caused by restrictions on the price system.  Water provided by the city costs 1/25 of the market price as charged by private delivery trucks.  The delivery trucks never run out of water, only the city.

Anyway, enough about Jordan.  From Amman we crossed the King Hussein Bridge into Israel.  The process usually takes about 4 hours.  We got there in time for the first bus of the day and there weren't many tourists so we crossed in only 2 hours (for a 3 mile drive; thanks politics).  The Jordanian side of the transfer was relaxed and disorganized.  The Israeli side was organized and strict.  Both sides were friendly.

In Jerusalem, we visited Yad Vashem (a Holocaust musem), the Garden of Gethsemane (pictured above), Mount of Olives and the Old City.  The holy sites are so crowded and touristy that I can't really recommend them.  Some people have a really spiritual experience in these places, but they weren't for me.  Walking around the Old City was cool though.  It was fun to see all the Bar Mitzvah celebrants walking through the city gates.  Gideon found a paper map of the Old City in our apartment, so he guided us during our explorations:

The Old City also has some nice squares and quiet little corners where you can just enjoy the ambiance:

Unlike Jordan, everything in Israel is really expensive.  Food and taxis are almost 10x more expensive on the Israeli side of the border.  It's no worse than New York City or Boston, but it was a bit of a shock after Jordan.  Random tidbit: burger joints in Jerusalem don't sell cheeseburgers because Orthodox Jews don't eat meat and dairy together.

My favorite thing about Israel is probably Hebrew.  I'm kind of a language nerd, so Hebrew was really fun.  Prior to the mid 1800s, Hebrew was pretty much a dead language.  It was only used for Jewish liturgy and spiritual purposes, but had no native speakers or use in modern life.  Now it's spoken natively by millions of people and the primary language of commerce throughout Israel.  Hebrew is the only example of a natural language being resurrected from the dead like that.  It was cool to drive through Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and see the scale of the success of that linguistic experiment.  Since the country favors Hebrew so strongly, there was almost no signage in English.

Both Israel and Jordan have substantial restrictions on the free practice of religion.  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has church units in both countries, but they mostly accommodate foreigners (State Department employees, students, etc).  Most locals are prohibited from participating, so meetings are done in English instead of the local language.  Amman has an Arabic branch since Jordanian Christians are allowed to convert to a religion of their choice.  Between Athens, Amman and Jerusalem, we had five consecutive weeks where we understood what people were saying to us at church.  In Jordan, our church meetings were on Friday (out of respect for the Muslim holy day) and in Israel they were on Saturday (ditto for Jewish shabbat).

It's also been interesting to see the extent to which English has become the world's lingua franca.  Our flight from Tel Aviv to Sofia had a Hungarian crew with mostly Israeli and Bulgarian passengers, but everyone on board was communicating in English.  It's more true than ever, "the world is flat."

Next stop: Bulgaria and Hungary.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Review of Gett XL in Israel

I recently visited Jerusalem and Tel Aviv with my wife and five children.  Since we couldn't all fit in a single taxi, we wanted a large van to take us from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv and then later from our apartment in Tel Aviv to Ben Gurion Airport.  We'd had good luck with Gett for calling taxis, so we tried Gett XL to pre-book a van that could hold all of us.  Gett XL worked perfectly for us.

It was really easy to book the van through Gett's Android app.  We entered the pick-up time and location and the desired destination.  Gett instantly quoted us a price and sent an SMS confirmation after we scheduled.  About 30 minutes before the van was scheduled to pick us up, we received another SMS with the driver's contact information.  About 5 minutes before the scheduled pick-up, the driver pulled up in front of our house.  We received a notification through Gett that he had arrived.

The vans were clean, comfortable and spacious.  The drivers were polite and helpful and drove patiently through traffic.  If you need to hire a large van in Israel, I definitely recommend Gett XL.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

World tour: Marseilles, Italy, Athens

After leaving Spain, we spent ten days in Marseilles, France.  Since we live in apartments in most cities, we frequent nearby parks where the younger boys can burn off some steam.  Their favorite playground in Marseilles (in Parc Borely) had a small, car-themed roller coaster for kids.  I don't know which they enjoyed more: the roller coaster or riding the subway to get there.

On the first night in a new city, I usually walk around the neighborhood trying to find groceries for breakfast for the next day. In Marseilles the closest store was a Turkish grocer with plenty of dried fish heads and exotic olives. Fortunately for the children, they also carried peanut butter. That's a rare treat in Europe so I stocked up and we ate it with our baguettes for a few days.  On the way home from the Turkish grocery, I happened across a cathedral with its stained glass windows all lit up.  These kinds of random encounters are some of my favorite parts of an unplanned, spontaneous trip.

Most places in Europe have a surprisingly familiar feel. They're not much different than big cities in the States.  Aside from the local language, it's often small differences that seem most memorable.  For instance, sliced bread in Marseilles (and Athens too) has no heels.  They're removed at the factory.  At church on Sunday, everyone kisses hello instead of shaking hands: one kiss on the left cheek, then one on the right.  This was the custom throughout Italy too. Alcohol is used more freely as an ingredient without any obvious labeling.  So far, we've accidentally purchased alcohol while trying to buy pop, birthday cake and candy.

After Marseilles, we spent ten days each in Genoa, Florence and Rome.  Our house in Genoa was above a bakery and a pizza restaurant so it always smelled delicious.  Because Genoa is so hilly, they have public elevators that serve the same purpose as public buses but bring you from one part of town to another by traveling vertically.  The hills also make for some nice views of the city:

Florence had some great statues and architecture.  It also had many more tourists than our previous destinations.  As we walked through the city, we heard more English and Chinese than we heard Italian.  Since we're all early risers, we visited most sites as soon as they opened and before most tourists were awake.  That worked great.  When we arrived at Galleria dell'Accademia to see Michelangelo's David, we were the only ones in the room.  By the time we left, the place was packed.

We also celebrated Thanksgiving in Florence.  We couldn't find turkey or pie, but rotisserie chicken, dates, figs and cookies were delicious:

The age of things in Europe is always surprising for an American. For example, our house in Florence was constructed in 1470.  It's been around longer than Europeans have known about our continent.  I've also been impressed with the kindness of people throughout Italy.  For example, on our second Sunday in Florence, it rained on us the entire time we walked to church.  When we arrived, our coats were soaked.  The people at church couldn't speak English, but they welcomed us with a smile, helped us out of our wet coats and gave us warm, dry sweatshirts.

Rome is always fun.  I've been there a few times and always enjoy wandering around and seeing random ruins in the middle of the city.  The kids have been really interested in Roman mythology for the last couple years, so it was particularly fun to explore the city with them.  They'd narrate each statute with a full genealogy of the relevant gods and their myths.  We were also in St Peter's Square at the same time that Pope Francis was giving a general audience, so the timing on that worked out great.  Oh, and Roman broccoli is snazzy:

Athens was our last stop on this leg of the journey.  Jericho accidentally left his backpack, with his laptop in the taxi from the airport.  We had no luck recovering it, so my first stop in the city was to find a cheap, used laptop for him to do his school work.  We ate baklava and cheesecake and visited the Acropolis.  Jericho passed the sacrament in the small English-speaking branch of the Church that we attended in Athens.  We also met a family at church that had just moved from Jordan, our next stop, so they gave us some pointers.  All around, it's been a fun month.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

World tour: Spain

We started our time in Spain with a brief stop in Madrid followed by ten days in each of Toledo, Cordoba, Valencia and Barcelona.  We spent about five weeks in Spain altogether, covering all of October.

The stop in Madrid was a logistical detail leftover from Ryanair canceling our flights to Spain.  Our real journey began in Toledo.  When we arrive in a new place, we usually try to walk from the train station to our house so that we can get a feel for the city.  That's not always possible, but it usually works well.  In Toledo, it was a great walk.  The route took us near a couple of ancient bridges into the city, past some great views of the Alcazar on the hill and through a canyon along the Tagus river:

One of our goals for living abroad is for our kids to learn how to navigate through places they're unfamiliar with.  We take turns having each kid lead us to our destination by following signs or maps.  Sometimes we get lost, sometimes we arrive unscathed and we almost always have fun.  Here's Gideon leading the way through Toledo's old city:

One challenge we've noticed with traveling and living abroad is that all seven of us are in tight quarters most of the time.  In Wyoming or Iceland, when you want some private time, you walk into the wilderness, sit on a rock and stare at the clouds.  Elbow room is easy to come by in those geographies.  In the Spanish cities where we traveled, personal space is harder to come by.  Our houses in both Toledo and Cordoba had courtyards where we could be outside while still being walled off from the hustle of the surrounding city.  We instituted a family rule that the courtyards were silent places.  If anyone wanted quiet, they could retire to the courtyard for a little peace.  It's not quite a rock in the prairie, but it got the job done.  In Toledo, Haven also found some peaceful spots along the Tagus:

In Cordoba, our house was a couple blocks away from the Mezquita-Catedral.  This building had been a mosque for almost 500 years during the time that Muslims controlled Spain.  After the Reconquista, it was converted into a Catholic church.  They basically just changed the sign on the door and converted the minaret into a bell tower.  Walking through the church, it looks just like a mosque but with Christian chapels around the outside wall.  It was fascinating.  Anyway, the Cathedral has a large irrigated courtyard planted with orange trees and date palms.  During a morning visit, a branch full of ripe dates fell from a palm tree, so we all ate dates in the shade of the Mezquita.  It's a beautiful place:

In Valencia, our house was near the beach and the city's main port.  We watched container ships come and go while playing in the sand:

Valencia also has a giant playground inspired by Gulliver's time with the Lilliputians.  A giant statue of Gulliver is tied to the ground so that children can climb and slide and jump all over him.  It's hard to communicate the scale of the playground, but here's a picture of all five children scattered along Gulliver's left leg:

The timing worked out great to travel through Spain during the Catalan referendum on independence.  We were in Toledo on the day of the vote and in Barcelona when the Catalan Parliament declared independence from Spain.  The politics had very little impact on people's daily lives.  We saw no protests and only talked to one person who mentioned the situation.  The most visible sign of the process was flags flying from apartment balconies.  In Cordoba, the apartments draped a Spanish flag over the balcony to signal support for Spanish unity.  In Valencia, about half the flags were Spanish and half were the Estelada, signaling support for Catalonian independence.  In Barcelona, we saw the Estelada almost exclusively.  It was joined by flags saying "Si" or "Hola Republica".

Next stop: Marseille, France.  We'll only be there for 10 days, so I might lump it in with a blog post about Italy next month.

This may not seem like much excitement for an entire month in a foreign country.  That's partly by design.  We want this year to be more like living abroad than an extended vacation.  Most days for us are just like most days for you: we exercise, go to work, buy groceries, cook dinner, help the kids with school work.  We explore the city a couple days each week and go to church on Sunday.

The surprises of travel spice things up a bit, but not as much as you might expect.  I broke one of my ribs in Boston, so exercise has been tricky.  We ate galleta Maria with hot chocolate for breakfast every morning since that's what the Spaniards do. While trying to catch a train from Barcelona to France, we discovered that we were departing on All Saints' Day and buses to the train station were canceled. We're always glad to find a pay toilet since we know it'll be clean and fully stocked.  Small surprises like this, against a backdrop of structure, make it fun and educational without being stressful.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

World tour: Iceland

After our last minute pivot to Boston, we left for our first destination abroad: Iceland.  When scheduling flights from the US to Europe, Icelandair had some of the least expensive flights.  They also let us stopover in Iceland for up to 7 days for the same cost as flying directly to Europe.  Since we wanted to see Iceland anyway, the stopover worked great.  They turned out to be a really comfortable airline too; more pleasant than others I've tried.

We rented a small house on the south coast near Strandarkirkja.  It's about an hour's drive south of Reykjavik (which we didn't visit).  We loved the rural feel in this area.  The closest town was about 15 minutes away.  There were only about 5-10 houses near us.  Everything else was open fields, lava rocks, ocean and the occasional rainbow:

During the five days we were here, the sun shined for about 12 hours total.  It rained the rest of the time.  I thought that was pretty good weather for autumn in the north Atlantic. The kids enjoyed walking along the rocky beach near the house on one sunny day.  The water was too cold for swimming, but they enjoyed throwing rocks and watching sea critters:

When we travel, we try to live like the locals and to avoid the most popular destinations for foreign visitors.  So instead of eating at restaurants, we buy groceries at a local store and cook our meals at home.  Instead of visiting Blue Lagoon, we went to a small community pool in Hveragerði, etc.  A slow pace in small venues suits us well.  Anyway, as you can imagine, seven Americans wandering around a small town grocery store in Iceland draws plenty of attention.  Our meager attempts at Icelandic were laughable, but everyone we encountered spoke excellent English.  Iceland is roughly the same size and population as Wyoming and they speak their own language so very few goods are manufactured specifically for the Icelandic market. That meant that their grocery store is an amalgamation of items imported from UK, Norway, Sweden and Denmark with labels in the same assortment of languages.  It was fun to decipher all the languages.  We ate horse sausage with dinner one night and had Icelandic lamb another night.  We also enjoyed the name of local milk brand:

Iceland is a remarkably beautiful place.  It reminds me a lot of Wyoming: open, windy, treeless expanses in a harsh climate.  The barren landscape that we saw may not be for everyone, but we really liked it.  Other areas, like Hveragerði were gorgeous in a more traditional way:

Our only regret about Iceland is that the stopover prevented us from spending more time here.  We enjoyed the country so much that we think we'll stay in Iceland again on our way home in the spring.

After Iceland we had planned to stay in London for a few days before flying to Madrid.  However, three days before departing Iceland, Ryanair canceled our flight to Madrid so we had a quick, overnight turnaround in London instead (the only flight remaining).  We should be able to see London in the spring when we return to the UK.  We did enjoy seeing London at night as the plane landed:

Next stop: Spain

Thursday, September 21, 2017

World tour: Boston

First step in the world tour: pack our bags.  With the many planes, trains and buses we'll use over the next year, there's not much room for luggage.  Each person gets a carry-on and a laptop bag.  Brigham helped me load it all up:

And Gideon created a small token of our departure:

To kick things off, we had planned to surprise the kids with a trip to Orlando.  The ever thoughtful Hurricane Irma had her own surprise in mind: cancel our flights three days before departure.  Since we couldn't reach Orlando, we did a quick pivot to spend the week in Boston (from which our Europe flights departed anyway).  It all worked out surprisingly well.  We found a small house near Revere Beach.  Haven and Jericho insisted that the water was warm enough for swimming:

Wonderland station on the Blue Line was only a 20-minute walk from our house, so we used the T most days to travel into the city.  Our daily walks near the ocean to and from the subway became a pleasant feature of the trip.  On one walk, Brigham got bored and decided to use a small shell to collect sand from the beach and construct his own private sandbox in the shade of a gazebo.  As you can imagine, this was a very slow process:

In the city, we visited the New England Aquarium, some historic sites and Boston Common.  Walking through Boston Common one evening after dinner, we were 150 ft away from a shooting.  We heard the shots being fired and saw some of the participants dive to the ground.  The crowd scattered and we followed suit.  We joked later that we dodged a hurricane and bullets within a few days and that this trip was turning out to be more exciting than we'd expected.

We also toured Plimouth Plantation to learn about Pilgrims and contemporary natives.  The Plantation is probably the best living museum I've ever been to.  There's a lot to explore and the staff is all very knowledgeable and glad to answer questions.

On our last day in Boston, we tried to attend a local ward's Sunday meetings.  It turned out that they had stake conference that day so nobody was at the meetinghouse.  Two other groups of travelers showed up with the same plans.  After they all left, we stood outside the locked building in the shade and sang primary songs and had our own little Sunday school lesson as a family.  It was a pretty great way to spend a Sunday:

Next stop: Iceland