Away for the Weekend

We’re off to Denver tonight to celebrate Jeff’s grandmother’s 90th birthday! She’s a pretty amazing lady. She has a college degree…a rarity among women her age…and she’s rather well traveled. In fact, she spent a number of years living in Turkey. We should all hope to have lives as enriched, fulfilling, and full of adventure as Farmor (the Swedish word for your paternal grandmother) has had. Anyhow, I’m not sure whether we’ll have any Internet access while we’re away, so you’ll just have to miss us for a couple of days. Hopefully, we’ll have a new post up on Sunday, but if not, one will come shortly after that, so keep checking back. Happy weekend.

Travel Take Two: Hawaii

Installment three in the Travel Take Two series reviews our 2005 trip to Hawaii. Jeff was actually born on Oahu and grew up in this tropical paradise until age ten, at which point he relocated to the much less ideal climate of the Pacific Northwest. When he got to college and began playing baseball for Rice, he was lucky enough to get to return to Hawaii for a week every year thanks to the fact that both Hawaii and Rice were in the same conference. I didn’t find this quite as cool, however, since the baseball trip to Hawaii always took place during the same week as my birthday. How fair is it that for my birthday Jeff got to go to Hawaii while I was left alone in Houston? So in 2005, we went to the fair state of Hawaii a month after my birthday as a means of evening the score…sort of. In total, Jeff has managed to miss my birthday five of the eight years we’ve been together, so he might owe me a few more trips.

Destination: Oahu and the Big Island
Date: April 8-16 , 2005
Travel Partners: We met up with Dave & Heidi Byrne and we also spent a night with the Krochinas. Both the Byrnes and the Krochinas are longtime Blackinton family friends.


1. Hiking out to see flowing lava at sunset. The ground is ragged and we saw not only a lot of busted up hands and legs but actually witnessed an air lift of someone who’d hurt themselves on the hike, but the exertion was worth it. We arrived at the lava flow just as the sun was setting, and ate our dinner and shared a bottle of wine from Volcano Winery just a few feet from the insanely hot mass. The intense glow was amazing as was watching it creep slowly toward the sea. Also, a few drops of rain added a neat element as the lava would sizzle each time a drop touched it. And though I really wanted to touch it, Jeff convinced me not to. (Okay, I wasn’t going to. I’m smart enough to know it would melt my hand right off, but I really, really, really want to know what it would feel like (not the heat, duh, but the texture.) Making our way back by flashlight was also quite the adventure. At Volcano National Park, we also enjoyed hiking through lava tubes and standing on the edge of volcanoes (expect for the rotten egg smell). It’s got to be up there among the cooler National Parks in the U.S.

2. Encountering a sea turtle while snorkeling. This was on my list as something I really wanted to have happen, though I knew there was no way to make it happen. When we went snorkeling at the famous Hanauma Bay we didn’t spot any. However, when we pulled over at a small stretch of black sand beach on the Big Island and decided to throw on our snorkeling gear, lo and behold one of these gentle giants came by for a visit. It was very cool. We then went on to see them all over the Big Island, and I thought they were just as amazing each and every time.

3. Food. Malasadas hot out of the grease at Leonard’s. Is there a better breakfast out there? Then the shrimp at Giovanni’s truck up toward the North Shore was divine. I don’t know if I liked the spicy shrimp or the lemon shrimp better, but I can say with certainty that I’ve never had better seafood served straight from a truck. And Jeff would certainly object if I didn’t mention the shave ice, which comes with soft serve ice cream at the bottom. I think he had one a day. It’s not so much my thing, but I did enjoy a couple.

4. Visiting Jeff’s old stomping grounds. We visited the house where Jeff lived when he was little. The fruit trees were just as he remembered, and the strike zone he’d painted on the wall was still there. We also went by his elementary school and saw his name tiled into the mosaic outside the entrance. And we even got to catch a baseball game at the University of Hawaii, the place where Jeff developed his love of the game. It couldn’t have been more ideal either as the Rainbows were playing Rice, so we got to catch up with some old teammates and coaches.

5. Waterfalls. There aren’t too many ugly waterfalls in the world, so in general, I always love me a waterfall. The ones in Hawaii are particularly scenic and we got to visit quite a few of these wonders. On Oahu, hiking to Manoa Falls was fun…and wet…but the Big Island wins on waterfalls. Hilo has quite a few beauties as does the Waipio Valley.


1. Locking the keys in the car with the engine running. Jeff was so excited for his first shave ice that when we pulled up at the place, he managed to not only lock the keys in the car, but lock them in with the engine still running. Fortunately, he did have his wallet with him so we could go ahead and enjoy a shave ice while we waited for AAA to arrive. They had a heck of a time getting into the car, but eventually they did and all was fine.

2. Rain moving in shortly after our stargazing session began. Some of the best stargazing in the world can be done from Mauna Kea, and we were fortunate to be able to get a brief glimpse at the wonders of the night sky at this place where little atmosphere interferes with the view. I could have spent a lot longer looking skyward, however, had rain and clouds not taken over. We don’t have very good luck with astronomical events obviously.

3. Snorkeling at Hanauma Bay. It’s maybe a little unfair to classify this as a lowlight. It was simply more of a disappointment. We had a good time snorkeling here, but it was a bit like being at an amusement park. We saw lots of colorful fish and some neat coral, but so many of the little unmarked beaches we stopped at turned up way better sea life. Additionally, despite measures to keep crowds under control (which I applaud), it still feels a bit crowded. I like my natural areas just a bit more natural…and off the beaten path.


1. Sometimes it pays be on an overbooked flight. We flew to Hawaii for free thanks to Jeff’s willingness to be bumped from two overbooked flights, both on the same day. On his return flight to DC post-Thanksgiving, he volunteered to give up his seat in return for a $400 voucher and a seat on a later flight. Then when he got to his layover spot, he again volunteered, getting another voucher in return for flying just about one hour later (and now going back into the airport he preferred, since the first change had him going into a different DC airport). So if you’re on an overbooked flight and you have a flexible schedule, consider volunteering your seat. You could end up with a free vacation.

2. Don’t let preconceived ideas keep you from visiting somewhere really cool. I have to admit that before I met Jeff I really had very little interest in Hawaii. I didn’t know too many people who had traveled there, and those I did know hadn’t done much more than sunbathe on the beaches at Waikiki or vegetate at a resort on Maui. All I could think was that if I wanted to lie on a beach there were a lot closer options. Plus, I can lie on a beach for approximately 3.7 minutes before going insane from boredom. So fly the many, many hours to Hawaii for that, no thanks. But then when I started really looking into it, I found out that Hawaii had so much more to offer, and though we did spend a bit of time (3.7 minutes to be exact) being beach bums, we also visited cultural and historic sites, took a fun road trip all the way around Oahu, and enjoyed the natural beauty of this unique state on a lot of active outings.

3. Don’t try to do too much. As much as I wanted to go to Kauai, trying to squeeze three destinations into our trip would have been way too much. Even with just two destinations, we didn’t get to do every thing we wanted. But having an entire island plus some sites on other islands that I want to see just means we’ll have to go back at some point. Darn.

4. If you’re in a place with a ton to do, why waste your money on a fancy hotel? I have to admit that I was a little nervous when we booked a room at the Waikiki Prince for $50, especially considering the going rate for a Honolulu room a few blocks from the beach is a few hundred higher. As it turns out, the place was great–clean, safe, a little kitchenette, a parking place, free beach towels, and the friendliest guy ever at the desk. It wasn’t luxurious, that’s for certain, but if it had been, I would have felt guilty considering we hardly even managed to make it back to the hotel for sleep.

5. If you know people where you’re going, take advantage of their insider knowledge. Because Dave works at Mauna Kea, we were able to visit this volcano, which we wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise since regular rental cars aren’t allowed on the road that leads to it. We also got an insiders tour of the observatories and were able to hang around for some very awesome star gazing. Heidi also took us to a laie (Hawaiian temple) that we would not have known about without her. You can’t beat local knowledge.

6. Any time is a good time to travel. When we booked this trip for about 3 months prior to our wedding, people were confused, asking if we were also planning to do a honeymoon. Apparently not too many people go on big trips just prior to their wedding, but we had the opportunity and the time, so we said why the heck not. Honestly it was a very much needed break from all the planning. And thanks to the trip being pre-wedding all the lucky guests at the big event ended up with super yummy chocolate covered macadamia nuts. Mmm.

Markets: The Soul of a Place

Yesterday, on the final full day of my brother Matthew’s visit, I took him to one of my favorite DC spots—Eastern Market. Though a fire destroyed the historic hall that housed the heart of the market about a year ago, the market is still going strong. Every day of the week, you’ll find in the inside section (now housed in a temporary building), butchers, fishmongers, pasta makers, and bakers, serving up incredibly fresh products. It’s a treat just to walk through and see food without all the plastic wrap and labeling introduced by the grocery stores. On weekends, in the outdoor sections, you’ll find farm stands, artisans, and flea market booths. I love to meander through, sampling the produce, marveling at some of the flea market oddities, and wishing I had more money than I do so I could buy the jewelry, photographs, and other artworks on sale. In honor of my birthday, I went ahead and splurged yesterday and bought a necklace from one of my favorite vendors, Andrea Haffner. She casts dried flowers in resin to create gorgeous pendants. I’d bought them as gifts before, but never one for myself, and this time I just couldn’t resist.

The reasons I love Eastern Market are myriad, but what it really boils down to is its authenticity. It’s not packaged or produced, not really all that predictable. There’s never a guarantee that a certain vendor will be there, but there’s always a guarantee that I’ll find something interesting. In the permanent hall, the vendors are third and fourth generation. The people selling you slabs of beef, your Thanksgiving turkey, or a slice of cake know the history of this city and this market better than anyone. There are stories here. And though the stories at Eastern Market are the stories of DC, there are thousands of markets around the world with millions of stories to be told.

Just tonight, I put on an old episode of No Reservations. By random chance, I chose the Jamaica episode, and though I faded in and out of paying attention to the show, I was listening when Bourdain visited a market and noted that he thinks it is one of the first things you should do when you visit a city to really get a feel for the place. I wholeheartedly agree. In my travels, I love to seek out markets.

In Freiburg, Germany, a daily market took place right outside the cathedral. It was there that I first encountered white spargel, and I made many a lunch out of the wursts being cooked up on the spot. The aroma was impossible to resist. At Barcelona’s Mercat de la Boqueria, I had my first blood orange, beginning an addiction that I just can’t kick. And every Friday in Athens, I made my way to my neighborhood laiki (farmer’s market), a street full of tents where I bought the spinach I would use to make my first spanakopita and where my “tomato man” (see second picture below) helped me pick out the perfect cucumbers for tzatziki. I never felt more integrated into Greek society than when I was at the laiki. After just a few weeks, the vendors would recognize me, welcome me, and always, always, always sneak a little extra something into my bag after I’d already picked out and paid for what I wanted. It’s too bad my grocery store here doesn’t do that.

But it’s not only when I’m abroad that I seek out markets. In Philadelphia, we spent way more time than we had planned wandering around the Reading Terminal Market, and I always try to make it to the Bainbridge Island Farmer’s Market when we visit Jeff’s parents. If we have time, we also take a trip to Pike’s Place Market and maybe even the Ballard and Fremont neighborhood markets. Really, I never get tired of them.

And though I must admit that food markets are my favorite, I’m a sucker for any type of market. In Cairo, I loved getting lost in the alleys of Khan el-Khalili, bargaining for mother-of-pearl chess sets and inlaid plates. And I don’t think I ever went downtown in Athens, without visiting Monastiraki, where you never knew what you might find. Once, spread out on a blanket with dishes and toys was a dildo. Odd indeed. Another time, in a bowl of old coins was a brand new American quarter. Out of curiosity we asked the seller how much he wanted for it, and after studying it for a moment (obviously having no idea what it was), he asked us for 2 euro. We passed. Even in the days of decent exchange rates, an American quarter wasn’t worth that.

Once we set out on our big adventure, I’ll be on the lookout for great markets, and you can count on me narrating many a visit along with my first tastes of new fruits and vegetables or my super bargain purchases. So that I don’t miss any must-see markets, I’ve been doing a little research, and I came across this list from Food & Wine magazine, detailing 25 top food markets, including five that we may make it to: Singapore’s Kreta Ayer Wet Market; Old Delhi, India’s Chandni Chowk; Picsac, Peru’s Sunday Market; Santiago, Chile’s Mercado Central; and Manaus, Brazil’s Mercado Municipal. But I know there are more great markets out there.

So tell me, what’s your favorite market? Even if it’s not in a location we plan to visit on this trip, go ahead and let me know about it. I’ll start taking notes for our next go-round.

I Know You Didn’t Ask, But I Think Your President Sucks

Tomorrow Jeff and I go to the polls to cast our votes in the Maryland presidential primary. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that the presidential race is pretty big news here in the United States. Record numbers of people have been turning out to register their thoughts on who should be the next to lead our country. We may possibly witness a turning point in American history–the election of someone who is not a white male. We’ll see. The fact that the Democratic nominee will be either a black man or a white woman is, in itself, groundbreaking.

But interest in our election is not confined to within the American borders. People all over the world are keeping an eye tuned to the race. For better or worse, American politics affects people all around the globe. Our policies on immigration, on economics, and on environmental issues travel wave-like out from our shores, impacting millions and millions of people who don’t have a vote to cast in this election. Our policies on war and defense can mean life or death for those living in countries we consider unfriendly and those living in countries that join with American forces when we go to war. It’s rather amazing to consider how important U.S. elections are to the world. Makes you wonder why it’s not more important to some Americans–particularly those who don’t vote.

The two years I spent living abroad happened to fall within a period of particular worldwide interest in American politics. I flew to Germany one week to the day before the attacks on the World Trade Center. I stood staring at a store’s TV display, surrounded by crying Germans, and watched the towers fall. (It was the middle of the afternoon there.) Over the course of that year, as we went from a country under attack to a country on the attack, I watched the tremendous goodwill of the German nation turn to animosity and anger. I lived in Greece in the run-up to the 2004 election, seeing first-hand how passionate other people were about American politics.

What stuck with me most from these two experiences is the forthrightness with which foreigners are willing to ask you about your political leanings. I can’t even count the number of times I got in a cab and was directly asked who I voted for or who I was going to vote for. Perfect strangers had no problem asking me what I thought of Bush and giving me their uncensored opinion. It was often startling. That’s not something we do here in America. It’s like asking someone’s weight or age or how much they make. Taboo. Sure, we discuss politics with friends and family. When we are fairly certain of a person’s political leanings, we might be free with our views. But we don’t ask people who they voted for. I mean, isn’t that why there’s the little curtain at the voting booth?

I certainly appreciate the idea of the secret ballot. No one should feel bullied into voting for anyone. But at the same time, don’t you think it might be productive for people to be “forced” to answer for their vote? Shouldn’t we have a reason for voting the way we do, and shouldn’t we feel strongly enough about that reason that we’re willing to stand up for it? If someone should ask us how we voted, shouldn’t we give a proud answer rather than responding that it’s none of their business. We might all vote a little smarter if we were held accountable for our vote: not, of course, by government or anyone official or threatening (God forbid), but by our friends, by our families, maybe even by our cab drivers.

For the 2008 general election, in which the 44th president of the United States will be chosen, Jeff and I will be somewhere in South America. (Which reminds me of another thing to add to the to-do list: figure out the best way for us to cast our votes.) From that far-away perspective, it will certainly be interesting to not only see how America votes, but also to observe how the rest of the world reacts.

(Our apologies for the lack of posting the past week. Hectic doesn’t even begin to describe our lives at the moment, but we plan to post more this week, including a follow-up we already have in mind to the current post. Please keep checking back and leaving your comments!)

Thoughts from the Weekend

The weekend was update-free here at LOW due to a trip down south, back to the alma mater, Rice University. It was the fourth biennial Rice Baseball Alumni Game. It’s always great to catch up again with all of the guys, seeing what they’re up to. New this time around was how just about everyone was now married and having children. Most of the guys I played with had pregnant wives or were already taking care of little ones (or both!). This is a strange duality to me because up here in DC, at 26, we are still considered very young to even be married. (On more than one occasion my ring has elicited a “weird …”.)

But as everyone was catching up, my future plans came up a lot when I mentioned I was finishing in the fall. (Theresa tells me I have to state this as a fact instead of saying “hopefully” or “if everything works out” or “I plan to.” I get the feeling she’s not interested in staying here too much longer …) And so I launched into our plans of world travel and exploration. Which got the same kind of response that I get when I say I’m married in DC. In all fairness, one kindred spirit had recently finished his own round the world trip (and we had a great conversation with him), so the response was not completely unanimous.

A lot of the guys (and girls) responded by saying they had never even left the country, and didn’t really understand why you possibly would. Now some of this comes from the typically Texan idea that nothing could ever be better than Texas, but it also was about security, family and comfort. It was pretty clear that we were currently on two different paths. Theresa likes to talk about wishing she could run two parallel lives … well this was it, exemplified. All of my Houston friends had married, settled down and were starting families. They had support networks of family, lifelong friends and good jobs (at least well paying if not completely satisfying). They knew which restaurants had the best steaks, and where to go for fajitas. They never got lost driving around the city, nor did they have to deal with the hassles of public transportation. Meanwhile, here were Theresa and I, who couldn’t wait to quit our jobs/finish our programs and leave all that comfort and security behind so we could run around the world with only what we could carry on our backs. Now who are the crazies? You have to admit, at times staying put makes a pretty compelling rational argument.

The point is, I guess, that it is all a matter of personal preference, and really has little to do with rationality. (This is probably much too tolerant a statement to put on the internet.) My friends would be happy staying right where they are, in the same house, in the same neighborhood, in the same city, the rest of their lives. They have no desire to wander. And there are times when I wonder why that isn’t enough for me too. But for whatever reasons, that just doesn’t cut it. I need to explore. Deal with getting lost. Have the enjoyment of “discovering” the best restaurant in a new place. Slowly and painfully come to understand a completely different culture. Befriend all the wacky and interesting people you meet. Survive the bizarre events that inevitably occur. And feel invigorated by it all. Because a routine just does not inspire me the way an adventure does. So, anyway, thanks for listening while I justify how I am. I hope it made some sense to you.

Now, all that being said, my friends, the ones perfectly happy to never leave their hometown, are exactly the ones we need to convince to travel. As a case in point, one of our friends didn’t realize there were not feeder roads off of every highway (Houston is pretty much the only city I know that envelops every highway with another two lanes of “local” traffic on each side). It’s both interesting and useful to be exposed to a number of different ways to solve problems, mainly that there are other ways. You start to see things from other perspectives. And if you still like things like “home,” you appreciate it more. So it enriches your hometown as well. I know when I travel, I appreciate all the little things I often take for granted when I return (everything from free public restrooms to a good hamburger to signs in English). So we did our best to convince everyone that it would be great idea to travel themselves. I think we convinced nobody. But whaddya gonna do? They all have little rugrats running around. That’s why we’re still on the rolling five year plan with kids. We still have too much wandering to do ourselves.

Travels Through Our Own Backyard

Whenever Jeff and I travel—whether it be a weekend trip to a nearby destination, a week-long vacation around the U.S. or abroad, or our upcoming RTW trip—we always devote some time to figuring out what it is we want to do at our destination. Skimming guidebooks and scanning websites, we make lists of attractions that interest us and take notes of restaurants others are raving about. Lord knows we don’t want to visit a place and miss the best spots.

Funny then, isn’t it, that you can live in a town for years and still never see some of it’s most worthwhile attractions.

Jeff and I live in one of the most touristed cities in America. (Trust me, having worked at the Smithsonian and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, I am well-versed on “tourist season” in D.C. I try to have patience. Really, I do. But for the love of Pete, could you please move to the right side of the escalator if you don’t plan to walk!)

We’ve been here for multiple years (4.5 years – Jeff; 3.5 years – Theresa), and there are still plenty of things we haven’t done. But I don’t think Jeff and I are alone in this. I’d wager that the majority of us rarely take the time to be tourists in our own backyards.

For Jeff and I, the start date of our RTW trip will be the end date of our life in D.C. We won’t be returning here. Where we’ll end up, we don’t know, except that it won’t be here. As we prepare to say hello to the world, we must say goodbye to the only place that we, as a married couple, have called home. To make the most of it, we’ve compiled a list of things to do before we go. In between trips to the REI, we’ll be squeezing in as much as we can.

  1. Ascend the Washington Monument. The first few years we lived in the area, security concerns closed the Washington Monument. Restoration work kept it closed even longer, but it has since re-opened, so it’s time for us to go check out the view.
  2. Make a few more trips to Eastern Market. I love markets of any sorts. You can be sure that I’ll be checking them out in cities around the world. Eastern Market is the best in D.C., and wandering the food, craft, and flea market booths is a great way to pass a weekend morning.
  3. Tour the Smithsonian museums that we have yet to visit. I’m ashamed to admit that even as an employee of this venerable institution, I have yet to make it to all the museums (African American Art, Postal Museum), and others I have just made rather cursory visits to (Freer & Sackler, Hirshhorn). I will correct this before we depart.
  4. See the Supreme Court in session. This is a bit hard for us to do, since it’s in session on weekdays, but I think we can manage to squeeze in one visit. If not, we should at least take a tour.
  5. Enjoy Kenilworth Gardens. These aquatic gardens have been on my list for a while but I haven’t yet made it there.
  6. Rent a pedal boat and paddle around the Tidal Basin when the cherry blossoms are in bloom for a prime view of the beauty.
  7. Attend a Nationals game at the new stadium. It’s set to open this season, and it will be one more stadium Jeff can cross off his list.
  8. Explore the National Archives and Library of Congress. I think Jeff and I have both been to these at one time or another but not recently. I think they’ve both been improved since we last set foot inside.
  9. Check out the National Building Museum. I’ve meant to do this forever but never have.
  10. Make a pilgrimage to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. It’s the largest Catholic Church in the Western Hemisphere, and is supposed to be quite visually stunning.
  11. Take part in a protest. How is it possible that we’ve lived in D.C. this many years and have yet to protest anything?

What have we missed? If there’s a D.C. spot that you think we might not have made it to but absolutely must, let us know. And what about you? What backyard spots have you yet to visit?