Monday, December 6, 2010

More Travel Tips

I'm jetlagged and waiting for breakfast, so some more travel tips that I've picked up.
  • If your hotel room requires a key in a slot to turn on the lights - any card (or a piece of cardboard) will work. You should be able to use old key cards. I believe in turning off the lights, but sometimes I want to keep the lights/computer on if I'm headed to the gym for a bit.
  • Colgate Wisp "toothbrushes." They don't require rinsing or spitting, and you can give yourself a quick brush in your plane seat. (I think it'd also be awesome in T2 of an Iron-distance triathlon.)
  • Global Entry. If you do a lot of international travel and you live in the US, it may be worth your while to apply for the Global Entry pass. You basically get to breeze through the Global Entry quick-entry (and get your family to the front of their respective lines) at immigration.
  • TripIt. Website, iphone, blackberry and android apps. Forward your itinerary and TripIt parses the information. Great to organize multiple friends traveling or even for your own travels. Just use the free version. (iPhone and Blackberry get AMEX integration)
  • For packing and security tips, just watch Up in the Air.

Trail Run and Dumplings

Sometimes, I wish I had packed differently. Yesterday, I really wanted trail running shoes, a water bottle with some nutrition in it and my camera.

Regan and I went on a Taiwan hash run through some tea and beetle-nut plantations in the mountains outside Taipei. It was hilly, humid and muddy, so the run lasted twice as long as we expected. All I wanted was water and nutrition. Every time we went up an extended uphill, we were rewarded with gorgeous views of lush mountains with just a touch of fog. Those were the camera moments. After tons of steep downhills, sliding down dirt, using bamboo to stop the momentum (once even dangling off a tree trunk with both legs in the air), I finally ate it on some mossy rock. I should have known better, but it's been a while since I've been on trail - especially with cushy road shoes. It was a big fall - massive bruise on my shin and some good scrapes.

From Asia 2010
Aside from the gorgeous views, the run had the side effect of ramping up my appetite. (I can't remember the last time I spent over an hour running/walking.) So, we went to Din Tai Fung to order their famous steamed dumplings. We got there early for dinner, so our wait for the table was only 25 minutes. (Taipei is one of the most densely populated urban areas, so there's always a wait for famous things). The wait was well worth it, and we spent the next hour stuffing ourselves full of dumplings, spicy wontons and noodles. Best dumplings ever.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Road Warrior & Mileage Run

Somehow without expecting it, I've become a road warrior in the second half of this year. I've done trips here and there in the first half, but the bulk of the miles started with the 'round the world trip late June. I didn't realize how much I was gone until I saw the chart from TripIt last night.

On the other hand, I saw that I was soo close to Executive Platinum (EXP), I decided to to a mileage run by flying from Austin to Nashville, and then from Nashville to Dallas to Tokyo to Taiwan. I had to do the Austin to Nashville leg to get enough mileage on American. The benefits make absolutely no sense to someone who doesn't travel much, but I've spent more time on airplanes than on my bike this past year and it does matter.

Just on this trip alone, some of the nicer things the airline folks have done for me:
  • On the BNA-DFW flight, the attendant gave me a liter bottle of water because the flight between DFW-NRT was so long. I'm nicely hydrated now.
  • On the DFW-NRT flight, the gate agent moved me to another window seat since the lady next to the original seat had a baby. As it turns out, no one was next to me on the flight, so I had two seats to myself!
  • If I book enough in advance, I usually get premium seating closer to the front. It's quieter, you feel less turbulence, and you get off the plane faster and beat the rush to immigration.
I chose Taiwan since my college-roommate is an expat here, Taiwan doesn't require a visa for US citizens, and I've been meaning to visit.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Montpelier, France

From Plain-Jane's Travels
Montpelier made a Francophile out of me. The quality of life here is just amazing - the city is lovely (stone buildings from centuries ago, tree-lined walkable roads), the weather was gorgeous and the food was sumptious. The more I travel, the more I believe that we accept crap for food in the States. We're willing to eat mass-produced junk because it's cheap and easy - and it affects our bodies accordingly. (Not that I have a place to lecture - I eat plenty of fast food because real food takes effort. And, after years of eating Gu, Infinit and other endurance nutrition, some of my tastebuds and "protests to yuk" have died.)

From Plain-Jane's Travels

Pete's Photos

Pete's pictures from the trip are here.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


My favorite photos from the trip can be found here.

Eat. Eat More. Sleep.

From Asia 2010
Our time in Tokyo felt action-packed, and we spent a lot of it eating. Everytime we saw (or smelt something tasty), we made sure to stop for a bite. This trip was a short sampling of Tokyo, but it was fun nonetheless.

My food memories:
  • Ramen with pork belly. We saw this later, but we put money into a machine that printed a ticket of what we wanted. We then handed the ticket to the hostess. Of course it was tasty, it's pork belly.
  • Omakase sushi. Best sushi ever. Found out that one of my favorite's, bonito, is only seasonally available, and November is the best time for it. Bonito, otoro, chu-toro, unago (salt water eel), yellow tail snapper, flounder, live clam, fresh shrimp (cooked medium rare), tomago, sea urchin. Felt like we ate all the stuff we saw diving the previous week :)
  • Fresh purple potato waffle. Really good despite not sounding so.
  • Some more sushi at the Tsujiki fish market. Tiny restaurant with 3 sushi chefs serving 10 people. Would have been the best sushi ever if not for the previous day. Reinforced my belief that you should just look for lines if you don't have a firm recommendation on where to go. Also, it's also pretty convenient if you're by yourself - I skipped ahead in line since there was a spot for just one person.
  • Build your own udon bowl. Once again, we looked for a crowded restaurant and got a pleasant surprise. Pick your tempura and then choose which soup/size you want for the udon.
  • Food from convenience stores. You can get meals that are heated up in the microwave. Not the best nutritionally, but pretty good considering it's from a 7-11 equivalent.
From Asia 2010
Other memories:
  • Flaming Lips/Mew concert. Musically, I like Mew, but Flaming Lips put on a good show. Lots of balloons and confetti. Even better seeing folks in suits jamming out to the music.
  • On the walk between the hotel and Shinjuku station, an eyeglass store had set out a station to clean eyeglasses. Great way to get folks to read/listen to your ads.
  • Free tissue packets - hand out something useful so people take your advertisements.
  • Rule abiding/demure folks. Bikes didn't seem as locked up and everyone was careful to stand on the left of escalators and walk on the right. When you put it in this context, the Flaming Lips show is more interesting culturally.
  • Timely trains and lots of good signs/maps in the stations and around tourist attractions.
  • Incredibly stylish folks.
From Asia 2010

Sunday, November 14, 2010

It Depends...

From Asia 2010

From Asia 2010
It depends on what you make of the situation. The dive team at Wakatobi asked us to submit six of our favorite shots from the week for a presentation. Two of the six were from night dives using the S90.
My two thoughts about this:
  • I'm too frazzled by night dives to use anything other than a point and shoot. I also like to use a flash light in one hand and the camera in another. The SLR (even without the housing) is just too big to do this.
  • We only have one strobe for each camera, and both are on the left. Sometimes, I want to light the subject from the right. If I want the strobe far out enough, I have to go upside down. I'm not good enough a diver to balance the SLR and take the picture upside down.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Sometimes, It's Luck

From Asia 2010

Sometimes, It's the Gear

From Asia 2010
I'm a big believer in it's the user and not the gear. This is particularly true in cycling and triathlon, and often in photography. Above water, we often don't use the limits of the simple gear that we have. Unless I'm using a special lens, I couldn't tell the difference between the S90 and the SLR in daily shots. Underwater, there is a huge difference between the two. The speed and sharpness of the SLR+100mm lens makes the difference between in and out of focus.

To keep thing's interesting, I borrowed Ed's fish eye lens to mount atop the S90 housing. The mount wasn't made for this particular housing, so you'll see some vignetting. I like the effect, so I kept it where possible.
From Asia 2010
Ed, Pete's brother.

From Asia 2010
Pufferfish at a cleaning station. The cleaner fish are swimming through the mouth/gills of the puffer to remove parasites and other junk.

Friday, November 12, 2010

New Species?

From Asia 2010
When P was reviewing my photos and saw this tiny "thing," he jokingly mentioned that I might have discovered a new species. I'm gullible and an optimist. So, I spent a good bit of time reviewing the Fish ID book hoping the creature wasn't in the book. Alas, it's a blackspotted triplefin.

Not much of an artistic photo, but the creature was about 2-3 cm and blended in with the background. I had to look off the eyepiece a few times to make sure I was aiming the camera at the right place.

Day 3 of Diving

From Asia 2010

I got the SLR again today and tried P's advice. It's amazing how one photo can make my day.

I spent a lot of the first two dives of the day frustrated with my buoyancy and too afraid to take shots. Lots of negative thoughts ran through my head during the dives:
  • I have too much or too little weight
  • There's too much coral in the way so I can't get into position
  • I'm cold
  • There's too much current
  • I'm never going to take good shots like P.
When I had these, I'd look away from the camera eyepiece and at the reef itself. The fish highways (a school of fish all swimming in the same direction) or the sheer number of fish reminded me that I'm pretty lucky to dive here. I finally calmed down during the last dive on the house reef, and I got my best shots there. The house reef (reef where the resort is located) is the best I've seen.

From Asia 2010

From Asia 2010

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Day 2 of Diving

From Asia 2010
We traded cameras today, so I had the Canon S90 while P has the SLR. His pictures are amazing - he's really good with lighting and developing. I'll upload both sets of photos and share them when we have more bandwidth (the resort only has access via satellite, and I didn't want to hog the bandwidth uploading massive pictures).

Speaking of the resort - the service and logistics are amazing. For approximately 50 guests, there is a staff of 140+. We have constant electricity thanks to two generators and fresh water through a desalinization system. There are folks to feed us, clean after us, fill our tanks, do maintenance and generally take care of us during and after dives. Everything has worked so seamlessly that we didn't realize what went into running such a remote operation until we took a tour of the resort.

From Asia 2010
As far as the diving goes, I'm still blown away by the healthy coral (massive corals on each dive), abundance of fish (thanks to conservation efforts of the resort and the local population) and the clear water.

From Asia 2010

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Hot Spots

From Asia 2010

From Asia 2010

Wow - the lushness of underwater life here at Wakatobi is amazing. Great biodiversity, tons of fish, and vibrant coral. It was absolutely worth the long journey here.

We got a new 100mm macro lens for the SLR, and today was my first day using it. At first, it felt unfair since I could get more detail further away from the subject. I no longer scare the fish since I don't have to be as close. It's a mixed blessing in that I can't shoot anything bigger than a fist, and with SLRs, you're committed to the lens when you jump in the water.

That being said, it's not the gear - it's the user. I've forgotten how to use a strobe, so all my pictures have hot spots.

From Asia 2010

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Getting to Wakatobi

I didn't realize how remote Wakatobi was until today. (Geography is not my strong suit.) It was two hours in a turbo prob, a stop to refuel (too much luggage from all the divers), and then another two hours. When we landed, we got into minivans and drove through the neighboring island to a ferry that took us to Wakatobi. When we drove through the island, we heard tons of kids eagerly wave "ah-lo" to us. It reminded me of the kids in Vietnam.

We spent the rest of the day setting up gear (mainly the cameras) and relaxing. It's amazing how quickly I decompress out here.

Monday, November 8, 2010

In Transit

The flight from Dallas to Japan was long. So long, I started writing a morbid entry about experiments simulating jet lag on rats that didn't end well for the rats. On the other hand, I was really glad to have P's company. It's nice to be able to share your thoughts as they occur. The cross-pond flights get pretty lonely, and I just sleep/work through them.

I'm still digesting my thoughts of what I've seen in Japan. Aside from the tasty food (even from the convenience store in the hotel), I'm most impressed that everything works - everything in the airport to our inexpensive transit hotel. Nothing was broken. At home, there are usually little things that break or are in need of repair. Perhaps we'll see more broken things when we return to Tokyo on the way back.

Back to the long transit. We're going to the wakatobi Dive Resort, on a remote part of Indonesia. Our journey consists of a flight to Narita (with an overnight), then Bali (with another overnight) and finally a turbo-prop to Sulawesi. I call out the turbo-prop since I hate small planes with a vengeance. I may fly a lot on jet planes, but small planes just make me nervous. I've been dreading the 4 hours on the turbo-prop more than the long haul to Japan.

Speaking of long haul flights, I just had the best experience on one. Garuda Airlines has immigration on the flight from Tokyo to Bali. Instead of waiting in a long line once you arrive to get the passport stamp - immigration officers are on board to review your passport and papers while you're sitting around on the long flight. It's such a distinctive offering that it creates a preference for Garuda Airlines over other carriers to Indonesia. (Also, they gave us ice cream before landing!)


Arrived at the hotel in Bali. The rest of the group doesn't sleep on planes, so they crashed. I'm still jetlagged, so I'm wide awake. Went to the gym (which probably didn't help), ran a few miles (I really need to get back into running!), and now I'm trying to figure out what else I can do.

One strange thing that I noticed - the hallways here at the hotel (a swank Holiday Inn) smell just like the hallways of the EQ (Equatorial) in Penang. It's something combined with the ocean air and the 95% humidity - it's a smell you don't get in the Caribbean though.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Thoughts on Kuala Lumpur

From Plain-Jane's Travels

Some quick thoughts before I head out again.

Malaysian culture is a mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian. There are distinct benefits to being ethnically Malay, such as well-paying positions in public services and preferences in college entrance. As defined by their constitution, you must be Muslim to be Malay - but the converse isn't necessarily true. You're marked as Malay on your driver license - the police can raid a bar, see that you're Muslim, and arrest you. You're also Muslim for life - you can't convert! (Very strange coming from the US with its freedom of religion.) To marry a Muslim in Malaysia, you must convert to Islam. Interestingly enough, folks go to Singapore to get married to circumvent this law.

KL is a city obsessed with shopping and eating. Malls lead to other malls to other malls - with tons of food options around. I finally tried geoduck and mantis prawn. Fresh-out-of-the-tank geoduck was gross/fishy as sashimi and alright in a hotpot. The mantis prawn, while also gross looking, was delicious - similar to crab in texture and taste. I even got over my disgust of the "mantis" part and ate the meat in both claws. It would have been a shame to let it go to waste.

The Vietnamese food there was bleah. It's 2 hours away from Vietnam, but it's is way better in Houston!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Montpelier, France

I'm behind again, so my description won't do Montpelier justice. Amazing food, town weather, and people. Pain au chocolat with fresh orange juice every morning after my walk to work, really fresh fish and bright vegetables, and some pretty tasty desserts. (And I'm not a dessert person.) The three-hour dinners made it difficult to work a lot - but it's a difference in lifestyle.

I'm still thinking through the lifestyle difference, but I definitely have a lot more respect for it now.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Have Passport, Will Travel

I've spent a bit of time on the road lately, and I'm glad to be home for some time. Here are some things I learned the last few months that may help you out with international travel
  1. Unlocked GSM cell phone. In most places overseas, you can pick up a pre-paid SIM, and the convenience often outweighs the cost. My rule of thumb has been a two week minimum stay if it requires any effort. If you really like your GSM phone, you can unlock it so you don't have a learn a new phone interface. I was able to get my HTC Aria unlocked by the folks at (Quality Product Source). I think you can find cheaper unlock codes on ebay.
  2. Capital One credit card (or credit card that doesn't charge international fees). Make sure you pay it off monthly as the rates are horrible.
  3. Spare passport photos. This one is a bit less important, but some places require passport photos for the simplest of things - like getting a SIM card in India. Far easier to get them done ahead of time.
Bon Voyage!

(removed HSBC account, which charges 3% on non-Premier accounts.)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Catching up...

It's been a while since I posted to this site, so I guess I should catch everyone up to date.

May, Gulf Coast Road Trip:

From Gulf Coast 2010

Back in May, P and I rented a car and drove out to Panama City Beach, Florida, so I could do the Gulf Coast Triathlon and do some diving. It was a long drive out there, and we made the 12-13 hour drive in one go. We meandered our way back to Austin stopping in Pensacola and New Orleans.

We dove the Oriskany, an aircraft carrier sunk off the coast of Pensacola. The visibility wasn't great that day, so we couldn't see the flight deck. However, I did swim through the flight control room and through the smokestacks. In the New Orleans, we stayed in the French Quarter and just walked around during the day. Food highlights of the trip:
  • PCB: J Michael's. Good fresh, local seafood.
  • Pensacola: Blue Dot Burger. Best burger I've ever had.
  • New Orleans: Couchon Butcher. Best Banh Mi I've ever had. I think the Head Cheese set it apart from other Banh Mi.
  • Baton Rouge: Coffee Call. Beignets and beignet fingers. Can't really go wrong here.

June, Round the World:

I'm a product manager for a global transactional tax system. If you make a purchase from the company and see taxes, the system I work on may have calculated the taxes. (I say *may* since we're still working on the global part.) Before this summer, I've been able to do my job with a lot of late night/early morning calls and a yearly trip. With the onset of our India launch, all sorts of issues come up and I'm summoned to Penang, Malaysia last minute. I'm also summoned to London for another workshop, so I decide to make it all in one go.

The Penang meetings go well, we figure what we need to do, and I head off to Hong Kong for the weekend. As a coincidence, Regan's (my college roommate) brother was vacationing in Hong Kong from DC that weekend, so it wasn't difficult to convince Regan (who's an expat in Taiwan) to also fly in. It was good to hang out with him and to eat some really good food. It's a given that food tastes amazing there. I also managed to do a morning run by Victoria Peak - nice to get back to nature and solitude, just minutes away from an urban jungle.

Before the London workshops, I took the train over to Brussels to watch Stage 2 of the Tour de France. (Cancellara was in yellow that morning.) Also stuffed myself on chocolate croissants in Brussels. The London meetings didn't have the same urgency as the Malaysia ones, but they're good for direction going forward. Got to run around Hyde Park a couple of times.

July, India:

Nineteen days in India. The launch happened, and straightaway, there were high priority issues left and right. It was a lot of work and stress. There were some down times, and the people who could, drank. Most of my memories involve working, calls in the middle of the night to work on an issue, and more work.

August, Brazil:

This globalization thing is happening faster than I thought it would, so on the heels of India (gratefully with three weeks at home), I head to Brazil to gather tax requirements. Awesome meetings - great brain dump of the taxes we charge and why. I've come to the conclusion that countries with federated states with taxing authority have the most challenging taxes.

Great country, good food. I got food poisoning on my first night, so I wasn't able to pig out at the churrascaria. It was a bummer to get sick in a hotel room away from home, but when the stomach cramps were bad enough to call a doctor, the hotel got some EMT folks to come and fix me up (with an IV) in no time. I also got to see my first Brazilian football game with the local team, Gremio. The hardcore fans do an "Avalanche" (above) when their team scores a goal.

September, France:

I head off this afternoon to Montpelier to support a big launch and to do some training. I'm scared of the scope of the launch, so we'll see if it's all work or if I get a breather and get to see some of the city/countryside.

Sunday, March 7, 2010


From Mexico 2010

We spent the first few days of the trip diving in Cozumel and then went over to Playa del Carmen for the cenotes.

I made an unplanned, massive system change at work right before leaving town, so I spent the first few days of the trip supporting the change. The weather and water was also colder than last time, so the diving conditions weren't as pleasant in Cozumel. This lead to few dives in Cozumel, and a lot of time in the hotel room supporting the changes.

Mid-week, work calmed down, and we moved over to Playa del Carmen. We did two dives in the Dos Ojos cenote, and these were my favorite dives of the whole trip. Amazing clarity in the water - in the photos, you couldn't tell we were in the water without the dive gear or bubbles. The rock formations also made for an interesting dive - I see the allure of cave diving, but there were also some claustrophobic moments. We also dove in the halocline (where salt water and fresh water meet) - it made the water seem unusually blurry/fuzzy.