Sunday, January 31, 2016

Allowance, foreign-service style

One thing that gets tricky for a foreign service family living in a country with a volatile currency is the subject of allowance. In the 18 months or so we've been at post, the local current had devalued 100% (meaning if it took 100 tenge to make a dollar when we arrived, it now takes 200 tenge). We probably should have denominated their allowances in dollars from the start, but tenge is the currency in which they can spend their money, and when you live overseas you want to live in the local currency as much as possible - converting every transaction in your head to dollars is exhausting and is one more thing that prevents you from actually living where you live (unless of course your country uses dollars; some do.)

So we finally caved. The kids are now allowanced in dollars, received at whatever the exchange rate is on payday.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Winter Break: Thailand

After the running around in Cambodia, we had a week in Thailand to do beach-pool-beach. We chose Koh Samui and split the week between two different parts of the island - one more touristy and one quieter. The first place we stayed was across the street and down a little path to the beach, and the part of the beach immediately in front was very very rocky. Hurt-the-feet rocky. On our first day we stupidly didn't wander too far and it turned out we could have gotten away from the rocks within a 5 minute walk. The surf was also a bit strong, and there were tiny jellyfish although they seemed harmless enough.

On our second day we went to visit Grandmother and Grandfather, two rock formations so named because they resemble, um, girl and boy parts. Grandfather was impossible to miss; we weren't 100% sure if what we thought was Grandmother really was. The kids got bored of the rocks real fast, but there was a tiny little beach sheltered by the rocks and they had a blast playing in the waves. We also had our first taste of Leonardo ice cream and sorbet. 10 flavors of ice cream, 20 flavors of sorbet! Alex was in heaven. They were generous with the tastes, and the (owner? manager?) some Italian guy told us all about their process and how they need 7 kilos of lychee to make 2 quarts of sorbet and how they chose the right variety of mango for the mango sorbet. We got passion fruit and mango, kids got coconut (or was it banana?)

On our second day we also met the family in the room next to ours, who had kids about our kids' ages and were at the end of their stay so gave us some good tips. They said there was the night market in Bophut, the fishing village, and it was supposed to be the best night market so they recommended we see it. An exorbitantly expensive taxi ride later - the island is way bigger than I thought - we did. We ate dinner at The Address, a restaurant that was just a random choice but was so good we ended up taking another exorbitantly expensive taxi ride back at the end of our time in Koh Samui to dine there once again. The kids' meals came with ice cream, which Alex of course couldn't have, so we were happy to discover another branch of Leonardo and got her sorted with amazing sorbet.

We rose early the third day to try to catch the sunrise on the beach. On the fourth day we moved to what was the nicest hotel of the trip, save the ungrounded hot water heater in the shower that made Terry's first short a shocker. The kids' room had a full bathroom too, so thereafter we just all showered in there. The sand was so soft, and the beach as calm as a lake. The hotel had kayaks to borrow and the kids each got pretty good at maneuvering on their own (yes even Zoltan).

We tried all four types of mangoes at the grocery store. We brought home three pineapples and 8 mangoes. We ate our weight in mango with sticky rice. We went out for Japanese food (had we known about Cafe Momo at the time perhaps we wouldn't have bothered).

And by the end, we were ready to come out of the heat and return to the snow.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016


I have never, in my adult life, been this sick for this long. I am now rethinking my previously reasonable reasons for not getting the flu shot. Four days at home! If I'm not better tomorrow I don't even know what I'll do.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Cambodia: Sunrise at Angkor Wat

We debated whether it was worth waking up so early to see the sun rise over Angkor Wat. You never know day to day what the sunrise will be like, and if it is  foggy/cloudy then you're just SOL.  Then we thought, "we are never ever coming back here" and we also thought "we brought the kids' headlamps, they will get a kick out of roaming around in the dark" and decided to do it. The hotel packed a box breakfast and at 5am we headed out with hundreds if not thousands of other tourists.

Terry didn't like any of the photos so we won't be showing you sunrise over Angkor Wat.

After the sun rose, we took one last trip to the kids' early favorite, Bantei Kdei. They were way less into it this time (of course! Kids!) but we got a few cool photos.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Cambodia: Silk workshop

On our second-to-last day we went on a tour of a silk workshop. It was pretty exciting for me because the larger project of preserving traditional artisanal craftwork and providing good jobs for Cambodians was a EU project.  There is a beautiful store selling the products of these artisans, and some information about the background and current projects. Some of these young craftspeople do restoration work on ancient buildings (presumably mostly the stone workers), some design and create art for major hotels, government buildings and other high end outlets. Most of the object d'art in the shop were beyond our price point!

But I digress.

The shop sponsors a tour of the silk factory, about 20 minutes away in a more rural setting. There. we saw everything.  We first visited the silkworms, from tiny little worms, to the bigger fatter ones engorging themselves on mulberry leaves, to the more lethargic ones starting to spin their cocoons.

I had no idea silk came from the discarded cocoons of the silk worm. But they do. So when the worms become butterflies and bust out of their cocoons, the cocoons are gathered and the process begins.  First a whole batch of them are boiled. The lady working with the raw silk (outer layer) waved a brush-looking-thing in the boiling water and you could see a few strands catching on it, which were threaded into the first round of spinning. Turns out the local raw silk is a stunning rich golden yellow color.  Fine silk is a slightly (slightly!) more muted yellow.  After the raw silk is drawn off the cocoon, another person does the same process  - boiling and gathering strands to combine into thread - with the fine silk.

The next step is spinning the thread.  One of my favorite things in the shop was the repurposed bike parts. They used the pedal, chain and wheel.  The pedal was the hand crank, and the tire rim held the new thread. Although we didn't get to see the dyeing, there was a display about how the all-natural colorants they used were derived.

The final step is weaving. The looms are huge and impressive.  We saw simple one-color scarves as well as more complex designs. The whole tour definitely made me appreciate, and want to go buy, silk (and of  course this is the point of the whole thing. That's OK.) 

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Thai customer service

When our flight from Astana arrived in Bangkok, there was a lady holding a sign with our names at the gate. She said there was some issue with some paperwork, and she escorted us to a Bangkok Air desk (getting us front-of-the-line service at a few points), waited while the paperwork was sorted out, and escorted us to our gate. We arrived with about 15 minutes to go until boarding and never would have made it without her.

 When we arrived at Koh Samui airport ready to fly home, there was a lady waiting for us outside at the curb of the airport. Turns out we had a very tight connection in Bangkok, so she was waiting just in case we came early enough to get us onto the earlier flight so we'd be sure to make the connection. The flight was full but they were saving 4 seats for us just in case. She ushered us at lightening speed through the check-in desk, security, and off to the flight which departed about 20 minutes after we got to the gate.  It turned out, given the amount of time we had in Bangkok, that if we had gotten on the planned flight we would have had about 20 minutes to get from one end of the airport to the other to catch our plane.  And you know what? With the last minute seating for 4 of us, they actually had us sitting 2 and 2. No 6 year old alone across the plane from his parents.

U.S. carrier airlines: You have a LOT to learn from the Thai carriers.

If only they flew more places we go!

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Cambodia: Bees Unlimited

Our fourth day was definitely the highlight of the trip.  This tour company, Bees Unlimited, had been recommended on some blog, I forget which, and served an unforgettable slice of Cambodian life.  Although the company's origins appear to have been about exploring the flora and fauna related to Cambodia's migratory rafter bees, there is also a wonderful general tour.

As the family had been sick the day before, we forced some toast down everyone's throats before the 7am pickup, even though we knew we were being brought to the local market for breakfast. I tried to taste as many things as possible, but was just too full to get it all down. I did have some delicious coconut milk-tapioca soup with bananas and something else sweet in it to start. Also jackfruit and longan, and sugarcane juice (served in a baggie with a straw, like 20 years ago when I live in Singapore. That was a pretty cool flashback. You haven't drunk a beer until you've drunk it in a baggie from a straw). There was a breakfast I can't remember but it included fried lily pad greens (or some kind of water plant green. It was surprisingly delicious).  Towards the end we tried these fried rice balls with banana. We wandered around the market. This part would have probably been a highlight for a smaller group, but as it was we were 9 people - our family of four and another family of 5 - and the market was crowded, so we could rarely hear what Dani had to tell us about this or that, and we often got caught behind a traffic jam of humanity and had to scramble to sight and catch up with the group. We finally had to tell him we were all done and it was time to move on.

From the market we jumped into our two tuk-tuks and headed into the country. Our first stop was to watch women weaving baskets. Mothers teach their daughters and this is one of the crafts that appears to still be alive. After watching all the different ways people used baskets during our time in Cambodia, we were inspired to want to buy more of our own (I never would have thought to use a basket as a colander! but of course once you see it you say "duh"). From there we visited a Buddhist temple with the brightest color scheme I have ever experienced in a place of worship.  The paintings all over the walls depicted stories from Buddha's life - some I knew, some I didn't. The kids played a game of finding the unusually-colored people (usually blue - Vishnu - or green - not sure who that was).

Palm sugar is a local product.  It starts with syrup. Making syrup is similar to maple syrup - tap the tree, gather the thin, slightly sweet/sticky sap, and boil it forever and a day until it reduces. When it does, it is the consistency of honey. Then they do something to the syrup to dry it into sugar. We went to two different places to see different stages of the process.  The kids were thrilled to have a taste of the thick syrup and wanted to go back for more again and again.

One lady we visited was a cupping practitioner and Terry gamely agreed to have it done. She would "rinse" a glass jar with a flame, then place it on his back to create a suction. It is meant to pull toxins out of the body. It left a massive set of circular red/brown marks on his back - I told him he looked like he had just gotten out of the Matrix. The wife of the other family also got it done. While they lay with the cups we played with the three-week-old puppies.

The kids became bored and cranky after a time, so Dani pulled another trick out of his sleeve. Many (most? all?) tuk-tuk drivers keep hammocks in their vehicle and while waiting for the client (tourist) will sling it across the vehicle and take a nap. So we slung the hammock and the kids got to ride in the hammock while we went from place to place, and if they wanted we'd let them sit out one or another sight and hang out there. They perked up quite a bit with this treat.

We also visited a blacksmith, and a two families who participated in different steps in making rice noodles.  The noodle process is fascinating, they first grind the rice into something like a powder. mix with water to make a paste, then there is this huge contraption to knead the rice dough. When well kneaded, it is then taken across the street to the place that turns it into noodles.  We were able to taste some fresh rice noodles minutes after being made. Yum!

One elderly lady we visited makes incense by hand. She takes bark from a particular tree, and mixes it with an herb or two, waters it into paste and rolls it out onto the sticks to make incense.  She makes two different scents, that's it, and it's all natural, and she sells them out of her home. People know she makes the incense and they come to buy it. We bought some and Alex has been begging to stick some in her room.  Dani explained that this is a traditional craft that is not being preserved - obvious by the lack of youngsters around her, common at many of the other places, learning the process.

Although we were still largely full from the market, we made a bit of room for lunch. For me the bet part was this thin pancake that Dani said was essentially just rice flour, water, and turmeric but it tasted much better than that.

Our last stop was to visit the monkeys. Dani had developed a relationship with one in particular who would (and did) climb up on him, and us, and perch on shoulders or on top of heads. He had brought things to feed them, peanuts and lotus seed pods. The monkeys were careless eaters so a few times I was able to rescue a half-eaten pod and hand out more lotus seeds to the kids. They liked the older, bigger monkeys better as they took the food more civilly - the younger monkeys just grabbed. Of course, we adults noted the bigger monkeys had the leisure of civility, as they often chased smaller monkeys away from the food.

On that high note we headed home for some much needed rest and time by the pool.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Winter Holiday: The sick

In packing for the trip, we realized we hadn't traveled anywhere particularly challenging with the kids until now. Most of our travels had centered around western Europe - reasonable as we lived there between Malta and Russia - and even our first trips from Kazakhstan were Spain and England.  We decided to pack a slightly more detailed medicine chest for this trip "just in case."  Pedialyte now makes a powder packet that can be dissolved in any glass of clean water and this became a critical item on the third day, which began sometime after midnight to the sounds of Zoltan not quite making it out of bed before puking.

The good news was that we had planned for our third day to be a relax-at-the-pool day anyway, figuring two jam-packed temple days in the near-equatorial heat would be enough of a start to the holiday, so in a sense nothing major changed in our plans. The nausea passed through the entire family to varying degrees of severity (only the kids puked though) and was largely gone by the next morning. Conveniently, bananas, toast, and rice figured largely in the hotel's breakfast repertoire and were nibbled throughout the day, while Pedialyte was sipped.

As usual, I was least affected, so the chores of buying more water, finding the pharmacy to see about other relevant medicines, and having the pre-tour conversation with the next day's tour guide fell to me.

As travel illnesses go, this was close to the best possible situation.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Cambodia Day 2: Angkor Wat

For our second day we were more organized, and although it became a bit of a chore to make the guide slow down so we could go our own pace, we enjoyed the day much more than the first. We visited Angkor Wat itself and made sure to take our time, absorb what we were seeing and hearing, and rest often.  This is a part of the world I know very little about, so it was particularly interesting to me to hear about the long ago kings bringing Hinduism, then Buddhism to the country (then back to Hinduism, chipping the Buddhas off the walls, then finally settling back on Buddha). I was also surprised to hear about the wars and alliances (Chinese helping the Khmer fight the Javanese? And wait, how big were these empires - why were the Javanese even in the picture?)

We also made the trek to Bantei Srei (not nearly as interesting as the stuff I had read online lead me to believe, but at least the lengthy car ride gave us some air conditioned time to refresh and relax) and Bantei Kdei, which was hands down the kids' favorite place. If Terry weren't wilting so badly in the heat we would have stayed quite a bit longer. Like the more famous Ta Prom, it has trees growing in, on, and through the crumbling temple complex. Unlike Ta Prom, there are fewer people, fewer guards, and basically the kids could climb on anything they wanted and were only restricted by our parental sense of moderate vs. extreme danger. We closed the day at Ta Prom and I probably would have gotten more from the experience had I ever seen Tomb Raider.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Cambodia Day 1: Angkor Thom

In our sixth year in a 6-month-winter post, I decided demanded the family spend some vacation time somewhere warm enough to wear shorts outside.  We eventually narrowed the world down to a week in Cambodia and a week in Thailand.

We flew into Siem Reap in the evening of December 31 (happy birthday to me!).  I was pretty used to auto-rickshaws, having used them as my primary means of transportation when I was in India many years ago, but these tuk-tuks are a bit different - basically a motorbike with trailer. They are also quite a bit bigger, which was a relief as the hotel transfer vehicle was a tuk-tuk and we were concerned how on earth the thing would get us and all our luggage there. It all worked, the kids were enthralled by the ride, and by the time we got to the hotel and checked in we were ready to crash. We were woken up at midnight for the fireworks we could hear but not see, but thankfully the kids slept through it. We got up relatively early, but it didn't feel too early as the sun rises around 6:30am there. Turns out I am affected by the amount of sunshine I receive, at least, my sleep patterns are.

We had a packed schedule for our first day in Cambodia, and in retrospect we should have been more firm with the tour guide we hired. By lunch I was already confused about which temples we had seen, was worn out and cranky and barely even cared what we did next. Terry did manage to get some pretty pictures though, and the kids had fun working through the activities in their Cambodia guide books we had ordered through EFM-owned Greenfeet Guides.  Zoltan eventually got bored of his, but he's more of a doer than a sit-downer. Alex kept hers alive throughout the vacation, even pulling the book out to cross off new fruits when we tasted them in Thailand.

By the time we were dropped off at the hotel around 4pm, after dropping one temple from the itinerary, we were all beat. The hotel pool provided some much-needed refreshment and we managed to survive until bedtime.