Thursday, January 30, 2014

Another Season of Change

Lots going on right now and thought I'd take a quick break from vacation stories to update everyone.

New/Old Job
As many of you know, I started working at the airline as a Leadership Development Manager. My role was focused on providing tools, strategies and training to help leaders be better leaders. About a year and a half ago, my position was changed to UAE Talent Manager and my focus shifted to managing a graduate development programme of over 200 participants, primarily focused on Emiratis. It's been a very challenging year and a half and while I can't say I enjoyed myself, I can say that I learned a lot and have grown my personal career. I am now in the process of transitioning back to my 'old' role in Leadership Development, which I'm really excited about. It gets me back into what I feel I do best and what I really enjoy. Feeling optimistic!

New Owners?
Our US house went on the market today. Click to see listing After 4 lots of tenants over the past 3 years and the last $1800 cleaning bill from the rental property management company, we decided to put the house up for sale. When we left the US, we were pretty certain we wouldn't live there again, but actually selling it to someone else makes it more final. It's the right decision as we were losing money due to inconsistent renters and it really is a house that should be owned and cared for properly. Still ... feeling nostalgic.

New Digs
Meanwhile in UAE, I mentioned a few weeks ago that we are moving houses. Our current place is being converted into hotel apartments and we can either vacate or put up with construction noise for 4 months, sell all our furniture and pay 21% higher rent. We decided to vacate. So, in a few hours, the movers come and off we go to a new villa. Much more space, a huge backyard (relatively speaking) and what will eventually be a really nice little neighborhood. It's a bit out in the middle of nowhere being almost exactly half way between Abu Dhabi and Dubai. This makes it perfect for us as I work in AD and Brian works primarily in Dubai, but will mean no more delivery service or calling a taxi. I'll share more about the adventure of moving, but here are some of the 'before' photos of the new digs.  Feeling excited!
It's a detached villa with 3 bedrooms, a family room, living/dining, semi-open kitchen, study and a maid's room!! It's the same square footage as our US house and cheaper than the 2 bedroom apartment we're in now.  Yes, more space than we need, but why not?
Nice back yard - we've got the landscapers already started on a patio area and some plants so this is the before view. The kitties suggested we leave it as is ... biggest litter box ever! They were vetoed.
Nice, open floor plan which can be hard to find here. Everything is white so we may have to get a few buckets of paint to warm things up a bit.
Kitchen has more counter space than our previous place, but is still too small for the fridge to be in the kitchen itself. As we looked at the original floor plans, we think the builder made a mistake and continued the counters to the left of the sink instead of leaving a space for the fridge. So, the fridge will go in the maid's room next door. I guess it's a good thing we don't have a maid! But we do have a dishwasher, which we're really excited about after 3 years of hand washing everything.
This is a view of part of the neighborhood from the upstairs bedroom. There is a mix of villas and townhouses in our area and each sub neighborhood is arranged around a little park. Our park is called Lake Park so I'm hoping that gravel area in the middle will eventually be filled with water. Even though the place is brand new (they started renting in September) you can see they've invested a lot in the landscaping to make it feel more established.

The only real issue is they still don't have internet service out there and aren't quite sure when it will finally be resolved. No TV and internet for a while! YIKES! Might have to hang at Starbucks in the evenings so I can update the blog!

Monday, January 27, 2014

Vietnam: The Amazing Cave

Now, I don't know about you, but when someone describes an attraction as "The Amazing Cave", I'm a little skeptical. It's a bit like someone telling you they're really funny. So, we didn't have our hopes too high as we visited the Amazing Cave as part of our Ha Long Bay boat tour.

I'm happy to say that while a bit tourist hokey, it was actually a little bit amazing.

You can see the great view and the number of boats. What was amazing was how many tourists they managed to squeeze into the cave!
The hokey part for us was the use of colored lights. The cave was beautiful, but the colored lights diminished it. And, our tour guide kept telling these boring and elaborate stories about the different rock formations that were clearly made up for the tourists and had no historical relevance. At one point she told this long and rambling tale about a guy trying to peek at some angels bathing, blah, blah, blah. And at the end she points to a shadow on the cave wall and tells us that it is his silhouette, captured for all time because of his naughtiness.  Seriously? That shadow is because you've lit up the place like a Vegas casino. Turn off the light and viola! no shadow and no story. We both decided that  when I retire, I could be a tour guide in "The Amazing Cave" and embellish stories to my heart's content.

Eventually, we got a little ahead of her so we could just take photos and enjoy the cave.

A last Amazing view from the Amazing cave.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Vietnam: Ha Long Bay and Typhoon Nari - Part II

We were finally on our way to see Ha Long Bay. Unfortunately, because of Typhoon Nari, things were overcast and hazy. I can only imagine how gorgeous the place must be in full sun and clear skies.

 This is a floating village of about 300 people. They have a school, a medical center and even a post office.

Next post we'll visit "the Amazing Cave".

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Vietnam: Ha Long Bay and Typhoon Nari - Part I

Our next Vietnam adventure was a flight to Hanoi and then a 3-hour bus ride to Ha Long Bay. Ha Long Bay is said to be one of the most beautiful spots in all of Vietnam, maybe in the top 10 list for the world, I don't know, but it sounded like something we should not miss.

We arrived and spent the night in Hanoi at a really lovely little hotel with some of the best service we've ever had anywhere. Then up early the next morning to catch our bus to Ha Long Bay. To clarify, "bus" is not a luxury Greyhound, but a conversion van with narrow seats and no leg room ... for 3 hours over sometime questionable quality of road. At least the tour guide didn't ask us to sing songs or play bingo. :)

Got to Ha Long and into the queue for our tickets. Lots of people there and lots of different boats (or junks as they called them). 
We finally got our tickets and headed out to our 'junk' called the Calypso Cruiser. Our tour was an overnight option so we started with check in and dropped our bags in our rooms. Cute little rooms with a very comfortable bed and of course, a great view out the window.
We then went back upstairs and had a fantastic lunch and got our safety briefing for the boat  and then waited . . . and waited . . . and waited.

We were finally told that the ??? government, coast guard ??? whomever decides these things, had decided that the weather was too risky to let the boats out in the Bay. The tours here are completely run by the government. Every tour company and boat has to follow the same route and take their approvals and direction from the government authorities that run the Bay. So we were all stuck!

This decision was the result of Typhoon Nari which had hit the middle section of Vietnam the day before and was causing strong winds and rain in the Ha Long Bay. We were traveling with a couple who had been in Hoi An when it started and barely made their flight to Hanoi.

So off we went to check in to one of the local hotels in Ha Long. Not at all the cozy cabin from our boat and a far cry from how we had planned to spend the afternoon and evening. After the early start and 3-hour bus ride, the news was pretty disappointing.
Our hotel lobby and the worst food of the whole trip.
View of the bay from our room that evening.
View the next morning and our fingers crossed that the weak sun meant we'd be able to continue the tour.
The next morning, we got back on the boat in the hopes that they'd let everyone continue with their tours. Because we had only booked the one night, this was our only chance to see the bay so we had our fingers crossed.

Luckily, we did get the okay to visit "The Amazing Cave" (more on that in another post) and a small part of the bay before heading back to Hanoi in the afternoon. It was better than nothing.

And because we had to wait to see the bay (and because I have a bit of a mean streak) you'll have to wait for Part II to see the photos! :)

Monday, January 20, 2014

Veitnam: Saigon City Tour

Another organized tour we arranged was with a company called XO. City tours can be a bit hum drum so we thought this one, astride a scooter and with a Vietnamese young lady as a guide, would be a bit more interesting. The concept was pretty good and the city tour pretty good as well. Here are a few highlights.
Our first stop was the Post Office which seemed to be more of a tourist attraction than an actual post office. Lots of souvenirs for sale and lots of tourists as you can see.
This guy volunteers at the Post Office and has for most of his life. He translates letters for people into a variety of languages. I think the guide said he was in his 80s! He's not employed by the Post Office, but has worked at this table for many many years.
Here is one of our drivers and one of the guides outside the Reunification palace. And yes, it was a bit frightening how they zipped through traffic. Brian's driver was particularly aggressive, but mine is the one who ran into another scooter . . . twice!

The nice thing about the tour is the guide kept taking our picture - we never have pictures of ourselves on our vacations! (I know you're proud of us Kevin ;)
This is a memorial to a monk who lit himself on fire in protest a number of years ago. A beautiful place with a really disturbing history.

Another photo op - this time with our drivers!
The ladies taking a fruit snack break while we visited a Buddhist temple. Even though it was warm, many of them wore hooded long sleeved sweatshirts and gloves. Not against the cold, but against the sun. Having perfectly white skin is the goal here.
Inside the temple, our guide bought each couple an incense cone, which is supposed to bring good luck. The pink slip on the top has our name on it. We light it and then hang it from the ceiling and we'll have good luck for the next few days as the incense burns.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Vietnam: The Food!

The food in Vietnam? In a word - delicious! Like many tropical climates, most of the food is very fresh, lots of vegetables and spicy if you want it that way. What I love most is the interesting flavor combinations. The concept is to pair opposites in all dishes: tangy with sweet, soft with crunchy, hot with cold ... and it works. 
This is a plate of steamed tapioca - it's a root vegetable also called manioc or cassava.  It tastes a bit like potato but has more flavor. The dish on the side is a combination of sugar and ground peanuts. You dip the tapioca in the mixture and it's heavenly.
Look closely - do you see the scorpion in the bottle? This is cobra/scorpion wine. They also had snake wine, spider wine ... no, we weren't brave enough to try any!
This is an order of spring rolls. You get all the ingredients and then make it yourself at the table. Noodles, veggies, this one was a type of fish, lettuces, citrus and spicy pepper and sauces. The sauces alone could be a separate post - really tangy or sweet or salty. There was absolutely no need to ever use salt and pepper on your food.

The two photos above were taken at our favorite restaurant. Not the fanciest one we visited, but definitely the best food. It was at the top of 5 flights of stairs and I only got the first photo because we took the wrong flight and ended up overlooking our destination but not able to get there. Yes, those are chickens in the rooftop restaurant!
This last one is one of the bar/restaurants not too far from our apartment in Saigon.  It was a much fancier place than most we visited and really pretty. A huge contrast to our first night on the street having chicken soup. (see my first Vietnam post).

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Vietnam: Mekong Delta

Another day tour was to the Mekong Delta area. On this tour we got to see the countryside and how the river villages live. It was a bit rushed and hokey as tours can sometimes be, but still gave us a different view of Vietnam from the city of Saigon.
Lots of bright green rice paddies on our trip to the delta. The weather was a little overcast so the color isn't quite right, but you still get the idea.
This is the boat we used to travel the delta area.
A barge carrying sugar cane. The photo below shows the front of the boat. The sailors paint eyes on the front of the boats to scare away the snakes in the water. We didn't see any snakes so I assume the eyes were working. ;)

Our first stop was a little island that sold honey, jams and candies to the tourists. The whole area was really a tourist attraction so I'm not sure how authentic any of it really was, but it seemed honest enough and we did see some bee keepers and honey combs. Here we were served honey tea with bee pollen and got to try some royal jelly and a few snacks.  And then, of course, were urged to buy all of it to take home with us.
The next island stop was to taste the fruits of Vietnam and listen to some local music. The music was very Eastern, high pitched and whiny to our ears. We didn't care for it much, but was interesting to hear. The fruits were interesting as well and we were impressed to find that we had seen all but one in Abu Dhabi.

The next island stop was were they make coconut candy. Above is how they remove the outer casing from the coconut. Below is the coconut candy caramel that they lay out to cool in this grooved tray.
The candy is cut into pieces once cooled and then wrapped first in rice paper (that you can eat) and then in wrapping paper. All by hand. It was pretty good and we ended up buying some to take home.

I'm not really sure why they had a python in a box, but when we were offered a chance to hold it for photos, Brian stepped right up! I decided to pass on the experience.
After lunch, we had a nice boat ride on the river. It was beautiful and really peaceful. We each got a traditional Vietnamese hat to shade us from the sun and while stunningly attractive, we resisted the urge to bring a pair back with us. :)

It was a fun day and gave us the opportunity to see another side of the Vietnamese culture.