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storm trippin'

Last Build Date: Fri, 11 Nov 2016 14:21:50 +0000


Buying a duty-free car in Zarqa Free Zone

Sat, 08 Dec 2012 16:34:00 +0000

Two and a half months into Amman and I finally picked up our car today. I purchased a used 2010 Toyota Prius from the Zarqa Free Zone.  If you don't import your own car from abroad, there are 3 main options for buying a duty-free car in Amman.     1. Buy a car from a departing diplomat. Check with colleagues, or agency e-bulletin board for car ads. and also list duty-free cars.   2. Buy new from a brand-name distributor. Many of the car brands can be found along Mecca St.  A few are scattered around Amman, for example, Honda is located on Queen Rania, just north of Al Shareef Naser Ben Jameel street. I mention the Honda dealer since it took me a couple attempts to locate the shop.   3. Buy and import a car in the Zarqa free zone.Option 1, buy from another diplomat, was not a viable option for us. The available cars we saw were too big, or too old, or too fancy.I considered Option 2, buying a new car, investigating many different brands.  I looked at the Hyundai Sonata, which is inexpensive, good fuel economy, well-rated & reviewed, and stylish.  The Hyundai salesman was kind enough to point out that unlike the North American market, the Sonata in the Jordan market only comes with 1 airbag.  Without an airbag, the car is cheaper, and since so many people drive with their children in the front seat, it's dangerous to have an passenger side airbag!  Another salesman pointed out that buying a new car is not always wise because of losing $2-3,000 as soon as I drive the car off the dealership. I asked about a new Toyota Prius, but they did not have new Prius in stock and they cost $40,000USD.In hindsight, buying a new car at the dealer would have likely been the easiest and quickest option, but I lived the adventure of buying a car from the free zone.  Let me share the procedure with you.  Perhaps if I share my experience, you will succeed in buying a car in less than the 2.5 weeks that I required to obtain the car.In a nutshell, the free zone duty-free process is:- select car in the free zone and have it inspected (mechanics are available in the free zone)- take sales contract & VIN & engine number to your protocol officer- protocol officer puts together paperwork from the government (this takes 1 to 2 weeks)- back to the free zone to have the car cleared through the free zone customs. This is at least a day of waiting.- return any and ALL customs paperwork to your protocol officer who has Ministry of Foreign Affairs stamp the papers- return to free zone for the car license, and plates to be completed. Don't forget to ask for the basic insurance.  Another half day of waiting.- drive home!If you are lucky, someone will take care of the above for you.  Me, I had to make 6 trips to the free zone.If you don't need the gruesome details, stop reading.  But I wish someone had explained the process in more detail to me, so I hope the following details will be useful to other interested parties and help guide through the quagmire of bureaucracy.First I needed to learn how to get to the free zone and to review the cars available in the free zone.  I set an appointment with my friendly taxi driver to take me to the free zone.  The free zone is about an hour drive northeast of Amman, a few kilometers east of Al Zarqa.  The free zone encompasses hectares and hectares of cars, trucks, and construction equipment available from dozens and dozens of importers and dealers.  The cars range from brand new Kia and Hyundai to used Mercedes to smashed junkers.  The choice is overwhelming.Initially, I was interested in looking for a used Toyota Rav4 or Honda CRV.  However, during our initial 4 hour tour of the free zone, I did not see a single Rav4 or CRV. You may have more success as the selection of cars changes weekly and even daily. Without seeing Rav4 or CRV, I started to focus on Toyota Prius.  Since Jorda[...]

Moving Adventures

Thu, 27 Sep 2012 19:14:00 +0000

North America, Asia, Africa, Middle East, all within 6 years.  A friend recently asked if I enjoyed the peripatetic lifestyle.  After I looked up the meaning of this multi-syllable word that I'll stumble over if I attempt to speak it in a sentence, I thought, ya, we have been living a peripatetic lifestyle.  Do I enjoy it?  I enjoy seeing new sights, delight in tasting new food, enjoy seeing & experiencing a different culture. I hate the moving process, hate finding a new place to live, dislike living out of a suitcase for an extended period, dislike camping out in temporary housing.  And unlike South Africa, there is not a ready supply of cheap wine here in Jordan to help me soothe my hates and dislikes!Here's a little story related to why I hate moving.  I know this story could happen to anyone at anytime, but it happened while we were leaving South Africa, so it has added to my I-hate-moving feeling. The week we left South Africa, we told our local S.A. bank that we were leaving the country, so we needed to cash out the Rand in our bank account into US dollars. "Sure, no problem, send us an email saying how much Rand you want to convert to US dollars, and come back Friday to collect."  We go back Friday morning and the bank says they didn't receive the email, so there are no US dollars ready; I have a copy of the sent email and there were no bouncebacks; yes, I know, I should have followed up with a phone call because South Africa doesn't do email very well.  Ok, so come back Saturday morning and the US dollars will be ready. We return Saturday morning and the money is not ready because i) it takes a day to order the US Dollars, and ii) US dollars are not delivered to the bank on Saturday.  They recommend I take the money out of our account in Rand, and change the Rand in to US dollars at the airport because the airport always has US dollars. "No, no problem to convert it at the airport".  Of course, the bank was running short on Rand so I had to wait with a couple other customers while the bank found Rand.Now to the airport on Saturday evening before departure.  Turns out each person is only allowed to convert 10,000 Rand at the airport.  We had more than 10,000 Rand each.  Sigh, why didn't the bank mention this?  Now, I had to go to the bank's airport branch and deposit the excess Rand that we couldn't convert.  I go to the teller window with my bank card and said I need to deposit the cash. "Please fill out a deposit slip".  With ATMs and e-banking, I think it's been years since I've filled out a deposit slip.  I leave the Amount field empty, go to the teller and ask her to deposit all the cash.  "Please fill in the amount".  I ask her to count the money with her money-counting machine and fill in the amount for me. "Please fill in the amount".  Sigh.  I painstakingly count out the pile of bills and fill in the amount.  She takes the cash and slip and counts the money with her money-counting machine.  ARGHGHGH@#$@#$@#$.  And of course I had counted wrong.  "Do you want to deposit this extra 100 Rand?".  Trying not to blow my stack I reply in the affirmative.  She corrects the amount on the deposit slip. "Please fill in a new deposit slip".  You have got to be flippin' joking?!?!   So I had to fill in a new deposit slip because they don't accept deposit slips where the numbers have been changed.  And to top off this mind-numbing experience, the bank charges us R94 (about $11) in service fees for this experience with the teller.  Outstanding.While on the subject of money and foreign exchange, here is a positive story about moving and not having to deal with foreign exchange at South Africa banks.  On 2 occasions I changed Rand to USD or USD to Rand at our South African bank.  Both occasions involved filling out a 2 page form asking for name, address, ID, reason for changing the money, etc., etc.  Total time of 15-20 mi[...]

I choose you Pikachu!

Mon, 03 Sep 2012 18:46:00 +0000

The boy decided on a Pokemon-themed birthday party. With a little help from the Internet, we produced a Pikachu cake and Pokemon ball cupcakes. Not half bad in our opinion!

Pikachu cake 
1. Make a double batch of hot milk cake in a 9x13 pan.
2. Find a suitable Pikachu image and enlarge it to cover most of the 9x13 pan.
3. After the cake cools, place the Pikachu image over the cake.  It can be temporarily pinned in place with a couple toothpicks.
4. Using a sharp knife, trim the cake around the Pikachu image.  Don't hold the knife vertical; slant the handle into the middle of Pikachu to help provide roundness to the sides of Pikachu.
 5. Remove the image and round the edges, carve depth around the arms and ears.  Optionally cut a foot or other body parts to place on top for a 3-D effect.

 6. Ice him!  Bulk up the icing on his belly and face to help the 3-D effect.  We used fruit leather cutouts for the eyes.

Pokemon ball cupcakes
Chocolate cupcakes, half white icing, half red, fruit leather strip down the middle topped with chocolate chip. yumm! 

Safari, Safari

Fri, 30 Sep 2011 10:43:00 +0000

As a young lad growing up in rural Ontario, the idea of going on an African safari seemed too exotic, too remote, too far beyond the reality of snowdrifts or baling hay or slopping out pig manure or homework. Here we are many years later and the family and I are living in South Africa and have been fortunate to be on 2 safari weekends within the last 5 weeks, for a total of 3 safari weekends since we arrived 9 months ago.An Easter weekend trip to Pilanesberg, a great trip to Kruger with friends at the end of August, and a visit to the Madikwe Game Reserve this last weekend.Kruger National Park is probably the best-known of the South Africa National Park. It's huge. Almost 2 million hectares. We explored a very small corner of the park around the Malelane gate and the lower Sabie river. We went on a few self-drives with friends and saw a great deal of lumbering elephants, crocs lounging along the water's edge, a handful of kudu, rhinos at a watering hole, giraffe, an out-of-the-water stationary hippo in the dusk, bumps of hippo backs in the water, impala, burly buffalo, yellow hornbill birds and more fowl.Self-drive safaris are a bit of gamble, driving around looking for game through the dense bush & grasses, or a more effective method than aimless wandering is to look for cars stopped at the side of the road looking for game. Pull up beside the group of stationary cars, look in the direction they are looking and hope to see the spectacle that they see. At one gathering point, there were 20 or more cars in a jumbled mass, each jockeying to see a leopard sitting up in a tree a few metres from the roadside. However, there was only a small fraction of the roadside where a car could sit and hopefully see the leopard through the foliage. Chances of nosing the car into that precious slot with so many other animal-hungry park-goers are very slim. We thought of conducting experiments: stopping at a random spot on the roadside, pointing excitedly into the bush and see how many other cars we could get to stop and peer with us.Game drives with a guide are more effective for animal viewing. The guides communicate with each other on their radios and can let each other know of animal locations, and in a private game reserve, the guides can off-road to view some of the animals; no off-roading is allowed for elephants or rhinos. Off-roading greatly improves animal viewing as even a massive elephant can quickly disappear into the brush and trees of the veld.This last weekend we visited Tau Game Lodge in the Madikwe Game Reserve on the Botswana border. During our 3 guided game drives, we ticked off from our animal-viewing list:All the Big 5:a leopard sleeping in a tree on top of his half-eaten warthog kill3 groups of lions: 19 lions in totalelephantsrhinoa herd of cape buffaloPlus:2 of the endangered African wild dogzebraimpalagiraffekudured hartebeestears, glowing eyes, and back of a serval in the night grassgemsbok (Oryx gazella)a troop of naughty monkeys on the lodge propertymany birdsCome for a visit, go on your own African safari adventure and start ticking off the animals on your Must-See list![...]

Quest for Phỏ

Sat, 28 May 2011 17:46:00 +0000

Here on the right you might notice the KOTO cook book, a Bobby Chinn Vietnamese food cookbook, a Buddha book, a pic in the background of a woman in an áo dài and a conical hat, and the coasters with a typical Vietnamese design, and you might think... is this an old picture from their time in Vietnam? No, this pic is less than a couple weeks old. Let me tell you what happened...After a few months out of Vietnam, we have been going through withdrawal. We are in the land of braai and meat and biltong (aka beef jerky), and lately our bodies have been craving a good bowl of phỏ gà. That's pronounced phuh, not foe. A good simple, fresh, complex-flavoured bowl of Vietnamese chicken noodle soup. We made it our mission to find phỏ gà. And if that mission fails we'll have to learn to make phỏ, but knowing we'd likely be disappointed by our phỏ-making attempts, and knowing our phỏ would never live up to the high standard set by Lăp, our cook in Hanoi.In our brief experience, Pretoria does not have a plethora of "exotic" restaurants, so we knew Johannesburg might host a Vietnamese restaurant with worthy phỏ. An Internet search did reveal Saigon Phỏ, 44 Stanley Ave., Milpark. Would it live up to expectations? With Phỏ in the name of the restaurant, our expectations were set high.One weekend we made the trip to Jo-burg and explored 44 Stanley Ave. 44 Stanley Ave appears to be an industrial/warehouse area that has been re-developed into galleries, boutiques, restaurants and apartments. The inner courtyard of 44 Stanley was busy with many people on the patio of a popular restaurant. After a brief exploration, we found Saigon Phỏ tucked away in the corner. The tastefully decorated interior transported us back to Vietnam, back to our home away from home. The decor items implied the owners have visited Vietnam, likely on many occasions. (web bios of Saigon Phỏ said the cook is Vietnamese)Fortunately it was worth the drive to Jo-burg. The service at Saigon Phỏ is great, all the employees very friendly. The phỏ is served with add-your-own-as-you-please bean sprouts, onion, lime, and basil. A decent amount of fat floating on the broth, nice thin strips of chicken. The flavours a little different from the northern variation made by Lăp, a little more peppery. And of course, as to be expected, the banh phỏ noodles not as fresh as in Hanoi. Overall, a very good bowl of phỏ. A bit of a drive to Jo-burg, but we'll be back some day, when the craving strikes again.Now that we've found decent phỏ, dare we hope for more and find phỏ closer to home?Yes, we could hope. Last week we learned of a new restaurant, recently opened a mere 4 blocks away, under the name of Viet Pho. So close, and again Phỏ in the name, so expecting Phỏ is a signature dish, could we hope for anything more? We visited this last weekend to satisfy our curiousity and to satisfy our craving.Decor: pic of a junk boat, couple conical hats hanging on the wall, and a facade of a bamboo-tiled roof. Owner: Chinese. Hmmm. Service: very good, and very friendly.We order prawn rolls for appetizers. They arrive very heavily fried, of the type you would expect from a Chinese restaurant. Uh-oh, our expectations are falling rapidly.The phỏ arrives and with a quick look our expectations drop faster. Very little fat floating in the broth. The chicken is all breast meat and over 2.5 cm wide -- much too wide for our taste & experience. And the taste? Not so much. Not complex at all, not nearly as much flavour as there should be. We left with our bowls much fuller than our nearly-empty bowls after Saigon Phỏ.With a name like Viet Pho we'd expected phỏ to be a signature dish, but not to be. We may go back again to try other dishes, but we're not expecting too much.Next project: try to make our own phỏ. Here's hoping.[...]

Easter Safari

Tue, 26 Apr 2011 19:41:00 +0000

Easter Weekend. Long weekend. Let's go see some animals!

Friday morning and we eased our way out of Pretoria with holiday traffic. Fortunately the bulk of traffic was heading east on the N1 while we headed west on the N4 so we weren't languishing in traffic for very long. A couple hours west of Pretoria in North West province is the Pilanesberg Game Reserve nestled in an ancient volcano crater. On the road there, we passed a few platinum mines and along one stretch of highway saw hectares of sunflowers.

The first afternoon we lounged around the lodge and pool, resting for our early morning game drive. Up at 5:30am for a game drive around the reserve and observe baboons, giraffes, wildebeest, red hartebeest, beautiful twisted horns of the male kudu, blue-helmeted guinea fowl, leopards hiding in the hills, and more. The highlight of the morning was the 4 lions with their morning kill. Nearly every vehicle in the park congregated near the scene of the kill, creating a traffic jam as vehicles jockeyed to get a closer look at the carnivores in action. I guess it was quite a treat for us to see lions with their kill; a fellow traveller had been to the park on 6 previous occasions, seeing lions each time, but this was the first time seeing lions with their lunch. The lions paid no attention to the metal intruders driving by, calmly gnawing meat & bone and licking blood off each other's jowls. After a couple hours in the reserve it was time to drive back to the lodge for breakfast.

Later in the day we rode on the evening game drive, seeing bumps of hippos in the water, encountering a crash of rhinos in the bush, a few towers of giraffes, small zeal of zebra, herds of wildebeest and springbok. As dark descended we headed back to the scene of the lion kill. I was expecting the lions to be finished their meal, leaving the scraps for the jackals that were circling around earlier, however, the females were just sauntering off when we arrived and the males were still lingering over the carcass. Spotlights from the game drive trucks illuminated the females as they slowly, confidently, smoothly & gracefully walked across the grassland. At one point, all the lights of the game vehicles were turned off and low rumbling grumbling roars from the 2 male lions punched through the pitch-black night only a few metres from the truck. Gave us the chills.

While driving us back to dinner, the driver managed to find elephants walking along the road, out hunting for some good grazing. At one point, the elephant seemed to get annoyed by the following vehicle and turned halfway around in the road, paused as if to say "buzz-off", then continued on. We turned around shortly after that to head back for our buffet barbeque.

An enjoyable weekend seeing animals of Africa and the kids even got to enjoy an Easter egg hunt around the game lodge before we headed back to Pretoria.


Tue, 22 Feb 2011 07:40:00 +0000

A couple weekends ago we had a great day trip to the local Lion Park. The Lion Park is a quick and easy 30 to 40 minute drive from Pretoria just outside of Johannesburg. Even still, about halfway there a voice from the backseat inquires "When will we be there? This is a long ride!" Hycarumba, obviously we don't take enough long road trips with our kids. In my old man voice I start telling stories, "well, when I was a little boy we'd drive for an hour before we'd see the next town... I used to drive 8 hours across Ontario to go home for the weekend... maybe you'll learn some patience if we let you out here and you can walk to the Lion Park - See Ya!"After paying admission, we drive our car through highveld fields viewing a few zebra, a lot of blesbok and a few other herbivores. It was a fun game for the kids to be the first to spot the animals hiding in the grass. After the herbivore fields, it was on to the carnivore pens. We didn't know what to expect -- would the lions be lunging at the car? wanting to reach through our closed windows? chasing each other around the enclosures? growling at each other? yea, right, they were all a bunch of snoozers. Just like a lazy housecat it appears large cats also spend much of their day lounging, stretching, yawning, napping, snoozing, and repeat until comatose. Pretty putty tats, but not very active. Each pride of lions has their own enclosure and the last enclosure housed 3 cheetahs (sleeping of course) and a handful of hyenas. Man, hyenas are ugly, ugly, ugly. They were also sleeping. I was wishing I had a couple jackrabbits to throw out of the car near the cheetahs to see if the scent of a quick snack would jolt them out of their stupor and show us a brief burst of speed.After the pleasant drive through the park, we joined the queues to pet the lion cubs. I thought the cubs might be more frisky and energetic than the adult cats we had just seen. Wrong. The only muscles moving in these cubs were their lungs, not a twitch or bat of an eyelash as we tourists entered their cages to pet them. I heard a park ranger say the cubs wake up at 4:30pm each day for exercise and rough-housing -- that I gotta see as I wouldn't think these coma cats have that much energy in them.After the cubs we queued up to feed the giraffes. There are a couple giraffes in the park and they have a sweet deal. The giraffes appear to a system: one giraffe will lounge under a shady tree while the other stands by the giraffe feeding station lapping up treats from the tourists until his belly is about to burst. Then the lounging giraffe tag teams in, letting the gorged giraffe to lounge for a while. And these giraffes know how to work the tourists -- if a person tries to withhold the food from the giraffe in attempt to make the giraffe reach further for the food, the giraffe simply turns his head away and waits it out until the person gives up their teasing. The giraffe knows he only has to wait a few seconds and the next person in the queue will be along with their easy meal.All in all, it was a pleasant, enjoyable outing and the kids had a really good time. They said it was much better than going to a mall!Flickr pics:[...]

Relocated to Brooklyn

Thu, 27 Jan 2011 19:12:00 +0000

We are now relocated to the Southern Hemisphere in Brooklyn, Pretoria, South Africa. Naveen thinks we're upside down now that we are south of the equatorand he wants me to explain why we don't fall off the earth...Note to anyone moving to Pretoria -- don't arrive during the Christmas and New Year holidays. Or if you do arrive at that time, don't expect to get much done. The town is quiet, very quiet. Most Pretorians leave town for the holidays and those left in town are holidazed. That said, with few occupants and little traffic it was a good quiet time to arrive and adjust to driving on the left side and to learn our way around the city.Moving to Pretoria is quite different than our first days in Hanoi. In Hanoi, our senses were flooded by new sights, sounds and smells. A simple walk down the street was an adventure of discovery. Pretoria is almost familiar. Highways, malls and weather from San Jose. Small government, university city feel of Ottawa and even an Experimental Farm. Aside from the security fences and alarm systems, nature reserves in the city, panhandlers standing in the middle of the road at intersections, more than 2 handfuls of official languages, and having to think twice before walking down the street, yes, Pretoria is almost familiar. This picture to the right tries to capture our initial impression of Pretoria and South Africa: the beautiful flowers and trees representing the natural beauty, but strands of electric fencing representing the security concerns.Not many capital cities have cars whizzing a few metres from animals in reserves or sanctuaries. These pics are from the Austin Roberts Bird Sanctuary where the kids have enjoyed time on the playground and we've enjoyed a snack at the Blue Crane restaurant. So nice to have access to parks and green space.Moving is always a pain, settling into new routines. At least we don't have a language barrier here like we had in Hanoi. The first few days I was occupied with electric security fence installation, gate motor replacement, swearing that the world hasn't standardized on electrical plugs & outlets, hiring a 24x7 security guard company, learning pool maintenance (see the pool boy in training...), finding Internet access, and numerous other household tasks. Anyhow enjoying the weather here and looking forward to travelling this beautiful and interesting country over the next few years. Come visit![...]

Shopping in Hanoi

Sun, 14 Nov 2010 09:08:00 +0000

Today we had a typical Hanoi shopping experienced.

At Shop #1 we found a pair of Crocs shoes for Naveen. The shopkeeper girl started the bargaining at 350,000. Geeta got her down to 200,000. Thank goodness for Geeta's bargaining, as I am never able to get the shopkeepers to budge from their starting price. I can't bargain my way out of a wet paper bag.

Step 3 paces to the left to Shop #2 where we found Crocs for Asha. "Bao nhiêu tiền?" -- How much?, we ask. The shopkeeper starts the bargaining at 150,000. Egads! Her starting price is less than the final price at the shop next door!?! We just had to laugh: laugh at the frustration of shopping in Hanoi, laugh that we overpaid at the first shop, laugh that either shopkeeper's price is still much cheaper than what we'd pay back home for Crocs.

Great Mai Chau weekend

Sun, 19 Sep 2010 12:49:00 +0000

Originally uploaded by kevjblack
We recently spent a very relaxing weekend with friends at the Mai Chau lodge, about a 3.5 hour drive southwest of Hanoi in Hoa Binh province. So lovely to be out of Hanoi and in the peaceful cool green of the hills and rice fields.

For the last 3 years, the highway heading west out of Hanoi had usually been a 2-lane construction zone with cars passing in and out of free spaces between huge lumbering dump trucks and motorcycles and bicycles squeezing past on the shoulder. This time, I was surprised to see 3 lanes of smooth highway in each direction lined with street lamps, fences to keep out wandering cows and overpasses for the sideroads and biways. Looking at the open stretch of highway one would think of putting the pedal to the metal and reaching a cruising 80 or 100 km/h. However, this being Vietnam and the fact the highway is not quite completed, there are still gaps in the fence for cows to wander on the highway, women pushing their bicycle loads of cargo across the 3-lane strip, the inside fast-lane has periodic piles of dirt, and to save going the long way around there will be front-end loaders coming toward you in the fast-lane. So slow down. And those overpasses over the highway end in the middle of the rice fields a few metres off the highway -- the overpasses have been built, but there are yet no roads to connect with.

The rice fields and cowpaths along this new highway will fill in with high-rise apartments and rows of houses in the coming decade. Every few kilometres were huge roadsigns hosting artists renditions of the developments and extolling the luxury of modern living. We shall see. There are a number of construction sites in Hanoi that have started with grand promises then faltered as money ran out.

Enough about the highway, what about Mai Chau itself? Lovely sunsets, peaceful setting, cooling breezes, kids having fun in the pool, adventures exploring the cave across from the lodge, and lazy meandering through the nearby village and rice fields. Some inconsistent meals from the Lodge's kitchen, but other than that, a very enjoyable weekend.

Quote of the Day

Fri, 13 Aug 2010 06:50:00 +0000

Thanks to her older cousin introducing her to Facebook, our 4 year old daughter while randomly snapping blurry pics with her new Kidizoom camera says: "Dad, how do I get these on Facebook?"

4 years

Mon, 07 Jun 2010 07:52:00 +0000

pink family
Originally uploaded by kevjblack
Why are we sporting pink? Because our daughter chose to have a pink birthday party for her 4th birthday. Her desire to have a full-blown princess party was vetoed & we settled for a "come dressed in pink, else you stink" party.

It was a party weekend with Naveen attending a friend's birthday on Friday afternoon, we hosted Asha's party on Saturday afternoon, a friend's 40th party on Saturday night, and a colleague's going away party on Sunday evening. We had to return to work & school on Monday to rest & recover from the weekend!

Highlights of the pink party: Pink balloons, pink roses, pink crepe paper, pink Chinese lanterns, pink ribbons, pink cupcakes, pink face-painting, find-the-pink-items-that-were-hidden-by-the-evil-pink-fairy treasure hunt, pink icing, and attendees loved taking home a pink feather boa.

A small collection of b-day pics:

PS: she measures taller than her brother on his 4th birthday!

Get outta town

Sat, 01 May 2010 12:49:00 +0000

The girls are out of town travelling. The young lad is out of school for a week on Spring Break. What to do? Get outta town... at least for a couple days.Destination: I thought to go somewhere around Ba Vì which is about 65 to 70km west of Hanoi; our driver had suggested Khoang Xanh. I had bicycled to Sơn Tây before while out exploring, so was comfortable getting there, after that, I only had a vague idea of the routing to Ba Vì and Khoang Xanh. The Khoang Xanh web site has a rough map, but of course, it's not to scale and doesn't indicate distance. Personally I'm a map guy -- gimmee a detailed map and I can get there. But Vietnamese don't often use maps, they simply head in the general direction and ask for directions along the way. Even when Naveen went on a school field trip to a paper recycling plant, the hired bus drivers had to stop at a lean-to concession stand in the middle of nowhere under an overpass and ask for directions (hmm, you're in charge of a bus of kindergarten kids and you don't know where you're going?!?!?). Ask a xe ôm (motorbike taxi) driver if he knows how to get to a certain street, "oh, yes, yes, no problem", then along the way he starts asking for directions...So this trip, we'll do as the Vietnamese, head to the general area and ask for directions when we start to get lost.Monday morning: throw son and a couple backpacks of clothes and snacks in the Chariot. Head west along the Red River. Stop for a snack. Arrive in Sơn Tây. Ask for directions in Sơn Tây a couple times. Yay, we're going the right direction! Exit Sơn Tây toward Ba Vi. We stopped to eat our packed lunch on the pavement in front of a shuttered shop outside of Sơn Tây. Next door was a bicycle repair shop. The kindly old man operating the repair shop kindly invited us over to the shop's front step, pulling out a couple seat cushions for us to sit on. Times like this I'm disappointed with my laziness and ineptitude with languages; it'd be nice to be able to fully understand and answer the old man's questions. Note that I have attempted Vietnamese lessons, however, the instructor was sometimes hoarse by the end of a lesson; hoarse from laughing at my atrocious pronunciation. By now, we were in the Ba Vì area and started to see signs for the tourist destinations in the area, including signs to Khoang Xanh. No problem making our way now. Oh, one problem, the terrain is starting to roll, and to go uphill. Playing locomotive to Naveen and 2 backpacks are starting to wear me down. He's a big solid lad. On next year's trip, no more lounging in the Chariot playing games on the iPod, he's gotta start pulling his own weight. We'll need a tag-along bike for him...Happily we chugged up the last hill and arrived at the Khoang Xanh gate, paid our 50,000 dong entry fee and went to rent a room and order some lunch. 65 klicks of Vietnam countryside in about 4 hours.I had thought about staying 2 nights, however, we discovered a problem with our plan:the swimming pool and water slides were closed for cleaning the mud baths were closed many of the buildings were under construction mid-week in low season is quiet, too quiet. There were 2 other guests who stayed overnight. Since there are so few people, the restaurant is not fully stocked, and the little food they did offer, Naveen did not care for.So we headed back home on Tuesday.Highlights of the trip:Naveen had a blast being an explorer, climbing up the rocks and waterbed of the stream that bubbled down the side of the hill in Khoang Xanh. we saw fireflies in the evening! 14 fireflies by Naveen's count. rolling through the various shades of green of the Vietnam countryside. a white-guy bicycling with a trailer is a rare site outside of Hanoi, [...]

Electronics repairs

Sun, 25 Apr 2010 15:32:00 +0000

We have a PlayStation 2 which we use to play DVDs.  Ya, right, as if I have time to play video games.

One day, we had a critical need to play DVDs.  We had 2 other families over to visit.  6 kids in total.  Noisy, noisy, noisy.  We needed to put on a DVD to quieten the herd.  I go to power up the PS2.  Nada, not even a power light in sight.  It's dead Jim.

Recently I asked our maid if she could take the PS2 to get it fixed.  She took it to a shop who called back and said they opened the PS2 and found a fried gecko zapped across some electronics.  It's dead Jim.  The l'il lizard must have crawled in the rear fan vent, and was having a nap when I sent power through the unit. Toasted.

Fortunately, the shop was able to repair the PS2.  For less than $15 USD.  Awesome.

Upon the success of the PS2 repair, the maid also took in my cordless drill charger which had been fried when a worker plugged it into a 220V outlet.  zzzzt, there goes the charger which only accepts 120V.  The shop rebuilt the charger for less than $8 USD.  Lovely. 

If you're looking for an electronics repair shop in Hanoi, check out: Vitek - Hoàng Hiếu, 178 Đội Cấn, Ba Dình, Hà Nội 

Alley wedding

Sun, 25 Apr 2010 14:21:00 +0000

It was a busy weekend in our alley. Our landlord's nephew was married this weekend and the celebration occupied our alley on Saturday and our front yard hosted part of the reception.

On our side of the alley is our landlord's brother house, then our landlord's house, our house, then the landlord's brother has a house rented to expats. All 4 houses took part in the reception: the landlord's yards were used for cooking and a few tables of guests, our front yard had 9 tables under a tent and a couple tables in the garage, while our expat neighbour's house hosted the main tent: the wedding sign, the sound system, and 9 more tables. The rest of the alley was clogged with motorbike parking.

Thankfully Vietnam is a culture of morning wedding receptions so we didn't have to endure a rockin' party in our front yard into the midnight hour. Saturday's wedding reception started with guests trickling in around 10am, the brief speeches and meal over by 1pm, the drinking rounds of "mot, hai, ba!" over by 2pm, and everything dismantled, washed down and scrubbed cleaned by 4pm.

Platters of food were delivered to our door about 10:30: fried fish, boiled chicken, chicken & bamboo shoot soup, more chicken soup, sticky rice, battered prawns, fried corn, and more fried fish. Quite the feast! A welcome feast since we hadn't got around to planning any lunch yet. Actually my plan was not to plan any lunch as I expected we'd be invited to the wedding lunch at the last minute. In North America, the wedding hosts stress and stress about the invitations, who to invite, how many to invite, and send out invitations months in advance -- perhaps a "save-the-date" invitation and then an official invitations a few weeks later. Much the opposite in Vietnam. A Vietnamese friend tells me he is usually informed of a wedding a few days in advance: 'your cousin is getting married this weekend, we want you to come'. Since the wedding was literally on our doorstep, I figured our invite would arrive at the last second. Sure enough, when I took the kids out to see the sights of the wedding, the bride's uncle warmly invited us to join the wedding lunch.

I took the kids out a couple times for them to take photos of the setup in our front yard and the wedding party. Some of the in-focus pics are on our flickr site: Unfortunately, they were overwhelmed by the crowds when all the guests arrived, so the kids didn't get pics of the bride & groom and the throngs of people.

The wedding attire was a mix of formal and casual. The bride had a lovely white dress (wedding dress shops are everywhere in Vietnam, even in small villages that don't offer many other shops), the older women wore gorgeous áo dài, many of the men wore suits, while the school chums slummed down with jeans and t-shirts.

Quote of the Week

Wed, 03 Mar 2010 02:04:00 +0000

While watching the Olympics this last weekend we tried the impress upon the kids the values of hard work, competition, team spirit, national pride, and the fun of sport.

G, to the kids: ".. And maybe someday maybe mommy and daddy will be at the Olympics watching you guys compete for a gold medal. Which sport do you think you'll play?"

Naveen, matter-of-factly: "whatever's the easiest"

Sigh, still much progress to be made in the "hard work" department...

Tết in Thailand

Sat, 20 Feb 2010 09:06:00 +0000

Chúc Mừng Năm Mới to everyone! Happy belated Lunar New Year and may the year of the metal tiger be a happily memorable year for you.

This year we took off to Thailand for the Tet holiday. We decided to try a vacation in Pattaya this year. As a beach vacation goes, it was not as good as our previous beach vacations in Phuket or Bali, but, hey we still had fun. Pattaya's advantage is that it is only a 1.5 hour drive from Bangkok on the toll highway. And if you're an old white man looking for younger Thai women, or older white man looking for younger Thai men, and looking for a party town, then Pattaya is a good place to check out.

(image) We stayed a few days at the Rabbit Resort and a few days at the Birds & Bees resort, both very family-friendly resorts. The Rabbit Resort is a very good value for the money and has a better breakfast than the Birds & Bees in my opinion. The Birds & Bees resort is more expensive than the Rabbit, but overall scored higher than Rabbit for us. The B&B Resort is entertaining in many ways: the kid's pool has slides & water sprinklers, a vegetable garden and fruit tree farm to explore, Mozart-listening hens laying eggs, rabbits hopping around the grounds, fish to feed, bicycle stations that power water sprinklers & speakers looping through various national anthems, and of course the mannequins plastered in condoms and contraceptive pills. And profits go to support Population and Community Development Association a non-governmental charitable organization.

We did make it away from the beach and pool to take an elephant ride. Here again the Pattaya experience did not measure up to previous elephant rides in Phuket and Luang Prabang. Riding along the fringe of suburbia is not as enjoyable as riding through jungle. And the elephant ride business did not have any displays or briefing on where the elephants came from, or the current state of elephants in Thailand or what the future may hold for the beasts.

A few days in the sun and warmth of Thailand watching the kids enjoy the beach and pool, then back to the relative chill and cloud of Hanoi. We arrived back mid-week and Hanoi was still very much in the quiet of Tet, such a contrast to the pre-Tet chaos and mayhem when everyone shopped, shopped and shopped. We had such a pleasant time walking along the quiet streets, not having to avoid swerving motorbikes or listen to incessant honking or shake our heads as headstrong impatient drivers knotted themselves into another traffic lockup. A few short days of quiet and now the city has returned to its bustle and vigour.

Vacation over.

We had to do it once

Wed, 10 Feb 2010 07:42:00 +0000

G's Vietnamese colleagues have a tradition to take new international staff out for a dinner featuring snake, or thịt rắn. They've been meaning to go for over a year and finally gathered a group together last week to visit the snake village area of Hanoi and have a meal at Nguyen Van Duc restaurant. I was fortunate enough to be permitted to join this unique social occasion.Upon entering the restaurant, there are 3 cages with live animals. First, on the left, a cage of bamboo snakes. Next a cage of cobras. Third, a smaller cage with 2 small black pigs. I'm not sure if the pigs are for diners who do not wish to eat snake, or if the pigs are snake food.After selecting a table upstairs, the Vietnamese colleagues recommended we partake of cobra and ordered our meal. We went downstairs to watch the meal preparation. 4 cobras were placed in a sack for our group of 9. The sack o' snakes is weighed since we pay by the kilo. Snake is a relatively pricey meal at 700,000 dong per kilo ($37/kilo) so it's not a dish that people eat every day. One of the workers removes a snake from the sack, grabs behind the head to secure the reptile, places a knife behind the fangs and yanks the knife forward to dislodge the fangs from the snake's mouth. Now with the dangerous fangs removed, the snake is handed to the next 2 workers who stretch out the snake and slit the snake's throat/underbelly to drain most of the blood into a glass for later consumption. The heart is also cut out and set aside to be taken to the table. The snake is handed to the next set of workers who plunge the snake in boiling hot water for cleaning and the intestines are stripped out.Other than gasps & shrieks from the crowd as a snake slithers out of the sack and tries to escape, snake butchering is a quiet task. Pigs will squeal, dogs will howl, headless chicken bodies will continue to cluck while their beak moves silently in unison, but snake-slaughter is silent.After the where-our-meal-came-from education, back upstairs to start the meal. First up is raw snake heart. One of the international colleagues was closely examining the plate of 4 snake hearts then jumped, gasped and threw the plate away from himself as a couple of the stronger hearts continued to pump a sporadic beat. When in Hanoi, do as the Hanoians, but only one Hanoian joined a couple of us white guys in placing a heart in a shot glass, filling it with rice vodka and bottoms up!. Ewwww, you may say, but you don't taste a thing since the heart is drowned in vodka. The myth is that the snake heart will enhance male vitality. Indeed most of the restaurant patrons were male, presumably hoping to top-up their supply of vitality. Rubbish on the vitality I say; after a couple hours of a dish after dish of snake I was tired at the end of the night and ready for slumber.After the heart, on to a few shots of the snake blood mixed with rice vodka. G and a few others joined in for snake blood shots by the 3rd round. By the 3rd round, the shot is a little thicker as the snake blood has settled a bit to the bottom of the bottle so the newbie shooters had many grimacing faces as the blood taste was no longer drowned by the vodka.Shortly a variety of cobra snake dishes began to arrive including a hearty soup (well, not really hearty since we already ate the hearts), fried spring rolls, fried organs, boiled snake meat (skin attached), a couple dishes made from the bones, snake meat mixture rolled inside a leaf, morning glory (the token vegetable dish), and when I thought it was all over, another soup dish arrived. The last soup was very dark,[...]

Today's Quote

Sat, 06 Feb 2010 08:32:00 +0000

Geeta: "Asha, what do you want to be when you grow up?"
Asha: "What are the choices??"

Bright Lights, Big City, and Disneyland

Sat, 16 Jan 2010 06:09:00 +0000

Along with a couple other Hanoi families, our kids received a trip to Hong Kong Disneyland for Christmas. The second week of January was a great time to visit HK Disney as the park is not very crowded. Around this time of year, Christmas and the Lunar New Year are very popular times to visit the park, and waiting times for rides can be 45 to 60 minutes or more during those holidays. We never waited more than 5 or 10 minutes for each ride or attraction. Considering the duration of the "Dumbo" ride is only about 90 seconds, a 45 or 60 minute wait would have been very irritating.Disneyland is not only for kids. Since the local Hong Kong children were in school, most of the attendees at Disneyland were adults. On many rides and queues, there could be up to 20 adults stream by before seeing anyone under 15 years old. Everyone, young or old, wants a piece of the Disney magic.Throughout the day, Disney characters and princesses & their handlers would station themselves around the park for photo opportunities. Again, primarily adults lining up for a photo with the characters. The ever-smiling princesses spent little time with the adults -- get the photo and move along-- but when anyone under 10 approached, they were very gracious and spent a few minutes chatting with the youngsters. Our kids were either speechless or too giggly to do much chatting.Most children are over the moon with excitement when they see a Disney character enter the room, but our children are stand-offish, shy, and reserved (traits they likely inherited from moi). I guess a 2m high, larger-than-life Goofy trying to envelop your world with a smothering hug can be a little overwhelming & scary to a 3 year old. In the beginning Asha preferred to observe the characters from afar but after a couple days of Disney indoctrination, she was more willing to go up for non-verbal interaction with the characters.Highlights:PhilharMagic - Naveen saw this show 3 timesLion KingBuzz Lightyear shoot-up-Zurg rideFireworksSpace Mountain roller coaster - Naveen rode this twiceCharacter Buffet Breakfast at Disneyworld hotelTea Cups - Geeta was very queasy after this ride, didn't help that I was spinning us as fast as I couldGolden MickeysAfter a couple days of Disneyland, we adults were Disney'd out and very happy to see the Exit Sign.After Disneyland, On to the Big City of Hong Kong!This was my first trip into Hong Kong and I was blown away by the size and extent of the Hong Kong port and container facilities. Stacks upon stacks of containers and loading cranes one after the other lining the water's edge. The view really drove home what a large part the Hong Kong port plays in world commerce and trade. And perhaps reflecting the current state of the economy, I didn't see one crane in motion (or was it always tea break when I passed by?).Bright lights, people & languages from around the world, neon & more neon, lots of shopping, skyscraper apartments across the horizon, a view of the city from The Peak, and a great view of the nightly Light Symphony Show from our friend's suite in the YMCA hotel.Sample trip pics:[...]

iPod noTouch

Sat, 16 Jan 2010 05:33:00 +0000

Me and small electronics have not gotten along very well lately. After forgetting my iPod Touch was in my pocket, I sat on it and cracked the digitizer glass screen. Oops.

The iTouch still functioned, but the multiple cracks running across the screen were very distracting, so I ordered a replacement screen off eBay, watched some YouTube videos describing the screen replacement and attempted the replacement one Monday morning.

Disassembling the iPod was more frustrating than expected. Some of the videos made it look so easy to remove the screen. I quickly destroyed the plastic pry tools that came with the replacement screen and delicately used a small flathead screwdriver to remove the digitizer screen. Then used a hair dryer to loosen the glue to remove the plastic mid-frame from the digitizer screen -- the plastic mid-frame needs to be re-used and attached to the new digitizer screen. The process moved along slowly and as I was just about finished and snapping the re-assembled mid-frame and digitizer screen back onto the iPod, the frame slipped out of place and pressed hard onto the underlying LCD screen. As seen by the 2 dark blotches on the screen in the photo above, I fubar'ed the LCD and nothing can be seen on the screen. merde, c'est me fait chier.

Replacement LCD screen is on order through eBay. Here's hoping I don't fubar the replacement again. Maybe I should've ordered 2 of everything...?

Pinch Me, the World is Still Here

Sat, 19 Dec 2009 03:41:00 +0000

I happened to notice that there was a hit on one of our flickr pictures from  Compared to the usual hits from or, stood out on the list like a tall white guy in Hanoi.   A litle digging around on revealed that a picture of Asha pinching herself had been used in a humorous article about the world not ending when the Large Hadron Collider was turned on.  Here's hoping this kicks off her lucrative part-time job as a model so she can put herself through university.

Recent Sights

Sat, 12 Dec 2009 02:54:00 +0000


In a few months, we'll have been in Hanoi for 3 years. Yes, 3 years. It's flown by. By now, everything appears common-place to us. Those sights that used to make us turn our heads, now... ho-hum. I thought I should make more of an effort to take pictures of interesting sights and share them with folks back home. Don't know how successful or extensive this effort will be -- I'm very lazy.

Vietnamese carry anything and everything on their motorbikes. We've seen mom & dad & the 3 kids on a bike, 5 or 6 pig carcasses, buckets of soup & tofu, cages of dogs or chickens, and every commodity you can buy in the street. My recent favourite is this stack of eggs, even eggs riding in the panniers. Be quite the scramble if this driver has an accident!


A pig was recently seen in our alley. All dressed in pink. We still hear the pigs many early, early mornings in the next alley as they are unloaded from a truck and led down the alley to meet the butcher's blade.


Some villages in Vietnam will host a concentration of enterprises dedicated to one area of expertise. For example a ceramics village where there are stall after stall after shop selling endless shelves of ceramics: bowls, plates, vases, platters, ornaments, on and on. Another village may be focused on lacquer products. Another may be dedicated to making bricks. This week I bicycled through a village with the streets lined with wood: wood planks leaning against each other to dry, stacks of rough cut timbers for scaffolding that will keep Hanoi's bustling construction sector supplying new houses & apartments, piles of scrap cuttings to be gathered and used for firewood, jumbles of rough logs waiting for their turn at the bandsaw.

And a couple nights ago we saw a little angel.

Cruise around our flickr site for other recent pics. Or subscribe to our photostream's RSS feed with your favourite RSS Feed Reader.

2009 KOTO Ba Vi Bike Ride

Mon, 23 Nov 2009 13:37:00 +0000

The Road Ahead
Originally uploaded by kevjblack
The morning started off brisk & cloudy changing to sunny and pleasant by mid-day, then back to cloudy and "I wish I was wearing more than my sweaty bike jersey" by late afternoon. Yes, this last Saturday was another instalment of the annual KOTO Ba Vi Bike Ride. The ride took us through narrow streets & road-side markets, atop dykes alongside lakes & canals, through harvested rice fields, past fields of flowers & greenhouses, a rest-stop at a pagoda, a short distance along a major highway with screeching truck horns & buses, bumping over a trail past piles of raw bricks waiting for their turn in the kiln, past giggling schoolchildren on their bicycles, and much more.

A stiff headwind on the way to Ba Vi was a slight mental challenge, but knowing that beer and a delicious BBQ lunch would be waiting at the Tan Da resort provided ample incentive. This year KOTO organized post-ride massages provided by volunteers from various massage companies which was a very welcome addition to the ride. Unlike previous years when I rode back in a car, this year I bicycled back home for a round trip of 136km, the most km I've put on a bicycle in one day. With a rejuvenating massage to un-kink some muscles and a tail-wind, the ride home was very pleasant and gratifying.

I managed to take a few pics along the way; Bike Ride Pic Set:

If you're in the Hanoi area next year at this time, the KOTO Bike Ride is a great way to support a worthy organization and to see villages and landscape outside of Hanoi, although you may start to tire of all the kids shouting "Hello!" at you along the way. See crossbow4's entry on for a view of the route See crossbow4's other entries or search for "Hanoi bike" if you are interested in other weekend bike rides around Hanoi.

PS: see the second half of this weekend's uploaded pics for recent shots of the kids and some of Naveen's artwork:

Sapa Tour

Tue, 27 Oct 2009 14:40:00 +0000


Last week was a break week for most of the international schools in Hanoi so we headed on a little jaunt to Sapa in northern Vietnam. Caught the 9:15pm train from Hanoi to Lao Cai arriving around 5:30am. The kids were very excited to be travelling and sleeping on a train, futilely hoping to be sleeping on the top bunks, gazing out the window as the lights of Hanoi slipped away.

About a half hour before arriving in Lao Cai, hideous Vietnamese music blares from the train's speakers, encouraging passengers to wakeup and prepare for arrival. I was encouraged to wakeup and bash in all the speakers.

Arrived in Lao Cai, drive up the twisty road to Sapa which caused Asha to heave up -- first indication we had that she gets car-sick. Breakfast in Sapa, a short walk around a local village, then a ride out of town to the Topas Ecolodge to checkin for a couple nights.

The next couple days consisted of walks around local villages & countryside, some time at the town market, climbing a hill for a grand view of the town, enjoying the splendid scenery, fresh cool temperatures, misty mornings, and saying no to the very persistent local women hawking their handicrafts. We had women follow us for a good half hour trying to chat us up and sell their wares. Apparently the best time to visit Sapa and not feel hounded by persistent vendors is during rice planting and harvesting seasons when everyone is in the fields. And wow, there are lots of rice fields, terrace upon terrace stepping up the hillsides, the harvested stalks left standing, being cleaned over by pecking chickens or grazing water buffalo.

Very interesting to see a part of the country with groups of H'mong, Dao and Tay ethnic minority groups, each with their distinct style of dress, the dark blues and blacks of the H'mong, the red head-dress of the Red Dao, and the green of the Tay.

After the pleasant cool quiet of Sapa and the Ecolodge, the return to the evening bustle of Lao Cai and the shriek of bus horns was a slight shock. Then the 4:30am arrival in the heavy, stinky humidity of Hanoi almost made us turn around and return to Sapa.

Some trip pics:

PS: if you're in Hanoi, the 2009 KOTO Ba Vi Bike Ride is taking place on Saturday November 21st. It's a great chance to cruise the countryside outside of Hanoi and support a worthy organisation. If you're not in Hanoi, feel free to sponsor me as I enjoy my 3rd Ba Vi Bike Ride. :)