Sunday, August 28, 2016

Arriving in Amsterdam with Aya we immediately set about finding my mother. Unfortunately I gave her bad directions. Meet me at the McDonald's I said, well, there is more than one. So for about two hours we waited outside her gate. Eventually the torrent of passengers coming from the gate turned to a trickle and we knew that we must have missed her so I went to make an announcement with the information desk. Just as I was reaching the desk I heard MY name called over the PA system. So we finally met up with mom and made our way into Amsterdam. Unfortunately Aya had a quick turnaround and so had to head back to the airport after having lunch with us. So began a week in Amsterdam with my mother.

The first night, Friday, we went to see Van Gogh at the museum. On Friday nights there is a special VJ and bar they set up in the main room of the museum. On the way we stopped at a canal side cafe for pofferjes and so started mom's quest for pancakes the rest of the trip. The museum and vj was kind of cool. I think of Van Goghs paintings as some of the most beautiful in the world, so it was really cool to see them. We also listened to a talk about Van Gogh and whether he really meant to cut off his whole ear and if in fact it was his whole ear. Enlightening.

The next day we did a biking tour of Amsterdam with Mike's bikes. It was a great way to get around the city. We saw and heard lots of things about the canals and structures and mom was so pleased with her bike she quickly agreed that we should rent them for a few more days, which we eventually did. On the way we back we stopped at a windmill bar and had some beers before reaching the bike shop and proceeding on foot. It was a great day and super cool way to see the city, but wow the bike traffic in Amsterdam is crazy!

On Sunday we headed to Nordwijik where I ran a 10k along the shore and mom went to check out the local Catholic church. It was a great day along the seaside and we had breakfast beforehand. I ate a bit too much salmon, which I would regret later when I was running. ha! After the race we packed in our rental car and headed to The Hague and Madurodam. I wasn't too sure what to make of this place. My aunt suggested we go there and said she had gone with my grandparents in 1969! It was a cool place, but a pretty hot day. I think mom and I both were pretty impressed with the displays miniatures themselves, but many of the displays did not appear to be working. We left late in the afternoon to drive back to Amsterdam and along the way saw a sailboat crossing the highway in a canal overpass! How weird, but true! Arriving back in the city we figured that since we were returning the car near to the ferries by the main station and so we would use our proximity to cross and have dinner on the other side of the canal. It was quite a nice end to a nice day, sipping beers and eating cheese.

On Monday we started the day late and eventually went to see Body Worlds display. I had seen this display years ago in Japan, but this one had a few new updates that were pretty neat. After we just stuck around the neighborhood and watched Family guy in the evening. It was mostly a day to chill, do laundry, and rest up.

On Tuesday we tried once again to book Upstairs Pancake, but no luck. We had tickets for the Anne Frank House later in the day, but in the morning we rode our bikes north of Amsterdam along the canals. We saw a few windmills and farm fields. It was nice to get out of the city. We took the bikes back to the apartment and went on foot to Anne Frank. Thankfully we had booked in advance and so we didn't have to wait in the large queue forming to get in. The house was really cool and after we had watched the 1956 movie Anne Frank it was also really neat to see the rooms where she had lived. This experience reminded me again of the holocaust and Auschwitz. It also made me think of today's migration problems. Somewhere out there is the modern day Anne Frank, cowering in some small corner of Syria or Nigeria or Ukraine, waiting for the war to be over or for a country to migrate to.
Later on Tuesday we had booked a canal cruise and dinner. We used the company Canal en Holland International Cruises which turned out to be a good decision. We had initially arrived at the wrong port to board the dinner cruise and saw a much more crowded boat. Luckily we were in the wrong spot and found our boat just in time. It was a beautiful night and the canal and food were great, along with the company. It was really nice just to sit with mom and enjoy Amsterdam like that. Plus, it gave us another perspective on Amsterdam after the biking tour and we went places we likely would not have thought of. As we biked home that night through the dark quite back alleys of Amsterdam I couldn't help but take a mental picture of that moment. It was a great day and I hope to hold on to that feeling for a long time.

On Wednesday we finally got to Upstairs Pancake for breakfast, or rather lunch, as they didn't open until noon. It was well worth the wait. The pancakes were great and the place is very unique. After a quick rest at home we headed south to the Rijks Museum, the Diamond museum, and finally on to the Heineken brewery. The Rijks museum was pretty cool. Lots of old Dutch masters and interesting things. I think mom was most impressed with a diorama of the Dutch Indonesia colony that was made with dough figures. ha! After making sure to see Night Watch we headed over to the Diamond Museum. Amsterdam is well known for diamonds and I had seen some things online about the museum, but I would say it wasn't too much to see. The heineken experience was pretty good. There were lots of bits of information and things to do. Taking a ride through Amsterdam on the Heine bikes was pretty cool. At the end we headed up to the roof top for beers and then, realizing we were late getting our bikes back we headed for burgers instead of rushing to the bike shop before heading home.

On Thursday we spent our last day in town doing some shopping and just hanging out. We both had fairly early flights Friday so took the train out of town together. As Amsterdam slipped past the train against a slate grey sky I was feeling pretty low. It was a great week, beautiful weather and pretty much everything went off without a hitch. Spending that time with my mother is something I won't forget and in the weeks since then I have been thinking about it a lot. So much that I am now thinking of when we can do it next. So, mom, want to take a trip after retiring?

Sunday, August 14, 2016


From Vilnius we took a bus and then a connecting train to Krakow. I had not much knowledge about the city other than that we were going because it was near to Auschwitz. We arrived at night so it was hard to really see the city, but as soon as we got to our hotel and started to wander the streets you could immediately tell that this was a lovely city. Wc came out onto the central town square which was bustling with touristy night life. After a long day we sat down for some desert and drinks and to soak in the people. What a beautiful city backdrop we got in the old town square.
We really only had a couple of days in the city, so the first day we hired a driver to get to Auschwitz and Wileliczka Salt Mine. The driver flew down the roads like a bat out of hell, but it seemed that he was not so unusual among the other drivers we encountered. We didn't get much chance to see the countryside as it whizzed by, but what we did see looked very nice and reminded me a bit of Wisconsin.
We arrived at Auschwitz and there was a huge line of people waiting to get in. Through the guide we were put into the groups line, which entered fairly quickly. You could go in as an individual, but I think it was good to get in as a group. Once inside we had a guide who took the group around to various buildings and sites. It was as you might expect, sobering and somber. Some of the statistics of individuals who arrived were shocking even though I have read some things about the camp before. Besides gassing many people upon arrival the Nazis did many things that dehumanized the Jews and others who were there. In one room there was preserved piles of hair that was cut from those who arrived and then used for various ropes, rugs, and socks. The socks bit really got me, how could you wear those socks knowing that its made with human hair?
After a short break we drove to Birkenau to finish the tour of the camps. This was also extremely somber. The tracks leading into the camp is still there along with the guard tower and some box cars. Our guide told us that roughly 8000 people a day would arrive, about half of which would be immediately gassed. He said sometimes the demand on the crematorium was so much that the people who were going for "showers" would have to wait in the nearby woods until the crematorium could catch-up.
After spending most of the day touring the camps, we were more than ready to see something else. In researching a bit about the area I found out that we would be near the Wileliczka Salt Mine which looked super cool. A lot of tours in the area do both the camps and the mine either in one packed day or two seperate mornings. We packed it in and got to the mine at about 3pm. The mine was in operation until sometime in the 1970's, but long before that miners had begun to carve things into the salt. Now there are statues, corridors, pools, and what can only be described as a cathedral of salt carved into the rocks. Even though we were there for just a few hours we only saw a tiny fraction of the overall caves, but they were really unique and beautiful. It was also kind of a weird feeling to know that we were 135 meters below the surface. I heard from some other people in the group that there is a similar place near Salzburg, so if i ever get there I will have to check it out.

At the end of the day we returned to Krakow and the old town square for a few more beers and deserts. As we were watching the sunset my friend Brian remarked on how Krakow had been one of the few places to escape bombing during WWII, which would explain the old towns unique feel. Aya commented on how the per capita gdp in Poland was around 10,000 USD and I just couldn't believe it. Everything in the city seemed so clean, tasty, and mostly well kept.

The next day Aya and I were leaving in the afternoon to get to the airport where we would stay for an early morning flight to Amsterdam, so we only had the morning to see some more of the city. So we had a slow morning of writing postcards over breakfast before we met up with our friends Brian and Bethany. We ended up going to Wawel Cathedral, which I had seen on my run around the green loop park surrounding old town. I had read that at the Cathedral there were a set of dragon bones, so I had to check it out. Sure enough, above the cathedral entrance were the dragon bones. They kind of looked like whale bones to me, which is one of the things they are speculated to actually be. After we took a quick tour of the inside of the Cathedral and went to the dragons den, a cave under the cathedral. From there we did not have much time left, so we grabbed lunch at the worst Mexican restaurant in Krakow, then headed for the train station. It was a little sad to say goodbye to Brian and Bethany as we had just spent the last 2 weeks or so traveling around with them. I'm sure we'll take a trip with them again.  

Monday, August 08, 2016


After Cruisin' with Royal Caribean, Aya and I went to Vilnius and then Krakow. One of the most exciting bit was almost missing the bus from Vilnius. We had stayed for a couple days in the town, checking out some churches and monuments, visiting the Uzupis Republic and taking a twirl on the miracle tile. Not to cut Vilnius short, its a lovely town, but the best bit was the story of catching the bus. I am going to rely on my friend Brian's version of events, with a couple small edits, as he wrote about it later that day.

We arranged a ride w/ our BnB type place to catch our 7am bus and got to the bus station almost 20 minutes early. After a few minutes looking for our bus, and asking two workers that were entirely uninterested in helping us, we couldn't find our bus. So we looked for a ticket window for help. Roughly 5 minutes later we find out our hotel sent us to the wrong station. If we miss this bus, the next one is a night bus or the next morning so we would have to eat our €60 train tickets (we're connecting to a train in Warsaw) and a hotel night of about €100. (that's all per couple) At this point we have about 12 minutes to get across town but the lady at the information booth told us we can't make it bc it's at least 15 minutes away. So we run outside to find a taxi. There's one taxi but he speaks zero English. (fair enough, he shouldn't have to, but time was tight) We desperately try to get the message across that we need a different bus station. He seems to get it (and realizes that we're freaking out) but doesn't quite know which station, so that takes another minute or so and then we take off, speeding across town, to a station that MIGHT be correct.
Literally fast forward about 8 minutes and we have 1 minute to go an unknown distance more, and THEN find our bus. On top of that, we still aren't 100% sure he's taking us to the correct bus station. I looked at Kevin (Hurley) and said, "it's gonna take a miracle." (turns out we had about 3km more to go)
A couple minutes later we turn a corner, there's a hotel/mall complex and the driver points at it. Bet says, "how will we find the buses", I look and see some on the far end in the distance and tell her. Right as we all look to that end we see our bus emerge from behind the mall and it's pulling out! We start yelling to the driver "that's our bus!!" And let me take a moment to say that, in all my travels I've learned that 'desperation' is the universal language. I have to admit that I wasn't 100% certain it was our bus, but it was the one leaving and I didn't want to let it go. So our driver speeds up making a B-line toward where the bus is headed on the road.
I didn't know what his play was gonna be but I hoped he was a brave driver bc it wasn't a moment for meek suggesting. He starts honking his horn repeatedly and pulls in front of the bus and blocks the road w/ his car, easily the best thing he could've done. The bus driver looks mad for a moment but then realize what's happening and springs into action to get our bags under the bus and check our tickets.
So now we're headed to Warsaw, heart rates are normalizing and the first 10 minutes or so we break into relieved laughter when we replay the events that just unfolded.
While in the car, speeding across town I was trying to stay positive (bc Bet doesn't) so I said to everyone, "this was the day I was most worried about, logistically, and if we make this, we'll look back on it as a great experience" I didn't want to mention the flip side to that or acknowledge how unspeakably horrible it would be if we didn't. Luckily, we didn't really have a moment to dwell on it before it, indeed, became a great experience.

Friday, August 05, 2016


From Stockholm Aya and I boarded a Royal Caribbean cruise around the Baltic, making stops in Helsinki, St. Petersburg, Tallinn, and Riga then back to Stockholm. We went with old friends of ours, Bet and Brian. The cruise was set for a week, so most places we were only in port for a day. This is the first time that we went on a cruise and there were some clear pros and cons to this compared to other travel that we have done.
The huge positive is that accommodation and transportation get combined. You don't have to lug your bags around with you and you travel, mostly, as you sleep. It made a good use of time to get you from place to place and was easy. The second best thing was that once on the ship the amount of things to do and food to eat was good, lots of activities going on and always somewhere available to get food or drinks. However, there were a number of negative things too. These are mostly to do with travel style, not the cruise ship itself. Compared to the way we usually travel, it was a bit sterile. We didn't have to speak to locals much nor navigate our way around cities like we normally would. We also didn't have downtown in these places. Once we were off the ship it was go-go-go to see as much of the cities as we could before we had to be back on the ship, so its mostly just trying to get to the major attractions. No time for wandering down side lanes. Probably the thing that I liked the least was that when you visited a place it was likely that a couple thousand of the other people from the ship were also going to visit those same things at the same time. One day in Tallinn was especially bad. It had rained in the morning so most people stayed on the ship, not us. Also due to bad weather there were 4 other cruise ships in port that day, so when the weather broke around noon the streets of this small town were inundated with tourists.

Overall I am glad we did the cruise. We might do it again in the future, but maybe not unless we are older and it makes more sense to do it or if we are in a geographical region where it is easier to go by boat, like much of the Caribbean. The cities we did see were beautiful, although the weather was pretty bad most of the time that week. Stockholm's streets and waterways were beautiful. In Helsinki we went to Suomenlinna fortress, which was quite a cool historic site. The architecture in St. Petersburg was so unique, it might warrant a trip back there some day. Tallinn and Riga were both a bit smaller and I might say similar in that they had beautiful old towns with well preserved churches, doors, and homes.

When we arrived back in Stockholm I think we were all a bit glad to be off the ship, it was just too much go-go-go. For the next week or so we would slow it down a bit, going to Vilnius and Krakow. 

Monday, August 01, 2016


What started out as a plan to take the trans-siberian to Moscow and then see a couple spots in the Baltics turned into a month long adventure around northern Europe. Our first stop was Copenhagen, where my long time friends David and Petek are living. If I recall correctly, I have visited them in New York, Istanbul, Taiwan, and Beijing. They have visited me in Japan, Malaysia, and Shanghai. When you and your friends have a fondness for travel, distance is nothing. 

In our time here we visited the national museum, biked around a lot, say the little mermaid, I ran a 10K with David, we took a boat ride through the canals in a Go-boat, went to the Carlsberg brewery and spent a night with David, Petek, and Aydin at their home. It was a short couple of days, but we packed a lot in. I'd say running the race with David and riding the boat around the canals were the highlights for me. 
I had recently completed another race here in Beijing, so I was feeling in pretty good shape. When I asked David if he would run with me I half expected him to decline, but he eagerly said yes. So race day rolls around and the site for the race is a bit out of town. David manages to figure out the train/bus combo to get us there, but unfortunately we are hours early so we just sit around for a bit chatting and waiting to start. The race itself was pretty fun, it was sunny, then rainy, the clear with a rainbow. We ran through some nice paths and areas and the other people in the race were well mannered. David and I finished together at around 52:30, which is a pretty good time for me. I was kind of hoping to be sub 50 minutes and we may have actually done that, but officials held us up at a few points were there was mud and steep paths which caused a backup or runners. I suppose I could have gone a bit faster as I was feeling pretty jet-lagged, but having David there certainly helped to keep me going. Most of the time we were trailing or slightly leading a woman whom I would guess was 50-55 years old. Near the end of the race David and I agreed that we had to beat her and so we put down the pedal and beat her. If nothing else, I can hold me head high that two men in their 30's beat a woman who could be their mother. Its a good feeling. 
The other thing I really liked was using the Go-boat to get around the canals. Essentially this is a small motorboat with a small outboard motor and a table placed in the center of the boat. Its perfect for cruising up and down the canals and having a picnic. Even better, Petek had taken some instruction on being a tour guide so as we putted around she was able to tell us about the various buildings. 
Overall, we had a great time and it was so nice to see our friends again. In some ways it seems like no time passes between our meetings, but obviously their son is getting bigger each time so we cannot pretend that time stands still.