March 9, 2013

Hawaii Vacation: Coast to Volcanos to Coast

Filed under: travel — mmrobins @ 9:54 pm

With my week of working from Kona ended, we got our rental car and struck out counterclockwise around the island. Our first stop was Ho’okena Beach Park south of Kona for some camping on the beach. As we descended the single lane paved road down to the beach, we realized we had camped here 7ish years ago on our honeymoon. This time we camped two nights instead of just one, and had a great time. It’s definitely a bit crowded camping by Pacific Northwest campground standards with your neighbors only a couple feet away, but everyone was nice and there weren’t any loud, wild parties late into the night. Geneveve loved the beach, mostly rolling around and getting sand everywhere, and even braved the waves a little bit. The snorkeling here was actually the best we’ve found so far despite what the guidebooks say about other places being better. I swam around with a turtle for a while, and there was nobody else in the water.

We wanted to go kayak across Kealakekua Bay to the captain cook monument, but they aren’t allowing kayaks on it now to help preserve it. We didn’t see any dolphins there either, and the snorkeling was only so so. We wanted to do more in this bay last time we were here in 2006 too, but then it was closed because an earthquake had just happened. The guide books rave about this bay, but sadly so far we’re 0 for 2 on having it impress us.

Next destination was Volcanoes National Park. On the way we stopped at the black sand turtle beach on the south side of the island. You’re pretty much guaranteed to see turtles in the rocks here, so there’s a *lot* of other people here in giant tour buses too. I tried snorkeling around, but there was an oily film in the water that made visibility pretty bad and left me feeling gross afterwards. Not sure why it was so oily in the water. It seemed like someone dumped a bunch of sunscreen all over. Hopefully it’s not normally like that.

Once we got to Volcano we setup our tent at the Kulanaokuaiki campground, which is primitive with no water and a little bit of a drive down a one lane road. We pretty much had the whole campsite to ourselves except for a single strange tent that we couldn’t figure out since there was never a car around to go with it. Maybe they hiked out there to camp, but I can’t imagine why anyone do that since it’s in the middle of a bunch of mostly open, treeless landscape. From our site at night you could see the stars amazingly well with no light pollution around for miles except for a faint red glow coming from the crater a few miles away. It gets pretty chilly at night, so I was glad a couple at Ho’okena gave us a blanket they said they didn’t need anymore.

We did pretty much all the major hikes this time that we didn’t do last time including the steam vents, Pu?u Huluhulu to overlook Mauna Ulu, the petroglyphs, and a bunch more. We saw the major coastal hike we did last time from a viewpoint and reminisced about when we could backback overnight. Geneveve is definitely getting to be a better hiker, but overnight backpacking with her is still a ways away. We also saw the Halema’uma’u crater from Jaggar museum, which is a new thing since we were there last. Basically a lava lake opened up in 2008 that you can see the glow from pretty much every night even if you don’t see actual lava. We still haven’t gotten close to flowing lava since the Pu’u O’o flow isn’t in a place that’s convenient to hike to with a toddler.

After 4 nights of camping in beaches and on volcanoes, we headed to near Pahoa to sleep in a bed at an off the grid meditation center we heard about from a friend. All the power is solar and all the water is catchment. We’ve been here a few days and done a lot of swimming at the nearby warm pools and tidal pools. Today we went to the local farmers market, a event with a lot of colorful characters, and to see where the lava flows end and the smoke from the lava going in to the ocean from a distance. The whole area has a very hippie vibe to it. I think it’s in large part because the whole area could be wiped out by lava flows at any time (and portions of it have been in the last 30 years), so land is cheaper and you get a less permanent kind of people.

After tomorrow I have another week of work before my next week of vacation. I’ve never done this split work and vacation thing before, so we’ll see how I like mixing it up.

March 2, 2013

Hawaii – The Big Island

Filed under: travel — mmrobins @ 11:12 pm

Wow, I’ve totally forgotten about blogging for a long time. Well, I’m in Hawaii, so that’s blogworthy. In fact, I actually ended rereading my old blog post on the Big Island to try to remember some stuff we had done, and it was really interesting. This may be the first big vacation we’ve done where we revisit someplace we’ve already been instead of checking out some exotic new destination. Now I remember, I don’t blog for other people, I do it for myself because it’s really cool to remember the awesome things I’ve done, and I always thought it would come in handy in case I decide to do them again. I may have to go back and fill in some blog posts for our Alaska vacation this last summer.

So to begin the awesomeness, we’re here for a month, two weeks of which I’m working. This first week we’ve spent in Kona, and I worked remotely, which is something I could really get used to – sitting in 75 degree weather on a deck overlooking the ocean while coding. I actually had a very productive week despite the temptation of just going to the beach instead. We’re staying at a shared house we found on airbnb because it’s like $65 a night, which is way cheaper than most of anything else we found in walking distance to the beach, and there’s a 6 year old girl who lives here, and Geneveve loves her. It’s nice talking to people living here, getting tips about local beaches, sharing dinner, and more.

During the week I’ve been working from the house while Kim and Geneveve take the local public transportation trolley around the area to see shops and play at the beach. I’ve been meeting them for lunch at local little cafes, and then after work we’ve been going to the beach to swim with sea turtles, or a couple times to Kona Brewing for the best beer that I know of being brewed in Hawaii. One of the other nice things about the shared housing is that they let us borrow their bikes, including a crazy two person with a backseat bike that we took all the way downtown and is fun, but really not that efficient. We’ve been on a 6:30am to about 8:30pm schedule, which is great for catching all the daylight and is pretty much the same as our schedule at home since Hawaii is 2 hours behind Pacific time.

Last night we went to see a local production of the Wizard of Oz because the 6 year old from the house was in it as a munchkin, and Geneveve was so excited when she came on stage she stood up and shouted “That’s my friend dancing!”. It was fun to see the play, but Geneveve stayed awake for the whole thing and was up until 11pm, so she’s got a sleep deficit since she wakes up here at 6:30 – 7am regardless of what time we go to bed.

Today we went with the lady who organizes the house rental and her 6 year old daughter to Mauna Kea to play in the snow. It was a longer drive than I remember, partly because with a 2 year old and a 6 year old in the car, it really does take longer with bathroom stops and emotional drama. Kim was feeling the altitude at the visitors center at 7,000 feet, so she stayed there, and the rest of us went up to the summit at about 14,000 feet. Geneveve didn’t last long, and cried when an errant snowball got her a little bit, then fell asleep in my arms totally exhausted and stayed that way for most of the drive home. So I just sat in the truck and held her while I watched the clouds below me. So it was a much different trip for me than last time where I got to go in some of the observatories and ran around.

We’ve been carless all week, which has been fine for me working and us chilling out, but tomorrow we get our rental car and begin a week of all play. We’ll be headed counter clockwise-ish around the island, so will be hitting up Kealakekua Bay, the beach on the south end of the island with all the sea turtles, and camping in Volcano National Park for a while.

April 16, 2012

Visting Washington DC

Filed under: Culture,travel — mmrobins @ 8:48 pm

I spent this past week in Washington DC for orientation for my new job at LivingSocial. I’ll be working in Portland, but they’re headquartered there, so the week is to meet some people face to face and get to know the company.

I enjoyed the city more than I would have thought. There’s an amazing amount to do, great food, and the whether was gorgeous. I don’t think I could visiting in the summer when it gets too hot, but the spring is a lot like Portland when it’s nice.

Kim decided not to come with since she doesn’t know anyone in the city, and there was no guarantee how much time I’d have to spend with her and Geneveve. It turned out I had plenty of free time to see the sights outside of work since little extra activity was scheduled outside the normal work day, and really I could just as easily work at night.

This meant that I had the opportunity to spend time seeing the monuments, at the Smithsonian museums (natural history, air and space, art), the Newseum (one of the few museums with an admission, but well worth it), shows (plays, movies and musicals) and eat plenty of good food. It’s been rare since having a baby to be able to do those sorts of things, so while I was on my own I made the most of it and filled my time up as much as possible.

I was able to get around the city very quickly with a really cool bike sharing program called Capital Bike Share. For $15 I could grab a bike from all over the city, go to my destination, and drop it off. It was incredibly convenient – next time I’ll need to remember to bring my own helmet since those aren’t provided and I kept getting to bike shops after they closed so I never bought one. The city streets felt pretty safe though with plenty of bike lanes, and traffic never moves to fast with all the lights and intersections.

During the day I would go to the main LivingSocial office, which is about a block from the White House, but there are offices all over the downtown DC area, and I visited a few to get to know what people who use some of the software I may write do with their day to day jobs. LivingSocial is a much bigger company than I’m used to working at, but if has the semi-chaotic feel of smaller, startup companies.

I’m looking forward to returning to DC, and when I do I’ll have to remember to book some tours of the major government buildings like the Capitol and the Pentagon in advance. Unfortunately, these aren’t places that you can just walk into on any given day, at least that I could figure out. There’s still more to see in and do than could possibly be seen or done.

April 2, 2012

Traveling With a Toddler

Filed under: Baby,General,travel — mmrobins @ 9:50 pm

Traveling with a toddler is both rewarding and challenging. Everyone asked us when we got back from Thailand how it was with a kid. I’m not sure what they’re looking for, maybe hoping I’ll tell them it’s easy and no different than traveling used to be. Well, it’s definitely harder and I can understand why some people would be reluctant to try it. For us it’s definitely worth the extra challenge, the main thing we found was that we had to take it slower.

First, some of the difficulties:

The hardest thing for me is that I was constantly watching Geneveve and didn’t get to have full attention on a lot of the things I was seeing and doing, whether that was admiring a temple or riding an elephant. A mobile toddler is something that requires constant supervision so they don’t walk into traffic, pet a dog that will bite or eat something they shouldn’t. There’s really not much way around this except to take turns so that you get the occasional focus break. Sometimes people would play with Geneveve or hold her, but that still doesn’t allow me to completely not pay attention since I don’t know the people.

Another difficulty, but not nearly as much as I expected, was long trips on planes, trains, boats, motos and buses. We found as long as Geneveve could move around a bit, she was happy. We were fortunate that our longest flight was mostly empty, so Geneveve could sleep spread out or stand up in the seat, but 14 hours really is too long for an issue free flight. The train was probably our favorite mode of transport just because Geneveve could walk up and down the aisles and say hi to people, and there was lots more room. Buses were hard because they were usually fairly crowded and there wasn’t a lot of room to move.

Sleep was another issue, but again, not nearly so much as expected. It was pretty rare for us to be in our room for Geneveve’s afternoon nap, and generally Kim would just wear her in her baby carrier and we’d continue whatever we were doing. Also, Geneveve had no problem adjusting to the time change on the way to Thailand, but on the way home we had quite a few days where she’d be up in the middle of the night.

Now for the benefits of travelling with a kid.

Having a baby gets you priority in all sorts of places. In airports they let us go through the faster lines just about every time, same for immigration. Hostel staff were constantly giving Geneveve fruits for snacks.

Along those same lines, having a baby forces you to be a lot more social with everyone. This is both good an bad, good because it’s a great ice breaker and means you learn a lot more about local culture, bad because sometimes it can be a bit tiring.

Having a baby along for the trip causes you to see a lot of things with fresh eyes. Stuff you might take for granted, like how amazing planes are or how exciting ocean wavers are, is hard to take for granted when someone else is squealing with glee over it.

Finally, traveling with Geneveve just gave me a lot of time to spend with her. Having weeks of time to be with her constantly in an amazing place resulted in terrific memories for me and some great bonding time.

I think like a lot of things, traveling may be more difficult with children, but if you enjoy it and think it’s important, it’s something that you can make happen. We often hear people using their kids as an excuse to not do things, and we try not to fall into that trap. Besides, we figure we better travel with her know while she’s under 2 and can still fly free.

March 17, 2012

San Francisco as a Gateway Leg

Filed under: travel — mmrobins @ 3:44 am

Our return flight from Thailand didn’t have any good connecting flights to Portland – they all involved 6+ hour layovers. So we found that it didn’t cost extra to just take a few days in what’s considered the gateway city of our international flight, so we had a couple days to see the sights of San Francisco.

We stayed at the Green Tortoise Hostel in the North Beach area of San Francisco. I felt a little out of place there since it very much has a party backpacker vibe that a baby seemed out of place in. It worked out and there was one other family with kids we met staying there, but we were definitely the odd ones out amid the early 20′s crowd that was there for clubbing, partying and drinking. Fortunately the rooms were relatively quiet so that wasn’t a problem for sleeping. Unfortunately Geneveve’s internal clock had her waking up at between 2 and 4 AM for a couple hours both nights, requiring us to entertain her for a few hours and not getting much sleep overall. There was a dry sauna in the hostel, so that was a nice activity to kill time in the early morning.

Most of the stuff we planned to do was outside, but it was nasty, rainy weather most of the time so we had to find indoor activities. So we went to Gold Gate Park and the California Academy of Sciences. It’s like a science museum / zoo / aquarium all rolled into one big building. It was pretty cool that they had an indoor coral reef and rainforest. We probably spent 7 hours there seeing most things, including some time for Geneveve to play in the kids area.

The next day the weather was a little better, so we went with a small group from the hostel to a beer garden for Saint Patrick’s Day. The plan was to show up early, get free wrist bands, and go see the parade, but the hostel group just ended up staying at the bar, so we left them to see the parade. It turns out that parades are more fun with a baby. Geneveve love getting the candy and small plastic toys that get thrown, and seemed to enjoy watching the vehicles and costumes go by too. She got a kazoo in the shape of a duck bill that kept her happy for a couple hours after. Our final activity was getting food in the Little Italy area, and that was delicious, although I was suffering sticker shock of how much everything cost compared to Thailand.

Now we’re back home with Sunday to recover a bit before going back to work on Monday. Hopefully we can get back on a normal sleep schedule.

March 16, 2012

Back to Bangkok Then Home

Filed under: travel — mmrobins @ 3:33 am

After leaving Ko Lanta we caught the ferry to Krabi for a night so we could catch the early morning flight to Bangkok the next day. There really isn’t much of note as far as tourism in Krabi, so we meant to take a day trip over Railay to see the rock climbing scene that my brother was at during his stay in Thailand, but we ended up taking an afternoon nap instead.

One thing Krabi does have is a really nice night market for food. Lots of places have night markets, but they tend to be overwhelming and often full of the usual junk and trinkets that I don’t care about, but Krabi felt like it was setup more for the locals and just has lots of good, uncrowded, inexpensive food vendors. We ate noodle dishes, mango and sticky rice, a curry, some dessert pancakes, beer, coconut shakes and probably stuff that I forgot about in my food coma.

Our flight back into Bangkok got us there about 8 hours before our flight back home, so we stashed our luggage at the airport and took the train back into the city to get lunch and get one last Thai massage from our favorite massage place. I’m really going to miss those awesome, inexpensive, frequent massages back home.

For me the flight back felt shorter than the flight there, mostly because I slept more during the long leg between Hong Kong and San Francisco and because we broke up the last leg of the flight from San Fran to Portland. Which means that we’re now in San Francisco for a couple days to see the city and try to readjust to the time zone. Funny story about time zones – our flight from Hong Kong left at 1 am on the 16th, but arrived in San Francisco at around 7pm on the 15th. However, the itinerary fails to mention that the arrival date is earlier than the departure date, so Kim booked us a hostel for the 16th but not the 15th. Fortunately, the hostel had one open room left when we arrived, so we were able to stay both nights there and have one more day to see the city than we planned.

March 14, 2012

Ko Lanta – Let’s Relax

Filed under: travel — mmrobins @ 8:35 pm

Ko Lanta is a pretty big island, so it was nice that the place we booked picked us up from the ferry terminal to drive the 40 or so minutes to the other end of the island. We picked a place from the Lonely Planet that had bungalows on the beach and was 1200 baht per night ($40), but the bungalows were not very nice, so we moved the next night to the place right next door with much nicer bungalows for only a little more (1400 baht). This is *quite* a bit more than we had been paying for lodging up to this point, but it was also nicer, on the beach, and setup to be all inclusive so that you could just charge everything to your room and pay at the end.

Our first day we just went to the beach right outside our room and drank fruit shakes at the beach bar. We hadn’t really done much laying on the beach up till this point, so I put on a bunch of SPF 50 sunblock and generally tried to stay out of the sun. However, there was a slack line to play on near the beach bar, so I spent too long goofing around on that after swimming and forgot to reapply sunblock so ended up with a mild sunburn on my shoulders. The sun is very strong.

The beach is fairly large and only has 3 places to stay on it, which is much fewer than most of the other beaches, so it feels more private. There are only a few dozen people on the beach at a time, so it’s never crowded feeling. Each of the places on the beach had a restaurant with pretty good food, so we would hop around between them for meals to check out the different bungalows and menus.

Geneveve loves the ocean. She can’t swim, but she runs into the waves with a fearlessness that both delights and worries me. The waves would knock her down and she would laugh. There seemed to be quite a few children on Ko Lanta, and Geneveve took a liking to a little German boy that we kept running into and would follow him around and play with him whenever possible.

Overall we spent most of our time on Ko Lanta just relaxing on or near our beach, but some mornings we would go out on a scooter to see some of the island sites. One day we went to Khao Mai Kaew cave, which was a really fun adventure and made us feel pretty badass to do with a baby. To get to the cave required a little jungle hike with steep stone steps with vines and giant spiders. Once in the cave required climbing ladders through narrow spaces, some minor rock scrambling, and at the end crawling through a tunnel that is small enough that Geneveve had to do on our own since it was too small to carry her through. We also rented a motorbike to see the old town on the east side of the island and did a hike through the park jungle on the south end of the island to the sound of screaming gibbons.

March 9, 2012

Ko Phi Phi – Let’s Party and Snorkel

Filed under: travel — mmrobins @ 8:05 pm

From Phuket we took a morning ferry to Ko Phi Phi. The ferry system between the islands is still a little confusing to me after having used it a couple times. It’s not clear what the schedules are, the best way to buy tickets, where the ferries will stop, how comfortable they will be, or who runs them. There’s a million different ways to get tickets, most people seem to get them from tour offices or their guest house (what we did), some places list different schedules, the ferries seem to try to upsell smaller tourers while you’re on them, the comfort levels were very different on the ferries we took (some aircon, some packed, some on time), so with all this I’m guessing they’re private boats and not government run, but that’s not clear.

Anyway, Ko Phi Phi is on the way to our desired destination of Ko Lanta, but we figured we’d spend a night on Ko Phi Phi to see it and do a recommended snorkeling tour since snorkeling looked a lot more expensive on Ko Lanta. Ko Phi Phi is totally a backpacker party island. This was both good and bad for us. The good is that it’s small so there’s no roads with motorized vehicles, there’s lots of international, young people which makes for interesting people watching, there’s lots of cool things to do targeted at tourists, and there’s pretty good pizza by the slice. The bad is that it’s a bit more expensive for everything, you really don’t get to experience much of any local culture, and the party goes all night so you can hear clubs going until the wee hours of the morning. We stayed at a nice place that’s a few minutes walk from the center of town, which was good because it was a very nice bungalow with a pool and cost about 1000 baht a night (about $33).

Kim and I had to do our snorkeling tours separately so one of us could watch Geneveve. I did mine first thing in the morning, and the plan was for Kim to go in the afternoon but it got windy in the afternoon so Kim had to wait until the next morning. The snorkeling was great though and well worth the wait. I saw lots of fish, coral, sea turtles and black tipped reef sharks which are very common and not dangerous. Kim didn’t see sharks, but did see a sea snake and other fish I didn’t. There were stops between snorkels that included a beautiful, blue lagoon, and a ridiculously crowded beach that was where the movie “The Beach” was filmed. I’m amazed at how popular movie destination tourism is, and really don’t see the point myself.

While one of us snorkeled, the other got to hang out at the nice pool at our hostel, which Geneveve loved. I remember when I was a kid and how much I loved the pool when my parents stayed in hotels, and having a baby reminds me of that time and makes pools more fun again. Geneveve squeals in delight, kicks, splashes and laughs for hours when we get in the water.

We also walked around town and snacked on farang (foreigner) food since it was so readily available. At night we walked up to the viewpoint on the island to watch the sunset along with the hundreds of other people. Next it was off to Ko Lanta for some laid back beach time.

March 7, 2012

Phuket, Let’s Go Sea Canoeing

Filed under: travel — mmrobins @ 8:05 pm

One thing we’ve definitely found different travelling with a baby is that doing huge travel days or multiple travel days in a row is not good. We really didn’t intend to spend any time in Phuket since it’s generally a lot of expensive resorts and crowded beaches, which are not our style, but we realized for our own sanity not uprooting every day would be good. So we looked in our Lonely Planet guidebook for stuff to do in the area and noticed the John Gray’s Sea Canoe was in the area, and we had seen his trip’s featured on a Thailand travel video we watched. It’s definitely more expensive than other tours in the area, but in general we’d rather pay a little more to work with tourism businesses that take sustainability, education and fair wages seriously. It was also Kim’s birthday, so we wanted to splurge and do something fun. We had a great time. We saw beautiful islands, caves, rock formations, wildlife, Thai traditions and bioluminescent plankton in the water.

We got picked up at our hostel in downtown Phuket and went to the pier NE of the city to meet up with the other tour participants. There were more people than we expected on the tour, but it was split into two boats of about a dozen people each. John Gray was not on the tour with us as we’d hoped, but certainly understand he can’t go on on every excursion. From Phuket we headed north to the limestone islands.

Our first trip out in the sea canoe (basically an open topped sea kayak) we went through a cave into a bay surrounded on all sides by limestone cliffs. Monkeys running around on the rocks greeted us. We saw a mudskipper, which is a really weird fishlike creature that uses its fins to run around out of the water in the mud. From the bay we went along the cliffs on the outer edge of the island to see all the cool rock formations and see life that clung to the walls until we met back up with our larger boat.

The next stop was in the James Bond Island, Koh Tapu. All the tours seem to come to this place, partly because it was in “The Man With the Golden Gun” film, partly because it’s cool looking. It was still pretty scenery even if completely overcrowded with tours. Here we got to swim a little and goof around in the sea canoes. Geneveve wanted to jump off the boat to me, so I had to figure out how to tread water and catch her while keeping her head above the water. It’s pretty hard, but I managed and Geneveve loved it.

On the boat we made some Kratongs, which are a slice of banana tree trunk that is decorated and floated out on the water. Our guide did most of the arts and crafts work with Geneveve, who mostly helped by pushing small nails into things we told her to. All the guides made a unique looking one that we would later

To end the day we went back to the original cave to light our kratongs and let them float, and more importantly to see the bioluminscent plankton that come out of the mangrove areas. Kim and I have seen this once before in Puerto Rico, and it’s magical. The experience was better in Puerto Rico since we got to swim in the water and there were rays that looked liked glowing ghosts swimming through the water, but splashing sparkly, glowing water on cave walls is pretty darned cool too.

March 6, 2012

From the Mountains to the Beach

Filed under: travel — mmrobins @ 6:16 am

Today was a day with lots of travel. We woke up early to catch the 8 AM bus from Pai to Chiang Mai (3.5 hours), then got to the airport for our flight to Phuket (a couple hours in the air). Our original plan was to get out of Phuket as quickly as possible and head to a less busy beach area, but on the flight down we read about a sea kayak tour to a bio-luminescent area that piqued our curiosity, and we called and are doing it tomorrow.

The following day, we plan to head to Ko Lanta by ferry. It’s supposed to be very chill and, like every area here, have nice beaches. I think we keep telling ourselves that we’ll do a day where we just don’t do anything, but we keep finding interesting things to go do. We’ll see how we adjust to lounging on the beach.

We caught the cheap bus from the airport to our hotel, and realized it was cheap because halfway into town they stop at their travel agency and try to sell you hotels if you don’t have them, and tours if you seem interested. They weren’t pushy, so it wasn’t too annoying. We got to our hotel and it started to pour. It’s the first rain we’ve seen all trip, but as with most tropical showers, it quickly passed. They’re filming a Korean movie on the roof of our hotel, so that’s interesting. Not sure what it’s called, but maybe we’ll watch it one day if we find out.