Christmas in Oaxaca

On Christmas Eve, the city had quieted. Many shops remained closed for Christmas celebrations. Emerson announced that he’d be “bringing Hanukkah back” and sang Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel throughout the day, interspersed with the Hamotzi. In the morning we took family pictures and in the afternoon we strolled through Jalatlaco, a neighborhood known most for its incredible murals.

I sampled hot chocolate made from real, Oaxaca chocolate (a local daily treat), and took the boys to a vegan cat cafe. Emerson declared that he loved it so much, he’d like to go back daily. Shiloh left with puffy eyes. After a long nap and a short dinner, we wandered back into the crowded main square brimming with street vendors.

Emerson chose confetti eggs and a blow-up airplane with wheels which he treated as his baby for the remainder of the trip. It was perfect.

Buzzing Quito

On our last day in Ecuador, we set out to explore some of Quito.  After making our way over to the historic old city, we are greeted with much unexpected excitement.  First, we encounter a mob scene developing as street vendors and metro police swarm around each other, angry words shared, fists fly, lots of pushing, and for every person involved in the skirmish there are at least 10 more watching.  After chatting with a couple onlookers, we believe the issue is that there are many illegal street vendors who have been selling for years that the police are just now starting to crack down on.  It’s not clear who is in the right here.

To escape the chaos outside, we dip into the nearby La Merced Church, where we’ve stumbled upon a wedding in progress.  There’s singing and chanting, and we try to inconspicuously hide in the wings as the ceremony continues.  We soon venture back out where things seem to have calmed down only a little, we walk around the old cobblestone streets, and when we eventually make our way back to the church, we see the newlywed couple emerging.  While taking a couple pictures from the street, the groom spots us, make our presence known to his new wife, and gives us a thumbs up!

On the high of all that just happened, we continue to explore.  After passing a couple blocks of stores where locals stand in the street trying to sell products like mops, strainers and underwear, we soon get blocked by a protest.  After some investigation, we learn that they’re protesting the human trafficking of 50+ university women who have gone missing in the last year.  One powerful image that will stick with us is the cardboard cutouts of female bodies being carried down the street to represent those who are lost.

In an effort to process some of what just happened, we find a café nearby and recap the highs and lows of the excitement in Quito’s old town.


Before arriving to Gangtey, a three-hour drive from Punakha, our driver pulls over and our guide asks if we’d like to hike the rest of the way. It’s a welcome retreat from the bumpy dirt roads that takes us within feet of many yaks, grazing on the hillside. “Do people ever milk yaks?” we ask. “Yaks are quite difficult to milk,” Sonam tells us without a bit of mockery in his voice. We laugh, because of course they are. They’re huge animals with difficult temperaments. He tells us the fur from their underarms is soft and cut to make scarves, and the fur from their bodies is thick and coarse and used to make tents. Occasionally they’re eaten, and we’re in luck because it’s yak season. We talk and talk, until the mountain opens up and we feel like we’re in Switzerland, high above the earth with a perfect view of the valley below. Sonam points out our hotel in the distance, and we continue to walk, passing nuns collecting juniper along the way.

We’re elated by the time we arrive, and the joy continues to grow as we’re greeted with white welcome scarves, warm towels, and a welcome song sung by the entire staff against the incredible backdrop of the Gangtey mountains. The hotel manager gives us an orientation over delicious, warm cider then two women from the spa give us a complimentary welcome massage. We walk into our room where everything has been set up and are asked what time we’d like for them to light our fireplace. This is a welcome like we’ve never had before, and it immediately makes Gangtey Lodge feel more like a home than a hotel.

The food here is wonderful, and a welcome respite from the bowls of rice, fried vegetables, mystery meat, Chinese noodles, potatoes, chili and cheese sauce, and sometimes, inexplicably, pasta with red sauce that we’re served almost everywhere else. We do eat yak, favoring the yak burger best.

In the morning we head out for the run we’d promised ourselves we’d take every morning and almost at once are followed by the pack of dogs that Sonam had warned us about.  We’re scared, slowing as to not antagonize them, knowing that the nearest hospital is over three hours away. As we approach the monastery, we consider climbing the steps to avoid them, but are happily surprised when they climb the steps instead, leaving us behind with the realization we have no rice to offer.

Outside, we try our hand at archery and darts. They’re impossible games, even with the shortened distance the hotel uses between targets. We hurl darts toward a tiny target and shoot an arrow toward a slightly larger board. We never make it, but our guides do. We later see a game of darts being played along the roadside and see the song and dance that both teams perform every time a target is hit. It makes us feel better about our lack of skill to know that a point is so valuable it deserves such ceremony.

Inside, we sit by the fire playing the cow and tiger game, a traditional Bhutanese game much akin to checkers played today only by farmers. We sip tea and wine and local craft beer and listen to the fire crack as we meet other friendly travelers.  New Years comes and goes quietly this year, a few couples gathered around the fire counting down only to ourselves. There is no TV. No ball drop. No fireworks. It’s peaceful and warm and the magic of Bhutan is starting to seep into us.    


Happiness is a place

Thimphu is littered with dogs, high off the knowledge that no one will do them harm. “That dog”, they say, “could be your mother from a past life.”

Bhutan is a deeply Buddhist country, with an unapologetic tie between church and state. Urbanization is moving people from the countryside into the overcrowded and rapidly developing city of Thimphu, now the size of Burlington, Vermont. The city itself is very safe, far more than San Francisco. We don’t clutch our bags or eye every stranger. In Bhutan there is only petty theft, one of the few countries in the world with no US State Department warning. Here, the police don’t carry guns. Those who own a weapon own a compound bow, but it’s not a weapon any more than a hockey stick in Canada; Archery is the national sport. There is free healthcare for all, free education for all, and any semblance of a foster care system is replaced by government-funded monasteries and nunneries. Surely it can be argued that it’s wrong to force religion on children, but instead of being passed from home to home until the age of 18, Bhutanese children are given a purpose, a means of making money, and a deeply respected place in society. There are road signs that curiously read “Thanks”. Just thanks, without explanation. Even the more threatening signs about drinking and driving or speeding are transformed into cutsie one-liners. “If you’re married, divorce speed.” It’s not naiveté; it’s that there’s no need.

Bhutan is a communal culture where that, perhaps because of the strong Buddhist influence, people have seemingly silently agreed to respect one another. As a sign of unity, Bhutanese people wear a national uniform. There’s an attitude that life isn’t to be won; it’s to be lived together. But with TV, Internet and a currency (all new for Bhutan), the major city in the land of happiness is no longer free from the trappings of the modern world. As our guide explained to us, Buddhism teaches contentment and the idea of enough, but of course it’s only human to want what others have. Bhutan, we realize, is stuck between the desire to preserve a culture and identity, and the desire to benefit from the modern world, even when the two seem to stand in stark contrast with one another. As we reflect on what Bhutan used to be – something perhaps more closely resembling the happiness for which they’re known – it’s important not to idealize the past. The “good old days” brought with it its own set of problems. And so we move through Thimphu, visiting chortens where people endlessly spin prayer wheels and then get back into our car while the Thimphu City Thugs play on the radio.

“And if you hit upon the idea that this or that country is safe, prosperous, or fortunate, give it up, my friend… for you ought to know that the world is ablaze with the fires of some faults of others. There is certain to be some suffering… no safe refuge can thus be found in the world.” – Buddhist scriptures


“The control measures on the Rohingya expanded and tightened as time went on, and by 2016, 86 checkpoints had been set up in northern Rakhine State.  The routine stop-and-search of vehicles to check for Rohingya passengers greatly amplified the perception of the group as a security threat.  This in turn fed the narrative, made so explicit by their denial of citizenship in 1982, that they were a lesser people.  The process of distinguishing them so drastically from other groups in Rakhine State, not only in a religious or ethnic sense, but now legally, criminally, would provide more robust grounds for the violence that eventually erupted in 2012. They weren’t worthy of the same protections afforded to Rakhine, limited as those were, and they became, in the eyes of those who either participated in attacks or supported them from afar, subhuman.  They were animals, stripped of the qualities that normally inhibit the use of violence against a fellow human being.”

-Francis Wade in Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim ‘Other’

We bought flights for a late December trip to Myanmar back in April. Myanmar had been on our list for a while, and I was thrilled to find great tickets.  We were attracted by its beautiful landscapes, less touristy vibe, and unique culture, but through the summer, the Rohingya crisis escalated, and we faced an ethical problem of whether or not to go.  Whether it should be called an ethnic cleansing or genocide didn’t matter, the fact is that the Myanmarese were committing atrocities against the Rohingya, and we didn’t feel fully comfortable condoning this behavior by touring there.

Before deciding either way, however, we weigh the options.  We recognize that this trip to Myanmar won’t be all smiles, and some of the learnings we may get from this adventure will teach us how a culture can sub-humanize another culture.  We could learn how a population can be so marginalized that even “good” people view them as a threat to society.  On the other hand, do we want to support a country through our tourist dollars that is systematically pushing out and eradicating another group just because they have differing beliefs?  We realize that our own government is pushing out ‘other’ as well as not letting them into the country for reasons not terribly different from that of the Myanmarese; however, at least for now, the degree to which the U.S. government is willing to go is not as extreme.

The biggest surprise is that we felt that Myanmar was improving.  Back in 2012, President Obama visited Myanmar, and he praised the government’s progress in shaking off military rule.  Just a couple years later, things seem as bad as they’ve ever been.  Clearly, in 2012, a lot of the story was missing.  As highlighted in the quote above, it takes half a century to develop these deep-rooted feelings against an ethnic group.  In a time of fake news and tampered elections, I’m embarrassed that I believed what I had been reading about Myanmar on its surface – that it was on a good path forward.  I believed what I wanted to believe.  I wanted to visit this beautiful country and I wanted it to embody the transformation story that was being shared.  I was wrong.

To go or not to go?  In the end, we just couldn’t.  We heard our rationales starting to sound like excuses.  We were never worried for our safety because we didn’t look or believe in anything that was controversial, but that doesn’t mean we should then feel okay going – just because we weren’t going to be in danger.  We still wanted to go to a similar part of the world, but we wanted to support a nation where we felt comfortable in the actions that the government and their people were taking.  We wanted to go to a nation where we were felt proud to emulate many of their traditions and beliefs.  And we wanted to go to a nation that we felt excited to support.

It was back to the drawing board for us, but with one caveat – if possible, where could we go so that we wouldn’t lose the full deposit that we’d already put down on Myanmar…

In trying to understand what was happening, I feel Wade’s book “Myanmar’s Enemy Within” does a nice job of explaining how today’s situation came to be.




The Golden Circle in Iceland

Iceland’s landscapes are spectacular, but equally interesting to the views is the audiobook we’re listening to.  As entertainment in the car while we drive from geyser to waterfall to museum to hot spring, we listen to Meltdown Iceland: How the Global Financial Crisis Bankrupted an Entire Country.  We learn how the 2008 world financial crisis began in Iceland, with its population of only 300k.  And then we go on to see manifestations of that in many of the sites we visit.

At the geothermal energy center where we learn how Iceland uses geothermal energy to heat its cities, we also learn that the center was built just before the financial crisis.  As a result, the center is beautiful, but unfortunately, they can’t afford to replace the expensive Italian light bulbs so the building isn’t shining quite as brightly as it used to.  Also, when we visit Reykjavik’s concert hall Harpa, it was designed along with a hotel just before the crisis, but it wasn’t started until many years after the crisis.  As we tour around, we learn of all the compromises that needed to be made because the original private donors could no longer support it.

Today, we enjoy the tourist hub that Iceland has become partly because of this mammoth financial explosion.  But whatever the reason, there is no denying this beautiful country.

Rose Bowl Game 2016

Two words sum it all up. Mama mia! And I wasn’t the only one to think that. We were able to watch the game in our hotel room on the last night of our trip with Italian announcers calling the plays. After the one of the highlights, one of the announcers actually said Mama Mia after watching Stanford and Christian McCaffrey running straight through Iowa.  

McCaffrey in Rose Bowl with Italian announcers from Andrew Stein on Vimeo.

(The room we were able to get on our last night in Italy wasn’t too shabby either.  Some left over status from my consulting days got us a a very lucky upgrade.)

Drama in Eastern Africa

My parents are understandably a little concerned about my being in Ethiopia, and have thus expressed some relief that I am now moving onwards to Italy.  Just a couple days ago, Al-Shabaab militant stormed a shopping center in Nairobi, Kenya, Ethiopia’s southern neighbor.  The Westgate mall fiasco was complete with hostages, a multi-day militant siege, and a collapsed parking deck.  Frighteningly, those caught in the crossfire could have been anyone making the scene all the scarier.  That all said, whether warranted or not, I felt safe with Harya and her family, whether that be traversing the capital city via minibuses or walking through crowded streets trying not to get lost.

No Crowds

It is always nice to travel when there are fewer tourists and shorter lines; however, the circumstances that lead to this trip’s smaller crowds are not happy ones for Israel and the Middle East.  In the second half of last month, well over 1000 Palestinian rockets were fired at Israel.  Specifically, both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv were targeted for the first time since the first Gulf War.  In addition, there was a bus bombing near the end of November in Tel Aviv injuring 28 Israeli civilians.

In Jordan, many tourists were probably dissuaded because of the recent clashes over the rise in fuel prices.  Also just last month, people in Amman were calling out for an end to the regime.  Confrontations between protestors and police had led to at least two deaths.

Because of this turmoil, this trip was a game time decision, but because things seemed to have settled down enough in the last month, my Dad and I decided that we would continue forward with our travel plans, and so far, we couldn’t have been happier that we did.  Also, both countries have felt incredibly safe even though we’ve seen our fair share of semi-automatic weapons strapped to the back of soldiers walking the streets.

Hopefully one day, peace in the Middle East will be a reality.  These are beautiful countries filled with lots of stories and so much to see and learn.

Langa Township

Opposite of many other large cities, in the core of the Cape Town dwells the wealthy, and the “suburbs” are where the poor reside within townships.  As part of the school’s immersion program, we spend an afternoon having lunch at and visiting one such township, the Langa Township.

Langa Township boys

Much of what we see there could be expected, but there are a couple surprises that I want to share.  First, within the township, there are a variety of socioeconomic classes displayed.  There are the large families who live in overcrowded, small tin houses juxtaposed to the smaller families enjoying fenced-in, cleaner-looking homes.

The second surprise for me is that regardless of where and how a family lived, many are in possession of seemingly luxurious goods such as nice televisions, stereos, phones, refrigerators, and even cars.  Anything in need of electricity is powered with stolen electricity off the power lines.

Langa Township woman

Finally, the last idea that I struggle with while touring this township is the fact that these families are opening up their homes to let foreigners like us photograph their lives.  They do receive monetary compensation for doing so; however, it still feels very intrusive and uncomfortable.