San Francisco

We were in SF for a grand total of 9 days. In some ways, it felt like I never left, but there were also some very noticeable differences.

Let me get this one out of the way first: There are more people living on the streets in the Castro than we saw on the streets in all other countries combined. I know this isn’t an easy problem to solve, but I don’t understand how this isn’t a major priority for the city. There are so many mentally ill people wandering around, plus a large number of what I’m guessing are drug addicts camped out in various spots. And based on the amount of shattered glass we saw, it looks like the car robberies keep increasing. Its sad to see The Castro like this – it was always a bright and thriving neighbourhood, and now there are so many empty storefronts (no doubt due to exorbitant rents) and derelicts. I really hope city goverment is working aggressively on some programs to help. (And I don’t mean just pushing people to different areas like they did for the Superbowl – it needs to be a mix of education, healthcare, job coaching, and housing.) Though it always bothered me when I lived there, I think I became a bit desensitized to it since I saw it every day. Now that I’ve been gone for a bit, the contrast to other cities is shocking. It’s sad that there’s no help for these folks.

On a more personal note, I feel like we really maximized our time while we were here – every night was spent with friends (and also any days we could find folks who weren’t working). Whereas before I was too tired to go out very much, this time socializing was the priority, and we fit in mundane stuff like banking and trips to REI (for safari stuff) around everything else.

It felt fantastic to be in a familiar place and eat all my favourite things and generally get stuff accomplished without having to exert any mental effort whatsoever. I knew exactly where to go when I needed specialty safari gear, or beaty supplies, or a haircut. I ate at Tacolicious 4 times in 9 days, went to 3 Zumba classes (one of which I taught), got a manicure and even went to the movies! Exciting!

The week culminated with the incredible wedding of Nick & Taylor. Their vows left everyone in the room weepy, and it was amazing to see so much love for them in one place. It was a great night full of fun, creative people, delicious food, exceptional wine, and so much joy.

Leaving this time felt really different. In May it felt more like going on vacation, as I had the security blanket of this visit on the calendar. This time its a one-way ticket and I don’t know when we’ll be back. I spent our SF time laughing and talking and having fun with so many folks that I love – I know I’m going to be missing you all terribly! Thanks to everyone who made by SF visit so fantastic.

Now its time for the next chapter – adventure, discomfort, uncertainty, majestic beauty, and wildlife (not necessarily in that order) . Africa, here we come!

Photos of many awesome people below:

Miami

Miami was a great final stop on our US roadtrip. I got to see my Aunt Debra, Uncle Rick and “Tanta Pam”, plus some of Pam’s family who I haven’t seen in many years.

 

Chili the Vizsla was kind enough to let us stay in her guest room. She has a large, beautiful home complete with a pool and live-in chef. When we weren’t spending ridicuolous amounts of time planning the next couple weeks of travel, Chili would take us swimming and have her chef make us some amazing meals.


My Uncle is also a great pilot and he took The German for a small tour of the Everglades in his open-cockpit Cub:


And while Uncle Rick can’t be beat in the kitchen, Debra held her own when it came to making cocktails:


The girls spent one afternoon at the zoo, despite the heat & humidity (which is oppressive at times). The zoo had some very active Harpy Eagles which were fascinating to watch, but feeding the giraffes was a definite highlight:


I always have fun with Rick, Debra and Pam and I only get to see them every few years, so this was a great way to end our trip. (Though we are certainly leaving a few pounds heavier, thanks to Rick’s cooking and all the fabulous champagne!)

All in all, the roadtrip was really great – we both got to see some new places, I got to see a lot of old friends, and it was nice to give The German a taste of the South. I’m glad this was how we started our adventure.

That said, we’re both also excited to not drive for a while, and slow down our pace of travel. So now we are headed to Europe, where our first stop will be a week in Reims, France.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

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Chillin’ at Grimmauld Place…

I was super-excited to stop at Universal Studios Orlando for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter! If you are even remotely a fan, I highly, highly recommend it!

If you enter from Universal Studios, you can take in some sights from London, including Grimmauld Place, and the emptiest version of Leicester Square you’ve ever seen.

 

 

 

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Chatting with the Knight Bus crew

 

 

All of the staff are extremely decidated to their roles – pretty much any interaction with anyone is going to be in character, from the Knight Bus Driver to the person serving ice cream at Florean Fortescue’s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then you basically walk through an unmarked passage into Diagon Alley… its absolutely like walking into the movie. Everyone turns the corner and stops, jaws dropped.  Then the next thing is to immediately start taking photos in every direction. Its truly a fantastic recreation.

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People clearly had a lot of fun working on this…

 

There is so much thought and detail put into every aspect of the worlds:

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The Owlry even has fake bird poop on it!

The frozen Butterbeer was my favourite – like a very rich cream soda slushy, with some buttery foam on top:

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The most notable attraction in Diagon Alley was Escape from Gringotts.
The line for this ride takes you all through the Goblin bank, complete with very convincing Goblins, then you get on a coaster with 3D effects that recreates the escape from the bank sequence from the movie.

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The lobby of Gringotts

 

From London, you can take the Hogwarts Express to the other part of the park. Just walking to the train is a lot of fun, as it departs from platform 9 3/4, of course! This is a charming train ride with some great effects to recreate some movie elements:

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If your kids love trains, they will flip out.

Once you arrive at Hogwarts, there’s another huge environment to explore. The highlight of this one is the Forbidden Journey ride. They have faithfully recreated many rooms from Hogwarts that you walk through while in line:

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All the portraits moved and spoke, of course.

Then the ride itself is an impressive tour through the films, including a Demeantor attack, a close pass with the Whomping Willow, and participating in a Quidditch match! The effects are incredibly convincing – it really felt like I was flying on a broom. I especially loved the Quidditch match. We went back and rode this one twice while the line was still short.

I’ve been to tour the film sets in London, which was also very cool but in a more academic sense. Universal has really done  an incredible job making it feel like you’re in the world of Harry Potter – it’s a very different experience.  I absolutely loved it.

If you are planning on going, here are a few tips:
• There aren’t discounted tickets to this park. If someone says they offer them, it will come with a 90 minute timeshare pitch.
• Staying on-resort will get you in one hour before the general public. This would be worth doing if the resort prices are reasonable. (Pretty much everyone in the park is in the Harry Potter section – it gets very crowded in the afternoon so having time before the park fills up is much nicer.)
• Express Passes aren’t usable for most of the Harry Potter rides, so bother buying one if that’s where you’re planning to spend most of your day.
• The parking lot is about 20-30 minutes walk from the park gates. I made us get there extra-early to ensure we’d be there the moment the gates opened.
• Go directly to the Harry Potter stuff as soon as the park opens. Lines for the two main rides get very long later in the day, so I recommend riding them first (before you walk around and take a million photos of all the environments).

Nawlins!

It goes without saying that New Orleans is a lot of fun… I love the energey of the French Quarter, the warm weather, and the blues/bluegrass/jazz music coming out of every door or on every street corner.

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I love the look of the French Quarter – we spent a lot of time just walking around and looking at all the cute buildings.

I really loved our accommodation – it was a building with a lot of history and charm, but still really comfortable. If you’re ever down there, I highly recommend the Olivier Guest House.

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Perfect for a historic (and haunted) guest house in the French Quarter)

We basically spent our short stay eating and drinking the entire time. While we were having a drink in one of the oldest buildings on Bourbon St – Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop – the jukebox caught my eye:

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You can take the girl out of Cupertino, but…

So I guess there is some new stuff in the historic French Quarter…

It felt great to have a couple days in the South – people are genuinely friendly on the street (without ultimately asking you for money like in SF), the pace is so relaxed, and even the muggy weather felt good to me. Though it wasn’t the same as Memphis, it was a nice little taste of the culture and energy that I grew up with.

5 Days in Texas

 

The landscape changed immediately once we hit Texas – we traded the impressive rocky landscape for wind farms, “nodding donkeys”, religious billboards and armadillo roadkill. (How do so many of these poor critters get run over? I’m surprised they aren’t extinct!)

Our first night was in Lubbock, which was a good stopping point on the way to Austin. Lubbock makes quite a bit of wine (who knew?) so we decided to try out a local tapas place run by a local wine producer. It was a cute little spot called La Diosa with cozy couches, mis-matched chairs, queso that included artichokes (surprisngly delicious) and excellent sangria.

We decided to Uber there since we were both exhausted from the 7 hours of driving. On the way home, our college-aged driver was having a tough time finding us since it wasnt a bar he knew. When I described it to him, he declared it was “a fancy one”, which is really laughable by SF standards.

The next day we made it to Austin where we spent a couple days visitng my folks, washing everything we own, and using their excellent wifi. When we weren’t busy doing laundry, we spent most of the time drinking wine and/or playing rummy cube.

I also went to one of my mom’s Jazzercize classes… I turned it into a decent workout by incorporating jump-squats at one point and doing every high-impact moification I could think of. I am really missing my Zumba class and Zumba crew! I hope once we get to Europe I can start taking classes again.

We made sure Stefan got some BBQ and some Tex Mex, and had a great view of Lake Travis before the rain hit.

Overlooking Lake Travis

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The next day we did a whirlwind tour of Houston to see some of my favourite folks… First up was Ben, who I went to high school with in Memphis. We were super-close… we drove to
school every day singing Pixies at the top of our lungs, hung out on weekends, passed notes between classes. I’ve only seen him a couple times since I left Memphis, but it always makes me smile to hear from him and makes me even happier when I get to see him. He’s my link to my Southern roots, and it makes me nostalogic and sappy and warms my heart to get to see him. I finally got to meet his wife, Jennifer,  who is just as lovely as I imagined. They both seem to be happy and doing well in Houston.

 

Alana, Ajax & Justin at El Real – Text Mex spot #2

Later that day I caught up with my college buddy, Justin. He & I lived on the same floor freshman year of college, and have remained friends pretty much ever since. Seeing him is never not fun – he’s ridiculously funny and very astute. It was so nice to spend some time with his awesome wife Alana, who I only met previously at their wedding. She’s my kind of people and they are so great together. And their son Ajax knows how to work a room!

And as a cherry on the cake of the day, Justin took us to an excellent Tex Mex place at a converted movie theatre, El Real. Margaritas come in pitchers and the tortialls are made to order. I definitely got my Tex Mex fix, and loved getting to spend time with them so it was win/win!

 

 

Week 2: Nature (and other attractions)

After leaving Vegas, we headed for the Hoover Dam. Its a relatively short drive and an impressive structure. You can also walk across the Memorial Bridge (which lies opposite the dam and is incredibly high up). Looking back at the dam from thw windy, narrow bridge gave me an irrational fear of accidentally flinging my phone or car key over the edge for no reason, which is why this photo isn’t very well framed:


After that we headed towards Utah. The scenery was pretty much gorgeous the entire drive.  There was one stretch that reminded us of Mad Max – it was like driving through towering boulders. I wish I had managed to take a photo of it.

The next day we slept in and leisurely made our way to Zion National Park… which we soon realized was a huge mistake. The park was incredibly crowded and it seemed like we’d be destined to spend the day looking for parking. This is when we realized our complete lack of planning wasn’t necessarily going to work with these parks.

I finally managed park the car in some grassy area near a campground. This made The German very uncomfortable as it didn’t appear to be an officially sanctioned spot, but I was determined to get out of the car.

We took a 2 hour hike up to some incredible vistas, so it was worth the stress. These photos don’t at all do it justice:

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A rare glimpse of me, in nature, wearing bluejeans.
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From the peak of the second trail – another stunning view

 

 

The next day was Antelope Canyon. To our surpise, its not possible to go without being part of a tour group. We basically got the last 2 spots for the day, which was an 8am check-in time. (We have learned our lesson and will go back to our over-planning ways from here on out.)

Antelope Canyon is other-wordly… absolutely beautiful. Its a bummer you can’t ever be alone in there (seriously, the tour groups are nose-to-tail in there), but the guides do a great job of ushering people through while still making sure you get amazing photos. Its like nothing I’ve ever seen before and still seemed magical despite the crowds.

 

While we were too early to see the light rays cascading through the canyon, it was slightly less crowded at that hour, so it worked out well.

At the risk of making it a theme, we then went to the Grand Canyon. Despite all the warnings about getting there before 9 to avoid crowds, we had a very easy time entering the park and there were plenty of places to park throughout the vista points. (I do think it helps that we entered on the east side of the south rim.)

We didn’t have time to do extensive  hiking, unfortunately, but still had plenty of time for taking photos and wandering around the various vista points. Its just so vast – we spent a lot of time just staring at it in awe.

 

I highly recommend all three of these parks if you’re in the area – they don’t disappoint!

Next up: family visit in Austin!

 

 

Week 1: Fun with Friends!

The first week was mainly about hanging out with friends, which is a nice way to ease into this travel experience.

We started with one night in Yountville to decompress from the mayhem of moving. Wine tasting at Maisonry and dinner at Bouchon was a great reward for all the work leading up to our departure.

The next night was the aforementioned kitsch-fest that is the Madonna Inn, and then it was off to LA!

My former Apple colleague, Gavin, is a huge theme park enthusiast and coaster fanatic, so we had to make a stop at Magic Mountain. (Pro Tip: buy tickets online at least 5 days in advance to save $25) Between the mid-week timing and the mediocre weather, we really didn’t have to wait for any rides at all!


We managed to ride the front car of 3 different coasters in our first hour of being there! This initally seemed amazing but after the third one, we all admitted we didn’t feel so well and needed to slow down. 🙂

The most interesting ride was The New Revolution – a “VR coaster”. Essentially, they strap a Samsung phone to your face and then put you on a real coaster.


The VR scene is a scifi battle – it appears like you’re flying a jet and battling aliens. While we all agreed there was a lot of opportunity for improvement, it was also incredibly exciting. You had no idea which direction you’d be headed since the VR environment doesn’t show any indication of a coaster track. Freaky! We couldn’t stop talking about it.

After riding all the coasters we could stomach, it was lovely to have a chill night with Mary at her house, playing silly games:

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Barney – Mary’s non-exploding kitten.  He’s just big-boned.

Then the final part of the week was spent in Las Vegas. Tim had been there for work, so he stayed to play with us. SOTB was supposed to come meet us, but after 5 hours of flight delays, his flight was ultimately cancelled and I can only assume he stromed out of the airport with a series of obscenities so vehement that he’s prevented from returning to SFO anytime soon.

Thanks to Tim’s excellent coaching, I managed to walk away from the blackjack tables $300 up! The German got his fill of poker, and we had an amazing dinner experience at Rose. Rabbit. Lie. in the Cosmopolitan – not only was the food amazing, but they had singers and dancers performing throughout the space. I highly recommend it!

 

The bartender at Red Square seemed to take a liking to us…

Next up: Nature!