• Pick-pocketed in Ho Chi Minh City: A cautionary tale

    Although we hoped it wouldn't happen, we knew that being pick-pocketed on our Trip Around the World was a very real possibility. We tried to always be careful, especially in crowded places, but we just weren't careful enough in Ho Chi Minh City.

    If you've ever visited Vietnam or even seen videos on YouTube, you know the streets are filled with an endless flow of motorbike traffic. There are plenty of cars on the road, too, but, as it was explained to us, Vietnam has an import tax of 200% on automobiles while motorbikes are bought and sold from flyers on the walls of cafes and restaurants for $200. And that means there are a lot more motorbikes than cars traversing the streets of Vietnam.


    We'd been in Vietnam for more than a week, so we'd gotten used to the intensity of Vietnamese street traffic. We even got really good at crossing the street with (almost) no fear. Despite this familiarity, we were still a little surprised when we left The Secret Garden (a well-regarded, somewhat hidden rooftop restaurant located up four flights of stairs in an alley off Pasteur Street) to walk to Fanny's, an ice cream parlor where we had a reservation to enjoy a fancy 14-scoop ice cream fondue platter.

    It was New Year's Eve, and a massive number of people and motorbikes were clogging the city's streets like nothing we'd seen before. HCMC has a population of almost eight million people, and it felt like every one of them was either driving through the heart of District 1 on a motorbike or walking toward Công viên 23 Tháng 9 (Park September 23) to get a good view of the upcoming New Year's concert and fireworks show. Crowds have never really been my thing, so the idea of wading through all that was a little daunting, but that ice cream fondue platter was waiting for us, so we stepped into the fray.


    After about fifteen minutes of negotiating crowds and dodging motorbikes, we got to Ben Thanh Market, right across the street from the park where the concert was about to take place. The streets around the market were filled (and I do mean filled) with motorbikes parked side-by-side across the width of the roads. People were just lying on top of their bikes — which is a sight to see — waiting for the show and the fireworks to begin.

    We had to cross the street to get where we were going, but with so many bikes parked in the street, there was no clear path we could take. I held my youngest daughter's hand as we maneuvered our way around and through and over the maze of motorbikes. My daughter wasn't happy. She couldn't see over the bikes and didn't like pushing her way through the crowd. She was also bothered by the many Vietnamese citizens who would stroke her hair and kiss the top of her head as she walked by. It wasn't done in a threatening way — someone told us people did it for good luck — but it still made her feel mighty uncomfortable. (She now wears her hair short, and I suspect this experience has a lot to do with that decision.)

    We'd been warned repeatedly by people and by signs about pickpockets, so I was being very aware of my wallet. I could feel it in my pocket as I stepped over the tires of a pair of bikes that were parked almost on top of each other. But this spot wasn't an easy place for my daughter to get through. She had to wriggle her way between the bikes. After we were through, she looked distraught, so we stopped for a moment. I asked her if she was okay. She nodded, but I could tell she was not happy. I squeezed her hand then started walking again, and as soon as I took my next step, I realized my pocket was a little light. I felt for my wallet, but it was gone. Just like that.


    I stood there, looking around. The thief was surely still in the area (there was no way anyone could run through that crowd) and was most likely one of the people lounging on top of their parked motorbikes. It could have easily been any of at least a dozen people. Even more likely, it was the work of a team and my wallet had been handed off down the line and was nowhere near me.

    It was the first time in my life I'd been pick-pocketed, and, as annoyed as I was, I couldn't help but admire the artistry behind it.

    There wasn't anything to do but try to minimize the damage, so we went back to the hotel. Instead of enjoying the fireworks over Ho Cho Minh City, I was on the phone, cancelling credit cards and trying to get replacements sent to me in Vietnam.

    In the end, I lost a million dong, which sounds like a lot but it's only about $50 U.S., a credit card (that was replaced in four days), and debit card (that took three months to get replaced, which made traveling through the next few countries somewhat difficult). I also lost my driver's license. I still don't know why I was carrying that — I hadn't driven a car in three months.

    The greatest loss was the wallet itself, a cuben fiber number that is the best wallet I've ever owned. Fortunately, I'd picked up another one when I met my friend Jason in Hong Kong (he makes these wallets and other cool gear at his Picharpak Workshop), so I started 2015 with a new (but empty) wallet.

    All in all, it was an embarrassing and inconvenient experience, but it could have been a lot worse. So far, there have been no serious repercussions (although I'm still watching my credit closely), and I haven't had my life stolen like Jasmina Tesanovic, who had her handbag swiped in Turin, an act that "crippled her life for the next two months." That sort of damage would have definitely put a strain on the rest of our trip.

    I read somewhere that crime rises in the time leading up to Tết, the Vietnamese New Year, when people need cash to buy gifts for their families and friends. I don't know how true that is, but as it so happens, Tết was only a month away. So I hope that someone had a nice Tết with my million dong.

    I want to say that I was able to overcome the experience and enjoy the rest of our stay in Vietnam, but I couldn't, not fully anyway. I really liked the time we spent in Hanoi, but Saigon left me with bitter memories.

    Chocolate fondue ice cream platter at Fanny's in Ho Chi Minh City

    Except for that ice cream fondue platter, that is.

  • How to buy secret cookies baked by cloistered Spanish nuns How to buy Nun Cookies in Spain

    There's a legend about cookies that you can hear spoken of in hushed tones on the streets of Madrid. These aren't your normal store-bought cookies. No, these highly sought-after treats are baked from ancient recipes dating back to the time of the Romans (so they say), and they're made exclusively by nuns who avoid being seen by the general public. This last fact makes them somewhat difficult to track down. But since we love a good challenge (and good cookies), we couldn't resist undertaking the search to find out how to score some of these secret cookies baked by cloistered Spanish nuns.

    It all started during a Sandeman's New Madrid free walking tour. Early on in the tour, our guide, Naomi (who was quite excellent), stopped at a narrow street near Botín (the oldest restaurant in the world, dating back to 1725) and told us that just down this very road, one could buy cookies from nuns who remained hidden safely behind the walls of a Spanish monastery. There was a collective gasp from our fellow attendees as we all realized she was talking about the nun cookies. We quickly logged the latitude and longitude so we could find this starting point again and continued on our tour.

    Nun Cookies: Right This Way

    And that's how, on the following day, we ended up walking along this narrow street looking for anything that might even remotely look like a clandestine nun bakery. Eventually, the street opened up into a plaza (there are a lot of plazas in Madrid), at the end of which sat the Monastery of Corpus Christi. The presence of a monastery certainly seemed promising, but we hadn't seen anything that looked like a bakery or a shop. We weren't quite sure what to do next. Should we take a look down one of the side streets? Or maybe we missed it. Should we go back and look again? And that's when we saw the tile with "No. 3" and an arrow pointing to the left on the wall about three meters off the ground. On a street where there were no signs, this seemed like it could be something, so we followed it.

    No. 3 points toward nun cookies.

    A few steps later, we came to one of those huge doors that had a smaller door set inside of it, a common feature of Spanish church doors. Next to the door, below a standard-looking buzzer, was a small sign that read "Horario: Venta de Dulces." I knew enough Spanish to know that this gave us the hours for the sale of sweets. We'd found the place! However, according to the sign, the nuns closed down for siesta at 1:00 p.m.—and that was only five minutes away. We had to hurry!

    Hours for selling nun cookies

    We pressed the button and waited. Nothing happened. We waited some more. Still nothing happened. We thought about pressing the button again, but there's a feeling you get when contacting cloistered nuns to buy cookies that makes you wary of irritating the nuns. We feared we were too late and had just started to turn away when a small but boisterous tour group erupted out of the tiny inset door. We looked at each other, shrugged, and jumped through the door the group had exited. We walked down the hall until we got to a small statue of a bear eating from a strawberry tree (El oso y el madroño, the symbol of the city of Madrid), above which was a sign with an arrow pointing to the left and the word torno.

    El oso y el madrono show the way

    We followed the arrow and passed through a small courtyard before reaching the end of the hallway where we found a window with a three-chambered lazy susan. This was the torno indicated by the sign we'd seen, and it looked like a small revolving door, but with brown-painted wood instead of glass. Taped to the wall on the right side of the torno was a price list. We'd made it … now all we had to do was figure out how to order our cookies.

    How to buy Nun Cookies in Spain

    There were no fewer than eight varieties listed on the wall-mounted price list, and each was available in one kilogram or half-kilogram packages. We decided on a small box of the Naranjines (they were on the top of the list) and pressed the buzzer for service, again hoping we weren't too late. After a tense moment, we heard a distant door close and then footsteps approaching from the other side of the window.

    "Si?" a feminine amplified voice asked.

    I dusted off my best Spanish (which isn't very good) and said, "Queremos comprar los dulces." Silence. So I added, "Naranjines, por favor." More silence. So I tacked on, "Quienientos grams?"

    "No," said the amplified voice.

    I asked for a few other flavors, and each time the answer was a definitive no. But we weren't picky, and she hadn't said they were totally out of cookies, so finally I asked "Qué tienes?"

    There was no answer, but the lazy susan spun around until a smallish white box appeared. My daughters quickly grabbed it while my wife and I stood there quietly celebratory (the place seemed to demand silence of its patrons) and a little giddy. We now owned a box of nun cookies. We'd done it!

    We looked more closely at our hard-fought box of cookies. They were Montecadoes de Yema which seemed to be a type of shortbread cookie. As we each took a turn inspecting our little box, the torno rotated again and we saw a one euro coin sitting there—our change.

    nun cookies!

    After we got back outside, right after we did a little victory dance, we opened the box and peeked at our cookies. They were thin and squarish and covered in powdered sugar. We managed to exert some willpower and wait until we were back in our hostel room before sampling them. The powdered sugar made them a little messy, but they were delicious and didn't last very long.

    nun cookies: almost gone

    Now Madrid isn't the only city where the nuns bake cookies. For many monasteries and convents, baking and selling such cookies is one of the only ways for the nuns to earn income. And after our success in Madrid, we were hooked on the thrill of finding (and eating) nun cookies. So as we visited other cities on our mini-tour of Spain, we remained on the lookout for rumors or signs of nuns selling dulces. And our diligence paid off. We found nuns who baked cookies in Toledo, Granada, and Barcelona. But, finding and buying the cookies from the nuns in those cities was much less intense than our experience in Madrid.


    In Toledo, the nuns sold cookies of mazapan from a shop that was staffed by ladies who weren't cloistered. And in Granada, the nuns sold their cookies in a mixed variety pack that turned out to be our favorite nun cookies. Also in Granada, the nun behind the lazy susan peeked out to take our order, which was quite a surprise.

    Nun cookies in Granada.

    Then in Barcelona, we stumbled across Caelum, a café located somewhere in the narrow streets behind the Cathedral of Barcelona, that sold many different types of cookies from different monasteries and convents in the city.

    There are a lot of things we're going to miss about Spain, but nun cookies are high on that list—and not only because finding out where they're sold is always an exciting adventure. They're pretty tasty, too.

  • Pondok Pekak Library, a hidden gem in Ubud, Bali Pondok Pekak Library in Ubud

    To many people, the village of Ubud in Bali is either a place for Eat Pray Love-style spiritual awakenings or Bintang-binging nights on the town. But neither of those was really our family's scene. Instead one of the things we enjoyed most about our 18-day stay in Ubud was visiting the Pondok Pekak Library & Learning Center.

    Pondok Pekak Entrance

    Pondok Pekak, which means "grandfather's little resting house in the rice field," was first opened in 1995 when American expat Laurie Billington, who believed that every town should have a library, and her Balinese husband Made Sumendra built a small library on Made's ancestral land.

    Nearly 20 years later, Pondok Pekak can be found in the center of Ubud village, just east of the football field on Monkey Forest Road. Laurie passed on in 2009, but Made continues to operate the library, keeping Laurie's legacy alive.

    Inside Pondok Pekak

    Pondok Pekak boasts 30,000 books in more than ten different languages. It has a wide selection of Indonesian and Asian studies titles, plenty of general non-fiction books, a good selection of fiction across all genres, and quite a few travel guidebooks. They also have an extensive collection of children's books in many different languages, but they're always looking for donations.

    Pondok Pekak Shelves

    Even though it's a small library by most standards, it has a lot to offer those of us who still love paper books. I found it very easy to lose track of time as I browsed the shelves and uncovered many interesting reads. It even has a copy of Tom Neale's An Island to Oneself.

    An Island to Oneself at Pondok Pekak

    The books at Pondok Pekak can be rented, bought (though not all books are for sale), or even read right there in the library's open-air reading room on the second floor. Anyone can become a member of the library and get unlimited access to the library's inventory for a month (50,000 Indonesian rupiah, about $4 US) or a year (250,000 rupiah, about $20 US). They also offer daily rentals (2,000 rupiah a day with a 3-day minimum).

    Stealing Books is Bad Karma at Pondok Pekak

    But despite having a great selection of reading material for tourists and locals alike, Pondok Pekak is much more than a library. It also offers many different learning opportunities, including classes on the Indonesian language, Balinese dance, wood carving, painting, how to make canang sari offerings (which are everywhere in Bali), fruit and vegetable carving, how to play gamelan (a traditional Balinese orchestra), and more—like the silver jewelry making class my wife and daughters took one afternoon. And the prices are much more reasonable than at some other places.

    On top of all that, Pondok Pekak offers free Wi-Fi and a place to fill up your water bottles, too. So if you're visiting Ubud and want a serene place to escape for a while or to learn something new, head on over to this fabulous little library, tucked away in a quiet corner just east of the football field.


  • What bees taught me about Cambodia Giant Honeybee Hive in Cambodia

    There are a lot of temples in Cambodia's Angkor Archaeological Park. So many, in fact, there's no way to see them all in one day. Tourists still try to see as many as possible, though, and this often leads to temple burnout.

    Bayon in Angkor Archaeological Park

    Bayon, the largest wat in Angkor Thom, right around sunset.

    There are a few cures for being "templed out," like a fish massage or a night of carousing along Siem Reap's Pub Street. But a more sensible and educational approach is to sign up for a tour with Bees Unlimited and see a side of the Angkor Archaeological Park that not many tourists get to see.

    Bees Unlimited is really one man, Dani Jump, an American-born beekeeper who's lived in Cambodia for nearly 20 years. Because of his infectious curiosity, he's learned a lot about local culture and traditions and has been welcomed into corners of the country where Western faces aren't often seen.


  • A tour through New Zealand's amazing steampunk town Steampunk HQ, New Zealand

    Oamaru, New Zealand is probably best known for its large colony of blue penguins. People journey from all over the world to watch rafts (that's what a water-borne group of penguins is called) of these small, flightless birds return from the ocean at sundown each night.

    But, to those in the know, Oamaru is also the steampunk capital of New Zealand. Many New Zealand towns boast they are the world capital of something (carrot capital, gumboot capital, kiwi capital, kiwi fruit capital, and so on—there's a pretty complete list on Wikipedia), but the steampunk capital seemed a bit of a stretch.

    Once we started exploring the town, though, we learned that Oamaru has a well-preserved historic Victorian district, so from there it's only one minor conceptual shift in thinking to make Oamaru a bastion of all things steampunk.

    To the town's credit, it's fully embraced the steampunk vibe, going so far as hosting the annual 3-day Steampunk NZ Festival (2015's is scheduled for May 28) and creating a steampunk-themed playground—complete with an elephant howdah zipline, a pennyfarthing swingset, and a Victorian-age rocket slide—that my daughters have declared as the best playground in the world.

    Steampunk HQ

    And right smack in the middle of all this steampunky goodness is Steampunk HQ, a industrial-inspired steam-powered art gallery and retro-futuristic showroom set up in a massive, three-story Victorian-style sandstone building originally built in 1883 (it used to have five stories but lost two in what they say was a "spectacular fire").

    You quite literally cannot miss the place. It's down by the waterfront, right next to the train tracks. A fire-breathing steam engine, designated SP001, looms large in front of the building, and a giant shark-mouthed steampunk blimp, hanging over a mysterious set of double gates, demands to be noticed.

    Even if you approach from the opposite direction, you're greeted by a grinning, goggled skull (the Steampunk HQ logo) laser-cut out of sheet metal and mounted on the side of the building.

    With all that going on outside of the place, we had to check out the inside. After paying the price of admission (quite reasonable at $10 for adults, $2 for children, and $20 for families), we walked through a door into a darkened room where we were thrust immediately into an alternate world of bizarre contraptions, spooky figures, strange flickering machines, cages of copper tubes, and working gadgets powered by gas cylinders and steam.

    The whole gallery is filled with otherworldly sounds and projected images that complement the sculptures and other creations, and visitors can take a seat in two different arcane styled viewing rooms to watch a set of avant-garde, looped movies.

    Infinity Portal

    The newest attraction in the place is the Infinity Portal, a small room with mirror-lined walls, ceiling, and floor and filled with a lattice made from hundreds of LED lights. You need a special coin to even enter the thing (each group gets one as the price of entry), and shortly after visitors shuffle inside to stand on a small, metal balcony, an ambient soundtrack kicks in as the lights shift colors, and the whole room spins off on a short journey through time and space (or so it seems). It was a cool, slightly disorienting experience.

    The Steampunk Backyard/Workshop

    When you're ready to leave the gallery, an understated set of doors leads outside to a large yard filled with a whole bunch of machines in various stages of steampunk construction, like the "Aethertractor," a giant motorbike, a skeletal-visaged freight train, and even a rocket to the moon.

    We had a lot of fun wandering around this yard and through works in progress: climbing on the machines, playing with all sorts of gears and gadgets, and exploring the many nooks, crannies, hiding spots scattered about the area.

    If steampunk's your thing, and you happen to be on New Zealand's South Island, then a trip to Steampunk HQ in Oamaru is worth your time.


  • Tsukunejima: A Fantastic Dining Experience in Hiroshima Tsukunejima Streetside View

    Somewhere between Hong Kong and Japan, I installed Field Trip on my phone, and now it buzzes every so often when we pass something Field Trip deems interesting. The app pulls data from a wide variety of blogs, so the notices aren't always that relevant to a family of four. Yet when it went off as we rode Street Car No. 1 to our hostel in Hiroshima, I was intrigued by the description of a restaurant called Tsukunejima that was pulled in from food critic Andy Hayler's blog. So intrigued, in fact, my wife and I decided we wanted to try it for dinner. It turned out to be one of our most memorable moments of 2014. Here's how it went down.

    After an emotional day wandering around Hiroshima, we were pretty hungry and set off to find the place. Finding anything in Japan comes with a certain level of difficulty, and Tsukunejima was no exception. We walked by its nondescript storefront on a pedestrian-only side street two times before we finally located it.

    Tsukunejima Streetside View

    The front door to Tsukunejima.

    This is a small restaurant with only 13 seats, and we totally lucked out that there were just four seats left in an otherwise packed house. After we were seated, the waiter came up and explained there was no English menu (nor had we expected one). Instead, he wrote two numbers on a sheet of paper: 3,740 and 5,100. These were the prices, in yen, of the two fixed-menu (or set menu as its often called in Japan) options. We ordered four of the less expensive meals.


  • Welcome to Sacred Monkey Forest Mean Monkey in the Monkey Forest

    When you see a troop of screaming crab-eating macaques rushing at you from the surrounding forest, you're only thinking one thing—Mean Monkey Monday.

    People told us that taking a walk through the Sacred Monkey Forest in Ubud, Bali is simply an amazing thing to do. In addition to numerous crab-eating macaques, the forest's namesake monkeys that make their home in the area, there are three different temples inside the borders of the forest that are worth seeing. So we decided to check it out. After all, monkeys are cute, right?

    Cute (?) Monkey in the Monkey Forest


  • The Majesty of Easter Island Moai at Ahu Tongariki, Easter Island

    When I was a kid, I loved the show In Search Of. You know the one-it delved into all sorts of mysterious phenomenon and pseudoscience, famously narrated by Leonard Nimoy. I don't think I missed an episode, but the one that really stuck with me was episode 17, "The Easter Island Massacre."

    I remember watching, rapt with attention, as Nimoy's deep monotone introduced me to this small island filled with giant heads and how they might have come to be there. The day after the show aired, I hunted down Thor Heyerdahl's Aku Aku from the school library and checked it out (and kept checking it out as often as I could, if only to look at the pictures). I was really fascinated with the place, but I never thought I'd ever see these mythical giant heads up close for myself.


  • How We Decided to Travel Around the World How We Decided to Travel Around the World

    Okay, so it wasn't quite that simple, but it was pretty close.

    By all measure of American success, we'd arrived. Homeownership. Two kids. Big Important Jobs. Vested retirement accounts. We were doing all right. Or were we?

    Despite this success, our quality of life was lacking. With school, work, commuting, extra-curricular programs, and homework, plus getting the kids fed, bathed, and into bed at a reasonable time, our lives were hectic. Pick your metaphor — rat race, daily grind, treadmill — we were feeling it. Even when we relaxed it often felt stressful.

    My wife and I both worked full-time jobs, typically from 9 to 6, and often later. This meant we relied on a rotating network of people to care for our kids and drive them around as needed. These people were all caring and qualified individuals, but our kids wanted to spend time with us. Yet as job pressures increased, we were caught between providing for the family and actually being a family. This dichotomy had pretty much sucked the joy out of our day-to-day lives. Something needed to change.