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July 4, 2013

Happy Birthday America, but who are you?

We’ve been pretty bad about posting to our blog lately and must apologize, but it’s because we’ve been moving through the US and Western Europe very quickly to save money, and by the time we get back to the hotel neither of us is in the mood for serious reflection or thinking.

In May and June we drove over 8,300 miles across America through Washington DC, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, California, Nevada, Wyoming, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland. We met old friends and absolute strangers along the way and visited nine national parks.

The scale and diversity of America is truly breathtaking. One morning we stood in scorching desert sand and the same evening in snow covered granite. Along the way we met cowboys and indians, and immigrants from every corner of the Earth. And all the while we wondered, how does one sum all this up?

One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces
of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth
across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.
One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story
told by our silent gestures moving behind windows.

My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper—
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives—
to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.

All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the “I have a dream” we keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light
breathing color into stained glass windows,
life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth
onto the steps of our museums and park benches
as mothers watch children slide into the day.

One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk
of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat
and hands, hands gleaning coal or planting windmills
in deserts and hilltops that keep us warm, hands
digging trenches, routing pipes and cables, hands
as worn as my father’s cutting sugarcane
so my brother and I could have books and shoes.

The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains
mingled by one wind—our breath. Breathe. Hear it
through the day’s gorgeous din of honking cabs,
buses launching down avenues, the symphony
of footsteps, guitars, and screeching subways,
the unexpected song bird on your clothes line.

Hear: squeaky playground swings, trains whistling,
or whispers across café tables, Hear: the doors we open
for each other all day, saying: hello, shalom,
buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or buenos días
in the language my mother taught me—in every language
spoken into one wind carrying our lives
without prejudice, as these words break from my lips.

One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed
their majesty, and the Mississippi and Colorado worked
their way to the sea. Thank the work of our hands:
weaving steel into bridges, finishing one more report
for the boss on time, stitching another wound
or uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait,
or the last floor on the Freedom Tower
jutting into a sky that yields to our resilience.

One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes
tired from work: some days guessing at the weather
of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love
that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother
who knew how to give, or forgiving a father
who couldn’t give what you wanted.

We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always—home,
always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country—all of us—
facing the stars
hope—a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it—together.

- “One Today” by Richard Blanco


May 5, 2013

Memphis, TN

Named for the city of Memphis in Ancient Egypt, Memphis, TN took us three hours to drive to from Nashville. Despite being even further South than Nashville, I got the sense Memphis had better racial integration. Both cities are roughly the same size (between 600k-700k population) and are rich in musical heritage. We did 3 major things in Memphis:

1 – Visited Graceland: We took a tour of the estate of “The King”, Elvis Presley. Neither of us are Elvis fans but this was something we had to check out. Two things struck me at Graceland. First, Elvis was a twin. His older brother was stillborn 35 minutes before the King made his entrance into this World. Second, despite being a big star, he was drafted into the army and spent 2 years in service between 1958 and 1960. Whatever I think of war, the fact that he was drafted and had to comply despite being a super-celebrity is impressive because it indicates the draft system was relatively free of corruption and equitable between individuals, even if it was inequitable to the group as a whole. The United States ended conscription and moved to an all-volunteer force in 1973, which has had several benefits but on the whole I feel has been negative because it’s made going to war too easy for most Americans because on average they are less likely to know a soldier personally. Sending people to war should be an involved and difficult decision and yet today the US is fighting the longest war in its history and hardly anyone notices. War should be taken more seriously.



2 – Hit the Beale Street Music Festival: While we didn’t buy tickets to the concert itself which was quite affordable at under $40, Beale Street itself was teeming with activity and jazz music so we happily took in these freebies.

Beale Street

Beale Street

3 – Visited the American Civil Rights Museum: This museum includes the Lorraine Motel where MLK Jr was shot and killed in 1968. We learned a lot we didn’t know about the fight for African American civil rights, too much in fact to include in this post. I’ll just say I was surprised by how much we didn’t know and that it was a longer and more painful struggle than I had previously thought.


National Civil Rights Museum. At right is room 306 where MLK was staying and in front of which he was shot and killed.

We also took in the Mayweather-Guerrero fight at a nearby Fox & Hound pub, and had the best fried chicken yet on our trip at Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken. It really was exceptional chicken!

May 4, 2013

Nashville, TN

In Nashville, I was finally able to pop the cherry on my 100 strangers project with an especially interesting stranger #1 (if he is to be believed). Nashville is called “The Music City” and for country music it definitely is (The Grand Ole Opry is here), but I think it’s significance for popular music has fallen over the years. Everyone we met was universally friendly and this general friendliness is slowly beginning to rub off on us city slickers from the North. However, the white/black socioeconomic divide in Nashville was wider than I’m used to seeing. We weren’t there very long but I didn’t see a single affluent looking African American all day.

I went to the Tennessee state capitol and again the black/white divide story repeated itself. The state legislature is THE hall of power and influence. Today, a high school class was using the capitol to practice their Robert’s Rules of Order in the real McCoy. I counted between 60-70 students and not a single black one among them, in a city where African Americans comprise 29% of the population. A lack of minority voices may be one of the reasons Tennessee lawmakers were so quick to adopt the paranoid bill against the mythical threat of creeping Sharia. Sadly, this is a region with a storied history of bigotry. Tennessee is the birthplace of the KKK and is the state where MLK was assassinated. The legacy of bigotry continues to this day. Murfreesboro, a town where the site of a new mosque was recently vandalized and targeted in an arson attack, is less than 30 miles from Nashville.


And then there was the case of the Moslem (or is it Islamist?) foot bath that wasn’t, when Tennessee lawmakers freaked out because they thought a new mop sink in the state capitol was an ablution facility installed out of consideration for Muslims. Well, Tennessee lawmakers should know that I met with Imam Obama at the DC Muslim Brotherhood chapter before our road trip and he personally entrusted me with the mission to further sharia-creep in the great state of Tennessee by performing wudu (ablution) in their state capitol’s Sharia compliant Islamist foot bath. Oh, and mission accomplished!


Jokes aside, it’s frustrating that the South where folks are warm, friendly, hold the door for you and profess family values has so much bigotry, whereas the North where people are cold and even rude to one another has a far better record of tolerance and inclusiveness. What drives this? Is it the heritage of a once slavery-driven economy and resentment over defeat in the civil war? Is it that they have fewer immigrants so less experience with diversity and less appreciation of the common humanity that all people share regardless of how different they appear? Could it be that the affluent and powerful classes don’t want to surrender their economic and political advantage to the historically disenfranchised, fairness be damned, and so push racially divisive narratives to prolong the institutional inequities that favor them? It’s probably all of the above and more.

Also, anti-immigrant rhetoric and violence almost always flares up during economic slowdowns (as can be observed in Greece and a few other crisis-hit European nations) so the longer the economic hardship triggered by the global financial crisis lasts, and the worse income and wealth inequality becomes (which has been the trend over the past several decades), the more fertile the ground will be for bigotry to take root and spread. Here’s hoping for prosperity, tolerance and inclusiveness instead.

I should make clear that I have nothing against Tennessee or Tennesseans. Racism and bigotry exists everywhere. I only wish that bold leaders that prioritize justice above politics would emerge in this state and others like it so that people of all races, religions and sexual orientations are treated as equal citizens.

May 3, 2013

Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN

Colleen called Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge “Hillbilly Vegas” and I think that’s pretty spot on. Dollywood is here! Dinner shows on the Pigeon Forge strip include Hatfields & McCoys, Lumberjack Feud, Dixie Stampede and Biblical Times. They even have a massive Titanic museum in the shape of the ship, because as we all know the Titanic sank off the coast of Tennessee – okay, that’s unfair, regular Vegas does this kind of stuff too. Truthfully, this place looks like a lot of wholesome and affordable fun for a family or group. I particularly enjoy go karts and mini golf and there was plenty of that around as well.


Fun times for the entire family

We wound up not doing much other than walking around. We both agreed we were seeing more obese folks the father South we drove. This shook us because we were headed that way. Would the South obesify us?!?!? To counteract the pernicious fattening effect of the South, we went for a couple of hours hike in the nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park.


Colleen in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

A day earlier we had dinner at Texas Roadhouse, a popular restaurant franchise. There is a pail of peanuts at the table when you sit down. As I dug into them, I wondered what I should do with the shells. Colleen told me it was permissible to leave them on the table or even drop them on the floor, and indeed I saw other people doing this. At this moment, a Stewie Griffin voice in my head exclaimed “How delightfully provincial!” Yes, the South definitely has its moments. For the record, I also love it when waitresses call me sweetheart, sugar or darling. It makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Northern waitresses, you just got served!


May 2, 2013

Asheville, North Carolina – First Stop on the US Roadtrip


After a 7 hour drive from Washington, DC – we arrived in Asheville, NC yesterday evening – our first stop on the road trip.  Asheville is a hip, bohemian town nestled among Blue Ridge Mountains in western North Carolina with about 85,000 residents.

One of the primary reasons we visited here was to see the Biltmore Estate.  The house is the largest privately owned residence in North America with almost 180,000 square feet of interior living space (including 250 rooms and 43 bathrooms).  It was built by George Vanderbilt (Anderson Cooper’s Great-Great Grand Uncle) between 1889 and 1895.

i'm standing in front of Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC

I’m standing in front of Biltmore Estate

Admission wasn’t exactly cheap – its $44 per person if you buy your tickets at least 7 days in advance ($15 per person more if you don’t).  We also purchased audio guides for $10 more per person – we found these very helpful because you wouldn’t necessarily know what you were looking at in each room if you didn’t have the guides.  One nice thing about the tour is that we did get to see 50+ rooms in the house.  Unfortunately, you are not allowed to take photos of the interior of the house so we cannot post any of those pictures here.

The background shows the rolling hills behind the Biltmore estate in Asheville, NC

The background shows the rolling hills behind the Biltmore estate

I love anything architecture related – especially when its on such a grand scale.  The estate is impressive, well-kept and interesting – but I wouldn’t recommend taking a trip out here just to see the house unless you are already in the area.  We had a good time – the one thing the house did lack was that take your breath away, awe-inspiring factor – something the Hearst Castle in central California had (we visited Hearst Castle in 2011).

Stone lion guarding the Biltmore Estate front door in Asheville, NC

Stone lion guarding the Biltmore Estate front door

Relaxing at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC

Mustafa relaxing in front of the Biltmore


Later in the day, we went to eat at a restaurant in downtown Asheville called Tupelo Honey – which is known for Southern cuisine. Mustafa and I ordered mint iced tea, nutty fried chicken and shrimp and grits with goat cheese – doesn’t get much more Southern than that!

Tupelo Honey Cafe in Asheville, VA

Food from Tupelo Honey Cafe

Next stop: Nashville, Tennessee

April 30, 2013

Hitting the Road

Having bid ailing Pablo farewell and get well soon, we set off towards Dulles airport to rent a capable steed to carry us across these United States. I held my breath hoping they’d have a Ford Fusion on the lot (because its front fascia resembles an Aston Martin) and they did! However, as we were doing a 42 day rental with unlimited mileage and their only available Fusion already had close to 40k miles on it, they upgraded us a class and gave us a brand new Chevy Malibu with only ~300 miles on the odometer. By the end of our trip, we’ll have racked up 9,000 additional miles on it, increasing the odometer reading 3,000%!


As a type of vacation, the road trip is its own animal. There is no fixed departure time, or passenger manifest, or FAA approved flight plan. While some meticulous planners may not like the sound of that, there is an excitement that comes with knowing you are the captain of your ship and have full discretion over where you’re going, how fast and with whom. And unlike most oceans, the roadways of America are teeming with interesting sights, people and experiences. Plans can change, unplanned adventures may take place and if you cover a wide enough swathe of the country as we plan to do, you see the real America in all its wondrous diversity.


Our first meal on the road was in honor of Azam, my Burger King aficionado brother!

Can interstate driving be a form of meditation? As bizarre as that sounds, it sort of is for me. After a hundred or so miles, autopilot takes over and the cloud that normally hangs over my mind clears. There are times of no thought, there are times of many thoughts, but for some reason the associated anxiety isn’t there.  Since I find it relaxing, I can drive a dozen or more hours day after day without complaint, not that we’ll be doing that on this trip. On the days we are driving, the average time in the car is under 5 hours.


As we approached Tennessee, we played traditional country music to set an authentic local mood inside the car.

You’re off to great places, today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, so… get on your way!   – Dr Seuss (from Oh, the places you’ll go!)


April 29, 2013

Casa Baragiola, Washington DC

After clearing out our house, we spent 2 nights in Washington DC before setting out on our road trip. After scouring countless Yelp reviews, we settled on Casa Baragiola, a bed & breakfast in Northwest DC. The proprietors are an international couple with a most fascinating story. The husband, Pablo, used to be a gaucho (Argentine cowboy) of the Patagonian grasslands where he tended his family’s cattle. It was a hard living for many reasons, from banditos to loco cow’s disease, but above all because his father was absent from the range. You see, Papa Baragiola’s heart was never in cattle ranching. He was born into the business but always wanted to be an astrophysicist. Pablo had to learn the trade from his grand daddy, who saw in young Pablo the potential to one day be the supreme gaucho commander of the Patagonian grasslands. As wise as he was, the old man’s dream was not to be. One day an astrophysics experiment of Pablo’s father went horribly awry. The ensuing wormhole swallowed the entire Baragiola herd of cattle, depositing them nearly 1,000 light years away on the planet Omicron Persei 8. Many attempts were made to recover them but the cattle were lost forever. Pablo was devastated. It wasn’t just the loss of his animals, it was the loss of his identity. After all, what is a gaucho without his cows?

Word came from a relative in Buenos Aires of a cattle gold rush in Washington state. America! A chance to make a fortune in the land of opportunity was too rich a prize for Pablo to ignore and he immediately bought a ticket. After an arduous ocean voyage, when his steamboat finally came into port, he realized his mistake. Washington DC the city was not in Washington state! Disheartened and penniless, Pablo took whatever work he could find. The first few years he worked as a furniture mover. Eventually he landed a respectable job in the credit card business. But before he could scrape together enough money to buy a ticket to Seattle, he met Rusen, and his life changed forever.

Enjoying a hearty homemade dinner with the proprietors in Washington DC

Enjoying a hearty homemade dinner with our B&B proprietors in Washington DC

Rusen was born to the affluent Gul family in a village in Southern Turkey. Her great grandfather was a famous inventor, best known for creating the Ottoman, to this day the most versatile piece of furniture known to man. It can be used as a seat, footstool, coffee table, gaming table, or even for storage. A little known fact – in Turkey, Ottomans are called Gul’s in the same way adhesive tape is often called Scotch tape, because the Gul brand is ubiquitous with the furniture. After watching several of her family members grow lazy, too content to live off their inheritance from the furniture business, Rusen decided she wanted more – to make it on her own using hard work and intellect. Her drive to succeed brought her to America where she made it big in banking. It was in this world of finance that she would meet her future husband. Their love blossomed quickly, mainly out of their shared experiences with furniture, and for a time things were great, but then the global financial crisis struck.

Disenchanted with the ups and downs of finance, the couple opened a bed & breakfast opposite the popular restaurant Lauriol Plaza. The decor is decidedly modern but the hospitality is definitely old school, warm and welcoming. The food is amazing. The first night we had fresh off the grill Adana Kebab and the second night a most unique and delicious chicken curry. Rusen’s specialty is fresh strawberry rhubarb pie using a recipe passed down from her grandmother. She serves this piping hot with homemade vanilla ice cream. Back to back gastronomical orgasms can leave a man tired so it was a good thing that their rooms and beds were comfy. Casa Baragiola comes highly recommended, an excellent B&B choice in DC!

Sadly Pablo fell ill with the flu on our last day there. We hope you feel better soon muchacho! And thank you both for hosting us!

April 19, 2013

Camping Gear Assembled!

Our camping gear

Our camping gear (Colleen’s stuff on left, Mustafa’s on right and tent between backpacks)

I already had camping gear but Colleen didn’t so her stuff is all brand new. While we’re only camping for one of the six weeks we’re on the road, being cold and miserable at night is no way to vacation (As Colleen learned on below-freezing nights at 13,000 ft on the Inca Trail, and will never let me forget!), so our camping equipment is geared towards comfort, especially Colleen’s. Her sleeping bag and pad are both extra plush and roomy and it is evident from the photo that weight and volume were not considerations in their selection – It is strictly for car camping, not hiking. The pad is 25″ wide instead of the normal 20″ and her bag is rated for 25F, 5 degrees below the lowest temperature we expect to encounter.

I have a Big Agnes Lost Ranger bag (down fill, rated for 15F) and Big Agnes Air Core pad which fits in a custom pocket beneath my bag so it’s impossible to roll off at night. I have owned these for several years and love them because they’re warm, roomy and comfortable, yet also light and packable. The inflatable pad gives me 2.5″ separation from the ground and the bag is big enough for me to sleep on my side if I want, which is a must for me because I am a restless sleeper. For me, regular mummy bag = :(

My backpack is a North Face Crestone 65 and Colleen’s is a North Face Terra 55. We wish we both had the dicipline to stay under 45 litres so we could carry our bags on flights, but we’re still relatively inexperienced as backpackers and tend to bring a lot of unnecessary stuff along.

Lastly, our tent is a Mountainsmith Morrison which is a large 2-person tent. Colleen thinks it’s still too small and wishes I’d bought a 3-person, but I couldn’t resist buying it when I saw it on sale for under $100. With a 35 sq ft base and 43″ height, I think it’s plenty big. It’s held up well the few times we’ve used it and it’s light enough to be taken hiking (4 lbs). The only drawback for me has been the smallish vestibules, but they’re not terrible.

March 18, 2013

Arlington, Virginia, USA

Home sweet home! Nothing quite beats it! Arlington has been home for us since 2006. It’s the most highly educated county in the United States and along with great restaurants and low crime it also has great trails for running and biking and gives us easy access to Washington DC, where we both work (normally), and the Potomac river, where I sail and fish (unsuccessfully). My fastest record commute to my office in DC is 7 minutes so don’t let the Virginia bit fool you, we’re very close to Washington, less than 9 km from the White House, which incidentally is also one block from where I work (for another 3 weeks). Here is a photo of a 2012 backyard barbecue at our house.


We have a split level house with a covered patio and koi pond on a 1/5 acre lot. Here is one of our happy koi!


In May 2013 we will hand over our house keys to renters and take off on a 16 month adventure around the globe. The initial plan was to hit all seven continents but has since been pared down to five, in the interest of time, money and sanity. After all, we’ve already been to all six inhabited continents and the objective of this trip is depth, not coverage. We are off course nervous about handing over the keys to our most expensive asset to complete strangers but we’ve got good landlord’s insurance and a property management company that came highly recommended so that helps us sleep better.

September 25, 2011

Pacific Coast Highway (PCH)

This was a 10 day road trip along California’s famous coastal highway in a convertible.

San Francisco – Met up with old Capital One friends, Tsvetan and Jarisara, for lunch, took my cousin Alizeh, a freshman at UC Berkeley, to dinner, and did some tourist stuff again.

Carmel – I love the vibe of this town, relaxed and happy, a great place for the low-key kind of Dolce Vita.  It was also near Pebble Beach, which was cool to see.

Hearst Castle – This may be the coolest building I’ve seen in the US. The beauty and opulence of this mega-mansion is something to behold and crown jewel for m was the pool, maybe the most iconic in the world.

Pismo Beach – Just a stopover, nothing special.

Los Angeles – LA is a fairly known quantity so not much to say. At Colleen’s behest, we took a TMZ bus tour, which was the corny guilty-pleasure type fun you’d expect it to be. I also rode a mechanical bull for the first time and did miserably.

San Diego – Nice city by the bay. Highlight here was a shore dive into the kelp forest off La Jolla. It was my first cold water dive so I was wearing a 7-9mm wetsuit with hood, gloves and shoes. The hood confused a playful seal (photo below) who initally though I was a giant awkward seal, but even after he figured out we weren’t seals, he still hung out with with us for several minutes. But the oddest thing was being 40-50 feet under water and seeing birds swimming by you like rockets. Cormorants seem remarkably at home under water for a flying species, and the amazing thing is some Cormorants can dive to three times that depth!