Archive for June, 2010

San Diego, CA

June 22, 2010

San Diego most definitely wins the “Best Weather in the World” award. I have never been here when the weather has been bad. This is the “California from the movies”. The easy, laid back nature of San Diego folk make this a pleasant destination for business or pleasure.

The true make up of San Diego is as ideologically diverse as it is ethnically diverse. Home to a huge navy base, San Diego is pretty buzz cut. You will see lots of support for the military as it is a huge part of the local economy.

On the flip side, there is the expected beach bum contingent as well keeping up the laid back reputation of the area. The slackers are here. Why would you get a job when you can go surf during the day and live with 8 of your friends comfortably for cheap. Think Point Break and this is what you will find in the San Diego beach communities (minus the bank robbing, of course). Did I mention that the water is just a little colder than bathwater? It is amazing. Truly one of the most hospitable climates on earth. Maybe the weather makes people friendlier, but the slackers and military crowds exist seemingly harmoniously as well.

I stayed near the Gaslamp District in downtown SD. It has a reputation as a more raucous neighborhood filled with bars and debauchery. This neighborhood is a great place to stay if you don’t want to drive, or worry about transportation. Everything can be found in a short walk. The district gets its name from the very cute light posts lining the streets downtown. This is unconfirmed, but I believe they actually are still powered by gas, not electricity. Feel free to correct me on that.

I had business in Murrieta, CA the next day and made the hour drive. The surrounding areas of San Diego get really rural, really fast. Most of these communities are driven by the transportation (trucking mainly) or manufacturing industries. Great cheap food, but not exactly a destination.

I’m sure everyone reading this blog is tired of reading about me eating tacos, but I am only a few miles away from Mexico. It would be a crime to not write about the tacos. These little greasy pig and corn concoctions are the best you will ever eat. I am so depressed that I can’t make a taco this good. I can’t even tell you why it was so good, but it was amazing. Another reason to do as the Romans when in Rome.

For those curious about getting to Mexico from San Diego, there is a train from downtown that will drop you off at the border. I believe it was just a few dollars for the ride. Remember to bring your passport and account for a long process coming back. Local radio stations give updates about the approximate border wait times with the traffic if you are thinking about checking out TJ.

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Salt Lake City, UT

June 20, 2010

On my way back from Denver, I had two days in Salt Lake City. My first trip to Utah, and I wanted to see what it was about.

Almost every city has some interesting quirk, or redeeming quality. I’m still unclear as to what SLC’s is. I had a miserable time. First, the city is incredibly small. It feels like a small college town. Second, even small college towns have alcohol. The lack of booze is due to the extremely conservative religious nature of the city. It feels almost oppressive. The weight of the conservatism over this city is incredible.

Utah ranks number one as the most conservative state in the entire country. The state is also predominately Mormon, and it shows everywhere you go. In the center of the city is the Mormon temple. Reserved exclusively for only an approved group of the LDS church to enter, don’t expect a tour. To illustrate how important this building is to the city, all the streets in the city are based on their position relative to the temple. For example, you might want to meet up for an orange juice where W. Temple meets S. Temple. The streets then count as they move further away from the temple. For example, S. 100 and W. 200 are one block south and two blocks west of the temple.

As for the eating in Salt Lake, the city is dominated by mid-range family dining chain restaurants catering to the family friendly atmosphere. Being alone trying to eat was very irritating actually.

They do have a chain restaurant that I am always happy to see: PF Chang’s (Pei Wei). If you adhere to a GF diet and do not have a PF Chang’s, move to a city that has one. You’ll thank me later. They offer (even in Salt Lake) gluten free beer as well. Chinese food is pretty much one of the only types of cuisine that I gave up on. Not for lack of love, just the fact that everything has soy sauce in it. Is PF Chang’s the best Chinese food? No. Is it the most authentic? No. Is it good Chinese food that celiacs can eat? Yes. My mind thinks back to my first gluten free pizza. It undoubtedly tasted like cardboard, but if you haven’t eaten pizza in a while, it tastes fabulous.

The Great Salt Lake was interesting to fly over, but reflects how my soul feels in Utah: dead. The salinity content is 8 times that of the ocean. Like the downtown, not a very hospitable environment for things to live.

I would equate the people I encountered to the Cleaver family, except for the fact that is all seems fake. I didn’t get a sense that anyone was being honest. For example, in normal conversations, people would speak ill of the Mormon church, and press you to agree or disagree with their statement, but you could see their garments (church sanctioned underwear and undershirts) through their shirts. That just seemed strange and paranoid. Why people would feel the need to bait people into stating their opinions on religion is beyond me. The sense that I got about this is that they want to take care of others in the church, and (literally) Gentiles be damned. Not a very inclusive practice.

I was very excited to leave Utah. I was at the airport with plenty of time to spare, and happy to board my little CRJ200 (I hate that plane). During our taxi to the runway, the plane pulled over to the side, and the pilot announced that there was a ground stop, and we would be delayed a little while. Two and a half hours later, we took off. The plane was muggy, smelled awful, and was not designed for long flights (as evident by the tiny seats). By the time I exited the plane in San Francisco, I had been in that little plane for 5 1/2 hours.

Never again. I will leave Utah for those who enjoy that type of thing.

As I type this entry, I am 37,000 feet in the air, in first class (i love free upgrades, thanks United) on my way to sunny San Diego. A quick two day trip that should yield better results than Salt Lake.

Denver, CO

June 18, 2010

I spent this week in Denver. Quite a few surprises:

Denver, the mile high city, is a weird mix of hipsters, hippies, and rednecks. The first impression was surprise over the number of young people in general. There were a huge number of twenty-somethings in the downtown area. This may account for the large amount of happy hour/brew pubs on the 16th street mall. It is quite a bustling downtown that seem to retain the working crowd after 5:00. The restaurants on the 16th St mall were many. The first night I went to Earl’s, a little happy hour joint with a terrace out front. When discussing the gluten situation with the waitress, she informed me that they have a gluten free menu. This usually is a great thing, but the menu (that said: “gluten free menu” at the top) included things like Kung Pao stir fry. When I asked to make sure that the Kung Pao was safe to eat, she came back from the kitchen and said that it wasn’t. There were other questionable items that I decided it was probably best to avoid. I opted for the mini taco appetizer that was good and safe. Great meal, just a little sketchy to have a gluten filled gluten free menu.

The next night I ate at a restaurant half a block off of the mall. It was an Indian restaurant called “Little India”. It was fantastic. They clarified that all the food was cooked with chickpea flour (except the naan, of course) and it was gluten free. I ate the Sikh kabob with a side of masala. Fantastic food! I don’t know how to describe it any better than that. I went back the third night and did it over again.

Denver brings the nightlife/dinner scene. If you are looking to have something to do after work, there are no shortages of gluten free happenings.

Biggest surprise: there are a number of painted upright pianos along the mall. As far as I can tell, the city leaves these out to encourage artistic expression, but I couldn’t confirm that. I found this a little strange. Most cities try to discourage panhandling, but Denver seems to give the panhandlers the means to continue. This probably explains the large numbers of young homeless people around.

FSOT

June 11, 2010

Today I took the State Department’s Foreign Service Officer Test. American citizens are allowed to take the foreign service test once a year free of charge. This is my second attempt at my dream job.

The test itself is very interesting. I’ll leave it to other blogs to talk about the details of the test (you have to sign a non-disclosure agreement before beginning the test). Last year, I walked away from the test feeling pretty defeated, but I was much better prepared this year and I’m feeling pretty good with my effort.

Becoming a Foreign Service Officer is quite a process. The written test is just the first step in the process. After passing the test, my test scores and application will go before a three person panel of FSOs to decide whether I advance to the next stage. After the panel is the oral assessment. This is an all day group interview consisting of a group exercise, and structured interview. Provided that you pass this step, the State Department conducts a background check for security clearance, and ensures that you are medically fit to live abroad. Once deemed trustworthy and healthy, you are added to the list of eligible FSOs and wait to be chosen by an overseas mission. If you are not selected within a certain time period, you must complete the process over again from the beginning. A long process, but you can bet that those going through the process really care about the job they are applying for, and are probably not likely to look elsewhere once accepted.

I am very excited about the next steps, and I am starting to prepare for the oral assessment already. I have also been studying Modern Standard Arabic for about a year now. The State Department awards bonus points to people who speak “super critical needs languages” (that is the name they use). Hopefully those points will pay off.

I will be updating the blog as the process [hopefully] continues. Otherwise, there is always next year…

Portland, OR

June 8, 2010

Portland is a special part of the US. I can’t think of very many cities anywhere in the world like this one. It really is a small college town that acts like a major US city. You can pretty much count the number of skyscrapers on one hand, the airport really doesn’t handle many planes other than the smaller CRJ700 regional planes, and I am positive that the number of trees in the city outnumbers the population.

Portland is hippie. I don’t know how to phrase that any differently. You would probably find more beards in Portland than Yemen. I was trying to find something to eat at one of the 6 million coffee shop/cafes, doing my usual 20 questions about the food preparations, when the girl working behind the counter asked “are you allergic to gluten?”. I agreed, and she proceeded to recommend four different special meals they could put together. I ended up settling on the Caesar salad, no dressing, no croutons, add salmon, add almonds, and with a gluten free lime/cilantro dressing. It was good. The type of gluten free good that only hippies could come up with.

The down side to Portland is the microbrew culture. There is some great beer here, and I can’t drink any of it.

Overall impression:
Understanding people, check. Quaint waterfront and small town feel, check. Hippies to feed you as many goji berries as you can digest, check. Just make sure you drive the speed limit, which is 50mph in most places. Oregon has the most aggressive cops when it comes to speeding. Trust me, I speak from experience.

Houston, TX

June 3, 2010

My first impression of Houston was that the city was pretty boring. When the international airport is named after former president Bush, you begin to question the wisdom of the locals. The weather is very similar to Ho Chi Minh City, and biggest change in elevation in the city has to be the railroad crossings. This isn’t the biggest tourist hang out by any stretch of the imagination, but I ended up being surprised.

Houston is one of the fattest cities in the US. I was reminded of this fact whenever I talked to anyone. Whenever you ask someone the “what is there to do in Houston?” question, the first thing out of there mouth is that Houston is one of the fattest cities. I had a woman follow that comment with a very strong recommendation that I try the deep fried butter. I have to say that I was pretty curious. Not for myself, but just to witness someone eating deep fried butter sounded interesting.

The less heart attack inducing variety of cuisines in Houston were hit or miss. Tex-Mex was the idea I was shooting for. I love tacos. I really love tacos. I must have eaten 10 meals of tacos here in Texas. Nothing here is mediocre. The food was either terrible, or fantastic.

Just like most places, the more effort put into getting you in the door (i.e. Signage, decor, theme, etc) the less effort they put into the food. The best tacos I had this trip were from the worst looking taqueria in front of a strip mall (an actual strip mall, like stripped -empty!). There were two pawn shops across the street, and a check cashing business. The tacos were amazing. Corn tortillas, juicy pork, and cilantro. Happy me.

The biggest surprise: the Galleria Mall. It is an impressive sized mall if you are into that sort of thing. The strange thing was the diversity. It reminded me of the the Mall of the Emirates in Dubai. There is even an ice skating rink by the food court. I actually saw a woman in a Burqa. If women can go to the mall in George W.’s home state wearing burqas, that speaks volumes to the tolerance of America. I love it.

I am constantly surprised by the US. Anywhere you go, your stereotypes will most likely be proved wrong. If people traveled more, we would probably have a much smaller ideological divide between the extremes in this nation.

Lesson learned: People in Houston and People in San Francisco are not all that different.