Washington Dulles International Airport

One good thing about arriving early for flights and long layovers is that it gives you plenty of time to sit around. So I’ll try to be productive and live blog my experiences flying from Washington DC to Los Angeles to Guangzhou to Wuxi. Also arrive early allows you to find the power outlets before they all get taken.

If there’s anywhere I can consider a home base, Dulles airport probably is it. I’m here often enough.

Up front the airport doesn’t look like much. If you have friends or family waiting with you a bit, you’re going to be bored. The main building for arrivals and departures is full of check in counters, a few benches, and a single restaurant. That’s right. If you want to have lunch with others before you leave, you don’t get a choice.

Once you get through security the whole place changes. After security you’ll board an underground train to head to the gates. At the terminals you’ll find all sorts of places to sit and eat. A personal favorite of mine since my college days is Five Guys Burgers and Fries. Not for someone trying to watch their weight, Five Guys burgers are a smorgasbord of greasy goodness. With the regular burger clocking in at two patties and whatever toppings you’d like, the junior burger might be a better fit for many people. The fries are also oversized, a regular serving is enough to feed two people with a bit left over. And the best part about it is the prices are not sky high just because it’s an airport.

Actually until I landed in LAX I never realized how nice Dulles actually is. It’s heads and shoulders above other airports. Decent and inexpensive food, lots of space, easy to find outlets, and wifi that actually works. It’s impressive.

It’s a travel truth that the earlier you arrive before your flight the quicker you’ll go through security. The day you arrive three hours early is the day it takes five minutes to get through. The day you arrive an hour early it takes fifty-five minutes to get through. Either you’re waiting or sprinting, never any middle ground.   So here I am waiting.


Visa in 30 Minutes or it’s Free

Well it’s not free but getting a Chinese visa has been one of the easiest things I’ve done recently. Actually getting to the office is another story.

The first thing to know is that the visa office is not in the Chinese Embassy proper. It’s in a small office complex near Georgetown in Washington DC. There are two problems with this. The first is that the building is completely unmarked in any way. 2201 Wisconsin Avenue is a gray building, no flags or signs or anything. If you didn’t write the address down you’re going to have trouble. The second issue is that the office is located in one of the few areas of the city not served by a metro stop. The two closes stops are each about two miles away, not too far but not close either.

One of the sights close to the visa office is the US Naval Observatory, the home of the national president. Using my amazing powers of planning and Google Maps I decided on taking the slightly more complicated walk from the Woodley Park/Zoo metro stop to the office since that would lead me right past the Observatory complex. Why not? Get my paperwork done and do a little sightseeing. My other option was to get off at the Tenleytown stop and follow Wisconsin straight to the office. The safe but boring option.

Making my way to the office from the Woodley Park stop was an exercise in futility to say the least. Google Maps makes it look like there’s a nice circular road that surrounds the Observatory. Right before that road is a small park with some foot trails to hike though. It didn’t help a whole lot that it rained the previous day, lots of mud and wet leaves to manage.

But I was getting close to the road. I had a map on my phone and was tracking my progress through the park. I finally got to where I would be able to reach the road….. and there was a big ole fence. Sometimes I don’t let things like fences stop me often going over or try to slip through. However the vice president’s abode is not one of those times. I can be daring, but I’m not dumb. I don’t want any Secret Service attention.

So I followed the fence and using my map I slowly worked my way out of the park and got on to a proper road. The Observatory complex actually forced me to go about a mile out of my way so I spent an extra thirty minutes trying to make it to my destination.

I finally got to the office at 9:35. The office opens at 9:30. I felt pretty good that I made it so early even after getting lost and battling some messy trails in my nice shoes. I walked into the office, got a ticket with my number, and noticed there were fifteen people ahead of me.

I settled in for a long wait. It is the government after all. They never can work quickly. I pulled out my Kindle and listened to numbers be called. They were actually going through all the numbers quite quickly. People who didn’t respond within thirty seconds of their number being called were just skipped, on to the next person. The visa officers were not there to waste time. Far sooner than I expected my number was called.

I made it a point to have all my paperwork organized before I left the house, the information about what is needed is easy to find on the embassy’s website. I passed over all my papers, the lady helped me fill in some parts of the application I wasn’t sure on and then I was done. Unfortunately they weren’t able to rush job the visa so I could get it the same day. I was required to return in two days to receive my passport and visa, so I made plans to come back into the city. I gathered my belongings and walked out the door. As I left I checked my watch. 10:05

Exact Change

This is my first post from the WordPress mobile app, so I will make it short to see if its tolerable.

There was a time in Tarija, Bolivia when I was out with another Peace Corps volunteer. Since it was hit we wanted some ice cream; ice cream all over the country was amazing.

We get our cones and for the pair of us it came our to 10.5 bolivianos. I decided to pay since I had exact change. Normally not having exact change doesn’t bother me but at this time Bolivia was experiencing a metal shortage, so coins were good to keep. So paid with a tenner note and a fifty centavos piece.

The lady behind the counter asked me for change. It threw me off for a moment, I paid exactly what it cost. Then I put it all together. Exact chance wasn’t good enough. Well she wasn’t going to get any of my coins just because I was a gringo. I shot down her pleas and she gave me the stink eye. So my friend and I left and because of the evacuation we never got a chance to go back.

Well that wasn’t to terrible but it wasn’t fun either. I have stupid fingers so its hard for me to type on a touchscreen quickly. And the autocorrect can be kind of funky sometime. Trying to place a cursor somewhere specific had always been one of my major battles with my iPhone. I think I’ll just stick with a mouse and keyboard.

Comida Sucia

Comida Sucia

One night during our training in Bolivia I got sick. I had the runs and didn’t think much about it since it happens to everyone eventually. I drank a bit more water like we were told to do by the doctors and went to bed. The next two days were more of the same so I finally called the office to talk to the doctors about it. The rule was that if you had diarrhea for more than three days you had to go to the hospital.

So the doctors set up the hospital stay and a friend and I went. Normally I’d go alone, but this was when my Spanish left much to be desired and I really didn’t want to deal with medical issues in a language I didn’t know. I went with a girl who lived in a house near me because she studied Spanish in college and was pretty fluent.

We get there and the doctor is talking to us, my friend kind of translating. All I caught was ‘comida sucia’ – ‘dirty food.’ Well that just meant I had a case of food poisoning, nothing important. I was hooked up to an IV to replenish the fluids I had lost from all the pooping and things were running well.

About an hour later they decided they needed a stool sample from me. So they gave me a little cup to fill whenever it was time to go. Just the cup, nothing else. In America if you need to give a stool sample you normally get a small bowl that fits on the toilet seat and a spoon to scoop it into the cup. Not here.

It was finally time to hit the bathroom so I brought my IV bag and cup with me. I didn’t know how to take the IV out of my arm and I couldn’t find a nurse, so that was that. I put the IV bag on top of a cabinet in the bathroom and with so much grace an aplomb, got everything right in the cup. I was so proud of myself. No mess at all.

On the way out I saw a nurse and mentioned I had it, she told me that someone would be around to collect it soon. I headed back to the room where my friend was waiting and left the cup of poop on the table. No one came for a long time, so the two of us just sat there making poop jokes.


I’ve been worse

Eventually the doctor comes in and takes the sample and is talking to my friend. They’re going on and on and she must have told him that she was a bit sick too. He wanted to help being a doctor and all. If she’d just let him give her a shot she’d feel much better. My friend hates needles, she had to turn away when the IV was put in my arm, so she kept saying no. But eventually she caved and said yes.

So the doctor takes her out into the main area and I’m along for emotional support. While he’s getting ready, my friend and I are talking trying to get her mind off of what’s going on. She refuses to look because she’s super nervous. I snuck a few glances but saw nothing out of the ordinary.

The doctor came over and got my friend’s attention. I guess she didn’t like what she saw. The needle was a bit bigger than normal, but not outrageous. I didn’t think there was a problem with it, but I wasn’t the one in the chair. She screamed and bolted out of her chair, screaming as she sprinted to the bathroom. The next sounds I hear are her vomiting out of sheer stress. This went on for close to fifteen minutes. It was wild.

After regaining her composure she came out and hid behind me so the doctor wouldn’t talk to her. At this point the IV had been removed and the stool sample was sent away to some lab for work so there wasn’t much use in us being around anymore.

So we went out for ice cream.

Three Days Late. Two Hundred Dollars Short.

It hasn’t been the smoothest of weeks over here. I’ve been impatiently waiting for my invitation letter from China. That’s right I’m moving to China. Wuxi to be exact. In fact I should be there right now. But before I can leave I need to get my affairs in order.

I bought my ticket from Air China a little over a month ago once I was offered the position. The plan was to leave on January 26. That should be plenty of time do everything. My employer needed an FBI background I that he could bring to the Chinese authorities to prove I’m not criminal. I expressed mailed that during the holiday season. It wasn’t my fault, it just so happens that’s when I was offered the job and I sent it out as soon as possible.

It finally got there and my boss went through all the hoops, he’s an American who’s been there for over a decade and knows the game, and got my invitation letter. I’m officially welcome by the Chinese government! It may be a formality but it’s still kind of cool.

He express mails the paperwork back to me so I can go to the embassy, I still need a visa. He used EMS, which is the USPS overseas branch. The letter was dropped in the mail January 11, just over two weeks to get here. No one can screw that up right?

Wrong. Six days later it is returned to the office as undeliverable. What? After reconfirming my information and knowing it was EMS not him who screwed up, my boss sent it off again on January 18.

The days are passing. Him and I are in constant communication about the status of the parcel. I’m concerned. I need these papers to arrive so I can go to the embassy to get my visa. With this invitation letter it’s just a rubber stamp but the last day it can arrive and I make my flight is January 24. I can’t wait for the mail and get to the embassy in DC in the same day. It’s delivered pretty late where I am out in the boondocks.

Since it was express mail my boss was told it would take three to five days to arrive. Perfect. At the higher end it’ll still be here on the 23rd and I’ll have plenty of time for the visa.

Come January 21 I wrote telling my boss it hadn’t arrived. Since Wuxi is thirteen hours ahead he went down to the EMS office on the 22nd and raised hell. They guaranteed it would arrive on time for me. This let me relax.

On the 23rd, still no parcel. In fact when I used the USPS tracking system all it would say is that the parcel was processed in China, nothing else. Terribly frustrated I called the USPS customer service trying to find it. I’ve dealt with people who have attitudes before, but this woman took the cake. Holy hell she was rude. I could hear her rolling her eyes and basically not giving one concern about my plight. Forget the fact that the EMS branch of USPS is about to cost me hundreds of dollars, she made me feel like I was ruining her day. I guess working in a call center does that to you.

The 24th came, do or die. I crossed my fingers, maybe USPS botched the tracking info. They already screwed up with the mailing twice. I made the long walk to the mailbox. It was snowing and winding and miserably cold. The mailbox is about a quarter mile away from the house, and I felt every single step. I opened the mailbox, there were a bunch of different envelopes. Excited I grabbed the pile and started to flip through them.

And nothing for me. Just a bunch of junk mail My heart just bottomed out. I wasn’t going to China anytime soon.

The first thing I did when I got back was call the Chinese embassy in Washington. Maybe there was some way they could give me a temporary work visa (I didn’t want a tourist visa) and I could finish it up in China. That wasn’t happening. Even thought she wasn’t able to help me, the wonderful woman who works the visa office phones was so considerate listening to my problems. She seemed to take it as a personal failure that USPS is slower than molasses and the Chinese government has immigration rules that she can’t tweak to help someone.

Then I called Air China. If I can’t get a visa I’ll bite the bullet and pay the money for a changed ticket. Better than wasting all the money on a flight I won’t be on. I was on the phone with another lovely lady for an hour. Dead serious. She tried so hard to find me another flight to put me on. The problem was, and I don’t know if it’s Air China or all carriers, is that a change of ticket means I must fly on the same routes that I originally bought. Since I was flying DC to LA to Beijing to Wuxi, that was the only path I could take. Air China runs a bunch of DC to NYC to Beijing to Wuxi flights, but I couldn’t get on one of those. We finally found a flight that would work, but there was a seventeen hour layover in Beijing. Air China offered to put me up in a Beijing hotel for free so I wouldn’t be camping in the airport for more than a half day. Who am I, a rock star? This wasn’t their fault. They were nothing but professional and kind to me the entire time.

Unfortunately the hotel they could put me up in was not right next to the airport and I’d have to get there myself. And I would be landing the first day of Chinese New Year. And I would be carrying two bags plus a carry-on. And I have no friends who can help in Beijing. And I don’t speak Chinese at all. And I’d be super jet-lagged from. I can think of rougher entries into a country, but not too many. I felt bad because she worked so hard, but I had to turn down the offer. She didn’t seem to mind, in fact she told me that’s what she would do in my situation.

Somehow in dealing with Air China with their aim to please the customer and me being frustrated and confused, both of us missed the most obvious solution. Why don’t I just cancel the ticket and buy a new one? So if I end up flying DC to NYC, no worries. It was such a ‘duh’ head slapping moment when I finally thought of it. I mentioned it to her and I could hear on her the same ‘why didn’t I think of that yet’ tone that I found pretty funny. So I canceled the flight, and now I’m waiting for my refund.

After canceling the flight I looked for another one. I wanted to use Air China because of how great they were to me. But unfortunately for them I was able to find a different carrier that would get me there cheaper than the Air China flights I saw. So I booked with them. In the end the new flight was only $50 more than my original ticket and the cancellation fee was $150. Instead of leaving January 26, I leave February 10 which isn’t a ton of time to wait. I’ll be able to see a few friends who I haven’t seen yet due to lack of time. It’s not a total loss. And my boss said I’ll be reimbursed for the extra costs.

The moral of the story as I learned talking to USPS on multiple occasions is that when overseas, express mail only guarantees three to five day delivery AFTER clearing customs. They might not tell you that at the EMS office, but it’s the truth. So make sure you give them at least an extra week for any time sensitive materials. Or just use FedEx or UPS.

Baltic Amber

Jurassic Park is one of the greatest movies ever made. From a pair of spunky kids outsmarting a herd of velociraptors to a T-rex seriously ruining someone’s toilet time, the movie has it all. But one of the most underrated aspects of the flick is how it pushed amber into the public conscious. The Baltic region produces the vast majority of the world’s amber so the odds that fly with the dinosaur DNA was Northern European is pretty high.

Since the dawn of humans, amber has been marveled at and desired for it’s beauty. Then golden color can just mesmerize a person. The tourist industries in the Baltic states have taken full advantage of this. Walk through any tourist area in Gdansk or Vilnius (also probably Kaliningrad, Tallinn, and Riga) and you’ll see hundreds of amber trinkets for sale. You can also get them in Germany, but according to a German friend I toured Poland, Polish prices are less than half of German prices. Whether it’s just a little necklace for a special girl in your life or a huge ship that can dominate your mantle, amber artisans are still able to practice their craft.

Carry-on?  Vilnius, Lithuania

Carry-on baggage? Vilnius, Lithuania

Amber just isn’t for looking pretty. It has left it’s mark on European history. After the Crusades the Teutonic Knights conquered the amber rich Baltic region eventually building Malbork Castle. As the seat of the Teutonic power, it was where the knights enforced their monopoly over the amber trade. Amber was used for rosaries and by controlling the production and supply of the precious materials, the Teutonic Order was able to leverage concessions and power from various other world leaders. Kind of like OPEC. Eventually this license to print money collapsed with the Protestant Reformation and the Lutheran lack of rosaries.

The history of amber in Poland is shown through a surprisingly modern and well equipped museum located in Malbork Castle. You can see how amber is born millions of years ago and all the exact geologic processes that have to occur in order to complete the formation. You’ll also find dozens of pieces of jewelry stretching from the Neolithic time right up until today. The evolution of the craft as tools got stronger, smaller, and more precise is great to see. It’s like two attractions for the price of one. Just another reason you should visit one of the best draws in Poland.

The Armenian Flag

I ran across this in an Armenian friend’s dissertation I am proofreading and felt like it was worth sharing.

The Republic of Armenia law on the flag (2006) specified the meanings for the three colors on the flag.  The red symbolizes an everlasting struggle of the Armenian people for a long life, Christian faith, and an independent and free Armenia.  Blue correlates with the wish of the Armenian people to live under a peaceful blue sky.  And orange celebrates the creative talent and hard working characteristics of Armenians.

The Armenian Flag

However, some school students apparently are taught a different version of the flag: red, blue, and purple.  This stems from the idea that the Armenian word for purple is ‘trisaranagyun’ derived from the words apricot, tsiran and color, gyun.  The apricot is the national fruit of Armenia and one of the defining characteristics of the culture.  So some schools play songs where the flag colors are red, blue, and purple.  The red stands for Armenian blood that was spilled to keep the country safe, blue for the blues skies that look over the Armenian people, and purple for the ears of wheat that feed.

I’m not farmer but I’m not really sure where the purple comes from when dealing with wheat.  I’ve seen pictures and they’re golden.  I’m sure there’s a reason though.

Hill of Witches (Raganu Kalnas)

I adore Lithuania. It’s my favorite country I’ve ever visited. There’s something in the air that’s intoxicating. I felt like I was high the entire time I was there. I couldn’t tell you what it was, but somehow I felt like Lithuania was the OLD country. If fairies and gnomes and elves existed they would live in Lithuania. The only way I could describe it to myself was that it felt like what I imagined the North to be like in A Song of Ice and Fire. I made comparisons to Lord of the Rings earlier; I’m kind of a nerd.

One of the most interesting things in Lithuania and by extension the rest of the world is Raganu Kalnas, or Hill of Witches. It’s a sculpture garden out in Juodkrante on the Curonion Spit (more on that later). A winding patch takes you up a small forested hill where you’re free to explore dozens of carved wooden images involving characters from Lithuanian folk lore.

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Keeping a Language

A language is a pillar of a nation’s culture. It can provide a link back through history and a view of the future. Protecting a language from dying off like so many others is not a natural act. People need to make a conscious effort to teach their children the language, normally though the schools. No where is this shown better than in Armenia. Throughout elementary school students are taught to respect and love the Armenian language. A pair of poems they learn are translated below.

Keep it
[Armenian language] high and pure as the sacred snow of Ararat is,

Keep it close to your heart as you remember your grandfathers’ memories…

Even if it happens so that you forget your mother,

You should never forget your mother language


Our caravan would have lost his way, we would have been lost, if we did not have our language to light for us in the night ways. Thus, let us glorify and burnish as a sword, so that the Armenian language, always bright, could tinkle under the sun


A Khatchkar’s Story


This is the sad story of two young lovers. There once was a young man in the village who was a tailor (represented by the scissors near his head) and caught the attention of the most beautiful girl in the area. When the two decided to wed there was great rejoicing because she was so lovely and he was a well brought up and responsible young man. Although the two families were poor they were able to provide enough for a large wedding party (the food and wine jugs) and invited the whole town. The young couple were standing in front of the priest staring lovingly into each other’s eyes when a force of marauding bandits (man on horse) swept down from the hills and began to slaughter the populace. The couple were violently butchered along with many of the other people, but somehow half of the population was able to survive. The groom’s younger brother vowed revenge, and as he marched to the blacksmith to turn his plowshares to swords, his mother begged him to reconsider. She could not bear the idea of losing her only remaining child. After the rage subsided, the brother understood the wisdom of his mother and apprenticed himself to the town’s stone cutter. After three years of apprenticeship he carved out this scene to remember his brother and would-be sister in law and placed it over the place where the two were killed.