Sunday, November 30, 2008

Thank you, Hertz!

So we arrived at Hertz at Denver airport much later than planned, thanks to United. Happily, my name was still on the Gold board. When I got to my designated space, I noticed that Hertz had upgraded me... to a convertible! With 2 doors, not 4! Note that the temperature is hovering around freezing at 11 pm when we arrive.

I decided that this upgrade was not one that I wanted. So I traipsed into the building to sort it out. The gal at the counter was not particularly friendly but when she was looking for another car for me, I asked if they had any Priuses left. She said yes, and offered it to me at no extra charge. The trip was looking up!

Now I know that Priuses have been around for ages - but even though I know multiple Prius owners, oddly enough, I had never actually been in one. So this may be old hat to all you Prius drivers out there, but I was like a kid in a candy store when I got in the car.

Besides the "Power" button that turned the car on, the coolest thing was the display that showed you your real-time fuel consumption. And the little green cars that you got if you generated more energy. I can now understand why some Prius owners get obsessed with raising their gas mileage - that display alone provides a great incentive!

So for the 4 days in Denver, driving about 170 miles - we put in just under 3.5 gallons of gas. We had a $5 fill-up tab before we returned the car!

Friday, November 28, 2008

My First Thanksgiving Dinner "Out"

We had a large group of people for Thanksgiving dinner and the consensus was to go out this year - this would actually be my very first Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant!

We headed up to Morrison, in Red Rock country (foothills to the west of Denver) to The Fort - a historic restaurant that many Presidents have dined at, including Bill Clinton.

Besides the usual turkey with all the fixings, The Fort's regular menu was available including much buffalo, elk and quail. Since they claim to sell more buffalo steaks than any other place in the country, I ordered the buffalo fillet with cheesy mashed potatoes and green beans. Buffalo is leaner than beef and has lower cholesterol and higher iron - and it was good, although I probably should have ordered it a little more rare than I did. We did a taste test with the beef fillet and the buffalo, while tasting more gamey, still fared very well.

I wouldn't say the food was terribly gourmet but the ambiance more than made up for it. I loved the open courtyard with the fire pit and a little Tesoro Trading Post where had I wished, I could have purchased various pelts, including a pretty skunk (presumably it no longer smelled). My favorite feature were the lit luminaries along the flat roof of the buildings - it reminded me of one of the reasons I've loved spending the past few Christmases in Santa Fe.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Thanksgiving in Denver

We're heading to Denver for Thanksgiving, to visit the in-laws. I usually try to avoid traveling for Thanksgiving - I like my kitchen, I like cooking my odd version of the Thanksgiving meal (which means trying out new sides every year, since I'm not wedded to any old traditions - after all, my first Thanksgiving experience came when I was 17.) And I hate flying on "the busiest travel day of the year" - with all the annoyances that it entails.

Our outbound flight was eventually delayed 2 hours and 30 mins - although in 15-20 min increments of announced delays. We spent a pleasant few hours at SFO - in Books Inc and having soup at SF Soup Company (our most favorite food stop at SFO). It was actually relaxing since we had no plans in Denver that night and no one was waiting for us. I just felt bad for all the other people who missed their onward connections.

We landed at 10:45 pm, made a fast food stop (at Sonic Burger, which I know has many fans - frankly, I didn't get what was special about it) and finally checked into our hotel at midnight. Ate french fries at 12:15 am - this was not a particularly healthy start to the weekend!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

4+ Hours in Transit at Narita

After sitting in the lounge on my computer for 2 hours, I got bored and hungry and decided to go have a wander around the Terminal 1 facilities. I was planning on walking over to check out the ANA lounge (UA lounges are usually pretty inadequate on the food front compared to the Asian airlines), but ended up distracted by other things instead.

This was a banana holder that I was sorely tempted to buy, available in a multitude of colors. I guess just putting your banana in with your lunch just won't do.
Lots of very beautifully packaged, unidentifiable sweets are available - I'd buy these more if I actually liked red bean.
Japanese women seem to have a thing for blotting paper - there was quite the variety available - not that I could tell the difference between the various kinds. I've never used blotting paper in my life.
I had a reasonably priced bowl of tempura udon as a snack.

And finally boarded the plane (yay, upgraded) for the long journey home...

Friday, November 21, 2008

A Whirlwind Trip

I guess spending 4 days/5 nights in Bangkok is a rather short trip - lots of meals with relatives, a surprising amount of very successful shopping and an insane amount of food consumed. It seems to have passed by in the blink of an eye. I'm now sitting in the United lounge in Narita on my way home and am being entertained by a crowd of iPhone users around me who are discussing various ways of jailbreaking their phones.

The new Bangkok airport was a pleasure to depart from as usual. I leave you with a photo of Thai traditional motifs juxtaposed with the overwhelming Thai love of shopping :)

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Related to half of Bangkok

I think I'm related to half of Bangkok - seriously. My parents each have 4 siblings and so I have around 20 first cousins alone (I lose count) - I'm one of the younger ones on my father's side but the oldest by a long shot on my mother's side.

My maternal grandfather had 9 siblings (from three different wives), each of whom seems to have procreated prolifically. I think my second cousin count tops 60. So wherever we go, my mother sees someone she knows, who I dutifully "wai". After the encounter, I always have to ask my mother who we just chatted with.

This is one of the many reasons why I can't dress like a slob in Thailand ;)

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Driving in Bangkok

For the most part, I try to avoid driving in Bangkok. Yes, I did actually learn to drive here (in a car so old that it seemed a miracle that it ran at all) and passed my driving test on my own, in a stick shift no less. Apparently, there's often a payment made (ahem) when additional assistance is required to get one's license ;)

I've driven here a lot over the years but it requires an awful lot of concentration and since we've been staying at Emporium Suites on our longer trips here, the Skytrain has made driving unnecessary.

However, this time I'm staying at my parents' house in the suburbs and I drove my dad's car in to meet a friend for dinner. My mother seemed very doubtful and kept offering to drive me - but I thought I should brave the drive on my own.

Bangkok traffic is legendary and many of the drivers have most clearly not honestly passed their driving tests and drive like aggressive crazy people. Of course, the total lack of consideration means that I too can drive like an idiot (inadvertently, of course).

We met at Red for dinner, a lovely Indian fusion restaurant that does a mean masala risotto (reminds me a little of Junnoon in Palo Alto). I almost scraped the left side of the car on a low bridge entering the parking lot - would have if not for the parking attendant who ran over waving his arms and gesticulating like a crazy person. Ah well, no need to tell my dad about that part...

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Ancestor Worship

My trip to Thailand has coincided with various dates for worshiping or praying to my great grandparents on my mother's side and to my grandparents on my father's side (coinciding with the days that they passed away).

The first worship took place at the Chinese temple - the little plaques all commemorate different people (remains are cremated), and when you arrive at the temple, you pull down the plaque of your ancestor and place it on the table. Along with candles, flowers and offerings of food and lucky money. We lit joss sticks and prayed, and then hung out for a while, since we had to do three rounds of the ritual. For 45 mins while we waited, my parents and my aunts spent the entire time discussing food - where the best type of a certain snack could be bought, news that a restauranteur's son had just opened up a new outpost of a particular favorite restaurant, debates on where the best fried noodles (lard-na) could be found etc. It's no wonder I have a food obsession!

After that, I helped my father burn the lucky money in a large barrel that was situated for just this purpose. This will provide my grandparents with more spending money in the afterlife - I'm sure they will put it to good use ;)

The second worship was very similar but took place here in the family compound. The nice benefit is that I get to see all my thousands (ok, I exaggerate, but really not by very much) of relations at one go - all of whom are shocked that I would fly all the way home just for a few days :)

I love being home

I sometimes think it's a bit of a stretch for me to call Thailand home since I never really lived here for any extended period of time, and my only schooling here was in preschool. However, I spent every single school holiday here up until I finished college and for an expat kid, it was the closest thing to home that I've ever had. Also home is, to a certain extent, wherever my parents are.

I'm blogging from a seat in the garden of my mother's family compound, a 8 or 9 acre property that was subdivided by my great-grandfather and doled out to his sons, who all built houses of various designs with shared gardens and a great pond stocked with a bazillion fish and one very old turtle (at least I think it's still there). My parents' house is a few miles away, and only has dial-up (yes, there are people in the world without broadband!) internet access so I'm happily using my tech savvy cousins' wifi right now. It's relatively cool, the fountains are burbling away and someone just brought me a glass of iced water :)

I love being back in Thailand, I switch into Thai very happily (although I find my Thai vocabulary to be somewhat limited at times). It's a bit of mess here right now - the country is just finishing up an extended period of mourning for the King's elder sister, and politicking is supposed to be suspended. However, the country is very divided on the political front - with people wearing red vs yellow shirts to show their support for two dueling political factions. Apparently, the other day, a Thai Airways captain refused to board three different Thai members of Parliament because he was on the opposing faction. Can you imagine that happening in the US?!

Friday, November 14, 2008

The upgrade dance and other perils of frequent flyer addiction

So I'm leaving for Bangkok in 2 days and my outbound upgrade finally came through. Since this is a personal trip, I bought the ticket in Coach and applied these nice Systemwide Upgrades that United sends me every year. Even though Business was practically empty, they were still unwilling to upgrade me for a few weeks - waiting desperately for someone to pay a revenue fare no doubt. But I can rest at ease that my 17 hour flights to Bangkok will now be in the relative luxury of UA's Business cabin. Relative is key, since UA is far inferior to most of the other airlines that fly this route. However, it is the one airline that will upgrade me at no cost!

I've been a 1K flyer in UA's Mileage Plus program for many years now - primarily because of all my business travel. And now I'm addicted to it - they treat you marginally better than the masses, they eliminate many of the ridiculous fees that they charge the masses and they give you lots of upgrade opportunities each year. The downside is that they keep raising the miles needed to get free tickets, and the availability of those free tickets seems to be unbelievably limited in all the routes I want to fly. For example, my cumulative time spent on the phone with UA over the past week trying to get award flights for Europe and Asia next summer = 3.5 hours. Success rate for said flights = 0%.

Now I just have to sweat it out a little more for the upgrade on my return flights...

Monday, November 10, 2008

My life as a pack mule

So I'm heading to Bangkok at the end of the week for a quick visit with my parents. Every conversation since I told them I was coming has now involved a quick "oh and can you also bring us some xxx". This is the life of a pack mule, when you're in an expatriate family.

When I was growing up as an expat kid, we would literally move meat and all sorts of other strange items from one part of the world to another. The meat transportation occurred in India where you couldn't buy beef back in the '90s - so my parents would hit the nicest supermarket in Bangkok the day before they returned home and buy a cooler full of frozen beef and pork - then take it on the plane back to Delhi. Since my father worked for the airline, this was not frowned upon and since he was constantly traveling, a shipment of frozen meat arrived at the house every month or so. The only downside was that the frequent power outages in Delhi meant that one of our two portable generators was completely devoted to keeping our large freezer functioning.

Anyway, over the years, I've transported a lot of different things from the U.S. to Thailand (and vice versa) on behalf of others. Here's a sample list:
  • Down pillows
  • Mushroom-flavored soy sauce
  • Special Chinese herbs only available (at the time) from the Ten-Ren Tea Room on Grant Ave in SF (do you know how hard it is to park and go into the heart of Chinatown for a quick errand?!)
  • OPI nail polish
  • Countless items of make-up from Estee, Clinique etc plus the ubiquitous Mabelline mascara
  • Blueberry jam from Trader Joe's
  • PG Tips English tea bags (yes, the bags come to the U.S. from the U.K. and I buy them and transport them to Thailand)
  • Hand soap from Bath & Body Works (requests are often very specific!)
  • Digital photo frame
  • Vitamins of all sorts, in Costco sizes
  • Vaseline cold cream and Keri lotion (alas, I don't have to pick these up anymore - they were for my grandmother who has since passed away :(
And here's what's on my list for this upcoming trip:
  • Colgate Mint Stripe toothpaste (lest you think Thailand is a backwater where you can't even buy Colgate - let me assure you that this is a strange quirk of my dad's - he truly believes that American Colgate tastes much better. And luckily for him, he's managed to only use American-made Colgate for most of the past 25 years!)
  • Mini Snickers (also available for purchase in Bangkok - however, my mother alleges that "they're not fresh")
  • Vanity Fair granny underwear (don't ask - but this purchase is really going to screw up my future recommendations from Amazon)
  • Shoes (my mother wants "cute shoes" - god help me)
  • 2 wrapped presents that I'm assured are Legos (I'll have to bend the truth in answer to the airline questions re checked luggage)
  • Marrons Glaces - a European holiday treat that I can buy from Teuscher chocolates (actually this is just a gift for my parents, so doesn't really belong on the pack mule list)
I still have one more planned conversation with my parents before I leave. Who knows what else will be added to the list?! The silver lining is that it gives me lots of room for shopping while I'm there!