Our New Lilac Tree!

A few months ago, we took out two eucalyptus trees because they were way too large for our yard and the trunks were being eaten away by some kind of insect or disease. In their absence, we have a painfully obvious view of the the two apartment buildings that border our yard. What we needed were some fast growing trees that could at least start to add back some privacy in the next year or two.

Which brings me to my reason for posting: we planted three new trees, all of which are supposed to be ‘fast’ growers, but I noticed a surprising lack of information online as to what that actually means. Now that all three are planted, I wanted to keep a record of how fast they grow in case anyone else is running into what I faced.

I planted our Ceanothus Ray Hartman today (Oct 12, 2014) and it’s currently 6’8″ tall. I’ll post someday in the future with progress updates on how it’s coming along. I read one article online claiming they can grow up to 18′ tall and 6′ wide in two years under ideal circumstances. Pretty crazy!

Our new Ceanothus Ray Hartman at 6'8”

Our new Ceanothus Ray Hartman at 6’8”

Craftsman Style Built-In Bookshelf Project – Back and Sides

Previous step: Intro

This post describes construction of what I would call the shell of the bookshelf, which consists of the back and sides. I was determined to use only real wood for this project to stay true to our home’s craftsman origins. Buuuuuut, if I had to do it again I would commit craftsman sacrilege and make the back and sides with plywood (I’d still use wood for the rest). Cutting all the boards and gluing them together not only took several hour, but it was nearly impossible to make make the finished project lie flat without a planer–which I don’t own.

    1. I started by removing the baseboard where the shelf was going. I wedged a metal putty knife behind it and pulled back as gently as I could. The corners were a little stubborn and I had to use a hammer and chisel on them. Breck got a little nervous after she saw the hole I left in the wall and asked if I was going to be able to put the house back together. The scary looking hole left after I removed the moulding. Not that the original inlay indicates there was previously a built-in here.The scary looking hole left after I removed the baseboard. Note that the original inlay indicates there was previously a built-in here.
    2. I needed the back of the shelf to be 45 inches wide by 45 inches tall so I cut 4 of my pine boards into 10 inch widths, and one of them 5 inches. I used my new Kreg Pocket Hole Jig to make three pocket holes per board, glued the edges of each, laid them next to each other, and then used 3 bar clamps the hold the boards together while I drove the screws into the pocket holes. This process took quite a bit longer than I pictured it in my head.Boards for the back of the shelf glued and pocket-holed (?) together.Boards for the back of the shelf glued and pocket-holed (probably not a real term) together.
    3. The joints weren’t completely smooth and I needed them to look completely seamless. I used an orbit sander to smoother out the joints. A good tip is to make sure to sand the whole piece with and not just the joints so you don’t get a wavy product. Also, a belt sander really seemed like a more appropriate tool to use for something like this but I don’t own one.
    4. Next, I cut each piece to the correct height (43 inches). Unfortunately, my table saw wasn’t quite big enough for this cut, so I had to use a circular saw. I clamped a spare board to each piece parallel to the cut to use as a guide for the saw. This took a long time to set up correctly but it turned out pretty well.
    5. Lastly, I brought all the pieces inside and did a trial fit into its future home. Being an old house, the walls are neither completely vertical or perfectly flat. I didn’t worry too much about the pieces not fitting flush against the wall.
    6. With Breck holding the sides flush against the back, I drilled holes and made a small countersink dent on each one. I wasn’t really sure how many screws to use, but four 2-inch screws felt plenty secure so I left it at that.

      2 inch screws drilled through the back of the shelf and into the sides

      2 inch screws drilled through the back of the shelf and into the sides.

    7. Once all the pieces were secured together, I dropped the shell into place.

      The back and sides attached and dropped into its new home.

      The back and sides attached and dropped into its new home.The gap between the sides and the wall will get covered when the front gets put on.

Next step: The front!

The (mostly) finished built-in! We'll be adding trim to the base when we tackle our fireplace mantel redo.

Craftsman Style Built-In Bookshelf Project – Inspiration and Supplies

One of my requirements during our house hunt earlier this year was a great craftsman style built-in cabinet or bookshelf. Well, as you could probably guess from the title of this post, I didn’t get my built-in. Unfortunately, quite a bit of the original details of our 95 year old Craftsman/Mediterannean style house has been lost through the years. A look at our house on Google Streetview from several years ago gives a good idea of why–it looks like a crazy person lived here with overgrown bushes and trees everywhere! It was flipped a few years ago and we’re assuming that most of the original features of the house had been seriously neglected and had to be removed.

The inlay of the hardwood floor next to our fireplace made it pretty obvious there used to be some sort of built-in there. I’ll show a picture of that in the next post. The inlay turns about a foot in front of the wall and just didn’t look right (it looked pretty half-assed, to be honest). Personally, I never understand when people “fix” things, but do an incomplete job. Why would you leave the inlay weird and out of place like this?!?! Idiots! I’d never undertaken a project like this, but I was pretty confident I had the necessary skill level and had a pretty good idea of what I wanted. I scoured the internet and eventually settled on this craftsman re-creation as my model. It looked simple enough but still had the classic craftsman trim at the top.

Inspiration from the I Married a Tree Hugger blog (imarriedatreehugger.blogspot.com). I also really love their fireplace/mantel and will reference it when we redo ours at some point.

The (mostly) finished built-in! We'll be adding trim to the base when we tackle our fireplace mantel redo.

Our (mostly) finished built-in! We’ll be adding trim to the base when we tackle our fireplace mantel redo.

Tools Used:

  1. Table saw. I have a pretty basic tabletop one that I bought at Sears a few years ago for $250. This project would have been impossible without it. This looks like a newer version of mine.
  2. Power drill with assorted drill bits, philips head bits, and a countersink. Everyone seems to like cordless ones but I have a waaaaay old Black & Decker corded one (it was my grandpa’s) that I love because it has plenty of power and never needs recharging
  3. Circular saw and/or miter saw. I have a 10 inch Ryobi miter saw that was unfortunately too small for most of what I needed it for. After this project I think I’ve convinced myself I need a bigger one. Circular saws are pretty tricky (and time consuming) to make clean cuts wit but I made do.
  4. Hammer
  5. Power sander. I have a cheap Ryobi orbit sander that got the job done, but a belt sander probably would have worked better.
  6. Kreg pocket hole jig. I have to say, this little thing is amazing.
  7. Shelf hole jig. Easy to use and came with everything I needed to drill well placed holes for shelf pins.
  8. Shelf pins. I already had these because I replaced the plastic ones in our kitchen cabinets with more durable metal ones a few months ago.
  9. Speed square
  10. Tape measure
  11. Nail set
  12. Putty knife

Supplies

  1. 1″ x 12″ x 8′ pine boards. I probably used about 10 of these purchased from Home Depot at a cost of about $15 each. It’s the cheapest lumber Home Depot sells and many boards are rittled with knot holes and other imperfections. I tried my best to get ones with as few defects as possible. They have a line of lumber called “Select Pine” that is about 3 times as expensive and not necessary for my project since I planned on puttying knot holes and painting the finished product. Most people would probably just go with plywood, but something about that just seems wrong in classic old house. More on this later.
  2. Finish nails
  3. 3 inch screws (for securing the shelf to the wall studs)
  4. Painters tape. Spending a little more on this seems to be the way to go. I used a roll that was about $5 and didn’t leave as crisp of a line as I would have liked.
  5. Paint brush. I’ve learned my lesson from past painting endeavors that cheap brushes are nothing but headaches; the bristles come off in the paint and don’t leave a smooth finish. I usually buy ones in the $8-12 range.
  6. Paint. More on this later, but if I had to do it over again I would just use Behr Premium Plus paint + primer instead of priming first.
  7. Caulk
  8. Sandpaper (80, 120, and 180 grit) in both sheets and discs. The discs are for the orbit sander.
  9. Wood putty

I kind of lost track of how much I spent on this project during my dozen or so trips to Home Depot, but counting it out now I think it was about $250 on supplies and another $130 on tools that I didn’t already own. Funny side note: I’ve traveled to Home Depot so much recently that the Google Now on my phone automatically provides me with travel time to my local store because I go there much. Maybe I have a problem?

Montevideo: Great for Foodies

After a one-day excursion to Colonia, Uruguay a few years ago while on a business trip to Buenos Aires, I knew I needed to go back to the country for a full on vacation. I had been telling Breck how great Uruguay is, so wedecided to make Montevideo and Jose Ignacio our big trip while living in Caracas.

We flew into Montevideo, landing around 1 am. On the ride to our hotel, we were pleasantly surprised by how clean the city was. The country is also safe; there were people still out and about in the middle of the night (a clear step up from Caracas). Lastly, Uruguay has the nicest people I’ve ever met–evidenced by bus drivers who stopped the bus to give us directions (stark contrast to those jerks working for MUNI or AC Transit). Clean, safe, and friendly is my kind of place. I think of it as the Amsterdam of South America and not just because they legalized pot in Dec 2013–don’t get too excited though, it’s only for citizens.

Being the foodies that we are, our trip was dominated by eating and drinking activities. Some highlight:

  1. Lunch at Mercado del Puerto - Mercado del Puerto is basically just a warehouse crammed full of restaurants specializing in parilla (grilled meats). It was here that Breck discovered she hates blood sausage and intenstine. Admittedly, they aren’t very good but they come on the standard sampler platter so we had to try them. We came back here every day we were in Montevideo. Side note if you ever find yourself here, don’t get the medio y medio. It’s a half white wine, half sparkling wine drink and one of those “must do while you’re in Uruguay” things. Buuuuut they’re horrible and a waste of otherwise perfectly good wine.A Uruguayan Staple: Parilla Platter. So much meat.Parilla platter at Mercado del Puerto. So. Much. Meat. BBQ-smoke filled interior of the Mercado del PuertoBBQ-smoke filled interior of the Mercado del PuertoMe at one of the many parillas.Me at one of the many parillas.
  2. Explore Pocitos and the Rambla – Our hotel was in Pocitos. I can’t say this is the center of the action, but we were near the Rambla, a long street that goes along the water that was a great, walkable part of town with plenty of cafes, bars, and restaurants. We stopped at this cool little corner restaurant/bar called Tranquilo and made a point of ordering chivitos – a classic Uruguayan sandwich of thinly sliced grilled meat, fried egg, olives tomato, lettuce, cheese, mayo, and occasionally ham. Those of you who know my disdain of all things creamy won’t be surprised that I got mine without cheese or mayo. And, of course, we sampled the local varieties of beer.
    Chivitos and beer make a delicious lunch

    Chivitos and beer make at Tranquilo made for a delicious lunch

    Most of the beer in Uruguay came in wine-sized, 750mL bottles. It was great.

    Most of the beer in Uruguay came in wine-sized, 750mL bottles. Not complaining.

  3. Yerba Mate – I wish we had brought some yerba mate (a very strong tea-type drink found everywhere in Uruguay and Argentina) down to the Rambla for our walk because seriously everybody was walking/sitting/laying around sipping on their yerba mate. We bough a mate cup and some yerba to drink in our hotel room–not exactly how it’s supposed to be enjoyed, but whatever. This stuff gives an intense caffeine-like buzz which makes me wonder how anyone in Uruguay can ever get to sleep. I was completely cracked out a few days ago after drinking some that we brought back to Caracas with us.
  4. The Wine Experience Wine Tour – This is the number one rated activity on tripadvisor.com for Montevideo. Ryan, the tour guide, picks you up at your hotel and takes you on a tour of a couple rustic wineries in the countryside outside of Montevideo. The owners/operators of the wineries showed us the differences in different grape varieties, let us try unfinished champagne, showed us how they process the grapes, and then gave us lunch of empanadas while sampling several varieties of wine. Fortunately (unfortunately?), the Uruguayan/Argentine variety of empanadas isn’t fried like their Venezuelan counterpart. It was definitely a unique experience that I’ve never gotten from any of my many wine tasting trips to Napa Valley in California. Highly recommended.
    Vineyard in the Uruguayan countryside

    Vineyard in the Uruguayan countryside

    Us with winemaker Mauricio at Pizzorno Winery

    Us with winemaker Mauricio at Pizzorno Winery

  5. Montevideo Brew House – Down a little side street about a mile from our hotel was this cool little place with a cool ambiance and their own selection of house-made beers. Most of the beers were a little darker than I usually like (lots of stouts and dark ales), but there were a couple great IPA choices and tapas on the menu. It was here that I learned that in Spanish from Spain, a tortilla is a quiche-like egg/potato pie thing. Big fan. Side note – the picture I took of Breck here is now her profile pic for her new internship at apracticalwedding.com!
    Outdoor seating in front of a giant dragon painting at Montevideo Brew House

    Outdoor seating in front of a giant dragon painting at Montevideo Brew House

    Montevideo Brew House also makes awesome cocktails. I asked for a recommendation and what they brought me was coincidentally MY FAVORITE DRINK. Apparently, the rest of the Spanish-speaking world outside of Venezuela calls passion fruit maracuya instead of parchita so I had no idea that I had inadvertantly ordered a parchita rum spritzer!

Aside from the foodie side of our trip, we also wandered the touristy areas of Montevideo’s Old Town. Apparently, this isn’t the kind of place where you would want to go exploring down a side alley due to the shady characters in the area. The walk street Sarandi is pretty cool during the day: outdoor cafes, bars, art galleries, and we stumbled upon an awesome flea market type thing a few blocks west of the Plaza Independencia.

Street vendors on Sarandi walk street in old town

Street vendors on Sarandi walk street in old town

I’m not usually into that kind of stuff, since I usually think flea markets as garage sales without the garage selling old, used crap but they had all kinds of cool stuff–even antique swords and guns. I don’t exactly need a vintage sword, but the thought of it was extremely appealing. If I hadn’t been worried about a run in with Venezuelan customs on our way back, I may have even gotten one.

Street performers on Sarandi in Montevideo's Old Town

Street performers on Sarandi in Montevideo’s Old Town

Anyway, that’s most of what we did in Montevideo… eat, drink, and wander.

The Journey to Jose Ignacio

Quick story about our trip from Montevideo to the upscale beach town of Jose Ignacio, Uruguay. The short version is we got lost walking on a two-lane highway in the Uruguay looking for our hotel on a road that didn’t exist. 

We had planned to catch a cab from the bus station in Jose Ignacio to our hotel, but the “bus station” was really nothing more than a gravel loop for the bus to turn around in with not a taxi in sight. According to Google maps, the posada (inn) was supposedly just on the other side of the two-lane highway and down a bit so we figured we could walk. However, after dragging our suitcases up and down the mostly deserted stretch of Uruguayan highway for 45 minutes, drenched in sweat and sunburned, we decided the street on the map didn’t exist. We eventually wandered into a gated community of nice houses thinking the hotel must be there. Wrong again. We were promptly stopped by a security guard who told us the hotel was another kilometer down the highway. True to our belief that Uruguayans are the world’s friendliest people, he happily called up the posada (inn) and asked them to send us a taxi.

After waiting 15 minutes on the side of the highway thinking our taxi would never come, a guy pulled up on a little red moped and asked if we were his hotel guests. Apparently, the two local cabs were both 30 minutes away in the next town down the road. Our new friend Mauricio, the only employee at the posada, said he could take us and our luggage to the hotel. Trip one was our big suitcase awkwardly positioned between Mauricio’s legs, trip two was Breck, and trip three was me with Breck’s Lululemon bag on my shoulder and my carry-on suitcase between Mauricio’s legs again. Two grown men and way too much luggage precariously balanced on a tiny moped must have been quite the sight to behold.

Jose Ignacio Motorcycle

Mauricio taking Breck on her first motorcycle ride.

Jose Ignacio Sunset

Sunset over the highway during our bike ride back from town

After that adventure, the rest of the day was perfectly relaxing. We rode some comically rusted bikes into town and got Daquiri’s at a fancy restaurant for rich people called La Susana (it’s at a hotel that costs $1,000+ per night) followed pizza and beers at another place. On the way home, we saw the most amazing pink sunset just as the fog was rolling in. The picture doesn’t even do it justice. Lastly, we finished off the night drinking beers at the posada with the only other hotel guests–the guitarist from Bad Religion and his wife. I used to listen to them all the time in high school/college! So random.

Jose Ignacio La Susana

Enjoying the view before having daquiris at the (expensive) La Susana restaurant

Bring Your Toilet Water to Trinidad (but not too much)

I’ve been meaning to post this for awhile but haven’t gotten around to it until now. I’ve filled out many customs declarations before, but Trinidad and Tobago’s form is by far the strangest I’ve encountered–apparently there is a restriction on how much toilet water you are allowed to bring into the country.

The obvious question is: is there a shortage of toilet water in the country? Perhaps. But then why do they limit you to only 250 mL? We may never know.

Imagine explaining to the customs official that you accidentally brought 500 mL. Embarrassing.

Imagine explaining to the customs official that you accidentally brought 500 mL. Embarrassing.

Saturday Morning Hike to Sabas Nieves

Our time is starting to wind down in Venezuela, so we’re trying to make the most of our remaining six weekends or so. Today we hiked up El Avila to Sabas Nieves for the second time; the first time being shortly after moving to Caracas. It’s one of the few outdoor activities here that offers any real level of safety.

The Avila is the name of the mountain visible from everywhere in Caracas that runs along the northern side of the city. There are a ton of hiking trails, but supposedly the only one that is really safe at all begins in Chacao (the wealthy part of town). Both times I’ve started out feeling pretty good about my level of fitness (not a marathon runner, but not a chain-smoking couch potato either), and by the end I have sweat streaming down my face and my legs are wobbly. It probably doesn’t help that Caracas has an elevation of about 2000 ft (Wikipedia says 2,900ft but I’ve heard less from people living here) and Sabas Nieves, a little park area halfway up the mountain, is at about 4,000 ft. Some people run up it but that seems too intense to me.

Anyway, just wanted to post a few pictures of our Saturday morning hike.

The trail to Sabas Nieves

The trail to Sabas Nieves

45 minutes of climbing and we made it!

45 minutes of climbing and we made it!

Great views of Caracas from the trail

Great views of Caracas from the trail

How to Do Nothing in Grenada

After spending almost four months in Caracas, we were excited to head home for the holidays but also wanted to do squeeze in an uber-relaxing vacation. It took pretty much forever to plan, but we finally decided on four days in Los Angeles, four days in the East Bay, and five days in Grenada. The planning difficulty was because of the extreme difficulty finding international flights out of Venezuela, let alone during Chrismas time. The couple we did find cost $4,000-$5,000 each (no, that’s not exaggeration). In the end, we were able to hop on a charter plane run by my employer over to Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela, then to Trinidad, and from there we flew commercial to California. Long story short: 5 cities, 6 airports, and 28 hours later we made it to LA.

Side note, apparently SFO has a yoga room in the terminal? Are many people bringing their yoga mat traveling?

SFO Yoga Room

SFO Yoga Room

We spent Christmas with our families, saw some friend and before we knew it we were off to Grenada. We arranged to stay at a bed and breakfast (called Casa Bella) in the town of L’Anse Aux Epines that was way cheaper than anywhere else we looked ($97/night). Everyone talked like it was super far from the main city of St Georges and Grand Anse beach but in reality it was only a 5-10 minute drive. Apparently living on a 133 square mile island gives you a different sense of distance. It’s run by a very accommodating couple who bought a giant house so friends and family could visit, and offset the cost by running a B&B. It’s a somewhat informal setup, but they were still great hosts. They had a breakfast waiting for us each morning on the patio consisting of toast, cereal, fresh fruit (grown in the backyard!), coffee, and fresh juice made from passion fruit and some tropical fruit I hadn’t heard of.

View from bed and breakfast, Casa Bella

View of Prickly Bay from the patio at our bed and breakfast, Casa Bella

Day 1. Our plans for day one were pretty simple: head to Grand Anse beach (supposedly one of the best in the Caribbean) and drink many beers in the sun. Our hosts at the B&B offer a “taxi” service for guests, and drove us over to Grand Anse beach a short 5 minute drive away. Almost immediately upon arriving, we were accosted by a constant stream of vendors. For the most part, once you say you aren’t interested they leave you alone. However, there was one crazy-eyed guy selling aloe leaves who was obviously on something and wouldn’t leave. He went so far as to just start rubbing aloe on Breck’s legs. She shot me a desperate “do somethiiiiiiiiiing” look so I gave the guy a few bucks for leaf. I asked if he had change, and he said he’d come back with it. I told him I trusted him (I didn’t), which apparently offended him so he shouted at me “Bro! I deal in thousands!” (insinuating he had no reason to take off with my money) and left… never to be seen again.

Grand Anse beach with rainbow in the background

Grand Anse beach with rainbow in the background

Anyway, the beach was great and we made friends with some of the many beverage vendors. The setup of these beach vendors is pretty amusing. There is a little stretch of a dozen or so “storefronts”, each shop no more than 10-15 square feet and all selling exactly the same stuff as far as I can tell-we arbitrarily chose “Janice’s Shop.” Almost immediately after we finished our bucket of Carib beer, another beverage vendor swooped down on us and asked if we needed any more. I told him “Janice is taking care of us” to which he responded, “nah man, she talks to much! I’m the one out here hustling! Flash will take care of you.” His approach was a little abrasive, but he was certainly putting way more effort into soliciting customers running up and down the beach taking drinks and snacks to people. For the rest of our trip, Flash was our guy.

Carib - A great beach beer

Carib – A great beach beer

Day 2. I got somewhat sunburned on my back the first day, so we took a break from the sun and went into St Georges (mostly just to say we did it). The owner of the B&B drove us “all the way into town” which really only took about 10 minutes. He dropped us off at the base of Fort George and we walked up a very long stairway up the hill, pausing for a few minutes under a tree to let a crazy downpour pass. The entrance fee was $2, however, it really should have been free since aside from the great views, the fort was almost laughable in how little it had to offer of any interest (including any kind of information about the fort whatsoever).

The fort was small and basic. I got a kick out of the fact that it’s apparently still a functioning police academy! There was a gym that looked as old as the fort itself, with no signs or anything telling visitors to stay out. I also couldn’t help but laugh at the poorly maintained grounds: an old house on the grounds had completely caved in and stashed in between some walls in the fort were some discarded lockers.

Courtyard of Fort George... the basketball hoop is behind me.

Courtyard of Fort George… the basketball hoop is behind me.

Small open courtyards make great storage areas

Small open courtyards make great storage areas

View of St Georges from Fort George (with falling down house)

View of St Georges from Fort George (with falling down house)

Great view!

Great view from the other side of the fort!

The experience was somewhat redeemed however by some old cannons that I got to play pirate with.

Arrrg, I have the enemy in me sights

Arrrrrrrrr. I have ye in me sights.

After the forst, we walked around town a little and stumbled upon the famed “spice market” which is pretty much just a market square in town. Grenada is known for it’s spices, and I imagine I would have found the market more interesting if I actually had a need for spices. We headed back to Grand Anse beach, hung out for a few hours and caught a taxi back to the B&B to get ready for new year’s eve.

Day 2 (Night – New Year’s Eve) We spent the night at the bar/restaurant at Prickly Bay, a short 5 minute walk from where we stayed. We went there every night of the trip to hang out after our daytime activities. It certainly isn’t the most lively place I’ve ever been, but it’s what I would expect from a small Caribbean bar geared towards sailors. It was a fairly uneventful evening on the whole–mostly a middle aged crowd with some late 20s mixed in and a band that insisted on playing songs nobody wanted to listen to. What was funny is that every time the band took a break, they turned on Top 40 songs and the place came alive with singing and dancing. As soon as the band came back, the whole place would die down agai. They should have taken the hint and given it a rest for good.

New Year's Eve at Prickly Bay

New Year’s Eve at Prickly Bay

So, for whatever reason, the singer of the band was giving some boring speech about the upcoming new year, and somehow talked RIGHT THROUGH MIDNIGHT! How does that happen? No countdown?!?!! I don’t think anybody even noticed until at about 12:02 he abruptly stopped talking and said “and now… fireworks!”

Some fireworks went off across the small bay, but a minute later more started up–RIGHT OVER OUR HEADS. It probably wasn’t exactly safe but it was certainly cool.

Fireworks are best enjoyed exploding in your face

Fireworks are best enjoyed exploding in your face

Day 3. Pretty uneventful day. We lounged around on the beach again and got served by our new drink friend Flash.

Day 4. I had never snorkeled before, so my only goal for our Grenada trip was to try it out. We signed up in the morning for an 11 am slot with Eco Dive which had a little shack set up on the beach. Once we were in the water, I was like a little kid pointing out all the cool fish to Breck and taking millions of pictures. Apparently, Grenada doesn’t have the best snorkeling because the water isn’t as clear as elsewhere in the Caribbean. I had nothing to compare it to, though, so it was awesome. There were so many bright fish and funny looking water plants!

Fish of some kind

A school of fish that I swam through

The two of us snorkeling!!!

The two of us looking very cool with our masks and snorkels.

And that’s about it. Now we’re back to reality in Caracas with about two months left until we head back to the Bay Area for good.

Venezuelan Election Day: If you’re not a citizen stay the eff out of sight

December 8th was election day nationwide in Venezuela for mayors and other local officials. I really don’t know much about the election other than that it was viewed as a referendum on President Maduro (who was elected in April after Chavez died) and his party. If the level of polarization in US politics makes your brain hurt, then don’t read too much about Venezuela because your head might just explode. People seem to be either ravenously pro- or anti-government. In the poorer areas of town Chavez and Maduro related graffiti is EVERYWHERE. While on the other hand, it’s pretty much assumed that if you’re in the eastern parts of the city, you’re for the opposition. I may not speak a ton of Spanish, but enough to realize that the daily topic of conversation in the locker room at the gym is President Maduro and the economic chaos attributed to him.

Now, what is an expat to do on election day? The US embassy (and my employer) strongly recommended staying out of sight. For me, the thought was panic enducing (ok, slight exaggeration, but it sounded very unpleasant). An entire day trapped in our box of an apartment?

Well, lucky for me, I have the most thoughtful girlfriend ever. Shortly after waking up, I was sitting on the sofa when Breck walked in with a surprise for me: a poster board with “Election Day Tournament 2013″ scrawled on it. She had planned a game day for us! Brilliant.

The Election Day Tournament Winners Board

Election Day Tournament Winners Board duct taped to the wall.

So what is an Election Day Tournament, you ask? Well, it apparently consists of heads up poker, Scrabble, a drinking game of your choice, Mario Party, and finally Jenga (we never made it to Jenga).

The Results

  1. Poker: Breck. I’m not quite sure how this happened, but Breck beat me in our game of heads up poker. I’ll chalk it up to me being an outstanding teacher (and getting terrible cards). She took me all in and won with two pair, Qs and 3s.I had a pair of 6s :-(I had a pair of 6s :-(
  2. Scrabble: Breck. My general Scrabble strategy is to spell as many words on each turn as possible. This usually means placing one word parallel to another, and thereby spelling several 2 letter words (and double counting every letter!) along with the word I put down. Quantity over quality is my jam. Breck hates this strategy, and admittedly I don’t blame her, because it really limits our ability to build out the board. I wasn’t on my game this time though and she won.
  3. It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia Drinking Game: Chris. I’ve played those TV show drinking games where everyone takes a sip when a pre-determined event happens during the show but never quite understood the point. What makes this a game? Well, my friends, problem solved. Same idea, but when the event happens, the person who shouts out whatever just happened gets a point. It was pretty fun actually. I was shouting “Mac’s tattoo!” what seemed like every three seconds–for the win I should add.

    Rum and coke in wine glasses = classy

    Rum and coke in wine glasses = classy

  4.  Mario Party: Chris. We bought this for our Wii before coming down here thinking we needed some extra activities for when we’re stuck inside the house. It doesn’t get a ton of use, but came in handy today. My Yoshi crushed the competition and I took home 8 stars for a solid win.

And that is what a expat does on election day in Venezuela. Thanks to Breck’s friend Parker, who I have yet to meet, for the inspiration for the title of this post. As it turns out, it doesn’t sound like anything really happened that warranted us staying inside, but I suppose it’s always better to play it safe.

‘Murica!

Living in another country has definitely made both of us nostalgic for all things American (well, maybe not everything), so here’s a collection of everything we’re looking forward to enjoying while we’re back in the US of A:

  • Our families: Had to put them first (they read this… kidding, guys). It’s been quite awhile since we’ve seen either set of them, and we’re looking forward to hug-overload.

Missing the broski

  • Half-n-half: When I can find it at the grocery store (so, every 6 weeks or so), we drink shelf-stable, boxed milk in our coffee. When I can’t, we use shelf-stable, boxed soy milk. Neither option is particularly bad, but we both really miss rich, creamy half-n-half. It definitely beats the somewhat-watered down mugs we make here.

“Milk”

  • Speaking of coffee, STARBUCKS: Ok, this is more me than Chris. I don’t even normally like Starbucks that much, but something about seeing everyone on Facebook with their red holiday cups filled with pumpkin spice latte is making me nostalgic. I’m planning on drinking about 50 while we’re home.

You’re mine, PSL!!

  • Being able to walk around: This is a biggie for both of us. Walking has always been our favorite mode of transportation when it comes to running errands or going out. We both prefer living in walkable areas, which is exactly what we’ve done for the year and a half before moving here. Due to security issues in Caracas, we’re not allowed to walk from place to place. If we’re inside a mall or something, we can walk around no problem, but it’s definitely not the same as going downstairs for a donut on the weekend (yes, we lived above a donut shop; no, I’m not sure how we aren’t both 300 lbs.) or walking across the street for a sub or going down the block for happy hour. We are going to wear our shoes into the ground while we’re home, and I can’t wait.

Us walking around San Juan, PR last year

  • English: This is sort of a difficult one to explain. Our Spanish skills have improved exponentially, to the point where I think we’d both consider ourselves roughly fluent: we can basically understand what people are saying to us, and we can basically say what we need to say in response. While this has been hugely helpful in getting through the day, it’s still a struggle to figure out what exactly the system is when we go somewhere new. Like, do we pay before we order, when we order, or afterwards? Does someone serve us, or should we go to the counter? Are we way over-thinking this and there’s actually no system at all? It will be nice to feel like we know what’s going on.
  • Beer: As we’ve mentioned before, the beer here is pretty blah. As lovers of bold IPAs and refreshing Saisons, we’re really missing the beer selection at home. Many, many will be drunk upon arrival in CA.

Mmmmmmm

  • Tap water: As much as we love beer, we love water even more. We both drink well over the recommended eight glasses a day and are still always thirsty. Since the tap water here isn’t the best, we have to stick to bottled water, which, for us, means buying lots of it. Bottled water isn’t expensive here (it’s cost-controlled by the government), but lugging 5 liter jugs up to our apartment everyday is kind of annoying. However, I would happily carry 50 giant bottles up many flights of stairs if I could only find any. Yep, along with flour, sugar, milk, oil, and meat shortages, bottled water is becoming increasingly more difficult to find. I’m looking forward to an unlimited supply via the kitchen sink.

We are so, so lucky we get to spend a few days at home with our friends and family, and we can’t wait to celebrate the holidays with them and indulge in a few things we miss about life in the US. So, mostly beer.