To My Beautiful Ava on her 9th Birthday

Today I woke up to your sweet kisses and warm hugs. As with most mornings, you came to snuggle me awake before school, shimmying your little body under the heavy covers to warm up next to me. As I blinked awake, your sweet smile filled my sleepy eyed view and you whispered that you wished we could just lie in bed together all day, with breaks for a snack and lunch of course. You exclaimed that we could just pull the covers over our head and we could just chat and laugh and read together all day. I will always cherish this morning ritual and can only hope that it will continue for as long as it can, but your childhood seems to be slipping away so quickly, as with every passing day, little flashes of your pre-teen persona begin to emerge and take the place of my little baby girl.

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Crafting at the International Food Festival in Itaewon

Your 8th journey around the sun started with a trip to Los Angeles for Christmas with the family, which is so important to you. You cherish every moment that you have with your family, knowing that our time together is often short. You also have a true love for all things Christmas and you were ready to start decorating and playing Christmas songs before the Summer was even over.

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Presenting to the Elementary as a Student Counsel Member

Winter found you hitting the slopes and you took part in an International Ski festival, where you were challenged by the giant slalom, but even though you are still a novice skier you stepped up to the challenge and your momma cried as I watched you swoosh down the hill to a 5th place finish, your grit and determination shining through. You also competed in your 3rd triathlon and you even inspired your daddy to join you in training and participating in the event. I love that you take on these little challenges and you are always up for trying something new.

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Getting Ready for a Whale Shark Snorkel, Leyte Island Philippines

This was your first summer in the US (since you were a little tot) and within days of your arrival we packed your bags and sent you off to Catalina Island Camps for a week of Summer camp fun. It is no surprise that you came back back with a bag full of dirty clothes, sun drenched skin and a deep desire for everything camp, you’re certainly our kid! The rest of your summer was spent hanging out with your cousin Aurora, making great big globs of slime, camping, eating popsicles, and going on picnics. Another highlight of your summer was getting up close and personal with the local manta rays and dolphins on the big island of Hawaii. You giggled with delight as the mantas tickle your tummy while they somersaulted before our eyes. I am not sure how many other kids would be brave enough to jump into the deep, dark ocean to swim with such giant creatures, but like I said you really are our kid.

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Marketing her new cereal, “Kitty Crunches”

If this year had a theme, it would be “pink fluffy unicorns dancing on rainbows.” You came home from camp singing this song and it really does fit your gregarious personality. Your life continues to be full of song, and you are really finding your voice. You love to be outside and you persist as an advocate for animals and the environment. You are a voracious reader, with books about science, graphic novels and Garfield being some of your favorites. You are a proud member of student council and you are really finding your leadership niche at school.

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Taking a Gondola at the Taipei Zoo

This year more than ever, you have been trying to find a sense of home. On several occasions you have asked “Mommy, where am I from” and we have had many conversations about the variety of possible answers you can give. I know that the answer to this question will be ever evolving as you grow up as a child of the world. During our Fall trip to Mongolia, we had the chance to stay with several Nomadic families that move their home every season and there was a lot to learn from that beautiful experience. So as we stand together on the precipice of your 9th year on this earth, let’s embrace the wise words of our nomadic hosts:

“Home is where the fire is”

“Learn to live as part of the environment and let it be your teacher”

“Learn from living together in small spaces”

“When you first arrive to a new place, be sure to reach down and say hello to the land first.”

May this year be filled with warmth and love, family and friends, laughter and adventure, enlightenment and knowledge. With love baby girl.

                                                                                                      – Your Mommy

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I Booked $2,000 of Flights for $100. Here’s How:

It’s humbling to learn things at middle age that change your life forever.

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Driving Lambos in Rome: Summer 2017

My latest one came two years ago, when an unsuspecting staff member, Nate Samuelson changed my life when he opened my eyes to the world of credit card rewards for hotels and travel. Since then, we’ve enjoyed stays at 5 star resorts for free, snagged free flights, and also taken advantage of unique experiences such as driving a lamborghini around Rome while staying at the Waldorf Astoria. (Both for free)

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The Chase Dashboard. Click ‘Redeem Rewards’ to travel to partners to book free travel.

The Chase Sapphire Reserve Credit Card

It wouldn’t be possible without the Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card. When you charge travel related costs to it, you’ll garner 3X points per dollar spent which you can transfer to travel partners or redeem for cash.

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Book travel with points and $, or transfer to travel partners.

After the first two months of our trip in Eastern Europe, we’re deciding to head to East Africa to visit friends, do some diving, take a safari, and volunteer at an orphanage. I was pleasantly surprised that I could use points to book at trip from Budapest to Dar Es Salaam for 30,000 points a person. Although we do get frequent flyer miles when we fly, my credit card earns many more points on a monthly basis which can then be transferred to miles which saves us money in the long run.

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Booking reward travel through my United Mileage Plus Account after transferring points. Here, I can snag a $650 flight for 30,000 points and $39.

Using credit cards to earn travel rewards is a game, and like any game, you have to learn how to play it. A couple of points:

  • Pay your credit card off every month and don’t run up debt as it has high interest payments. 
  • For reward travel, you’ll have to book well in advance. Dates for reward travel may start as far out as 6 months from your intended flight time. 
  • There is a $450 annual fee, but after paying this, $300 travel related expenses will be deducted from your charge, so it’s really a $150 annual fee. 
  • This comes with ‘Priority Pass’ membership which gives you access to 1000 airline lounges around the world and with that, free food and drink. 
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The final butcher’s bill: $119 for three one way flights.
CityPASS

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Use Airbnb to Save Money on Accommodation

Use Airbnb to Save Money on Accommodation

The first time we spent a summer in Europe, we spent $18,000 all in.

I was ready to slit my wrists when I saw my final credit card bill. “Jesus Christ!” I remember saying out loud. “How can anyone afford to go there?”

Our prayers were answered through apartment sharing through Airbnb. I bring this up, because I’m booking a jag through Eastern Europe and I can’t believe how affordable this has made travel for us in the past few years and I’d have to lean on the website heavily to help us stay within our budget if we’re going to be traveling for a year. Some interesting facts about Airbnb:

  • They list 4 million properties worldwide (and don’t own a single one)
  • It’s active in 190 countries
  • They’re valued at over 30 billion dollars (and may go public next year with a stock offering)

If you own an extra property and want to join the gig economy, they’re awesome. My friend Andy uses ‘hostel world‘ to book hostels, but as we have expensive hardware that I wanted to keep secure, (and we had three people) renting an entire apartment was the same price as three hostel beds. Although many people have heard about Airbnb, I’m surprised how many people have never booked accommodation through them.

The Dashboard

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Location and prices of apartments in Airbnb

The dashboard is pretty straightforward. You can filter for price and number of people, but Airbnb owners usually list properties for guests that want to stay more than one night. You won’t have a change of sheets everyday which hotels usually do, but it will save you money in the long run.

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Adjust price to stay within your budget

What saves you money with an apartment is the ability to cook meals in. In our expensive trip mentioned before, we’d eat two, sometimes three meals out per day. Having a kitchen would allow us to shop in the local markets and cook meals in, limiting ourselves to only 1 meal out per day. This, with some other travel hacks, brought our summers in Europe down to $10,000 minus flights which made it a bit more affordable.

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Pushing the ‘Grit’ Envelope

‘Grit’ is everywhere in education these days.

Growth Verses Fixed

In schools around the world, teachers are advocating for a ‘growth’ verses ‘fixed’ mindset and they all have their own ideations of the above graphic that’s age and subject specific. As someone who supports teachers from K-12, I’ve seen no other buzz word spread so readily to classrooms in my lifetime. Carol Dweck wrote about this in ‘Mindset’ and dozens of advocates and devotees have sprung up everywhere proposing that if we can only engender and teach perseverance and persistence, students will become more confident and able learners. You know what: they’re right. How to do this is the question.

A few years ago as a math teacher, I performed an experiment which would identify which students had the most grit in my class. Without telling them the objective of the activity, on the first day of class, I would give the students a college level calculus problem. I told them to work on it as long as they wanted, and when they ‘gave up’ they would be given the course syllabus. I would secretly mark the time at which they’d had enough.

The results were shockingly predictive. The students that gave up quickly would be revealed later as the worst students in the class, reflected by subsequent coursework, (or lack there of). The students that kept persisting (sometimes upwards of an hour) would invariably be the best in class by semester’s end. I never told them the real purpose of this experiment. Maybe I should have.

With so much of a child’s personality being made at a young age, professionals wonder how much parents and teachers can ‘reverse’ a defeatist attitude many students have. There are some tactics: set SMART goals, recognize effort and recognize positive self talk.

From Westerner to Tiger Dad

I’ve lived in Asia for 17 years now. As a westerner that has called the far east home for so long, it was inevitable that its culture would wear off on me as a parent. The most notable observation that I’ve made about east Asians in my time here is how driven they are academically. Japan, China, South Korea, and Singapore all lead the world in PISA tests. Western academics dismiss these results and say they’re the result not of the quality of instruction, but additional enrichment programs and parent support, outside the controlled measure for an effective study. All good points. However, these students know that education is the key to upward mobility, a good job and a fruitful career. If you ask the youngest of students at our school what they want to be when they grow up and why, they’ll give you 2-3 career options and the answer above. If you ask an American student the same thing, they simply shrug their shoulders and says “I don’t know” with a touch of annoyance and tad of indifference.

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Who is responsible?

In 2011, Yale professor Amy Chua published a fantastic book called ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother‘ which advocated for eastern approach to parenting over a western one. It touched a nerve with western parents who couldn’t fathom bringing their children up with such a value system. In the end, her children were accepted to the ivy league, vindicating this method.

The climax in the book was when Mrs. Chua’s daughters were practicing an instrument one day and pushed to the point of exasperation. Rather than push harder, the author than ‘gives up’ her tyrannical parenting. The daughters didn’t rejoice. They couldn’t believe that their mother displayed such an about shift after so many years of a hard line stance. By then though, the daughters had been instilled with grit and knew the importance of hard work and not merely ending up as an entitled Trump supporters.

I’m guilty of this too. I pushed Ava to crawl at 6 months. I was starting vocabulary flashcards with her before she was one. Just today, as she was taking her unit test on multiplication and division in ‘Khan Academy’ she had a bit of a meltdown, but kept going with it, earning a perfect score. I see evidence of this hard work everywhere, from her high scores on MAP tests to leadership and conversations with adults. Still, we as parents and teachers need to know where to draw the line, when to take a break, and when to come back to it later.

“Daddy, can we take a break? I’ve done so much math today!” Ava told me this morning.

“But you’re doing so well!” I replied. “Don’t you want to get better?”

“Yes, but I’m tired.”

“Ok, we can take a break. But you know the more you practice, the better you’ll get? Right…..right?”

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Ava’s Toolkit

The Last Sleepovers

It’s 8:39 am and Ava just had a friend over for a sleepover the night before. For the first time in the dozen or so sleepovers that we’ve hosted, we didn’t have any flour or milk, so I wasn’t able to make my token pancakes. It didn’t go over well with my daughter.

Sorry Ava, I don’t have ingredients for pancakes this morning. I can make you both bagels and cream cheese.

No pancakes daddy? What kind of sleepover IS this?

I then thought that Ava might benefit by starting her trip by writing a thousand word essay on the topic of ‘disappointment’ to shake creeping first world privilege. While I was wrestling with whether or not I might be too hard on her, or raising a spoiled child, I had an epiphany- sleepovers would soon dry up.

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Proper pancakes

The Challenge of Making Friends While Traveling

By now, word has spread around our community of our plans. Common responses from our coworkers in passing have been:

“What a great learning experience for your daughter!”

“She’ll have so many good memories to look back on!”

“No doubt, she’ll have a great global perspective!”

True. But, how will she make friends? Say what you want about the 9 to 5 grind, but there are real comforts in daily work-life. Visiting the gym regularly, social get togethers, local hobbies- all of things make a place home, and after weeks on the road, we’re always happy to be homeward bound. With us being gone for a year, how will our daughter make and sustain any long term friendships? How will she learn to resolve conflicts through negotiation and role play? Sure, she’ll meet people here and there, but as people are always coming and going on the road, I know the moments will be fleeting and ephemeral. Here are some strategies that we’ve learned to keep her social:

Skype and Hangouts. Not just for calling your parents (see below). Some of the families that we’ve been following have said that periodic chats with friends around the world via skype or Google hangouts can do wonders for loneliness.

The Local Park. Europe is awesome for community parks and I was surprised at how much I liked down days just hanging out on a blanket in the grass. Some times, we would take a picnic lunch, a book to read, sunscreen and a frisbee and it would turn into one of those ‘magic days’.

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Local park in Budapest

The Beach or Swimming PoolI’m already jonesing for the beaches on the Mediterranean. I think when most people think of those idillic beaches of the world, they think of deserted places. I’m the opposite. The more the merrier, and with people come amenities like cafes, ice cream shops but more importantly, other kids with whom to play.

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Swimming with besties in Vietnam

Resort Owners A few years ago we went on a diving trip in Moalboal (see below) and arranged for childcare ahead of time so Lisa and I could go diving. Upon arrival, we learned the owner had two grandchildren visiting and we asked if Ava could play with them. They hit it off instantly and soon we gained the trust of the family to leave Ava with the other children in the pool for a couple hours when we went diving. Since then, we’ve made an effort to see if any of the owners of the hotel or Air B and B have similarly aged children for a playdate.

 

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What’s in a Number?

“So how many countries will this be for you?”

“53.”

“Wow, high five bruh!”

As I was listening to this exchange between a couple of co-workers before our last holiday, I realized I’ve never understood people like this. You know the type, and can spot them easily as they often have country flags sewn on their backpacks, speak in chest bumps and brag about their number of sexual partners.

Has traveling really devolved to a mere checklist for people to cross off in order to say they’ve ‘been there’ and ‘done that’? Some of the nicest people I’ve met in my life have not left their home state and I’ve met accomplished world travelers that are even larger world class assholes.

These questions and concerns seemed relevant as we have just started booking our trip. Interestingly, one of the first few questions we often get asked is: “How many countries will you visit?” to which I shrug. It was never about a number.

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Staggering Purchases with Stockpiling Cash

We found tickets through Google flights for $1,500 for all three of us to fly from Seoul to Montenegro, a little gem in eastern Europe that provides a little time on the beach at Budva on the Mediterranean sea along with the old city of Kotor to start our trip. From there, we would take a train to Belgrade and a flight to Tallin, Estonia for the first two weeks. We got the tickets from Belgrade to Tallin on miles from Turkish airlines but they came with high fees of $120 a ticket. Still, the flight time and short layover through Istanbul where more desirable than what my favorite search engines were offering.

My strategy of making this trip affordable was to buy tickets and accommodation for two weeks at a time starting in October and continuing to February. With that, we could have the first 10 weeks of flights and accommodation paid for and use the spring months to gather money. Our travel rewards credit cards would earn transferable points for free flights and free hotel night stays which would be a nice respite after a steady string of Air B and B rentals which helped us stay under budget.

Our pace was pretty lazy. Four to five nights in most destinations at a time and we’d have to book Europe through the summer as it can get pretty busy. After August, I knew the pace would lighten up and we could book a few weeks out depending on our whims and where the wind blew us.

With these purchases, I faced a startling realization-there was no turning back. We were committed.

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For All the Sleep Apniacs

December 26th, 2004, was a sad day in history.

On that particular day we woke up in Siem Reap, Cambodia and took a series of busses to Ko Chang in Thailand with our friends Brent and Dakota. Upon arriving at the port town where we would take a boat the next morning, we were bombarded with people asking us, “Did you hear what happened? Do you have any news!”

A tsunami had hit the west coast of Thailand. Reports were spotty at the time, but rumors and news programs started to broadcast the devastation which hit as far away as Malaysia, Indonesia and even Sri Lanka, off the coast of India. The earthquake was so large that it had sent a wave all the way to east Africa resulting in a quarter of a million dead. For years after, experts and authorities would analyze what happened, improving building codes, warning signs and evacuation protocols in case it ever happened again.

However, thousands of miles away on that same day, another passing would come to more closely impact my life-NFL great Reggie White, who passed away at the ripe age of 43. Despite living in Thailand at the time, Reggie White’s life and death would more closely come to intermingle with my own. Mr. White died of respiratory disease compounded by untreated sleep apnea.

My Entire 30’s-A Decade feeling Tired and Unrested

For all my 30’s, I had never slept well. Even after reducing my fluid intake before bed time, I’d get get up on average of 3 times a night to urinate, 5-6 if I was out late. I always thought that this was ‘the norm’, and didn’t think much of it, or my persistent, chainsaw-like snoring which my more than patient wife had learned to live with. By snoring myself awake (which actually was choking) I was not getting enough oxygen to my body, slowly wearing me down causing me to become addicted to coffee to start my day and waking up feeling ‘unrested’.

When we moved to South Korea, I took advantage of the sleep clinic at Seoul National University hospital and spent the night with electrodes hooked up to my head undergoing my first sleep study. When the technicians confronted me the next morning with my results, they did so with the same tact that all Koreans deliver disconcerting news to foreigners:

Please see the doctor Mr. Johnston. You could die very soon.” They said.

They pushed my follow up meeting from next week to that morning and when I did see the doctor, he lamented me for not coming in earlier to which I replied that I was living in Vietnam, which was a developing country and for most people, having a roof was a novelty let alone access to a state of the art sleep clinic. My data put my sleep apnea rating way past severe and just outside ‘near corpse‘. After a bit of back and forth, and the obligatory guilt trip, I was issued my own CPAP machine and started using it at 39 years of age.

 My 40’s-The Healthiest I’ve Ever Felt

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My oozing sex appeal. Why hello Clarice.

The first night I slept with my CPAP machine, I woke up feeling light headed. I had slept 8 hours straight which I had not done since my late 20’s. Every morning thereafter was like a night of rest that few people save babies get to enjoy. After about week, I noticed a host of qualitative improvements. I healed fasted. My joints ached less. No longer would I drag myself home from work everyday. The bags under my eyes tightened. It was like I had kicked a drug habit and was reborn. The sudden burst of energy allowed me to wake up early and do cardio followed by weights in the afternoon. Soon, my muscles grew, my skin looked better and at 42 years of age, hit personal bests in squats, bench press and every other exercise I attempted. All because my tissues got more oxygen.

For our trip, the behemoth ResMed CPAP machine that was my master would have to stay home. Looking for a new idol to worship, I settled on the ResMed travel CPAP machine which is to much bigger than my hand and doesn’t even have a display.

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The handheld ResMed Travel CPAP Machine

The coolest thing about this device, is it connects to your phone that monitors your sleep progress. You can see your sleep patterns from the night before and adjust settings accordingly. I’d have to buy 12 humidifier tablets which would be replaced every month, but I had a CPAP device that would pack small, work well and pack in my carry on backpack. I had a crucial piece of hardware that would make this trip bearable.

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Sleep breakdown from last night

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Ava’s Educational App Toolkit

I’ve made a career out of educational technology.

Twenty years ago, there was not even job descriptions like mine. Now, with the ever cascading deluge of platforms, apps and innovation that changes as fast as the color of a banana peel, schools and organizations hire people like me that can explain technology adoption in simple terms and offer training along the way. Helping other educators increase their skill set has been one of the most rewarding parts of my job and makes me wonder what new tech jobs are in store for us in the near future. Drone repair man? Already there.

This interest started in 2007 with me creating a blog to share my musings with like minded educators. After a few years, it grew into one of the top 500 educational technology blogs in the world and helped me rise up the ranks in Edtech circles to eventually become a Google trainer, regional presenter and keynote speaker. Despite these vain accolades and bravado, I still find it next to impossible to keep up with it all. It’s like shoveling your driveway while it’s still snowing.

However, for our big trip, I knew these skills would come in handy. As we couldn’t take textbooks with us, I’d have to leverage mobile learning platforms to help Ava learn as a 4th grader and make content that she could share to demonstrate her learning. Here are some of my favorites:

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Explain Everything-This allows users to animate pictures and drawings as a movie file. This is handy for students that want to show multi step math problems.

Seesaw- Seesaw is a student portfolio system where teachers can distribute assignments digitally. Students can upload pictures, recordings and the teacher can share work with parents.

Ten Marks- This is a robust math program that gives practice on a variety of math problems.

Touchcast Studio– This is a fun program which turns a movie into a documentary/news segment with green screen interface options.

iMovie- One of Apple core suite products, this can add easy video clip transitions, titles and sound effects for digital stories.

Notability- With our new apple pencil, this is great for note-taking and highlighting pdfs or jpegs to practice annotating texts.

Paper 53- Similar to ‘notability’, paper 53 has a larger palate of draw tools. I particularly like the watercolor brush.

Khan Academy-A robust math program organized by topics and grade level. Videos and independent practice that are scaffolded into mastery tasks.

Minecraft- Running around in virtual battles may not have much applications to education until I learned that students can recreate historic places to reenact moments in history.

QR code Reader- Handy if you are in a museum and need access to additional information.

Class Dojo- A fantastic classroom management system that recognizes good behavior and serves as a nice parent communication system. New portfolio features make this and ‘seesaw’ almost evenly matched.

Show Me- Similar to ‘explain everything’ this also allows animation of drawings through video production.

Pic Collage- Great way of making, well, a ‘pic collage’ with drawings, text and scribble tools.

Epic- Epic has a massive reading library which is more elementary friendly than NewsELA and their user interface is more conducive to young readers with recommended ages for readers.

Expeditions- Virtual reality becomes a reality for the classroom teacher. Chose online expeditions and let students follow in headsets or just handhelds to prevent getting dizzy.

NewsELA- Curates non-fictional articles from major newspapers and other periodicals and translates them into different lexile/reading levels. Aligned to common core non-fictional reading standards. Good for upper elementary to high school aged students.

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Mongolia Part 3: Among the Holy

The scenery has taken a big change. For our first few days in Mongolia, the steppe was a smooth, barren landscape. What was once ankle high scrub gave way to hills, gullies and glens spotted with small trees. During our drive, we were 4 wheel creeping over lava flows, and insolent river crossings, which turned sanguine in our rearview mirror. By late afternoon, we were in the mountain steppe, with strange coniferous trees that had yellow pine needles which I’d never seen before.

The father of our Ger camp was ‘Gala’, and soon after meeting us, his young grandchildren chased Ava around the camp. All together, there were four families (Gala’s children) and their children living here and up till now, we had never come upon a group with such an extended family living together. The adults were the quietest family we had met. I would later learn why.

The Lovely Bones

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We loaded up on horses and took off on an 8 kilometer horse ride, down to a local waterfall. The horses would favor the trails but mix it up by forging their own trails on the perfectly manicured grass. As we rode on, I noticed bones everywhere. Not covering the entire landscape, but everywhere you seemed to look, there they were- here and there, bleached white, stark against the sparse vegetation and grey volcanic rock. These signs of death were everywhere in Mongolia and I wondered if remains were from a wolf kill or from a local family who had simply thrown the scraps out. I always expected a bone to announce a nearby carcass, but I never saw one. Top echelon predators undoubtedly take the largest piece they can to their den and kin, and down the line with scavengers lining up and even the smallest of decomposers and detritivores getting their meager, but ample sized scraps. This tug of war over rotting limbs leaves no discernible epicenter of the creature’s last breath as pieces are separated, thinned and turned back into earth.

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Horses are just like people, they like to go home. After a short rest at a local water fall, we mounted up and the horses started out with a trot, no doubt eager to get home to their pasture lands.

Erdene Zu Monestary

We left the valley camp homestay with a long goodbye the next morning. Saagii had given the mother a long, tearful goodbye, and I sensed something was amiss. During the embrace, Saagii whispered words into the mother’s ear and the mother nodded back, appreciatively tears streaming down her face. We would later learn that our host family had suffered a terrible tragedy only 2 weeks ago when their 19 year old son was unexpectedly killed in an accident. Instantly, I hated myself for being there and having this wonderful family take care of us and force smiles in the face of such agonizing grief.

We drove to the ancient capital of ‘Karakorum’ and walked around the Erdene Zu Monastery. This was the center of Mongolia in its golden years when it housed tens of thousands and was a premier destination on the silk road. As the Mongol empire spread, Kublai khan moved the capital city to Beijing to be a better location from which to run the empire and Karakorum began its slow but steady demise.

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In Search of ‘The Real’ 

I always keep my eyes open for ‘The Real’ side of a place. The gritty. The sad. The overlooked.

This isn’t readily apparent to me when I touch down right after landing. It takes time to see past the guidebook and trip advisor recommendations, but when I see it and am in the ‘moment’, I know that’s the thing I’ll miss most about a destination. Waterfalls and scenic visits are just too easy.

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Our last night in Ulanbatur, we went for Indian food. Tugsuu brought his son and he and Ava played ‘Shagai’ a local game played with 4-5 goat ankle bones. The strategy is to keep as many of your bones without losing them to the other player. Each bone has a distinct different feature depending on how it lands, and how it pairs with other bones, gives you more ‘livestock’ or opens you up to having them taken away from you. Lisa, Saagaai, Tugsuu and I were enjoying our last night together with great food, laughs and beer. The kids were entertaining themselves without a lick of English between them. We stuffed ourselves, and reminisced on stories of the last week.

And that was the moment.

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Mongolia Part 2: Among Riders

It’s funny how one tiny piece of equipment can turn an entire piece of machinery useless.

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Creative Commons

This was the case for me with during our first night in the Ger when (while packing back in Korea) I left my CPAP mask behind, rendering my CPAP machine I’d brought to Mongolia, useless. I was diagnosed 3 years ago with sleep apnea and rely on this machine to help me sleep through the entire night, which is something I never did through my entire 30’s. I got up 4 times at night to go pee, although the stars were magnificent and worth the wake up which is what I told myself to offset my geriatric ruminations. After night skies in Namibia, they were the most brilliant I’d ever seen in my life with the milky way splashed across the cool canopy of night.

The ‘Ger’ Stay

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The ‘Ger’ is a common sight in Mongolia. They lend themselves to the nomadic herding lifestyle and families will move twice a year, to a winter and summer locations and take their livestock with them. I thought that families would migrate huge distances to get somewhat of a relief from bitter temperatures (Apparently schools closed in Ulanbator for a week last year when temperatures dropped to -25) but many winter camps are merely a few hundred meters downstream or down a valley from their summer sites. I wondered why families would take the time to move such a paltry distance.

In the center is a stove which doubles as not only a cooking place, but a central heating unit. A central pipe takes the smoke up through the center and a flap over the roof can keep in heat, or let it escape easily. Every night in Mongolia, our hosts would stoke a fire just before bed and again to wake us up in the morning. In the desert steppe for our first few nights, the stoves would burn horse dung as firewood was scarce. The beds line the inner perimeter with space to move around by the central stove for socializing.

That morning, we drove through the national park spotting Przewalski’s horses and stags in the national park. If there ever is an olympic sport for spotting things at far distances, Mongolians are assured to win the gold, silver and bronze medals as evidenced by the keen eyes of our guides, Saagai and Tugsuu. Every time we stopped, they brought out their binoculars and managed to spot wildlife that would challenge Superman, let alone most mortals.

“What are you guys looking at?” I would often ask.

“On that far ridge, a group of stags.”

“You mean those tiny specs about 3 kilometers away?” I would say, squinting.

“Yes Gary! Do you see them too?”

Bactrian Camel Riding

After riding a camel in India a few years ago, I swore I would never ride another camel again for the rest of my life. At the time, we had planned a one night, overnight desert camp, and envisioned an experience very might like ‘Arabian Nights’, trekking through the dunes, near the Pakistani border. The reality was quite different. The provisions of our camp were packed underneath our saddles, so we were sitting on a heap of clothes, pots and pans which caused incessant rubbing on the inside our thighs from the cooking equipment creating a swelling so great, it felt two balloons on the insides of our thighs, making us look like were were wearing a pair of jodhpurs with the bulges on the inside. We walked, bowlegged, most of the way back the next day as we couldn’t stand the pain. Back in our hotel Jaisalmer, exhausted from the ordeal, I overhead a group excitedly talking about their one week camel safari leaving the next day with the same outfitters. I wished them well.

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Bactrian camels in Mongolia are another story. The two humps and modest saddle make it quite comfortable to ride. Apparently, there are 285,000 Bactrian camels in the world and about 30% are in Mongolia with the rest in Tibet and other surrounding areas. Their two humps-which are mostly fat, and shaggy coats make them ideally suited to the cold, resource dry steppe. After mounting, we ventured out through the nearby sand dunes, visiting a local temple and watched the sun go down.

Care for some ‘Snuff’?

We had a meager dinner of fried rice and, you guessed it, mutton. After dinner, the son of the family we stayed with offered us some ‘snuff’ in an elegant snuff bottle as an after dinner treat to accompany our vodka shot.

Apparently snuff and snuff bottles are a big deal in Mongolia and even the process of how it’s presented can say a lot about the person and how things are generally going in their life. If someone offers you a snuff bottle that is open, it means that their life is good and they are experiencing good fortunes and bounties aplenty. If you are offered a snuff bottle that is closed, the presenter is undergoing hardship. Some snuff bottles are made of elegant rare earth minerals and can fetch up to thousands of dollars. Why someone would spend such money on glorified tobacco pouch and not a better Ger is beyond me.

That night, we fell into a deep slumber. I don’t know if it was the fire from the stove warming our limbs, vodka warming our bellies or the generosity of our hosts, but we were starting to feel like one of them. Hearing the group scamper of hooves outside our Ger, I nonchalantly said to Lisa before I drifted off to sleep:

“Herds on the move.”

“Yup.” She replied

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