Oktoberfest – no Ticket needed

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On any Euro trip bucket list is a trip to the famed Oktoberfest. Seasoned veterans of Germany’s fests know that Munich is just one of the many city’s in Germany who throw this annual fest. You can stop into nearly any major town and join the ranks of beer tables, wenches and schnitzel – but none of course are as crazy and famed as Munich.

If you have started to look into going you’ll quickly realize that to actually have a seat at the table and a place to stay, much of your planning needs to have been done at least a year out. Fear not! I have been to Munich’s Oktoberfest twice, with no prior planning and was able to easily get into a tent with having a ticket ahead of time. Here are the tips you need to follow to ensure you do.

GETTING INTO A TENT WITH NO TICKET

To guarantee a seat you do have to have a ticket, which get snapped up early BUT there are open seats which often have some of the better locations — you just have to show up early enough to grab them.

  1. Go early – 1100-1200 when everything first opens
  2. Pick any tent – they are all awesome (maybe pick the tent with your favorite beer as that is what you will be drinking all night)
  3. Avoid going on opening weekend or weekends in general (don’t worry, any day of the week is still a party)
  4. Be prepared to stick it out for a few hours until the party gets warmed up. (We brought cards until the band goes on about 2pm when things start going)

I have been to Oktoberfest twice and both times we were easily able to get into a tent with no ticket. In fact, we ditched the tickets we did have for the better seats we were able to get.

FINDING A PLACE TO STAY

This can also be problematic when hordes of tourists come in over this festive time period. Choosing a non-weekend will help with this one, also try Airbnb or couchsurfing. Expect prices to be higher than normal, but don’t feel the need to stay near the Oktoberfest site. With the great public transportation in Munich, opt for a farther out hotel than is walking distance to the bahnhof and you are golden.

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WHAT TO WEAR

Do drop money on a dirndl and/or lederhosen. Even if Germany is just day 1 of 20 days backpacking Europe, you will find a future use for them, even if its Halloween the next year. I regret not just dropping money to buy them at my first fest; literally everyone is in traditional gear, get one too to fit in as part of the crowd.

A genuine leather, highly quality dirndl and/or lederhosen will run you close to $300, but there are cheaper options you can pick-up in town for closer to $100. Grabbing one in Munich is the easiest option as everyone will selling them. I personally, rented a costume from a party store for $20…not the best costume in the crowd but it was the cheapest option.

Oktoberfest (like any drink fest) is what you make it. You can sing late into the evening, dancing on tables, with a massive hangover the next day, or you can keep it to 1-2 steins and still remember that German you talked to the night before.  The people you go with and meet will make or break the party no matter the tent.

Enjoy Oktoberfest, prost!

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Exploring the regal charm of Loire Valley

A region set on the banks of the Loire river southwest of Paris, Loire valley has long been adored by the likes of Leonardo di Vinci, King Louis XI through XVI and now revered by modern tourists looking for a glimpse into this regal past. Loire valley is also an expansive wine region with many mini-wine appellations to explore. With so much to do in this 100 mile region, it can be hard to pair down priority must sees.

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We had 4 days in this stunning region, but that is not nearly enough time. At a minimum a week is required to enjoy this beautiful part of France, but if you, like me, has limited money and time – below is how we decided to hit all the ‘must sees’ of the region without rushing through what should be a relaxing trip in the sun.

First things first, lets prioritize what you must see, do and taste. Top experiences include: biking from châteaux to châteaux, wine tasting in one of the many small vineyards and visiting the grand homes of people richer than me.

Now, how to do all of these things in 4 days? Here’s how we did it.

Where to stay

Choosing where to stay is extremely difficult. Many sites recommend starting on one side of the valley (near Angers) and stay at another location on the other end (near Orleans) to be able to close to all the attractions. With limited time, however, this is simply not possible.

Wanting to bike, wine and château we chose to stay in Montlois-sur-Loire – if you want to do all of these things as well, I highly recommend choosing a location somewhere between Tours and Blois. This allows you to be within biking distance of Amboise, Vouvray, Chenonceau château (for the ambitious) and 30 min driving distance to Villandry, Tours, Blois and Chambord.

Note: I also looked at the towns of Chinon and Saumur. For cabernet franc lovers, Chinon can be tempting however it is a bit out of the way for seeing the main châteaus. Biking to anywhere relevant can be tough from these locations if you are trying to see as much as possible and keep sites to day trips 

Within walking distance of its own local winery, right on the bike path and with stunning views overlooking the Loire river, I highly recommend staying where we stayed – in a renovated 19th century château.

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Chateau de Bondesir – Chambres d’hôtes

7 Rue de Bondesir, 37270 Montlouis-sur-Loire, France

How to get around

To see the most without relying on tour buses – rent a car. There is public transportation available from the major towns of Tours (best one if you want to stay in a city), Orleans & Angers but getting to the château’s without hoping on a tour bus will be difficult. If you want to avoid driving then staying in Tours or Blois will allow you to easily book trips to the main sites as well as local bike hire. Many accommodations also provide free bike use (ours did).

We drove or biked to nearby towns, châteaus and small vineyards, but did elect to hire a professional for our half day wine tour from Tours to Chinon. We drove to Tours (for ease of purchasing wine) but we could have easily  biked from Montlouis.

What to do

Wine tasting was at the top of my list. I had a grand idea to bike from vineyard to vineyard, which is easily done on your own without booking a tour. Check out the wine route.

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But again, with limited time (and the desire to buy multiple cases) we opted for a half day tour through viator – Chinon small group wine tasting from Tours. Cheaper than the $150pp individualized tours, it was informative but did not cover as much of the wine region as I would have preferred. If you are a wino, splurge on a personalized wine trip. If not, go with viator as it is a good overview and great way to see Chinon.

Château’s was the next item on my list – but there are so many! With entrance fees at each one and over 13 to choose from, we limited our trips to Villandry, Chambord & Chenonceau. Reviews add that Amboise and Blois are also worth seeing, but I do have to say that after 1 or 2…we were good on the life of the rich and dead. Out of those three, I enjoyed Villandry the most for its stunning gardens, pictured below.

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Your sample 4 day itinerary

Smoosh all this recommended stuff together and you have a great mix of wine, food and exploration.

Day 1: Get there + Chambord  – stay at charming Chateau de Bondesir – Chambres d’hôtes and have dinner at La Cave (walking distance from Bondesir)

Day 2: Villandry in the morning, Chinon small group wine tasting from Tours. in the afternoon

Day 3: Cycle from Montlouis sur loire to Amboise, explore the château and cycle back. Make it back before 6pm and go to the local Cave des producteurs for Chenin blanc and sparking wine then move on to nearby town of Vouvary for more wine tasting.

Note on cycling the region: It is easily done. Paths are well marked and take you through country roads or bike only paths. Just visit the local tourist office for directions and a map – there is no need to book a paid tour, it is well made for tourists unfamiliar with the region

Day 4: Round out your wondrous trip with the finale of all châteausChenonceau and then head on home!

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Happy travels!

 

Norway in a Nutshell

Not many know that one of the worlds most expensive places to live and travel also used to be one of the poorest in Europe just 50 years ago. The rough terrain, small population and northern cold location also meant that much of the country has preserved many of its traditional ways of living as well as its natural beauty.
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One of the best ways to see Norway in all its beauty is to do the Norway in a Nutshell trip from Oslo to Bergen. It encompasses the best parts of Norway including boat trips through the majestic Sognefjord,  UNESCO world heritage Flåm Railway and concludes in Bergen the second largest city in Norway and also a good way to hop out of the country or onto your next destination.
Depending on the season, there are many ways to customize this classic route without doing the set organized tours although either option will cost you about the same. We chose to make our own itinerary, which is easily done, to allow a bit more time in the famous Fjord country (most tours will complete the nutshell in a day or so).
We started our trip out in Oslo. A modern, relatively small city it encompasses all the smooth design and modernity that one would expect from a Nordic country. The highlights included the Oslo Opera house, designed by famous Norwegian architect Snøhetta, National Museum which holds “the Scream” by Edvard Munch along with a number of national art treasurers and Holmenkollen Ski Museum and tower a unique shrine to the sport of skiing.
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Leg 1 Oslo —> Myrdal
The train from Oslo to Myrdal takes about 5hours. To complete the nutshell journey in a day you will need to take one of the first trains out. Tickets are easily booked online via NSB website
Leg 2 Myrdal –> Flåm
This is the part where the journey gets interesting. You can easily purchase tickets from Myrdal to Flåm at the train station. During the summer months trains leave regularly and the process is built for non-Nordic tourists. Details on schedules can be found at the flamsbana website.
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Leg 3 Flåm –> Gudvangen —> Voss
This is where you need to take a pause and take in the beauty.
If you are trying to complete the journey in a day, you can easily hope off the Flamsbana and walk into the tourist office to purchase ferry tickets to continue on your journey. Ferry times can be found here. There is also a speed boat option that can take you from Flåm straight to Bergen (the end of the journey) with some key stops along the way. Using this route you skip the bus and train end of the journey and get to your final destination much quicker. Note that it only runs in the summer months.
The bus ticket from Gudvangen to Voss can be purchased right as you enter. This is a well trotted tourist route so it is easily seen across the street once you exit the ferry.
Where to stay on your Nutshell route
If you have a bit more time, I recommend an overnight stay in either Balestrand or Undredal rather than the overly touristy town of Flåm. These small villages are only accessible via ferry and have limited transportation schedules depending on the season. If you go in winter/off-season, then it may be difficult to access these remote parts of the fjord, but you will also miss the hoards of tourists that infiltrate the countryside June-July-August.
With limited ferry options, we traveled in January and spent 2 nights in Flåm (a ghost town in this time of year) at Flam Marina & Apartments.  I splurged on a room that faced the Sognefjord and do not regret a second of it.
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There are a few other options in the town. We were very limited on where we could stay – if traveling in winter, start 1 Feb rather than January as you will have more options. But no matter where you stay, it is all within eyesight of the pristine waters of Sognefjord – you really cant go wrong.
Fretheim – This would have been my choice had it been open when we were visiting. It is an old farmhouse converted into an inn
Kviknes hotel – Upscale accommodation in Balestrand. Sunning scenery in the middle of the Fjord
What to do on your Nutshell route
Although tours are limited in this time of year, we were able to secure a snowshoeing trek through Fjord Safari. Our local guide, Steve, was absolutely amazing – down to earth with an incredible insight into how the locals live since he was one himself. As 1 of 80 inhabitants in the municipality of Aurland, he and his family continue on a century long tradition of goat herding and cheese making. Owning 30K+ acres of mountain landscape, the boundaries between Steve and his neighbors are kept only by the flow of the water. If it flows to the right it is the neighbors land, to the left was his. As we trekked up and down the snowy hillside, he told us stories of how he took his children up into plumbing-less cabins and skied with them down the mountainside. Every year he takes his herd to graze in summer starting in about June, lets them loose and then corrals them up again around September.
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In this part of the world, goats out number people. Only about 1750 people call this place home. It is especially known for a special kind of cheese, called “Brunost” or Brown Cheese, which is made from the whey usually discarded in the curdling, cheese making process. They prepare it by baking the whey cheese until it caramelizes creating a rather sweet taste that is distinctly different from normal goat cheese.
Climbing up the stunning mountainside, I wondered to myself if I could ever live as the locals do. Where everyone literally knows everyone, your 2nd & 3rd cousins are your neighbors. The local school only goes up to grade 9 and has a grand total of 60 children, combined in all the grades. It is definitely not made for a young adult, but a perfect world to bring up younger children. It is probably good that there isn’t a High School in the town as by that age I am sure the teens would become restless and wreck havoc on the perfect peaceful town.
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After adventuring through natures play ground, you can continue on to Bergen via the ferry –> bus –> and then back on the NSB national train from Voss –> Bergen or take the speed boat option mentioned above. If done in a day, the whole journey from Oslo to Bergen can be completed in around 12 hours.
Whatever your route, whichever your favorite stop enjoy this gorgeous, UNESCO world heritage country!
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Western Europe

I am married to a Scot, have lived two years in Northern England and lived three years in Belgium. Although I would not say that Europe has been the most ‘life changing’ place to live, it is certainly one of the best in terms of quality of life. Relatively inexpensive and easily traversed for a fellow western traveler, it is where I would recommend to start your worldly venture – although I encourage you to not stop there.

A place little thought of by many western travelers (Americans), although it is growing with our British cousins, is Eastern Europe. If you are looking for something that is a bit off the beaten path, but still within the continent I encourage you to try the former Yugoslavian countries in addition to your classic Croatia, Hungry and Czech Republic. You can read about some of these adventures here.

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Click on the links to the right to check out each story by country including recommended must do’s. For the latest trip intel on this awesome region steeped in history click here.

If you are looking for tips on dos and don’ts of a country you are looking at visiting please feel free to drop any questions in the comments box below.

Have fun exploring!!

 

Switzerland itinerary

DSC_0600Where to start in this land of sweeping natural beauty? With limited time and so many ‘must sees’, I relied heavily on top 10 recommendations. But even wading through that was difficult. See below for how we made the most of our 10 days in this stunning country.

Where to start?  Go in the summer and head to the alps

The Alps stretch over much of the country and there are various famous walks, and ski villages (winter is of course another key time to go). Trekking across the Alps is on my bucket list, but without a few weeks to explore it was difficult to pick a region to focus on. Out of all the areas to stay I recommend picking either  Grindelwald or Lauterbrunnen in the Bernese Oberland. More particularly, you should focus on the Jungfrau Region

Interlocken is a favorite among backpackers, but largely touristy. Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen are the last two towns you can get to by car; the remaining movement must be done via public transport or foot. If you are looking for something more off the beaten track then Murren or Wengen are your go to places. We had a car (cheaper than taking the train, but not necessarily easier) so Lauterbrunnen was our first choice.

Schützenbach Backpackers & Camping  Schützenbach, Lauterbrunnen, 3822, Switzerland

*Cheap, clean and central this large ground is ideal for large groups. Check-in time is  limited so make sure you arrive within their window

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Day 1: Gondola up to Schilthorn, have a rest at Piz Gloria and hike back down

Have your Shaken Not Stirred Martini at the Piz Gloria, home of the 1969 Bond film Her Majesty’s Secret Service then walk it all off on the way down the mountain side. This trip can be done in a day. Recommend making reservations at the restaurant to guarantee placement; you will not regret the views.

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Day 2: Travel up to Jungfraujoch – Top of Europe

This leg for us was the most touristy and way overpriced, but at the same time a must do for anyone claiming to have visited the Swiss Alps.

Day 3+: Complete the classic First – Schynige Platte hike

If you choose any hike in the Bernese Oberland region, this is an absolute must. There are loads of ways to break the 10m hike down to something shorter, but the full walk is something not to be skipped. For all those that are as concerned as I am about reading confusing elevation, hiking maps fear not – all trails are well marked and extremely easy to follow. This region was made for tourists.

Note: Getting a train Travel Pass is absolutely worth it if you will be staying in the region for 3 days or more. It is only eligible for certain times of the year however, so a secondary option is to buy the 50% ticket which discounts your pricy train travel as well.

You could spend weeks in this region of Switzerland and still not get enough. The views are jaw dropping, the air is clear and the people wonderful. If you have time, plan at least a week in this area and do a few more extensive trips – maybe even an overnight in one of the well maintained huts along the alps. You will not regret it. If you are limited on time as I was, then hitting these top 3 will at least get you the experience of the alps.

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After the Alps, head to the Swiss Rivera with a key stop at Gruyere for some of the local delicacy as well as a taste of Switzerland’s national dish: fondue.

Day 4: Gruyere

If you have time I would stay at least 1 night in the town of Gruyere. Home to not only the famous cheese, but a gorgeous medieval town set on the hillside in the middle of sprawling green hills.

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Day 5: Montreux, Chillon Castle and wine

You can stay on many little towns and villages along Lake Geneva. We chose the biggest of the cities, Montreux. Famous for its immaculate promenade, I chose a hotel that had views of the lake, and was within walking distance of Chillon Castle. A must when staying here is to walk the promenade to this ancient castle set on the backdrop of the Alps.

Golf Hotel Rene Capt, Rue Bon Port 33-35, Montreux, 1820, Switzerland

If you can time your trip around July, the famous Montreux Jazz festival fills this Rivera town with life. Though it is not a stranger to famous artists; Queen famously made this town a home where they recorded a majority of their albums along with a number of other famous guest artists including David Bowie.

Swiss wine is less known than chocolate or cheese yet it can compete with its neighboring France and Germany for crisp whites. If you have time, explore the promenade and add a wine excursion to your list of Must Do’s.

Day 6: Geneva and CERN

More international than Swiss, Geneva is home to the UN and boasts CERN – a cutting edge laboratory famous for its discovery of the ‘God particle’. Those physics enthusiasts will want to take a tour of the facility, though book in advance as it fills up quickly.

To round out the trip, circle around the edge  of the country ending up in the gorgeous town of Lucerne

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Home of the best skiing/winter sports in the world, it is just as gorgeous in the summer months. Being in the Southern part of the country and close to Italy, I had to cut this city out though winter sports enthusiasts might not make the same call. I would say if you are short on time and looking for an Alpine adventure, Jungfrau is the most central location to base the remaining part of your trip

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Zurich vs. St. Gallen

We stayed in Zurich and hit the Lindt chocolate outlet along with a few guild festivals. Unless you are in love with cities, I would skip Zurich and stay instead in the ancient town of St. Gallen. Close to the German/Lichtenstein border the ancient town is significantly less expensive and is steeped in history. From there you can bounce to Rhine Falls , the largest waterfall in Europe. Though anyone who has marveled at the likes of Niagara or Victoria falls might want to skip this modest show of nature.

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Lucerne

If you make it to the Bernese Oberland, Lucerene is an easy addition to your trip. Boasting a series of cable car musts it is also another ancient city steeped in history. Take the paddle boat ride through the lake, explore the nine towers of Lucerne, and learn about how the order of the guild used to run the country (and in some cases still does).

 

No matter where you choose to go in this gorgeous country you cannot go wrong. Put on your hiking boots, bring your cash and breath the fresh Alpine air!

 

 

Military Service: Now & Then

Memorial Day

Today is my 8 year anniversary in service to the United States Air Force. This year, unlike years prior, the concept of service resonates much differently as I gain tenure in the military.

Eight years looks a lot different than 2 or 3 years. When I first joined, all I wanted was to see action, feel adventure, and see the world. And I did. I met fellow young Americans desiring to do the same thing. Some had cooler/risker jobs than me, ones that weren’t considered ‘support’ career fields like mine and although I had some sweet advantages in my own line of work, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of guilt that I somehow wasn’t trying or giving hard enough. We all took our first deployments, many of us are now married and some have already met their first born child.

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Somewhere along the way this oath I made to the United States Air Force became real. It wasn’t just a way to pay for college, a way to see the world, a way to seek adventure. It gave me all those things, but also came with real life sacrifice; separation from the ones we love and temptation to break the oaths we had made to each other.

Having returned from my first 6 month stint, I spent two weeks in Alabama at a core course for my career field. I looked around the room of people who were my peers in age, job and grade — and yet we all had different stories to tell. Convoy duty in Afghanistan, suicide saves, PTSD and the stigma of saying ‘enough is enough.’

When I myself look at my US cell phone, now 5 years out of date, I had to delete to friends, pilots who have died. In the age of social media it is still difficult to grasp their death – their faces frequently appear on my news feed. They are tagged in posts by other friends, and most often, by their all too young widowed spouse. If I were to go back to 2dLt me and tell her how real military service would get, I think she would have smiled, knowingly, said ‘bring it on’.

And yet as I look back into the recent history of war, the loss that I feel, that my peers feel, nothing compares to those that came before us.

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Normandy

I had the honor of not only being able to visit Normandy over Memorial Day weekend, but to participate in a few isolated grave ceremonies. These American men that fought alongside the allies during WWI and WWII are still remembered in small town ceremonies. It is amazing to see how Europe remembers the war; everyone from the local villages still come out to pay homage to people who died over 60 years ago. To witness, let alone be a part of this level of remembrance was a huge honor and humbling to say the least.

Yet, this was not the only humbling part. In addition to these veteran ceremonies, I was also able to take a full tour of Normandy.

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Standing on Omaha beach, looking out into the sea, I tried to imagine not only what it would have been like being the man running up through relentless gunfire with less than 40% survival odds – but to be the person that planned the attack. Eisenhower had to not only plan with coalition forces, but had to pull together all factors of the US military. Naval considerations, a sea to land invasion, air war – with an air force that wasn’t even an independent service at this point! All this and they were coming from England to terrain that while researched, only was partly understood. To plan for this also knowing that you had so many lives in your hands – that is a burden we do not often think about, nor can we truly fathom.

Warfare has so drastically changed from the days of WWII. When I think about the struggle of planning for an invasion of this scale compared to the messy, blurred lines of the war on terror that the world is now engulfed in, I almost envy the simplicity of it all.

To fight a clear enemy, one that had an identifiable standing force without the existence of social media, lone wolf attacks and beheadings – it seems like an easy war to win. Of course, this being hindsight rather than 1943, I wonder if the people of the future will look the same on our current conflict.

The war we are now waging sees less lives taken, but more lives affected. Nowhere have I witnessed the effects of this new war than living in Belgium (and not the Middle East).

Brussels Terrorist attack

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Many would have heard about the Brussels airport and train station bombing on March 22, 2016, some might have frequently passed through the airport as a means for travel or have called the city home. Few, however, were at the airport on the day of the attacks, had to account for and care for the casualties of the event.

In what will forever be burned into my memory as unprecedented chaos, the 72hours following the Brussels attack served as a test of accountability, leadership under pressure and taking care of our fellow service members.

My sisters were due to fly into Brussels airport on the day of the attack. I was prepping to take Easter leave with them in Lithuania; my mind was focused on getting out as quickly as possible. At about 0900 on 22 March we got word that the airport had been bombed; knowing that I had a number of personnel that lived and planned on traveling through that area, we initiated a 100% recall of all personnel. After accounting for all my military, I learned that my sister’s flight had also been diverted – all that I had personal responsibility for were accounted for and deemed safe.

Then, I learned that another Air Force family had been hit while attempting to travel back to the United States and being the closes Air Force commander, had been called to go to the hospital to go assist.

Fog of war became a new term that I understood; Belgian authorities were struggling to identify all the wounded, information was filtered through 3 different languages and I, being neither next of kin or medical personnel, had to negotiate my way in to a foreign hospital to feed information to Washington that had now become acutely aware of the situation. I was able to use both interpersonal skills as well as a fellow military bond to make sense of the situation, locate the additional missing service member and connect them to the appropriate lines of care.

Those 72 hours of response still seem like a sleepless blur. Belgian authorities pulled 36 hour straight shifts; initially they had over 100 injured, unidentified, international personnel. Getting medical information to identify these personnel, as well as filtering key information about these personnel ahead of the social media spin and in protection of the families affected, proved a telling task; one that I believe was accomplished successfully in spite of the shock and aww.

The World War today

As I watch, read and listen to the media; as I experience the war that is being written about; as I get thanked for my service; as I travel, survey the land, and reflect — the world seems to be more chaotic, while still being more connected than ever before.

We no longer fight states or declare war on a clear enemy; instead we declare war on an ideology that will stop at nothing to be spread. We wage war using bombs and fire arms without understanding how to wage war on the more difficult enemy –belief, survival and fear.

I do not envy Eisenhower nor do I think WWII was any easier than the conflict we face today, although it seems simpler. I doubt he or any great military leader could have predicted the wars of the future. I only hope that we will be able to look back on this time in history, to remember the fallen as we have over this memorial day weekend and say –

‘never again’.

 

 

48 hours in Doha

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My time in Doha is now coming to an end. It has been quite the ride of new experiences and challenges; I am very much looking forward to seeing something besides brown sand, returning to Europe and not sweating the instant I walk outside. After 6 months here, I can safely give a review of the country as well as recommend where to go.

Firstly, if you think you are going to have this wild cultural experience in the country, think again. As far as I can tell, the country only just started to exist in the last 10-20 years and in fact has changed so drastically over that time, it is barely recognizable. Prior to gaining its independence from Britain in the 1970s, Qatar had little in the way of infrastructure or wealth, subsiding on a mostly Bedouin, nomadic culture. They have tried very hard to bring their society up to a modern standard – and in doing so quickly, there is little left in the way of Bedouin roots (at least for the non-Arab outside traveler).

This does not mean that Doha is not worth the trip as one can still experience a modern Middle Eastern culture; one that is completely safe and open to westerners, working its way to compete with neighboring giants of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain.

Doha Top 5 experiences:

1 – Islamic Museum of Art – This museum has been named one of the modern wonders of the world. This is truly the jewel of Doha – the most extensive, progressive art collection in the entire Middle East sits on the waters of Doha. Even not being particularly keen museum or art person, it is more than worth a visit.

http://www.mia.org.qa/en/

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2 – The Souqs – Completely rebuilt, the complex of waiving shops still takes you back into a world of old Arabia (which feels like something out of Aladdin). The best part – it’s not just made for western tourists and expats, locals also do much of their shopping there, including custom made thobes and abayas.

http://www.souq-waqif-doha.com/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Souq_Waqif

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3 – Shisha (or Hookah as we call it in the western world) – The one thing I discovered in Doha that was a complete surprise to me was Shisha. A cultural practice; and probably the best legal buzz I have ever experienced, I soon become really picky over the ‘best’ places to go. You health nuts don’t snub your nose, I am one of you and was easily converted over long afternoons puffing this strong flavored tobacco. Order a pipe once a weekend, totally fine 🙂 If you are looking for some of the better places for Hookah in the city, below are my personal favorites:

Shisha Lounge, Sharq village – outdoors, with a beautiful view of the complex pool one of the few places you can smoke shisha and have an adult beverage http://www.ritzcarlton.com/en/hotels/qatar/sharq-village/dining/al-wanis-shisha-terrace

Sharq village also had one of the best spa in Doha, themed after old Arabia:

http://www.ritzcarlton.com/en/hotels/qatar/sharq-village/spa

Shisha Terrace, Four Seasons – Air conditioned, but encompassed in all glass for a stunning view of the also impressive hotel complex. No adult beverages, but the smoothest shisha I have found in Doha

Damascus, Souqs – There is no shortage of places to smoke hookah in the Souqs, but one of the better places is the upstairs of the Syrian restaurant named Damascus. Air conditioned in the summer and open to the elements in the winter, its scenic and serves a full meal along with your choice of shisha flavours. Best shisha combo (ask anyone) is grape-mint

http://damascarestaurant.com/

4 – Friday Brunch – Probably the best brunch I have ever had in my entire life was at the Kempinski hotel on Boxing day (26 Dec). Read any guide book and they will tell you that Brunches in Doha are a mainstay. Not just because they are one of the most extravagant spreads of food you will lay your eyes on, but even better, they come with an all you can drink package. In a town which taxes the Hell out of its alcohol (think Vegas drinking prices), this is the best deal in town.

Kempinski Hotel – A great way to see the latest gem of Doha, the Pearl

https://www.kempinski.com/en/doha/marsa-malaz-kempinski-the-pearl-doha/dining/friday-brunch/friday-brunch/

Top 20 brunches in the city:

http://www.timeoutdoha.com/gallery/55521-the-20-best-brunches-in-doha

5 – Night on the Town – Weekends in the Islamic world are on Friday & Saturday, but Thursday & Friday nights are your best evenings out. Because drinking is limited to the western hotels, ‘the’ places to go are the latest 4-5 star resorts. While this certainly puts a damper on ‘retro-cool’ places to frequent, you do have a guarantee of meeting every expat in Doha as the options are limited.

Jazz bar, & rooftop lounge St. Regis – Tag these two places with a Friday brunch and you have the best night out in town. The jazz club in the St. Regis has a partnership with the Lincoln center in New York City where they bring out some of the most talented jazz musicians in the world to play to an often half empty intimate lounge. Absolutely wonderful opportunity. If jazz isn’t your thing, then stumble over to the rooftop lounge next-door for the latest in EDM and fancy cocktails.

http://www.stregisdoha.com/

Sundowners, Sharq village – Another Friday mainstay. This place is one of the few that has the option of old school hip hop, EDM or lounge. Spend all evening here with food, drink & shisha options to chill out after dancing on their beachfront dancefloor.

http://www.eventsdoha.com/sundowner-session/

W hotel, Crystal Lounge – If you are looking for a great place to dance, this is it. With mixes of old school hip hop and modern music, the W never disappoints.

http://www.whoteldoha.com/

A note: Nightlife and the 2022 World Cup

It will be interesting to see how this conservative country copes with having an influx of western football fans invade its small nation, particularly fans who have an ingrained culture of drinking. While being drunk in public is not something Qataris look favorably upon, they tend to accept it if done discretely. So the plan is to host tents where wristbands allow you to enter and partake in a beverage or two…

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/travel_news/article-3077037/How-Doha-transforming-2022-FIFA-World-Cup.html

Final thing to do (but you can do it anywhere in the ME) – Ride a camel of course! There is no desert without camel rides so hope on. Lots of cool opportunities to do so, and also catch a wave on a sand dune while you are at it.

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Hanging out with TeamCoCo

conan

Did I mention I had the best job in the world? When I say I ‘deployed’ many assume I did what is seen on CNN – holster a gun, lead convoys, exchange small arms fire with the enemy and occasionally maneuver around an IED attack. Or actually, since I am in the Air Force, I should probably fly a plane and drop bombs for my day job.

Although I have friends that do all of the above, I got to do quite the opposite side of spectrum – work USO type events in an effort to regenerate our workforce. It meant I got to spend 6 months thinking of creative ways people could have fun (think concerts, card games and cardboard water relays) to decompress in an often stressful, high-paced work environment. This is my dream job – party planning, for a living.

Although I could throw a really sweet event, one aspect of the job that I had never done before was to work with the entertainment industry to host large scale concerts (think 1K+ people). I learned what a tech rider was, how to book a well-known artist and how much it really costs to do so. As I often told people, ‘they never taught me how to do this in officer school’.

Out of all the crazy stories I could tell from doing this job, the pinnacle of my 6 months in Doha was hosting the First Lady of United states (FLOTUS) and taping a live Conan O’Brien show.behind the scenes

I had 10 days notice. FLOTUS would be in town speaking at a conference encouraging women in STEM and wanted to swing by the base for a morale visit. She wanted to spend time with a small group of Airmen and then bring out an artist to entertain the base population – so she called Conan O’Brien.

I’ll spare you the prep work details, the lack of sleep, security concerns involved and speed forward to picking up the head producer, writers, talent manager and camera crew from the Doha airport. While they flew via ‘normal’ first class tickets, Conan got to come a day later via Air Force one with the First Lady.

Having skipped the normal paperwork procedures, (I normally needed a minimum of 30 days to process customs paperwork through the Qatari government) we started off the evening stuck at the entrance of Al Udeid Air Base, which is wholly owned by the Qatari government; a political stance we were reminded of while we waited for over two hours while foreign guards went through every piece of video equipment.

Normally I have a fairly negative stereotype of anyone who is part of the industry of L.A., let alone a group of people who by all accounts were famous and successful in the industry. Having this stigma on my mind, I was pleasantly surprised by the entire groups calm nature, patience and general pleasant company – keeping in mind that they also had 10 days notice on this trip and hadn’t slept in 24+ hours. It was at this point I started to realize I was with a truly great group of people; given a unique opportunity to peak under the curtain of the entertainment industry.

And what I saw was a dedicated team of professionals who were able to come-up with funny, situationally-appropriate material in under 24 hours. Later I learned the short timeline was something the team was used to; being a daily show, your best or worst show only lasts for 24 hours or until your next show. So if you mess up, no big, yet if you go big and win, the reward is short lived. This, to me, allows for great creative writing where you constantly have to reinvent yourself to maintain entertaining material. What was more refreshing is that they didn’t care what the local leadership thought of their oh-so-true-to-the-Deid jokes.

Show time

Getting as much B-roll as possible the day prior, I went with the head producer + driver to transfer Conan from the First Ladies team of White House staff to Al Udeid Air base.

Little known fact (well maybe just by me): Conan actually went to Harvard and is pretty much hilarious all the time, but amazingly, can still have a normal, serious conversation. Hanging out with the Conan O’Brien + team is like hanging out with an old group of friends. The guys had been working together for nearly 20 years, and it shows. Rather than feeling like the guy that just showed up 20 minutes ago, you feel like you were with them all along.

 Side note: It is interesting to see how dynamics change when you have access to someone famous. I chose to hook-up a friend as the driver who was a fan, but in doing so pissed off another friend. Not without good reason, but was another lesson learned; things change when you have exclusive access to someone famous. You suddenly become either more or less desirable depending on what people want and who you chose reward.

Behind the scenes with Conan O’Brien? Like working with a well-oiled machine that felt both refreshing and comforting all at the same time.

The clips in the below link  show pretty much everything to the trip. To the many selfies, excited troops and quirky moments that make up filming in both the challenging environment of the desert and a foreign military installation.

http://teamcoco.com/video/conan-entertains-the-troops-at-al-udeid-air-base

group

 

A peak under the Abaya

As a part of a volunteer program between the US base and the embassy, I was able to participate in an exchange program with Qatar University. A group of women met weekly at the university to practice conversational English. The program was helpful for both the students and the military women as it gave an unguarded ability to have a conversation with people from such a drastically different culture.

For my first visit I was instructed to enter on the women’s side of the library. Qatar University is a traditional school where classes are separated by sex, down to the library where male and female floors were designated (and included long robed female guards, although I am sure chaperone would probably be a more appropriate word). Riquyana, our main student, met us for coffee and escorted us up to the ‘American corner’ of the women’s side of the library.

There I met several other ladies attending the college and learned of their subjects of study as well as university life. All students still live at home while attending the university. Many of them have a driver that drops them off for classes (although my favorite girl that I met, Hen, was Sudanese and drove herself around). Additionally, the ladies came from all nationalities, but all spoke Arabic fluently (despite all classes being in English and modeled after an American curriculum).

Riquyana was from Pakistan, wore an abaya and was studying political science. Her sister, also wore an abaya and was one of the first students studying a new subject to the university, Public Health. Hen was Sudanese studying international relations; she had volunteered extensively with the UN and often worked internationally advocating for womens rights. She dressed just as I would expect any normal western 20-something-year old to wear with no head dressing, mainly jeans and a t-shirt. Jazzi was born Qatari studying political science and probably the most liberal, young Qatari women I had met. Although she wore an abaya she often left it open when walking in public with us, only feigning some conservative cover up when passing local men.

The rules Jazzi had to follow compared to the other non-qatari women was fascinating. She could not be seen in public smoking shisha (hookah), or at any establishment that served alcohol (although she herself did not drink). Dating meant something totally different entirely. If a gentleman was interested in dating her, he had to ask her family for permission first. Upon agreement, the couple had a year of dating to decide if they wanted to marry one another. If either at any point decided they were not favorable, it was easy to break the potential union off. I have to say, in our current error of casual dating (and sex) this formal courtship seemed a bit refreshing to me; dating in the US has certainly swayed far from its original intent of gauging potential for marriage..

Jazzi had dated a prince previously, and had a position at one the ministries in the government waiting for her once she graduated. Being Qatari, it was easy to see the subtle differences on her wealthy life compared to the other ladies she was friends with.

Yet, although Hen of upper middle class Sudanese decent, would probably not marry a prince or have a high-brow job waiting for her when she was complete with her studies, she had a lot better gig than the rest of the girls. She was completely secular, could come meet us out at one of the western hotels for a drink or show us her favorite shisha spot. Her other close friends were outspoken journalists, very critical of the lack of free speech found in the state of Qatar. If I didn’t know it, I would have thought they were all American university students (and indeed looked at the states as an ideal place of freedom).

Other than these two extremes, the girls had a lot in common with young women from around the world. They were on facebook, had twitter, Instagram, and snapchat. Jazzi even had pictures on her Instagram of her hair down and showing, which she didn’t seem to think was violating any of her conservative customs. They were all bubbly, boy crazy and fun, with the whole world in front of them and encouragement of society to reach out and grab it. 

What did I learn about Arabic women after drinking coffee with them, sharing dinner and being invited back to their homes?

They are a diverse, intelligent, have varying belief systems and lifestyles depending on their heritage and are a lot more liberal and ‘with’ modern society than the clothing they choose to wear in public. The western world tends to see the Middle East, especially when it pertains to women’s rights, as one monotheistic culture when in fact it is one large melting pot of traditions and Islamic nuisances. Next time you see a women fully garbed in a traditional abaya, ask yourself, how much do I really know about her?

 

An OCN for the Day

= Other Country Nationals (formally known as TCNs or Third country nationals – other country nationals was deemed more PC).

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Picture: OCN worker in Iraq courtesy of https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Third_country_national

OCNs are the backbone of the workforce in Qatar, and for much of the wealthy Middle East (UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, etc.). Qatari’s do not fight in their own military, drive their own cars, do their own laundry or cook their own food. They have an infinite stream of people (mostly men) pouring into the country looking for opportunities to make living (all of which is sent back to support their families in varies developing nations in the orient).
This workforce is not limited to the country of Qatar, it also exists on nearly every military installation in the Middle East. Varying in scope, Al Udeid (a large Air Force base in Qatar) has one of the largest populations of contracted outside workers. With the sheer size of military operations, the government contracts out a significant portion of its support services as it cannot sustain regular ops of that magnitude for things like food, construction, cleaning, MWR and other basic services.
Many have heard of the controversial deaths incurred while building the massive stadiums for the upcoming World Cup games. In fact the Qatari government has made marked improvements to help improve the conditions of the workers sweating in unbearable heat on top of sky scrappers. Even with some of these improvements, however, treatment of workers in Qatar that are either non-western or non-Arab are still sub-par at best.
Qatari law dictates that in order for a company to sponsor you over to Qatar to work, they must also provide housing. This is not a bad deal except that those same rules do not provide standards for housing conditions. Nearly all the OCN workers live in large compounds with 4 or more to a room (dubbed ‘man camps’ by the US military). They work at least 6 days a week (many of the workers I spoke with work a month before getting 1 day off) and make a minuscule amount of money, summing somewhere around $300 a month depending on the job.
Probably the most shocking practice is the confiscation of passports by the contract owner. The company gives generic reasons for doing this, but I cannot think of any other reason than power over their work pool. By doing this, they control when (if) they can leave the country. They also control contract hoping for better wages. While I use the word ‘worker’ to describe many of these laborers the translation in Arabic is closer to servant or slave. In restaurants you will also see signs that bar these same people from entering, which is clear and even expected, discrimination (not that they could afford to eat out or have a drink in a western hotel). This practice is known, has been written about and still remained largely unchanged despite protests from the international community.
Yet the stream of workers continues to flow. Many of the workers I met on the base were highly educated in their home country including lawyers and doctors. Regardless of their education, they still made more money working in the Middle East than they did practicing their trade in countries such as Sri Lanka, Nepal and the Philippines.

Unlike the US there is also no path to citizenship. You could be born in Qatar, have lived in Qatar for 30 years and established your entire life in the country, but you will still never be Qatari. You will also not enjoy the same rights, privileges and social status of a Qatari. You will be treated differently depending on what nation you are originally from (UK/US seem to be at the top of the tier with Nepal, Sri Lanka & Filipino being some of the lowest). You could speak fluent Arabic, be Muslim and wear an abaya – but it is does not matter. To be Qatari means you descend from a certain bloodline that can be traced back a few hundred years.

I had the pleasure of meeting a few University students who originally were from Sudan. Although they grew up in Doha, went to Qatar university and spoke fluent Arabic they did not consider themselves Qatari and were in fact very critical of the country and the native born Qataris. They reinforced the believe that immigrant workers are in fact the only thing propping up the wealthy country.

Learning the conditions that these people lived and worked in completely shocked me, especially when I learned it didn’t matter if they were contracted by the US government or the Qatari government. There is a  clear divide between the extreme rich and poor. The two groups of people live and work in two totally different worlds with the differences being so starkly obvious: one with Dior sunglasses, red bottom shoes and a land cruiser with driver – and the other – soiled work suits in mass buses with no air conditioning (provided by their employer only to bus their workers to and from work). There were so many workers hitchhiking on the side of the roads trying to get to A to B or running walking across the five lane highway system.

The western world is not without its issues, however, this kind of extreme exclusivity to wealth is still hard for me to accept as ‘simply part of the culture’. When it is so institutionalized as it is in both overseas military operations and in Middle Eastern countries, and you have a limited amount of time and resources, how do you change it?