Money Monday: My Chains Are Gone!

Shon & I have been married for a little over 6 years now.  Today, for the first time in those 6-something years, we are debt free.

We don’t own any property, I don’t have any designer shoes, our phones are not the latest thing on the market, and our baby doesn’t have an iPad, but we don’t owe anybody any money.

And it feels so darn good.




In Case You’re Wondering: on Mommyhood, Blogging, and Motivation

I don’t remember the last time I wrote for this blog. Yes, part of it is simply being tired and busy: now that Little Turtle is on the constant move, the 3 combined hours of his naps are often the only time to get things done – or to get some rest. Mommyhood can be a bit exhausting, and it so happens that other things take prevalence over blogging. Or so I thought.

Then I realized that even though the number of my posts on my personal Russian-language blog (you’ll find the link on About page if you’re interested) has dropped considerably, I still keep writing for it. The reason is simple: I have a real audience there. Some 300 people follow my blog, and it’s  uncommon to write a post and receive no feedback. People comment and then come back to respond to your response to their comment. Every once in awhile, I find a private message from another blogger asking if everything’s alright, since they haven’t heard from me in a couple of weeks. We’ve met several of my blog friends in person (in Atlanta, Charlotte, Tallahassee, and Haague,) and are hoping to meet more. Gosh, the only 2 Christmas cards we received this year are from my blog buddies!

And then there’s this blog. Nearly 2,000 followers & hardly any comments. I get these notifications on my phone: “so-and-so started following your blog” or “so-and-so liked your post,” and I wonder, “Who are these people? What made them press the button?”

Obviously, this is not a for-profit blog or a popularity contest. Still, it’s not a diary either and it would be great to hear from our readers a bit more often. A smiley face is better than nothing.

Shon is pushing me to write more, saying that as a bilingual mother of an infant living in her 3rd country, traveling rather extensively, and pursuing photography after having had to quit interpreting, I have something to say to the world. My argument is: does the world actually care? My motivation to write evaporates when I think of the lack of communication with our supposed readers.

Who are you? Do you actually read us? Do you find this blog interesting/helpful/relatable? What would you like to see us write about? What do you want to see more of? In other words, do you care?

P.S. It is surprising when every now and then we meet someone in Al Ain, and they tell us they read our blog before coming here. It’s always so good to hear!

Pre-Vacation: Sri Lanka

We’ve maintained near blog silence over the last month or so because we’ve been doing other things–traveling to and around Sri Lanka, to start with.

If you don’t know, Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, is an island off the southeastern coast of India, near Goa. It was once a Dutch colony, and then was taken over by the British, who returned it to its people in 1948, the same time period the ailing Empire released many of its colonies from its grip.

Now the island of Sri Lanka was perhaps best known to me as the place where most of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was filmed. I loved that movie as a kid, and despite its inherent silliness, I still enjoy it today. Scenes involving giant fruit bats, elephants, and huge ravines are etched into my memory. The idea of visiting that place appealed to me ever since I found out that traveling there is inexpensive from the UAE. The opportunity finally presented itself after school ended and we had a little time to kill before departing for the USA. So, along with a fellow teacher and her family, we planned a trip and made our way abroad. We traveled via FlyDubai, a low-coster operating out of Dubai, and tickets were $540 for the three of us (of course the little one flies well nigh free for now). So getting there isn’t any more expensive than it is to fly within the States from Georgia to Maine–and right now much less. Lodging wasn’t looking too expensive, either, at about $60 a night for a nice looking B&B in Kandy, and many other places for the other leg of our trip looking affordable, too.

Now, when we arrived, our thoughts and opinions of the place were sometimes similar, and sometimes remarkably different. So we’re going to split writing duty on this blog post. My thoughts follow my initial (S = Shon) and the wifey’s follow hers (J = Jenia).

J: To begin with, I was not thrilled with the idea of this trip from the start. Normally, I’ll jump on any opportunity to travel, no matter the destination. This time, however, I had too many concerns: money, time, diseases, the safety of taking our infant to a 3rd world country… I have done virtually no homework (unheard of!!) before this trip. I was pretty much just dragging along. “Sri Lanka?” – shrug – “I guess it will be okay.”

S: I’d never even toyed with the idea of going to SL before we moved to the UAE. It was so far off my radar that it wasn’t even a blip in the distance. But after discovering that it was a cheap place to visit, I was all about it. Exotic places (at least safe ones) appeal to me. I found my wife strangely uninvolved with the planning process, but I spent time exploring places to visit and things to do on TripAdvisor and other websites, and even spoke with a travel agent who tried to up sell us like crazy. Finally, with the helps of our friends, I felt like we had a pretty good itinerary.

J: In my defense, I was planning another trip at the time… and was dog-tired!

So, our experience in Dubai airport was pretty nice: there is nothing like a crying baby to move you through the lines quickly! The flight was nothing special apart from sitting next to a friendly Iraqi woman. After about 4.5 hours in the air, we landed in Colombo and the adventures began.

The very first adventure was the ride from the airport. Our “air-conditioned vehicle” was, indeed, well-ventilated… with the help of open windows. There was no carseat for Little Turtle, so Shon and I held him in our lap during the 2-hour drive. Our driver chose to take a less popular=less developed road, and the first 30 or so minutes of the ride I hardly noticed my surroundings. I was freaking terrified! It’s quite surprising that in my horror I did not crash my baby’s bones, pressing him close to my chest… Imagine this: one-lane road (not one lane in each direction, one lane, period), traffic going in both directions, everyone honking, everyone trying to pass everybody else; our 7-passenger van competing for road space with both trucks and tuk-tuks… In short, I am not ashamed to admit I cried out at least twice.

S: Arrival in SL was painless, as was the flight there, other than getting too little sleep. The B&B owners had arranged a driver for us to get to Kandy, and he was there and waiting for us when we got through customs and all that junk. We waited outside the airport for a couple minutes as he got the van to the curb, and we beheld the most beautiful palm trees–lovely in their difference from date palms–and our eyes feasted on deep, dark shades of green in the surrounding vegetation. At 6:30 in the morning it was already warm and humid. The ride was exciting. At first I tensed up a bit as vehicles seemed headed straight for us, and when Jenia cried out in terror at one point, everyone laughed and the driver explained, “This is how it is.” Our friends, Fadi and Susanne and their pre-teen boy, adapted quickly to the seeming chaos on the roads. In fact, their son fell asleep in no time. As my gaze wandered out the open window, riveted to every new detail, distracted only by my wife’s nervousness, I was startled at how truly third-world the place seemed. Outside of the airport grounds, the roads quickly narrowed and tuk-tuks vied with cars for space. Homes looked crummy, the people clearly flat-broke, and everything looked run-down.

J: Once I got used to the driving, and was able to look around, I was both impressed and saddened by what I saw. On one hand, I was in a real, honest-to-God jungle. Enter wild monkeys and parrots. After nearly a year in the yellow and brown UAE, the abundance of green seemed opulent. It was very clear that nature ruled here. On the other hand, like Shon said, it was very much 3rd-world. None of it was dirty, though: it was clear that people took care of their property and tried to keep it presentable. Yet, with poverty and wet weather like theirs, nothing looks good for long. And no matter how much you try, your very run-down shack will probably look dirty to somebody coming from a first-world country.

S: The Kandyan Manor is a bit outside Kandy. To get to the place, the driver had to take roads so narrow I wasn’t sure he could make the final turn, the driveway was so close to a rock wall. But he did, and the vehicle motored through a beautiful virtual tunnel, with vines and trees growing forming a roof over the pavement. I was blown away by the lushness of the Manor’s property. It sits atop a hill, jack trees with their huge cruel-looking fruit hanging off, and mist rolling through, blocking the view of hills beyond. One of the owners, Suzy, greeted us. She was warm and friendly. When we stepped into the neat looking house, I was taken aback by the mildewy smell.

J: Now, I have absolutely nothing bad to say about our stay at Kandyan Manor or about our fantastic hosts Suzy and Bhatiya. And yet, it’s not for everyone. Like Shon said, the first impression of our room was not too favorable: there was the mildewy smell, the room was very basic, the sheets felt a tad damp from all the moisture in the air. I was freaking out just a little bit. We got used to it quickly, though. The delicious food cooked by Suzy, the lush jungle just outside our door, and the friendliness of our hosts made up for whatever I thought the room might have been lacking.


The Kandyan Manor.

Pineapple curry with saffron rice, lentils, eggplant.

Pineapple curry with saffron rice, lentils, eggplant.

S: We spent three days in Kandy, and rather than recount exactly what happened each day, I’m going to mention a few highlights from these days. First off, flora and fauna are both astounding. A visit to the botanical gardens helped make this concrete, for there we saw monkeys, a huge lizard (“Iguana, water iguana, or just ‘water lizard,'” said Bhatiya, “They can be deadly. Their tail is sharp, yes, and they hit you with it.” A little post-trip research reveals this to be not an iguana, but a monitor), giant fruit bats (just like in Indiana Jones!). Second, dining on inexpensive and interesting new foods both in-town and at the B&B was great. Oh, and how could I forget evenings relaxing on the porch with Suzanne and her family, who are interesting, fun people and excellent traveling companions?

J: Those were so very nice! Remember that time the lights went out because of a particularly bad rain, and we had tea by candlelight? As for food, if you ever go to Kandy, I strongly suggest getting kotta at Muslim Hotel and tea cookies at Bake House. Yum!


A couple enjoys the beauty of the botanical gardens.

A couple enjoys the beauty of the botanical gardens.



IMG_0275IMG_0245S: For the next leg of our trip, taking a taxi to the eastern coastal town of Trincomalee would cost about the same as hiring a driver for a few days, so we opted for the car and driver route. We stopped at Dambulla Cave Temple on the way, which was a fairly short hike up a steep hill, and this was beautiful–but cheapened by the vendors who perch along the trail, hawking post cards and other trinkets. Monkeys were everywhere. This was great until one of the little bastards stole my granola bar as I paused to open it on the way back down. He growled at me.

J: They were so cute! There were several baby monkeys, too, and Shon had to drag me away from them. I wanted pictures!

S: I momentarily wanted to shoot one.  And not with a camera.  Anyway, I expected Trinco to be more like a typical coastal resort town in the US (or anywhere I’ve been, come to think of it), but found it totally different. The place is run-down. It’s dirty. It has a rambling, sprawling, cluttered and even small-town kind of vibe. Really, it feels almost the same as anywhere else on the island–but drier than Kandy, thankfully. Despite this, as we drove out of the town, past a Hindu temple, and out of the city limits, I still somehow expected our lodgings at Seaway Hotel to be at least decent. It wasn’t. It does sit close to the water, which is great, but a huge spot of mildew on one of the walls and a toilet that has to be shut off because it won’t stop running through are just a couple of the lowlights. If the place is bad, I thought, at least the beach will be good. But then we got out to the beach, and it hadn’t been cleaned in ages. There were cigarette butts and empty cans and various other bits of trash strewn about, including a plastic bag half-buried in the sand against the hotel’s gate. And then there were the folks trying to make a buck off the white tourists. Jenia got sick of contending with that, and was quite rude to a youngish man, telling him, “We are here to relax,” but he still wouldn’t go away until he’d talked to me for a few minutes, showed me his Dubai driver’s license, and somehow, not attempted to sell me anything. Finally, he left, and a slightly nervous cow joined us for a fleeting moment.


Stairway to Dambulla.


IMG_3013IMG_2972J: It was so strange… We both knew that Trinco area was only beginning to draw tourists, but we still expected some tourist attractions. And there were none! On one hand, it was great not to see the strip with McDonald’s on it, on another hand, we were ready for something other than fried rice (which is not fried, by the way) – the only vegetarian dish the town could offer.

S: Before going to bed, I made use of the hotel’s wifi (which worked really well) to use my app and get us a better hotel. Our driver was most excited when he found out we’d switched hotels. “They have driver’s quarters,” he said. “Very nice.” The Pigeon Island Beach Resort definitely was nicer. It had actual decorations in the room, never mind a TV and nice bathroom, a good pool, and a strip of beautiful, pristine beach (raked every morning).

J: Usually, I am the stingy one, choosing not to spend money when we can make do. This time, though, I was so glad we paid extra and got a better hotel. It was nice, and clean, and pretty. Finally, I felt I could relax.

IMG_3005IMG_3012S: Me, too. The relaxation factor made the extra money well worth it. The hotel offered affordable food (albeit not cheap by Sri Lankan standards) and it was delicious, with a wide range of options suitable for us. But anyway, on to more adventurous things: I got sunburned while snorkeling. But it was well-worth it to swim among jellyfish and see a different world just beneath the surface of the Indian ocean.

J: I could not go because of Ari 😦 We had a good time by ourselves, though. Both of us enjoyed the pool quite a bit.

S: We got to the airport hours early. The baby’s diaper leaked. We sat and waited. We paid a whopping $8 or so for a meal for two, including tea. Man, eating was cheap there. Speaking of that, “I’ve enjoyed the food here,” I told Jenia, “But I’m so ready to bite into something and not have my mouth suddenly light on fire. I can’t wait for some western cuisine.”

J: Overall, I liked the experience, but it was not relaxing for me except for the last 2 days. It’s hard for me to properly relax in a third-world country, I guess. There is always the question of space, and cleanliness, and safety, and getting around… And Sri Lanka was much more third-world than I imagined. I guess I expected a nice and clean little downtown and then the run-down stuff around it, but it was run-down more or less all over.

S: Indeed, it was nothing like the pristine post-card images online suggested, except in a couple locations: the resort kept its grounds looking great, and the botanical gardens did too. By and large there wasn’t the structured upkeep I’m accustomed to.

One other note about the place has to do with the people–while there are guys that approached us and tried to sell us stuff (usually their services as guide, when we didn’t need any help finding things), even these guys are usually pretty authentically friendly. While they might hope to get something from your wallet, they’re also actually interested in you and will enjoy simply talking to you. The trick is knowing how to gracefully exit such a conversation and avoid providing handouts, and that’s more easily said than done much of the time.

Jenia mentioned another trip that she was preoccupied with when I started planning our Sri Lanka pre-vacation–stay tuned for more about that.

Scenes from a Russian Winter

A Memoir

Strictly speaking, a memoir is quite different from an autobiography, although the idea is the same.  It’s a truthful retelling of past events.  However, a memoir may roll several events into one, or condense multiple characters into one, or things like that.  Great memoirs, like Elie Wiesel’s Night, can be more powerful and effective than a straight autobiography, which is concerned with getting all the details right.  Memoirs are about impressions and memories.  That’s what I’m doing with this post.  I’m condensing a couple days of time here in Ryazan into a few scenes.  It’s all true, but the organization has been shifted in the interest of creating a better narrative.  I do hope you like it.

Scene One: Prelude.

It is cold.  Extremely cold.  I wear long thermal underwear, top and bottom, a sweater, gloves and scarf as well as a warm Russian ushanka hat.  Jenia’s sacrificed style, in the form of her snappy Guess jacket, for warmth, wearing a baby blue down jacket she bought ages ago.  When we step out the apartment complex’s entrance it’s still so cold that I cringe as the air bites my exposed face.  The sky is clear and blue, the day brilliant and bright.  We walk together, carefully, trying not to slip and fall on the icy and uneven driveway.  Our breaths puff in front of us. It is December 24, Christmas Eve for those in the Western world, and even though it’s after 10:00am and warmer than it was this morning when we rose (a numbing -27c, or -17f), it’s still roughly -21c, or 8 degrees below 0 Fahrenheit.

A few minutes later we’ve arrived at our bus stop.  We are accompanying my mother-in-law to the country house and the bus is the first leg of a multi-leg journey.  The bus has already gone.  It will be some time before the next one.  Instead of loitering there, we walk to an Orthodox Church a quarter mile away.  The walk is stressful, as we are forced to be mindful of every step, and we all slip and slide at least once, although nobody falls this time.  We pose for some pictures in front of the church.  At this point, my legs are starting to feel cold.  Maybe a second pair of long johns would’ve helped.  The cold is invasive.  It tries to work its way around the joints of my clothing.  My toes, despite woolen socks and heavy boots, start to feel cold by the time we figure we’ve spent enough time snapping photos.  Jenia doesn’t like it, but I have a little “soul patch” of facial hair below my lower lip.  By the time we’ve returned to the bus stop, it is covered with ice.


If you look carefully, you’ll see Jenia’s furry collar has iced over where her breath strikes it.

Scene Two: Country House.

The village is tiny.  How many houses are gathered here, a mile from the train tracks?  Maybe 50.  It’s hard to tell when you don’t want to linger in the snow-covered road long enough to even guesstimate.  And I can’t wait to get indoors.  I’m not alone: the ladies have been in an even bigger hurry than me, as we’ve trudged along packed snow paths, through a patch of woods and an expansive meadow, snow squeaking beneath our feet.  We’ve come to the village now, and we walk past fences.  A German shepherd barks.  A man scolds it in Russian.  The dog and I have something in common: he doesn’t seem to understand Russian, for his barking goes on unabated.

Indoors, the little house seems warm.  My tyosha (mother-in-law; our Russian word for the day) cranks up the furnace.  It’s been on, but running very low.  Still, it feels wonderfully warm.  Only after being here for an hour or more do I realize that it was actually mighty chilly when we arrived–it was just a lot warmer than the negative temps outdoors.


Entering the village, packed snow just a-crunchin’.


The backyard of the country house is where the gardening goes on during warmer times.


Ryazan’s factories belch smoke on the horizon.


The road back to Ryazan–traveled by foot (obviously with some exceptions) to the railway.

Frost Flower


Jenia keeps her hands warm with some sort of furry mittens.

Scene Three: Catching the Train.

There’s a slight whistle blast from beyond the trees.  “Oh, no, what time is it?”  Says my tyosha.  She finds the time, and says to hurry.  We hurry.  “Run,” says my tyocha from behind me.  I’m in the lead.  So I begin to jog.  I’m carrying a backpack heavy with canned vegetables from the country house’s stores.  Jenia jogs behind me.  “No, run fast, or we’ll miss the train, and another one doesn’t come for two hours.”  So I run.  I can go a lot faster than my 5-months pregnant wife.  “Go ahead,” she says.  “If he sees you trying to make it, he might wait!”  I race out of the trees, and hurry up the treacherous steps, gripping the railing lest my feet slide out from under me.  A conductor is leaning out of the engine watching me.  It’s clear he’s going to wait for us.  The ladies catch up in a second and I offer them my hand as we board.  We plop down on benches and Jenia gasps as she recovers her breath.  An old man across from us watches her with interest–is she okay?  What’s the matter with her?  Asthma?  The car is mostly empty.   Men in heavy coats with fur hats sit here and there, most staring blankly out the windows.  All are old enough to appear grave and dignified.  After it’s clear that my wife is going to make a complete recovery from her rush, I content myself with joining the men in gazing out the dirty windows.  Birches rush past.  There are elevated pipes–gas lines?–that are here and there.  A Lada sits at a crossing waiting for our train to pass.

Train Lada


Having arrived back in Ryazan, I pause to snap a photograph of the train. The conductor is, again, watching for any passengers rushing to make it in time.


This guy, rushing aboard, is blessed, like us, by the willingness of the conductor to keep an eye out.


The small railway station where we disembark. To get to the other side, you cross the tracks.


A Ryazan street. This place would be beautiful if the buildings had a coat of paint every now and again.

An Escape

Chapel Detail For Rhiannon

I’m learning to enjoy life in the emirate of Abu Dhabi, even though I find some aspects of the local culture more than a little off-putting.  I’ve discovered that if I keep myself busy with things other than work, which isn’t quite what I expected, I can have a good time.  But, both Jenia and I have been ready to escape for a while.  Where to go?  We toyed with an affordable trip to Thailand, courtesy of Cobone or Groupon.  But we ended up going where we’d planned all along–Russia.

And what an escape it is.  We’ve swapped heat for cold (it was about 80F during the day in Al Ain, and here it’s mostly been around 0F, although we had one day of icy -17).  Instead of wearing sunglasses and shorts, we wear furry hats and thermal underwear.  We’ve swapped the minarets of mosques for the onion domes of Orthodox Churches.  And of course, we’re experiencing another culture, one which neither of us have spent time in for quite a while, even though this is where Jenia’s from.

Russian culture, like the country itself, has an outward coldness that is shocking to the first-time visitor.  Most passersby on the sidewalk aren’t friendly at all, and make no effort to be.  Store clerks don’t give you the time of day, unless you seek them out and ask them something.  Their idea of customer service is a bit different from what we’re used to in the West, and certainly differs drastically from the fawning attention you get as a customer in the UAE.  Compound these things with sidewalks and parking lots which are hardly ever cleared of slippery and dangerous ice and snow, and you have a place that’s not very welcoming.  At least, that’s how it seems until you are invited into someone’s home–then things are entirely different.  Apartments are snug and warm, and rarely will you find more gracious hosts.  You’ll be fed delicious home-cooked meals and tea–which is an excuse to eat still more food, in the form of sweets.

Of course the best part of being here is spending time with family, which is something we haven’t done since moving to the UAE months ago.  We’ve enjoyed a white Christmas (although, interestingly, the Russians don’t celebrate Christmas on December 25, but rather on January 7, which is when the holiday falls according to the Russian Orthodox calendar) and we’re sure enjoying this change from the desert.  It’s a nice escape.


It was -27C on this morning, and warmed up to -21 by the  time we had the photo taken.

It was -27C on this morning, and warmed up to -21 by the time we had the photo taken.

Food Friday: Arabian Cuisine

I should have taken photos.  But I didn’t.

Last night a teacher friend and I went to a student’s camel farm.  His family’s farm, really.  I’ll post about the whole experience shortly.  For now, let me just describe the meal.

At the end of the evening, we were treated to a true Emirati meal.  Everyone (all male, of course) gathered around a mat on the floor where there was a feast spread out before us: there was a huge platter that took two men to carry in, loaded with biryani spiced rice, and atop the bed of rice, there sat a freshly roasted goat or sheep, or some mystery animal.  Spread out around the edges of the mat were numerous plates with hummus, freshly prepared flat bread, roasted and fresh veggies, various other meats, and so forth.

All the kandora-clad folks settled down, not cross-legged (“Women only sit like that,” one of the boys told us, “Men sit like this.”), but with one leg tucked under and to the side, and the other knee up, foot flat on the ground.  My friend Pj and I were seated next to the elder man of the household, the grandfather, which must have been an honor.  We waited to sit down until after the old man did and he invited us to.  Everything was eaten with the hands.  Or rather, basically with the right hand.  That includes rice.  “You want yogurt on rice?”  We were asked.  “Sure.”  They poured plain yogurt on the rice, or rather, on portions of the rice.  Then the challenge: eat rice with no utensils.  I made a mess.  The yogurt helped the rice stick together, but I’m not well practiced at this whole thing, and I had to scoot closer to the mat.  The old man, whose name I was never told, cut some slices of meat and set it before me (on top of a ton of other stuff, of course).  I made a gesture of declining and thanks, but the signal seemed to go either ignored or not understood.  Everyone ate, other than the initial exchanges I mentioned, in complete silence.  The father of my student grabbed the skull from the butchered beast and ripped the jaw off from it, and removed the tongue.  That exposed the brain, and he placed the skull in front of me and gestured for me and Pj to try it.  “Good,” he said.  We both declined.  I feel positive I’d have declined even if I were not vegetarian.  Eventually I told them that I did not eat meat, and then there was a sort of look of relief on their faces, and the old man passed me a whole tomato, and presented me with half of a raw onion.  I laughed, and they seemed to be entirely okay with me not trying the mysterious meat after that.  Once, when I cracked open a can of 7-up, I noticed a young man across from me kind of murmur something to the guy at his side.  He was indicating my drink.  I noticed I was holding it in my left hand, and watching his face, I switched it to the other hand, and he grinned a little and gave me an approving look.

When folks were done, they just sort of disappeared from the, er, not table.  My students weren’t in the room, as I guess there wasn’t space at the…rug…for them.  After enough people had eaten their fill and migrated out, the father called, and in came a new batch, this time consisting entirely of youth.  Pj and I finished our food and headed out to the living room, but the first stop was to wash our hands.

At the sinks, we looked at each other and just grinned.  “That was incredibly awkward,” I said.  “I know,” he replied.  “And yet it was incredibly cool.”

The hummus was delicious.  The bread, fresh and good.  The veggies, both roasted and otherwise, tasty.  When I managed to get the rice into my mouth, it was good.  I left quite stuffed, and despite feeling more than a little out of my element, I think that I got to be a part of something I’d have never even witnessed, were it not for my students.