Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Along The Silk Road

My obsession with answering questions on Quora is slowing, but occasionally I come across a question I can't help but add my two cents.

Here's the latest question that caught my eye:

If you have one rare opportunity to travel without interruption/restriction for a month, where would you travel?

Please analyze with respect to a person of sufficient means and career to travel for shorter durations in future as per job allows.

I also seek adventure, climbing, backpacking, pristine natural beauty, wildlife, scenic driving routes & things you can't do anywhere else in the world.

I don't want to fly in, check in a hotel, go to local shops, famous buildings, theaters, museums and come back; this guy wants it raw and rugged!

And here's part of my answer (for the full answer click here):

"Considering you'll have opportunities to travel for shorter amounts of time in the future, having a month is definitely the time to tackle one of the great travel journeys, leaving the easier to reach places for another time." 

Writing the answer reminded me of the trips I'd still like to take.  I was starting to wonder if there were many places I still wanted to travel to.  Don't get me wrong, I'll never say no to a trip, but after traveling to 30 countries and territories, I am lucky to say that I've been to the major places I've wanted to visit.  This doesn't mean I've been every place that has caught my interest, but everywhere I dreamed about as a child.  Now I've been reminded to look at travel as the adventure and not the isolated destination.  

The three trips I recommended to the question writer were the Camino di Santigo, along the Ancient Silk Road, and through South America to Ushuaia where the question author can wait for a ship heading to Antarctica.  These are actually three trips I really want to take myself, but of the three I've had my eye on the Silk Road for as long as I've been traveling.  Is it any wonder some of my favorite destinations and fascinations are at each end of the Silk Road?

The route I would take would be by train and would look something like this:

Start in Xi'an to see one of the first sights to take my breath away, the Terracotta Warriors.  
This was also my first introduction to the Uighur minority in China, which was my first spark of fascination with Muslim culture.   

Lanzhou to see the Labrang Monasteries.  

I'd head west to the Gobi Desert towards Dunhuang to explore the grottoes and the Cresent Lake.

When I was living in China there were two places I really wanted to visit.  The first was Tibet, the second was Xinjiang.  When I found out I was leaving China I only had time to choose one.  Tibet won out, which I'm really glad I took the time to visit back in 2007, before China started to over develop places like Lhasa with developments like massive shopping malls.  As much as I would love to go back to Tibet, missing out on Xinjiang has been weighing heavily on my traveling heart, so this trip would take my north of the Taklamakan Desert (China's stove) and into Urumqi and see the areas around.

Now here comes the tricky part, which way to go outside of China.  Central Asia is a little less known to me, which is what's so fascinating about the region, plus I'm a little ignorant about which countries have political instabilities that my prevent entry of an American citizen.  Better yet, which countries are open, yet have the possibility of being closed off to Americans in the future.  I remember having the chance to go to Syria in 2010, but decided against it, a decision I regret greatly.  

The end would be in Turkey, if there is time I would visit more of the country until reaching Istanbul, one of my favorite cities in the world!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Weddings Should Equal Eating A Lot Of Really Good Food

Alright, less than two months to go and I really haven't made much progress in the wedding planning department.  I spent a large portion of my time planning the three week trip I'll be taking with my family as part of the wedding.  I jokingly say it's my honeymoon with my parents. :P  Though, the real honeymoon won't be until some time later, and the destination is looking more like Myanmar, Sudan, Lebanon, or the likes.  The rest of the time I've spent avoiding writing my PNQ's for the Foreign Service.  I finally wrote and submitted them today, but only after distracting myself with answering endless amounts of questions on Quora first.  But the majority of the time these past few weeks have been spent feeling sick.  I've now progressed passed feeling nauseous every day to feeling exhausted and nauseous every day.  I started seeing a new doctor yesterday and I'm hoping she'll make some headway with my symptoms.  It's getting very difficult to perform daily tasks, which makes this all very frustrating.

As for the wedding, I've decided I really don't want the long heavy dress I had made.  It's not the dress's fault, it's beautiful and glamorous, but I really don't feel like wearing a traditional wedding dress, even if I got it in red. It reminds me of prom when I chose to wear a traditional prom styled dress and looked on with envy at my friend who decided on a regular evening dress.  I'm back on the search, but this time should be easier since I'm no longer constraining myself with the need to choose something "wedding" like.  I'll post pictures of the dress I had planned on wearing at a later date.

I have to do a little more research on the Chinese Tea Ceremony, but my big focus is on feeding people a lot of really good food.  That's actually my goal, let people be more relaxed, enjoy the castle grounds, have fun, and eat a lot of good food.

I'm seeing my new doctor again tomorrow and I'm hoping this second treatment will help me progressive.  Either way, it's time to kick myself in the butt and get into serious planning mode!

EDIT: Just remembered that close family are not supposed to be used as verifiers on the PNQ, you think I'd remember that by now!  I put the hubby in as one of my verifiers, oops.  Oh well, one less thing to worry about.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Backpacking In A Wedding Dress?

As I've been booking planes, trains, hotels, apartments, etc for the upcoming May trip, I started to think about how important packing light will be for this trip.  Luckily my family is not a family of over packers, and they are all willing to travel with just a carry-on, I even changed the dress code for the wedding for something a little less formal just because I didn't want anyone traveling to the wedding to waste packing space on anything too dressy.  This thought came after I received my finished wedding dress and realized just how heavy it is and what a pain it'll be to carry.  I'm considering forgetting about a traditional wedding dress, take the loss in time and money spent, and find something lighter and more casual.  It's just a thought for now.

Then as I was planning, I realized I am heading to some of the most photogenic places in the world.  What if I just wore a wedding dress to each location and have photos taken?  I don't know yet if that's what I'll do, but how fun would it be to backpack in a wedding dress?  I don't mean those overly elaborate heavy puffball dresses, but something more relaxed.  

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Three Countries, A Wedding, And Maybe A Hot Air Balloon

With two months before the wedding I finally got the go ahead in planning out my parents' and brother's first trip to Europe.  Ideally this would have been done and booked weeks ago, but I've been monitoring prices and they've been staying pretty consistent.  My oldest brother will only have two weeks to travel and my parents, Daniele, and I will have three, so I've been trying to get my parents to choose the destination for our third week.  Since it's their first time in Europe I told them they could choose whatever they wanted since everything is just a flight away.  We looked at seeing the tulips in Holland, but found out the optimal time to go is in April, while the lavender fields of Provence don't get started until end of June.  It was looking like our May trip was just in the middle of everything.  I included the option of London and Edinburgh, but my mom surprised me by saying she wasn't very interested in London since it looked like just another big city.  I was happy to hear that another trip to London was not on my list.  It's not my favorite city, I feel like it's like San Francisco, more fun to live in than to visit.

After going over possibilities I figured it would make the most sense to go to France with a few days in Paris, a day trip to Versailles, and maybe if we're ambitious a quick trip to Mont Saint Michel.
Mont Saint Michel
Ever since I saw my parents watching a travel show featuring Mont Saint Michel I wanted to take my parents there.  Even though I was pretty much planning on France, I wanted to give my parents the option of Turkey.  I loved Istanbul and I feel like my parents would enjoy themselves there as well, but then I figured a first trip to Europe should focus on the two favorite American destinations, Italy and France.

After my mom looked over the Chinese language travel guides I found for her we went to my dad and asked him what he thought, France or Turkey.  As we looked over photos of Cappadocia the decision was made, Turkey, but my dad also said ideally he'd like to fit in Paris as well.  Not one to disappoint, I told my dad I'd make it happen.

My original itinerary looked something like this:

May 11th Arrive in Rome
May 12th Drive to Orvieto for a day trip on the way to our castle in Umbria
May 13th Wedding
May 14th Day trips to Perugia and Assisi
May 15th Stop by Siena on the way to Florence
May 16th Florence
May 17th Florence
May 18th Florence to Venice
May 19th Venice
May 20th Venice with and evening flight to Naples
May 21st Pompeii
May 22nd Amalfi Coast with return to Rome
May 23rd Rome
May 24th Rome
May 25th Rome
May 26th Fly to next destination

I was quite happy with the itinerary I planned out.  There were some days that were a little rushed, but overall it was a decent pace with enough time to not feel rushed, but to fit in a quick stop in Paris sacrafices have to be made.  The other change I had to figure out was how to add the third week to the beginning of the trip rather than the end, no problem, everything is possible. 

Our new itinerary looks something like this.  I'm still playing around with the order of things after the wedding, but I'll figure it out:

May 4th arrive in Istanbul and catch domestic flight to Nayseri and drive to Goreme 

May 5th Cappadocia
May 6th Cappadocia

May 7th Istanbul
May 8th Istanbul
May 9th Istanbul
May 10th Istanbul
May 11th Fly to Rome

May 12th Rome in the morning and drive to Umbria in the late afternoon
May 13th Wedding

May 14th Day trips to Perugia and Assisi

May 15th Florence
May 16th Florence

May 17th Venice
May 18th Venice with night flight to Naples

May 19th Pompeii

May 20th Amalfi with return to Rome

May 21st Rome
May 22nd Rome
May 23rd Flight to Paris

May 24th Paris
May 25th Paris

Not ideal in terms of how rushed it is, but it's much more realistic than some of the itineraries I've seen online for guided tours.  Luckily they are mostly places I've been to before, which should cut down on some confusion with connections and general ideas of how to get around.  

I'm really excited about going back to Turkey and this time getting a chance to see some of Cappadocia.  I'm so happy that my parents decided on Turkey instead of an extended stay in France.  I loved my first trip to Istanbul back in September, but had no idea I'd be heading back so soon!  The best part is that I've convinced my whole family to all go with just one carry-on each, I love my family!

Alright, I really need to stop focusing so much on the trip and put some attention back into the wedding.  I joked with Daniele that I wish we weren't having the wedding and instead just spent the time traveling, but what do you expect from a girl who spent more time dreaming about travel than about a wedding. :P  

I so want a new camera!

Friday, February 28, 2014

Wedding Afternoon Tea

With the wedding in just slightly over two months, I've been in planning nonstop planning mode.  Since we have a castle rented in the Umbrian countryside, we have open reign about how we want to plan out the day. I've worked out a very food filled day, which makes sense since both Daniele and I come from very foodie families.  I still maintain that my parents make the best Chinese food, and Daniele's parents make the best Italian food I've tasted throughout Italy.

With that in mind we have the timeline of our wedding day roughly like this:

Afternoon Tea

The afternoon tea is completely DIY, which I'm excited about.  I know people recommend a stress free wedding day, but maybe I'm a bit of a Type A personality, I like the idea of having creative control for this one part.  Here's the menu for afternoon tea:

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Foreign Service Exam - Updated With Tips On How To Maximize Your Study Approach

I didn't want to mention that I took the Foreign Service Exam earlier this month because I didn't feel like my prospects for passing where very good.  I decided two weeks before the test to give it another shot and had just enough time to quickly glance over my old notes.

The day of the test was a mess.  I completely forgot to grab something to eat since my test was at 1:30 pm.  When I got to the testing center and was assigned my computer, the computer froze.  At that point I should have asked for a new computer, but the room was full.  My computer froze and the test reset two more times throughout my test, which made it a total of three hours for me to get through my test when including the waiting and resetting.  Half way through my blood sugar levels were pretty low and I started getting a headache and my vision started to blur, somehow I made it through the multiple choice questions before my computer froze for the third and final time.  At this point I was sure I completely failed.  The essay question wasn't too bad, but I realized with 6 minutes to spare that my essay sounded like the rantings of a paranoid mad woman.  Perhaps I should have done at least one practice essay before the test, but luckily I had those 6 minutes to edit and completely restructure my essay, though I was still sure I wouldn't pass.

Today scores were posted and I was shocked to see the first word on my results letter was, "congratulations".  I passed, not with a great score compared to my 2012 test scores, but at least I have a fighting chance.

Score break out:

2012  Job Knowledge : 47.59  Bio: 69.25 English: 55.88 Total 172.72 Essay: 8
2014  Job Knowledge : 50.79  Bio: 62.19 English: 52.20 Total 165.18 Essay: 6

I'm not surprised that my biographical section went down a little since this past year hasn't been the best for me.  That's part of the reason why, even though I passed the test, I'm not hopeful about this candidacy.   2012 was a really good year in terms of my total candidacy package, if there was a year I thought I would have passed the PNQ's, that was the year.  With the last year being so terrible I feel like I have even less chance this time around.  The only difference from my past candidacies and this one is I switched from Consular to Management for the career track.  After evaluating my experiences and strengths, I realized Management is a better fit.  Hopefully the QEP will agree and let me go forward to the OA segment!

UPDATED -Dissecting How To Approach Preparing For The Foreign Service Exam

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Makeup Trial

This past year has been a very difficult year due to a number of factors, the most significant being a number of health problems that have been leaving me nauseated throughout the day.  I've kept myself from getting a number of things done because I kept waiting for things to get better, but since it is a slow process I figure I can't keep waiting.

Today I decided to  do a makeup trial for the wedding in May.  I decide against having a makeup artist, but I am still debating on having a hairstylist.  In the past when others have done my makeup I've always hated it.  I think it's partly because I don't wear much makeup other than eye shadow, eye liner, and sometimes mascara.  I never wear foundation, and the same with concealer.  I kept reading in a few wedding forums how it's important to have a completely made up face for wedding photos so I went out and bought a few recommended products and went through a makeup trial today.

Here's me without makeup:
 My everyday makeup:
 The full faced makeup trial, please excuse the hair, I wanted to test out retro hair for a separate photo shoot:

The makeup looked fine in indoor light, but when I stepped outside into natural light it looked so unnatural to me. I also tried a couple common photo editing effects used for wedding photography to see how things look.   I'm still debating whether or not I really need a full face of makeup.  I'll give it another shot sometime this week with more contouring and highlighting since I think my face looks a little flat with makeup.

On the bright side, I was updated that my custom wedding dress is almost complete.  I saw a few photos of it yesterday and I'm excited about how it turned out.

I tried mixing my primer with Graftobian HD foundation and what a difference it made vs applying primer first than foundation.  This morning I put on my makeup, skipped primer on my eyelids, though I normally use Urban Decay Primer Potion.  After running errands all day and doing some light weight lifting, I took a photo of my makeup and I love the look much better than when I applied it for the photos above.   I splashed a little water on my face after setting the foundation concoction with loose powder and it helped make everything look much more natural.  What a relief.

For the actual day of I'll most likely add a little more blush and highlighter, more concealer for red areas, add a little more drama to my eye look, and use false lashes only for the outer two thirds of my eyes.

Now that makeup is figured out, just need to work on everything else!