Archive for January, 2012

PVX: Thai Drinking Game

Posted by Arlo on Jan 30, 2012 under Postcard Valet, PV-Podcast, Travel, Videos

View the same video in high-definition (720p) on Youtube.

The first time I walked into a 7/11 in Thailand, the sheer number of drinks in the coolers blew my mind.  There were dozens of brands and flavors and I because couldn’t make heads or tails of their swirly writing, I had no idea what most of them were.  I wanted to try them all…! but with my luck, I knew I’d end up with something like “Shrimp-Mussel Juice.”  Sampling a random drink in Thailand would be like Russian Roulette, only my taste buds would be at stake.

Knowing that our friends were on the way, Oksana and I decided to wait for them before playing “Thai Roulette.”  I mentioned the idea to Wendy and Dusty (from Roam the Planet) and their friend Sarah.  They were game!

We decided to film the whole thing, because it seemed like it might be entertaining for you to watch us taste all these mystery drinks and because  Wendy and Dusty had just brought us a new point-and-shoot camera (to replace our ailing Panasonic Lumix.)  It was a Sony TX10, which boasts 1080p video.  Since they had the exact same model, we shot with both cameras to see if the footage would match well in editing.  It was also a good test for me, to find out if our new camera could double as a camcorder in a pinch.  (Answer: No. You can read my thoughts on that after the jump.)

During one of our first meals together, I laid out the ground rules for the little drinking game I’d created in my head.   Then we hit the stores, buying our drinks in secret, and then revealed them to each other later that evening.  Unfortunately, when we did, it was raining outside our hotel and the cameras picked up a lot of street noise while we were recording.

This video turned out much longer than I expected — close to half an hour!  Now, I could spend many more hours whittling it down to just the funniest parts, but that goes against my self-imposed guidelines for these “Postcard Valet Extra” videos.  (Also, it sounds like a lot of work!)  So I left pretty much everything in, including some awkward jump cuts and blurry video.  On the plus side, if you stick it out, you’ll get to see every little grimace as we sample 10 crazy Thai drinks.  If half an hour is too much of a commitment, feel free to use the time markers above to jump to the section that sounds most interesting.

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PVX: McDonald’s in the United Arab Emirates (Dubai)

Posted by Arlo on Jan 21, 2012 under McDonald's of the World, Postcard Valet, PV-Podcast, Travel, Videos

You always feel like you’re getting short-changed when you’re only in a country for a day or two.  We had only 17 hours to spend in Dubai, but I’m surprised how much we got to see and do.  We wandered two gigantic malls, went snow skiing, walked the base of the world’s tallest building, road around the city on a tour bus, and of course we ate at McDonald’s for lunch!

Most of the menu in Dubai’s McDonald’s was the normal fare;  the stuff that wasn’t was almost exclusively vegetarian.  We tried the Veggie Burger, spring rolls, and a McPuff!  I could have trimmed this video down a little more — it’s one of the longer McDonald’s videos we’ve made — but there are a couple funny moments that I just didn’t want to cut out.  (Plus there’s a bit of background on that whole Orbitz fiasco thing we went through.  I forgot that by this point, we still weren’t sure if we were going to get reimbursed for our new plane tickets; we eventually did!)

Thoughts on the United Arab Emirates (Dubai)

Posted by Arlo on Jan 20, 2012 under Postcard Valet, Thoughts On..., Travel

At the end of September, we went through a huge fiasco with Orbitz that completely changed our travel plans.  Months before, we had purchased tickets to fly from Moscow to Bangkok by way of Sri Lanka.  The day before our flight, we learned that it had been rescheduled and we’d already missed it.  Fortunately, we managed to iron everything out with Orbitz, but not before we had to purchase a second set of airline tickets at the last minute.  Our new flight plan included a 17-hour layover in Dubai.

I never expected to travel to the United Arab Emirates and the only thing I knew about Dubai was that it was the most “Westernized” of the cities in the Middle East.  We had zero time to research, but I was still excited.  If nothing else, I’d get to see the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa (formally the Burj Dubai!)

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The Siq

Posted by Arlo on Jan 18, 2012 under Photography, Postcard Valet, Travel

The Siq

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Download Wallpaper: 1920×1200.

The third Indiana Jones movie, The Last Crusade, made the ruins of Petra, in the Kingdom of Jordan, famous.  I’ll admit that the imagery in that movie – namely the huge architectural façade carved out of the face of a sandstone cliff – inspired me to travel there when we found ourselves in the Middle East.

While Petra’s Treasury (or “Al Khazneh,” as it’s known in Arabic) is the most famous monument in the park, I actually found other parts to be more interesting.  The colors of the rock inside the Urn Tomb were much brighter and had intricate veins throughout, while the biggest and most impressive rock-cut temple, the Monestary, stood at the top of a long stone staircase that rivals anything on the Inca Trail.  The Siq, though… The Siq was my favorite part of Petra.

“Siq” is an Arabic word meaning “shaft,” and what an impressive shaft it is!  Beginning at roughly the entrance to the park, it winds gently downward almost a full mile before opening directly in front of the Treasury.  Except for perhaps an hour or two during midday, the sun never touches the bottom and while the rocky walls towering above you are aglow with sunlight, the floor is below is nice and cool.

The walls of the Siq were pulled apart by geologic activity and the lower sections have been worn smooth by countless flash floods.  Part of the restoration of Petra was building a new dam to hold the waters back.  Without the dam, the Siq would be a very dangerous place to be during one of the rare rainy days in that part of Jordan.

Taking a good photo in this natural canyon is more difficult than you might imagine.  During the day, the sky and upper walls are incredibly bright while the bottom lies in shadow.  Expose for the lower walls and the top will be totally blown out.  During the golden hours of sunrise and sunset, the sun is at such an extreme angle that it barely illuminates the edges of the cliffs 600 feet above your head.  Without illumination, those rich golden colors in the wall seem dull and grey.  Sunrise and sunset are usually the best times to take pictures of landscapes, but canyons only benefit from that soft lighting when they’re running exactly east-to-west.

Looking over my Siq photos, I found a few with compositions that I really liked, where the wall’s curves snaked through the photo’s third lines and created interesting shapes with light and shadow.  Unfortunately, the best of those had the sun directly overhead, rendering the floor of the Siq as nothing more than a hard white line.  The sky is blown out in this photo, but it’s such a small element of the overall composition that it doesn’t even matter.  The walls are beautiful, just as I remember them.  I love the lone janitor with his bucket, too, about to go around the corner.  Without him, we wouldn’t have the proper sense of scale.

Canon 5D Mark II
Date: 11:34am, 3 August 2011
Focal Length: 24mm
Shutter: 1/50 sec
Aperture: F/4
Exposure: -1.3 step
Flash: No
ISO: 100
Photoshop: Auto levels, minor saturation increase

Thoughts on Russia

Posted by Arlo on Jan 16, 2012 under Postcard Valet, Thoughts On..., Travel

Red Square, 2006

The first time I traveled to Russia was in 2006.  Oksana and I split our time between Moscow and St. Petersburg, because while she is originally from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy in the Far East, her family happened to be spending time in the big city.  Her brother, Andrey, played host and seemed to have an all-day itinerary planned for us every day we were there.  We were exhausted by the end of our “vacation,” but looking back through our photos, I’m amazed at all the things we got to see and do in just three weeks.

I always felt guilty for not writing much about our first trip through Russia.  Even way back then, I had a mental list of things to write about for one of these “Thoughts On” blog entries.  When we crossed the border into Russia again last September, my notes were already full of half-remembered items that I jotted down on the bus from Estonia.


Asking “What is Russia like?” is like asking “What is the United States of America like?”  How do you answer that?  When a country spans most of a continent, has citizens from every socioeconomic background, as well as a history dating back thousands of years, you can’t just sum it up in one or two sentences.

I’ve seen two of the biggest, most prestigious cities in Russia, a couple larger cities in the east, and passed through many a rural town on the rail line between St. Petersburg and Irkutsk.  About the only thing I know for sure is that Russia isn’t easily summed up.

I can tell you, however, that there’s a strange dichotomy when Russians think about their own country.  On the one hand, there’s the feeling that Russia is the greatest country on the planet.  Mention that you’ve been to the world’s largest lake and they’ll tell you that Russia has the world’s deepest.  Describe to them how something is done in the States and they’ll explain to you why the Russian method is better.

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PV Infographic 1: Time and Place

Posted by Arlo on Jan 7, 2012 under Infographics, Postcard Valet, Travel

Postcard Valet Infographic 01, time and place

Click to enlarge!

Throughout our round-the-world travels, Oksana and I managed to record a whole lot of data pertaining to our trip.  There were certain things we updated every single day (my journal, our travel budget, our GPS track) and some things that we recorded on a less frequent basis (number of buses, trains, planes, etc.)  While it almost became too much to keep up with at the end of a year and a half — I’m still catching up on our GPS page! — we saw it through and now have a huge amount of raw data to examine.  Personally, I find it fascinating to dig into this stuff and I can’t wait to see what it tells us!

  • What was our least expensive country?
  •  How many photos did we take?
  •  How many miles did we cover?
  •  How many hours did we spend on buses?
  • How much money did we spend?

On second thought, maybe I don’t want to know the answer to that last one…

In the coming weeks and months, as we parse this data for our own curiosity, I’ll be sharing it on our website.  But looking at spreadsheets and numbers probably isn’t fun for you, so I’m going to do my best to present it in a way that’s easier to digest.  I created this first infographic — which we tried to limit to simply time and place – with this in mind.  Hopefully it’ll be the first of many.

Make sure you see the full-size version!

The Burj Khalifa

Posted by Arlo on Jan 6, 2012 under Photography, Postcard Valet, Travel

The World's Tallest Building, the Burj Khalifa

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Download Wallpaper: 1920×1200.

We only had one day in Dubai, a 17-hour layover between Moscow and Bangkok.  Oksana and I left our bags at the airport and spent the day in the city.  We explored Dubai’s insane malls, giant hypermarkets, went skiing indoors, and tried (but failed) to ascend the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa.

Late in the afternoon, we decided to give the Big Bus Tours company a try.  They run a “hop on, hop off” bus that we, despite the sky-high price they were asking, thought would be a good way to see the city sights.  It wasn’t.  They happily sold us two tickets (for a total of $120 US dollars!) at 3:30pm, failing to mention their buses only run until 5pm.

We chose our seats on the second level of the open-air, double-decker bus and put in our earphones so we could hear the guided audio tour.  We both pulled our cameras out of our bags at the same time and, to our horror (and shame, because we should have known better as Alaskans), watched every glass surface on them instantly fog.  Not only had our cameras been inside a cool, air conditioned mall for the last few hours, they’d also been with us when we went skiing.  By pulling them out of our bags, we’d effectively raised their temperature almost 70 degrees less than 5 seconds.

The air in Dubai is surprisingly humid and after half an hour of frustration, I worried that the inner elements of my lens would never defrost.  Our first few photos were ridiculously blurry.  Finally, by the time we pulled up to the third or fourth gigantic mall on the bus’s loop, the sun had done its job.  My camera was ready to take some pictures again.

When the bus pulled out again, we were the only ones left on the top level.  After 5 minutes or so, we realized that the guided tour was no longer playing through our headphones…

We forgot our worries when the bus pulled onto the highway.  There, in the distance, was the Dubai skyline with the sun sinking into the humid haze behind it.  Oksana and I moved to the opposite side of the bus, leaned over the rail, and tried to frame a photo – any photo – without a telephone pole or an electrical wire in it.

Of the dozens we shot, the one you see above is my favorite.

When we sat back down, we knew something was wrong.  No audio guide and we were moving further and further from the city.  Neither Oksana nor I wanted to go down and ask the driver if we’d stupidly missed the last stop, but of course, eventually we had to.  I walked down when he pulled off at a gas station – the lower half of the bus was also empty – and caught up to him at the pump.

“Um, is the tour over?” I asked.

He looked at me, shocked. “You were on the bus?”

“Yes, upstairs.”

“The tour ended at five! You were not supposed to stay!” He sighed. “Where did you planning to go?” His English wasn’t perfect.

I gave him the name of the mall where we bought the tickets because I knew it had a metro station nearby that would lead us to the airport.  He drove us back as soon as he finished filling up the tank.

I felt guilty, but hey, he should have checked his own bus at the last stop, right?  There was even a security camera on the upper deck, pointed right at us!

Canon 5D Mark II
Date: 5:38pm, 30 September 2011
Focal Length: 82mm
Shutter: 1/8000 sec
Aperture: F/4
Exposure: -1 step
Flash: No
ISO: 100
Photoshop: Minor rotate and crop, Slight crushing of blacks with Levels

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