North Korea

Off to North Korea! I had a free day during my TDY to Shenyang so why not check out DPRK? There are approximately 1,000 trains from Shenyang to Dāndōng, the Chinese boarder town with North Korea, so booking a train was relatively easy. This was my first try using for train tickets. It was fairly easy with an app purchase via Visa and simple display of ticket on phone to window attendant at train station along with passport. I forgot to show her both tickets and had to go back and get the other printed. This was quite humorous to the officer checking tickets at the train station. Nothing a few hand signals couldn’t handle.

Shenyang Rail station is remarkably similar to other China stations except with the much more comfortable lounge chairs complete with charging ports (for a fee of course).

Also on display where remarkable copies of a Jeep/FJ Cruiser (aka “BJ40”) and Land Rover (aka “Land Wind”).

Boarding a train in China is much like entering the Six Flags gates first thing with hundreds of pre-teens. Thankfully the train boarding gauntlet free-for-all is more fun whilst reading odd T-shirt slogans.

I’ll let him know.

I also admire mermaids.

After arriving one minute early Mr. Chairman pointed the way to DPRK.

Didi (China’s Uber) arrived 3 minutes later and just like that I’m off!

The east end of The Great Wall (DPRK in background) in Huashan was about thirty minutes away.

Don’t think the soldiers had hand rails back in the day.

Not sure why the cannons are pointed at the wall?

This about as close as one can get to North Korea without taking some lead.

The heat index was north of 110 and about 25% of the 477 steps had 24” high steps! Needless to say I was a bit sweaty. It was worth the climb, though! Cheers!

Back in Dāndōng, I walked to the end of the Yalu River Broken Bridge. Which is next to the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge. Both have an interesting history. In November 1950, the USAF sent 134 planes to bomb the bridge during the Korean War. Then the river froze and Chinese forces and supplies could easily scamper over. I bet the guy in charge of that mission got promoted! The bombers came back to finish the job in February. Two of the bombs (there must have been plenty) are still on display at the end of the bridge.

Well, that pretty much crossed off all the things to do in Dāndōng. I had a few hours to kill so I wandered through the only place I could find with AC, a mall. Although it was very nice, I was the only one shopping which allowed the sales folks to give me extra attention. Chinese mall employees are trained better than a bird dog and rarely give much more than a few inches of daylight between the customer and themselves. This created a bit of an awkward situation given I was covered in sweat from my earlier jaunts. I tried to look interested as they did their best presentation in Chinese.

I grabbed a Frapachino and sandwich at Starbucks and headed to the train station early. Big mistake! The train started boarding only 15 minutes prior to departure and the waiting lobby had no AC. An hour and half later I was back in Shenyang.

Overall I would do the trip again. Only next time will be in Winter! And who knows, I might even be able to cross the bridge then (that is the working one)?!

KSA Driving

Now it is time for the ubiquitous Westerner’s observation of Saudi traffic.  This is a must for any Saudi blog worth it’s salt.


The oddest thing about traffic here is how similar the quality of the roads and vehicles are to the US.  The vehicle comparisons are more like the SUV dominated lanes of North Dallas instead of Prius happy Northern Virginia.  I’m pretty sure religious police here have some sort of ban on Priuses due to their suspicious lack of petrol consumption.


The wide roads with striped lanes, traffic lights, and curbs are similar to any US road in good condition.  The lack of a freeze thaw cycle and rain makes potholes pretty much non-existent.  Additionally, without a storm drainage system all the roads are nice and flat.  Of course this makes them lovely lakes if it ever rains, but that is minor detail.


The departure quickly comes in the design of the traffic islands, lack of signage, and odd rules of the road (described here with latent sarcasm).


The traffic medians are full of beautiful trees and nicely landscaped vegetation.  This is quite pleasing to the eye but eliminates an essential element to basic traffic flow.  The ability for one to turn or get out of the way of oncoming traffic whilst stopped waiting to turn.  Of course, this makes getting anywhere unbelievably frustrating.  Often we have to travel miles before being able to make a U-turn to get to the other side of the street.  This creates random bottlenecks in odd places throughout the city rather than distributing the traffic evenly over several route options.  This also makes Google Maps useless as it totally ignores road islands and assumes turning left or right is a valid option at any intersection.  I have to look at the satellite view and try and figure out the few locations available for multiple turn options when planning my route.  Here is an example:



Throw common sense out the window when navigating Jeddah roads!


Another frustrating feature is the lack of street signs and house numbers.  The street signs that do exist are mostly multi-part names.  Sometimes the names change.  For example Palestine Street is also referred to as Falstin Street.  Even if a street is fortunate enough to be named, most drivers don’t refer to the name unless it is a major thoroughfare.


The lack of house numbers makes the street nomenclature even more frustrating as there is no way to know where you are.  The result is directions by landmarks such after the Globe Roundabout, or two streets past the Danube Supermarket.


And finally, the best part about driving here are the rules of the road.  The following is a very serious how-to guide for following a few key rules that make driving in the kingdom exciting and adventurous.


The first rule is the “double-u-turn”.  If making a U-turn and the queue in the left lane is more than one or two cars the best option is to double-up the U-turn queue thus blocking the view of the first u-turner trying to look at traffic to his right and blocking two lanes in the original direction of traffic.  Perhaps a graphic would be more illuminating.



To properly complete this move it is best to not yield to oncoming traffic.  The oncoming drivers should know what you’re doing as they’ve seen the first u-turner waiting patiently to turn thus providing ample warning.


The second rule is the “left-handed-three-lane-turn”.  This simple move involves crossing two lanes of traffic to the left to make a 90-degree or 180-degree turn.  It is best to do this in heavy traffic when it appears many people will be turning left or you remember you needed to turn left while in the intersection.  The drivers in the other two lanes are often happily surprised by this exciting event and will relish the opportunity to test their brakes, effectiveness of their heart mediation, reflex times, and attentiveness of the driver behind them.  If all goes well, you should reach your destination 2-3 minutes faster.  If it goes bad, many vehicles will impact your car causing either (1) a multiple roll event or (2) driver side door failure.  Both options are fatal 99% of the time.


The third rule is the “snake”.  The snake involves never fully dedicating your vehicle to a lane of traffic.  It is best to modulate the vehicle’s left to right movements rapidly never holding a static forward motion. Blinkers should never be used and preferably permanently disabled (converting them to white strobe lights is a more appropriate use of the light housing and wiring).


Now that I’ve covered the fundamental driving rules, here are a few parting shots from the road:



This is an impressive billboard the size of a building.  It is also quite distracting!



A typical gas station.  $0.60/gallon!


Typical road in KSA.



Kamran, the worlds best driver!



Typical intersection with the countdown timer red lights (I actually like these…)



Typical large road during a ‘light’ dust storm.


Cruisin’ in the Crown Vic!

Saudi Food

Rashid was kind enough to treat me to some local Saudi food recently. Since Jeddah has been a crossroads for thousands of years most of the food here is a hodge podge mix from other nearby countries.  For breakfast we had “ful en tameez”.  This is the phonetic spelling as he didn’t know how to spell it in English and Google didn’t know either.


This common breakfast consists of Egyptian fava beans mashed up in a consistency similar to refried beans.  Accompanying the beans is bread called tamees, from Afghanistan.  It’s similar to pita bread and about the size of medium sized pizza.  A spicy mix of chilies, cilantro, tomatoes, and other goodies very similar to pico de gallo accompanies the beans and bread.


The first step is to add oil, salt, and spices to the beans.  Then add the pico de gallo mix to the beans and scoop it up with the bread.  This food is very popular with the labor forces as it tends to stick to your ribs all day.


Rashid, left, Sohel, center, and Kamran, enjoying fuhl en tameez!


For lunch I had Chicken Mhandi which consists of a full chicken, rice, and a couple of chili peppers.  Also a hearty serving, this meal had a unique flavor somewhat similar to Indian Curry.



This lunch will put hair on your chest!

Trip to Jeddah

Traveling 34 hours with two kids under two across nine time zones in three planes will test mental and physical toughness in unique ways.  Here is a little quiz to see if you have what it takes.

Q:   You’ve arrived at the first check in counter and suddenly realized you’ve left your 2-year-old’s only milk bottle in the car.  Choose the best response:

a) Run with arms flailing and the whites of your eyes clearly visible until you chase down the car and bottle is retrieved.
b) Act like you didn’t notice and say the kid must have hurled the milk from the stroller without anyone noticing if questioned.
c) Tell your kid to suck it up. Milk is for homebody-travel-rookie-sissies.
d) Act cool until getting through security and then say it must have been confiscated.

Q:  Your car seat travel dolly shears in two in the middle of a train door with your child strapped to it. The best response is:

a) Curse in a foreign language so people won’t think you’re a stupid American.
b) Play it cool and do nothing until everyone exits the car hoping nobody notices.
c) Accuse your child of secretly grinding loose the welds on the frame when you weren’t looking.
d) Drag the car seat out of the door and look at your wife with the “what in the H are we doing here look and who’s idea was this anyway” look.


Q:  The ideal response to the man on the plane in front of you yelling at you because your two-year-old is kicking his seat is?

a)    Nothing, pretend he doesn’t exist and go to your happy place.
b)   Curse in a foreign language so people won’t think you’re a stupid American.
c)     Offer him a shot of whiskey.  You’ve had five and feel great!
d)    Ask him if he has a spatula or a George Foreman grill to change the subject.


Q:  What do you do when the lady behind you on the plane yells at you for reclining your seat because she has a baby in her lap?

a)    Show her the baby strapped to your chest and the seat fully reclined in front of you.
b)   Poke her baby until he starts crying.
c)    Give her the spatula and George Foreman grill the guy in the plane before gave you.
d)    Lift up your seat and hope the one in front of you doesn’t crush your child’s head (or spill your whiskey).

Q:  How do you offload two car seats, two sleeping children, five carry-on bags, and two slightly crazed adults out of a plane, down 20’ of steps in freezing Frankfurt temperatures, and in to a packed bus on the tarmac?

a)    Don’t move until everyone exits the plane hoping all the flight attendants, who can’t leave until you do, do it for you.
b)   Hurl each bag in shot putter form from the top of the stair landing. (the guttural yell is critical to this move)
c)     Be the first to get up and block the aisle with all you stuff until other passengers start helping.
d)    Open the emergency exit, inflate the escape ramp, and slide everything down (make sure and put on your life jacket fully inflated to avoid questioning).


In all seriousness, though, these events did happen to us.  And I learned that no matter how much I prepare for a trip, there is no way to really prepare for everything, especially with kids.  That is what makes traveling with them so much fun!  Whenever I see other adults lugging screaming children through airports I will always remember this trip, and we will probably have several more like it to come. Thus I have a newfound respect for those parents and the level of mental and physical toughness it takes to take on kid-air-travel.

2011-09-16: One Week

There were a few unknowns I was worried about with the decision to join the Foreign Service in 30 days.  Most of them revolved around the large assets (or liabilities if you’re a Dave Ramsey fan) related to the vehicles/house and where to live affordably in D.C.  God reminded us of his plan and basically took care of each in a way that can only honor him.

Tangible examples of God’s blessings:

Truck sold for cash in one week. 

 House rented after first showing at offer price.

The other small things like gap health insurance, work transitions, and State Department paper work have been unfolding smoothly (other than my travel orders, where are they!?!) as smaller reminders that I’m really not steering this ship and my feeble attempts at control are quite humorous to the mastermind behind all this.

We are excited, honored, nervous, joyful, fearful, and humbled by the opportunity to serve the greatest country on earth and be a constant witness to many of his unyielding grace in a fallen world. 

Thanks to all for the prayer support.

2011-09-08: 16 Days

I’ve got 16 days, 15 of those are nights.  Training starts 9/26 and I arrive in DC as early as 9/24 (still waiting on travel orders).  My boss sent out a great message today of my departure.  I’m really going to miss him and the crew at JLL: 

Matt's last day with JLL will be September 23rd. Matt has accepted a position with the Department of State as a Foreign Service Construction Engineer (FSCE). The following are some "fun facts" about Matt's new position and responsibilities:

Foreign Service Construction Engineer (FSCE) is an engineer, architect or construction manager in the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations working specifically in the Office of Construction Management, responsible for monitoring contractor work on Department of State construction projects overseas. The FSCE is a member of a U.S. Government team which ensures that construction work is professionally performed according to applicable plans, specifications, schedules and standards.  Here’s a link to more details on what a FSCE does on a daily basis:  

Here are some interesting facts on the Department of State and OBO.  The Department of State was the first Federal agency to be created under the US Constitution ratified in 1788. The Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) directs the worldwide overseas building program for the Department of State’s 265 posts worldwide and the U.S. Government community serving abroad under the authority of the chiefs of mission. In concert with other State Department bureaus, foreign affairs agencies, and Congress, OBO sets worldwide priorities for the design, construction, acquisition, maintenance, use, and sale of real properties and the use of sales proceeds.  OBO’s mission is to provide more secure, safer, more functional and well-maintained facilities for the conduct of U.S. diplomacy and the promotion of U.S. interests worldwide.  Here’s a link to properties under construction:

I have been blessed with the opportunity to work with Matt at two different companies over the last ten years. The best way to sum up my experience with him is to quote the comments made by the FBI agent that interviewed me a couple of weeks ago as he was getting processed for his Top Secret security clearance, "candidates like Matt are extremely rare, his integrity, character, work ethic, educational and work experience is one in a million. You should be very proud to have a young man of this caliber serving us in the Department of State".

On a personal level, I'm sad that Matt is leaving JLL, he will be missed by not only by this office but his clients as well. However, I'm very excited about the incredible opportunity and adventure that lay in store for Matt and his wonderful family. Please join me in wishing Matt the very best on his departure from JLL. I will send out a time/location in the near future for us to have a drink with Matt and give him a proper JLL send off. 

We are in the process of learning how to be landlords and met with a property manager today.  We really love this house and plan to return to Texas one day. 

I’ve packed and sorted my UAB (unaccompanied air baggage) and bought enough suits to get me through training.  Did you know suits are only supposed to be cleaned four times a year!

I also got my boots shined today and was chastised by Theo for my lack of attention to the custom boots Pappy had made for Marshall and me last Christmas.  He ordered me to buy a ‘boot tree’ and bring the boots back for a touch up prior to leaving. 

2011-08-30: Foreign Service Specialist

Kelly and I are excited to let you know that I have accepted an appointment to the Foreign Service as a Construction Engineer.  Training begins September 26th in DC.  From the information we have now, we will be in DC for up to (2) years and then posted internationally off and on from that point forward.

Please join Kelly and me in prayer support over the next several weeks as we try and figure out how to pull anchor and start this adventure.  Even though God’s timing is perfect, my understanding of it hardly is.  So specifically, please ask for patience as we try to find a buyer/renter for our house in the next 30 days, a new (affordable) home in D.C., buyer for my truck, financial wisdom in planning the transition to a state/district with income taxes (and no right to carry), patience for Malosi as she prepares for a life on the move, and a constant focus on honoring Jesus in all we do. 

As St. Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo, explained it, if I put my face up against a stained-glass window, all I would be able to see is jagged edges and broken glass.  The farther away from that window I get, the more I would see that it was spectacular.  Jagged edges are all we see now, but we know the big picture is truly spectacular.

(Romans 11:36).  “For from him and through him and to him are all things.  To him be glory forever. Amen.

2011-07-28: Cats Outta the Bag

Family, well most of them, know now that we are considering Foreign Service.  I’ve yet to tell my side, which happens tomorrow.

I’m enjoying getting back into blogging and having an interesting subject to write about.  Peace Corps was always so creative and interesting thoughts naturally flowed. 

Since returning home, I haven’t really feel comfortable about exposing intimate details about Malosi, but I guess I could write about all the stuff she does in general terms.  She is quite talented. 

Work is just work and not much to interest the writing brain cells there. 

So, I guess I’m back in the saddle.  Hopefully, my blog skills come back to me soon and I can start writing in security sensitive general terms to make the experience I’m going through general enough to be publishable to the universe while meaningful to those willing to spend the time reading it!  I’m sure a disclaimer will be required soon….

2011-07-22: Hard Day

I reached a point in the security clearance process that telling my manager, Jon, was no longer avoidable.  So at 10am this morning I let him know the State Department had made me a conditional offer to build Embassies.  He took the news better than I was expecting and it was most definitely harder for me than him.  I was in this same position about two years ago when I let him know Kelly and I were joining the Peace Corps and felt horrible for letting him down once again.  I broke into tears a few times because of how great a boss he is and how rare it is to have a strong Christian in authority over you at the workplace.  He encouraged me to stay in God’s will and that he was praying for my family and me. 

The atmosphere will be different from this point forward. Despite everyone’s best intentions, I know it will be difficult to not feel left out of future planning.  Our family has made the decision after prayerful consideration to pursue this life and I’m at the point in my career where it will not be easy to turn back.  The beauty of all this is Jon reminded me that faith is all about making tough choices and if everything was crystal clear there would be no need for us to depend on God and not on ourselves.

I’ve got my interview with the investigator in the morning and then off to the in-laws to break the news.  That one will be the toughest.  My prayer is that they’ll understand the broader perspective of God’s plan and the unique opportunity this will provide for our family to grow closer to Him and utilize the gifts He’s given to honor Him.