Monday, October 1, 2012

WE BOUGHT A HOUSE!

WE BOUGHT A HOUSE! :D

Spoiler version: a tale told in tweets

  • [Wed Sept 12 4:15 PM] Hey, we just saw you / and this is crazy / but here's our offer / so own you, maybe?
  • [Wed Sept 12 6:40 PM] You have to weigh the cost of a house vs the opportunity costs. I mean, that's a LOT of mochas & cookies worth of money we're talking about...
  • [Thur Sept 13 1:35 PM] So yeah, it turns out that it's really hard to concentrate on other things when you're expecting to hear back about your house offer... :P
  • [Thur Sept 13 4:53 PM] Our offer was accepted!! (contingent on inspection, of course) And our "personal letter" with this photo helped get it!
  • [Fri Sept 14 7:06 PM] I'm making up a list of home maintenance tasks. OMG how is there so much to dooooooo? *whine*
  • [Sat Sept 15 5:58 PM] Alrighty. That's enough drooling over garden ideas for one day. ;)
  • [Wed Sept 19 12:15 PM] The sellers agreed to ALL our repair requests! We'd been warned how difficult it could be, but buying this house has been great so far. :D
  • [Wed Sept 19 3:38 PM] Since we're pretty sure we're going to close on this house without issues at this point, I feel okay sharing photos!
  • [Wed Sept 19 6:28 PM] Suddenly I am like, SUBSCRIBE TO ALL THE HOMES & GARDENS.

The long story...

"Just looking," ha ha

On September 8th, while I was visiting Forrest in Seattle for our 1-year anniversary, we decided to look at some houses for sale. It was mostly on a whim; while we'd be watching the market closely for an entire year, and we did have our down payment ready, we didn't think we were quite ready to actually buy a house. But going to open houses and touring some others with a Redfin agent sounded kinda fun, so we just went ahead and did it.

This was, of course, a dangerous idea.

Among the eight houses we looked at, we saw one that we actually really liked. It was a beautiful house with a huge, open, airy second floor addition. It had mature pear and apple trees in the front yard. It had a generous first floor with a kitchen that was well-connected to the living and dining rooms. It was the only house on the tour that we really liked, and that excitement was hard to ignore.

It had some issues, though. For one thing, the basement was practically inaccessible. The sellers had built this big backyard deck built of Trex — but they built it on top of the basement door. They had this cellar door type access to it, but without hinges — you had to lift the two doors up and set them aside, then drop down vertically to the basement door underneath the deck. Since Forrest wanted a workshop, we would have to make the basement access more sane, which would probably involve tearing out the nice, obviously new, deck.

The backyard was a little small and right up against a busy street. The noise didn't really bother us, and I told myself that bigger yards really didn't exist this close to downtown Seattle... The half of the yard that wasn't taken up by the deck was covered with paving tile. Yet another thing we'd want to tear out.

A third problem was that the house was heated with oil. We wanted a gas stove, and gas lines to the backyard for brewing beer. That would mean converting the house from oil to gas, then properly decommissioning the oil tank.

The fourth, and major, problem was the foundation. It was post and pier construction, which does not do well in earthquakes. In fact, our Redfin agent told us that some insurance companies won't even sell you earthquake regular homeowners insurance if you have that type of foundation. It was enough to make these two native Californians nervous.

Updated, Oct 2: Forrest corrected me that the insurance situation was even worse than I had realized.

Almost making an offer

But before we had really thought through all of the above negative points, we were just excited, liking the rest of the house. The master bedroom really was amazing, with very high, sloping ceilings and a balcony with a view (if you craned your neck ;)) of the snow-covered Olympics. So we told our agent that we wanted to put in an offer.

Our Redfin agent was really great, both in telling us exactly what we needed to do to aggressively move forward with a competitive offer (there were already other offers on the house), who to contact to get pre-approved over the weekend (since we didn't think we were really looking at houses, we hadn't bothered to get pre-approved), and then was extremely kind and understanding when we woke up the next morning, freaked out, thought better of the whole thing, and decided not to put in an offer after all.

The very fast-paced almost-offer did help us out a lot, though. First, it clarified for us what was actually important in a house (we hadn't realized that an accessible workshop and a better yard were really dealbreakers for us) and what was merely optional (the decor was nice, but it didn't make up for the other things). Second, it made us get all our financial documentation in line, since we had forwarded it all to the pre-approval guy.

We decided to take it more slowly, now that we knew what we wanted and now that we had all our papers ready. There would be other houses.

Second time's the charm

Wouldn't you know it, "other houses" showed up as Forrest was driving me to the airport on the Tuesday after our weekend of open houses. This new house looked good on paper, and it had an open house the next day, mid-afternoon. Forrest agreed to check it out. (Because we had agreed on virtually everything about every house we looked at together, we were both comfortable with Forrest "ruling out" houses that I didn't need to bother seeing and letting me know if he found a house good enough for me to fly up to see.)

This is how I ended up buying a last-minute ticket back up to Seattle less than 24 hours since I had return to the Bay Area.

The Wednesday "open house" that Forrest had attended wasn't a normal open house, but rather a "brokers' open house", technically open to the public but scheduled midday and midweek and specifically meant for real estate agents. We didn't know this at the time, of course; the house showed up on Redfin and Forrest wandered on in. The brokers' open house explains why all the other "buyers" he saw there were dressed in business suits, and why the listing agent's assistant seemed surprised by Forrest's presence. ;)

The house turned out to be even better in real life than on paper, so Forrest wanted me to see it and then make an offer. We contacted our Redfin agent, to whom we apologized for having cold feet on the last house but this time we're sure, we promise. She arranged for us to see the house bring and early (read: 9 AM) on Thursday morning.

When I saw the house, I completely agreed with Forrest: this house would be a great fit for us, and the price was right.

One thing that was unusual about viewing the house: the sellers were still living in it! They had cleared out the vast majority of their possessions, but we found their microwave hiding in an out-of-the-way closet, clothes in the master bedroom's closet... and the sellers themselves camped out in the basement, trying to stay out of our way as much as possible!

I think our agent was a little worried about them being there while we looked at the house. But they turned out to be very friendly, nice people. The woman reminded us of one of Forrest's aunts (in a good way). In some parallel universe, where it wouldn't be excessively weird to socialize with the previous owners of your new house, I wouldn't mind hanging out with her. Anyway, I chatted with them, pet their three cats, told them about our two cats, and asked for advice on how to maintain the garden. Later, our agent said she was quite pleased with how the conversation had gone. :P

After we were done looking around at everything, we walked from the house to a nearby cafe with our agent to put together our offer! There had already been two other offers, so we knew we had to be aggressive. We took our agent's advice in writing the offer (because really, that's what she was there for).

Then I mentioned that I had heard of people writing personal letters to include along with their offer. Forrest had never heard of it and thought it sounded a little weird. Our agent had definitely heard of the practice, though, and said that it couldn't hurt. So we went home to write a personal letter while our agent finished getting the rest of the paperwork in order.

Updated, Oct 2: Apparently Forrest had heard of these personal letters before. My memory is of him being reluctant about the idea of writing one, but he says he thought they were a good idea. Not sure how to reconcile our opposite memories except to state both our memories. :P

Waiting is soooooo hard

We wrote up a personal letter talking about how much we loved the wood throughout the house, the intact period character, and the yard. We included photos of us and the cats. We saved the letter as a PDF so it would withstand whatever forwarding shenanigans it might go through, emailed it to our agent at 12:30 PM, and then we waited.

We were technically back at work by this point, but neither of us could really concentrate. We kept checking our emails and our phones for any contact from our agent. We pointlessly speculated. We called our respective parental units to share our nervous excitement.

Finally, at 3 PM, we got a good news / bad news call from our agent. Bad news: there was a higher offer. Good news: despite the higher offer, the sellers wanted us to have the house! But only if we were willing to match the higher offer. The way multiple bids work (at least in the Seattle real estate market) is a little like eBay: buyers submit their offer, their highest price, and the increments by which they will "automatically" outbid other buyers up until their highest price. The higher offer had pushed us to our highest price, then gone up by an increment to beat our price. The sellers counteroffered us, saying that if we would go up one more increment to match this higher offer, they would sell the house to us.

We thought about it briefly, but we were pretty comfortable going up one more increment (because we had previously been firm about not putting our "highest price" automatic bid number higher than we were genuinely comfortable with). We agreed to the counteroffer. The house would be ours — pending contingencies!

We later found out that the exposed wood trim, which we had complimented in our personal letter, had originally been painted when the owners bought the house. They had spent three years of their own time meticulously stripping the paint. So we suspect that they especially liked us calling out that detail in our letter. What luck! :)

Inspections go well

We had a general inspector out the next day, Friday, to look over everything. He said that when he looks at old houses, he usually has bad news to tell the buyers, but in our case the house actually looked in good condition. We were so relieved to hear that; I had been psyching myself up for multiple tens of thousands of dollars in terrible repairs, something bad enough to make us walk. But nothing like that was found!

The only major issue with the crumbling mortar of the chimney in the basement. But when we had the specialist chimney inspector come out to look at it, he said the rest of the chimney was sound. Only the obviously crumbling section needed to be tuck-pointed, and then it would be fine.

Even more exciting, the sellers agreed to all of our (intentionally modest) list of repairs to be completed or credited against the purchase price. At this point, there is really no reason for the deal to fall through!

The house itself

The house is a 1925 Craftsman, with beautiful wood floors and wide exposed wood trim throughout. It's not too big — 980 square feet — and has a room layout that makes the most of the square footage. The previous owners didn't do any remodels, so it's kept its period character; and they did appear to do regular home maintenance, so it's in good shape.

It's technically a 2-bedroom house, but the front room adjacent to the living room will be a reading room (and sometimes guest room). I have always wanted a reading room (not a library; you're allowed to talk ;)). The other bedroom — or in our case, the only bedroom — is in the back of the house, next to the kitchen and looking over the garden. In between them is the one bathroom in the house; luckily, you don't have to go through either bedroom to get to it. The rest of the house is a large living/dining room open area, which includes a fireplace.

It has an attic and basement, both unfinished and — happily — dry. So we have lots of expansion possibilities if we ever want more space, but really, the main level is all we really need; we would be content to always have just that floor finished. But it's good to have options for the unforeseen, right?

The backyard is a pretty good size (again, for the area; one-acre lots like where I grew up just don't exist). It already has mulch down everywhere, so that should buy us a good amount of time to figure out what we want to do with the yard without letting the weeds take over in the meanwhile. We'll probably leave the fruits & vegetables in the raised planter boxes as they are. Mature tomatoes and thornless raspberries sound good to us. :)

Location-wise, the house is between the centers of Ballard and Fremont (1 mile from the former, 2 miles from the latter, and essentially flat to both destinations). It's half a mile from a grocery store, 1 mile from a close friend's place, and around the corner from a cafe, pizza joint, and some bar & grill type restaurants that look good. It's on a major bus line, so getting further afield without a car is easy too. We also have easy street parking, should friends who do drive want to visit.

But the key take-away is this: we're really excited/scared/excited ;) about buying a house! It's going to be AWESOME.

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Sunday, September 30, 2012

Weight, Todos, Anniversary, and Jambool

The month of September: a summary... I struggled but succeeded in maintaining last month's weight loss, I found a todo app that works for me, and Forrest and I celebrated our 1-year anniversary. See also WE BOUGHT A HOUSE!

Weight: 5 pounds forward, 5 pounds back

I had gotten my weight down to 150 pounds at the start of the month — a weight I haven't been since last year! But then I had trouble not reverting back to my old eating habits while I spent a good chunk of the month visiting with friends in Seattle, so I regained a couple of pounds. I reapplied myself and eventually re-lost the pounds by the end of the month. So it goes.

Getting Things Done

I tried out several todo list apps. They're all very similar, but often missing one key feature or another. I eventually settled on OmniFocus (despite the hefty! price tag) on a personal recommendation. It's awesome! Instead of putting of chores that I know I should do but never feel like, my todo app "makes" me do them. Rent was zero days late! My bathroom countertop is clean! I followed up with terrible, I-really-want-to-avoid places like the DMV! It's been pretty awesome, really.

It works well for me because A) it syncs on both my Mac laptop and my iPhone (if I had non-Mac machines that I used regularly, OmniFocus wouldn't be the right choice), and B) it allows for infinitely nested projects with a rich set of recurring options (which appeals to the OCD in me).

It's not without its faults, but overall I'm glad I bought the licenses for the Mac and iPhone versions of the software.

Our 1-year anniversary

We took two days off work to have a long weekend together to celebrate our 1-year anniversary. It was very nice and relaxing. We had a fun time walking around downtown, strolling through Pike Place Market, etc. Oh, and we also spent the afternoon at the 40th-floor Starbucks, finishing up our wedding thank you cards. :/ But the etiquette rules all agree, we had until one year after the wedding. Perhaps the rules didn't mean it quite so literally, but there you have it. ;)

For the evening of the anniversary itself, we went out to a fancy steakhouse in Seattle, the Metropolitan Grill — best steaks I've ever had. They did not disappoint.

Jambool reunion dinner

Near the end of the month, all the ex-Jambool folks got together in San Francisco for a 2-year post-acquisition reunion dinner. It was great to see everyone again and catch up.

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Friday, July 20, 2012

Complete Costa Rica Series

Standard disclosure: I shamelessly backdate my posts. I want the date posted to reflect the date I wrote the post, even if it ends up being weeks before I have the time to upload them. So you can see what's been uploaded and get back to them easily, I will update and linkify this list as the posts go live:

  1. Going to Costa Rica!
  2. Finding Our Way Around
    (San Francisco, CA → San José, CR → Ciudad Quesada)
  3. (Ciudad Quesada → La Fortuna)
  4. (La Fortuna → Santa Elena)
  5. (Santa Elena)
  6. (Santa Elena)
  7. (Santa Elena → Playa Sámara)
  8. (Playa Sámara)
  9. (Playa Sámara → Liberia)
  10. (Liberia → Alajuela)
  11. (Alajuela → San Francisco)

See also my Foursquare list of the places we visited, and my Flickr set for all my photos. Like always, you will have to be logged in and "Friends & Family" to see any pictures with faces. `;)` (Forrest also took a bunch of photos with his much nicer camera, but he hasn't uploaded them yet.)

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Friday, June 29, 2012

Finding Our Way Around

We flew to Costa Rica and managed to drive ourselves to our first stop, despite the drive being 3x as long away as expected. We ate delicious steak and slept in a very non-touristy hotel (complete with a possessed TV, a "suicide shower", and a scary-giant spider.)

Costa Rica! Costa Rica Costa Rica! As Wil Wheaton would say, Costa Rica I am in you!

I'm having fun distinguishing "San Jose" (ie the Californian city) from "San José" (ie the capital of Costa Rica) purely by accent mark. `;)`

Name Games

The adventure managed to start even before we left the country. Forrest had booked the plane tickets for us. Even though I had confirmed the itinerary too, we both missed that my ticket was booked under my married name — which is a problem for international flights, since my passport is still in my unmarried name. Oops!

I called the airline days before the trip, asking if it was going to be a problem. The representative told me that yes, definitely, they could deny me from getting on the plane. He made a note on my file (did you know that you have a "file"?) but said I'd have to go to the ticket agent to get things properly changed over to my unmarried name.

I left my car at Google's long-term parking lot and took a towncar (better service than a taxi and cheaper!) to SFO. I got there early to deal with the name change business. I was glad I'd gone to the county clerk office to get an official copy of our marriage certificate, because the agent asked to see it! Luckily, the airline didn't charge anything for the ticket changes, even though I'm pretty sure their terms of service or whatever says they could have.

Throughout this, Forrest thought I was just being paranoid. I'm still unconvinced, and in any case, I'm glad I got my ticket fixed because I didn't have any trouble.

Flying to Costa Rica

Forrest arrive around 9 or 10 in the evening of the 28th. We waited around in the airport until our flight from SFO to CLT (Charlotte, North Carolina) at midnight, so technically the 29th. (I had not read the plane ticket carefully, and had thought at first that I was picking Forrest up from the airport, then driving back the next day to fly out at noon. Not so.)

I finally tried out a sleep mask for the first time, and wow does it make sleeping on a plane so much easier! I wish I had tried it before.

So I wake up in Charlotte, where we get some marginal breakfast and kill a little time before taking off for Costa Rica! :D

Landing in San José

The international airport in the capital city is... somewhat smaller than we had expected: SJO has 17 gates (compared to SFO's 102 gates, for example).

The very first order of business was getting local SIM cards for both our phones and the iPad (our "GPS device" for the trip, rather than paying by the day to add it on to the rental car). In the middle of the airport was a convenient kiosk for Kölbi, a local telco. We did the transaction 80% in Spanish — I didn't know how the payments structure was supposed to work, so when we got into the details of it, I got a little lost. Amusingly, that was the thing that Forrest had researched, and by knowing what to expect her to say, he was actually better able to follow the Spanish at that moment. :P Don't underestimate how much context can help you understand a foreign language! Luckily, the saleswoman spoken somewhat more English than I did Spanish, so we were able to clarify what the deal was.

It worked out to approximately $40 for unlimited data on all three devices for the entire trip. Plus local calls, and also calls home at 30 cents a minute. (We ended up calling home a couple times during the trip because that's not too pricey, but we didn't chat on and on either, because it's not dirt cheap either. The Goldilocks amount of calling, if you will.)

From there we went out through customs. It was as simple as running our bags through a scanner and picking them up on the other side.

Getting the rental car

Because it took us 30 minutes to get the SIM cards set up and get out of the airport, I was a little afraid that the rental car company's representative would have ditched us. Or that they weren't going to send a rep like they had said they would. Or that we didn't really have a reservation like I thought we did. (The rental car was the one thing I reserved through a travel agency, because it was $200 cheaper than booking directly. I had thought it was actually even more-cheaper, but it turns out that the agency's quote didn't include all the taxes.) All sorts of nagging worries while we were busy being overwhelmed by the crowd of people crushing up against the glass windows, looking in at the arriving passengers for the person they were supposed to meet.

But then we went out to the curb, and Forrest spotted the guy with my name on a sign (that listed like five other names). Not ditched! Success!

We (by which I mean mostly I) chatted with the guy in Spanish a little bit while waiting for the car to come around to pick us up. Turns out, the car they picked us up in was the one we would be renting. I dunno if that's a normal rental car thing, but it was nice to see that the car worked before we took over. ;)

The guy at Mapache Rent a Car was a little pushy about the optional insurance packages, but not any more than most car-related salesmen I've had to interact with.

But he did give us a map, directions, and a local's sense of how long it would take to drive to our destination — Ciudad Quesada, aka San Carlos — 3 hours, instead of the 1 hour that the TripAdvisor forums had led me to believe. This led to a bit of... strife... with the worried (and also tired and hungry) husband. You see, even though we had landed at 1:30pm, everything was taking longer than expected, and it gets dark very promptly at 6pm on the equator. And when the rental car guy told us it took 3 hours because the roads became very steep and windy 1 hour out... Well, Forrest was worried in a completely justified sort of way. But we decided to drive as far as we felt comfortable, and made room in our expectations for sleeping in one of the two towns that were on the road before Quesada.

Driving is not as bad as we were led to believe

In what became a theme for this trip, we slowly began to think that the roads in Costa Rica might not actually be as bad as everyone (including the rental car guy) would have us believe. The Pan-American Highway, for instance, is certainly smaller than we would have expected a major highway (only one lane in each direction), but it was in great condition. And sure, it was raining (because summer is the rainy season in Costa Rica), but it was just normal rain, not scary torrential monsoon rain or anything.

Between the verbal instructions the rental car guy gave us, the map he highlighted for us, and the iPad GPS (with detailed maps that Forrest had pre-downloaded before the trip), we were able to find the turn off of the Pan-American Highway and head north toward Quesada. When we hit the first town on the route, Naranjo, we felt comfortable to continue onward, so we did.

Just outside of town, there was this van with speakers mounted to its roof. They were blasting advertisements for some local business, in the same way you might get spam flyers in the mail advertising a sale at the grocery store. It was like spam, in van form. Van-spam, if you will. (Sorry, couldn't resist!)

A little further down the road, we drove through Zarcero, which is apparently "famous" for its weird topiary garden in the middle of the town. Forrest ask me if I wanted to stop and walk around, but A) I knew as well as he did that daylight was an issue, and B) I didn't especially feel the need to walk around. We sorta looked at each other, judging whether the other was more "into" the topiaries, and then we agreed we'd seen as much as either of us felt compelled to. Maybe that makes us bad tourists, but we're the same kind of bad tourist, so it makes travelling together work out. :)

Zarcero by CostaRicaPhotos.com
Zarcero
(photo courtesy CostaRicaPhotos.com)

Just beyond Zarcero was where the rental car guy had warned us the road became very steep, windy, and just generally bad. We did get stuck in a traffic jam because of a couple one-way, the-same-direction-must-always-yield bridges, it really *wasn't that bad. For instance, the breaks never failed like what happened once to Forrest when he was driving down some truly steep roads to go backpacking. And the road was always two-lane (except for those pesky bridges with the ceda el paso aka "yield" signs), unlike the part of CA-4 between Ebbetts Pass and Markleeville that we've both travelled multiple times.

If you're Friends or Family with me on Flickr, you can see Forrest's awesome "not amused" expression at being stuck in said traffic jam. :P

We checked in again with each other about how we felt on pushing on all the way to our destination vs stopping early in Zarcero. We both agreed that the roads had been fine and seemed perfectly safe to drive even past dark, if necessary. So onward we went!

Getting to the hotel

We rolled in to Ciudad Quesada at 6 o'clock, right at sunset. Our next "adventure" was locating the hotel where we (supposedly! hopefully!) had reservations for the night. In Costa Rica, no buildings have addresses. Instead, they have relative directions. For example, our hotel's location was 400 meters north and 200 east of the central plaza. A block is roughly 100 meters. So we drove to the plaza and counted blocks. There were some one-way streets which we had to dance around, which means we got slightly lost once before finally finding the hotel.

The front door had a locked gate, but ringing the doorbell promptly called the young man behind the front desk to open it. I told him (in Spanish; I'm positive he spoke no English) that we had a reservation. He looked us up in a logbook-type-thing and found us. I was so relieved; up until this point, I had been afraid we didn't really have a reservation and we'd be spending a stressful time chasing down last-minute accommodations.

I asked to see the room before paying. He said of course and took me down the tiled hallway to the last room. It had a private bathroom (which is an optional upgrade feature in most Costa Rican hotels), a queen bed, a twin bed, and a fan (but no A/C, which I hadn't thought to ask about over the phone). It seemed sparse but clean and safe.

The only questionable thing about the room (other than the lack of A/C) was the shower. Check out the photo. See the green wire coming out of the wall and connecting to the shower head? That's how the water gets heated. Our guide book said that they aren't all that uncommon, and are affectionately known as "suicide showers". The book recommended you not adjust the temperature while running the water(!). I ended up deciding I wasn't in that much need of a shower. Forrest said it was for the best, because apparently there was a giant nasty spider in the shower stall that I wouldn't have wanted to see. D:

Anyway, I went back to the front desk to pay for the room. It was ₡15,000 for the room. They didn't take credit cards, but had no trouble with American dollars. I only had twenties, so I gave him $40 and he gave me back ₡5,000.

During our entire trip, we never came across anywhere that did not as readily accept dollars as colones. What's more, all but two or three places gave us colones in charge at the actual exchange rate (₡500 for $1) without charging any fees at all. There is absolutely no reason to exchange money in Costa Rica; they either take credit cards or American dollars, and if you overpay with the latter you magically get local currency at the best possible rate. It was pretty cool.

I asked whether there was a curfew. The employee told us there wasn't; we could come and go as we pleased, we'd just have to ring the bell to get the front desk's attention. With that, we said good night and headed out to dinner.

Delicious, delicious steak

So Ciudad Quesada is in the middle of cattle country. And when in the cattle country, it's my philosophy that one should eat steak for dinner. I had researched (via Foursquare! hehe) a steakhouse with good reviews beforehand, so we headed straight for the Coca Loca Steakhouse on the western edge of the central plaza.

The restaurant looked a little hole-in-the-wall-ish and Forrest was a little reluctant to go in. But he was even less interested in searching for a new place to eat, so we went in. Like in every single restaurant during our trip, the waiter said we could sit wherever we wanted; we were never seated by a waiter.

Forrest had heard somewhere that ordering things rare or medium-rare was unusual, so we braced ourselves for getting medium or well-done steaks. But thankfully either Forrest's information was bad or the waiter knew to ask foreigners about steak done-ness, because we got into a discussion with the waiter about the Spanish words for it! Apparently it's rojo, medio, y bien cocido (IIRC).

I ordered a filet mignon and Forrest ordered a ... T-bone? (I'll have to ask him if he remembers.) But the cut of meat isn't the interesting thing; the size of the steaks was the interesting thing. They were both huge. I stuffed myself but was only able to eat half my steak, despite it being delicious. Forrest managed to eat all of his steak, which turned out to be his favorite meal of the trip, but he was very full. When a Tico* family of four sat down at the table next to us, we noticed they ordered "family style", which seemed much more sensible to us now that we'd seen the portion size.

"Tico" is the word for a Costa Rican.

Possessed TV

We walked waddled back to the hotel, counting blocks as well as double-checking landmarks. (I'd also recorded the location as a pin on my phone, just in case we somehow got turned around or lost.)

We slept well enough despite the warm evening, except for a very sudden, loud noise jerking us away in the middle of the night. We leapt out of bed, hearts pounding from the adrenaline of surprise. The noise was the TV, which had decided to turn itself on at full volume. I fumbled at the remote buttons in the dark until Forrest reached up to turn it off directly. We have no idea what possessed the TV to pull such a stunt, but we did not appreciate it.


See also my Flickr set for all my photos, and my Foursquare list of the places we visited.

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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Going to Costa Rica!

Forrest and I decided to go to Costa Rica in 2 weeks! There is a lot of stuff to decide on and reserve!

Another (backdated) blog post, another travel adventure! (Yes, yes, I know that both our Zurich/Munich and honeymoon trips aren't written up. Quiet, you.)

Why Costa Rica?

Google is very generous with its paid holidays. For the fourth of July, they not only gave us Wednesday, July 4th, but also the following Thursday and Friday. Which of course meant that pretty much everyone took Monday and Tuesday off to get nine days off for the cost of two vacation days. It's a good thing no serious bugs or outages happened then, because I'm pretty sure there were no (American) Googlers at the office to fix anything. ;)

So Forrest (also a Googler) and I had this big block of time, and we knew we wanted to go on an adventure. We thought about going to Alaska for a while, but the plane tickets were surprisingly expensive. So we started looking at Latin America. South America was expensive, presumably 'cause it's just so far away. And then we looked at the average July temperatures for Central America; Costa Rica seemed "less hot" than other Central American places, and that seemed as good a reason as any.

So we decided to just do it: we picked Costa Rica and bought the tickets on the very same day, just two weeks before we'd be leaving! That didn't leave a whole lot of time to plan a ten-day vacation to a country neither of us knew, but honestly, that was part of the excitement. (Both Forrest and I have always thought it would be exciting ... and maybe a little scary ... to do that clichéd thing of going to the airport and buying a ticket for the next plane flying to an "exotic" destination.)

Pretending to be a travel agent

I took point on doing the bulk of the research and reservations. Forrest looked up what was up with the cell phone situation and determined that we should be able to buy a local SIM card in-country to get internet. But pretty much everything else about our trip, I figured out for us. It was crazy-intense: there are so many moving parts to a ten-day trip in a foreign country! I can definitely believe that travel agents earn their fees.

So I did lots of googling, lots of travel book reading, lots of forum-reading and -posting. For pretty much the entire two weeks, I lived and breathed Costa-Rica-trip-planning. I took notes on what sounded interesting and gradually (but not too gradually! I only had two weeks!) formed an idea for what we might do while in Costa Rica. I sent the list over to Forrest for comment, and we were both pretty much on the same page. (We really travel well together, because we're both into the same sorts of things and like the same pace.)

(Here's where I'm going to plug TripIt as a great resource for not only storing your travel documents but also planning and coordinating a trip with others. It was super helpful!)

I made reservations mostly by email, but I did have to call one hotel via Skype because they only had a local Costa Rican phone number and no website or email address at all. And of course the phone call was entirely in Spanish, so that was challenging and exciting! (This was a non-tourist hotel in a non-tourist town.)

The woman on the phone at first spoke at me like I was fluent, but I quickly got her to ask simpler questions (and by simple, I mean simple: ¿Uno o dos personas?, hehe). She asked me for a local phone number, but I didn't have one yet. She didn't seemed bothered by this. Then she confirmed the date, how many people, that the room had a private bathroom, the rate, and ... hung up. Without taking any contact or payment information from me. So I was like, "Um, I think we have a reservation for the first night..." :P

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Saturday, February 25, 2012

Dinner & Closed Shops

Chinese... Thai... Swiss? Restaurant

After I finally got Forrest up from his nap, we walked 15 minutes down Bederstraße (that's a street name, FYI ;)) to look for a supermarket to buy some snacks. The place ended up being closed, so we wandered into the Suan Long China Restaurant to eat. The waiter didn't speak English, so we got by on my smattering of beginner's German, pointing at the menu, and gesturing. We got the beef fried rice and lemon chicken that we wanted, though!

The fried rice's flavor was quite different than we expected — distinctly pad-thai-esque. Then we noticed the statues in the entry looked far more Thai than Chinese... And the waitresses looked more ethnically Thai than Chinese, now that we stopped to think about it. So we ended up at some Thai-Chinese fusion plase, I guess. It's good tho'. :)

Wandering around closed stores

We took the tram back from dinner (Forrest's feet were bothering him) and we checked out the hours of the Starbucks and other stores nearby. Everything seems to close on Sunday, so we're not quite sure what we'll be doing tomorrow. Besides checking out the Grossmünster cathedral, that is. (They're open after mass.)

There is a small mall right next to our hotel, but all the shops had already closed for the evening. Despite this, the main door into the mall was open and there were a handful of people strolling around. So we wandered around there a little bit, found a supermarket and a bookstore to investigate later, then headed back to our room.

Google Voice & Skype work, kinda

we tried giving our parents a call over Google Voice. It had terrible echo and lag, though, so we gave up on that method. I called my parents back via Skype, but there wasn't enough bandwidth to do video and the audio wasn't all that great either. Forrest finally bought a cheap phone card and called his parents on a (gasp) phone, which actually worked.

I'll try Skype again from work on Monday, to see if it was just a bandwidth issue like I suspect.

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Nach Zürich!

I'm writing this blog post from my hotel room in Zurich, Switzerland! In case you were asleep during that last sentence, let me reiterate: I'm in Europe! A week (working) in Zurich, then a 4-day vacation to Munich.

My team at YouTube works closely with another YouTube team in Zurich, and so here we are (are will be, as teammates arrive over the weekend) to visit with them face to face. Forrest has tagged along for the ride (out of pocket). This is going to be so awesome.

Language on the Non-Stop Flight

The plane ride over was a direct flight on Swiss air from SFO to ZRH. We flew in coach, which worked out okay for 5'2" me, less so for 6'2" Forrest. The on-board dinner, chicken and gravy-goopy and rice, was actually edible, so that was nice. And the wine was free! The stewardess was like, "Um, also, everything else is free to," just in case I was uncertain. :P

I was expecting to hear a lot of German on the plane, but I wasn't expecting there to be so many French-speaking passengers on the flight too. I know that the eastern part of Switzerland speaks French, but Zurich is in the western, German-speaking part of the country. There was an elderly couple seated next to me who clearly didn't speak English. I couldn't hear them as they talked quietly together, but it didn't sound like German, so I figured it was probably French like the passengers behind me.

Throughout the flight, the elderly man and I communicated wordlessly. He tapped me on the shoulder for help when he had somehow gotten the entire cradle for the funky remote control to pop loose, and again when he needed help with the retracto-cord for said remote. We gestured and "spoke" with facial expressions when he needed to get up to use the bathroom or stretch his legs. Every single time I got something from my backpack in the carry-on compartment above the seats, he reached out to help lift it (ineffectually, but I know he was trying to help out a stranger).

It wasn't until we were descending for landing that I clearly heard the old man tap on the seat-back display and say to his wife, "Un grado," referring to the temperature. I assumed that they spoke Italian, the third* official language of Switzerland and screwed up the courage to see how far my Spanish would go with an Italian-speaking Swiss man.

I was shocked to discover I had been sitting next to a Spanish-speaking madrideño the entire flight! I wish I had tried asking him what languages he spoke at the beginning of the flight. I'll try to take this as a reprimand/lesson to be bolder in approaching people on this trip!

We remarked on the snow in the distance out the airplane window and commented on how San Francisco had no snow and was in fact very sunny, warm, and springlike in comparison. The couple had been in California for the past month (treinta días rather than un mes) visiting their daughter who lives in Burlingame. I told him I lived in Los Gatos, near San Jose, and we chuckled about all the city names in California being Spanish names. He told me that they had visited a mission while they were there, and I told him that all California school kids have to do school reports on the missions. And then it was time to disembark. But it was awesome to see that my Spanish really is good enough to have a conversation, at least a simple one with a willing partner. :)

Zombies

Forrest and I didn't really get much sleep to speak of on the plane. So we were the zombies, trudging through the airport. The customs agent didn't ask us a single question, just stamped our passports with an indulgent smile when I specifically requested it. Unlike the customs agent in Madrid (eleven years ago!), who had haphazardly opened to a page at random and faintly stamped my passport crookedly, the Swiss agent made a neat, crisp stamp aligned with the margins on the first page. We extrapolate from our single data point that all Swiss must be neat and orderly. :P

We met up with my manager, who had been on the same flight (business class), picked up our checked bags, and zombied out to buy train tickets. The automated tellers require credit cards with smart chips in them, so we had to buy the tickets from a person at the window. This turned out to be necessary anyway, because there were like 20 different ticket options plus a "more options" button, so we really didn't have a clue which ticket we needed to buy from the machine anyway. The woman at the counter was very friendly and helpful (and English-speaking) and we ended up with the tickets we needed for the week.

We took the S2 train from the airport to our hotel. We checked in, intending to fight off the jetlag and wait until it was actually bedtime to sleep. But Forrest sat on the bed and we were doomed. I set an alarm for 2 hours and we napped. Well, I napped. I'm up writing this blog post now while Forrest continues to sleep. At first I tried to reason/cajole him out of bed, but after half an hour I gave up. He's not gonna be happy about messing up his sleep schedule... :(

But anyway, we're here, we'll eventually get our internal time clocks straighten out, and I'm looking forward to being a new place with new languages and new experiences!

The fourth and final official language is Romansch, spoken by about 1% of the population.

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Saturday, January 28, 2012

Almost Lost Mary (Our Cat)

Mary, one of our cats, snuck out the back door while we were gone for a couple hours. But we eventually found her meowing outside. She seems no worse for wear, although it was a few pretty upsetting moments for me.

Forrest and his dad were bottling homebrew today. After they cleaned up, we went to dinner in Santa Cruz.

When we came back home two and a half hours later, only Amy (one of our cats) came running to kibble-dinner-call. Her sister, Mary, was nowhere to be seen. If there's one thing our cats our consistent about, it's being on-time (or, more often, early) to meal times. That's when we realized that the back door to the deck was slightly ajar.

Mary is always peering through open doors and looking out the windows. She's dashed by me when I get home from work a couple times, and I've had to chase her down the deck and haul her back inside. So when we saw the back door had been left open for hours, and Mary hadn't joined Amy for dinner, we were certain she'd snuck outside.

Our cats have essentially never been outside. They certainly don't know how to win any fights or be "street smart." They don't have any experience wandering around and coming back home again. "Lost Pet" posters stay up for a long, long time and I've read plenty of news stories about how the odds of getting a happy phone call from animal control aren't so great. I've lost two cats who wandered outside, one never to be heard from again and another that got run over. So when I realized that Mary had probably been outside for over two hours, in the dark, I immediately assumed the worst and became very sad, thinking I wouldn't ever see her again.

But I grabbed a handful of kibble, went out the back door, and sprinkled it around the deck while calling her name, hoping the sounds of me and the kibble would bring her running. Forrest suggested I put the kibble in a bowl so the kibble-noise would be louder. I thought then that I heard some rustling in the ivy or the trees or something, over in the area beyond our backyard. I stood still at the deck railing and looked in the direction of the sound, but I didn't hear anything more.

I tried the same routine out the front door and the side door, but I heard nothing further. So I sat on the floor next to the cat-feeder (where Amy was still obliviously chowing down on dinner), opened up the front door again, and looked out at the front porch. I felt defeated, certain that no amount of wishful thinking that we would find Mary would make it any more likely. I was feeling really sad. Every now and then I'd jingle some more kibble and call for Mary. Maybe she'd wander back some time later that night, if I just stayed at the door and waited for her.

Then I heard Forrest tapping urgently on the deck window and waving his firesword (ie, ridiculously powerful flashlight). It's only the second time I've ever been pleased that he has this ridiculous flashlight. Because he'd found Mary. After I had left to look around the other sides of the house, Forrest had grabbed the flashlight and a bowl of kibble and kept jingling it while looking out the way I had first thought I'd heard rustling. And eventually, Mary showed up below the deck, meowing.

I grabbed my own flashlight and ran out the side door, into the chicken yard that was closer to Mary. I lifted the chicken wire fence and Mary scooted under it. Her tail was all poofy. I carried her inside, so surprised and relived that she hadn't gotten herself eaten or beaten up or truly lost.

You can believe me when I say that we'll be double-checking that back door shuts all the way from now on.

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Saturday, January 14, 2012

South Coast Ridge Road

We camped overnight near Big Sur and did a couple-hour drive on a "4x4" dirt road along a ridge between the Pacific Ocean and some valleys. We enjoyed some great weather and gorgeous views.

See all the photos of this trip. (To see photos that include people in them, you have to be my "Friend" on Flickr.)

Before the Trip

Last weekend, we went on an "offroad adventure." But because we'd never actually gone offroading before, we picked out one of the easiest roads from the book we bought, and we talked my parents (who have gone on other easy 4x4 roads), Forrest's dad Dennis, and our mutual friend Ben, into going along with us. Our destination was the South Coast Ridge Road, in the Ventana Wilderness in the Santa Lucia mountain range.

Forrest and I went up to Walnut Creek the night before. Yes, this is an hour's drive in the wrong direction, which we then had to backtrack. We did this because the truck's power steering had died a while ago, and Forrest hadn't yet fixed it. The parking space at our house is a narrow, sloped patch of chunky gravel with poor lighting, so I don't blame him at all for not having worked on the cars. My dad, on the other hand, has a nice, flat, well-lighted working area with even more tools than Forrest has. So off to my parents' house we went.

This did have the side benefit of forcing us to be completely packed and ready to go the night before. Left to our own procrastinatory devices, we probably would have been doing last-minute packing right up until it was the agreed-upon time to leave.

Forrest stayed up late fixing the truck and continued the next morning, but he got it done. I went food- and supply-shopping while he worked. My parents left ahead of us, so that someone could get to the camp while it was still daylight and set up.

We ended up getting to Ben's house exactly at the agreed-upon 3 PM, but there was a slight hitch: we had discovered that one of the shocks had sheered off completely. Sorta important for an offroad trip. So I rode with Ben to the campsite while Forrest picked up his dad in Santa Cruz and repaired the truck with Dennis' help. Luckily, the job was as quick as Forrest had thought it would be, and they ended up only ~20 minutes behind me and Ben.

Camping at Bottcher's Gap

We stayed the night at Bottcher's Gap, which as windy as only a gap can be. Although, to be fair, even when the wind gusted and flared the campfire, it wasn't that cold. And once we got into bed and out of the on-again off-again wind, it was downright warm (for a January night). I even took off my long johns, and Forrest unzipped his sleeping bag completely. It was probably somewhere in the 40's.

Forrest cooked us all dinner, with help from Dennis. They cooked up some delicious steak on the camp grill, accompanied by maple carrots in the dutch oven and sweet rolls from Safeway. We had a near-incident with the table when Dennis sat on the unsupported end of the bench and nearly tipped the whole thing over, but otherwise dinner was good. :)

After dinner, we sat or stood around the campfire. Ben doesn't drink much, but one thing he does is Tullamore Dew, a tasty yet reasonably-priced Irish whiskey. So Forrest and I made sure to bring a small bottle of it. Between the six of us, we managed to polish off the entire bottle. What's camping without the drinking around the fire, I ask you? Not camping, that's what. :P

A Late Start

Ben and Dennis, both being early risers and/or directly in the path of the morning sun, got up sometime around 7 or so. I'm not exactly sure when they got up, because I was definitely still dozing. Forrest and I slept in the back of our truck, with the same setup that we used for our cross-country honeymoon trip. Unfortunately, the curtains' sticking-back velcro had un-stuck itself, so we had no curtains to block the sun. Which meant that I got to see the sunrise and only dozed off and on until I finally got up around 8. My parents slept in longer.

Eventually my parents got up too, and my dad started cooking his famous Mountain Man breakfast in the dutch oven. It was delicious, as always. How can you go wrong with an omelette with bacon and potatoes and melted cheese on top?

We finally got on the road around noon. We got slowed down by two slow-moving drivers along Highway 1 on our way to the start of the road, so we didn't even start heading out into the offroad part of things until past 1 PM. The offroad book had said to allot 3-4 hours for the road, and with it being winter and short days, I was a little worried about having enough light. But we headed off anyway, starting on the south of the Coast Ridge Road and heading for the northern end, where it T's into the Nacimiento-Fergusson Road.

South Coast Ridge Road

We turned onto Los Burros Rd / Forest Road 23S01, just south of Plaskett. We were immediately greeted by a sign warning us, "Impassable when wet." But despite it being January and thus supposedly winter, it hadn't rained in a while and the ground was completely dry. We headed up the road, quickly climbing into the coastal mountain range. We stopped at the first good vied of the ocean and took its picture. But I got the sense that the rest of the group didn't really want to make photo-opportunity stops, so that and the lunchtime photo were the only two I got of the South Coast Ridge Road itself.

We drove past a small section of houses. Like, normal, primary residence houses, not rustic cabins or camps. I can only imagine what their pantries look like, given that whenever it rains there's no getting in or out on anything motorized...

Once we got on the ridge, it was gorgeous views of the oak-covered canyons leading to the Pacific Ocean to the west, and equally gorgeous views out over the ridges and down into the Salinas Valley. We speculated about whether you could see the Sierra Nevadas themselves on a clear day, or just the thunderheads over them. But as it wasn't a particularly clear day, we could see neither. Even so, the views were great.

The road was surprisingly well-maintained and easy to drive. It was plenty wide, totally dry, and so long as you had an automatic or low gears, even the "steep" sections were totally navegable by noob 4x4 drivers. It was almost disappointing, except for the fact that I would not have rather had the conditions end up being to hard and get us stuck with no one being truly experienced at leading an offroad party. The only "exciting" thing that happened was when a group of three dirtbikers nearly ran into us as they came flying around the corner.

We stopped for lunch on a narrow section of the ridge with a pull-out space large enough for our vehicles to get off the road. We had a tailgate make-your-own-sandwich lunch. We stood around, eating our sandwiches, drinking iced tea. When the western view of the ocean got boring, you could just turn around and look out over the valleys, then back at the ocean, etc. It was a beautiful day, warm without being hot. It was hard to remember that it was January!

We headed onward and eventually made it to the paved Nacimiento-Furgesson Road, the only road that cuts east-west through the Santa Lucia Mountains. Rather than head back the way we came, north up Highway 1, we headed east toward the much faster Highway 101. The road took us through the Hunter Liggett Military Reservation. It was predominantly empty landscape, full of old oak trees and rolling hills. It was sunset by then and rather picturesque, except for imagining unexploded ordinance lurking just off the road. :P

It was full dark when we finally got to Soledad (where it's happening!). We stopped at the traditional Soledad attractions: Las Delicias bakery and Starbucks. Unlike in years' past where I was super nervous about ordering in Spanish at the bakery, this time I was much more confident and just ordered. Like a boss.

From there, we went our separate ways. I had a good time and look forward to our next adventure!

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