Vacation to Spain: Tapas, Hill Towns, and Tons of Photos

November 16th, 2010

As the pressure of being a volunteer at POGO mounted, my wife and I sought to seek relief and flew off to sunny Spain where we had a fun, relaxed vacation.

We landed in Madrid, taxied in to downtown where our Paris-based son was to meet us, only to find out he misunderstood when we were planning on arriving, so the hotel had us booked for the next week.  Hmmm!  What to do.  So we called Paris, he arranged to fly down that night, and the hotel provided us accommodations for that evening.

Things went more smoothly after that.  We visited the famous art museums (including the Reina, my wife’s name), managed to sample as many tapas bar as our stomachs would permit, and walked the streets and parks of Madrid.  The architecture was wonderfully varied and exciting, so I was compelled to take scores of photos.

Next we hopped a fast speed train down to Seville and stayed in a quaint hostel in an out-of-the-way alley.  In Seville the sun was extreme, the sky crystal blue, the people charming, and the food sumptuous.  We walked the crowded, friendly streets, visited the beautiful cathedral and palace, and toured the Alcazar—a phenomenally beautiful mosque.  While in Seville, we rented a driver and explored the surrounding countryside and mountain hill towns, their homes all white-washed and tiled in red, some built into the hillside rock formations and caves.  The beauty of these towns and countryside compelled me to again take an uncommon number of photos.

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My Trip to Joshua Tree: Five Questions With Bryan

June 30th, 2010

Not long ago, POGO Blog Editor Bryan Rahija dashed off to California for a vacation. Here he fields five questions about his trip.

1. When did you realize you were not on the east coast anymore?

When I hit my first LA traffic jam, driving away from LAX in a freshly rented car. Other moments of pure west-coast zen involved delicious sushi, frozen yogurt for $0.29 / lb, stumbling onto the Nickelodeon Kids Choice Awards on UCLA’s campus, and burritos at Los Jarritos II in Pomona, CA.

2. Coolest sight?

A few come to mind:

  • Dolphins hopping out of the Pacific Ocean in Santa Barbara,
  • The moonrise on our first night in Joshua Tree National Park,
  • A rattlesnake on the Boy Scout Trail,
  • The San Andreas fault—you can actually see the fault’s ridge peeking above ground from an overlook in Joshua Tree,
  • A hillside populated only by charred trees, all blackened during a recent wildfire, but probably the best was:
  • The sight of Pad See Ew—my first warm meal after four days of bagels and trail mix—being delivered to my table at a Thai restaurant in Joshua Tree, CA.

3. Most memorable activity?

Maybe just driving through the Joshua Tree National Park? The park is pretty large and the trails are spread out. There’s something special about the open road, jarring landscapes, and booming cactus metropolises that seem to appear suddenly out of thin air alongside the highway.

4. By plane, train, or car?

We flew in—not too bad a journey thanks to Delta’s in-flight trivia game, which lets you compete against your fellow passengers. So addictive. I now know that the average person has 24 ribs in their ribcage! Later we rented a car so that we could tool around the state.

5. Any tips for someone interested in visiting?

Bring plenty of sunscreen and don’t forget to stop at In N Out Burger.

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My Trip to Israel: Five Questions With Mandy

March 5th, 2010

Yes, between all the “exposing corruption” and “exploring solutions” POGO staffers do occasionally sneak away for a vacation now and again. The Watercooler recently caught up with POGO national security investigator Mandy Smithberger for a quick rundown of her adventure in Israel, which had the incredible timing to coincide with Washington’s biggest snowstorm in ages. Here, she offers a snapshot of the trip by filling in the blanks:

Best meal: There was no real “stand out” meal, just lots of good, fresh food. I came away with a new appreciation for falafel and eggplant, though I can still take or leave hummus (editors note: Papa Smithberger reportedly raved about the desserts).

Moment you realized you definitely were not in the United States of America: There wasn’t snow everywhere! I left town right before snowpocalypse. But on a more serious note, probably the security everywhere — the Israeli guards around the Old City, and the Tourist police in Jordan.

New word learned in a language other than English: Yalla — Arabic for hurry up.

Favorite building or piece of architecture: Definitely Masada. It was amazing to see King Herod the Great’s baths, how he built into the rocks, and the cistern system. And of course there’s the story of the mass suicide of the Jews there to avoid being enslaved or killed by the Romans.

Overall most memorable activity / tour: There were so many things. I was particularly interested in the places where the stories in the Bible could be verified with archeological truth, especially seeing the Olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane. Riding into Petra on horseback — as touristy and hokey as that is — was a great way to see one of the most beautiful sites in the world. It’s also hard to beat going to where Jesus was bapitzed in the River Jordan. Finally, I think it can be easy to forget about the role of women in faith, so seeing the Church of Visitation — which is largely devoted to Mary and Elizabeth, but also honors other women of religious significance — was a unique and memorable site.


Experience that reminded you most of POGO: My mom asking our guide a question that hit a little too close to home.

Stay tuned for more dispatches from around the world!

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My Trip to Bhutan

March 26th, 2009

My wife and I just recently returned from an exciting month’s travel to and through Bhutan and India. Bhutan is a small but progressive state on India’s northern border. It lies just south of Tibet and the Himalayas. The people are beautiful and welcoming, the mountains are spectacular, the government is caring (choosing to focus upon Gross National Happiness rather than GNP), and life there is serene, guided by the harmonious teachings of Buddhism.

India was a whirlwind of diversity and contradictions, with its emerging economic modernization in constant conflict with the traditions of ancient religions and the political corruption rampant in many third-world societies. While in the north central plains of India, we visited scores of temples, mosques, forts, palaces and monuments…each more wondrous than the last. We visited rural villages and met with the people; we were fortunate to spot of tigress in the wild; we rode a camel and an elephant; and we tasted a broad menu of Indian delights that constantly challenged our western palates. It goes without saying that the Taj Mahal is worthy of being considered one the Seven Wonders of the World. Life and death on the River Ganges in the holy city of Varanasi is unique unto itself, while life in cities like Kolkata, Delhi, Jaipur (the “pink” city) offers an organized chaos amidst levels of filth and poverty rarely seen in developed nations. In contrast, we were placed in five star hotels that reflected the immense wealth that has existed in India throughout history.

In the South we spent a relaxing few days on a houseboat floating through the back waters of Kerala. On the shores of these waterways we again visited the disparities in wealth that can even be found in small villages. But Kerala distinguished itself from other states in India with high levels of literacy and education that stretch from urban to rural communities, with relatively clean and organized patterns of mobility, and a communist run government that is less tainted by corruption and more committed to serving the interests of its citizens. We visited a small and dwindling community of Jews in Cochin that dates back to the trade with Judea during the time of King Solomon. Throughout our journey we were fortunate to have some of the most personable and informative guides we have ever traveled with.

— Paul Chassy

Paul Chassy is a retired DOJ employee who has been helping out with our contracting investigations. We greatly appreciate Paul’s contribution to POGO, and we can’t wait to hear more about his travels!

My Trip Down Under

December 8th, 2008

Hey POGO and friends.  Here are a couple of the pictures I took on my trip to Australia in October.  I’ve gotta say, it’s the best trip I’ve ever taken!  Everything was so different from anything I’d ever experienced before (other than that this was the first country I’d been to where English was the native language, and even then, they speak their own wonderful version of the language)–the culture, the land, the people, and the critters.

Almost without exception, the Australians were friendly, tolerant, and humble almost to a fault.  One night around a campfire, the head stockman of the station we were staying at played the didgeridoo for us.  It was amazing to listen to, and we were all enthralled.  At the end, though, James apologized to us for not playing it better!

The distances are unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, as well.  Australia is comparable in size to the U.S., but is for the most part flat and sparsely populated.  So when we drove somewhere, we drove for 200-400 kilometers to get there, and saw few if any other cars, houses, or people.  And because the country was so wide open, you could look out the window or stand at the top of a hill and see forever.

The scenery across the country was spectacular, and each place I went to was so different from the place I’d been the day before.  Arid or semi-arid desert in one place, rainforest in another, and ocean in yet another.  One of my favorite places was Kings Canyon in Northern Territory.  I was awed by the place, which was formed over millions of years by an inland sea, and then took its shape as over more millions of years the earth eroded.

And, of course, I got to see in the wild kangaroos, wallabies, a platapus, crocodiles, sea lions, penguins, wild camels, emu, brumbies, koalas, snakes, birds of so many colors and sizes, and so much more.  All uniquely Australian (to one degree or another), and all so very fascinating.

If you’re interested in seeing some of what I experienced, you can see the pictures I took over there at  I saw so much, and yet, there was so much more that I wanted to see. I can’t wait to go back!

— Danni Downing