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October 2008

Camping in Amsterdam

IMG_5773  The Two Crabs love city life in London, but we also love and miss the great outdoors. One of our favorite ways of exploring Europe is on short camping trips to the continent. Camping in Europe is cheap and plentiful. You can find campgrounds in just about every major city, or close by. Many are accessible by public transportation. We rarely spend more than 20 euros a night for two adults, a tent space and a car parking spot. Most campgrounds have a bar and restaurant, hot showers, laundry facilities and a store. Some campgrounds are resorts into themselves. Some of our best meals in Europe have been at European campground restaurants!  A big step up from the cheezy KOA or Yogi Bear campgrounds in the States.

This past weekend we spent three days camping in rainy, chilly Amsterdam. From London, we took the Stena Lines overnight ferry from Harwich, England to Hook of Holland, Netherlands. The Stena Lines "rail-sail" package is one of the best travel deals in Europe; For £49, you get train fare from London to Harwich, a lovely two-person cabin aboard the overnight ferry boat, and train fare from Hook of Holland to Amsterdam. The whole door-to-door trip takes about 12 hours, but you're asleep for most of that time.

IMG_5791  In Asmterdam, we shacked up at Camping Zeeburg. Camping Zeeburg is a bit different from the usual European campground in that near the heart of downtown, about 10 minutes by Tram from Centraal Station, the city's main train station. The clientele includes everybody from families and senior citizens to hippies and potheads. It's also one of the few campgrounds open year-round. During the summer, it is annoyingly packed wall-to-wall with tents. But in the autumn and winter, it's a blissful place, despite the crappy weather.

This was our first trip with our new camping gear. During our recent trip back to the states, we went a bit hog-wild at REI and bought a new tent (REI Quarter Dome), two sleeping bags (REI 40F for him; Big Agnes 15F for her) and other assorted gear. For those unfamiliar,  REI (Recreational Equipment Inc) is one of America's largest outdoor equipment stores. It's also a co-op, which means the customers, not shareholders, own the company. Some of their stores are incredibly huge, with indoor fishing ponds, climbing walls, fake mountain trails, and much more. There is simply nothing in Europe that compares. REI makes the UK's Black's chain look like a knock-off market stall.  And no, REI did not pay me to say this. We are just HUGE REI fans! 

Anyway, our equipment all stood up to the elements, despite torrential vertical downpours, high winds and nighttime temperatures that plummeted to 39F (4 Celsius).  This is about as extreme and roughing-it as we'll get!    We've probably been to Amsterdam a dozen times over the years. Since we've seen all the major sites, this trip was about food!  Here's our Foodie guide to Amsterdam:

IMG_5789Cafe Dulac: This fan-fracking-tastic cafe is located just 10 minutes walk east from Centraal Station. We had the pasta in pesto cream sauce and the focaccia toastie with turkish sausage and young Gouda cheese. YUM. The art deco restaurant is whimsly decorated inside and out, plus there's a beautiful garden out back for good weather. The staff was also fantastic (actually, all customer service in the Netherlands is leaps beyond anything you'll find here in London!). 

De Beiaard: A great place for a cheap lunch, this popular place is located in Koningsplein. They have more than a dozen regional beers on tap. Lunch for two, including three beers was just 17 euros.

Sukabumi: Amsterdam is awash with Indonesian restaurants, due to its large Indonesian immigrant community. Two Crabs had never tried Indonesian food until this trip. We kind of just stumbled on this restaurant in the posh west Jordaan district. It was fantastic!  At most restaurants, you can get a la carte or set meals. We went for a la carte and had a great prawn curry dish, and spicy beef. Both were to-die-for.

British Pound gets pounded!

2802350735_23a34b9dd3  Good news for American visitors to Europe; bad news for those of us who get paid in pounds:  The British Sterling Pound has collapsed to its lowest level in five years against world currencies over news that the UK is now officially in a recession.  As of today, £1 is equal to $1.55 USD -- down from a high of $2.05 in July! And 1 Euro is now equal to $1.26, down from $1.60 last summer.  For Americans, it's never been a better time to visit Europe. You'll get more bang for your buck.  But for those us accustomed to traveling to the US for "half-price" shopping, those days are over, for now.  Start planning your trip now!

Sample of what things cost in London now:

Pint of beer: £2.50  ($3.87 USD...down from $5.12 in July!)
Note: A British imperial pint of beer is 20 U.S. ounces, compared to only 16 ounces for an American pint

Liter of gasoline/petrol: £.97 ($1.50, or about $5.67 a gallon)

Movie ticket: £9.90 ($15)

Dinner for two at moderate restaurant and one drink each: £20 ($30.99)

Underground/Tube one-way ticket: £1.50 ($2.32)

Bus fare: £.90 ($1.39)

Restaurant review: Puerto Mexico

IMG_5757  Long-time readers of Two Crabs know that one of our biggest gripes is the lack of good, authentic Mexican food in London -- or all of Europe for that matter.  Our continuing search took us south of the River Thames to Puerto Mexico in Sydenham, a neighborhood so far south of central London that it might as well be in France (Life outside of Zone 1 & 2 is still hypothetical to the Two Crabs).  Anyway, we get off the train and walk about 10 minutes to Puerto Mexico.

Right away from the outside, you know it's going to be cheezy. The exterior and interior walls are covered in stereotypical drawings like banditos, cactus plants, sombreros, maracas, even a mural of a scene from the film "Desperados" with Antonio Banderas (ahem, who is Spanish, not Mexican). As expected, the food was Tex-Mex and American: fajitas BBQ ribs, tacos, enchiladas, steak, etc.  They have a full bar, a huge margarita menu and several bad Mexican beers like Corona and Sol. I didn't see any actual Latinos working there. But high marks for  customer service that was better than the average British restaurant.

Mrs. Crab had the chimichanga, which she gives high marks.  Mr. Crab has something called a salsita, which was basically chicken fajitas but without the tortillas.  I give it 2 out of 5 stars. It was filling and fine, but not particularly good, and later paid the price for it on the loo. Admittedly, Mr. Crab is Mexican and therefore has very high standards when it comes to Mexican food. 

Our search for good, authentic Mexican food continues!

RECAP REVIEW of London Mexican Restaurants

Cafe Pacifico (Covent Garden): Better than average. 3.5 out of 5 stars

Chiquito (Soho): Average Tex-Mex chain restaurant. 2 out of 5 stars

Desperados (Angel Islington):  Absolutely horrendous. 1 out of 5 stars

Mucho Mas (Angel Islington): Average. 2 out of 5 stars

Puerto Mexico (Syndenham): Average. 2 out of 5 stars

Texas Embassy (Trafalgar Square). Pretty good Tex-Mex restaurant. 3 out of 5 stars

Tortilla (Angel Islington):  Rather quite good! Equivelent to Chipolte in USA. 3.5 out of 5 stars

Cool Chile Company (Borough Market). If you want good Mexican food in London, you have to make it yourself. That's where Cool Chile Co. comes in. They are a market stall in London's famous foodie Borough Market that sells authentic ingredients including dried poblano chiles, tortillas, mole sauce and mole-making kits, Mexican chocolate, black beans, tomatillos and more.  They also have a taqueria in West London which we have not yet tried. 4 out of 5 stars (Lost a star for sky-high prices and rubbery tortillas).

The Big Prediction

The Two Crabs prediction for the 2008 U.S. Presidential Election: Obama wins, though not the landslide many are predicting. Mr. Crab's guess - 338 electoral votes for Obama vs. 200 for McCain (270 needed to win).

Make your own electoral map at

Madonna & Guy R.I.P. 2000-2008

If Madonna & Guy Ritchie can't make it, what hope is there for the rest of us? :o) Mr. Crab covered the celebrity couple's breakup yesterday. Here's the front door of their £13.5 million ($23.4 million USD) double townhouse, no doubt soon to be on the auction block. If you're in London and want to get one last look at the celeb couple's home, it's located at 51 Great Cumberland Place, about two blocks north of the Marleybone Tube station.

I'm a published author!

IMG_3508   Wee! Look at me!  I'm finally a published author. Nearly a year after my first research assignment for Lonely Planet travel guides, I'm finally seeing the fruits of my labor.  The Lonely Planet Mexico guidebook was published on Sept. 1, 2008.  (Though I was supposed to receive my free authors copies a month before publication, I only received the books last week. In fact, the first time I saw the book was at a Borders inside Miami International Airport on my way back from Colombia!). 

I also contributed a chapter to Lonely Planet Flightless: Incredible Journeys Without Leaving the Ground, an anthology of travel essays that was published in July.  Next up: Lonely Planet Middle East - Iraq Chapter (pub date May 2009) and am currently co-writing the next edition of Lonely Planet Colombia (mid 2009).   

Click on the links above or on the right sidebar to buy my books!  And to answer everyone's most common question:  NO, I unfortunately do not receive royalties from book sales. But by purchasing the book, you will at least keep me gainfully employed!  Thanks for your patronage!  :o)

Voting from Abroad: VOTE OR STFU!

Scan_8103185632_1  Earlier this week, Mr. and Mrs. Crab received their absentee ballots by email for the Nov. 4 elections in Arlington County, Virginia.  Of course the whole world knows we will be electing a new U.S. President this year. Readers might be surprised to see that there are six political parties on the ballot seeking the White House, including some little-known parties (The Independent Green Party!?!?!)  There's also a space for a write-in vote. (Click on the photo for a full-sized version)

In addition to the Prez, we'll also be voting for a U.S. Senator and a congressman for the House of Representatives' 8th Congressional District. Finally there are several local elections for a county board member, a school board member and a handful of referendum questions that are essentially Arlington residents for permission for the county to go into debt to fund such improvement projects as Metro, schools and sewers. 

American expats have only a few days left to register to vote from abroad. The deadline varies state by state: For example, in Virginia, the deadline is Monday, Oct 6. California has one of the longest deadlines on Oct. 20.  

Chatting with fellow expats, I'm surprised at all the misconceptions surrounding American citizens' right to vote from abroad. Some people seem to think they aren't eligible to vote, or think its difficult, costly or time consuming.

For the record: Any U.S. citizen living abroad has the right to vote, providing you are 18 years old and not convicted of a felony. There is no cost, apart from the postage to mail back your ballot. There is no priordomestic voting experience required.  Even if you are 99 years old, have never voted in your entire life and have never lived stateside, you can still vote in the Nov. 4 election, provided you hold U.S. citizenship.

Another widely-held misconception is the belief that you need a mailing address in the United States:  You do NOT need to hold a residence or mailing address in the USA in order to vote. Repeat: YOU DO NOT NEED A U.S. ADDRESS IN ORDER TO VOTE FROM ABROAD!  Your state of record and congressional district will be the last address where you lived in the United States.  In the case of citizens who have never lived in America -- such as children of US citizens living abroad -- your home of record will most likely be the last address where your parents lived. 

Voting from abroad is relatively simple and painless. The most direct way to vote is to contact your home district's election board. If you're not sure where your home district is, then start here:

Overseas Vote Foundation:  This is the best and easiest website for registering to vote from abroad. The website will ask you a few simple questions to determine your eligibility and your voting jurisdiction.

A few other resources:

Federal Voting Assistance Program  (Originally aimed at U.S. military but now open to all American expats). (operated by the Democratic Party)

Republicans Abroad (Run by the Republican Party) (another government portal)

Now, you have no excuse. Go and exercise your right to vote TODAY!!!