Tag Archives: travel

The Land of Pharaohs and Omaha Beef Liver

August 6, 2017 by
Illustration by Derek Joy

CAIRO, Egypt—Sometime around 2012, I started going to a sausage and liver cart in the middle-class neighborhood of Dokki where I then lived. I was still new to Egypt, having recently moved from the U.S.

The cart, however, was a longstanding neighborhood fixture. Since 1976, from dusk until dawn, Ezz al-Monofy has been serving spicy sausage and liver meats in vino bread (which is like a less-airy hotdog bun).

On any given night, there are 30 to 40 men of all ages, standing and downing sandwiches for late-night snacks. Steam rises from three frying basins, illuminated by bright fluorescent lights. On the otherwise dark street, the glowing cart becomes a beacon for the nocturnal community of Giza, on the western bank of the Nile opposite Downtown Cairo.

For my friends and I, a visit to Ezz al-Monofy is part of our healing process. The spicy and greasy meat, washed down with some of the saltiest pickles in the Cairo metro, enables our bodies to retain more water. Consequently, the food cart helps our minds to function properly the next day. A long night of drinking Stella—the Egyptian beer, not to be confused with the Belgian brand of the same name—can result in an incapacitating hangover.

I didn’t realize the significance of these late-night food runs until Abou Malak, the cart’s mustachioed cook, who I came to know, asked me where I was from.

“Omaha,” I said.

He stared at me for a second, as if deciding whether I was being honest, or if he should be.

“By the way, this liver is from Omaha,” he replied.

I thought it was some sort of joke.

“Swear on it,” I said.

A bigger man at the cart, with a bigger mustache, gestured at me as if to say, “one second.”

I was afraid I had offended the two men, since I used a more Muslim religious phrase to exclaim my disbelief. For all I knew, they could be Christians, who have had a second-class status in Egypt, and whose security has been threatened (especially recently). He came back with a cardboard box with some blood smudges on it.

The box read:

“GREATER OMAHA

PROVIDING THE HIGHEST

QUALITY BEEF

Produced for Hanzada Company-Cairo, Egypt”

In general, Egyptians love beef liver, and Americans don’t. So by the osmosis of the world economy, Americans tend to sell Egypt liver, and a lot of it.

Egypt is the world’s biggest importer of liver. In fact, Egyptians eat so much American beef liver that there’s a market for American liver near Ramses Square in central Cairo. Meanwhile, American beef producers are actually afraid that they are too dependent on Egypt buying livers, and they have been looking to new markets. But I doubt South Africa, a rising consumer, is up to the challenge. In 2016, 76 percent of all U.S. beef liver exports (68,474 tons) ended up in Egypt.

I’ve been a journalist in Cairo for six years, and it makes sense that the first time I’ve come across a story that really resonates with my American family history—or one that could be written for a hometown publication—has to do with beef.

My grandmother, Frances “Jean” Wheeler, has never seen the mountains or the ocean. My maternal family’s story is one of migration across the Great Plains for various slaughter and meatpacking jobs.

Her grandfather, my great-great-grandfather Emil Peklo from Prague, loaded the family onto a boat and took them to the U.S. According to Grandma, most of the boat’s passengers were sent back, but Emil’s wife gave birth to a son in the harbor, so they were allowed to stay.

When an immigration officer found out Emil was a butcher, he connected him with his brother, who had a meatpacking house in Chicago. The family went west to work there. With the savings from that job, he moved to Lynch, Nebraska, to open a butcher shop.

“Peklo in English is hell. H-E-L-L,” she said. “And he had on his window, “Go to hell for your meat.’”

“Uncle Vic could put on a Sunday dress shirt, roll up his sleeves, put on an apron, and take apart a whole cow without getting a drop of blood on his suit,” Grandma said.

I love my grandmother very much, but she has a tendency toward hyperbole, and the anatomy of a cow makes me doubt this claim. A cow liver can be between 10 and 15 pounds, and anybody who has cut one up knows they’re more slippery than muscle meat.

In the prep area of Ezz al-Monofy, the sous chefs do not have the mind, nor the time, to worry about getting blood on their shirts with a bunch of hangry men around. They cut the liver into pencil thin pieces, which are thrown into 2-gallon pots before being mixed with fried garlic.

After tossing the liver around with a spatula in the oil, Abou Malak adds coriander, cumin, salt, pepper, chili pepper, nutmeg, and more garlic. Another cook slices the vino bread with a box-cutter, slathers them with sesame paste that’s thinned out with lemon juice, and sprinkles that with fresh parsley before passing them to Abou Malak to fill with a serving of liver.

If liver is not for you, the cart also sells home-style sausage and Alexandrian sausage. I’m not aware of the beef sausages’ country—or anatomical region—of origin.

Liver sandwiches are the Egyptian equivalent of the hot dog. They are cheap and probably the nation’s most famous street food. But prices are going up. Recently, a food-ordering service, Otlob, released an infographic warning that the price of a liver sandwich had quadrupled since 2013, and was expected to keep rising.

Rising food prices are a major concern for the Egyptian public. In fall 2016, the government floated the exchange rate, which meant that the price of the Egyptian pound plummeted in comparison to the U.S. dollar. Although Egyptian food prices may seem extraordinarily cheap to American readers back home, the pound’s declining value means it’s increasingly expensive for regular Egyptians to buy anything.

The changing currency dynamics also means American beef has become more expensive to purchase. As a result, the share of liver exports to Egypt from America went down from 82 percent to 76 percent between 2015 and 2016. In 2014, the North African country was the largest importer of liver in the entire world.

The American beef industry uses the term “variety meat” for liver, kidneys, brains, stomach, and such. It’s a beautiful example of an American industrial euphemism. The phrasing implies “choice,” a cornerstone principle in American free-market philosophy. Egyptians use a term that translates to “sweets,” or “fruits of meat,” which sounds more poetic and folksy.

Liver, though, is ultimately a category unto itself, a comfort food of both the rich and poor. When I first encountered liver in Nebraska, I viewed it as leftovers cooked for/by those who couldn’t afford “regular” meat. But a look back into history shows its place in American fine dining, too.

In the heyday of Omaha’s stockyards, liver sometimes enjoyed luxury status. In 1946, Caniglia’s steakhouse had liver and spaghetti on the menu for $3.25. In 2017 dollars, that’s about $42. Macarona Reda in Downtown Cairo’s Bab al-Louq neighborhood has “macarona bil kebda” (spaghetti and liver) for 7 Egyptian pounds (less than 42 cents).

I assumed my grandmother would have eaten liver growing up, being the daughter and granddaughter of butchers and growing up poor.

“Are you kidding? I didn’t like liver,” she said. “When I was pregnant with your uncle John, I had iron deficiency. I had to eat liver three times a week. I fixed liver one time for your grandpa, mom, and uncle Monte. And he said, ‘What’s this? I won’t eat it, and my kids won’t eat it!’”

My grandparents met each other, in part, because of the meat industry. When my great-great-grandfather Emil’s son, Emil Jr. (my great-grandfather), attempted to borrow money to continue his studies at the seminary, his mother said no, according to Grandma.

So, great-grandpa Emil Jr. moved across the state line to Winner, South Dakota, to work at a different butcher. Then, he moved to a meatpacking house in Pampa, Texas, during World War II. Finally, he moved to South Omaha after the Pampa factory burnt down.

My grandmother was a child during the family relocations. Her roots would take hold in Omaha.  She was working at a hide processing company in South Omaha when she met my grandfather. He was working at a truck wash that also serviced the stockyards.

In 1947, when the Peklos moved to Omaha, 2,016,768 cows moved through the Omaha stockyards. By 1955 the stockyards were the biggest meat producer in the world. That superlative lingered over my hometown until 1971.

My mother grew up in Papillion. My father came from Lebanon; he was studying engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln when my parents met.

By the time I was born, peak beef production had passed in Omaha. Even so, the remaining Omaha-area meatpacking plants still process huge amounts of cattle today, with slaughter and butchering having become heavily industrialized.

The Nebraska business responsible for supplying my favorite beef liver cart in Egypt—Greater Omaha Packing Co.—processes 14,000 head of cattle a week, almost 728,000 a year, at its South Omaha factory off 32nd and L streets.

When it comes to eating red meat, my time living overseas has brought one major epiphany: Growing up in Nebraska has spoiled me.

I’ve tried hard to replicate some of my favorite Omaha dishes in Egypt—for example, Big Fred’s prime rib sandwich. But I can’t do it.

Cuts of meat just aren’t really the same in Egypt, and the pricing is much closer than one might expect. It’s a double-edged sword: You can get a filet for 80 Egyptian pounds (equal to $4.41 in U.S. dollars) per pound in Cairo, but stew meat can cost 60 Egyptian pounds (or $3.25) per pound. 

The lack of common vocabulary once meant I went home from an Egyptian market feeling pretty excited about an extremely cheap rib-eye, but when I unwrapped it, that feeling turned into confusion. It turned out to be spleen, and I failed miserably at cooking it.

On return trips to Omaha, I relish the city’s renown for beef.

For days leading up to my homecoming, my father and I will message back and forth on the topic of meat cuts that I’d like to eat. He then purchases the beef in bulk from the meat market down the street from our house and freezes the rest.

My first meal after arriving at home is usually a steak, if it’s warm enough to fire up the grill. In the wintertime, it’s usually corned beef (on a Reuben sandwich), since I have yet to come across high-quality deli meat in Cairo.

The absence or presence of food in a particular place can tell you a lot about how local people are connected (or disconnected) to other parts of the world.

Recently, China reopened its country to American beef products, which might be a good plan-B for Nebraskan liver merchants in the event that Egypt becomes a less lucrative market. 

On the face of the global beef trade, the tradespeople (the butchers) are increasingly mobile globally. In fact, many butchers in the United States have come from the Arab world, and they are exporting Nebraska meat back to their countries of origin.

The trend is evident even on the rural outskirts of Omaha. In Lexington, Nebraska, the meatpacking industry employs hundreds of resettled Sudanese and Somalian refugees. The immigrants take apart thousands of cows every day.

With Cairo, Egypt, as a major transit point for refugees, it’s possible that tomorrow’s Sudanese-American butcher is right now eating a liver sandwich from a Nebraskan plant where he might work in the next year.

Then again, with mounting anti-immigration rhetoric in American politics, maybe not.

Visit greateromaha.com for more information about the Omaha-based company that supplied the author’s favorite beef liver cart in Egypt.

Egyptian Beef Liver Recipe

Ingredients:

1 quarter pound beef liver, cut into inch long, pencil thin strips

2 tablespoons cooking oil

4 tablespoons freshly minced garlic, divided

1 teaspoon cumin

½ teaspoon nutmeg

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon pepper

1 tablespoon white vinegar

3 spicy green peppers, chopped

¼ cup tahina (sesame paste)

2 tablespoons lemon juice

Chopped parsley for garnish

Hot dog buns, for serving

Instructions:

Heat the cooking oil, then fry 2 tablespoons garlic until just
beginning to brown.

Add the sliced beef liver, and toss until cooked through. The meat should turn a grayish-brown.

Add the remaining seasoning, vinegar, and peppers. Toss.

Taste and adjust seasoning and salt.

Mix the tahina and lemon juice in a bowl, then spread on the hot dog buns, and sprinkle with parsley.

Fill each bun with the liver mix.

Serve with pickled carrots, turnips, peppers, onions, and/or pickled tomatoes.

This article appears in the July/August edition of Omaha Magazine.

The Silicon Trail

March 28, 2017 by

When United Airlines’ first daily nonstop service flight from Eppley Airfield to San Francisco International Airport eased away from the gate in September 2016, Randy Thelen made certain he had a seat.

The senior vice president for economic development at the Omaha Chamber of Commerce saw the importance of that 7 a.m. flight—believed to be the first regular nonstop service between the two cities in a quarter century. Shortly after 9 a.m., he was on the West Coast, in the fertile Silicon Valley, ready for business.

Despite Omaha’s firm footing in the Silicon Prairie—with tech giants like PayPal, Google, LinkedIn, and Yahoo all maintaining a significant presence in the metro—Omaha long struggled with a serious shortcoming when it came time to recruit more. The same shortcoming didn’t help local technology startups secure financial backing from the apparent over-abundance of thick wallet in the Bay area.

Getting from Silicon Valley to Omaha’s corner of the Silicon Prairie was more than a hassle. It usually required at least one connecting flight, stretching a three-hour nonstop flight into nearly a full day of airplanes and airports … and that’s the delay-free version.

“As much as we don’t want location to be a barrier, there’s a very real situation where Silicon Valley investors won’t fly somewhere if they have to switch planes,” says Dusty Davidson, the CEO and co-founder of Flywheel, an Omaha-based startup that builds and hosts WordPress websites. Davidson is also known for his role in creating Silicon Prairie News and one of the largest entrepreneurial tech conferences in the region, Big Omaha.

“It’s not the connection, it’s the time,” he adds.

The required connecting flights cast a pall over Omaha’s distinct advantage as a low-cost jewel compared to the Silicon Valley. Omaha’s lower cost of living and more affordable housing helps save companies on their largest expense: wages. Add in the various business incentives available from the state, along with a strong talent pool and sound infrastructure, and Omaha makes an attractive option for startup and established tech companies, with that notable exception.

“We came up short on the connectivity or on the flights in and out of Silicon Valley,” Thelen says.

Then United Airlines made San Francisco’s International Airport the nation’s 25th airport with regular nonstop flight services to and from Omaha. This spring, a 26th regular nonstop Omaha route will open between here and Houston via Southwest Airlines.

“Now, we’ve taken away that competitive disadvantage, and we’ve been able to promote it as an advantage,” Thelen says. “It really has changed the conversation as we try to continue to build that pipeline between here and Silicon Valley.”

“The ability to have direct service does have an impact on the businesses that choose to do business here,” says Nancy Miller, vice president of operations at Travel and Transport, a national travel booking company based in Omaha. “I think it helps Omaha businesses.”

That an airline would add a regular nonstop flight to San Francisco lends credence to claims of Omaha’s growth as a potential hub in the Silicon Prairie.

“The Omaha economy really seems to have been doing well over the last couple of years,” says Dave Roth, deputy executive director of the Omaha Airport Authority. “It’s just a really positive combination of Omaha and the airlines for those additional flights.”

Omaha has popped up on several national lists as a new hot spot for tech startups. SmartAsset named Omaha the best city in the nation to work in tech in 2015, and Nebraska has been No. 3 on Forbes’ list of Best States for Business for two years running.

Thelen used his first flight to the Silicon Valley to meet with a dozen tech companies, some who already have outposts in town, and few others he’d like see set up shop.

“For the cost of one hotel stay and a pretty simple flight in and out, you can get two full business days of work without the hassle of changing planes and the risk of getting delayed,” Thelen says. “The convenience of business travel just went up exponentially, and you can expect that connectivity to continue to grow.”

Executives headquartered in San Francisco can more easily visit and engage with their Midwestern operations. Or, employees based in Omaha can more efficiently meet with leadership in Silicon Valley. Officials at PayPal and LinkedIn—which employ about 2,800 and 300 people, respectively, in the Omaha area—say there is frequent travel between the Silicon Valley and their operations in Omaha, but exact figures were unavailable.

“To have firms like that, that now have much, much easier access back and forth, frankly it makes our location all that more integral to the operation because it’s a simpler connect now,” Thelen says.

He added: “That simple flight makes a big, big difference.”

And even homegrown startups can take advantage. They can get twice as much done on recruiting trips from the valley, whether they are looking for talent or financing.

Davidson, the CEO at Flywheel, says the increased connectivity will indeed make a big difference for local companies raising money. There still remains a lot of work to put Omaha “on the map” with more sources of local capital and slowing the export of the state’s top technology talent, to name a few.

“I don’t know that you’re able to look at [direct flights to San Francisco] and say, ‘Hey, look, we solved the problem,’” he says. “I think there’s 50 things that are contributing, and what you really want to do is, just one at a time, start whittling away.”

Visit omahachamber.org for more information.

This article was printed in the Spring 2017 edition of B2B.

Women’s Impact on Tourism

December 20, 2016 by

Who makes the travel decisions in your family? I am betting the majority of you will answer, “I do” (if you are a woman) or “my wife/girlfriend does” (if you are a man). It is typically the woman who plans the family vacations, it is the woman who figures out a way to get the cousins together for a reunion, and it is usually the woman who figures out the logistics of taking their child on college visits. It is also more than likely a woman who plans all the business trips in your office. Experts estimate that women make 70-80 percent of all consumer purchasing decisions, which includes the $947 billion spent on travel each year. 

Not only are they making the travel decisions, more and more women are traveling. At the Women in Travel & Tourism conference early this year, it was revealed that the average traveler was once a 28-year-old male—now it’s a 47-year-old female. This is one of the reasons the advertising we use to convince consumers to travel to Omaha targets women between the ages of 25-54.

Women make the majority of the travel decisions, and on the other side of the coin they also make up nearly 70 percent of the travel, tourism, and hospitality workforce. Think about it: who normally checks you in at the hotel, cleans your hotel room, serves you at the restaurant, takes your ticket at the airport, and plans most of the events, meetings, and conventions? Women. However, experts contend there is a marked underrepresentation of women in senior positions, with women holding less than 40 percent of all managerial positions.

This isn’t the case at Visit Omaha, Omaha’s official tourism authority, where 82 percent of the staff are women and 57 percent of the senior leadership team are women, including our V.P. of convention sales and our V.P. of marketing and communications. If women make up a significant portion of your customer base, it makes sense that they should be represented on management teams. Research shows that companies with gender-balanced teams have a higher ROI, and those are numbers we can all support.

Keith Backsen is executive director of the Omaha Convention & Visitors Bureau

Keith Backsen is executive director of the Omaha Convention & Visitors Bureau

The Ortons

August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

While most homeowners—especially married couples—decide to downsize in their 40s, 50s, or even their 60s, newlyweds Lucas and Andrea Orton opted to do so much earlier.

The Omaha couple had only been married four months when they left their 850-square-foot rental in midtown and began building a 280-square-foot house on wheels. By today’s tiny house standards, that’s slightly larger than most.

Lucas, 33, and Andrea, 34, love the outdoors. They met near the Elkhorn River and married there in May 2015. While camping at Lake Cunningham one morning, they noticed a number of RVs parked outdoors. It was then they began discussing their dream of tiny house living.

Neither Lucas nor Andrea watch much TV. They were not aware of the tiny house trend until they began researching their next steps online.

At-Home-With-5

“We started looking into (tiny houses) and said, ‘Oh, wow. This is a thing,’” Andrea recalls.

Soon after, Lucas and Andrea hosted a garage sale at their midtown home. Organizing items for the garage sale was the first of what would be many eye-opening experiences of separating their stuff: what to keep and what to sell.

“We were literally pulling stuff out of the house for four hours,” Andrea explains. “And we’ve gotten rid of truckloads since the garage sale. One minute you’re saying, ‘I love this. I’m going to keep this.’ And eight months later, it’s ‘I don’t really love that.’”

In September of last year, construction of the Ortons’ tiny house began. Lucas quit his job as a sound engineer to pursue building the tiny house full-time. The couple moved in with Lucas’ father in northwest Omaha, first building the tiny house in the barn. Once the walls, roof, and windows were complete, they hitched the house to a truck and pulled it permanently outdoors. Friends and family unexpectedly showed up to witness the big (or should we say small?) move.

At-Home-With-1

“Pulling it out of the barn and dealing with centimeters of clearance, it was like giving birth,” Andrea says with a grin.

The tiny house now sits a few hundred feet from the barn. Lucas works on the house just about every day, with their spunky French Bulldog/Boston Terrier mix, Gus, by his side. Lucas used to remodel houses, so mastering the basics proved fairly easy. The rest—such as plumbing and electrical—he learned how to do from blogs, websites and online videos.

When it is finished, the house will feature contemporary interior design, with white walls, dark flooring, and natural woods. LED lighting has been installed throughout, but an abundance of windows allows natural light to stream in during the day.

They plan to add a modular front porch, which will provide additional seating outdoors (weather permitting). 

For Lucas (an Omaha native) and Andrea (a Louisiana transplant), building and living in a tiny house has two primary purposes: consolidating their lifestyles and living without debt. The couple has budgeted around $30,000 for the project, and they have been paying for supplies and materials as they go. Most items were purchased locally at The Home Depot and Lowe’s, while others have been ordered online (including windows and the air conditioner). The house has standard electrical but has been wired for solar energy.

And while more is continually added inside (and outside) the house, the purging continues, which Andrea describes as “one crazy ride.”

At-Home-With-4

She adds that getting rid of their belongings has been almost spiritual: “I like to shop, and I work in a retail environment. But even when I go to the store now, I don’t spend nearly as much or get nearly as much as I normally would because it’s not going to fit. We’ve been going through multiple stages of purge, just tapering, tapering, and it’s still too much.”

Lucas and Andrea’s worldly possessions now reside in eight large bins in their temporary bedroom.

At-Home-With-2“Well, that’s not completely true,” Andrea says after a brief pause. “There’s a little bit more spilling into another room, and I’m trying to reel that in. There’s a get-rid-of pile, and every day I’m adding to it.”

Lucas and Andrea continue to research other pieces of living in a (tiny) house on wheels, among them mail delivery and internet access. They eventually plan to purchase a large pick-up truck that will allow them to tow the house as needed, and even store larger items in the truck’s bed.

They expect to park their home at its current address, live in it through the winter, and move it elsewhere in 2017—likely on vacation while exploring parts of the United States.

For homeowners (and even apartment dwellers) intrigued by tiny house living, Lucas and Andrea have a bit of advice: Draft a lengthy list of pros and cons. Look at tiny houses online. Tour them if they’re nearby. Finally, minimalize and consolidate all belongings, and try to live in a single room. 

Visit tinyhouseswoon.com for more information. OmahaHomeAt-Home-With-3

Winning at Wine

November 24, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

In a spacious home in West Omaha live a pair of wine lovers.

“I open a bottle while I am cooking, and then my husband comes home and we have a glass with dinner,” says the lady of the house. “He will often have two glasses with dinner. I love to cook and pair wine with food.”

Along with a love of fermented grapes, the couple have a love of travel, and that wanderlust has led to the purchase of a lot of wine.

“We have a trip in November to Santa Monica,” the homeowner says. “We’re in Napa or somewhere that we can buy wine at least twice a year.”

They also belong to nine wine clubs, which ship the couple’s favorite drink a couple of times a year. Thus the bottles began to stack up. The homeowners bought a wine fridge, then graduated to a rack that held 400 cabernets, pinots, and Burgundies. They kept accumulating.

“Then we built this,” the homeowner says, spreading her hands in a shy “voila” gesture.

“This” refers to a basement cellar, a temperature-controlled private room with glass doors leading to a dizzying array of dark glass vessels stacked neatly on top of one another. There are no whites inside…the grigios and chardonnays fill two wine fridges in the basement kitchen.

Cellars are becoming a popular home feature, according to Nancy Pesavento, ASID, of Interiors Joan and Associates. Pesavento says there were many factors to be decided in creating this space.

“When a client wants to do a wine cellar we need to understand the extent to which they want to go. Are they collectors, or do they just want an architectural feature in their home? We need to know how it is going to be used. We have seen extensive wine cellars like this that are temperature controlled, and we have seen built-in racks for displaying just a few bottles. Some people like cellars that you can entertain in.”

“We originally wanted it kind of dungeony-looking,” the homeowner says. “We wanted it to be dark and heavy, but then Kent and Nancy convinced us otherwise.”

“I actually designed a wine cellar to be in that corner where the bar is, and (the homeowners) say we’d like to have more of a cave feel, moving it away from the bar,” says Kent Therkelsen of KRT Construction. “In the end, it is maybe like more of what you see at a winery.”

The cavernous expanse became lighter by incorporating grey stone throughout—from the fireplace to the walls and all the way around the room. Wood enclaves broke up the wall to create a warmer feeling while highlighting a non-standard-sized shuffleboard table sitting between them.

“I was trying to highlight the stone, and when I had the original drawings it looked like it was too much, so I said ‘how about some display cabinets?’” Therkelsen says.

The wood isn’t exactly cherry…or oak…

“It was a custom stain that they created for us,” the homeowner says proudly. “I wanted a hint of red, but not too much. I wanted a hint of brown, but not too much.”

The actual wood is birch, stained reddish-brownish.

The hard edges of the rocks were broken up with geometry in the form of arches lit with a series of two-inch lights.

“Most lower levels are boxes,” says Pesavento. “I think bringing in a soft element like the arch gives it an architectural element and breaks up the boxiness of it. She has a very traditional interior. By stoning those arches, it gave her the traditional elements she wanted.”

The homeowner realized the usefulness of a basement kitchen last year after restoring her main floor cooking area.

“I realized I don’t really need a stovetop, I just need an oven, a fridge, and a microwave,” the homeowner says. “And a dishwasher.”

This basement is designed for entertaining, with four high stools at the kitchen counter where people can converse while one creates culinary delights, and a comfortable seating area with a television for others.

The basement also features such furniture as a couch upholstered in a buff-shaded leather and throw pillows with eggplant-colored (some might say shiraz-hued) accents.  An overstuffed chair and a half also features this purple-red tint.

“It’s my favorite color,” the homeowner says. “I really wanted to incorporate it.”

Also bringing in a touch of claret “color” without being claret-colored is the table and stools created from wine barrel staves.

“The thing is that every wine cellar is different, I’ve never built two the same,” says Therkelsen. “They’re a one-of-a-kind thing that is really defined by size limitation, space limitation, the kind of wine people want to store. There’s a uniqueness to it.”

Visit interiorsbyjoan.com and krtconstruction.com to learn more.

WineCellarBasement1

World traveler, historic preserver

July 9, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article appears in July/August 2015 Sixty-Plus.

Susan Bray has never been one to shy away from attention. She built her life around standing out.

As a blonde, long-haired “hippie chick” in the 1970s, Bray stood out in some Asian and Middle-Eastern countries that had never welcomed a white woman traveling solo.

Her adventures started after she left Nebraska and moved to Honolulu to live with her brother after college. A few years later, Bray married a physicist. They eventually relocated to Guam—“the hottest place on God’s green earth,” according to Bray. And she would know.

The travel bug bit hard soon after the couple divorced. She’s visited more than 50 countries in her 70 years of life. Most of her 50 countries came in a span of five years during three different trips.

She saw the cage in Titian where she believes Amelia Earhart was held captive by the Japanese until her death. She was goosed by a camel in Afghanistan. And she was horned in the rear by a water buffalo in Nepal.

Bray most recalls the kindness of the people in Nepal. It’s her favorite country. While there, she rented a motorcycle and headed toward Mount Everest—at least, until it broke down. She says, “It wasn’t a Harley, I’ll tell you.” But even out in the remote rice paddies, she quickly found help.

She went to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. It is the second most beautiful work of architecture she’s ever seen. The most stunning edifice Bray saw was the Golden Pagoda in Burma (now Myanmar). “It was like eight to 10 stories high, and it had a spiral staircase like the Guggenheim.” In an excited whisper, she then adds, “It was all plated gold. Just startling when you see it.”

Traveling cost a lot. She came home to her mother in Omaha in 1976 with about 45 cents to her name. Thankfully, pay phones only cost a dime at the time.

Subconsciously, Bray may have been studying art and architecture all over the world because she knew that’s where her heart was. Her passion led her to city planning in Omaha, which evolved into
historic preservation.

Soon she grew restless and weary of Midwestern winters. Bray bought a house in Hawaii and lived there until her mother became ill. To be closer to her, she moved to La Jolla, Calif.

SusanBray2

Quickly getting involved in historic preservation once again, “I ended up being in charge of the restoration of downtown San Diego,” Bray says. “I did an area called the Gaslamp Quarter. It was all old buildings I did…96 of them.”

In her living room is a newspaper clipping from the San Diego Tribune, the headline of which reads, “Gunslinger of the Gaslamp: Susan Bray is the guardian of downtown’s historical integrity—like her or not.”

She looks at the photo in the clipping and says, “The guys working on this building gave me a pink construction hat. So cute.”

Reflecting on Gaslamp, Bray says, “That’s my biggest contribution. I changed the footprint of a city. And that’s forever.”

Bray thinks a lot about legacies because she’s been diagnosed with a rare degenerative brain disease similar to Lou Gehrig’s called Orthostatic Hypotension. It’s terminal. This news came after she already survived lymphoma and breast cancer.

Her doctor in California recommended that she live near her burial site. So, six years ago, she threw all her photos, a small red chair, and a blue stool in her car to come back to Omaha.

Although she always appreciated the sense of community here, she felt sad to find so many of her good friends had already passed away or moved. She’s grateful for the new friends she has made and some friends from Westide High School she’s reconnected with.

Bray does not know the meaning of the term stranger. “I dialed the wrong number the other night in San Diego, and I ended up talking to a 79-year-old woman for an hour,” she says.

Even sales calls get a taste of her gusto. “My daily joy is making people laugh,” she says. “I think that’s why God put me on this earth.”

So even though Bray has to “fill a bathtub to feel at home” so far from the ocean, she’s made a home again in Omaha. Inside her apartment, Bray’s parakeet, Big Boy, sings in the background. Combine that with the vintage blond art deco floors—“I would only ever live in a historic property”—it could almost be a tropical getaway.

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On Top of the World

February 19, 2015 by
Photography by Beverly Kracher, Ph.D.

Bhima, our guide, waited for us on the trail. We caught up to her after stopping to adjust our daypacks and enjoying some wild berries. Under her umbrella, which protected her from the burning sun, we could see Bhima’s smiling face and playful eyes. She quickly evaluated our moods and stamina. She said to us, for probably the 30th time, “Not far to go before we get to the next tea house. A little bit up, a little bit down.”

Bhima was coaching us. Though it was probably another hour before we reached our stopping point, she was saying the thing we needed to hear to make it.

“A little bit up, a little bit down.” Those words have had a forceful affect on my life since returning from this year’s trek. I was in the Annapurna Range of the Himalaya Mountains in Nepal. Hikers have tried to describe the magnificence of this massive range—the raw beauty, the incredible scenery, the water buffalo, and the orange/yellow sunsets over the snowcapped mountains.

Try as we might, it is impossible. You have to go there on your own to know what Nirvana is like.

This was my second trek. The first was so powerful that I knew I had to come back with my sister. Barb and I had poured over books about the yogis and sadhus in India and Nepal when we were kids. We were inspired by their quest for spiritual enlightenment in the Himalayas. So this time I was with Barb. Her husband, Joel, came with us because he loves to explore life, too.

We hired 3Sisters Adventure Trekking Company for our trek. Three Nepalese sisters own the company and provide jobs to Nepalese women by hiring and training them as guides and porters. Walking through the majestic mountains with four Nepalese women (one guide and three porters) brought the heavens to earth. As we walked, we learned about their quest for opportunity, education, family, and freedom. I found, as I always do when I travel, that while people dress differently and have different customs, we basically desire the same things. In this, we are one race.

While trekking, Bhima showed us the way yogis and sadhus walk. The technique is two-fold. First, they take it easy. They are the tortoises not the hare. Second, they use a lower-body relaxation technique. As they hike up a mountain they rest their back leg as they push off with their front leg. Continuous movement creates stress, so relaxing the back leg, even for a second, reduces tension and increases power. In these two ways, Bhima taught us to pace ourselves and to use our legs in a way that would allow us to walk twelve hours a day.

A little bit up, a little bit down.

Since my return I have learned to pace my life just as I paced my steps up the steepest and longest trails I have ever encountered. The temptation was great to fall back into my hectic work life.

When I think about this it’s like listening to a sad song.

The beauty of the Himalayas are still with me. I can very easily feel the peace anytime I try. I know that is good for my heart. And there is one more thing. I carry a joyful, even enlightened, attitude where I see the ebb and flow of life as “a little bit up, a little bit down.”

I can be my best and do my best. And that attitude makes me feel like I’m standing on top of the world.

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Meet The Linthakhans

February 20, 2014 by
Photography by Amber Linthakhan

When David and Amber Linthakhan decided they were ready to start a family, David says he “started to look for something that could be a career in Omaha to make a bunch of money and have a big house and all that kind of stuff.”

First selling cars, then working in insurance, David worked long hours and missed time with Amber and his two sons.

“When he was in the car business, he would work 12- to 13-hour days,” Amber says. “He’d be gone when the boys woke up, and, two days a week, the boys would be asleep before he got home. So he missed out on days.”

In insurance, the long hours included always being on call.

“I was finding myself miserable,” David says.

He started to wonder about bigger possibilities for his family.

“One weekend we were out camping, and we really loved camping,” David says. “I had been, I guess, soul-searching without really talking to Amber. And I asked her what she thought if we moved away and did something else.”

Amber says, “I’d been begging him to leave and move. I’d been having itchy feet to travel for a long time, so I was all for it. I said, ‘Absolutely. When do we leave? What are we going to do?’”

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Recalling his childhood dream of being a park ranger, David started looking into park ranger schools. “Being a ranger always had that appeal to me,” he says. “You stood for something. You were protecting something that we could destroy and never get back, and I wanted to be part of that.”

From a list of just seven academies, Parks Law Enforcement Academy in Mount Vernon, Wash., drew them in.

Though both were born and raised in the Midwest, David and Amber had always loved the Pacific Northwest. They were particularly attracted to Washington for its variety of landscapes and climates: trees, mountains, ocean and fresh water, deserts, and rainforests.

In January 2013, David began school. A few months later, Amber and the boys joined him, bringing only what they could fit in their pickup truck.

This was a leap of faith. “There wasn’t a guarantee of a job afterward,” Amber says.

“It’s a really competitive industry,” David explains. “So many people in the states have the same dream, want to be part of conserving and preserving. You’ve really got to stand out amongst so many people who are fighting for that same job.”

About three months into academy, Washington State Parks started recruiting from within the program. David was grateful and relieved to be one of approximately five cadets recruited.

Now the family lives in Lake Chelan State Park, Wash.

“This park sits on a huge lake that’s 52 miles long and 1,500 feet deep at its deepest point, which puts it below sea level,” David says. “The water is crystal clear, so you can see down 20 feet.”

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David spends much of his on-season time educating visitors on the park features.

“Sometimes I have to go into law enforcement mode and do things that a police officer would do,” David says. “But our park here is a little slower paced as far as that goes. A lot of families. So there’s not a whole lot of trouble, which makes it a really nice place to raise our kids.”

Jace, 5, and Kasen, 3 and a half, are very adventurous. They like to go on hikes, play with bugs, and play superheroes—in fact, Kasen will only respond to the name “Superman,” and even corrects Amber when she talks about him.

Amber stays home with the boys. In addition to enjoying the kids, she also gardens, repurposes furniture, does crafts, bakes, cooks, and “dinks around in a lot of different things.”

She writes and keeps up their blog: simplythewildside.com. This has been one major way they can keep their family, all of whom live in the Midwest, updated. “It’s really tough being far away from family and friends,” she says. “But it’s a great time to fall into ourselves, learn more about us, and develop in that way. We are, basically, all alone out here. We lean on each other a lot and are growing a lot as a little family, for sure.”

“I felt like my duty as a husband and father was to make a bunch of money and provide for my family. To make sure we had everything we felt would make us happy. TVs, going out to eat all the time,” David says. “I don’t make near as much money as I used to, but we have a better life, I feel.”

It’s a simple life. Their belongings still pretty much all fit into that pickup truck. They do have a TV for hooking up movies, but they rarely use it.

“It just feels more free,” David says.

“We’re not tied down to a schedule either,” Amber says. “We wake up, and if we just want to hang out all day, that’s what we do. There’s no time pressure.”

Time is exactly the thing David was missing out on before. “Living in the park, I have so much more time to spend with my kids and my wife,” he says. “I don’t have to commute, for one. I walk out, and I’m on the clock.”

His 15-minute breaks and his hour-long lunch breaks are spent at home. “It’s surprising how much time you get to spend with them just in those little bits,” he says.

They can’t imagine going back to a “regular life, back to the busy,” according to Amber. If state and federal funding allows it, David hopes to be a park ranger until he retires.

As for Washington, Amber says, “We’re not opposed to going somewhere else. But we do love it here.”

Welcome to the Weekend

January 3, 2014 by
Illustration by U.S. Travel Association

“Welcome to the weekend.” It’s a phrase that inspires feelings of relaxation, fun, and the freedom to do what you want to do, when you want to do it. It’s also a phrase that’s stimulating tourism revenue for Omaha.

The Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau’s Welcome to the Weekend advertising campaign promotes Omaha as a Midwest destination for memorable weekends and plays up our strength as a quick getaway for people living in cities such as Kansas City, Des Moines, and Sioux Falls. The campaign is different from your typical tourism advertising, focusing on building an emotional connection with the audience by capturing authentic visitor experiences on video. The commercials aired regionally from late April through early October, on network and cable television, in movie theaters and online on websites such as Hulu, TripAdvisor, and VacationFun.com. In addition, the Omaha CVB partnered with Radio Disney to promote Omaha during Disney-produced community events in Kansas City and also purchased regional radio advertising to promote its Welcome to the Weekend savings card.

Since advertising began, VisitOmaha.com, the city’s tourism website, has seen a 46 percent increase in website visits from the regional markets targeted by advertising. The VisitOmaha social media audience has grown 20 percent to more than 94,000, and more than 6,000 people from 48 states have requested the Welcome to the Weekend savings card.

What’s really exciting to see is since the beginning of the year, there have been more than 35,000 additional weekend hotel room nights booked in Douglas County over last year. Multiply those additional room nights by the average dollar amount a traveler spends in Omaha and it comes to, conservatively speaking, an additional $4.8 million spent in our city. Investing in promoting our city is paying off, and that’s welcome news any day of the week.

Questions or comments? E-mail us at info@visitomaha.com.

Dana Markel is Executive Director of Omaha Convention & Visitors Bureau.

 

An Omahan in Omo Valley

August 26, 2013 by

It all started with National Geographic magazines. If you were a kid like me, you thumbed through them and dreamed about the exotic places that were halfway around the world. African stories always caught my eye. So unusual. So different from life in Nebraska.

Especially Ethiopia

I recently traveled to Ethiopia, spending several weeks exploring the culture and the country. Like most of you, when I travel, I pack my passions. In my case, that’s business ethics. Wherever I went, I asked about business practices and economic development. I learned a great deal about the ethics of the people and, in the process, I reflected on our Greater Omaha values. Let me share two experiences.

Hawassa University

At Hawassa University, I spent time with Dean Fitsum Assefa’s faculty and MBA students. We talked about business ethics as a competitive advantage. In a country ranked 114 of 147 on Transparency International’s Corruption Index, the consensus among students was that being ethical would not lead to business success. My experience is that our Greater Omaha students think differently than this. What is your opinion?

Omo Valley and Economic Development

One of the most intriguing destinations in Ethiopia is the Omo Valley. Through the heat and the mud, we traveled to the Valley to interact with its tribespeople. I grew up on a farm, but I have never experienced this kind of outdoor life where people live with their cattle herds and have only the most basic shelters. The customs of the people are exotic—the Mursi women wear lip plates, the Hamer people use cattle jumping as a rite of passage to manhood, and the Bumi participate in scarification. There are no other people on the planet like the people of the Omo Valley.

Herein lies the rub. The Ethiopian government has a plan for economic development. They are selling tribal land in the Omo Valley, primarily to foreign investors, to create sugar cane plantations. In tandem, they are building factories to process the sugar cane. The plan is to entice the tribespeople to work in the factories to alleviate their extreme poverty.

It is difficult to imagine the challenges for Ethiopian leaders, one of the poorest countries in the world. They must promote economic development. (Our Greater Omaha leaders have that responsibility here, too, right?) But their plan will literally destroy the tribal cultures.

So I talked to Mrs. Moges, the CEO of Travel Ethiopia, the largest travel agency in the country, and a member of the Addis Ababa Chamber of Commerce. I asked what she thought of the plan and its implication for the tribes. Mrs. Moges said, “The Omo Valley is Travel Ethiopia’s daily bread and butter. I know that the plan will destroy tribal culture and affect my business. But I think that is okay. Why? Think of the women. Daily, they carry bundles of sticks for firewood. They walk one to five miles a day with heavy containers to collect water. Childbirth is a nightmare. Is it okay to change the tribal cultures? You bet it is.”

I have been deep in thought since returning from my Ethiopian trip. When is it acceptable to change a people’s way of life for the sake of economic development? When should we save a way of life, knowing that doing so will stifle economic development? In Omaha, we have asked these kinds of questions, too, about our culture, our historical buildings, etc.

This I know: There are those who hold onto the past and those who grasp towards the future. In that tension, change is generated, and this is where communities’ values are revealed.

Beverly Kracher, Ph.D., is Executive Director of Business Ethics Alliance and Chair of Business Ethics & Society at Creighton University’s College of Business.