Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Wonderful Things Nobody Needs

There you are, trapped at 20,000 feet with nothing to do. Your book is read and all of your batteries are dead ...what do you do? Did I mention that the inflight movie is playing, but the audio comes through the left ear in English and the right ear in Spanish? Well, it does.

What I tend to do in these situations is to raid the seat pocket for any viable form of entertainment. Aside from an airsick bag and the safety placard there is the inflight magazine, which is full of destinations that I'm not interested in, people that I've never heard of and a crossword puzzle half filled in by someone who wasn't very good at crossword puzzles.

There is the another periodical that can often be found on U.S. flights: SkyMall. If you aren't familiar with SkyMall I'll try to explain it briefly. It's a mail order catalog full of all kinds of strange things that almost no one could possibly need. Brownie pans that are all edges, pendants designed to hold the ashes of a loved one and industrially designed adult pogo sticks are just the beginning for SkyMall.

Flipping through this catalog is usually good for a few of laughs. Recently I snagged a copy off a flight, went through it and picked my top 5 items that nobody needs. Keep in mind that these are actual products, and I haven't made any of these up.

5. Flashlight Slippers
This item is actually borderline clever. A weight sensor triggers a flashlight in each slipper so that bumping into things in the middle of the night will be a thing of the past.

4. End Table Aquarium
I just have a hard time imagining a room that would benefit from an aquarium end table. I do know of a bar that is built on top of an aquarium, so it's not that big of a stretch.

3. Gravity Defying Shoes
I can't recall an issue of SkyMall that didn't have a 2 page spread for the miracle gravity defying shoes. What's the miracle? There are springs in the 2 inch tall heals. I actually met someone, a frequent traveler, who purchased these, and he said it was the best money he ever spent on travel gear; I remain unimpressed.

2. Hot Dog Toaster
This is a toaster specifically designed to toast 2 hotdogs with buns. You'd have to eat a lot of hot dogs for this kitchen device to make sense. You'd be better off with a multi-function piece of kitchen equipment, such as a cast iron skillet.

1. Singing/Talking Elvis Bust
I can't really say a lot about this item beyond what you can gather from the name. Personally I think that it's beyond creepy, but I'm not one to judge people. Oddly enough this item has received 2 reviews, both which were very positive.

There are my top 5, though I'm sure they will change as new and wacky things are added into SkyMall. What are your most memorable things that you recall seeing in an airplane catalog?

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Russian Vending Machine Roundup

While visiting Russia several vending machines caught my eye. Unfortunately I didn't think to take a lot of pictures at the time; so this post won't be image intense.

One of the first things I noticed about the vending machines in Russia that was the availability of bottles of beer. This was quite a novelty to me since I had never seen it before. The beer was quite reasonable in price; about $2-3 for a large bottle, though I'm not sure about the quality.

At the airport I saw several vending machines that dispensed fresh orange juice. I didn't use one of these machines, but they squeeze your juice while you wait. There is even a little window to show you just how fresh the oranges are (pictured below). This machine struck me just right, and I find myself wondering why we don't have these in malls instead of soda machines.

While not a vending machine I did notice free standing recycling machines in the park next to my hotel. I thought that this was a great solution to having the area littered with bottles and cans. If you make it easy for people to recycle then they are more likely to do it. I didn't see a single bottle or can in the area the entire time I was there. I really wish that we could have these in the States.

One final note on my recent vending machine observations. Due to the largest denomination of coin being 5 rubles (about 15 cents in USD), the vending machines can sound like a slot machine paying off when you are due 50 rubles change. This was startling the first time I encountered it, but then it amused me to no end.

So, has anyone out there used one of these orange juice vending machines?

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Liquid Souvenirs From Abroad

Photo by: Nicole Holt

A while back Robin Sue at Big Red Kitchen asked what kind of souvenirs people are in the in the habit of bringing home from their travels in this post. I remember answering that I bring back stories and experiences as they are more valuable than any material thing that I could carry home with me. After much contemplation on this question I have realized that there is a material thing, aside from candy, that I like to bring back with me: distilled spirits and wine.

Since my trip to Chile in 2005 I have occasionally brought home a bottle or two with me of a local spirit. Most of these times these are beverages that are hard to come by or simply are not available in the United States. The rarity and novelty of these spirits make them all the more special, and every time I enjoy them I am instantly transported to the time and place that they were acquired.

Come along with me as I recall the experiences that I have had in collecting several of the bottles from my humble collection.

Chile: Pisco

I found this at the Santiago airport in the duty free shop. This is the only time that I’ve purchased alcohol in a duty free shop. The day prior I was on the coast of Chile, and stumbled across a liquor store, but I didn’t purchase anything. At the airport the bottle caught my eye as it was in the shape of a Moai (the stone idols of Easter Island). I thought this would be a good addition to my tiki collection so I purchased it.

I would later find out that much better quality of Pisco was available, but I was really only going after the bottle. The Pisco Sour is a favorite drink in Chile which requires egg white to give the drink a good froth.

Taiwan: Sorghum Liquor

After several days in Taiwan I went to a 7-11 and purchased a small bottle of Sorghum Liquor. It is a local spirit of Taiwan, but I’ll admit that I have never tasted it as I have never been able to wrap my nose around this one. If anyone knows a good cocktail using this spirit, I'd love to hear about it.

Australia: Rum

Bundaburg rum to be precise, also known as ‘Bundy’. It is said that if an Australian doesn’t drink beer then you can bet that they drink Bundy. This spirit is so popular in Australia that you can find it premixed in cans with cola (rum and cola) and gingerbeer (dark and stormy).

While in Australia I had a rum and coke with one of the best steaks that I ever had; it was a good night. The second time that I had Bundy was on the airplane home in the form of a dark and stormy.

Russia: Vodka

What else could I bring back from Russia other than vodka? This trip was tough on my body: I aggravated my knee, caught a cold and damaged my ear. Despite these trials I was determined to bring back some vodka. The low prices and large selection were unbelievable. I just stared at the wall of vodka dumbfounded; I loved it.

I've purchased several bottles of wine from Germany and France but wine doesn't stick around long enough for me to recall the characteristics in great detail. I do remember purchasing a bottle of Muller-Thurgau however. I was in a little shop in Greifswald just before closing time. The shopkeeper looked at me, looked at her watch and then looked back at me. I smiled, and hurried to find a bottle the suited me and my budget. Upon taking it to the counter the shopkeeper looked at her watch, and smiled as I had just made it.

Sadly I was rushed in this particular shop because on one side of the store there were large glass vessels containing bulk distilled spirits of different kinds; many scotches, and even absinthe. They sold empty bottles there, but I assume that you could also bring your own. If I ever get back to Greifswald I'll definitely pay that shop a visit.

Bringing it Home:

Unfortunately, with the current safety regulations in place, it is very difficult to bring alcohol along with you on a flight. With the number of layovers that you can have on a given international trip purchasing at the duty free shop is usually not an option. I have found that purchasing my spirits prior to arriving at the airport, wrapping them in jeans or slacks and packing them in my checked bag works best for me.

At any rate, those are the bottles that I’ve collected so far. I am amazed how these simple bottles have the ability to transport me to places I’ve visited. What spirits have you brought home from your travels?

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Graham's Travel Blog is 6 Months Old!

Well, my blog is now over 6 months old and I'd like to take this time to reflect on what that time has brought.

By the Numbers

In the past 6 months I've:
Posted 30 entries (once per week with near clocklike precision).

Had 17 subscribers to my feed (only two of which are actually me).

Have a regular circulation of roughly 40 per week.

These certainly aren't record breaking numbers but I've had the chance to explore my creative side, learned quite a bit about myself, and I've learned a lot about writing.

Blog Highlights

I've had several blog related accomplishments over the past 6 months. I think the most important may be my slow adaptation to using photos. While I'm not currently posting a picture with every entry; it certainly has become a more regular activity. As a result I have been taking a lot more pictures, which is a happy side effect of blogging.

As far as my posts go I have a few favorites that I would like to highlight:

Queue Madness- Inspired by my wife; this entry really sucked me in. I quite enjoyed the thought process on this one, and it took a life of its own. I've updated it with a wonderful picture taken by my wife, that's reason enough to give this post a second (or first) look.

11 Usable Tips for Greener Travel- This was my first 'green' post, and it felt very good to write. It was nothing groundbreaking, but quite a few people read it, and it was nice to share my knowledge on the subject.

Curse of the German Asterisk- One of my favorite travel stories detailed in excruciating detail. The short version is that I got lost on a train in Germany but the full story is much better.

Travel and Disaster- A topical post that explored the emotional connection that I develop with the places that I visit.

The Future of Graham's Travel Blog

It looks like I'll continue to travel, and I'll continue to write about my adventures. I'll keep to one post a week since I have been able to maintain that pace without too many troubles. I will however work on including more pictures in my posts since they break up the ranting blocks of text that I am apt to write.

I appreciate all of my regular readers and encourage you to continue to comment. You can even send me an e-mail if you like, I'll do my best to get back to you promptly.

Wrapping it up

OK, that's about enough of me blabbing for now. To close out my first 6 months I'd like to open the floor to you in the form of a Q&A session. Pose to me any questions that you will and I'll answer all reasonable questions in a future post. You can post your questions as a comment below or you can send me an e-mail.

Thank you for reading,

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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Countries I've Visited

While working on the application for a Russian visa I ran into an item that made me stop and think. In addition to taking a bit of research to complete it really struck me as a genuinely interesting visa application item.

This item was simply:
List all countries you have visited in the last ten years and indicate the year of visit.

Since I hadn't traveled internationally up to 5 years ago this became:

List all countries you have visited in the last five years and indicate the year of visit.

I will admit that I put off this section of the application far too long. I was afraid that it would be impossible for me to remember all of the places that I've been to.

While this task did take me a while to figure out I was able to complete it out after consulting my passport, and various bits of paperwork; I came up with the following list (in alphabetical order):
CANADA 03, 05, 06, 07, 08
GERMANY 04, 07
NORWAY 07, 08

This list doesn't reflect multiple trips to the same country in a year, like 3 trips to Canada in one year (2006), but you get the idea.

Condensing 5 years of international travel into a concise list in this way seems to degrade my experiences a bit. Looking at it now; it doesn't seem like I've traveled very much, but I certainly recall traveling quite a bit. Moreover, I've only visited 12 countries. That's only two new countries a year. I'm not sure why, but that makes me a little sad.

Compared to a lot of people I know this is a huge amount of travel but, at the moment, my accumulated travels seem like a very small accomplishment sitting neatly in box 27 of my application in 10 point font.

Perhaps it's been too long since I've been out of the country, and I'm forgetting how different and challenging it has been and can be. Only 5 months ago I was in Norway. Am I going through a sort of international travel withdrawal? Of course I'd been to Norway before so it wasn't that much of a challenge to go back. I guess it's been over a year since I've been to a new country; a destination full of unknown challenges and surprises.

Is it just the new places that are exciting? I don't think so. There are plenty of old favorites that I enjoy but box 27 doesn't allow for those to bring the bigger picture into focus. In a moment of quick thinking it's easy to overlook the comfortable and familiar, and that's a terrible thing to do to oneself.

I'll continue to enjoy all of the new challenges that travel brings along with finding comfort in the places that I have grown to love.

So, where have you been in the last 5 years?

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The 3 to 1 Service Rule: Good to Bad Service

Recently I was at a hotel, and I ran into a bit of trouble. There was some sort of electrical problem with the fire alarm, and it would constantly emit a soft chirp along with a popping sound. It wasn’t loud and you could hardly notice it when the TV was on but in the presence of relative silence the chirping kept me from sleeping.

I tried to cope with the sounds for a while but I couldn’t manage; I called the front desk. They sent up an electrical technician who recognized the problem immediately, and offered me a new room. Upon inspection the new room I found that it too had the chirp problem so I went down to the lobby to see what could be done about the situation.

The man at the front desk tried to tell me that all of the rooms had the chirp, and that he was not keen to give me another room as I was likely to disapprove of any of the other rooms that he might put me in. Aided with the information from the friendly electrical technician; I countered that his statement was not true. At this point he had no choice but to relocate me to a new, chirpless room. The reluctant front desk worker also offered to send up a breakfast coupon (which he didn’t send), and I was on my way.

After reflecting on this incident I found myself recalling the rude front desk person more than anyone else that I interacted with at the hotel. There were plenty of other people that did not share his attitude, but they didn’t stick out in my mind. The friendly electrical technician who checked out my problem, the resident employee who checked on me later and even the friendly waitress in the hotel restaurant; they all faded to the background even though they had provided excellent service.

I had fallen into a trap that can be easy to fall into for business travelers; to ignore good service but harshly criticize poor service. The funny thing is that the good service makes the poor service all the more noticeable. Had the overall level of service been lower the man at the front desk would have probably just blended in with the crowd.

By my rough estimates I figure that for every one rude service person I run into there at about three really good ones that should offset easily offset the rudeness. I guess it's easier to see what's going wrong as opposed to what's going right.

And what about that one guy that provided the bad service? He could have been having a rough day that was full of customers that had given him a hard time. Similarly he didn’t know what my day had been like. We all need to remember that everyone is human even though it can be easy to forget that sometimes after a day of travel.

Are there any service people that have really stuck out to you lately? Good or bad, let’s hear it.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Travel Gear Highlight: Sporks and Chopsticks

I've written briefly about the environmental responsibility that travelers have in 11 Usable Tips for Greener Travel. Today I'd like to continue that thought as I focus on two items that I've carried on my travels for the last couple years which have reduced my waste along the way. When I visit a restaurant that offers plastic silverware or wooden chopsticks I decline those and pull out my own. Sometimes I get some funny looks or people who insist I need a fork, but I persist because it's the right thing to do.

I purchased a Titanium spork a few years back since I figured that if someone went to the trouble to manufacture sporks out of Titanium then I should probably own one. At this point I will admit to owning a spork collection that is much larger than a spork collection that most people would care to admit to owning.

For the uninitiated a spork is a spoon/fork hybrid with the tines of a fork and the bowl of a spoon. The spork is one of those utensils that doesn't do any one thing particularly well, but rather it does two things poorly with a great amount of flare. The spork should not be confused with the foon (fork/spoon) or the sporf (spoon/fork/knife). I am fairly certain that there is a special hell for the users of foons.

NOTE: The rivalry between fans of sporks and foons runs very deeply for reasons that no one is quite sure about.

At any rate, my Titanium spork was acquired at REI and it has proven useful on many occasions. At first I found it handy when I forgot to pick up a fork at a takeout place, but more and more I've been actively avoiding plastic forks in favor of this reusable and sturdy multi-utensil.

Last year when I was in Taiwan I had one of my first meals at a food stall in an alley. While I was there a group of schoolgirls come in to eat lunch. One of these girls pulled out a small plastic case, and she proceeded to assemble a set of full length chopsticks. I had never seen anything like this before, and at that moment I knew I what kind of souvenir I was bringing back home with me.

After visiting a couple shops in Taipei I found my prize. These simple chopsticks are really cool, and they screw together at the midpoint like a pool cue. While shopping for these I also found a model of chopsticks that telescoped out from an impossibly small length. I figured these would be difficult to clean so I opted for a slightly easier to clean style.

The pair that I ended up with has traveled with me ever since. The case is worn and it's now held together with electrical tape but I've grown to love the set as part of my regular travel gear.

I know it's just a fork here and a pair of chopsticks there, but every little bit counts in what we can keep out of the landfills. Together the travelers of the world can make a difference.

Do you carry any utensils with you on your travels?

This post has been featured in the Green Travel Blog Carnival, check it out for more green travel related goodness.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

What I Learned From a Little Girl at O'Hare

Often, while traveling, I come across a situation which is just plain boring. Long layovers in airports particularly stand out. Airports aren't generally designed for entertainment, but rather as transit points for the weary traveler. What to do in these boring situations can be a challenge if you aren't properly prepared.

Not long ago I saw a little girl in the Chicago O'Hare airport who had created a toy made out of items that she found at the airport Starbucks. She had nested two straws and inserted a wooden stir stick into either end. This resulted in a tubular toy that could extend from about 14 inches to just over 25 inches. It certainly isn't the most technologically advanced toy, but the little girl was quite pleased with herself and her creation.

The look of pure joy on the girls face got me thinking about my own travel habits, and how I spend time at airports. From this random encounter at an airport I took 5 lessons that I'd like to share with you.

Be resourceful
Sometimes you are unexpectedly delayed and have extra time on your hands. Use what's on hand to accomplish your task; whatever it may be. You might not have exactly what you might like to have with you but with a little thinking you can probably figure something out to amuse yourself.

Being constructive is a nice diversion
The physical act of making something can be very relaxing, and it makes a nice break from regular travel activities. I try to carry around a small sewing project with me to break up the tasks of paperwork and writing in my travel journal. For me this project is usually a sock monster, but it could just as easily be a handful of paperclips that I'm bending into something interesting.

Use your imagination
This is probably the best lesson of the group. One of the traps that adults can fall into is to define things clearly. We need to remember that there are intended uses for things and then there are all of the possibilities that things can be used for. It's also important to note that not everything has or needs a purpose; amusement can be for amusement's sake, don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Technology isn’t always the answer
What happens when your laptop, iPod, portable DVD player or digital camera runs out of batteries? We didn't always have these gadgets and as neat as they are they can lead us right into another trap. There are things that don't need power to amuse you: a deck of cards, a postcard or even a book (these are still widely available despite some attempts to replace them).

The simple things are best
Brilliant things are often uncomplicated and straight forward. Combine something simple, such as two straws and a couple of stir sticks, along with an active imagination and there's no telling what you have. It could be something as utilitarian as a measuring device or something as interesting as a light sword; you never know what you are going to get.

I never did ask that little girl what it was that she had made, but I think it's better that way; not knowing is good for me. For now I'll keep a copy of the toy in my desk drawer and each time I see it I'll remember to strive to be as clever as that little girl at O'Hare on my next layover.

What is your favorite way to kill time at an airport?

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Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Toilet Humor: A Picture Post

Loyal readers may have noticed that my posts tend to be a little sparse on the picture front. I have various reasons for this but I do recognize that a picture can do things that I can't possibly do with words; so for this post I will let the pictures do the talking (with some commentary of course).

This group of pictures were taken over the past few years and can only be called Toilet Humor:

Washington, D.C. in front of the Washington Monument. The funny thing was that most of these Port-A-Johns were locked with padlocks. Perhaps they unlock more of them for busy days; maybe people rent them as low cost housing.

Men's room at the San Francisco International Airport. Someone had to explain to me that the weight limit was describing the weight of the baby that the diaper would hold and not the amount of waste that it could contain. I was disapointed to learn this.

Paris Charles de Gaulle airport, international terminal. There was, at one point, a path that you could take to get to a restroom but this had been blocked off to add a secondary security checkpoint. The sign was never taken down and the doorway was blocked by a large potted plant. You can draw your own conclusions.

To finish off the group I present a recent picture from my visit to Boston College. That someone chose a "We Recycle" bin to catch the drippings from the broken urinal amuses me to no end. I have resisted photoshopping an extra E into the photo.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

What is travel?

In writing about travel every week for the past 5 months and I have failed to answer a simple question. What is travel?

In the most broad sense I like to see travel as what happens every time that I leave my home. I'm traveling when I go to the store, take a ride on the bus or embark on a multiple week journey to visit several countries. This definition can be a little broad for this blog so I've extended my "home" to include the city that I live in.

So once I leave Eugene, regardless of the method of transportation, everything is fair game for me to call travel based on my personal definition. Once again I'm at a very broad definition of what travel is.

Beyond the actual traveling part (ie: getting from one place to another) there are other aspects of travel that I have been thinking about lately.

To me traveling is made up of three core concepts: seeing new things/places, meeting new people and being open to new ideas.

Seeing New Things/Places
In addition to actually being somewhere new you actually have to see the differences in a new place; just being there doesn't count. For this reason I don't claim that I've visited a country if I've haven't left the airport (though airports can be interesting). Sure you can get a tiny taste of things but that's just not the same as visiting a country.

The definition of seeing a new place will be different for everyone but it could be the architecture, the food or something tiny that most people overlook. It could be the taste of the local water or the way that the light plays on buildings in a local square. Perhaps it's a local cookie that you can only get in your new destination. It's these little things as that tend to bring me the most joy in my travels.

Meeting New People

While traveling I generally don't rent a car so I use public transportation, I sit in coach when I fly and I eat almost all of my meals at restaurants. All of these activities put me in contact with a lot of people. Furthermore, all of this interaction with new people is in addition to the people that I work with while I'm traveling.

People are generally good and will generally talk to you at length about just about anything if given the chance. Of course, some people are more talkative than others, but once things get going you can learn quite a bit about someone in a very short amount of time. Some of the most interesting conversations I've had have been with random strangers on an airplane.

People have wonderful stories, lives and accents. I feel privileged to interact with such a wide variety of people; be it saying good morning to a hotel worker or training an astronaut.

Being Open to New Ideas
It's easy to get stuck in a rut living in a comfortable environment. Breaking out of the ordinary from time to time renews my outlook on all aspects of my life. Different people and cultures handle common situations differently, and being in the presence of these new ideas reminds me that new ways of doing things are to be explored and respected.

Now more than ever respect for other cultures is needed; both from individuals and governments. Travel gives me insight to ideas that I would otherwise not have access to and I am quite thankful for it.

These three concepts: place, people and ideas capture what travel means to me. Without these concepts the act of being somewhere else seems empty.

So now it is your turn. What does travel mean to you?

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Coffee and Travel

There was a time not too long ago when I didn't drink coffee. Coincidentally this was the time before I traveled as much as I do now. My first cup of real coffee was actually enjoyed on my first trip abroad. Since then I've grown to love coffee and see it as a good friend that is usually present wherever I travel.

That first cup of coffee actually has an interesting story to go along with it. It was about 5 years ago and I was installing some equipment in Spain. The first day I was offered a cup of coffee. Seeing as I wasn't in the habit of drinking coffee I declined the offer. My host looked at me strangely and the day carried on. After a very rough 18 hour day and a few hours of sleep I showed up to work and I was once again offered a cup of coffee. That second offer I gratefully accepted.

It was an espresso based drink that was made by one of the lab members and I recall that after the second coffee I started to shake slightly and I felt quite warm. It was an interesting introduction to the world of coffee and I haven't looked back since. I did think that it was a little odd that one member of the lab was the primary coffee making person but now I don't see this as strange at all as I am one of the main coffee makers at my workplace.

Since my early coffee drinking days I've come to the conclusion that scientific research runs on a magical combination of coffee and baked goods (and science conferences run on a similarly magical combination of coffee and alcohol).

This works out well for me as I can usually find decent coffee when I arrive at my destination. One of the few vital questions that I ask upon arriving at a new lab regards the location of good coffee. I do have to qualify the quality of coffee that I'm looking for because there tends to be really bad coffee lurking around at most universities.

When I'm actually traveling the coffee situation can be a little iffy. I've had some really bad coffee at airports but I have found that weak coffee is nearly always better than no coffee at all. The exception to this rule tends to be when the only creamer available is of the powdered, non dairy variety. If that type of creamer is offered then the coffee tends to be really bad; even if you don't use the creamer.

There are of course coffee vending machines that dispense coffee of varying quality. You never know what you are going to get with one of these machines but at least you get to use a vending machine. Loyal readers will remember that I mentioned this type of wonderfully complicated vending machine in Vending Machine Love.

What about those little in room coffee machines that you see in most a lot of the hotels in the States? I've tried these a couple times and I've found several problems with them:

1. The coffee that is provided is of unknown quality.
2. There is no way to tell how clean the machine is.
3. There is never fresh milk or cream for the coffee.
4. Every time I use them I somehow overflow the pot and hot water gets all over.

Needless to say I try to avoid the in room coffee machines.

My preference is to find a nice local coffee shop within walking distance of my hotel. Plenty of people visit the chains and while a local shop may not be familiar they do offer a nice slice of local culture and usually better service.

Of course I can't always depend on the local coffee. One of my coworkers and myself even went so far as to brew our own coffee in a hotel breakfast area with a couple of those one cup coffee filter holders. Unfortunately we only had access to the hot water used for making tea which wasn't quite hot enough for making coffee. It was still nice to have a plan to have access to coffee when the local coffee was lacking.

Traveling can offer some great experiences and the chance to try something familiar in an unfamiliar setting can be just the thing to get your day going.

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Coming Soon: What is Travel?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Travel Gear: Shaving Soap Sheets

What may seem like a good idea on paper often turns out to be unpractical in practice. Companies are willing to come up with one idea and then stretch it to new lengths in order to expand their market and make as much money as possible in the short term without thinking about long term sales.

With the solid concept of light weight soap sheets the marketing department at Travelon has extended the idea to shampoo, clothing soap and shaving soap because after all; soap is soap right? Unfortunately for the marketing company at Travelon and consumers alike shaving soap and hand washing soap are two very different animals.

I think I may be getting a bit ahead of myself; let me back up a bit. Soap sheets or soap leaves are thin pieces of soap that you can carry around with you. If you run into a restroom that does not have soap then you have a handy supply right with you. Since this is a dry and lightweight product you need not worry about carry on travel restrictions.

I've used soap leaves made by a different company and found them pleasant and easy to use. I believe they were verbena scented which is quite nice. They dissolved readily in water, lathered nicely and rinsed away cleanly. All was good in the world.

Then I heard that there was a shaving soap version of this product out there. I was a little suspicious but I started to look forward to trying out this product, I mentioned it back in Shaving in Airports.

I found the product in a travel store on Bainbridge Island, Washington and paid $5 for the pack of 50 sheets. The packaging looked good at first glance; a tough little case to hold the sheets. After opening the package I found that the case was far from water tight. I was half expecting the case to be a little tighter as it is supposed to protect a product that is completely water soluble. Packaging disappointments aside I needed to think how best to evaluate the product so I came up with some criteria.

Minimally shaving soap should do four things:
1. Protect your skin from the blade
2. Give you visual guidance to where you still need to shave
3. Smell pleasant
4. Rinse away cleanly

In my testing this product failed to do any of the above things well.

The scent of the soap was the same that they use in cheap hotel soaps. The kind of soap that you now only find in really cheap motels; you know the stuff. I'm not sure why anyone would pick that scent aside from it being cheap. At this point I knew I was in for a treat.

The instructions were a little vague: wet 1 to 4 sheets depending on the area you want to shave, lather and shave. Since I was going to shave my whole face I went with four sheets, got them nice and wet and then I paused. Usually I use a shaving brush and since I was going to do a multiple pass shave this was probably the best approach.

I lathered the soap in my hand but the sheets all stuck together and formed a clump. After working it for a bit it mostly broke up but now I had soap clumps in my brush; fun. The lather that was produced was very thin and broke down right away. This kept me from seeing where I had previously shaved and didn't bode well for the cushioning properties of the product.

Despite knowing that I should have stopped there and switched to another soap I started my shave. It was a little rough going but it wasn't terrible. Then, out of nowhere, a gap in the cushioning of the lather caused me to cut myself. As far as shaving cuts go it was pretty bad but I got the bleeding under control and finished my rough shave.

Rinsing proved problematic as this product does not rinse clean. This is kind of important for shaving soap since you may not be planning on showering after your shave. Unfortunately you'll need to take a good shower (with proper soap) to get the residue off of you.

I did give this product a second shot at my face and shaved with it again. This time for each pass I dried my hands, wet two shaving sheets, rubbed my hands together and rubbed the soap into my beard. I was greeted with the same rough results though I went a little more slowly and bled considerably less. This second shave still did not meet any of my four minimal requirements for a shaving soap.

The lack of performance makes me suspect that the shaving soap sheets could be the same product as the hand soap sheets. I don't have the capability of testing such a theory but it wouldn't surprise me one bit if the different applications were just a marketing ploy.

All in all this is a terrible product. However, if you hate your face or legs, enjoy frustration and like to bleed then you should definitely track down this product. I did see the whole line of Travelon soap sheets at Bed Bath and Beyond on clearance for $2 so you can save a little money and maybe even start a new blog called The Frugal Masochist; wouldn't that be fun.

Just so you know that it isn't all doom and gloom in the travel shaving world I can wholeheartedly recommend Mama Bear's Soap Shave Stick. It may not be as lightweight and compact as the shaving soap sheets but it gets the job done in a way that the shaving sheets can't touch.

Do you have a favorite terrible travel product story? I'd love to hear about it in the comments section below.

UPDATE: I tried to create lather with this product when I was in Boston and I found that the change in water did not result in a noticeably better lather.

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Coming Soon: Coffee and Travel

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Curse of the German Asterisk

I often find myself flipping through my passport and I usually catch myself pausing at one particular stamp. I remember the events of the day that the ink was fresh quite clearly. This is the story of that stamp and that day.

I had wrapped up my first visit to Germany, a quick repair visit in Konstanz, and I had to catch a plane in Zurich the following day. This left me the better part of a day to take a train from the South of Germany, wander around some grocery stores, buy some chocolate and be ready to leave in the morning. I figured this was going to be another easy day; I was mistaken.

I caught a taxi to the train station from my hotel near the university that I was working at and made it to the train station, or bahnhof. Oddly enough bahnhof is one of the few German phrases I figured was important enough to dedicate to memory prior to my trip to Germany. Other phrases that made the list included:

Sprechen Sie Englisch? - Do you speak English?

Ein bitte - One please (handy for buying things like food)

Danke - Thank you

With this minimal amount of German I embarked on my journey home. At the train station I purchased my ticket, they talked to be briefly at me about my journey -in German- and I went through to passport control. I was surprised to find that the stamp had a train on it. I have other stamps with the image of a plane but I never went through a customs station that wasn't in an airport; I thought it was neat.

I quickly found myself on a train whisking along the countryside of Switzerland and my attention was soon drawn to a letter that I had been meaning to write. Every now and then the train would stop at a station, people would shuffle about and then we would continue. There was another such stop and I paid it no mind, the train didn't continue. After another few minutes the train started to move again but this time much more slowly and the car interior got slightly darker. This was the moment that I figured something had gone wrong.

I got up out of my seat and looked around to see that everyone aside from myself had left and the train had half pulled into a large building that is used for washing trains. It was kind of like an automated car wash only much larger. I came across a man that was cleaning the inside of the train and he was quite startled by my presence. He tried to tell me that I shouldn't be there in German while I tried to tell him that I shouldn't be there English but we weren't connecting very well. At last we both decided that we each knew I shouldn't be there and we could move forward.

We managed to figure that I should get off the train for starters so he helped me jump down the 6 feet or so down to the gravel and he helped me with my bags. He then proceeded to explain to me where the bahnhof was with the power of mime. Roughly I had to go back the way the train came, under a bridge and it would be on the right, easy enough. I thanked the man and began to drag my bags to more level ground.

As I was making my way from the train the yard foreman came up to me and started yelling at me in German. I'd never been yelled at in German before but it didn't seem as bad as I had thought it would be. He gestured with three fingers and I stopped him and asked if he spoke English. He said that he did speak English and then he started to yell at me in English. This was a little better since I could get some useful information out of him now.

It turns out that the three fingers were for the three times that the announcement was made that everyone needed to leave the train...IN GERMAN. The yard foreman continued to yell at me for a while but I decided since he wasn't being constructive I was better off following the nice man's instructions to find the train station, which I did find after a short walk.

After taking a look at my itinerary I discovered a little asterisk that was supposed to let me know about the train change. There was only 3 minutes in the schedule to make the connection though so I would have missed it anyway being that I had two large bags to deal with.


It's a funny thing those German asterisks, they are always quite important. I once stood in the rain during a thunderstorm for an hour because of a misinterpreted German asterisk. If you ever run into one of these while traveling in a German speaking country please do yourself a favor and get clarification, it could save you a lot of trouble.

Do you have any good train or asterisk stories?

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Coming Soon: Travel Gear- Shaving Soap Leaves

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

11 Usable Tips for Greener Traveling

There are lots of lists of tips you can find on greener traveling so why am I making another list? I'll tell you why. Most of those lists are full of suggestions that don't strike me as practical such as bringing home half used bars of soap and not using the airplane lavatories (seriously, those are actual tips that I found). My tips are actually usable and are all things that I have done or things that I'm planning to do on my next trip.

As you know I travel for work. A while back I started to think about what my environmental impact was as a frequent traveler. I didn't look up my Carbon footprint because most of my travel is flying and I didn't want to become depressed about it. What did happen was that I started thinking about all the little things that I could do other than cutting out my air travel. Thanks to some spirited discussions with coworkers and some internet searches I've come up with a list that works for me and I'd like to share it with you.

1. Unplug Unnecessary Electronic Devices:
If you unplug devices that don't need to be on then they won't be using standby power while you are away.

This starts before I even go on a trip. At my desk I have a couple devices that won't be in use while I'm out of the office plugged into a power strip , I just unplug the power strip and away I go.

When at a hotel be sure to unplug power adapters that you might have used in the night rather than leaving them plugged in while you are out for the day.

2. Use a Travel Mug:
Many hot cups are not recyclable due to a plastic that is used in them, that's waste that just doesn't need to be there. Reusing coffee cups helps but a reusable travel mug is even better.

I also sent Starbucks an e-mail about offering recycling for their cups at airports and I did get a nice form letter back.

3. Walk or Take Public Transportation:
Take public transportation or walk to your destination as often as you can manage.

Most cities will have a fairly good public transportation website to help you plan your routes before you arrive. I always feel a little better about my trips when I can avoid taking taxis.

There are a couple things to keep in mind if you are planning on using public transportation. Route schedules can vary at different times of day and different days of the week, unless you are sure about the schedule you would be good to have a plan B. Failure to do so could mean that you are stuck in a thunder storm in Germany waiting for the bus for an hour.

Secondly you should consider the issue of safety. If taking public transportation in a particular city gives you the feeling that you are unsafe then please find a safer option.

4. Turn Off Lights When You Leave:
This one is really basic and almost didn't make the list but it's good to keep in mind. Turning off the lights is something that we do when we are at home so it makes sense to turn the lights in your hotel room off when you leave.

5. Turn Off the AC When You Leave:
It's wasteful to keep the AC on all day when no one is in the room. Some hotels have automated systems that control the temperature, so sometimes you can't do anything about this but if it's possible to turn it off you should.

I really never thought about doing this until I saw the tip on another site but it makes a lot of sense.

6. Rent a Hybrid:
Some car rental firms will now let you rent a hybrid. While it's best to take public transportation there are times you just need to rent a car, asking if a hybrid is available is easy enough to do. Even if they don't have any hybrids available they'll make note of the request and that could have an impact down the road when they go to renew the rental fleet.

7. Reuse Towels:
Hang up the towels to dry so they don't get washed every day.

This one has been around for ages and I know you've seen those little cards in the hotel bathrooms asking you to conserve resources. I guess there are people that want them replaced daily but that was always sounded strange to me.

8. Carry a Reusable Water Bottle:
Nalgene bottles are widely available and do a great job. Filling the bottle up at the airport just past security works for me most of the time.

If you don't have one of these then you could always reuse a regular water bottle. I think they are good for 3-4 uses until they start doing strange things. In foreign countries I have found heavy plastic bottles that are washed and reused, I've occasionally used these as well.

9. Avoid Fast Food
In addition to being really bad for you fast food usually comes with far more packaging than you need. This includes too many paper napkins, utensils that you won't use and all of those little packets of ketchup.

You are on the road, treat yourself to some real food at a place that has actual silverware instead of disposable utensils.

Local restaurants are also more likely to be using local produce. This means a fresher product that hasn't been trucked hundreds of miles for your enjoyment.

10. Share Magazines With Other Travelers

When traveling you can often find magazines that have been left behind by other travelers. Instead of tossing the magazine they simply leave it on a chair near the gate for someone else to pick up and read. Books can also be shared in this fashion.

Another option if you happen to work with a number of frequent travelers is to start a lending library at work. We've just started one of these at my workplace and it looks to be getting a good start. I've been seeding the library with books that I find at thrift stores so we can keep even more paper from the landfill and recycling center.

11. Take Your Recyclables Off the Plane
If your airline doesn't have an in-flight recycling program then carry your recyclables off the plane for proper disposal.

I was on a United flight recently and was surprised to hear a flight attendant say that they don't have a program for recycling waste collected on the plane. All those cans that they provide are just getting thrown out along with the newspapers and styrofoam cups. In addition to carrying off my recyclable goods I've sent United an e-mail and I hope to get another form letter response back. If you'd like to join me in this effort please feel free to contact United.

Wrapping up
Well there you have it, some simple and manageable tips to travel a little greener. While these things might not seem to do much you should keep in mind that there are large numbers of business travelers out there so the little things will really add up quickly.

I invite you to join me in seeing that all of these little things do add up and if you see something that a company or group could be doing to help please stand up and be heard.

My short list is far from complete and I see it as a starting point. If you have any tips for traveling greener please add a comment to this post, I'd love to see them.

For further reading on greener traveling I'd recommend

This post was mentioned in the Green Travel Carnival. Thanks to the Perceptive Travel Blog for the link.

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Coming Soon: The Curse of the German Asterisk

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Rocklands BBQ: Vegetarian Hell

I normally don't write reviews or rave about restaurants that I come across while traveling because the places that I end up eating at are usually unremarkable. There are rare exceptions to this rule and these places stand out boldly in my mind and are remembered fondly. On my recent trip to Washington, D.C. I was pleasantly surprised when I went to Rocklands BBQ on a customer recommendation.

Toward the end of my first day of work I asked for dinner recommendations. This is something that I regularly do and the results are generally mixed, sometimes I get sick, but sometimes I'm pleased beyond belief so I keep asking for recommendations from the locals. I was surprised when three of the four people I was working with suggested Rocklands almost in unison and without hesitation. Usually there is some debate on the various places that people are suggesting but with Rocklands there was no question, that was where I should go for dinner. They explained that Rocklands was a BBQ joint; I was sold.

It should be noted that I am quite fond of BBQ. I'm not fanatical about it, though I'm sure some people I know may disagree, but I do appreciate the slow cooked goodness of BBQ. It takes a lot of time and skill to properly smoke a brisket so I'm always pleased to find a place that does it right.

I will admit that when I think of Washington DC I imagine a melting pot of different cultures and foods but BBQ is not something that immediately pops to mind. This idea was changed forever that night.

After I dropped off my things at the hotel I headed up the street to where my group had told me Rocklands was located. They said to go North, past the grocery store and across from the baseball field, it would be on the left. Simple enough, I started walking. I hadn't walked a full block when I smelled the unmistakable smell of BBQ smoke. This hardwood smoky goodness becomes part of you once you eat enough BBQ, it's a magical smell. I knew that my destination was still a ways off but I couldn't help looking around for Rocklands prematurely.

I continued my walk and as I got closer the smell became stronger urging me to walk a little faster. With each step I became more and more excited at the prospects of a great meal, just based on the smell alone. Before the anticipation became too much to bare I saw it, a simple storefront that said Rocklands on the window, I stepped in.

Straight ahead was the counter, to my right stood a large communal table surrounded by stools. In the center of the table was a bucket of peanuts, a vessel to throw peanut shells into and a fairly nice selection of hot sauces. Against the window there were a few more stools and a shelf like table attached to the wall. One of the most important details that could easily be overlooked is the presence of paper towels. No napkins here, just no nonsense paper towels. I've got a theory about this:

Graham's First Rule of Paper Towels at a Restaurant
Paper Towels=Good Food

I'm sure this isn't 100% true but as I think back on places that have paper towels instead of napkins I can't think of one that I wouldn't want to go back to. Tommy's in Southern California for example has paper towels. They do serve chili burgers though so that might be part of it. Maybe I need to revise my theory a little bit:

Graham's First Rule of Paper Towels at a Restaurant (Revised)
Paper Towels=Good and Messy Food

To the left there was a wall of sauces to purchase, all kinds of hot sauces and BBQ sauces. There was one called "See Dick Burn" which had a crayon drawing of a stick man on fire running across the label, I didn't buy it. Behind the counter was the kitchen, completely built for business and full of activity. Above the kitchen was a collection of 30 or so meat cleavers of different sizes and styles hanging on the walls. Something about the utility of the humble gathering of meat cleavers struck me as wonderful. I'm not sure what it was but it made me smile. I think that the cleavers are up there as a gentle reminder of the labor that goes into good BBQ, and that we should be thankful that someone else knows how to do it so we don't have to. I love that kind of stuff.

I walked up to the counter, grabbed a menu and stood back. All the expected fare was there: Chicken, pulled pork, brisket, pork ribs, beef ribs, etc. but I didn't see the normal platter of pick 1-3 meats and 2 sides so it took me a minute to decide what I wanted. I settled on the belly buster (not pictured) which included 3 pork ribs, pulled pork, brisket, a smoked sausage and a quarter of a chicken (dark meat thank you). I figured that I could do without sides considering that this sounded like plenty of food, to drink I ordered a large sweet tea.

After a brief wait, which is never more than 8 minutes at Rocklands, I heard my name called and I claimed my food. It was a delicious pile of meat and it was beautiful. Unfortunately I didn't have my camera with me at the time. Instead of a the usual plastic dinner trays my food came on what appeared to be a 1/2 sheet baking pan. Instead of a plate on the tray was a piece of foil with the edges turned up lined with a piece of wax paper. The meat was arranged within the foil. The meal was served with a roll and some grilled onions so I guess that you could count those as sides.

It was quite a site and I started to regret not bringing my camera. This regret quickly turned to joy as I began to eat. I quickly abandoned my knife and fork, I'm not sure what I was thinking using those in the first place, and ate with my left hand leaving my right hand clean to grab my sweet tea when needed. With such a variety of meat I expected there to be a stand out in the crowd but everything was equally delicious. To be so consistent in the art of BBQ is a fairly impressive feat. I will admit that I wasn't quite as fond of the chicken as everything else but it was certainly worth trying.

I ate my meal at one of the stools against the window, I was happy to be an advertisement for Rocklands as their food was simply delicious. I noticed a father taking his children into the ice cream shop next door, I saw him hesitate slightly. I have a feeling that he wanted to come in for BBQ because I get the same feeling that I used to get going out for ice cream whenever I'm on my way to some great BBQ.

I did end up going back to Rocklands two days later, partly in order to take a picture of the food but mostly because of the excellent meal that I had enjoyed. It looks like my travel plans will have be in Washington, D.C. soon and I plan to go back once again.

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Coming Soon: 10 Usable Tips for Greener Travel

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Travel Distraction - Sock Monsters

Traveling is physically and mentally taxing. Being such I have found it a necessity to carry with me a number of travel distractions. These could be anything from a magazine to a book to a DVD. One of my favorite travel distractions is a small sewing project known as a sock monster.

A sock monster is basically what it says on the tin. It's a monster made out of old socks. This does sound quite odd but the sock monkey is has a history dating clear to the depression. It was only a matter of time before someone put old mismatched socks to a more interesting use.

That someone was John Murphy who, while attempting to make a sock monkey, made something altogether different and brilliant. You can see a lot of John's work at Stupid Creatures.

That's all well and good but what does any of this have to do with traveling? I'm getting to that. You see, John wrote a book on how to make sock monsters (Stupid Sock Creatures: Making Quirky, Lovable Figures from Cast-off Socks). My wife bought a copy of this book for my mom as a Christmas gift but before my mom got a hold of it I claimed it as my own. Along with my wife we worked through all the patterns in the book and soon began designing monsters of our own based on the fundamentals in the book.

It wasn't long after that when I got to the point where I could cut all of the pieces for a monster and I'd just need to pin them together and sew them whenever I had spare time. Since I didn't need scissors I could take a monster or two with me on a plane and work on them. After a long day of checking e-mails and teaching software it's nice to be able to do something quiet and physically constructive. I even found that I can carry all of the things I need for sewing a sock monster in an Altoids tin which makes for a robust travel case.

One of the nice things about this travel distraction is the attention that it draws. People aren't used to seeing someone sew on a plane and they are generally curious about it. They generally don't believe me when I explain it to them but when I show them the monster pictures on my camera they warm up to the idea.

After the sewing is done I can stuff and finish the monsters when I get home. The monster pictured in this post was sewn almost entirely while I was on the road. I ended up losing one of the pieces so it took me longer than normal to finish but I think it came out quite well. It is currently living with a coworker who travels as often as I do.

It is nice that this hobby is also keeping old socks from being thrown away which is nice. In the disposable society that we live in it's nice to follow in the footsteps of those that created the first sock monkeys. Making something useful and entertaining out of items that would have normally been discarded. When I give someone a sock monster as a gift they are always well received because who sews nowadays anyway?

Just in case you missed my post earlier this week you can check it out at Travel and Disaster. This was a bonus topical post in addition to my regular posting, just trying it out, don't get used to it.

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Coming Soon: Rocklands BBQ-Vegetarian Hell

Monday, September 15, 2008

Travel and Disaster

With all of the recent activity of the hurricane season system that we are currently in I've been thinking a lot about disasters and how they affect me as a traveler. On the surface disasters can change your travel plans and leave you stranded. I certainly have my share of those stories but there are also the indirect emotional effects of disasters. It's these emotional effects are what I'll be sharing with you today.

Being a frequent traveler I am fortunate in being able to visit places that I never thought that I would get to see. It's inevitable that I will visit places that have at one point or may some day in the future host a disaster, natural or man-made.

When I visit a new city I can't help becoming at least a little attached to it. Something there will stand out, the people, the culture or the buildings. I walk along the streets and get lost on the public transportation systems. I take away these experiences that are uniquely mine and in doing so I become connected to those distant locations.

These connections make disasters to a familiar location a much more emotional experience. I was in New Orleans just in April, long since Katrina had past through. I did take some time to reflect on the event while I was there and it was quite moving. When hurricane Gustav rolled through I was reminded of shops I visited, people I met and things that I did. It all comes back to me in a rush. I remember the people that live and work there, I think of them and I wonder how they handled the evacuation. I realize that I could have been there for this event if the timing had been different.

A month after the Minneapolis bridge collapse I visited a nearby university on a work assignment. From the building where I worked you could see what was left of the bridge. The site was maybe a 30 minute walk from my hotel but I didn't visit it. As interesting as it might have been I just couldn't take that walk.

I first realized that I how strong these emotional connections had become when the London Tube bombings occurred. One year prior (to the day) I was on the Tube riding it to the airport. The suddenness of the attack brought my mortality into focus and it was difficult to concentrate that day. It's a little difficult now just thinking about that day.

I understand that bad things will continue to happen to good places and to good people, but life must go on. We can't stop living, hunker down forever and become hermits. There is a great big world out there full of wonderful things, it would be a shame not to see some of them. I shall continue to travel and while doing so I shall be respectful of the past while being mindful of the the present.

Are you similarly influenced by the places that you visit? Does tragedy snap you back to streets once traveled?

Note: This was a special bonus posting and not part of the weekly post schedule. There will be another post on Wednesday as scheduled.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Hotel Room Rituals

Traveling, like the rest of life, is full of rituals. Since I've been traveling I've picked up a few interesting behaviors along the way that I figure are worth sharing. I have all kinds of rituals for different parts of travel but one of the more interesting times, as far as travel goes, is during hotel check in and the time that immediately follows. For a little more about my thoughts on rituals rituals in general you might enjoy try the first half of Shaving in Airports.

At The Front Desk

When I get to the hotel front desk I always request a room away from elevators, ice machines, washing machines and vending machines. Loyal readers know that I do love vending machines (Vending Machine Love) but the one of the rare exception to this is when I'm trying to sleep. There's nothing worse than being awoken when someone is trying get a Coke at 3 in the morning. OK, there are plenty of worse things but late night vending machine noise is unpleasant and easily avoidable.

Of course these requests don't always ensure a quiet room but they will work most of the time. There are times when you check in late and you don't really have a choice in rooms, you're out of luck in that case. Another sad scenario is when you arrive to a hotel and there are school busses outside. The dreaded overnight school field trip, while fun for kids, is not something that I enjoy. Screaming girls in the hallway, playing cards all night, running up and down the hall, eating all the food at the continental breakfast in the morning... This is just painful for a business traveler and I hope you never run into it. Meanwhile, back to the front desk...

During the course of checking in the person at the counter they usually ask me how many key cards I'd like. I always thought this was a strange questions since it's only me. How many keys could I possibly need? Due to the strangeness of this question I usually ask for 22 room keys. Sometimes they take me seriously but most of the time they get the joke. After that I'll ask for 2 keys, one for my pocket and one that lives in my wallet because I tend to lose the one in my pocket.

When traveling abroad I'll usually be jet lagged and not quite in the moment. Combined with interacting with someone with a heavy accent that I'm not used to I usually end up asking for directions to the elevator at least twice. After that I wander around until I find the elevator.

At The Room

Once I get to my room I'll open the door once and let it shut on its own. If it latches properly I'll open the door again and enter. If the door does not latch on its own I'll find the elevator again, head to the front desk and request a new room. I once had a room with a door that didn't latch properly, I noticed it and made a point of pulling the door shut when I left. Unfortunately the cleaning staff was not so mindful of this detail and left my room unlocked for the better part of the day. Fortunately nothing was stolen but I had to toss my toothbrush and my razor because you never know. I did get to change rooms to a much better one and ended up running into Dee Snyder because of it (see: Random Famous People).

With an acceptable room I'll make sure that the curtains block out an adequate amount of light, sometimes this doesn't work but a handful of paper clips from the front desk and a bath towel stuffed in a clever fashion can solve most curtain issues. Next I'll check to make sure that the alarm clock isn't set to some ungodly hour then I'll head to the bathroom to check the shower water pressure. Sometimes you can't tell a lot by this test but it will let you know that the shower can work properly.

Once these things check out then the room is good enough for me and I tear the comforter off the bed and stuff it into the corner or into an unused closet. Those comforters just aren't cleaned as often as they should be, I'm sure that you've heard the stories. I've never purchased a black light to carry around with me to check but I honestly don't want to know. Although a series of pictures of black light lit hotel comforters might make for an interesting blog entry...

That's about it for my hotel check in rituals. I get the feeling that I should carry disinfection wipes with me to wipe things down things such as: phone, remote control, door nobs, toilet handles, etc. After all, the population of an entire planet was once destroyed due to a virus that spread off the handsets of telephones.

Do you have any hotel room rituals? I'd love to hear about them.

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Coming Soon: Travel Distraction-Sock Monsters

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Travel Gear Highlight - Travel Journal

The first time I mentioned that the travel journal was a piece of my essential travel gear was in Favorite Travel Gear where I briefly discussed the remarkable utility of this item. I feel that a piece of gear with the raw utility of the travel journal requires it's own post. For my purpose I will define a travel journal as a journal that you travel with, though a travel journal could very well be a journal which you record your travels in after you've traveled.

The journal, like life itself, is full of possibilities. When it is new, much like when we as people are young, it hasn't been locked into a future. The journal is full of blank pages, by the choices you make, you get to decide what it is and what story it is going to tell. Of course it doesn't have to tell a story at all, it's what you make of it. Something about the large number of possibilities, the flexibility and control of a journal are remarkably appealing to me.

There are certainly plenty of options out there for someone who is interested in a travel journal. They come in lots of sizes, colors and with loads of miscellaneous options. I have had several types of journal in my travels including journals that have special paper, lined or unlined, clasps and bookmark ribbons. The only things that I've found to be consistent is that a journal that is labeled as a travel journal just isn't for me. "Travel Journals" aren't usually a good value and are generally decorated with pictures of the Eiffel Tower on them. While there are better ways to stick out and look like a tourist, carrying one of these funky journals is a good way to do it.

I have owned one of the Rite in the Rain travel journals, which is a great concept, but it didn't turn out to be a practical choice for me. This type of journal has special paper that you can write on even when it is wet. The problem is that it takes a regular ball point pen and I don't like those. The pens that I liked at the time I was using this journal didn't have a compatible ink and it took several months to dry completely. This journal was also lined and I found that I didn't like this limitation.

What the Rite in the Rain journal did have that I liked was an ID page and a page for writing down your airline frequent flier numbers. I have since included this information in every subsequent journal that I have owned. The ID page in the front is something I hope I never need. I put down my contact information and a note to whoever finds it asking that they contact me so I can retrieve my journal somehow. There's also a note inviting the finder to read the journal and if they are so inclined to add an entry. Like I said, I hope that the ID page is never used.

On the frequent flier number page I've also included handy phone numbers for airlines that I commonly fly as well as the number of my travel agent. I should also probably keep notes of trusted airport restaurants, it wouldn't take much space as my list of good airport restaurants is quite short.

Beyond storing frequent flier numbers the uses for a travel journal are limited only to ones imagination and cleverness. To date I have pressed leaves, recorded where I parked my car and jotted down restaurant recommendations along with instructions to get to said restaurants. I've written down the names of new biscuits that I become fond of while abroad and record the events of a given day. I've used my journal as a memory aid many times to make sure I am on time and to remember what station to get off at while riding the train/bus/streetcar. Any observations of note go into my journal so that I can take a look at them later if I'm so inclined, this proves handy when I revisit a city.

I have found the travel journal such an invaluable tool that when I train anyone in a position where they travel I am quick to make a gift of a journal. Inside I inscribe it as follows:
Travel Journal of INSERT NAME
For the journey yet to be taken
For the story yet to be written

For me this sums up what a journal is nicely and I like to pass that on to others. I present the journal on the occasion of the first trip that I take with them. In addition to the journal I impart general travel advise that only comes from experience in hope that their path to becoming an accomplished traveler is as smooth as it can be.

In using a journal regularly I have found that the 4x6 inch size works quite well for me. Unlined paper is handy as I sometimes draw maps for myself and I can write as large or small as I like when lines are absent. While a nice feature, I've found that a clasp is not something that I require in a journal. If I was in the habit of keeping more things in my journal, pressed leaves or odd bits of paper, I would find this more of a necessity. A tough exterior is definitely a must as my journals get tossed around a bit and get stuffed into my bag quite frequently. I can go though a journal in about 6 months depending on my travel schedule so I do look for something that is reasonably priced as I'll soon be replacing it.

I have been most fortunate as I have found a journal that meets all of the above criteria nicely along with being widely available. Small sketch books, available in any art supply store, fit the bill nicely. At about $5 I'm not going to complain about the price and they are meant to be carried around so they are built tough. The paper is thick and will accept a variety of inks without a problem. They are easily found in black which works well for me as they are very low key.

If you travel often you should definitely consider a travel journal, it's not for everyone but you just might find that it makes your travels a little easier.

Do you carry a travel journal? Is there a particular brand of journal that you gravitate toward? If you do have a journal preference, please let me know why.

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Coming Soon: Travel Distraction - Sock Monsters

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Time I Lost my Passport

There I was, in the middle of the Copenhagen international terminal, people from countless countries rushing about me and I couldn't find it. I checked, rechecked and triple checked my pockets; it was gone, I'd lost my passport.

Not having yours with you can stop your travel plans cold and it is one of the scariest experiences, short of the possibility of physical violence, that I’ve come across as a traveler. I recently traveled to Norway and on my return home I faced this travel nightmare head on.

After getting to the airport, which required a brisk walk with all my luggage and a 45 minute bus ride, I was greeted with sad news. Since I was switching airlines in Copenhagen I would not be able to get all of my boarding passes or check my bags clear through to my destination before I left Norway. This is always a pain since there is another line to stand in to get things sorted. Loyal readers will remember how much I enjoy lines from Queue Madness. When extra lines are combined with the sometimes tight connections in international travel the situation can go downhill fast.

I asked the counter agent in Norway if there was anything to be done about it but I conceded this point quickly as it was clear that I was on my own with this matter. After making it through security I found some food and made my way to the gate. At this point I think a little context might be helpful. I had just spent four days in Norway and I hadn’t slept well due to the sun never setting at the time of year I was there. Details about this can be found in my previous entry 24 Hours of Sunlight. Needless to say, I was not running at full mental capacity on this trip home.

Waiting for my flight to board I took out my passport and inspected my visa stamps as I often do while traveling. I had 18 more spots to fill before I needed to get additional pages added. I stopped momentarily at my favorite stamp, it’s from Germany when I took a train across the Swiss boarder, it has a little picture of a train on it. Coincidentally I got lost on that train trip but that’s a story for another day. I thought of all of the places that I’ll visit in order to fill my passport and then I put it back into my shirt pocket along with a copy of my itinerary and my boarding pass.

Over the course of my flight to Copenhagen the combination of sleep deprivation, a warm environment and the gentle humming of the engines quickly put me to sleep. I awoke suddenly when we landed and didn’t quite know what was going on, I figured it out quickly though. I stood up, grabbed my laptop from overhead and then bent over to retrieve my backpack from under the seat in front of me. I heard a small thud and noticed that my itinerary had fallen out of my pocket so I picked that up. I didn’t however notice that the thud was made by my passport which just so happened to be the same color as the carpet on the plane.

I departed and took a bus from the plane to the airport terminal, I was completely unaware of the gravity of what had just taken place.

I made my way to the service counter to pick up my remaining boarding passes and to try to make sure that my bags met me at home. I grabbed a number from the automated kiosk and waited my turn. It was a lot like being at the DMV, everyone stands around and hopes that they get called up by someone in a good mood. Being the good queue participant that I am I prepared for my turn I went to pull out my itinerary and my passport. Feeling where my passport should have been I was surprised not to find it. I thought that I could have used another pocket for some unknown reason so I checked. Front pants pockets…nope. Back pants pockets…no dice. Coat pockets…outlook not so good. Coat pockets again (I keep a lot of stuff in those pockets, it's easy to lose something)…still not there. My backpack and my laptop case…most certainly not. OK, now what?

Where was it? I didn’t know. I remembered having it out at the airport prior to departure but I couldn’t remember putting it away; this was bad. I ran through the events that had recently occurred and the incident on the plane popped to mind. I wasn’t sure, maybe 60% sure about what had happened, but that was all I had at the moment so it was enough to act on. What next? If I went to the gate they could surely help me. I got a third of the way there when I realized that my plane wasn’t at the gate on account of being bussed to the gate.

I froze in place, what was I going to do? I just stood there, dumbfounded by my own stupidity. This is the moment where panic could have got me but I closed my eyes and thought on it for a second. The people at the gate are usually busy with too many customers and the plane wasn’t there anyway, I figured that the customer service desk was my best bet so I headed back to where I first discovered my situation.

Calmly I grabbed another number from the automated kiosk and waited my turn. I was greeted by what turned out to be a customer service manager from SAS airlines named Hans. I slowly and clearly explained that I was pretty sure I dropped my passport on the plane. He gave me the look that I give people when they’ve done something that they shouldn’t have done and then he proceeded to help me. He was a wizard on the phone and made several phone calls that ended with Hans cursing something, complaining that it was the busiest time of the day. He made a few more phone calls and told me to come back in 15 minutes.

My action for the time being was over, all that was left for me to do was wait, this is always maddening. I tried to remain as calm as possible as the minutes slowly ticked by. I noticed a sleek stainless steel coffee vending machine and I was saddened that I didn't have any local money. I wrote a few notes in my travel journal about my situation but I did little else. What more can someone do when the wheels are in motion?

Time moved more slowly than normal and I tried to figure out how much time I had to get my boarding passes, make my way through security and find my gate. It was going to be close.

Just before the appointed time I grabbed another number and got in the queue. Before my number was called Hans saw me and called me over. Much to my relief Hans informed me that my passport had been found on the floor of the airplane, just as I had guessed. He once again told me to take a seat and wait for someone to bring the passport. So I sat down to wait some more but this time I knew that I'd at least have my passport again even if I did end up missing my plane so I was a little more relaxed. I kept and intent eye fixed in the direction of the last gate I went though and I waited as patiently as you can in these kinds of situations.

Sure enough I saw someone coming up the hallway holding my passport. It was given to Hans and I made my way up to the desk once again. Hans took a look at me and at the picture in my passport and with a smile he handed it over. It was such a relief to have my passport back once again.

I got my boarding passes, got through security and made my flight without troubles. All through my trip home I constantly checked to make sure that my passport was secure- in the front pocket of my jeans.

Have you ever lost your passport? Please comment if you have.

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Coming Soon: Travel Gear Highlight-Travel Journal