Wednesday, July 30, 2008

That Time Denver Got Snowed In

When the topic of travel stories comes up in conversation I have one story that is usually at the top of my list. Be warned however as this will be a little longer than my previous entries but I think it will be worth it.

It was a really long travel day a few years back and it was one of those situations where you have no idea how things are going to turn out until you actually live through them. I did live through the ordeal though so I'll share my story with you, hopefully you'll enjoy reading about it as much as I enjoy sharing it.

I had finished up three days of work in Ohio and I was to travel from Cleveland to Denver to Eugene which I expected to be an easy travel day. Normally I prefer to take the earliest flight out of town but since I was traveling by car to Cleveland I had a noon departure. It was nice to get to sleep in a bit and I even went for a walk in the local park before heading to the airport. I remember the day was clear and the park was full of picnickers, this must have been in the spring. Upon reflecting on the tranquility of the moment I find it interesting as it gave me no clue as to what an adventure had already begun.

Unknown to myself were the effects of a sudden snowstorm in Denver Colorado which dropped two and a half feet of snow completely shutting down the Denver airport. Of course as you now know just so happened to be the airport that I was to connect through. Unfortunately I had not watched the weather channel that morning so I had no idea what was to come...

I made my way to the airport and only got slightly lost on the way, but I still made it with about an hour and a half left before my first flight so I figured that I was in good shape. When I made my way to the ticket counter I found that there was a slightly longer line than normal to check in with an agent but there was no line for the automated check in kiosk so I tried to check in there. Upon entering my flight confirmation number I received a message that I needed to talk to a ticket agent so I got in line with my fellow travelers.

At this time I called my travel agent who informed me that Denver was snowed in and that all other available flights were completely booked by people who watch the weather channel before they go to the airport. This information was confirmed when I got toward the front of the line. The agent at the counter was doing her best to get everyone to their destinations but Denver is a major hub (I was flying United) so going was slow. She was however very helpful and offered to get me to Eugene four days later, I could also be on standby the next day and I might get lucky. Since neither of these options appealed to me I asked what I could get that day. Fortunately I had just heard her send someone to San Francisco and we quickly decided that SFO was the right choice for me as well.

This new itinerary required that my ticket be endorsed over to another airline so I had to run down to another ticket counter. Wouldn't you know it, the proper procedure wasn't followed and there were problems getting my boarding passes. 15 minutes later that was resolved and I ran to the security checkpoint. Since the ticket was just issued and the flight was taking off in less than an hour I was flagged as a security risk and all of my carry on bags were thoroughly searched. As the search was underway I was treated to hearing my name being paged over the PA system several times letting me know that the gate was closing in a few minutes and that I needed to get there right away.

After making it through security I ran flat out to the end of the terminal because in these types of situations it's always the furthest gate that you need to get to. After the multiple announcements signifying my lateness I still made that flight and the flight was even held for one more passenger so I really didn't need to run. Safely on my plane I had a chance to breathe, relax and look at my itinerary. Cleveland to Philadelphia, Philadelphia to San Francisco where I would rent a car and drive home to Eugene. I was going East to go West but at least I was going so I felt a little better about the day. I was scheduled to land in California at 10:00 PM.

In Philly I remember buying some postcards and sending them to family and friends letting them know about my story. The postcard I chose featured a liberty bell shaped soft pretzel. They are quite fond of their soft pretzels in Philly, they're all over at most of the lunch carts. They even sell them at the airport, I bought a couple. Sadly by the time I got home the moisture had seeped out of the pretzels and melted the salt so they weren't too good by that point.

My remaining flight was fairly unremarkable but we did end up boarding late after several delays. I'd now land in San Francisco at about 11PM.

Upon landing at 11 I retrieved my bags from baggage claim and got on the sky train to the car rental area. At this time of night the airport was fairly quiet and there wasn't a lot of activity going on at the car rental counters which was nice since I hate standing in those lines. This meant short lines if any but it also meant that many of the agencies were out of cars for the day. After a couple of rejections I found an agency that would rent me a car for a 1 way trip to Eugene.

After filling out the paperwork they let me know that I had a choice of two cars and that regardless of my choice they'd both be the same price. They had a Ford Focus and a Ford Mustang (this was in 2005 shortly after the new Mustang came out). I smiled and without thinking picked the Mustang. The agent laughed and said that he had guessed that I was going to pick the Mustang.

Walking to the car I glanced at my watch, just passed midnight, it was going to be a long day. So, armed with my rental car provided map and a shiny new silver Mustang I headed off for the 8 hour drive back to Eugene. Oddly enough I didn't get lost on the way to I-5 oddly but I did start to wonder after I'd been driving for what seemed like a long time but the toll booth attendant gave me a strange look but assured me that I was on the right road so I kept on going.

Sure enough I hit I-5 and headed North. Occasionally while on location in California people ask me where Eugene is, I reply: Take I-5 North, keep going, it's on the left. This works for most of California as I-5 is a fairly major road. It's not the most scenic piece of roadway but it's straight for the most part and it will get you where you need to go.

Driving on I-5 at night was an experience, much different than the several times I've been on this stretch during the day. I didn't even notice passing the cattle farm which usually smells terrible at mid day and there were almost no cars. There were plenty of trucks moving along but they know how to drive and always keep to the right except when passing. This made the driving technically unchallenging so I was able to focus on staying awake.

When I first found out I was going to California I started to have visions of stopping by In N Out Burger on the way up. Sadly I wasn't particularly hungry around the time I drove by the last one in California. That and I didn't see the turn off for it.

After a few hours of doing my best to stay awake the toll of the days travel began to take it's toll. I cranked up the radio and cracked the window to get some fresh air but I got to the point where I could no longer convince myself that I would be fine until the next rest stop so I pulled over for a rest somewhere in Northern California. After visiting the restrooms and wandering back to the car I reclined the seat and napped the best I could, it was about three in the morning.

Just before six I awoke. I was very groggy and it took me a moment to realize where I was that I had been sleeping in a car, quite odd. I went to use the restroom and then to use the payphone (I didn't have a cell phone which now seems quite odd). After using the phone there was a guy waiting, I figured that he wanted to use the phone but he wanted to ask me for money. The guy was maybe in his early 40s, going a little bald and was wearing a dirty white t-shirt.

He explained that he had this young girl that was with him and that he had to get her home by ten last night but they ran out of gas and he wanted some money. I'm not exactly sure how that was going to help him at a rest stop that didn't have a gas station but I didn't point this out. Similarly I didn't give him any money as he shouldn't be running around with young girls. I quickly made my way back to the car and continued on my way.

At six in the morning the driving was still good, mostly truck drivers but I started to see more passenger vehicles. It wasn't anything too hairy so I continued on without incident.

At around 8AM I rolled into Ashland, Oregon which is as far as I am concerned is a mandatory stop on any road trip going by this area. There is a little game store called Fun Again Games. Well, the storefront is small at any rate. The neat thing is that Fun Again a major online game shop and have just about anything that is currently being published in the back. The showroom is limited but if you know what you want they'll pull it from their stock. Unfortunately that day they were opening at 11 and I couldn't justify waiting around. It was sad not to visit but I had to get back on the road.

I did stop at the grocery store to get a bagel or a muffin and some orange juice. I was going to have to eat on the run if I was going to make good time back to Eugene but I was feeling pretty good since I was already in Oregon and had a nice nap.

Upon returning to the freeway I noticed that someone had turned on a steady flow of passenger cars and in those cars they put a bunch of people that didn't know how to drive on the freeway. I was stuck in a perpetual hell of slow people tailgating each other in the passing lane while driving the same speed as those in the driving lane. And when someone did pass they only went faster than the vehicle to their right but just barely.

Fortunately I don't drive for a living and I'm quite surprised that there aren't more truck driver road rage cases than there are today as this driving that day was so painful. At one point I got stuck in a particularly bad group of drivers that went as far back as I could see in my rear view mirror so I got off at the next exit.

After getting a soda at the service station I hit the road once again. It was a painful last leg with way too many cars for the road. I finally made it to the Eugene Airport where I dropped of my car and arranged for someone to pick me up after this very long day of travel. This kind of travel day is not something that I want to do very frequently but I learned a lot from the trip (Always watch the travel channel, Seattle would have been a shorter drive, etc.) and it makes for a great story.

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Coming Soon: The Wide World of Candy

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Announcement: I'm on Twitter

I'm now on Twitter. It's an application for getting updates on people. Kind of like the Facebook status function. If you are interested in following me on Twitter you can click here for regular updates.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

24 Hours of Sunlight

When you travel for a while you start to develop some peculiar habits. These are little things that you always do. They aren’t really superstitions but you can no longer recall the reason that you started doing them but you just keep doing them. One such habit of mine is to carry an extra pair of socks with me. This is the story one of those pairs of socks.

On a recent trip to Trondheim, Norway I had the pleasure of visiting near the summer solstice (June 20th). The summer solstice is the longest day of the year for those of us in the Northern hemisphere and the further North you go the more daylight you get. Now, I’m not one to usually pay attention to these kind of things but this was a fairly important thing to not know about when traveling to the area at this time of year.

Norway is pretty far North and around the solstice they get 24 hours of sunlight. This would have been nice to know as I’ve never been someplace where it’s light out all the time and I could have prepared a bit for this.

I started to notice that something was wrong on the first night when I went to close my curtains at 10PM and it was still light outside; I thought this was odd. I woke up…at 2am, noticed light peaking around the curtains and never got back to sleep that night. This of course put me in great shape to work the next morning. I did make it through the whole workday without much trouble (and quite a bit of coffee) but I knew I couldn't get away with just four hours of sleep again. I needed a plan.

If only I had brought a sleeping mask with me(I occasionally get these from airlines and I hang onto them but I usually forget to keep one in my backpack) then I wouldn't have to worry about the light issue. I didn't have the energy to hunt down a sleeping mask in Norway so I looked at what I had in my hotel room. I could always cover my face with a pillow but that makes breathing difficult. I tried making a better light seal with the curtains but light was coming in through the top and the sides. Note to Norwegian Hotels: GET BETTER CURTAINS.

I did have my sewing kit from making sock monsters and I also had an extra pair of socks. This could work. I dug through all of my clean socks and I found my softest pair of clean black dress socks which coincidentally had a habit of slipping down and getting bunched up in my shoes so I really didn't mind sacrificing them.

I overlapped the foot parts of the socks so that my eyes would have a double layer of the softest sock part on top of them, I sewed them together toward each toe (no stitches near my eyes). This left me with one long sock with two ends. These weren't long enough to tie behind my head so I had to similarly overlap the part of the socks with the opening in them. I wrapped these around my head, pulled them comfortably tight, held on to the positioning and slid the sock mask off my head. This was pinned and sewn in two places just like the front.

After about 15 minutes of work I had my face mask, it was a little tight but I figured that was better than being a little loose. It did however do a good job of blocking out all of the unwanted light. That night I slept just fine even though the mask slipped down in the night and I had to put it back on (there was however plenty of light in the room for this opperation). The next night I spun the sock mask around and this resolved the slipping issue. Over several nights the mask did get looser but it still did the job.

In addition to my normal jet lag I found it strange to to be in a place where the sun never set. My system was just slightly off and I never quite got used to it. I'm sure that given enough time I would have adjusted to things though I still think that it would remain a bit strange as 24 hour sunlight is something that it so unknown to me. The sun is just supposed to set at night, that's how it is. Part of me wishes that I had woken up at midnight, walked around and had taken some pictures. Another part of me knows that I would have paid dearly for those pictures the next morning. Oh well, maybe next time I'm in the neighborhood.

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Coming Soon: That Time Denver Got Snowed In

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Code I Travel By

In my travels I have developed a sort of code of conduct that I live by. This code applies to most non travel situations but I tend to think of it and act on it more often while I travel. I think that this is because there are many more unknowns while traveling that trigger the situations that are covered in my code.

1. Don't Panic
Douglas Adams got it right, panicking only makes things worse. It takes away your ability to think clearly and generally makes a mess of things. When you panic you give up control and that's never a good thing, especially when you are in a strange environment. When you travel there are some events you just can't do a thing about such as planes being late or having to sit next to someone that hasn't showered in days. You can however always do your best to stay calm and think things through logically before acting.

Take a breath, stop what you are doing and think. It can keep a bad situation from turning worse even though it probably won't get you home any quicker.

2. Respect People and Cultures
I would imagine this could also fall under "Don't be an Ugly American". Yes we can be loud and obnoxious at times but we all need to respect everyone else's right to not be loud and obnoxious if that is what they choose. I'm sure I've accidentally insulted plenty of people without knowing it but I always try to be pleasant with people and I avoid insulting them in any of the ways that I'm familiar with.

Just because people are different doesn't mean they should be disrespected. I try my best to download learn-a-language podcasts or carry a language phrasebook with me. Catching a few words here and there really helps and the effort is always well recieved. Try to learn about local customs from the people that you meet, they will help you out and be pleased that you are taking an interest in their culture.

3. Don't be That Guy
I've discussed him at length so I won't repeat it here, follow the link above for more information.

4. Don't fly halfway around the world to eat a hamburger.
I do enjoy a good burger (and I make quite a mean one myself) but unless you really love hamburgers and are traveling the world to find the best out there then you are probably better served by trying local food. It may not always sit well with me but I almost always find local food to my liking and it really makes me feel like I've arrived someplace new. As an added bonus you can say you tried it and that earns points in my book.

The little hole in the wall places that people tell you about are generally the best. I have had poor luck hotel staff though, they they tend to either point me to some sort of chain or someplace really fancy. You really do need to talk to locals, fellow travelers or get really lucky and stumble into a great place (I've done all of these). Occasionally I've had the foresight to do a bit of research on the internet before I get to a location but mostly I just wing it. Usually the people I'm working with are more than happy to tell me about their favorite places to eat, even if some of the recommendations have made me sick.

I will admit that I have eaten steak all over the world. I don't do this every trip but if it seems like one of the local things to do or I've exhausted most of the hotel restaurant local flavor (and it's well below freezing out and it's more than a mile to the next restaurant) then I'll go with a steak. My top 3 steaks of all time have all been enjoyed outside the USA (Finland, Australia, Chile).

5. Help people when you can.
Now I don't believe in karma but helping out travelers in distress is something that I try to do whenever I can. Traveling is stressful and people can get frustrated with language and navigation issues or worse yet they can forget to not panic.

I've translated English to English for a person with a heavy accent trying to talk to an airline agent with a similarly heavy (yet very different) accent. Both spoke decent English but they just couldn't connect so I translated for them. It was quite funny and they were both very grateful for the help.

On my last flight home the person sitting next to me was having a panic attack because their luggage wasn't going to make the flight, additionally she fell down on the tarmac on the way to the plane, destroyed her pizza and scraped up her hands pretty good. This lady was hungry and panicking but the people around her (myself included) calmed her down and offered her some food. After that she was fine and very felt lucky for having such understanding travelers around her.

I've also been the recipient to help many times and I'm always thankful for it. Recently a nice old man helped me read a posting at a Norwegian bus stop which noted that there was a bus strike going on for most of my trip. This was very handy information as I was planning on taking the bus to work the next day. He just saw me staring at the bus schedule and offered to help, people are nice like that.

6. It's better to be 1 hour early than 1 minute late.
When I travel I want to make sure that people aren't waiting on me, that would just be rude and probably insulting. Now, exactly what punctual means will vary from country to country but I always do my best to be at the agreed upon spot before the agreed upon time. Sometimes I'll overestimate and have a half hour that I could have used to sleep but that's OK as I'd rather wait a few minutes than have people waiting on me. You can never be sure how long that bus ride is going to take that first time you take it or how late the taxi will be so I'll stick to being early.

This also applies to days that I'm flying as I never want to miss the first flight of the day, that always gets the day started off wrong. I don't want to be the person running to the ticket counter frantically trying to make a flight in 30 minutes. My nerves can't handle that. I do routinely let that person pass me in line though but most of the time they are too late. There are enough stresses while traveling and that one is easily avoidable so I avoid it. Coincidentally I spend a lot of time drinking coffee in airports waiting for my flight to board.

I think that's about it as far as my main travel code goes. Don't panic, be respectful, don't be that guy, eat new foods, be helpful and be early. They are simple rules to live by but they make my travels go a lot smoother and I wouldn't go anywhere without them.

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Coming Soon: 24 Hours of Sunlight

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Way Traveling Used To Be

When I am on a trip I often hear travelers complain about how bad it is traveling now and how it used to be so much better. You used to get more leg room, the service was friendlier, the blankets were thicker, you used to be able to sneak booze on the plane and they gave you bigger bags of peanuts if not actual food. Oddly enough peanuts are making a comeback despite having been stricken from the skies due to allergy sufferers. I also hear countless complaints about security restrictions and how it's impossible such a pain to travel these days.

The bulk of my air travel has been in the post 9/11 world so I'm used to the security restrictions and most of the cutbacks that the airlines have been imposing on travelers since that time. And because this is the world I’m used to traveling in these things are "normal" to me and most of the time I find it hard to relate to these stories of woe that the more seasoned business travelers like to share when we are once again taking off late which in turn makes the next connection tighter thus increasing the chance of losing ones luggage.

Of course leaving “late” is not that big a deal since the airlines usually build in about 15 minutes into the flight time so that even if they take off 15 minutes late, you’ll still get there on time and they can report this as an on time flight, sneaky devils.

Over the past five years or so I have however seen some changes. Security has tightened and I can no longer take a bottle of water on a plane unless I fill it up past security or buy it there. This is better than not allowing any liquids on planes at all which was fashionable for a while. I tend to get dehydrated on international flights and depended on the water I carry with me. There was a story a while back, I think it was on 60 minutes that found fecal matter in the water served in pitchers on planes so I only drink the water I see coming from a bottle when I fly. I don't need any more help getting sick when I travel, I can do that on my own. I try not to think about the ice however.

In order to cut costs, many airlines have switched from consumable perks to durable perks. Items like food are a continual cost. Even if the cost of such a perk is minimal; when you multiply that number by every customer on every flight each day it really adds up. In contrast a durable perk such as in seat video screens costs a lot up front but then it just has modest maintenance costs from then on more or less independent of usage.

In other words costs per use of consumable perks are consistent with use but the cost per use of durable perks goes down the as the number of uses increases despite initially being expensive to establish. The cost of durable perks is all up front so the airline does take a hit to begin with but over the long run they are better off.

It's all a matter of balancing the actual cost of a given perk and the perceived value over the course of say a number of years. I happen to like personal TV screens that let you select your own programming far better than I like the peanuts they serve. I can (and do) bring my own peanuts, it's a little harder however for me to pack enough video programming and battery power to last me through a 10 hour flight.

That in-flight entertainment does not come without additional costs to the customer however. The space under the seat in front of you where your carryon bag and or feet are supposed to go is often used to house the electronics needed to run those screens. This causes about a third of the seats to be reduced to bulkhead seats (over head bag storage only) but without the usual extra legroom that usually comes with those seats.

With rising gas prices some airlines have started to charge for the second bag that you check. Others have even started charging for the first bag. This practice is insulting and it makes comparing ticket prices from different airlines confusing at best. I would much rather be told upfront what the cost is, I don't want to have surprise costs on the day I travel. It's a deceptive practice and I wish that airlines would just increase the cost of tickets upfront and be honest about it. I know gas prices are higher, a plane ticket should cost more to compensate.

One day soon I think I will begin to join the masses of disgruntled travelers in recounting good old days of air travel. Remember when the cost of luggage was included in the price of a ticket? We even had a place to put our feet! The younger travelers will look at me like I've gone mad.

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Coming Soon: The Code I Travel By

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Vending Machine Love

I am afraid that with the title that I have chosen for this entry I may end up disappointing those looking for information about making love to mechanical devices . This is about my non romantic interest in vending machines so if that isn't of interest to you I apologize as I won't be detailing anything kinky, sick bastards.

My love for vending machines started at an early age. My family used to go on trips from Whittier, CA to Laughlin, NV about twice a year. The trip is only about 5 hours or long by car but when you are young that amount of time seems like an eternity. At about the halfway point we would stop to get gas and to use the restrooms in Barstow. Back then we always stopped at Terrible Herst's.

Just outside the restrooms at Terrible Herst's was a run of the mill vending machine that sold chips, candy and gum. Every trip I would be sure to have some change with me so I could use that machine. I usually ended up getting stale Juicy fruit gum. I'm not exactly sure why but I usually got Juicy Fruit for one reason or another but apparently it wasn't a big mover in the area as it was always stale. Even at that young age there was something just something that I enjoyed about putting in the coins and watching things fall down into the catch area that I enjoyed even if I didn't quite understand why I liked it so much.

Maybe part of me wanted to play the slot machines like my parents but I wasn't old enough so I'd have to make do with the vending machine. Of course a vending machine has several advantages over slot machines. Firstly, you more or less know that you are going to get something for your money provided your snack didn't get stuck between the row and the glass; this is always sad situation. Secondly, food comes out of them (though I think that originally you could win gum out of slot machines). Thirdly you have some control which is always nice when you are hungry.

Another thing that I find appealing about vending machines is that everyone is equal in front of them so long as you have the right coins. Age, race, social stature; the machine doesn’t care. It doesn’t judge, it just does its job.

Another early interaction with vending machines was at a super market in Whittier called Alpha-Beta, the store is no longer there and has long since been torn down. At any rate when you went into the store, immediately to the right of the entrance was an instant coffee machine that also served hot chocolate. I remember the cups all had poker hands on them with a hole card symbol on the bottom. About 6 months ago I found one of these machines at an airport so I had to give it a go. The hot chocolate was absolutely terrible but the cups still had card symbols just like I remembered. The cups have a hand of cards on the outside cup part and the bottom is your hole card.

Just recently I found a Maxwell House coffee machine in the S Terminal of the Seattle Airport. I've found that coffee vending machines tend to be amongst the most complicated machines out there as you need to pick the drink type, size, sweetness level and whitener level. When I was as Seattle I had a large sized hot chocolate, it was quite delicious, only a dollar and much to my pleasure it came in a poker hand cup. My card hand was as follows 6 A 53 8with a hole card of 6. A lousy pair of 6’s. The cup clearly warned that it was for entertainment purposes only. It would have to be a pretty slow day to have to be betting real money on card hands that you got from a coffee vending machine. Although I could easily see being stuck in an airport drinking 75 cent cups of coffee, betting on who will buy the next round of coffee based on what coffee cup you get.

Within the United States there is pretty good variety in some snacks though you'll always find Coke or Pepsi, Snickers bars and Dorritos in them. Local potato chips are a good bet for variety domestically. Internationally I see snickers bars most of the time, such as the pictured machine in Norway (you can click on that picture to see a larger version if you like).

I did find a machine at an airport once that offered hot french fries, I should have tried it but I wasn't feeling like eating at the time. If I ever run into another one of those machines I’ll be sure to give it a go.

When working at a NASA site in Ohio the vending machine at the guard station had ridiculously low prices. I figure it must have been a government subsidized machine but I didn't question my luck. I saw Hostess cupcake 2 packs for 65 cents. These are normally at least $1.25 in machines. Of course as soon as those became available they went fast. I saw them behind other things but I never got the cupcakes. They were in an accessible slot once during my visit but I passed them up. I regret it to this day. I did end up getting some Chocolate Zingers though and they were pretty darn good.

There are of course the vending machines that do not sell food or drink. Most notably are the machines that sell iPods and related accessories. I don’t know who’s using these machines though as I’ve never seen one in use. I’ve also seen vending machines in Las Vegas that sold vases full of flowers, kind of romantic but kind of creepy that there is a market for these machines.

When traveling abroad one of the great things is that even if you don't speak the language you can still pop in a few coins and get a snack, a drink or even coffee (in a can or freshly brewed, hot or cold). Vending machines are fairly language independent which is very comforting. Pick what you want, put some money in, push some buttons and hopefully what you think is coffee is actually coffee.

I’ve also seen adult vending machines. I find these mostly in men’s rooms as I don’t make a habit of wandering into women’s restrooms. Most memorable was in a pub in England, I think it was in Nottingham. Several machines adorned the wall, tempting those that had too many Vodka and Red Bull drinks (served by the pitcher up stairs). One vending machine sold condoms in several varieties and then there was another that sold personal pleasure devices and “fun inflatable sheep”. There was a graphic of a man with a goofy grin on his face along with a sheep that looked quite concerned. For the record I did not buy a “fun inflatable sheep”. I believe they were 4£.

I always look forward to finding new and interesting vending machines in my travels and view them as familiar friends who will sell me a snack even though I don’t speak the local language. When you travel I would highly recommend giving these ever vigilant guardians of snack foods a
second look.

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Coming Soon: The Way Traveling Used To Be