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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