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