Mar 16

Strange things on a plane, part 1

Anyone who has flown knows that people do strange things on a plane. Most people do perfectly normal things, but the weird things can be really weird. I’ve labeled this part 1, not because I have so many strange stories, but because I’m sure I will have more stories in the future. I used to always get a window seat, I like to look out the window. But I’ve developed Restless Leg Syndrome and have had a nasty case of it on a plane more then once. Now I only take a window seats on shorter flights where I know I wont be trapped too long. Here are my tales…

I’m flying from New York to Copenhagen (via London) and on the first flight I have my window seat and the guy next to me liked to be really helpful. I was using the seat back screen and was pushing something on the screen, apparently the guy thought I was trying to open my tray table and couldn’t get it open so he opened it for me. I gave him a strange look and he expressed that he was trying to help (English wasn’t his first language) and I explained I was using the entertainment system. Ok, whatever. Then our dinner comes and I took a Tylenol PM with it to help me sleep since it was early for me, he proceeded to ask me if I had a headache in his broken English. So then I had to explain it would help me sleep. I guess I was just lucky that he didn’t want to talk the whole flight. Then as were coming in for our landing he was leaning over me to look out the window, totally past what is socially acceptable. This is why you pick your seat when you book your flight, so you don’t have to lean over someone to look out the window if that’s you’re thing. I love looking out the window so I understand wanting to look out, but once you pass into someone elses seat area you’ve overstepped your bounds and I was feeling a little uncomfortable about it.

The following year I flew with Alitallia to Egypt. My first flight was from NYC to Milan and my seatmates were Italian, speaking almost no English. But they helped put my bag in the overhead bin so I thought all would be fine, and actually it was fine. We communicated a few pleasantries and then left each other alone. But when the flight attendants handed out the headphones the woman put them on, but never plugged them into anything. It left me wondering, did she think it was earplugs? and did they work?

On that same flight a flight attendant came up to the guy sitting in front of me while we were taxing to take off and asked if he would be willing to switch seats with someone else who was seated in a middle seat and is claustrophobic and couldn’t sit in a middle seat. If he didn’t switch then they would have to turn the plane around and go back to the gate. This was wrong on so many levels, but I’ll leave that to a post about stupid people.

Last year I was flying to Pittsburgh and while waiting at the gate, but on the plane, the guy in the seat in front of me was talking to his friend on his phone to a friend and telling him what different planes were doing. Like, the American Airlines plane is pulling out of the gate, the US Airways plane is in line waiting to take off. He didn’t strike me as a terrorist, but I did mention it to the airline, it was just too weird.

On my last trip to Pittsburgh I boarded the plane in NYC, and after a few minutes one of the flight attendants came down the isle and said to the other flight attendant that the guy refuses to sit down, she seemed a bit perplexed. From what I could tell there was a guy in the back of the plane who was refusing to sit, but everything was pretty calm, the 2nd flight attendant went to the back, came back to the front and there was nothing else said about it, until the pilot announced we were second from take off. The flight attendants sat down and one of them went over the PA to tell the man he had to sit now. Fortunately, everything went fine on the flight, but I was a little worried.

Mar 15

American Museum of Natural History

This weekend I went to the American Museum of Natural History in NYC with my sister, brother-in-law and 3 year old nephew. My nephew was really excited to see the dinosaurs, which he knows more about then I do. Natural history isn’t totally my thing, but lately I’ve thought I need to get out and visit these museums in NYC and I got invited here so I gave it a shot. There were some good things, and some not so good things.

Our first stop was the dinosaur rooms, which were really nice, even for a novice like me. Of note is that the T-Rex is mostly made of real T-Rex bones and was recently repositioned to represent what the newer research indicates was a more likely position for the T-Rex. We also went to see Dinosaurs Alive at the IMAX, which was really interesting, and showed how dedicated the museum is to dinosaur research (they dropped a lot of names of people who were working for the museum and are doing the filed research.) If you’re interested in dinosaurs this place is definitely worth visiting. The IMAX wasn’t quiet as good as some others I have seen, but the others I have seen were based on real video (one of the coral reefs and one from space) but this one was a mixture of things – video and computer technology, it ended up not being as dynamic as I’ve come to expect from IMAX movies.

The Milstein Hall of Ocean Life and the African Mammal Hall. I’m covering these together because my thoughts on them are pretty much the same. These halls are not a reason to visit this museum. They’re like the poor man’s Zoo and Aquarium. It’s not that the exhibits are cheap, but its dead stuffed animals with little bits of information about them. Unless the animal is extinct find a Zoo or Aquarium to see it in, it will be a much better experience. My 3 year old nephew did love these two rooms though, so maybe kids will like it.

We did make quick stops in a couple other rooms, but didn’t spend much time in them:
Northwest Coast Indians – this room seemed to have a bit of promise, though I suspect that the amount of stuff on exhibit might not make it to the top of the list of places to visit for someone really interested in this. But then again I don’t know too much about this topic so I could be wrong.
Human Origins – This was actually a pretty interesting exhibit and a place I wouldn’t have minded spending a little more time in. Though I suspect that someone who believes in creation wouldn’t want to bother stopping here.
Hall of Planet Earth – Another exhibit that showed some promise, but my nephew wanted to go home and play with his new dinosaurs so we didn’t spend much time in here.

Some other notes about the museum: I found the ticket line to be long at 1:00 on a Saturday and poor signage to explain different ticketing options. It was my first time there and found it confusing. You need to pay for admission and then for the IMAX and for any current/temporary exhibits. If we had realized this we probably would have gotten tickets for the climate change exhibit, but by the time we realized it, it was too late. The cafeteria is pretty nice, though it was so crowded and there were so many choices that it was a little overwhelming. There were the usual grilled options, a nice looking salad bar, sandwiches, pizza as well as some entrees and desserts. I wouldn’t shy away from eating here, though it’s not the cheapest option.

Mar 12

Fall Travel Plans

I haven’t been overseas since I went to Egypt in 2007, it’s been 2 years now and I’m itching to go back. I gave it a bunch of thought and I want to go to Eastern Europe (Turkey was also a consideration, but I decided to put that off for now). I have asked my friend Jen from my Egypt trip if she is interested since we had discussed going to Eastern Europe last year.

I’m looking at 4 different tours, Contiki’s Eastern Road which is a 2 week tour. Then there is Gap Adventures tour Best of Eastern Europe, also a 2 week tour. Then finally I am looking at 2 Intrepid Tours, which are currently my first two choices.
The first is the Road to Budapest and the second is Bohemia and Beyond. I like the smaller size of the Intrepid tours, as well as how they try to get you to know the locals. The two tours visit a lot of the same places, but one is a basix tour (the more expensive one), and the other is a comfort tour.

I have a couple things to work out though before deciding, a bunch of expensive dental work, picking my vacation time at work,I’m awaiting a transfer at work which could screw up my vacation picks and how much Hawaii is going to cost. Maybe someone will give me some free money in the meantime???

Mar 09

You Americans have no culture!

I was told this recently by a drunk Asian girl who had just been arrested. I suggested that our culture is to get drunk, do something stupid and get arrested. I don’t think she got the joke. But it’s not the first time I’ve heard this, but I’m not buying it. I think if you travel within western countries I think you’ll find that cultural differences are much more subtle. Come to the US from Egypt and things might seem a little different. But either way there is culture her in the US, but it’s made up of bits and pieces of other cultures and then it evolves over time. I’m going to talk a bit about New York culture in this post and then another day talk about culture in America more generally.

If you come to New York and all you see is the Empire State Building, Times Square and a couple museums you wont find too much culture. The first thing to realize is that New York City is filled with immigrants and decedents of immigrants. We have all the typical things you’ll find in other big cities like China Town or Little Italy, but head out to Brighten Beach and you’ll find Russian Jews, there are a lot of communities like that. Just a 100 or so years ago the lower east side as filled with tenements, which were filled with poor immigrants from all over the world (what Country might depend on the year). Today you’ll still find remnants of the Jews that lived there, only you’ll find that their Synagogues are emptier. You’ll also find quite a few new bars and clubs in the area. It’s a place that Jacob Riis described in How the Other Half Lives and today see this area “gentrified,” it’s a testament to the perseverance of American’s to improve their lot in life. The American dream is to give your children more then you had, and it’s a driving force in the way people live their lives.

There is a hustle and bustle to NYC that you wont find in a lot of other cities, people live and work here every day. People are very task oriented. At 8am at 34th Street and 7th Avenue people are figuring out how to get across the street the fastest without getting run over. We cross the street when there is a break in the traffic, we don’t wait for the little walking man – who has time for that? But at the same time if you were to stop a NYer and ask for help, they would probably help you. Our Police play a role too. You wont find as many con-games or expert pick pockets as you do in other large cites, we have it here, but it’s actively pursued by the Police which isn’t always the case in other places. The Police attempt to run everything extremely orderly, sometimes to the hindrance of the people who are trying to enjoy the event. But have you ever heard of people getting trampled at New Years Eve in Times Square? There is a certain orderly chaos to this sometimes rough city, but often you’ll find that their is a softer side to it too. We’ll help, you just have to know how to ask.

Mar 09

The Burgh – Pittsburgh

I’ve just returned from visiting Pittsburgh, well actually I was visiting my friend who lives near Pittsburgh. I’ve been before and it seems like a nice city. I feel like I just see a little bit each time I visit. In the past I saw the Duquesne Incline (which offers great views of the city) and went to a Pittsburgh Pirates game, they have a great stadium. This time we stopped for lunch on the South Side, it was a nice little area with shops and restaurants. Reminded me a little bit of the land area of South Street Seaport in NYC.

I flew out on Jetblue, which is my favorite airline for domestic travel. Jetblue just opened a new terminal at JFK – T5. The food was better then it had been, the terminal was also brighter. The bathrooms was nice – room for you and your carry-on in the bathroom stall. There were some nice restaurants (or an airport) and nicer shops, which I appreciated incase I ever end up there for a long time. It was however lacking in a magazine selection. I’m used to Hudson News which has like every magazine ever written. At T5 there was only CNBC News shops with had a decent selection of magazines, but not as good as Hudson News has, I was disappointed. I did have a strange occurrence on the flight out, but you’ll have to read that in another post I’m working on about weird things that happen on a plane.

Mar 02

Evolution of a Traveler, Part 1

I’m starting a series of posts called “Evolution of a Traveler.” I’m the traveler and these posts will talk about my journey as a traveler and how I’ve evolved. Here is part 1…

Many years ago a friend of mine took a tour with a company called Contiki and suggested that I tour when them when I finished college. Our friendship didn’t last but the advice did. In 2002 I booked a tour with Contiki that covered part of the US – a 6 day tour called California Highlights. My introduction to the tour was on the first morning in Las Vegas when I boarded the bus and met Ty. It was around 7am and his introduction included the fact that he was drunk and hadn’t been to bed yet, I knew at that moment this was going to be a good trip. In 6 days I transformed as a person. I started to see the wold in a new way, this was not an alcohol induced vision. I’m not sure if it was the places I saw or the people I met. The tour was filled with Aussies and people from a few other countries, but there were several peple on Around the World trips. Huh? People get to take 6 months or a year off of work and travel the world, where do I sign up for this plan? I came home and spent a week looking at my normal life from the outside; lets just say I wasn’t impressed. Quitting my job went through my head, but I was sensible enough to realize I had to have a plan before that. 7 years later I still have my job and am still working on my plan. I get 5 weeks vacation so I have ample opportunity to travel and figure out what I want to do and how I want to do it. But after that trip my life started on a new course.

Feb 27

Worry before your trip, go with the flow on your trip

One of the things that I do in my free time is moderate Contiki’s Message board. On the message board people discuss all sorts of stuff about their upcoming (or past) trips. Often the same questions come up, around this time of year there are often a lot of new people getting ready for their first trips abroad. We get questions about what to pack, plug adapters, what to see, who to fly with, what’s the best way to convert money. The money question is one that always sticks out at me, because it’s one that I find you worry about so much more before your trip, but once you’re on your trip you realize their aren’t as many options, and if their are you have to balance time verse money.

The best exchange rates are often from ATM’s. Travelers Cheques are usually a pain (and time consuming) to exchange, a lot of people don’t accept them. I consider Travelers Cheques as a nice back up incase of emergency, otherwise they’re not worth the time. It’s nice to go to a country and already have some local currency. That can be done by going to your bank or going to an exchange place, such as American Express, in your home country. The problem with your bank is that you’ll often have to order money, which requires planning, and not all banks offer this service. The problem with American Express is that they charge $4 (last time I used them) for each currency. You can bring cash from home and once you’re in the country you can use exchange places, some will charge a fee but others will not. Or, you can just use ATM’s once you’re in the country. Depending on your bank you may pay an extra fee to use an ATM in another country on top of the conversion fee.

What does it all come down to? Before my first trip I did a lot of research on my trip and exchangeing money, and in the end I had to just go with the flow. When I got low on money I would estimate what I needed and go to the most legit looking ATM I could find. Or when I was in a more off the beaten track location I would exchange money when the opportunity presented itself since they don’t come that often. Once you’re away you use all that knowledge to do your best at saving money, but most of the time you just have to go with the flow.

Feb 25

Traveling Solo or on a tour??

In the travel world there’s a bit of a separation between those that travel independently and those that travel on a tour. I’m a tour girl. It’s not that I don’t like to travel independently, but I tours suites me better.

I’m often traveling alone, I occasionally find a friend to travel with; but I travel so much and sometimes quite far away that I can’t always find someone to travel with. I don’t really like to travel alone either, it’s lonely. I know I could meet people along the way, but what if I don’t? The thought of traveling to foreign cities for 2 weeks without meeting people, or constantly meeting new people but not connecting with any of them is daunting. Imagine having no one to really talk to for 2 weeks, to discuss the things you did and the things you want to do. If you’re on a tour then you have instant friends (ok, I know that sounds bad.) But you’re with people who are more or less in the same boat and with the same interests. And if you keep your tour in the 2-3 week range you’re unlikely to get to know people’s annoying habits. But there is a certain comradery that develops on a tour. Picking place to see in a city, helping each other with problems that arise, sharing knowledge, and getting to know another culture through meeting people from different places. There is a lot to get out of a tour socially, and I’m still friends with many of the people that I travel with.

Then there is the idea of planning the trip – hotels, transportation, dining, ugh! I don’t mind it, but it is a lot of work and sometimes more then I have the time and patience for, especially if you’re looking at seeing a lot of places in a short period of time. A tour makes all this easier.

But there are some cons to traveling with a tour: you do often end up being sheparded around in a large group (though there is a lot of free time too,) being stuck with annoying people, limited control over your schedule and time. Overall though, I’ve enjoyed all the tours I’ve been on, felt they were a good value, and the people were absolutely worth meeting and getting to know. I am however looking at expanding the types of tours I use. A bus of 50 people is great, but I think a smaller group of people is better.

Feb 16

Choosing Scandinavia and Russia

When I tell people that I have traveled to Scandinavia and Russia they often ask, why? Here’s my journey…

After doing a 2 week tour of Europe with Contiki I had picked my next trip – Eastern Road – Berlin, Prague, Budapest, Krakow, Vienna, Warsaw. It was a 2 week trip that I had heard good things about. The problem was that I “fell” into some extra time off of work and wanted to take advantage. I wanted to go away for 3 or 4 weeks and on a whim looked through the Contiki brochure. Did I want to do the Eastern Road tour and another tour, or just do some independent travel before and after? Then I noticed this 33 day tour of Scandinavia and Russia, it piqued my interest. I started looking up some info on Scandinavia and after seeing some pictures realized it was beautiful there, I mean really beautiful – beyond anything I could imagine. Russia was easy since I’ve always had an interest in WWII and the Cold War. My next issue was dealing with the fact that this would be a “budget” tour – we would be staying in cabins instead of hotels. I did some more research and found out that in Russia we would be staying in hotels and that the cabins were pretty decent. I bit the bullet and in January I booked my trip for May. A couple cabins are a small price to pay for seeing a fjord (whatever that was), a glacier and the midnight sun.

I loved Scandinavia, it was a beautiful place. I was actually sick my whole time there and ended up sleeping on the bus a fair amount. I would often wake up and look out the window and see a waterfall, or a lake or a beautiful mountain view. Almost all of our campsites were in great locations, often on a lake or nestled in the mountains. I’m not a terribly outdoorsy person, but being in a place like this made me one.

On our drive to Nordkapp from Hammerfest to see the midnight sun we kept seeing reindeer, I kept trying to take pictures. They wouldn’t stop long enough for me to get a picture, but that was a gift. It was fun to watch them in their natural habitat (there isn’t much of a population this far north). The little ones would follow their mother around and the medium sized ones seemed to be playing with each other. Who needs Animal Planet when you have this? Then there was the one at one of our breaks on the drive. It was a lone reigndeer, a young looking one. He was just standing there and I jumped off to get a picture of him. One of the guys from the tour walked up to him to feed him something and the reigndeer ate it and hung around. The story differs depending on who you ask at this point. My story: The reigndeer turned to me, flared his nostrels and charged me, I ran away barely surviving the incident. Apparently the video shows that the reigndeer started to walk towards me and I panicked and ran away. Hey, where I come from animals aren’t friendly! Everyone then tried to feed or pet the reigndeer, it was funny to watch because I think he started getting freaked out by them. But the sweetest thing was that when the bus pulled away the reigndeer started to follow the bus and was at a full run.

I’ll leave Russia and more tales from Scandinavia for another day.

Feb 15

Disney World Tours

On my last trip to Disney World in October of 2008 Terye and I did two tours. The first was the Keys to the Kingdom tour, the second was a Segway Tour of World Showcase at EPCOT.

The Keys to the Kingdom tour is a 4 and a half hour tour where you learn some of the secrets of Walt Disney World (primarily the Magic Kingdom) and get to see some backstage stuff at the park. The tour starts on Main Street and our guide, Johnnie, showed us some of the names in the windows and told us the origins of those names. We learned about the 4 “keys” – Safety, Show, Courtesy, and Efficiency. Here are some examples of these: Safety – when they do bag checks at the park entrance they are looking for glass (among other things) – glass cuts people when it breaks. Courtesy – You’ll notice that cast members use a 2 fingered point, it’s apparently friendlier then the one fingered point. Show – cast members use the Utiladoors to move from land to land at the Magic Kingdom, you’ll never see a cast member from Fronteir Land in Tomorrow Land. Efficiency – you’ll notice that menues have limited choices at the parks and resorts, it makes it easier and faster for you to choose your meal. We went backstage in the area between Adventure Land and Fronteir Land. This is the area where they keep and service parade floats – we got to see many of the parade floats being tested. We got to ride Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion, and had a nice lunch at Harbor House. At the end of the tour we finally got to see the Utilador, which was very exciting. There is a whole network of underground tunnels under the Magic Kingdom which allows cast members and stuff to move around the park without being seen. They’re similar to something you would go through if you worked at a major sporting arena (that’s the best example I have since I worked in one,) but with just a little bit of a Disney flare to it. An interesting fact for all you recyclers out there. Although Disney does not have recycling bins in the parks, they do sort all garbage by hand, so rest assured that your cans will be recycled.

It was a great tour, Terye and I really did enjoy it. It was a little over 4 and a half hours. It does involve a fair amount of walking, but we did have many breaks from the walking, sometimes with the chance to sit down. If anyone is interested in the tour though I suggest doing it after you have spent a day or two in the Magic Kingdom so that you can better enjoy the tour.

The following day we did the Around the World on a Segway tour at EPCOT’S World Showcase. This is a 2 hour tour. The first hour is spent learning to ride a Segway, which is a lot of fun. The next hour you get a guided tour of World Showcase with one break in the middle. We rode through most of the “countries” and got some tidbits of infomation about them. It was nice to get to see World Showcase without people in it, you could appreciate things a little more, too bad we weren’t able to take pictures while riding the Segways. The Segways were sooooo much fun to ride. I wanted one after the tour, though I don’t think one would be very useful in my regular life. I will warn that they really do kill the feet and legs. You can’t really move your feet around when you’re on the segway since you use your legs and feet to control it. Although I wanted to go longer on it, I don’t think my feet could do much more. Next time I’ll have to try the Segway tour at Fort Wilderness.