Apr 04

Evolution of my Travel Journals

Due to an accident involving my journal from Scandinavia and Russia and water, I’ve been rewriting that travel journal. While reading it I started to notice a change in what and how I wrote in my journal.

On my first trip with Contiki I did my first version of a travel journal – I wrote in my palm pilot all the things I saw, in the form of a list. I’m pretty sure I had fun on that trip on top of seeing a bunch of stuff. When I went on the European Discovery trip I was a little more advanced. It’s a very detailed list in sentence form of things that happened, people I met, things I saw with the occasional interjection of my opinion on something. In Scandinavia things continued this way for the most part, but I also started to comment on how beautiful things were, which is always hard to express – it’s just beautiful – how many ways can you say that? Once I got into Russia I started to notice that my journal entries started to include more stuff about how I felt, observations about the country and the people. It really struck me, I was evloving as a journal writer. Or maybe I was just evolving as a traveler? I’ll discuss that another day. I was intruged by this change and looked at my journal from Egypt and, WOW! I found that I included all the stuff that I did during the day, but I was also observing so much of what was going on around me and writing about it and how I felt about it. No wonder I was always behind in writing in that trip. But it’s so refreshing to see what I thought about things at the time, especially about a trip that was so precious to me.

Journaling while traveling can be a total pain in the butt, it takes time, you’re always forgetting to add something, or your on a bus and hit a bump when you’re writing – it’s work. But when you come back home it’s so nice to have something that helps you remember what you did and how you felt. Many memories will stay with you, but sometimes you need something to trigger those memories. You’re pictures will also help, but they wont tell you what you thought or felt at a time, they’ll just show you what you saw and did. So keep a journal, you’ll be happy you did.

Apr 04

Figuring out costs

I’ve been working on the costs of my different trip options for the fall. I broke down tour costs, flight estimates, food estimates. I have not included the costs of admission to museums and such, as well as buying souvenirs. I fully expect prices to change a bit, as well as the value of the dollar vs the euro and the pound. Also Airfare can certainly change in the meantime. But I wanted to get an idea of the costs. Would it be worth it to go to Edinburgh instead of doing the 2 week tour as a cost saving measure, or would the price end up fairly similar?

The exchange rate I used was 1:32 dollar to the euro, and 1.44 dollar to the pound, the rate when I was doing the actual pricing. The pound is the lowest I’ve ever seen it, hopefully it doesn’t go back up.

The Road to Budapest with Intrepid:
1730 for the tour
528 local payment (400 euros)
868 Airfare non stop round trip from Vienna
100 train from Budapest back to Vienna
521 estimate for meals based on Intrepids recommendation
Total: 3747
I will probably also need to get a hotel for an additional night in either Vienna or Budapest for the last Saturday into Sunday when I would fly home. I may also need a hotel for the night before the tour starts.

Bohemia and Beyond with Intripid:
1925 for the tour
528 local payment (400 euro)
803 for airfare (JFK to Berlin, Venice to JFK)
521 for meals based on Intrepids recommendation
Total: 3777
I may also need a hotel room for the night before or after the tour.

Scotland
My plans are to stay in hostels, more for the social aspect then for the price aspect. Subsequently I would prefer smaller rooms, 4 people instead of 8+.
786 Round trip flight to Edinburgh
235 3 day Haggis Tour without upgraded hostel accommodations
64 meals based on Haggis estimate of food costs
103 3 Nights in a 4 woman dorm at St. Christophers Inn Hostel, Edinburgh
30 1 night in Glasgow Hostel, estimate
15 Round trip train from Edinburgh to Glasgow
200 estimate for 5 days of meals
Total: 1433

If I decided to do a 5 day Haggis tour:
403 5 day Haggis tour, without upgrading the hostel accommodation
108 meals for 5 days on Haggis Tour
Adjusted total: 1546

Obviously Edinburgh would be the cheaper option, even if I decided to upgrade some of my accommodations or decided on some more expensive meals. The two Intrepid Tours will work out to cost me about the same amount. Of note is that Bohemia and Beyond tour is a Basix Tour and the Road to Budapest is an Original Tour which should have some nice accommodations.

Apr 01

ET, Phone home…

So, if you were ET, how would you phone home? Or if you were me, in Europe, how would you phone home? I generally don’t call much, but I do like to check in from time to time.

In 2006 when I went to Scandinavia and Russia I decided to buy an international cell phone. I had looked at several different options: renting or buying an international phone. I decided to go with a company called Mobal. With Mobal you purchase a used phone with a sim card from the UK and pay for calls based on your usage. The phone I bought was $50 and calls are as cheap as $1.25 per minutes, though the cost in most countries is $2.00 per minute. In Russia it is actually $8.00 per minute, I didn’t use it there. The per minute charges are kinda high, but I was only planning to use the phone to check in with my parents or if there was an emergency. For the 33 days I was away I only spent around $20.00, plus I had the peace of mind of having the phone if I needed it. I was also able to use the phone in Egypt and can use it on other future trips.

I’ve been happy with the international phone but I switched my regular cell phone service to ATT mostly since it didn’t work in my new apt, but as a nice bonus ATT uses the GSM network. Since I’m now starting to plan my first trip overseas since switching to ATT I wanted to find out what options I have now, other then my old international phone. I explored a bit and have 2 options:

1. If I am able to get my phone unlocked by ATT I could buy a local sim card to use. I figured that ATT would make me fulfill my 2 year contract before I could do that, but I was wrong. I gave ATT a call and found out that a phone can be unlocked after 3 months of service provided you meet some other qualifications – like you pay your bill on time, I should be eligible. And I have a Blackberry, which is a quad band phone, which I would need for my phone to actually work in Europe. From what I’ve read on the internet the best thing to do is to buy a pre-paid sim card when in Europe, they can start as low as 5 pounds in Scotland. The one downside to this is that some of the services on my phone probably wont work and having to wait until I purchase the sim card to get the new phone number.

2. Just use my cell phone as it is and pay per call. For this I looked at the per minute cost: From Scotland, Italy, Hungry, Austria and Germany it’s $1.29 a minute. From Slovakia $1.99 a minute and from the Czech Republic and Poland it’s $2.29 a minute. Outgoing text messages are 50 cents each and data usage is .02 cents per kb and pay per use. Aside from the higher costs of this the other downside is that it’s unlikely that I would be able to make calls within the country, only to the US. The good thing about this is though is that my family would be able to call me without having to figure out a different international phone number, I just have to pray that other people don’t call me and run up my bill.

My plan at the moment – If I go with a multi-country tour I will probably just use my phone as it is. That will save me the trouble of having to switch sim cards in different countries, and I would anticipate that I wouldn’t need my phone that much anyway. I would still get my phone unlocked so that I have the option of getting a local sim card if the need arises. If I decided to go to just Scotland (or Paris) for a week then I would get a local sim card. If I do this then I will be doing my own planning and on top of only needing to get 1 sim card I will be able to call hotels or hostels or set up plans while in Scotland.

Mar 28

Evolution of a Traveler, Part 3

My third trip to Europe was to Scandinavia and Russia – two very different places and I took something different from each place. I’m not sure I opened up that much to new things on this trip, but I think the whole experience opened me to the possibility of being more open.

Scandinavia isn’t one of the most happening places. The cities are nice and there is stuff to do there, but after seeing Paris, Rome, London the cities here didn’t jump out at me. What did though was the extreme beauty. I’m not a nature girl, bugs are gross, I’m afraid of animals, hiking is work, and camping is beyond me. But after I spent a couple days in nature – mountains, lakes, rivers, waterfalls – I was able to really appreciate the beauty and the peacefulness of it. I’m still not into camping, but i can certainly stop to enjoy the beauty and the calm of nature. It was even worth freezing my butt off through Scandinavia.

Russia was my true introduction to Culture. This was the first place that I went that I really had a different culture in my face. It was also the first country that I spent more then 4 days in. There was definitely a difference in the people and the vibe and the whole country. The younger people spoke some English and were generally a little friendlier. But those little old Russian woman, wouldn’t want to mess with them! The food was a little different – borst, salads without lettuce (still haven’t gotten over that), dill, and high levels of grease – I wasn’t a fan of the food. My local guide in Moscow (and the guide in St. Petersburg to a smaller extent) did a really good job of helping us understand the Russian people. Her story about the first McDonalds I think really shows how different of a culture the Russians were in under Communism. Here is a synopsis of the story: You would wait on line for about 2 hours, typical for Russia. When you walked in, the floor was clean, that was the first sign that something wasn’t right. When you got to the counter they had a smile in their face and asked what you would like. This was Russia at a time when you hoped they had something at the end of a line, let alone what you actually wanted. You ask for a Big Mac. Then to add to the confusion – they asked how many you wanted? Not only did they have food, you could get as much as you wanted. This caused so much stress and confusion (people thought it might be a trick and the government was listening) that they had to put up a sign limiting the number of Big Mac’s to 15, people literally didn’t know how to handle a lack of limits and choice. This was Russia where you went to a store and took what they had, they didn’t have selection but they did have limits, there was a 2+ hour line behind you after all. In the bathroom they had… toilet paper, and if you took the toilet paper they put a new role on. When I think of this story I think of how hard an adjustment it must have been to change to Capitalism, and to learn to be friendly to people. In one place you would find someone friendly and willing to try and help you, in another they were totally unwilling to help. It was a taste of old and new. And the Communist relics – the idea of how to deal with that as a country. As an American the closest thing we’ve had to this is the issue of the Confederate Battle Flag when it was still flying in South Carolina.

While I didn’t necessarily embrace all these things I started to see them as a positive part of travel. Stepping out of your comfort zone and experiencing something new and accepting it even if you don’t like/agree with it. I learned to stop and smell the roses and just be where I was and soak it all in.

Mar 26

More about… You Americans have no culture!

I’ve tried to write this post several times and I ran into the same problem every time – offending people. I’ve decided to take a totally different approach to this post and just talk about the stereotypes Americans have about each other and maybe touch on some of the language differences from region to region, basically a more lighthearted approach. Besides, without differences you can’t have stereotypes.

I’ll start with the Southerners, they’re an easy target for a Yankee like me. They’re slow – they speak slow, drive slow, talk slow – yup just slow. Ironically thought they seem to shorten terms – like saying Y’all. But at least the men are gentleman and the women ladies. They haven’t gotten over the “War of Northern Aggression” – also known as the Civil War, which ended over 140 years ago! And then there is the issue of the inbreeding…

I hear that Northerners like to talk fast – it makes us a bit untrustworthy. Otherwise we’re apparently pretty cool. But even within the North we have some issues. Like in Western Pennsylvania they call soda “pop” and use a “buggy” at the grocery store. They’ve got a wacky accent over in Massachusetts too, that’s a whole different thing.

Out in the Mid-West are the polygamists, and the crazy militia people. And out in California the people are all fake and image obsessed, plastic surgeons do well here. And the call the West Coast the “Left Coast,” not because it’s on the left side of the country, but because all the liberals live there (well the ones who aren’t in New York City.)

I hope I gave a little insight into how American’s view each other and their cultural differences, assuming any of these stereotypes are actually true.

Mar 23

Tenement Museum, NYC

This past weekend I went to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, I had heard good things about this museum and I agree – it’s a very good museum. It’s located at 97 Orchard Street and the museum store is across the street at 108 Orchard Street, this is where you can arrange for a tour. The museums mission: promote tolerance and historical perspective and help preserve our immigrant heritage.

97 Orchard Street was a tenement house from the 1860’s until 1935 when it was deemed uninhabitable. In 1935 they sealed off the apartments and rented only the 4 store fronts. In 1997 the owner sold the building to the Tenement Museum people (Ruth Abram), the building is now a National Historical Site. Access to the museum is only available by one of the 4 tours offered inside the museum, there is also a lower east side walking tour available seasonally. The tours inside the museum are approximately 1 hour, the walking tour is 90 minutes.

I took an 11:45 tour called Piecing it Together, this tour concentrated on the growth of the garment industry on the lower east side. My tour guide, who was excellent (J.R. McCarthy), spoke a little bit about the museum from outside and then took us inside. Walking into the museum is like walking back in time, it’s lack of preservation is well preserved. The formerly redish wallpaper is now soot covered and gray/black. The metal covered ceiling is peeling, dark and dirty. I think the conditions in here struck me more then they did when I walked inside the Great Pyramid in Egypt. The museum also only offers limited lighting, similar to what you would have found back when the gas lighting was added.

We were first taken to one of the tenements that had not been fixed up since it was opened. The layers of linoleum floor were peeling, the layers of wallpaper were peeling, the wallpaper on the ceiling was peeling, pieces of the walls were missing, where the wood floor was still exposed it was heavily warn. Next we went to see 2 tenements – one housed a couple there 5 children and also served as a garment factory, this was a one bedroom. The second was the home of a garment worker. My tour guide described life in a tenement and the life of a new immigrant – no matter where they were from they were all living in the same circumstances. We also learned about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and the growth of the garment industry in New York City.

I thought this was a great museum, and absolutely worth a stop for anyone visiting NYC. The building allows a genuine visualization of tenement life at the turn of the century and my guide bridged the gap of understanding the lives of the people who lived in these tenements. My guide also talked about immigration and touched on the different groups who lived in these lower east side tenements.

If you’re interested in visiting the museum I would recommend booking a tour on-line or in person prior to your visit to the museum. I visited in March and several of the tours were already fully booked 2 days prior. My NYC guide book (Foders New York City 2009) recommends this museum for children. However, I’m not sure my 10 year old nephew would have the attention span for this, nor do I think he would appreciate the power of it. If you are interested in taking a child here the Confino Family Tour is recommended for children 5 and up or I would suggest looking into the childrens programs that are offered.

Mar 23

Fall Travel Plans

As I recently posted, I am considering doing a 2 week tour in Eastern Europe. Since I posted that idea I found out that I will have to shell out a lot of money for some dental work, enough that I started considering changing my plans.

I still want to go overseas and thought a 1 week trip to 1 City might fit the bill. I wanted the city to be in Western Europe to minimize the length of my flight and hopefully the price since I would only be going for a week. I was seriously considering Edinburgh and also maybe Paris as a second choice. The real question I need to answer is if this scaled back trip was really going to be much cheaper then what I was already planning.

But before I could started working on that I hit a roadblock with my dental stuff. I don’t want to bore you with details of my dental work, but since I suspect this topic might come up again I’ll say a little bit about it. I was born with a cleft lip and palate and would like to redo some of my old dental work, it will involve a palate expander, braces, a bone graft and dental implants. I may scale back what I do on my teeth or delay it until next year. If I do delay my dental stuff then I may feel a little freer with money to take that trip to Eastern Europe. If you want to read more about my dental issues, I have a blog about that: Creating a beautiful mouth.

Mar 18

Evolution of a Traveler, Part 2

Part 2 of my evolution…

In 2005 I decided it was time to take another Contiki tour, this time I wanted to go to Europe. I signed up the for the 2 week tour, European Discovery. On May 8 my passport and I headed to London. I did well when I got to London, I got on the right underground with the right ticket and got to the right stop, I had done my research. I had even learned that when I came out of the underground station that I was supposed to go left. I looked left, but it didn’t seem right, I thought maybe I came out the wrong entrance so I went right. I guess the underground isn’t like the Subway, there was only one entrance and I was supposed to go left. But I found the hotel and checked myself in and all was well for the night.

The next morning I took one of those hop on and off tour buses. I hopped on and had to switch in Trafalgar Square. I was going to hang out in Trafalgar Square until a walking tour with the bus company, but I panicked and decided that I should just sit on the bus all day. I was a little freaked out at this point, I don’t think that at this point I even knew where the street signs were (they’re on the buildings not little sticks on the corner like at home.) After the bus went around Trafalgar Square I decided to stop being a wimp and get off. It was a rough day, I did do my walking tour and I got off the bus to see the Tower of London and even found my way back to the hotel in time for my tour meeting, but none of it came naturally, I was so far out of my comfort zone and I was afraid of getting lost.

That night I met with my tour and for the next two weeks I was rarely alone. I always had someone with me to help find our way. I wasn’t always the person trying to find our way, but I learned to do it and even though I wasn’t great at it, I could do it. Getting lost didn’t seem so likely now. After the tour I came back to London and the morning before flying home I had a few hours to kill. I had a moment of being intimidated. I had an offer to just sleep late and head to the airport early with someone else, but I would have gotten to Heathrow really early and I wouldn’t have done anything with this extra morning I had intentionally given myself. I decided instead to go on the London Eye. I opened up my tube map and figured out what I had to do. I just had to stop in Trafalgar Square on the way to the London Eye, there was a market there that I wanted to buy one last thing at. I got to Trafalgar Square and had a moment. I stood there and realized how far I had come as a traveler… Two weeks ago I was afraid to get off the tour bus, now I was running around London confidently with my map knowing that I would get where I had to be. I actually had a physical reaction. I started to hyperventilate, and I was in that instant realizing how far I had come and it was overwhelming. Everyday for the past two weeks I was slowly getting to be more comfortable with being in these new places and getting to know them without being so intimidated. Now I could see how that had all affected me. It’s like when you don’t see someone for a while and when you do they have lost 100 pounds and the change really hits you. It was a great feeling, aside from not being able to breath.

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.