Monthly Archives: January 2009

Cool Tools: Allergy and Health Translation Cards

In restaurants in foreign countries, it’s one thing to mime the animal you’d like to have cooked up and served to you; it’s another to act out food preparation preferences like “No Cilantro.” And even if there’s a handy phrase section in your travel guide, often times you won’t say it correctly. Even when traveling through China, the word I know for cilantro isn’t always how other Chinese people might say cilantro, and our dishes still come with the forlorn herb sprinkled throughout.

But if there’s something of greater and graver concern, such as a peanut allergy, it’s fairly difficult to convey a peanut which makes no sound or movement like a cow might. Enter Select Wisely’s Allergy Translation Cards. On the order form on its Web site, you can choose from a menu of foods and languages into which you’d like the phrase “I am allergic to [food]” translated. And if visiting a country in which that particular allergy might be ignored, there are even Strongly Worded cards to drill the point into a waiter’s head: “If I eat this food or any food that has been cooked with it or touched it, I will need immediate medical attention.”

The cards also list items that may be curbed based on religious practices, such as alcohol and pork. There are even cards for health care purposes, such as “I am diabetic” or “I am allergic to penicillin” which would be useful in my case, since it actually was administered to me as a child in Beijing only to have me break out in a vicious rash and draw the allery conclusion; of course, my parents forgot to tell me about this incident and I took penicillin a couple decades later for my wisdom teeth and had the same rash appear and the doctor warning me I could die the next time.

I think Select Wisely could benefit more by producing cards for foods we hate. Enough people dislike cilantro the way I do that there’s even a Web site called which details the genetic background of why people develop a gag reflex to it,  but Mexicans will continue to put it in all their cooking unless I pull out a threatening card explaining I could die from eating it (I probably wouldn’t, except that I just wouldn’t eat it and will die from starving). Jon would wave the “I can’t eat olives” card vehemently around Italy, Greece and Turkey. Until then!


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Now Boarding: Skis and Skies

photo by B. Feldman

photo by B. Feldman

Here’s when the sinking economy has its benefits: ridiculously low airfare to big ski towns. How’s this deal for the recently laid-off snow fanatic with some severance to spend: $69 roundtrip to Crested Butte, Colorado from Washington, D.C. on American Airlines.  The catch is it’s only $69 if you fly on some off-days, but if you’re making the trip to Crested Butte from Washington, you’re going to stay more than just a weekend. (It also costs more to ski down the mountain at Crested Butte than to fly a few thousand miles to it).

This happened upon my screen while I was surfing, out of pure curiousity, for somewhere to go over the upcoming President’s Day weekend in which I will likely have four days to kill (my office tends to give us an extra day to pad a 3-day weekend, whcih is nice). And having been fully spoiled by 10,000+ feet mountains covered in fluffy powder out in California, the options of ski “resorts” around the nation’s capital are pretty grim. And with being the sole breadwinner ina  shaky economy, I have to be smart about how we spend our travel budget, like much of America and the world, really.

So imagine my delight to come across the $69 Crested Butte deal. I was about to drive us to Wintergreen Resort and all 4,000 of its vertical feet. Virginia’s “Premier Ski Resort”.  There’s more: from Chicago to Vail, you can score $120 roundtrip; Miami to Steamboat Springs is $112; New York City to Vail is $195. Scan Craigslist for a vacation rental for cheap and be prepared to buy lift tickets with all your gear, including goggles and helmet, on your head, so you can pass as a child next to your husband and get the child’s price. (This is tried-and-true).

Now I’ve never been to Crested Butte, but I did have a graduate school classmate who lived there for several years as a ski instructor and just loved it. And for $69, it sure beats going to Wintergreen Resort.

Happy skiing!


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On My Itinerary: London and Sweden by frequent flier

italy wedding I love out-of-the-country weddings, not because they cost me at least $2,000 instead of $400 to a domestic destination, but because it makes me, the tourist, be part of a local celebration for a couple days. This summer, my friend’s wedding in Gothenburg, Sweden marks my third destination party and the second one completed on frequent flier miles.

That’s right, twice now I have flown to these weddings on frequent flier for what ended up costing less than if they were married in Chicago or Florida and if I paid regular domestic fares. Between Jon and me, we’ve amassed 120,000 miles on American Airlines and are trading them in for two tickets to London, since American does not fly to Stockholm. We’re spending four days in London visiting with my British friends and checking out the town (Jon’s first visit) before jetting up on our favorite discount European airline, Ryanair, to Stockholm to check out that city and visit another friend of mine, and then taking a train to Gothenburg in time for a day-before-wedding luncheon. The cost of our Ryanair tickets are currently quoted at $180 for the two of us, to fly from London Stansted-Stockholm and Gothenburg-London. Throw in a train ticket and our actual travel will cost us less than $300, total, to journey through two countries in 10 days. The last time I did this was to a wedding outside Florence (see picture – there’s Tuscany in the background); I flew into London for 60,000 miles and then took EasyJet (my British friend calls it “QueasyJet”) for $50 USD to Napoli to meet my traveling companion. The third European wedding was in Paris, and prices had dropped by then, so I paid about $500 for a round-trip ticket, but the next year I returned to Paris for my fellowship on a frequent flier ticket.

The drawback to taking frequent flier flights to Europe is you have to snag the seats early. So it’s the end of January and we are not expected in Gothenburg until August, but already the frequent flier seats on several flights returning from London to the Washington area are booked. If I’m not completely committed to the dates yet, sometimes I will hold the seats over and over as long as possible. That takes a calendar alert and a lot of coordination, boredom and persistence, but it is worth saving a couple thousand dollars.

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Getting Lost in: Tokyo on a Layover

When traveling through Asia, you’ll find yourself more often than not stopping through hip Tokyo, except the furthest you’ll get to tasting the sushi and seeing the uberfashionable is at Narita Airport, which isn’t even in Tokyo. It’s at least an hour train ride from the thriving metropolis, and Narita Airport is no Heathrow, which makes layovers somewhat dull.

However, should you ever find yourself flying into Tokyo with some extra time to spare, which I have done any number of times, here’s a guide to enjoying your layover, no matter how brief.

3 hours or less.

Narita does serve up some quick bowls of udon noodles. Warm soupy carbohydrates when you’re tired from flying several hours hits the spot. Make sure to pick up some giant Pocky, just for posterity.

left: Jon balancing two bowls of hot udon at Narita Airport.

3-6 hours.

This time is best spent wandering through the town of Narita, a better alternative than trying to rush into Tokyo and back. Check your bags all the way through, or put them in storage in the main hallway after going through customs. Get a tourist map and directions to the train from the tourist information desk, also in the main hallway, then pick up some yen for the train ticket, lunch and other spending you might do during your short stay.  Narita has two terminals, so make sure you remember which one your bags are being held at. Hop on the train for one stop to Narita and check out the Narita-san Shinsho-ji Temple and Park.

Some more Narita-on-a-layover ideas can be found here.

7-24 hours.

Here you can chance a trip into Tokyo. Following the directions above (with luggage, customs, etc.) pick up some yen and buy a train ticket into Tokyo (cash only) and head downstairs towards the train. It takes an hour to get to Tokyo Station, which is situated near the Ginza shopping district and an office-y part of town. From here, you can venture to the following:

  • Tsukiji Fish Market, if you can get into the city by 5:30-6:30am. Here you can watch the action of the fish auctions and the madness of obtaining the best sushi.
  • Imperial Palace, where the Diet legislates, gardens flourish and moats carry swans and geese around.
  • Asakusa, which has a long market pedestrian street of fun little Japanese treasures and souvenirs leading to the popular Sensoji Temple.

Check out Frommer’s suggested one-day itinerary for other options. If followed strategically, you can get most of the itinerary in during your layover.

The Shortlist Time Out Guide to Tokyo fits in your pocket and comes with great little summaries of the highlights and maps. Make sure you don’t leave it on the plane or at customs, because you won’t get it back. (We tried)

For sale at Asakusa: the Obama mask. Even the Japanese believe that Yes, Obama Can.

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In the Suitcase: Getting Over Jet Lag

University of Virginia

University of Virginia

I’ve been back from Thailand for a week, and when you insert a presidential inauguration unlike any other in the middle of recuperating from a 12-hour transition, you get a very sleepy individual.

That’s me. I’ve been nodding off around 7pm every day in front of the TV and taking a two-hour nap in the evening before bed, which doesn’t help in the going-to-bed department. My excuse is that it’s cold out, but in reality I could zap the whole issue by going to bed early. Which brings me to my personal set of tips: How to kick jet lag.

The medical prescription for jet lag is to prepare ahead of time: start getting up an hour earlier every day and going to bed earlier every day before an anticipate trip. Now, that doesn’t always work if you have a job or a life. It’s very similar to sun exposure as prescribed by doctors: go out for only 15 minutes the first day, 30 the next, 45 the day after, 1 hour by day 4. Who does that?

I adjust to jet lag in a less lame way.This is usually for international flights where I’m adjusting to six or more hours of time difference.

1. The night before the flight, I stay up as late as possible. But I manage to get a little sleep – three or four hours – so I’m not an idiot who forgets my passport somewhere or gives the wrong answers to security.

2. Once on the plane, I indulge myself in super fun movies until it’s bedtime in that time zone.

3. Perform usual bedtime routine in the lavatory: brush teeth, wash face, take out contact lenses (except I usually wear my glasses to fly anyway)

4. Pull on eye mask and plump up neck pillow (mine is a kit from the Nap series at Brookstone – makes an excellent gift, too. Jon loved his).



5. Skip trying to sleep on wine or Benadryl. Wine only dries you out so you wake up without a voice. Benadryl makes you extra groggy. Don’t expect to have a real night of sleep on the plane. The flight attendants have an odd method of deciding when the entire plane should be awake, and it’s often in mid-REM cycle.

6.  By the time you arrive, you’ll be exhausted, your body will hurt, your eyes will be purple, and you’ll be running on pure adrenaline because you’re on vacation. If you’re in Thailand, now would be a good time to get one of those Thai massages. You’ll be dead asleep by nightfall, skipping all those sleeping-in-a-new-bed issues and well-rested by morning.

7. Avoid candlelit dinners in the beginning. You’ll only sleep through them. Go to brightly lit restaurants instead with loud music. And if you’re easily wound up by caffeine, don’t try to fight the sleep with coffee at dinner or you’ll never get the bed that night. Just go to bed early and enjoy the deliciousness of sleeping 12 entire hours. This is vacation.


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In the Suitcase: The Inauguration Survival Kit

inauguration concert

If you’re one of the 1 to 4 million people expected at the National Mall tomorrow morning, bright and early, to watch the historic presidential inauguration that puts W. Bush’s second inauguration to shame (100,000 people, mostly protestors), you’ve now also realized that these are also some historically low temperatures experienced in the DC area. While I’m hardly an expert on attending presidential inaugurations, particularly ones involving Barack Obama, I and some friends did a test-run at the HBO inauguration concert yesterday and plotted our strategy for tomorrow’s main event. Even the Jumbo-trons became mobbed as soon as the concert started yesterday. While I won’t give away our entire strategy, I will offer some survival tips to watching Obama’s swear-in.

1. The Obama-Scope.


We bought these for $20 and they are a “limited edition” souvenir. Like a submarine, we can peer over the sea of people for a glimpse of the capitol and the dots that represent Obama and John Roberts. Yesterday it allowed us to scope out the entrance line for the inauguration concert above all the tall heads; we got glimpses of the Lincoln Memorial and attracted lots of photos and interviews with student reporters who were fascinated by the Obama-Scope.

2. Food. I get hungry after standing around for several hours in the cold, so we’re making turkey sandwiches with swiss, arugula and tomatoes and stuffing them into our jacket pockets, since security is only permitting a bag of 8″x6″x4″.

Despite the availability of 5,000 porto-potties, I’m going to avoid drinking too much liquid during this time. There is something about having to wrestle with many layers of clothing in a porto-potty that I would like to skip. There is an impressive number of them lined up like walls along the perimeter of the Mall (see photo below).

portopotties 3. Basic cold-weather first-aid: kleenex, chapstick, face/ hand cream so    my skin doesn’t peel off. Extra kleenex for visiting friend who believes she will cry.

4. Clothing: Dress as if you’re headed for the slopes. Short of wearing my goggles and snowpants, I’ll be bundled in silk thermals, sweaters, puffy jacket, face wrapped like a mummy and looking like the Abominal Snowman.

5. Path. Map out your course ahead of time and anticipate it will be even worse than you think it will be. We have picked out the Jumbo-tron whose speakers match the mouthing of the people talking, since we noticed several of these Jumbo-trons had a 10-second delay which sort of took away from the experience. However, I will not reveal which Jumbo-tron until after the inauguration. But, we plan to leave at 7:30am tomorrow from my place to head down to the Mall on foot. All “spectator info” is listed here.

Last suggestion: stay home, turn on your HD-TV, get some hot tea or hot chocolate and relax on your sofa with a blanket over your legs and get the best view of the inauguration. Of course, we could opt to do the same, since we made it to the front of the line to enter the inauguration concert but then security closed our entrance. This time,  we firmly believe we can get into this inauguration. Yes we can.

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Now Boarding: Surviving a plane crash

The Times Online

source: The Times Online

Everyone is now well-aware of the US Airways plane that crashed into the icy Hudson River today. You’re probably also aware of what the New York mayor and governor thought of it, as well as the opinion of your local news faces, and by now the perspective of all 164 passengers and what going down on a plane looked like from seats 1A to 54F, and what all their families and neighbors and dogs thought. And maybe for that great “local angle” you caught what your metropolitan safety commission “would have done” in that situation. If you have absolutely no idea about today’s biggest news since the inauguration preparation, hopefully it’s because you were busy sunning yourself on the beaches of Koh Tao, which is where I wished I still was today while sludging through 800 office emails.

In any case, I read a “related article” about how to survive a plane crash, because even though the risk of getting into accident on a plane is significantly lower than riding in cars driven by certain friends, I still worry in the back of my mind – what if. (While trying desperately to recuperate from seasickness at a restaurant in Koh Samui in time for our flights to Bangkok, Tokyo and New York, I tried to keep my mind occupied on the TV which featured, of all things, “Investigation of a Plane Crash” on the National Geographic channel. And the plane they were investigating happened to be Japan Airlines, which we were about to take. Nice.)

However, did you know that 95 percent of people in some form of airplane accident – whether veering off a runway, crashing somewhere or being engulfed in flames – survive? That’s a calming statistic. Following that, I learned a few more tips:

-Aisle seats make for easier access to the exit – and the bathroom, if you want to be practical. So is sitting within 7 rows of any exit and being aware of your quickest escape route. And as long as there’s no fire in the back of the airplane, the tail is safer than the front row. What do you think of them pretzels, business class?

-Wearing sneakers instead of flip flops helps for a quicker escape.

-The brace position comes in handy. Grab your ankles and bury your head in your lap to minimize injury upon impact. (That still doesn’t comfort me much. I sometimes think maybe adding an airline pillow as a makeshift helmet might help out, too)

-If you’re flying through cold places and have a jacket with you, keep in on hand and use as a pillow in the meantime. I’m sure those people in the freezing Hudson were happy to have theirs with them when they went for a swim.

-Account for fellow travelers after evacuating. It’s faster and less chaotic than trying to do it on board.

-Get away from the aircraft. It’s like a fire drill at the office – people like to stand around in the lobby or entrance, which makes no sense.

On that note, safe and happy travels!


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