Category Archives: On My Itinerary

Where I’m headed next

On My Itinerary: Parenthood!

I’m back online! I’ve had a lot to deal with in recent months but finally I’ve managed to find my way back to wearing all my different hats, including a soon-to-be hat of a future PARENT. Yes, we’ll soon be toting a little one along on all our journeys and reporting back about how to travel with a baby, then toddler, then child, without being subjected to flying only to kid destinations (I’m putting off Disney World as long as possible). My intention is to start showing my kid the world as soon as possible, starting with a map, followed by interesting and fascinating foods, sites, history, and ways of living beyond anything its imagination is capable of until he/ she see it in person.

In any case, our last journey to somewhere exotic will be the island of Anguilla, which I’ve written about before, where we’ll be exercising our new snorkels I got everyone for Christmas last year, and getting pampered at the CuisinArt Resort (but staying at my favorite Shoal Bay Villas). Even with maternity clothes, my luggage is being reduced to a backpack and camera, since all you need are flip-flops and swimsuits anyway.

In the meantime, we’re preparing for all sorts of adventures and researching how to pack a baby to travel the world. Stay tuned for our list of tried-and-true world-travelin’ baby gear!

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On My Itinerary: Oh, CANADA!

Jon has never been to Canada, other than the time he rowed over the border in a canoe during summer camp (I guess the borders of Wisconsin aren’t well-protected). So to mark off another country on his list, we’re driving up from Maryland through Amish country (PA) and the heart of New York towards Niagara Falls, then onto Toronto for a quick three-day roadtrip.

photo by Saffron Blaze

Jon has never been to Niagara Falls either, whereas I apparently visit it at least once a decade. This will mark my third time to the falls, and each time the area becomes more and more middle-America (or, middle-Canada). Today it is a destination spot for roadtrippers, luring businesses to its convention center and with the addition of many Falls-front hotel chains, like Marriott, Hilton, Embassy Suites, etc. etc. Many of these have hotel rooms with full views of the falls, which is kind of cool, so we booked one. There’s even a casino scene,  and you know you’ve reached the ultimate roadtrip destination when there’s a Great Wolf Lodge (an indoor waterpark hotel resort, yes). And all your favorite destination eateries: Rainforest Cafe, Hard Rock Cafe, Tony Romas, Outback Steakhouse, etc.

From there we will drive through the Niagara-on-the-Lake region, known for its wine and then into Toronto, which will be my second time there, which is actually a really cool city if it wasn’t in the middle of Canada. Jon is excited for the Hockey Hall of Fame and I for the walking tours where I can put my new camera to work.

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On My Itinerary: Chinese medicinal massage and more

We just spent two hours at a Chinese medicine clinic in the city of Wuxi getting beaten to a pulp on our backs, legs, head, face and feet while watching Chinese soap operas on the TV. In China, there’s not much mercy to be given: there is a lot of formality and politeness, and respecting of your elders and kow-towing to ancestors and all that, but when it comes to traffic, getting on elevators and subways, and getting your body massaged, there’s no politeness involved – no soft music and rose petals and effluraging of the muscles. It was genuinely one of the best massages I’ve ever had.

We joined a tour group that my father found through my aunt, a $99 all-expenses paid trip for Chinese non-citizens from the US, Canada and Australia. For a whole week we’re touring through the major cities around Shanghai which are famous for being picturesque, and so far each one gets better than the next.  It was through this tour we were able to arrange for the massages, though if you are traveling alone you could inquire with your hotel to set you up at one that is not going to try to sell you a bunch of oriental medicines as well. We started from the world-class city lights of Shanghai to the beautiful city of Hangzhou famous for its West Lake with pagoda vistas and cherry blossoms, to Nanjing with its rock gardens, Purple Mountain and ancient city wall, to Wuxi with its giant new Buddhist temple and the enormous metal Buddha standing in the hills. Before this, Jon and I jetted down to the glamorous and rising star city of Guangzhou where we became the country folk, craning our necks to look at the tall, space-age buildings forming the new skyline. Like Beijing and Shanghai, and much of China, the cities are building so fast with some of the tallest, most elaborate and forward-thinking designs in buildings that there’s no question that China will become the most advanced and powerful country in the world, within our lifetimes.

Jon is antsy for his computer back so I will sign off. Til later!

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On My Itinerary: Beijing!

View of Wanchun Pavilion at the summit of Jingshan Park, as seen from the Forbidden City.

14 flying hours later, 12 hour time difference, we’ve arrived in Beijing – the city that’s ever-changing, where the concept of self-consciousness went out the window with Communism. Ideas like waiting in a line for your turn, allowing people to get off the subway before getting on, or not pushing don’t quite exist, nor does picking your nose, hocking lugies and other gross behavior (however, only older men seem to be doing this). However, in this state of non-self-consciousness also comes a personal freedom, in which people go to outdoor dance classes and dance by themselves without a care in the world, where people aren’t shy to try something new and look stupid doing it, where they wear what they want and show true enthusiasm for something they like (“your child is so pretty!”) and true honesty when they don’t (“you look like you’ve gained a lot of weight”). It’s what happens when capitalism meets communism, and it’s a refreshing change from the artificiality and politeness and white lies we deal with back home every day.

Despite that our sleep cycle has been turned upside down, we’ve managed to march out to the Forbidden City, Tian Tan (Temple of Heaven) and the bustling night market of Wangfujing district to examine the scorpions (picture right) and starfish on sticks and tons of trinkets and other souvenirs and candy for sale (this after a four hour nap in the middle of the day today). My 5-year-old niece came on this trip with my sister, and she’s been a real head-turner to the locals who are intrigued by her half Chinese features that they all secretly are jealous she has: white porcelain skin, double eyelids and brown hair, plus she’s just that cute. She gets more attention than Jon with his completely white features, though everyone thinks she is his child. She’s been having a field day singing songs from Mulan, her latest favorite movie, and practicing her version of martial arts around with a new pink princess wand we bought for her along with a Chinese princess hat. the

On the rest of our itinerary: a couple parks built in the 1200s, some shopping, and of course, the Great Wall of China. Then we’re off to Guangzhou, then Shanghai. To be continued!



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On My Itinerary: CHINA!

My Travel Hats is back from hiatus! It’s been a hectic start to 2011, albeit a good one so far, with many, many, many adventures to come this year. Since we just kicked off the Year of the Rabbit at the start of February, it’s only fitting to write about our upcoming travels to the grand land of China.

We’ll be traveling with my dad, my sister and five-year-old niece, who has been obsesssed with going to China ever since she watched the Kai-lan special about going to China. (You can watch the video where they sing “We’re going to China, we’re going to China, I feel so happy!”) In the Kai-lan special, they make friends with pandas who speak English. I hope my niece isn’t disappointed.

This will be my – I’m not sure, 8th? 10th? 12th? time to China. I was one of few American tourists who headed over there in the late 1970’s and then through the 80’s, 90’s and millenium, watching the country move through post-Maoist era into the consumer capital of the world it is today. It’s an incredible transformation to watch, and every time I go back there’s something very new to see. The last time I went was in 2005 for work and I toured the Birds’ Nest Olympic Stadium with a hard hat as it was being constructed.

Though I’ve been over there several times, this is actually my first time purchasing a guidebook. And boy, there are several. I finally settled on the Eyewitness Guide to China, because it has lots of pictures, and my niece would enjoy the pictures. I forget that China has 5,000 years of history, tons of temples and statues and tombs and summer palaces and winter palaces and gardens and pagodas. Even a small town in the middle of nowhere has so many interesting things to see and do and eat. Beijing alone can take a month to cover. Since we are Americans, we only have two weeks and cramming a whole lot of country into this short time.

Some tips for planning a trip to China.

1. Buy a guidebook with Chinese characters written on the maps. The more Chinese characters in a guidebook, the better. Cab drivers have no idea what you’re referring to when you point to the English version, or even to a map, and if you try to pronounce it (especially if you don’t speak Chinese) you’ll get nowhere. You should also ask your hotel to write down the names of places you’re going to, in Chinese, that you can just hand to the driver.

2. Everyone assumes you can get by with English. Correction: if you’re lucky, you can get by with English. Hotels will speak English (at least major hotels). There will be a lot of pantomime and sign language and a lot of confusion. If you don’t know Chinese and you’re trying to pronounce things out of a phrasebook, you’ll also get nowhere. The best you can do is have as much written out in Chinese as possible, including food allergies and where you’d like to go, and point.

3. There’s too much to see in China. If you’re a first-timer, you cannot miss Beijing. People are very attracted to Shanghai, but bear in mind it is just like a westernized city nowadays, so the real history and gems are in Beijing. I would spend a solid week in Beijing and the outskirts of Beijing, and maybe go to Shanghai, plus the surrounding cities of Shanghai (like Suzhou, Nanjing, and Hangzhou) and check out Xi’an – land of the terracotta soldiers.

4. Get a visa. You’ll need to get a visa, and it only takes about four days (if you have an embassy in town). However, the visa fee has skyrocketed for Americans to $140. (Don’t whine about the Chinese – Tanzania charged Americans $100). If you’re not American, it’s $30!

5. Vaccinations. Unless you’re going farming, and likely you’re sticking to major tourist cities, you won’t need any major vaccines. You should already be up to date with your regular vaccinations (MMR), hepatitis A and B, and polio. Typhoid and rabies only if you plan to be outside hiking or working in fields.

Stay tuned for more updates!

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Getting Lost In: Medellín!

(photo by Noah Bleicher) Oh, Medellín! With your daily rainstorms, fruit markets, $4 lunches, mobile phone girls, salsa tunes and Botero art that decorates the city the way Gaudi decorates Barcelona, it was not hard to love Medellín- pronounced “Med-i-shjeen”. We spent three days there during the first half of our Thanksgiving week trip to Colombia with our friends Noah and Marcela, who own and operate Su Casa Colombia, a tour guide/B&B business in the city.

Medellín was once ruled in fear by Pablo Escobar, the notorious drug lord. After his death, the Colombian government made great strides to sweep up the mess left behind and to give Medellín a second chance. In the past 20 years, Medellín has risen to become Colombia’s Second City and encouraging its residents to come out of hiding and enjoy its parks, museums, gardens, cafes, restaurants and shopping districts. Medellín still bears the reputation for crime, but on the contrary, we felt very safe. In addition, there are barely any other tourists – so get in before anyone else does. Like any city, visitors should be aware of their surroundings, don’t buy drugs from strangers, and don’t head into the poorer districts.

Stay: We stayed at Su Casa Colombia, which was Marcela’s grandparents’ home and where Marcela’s mother was raised. This typical middle-upper-class home has two levels with an open courtyard with hammocks, crisp white bedding, bright balconies where you are woken by fruit peddlers singing their songs of avocado, a pool table and a fun Colombian ring-toss game called Sapo. Noah puts together an excellent Colombian breakfast (or a regular American breakfast, since they are Americans) and organizes very full and fun itineraries to take you around town.

See: Fernando Botero’s art is the real gem of Medellín. This artist of oversized, overweight, expressionless characters creates a fun, round and humorous take on life, even the really serious ones. You can view his bronze sculptures at Palacio Municipal (including the Bird of Peace which, ironically, was damaged by a guerrilla bomb), Parque Berrio, and at the Museo de Antioquia which also has his paintings and drawings. We got an excellent walk-through from Marcela, who is an art expert and artist herself, and pointed out details we would never have noticed.

See also: A country of 98 percent Catholics, you can bet they have some interesting churches as well. The Catedral Metropolitana is made of 1.2 million bricks and is quite possibly the only brick cathedral you’ll ever encounter. The Basilica de la Candelaria, situated in Parque Berrio, is also another interesting design in black-and-white. There’s also the pretend church at Pueblito Paisa, a reconstructed mini-village of a typical Antioquian settlement atop a hill with sweeping views of Medellín. The other two percent may find spiritual peace at the Jardín Botánico’s orchid display, an architectural beauty in itself (right).

Ride: the Metrocable gondolas, which every city should implement to bypass traffic and provide birdseye views above. Medellín’s metro is the first for Colombia, too, and a very clean and impressive mode of transport about town. Otherwise, take a cab to your destinations – they’re incredibly inexpensive by American and European standards.

Dance: Participate in one of the free rumba classes in the Unidad Deportiva Atanasio Girardot plaza. This is one of the city’s ways of encouraging the community to embrace its parks. Or else try your steps at Eslabon Prendido (Calle 53 # 42- 55) downtown where live salsa music is played Tuesday nights. (If you don’t know what you’re doing, just move your legs around very quickly and try to look sassy).

Daytrip: El Peñón is a giant black monolith, which Noah believes to be an asteroid, but the ticket seller says is a result of plate techtonics. It is about two hours outside the city by bus. Catch a bus from the bus station (buses leave every half hour, ask the bus counter which one goes to El Peñón at Guatapé). More than 600 steps lead to the top for breathtaking views of the winding reservoir below. Afterwards, take a colorful tuk-tuk to Guatapé for lunch and to see one of the most charming towns on the planet. Every house is required to be painted colorfully, and entire streets are coordinated.

Eat: En Casa de Oliva’s owner went around all of Colombia researching recipes and regional cooking to create her carefully planned menu. Carrera 43D #10-72 Poblado (encasadeoliva@gmail.com). Also check out the fruit markets, where you can sample fruits that don’t exist back home. Our favorite is the granadilla which we affectionately called “booger fruit”, because its insides resemble, well, a pomegranate. Another option is to stand around an empanada stand and eat to your heart’s content, then pay for the number of empanadas consumed.

Pack: Raingear, like a jacket, umbrella and preferably some kind of waterproof shoe. Plastic bags are good to cover up camera equipment.

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On My Itinerary: Colombia!

photo courtesy of Su Casa Colombia

We’ve decided it was time to take advantage of friends who live internationally and visit them all. So just like that – we booked a flight to Colombia (the country) for Thanksgiving. We’ll be flying into Medellin, out of Cartagena, just for one week, but since I was granted a whole week of vacation I figured I should take advantage of this American rarity. We haven’t planned much beyond that we’ll be staying with Jon’s friends, Noah and Marcela, who own a lovely B&B in Medellin (Su Casa Colombia), fly out to Cartagena on the coast and a UNESCO World Heritage site, and then the rest will take us as the Colombian coffee breeze goes.

Now that the country has cleaned itself up and become much safer for people to venture, Colombia is one of those up-and-coming tourist spots, as Panama and Nicaragua are. It’s a place I never thought I’d venture to and now I am. I couldn’t even find a guide book at the Union Station bookstore on Colombia. If any travel guide companies out there would like to hire me to write the first one, I’d be more than happy to.  Stay tuned for more on this latest trip!

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