Wanderings: I have no weddings this summer/ Eat Pray Love is cliched and trite

(This is a picture of my friend Boris on the bike we rented in Goa, India – in reference to the way we “prayed” in India (or didn’t pray, just had fun like normal people)

It is an unbelievable summer: we have no travel plans! In fact, this is the first summer neither of us have weddings – which means every weekend is open, available, for adventure (we do have three for next year). The other reason we are entirely free is because I used up all my vacation time for China this past April, and partly because we decided maybe we should be grounded for summer after all the hubbub that’s been circulating our lives since December.

As a poor substitute, I sit around reading Food & Wine magazine for their latest recommendations in travel and watch bad TV on our new (and terribly serviced) Comcast. Last night I watched about 15 minutes of Eat Pray Love before I had to switch channels because she bothered me so much. Now, I like Julia Roberts, but the woman she was playing was particularly annoying (apparently the author of this memoir). Ooh, she’s tired of supporting her husband and wants to travel the world! She goes to Italy to – eat! No way! and then to India to – pray! Is she Hindu now? Does she think doing yoga makes her spiritual now? And then I don’t comprehend the Indonesia part to love – she wants to meet an Indonesian? Why does it have to be Indonesia? Hasn’t she been reading the State department warnings about traveling to Jakarta? It’s also incredibly expensive to do all this stuff. I don’t feel very sorry for her. In fact, I’m rather jealous that she got to travel the world for a year, although I would have taken Jon along because it’s more to explore things together. (To be fair, I only watched about 15 minutes, but that was all I could take).

That doesn’t mean that I don’t sit around dreaming of our next escape. For example: how can we go to Cuba legally? Should we go to Maui or Kauai over Thanksgiving? Maybe we can take a wine trip to Bordeaux for a week! Or what’s the latest we can go on an Alaskan cruise? And did you see -the Westin in Paris is on sale through Travelocity for 199 euros a night (a steal for that hotel – but I still prefer staying in a Parisian apartment with a kitchen so we can take advantage of the farmers markets).

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Cool Tools: FlightViewApp

I got an iPhone. Did I ever mention that? In October, we all caved. Me, Jon, my sister, her husband. We had been flip-phones, sans camera (well, Jon had a camera but no picture-sending ability in his phone plan), for the longest time, and poo-pooed the fashionable smartphones. What makes people so much smarter with it? They just become lazy.

Then we decided to stop sounding like old cranky folks who can’t operate a computer and get with the technological times. The flip-phones became toys for my niece and nephew, and we got the iPhone 4.

Of course, with the iPhone, you have to download lots of apps. So, my co-worker, who is one of these stereotypical slaves to Steve Jobs and Starbucks (the kind I saw at South by Southwest), made me download the FlightViewApp. It really should be called the Stalker App, because that’s what it does – stalks flights across the sky. My co-worker, who traveled with me to Austin but on a separate flight out of DCA, took my flight info and then continually texted me updates about my gate, my flight times, my estimated arrival time, and my connection Dallas.

That’s exactly what FlightView does. Enter a flight number and date, and it will tell you when it lands and where. I admit it was handy when I was still on the plane and wondering where my connection in Dallas was, although part of me still resists being that dependent on my IPhone – and checked the monitors in the airport instead. There is also an “airport delay map” but only of the United States (and Canada) showing weather and delays, which is kind of cool, but not terribly useful to me.

What is cool, however, is the ability to keep track of upcoming flights for yourself and others. Picking up someone at the airport? You can keep that person’s info right on hand, and then check if they’re coming in on time before heading to the airport. It saves from having to dig through e-mails and airline websites to find out whether you’re delayed or not, especially if you’re like me and cut it close – sheerly out of principle because it shouldn’t take an hour to go through security.

(By the way, did I mention that in other countries like Japan and China, they actually HELPED you load your items into the x-ray? A nice individual helps put your coat and smaller items into a bin, asks you kindly to remove your belt and wallet, asks if you have liquids or a laptop, places it in a bin FOR YOU, and helps you put your other luggage on the belt as well? And there was hardly a line for security. When I flew out of Chicago, the TSA people just barked at me – remove your coat! Take off your shoes! Hurry up! Nobody to help me load it – and the line was significantly long. But this has nothing to do with FlightView)

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In the Suitcase: non-travel gifts for travelheads/hats

Now that I’m grounded to my desk these days after exhausting my vacation time at work, I’ve resorted to traveling via the World Wide Web. This edition of My Travel Hats will be about Gifts for People who Like to Travel but are Not Gifts That Look Like Souvenirs From Developing Countries or are Not Luggage-Related. (They probably already have all the travel gear they need).

E-Reader. Oh, how flat! So light! Look how many books it carries! See how it can take your travel guide in electronic form! I have no opinion on which e-reader to get, but there’s something about the Kindle over the IPad that makes me feel less vulnerable standing around like a tourist on a street corner, especially since the Kindle is only $118 now versus the IPad which is like $499.

World Necklace. I’m still deciding whether this necklace is cheesy or not. It has potential to be really fun, but also look like something an elementary school teacher would wear. Could be a great gift for a female travelhead, but make sure to include a gift receipt. Available in gold, too, from www.uncommongoods.com.

50 Wonders of the World Book. This enormous coffee table book has some incredible photography and description of some of the greatest things in the world. The Great Wall of China, the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, the Egyptian Pyramids, Ankor Wat, Stonehenge, and 45 other things. It’s a great way for job-bound travelheads to dream a little and create a checklist of things to visit next. (Tip: I also found this book in the bargain bin at Barnes& Noble – or maybe it was the now defunct Borders – for about $10. It sits on our coffee table at home, and it is everyone’s favorite book to browse through when they come over.)

Miles. Now that they are set to expire, give a travelhead your infrequently used miles. They’ll love you.  A lot.

A Clear Compact Umbrella. I’ve found ones that are clear, but none that seem to fold up small enough to fit into a jacket pocket or purse. There is nothing like trying to see the Coliseum when it’s raining and you have a purple umbrella that cuts out half your view. I’ve been on a pursuit for the compact clear umbrella ever since. If you find one, please email me! (mytravelhats@gmail.com)

World Dartboard. Another item I’ve been looking for, but no dartboards seem to come with maps on them. There’s nothing like aiming a dart at the world map and determining your next destination as the ultimate adventure. It could be Borneo! Russia!  The middle of the Indian Ocean! Somewhere in Indiana! And I don’t mean a corkboard with the map stuck to it; I mean a solid dartboard with the heavy darts designed to choose your adventure.

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Getting Lost In: Beijing (in picture form)

Check out some of the pictures I shot during our trip through Beijing at www.RedKiteStudios.net!

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In the Suitcase: How NOT to tour China (but get to the Great Wall!)

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will have figured out that I am not a tour-group kind of traveler. I prefer the freedom, and the challenge, to plan my own itinerary and my own budget so I can cram as much out of a country or city in a short allotted time by my work. In my experience with tours, even the short ones I have booked once there have been unsatisfying. In Chiang Mai, Thailand we signed up for a two-day hike through the forests that involved several stops but due to time, we didn’t get to dip into the hot springs; in India, our trip to the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort was cut short because we had to stop into a marble factory for a shopping spree that would give our tour guide commission and ended up missing the entire Red Fort.

In China, we hopped on a tour bus that would take us to the Great Wall and to the Ming Tombs, plus feed us lunch. It seemed like a great deal – two major sites, lunch and transportation, all for 130RMB (about  $20!). Lucky us (note the intended sarcasm here), we ALSO got to tour a silk factory, a jade factory, an herbal medicine hospital (with free footrub), a cloisonne factory and attend a tea tasting.

How did we climb the Great Wall (usually an entire morning or day’s event) and see the Ming Tombs (another whole afternoon), eat lunch AND see all these great other factories? Well, seeing that the tour guide gets a little commission every time someone on her tour purchases anything at these factories, you can see where the priorities lay for her. The Great Wall we crammed into an hour and a half of full ascent and descent at an entrance that is not the picturesque ones you always see. (If you climb, you want to go to the Badaling entrance, which is more touristy for a reason, and has cable cars, but is a more pleasant walk rather than a mountain hike like the one we ended up on. Take a public bus that leaves from Qian Men by Tiananmen Square, which will go to the Badaling entrance). The Ming Tombs? Instead of the dramatic greeting of animal statues and entering the dusty tomb of one emperor, we strolled around some room with a fake banquet on the table and some furniture, then left (20 minutes). After that, it was unannounced shopping, shopping, shopping, and commission, commission, commission for our tour guide. We were supposed to see the Olympic stadium as well, which we did from the bus window. Needless to say, we were all pretty peeved (but we did cave and buy some nice things, which we know are government-guaranteed, authentic products and not knock-offs found in the street markets – so no lead paint in my mother-in-law’s tea set.) In the end, we decided not to deal with the Beijing traffic bus ride home and wandered the Olympic park on our own, then took the subway back.

Similarly, my aunt came across a $99 tour of the beautiful cities around Shanghai (Wuxi, Hangzhou, Suzhou, Nanjing) that included all meals, tickets and four-star hotels. However, our mornings were taken up by shopping, and afternoons driving, followed by an abbreviated rushed tour of some garden or temple or boat ride.

How do you avoid this? By doing it yourself. Thankfully, China is a well-traveled country today, and there are plenty of books, signs in English, and English-speaking helpers in hotels who can help you get around. You can also shell out a little more for a private car who will take you there, without taking you to the state-run shops, and allow you to browse as long as you’d like (ask your hotel to book one and be firm and specific that you do NOT want to go shopping). You can also take a street taxi and negotiate a price, but also be firm that you do not want to stop at any shops. Additionally, I’ve heard some hostels have non-shopping journeys as well, but ask to make sure. If you do want to go shopping, don’t try to do it the same day you head to the Great Wall.

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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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