Travel Life: An intrepid unintentionally picky eater

Have a weak stomach and can’t leave home without popping a few Tums Tablets?  That’s me but I don’t let it get in the way of my wanderlust

Mezes in Damascus
Mezes in Damascus which were excellent and no regrets

Fresh fruit juices, grilled kebab, ice cream, “healthy” green salad, drinks with ice cubes and the list goes on.  These are just a few things that I can’t eat when I’m far from home.  The eating part of the itinerary unwillingly promoted itself to the priority section of most of my pre-trip planning. A few very uncomfortable food related instances happened early in my adventure travel days had a profound effect on how I travel today.

I have always wanted to see as much of the world.  Still true but minus the visit to the local shaman with an interpreter in tow.

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Food Market in Yerevan Armenia

A good amount of travel research time is usually spent figuring out where and what to eat a the next destination.  The location of my hotel/hostel hopefully is very close to a good food establishment whether it be a grocery store or restaurant.  There’s an added bonus if the restaurant is located in the hotel/hostel just for jet lag and precautionary reasons.   When I am starving, have just recovered from another case of food poisoning or just got off a 30 flight I usually  want a restaurant to be literally within crawling distance.

String Hoppers for breakfast
String Hoppers topped with spicy Coconut Simbal for breakfast in Sri Lanka
Pistachio Pastry in Alleppo
Pistachio Pastry in Aleppo – Worth the belly ache I got later

The back story and the naive beginnings of a hungry traveler

I decided early on that I’m not an adventurous eater –  wimpy eater is more like it.  I got burned trying to be like Anthony Bourdain.  I was on a three-week trip and going to meet a friend of my then boyfriend who was in the Peace Corps in Bulgaria.  This was a great trip in between all of my food mishaps that is.   It didn’t ruin my whole trip but I just have memories and wasn’t up to taking pictures.   The theory that everything bad happens in threes was proven.

Airplane food

First, minor but not so fun bout of sickness was a flight from Istanbul to Bucharest.  I was having a pleasant chat with a Turkish guy sitting next to me.  Lunch came and went and I was too busy talking that I just automatically ate what was in front of me.  Maybe I shouldn’t have eaten that chicken salad sandwich on that Air Tarom flight.  The gentleman proceeded to eat my travel companions sandwich he smartly declined.   Lets say I missed a day of sightseeing in Bucharest.

Lesson:  Bring my own food and don’t eat any meat/egg dish that has salad attached to the name on the menu.

Japanese Matsuri food outside of Tokyo
Not so tempting Japanese Matsuri food outside Tokyo

Doing too much to fast leads to bad things

Second, was the trip to the local doctor in Sofia.  I had just met Kathy for the first time and she was wonderful.  I realized that all the travelling from Bucharest to Sofia had taken its toll on me.  I was feeling well and we had a long trek ahead.  It was time to see a doctor again.  In short,  the doctor only spoke Bulgarian and at least Kathy was there to help.   I was glad to get to a doctor  after a very awkward back and fourth translation of my symptoms.  He gave me some mysterious pills,  I took them regardless and we were on our way. Luckily,  they  did the job.  I was a little terrified to eat for a day and a dropped a few pounds.  The beer I drank later made up for the lost calories.    The locals here think that  Rakia sipped while eating shopska salad (both very dubious)  cures everything.  I think they might be on to something or just like a reason to drink Rakia.

Lesson:  Bring Cipro and think about eating just bread and bottled water after a long rail/plane trip.  They are both available just about anywhere.

Fish sandwich cafes along the Bosphorus in Istanbul
Looks innocent right? Well they are still there a couple of years after my incident selling sandwiches

More food problems at the end of a rocky journey

And the third.  The 2.5 weeks were filled with seeing wonderful sites and meeting new friends (doctors too) along the way.  It was the last leg and the worst was behind me.  A friend had mentioned that one thing you can’t miss in Istanbul is the fish sandwich sold on small boats just off of the Bosphorus.  We found the boats like he said and grabbed a couple of dubious grilled fish sandwiches served in a very crusty bun. The fish just fileted, grilled and put inside a white bun with sprig of lettuce and slice of tomato.  No sauce.  I should have stopped after a couple of uncertain bites. The next day, I ended up waking up with a face that was so swollen that I could barely see in front of me.  It was a pretty frightening sight.
The only real adventure was a trip to the local ER in Istanbul early that morning.  The American Hospital of Istanbul is a comfortable facility and I highly recommend it to others in need of care – whether it be of itchy hives or other travel illnesses.  One dose of Cortisone IV – $5M Turkish Lira  – Relief from hives on my face for 24 hours – Priceless.

Lesson:  Make sure to know where and if there’s an ER near by just in case.  Resist those local dishes especially made with fish.  Additionally,  try to eat fruit with skin or  properly clean fruit without it when traveling.  There are many microbes that hideout on the surface of food and in liquids.  They are are usually harmless to locals but could be deadly to those without built up immunities.

What can a traveler do besides just drinking tea and eating bread the whole trip?

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There’s always plenty of chai where ever you go

We all have our weak moments when that chocolate covered banana at the street fair in Tokyo looks too good to resist and we want to try to eat like a local to save money.

Japanese Matsuri Food outside of Tokyo
Yummy Japanese Matsuri food outside of Tokyo

In the end, all that travelers can do is take preventative measures, use some common sense and have a good time. Here’s a few things I think about and do these days when I travel that seem to help me:

–  Be organized and plan the  exact route on how to get from customs to your bed

–  Get all required vaccinations and don’t be cheap on things like Malorone Pills

–  Bring your own food.  Remember you can even get food poisoning on the plane.

–  Take it easy when you first arrive and set out a reasonable plan of attack

–  Ease into the local food

–  Stay hydrated and try and skip that glass or 3 of wine on the plane (these days it’s hard to resist after the hassles travelers have to go through to get on a plane etc.)

Stay well and have happy and safe travels in 2012!

Short list of WHO WHAT WHERE and HOW for Iran Travel

Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque
Here’s my list of online sites which inspired and kept the dream alive while waiting to see if Iran wanted me to come or not.  I hope they are useful to others looking to go:

US Travel Warnings

British Foreign Office Travel Advisory

WHAT

Destination Iran Tour Site

Traveler Nico from Scotland’s Flickr Stream

Soorm’s Flickr Photos of Iran

WHERE/WEAR

Rick Steves Journal – Iran

WikiTravel – Iran

Wikipedia – Iran

Journeywomen’s Blog

WHY

Uncornered Market Trip to Iran Nov 2011

Why we travel by Paul Theroux

AND HOW?

Iran Railway Infomation

Pars Tour Agency

Magic Carpet Tourist Information

Americans in Iran 2011: Planning, applying and waiting…

It’s May 2011 and our next trip will be to Iran. Ignoring the propaganda and the fact that it could take months to get a visa we begin the visa application process and the trip research. It was now or never and we’re going for it. The trip will be at least 14 days which isn’t a whole lot but enough to get a feel for the country.  The itinerary will need shortening and compose a realistic travel budget and itinerary.   Some amazing things will unfortunately be put back on the wish list. This fairly quick trip will be more a best of Iran opposed to a full tour with no limits and a loose vicarious plan which is usually how we roll.  The classic central Iran itinerary that takes us from Shiraz to Tehran is perfect for 14 days by land.

Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque
Morning in the center of Esfahan

Traveling with a U.S. passport to Iran requires a guided tour.  Americans have a history in the area so it’s understandable that the government wants to keep tabs on us and we have to do it.  Finding a knowledgable local guide who will not make us feel as if we were on a short leash and hopefully compatible in personality is first on the to do list.   Reading other travelers blog posts, checking out Thorntree posts and Google searches lead me to finding Pars Tourist Agency which is a small but well-known tour agency based in Shiraz.  Zehra is very organized, patient and good at getting back to me despite the time change and how the weekends start on Thursday and end on Saturday.   They ended up putting together a customized tour which included all the attractions we wanted to see and within our budget.

The Somewhat Short List of why we decided to go to Iran:

1. UNESCO sites Iran full of them and we’ll be able to see a good chunk of them in two weeks – plus the flight isn’t that long – just 13 hours.

2. Politics aside The middle east has always a political hotbed so stayed informed, avoid any political discussion and enjoy the scenery

3. Low hustler level It’s not like Egypt, Turkey or Morocco where many rely on baksheesh to supplement their low wages (which is actually a Persian word) .

4. The US Dollar Woes For Americans, the dollar is still going down and the required tour and it’s prices just always go up and never down

5. Angry Israel It has been pretty trigger-happy recently and who knows when they will put their threats to action and each day there is something new like today (Nov 2) on Al-Jazeera

Travelling to Iran was always in our thoughts especially when we went to other areas of Asia and the Middle East.  Ancient history, architecture and modern culture is usually the draw to the places my husband and I visit.  The most influential were visits to the Persian designed Taj Mahal, Xian, Jordan and Syria. They are all connected to the former Silk Road and Iran has links to them all. We wanted to see and experience a different side of the region and dig deeper into how the traders along the Silk Road influenced and  shaped the lands they once journeyed through. I wanted to see where were the great battles were fought, learn more about the area’s history and see in person what in terms of physical structures (caravanserai, forts, and ancient cities to name a few) and various forms of art still remain today.   Additionally, I like to find answers to questions like did the travelers and warriors of those periods still have a place in present Iranian society?  How did the past influence today’s society?

If Rick Steves did it then why can’t we? He said himself that he regretted not travelling to neighboring Iraq when he had the chance. I personally want to see what goes on  in Iran – politics aside? How do people live and how will the receive me even after they find out where I’m from.   There are many questions that I hope to find answers to and some will have to remain unanswered until I return in the future.

Let’s go Junk Boating in Vietnam

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Let’s go Junk Boating in Vietnam

Looking back at trip pictures of Halong Bay makes me want to skip the holidays and find a cheap ticket back.  Most Vietnam vacations include the not so traditional overnight stay on the famous Junk boats found in northern Vietnam.  Most trips can be arranged by a tour company in Hanoi and usually don’t require more than a few days notice.  The company who arranged this trip was the “real” Kangaroo Cafe in Hanoi.  The tour was just ok, but I signed up after being so taken with my tasty veggie burger and fries in Hanoi.  Pho is great but sometimes a good burger and fries is needed.  I recommend using the internet to find a tour company that gives back to the local villagers whose livelihood depends on only the bay.  There are plenty of them out there and a little goes a long way.

The Bay itself is beautiful and taking great pictures requires little effort no matter what time of year.  Overall,  it’s best to double-check on the weather before booking.  In May, when I was there, it’s usually on the chilly damp side.  There was little temptation to swim and/or kayak chilly, dark and gloomy water.  Many tour and fishing boats with diesel engines tread those waters on a daily basis and it’s a good time to become vegetarian unless you want to be like Andrew Zimmern and eat the toxic catch of the day and chase it down with some local moonshine.  Cheers!

Travelers can never go wrong doing some online researching to sites like Trip Advisors LP Thorntree and other online forums which offer up to date tour information like ones to Halong Bay. Ownership chances or just getting into a hard copy guidebook like the LP guide can change places for the better or worse.   In Halong Bay, particularly look out for things like the condition of the boat, kayaks and quality of the food and staff.  I also may add that being a vegetarian or just a picky eater is always tricky on these group tours, so don’t go hungry and bring plenty of snacks and whatever else provides a more comfortable experience.

Eat, Sleep and Meet: Ways to get the most out of Travel

A traveler moves away from being a common tourist to one who actually is an actively taking part in daily life of a foreign land.  Many people go on trips that just end up being type where you roam around like sheep and view the sites as if in a zoo peering though the plexiglass.  This experience is satisfying to many but there is so much more to experience then just being on the sidelines. Make the most out of the trip and see more.  Start with mastering the basics:  Eat, Sleep and Meet.

Start with the basics:  food

These are the two basic things a person needs to seek out in a day.  Nothing is more stressful than trying to find a place to satisfy your hunger in a domestic or international unfamiliar territory.  There are many who give up too easily will and find themselves buying a value meal McDonald’s.  Why not.   The overall quality is consistent, the menu selections doesn’t change from country to country, it’s cheap and most the food not local but imported frozen.  It’s good if you are in a small town on the Danube and all they serve is locally caught fish, but really McDonald’s?  At least try because you may come across a gem that serves a great meal.

Before you give up in venturing into the unknown local culinary scene, take a minute and ask the person checking you in if there are some places to eat near by where you can try some local food.  They usually will have a list of places to recommend.  If they end up being not so good, then it’s time to settle for the familiar, but if they are outstanding then you will be rewarded with a great meal, a unique experience and a great travel story.

Now…shelter

There are so many places available online and even in the old-fashioned hard copy book form that can put you in contact with accommodation that is not your garden variety business or name brand hotel. Most destinations have beds for rent range from space someone’s couch (couchsurfer.com) to staying in a fancy 5-star hotel.  If you are lucky, there are many options to choose from.   If not, the decision is easy since it may be a one trick pony town.  When there are many choices then try to stay somewhere with some character like a small hotel located in a residential neighborhood but not too far from local sites.

Get out of the comfort zone and be adventurous.

It is possible and a bit risky to find your accommodation when you get into town.  It’s ok to take some of the adventure out and put a good list together along with contact information before arrival.   Try to find at least three in the same general area so you don’t have haul your pack too far.  Also take advantage of technology and visit a booking site.  It will make you feel a little less anxious knowing that your list of options have space available.  If the hotels in the area all seem to be booking up and there aren’t many choices it may be a good idea to be safe and pre-book.  Save the adventure for the next town.

Not booking a room until getting into town or a few days before can help in getting a better deal on the room.  Prepare to bargain.  Free wi-fi, breakfast or transport and/or room rate discounts are all up for negotiation.   Can’t hurt to try.  It’s pretty much the more risk a traveler is willing to take the less money a traveler will have to pay out on accommodation.  A savvy traveler can use this as an opportunity to practices some bargaining skills.   Be bold and ask for a more but don’t get too greedy since you do need a room and don’t want to piss people off since you probably are going to be their guest for a few nights.

Finding accommodation as you go does involve some pre-trip planning but can ultimately save you some money and offers chance to meet local residents  since most are places run by families, a group of friends or people who own and run the place themselves.

Learn some of the local dialect

No one expects a new person to an area to be fluent with the local language and dialect but knowing a few words and phrases is a good start and the effort means a lot even if it’s just please and thank you.  Don’t worry and just do your best.  Ultimately, try not to tear the language too much apart.  The grammar and accent are things that someone needs to study over a large amount of time.   Do your best to listen and ask native speakers how to say things once you have built some sort of rapport with them.  It is a great way to begin to learn, broaden your experience and make good use of that expensive and weighty language guide.

Try a hostel

The term hostel when it comes to a place to rest for a night makes some think of those dirty hole in the walls where rooms are full of adolescents up until all hours, then sleeping 10 or more to a room in bunk beds and whose main goal is to be piss drunk the entire journey.  This is true but not all hostels were created equal.  They vary from country to country and region to region.  With development of the travel guide and online booking agencies the hostel as branched out in form and features.  More of them now represent what used to be only known as B&B’s, Guesthouses, Homestays and budget hotels.

The one common theme that most around the world have are a common areas where travelers hang out to relax and hopefully meet other travelers.  They also offer the comforts of a private room and bath at a higher price.  The price is usually equal to what a regular hotel will offer in the area.  The plus is that you can usually get perks like free wi-fi, breakfast, beverages and local first hand knowledge of what the area offers from the proprietors and/or guests.

These are just a few things that a traveler can try to carry out  when the are a visitor to a foreign land.  Try to go off the well-worn tourist path of the area and get an experience that only belongs to you. The best part of traveling is that it’s a constant learning experience.  The first step is to figure out the basics or the things that ever society has in common which is how we go about eating, sleeping and how we communicate.  Take it from there and run with it.

Top 10 Reasons NOT to waste money on Trip Insurance

10.  It’s a short trip

Short trips never mean that something bad is going happen right?  I guess the odds are in favor but who ever expects anything bad to happen.  It just takes a bad taxi driver, a crazy pack of dogs or just bad luck to get injured while away from home.

9.  I don’t do adventure sports/activities

When looking at the breakdowns of what trip insurance costs there are usually some fine print items intended to be easily overlooked. They usually are the exclusions of what the plan will not be responsible for.  They usually include such activities like scuba diving, bungee jumping, winter downhill sports and other extreme sports.  If you don’t do these things that’s fine but you may warm up to the idea after a few drinks..then what?

8.  I can eat ANYTHING…I have a cast-iron stomach

There are a million things out there that can make a traveler get sick.  These include things that you are used to eating on a regular basis at home and may even be imported from your travel destination.  I found out this the hard way.  I couldn’t resist the peak season bing cherries in Istanbul and had been deeply encouraged to try the “fresh” fish sandwiches off a boat docked on the Bosphorus.  My mistake.  I finally took a taxi to the American Hospital after many hours of waiting for the facial swelling to go down and thinking my hives where just going to go away.

7.  I know what to stay away from

The world you are visiting is usually unfamiliar and that’s the adventure of going there in the first place right?  Time should be taken to get an idea of the what’s going on locally.  It’s usually the sports and political events or both that get people riled up.   It’s best not to be too curious and get caught up in the energy unless you are ready to get roughed up.  I usually walk in the opposite direction as fast as possible since I can do without the drama and I’ll see what happened later.

6.  I’m young

Being young is good when it comes to getting hurt but it’s not going save you from a snake bite or hard fall.  Getting stuck somewhere because you don’t have insurance can scary.  It’s hard to figure out how to get better when you are in pain and far from home.  The right insurance will get you treated, get you out or bring in family if need be.  Well worth it.

5. The airlines always are looking out for my best interest

Airlines like many businesses will most likely not be 100% on your side if it comes to getting you on the next flight if you missed or if it was cancelled for whatever reason.  There are many times where they will find that it’s your fault that you missed the flight or you have a ticket that’s economy and can’t be transferred.  The right plan can help you in this tricky situation and get you on your way.

4.  I bring a carry-on

The carry-on has made it through check-in but if you are the last one on there may not be any room to put it.  This problem has been made worse since most airlines are tacking on a fee for checked baggage.  You bag could end up being checked at the gate if you don’t manage to get it in the small overhead bin.  If that checked bag doesn’t make it to wherever you are going let’s hope you can afford to replace what you had for a day or more.  Hopefully it’s just a bathing suit.

3.  I never get sick

Who doesn’t get sick?  Ok…some don’t but flying across many times zones, the  usual lack of sleep, nutrition and exposure to new environments are all things that make a person most vulnerable to illness whether it be a cold, flu are allergic reaction to something you didn’t know you were even allergic to.  The over the counter drugs may not be strong enough to get over whatever bug you picked up.   Let’s hope that the local pharmacy doesn’t need a prescription and you are studying to be a medical professional.

2.  My credit card is safe

Credit cards are much more useful than the travelers checks of the old days.  They are good as long as the numbers aren’t swiped.  It’s very easy for people to get a hold of your numbers and clean you out while you are traveling.  There are many times where you can’t use local currency to book a room or reserve a side trip.  Trip insurance is the back up plan to getting back what was stolen including credit cards and the like.

1. I’m NOT a U.S. citizen

Ok…this is the only one I can’t argue.  For citizens of Britain, Canada and the EU have the option of buying relatively cheap travel insurance when they go beyond their borders.  We don’t and when we do get Travel Insurance coverage it is expensive if you get a good plan without a very high deductible impossible to find one that will cover you as soon as you land back in the states.

Travel insurance is something like deciding to not take anti-malarial drugs when in possible infected areas.  There are some who think that it’s not for them and the would rather use the money towards extending their trip.  Why get something if you arent’ going to use it?  This is a risk that many take but at least most of the world has healthcare facilities that aren’t as expensive out of pocket then here in the U.S.  (set aside quality of course).  A trip to a U.S. emergency room and easily go up into the tens of thousands for those hurt while visiting.  There is a good chance they will have to just put in on the card and get reimbursed for some or all of it when they return home.  Maybe someday it will happen here in the U.S?  Somehow, I doubt it.

A trip to plan: will it be Stoic Russian or Festive Mexico?

The trip in May came down to two locations.  Mexico or Russia?  My husband and I had our usual debate.  We breakdown each place and do the pros and cons, look to see what the weather is like when we can travel, find out if there are any holidays that could get in the way of travel, and write down the initial costs of going.

We decided on Russia.  The weather is nice, the end of May will allow us to travel without the hassles of May Day and Victory Day that fall at the beginning of the month (parades would have been a sight but maybe another time) and we could use our miles with Capital One.  The free flight helps when we think about how the costs of hotels, restaurants and all the other chiselers Russian we will meet along the way.   At least we expect it.

So the plane tickets we decided upon are with Finnair.  This way we won’t be flying through Heathrow or Charles de Gaulle, have a chance of getting a decent vegetarian meal and we get One World sky miles.  The half hour turnaround in Helsinki is going to be a challenge.  A carry-on in this case is required.

We will only be staying for 11 nights so booking hotels or hostels beforehand is necessary.    There isn’t much room for a side trips on this one.  Moscow and St. Petersburg are both known to be very expensive cities.  It was tricky finding a budget price that’s within a reasonable walking distance to Red Square.  There were plenty of hostels that were very close and have good prices but for the most part were bunk style accommodation and reviewers on the particular booking site seemed to be mostly 18-24 in age.  They may have been an option 10 years ago.

Another option was renting a flat.   This is nice because they usually have a kitchen (good if you are looking to save money and have diet restrictions), and have privacy.   These are usually best if you are on an extended holiday that runs at least a month.  The rates looked reasonable on a site called http://www.getorussia.com but if you read the fine print the quoted rates are based on a month or more.  A few days stay goes up at least 30%.  So that wasn’t an option.

With a little more  research on Thorn tree and basic google searches I found a place called the Petrovka Loft. This place looks good through pictures they and travelers on http://www.tripadvisor.com had posted.  There gets to a point where I have to just believe the reviewers.   I found that they are listed on http://www.hostelworld.com.  I like using this site or http://www.hostelbookers over others like Expedia and Orbitz because a reservation only requires a 10% down-payment.  The remainder is paid when you arrive.  If you don’t like it for some reason you don’t lose too much money if you keep on walking.  It’s also a trust issue between yourself and the hotel.  I have had the times when I show up at a hostel and they haven’t a record of my reservation.  It’s always safe to make contact ahead if possible so they know you are coming.  This may just prod them to check their bookings from outside agencies and update yours and other reservations.

The fun has momentarily ended.  It’s time to gather documents for putting together the Visa application.  Each country that requires a visa has their own system.  Some are easy at the border stamps (they just really want cash) and others require filling out questionnaires and forking over large sums of cash.  Russia is stuck in the pre-Pesrestroika days. The questions are pretty much aimed at figuring out if you are a Jason Bourne character whom they are trying to prevent from entering the country or just an innocent tourist wanting to take pictures and spend money.  The questions are like an employment application.  I wonder if they ever call up your previous employees and ask them questions about your character and if you legit?   I had visions of the person on the other line not having a clue that I worked there since it’s been so long.  Let’s just hope they believe I have written only the truth.

The Russian Federation is very thorough with each applicant.  Visitors are required to get an invitation from a hotel, travel agency or person living in Russia.  Basically, someone who will be responsible for you  while in Russia.  These days it’s just another money-making tool but you have to do it.  The hotel you have booked can either vouch for you or they can recommend a travel company to process the paper work.  We just paid the $30 used http://www.getorussia.com.  It took less than 5 minutes on the internet.

Now, my  (1) valid passport with at least  two clear visa places available (2) a 1″ 3/8 X 1″ 3/4 photo of myself not smiling and showing my shoulders up (3) questionnaire is filled out, I have a copy of (4) my invitation, and  now all I need to do is get (5) a  $131 USD money order from the bank.  I hope I don’t forget anything when I head to the Russian Consulates office in the morning.  I’m fortunate to have a Russian Consulates office in town so I don’t have to mail off my passport and nervously await for it to come back to me via U.S. Mail or Fed-ex.

The process takes anywhere from 4-20 business days.  I’ve got some time but these things seem to end up taking more than you think.  Now, I have to go look for more trip information including what our hotel options will be in St. Petersburg, train schedules to St. Petersburg and what there is to do and see in each city.  After that, a good nights sleep because who knows how long it’s going to take me to get through the consulates office tomorrow.

Maybe I should have gone with the room facing the Caribbean and the days of sipping margaritas on the beach…naahh

Click here for more information on obtaining a Russian Visa

For a quick guide of St. Petersburg click here

For Moscow click here

Squat Toilets…what’s all the flush?

The reward for the best Squat Toilet scene in a movie by no doubt goes to Slum Dog Millionaire.  It’s actually a very big smelly problem in countries like India.This is a great video from YouTube done by user rahulbrown that gives a good understanding of how valuable something most of us take advantage of everyday.

Toilets along the way

Yeah… it’s something everyone thinks about if you are on a crowded public bus or van in a foreign country.  “How long is this trip really going to take, will we stop for a toilet break and what kind of porcelain throne will be put before me?”  Being a women who occasionally gets sick (ok…let’s say I make sure I have a good amount of Cipro with me on each trip) it’s always on my mind for one reason or another.   There’s never a need to panic when it comes to using the least favorite option:  a swat toilet.  Just let it be clean.

It’s all in the technique

Just make sure you correctly use it, don’t flush anything down the toilet if it does flush (that’s what the bucket is for or is it for the flushing part or both?  Just do what you think others have done before you)  Travelers going off the beaten path will most likely encounter the squat toilet in some shape or form.  They can even be found in rural areas of Europe and Japan.  There not just South Asia.  Travelers need to just get over it when to these places.  It’s a good reason to get those inner thigh and glut muscles toned before the trip and get use of the face mask if it’s smelly. Just be sensitive to those who have no other options.

Here’s some supposed healthy reasons why you should use the squat position.  The best thing a woman can do is like the Army ad says be prepared.  A good tip for women is to bring along a long skirt since it’s difficult to keep your pant bottoms from hitting the squat toilet floor (icky)  There is a reason why most women around the world just wear dresses and skirts (men too).  Or, just use some common sense and roll the legs up before entering then take a deep breathe and focus on getting things done.  Oh yeah, and don’t forget the TP and that person hanging out isn’t just hanging out.  They probably have the job of selling TP and or cleaning up.  Do them a favor and give up some coin.

It’s all a part of the experience.  If anything, mastering it makes for good travel anecdotes at the end of the day.  I wish I had some pictures of toilets I have mastered but I usually didn’t want to stay to long and/or accidentally drop my camera in the bottomless hole (see toilet scene from Slumdog Millionaire)

Happy Squatting and remember to wash those hands.

A little slice of paradise

wo years ago this week my husband and I we stuck in Phuket, Thailand.   For most being stuck in a tropical resort beach with nothing to do but looking at naked Europeans and ladyboys playing volleyball in 70-80’s F temperatures is heaven.  For us it was just killing time and itching for something with more adventure.

We had arrived in Hong Kong at the end of 2007. We had unfortunately applied for our visas to China after the unforseen Tibetan riots occurred in Tibet, so this ment we could only be issued a single entry 30 day visa.  The Chinese government had totally messed up our plan.  We had not only planned to stay in China for 6 weeks but our travel path would have taken us over the Himalayas and into a whole different part of Asia and not Thailand.  We love south-east asia but had been to Vietnam and Cambodia a few years back and wanted to see experience traveling in northern India, Burma and then way down to Malaysia and Bali for some beach time.

I’m not saying that Thailand isn’t a great place to visit.  The people seemed very friendly but since they were still in recovery mode and most of the visitors to the area were those from the Euro zone countries prices were incredibly high and I could have been on any island in the Caribbean for the experience I got there.  Very commercialized and tacky.  The only good feeling I got was that I was helping a cause when I was there.  The hotel we stayed was rebuilt and run by a family who had most likely been a victim of the tsunami two years earlier.  We selected places to eat based not on popularity but whether it was locally owned and run.  There were no trips to Starbuck’s, McDonald’s or any of the chain restaurants that had re-established themselves there.

The only sadness I had in leaving was knowing that this area had a tough road ahead of them.  We had spent our days hiking up either side of Patong Beach to the outskirts of town.  These areas where either abandoned or being turned into very high-end condominium developments in the hills overlooking the beach that was once a place of very high devastation.  The only reminder of the tsunami was a small memorial located not far from the beach area.  It’s a simple construction which people have placed small elephant figurines and other mementos on it to show remembrance of love ones lost.

The early morning we left behind the cheap massages on the beach, the overzealous prostitutes, the noisy waterfront and the ladyboy that was ironically waving at our taxi as we skipped town.  He/she in her/his magenta wig pretty much summed up the place.  I don’t mean to discourage those in going to Phuket but know that it’s not like Leonardo’s movie.  If you are in for a place where you can recover from your hangover on the beach, ride an elephant through the jungle and get a cheap massage it’s a great place to go.  I only wish them well in there own journey to full recovery and hope they are better prepared next time.

Please let me know your thoughts on the matter of Phuket or other places like it.  I would love to hear other travelers comments.

Top 5 things an Adventure Travel Girl can’t go without

There are so many things a girl can do without when it comes to adventure traveling.  This list is long and it’s better to focus on the top 5 most important things bring along when going on an adventure trip.  In adventure I’m talking about one where you will have to carry your bag more than a few yards from the taxi to the hotel.  This will be a trip where you will maybe  find those things  you wish you had brought at your destination but if not oh well.

1.  Clothing made of synthetic material

Clothing that is not made of cotton but a material which keeps you cool or warm but will dry fast, not wrinkle and be compact.  The clothing should  have a neutral shade and be able to mix and match with other pieces.  Who cares if you are wearing the same pants and/or shirt two or more days in a row.  It’s good if  you are able to wash them every night and know that they will be dry by morning.  Look at it this way.  This will free up some space in your bag and give you an excuse to buy something locally. Besides, it makes a great souvenir.

2. One pair of shoes

This is not counting the light pair of Havaianas you have as well.  It is best to invest in a comfortable pair of nice looking travel shoes made of a durable material such as leather.  There are some great shoes that look good and function as a low-level hiking shoe.  Even if you are not going to hike up a mountain there is a good chance you will be walking a lot.  Another thing,  make sure this isn’t the shoes maiden voyage.  The shoes need to get worn enough to break them in and to make sure they will be suitable for the journey.

3.  A Good Hat

A hat has many functions while traveling.  It will block out harmful sun rays and heat of the sun, cover your head when it’s raining, cover your head when you are visiting a holy site, makes it easy to hide under when visiting countries where as a woman you don’t want to make eye contact, and it hides the fact that you are having a bad hair day.  The hat should have a wide rim on it so it can protect you and be also made of a breathable material.  It will get dirty so wash it along with those fast drying pants when needed.

4.  Cell phone with a good camera

Having a cell phone that you can slip in your pocket and use with a local SIM card can come in very handy.  You may have packed away a camera that takes better pictures but it’s handy to have one that fits discretely in your pocket for some quick shots of food or places where you may want to leave the more expensive camera back at the hotel in a locked safe.  A traveler can find that having a local cell phone number is convenient with booking a hotel that doesn’t have a website or to use in emergency situations.  The rates vary from country to country but they usually are reasonable.  A cell that is bluetooth enabled is key.  If there is a strong or strong enough wi-fi signal you can set up an account with Vonage or Skype and keep in touch with folks back home.

5.  Good bag with TSA approved locks

Your bag is one of the best investments you will make.  It’s worth the time and money investment.  I prefer one that is light in weight, has a protective cover which extends over the bag and locks, has strong zippers that can secure easily and not allow any gaps, made of strong material that resists tearing especially by a knife or other sharp edge, and fits well to your body type.  Some other helpful features are a bottle holder or hook for one, a small inside pocket in the inside lining which can fit dirty laundry, and be waterproof.

This list is short and is very subjective since everyone has their own priorities on what they need to take to make them feel comfortable in a foreign land.  These things are what I have narrowed my list down to over the years.  I used to bring much more when I started to travel but over the trips I have found that many things are best left at home.  It’s a life lesson to find out what you as a person really need to have to live your life.  It’s less than you would think.