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The Art of Packing for Travel

Some people have a difficult time packing for a trip, no matter for how long they’re going away. I’ll admit to being a last-minute packer, and, on occasion, I’ll overpack. But that last part doesn’t happen often.

I was reminded about packing habits after reading the New York Times article “What Anthony Bourdain Can’t Travel Without,” in which the food travel icon mentions always packing notebooks, a pillow substitute, books, and a hidden knife. Bourdain also advises against getting angry when dealing with airport security/immigration and preparing for security checks with minimal attire (i.e., no belt, jewelry, other complicated things to remove).

Yangon airport

Welcome to Yangon

When I was traveling around with my work-from-home full-time job, I had a large suitcase and a Patagonia Chacabuco 32L backpack, which has served me well over the past four years and is no longer sold. My plan was to avoid winter weather, so that cut down on the heavy clothes, though I still had my two-layer coat that I needed toward the end of my time in Tokyo.

Getting through security

No one likes airport security and the TSA makes the process more miserable than in any other country I’ve been through. Singapore’s Changi Airport makes the security check easy, friendly, and efficient. Of course, there was also the wooden metal detectors in Myanmar, which I’m pretty sure didn’t work.

singapore security bin

Organized security tray at Singapore Changi Airport

Anyway, to prepare for the security check I ensure I don’t wear a belt. I’m still lagging behind in buying easy slip-on shoes (in Asia I didn’t have to remove shoes). I take off my watch while in line and put in the top compartment of my backpack along with my keys. All my travel documents and money are in a pouch around my neck, which is also useful for traveling through areas known for pickpocketing. And my backpack has an easily accessible laptop compartment to get the computer in and out quickly.patagonia backpack

All of this means I spend less time getting my belongings into the bins. Of course, there are times I forget to pull something out because my mind is usually on what I forgot to pack for the trip.

All liquids–by that I mean toiletries, sunscreen, etc.–are in Ziploc bags. I always have them split into at least two bags, which is helpful in case one breaks during travel. When I stay at hotels, I take a few containers of shampoo and body wash to use for travel later in case I end up staying at a hostel. I also have an empty reusable water bottle that I can fill up at water fountains before my flight.

travel pouch

All travel documents go here

It’s best to organize everything to prevent backing up the security line, which will get backed up anyway because of unprepared travelers and the general work ethic of the average TSA employee.

The essentials

Here is what I absolutely needed while traveling, all of which was packed in my carry-on:

  • Laptop (it’s a bit heavy and large because it was given to me by my job)
  • Panasonic Lumix DMC-G5 (I thought this would prevent me from missing out on shots like in Iceland)
  • Travel neck pillow (since upgraded)
  • Kindle (because I need to read and don’t want to carry heavy books)
  • Universal power adapter
  • 1 regular-size notebook and at least 1 pocket-sized notebook
  • 1 hoodie

I now have an Acer 2-in-1 mini laptop/tablet that I use for travel, while my larger laptop is reserved for home use. This has cut my backpack weight down significantly. I could downsize my camera as well–I wish I had bought a compact mirrorless camera with a better zoom lens instead, but that that’s something I’ll consider purchasing another time.

travel camera

The camera would take up even more space if I bought a new lens.

I had been resistant to getting a Kindle, but my parents gave me an old one that they didn’t use. It was great because it was light and easy to carry everywhere. I also enjoyed using it on the metro systems in Tokyo and Seoul–it made reading with one hand on a crowded train easy. It helped me catch up on some classic literature, all of which was free to download.

Everything else is quite light. My universal power adapter even has two USB slots for charging, which was a reason to buy it. The Cabeau Evolution memory foam neck pillow was worth the investment–it’s more comfortable and can be used as a great regular pillow.

Cabeau Evolution pillow

This thing is comfortable

The hoodie was to stay warm on flights and to use as an extra layer on the pillow.

Everything in the backpack is organized according to need–anything I need during the flight is on top so I can pull it out quickly and shove the backpack in the overhead. The only things I really need for the flight are the Kindle, pillow, hoodie, and water bottle. I always book a window seat, so I don’t want to bother everyone in case I forget something in the backpack.

As for my larger suitcase, here’s what was generally packed:

  • 8 short-sleeved shirts (including button-down shirts)
  • 1 long-sleeve pullover
  • 8 pairs of socks
  • 9 pairs of underwear
  • 1 pair of shorts
  • 1 pair of light pants (something that could double as business casual)
  • 1 extra pair of lightweight hiking shoes
  • 1 microfiber towel
  • Extra travel toiletries
  • Electric Razor
  • Cup-top hand-drip coffeemaker and reusable filter
  • An emergency supply of coffee (single cup filter packs/some instant)

Doesn’t seem like much, but it was enough to live week to week. Of course, while traveling and working I ensured that every apartment I rented had a washing machine.

All this stuff easily fit in my suitcase and it was well under the general weight limit for checked luggage. It also left space for small souvenirs, of which I bought few.

Packing changes for vacations

Of course, when I settled into stationary expat life, I took shorter vacations and had no need for that enormous suitcase. I realized this prior to my weeklong trip to Myanmar, at which point I had to go in search of a new suitcase just two days before departure.

suitcases

These suitcases are too big for even a weeklong trip

My new suitcase turned out to still be too large. I managed to fill up about half of it with essentials for the trip. I added some extra clothes and left the rest of the space for souvenirs (I still bought few).

When I traveled home last year for my birthday, I again managed to only fill up half the suitcase. I filled out the rest with a huge container of Taiwanese tea for my mother and a bottle of Kavalan whisky for myself, as well as a few other small gifts for friends and family.

Lao Skyway

My backpack barely fit on this flight in Laos

When I took shorter trips, I managed to borrow a small suitcase from a friend in Taipei. It could be used as a carry-on if I didn’t pack any items that had to be checked. A few times I had to check that tiny suitcase–when I traveled to Laos and Vietnam I decided to pack insect repellent and sunscreen, so it had to be checked. I could still pack a week’s worth of light clothes in that little suitcase.

And if I was heading out of Taipei for three or four days, I managed to fit everything I needed in just my backpack.

What are your essentials for travel? How much do you need for a weeklong trip?

Survival Guide: Taipei Now Available

It’s time to announce the release the Booze, Food, Travel Survival Guide: Taipei, which is now available on Amazon. You can pick up your Kindle or paperback copy (for those of you who don’t have ebook reader).taipei travel guide

This travel guide was published way behind schedule, but that’s probably better because many of the places I had wanted to include in the guide closed and others opened (not quite as bad as when I published my Taiwan craft beer article for Scoot and two bars mentioned immediately closed). After almost three years I have seen plenty of businesses disappear while others have replaced them. Discovery of smaller destinations around Taipei have come slowly over time, especially as I have worked full time during much of my time here. But I was able to note a few places that some guidebooks might miss.

Mikkeller Taipei

Of course I wrote about some of my favorite bars

After missing my self-set deadlines to publish this book, I realized how important it is to follow a schedule and maintain focus. Over the last few months, I have been able to focus more on writing tasks that are important to me–and I have been able to be more productive, though there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

Of course, this Taipei travel guide comes out in time for visitors to prepare for the summer Universiade that begins in mid-August, which I won’t be around to watch. This means that many more tourists will arrive in the city soon and will search for things to do that might not be as popular among the tourist crowds.taipei 101 xiangshan

Although it might be sweltering this summer, I have included a few hiking options other than Elephant Hill for visitors to Taipei. I also added my favorite riverside bike route, though I don’t know how many people will want to ride that far on a YouBike.

YouBike

The cheapest way to get around Taipei

Of course, I included the basics of getting around Taipei with the MRT, buses, taxis, and YouBikes as well as some basic information about health and safety. It’s everything a traveler could need for a trip other than a hotel. And I would be remiss if I didn’t write about the beer and bars around the city and the night markets and the various foods they provide. This may be the only Taipei travel guide that doesn’t recommend Shilin Night Market–I went so far as to tell people to go elsewhere and avoid the awful crowds.

The travel guide is 125 pages in paperback and 90 pages on Kindle. It includes some photos from around the city to entice visitors to see more of Taipei. It was tempting to add more photos throughout the travel guide, but that would’ve made the ebook file too big. Also, with the paperback option from Amazon, it makes the book a little lighter to carry around.

raohe night market

Welcome to Raohe Night Market

Whether you’re planning a trip to Taipei soon or just want to dream about that trip, you can pick up a copy of the Booze, Food, Travel Survival Guide!


Holiday Gift Guide for the Traveler in Your Life

I’m not big on gifts–either for birthdays or holidays. As I travel around I pick up some small gifts for people because I think they’ll enjoy them. Gift buying doesn’t revolve around any specific days. As I have some friends who enjoy traveling, I should think about gifts I can get them for their next trip.

There’s more than just gadgets that travelers need to get around–most travelers already have a decent camera and smartphone with all the necessary free apps. Low-tech products are still the most versatile items to bring on short or long journeys.

As you search online for gifts, be sure to check offers through your airline miles’ website–you can multiply the purchase amount for your own travel benefits.

I’ve compiled a list of products that I either already own or that are on my wish list (hint, hint).

Get some rest with a travel pillow

I noticed the Cabeau Evolution travel neck pillows at the airport awhile back, but I just couldn’t bring myself to spend the money. I gave in on my way home in November (it was even on sale at the airport!). I had hoped to find it in a store, but never did. There are two versions of this pillow–I originally bought the memory foam pillow and found the high neck pads helped me sleep. It also tightens enough to prevent your head from falling forward like with other pillows.Cabeau Evolution pillow

There’s another version called the Evolution Cool pillow, which is more expensive. Unlike the original Evolution pillow, the cool pillow doesn’t overheat your neck. I had to take the pillow off a few times during my trans-Pacific flight because it was so hot.

cabeau evolution pillow

Now that’s compact

The best part about these travel neck pillows is that they can be scrunched up into a small bag to fit in your backpack. Of course, you could always tie it around the outside of your backpack too. Either way, this makes storage easy for when you’re not traveling.

A different kind of light reading

I love my Kindle. Alright, my mom gave me hers before I set out a few years ago, but it’s now basically mine. I love reading, but I don’t want to lug around tons of books wherever I go, so this was the best option. Plus, it gave me an opportunity to read classic literature that I missed out on during my education (Project Gutenberg has a ton of free books as does Amazon).

I still use the first generation Kindle. If it still works, why replace it? I have seen newer ones that have a similar size screen but a smaller overall body for even lighter travel. These are especially good for anyone who takes public transportation to and from work–I used to read a lot on the trains around Tokyo, Seoul, and Taipei.

Alternatively, you could purchase some ebooks for someone who already has a Kindle–travel guides and history books make great gifts. I’d also recommend books by Laird Hunt and Haruki Murakami.

Enjoy a quieter flight

I need to earn more money and buy this for myself. Bose QuietComfort noise-cancelling headphones are amazing. I tried them out at Costco. The store was busy and noisy and these headphones eliminated almost all the noise. They’re also very comfortable to wear, so I might be able to sleep with them on in combination with my Cabeau Evolution pillow. Most importantly, they eliminated more noise than my reusable earplugs that I’ve used on numerous flights to this point (I still find airplane noise too much with them in).

World wines shipped to you

You could splurge on some wine. It’s a great gift that you could share with the recipient. If you have MileagePlus with United like I do, you could earn more miles by shopping at a few of the online wine shops and having it shipped to someone’s door. I recently did this for my mother’s birthday (I wasn’t expecting the package to arrive in two days, so it arrived a bit early). I would definitely recommend shopping at wine.com as the selection and prices were good. They also included a free bottle in with the three that I ordered (I have a feeling it was a holiday promotion).

Lucky wine

Everyone loves free wine

Screw shopping, let’s get a beer!

Sometimes the person on your list just doesn’t need anything. But that same person could always use a good beer. A great option of the beer lover on your holiday list is Dogfish Head’s new beer called Beer for Breakfast. This is Dogfish Head’s beer to rival Founders Breakfast Stout. This a rich stout with an even flavor of coffee, roasted malt, and chicory. There’s even a bit of maple syrup and scrapple in the brew.

dogfish head beer for breakfast

Courtesy Dogfish Head website

There are more beers that you could buy, which I’ve written about before. Or you could just buy a variety pack to make everyone happy.

There are plenty more gift ideas for travelers, but these are some of my favorites. Of course, you could just buy an plane ticket or an upgrade for you favorite traveler (I also accept travel lounge memberships).

What’s are your recommendations for gifts for travelers?

Traveler Review & Giveaway: GPSMyCity App

I don’t like traveling with tour books. I enjoy reading travel guides because they help give me ideas for what to do–for some reason I find them more helpful than browsing websites with similar information (it might have something to do with information overload).xiangshan-panorama

When I was approached by GPSMyCity to host a giveaway for their app, I thought it’d be an opportunity to review what could be a useful travel app to replace those travel guidebooks. In an effort to fully evaluate the app’s usefulness, I decided to download the Taipei guide–I can offer some insight into what tourist sites are recommended at least. Of course, it might’ve been better if I had downloaded the guide for Seoul as I headed there with my parents.

The attraction of an app such as GPSMyCity is that it’s offline and easy to use (though I keep forgetting that the phone’s back button doesn’t work in the app). Unless you’re staying in a place for a month or more, you’re unlikely to have a local SIM card (or in the case of Japan, you’re not able to buy one). There are also plenty of destinations (mainly more developed nations) that don’t offer much in the way of free Wi-Fi, thus limiting travelers’ ability to check maps or information.

Taipei 101 from Sun Yat-sen Park

Taipei 101 from Sun Yat-sen Park

I tried downloading offline maps before traveling to Seoul in April. While the offline map was helpful, especially with GPS, it didn’t have recommendations and required a lot of memory–I immediately deleted it after returning to Taipei.

GPSMyCity requires significantly less memory than offline maps. Of course, the map on the app is low resolution when zooming in–it can be difficult to read but it does use GPS to help guide you through the streets. The other downside to the map is that you can’t search for an address (if you could, I’m sure it’d increase the memory requirement). It does, however, allow you to search by place name, assuming the place is included in the app (odd how so many 7-Elevens are listed but Din Tai Fung isn’t).

The real downside to the app’s map is that it has categories at the top for things like dining, hotels, and nightlife, but very few places come up when choosing the categories (nothing shows up for nightlife). Of course, this may get updated in the future (I hope so). It also lacks an MRT map to help you reach your destination–fortunately, the Taipei MRT system is easy to navigate.

Some of the GPSMyCity walks in Taipei

The app has a nice list of places to visit around Taipei with addresses and short descriptions. It also has a few walking tours–Dadaocheng and Ximending are the only two that make sense in that part. The Art Gallery walk is alright, but could use some improvement. I would assume other cities would have more walking tours. You can also choose your destinations and the app will plot them on the map for you.

Despite lacking clear navigation, GPSMyCity offers a good list of destinations for tourists to plan their trips. This app is geared more toward travelers who prefer reading the highlights to determine an itinerary–most tourist destinations have more detailed info for visitors anyway.Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall Taipei

For an update to the Taipei guide, I’d suggest the company add nightlife listings as well as options for biking and hiking trails.

The company’s website has a vast selection of cities you can peruse. If you search through the site, you can see all the sightseeing walks that would be contained in the app. Some of the cities also have travel articles, which are available through iTunes but not for Android.

In addition to GPSMyCity, I would recommend downloading Taipei Bus Tracker. It helps with bus routes and schedules throughout Taipei and New Taipei and even lists YouBike stations. As for traveling to Seoul, I would recommend the Seoul Subway app, which is even used by locals to navigate the enormous web of subway lines.

I wish there was a bike route app

I wish there was a bike route app

One side note on the app — I’m not sure if this is just mine that has a glitch, but every time I open it, it says “verifying download.” The screen stays on for about 20 seconds before the app opens.

Now for the fun part – the giveaway

I’m giving away five codes for readers to download the full version of GPSMyCity for Android and iPhone (you can find all their destinations here). All you have to do is:

  1. Head over to Facebook and like Booze, Food, Travel (if you haven’t already).
  2. Comment on the Facebook post linking to this page–just tell me where you want to go and why.

It’s really simple. I’ll choose five winners (family members are ineligible) on July 15.

Disclaimer: I received a free full version of the GPSMyCity app for Taipei in exchange for writing an objective review and running this giveaway.

Traveler Reads: Apologies Forthcoming

Shiao Su leaned his forehead against the closed door and shut his eyes.  The vibration of the Zheng strings passed through the door to his body.  He lost the courage to knock on the door.
-Snow Line, Apologies Forthcoming

The following review is revised from one written years ago. As this marks the 50th anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution in China, I thought it was appropriate to look back at one of the few fictionalized accounts of the time period that I’ve read. This is a subject that remains hidden from conversation in China–I was told stories from a few people who lived through it, but the tales they told weren’t detailed and still remained shuttered in many ways.

Outside the mausoleum of Chairman Mao in 2006. The bicycle cart in the bottom right appears in more recent photos as well

Outside the mausoleum of Chairman Mao in 2006. The bicycle cart in the bottom right appears in more recent photos as well

I discovered the work of Xujun Eberlein in 2008 when I came across her blog Inside-Out China. I found her writing style engaging and her stories interesting. This led me to obtain a copy of her short story collection, Apologies Forthcoming. Over time, I exchanged emails and Twitter messages with Xujun–she was a contributor to the first issue of my China-centric literary journal, Terracotta Typewriter (now defunct, but available on Issuu). This was all back before Twitter was blocked in China and every China-focused blogger and expat was connected through social media (and many of us still keep in touch).

The collection of stories by Xujun Eberlein is intriguing; it draws the reader in with gracefully flowing prose and genuine character emotions. Xujun combines the ability to weave complex short stories with grand themes, filled with interesting characters that the reader wishes wouldn’t depart at the end of each story.

Each of her stories centers on China during the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath–the politics of Red Guard factions, inserts in the countryside, and movement toward opening and reform. More importantly, the stories focus on the emotions of the characters. Most of the stories in Apologies Forthcoming deal with love and relationships; though they also discuss forbidden love and its dangers.

One quirk of Xujun’s writing style is the dialogue. It’s not typical dialogue by American standards, but it is a close translation of Chinese speech, which helps to portray more of the culture to readers.

The culture she portrays and the time period in which it takes place makes this collection an important work for anyone with an interest in China and history, especially as many Chinese are unwilling to discuss what Xujun fictionalizes.

Traveler Reads: The Body by Hanif Kureishi

“I’d been alive a long time but my life, like most lives, seemed to have happened too quickly, when I was not ready.”

I was introduced to the work of Hanif Kureishi when I studied in London–a course on colonial literature included his first novel, Buddha of Suburbia, which I found thoroughly entertaining. It’s been 15 years since I read it, so I don’t remember everything about it, but it was interesting enough for me to pick up another book by Kureishi when I came across it.

The Body is a novella accompanied by seven other short stories that delve into similar themes about the self and self-perception. The novella sets out with the premise that a successful writer named Adam with failing health is approached with an opportunity to extend his life indefinitely. Adam decides to take the opportunity as a short-term experiment–a holiday from his own self in a way.The Body by Hanif Kureishi

The attraction to the experience of another life within the life he lives is similar to what we do as travelers. Many solo travelers will admit that they’re different when traveling–many are more introverted when at home. This is the experience Adam has as he travels outside London in his new self. He learns about himself and others, the things he missed out on in younger years and the pop culture he no longer understands. He finds that he has to relearn life while retaining the knowledge and experience of his age.

The other stories also focus on the idea of the self and how we see ourselves and others. “Face to Face with You” in particular shows the insecurity we feel when we encounter something or someone too similar to ourselves. It’s how we react when face the small details that we can’t recognize until they’re point out. A couple that lives a fairly routine life finds that their new neighbors are almost exactly the same as they are–names included. It’s an attempt to ignore or avoid the parts about ourselves that make us uncomfortable or question our abilities.

Through all of the stories, Kureishi maintains a wit to keep the philosophical undertones humorous–it’s existentialism mixed with overt comedy through descriptions and metaphors. As his narrator in The Body says, “consciousness was the thing I liked most about life. But who doesn’t need a rest from it now and again?”

The Body and other stories are a quick read while traveling–the perfect book to read on a long flight.

Travel Necessity: Making Coffee on the Road

and the cool air off the hills
made me think of coffee,
so I said, “Coffee would be nice,”
-Kwame Dawes, Coffee Break

One of the greatest expenses on the road can be coffee, especially for addicts like me. When I worked overnight in New Jersey, I would regularly make a full 10-cup pot of coffee. Plus, I’d drink tea later in my shift. (Note to coffee companies: You can sponsor my travels.)

In some destinations coffee can be expensive. In touristy parts of Italy, a cup of coffee will set you back at least EUR 3. I got spoiled going to my local used bookstore for good coffee for $1.75, with free refills, which usually convinced me to buy yet another book to read (one addiction feeds the other).venice-coffee

Before I set out on this journey I worried about my ability to find coffee at the grocery stores–I remember how difficult it was to find non-instant coffee when I first moved to China in 2005; I practically wept when Carrefour and Jusco moved in near my apartment in 2008  with a consistent supply of coffee and cheese. I was so desperate back then that I would travel an hour and half on a bus to the foreign import store and buy a tub of Folgers for more than $10 when I knew it was much less expensive back home.melita-coffeemaker

Fortunately, my parents’ friend had a Melita cup-top hand drip coffeemaker. It was the best going-away present I could receive (well, other than money for future plane tickets). Because I didn’t want to have to always go out to find new filters as I traveled, I set out in search of a reusable coffee filter–the stores didn’t have the specific one for this Melita product, but I managed to find one that fit.

More than a year later I’m still making my morning coffee with this. Fortunately, there’s a Carrefour near me in Taipei and I can buy 1/2 lb. of ground coffee for NT$99 (about $3). It’s not great coffee, but it’s good enough. If I buy really cheap coffee, like I usually did in New Jersey, I just add some cinnamon to the grounds as I brew my cup–it tastes better and the cinnamon helps the body regulate blood sugar.carrefour-coffee

Of course, I still enjoy going out to coffee shops. I went to a few in Seoul–they weren’t difficult to find as the Korean capital has more Starbucks than any other city in the world (plus a few dozen other coffee chains). During my second trip to Japan, I spent a lot of time at Starbucks working on my China Survival Guide and other writing and ramblings–I usually avoid Starbucks, but there wasn’t anything else near me. I was forced into a few coffee shops in Hanoi when the power went out at my hotel while I was working. Plus, I had to try the egg coffee–it was good, but a little too sweet for my taste.egg-coffee-hanoi

In Taipei, I sometimes go out to Cama Coffee, a chain that serves great coffee in very small shop spaces. They also have whiskey hot chocolate–you can’t taste the whiskey, but the hot chocolate is really good. There are plenty of other options around the city at varying prices (most don’t have seating though).

How do you feed your coffee addiction while traveling? 

Airbnb and Long-term Travel

CNN Travel has an article today about a guy who moved to Hong Kong and only lives in Airbnb accommodations to “get out of the expat bubble.” CNN likes to think that this is an important experiment–trying a well-known service like Airbnb in a single metropolis where it isn’t widely used.

I’ve checked Airbnb in Hong Kong, though not in a long time, because I had thought about staying there for some time to visit friends. I decided against it because there was nothing even close to my price range–and I was willing to go as high as $900 per month.

My first Airbnb apartment in Tokyo

My first Airbnb apartment in Tokyo

After staying in Airbnb accommodations over 10 of the last 14 months, I know a bit about what to look for and what to expect. I have used Airbnb in Tokyo, Osaka, Ho Chi Minh City, Seoul, Taipei, and Perugia. I know that I could easily find something cheaper if I was set on staying longer in each city–it’s fair to charge more for a short-term rental than for a six-month lease. I have, however, discovered some places with reasonable rent, but I always stay for a month or more in each place. My landlord in suburban Tokyo offered a nice deal if I wanted to stay long term–it would’ve saved me more than $100 per month if I had found a job to keep me there. She was a nice enough host that I contacted her when I returned to Tokyo because I knew it was better deal than anything else.

I have seen the good and not-so-good of Airbnb throughout Asia and even in Italy. The only negative experiences I’ve had have been with landlords during email exchanges–I have never stayed with these people because the red flags kept me away.

Vietnam Experience

In Hanoi, I searched for apartments but they were all through real estate agents–only a few people were renting out dozens of properties. They all insisted that I pay a $400 deposit to stay for one month. I didn’t trust these people enough to pay that in cash, so I spent a little more money and stayed in two hotels for the month. It cost me $200 more for the hotels, but I got my room cleaned each day and free breakfast and coffee.

How could I say no to a comfortable hotel bed in Hanoi?

How could I say no to a comfortable hotel bed in Hanoi?

In Saigon, the Airbnb apartment wasn’t ideal, but it was acceptable for $400 for the month. I had a communal kitchen if I had wanted to cook and a free laundry service (there was a woman who cleaned the rooms almost every day and even took my laundry). The only problem I had was with the gate and door locks to the building–I broke two keys (one on the last day).

This is actually South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem's bomb shelter bedroom

This is actually South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem’s bomb shelter bedroom

Surprised in Taipei

I was only surprised by my accommodation twice. The first time was in Taipei. I followed the directions and read the street signs until I came to my street and found it full of Japanese prostitution bars (this neighborhood was locally known as the high-end prostitution district). Somehow the apartment was quiet enough for me to stay for three months (it was also only about $500 per month). The landlord even replaced the air conditioner when I told him it was broken and reaching 90 degrees in the apartment.zhongshan

Airbnb in Seoul

The second surprise was my closet in Seoul. Seriously, my bedroom in Tokyo was the same size as the entire apartment in Seoul, and that closet had a bathroom and kitchen. I was told after a month that I was paying about twice what I should for that claustrophobic experience. Still, I managed to stay there for two months before heading to Italy.

Italian Experience

My Airbnb stay for a month in Perugia was surprisingly cool…or maybe cold for August. I noticed that most listings around Italy didn’t have air conditioning. When I inquired about the temperature in the apartment, I was told that because the building had thick walls, it stayed cool. This was a pre-Renaissance building converted into apartments, and the walls were thick. I actually wore a sweatshirt in the apartment (actually needed it outside at night because it got unseasonably cold).

The closet I called an apartment forced me to take 4-mile walks every evening

The closet I called an apartment forced me to take 4-mile walks every evening

One thing I learned about Airbnb in Asia is that most hosts don’t want to deal with the site. They don’t like the fees. Not only do they lose some from Airbnb, but they lose more from PayPal foreign exchange fees. A few asked me to reserve the apartment for a week and then pay the balance in cash on arrival for a slight discount. After the first two times, I began asking about staying cheaper if I agreed to pay cash on arrival. The landlord in Saigon insisted that I not reserve through the site–I was told to see the apartment first. After seeing it the first night I was told I could pay cash or go through Airbnb, whichever was easier.

Entrance to the building in Perugia

Entrance to the building in Perugia

So, what was the advantage to using Airbnb? Not much. Convenience was about it. There was a greater level of trust with the people I chose to rent from. I’m sure some local rental sites would’ve had cheaper options, but they would’ve been more difficult to sift through. There was also the added benefit of having a washing machine, wifi, and utilities included in all the places I stayed. If I was traveling instead of working 50 hours a week, I would have rather stayed in a hotel or hostel to meet more people.

Have you used Airbnb? What has your experience been? If you haven’t signed up, you can give it a try here.

Hiking Shoes Wearing Thin

It’s almost time to say goodbye to my hiking shoes. They’ve served me well the last three years–plenty of walks from my apartment to my job at the college and around NYC. They got plenty of use in Panama because lightweight, breathable hiking shoes feel amazing in the heat and humidity of the rainforest, though they won’t protect you in case a snake decides to bite you.columbia hiking shoes

I will miss my Columbia Techlite hiking shoes when it comes to time to throw them away. The soles are wearing thin from overuse. I did a lot of hiking in Japan, particularly up Mt. Oyama. But they still have some life left. More importantly, these are the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever owned.

The fact that they’re ridiculously lightweight and have a breathable mesh makes these shoes more comfortable than most–I can easily hike for miles without getting too tired. Even though the rest of my body was rather tired, my feet felt great after hiking about eight miles through Mt. Tamalpais State Park in California. The insole is also well cushioned for less stress on the foot.

columbia hiking shoes

The heel is definitely starting to wear out

Before departing on my current journey through Asia, I contemplated buying another pair of the Columbia shoes. I decided I could live without carrying another pair in my suitcase. I didn’t expect to do quite so much hiking in the Tokyo region though. It doesn’t help that I’ve been walking more than five miles a day in Ho Chi Minh City. Now it looks as though I might have another month or two of long walks before this pair of shoes is retired.

These hiking shoes didn’t last nearly as long as my Red Wings, but they also cost less than half the price. I certainly got my money’s worth out of these shoes.

As a side note, I’ve had a lot of people in Ho Chi Minh City try to sell me on a shoe shine for these shoes that I doubt could really be shined. A Canadian expat told me I’d be surprised what they can do with a toothbrush, but I still think it’s absurd to try to clean a pair of shoes that’s made of rubber and plastic.

Healthy Travels

It’s important to stay safe while traveling, but sometimes minor health problems can have a greater negative impact on a trip.

You have to trust your meat vendor in China

You have to trust your meat vendor in China

I came across an interesting article on natural remedies for some travel ailments. I’ve certainly encountered a few of these–mostly of the sleep deprivation/jet lag and stomach bug variety. The article also covers anxiety, motion sickness, sunburn, and insect bites. Nothing I really worry about since I bring insect repellent and sunscreen and have no problems with anxiety or motion sickness (alright, I experience travel anxiety, but I actually enjoy it).

Taking food-safety precautions

It’s especially important to take food safety precautions when traveling to countries that aren’t exactly known for quality sanitation, such as most of Southeast Asia. When my parents came to visit China for the first time, they were told to bring activated charcoal pills and Pepto-Bismol. In three weeks, my parents were slightly sick for a day each (of course, I didn’t bring them to the more divey restaurants that I would normally frequent). I figure the charcoal was probably the best help for them on that trip.

During my first two years in China, I had a few too many trips to the local hospital for stomach/intestinal ailments (so many that I lost at least 20 lbs.). The average hospital in China is not a place I would recommend visiting–there are some nice hospitals in the major cities, but they cost a lot more. The doctors constantly blamed my problems on drinking too much cold water (that should give you a hint as to the quality of these healthcare professionals).

Yogurt probably saved me from more trips to the hospital in China

Yogurt probably saved me from more trips to the hospital in China

About halfway through that second year, I started eating yogurt. Prior to this, I had never eaten yogurt. I definitely didn’t get sick as often after that. Just as the article mentions taking probiotics to prevent traveler’s diarrhea, the probiotics in yogurt can do the same. This habit has followed me back home to the US, though I have changed my brand to organic yogurt. Yogurt is available almost anywhere in the world, but if it isn’t there’s always probiotic pills.

I just need a few giant mugs of coffee to relieve the feeling of jet lag

I just need a few giant mugs of coffee to relieve the feeling of jet lag

Recovering from jet lag

As for sleep deprivation and/or jet lag, I just suffer through it and drink more coffee than most people would ever consider. Traveler’s Tip: McDonald’s coffee is the cheapest you can find when traveling, and most outlets offer free refills (though the separate McCafe outlets don’t do this). The article also mentions taking low doses of melatonin, but it’s not always recommended. I’ve tried it and didn’t see any real improvement in sleep.

The only way I’ve managed to survive with jet lag is to force myself into normal hours, drink a lot of water, and attempt to get some exercise (wandering through a new city for hours is good enough exercise). It’s also important to get as much sleep as possible on the flight.

Do you have any preventive measures for avoiding getting sick while traveling?

On Cameras and Equipment

Iceland offers a lot of photo opportunities. And in winter, most of those photo opportunities require a camera that performs well in low light–there’s about four hours of full daylight and an extended dawn and dusk period. Traveling to such a destination is reminder of the capabilities of one’s camera.

My camera with the GorillaPod.

My camera with the GorillaPod.

For quite some time I’ve wanted a DSLR or similar high-end digital camera (I’ve been looking at the mirrorless cameras lately). In the run up to Christmas I began looking at the ads for a new camera, hoping that one that I’d want would be on sale. It never happened. Fortunately, I’ve taken some good photos with lesser cameras over the years–the basic models provided enough options for what I wanted to accomplish (though I must admit, I’d really like to use some of those filters and lenses that the high-end models have).

Without a new camera, I prepared for my Icelandic adventure with my Panasonic Lumix. I read some reviews that claimed it does well in low light (or at least a similar Lumix model). I also researched how to take better pictures in low light, specifically for the aurora borealis. I knew I needed to hold the camera steady, which meant purchasing a GorillaPod and setting the timer so I wouldn’t disturb the stability of the camera.

I found my GorillaPod (or a reasonable knock-off) on eBay for a little over $4, and it fit my camera perfectly (I met a fellow tourist with a larger version to support his behemoth camera). I thought I’d use it a lot more than I did, but it’s still a cool accessory to have for future travels. I probably would’ve used it more if I wanted to take pictures of myself, but that almost never happens.

My disappointment in my camera came to a head when I went out for the northern lights on the second night in Iceland. I was told to book early because you’re never guaranteed to see anything. I was fortunate to see the one of the best displays of the aurora borealis–tour guides were still talking about it by the time I left Iceland. Unfortunately, it seemed that my camera was missing at least one setting that would’ve helped to take photos of the northern lights.

You can sort of make out the green haze. I swear it was much brighter.

You can sort of make out the green haze. I swear it was much brighter.

There was a chance that fiddling with other settings might have helped, but it’s not easy to find the settings on a camera when it’s that dark. I wasn’t the only one having problems taking photos, but there were some people capturing some amazing images. I definitely began to regret not spending nearly $600 on a new camera.

While back on the bus returning to Reykjavik, I met Jess Hockey and Paul Lester from Bristol, UK. They were kind enough to email me a few shots that they got of the northern lights. They didn’t have a professional camera, but managed to get some nice pictures from the night. I certainly appreciate having some photos of that night.

This is what my photos should've looked like. Credit: Jess Hockey, Paul Lester (thanks)

This is what my photos should’ve looked like. Credit: Jess Hockey, Paul Lester (thanks)

Thank you, Jess and Paul. I owe you a drink when our travels cross paths again.

Walk in These Shoes

bootsI hate shopping, so it’s important for me to buy products that last. Of course, I wasn’t thinking that my boots would last as long as they have.

When I moved to Colorado for grad school in 2003, my Dr Martens, which I bought in London in 2000, were showing their age–the soles cracked allowing water in, which was temporarily fixed with rubber cement. Unfortunately, there was a serious lack of black boots available at the stores in town. After a week of searching, I found a Red Wing Shoe store.

I paid more than I had hoped for my Red Wings–I think it was $130, but that price could have been lower depending on my memory. I wore those boots most days, especially in winter, for my two years in Colorado. During that time I took them on numerous hikes up Dakota Ridge and Mt. Sanitas. I even wore them on a hike in Rocky Mountain National Park, up to a peak at 13,500 feet. That last hike was not a good idea as the boots were a bit heavier than normal hiking boots–live and learn.

During my first summer of grad school, I took the boots on a trip to Alaska, which included a stop in Vancouver. These boots were with me when I traveled to Israel just before my final summer writing program of grad school. I walked through streets of Jerusalem and hiked up Masada to watch the sun rise.

I took these Red Wings along for my three and half years in China. Being waterproof was a great benefit during the rainy season in Shenzhen–at least my feet stayed dry. They outlived a few pairs of shoes I purchased in China–most of which did not last long at all.

These don't look like I've been wearing them for almost 9 years

These don’t look like I’ve been wearing them for almost 9 years

Two weeks ago I finally brought these boots to a local shoe repair shop to get fixed. A seam along the side opened, and it only cost $7 to fix. For a few dollars more I also got them shined so they look only slightly worn. I was asked if I wanted the heels fixed since they looked slightly worn, but I decided it wasn’t necessary yet.

The best part about this pair of Red Wings is that they were made in the US before some manufacturing was shifted to China (according to their website, some of the shoes and boots are still made in the US). Maybe that’s why I’ve had them almost nine years. In all these years I’ve only had to replace one shoe lace.

 

Product Review: Mavea Water Filter

One of the products I received as part of the Manhattan Cocktail Classic was a Mavea water filter pitcher (yes, I know, it’s not what most people expect to see at a cocktail event). Nonetheless, I was interested in a water filter that appeared to be better than my Brita.

Mavea Water Pitcher

Mavea pitcher design

The first thing I noticed about the Mavea pitcher was that it’s larger than my Brita–almost twice the size. Fortunately, I have a large fridge that isn’t overly filled. Even though it is larger, the Mavea pitcher is made from lighter materials, so it all evens out.

Most impressive, is the design. For years I’ve dealt with spills from my Brita. The lid constantly falls off if I forget to hold it on; and it doesn’t give the smoothest of pours. I also never liked that I had to lift the lid to pour water into the filter. Mavea fixed these problems. Every piece snaps together so it doesn’t fall apart. And the lid is designed so water pours directly in without having to move any parts.

Difference in Mavea filter

I’ve gotten used to seeing the little flecks of carbon in the Brita pitcher, but I still didn’t like it. The Mavea filter has a screen to keep those flecks of carbon where they belong. The company also took the guess work out of replacing the filter. There’s a digital meter on the pitcher that tells you when the filter is no longer functional. It lasted a full two months with the Jersey City water, which is about average for a water filter (I also tend to drink a lot of water, coffee, and tea).

Comparison of the Brita and Mavea water pitchers

Comparison of the Brita and Mavea water pitchers

What intrigued me most about the Mavea pitcher is that the filters are recyclable. The company will pay for shipping to return them. Unfortunately, the filters are more expensive than the Brita filters–I usually spend $10 for a pack of three, but these are about $8 each. I have found some cheaper ones on Amazon, but they’re much more expensive when shipping is added. In addition to the green factor of the filters, the entire pitcher is recyclable.

My hope was that this pitcher would be useful outside the US–tap water around here really isn’t dangerous. Unfortunately, there isn’t a water filter pitcher on the market (at least not that I’ve seen) that can eliminate bacteria. It did remind me that it could be used in major Chinese cities–there were public drinking water dispensers in Shenzhen that charged 1 Yuan for a liter of drinkable water, though I was skeptical of the quality.

Disclosure: Mavea supplied this pitcher with one filter for this review. There was no other compensation.