Travel Adventures: Getting Real about Getting Lost

“She often winds up getting lost, but that’s part of the fun.” – says the Apple iPad advertisement featuring Cherie King who eats coal-roasted lobster in Ghana. Hmmm.

Why is going off-the-beaten path the archetype of success for travel? Why does it not always come naturally? And, are all these people snobs or am I some kind of wimp? What kind of traveller am I and why? Do I have something unique to offer others here?** I’ll start with the idea that I travel, but do not typically eat coal-roasted lobster in Ghana or stay at the Capella, and drink scotch at the roof-top patio, in Washington for $1000 per night as my in-flight magazine suggested would be awesome.

We all know that travel advertisements, blogs and the articles you read in your in-flight magazine paint a pretty romanticized view of travel. And, the themes of getting lost, and going off the beaten path, are pervasive. What does going “off-the-beaten path” mean anyway? The best definition of off-beat experiences I found say it typically means looking for isolated, special and secret sacred places, and trying to find connections with people, or a sense of uniqueness, authenticity, purpose and inspiration. And, so why is this fundamental to defining success for your travel experience? The psychology and neuroscience of this is not precise at all: “getting lost” and going “off-the-beaten path” could give a rush of adrenaline which makes the adventurous activities seem exciting, or seeking unfamiliar experiences might provide an evolutionary advantage. The natural selection argument has a more reasonable counterpoint: didn’t our ancestors who wandered into the dark woods get eaten, and is that the reason why I am hesitant about being in unfamiliar places? Maybe it’s about discovery and curiosity. The funny part of that idea, reflecting on my own experiences, is the notion that you actually discovered something yourself (i.e., despite the fact that it’s there is plain sight for everyone to see, probably for hundreds of years, is beside the point).

There are definitely a variety of people and perspectives when it comes to travel. The tourist is someone who is explores new places superficially, insulated from the experiences. A traveller is someone who independently, but sometimes cautiously, plan and seek out enriching experiences as part of their travels. And, the adventurer is someone who fully immerses themselves in the culture and wanting full cultural immersion and peak experiences. These are great distinctions. Kudos. I am definitely in the traveller bucket and line-up to “off-the-beaten path” as shooting for unique and authentic, in my admittedly limited repertoire of experiences – again, a key theme in my travel entries.

I spent some time thinking about my favourite experiences and what I learned. In re-reading this entry, I did somewhat laugh at myself: is this obvious? I think I sat on this post for a couple of weeks before hitting the publish button.

  • Bryant Park, New York (and the Open Air Library) – At this point, most people reading this are saying, “what the heck? Bryant Park is in the middle of mid-town Manhattan, at 42nd and 6th, that hardly qualifies as off-the-beaten path, gesh what a moron”. My point here is that we just happened to be walking by, not knowing or thinking about going to Bryant Park, and it end-up being the most pleasant part of a beautiful May weekend. The Magnolia Bakery is around the corner, for those with a fetish for Red Velvet cupcakes. We just happened to be walking by with cupcakes in-hand, noticed the park, with its great lawn, tables and seating along the shaded lane, books, magazines and newspapers for everyone to read. What’s better than reading the Times in a park in New York while stuffing cake in your mouth? A perfect way to kick back on a Sunday. Unscripted.  The lesson-learned here is: if something looks nice or interesting, stop and check it out, plan not to be in a rush.
  • Place Dauphine, Paris – I wrote about this in another blog entry. This discovery fits into the “what’s down this street?” part of getting lost; a nice tree-filled square, somewhat secluded, with cafes surrounding looking inward, is yet another example of a little piece of calm and serenity in a busy city. At the time, my colleagues and I were at the tail end of our walk down the Champs-Elysees in the late afternoon, in desperate need of food and drink. I think we wandered into the square fully by accident (it’s not obvious there is a square from the street), and my immediate reaction was “hey, this is cool”. This struck me because there are literally streams of tourists that walk by Point Neuf to the Louvre. The lesson-learned here is: poke your head down streets that seem interesting, actually go off the beaten path.
  • Chamundeshwari Temple, Mysore India – My colleagues and I planned a day trip to Mysore, about 140 km south of Bangalore, with the intent of checking out the palace, which is the main attraction. The drive to Mysore reminded me of a couple tracks in Mario Kart, weaving in-and-out of, and narrowly avoiding, people, animals, and oncoming traffic. Having arrived before it opened, we pondered our next move and eventually decided to head up to Chamundi Hills. Chamundeshawi is an active template, complete with sacred monkeys, cows, a market, hordes of pilgrims paying homage to their warrior goddess. Do we go in? You’d think it wouldn’t be a question, but kicking off your shoes and jumping into what can only be described as a scrum, of sorts, seemed daunting to pampered westerners. Of course, I joined the line and got into the thick-of-it and it turned out to be the most memorable part of the day. The lesson-learned here is: get-out-there, don’t hesitate, and take the plunge.
  • The Who Shop, London UK – I wrote about this in another blog entry. They have a little museum in the back-of-the-shop with all kinds of set pieces and costumes: cool. The guy poking about back there looked like he worked there (he was the owner), so I struck up a little conversation, asked him a couple of questions, and complimented his shop, resulting in a full 30 minutes of him pointing out all the nooks and crannies of the museum and his awesome stories about being an extra some of the episodes: much, much cooler.  Lesson learned: talk to people, say hello, be friendly and ask questions.
  • Taito Station Shinjukuminamiguchi, Tokyo – (OK, the name of this location is just awesome) In my stop-over in Tokyo, I wanted to make the most of my couple days there and insisted on walking and taking transit around a few key areas. In retrospect, I now recall I was looking for the Takashimaya Shinjuku Store, I turned the corner, and behold: a gigantic red three storey store facade with a huge Space Invader on it. Oh, baby. I couldn’t believe I didn’t think about visiting an arcade, but moments later I was standing amidst the action. This place is not somewhere a person who is prone to seizures should go. Not making much sense of the Japanese instructions, I spent a fun-filled hour giving up my Yen to the machines and taking in the spectacle of the experts. The lesson-learned here is: walk, ride a bike, or take transit to encounter the unexpected.
Wow. I discovered this! No, no you didn't.

Wow. I discovered this! No, no you didn’t.

The bottom-line: It’s ok to be a traveller. You don’t always need to be jumping off a waterfall or bartering in Morocco. If you want to try to be a bit more of a traveller than tourist, and you are just not wired for that, try some of the tips above.

**There are a lot of blogs about the art and value of getting lost while travelling, such as those in Travel and Leisure, Dangerous Business, other blogs, and Huffington Post and NY Times. The latter two blogs are pretty good, as they explain just a little bit about both the method and means of getting lost and the stories that ensue. Here’s a girl who has been around, and gets the idea about authentic experiences. This is not a new idea.



Washington Reagan Airport: DCA… It’s A-OK.

I am not a big fan of airports in the US. With the exception of Detroit Metro Airport (with the monorail, vaulted ceilings and fountains), most other airports in the United States are pretty disappointing: LaGuardia is a mess, O’Hare is ridiculously congested, Miami is making a turn-around but still sprawling, etc. However, I have been surprisingly pleased with my travel through Washington Reagan National. This is not a review of one of the new airports which is a marvel of modern western civil engineering, but rather I am thinking about this place as an airport that has aged well, has some character, with several key convenience benefits.

The following are my key objectives which result in a “thumbs-up”, which considering its age and legacy, has held-up pretty well as far as aging airports go. This list is in priority order for me.

  • Easy access to the city – it’s only six metro stops away from Chinatown-Gallery place in the heart of the city, and there are few other places you can get from downtown to the airport in 20 mins for $2.50.
  • Vaulted ceilings – it’s got very nice, albeit retro, vaulted ceilings in the Terminal B and C concourse areas; for airports that have low ceilings, my word association includes phrases like dingy, dirty, crowded, noisy, old; but despite its age, Reagan National has some pretty nice open spaces.
  • Awesome views of the city – sitting on the right side of the plane, taking off towards the north, gives an absolutely spectacular view of Washington, on the left-side a stunning view of the Pentagon.
  • Passable food options – I think, in general, that airports are improving the food options at the airport; Reagan at least has a Japanese restaurant with passable maki rolls, and a Cosi. Any airport that serves Sapporo or Kirin beer would receive some credit, in my books.
  • Death defying top-gun landing – now, there a lot’s of people (and pilots) that think Reagan is a disaster to fly in-and-out, the low-altitude maneuvering from the north approach might have the aviation enthusiasts either exhilarated or traumatized. I fly a lot and I still get the “oh, crap”, when they make that tight turn at 450 ft above the ground.

Unfortunately, I travel a lot through Terminal A, which is, in fact, horrible. Unlike Terminal B and C, this terminal is a concrete monster. I have nightmares about the echoes from the loud bellowing announcements from the JetBlue and SouthWest gate agents trying their best to get control of the travelling mob. The trick to surviving Terminal A, is to not spend much time there.

Aged well, could be worse.

Aged well, could be worse.

The Bottom-Line: Reagan isn’t that bad and for someone who wants a pleasant airport experience, they can be surprised if they put themselves in the right frame of mind.

Yes, I am Complaining about Chocolate.

What kind of a guy complains about chocolate? Me, apparently.

Having spent some time in Europe, I got accustomed to this very civilized idea that your coffee should be served with a small chocolate. The idea now seems natural: a little sweet taste on the palette nicely balances the slightly bitter taste of coffee. Just picture sitting in a cafe in Paris on a pleasant Spring morning… ahhhhh. I am apparently not the first inquiring mind to wonder about this. Now, I am not an expert in chocolate although I have eaten my fair-share over my many years. Who hasn’t, right? My preference is for darker chocolate, or semi-sweet, preferably with almond. I will enjoy milk chocolate but it will never be my first choice.

The Lindt Swiss Miniature Bars seemed like a great candidate for the goal at hand – that is, the goal of eating a small chocolate with coffee. I used to walk past a Lindt store every day with the bins filled with bulk small chocolate squares and figured this would be perfect. The store was so shiny and pretty. I had visions of me prancing around in there like Homer Simpson in his dreamy escape to the Land of Chocolate. Obviously, I was disappointed enough to spend 15 minutes writing about it. Not unlike the sampler box referenced in this paragraph, I grabbed a variety of different kind of squares from the bulk bins. I really found the flavour to be lacking. Not enough cocoa, maybe? But, strangely it was neither sweet nor bitter – just lacking in any kind of flavour. This is not really an argument about whether high cocoa chocolate is better than sweeter, it is about any kind of taste at all. And, there were at least five (5) different kinds in my bulk grab-bag. A better idea came later when it dawned on me that chocolate bars are usually scored to make it easy to break off small pieces.

This is when I replaced the crappy bag of Lindt chocolate with something a bit more refined, which was the Black and Green Organic Chocolate Bar with Almonds. It was at this time that I realized why I wanted the individually wrapped ones: I wanted a morning treat with my coffee, not an exercise in will-power.

Is this just me?

Small chocolate square. No flavour. Ugh.

Small chocolate square. No flavour. Ugh.

The bottom-line: If you want to have that chocolate treat with your coffee, don’t go with the Lindt squares. Just keep searching.

Starten sie das Wasserwerk, or don’t get hosed…

It’s Spring. And with Spring comes gardening and my annual re-assmembly of the patio furniture and the gardening tools and accessories. My garden hose in the backyard, along with the wall mounted hose rack, needed replacing – evidenced by water leaking from every joint and then the old hose actually bursting. The first attempt at using it this spring resulted in more water on me than on the flowers. This story is about all that. It should be simple. But, I have this obsessive compulsion about getting the hose assembly and sprayer to work without leaking. This just seems like something that should be possible.

I started with the wall mounted rack. You should get one that is double-coated steel with brass fittings, which won’t crack over time as easily. The installation here was pretty straight-forward, although the screws they provided are not appropriate for installation against a brick wall. The Tapscon screws are the best for this kind of installation, and the 1 3/4″ depth with the hex head worked super. With this product you need to use the template and watch the placement of where the screws will line-up on the brick – they are not an exact multiple of the standard brick height, if you are mounting against a brick wall (you don’t want to screw into the mortar).

In my first attempt at getting the back-yard hoses up-and-running, I went with the Troy Bilt 50-FT 5/8-IN Heavy Duty Contractor Hose. It looked sturdy and it had all the right words in the product title: heavy, duty, contractor, hose and this idea that it was “bilt” with some kind of quality. No, no, no. Avoid this product. My main problem was not with the hose, but rather the leaking at the male fitting end. When dealing with leaks, there is always some idea rolling-around in your head that you just didn’t put it together right. After several attempts at different gaskets, plumbers tape, reaming the heck on the fitting to get it tight, there was still a leak at the male fitting end. The design doesn’t seem to be that great because the leak occurs between the threaded head-end and the brass portion on the hose, no matter what kind of gasket type or size I used. This wasted a whole morning and practically drove me insane. This is the kind of stuff that makes me angry-enough to write a stupid blog about it – damn that hose!

My second attempt was the Waterworks 5/8″ FlexRITE Heavy Duty water hose. Remember, it’s important to buy products that have the words “heavy duty” in them, so we can re-enforce the idea that marketing people can use their psychology degrees to help their clients charge a premium for products. Of course, I bought the heavy duty hose. This worked out a lot better. The fitting had better construction although I did replace the standard gasket with another one that was a bit more snug against the thread of the fittings. Success! On a related note, I do recommend Gardena gardening tools and attachments for your hose – my “go-to” for the back-yard is the Gardena Multi-Function Spray Lance. I have never had a problem with Gardena adapters and products leaking. However, you need to remember to not leave them outside during the winter.

Avoid leaks, and raging from fury, in the back-yard.

Avoid leaks, and raging from fury, in the back-yard.

 The Bottom-Line: Say “no” to Troy Bilt hoses and “yes” to Waterworks FlexRITE hoses, and invest in a better hose with a decent fitting to avoid leaks; a solid steel hose rack with brass fittings is also a must.