About Me

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I'm a 30 something who loves to travel.  I have a full time job and enjoy writing (or blogging) about my travels.  I've traveled through several countries in Europe as well as Russia and Egypt.  I also enjoy domestic travel in the United States, including Disney.  My long term travel goal is to do a round the world trip.  

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Evolution of a Traveler, Part 3

My third trip to Europe was to Scandinavia and Russia - two very different places and I took something different from each place. I'm not sure I opened up that much to new things on this trip, but I think the whole experience opened me to the possibility of being more open.

Scandinavia isn't one of the most happening places. The cities are nice and there is stuff to do there, but after seeing Paris, Rome, London the cities here didn't jump out at me. What did though was the extreme beauty. I'm not a nature girl, bugs are gross, I'm afraid of animals, hiking is work, and camping is beyond me. But after I spent a couple days in nature - mountains, lakes, rivers, waterfalls - I was able to really appreciate the beauty and the peacefulness of it. I'm still not into camping, but i can certainly stop to enjoy the beauty and the calm of nature. It was even worth freezing my butt off through Scandinavia.

Russia was my true introduction to Culture. This was the first place that I went that I really had a different culture in my face. It was also the first country that I spent more then 4 days in. There was definitely a difference in the people and the vibe and the whole country. The younger people spoke some English and were generally a little friendlier. But those little old Russian woman, wouldn't want to mess with them! The food was a little different - borst, salads without lettuce (still haven't gotten over that), dill, and high levels of grease - I wasn't a fan of the food. My local guide in Moscow (and the guide in St. Petersburg to a smaller extent) did a really good job of helping us understand the Russian people. Her story about the first McDonalds I think really shows how different of a culture the Russians were in under Communism. Here is a synopsis of the story: You would wait on line for about 2 hours, typical for Russia. When you walked in, the floor was clean, that was the first sign that something wasn't right. When you got to the counter they had a smile in their face and asked what you would like. This was Russia at a time when you hoped they had something at the end of a line, let alone what you actually wanted. You ask for a Big Mac. Then to add to the confusion - they asked how many you wanted? Not only did they have food, you could get as much as you wanted. This caused so much stress and confusion (people thought it might be a trick and the government was listening) that they had to put up a sign limiting the number of Big Mac's to 15, people literally didn't know how to handle a lack of limits and choice. This was Russia where you went to a store and took what they had, they didn't have selection but they did have limits, there was a 2+ hour line behind you after all. In the bathroom they had... toilet paper, and if you took the toilet paper they put a new role on. When I think of this story I think of how hard an adjustment it must have been to change to Capitalism, and to learn to be friendly to people. In one place you would find someone friendly and willing to try and help you, in another they were totally unwilling to help. It was a taste of old and new. And the Communist relics - the idea of how to deal with that as a country. As an American the closest thing we've had to this is the issue of the Confederate Battle Flag when it was still flying in South Carolina.

While I didn't necessarily embrace all these things I started to see them as a positive part of travel. Stepping out of your comfort zone and experiencing something new and accepting it even if you don't like/agree with it. I learned to stop and smell the roses and just be where I was and soak it all in.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

More about... You Americans have no culture!

I've tried to write this post several times and I ran into the same problem every time - offending people. I've decided to take a totally different approach to this post and just talk about the stereotypes Americans have about each other and maybe touch on some of the language differences from region to region, basically a more lighthearted approach. Besides, without differences you can't have stereotypes.

I'll start with the Southerners, they're an easy target for a Yankee like me. They're slow - they speak slow, drive slow, talk slow - yup just slow. Ironically thought they seem to shorten terms - like saying Y'all. But at least the men are gentleman and the women ladies. They haven't gotten over the "War of Northern Aggression" - also known as the Civil War, which ended over 140 years ago! And then there is the issue of the inbreeding...

I hear that Northerners like to talk fast - it makes us a bit untrustworthy. Otherwise we're apparently pretty cool. But even within the North we have some issues. Like in Western Pennsylvania they call soda "pop" and use a "buggy" at the grocery store. They've got a wacky accent over in Massachusetts too, that's a whole different thing.

Out in the Mid-West are the polygamists, and the crazy militia people. And out in California the people are all fake and image obsessed, plastic surgeons do well here. And the call the West Coast the "Left Coast," not because it's on the left side of the country, but because all the liberals live there (well the ones who aren't in New York City.)

I hope I gave a little insight into how American's view each other and their cultural differences, assuming any of these stereotypes are actually true.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Tenement Museum, NYC

This past weekend I went to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, I had heard good things about this museum and I agree - it's a very good museum. It's located at 97 Orchard Street and the museum store is across the street at 108 Orchard Street, this is where you can arrange for a tour. The museums mission: promote tolerance and historical perspective and help preserve our immigrant heritage.

97 Orchard Street was a tenement house from the 1860's until 1935 when it was deemed uninhabitable. In 1935 they sealed off the apartments and rented only the 4 store fronts. In 1997 the owner sold the building to the Tenement Museum people (Ruth Abram), the building is now a National Historical Site. Access to the museum is only available by one of the 4 tours offered inside the museum, there is also a lower east side walking tour available seasonally. The tours inside the museum are approximately 1 hour, the walking tour is 90 minutes.

I took an 11:45 tour called Piecing it Together, this tour concentrated on the growth of the garment industry on the lower east side. My tour guide, who was excellent (J.R. McCarthy), spoke a little bit about the museum from outside and then took us inside. Walking into the museum is like walking back in time, it's lack of preservation is well preserved. The formerly redish wallpaper is now soot covered and gray/black. The metal covered ceiling is peeling, dark and dirty. I think the conditions in here struck me more then they did when I walked inside the Great Pyramid in Egypt. The museum also only offers limited lighting, similar to what you would have found back when the gas lighting was added.

We were first taken to one of the tenements that had not been fixed up since it was opened. The layers of linoleum floor were peeling, the layers of wallpaper were peeling, the wallpaper on the ceiling was peeling, pieces of the walls were missing, where the wood floor was still exposed it was heavily warn. Next we went to see 2 tenements - one housed a couple there 5 children and also served as a garment factory, this was a one bedroom. The second was the home of a garment worker. My tour guide described life in a tenement and the life of a new immigrant - no matter where they were from they were all living in the same circumstances. We also learned about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and the growth of the garment industry in New York City.

I thought this was a great museum, and absolutely worth a stop for anyone visiting NYC. The building allows a genuine visualization of tenement life at the turn of the century and my guide bridged the gap of understanding the lives of the people who lived in these tenements. My guide also talked about immigration and touched on the different groups who lived in these lower east side tenements.

If you're interested in visiting the museum I would recommend booking a tour on-line or in person prior to your visit to the museum. I visited in March and several of the tours were already fully booked 2 days prior. My NYC guide book (Foders New York City 2009) recommends this museum for children. However, I'm not sure my 10 year old nephew would have the attention span for this, nor do I think he would appreciate the power of it. If you are interested in taking a child here the Confino Family Tour is recommended for children 5 and up or I would suggest looking into the childrens programs that are offered.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Fall Travel Plans

As I recently posted, I am considering doing a 2 week tour in Eastern Europe. Since I posted that idea I found out that I will have to shell out a lot of money for some dental work, enough that I started considering changing my plans.

I still want to go overseas and thought a 1 week trip to 1 City might fit the bill. I wanted the city to be in Western Europe to minimize the length of my flight and hopefully the price since I would only be going for a week. I was seriously considering Edinburgh and also maybe Paris as a second choice. The real question I need to answer is if this scaled back trip was really going to be much cheaper then what I was already planning.

But before I could started working on that I hit a roadblock with my dental stuff. I don't want to bore you with details of my dental work, but since I suspect this topic might come up again I'll say a little bit about it. I was born with a cleft lip and palate and would like to redo some of my old dental work, it will involve a palate expander, braces, a bone graft and dental implants. I may scale back what I do on my teeth or delay it until next year. If I do delay my dental stuff then I may feel a little freer with money to take that trip to Eastern Europe. If you want to read more about my dental issues, I have a blog about that: Creating a beautiful mouth.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Evolution of a Traveler, Part 2

Part 2 of my evolution...

In 2005 I decided it was time to take another Contiki tour, this time I wanted to go to Europe. I signed up the for the 2 week tour, European Discovery. On May 8 my passport and I headed to London. I did well when I got to London, I got on the right underground with the right ticket and got to the right stop, I had done my research. I had even learned that when I came out of the underground station that I was supposed to go left. I looked left, but it didn’t seem right, I thought maybe I came out the wrong entrance so I went right. I guess the underground isn’t like the Subway, there was only one entrance and I was supposed to go left. But I found the hotel and checked myself in and all was well for the night.

The next morning I took one of those hop on and off tour buses. I hopped on and had to switch in Trafalgar Square. I was going to hang out in Trafalgar Square until a walking tour with the bus company, but I panicked and decided that I should just sit on the bus all day. I was a little freaked out at this point, I don’t think that at this point I even knew where the street signs were (they’re on the buildings not little sticks on the corner like at home.) After the bus went around Trafalgar Square I decided to stop being a wimp and get off. It was a rough day, I did do my walking tour and I got off the bus to see the Tower of London and even found my way back to the hotel in time for my tour meeting, but none of it came naturally, I was so far out of my comfort zone and I was afraid of getting lost.

That night I met with my tour and for the next two weeks I was rarely alone. I always had someone with me to help find our way. I wasn’t always the person trying to find our way, but I learned to do it and even though I wasn’t great at it, I could do it. Getting lost didn’t seem so likely now. After the tour I came back to London and the morning before flying home I had a few hours to kill. I had a moment of being intimidated. I had an offer to just sleep late and head to the airport early with someone else, but I would have gotten to Heathrow really early and I wouldn’t have done anything with this extra morning I had intentionally given myself. I decided instead to go on the London Eye. I opened up my tube map and figured out what I had to do. I just had to stop in Trafalgar Square on the way to the London Eye, there was a market there that I wanted to buy one last thing at. I got to Trafalgar Square and had a moment. I stood there and realized how far I had come as a traveler… Two weeks ago I was afraid to get off the tour bus, now I was running around London confidently with my map knowing that I would get where I had to be. I actually had a physical reaction. I started to hyperventilate, and I was in that instant realizing how far I had come and it was overwhelming. Everyday for the past two weeks I was slowly getting to be more comfortable with being in these new places and getting to know them without being so intimidated. Now I could see how that had all affected me. It's like when you don't see someone for a while and when you do they have lost 100 pounds and the change really hits you. It was a great feeling, aside from not being able to breath.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Strange things on a plane, part 1

Anyone who has flown knows that people do strange things on a plane. Most people do perfectly normal things, but the weird things can be really weird. I've labeled this part 1, not because I have so many strange stories, but because I'm sure I will have more stories in the future. I used to always get a window seat, I like to look out the window. But I've developed Restless Leg Syndrome and have had a nasty case of it on a plane more then once. Now I only take a window seats on shorter flights where I know I wont be trapped too long. Here are my tales...

I'm flying from New York to Copenhagen (via London) and on the first flight I have my window seat and the guy next to me liked to be really helpful. I was using the seat back screen and was pushing something on the screen, apparently the guy thought I was trying to open my tray table and couldn't get it open so he opened it for me. I gave him a strange look and he expressed that he was trying to help (English wasn't his first language) and I explained I was using the entertainment system. Ok, whatever. Then our dinner comes and I took a Tylenol PM with it to help me sleep since it was early for me, he proceeded to ask me if I had a headache in his broken English. So then I had to explain it would help me sleep. I guess I was just lucky that he didn't want to talk the whole flight. Then as were coming in for our landing he was leaning over me to look out the window, totally past what is socially acceptable. This is why you pick your seat when you book your flight, so you don't have to lean over someone to look out the window if that's you're thing. I love looking out the window so I understand wanting to look out, but once you pass into someone elses seat area you've overstepped your bounds and I was feeling a little uncomfortable about it.

The following year I flew with Alitallia to Egypt. My first flight was from NYC to Milan and my seatmates were Italian, speaking almost no English. But they helped put my bag in the overhead bin so I thought all would be fine, and actually it was fine. We communicated a few pleasantries and then left each other alone. But when the flight attendants handed out the headphones the woman put them on, but never plugged them into anything. It left me wondering, did she think it was earplugs? and did they work?

On that same flight a flight attendant came up to the guy sitting in front of me while we were taxing to take off and asked if he would be willing to switch seats with someone else who was seated in a middle seat and is claustrophobic and couldn't sit in a middle seat. If he didn't switch then they would have to turn the plane around and go back to the gate. This was wrong on so many levels, but I'll leave that to a post about stupid people.

Last year I was flying to Pittsburgh and while waiting at the gate, but on the plane, the guy in the seat in front of me was talking to his friend on his phone to a friend and telling him what different planes were doing. Like, the American Airlines plane is pulling out of the gate, the US Airways plane is in line waiting to take off. He didn't strike me as a terrorist, but I did mention it to the airline, it was just too weird.

On my last trip to Pittsburgh I boarded the plane in NYC, and after a few minutes one of the flight attendants came down the isle and said to the other flight attendant that the guy refuses to sit down, she seemed a bit perplexed. From what I could tell there was a guy in the back of the plane who was refusing to sit, but everything was pretty calm, the 2nd flight attendant went to the back, came back to the front and there was nothing else said about it, until the pilot announced we were second from take off. The flight attendants sat down and one of them went over the PA to tell the man he had to sit now. Fortunately, everything went fine on the flight, but I was a little worried.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

American Museum of Natural History

This weekend I went to the American Museum of Natural History in NYC with my sister, brother-in-law and 3 year old nephew. My nephew was really excited to see the dinosaurs, which he knows more about then I do. Natural history isn't totally my thing, but lately I've thought I need to get out and visit these museums in NYC and I got invited here so I gave it a shot. There were some good things, and some not so good things.

Our first stop was the dinosaur rooms, which were really nice, even for a novice like me. Of note is that the T-Rex is mostly made of real T-Rex bones and was recently repositioned to represent what the newer research indicates was a more likely position for the T-Rex. We also went to see Dinosaurs Alive at the IMAX, which was really interesting, and showed how dedicated the museum is to dinosaur research (they dropped a lot of names of people who were working for the museum and are doing the filed research.) If you're interested in dinosaurs this place is definitely worth visiting. The IMAX wasn't quiet as good as some others I have seen, but the others I have seen were based on real video (one of the coral reefs and one from space) but this one was a mixture of things - video and computer technology, it ended up not being as dynamic as I've come to expect from IMAX movies.

The Milstein Hall of Ocean Life and the African Mammal Hall. I'm covering these together because my thoughts on them are pretty much the same. These halls are not a reason to visit this museum. They're like the poor man's Zoo and Aquarium. It's not that the exhibits are cheap, but its dead stuffed animals with little bits of information about them. Unless the animal is extinct find a Zoo or Aquarium to see it in, it will be a much better experience. My 3 year old nephew did love these two rooms though, so maybe kids will like it.

We did make quick stops in a couple other rooms, but didn't spend much time in them:
Northwest Coast Indians - this room seemed to have a bit of promise, though I suspect that the amount of stuff on exhibit might not make it to the top of the list of places to visit for someone really interested in this. But then again I don't know too much about this topic so I could be wrong.
Human Origins - This was actually a pretty interesting exhibit and a place I wouldn't have minded spending a little more time in. Though I suspect that someone who believes in creation wouldn't want to bother stopping here.
Hall of Planet Earth - Another exhibit that showed some promise, but my nephew wanted to go home and play with his new dinosaurs so we didn't spend much time in here.

Some other notes about the museum: I found the ticket line to be long at 1:00 on a Saturday and poor signage to explain different ticketing options. It was my first time there and found it confusing. You need to pay for admission and then for the IMAX and for any current/temporary exhibits. If we had realized this we probably would have gotten tickets for the climate change exhibit, but by the time we realized it, it was too late. The cafeteria is pretty nice, though it was so crowded and there were so many choices that it was a little overwhelming. There were the usual grilled options, a nice looking salad bar, sandwiches, pizza as well as some entrees and desserts. I wouldn't shy away from eating here, though it's not the cheapest option.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Fall Travel Plans

I haven't been overseas since I went to Egypt in 2007, it's been 2 years now and I'm itching to go back. I gave it a bunch of thought and I want to go to Eastern Europe (Turkey was also a consideration, but I decided to put that off for now). I have asked my friend Jen from my Egypt trip if she is interested since we had discussed going to Eastern Europe last year.

I'm looking at 4 different tours, Contiki's Eastern Road which is a 2 week tour. Then there is Gap Adventures tour Best of Eastern Europe, also a 2 week tour. Then finally I am looking at 2 Intrepid Tours, which are currently my first two choices.
The first is the Road to Budapest and the second is Bohemia and Beyond. I like the smaller size of the Intrepid tours, as well as how they try to get you to know the locals. The two tours visit a lot of the same places, but one is a basix tour (the more expensive one), and the other is a comfort tour.

I have a couple things to work out though before deciding, a bunch of expensive dental work, picking my vacation time at work,I'm awaiting a transfer at work which could screw up my vacation picks and how much Hawaii is going to cost. Maybe someone will give me some free money in the meantime???

Monday, March 9, 2009

You Americans have no culture!

I was told this recently by a drunk Asian girl who had just been arrested. I suggested that our culture is to get drunk, do something stupid and get arrested. I don't think she got the joke. But it's not the first time I've heard this, but I'm not buying it. I think if you travel within western countries I think you'll find that cultural differences are much more subtle. Come to the US from Egypt and things might seem a little different. But either way there is culture her in the US, but it's made up of bits and pieces of other cultures and then it evolves over time. I'm going to talk a bit about New York culture in this post and then another day talk about culture in America more generally.

If you come to New York and all you see is the Empire State Building, Times Square and a couple museums you wont find too much culture. The first thing to realize is that New York City is filled with immigrants and decedents of immigrants. We have all the typical things you'll find in other big cities like China Town or Little Italy, but head out to Brighten Beach and you'll find Russian Jews, there are a lot of communities like that. Just a 100 or so years ago the lower east side as filled with tenements, which were filled with poor immigrants from all over the world (what Country might depend on the year). Today you'll still find remnants of the Jews that lived there, only you'll find that their Synagogues are emptier. You'll also find quite a few new bars and clubs in the area. It's a place that Jacob Riis described in How the Other Half Lives and today see this area "gentrified," it's a testament to the perseverance of American's to improve their lot in life. The American dream is to give your children more then you had, and it's a driving force in the way people live their lives.

There is a hustle and bustle to NYC that you wont find in a lot of other cities, people live and work here every day. People are very task oriented. At 8am at 34th Street and 7th Avenue people are figuring out how to get across the street the fastest without getting run over. We cross the street when there is a break in the traffic, we don't wait for the little walking man - who has time for that? But at the same time if you were to stop a NYer and ask for help, they would probably help you. Our Police play a role too. You wont find as many con-games or expert pick pockets as you do in other large cites, we have it here, but it's actively pursued by the Police which isn't always the case in other places. The Police attempt to run everything extremely orderly, sometimes to the hindrance of the people who are trying to enjoy the event. But have you ever heard of people getting trampled at New Years Eve in Times Square? There is a certain orderly chaos to this sometimes rough city, but often you'll find that their is a softer side to it too. We'll help, you just have to know how to ask.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Burgh - Pittsburgh

I've just returned from visiting Pittsburgh, well actually I was visiting my friend who lives near Pittsburgh. I've been before and it seems like a nice city. I feel like I just see a little bit each time I visit. In the past I saw the Duquesne Incline (which offers great views of the city) and went to a Pittsburgh Pirates game, they have a great stadium. This time we stopped for lunch on the South Side, it was a nice little area with shops and restaurants. Reminded me a little bit of the land area of South Street Seaport in NYC.

I flew out on Jetblue, which is my favorite airline for domestic travel. Jetblue just opened a new terminal at JFK - T5. The food was better then it had been, the terminal was also brighter. The bathrooms was nice - room for you and your carry-on in the bathroom stall. There were some nice restaurants (or an airport) and nicer shops, which I appreciated incase I ever end up there for a long time. It was however lacking in a magazine selection. I'm used to Hudson News which has like every magazine ever written. At T5 there was only CNBC News shops with had a decent selection of magazines, but not as good as Hudson News has, I was disappointed. I did have a strange occurrence on the flight out, but you'll have to read that in another post I'm working on about weird things that happen on a plane.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Evolution of a Traveler, Part 1

I'm starting a series of posts called "Evolution of a Traveler." I'm the traveler and these posts will talk about my journey as a traveler and how I've evolved. Here is part 1...

Many years ago a friend of mine took a tour with a company called Contiki and suggested that I tour when them when I finished college. Our friendship didn't last but the advice did. In 2002 I booked a tour with Contiki that covered part of the US - a 6 day tour called California Highlights. My introduction to the tour was on the first morning in Las Vegas when I boarded the bus and met Ty. It was around 7am and his introduction included the fact that he was drunk and hadn't been to bed yet, I knew at that moment this was going to be a good trip. In 6 days I transformed as a person. I started to see the wold in a new way, this was not an alcohol induced vision. I'm not sure if it was the places I saw or the people I met. The tour was filled with Aussies and people from a few other countries, but there were several peple on Around the World trips. Huh? People get to take 6 months or a year off of work and travel the world, where do I sign up for this plan? I came home and spent a week looking at my normal life from the outside; lets just say I wasn't impressed. Quitting my job went through my head, but I was sensible enough to realize I had to have a plan before that. 7 years later I still have my job and am still working on my plan. I get 5 weeks vacation so I have ample opportunity to travel and figure out what I want to do and how I want to do it. But after that trip my life started on a new course.