June 2011


For many travelers, the most stressful part of planning a trip is not choosing the destination, booking the tickets, finding the perfect hotel, or carving out vacation time (well, at least for us overworked Americans).  On the contrary, the most headache-inducing part of traveling can be packing for your trip.

Over the years I have personally struggled, as have friends and family, with this simple concept:  you pack it, you carry it.  There’s nothing more tiring than dragging an overstuffed suitcase through an airport while worrying that the zipper will pop and your underwear will scatter for the public to see.  In London, I helped a friend of mine take her luggage to the airport, and we were told that her bag was too heavy and she had to shift items to her carry on or throw some things away.  Granted, we entertained everyone else in the airport check-in line (at one point we were both sitting on the suitcase trying to get it to close), but it sure wasn’t fun.  When I traveled to New York City for the first time, I took one backpack and a carry on, while my fashionable friend brought two large suitcase filled to the rims with shoes and extra outfits.  Needless to say, getting all of the extra luggage to the hotel took up precious time that we could have spent scouting for New York pizza or cheesecake.

Whether taking a weekend jaunt to a nearby city or spending a few weeks in a non-English speaking country, a valuable lesson to learn is how to pack for a trip.  And by pack for a trip I don’t mean throw in half of your wardrobe or items that weigh you down so much that you risk having a hernia on your way to the beach.  Travel 101 says that how you pack for a trip should include packing effectively.

Some simple tips for how to pack effectively:

–Stick with one color scheme.  My personal preference is to stick to a black palette and mix and match from there.  For a weekend or even a longer trip, I’ll pack black pants and/or a black skirt, dark jeans, and a black sweater for chilly evenings or to layer. From there you can take an appropriate amount of shirts.  I like to take a couple of different colors of shirts, plus a necklace or statement earrings that go with everything I packed.  Black shoes, usually flats, are my go-to shoes for travel, as they go with everything, you can walk around comfortably, and they look more fashionable than sneakers.

–Wear your heaviest clothing on the airplane.  If you need to wear a coat or heavy boots while traveling, wear them on the airplane.  It will take you a couple of extra minutes to deal with them in airport security, but it will keep your bag from being heavier than needed.  Plus a coat or sweater on the airplane is not a bad idea–some people take a blanket to keep warm, but that’s another thing to haul around.  You’ll need the coat or sweater anyway, so why not use it en route to stay warm?

–Roll, roll, roll your clothes…From underwear to pants, rolling clothes, in my experience, takes up less space than folding them.  It also seems to me that rolling clothes prevents wrinkles more than folding.  If you roll clothes and place them strategically in your luggage, you’ll have more room for other things.  General rule of thumb:  the more space in your bag, the more room for souvenirs.

–Throw away as you go.  One of the oldest tricks in the book is to take items that are on the older side (note: older side, not disgusting side), use them while traveling, and throw away as you go.  This goes for underwear, socks, shoes, and other clothing items.  One of my biggest coups was taking enough clothing for an almost two month trip to South America and returning home with about a week’s worth.  Think of it this way–we all do spring cleaning, or at least most of us do, and we throw old stuff away anyways.  There’s nothing more inconvenient, or unnecessary, than having to lug around a full bag of dirty clothes.  Just don’t do it.

–Take a cue from TSA on your toiletries.  Most of us know the drill–you step up to airline security, take out your little Ziplock baggie with your liquids and toiletries in it, and accept the fact that you’re limited in how much toothpaste and shampoo you can bring on the trip.  Regardless of my destination, I try to stick to a TSA-sized bag for my toiletry items.  Usually hotels will provide some toiletries, and if you’re staying with a friend or relative they probably won’t balk at loaning you extra conditioner if you need it.  As you use up travel-sized items, throw away as you go, and see more space open up in your bag.  I’ve seen too many friends pack family-sized bottles of shampoo, conditioner, hairspray, and so on, even if they were going away for one night (I once asked a friend who packed like this how many times she was planning to wash her hair in one evening, and a light bulb went off).  Don’t waste precious space in your bag on toiletry items that, if you need more of them, can easily be purchased in your destination or are given to you where you’re staying.

–Consider ditching the suitcase altogether.  When I spent a few weeks traveling around Asia, I took a large travel backpack and my purse.  There was no way I was going to drag my suitcase around Thailand or India and scream even more that I was a foreign tourist.  After traveling with a backpack with my clothes rolled, my Ziplock baggie of toiletries, and old pairs of underwear/socks that I could throw away as I went, I got hooked on the suitcase-free experience.  Suitcases tend to bog you down, while backpacks are easier to maneuver with.  So, on your next trip, consider taking a backpack instead of a suitcase–eventually you might see others dragging their suitcases behind them, arms awkwardly extended, and you’ll be glad you did.

Packing effectively provides a traveler with countless benefits that enable the trip to be more fully enjoyed.  You’ll save money, since you often won’t need to check luggage and pay extra baggage fees (more money to spend on food or treats in your trip destination). You’ll take care of some spring cleaning on your trips, as you’ll rid yourself of older clothing as you go.  Your suitcase will end up with more space as you travel, making it way less stressful to grab that extra souvenir or splurge on a larger item to take home.

By following the tips outlined above, you’ll be a leaner, meaner traveler, and will feel lighter and freer as a result.  That feeling of being streamlined and uncluttered will leave you more relaxed and ready to face whatever adventures lie ahead.  And that, my friend, is the state of mind all travelers should aim for.

As a traveler, it almost seemed comical (and perhaps fitting) that the relationship which led to my getting engaged to a wonderful man began as a long distance one.  I liked to think that my years of travel experience had allowed me to sharpen the skills needed to give a long distance relationship a real shot at working out.

Not only were Leon and I long distance, but we were on opposite ends of the country.  I was in D.C., and he was out in California working as an attorney for the U.S. Army.  We met through mutual friends back in 2005, while I was interning in D.C. and he was in law school.  Our first meeting was at Lauriol Plaza, a great Mexican restaurant in D.C., and we were both there for our friend Chris’s birthday dinner.  I was focused on finishing my internship, and he was focused on his law books.  The main thing I remember about our first introduction was that I argued with him when he tried to pay for my dinner.  I protested that he was a law student, and he responded that I was an intern–I conceded defeat and let him pay for my enchiladas.

Fast forward to 2010, when I had been living and working in D.C. for about a year.  He was in town for an Army conference, so our scheming friends Rose and Chris (well, mainly Rose, my friend with a knack for matchmaking) planned to get us together once again.  We met at a Thai restaurant in Pentagon City, and after reconnecting with Leon I remarked to Rose that he was such a great guy and whoever ended up with him was truly fortunate.

I ended up being the fortunate girl (yay), and even though we were on opposite sides of the continental U.S., Leon pursued me.  He flew out to D.C. just to take me on our first date, and things progressed smoothly from there.  We tried to see each other at least once a month over the next year, arranging visits in different cities, whether to meet up with his family in Colorado and mine in Texas, or to visit his sister in North Carolina. Our relationship let me use my hard-earned traveling skills, from packing super light to finding decent airfare to coordinating logistics.

There was a light at the end of the tunnel, however, and we just concluded the long distance chapter of our relationship.  He was able to move out to D.C. for work, and we are looking forward to being in the same city and enjoying being engaged.  (I have also made it my goal to learn how to cook well, emphasis on the word “well,” but that’s a whole other story).

It was interesting to see what travel skills came in handy to conduct a long distance relationship with a man I felt was worth it, and I made this little list:

–Patience in Communication.  Whether talking with your significant other, airline companies, tour guides in foreign countries, and so on, you cannot assume that others can read your mind.  When frustrations or difficulties arise, sometimes you have to take a deep breath and patiently explain what’s going on in your frazzled head.  If you are having a bad day and just want your fiance to listen and not try to fix the problem, tell him.  If the airline is asking you to give up your seat because they’re overbooked and you’re traveling to see a loved one, communicate to them that you aren’t in a position to do that–it’s okay to say no (you might get kicked off anyway).  If a tour guide in a foreign country is rushing you through the sights and you want to stop and smell the roses, tell him or her.  You have to speak up when appropriate.

–Flexibility.  This skill goes a long way, as anyone traveling to a far off destination will attest.  Things happen in travel, from luggage being lost to things being lost in translation (in one country I went in for a haircut and came out with my hair bleached white blonde, not a good look for me).  You have to be flexible, understand that things sometimes escape from your control, and adapt to the situation.  If your train derails in Egypt and you’re stuck on the rails for an extra 8 hours, be thankful that you brought reading material–or take that time to look forward to when you’re not stuck in the middle of the Egyptian desert (true story).  Relationships need the same amount of flexibility–when you’re dealing with two complex, flawed human beings, sometimes you have to exercise adaptability and just roll with it.

–The Ability to Pack Light.  Whether referring to literal luggage or emotional baggage, it’s best to travel light.  Many women I’ve talked to think that dragging their two overstuffed suitcases filled with extra clothes and shoes they don’t really need for vacation might tell themselves that it will be worth it to have everything with them, but they certainly don’t enjoy the process of traveling.  There is nothing better, in my mind, than showing up to the airport and going through security with a small bag and a purse. Similarly, a long distance relationship taught me the importance of prioritizing time together and not bringing along unnecessary emotional baggage.  When you’re traveling around the country to see your significant other, it’s vital to appreciate each moment together, since those in-person moments are limited.  That lesson also relates to relationships in general–appreciate the time you have together and don’t weigh yourself down with extraneous “stuff” that doesn’t benefit you or your loved one.

–The Ability to Savor the Simple Things.  When you’re in a long distance relationship, the little things become those which you miss the most.  I found myself looking forward to the day when my fiance and I could go to the grocery store together, pick up items to make dinner, and cook together.  Nothing fancy, nothing extravagant–just everyday activities that are better when you share them with someone.  On similar lines, traveling is most rewarding when the simple things are appreciated.  Some of my favorite travel stories come from times when I wasn’t standing in front of the Mona Lisa or Great Wall of China (although those were incredible experiences), but from when I just strolled around a new city and picked up a local treat to enjoy (I’m looking at you, Italian gelato).

I learned a lot, and grew up a lot, from having a long distance relationship with my fiance, but I will be the first to say that I’m relieved it’s over.  Even when we have “off” days, or we’re both grumpy after long days at work, my goal is to think back to the days when we couldn’t see each other often.  Plus, we both gained more experience using the skills mentioned above, which will come in handy for future travels.  This time, though, we’ll be able to get on the same airplane–in record time too, since it won’t take us long to get our small bags through security.

Last April, I submitted an op-ed to the Daily Caller website that was not explicitly linked to politics, but in my mind was both relevant and important:  fighting the nasty stereotype that my fellow Americans and I have overseas.

I wasn’t saying that we should obsess about what others think about us, but after years of traveling I had seen firsthand how deeply ingrained the ‘ugly American’ stereotype was in the general psyche of the global populace.  It made me sad (and a little frustrated at times), because I love the U.S. and my fellow Americans, and overall I think our country is amazing and we’re pretty cool.

I also told the editor of the website that my op-ed topic was relevant to politics because, as a graduate student in London, I had studied the link between political ties between countries and the undercurrents of public diplomacy conducted between those countries.  I specialized in cultural diplomacy, or how countries export and promote their cultures around the world in the hopes of fostering greater understanding and cooperation.

With this in mind, when Americans travel overseas, they aren’t just tourists.  They are full-fledged diplomats (minus the immunity).  I’ve had several conversations with locals in Cairo, London, Seoul, Buenos Aires, and so forth, where they regurgitated typical stereotypes about Americans and I tried to listen patiently.  By tried to listen patiently, I mean I sometimes had to grit my teeth a little.  But, it was fascinating that sometimes after just venting, the people would look at me and say, “Oh, but you’re American, and I like you. Hm.”  I tried to tell them that their perceptions of Americans were not necessarily correct, or even close to being accurate.

So, while traveling, there is a degree of responsibility that travelers have to represent their countries well.  In little ways, they’re contributing to the political/social/economic success of their homelands, even if they don’t realize it.  The op-ed I wrote was just a short, simple compilation of suggestions for how my fellow Americans and I can travel with the intention of enjoying ourselves and showing others how great our country is, because it is, and it deserves to have traveling ambassadors who do it justice.

The op-ed I wrote is below:

http://dailycaller.com/2011/04/15/how-to-beat-the-ugly-american-stereotype-overseas/

When I first began to travel, I thought that going to another country meant that you were obligated to play the hectic tourist.  In order to maximize your time overseas, you needed to walk around at a clipped pace, arms outstretched holding a big map, crossing the “must see” sights off of your list and ending each day exhausted.

Yeah, that didn’t last long.

While studying abroad in Spain, I lived in Madrid but spent a large amount of time traveling around the country between Spanish classes.  Naturally, I had to study for my classes.  I lived with an older Spanish woman and a roommate, and between the typical European lack of air conditioning and tight space, studying in my little room was not ideal (unless I wanted to have a heat stroke while conjugating verbs).  So, one day I decided to do a little sightseeing around Madrid and hunt for a good place to study.

Enter the coffee shop.  In most countries, coffee shops are places to go when you need air conditioning, when you need a casual place to meet friends and chat, or when you need to arrange a non-threatening place for a first date.  They have everything you need-outdoor tables when the weather is nice, indoor tables when you need to escape from the weather, different coffees to keep you alert, assortments of teas when you want something lighter, and of course sweets and other food.  Usually there is music playing, or at least the rhythmic sounds of coffee grinders humming or people typing away on their laptops.

After checking out some of the beautiful sights of Madrid and just getting to know the city (it’s important, in my mind, to just walk around and explore), I found a coffee shop and hunkered down to write a paper in Spanish and brush up on vocabulary.  Before I  knew it, several hours had flown by, my homework was done, I felt a little more confident to engage locals in conversation, and I was ready to go home since the evening brought cooler temperatures.  My love affair with coffee shops around the world had begun.

No matter where you go, coffee shops are international houses of conversation, fellowship, relaxation, contemplation, and overall delight.  I thought about some of my favorite coffee shops around the world and wanted to list a few below:

–Chocolateria San Gines, Madrid:  Okay, so it’s not technically a coffee shop, but it has the same feeling as one.  I was told that I had to visit this place while studying in Madrid, and I was definitely glad that I did.  This was my introduction to real churros con chocolate–churros are availalble in the U.S., of course, but they are so not the real deal.  Real Spanish churros are light, crisp, and have the perfect blend of cinnamon and sugar.  When you dip them in the warm, thick, drinking chocolate, it’s a match made in heaven.

–Cafe Tortoni, Buenos Aires:  Founded in 1858, this is the oldest cafe in Argentina and immediately transports you to another time and place when you enter through the doors. I had wonderful churros con chocolate there and just hung out and enjoyed people watching (watching South Americans have coffee is truly entertaining–they do everything with a little extra flair).

–Antico Caffe Greco, Rome:  This coffee shop was founded in 1760 and is considered Rome’s fanciest coffee bar.  It’s not necessarily the greatest place to plop down with a book, but sipping a caffe latte there while enjoying the gorgeous antique decor makes you truly feel like you’re in the gilded days of Italian prominence.  The Italians certainly know how to impress, and between the incredible quality of the coffee and the history of the cafe, it is a memorable experience.  Plus, Antico Caffe Greco is located on Via Condotti, the poshest shopping street in Rome with designers ranging from Prada to Chanel, so after a cup of coffee it’s fun to stroll down the street and window shop (or buy something, if you want to spend a significant portion of that month’s salary).

–Caffe Florian, Venice:  Far and away one of my favorite places on earth.  The cafe is located in Piazza di San Marco, in the shadows of St. Mark’s Cathedral, and is even older than Antico Caffe Greco in Rome (Caffe Florian was established in 1720).  I know that some people think that Venice is a little cheesy, but I love it.  The gondolas, the canals, the Venetian palaces…I can’t get enough of it.  Caffe Florian has a live orchestra several nights a week, and the orchestra players wear tuxedos and play their instruments with graceful gusto. Add that to the fact that you’re in Venice, sipping a vanilla latte, and it’s surreal.

Chain coffee shops around the world can also be a source of great delight.  In my homeland of Texas, I like Saxby’s coffee shops and am always looking out for local mom and pop shops as well.  In Washington, D.C., I go to Caribou for a good cup of dark roast.  While studying in London, I spent a lot of time at different Caffe Nero and Coffee Republic shops around town.  When I lived in South Korea, I got hooked on 7 Monkeys and other random coffee shops that are springing up in the country.  In Santiago, Chile, I found a great Starbucks that served really good dulce de leche lattes and had a great study area.  Russia has Starbucks now as well, and I enjoyed visiting one in Moscow with some friends.  Poland has a great chain called Coffee Heaven which serves good caffe mochas.

In the end, it’s all about exploring.  Obviously, coffee shops are not part of the culture everywhere–in Cambodia, Thailand, and Egypt, for instance, you won’t really run into a plethora of coffee shops.  Each place has its own version, though, often in the form of tea houses (especially in Asia) or restaurants that serve tea or coffee after your meal.

So, let coffee shops serve as a reminder to take a break, sip on a delicious beverage, and enjoy your location, whether you’re at home or far away.

Before I started traveling, I didn’t put any thought whatsoever into what kind of coffee I drank.  I didn’t even really drink coffee until I was in college and found that chugging some random dark brew from the cafeteria would help me stay awake to study for finals.  Taste was not relevant, and it didn’t matter if the coffee came from Idaho or Vietnam.

Traveling, however, has the tendency to turn one into a coffee snob.  Whereas before I traveled I thought that a cup of regular Starbucks coffee was fancy stuff (the price alone seemed to imply that), after seeing more of the world I learned what quality coffee was.  Once you’ve sipped a hearty Italian espresso in Rome, savored a cup of Balinese coffee on the island of origin, or enjoyed a cafe au lait in Paris, it’s tough to go back to the can of $4 coffee at the grocery store.

I’m still learning about the art of coffee and which countries produce which kinds of coffee. It’s a fascinating, complex field of study, and I know it will take time to gain more expertise.  In the meantime, however, I’ve learned a few interesting things so far.

For instance, coffee trees are divided into two classes:  robusta or arabica.  Arabica beans tend to have a sweeter, smoother taste and have to be grown in certain climates/temperatures, while robusta beans tend to grow even amidst harsher conditions and have a more burnt flavor to them.  Depending on the quality of robusta beans, though, it can be wiser to buy a nicer batch of robusta beans than the cheapest arabica available.

In my personal experience, I tend to prefer arabica beans.  When I lived in Italy and took my first swig of espresso (and almost choked), I marveled at its strength and bitterness, but it also didn’t have a burnt aftertaste like I’d experienced at some big chains in the U.S.  My favorite coffee to date, however, is hands down Balinese coffee.  I spent a few days on the Indonesian island and pretty much spent that time drinking the coffee. I visited a coffee plantation and talked with a local about the roasting process and how the Balinese keep most of their coffee on the island.  Words cannot do justice to the flavor and smoothness of the coffee there–it had a flavor that reminded you of chocolate mixed with every delicious flavor on earth, plus a smooth consistency that left a sweet aftertaste in your mouth. I was so wired by the time that I left Bali that I had to detox for about two weeks, but it was definitely worth it.

To give an overview of different roasts, my favorite types of coffee are darker roasts because I like a stronger flavor.  I prefer more earthy tones, like those found in Indonesian and some African coffees.  Latin American coffees (Brazilian, Columbian, Guatemalan, etc.) tend to be used for lighter roasts, or so I’ve seen, so I tend to drink those if I want something lighter during the day.  European coffees (Italian, French, Viennese, etc.) tend to be more concentrated and aren’t for the lighthearted.

The beautiful thing about coffee, as well, is that the language of caffeine is a universal one.  Whether you’re in Buenos Aires, Warsaw, Seoul, or so forth, it’s pretty easy to find local cafes where you can grab a cup of coffee and people watch or meet new friends. Whenever I found myself a little homesick while in a foreign country, I’d almost always head to the nearest cafe for a little caffeine therapy–there’s something comforting about holding a cup of coffee.  Call it the universality of caffeine.

 

 

 

I realized recently that, after years of being in love with travel, I had no idea how many countries I’d been to.  I sat down and had a lot of fun making the list, which of course brought back a flood of memories (most of them positive).

I finished writing down the last country’s name (Canada) and sat back.  My grand total came to about 40 countries.  Not bad for 28 years old, I thought, but was it even a good chunk of the “small” world we live in?  I did some research for official numbers.

Of course, politics and other complications play a role in the official number of countries.  The United Nations, for instance, has 192 members, so that number is often quoted as the number of countries in the world.  The UN, however, doesn’t include Vatican City, Kosovo, or Taiwan (which, interestingly, was a member of the UN and the Security Council until 1971, when it was replaced by mainland China and started its struggle for recognition as an official country).  The U.S. State Department recognizes 194 countries but, like the UN, does not include Taiwan.

Amidst different reports/political posturing, it looks like the best answer is that there are actually 195 countries in the world.  This number is of course fluid, as maps have changed and will continue to change over time.  Change might come sooner rather than later, as we’re going to see if South Sudan issues its declaration of independence on the targeted date of July 9, 2011.

So, after hopping on countless airplanes, trying different foods on five continents, getting deathly ill twice, and spending hours exploring foreign lands, I had managed to see a little more than 20% of the countries in the world.  Again, not bad, but that means that 80% of the countries out there are still left to be experienced.

I wondered if anyone had ever visited all of the countries in the world, and a quick Google search gave me that answer.  In November 2009, the British press reported that Kashi Samaddar, an middle-aged Indian businessman, had traveled to 194 countries in about six years.  My first thought was, I guess he didn’t stop that often for coffee or shopping.

I guess that’s the beauty of travel; even though the world is figuratively small, it’s also full of places to see.  I don’t know if I’ll ever make it to all 195 (or 196 depending on South Sudan), but if I do it will certainly take me longer than six years–I need my coffee and shopping breaks.

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