Monday, July 1, 2019

Hot! Hot! Hot!

We know it is going to be hot in the Caribbean and dress for hot weather.  We know that if we go to the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic beaches, it is hot.  We know it is hot in Egypt and Israel.  I grew up in Louisiana and went to school at LSU, so I know what Louisiana feels like in the summer.  But nothing beats the hot temperatures that we encountered in Bangkok, Thailand.

We took a overnight shore excursion in Bangkok because we were interested in learning about the city and what it had to offer.  And we weren't disappointed.  We saw the reclining Buddha, the jade Buddha, and many others that are too numerous to mention.  When we went into the temples, our tour guide had to watch our shoes for us because we couldn't wear them in, but there is a serious shoe theft problem in the tourist sites.

After we checked into our hotel, several of us visited a jewelry store where we could get jewelry at reasonable prices.  Since I still had a lot of baht that I would need to spend before we left Thailand, I bought an elephant with beautiful gemstones.  No, even thought I live in Alabama and am not an Alabama fan, Thailand is known for its wild elephants so I wanted a necklace that reminded me of the country.

We had a dinner cruise on a boat on the river.  Because of stomach issues and spicy food, I soon because ill and couldn't wait for the cruise to be over.  Maybe it was because I ate the salad and no telling what kind of water it was washed in but I wanted to take a tub-tuk back to the hotel and not wait for the bus.  My husband said to wait for the bus so we walked around the night market.  I was glad when it was time to leave.

The next morning we had a trip planned to the Grand Palace.  No shorts were allowed in the Grand Palace, so everyone had to wear a long skirt or pants.  I had bought a black skirt on the ship as I knew pants would be too hot.  If anyone didn't have the proper clothing, he or she had to rent printed cotton pants that looked like pajama pants.  After our tour through the Grand Palace where we saw the Jade Buddha, we got back on the bus.  I had brought a pair of knee-length shorts which I put on under my skirt and then took off the skirt, while sitting in my seat on the bus.  I also bought cold bottled water and a folding fan.

In corresponding with a former classmate who lives in northern Thailand, he said that we picked the worst season to visit because March and April were the hottest months there.  We had passed some slums and I really feel for the people who live in those rickety metal buildings with no air conditioning.  After lunch in a nice hotel, we went back to our cruise ship so we could shower and feel clean again.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Repetition

We hardly ever repeat cruises that sail to ports that we have already visited but we have sailed on the same ship more than once.  We have been on the Celebrity Millennium three times:  the first time we were on our Hong Kong to Singapore cruise, the second time we were in Alaska (our 2nd time in Alaska), and the third time was a cruise from Yokohama, Japan, to Vancouver, British Columbia, crossing the northern part of the Pacific Ocean and the International Date Line.  We had three additional stops in Japan and one in Siberia, which was very interesting.  During our voyage we had snow.  Our crew members from Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines were very happy since they had never seen snow before.

We not only sailed on the Millennium three times but we stayed in the same cabin each time.

Another ship that we sailed on more than once was the Vision of the Seas with Royal Caribbean.  We had sailed on that ship in 2001 on our second ever cruise and then again in 2014 to see Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao.  This ship also stopped in Key West and Grand Cayman.  On our 2014 cruise, we had a really cool captain who used to play in a band and played rock music for the passengers in the evenings.  We hoped he was our captain again when we sailed from Dubai to Venice on the same ship in 2017, but he was on vacation.  We did not get a balcony cabin on any of these cruises because the ship is a small one and the balcony cabins were quite a bit more expensive than the ocean view.

We have sailed on the Crown Princess twice.  For some reason I didn't like that ship we first sailed on it and less the second time but we have booked two more cruises on it, including an Atlantic crossing.  I think the first time was because I got sick and was confined to our cabin and then after being cleared, I still had to go to the medical center and get clearance before going ashore in Malta, almost missing our tour.  On our California Coastal cruise in 2015, the ship was getting ready to go into dry dock and there was a shortage of towels, washcloths, etc.  Our cabin attendant had been with the cruise line many years and I don't think he was as much service-oriented as some of the ones who were trying to make a good impression.  Our other future cruise on that ship is visiting some Caribbean islands that we haven't been to yet.

As you can probably tell, we choose destinations instead of cruise lines when we make a decision to cruise.  Some cruise lines have better voyages to where we want to go than others.

Lasting Friends

Of all the trips we have taken and of all the tour guides we have come in contact with, there are a few who made lasting impressions on me.  Although it has been several years since we came into contact with them, I feel that their services are worth mentioning.

In 2005, people living in Birmingham were asked not go visit Aruba because a girl on her high school trip went missing there.  We had already booked our cruise to the Southern Caribbean and could not back out and we took a tour of the island while we were there just to know about the locations on the island that had been mentioned in the news.  As we sat on the bus at one of our stops waiting for the other passengers to get back, the tour guide, a young girl from Chile who was working during the cruise season, asked us where we were from.  When we reluctantly told her that we were from Birmingham, she knew that we had already heard what had happened several months earlier and told us this incident was an isolated case and there was very little crime on the island.  As we left the bus, she gave us a postcard inviting us to come back to "One Happy Island".  It was about ten years before we returned on another cruise, but never forgot that sympathetic young woman.

We were fortunate on our tour in Denali in Alaska to have a young man tour guide that really knew his information.  Although he was there only for the summer and living with his parents in Prescott, AZ, he and a group of friends previously had spent a year in a primitive cabin in Alaska that he pointed out to us as we traveled to Denali.  He was very knowledgeable and gave us information about living in Alaska that we might not have heard otherwise.  The bus driver had driven a bus in the summer season for many years and lived in New Mexico.  He said that his wife, who was a CPA, would ask him every March if he had heard from the tour company about driving a bus in Alaska.

On our tour in DaNang, Vietnam, the tour guide told us that he had received his college degree in business from Troy State University in Troy, AL.  Troy State University actually has a campus in Vietnam but students must be able to speak and write English in order to enroll.  As many people in Vietnam use motorbikes instead of cars for transportation he says his dream is to be able to own a car one day.  When his wife was in labor with their children, he would take her to the hospital on his motorbike and bring her home with the babies the same way.

The most memorable tour guide that we had led our tour in Dalian, China, and we have been corresponding since 2006.  He was just starting out when we first met him and ours was his 5th tour.  He had a great personality and got along with everyone on the tour.  I took a picture of him with the dancer on the ship and he gave me his email address to send him the picture when I got home.  We corresponded by email and in 2012, he led his first tour from China to New York City.  I was in New York City at the same time and we got to spend a few hours together.

In March, 2013, Bill and I went on a cruise from Hong Kong to Singapore.  Knowing that Hong Kong was across a narrow body of water from Shenzhen, where this young man was living now, we arranged to stay in Hong Kong three extra days before our cruise started.  He met us at our hotel in Hong Kong, made it much easier to go through Hong Kong immigration and then Chinese immigration, took us out to eat at an authentic Chinese restaurant, showed us the Shenzhen Civic Center with its beautiful architecture and stayed with us at the bus station until our bus left to go back to Hong Kong.  The following day after we boarded the ship, we met him and went to the Avenue of Stars, crossed over the water to a ferry, and went to Victoria Peak, where we had dinner at a Chinese restaurant.  He want back to Shenzhen and we took the metro back to Kowloon, where we took a bus to our ship.  The picture on the right shows Oliver and me next to his new car.  He had received his driver's license only a few months before and bought a new Hyundai Elantra.

Since then my friend has become an expert in tours from China to the United States and also has done tours to South America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, Africa, and Cuba.  We have invited him to visit us in the southeastern part of the United States because the majority of his US tours go to the same large cities on the east and west coasts.  Since 2013, we are using a texting program which gives faster communication and instant responses instead of email.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Pirate Drills

On our cruise from Dubai to Venice, we passed through the Straits of Hormuz on our way out of the Persian Gulf into the Arabian Sea.  In order to get to the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba where the ship would make a stop in Jordan, we had to go across the Gulf of Adan, passing between the countries of Yemen and Somalia.

The first night of the cruise, the captain told us that we would be participating in pirate drills as we left Oman to begin this part of our journey.  If he broadcast the message in all cabins, (used usually only in the event of an emergency) saying "Safe Haven" three times, this meant that we had to go somewhere on the ship that had no way of seeing outside, such as a hall, theater, etc.  In addition, the outside decks would be closed with no lighting, and armed guards would patrol continuously for the days that we were between these two countries.  The captain assured us that the pirates usually went after cargo ships since cruise ships were faster and could outrun any danger.  But he warned us if we felt the ship changing directions back and forth very quickly that there might be pirates in the vicinity.

The daily bulletin announced the time that the pirate drill was to be held.  I went to our cabin and stayed in the hall during the drill.  My husband was in the gym and all of the people in the gym and spa and at the pools were sent to the theater.

The next day we had booked an "All Access" tour to see where many of the tasks such as laundry, crew cafeteria, food storage, engine room, and bridge took place.  As we were in the environmental room learning about how waste solids and liquids were handled on the ship, the crew got a pirate drill signal and the heavy doors leading from the environmental area to the outside hall automatically shut.  We continued learning about wastes but it did get very hot in there before the drill was over and we were released.  We have told everyone that we were locked in the garbage room.  There was no smell as the garbage was actually treated on the deck below.  It is amazing that there are several decks under the lowest passenger deck where many of the ship's operations take place.

We traveled through the Gulf of Adan without incident and our first stop there was in the country of Jordan, where we took a tour to see Petra.  You can see the slide show of Petra on the contact page of my website.

More about Rental Cars

Why are rental cars so expensive? The price doesn't sound too bad when you rent it, but after airport facility fees and six or seven types of taxes are added, the prices for a compact car without power windows and door locks is horrendous! We have decided to drive our own car on our next vacation within the US - even paying two or three nights in a hotel room is much cheaper than renting a car at an airport. And we are not bound by airline reservations, so if we want to come home early, we can do so without paying the airlines a change fee. And the best reasons to drive yet -- no damaged luggage and no weight restrictions.

A Close Encounter with Hurricane Tomas.

On Saturday, October 30, as we were preparing to go ashore at Martinique on our southern Caribbean cruise on the Sea Princess, our captain came over the intercom in the cabins. We knew it was serious as the cabin intercoms were never used unless there was an emergency or something vital that the passengers needed to know. He told us that the stop at Martinique had been canceled because a hurricane had developed and was already threatening the eastern side of the island. The captain explained that he did not want the ship to be stationery during a threat of a hurricane. Instead, he headed the ship north as fast as it would go to escape potential high winds, heavy rains, and rough seas. The photo on the left shows the wake left as the ship headed north and we could see by the water that the ship was really traveling fast.
From our balcony on the back of the ship (we were upgraded to a suite two days before we left home) we could see the threatening skies and rain clouds behind us. The captain indicated that we might be able to stop at the island of Dominica, north of Martinique, but the port was closed. He continued north past the island of Guadeloupe where it was safe. The water had been quite rough near Martinique and Dominica but got smoother as the ship sailed north. Bill and I sat on our balcony and watched the water and the clouds.
That night the captain again spoke to us through our room intercoms. He told us about the damage in St. Lucia and let us know that we would not make our scheduled stop there on Sunday, October 31st. Instead, he would try to make a stop at Dominica and even had the shore excursion office schedule tours for Sunday afternoon. Unfortunately, as the ship approached Dominica, there was such a swell that the port was not letting the pilot boats guide the Sea Princess into the port. The harbormaster said that the ship could try to dock without a pilot boat at the northern pier, but the captain decided that with the swells, he did not want to take a chance of damaging either the ship or the pier. He had even asked about going ahead to Barbados and getting there early so we could spent an afternoon there, but both the Princess home office and the Barbados authorities didn't think that was a good idea, so we spent another day at sea.

Saturday morning , I had removed my seasickness patch because the heat and the sweat had irritated the skin. Unfortunately on Saturday night, I had a horrible case of seasickness and ended up going to the ship's store to get Dramamine. I decided that I would rather have irritated skin than seasickness. At one point Saturday evening, the water was so rough that the flowers fell off the table in the living room of the suite. Fortunately they landed right side up.

We spent most of Sunday circling from the north to the south of the sea near Dominica. We were not even sure at that point that we would be able to sail to Barbados where we would leave the ship and fly back to Miami. Finally around 1:00 p.m., we started south and were able to continue and docked at Barbados early on Monday, November 1st. 

Upon arriving at the Barbados airport, we discovered that, because of the storm, the American Airlines computers were down. They finally came back up, but we stood in line for almost two hours before we could get checked in. Unfortunately, the ticket counters in the Barbados airport are not in an air-conditioned area but rather in a big, open-air, shed-type facility, and it was extremely hot. We did make our flight to Miami, but I'm not sure that all of the people in the very long line got checked in in time to make the flight. The van driver who took us to the airport said that there was roof damage and power outages in Barbados, but St. Lucia got the worst of the damage.
When we booked this cruise over a year ago, we did not even think about hurricanes happening the last week of October. Of course this has been a very crazy weather year. We do appreciate the captain's watching out for the safety of his passengers.

Nickels and Dimes

It seems as if the common carriers (airlines and cruise ships) want to nickel, dime, and dollar you to death. Take, for example, our last cruise. We thought it was all paid for. However, when we got our final bill, it was a shock. Sure, I like shopping on the ship, but $11.00 a night or more per person to tip all of the people who supposedly helped you? To me, this is just a way for the ship company to make extra money to pay the salaries of the crew. When we first went on cruises, we had envelopes given to us so we could give the cabin attendant and dining room staff tips. Now we can't even get good service in the dining room because the staff already knows they will be tipped, no matter how good or bad the service is. We always gave our cabin attendant extra because every one that we have had on the many cruises that we have taken has done a superior job. No wonder cruise ship jobs are so lucrative to people who are not US natives!

Shore excursions are another very expensive added expense. Why do you have to have a gourmet meal during a shore excursion? The restaurants on the shore excursions try to make the meal as ethnic as possible - then passengers get ill and are confined to their cabins for stomach problems caused by eating unfamiliar food. No wonder nobody would eat the chicken feet in China! And why do we get taken to very expensive shopping venues to purchase items that must be shipped home instead of going into the local marketplaces?

Up to now, we have not paid for luggage to fly either domestically or internationally. Now we are told by our airline that for our October trip overseas, we must pay $50.00 for a second checked bag. That defeats my purpose of taking the 22-inch carry-on onboard, putting a backpack in my large suitcase, checking the carry-on full of items we have purchased on the way home, and using the backpack as my carry-on. I just hope we can really squash Hard Rock bears in the one suitcase along with clothes, shoes, everything else we've bought, etc. Or we'll just have to shop less.

And you would think that you would get a gourmet meal on the plane for the price you have to pay for a turkey sandwich and can of Pringles. Think again!

We just need to remember that there are a lot of hidden costs in travel. And although we do pay a fee and a higher exchange rate, it is still good to get foreign money in the US - beats standing in line at airports to exchange money at even higher exchange rates than you originally paid in the US. You'll have your train or taxi fare in hand when you need it

Very Thankful

I am thankful that the delegation from my church who were supposed to spend 9 days in Honduras are safely back in the US. It must have been a harrowing experience to be in a country where the government was overtaken, knowing that you had to find your way home the easiest and fastest way possible. According to the emails and Facebook messages that I have received, the group left their location in the southwestern part of Honduras and rode in an old school bus traveling very fast over very mountainous roads. They were stopped at eight checkpoints and arrived at the Tegucigalpa airport only 10 minutes before the plane to Houston took off. One of the members said it was really scary for a soldier with an assault rifle to board the bus and demand to see your passport in a language you didn't understand.

Bill and I went on a mission trip to Honduras several years ago. Although we stayed in the capital and worked at a medical clinic, we were told to not even walk down the street unless we were in a large group. For a couple who walks in cities all over the world independently, this was quite a change. One night we decided to go to a fast-food restaurant across the street from our 5-star Marriott and quickly changed our minds. I am not used to being in a place where all businesses have an armed guard and the majority of buildings have razor wire on them.

The best part of the trip was seeing the people of Honduras and helping them. These people are so thankful for our help. One lady was so happy with the used eyeglasses that she got that she gave all of the ladies in the group a gift. Mine was a crocheted doorknob hanger in the shape of a dress and it now occupies a prominent place in my china cabinet. The children are precious.
 The video is also on YouTube under my name Read2gro for those people who cannot access .wmv files. We taught them Bible lessons at the clinic and they were so excited to go home with a Jesus puppet made out of a paper bag. We went to the hospital with stuffed animals for the children who were patients and the parents swarmed around us to get them. This makes me very appreciative of what I have in the United States.

I hope that in the future, this military action in Honduras does not prevent Americans from going down there to help the people and to teach them about God. It is a very rewarding experience to be able to help others.

Cruises

We have taken cruises to many different parts of the world. While cruising is not the ideal way to see the interiors of countries, it does have some advantages. One is that you are in the same room each night and don't have to drag luggage from hotel to hotel. Another is that you can get food on board the ship so you don't have to worry about local cuisine and its problems. Many times you don't even have to change money into local currencies because the ports will take American dollars.

However, there are disadvantages of cruising besides the fact that it is hard to see the interiors of countries. Although food is available at all times, you do get tired of it, especially if you are on a long cruise. I am not a fan of ethnic eating and on the last cruise, it seemed as if you had very little choices, even in the buffet, besides the food of the country that the ship was featuring that night. I am one of the only people who loses weight on a cruise because I find the desserts, although very plentiful, too rich for me.

On a recent cruise that we took, we were very disappointed in the offerings in the dining room.  There were only two different choices each night and the rest of the menu stayed the same throughout the cruise.  We had better choices in the buffet for salad, entrees, and deserts and the offerings were displayed in very attractive ways.

Shore excursions are very expensive. It is no fun to sit on a crowded bus where the air conditioning doesn't work properly to see cities four hours away from the ship. It is also interesting to note that you are usually taken to very expensive souvenir shops on the tour where someone profits instead of being allowed to shop the local markets. On one tour in Marrakech, we were taken to one of those expensive shops where few people purchased items; yet were rushed through the souks where we would have enjoyed bargaining with the local merchants. Also the tours guides that are on the shore excursions may be great guides or may be mediocre - it's just the bus you are assigned to that determines who your guide may be. See my post on tour guides a while back.

Lunch on shore excursions can be an interesting experience. The tour companies try to make the food served indicative of the native cuisine. That is fine in Israel, where we were served regular meats and vegetables raised on a kibbutz, but in China, it is a different story. I always like to know what I am eating and how it is seasoned. A sample menu should be provided along with excursion information.

Embarking and disembarking can be the best or worst part of the cruise depending on port regulations. I loathe being forced out of my room on disembarkation day only to sit in a public area for three hours waiting for my color to be called. Most of the time embarkation is not a problem but once someone in line let an entire busload of people get ahead of us and another time we had to wait outside in the hot sun for over a hour.

We have chosen anytime dining on our past two cruises. This means that we supposedly eat when we want and with whom we want to eat. However, to get a table for two means making a reservation first thing in the morning or reserving your time each night prior to taking the cruise. Otherwise you will get stuck with someone who takes the entire time to go through one course. And the waiters won't start the next course until everyone has finished the present course. I am just not in the habit of taking two hours to finish a meal. After a 9-hour tour, it is a lot easier to eat in the buffet, where you get the same food as in the formal dining room, just not the presentation. Fine with me.

Balcony cabins are great. You can take pictures as you come into port, sit outside in privacy, and have a great window to view the ocean. But you can look out over someone else's balcony or they can look down over yours, depending on the architecture of the ship. And 90% of the time, your balcony is near that of a person who smokes the smelliest cigar ever known to man even though smoking on balconies is prohibited.

You think you got a deal on your cruise? You will think again when you see your shipboard account at the end of the cruise. In addition to your expensive short excursions, bargains from the gift shop that you couldn't do without, and the cost of soft drinks and bottled water (if you forget to purchase it in port on the previous stop), the cruise line tacks on a daily resort fee that is usually $11.00 or higher per person per day depending upon the class of cabin. It can get expensive on a longer cruise. Some people have shipboard bills higher than what they actually paid for the cruise, especially if they spend a lot of time in the lounges (which we don't).

I do enjoy cruises. I like someone else making the bed, cleaning the bathroom, and cooking my free food. I like looking out at the ocean. I like going to bed at night feeling the rocking of the ship (if it isn't too much). But the points above are points to consider when booking your next sea vacation.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Helpful Airport Personnel

Many of my previous posts have listed problems, but during our many years of travel and many trips to different parts of the world, we have encountered numerous airport and airline employees who have gone the extra mile to make sure we have a pleasant experience by giving impeccable service and letting us know they enjoy their jobs.  When this happens, I make sure that I contact the airline that we were using to let their higher-ups know what great service we had with their employees.
Travel is fun, but there are also problems associated with it such as late planes which are usually very crowded, lost luggage, and other incidents which I have mentioned in my blogs.  We encountered several outstanding airline employees on recent trips whom I want to mention because of their positive attitudes of helping passengers out in times of need and there are many more including airport personnel, flight attendants, immigration and TSA officials, and airport restaurant and shop workers.
On a trip by myself to Paris,  I really dreaded coming back through Charles de Gaulle airport because of the problems my husband and I had on a previous trip trying to board our flight. I made sure I got to the airport in plenty of time for my 9:00 a.m. flight - even taking an expensive taxi rather than the train (mainly because Daylight Savings Time took effect the night before and I didn't want to be in the RER tunnels at 5:30 a.m. on a Sunday). Air France has really improved their international flight process and it was very easy checking in.

Oops! When I checked in I forgot that I had two jars of Mirabella jelly in my carry-on. Of course security would not let me take those on the plane. I went back to Air France's check-in area to see if I could get my luggage back. Of course they said no. I explained my dilemma and they told me I could check my carry on, which, unfortunately, was one of those bags that you fold up when you leave home and open up when you buy too many souvenirs to put in your suitcase. I was very worried but the personnel actually took the jelly jars, wrapped them in several layers of plastic as well as the extra clothes that I had in my carry-on, put the bag in two sturdy plastic bags, and checked them. When I got to Atlanta, everything was fine. Since I had to open my checked luggage for my heavy coat after Customs and before rechecking it for my connecting flight, I put the plastic bag with the jelly in my checked luggage. Guess who had a TSA card in my suitcase when I got home.

In May, we flew to Portugal to get on a cruise. When we got to Atlanta, we found out that the connecting flight to Newark, where we had to go to get our Lisbon flight, was over two hours late. Consequently, we would miss our connection. I went to the Continental ticket counter where I received excellent service from an employee who spent over a hour trying to find an alternate solution. She was successful, although we got to Lisbon late in the afternoon instead of mid-morning. She also told me how to make sure my luggage got on the correct flight and when we arrived in Lisbon, our luggage arrived, too. I called the airline to commend her service to us.  Unfortunately, some of the items in the luggage got wet because of a storm in Atlanta while we were waiting for our new flight (I'm sure the checked baggage was in the carts on the tarmac waiting to be loaded) but I was so glad to have the suitcases that I didn't complain. After all, it was easy to spread the clothes out in the hotel room to dry.

I applaud airline employees who go the extra mile for passengers. It makes a trip a much more positive experience.

Watch Out!


The worst part of any trip out of the United States is trying to re-enter the United States. I'm not really talking about the customs process itself, but the attitude of people in other countries who make you feel like a criminal for just wanting to get home.

After checking a piece of luggage on your way out of the United States, your luggage is sent to a large scanning device so it can be x-rayed to make sure that you don't have any forbidden articles in it. On a recent trip, my luggage was opened and searched, but fortunately I did not find out about it until I opened it later on and found a little card from the TSA letting me know that my bag was one of those picked for searching (probably because of the toiletries I had in it). However, leaving another country to re-enter the United States is another story. Several times we have had to stand in long lines only to have the luggage that we wanted to be checked hand searched only after the searcher put on rubber gloves to make sure that he or she didn't pick up any diseases from our dirty underwear and other clothing that filled our suitcases.

At a recent hand check of carry-on luggage after the scanner at security saw something weird, the searcher mentioned scissors that I carried in a cosmetic bag. It was only after I showed her the scissors had a dull point that I was allowed to re-pack it. She did take my sewing kit and safety pins, which had survived many other trips, and wanted to take my alarm clock. Now why would a simple sewing kit, safety pins, and an alarm clock be dangerous? Fortunately I got to keep the alarm clock but I had a bad taste in my mouth for being hassled like that.  I have also had shampoo and conditioner in 3-oz bottles taken from me because the TSA agent said I had too many liquids.  This was at an airport in Texas.

Why can't the countries of the world unite in deciding what is permissible to take on a plane with you? Why can we take a bottle of water purchased after we go through security in the United States and why can we take an opened bottle of water purchased anywhere in Mexico on a domestic flight, only to have it taken away before boarding the plane that will take you to the U.S.? In Europe, you can buy water and have it put in a sealed bag to take on the plane, but I had a hassle with the representatives of another country and finally produced a doctor's card which said I had had stomach surgery and had to have water with me. This bottle of water was taken away at U.S. customs when I arrived in the U.S. but at least I could buy another in the airport for my final flight home.

It is really hard to pack to visit other countries because you never know what is allowed and what is not. I can imagine how our enemies are laughing at us behind our backs because of the hassles we go through before we reach the friendly skies.

Fortunately many of the larger airports in the US have Mobile Passport, which lets you fill out the immigration information on your mobile device, submit it when you can get a signal after the plane lands, and take it to a Mobile Passport counter where you scan your phone and get a receipt that lets you go through the Customs line.

Traveling Light


I have given presentations on traveling light and tell my participants to do as I advise, not to do as I usually do and take too much with me.  I should follow my own advice and take out of my suitcase half the items I put in it to begin with.

Fortunately, there are clothes made for travelers that do not wrinkle and can be washed and hung to dry overnight without problems. Unfortunately, these clothes are a little heavier than twill pants but fortunately not as heavy as jeans. I have pants in several colors since I also wear for dress occasions. I hope I can squeeze an extra pair of shoes in my luggage as well as makeup, toiletries, sleeping attire, underwear, medicines, etc.

Fortunately I have been to Paris before and know where I am going. Last time I went alone I had no problems with a backpack and a 21-inch carry-on going over there but when I went to board the plane to return to the U.S., the official told me I would have to check one of them because the backpack was too large and too full to be considered a personal item. I had several things in the backpack that I definitely did not want to leave at the mercy of U.S. Airways (we had had problems before with checked luggage coming through Charles de Gaulle) so I ended up going to the restroom and completely repacking. Fortunately I had a small bag in my luggage that I had used as a daypack so I was able to get everything in that and the backpack and check the 21-inch. When I got to Philadelphia, I was able to get it to take as a carry-on on the plane back to Alabama since it would have to go underneath the communter plane anyway. I was very appreciative of this since I wanted to change clothes before leaving Philadelphia. I don't think there will be a problem with an 18-inch (I hope).

As I have mentioned before, airlines are cracking down on carry-on luggage that is too large and won't fit wheels first in the overhead compartments.

Cruises have lightened up on their "formal" nights due to the weight restrictions on luggage as well as the number of pieces that can be checked without charges.  I take only one or two pants and maybe a skirt to use on dress-up nights and my husband takes a wrinkle-proof sport coat that he uses on more than one formal night.  He 
also doesn't take a suit and tie and now takes casual shoes that can be worn for dress as well.  We still take too much usually because we are traveling in more than one climate and need clothes for both.

More about Luggage


When you are planning a trip, it is very important to think about the luggage that you will carry. After all, it is thrown around by airport luggage carriers, poked into by TSA, and pushed into overhead bins much too small for its bulk. You also need to think of your destination, the weather, clothing that is acceptable for your destination, and how you will deal with it once it is in your two hands.

My husband is always telling me that we take too much on our trips; that we have only two hands and don't need any more pieces than that. This is very true when you get to a luggage carousel and you find that your luggage has been unloaded and is somewhere in a pile with other people's belongings. We always make the mistake of having so much that we have to get a cart to haul it through customs and security and then end up leaving a coat or sweater behind. A word of warning - a cart is a big hindrance especially when everyone else in line has a full cart as well.

I do not buy expensive luggage. Why spend a fortune for designer luggage when it is going to get scratched, mauled, torn, rained on, and bent. And what should you do to identify your black luggage from everyone else's black luggage. We finally learned to tie a ribbon or a luggage strap around the bags we take to identify them from others' black suitcases. This doesn't always work because everyone else has the same idea that we have.

The airlines say that I can carry on a bag of a certain size as well as a personal item. Most of the time, my 21-inch bag has to be squeezed in the overhead bin, especially if I put something in the outside pockets.  If I take my laptop, I can also put personal items inside its case and still have two good-sized places to have my necessities with me. Once I had a 17-inch suitcase with wheels and a large backpack.  Since over half the plane seemed to board before us, we had to squeeze my luggage with wheels in the overhead.  A man passenger told me that I really had too much in my carry-ons.

The only problem if we have too many carry-ons is that if we're in an airport trying to eat or shop, we always have to be sure to keep our eyes on our belongings.

One of the problems about traveling in a car is that you are not limited to what you can take. This is great, except when we travel by car, we are usually staying in a different hotel every night which means that we make multiple trips to the car, sometimes up the one slow elevator that the hotel operates, to get all of our stuff. And of course, everything has to come inside since the hotels say they are not responsible for items left in the car.

Wheeled luggage is the best invention ever unless you happen to pull it over someone's feet. It is a lot easier to roll a suitcase down a concourse than to try to carry it. 
 I am so thankful for personal items bags that fit over the luggage handle of a wheeled suitcase.  But it is very hard to close the door on a restroom stall if you are dragging a 21-inch bag behind you - there just isn't space for a person and a bag to move out of the way so the door will shut freely. And it is almost impossible to try to roll two bags at the same time. We had an issue when we took the train on our last trip because there was no elevator from the platform into the terminal and we had a large suitcase and wheeled carry-on each.  There was a man at the foot of the escalator that told us to put our smaller bag in front of us and  our larger bag behind us.  We made it, but still had no way to hold on.  What happened if a person was in a wheelchair and wanted to take the train? .  

Wouldn't it be great if we didn't need so many necessities when we travel? Our son can go over two weeks with a daypack and large backpack. We need to take his advice - pack what you think you need and take half of it out.

Rental Cars


We don't always take cruises or trips abroad when we travel. There are times when we want to see parts of the U.S.A. that we haven't visited before.  When we do this, we usually fly to a destination and rent a car to go to the mountains, beaches, Disney World, or any other overcrowded tourist area that everyone else wants to go to as well.

We used to rent the smallest, cheapest car available with automatic transmission and air conditioning. This was before we made a round-trip drive from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon and back in one day in a Mitsubishi Mirage with no cruise control. We made sure we had a standard car with cruise control on our most recent trip to the same part of the country.  Rental cars are not without problems. We try to request a non-smoking car because who wants to drive for miles in a car that stinks inside. One time we rented an SUV at home to drive to Branson, Missouri, and had to vacuum dog hair off the seats before we could even sit down.

On our last trip to Yellowstone, we had two car problems. The first was that after we waited in line for a while to check in and even upgraded, we were told that there were no cars cleaned up and we would have to wait for one to be cleaned, probably about 20 minutes (which stretched into over a hour). The second problem was that when the tires got hot, a Check Tire Monitor light came on with an accompanying beep. We went to the closest Walmart and got the tires checked, but had to listen to the annoying warning sound every time the tires got hot. Fortunately we could turn it off.  In Denver, we drove off the lot in our rented SUV, only to be told that the car was overdue for an oil change.  The replacement SUV was not nearly as nice so we ended up going back to the car rental office and getting a Toyota Camry instead.

Cars are supposed to be checked thoroughly and cleaned before they are rented out again. Then why was the windshield washer fluid container completely empty on one car that I rented? Why did I have to put air in the tires? And isn't a gas tank supposed to be full, not 3/4 full when you rent it? Unless I know that I am going to use a full tank of gas, I never let the rental company charge me for a full tank up front. It is hard to really empty a gasoline tank and I usually end up giving quite a bit to the rental company when I turn in the car. I can usually find a service station close to the airport to fill up myself and I usually try to put a little more in after the pump clicks off so the gauge reads full when I return it.

I don't like General Motors cars, which most of the rental companies use for their lowest rental rates. They have a huge steering wheel, are full of blind spots, and the back window is so slanted that all I have is a slit to look through when I want to see behind me. Why did Hertz get rid of the Taurus? I liked driving that model. And I must say that Hertz was very nice when I had steering problems with an sub-compact and was 70 miles away from the airport - they brought me a Taurus that distance and did not charge me. They also let me keep a Taurus an extra day at weekend rates when I had to stay in Louisiana an extra day because of a hurricane.  Lately, the rental car companies seem to have more Toyotas, Hondas, Nissans, Hyundais, and Kias, but the majority of them have only standard equipment, not the bells and whistles that I am used to in my own car.

Although we have been told we don't have to do so, we do take the collision insurance, even though it is expensive. Who wants a vacation ruined if you have an accident and have problems with your own insurance company who may be over 1000 miles away. We had a windshield cracked one time before we even left the airport property and when we returned the car, they said that we had no obligation since we had taken their insurance. When you compare the cost of the insurance with your own deductible, there isn't much difference and you do have peace of mind when driving in a strange area. Some car rental companies go over the car with a fine-tooth comb to find all of the scratches and dents on it so they can charge you for new dings and scratches when you return it. I don't want to worry so much about the car that I don't enjoy my vacation.

And why do car rental companies lock both keys to the car on the same key ring? My husband and I would each like to carry a key for safety reasons. At one time, the customer was given one key and the office kept the other. That made more sense. Turning in a car is much easier than getting one. A staff member has a hand-held computer which computes everything that you agreed upon when you rented the car (and maybe some items that you didn't agree upon). Be sure to check your statement before leaving the area.

And don't let a kea in New Zealand destroy the rubber around the door. This is what happened to one of my Australian friends who opened his door while waiting to enter a one-way tunnel.

I'm Having a Bad Hair Day!


Most people do not worry about how they look on vacation. After all, they will never see the people that they meet again. Most of the time I feel the same way. Then why must I take makeup, three brushes, a hair dryer, special shampoo, and hair-styling essentials, even though I will probably never use them?

At one time, I had short hair and it was very convenient to blow dry it with whatever type of dryer the hotel or cruise ship provided because it always looked neat. Now with my naturally curly (and professionally straightened) longer hair, I have a big decision each day - should I let it dry curly or should I blow it out straight. Even if I spend a lot of time styling it to perfection, the minute I go outside, the wind will restyle it for me, regardless of the hold feature of the hair spray that I used that morning. And of course most hair products don't come in travel-sized containers that are approved for carry-on so I must put them in my checked bags and hope the bag arrives safely at my destination. Travel-sized hair spray cans are very expensive and do not hold enough product for a two-week trip if I use it once or twice every day.

Makeup is another big concern - do I need it or not? It is always recommended that you apply products containing sunscreen on exposed parts of your body, especially in sunny climates. I found this out the hard way in Estonia, thinking it was too far north to worry about sun protection. Lip products containing sunscreen are better than regular lipstick, especially if you are fever-blister prone like I am. And why use eye makeup when your eyes are going to be hidden by sunglasses or transition lenses? And of course with makeup, you also have to take specialized cleaning products to remove it at night. And woe to you if you perspire freely because all of those foundations and tinted moisturizers will run down your face and neck and stain your clothes that you probably won't wash until you get home.

Beauty products are essential for formal nights on cruises or if you're going to church on Sunday while traveling, but that's about it. I have been on trips where I never used the makeup I brought with me. There are times I never use a hair dryer either. After all, you will never see the people you meet on a trip again so why worry about how you look?

Luggage


Luggage, or too much of it, is a big concern by travelers and passengers alike. Once upon a time, people were able to check two or more suitcase and carry on two bags, plus a purse, laptop case, briefcase, etc. No longer is this true. Now it is wise to make sure your luggage is the proper weight and size before leaving home or you may have an unpleasant surprise when you get to the airport.  In addition, you cannot take bottles over a specified size in your carry-on luggage, carry-on luggage has to be weighed in some airports, and carry-ons with wheels are suspect once you get on board because they must fit wheels first and not side-to-side.  We tried going on one of our cruises taking carry-ons without wheels and really had problems when we had to rush from one end of the Frankfurt airport to the other to get to our plane to the United States on time.

We were (and probably still are) guilty of trying to pack everything as well as the kitchen sink. We would try to pack for all types of weather. This is why we had winter clothes when it was 107 degrees in Moscow, and only a light jacket for March in Amsterdam. I am very thankful for all of the "traveler's" clothes on the market today because at least you don't spend a lot of your vacation ironing clothes that wrinkled in route.

We have bought a portable luggage scale that we use before we leave home and again before we leave for the airport for a return flight.  Even though US airlines say that people can carry on a 22-inch suitcase, the flight attendants tell us that wheels must go first in the overhead compartments.  Before our Dubai to Venice cruise, I bought a carry-on bag that was narrow enough to wheel down the aisle of a passenger jet.  When I got to the ticket counter to check in for our Venice to Amsterdam flight, the agent succinctly told me that I would have to check that suitcase.  I told her I could not because I had my jewelry and medicine in it and it wouldn't fit in my personal computer bag.  She said it was too high.  We argued back and forth and finally I took several items out of the outside pocket of that bag and put in my regular suitcase (which fortunately, was not overweight) so it would fit in the rack to measure your carry-on luggage.  When she finally agreed that we could take that carry-on bag and we left the ticketing area, all the passengers behind us clapped.  Earlier one of the airport attendants told us we were in the wrong line and had us get ahead of people who were already waiting in the right line, so I really felt bad when we held them up.  When we got to the boarding area, we saw many suitcases that were larger than the one the ticket agent was giving me problems with.

One time in France, I was told that I could not take my backpack and my 21-inch carry-on bag because my backpack was too big. It also doubled as my purse. I ended up going into the restroom and completely repacking since I had items in my 21-inch bag that were irreplaceble gifts and didn't want to trust them to the unfriendly skies of my aircraft carrier. I got the last laugh twice concerning this matter. In my backpack, I had a healthy back bag which I stuffed with all of the items I needed as well as those I thought I needed during the flight. When I got to the first US destination and was going through customs, I was permitted to take the bag I had checked since the remainder of my flight was on a commuter plane and the bag had to go underneath anyway. I was thankful for this because it gave me a chance to change clothes.

In the past, I have come home with more bags than I left with. In Australia, I bought so many stuffed animals and puppets that they wouldn't all fit in my suitcase. A friend was throwing away an old suitcase and I asked her if I could throw it away in the United States because I needed it for all the furry creatures that I had. I also bought a bag on a cruise ship after I bought a silk comforter in China which wouldn't fit in my overweight-prone suitcase with my too-many clothes and extras that I absolutely needed while away from home. Now I would have to pay extra for these additional pieces of luggage.

My husband is always telling me to pack light. He says that we only have two hands and do not need any more to carry than what we can comfortably handle. Our son can go on a two-week trip with only a large backpack and a daypack and get along fine. Now that we have such strict regulations on checked luggage, maybe his warnings will finally sink in. Just so we don't go to Italy in the winter any more with only a light fleece jacket.

Now, what did I forget that I absolutely need? Is it my laptop when there are Internet cafes everywhere in Europe (but watch out for hackers), or a 2000 watt hair dryer that is absolutely not supposed to run on anything but 110 volt electricity? Do I need three hairbrushes and three types of frizz-controlling serum? Enough medicines to fill a pharmacy? The list goes on and on.

Hotels


Because we spend a lot of time traveling, we also spend a lot of time in hotels. In the United States, we havestayed in all types of hotels from the most expensive to budget. In Europe, we usually rely on our travel agency to help us get the best accommodations. However, there are still times when we have to assert ourselves once we actually get to the hotel.

There are two times in Europe where we have had to stand our ground. In Amsterdam, we were given a room that reeked of marijuana. We went back to the front desk and told them that we had requested a non-smoking room. The desk clerk argued that our travel agent had booked a regular room and we had not paid for a non-smoking room; if we wanted one, it would cost us 25 Euros more. We gladly paid it. I could not have spent two days in the marijuana-scented room. Another time was in Paris where we were told that the hotel was full and we were to be transferred to another. We had spent the last hour dragging our suitcases through the Paris metro system and then walking two blocks to the hotel so we were in no mood to hear this excuse. We finally got a room and believe it was right over the kitchen because it was so warm. Also we found out that the hotel was full of American teenagers on their spring break tour of Europe.

On another trip to Paris, my room was over a bar. And of course it wasn't air conditioned so I had to keep the window open, letting in noise and mosquitoes. And staying in a room facing an alley in London during a heat wave wasn't too pleasant, either. Fortunately, the room did provide a fan.

We have had some very pleasant hotel experiences.  In Dubai we checked into our hotel at 1:00 am local time.  The bellman arrived in our room a few minutes later with our luggage and proceeded to tell us about all the features in the room, including a shower room with a tub that was larger than our bathroom at home with electric blinds that could be raised, lowered, or opened (and why would we want open blinds if we were in the tub?)  The water to fill the tub came from the ceiling and the shower could be adjusted about every way you could think of.  Of course we wanted him to leave so we could go to bed.  At 2:00 am, when we had finally taken showers and turned out the lights, we found some next to the bed that were still on.  So we spent another 30 minutes trying to figure out how to turn those off.

Our room in Yokohama, Japan was very nice as well.  That room had a toilet that warmed up the seat when you sat on it, flushed automatically, and cleaned you depending on what you did in the toilet.  

There is one thing I don't understand about higher-end hotels.  The cheaper hotel chains, especially in the US, have several USB ports to charge phones, tablets, iPads, etc.  However the higher-end ones which seem to cater to conventions and business travelers, have none.  The ones on the television sets don't work unless the TV is on.  In Dubai and Yokohama, I had to use my converter to charge my phone and then my watch.
Connecting doors and thin walls bother me. No, I don't want to hear the baby crying or the toddler whining in the next room. And I don't want to know the personal life of the couple whose bed is head to head with ours. I'm not interested in hearing someone else's television going at midnight. And why would someone be taking a two-hour bath at 2:00 a.m.?

Please make sure the rooms are visited periodically by an exterminator so ants will not feast on a guest's leftover goodies during the night. Once we even had ants get into our cat's food. I know that flies will get into the rooms when you hold open the door to bring in your suitcases, but ants and roaches don't need to come in as well.

I like hotels that will check you in early, even if the check-in time isn't until 3:00 and you have just arrived from an all-nighter over the Atlantic. And I like rooms where the Internet service is easy to connect to, the plumbing doesn't drip, and the air conditioning keeps the room at the right temperature. I don't like hotels with running toilets, spotty Internet service, and inadequate lighting. And please put in more than one very slow elevator that is large enough for a guest and his or her luggage.

I also like hotels with cheap internet pricing that don't charge your credit card until 6:00 p.m. on the day of arrival. High on my list are hotels that give you a free breakfast with enough food to call it a breakfast, and that have enough food for the guests who decide to sleep late even if the early-leaving tour group members eat more than their share. And a special hats off to the hotels who monitor the batteries in their smoke detectors.

The "Friendly" Skies


Because of all the traveling that we have done, we have spent a lot of time in airports and airplanes. The longest flight we took was from Los Angeles, California to Sydney, Australia - 14 hours nonstop. You eat, you watch a movie, you sleep, you wake up, and you discover that you still have at least 8 or 9 hours to go to your destination.

Flying used to be a pleasant adventure. Now flying is an adventure, but usually not at all pleasant. The first hurdle takes place when you get to the airport. After waiting in line to check in and having your suitcase weighed, you have to take your suitcase back and around to a security device that makes sure it is safe for travel. Then comes security - showing your ticket and ID and hoping that everything you packed in your carry-on meets TSA guidelines. I don't like taking off my shoes and walking through security in sock feet so I usually wear sandals and go through barefoot - at least I can go in the restroom and wash my feet before boarding the plane.  We signed up for TSA PRE not long after it became available so we wouldn't have to take off our shoes, remove my laptop from my computer bag, keep my belt and jacket on, etc.  We haven't signed up for Global Entry yet because we learned about Mobile Passport.  The only time we had to use it was in Atlanta before it became popular and we were through Immigration and waiting for our luggage before it was even unloaded from the plane.

If I am flying overseas, I get two meals, even if they are unappetizing.  However on flights to Hawaii or Alaska, the only food that is available is food that you buy that may or may not be fresh.  It takes longer to get from Atlanta to Hawaii or Alaska than it takes to get to Europe so why don't the airlines use distance as a guide as to when to serve meals instead of within the US.

There are several things that bother me after I get on the plane, especially on long flights. One is when people don't stay in their seats and clog the aisles talking to people seated near me. I don't appreciate having someone's rear in my face while they engage in social chitchat. Another is children running up and down the aisles. What if there is turbulence? And pets on planes? On one trip, the dog belonging to the people seated behind us whined loudly when put in his cage. It seemed that his tranqulizer did the opposite of what it was supposed to. The flight attendant finally told the owner that the rest of us had a right to get some sleep and to bring the dog to the galley. I think the dog spent the rest of the flight there. And we must not forget the crying babies, the loud children, and of course, the slow restroom lines.

Question: Why should passengers sit for hours with the leftovers of their meal in front of them? It seems to take forever for some flight attendants to come back and pick up the trays. They serve dinner and drinks, then coffee, then coffee again, etc. before coming back to pick up remains.
 
And don't forget the end of the trip. Why is it that people who are in a hurry to board a plane, don't have connections, and who want the seats in the front are the slowest when it comes to getting off?

And in the airport again? Why do they have 25 stations for immigration officials and only 5 are staffed? Hopefully all of your luggage arrived with you and that getting ground transportation isn't too much of a hassle. We've checked in at car rental counters and then had to wait over an hour to get our car, which was reserved months in advance.

Now that you've cleared the hurdles of getting there, have a great stay at your destination.

Souvenirs


When we first started traveling, we would go into souvenir shops and buy souvenirs to take back home. Then we realized that when we got home, most of the souvenirs would end up in a drawer or closet and we would never look at them again. We started rethinking our souvenir strategy and decided to buy only those items which we would use or which we would be proud to display in our home. We also try to buy only those souvenirs which are made in or are unique to that country.  We have been in countries where merchandise is advertised as "Genuine Fake".

When we started cruising, we noticed the plethora of jewelry that is available in any port wherever you stop in the Caribbean, Alaska, or Mexican Riviera. Sometimes you even get great deals on your jewelry. We also noticed that cruise companies have favorite merchants that they want their passengers to use. I enjoyed buying Star of David pendants in Israel because that meant a lot to me. I had a cartouche with my name in hieroglyphics shipped to me from the ship's jewelry shop. This was because I was able to get better quality and know what I was getting instead of going to one of the ship's choice of souvenir stores. At least jewelry doesn't take up a lot of space in a carry-on bag or purse and doesn't add weight to your luggage. My students tell me that I like to wear my souvenirs when they see me with jewelry that I bought during my travels.

The natives of any country that you visit make it very convenient for you to purchase their product. At many ports, they have markets set up or are on the dock showing you their items. Sometimes they get downright pushy, as in Egypt, shoving postcards in your face. After a long day in Cairo, it was all we could do to walk from the bus to the ship because of the merchants blocking our path trying to sell us merchandise. It was late, we were hungry, and shopping was the last thing we wanted to do. We waited until the next port where the sellers were not as pushy.

You have to be careful when buying souvenirs. Of course in China, you want items made in China. I have a beautiful silk comforter and robe that I treasure. But you still don't want to buy cheap, poorly-made items. In other countries, you don't want to buy anything made in China; you want to purchase items made in that country. By the way, I had to buy another piece of luggage to get the comforter home. Fortunately they weren't charging for a second suitcase at that time.

Of course souvenir merchants know how gullible their customers are and that's why they are in business. I was glad to see a souvenir shop selling sweat shirts in Queenstown, New Zealand. I thought it was summer there and it was cold that far south. I still wear that shirt 10 years later. In Australia on that same trip, I bought so many animal puppets that I had a "borrow" a suitcase from a friend who was throwing one away.

The merchants in almost all countries love taking American money or credit cards for their merchandise. The only exception was Croatia, who wouldn't take either dollars or Euros. Just be sure to notify your bank that you will be traveling abroad. We ran into trouble in Turkey and had to go to the ship to call our bank to let them know that our transactions were OK.

Visiting Relatives


Bill and I usually don't plan our trips around visiting relatives, but meeting relatives on my mother's side in France was a highlight of our French trip. Previously, I had gone to Paris by myself (a feat of bravery) to visit a then 90-year-old cousin of my mother's who has compiled a very thorough and accurate family history. I wanted to meet with him while his health was still good and he was still able to remember things about the family. A year later my husband and I visited France again and were able to visit my grandmother's birthplace, Duppigheim, a small village outside of Strasbourg. It was very exciting to see where my grandmother grew up and to visit the Jewish cemetery, where our cousin was thrilled that the grave markers had not been destroyed by the Germans. We then took a train to Paris where Bill was able to meet our family historian, Maurice Wolff.



We have also visited relatives in Brussels, Belgium, who are very delightful. During our visit, we were able to see another couple from Bordeaux, France, who had previously visited us in the United States. They were surprised when we said that there were no guards at our Jewish temples and synagogues in our country.



In my great-grandmother's family, five of the nine children came to this country and four stayed in France. The relatives that we met on our trip are descendants of those who stayed. Over 50 were killed during the Holacaust and several hid in the mountains until it was safe to return. One interesting story is that of the historian's niece, who is my generation. Her father and mother were warned that the Nazis were in the village where they fled, asking about Jewish people there. They put their son in a Catholic convent and left the daughter, who was an infant and very sick at the time, with a woman in another village, and disappeared until it was safe for them to return. Maurice, the historian, passed away at the age of 97 in 2011.



My father's family is from Lithuania and I would love to visit there one day. Many of his relatives were also affected by the Holacaust.

Ancient Ruins

You cannot travel around the Mediterranean without seeing ruins of the ancient civilizations that once called this area their home. People in Greece, Turkey, Egypt, and Italy are very proud of their ruins that let others know about how ancient their history really is. We in the United States have an extremely brief history compared to the people in that part of the world. Some civilizations, such as the ancient Egyptian civilization, is even mentioned in the Old Testament!

In Greece, the Acropolis, which houses the Parthenon, and the Temple of Zeus teaches us how advanced these people were. Today, the Greeks are so proud of their history that they are spending a lot of money trying to reinforce these old ruins so they won't crumble into dust. The ruins of Ephesus and Pompeii tell us that people even around the time of Christ had very advanced medical care, shopping, entertainment, and knowledge. Egypt is very proud of the Roman ruins that they have excavated; in fact, they found an old ampitheatre when they were getting ready to build the foundation of a new building, so they abandoned the new structure and excavated the entire ampitheatre, and made it a place for viewing. Athens stopped building an air vent for a subway when builders found ruins and now they have the ruins on display.


Americans do not seem to be as proud of their historical buildings. For example, the Birmingham train depot, a magnificent structure, was torn down to make room for an expressway. The Birmingham News building was torn down for a parking lot. What will Americans have to show future generations about their ancient history?

Zapped by Electricity


Electricity in other countries is not like electricity in the United States. The currents are 220 volts (the same as a clothes dryer or electric stove in the U.S.) and the plugs may be small round holes, large round holes, or slits slanted toward each other. The plugs in England are huge, just like your dryer plug at home. I have been able to use the battery charter for the rechargeable batteries that I use with my camera, however, I did have to have the correct plug to fit into the wall. All of this makes me think twice before taking anything electrical overseas.

Laptops are a no-no. I have taken mine on a plane to places in the United States and to Honduras on a mission trip, but they can be a pain in the neck. You have to take it out of its bag going through security if you don't have TSA Pre and you can't use it for internet in most airports without paying for it. Cities overseas have numerous internet cafes which allow you to check your messages for a very cheap price but the internet connections are not secure and you can easily be hacked. Yes, some of the keyboards very from ours, but there is usually a helpful assistant in the internet cafe who can help you. Some hotels have computers where you can check internet free or for a very low price. Cruise ships have internet cafes and, although they are not cheap, they are very convenient and you can buy a package that gives you a certain number of minutes. Don't take a chance ruining your laptop. Even electronics store personnel don't always know the correct plug/adapter combination to use overseas (however, Apple adapters work great with any Apple products).

I have a  hair dryer that works on both voltages if I can get the screw to turn from 110 to 220. However, most hotels overseas have hairdryers, even if they don't put out the heat that mine does at home. I guess I'll just go around with frizzy hair since the wind will get it anyway. Cruise ships don't really want you to use powerful hair dryers since they tax the electrical capacity that the ship has to generate, but I haven't had any problems bringing my own. I almost burned up a hair dryer in Australia trying to use it with the converter.

For a while, I had to use a nebulizer. I couldn't use it for two days in Beijing since I didn't have the converter or plug for it and couldn't wait on the last day to get to the ship so I could plug it up. Beijing is very polluted which played havoc with my asthma. 

So it is better to leave your converter at home and use the appliances provided by hotels and computers that are manufactured for the foreign currents. After all, you will probably never see the people you meet again so don't worry about your hair. And all of this electrical stuff does take up room and add weight to your suitcase.

Tour Guides

You come into contact with numerous tour guides when you travel as much as we do. Even if you are traveling independently instead of with an organized tour from start to finish, taking a local tour is the best way to see some of the sites unless you want to rent a car and drive there yourself (and I don't recommend renting a car because the traffic is horrendous in some of the countries we have visited). I would rather put my trust in someone who knows the area and is familiar with the streets and traffic patterns.

Tour guides come in many shapes and sizes and with different personalities. One of my favorites was a young Chinese man in Dalian, China, just starting out in the tourism business. He had a delightful personality and everyone loved him. He gave me his email address and I am still corresponding with him; he calls me his American mama. Now he is a tour guide for Chinese groups coming to the United States and is so good at what he does, he is the tour guide as well as the local guide for many of their stops.  When we visited Hong Kong several years ago, he had moved to Shenzhen which is on mainland China across from Hong Kong.  He met us in Hong Kong, helped us go from Hong Kong to Shenzhen, and then took us to the bus to go back to Hong Kong in the evening, staying with us until the bus left.

The tour guide in Beijing, China, had retired from the Chinese tourist association but still guided tours when he was needed. He was very knowledgeable about Chinese history and customs, and was very good at keeping us away from beggars and pickpockets during a crowded tourist season. The tour guide that took us to Nazareth and Galilee was a Jewish man, but whose knowledge of Jesus and his ministry was fantastic.  

Our tour guide in Siberia was very knowledgeable.  She told us that we had come on a good day because the sun was shining and it was 35 degrees F.  She said she had to sell her car because the streets were so full of potholes, she couldn't keep it repaired.  I know some roads here in Birmingham that are just as bad.

Some tour guides can be very annoying. For example, the one we had in Taiwan had a habit of repeating the last sentence that he said. After a few hours, we were tired of this. The tour guide that took us to Stonehenge filled in the time when he was not giving us facts with trivia, when all we wanted to do was rest or sleep. He also had a habit of rolling his r's to show off to make us think he was a typical upper-crust Englishman. The guide in Split, Croatia, spoke in a monotone that sounded like a child in school memorizing a piece of poetry. She also used "uh" in about every other sentence and had no interaction with the people on her tour. The Russian tour guide was very cold and would not let us stop to use the restroom in the airport - her answer was "use the one on the plane." You can imagine the poor flight attendants trying to work around the line in the aisle.

I have some advice for tour guides. You are, in fact, a teacher and you are teaching visitors about the country that you are so very proud of. Be aware that you have a captive audience on a bus full of people who are usually jet lagged, have had too much to eat, or who have not slept well in strange beds. Let them know that they are welcome and give them a reason to want to hear what you have to say. After all, your tips reflect on how well you pleased your passengers.

When Are We Going to Stop? I Need to .......


No, this is not something inappropriate, but using the restroom in other countries can be a great adventure. One of the most favorite pictures of the students in my China video is a picture of the "squatty potty" or toilet on the floor. I explain to them that China has so many people that it is easier to clean the floor toilets by mopping rather than having to clean our familiar Western toilets individually. At least the ones that we encountered in China, Japan, and other Far Eastern countries flushed like ours, only you had to squat (both men and women) rather than sit.

In our hotel in Japan, we found that the toilet not only had a seat warmer and flushed itself, but you could direct water to clean your privates either in the front or back, depending on what you did.  I would love a toilet like that at home, but I could see an electrician here in the United States laughing under his breath when we told him where we wanted an outlet.  In North Vietnam when we visited a home, the hostess asked all of us very kindly if we needed to use the restroom.  Of course I did.  She led me to an outside partition about the size of a small shower stall enclosed by a heavy dark kind of tarp attached to a rod with hooks.  In this enclosure was a bucket.  My husband, who waited until we stopped at regular facilities a few miles down the road told me that he thought the bucket was a better choice.

In Moscow, we found the restroom (called "toilet" in Europe and Australia) down in the basement of Gum Department Store, which is now a large mall filled with high-end stores that ordinary Russians cannot begin to afford. We knew that there would be a "babushka", or grandmother-like lady wanting to take money for the privilege and we had one-dollar bills to give her. However, this lady chewed us out in Russian for even thinking of giving her foreign money and tried to tell us where the money changing booth was and of course we couldn't understand a word she said. Knowing we were running out of time since we had to get on our bus, we went and found our guide. She gave us the correct amount in very small change saying that the ladies did not like to give out change. We got chewed out again becuse we had such small change, but she did allow us to go in. When we got in, we discovered that the "toilet" was a hole in the floor, with two metal strips for our feet. Of course, there was no way to flush it and everything ran down into a trench. No paper either, so we got out our handy Kleenex.

In Europe, you always pay for the privilege in a public restroom and a man might encounter a cleaning lady or lady taking up money. In Egypt, you are given one square of toilet paper as you go into the fairly clean restroom and you have to pay as you leave. In Dalian, China, I was trying to help my friend who uses crutches (fortunately this was an American fixture) open a stuck door and the entire door came off the hinges! I have taken a lot of teasing for this. At the original Olympic stadium in Athens, the restrooms were marble! 

In some countries, the plumbing is so primitive that you are asked to throw your used paper into a trash can next to the toilet. Most of the time, I forgot since I was in the habit of throwing it in the toilet at home. How would you like to clean these bathrooms?

The one complaint I have about restrooms in all countries is that why do tour companies plan their stops at places with the least number of ladies' toilets and the maximum number of buses and tourists. I hate spending all of my stop waiting in line to use the facilities.