Travel Tips

Unilateral Butt Syndrome

 

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Headed back home in the eerie light.

This time of year, the road to Spokane from where I live (just a little east of Seattle) is moderately nerve-wracking; you have to take one of three passes (North via the 2, South via the 410, or the standard I-90) and two are typically closed (the north and south). The 90 itself has a history of landslides and closures, and since my PT appointment was at 11am in Spokane this meant I needed to leave the house around 4am and cross the pass at night. (Actually it meant I needed to leave at 6am, but I didn’t realize the South pass was closed and so drove all the way down to South Auburn before I figured that out and had to double-back).

 

Once you get past the pass, though, it’s eerily beautiful in these cold winter months, with snow on the ground and overcast skies. I pulled over to take a picture on the way back, both to capture the light and also to stretch the legs; otherwise five hours in the car is a bit much, even for those of us who enjoy driving.

The question you may have that I haven’t yet answered is why I was going to a physical therapy appointment in Spokane in the first place. I live in the Seattle area, surely there are good physical therapists here? Yes, of course there are. But the very best physical therapist I have ever had (who managed to get me off of regular knee injections and back into running in my 40’s) moved to Spokane and so for things like orthotics and gait analysis and exercises I go see her. (It’s Kit Vogel at Tailwind Physical Therapy, if you’re interested– she also does bike fittings.)  Yes, I will take a day off work and drive 600 miles roundtrip to keep myself active. Quite apart from all this Kit is a wonderful person and fun to hang out with.

My knee, sensing an expert appointment was at hand, decided to go out three days before my planned appointment. It was my first outdoor run in months (not including the Disney Half) and I was sore post run — and then the next day — and then really sore the next day. So off to Kit I went.

After marking on my legs (with green washable marker) and measuring my gait in slow-mo and reviewing my shoes and my orthotics, she pronounced my problem: Unilateral Butt Syndrome. In short, my right cheek has been doing all the work for both cheeks (when running and working out), and so my left cheek is lazy. Therefore over time my knee has had to take up the slack for my left leg when running, and as my orthotics and shoes wore out (I use Hokas but because it’s for knee cushioning they don’t last more than about 6 months with regular use) my ankles and feet stopped doing their part and sent the work up to my left knee.  The left knee will only put up with so much of that bullshit before it screams and so here I am, with a busted knee. Apparently UBS is a real thing, as I was explaining it to a friend at the gym and one of the trainers chimed in with, “Oh yeah, I have that!”.

I now have nimg_0506ew orthotics on the way and new shoes, and a new set of exercises I’m doing probably less often than I should but probably more often than Kit thinks I am; and kinesio tape on the knee. That the exercises are awkward (see pic) and difficult is not unexpected. It’s also hard to tell how quickly I will recover. I’ve stopped running for now and am walking (on the treadmill at incline, outside with my best friend) to keep moving. I’ve figured out (finally) that I will not be able to continue running without the routine of floor exercises to keep my butt from being lazy and shifting all the work to one cheek; this is not a case of “ok the pain is gone now I don’t have to do clams anymore”.

If you suspect you have UBS, talk to your PT, and I’m happy to share info on the exercises I have to do. Mostly it’s clams (for the glutes), bridges, push me/pull you (as seen above), hamstring work, and balance work. It’s not particularly fun and for those of us who are impatient and just want to go do the run or walk or whatever it’s an extra series of steps. Considering that impatience got me here, though,  I shouldn’t let it keep me here.

Side note: if you find yourself alone in the car for five hours each way, the Rich Roll podcast is particularly good. Thanks to my brother and Havi Zavi for the recommendation.

 

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The Valley Isle

Two years (and a couple of weeks) ago, my husband and I were married on the island of Kauai. The only attendee was our best man, ring bearer, and man of honor: my son. It was a perfect vacation, marked by lazy beach days and the obligatory helicopter tour.

We had decided upon our return that we’d save up and return to Hawaii in two years, and would go to Maui: I had been as a teenager with my parents but neither my son nor husband had been; all I remembered was that my brother and I had made a large pain in the ass about going to Lahaina all of the time. I think I was seventeen at the time.

Maui is an island composite of two volcanoes, effectively splitting the island into a “north” and “south” with a valley betwixt. We were staying in Kihei which meant that from Kahului (OGG – the major airport on the island, and on the eastside) you cross through the valley to the west side of the island, and drive down a bit (down the North, then South Kihei road along the Piilani highway). We rented a condo (pro tip: if you’re going to Hawaii with kids it is far cheaper to get a two bedroom condo with a kitchenette than it is to get a two bedroom hotel room; and the bonus is you can eat in for breakfast) and if you’re interested I recommend VRBO for that — check out the pictures and review the amenities. NB: groceries on Hawaii are more expensive than at home. Just accept it. It’s slightly less expensive if you buy local products.

As part of this trip I decided I’d reread James Michener’s Hawaii, for the bulk of the middle text takes place in Lahaina, and I knew we would be visiting there this trip. I had to reassure my dad — who good-naturedly teased me about this trip and asked if we’d go to Lahaina — that yes, we would be going, but no we would not be staying. Lahaina is a beautiful, historic town, but it’s also where you’d go if you *need* to be surrounded by shops and lots of people and that is frankly not me (or us). In Michener’s Hawaii it covers the missionary settlement in Lahaina and its formative years, along with the importation of Chinese and Japanese labor, the impact of the missionary settlement (and imported labor) on the Hawaiians, etc. At something like a thousand pages a Michener book should come on a kindle but it goes surprisingly fast, especially when your afternoon is beachside, listening to the rolling waves and watching your teenager boogieboard. I finished on day two.

In our trips to Lahaina, we first visited the Baldwin Home. This is not the missionary that Michener based his central character on (Abner Hale) although by reading his bio and reviewing his living quarters I’d bet money it’s who he based his missionary/doctor character on (Dr. Whipple). Entrance to the Baldwin home is a mere $5 for adults, kids are free; it’s a quick review but a beautiful home. Head a bit south and west from there and you will come upon the Lahaina courthouse, which has in its confines a lovely art gallery (Maui is big on art galleries and if I had had a spare $1500 I would have purchased a particular map of the island) and a museum showing (very briefly by museum standards) the history of the area: you can see an original sperm whale tooth (declaring the power of the Alii Nui — basically the Royal person gets to wear it) hung by 80 strands of braided human hair (no joke); you get to see original fabric created by the Hawaiians (and how it’s essentially paper-based and involves a lot of different beating implements to get it into shape), as well as several currencies used on the island (until Hawaii came to the US as a territory and then a state it used Mexican, American, Spanish, Portuguese, Netherlands, etc. currency). There’s a bit of stamp collecting and a history of the last kings of Hawaii, as well as the timeline of the “center” of Hawaii — the capital of which did not move to Honolulu until just before the Civil War.

Just outside the courthouse is a beautiful Banyan tree, with at least seven roots (this tree has one main center and then has tendrils out to at least six other root systems, so basically it looks like seven trees that are all interconnected) and to the right (south) of the tree is a corner of what was the old fort — hewn from coral block. Up the street (eastward, about 3 blocks) is the old Lahaina prison, where you can see the prisoner’s quarters, read the costs and relative frequencies associated with various crimes (they have 3 year snapshots so you can see the impact on adultery that is, I believe, inverse from public drunkenness — if I remember correctly; I should have taken a picture). Lahaina is not all preserved history, though, and if you want a truly amazing collection of souvenir, ice cream, eatery, jewelry, and skin-care shops you’d be hard pressed to find a larger set on the island.

Lahaina though is not the be-all and end-all of Maui and it would be a shame to ignore other areas. Here’s a brief review if you’re thinking about going; for us we consider the Maui box “checked”:

Kihei/Wailea – beautiful beaches. At Kamaole beach park (I or II) you can snorkel with sea turtles (we did). There’s a rough selection of shops and even a health food store (Hawaiian Moons, which also has ready-to-eat food). The best dinners we had were at a place called the Monkeypod kitchen (we went twice) in Wailua, which is just south of where we stayed in Kihei. For runners, a good run is from north to south Kihei and then up the Wailua hill– it’s a solid one mile of uphill but the downhill is a patient grade and you will very much enjoy it. A good deli is the 808 deli on south Kihei, just across from the second Kamaole beach park.

Paia (pronounced Pah-EE-ah) has a couple of blocks of shops and it’s on the Road to Hana (a southward road along the east side of the island which is more about the journey tha the destination). Best pizza ever is at a place called the Flabread Company, where you get a pulled pork, pineapple, goat cheese and maui onion pizza. Don’t argue. Just get it.

Kanapali – also a good beach, specifically the DT Fleming beach just north of the Ritz. Not pretty — there’s bits of wood everywhere — but the boogieboarding is top-notch (per the teenager). Unless you value a burger at $25 get your food before you arrive there; there’s picnic tables and the restrooms are NICE!

Ha’Iku – make sure to visit the North Shore Zipline Company (which is ironic since they’re actually on the south of the island but whatever). Seven zip lines and for those of us on the trip that were afraid of heights (hi) it was transformative. The crew there is patient, kind, and will not let you chicken out of things. They are also witty intelligent guys. The pictures they take are well worth it — you don’t see the photographer all that often but he does take some amazing pictures.

Wailuku – Maui Ocean Center & Aquarium. Hands down one of the best aquariums I’ve ever been to (it was built in ’98 so I couldn’t nag my parents to take me to it), they have actual sharks (juveniles — as they mature they’re released back into the wild) and they’re staffed by local University marine biologists. Sea turtles, hammerhead and reef sharks, informative exhibits and a nice, non-confrontational gift shop (e.g. you don’t have to exit through it).

Molokini Crater – you get here via snorkeling tour and there’s tours and tours. We went a little higher-end and from a volume-of-people-on-the-boat perspective it was worth it; the Alii Nui tours are staffed by professional, gracious people who know what they’re about. You wanna dive? You can dive. You wanna Snuba/Hooka dive? Yep. You wanna snorkel? rock on. You wanna snorkel but you’ve never done it before? Yep, they can help you with that. Full breakfast and lunch plus snacks, they provide towels and sunscreen, and it’s five hours of sheer fun. Plus they sail back for a bit, so if you are a sailor at heart — or like to pretend you are — I highly recommend.

Beijing, Part II

After three days of meetings, 1:1’s, whiteboarding, catching up with my mentor, and amazing team lunches and dinners, I was on my own, for a day, in Beijing.

My hotel was in the “Silicon Valley” district of Beijing, in and of that the area is populated with many of the tech offices; Microsoft has two buildings there joined by a skybridge (which announces “Hi, I’m Cortana”). As I can easily get lost when I haven’t done my proper research and got my bearings, I elected for a day-tour on my one day off.

The night before I left I got a call at 10pm:

Her: “Hello, this is your Tour Guide. You need to be outside your hotel at 6:30am for your tour bus, okay?”

Me: “Ok.”

Her: “What time are you going to sleep? I will call you later with your bus number.”

Me: “I was asleep when you called.” 

Her: “What time are you going to sleep?”

Me: “I was already asleep.” 

Her: (Pause) “Oh. I will call you at 6am tomorrow to tell you your buss number.” 

Me: “Okay.”

Her: (Demanding) “Why do you not want to go to the Great Wall?”

Me: (Nonplussed) “What??”

Her: (Demanding & Impatient) “You signed up for Forbidden City and Summer Palace. Why do you not want to go to the Great Wall?”

Me: (Defensively) “It’s not that I don’t want to go, it’s that I only have one day, and my friends told me to do this. 

Her: (Warning) “Are you sure you don’t want to go to the Great Wall?” 

Me: (Too tired to care…)“Maybe next time.” 

Her: “Okay” (hangs up)

Thanks to the aforementioned jetlag/insomnia I was up at 4am, answering emails and toddling around. Breakfast is not available at the hotel before 6:30am so I walked over to the 7-11 and purchased Mystery Breakfast and orange juice, both of which were decent. At 6:30 I got on the bus. I was the first person on it.

After 3 more stops the bus was half full, including a woman behind me who appeared to be retching into a plastic back (based on sound). I was relieved when the tour bus stopped just outside the Forbidden City and Linda, my Tour Guide (from the phonecall the night before), got on and said “You’re from the Crowne Plaza, right? Come with me.”

It wasn’t hard to tell, I was the only non-Asian person on the bus.

With Linda I joined up with two other gents, both from Singapore, and realized that we were on the “English Tour Guide” tour. We walked to the Forbidden City, along one side, and then along the moat (it’s about 50 meters wide). Linda pointed out the four gates into the City (North/South/East/West) with their ritual uses (West is for dead people to go out, only the Emperor could use the South—except on her wedding day the Empress could, too), the four watchtowers in each corner, and the large gate doors with 81 metal studs in them (9×9, because 9 is the highest single-digit number and the Emperor is the highest person, aside from their deity). We walked through the South Gate (neaner, neaner Emperor) and into the first part of the Forbidden City.

(Side note: as our Guide returned from purchasing tickets a young Chinese couple approached her and asked her something. She turned to me: “They want to take your picture.” Me: “Wha…why??” Her: “They haven’t seen a white person not on TV before”. Me: “Um.. okay…” Somewhere in China I’m on an iPhone.

The Guide explained to me that they were not from Beijing, and that no one from Beijing or Shanghai would even care. But they were tourists, too, and apparently white people are on the list of things to look at.)

The Forbidden City is both larger and smaller than you’d expect. The first piece we walked into can best be described as a large courtyard, with buildings on each side. Beyond those buildings are other areas/courtyards, with more buildings, of varying significance.

“You see that building?” she said, pointing to a single-story building (don’t let the description fool you, a single-story building in the Forbidden City is about 3 standard US stories). “That building is NOT important.” That building had ornate lacquer, multiple pillars, gold-leaf dragons embedded in the top around it, and impressive marble stairs leading up to it. (Then again, so did every other building in the complex).

“It is NOT important because it only has 1 level. In Ming and Qing dynasty, you have 1 level for ‘regular building’. Two levels for ‘Emperor building’. And three or more levels for Temple. Emperor needed more levels than regular but could not have as many as God.”

We walked from one building to the next, marveling at the ornate carvings and the excellent restoration work that had been done. “See that building? Not important. Emperor would stop there to change his robes.” This would become a recurring theme: “That building? Not important.” I have many, many pictures of these buidings (both non-and-important ones).

After walking all over the Forbidden City we went to the Temple of Heaven (“See? Three level. Very Important.”) where I discovered that the architecture was indeed beautiful but I didn’t want a picture of the inside bad enough to withstand the jostling that was clearly de rigeur. I walked around the perimeter instead, taking pictures from the hilltop that the Temple sits on.

After this we headed to the Pearl Market, a government-run facility that aims to expand China’s burgeoning cultured freshwater pearl market. These are not the “Rice Krispy” pearls of my memory, but beautiful, round pearls that come in five colors: white (everyday/purity), black(indpenedence), purple (for romantic love), pink(friendship), and gold (dragon lady/super fancy). Be warned: you walk in and you get to help them open up an oyster and see the cultured pearls within, but you also are then followed by your very own salesperson for the rest of your time in the shop. Even if you’re just looking. The variety is impressive and I bought something (hey, I was in China!), including my first (and only) Chinese Diet Coke.

Chinese Diet Coke tastes exactly like American Diet Coke, which is surprising. As the male person remarked, “Diet Coke doesn’t even taste the same in Canada!”

After this we had lunch that was right next door to a fish market. Most of the items for sale there were what you’d see in any decent fish market in the US, with one notable exception.

We then went to the Summer Palace. The Summer Palace was about 40 minutes away and the van got quiet with sleepy tourists, which was good. When we arrived we were refreshed and the guide explained that the lake which bordered the Summer Palace was artificially made—or partially so. “Half was here. Half was made. They took the dirt from the half that was made and made that hill there,” she said, gesturing to a hill with a temple atop. “This was a present from the Emperor to his mother.” It’s pretty impressive when you take into account the size of the lake and the size of the hill, never mind the actual building architecture. As with any tourist attraction, the buildings were laced with gift shops and gift stands, and crowded with people much as the last two spots. “All the children are out of school for summer,” she said. “Now is the time when all of the tourists are here.”

tourists, like us :)

Tourists, Like Us 🙂

Our final destination for the day was Mr. Tea, a teashop. We were treated to tea service and learned how to properly drink tea (it depends, apparently, on what kind of tea, if you are going to slurp it or “chew” it or sip it). We learned how to hold the teacups (ladies: thumb and forefinger at the top, middle finger to the bottom, ring and pinky finger extended; gents: thumb and forefinger at the top, middle finger to the bottom, ring and pinky finger curled in under the cup. If men do it the “ladies’” way, they are considered “girly”. If ladies do it the men’s way, they are considered to be “dragon lady”). One variety of local tea is called Pu-er tea, and it’s very good; as with our other shop-stop this one meant we had a shopping assistant at our very elbow, coaching us on what else to buy. I noticed in both places there was no real dickering but they really emphasized the upgrade (“Don’t you want a necklace with that? What about when you go to a party? You need to be dressed up!”) (Trying to explain to this very delicate, feminine creature that I do not go to parties, and that I spend the majority of my time either at a computer or in equally unglamorous events seemed moot.)

I got back to the hotel at about 4pm, tired but happy. There are other tours available at the hotel and of course a ton more to see, which I will do on my next trip.

Beijing Airport

If you’re going to be stuck in an airport longer than you expected, Beijing Terminal 3 isn’t all that bad.

I arrived 3 hours early courtesy of my reliance on the calendar set by corporate travel booking. It turns out when you have a 4pm flight, your corporate travel team books a calendar for 1pm, because they figure that’s when you need to be leaving your hotel to go to the airport. My jetlagged insomniac brain saw that my flight left at 1pm, and I got here (courtesy of no-traffic Saturday morning) at 9:30am. Oh well.

Air Canada (my carrier) would not let me check in until 1pm, so that meant I had some serious time on my hands before I could get to the gate. Fortunately, there’s a variety of eateries, gift shops, and services *before* security, so I’ve spent some time (and some yuan) while waiting. I cruised the gift shops, of which there are about 10 (of varying degree of price: there’s a Chinese Gold jewelry shop and there’s the local equivalent of a drugstore, and everything in between). These are the kind of airport gift shops where if you wanted to score a dust collector or a silk scarf or a set of chopsticks or a stuffed panda bear, you’re set.

If you go upstairs from the ticketing gates you will find not only a Burger King (no thank you), but also a tea house/massage service. You can get a foot massage, a back massage, and/or tea. I opted for all 3 (again, plenty of time to kill). With my complete lack of Mandarin I pointed to the English Words saying Foot Massage and was beckoned by a nice lady in a uniform down a hallway, another hallway, and into a wood paneled alcove. There we turned through a maze of a hallway past individual wood-paneled massage rooms, until we got to mine. I was beckoned to sit, and then I was brought a cup of sweet water. As part of the foot massage they soak your feet in hot water, and I do mean hot: it’s the kind of hot where you have to convince yourself they couldn’t possibly have expected you to put your feet in something that would scald you.

There I sat, while my feet turned an impressive shade of scarlet, and a man came in.

Oh, there’s another cultural shift.

For me, massage has usually meant women for women, and women/men for men. Or at least, I’d be asked. There was no asking here, but then again there was no nakedness (even for back massage). They drape a light towel across your neck and shoulders and go to town. If you have a knot when you walk in, you do not have a knot when you walk out. You can wince and gasp all you want, too. The nice man with the scorpion tattooed on the inside of his wrist does not care, and he will take care of it.

By this time I had a roommate, a nice lady who never got off her phone the entire time she was in the room. I figured I should suck it up for her benefit, too.

The foot massage part was even more robust; there were pain points and more pain points, and something that felt not unpleasantly like they were cracking your toe knuckles. I don’t know a better way to put it than that. After a while I gave up and got my phone out too; Sudoku and foot massage ftw.

Then I had tea.

They have a special tea here in Beijing, called Pu-er tea. It looks like black tea but is not as strong, and has purported healthful properties. As part of tea service they give you a little plate of sunflower seeds and plastic-wrapped biscuits, neither of which really interested me, and then they make the tea in front of you, leaving you with a tiny cup and a glass teapot to pour from. That’s where I’m at right now, typing away on the local free wifi, waiting for my airline to open.

Some other travel tips for you:

  • Local hotels will tell you it costs about 600Yuan to get from their hotel to the airport (especially if you’re in the “Silicon Valley” district). The cab is less than 200Yuan, but it’s cash only (they can give you a receipt).
  • Not all of the toilets are the standard Western variety. There’s a few squat-style ones, but they’re usually marked on the outside of the door so you can tell before venturing into the stall. This is true not only for the airport but for restaurants as well.
  • You get a better conversion rate if you use your credit card or cash, than if you use USD in the airport. Exchange rate in the airport gift shops is 6Yuan to 1USD, for cards and otherwise you get 6.2Yuan to 1USD. Best to get your Yuan stateside and come prepared.
  • Most restaurants will take credit cards, but small shops and smaller eateries will not. Also, not all US credit cards are accepted, and we had a devil of a time using our Corporate Amex in anything but our hotel and very large, established restaurants.
  • American branded food (e.g., Burger King, Hagen Daaz) is more expensive than local fare and way more expensive than back home. You’re in Beijing, you don’t need ice cream.
  • Almost everyone knows some basic (and I do mean basic) English: hello, this way, please, etc. However for the most part service staff know these words as symbols and are expecting a set of standard responses. For example, I was asked this morning, “Would you like some more coffee?” To which I replied, “Sure, I’d like a little more coffee.”  Because I didn’t say “yes” and instead used “sure”, and because I added “a little” in there, the look I received in response was nonplussed. I switched it to “yes” and that sorted things out. The service staff’s accent is usually very light for these practiced phrases, and you will be lulled into thinking you can have more robust conversations with them (e.g., “Do the biscuits have nuts?” never got a real response because I couldn’t make myself understood). (I didn’t eat the biscuits).
  • Most hotels can arrange a tour of the sights (which I did). However in retrospect if I had spent a little time planning (if I had had it) with a subway map and done some research on the sights, I could’ve easily seen it without going with my little group. I would not have got the educational bits from the tour guide, but I could have read those in advance, as well.
  • The air does indeed get smoggy. I was fortunate to come in after a rain so my first 3 days were gorgeous, clear, and blue. By the fifth day it looks like we’re in a cloud. Drinking tea helps the throat soreness you get from this.
  • If you love your toiletries – especially deodorant – bring them and do not count on buying them here. I ran low on deodorant while here and thought I’d just pick up another one to be covered (no pun intended) – good luck with that. The local 7-11 had toothpaste, etc. but no deodorant. A bing search for “Is there deodorant in China” will get you humorous and informative results.
  • Don’t eat the street food (at least, we were cautioned by our local friends not to do so). DO eat with an open mind. I have had several different kinds of critter and a variety of vegetables, and it was all great.
  • At the airport you need to fill out a little yellow and cream colored card, usually available on tables right before you walk up to customs and immigration. If you miss it and get all the way up to the person on the other end of the glass, they’ll send you back to get one and fill it out and then get back in line… which is usually long. So, read all of the signs and look for the little cards.
  • Once you’ve passed security (on your way out from Beijing) the shops are predominantly duty-free, and high-end souvenir. There are a few places to eat and, if you really want one, there is a Starbucks.

I have another post, in which I’ll go through my “tourist” day here in Beijing, but it’s now 1:10 and I can finally check in. Woo hoo!

Economics and the Power of Hindsight

I recently found myself on a direct flight, courtesy of Delta, from JFK to Seattle. Having thrown out my back (technically dislocated two rear ribs), and not slept well the night previous, I was tired and cranky as I checked in. For most travelers, checking in means using a kiosk or online app, which in turn peppers you with questions like “do you want to check your bags?” and “do you want to upgrade your seat?” As I had arrived at SeaTac on the way to JFK in pretty much the same state, I made some fiscally dubious choices on the way out, and on the way in. Here you get to learn from my mistake(s).

First, the way out: it was 5:30AM when I got to Airport Road and my flight left at 7am. I did not intend to check my bag, so that was a blessing, but I figured security would be awful (I was proven right). Therefore I opted to park at the airport rather than offsite as per usual, saving me the shuttle ride to and from the airport but costing me (it turns out) about $36 more for this trip. The verdict? Nice, but not worth it. It was nice not having to hassle a shuttle ride, and being able to pay a machine on my way to my car and just drive away, but it wasn’t $36 nice and I would’ve made my flight despite the long security line. I didn’t check my bag and I had already checked in online the night before.

Now, on the way back: it was 4:30AM when I arrived at JFK and had 3 hours to kill. My back was aching and my sleep had been nonexistent, and so I both checked my bag ($25) and upgraded to Comfort Economy (or Delta’s equivalent), for $39. (NB: each time you use the kiosk to do a transaction, you run your card for EACH PART of the transaction and get a receipt for EACH PART of the transaction. Not efficient.) The results on this are mixed: the bag check was totally worth it: for the remaining 2.75 hours I had post-security, I didn’t have to lug around a heavy bag (just a heavy laptop) and it was one less thing to have to manage from seat to coffee shop to seat to other coffee shop (there’s not a lot to do in JFK at 5am). I didn’t have to fight anyone for overhead bin space and could plop right down into my seat. Verdict: worth it.

That said, “Comfort” Economy is a joke. I had a window seat, which should have been a lot more comfortable, but it wasn’t. My knees hit the chair in front of me (I am 5’10” in flats) and the seat appeared as narrow as the “regular” Economy seats. The sole nod to comfort that I could see was that the attached-to-the-seat pillow was slightly plusher and of a lighter color leather. For $39 I wasn’t expecting first class, but an inch or two more of legroom and a nicer chair would be good. Verdict: so very not worth it.

Delta has free-first-bag bag check with certain levels of flight status/mileage membership and/or their credit card. I get a similar deal on United and it’s nice.  The question becomes if I’m willing to pay $25 for the privilege of checking my bag, would I pay the same (or more) for guaranteed overhead compartment space?

In a World…

Greetings from Florida, where the weather has been 90’s (or slightly less) via humidity or temperature, take your pick. It has been mahvelous, apart from a few work hiccups. (Yes, I check work email; yes, it’s a habit; no, I don’t intend to stop).

Highlights from the last 3 days include staying at the in-law’s fabulous new home, with 3 steal-worthy kitties and an enviable pool. Also, we saw our first palmetto bug (dead) and discovered that there is decent pizza in Florida. A comfortable bed, good company, and great hospitality sure kick-off a vacation properly.

No, I didn’t steal the cat (his name was Barney). But I wanted to.

But! Off we headed, in our Alamo Rental Car (WARNING: super ranty blog post coming on that soon, but right now I’m in talks with their twitter customer service people), down to Orlando. And found ourselves at the Art of Animation Studios.

It’s nothing short of perfect. We have a room separate from the boychild, so he has his own bathroom and his own TV. We are on the top floor. We are in the Finding Nemo themed room, on the building with Sharks on it, on the level with a ginormous shark mural. The poolside food includes sushi. The WiFi is free. The front desk clerk told me to have a Magical Day and SketchYa Later, which from a theme park about animation was so precious and yet cheesy and yet I had a huge grin on my face as I departed check-in. (The only time that has happened before was on late-night work trips when I realized the ordeal was over and I was about to get to sleep).

Instead, we headed down to the pool. Two hours of Mommy reading the Economist and working on the obligatory burn (YES I USED SUNSCREEN MY SKIN DOES THAT OKAY?) and the boys swimming, and we’re back to the room showering and changing for dinner. Our towels were folded on the beds in Mickey Ears and Fish (with the whole Nemo theme). The toiletries are about level 4, with differentiated soaps.  I’m not sure I want to check out.

Tonight we are off to Downtown Disney, where we are to see the Percy Jackson movie (2nd one) in a dining-theater, I’m not sure which of the three of us is more excited, to be frank. The boy just read through all 5 original novels (and three of the sequels) right before summer started, we have seen the first movie, but the trailers for the 2nd look really good and the prospect of “dinner and a movie”, without having to hassle driving or timing (they serve dinner… at the movie), is really comforting.

Especially for someone who has spent 450 words, up to the beginning of this sentence, enjoying things and augmenting that enjoyment by sharing over the internet. Because in less than five hours, I’m going offline. Completely. Internetless, textless, foursquare-less, email-less, twitter-less, Facebook-less until Saturday morning local time. It will be a first in many years. My son looked at me agog as I patiently explained that our wallets, AND our cell phones, were going in the safe. It’s like I told him Aliens would land tomorrow. That said, he too is looking forward to the challenge.

For those of you who know my penchant for the Pirate League, and getting made up into a Pirate Princess (SPECIAL shout out to ExpediaManny), I WILL be doing that and taking pictures — but we scheduled for Saturday, so I could live-tweet it. I know you’re stoked, as I am.

Vacation: it means different things to different people, and mine is going to 11.

Welcome to Scottsdale

It had been a few visits here for me before I realized that Scottsdale is, in fact, its own city. The sprawl that is Phoenix stretches out for miles; if you fly in at night you are treated to a truly awe-inspiring stretch of lights. As “Scottsdale” is only 30 minutes from the airport, I had always taken it for granted that it was but a neighborhood. Soon however you notice signs that say “City of Scottsdale” and eventually, the “Welcome to Scottsdale” signs along the wide, clean freeways.

My parents moved here 3 years ago, after having lived in Washington for nearly 25 years. This place is as dry and hot as my adopted state is wet and cold: most of the year it is, and some of the year it isn’t. This time of year, it’s very, very hot. Two nights ago, the “low” was 92 degrees.

This temporal extremity leans to some specialized behaviors: stores and shops all have their AC up full-bore, so walking out of 110 degree heat into 70 degrees is a bit jolting. My mother ordered hot tea with lunch because the restaurant was so cold. Women wear sleeveless shirts or dresses, and shorts or capris or skirts; when they leave the car they reach first for their shades and the windshield shade, and second for a little sweater or wrap for once they enter the store. I’ve seen it. It’s real.

In Washington, after it rains, things smell fresh and woodsy; in Scottsdale, after it rains… I can’t quite describe it. It’s a vaguely grassy, musty smell. It’s not wholly unpleasant once you’re used to it. And when the sun comes out again, your first inclination (as a Washingtonian) is to run right out and enjoy it, after all, you’re looking through large picture windows at sunshine dappling on the pool, and hummingbirds flitting about. You open the door, go outside, and your face starts to flake off.

I will say this: the climate, however hot, does great things for acne, and hair that won’t behave. I can let my hair air-dry here without getting massive frizz. And thus far I haven’t gotten completely burnt. Or not much. Playing in a backyard pool for hours that is naturally at 90 degrees isn’t bad, either.

If you’re looking to visit Scottsdale and/or Phoenix in summer, I do recommend the following:

1. Pack a light windbreaker. It’s monsoon season, and so it “rains”. If you’re a Washingtonian you don’t probably care much about rain, but others seem to, so it makes them feel better when you have a light jacket.

2. Sunscreen. Spray-on, waterproof, and use it repeatedly.

3. Phoenix (and Scottsdale) have many GREAT museums (including the Heard, the Art museum, the Natural History museum…) and a wonderful zoo. It’s not just golf and desert hikes and great Mexican food.

4. Water. Drink lots and lots and lots and lots of water. Not from the tap. The water here is killer hard, so most houses/establishments have water softeners, which make the water taste like ass. So get bottled, or filtered water. No, I don’t know what ass really tastes like, so let’s just say I *imagine* that’s what it tastes like. Just read it as unpleasant.

5. The freeways here are wide, languid, flat things with lots of other people on them, who (for the most part) drive reasonably. But motorcyclists don’t have to wear helmets and they don’t always drive “reasonably” here. If you rent a car, note that, and also note that no matter how cool it seems outside, a shady parking spot will be worth a little bit of a walk.

6. If you play outside, or run outside (I don’t in the summer, the ‘rents have a treadmill), do it early and remember the altitude. Scottsdale is 632m (about 2000 feet), unlike my hometown of Sammamish, which is 9m (30 feet). It makes a huge difference in your cardio.

And, as you leave, note that the Phoenix Airport is truly crazily laid out, so if you have to return a rental car plan some extra time (especially as it’s a 20-minute shuttle ride from the rental car facility to the actual airport). If someone is dropping you off,  you need to know what terminal you’re at well in advance of airport arrival (or you will miss your terminal and do that never-ending-drive-around-the-airport-thing).  Finally, the TSA area has a dedicated family-friendly line — and they don’t care if your kid is 10. Just sayin’.

Taking Back Travel

Sitting on a plane that until recently held a screaming baby (the baby was not jettisoned, the baby stopped screaming) I realized that I no longer will be traveling for work, or not nearly as much, and this is, I think, a good thing.

While I love to travel — specifically to see new things, eat new things, to take pictures of the new things I’m eating so others can see it (tweet tweet) — traveling for work is much different from traveling for pleasure. When you travel for work, your time is NOT your own; your arrival is usually timed for *right before* your first meeting, your departure is usually timed for *right after*. There is no sleeping in, you rarely use that fitness center you wanted to be certain was in the hotel, you frequently discover you packed the wrong shoes. Airports become a game of “who has free wi-fi?” (NB: in Heathrow and Fiumicino you need to pay for it, I recommend the business traveller get a Boingo pass; in Phoenix and SeaTac it’s free) Your fellow passengers, even at their most charming, are merely cogs in the system and a hinderance to getting through the security line, or to the restaurant, or to the gate, or to your seat. You become a connoisseur of airlines for their coffee service, for their in-flight magazine, for their leg room. The trip isn’t fun anymore, in short.

As we drove in our rental car to the airport today (fun fact: Phoenix airport has an offsite car rental facility — 20 minutes’ drive offsite. If you follow the freeway signs, you’ll be treated to the full driving tour of all 4 terminals of PHX before being sent down a variety of roads for 15 minutes to get to where the facility actually *is*, only to get bussed *back* to the terminal), I realized that my son and I had “time” at the airport — time that wasn’t going to be spent playing “catch up on email before 9 hours in flight”, or “see who can get the freshest sandwich out of the vending machine”. I was not flying at an odd time, the restaurants in the terminal were open, we even looked at overpriced souvenirs. (We chose a hot sauce that may or may not have a swear word in the name).

I will miss team dinners in foreign lands where the currency is colored and the food is graciously unhealthy, I will miss someone else paying for my in-flight wi-fi. I will miss the welcoming of my team and the ferrying duties of bringing treats to, and from, “home”. (Tip for Americans traveling to teams abroad: bring Girl Scout Cookies. Just do it.)

I am, however, ready to travel for fun again.

Learning As I Go

I see I’ve forgotten to do hotel reviews, updates, and other things I learned on my recent trip. Mea Culpa! I blame my economics class.

Patro/Matro-nymics as a Dating Tool

Probably the most fun thing I learned on this recent trip is that Icelanders have dating down to a science. I am not kidding.

In Iceland, the child traditionally takes the father’s first name plus the word ‘son’ or ‘daughter’ (dottir) as their surname. This came up recently about the girl named Blaer, and you can read all about that and link off all you want here, but it got me thinking: you could totally tell if a girl has Daddy Issues if she choses her mother’s name for her surname, and/or if a boy has Mommy Issues likewise. It’s like a window into their childhood and you don’t even have to “wink” at them on Match.com.

Also, one of the best people I’ve got on my London job has the surname Thorisson. We did ask if his dad was named Thor, and it’s pretty close — the name means “worshipper of Thor”, and hey, who isn’t?

It is Possible to Over-Assume as to What Wi-Fi Means

This being my fourth trip to Rome (wow, that sounds really pretentious, trust me when I say as much as I love my Rome team and the fabulous food it’s not as glamorous as it sounds) I was told emphatically that I would not be staying at “that sad little hotel next door”. No, this time I got myself a fancy hotel in the old city, the Valadier, and it was very lovely. They serve a nice espresso. They have wi-fi in the room!

That crashed every. fifteen. minutes. I am not exaggerating. And since my midterm exam was available only for 24 hours, of which 8 I hoped to be sleeping, 4 I had to reserve for dinner (European dinners are breathtaking both in quality and stamina), 9 for work, I really needed my wi-fi to work in my room. A panicked conversation with the front desk man assured me that HIS reception on HIS phone was great, therefore don’t worry.

Thanks to the immense resourcefulness of a lovely gal in the Rome office, I had a quiet conference room and busted out my midterm in 90 minutes right before we left for dinner. Not ideal, but, as the company is/was paying for the class I assume they’ll understand. And yes, I got an “A”.

The Best Laid Plans Will Go Awry. Just Plan For It. 

My flight into Rome was late. My flight into London was late. My flight out of London was really, really late. Jet lag hit harder than any other trip I’ve been on. I broke one of the coffee machines. I lost a meeting room. I totally meant to spend time with someone and didn’t realize I hadn’t until I was almost to Seattle. My plan to have extra room in my bag was thwarted by the fact that it’s winter and all of my clothes were heavy sweaters. Pret changed their menu.

This last trip was a constant reminder that whatever you’re counting on, make sure you’re not counting on it. Or something.

The Best Things Happen When You Take Chances

I went for a run on the Friday, my only morning in London where I’d actually be staying in London that night. Following a map saved to my phone (which got no reception, so it wasn’t a moving map but a pic), I ran about 2.5km up a road and around a park, and then trotted back… or so I thought.

I was about a mile in before I realized *nothing* looked familiar. Not a blessed thing. No buildings, no shops, etc. As most of Islington looks charmingly alike this did not engender much confidence, so I walked into the nearest gas station and asked directions to the Angel Building in Islington. No dice. Walked across the street to a shop, same question, same result.

Hm.

Now, I had no service on my phone, so I couldn’t call up Google Maps. I did not think to bring anything with me but my hotel key, so I had no cash or card to grab a cab back to the hotel. I had run a mile in the *wrong* direction, but which *wrong* was debatable. And so…

I ran back from whence I came, back to the park, and then leveraged every tube station map and bus station map I could find around that park to figure out where I had to go. And got back to my room eventually, ridiculously pleased I didn’t have to give up and get a cab with the promise of “and then wait outside the hotel whilst I go get my wallet”.

Other successful chances included: trying a new place to eat (Meat People. It’s very yum), using my static Starbucks iPhone app to purchase a latte while I had no connectivity (totally forgot Sbux has wi-fi even in London!), and, for the first time in more than 3 years, checking my bag on an international flight. Contents arrived safely both ways.

I therefore declare this trip a success not only for the original needs met, but for the additional learning items. My next trip will be much more local but no less adventurous — please send me your ideas for Portland and the Oregon Coast, with a 10-year-old. 🙂

Pig Foot

“Do you like food?”

The question was put to me, last night after work, over a glass of wine. Sebastien, bless his Teutonic sensitivity, was concerned that I hadn’t made Official Dinner Plans in Montreal. This is apparently a sin of some sort. Add to that, it was Friday, and well, he was concerned.

“What did you have for lunch?” he enquired. I answered — smoked salmon over a bed of lettuce with capers, onions, and two small blinis. “That seems awfully healthy,” he observed pityingly, “Not like Quebec at all.”

When he asked me, shortly after this, about whether or not I liked food, I laughed out loud — I am not anorexic, it’s pretty obvious I like food — but it was such a pitying, concerned way he asked it that I found it funny. I assured him I liked food — really, really liked food. And I had one real night in Montreal (the other one I had arrived into my room, straight from the airport, at midnight. Everything was closed.)

Sebastien had two recommendations: Chasse et Peche, and Aud Pied de Cochon. The first translates roughly as “Hunting and Fishing” and is a super-fancy restaurant for surf and turf. The second translates literally as the Foot of the Pig.  When we found that Chasse was sold out for the night and Sebastien just barely managed to get me room at the bar at Pied (“You can go at 7pm but you have to be out of there by 9:30, okay?”), he proceeded to sell me on it.

They serve poutine (gravy fries) with foie gras on them. “Because,” Sebastien said, “they can. It’s schweinemast.”  “Ah,” I said knowingly, “like Emeril Legasse. Pork fat rules, and all that.” “Exactly, exactly,” he said.

I did not have poutine with foie gras (the lady next to me did, and we discussed it in-depth). I did have duck tartare (and had a private little moment at the bar over it) and then had Plogue A Champlain, which is basically duck bits with foie gras over a pancake and syrup and hey, don’t judge if you haven’t tried it. This is what comes from listening to Sebastien over a glass of wine and then putting yourself utterly in the hands of the nice waiter person at the bar.

Yes I had dessert.

Yes I promptly went for a run this morning to try to ameliorate the caloric destruction of last night. Old Montreal is great for a run if you don’t mind a. taking your life in your hands at every cross walk and b. can find your way as quickly as possible to the waterfront where there are a few k’s of unbroken (or only moderately broken) running/biking paths. Montreal is a lot like the newer bits of Paris in terms of architecture (buildings 300 years old!), tons of little cafes here and there, and friendly people.

You read that. Go read it again. Friendly. People.

I had heard about Quebec — some of the kinder phrases said things like “all of the attitude of France with none of the scenery” — having been to France I can verify that the attitude was there (for I found France friendly), and it had its share of scenery. The only crappy bits were the tourists at my hotel during the manager’s reception (I went for a drink and left before having it — when you have 200 odd guests getting “free” drinks and only 3 servers and 2 barkeeps to attend, it’s a nightmare and people suck).  Even the airport was a pleasant surprise — a 2pm departure on a Saturday usually means get there 3 hours early to fight your way through security– which took all of five minutes.

And so here I sit in Cleveland — stop 1 of 2 stops on the way home (ooh, Philly is next!) having only marginal guilt about last night’s excess (it makes the not-eating of airport food easier to go by). Airports really are the least glamorous part of travel.