Meet Hula-Hooper-Extraordinaire and Travel Essentials’ Employee Lauren Skinner

22 Jul

by Ember Hood

photoBorn in California, Lauren has spent most of her life on the West Coast of the United States – growing up in Tacoma, Washington, for many years before moving to Portland, Oregon. When it came time for college, she chose Southern Oregon University in Ashland because she has family in the area and loves the small town feel and abundant culture of the Rogue Valley. In her spare time, Lauren likes to hula-hoop, and she has one trusty travel hoop that she’s taken with her on trips to both Mexico and Canada.

A lover of language, Lauren studied Spanish in high school, and took her first international trip to Costa Rica when she did a six-month study abroad program. She was placed with a great family, who she has gone back to visit several times since.

In college, Lauren took some French classes, but she decided she wanted to do something different – so, she found a study abroad program in Thailand. She loved being immersed in a completely new culture, and a language she didn’t speak at all. “The Thai language is really beautiful, and so different from ours, it seems almost alien,” she said wistfully. “And the Thai people are so friendly – they always smile and make eye contact. Not like Americans.”

Over the course of her four-month study, she got to take a few trips within the country, visiting rural rice farming villages in northern Thailand’s Mae Chaem district, and beautiful ancient ruins and temples in Sukhothai and Ayutthaya – where she saw the biggest golden reclining Buddha statue she could have ever imagined.

The final trip her group took was to a Lisu village, up in the mountains. The village’s livelihood comes from growing diverse crops – coffee, tomatoes, sugar cane and string beans, and everything in between. On Lauren’slauren1 twentieth birthday, her group hiked up to visit the fields of fresh fruits, vegetables and legumes, where they were promised lunch. But out amongst the crops, away from any structures or kitchens, Lauren wasn’t sure how that would be accomplished. To everyone’s delight, their hosts lay down palm leaves and proceeded to prepare a feast of raw salsas and fresh beans, with fresh sugar cane to chew on, too.

Since most of Lauren’s travels have taken her to Central America and the Far East, she plans to see Europe next. “Spain, because I speak the language,” she told me. “But also France. Rural France, as well as Paris.” And, she added, “I’ll have to take my hula-hoop, too!”

Team Phun! Meets Lawrence of Arabia

1 Jul

by Bob Bestor

CCAMELWhat was the best thing about being on a Camel for the very first time? Was it that my camel was huge? Was it that when my camel stood up, hind legs first as they do, I was unexpectedly tipped waaaay back in the saddle and found myself waaaay off balance, waaaay, waaaay higher up off the ground than I ever expected? Was it that the metal saddle had no padding, felt way too small and offered next to nothing to hold on to? No, here’s the best part: in charge of this enormous, living and snorting, bouncing and heaving desert SUV was an 8-year-old boy named Alsee. Yes, I was about to enter one of earth’s most inhospitable regions, India’s Thar Desert (aka: Marusthali or, Land of the Dead), with a third-grader as my guide. Of course, it turns out he was in complete control, but the first 10 seconds of my camel safari did not fill me with confidence.

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Soon enough though I got used to the unwieldy ride and began to enjoy it. Though still it was bumpy enough that letting go with one hand to dig into my pocket for my camera and trying to take a snapshot while moving felt like living on the edge.

After about 10 minutes we came to our first watering hole stop and our guides, two more 8-year-olds and their boss who looked about 50, helped us dismount from our camels. Fortunately the getting off is not quite as hairy as the getting on. We were messing around and trying to communicate with our guides when one of us picked up a large stick and pantomimed the swing of a cricket bat. Within seconds one of the boys was off like a shot to a nearby village and before you could say “Snickometer” (that’s a cricket term by the way) he was back with a ball and the cricket game was on! unnamed-2“Team Phun!” versus the finest junior players in all of India! And since a pick-up game of cricket is a whole lot like a pick-up game of baseball it was no problem for us foreigners to get the hang of it. It was a fabulous interlude of bowling (cricket’s pitching), batting, fielding, running between the wickets, trash talking, and high fives and fist bumps. There were bowl outs, there were biffers, there were caught outs, there were leg breaks, and even a couple of sixes, which is cricket’s home run. Other than a couple of body parts that nowadays simply refuse to cooperate, it felt like we were all eight years old again. Everyone had such a good time that we did it all over again at our next stop.

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After a couple of short rides through flat desert scrubland we entered the dunes. And it was just like the movies, with rolling hills of sand, its pristine surface picturesque in texture, perfectly rippled by the wind. Soon we came to a high ridge where we once again dismounted, threw the ball around some more with the boys and enjoyed a frosty beverage purchased from a vendor who suddenly appeared with a shoulder bag full of ice-cold beer out in the middle of nowhere. With only the rolling dunes of the Thar Desert to be seen in all directions, we watched the sun go down. It was pretty sweet.

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Let Me Entertain You

30 Jun

by Nancy Bestor

DSCN0293I enjoy being entertained. And frankly, I’m easy…..when it comes to entertainment that is. I like most movies I see, and can mindlessly begin watching a television show in the middle of an episode and enjoy it. I can and will read books and magazines of any genre too. So it will come as no surprise that when I’m visiting New York, I love going to live theater. But full price tickets for Broadway and off Broadway productions in the Big Apple are a little steep for my pocketbook, so I’m delighted to share with you the myriad of discount ticket options for NY Theater that I have come across. Then you too can see The Book of Mormon for $32 like I did, standing right behind people who paid upwards of $300 for their tickets.

If you’re following closely, I did say “standing”. Yes, my traveling companions and I bought standing room only tickets to the Book of Mormon in April for $32. And indeed, we stood for the entire show. But frankly, I’m happy to stand for 2 ½ hours at a fraction of the cost paid by those in the orchestra seats, and the standing room only tickets are directly behind the last row of orchestra seats. My feet got a little tired, but during intermission, the kind ushers of the theater guided us SRO ticket holders to a spot where we could sit and rest our weary toes. And the show was so stinking funny that I really forgot I was standing as I laughed uproariously. The folks sitting directly in front of us asked how we got our tickets and what we paid for them, and I daresay, they were a little jealous. Here are the details:

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I started out my search for cheap tickets by looking at the website http://www.broadwayforbrokepeople.com. This site gives excellent information on all Broadway shows, and how one might acquire tickets via lottery, rush, or standing room only. Another great website, http://www.broadwayspotted.com/category/rush-report/, gives weekly reports on the chances of lottery, rush and standing room only tickets for all Broadway shows.

We wanted to see Book of Mormon and, armed with the information gleaned from these websites, knew that we had two chances of getting cheap tickets – standing room only, or actual seats via the pre-show lottery. Both tickets are $32.

We arrived at about 4:30 for the 7:30 curtain to enter our names into the lottery. But our lottery chances were slim as only about 20 lottery tickets are available, and on the day we were there (a light day I was told) about 150-200 people put their names into the hat. However, at the same time we were waiting for the lottery draw, we were also in the first ten of the standing room only line, where about 25 tickets are sold for each show. So at 5:00, when our names were not called for the lottery we simply purchased our standing room tickets, went for a bite to eat, and then came back and enjoyed a hilarious and irreverent show.

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In years past, I’ve also gone to the TKTS booth for day-of-performance half price tickets, and enjoyed excellent and popular shows like In the Heights and Chicago, but keep in mind that a half price ticket is often still in the $80+ range. TKTS also has a mobile phone app to show daily real time availability listings.

With so many discount options, it’s always a bit shocking to me that people are willing to pay as much as $400 for a single ticket to a popular Broadway show. But then again, I’m sure people are shocked to hear that I’m willing to stand and watch a performance for 2 ½ hours. To each their own.

Everybody Come Aboard

30 May

by Nancy Bestor

193372_1082When I travel, I hang on to every brochure, receipt, and just about any other piece of paper I pick up. They’re great reminders of where I went, what I did, and how much something may have cost me. Although I don’t look back at all these documents, in case I have any questions, I know they’re there, piled up in a mess on a shelf in the garage. This includes boarding passes from all my flights. While it doesn’t seem likely that you would need to hang on to your boarding pass, if you are a member of a mileage program, I recommend hanging on to the pass until you see the miles in your airline account.

On Bob’s recent trip to India, he booked his ticket through United Airlines, but one leg of the trip (Tokyo to Delhi) was on ANA–All Nippon Airways. United credited Bob for every leg of the trip except the ANA portion (which was nearly 4,000 miles!), and of course, that is the boarding pass that he couldn’t find. United told him he had to contact ANA to get documentation for this leg of his trip, and ANA says since he booked the trip on United, United actually has all the documentation. He’ll continue to duke this out with United, but the moral of this story is hang on to your boarding pass until you see frequent flier mileage credit in your account. Then feel free to recycle at will!

I Can See for Miles And Miles

29 May

by Nancy Bestor

planeWhen looking to use frequent flier miles on American Airlines recently for my mother in law, I discovered a dirty little secret. Many international American Airlines bookings include some portion on British Airways, one of American’s partner airlines. British Airways charges exceptionally high carrier/fuel fees. Looking at a booking from San Francisco to Delhi via London, British Air would charge more than $500 round trip in carrier fees (United for example, charges no fees for frequent flyer travel) for their leg of the journey, from London to Delhi, and back from Delhi to London again. This does not include taxes, and would be in addition to using miles.

In the past year, many airlines have stopped calling these fees “fuel fees,” and instead have changed the name to “carrier fees.” This avoids regulations that require fuel fees to be tied to the actual cost of fuel.  Other airlines besides United do not charge carrier/fuel fees however,  which is another good example of why doing your homework before you book a flight, even on frequent flyer miles, can save you money.

Open Your Golden Gates

28 May

by Nancy Bestor

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Having lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for 25 years, I’d like to think I know just about all of its scenic locations. I’ve walked across the Golden Gate Bridge, stood atop Coit Tower, seen the parrots of Telegraph Hill and ridden the Ferry across the Bay. But I recently discovered a few new beautiful and picturesque spots, once again reminding me that I don’t actually know everything. Bob and I drove with my parents over the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin County in April and found a stunning lookout – Battery Spencer – a former military installation that protected the bridge and the Bay from invasion from 1897 to 1942. It offers a bird’s-eye view directly down to the bridge, and with downtown San Francisco in the background there might not be a better view of the Golden Gate.

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From there we drove into the Marin Headlands, where we stopped for a tour of the Marine Mammal Center. More than 200 rescued sea lions and otters were in residence when we visited, being rehabilitated for a future release back into the Pacific Ocean. The Center is free for visitors, and offers a great look at the excellent care volunteers are giving these rescued animals. You can even see “fish shakes” being made for their nourishment (and it’s just as yucky as you might imagine it to be).

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After seeing the fish shakes, we decided we were all a little hungry, so we took our picnic lunch down to Rodeo Beach and watched surfers braving the chilly waves while we ate. Then we drove to one of my favorite spots in Marin, Point Bonita Lighthouse. What I love about Point Bonita is not so much the lighthouse itself, but its stunning location. You’ve got to hike down a steep, half-mile trail, then walk through an unlighted tunnel carved out of solid rock, then across a 132-foot long suspension bridge to get to the lighthouse. The narrow bridge sways in the strong wind as you cross over the raging Pacific Ocean more than one hundred feet below. It is stunning. The lighthouse is only open Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays from 12:30-3:30 pm.

Being the Ball—Golf in India

27 May

by Bob Bestor

BDjraaHr6hn2lIhlQRs3RVRhmJ2n0oYMj36AwIJMPro,RhShjkKIZ3zvGGQamoLk9y6i9l5IwNsIXdvWGnb7iyAThere comes a time, even in a country as amazing as India, when four men traveling together have had enough of forts, palaces, museums and markets—when a break from the traditional sites is required and a manly activity that men like to do is necessary. So after about a week on the road in Rajasthan we decided that a round of golf was in order.

Throughout India you find men idly hanging out just about everywhere. And the front gate of Rambagh Golf Club in Jaipur is no exception. We pulled up to its somewhat humble entrance and were soon herded onto the grounds by a few of these men.

A short walk led us down into the bowels of the club and to a crowded office where we were able to communicate our intention to play golf that day. The men working in the office communicated to us that we needed to see the boss before we could be allowed to play. Soon we presented ourselves to the man in charge of the whole operation (the Raj of Rambagh perhaps?) seeking his blessing.

Handshakes and greetings went all around and I simply stated our intention, “We would like to play golf today here at your golf course.”

“Yes,” was his answer. But it was not a “yes” said with the tone of granting our wish. It was a “yes” said more with a tone that made it sound like “Yes, I acknowledge your inquiry and I am considering it.”

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A few awkwardly silent moments followed while he looked us over and soon Dave, who is much better at greasing the skids than I, chimed in with perfect gravitas: “We have traveled all the way from the western coast of the United States. And from the moment we decided to visit India we knew that we simply must visit Jaipur to play a round at world famous Rambagh Golf Club.”

Well that did it, and this time the Raj answered with an enthusiastic yet stately, “It is done.” We were in. A brief, convivial conversation ensued in which we were asked about our handicaps and were informed of prices and services. It was all acceptable, and within minutes we were standing at the first tee with our caddies at the ready.

Komsel w_India FlagThe golf course and caddies were great. This was the first time I’d ever had a caddy and my man, Komsel, right away had me figured out for the tremendous slouch that I am. Rambagh is a fine, challenging and well-maintained track that features sandy soil for firm and fast conditions. Other than women dressed in bright saris weeding the greens and the gigantic Indian flag billowing in the distance, you could be on any golf course anywhere.

The caddies were knowledgeable, and mine in particular was quite helpful. So helpful in fact that on at least three occasions I arrived at my ball after a very wayward shot to find that it was nowhere near as wayward as I had thought. In fact all three times my ball ended up in excellent position. After the third such occurrence, I realized that on each occasion my caddy had run well ahead to “find” my ball. He probably thought that the better I scored, the happier I would be and the more I would tip. He was correct on all accounts!

More than basic golf communication with my caddy Komsel was difficult. I asked him what score the best golfer he’d ever caddied for shot and he answered, “four hours.” I carefully rephrased the question but once again the answer was “four hours.” However all the caddies knew a couple of key golf phrases in English. Whenever one of us hit a grounder, they would diagnose our mistake by saying “head up” in unison. With any shot hit well offline, it was “wrong DI-rection,” once again said pretty much in unison. Thanks for the help guys.

Notes:

The total charge per golfer for greens fee, club rental, caddy fee and a brand new sleeve of balls was 3400 rupees (about $55). We passed on cart rentals, which would have been another 1000 rupees per player.

We did buy tees from a man hanging out somewhat idly at the first tee. While he didn’t appear to be an employee of the club, he did seem to be the only option. We each bought a couple of tees for 10 rupees while he pretty much harangued us to purchase extra balls, gloves and tees. We declined all but the tees.

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