Renew Your Passports Without Stress

by Nancy Bestor

Bob and I just renewed our passports. We’ll be traveling in late October, and our passports were set to expire in December. Since most countries require visitors to have at least six months remaining on their passport before it expires, we went ahead and took care of it. Here are a few things worth mentioning. For local folks, we had our passport photos taken at Advanced Photo Imaging on Tolman Creek Road in Ashland. Advanced Photo is friendly and quick, and passport photos cost $12 each. Please note, you can smile in your passport photo, but you can’t show your teeth. Huh. Also, no eyeglasses allowed.

We each filled out the simple renewal application, and sent them along with our old passports, our new passport photos, and two checks for $110 each. We opted to get passports with extra pages (for no additional charge) in the hopes that we travel so much that we’ll need more pages for more stamps.

Our new passports, which are good for ten years, arrived in about six weeks. We did get our old passports back too, but they came in separate envelopes, on another day. (Because apparently it would just be too difficult to save money on postage and send them back in the same envelope as the new passports I suppose.)

A few important things worth noting: there are many online companies who can assist (for a fee mind you) in renewing passports. Although some offer “expedited services” if you are in a big hurry, it appears to me that their other services are something any capable person can do on their own, and save the additional costs. The State Department does have expedited services available as well, if there is a life or death emergency abroad, or a passport is needed within 2-3 weeks. There are additional fees for expedited services.

My best advice is that if you have an expired or soon to be expired passport go ahead and renew it ASAP. You never know when someone is going to offer to whisk you away to Paris at a moment’s notice. And it would be a shame if you had to turn that down because your passport was expired.

 

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Welcome One and All

by Nancy Bestor

One of the many pleasures of visiting Japan is the opportunity to shop in its delightful department stores and independent shops. If you time your visit to a department store upon its morning opening, you’ll be fortunate enough to experience each and every employee standing at attention at their “station,” and then welcoming you with a bow as you pass by. This lasts but a few minutes after opening, no more than five, but it is truly a fascinating cultural experience like no other.

Equally delightful, however, is shopping in a small independent store, where employees take great pride in their products and service. Whether we were buying a small inexpensive box of chocolates or a handmade scarf, we were treated like royalty, and our purchase was packaged and bagged as though it were a one-of-a-kind, million dollar diamond necklace.

Before our most recent visit to Japan, Bob and I decided we were in the market for new kitchen knives, so we did a little research to find the spot that would best suit our wants needs. Although one can buy high quality Japanese knives in many markets throughout Japan, our research told us that one of the best and least touristy spots is Shigeharu Cutlery in Kyoto. Shigeharu, which has been in business since about 1200, apparently started as a sword making shop. Today they sell just about every size and type of knife imaginable.

Shigeharu wasn’t the easiest place to find. Of course it would have helped if we could read Japanese, but alas there was no “Japanese Knives Sold Here” placard out front to lead the way. Inside the quiet store, we handled a few different knife sizes and styles, until we found the two that suited us best. Perhaps this is what Harry Potter felt like when he was choosing a wand.

English is not spoken at Shigeharu, but with pictures and pointing, we were able to determine which two knives we “needed”, how to care for them, and how much they would cost. While other Japanese knife stores may sell knives made in Japan, Shigeharu knives are made right in the shop where they are sold, by the man selling the knives himself. Our knives are carbon steel, and while they require a bit more care, they will also stay sharp longer than stainless steel knives. Carbon steel does have a propensity to rust, so to keep them in good working order it is essential to dry them very soon after washing, and of course never store them wet.

The shopkeeper also gave us a quick demonstration on sharpening our new knives, and now Bob has regular weekend sharpening sessions in our kitchen. He says he likes it.

Our two knives, plus a sharpening stone, cost $223 and before we left, our friendly shopkeeper\knife maker engraved his name into the blade of the larger knife we purchased. And of course, as we were leaving and thanking him, he bowed to us several times, as did every other retail employee everywhere we shopped.

Shigeharu Cutlery is a great option in Kyoto for Japanese knives, but if you’re not in the knife market, and are traveling to Japan, I suggest you find something else to buy, as the shopping experience really is like no other.

 

 

Staying Connected While Traveling Abroad

by Nancy Bestor

For travelers, one of the many great smartphone features is built in GPS. We use Google Maps all the time when we travel, and find it incredibly helpful for walking and driving. And best of all, we can use the GPS with very little or no data. Here’s how it works best for us. When we have wifi—usually before we leave our hotel—we load a map of where we want to go. Once we leave the hotel, our final destination will stay loaded and the GPS will continue to direct us without data (as long as our data is turned off), unless we take a wrong turn and go off the downloaded map. And, of course, that never happens. HA.

This does mean that we have to toggle our data on and off occasionally, but we’d rather turn the data on for a short time to reload new directions for the very few times we take a wrong turn, than leave it on and risk using more than our travel data plan allows. It’s amazing how much detail there is in Google Maps. Yes, at times the directions are slightly off, but they’re usually close enough that we can figure out how to get where we want to go.

On a recent trip to Japan, we bought AT&T’s international “passport” plan, for an additional $40. This gave us unlimited text messaging, $1 per minute phone calls, and 200MB of cellular data. With the free wifi that we had in every hotel, and many restaurants too, we had no problem staying under our data allowance. We rarely checked email outside of wifi and I would guess that most of the data we used was when we needed to get new directions with the Google Maps app. AT&T also offers larger international plans with more data, as well as a $10 a day plan, where if you use data, they will charge you $10 per 24-hour period, but if you don’t use it, you are not charged anything. I added the $10 a day plan when I went to Mexico earlier this year, just in case. I did not use it, as the airbnb we stayed at in Yelapa had wifi. Spotty wifi, but wifi nonetheless.

We almost never make phone calls when traveling abroad. We connect with our business via text messages and email, and connect with our family mostly via text, and sometimes with the FaceTime app. FaceTime is another great, free way to connect with home, and see with our own eyes our cute daughters’ faces while we are halfway around the world. And FYI, their faces really are cute.

 

Cleaning the World—One Bar of Soap at a Time

by Nancy Bestor

Like most of you, I try very hard to conserve & recycle. I turn off the water when I brush my teeth, I don’t leave lights on in the house if I don’t need them, and I recycle every bit of paper, glass and plastic I can. Thus I’m always a little disappointed when I’m staying in a hotel and I see tiny little bottles of shampoo, conditioner, lotion and soap. While I like having free personal care products just as much as the next guy, I do worry about all the plastic bottles, and whether they’re getting refilled or just tossed, never to be used again.

I have noticed some hotels have moved to wall dispensing products, which makes a great deal of sense to me. The units can be refilled, and fewer personal care products are ending up going home with hotel guests as well. I also like that most hotels don’t change bed sheets and towels every day unless guests ask them to. We don’t (well at least I certainly don’t) change my sheets or towels at home on a daily basis. So why do we need to have them changed daily at a hotel?

So I was delighted to recently read about an Orlando based company, Clean the World, that recycles little bars of partially used hotel soaps and delivers them to domestic homeless shelters and developing countries that suffer from high death rates due to acute respiratory infection and diarrheal disease. At their facilities in Orlando, Las Vegas and Hong Kong, Clean the World first cleans and sterilizes the recycled bar soap, then grinds it and reforms it into new bars of soap.

The number one hotel contributor to Clean the World, The Venetian Resort Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, has contributed over 100,000 pounds of soap to the project.

 

Oh Thank Heaven, For 7-11

by Nancy Bestor

At times when you’re on the road, you find great help in the most unlikely places. Once when Bob and I were traveling across the country in a Volkswagen bus, we found it at an auto repair shop near Taos, but really it was in the middle of nowhere. We were having serious problems with our van, and the mechanic needed to order a part to fix it. There were no motels nearby, and he kindly let us camp on his property, and use the restroom in his shop during the night.

On another trip, Bob and I were returning from Mt. Shasta to Ashland after midnight when our car (a different car than the Volkswagen bus, but just as unreliable) broke down on the side of I-5. We were nowhere near a freeway off-ramp, it was before the days of cellphones, and I was five months pregnant. While I sat in the car, Bob stood on the side of the highway, trying to flag down one of the few cars on the road. Fortunately a van stopped, and it was full of band members on their way to a gig in Eugene. We sat on the floor of the van, amongst guitar cases and amplifiers, grateful that a band we had never heard of was willing to give two strangers a ride in the middle of the night.

On a recent trip to Japan, my salvation came in the form of 7-11. I’ve always liked 7-11. Their Coca Cola slurpee is one of the most delicious things to drink on a hot summer day. And when you’re in need of what my youngest would call a little “something something,” also known as a treat, 7-11 has options galore. What I didn’t know is that in Japan, 7-11’s also have easily accessible, spic and span restrooms.

My stomach doesn’t always agree with me. For as long as I can remember, there are times when it declares that it has had enough with whatever I’ve been putting into it. And right then and there, with precious little warning, it decides to rebel. And when it rebels……well, I think you get the idea. When Bob and I were walking in a suburban Tokyo neighborhood earlier this year, with no bathroom in site, my stomach let out a few warning rumbles. Looking everywhere for a bathroom, my stomach quickly let me know I would have to find relief soon, very soon. We stopped in at a museum/historical site and communicated that we needed a bathroom. The kind man at the site gestured that they didn’t have one, but he pointed us around the corner, and as near as we could tell, his words were “7-11.”

Not sure that we heard him right, but in desperation, we rushed around the corner and sure enough, saw the familiar sign ahead. 7-11 did indeed do me right that day, providing a much needed (which is a major understatement) public restroom that was spotlessly clean and thankfully empty.

This occurred early in our trip, and from then on, every time we happened upon a 7-11, we would remark “oh thank heaven,” and also use their public restroom. But Japan’s 7-11’s answered other important needs for us too. 7-11 ATM’s seemed to be the only ATM’s that reliably accepted our debit cards to give us yen. Oh, thank heaven. We also bought delicious steamed buns and other surprisingly VERY good Japanese food at 7-11. And I’m not talking about hot dogs that have been rolling around on a warmer for hours and hours. Oh, thank heaven. 7-11 also became our go-to spot for clothing items—Bob bought “the best beanie he owns” for the cold winter weather, and Liz bought a very nice head scarf/ear warmer. Japan’s 7-11’s seem to sell just about everything, including every imaginable size and color of masks for those who don’t want to expose themselves to germs.’

While there are no Slurpee’s at Japanese 7-11’s, there are things far better. A slurpee is delicious and all, but I think we can all agree that a clean bathroom in times of stomach desperation is like manna. Oh, thank heaven.

Traveled Down the Road and Back Again

by Nancy Bestor

What is the secret to finding good travel companions? Chances are you travel well with your mate and your kids (unless your kids complain a lot when you’re walking in Thailand and it’s hot and humid—but I digress). But what about friends and relatives? Just because you get along on the golf course, at the office, or at Thanksgiving dinner, doesn’t, in my humble opinion, mean that all will be fine when on you’re the road.

I believe the key to good travel companions is finding like-minded folks. Are you the type of traveler who likes to dine at expensive and trendy restaurants? Then you probably don’t want to travel with someone who prefers to eat at hole in the wall spots (aka Bob & I). Do you enjoy walking the entire length of a city and exploring different neighborhoods? Then don’t travel with someone who prefers a hop-on, hop-off bus experience. When you wake up in the morning, do you like to sit in peace and quiet for 30 minutes, enjoying a good cup of coffee and a lovely view? It’s likely then that your ideal travel companion is not the person who starts talking immediately the moment they get out of bed, and is ready and raring to go as soon as they get out of their pajamas.

Bob and I have been fortunate enough to travel with other folks. Now I know that sounds like we don’t enjoy traveling alone together, when indeed we do (right Bob?), but it’s also been very fun to travel with friends and family too. Last fall we took our first-ever tour, a bike trip in Jordan. Eight of us traveled together for eight days. We spent pretty much all day every day together. While we knew four of the people on the tour, only one was a close friend. The other three were Ashland folks who we hadn’t spent too much time with, but, from sharing travel stories, we figured it would work. And it did. (Just look at how much fun we are having in the elevator photo—thank you Sean for the goofy group selfie!) At the end of our adventure, I was sad to say goodbye to everyone and I can honestly say that every single person on that tour is now a friend. In fact, some days I find myself longing to spend quality time with them again.

We also spent two weeks earlier this year in Japan with Bob’s parents. This was our first vacation as a foursome, and although I can’t speak for them, it was indeed an excellent time for us. We enjoyed many great experiences—that mostly revolved around sharing in Japan’s culture and eating delicious food.

Here are a few things I believe make a trip with friends and relatives more enjoyable:

  • Being OK with splitting up to do the things you want to do, without worrying about hurt feelings. In Japan, most days we would spend the morning and early afternoon with Bob’s parents, and then we would head our separate ways for several hours, and connect back up again at dinner time. Some days some of us went back to the hotel and napped while others were out pounding the pavement. Other times some of us visited stores and sites that not everyone was interested in. But then, when we got back together again for dinner, it was fun to share our separate experiences.
  • Recognizing there are times when you just want to have some alone time. One of my traveling friends told me in Jordan that she was going to tour Petra on her own one morning to feed her inner introvert. I loved that phrase. As much as I enjoy being around people, I also really enjoy being on my own. Even if I’m just reading a book or surfing the internet. Everyone needs time to recharge their social batteries.
  • Compromising. This is the trickiest one, because really, who wants to compromise? But maybe one night someone has strong feelings about where they want to eat dinner. Perhaps it’s not your first choice, but being willing to compromise should mean that you’ll get to eat at your spot the next night.
  • Choosing the right kind of trip. One of the things that made our trip to Jordan so fantastic was that we all enjoyed biking, and knew most days would be spent in the saddle. This would not have been the right trip for people who don’t enjoy bike riding. Bob and three of his friends toured India for three weeks a few years ago, and stayed in low to mid range hotels, and ate lots of meals at roadside food stalls. Someone looking for high-end lodging and white tablecloth restaurants would not have been happy on their India trip.

I’d like to think that everyone I know would enjoy a trip with Bob and me. But the truth is, maybe not everyone would find me to be an enjoyable travel companion. And I’m okay with that. Or am I?

 

 

 

 

I Got a Brand New Set of Rules

by Nancy Bestor

If you spend any time with me, you’ll quickly learn I am a rule follower. I like to get to places on time (or, truth be told, even a little early), I struggle with questioning authority, and when someone tells me to wait in line or do something a certain way, I tend to do as I am told. Thus, every time I fly, I follow the TSA 311 rules to a T. All my liquids are jammed into one clear quart-sized bag, and the bottles holding said liquids are 3 ounces or less. And, of course, I always leave my hunting knives, firearms, and meat cleavers at home.

But on a recent trip, I noticed that in the TSA line in Medford, Oregon, the folks just ahead of me were not following the rules. They had shampoo AND conditioner bottles much larger than 3 ounces in their carry on. The bottles were not entirely full, but they were easily six ounces, or more. I smirked (to myself of course, because when I’m judgmental, I like to be judgmental in private), and waited for the TSA agent to confiscate their bottles. But alas, the agent said “these bottles are larger than carry on regulations. Next time please use the proper size.” And then he let them through, WITH THEIR BOTTLES!

Now perhaps the TSA agents at our little airport in Medford are kinder than TSA agents at larger airports. This could be true. But if TSA security regulations in place to prevent terrorism forbid travelers from carrying on large quantities of liquid, don’t you think all TSA agents everywhere should enforce those rules? Which, of course, begs the question, are liquids in bottles larger than 3 ounces a real security risk? Frankly, I think not.

Looking around at online traveler forums, I found that many travelers have carried on items that are not TSA-approved. Maybe it’s a full sized lotion bottle in their suitcase, or a swiss army knife in their purse. But again and again, travelers report that they are carrying on items that are not legal.

The long and short of it is that I will not stop following the rules. My deepest fear is that the one time I break the rules, I’ll get caught. And the TSA will not only confiscate my illegal item, but I’ll be subject to an additional search which will annoy me to no end. If you, on the other hand, are a risk taker, you might just get to carry your illegal items on to your next flight. Apparently, you won’t be the only one.