Running on Empty

IMG_1522by Nancy Bestor

When I’m vacationing, there are a few things I know I must do. They revolve around eating and drinking—actually they ARE eating and drinking. But every once in a while, I get a wild notion that I should also be exercising.

I know what you’re thinking…..this doesn’t sound like me at all. So I’ll come clean. The truth is there are times when I am vacationing that the people I am WITH feel like they have to exercise (Bob, I am talking to you), and because I am easily inclined to give in to peer pressure, I exercise right along with them. I’d like to think that since I usually do a lot of walking when on vacation, I am getting plenty of exercise. However, SOME people don’t agree with that sentiment, so I find myself running on treadmills, or riding stationary bikes, or lifting weights and doing sit-ups. WHAT IS WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE?

Most American hotels these days have some kind of exercise room. It’s usually a small, often odiferous room, tucked away down a long, lonely corridor and filled with mirrors on the walls, and treadmills, stair-climbers and stationary bikes all crammed too close to each other. While I admit that this room is rarely appealing, a 20-minute run or bike ride in the late afternoon does usually gives me the energy boost I need to head back out for the evening for more eating and drinking.

On our recent trip to St. Martin/St. Maarten, Bob drove twice to a gym 20 minutes away, first thing in the morning. I’d like to report that in Bob’s absence I went for a run on the beach. But the truth of the matter is, I sat out on the deck, drinking coffee and watching the ocean in the distance. When he came back and told me the gym was “old school”, with a boxing ring right in the middle of it, I was sorely tempted to go with him on his next visit, but the call of the ocean (and coffee!) was too strong. And besides, neither Hilary Swank NOR Clink Eastwood were there, so I can’t say that I missed anything.

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My girlfriends and I exercise most days on our girls’ trips to Mexico, but we’re mostly exercising to rid our body of the toxins we put in the previous afternoon and evening. But hey, the REASON for exercise is not what matters, it’s the fact that I’m exercising at all. I’m burning calories no matter why I am at the gym. Like that vacation in the Bahamas when I “ran” on the beach several mornings in a row, because I was pretty sure I would see either Johnny Depp or Orlando Bloom. I didn’t see either of them, but I burned a few calories—I would have burned more if I ran the whole time, instead of just when I saw someone coming towards me on the beach. If it looked like a man, I ran harder. Once they got close, and I determined it wasn’t Mr. Depp or Mr. Bloom, I went back to walking.

Apparently, I also have bad eyesight to thank for exercising when on vacation.

The Vietnamese Rules of the Road—Summer 2005

ry=400-1by Nancy Bestor

The first thing we learned when riding in a car or trying to cross the street on our recent trip to Vietnam is that there are few rules of the road, and the rules that do exist are followed by even fewer people. Speed limits? Nah! Stop signs or lights? Nope (well, a few, but mostly nope). Right of way? You have got to be kidding! To better understand how traffic works, here is some background. Saigon (whose proper name is Ho Chi Minh City) is a city of about eight million people. Within the city, there are four million motorbikes. There are cars, but not very many. Cars are of course, much more costly, and they don’t maneuver nearly as well through the crowded city streets.

Very few motorbike riders bother to wear helmets, particularly within city limits. Helmets are very expensive and very hot in the tropical climate. We saw hundreds of children on motorbikes, with no helmets, riding around with mom or dad, or both! In fact it was common to see a family of four piled onto a single motorbike, baby in the front (we’re talking young baby too, six months old maybe), Dad driving the bike, older child behind Dad, and Mom bringing up the rear. Our girls were fascinated, and our record sighting was five people on one motorbike—a man and four children!

It wasn’t just people on motorbikes that we found fascinating. Often it was what they could, and would, load onto their motorbike. The Vietnamese use these motorbikes to ingeniously transport an amazing array of goods. We saw two men and one large computer on a bike, two men and several large glass windows on a motorbike, a man with dozens of dead chickens, and much, much more! The most amazing load we saw was about twenty 24×24 flats of eggs. It may seem impossible but I saw it with my own eyes and did the math three times on a calculator, this motorbike appeared to be transporting over 10,000 eggs!

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Another interesting traffic feature in Vietnam is the almost complete lack of lights at intersections. For the most part drivers just slow down a bit, honk, and head on through. Even at red lights, drivers rarely stop, instead, as above, they slow down, honk and head on through. Honking seems to be the favorite pastime of drivers. Rather than honking for a reason, like drivers in the United States and Europe, drivers in Vietnam honk constantly to announce their presence. In fact on our 30 mile, 45 minute private car ride to My Son, Bob counted the number of times our driver honked —778 times!

ry=400-2Cars, motorbikes, and even pedestrians do not seem to give anyone the right of way at any point. It is survival of the fittest on these roads, and if you are hesitant, you won’t get far. That includes crossing the street. There are no crosswalks, and not one single car or motorbike will stop for you when you want to cross. Thus the only way to cross a street is to slowly wade out into oncoming traffic, and keep moving slowly forward no matter what. Cars and motorbikes will ultimately maneuver around you, swerving slightly to miss you by inches on all sides, but if you wait for any reason at all, you will be waiting all day! Older people walk right in front of cars and motorbikes as do children and bicycle riders. Crossing the street was hard to get used to at first, but after a while even Emily and Sarah didn’t flinch when we would cross the road holding hands. Now you might think that a kindly older woman would see a bewildered western family with young children wanting to cross the street and would slow down. Not a chance. Everybody follows the same rule, and that rule is every man for himself!

Vehicles do not always drive on the correct side of the road. At any given time, cars and motorbikes can be driving in one direction in three lanes, or three directions in one lane. If traffic on the proper side of the road is too slow, cars and motorbikes just move to the other side of the road and swerve around cars coming in the opposite direction.

The city streets are unbelievably busy, seemingly at all times of the day and night. The Vietnamese do not seem to sleep and the streets don’t quiet down until well after midnight, and by 6am are teeming with people again. Kids are playing ball on the side of the street, and in some cases in the middle of the street. Older men are playing cards right on the curb, rice is drying right along the edge of the road. People are selling every item imaginable, even on the shoulders of busy highways. And then of course there are the animals. You can be driving on a “highway” at 60-70 miles an hour, and come across an oxen pulling a cart, or have to slow down for cows or chickens in the road. Dogs are everywhere as well, constantly darting in and out of traffic. Most cities have no sidewalks, so when walking around, you’re actually walking along the edge of the street. Restaurants along with motorbike parking often occupy most of the sidewalks that do exist, and you must get used to eating a meal outdoors amongst the mayhem.

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It was amazing to come home to little Ashland, and see cars actually come to a complete stop at a cross-walk as people would begin to cross the street. The lack of rules in Vietnam may seem crazy, but after getting used to it, I have to admit, it seems to work just fine. It was another great life lesson in how different cultures do things differently, and just because we’re used to one way, it’s not necessarily the right way.

—Nancy Bestor is the co-owner of Travel Essentials. She always looks both ways when crossing the street.

 

Happy Trails To You

baloonsby Nancy Bestor

It may be hard to believe but a new year is once again upon us. I can remember thinking when I was a kid that the year 2000 seemed light years away, but 2014? I can’t imagine my brain even thought that far ahead. Travel sure has changed over the years (not unlike the color of my hair), but certain things about travel have remained constant in my lifetime—and maybe even longer.

We can still get from one side of the globe to the other in less than a day. It took people in the 1800s months to get from what is now Kansas to the Pacific Ocean via the Oregon Trail.  And I don’t need to mention what they did or didn’t get to eat along the way. I’d say we’re pretty fortunate that today we can get from San Francisco to Sydney, Australia in 15 hours, with a tray of chicken or pasta to boot!

Using our passports to explore foreign countries is still the best way of understanding other cultures, eating new foods, and meeting people completely different from oneself. Yes, we can read about different places in a book, but given the opportunity, the best way to experience somewhere is by plopping yourself right down into that spot, wherever it may be.

Although quite a few jaded travelers and even some guidebooks may tell you differently, there are still an infinite number of unexplored places in our world. Sure, places like Cambodia may not be as tourist-free as they once were, but you can play the adventurer at Angkor Wat with thousands of others, then travel to any number of towns a short distance away and find yourself surrounded only by Cambodians. Even touristy cities have spots where the locals go. If you can find those, you might just skip the tourist sites altogether (and that’s okay!).

A smile still goes a long way. People in all parts of the world, including those cities known for snooty locals or hurried businessmen, regularly take time out of their lives to help travelers in need. All you have to do is ask, preferably with a smile on your face—as people respond to kindness. We’ve had everyone from well-dressed business folk to some whom we initially judged as suspicious stop us on the street, not to try and take advantage of us, but to offer us help when we looked lost.

I plan to embrace the positives of travel and much, much more in 2014. I know there are plenty of negatives, but with these rose-colored glasses on, I’ll try not to see them.

Happy New Year, and bon voyage in 2014.

Stranger in a Strange Land

by Nancy Bestor

IMG_0137Robert Louis Stevenson is quoted as saying, “There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve experienced this. Something that is so easily accomplished here at home becomes nearly impossible elsewhere. Once, a friend and I were stuck at the Moscow Airport. The driver we had expected to meet us had not showed up. We tried to use the payphone again and again and again. We could hear the English-speaking operator on the other end of the line, but she couldn’t hear us. Come to find out, payphones in Russia (12 years ago anyway) required one to hold down a button when talking. Who knew? We were the foreigners. Another time our family sat down at a restaurant way off the beaten tourist path in Nha Trang, Vietnam. This place was in no guidebook, and there was not a single English speaker to be found. They handed us menus (no English, no photos) and looked at us expectantly. Nearly every other time we’d been in this situation, a few gestures, some pointing and smiles from each of us got the job done. Not here. We had to get up and find a nearby restaurant listed in our Lonely Planet guidebook. We were the foreigners.

These are the reasons we travel however, to experience life in other countries. To hear their languages, practice their customs, eat their food, and in some cases, even meet their celebrities.

Copy (2) of DSC00906I’ll admit, when it comes to celebrities, I have stars in my eyes. I get excited and even a little sweaty when I’m near fame. I can’t say this happens very often. I once rang up a few purchases for Patrick Duffy (from the television show Dallas), and was recently in a small t-shirt store with Golden State Warrior player David Lee. But I am sad to report that I’ve never been in the same room with huge names, like Justin Timberlake or George Clooney, seen at left in the wax museum. (Talk about sweaty. If I was in the same room with JT or GC, you could wring me out like a dishrag.)

Thus on a recent flight from San Francisco to Mexico City, when a team of young Mexicans in matching sweatshirts boarded the plane, I was thinking that they must be some sort of teenage athletic team, flying home from a week long camp in the Bay Area. Always nosy, I asked the group of players in the row in front of me who they were, and what they were doing in San Francisco. They replied that they had played an exhibition match. I said, “In soccer?” Yes, they replied politely. When I asked what age group they were, they spoke to each other rapidly in Spanish, then replied, politely once again, that they were all ages of players. I nodded and went back to reading my National Enquirer (just kidding, it was The New Yorker).

So when we landed in Mexico City, I was surprised when the United ground crew employees stared at our deplaning group of soccer players. Then, as we exited the jet way, several Mexican children got in the act, smiling, waving and taking pictures of them. Finally, when we got out of customs and bag check, at least half a dozen camera crews with lights, microphones and well-dressed reporters approached various players, and began peppering them with questions and comments, while locals ran up for autographs.

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Well it turns out we flew from San Francisco to Mexico City with the Mexican National Soccer Team. To put that into perspective, we were on the plane with the Mexican equivalents of Tom Brady, Derek Jeter, LeBron James and the like. Unlike the above-mentioned athletes, however, the soccer players were flying in economy class.

I’m quite sure when I was asking my nosy questions and trying to determine what sport these NATIONAL SOCCER TEAM players were participating in, they were not making sure they understood me when they spoke rapidly to each other in Spanish. Instead, they were saying, “This woman doesn’t know that we are soccer players, and she thinks we are teenage boys. She must be a foreigner.”

Living Large on the Big Island

by Nancy Bestor

Bob and I snuck away from work and from our two teenage daughters last month for a quick trip to the Big Island of Hawaii. My goals for our trip were, in no particular order, relaxation, fruity drinks, hiking, and snorkeling. We had no set plans, just a copy of Hawaii The Big Island Revealed, by far the best travel guidebook series for Hawaii. Once we arrived and got the fruity drink supplies purchased, we made plans for accomplishing my goals.

We did a bit of snorkeling on our own near Kona, but decided to book a last minute zodiac boat snorkeling trip with Sea Quest. For about $80 each, the boat captain and his assistant took our group of 10 to a couple of fabulous snorkeling spots, including Captain Cook’s Monument. It was a little like Disneyland’s old Submarine Voyage, only real of course, and 100 times better. We swam along coral reefs with turtles, needle nose fish, polka-dotted puffer fish, eels, rainbow-colored fish, bright yellow butterfly fish, and much more. Amazingly, it got even better after snorkeling as our captain took the boat right into the middle of a pod of spinner dolphins. For 15 minutes we sat still and watched more than 100 dolphins jump and swim all about our boat. They were close enough to touch. It was incredible.

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Swiss Efficiency at the Zurich Airport

by Nancy Bestor

When I think of Switzerland, one word comes to mind – efficient. A person can set their watch by the arrival or departure of any Swiss train, as they are always on time. You can get anywhere in the country, even to the peak of the mighty Jungfrau, on public transportation. Switzerland’s public spaces (parks, buildings, and even public toilets) are designed to be efficient in every sense–energy, space, water, etc.

The Zurich airport lives up to these examples of efficiency, as my family was delighted to discover this past summer. We traveled through Zurich on our way to northern Italy, flying from Medford, through Denver and then Boston.

In Zurich, we walked just one floor below the airport arrivals level right to the Swiss Rail station. We picked up our tickets at a kiosk, and then headed on our way, catching a train just 20 minutes after we walked off the plane. It was on our return to the Zurich airport however, that we experienced the best of the airport’s Swiss efficiency. We printed our boarding passes at a Swiss Air kiosk, and then sailed quickly through security, with all our carry-on bags. There were eight security stations open, each staffed by at least six courteous airport employees. There was no line and we breezed through without having to remove our shoes (which begs the question, “Why do we have to take our shoes off for security in the United States, but not in other countries?”). There was no full body scan, just the basic metal detector for us and an x-ray for our bags.

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Traveling as the Third Wheel

by Sarah Bestor

My parents have owned a travel store since before I was born, thus I’ve been traveling my whole life. I grew up traveling with three other people: my mother, my father and my sister. Starting when I was two years old, when we went to Croatia and Italy, we evened each other out with the perfect mix between adult stuff and kid stuff. I’d always have someone to complain with me, be tired with me and keep me company lagging behind on the hikes. In arguments, it was two versus two, always a tie, even though Mom and Dad usually won. Everything was right, and perfect, then came our trip to Italy this past summer.

It was normal for the first two weeks, but then Emily left for Paris by herself, and it began. Two against one–two parents, one kid–they had such an unfair advantage. As a young child, I loved being the center of attention, so you’d think one week without Emily would be heaven in my eyes, but it was not as it seemed. Having four eyes on you and only you everyday and every dinner is hard. Too many questions to answer and too much talking.

Things got easier, as they began to run out of questions, and started talking about their own stuff that I wasn’t interested in. So, I started bringing books to dinner, and talking to my imaginary friend (ha ha).

Four people fit around the table perfectly, four people can split into two groups and no one will be alone, four people can share a hotel room with two beds perfectly, but as it turned out, three wasn’t all that bad either. I often got to choose the treat (gelato!) we would have in the afternoon, I got to use the computer and internet as much as I wanted, and I got first choice of the best seat on trains, boats, and planes. I got used to being an only child, but then Emily came back and it was weird all over again. Soon I’ll have to get used to being the only kid again, as she is going to college next year. This’ll be interesting.  

–Sarah Bestor is a sophomore at Ashland High School. She really did have an imaginary friend when she was two.

An Ode to Rick Steves

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…..

Okay, so I don’t really love Rick Steves. I’ve only met him once, many years ago, in our Ashland, Oregon store, and it’s not possible to love someone you’ve barely (or never) met….except perhaps for Heidi Klum or Johnny Depp, but I digress. I do like Rick Steves a whole lot, and I’ll tell you why. I find the information in his guidebooks absolutely unbeatable. Our family has used Rick Steves’ guides in many countries, including Turkey, Italy, France, Great Britain, Switzerland, and just last month, Spain. When our daughter Sarah was younger, I would pull out our Rick Steves’ guidebook to read about a site or museum we were visiting and she would groan, “not Rick Steves AGAIN”, knowing I was about to read aloud some historical information I was sure she would find scintillating.

While Sarah may not find the information in Rick’s guidebooks scintillating, I do. By the time a trip is over, I have read most every page, and benefitted from many of his recommendations. We’ve hiked his suggested routes in the Swiss Alps, eaten at his favorite ristorantes in Rome, walked his tour of the Pére Lachaise cemetery in Paris, and learned the historical significance of paintings in the National Gallery in London. His attention to detail, particularly in museums, is outstanding. For example, in Paris’ Orsay museum, Steves offers step-by-step instructions: “turn left onto the mezzanine overlooking the main gallery. Enter the first room on the left. Working clockwise, you’ll see…”

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Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder & San Diego, Too

by Nancy Bestor

I’ve never had any desire to be in the armed forces. And although my youngest daughter was intrigued when she heard that the military would pay for college after enlisting, I’m pretty sure neither of my kids will join up either. But I’ve always had some fascination with the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. Maybe it’s because my father served in the Air Force, or because Bob’s father was an officer in the Navy, but maybe the truth is much more shallow than that – maybe it’s because a man in uniform is awfully cute. Whatever the reason, I was delighted to visit the U. S.S. Midway in San Diego last month, on a college visits road trip our family took to Southern California.

The Midway was one of America’s longest serving aircraft carriers. Decommissioned in 1992, it is 972 feet long, and when fully operational could house more than 4,000 men and women at one time. And it was its awesome size that impressed me most. A person could get lost on the ship tour, and the flight deck could easily host several football games or dozens of basketball games at once. (An NCAA basketball game has been scheduled for the flight deck in November of 2012, between San Diego State and Syracuse.)

Here are a few facts. The typical sailor who served on the Midway was 19 years old. The kitchens on board served as many as 13,000 meals a day, and the size of cookware on display in the galley is enormous. There were more than 1,500 telephones on the Midway. One link in its anchor weighs 130 pounds. More than three million gallons of ship and aviation fuel could be stored in its tanks. Another awe-inspiring stop on the tour was the bunk rooms for low level enlisted men. There were at least six men to a room with barely any room to move, let alone have any privacy.
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If It Sounds Too Good To Be True…

I like a good deal as much as the next gal. While I’m not willing to shop at 5am on the day after Thanksgiving for discount tube socks, I have been known to peruse a sale clothing rack or two. So when Allegiant Air, a small discount airline, announced they would begin flying from my hometown of Medford, Oregon to Oakland, California (the hometown of my parents and sister), my interest was piqued. And when I found out Allegiant would be offering one-way tickets between said cities for just $29 (taxes and fees included!), I actually became excited. But it was when I tried to purchase tickets for my daughters that I remembered the age-old saying, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is”.

I’ve written before about “extra” airline fees, including checked baggage fees, carry-on baggage fees, internet purchase fees, telephone purchase fees, seat assignment fees, and bathroom fees–just kidding, I wanted to make sure my readers, (hi Mom and Dad!) were still paying attention. I was fully prepared to pay the additional $10 each for my girls’ carry-on bags. But by driving out to the airport (30 miles roundtrip and I was headed that way anyway), I thought I’d save on the internet or telephone purchase fees.

Because Allegiant doesn’t fly every day, I checked their website to see when they’d be open and staffed. The only information I could find stated that ticket purchases are available in MOST cities for one hour following a scheduled departure. Some airports had listed hours, Medford did not.

Credit card in hand, I made the 30 mile round trip drive, and entered the airport to find four Allegiant employees at the counter. Three of them were checking in passengers for an upcoming flight. The fourth wasn’t doing anything. The line was long, so before waiting, I approached the fourth Allegiant employee. You know, the one who was not checking in passengers. When I asked if I could buy a ticket for a future flight, she smiled politely and said, “We’ll be selling tickets from 3-4 pm today.” It was 1:30.

There I was, ready to give my money to Allegiant Airlines, and there she was, an Allegiant employee with nothing to do. But alas, I could not buy a ticket. I was not there during their ticket-selling window. Not willing to wait 90 minutes, I turned around and drove home, highly irritated, and feeling like a victim of the old bait and switch. Sure, one can avoid paying the internet or telephone purchase fee with Allegiant Airlines, but in Medford at least, you have to be able to go to the airport during a specific one hour period that occurs just two days a week.

Grudgingly, I bought my tickets on Allegiant’s website, where my $29 one way fare turned into a $49 one way fare. Yes, still a good deal, but not the deal I was expecting. If I added in the cost of gas and my hour of wasted time (worth hundreds and hundreds of dollars), I’m not so sure I came out ahead in the end. And even more than that, the frustration of a poor policy that results in poor customer service is what stands out most.