On the way!

This will be a super quick post, because my flight from Zurich to St. Petersburg is boarding first class already, but I’m on the way! I learned the hard way that my Beats headphones don’t block out as much sound as my noise-cancelling ones (the baby behind me was not happy), but they’re so much smaller it was worth it. Everything fits in a purse, a backpack, and a carryon-size rollerboard suitcase that I checked. But the purse zipper broke as I was boarding the flight to Zurich, so I guess I know what my second Russian purchase (after the SIM card) will be.

Next post will be from Russia! At least it seems like my VPN is working well, and so is my filtering water bottle, so a generally auspicious start. 🙂

T-minus One Week!

One week from now, I head to Logan Airport and then East around the world; almost exactly three years ago, I was headed to Logan to go West around the world. In the interim, I didn’t do much traveling, but I think (I hope!) my travel skills haven’t gotten too rusty.

The itinerary for this trip is pretty straightforward, because I decided to go with a tour company for the bulk of the trip. I will get myself to St. Petersburg, where I will have several days solo, and then I meet up with the tour. With the tour, I will take the train to Moscow, and then the Trans-Siberian for four days to Lake Baikal and Irkutsk. At Irkutsk, we will turn south to Ulan Bataar (another few days on the train), and when we get there we will spend a couple days on the steppes before getting back on the train to Beijing. The tour ends as soon as we get to Beijing, but I will stay for another few days, since I’ve never been to China and really want to see the Great Wall. And then I fly back to Chicago, on a flight that takes off at noon and lands at noon on the same day! So technically I will not have gone alllll the way around the world, I will be 1,000 miles short, but I think it still counts.

Going with a tour group as a solo traveler will be a new experience for me, since I’ve mostly only traveled either alone, with family, or with friends. I have been on two bus tours with groups of peers, once in high school and once shortly after college, and I didn’t love how tightly scheduled they were, or how weird the group dynamics occasionally got. This tour will be much smaller (I think they cap it at 12 people), and it seems to be much more lightly scheduled–other than the trains, hotels, and a half-day walking tour in each city, the rest of the time appears to be free. So, fingers crossed!

I chose a tour primarily for safety reasons. The way the train cars on the Trans-Siberian are organized, there are three classes: first class has two beds per compartment, second class has four (two bunk beds) per compartment, and third class is like a dorm, with the hallway running down the middle and bunks on either side, so it’s 54 beds per car. I had read online that one of the most popular ways to pass the time on the Trans-Siberian is to make new drinking buddies, and that etiquette suggests you bring along a bottle of vodka to share, so it seemed like my choices were either opting for a third-class bunk for safety reasons (and not getting much sleep), or a second-class bunk for privacy and sleep reasons (but potentially being shut inside a small room with three drunk strange men). Neither choice was particularly appealing, so I decided to go with a tour group. This way, while the three people I share the room with may be strangers at the beginning, they won’t be by the end, and I will have much better odds of getting female roommates. (I also decided to spring for the single supplement, so that for the 8 or so non-train, non-yurt, non-“guesthouse” nights I will have a room to myself.)

Continuing the theme of safety, I have also taken a few more precautions then I normally do. I have registered with Smart Traveler Enrollment Program at https://step.state.gov/, so that the U.S. Embassies in Russian, Mongolia, and China know when I will be in each country in case of emergency. I am also planning to get a VPN for China (so I can still use Google Maps and Google Translate), and I will do some technological housekeeping to minimize the amount of unnecessary data I have floating around on my devices. To reduce the risk of theft, I am planning to bring only my iPad mini and my phone, and I bought a smaller camera, so I should be able to carry all of my electronics with me at all times on the train. And I have a small cable that I will use to lock my suitcase to the train compartment.

I still have lots of packing to do, but I’m starting to get excited!

Teaser for next two trips

It’s been a quiet few years, without much going on that would make for an exciting travel blog, but all of that is about to change! One month from now, I will be on my way to Marble Canyon, Arizona, where I will launch onto the Colorado River and spend the week rafting through the majestic Grand Canyon. And four months from now, I will hop aboard the Trans-Siberian, and ride the rails from Saint Petersburg through Moscow, Irkutsk, and Ulan Bataar, ending up in Beijing. Stay tuned!

 

Guadeloupe!

It’s been 15 months since I last took an international trip, and I almost forgot I needed to grab my passport. I was packing this afternoon for a few days in New York followed by a New Years week trip to Guadeloupe, and I was going through my wallet thinking “Work ID… check… MetroCard… check… Oh, I should grab my debit card that doesn’t charge foreign fees, check, got that… do I need my passport card or is my driver’s license enough OH WAIT I NEED MY ACTUAL PASSPORT!” And then I had to go find it, which took a minute because it was buried under a bunch of old phone chargers at the back of a random drawer, instead of sitting in my important-documents drawer where it belonged. I mean, that turned out to be not such a big deal, because one of those phone chargers was my international-plug-compatible-with-two-usb-ports charger that I need anyway, but still. Passports really do belong in the important documents drawer…

But this is all just prequel to the important fact, which is that I’m finally getting to Guadeloupe, eleven and a half months after a New York Times article made me want to jump on a plane immediately. I already knew it was beautiful, because Guadeloupe is where they film Death in Paradise, one of my favorite British detective shows. But this article pointed out that there are ultra cheap nonstop flights from New York, and that the food is a unique (and spectacularly delicious) blend of Creole and French haute cuisine. In fact, the flights from JFK to Point-à-Pitre on Norwegian Air are so cheap that a round trip costs only about $100 more than the round trip between DC and NYC. And we’re AirBnB-ing two bedroom apartments, four nights on one coast and five nights on the other, for something crazy like €130/night.

I am going to eat ALL THE SEAFOOD. And I am going to scuba dive and see ALL THE FISH. And although it may be a bit rusty at this point, I am going to speak ALL THE FRENCH. I can’t wait!

Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is one of those holidays that is so uniquely North American that people in most other countries don’t quite get it. The Fourth of July? That’s easy enough, many countries have an Independence Day, or at least a day where they set off fireworks. (Everybody likes fireworks!) MLK Day? It’s also pretty standard to have a holiday to recognize an important historical figure. But Thanksgiving, as celebrated in the US and Canada, with its ritual foods, is just sort of puzzling.

When I lived in France after college, and worked as an au pair, Thanksgiving was tough because I got homesick. It’s always been a big deal in my family, and Skyping in just isn’t the same. So, I invited my new friends over for a traditional Thanksgiving meal! My little studio didn’t have an oven or a microwave, just a hot plate, so I baked the pie and the sweet potatoes in the family’s oven while the kids were watching cartoons, much to the parents’ bemusement when they got home from work. And, as you can tell from the expressions on my friends’ faces, they didn’t really know what to think about this weird food either. (From left to right, they are French, English, and Mexican. No cranberry sauce in any of those countries…)

IMG_2277.JPG

Now, back in the US, we as a country are so in love with fall foods that it’s not enough to eat them on Thanksgiving itself. No, we need Friendsgiving too! I hosted one for the first time this year, and it was actually kind of fun to experiment with different dishes. For example, if you have vegetarians in your life, a wild-rice-and-mushroom stuffed squash beats a tofurkey hands down, in my humble opinion.

Friendsgiving 2017
6 dishes for 5 people! Clockwise from top right: wild-rice stuffed acorn squash, cranberry balsamic chicken, braised kale, extra wild rice stuffing, corn pudding, brussels sprout salad, and sweet potatoes
IMG_7977
Sweet potato pie with bourbon whipped cream, and rhubarb upside-down spice cake

And then of course there is the main event. This year, for a variety of reasons, I officially co-hosted Thanksgiving, and I was responsible for the dessert and the green beans. I made five pies: pecan, pumpkin, apple, and two chocolate pecans. They were all a hit, so if you’re wondering what the secrets are: for a good chocolate pecan pie, use Ghirardelli 60% dark chocolate and a splash of bourbon or grand marnier. For apple pie, add a pinch or two of chai spices to your cinnamon. And for pumpkin pie that is unbelievable fluffy, follow the Smitten Kitchen recipe, cook the pumpkin on the stove, and use a real whisk (forks don’t quite cut it).