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. 🙂
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!
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!
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 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…)
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.
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).
Five pies, four pounds of green beans, a tray full of cheese and crackers, and a backseat full of folding chairs? Good thing I have a hatchback!
My culinary adventures in Tokyo fall squarely into two categories: food I ate with my cousin (who speaks Japanese and told me what to order) and food I ordered for myself. Food I ate with my cousin was uniformly delicious, and while most of the food I ordered for myself in Japan was good (except in Kyoto, where stuff got weird), I also ended up making some big faux pas. There was the time I thought I was ordering tea, and actually the teapot was full of the water they had been cooking pasta in. There was time I thought I was pouring water from a pitcher into a cup, but actually I was pouring it into the container that they put your check in when they bring it to you. (That mistake I didn’t even realize until 20 minutes after I left the restaurant, where I put together the one waiter’s horror as he snatched the cup away with the other waiter’s surprise when there was nowhere to put the check.) And then there were the times when the food still had its eyes, but I draw the line at eyes. I just didn’t eat that stuff.
Overall, my food consumption in Tokyo was either noodles and onigiri, which were nice and cheap, or sushi, which was expensive but not ridiculous.
Below is conveyor belt sushi! The way it works is that each color of plate is associated with a price. The chefs just stand on the inside chopping away and putting plates on the belt, and then as it goes by you pull off whatever looks good. At the end you stack them all up and they count your plates, and then give you the total. It’s a pretty good deal if you go with enough people; I think my share was only $20 or $25, which is amazing given how many different kinds of sushi I tried! (I did not eat the ones with eyes, although my cousin’s fiancé, who is Japanese, did.)
I did not eat the things with eyes.
Conveyor belt sushi! Three people go through a lot of plates.
Noodles of Tokyo. Clockwise, cold udon with a poached egg and tempura sticks of shrimp and vegetables; mushroom soba, ordered from a restaurant where no one spoke English by pointing at a picture of what I wanted to eat (the soup was delicious but I ended up with a teapot of pasta water); and dumplings. No idea what was in them. In theory, I am a big fan of the picture menu in countries where the alphabet is completely unrecognizable, but of course those menus limit you to tourist restaurants if you want to understand ahead of time on what you’re going to eat. I don’t particularly like eating in tourist restaurants… which is why I ended up eating a lot of very weird, oddly gloopy things in Kyoto.
Udon with tempura sticks. One was shrimp, the rest vegetables. It was cold, which was super refreshing on a hot day!
Dumplings! My favorite food. I think this restaurant may actually have been Chinese, but it was very hard to tell.
Mushroom soba. This is the meal where I poured myself a nice cup of pasta water.
Plastic food. This was super common, and I have at least ten or twenty photos of amusingly shiny plastic food, ranging from crepes to pizza to udon. I’m guessing the point is to take the picture-menu-for-tourists thing one step farther, but maybe not.
A year ago today, I landed in Tokyo to start my bar trip. In some ways, it seems like just yesterday, but when I think about how much I’ve grown as a lawyer, it makes a bit more sense. I was pretty bad about posting on this blog while I was on my trip, because I didn’t have enough time to write both in my paper journal and on here, and I prioritized the paper journal. But now I’m on vacation (and it’s a real vacation! Because my big case settled at 3 pm on Friday!) and I am finally going through my pictures, and the circumstances are perfect for me to finally put in some updates.
(I took almost 5,000 photos on my trip, between my phone and my DSLR, but my computer can’t sort them in chronological order. So these photo-and-story updates will be thematic more than strictly chronological.)
A few days ago I was flying back from Boston on the same flight as my sister-in-law, and I was using the time in the airport (thanks, flight delays!) to sort through some of my pictures from the trip. (Yes, it’s been 8 months since I got back; no, I haven’t gotten past the first week’s worth of photos yet. Japan was awesome and I took a ton of pics, I’m having a hard time sorting them!) We chatted some about the trip, and she mentioned that her parents had been worried about my safety, so I thought this would be a good time for a post on what to think about, when you’re traveling alone, to stay as safe as possible.
When Planning Your Trip
I posted earlier about how to choose your hostel (https://atwlawyer.com/2016/07/16/how-to-choose-a-hostel/), but you actually need to be thinking about safety one step earlier, when you are choosing how to arrive in the city in the first place. Ideally, you can pick a train, bus, or plane that will arrive before it gets dark, so that you have the luxury of time and daylight to get yourself situated at your hotel/hostel/airbnb. If that’s not possible, you want to at least try to schedule things so that you arrive at your lodgings by 9 pm or so. In my experience, that’s about the time of night when the feel of a neighborhood can change from comfortable-but-be-alert to get-your-ass-off-this-deserted-street. If you have no choice but to arrive at a horrible time of night, then you need to take that into consideration when you’re choosing your lodging, at least for the first night, and you need to budget a lot more for transportation. Public transit probably won’t even be running, or it might not be safe, and so you need to be able to pay for a taxi. You also need to be staying at a place that has a 24-hour front desk, and not an airbnb where the owner can only give you the key in person.
Arriving in a New Place
There are a lot of times where I haven’t been able to take my own advice, and I’ve ended up getting into strange places at 3 am. Whether it was scheduled that way or an accident due to a delay of some kind, in order to be safe you need to have a plan ready by the time you step off into the airport or station. First, if you don’t already have enough for a cab ride in the local currency, get cash. Go to the very first ATM you see, even if it’s before the bathroom and you’ve been holding it for hours; there might only be that one ATM, and if you exit through security without getting money, you could be in big trouble. If you will be taking a cab to your destination, have a printout (or pull up on your phone) the name and address of the place you’re staying, and ideally a map. Often there are language barriers, and it’s best to avoid confusion. (Once a cab driver took me to the Red Fox rather than the Red Fort. They were 10 miles away from each other.) If you won’t have data in the place you’re going, take screenshots ahead of time on google maps. This is definitely a place where Uber comes in handy, but remember that not every city has it, so check ahead of time. Also, sometimes Uber is not allowed to pick up passengers from airports and train stations.
If you’re taking public transit and arriving at night, you should already know what train or bus route you want to take; how much a ticket costs to get to your destination (many cities have zoned pricing); and what the final stop in the direction you’re going is, as well as approximately how many stops you will be going. The frequency of service is much slower at night, and you don’t want to spend half an hour sitting alone in a deserted station waiting for the next one if you can avoid it.
If you’re going to be walking, and it’s late at night, you need to have familiarized yourself with the route already. Have the map (or screenshot of it) on your phone for easy access. Prepare yourself and your bags, so that you don’t need to stop and tie a shoe, reposition a purse, or grab a coat that’s falling off your pile of stuff. Walk confidently and directly, and don’t wear headphones.
Just wandering around a new city is one of my favorite things to do when traveling, and as long as it’s daytime and you stay in the right neighborhoods, you’re generally fine. How do you find the right neighborhoods, though? Start with the place where the biggest tourist attraction is: the Louvre in Paris, the Jama Masjid in Delhi, the Jemaa el-Fnaa in Marrakesh, Big Ben in London, and so on. A radius around that will be very touristy, and pretty safe, and if you get past that and start to feel uncomfortable, you can just turn back in. The size of the radius will vary immensely based on which city you’re in and also, realistically, on your race and how you are dressed. If you want to explore outside of tourist areas, depending on where you are you’ll be fine just picking a direction and walking around, but you might need to do research ahead of time.
In cosmopolitan cities like London, Paris, or Tokyo, where the population is diverse, most of the city will be totally safe, and you probably won’t stand out much. Smartphones come in very handy here, because you can look at a map and try to figure out where you are without looking too much like a tourist, since everyone has their nose in a phone all the time. In more homogenous cities, such as Delhi or Phnom Penh, if you are of a different race than most of the population, you will stand out. Period. (In Morocco, I was traveling with a Chinese friend, and we got catcalled with “Konichiwa” for her and “fish and chips” for me, in addition to “gazelle” for both of us.) It can help significantly to dress conservatively and in a color palette that blends in a bit. On my last day in India, I looked out the car window and saw such lecherous expressions on the faces of two men on a motorbike that I shrank back into my seat, and then followed their gazes to see what they were looking at. It was a blond woman in a sleeveless, just-above-the-knee sundress which would have been perfectly appropriate, and even modest, in the US. In India, though, she was practically naked, and people reacted accordingly. In conservative countries I usually wear a light cotton tunic with three-quarter sleeves, over loose-ish pants or tucked into a long skirt, and that helps a lot.
The most important advice is to be realistic, and err on the side of caution. If you need to ask directions, step into a café or shop and ask someone who works there for help, don’t stop a stranger on the street (making it clear to everyone not only that you’re a tourist but that you’re confused). And be careful about going out after dark. There are certain experiences (mostly involving alcohol) that are simply more dangerous as a solo woman traveler than as a solo man or as someone traveling with a group, like going to an all-night club on a tiny island that is only accessible by the occasional ferry boat. I usually only ever have one drink, unless the bar is in the place I’m staying, less than a 10 minute walk away down well-lit (and populated) streets, or if I’ve managed to make friends from the same hostel who want to go out together in a big group and will keep an eye on each other, and even then I stop at two or three drinks. If going out at night is a big part of what you enjoy when you travel, then take a few basic steps ahead of time: leave your passport and all but one credit card locked away so you can’t accidentally lose them; have enough cash for a cab; and, if you’re staying in a hostel, set everything out on your bed before you leave so you won’t be fumbling in your bags in the dark, and waking everyone else up, when you get back.
As long as you have a plan for the day you arrive, do a little research ahead of time on safe/unsafe parts of the city, and walk with an air of confidence, you should be fine. Just don’t be stupid, especially after dark, and listen to your gut when it warns you something is wrong. Have fun!