Saturday, December 29, 2012

Unexpected Items I Carry When Bicycling

Some people bring the obvious items on a bicycle trip: tool kit, windbreaker, bike shorts, water bottle. Find out what else I bring - you'll be surprised with these five items.

Recently, I wrote a piece for the Adventure Cycling Association on the five items I never leave home without when I'm on a bike tour. (Adventure Cycling is a non-profit membership association that's not just renowned for its bicycle advocacy but it also offers some pristine bike trips all over North America for the whole family -- I've biked on many of these. Recently I blogged about this group that I also recommend in my travel tips e-book.)

Just because I'm on a long-distance bike trip where I'm often carrying all my gear on the bike, that doesn't mean that I have to look like I've been on the Appalachian Trail for one too many days. After all, it is possible to look good and stay fit, too, while also being very practical. Among the items I bring is a Nau water-repellent dress that does triple duty as you'll read. I don't go anywhere without a lightweight black SmartWool sweater that can be worn while cycling or at night when paired with jeans or a skirt. Then there's my favorite buff that can serve more than half a dozen functions on my trip.
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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

My Fave Travel Experiences and Much More

Some people consider themselves luxury travelers. Others are bargain seekers. Some travelers sling a backpack on their shoulders and hit the road. Others prefer road trips. I've got a mix-it-up travel style, which means I embrace all travel styles, depending on the trip or the venue. I do stay in hostels, particularly in Portugal, and have found some do be not only design-focused, but perfect places to get insider information on a city, like Braga, Portugal. But I also go on cruises, as long as they are very small ships and involve a high education quotient, like I found with Zegrahm. My mix-it-up style of travel reflects my personality: I get bored easily and like surprises.

Recently, Billie Frank at The Santa Fe Traveler interviewed me on this and many other topics, including whether I go outside my comfort zone when I travel (you'll find out why I decided to walk alone down shadowy streets in the dead of night in both Valletta, Malta and Dubrovnik, Croatia.), what kinds of travel experiences I seek out, what are my most memorable travels (hint: it was a winter trip I took much earlier this year), and my very favorite places in the world (hint2: one of the countries has a wee capital where some people still believe in elves.).
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Monday, December 17, 2012

Bicycling the Idyllic Island of Sylt, Germany

What makes for a perfect cycling destination? For me, it starts with a venue that bike friendly, which usually means myriad bicycle trails and motorists that respect cyclists. It also means a destination that's rich in bucolic landscapes and quaint villages. I found such a place in Sylt, Germany, an island that's usually mentioned because it attracts well-to-do Germans who flock to the upscale seaside resorts and sea-lapped sands. No wonder it's given the moniker -- and there are several that all convey the same idea -- the Hamptons of Germany.

Recently, I wrote about cycling on this idyllic isle for Donna Hull at My Itchy Travel Feet. Sylt is so much more than sun and sand. Here you'll find giant dunes topped with a network of foliage, mud flats that are protected for the plankton that call them home, archeological ruins that date back millenia, and centuries-old whitewashed churches. Anyone who spends their time on Sylt simply baking on the sands has missed so much more that this island offers.
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Friday, December 14, 2012

Winner of Travel Gear Giveaway

We have a winner of the travel gear giveaway! Jeff Dobbins will pick one of the products manufactured by the Clever Travel Companion that are all designed to thwart pickpockets. These products include underwear, t-shirts, tank tops, and long johns, all with hidden pockets. Congrats, Jeff. And thanks to everyone who participated. I really appreciate your support.

This was such a fun and practical giveaway that I'll be partnering up with the Clever Travel Companion again next year.

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Thursday, December 13, 2012

More Travel Tips For Women + Much More

If there are a few travel items you can't do without what would they be? That's what Maria and Anthony Russo, founders of the Culture-ist magazine wanted to know, among other things when they interviewed me recently.

I don't go anywhere without my Mary Jane-type shoes. They can fold up or lay flat in my bag and work great day or night. There's also my tiny Victorinox wallet pouch that conveniently attaches to my belt, whether I'm wearing pants or a dress. It keeps all my valuables out of the hands of would-be pick-pockets.

Maria and Anthony also wanted to know about any concerns I have when I'm traveling along, which is most of the time. Yes, I'm an overly suspicious sort, let's get that out of the way right at the beginning. (For example, I never leave my drink unattended at a bar.) But I also dress and act according to local customs so that I don't attract undo attention. I also rarely carry a purse so that I'm not a target for thieves. And I trust my New York City-honed street instincts.

These are a few of the more than 200 tips you'll find in my new travel tips e-book, the Travel Authority: Essential Tips for Hassle-Free Travel. I've blogged about some of the things you'll find in this handy book.

Read the rest of the interview at the Culture-ist, where you'll also find well-crafted articles on travel, food, small business ventures and other topics that revolve around authenticity, sustainability, a green ethic, artisanal endeavors, and a respect for women's and human rights in general.
continue reading "More Travel Tips For Women + Much More"

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

JCreatures™ T-Shirts for Kids

Bet you thought that the only people wearing my JCreatures™ t-shirts are adults. After all, I've blogged about wearing my t-shirts that show different emotions or states of being -- happy, sad, frustrated, surprised, sleepy, hungry, and naughty -- when I teach English in Spain. They've  real conversation starters.

But, as you may already know, I originally designed these JCreatures™ when I was 10 years old. (I blogged about the history of the JCreatures™ here.) And I've been drawing them ever since, whether it was in my high school yearbook, on postcards I sent friends in college during my summers in Europe, or on the top of my students' exams when I was a teacher.  So it makes sense that kids of all ages, including toddlers and infants, can be found wearing these shirts, too.

Moms and dads or adults who are just kids at heart can find my t-shirts in an array of colors and styles, including long-sleeve, baseball jersey, girls cap sleeve tee, organic and the little onesie above, by visiting my store

And, because the holidays are fast approaching, if you buy one of the few toddler or kids tees or onesies offered here from today until New Year's Day, you'll also get a free copy of my new travel tips e-book: The Travel Authority: Essential Tips for Hassle-Free Travel. (Simply use the code HOLIDAYS when you checkout.)

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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

More Travel Tips E-Book Reviews

Do you want to know what people are saying about my new travel tips e-book?

Margaret Cowen offers authentic cooking experiences and wine tours all over Italy, from Venice to Sicily. She recently reviewed my e-book, The Travel Authority: Essential Tips for Hassle-Free Travel, in her food and travel blog.

Among the tips Margaret highlighted were my recommendations on purchasing pick-pocket-proof pants, and a scarf with hidden pockets. Find out more in her review here.

Another travel expert, Irene S. Levine is an award-winning journalist, author and blogger who also reviewed my e-book. In her review here, you'll find out when you should buy comprehensive trip insurance, why it's a smart idea to pay for your tour with a credit card, and more.

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Monday, December 3, 2012

Advise for E-Book Authors + More

What's the hardest thing about publishing an e-book? If you said writing it, you'd be wrong. It turns out that by far, after searching for a graphic designer to set the book into the different file formats for the various e-readers -- and I found her only after conducting dozens of interviews on Craig's List -- the most frustrating part of the entire process was submitting the book for sale on iTunes.

Top travel blogger Ellen Barone, no relation, interviewed me on this and many other things related to my new travel tips e-book, The Travel Authority: Essential Tips for Hassle-Free Travel. Read her interview with me here:
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Thursday, November 29, 2012

More Travel Product Discounts - Travel Tips E-Book

As you probably know, I strongly recommend many products and companies in my new travel tips e-book not because any company asked to be in the book but because these are products, companies and services I stand behind in terms of their quality and performance. 
A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about three companies that are offering discounts to anyone who buys my e-book.

Now two more companies are on board with very cool discounts. 
Pick-pocket Proof Underwear! Yes, the Clever Travel Companion that makes men's and women's underwear and t-shirts with hidden pockets is offering a 15% discount to anyone who buys my travel tips e-book. Plus, if you tell your story of something you lost while traveling (including if your purse or pocket was picked), you could win the Clever Travel Companion product of your choice. Check out my post here for the rules. The contest ends December 10.

And a company with a quirky name, Horny Toad, that sells comfortable, stylish and performance-driven clothing (some with organic cotton) for men and women is offering a 10% discount on anything in their inventory, but just until February 1, 2013. When I'm shopping, I often find that active wear sacrifices a fashion sense and vice versa. Not so with Horny Toad. From dresses to tees, pants and jackets, Horny Toad makes items that I take on all my trips – including a fuzzy vest that I virtually live in in the winter – because I want items that look good, and are comfortable all day long no matter if I'm getting sweaty running around a city or I'm on a hiking trail. And many of their items also wear well for after work activities. 

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Monday, November 26, 2012

My Top Travel Tip For Women + Much More

Ever wonder why I rarely if ever carry a purse? What made me fall in love with Spain, Portugal and Israel? What makes Washington state's Methow Valley so special? And, I bet you have no idea what motivated me to start traveling around the world once I graduated from high school?

You'll find out the answers to these and other things about my life as a travel writer by reading this interview I did with Dian Emery at GirlsGetaway.
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Sunday, November 25, 2012

Essential Travel Tips For Every Trip

What if I told you that you could get an entire book of information that could take the worry out of your next trip and it would cost less than a cup of your favorite Starbucks latte? That's what blogger Charu Suri wrote about my travel tips e-book, The Travel Authority: Essential Tips for Hassle-Free Travel. She singled out five tips that she found particularly, including why you should always travel with a tube of Shoe Goo as well as the importance of bringing along two different credit/debit cards.

 Check out Charu's review here at her blog Butterfly Diary.
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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Giveaway: Best On-The-Road Lost Item/Pick-Pocket Story

My best pickpocket story is definitely unforgettable. It took place in one of my favorite cities, Madrid, in the afternoon as I stood outside a museum. Suddenly bird poop (or so it appeared) plopped all over my shoulder. And, just as suddenly, two well-dressed young girls appeared with tissues to help me clean up. Or, rather, they cleaned out my small backpack that I had on my back. Within seconds, as I was talking to one of them, the other managed to lift my passport, all my credit cards and money, my driver's license, my ATM card and even my hotel key. I later found out that this was an elaborate scam that employed someone with a high-powered water gun who shoots the faux poop on unsuspecting tourists -- though I thought I looked like a Madrileña and I even spoke Spanish.

If I had been wearing a pair of underwear or a t-shirt with hidden pockets, like those sold by Clever Travel Companion, at least I could've protected some of my valuables. This is one of the companies I recommend in my travel tips e-book, The Travel Authority: Essential Tips for Hassle-Free Travel. And, I'm happy to announce that the Clever Travel Companion is giving away any one of the many products they sell -- men's and women's underwear, t-shirts and tank tops -- to the one person who writes the best on-the-road lost item or pick-pocket story. To be eligible for the product of your choice, you must like the Clever Travel Companion on their Facebook page as well as submit your best story that involves either an item you lost while traveling or a situation where your pocket or purse was picked.  You can either post your story here on this blog or email it to me at -- no more than 200 words, please. (If you decide to post here, please provide your contact email so that I can reach you should you win.) All stories must be submitted by 11:59pm on December 10, 2012. Your story must be true and, aside from mentioning your own name if you post here, there's no need to identify anyone else who may have been involved or who you felt was involved in the incident. In addition, you must be a U.S. resident to be eligible to receive the prize. Good luck everyone.
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Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Travel Tips E-Book - Product Discounts

Since I published my travel tips e-book a couple of weeks ago, I've been hearing from people asking about the companies/products that I recommend in my book. Three of these companies, so far, are on board to offer discounts on their products to anyone who purchases my book: 

1. SteriPen, the company that manufactures a small device that you can carry in your pocket and that will sterilize contaminated water in seconds. They are offering $5 off on any product they sell.
2. Clothing Arts, the company that manufactures Pick-Pocket Proof Pants -- yes, they are so pick-pocket proof that you would have to be unconscious for anyone to get into your pockets -- is offering a substantial 20% discount that's good until fall 2013. I've blogged about these pants in an earlier post. 

For each of these discounts, simply email me (see the contact information in my blog) and I'll provide you with the discount codes.

Below is the latest company to provide an offer to those who buy my book. And this is a company that is near and dear to my heart. I've been a member of this organization for ages and have taken many of their bicycle tours where I've pedaled along one of the most beautiful roads in the country, the Beartooth Highway, and also went ferry hopping in Washington State's San Juan Islands. I've cycled over soaring mountain passes in Colorado and Montana as well as along historic paths in New Mexico passing old pueblo dwellings.

Anyone who buys my travel tips e-book will:
Get a Free Issue of Adventure Cyclist Magazine!

Adventure Cycling Association is North America’s largest nonprofit membership bicycling organization.  Their mission is to inspire and empower people to travel by bicycle.  They publish the award-winning Adventure Cyclist magazine known for its insightful stories,inspiring photography, bicycle-travel news, gear reviews, technical advice columns, touring bike road tests, and more.

This is a company without pretension, a company that has long advocated for safe bicycle routes around the country, and a company that was the first first in 1976 to organize the coast-to-coast bicycle route in the U.S. 

Their guided bicycle tours span the gamut, from cushy inn-to-inn tours where you'll enjoy low-key cycling in, for example, Puget Sound in Washington, passing  tranquil coves and harbors, to family tours in Idaho where you and your kids can stop in historic towns, take a refreshing dip in a swimming hole, and do some bird watching, to much more rigorous self-contained tours that course thousands of miles over hill and dale, such as their Sierra Cascades tour. On these latter tours, you'll carry everything, including clothing, food and other gear, on your bike, camp overnight and wake up to towering redwoods and course through majestic parks, such as Yosemite and Lassen, with its smoldering volcanic activity. You'll become comfortable with the day-to-day routine, and realize that good camaraderie, warm food, a roof over your head, and a day of scenic vistas is all you need to be happy

Aside from their tours and the magazine, Adventure Cycling also offers the Cyclists' Yellow Pages, a comprehensive resource allowing you to search for bicycle shops, bike tour operators, bicycle events and much more in North America and around the world.

continue reading "Travel Tips E-Book - Product Discounts"

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Under-The-Radar Sights in Budapest

Wandering Budapest's leafy street recently, I made plenty of discoveries. Most of them had very little to do with the Danube, the Citadel and other signature sights that garner all the attention. And, even when I did visit a well-traveled path, I did so with a slightly different focus. The whole point was to see Hungary's capital as if I were a local. Sure, it was my first time in Budapest, but, I prefer to be surprised. And, I don't find it all that appealing to visit on-the-radar venues that are iconic. After all, I'm all about what I term the "Who knew?" factor.

The recent article I wrote for the Huffington Post offers a look at Budapest with surprises galore; a Budapest that represents a locals view. Make sure to check out the accompanying slide show that illustrates some of the curiosities I stumbled upon.

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Friday, October 26, 2012

An Idyllic Walk In The Bronx: Old Croton Aqueduct

I guess you might say I'm obsessed with canals and similar  type waterways. Whether it's the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal that runs for 185 miles from Georgetown in DC to Cumberland, Maryland or the Kiel Canal in Germany, canals are perfect for the bikeable or walkable paths that run alongside these waterways. But, imagine my surprise when, as a native New Yorker, I just found out that there's a 40-some-mile-long aqueduct that wanders from Central Park to Westchester. But I probably would have still been unaware were it not for Open House New York. 
Open House New York is an annual event held one weekend in September with private residences, galleries and other (often architecturally-interesting) buildings opening their doors for culturally-focused activities. Because of my waterway fascination and tree hugging nature, I signed up for a walk along the Old Croton Aqueduct with guides from the Friends of the Old  Croton Aqueduct that's dedicated to preserving the Aqueduct.

Taking the #4 Lexington line subway to near the end of the line, I meet the group of 15 across from Lehman College where I pondered where this aqueduct was going to appear. The Bronx hardly sounded like it would be the source of an idyllic jaunt. Our two guides, Steve and Charlotte, warn us that, because we would be coursing south through the Bronx, if we were expecting sylvan glades we would be sorely disappointed. (The treks that head north through Westchester follow the scenic Hudson River Valley.) Interestingly, many trailheads are easily accessed by taking Metro North to, for example, Hastings-on-the-Hudson or Dobbs Ferry stations.

But what this Bronx section lacks in verdancy it's abundant in history, both social and literary. Coincidentally on this the anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe's birthday, we will be walking in his footsteps. 

We learn that 10% of New York City's water comes from the Croton Watershed, which was the source of the city's first clean water supply back in 1842 when it first opened. We take clean water for granted but, before that time, New Yorkers got their water from wells which became contaminated and led to plenty of disease outbreaks, including typhoid. The aqueduct was able to deliver 50,000 gallons of water a day.
The entire aqueduct, however, is invisible to us, as it runs just five to six feet below the sidewalk along Goulden Avenue. It's said that 99 million bricks were used in the construction of the tunnel that carried water. (It's referred to as the Old Croton Aqueduct because the new one went onine in 1910 and the original ceased operation in 1955.) Curious factoids abound where this aqueduct is concerned, including that it was built by a self-taught engineer. The aqueduct, a marvel of construction, also owes its existence to the Romans who also build these structures to be gravity fed. 

 Passing drab apartments, whitewashed churches and ramshackle garages, we spot  the turret of the Kings Bridge Armory that dates back to 1913. (It was the largest indoor drill hall in the world.) Curiously, what some believe resembles a French chateau has been abandoned for decades. A mere quarter of a mile on Kingsbridge Road is where Poe settled, wrote some of his most loved works, including the Cask of Amandillado, and walked the same path we're following south to the High Bridge.
The most surprisingly lush section of the route is along Aqueduct Avenue where embankments (reflecting the topography of the aqueduct) fall away to either side of our path that's now dotted with shade trees. The Poe Cottage is a short detour away as is the little-visited St. James Church where elaborate Tiffany stained glass windows make it well worth the visit.

Near chaotic Fordham Road, we curve around to an adjacent pedestrian path, a wall of native field stone lining the way. Prominent tree roots penetrate the stone wall and even dig down to the aqueduct's roof, puncturing it and, saysCharlotte , will eventually destroy it. 
Steve stops to show us a photo of Phineas Gage, one of the builders of the aqueduct, who survived after being impaled through the skull with an iron rod – the tragic result of digging the canal by hand, using black gunpowder instead of dynamite. (A handful of sand was supposed to prevent a spark after using the iron tapping rod.)

We wander into Aqueduct Lands Playground that's designed – as is the nearby Morgan Playground –  to reflect the aqueduct itself, including the towns along the way, their names – Dobbs Ferry, Tarrytown, Ossining, Hastings, etched on brick that rims a water channel. As we continue heading south, we pass the Gould Memorial Library, renowned for the Hall of Fame for Great Americans. (The scenic views of the Harlem River from this vantage point also can't be beat.)

As we cross Tremont Avenue and continue on University Avenue, the walk dramatically loses its appeal with nothing but crowded sidewalks and drab storefronts. But, we press on to the highlight of the journey, the High Bridge that carried water across the Harlem River. From there, water was first pumped up to the elegant circa 19th century stone tower that dominates the skyline and then gravity took over to supply Manhattan. Decades ago, people would stroll this the oldest bridge in New York City. We gather in petite High Bridge Park and peak through a crack in the imposing chained door to see that the bridge surface is now overgrown with weeds. It's been long closed but the hope is that it will be restored and reopened as a cycling and pedestrian way between the Bronx and Manhattan. This is definitely a path I'd like to tackle.

continue reading "An Idyllic Walk In The Bronx: Old Croton Aqueduct"

Thursday, October 25, 2012

My Travel Tips E-Book

I think most of us would agree that surprises are great, just not unpleasant ones. And that's especially the case when traveling. When I'm on the road, whether it's to a domestic destination or a far-flung land, I would rather avoid getting ill, becoming stranded in an airport, having my hotel broken into, losing my laptop and so forth. You get the idea.

That's why I decided to write a savvy travel tips e-book where the title says it all: The Travel Authority: Essential Tips for Hassle-Free Travel. I've divided the book up into seven useful sections based on major travel topics: savvy packing, airports and planes, other transportation (cars, trains and boats), health and safety, accommodations, recommended gear and products, and insurance and money issues. Each chapter has a quirky image, like the one on the cover, that introduces that section. (I'm all about quirky, after all.)

The idea is that even someone who has logged thousands of frequent flyer miles will find something (or more than one thing) they didn't know that can help them save money, time and their sanity. The tips -- there are more than 200 of them -- come from my personal travel experiences, my background in the health and medical field, as well as my use of various products and gadgets that I adore.

In The Travel Authority, you'll find that I provide links to apps that can save the day when your plane is delayed, for example, as well as companies, such as Adventure Cycling, that can take the hassle out of traveling with your bicycle, and products, like the SteriPen, that I take with me on many a trip to prevent traveler's diarrhea from contaminated water. (It's super small, pen-sized.) You'll find recommendations on how to avoid pickpockets -- with a very cool pair of pants --  as well as an item of clothing -- the Versalette -- that transforms into twenty different garments.

I wrote this book for every kind of traveler, no matter your budget or style. If you're a business traveler or you're on a budget, if you prefer luxury travel or you're more comfortable on the Appalachian Trail, you'll find tips for you. That's because I travel in all manner of different ways, staying at hostels and five-star hotels; I'm often on business but I also go on long-distance hiking, bicycling and Nordic skiing trips.

The Travel Authority is being sold for the Kindle, Nook and the iPad as well as a downloadable PDF from my blog here. (You'll find it on the upper right with the cover prominently displayed.) The e-book is just $2.99. And to make your life even more travel savvy, certain companies mentioned in this book are offering discounts to anyone who buys the book. Most are still getting on board at this time, but you can email me for more information on this once you've purchased the book. (I can provide you with discount codes.)

I hope you enjoy reading it and I hope it makes your next journey worry-free.

continue reading "My Travel Tips E-Book"

Monday, October 15, 2012

Teaching English In Spain

What could I possibly be doing in a stone-made hamlet in Spain where there's no shopping, no cars, no air conditioning and little in the way of WiFi? Almost every summer I travel to the Soria province to teach conversational English to Spanish business men and women and sometimes college students. The setting is idyllic, the distractions are few and each day offers so many possibilities in terms of making a difference in the lives of others.

I've written about this program in the hamlet of Valdelavilla before. It's definitely not for everyone. You have to enjoy almost non-stop conversation from breakfast to sometimes way into the night as conversations move from the dinner table to the one laid-back bar. There's little down time. Some volunteers find it difficult to come up with entertaining topics that keep everyone engaged. Others get burned out with the constant interactions. Since I have a background as a teacher and I thrive on meeting new people and engaging them in all manner of conversations, whether political, social or cultural, I'm in my element in this hamlet.

But, recently I've come upon a new conversation starter: my quirky line of JCreatures™ t-shirts. Each t-shirt has a cartoon image that I designed, which reflects a different emotion or state of being, like emoticons, of sorts. It's hard to look at one and not wonder what it means.

Recently, I guest blogged for the PhotoFly Travel Club on teaching English in Valdelavilla and how I use my JCreatures™  t-shirts (such as those below) to promote conversation while also boosting camaraderie and providing a few laughs.

continue reading "Teaching English In Spain"

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Gear Review: A Transformative Garment - The Versalette

What if I told you (women) that you could pack one piece of fabric (tube-shaped) that could replace 20 items in your luggage?  Oh, and what if I sweetened up the deal by saying that everything about it would be  sustainable? Pretty fantastical, huh? But that's what the Versalette does. Because of an ingenious design that depends on buttons and draw strings, my little charcoal toned fabric acts as a scarf (actually two types of scarves), hood, short skirt, long skirt, strapless dress, halter dress, tunic (several types), a poncho (more here, too), a shawl and even a little purse.

Check out the LookBook and then review this video which shows how it can easily convert from one garment to the next. You can see how others are wearing the Versalette on their tumblr page.

And this is how I wore the Versalette:

Anyone who's met me knows I've very skinny. But, the Versalette can flatter any woman, no matter her shape. In fact, when my Versalette arrived in the mail in a little biodegradable pouch, it came with visual instructions for different body shapes. (I'm considered the Pencil and, as you can see above, I wore it as a short skirt, halter dress with the drawstrings pulled, and a strapless dress with black leggings.) At first, I was worried that my body might float in this tube-shaped garment. But, if you accent it with a flattering belt, scarf, or jacket, even if you are a fellow Pencil, you'll find looks that work well for you. In addition, it's key to really cinch the drawstrings properly (as per the directions) and then tuck in the bow.  Because there are wooden buttons, you have to follow the directions as to when you need to open the button holes and use the arm openings, and when to keep them unbuttoned. The garment also comes with two open pockets, which is handy for keeping a notebook and pen when you're traveling.

It might take some people a bit of time to read and re-read the instructions, follow along with the video and try out the different looks before you're able to make quick transformations and before you feel comfortable with those looks that work best for your body shape.

As far as the sustainability goes, I'm so happy that the creators, Shannon Whitehead and Kristin Glenn, decided that everything should be Made in the U.S.A. The fabric is made in North Carolina of recycled plastic bottles and recycled cotton scraps; the buttons are produced in Brooklyn, the drawstrings are dyed in Raleigh, North Carolina, and even the labels are embroidered in Austin, Texas.

Whenever I'm at the airport and I see people weighed down by their luggage, it makes me sad. There just is no need to carry so many articles of clothing. In fact, I'd bet that you didn't really wear all those clothes you brought on your last trip. Now, with the Versalette, you have no reason to pack several shirts, several skirts, several scarves. Just pack one (or two) of these. (They come in different colors, including sage, cherry and indigo, depending on what's in stock. (It costs $80.)

continue reading "Gear Review: A Transformative Garment - The Versalette"

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Gear Review: Bag Balm - The Do-It-All Skin Salve

As moisturizers (or ointments with moisturizing properties) go, this one has a name that's hardly appealing. Bag Balm. No, definitely not a product that I'd want to race out and buy, let alone apply on my lips or face. Especially once I found out that it was originally developed for use on dairy cows' udders. (Farmers didn't want 'em getting chapped so they developed this moisturizing formula in the late 1800s.) 

I'd heard about Bag Balm for years but I didn't know anyone who used it. And with that name, well, you get the idea. So when the company sent me the product to try out in its signature the little green tin, I set aside my prejudice and handed it to my friend to try out first. After all, he's always been complaining about foot calluses and dry hands from working in the kitchen and the garden. As a guy, he abhors moisturizers, especially girlie ones. Well, Bag Balm hardly seemed girlie, especially when I told him farmers used it on their cows. (He actually found that to be a vote of confidence.)

After a couple of weeks, I received an email while I was traveling in Hungary. He loved Bag Balm. His feet never felt softer. Same goes for his hands. Though he thought it would be greasy, it absorbed well into his skin. And he liked the scent too: He found it manly. (Leave it to those farmers.)

As soon as I returned, I decided to give Bag Balm a try. My lips were sunburned -- Budapest was hotter and sunnier than I expected for September. My cuticles were a mess from all the camping and cycling I did this past summer. And then there's my on-going battle with seborrheic dermatitis on my face. After just a couple of days using the product, my lips were no longer red and chapped, my cuticles felt supple, and Bag Balm even provided some much needed relief for several patches of itchy skin on my face.

The only problem is that my friend is monopolizing the Bag Balm. He uses it on his arms and legs after a shower, and regularly applies it on his hands and feet. He also recommended it to a friend who complained that his bull terrier suffers from irritated paws.

As a traveler who never checks luggage, I'm attracted to products that serve more than one or two functions. Bag Balm fits the bill. I'll be bringing it on my next long-distance bicycle trip because not only will it work as a lip balm and hand moisturizer, but I heard that it can stave off the thigh chafing and saddle sores that I've experienced on some trips. It's also said to be good for minor cuts and scrapes since it has some antiseptic properties. 

I do like the idea that the Vermont-based company hasn't changed its formula since 1899, unlike some companies that change their products, even those that are much loved, with the seasons, it seems. Leave it to those farmers.

continue reading "Gear Review: Bag Balm - The Do-It-All Skin Salve"

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Gear Review: Chinese for Travelers

The idea that you can buy a product that will act like your 24-hour-a-day interpreter sounds perfect for those who are foreign language challenged, like myself. This is what's claimed on the cover of Chinese Talking Travel Guidebook - China Edition that Parrot Learning  sent me to review.  This is all about what they coined “Point and Listen” technology, where you use a special “audio pen” to first scan the desired Chinese phrase (in either the Chinese characters or pinyin) and then the “pen” speaks the word or phrase for you. Perfect, right? Not necessarily, as you'll see. 

  The large box that arrived in the mail was bulky, packed with a three volume set of slim books organized by topics, a scanner in the shape of an ultra thick but light pen, a USB cable, earphones and a couple of neck/wrist straps. The scanner pen takes two AAA batteries (adding to the weight) and is economically constructed with just three narrow buttons: one for power on but it also toggles between the volume function, and the language switching  (English/Mandarin) and repeat function. The second button also does double duty to boost the volume or repeat the last word/phrase. And the last button both reduces the volume and allows you to switch between English and Mandarin.

There's really no learning curve with this, once you figure out the button issues (more on that below). All you have to do is first point the scanner pen on the bull's eye logo on the cover of the desired volume. (You have to remember to do this every time you switch among the four book volumes.) Then you're all set. Simply point the pen on any of the Chinese words or phrases and you'll hear the correct pronunciation in Mandarin (or you can switch to English). So, if I was feeling ill when I’m in Beijing, I'd pick up Volume 1, turn to the section on Travel Essentials and point the scanner to the phrase: wo xu yao yi sheng (you’ll note that I’ve left off all the diacritical marks) or “I need a doctor”. But the phrase was said so quickly, I couldn't determine how to say it myself. (Though I was able to slow down the speed dramatically, I still found it difficult if not impossible to mimic the spoken phrase. (I tested out my language skills in my neighborhood in Queens with native Mandarin speakers and the people I approached in the shops had no idea what I was attempting to say.) Instead, I resorted to having the pen do the talking, which it does very well.  

My opinion on using the audio pen and books to learn the language? I'd rather use Rosetta Stone. Sure, the pen is small but if I'm studying at home before heading off to a far-flung land, I don't care about small. I need something that has the kind of flexibility to deal with the myriad ways different people learn languages. I don't have a good ear and can't hear what vowels or consonants, let alone the different tones used to speak Mandarin correctly.

Yes, this system has many problems:

When someone responded to my inquiry, I was clueless as to what they were uttering. Of course, there are sections in the volumes labeled “Listening” where, if you point the scanner pen, you'll hopefully hear a phrase that matches what the person just said, such as dui bu qi, wo bu zhi dao or “Sorry I don't know”; or wo bang bu liao ni or “I can't help you”. Again, testing this out in my local shops didn’t banish my confusion when I tried to order lunch. The waitress said something that I couldn’t match with anything in the book’s restaurant section. Plus, I don’t see how using this audio pen and the accompanying books will assist you in having a real conversation, even a rudimentary one.

The only good use I see for this is to have the pen do the talking for you. But with four volumes to thumb through, you'd have to be fairly well organized before you approach someone or enter a store or hotel to be ready with the appropriate words/phrases. I'd probably have to use a set of color-coded Post-It notes to single out phrases such as “Can you fix the hot water in the bathroom” if I'm in my hotel, or “What is the price for a round-trip ticket” if I'm in the train station, and so forth. Once you've made your initial inquiry, you're on your own to carry on a dialogue after that.

And, as to these switches that have several functions, maybe Parrot Learning thought this was being economical, but what it's done is confuse things. I ended up pushing a button and thinking it will speak in Mandarin but all it does is change the volume. Then I wanted to boost the volume and, instead, I ended up repeating the last phrase.

Additionally, you have to carry not just the pen but all the books. So, those you don't check luggage like myself may not be happy about this added load. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether carrying around the pen and books for the sole purpose of having it speak for you is worth the $120 price.
continue reading "Gear Review: Chinese for Travelers"