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.

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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.
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Sunday, September 23, 2012

Art Glass Discoveries in the Czech Republic

Sure, I knew that the Czech Republic had a long and illustrious tradition in art glass. But as I wandered into museums, boutiques, factories and studios, I certainly didn't expect to find a playfulness to the works on display.

 In fact, while inspecting the myriad pieces of stemware, goblets and bowls, I found something so curious that I burst out loud giggling in the middle of this staid museum. I was face to face with contemporary glass Eve that was anatomically correct.

My article for the Huffington Post is accompanied by a slide show of my images of everything from craftsmen handcrafting bowls in a hot shop to table centerpieces that seem mythological.
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Thursday, September 6, 2012

Walking Spain's Less-Visited Camino de Santiago Route

Every day presented an idyllic landscape: an abundance of orchards, ruins of pre-Romanesque churches, golden sand beaches and always a surprise or two, including a sign that tempted me with berry picking and, what turned out to be, heaps of handmade ice cream packed with the farm's berries.

This is what I experienced by walking part of a less visited Camino de Santiago in the Asturias region of Northern Spain. This area certainly has its moody side, thanks to the mist and showers that blanket the landscape, weather that assures the lushness of the foliage. You can follow my journey in my article appearing online at TravelSquire.

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