How to be Your Own Travel Agent

Planning a travel adventure isn’t the mysterious process it used to be before the Internet made a wealth of information available to anyone with connectivity. Ideally, your planning should happen roughly four months before your trip to reap the best deals and guarantee availability. Here are my tips and tricks for getting the most out of your next trip, broken down into parts. I recommend that you read them in order, but feel free to skip ahead.

  • Step One: Establish your vacation vision / travel personality
  • Step Two: Purchase airline tickets
  • Step Three: If required, acquire visas / inoculations/medications
  • Step Four: Refine the pace/scope of your travel
  • Step Five: Research transportation at and between destinations
  • Step Six: Book your accommodations
  • Step Seven: Explore sightseeing/day trip opportunities and book ahead where necessary
  • Step Eight: Figure out what to pack

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The Year in Review

It’s been a year since my retirement after nearly thirty years of classroom teaching and school administration. While this last weekend in June may not be New Year’s Day, it is nonetheless time for taking stock and setting goals for the coming year. Nearly all of my friends and acquaintances advised me to take a year off, to just chill out, before setting big goals and expecting to chip away at my bucket list, but I didn’t believe them. I think the karma gods figured out right away that I was now available for all sorts of unplanned speed bumps on the road to a new life phase; let’s just say that it’s been an eventful year. Let the record show that those who warned me were right and I was wrong!

So what have I learned?

1) Just because I don’t have to get up at o’dark thirty to go to work doesn’t mean my animals think I should sleep in, even though I don’t go to bed at 9:30 anymore.

2) It’s a lot easier to eat well and to exercise well and often without the daily grind of working full time.

3) As an introvert, I sometimes have to remember to get outside of my own head and interact with people other than my partner, and then I have to do something about it, which I mostly have, but there is room for improvement.

4) I don’t seem to have much in common with a lot of the people my own age. I am the oldest person in most of the new adventures I’m involved with, and that’s just fine.

5) While I miss the actual act of teaching — interacting with kids, thinking up new ways to present material, mentoring students and younger colleagues — there are big parts of being a K-12 teacher that became more and more onerous in recent years. I am delighted to never again have to:

o   Write another report card comment

o   Explain in person or on some idiotic online form that no one ever reads “how I’ve developed myself professionally this year”

o   Sit through another faculty meeting

o   Post an assignment in yet another format on yet another piece of crap software

o   Endure being told that I am blunt and intimidating because I have decades of experience and am not afraid to say what I think

6) Maybe I just need some space, but the book I wanted to write about the state of contemporary American education is the furthest thing from my mind right now.

7) Finally, having the time to deal with all the junk I’ve accumulated — both physical and virtual — doesn’t mean it’s actually any fun to sift through it and, as they say, “deaccession” (except for most of the work clothes, which went to Goodwill immediately).

So what have been the best things to happen during this first year?

1) Traveling, from planning a trip to actually doing it, has enriched my life and my relationship beyond measure. Mr. D and I have spent months away from home, visiting the West Coast, Asia, New York and Rehoboth. We’ve become a well-oiled partnership on the road, and it has brought us closer. We’ve met some seriously inspirational new people on our travels, almost all of them adventurous and younger than we are, because we don’t ever stay in impersonal and/or expensive places. We’ve had quality time with friends and family during times other than school vacations, and we’ve been able to take leisurely trips to places known and unknown rather than freaking out over how many days we have until we go back to work. I know, most people think, “teachers have all summer off, what’s the problem,” but let me tell you, I used to work my butt off during the summer catching up on household chores, planning for new courses and making “old” ones fresh.

2) I’ve taken two classes that have seriously changed my life. Getting started on learning to really use my DSLR camera enabled me to see the world anew. I wish it weren’t such a pain to transfer these photos in real time to Instagram! Even more importantly, the short story semester class I took with the renowned author and professor Mary Gordon gave me the jumpstart I needed for my own writing. The reading list was challenging, her lectures were riveting, and the comments I received on the five papers I had to write for the course renewed my confidence in my ability. I nearly cried tears of joy when she wrote that she was “blown away” by the “depth and elegance” of my thought and prose. I really needed that as I began to get serious about committing to the next step in my intellectual life.

3) Serendipity brought me a forum to test my authorial wings, and also gave me the opportunity to share with three women who have become my writing touchstone. Kate and I met at the first meeting of an author’s group at our local library, but decided independently that the group just wasn’t for us. She took the initiative to start a group and before we knew it we had four committed women ranging in age from twenties to sixties and several others who came and went sporadically. We meet every two weeks to share work with no restrictions as to genre. Pieces must not exceed 1200 words and must include a word drawn at random the previous session. After one school year so far (not including vacations) we have by my count met sixteen times. The support and critical acuity of my co-members has emboldened me to write deep from the gut, enabled me to hone pieces after receiving excellent criticism, and given me a sense of community and grounding in what can be a lonely or overly narcissistic endeavor.

What have been the biggest challenges of this first year of retirement?

1) Without question, health issues have been major stressors, even though none of them have been my own:

o   My father’s wife’s death after an arduous battle with ovarian cancer

o   My father’s own frailty and ultimate health crisis and recovery

o   Mr. D’s very unexpected pacemaker implantation

o   My brother’s bout with colon cancer

o   My sweet elder dog Sydney’s cancer recurrence and consequent euthanasia

o   My feisty middle aged terrier’s thyroid cancer surgery

Can I tell you how much I loathe cancer?

2) It’s taken a long time to let go of the goals I set for the first year (blogging on two separate blogs every week, accomplishing a number of home improvements, consolidating and perhaps getting rid of all of my electronic and physical teaching materials, becoming a better person, blah blah blah). I’m now choosing to focus on how much I have really accomplished rather than how much is still left to do.

3) It was very hard to adjust to not earning money. This was not so much a financial hardship as a change of self-definition. I continued to do some tutoring, but in effect was, for the first time in decades, not receiving a paycheck per se. I’ve gone from being not just employed but also having at least one freelance situation on the side to being retired. I have no plans or desires to return to the workforce and feel fine now, but those first few months were anxiety producing.

So what’s next?

I’m much less future oriented and much more present in the now than I used to be. My goals are simpler. I want to

o   Be able to hold a handstand in the middle of the room by my birthday

o   Work through the tutorials on the photography program Lightroom5

o   Spend quality time with my remaining terrier now that I have a sense of her mortality

o   Freeze fresh sweet corn and can fresh tomatoes

o   Post on my blogs at least once every two weeks

o   Clean out the garage and the carriage house

o   Get the tile and floor jobs done, preferably by paying someone else to do them

o   Read more

This past year has been one of the best of my life, even though the challenges have been many. I’m looking forward to each day as it comes, and I can honestly say that retiring when I did was one of the best decisions I have ever made!

What Worked and What Didn’t on Our SE Asia Trip

Overall, I think the research I did and the fabulous advice I found from so many smart travelers helped me to have a stress free carry on only trip.  So here is the round up:

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1)  My Osprey backpack was terrific.  I carried it on my back easily, hoisted it up into the airplane bin easily, packed and repacked it easily, and never had it weighed after the first flight with Turkish Airlines.  I think the people at the check-in counters just figured that a tiny little old lady with a backpack probably couldn’t carry more than the allotted 7 or 8 kgs.

2) Packing cubes are the bomb. ‘Nuf said.  Or perhaps I should phrase that differently for security personnel ;-0

3) The luggage scale was indispensable at home because it made me ditch lots of things which I never really missed anyway.  Admittedly, we never used it after we left home.

4) My three smartwool shirts (one short sleeve black and two bright colored tanks) worked as advertised, although I must say that the black tee was the most useful.  The weather was unseasonably chilly in both Hong Kong and Hanoi and that shirt got one heck of a lot of wear. And I never washed it.  And it never smelled.  And it didn’t itch. The tanks . . . meh. Once we hit warm sunny places I actually wanted more coverage and didn’t wear tank tops at all. So, bottom line, I just ordered another Icebreaker short sleeve tee in grey from Moosejaw (on sale, natch) and a super lightweight 3/4 sleeve merino v-neck in ballet pink from J Crew (also at a steal).  I’m totally convinced that merino wool in a fine gauge works for both hot and cold temps and packs and wears like a dream.

5) The rayon long sleeve T was a lifesaver, mostly because of the chilly temps early in the trip, but if I had it to do again I would take the new J Crew merino instead.  The button up tunic blouse, not so much. I really didn’t use it.  The Coolibar sarong was a great idea, and would be more useful if we had done more beach time.  So, no regrets, but it didn’t get as much use as I thought it would. My bathing suits worked out fine, but we didn’t swim as much as we thought we might on this particular trip.

6) Most worn item:  the Adea white tee shirt.  Loved it.  Cool, non-smelly, great coverage but stylish fit, washed that sucker out day after day and it was dry in a matter of hours with no wrinkles.  I immediately ordered four 3/4 sleeve shirts when I got home, only two of which were on sale, which tells you how much I love the brand since I hardly ever pay full price for anything.  The feel of this fabric on the skin is to die for, the fit is oh so Italian designer, and the care is easy peasy.  I could do an infomercial on this brand!

7) Pants: the Lululemon travel/bike-to-work/dry-quick grey pants were AWESOME.  Wore them constantly in heat or cold. The Athleta taupey haremish pants were perfect, but I am a little concerned that they won’t last. Only wore the Kuhl shorts one or twice, but they were comfy and fit great. I much preferred wearing the yoga cropped tights out in public in warm weather places. I only wore a skirt once in Cambodia.

8) My hat was a great success, and totally necessary once we left Hanoi. Best part–it smushed down in whatever shape to fit into my pack and then could be reformed (the wire in the brim meant it didn’t flop). And, it fit my rather small head and stayed on even in gusts. And of course, sunglasses both prescription and regular, were essential.

9) I really didn’t need the Prana yoga top.

10) All of the shoe choices were great.  No blisters. Lots of walking in each pair. Felt stylish and not clunky. Win.

11) Ex Officio underwear is everything everyone says it is.  I bought two more pair on sale when I got home as I have discovered they are the best for yoga and the gym too–no panty line and (ahem) no stink. Plus they dry in an instant.

12) My Patagonia Nanopuff jacket was indispensable.  Not only for the chilly times, but wadded up as a pillow on the plane (we took nine flights in all). And it took up no space in either my purse or my backpack.

13) The Athleta SPF50 white ruched v neck coverup and my  Blockshop Textiles scarf were the most used items, providing layers, sun or wind protection, style, all the while keeping me cool when that was important, skin cancer free we hope, or warm when necesary. I can’t say enough about either one.

14) Tech-wise, I never used the new camera tripod.  It was bulky and I hadn’t practiced before the trip. We didn’t need the voltage converter because all of our electronics did that themselves.  Those two items were heavy.  We never bothered to get phones in Vietnam, but I will get a new iPhone 5 or 6 before our next international trip so we can use SIM cards. Best tech tip:  Get Tunnelbear. I never felt compromised using public wifi in hotels or cafes or airports. It’s worth it and very reliable. My RFID tiny wallet was also great for peace of mind.

15) TSA was fine with my scissors — both the small kid ones and the sewing kit ones.  Hong Kong balked at the kid ones, measured them and let me pass. Danang security took the sewing scissors. No one cared about liquids. Sometimes I had to take my shoes off, sometimes I didn’t.  Moral of the story: you never know. Every checkpoint is different.

16) My J Crew purse was terrific for flights because I could stuff so much into it (camera, liquid 1 quart bag, guidebook, IPad, chargers). Outside of Hong Kong I didn’t carry it but instead used a fabric carryall that folded into a tiny pouch.  Why? Best not to be carrying an expensive leather bag in places where that seems first-world extravagant.

I have a lot to say about toiletries, cosmetics, medications, etc. but I’ll save that for the next post.

Southeast Asia, Here I Come!

It’s been an interesting winter here at Farmhouse by the Falls.  Cold, snowy, with little progress on some of the home improvement projects that were on the docket. And, obviously, blogging has been as much on the back burner as my tea kettle. 

So what has Ms. D been up to?  Planning a three-week jaunt to Southeast Asia!

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Once the Christmas holidays were over and trips back and forth to New Jersey were behind me, I settled in to do the research necessary to plan the trip.  It is really quite astonishing how much information there is available online, and how all-consuming it can become to read reviews, watch YouTube videos, find new bloggers and work out an itinerary that has the right mix of adventure and comfort, luxe and budget, urban and rural, culture and beach chill, on the go and off the grid. 

I’ve wanted to make this trip for a decade.  My brother Aubrey lives and works in Hong Kong and the Philippines and has been patiently waiting for one of my travel promises to become reality.  Money was always tight, my ex never expressed any interest in the trip, and my teaching schedule meant arriving during the monsoon season.  Now that I am retired and with Mr. D (not my “I’d rather sit in the local bar” ex), travel is a priority.  What a difference it makes to have a partner who craves new experiences as much as I do!

I bought our tickets to Hong Kong last September, but the rest of the itinerary was left open.  We assumed that we would spend time in Palawan with Aubrey, but the typhoon trashed the island airport, and he suggested that we find other options.  That opened up so many possibilities that it was hard to choose, but we settled on Thailand and Cambodia.  I spent several weeks learning everything I could about what to do in Thailand, down to choosing places to stay, but I wasn’t quite ready to click “Reserve”. Troubling reports about political unrest became more frequent, and by late January we decided to go to Vietnam instead. 

 This shift in plans created a few interesting wrinkles.  First, Thailand is HOT.  So is Cambodia, which we still planned to visit. Northern Vietnam, at least in March, is not.  Given that we had already decided to travel with only carryon backpacks restricted to roughly 15 pounds, this meant a slightly different mix of clothes.  Which led to the obsessive search for just the right things to take, perusing the advice of savvy backpackers and travellers around the Interwebs.  Second, this meant a whole new search for accommodations, transportation options, tours, etc.

Over the next few days before we leave, I’ll share with you all of the wisdom I’ve accumulated, and, with some luck, I will blog our trip (or at least Instagram it) as we go, sharing not just our adventures, but the fabulous blogs and Vlogs I’ve discovered. I already feel like I have a whole new set of best friends as I follow these intrepid travelers in their wanderings!