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It was a pretty great road trip, and most days we got out and did some hiking. I have to tell you about my favorite place along the way to LA. I don’t want to write another post about something you already know about (hello Grand Canyon). I want to tell you about this little known place. I actually had quite a bit of trouble finding it on google maps. So I came prepared with step-by-step written directions, but the signage to get there from the interstate was spot on.

If you’re ever near Santa Fe or Albuquerque (that’s I-25 or I-40 respectively for those of you travel buffs), I highly recommend visiting Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument.

The website doesn’t do this site justice, nor does the cheap $5 entrance fee (which is covered by the National Park Pass if you have one).

If you remember my ravings about the Cappadocia region of Turkey, this landscape will look familiar. In some ways, it’s much better than Turkey because it is easily accessible, has clearly marked trails, and includes beautiful slot canyons, too. Of course, it isn’t as large as the region in Turkey, but then again, we can’t all fly to central Turkey easily.

My only wish was that the afternoon clouds that were forming didn’t make us hurry so much. It really is beautiful terrain.

And just in case you’re wondering, my second favorite place was the Santa Fe National Forest. I was quite surprised by how much I enjoyed being there. Probably half of my enthusiasm was just for being on my own two feet and in the trees after so much driving through the plains. I didn’t want to leave after roasting marshmallows by the fire and camping in the clear mountain air, but we were less than halfway to LA…

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The past couple of weeks have been a dizzying array of logistics from sending notarized documents, researching pods and movers, moving vehicles, booking transport for household stuff, getting boxes, and packing. Most of it has been rather labor-intensive. I am constantly fighting my inner voice. Remember when I talked about planning trips? I’m a maximizer in making all of these silly decisions. [I came to terms with this a few years ago, when I read The Paradox of Choice (here’s good video summary of some of the points of the book), and I have some some strategies to minimize the effect, but that isn’t what this post is about.]

Through the process, there has been one logistic that I thoroughly enjoy taking care of – actually planning the cross-country trip that we will be taking from Texas to California.

I took 2 road trips “out West” about 10 years ago; both were out to the Grand Canyon with other stops along the way and back to AR. But, this is the first trip that I am planning myself. I’m excited to revisit places like the Grand Canyon, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, and Window Rock. And I’m really looking forward to checking out some new places like Santa Fe National Forest and Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks.

I’m also excited about packing up the car, putting ice in the cooler, and doing a traditional road trip. It’s possible that it has been 10 years since I’ve done this. I’ll have podcasts, audio books, and music to help make it through the first 2 legs of the trip (to Amarillo and then to Santa Fe). 

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And for those of you wondering, the apartment confirmation finally came through!

I’ve been taking advantage of a lot of online tools as we begin thinking through the process of moving away from Dallas. There are some pretty fantastic free tools to enable researching all phases of moving (or traveling). Check some of these out:

Hipmunk allows you to easily sort through available options for flights (using even swaps idea) with great visuals.

Padmapper allows you to pull craigslist ads, apartment.com, and rent.com into an easily sortable map. And the best part is adding the heat map overlay of walkability and mass transit options. This is great for large cities that you aren’t familiar with (and you can even use the heat maps for booking hotels in good locations).

TaxiFareFinder calculates what you should expect to pay for taxis (making it easier to compare with Super Shuttle or a rental).

Zilok allows you to search for anything you might want to rent (great for people who don’t want to buy items seldom used). Need a ladder to take down drapes or wall hangings? A great alternative to Craigslist, which focuses on owning items.

Homestyler allows you to create a 2D and 3D visual layout of your home (or to-be home) based on dimensions, furniture, and colors. It misses a few elements (like good office chairs), but this is a great way to think through home design issues.

Add your favorites in the comments.

Here are some general updates.

The stay discussed in Not a typical hotel went very well. The place looked just like the pictures, there were clean linens, etc. I even learned that our host worked for my company until a month ago (not exactly a small world because it is a large company, but still a neat connection). I hope to use the site again with a bit more advance planning when traveling to expensive cities.

This week I had the pleasure of seeing a Cirque du Soleil show. This one. It was a really great show. The acrobatics and music were stunning. But I couldn’t help but compare it to the experience of watching the same show on tv*. I’ve always been biased toward watching performances on a screen. The camera angles, focus, zoom, and speakers just create such a perfect combination that I’m so spoiled. I hate it when I can’t see and hear everything that is going on, in perfect clarity. This isn’t an issue with the seats; I could practically touch some of the performers. Click on the link above and watch the video. Even with the energy of the crowd and the newness of everything, when would you prefer a performance in person?

A few years ago I had the pleasure of attending a restaurant pre-run, where they test all of the equipment, staff, food, experience, etc. It was really a lot of fun. The place buzzed with energy. Everyone was excited to be there, the staff were running around in every direction, and the food was, of course, delicious. In exchange for the free meal (if I remember correctly, it included everything for several courses except alcohol), we had to complete surveys about the food, staff, setting, experience, etc. What a deal!

So when my company invited me to a test of a new facility that will be opening soon I jumped at the chance to check it out (that was planned long before the trip above). Yesterday, I drove to the facility, and as soon as I stepped out of the car I was treated to a dizzying number of staff trying to help me. Did I need help with my bags? Do I know where I am going? Is there anything they can do for me? Would I like water? This was all said with extreme cheeriness (the way I assume Disney park employees are). Once I got beyond the hordes of people trying to help me, I checked out the facility. It was well worth the hype I had heard. The building and area were gorgeous, the food was delicious (oh, and there was so much that I just kept eating), the rooms were very nice (with lots of small touches to make them very comfortable), and there were interesting company features throughout the building (to make it both more functional and entertaining). I was so excited about everything that I couldn’t sleep until early this morning (although that might from the myriad of desserts I tried last night:)

Hopefully, there will be more interesting updates to my adventures in the near future. Keep your fingers crossed!

*I don’t actually have a tv, but this is easier than saying a wide-screen tv, computer monitor, or projector in each place.

If you want to travel, it’s easy to get fixated on finding cheap airfare, but as soon as you find a good deal you’re left wondering where to stay. One night at a typical hotel can easily cost more than your great airfare deal! (And don’t get me started on B&B prices!)

Luckily, there are tons of other options.

I’m a big fan of staying at hostels.  They are particularly great when you are traveling alone, want to swap stories about things to do, and/or are interested in meeting other people from around the world. However, some places don’t have good hostels (e.g. Spain). Many US cities have hostels (e.g. I stayed in the one in DC before I moved there for my job), but there can be a lot of exclusions (such as requiring that you live more than 100 miles away or that you meet certain age requirements). And you may simply want to stay somewhere with more than a bed.

Using an RV or camping have always been available for people willing to be off the beaten path. In the past 10 years, the marketplace has exploded with other options for whatever path you’re looking for.

Craigslist has more than one section to check for vacation housing. Just go to the city that you will be visiting and click through housing swaps, sublets/temporary, and vacation rentals. This is a great option if you’re going to be in town for a special event. For example, tons of people flooded into DC for the last presidential inauguration, while many residents were looking to get out of dodge (to avoid the traffic, road closures, security issues, and take advantage of the long weekend). That’s the perfect time to find a temporary residence or do a housing swap.

For an average vacation or weekend getaway, I think that sorting through Craigslist is time-consuming, especially when there are better options. If you’re just looking for a place to sleep, try Couchsurfing. This allows you to meet locals, who are likely to have quite a bit of knowledge about their area. While it may only be a bed, couch, or futon, you can select other features you want, and you have access to the kitchen and livingroom. The real advantage of this site is that you can read reviews from other travelers who have stayed at these homes.

Another site with similar options is airbnb. I really like the search options for this site, including a map to find places in just the right neighborhood, the type of room (shared, guest room, or entire home), etc.  There are pictures and a description (particularly helpful when they describe the parking situation, where the home is with respect to sites or public transportation, and even if there is a pet or if animals can visit). Some places even offered breakfast in the morning or toys for children to play with during your visit. Again, you can read reviews to find out if the place met other travelers’ expectations.

Last night I booked 3 nights at 2 different homes through airbnb. The prices varied quite a bit by location and amenities, but looking through the website was substantially easier than sorting various hotels on different webpages. Also, you can send the owners a message if you have any questions. The only drawback is that the system may say that a place is available, and then after you book it, you may get a message that it was just taken. This happened to me, but I’m not sure how often it happens.

So even though you may not have friends or family to crash with, you might stay in a reasonably priced home with some new people.

And who doesn’t feel good about their dollars going directly to another person/family (plus a fee to the website) rather than some corporate hq?!

I spent the July 4th weekend actually feeling like I am back in the United States, by enjoying our National Parks! I have to thank my desi friends for a great trip. While we had a few misadventures (like driving to the wrong place initially), the beautiful weather and amazing scenery couldn’t be beat. Unfortunately, 4 days were not enough time! I didn’t want to leave…

I learned one important thing on this trip. Look out for people who really know what is going on. There are often people around (besides park rangers) who can provide you with excellent information about what you are seeing or about to see. And the great thing is that most of these enthusiasts want to share what they know (and even their gear!). This is how we got to see the Grand Geyser erupt (the world’s tallest) and how we got to see a huge grizzly bear.

Other than that, I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

Grand Tetons

Pink and blue sky reflected in the Yellowstone Lake

Bison using the road as their trail

Prismatic Spring

Elk grazing

Perfect walkway for skipping stones on the lake

Perfect place for a kayak

Wishing this was my view everyday

It’s summer in Texas.

I had a long list of outdoor activities that I wanted to do when I returned to the U.S. Well, I’m here…and in past month, I haven’t done much beyond going inline skating twice and taking walks (just before going to sleep, which is the only point in the day that the temperature is below 97 degrees) several times a week.

This post might seem to be about how awfully hot and humid it is here.

I complain about how there is nothing to do here because it’s too hot. But the truth is that there is just not much to do here. Or at least not for someone like me, and by that I mean someone without extended family, children, school and sporting events, or a very settled life to keep them entertained.

Dallas is a great city…for people who want plenty of space near good schools to raise their children who are driven to practices and recitals. But for me, it leaves a lot to be desired.

I’ve visited the 2 museums downtown. I’ve been to the arboretum and the hour away Ft. Worth Botanic gardens (neither of which I would recommend in the over 100 degree heat we’re having). Twice, I’ve been to thenature reserve” that everyone raves about, although it leaves me wondering if those people know the meaning of “Arbor” or “Hills.”

But I continue to find myself frustrated with a lack of things to do here.

I don’t care for sports, professional, college, or little league. I don’t have children, nor all that their lives entail. I don’t like shopping, despite the malls and shopping centers lining the highways for tens of miles.

So this city leaves me (and any guests visiting me) wondering what there is to do. I have found that there are some tasty restaurants (beyond Tex-Mex & steak houses), and I quite enjoy the amazing thunderstorms and lightening shows.  See, this is a problem — if you ask me about Dallas, I can only recommend the ethnic food and the thunderstorms. Actually, there’s also a great Indian grocery store, and I have been known to take my guests there for a treat:)

I hope it’s clear to you now that this post is actually a plea for more ideas.

Suggestions? Recommendations?

I expect to be leaving this city soon, but first, I want to unearth some gems.

 

Before you start, let me say:

I haven’t been to Six Flags Over Texas since a High School band trip. (This is mostly because I don’t care to stand in line in the heat and sun, but don’t forget that without some serious coupons, the standard price is $75/person. Yikes!)

Also, I have only gone to 1 or 2 movies in the theater. (I’ve never been a big tv watcher, and after tons of bootlegged copies of movies and tv shows in Afghanistan, I prefer to take a break for awhile.)

 

Do you have a plan in place in case someone close to you (but living far away) suddenly falls ill or dies? Many of us have family and friends who we cannot reach simply by jumping in the car. Where are your grandparents, parents, siblings, close friends, god children, or any children who you are designated guardians for?

Spend some time thinking about the unthinkable now.

 

This is much more than just knowing the major airports for flying.

 

Research what airlines you might fly, both major and minor carriers. The airlines you fly for well-planned visits may vary substantially from what you select in the event of an emergency. Airlines may be booked, or last-minute flights may easily cost 6xs the normal rate.

Look at the policies of those airlines. Some airlines still offer some form of bereavement tix. For some situations, these will be a great deal (because they offer things like no change fees) or they may be much more expensive (because you have to buy directly through the published airline instead of through discount travel sites).

Other airlines don’t have any discounts (e.g., British Airways), or discounts may only apply for domestic fares.

Ensure your situation (compassion fares vs bereavement fares) fits the stipulations of the airline and that you can get the required documentation (e.g. copy of death certificate, name of hospital).

Consider other options. Don’t forget to check with any discount programs that you are a part of. Buying tix through your corporate account, AAA, airline miles, or perks with your credit card may save you a lot because their rates aren’t set in the same way as published fares. Knowing what your options are ahead of time may save  you from needless time calling programs that won’t work or easily forgetting to check others.

Create a basic plan. Have a plan in place for which airport you should fly into, where it’s convenient for family/friends to pick you up, or where it makes the most sense to drive, taxi, train, metro, or bus. Consider a couple of different scenarios depending the nature of the emergency or whether there are family/friends nearby.

Have a place where pertinent info of your plan is written down. You’re likely to be in shock if you get a call in the middle of the night and having a document that details what you know and steps to make can really help. You aren’t likely to have a complete plan, but ensuring you have guidance to narrow down your search when the time comes will help a lot. You may have to make quick decisions on little sleep, and a general plan written down can help in keeping costs as low as possible while getting to where you need to be expediently.

Also, since you have to call for these fares, it’s best to have the airline numbers on hand and be prepared to be on the phone for awhile just to speak to a rep and sort out the options.

 

Here are some links to get you started:

American Airlines 800-433-7300

Delta/NW Airlines  800-221-1212

United Airlines 800-864-8331

 

I wish I had thought to do this months before trying to figure it out at 4 am after a very sleepless night. I hope you learn from my mistake.

I thought we were just taking a long drive in the morning. I was saying things like “I’ll just throw my big coat in the trunk in case the temperature drops” and “Should I fill up a couple water bottles to put in the car?”

That’s when M had to tell me that we would only be driving to the airport… The Airport! Yes, I should pack for the airport. It took me a while to believe he wasn’t joking.

The next morning, just before we boarded, I finally learned that we were going to CA for the weekend.

Seriously, isn’t this the kind of thing you see in movies??

He put together frequent flier miles and some other rewards to plan an unforgettable weekend. I finally got to see Highway 1, which was so stunning with blooming flowers and wildlife. We saw sea lions along Hwy 1 and again in San Francisco at Fisherman’s Wharf Pier 39. We hiked in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. And my favorite part was horseback riding through Redwoods.

My birthday fun just kept going…that is until the actual day of my birthday when I came down with a cold! While this cold was another “surprise,” in some strange way, I didn’t mind. It’s the first illness I’ve had in over 3 months, and that shows that I’ve come along way from Afghanistan.

No, this post isn’t about doing yoga on vacation. It’s about stretching mentally. It’s so easy to get comfortable, fall into a routine, and shrink your comfort zone. While it might appear this doesn’t apply to me (bc of my adventures), even I struggle with it. I have to remind myself that sometimes when I’m feeling awkward I should actually push myself through that feeling.

My most common stretch is trying to talk to strangers. I’m really quite introverted, but I know that like most things it becomes more natural with practice. Sometimes my efforts fall flat, and other times I make a small connection with someone. Much fewer times, a guy gets the impression that I’m easy or I end up with a free trip around the Galapagos (yes, this happened).

Last week on a beautiful, sunny day I waited for the very infrequent bus to a nearby town on the coast. After 2 hrs, a nice lady asked me if I would like a ride bc she lives there. While it might appear suspicious, one) I know people here are extremely friendly, and two) she had a snot-filled 4 year old daughter with her. I felt pretty comfortable getting in her car. When she dropped me off, I immediately saw the sign for the tourist office so I headed there. I was hoping to get the actual bus schedule for returning home. The lady at the counter gave me the schedule, but she said that since it was a holiday the bus probably wasn’t running at all. She gave me a card to call a cab when I wanted to return home.

Fast forward.

I could call a cab to go home, but considering I hadn’t seen a single cab in two weeks, I figured it would be coming from a larger town quite a ways away. Requiring time and money. There are plenty of people driving between these two towns so I decided I should just hitchhike. (That is how I got here in the first place.)

Let me tell you, standing there beside the road with your thumb up as cars drive by is a test of endurance. It isn’t that I waited long. It’s that there’s a feeling of rejection as every car goes by. After only 3 cars went by, I was rethinking my option of a cab. I couldn’t figure out where my hand should be. Should I remove my sunglasses (perhaps seeing my eyes gives the appearance of being in need or being a nice, genuine person)? Should I look at the people driving or stare into the sky? When did I get so awkward?!

And it was that sentiment that signaled to me that, sadly, I needed to stand there, waiting, putting myself through this agonizing stretch. I couldn’t copout and call a cab.

The agony in my head made time go very slow for those 15 minutes. Then, a nice couple stopped their car, and after they moved their groceries around, I got in. It was an Irish woman married to guy from Barcelona, who have 3 almost-grown kids. The woman does Tai Chi once a week, which they were returning from. We chatted about the weather and things to do in Barcelona.

I got a free ride and a nice chat with people who live here, and in the process I stretched my comfort zone just a little bit.

Note: I should mention that I did hitchhike one other time – in Germany. However, in that situation, I asked someone who was stopped at a gas station for a lift. It was only a hair above asking the person in the elevator to press the button for my floor.

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