Balm for the Soul

One of the nicest things about being on the west coast of anywhere is you get to see the sunset over the water. Sunrises, while lovely in their own right, are not the same. You can’t really relax with a glass of wine and watch a sunrise.  Well, I suppose you can, but if you do, you have another problem.

Sunsets over West Maui are some of the most beautiful I’ve seen anywhere in the world, and I’m not the only one who feels that way.   When talking to friends and readers who have been to Maui, one of the first things they always say is “and the sunsets are amazing”.  When you think that many of them live in California and see water sunsets all the time, you’ll understand these are something very special.  Look at these pictures and you’ll see why.  I have dozens of these, each wonderful in its own way.

Who watches sunsets?

It’s always fun to see how many people come out to watch a sunset when in a resort setting. It seems there are  days when there are more people on the chaises watching the sunset than there were during the day to enjoy the beach.   As a long-time people-watching fanatic, I love to classify the groups around me.

The Honeymooners can be spotted immediately.   Smooching and cooing are normal, but some go a bit farther.  There’s always the one couple whose antics prompt comments from the little-peanut gallery like  “Mom – what are they doing?”.   The laughter from the other guests at this innocent comment usually breaks up the action, and results in applause and calls of “encore, encore”.

Yeah – we’re a tough crowd.  And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Golden sunset

Children as a species are supremely indifferent to sunsets, and it’s fun to watch the thoughtful parents try to enjoy the view at the same time as preventing their MiniMe’s from disturbing the other guests. The smart ones bring out some sort of hand-held video whatevers and are able to enjoy in peace.

I’m not even going to talk about the idiot parents who let their kids disrupt the experience.  They deserve to live with the bratty kids they’ve raised.

It’s the Partiers that can spoil the experience for everyone. You know these guys – the loud ones who come out with pitchers of some green or pink tinted concoction and spend their time laughing inordinately at how Jim-Bob’s nose looks just like Molokai’s mountain.

Last year the rudest partier swam into a swarm of jellyfish the next day.   Karma.  Just sayin’.

An incredibly beautiful site

Then there are the Appreciators – the fellow guests chatting quietly on the chaises, watching nature at it’s finest.  And here, it’s very fine indeed.

We like to bring a glass of very nice wine, our cameras and our silence.

After a long year of the Daily Grind, I find myself fondly thinking about this sunset, and the peace it brings to my soul.

It’s time to plan another trip to Maui.  Now you know what I’m going to do this holiday weekend.  Jealous??

Those are the words you never want to hear from your child while you’re on a business trip – they conjure up visions of vet visits, broken treasures, missed commitment for a school event, natural disasters, burglaries, and other calamities that are too horrible to put in writing.

I was one week into a two week business trip to Hong Kong several years ago when I heard that phrase.

Alexei was about 8 years old at the time, and I thought I had everything taken care of at home before I left.  Meals were cooked and frozen for use while I was gone.  Baseball carpool was arranged for practice and games.   BFF and Mother-in-law were on standby in case Vlad couldn’t pick up Alexei from school,  or if he needed an evening sitter for a business event.   Alexei’s school was notified of emergency call change since I would be in Asia.   Doctor and vet phone numbers posted on the refrigerator so my engineer husband could see them easily if needed.

What on earth could go wrong?

“Dad sent me to school in damp pants!”

I almost fell out of my desk chair.  The visual that created had me laughing hysterically.  My staff were looking into my office wondering what was going on.  I had to find out the story.   The details that followed were priceless.

Alexei’s school had a uniform requirement that I loved and he hated.  It was strict and there were only certain things he could wear and not get sent to the Principal’s office.    Vlad had to do laundry the night before since Alexei had playground dirt on every piece of uniform clothing we had.

Since the only time Vlad even knows we have a washer and dryer is when one or the other is malfunctioning, he was a bit stymied by having to use two large pieces of Equipment Designed for Females (his term, not mine) before going to bed, but he gave it his best shot.   I have to hand it to him – he got the washer going and put the clothes in the dryer before heading up to sleep.

The problem came the next morning when Alexei went down to the laundry room before breakfast to get his clothes.  Vlad had set the dryer on “Air” rather than one of the heat-based drying settings.   Every piece of clothing Alexei pulled out was wet.  Since time was short, and Alexei had to get to school and Vlad had to get to work,  Alexei got to wear wet uniform pants to school and sit in them all morning until they dried.   Vlad said Alexei couldn’t wait to get home that evening to call me and tell me the story.

“You have to teach me how to do laundry, Mom.   Dad can’t be trusted to do it right”.   8 years old, but very wise.

Vlad hasn’t done a load of laundry himself since that day in 1998, and I’m still wondering if he planned it that way.

I read an article this morning about how the US is the “no vacation nation”.   It is disturbing to read just how true it is.  Yes, I’m guilty of  taking my mobile phone with me during the day while on holiday – even to the beach.   I feel better because pretty much everyone else is doing it too – either that or they’re playing Angry Birds poolside.

Yeah – I vote for the Angry Birds too.

Not everyone in the US gets ANY paid vacation leave at all.  There is no law that requires any PTO (paid time off) for full or part time employees and there are companies out there that exploit that ruthlessly.   One of my friend’s husband has an important position in his company, and consequently does not get any paid vacation – period.   He’s lucky if he can sneak away for 4 days off around Christmas or Thanksgiving.  My friend takes her kids on vacations alone, to be joined by hubby on weekends.  She told me he’s just glad he’s working.

That is no way to live, working for Scrooge Enterprises.

My friends and colleagues from outside the US think we Americans are too focused on work, and staying ahead.   I tell them sadly that it’s not staying ahead these days, it’s staying employed.  The unfortunate reality of recession is that employers can take advantage of employees in ways of cutting benefits, time off, and the employee can’t do anything about it if he or she wants to keep the job.

Now enter another reality – the economy in the US is getting better as is the job market, and employers who take gross advantage of their employees are going to see valuable talent walk right out the door in search of better benefits – including vacation.   It’s already started – I know many people who have left their version of  Scrooge Incorporated in all it’s various industries for a nicer environment and a few days of rest.  It seems so simple,  but in looking after the bottom line, many companies are ignoring that it costs more to hire and train a new employee than it does to offer vacation and benefits that will keep their skilled workforce.

Wouldn’t it be nice if the Ghost of Vacations Past would visit some of these latter-day Scrooges and scare them into treating their staff  better?   Yep.  I think so too.

It’s times like this I realize how lucky I am to work for a company that understands the importance of employees who can mentally function, and consequently not only give generous vacation benefits, but also prod me to take as many of my annual days as I can.   Consequently, I don’t mind sitting at the beach with my blackberry, making sure all is good back at the ranch.

No, I’m not playing Angry Birds.  Really I’m not.

It’s dejà vu all over again.

A little over a year ago I was anxiously watching another volcano erupt and eventually disrupt my vacation plans.   Now I’m watching yet another volcano do the same thing, and my first thought was “glad I’m not traveling”, and my second thought was “how selfish!”.  I know some of my friends and readers are planning trips, and my disinterest is not particularly charitable.

I’ve learned that prior planning can make these kinds of natural disasters irksome, but not catastrophic for travelers.  Here are some tips to help keep the anxiety at a minimum.  If you’re looking for what to do if they cancel your flight, click here or scroll down to the previous entry.

1. Trip Insurance – If you’re booking a flight to or from Europe or Argentina/Chile, or within Europe or Latin America, it’s best to spend the extra for insurance.  READ the policy thoroughly to make sure ‘acts of God’ such as volcano eruptions are not excluded.  If they are, look at another carrier.    If insurance is not an option, contact the airline to find out what they will do if your flight is cancelled due to ash cloud problems.  Most will allow you to rebook with no change fees, but not all are so nice.   Best to double check ahead of time.

2. Hotel bookings – try to stay away from the hotels and booking services that require you to pay in full up front.  There are many lovely boutique hotels that you can book without having to pay in full weeks in advance.  Look carefully at their cancellation policies, and call or email them if it’s not on their website.  Many are run by caring individuals that will give you a break if you’re stuck because of the ash cloud.

3. Alternate destinations.  If you’re traveling to Europe or the Southern Cone of Latin America and it looks like you may have issues getting to your primary destination, have a backup plan switching your flight to another city or nearby country and then take a train, boat or rent a car to get you where you need to go.  If you’re coming to the US from Europe, Argentina or Chile, try taking a train to a country or area not likely to be affected and fly out from there.  Once you get to the US, you can take a flight easily from any airport to anywhere you wish to go, and there are pretty inexpensive fares available to most destinations.  Don’t be afraid to get creative.  If you’d like to see how I got around the 2010 ash cloud and got home after my flight was cancelled, click this link.

4. Pack clothes that can stand a few extra days.  If you do get stuck, you don’t want to have a suitcase full of clothes that are dirty and can’t be worn.   Pack a shirt and underthings that can be washed in a hotel sink and hung up to dry overnight.  You’ll be glad you did!

5. Have a fully charged mobile phone that works in the country you’re traveling to.  Most local phones will not function outside your home country.   Contact your carrier before you leave to see what needs to be done to make your phone work in your destination country.   A SIM card is usually all that is required.   If that option is too expensive, consider renting a phone when you reach your destination.   That way if you need to rebook a flight, or find another hotel in a hurry, you won’t be looking for an internet cafe.  You can also notify the car service, hotel, friends or family if you are late arriving.

6. Have the airline’s non-800 number written down in an easily accessible place.  If you have to change your flight, the 800 number that is on your ticket, or on their website is not accessible from mobile phones or many landlines in Europe or Latin America.   Don’t rely on the ticket counter at the airport to give you the correct phone number.

7. If you DO get stuck, stay calm.   Turn on that charged mobile, pull out the non-800 number for your carrier and start booking yourself another flight, and a hotel if you can’t leave until the next day.   Pack a few extra videos or toys for the kids along with an extra book or two to keep you interested while you’re stuck in the airport.

Best of luck to everyone traveling during this summer.   I hope the Travel Gods are kind to you.  If not, remember the best way to foil them is to be prepared with alternate plans!

After working within the airline systems on innumerable countries, with flight cancellations, re-booking and so on, I observed positive and negative behavior amongst my fellow passengers. I got first hand knowledge of what works and what doesn’t. Here are some tips for anyone looking to be prepared for the Wrath of the Travel Gods. I hope these are helpful.

1. Before you leave, get NON-800 number contact information from your airline carrier. The 800 numbers they hand out for US-based carriers do not work from mobile phones, and finding a landline in an airport is impossible.

2. When you check in, ask the desk agent what the procedure at that airport will be in the event of a cancellation due to weather or other Acts of the Travel Gods. Take notes – it’s different at each airport, and you want to know ahead of time to avoid the panic when the cancellation is announced.

3. When cancellation is announced, stay calm and don’t lose your temper. The ground staff for the airline are doing the very best they can, and in many cases, they are operating under strict guidelines. Don’t push them. They can’t clear the weather or cause a broken airplane to move, and they are not responsible for their airline’s policies. Start working on your own Plan B.  If you’d like to see how I got around the 2010 ash cloud and got home after my flight was cancelled, click this link.

4. If you are flying economy, you’re on your own for rescheduling. In some cases there will be no ground staff at the airport who can reschedule you, and if there are, the lines will be very long. Make sure you have a fully charged mobile phone with you, and call as soon as you can. If the line is busy, keep trying until you get in. Stay patient. The agent who finally answers your call will be able to re-route you. It may not be for a day or two, but they will get you on another flight. If you are flying in business or first class, go to the desk in the lounge and ask them for rerouting possibilities.

5. Don’t be afraid to get creative. Look into flying back overseas from a different country, or to a different country.  If Southern Europe is affected, try to reroute through Germany or England. If Northern Europe is affected, look into Madrid or Rome.  If you’re traveling to the US, try a train to a country not affected and fly to the US from there.   Don’t be afraid to fly to another city in the US if that is all that is available.  Flights within the US are plentiful and there are inexpensive fares usually available online.   If you’re in India, look to Singapore or Hong Kong.    If there is no connecting flight available and you’re traveling to a destination on the same land mass, look into high-speed or regular train option.

6. Be aware the airline may not offer you a hotel voucher, and if not, do not argue, do not get angry. There is nothing you can do about it. Quickly get on the internet and book a hotel before the other travelers do.

7. Don’t demand an upgrade in flying class as a result of a cancellation. You won’t get it by being demanding and argumentative. In most cases, there will not be any seats in the other classes available. There are a lot more seats in the economy section than in anywhere else – you’ll have a better chance of getting out flying in the cheap seats than waiting for an upgrade.

8. Try to calm down the passengers around you. The airline ground staff will bless you for it. You might even get an unexpected reward.

9. Finally, smile at the agent or ground staff and tell them how well you think they are holding up and handling this situation. They have an impossible job, with people yelling at them all the time, trying to make stranded, stressed-out people happy. In most cases, they get no thanks at all before moving on to the next upset passenger. Hearing a nice word from you will help lighten their burden. The grateful smile you get back will be the nicest thing that happens to you all day.

The above was learned first hand last year when my flight home was cancelled due to ash cloud issues. Yes, I did try to calm down the other passengers in my group. Yes, I was nice and patient and smiled. I told them I thought they were doing an excellent job in these trying circumstances, and in one case told a fellow passenger to get off the lounge staff’s back.

My reward – when I got my ticket re-booked on another airline, it was for First Class.

Remember the Golden Rule. It works.

After 5 years, 2 hard disks, 3 keyboards, 5 motherboards and 2 screens, my beloved laptop recently gave me the dreaded Blue Screen of Death.  Poor Old Bess.   She was my constant companion through 23 countries (21 of which were intentional, but that’s another story), countless hours of airport layovers, survived air turbulence that would have destroyed a lesser machine, and gave faultless performance in many speeches and presentations all over the world.    Old Bess found me hotels, alternate flights, and otherwise saved my butt when the Travel Gods decided to play their little games.

I felt bereft when Bess finally decided it was Her Time.  I found myself going through the classic stages of grief – anger (damn it!), denial (perhaps it’s only a virus), sadness (waaa!) and finally acceptance (OK – so when are you sending me a new one?).   Rest in peace, Bess.

It’s not just that I can’t indulge in writing, one of my passions, but it sure made my work life terribly difficult.   Working only from a blackberry isn’t an optimal experience.    I found that missing our company’s internal instant messaging was crippling.   I’m sure my co-workers were happy I wasn’t virtually stalking them for the information they owed me.   However, it was a short-lived relief – many of my co-workers are also friends on Facebook, and I discovered how easy it is to virtually stalk via the chat feature from my home computer.   I think I was single-handedly responsible for an increase in productivity at the office, and a lightening of the load on Facebook’s servers.

It was with great happiness that I accepted the FedEx delivery today of Bessie 2.0.   This is my first blog post on my new darling, and we’re starting to get acquainted.   I’m getting used to the new keyboard layout, and am totally stoked about the lightning fast speed from the i5 processor.  I’m not dissing Old Bess, but 9 minutes to boot up in the morning was just a little bit slow.   Bessie 2.0 is able to get out of bed and up and around in about 1.5 minutes.  That’s better than me on most days.

I have a lot more stories to write, and I’m thrilled to introduce to my readers Bessie, my new assistant.   She’s quiet and unassuming, but I can see that she has a lot of the same spirit that infused Old Bess.   I think we’re going to get on very well together.

I have a lot of friends in the middle and eastern parts of the US who have had enough snow, ice, wind chill and cold to last them for the next decade.  The most common theme I’ve been reading on various social media sites is ‘get me outta here!”.  So – to give all of you something to think about, something to dream about, or something to actively plan, here’s a few lesser-known places that are waiting for all you Snowbirds who don’t want to spend a fortune getting there, and where you can see just about everything in  a 3 or 4 day weekend.

  • San Diego, California combines some of the best winter weather in the US with a good number of sights.   The San Diego Zoo, Gaslamp, Mission San Diego, Coronado Island, and Legoland are just a few of the sights that draw tourists to this picturesque town year round.   Summer time can be cool and foggy, but winter and spring are usually glorious, and there are some great prices right now on flights.  San Diego just has one airport, but you can fly into Los Angeles and drive south if the prices are better.
  • Phoenix and Scottsdale, Arizona is the winter golf mecca for Snowbirds.  The weather is usually very mild this time of year, and you don’t have to stay at one of the pricey resorts to be able to enjoy the sun and the warmth.  There are many better deals in the towns around Scottsdale that are within easy distance of all the sights.  Check for hotels or motels in Glendale, Mesa, and Tempe for lower cost accommodations.  Fly into Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport.
  • Palm Springs/Palm Desert, California – within easy driving distance of Las Vegas, this desert resort area caters to all financial spectrums.  There are chi-chi resorts, timeshares, as well as cost-effective hotels and motels.   From this area, you can reach the Cabozon shopping center within an easy drive, as well as driving into some of the most beautiful desert areas in the world.   Fly into Palm Springs or Las Vegas and drive from there.
  • Santa Fe, New Mexico is a delightfully quaint town in the mountains above Albuquerque.  Or is it Left at Albuquerque?  I always get that mixed up.   Santa Fe is home to artists, shops galore, and incredibly beautiful nature.   It’s a great place to just rest and recharge, and the weather dramatically improves in March.  Look for deals on B&B’s during this time – they can be had!  You can fly into Santa Fe directly, or for a cheaper flight, go to Albuquerque and drive up the scenic road to Santa Fe.
  • Napa/Sonoma County wine areas in California are known all over the world for beautiful scenery and good wine combined.   But there are other reasons to visit besides the wine – bicycling is very popular in the area, and there are several good tour companies that fit every budget.  Calistoga is home to natural hot springs and famous mud baths that are not necessarily expensive.  The Russian River area has Anderson Woods, with beautiful hiking paths through the redwood forest.  Spring is a lovely time in this area – at the most you’ll have to deal with a few showers of rain in the midst of lots and lots of sunshine.  There are many small B&B’s in this area as well as motels that are cost effective if the pricey resorts are not in your budget.  Fly into San Francisco or Oakland Airport and drive to the Wine Country.
  • Oregon’s Willamette Valley is incredibly beautiful.   Bicycling is popular for the more active, and tour companies abound with a wide variety of options for the beginner to advanced cyclist.  Look for good deals in the Spring.  For those who prefer a more 4 wheeled option, there are back roads that are clamoring for a leisurely drive, with wildflowers and grape vines blooming as far as you can see.   Yes, this time of year can be rainy, but it’s still better than 2 feet of snow, and there is a lot of green to look at!  Fly into Eugene, Oregon and go from there.
  • San Antonio Texas combines warm spring weather with golf, shopping, amusement parks and The Alamo.  There are several pricey resorts up on what passes for a mountain there, but there are also many other low-cost options that can be found on an internet search.  Flights are relatively cheap there at this time of year, and it’s worth a look to see what’s available.

I hope this gives you some ideas for getting OUT OF THE SNOW for a 4 day weekend.  Enjoy, and may the Travel and Weather Gods be with you!