Thursday, August 31, 2006

Labor Day in China (ME), Part I: Planning

We plan to spend the long weekend at China Lake at Keryn’s family's compound.

South China area is not exactly ripe with activity, located as it is on Route 3 between Augusta and Belfast. The nearest “city” is Waterville, home of Colby College, an outlet of Keryn’s favorite haberdasher, Maurice’s, and pretty much nothing else. There aren’t any “sites” in the conventional sense of the word, no vistas of the ocean, no famous or partly famous lobster eateries. It is a working class place with a very pretty lake.

(Digression Alert: I was surprised to learn this summer that Winslow, about fifteen minutes’ drive from Keryn’s camp, puts on a very impressive July 4th fireworks show. Not merely impressive by Maine standards, but impressive even compared to those I’ve seen in July Fourths past. If you happen to be in Maine next summer, check it out.)

It is unfortunate that our already-too-brief New England summer has dissolved into autumn before August is out. This reality pains me for many reasons, including the fact we probably won’t want to take the Jet Ski on the chilly lake.

Thank God camp has plenty to offer in the way of indoor pleasures…

  • Playing Atari – Yes, a real ATARI. For more on that, please check out Breaking Out The Atari.
  • Spinning LPs – Through a combination of chance and targeted acquisition, the house has what one could call an “eclectic” set of records. I’ll be posting some details (probably tomorrow) over at my personal blog.
  • Cribbage and Gin – We traded old-school games a few weeks back: I taught Keryn to play cribbage and she taught me to play Gin. This descent into games typically played in senior citizen centers began when I found an old cribbage board tucked beneath the staircase, how-to libretto dated 1934.

Despite the potential weather issues (the 10-day Forecast for South China says 67 and rain on Sunday), we are looking to have an exciting trip. But as for any travel we undertake, first we have to define our Trip Goals.

Three days = six goals.

Admittedly, this voyage is a tad fuzzier than most. I want to short-cut this and say our goal is “to have fun,” but that’s way too gray for me. So here goes:

  1. Catch at least one fish (or die tryin’)
  2. Procure pre-ordered aquamarine ring from shop in Bar Harbor (long story!)
  3. Eat kettle corn and doughboys at the Windsor Fair (Also: an excellent people-watching opportunity. Many mullets-in-the-wild sightings.)
  4. Buy scratch tickets in South China mini-mart (another long story for another time)
  5. Play the new Atari games Keryn ordered from eBay (MouseTrap, Othello, Pinball)
  6. Fight through the cold, ride the Jet Ski one last time because we’re not willing to let summer go until at least September 10th...

I hope everyone out there is planning their own exciting long weekend. Come back again next week to hear how we did with our ambitious goals…

- Jason

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Have You Written Your "Trip Goals"?

Let me ask you a question: when you go on vacation, do you plan out each day, hour-by-hour? Or do you fly by the seat of your pants, letting chance and emotion guide you?

Surely those are the ends of the spectrum, but their gravity is strong; the middle of the spectrum is largely unpopulated. People tend toward regimented planning or they tend toward the complete absence of forethought. It needn’t be that way.

Out of great fear for offending (or enraging) someone I know, I will resist the urge to dive into a deeply amateur psychoanalytical exploration of the two camps. You know who you are, and you probably also know why.

When I travel, I try to establish myself in that elusive middle ground.

For those of you wed to one extreme or the other, you might be more apt to call my method “controlled chaos.”

The cornerstone of my approach is a clear set of Trip Goals. Sounds banal enough, but it’s more powerful than you might think.

Goals might consist of
a.) places to see
b.) things to do
c.) people to meet
d.) food to eat
e.) photographs to take
f.) paths to walk.

One can surely devise additional categories, but you get my idea plainly enough without the exhaustive list.

Now here’s the tricky part: for any given trip, no matter the destination, you must define a set of goals that do not exceed twice the number of days you’ll be in the place (round up: partial days count as full days—there’s no need to get into fractions). For a three-day trip you cannot have more than six goals. Emphasis on CANNOT.

Let’s say that you’re going to visit Boston for three days. Your goals might look something like:

1.) Chant Yankees Suck at the Red Sox – Orioles game
2.) Scout obese squirrels during a tour of Harvard Yard
3.) Throw back a beer at “Cheers”
4.) Chow cannoli from Mike’s Pastry in the North End
5.) Dine on the tasting menu (with caviar add-on) at L’Espalier
6.) Watch as Normal Guy and Girl kick the hell out of you and your significant other at Jillian’s on Lansdowne

Not a bad set of goals, really. Does it mean that you can’t stop in for a cup of chowder at Legal’s or walk the Freedom Trail or go shopping around Faneuil Hall? Of course not.

But it does mean—and this is important—you can’t get upset (at anyone, including yourself) because you didn’t have that cup of chowder. It wasn’t on your list, and anything you do above and beyond the list is whipped cream on your three-day sundae.

For many years, I created such lists in my head and executed this approach without formalizing it. I found that my days were freer, and I accomplished more. I felt less pressure to wake to an alarm, except where I wanted to. On more structured trips earlier in my life, the rigor of schedule dictated rising at the buzzing of an alarm, showering and dressing in a hurried flash, and arriving someplace super early…only to find I was completely useless before three o’clock.

And then I found myself in the throes of the vacation death spiral: the exhaustion of day one spilling over into day two, the exhaustion of day two carrying into day three, and so on, until the last day you actually look forward to getting on the plane home. What kind of vacation is that? None I want to take.

Now I put those goals on paper and enjoy myself… The anal retentive part of me smiles each time I can cross an item off my list, while my Bohemian side revels at sometimes sitting an extra hour in a random café that I had never heard of before bumbling onto it.

In coming weeks, I will be logging my Trip Goals for each trip Normal Girl and I take…

Maybe it’s a crazy idea. Or maybe you think it’s lame and obvious. Let me know…

- Normal Guy

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Big Apple, July 2006: By Bus, Train, Car, or Airplane???

Back in mid-July, Normal Girl and I decided to make a trip down to New York City, and we defined a handful of Trip Goals:

1.) Visit her best friend from childhood
2.) See a “real Broadway show”
3.) Glimpse the Statue of Liberty (since Normal Guy hadn’t seen it)
4.) Introduce Normal Girl to Normal Guy’s college roommate

With the trip defined and the requisite vacation days reserved, we tackled the next important task: Choosing the Means of Transport.

This can be a complicated issue.

On the one hand, the fastest way is to take the shuttle. US Airways and Delta run hourly flights connecting Logan and LaGuardia, while JetBlue has been giving away flights into JFK. Hop a cab at LGA and you’re in the city a half hour later (if you’ve made your requisite virgin sacrifices to the traffic gods, of course).

But how fast is it, really? Door-to-door you’re looking at close to three hours. As a frequent flier, more comfortable in a coach airplane seat than in the front seat of a car, I’m pretty much obsessed with convenience. Flying seems pretty darned convenient on the face of things, yet there’s something about the BOS-LGA shuttle that doesn’t work for me; it sure seems a lot of extra price and headache to get someplace an hour faster, and I haven’t even gotten to the fact that Normal Girl would definitely have to check a bag…

[CAVEAT: I’m talking leisure travel here -- if you’ve got a meeting in the city, there’s simply no other way to do it. We wouldn’t even be having this conversation.]

Then you have the train… Man, don’t get me started. Every time I make a trip to New York, I forget how unreasonable the train is. I swear I’ll never waste my time on the Amtrack website again. Normal Girl asked about it, though, so I went online and found that we could fly for about the same price. Sure, the train is comfortable, and if you have to get some work done on the way, it is probably an option worth considering. The train is not for us.

Technically, we could drive Normal Car (a ’97 Camry). The drive would take about five hours, including bathroom-and-soda stops. Gas prices are pretty steep, though, and there’s the wear and tear to consider, then parking fees in the city, plus the fact that neither of us knows the tricks of driving in Manhattan. Our hotel is in Times Square, which is central enough that we ought to be able to find it, even with Normal Girl’s less-than-stellar navigational skills. Still, what really makes me dread this option is the idea of having to sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic in the Bronx. [FLASHBACK ALERT: I remember all too well three adolescent hours in my family’s 1985 Oldsmobile, windows down, a poor substitute for air conditioning, when there was an accident on the George Washington Bridge and we ended up detoured through Bruckner Ave. Not my fondest travel memory…] No, I am not ready to relive that hell.

We agree the bus is the best option. There is even a high-class vendor, LimoLiner, that has Internet access, waitress service, and air freshener. I check out their website and although it looks like somebody has definitely come up with a brilliant idea, we decide that if we’re going to go bus, we’re going lowbrow.

When it comes to New York by bus, there are two ways to go:
- Chinatown Bus
- Not Chinatown Bus

A few years ago, my buddies and I took the Fung Wah bus from Chinatown, Boston, to Mohegan Sun to satisfy a gambling fix. The trip was dirt cheap: $20 round-trip, with a $10 meal voucher and a $10 bet coupon (which makes it basically free, for those of you scoring at home). There was a movie to keep us entertained, with only one minor catch: it was in Cantonese. To help those who do not speak that dialect, Mandarin subtitles were provided. Headphones were blissfully unnecessary, since the sound played through the overhead speakers for all to enjoy. And, since the overhead lights would make it hard for some people to see the small screens, they disabled the overhead lights. So my grand plans for reading The New Yorker fell apart, and I was forced to learn Chinese the way so many of the men and women surrounding me had learned their English; sadly, I didn’t learn too much…

The final verdict: Greyhound, baby… South Station to Port Authority. A hop, skip, and a jump from Times Square. Door to door in just a shade over five hours. Not too bad, and it only cost us $40 each. And sure enough, we spent about an hour stuck in traffic. We played a few hands of Gin, read our magazines, listened to our iPods, and visited the bathroom whenever we damn well pleased.

Check back soon for tales of our adventures in the Big Apple.

Greyhound –
Fung Wah –

Monday, August 21, 2006

How Normal Guy Became A Travel Pro

When I tell people I travel every week for my job, the reaction is pretty consistent: wow, lucky you. I wish that I got to travel for my job.

When I start to complain, folks look at me kind of sideways: cry me a river, their faces say. But when I let the complaints spill out, those sideways glances turn upright. "Gee," they say, "I don't know how you do it..." Okay, so they might not say "gee," but you catch my meaning...

Since April 2000 I estimate I have boarded an airplane more than 1000 times. I have flown more than 1,000,000 miles (but not on any one airline). I have held the most elite status on at least one airline in all but one of those years. There have been exactly three international round-trip voyages in all that time (all of them to Paris), and all those ticket were purchased with frequent flier miles, which means that in each year I gained 100,000 miles it was without the luxury of international distance. In other words, I've flown a hell of a lot.

Although I eventually tired of business travel, I have to say that I appreciate having had the opportunity to work for extended spells in several places I might never have otherwise come to know so intimately:
- San Francisco
- Tucson
- Costa Mesa, California
- Chicago
- Iowa City
- Baltimore
- San Juan, Puerto Rico

Although I found myself in each of the above places under the auspices of work, I have always felt that if I go someplace, I should explore. That must be a by-product of the bi-annual trips my family took from Maine to Texas, when the AAA TripTik would take us past various middle-American landmarks and historical sites. My parents would stop the car and make us look around, whether they knew anything about the place or not. Unfortunately, many of my memories of such places as Carlsbad Caverns, Lookout Mountain, and Antietam are little more than wisps, but the idea of exploring the things in your path has stuck with me. So it is that I can still tell someone how to get from Point A to Point B in Tucson, or which gallery to visit on Noches de Galería the first Tuesday of each month in San Juan...

My love for travel is deep and true, but it is not absolute. I recently left my job because I was weary of being away from home. At no point in the last seven years have I spent 50% of the nights in a year within the four walls of my bedroom in Boston.

But Normal Girl, love of my life, will be on the road for most of October and November for her job, and I will be tagging along. These will be some of the more random travel stories you'll read on the Internet... But if there's one thing I've learned in my years traversing the United States, it's that almost every place has something new to offer. I lift my glass of Basil Hayden's to hoping you agree.

What's This All About?

I'm just a Normal Guy. Normal Girl, in my opinion, is far from just normal, but she's convinced of it somehow. Sure, we have idiosyncracies that make us a bit unusual. For instance, we both hate mayonnaise and have become convinced there is a correlated global conspiracy to exclude us from group luncheons and family picnics. Sure, that sounds silly until you stop and think about it.

So what brings us here? It was an idea I've been rolling around in for the last few weeks. For the last seven years, I've been on a plane almost every week. Weariness of the weekly grind recently led me to quit my job and take a few months to figure out what I want to do with my life. I know you're supposed to figure that out when you're a teenager, but I'm hoping to use my 29th year for it. In any event, I know a lot about travel, more than anyone who hasn't been a road warrior for 25% of their natural lives.

Normal Girl, meanwhile, has lived in 11 states (nine of which sit on her "cannot live in" list). So she knows a thing or two about moving around.

For years I've been a subscriber to the glossy travel magazines: Conde Nast Traveler and Travel + Leisure. They're fun to read, but it always seems to me they're targeted toward a very different demographic than Normal Guy and Normal Girl. The $1000 / night hotel room in Monte Carlo looks lovely, but it doesn't fit into Normal Guy's budget (especially now that he gave up that consulting gig).

This blog (web page soon to follow) tracks our adventures from planning through execution. From time to time you might find something worth reading...

In coming weeks, you can expect reports from such exotic locales as Circleville (OH), Colchester (VT), Bayamón (PR), and China (ME).

- Normal Guy