Featured Post

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Road Testing Travel Products in Flight

Today, I will officially inaugurate my Suitcase rating system for travel accessories. One Suitcase means a product is of little use, while Five Suitcases is 'da bomb.

Let's start with luggage, shall we? For this trip, I brought a plum Biaggi foldable bag and colorful Heys Britto carry-on. Having previously used the former with much success for the tight spaces of the Trans-Siberian, I realized collapsing it too many times on the last trip caused the retracting handle to be a bit finicky for this train jaunt. Give it two and a half suitcases, because while the concept is good, but it doesn't stand the test of time and heavy use. As for the Heys, which is made of lightweight polycarbonate, the exterior design suffered from the wear and tear of an African adventure. I love Heys carry-ons, but the fancy ones are best used in circumstances where baggage handling by others is limited. That said, while the lovely exterior did get beat up, the bag did its job in terms of protecting the contents inside. So, functionally--four suitcases; aethestically, what started out as a five suitcase rating ends up at 2 1/2.

The other bag I brought was an STM Linear Laptop Shoulder Bag ($89.95). It's perfect for carrying an iPad or tablet, plus a cell phone, a small wallet, and a banana. The bag has several separate compartments so it's easy to put a room key in one pouch, a banana in another, and your devices...well, they can be left to their own devices. Me likey. Five suitcases.

After you make your toting decisions, it's time to decide what to bring to improve your onboard comfort--particularly for an 18-hour flight like the one I took from Dulles to Johannesburg on South African Airways I'm always game for trying products that claim to improve on-board posture, so the Verti-ZZZ intrigued me. While it looks like a slingshot, it's meant to be a combo back straightener, head cradler, and eye shade. If one manages to sit still the entire flight, the product has potential. But it slips out of place too easily, thus contorting the neck, not supporting it As a slingshot, the Verti-ZZZ gets four suitcases, but as a device to ensure comfort, it gets a one. Maybe others agreed--the company website no longer seems to exist.

Next, I tried the Tri-Pil-Lo, with not one, but three, inflatable compartments for your in-flight pleasure. It was very difficult to blow up; the guy in the adjacent seat had to help me ( after first laughing at my futile attempts. Once inflated,it turned out to be a very nice foot rest. It didn't work as a back pillow, though, because the seat was not deep enough. At the end of the flight, it proved difficult to deflate. Right now, the Tri-Pil-Lo gets only three suitcases, but the company promises it is coming up with an easier-to-inflate model which will sell in the U.S. for $19.95.

Compression socks are not just for old ladies anymore. Zensah makes fashionable Compression Leg Sleeves for men and women (starting at $39.95). Colors range from navy blue to neon pink. Since they are above-the-ankle "sleeves" and not socks, no one will know you are wearing them, unless you choose to don them with shorts. In that case, you, my friend, are a little odd. At any rate, the sleeves didn't squeeze, and they seemed to relax my legs during the 18-hour flight. Of course, sitting in the bulkhead emergency row seat didn't hurt the comfort of my gams. Nevertheless, I'll give Zensah credit and a five suitcase rating.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Cowabunga, Dune!

please follow me on twitter @dailysuitcase
One might not expect Africa to contain much desert south of the Sahara. But Namibia, tucked away in the southwestern corner of the continent, is largely desert--dry, hot, and rugged.

In fact, the Namib is the oldest desert in the world, dating back 55 million years. Although one of the driest areas on earth, it has an amazing amount of biodiversity. This is largely due to its location adjacent to the Atlantic coast. The daily bombardment of ocean fog serves as lifeblood to the desert's critters.

The 19,000-square-mile Namib-Naukluft National Park was created to protect this vast desert.
The Namib Sand Sea area of Namib-Naukluft Park recently achieved UNESCO World Heritage Site status. It is the first natural heritage site named in the past decade to fulfill all four critieria of the designation. To paraphrase and condense said critieria, a World Heritage Site should:

1. Contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional beauty
2. Be an outstanding example of the Earth's history, including its geological processes
3. Be an outstanding example representing ongoing ecological and biological processes of evolution and
4. Contain important and significant natural habitats for conservation of biological diversity

What makes the area particularly special are the dunes. The oldest dune system in the area is estimated to be 21 million years old. The "younger" dunes have been around for five million years. The dunes are among the tallest in the world, some measuring nearly 1000 feet. Certainly, this is one of the greatest moving sand seas on the planet, representing a vast array of dune types. "Dune types, dude?" you query. Indeed, there are diverse dune types. There's the Barchan, the Seif, the Star, and the Sand Sheet. Inquiring minds can Google the details. But suffice to say that if you are a dune fanatic, Namibia is the place to be.

Friday, October 25, 2013

9 Images of Wildlife in Namibia

Namibia's Etosha National Park is not teeming with wildlife. Still, you can find plenty of giraffe, zebra, springbok and other antelope-types there. It's harder to spy a lion or an elephant, but seek and ye shall find.
However, as the beasts were only "findable" with a telephoto lens (which my iPad lacks), you will have to wait until I am back in the US of A before I upload shots of 2 of the Big Five.

A pregnant giraffe at Etosha

A thirsty giraffe at an Etosha water hole

Blesbok at the.Mokuti Etosha Lodge

Giraffe and zebra share a water hole

Rhino happy hour at Okapuka Ranch near Windhoek 

Kudu  and others at Etosha

Sable Antelope bookends at Okapuka Ranch

Springbok seeking shade in Etosha

Warthogs wallowing at Okapuka Ranch

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

9 Images of Namibia

Rock formations near Spitzkoppe
Tropic of Capricorn
Pink flamingos in Walvis Bay
Namib Desert dunes from the air
The growing metropolis of Solitaire
Desert sunset
Desert rainstorm
Flying around Namibia
Where the dunes meet the sea

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Trekking Through Namibia on The Desert Express

The National Zoo was closed in early October due to the government shutdown (I live just 6 blocks away). So, I decided to go to Africa to get my giraffe and elephant fix. More specifically, I am currently in Namibia, where I am exploring wildlife, sand dunes and landscapes reminiscent of the Australian Outback.

I am traveling on the Desert Express, a luxury train (and I don't toss that word around lightly, as readers know from my experience on the Trans-Siberian Tsar's Gold). The Namibian-German-engineered train, circa 1998, is a marvel of clever design.

The train contains four sleeping cars, two lounge cars, and a dining car and a half. Each of the sleeping wagons is nature-themed--there's Springbok, Oryx, Kokerboom (Quiver Tree) and the one I am residing in--Meerkat Manor. Unlike the Trans-Siberian, which contained 4 separate classes of compartments, the Desert Express offers all guests the same experience, including the pleasure of a bathroom en suite.

Speaking of which, you have never seen a more efficient use of space, although I suppose anyone taller than 6 feet 2 or heavier than 160 pounds might disagree. The wee space (so to speak) has a toilet, a shower with a door that prevents water from spraying, and a magnificent rotating sink.

Other features of the interior design include compartment doors covered with glass engravings of the wagon's mascot; rock sand paneling; extensive use of red golden woods; handmade amber-colored furnishings in the bar car; and comfortable seating areas in the compartments that convert into up to three beds at night.

The Desert Express belongs to Namibian TransNamib Holding Ltd. and is chartered by various tour companies, including Lernidee.de.

Monday, October 21, 2013

9 Things to Know About Namibia

1. It's in southwestern Africa, bordering Angola, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa.
2. English is the official language.

3. The Namib, at 55 million years old, is the most ancient desert on earth.
4. The Namib Desert has the highest dunes in the world.
5. Namibia has the oldest cave drawings in the world, dating back 28 million years. They are located in Apollo 11 ( FYI, the cave wasn't named Apollo 11 28,000,000 years ago).
6. Vegans, beware. Lots of oryx, ostrich, and other game on the menu.
7. There is no Namibian version of Monopoly. They play the South African version here.
8. If you love train travel, there's no better way to see the country than via The Desert Express. Eleven-day tours are available in the fall (spring here) by Lernidee. Smithsonian Journeys will have an excursion on the train next October. If 11 days is too long, you can experience the train on an overnight (plus side trips) between Windhoek and Swakopmund.
9. And yes, in answer to the question most frequently asked to me (other than "where is it?")...
it is safe here....except if you encounter a lion.

Monday, October 7, 2013

9 Things One Needs to Explore Before Exiting on an Exotic Excursion

Despite the fact that I have traveled to more than 50 countries on six continents (I am missing Antarctica), preparing for a trip to an unknown and faraway destination is still perplexing. As I plan for my trip to Namibia, I must ponder, among other things, logistics, medications, documentation, and fashion. Here's a list of 9 things I need to figure out before going to Africa...and things you should think about as well before taking off to distant lands.

1 Do I need a visa? Official media are supposed to have visas to enter Namibia, but your garden variety American tourist does not. Although I am going to Namibia to write about The Jewel of the Desert train, I am opting to go visa-less (please, Namibia's version of Mr. E. Snowden, don't tell on me). After all, as a travel writer, my mission is to have the same experience as regular travelers do. So, no visa for me, although I will be sure to bring my VISA card...and an ATM card to boot.

2. Do I need more pages in my passport? Apparently, the answer is yes. For some reason, Namibia requires everyone to have 4 to 6 blank passport pages. As I am on Year 9 of a ten-year passport, I only have one blank page left. Should I wing it? According to a colleague at Solimar International , a firm that does tourism consulting work in Namibia, the answer is a definite no. Said colleague spent the better part of the day in Windhoek Airport, while one of his co-workers had to zoom over to the local American Embassy for pages. Thankfully, I live in Washington, DC (how often do you hear someone say that these days?), very close to the National Passport Center. And thankfully, the NPC is not closed due to the shutdown. (LIVE BULLETIN from the NPC--it costs $142 to add passport pages versus $170 for a new passport. But given that I am not looking passport-picture-pretty today, I am opting to fork over the $142 and spend another $170 in a few months when I am sporting my TV Laura mien).

3. Do I need shots or malaria pills? Shots--no. Malaria pills? It's not clear. I hope that copious doses of mosquito spray will keep the buggers away while I am sleeping under the stars in Ethosha National Park.

4. What about money, honey? Apparently, the Namibian dollar is on par with the South African rand, and the latter is accepted everywhere in Namibia. As the Namibian dollar is not easily convertible on the world market, best to stock up on rand. That way, leftover money can be exchanged back into US dollars.

5. What do I wear? I am oft vexed regarding visitor vestments, particularly when I travel to the Middle East or Africa. When I went to Morocco in 2001 (geographically in Africa; culturally, it could be argued, the westernmost part of the Middle East), I had a two-fer on my hands. I was verklempt, as everything I owned was too tight, too short, or too colorful. I ended up purchasing a bunch of long, oversized schmatas.  The Moroccan men, unstereotypically, paid me no mind, but the women there didn't seem to appreciate my valiant efforts to mask my feminine wiles. Methinks hunting for safari clothing will be easier, but I still must find items that will cover me up (mainly to ward off  bugs and to protect against the scorching sun).

6. How do I allay the heat? As frequent readers will recall, during my most recent adventure, I swooned in the Forbidden City and had to spend the night in a Beijing ER. As a result, I am stocking up on electrolytes,, bringing a huge sombrero, and slathering on suntan lotion.

7. What unusual items do I need? This type of journey requires gear not usually included on my packing list. Bug spray; a flashlight; a water purifier; a beanbag (to serve as a camera stabilizer in jittery jalopies); and the aforementioned electrolyte tablets are some of the extras I will stow.

8. How am I going to survive the 18-hour flight? I am taking South African Airways from Washington, DC to Johannesburg--an 18-hour jaunt. I can't afford business class, so I can only hope my aisle seat in coach allows me to stretch my gams. I am also bringing along various travel accessories to road test. I'll let you know how they work.

9. How many days will it take me to get over jet lag? Fortunately, the time difference is, surprisingly, only 6 hours. Therefore, spending my first night in Africa at the Intercontinental Hotel at the Johannesburg Airport (smart move) and my second night at the Okapuka Ranch near Windhoek should mean, presumably, Dr. Livingstone, I will be well-rested when my official explorations begin.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Washington, DC: The Outsider's Perspective

As a long-time resident of Washington, DC, I am always fascinated by how outsiders perceive the city. I'm talking about the city proper, not the political intrigue that is going on within its borders. I think we can all concur that what happens on Capitol Hill is not a pretty sight. 

This week, I was privileged to be a guest speaker for American University's Washington Semester journalism students. The 30-something 20-something-and-unders to whom I spoke were from Norway, Germany, Austria, France, Japan, and Lebanon. There were also a handful of Americans from California and Pennsylvania, most of whom had never before landed in the nation's capital.

Before I started my talk, I asked about their preconceptions of Washington, and if those perceptions matched the reality.

It  was heartening to hear that most of the foreigners found Washington a very friendly city. They liked the people, finding them open and welcoming. They felt comfortable here due to the diminutive size of the buildings ("The White House is so tiny," said the young lady from Austria, while the French student remarked on the fashionably small scale of Georgetown). Obviously, from the pictures on TV, they were expecting super-sized buildings and super-sized egos, but, by avoiding the U.S. Capitol, they discovered super-sizing in DC to be a phenomenon mainly experienced at fast-food eateries.

On the other hand, the American students didn't find Washington particularly friendly. However, they did express surprise at how clean the city is. I had heard this comment before from friends visiting from New York and other slightly grimy U.S. cities (not that there's anything wrong with that). I was intrigued to know if Washington's cleanliness struck the foreigners as well. It did not. They expected our nation's capital to be a gleaming, shining beacon, and, in aesthetics at least, it lived up to its hype.

     Please follow me on Twitter @dailysuitcase