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Sunday, November 24, 2013

Lots of Giraffe, Lots of Zebra, and One Lion

Etosha National Park in Namibia is not a typical game park. You aren't likely to see hoards of hippos nor rows of rhinos. But especially for a first-time safari-goer, the park has plenty of wildlife to ooh and aah over.

 For more on the park, and Namibia's conservation efforts, I highly recommend this article by USA Today Travel Editor Veronica Stoddart.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Holiday Gifts for Travelers: Treats for the Feet

Cold, sweaty and tired feet can leave many a traveler feeling defeeted.  Here are a few new products that claim to prime your paws for all travel conditions. I have not tested these products, and so will not rate them. If you've tried them, let me know what you think.

First off, we have Get Grounded Footwear Groundals for $49.99 (straps come in black, gold or silver).
The claim: Wearing these sandals will ground you to Mother Nature's magnetic field. The press materials call Groundals "the first footwear featuring a fully-grounded foot bed, made with a proprietary trade-secret material called TerraMater." Apparently, this material conducts negatively-charged free electrons "allowing for the absorption of  positive energy from the earth's natural surfaces." The process, called grounding, allows one's body to be in direct electrical contact with the earth, leading to an increase in energy. Amazing....just from wearing a pair of sandals. Now look, I am not a total skeptic. I lived across from the ocean in Santa Barbara for four years and found barefoot beach walks quite energizing (something to do with the negative ions, they say). But as the sample pair of Groundals sent to me were too big to wade in, I cannot replicate my Pacific experience here on the East Coast. For the New Age-types on your gift list, though, this might give them a charge.

Somewhat more down to earth are the superlatives offered by the makers of Heat Holders. The packaging calls Heat Holders the warmest thermal socks around.  The scientific proof, as claimed by the manufacturer, is in the Thermal Overall Grade (TOG). This measure of a textile's warming ability shows Heat Holders get a 2.34 score; ordinary thermal socks rate a .89; and your basic cotton socks score a .33.  At $15.99, it's worth a try. If they don't end up being the perfect stocking stuffer, next year, you can use them as your spare Christmas stocking.

Blue Kauai Mary JanesThe Nufoot sock is a good slip-on for those who prefer not to walk around the plane/hotel room/yoga studio barefoot.  Made with a breathable four-way stretch fabric,the Nufoot footie is water and skid resistant. Priced at $14.99, the footies come in a variety of pleasing patterns.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Holiday Gift Guide for Travelers: Part 1

The holiday shopping season officially kicks off in two weeks. If you are looking for unique items for the travelers on your ho-ho-holiday gift list, here are some DailySuitcase reviews.

Shavetech Rechargeable Travel Shaver: $29.99
Rating: 5 Suitcases
This lightweight, easy-to-use razor is the perfect stocking stuffer for the man on the road. For easy charging, just plug the USB plug into a port on your computer and you are good to go for at least six shaves.

The Traveler Cosmetic and Toiletry Totes: $30-45 
Rating: 2 Suitcases

Inspire Travel Luggage calls this a new concept for traveling with full-size toiletries. It features a removable plastic liner (that looks like a trash bin) designed to prevent leakage. The thing is, that plastic liner is big and unyielding, making the bag rather clunky. I think you are better off yielding to the 3-ounce liquid bottle rule, or going with a Travel Happens Sealed Wet Bag to protect from spills.

Stewart/Stand Stainless Steel Wallets: $69.50 (billfold); $119.50 (clutch wallet)
Rating: 4 Suitcases

We live in a paranoid world, my friends. And the fact is, credit cards, some driver's licenses, ATM cards--anything that has RFID (radio-frequency identification) technology can be skimmed by scammers. Stewart/Stand has designed a line of high-fashion accessories to block RFID skimming. Design materials include lightweight Italian leather, silver ballistic nylon, and woven stainless steel cloth. The stainless steel is made from 85% post consumer recycled material. The wallets look good; they are fairly flat; and they protect the goods. My only quibble is the price.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Counting Countries

My first step in Russia
I've been to nine new countries this year. Well, nine if you count a plane touchdown; eight if you include a plane touchdown and a dash through the airport for a connecting flight; or six, if you include actually stepping foot outside the airport.

The mad-dash-through-the-airport countries were Finland and Latvia, while the plane stop was Senegal.

Thus, it looked like my new country total for 2013 was going to be five. The far-flung five--Estonia, Lithuania, Russia, Mongolia, and Namibia. But that doesn't add up, right? The wrinkle is South Africa.

I initially had to separate South Africa from the pack for the following reason. Upon landing in Johannesburg in the evening, I walked about one-fifth of a mile from the arrivals terminal to the Intercontinental Hotel (highly recommended). The upscale property is on airport, but not attached to the airport. So, I stepped foot outside the airport, but it was questionable whether I was actually off airport property. Then next morning, it was off to Namibia.

Thus, I ask you a two-fold question: Can you add a country to your count

A) if you stayed on airport property (airports being somewhat like embassies, IMHO, in carrying something of an international territory status) and

B) you stayed for less than 24 hours?

True, my passport was stamped with a South Africa seal, but still, to me, counting South Africa seemed a bit of a cheat. That's why I was somewhat bothered by my most recent Monopoly purchase.

Let me backtrack. Loyal readers know that I collect Monopoly games from the countries to which I have traveled. But my rule is strict--I have to have traveled to the country in question to buy a game. There are only three exceptions to this rule in my collection--games from Argentina and Japan that were gifts and a game from Tunisia purchased on my one previous visit to Africa. I picked up the French-ified game at a souk in Marrakesh back in 2001. Naturally, I assumed it was Moroccan Monopoly. Alas, when I got home and checked street names, no dice. The streets were in Tunis.

Now, in Namibia, there is no Namibian Monopoly. They play the South African game. So, I did buy that version in a grocery store in Windhoek. But I had mixed feelings. Yes, that was the official Namibian version, but it was South African and I had spent less than 24 hours in South Africa. Was this merely a token purchase? All of the pondering was leaving me feeling emotionally bankrupt.

But a missed connection in Johannesburg on the way 
home turned out to be my "Get Out of Jail Free" card. After getting ironed things out at South African Airways customer service, it appeared I would be spending the next 24 hours in Jo'burg. However, as the hotel at which I was booked was actually in the airport, I knew that in order to feel confident about adding South Africa to my list, I had to take a chance and head into the community chest-first the next day.

Indeed, a group of us who missed our connection to DC hired a private van and visited moving sites like Soweto and the Apartheid Museum during our unexpected layover. So, in addition to squeezing lemonade out of lemons, the tour officially permitted meto add South Africa to my country count, which has now surpassed the half-century mark.

What are your rules for including countries in your total? And how many countries have you visited?

Friday, November 8, 2013

The Pink Hippo and the Malakani Nut

As an experienced traveler, I pride myself on avoiding scams. Furthermore, I drive a draconian bargain and, being a Jewish girl, am enamored of a distinguished deal. Thus, in those rare instances when I am ripped off,  the experience just sticks in my craw. In order to protect you, oh unwary consumer, from the scams of Namibia, I present the tale of the pink hippo and the Malakani nut.

After alighting from a tour bus on the outskirts of downtown Swakopmund, I was approached by a friendly local ready to engage in conversation. Not wanting to be a nasty American, I engaged him. He asked my name...very civilized, I thought. But then, he asked how my name was spelled. This should have set off the skepticism trigger. It did not. Before I knew it, the guy was carving my name on a nut. Now, the nut was just not only old nut. It was a Malakani nut, already bearing carvings of local wildlife. I knew that as soon as the Malakani nut was emblazoned with my name, it would be rendered worthless to anyone not named "Laura" (and worthless to anyone whose name is," for that matter). I tried to stop him after the letter "L", but the fix was in. The nut was mine. He asked for 150 Namibian dollars ($15US); I told him, truthfully, that all I had was 50 N$.  Thus, I became the reluctant recipient of a custom-carved Malakani nut, which, unfornutly (sic) I cannot re-gift, as I do not know anyone else named Laura. 

The Malakani nut was bad enough, but the worse was yet to come. Our guide had told us the woeful tale of the poor craft vendors who had been ejected from a prime market spot and were now relegated to an out-of-the-way area. Consider my heartstrings fiddled with. So, over to the market I went, my sympathy evoked and my knowledge of local pricing deficient.

Here's a tip: Before shopping in a street market or a souk, visit local stores to get a sense of what things cost. 

The vendors were very aggressive...annoyingly so. Usually, I try to avoid such sales tactics, but the fact is, the moment I left one vendor, the next would accost me. So, I let them run on with their spiels, without making a purchase. But finally, a guy named Victor showed me his "hand-made" figures and i espied an adorable pink hippo. Victor picked the hippo up, showing me an underbelly carved with the name "Victor" (perhaps the Malakani nut carver had attacked his bloat of hippos).  At any rate, Victor, seeing my interest, starting the bargaining at 950 N$ ($95) for the palm-sized piece. You gotta hand it to these crafty Namibians; when they go for the rip-off, they go big. 

Fortunately, even with my dearth of knowledge, I knew this seemed excessive. It was also fortunate that I had very little money with me, and what I did have was in small bills. This is another fine tip--when going to a market to bargain, bring small bills and do not carry them on one clump.  When I first bargained down, I told him I would have to go to the ATM if he wanted, say 250 N$. Not wanting to let a sale slip away,  he asked me what I had. I pulled out a 100 N$ and a 50 N$. That was all I had, sans change. He did manage to wangle a little more change out of me, and the pink hippo was mine for $17 US. 

Next, I ventured into town, where I discovered two things. One, these happy hippos were everywhere. This meant that unless Victor was one busy artist, he had not, in fact, done anything to the hippo except impale it with his Malakani carving utensil. But, I noted, hippos of a similar size cost $15-$18 in stores, so I was happy as a hippo...until  I heard from a fellow traveler that she had bought a hippo in the same market for $7. Later, I noticed hippos in stores around the country costing between $8-$10. Even though my hippo was a female, and thus a cow, I had no doubt my deal was bull. 

I grant you, on the scale of international rip-offs, this ranks pretty low on the list. Plus, one cannot feel too bad about overpaying in such cases, as the vendors are most certainly poor and appreciative of every dollar (and every sucker). But still, one hates encouraging sales tactics that rip off the unwary --and wary--tourist alike. But at least no one was hurt in the transaction and I am now the not-so-proud owner of a pink hippo and a Malakani nut.

Monday, November 4, 2013

9 Holiday Travel Tips

Haven't made your holiday travel plans? Get crackin'. For those looking to avoid travel headaches this holiday season, here's a gift list of tips to use, whether you've been naughty or nice.

Jo'burg's Tambo Airport is
already ready for the holidays
1. Book off-peak. That means avoiding the day before the holiday, the Sunday after the holiday, etc. Christmas is mid-week this year, so that may spread out the traffic. Still, if you fly on the holiday itself, you will find smaller crowds at the airport, lighter loads on the plane, and better rates.

2. Send gifts ahead of time or order them on-line and have them sent directly to your holiday destination. If you tote gifts in your carry-on, don't bother wrapping them. If you do so, TSA will unwrap them for you.

3. Get organized to expedite getting through security. Watch what you wear--avoid clunky belt buckles, heavy-duty jewelry, or other items that might set off alarms. Have your plastic bag filled with liquids stuffed into an outside compartment of your carry-on. Have your laptop or tablet easily accessible.

4. Find an airline-branded credit card that allows you to check a bag for free if you purchase your ticket with self-same card. Some of those credit cards also provide holders the opportunity to jump ahead in the boarding line.

5. To save luggage space, wear your heaviest items on board. Layer that cozy cardigan over a bulky turtleneck and then complete the outfit with a chic winter coat and boots.

6. Check in ahead of time, either on-line or on a mobile device. Paying for your checked bag ahead of time will also save you a little time and a few bucks.

7. Going overseas? Check on advisories for dicey areas at travel.state.gov.
But don't just check out the U.S. government site, as travel warnings can have an American political bent. Visit www.fco.gov.uk, the home of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office or www.voyage.gc.ca/countries_pays/updates_mise-a-jour-eng.asp, the website of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada

8. Even if you are staying close to home, you still to prepare. If you are driving to your destination, get your car checked out ahead of time; leave plenty of time to get from Point A to Point B; and, if the kids are along, bring healthy snacks, bring plenty of entertainment, and make frequent stops.

9. And if you are looking for a totally carefree holiday travel experience, stay home and host visitors from far and wide.