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Gift List 2014

The holiday season, aka gifting season, is upon us. For those of you who have procrastinated, here’s your heads up: As of this posting there are only 10 shopping days left.  So, for all of you who are stuck looking for a gift for the traveler in your life here is a quick list of a few thing we thought were pretty cool.

The Bemo calls itself the “social” video camera.  The small, yet rugged camera will let you record high-quality video and includes a time-lapse function. You can sync the camera with your phone and easily upload video to your social network after downloading an app. Pretty handy for sharing your travels while you’re still traveling! The Bemo Social Video Camera by Logitech runs about $119.

The Keyprop Keychain Stand ($12) is a simple but brilliant attachment for your smart phone. The key-shaped device fits on your key chain and plugs into your phone allowing it to be propped up so you can watch all the YouTube and Netflix you want without the inconvenience of holding up your phone.

If you have a photographer in your life, the Manfrotto Tri Backpack ($65) is a sensible and rugged camera bag. The design allows you to store your DSLR and 1-2 additional lenses. The backpack has adjustable straps that let you carry it like a backpack or messenger bag. The shell is water repellant and has a secondary rain protector that allows you to create a barrier between the inside and outside of your bag. The dimensions of 16″ x 9″ x 8″ make it the perfect carry-on for a plane.

Trackdot ($50) lets you know where your bag is even if it isn’t in the same city you are. The 3″ by 2″ device can sit in your luggage and is constantly pinging the network to determine its location. When you fly the device goes to sleep. When the bag lands, the device in your luggage wakes up and reports its new location. You can choose to be notified via text message or email. This can be a particularly helpful device when your carry-on has to be gate-checked. You’ll know if your bag made the trip as soon as you land; no more hoping and praying and worrying as you make your way to the baggage claim.

You can get the art lover and travel lover the same gift with these airport posters from 08left ($25). The frame-ready designs of airport codes and maps can be the perfect piece of art for your favorite travel enthusiast.

I often talk about the importance of journaling your travels and personally love using Moleskine Notebooks ($9-$30). The feeling of writing down your adventures in a bound hardback notebook can make you feel like a great explorer or writer like Livingston or Hemingway.

Zeke taking a moment to keep some of his adventures in Tanzania

Zeke taking a moment to write down some of his adventures in Tanzania in a Moleskine journal.

If you’re concerned your gift recipient might think they’re too cool for old fashioned pen and paper, Moleskine now has a cross-over notebook. The Livescribe Notebook ($30) is only the first in a line of paper notebooks that take what you write and transcribe it (via a Bluetooth pen) to an app. To better explain we’ll just quote the Moleskine website:

 ”The notebook features the iconic Moleskine design details, from the familiar rounded corners, ivory-coloured pages and ribbon bookmark to the elastic closure and “in case of loss…” label printed on the flyleaf. Its center-stitched binding ensures the notebook lies flat, for an enjoyable writing experience. The on-page commands which enable quick access to the app’s features, including voice recognition, have also been redesigned in the Moleskine style. Two bookmarks are stored in the back pocket with further commands for the Livescribe smartpen. Lastly, the debossed pattern on the cover subtly recalls the design of the smartpen, a perfect finish for this innovative tool that bridges analog and digital.”

We don’t always take our DSLRs and a dozen lenses with us when we travel, and instead rely on our phones for our snapshots. If you find yourself taking more phone-based photos, you’ll love Printstagram, now called Print Studio.  Their calendar, made of thick paper stock, can help you count the days to your next adventure. You get 365 prints for $40. You can also get posters, stickers, note cards and much more, by syncing your Instagram account.

We wish you happy shopping, happy holidays and a year full of travel adventures in 2015.

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Setting the Holiday Mood in Pittsburgh

The holiday season in Pittsburgh begins with a bang — a lot of bangs to be accurate.

Light. It. Up. Highlights from the THIRD fireworks display of the night. #LUN2014 #pgh

A video posted by Amanda Changuris (@amandachanguris) on

I’m not sure what it is about this town and its pyromania, but I have witnessed more fireworks in the last 10 months than in my entire life before our move. Light Up Night, which ushers in the Christmas season the Friday before Thanksgiving, had no less than three separate fireworks displays in one night (and none of them short, either). I truly think the last one, set off from the Warhol Bridge, lasted 30 minutes or more. Downtown Pittsburgh is filled with a series of tree lightings, free carriage rides, concerts and activities for all ages during this kick-off festival. Half a million people attended the event this year.

The Market Square is converted into an open-air “German Christkindlmarkts” (Christmas Market). The vendors operate out of miniature alpine-style chalets, selling a mix of traditional gifts like hand-painted ornaments, hand-carved sculptures, nutcrackers and pottery, all with an old European flair. You’ll also find fair trade artisans crafting jewelry, ceramics and wall hangings. Shop up an appetite? Don’t worry, there’s plenty of food in the Market, too. The Yule Haus serves up homemade frankfurters, brats, soups, crepes and strudel, all washed down with a generous mug of hot cider or cocoa.

The downtown also has some more modern new world traditions right out of classic Christmas movies, like Miracle on 34th Street.  One of the highlights of Light Up Night is the unveiling of the windows at Pittsburgh’s Macy’s Department Store — yes, Macy’s. I know we don’t see them much anymore but Pittsburgh has a Macy’s right downtown, not attached to a shopping mall.  The retail giant spends a lot of time and money to create a displays in their large windows. The holiday scenes not only entice shoppers to come in, but have also become an attraction all by themselves, putting every passerby in the spirit of the season.

How is your town celebrating the season? Do you have any unique local traditions?

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“That Quaint Little Village”

Shop Small

I hear it all the time when talking about visiting Italy, or any other country in Europe: “We just loved this quaint little village. It had all these little shops and cafes; we could have spent hours there.”  I’m sure if you travel, or you know people who do, you’ve heard the same thing (or perhaps a blog post waxing poetic about the simple village life).

I admit to loving those independent mom-and-pop stores, selling everything from used furniture and books to jewelry.  There’s something about spending the afternoon meandering down a narrow street, popping into shops selling hand-crafted goods, before taking a seat at a restaurant or café to relax and people watch as they stroll across the piazza. It sounds like the perfect way to spend the afternoon in a European hamlet.

-BREAKING NEWS, AMERICA-

OPENYou don’t have to hop across the pond to find that “European Village” experience.  You can often find that “quaint little village” near you, right here in the US.  You probably drive by (or even through) them every day, but because they aren’t in 400-year-old stone buildings you may not notice them.

The Small Business Administration reports that as of 2010 there were 27.9 million small businesses in the US, all with less than 500 employees. 1.5 million of those businesses are retail and restaurants/bars/cafes with far fewer than 500 employees.  The National Retail Federation says 94.5% of businesses have only one location.

You know what that means? Just over 5% of stores are big box stores. The small mom-and-pop stores of your European dreams (or your nostalgic recollection of Main Street USA), are closer than you think. You just need to find them.

Yesterday was Shop Small Saturday, an annual reminder that the small businesses in your neighborhood need and deserve your support.  You’ll often find the owners on-site and willing to go out of their way to help you find what you need with their near encyclopedic knowledge of everything pertaining to their businesses.

Next time you’re heading out to a big box store, stop for a moment and ask yourself,”can I get that downtown?” I find an extra dollar or two is well worth knowing I’m helping a friend or neighbor rather than a billion-dollar corporation.

The Downtown of Frederick is flooded with people each weekend during the holidays.

The Downtown of Frederick is flooded with people each weekend during the holidays.

You may or may not live in an area that’s fortunate to have a thriving local business district. Frederick, Maryland is a great example (and the streets were full yesterday to prove the point!). But remember, the key to creating or keeping locally owned businesses booming is shopping in them. Even if you just  buy one thing, one gift for someone special on your list, it goes a long way toward supporting the local shops and creating the “quaint downtown” of your dreams right in your own backyard.

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Venice: Leave Your Rolling Luggage at Home

If you’re planning a visit to Venice, choose your luggage carefully. The city council is said to be considering a ban on rolling luggage, at least for tourists. While residents would still be allowed to use bags with wheels, tourists could be fined $620. The rationale? Rolling luggage is noisy on the city’s labyrinth of cobblestone walkways.

But before you chalk this up as a ridiculous rule, mutter something about Italians and change your travel plans, consider this: rolling a bag through Venice is a pain. You’ll be much happier with a backpack or duffel bag.

We know this from experience.

On my (Amanda’s) first trip abroad, I packed the bag I owned at the time — a roller. Zeke and I were on our first trip together, 10 days in Italy. We arrived in Venice after 30 hours of (budget-friendly, but inconvenient) travel, and that’s when I learned rolling luggage and the Venetian streetscape don’t mix well.

Aside from the cobblestones (not conducive to a smooth wheeling experience) and narrow, serpentine streets and alleys, Venice is chock full of bridges spanning its famous canals. Most of those bridges feature at least a few stairs (more wheel trouble). On top of that, most hotels are not equipped with elevators, so you’ll be toting your bag up at least a flight or two of stairs. Save yourself the awkwardness (and perhaps a fine if the ban is enacted) and bring a backpack!

Look, Ma! No Wheels!

Ten days worth of clothes still doesn't weigh as much as my camera gear.

No wheels, Africa style.

After that first trip to Italy, I invested in a backpack. More recently, we used duffel bags (above) for our safari.  I still use my rolling luggage for business trips (car/airport/taxi/hotel is easy on wheels), but if I’m traveling abroad I’m more likely to use my pack. We’ve been to Greece twice and on our African safari without wheels, and agree each of those trips would have been significantly more difficult if we had to roll everywhere.

 

 

 

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Remembering Normandy

The past week held Veterans Day here in the US and Remembrance Day in the British Commonwealth, which inspired me to focus on that legendary battlefield from the second world war, Normandy, France.

The first place to visit, even if you aren’t a battlefield buff, is the coastline of D-Day beaches: Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha and Utah Beaches.  I recommend watching “Saving Private Ryan” or “The Longest Day” before visiting if you aren’t a history buff, to give you some context. Walk to where the surf meets the sand and look across the beach toward the mountainous sand dunes; try to imagine running from surf to dune as bullets rain down on you and your friends. Then imagine only about half of you make it off the beach.

D-Day, courtesy: Library of Congress

D-Day, courtesy: Library of Congress

The beaches aren’t the only places to search for history, there are several museums along the 50-mile stretch of beach: Airborne Museum, Centre Juno Beach (dedicated to Canadian Troops),  and The American Cemetery and Visitor Center overlooking Omaha Beach. The American Cemetery is the eternal resting place of 9,387 servicemen killed in action in the land they fought to liberate.

The D-Day invasion was code-named Operation Overlord and Overlord Tours is a highly recommended tour company that will take you from beach to beach with a skilled tour guide. D Day Historian tours is another company with a high Trip Advisor rating, offering private tours. They also focus on the roles women played in the invasion.

The coastline has a history dating back far longer than the last 100 years, of course, and is filled with other sights that will astound you. Mont Saint-Michel Abbey is considered to be one of the most picturesque sights in all the world. The abbey, first constructed in the year 1144, sits on a small part-time island just off the coast.  I say part-time because at low tide it’s surrounded by sand and at high tide it’s surrounded by water. The 1960’s romantic comedy Romanoff and Juliet points this out by reminding visitors that the airport is only open when the tide is low.  The island is also the setting for the esoteric film Mindwalk, where three people walk around the city discussing “meaning of life” stuff. You can pay to tour the abbey, which most guidebooks do recommend, for $12.

The final place we’ll suggest is Claude Monet’s house and garden. I am a sucker for impressionism and Monet was the best.  You can walk in his garden, the inspiration for many of his paintings (including the famous Water Lilies), from April through November for $11.  The great artist lived in this house in Giverny for 43 years and the Claude Monet Foundation has painstakingly preserved the master’s home, considering the inspiration for his paintings was as important as the paintings themselves.

The places mentioned here are just a smattering of the history and scenery you can find in the north-west of France.  I suggest taking a peek at the Normandy official website for more ideas.

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Dolphin Discovery

Ages ago, my family took a summer vacation to the Caribbean. We enjoyed a week of sun, sand, and the absolutely gorgeous water that’s kept me (and now Zeke) returning to the area as often as possible. On the same trip, my sister and I asked my parents if we could try swimming with dolphins. They agreed, and we were in for an experience I’ll never forget.

My sister and I signed up for the dolphin encounter at the Blue Lagoon Island dolphin sanctuary on Nassau. We hopped in the water as part of a group of about 10 people. The two dolphins were full of personality, swimming up to people in the group and interacting with us even without being prompted by the friendly trainers. The dolphins seemed genuinely thrilled to play with us; one even swam right up to me and splashed water in my face (unprompted).

In turn, each person in the group got to touch, kiss and play with these playful, intelligent creatures. After we were well acquainted, we each got to experience the foot push. I swam out into the middle of the lagoon and floated on my stomach. The dolphins swam up behind me and each put a nose on one of my feet, pushing me through (and up out of) the water with incredible power and speed.

As you might have gathered by now, I loved every moment.

This trip was long before I met Zeke, but I’ve always thought he’d love the experience. This year, on our anniversary trip to the British Virgin Islands, we took a day trip to Tortola and visited Dolphin Discovery. It was just as excellent as I had hoped!

We were fortunate to visit the center on a very slow day. We had four young dolphins and four trainers working (and playing) with just the two of us! The dolphins, Romeo, Juliet, Angela and Watson, were still learning their cues and behaviors, which only made the experience more fun in my book.

Juliet gives Zeke a sweet kiss during our visit to Dolphin Discovery on Tortola.

Juliet gives Zeke a sweet kiss during our visit to Dolphin Discovery on Tortola.

Romeo, in particular, was eager to perform. It took the two of us a few tries to get the belly ride just right. For that trick, I swam out into the water and put one arm out by my side. Romeo swam up behind me, upside-down, I grabbed on to his fins as he swam by, and he towed me — belly-to-belly — back to the edge of the natural pool. He was so excited to show off this skill that he’d often swim up behind me without being signaled to do it (I heard “where’s Romeo?” a good bit during our swim!). Since these dolphins are being trained using positive reinforcement, I was asked to resist the urge to hop on and take the ride unless the trainer had given the signal.

We touched, kissed, danced with and received belly rides from each of the dolphins. For young Angela, it was her first interaction with humans who weren’t trainers. She was fantastic, and seemed to have almost as much fun as we had.

Once we had played with all of the young dolphins, we moved to another enclosure where two adult dolphins — Hippo and Ayala — showed us a good time. Zeke and I each got to grab on to a boogie board and be pushed through the water (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?) by these much stronger dolphins. We also got to try to belly ride on their much larger bellies.

I had an amazing day, but sharing it with Zeke made it even more delightful. I caught myself standing back, watching him interact with our new friends, and couldn’t help but smile. We had made this adventure an anniversary gift to each other, and it was a hit for both of us.

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King of Fruit

I had my 20th high school reunion last month and had a lot of fun, the best part was we didn’t just sit around as Springsteen suggested and talk about “Glory Days,” we caught up on what each of us have been doing the last 20 years. I have to say one of the most interesting stories came from my friend Tiffany Butrum, who after getting a degree from University of Maryland in French and International Business, got a job, got bored, and chucked it all to go teach English in Shenzhen, Guangdong, China. She’s been there since 2012 and occasionally blogs about her experiences. Tiffany has generously given us access to her archives to broaden our reach at No Kids to include the occasional tidbit about China and South East Asia. So, here we go…

Well, I’ve been living in China for two years now, a venture that will end in two weeks, and I had yet to try the oh-so-pungent King of Fruit: Durian. I’ll admit, I was being a chicken about it. Last week, while at morning tea, some Chinese friends convinced me to try a durian pastry. It was odd, but not disgusting. I felt very proud of myself. But then my friend told me that the durian in the pastry had been mixed with sugar, flour, and other fruit and that fresh durian was much different. I felt obligated to try it before I leave for the States.

For those of you unfamiliar with durian, here is a little bit of info:

Durian at a supermarket“Widely known and revered in southeast Asia as the “king of fruits”, the durian is distinctive for its large size, unique odour, and formidable thorn-covered husk. The fruit can grow as large as 30 centimetres (12 in) long and 15 centimetres (6 in) in diameter, and it typically weighs one to three kilograms (2 to 7 lb). Its shape ranges from oblong to round, the colour of its husk green to brown, and its flesh pale yellow to red, depending on the species.

The edible flesh emits a distinctive odour, strong and penetrating even when the husk is intact. Some people regard the durian as fragrant; others find the aroma overpowering and offensive. The smell evokes reactions from deep appreciation to intense disgust and has been described variously as almonds, rotten onions, turpentine and gym socks. The odour has led to the fruit’s banishment from certain hotels and public transportation in southeast Asia.

The durian, native to Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia, has been known to the Western world for about 600 years. The 19th-century British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace famously described its flesh as “a rich custard highly flavoured with almonds”. The flesh can be consumed at various stages of ripeness, and it is used to flavour a wide variety of savoury and sweet edibles in Southeast Asian cuisines. The seeds can also be eaten when cooked.”

“Penetrating” is a very good word to describe the smell. Two days ago I bought a package containing two sections of durian. Soon after placing the package in my refrigerator my entire apartment smelled like the fruit. When I was a kid and my friend’s parents would eat durian in their house I would have to go outside. The smell was so strong that it would trigger my gag reflex. But since I smell it every time I enter a supermarket here it no longer has that effect on me. For me, durian smells like a mixture of liquid amoxicillin (the pink stuff I had to drink as a child when I was sick), rotting vegetation, and sweaty armpit. One nagging question that always burns in my brain is who was the first person hungry enough to try this thing??

The texture is quite interesting for a fruit. It’s like egg custard with the fibrous pulp of a pumpkin added in. There is a thin skin around the puddingish part, but I’m afraid I can’t describe the seed as I didn’t get that far.

The taste is very difficult to describe because it was such a multisensory experience. I scooped up some of the soft custardy fruit onto my finger, held my nose, and gingerly swiped the fruit onto my tongue. Amazingly, with my nose held firmly shut, I could still smell it from inside my mouth. Its odour somehow hit the soft pallet of my mouth and traveled up and out my nose. I know that sounds weird, but that’s exactly what it was like. And it tasted very sweet; it was like sweetened pink stuff mixed with sweetened rotting vegetation and sweetened sweaty armpit. My jaw hurt with the urge to hurl, but I soldiered on. I took another swipe. It was still gross. I took another swipe. Nope. Still disgusting. One more swipe and I was convinced. Durian is so NOT the ‘King of Fruit’.

I immediately bagged it up, took it out, and then lysoled my apartment. Yet, after two carrots, a cucumber, a dozen cherry tomatoes, some cheese, a glass of milk, and three glasses of water, I could still taste the durian! It’s as if the taste has permeated my body just as the smell had permeated my apartment.

But now I can say I tried it. And again I ask: Who was the first starving schmoe who said “Hey, I can eat this!”?

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