Wednesday, August 6, 2014

They Do Things Differently Here #3: Accommodations for the Blind

Okay, I'm all about helping out people who are disabled.  I don't begrudge the handicapped parking spots - even at Wal-Mart where you have to park a mile from that jug of milk you need - and I'm proud to have a friend who helps kids who need alternative methods of communication.

So when I saw that Brazil had installed nifty little bumpy tile things on sidewalks and on the floors of public places like airports to help the blind, I was impressed!  Here was a country that was moving beyond the Americans with Disabilities Act to really help people gain independence!

Some bumps are round dots.  These seem to indicate that the person should stop or at least prepare for some sort of change.  They often appear at curbs, information counters, and at escalators. But some bumps are more like dashes or elongated ovals.  These seem to indicate a walkway, path, or direction. What a great idea, right?
Bumpy lines leading up to the information desk at he Natal, Brazil airport

But further investigation revealed that, while the idea is a good one, in most cases, the execution us just plain mean.

First, I noticed that on some sidewalks, the bumps just end abruptly and randomly.  What happens to those poor vision-impaired citizens who were following these bumps?  Do they stand frozen, wondering where the sidewalk has gone?  Do they feel around tentatively with their feet, hoping the dots will reappear a few steps away?
Kinley, Lanita, and Josh walk between the bumps on the sidewalk.
And sometimes, the bumps give conflicting messages. 

Is the vision-impaired person supposed to walk or stop?  Or maybe you walk on the left side but stop on the right side?  Or maybe the sidewalk-installer-guys were trying to be cute?  Who knows?

Then, in the airport in Rio, I noticed these color-coded bumpy indicators.

You may not be able to see this in the image above, but the red dots are in front of a fire extinguisher and the blue dots are in front of a bank of pay phones.  I mean, seriously?  The people using these bumps are blind! How are someone's feet going to feel the difference between the red FIRE EXTINGUISHER bumps and the blue PAY PHONE bumps??!!

I can just imagine the scene.  A fire breaks out at gate 12.  Someone yells, "Fire!" (Or the Portuguese equivalent, of course.). Then, do the airport planners really think that the BLIND guy is gonna be the one to say, "Don't worry!  I'll get the fire extinguisher!  I can follow the little dots!"?  Do they really expect him to follow the little oval bumps to the RED round bumps indicating the fire extinguisher and not to the BLUE round bumps indicating the pay phones which are located right next to the red ones??!!  What are the chances that they guy would pick up the fire extinguisher and not the phone?  

Or perhaps that's the point.  Maybe the airport planners decided that in either case, the blind guy could save the day.  Either his little feet will guide him to the fire extinguisher (after which he'd follow the little bumps back to gate 12 and heroically aim said fire extinguisher in the exact location of the fire) or he'd accidentally pick up the phone, realize his mistake, and dial the appropriate authorities to report the incident.  Either way, it's a win, I guess.

And then, at Iguazu Falls National Park in Argentina, I saw what was possibly the meanest blind accommodation ever.  The park had helpfully mounted maps of the park onto tables at the visitors' center. They were 3D, and each one was quite large - perhaps 3 feet by 5 feet.  Each map had a map key, explanations of points of interest, and labels written in English, Spanish, and Braille.  There was only one problem.  The maps were mounted - wait for it - under glass!  Yes.  That's what I said.  The little Braille bumps were completely inaccessible to the fingers of the blind visitors because they were covered in protective glass.

Here you can see the Braille map key and part of the 3D map.  You can also see the reflection of the protective glass that prevents the blind from actually using the map.  Note the hand resting on the glass, a good 3 inches above the Braille.

Detail of the Braille labels, still under glass
Again, I can picture the scene.  A blind visitor comes to the Argentinian side of Iguazu Falls.  She heads over to the visitors' center (with much difficulty, since Argentina hasn't yet installed those awesome little bumpy sidewalk tile thingys), and finds a glass-topped table.  Somehow, she senses that this large, smooth rectangle must be a Braille relief map of the park!  Lucky for her, she has remembered to bring along a friend who is happy to act as a sort of Braille dot-reader/translator in just such a time as this!

"Let's see now, " the translator begins helpfully, "It looks like we've got two vertical dots followed by six sort of stair-stepped dots followed by kind of a backwards L of dots followed by what looks like a Lego creation my 7-year-old made of dots followed by some dots that look like the constellation of Taurus the Bull.  I think that means 'You are here.'" 

It's mean.  Just mean.  And, of course, I acknowledge that America still has a lot of room for growth when it comes to providing equal access for those with special needs, but hopefully, our city planners aren't quite so *ahem* blind to those needs.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Guest Blogger: Josh and Stickers For Jesus

Until this summer, I had never collected stickers or had any interest whatsoever in soccer. But today I am the proud owner of a completed Panini World Cup sticker album—all 643 slots covered with the right stickers, most of them featuring soccer players I hadn't even heard of 6 weeks ago. How did this transformation happen?

First of all, I taught in May at Purdue a class in Sports Communication (with several international students), so I developed a heightened awareness of the sporting world beyond my usual focus on major league baseball and college basketball. Knowing that I was going to be living in Brazil during the World Cup (hosted this year by Brazil, in case you just emerged from a coma or aren't aware of the world beyond American borders), a Wall Street Journal article about sticker collecting and the World Cup caught my eye.

My initial interest was for my class—this seemed like an interesting example of the commodification of sport. In the same way that Americans buy sports memorabilia or wear jerseys from their favorite teams or collect baseball cards, this seemed like a more global version of the same phenomenon. 

According to the article, every four years, when the World Cup determines the best national soccer team in the world, Panini (an Italian company) publishes an album that includes sponsor stickers, FIFA-related stickers, and most importantly, the pictures of every player on all 32 teams competing in the World Cup. Collectors apparently range from schoolchildren to middle-aged men to entire families, all determined to cover as many slots in their albums as possible. The article described public spaces where people met to trade stickers to try to finish their books. It said that even though this was more of a global phenomenon, the books and stickers were actually available in America!

I went to Wal-Mart. I bought an empty album ($1.98) and five packs of stickers ($1/pack, 7 stickers in a pack). "Just a sample," I thought. "I'll use it for my class," I thought.

And I did. The reaction was startling--no one in the class had ever seen the book before, but everyone wanted to open the sticker packs and stick them in it!

Before I left the U.S., I bought one more batch of five sticker packs. "I don't have a problem," I told myself. "I can quit any time," I told myself. "This is just a little curiosity for Brazil. Maybe it will give me some good conversation topics with my readers--'stickers for Jesus!'"

Our Let's Start Talking mission project offers English conversation practice using stories from Luke as the basis for discussions. But the first part of each session is usually composed of small talk, and I thought this book might be a great conversation starter. I trotted out my new book and was a little disappointed when the first couple of people I showed didn't seem to recognize it or know anything about it. All that changed, however, when one of Gina's readers noticed what I was carrying. He even pulled up an app on his phone that kept track of which stickers he still needed!

Thus began my sticker-collecting odyssey. They're actually called "figurinhas" in Portuguese, and in Brazil they're a big deal. It turned out that several of our readers, their friends, and in one case a reader's husband collected the figurinhas and wanted to help me with my budding collection.  

First, one of Gina's readers told me a cheaper place and way to buy them--in a bulk pack that included 72 stickers for the equivalent of U.S. $6. That meant in Brazil I could buy stickers at 12 for a dollar instead of just the 7 I got for a dollar in the U.S. Bargain central! A couple of readers brought me their friends' duplicates to see if I could use any of them, and of course I could. The crowning piece of intelligence, however, was that there were informal trading posts, just like the ones I had read about in the article, in different spots around the city of Natal.

My first trading foray was at one of these outposts, on a rainy Saturday morning. With virtually no Portuguese and only a vague idea of how things worked, I took my small stack of duplicates and a list of some of the stickers I really wanted (primarily the shiny ones and those from the Brazilian, American, German, and Argentine teams). When I arrived, I found that I had made some good guesses about how things worked--I correctly had my duplicates in numeric order, making them easier for others to scan against their lists of missing stickers, and I also had a good list of the stickers I needed myself. At this point, my list of missing stickers was VERY partial--I hadn't allowed myself to even think about FINISHING the book at this point--I was just looking to have a decent collection. I probably had about 150 different stickers in the book, I had bought a few scattered sticker packs and 2 of the bulk packs, and that was all I intended to spend (at least, that's what I told myself).

My big discovery at that first trading post was that "trading" isn't always possible--in my case, for instance, I needed a lot more stickers than other people did. The market accommodated this by trading when possible and simply selling when not possible. Each sticker was priced at 20 centavos (about 10 U.S. cents). A few people paid me for some of mine, and I paid a few people for some of theirs (learning that I needed to carry more small change), and after an hour, I had been bitten by the bug.

I made a complete list of the stickers I was missing (a very long list in the beginning).

I talked about the collection with my readers.
Readers brought me stickers (!).
I started making pilgrimages in the evenings to another trading post at the mall.
And I went back to buy more bulk packs.

I continued to learn throughout this sticker odyssey:  for one thing, the Brazilian book isn't exactly the same as the American book. Different sponsors produced slightly different stickers for the beginning and end of the books, so I had to figure out which Brazilian stickers fit my American slots in a couple of cases. Another difference is that the blanks in the American book had both the number of each sticker AND the name of the corresponding player--the Brazilian book had only the numbers, no names. And while I was learning some names of national soccer stars (and also their professional teams, helpfully included on the figurinhas), I was mostly focused on the numbers I needed (helpfully marked on the paper backing of each sticker). So when trading, I would shuffle through others' duplicate decks facedown, simply comparing the numbers on the sticker backing to the numbers on my list.

When my number of needed stickers dipped below 100, I began to believe that I might actually complete the book. One of our readers asked me for my "missing list" and somehow found a handful of the stickers on the list. A couple more trading forays to the mall one weekend brought my number down to only 61 missing stickers--I was 90% finished!

That's when the husband of one of Gina's readers came through for me. A former professional soccer player himself, he had collected the entire set of stickers every World Cup for as long as he could remember--since childhood. Earlier in the project, he had shown me his completed book (I have to admit I was a little in awe) and I had shown him my very incomplete book--he wasn't very impressed at the time. But when I saw him again two weeks later, and my book was nearing completion, he offered to take me to a place near one of the trading points, a place where he suggested somebody might have ALL the stickers I needed. He drove me there, I traded for a few that whittled my number down a bit further, and then he introduced me to a mysterious character (at least to me) who had a huge box full of stickers--the price was a slightly marked-up 30 centavos per sticker, but I jumped at the chance to fill some of my remaining empty spots.  He didn't have ALL the stickers I needed, but by the time we left The Man With the Stickers, I needed only 31, which The Man asked me to write down for him.

Three days later, for less than $5, my figurinhas patron from the weekend sent me an envelope on which I had written my missing numbers. I don't know how The Man did it, but he had located and enclosed every single missing sticker. I'm a little embarrassed to tell you the joy it gave me to go to the kitchen table, sort the stickers into number order, and then methodically put one in each missing spot left in my book. My son and daughter were there with me, peeling and locating the next spots--we'd scan a page, say England's, and say, "Finished!" Then on to Argentina: "Finished!" The elusive Swiss and American pages:  "Finished!" And finally the last team in the book--South Korea. All 643 spots filled.

Don't ask me how much I invested in this little venture--I honestly don't know. At the height of my trading days, I would go to the trading spots with a pocket full of small bills and change and come home with about the same amount I started with (though some of it had changed several hands through trading). I bought and sold stickers from children, adults my age, and even little old ladies. All I know for certain is that the initial album price of $1.98 turned out to be no bargain--it was the gateway drug into the sketchy underworld of Brazilian figurinhas trading, and lots of dollars (and Brazilian reais) followed that tiny initial purchase. But I have a cool souvenir of the summer I spent in Brazil during the World Cup, and I have an excellent visual aid for the next time I teach the commodification of sport in my Sports Communication class.

I don't think anyone changed their beliefs about Jesus because of my little habit, but I will say that it led to some involved and animated conversations with readers and their friends and family members. The missionary admitted to being a little bit jealous of the way the stickers led me to interactions with people, and I was more engaged with the local culture than I would have ever thought possible. "Stickers for Jesus," in the end, might be an overstatement, but I must confess that my brief but frenzied foray into the world of World Cup stickers was an almost religious experience:  I recognized something missing in my life, I enlisted the help of friends and loved ones to help me find the missing pieces, and I was able to rejoice with all of them when I finally found what had been missing. It even took what seemed like some mysticism along the way (help from The Man With the Stickers) to finish my quest.

That's all well and good, but of course the main reason I did it was that it was fun. The general excitement in Brazil surrounding the World Cup, the collector gene that I think I inherited, and the ability to interact with Brazilians young and old, most of whom spoke no English, all made completing the book a way for me to feel like a winner at World Cup time, even if I wasn't German. 

Friday, August 1, 2014

My Hour as an Illegal Alien

It's true.  I'm a law breaker.  I intentionally, illegally entered another country.  Mostly just to say I did it. Partly to see if it was really possible.  And I'm here to say that indeed it is.

At the end of our Brazilian mission project, our family took a trip to Iguazu Falls which is located between Brazil and Argentina very close to the border of Paraguay, an area known an the tres fronteras.  Americans need a visa to enter Brazil, and Argentina charges a $160 per person retaliation fee to Americans. 

(It seems that Argentinians are bitter about having to pay for a US visa if they want to enter our country, so they charge each American who wants to come in a fee equal to the price of a US visa just for spite.  They make it very clear on their website that this fee is not for a visa.  They call it a Reciprocity Fee while proudly proclaiming that Americans don't need a visa to enter their country.  Can you tell that we were super annoyed?  At least our Not-A-Visa is good for ten years in case we ever decide to come back.)

Anyway, to enter Paraguay, Americans are technically supposed to enter the country through official channels, but we had been told by the staff at our hotel that we could easily just walk in.  (Though they did warn us not to speak in English as we crossed the bridge and not to wear any expensive jewelry.)

We decided to make a break for it.

As our taxi driver let us out near the border, he gestured casually in the direction of the bridge and sped off.  We were on our own.  The maze of cars, trucks, and wildly-careening motorcycles on their way into and out of Brazil made it difficult for us to find the pedestrian walkway.  The smell of exhaust from vehicles waiting in long lines mixed with the smell of muddy river water as we approached the border.
We finally figured out that we needed to go to the far right side of the structure you see in the picture above.  All of the cars stopped at little windows to go through Brazilian immigration, but we just kept our heads down and walked on.
Even after we made it past Brazilian immigration, the lines of people in cars continued to move at a snail's pace.
As we crossed the bridge into Paraguay, Kinley strode with the confidence of an experienced border-crosser.  I, however, continued to clandestinely snap pictures with my iPhone halfway poking out of my purse.  I'm totally sure that I was sneaky enough to qualify for the CIA.  
As Paraguay loomed across the bridge, we passed other border-sneakers and imagined all the cool sights we'd see just across the river.  We knew that our passports would not have a stamp to prove our adventure, so we were hoping to find some cool places to take pictures to document our rebellious ramble.  A flag?  A picturesque view? Anything to show that we had truly added another country to our list.

Sadly, all that there was to photograph in this dirty, seedy border town was a shopping center with the country's name on the side.  It seems that this little town of Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, exists only as a duty-free shopping zone for Brazilians to come and buy tax-free electronics, knock-off designer tee shirts, and cosmetics.  There was one store dedicated to kitchenwares that had a couple of pink Kitchen-Aid mixers, a few mismatched pieces of Le Creuset cookware, and some random kitchen gadgets.  The prices were higher than US prices but cheaper than Brazilian ones.  I wasn't tempted.

In fact, I was a little creeped out by all the guys shouting at me in Spanish and Portuguese while thrusting fliers detailing amazing deals on phones, hair dryers, and cameras at me.  After about 45 minutes of shouting and thrusting, I was creeped out enough to want to leave the country.
On the way back, I felt much less threatened.  I realized that no one cared whether I had sneaked in to Paraguay or not.  There were no gun-toting border guards, no grumpy-looking immigration agents.  Just a dirty bridge across a dirty river.  So I took pictures openly as we crossed under the sign marking the official border!
As we headed back, I admit that I was disappointed.  Instead of adventure, we'd only found shady commercialism.  Instead of feeling proud of myself at having sneaked into a country, I just felt a little dirty.  And while it is, admittedly, unfair to judge an entire country based on one border town, I'm pretty sure that for me this was two trips in one.  My first and my last into Paraguay.  And, unfortunately, my passport documents neither.

Now, for a funny account of an American who really tries to follow the law as she enters Paraguay, click here.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Pack It All In

I don't travel light. Some of my friends have been surprised to find out that after years of travel I don't have packing down to an art.  Sure, I am able to pack six weeks' worth of mission materials into our family's allotment of four 50 lb bags, but I also take all sorts of unnecessary stuff.

Examples from this trip include:  4 bangles, 8 pairs of shoes (not counting the ones Kinley brought to share with me since we wear the same size), and a bottle of the hair straightening balm I use at home (who am I kidding to think that this mop of hair is going to straighten in a tropical climate with no A/C?).

Additionally, I bring lots of clothes for myself and for the kids.  There are, of course, reasons (rationalizations?) for this.  1)  Knox and Kinley will grow out of their summer clothes, so I want them to wear all of them while we're gone.  I must confess that I like to buy my kids cute clothes, and there's no way I'm leaving them at home in the closet when I know they won't fit next summer.  2)  Kids' clothes don't actually take up that much space if you roll them before packing.  Plus, the weight they add is minimal compared to books, toiletries, and shoes.  3)  On long trips or projects, we never know what our laundry situation is going to be.  Will we have to send out clothes out to be washed?  How long is the turn-around time?  Will we have a dryer?  Will we be dependent upon good weather to line dry our clothes?  I'd rather just take enough clothes to last more than a week just in case.

But we Boyds try to pack it all in in more ways than one. When we take a trip, there is no time for rest.  In fact, in our family, we have three different ways to distinguish travels: trip, vacation, and project.  A trip is a journey that includes many specific sites to see and things to do.  Whether it's checking new National Park Service sites off our list, doing a few whirlwind days at Disney, or visiting five European countries on a twelve-day cruise, a trip means go, go, go.  There is very little time to rest, and I don't get much reading done on trips.  We see and do a lot, but I'm exhausted by the end.  Sometimes, one of us is working during the trip.  For example, in 2011 Josh taught in London for Purdue's study abroad program.  He taught classes during the week, and we went on side trips on his off-days and on weekends.  Pretty much every single day of that summer had an agenda.  (BTW, Josh is more of a trip kind of guy.)

A vacation, however, is far more relaxing.  It means one hotel for several days in a row and no real agenda.  We sleep late, read a lot, eat a ton, and usually gain weight.  We may pull ourselves together enough for an excursion or two, but the lack of a schedule is the real treat we crave.  On our 2010 vacation to The Reefs in Bermuda (the same place where we had spent our honeymoon 15 years before), Josh and I never even left the hotel property.  It was glorious.  (BTW, I am more of a vacation kind of girl.)

Finally, a project is a period of time that we leave the country to do mission work.  It is most certainly not a vacation since we work five days a week for nine hours a day teaching English using the Gospel of Luke.  And by our definition it's not a trip either, since we don't have enough time off each week to do a lot of side travel.  The thing that trips and projects have in common, however, is that they are both exciting and exhausting.  We love the work we do with Let's Start Talking, and each project lasts four to six weeks of our summer.  (BTW, at the end of a project, we usually squeeze in a trip before we return to the US.)

So, you see, we pack it all in, whether it's in a suitcase or an itinerary.  That's just what we Boyds do.

Friday, July 25, 2014

They Do Things Differently Here #2: Hot Water

As I mentioned in my post about air conditioning, things that are normal and expected at home in the US, aren't the same in other countries.  Another example is hot water.  We have lived without hot water during four Let's Start Talking missions in Thailand, taking cold showers every day for six weeks each time.  While, admittedly, cold water there is not as cold as tap water in the US, it was still chilly enough to make me dread getting out of bed each day.  And it certainly encouraged me to shower quickly (and gave me an excuse not to shave my legs as often since I'd get goosebumps before I ever finished a single leg!).

In countries like Malaysia and Brazil, though we are able to take warm showers, we don't have what Americans would call hot running water. The sinks only have one knob, so we wash our hands, clothes, and dishes in cold water.  And I know what you're thinking. How can you get your dishes clean in cold water?  What's going to kill the germs?

The answer is I don't know.  But entire countries exist this way, so we can handle it for six weeks at a time, I guess.
The sink in our kitchen in Natal, Brazil, has only cold running water.

Our bathroom sink also only has cold water.

Even some developed countries have ideas about hot water that are different from my own.  In 1997, we were working with a church in Mito, Japan.  Mito is a modern city near Tokyo, and the church did have hot running water in the kitchen.  One Sunday, after a church potluck, one of our team members decided to help out by doing all the dishes.  Of course, she washed them in hot water.  The Japanese church ladies stood back, watching wide-eyed and chattering in Japanese as the our teammate, Sherry, worked her way through the prodigious pile of plates, pots, and pans.  After she finished and started to walk away, the ladies started rewashing each and every dish.  In cold water.  

We later found out that they found washing dishes in hot water unhygienic.  And this was Japan!  A modern country with seemingly modern health practices!  So we've decided washing dishes in cold can't be too bad after all.

Warm showers, while available in other countries, can be equally confusing.  
The water heater in the shower we used in Malaysia looked similar to this model.

Here in Brazil, we are blessed to have electric shower heads that heat the water as it flows through.  The water coming through the pipe is still cold, but the shower head itself heats the water so that warm water comes out.    Seeing electrical outlets, switches, and plugs in the shower takes a bit of getting used to, but I'm grateful enough for the warmth that I choose not to think about it too hard.
The shower in our Brazilian apartment, with the water-heating shower head, plug, and switch on the wall.

Close up of the shower head and plug

Once again, differences like this make me both grateful for my big ole American hot water heater and mindful of the energy it consumes.  

But not mindful enough to do my dishes at home in cold water.  That's for sure.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

My Travel Must-Haves #2: General Travel

Earlier, I blogged about my travel must-haves for mission projects.  This post is all about the treasures you'll find squirreled away in my bags even when I'm traveling for more selfish reasons.

1).  A shampoo bar from LUSH
I love these things.  They are small enough to fit easily in a carry-on, and they don't break the TSA liquids rules.  One of them lasts about as along as a bottle of regular shampoo, and they lather enough for even my curly mop of hair.  LUSH sells little tins to keep them in, and though the aluminum can get mashed and misshapen in flight, it didn't harm my shampoo bar at all.
Lush's Karma Komba shampoo bar is great for travel and lasts longer than you'd expect.
2).  My point it® book
I can't remember how I found out about this little gem, but it's super neat.  It's a little booklet of hundreds of pictures to help you communicate when you don't speak the local language.  It has pictures of bathrooms, vegetables, clothing, drawings of internal organs (in case you have to show a doctor what hurts), types of transportation, you name it.
There's an App, too, which I also have.
Now, to be honest, I've only had to use it maybe once in the three years I've had it.  But it's still nifty.  And as soon as I leave it at home, I'll wish I had brought it.

3).  My Sonicare toothbrush
You know that smooth, slick feeling your teeth have after the dentist cleans them? The one where you can't stop running your tongue over them to feel how smooth they are?  (Or maybe that's just me.)  Anyway, I can't stand my teeth to feel anything but slick and smooth.  I hate fuzzy teeth.  And the only way to keep them that way between cleanings is with my precious Sonicare toothbrush.  I'm a little obsessed with it.  In fact, when we did a Let's Start Talking project in Malaysia in 2010 and I chose to leave my Sonicare at home, I felt more deprived than I have on any other project.  I couldn't wait to get home to really brush my teeth.

I know, I know.  It sounds nuts to take a rechargeable toothbrush all over the world when many of the places I visit use 220 volts instead of the 110 volts we use in the US.  And, yes, I have blown out my charger before when I forgot and plugged the charger straight into the wall in our London apartment.  (I have no idea why I forgot.  We had been living there for weeks, and I had been plugging my charger into a converter each time I wanted to use it.  Then one day - BAM - I forgot.  No more charger which meant no more charging my Sonicare which meant my teeth got that icky fuzzy feeling that I hate.  Luckily, my mother-in-law bought me another charger on eBay and brought it to me when she came to visit!  Fuzzy teeth no more!)
My Sonicare (and Knox's) charging in Brazil.  One of the preachers, Roberto, let us borrow his converter.  Note its massive size.  Note also the other converter in the background.  It doesn't work because I blew it out two years ago with my American hair dryer turned on high.  I should have known that trying to use a heat-producing appliance with a converter was a bad idea.

4).  Mary Kay creme eye shadow
Have you ever checked your make-up only to arrive at your destination with nothing but pink dust left?  Well, I have.  Several times.  Those conveyor belts, cargo holds, and luggage handlers aren't kind to cosmetics so now I take creme eye shadows with me when I travel.  They come in little pots, so they don't crumble when jostled around.  I'm sure other brands make them, too, but I like Mary Kay's.
This one is Glacier Gray, which I really like.

5).  A Turbie Twist for my post-shower hair

I have found that the towel situation in foreign hotels and apartments is almost always iffy.  You almost never get washcloths, and even hand towels aren't a given.  I just can't depend on having enough towels, and I especially can't depend on having enough of the right size of towel.  If the towel is too big and heavy, I can't even lift my head once my hair is wrapped.  If it's too small, the towel won't stay wrapped on my hair.  Since my hair is a curly mop with a mind of its own, I take my own Turbie Twist to wrap up my wet hair after a shower.  But I only buy the 100% cotton versions because I don't like the feel or the absorbency of the microfiber ones.
     One caveat:  You will end up with a damp Turbie Twist in your luggage if you wash your hair the day you leave.  That means you need a plastic bag to put it in so that you avoid getting all of the clothes in your luggage damp and mildewy on the trip home.  Learned that one the hard way.

6).  Gallon Ziploc bags

In 2002, we were flying through Japan after a mission project in Thailand.  Kinley was 16 months old, and we had bought her some blueberry-scented baby wash while we were there.  It was packed in a zippered pocket of her suitcase, and it leaked in flight.  In the Narita airport, drug-sniffing dogs caught a whiff of that blueberry explosion so we were pulled aside by police officers, questioned in Japanese, and searched.  When the officers realized what had set off the dogs' sensitive sniffers, they smiled, apologized, and sent us on our way.  Of course, we still had a gooey blue mess to clean up when we got to the hotel.
     Now, we pack all of our liquids in gallon Ziplocs and even pack extra ones in case we buy liquids while we're gone.  (They also work well for packing damp Turbie Twists!)  And of course, these go into my checked luggage since only 3 oz. containers in quart-sized bags are allowed in carry-on luggage.

7).  Rain jackets

This one doesn't need a lot of explanation, but I do really like the way it wads up into a little pouch.  It's easy to pack in a suitcase, handy to haul in my purse, and lighter than an umbrella.

8).  Okay.  This is similar to the nursing home robe from my other post.  In fact, my sister, Amanda, calls this my "old lady coffee".  But I love Maxwell House International Cafe Hazelnut.  And, of course, even though they call it "international", they only sell it in the US.  Make fun of me if you want to.  I'm okay with that.  Oh.  And I always put the container in a gallon Ziploc even though it's a powder.  Learned that one the hard way, too.

There you go!  My general travel must-haves! What always finds its way into your luggage??  Let me know!

Friday, July 18, 2014

I Like Your Parenting (Or Life in a Fishbowl)

As I squatted on the floor by a Verizon charging station (praise God for airport charging stations!) rifling through Knox's carry-on for his DVD player's power cord, I was vaguely aware of the Asian guy seated nearby.  He must have been listening to the entire exchange I had with my seven year old, but I was far too focused on the task at hand to notice.

Knox is what we call in our family a Bad Looker.  He can't find anything.  Ever.  The day before we left to come on this trip, he had "lost" the case for his Nook Simple Touch ereader.  He spent 30 minutes looking for it, going from room to room, checking both cars, and finally ending up in his room morosely sitting on the floor by his bed.  When I came in to ask how his search was going, he said, "I've looked everywhere.  It's just gone forever, I guess."  The cover was 6 inches from his head.  On his bed.  In plain sight from the doorway where I stood.  Bless his heart.

Thus I decided to make use of our airport time and seize a teachable moment.  "Knox," I said authoritatively, "when you want to find something in your carry-on, you have to take out other things first."  I started by removing the gallon Ziploc of Star Wars action figures and placing it on the floor beside us.  "Then it's easier to see what's left ....  like your sticker books here."  I looked up at him, expecting him to be nodding intently at my sage advice.  Instead he was digging through the bag of action figures, ignoring me.

"Mom, look!  This guy is fighting this guy!  Who do you think will win?"

"I don't know, Knox," I replied in exasperation.  (I've learned from experience that I am incapable of predicting the winner of the Knox Boyd Action Figure Showdown.). I returned to exploring his bag while he prattled on about the advanced weaponry of action figure A versus the superior strategy of action figure B.  Occasionally I muttered something in response to give him the appearance that I was listening.

When I finally found his cord, I said, "Okay, why don't you choose a sticker book to do - Iron Man or Spider-Man?"  What followed was an exegesis on the pros and cons of each hero and his respective book.  His reasoning, I'm sure, made a lot of sense to him.  

I finally said, "That's all rockin' awesome, but could you just pick a book?"  Once he settled on Spider-Man, I turned to plug the DVD cord into the charging station, assuming that he would put the rest of his sprawled belongings back into his bag.

Silly me.  He instead grabbed his sticker book and headed straight for the nearest seat to get started, leaving a pile of action figures, books, and stuffed animals on the airport floor in his wake.

"Dude!  Seriously?  You're just going to leave your stuff here for me to deal with? No way.  Get back over here!" I said in exasperation.

"Oh!  I didn't notice," he replied, genuinely clueless about his mess.

As Knox cleaned up, the Asian guy smiled at me and said, "I like your parenting style!"  I laughed and thanked him as he got up, grabbed his shopping bags from designer shops, and walked away.

It was a great reminder of one of the things we learn in our Let's Start Talking mission project training - while you are on a project, you are living in a fishbowl.  People are watching you when you least realize it.  And they make judgments about all Americans (and all Christians, for that matter) based on what they see in us.

I hope that, at least this one time, the judgment made by a foreigner as a result of my behavior was a positive one!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

They Do Things Differently Here #1: Air Conditioning

There are many comforts that, while ubiquitous in the United States, are rare in the rest of the world.  My family has lived without air conditioning, for example, in Thailand, Fiji, Italy, England, and Brazil.  And while we technically had air conditioned meeting rooms for our English classes in Japan and Malaysia, it wasn't a system recognizable to Americans who are used to central air.  Individual high-tech, remote controlled room A/C units are the norm in Asia and other parts of the world, and only the most important rooms have those units.  

          The wall-mounted air conditioner in our Brazilian hotel room, viewed from below.
  The remote control for our A/C is actually in English!  Of course, it's also in Celsius - a challenge                                            for Americans used to Fahrenheit.
Additionally, energy is so expensive for the rest of the world that those units are only turned on when someone is actually using the room, much like turning off the lights when you leave a room in the US.

It may surprise you to learn that even developed countries such as Italy and England don't have air conditioning in every house or hotel.  One reason is the high cost of energy. According to, the cost of one kilowatt hour of energy in the US is 12 cents while in Italy the cost is 28 cents.  Imagine more than doubling your current yearly energy bill!  You'd cut back on the A/C, too, I think.  (Incidentally, here is a comparison graph of per person energy usage in several countries including the US, Italy, the UK, and Brazil.  Very interesting, I think.)

Another way that other countries cut back on energy use is a sort of master electrical switch in hotel rooms.  When you enter the room, there is a little box by the door into which you insert your key card. This turns on the power for that room.  The up side to this is that you don't misplace your key while you're in the room (it has to stay in the box to keep the power running).  The down sides are that A) you return after sightseeing to a room that is hot - or cold, depending on the season - and B) you can't charge devices while you're not in the room since the power goes off as soon as you remove your key to leave.  

                                      The key card box in our Brazilian hotel room.

We were surprised to return to the church in Natal, Brazil this year and see that they have installed FOUR A/C units in the church auditorium!  They only use them on Sunday mornings, so our LST reading sessions are still quite toasty.  But we welcome any relief from the heat. 

Two of the four new A/C units mounted above the fans at the Igreja Communidade de Christo in Natal, Brazil.

Doing without constant temperature control certainly helps us to appreciate the wonders of central heat and air when we're back home.  And anything that helps us to be more mindful of our consumption is a good thing.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Cleaning Out the Fridge

People often ask us how we can leave home for weeks at a time.  "Don't you miss your own bed?" they ask.  Or, "Who takes care of your house while you're gone?"  Or my personal favorite, "Are you leaving your kids here?"

(The answers to these, BTW, are yes, anyone God sends our way, and of course not.)

But lengthy mission projects or assignments teaching abroad do present some logistical challenges.  One of them is what to do with the stuff in your fridge.  Of course, you could just give all of the perishables away to friends, but over time I've developed other strategies that work for me.  So before I slip on my heels and head to the airport, here's what I do.

                 The dregs from my refrigerator before our most recent traveling adventure: 
                                    half an onion, some celery, an orange, and a lime.

1). Milk:  It never fails.  I can never perfectly coordinate our date of departure with the end of our milk supply.  There is always about a half of a jug left.  And since we usually return from our travels late at night with no desire to stop by the grocery store before collapsing into our beds, here's what I do.  I put the entire jug of milk upright in the chest freezer just before we leave.  Then when we return, I put it out on the countertop to thaw so that it's ready to drink at breakfast.  A bastion of food safety?  Maybe not.  But it works for me.
*Note:  Don't try this with a new jug of milk since there will be no room for the frozen liquid the expand and you'll return home to a mess that will make you wish you'd just thrown the stupid milk out in the first place.
2).  Fresh Vegetables:  I often find myself on the day of departure with one last wilting stalk of celery, a few pitiful carrots, a half-used bag of onions, and some potatoes just about to sprout.  What to do?  I usually store my onions and potatoes in a cabinet, but before I travel I simply move them to the produce drawer of my fridge.  They usually last there for up to six weeks.  For the celery and carrots, I freeze them for chicken or beef stock.
                              Instead of tossing this half an onion and some ribs of celery, I added
                                                              them to the stock bag.

I always have a gallon Ziploc in my freezer filled with odds and ends for my next simmering stock.  The root end of an onion, the yellowish inside ribs of celery, a weirdly shaped carrot that's too crooked to peel?  They all get popped into the stock bag and frozen until I have a pile of chicken or beef bones, some leftover wine, and several hours to cook up a flavor-filled, healthy stock.
3).  Citrus Fruits and Berries:  Much like my ever-ready stock bag, I always have a bag of frozen fruits in the freezer, not to be eaten, but rather to be floated in punch or sangria.  There have been many occasions where I have made a recipe that called for the zest of a lemon, lime, or orange but not the juice.  If you've ever zested a citrus fruit, you know that the remaining orb looks a little like a shorn sheep.  Kind of naked and pitiful.  I always hide it in the fridge to save its dignity, promising to eat it later.  Except I never do.  So after a day or so, I put it out of its misery, slicing it into circles and throwing it in the fruit bag.  Later when I need ice for punch or sangria, out comes the disgraced citrus, ready to shine in my drink.  (It's possible that I'm projecting my own issues of needing to feel necessary onto my citrus, but I digress.)
                                The lonely lime and orange are sliced into circle-ish pieces.  (Even
                                though the lime had reached that almost-over-the-edge-kind-of-
                                tough-and-hard stage, there was no way it was going in the trash
                                in the midst of a lime shortage!)


                                Sliced, bagged, and ready to freeze for punch or sangria!

4).  Fresh Herbs:  My little herb garden was going great guns the day before we left, and I just couldn't bear to let them go to seed.  So I clipped off the thyme and oregano and added them to the stock bag, stems and all.  Since the stock will eventually be strained, who cares?  (Alternatively, you can wash and freeze them separately to use in any recipe.). 

For my basil, though, I had other plans.  My kids love pesto.  I mean a pick-it-for-their-birthday-dinner kind of love.  I didn't want my basil to go to waste, but I also didn't have the time (or the pine nuts) to make and freeze a recipe of pesto. So instead, I washed the leaves, pulling them if the stems.  Then I dried them with paper towels and put them in yet another Ziploc to freeze until I can make pesto later.  I'm guessing they'll darken, but they'll taste fine.
                                             Frozen leaves of basil from my garden

5).  Bread:  Ziploc strikes again.  In my freezer I also keep a bag of frozen bread odds and ends for making bread pudding or dressing.  I never have enough stale bread for bread pudding when I need it, so I just freeze every leftover end piece, uneaten roll, or hotdog bun (why oh why doesn't the package of buns equal the package of hotdogs?) until I am ready.
*Note:  I can't take credit for this one.  I learned it from a chef at a KitchenArt class.  And then I decided to take the idea several steps further with a stock bag and a sangria bag.

And there you have it -- Gina's tips for cleaning out the fridge before your vacation!  (Please don't report me to the health department! 😊)

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

My Travel Must-Haves #1: Mission Projects

I have already mentioned in my first post my love of my Aerosole heels and long, flowy skirts for travel, but there are several other items that are musts on my packing list.  This post is dedicated to the items I take when my family does mission work with a faith-based organization called Let's Start Talking.

Every other year we raise funds so that we can spend six weeks in a foreign country helping people improve their English conversation skills.  We use the Book of Luke from the Bible as our workbook, and we each have about fifteen students (actually, we refer to them as readers) who come for one-on-one practice several times a week.  We love sharing our faith and meeting new friends while seeing the world.

And while I can give up many things for the sake of Christ, what follows is my list of deal breakers.

1). My Let's Start Talking Luke book

I have been doing LST missions since 1996.  There are a lot of things written in the margins of my book that would be difficult to replace.  Sometimes I jot down my readers' interesting comments or questions.  Sometimes I draw pictures of hard-to-describe words such as "wheat".  Sometimes I list related vocabulary words to discuss.  But the most valuable parts of my book are the many questions I've written over the years.  These are open-ended and designed to lead to good conversation with my readers.  I could function without it, but I'd be super bummed to have to start from scratch.

                                                     Pages from my tattered Luke book

2).  My new zippy wallet made many my neighbor, Kirsten, over at LoveSpunStudios

This wallet is awesome!  It is custom made just for me, and it has 6 zippered compartments.  I am our team's accountant, so I need to keep track of my own personal spending money as well as our team's mission money.  Sometimes when we do LST we end up using multiple currencies.  For example, several times we've had  to fly through Japan to get to Thailand.  I've had to juggle team US dollars, team Japanese Yen, team Thai Baht, personal US dollars, personal Japanese Yen, and personal Thai Baht all on the same project.  It can get confusing, but I also don't want to haul two separate wallets all over the planet.

My friend Kirsten solved all my problems!  Now I have separate pockets for three different team currencies and three different personal currencies all in one adorable wallet!  And it has a place for my passport (you can't change money without showing that) and slots for the team receipts I keep for accounting.

Interested in one of your own?  The little labels can be customized.  Just click to get yours from Etsy!


3).  My NookColor ereader

Before I got my ereader, I had to take 12-15 books in my suitcase for a mission project.  We usually have 5-7 readers per day, but we're still left with some down time during the project.  During that time, I like to read.  But books are heavy, and I'm rarely willing to leave them behind when I've finished them (a practice Josh has adopted to lighten his suitcases on the way home).  So my ereader is priceless for the luggage space and weight it saves.  I still take some actual books, but far fewer than I used to.
                                    This year's suitcase of books is far less full thanks to my NookColor!
                                   Knox reads his Nook Simple Touch in the hammock in our room in Brazil.

4). My black cashmere wrap

This item is so versatile that it earns a coveted spot in my carry on bag.  It is perfect for using as a lightweight but luxurious blanket on the plane or as a wrap over a dress on a cool evening out.  It can be a scarf or even a pillow in a pinch.  Before I scored my cashmere version deeply discounted from Banana Republic, I used a similar one made of a polyester blend.  

5).  Taco seasoning packets

We cook most meals for ourselves on mission projects (except in Thailand where it's cheaper - and yummier - to just eat out every meal), so it's helpful to bring some ingredients from home.  You may be surprised to learn that most of the rest of the world has not yet discovered the deliciousness of Mexican food.  That means no salsa, no tacos, and no guacamole unless we bring the spices to make it ourselves.  Since our family can't go six weeks without some south-of-the-border goodness, we bring some Ortega along for the trip.  We have bought avocados, cilantro, and limes in almost every country we've lived, but yellow cheese and sour cream are harder to find.  Sadly, these two items are not luggage-friendly, so white cheese and plain yogurt usually have to stand in.

6). A short-sleeved summer robe

When I first wore this robe on an LST project, my fashion-forward thirteen-year-old asked with guileless sincerity, "Mom, isn't that what people in nursing homes wear?"  
I had to admit that she was right.  But this one meets my mission project needs, so it's staying on the list.  On LST projects, we almost always live with other people.  Sometimes it is a family from the local church; sometimes it's college students who are on our team.  Living in close quarters with people who aren't in your immediate family raises some privacy issues, of course, so I feel more comfortable going to and from the shared shower in a robe.  At home, I have a long-sleeved cashmere robe that my in-laws spoiled me with one Christmas.  But it's simply too hot for that one in the countries where LST tends to send us.  And I like the snaps on the "nursing-home" one because it's less likely to come untied and fall open when I'm passing a teammate in the hallway.  I get the heeby-jeebies just thinking about how scarred-for-life that poor teammate would be if that scene ever played itself out.  Ew.

7).  A vegetable peeler

I have no idea why the rest of the world (even the Italians!) cannot seem to produce a decent vegetable peeler, but I have had zero luck finding one in most places.  So now I just buy one and take it with me.  My kids eat lots of raw carrots and cucumbers, so this item is a must for us.  (NOTE:  In fairness, I did once buy a fantastic vegetable peeler in Switzerland, but I nearly had to take out a second mortgage on our house to pay for it.  I'd rather not have to do that again.)

There you have it - my deal breakers!  Granted, there are many other items we take with us each time such as a new box of Crayola markers, Sharpies, straight pins, scissors, dependable but expendable paring and chef's knives, church clothes, Luke workbooks for our readers, decorations for the parties we throw for our readers, etc.  But since we split these items up among the whole team, I decided that they don't really count.

Look for my upcoming post on my general travel must-haves.  And in the meantime tell me your travel necessities below!