Do You Plan Your Wanderings?

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “The Happy Wanderer.”

I’m a planner. I admit it. But whether or not my children believe me, I wasn’t always one. When I traveled to Ensenada, I let my friend plan our weekend. When I traveled to San Felipe, I went with the flow. On my trip to Australia, we were free and spontaneous. We chose where to stay and for how long, money and a flight home our only boundaries. Even my first trip to Paris and Zurich were simple – I stayed with friends, brought guide books, and decided each day where I would be a tourist.

But then I had children. And the world became more crowded. I discovered that summer camps would fill up before spring. With a child with food allergies, spontaneity was difficult and wrought with disappointment and a hungry child. Slowly, I learned to plan. And now, I always plan.

My hesitation and anxiety about traveling to South Africa was lessened by learning more about the country, where we could and would go. Planning has allowed me to avoid long lines and eat gluten free at Disney, visit our sponsored child in Lesotho, camp at Pawtuckaway State Park every summer for years, be led by a tour guide through Gettysburg National Park, and visit the Senate on a trip to Washington.

But I still love spontaneity. And while doing a little research before traveling to a new place helps me to find the special and unique, or avoid those well traveled and touristy, destinations, spontaneity allows us to change course. To listen to recommendations from other travelers or discover new places ourselves.

Without spontaneity, I wouldn’t have attended a hearing for Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, watched the surfers in Half Moon Bay, or listened to the Wave Organ in San Francisco. I wouldn’t have spent the night in a treehouse, picked strawberries in Pescadero, gone hiking with the Hobart Bushwalking Club, or danced Nia in Santa Barbara. Without spontaneity, I wouldn’t have met Terry from England who later invited me to her wedding in Athens. I wouldn’t have stayed with the dairy farmer in Auckland or gone hot air ballooning outside of Alice Springs.

The travel world is so different than it was – the internet provides information and access to so many places, and apps like Yelp can allow a little bit of spontaneity with less risk of disappointment. You can read about where to go and what to see on blogs and share your experiences on social media.

But there’s nothing quite as freeing as just setting out, doing what you feel like doing at the moment, eating when you’re hungry, and being ready to just let things happen.

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When Traveling, Remember the Moscow Rule

While traveling in Paris many years ago, my American friends introduced me to the Moscow Rule. Not to be confused with the Moscow Rules, this rule has to do with shopping and souvenirs and is fairly simple. If you see something, buy it, because you may never see it again.

My friends told me that this rule originates from people standing in line in Moscow. If you lived in Moscow under Communist rule and saw people standing in line, you joined them, because whatever they were waiting for you most likely needed or would need and you may not have the opportunity to buy it another time.

Although I try to remember this rule when I travel, the times I forget are the times I regret. Like the time I didn’t buy the metal toy truck in Cape Town because I knew we’d see several more during our trip (we didn’t).

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Or when I didn’t buy a drum and then had to resort to the airport gift shop. Or when I passed up a pretty necklace at a price I saw quadrupled in future stores.

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Sometimes it’s easy to remember, like buying Lindt chocolates in Zurich, wool scarves with the family clan in Edinburgh, or maple syrup in Vermont. I find it more difficult to remember when I see something different. Is it something I truly want? Is the price a good one? Will I see it again?

Maple Syrup

To prevent those post traveling blues, remember the Moscow Rule: if you see something unique, something you’re unlikely to find online or anywhere else, snatch it up, because you may never see it again. Most likely, you won’t regret the purchase, and the memories it holds will bring smiles for a lifetime.

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Exploring Colleges: American University

I learned a new word when I visited American University last April. Wonk.

According to Merriam-Webster, a wonk is: “a person who knows a lot about the details of a particular field (such as politics) and often talks a lot about that field.” According to American University, its students are wonks: smart + passionate + focused + engaged.

crosswalk to American campus and signWhile American University is technically located in DC, it is a 15-minute Metro ride from downtown. A free shuttle drives its passengers from the Tenleytown/AU Metro stop past the Department of Homeland Security to the 84-acre campus.

After a film about life on campus (one of the better ones we’ve seen) and a brief introduction by an admissions officer, my son and I followed our tour guide around campus, visiting a dorm and the quad. We learned a few statistics: not only is American University the largest school of international affairs in the country, its students are the country’s most politically active; 70 percent study abroad, and 84 percent complete an internship before graduating.

About half of the 13,000 students at American are grad students; in 2012, there were only 6,776 undergrad. The university’s 61 bachelors, 54 masters, 11 doctoral degrees, and JD are taught at its seven schools and colleges. The average classroom size is 22, and the maximum class size is 66, according to our tour guide.

Unlike urban George Washington University, American University has a campus feel. The main university buildings, including the library and the Kay Spiritual Life Center (which houses 25 different groups of faith), surround the Main Quad.

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As we walked, students milled about, entering various buildings.

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There was not the energy and excitement of a city campus, instead there was more of an academic feel. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons American calls its students wonks.

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To be a wonk is to know (wonk spelled backward).

Trip taken: April 2013.

Exploring Colleges: The George Washington University

In the middle of Washington, D.C., just four blocks from the White House, is The George Washington University; its Foggy Bottom campus barely defined, as university buildings blend in with other buildings in the city.

We got off the Metro at the Foggy Bottom stop at 23rd and I Streets and made our way through busy intersections to the Admissions Welcome Center, a few blocks away. At the appointed time, we joined a few hundred other high schoolers and their parents for an information session and a tour.

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The George Washington University is one of the bigger schools we’ve visited, with 25,000 students at three campuses (Foggy Bottom and Mount Vernon in Washington and the GW Virginia Science and Technology Campus in Ashburn, VA). Of those 25,000, however, only 10,464 are undergraduate students, 55 percent of them female. The average class size is 28, and the student-faculty ratio is 13:1.

We learned that the university’s motto is knowledge in action: through service, internships, and research. We learned that there are over six academic schools and 70 majors. Fifty-five percent of the students study abroad and 92 percent intern. The freshmen have a required day of service, and students all over campus logged in over 250,000 hours of service in 2012.

GW ranked number 40 in 2012 in a list of the most expensive schools (its tuition and fees in 2013-2014 are $47,343 and that’s not including room and board). It also must rank one of the highest for dining. There is only one dining common at George Washington, and most students don’t eat there. At least that’s what our tour guide said. Instead, students eat with the public at the several restaurants and take-out places interspersed among the university buildings on J Street or wherever their GWorld card is accepted. When we asked for a recommendation for lunch, typical of where the students eat, our tour guide recommended Tonic, a restaurant where a cheeseburger costs $12 and macaroni and cheese is $13.

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Whatever the cost, there is an energy at George Washington that we haven’t encountered at other universities; a vitality and excitement among the students who talk about their experiences: running to climb a tree after the inauguration, interning on Capitol Hill, and attending one of the 150 guest speeches at the Eliot School of International Affairs.

On the Road: Looking for a Burger

You’re in unfamiliar territory. You’re driving (or flying) for miles, and you need a burger. Or at least someone in the backseat does. Besides the obvious and familiar chains, where do you find a good and quick burger when you’re far from home? Here are a few places we’ve found while driving up and down the West and East Coasts.

The West Coast, South West, and Texas

In-N-Out Burger: The menu at In-N-Out is simple and old fashioned: just burgers (made with 100% beef), fries (fried in vegetable oil), shakes (made with real ice cream), and beverages. If someone in the family doesn’t eat meat, they can order a grilled cheese. If you’re gluten-free, be sure to order the “Protein Burger,” a burger wrapped in a lettuce leaf instead of a bun. Messy but yummy.

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All Over (Almost)

Five Guys Burgers and Fries: We first discovered this burger place on a trip to Florida only to learn there was a location close to home. With another simple menu, Five Guys Burgers and Fries specializes in burgers and hot dogs with your choice of a plethora of toppings. And the fries are good and plentiful. But don’t come here if you’re allergic to peanuts. Five guys uses peanut oil and offers peanuts to customers as they wait for their burger. If you’re gluten free, just get a burger without the bun. The burger is gluten free, even if the bun isn’t. Five Guys is located in 47 states. If you live in Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa, or South Dakota, you’ll just have to travel.

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New England

A small New England burger chain, Wild Willy’s has only six locations in Massachusetts, Maine, and New Hampshire. While its burgers are made with certified Angus, all natural beef or even bison, Wild Willy’s offers more than specialty burgers. There you can get a grilled chicken or steak sandwich, or salad with fries or onion rings and a shake. If you’re gluten free, make sure to ask for a gluten-free bun, and check to see if the fries or onion rings are fried in a dedicated deep fryer. Last time we checked, both were gluten free at the Worcester, Mass. location.

Washington, D.C.

While traveling in DC in April, we discovered another simple and fast burger joint, just off the highway, Burger 7. Burger 7 offers a healthy alternative to those who crave a burger but are trying to eat healthy at the same time. The menu includes grass fed hot dogs and hormone free beef, turkey burgers and veggie burgers, whole wheat buns and lettuce leaf wraps, potato fries and sweet potato fries both cooked in olive oil, plus shakes made with organic milk. Burger 7 has three locations in the DC area, but we ate at the one in Tyson’s Corner.

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Where else can you get a burger? Do some sleuthing on the internet if you’re visiting a particular place or check out these links for favorite burger joints in Los Angeles,  Boston, the Midwest, in South Carolina, and across the U.S.

Who serves your favorite burger?

Trip taken 2012 and 2013.

In-N-Out photo used under Creative Commons from whatleydude.

Five Guys Burgers and Fries photo used under Creative Commons from kennejima.

Riding Bikes Among the Cherry Blossoms

How do you avoid DC’s traffic and tired feet at the same time? Consider taking advantage of DC’s Capital Bikeshare program and let your legs do the work.

Intent on visiting Washington on the day of the Cherry Blossom Festival, a day known for its crowds as well as its beautiful flowers, we took the advice of our hosts. We parked our car in Springfield, Virginia, and joined hordes of other tourists in line to buy the fare.

Crowded Metro station.

After a few minutes surveying the situation, we switched to the shorter line of ticket buyers and purchased a SmarTrip card ($10) for each of us, knowing with its discounted fares, it would pay for itself over the three days we would be in town (as well as more than pay for itself in the reduced stress and aggravation of waiting in long lines!).

Six stops away, we got off the Metro at Pentagon City and began looking for our next mode of transportation. We found a row of bicycles on Hayes Street, entered our credit card information on the machine and paid our $7 daily membership fee, pulled out three bikes, and hopped on.

Red bikes with yellow writing.

For the next couple of hours we rode our bikes around the Pentagon, along the Potomoc River and through Lady Bird Johnson Memorial Park, over the Arlington Memorial Bridge, past the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, and along the Tidal Basin where cherry blossoms and onlookers provided many obstacles along the way.

Red car, gold statue, bikes across street

Crowd of people along base of memorial.

People hanging out beneath the cherry blossoms.

If you choose to try the Capital Bikeshare program, be forewarned the cost to ride the bikes increases exponentially with the time you choose to use it. It’s much more cost effective (and very doable), to ride a bike from one station to another where you can borrow a new bike. Each 30 minutes on a new bike is free. After 30 minutes on the same bike, an additional hour will only cost you $6, but renting the bike for 3 hours will cost you $30.

With stations all over the DC area, you can use the free app to find a location and determine the availability of bikes.

Trip taken April 2013.

A Day in DC – Part 3

As we walked back to Union Station and got on the Metro, we marveled at our day. How much more exciting could it have been? Yes, we missed the Library of Congress and visiting the House Gallery, but we’d come back another day. We’d experienced history and seen our Congress at work. (See posts A Day in DC – Part 1 and A Day in DC – Part 2.)

I sat on the Metro reading the Senate pamphlet, waiting for our stop, when the conductor’s voice said, “Due to police activity, the doors will be locked at the Silver Spring stop. If this is your stop, please be patient for the doors to be opened.” While I continued reading (completely oblivious), the rest of my family watched as the train stopped, the police opened the door with keys and entered the train, pulled three young men off the train, then came back on to get one more.

Outside my window, I could see two policemen handcuffing four youths then watched as one of the cops reached down to pick a gun up off the ground and put it in his pocket (instead of his holster). After a few minutes, the police were gone, the doors opened to let people out and we continued to the next stop, our final destination. It wasn’t until we were off the train that I learned that the men who had been arrested, the ones with a gun, had been on our car, only a few feet from each one of us.

We never learned any details about the arrest, and the rest of our experience in DC was typically touristy with trips to Georgetown, Arlington Cemetery, Mount Vernon and Alexandria. But I don’t think any of us will ever forget our action packed day in DC.

Trip taken July 2010.

A Day in DC – Part 2

Full of excitement (we’d just experienced a bit of history, after all – see A Day in DC – Part 1), we walked back to John Kerry’s office to collect our things before heading to the Capitol to watch the Senate in session. Minutes later, we sat in the Senate Gallery, absorbing our Congress at work. The room resembled a cocktail party. Only one senator was actually sitting, the others milled about, entering and exiting the room. We saw Kerry, Diane Feinstein and Al Franken. A black cloth and white flowers covered the desk of Senator Bird, who had died two days before our visit. We watched as senators voted to approve US Army General David Petraeus as commander in Afghanistan. As each senator’s name was called, he or she answered “Aye,” which sounded a lot like “Hi,” to my daughter who wondered at this friendly ritual.

Now off we went for a tour of the Supreme Court Building. The building held a special interest for us. William Howard Taft, a distant ancestor of my husband, argued for construction of the building, and his bust is displayed prominently in the entrance to the hall. Although the Supreme Court was not in session, we were able to sit in the chambers, imagining the judges deliberating as we listened to a lecture on the Supreme Court’s history and process. After lunch in the Supreme Court’s basement cafeteria, we headed back to the Capitol building.

Once again we waited in line to go through security. This time though, we lost a water bottle. Though empty, my daughter was instructed to throw away her Sigg water bottle. Leaving it outside wasn’t an option. Nor was hiding it in the bushes. There was no where else to put it, so in the trash it went, and we entered the building.

Streams of people milled the halls and the visitor center of the Capitol Building. Long lines of tourists waited for their tours. Happy we had arranged a tour through our senator’s office, we wandered through the exhibits before meeting Senator Scott Brown’s intern at the gold King Kamehameha statue in the National Statuary Hall at 3 p.m. After a short film, the intern took our family around the Capitol building, pointing out facts and trivia about past presidents and the building itself.

Our tour continued below the building where we hopped on a trolley for the short ride from the Capitol Building back to the Russell Senate Office Building.

All smiles, we disembarked and followed the intern up stairwells and down hallways, past interviews taking place, to Senator Brown’s office.

The office still held photos of Teddy Kennedy, its former inhabitant. We went out on the balcony where our photo was taken before walking back through the office. While signing the visitor book, we heard, “Hello, Senator.” And there was our senator, Scott Brown. After shaking the senator’s hand and having our picture taken with him, we said good-bye and left the building and Capitol Hill.

A Day in DC – Part 1

From the Senate to the Supreme Court to handcuffs and a gun, what started out as a typical day on Capitol Hill turned into a memorable one.

After a few days in DC’s sweltering heat, absorbing the Smithsonian museums, watching millions of dollars being printed, riding bicycles around the monuments, and even pretending to be spies, my family of four (two teenage kids, my husband and I) were ready to experience Capitol Hill.

We walked from Union Station to the Hill with anticipation. Intent on showing my children where their congressmen worked, I headed our family toward the Russell Senate Office Building where our senator, John Kerry, has his office. The morning was cool but sunny, and all around us young men and women dressed in black and pumps or ties walked briskly to work. Near the Russell Building a line was forming, and being tourists, we jumped into line before fully understanding what we were in line for.

The woman sitting under a tent asked us if we’d like tickets. Tickets to what? My husband asked. Free tickets to Elena Kagan’s Supreme Court Justice confirmation hearing, she answered. While my husband ran across the street to Kerry’s office to leave our cameras, water bottles, pens and other items which were not allowed into the hearing, the kids and I waited in line.

Eventually we followed 20 others (most likely interns, their dress contrasted sharply with our tourist apparel) to the Hart Senate building. One by one we passed through security and into the quiet building where we formed another line outside the hearing room’s door. Bright lights, cameras and microphones filled the area. Men and women with press badges scurried around, tilting, adjusting and talking, as we waited silently to enter the room.

The large wooden door opened, and we entered, single file, and sat in chairs in the back of the room. Immediately in front of us, media personnel filled perpendicular tables with lap tops and head phones, talking, typing, looking official but not necessarily as if they were paying attention. C-Span monitors lined the walls, and on the opposite side of the room, the Senate Committee on the Judiciary sat elevated. There was Senator Diane Feinstein in a red suit and Senator Orrin Hatch. I could see Senator Al Franken asking the questions, and if I leaned sideways and sat up straight, I could see Elena Kagan beyond the reporters in front of me. It was easier to watch the interaction on the monitors but exciting to see the people with my own eyes. When the Committee took a break, my daughter caught a glimpse of herself on one of the monitors, and we watched interviews taking place just outside the door. A few minutes later, we were ushered out to make room for another group.