Under Reconstruction: Begging Your Patience

For all my dear readers, I wanted to explain the prolonged silence. It’s not just that I’ve been gardening (though I have), but I’ve also been taking an intensive course in advanced WordPress (aka, the stuff that runs this blog), so that I can do a better job of design and management on the site.

So stay tuned: soon, I will be able to upgrade the site to include a subscription function so you can get automatic notices on your choice of medium (e-mail, Facebook, intergalactic hydraulic message capsule, whatever), see some well-arranged photo galleries, and enjoy all kinds of other bells and whistles. Who knows? It might even look prettier.

Also look forward to posts on:

  • Gal gets a Garmin
  • Interview with a gal who flew for the Air Force and now flies an aerobatic plan
  • Photo essay on Austin, Texas
  • Reviews of several books (done severally) covering Borneo, Zambia, and intrepid women travelers in the US, ca. late 19th/early 20th century

If you’d like to be added to the e-mail subscriptions when I get that function set up, you can post a reply to this page. I’ll be able to see your e-mail address on the back end, but it won’t be visible to any other visitors here.

-TG

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Ten signs it’s finally spring in New England (Travelers’ edition)

Yep, and I do mean finally spring. We get a lot of faux springs here in the Northeast. You know, the kind that gives you three uninterrupted balmy days and persuades you to put away all your woolies just before socking you with another humdinger. (That 20+ inches of snow on April Fool’s Day a few years back was no joke, folks.)

April 9. Snow again

April 9. Snow again

There were a few false starts this year, when hopes started creeping upwards, say when a whole foot of snow melted away in just a week in early March. Judge for yourself how foolish the hopes were, by taking a look at the picture taken from my back door on April 9. Not 20 inches, but gee whiz!

So how can we be sure it’s finally spring up here in the north country? Here are ten signs, observed this week while I traveled a bit in and beyond the region:

  1. Mostly all the snow has melted, except on the north-facing woods and at higher elevations. I just saw a fair amount of it in some of those woods along the Mass Turnpike earlier this week.
  2. Some of the ice has melted off the lakes at higher elevations. The Connecticut River is already running ice-free, but unless we see those lakes melting, we can’t be too sure.
  3. You no longer consider it foolhardy to take the snow shovel and emergency sand box out of your car and put them at the back of the garage.
  4. Bug splats begin to reappear on your windshield. With luck, you refilled your windshield wiper fluid fairly late in the winter so there’s some left to deal with the bug… well, we won’t get gross about it.
  5. NYC_outdoors-20150414_114323-sm

    April 14. New York City trying to make us jealous

    Flowers you see when you travel a little further south no longer drive you into despair.

  6. Garden centers are reopening everywhere, and they have actual, real-live growing plants in them that you can put outside. If it’s only pansies, this could be faux spring. If you see cilantro seedlings, we’re on!
  7. AmhFrmrMkt-20150418_115043-sm

    April 18. Farmers’ markets reopen!

    Farmers’ markets reopen and have fresh stuff to sell, even if it’s only potatoes and parsnips from last fall’s plants and a few spunky spinaci. Hey, the ground has to defrost before you can dig up those roots, and temps can’t go too far below 20°F at night or you lose all the greens in the coldframe.

  8. Bicyclists no longer dress like the Michelin man before toodling down the road. Some can even be spotted in shorts. Which reminds me:
  9. AmhCommon-20150418_115307-cropped

    Skin is back

    Skin reappears. On people. Their own. Skin, that is.

  10. While you were away, the crocuses bloomed, some of the daffodils have poked their heads up and are catching up with the weeds, and the neighbors’ flowering bushes (your own, maybe not so much) are now showing promise. Something has started chomping the tops off anything that isn’t rabbit repellent.

Yes, dear readers, it’s finally spring in New England! For the next few months, I’ll still be posting and keeping to my at-least-once-every-10-days promise, but you’ll be hearing more about my past travels and reflections on them, and some reviews of others’ travelogues. But it’s time for me to get down and dirty in the garden for the season. May the flowers bloom and the birds sing for you wherever you are.

Croci-20150418_145008-sm

 

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The Trip from Heck: Part 2–Woes of the Wandering bags

You know a problem is common when a routine is invented to deal with it. You know it’s endemic when companies are formed just to solve it. When my sister’s bag got lost on the way to Mexico, we learned about the routine. When both of mine went astray on the way back, I found out about the company too. And since I learned a bit from these experiences, I figure now is a good time to share with you some facts and some thoughts about lost luggage.

But keep in mind that the airlines would object to my term “lost.” As far as they are concerned, most of the bags that don’t show up when you do aren’t really lost; they are merely delayed. This is small comfort when you’ve traveled thousands of miles for a special event or a short but precious vacation and have to spend most of your first couple of days wrestling with bureaucracy over the phone and/or running back and forth to the airport again, at great expense, while having nothing suitable to wear when you’re doing anything else. But okay, the luggage wasn’t lost; it was delayed.

In my sister’s case, the missing bag, entrusted to an airline I will refer to as “D,” went AWOL somewhere between Atlanta and Mexico City. She and her husband were already dealing with a missed connection, re-routing, and a very very late arrival at the final destination airport in Puerto Vallarta – an hour by expensive car from their actual final destination. The bag contained most of her clothes for a week’s vacation and her husband’s outfit for the event that brought us all to Mexico. My brother-in-law’s golf clubs did arrive at the same time they did, but you can’t wear those to a wedding. When their final flight arrived in PV after midnight, the airport seemed deserted and there was no one to whom they could report the missing bag, so they got into their bespoke car and headed for their short-term rental condo up north.

Zip forward three days, and you see me, barely recovered from the worst ravages of food poisoning (see Trip from Heck, Part 1) and tottering onto my flight to Newark, on an airline I will refer to as “U,” with a further flight connection northwards. Lacking strength to fight for space in the overhead bins, I checked both my large and my small bag at a cost of $65, and embarked toting only the minimum needed for the day of travel. Arrived in Newark, I cleared passport control in a flash, and then stood with everyone else watching the carousel go round for 45 minutes hoping our bags would come out. Everyone else’s eventually did. Mine did not. I finally located a U employee in the baggage carousel area, who said to report the problem after clearing Customs. Out I went, stood and waited in line while worrying about missing my connection, the last flight of the evening, only to be informed by a pleasant U staff member that I’d have to report the delayed bags at my final destination. But since I later arrived at that destination exhausted and with only about three minutes to spare to catch the 11:30 pm shuttle van home, I skipped the reporting.

By the next morning, when I tried calling U to report the missing bag, it felt like being trapped in a bad movie. But rather than drag you, dear reader, through the horrid process of getting ahold of all those lost bags, let me give you some tips based on what I learned from the D and U experiences and from online research:

  1. Airlines are claiming that the percentage of “mishandled” bags (figures reported to the federal Department of Transportation monthly) has declined considerably since 2007. In that year, 7.03 out of every thousand passengers on domestic flights filed a report on “lost, damaged, delayed or pilfered” luggage. In 2013, that number had declined to 3.22 reports per thousand passengers; in 2014 it rose to 3.62. Those numbers reflect proportions per passenger, not per checked bag. Since many of us stopped checking bags whenever feasible, after airlines started charging for what used to be a free service, it’s impossible to tell just how much more likely it is now than in 2007 that your checked bag will arrive intact and with you. Probably a bit better odds, but DOT isn’t reporting the data that way. In any case, the numbers sound not-too-bad until you realize that the 2014 figure added up to over 2,100,000 mishandled bags. And that’s just for the domestic flights.
  2. Make sure all checked bags—and for that matter, your carry-on bag—are clearly labeled with both your home address and phone number, and the address and phone number of your destination (including dates, perhaps) on your outgoing leg/s. Put your e-mail address clearly on both of these. Since address tags on bags do get torn off, two such address tags on each checked bag give you added assurance. Or you can put a second copy of all the information inside a pocket that you consider an obvious place for baggage office staff to look for identification if the bag has gone astray. In my experience, address tags that are too pretty or striking tend to disappear en route, so I now skip the aesthetics and just use funky but durable tags.
  3. If it is at all possible to report your missing bag in person, do so when you arrive at your final destination (as tagged on the baggage claim check), and with the airline that is responsible for the final leg of your trip. You won’t find anyone willing to register the claim until you get to that final airport. If you don’t make the report in person at the airport baggage office upon arrival, you will have to return to the airport to do so; neither D nor U would accept a report over the phone. Nope, doesn’t matter if you are calling them from the number they have on record for you and asking that they deliver the bag to the address they have on record for you. They crave human contact, poor things, and will force you to drive an hour back to the airport so they can get it.
  4. If you want to know the last recorded location of your bag, you can ask the airline employee to look in the system to find out exactly what it says about your bag. Now that so much is digitized, your bag is scanned even more than you are: when it is originally tagged, when it is loaded onto the baggage truck, when it goes into the aircraft’s hold, when it comes out, etc., etc. For some airlines, you too can see all this info online by putting in your baggage claim number—D is one of those. (Which suggests a whole new type of travel fun: you can amuse yourself during layovers or at the baggage carousel by checking your smartphone to see what your bags have been up to.) For some other airlines, you’ll have to rely on an airline employee to do the investigating—which is what I had to do to get the information out of U. Less fun.
  5. If you’re traveling internationally, and you need to deal with online or telephone communications with a foreign carrier or with any carrier’s baggage department in the destination country, try to have someone with you who can speak the local language. Local websites don’t necessarily provide English language versions (I’m talking about you, Aero Mexico!) and phone menus may well not offer English options (ditto!). And although all of the staff at ticket counters will probably have a reasonable degree of English, don’t bet on the people who are handling baggage.
  6. You may or may not be able to get a refund of your checked baggage fees if the airline “delays” your bags’ arrival. Different airlines have different policies on this. One article in one of the better travel magazines states categorically that you can get your fees back if your bag is delayed. That is not my experience. In any case, though, you might want to ask; it’s unlikely that any airline is going to volunteer to give your money back. If the airline really loses your bag, it is required to refund your baggage fee.
  7. Your bag won’t be declared really lost, not just delayed, for a considerable time –weeks!–after it goes astray. Fortunately, this happens to only a tiny percentage of bags, but a small but still daunting portion (about one in six) of the bags mishandled arrive damaged or with items missing. Hence, the next two points:
  8. When your bag does show up and is delivered, don’t sign anything renouncing all claims until you’ve made sure that nothing is missing. Unless you are so punch-drunk you no longer care. (see below)
  9. You are legally entitled to compensation for lost checked bags, up to $3300 per passenger for domestic flights and $1131 per passenger for international flights. The tricky part comes in if you’ve already asked the airline to reimburse you for items you needed when your bag doesn’t arrive with you. See the link below for the Travel Insider articles that give you many useful pointers on how to deal with that issue—but keep in mind that reimbursements you get for things you buy while waiting to see whether your bag will be found will be subtracted from the maximum entitlement if it is finally deemed lost.
  10. When it comes to telling you where your bag is and when you’re likely to get it, you’re more likely to get that information from the on-the-spot baggage managers than from some national phone line. I was told categorically over the phone that delayed bags are never delivered to your doorstep after 10 pm. The airport baggage manager told me they usually deliver in the wee hours. She was right; the guy on the phone was way off base.
  11. Finally: save all documentation until the problem is satisfactorily resolved. That means: boarding passes or boarding pass stubs, baggage claim stickers or stubs, copies of any reports you file with the airline, and any correspondence (including e-mail) concerning the missing bag/s. Written logs of any phone calls or conversations with airline personnel might also be a good idea, and you should make sure in all cases that you get the names of the people you deal with, in person or by phone.

As for the conclusion to my sister’s and my tales of baggage woe, things came out pretty well, although only after time-consuming hassles:

  • Sister and brother-in-law had to make an expensive hired car ride back to the PV airport to report the missing bag, and found it there already in the tender care of the D baggage office. (So why did D’s Atlanta headquarters insist they had to deal with Aero Mexico, which flew them on the final leg after they were rerouted? Ours is not to question why….)
  • When I drove the 50 minutes back to my final-destination airport and managed to track down the U baggage person, one of my bags had already arrived; the second, for inscrutable reasons, had taken a side excursion to Houston and was due to arrive that evening.
  • Hence the intervention of the delivery company, wheresmysuitcase.com, which sent me e-mail bulletins announcing a) that they would be receiving my bag to arrange delivery, and I could waive signature on their website if I didn’t want to be wakened; b) that they had received my waiver of signature online; c) that my bag was out for delivery and the driver’s name was Wheels (do we believe that??) and I could see his/her photo by clicking a link in the e-mail; and d) that my bag had been delivered on Tuesday, March 10 at 3:01 a.m. And sure enough, there it was right outside my door exactly where I’d asked them to leave it. I found that the main zipper was broken, but by then, all the caring had been thumped out of me. I had meanwhile had time to discover that 15 major airlines, both domestic and international, have resorted to turning their delayed-bag deliveries to that one specialized company. For whom, no doubt, the figure of 2.1 million mishandled bags sounds like music.

How about you? If you have a good baggage story or some useful tips to share, please add a reply using the Comment link below.

For more information:

♦ “Delayed, Damaged, or Lost Bags” is a short article on USA.gov that summarizes policies and steps you can take if/when you encounter a problem.

♦ The site Travel Insider has two useful articles, “Your Rights if Your Bags Are Delayed” and “Your Rights if Your Bags Are Lost.” The first of those provides plenty of useful advice on more than just your rights, and you’d probably be wise to read it before the next trip on which you plan to check any bag.

♦ The US Department of Transportation publishes a monthly Air Travel Consumer Report, which provides statistics not just on mishandled luggage but also on flight delays, overbooking, and various consumer complaints. The February issue gives you calendar year as well as monthly summaries. The link above gets you to the page where you can access reports for the most recent months and (as of the time of writing this) the two most recent years. Data geeks might also be inclined to rummage around on the Bureau of Transportation Statistics web site.

♦ Scott McCartney, “Baggage Claim: Airlines Are Winning the War on Lost Luggage,” The Wall Street Journal, 4 June 2014 online.

♦ Barbara Peterson, “The Problem with Airlines and Checked Baggage,” Condè Nast Traveler, 18 June 2012.

 

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Blog flash: Scientific proof that travel makes you more creative

The word is now in, and it sounds definitive: travel not only broadens you; it can make you more creative.

The word comes from a recent article in The Atlantic, summarizing research by an international team of scholars, including Prof. Adam Galinsky of Columbia University Business School. The latest article focuses on the fashion industry, but work by another team including Galinsky, and by more researchers in this field, expands the lens to entrepreneurs and professionals more broadly.

Don’t leap to the conclusion that your next cruise vacation in the Adriatic is going to do the trick for you, though. It seems that the spurs to sustained creativity entail prolonged immersion in other cultures, “biculturalism” rather than mere “assimilation,” and possibly not too many cultures and not stretching across cultures that are too radically different. On my cursory reading, this probably means that my times in the Netherlands and France did my creativity more good than all those years in China. But of course, scientific studies look for patterns. You may be an outlier, and your sojourn in Chiengmai may have made you the artist you now are.

For more information:

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The Trip from Heck: Part 1

Traveling Gal hasn’t been so good lately about keeping up with that New Year’s resolution about more frequent posting, but dear readers, you are about to start getting a lot more. I’ve been traveling, and there’s so much to tell you about. But let’s start with the most memorable travel experiences I’ve had lately, my recent first-ever trip to Mexico and back, which will live forever in my memory as The Trip From Heck.

Meaning: not hell, but it felt like it at times. There was much that was good about the trip, but the clearest markers on the road there and back were a nasty bout of food poisoning, and a saga of lost luggage (not just mine, but also my sister’s).  From these I have gleaned some fun tales; travel misadventures of course make some of the best stories to tell about your trip. But I also learned a few useful lessons that others could profit from.

I’m saving the lost luggage saga for the next post. Food poisoning is enough for this one.

I’ve enjoyed intestinal challenges in quite a few settings over the years, but none caught me quite so much by surprise as the bout in Mexico. (There really isn’t a delicate way to write about this, so the queasy may want to wait for the post about lost bags.) Food poisoning may have consequences at either end, or both. This one made me develop a close and personal, though fortunately temporary, relationship with the toilet in my room, but not by sitting on it. If you get my meaning. From around 9:30 at night until 1:20 a.m., I had to make a precipitate rush to my new best pal about every 20 to 30 minutes. (In the interest of journalistic accuracy, I started noting the times in my little notebook, so for the sake of the curious: 9:00, 9:30, 10:00, 10:15, 10:45, 11:10, 11:40, 12:05, 12:25, 1:20.) At first I thought that it must have been the chilaquiles I’d so incautiously had for breakfast, but I later learned that many others came down with the same malady that night or next day—about half of those who had gathered for the wedding we were there for. So, group poisoning—we’d been eating dinners together for three days—but not everyone got sick.

Among those who did, my sister and brother-in-law reported that they lost 6 and 10 pounds, respectively, before recovering. So I have come to think of this as the Mexican quick weight-loss program. But don’t rush to Mexico for that reason. WeightWatchers is slower but much less traumatic and I recommend it as an alternative.

This is far from the first time I’ve contracted food poisoning while traveling or living abroad, even though I’m always pretty careful not to drink unboiled or unfiltered water and to avoid salads and raw stuff. I learned this the hard way during long residence in China, where I finally stopped eating any salads except those I made myself, and then gave up entirely after wearying of the half-hour lettuce-soaking in detergent solution routine. Fortunately, whenever I did get sick, the symptoms never lasted more than 24 hours, and usually less, although there were one or two occasions when I sometimes thought it would be the death of me.

My doctor, when I told him about the Mexican incident, said that if diarrhea wasn’t involved, it was probably a staph bacterial contamination of the food. But others had diarrhea. Wondering whether I might find some information that would help identify which of the many food items we all consumed had done us the dirty, I checked online and finally zeroed in on the Centers for Disease Control, which tabulates the incidence of “foodborne illnesses” in the US (Mexico is not their department). For further details, I also consulted the federal government’s joint agency web site on food safety, FoodSafety.gov.

Thanks to the CDC, I learned a lot about food poisoning, and also that there’s plenty of it going on up here north of the Rio Grande: as many as 48 million cases in the USA each year. But good luck to us in figuring out what played the dastard in this particular outbreak, or when we all got infected. You can get sick from many kinds  of bacteria, viruses, allergens, molds, or parasites, and the incubation periods for symptoms range from one hour to several days. You won’t ever know exactly what is/was making you sick unless you see a doctor and s/he orders laboratory tests. I was astounded to see how many potential culprits there are. The rogues’ gallery is well populated with characters like Campylobacter, Cryptosporidium, Cyclospora, E. coli (STEC 0157, STEC non-0157), Listeria, Salmonella, Shigella, Vibrio, Yersinia. (Some of those sound like exotic names for girls. But best not.) And those are just the ones they’re tracking through the collaborative food poisoning surveillance network, FoodNet.

However, more than nine-tenths of all cases are usually tracked to just five of the little nasties. You can read up on them by following the links I provide below. I’m including a time range after each so you can get a sense of how soon you’d get sick after being exposed to it.

  • One I’d never even heard of, called “Norovirus” (12-48 hours) seems to be responsible for more than half of all cases—and isn’t among those FoodNet tracks, even though it accounts for about a quarter of all hospitalizations for food poisoning;
  • Salmonella (12 to 72 hours; this is “nontyphoidal” Salmonella, which makes you wonder…);
  • Clostridium perfringens (6 to 24 hours);
  • Campylobacter spp. (2-5 days);
  • Staphylococcus aureus (1 to 6 hours).

Since you’ve probably heard a lot about them, too:

  • the E. coli varieties that cause illness (we have lots of other E. coli swimming around in us all the time, doing more helpful things) usually make you sick within 2 to 8 days, and
  • Listeria monocytogenes could produce symptoms in anywhere from 3 to 70 days. Listeriosis, the disease caused by Listeria, is especially dangerous; there are only about 1600 cases per year in the US, but it kills about 1/5 of its victims.

If all of this isn’t enough to put you off your feed, let me add that there seems hardly to be any food or drink out there that may not harbor at least one of these tiny horrors. Even cantaloupe and celery could cause problems. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to improve the odds in your favor:

  • Wash your hands with soap often; wash your hands, wash your hands, and then wash your hands again!
  • Don’t eat undercooked poultry, ground meat, or shellfish.
  • Don’t drink unboiled or unbottled water, or even use it for brushing your teeth.
  • Don’t drink unpasteurized milk or fruit juices.
  • If you’re in a location where you doubt the sanitary conditions, avoid raw vegetables or raw fruits that have already been cut open. (This also means: no lettuce or raw tomatoes in sandwiches.)

If someone else is preparing your food (e.g., in a restaurant), good luck. A lot of these illnesses are caused by food workers who don’t wash their hands, or who prepare food while they’re sick. But you can improve your chances by at least making sure that there’s soap and hot water in the restrooms that employees use, and that there are visible means of refrigeration.

When you do get sick, which is just about inevitable if you travel a lot, usually you’ll be better in one or two days. But if your symptoms are severe or you’re running a fever or have other unusually alarming symptoms, get yourself to a doctor fast. I won’t venture into giving any medical advice, but you might want to take a look at what the American Academy of Family Physicians has to say about how to deal with ordinary symptoms and  what symptoms to take very seriously.

For further information:

Wishing you safe and healthy travels! If you have some good tips on keeping safe from foodborne problems while traveling, please share them here by using the “Leave a comment” link.

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