Inspired by Looking Beyond the Window

Looking in Florence, ItalyI am a small town girl, who grew up in small town Texas. Really. CNN said it was the smallest typical small town in America for the Millennium 2000. It was a great place to grow up safely where the rest of the world didn’t set the pace. My mom chose it so she could care for my father in his later years of aging health care and not worry about their little girl when she couldn’t keep an eye on her every minute. It worked, I have some great memories even if I grew up rather quickly. But, it didn’t do much for my world view and experiences.

One of the greatest gifts of my Mom gave me was the encouragement to learn about other cultures and travel when possible. So much so, that it required faith and living out her dream. On the eve of a summer study abroad for Architecture in Italy, she was hospitalized for a heart attack. A phone call from my sister while I was packing interrupted the hundreds of little decisions about what to pack in only a backpack and carryon for 10 weeks. A long night, and several conversations later, and I was on a plane at her pleading. Mom never traveled across an ocean, but dreamed of it for her daughter. In all that was going on, she told me “Go! Learn about the world and have a better life that I dreamed of for you! Live out my dream for me.” It’s hard to argue with a 115 pound (when soaking wet), wiry, Texas born and bred Mom. And, her cardiologist promised to take good care of her.

What I learned on that first trip abroad was to experience everything different than in my world, appreciate the differences and similarities. I came back inspired by history, art, architecture, culture and the people that make all these things so vital. Umm… good red wine and cheese as well, but that is another post. I learned with historical significance what we do in this world, in this lifetime, affects those who will come after us and builds on the body of work for our humanity. Could I have learned these things without traveling abroad, yes. Would I be the same person, no. My mom somehow knew this more than I did. She knew I needed to experience people and living differently. I know my place in this world is here in Texas, but I also know in small ways, I am connected to a larger picture and have so much more to learn from others.

Mom did get released from the hospital and we shared great stories about my travels and many more trips and escapades. She lived vicariously until her heart couldn’t keep up with her spirit anymore. Her eyes shined with each story and photo and in retrospect, yes, Mom was right. Mom, Thank You for inspiring me to experience more about the world other than what is outside my living room window. Even when I had to leave your side under extreme circumstances, you inspired me to be a better neighbor to human culture.

Photographic Memory

As I mentioned in my recent post  Pack Your Sketchbook, I enjoy bringing home personal, visual  souvenirs  from my travels. I prefer a souvenir that isn’t the cookie cutter tourist-y items that the (insert your destination city here) locals sell you. However, the  souvenirs  I enjoy are something you can create that will last much longer than the standard I Love NY tee.

That being said, bring your CAMERA. Take pictures, shoot video, capture memories and remember the good times because unlike the title of this post, most of us do no have a “Photographic Memory.” I try to capture as many photos as I can without compromising the trip itself. On my recent trip to New York City, New York I brought along two cameras. The first being a Canon 5D (Thanks Ed) and the second was my good ol’ Canon G10. If you want some good pointers about what to pack in your camera bag… read Ed’s post. If you don’t have a fancy DSLR or a high end point and shoot, use what you have. The quality of the photo doesn’t matter as much as actually capturing the memories.

I could go on and on about the benefits of packing your camera. Instead, I’m going to let some photos from my recent trip to The Big Apple do the talking:


NYC Hustle and Bustle

Warhol Soup Observers

Taxi in Times Square Sailboat at Sunset
Empire State Building Street Scene
St. Paul's Church Interior

Lonely Planet: Cambridge, England

This summer my travels are taking me to the historic college town of Cambridge, England. This will be my first time to visiting England, I am extremely excited, but I have no idea what to expect. This is also the first time I ran into the book series “Lonely Planet”. Apparently, this book is quite popular but somehow I missed out, so this review will be written from the perspective of a first time user.

Opening the book for the first time I am presented with a color map of England and a quick reference guide covering exchange rates, conversions for temperature and weights, telephone numbers and a how-to use this book. I can already tell from the first two pages that this will definitely be useful reference guide I can pull out if nothing else. As I flip the next few pages, a section labeled “England Highlights” appears which lists 15 must-see places. This is far more than a list however, boasting beautiful full color images at each location, the book already makes me feel wish I was drinking tea in the English country side.

As far as my familiarity with travel guides go, you could say it’s been awhile since i’ve read one. This being said, before opening the Lonely Planet book, my idea of a travel guide was a pamphlet or small book that featured a quick reference guide and a map. I went into reviewing this book believing this would be another dull guide that seemed to be written more for robots than humans, but this is where I was wrong. The next chapter   focused on becoming aquatinted with England. It wasn’t riddled with mundane facts trying to impress you like you might expect, the chapter read more like a letter from a friend. I was surprised but interested to read about how the English culture was shaped through music, movies and literature. A comprehensive England history lesson detailed every aspect of sports, religion, and technology, and how they came to be. The section also included a “don’t leave home without list” and discussed how to be respectful and act in the country. I can tell the authors were writing from their experiences rather than just research and this is important because it made me trust them. This is where the Lonely Planet book started feeling less like a travel guide, and more like a travel companion.

As I passed through the introduction I found the majority of the book to comprise of chapters for each city. In this review we will focus on Cambridge, since this will be my destination. Even though the introduction was extremely nice, what mattered the most was the information regarding Cambridge since I will be spending 2 weeks living in the city.   Since the book is over 800 pages, I found the city quickly in the index. In the back of the book I noticed a useful index and a glossary of terms (which can be really useful if there are language differences).   The chapter on Cambridge started with an introduction of what makes Cambridge different. Naturally, they discussed the university, but they also went other areas like the hiking and cycling paths, the famous sport called “Punting” and the beautiful leafy green meadows. The book then gave a brief history of how the town came to be, and a detailed map of the city, including sleeping and eating location and they also included where to find internet which i was extremely grateful for. Seeing how I will be unable to use my trusty iphone (due to $$$). I will have to rely on my internet access, and this book not only tells you where to find internet, but also how much it will cost.   The chapter also breaks down where to find banks, medical services, bookshops, and even laundry mats. The rest of the chapter was broken into sights, activities, festivals, tours, top end and budget locations, entertainment, children only, and lastly transportation. If i hadn’t known better I would of thought the authors had lived there their entire lives. Seeing how Cambridge is a college town, many of the sites to see were the 31 colleges that comprise the university. An example of how the information is displayed:

St. John’s College (01223-338600) www.joh.cam.ac.uk adult/child $1.70 10am-5pm Mon-Fri, (and then a description).

As you can see, everything you need to know is easily available, and there is no need to   flip multiple pages to find the information. Almost everything you think you might might on your trip will be included in this book, nothing is left out. Lonely Planet does a wonderful job of making me feel like i’ve already lived in the city many years before I arrive. This is not just a guide, but a companion that will stay close with me throughout my England adventures. I have the tendency to forget many things on my travels, but one thing I will make sure to always bring is this book. The best part of my review was realizing Lonely Planet is not a single book, but rather a series, so the same style of clarity and detailed information will be used wherever you go, and I would suggest picking it up before your next trip.

You should definitely read more at http://www.lonelyplanet.com/

Pack Your Sketchbook

I know, I know, this is supposed to be about some new fandangled tech toy that you should probably take along with you on your good ol’ summer vacation. I should probably be writing about an iPad, iPod, iPhone, Sega GameGear or Amazon Kindle but I’m not. Instead I’m offering up an alternative to the “traditional” geeky gadgets that you should equip yourself with the next time you decide to venture into the sunlight and away from your computer.

With that said, I propose packing your sketchbook the next time you travel. Taking a sketchbook, moleskin, drawing pad (or whatever else you want to call it) along with you when you travel will give you a way to create something unique to remember the trip by. Whether you are waiting for your flight, sitting on the plane, riding a subway or just relaxing in the park, doodling in your sketchbook will help you create lasting memories of the places you visit.

Instead of purchasing a post card or snapping a photo, sit down and really soak in the surroundings. Observe the tiny details and enjoy the less obvious things.

A few items that I have on or near me at all times are: a sketchbook, sharpies and pencils. You can pack an eraser if you really want to. I don’t have a  preference  as to what type of sketchbook to use but here are a few places that you could take a peep at if you are interested: http://www.moleskineus.com/ and http://www.dickblick.com/categories/sketchbooks/. My favorite drawing mediums can be found here: http://www.prismacolor.com/.

So here’s to happy sketching and making it a part of your next vacation!

Fit Geek Travel Tips

For a lot of people, travel means letting go of their usual exercise routines.    It’s easy to understand why—if you’re in a fascinating new place, why would you want to waste time inside a generic hotel gym?    If you only head out of town a few times a year, skipping your exercise probably won’t set you back very far.    For frequent travelers serious about keeping in shape, figuring out a way to squeeze exercise into your travel is critical to staying on track.    For me, the best way to integrate sightseeing and exercise is simple: go running!

Foot travel is the best way to familarize yourself with a new place.    Odds are, if you in a car or train, you’re going too fast to get a good look at anything.    If you are on foot, you really get the chance to soak up the sights, sounds and smells (for better or worse…) of the city you’re visiting.    Running also keeps packing simple, because you don’t need a lot of equipment.  All you really need is a good pair of shoes, and some clothes you don’t mind getting sweaty in.    If you’re really concerned about weight/space in your suitcase, Nike makes extremely lightweight and flexible running shoes that are based on the latest footwear technology.

In the past, the most difficult things about travel running were figuring out exactly how far I ran, and remembering my route.    In Houston I know that I am covering 3 miles every time I circle Memorial Park.    I don’t need a fancy gadget to tell me that.    But until the advent of the smartphone , when I was running in an unfamiliar city, I was left to guess.    The solution?    Runkeeper.

Runkeeper is a free app (you can upgrade to pro for $9.99), available on both the iPhone and Android,    that uses your phone’s GPS to track the duration, distance, speed, elevation, and calories burned on your run.    It also maps your route, which is extremely helpful when you are trying to relocate something you passed during your run.    You can even share the details with your friends, by posting your stats to Facebook and Twitter.

Have bad joints, and can’t run?    Walk or bike instead.    Runkeeper works equally well for walkers and cyclists, should you feel inclined to rent a bike while you’re out of town.    Weather need not be a deterrent either.    I’ve run through rainy streets in NY and snow covered sidewalks in Oregon.    However, if you think you might encounter some inclement  weather, invest in a weather-proof case for your phone. If you get caught in a sudden downpour, you’ll be very glad you did!

If you’re also watching your diet really closely and need some extra help while you’re on the road, there are calorie tracking apps as well.    My favorite is a free app for the iPhone called Lose It!. It helps you calculate your caloric intake with an extensive built-in database of possible foods (you can also enter in calories manually), and adjusts for calories burned during exercise.    It’s not an exact science, but it is a useful tool when you are outside your usual environment and want to keep your diet on target.

Some vacations certainly call for parking yourself in a lounge chair for days without lifting a finger, and trying every bit of local food you can get your hands on.  If it’s not one of those trips, use the technology you’re probably carrying in your pocket/purse anyway to help you stay fit this summer!

CC license photos thanks to flickr users mikebeard &  philcampbell.

Audiobooks – a geek vacation must!

I can’t travel without a good book. And as a Dallas native who is often making the 10 hour round trip drive to see my family, I can’t imagine vacation without audiobooks!

Whether you use Audible.com (a paid subscription service), iTunes, or your local Half Price Books… audio books can help a long trip go by faster – and (if you’re feeling extra geeky) you might just learn something along the way.

A few tips for finding good books:

  • Use the library – Most libraries, including The Houston Public Library, allow you to reserve books and audio books online (even from other branches in the system). You’ll get an email when it’s ready, just come pick it up at your neighborhood branch. A great way to get your audiobook fix and be frugal.
  • Ask your network – There is one thing I think LinkedIn does better than any other social network, and it’s probably not what you’re thinking. I LOVE the Reading List by Amazon App! Create a reading list and mark books as Read, Reading, or Want to Read – and then write a review or recommend to friends. The app then shows recommended books from people in your network, in your industry, and throughout all of LinkedIn.

Audiobooks I’m obsessed with right now

Below is a list of the last few audiobooks I’ve listened to. They were all fascinating and (in my opinion) more interesting because they were read by the author.

  1. It’s Called Work for a Reason – read by the author Larry Winget
    This book is made up of Larry Winget’s thoughts on business, getting and keeping a job, and dealing with people you work with. The book is great on its own, but there’s just something about hearing Larry Winget say “be known as the guy who gets sh*t done” in his own voice that makes it that much more powerful (and the stories funnier).
    For more on this book, read Courtney’s recap “Do Work” from the Schipul blog.
  2. Outliers read by the author Malcolm Gladwell –
    Like many of us at Schipul, I have a bit of a Malcolm Gladwell obsession. Gladwell has a way of explaining the world around us that is so logical but also completely different than anything I’ve ever heard. Outliers explains that no one really picks themselves up by the bootstraps and finds success all by themselves. There are no born geniuses, success depends on context and opportunities and practice (practice, practice).

    There’s a reason this man hold 3 of the 5 spots on the top nonfiction audiobooks on iTunes right now. Next up on my to-read list is his latest book “What the Dog Saw.”

  3. Official Bookclub Selection – read by the author Kathy Griffin –
    I couldn’t leave this one out! You might think she’s mean for making fun of those poor defenseless celebrities or you might not get why the details of Brook Shield’s wedding are so fascinating… But if you are a Kathy Griffin fan, you will enjoy this book. It’s essentially 6 hours of stories in the style of her stand up, always hilarious and at times very touching. If that sounds like your cup of tea – Don’t walk, RUN to get your hands on the audiobook. Seriously. Go!

What do you think? What books are better when read by the author? What are you listening to right now? Let us know!

USB Flash- Don’t leave home without it, and leave one at a friends

Pink Tokidoki Flash  DriveFlash drives – cheap and easy backup can save on Vacation Stress

They fit in your pocket, on your key chain and just look cool. With all the phones and portable devices we carry these days, we forget about these flash drives at the bottom of our desk drawers. The USB drive still has a couple of great features for traveling. Even if you are settled in for a nice staycation, add this little packing and preparedness tip to your travel plans or todo list. Snag a USB drive on sale in a multi-pack as the prices continue to fall on these little jewels. Or, pick up one of Happy Katies favorite designer Flash drives by MimoBot. Now, get ready for some scanning.

Files, documents and every important document you would ever need, all in your pocket. Scan personal documents and records in case you lose your wallet or passport and you will have a digital image of all your registrations. But, but… WAIT! What if the wrong person finds it when it drops out of the pocket of your shorts? No worries, you should encrypt the contents with TrueCrypt or your favorite security feature.

These little tech toys have some crazy cool options besides just a backup. Don’t want to carry a laptop or computer with you? Portable Apps Platform ScreenshotCan’t spring for the iPad yet? You can save all your bookmarks, favorite email settings, and doc settings on a FlashDrive and launch your profile from any public computer without fear of leaving your crumbs all over the desktop. Portable Apps is an open source software platform you install on your flashdrive or other backup device, adjust your settings, then plug it into a computer and run your programs from your own drive. You have access to all your software and personal data just like on your own PC.

What to save on your USB Drive

Losing important documents can ruin what should be a happy vacation. A little safety and planning can eliminate much of the stress. Before you pack up and leave, take the time to scan copies of important documents and save the files on to a secure area of the flash drive. Here are some examples of important documents:

  • Vacation Plans: Itinerary, Maps and receipts of deposits for reservations.
  • Personal documents: Drivers license, passport, birth certificate, Insurance cards (health and auto), Credit Cards and CC phone numbers for lost cards.
  • Home Documents: Home Insurance, Auto Titles, Registrations, photos of big purchase items for insurance documentation, and documents that would be hard to replace if you came back home and they weren’t there. Yikes! My next plan is to scan old family photos for safekeeping before they detoriate or get wet in the next hurricane.
  • Medical Records: List of medications for each family member, immunizations, List of family doctor and dentist contacts.
  • School and Work Records: Nice to have everything in one place while you are at it. Include copies of your transcripts, diplomas, Resume, licenses, permits, Wills, and any other items you may want to keep all organized.

Now, your life is basically in one place if you ever have to recreate your history or need to hide it Bourne style. This is a cheap and easy way to travel light, backup photos off the camera while on vacation for processing later, and use software programs securely when on public machines. In fact, buy a couple of the drives, make copies of the drive and give one to a friend to put in their safe deposit box or mail one to a family member in another part of the country in case of emergency.

Enjoy your trip, be safe, and tell us how you use your Flash Drive for your vacation!

iPhone as Travel Accessory

Not that I know anyone who would be so obsessive as to insure that they have their iPhone on them at all times while traveling, or perhaps, would go so far as to give their devices cute little names; but should YOU know anyone like that and maybe be traveling with them at some point this summer… well, let’s talk a bit.

As Aaron so wonderfully pointed out, when you want to get off the beaten path these little modern marvels do have their limits. Suddenly you find yourself in a world where cell towers just don’t go, in a land where no one has heard of 3 or G, much less the awesome that occurs when the two get together. I’d never recommend making voyage with just the iPhone as your travel partner, and have probably more than my fair share of near-horror stories of what might happen should you try. As a travel accessory goes though, the iPhone can really come in handy on the road, thanks to some pretty sweet apps out there.

For starters, let’s look at getting there. Perhaps the most dangerous travel app for me to have is the Kayak Flight app, which brings the power of the Kayak search to your iPhone in one neat little  convenient  package. It is now way too easy to find a flight – a cheap one! – to any where in the world. You can even complete the reservation all from your phone. Once you’re on your journey you can use the app to track your flight and make last-minute changes if needed. One airline that has set up a great iPhone app is Southwest. From their app you can not only check in to your flights, you can change existing reservations, and get notice of special fare deals. Personally this app has come in handy for me when arriving at stop-over airports and finding my connecting flight delayed – with it I was able to locate a flight leaving at the same time to another nearby airport and get myself on standby. This can also be dangerous; when faced with a long layover you may find yourself checking for flights to oh, say, Las Vegas for instance. Then again maybe these danger factors apply mainly to me.

So let’s talk about once you’ve arrived at your destination. I’ve got two trips coming up; Hawaii and Vegas. My default place of residence in Las Vegas is the MGM Grand, which has itself an iPhone app. It’s loaded with maps of the property, details on the room types, dining options and entertainment details. For convention-goers there is a special aspect of the app that ties in to details exclusive to your individual convention or event. Other Vegas properties have similar apps – check out the offerings from  Mandalay Bay and NewYork NewYork as well.

When it comes to the beaches of Hawaii, there are a lot of app options out there. I was gifted with the Hawaii’s Best Beaches app, and having played with it a bit from the comfort of my desk in Texas, it looks like it will really come in handy. You can search for a beach based on the activity you’re interested in – snorkeling, sunsets, camping, etc. – and all your best options will be presented with details on the site, distance, a map to the location, and photos. Right now I’m showing about 3,816 miles away from the beach I’d like to be on… can’t wait till that number gets smaller next week.

No matter where your vacation travels are taking you this summer, there’s likely a (free!) app for that. (Sorry. Couldn’t help myself.) Wherever you’re thinking about heading off to, type it in the Apple store search and see what comes up! You might find some app that details an awesome new attraction that you suddenly have. to. see.  If you’re planning on driving, make sure you check out the AAA apps – you can request roadside assistance and access all discounts.

Let’s hear from our fellow geeks and iPhone addicts – what are some of your favorite apps that you’ve discovered as a result of your travels?

Devil’s Den, The Tourists Club and Google Maps

Devil's Backbone, Devil's Den State Park ArkansasWelcome to Devil’s Backbone, part of the Devil’s Den cavern and crevice system in Devil’s Den State Park Arkansas.   Arkansas has amazing hiking, terrain, and apparently the people in Fort Smith are pretty nice too.

Hiking is a family vacation tradition for the Long’s dating back to the days of “high socks with stripes” and uncomfortably short shorts.

When I got the chance to go to Fort Smith, Arkansas I knew I wanted to take an extra day and go hiking, but I was unfamiliar with the parks around Fort Smith. So I began my Google map investigation. My goal with this post is to show you how to use Google maps to help you find the best and most relevant travel destinations for you. In my case that means getting back to nature.

Your first step in finding a hidden treasure using Google maps is to learn about the area. Simply, what is around Fort Smith, Arkansas?

Google Map of Fort Smith Area

Next I decided that I wanted to spend my time in an area that had a pretty high elevation change, so I used the “Terrain” button located in the more section of Google maps.   I could tell by looking at the terrain that there is a 1000′ elevation change from the bottom of Lee Creek to the hills that surround the Devil’s Den State Park. This gave me a pretty good idea that the area not only had a nice winding creek, but indicated the area might be good for my hike.

Terrain feature showing a change in elevation

photo of Devil's Den Waterfall in Google MapsThe best tip I can give you is to use “Photos” under the “More” section of Google maps to see other people’s interests.

Photography and the internet give you a more realistic idea of what you may encounter. In this case I could see waterfalls, caverns, cabins, bluffs, etc. Most of the map photos come from Panoramio as it allows the photos to be tagged with geographic locations.

In a separate trip to San Francisco I was able to find the Tourist Club near Mt. Tamalpais & Muir Woods using this same technique of user generated photography map discovery. Aww hell, I think that needs an acronym – UGPMD (User Generated Photography Map Discovery). Google does a terrific job of helping you find unique and scenic experiences.

If you’re brave enough, skip the “touristy” excursion on your next cruise and make one of your own by uncovering the scenic wonders of Chankanaab Park, Cozumel, Mexico from Google Maps (I also suggest additional planning to account for safe transport).

Another Google map travel insight is to plot your route and distances using the directions feature. It is also a “must” that you print off your maps and take them with you.

Even though you iPhoners may cringe at the thought of paper, I suggest you print maps for convenience and because “truly getting away” often takes you out of cell phone range.

Google Maps has indicated that my trip to Devil’s Den Arkansas from Fort Smith should take 55 minutes and is mostly an interstate route of 46.9 miles. However, I live in Houston and am tired of interstates. I might venture to say that I hate them.

So, I am going to use Google maps feature that allows me to drag the route to a particular road. I have now changed my trip to a more scenic route that drives up highway 220 and winds through some awesome terrain. My trip now has changed to 1 hour and 37 minutes at 47.8 miles. My concern however is with experience and not time, so I am satisfied.

One word of warning though – apparently in Arkansas, highways can be “dirt roads”. It was an adventure climbing over mountains passes in a rent car on highway 220, and one of the best drives ever. I would however suggest you decide if you are the type that can be out of phone range in rugged terrain separated from civilization. For me it is a yes.

Schipul Geek’s Guide to Summer Vacation Success

Photo thanks to jaeWALK

Greetings from Schipul-Land!   As our Schipul crew prepares for another hot Houston summer, our minds wander to our favorite vacation spots, travel tools, preparation tips and out-of-town safety tidbits.

We may not be lounging on a beach or flying high in a plane over foreign lands today, but our entire team has some great ideas on how to make your summer travel experiences safe, fun and memorable – one geeky post at a time.   Join us for this month’s:   Schipul Geek’s Guide to Summer Vacation Success!

Schipul Book Club giveaway!

Lonely Planet books

To kick off this vacationing Blog posting party, we have a fun Schipul Book Club giveaway for June.

Leave us a comment telling us about your dream vacation spot (whether you’ve been there yet or not) and on Friday, June 18th 12pm CST we’ll pick one lucky commenter to select a Lonely Planet Country Guide book of their choice!