How to Pack a Travel Medical Kit

Yes, a kit will take up quite a bit of room in your luggage, but you could save yourself a lot of stress and misery by having it along — especially if you’ll be traveling to a remote destination.

Many of us automatically buy prepackaged first aid kits and don’t check to make sure that it truly has everything that we need as travelers.  The fact is, many first aid kits are packaged more for sports enthusiasts or in the case of on-the-job accidents.  You can start out with one of those kits, but there will be things you need to add to it.

So here’s what belongs in your travel medical kit:

  • Bandaids of all sizes
  • gauze, and one stretch bandage
  • medical tape
  • an extra bottle of hand sanitizer (in addition to what you should be carrying around with you at all times)
  • antacid
  • anti–motion sickness medication, or ginger root
  • pain medication (of course)
  • a cold compress
  • insect repellant wipes
  • antifungal and antibacterial ointment
  • hydrocortisone cream
  • scissors
  • antidiarrheal medication (bismuth subsalicylate, loperamide)
  • a mild laxative
  • cotton balls

Optional:

  • lubricating eye drops
  • cough suppressant/expectorant
  • cough drops
  • antihistamine
  • Ziploc bags and Q-Tips
  • rubber gloves

What looks like “overkill” to be shoving in next to your toiletry bag  could save your day abroad — or someone else’s.

kit6

Relaxation Opportunities in the World’s Airports

As many of us can attest to, dozens of modern international airports are like mini-cities, complete with malls, chapels, huge kid’s play areas, two-story food plazas, and sometimes even golf courses and movie theaters.  As travel services have evolved into an art, more and more airports have focused on offering the weary, anxious, or downright cranky traveler the chance to de-stress — to the point that some of us might even forget we’re in an airport.  Spas?  Art galleries?  Gardens?  They’re in many of the world’s largest and most popular hubs — maybe even in the one you call your own.

You don’t have to belong to an airline’s VIP club to access most of these relaxing amenities; you just have to find the right terminal.  So, if you have a choice of where to spend a long layover on your next trip, I offer these observations about some of the best airports out there where you can settle your frazzled nerves instead of dreading the next bout of altitude.  I’m sure you can think of a few other airports where you wouldn’t mind killing some time at all.

Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Malaysia

  • Rainforest
  • Reflexology and massage center

Narita International Airport, Tokyo

  • Silence room
  • Reflexology center
  • Oxygen bar

Dubai International Airport, United Arab Emirates

  • Two indoor Zen gardens, located on either end of the concourse

San Francisco International Airport

  • Yoga room
  • Library
  • Aquarium
  • Art galleries

Schiphol International, Amsterdam

  • Library
  • Museum

(No offense to Schiphol, but besides the library and museum, this has to be one of the noisiest, most hectic airports on earth… and this is after they ditched the one-terminal concept!)

Beijing International Airport

  • Temples and pond

Chicago O’Hare International Airport

  • The “Backrub Hub,” offering neck and back massages

Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport

  • Self-service yoga studio

Incheon International Airport, South Korea

  • Spa
  • Indoor gardens
  • Museum
  • Private sleeping rooms

Heathrow, London

  • Art Gallery
  • Be Relax Spa

Taiwan International Airport

  • Library featuring e-books, regular books, and magazines and newspapers

Charles de Gaulle, Paris

  • Be Relax Spa
  • Movie theater

Changi Airport, Singapore

  • Five themed gardens, one of them home to more than a thousand butterflies
  • Free calf-massage stations
  • Designated napping facilities

Vancouver International Airport

  • Sleep pods, complete with noise-canceling earphones

I can think of some airports I’d put on a different list for being the loudest, most irritating, panic attack-inducing places on earth, but alas, one of the best ways to manage stress is to keep things positive.  So, I’ll leave you with this image — wherever you may be right now.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Too bad more of us don’t find laying over in Tallinn, Estonia convenient.  The international airport, Lennart Meri Tallinn, has passenger relaxation at every gate down to an art.

Montevideo: South America’s Urban Realm of Calm

Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, is perpetually overshadowed by its more glamorous neighbors, Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro.  Sure, millions of people love BA and Rio, but if your stress has reached unhealthy levels, they’re not the best cities in which to unwind. If you’re planning a dream trip to South America, be sure to fit Montevideo into your itinerary — preferably in the middle of all that tango-dancing, bullfight-riding, favela-touring, and bargain shopping.  Montevideo, Uruguay offers the perfect respite to recover from a bout of anxiety.

The Rambla stretches out for over a dozen miles

The Rambla stretches along a dozen miles of the Montevideo’s coastline.  But where are all the crowds?

Not quite The Caribbean, but Montevideo's beaches are stunningly pristine considering the number of people who live here.

Not quite The Caribbean, but Montevideo’s beaches are stunningly pristine considering the number of people who live here.

Solo moment anyone?

Solo moment anyone?

Make new friends who won't judge you based on your suitcase brand or your credit limit.

Make new friends who won’t judge you by your suitcase brand or your credit card limit.

Feel your anxiety drift into the ocean breeze...

Feel your anxiety drift into the ocean breeze…

The relative chaos of Rio and Buenos Aires will feel thousands of miles away.

The relative chaos of Rio and Buenos Aires will feel thousands of miles away.

Find new ways to meditate -- and forget your Xanax.

Find new ways to meditate — and forget your Xanax.

How to Find a Quiet Place to Relax in a Crowded Foreign City

Do you often come back from a trip and feel like you need a “vacation to recover from your vacation?”  You’re not alone.

Many people feel this way because they didn’t let themselves decompress at any time while they were away.  Given the greater emotional and physical energy exerted during a trip, it’s easy to feel drained or overstimulated during and after travel.   Finding a tranquil place to relax and regroup during your trip is one of the most obvious ways to prevent mental or emotional burnout — and keep every day of your vacation feeling (almost) like the first day you arrived.

Unfortunately, traditional “quiet” places may turn into anything but if everyone else decides to go there for their own relaxation.  Think of oceanside cafés that get so loud you can’t hear the waves washing up; well-known churches that sound like malls inside; and parks that put you in the path of an impromptu tag game – hardly anyone’s idea of peace.  Don’t think you have to return to your hotel room mid-day, or wander into an isolated (and potentially dangerous) area in order to “get away from it all.”  Here are a few universal, but often overlooked, places to unwind.

Botanical gardens.  These can sound like a bore to those not interested in plants, but botanical gardens have all of the relaxing characteristics of parks, but because of the (usually) small entrance fee, attract a different crowd; your chances of encountering skateboarding teenagers, drunks, or soccer practice are slim to none.   There is usually no shortage of places to sit down, and you can generally stay as long as you want after paying the day’s admission.

Universities.  Many universities have the look and feel of self-sustaining villages, and you’d have a hard time finding one without some green areas and benches (and often a pond and some wildlife).  Frat and sorority houses are less common outside North America, and while there’s obviously going to be plenty of activity on the main thoroughfares on weekdays, the overall atmosphere – especially on weekends – is subdued.  Another plus is that many universities are easily accessed within metropolitan areas, and even the grounds of most private universities are open to anyone.

Zoos.  You’d be hard pressed to find a zoo without an attractive, natural setting – and interacting with (or just watching) animals can quickly pull you out of your head and back into the moment.  About half of all major world cities have a zoo within three miles of tourist areas.  Try visiting on a weekday evening, or mid-afternoon after school groups have cleared out.

Embassy areas. These neighborhoods are particularly prominent in capital cities, and are often in easily accessible areas.  Although there aren’t many places to sit down, they are certainly a great place for a quiet stroll.  Embassy neighborhoods are rarely crowded, aesthetically pleasing, and you can let your guard down because security is second to none.

Stationed trains.  Particularly in European cities, long-distance trains pull into a station well before departure – by an hour, and sometimes more (especially if your city is the route terminus).  A parked train can be a very peaceful alternative to trying to rest your mind and feet in the chaotic main station hallway.  I’ve done it many times and not been bothered by attendants or conductors (unlike airplanes, which are usually swept and cleaned after every flight, the usual train is only serviced at the end of the day).

Obviously, you need to make sure the train doesn’t roll away taking you someplace you don’t want to go, but the chances of this happening are minimal as you’ll notice people start trickling in about ten minutes before departure.

Off-hours and hideaways in hotels.  After the maids have come through, and before the next round of guests check in, is an ideal time to get some peace in your hotel room, especially if it’s anything but tranquil in the evening and early morning. The ideal time window is usually between noon and three p.m.

If you’ve already checked out of a hotel, don’t feel bad about relaxing in the lobby a few hours after giving up your key.  It’s unlikely that any hotel employee will ask you to leave just because you’re done and paid for; after all, they want you to come back on your next trip, and write a nice online review about your stay.

Finally, a surprising number of hotels – particularly in Europe – have rooftop terraces.  These are often underutilized, because 1) guests aren’t aware of them, or 2) they simply forget to head up there.  The terrace can be a great escape when everyone else on your floor seems to be checking in, or coming in and out of their rooms, at the same time.  An added benefit is that you get to see the city from a bird’s-eye view, which can make it look less intimidating and give you a better perspective of where you are.

Airport quiet spots.  For some peace and space, many people know to head to the waiting area of a deserted gate.  Less commonly sought, but equally quiet places include interdenominational chapels (many international airports have one, and you don’t have to pray in order to use the room), and the lobbies of pre-check-in areas.  Most people automatically rush to the check-in counter and through security when they arrive at the airport, passing by many empty waiting areas adjacent to the airline ticket counters.

It's not always practical to find a place like this to unwind, but there are still plenty of places to relax if you know where to look. ( Pictured: Suomenlinna, Helsinki, Finland.)

It’s not always realistic to find a place like this to unwind, but there are still plenty of places to relax out there — if you know where to look. (Pictured: Suomenlinna, Helsinki, Finland.)

How to Relax in Russia: Some Tasty Suggestions

Mmm.  Russia isn’t anyone’s idea of a great place to de-stress these days, is it?  War… invasions… questionable allies… political incorrectness up the yin-yang…nasty stewardesses on Aeroflot… I mean, how do you spell anxiety in Cyrillic?

Perhaps the path to inner peace in Russia is not through its heart, but its stomach.  Look around on your next real or virtual visit to the Matryoshka Motherland, and feast your eyes — and your soul.  Much of its two urban gems, Moscow and St. Peterburg, are pretty enough to eat.  And when I say “pretty,” I mean that the czars of times past didn’t exactly hold back on the sumptuous domes, cake-grade colors, and sugary paint.  So the next time Putin’s ugly mug gives you indigestion, try biting off a piece of Russia’s calorie-laden beauty… your blood pressure (if not your glucose levels) will plummet.

Raspberry swirl meets dark chocolate and caramel. (St. Petersburg)

Raspberry swirl meets dark chocolate and caramel. (St. Petersburg)

Bolshoi

The Bolshoi ballerinas don’t eat much, but you can gorge on their pastel palace (The Bolshoi Theater, Moscow)

Russian take on the Gingerbread House? (Red Square, Moscow)

Russian take on the Gingerbread House? (Red Square, Moscow)

Somewhere, a wedding is missing the top of its cake (Smolniy Convent, St. Petersburg)

Somewhere, a wedding is missing the top of its cake (Smolniy Convent, St. Petersburg)

Pour me a river of chocolate syrup to enjoy this one (Neva River, Moscow)

Pour me a river of chocolate syrup to enjoy this one (Neva River, Moscow)

I would like my three scoops of scenery with extra sprinkles, please. (Novodevichiy Convent, Moscow)

I would like my three scoops of scenery with extra sprinkles, please. (Novodevichiy Convent, Moscow)

Another cupcake, please -- just go easy on the frosting. (St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow)

Another cupcake, please — just go easy on the frosting. (St. Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow)

This peach pastry just needs some vanilla wafers (Kazan Cathedral, Moscow)

This peach pastry just needs some vanilla wafers (Kazan Cathedral, Moscow)

Jell-O has never tasted this good (outside Red Square, Moscow)

Jell-O has never tasted this good (outside Red Square, Moscow)

Forget the mint icing; I'll take this one with brown sugar (Red Square, Moscow)

Forget the mint icing; I’ll take this one with brown sugar (Red Square, Moscow)

A spy's fantasy of the perfect lemon tart? (Peter and Paul Fortress, St. Petersburg)

A spy’s fantasy of the perfect lemon tart? (Peter and Paul Fortress, St. Petersburg)

Travel Talk: Taking the Stress Out of Language Barriers

One of the first things someone might ask when you announce your trip to another country is, “Do you know the language?” Unless you’re visiting an ancestral homeland, are a language buff, or have learned foreign language(s) for your job or personal reasons, the answer will likely be no.  You may stress out over the thought of being unable to make your way around or communicate your needs during your trip.  The more this anxiety builds, the more pressure you could put on yourself to spend many hours learning a language – including nuances that you’re unlikely to need.
Unless you’re planning to spend an extended amount of time in a country, knowing the hundred or so “quick reference” words and phrases in a standard travel language book will usually be sufficient to get you around.  Focus on language concerning transportation, directions, obtaining assistance, and health and safety issues (such as the words for danger, caution, and hospital, as well as how to ask for an embassy or the police).  If this still doesn’t sound like enough, remember that there’s a reason that so many travel language books are sized to fit in your pocket.   You can look up phrases and words as you need them, without putting yourself through painful memorization exercises weeks before your trip.

 
Do You Speak English?     
This is an essential phrase to know in every language spoken in the places you’re visiting.  It manages your limited language skills while showing that you’re culturally sensitive enough to not just assume that someone speaks your language; it also helps break the ice.  If the person confirms that they speak English, then you’ve started off on the right foot; if they say no, then nod or apologize (think of how you feel when you dial the wrong phone number) and move on to someone else.  If you can’t move on to someone else, see how far you can get with numbers and gestures.  If you’re still struggling, then other employees or passersby are likely to notice, and chances are one of them will step in to help – if for no other reason than to show off their command of English.

A word of caution: if you have a rudimentary grasp of a foreign language and ask for directions or check into a hotel in that language, you need to be able to understand the person’s response.  The person might answer at a mile a minute, and you’ll either pretend to understand and move on, or ask for clarification in English – at which time the person will wonder (with some frustration) why you didn’t ask in English in the first place.  If you’re not proficient enough to go back and forth in conversation on a particular topic, then it’s usually best to ask Do you speak English? and go from there.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Should I cross the street, or stay put and look out for the cute marshmallow doughboy? 

Most of us don’t get beyond learning a few written characters when touring places like Japan or China

Brunei: The Misunderstood Country You’ve Never Heard of

Many people have never heard of the tiny country of Brunei, a conservative Muslim state bordering Malaysia on the island of Borneo.  Brunei is beautiful, rich, unspoiled, and at the heart of a controversy. I was fortunate to be able to travel to Brunei this spring, only a couple of weeks before it made international headlines for its plans to implement shariah law in the country.  All of a sudden, the Sultanate of Brunei was not just an attractive vacation destination but one of only a handful of countries in the world to support such punishments as flogging, stoning, and amputation for crimes ranging from abortion, theft, adultery, and homosexuality.  Even the likes of Jay Leno and Ellen DeGeneres got in on the Brunei-bashing after the media learned that the Sultan of Brunei owns several large hotels around the world — one you may have even stayed in.

The Sultan of Brunei doesn’t care what the world thinks; he wants shariah law for his country, and he runs an absolute monarchy.  It’s ghastly for most of us to think of the kind of punishments his judges are ready to dole out to offenders.  But did I think about stoning, amputation, and flogging while I was wandering around Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei’s capital?  Nope.  I felt like I was in a fairy-tale land of gorgeous architecture, polite hosts, and peace and quiet.  Mind you, I’m not exactly the kind of person, or tourist, that Brunei (or Islam) may want to encourage: single, female, childless, wandering around on her own with a map and a credit card.  Yet (as long as I had the headscarf on) I was treated with respect, kindness, and asked how I liked the tiny country that no one in North America seems to have heard of.

Do I agree with shariah law?  No, but I respect Brunei’s decision to implement it; it’s their country.  I sincerely hope that it doesn’t scare away tourists, incite anger against Islam, or forever scar Brunei’s image as the “Gateway to Borneo.”  Hey, are you going to get an abortion, commit adultery with a Muslim, steal, or cross-dress on your week-long vacation to Borneo?  And, if so, do you really think those shariah laws are going to apply to you?  Answer to both questions: mmm, probably not.  So don’t forever cross Brunei off your list because of sociopolitical reasons.  Not only will you be missing out on Borneo, but you’ll never see some of the most stunning architecture in Southeast Asia.

The Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque

The vision-of-white Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque gleams in the sunlight

Celebrating its independence from Britain in 1984

Brunei only declared its independence as a country in 1984, which might have something to do with its continued struggle for identity

For better or worse, the sheer beauty of Islam's art and architecture distract me from its debates and growing pains

For better or worse, the sheer beauty of Islam’s art and architecture can distract you from its debates and growing pains

The Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque glows at dawn and dusk

The Omar Ali glows at dawn and dusk

I cannot fully imagine living somewhere where I could be handed a sentence of stoning or amputation.  Can you?

I cannot fully imagine living somewhere where I could be handed a sentence of stoning or amputation. Can you?

There are little signs of life at the Lagoon in downtown Bandar on a beautiful weekday afternoon.

There are little signs of life at the Lagoon in downtown Bandar on a beautiful weekday afternoon…

Life goes on for the 400,000 residents of Brunei, one-third of whom are not Muslim.

But, life goes on for the 400,000 residents of Brunei, one-third of whom are not Muslim.