Thursday, August 25, 2011

T-minus two weeks...

Either I have become amazingly efficient at this packing/preparing thing or I'm forgetting something serious. "All" I have left to do is actually pack, notify credit cards of my travels, buy travel-friendly snack food, and charge up the electronics. And I have two weeks to do that. Hmmmm....

Somehow I managed to create a minor medical crisis by blowing out my ear somehow to the extent that I cannot hear out of it. A quick trip to the doc tomorrow will hopefully leave me in fine feather to travel for 16+ hours quite soon.

I've started to play the "two weeks from right now" or "three weeks from right now" game...realizing where I'll be or what I'll be doing at this particular moment. I even add 12 hours to factor in the time difference. Hee!

A significant milestone in all the waiting is when my actual days on the ground at my destination appear on the long-range weather forecast. Almost there!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Hurry Up, Slow Down

Now I'm into the teens and I've reached that magical part of trip anticipation which my friend Bev has so aptly pointed out is where it hurries up and I need it to slow down. Right now I feel like I have a nice big luscious chocolate truffle in my hand, I want to eat it in maybe two bites, it's starting to melt in my hand a bit, but I want to stop and savor it, and I have to eat my vegetables first. Yes, I want to go quickly, yes I am feeling ready but I just really want to stop and savor it rather than lose these last days to the chaos of getting out the door.

I'm at the point now where I'm starting to think in terms of "one more": one more paycheck, one more haircut, one more run to the pet store, one more "regular" trip to the grocery store. I can also count out other significant milestones: two more full weeks of work, two more weekends at home, three more trips to's coming.

Wednesday I received the final departure packet from the tour operator. It had finalized hotel and flight details, some restaurant names and the roster of all the travelers on the trip (9 of us). And it occurred to me that these 8 other names were the names belonging to people I'd be spending 12 days with. Some of them may be taking my picture at the Great Wall or Tienanmen Square or holding a panda. We'll be schlepping on and off buses, planes and having meals together. If any of you are reading this after the fact, know that I was excited to meet you. Nine strangers coming together to experience the trip of a lifetime.

My packing pile is growing. As magazines are delivered, I save them. As the cosmetics, prescriptions, new clothes arrive, they just hit the pile. In two more weekends they'll all be landing in the Samsonite. Hurry up...slow down!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Wheels in Motion

It's always hard to remember when it occurs, but there always comes a point pre-trip when things just start to happen and I realize I'm going, whether I'm fully ready or not. This has started to happen in the last week or so.

First I received the visa, which is mildly disconcerting only because the only thing I can understand is my own name; the rest of it could read "Panda Stalking Psycho, Beware!" on it and I wouldn't be any the wiser.

Then, one night last week I sat down and went through all my luggage and gadgets. I found the plugs I need and other things I want to take (neck pillow) and culled out things I don't want to take, like numerous cosmetic bags, plugs for Europe, and a UK hair dryer! I ordered a back-up battery for the iPod, paperbacks for the plane rides (Daniel Silva, you better be entertaining at 35,000 feet over the North Pole!), started to flesh out movies and tv series for the iPod, got prescriptions refilled, bought a new windbreaker, compression stockings and still more clothes (hey, summer sales!). I've found ways to post to the blog and Facebook from behind the Chinese Firewall, as well as access email from there. I've confirmed that I'll have an internet connection for every city except Ya'an, where I'll be for three nights. So yes, you will get panda pictures, almost as they happen....

It's almost time to start notifying credit cards and banks that I'll be away and to expect activity in China. I need to start buying snacks, write up the instructions for the cat sitter and stop the newspaper. I know it seems like a finely tuned machine, but I can actually give myself an anxiety attack thinking of all there is to do. ALL there is to do. I still need to figure out how to get to the airport at an ungodly early hour and how to get home at an ungodly late hour.

But it will all come together. It always does. And the weeks and months after the trip, this flurry of activity will all be a distant memory.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

How will it change me?

I think that every trip changes at least a little piece of me. Sometimes I feel it is pretty obvious, sometimes it is more subtle. My first trip to Ireland made me realize how narrow-minded we can be before we've left our own home-country; my travel companion brought with her US postal stamps to mail cards home. She also wanted to jet to Paris for the day from there, like it was going from Massachusetts to New Hampshire. My first trip to Amsterdam made me more conscious of traffic, pedestrians, bikes, bikers without helmets and recycling...go figure.

Russia changed me in that it leveled the playing field in terms of the whole "us vs. them" mentality I had grown up with. Yes, they are different, they were different, they have different political structures, but my exposure to the locals left me almost relieved that they were a lot more like me than I imagined or expected.

How will China change me? What little piece of me needs to be adjusted, corrected, expanded, modified? What preconceived notions do I have that will be remedied? When I look back six months from now, how will my thinking have changed? I've been grappling with this over the weekend as my wait starts to dwindle and I start to think about actually being there as opposed to all that's done to get there.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Phases of Anticipation

The last few weeks has found me going through various phases of anticipation, most of which I've experienced before while waiting anxiously for a trip. Other than last week, I've been responding in a pretty textbook manner as I wait. And wait. And wait.

Initially, there is the euphoria of having just booked another trip. Usually this comes on the heels of the last trip, when I've put the luggage away, finished the photo albums and finally admitted I'm back to reality. "Yay, it's booked," I'll exclaim and then immediately tally the days till departure. This time it was 198 days. Argh.

Once the countdown drops under 100 days, into the double digits, I start to realize it's going to happen. No, really, it's not just been a fun way to kill time reading guide books and internet forums. I'm going to go. I may fuel this fire by watching travel shows or documentaries about the country I'm going to. This was especially true for China, which I have so little exposure to to begin with.

The one speed bump I hit this time that I haven't before is what I mentioned previously: fear. Even with all my preconceived notions about Russia, I was never really afraid of anything. I looked at that trip as a big adventure and fulfillment of a life-long dream. This time just a couple weeks ago, I went through a week-long wave of "I am SO in over my head here." Whether it's the language, the culture, the food (seriously, will I lose a ton of weight on that diet?), the people, the distance from home...what is it that's freaking me out? I had to keep reminding myself I'd be with a group most of the time, that's a security blanket. Somehow, some way, that feeling passed. I'll survive. I always do. I have to think 25+ previous trips out of the country will serve me well.

Now I'm in the "let's just go" phase. Mentally and emotionally I am just tired. I'm tired of being wanted and needed and tired of the daily grind and the same schedule day in and day out. Tired of people asking for things and offering nothing in return. My brain is saying "enough". Watching re-runs of Anthony Bourdain in the Amalfi Coast the other night reminded me of that "a-ha, this is why I travel" feeling that I get when I see something in my travels that makes me stop in my tracks, take a breath and just inhale it through all my senses. I expect the Great Wall may do that, hell, maybe even the ride in from Beijing airport. I need to flush out my mind and shut down the day to day. My mind has that sleepy, hungover feeling that needs a jump start. It's ready, but can it make its way through five more weeks? Let's just go.

I expect next up will be the phase where my organizational skills and past experience kick in and I get ready to go. This is where lists, piles and even project plans come in. I execute the finely tuned machine that gets me out the door. It's starting a bit now. Lists are formulating in my head: what needs to get done and when, who needs to be told and when, what I need to pack and when I can pack it when I know I won't need it again before I go. This is a fun phase only in that it kills time to departure and also is visible, rather than mental, progress towards the goal.

And closer to departure, I usually gave a wave of nostalgic homesickness before I even leave. I always have trouble thinking of leaving my cat alone and my family and friends here to carry on the drudgery without me. It's such a short time in the scheme of things, but I always count "how many sleeps without me" and wonder again why it is I'd want to leave the comfort of home. I've read on travel forums that this is normal. I've never not felt it before any trip, so I expect I'll hit it again this time.

Finally, in the last few days before I go, there's the butterflies in the belly, the restless sleep of an eager traveler, the "oh my gosh, it's here" feeling once the bags are mostly packed and mentally I've checked out of my day to day before I'm even gone. I know in a matter of several days or even a couple weeks I'll be home again, and looking to kick off the vicious cycle all over again.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Into the 30s

Now that I'm officially into the 30s in my countdown to China, I think I can safely start physically preparing without anyone thinking I've lost my marbles.  Not that I care, mind you.

Last week was a significant milestone in that I sent my visa application in.  I'm using the same agency as I did for my Russian visa, which is located in Arlington, Virginia.  Since there is no Chinese consulate that processes visas in the Boston area, I'm relying on the agency to do the legwork for me, for a price, of course.  So with this milestone, I'm $201 poorer.  All in the name of travel.

Just yesterday I started my staging area for the trip.  In case you weren't following along for the pre-Russia insanity, this is where I start piling things up as I think of them; ultimately they will end up getting packed.  It's usually a corner of my home office.  And it will gather everything from books, guides, gadgets, cosmetics to clothes.  The piling has begun!

This morning I looked into what plug adapters I'll need to charge my camera, iPod and laptop.  China is proving to be somewhat of a challenge in that there are three possible prong configurations in use.  One is the UK plug, one is similar to our two-prong plug and the third is a hybrid I've never seen.  I'm fairly certain I have all of these in my collection of travel gadgets.  Note to self: look for them.

In order to fully test the powers of my camera, I've visited three zoos locally and learned what the various automatic and manual settings do for my photos.  Of course going to see wild animals is hardly a hardship for me, but this "play with camera" excuse works well.

Yesterday I spent about 7 1/2 hours with a friend of mine at a gorgeous beach.  The time flew and felt like a heartbeat between the time we arrived and the time we packed up to go.  Then I thought about it riding home and realized if that was my trip to China from Chicago, I'd still have about 6 hours left.  Gulp.  Note to self: find really good plane reading.

One thing I'm really researching is how to access the internet from China.  Since they are fairly rigid about access to certain Western sites (blogspot being one of them) I am trying out various methods for accessing Blogspot as well as the internet in general.  I really am hoping to find a reliable VPN (virtual private network) that will be immune to their firewalls.  Not only do I want to be able to post to Blogspot, but also to send and receive email as well.  Fingers crossed.

It hasn't all been really smooth sailing leading up to this point.  About 10 days ago I went through a period of about a week where I was really freaked out about going to China.  I don't know what it was but for several days I had convinced myself that this is quite possibly the craziest thing I've done.  And it just may be.  But I can talk myself down with thoughts of seeing some amazing sights, experiencing the most unique culture that I have been exposed to to date, and of course working with the pandas.  Sigh...find inner calm.  Inhale pink, exhale blue.

Next up on the checklist:  find plug adapters, order travel sized products, get prescriptions filled, find good plane books, get visa back, find VPN for internet access.

Damn, lots of work to be done....