Wednesday, May 25, 2011

No-Vacation Nation

Yep, that's what America is called. Why? Because we cannot take a break from our busy work lives to take advantage of the few vacation days we are granted every year.

Compared to other countries, we get a meager amount of paid time off. For those of you who know me, or read my blog enough, you know how I feel about vacation  and taking time away from work. I think it is a travesty that we only get two weeks off a year. Think about it...12 months of work, five days a week, eight to nine hours of work a day. I'm not in the mood to do the math, but that translates to a lot of days spent in the office. Sitting at a desk. Toiling away in front of a computer. Working long hours on presentations, meetings, projects. It can become thoroughly exhausting, having a negative effect on our personal lives, health and overall happiness. And yet we hang on to those vacation days, reluctant to spend even one.

Why?!?

There are many theories behind this workaholic epidemic. The first is that some companies just straight up do not like employees taking off a lot of time, which is why many people refuse to take long vacations and will limit their trips to one week stints. Also, many companies expect workers to call or check their email while away from their desk, making it nearly impossible to have a legitimate vacation from work. A major readon that Americans travel less or take less time off is because companies due not have a legal obligation to offer vacation. Places like Germany, for instance, requires employers to offer four weeks or more paid vacation, and Finland, Brazil and France guarantee six weeks. But U.S. employers are not mandated by law to offer vacation time, so about a quarter of all American worker do not have access to it. This makes America the only advanced nation that does not guarantee workers annual leave, according to reports.

So what's going on here? Obviously, there are many companies who do provide vacation to employees, but many simply do not use it, or at least not all of it. An article from CNN said that only 57% of workers use up all the days they are entitled to, compared to 89% of workers in France. The average employee gets about 18 days of vacation, but most only use 14. If you figure each American leaves those 4 days unused, that means there are 448 million vacation days just sitting there, waiting to be enjoyed. So why do we do this? Well, when it comes down to it, we are still working on getting out of a recession, and many people are reluctant to be away from the office for fear of being laid-off. I mean, if a company is looking to save money, the first ones to go are the ones who are not around as often.

Another theory is that we like to work. A happiness study showed that working more makes Americans happier than Europeans. I mean, it's called the American Dream because you work hard for it, which means more people associate hard work with success. So while Europeans look to leisure to complete their lives, Americans look to work. Perhaps I should move.

I'm not saying I hate working. In fact, work is a good way to stay busy, keep me motivated and make a living. But, I also believe strongly in the benefits of taking a day off. Just this past Monday, I came into the office, prepared to work. Unfortunately, our office network and internet were down, making it pretty much impossible to do anything. So, a lot of people worked from home. My manager and I decided that would not be the most productive route, and took the day off. It was a much needed chunk of time to take care of other tasks, go for a run, cook a nice meal and relax. I felt energized when I came to work Tuesday, less stressed and prepared to take on the day. If one day off could do all that, just imagine taking the full 18 days I am allowed every year.

Other countries cringe when they hear Americans usually only get two weeks off, encouraging their image of us working like robots. While companies in the U.S. argue that too much vacation time would hurt productivity and get rid of a competitive edge, critics say there is no evidence to support that. Maybe there is something to be said for Americans working as hard as we do, but I believe that there is a lack of life balance that needs to be acknowledged. It's not just about working hard and bringing in the money, it is also about taking time out for family and yourself.

As far as my minimum amount of vacation days goes, you can bet I'm taking every single one of them. I will not be one of those Americans who backlogs a few days, because more often than not those will not transfer over to the next year, and will be lost forever in the abyss of unused time off.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Art of Traveling Solo

A recent study found that a broken heart can result in actual physical pain, meaning that when we end a romantic relationship, our bodies can be affected as well as our hearts. Social and romantic rejection can be just as harmful as damage to our bodies, which leads me to believe that's the reason we hang on as hard as we do. And yet breakups are bound to happen, and there is no magical pain reliever to make the ache and sadness go away. But there is travel.

Perhaps the idea of going on a trip by yourself is even more depressing than the fact that it takes a whole paycheck to fill up your gas tank...but hear me out. Traveling alone can be a very liberating experience. Not only will you get the chance to see some incredible places along your journey, but you will also gain a new sense of self worth and confidence in your abilities. You have to rely on yourself when you travel solo, which means you will be taking care of everything, including hotel, food, sightseeing and entertainment, all on your own. It can be a little daunting at first, but once you do it, you will realize you are capable of a lot more than you thought. Suddenly, the things that seemed intimidating before will seem easy. Bring on that flat tire or that 10K!

Traveling alone gives you the freedom to do what you want to do, without worrying about someone else's agenda. That may sound selfish, but who cares? You're on your own, so all you should care about is you. And if you happen to meet a companion along the way, great! That's another great part of solo travel, the incredible people you encounter. Because being alone will ultimately force you out of your comfort zone and push you to talk to the stranger at the next table or inquire about where that woman got her dress. Who knows, you could meet your new best friend or find your soul mate. Hey, it could happen.

If you cannot seem to think of a good place to go alone, here is a list of ideas that may give you a good starting off point.

  • The Irish are some of the friendliest people around, so what better place to go and meet some new friends than the Emerald Isle. And if you recall an earlier post I wrote, Ireland is in need of tourists, and the rates are very reasonable. The Independent Traveler suggests going to the Dublin Writers Museum and going on a literary tour of famous authors. If you are more of an outdoorsy type, take a walking tour of the Wicklow Mountains, Valleys and Lakes. 
  • Some of the most adventurous people out there are Australians, and a trip to their country could give you a little boost into the solo travel state of mind. The biggest issue you will face is getting there, since it is pretty pricey and the flight is incredibly long. Sydney is the obvious first city to visit, and there is plenty to do there, you will certainly never get bored.
  • Many people like to go to tropical locations on their vacations, but those are usually associated with romance. But Iceland certainly isn't. If you visit, you must go to the Blue Lagoon Spa, a large outdoor geothermal bath surrounded by lava rocks. 
  • For a little taste of everything, Peru has one of the most diverse landscapes, cultures and food. Try the Inca Trail in the Andes, one of the top hiking trails that leads to the famous ruins of Machu Picchu. Check out Cusco to meet other fellow travelers making the trek to the historic location.
  • Turkey is a great exotic location to discover a unique culture and its traditions. Istanbul is a historic city with a modern vibe, where the nightlife is just as exciting as New York City or Los Angeles. There are some areas in Turkey that women should not venture to alone, so just make sure you are aware of your surroundings.
  • Singapore is a great little island at the tip of Malaysia that is perfect for experiencing the far east without going too far outside your comfort zone. For foodies, go during July for the Singapore Food Festival, and music lovers will love the Sun Festival in the fall. If you go, definitely check out the Fountain of Wealth, the Guinness-approved largest fountain in the world. 
  • If you want to stay in this country, there's no better place to visit than New York. Half the population is already single, so a solo traveler will fit right in. Not only is there a great social scene, but it's got some of the best shopping anywhere.
I realize that many of these locations cater a bit more to women, but men can enjoy them as well. But some places that are a bit more male oriented include Las Vegas (I know, pretty cliche), Bankok (also featured in the next Hangover flick), Seoul, Miami, Buenos Aires and Barcelona. For a longer list of destinations, check out this article from AskMen.com.

If you are still wary about the thought of hitting the road sans friends or family, there are other options. Numerous companies offer trips dedicated to singles, and the beauty is that you won't actually be alone; there will be other singles along for the ride. So you can all be single together.


SinglesCruise.com is a cruise-only company that caters to singles. While the whole ship is not reserved for singles, about twenty percent of it will be taken up by people in the program. They throw cocktail parties, games, lectures, and nightly singles-only get togethers. The company also hosts a pre-cruise meet and greet so guests can get to know each other before going on the trip.

The Connecting: Solo Travel Network is a good place to learn about single travel deals. It costs a fee to be a member, but some think its worth it for the discounts, special offers and great people you can meet through the organization.

Obviously, single travel is difficult especially when many companies and hotels charge for double occupancy. But more and more businesses are learning the benefits of embracing solo travelers, mostly because it is a growing segment in the travel industry. A lot of cruise lines are dropping their single supplement fees for singles, and many travel agents and tour companies are working to expand their offerings to provide more affordable and attractive trips. Singles Travel International launched more "weekend sample tours," which are short, two- or three-day trips to places in North America. These are quick vacations to help ease people into single travel, and are a popular way to escape for a weekend.

I am well aware of how difficult being alone can be, but I do believe that getting away from the everyday is one of the best ways to heal. Sure, having a friend or family member along for the ride would be great, but if you have to go it alone, there are plenty of resources at your disposal to make it enjoyable. A trip alone is scary and thrilling and nerve-wracking, but that is what makes it so much more worth while. Because if you don't take the plunge, how will you ever move away from the pain and into the next chapter of your life?

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Urban Playground

On Friday, I had the opportunity to see a few short movies at the Architecture & Design Film Festival that visited Chicago. My friend and I saw a pack of four films all relating in some way to architecture and how it affects the environment around us, how it can help make the world better. While all of them were very interesting, it was the final film that really fascinated me. It was called "My Playground," and it followed the lives of Team JiYo, the Danish Parkour and freerunning team.

If you do not know what Parkour is, you are not alone. Many people are unfamiliar with it, but it is a worldwide phenomenon. The best way to describe it is getting from one place to another by moving around obstacles in an efficient way. Wikipedia defines it as:
a non-competitive, physical discipline of French origin in which participants run along a route, attempting to negotiate obstacles in the most efficient way possible, using only their bodies. Skills such as jumping, climbing, vaulting, rolling, swinging and wall scaling are employed. Parkour can be practiced anywhere, but areas dense with obstacles are preferable and it is most commonly practiced in urban areas.
 Basically, it is a bunch of adults running around on the streets using anything and everything as their own personal playground.

The movie explores how the Parkour athletes interact with urban spaces and buildings in Copenhagen and around the world, and how their lifestyle is transforming the way architects and city officials see cities. Award winning Danish architect Bjarke Ingels was featured for his innovative structures, mainly The Mountain, which is a frequented place for team JiYo. In the film he was in the middle of constructing 8House, which is a residential complex that features a winding ramp connecting all levels. The concept was chosen so that a person, ideally, could ride a bike all the way up the building. Ingels tries to find a balance between playful and practical in all his structures, which is perfect for Parkour.

I found the whole thing pretty eye opening, mostly because these people look at the world in such a different way. While you and I see a basic city street, Parkour athletes see it as a playground, an obstacle course, an adventure. In all honesty, I think we can all learn from their life, even if we cannot do back flips off staircases or 360s from railings.

As someone from the film said, they get to where they are going just like everyone else, the path is just a little different.

If you want to see a teaser from the film, check it out below:
MTN - MY PLAYGROUND ON THE MOUNTAIN from BIG on Vimeo.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports

If you are not sure what I am refering to, then you probably aren't a gambler.

Churchill Downs. Credit: Kentucky Tourism
The Kentucky Derby is set to take place tomorrow in Louisville at the famous Churchill Downs racetrack, where thousands of people will be gathered--dressed in their finest suits and gaudiest hats--to watch the 20-odd contestants race 1 1/4 miles for the $2.1 million prize.

It is a highly anticipated race for sports fans and bookies alike as people put both their hearts and their wallets on the table once the horses have been loaded into the starting gate. While I am not much of a horse-racing fan, and I am definitely not one to gamble, I still enjoy tuning in for the big event, mostly to observe the cultural aspect of it all.

This year marks the 137th running of the Derby, and the event continues to captivate audiences worldwide, not just because of the excitement of the race, but also the wonderful traditions that have become iconic over the decades. From the garland of roses and the Twin Spires to the Mint Juleps and Kentucky Oaks, the Derby has become a cherished part of our history. For those of you who are unaware of the details of this timeless celebration, allow me to elaborate.

Garland of roses. Credit: Kentucky Derby
The first race took place in 1875 in the city of Louisville, Kentucky, a place with a long history of horseracing that dates back to 1783. Though it isn't really clear why, the race became a sensation. The rose became a symbol of the event when it was presented to all the ladies that attended a fashionable derby party. The then president of Churchill Downs adopted it as the official race flower, and the rose garland is now synonymous with the celebration after it was presented to the winner in the 1896 running. In 1925, the race was dubbed "The Run of the Roses" and the garland that you see today has been used ever since 1932. Each year, 400 red roses are strung together on a green backing with the seal of the Commonwealth on one end the Twin Spires on the other. Each one also has a crown of roses, green fern and ribbon placed in the center.

The Twin Spires are a landmark in Kentucky. They were built in 1895 atop the racetrack complex and designed by Joseph Dominic Baldez who was recruited to sketch out the new grandstand. Though the spires were not included in the original plan, they were embraced as monuments by all.

As far as cuisine goes, the Kentucky Derby certainly serves up some interesting and classic dishes.

Mint Julep. Credit: Southerliving.com
I'll start with drinks, since the event is so quick, people need libations to keep them happy. The Mint Julep is the signature drink at Churchill Downs, and has been for almost a century. Early Times Distillery has become the name behind the drink, serving up its cocktail for the last 18 years. The company has served up nearly 120,000 drinks each year. The cocktail consists of simple syrup, fresh mint, Early Times Whisky, and crushed ice. If you can't make it to Louisville for one of these, they are sold at local retailers. Critics of this drink say it isn't a proper Julep because it does not contain Bourbon, so if you are looking for something a bit more intense, I suggest making your own or finding something at a local bar. A lesser known cocktail is the Oaks Lily, made with vodka, sweet and sour mix, cranberry juice and Triple Sec.

A local creation, Hot Brown is an open sandwich that is made with sliced turkey, crispy bacon, and buttered toast drenched in Mornay sauce--which is like bechamel (bay-shah-MEL) with cheese. It was invented by the chef at the Brown Hotel in the 1920s and has been a staple of the race ever since. Kentucky Burgoo can best be described as a stew, mostly because it has no known origin and there are countless ways to make it. Basically, its consists of a bunch of meat like mutton, beef, pork and chicken, an assortment of corn, potatoes, lima beans, tomatoes, and a range of spices like Worcestershire. Finally, the Kentucky Derby would not be complete without the Derby Pie. It was invented 50 years ago at Melrose Ince in Prospect, Kentucky. The crust is filled with semi-sweet chocolate and English walnuts and topped with whipped cream.

Derby hat. Credit: Boston.com
Apart from the symbolic racetrack, the delicious drinks and delectable food, the Kentucky Derby is known for one other thing: HATS! Every year people come dressed in their best dresses and top-quality suits, topping it all off with an ostentatious hat. There are no rules as to how big or small a hat is suppose to be, but there is certainly a stigma when it comes to wearing one--it's a must! Perhaps its Southern charm or a status symbol, but the fashionable hat is certainly a tradition in which everyone loves to revel.

For me, the Kentucky Derby showcases a culture that is completely different from the everyday. When people step onto the premises of Chruchill Downs, they are transported to another time, another world. It is a spectacle that can only be experienced once a year, and then it is gone, pushed to the background until the anticipation builds again next spring, when women can buy a new flashy hat, and men can stir up another minty treat.

Cherish the moment while you have it, because, after all, it is only two minutes from the moment the gates fly open to when the horses cross over the finish line.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Aqua: A Hawaiian Boutique Hotel Chain

Once again my daily internet surfing has led me to another great travel find: Aqua Hotels & Resorts.

This boutique chain of hotels span across five of the Hawaiian islands, offering travelers a unique getaway in the tropical paradise. The chain has upscale, budget-friendly and remote properties, so no matter what people are looking for, they are sure to find a hotel that suits their needs.

Me, for instance, am a young travler on a tight budget, so I decided to check out Aqua's Lite Line, which features five options at a lower price. Pretty much all of them are located somewhere in Waikiki, so if you are looking for something less touristy, you will want to check out one of the chains more expensive hotels.

Aloha Surf & Spa. Credit: Aqua Resorts website
The Aqua Aloha Surf & Spa sits in a quiet neighborhood, but is still only five minutes from the excitement of the beach and Kuhio Avenue. This place is a surfer's paradise, with the lounge decked out with large screen televisions broadcasting surf classics and edgy decor that speaks to the free spirited traveler. Each room has internet, a flat screen TV, microwave, mini fridge and coffee maker. If you are lucky enough to snag a view room, you will get a lovely picture of the Ala Wai Golf Course with teh Koolau Mountain range in the background. Budget-conscious guests will also enjoy the complimentary Continental breakfast that includes fresh fruit, pastries and beverages. There is also a complimentary reception every Tuesday from 5-6 featuring the hotel's signature drink "The Wipeout."

The Aloha Surf & Spa was the one that most caught my attention, but the company has a few other budget hotels worth checking out: The Aqua Waikiki Pearl recently underwent a renovation to update its rooms and general layout; Maile Sky Court is a high-rise hotel at the western end of Waikiki; Park Shore Waikiki offers some of the best views of the beach and surrounding city; and Waikiki Wave Hotel &Resort has been named a top best-value hotel by Budget Travel magazine.

I didn't bother looking at Aqua's more upscale resorts--partly because I did not want to torture myself by looking at pictures of a place I could never afford. However, if you are lucky enough to have the funds to stay at a more expensive hotel, I suggest checking out their luxury boutiques, especially the ones that are a little further from the beach, nestled in the more secluded confines of the Hawaiian islands.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

May has Arrived...

...and I cannot wait til it ends!

May is here, which means we are that much closer to summer. To consistent warm weather--enough of this one 80-degree day followed by a week in the 40s. To rooftop bars and weekend barbecues. To beach volleyball games and warm evening strolls. Yes, summer is an exciting time, but we still have to get through May before we can really start to enjoy it. In fact, I usually consider Memorial Day weekend the official kick off of summer.

American Flag. credit:americanconsumernews.com
While my plans for that glorious three-day weekend are still pending, I do know that they will involve some form of grilling, plenty of drinks, and lots of friends. There is no better way to spend it really, except maybe a trip somewhere. (Come on, you honestly didn't see that one coming?)

So, where would you travel for Memorial Day? Of course, you could do something themed to go along with the holiday, like visiting Washington D.C. and doing a tour of all the war memorials. Or something a little more elaborate like gonig to Hawaii to see the site of the Pearl Harbor attacks. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, so a weekend to the Gettysburg area could be a good option. New York is a great choice, since it not only features a wonderful Memorial Day parade, but it also is the site of Fleet Week, where sailors and servicemen dock in the harbor and show their American pride by strutting around in uniform.

No matter where you choose to spend the holiday, you will be sure to find some kind of special event or celebration going on. If not, you can always throw your own party!