CaSandra’s Top 7 Favorite Travel Items – 2019

Welcome to CaSandra’s list of Top 7 favorite travel items!

Do you need some gift ideas for that travel, nomadic friend of yours but can’t seem to figure out what to get them?

I am putzing around browsing on-line searching for upcoming Cyber Monday sales and while I have travel on my mind <shocking>, I came up with this blog post idea to put together a handpicked list of my top 7 favorite travel items found on Amazon – my favorite shopping site.

In no particular order:

  1. Rockland Luggage 2 Piece Set, Pink, One Size

I love pink but if you’re not a fan, this 2 piece luggage set comes in tons of different colors and current price is only $29.97. Great value especially if you just need the smaller carry-on piece! Super cute. By the way, I like boxes…and suitcases so I don’t really need this, but I want it. One can never have enough luggage pieces.

2. COOLIFE Luggage Expandable(only 28″) Suitcase PC+ABS Spinner 

I’m a fan of soft-sided carry ons but if you are looking for something a bit more rugged – here is a plastic hard-shell suitcase made by CoolLife.  They offer 3 different sizes and they also come  with a 2-year warranty. What I like about the plastic hard-shell is that I can put my travel stickers all over it.

The suitcase also comes with a TSA lock, so you can make sure your valuables are secure and safe. I can’t guarantee this lock will keep the TSA snoopers from going through luggage, but maybe?

Prices start at $59.99 (normally about $250 bucks) and also comes in various colors.

3. RFID Blocking Travel Passport Wallet  Tri-fold Document Organizer Holder

This passport holder comes in various colors but I am a fan of the “Tiffany” blue mint color. Current price is $15.99.

I call this one “travel optimized” -It’s roomy with 1 passport pocket, 1 boarding pass compartment, 3 credit cards slots, 1 id slot, 1 sim card pouch, 1 boarding pass (yes, I still like to print mine) slot, 1 cellphone pouch (max 5.8 inches), 1 money & coins zippered pocket (fits U.S. currency), 1 key holder and 1 pen holder and 1 slim pocket.

It can hold everything so please don’t lose it.

4. RXSQUL International Power Adapter, Universal Power Travel Adapter

I usually blow up power adapters (don’t ask how) so like suitcases, I have many. Price $20.99

Covers more than 200 Countries such as Canada, USA, Mexico, France, Germany, Japan, China, Korea, India, Italy, Brazil, Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Etc. and supports up to 6 devices so they can charge simultaneously. Built in smart IC chip can detect the amount of power in each devices and allocate amp wisely for maximum charging speed.

Note – this is an adapter, not a converter so it won’t convert voltage. I usually don’t find a need for a voltage converter, but if you need one, check this one out: Sokoo Power Converter 220V to 110V for $44.99. A voltage converter will convert voltage that is suitable for most American hair dryers, phones and curling/flat irons.

Ok – so maybe I do need the Power Converter one because there was that one time that I scorched my hair because my flat iron became too hot.

5. Packing Cubes

My son-in-law, Victor gave me my first set of packing cubes and my life has never been the same. Mostly because of the packing cubes, not because he is in it (Just kidding, Victor!).

Even if you’re not OCD like me, you need these. Current price is $14.44 – also comes in various colors. I really don’t know how using these help you to pack MORE stuff – but somehow they do.
6. Coolibar UPF 50+ Women’s Bhakti Sun Shawl 

There are quite a few things I like about this shawl. It’s big enough to cover yourself up while the freezing on the airplane, it’s sun protective and it’s made out of some type of fiber that is fused with some type of antimicrobial protected thing that prevents the growth of 99.9% of bacteria to help eliminate odor. You can use it a scarf or to tie yourself to your best friend while sleeping in the Sahara so that if one gets kidnapped, so does the other.

Antimicrobial infused fabric is super important when you’re not able to wash your things for a couple of days. Which could happen while traveling.

Current price is $39.00 – and comes in different colors.

7. Tide Sink Packets

Speaking of stinky…I always have a few of these in my luggage just in case I’m not able to find a laundry mat or my AirBnb does not have a washing machine. *I rarely stay in hotels and even if I did, I refuse to pay the super high prices to wash my clothes. It’s always good to have a travel clothesline handy as well. These two items probably don’t belong on my top 7 list, but they are definitely necessary and I really do like clean clothes.

I really want to continue on for about 10 more items but I will keep it short and sweet. There you have it! Do you have any favorites you want to share? If so, drop a comment below!

xoxo

~ CaSandra

Why doesn’t anyone believe me? I am Vietnamese.

Why doesn’t anyone believe me? I am Vietnamese.

I grew up as an only child in a Vietnamese household surrounded by a 1980’s American southern town. Learning to speak English when I was at school while learning to speak Vietnamese at home posed plenty of innate challenges like getting an ‘r’ to not sound like a ‘wah’ and an ‘l’ to not sound like a ‘wah’….well, come to think about it, I spent a lot of time trying to not have many things sound like ‘wah.’ To top this off, I was not the stereotypical Asian kid…silky black hair, thin and almond eyes…I was the super-sized version with frizzy hair and wide eyes so I was often asked, “What are you?” As political correctness became more popular, it evolved to, “Where are you from?”

I was constantly asked this. And still am.

After my sarcastic responses that ranged from Conyers (the suburban city on the outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia where I grew up) to Yemen wore out, I now say Vietnamese with a sigh because I know the response every time will inevitably be, “Really? I would have never guessed.” And 99% of the time, I’m asked this by another Asian (literally, it’s the first thing they say to me after hello) so once I disclose my heritage, I get to hear how they are amazed that I’m Vietnamese because they themselves are Vietnamese and I look like no one in their family and surely I don’t look like anyone else in my family so there must be ‘something else’ in me.  It’s oh so fun.

When I booked my trip to Thailand as my first country in Asia to visit, I mentally prepared myself for this question to be asked of me throughout the entire trip. And since I tend to face my fears or annoyances in full force, I decided to include Vietnam as part of the trip to see if I could get to the root of all this confusion about me. And even more so, I wanted to understand what the fascination was behind always wanting to know which Asiatic country an Asian was from. Maybe it’s to gain a sense of community? That’s my best guess and maybe that’s why it’s never occurred to me to ask the same question because I have never felt like I was part of that community. Well, this is going into a completely separate subject so I digress…

Thailand surprised me. Not once in the week and half that I was there, was I asked where I was from. I even tried to coerce the question out of a few people I talked to by asking how long they lived in Bangkok, whether they enjoyed it etc to pry the question out of them. At first I thought maybe they weren’t interested in knowing more about me, but they would ask a barrage of other questions about my travels and history but not once was I asked where I was from.  In Phuket, I went to a local restaurant and even tried a “well, this is definitely not what I grew up with” to see if I would be asked but again, no questions about my heritage.

Ceremony in Hanoi

In Vietnam, I had the same experience. Time after time, I would talk to a local and not once was I asked that inescapable question. But what I did learn to do was to take full advantage of this, specifically when shopping. Bargaining is widely accepted when looking to purchase something so I would inquire about the price in English and ask any questions in English…and if it was something that I wanted, I would start bargaining in Vietnamese. Jaws dropped every single time I did this and I started my own little competition to see how far I could get someone’s jaw to drop.  The winner was when I saw tonsils.

And this is when I realized the answer to my question: Not one person that I encountered in Vietnam realized I was Vietnamese.

This sums up the range of reactions I would receive when telling someone I am Vietnamese.

After I started speaking in Vietnamese, a few people would then ask me where I was from and again, it was followed by disbelief…and sometimes what I perceived as amazement…but every reaction solidified my acknowledgement that I did not carry whatever traits signify my heritage. I did talk to a few locals in length and learned that they had assumed I was a Westerner and well, a Westerner is a Westerner. It didn’t matter if I was from London or Detroit. They also talked to me about how in Vietnamese culture, it is very important to have a sense of community because in many areas, the community is just like extended family. I suspect this is the same for other Asian countries and it answered my question as to why I’m asked this so much when in America. Maybe they simply wanted to see if I was part of their community.

I thought this experience would bring some sort of enlightenment to my past and why I do certain things that I do…maybe feeling like an outsider all these years is why I want to experience the world to see if there is a place that I would ‘fit in’…maybe this is why there’s some reason I’m never physically attracted to another Asian…maybe this is why I love Asian food because it’s the only thing I can relate to…maybe this is all psychobabble that a therapist would say to me. Because I didn’t have any of these feelings. On the contrary, this experience gave me the most overwhelming sense of fulfillment. I was still an unknown in my own home country and I realized I was absolutely okay with that. I kinda felt like an undercover agent walking around the streets of Hanoi, knowing no one suspected I could understand what they were saying…and I like the fact that I’m a mystery to anyone who tries to guess my heritage because only I (and well, my family) know the real answer. So next time I go get my nails done, at the same salon I’ve been to for the past 5 years, and am asked yet again, “where are you from?” I will say, I am Vietnamese. And you?

Confessions of a Female Solo Traveler

Confessions of a Female Solo Traveler

I’m in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia by myself and I was just attacked. I followed all the “do’s” that I was supposed to…walked in a well lit area with plenty of pedestrians and cars and kept my eye out for anything strange. I saw him walking towards me and could tell he was inebriated beyond sense…but instead of choosing to cross the street (which I couldn’t have done given the traffic), I chose to walk cautiously pass him.

My gut was right. In the blink of an eye, he grabbed me by my shirt and tried to pull my sling bag off…jibberish came rushing out of my lungs and thankfully strangers came to my rescue. I was left with a bruise on my side, his spit on my face and a couple of cops to console me. This is now the second time I’ve been attacked abroad…and I was much luckier this time around.

Now, safely back at my hotel and a fifth of tequila, I’m wondering…what the hell am I doing here? Traveling solo was never something that I aspired to do.

But after years and years of dreaming about traveling, I finally had the resources – specifically money – to do it but couldn’t get calendars to work with my partner or friends that wanted to travel with me. I had to make a decision: continue to wait until someone could travel with me or do it on my own. I chose the latter because life is just too short to wait.

As an acknowledged introvert, I was pretty anxious about this decision and decided to start small. In 2009, I booked a trip to Seattle where I met up with friends then went solo to Vancouver for a few days. I pumped up the bass in my PT Cruiser rent-a-car and drove across the border, checked into my hotel and did exactly what I wanted to do each day. Whether it was sleeping in or walking in circles through Stanley Park in search of a mysterious totem pole…my agenda was 100% me.

I learned that it didn’t kill me to go to a club alone and I was not the wallflower I had feared I would be. I learned that asking strangers for help was okay and not a sign of incompetence. I learned that it wasn’t the end of the world if I was lost because I was capable of figuring things out on my own. And I think the most important realization I had was that it was indeed, okay for me to be selfish and focus strictly on me.

Since then, I’ve traveled solo all over Latin America, Europe, Asia, Australia, North America and most recently booked a trip to Antarctica. It is liberating. Self-fulfilling. Intoxicating. Extraordinary. It’s pulled the extrovert out from inside of me. It has made me realize my limits and allowed me to meet amazing people across the globe. I’m still addicted even with this incident. And considering that I’ve traveled to more than 300 cities…twice attacked is actually less than the incidents that have occurred to me in my own home city.

But in moments like this, it does get fucking lonely.  I’m in unfamiliar territory and don’t speak the native language. And I could use a hug. Thank goodness for free apps like Whatsapp (A free messaging app that allows you to stay in touch with friends and family over wifi) and now that it’s been a few conversations with familiar people and a couple of drinks later…I know this will not be my last solo venture. As much as I love traveling with my partner or friends…traveling solo continues to open new facets within myself and I’m in love with the experience. So I’m starting to reminisce about other ways I’ve combated loneliness during previous trips…

  • Pretending I’m straight. Ok, I’m not proud of this but when you’re a solo female in a country that is primarily homophobic (and has laws against it), you’re not going to want to emit any rainbow rays. And if I can score a free drink and an ego boost, what’s the harm? But I only do this when I want to experience some night life and there’s no gay options…and I never get drunk because flirting with a guy or two at the bar is one thing…but you have to make sure you stay safe and guarded.
  • But, if I’m in a country where there are gay options and I’m single, one nighters can certainly keep a gal occupied for a night or two. It’s especially fun when you don’t speak the same language so you immediately don’t have to deal with any conversational miscues or having to pretend to care about what they do for a living etc…it’s just pure adulterated enjoyment.
  • Sitting at the bar at a restaurant is the best way to dine alone and if you’re lucky you can get some custom cocktails from the bartender and chat with your fellow solo diners…maybe even make a new friend.
  • Booking a tour at the beginning of the trip. Since I’m a foodie, I gravitate towards the food tours but general city tours will also work. In almost every tour I’ve booked, there’s always another solo traveler and it’s a great way to meet someone who may want to do other things in the city with you…and at the very least, share some encouraging stories to each other.
  • Always keeping a book handy. I love reading, but especially enjoy it when I travel. I’ll find a coffee shop or a good people watching venue…order a drink and sit back and relax. It’s great to overhear conversations too which sometimes leads to meeting new people.

Ok, enough reminiscing. I’m realizing that I don’t have to do these things that often because frankly, it’s rare that I feel lonely when traveling solo. The destination is my friend and the experiences are my connection…and it’s an endless parade of variety to keep me occupied. Because of this, every trip makes me feel like I’m getting closer to understanding who I really am…who I really want to be…and despite this blunder tonight, I know I’ll be okay. Sounds like a pretty damn good relationship to me. Now, I have the rest of this city to explore tomorrow because it’ll be a new and wonderful day. Good night.

From Fugu to Guinea Pig – 5 Strange Delights to Try While Traveling!

From Fugu to Guinea Pig – 5 Strange Delights to Try While Traveling!

I travel to eat.

Being able to experience new cultures, learn about local lifestyles and seeing jaw dropping natural and man-made wonders amongst all the other benefits from traveling are great bonuses but at the end of the day, all I want to do is devour any new cuisine or cocktail a city has to offer. As a consequence, I run (roughly 4-5 miles a day) my ass off in between trips to counteract the glorious calories I’ve ingested during my travels and it’s worth every drop of sweat. I’m often asked, “what’s the craziest thing you’ve ever eaten?” And well, this is my response to that very question.

First, you should know that I grew up in an Asian household and although we live in the U.S., we stuck to the Asian mentality that anything is edible. So while my elementary classmates ate their Captain Crunch cereal and PB&J sandwiches at school, I had rice and tripe with fish sauce packed in my Transformers’ lunch box.

Our family dinners always had rice paired with anything from a good ol’ American ribeye to blood sausage with bitter melon…and celebrating holidays continue to make me laugh when I look at our Thanksgiving day spread of broccoli casserole (thanks Paula Deen!) and turkey next to eggrolls and fried chicken feet.

So it’s hard to say what the craziest thing is that I’ve ever eaten because what is crazy to you may be a normal Wednesday lunch for me.

Instead, here are some of my most interesting eats:

1. Balut

Balut in Hanoi, Vietnam
Balut in Hanoi, Vietnam

This is an Asian delicacy and was often a treat my parents would make for me. As a child, I would gobble up these pre-hatched embryos, slurp the egg juice and wash it down with a nice cold yoohoo. I loved these suckers. But as I grew up and I started to realize exactly what were in these eggs…I mean, the poor little baby duck has feathers and eyes!…I became grossed out and could not stomach them anymore. Then I visited Hanoi, Vietnam where these are available at numerous street vendors so I attempted to revive my childhood delight and I ordered one. That’s as far as I got. One look at the poor little creature and I couldn’t do it so this is one cuisine I will have to consider history that I will not repeat again.

2. Fugu

Who can say no to tasting something that could kill you? Fugu, the Japanese word for pufferfish, is a prized dish commonly offered in Japan and requires expert preparation. In fact, I personally would never try this anywhere else but in Japan because Fugu poisoning is 1200 times stronger than cyanide and in Japan there are super strict regulations to ensure the safety of consumers. It’s not worth the risk to try this dish anywhere else but from the heartland. The risk of human error didn’t dissuade me and as soon as I cleared customs at the Tokyo airport, I went straight to Torafugu Tei in Shibuya, Tokyo to get this pufferfish into my belly.

The classic preparation is sashimi style. Dip these deadly slivers of fugu into some soy sauce and it tastes

Fugu in Tokyo, Japan
Fugu in Tokyo, Japan

like nothing more than a thin chewy piece of latex dipped in soy sauce. I also tried the chargrilled version and poached version but it basically has a semi-tasteless flesh that makes you forget what all the fuss is about…but also makes you thankful to live another bite.

3. Guinea Pig

Guinea Pig in Quito, Ecuador
Guinea Pig in Quito, Ecuador

In many countries, guinea pig is eaten like Americans eat chicken.  Growing up in the states, where guinea pigs were often pets…it was hard for me to stomach the idea of trying this when it was offered to me at a roadside restaurant in Quito, Ecuador. But I realized that I suffer from the mindset of “not wanting to see how the hamburger is made” and that this is just like any other protein source that we eat on a daily basis. And boy was it delicious. Imagine the juiciest pork you’ve ever eaten with that fried chicken skin snap and you’ve got it.

4. Geoduck

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Geoduck in Seattle, Washington

My inner teenage self just loves this one. Google any photo of geoduck and you’ll quickly see why. Commonly found on the Pacific coasts, I had my first taste in Seattle, Washington at Taylor Shellfish Oyster Bar. It’s an edible saltwater clam and I had this sashimi style. It was recommended to have this in a clam chowder, but unfortunately I have not been able to try it but I can see why that would be tasty. And it’s pronounced like “gooey duck” which is a fun name all on its own.

5. Gastronomy Cuisine

Molecular gastronomy is a subdiscipline of food science that seeks to investigate the physical and chemical transformations of ingredients that occur in cooking. Its program includes three axes, as cooking was recognized to have three components, which are social, artistic and technical. Thanks Wikipedia!

One of the best restaurants where I’ve been able to experience this cuisine is Central Restaurant in Lima, Peru. I’m a sucker for any food that I can’t wrap my head around…food science is crazy wicked!

yurimaguas aramica
yurimaguas aramica
bahuaja nut
bahuaja nut
yep, these are potatoes
yep, these are potatoes

And I can’t end a post about food without at least one obligatory photo of a cocktail…because a tasty cocktail is the best way to wash down any meal.

"Into the Blue" cocktail at Lava in Reykjavik, Iceland
“Into the Blue” cocktail at Lava in Reykjavik, Iceland

May the Bowel be With You

Never drink the water.

This was the first rule that was drilled into my head when I started traveling. Never drink tap water in any country, even if it’s an industrialized or westernized country. Use bottled water when brushing your teeth. Be careful about eating too many raw fruits or vegetables because they too contain water. I’ve been told to not eat ice cubes. International water bad. Bad bad bad.

For the most part, I have followed this advice as stomach issues are the last thing I want to experience on any trip. I always have bottled water handy and I convince myself that the alcohol kills any issues ice cubes may give me in my margaritas. I was proud of my track record of 19 countries visited without incident.

Then I went to Morocco.

Casandra and I were extremely excited about visiting our first African nation. Armed with basic Arabic phrases (although the majority of locals spoke French – do your research prior to the trip!) we bebopped through Fez…Marrakech…the Sahara…on trucks…in motorcades…on camelbacks….and filled our bellies with the nationally renowned tagine dishes. We ate every variation available with any protein source that the locals recommended. It was oh so delicious. And of course, we both were diligent about drinking only bottled water and ensured the water was boiled in our teas. On the fourth night, we checked into this beautiful riad and began settling in for the night.

Casandra: Ummm…Michelle, do you want to go for a walk?

Michelle: Nah, I’m pretty tired.

Casandra: You sure? Why don’t you go outside for just a little bit? Ok fuck it, I have to use the restroom!

Michelle: What?

<silence>

<not so silent>

Michelle: Ohhhhh myyyy goodness. Don’t worry, I’ll turn the music up!

Casandra: What the fuck?! My stomach! Turn the music up louder!

I laughed my ass off! I laughed and I laughed. Even Casandra laughed as her ass was glued to the toilet. Poor Casandra had been hit with a stomach bug….and just as I started to sympathize with her, it hit me. Fuck. So I ran to the lobby bathroom since Casandra was still in ours and let my bowels scream. Now, it was a very quiet riad and the bathroom had one of those saloon kind of doors that don’t go all the way to the floor…oh the agony of trying to be quiet but also not giving a fuck. All I wanted was to get the gut wrenching insanity out of my body at whatever the cost. After what seemed like a solid 30 minutes, I completed my expulsions and walked out to find an employee standing right outside the door. Fantastic. Perhaps he thought my innards were about to explode so was on standby to help? Or perhaps he seized the opportunity to record the gringo losing it in their bathroom and hoped to create a viral moment? I was too exhausted to even feel shamed. The only thing I knew at that time was that it wasn’t over. And I was right.

Over the next few days, both Casandra and I couldn’t keep anything down. But as dedicated foodies, we didn’t stop eating. Oh no, we just ensured there was a bathroom nearby at all times and came up with a system so that we could guard the door and keep passerby’s from earshot distance. Even though Casandra and I had known each other more than 14 years by this time…I never felt closer to her until this trip. This must be how war veterans feel with their fellow soldiers…Casandra and I had waged our own Saving Private Ryan kind of opening war scene and we came out knowing that we could travel through anything after Morocco.

Till this day, we still don’t know what caused it. It had to be something we both ate since we ruled out the water factor. Our best guess was that it was a spice that was used in the tagine dishes or maybe it’s because we ate so many of them so we had spice overload. Our next guess is that it could have been all the mint teas we drank and maybe our system wasn’t used to having so much fresh mint. I never would have guessed that after all this time worrying about water, that something completely different would be the one to get me. But the one thing we will never guess about again is whether or not to bring that anti-diarrheal pack. Take our advice and bring it.