Essentials on a Long Haul Flight

A good friend is planning her trip to Europe and is asking me what I bring in my carry on bag for a flight. I don’t travel often but when I do, it’s purely for leisure, to Africa, South America or Asia, so my in-flight packing list applies mostly to 10+ hour flights.  Some of my recent and future destinations includes Antananarivo (17), Santiago de Chile (10), Rio de Janeiro (10), Beijing (14) and Cairo (13).

1. Pen. You won’t know how important a pen is, until you have to wait in long lines to fill border crossing and declaration forms. Bring a pen in flight will save you a lot of time.

2. Sheet mask. This is why my skin always looks radiant right out of the exit, besides the fact that I’m Asian. I always put on a mask when they start to serve food, so for a 10 hour flight, I need 2-3 masks.

3. Sleeping pills. Especially for red eye flights.

4. Eye mask. Some airlines offer it for free (ie. Ethiopian Airlines), but I’d still bring my own.

5. Flip flops. Or slippers, whatever that’s comfortable to sleep in and easy to take off.

6. Thick socks when I have a window seat. I almost always choose aisle seats but sometimes unfortunately I miss my flight and get assigned to the next one on a window seat. The window seats are colder on the walls so a pair of socks will help you sleep.

7. Foldable water bottle. It’s very important to hydrate in a flight and foldable water bottles take up less space. I usually bring a thermos too, because you know, I’m Chinese and I drink hot water.

8. Noise canceling headphones. It’s not necessary if you don’t care a crying baby onboard and in your proximity in the next 10+ hours.

9. Lip balm.

10. Entertainment. I download audiobooks before flight but in reality I always fall sleep.

** I don’t need a neck pillow because I basically can sleep in any position; and also I don’t bring a jacket because international airlines (at least the ones I took) always provide blankets.

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Vegan Food from Around the World

When it comes to vegan travel, no two countries are alike. In some destinations, vegan/vegetarian is part of the traditional cuisine, while in other places, the idea is so foreign that most locals kept asking what I could eat, and puzzled by the reason behind it (In Cuba and Ecuador people just went speechless upon hearing “soy vegana”). Since I became a vegan last August, I’ve traveled a bit here and there, and I’ve found authentic vegan dishes that were native to the region and not just vegan reinventions (tempeh and kimchi tacos? Ugh, no thank you). It has since became my quest to find and share vegan food in different cultures, so here’s the first in the series.

(You can also read this as “how to eat out as a vegan,” since I don’t know how to cook and eat out every single meal. This is my vegan version of eat-your-way-around-the-world.)

Ethiopian

Last December I missed my flight from Addis Ababa to Nairobi, so I stayed one night in Addis Ababa and had dinner and breakfast there. Having no prior knowledge of Ethiopian food, I was utterly surprised by the amazing vegan breakfast buffet at my hotel and learned that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church prescribes a number of fasting days (refrain from eating animal products), including Wednesdays, Fridays, so Ethiopian cuisine contains many dishes that are traditionally vegan. And even on Ethiopian Airline, besides the standard airline meal, you can ask for “fasting” food, and it’s fully vegan!

Vegan dishes such as chickpeas, split peas, fava beans (tastes like Mexican refried beans), Atkilt Wot (cabbage and carrots), and mchicha (the Swahili name for a local green, native to East Africa, but I think in the US they use collard greens instead), on top of Injera.

Indian

I call Indian food just “food,” because it is my go-to cuisine even when I was an omnivore.

A large percentage of the population of India is vegetarian for religious reasons so Indian food also has lots of dishes that are traditionally vegetarian or vegan. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of dishes in which vegetables and legumes are the main ingredients.

The thing to watch out for as vegans is dairy. Though the dishes normally don’t contain eggs, dairy is pretty common, so when ordering vegan Indian food in restaurants it’s a good idea to ask if it contains common dairy products such as curd (yogurt), paneer (cheese), and ghee (clarified butter).

There are many Indian veggie dishes that typically do not contain any dairy at all. A few examples are dishes based on chickpeas (Chana Masala), eggplant (Baingan Bhartha, my favorite), as well as lentils (Daal), cabbage, cauliflower (Aloo Gobi), peas, and potatoes.

Chinese

Many Chinese dishes are traditionally vegan, with ingredients such as eggplant, tomatoes, string beans, mushroom, wood ear, bitter melon, cauliflower, peppers and other vegetables. Chinese vegan dishes vary from province to province so I only know some of the most popular ones from the northeast, such as Di San Xian (地三鲜, potatoes, eggplant and peppers), spicy wood ear or cucumbers, roasted sweet potatoes and veggie stir fry (炒菜, shredded potatoes and other veggies), etc.

There’s also Buddhist cuisine (斋饭) with heavy Chinese influence. I didn’t know much about Buddhism since I was born and raised by atheist parents and we rarely go to temples. It’s only after becoming a vegan, I started to try out Buddhist cuisines in New York City and learn about them. I think a very distinctive feature of Buddhist cuisine is its creative use of soy products. There are mock meats of every kind made with textured soy protein and tofu, like this menu (http://www.buddha-bodai.com/menu.html) from Buddha Bodai in NYC.

Typical food made with soy proteins (they really look like and taste like meat) and veggies at a Buddhist restaurant in Montreal.

However keep in mind that even though Chinese food rarely contains dairy or butter, eggs are commonly used in vegetarian dishes, and a lot of people do not know the difference between vegan and vegetarian. It’s always good to ask before ordering.

Mexican

Yes there are barbacoa, carne asada, machacado con huevo, and enchiladas verdes (all of them used to be my favorites), but Mexican staples such as corn tortillas, rice and beans (without lard), guacamole, and nopales are vegan. There are also popular dishes that can be made vegan, such as chilaquiles (without egg), elote (without cheese), chiles rellenos (instead of cheese, it’s stuffed with potatoes), tamales with beans or veggies. It’s also easy to have vegan tacos with nopales, mushrooms, avocados and beans.

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Tamales de frijol (bean tamales) with mole around Zócalo in Mexico City.

Swahili

Discovering Swahili cuisine was one of the highlights of my trip to Tanzania.

The vegan food in East Africa is based on fresh and local ingredients that grow bountifully in the equatorial climate, so there are lots of local greens and tropical fruits. For breakfast or snack, there are mandazi and kitumbua (sometimes it’s mentioned in English in its plural form vitumbua), as well as pineapple, banana and passion fruit.

Fruit stand in Stone Town, Zanzibar
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Ugali with mchicha

The staples, ugali (made with corn flour boiled in water), chapati (flatbread), mchicha (local green, tastes like spinach) and maharage (beans) are fully vegan. There are also many other veggie stews made with sweet potato leaves (matembele, I love it) or pumpkin leaves with tomato sauce. Other common veggies are cassava, avocado, tomatoes and bananas. And in Zanzibar, you can also have pilau (flavored rice) with veggies.

Chapati with avocados, it almost like guacamole, but the Tanzanian recipe also has banana in it.

I was robbed in Guatemala City

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I was robbed today a little while after taking this picture. It was about 2pm in the afternoon, a bright sunny day. I was in Zona 10, right under the Torre de Reformador, at exactly this location. I was waiting for Uber with my phone in my hands and two guys on motorcycle stopped by me, grabbed my phone quickly and went away.

I’m glad at least I’ve synced my photos with Dropbox whenever I can, so I can post this one from my computer. I only lost a couple photos from Museo Popol Vuh. Now I need to either buy a cheap digital camera or a single use film camera, as I’m leaving for Tikal tomorrow. While it is not my intention to speak about the relative safety of other third world countries, except to say that I did not experience similar events in my recent trips to China, Mexico and Honduras. I feel that most Guatemalans are nice, friendly, and honest people who would probably be more enraged what had happened to me in their country than I was. I’m simply sharing this information and hoping other travelers who also plan to visit or already in Guatemala to be careful.

An Amish Weekend in Lancaster, PA

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Lancaster County is about 3 hours drive from New York City, with glorious farmland, Pennsylvania Dutch smorgasbord and Amish themed tours, it is truly a wonderful weekend getaway from your busy city life. I first visited Lancaster in the summer of 2013, and have been coming back at least once a year ever since.

Arrive Thursday Night

If you leave the city around 5pm or 6pm, you can manage to get in Lancaster before 9pm. I would recommend staying in the East Lancaster area, such as Bird-In-Hand, Paradise or Ronks etc. Those locations are very close to the Amish settlement, and have supermarkets and restaurants nearby. There are lots of hotels along the Lincoln Highway East, or if you like Bed & Breakfast, many of them are along the Old Philadelphia Pike.

Friday with Old Order Amish

Friday is for Amish, but first stop by Lancaster Central Market to get breakfast. Lancaster Central Market is the oldest farmers market in the country (according to its website) and opens Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. It has the standard farmer’s market stuff: fresh fruit, produce, coffee and tea. There are also Amish crafts, cookies, cakes and pies sold. It also surprised me with its gluten-free bread and cookies.

Now onto the Amish adventure. Amish Farm and House is a must stop for its informative bus tours. The tour takes you through the photographic Amish farmland and makes stops at Amish craft shops and roadside stands to try their homemade lemonade, ice cream and hand rolled pretzel.

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Another must-do is the “Visit In Person (VIP)” tour offered by Amish Experience at Plain and Fancy Farm. Buy tickets online and enjoy a very personal visit to Amish businesses and family. We visited an Amish dairy farm and a soap shop, and saw the process of milking cows and making soaps. And the best part is our last stop at an Amish home, we got to sit in the living room of an Amish family and talk to them. One of the daughters of the family is a school teacher for Amish kids, so we actually looked at their textbooks used in school. It’s very informative and very personal. There is also an Amish Experience Theater at Plain & Fancy Farm where you can see a screening of “Jacob’s Choice”  about a young Amish boy’s struggle in choosing the Amish church, or leaving behind family and community for the “English” world.

Whether you choose to go on a buggy ride or drive through the back road on your own, a must stop is the Countryside Road Stand for its soft pretzels. They are made fresh, you can watch the Amish ladies make them right in front of you.  They are hot, buttery and so yummy. They also have homemade ice cream and root beer.

Saturday in Hershey

On Saturday you can either extend your Amish adventures or do something different and visit the Hershey Park. Hershey Park is about an hour away from Lancaster, with an amusement park and a water park, you can spend all day there. At night after the entire day of rides, dine at Khana Indian Bistro for some tandoori chicken or fish curry, the food is great and it opens late.

Sunday in Strasburg

0002924_0002924-R1-E013Lancaster is like a lot of other small towns that has quiet Sundays, because a lot of restaurants and shops choose to close on Sundays, but there are still some fun things to do. Climb aboard on the trains at Strasburg Rail Road and enjoy a 45-minute, round-trip ride through the scenic Amish countryside to Paradise, PA and back. Marvel at more than 1,000 acres of farm fields as they pass by your window. Reserve tickets online for first class cars, or just walk up to the ticketing booth for coach class.

Rest of Sunday is a good time for shopping. There is Park City Center Mall and several outlet malls in the area and since PA has no sales tax on clothes and shoes, buy as much as you can carry ;)

Where To Stay

I usually book a hotel on Priceline.com because I interned at Priceline.com and loved it. I don’t work there anymore because I can only work full time for an employer that sponsor H1B visa, but I still love to use Priceline.com every time I travel. Sometime I also like to stay in other people’s homes through Airbnb.

What Else To Do

Visit Hayloft Candles for candles of all occasions and see how candles are made. There is also a petting zoo free of admission.

If you are interested in religious shows and experiences, one time my host recommended me to Sight & Sound Theater. I’m not religious so I didn’t go, but I see the good reviews on Yelp and other travel websites.

For gifts and souvenirs, check out Kitchen Kettle Village for Amish dolls, pickles, foods and crafts.

For outdoors, make a stop at the Wolf Sanctuary of PA.

Where To Workout

I usually do at least one Bikram yoga when I travel. In Lancaster, that’s Bikram Yoga Lancaster. For gyms, I’ve only been to Formular Fitness and Aerobics, and it’s a decent gym.

Where To Eat

For lunch and dinner, definitely try the Pennsylvania Dutch smorgasbord, there are Plain & Fancy Farm Restaurant, Good ‘N Plenty Restaurant, and Miller’s SmorgasbordLititz Family Cupboard Restaurant & Buffet also serves breakfast buffet worth trying. Some restaurants in the area don’t open on Sundays, so you need to either call ahead or check Yelp to confirm the hours.

For fresh produce and treats, you should check out Miller’s Natural Foods and Kauffman’s Fruit Farm.


This category “Take Friday Off” is inspired by WSJ’s “Take Monday Off” on it’s Life section. So far my weekend getaways are restricted to places within the US because I can only renew my visa in my home country (China) and I have to do it once a year, so if I make a trip to some other country, I’ll have to go back to China, renew my visa before entering the US again. It’s really challenging because all I want to do is to spend money and have fun, and not being able to renew my visa in the US gave me a lot of trouble since I work at WSJ on breaking news, I can’t afford to break the “Breaking News” just to spend 3 days in Cozumel.