The Hot Pot Blog


June 10, 2012

Life Lessons from Overseas: The Sanity-Saving Power of Travel

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Missing something?  Check out past Life Lessons from Overseas columns: an introduction, culture shock, making friends part I, making friends part II.

It’s somewhat disappointing when it turns out that living overseas is not just one nice long 2 year vacation.

I mean, you would think that living in a city that attracts tourists and backpackers (or not) would be a little like being on vacation and travelling yourself.

Turns out though, not so much.  Those first few months and those last few months are all about playing tourist in your adopted hometown.  All of those (long) months in between?  Things like work and school and grocery shopping tend to get in the way of that vacation feeling.  Living overseas stops feeling like a cultural experience when you become so used to your surroundings that they cease to surprise you anymore.

Before you know it, you’re as crabby as anyone in a cubicle in America, desperately in need of a few days off.  And worse, you are in a place that is probably already smacking you upside the head with culture shock and everyday petty annoyances like traffic jams or air quality or fending off the monkeys in the garden.

It might seem strange to someone not living overseas, but after traveling for an untold number of hours to get to your new adopted home, the secret to expat happiness is actually…more travel.

As one reader put it so perfectly:

…traveling around our newly adopted country is SO important. I find that I get in kind of a funk, being the accidental trailing spouse, if we don’t get out and explore on the weekends. Because then life is mostly just laundry, groceries, picking up the house, trying to figure out dinner, etc., so we might as well be anywhere, and somewhere where all those mundane things would be easier. So exploring the country while we’re here helps to discharge all the inconveniences and annoyances that come with being an expat.

Yes, exactly.

Travel is broadening, it is exciting.  It is romantic and inspiring.  Visiting new places helps us to think different thoughts, feel different emotions, see, smell and taste things we’ve never experienced before.  There’s nothing like a trip to a new country to make you feel alert, expanded, open to new things.  When we travel it’s sometimes as if I can actually feel my mind stretching out and lighting up in new ways.   It makes me feel alive.

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Travel also goes a long way towards making the place you come home to more bearable.  I won’t pretend that, coming home from vacation, I ever felt anything but a tinge of disappointment as we descended beneath the smog cloud cover flying into Chengdu’s airport.  If nothing else though, I was usually overjoyed to be reunited with our washing machine.  There’s only so many days you can go with sand in your pants, you know?

We weren’t always good about traveling as much as we should have.  When I used to think about planning a trip, all I could think about was the expense and the hassle; but I’ve come to realize how short-sighted that was.  Spending money and annual leave on travel is basically spending money and free time on happiness, on having the sorts of adventures you always promised yourself you’d have, that you might regret not having someday.  Every moment of every trip might not be pure happiness and bliss, but those moments give us so many more interesting memories than new clothes or a another weekend spent running errands would.

I’ve also realized that getting out and away doesn’t always mean taking time off of work and getting on a plane.  Some of the best trips we’ve taken have been crammed into three day weekends.  We come home a little exhausted, but mostly exhilarated from the thrill of trading our usual weekend chores for a chance to see some place new and exciting.    Taking a train or renting a car (in places you can do so) is also a great way to take an affordable trip and see whole swaths of a country you might otherwise never travel to.  Sometimes its the journey rather than the destination that makes a trip memorable.

That’s not to say traveling is easy.  It can be a stressful, it can be expensive, it can require time off of work, it messes with kid’s routines, planes get delayed, flights get in at 2am, hotels are not what they were promised to be.  Plus some regions of the world are simply more conducive to traveling than others.

Even so, no matter were you are, getting out — whether by plane, train or automobile–and going somewhere –whether it’s 25 miles away or 2,500 miles away — really does make living overseas feel like the exotic adventure we all hope and expect it to be.

There are a million websites out there with tips for finding the cheapest airline tickets, most affordable hotels, the best ways to keep kids happy on planes, the best adventure destinations, etc, etc.  Below are just a few ideas Chris and I have for making travel a little more doable, affordable, and more fun for our family.  What are your tips for travel?  Let us know in the comments!

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 (And if you need any more inspiration for getting out and going with kids in tow, look no further than this amazing trip our friends in Chengdu took a few months ago: 3 kids (including a 4 month old!) all the way from Chengdu to Nairobi and back.  And now they’ve just tackled Tokyo as well!)

A Few Ideas for Making Travel Doable, Affordable and Fun

1. If you are going to fly, make sure you are always getting frequent flier miles for every single trip you take.  Make sure your kids are getting frequent flier miles too.  This is such an obvious thing, but sometimes its easy to forget to submit those tickets and redeem your miles, and they do add up–especially when your kids are also getting miles for all of those regular trips home to the States.

2. To augment your frequent flier miles, research the best no-international-transaction-fee credit card for you — and make sure it comes with either airline mile rewards or hotel points.  Then, use this card as much as possible.  Chris and I are very careful to never spend more than what we have budgeted for, but we basically use only one credit card to pay for everything, including our apartment here in the States.  Our card comes with an annual fee but the benefits we’ve enjoyed so far more than make up for it.  We pay off our entire balance at the end of every month and since we get 1.5 United miles for every dollar we spend, we’re also building up our mileage accounts so that for our next vacation we can…

3. Redeem airline miles for free tickets.  This is far, far easier than most people realize, it just requires making some phone calls and knowing your charts.  Our tickets to Tokyo cost us approximately $40 in taxes each.  That’s it.  And we only had to burn 30,000 miles each.  When you are using a credit card with reward miles and traveling to and from Asia at least once a year, 30,000 miles is easy to replace.  Remember too that even if you have United miles, you can redeem those miles for flights on any carrier in the Star Alliance–again this is really, really helpful in Asia.

4. Whether you are staying in a hotel on per diem or on your own dime, make sure you are getting points for it.  I always thought Chris was sort of crazy for being so obsessive about hotel points until we took our honeymoon to Malaysia.  There is no way under normal circumstances we could have afforded to stay in the hotel we did, in the room we did.  The “honeymoon suite” we stayed in normally costs between $400-$500 per night…we payed $60.

5. Research, research, research.  Research is not the same as planning an itinerary-Chris and I rarely have solid plans for our trips–but we do research the heck out of them.  Before we went to Japan we spent a lot of time on Trip Advisor figuring out which hotel would be closest to the biggest metro station, what kind of transportation we should take to and from the airport, what kind of restaurants were kid-friendly, whether we should bring a stroller or leave it at home, etc, etc.  When we are traveling its always those unexpected moments that are either the most exciting or the most stressful.  Doing your research ahead of time allows you to enjoy more of those spontaneous, exciting moments and fewer of the “oh-shoot-I-didn’t-realize-we-couldn’t-do-this” stressful ones.

6.  Travel often.  It’s too easy to stay at home when you are really, really used to just staying at home, even if staying at home is actually making you progressively more miserable.  In contrast, it’s easier to travel when you are used to doing regularly, when the memories of your last trip are still fresh and you can recall the stressful moments realistically rather than hyperbolically. Chris and I think that at least once small trip about every 3 months is pretty optimal for us–but that’s just our family. Your ideal travel calendar might look very different.

7.  Assume the tourist attractions will be kind of duds (but go anyway, on the off chance they are not).  Personally, I find most tourist sights to be too crowded, too staged, too something or other to be really compelling–not all, but most.  It’s always the things I’m most excited to see that are the most disappointing and; in contrast, it’s the things I’m the most “meh” about beforehand, that always end up being the most moving or interesting.  Maybe its just the juxtaposition between expectation and reality; but it seems that the most fun moments on our trips don’t tend to happen at tourist sights.   They happen when we are just walking around town, exploring neighborhoods, trying new foods and just taking in the atmosphere.

8. Expect to be hungry, tired, thirsty, lost, and annoyed at some point.  Being in a new place means not always knowing how things work or where to go.  Carry snacks and water, have a fool-proof plan for getting back to the hotel when everyone is done for the day, and  remember that it’s always the weirdest/most annoying moments to live through that make for the best stories when you get home.  It’s all about managing expectations when you travel.

9. Pack a little notebook along with your camera.  When we travel I usually take a few minutes at the end of the day to jot down notes and observations, the little things that I might not catch with my camera or that might be easy to forget in the days and weeks after the trip.  Things like the mannerisms of people on the street and the mood of the city.  It makes for great inspiration and great memories.

June 7, 2012

The New Glass

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So I finally bought some new lenses for my camera, and I like them.

This isn’t going to be a super technical review.  If you are in the market for new lenses for the first time, I highly recommend checking out the Digital-Picture.com.  They have reviews for pretty much every lens available on the market with really useful comparison shots so you can see what the actual picture difference is with different lenses.  It’s no replacement for going to a camera store to try things out in person, but I found it really helpful for helping me narrow down my options.

Although I was seriously, seriously tempted this summer to upgrade my camera body, in the end I came to the conclusion that my photographer friends were right: it’s better to upgrade glass before upgrading a camera body.  A new body will have to wait until the Rebel wears out or falls off a boat or something.

Given my budget and the range I was looking for, I knew top-of-the-line, red-ringed L-series glass wouldn’t be an option.  Instead, I ended up with a Sigma 17-50mm 2.8 and a Canon 85mm 1.8.

I hadn’t thought to consider a 3rd party lens until I stopped by a camera shop in D.C. and asked the guy behind the counter on his thoughts.  If you are looking for a new lens, stopping by a real camera store is worth approximately 10,000 Amazon reviews.  Not only can you try before you buy, but the people who work at camera stores are usually serious camera junkies.  They know what they are talking about and, since few of them are getting rich working their day jobs, they generally have good opinions on what will give you the biggest bang for your buck.

When I told this particular camera guy what I was looking for: a wide-angle zoom with better low-light capabilities than my kit lens, he had me try out the Sigma 17-50.  I tried it out, like it a lot, went home, read all sorts of reviews, found out many people like the Sigma better than even the most similar Canon lens and so, armed with that knowledge, I pulled the trigger and bought it.

Why then the 85mm 1.8?  Well, mostly because I still wanted something with a longer focal length but I didn’t want a giant (and expensive) telephoto lens.  The 85mm 1.8 is also a really good all-around portrait-lens.  I love my nifty-fifty, but I needed a lens I could get a little further away from Will with (I think we’ve well established how much he loves to try and eat my camera) and one that might be useful for other portrait-type photography as well.

Since I think for beginners like me, its sometimes hard to visualize what different focal lengths and apertures look like, I’ve taken a few comparison shots to hopefully illustrate the differences between the kit lens and the Sigma and the 50mm and the 85mm.  I took all of these shots one right after another and all from the exact same spot in the room so that the only differences in picture quality should be a direct result of the lenses rather than the conditions.

These are also all completely unedited shots.  They aren’t beautiful to look at, but I think they give a good idea of how these lenses perform under the sort of less-than-ideal shooting conditions most people are working with.  If you look carefully at the photos and the specs, you’ll be able to pick out the differences between the lenses pretty easily.

The subject (a Starbucks iced coffee) isn’t very exciting but it stayed put much better than Will did when I tried to use him as my test subject — though Will did end up making a few cameo appearances in the end.

First up, the Sigma versus the kit lens zoomed all the way out (17mm and 18mm, respectively):

Sigma: 17mm f/2.8, shutter speed: 1/25, ISO: 200
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Above you have the Sigma shooting wide open at 17mm.  It’t not a beautiful shot but look at the detail in those couch cushions and the lines of the coffee table.  Super crisp and clear.  Also notice how many full chairs are in the shot (3).  Shutter speed is 1/25 which still requires a steady hand but with the ISO all the way down at 200, that’s a far cry from the 1/10 shutter speed with the kit lens below.

KitLens: 18mm, f/3.5, shutter speed: 1/10, ISO: 200

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This is the kit lens, same shot (minus the people in it).  The shutter speed is slower to compensate for the f/3.5 versus the Sigma’s f/2.8 so the people in the shot are blurred as they make even the slightest of motions.  Notice only 2.5 chairs in the frame.  In my living room the difference between 2.5 chair and 3 in a shot is trivial; out in the world though, the difference between 17mm and 18mm is slightly more dramatic.   Last thing, if you’ll notice, the lines in this photo just aren’t quite as crisp.  This is due mostly to camera-shake shooting at such a slow shutter speed, but the quality of the lens glass and build contributes here as well.

Now here’s a comparison between the Sigma at 50mm and the Kit lens at 55mm:

Sigma: 50mm, f/2.8, shutter speed: 1/13, ISO: 200
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I took the above shot with the aperture wide open at 2.8.  Nice crisp details, nice bokeh (blurred background).  Also, because I can shoot at f/2.8, my shutter speed is still at a fairly manageable 1/13.  Not bad for a dark background, dark subject, indoors and shooting with a low ISO.

Kit Lens: 55mm, f/5.6, shutter speed: 1/5, ISO: 200
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The detail on the Starbucks cup here on the kit lens is pretty good (the zoom is also longer so that’s why it looks closer).  Unfortunately, because of the way this lens works, f/5.6 is as open as I can get for this focal length.  To compensate for the f-stop, the shutter speed here was a kind of absurd 1/5, which means that just normal breathing was enough to render Chris and Will blurry.

Next up: the 50mm vs. 85mm.  These shots were taken from the exact same spot so the difference in frame is just the difference between 50mm and 85mm:

85mm f/1.8, shutterspeed: 1/30, ISO: 200
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Nice, pretty.  The beads of condensation around the middle of the cup are especially nice.  With the f-stop at 1.8 there is a whole lot of blur going on.  I think this lens shoots better up closer to f/2.8.

50mm f/1.8, shutterspeed: 1/50, ISO: 200
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The difference between the 50mm and the 85mm is more pronounced when taking pictures of real people instead of iced coffees, but the nifty-fifty still makes for a great shot.  I still love the 50mm, but the extra focal distance you get with the 85mm is the reason to buy the lens.

So what’s the verdict?

The Sigma is such an massive improvement over my old 18-55 kit lens.  It’s the lens that lives on my camera 95% of the time now.  My photos look so much crisper and more vibrant.  The different is perhaps a bit hard to see in the resolution on this blog, but it’s pretty striking in real life.  There is also a bigger difference between 17m and 18mm than I fully realized before I bought the lens.  It’s really fun to play with more wide-angle shots.

One thing many people don’t always realize right away about the kit 18-55 lens is that the aperture changes with the focal length so even if you can shoot at f/4.5 at 18mm, you stop down to f/5.6 as soon as you focus at any further distance; which means you have to slow down your shutter speed, which means shots get blurry quickly.  With the Sigma, I can open up my aperture to f/2.8 at any distance from 17-50, which is part of the reason it handles so much better in low light.  I still have to crank my ISO, but at least I can keep my shutter speed fast enough to keep things crisp and in focus.

One other thing I really like about the Sigma is that its much heavier and a little bigger than my old kit lens, but not awkwardly so.  The Rebel is a pretty lightweight little camera so it can be a bit trickier to handle when attached to big, heavy lenses.  The Sigma is probably about as big and heavy as I’d feel comfortable using without having to ever think about whether my hands are shaking and messing up the shot.

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(yup, Will is actually that pale in real life…)

Chris has asked me a couple times which lens I like better, the 17-50 or the 85.  Honestly, I can’t decide and I don’t think I need to–they complement each other pretty perfectly.  I love the range on the Sigma but I’m quickly realizing that nothing beats the clarity and the ease of using a prime lens like the 85 or the 50.

Whereas the wide-angle of the Sigma allows me to put a scene together in my view-finder, the 85mm allows me to zero in on a subject from a little further away–a wonderful thing when I’m taking pictures of Will or even when I just want to get a shot of something that is happening across the street from me.

The build quality of the 85mm seems much higher than that of the 50mm.  Physically, its heavier, a little longer, and it just feels more solid.  That’s not a knock on the 50mm though.  I still think it’s one of the greatest lenses ever made for the sheer picture-quality-to-price ratio.  The difference is really of what/who you want to take pictures, and the convenience of being about to put some distance between yourself and your subject.  The 50mm will give you great close-up shots of a newborn laying on the bed 24 inches away from your camera, the 85mm will give you those same great close-up shots of a newborn on a bed, or of a toddler playing in the grass — without having to stick a lens right in his face.

If you have a really nice telephoto zoom lens that covers the 85mm range and you aren’t doing a lot of kid-type photography, the 85mm might not be the most useful lens in your arsenal.  Then again, if you have a really nice telephoto zoom and the camera to support it, you probably aren’t reading this blog for lens-buying tips either.  Lenses seem to get exponentially more expensive the better the aperture and focal length range on them.  They also get a lot bigger and heavier.  With a bigger camera a huge heavy lens might not be such an issue, but since I’m packing my light-weight little Rebel all over town, smaller lenses are much easier to manage–and easier to keep in good condition.

So, those are the new lenses!  Did I forget to mention anything? If so, let me know if the comments!  Have you bought any new lenses or made any other exciting purchases lately?

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(I took both of these shots, plus the other two non-iced-coffee shots with the Sigma)

June 6, 2012

This & That

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I’m still working on finishing up a few real posts for the week, but thought I’d just drop in here to say a quick hello for now.

My parents are in town.  It’s really nice to have them here.  The only downside is that the kitchen is now littered with pastry bags, trays of macaroons, and boxes of Georgetown and Sprinkles cupcakes because my mother enjoys conducting taste-tests to find her favorite desserts in the city.

By taste-test I mean she has one bite and then has a glass of water for dinner; leaving behind a staggering assortment of sugar and buttercream for the rest of us to deal with.

We make do, of course.  Where there is a Will, there’s a way after all.

 

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Sorry, bad pun, but one of my favorites now.

Lots of things on the brain lately: the wonderful coziness of reuniting with some of my best friends, the fun of making new friends, working in an office versus staying home with Will, working from home versus not working at all, figuring out how to start a freelance career, jean shopping, swimsuit shopping, too much shopping, the shocking ease of getting a tan after two years of darkness, excitement for good Chengdu friends, old Ashoka friends, and Chris’ sister coming to town, where we should bid for after India, planning a certain someone’s first birthday party and then moving to Delhi two weeks later.

You know, just the usual.  What sorts of things are on your mind right now?

June 3, 2012

The Weekend

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A few photos from the weekend. It was weekend without a lick of writing, but a lot of eating and grandparent-hanging out with.

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Basking in adoration of grandparents does wear a baby out though it seems…

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On tap for this week: an installment of Life Lessons from Overseas on the sanity-saving power of travel, some more grandparent photos, a review of some new camera lenses and more.

How was your weekend?

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