Walmart Hell

I’ve written a few blog posts about how I hate shopping at Walmart. I feel so strongly about this that I have managed to avoid entering one of these dens of iniquity for nearly 4 years. Seattle makes that easy, because it has yet to allow a Walmart within its city limits. (One more reason to adore the emerald city, as far as I am concerned!)

Unfortunately, I sort of felt forced to bow down to this false God of consumerism last week, because my phone battery is dying. (No, I don’t have a standard smart phone. I have a cheap, pay by the minute tracfone that I bought once upon a time at Walmart.)

Believe me, I attempted to buy a replacement battery on line. When it came in its flimsy package, it was bent, and I could smell the acid fumes. It’s a hazmat situation. I had to get a refund, and the thing is now sitting on my back porch until such time as I can figure out how to properly dispose of it without disfiguring myself. Needless to say, this kind of put me off ordering on line. But my phone is such a weird size, I assumed only Walmart would have the battery in their brick and mortar stores.

Silly me.

So, with a tear in my eye and a knot in my stomach, I went to the Walmart in Renton. After circling around and around and around to look for a parking space, which seems to be a required part of the ritual, I entered the door on a late Sunday afternoon, and my jaw dropped.

I don’t know if it’s just this particular branch, or if the entire franchise has gone downhill in the past 4 years, but this place was nasty. Yes, Walmarts are always crowded with the dregs of humanity, but I remember that the stores themselves used to be clean, at least. I half expected to step over bird poop and cadavers in this one, such was its state of disarray. And the aisles have gotten so narrow that you can barely fit a shopping cart down them. They clearly have been unable to resist the desire to cram in more merchandise, and to hell with consumer comfort.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I walked in the door with my recycled grocery bags over my shoulder, and I was accosted by this greeter who did not speak a word of English. He insisted in putting a sticker on my empty bag. I tried to ask why, but he just babbled at me. Welcome to Walmart indeed.

I headed straight to electronics, because I just wanted to get this over with. But getting there was a trial. I felt like a salmon fighting my way upstream. The aisles were so narrow that whenever someone in front of me decided to stop and examine some cheap thing or another, everyone behind that person had to stop as well, which resulted in a traffic jam of epic proportions. I seriously thought I was going to lose my mind and start screaming. Walmart rage. I bet it happens a lot.

When I finally got back to the proper department, this very helpful employee told me I’d be better off buying a new phone with a new battery. “But I don’t want a new phone,” I said. (Did she seriously think I’d buy a 45 dollar phone to get a 9 dollar battery?)

She then informed me that I’d have to talk to that associate over there, because he was the only one who had a key to the cabinet where replacement batteries were kept. Well, that associate over there looked like a wounded fish in the midst of a shark feeding frenzy.

I approached the mob cautiously, but it was a good 15 minutes before he had dealt with all of them and could focus on me. And when he did, he said that Walmart doesn’t sell phone batteries.

I nearly lost my sh*t at this point. I should have left right then while my sanity was still relatively intact. I really should have.

But no. I decided that if I had to subject myself to this trauma, I may as well accomplish something before I left. So I stupidly decided to do my grocery shopping while there.

Lord love a duck, what a nightmare that was. Again with the traffic jams in every aisle. Only this time, the woman behind me was letting her 5 year old push the cart, and that 5 year old was delighting in ramming the cart into my calves. It was clear that mama knew it was happening, too, but she couldn’t care less. It took everything in me to keep from getting into a slap-fest amongst the canned goods. But I was afraid she would win due to my lack of experience.

Finally, finally, finally I made my way to the cash registers. There were about 35 of them, and they were all overflowing with customers. I chose the only aisle I could reach with my cart, and I soon regretted it.

There were 9 people ahead of me, and the family directly in front contained a mother, a father, and two toddlers. And the two toddlers were throwing strawberries while doing that delighted toddler scream that breaks the freakin’ sound barrier. (And one wonders why I’ve never regretted being child-free?)

To my right was an old woman having some kind of physical fit, and no one was helping her. (I admit I wasn’t, either. She was kind of break dancing, spinning in circles, albeit while remaining upright, and I really didn’t know what to do with that.)

To my left was a man holding a screaming child, who proceeded to vomit down the back of his shirt. It didn’t seem to phase him. He remained in line.

By the time I got close enough to the front of the line to be hemmed in by the candy bars and the tabloid magazines, I began to feel really claustrophobic. And I only feel that way, usually, when I get an MRI. I kept telling myself to breathe. (Through my mouth, so as to avoid the smell of baby barf.) I kept saying to myself, “Do not freak out in front of these people. This is just Walmart. You aren’t gonna die. Consider this blog fodder.” But, dear reader, it was a near thing.

I thought I was seeing the light at the end of the tunnel from hell when the strawberry pelting family in front of me started to get checked out. But oh, no. They were paying with some kind of vouchers, so in one grocery cart, they had to do 5 separate transactions, all to the tune of their screaming kids. If I hadn’t been trapped, I’d have walked out, leaving my cart of crap where it was.

They hadn’t even sorted out which food went with which vouchers, so, yeah, there’s that, too. And then she wound up walking out without half her items, which apparently didn’t fit the vouchers in question. (And to add insult to injury, one of the items left behind was the now half-empty plastic container of strawberries!)

So, before the cashier could ring me up, she had to figure out what to do with all the abandoned items on the conveyor belt, and while she was moving some, she accidentally passed them over the bar code reader, so she had to delete those charges before she could proceed.

Gaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!

Well, she finally got around to ringing me up, but I had to bag my own groceries, because apparently Walmart is the only place in the entire state of Washington that doesn’t practically shame you if you don’t use recycled bags. In fact, they insist you shut up and use plastic, but that’s something I absolutely refuse to do.

So, when I left, my soul had been sucked out of my body, and I didn’t have the only thing I went there for in the first place, which was the phone battery. And then I realized I had forgotten where I parked my car. I swear to God, if I could have walked home, I would have, such was my desire to get Walmart behind me.

(And yes, I’ve ordered another battery on line, from a different company. I hope this one arrives intact, and before my current one completely dies.)

But the main takeaway from this post is that if you ever hear of me even considering a visit to Walmart ever again, I would like you to slap the eyeballs right out of my head. In fact, I insist upon it. Normally I don’t condone violence, but trust me, you’ll be doing me a favor.

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Shipping Container Chic

No doubt about it. Seattle is booming. The city bird should be the construction crane. Despite the astonishing number of buildings being erected, contractors can barely keep up with the housing demand.

Because of this, landlords know they can basically charge whatever they like in rent. According to Rent Jungle, as of May 2015, the average apartment rent within 10 miles of Seattle was $1853. One bedroom apartments rent for $1501 on average, and two bedroom apartment rents average $2015 per month.

This, to me, is obscene, but it gets worse. Since it obviously is quite profitable to own apartment buildings in this town, they’re cropping up like mushrooms overnight. And they’re being built as cheaply as possible, with little or no regard for aesthetics.

There’s an architectural trend in this city that I like to call “Shipping Container Chic” because these buildings look like your basic metal shipping containers, stacked one on top of the other, and the apartments themselves have about that much charm. And half the time no allowances are being made for parking, which is adding to Seattle’s gridlock.

The proliferation of this style means that this city is getting uglier by the minute, but apparently that’s okay, because, by God, it’s profitable. If this keeps up, the whole area will harken back to Communist era housing, with a little bit of colored paint thrown in as an afterthought. What ever happened to style and variety? Ugh.

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My Love/Hate Relationship with GPS Girl

She lead me across the country and she helps me find my way around this new befuddling city of mine, so I’m really extremely dependent upon the voice that comes out of my GPS. I’m truly grateful for all she does for me. But there are also times when I want to slap her silly.

She has a cruel sense of humor. I think she knows I’m mildly dyslexic. She loves to say, “Turn left” when her map is clearly indicating that I need to turn right. I have learned the hard way that when that happens, you must ignore her voice and follow her arrows.

She has also led me to open fields and insisted there were roads where no roads have ever been. Once she led me to the edge of a cliff. GPS Girl is not to be entirely trusted. But she knows she’s all I have. I’m also weirdly connected to her because she was a gift from my late boyfriend.

Yesterday GPS Girl and I were deep into the hate portion of our love/hate relationship. I was trying to get to a building downtown where they were giving city employees free flu shots. Oh, she got me there all right. But how do you explain to her that the parking in downtown Seattle absolutely SUCKS? Getting me to the front door isn’t good enough. I then have to find a place to dump my car. That’s not her fault, technically speaking.

But as I drove around and around and around, hearing her smug tone as she said, “recalculating” was setting my teeth on edge. And then at one point I turned into a tunnel under a building, assuming it was a parking garage, and it turned out to be an on ramp for the interstate. Who builds a skyscraper over the top of an on ramp, for crying out loud? And since I was in a tunnel, GPS Girl went silent. She hates tunnels. I didn’t know where the hell I was until I was across the canal and miles away from my flu shot. When she woke up again, she tried sending me the wrong way down several one way streets, and up off ramps. I was beginning to think that she was seriously effing with me.

I had no choice but to ignore her instructions. She started to sound increasingly irritated. “Turn around when possible.” Why? So I could go back to the wrong way street? We were at an impasse. So GPS Girl pulled out the ultimate trump card; something I had never seen her do before. “There is no route to your destination.” In other words, you can’t get there from here. You’re on your own, Choochie.

So I did the only thing one can do when one has seriously pissed off one’s partner. I aimlessly drove around in circles, keeping quiet, until GPS Girl had a chance to calm down and reconsider her actions. Finally she told me how to get back downtown.

It was probably my imagination, but she sounded a little sheepish. Apology accepted. For now.

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Foreign Travel Advice for Americans

Recently my amazing nephew contacted me for travel advice. I have been to 19 countries to date, so he figured I’d have some useful information. I’d forgotten what it was like, planning my first overseas trip. Those were the days. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve made a lot of mistakes over the years, but I’d like to think I’ve learned from them. I specify that this advice is for Americans, but that’s only because the links I provide are for American sites. But really, I think this would help any traveler.  Having said that, here are a few basic tips and links for the foreign travel newbie.

  • First and foremost, before deciding what country to visit, check out the US Department of State’s website to find out just what you’re getting yourself into. They have up to date country specific information. Getting kidnapped or stumbling into a war zone will definitely put a damper on your travel plans. Some countries are very safe except in certain regions. Know your geography and avoid hot spots. Nothing can guarantee your safety 100 percent, but it would be foolish to not make an effort to mitigate your risks at the very least.
  • Once you’ve decided upon a country (or countries), make the effort to educate yourself about them in advance. At a bare minimum, get a CURRENT guidebook. My absolute favorites are the Lonely Planet Guides, or, if you’re traveling in Europe, Rick Steves has some great books as well. But read those guides in advance, because there’s nothing more annoying than getting back home and discovering that there was something really cool that you could have done while there that you didn’t know about. If you are lucky enough to be in a foreign country for a long time and language will be an issue, I also highly recommend the Berlitz phrasebooks.
  • My favorite site for finding the cheapest airfare is kayak.com. They compare hundreds of sites. It’s always cheaper if you buy your tickets well in advance and travel mid-week, and your guidebooks will tell you what is low, shoulder and high season for your destination. That will impact your price, too.
  • Read up on the history and culture, too. Learn about their art, their music, their archeology, their architecture, their food. It will only make your experience richer. And if you can ask the locals educated questions, it will show people that you respect their country and want to know what it’s all about. It’s a great way to make lifelong friends.
  • Whatever you do, do NOT wait until the last minute to get your passport. It will always take longer than you think and trust me, you don’t need that type of stress.
  • Many countries require inoculations. Check with your local purveyor of overseas immunizations to see what’s required. And some things aren’t required, they’re just recommended. If that’s the case, get them, too, because once you get some exotic disease, there’s no turning back. Also, have your doctor prescribe a strong diarrhea medicine to take with you just in case. The prescription kind is more effective than anything you can get over the counter. You won’t regret having it.
  • If you have any valuable electronics that you’re planning to bring with you and they’re not obviously old and ratty, take them to your local customs and border protection office and fill out form 4457, “Certificate of Registration for Personal Effects Taken Abroad” or risk having people assume you bought them in country and face having to pay a duty fee at customs. This goes for cameras, cell phones, laptops, etc.
  • Make three photocopies of your passport, credit cards, identification, and any other documentation (like those customs receipts I mentioned above). Keep one copy in your checked baggage, one in your carry on baggage, and one copy with a trusted friend or family member whom you’d be able to reach by phone if necessary. Also include your name and address not only on your luggage tags, but also on a 3×5 card taped INSIDE your luggage in case those tags get ripped off.
  • Create an in case of emergency card for your wallet which includes your name, date of birth, medical allergies, blood type, medical conditions, physician’s name and phone number, emergency contact name and how this person is related to you, plus their phone numbers.
  • Make it a point to get about 100 dollars in the local currency, because there’s nothing worse than arriving in a foreign country after a long exhausting flight only to find that all the money exchange places are closed and your taxi driver only accepts cash. Thomas Cook is a great resource for advance currency exchange. The rest of the time, in this day and age, (unless you’re going to the back of beyond) you’ll be able to survive by using a credit card. But make sure you have a card that does not charge foreign exchange fees, because if you get home and discover you’ve been charged 10 dollars per transaction, you will have a heart attack. As of this writing, Capital One credit cards do not charge foreign exchange fees, but double check, because that could change.
  • Once you’ve decided which credit cards to take, call the companies and tell them in which countries you’ll be traveling and when. Otherwise they may think it’s suspicious activity and block it, and that’s a nightmare to untangle long distance. Also, they then WILL be able to block suspicious activity. For example, I bought a souvenir in Turkey, and within 24 hours, some loser in Israel had stolen my identity, and since I’d given the credit card company my itinerary, they were able to block the Israel transactions before I was wiped out, but didn’t block my Turkey transactions. Also, confirm the pin numbers for your credit cards before you go.
  • A lot of travel sites will suggest that you get a money belt to avoid pickpockets. I have always found this to be an unnecessary expense. Instead, I do the following: Carry a small amount of cash and one credit card in your wallet. Put that wallet in a fanny pack, keep the pouch portion of the fanny pack in the front at all times, and walk with your hand resting on top of it. Then, Take a sock, cut off some of the length, then use the toe part as a home made pouch. Put additional money and your passport and another credit card in it, then pin it to the inside of your pants with a couple safety pins. If you need to access these funds, you just step into the nearest bathroom, and there you have it.
  • This will be evidence of my anal retentive personality, but over the years I’ve created a master packing list (which can be found here). Whenever I’ve discovered that I’ve forgotten something, I add it to the list for the next time. When I’m about to take a trip, I copy that list, then remove the items that don’t apply to this particular trip (like winter coats for trips to the tropics, for example) and then I have a pretty comprehensive list of what to pack. But don’t overdo it. Travel as lightly as you can. Lugging a lot of unnecessary crap will just make your trip a lot less enjoyable, especially now that airlines are charging luggage fees. If you absolutely need something that you’ve forgotten to pack, you can always buy it in country. If it’s not available in country, that means an entire country has learned to live without it, and that means you can, too.
  • Give your loved ones your itinerary so they can contact you in an emergency, but also register your itinerary on line with the State Department. If you do nothing else, do that, because if things turn unexpectedly ugly, for example, if war is declared, you want the good guys to know where you are.
  • If you’re driving yourself to the airport, make sure you get gas for your vehicle, top off your fluids, and get air in your tires the day before. Nothing is worse than missing your flight because of a flat tire. That would spell the destruction of your holiday.
  • If there’s any way to get a ride to the airport, do so, because long term parking fees are obscene. If you have absolutely no choice, research the park and ride shuttle companies near your airport, and then make reservations to leave your car with them. Slightly cheaper, at least.
  • It is recommended that you arrive at the airport two hours early for international flights, but don’t assume that is the rule of thumb on the way back. If I hadn’t arrived 4 hours early to the airport in Istanbul, I’d still be sitting in that airport right now.
  • Upon your return, pack all your souvenirs and receipts separately for customs. They always appreciate it when you make life easier for them.
  • For the love of god, if you have even the tiniest brain in your head, DO NOT SMUGGLE ANYTHING into or out of a foreign country!!!!!!! Go to youtube and look up any episode of “Locked Up Abroad” if you want to see how incredibly stupid it is to take that sort of risk. Don’t want to wind up in a foreign prison? Simple. Respect the laws of the country that you’re in.
  • If you’re going to be renting a car, get an international driver’s license from AAA, and print out the international traffic signs so you know what they mean. You can find them on Google. The life you save could be your own. Check to see if your auto insurance will cover your rental, because if it does, it will be a lot cheaper than taking out the rental agency’s insurance. They won’t like it if you waive their insurance, but you are within your rights to do so. But make sure you’re covered.
  • If you have a student ID, bring it with you. You never know when you can take advantage of a student discount.
  • Check to see if the country of your choice requires visas. If you can obtain them in advance, do so.
  • If you are bringing anything irreplaceable with you, such as glasses, camera, etc, put that in your carry on luggage. Do not check it. Murphy’s law dictates that it will disappear. Also, bring a copy of your glasses prescription in case they get broken during your travels.
  • Put a temporary hold on your mail, and if possible, get someone to occasionally go by and check on your house. Put timers on your lights so that your place will appear inhabited. Turn off your water heater and unplug everything you can. Adjust your thermostat.
  • It makes me sick to have to say this, but if you are an unmarried woman and will be traveling in a conservative country, go to the flea market and buy yourself some wedding rings. You will be treated with much more respect. And unfortunately, as liberated as you may be, there are places in the world where a woman should just not go alone, especially at night. Research the countries customs and beliefs, and whether you agree with them or not, take them seriously.
  • Also, if you are traveling to a country where Americans are not appreciated which is pretty much everywhere these days, you may want to consider getting Canadian flag patches to sew on your backpacks and Canadian flag luggage tags. Everybody loves Canadians. And although they put out a quality product, American Tourister is probably not the brand of luggage you want to use in this day and age.
  • Make sure you keep  your prescription medication in its prescription packaging. And if it’s anything that has any type of street value, do not leave it in the hotel for the maids.
  • If you are going to an area known for malaria, you need mosquito repellant with DEET. The best for anti-malaria is Sawyer Controlled Release DEET formula.
  • When you know the exchange rate, calculate things out so you know what equals a dollar, 5 dollars, 10 dollars, etc, and write them down on a 3×5 card so you can quickly know how expensive things are.
  • A note about reservations: It’s good to have reservations at the beginning of your trip when you’re tired, and at the end of your trip when you’ve got to make sure nothing goes wrong, or if you’re arriving in a city late at night. But if you are brave, you can often get a better deal by finding places as you travel around so you can be more flexible. On the other hand, youth hostels, which I HIGHLY recommend if you are not completely wedded to the concept of privacy, often require reservations. Print out your reservation documentation. Don’t be surprised if reservations get lost, or if your room turns out not to be available or if you’re suddenly charged a higher rate. It happens ALL THE TIME. Stand your ground. Have your documentation. Be polite, but don’t take any crap.
  • If you’re bringing anything that requires a charger, make sure you purchase adapters if the country in question uses a different currency or plug.
  • Bring a small box of powdered detergent so you can do hand wash in the hotel sinks. That way you can pack fewer clothes. And pack lighter weight things, such as khakis instead of blue jeans, because they dry faster. You can always layer if need be.
  • Bring extra batteries, but know that the airlines will require that you pack them separately from the devices. In fact, it’s a good idea to check out your airline’s luggage policies in general.
  • Remove perishables from your fridge and take out your garbage so you don’t come home to a  stinky house.
  • The more you plan on the front end, the more you’ll be able to relax and have fun when you’re there, so make a to do list and cover all the bases. Enjoy your trip!

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