Monday, November 30, 2015

Overcome with Wanderlust: Why I Travel

"Not all those who wander are lost." - JRR Tolkien

Wanderlust is defined as having a strong, innate desire to rove or travel about. Often people who are overcome with wanderlust are said to have caught the traveling bug and are considered lost souls searching. In my opinion, being in search of something is a positive characteristic. In order to continually grow, you need to be open to learning and experience can be the best teacher.

For me traveling is an opportunity to step outside the comfort and familiarity of my world and into someone else’s. I thoroughly immerse myself in another culture by traveling somewhere I haven’t been, meeting the people, tasting the food, drinking the wine, seeing the sights and learning the local customs. I treat each trip as an opportunity to learn, and there are a few attributes in myself I seek to strengthen with each coming adventure:

Perspective. "Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world." - Gustave Flaubert

You've heard it before and it's true: there is a whole world out there. Empower yourself to explore it. Traveling provides you with the perspective to contrast your lifestyle. Traveling may even cause you to question your beliefs or behaviors as you begin to understand how others live. Perspective is critical in understanding the bigger picture so that you can better distinguish your role and the impact you can have in the world.

Tolerance.  "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness." - Mark Twain

Through my travels the most compelling conclusion I've made is about people. Regardless of one's age, race, religion, ethnicity or home,  most everyone has the same needs and desires. They need to feel safe and loved. They desire to provide for their families and have a sense of purpose, and want to feel valued and respected. Understanding that most people share the same basic needs, you can then look to other factors like history, belief systems and obstacles to better understand what makes certain cultures unique. The more you can relate to other people on a fundamental level, the more open you'll be to differences and likely to make the effort to find common ground.

Empathy. "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes." - Marcel Proust

While exhilarating, traveling can also be humbling. Meeting people whose lives may be more challenging and whose circumstances may be more difficult than yours can teach you a great deal about empathy. Your ability to travel the world puts you in the small percentage of people who have been afforded this privilege and it shouldn't be taken lightly. Use this gift to lift those you encounter and help those in need, and be thankful for what you've been provided.

Appreciation. "Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not." - Ralph Waldo Emerson
This world is an amazing place and much in part due to the diversity within it. Travel wouldn't be as exciting if every person were alike and each country were the same. Instead of comparing your experiences to what's familiar and letting bias be your guide, open yourself up and appreciate everything you encounter. Celebrate the differences and see the world through fresh eyes.
Education. "The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing." - Albert Einstein
Every new experience is an opportunity to learn and to come away with a greater understanding than when you started. Listen. Ask questions. While your travel adventure may just be a moment in time, don't let the learning stop there. When you go home, share your stories with others. Help to eliminate fear and uncertainty by gifting others with your experiences.

"Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer." - Unknown

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Around the World Ticket: Flashback - June 2007

Looking to see the world? Have a bit of time on your hands with a list of places to go?
Want the flexibility to roam the land without being locked into a schedule?
Then maybe an around the world ticket is for you.

Often considered an urban myth or written off as something that must be ridiculously expensive, let me tell you, the coveted around the world ticket is real ... and it's a very, very good thing. In 2007 I set out to backpack from Sydney, Australia to New York City westward. I had seven months and a limited budget. Knowing in advance where I wanted to go and that I'd be back in the U.S. once more before my trip, I did a little bit of research.

While I knew I'd be taking advantage of hostels and public transport, I needed a way to get from one country (or continent) to the next without dropping a lot of cash for one-way airline tickets. I stumbled upon a deal offered through American Airlines that provided various around the world ticket options for either a continent-based or distance-based fare.

I selected a mid-range ticket calculated on distance with the flight path of: New York --> Honolulu --> Auckland --> Christchurch --> Sydney --> Singapore --> Shanghai --> Beijing --> Bangkok --> New Delhi --> Moscow --> St. Petersburg --> Vienna --> London --> New York. At that time the ticket was less than $5,000 U.S. and afforded me the ability to fly as well as travel overland to my next scheduled destination.

At the time of my trip, and for several similar programs today, the conditions of the ticket were:
  • Ticket price is set by number of stops, distance and/or continents traveled.
  • The stops included must be detailed in your itinerary and are fixed upon purchase.
  • The trip needs to begin and end at the same location.
  • The journey must end within one year of beginning.
  • Dates of travel can be changed at no additional charge at any time throughout the trip.
My seven-month-around-the-world-backpacking journey was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. The around the world ticket allowed me the freedom to extend one leg of my trip to get scuba certified in Phuket, was flexible enough to modify plans for volunteering in India after a Himalayan mudslide, and afforded me the peace of mind to take a last-minute detour to Egypt. The flexibility was reason enough for this to be the right option to me, but after doing the math, it was hard to beat the price as well. I would encourage anyone to look into this option if they intend to cover a lot of ground regardless of their travel time.

Websites for more information:
  • OneWorld - Partner airlines: American Airlines, British Airways, Finnair, Japan Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, Qatar Airlines, Airberlin, Cathway Pacific, Iberia, LAN, TAM, Qantas and Sri Lankan Airlines
  • SkyTeam - Partner airlines: Delta Airlines, Aeroflot, Aerolineas, Aeromexico, Air Europa, Air France, Alitalia, China Airlines, China Eastern Airlines, China Southern Airlines, Czech Airlines, Garuda Indonesia, Kenya Airways, KLM, Korean Air, Saudia, Tarom, Vietnam Airlines and Xiamen Airlines
  • Star Alliance - Partner airlines: United Airlines, Adria Airways, Aegean Airlines, Air Canada, Air China, Air India, Air New Zealand, ANA, Asiana Airlines, Austrian, Avianca, Brussels Airlines, Copa Airlines, Croatia Airlines, Ethiopian Airlines, EVA AIR, EGYPTAIR, LOT Polish Airlines, Lufthansa, Scandinavian Airlines, Singapore Airlines, Shenzhen Airlines, South African Airways, SWISS, TAP Portugal, THAI and Turkish Airlines
  • Nomadic Matt - "The In-Depth Guide to Buying an RTW Ticket"

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Reykjavik, Iceland: Splashing through Geothermal Mineral Pools - November 2015

Guest Blogger: Brenda Wilkerson
Certified Storm Spotter, Devout Memphis Grizzlies Fan & Avid Blogger

When I visited Iceland, I fell in love with its geothermal mineral swimming pools. Most towns have at least one public pool, and many Icelanders go daily if possible. They consider it important to their overall health, and now that I’ve participated, I can see why.

On the first night of our trip, my friends and I experienced local swimming pool culture at Laugardalslaug, which was just down the street from our hotel. (Not yet used to the Icelandic language, we immediately renamed it “LaGuardia” for our own reference.) Laugardalslaug is the largest pool complex in Reykjavik, with pools of various temperatures and purposes, a large water slide, a gym, and play equipment for kids. Anyone can gain entry for about $5, and monthly passes are available for even less per visit.

At the front desk, we were given rubber wristbands which provide access to a locker and were directed to the men’s and women’s locker rooms. There, we were introduced to Icelandic pre-swim procedure. Everyone has to strip down and wash with soap before putting on swimsuits and heading outside to the pool. This step is not optional; there are matrons in the shower room making sure you follow the rules. When you’re done swimming and soaking, you have to shower again, and then dry off to the matrons’ satisfaction before re-entering the locker room. I actually found this practical European attitude toward nudity kind of refreshing, and Bethany and I had a good laugh about it. (“Brenda and I no longer have any secrets,” she reported back to our friend group.)

Laugardalslaug was packed with locals, even late on a Wednesday night. Scandinavian children climbed onto play structures above the water’s surface totally unfazed by the near-freezing temperatures. I felt too cold in the regular pool, so I adjourned to the hot pot and spent a happy hour or so there. It was just what I needed after our red-eye flight and day of touring. Friends and neighbors chatted while steam rose into the air to meet the light sleet falling. I decided if my culture allowed for a daily workout and hot tub in community with my friends, I’d be a much happier person. Let’s get on this, America!

After such a relaxing time, we wanted to visit a public pool every night in Iceland, but they were usually closed by the time we arrived at our nightly destinations. So our final geothermal experience was at the famous Blue Lagoon. This pool is heavily marketed to tourists, and I doubt many locals go there. Like many people, we visited the Blue Lagoon on our way back to Keflavik Airport for our outgoing flight. We arrived around 10 am and walked right up to the desk, where the attendant told us repeatedly how lucky we were to get in without reservations. I thought he was exaggerating, but by the time we left, the line was out the door ... so either pre-book, or get there early!

Given the luxurious reputation of the Blue Lagoon, I was surprised to learn its milky, mineral-rich water is waste water from a nearby geothermal power plant. Whatever its origins, it felt great. We slowly wandered around the lagoon for a while, then found a spot to sit and relax with a smoothie from the swim-up bar. Blue Lagoon’s one free spa amenity is silica mud, available in buckets all around the pool. It’s meant to be used on the face only, but many visitors formed assembly lines and slathered it all over each other, which was entertaining.

While I enjoyed my time at the Blue Lagoon and am glad I went, I preferred the simplicity and earthiness of the public pools. The Blue Lagoon felt like a glossy Disney-fication of Iceland’s wonderful geothermal pool culture. Next time, I think I’ll stick to LaGuardia.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Ten Most Obnoxious Travelers: Don't be that Guy

After having crisscrossed the globe for more than a decade I feel I can talk honestly about the cast of characters I've encountered on my travels. It hasn't been uncommon for me to befriend someone and after a while hear, "Typically I don't care for Americans, but I like you. You're different." Let's be serious; that's B.S. I'm an American. If you like me, reshape your preconceived notions.

That being said, I'm going to throw out a disclaimer: this post zeros in on what society often considers taboo, stereotypes. Although not the end all be all and not true for everyone you meet, stereotypes are kernels of truth devised from a common perception so that we can best prepare ourselves and safeguard our sanity. So don't be a hater but instead commiserate with me as I describe the random lot I've experienced over the years. 

1. The Loud-Mouthed American. Let's put it out there right up front: the typical American who is brave enough to leave U.S. topsoil is a loud talking know-it-all. Whether they have been collecting factoids for a lifetime or read it all in the guide book on the way over the ocean, they will be the first to tell you what's up and which way is which in a foreign land. If you don't hear him from a mile away, you can surely recognize the guy with his white gym socks pulled up to the knees, fanny pack and ten-inch camera lens.

2. The Leaf-Loving Canadian. Yes, I know you've weeped quietly in America's shadow for too long and are sick of being mistaken for a Yankee, but come on. Do you really need to plaster the maple leaf on everything from your backpack to underwear? As soon as you mutter an affirmation-seeking "eh" or reference Tim Hortons people will know where you are from and all will be right in the world. Let's all hold hands and chant together "hail to the great white north."

3. The Stinky Traveler. This isn't country-specific but some cultures are more likely to be culprits than others. You know who you are. For the most part travel hygiene comes with minimal expectations: just shower regularly and slap on some deodorant each day. I don't care if you comb your hair. But if people clutch their noses or lose consciousness when you reach into an overhead bin or grab the bus safety strap, that's not okay. In the same regard, show some consideration and don't bring your sauerkraut pickle sandwich or onion breath when you know we'll all be traveling in close quarters for a while. Regular bathing is encouraged, passing gas on public transportation is not. 

4. The Travel-Boasting Australian. The Australian culture is unique in that due to its remote location or maybe its strange allegiance to the queen, young adults are encouraged to take a "gap year" between high school and university, or before the real world, to travel. Because of this accepted cultural norm, Australians (and Kiwis from New Zealand) are everywhere and often travel in packs. We know you've been everywhere, seen everything and still consider your home the most righteous on the planet. Spare us your gnarly travel stories and enjoy the moment with the rest of us.

5. The Chatty Seat Mate. (Also applies to bunk mate if staying in a hostel.) I know you're excited. I really do. You are on this plane/train/bus en route to somewhere awesome that most likely none of your friends at home have been or can relate. But you must understand, I partied until 3 a.m. last night, barely made this plane/train/bus ride and have a splitting headache. If I have my ear buds in or am reading a magazine, please don't see this as an invitation to chat me up. If you still don't get it, and I have to fake sleeping (or death), please just stop. You'll know the headache has subsided and the airplane safety pamphlet has thoroughly bored me when I smile back at you and ask you questions in return.

6. The Photo-Crazed Asian. I've been to some of the most spectacular spots on the planet: the Egyptian pyramids, Machu Picchu, the Taj Mahal ... and there is one thing I can always count on: a self-absorbed Asian photobombing my priceless shot. I'm not sure if the peace sign is still the "in pose" or if they have somehow evolved to grow a selfie stick out of their torso, but Asians are everywhere and are the most photo-crazed species on the planet. It's not good enough to have three photos in front of that random disheveled palm tree, let me wait while you ... and your friends ... and your parents ... and the busload you came with take thirty happy snaps.

7. The Homesick Ruminator. Right now it's five o'clock back home. I don't care ... and neither should you! The purpose of traveling is to go somewhere you haven't been and experience something different. If you are constantly comparing the food, the dress, the people, and the culture to home and pining for the latter, you shouldn't have left the comfort of your couch. Do us all a favor and catch the next plane home. We are tired of hearing about it and no, we don't want to grab lunch at that McDonald's you spotted around the corner.

8. The Penny Pincher. Let's face it, we are all not like Paris Hilton and can't jet set endlessly around the planet. However, when you are on vacation you need to get in a vacation state of mind. You are there for the experience and often times you'll never be back so you need to make the most of it. Nothing is worse than a penny pincher on holiday holding everyone else back from having a good time. Save up, devise a plan and stay within your means; fun can be had on all sorts of budgets but it's important to know what you are working with before you leave so you aren't bringing everyone else down.

9. The Anti-Planner. In high school it was acceptable if you overslept and were late for class. Now that you are an adult it's time to put your responsible pants on. It's no longer cute or funny to oversleep and miss your train or crash in my hotel room because you forgot to book yours. You forgot to pack your toothbrush and need to borrow mine? Forget it. With all the information you could ever want at your fingertips, there's no excuse for poor planning. Get with the program.

10. The Condescending Jet Setter. Once you've been around the block a few times, it's hard not to fall in this trap. I consciously put forth an effort so not to be lumped into this camp. With a cheeky nod to the Australians, you're well-traveled and have experienced more adventures than one deserves in a lifetime, but be weary not to sour your newbie travel mates. Every city and each country in this world is unique and deserves to be discovered with an open heart and open mind. Check your past experiences at the door and dive into the moment ... if not for yourself, for everyone around you. 

These ten obnoxious traveler types continue to urke me and set my eyes rolling. Let this be a public service announcement: the first step in reform is self-awareness. If you are guilty of any of the offenses mentioned, there's still hope for you. Most likely, I'll give you a second chance but when you come to make amends be sure to being a bottle of whiskey and know when to bite your tongue.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Iceland Encompassed: Glaciers, Lava Fields and Waterfalls - October 2015

Guest Blogger: Brenda Wilkerson
Certified Storm Spotter, Devout Memphis Grizzlies Fan & Avid Blogger

Iceland is a country I'd always wanted to see, but it wasn't high on my priority list until this summer when a friend told me she was going with her sister. Suddenly, I really wanted to go. I offhandedly mentioned it to Bethany, one of my best and most well-traveled friends. Three days later, she had found and booked a cheap fall fare for herself and her husband, and basically said, "Are you coming or what?" So at the end of October, Bethany, Isaac, and I took off for a week in the land of ice and fire.

Our six-day driving tour package, “Best of the South and West,” included all of our overnight lodging and a rental car with unlimited mileage and GPS. We had a list of suggested activities each day, but weren't on a schedule and could do whatever we wanted as long as we ended up at our next hostel stop. To me, it was the perfect balance of freedom and guidance. We appreciated the written itinerary with descriptions, since many of the long Icelandic place names sound similar.

We spent only the first day and night of our trip in the capital of Reykjavik, then headed out to experience nature. In six days, we traveled almost a thousand miles and saw an incredible range of topography and climates. I've always lived in the flat American South, so repeatedly going from sunny, green valleys to snowy mountaintops and back within an hour or two was mind-blowing to me ... as was the sparse population. I'd stand in a majestic valley, or on top of a cliff, and try to comprehend that I was one of very few humans for many miles around. One night, Bethany read from a brochure that we were in a region of Iceland with a population of 500. Without thinking, I replied, "Oh, you mean 500,000?" No. Five. Hundred. People.

Everything we saw in Iceland amazed me and often seemed too beautiful to be real. It's hard to narrow it down, but here are the five places I enjoyed most and would consider must-sees:

1. Búðir Church and Lava Field. After getting a little lost on the Snaefellsness Peninsula, we found this famous black chapel at Búðir almost by accident. The church was built in 1848 and is one of the oldest wooden churches in Iceland. It sits in the middle of a lava field, now mostly covered with tall grasses, that runs down to the sea. The black rocks and mountain view at the beach strongly reminded me of Hawaii. ("Yeah, exactly like Hawaii," Bethany agreed as she put on a second pair of gloves.)

2. Hraunfossar and Barnafoss. Iceland is full of awe-inspiring waterfalls, but these subtler falls were my favorite. Hraunfossar is a group of small waterfalls resulting from water flow over a lava field and into the glacial Hvítá River. Nearby Barnafoss (which means "children's waterfall") is the subject of an Icelandic folktale in which two boys fell off a natural bridge and drowned. You definitely wouldn't want to fall in or go rafting here - the current is no joke. It's beautiful to look at, though, with such blue water.

3. Þingvellir National Park. Þingvellir (Thingvellir in English) is one of Iceland's most important sites, historically and geographically. As the chosen location for governmental and social gatherings, it was basically the capital of Iceland from 930 AD until the 1600s. The national park is a continental drift site, with several rifts between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. I'd expected to see a real crack in the earth, maybe with steam coming out of it or something. But the fault we saw, while impressive, looked more like a big ravine. We saw the most breathtaking fall colors of the trip at Þingvellir!

4. Reynisfjara. Near the town of Vik, Reynisfjara is one of the most unique beaches in the world. It's a rocky black sand beach with tall basalt stacks that edge right up to the shoreline. Puffins nest in the cliffs in summer, but we didn't see any in October. We arrived at the start of a snowstorm and were buffeted the whole time by snow and gale-force winds. That put a damper on my picture-taking, but made the experience even more memorable. We took refuge in the shallow cave and looked out at the Reynisdrangar columns, which according to folklore are three petrified trolls. The surf at Reynisfjara is so powerful and dangerous that even I didn't try to get close. I'd love to visit this beach again someday under better conditions!

5. Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and Beach. Jökulsárlón is a deep lagoon, formed by the glacier Breiðamerkurjökull, that flows right into the ocean. It was the easternmost point of our trip, and definitely worth the drive. We checked out the "bay" of ice floes next to the Ring Road (and saw a seal pop its head above water!), then wandered around the velvety black sand beach, climbing on pieces of glacier. I'd never known so many kinds of ice could coexist - blue and black ice, glassy ice, frosted ice, Sonic ice. Blocks of ice floated out to sea and sat on the sand. I felt like I was on another planet.

In addition to Iceland's amazing landscape, I really took to several aspects of its culture. Stay tuned for my next post about the geothermal hot tubs including the famous Blue Lagoon.


Friday, November 6, 2015

Valley of a Thousand Hills, Zululand: Flashback - February 2013

Eyes shut tight, quietly chanting, cloaked in a red dress with white beaded hair, the witch doctor sat cross-legged on the dirt floor across from me. It was just the two of us in a round cement-walled hut with a tin scrap roof. After a few awkward moments, her murmurs grew louder and she shook the chicken bones held tightly in her hands and tossed them on the ground in front of me.

"Ahhhh. Oh. Hmmm," she groaned, studying the chicken bone formation laid between us. "You will have a happy life. You will marry. You will have one son." She then peered up from the bones to gauge my reaction. I'm sure my expression was that of half terror half relief. I nodded silently. Seemingly pleased with my wide-eyed bewilderment with the local ritual, she then shouted, "now go!" I stumbled to my feet, brushed off my shorts, and quickly made my way out of the window-less hut and back into the sun.

I encountered the witch doctor in a small settlement called Valley of a Thousand Hills within Zululand. The Zulu Kingdom is a monarchy that was once independent but is now a province within South Africa.

While a guest in the Kingdom, I stayed in a traditional homestead with a Zulu family. The home belonged to a tender-hearted woman who hosted a bed and breakfast of sorts while caring for ten children. She took great pleasure in sharing the local customs and prepared several native dishes for her guests. The children at the homestead danced and sang, and enjoyed having a captive audience.

Outside the homestead, rounded cement huts dotted the landscape and barbed wire fences cut through the terrain. We walked up and over the rolling grassy hills as drum beats paced our steps. At the top of one of the hills, we came upon a group of people dancing. Dressed in animal pelts and adorned with feathers, a man was teaching a group of children a traditional Zulu dance ritual. The boys and girls ranged from young children to teenagers and were all intently focused on practicing the routine. While a leather-stretched drum set the beat, the children kicked their toes to the sky and tumbled on their backsides before bouncing up and marching on. They sang and shouted, and reveled in the applause from the passersby. As we walked on the laughter and music echoed through the hills.

The Zulu Kingdom is a hidden oasis steeped in rich culture, customs, history and rich food. The Zulu people are proud and warm-hearted. I enjoyed every second getting to know them and experiencing life from their unique place in the world.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

On Safari in South Africa & Swaziland: Flashback - February 2013

It was the first shower I'd taken in days. The air was hot but the water was cold. Although there were no working lights, the sun shone into the cement shower stall through a shoulder height cut-out: intrusive but comforting at the same time. I was mid shampoo-lather-rinse-repeat when I saw it intently staring at me from the opposing corner of the thirty by thirty inch stall.

I was showering with a scorpion. I calmly stared back. Slyly grabbing the hanging fabric swatch that I used as a towel, I ran like mad out of the shower hut and into the campground.

That's the kind of fun you can expect when camping for two weeks in Africa.

For what seemed like years, I had studied the world map and felt a void as I stared at the African continent. I wanted to go, but I was scared. I researched volunteer opportunities, but due to time constraints settled on a low-budget camping tour. The tour began in Johannesburg, South Africa, then took us overland to Swaziland before jumping the border to Ponta Malongane, Mozambique, and back to Zululand before ending in Durban, South Africa. Highlights of the adventure included safaris in Kruger National Park and St. Lucia Estuary in South Africa and Hlane Royal National Park in Swaziland.

Animals are neat and all but I wasn't overly excited at the thought of spending my coveted vacation time trucking through grasslands with the hopes of spotting some creatures far off in the distance.

Within just the first few minutes on safari I realized just how wrong I had been. Going on a safari is exhilarating. Action-packed, running from one edge of the jeep to the other, trying to get as close to the animals as possible without spooking them, all the while snapping hundreds of photos in an effort to get the perfect animal action shot.

Aside from that pesky scorpion, on safari I encountered giraffes, monkeys, zebras, African painted dogs and hyenas, and by boat, got up close and personal with some massive hippos. We also were lucky enough to spot four of Africa's "Big Five Game:" lions, elephants, cape buffalo and rhinos; the only animal that eluded us was the leopard. While undeniably intimidating, Africa is a diverse, enchanting continent and well worth a visit.