Tuesday, December 29, 2015

My Favorite & Most Popular Travel Posts of 2015

In case you missed them, here is a list (and links) to my favorite and most read blog posts of 2015.

Most Popular Blog Posts (Based on Page Views)

Havana, Cuba: A Romance with the Past
I've never felt more suspect than when I boarded my first class flight to the Caymans - for the weekend - with no checked baggage ...

Mission Accomplished: 100 Countries
Background: Growing up my family didn't travel internationally. Aside from a few trips to Canada, we spent our vacations and long weekends ...

Parikkala, Finland: The Lost Maiden's Freezing Glance
Tucked in the southeastern Finland birch forest hugging the border with Russia is the small town of Parikkala. The sleepy town was once home ...

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 ...

Dahab, Egypt: Flashback - October 2007
I was terrifyingly close to dying in Egypt. About six months prior to my visit to Dahab, Egypt I had certified to scuba dive in Phuket, Thailand ...

My Favorite Blog Posts

Merzouga, Morocco: Camping in the Sahara Desert
From Marrakech it took two days driving through steep mountains, grassy hills and rocky desert plains to reach Merzouga ...

Hostel Nightmares: How to Avoid Sleeping with the Maid
Hostel: an establishment that provides inexpensive food and lodging for a specific group of people, such as ...

Fifty United States: Our Journey Off the Beaten Path
Guest Blogger: Pauline Leupo, In today's day and age there are a variety of ways to keep our minds and bodies active. Some people are collectors ...

Bunol, Spain: Life Lessons from a Tomato Fight
Every year on the last Wednesday of August, tens of thousands of people flock to the La Tomatina Festival ...

Top Ten Bizarre Foods: My Stomach Has Been Violated
Throughout my travels I've eaten a lot of questionable food - sometimes out of curiosity, often times to be polite ...

Imatra, Finland: Southern Boy Brings Spice to the Nordic
Guest Blogger: James Strange, You can take a boy out of the south, but you can't take the south out of a boy. The first rule of adaption ...

The Whirlwind Life of a Bi-Continental Commuter - December 2015

Breakfast in St. Petersburg. Lunch in Paris. Dinner in Atlanta. Sleep wherever there's a pillow.

For the past year I have been continent hopping on a regular basis. In January I packed my bags and moved from Memphis, Tennessee to Imatra, Finland. Due to my husband's assignment in Russia, our company graciously allowed me to continue work in my new locale. The only catch was that I needed to be back in the U.S. for monthly meetings and be available at any one of our 42 manufacturing sites around the world if duty called.

While I've traveled for business the majority of my career, this new travel expectation of being "on the road" about fifty percent of the time was considerably different. In order to maintain my health and lock down my sanity, I've had to operate under a new set of principles and practice a few habits religiously.

Relationships. When your schedule is erratic, it can be hard to cultivate and maintain important relationships. Whether it's scheduling lunch with a friend or arranging a simple phone call, everything is more difficult when you are juggling time zones, jet lag and other commitments. Having an international phone plan helps a lot as well as being organized with your daily agenda. I routinely block out periods of time when I travel to connect with family and friends. Also having clocks and apps set on multiple time zones helps keep my various appointments in order.

Sleep. Two weeks in one country and two weeks in another with a eight-hour time difference can lead to a life where you are in a constant blur and never really get with it. Jet lag is real and can be debilitating. My philosophy is to sleep as much as I can, whenever I can, wherever I can. The only way I've found to cope is to listen to my body. Melatonin and other over-the-counter sleep aids can be helpful but the key is training your body and your mind. Forget about what time it is at home and try to adapt to your new time zone as quickly as possible. Don't worry about how you look sleeping on the plane or if the airport floor is cold; slip on your eye mask, pop in some ear plugs and try to your best to catch a few z's.

Packing. For me, if I can't carry it on the plane, it can't come. These days checking bags is a gamble even with the best laid plans, and I just can't afford to be without my belongings upon arrival. This means typically packing for up to three weeks in a roller board suitcase and backpack. To make the monthly ordeal more efficient, both my toiletry (liquids) bag as well as my make-up bag include duplicates of all of my essentials. That way I never really unpack these items but instead refill or repurchase when necessary. Being smart with clothing packing means knowing if laundry options will be available and thinking through the various outfit requirements of the trip. As a rule, I tend pack mix and match neutrals that don't wrinkle easily and are lightweight. You can throw in a few accessories for a pop of color and a jacket to dress up. I've also found that rolling your clothes as opposed to folding them makes them easier to find and organize.

Brand Loyalty. One piece of wisdom my Dad imparted on me early was to sign up for all the travel loyalty programs offered. Whether it's airlines, hotels or rental cars, ensure you are enrolled in all of the plans available as you never know where your travels may take you. That being said, loyalty is paramount. Do your research to determine which programs have the best perks (that don't expire!) and are most convenient. Select a plane/hotel/car provider and plan your travel with them religiously. Before long you'll be reaping the benefits and swimming in upgrades.

Traveling as much as I have over the last year has definitely been exhausting, but at the same time it's been an incredible opportunity to see more of the world. I won't lie that occasionally I find myself having "wake up envy" ... that tinge of longing to be like those who get to enjoy the comfort of their own beds, know what's in their fridge and can navigate life in somewhat of a routine. Of course,
I know at some point life will slow down for me and my bi-continental commuting days will come to an end, but for now I'm looking out the window and enjoying the view.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Elite Travel Blog: Five Travel Questions Interview

Earlier this month I was interviewed by Elite Travel Blog out of London and featured on its website's Five Travel Questions Interview Series. Visit the site to read similar travel interviews; read my story here.

Elite Travel Blog: A real life wanderluster, I’m pleased to have Kimberly from Girl Lost in the World take on our Five Travel Questions! She’s travelled to more than 100 countries – find out where!

Why do you love travel?
For me traveling is an opportunity to step outside of the comfort and familiarity of my world and into someone else’s. My favorite aspect of traveling is immersing myself in another culture: to travel somewhere I haven’t been and meet the people, taste the food, drink the wine, see the sights and learn the local customs. Visit my travel blog, Girl Lost in the World to read my post: Overcome with Wanderlust: Why I Travel 

What destination is top of your bucket list?
I have an endless list of places I’d love to see or visit again, but one near the top is Palau. Palau is an island nation in the western Pacific Ocean and home to Jellyfish Lake. Within the marine waters, two types of jellyfish, golden and moon, have evolved so that their stinger cells are not powerful enough to cause harm to humans. It would be a surreal experience to snorkel in the lake and swim with the jellies.

Where is your most favourite place you have travelled to?
Hands down my favorite region of the planet is Southeast Asia and the country I could visit time and time again is Thailand. I think the reason I like it so much is because it’s such a stark contrast from home. From the first time I stepped foot there in 2006, and the handful of times I’ve been back, the country and its people exude warmth and hospitality. From its unique tribe culture in the northern mountains to the picturesque beaches in the south, Thailand welcomes you with its distinct culture, pride and charm. I can’t get enough of the red curry or Tom Kha Gai either! Check out my post: Thailand Top Ten

What is your most favourite memory or experience whilst travelling?
My all-time favorite travel memory is and always will be getting married to my amazing husband in my 100th country of Jamaica this past summer. It was incredible celebrating the occasion surrounded by our closest family and friends in an idyllic setting. Aside from that, a few other unforgettable experiences include sneaking into Cuba with a press badge, learning to dive in the Great Barrier Reef, camping for two weeks in southern Africa, backpacking for seven months from Sydney to New York City westward, volunteering at a monastery in Thailand, and right now having the opportunity to live in Finland while commuting to work in Russia.

What is your favourite photo from your travels?
Photos are the perfect way to make your travel adventures timeless. I couldn’t pick just one so I put together a collage which includes a few of my favorites: Kathmandu, Nepal; Zulu Kingdom, South Africa; Santorini, Greece; Cappadocia, Turkey; Havana, Cuba; Ocho Rios, Jamaica; Kruger National Park, South Africa; Easter Island, Chile; Copenhagen, Denmark; Imatra, Finland.

Follow Kimberly’s travels on Twitter too!

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Cappadocia, Turkey: Flashback - July 2012

Lying on a hard marble slab, hot suds pouring over my eyes and mouth, I gasped for air thinking that this was different from the relaxing experience I was expecting. I'd had many massages in my life but nothing would've prepared me for a large Turkish woman flogging my back with a soapy wet pillow case. As I laid there naked, dehydrated and bewildered, she violently scrubbed every inch of my body with bar soap and a wash cloth while loudly singing. In the clouded sauna room, I was laid out head to toe with a scattering of other naked women. I coiled under the abuse and motioned for a drink. I needed water. But the woman didn't speak English, so the belting continued.

The traditional Turkish massage was my first glimpse into the culture. Several other sights I would encounter were far more pleasant like the lunar-like landscape of the Cappadocia region.

According to our local guide, millions of years ago a volcano erupted in the region with lava spilling everywhere. Overtime, the lava rock was sculpted by the wind and rain to create vast cavernous valleys, jagged cliff faces and protruding rock formations. After the crater lake and nearby streams dried, the surreal moonscape formed the nearly 250 by 160 mile territory in what is now considered Turkey's central heartland.

The towering pillars of rock were soft enough to carve yet solid enough to provide protection from the variable climate. The area began being inhabited by people during the Roman period in the 9th to 11th century. Entire villages were chiseled from the rock with houses, churches and monasteries dotting the hillsides.

Today the Goreme Open Air Museum is one of the most popular monastic communities to visit. The museum preserves thirty rock churches and chapels with colorful Byzantine frescoes adorning the walls dating back to the area's earliest inhabitants. The fairy chimneys, or hoodoos, are also a sight to be seen with tall thin spires of rock rising from the bottom of an arid drainage basin in Urgup, near Cavusin. Fairy chimneys are characterized by soft rock topped by harder, less easily-eroded stone, and some in the area stand higher than ten-stories tall.

Several of the fairy-chimneys in Cappadocia have been converted into boutique hotels. In addition to admiring the peculiar landscape, exploring the underground cities, trekking and hot-air ballooning is popular. The cities of Nevsehir or Kayseri allow for the easiest point of entry into the area by both air and rail from Ankara and Istanbul.

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 www.dontstopbelieving.me

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 www.dontstopbelieving.me

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.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Munich, Germany: Oktoberfest Wisdom - September 2015

Most events centered around beer don't require a whole lot of thought or planning, but for the world-renowned drinking festival in Germany each year, a bit of wisdom can go a long way. For instance did you know that the majority of Oktoberfest actually takes place in September? Or that while Munich hosts the largest party each year, Oktoberfest is celebrated in nearly every German city and many places outside of the country?

Some other useful tips we thought we'd share:

Traditional Attire. While it certainly isn't mandatory, dressing up in traditional German outfits for the festivities can enhance your experience. For men that means lederhosen which are short or knee-length leather pants most often accompanied with knee-high socks, suspenders, checkered, button-up shirt, woolen sweater or overcoat, and most always a wool hat. For women, the apparel of choice is a dirndl which is comprised of a full skirt with bodice, a white blouse and an apron. You can easily find these accessories at department stores and shops throughout Germany, but be aware that authentic high-quality traditional German outfits can set you back a pretty penny - upwards of 400-600 Euro. A more sensible option is to seek out clothing at second-hand stores or from shops catering to tourists. Insider tip: it is also possible to rent your Oktoberfest apparel in many of the larger cities in Germany.

Admission Fees. In Munich as with many other cities in Germany, there are no entrance fees into the festival. Once within the arches of the festival, beer tents and vendor carts line the walkways. Munich's Oktoberfest is the world's largest fair attracting nearly 6 million visitors annually.

Beer. Surprisingly, you can't grab a brew and walk through Munich's festival. Beer is best drunk in tents and gardens. According to the Munich Oktoberfest website, at this year's festival 7.7 million liters of beer were consumed, and tent security confiscated beer mugs from 110,000 drunken patrons attempting to stumble home with a souvenir. Depending on the tent, you may also need to be seated at a table or have ordered food to imbibe. Insider tip: stealing glass beer mugs from the beer tents is a no-no. If caught, your fate is in the hands of security and you very well may end up in a German jail.

Food. The number of chickens, ducks and bratwurst consumed during Oktoberfest is astonishing. In addition to the vendor carts parked along the walkways hawking pretzels, sweets and hand-held snacks, most beer tents have a full menu. Some tents require a food order to be seated and fries or dessert won't suffice. 

Tent Reservations. If you know Oktoberfest will be on your party card for the year ahead, reservations are the best way to go. Some popular tents max out on reservations in December for the year following. Booking with a tour company may also get you a seat at the table in choice party tents. Insider tip: while it's permitted and highly encouraged to dance on the bench seats of most tents, dancing on the tables is a sure-fire way to get a formal escort out.

Restrooms. Several tents have their own restrooms and there are community restrooms in several locations. However, beware that the lines can be painfully long. Plan accordingly. Insider tip: check out the lost and found area of the police station; clean indoor restrooms are right around the corner.

That all being said, with its music, dancing, food, carnival rides ... and of course, the beer, Oktoberfest is one festival not to miss. Mark your calendars for Oktoberfest 2016 which will take place Saturday, September 17 through Sunday, October 2.

Munich, Germany: The Mysterious Life (and Death) of a Bavarian King - September 2015

King Ludwig II of Bavaria was a handsome man with dark brown hair and smoldering brown eyes. He stood at 6' 3'' and had a deep voice that would cause chill bumps to dance up your spine.

He took to the throne at the young age of 18 ruling over the Bavarian region of Germany. The King was not much for politics or social functions, and so let his ministers tend to government affairs in Munich while he stayed in the countryside.

Captivated with art, music and architecture, the King frequently visited France in search of inspiration. When he wasn't immersed in the French culture, he would socialize with the local Bavarian farmers and laborers and bring them gifts from his travels. He became known as the Fantasy King and was celebrated for his eccentricity.

As a young man, one of the King's first projects was building his very own castle on a plot of land nearby his family home. Neuschwanstein Castle is a Romanesque Revival palace perched grandly on the hillside above the village of Hohenschwangau. The King began building this castle in 1869 as a tribute to the German composer Richard Wagner. Neuschwanstein would later be the inspiration for Disneyland's sleeping beauty castle.

In addition to Neuschwanstein, the King spent his royal funds on the creation of two other lavish palaces Linderhof and Herrenchiemsee. As the years passed, the King devoted more and more of his time to his projects. The reclusive King would seldom leave the castles and his peculiar behavior was beginning to trouble his ministers. Advisers encouraged him to marry, and while he entered into a long engagement with his cousin, Duchess Sophie Charlotte, the two never wed. He slept all day and listened to music all night. Rumors swirled of the King using state monies to fund his palaces. He failed to attend high-profile government events and cancelled important appointments.

Growing increasing intolerant of the King's unpredictable behavior, the ministers commissioned a group of doctors to assess His Majesty's mental state. Never having met the King, the collection of doctors including one Dr. Gudden, declared the King insane.

Soon after the formal declaration, a number of the King's privileges and responsibilities were redistributed. Fearing for his life, the King's friends urged him to flee Germany.

At 40 years old, the mysterious and intriguing life of King Ludwig II was cut short. On June 13, 1886 at 6:30 p.m., following a heated dinner with several government officials and doctors at his castle, the King sought out on a walk near Lake Starnberg with Dr. Gudden. Hours later when the two hadn't returned, a search ensued. At 10:30 p.m. the bodies of both men were found in shallow waters. The King's watch had stopped at precisely 6:54 p.m. The coroner's report officially declared the King's death a suicide but no water was found in his lungs.

To this day, King Ludwig II is remembered as one of the most popular kings in all of Germany and referred to by those in Bavaria as "Unser Kini" or "Our Cherished King." Ironically his three unfinished castles are some of the most popular tourist attractions in Germany yielding substantial profits for the Government of Bavaria.

Salzburg, Austria: Bread Crumbs from a Fairy Tale - September 2015

Tucked into the Northern Alps along the Salzach River is the picturesque city of Salzburg, Austria. Best known as the birthplace of 18th-century composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the backdrop for the classic film and musical "The Sound of Music," Salzburg is a fairy tale setting come to life.

Just a stone's throw from Germany, there are several things to see and do in this vibrant medieval city:
  • The Birthplace & Residence of Mozart: The building where the composer was born and raised now serves as a museum documenting his life and accomplishments.
  • Hohensalzburg Castle: Dating back to 1077, this castle is one of the largest medieval castles in Europe.
  • "The Sound of Music" Tour: Highlights include various filming locations from the 1965 classic, including Mirabell Gardens, Leopoldskron Castle, Hellbrunn Castle, Nonnberg Abbey, St. Gilgen and Lake Wolfgang, and Wedding Church Mondsee.
  • Mirabell Palace: UNESCO World Heritage Site dating back to 1730; historical building with geometrically-arranged flower gardens and mythology-themed statues.
  • Schloss Leopoldskron: Palace built in 1736 which served as the main exterior filming area for "The Sound of Music."
  • Hangar-7: Owned by the Red Bull company, a collection of historic airplanes, helicopters and Formula One racing cars.
Greater Salzburg Area
  • Salt Mines: Tour 450-year-old mines below Obersalzberg mountainside complex by descending into captivating grottos.
  • Salzburger Freilichtmuseum Großgmain: An open-air museum containing old farmhouses from all over the state assembled in an historic setting.
  • Schloss Klessheim: Palace and casino formerly frequented by Adolf Hitler which also served as the summer residence of the Archbishops of Salzburg.
  • Eagle's Nest or Kehlsteinhaus: Hitler's mountain retreat sitting at 1,834 m (6,017 ft), which was gifted to him on his 50th birthday by the Nazi Party.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Imatra, Finland: Southern Boy Brings Spice to the Nordic - October 2015

Guest Blogger: James Strange
Southern Cuisine Chef, Connoisseur and Wild Game Hunter

You can take a boy out of the south, but you can't take the south out of the boy. 

The first rule of adaption into a new country or culture is to figure out what to eat. Needless to say, there is not a whole lot of spicy food on the 61st parallel. Living in a hotel for two months waiting for my new apartment to become available, I had the pleasure of ordering every menu item from every restaurant in the small town of Imatra, Finland. I must say I did find a few new favorite dishes like borsht soup and grilled reindeer, but I was unable to contain my excitement when I received word that I could move into my furnished apartment.

The first day, I had two objectives: to unpack and to cook my own food. Unpacking actually went quickly. With an air shipment allowance of only 500 pounds, there wasn’t much to unpack, especially since I prioritized my turkey fryer and crawfish boiling pot along with the iron burner as a quarter of my allotted weight.

My next chore would be to get groceries. I had been traveling back and forth to Finland now for four months and the extent of my grocery store trips were to occasionally stop in to pick up some chips and soda. Armed with my empty shopping cart that I procured in exchange for a one Euro coin deposit, I began to transverse the aisles. I realized that this was not going to be an easy task. Nothing was in English! Yeah, I knew I was buying milk because it had a picture of a cow on the carton, but what I didn’t know was if I was buying whole milk, skim milk, butter milk or cream. Fortunately I pulled out my phone and began typing eighteen-character words into Google translate.

- Rasvaton Maito: Fat-free milk
- Valkosipulijauhe: Garlic powder
- Vehnajauho Vetemjol: Wheat flour
- Kananpojan: Chicken breast
Leppasavu Kenkki: Smoked sausage
- Puuroriisi: Rice

Two hours and 150 Euros later, I had only amassed a handful of supplies. Regardless, I came back to my new digs and made my first home cooked meal ... gumbo.

I realized that there were "southern" necessities that I was not going to be able to buy in Finland. With a trip back to the States already planned, I began to make my home leave shopping list. Number one on the list: Tony Chacheres Creole Seasoning. It was soon apparent that the list I was putting together would require its own suitcase and some creative packing to get through customs. 

My trip back to the U.S. was a quick one: five days in Memphis, Tennessee and the weekend at my parents' home in Texas before flying back to Finland. Saturday morning I tasked my mom with copying her recipe book while I went on my much-anticipated shopping spree. First stop was to purchase a suitable container for my precious cargo and then it was off to the local supermarket to load up on supplies. My shopping buggy was full of Tony’s, Italian bread crumbs, Prego tomato sauce, dried kidney beans, fish fry meal, crawfish boil and every spice seasoning I could get my hands on. 

With Delta Airline’s fifty-pound checked bag weight limit, I packed, weighed, repacked, and weighed again until I got the optimum mix of supplies destined for Imatra. I anxiously waited at the Helsinki airport baggage carousal. Did it all make it? Had customs removed some of my precious cargo? Would I open the suitcase to find my tomato sauce, beans and seasonings damaged and all combined into a messy stew? To my relief, all of my goods made the transatlantic flight safe and sound.

Armed with the “goods” from home and my mom’s favorite recipes, we have been able to bring some southern U.S. cuisine to the frigid southern part of Finland. Pictured here are a few of my favorites: red beans and rice, shrimp creole, gumbo, jambalaya and jalapeno duck wraps. It has been a pleasure to cook for our Finnish and American friends and enjoy some tastes from home. We are still sampling Finnish food and trying new things, but it's nice to look forward to hot cornbread and a big pot of red beans and rice on a cold winter's night.

They say “home is where your stuff is," and it’s nice to finally have all my “stuff” here.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Helsinki, Finland: Traveling Visa-Free to Russia - September 2015

Infiltrating the borders of Mother Russia is no easy task. For travelers from most any outside country, a visit to Russia requires a visa. In order to obtain a tourist tourist visa one must undergo the arduous process of applying for the necessary papers and more often than not, all details of your visit must be planned, documented and verified well in advance.

While it is well-known that Russia may be one of the most difficult countries to visit, especially for Americans, it is possible to step foot on Russian soil without a visa. Since May 2009 cruise ship passengers have been permitted to stay in Russia visa-free for up to 72 hours. Visitors may arrive into Russia through the ports of Anadyr, Kaliningrad, Korsakov, Novorossiysk, Sevastopol, Sochi, St. Petersburg, Vladivostok and Vyborg without obtaining a visa.

St. Peter Line offers affordable ferry cruises to St. Petersburg from Helsinki, Finland, Stockholm, Sweden and Tallinn, Estonia. While a valid passport is required, St. Peter Line offers two options on the Princess Maria for exploring Russia from Finland:
  • Option 1: 24 Hour Pass. Depart Helsinki at 6 p.m., sleep aboard the ferry and arrive into the port of St. Petersburg at 9:30 a.m. For an additional 25 Euro, take advantage of the ferry's shuttle service to be transported to three center stops in the city and explore on your own. The ferry departs at 7 p.m. After a second overnight on the ferry, you arrive back at the port of Helsinki at 8 a.m.
  • Option 2: 72 Hour Pass. If you would like to enjoy more time in Russia, there is an alternate option that has you arriving and departing at the same times to the port of St. Petersburg but grants you the flexibility to stay up to two nights at a hotel in St. Petersburg.
St. Peter Line also runs the Princess Anastasia for a multi-country journey to Stockholm, Tallinn and St. Petersburg from the port of Helsinki. The cruise liners used by St. Peter Line have a range of ensuite cabins for any budget as well as a variety of restaurants and bars, an on-board casino, cinema, sauna and duty-free store.

Imatra, Finland: Northern Lights - October 2015

Every once in a while, you may just look out your window and up at the sky and see something truly awe-inspiring.

Last week in Imatra, Finland, the sky was illuminated as the Northern Lights danced above us. The Northern Lights, also referred to as Aurora Borealis, is a natural light display found commonly in high latitude areas near the Arctic region. A similar phenomenon can be seen around the Antarctic regions and is referred to as the Southern Lights or Aurora Australis.

While it is extremely rare to see the Northern Lights from where we live, it is more common farther north. The phenomenon is a result of a solar wind disruption in the magnetosphere causing particle ionization to emit light. While the lights we observed last week were predominantly green with traces of purple, light bands and clouds can also illuminate the skies with yellows, blues and pinks.

Interesting Facts About Auroras:
  • The most active periods to see the Northern Lights in Finland are in the months of October and March.
  • Most auroras form in the auroral zone in a latitude between 10° and 20° from the geomagnetic poles.
  • Auroras can be seen outside of the zone when geomagnetic storms cause the light bands to widen.
  • Galileo named the lights in 1619 after the Roman goddess of the dawn, "Aurora," and the Greek term for the north wind, "Boreas."
  • Active auroras change shape frequently and appear to dance in the night's sky.
  • Periodically, close to the poles, when intense solar activity occurs, auroras can glow a crimson red and may be mistaken for the setting sun.
  • The Northern Lights are regularly visible in Iceland from September through April depending on weather conditions.
  • The aurora phenomenon occurs on other planets and has been observed on Jupiter, Neptune, Uranus and Saturn.