November 4, 2014

Family travel: 4 strategies for waiting with kids

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We spend a lot of time waiting on things:

Planes, trains, buses and more. We’ve gotten good at waiting over the years. Our secret weapon? Games. We play games while we wait. We always have.

When the kids were little we played “I spy” and sang nursery rhymes and told jokes while we waited. We counted things and looked for patterns and we read stories and made shadows with our fingers.

When they got a little older we went nowhere without our chapter book. We plowed through Ben Hur and Watership Down, the Narnia series and the Jungle Books while we rode in the car and waited at doctor’s offices.

Since we’ve been traveling full time we’ve elevated waiting to an art form. If you’re looking for a few activities to fill the long minutes that stretch into hours with kids as you wait, we have a few suggestions:

Play Cards

We play a lot of cards in our family and we have for generations. I remember learning the fine art of bluffing over the euchre table from my grandfather and uncles as a small child. We play Five Crowns, War and even travel with a little fold up cribbage board. The kids learned a little Poker from their cousins last time we were in Indiana. I much prefer euchre. Last month we spent a few minutes between pick-up truck rides explaining the finer points of the game on a dirt floor patio on the banks of the Mekong in Laos.

Reading

If you’ve been paying any attention at all, you know that our family reads aloud a lot. Since the kids were little we’ve read aloud over meals, sneaking in much of their history and literature study while they chewed. Tony always has a “fun” book going, and he’s the kids’ favourite reader, because he does voices. We’ve had whole train cars full of enthralled listeners as Daddy plows through the next chapter of The Princess Bride on a train in the Czech. Carrying books and reading individually can be a great way to pass the time, but reading aloud to, and with, your kids is a great way to bond as a family and to pass on a rich culture of literacy from generation to generation.

Nature Drawing

Charlotte Mason introduced me to the concept of Nature Notebooking when my kids were small. I loved the idea of studying science in the early years by drawing things from the natural world that interested each of us individually. We’ve long made a practice of finding something small to draw: an acorn, a slug, paying particular attention to it’s breathing pore, a squirrel. It doesn’t really matter. I carry a pad of tiny blank papers, 3.5 X 5 inches, and water colour pencil crayons at all times. The best nature drawing we’ve done recently: painting the sunrise over the main temple complex at Angkor Wat last month. Stunning.

Something To Share

My kids are big now. A 14 hour bus ride doesn’t phase them. No one asks when the bus is coming or if we’re there yet. They just ride and find ways to pass the time. But they were little once, and they remember what it’s like to feel tired and bored to tears. Time always passes more quickly with friends and we learned early to pack a few things with “share potential” in our bags: marbles, cars, an inflatable ball, balloons, and plastic animal toys are all examples. Our kids still do this. Then, they look for little children who are struggling with the wait and they offer to play and share with them. Everybody wins! Elisha is the best at this, he is never without a pocketful of treasures for newfound friends!

Do you have strategies for passing the time? What do you do while you wait?

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Category: Family Travel, On The Road, Vagabonding Styles

November 3, 2014

Elizabeth Becker on the economic contradictions of tourism

“Since the end of the Cold War and the opening of the world for travel, tourism has become an important source of foreign exchange for the world’s poorest nations, often the only one. While tourism requires some infrastructure, from airfields to modern highways, it is less expensive than building factories. In theory, poor countries should be able to use the new revenue from the tourism industry to pay for the infrastructure whole raising standards of living and improving the environment. One hundred of the world’s poorest nations do earn up to 5 percent of their gross national product from foreign tourists who marvel at their exotic customs, buy suitcases of souvenirs and take innumerable photographs of stunning landscapes. * But just as tourism is capable of lifting a nation out of poverty, is it just as likely to pollute the environment, reduce standards of living for the poor because the profits go to international hotel chains and corrupt local elites (what is called leakage), and cater to the worst of tourism, including condemning children to the exploitation of sex tourism. Like any major industry, tourism has a serious downside, especially since tourism and travel is underestimated as a global powerhouse; its study and regulation is spotty at best. Tourism is one of those double-edged swords that may look like an easy way to earn desperately needed money but can ravage wilderness areas and undermine native cultures to fit into package tours: a fifteen-minute snippet of a ballet performed in Southern India; native handicrafts refashioned to fit oversized tourists. What is known is that tourism and travel is responsible for 5.3 percent of the world’s carbon emissions and the degradation of nearly every tropical beach in the world.”
–Elizabeth Becker, Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism (2013)

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Category: Travel Quote of the Day

November 1, 2014

When is it ever ‘the right time’?

Blyde River Canyon, South Africa“Last night while I lay thinking here, some WHAT IFS crawled inside my ear and pranced and partied all night long and sang their same old WHAT IF song: WHAT IF I’m dumb in school? WHAT IF they’ve closed the swimming pool? WHAT IF I get beat up? WHAT IF there’s poison in my cup? WHAT IF I start to cry? WHAT IF I get sick and die? WHAT IF I flunk that test? WHAT IF green hair grows on my chest? WHAT IF nobody likes me? WHAT IF a bolt of lightning strikes me? WHAT IF I don’t grow talle? WHAT IF my head starts getting smaller? WHAT IF the fish won’t bite? WHAT IF the wind tears up my kite? WHAT IF they start a war? WHAT IF my parents get divorced? WHAT IF the bus is late? WHAT IF my teeth don’t grow in straight? WHAT IF I tear my pants? WHAT IF I never learn to dance?

Everything seems well, and then the nighttime WHAT IFS strike again!”

                                             –Shel Silverstein, Where the Sidewalk Ends

My sister and I read this poem over and over again when we were little. Although at the time we felt it acknowledged some of the fears with which an eight and twelve year old might struggle, it seems to have a greater meaning than at first I thought. What if we don’t have enough money? What if we get rid of the apartment? What if we can’t find a storage unit? What if, what if, what if? No matter the age or stage in life, the ‘What Ifs’ have a way of striking. How do you quiet the whispers?

We’ve thought about and heard it all before-when is the right time to have kids, to get married, to change jobs? Seems most of us don’t have an exact date or time and often, the best answer is – ‘it’s never the right time’. The minute you buy a house, you’re offered a job transfer in a new city that you can’t pass up. Wait to take that much-desired journey to a far off land and there’s bound to be a travel warning to the exact place you planned on going. Trying to know when the ‘right’ time is to make that life change is never easy. Do you cannonball into the deep end or wade with trepidation at the top step in the shallow part of the pool? How on earth are any of us supposed to know when the time is just right?

After countless hours of negotiation with the voices both inside and out of my head, I can honestly say I have no idea when the time is right. But, I do think that when it is at the closest level of right for you, you’ll know. One of my best friends jumps into life. When she wanted to try life on a new coast it took her less than a day to make the decision. When that coast didn’t work out and an overseas offer arrived, she was gone within a week. She knew the instant she met her husband and married shortly after and has tackled other life decisions with continued intensity. Me, I’m the opposite. It took me till twenty-five to finally buy the gift my parents wanted to give me at twenty-one. I cried when I went off to university and although immensely excited, struggled with the idea of moving overseas. There were things I ‘needed’ to be able to make the leap, but after leaping once, twice and a third time my comfort zone has been blown open and the needs seem less and less. Everyone has his or her own process. Sometimes you’ll know deep in your toes that it’s right and other times ‘the right choice’ apprehensively knocks on your door and it takes quite awhile to hear it, answer it and let it in.

The process, decisions and choices are yours. Although, sometimes, life makes a few of those decisions for you but for those that are left to your own accord, listen to the message the world is sharing with you and leap when you’re as close to ready as you’ll ever get. John Lennon said, ‘life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans’. Time doesn’t stand still and there are only so many do-overs in a lifetime. Find your do-over and take the plunge. Just because we don’t all openly embrace change, doesn’t mean it’s bad. When the signs of the universe finally become clear or as un-fuzzy as they can to you, do it…..the time is right.

For more of Stacey’s travel musings, check out her blog.

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Category: General, Notes from the collective travel mind

October 31, 2014

Vagabonding Case Study: Ellen & Elmar van Drunen

Ellen van Drunen & Elmar van Drunen fietsjunks-3 (1)

fietsjunks.nl & traveltheworldbybicycle.com

Age: 39 and 40

Hometown: Ridderkerk, The Netherlands (small town near Rotterdam)

Quote:  “Live the life you love, love the life you live!”

“Stay hungry, stay foolish.” – Steve Jobs

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.” -
Steve Jobs

(more…)

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Category: General, Vagabonding Case Studies

October 30, 2014

Should you volunteer abroad?

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Most travelers consider volunteering at some point. We see a need and we know that we have the time, energy, or money to be able to lend a hand and be a part of creating change. Helping people feels good. Working on environmental issues and seeing results is exciting. We don’t just want to talk about problems, we want to do something about them.

Most travelers also know that there is a strong push within the traveling community not to volunteer while abroad- ever. Volunteers often do more harm than good. Children get attached to a revolving door of volunteers and develop attachment issues. Foreigners create environmental systems and forget to train locals so that when they leave, it all falls apart. And then there is the endless discussion about the harm that comes from middle and upper class Westerners descending upon a developing nation to “save” or “empower” the people there.

So what is a traveler to do? Put their money where there mouth is and actually do something about the problems they see or stay away from the volunteer complex for fear of being labeled as one of “those people” who doesn’t recognize the harm volunteering can do?

I will be the first to admit that even the most well-researched volunteer opportunity can dissolve into a lesson on why so many people are against volunteering. Not too long ago, my husband and I found ourselves pulling away from a volunteer opportunity working with sea turtles when it became apparent that the founder and his assistant had very little respect for the local community. No amount of research into their organization, practices, or beliefs could have prepared us for their level of distaste for the local population or for some other unethical practices going on that had nothing to do with sea turtles or the environment.

I could use this experience to highlight exactly why no one should ever volunteer abroad. I could, but I don’t. That’s because I believe that the potential pitfalls are not enough to outweigh the potential benefits. I also do not think for one minute that any amount of negative exposure on the volunteer industry is enough to make everyone stop volunteering. The drive to do something positive, the belief that things can change, and the need to feel connected in meaningful ways to other people is not going away any time soon. Unfortunately, neither is the “savior complex” that too many volunteers root themselves in. Instead of debating whether volunteering is “good” or “bad” as a whole, a better use of our efforts might be in facilitating real conversation, especially with new volunteers, about how to best research opportunities and combat the “savior complex”.

Before making the decision to volunteer there are three huge questions I think volunteers should be asking.

1) Does tho volunteer opportunity perpetuate the need for more volunteers or does it foster local, sustainable growth with the aim of eliminating the need for outside volunteers? An organization that has plans to utilize foreign volunteers for the length of its existence is a red flag because it means the organization is either choosing to not training community members to do those same jobs or it has a belief that community members can’t do those same jobs. Either way, red flag. Your skill set or knowledge should directly relate to a need and, ideally, you should be sharing your knowledge with a local or locals who want to be able to carry on the work when you leave.

2) Is the organization working in meaningful ways with- not for- the local community? Working to strengthen a community and get to the root of a problem involves working with community members, not doing things for them because the organization “knows better”. This requires mutual respect and open dialogue.

3) Have cultural and community needs been taken into account and does the work reflect this? An organization that invites foreign volunteers but does not educate them on cultural norms, needs, and beliefs is an organization that is asking for conflict and resistance from the community. It’s also a sure sign of an organization that has at least a bit of a savior complex.

There are many other valid considerations as well but these are the three that I think get overlooked the most. Look at the language on the website or paperwork of the organization. How do they talk about the local population? What words do they use to describe the culture? Do they have a clear plan for working with community members? Red flags are not always in plain view, sometimes you have to be a bit of a detective to figure out what’s really going on. Even then, as in our experience, sometimes the evidence just isn’t there until you are on the ground. Don’t be afraid to walk away and don’t be afraid to share your experience with others.

As a final thought, it’s also very important that volunteers, as well as those who choose not to volunteer, hold ourselves accountable to the words we use to describe our experiences. We are not “saving” anyone. “If it weren’t for us” should be followed up with “someone else would fill the role”. And, I know this may seem radical, but the words “poor”, “uneducated”, “simple”, or “backwards” need not be employed to evoke pity for the communities volunteers work in. Treating the recipients of our volunteer hours as human equals goes a long way in avoiding the perpetuation of that “savior complex”.

There are very real concerns when it comes to volunteering abroad. There is also no doubt that changes need to be made in the way we view volunteering and how we go about it. However, there are many small, locally focused organizations in true need of foreign volunteers to get the ball rolling, get a specific project off the ground, or to share specific skills and knowledge with the locals ultimately running the program. Connecting with people and lending a helping hand does not need to be viewed as a vice when partnered with the word “volunteering” nor should we be glorifying any and all things volunteer related. There is a very real balance to be achieved when it comes to volunteering, no doubt about it. The question for everyone is, how do we do that?

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Category: Ethical Travel, Ethics, Volunteering Abroad

October 29, 2014

Vagabonding Case Study: Karin-Marijke Vis

 Karin-Marijke Vis  91d070970c91ded525b47dd6db527ba9

landcruisingadventure.com / notesonslowtravel.com

Age: 45

Hometown: Apeldoorn, the Netherlands

Quote: “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” ~Lewis Caroll

  (more…)

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Category: General, Vagabonding Case Studies

October 28, 2014

On returning: Things change

My Dad's photo of Lago de Atitlan, 1973

My Dad’s photo of Lago de Atitlan, 1973

It seems the nature of humanity to freeze a moment in time. 

We remember a person, a place, an experience, as it was when we were last present with it. It is frozen, forever, in our minds; like the fading koda-chrome slides my parents took across the north of Africa forty odd years ago. We return to these places often, in our memories; the tastes, the smells, the sensations in our bodies as real as they were years ago. The characters remain eternally young. The buildings never deteriorate. The music in our minds never changes. Until, we return.

It’s a funny trick our minds play, allowing ourselves to remain fluid, to move forward, to constantly evolve, and yet expecting, somehow, that the places and people of our past experience remain the same. It takes a great deal of presence as a traveler, to remain conscious of this ongoing illusion, this magic trick that we play on ourselves. Returning is dangerous business.

There is a witchcraft in some places that weaves a web that continues to draw us back. When we return the spell is often broken and we find ourselves living in the past, wishing for people, or experiences, or a particular vibe that has come and gone. I’ll admit that there are place to which I refuse to return, simply because I love my illusion too much. The memories made on the first pass are so powerful that I wish to preserve them just as they are.

When we do choose to return, we must do so with an open hand, not grasping at what was past, an open heart, ready to receive what is new, and with open minds, allowing for the growth that has occurred in our absence. It isn’t fair, to a people, or a place, to expect it to remain locked in some eternal nostalgia that we’ve created around it. Of course it’s not the same; progress is the nature of things. Roads will replace foot paths, cell phones will be tucked inside native dresses. Nikes will replace woven sandals, electric lights crowd out the daily use of candles. It would be usurious of us to expect a place to exist at a lesser stage of technological development because it fills a particular emotional need or provides us with a sense of the exotic, or an escape from our real world.

The world changes, so do we. Just as a place will change in our absence, so does the person we bring back to the location. The eyes with which we see now are not the same as the lenses we experienced the spot the first time, or the last time, we attended it. It’s worth considering that for a while as we prepare to return.

My Dad and I had this chat four years ago, as we were settling into our favourite little spot on Lago de Atitlan, in Guatemala for the winter. We were returning for the first time, following a 10 month absence. He was returning for the first time after a 36 year absence.

“You can come, Dad,” I said across the crappy phone connection between ends of the continent, “But you can’t complain about how much it’s changed. It won’t be the same, but remember that for the children this is all it’s ever been, and they get to experience it in their own way, without our biases.”

I could hear him nodding his head in his office in our log home at the edge of the fall snow in Canada. And so, they came, the people who brought me to this lake for the first time in-utero just as the country was beginning to descend into a decades long civil war. It was as much of a joy to watch my parents rediscover the lago they’d long loved as it was to watch my children come alive to the Mayan culture for the first time.

This winter we’re back, all three generations of us. The lake has changed. The people have changed. The village we love the most has changed. We have changed. And yet, the magic remains, so long as we allow the world, and ourselves, to be as we really are.

Lago de Atitlan- 2014

Lago de Atitlan- 2014

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Category: Ethics, Family Travel, Vagabonding Advice

October 27, 2014

What makes us blind is that we think we see

“This is a truth about leaving the culture that raised you and crossing into another: We leave home with an arsenal of things we know about the place we’re going. There is no disarming all of what we know, no matter how much touching and kneading and feeling we do, no matter how much we think we’re trying. What makes us blind is that we think we see.”
–Alden Jones, The Blind Masseuse: A Traveler’s Memoir from Costa Rica to Cambodia (2013)

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Category: Travel Quote of the Day

October 26, 2014

Two Places to Rock to in Malaysia

Travelling might be all about discovery and abandoning our comfort zones. But at times, when your comfort zone is a club with some loud music, well, it’s nice to know where to find it when you are abroad.

As a resident of Malaysia, I feel it is time to give justice to my acquired home talking about two places that host a plethora of local and international touring bands. They are both prominent Malaysian homes for the loudest kinds of music, and as such might not be ideal for everybody. But again, if it’s about going in and out of “comfort zones”, it might as well be great to get out of yours and discover some Malaysian loudness, after all.

 

soundmaker

Soundmaker – Penang

Literally hidden at the second floor of a tattered building along Pengkalan Weld, about half a mile down the road from the main Jetty and facing the entrance of the Lee Jetty, this is the place to rock in Northern Malaysia. Check their show listings before you go because although they have a bar, it is not open every day. It’s a real, do it yourself underground venue, where heavy metal, punk, death metal, alternative rock and heavy derivates spray the walls with sweat. The show room is decently sized and the PA quite OK for an underground enterprise: consider that in Malaysia, a country who forced a ban on black metal music in 2001, and whose Islamic party has given a hard time even to Elton John because he is openly gay, you cannot really get much better than this. Soundmaker is the place to rock away your early nights, as shows usually end by 12 am.
Soundmaker is also a recording studio and jam room, and recently opened a small hostel room. The novelty is, it welcomes travelling bands and musicians to stay and record their music at a fraction of western prices.

rumahapi

Rumah ApiKuala Lumpur
In a place called the “fire house”, you may only expect amplifiers to burst out sparks of white heat, and set your own eardrums on fire. If you know what a real punk house is, and I mean an independent space where DIY is the law, the ceiling is about to cave in, and sitting on torn car backseats slung on the floor a common practice, well,  welcome to Rumah Api then. The only place in Kuala Lumpur that dares to object the city’s rampant, over-constructed technological wealth and high-class-loving youth. A stone throw away from the Ampang LRT station in the northeastern part of the city, Rumah Api stands to KL as the CBGB’s stood to early New York punk. Catch a dose of local and international punk, hardcore, crust, thrash and grindcore bands sweating – literally, as the only wall fan provided resembles a World War II airplane’s engine – on the low stage, and mingle with the most alternative youth in the capital. This place has plenty of character, but you gotta have some too to enjoy it. Otherwise, this could come as kind of a shock.

MARCO FERRARESE is a metalpunk guitarist who travelled extensively and lived in Italy, the United States, China, Australia and Malaysia. Since 2009 he’s been based in Southeast Asia as a writer, hardcore punk musician and researcher. He travelled from Mongolia to Australia in 2009, and hitchhiked from Singapore to Milano through Silk Road routes and the Middle East in 2012. He blogs at monkeyrockworld.com. Marco’s first Asian pulp novel Nazi Goreng  was published in November 2013 on Monsoon Books. Follow him @monkeyrockworld

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Category: Adventure Travel, Asia, Destinations, On The Road

October 25, 2014

On Baksheesh

Egyptian Train

Photo Credit: walidhassanein via Compfight cc
I’m riding a second-class train up the Nile valley when a boy in an official-looking blue jacket beckons me to the other side of the carriage.

“Look,” he whispers, pointing outside. “Beautiful!”

I look out the window to see a red sun streaking the sky with bands of pink and yellow. Beyond the train tracks, the mighty Nile glitters with orange spangles of light. It truly is beautiful.

As I soak in the colors, I wonder why the boy has taken the trouble to show me such a simple moment.

It’s not long before I get my answer.

“Please,” he says giving me a solemn look. “Baksheesh.”

For a moment, I’m not sure how to react. After all, baksheesh may be an accepted Eastern form of tipping — but this is the first time I’ve been asked to pay for a sunset.

When Mark Twain visited the Pyramids in 1866, he reportedly suffered “torture that no pen can describe” from the various Egyptian pleas for baksheesh. One hundred years before that, a French visitor complained bitterly about the amounts of baksheesh it took just to dig up and steal a decent mummy.

These days — while its no longer legal to climb the Pyramids or rifle through mummy pits — baksheesh is still a thriving racket wherever tourists are found.

Take my recent visit to Luxor. Whenever I took out my map, some enterprising soul would hustle over and offer me directions. Whenever I entered a tomb, children would fight over who got to fan me with a piece of cardboard. Had I been eating corn on the cob, I’m sure one of them would have produced some dental floss.

If there is any saving grace about baksheesh, it’s that Egyptians use it among themselves as well as on tourists. Most Egyptians earn low wages, so tips and payoffs are seen as a way to provide incentive and supplement an income. Nobody in Cairo, it is said, can get basic services such as mail or electricity without slipping a little baksheesh to the right people.

So, as with any local custom, the best way to get the hang of baksheesh is to watch how the natives do it. Thus, I no longer hesitate to plunk down a few piasters when I get fast and friendly service in a coffee shop, or when the baggage-handler climbs on top of the bus to fetch my bag.

In the end, the baksheesh ritual becomes a matter of trusting your instincts and acting like you know what you’re doing.

And this is why I reach into my pocket and give the boy in the blue jacket 50 piasters.

After all, 15 cents isn’t such a bad price to pay for a sunset — and I might have missed it otherwise.

 

To hear the audio version, read by Rolf, visit Savvy Traveler

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Category: Hospitality, Languages and Culture, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Styles
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