March 26, 2015

Lessons learned on the road vs. lessons learned in school

What happens when the education you receive on the road starts to make you question the lessons you learned before you left?

History is one of those subjects that never fails to look a whole lot different once I’m in a different country. Despite the tragedies that occurred in the region during my lifetime, I don’t remember learning much about Central America. I knew the region officially spoke Spanish. I knew that much of our fruit was shipped in from various countries in the area. I heard whispers about those fruit companies but I was too nervous to admit ignorance so, I never really understood what the whispers meant. In my textbook, there was a paragraph about Reagan’s  “failed policies” in the region. I memorized the words, regurgitated them on tests and never really understood what was behind the big hulking bush everyone seemed to be beating around. I am embarrassed to say that I never even really put two and two together as a kid to realize that the ancient Mayan civilization that conjured up mysteries in my head were from Central America.

I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one. Was I?

As an adult, I learned more about American policy in Central America and was confused as to why I had never learned about it in school. I formed conspiracy theories on a government hiding facts from the masses to hide their awful mistakes and stay in power. When I finally touched Central American soil, I realized that the reality of why I had never learned about things like the genocide in Guatemala and the Contras in Nicaragua was far more devastating. A very quick exploration into the reality of what was left behind in these areas makes it clear that the people affected were simply not considered people. They were enemies; the other; a symbol of a greater monster the US thought it was fighting. The people who lost limbs, dignity, and lives were nothing more than obstacles to be removed in the pursuit of certain international goals. The truth stung as it became clear. It made me question a lot about the “education” I received. You can’t put that in a 9th grade history book.

Similarly, I was thrown completely off guard when I visited Kolkata for the first time and found that Mother Theresa was not as revered in the region as she was claimed to be. Christian or not, every kid in the US knows who Mother Theresa was and knows that everything she did was saintly. Right? Apparently, not so much. Refusing to give medicines or medical care to the poor and ill, rough treatment of wards, babies whose wrists were tied to their sides, physical punishment for infants in her care, and a complete separation of any child with a known disability were not my idea of what this “saint on earth” had been doing. I currently hold a more balanced, if complex, understanding of Mother Theresa, the human, and her work. At the time, however, I found it unsettling and frustrating that no one wanted to talk about the complexities of being a human being who is seen as a walking icon of perfection, help, and love. It seems humans have a hard time worshiping their heroes if they show signs of being human. That  is a conversation I could have really learned something from as a young person.

Yes, history has a way of looking a little less absolute once you are standing on different soil, surrounded by different vantage points. Similarly, science, medicine, human rights, and art are all areas of study where I have found myself thrown off kilter once I left the confines of the US borders.

At some point, I started wondering- does everyone question their schooling, just a little, when they travel to new countries? Does everyone see gaps, inconsistancies, or lies in the textbooks they remember?

It seems the answer is, yes.

I have met travelers who were embarrassed to admit that they truly thought Indians worshipped cows in the street before the went to India themselves; travelers who thought antibiotics were where it was at for every medical professional in the world before discovering ancient holistic practices on their journeys; travelers who couldn’t believe the difference in opinions over how to speak English “correctly”; travelers angry at language teachers who had promised them they were fluent based on textbook quizzes and state exams drafted by non-native speakers; travelers who cried when they visited memorials to genocide victims they never knew about. It seems that everyone I have met along the way has had at least one moment of questioning the education they received before they left their home countries.

And how could they not? Every educational system must ultimately pick and choose what to share with students. Even if, in an ideal world, the very human hand that guides the education of the masses had every desire to share as much information as possible with students, choices would still need to be made. The amount of knowledge available to any human being on earth today is staggering. One only need consider the constant flow of information that is available, literally at our fingertips, to become aware of just how much one person could take in in a lifetime. At some point, a conflict, hero, or medical option will get left out of the textbooks.

And this is precisely why travel is so incredibly important.

Those moments of confusion over the lessons learned before, the ones that no longer jive with your current world experience, are incredibly valuable. More valuable than most people realize. Understanding that educational systems are limited, that making one educational choice means not making another, that the facts we learn are filtered long before they get to us, is the first step to understanding what an education truly is. That understanding opens the door wide to an entire world of learning and, hopefully, keeps us aware that education is never really “complete”.

Questioning those lessons that came before is usually a struggle. There is confusion, then wonder, then possibly anger or frustration, and then once again… wonder. Wonder that the world is actually that complex, that ‘bad guys” and “good guys” don’t exist simplistically, that between the black and white pages of a textbook is whole lot of gray, that there really is that much to learn.

In my experience, travel is the catalyst for an insatiable thirst to know. That knowing takes time but, thankfully, so does travel.

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Category: Ethical Travel, Ethics, Youth Travel

March 24, 2015

Must-have smart phone travel apps

The day that smart phones became available, travel changed forever. Immediately, my smart phone became my watch, my alarm clock, calendar, address book, notebook, mirror, and even my flashlight, lessening the number of devices and the weight I needed to carry. As more and more travel apps became available, my smart phone quickly became my most valuable travel accessory. But with literally thousands of apps related to travel, figuring out which are truly useful can be daunting, so I put together the following list of my favorite and most beneficial apps:

Maps With Me:

Maps with me travel apps

Maps with me

Maps With Me allows iOS and Android users to download detailed maps of countries on their phones, so no wifi or cell connection is needed to use them. Once downloaded, users can zoom in on any city or area of the country, right down to the smallest street or attraction. The quality of their maps is so good that I am able to follow along as I ride trains through remote areas, to make sure I don’t miss my stop in countries where I don’t speak the language.

 

XE Currency Converter:

XE Currency Converter

XE Currency

One of the most confusing issues that travelers deal with is currency conversions, but with XE Currency Converter, the process is simple. This app provides live exchange rates and historical charts with wifi access, and the most recent rates are stored for offline use. The app is available for iOS and Android. The free version allows tracking 10 currencies simultaneously, while the pro version ($1.99) allows  for 20 currencies, though both versions show the conversions for 180+ different currencies.

 

Mobile Passport:

Mobile Passport app

MobilePassport

First launched for Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, and now operational for Miami International Airport, this free app lets you lets you skip the Custom and Border Protection line. Simply set up your profile in the app, then upon returning to the U.S., launch the app and answer CBP’s questions and go straight to the “Mobile Passport Control” express lane at the airport – no need to fill out the customs and immigration forms! CBP intends to expand the app for other U.S. airports.

 

Google Translate:

Google Translate app

GoogleTranslate

Gone are the days of struggling with languages you don’t speak in foreign countries. Now the free Google Translate facilitates translations in 90 languages. The app uses computer programs to perform the translations, so they are not always perfect, but in my experience they are good enough to be understood. Select the language and either key in or use your finger to write the words for which you wish a translation. Pressing the speaker button will speak the translation aloud. The newest feature of the app allows taking a photo of a sign written in a foreign language, which is then translated on the screen.

 

Skype:

Skype app

Skype

An oldie but still a goodie! The free Skype app allows phone calls to be made over any wifi network, using smart phones, tablets, and computers. Calls between people who have Skype accounts are always free, no matter where in the world they are located. Calls to a person who does not have a Skype account are extremely affordable, costing just a few cents per minute (charges vary according to country). I maximize Skype by purchasing a subscription that provides me unlimited free calls to any landline or mobile in the U.S. or Canada, and by purchasing a Skype U.S. phone number that allows friends and family to call me no matter where in the world I am for the cost of a local phone call.

WhatsApp:

WhatsApp

WhatsApp

The only communication problem that Skype does not solve for me is texting, so for this function I turn to WhatsApp, a free chat/texting app that sends free texts worldwide whenever the user is connected to a cellular or wifi network. In addition to basic messaging WhatsApp users can create groups, send each other unlimited images, video and audio media messages. The first year is free, with a charge of 99 cents per year thereafter.

 

 

1Password:

1Password

1Password

To ensure security, it’s advisable to use different passwords for every site, but doing so presents another problem – how to remember all those passwords. My preferred app for password storage on my phone is 1Password, which creates strong, unique passwords for every site, remembers them all for you, and logs you in with a single tap. Everything in your 1Password vault is protected by a Master Password that only you know. The free app encrypts all your data using authenticated AES 256-bit encryption and auto-locks to protect your vault even if your device is lost or stolen.

 

SignEasy:

Sign Easy app

SignEasy

When traveling, life doesn’t stop, and occasionally I have needed to sign a document. It has always been challenging to find a way to print out the document, sign it, and then fax it off, especially when in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language. SignEasy allows me to access and sign documents on my phone with my actual signature, wherever I am in the world. The free app works with 15 different file formats and works with popular cloud storage services such as Dropbox and Google documents. You can fill up your paperwork on a iOS, Android or Kindle device and seamlessly switch between devices to carry forward your paperwork. All your files remain safe even if you lose your device or even if it’s stolen.

TunnelBear:

TunnelBear app

TunnelBear

Whenever I perform sensitive activities on my phone, such as Internet banking, I take extra measures to ensure my IP address is hidden and my data is not visible to hackers by using the free TunnelBear app, which connects my phone to a secure Virtual Private Network (VPN). It also has the added advantage of getting me around censorship in countries like China, where sites like Google and Facebook are blocked sites.

 

 

Kindle:

Kindle app

Kindle

Last but not least is my Kindle app, which I use to read the 10,000 or so books I have stored on my phone. Though it is commonly believed that the Kindle app can be used only to read books purchased through Kindle, this is not true! It is easy to load any book on Kindle. Simply connect your phone to a laptop or computer where your books are stored, launch iTunes, and when your device appears, click on the app tab. Scroll down until you see the Kindle icon and drag and drop any mobi formatted books onto the icon.

 

These are my favorite ten smart phone travel apps, but I’d love to hear about any others that you’ve found particularly helpful when traveling.

When Barbara Weibel realized she felt like the proverbial “hole in the donut” – solid on the outside but empty on the inside – she walked away from corporate life and set out to see the world. Read first-hand accounts of the places she visits and the people she meets on her blog, Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel. Follow her on Facebook or on Twitter (@holeinthedonut).

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Category: Female Travelers, Senior Travel

March 21, 2015

Mister Universe

World

In the remote southwestern Ethiopian town of Jinka, Charles Veley and I were drinking araki sorghum whiskey in the bar of a dirt-lane guesthouse full of Mursi tribesmen and their families. Mursi women are usually recognizable by the clay disks that stretch their severed lower lips, but on this night, in an informal setting (where families had paid the equivalent of 20 cents a person to sleep on the packed-dirt floor), most of the women had removed their ocher-painted plates. Their lower lips sagged around their chins as they nursed babies in the dim light; the Mursi men, who had checked their fighting staves at the door, silently watched television and sipped araki.

For most of the Mursi, this town of 22,500 people, a minimum two-day walk from their villages, is the biggest metropolis they’ll ever know. The next day they would trade their butter and grains for manufactured goods at the Jinka market, but on that night, as they watched Ethiopian music videos on a flickering black-and-white TV, they seemed as giddy and disoriented as I felt in this peculiar setting. We were all travelers here, it seemed, each of us far from home in our own way. In fact, the only person who looked completely at ease was Veley, who worked the room like a V.I.P., casually flattering and flirting as he bought Mursi women drinks. Dressed in quick-dry trekking pants, Hi-Tec boots and a crisp white button-down shirt, he acted as if he were walking through a climate-controlled R.E.I. store instead of a smoky, lamp-lit room with grimy turquoise walls and the rich, rotten aroma of fermented sorghum and hand-cured goat leather. “This is why I travel,” he told me at one point in the evening. “For moments like this.”

For Veley, a 43-year-old San Franciscan, travel is no part-time endeavor: over the past nine years — ever since he resigned as a vice president at the software company MicroStrategy, which he co-founded — he’s logged almost three million miles and spent nearly $2 million in an effort, as he puts it, “to go everywhere in the world.” This seemingly quixotic project has won him a fair amount of notoriety in travel circles. I first met him in a television studio, where we were both serving as experts for a Travel Channel special on classic world destinations.

Despite my own passion for travel, my fascination with Veley’s project isn’t exactly a matter of common interest. My first book is an extended argument for the merits of slow travel and downplays the notion of counting countries as an arbitrary exercise. When Veley invited me to join him on a journey to East Africa, I accepted out of sheer curiosity about what drives such an endeavor, and about what a Charles Veley journey might actually look like.

In just eight days of travel, I watched Veley negotiate a series of buses and hire cars from Kampala up to the isolated Ugandan province of Arua, which shares a porous border with Congo. I accompanied him on a bone-jarring, daylong Land Cruiser journey across the semi-autonomous southern region of Sudan, along roads that were cleared of land mines less than a year ago. I waited as he climbed into an air-traffic control tower in the flyblown Sudanese city of Juba and negotiated our way onto a chartered aid flight to the Kenyan frontier town of Lokichokio. I followed along as he raced to meet a chartered boat to cross Kenya’s Lake Turkana into the Omo River valley in Ethiopia. Veley tackled all of these challenges with uncanny skill and obvious relish, but I have yet to divine exactly what motivates him. Whenever I asked him why he feels called to travel in such an exhaustive manner, his answers were frustratingly vague — “I travel so much because I can,” he told me once.

At a certain level, Veley’s project has been an effort to set world records and distinguish himself as a sort of extreme traveler, a far-ranging geographical trophy hunter. In 2003, at age 37, he became the youngest person to visit all 317 countries and provinces recognized by the Travelers’ Century Club, an organization of globe-trotters who’ve visited at least 100 countries or territories. A year later he approached the Guinness World Records to certify his status as the world’s most traveled person, only to discover that the Guinness authorities had discontinued the category, because, he said, they could no longer agree on an objective standard. “It was like finishing a marathon to discover that all the officials had gone home,” he told me. “It was very frustrating.” Unable to find an organization to verify his “most traveled” claim, Veley created his own arbitrating organization in 2005, a community-driven Web site called Mosttraveledpeople.com that has more than 4,800 members. Veley hopes to make the site the final word on the topic.

Our journey into East Africa, however, was not making Veley any more traveled than he was before — at least not by the standards of Mosttraveledpeople.com, which makes no geographical distinction between the isolated tribal corner of Ethiopia we went to and the rest of the country. In fact, while Ethiopia was the sixth African country Veley visited in just over two weeks (he’d spent time in Rwanda and Burundi the week before I joined him), none of those countries constituted a new visit, according to his site’s ever expanding master list of “countries, territories, autonomous regions, enclaves, geographically separated island groups and major states and provinces.” Instead, this African journey was what he called a “go back,” a return to places he had seen only briefly before. Such is the paradox of racking up so many countries in such a short span of time: once you’ve collected enough geographical entities to declare yourself the most traveled person in the world, the next step is to go back and actually experience those places for more than a day.

Veley made no excuses for the expensive whirlwind nature of his initial visits. “One way to look at this is to think of the world as a giant buffet table,” he said. “I wanted to go everywhere, to taste everything first so I’d know where I wanted to come back to for seconds and thirds. I’m doing that now — coming back for more — and it’s really enjoyable.”

Attempting to sample every dish from any buffet table might seem compulsive, but other Mosttraveledpeople.com members I talked to noted that this was not unusual for people who collected countries. “There is a degree of compulsion to this kind of travel, but I think any collection is by its nature compulsive,” noted Alan Hogenauer, who at 568 regions visited is tied for No. 5 on the Mosttraveledpeople.com list. “I think it’s the dogged pursuit of something valuable as opposed to some irrational pursuit.” Lee Abbamonte, a 30-year-old New Yorker who is trying to break Veley’s record of becoming the youngest traveler to reach all the countries on the Travelers’ Century Club list, added that list-driven travel tended to create its own unique worldview. “I don’t consider myself obsessive or compulsive, but sometimes you have to be both when it comes to traveling,” he said. “Most people look at my itineraries and think I’m nuts, but for me that’s the only way to go.”

Since Veley has a wife and three children under the age of 6 back in San Francisco, he covers a lot of ground fast and rarely lingers in places. “Maybe if I was single I could take my time,” he said. “But with a family back home, I’m always on the clock.” Indeed, Veley on the road didn’t resemble Livingstone or Magellan so much as a multitasking American office manager. At one point, when he and I visited the headwaters of the Nile near Jinja, Uganda, he called home on his iPhone to discover that his oldest daughter had just won a ribbon for learning how to swim.

In a way, Veley’s continuing quest to visit each corner of the world is intriguing not because it represents something extraordinary, but because it symbolizes an increasingly quaint notion: a world that might be somehow added up into something knowable, quantifiable and coherent. Once Veley had finished hobnobbing with the Mursi tribesman in this dim little Ethiopian inn, he told me about his plans to return to Iran and Tunisia and his desire to one day sell Mosttraveledpeople.com to a neutral administrator. “It’s not just about the list,” he said. “The more places I go, the richer my regional understanding and the more data points I can bring to bear on relating to people in that next new place. I find a great thrill in imagining a trip in the abstract, then turning it into reality.”

The spreadsheet mentality of Veley’s mission is seductive, but it also struck me as ironic. In an era when ease of transportation and ubiquity of information makes mere arrival at a place less of an accomplishment than it was a generation ago, experiencing one place in depth would seem to be as much a challenge as chasing an ambitious, list-driven itinerary.

After our time together, Veley was scheduled to make his way north to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where he would embark on 24 hours of connecting flights to the central Pacific. There, he planned to spend three weeks on a boat traveling 2,500 miles from Samoa to Tuvalu, hitting a number of islands along the way, including three new outposts (Swains Island, the Phoenix Islands and Baker and Howland Islands) that would bring him a little bit closer to completing his master list.

“The list is just a tool that helps me set priorities and stay motivated to see new places,” he said. “It’s not about declaring yourself the winner and being done. For me, there is no done.”

 

Originally published by the NY Times, November 16, 2008

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Category: Adventure Travel

March 12, 2015

How to educate a child while traveling

When families first announce their plans for extended travel, many of them are hit with repeated questions about their child’s education. Too often, the parents of traveling kids are seen as selfish. Adults feeding their own desires at the expense of their child’s education and “normal” school experience.

The reality is that most traveling parents have thought long and hard about what their child’s education will look like on the road. The vast majority are traveling to enhance the education their youngest family members receive. Socialization, academics, and personal growth are on the minds of every parent who chooses a traveling lifestyle for their children. No one has “forgotten” about math, higher education, or socialization but all of them have some up with creative ways to meet these needs.

The educational logistics of traveling with children are challenging but hardly insurmountable. No two families will ever do it the same way but there are a few main paths traveling parents take when designing nomadic educational experiences for their children.

1. Homeschooling – This is a favorite option among the traveling community. Homeschooling your kids on the road allows for flexibility. Curriculum and lessons can be designed around a child’s interests, a family’s current location, or the needs of the child in that moment. There is nothing that says ancient Egypt must be studied in 3rd grade and traveling homeschoolers know it. They use location dependent resources to their advantage and really dig into a topic. Many, but not all, traveling homeschool families carry books and other educational resources with them and complete lessons while waiting for planes, trains, and buses. With the rapid growth of technology, lessons in art, music, and dance can all be taught via video conferencing. Everyone defines homeschooling differently. For some, it’s a structured path that leads to directly to university. For others, its a child-led exploration of life with no ultimate aim as defined by the parents. No matter what, the biggest challenge for traveling homeschoolers can be creating and maintaining a schedule that suits their needs and lifestyle. Worried about socialization? Don’t be. Homeschooled travelers generally finish their lessons in a fraction of the time it takes their school bound counterparts to finish the same, leaving them ample opportunity to socialize with local children, other travelers, and their own families.

2. Local Schools - Some families choose to enroll their kids in schools as they go. Not everyone likes this option as it can require starting in a new school relatively frequently. Still, some families like the experience their kids get from a structured school setting. Their are two main options in this category. Truly local schools are the schools attended by the general population of a given community.  While the quality of instruction, methods used, and general practices can vary greatly from one location to the next, the benefits of this option include full immersion into a culture and language with children of a similar age and exposure to what the general, local population experiences as “education”.

The second option, international schools, are another option within this category and can be found all over the world. Generally taught in English and with a rigorous course load, this isn’t an option for everyone. However, many parents find international schools to be a good option for their kids, especially for those traveling slowly or for students with big ambitions for university and beyond. These schools tend to have a fairly high price tag attached, which may be the biggest negative of this particular option.

3. Undefined- For travelers who are traveling long term but with the intention of returning to “normal” life in a set amount of time, taking time away from a defined experience of education may work just fine. A year of unstructured learning and completely free exploration is highly unlikely to alter a child’s educational course too drastically, especially for younger children. In fact, many children whose parents forgo the workbooks and structured writing assignments for a year find that, when their children return to school, they are on par with their peers, and sometimes even ahead. Most families do not choose this option for continual travel as most people develop educational philosophies as they go and the “undefined” label eventually no longer serves them or their children. But for long term travelers on a defined schedules, this might be exactly what they need to really get out and dig deep with their young travelers.

Every traveling family meets the educational needs of their youngest members differently and none of them takes off without a thought to what education will look like on the road. Within these categories is a myriad of options for tailoring the experience to each child and family. No option is set in stone and as situations and needs change, many will shift course and try something different. That’s part of the beauty of education on the road- it is ever changing and flexible to the student. In a world with vast educational resources and ample opportunities for exploration  there really is no reason to worry that a traveling family “can’t” meet the educational needs of their children.

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Category: Family Travel

March 8, 2015

Giving free travel talks—A great way to share the knowledge and ignite others’ travel dreams

As travelers, we often find ourselves talking to friends and strangers alike at parties, at work, wherever, about travel and how to do it right. We evangelize for travel, extolling its opportunities and benefits. We often go on at length about the magic of our favorite places, the addictive high that comes from filling up a passport book, and the thrill of crossing a new border and making new connections. We also find ourselves giving out advice on all matters travel, from where to find the cheapest airline tickets to where to stay and when to go. You know you do this.

But normally it’s one-on-one counseling, spreading the gospel of good travel one conversation at a time. In almost any social situation I would meet many would-be travelers are looking for a better option than shelling out a fortune to join a big-bus corporate tour with an itinerary geared toward hitting the owner’s favorite tourist traps. I was always stuck by people’s desire for useful tips for shaping their own experience and, more importantly, the need for an infusion of “Hey, I can do this!” confidence.

After thousands of private conversations, I also realized that the most efficient way to share what I knew with those who were interested was to teach.

Next week at a local Seattle-area library I’ll be giving the first of several ninety-minute “Travel Talks” I plan to give this year. The seminar-style presentations, which I call “Traveling The Best of Europe Independently & On A Budget” will be free, presented at assorted libraries in the Seattle metro area.

This marks the tenth year I’ve been doing them, having originally started in my hometown of Chicago. I tackle the question about how to travel independently in Europe (since that happens to be my specialty), how to plan it, and what to do when you’re there.

I wish more experienced travelers, wherever in the world they happen to hang their rucksack, would occasionally give up a Saturday afternoon to teach these sorts of classes. Not only is there a deep need for the info but there’s plenty of reward in it for the speaker. Some have asked why I bother doing these talks when it’s basically giving me time and advice for free. My answer: Sharing my hard-won tips on budgeting, itinerary-crafting, and other how-to essentials is a joy. Many of the people who attend these classes have an ideal trip in their minds and have had it for most of their life, but have lacked the skills or confidence to go on their own. And seeing their eyes light up when they realize they can take control of their own travel dreams and plan their own adventure is profoundly rewarding.

Moreover, it’s a public service. More than just the mere nuts-and-bolts information of planning a trip on a tight budget, arming curious people with the info and inspiration to broaden their horizons is a good thing for them and for their country. They will likely return from their adventure with not only experiences they will cherish, but a better perspective on their world as well.

So, if you’re inclined to spread your knowledge and love of whatever destination you adore, please consider offering a ninety-minute “how to travel independently & on a budget to…” presentation at a local library or school. Any guidebook will have a chapter on the basics, but it’s a presenter’s confidence and palpable love for the subject that can inspire someone to finally book that plane ticket. Let them learn from your trial-and-error. Impart your wisdom and fill the room with your enthusiasm for the amazing places you’re talking about. You might just motivate a wannabe adventurer to take the trip of their dreams and change their life, and that is time well spent. Go forth and spread the gospel.

 

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Category: Adventure Travel, Expat Life, General, Notes from the collective travel mind, Solo Travel, Vagabonding Advice, Youth Travel

February 26, 2015

Taking kids out of school to travel

There has been a debate raging within the education community recently. It seems many educators, policy makers, and even some parents feel that taking children out of school to travel is a bad idea. Some have even gone so far as to say traveling with children during school time should be banned and parents who ignore the ban should face consequences. Did you know that many states in the United States actually deem it “illegal”?

After hearing so much about this I had three main questions bouncing around in my head.

1. When the heck did spending time with your kid become “illegal”? How did I miss that?

2. Why have we stop recognizing learning that happens freely, without coercion, and outside of a structured classroom?

3. Shouldn’t we be taking a closer look at a system that is so rigid that a few days away makes it “impossible” to catch up and spending less time vilifying travel?

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While I certainly recognize the benefits of education, I fail to see how anyone could possibly argue that any type of travel is detrimental to a child’s learning experience. Arguments about what is “educational” or not absolutely escape me since I see learning happening all around me, all the time. School is but one place where learning takes place. Should we really be teaching our children that if they are not in school then they can’t possibly be learning? Don’t we think that might backfire at some point down the line?

It is particularly baffling that there seems to be a need to label an undesirable action by a parent as “illegal”. Especially an acton that is meant to enhance a child’s family connection and exposure to the world. It makes me wonder, what is gained? I recognize that most teachers feel pressure to “catch a child up” once he or she returns from being away but is that challenge really worth taking away a parent’s ability to make decisions for their family by threatening them with legal action? It seems obvious that the real issue is a school system that is so rigid that a child can’t miss any time and still be confident in their learning experience. The pressure teachers feel to catch a kid up- whether they are traveling or sick- is a product of that rigid system, a system that judges a teacher’s worth by their student’s ability to perform. That would stress me out too! I just wonder why we aren’t worrying about that web of disfunction instead of using energy to punish parents for taking their kids out into the world. After all, whose kids are they?

Before you say it, I know what you might be thinking. “Not every travel experience is educational.” But actually, they are. Every single one. How can I be so sure? Because getting out of your comfort zone, trying something new, watching those close to you problem solve, spending time doing “nothing” and seeing where “nothing” takes you, learning to fit your needs into one bag, and having to make compromises in unfamiliar territory is never, ever anything but educational. While plenty of book reading and scientific exploration happens on many family trips, more important than that is the self exploration and the deepening of family connections. That time is never a waste and, I would argue, it’s far, far more important than any test score they may receive when they get back.

I don’t care if you are headed to the Great Pyramids of Giza or a local beach, travel is beneficial. Varied experiences is what makes a life worth living. Stealing that from our kids by putting their parent’s backs up against a wall is wrong, plain and simple. While school might offer great benefits for many children, it does not offer the only benefits and it does not fulfill the needs of every child. Do we really want a society of non-travelers? Do we want our future leaders to be good rule followers who never operate outside of the pre-defined box or do we want adventurers who take risks, enjoy investigating new places and ideas, and know when to challenge the status quo?

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Category: Youth Travel

February 24, 2015

The rising popularity of river cruising

A record 23 million passengers are expected to take cruises around the globe in 2015, according to Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), which recently made the projection in its annual State of the Cruise Industry Report.

Admittedly, I have never been a fan of ocean cruising. As a long-term, independent traveler who immerses in the culture of the countries I visit, the idea of being trapped on a ship that visits ports of call for a few brief hours is more than a little off-putting. To that, add the issue of seasickness. During the two specialty ocean cruises I have taken, seas were so rough that I spent more time curled up in my bunk than I did enjoying the voyage. And then I discovered river cruising.

A record 23 million passengers are expected to take cruises around the globe in 2015, according to Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA)

My first experience, in 2011, was the Luang Say Cruise down the Mekong river from Houei Say to Luang Prabang in northern Laos. Within minutes of departure, razor-sharp rocks protruding from the chocolate river had forced us into narrow channels topped by frothy rapids. Our captain so expertly navigated the turbulence that the gentle motion of the ship lulled me to sleep on the sun deck. Each day offered opportunities to visit hill tribe villages, where I learned about traditional fishing, weaving and whiskey distilling. Because we were sailing a river, there were no long, boring days at sea, and our gourmet meals often featured fresh fish, purchased from fishermen who paddled up to the side of the ship. I was in heaven.

Buying fresh fish on the Mekong River

Our captain pays local fishermen on the Mekong River for their fresh-caught fish, which are bound for our dinner table

A few weeks later, I stepped aboard the Vat Phou Cruise in the Thousand Islands area of the Mekong. It was hard to believe I was on the same river. The southern Mekong was placid, sapphire blue and dotted with thousands of tiny green islets. In addition to traditional village visits and gourmet meals, this river cruise featured a day long visit to the spectacular pre-Khmer Vat Phou ruins. I was hooked.

I am not alone in my passion. For CLIA North American brands, river cruising has been growing by more than 25% per annum in recent years, as opposed to an average annual growth rate of 4.83% in the ocean cruise category. To meet the increasing demand, 39 new river ships will come on line this year. Viking River Cruises is building and launching river ships at twice the rate of its competitors. Over the past four years, they have launched 40 new Longships, which recently topped Condé Nast Traveler’s annual readers’ Cruise Poll for best river cruise ships. The Longship design includes a revolutionary all-weather indoor/outdoor terrace that has retractable floor-to-ceiling glass doors, allowing guests to fully enjoy the views and dine al fresco, as well as green upgrades that include on-board solar panels, organic herb gardens, and energy-efficient hybrid engines. Viking will launch 12 more new river vessels in 2015, ten of which will be Longships.

Sharing tea and snacks with this local family in Uglich, Russia during my Viking River Waterway of the Tsars river cruise

Sharing tea and snacks with this local family in Uglich, Russia during my Viking River Waterway of the Tsars river cruise

This past fall, I sailed from Moscow to St. Petersburg, Russia on Viking River’s Waterway of the Tsars cruise. Though my ship was fully booked, the small capacity of 204 passengers and a 2-to-1 guest to staff ratio made for a very personalized experience. Tours, on-board activities, and a full program of lectures ensured there was something to do most every waking minute, but most impressive was Viking’s commitment to on-shore cultural programs. Activities such as riding the Moscow metro, attending a performance of traditional Russian folkloric music, sharing tea in the home of a family in rural Russia, and visiting a Kommunalka to experience a Communist-era communal form of living still practiced by many St. Petersburg residents provided me with unexpected insight into Russian culture. This focus on cultural programming is one of the reasons that Cruise Critic named Viking the “Best River Cruise Line” in the U.S. for the fourth year running in 2014.

“In an expanding river market, Viking continues to reign, thanks in part to exceptional excursions that include exciting and unusual options like truffle hunting and cognac blending,” said the editors of Cruise Critic.

Along with new ships, river cruise operators continue to develop itineraries in exotic destinations around the world. Sanctuary Retreats’ 10-day cruise on the Nile from Aswan Dam to Cairo includes visits to the Valley of the Kings, where magnificent tombs were carved into the desert rocks, as well as to the Rock-tombs of Beni Hassan. In cooperation with National Geographic, Lindblad Expeditions sails the upper Amazon for ten days where, between visits to indigenous villages, guests are treated to pink dolphin, parrot, and piranha sightings. The newest jewel in the river cruise crown is Myanmar, a recently opened country still shrouded in mystery and spirituality. Viking offers a choice of two cruises down the verdant Irrawaddy, passing through Mandalay, Yangon, and Bagan, where 2,200 ancient temples unfurl along the river’s shores.

Despite the move to open new territories, European river cruises remain the mainstay of the industry. With no need to change hotels and historic city centers just footsteps away from the dock, river cruising may be the world’s most convenient and comfortable way to experience the great European capitals of the world. From cruises that explore the tulips and windmills of Amsterdam and Belgium to those that focus on the Christmas Markets of Austria and Germany in November and December, the choices are endless.  As for me, I can hardly wait for my next river cruise. The only difficult part may be deciding where to go.

When Barbara Weibel realized she felt like the proverbial “hole in the donut” – solid on the outside but empty on the inside – she walked away from corporate life and set out to see the world. Read first-hand accounts of the places she visits and the people she meets on her blog, Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel. Follow her on Facebook or on Twitter (@holeinthedonut).

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Category: Female Travelers, Senior Travel, Vagabonding Styles

February 15, 2015

Getting my Open Water in Thailand

Learning to dive was in the front of my mind when I started planning my trip to southeast Asia. Friends had learned in Thailand and I had heard that it was one of the cheapest places to get certified. After some research, we headed towards Koh Tao, an island in the Gulf of Thailand. I was keen to get my Open Water certification, but my husband was not. He agreed to stay on shore and I signed up for the three day course.

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My brain was stretched and challenged as I did my homework each night; I enjoyed learning new terms and pondering the science involved in taking a human body deep underwater. I was back in school and excited to learn about decompression sickness and the volume of the air in my lungs under pressure. Over those three days, I learned the skills I needed to stay alive and also realized a recurring dream I have of being able to breathe underwater. I made new friends and relied on them for my safety. Diving began to feel natural and, at the end of my course, I got my very own photo ID to prove that I was now a licensed diver. While having lunch with my group on that last day, I pondered where this new skill was going to take me.

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Having my OW was nice, but what about deeper dives like wrecks? I wouldn’t be able to dive past 18 meters and having a limitation on the kinds of dives I could do made me consider sticking around. Later that day, on an impulse, I signed up for my advanced course to spend two more days learning a few more skills and practice my buoyancy control and breathing. I dived a sunken wreck and did a night dive where I saw herds of porcupine fish and phosphorescence. In a classroom, I wasn’t enthralled by the science of volume and pressure, but as I watched a raw egg cracked open at 30 meters depth, I marveled at the real world demonstration: holding its shape, floating weightlessly as if in space. After leaving Koh Tao, I started doing fun dives near the Koh Phi Phi islands and had a chance to see some amazing sea life. I practiced using my GoPro on dives and bought a red filter for taking photos and video at depth to bring back some of the red that gets lost the further down you go. There’s still a lot of work to do and perhaps some new gear to acquire, but the opportunity to expand my photography to include underwater shots is also exciting.

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Diving is a skill that lets me explore an entirely new part of a country and see things I wouldn’t have been able to see before. I can wander the grounds of the ancient city of Sukhothai one week, and the next be face to face with a lionfish in the Andaman Sea. Who knows where this endeavor will take me?

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Category: Adventure Travel, Asia

February 12, 2015

Ways travel enhances education

Families traveling the world with their children get asked a whole lot of questions. Topping the list are questions about their children’s education. It seems everyone wants to know what these traveling kids are learning, how, and with whom. And these questions don’t really stop as the kids get older. Ask any young adult taking a gap year abroad and they will inevitably tell you that one of the biggest fears expressed by those closest to them was a fear that they would “miss out” on a year of college or other form of higher education.

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However, travel in itself is one of the best forms of “higher education”. Not only are practical life skills put into practice everyday on the road, but experiences had while traveling generally serve to enhance any education. Some of the deepest thoughts, biggest questions, and most divergent problem solving happens while journeying.

So, how exactly can travel be it’s own (or enhance) education?

Communication Skills- Learning a new language is the most obvious way this skill is developed. There is no down side to knowing a second language- even just the basics- in an increasingly global society. But consider all the other ways you need to communicate when traveling. Language barriers and cultural norms are just two major hurdles to navigate when communicating abroad. You need to have a pretty good grasp on body language in order to communicate effectively and without offense in a culture that isn’t your own. Hand gestures and charades become refined skills for use in challenging situations. Clarity and intentionality become increasingly important when communicating across language barriers. Knowing how to communicate effectively across language and cultural barriers is a serious benefit for anyone hoping to function in our current world.

Cultural Awareness- Trust me, there is a huge difference between being lectured on cultural sensitivity and developing an awareness of cultural norms through first hand experience. There is nothing quite like being the odd man out in a foreign culture to create a space within yourself to feel empathy for people who are often overlooked or treated poorly. Likewise, navigating the ins and outs of a foreign culture in person is far more informative than reading about it in a book. Being forced to adjust to unfamiliar cultural norms can be challenging but it also encourages the traveler to become increasingly aware of social cues, norms, and expectations. This all happens while making personal connections with the people you are learning from and about, making the development of awareness far more likely to be internalized. It’s an incredible synchronicity that offers lessons in navigating cultural differences more confidently.

Adaptability – Traveling, especially long term, offers no shortage of opportunities to adapt. From trains that don’t come to baggage that never arrives, when you have no “extra” time, space, or things- you adapt. Just getting out into the world, away from the creature comforts you have come to know and love, is a lesson in adaptability. What is the hottest temperature you can stand without air conditioning? What time can you pull yourself out of bed to catch that bus? What is the least amount of sleep you can run on? How many times can you eat the same dish before you scream? How an you communicate your needs to this host family without offending? The ability to operate outside of your comfort zone is something that most educators would say is a benefit to any student.

Self- Reflection- No education is complete without the ability to self-reflect. Why? Well, if you aren’t able to apply what you have learned to your own life, philosophies, and choices, have you really internalized the lesson? Sitting in a classroom, discussing oppression is one thing. Having the ability to reflect on your own words and actions and how they might be adding to the systemic oppression of certain people is a whole other ball of wax. Self-reflection is what separates the good students from the truly educated. In order to perfect the art of self-reflection, you need time and space. Travel provides plenty of that. Not only that, but sometimes getting outside of your home county provides just enough distance to contemplate your role in the world thus far and what it might look like moving forward.

Perspective- Sometimes, in order to gain perspective on your needs, goals, and actions, you need to get some distance. Even a seven year old, sitting on the beach in El Salvador, is aware enough to notice stark contrasts between how the world functions in a developing nation and a developed one. Learning about the developing world from a book is nice but actually seeing it brings it to life. Perspective often creates space for a student to “connect the dots” so that history and economic lessons are no longer just words on a page.

Awareness- It could be argued that this is the key ingredient missing from a lot of standard educations. Travel makes it impossible not to recognize that other people matter. It breaks down the barrier between “us” and “them”, even just little. As mentioned above, travel also creates space for intense self-reflection, which helps creates a deeper awareness of self. Awareness of your own needs and the need of others is something that isn’t focused on in the fact and results based education most students receive today. But an enhanced awareness of others and of yourself can lead to a more engaged student, one who understands the real-life ramifications of her lessons learned.

Problem Solving- This one almost goes without saying. Who in the world has ever traveled and not had to solve some problem that cropped up? Anyone? Hands on experience in problem solving is almost a given when you are traveling. Any kid who is on the road with their parents (or taking a gap year) is going to have an incredible abundance of opportunities for practicing and witnessing problem solving- sometimes extremely creative problem solving. The ability to think outside of the box is something that is often not practiced enough in the era of high stakes testing. Adding this skill to any students’ tool kit is going to go a long way.

Initiative- This one is something not everyone recognizes right away as a benefit of travel. What happens to a kid when they see their parents take the plunge into an alternative lifestyle, one that bucks the system and involves long- term travel? What happens to the teenager who, against all advice, takes an entire year (or more) to put college off and do exactly what their gut tells them is imperative to their development? These kids become go-getters. They learn that taking initiative is not a bad thing. They learn to go after what they want and blaze their own trails. As far as education goes, the ability to take initiative is incredibly beneficial! It means knowing when to ask questions, where to look for resources, and not waiting for others to tell you how to do it. Initiative creates life-long learners that continue to educate themselves long after the last school bell.

Time- Time isn’t a skill but it is a gift that all students should have access to. Time to explore, think, question, interact, and just be. In this world that places a high demand on the constant pursuit of “success”, time is often sorely lacking. As a result, lots of students have forgotten how to just be without doing work (or actively trying to avoid it, as the case may be). Stepping outside of the norm and purposely carving time for all of those things leads to a richer, fuller experience of life. That richer, fuller experience in turn leads to more content people who actually enjoy learning and truly internalize the lessons that come their way. Every teacher looks for a student who is eager to learn. Give a student the gift of time and even some of the most reluctant learners will start to resemble that ideal student.

While every traveling family or student will find their own ways of addressing education on the road, there is no need to be worried about anyone “missing out” on education while traveling. These are just some of the ways travel supports and enhances any type of education- there are many more! Can you add to the list?

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Category: Family Travel, Youth Travel

January 29, 2015

How young is too young to travel?

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How young is too young to travel? It’s a question that comes up whenever the subject of family travel arises. Some worry about the risk of illness for infants on the road. Others have fears that their child will reject every food option that isn’t chicken fingers and starve. Concerns about water, weather, and boredom keep lots of families from traveling with young kids. Of all the reasons, the reason most often cited as the reason for not traveling with young kids is, “they won’t even remember.” Are these concerns, any of them, justified?

In my experience, not really.

There are precautions for illness and medical care all over the world, no child will starve themselves because chicken fingers are not on the menu, and boredom is, in my opinion, an essential element to the development of any human being. But the big reason, the one about the kids not remembering, is the one that I think deserves the most attention. After all, traveling with kids is hard, right? And babies won’t remember it anyway, right?

Wrong.

Can traveling with children be challenging? Yes. Are there moments that are harder than others when traveling? Yes. But the answer to both of those question is no different than if I were to ask the same questions of a family at home. There are so many things parents do on a daily basis that are “hard”, but no one shies away from them because their kid may not remember. We recognize, as the more experienced beings, that sooner or later, children will internalize our consistent messages- even the ones we didn’t intend!

An infant may not remember seeing the Taj Mahal and a four year old may forget the name of the kid he played ball with for hours in Bali. However, it is also possible that they won’t remember making cookies with Grandma for the holidays, snuggling with the family dog for naps, breastfeeding, or learning to read. Would you deny any of those experiences to your child because they might not remember? Of course not. We recognize the benefits of these experiences, whether or not our kids carry forth conscious memories of those moments. Travel is no different.

I realize it is scary to plop down a whole bunch of money on an experience your kid may or may not be able to recall. But babies “remember” things in all kinds of ways. Even if your baby won’t consciously remember all of the kind people who fawned over her in Thailand, she may have internalized, without you even realizing, that love transcends language barriers and that people with skin different than hers are not to be feared. That’s powerful stuff. More powerful than being able to recite the places you visited to aunts and uncles.

We do lots of things with our babies that they won’t consciously remember. We sing to them, read to them, play with them, smile at them, and talk to them. We don’t do these things so that they can make a collage of it one day to share with their class. We do these things because it lays the groundwork for what we want our babies to internalize as they grow- kindness, love, and connection.

Traveling with little kids is never a bad idea. Before you know it, babies become children and children become teenagers who are moving towards their own, independent life. Wait until it’s “easier” and “they’re old enough to remember” and you might miss your opportunity. Traveling early begins the intentional creation of family culture- culture built around an active involvement in life and a joy of exploring.

Besides, even if your kid “doesn’t remember” the way adults do, you know who will? You. You will forever remember watching your baby take her first steps at a Mayan temple, hearing your two-year-old sing along in Hindi to a new favorite song, and watching your four-year-old climb atop a surf board for the first time in Costa Rica. You will remember what your daughter looks like with sand all over her face and what your son looks like as he combs the beach at sunset.

There is no such thing as “too young to travel” so, what’s stopping you?

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Category: Family Travel
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