May 7, 2015

How to give ethically after a disaster

The travel community is truly one of the most giving I know of. Most people who travel do so because they recognize how much our world has to offer. We want to connect. We want to help. We may not always have lots of money, but we do have very big hearts.

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When tragedy strikes, as it most recently has in Nepal, there is a collective itch within the travel community to do something. Sitting by and watching the suffering of others is not an option once you have made friends in countless locations around the globe. While others may feel a slight detachment from tragedy abroad, many travelers can visualize exactly where those tremors hit. We wonder if the hostel owner, the painter down the street, and the cab driver we hired for a day, are alright. We remember watching little girls sip water at Patan Durbar Square and we recall  the warmth of that last handshake we shared with a local who quickly became a friend. It feels personal because we have designed our lives around connecting with people around the world. And now, those people are suffering.

Doing something  is in our nature. However, our experiences also tell us that where there is tragedy there are also unscrupulous people. People who take advantage of desperate situations and do not always operate or funnel help the way they should. So, how do we help in a manner that we are certain is actually beneficial?

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1) Do your research. Know the organization you are giving your money to. Know where there money goes and what it does. Know who runs the organization and what there agenda is, if any. Just as you ask questions on your travels, ask questions of those who take your money to help victims. If you’d like to start researching organizations with good reputations, Charity Navigator is a good place to start.

2) Consider your skill set before hopping on a plane. In an emergency, there are bound to be some travelers with open itineraries who have the ability and the means to fly to the disaster area to offer assistance. Before you do that, consider what you can really offer. If you do not have a skill set that lends itself directly to a current need in the area, do not go. More people in a disaster area means a bigger drain on already strapped resources.

3) Think before you donate goods. No one needs old prom dresses or teddy bears with missing legs in a disaster situation. This may sound obvious but when disaster strikes and people just want to help in any way they can, sometimes they don’t think through what they are putting in a bag. Often, shipping donated goods isn’t a good idea anyway. Many things can be bought in country, often for far cheaper. Saving the shipping costs and donating money to an organization that can buy local is often a much better idea.  Doing so will benefit a local economy that will be struggling for a long time to come due to a loss of infrastructure and tourism. Buying local also allows things to be purchased as needed instead of spending time, space, and resources sorting and storing things that may or may not ever be needed.

4) Consider helping local organizations. Organizations like The Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders have undeniable ability to work on a large scale in disaster situations. However, there are many small, local run organizations who were doing good work before distiller struck and they still have people to serve after. Small, local organizations know the area, the culture, and the needs of the populations they serve better than anyone. If you know anyone in the area, ask them to tell you what organizations are in need and worthy of some support as they rebuild. Global Giving has a current fundraising campaign that focusing on identifying and funding local organizations that are in the best position to help Nepal rebuild.

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It’s natural to want to help when disaster strikes. It’s also important to make sure we are helping in ethical ways. Our connection to the world is exactly what makes travelers such good helpers and that connection is also what requires us to be thoughtful before we give.

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Category: Ethical Travel, Ethics

April 30, 2015

Breeze through U.S. airport lines with TSA Pre-Check and Global Entry

Last weekend, I landed at Miami International Airport after spending a week in Cuba. My tour-mates, tired and bedraggled from a week crammed with activities, dutifully queued up behind a long line at Immigration. I breezed through Immigration, collected my luggage, took the Green lane at Customs, and was checked into my airport hotel room in 20 minutes, flat. I didn’t even need to fill out the written customs declaration usually required upon entry into U.S.

Global Entry kiosk

Global Entry kiosk

How did I manage this? I’m not a celebrity, nor did I jump the line. I simply signed up for Global Entry, one of several Trusted Traveler programs offered by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). I began by registering as a new user on the Global Online Enrollment System website, filling out an application, and paying the $100 non-refundable application fee, which is good for five years once approved. The CBP reviewed my application, notified me that I was conditionally approved, and instructed me to schedule a personal interview via their website. Although the review process can apparently take up to six weeks, I heard back from them in less than 10 days, and was able to schedule an interview for the following week. The interview took about 15 minutes and consisted of a few cursory questions, followed by verbal approval and fingerprinting. A few days later my Global Entry wallet card arrived in the mail. I dutifully added the 9-digit unique PASSID shown on the face of my card to each of my profile pages on the U.S. airlines I normally fly.

Choose the program that is best for you: Global Entry or TSA PreCheck

Approved Global Entry members are also automatically eligible for TSA PreCheck benefits. Passengers who have provided their 9-digit unique PASSID to their air carrier are issued a boarding pass stamped with the words: “TSA PreCheck,” which allows use of a special security line where passengers are not required to take off shoes and jackets or remove approved 3-1-1 liquids or laptops from carry-on luggage. Passengers who travel mostly to domestic destinations can choose to sign up for TSA PreCheck rather than Global Entry, for a cost of $85 for five years.

Currently, Global Entry kiosks are located at 47 airports in the U.S. and around the globe. TSA PreCheck lanes are available at more than 120 U.S. airports, for passengers flying with Air Canada, Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines, Sun Country Airlines, United Airlines, US Airways, and Virgin America. Global Entry is open to U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, citizens of Germany, the Netherlands, Panama, South Korea, and Mexican nationals. Canadian citizens and residents are eligible for Global Entry benefits through membership in the NEXUS program. Applicants under the age of 18 must have the consent of a parent or legal guardian.

Using the Global Entry kiosks. Photos courtesy of GOES.

Using the Global Entry kiosks. Photos courtesy of GOES.

The following day, as I was checking in for my onward flight, I ran into several of the members of our Cuban tour group. All of them had waited at least an hour and a half in just the Immigration line the previous day; no wonder they looked weary. If I only use my Global Entry once a year, that $20 is worth every penny for the time it saves and my personal sanity.

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 Twitter.

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Category: Female Travelers, Senior Travel

April 23, 2015

Balancing desire and ethics when traveling

There is something magical about riding an elephant. Their huge, lumbering bodies swaying slowly along while you sit atop, taking in the view. It’s an experience that is never forgotten.

Or at least that’s what I’ve been told.

Despite my intense desire to know what it feels like to ride atop one of the world’s most majestic creatures, I’ve never taken the opportunity. My knowledge of how these creatures are broken so that they can give rides to tourists keeps me from doing it. In short, my ethics “get in the way” in this case.

This isn’t the only scenario where personal ethics dictate what choices I make while traveling. No matter how many times I watch locals throw plastic bottles out train windows, I just can’t bring myself to follow suit. My understanding of the lives of street kids keeps me from handing out small change when they beg but that same knowledge keeps me from pretending they don’t exist as many vacationers try to do. I steer clear of organizations that mainly employ mission workers and short term, “savior” volunteers- my personal ethics keep me from pushing religion or “saving” anyone.

Ethical means not always doing everything you want. It means examining options thoroughly and being aware of where harm could be done, even if an opportunity might make you feel good in the moment. Ethical travel means constantly striving for balance between desire and doing the right thing (a subjective term, I know). I often find myself trying to balance the desire to see it all with my need to leave a positive mark on the world I explore.

The balancing act is not always easy. The first time I was offered a ride on an elephant was in a narrow alleyway in India. My friends and I had to squeeze against a wall for fear of getting trampled. When we were offered a ride, I almost jumped out of my skin with excitement. Here I was, my first time in Asia, my second time traveling with a passport, and I was going to have the best story to tell! I begged my friends to take a ride with me. They were better traveled than I and stuck firmly to, “no”. As the elephant lumbered away, they told me to look a little more closely at the animal. He was clearly underfed and had visible scars. I was horrified that I had almost allowed my own desire for a cool experience to blind me to the very obvious signs of abuse in front of me. It was a big learning experience for me and I am very grateful that I was kept from making a poor choice, and even more grateful that it forced me to pay more attention.

Moving forward, I try to keep my eyes open. I ask more questions, think more critically about what is being presented on the surface. But I still fumble. There was the orphanage I visited before I had considered the negative effects of the revolving door of foreigners on the children. The volunteer opportunity that seemed perfect at first but was run by a man who had little respect for the locals and even less respect for local laws about “dating” underage girls. The fancy restaurant I allowed myself to be dragged to that had a reputation for treating local workers horribly.

The balance is not always easy, but it is always worth the effort.

Despite my fumbles, I think that I am fairly aware of where my money is spent and who I associate myself with. Many travelers are. Many travelers do it even better than I do. The lingering challenge for me, and I think many travelers, is finding a way to “see it all” without letting that desire override ethical choices. Then again, maybe the biggest lesson of travel is that you can’t ever, truly “see it all”. Perhaps that realization might pull everything back into focus and keep us from making questionable choices in our quest to really dig deeply into our world.

Ethical travel cannot just be a catch phrase that gets pulled out when other people do something really wrong. The small choices are where we decide if we are going to put our money where our mouths are… literally.

How do you balance ethics with the desire to see as much of the world as you can? Have you given up certain opportunities in deference to your ethics?

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Category: Ethical Travel, Ethics

April 10, 2015

Pro’s and Con’s of Traveling Solo

Over the last decade, I have traveled with both, friends and tour groups; however, the majority of my travels have been solo.

Solo traveling is exciting. There is no greater buzz than standing in an airport preparing to board a plane to a far off country all by yourself. The thrill of adventure and the unknown is amplified when traveling solo.

However, like every mode of travel, it is a two-sided coin; it has its good and its bad. Here are some of the pro’s and con’s of traveling solo, and why I think everyone should try their hand at it at least once.

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Pro – One of the biggest pro’s of traveling solo is the intense sense of freedom that is at your fingertips.

Do not like where you are at this very moment? If not, you simply book a ticket and leave.

Want to stay in a city longer? No, problem, you can!

Traveling solo means you call the shots.

You can go where you want, when you want. The thrill of the entire world being an open book ready to be explored is amazing.

Realizing, you get to navigate it as you see fit is indescribable. When you travel with tour groups or even with friends, you have to take into account what the entire group wants to do.

Sometimes it is frustrating to come so far to visit a country and still miss some of the sights and experiences on the top your list because the majority of your group wanted to move on.

Con – Traveling solo can sometimes be lonely. There is a lot of down time traveling such as waiting in airports, bus stations, trains.

When this happens it is easy to get lonely. You find yourself in a very busy but transit place and chances are there will be none one to talk to.

Sometimes while traveling you experience something that you wish you could share with someone.

For instance, there are times when you look at the sunset and wish someone was with you to enjoy it.

Pro – The sense of adventure of navigating the world is priceless. Traveling between and into foreign cities, wandering around a city where you can’t read the signs or speak the language, trying to find your bearings and locate the essentials can be extremely overwhelming.

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However, soon the unfamiliar become extremely comfortable and you feel a deep sense of accomplishment knowing that you are connected to this world on your own.

Con – The first couple weeks can be extremely difficult and some people who travel solo get homesick quick during this period.

The foreign seems too overwhelming and well…..foreign. I have met many people that couldn’t take it and headed home.

Pro- Traveling solo you meet many more people than what you normally do when traveling with people.

When traveling in groups, people tend to get clicklock. You meet a lot of people, but you tend to hang out with your group.

However, when you are alone other backpackers become like your family. I find myself much more outgoing and will talk to anyone for hours when traveling alone.

Con- When you are travel alone, you feel almost secluded. There is a lot of busi-ness surrounding you and sometimes you are even apart of it, but then everyone, including yourself goes a different way. Even returning home can make you feel almost secluded, as if no one understands the wonderful experiences you just had.

Pro – Traveling with friends strengthens your bond. You have a once in a lifetime experience together, figure out mistakes together, and immerse yourself in other cultures together.

You share a unique and precious memory and whenever you see one another again, you almost instantly pick up where you let off as if no time had past.

Traveling solo has it pros and cons, but I think it is a great experience as it opens up the world in unforgettable ways.

It has changed my life in many ways. I recommend solo travel for everyone at least once in a lifetime. Perhaps, it will lead to discovering a whole new world.

Stephen Schreck has an unquenchable wanderlust, and love of traveling. You can  read more on his travel blog or follow him on Facebook, or Instagram.

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Category: General, On The Road, Solo Travel

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
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