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).

Posted by | Comments (0)  | February 24, 2015
Category: Female Travelers, Senior Travel, Vagabonding Styles

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?

Posted by | Comments (0)  | February 15, 2015
Category: Adventure Travel, Asia

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?

Posted by | Comments (1)  | February 12, 2015
Category: Family Travel, Youth Travel

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?

Posted by | Comments (1)  | January 29, 2015
Category: Family Travel

Should terrorism keep Americans from traveling overseas?

In the wake of recent terror attacks in Paris and an article in an Al Qaeda magazine that provided instructions for making a bomb that is undetectable by current airport security technology, the U.S. State Department issued the following travel warning for Americans traveling abroad:

“Recent terrorist attacks…serve as a reminder that U.S. citizens need to maintain a high level of vigilance and take appropriate steps to increase their security awareness”

On face value, the alert might seem a normal precaution, however a week later the Department of Homeland Security said,

“there is no specific, credible threat of an attack on the U.S. like what happened in Paris last week”

A Google search for the two statements is telling. The State Department warning was found on 2,510 websites, many of which were major media outlets, while the latter statement by Homeland Security showed up on 15 sites, only one of which was a major media outlet (ABC-TV). Little wonder that Americans are mired in fear over the prospect of international travel.

Google search for State Department travel warning

Google search for State Department travel warning

The reticence of Americans to travel overseas is a well documented fact. A consumer study by Skift.com – a leading source of news, information, data and services for the travel industry – concluded that only 13 percent of Americans traveled internationally in 2014. This is hardly surprising, given State Department statistics that less than 38 percent of the U.S. citizens hold a passport. Though this figure is slightly misleading (legal residents of the U.S. who are not citizens and hold foreign passports are not counted in the State Department numbers), it is still significantly below the percentage of passport holders in other countries. Contrast it with the 83% of non-immigrant British citizens who hold passports.

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce Office of Travel and Tourism Industries, the actual figures are even worse than the Skift study indicates. Only 29,015,463 Americans (9 percent) traveled to international destinations in 2013 – the most recent year for which statistics are available – and this includes destinations in Mexico and the Caribbean, which have long been vacation havens for U.S. travelers.

American reluctance to travel abroad may have been born from our isolationist viewpoint during the Revolution, when we not-so-politely informed England we no longer needed or wanted them. Not only is isolationism in our DNA, the United States is so vast and diverse that most Americans feel no need to travel outside its borders. Exacerbating this is the fact that, unlike Europeans, whose holidays range from four to six weeks, the typical American worker receives one or two weeks of vacation. Considering that traveling offshore would take up two full days of an already short holiday, it makes perfect sense that Americans prefer to vacation in their own backyard.

2014 survey by Skift.com - travel habits of Americans

2014 survey by Skift.com – travel habits of Americans

The lack of exposure to cultures other than their own, however, carries a price that may not be realized for generations. Last week I struck up a conversation with two 20-something women working at a Chicagoland coffee shop. Neither of them had ever traveled outside the U.S. or had any interest in traveling internationally.

Both agreed they hated to fly, but admitted this had nothing to do with fear of airplanes. Their displeasure revolved around the endless security lines and ever-changing rules of the TSA. “We had to go to a family event in Florida a few months ago,” one of them recounted, “and we decided to drive because it was so much easier.”

“I’m just uncomfortable being around people who don’t speak English,” the other said. “And my husband is a police officer, so he is very concerned about safety. It’s a pretty scary world these days. Have you ever had problems when you travel?”

I recounted that in all my years of travel, I’ve only had one bad experience; many years ago, I was robbed while staying in a campground on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Not only have I never felt unsafe or threatened in any of the 50+ foreign countries I’ve visited, it would take me hours to recount all the kindnesses that people around the world have shown me. Locals have invited me into their homes, shared meals, and closed their shops to help me find my way in unfamiliar locales.

Combined figures for major and minor assaults by world region, per the European Institute for Crime Prevention

Combined figures for major and minor assaults by world region, per the European Institute for Crime Prevention, In affiliation with the United Nations

Sadly, most Americans gauge the safety of the world by reports on CNN and Fox, which spew fear mongering news around-the-clock, and recent coverage of the terrorist attacks has only amplified our fears. As a result, we stay home, where we feel safe. Yet are we truly safer, or is this an illusion? The European Institute for Crime Prevention and Control, in affiliation with the United Nations, ranks North America as having the third highest incidence of assaults per 100,000 population, after Oceania and parts of Africa. We are far more likely to be involved in a mugging close to home than one in in a foreign country.

Do we need to be vigilant when we travel? Of course. It is advisable to leave your jewelry at home, avoid flashing large amounts of money, limit your intake of alcohol, abstain from illegal drug use, and stay away from politically motivated demonstrations. Above all, travelers should practice being aware of what is happening around them at all times. But terrorist attacks are no excuse to stay home. If we do, we become ever more insulated from the world and fearful of other cultures. If we do, the terrorists win.

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 at Hole in the Donut Cultural Travels. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter (@holeinthedonut).

Posted by | Comments (7)  | January 27, 2015
Category: Female Travelers, Senior Travel, Vagabonding Styles

Solo travel when you’re not traveling solo

Traveling slowly with my husband across Southeast Asia has been a great way to leave our jobs and lives in Canada behind to explore the world on a small budget. It also means we spend a lot of time together. Every meal, every walk, every bus ride to a new city, is together. Where once we saw each other only in the evenings and on weekends, we now see each other all the time. Where we once had schedules and habitual activities alone, there was now a much more shared and aligned schedule. This is fine, really, but we don’t always agree that something is worth our time or energy. Sometimes we need to split off and spend some time apart.

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When we were living in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I felt the need to take our scooter to some neighboring towns to see other temples, other roads, other food stalls. This little adventure interested only me so I took off down the highway with the scooter and left the husband behind to revel in his alone time with his fantasy football activities. I put a single earbud in, had Google maps speak directions to me and put on some music. I immediately got lost on a small residential road due to my inability to grasp the distance of 200 metres and turned too soon. I almost ran over a chicken that was literally crossing the road (why it was crossing the road is beyond us all.) Once back on the highway, I decided to trust the navigator voice and made my way south on Highway 106 to Lamphun. The drive passed under towering rubber trees that lined the road and went in and out of clouds of incense and smoke from barbecued pork. Each rotund tree had an orange swatch of fabric tied to it, indicating it was blessed by monks, therefore protecting it from logging. The roots had overgrown past the road and were pushing up the pavement along the edges. I took it slow and drove only as fast as I wanted with Blood Orange’s Chamakay setting the mood.

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I stopped at a couple of different wats (temples) in Lamphun: Wat Phra That Hariphunchai and Wat Kukut respectively. The first was almost deserted compared to the wats I had visited in Chiang Mai. No more than four tourists and about five or so Buddhist monks were wandering the grounds. This was a much more peaceful way to visit a wat than pushed around in a throng of tourists, constantly moving and talking over each other. Little bells blew around in the wind and broke the silence with soft tinkling sounds like wind chimes. Wat Kukut was completely deserted. The only human I saw was a Thai man who came into the front gates briefly to release a small bird from a tiny wicker cage and then leave. I had a great opportunity to take my time and photograph every small detail that fascinated me: small wooden elephants casting long shadows, tiny figurines placed in flower pots and along walls, standing Buddhas along the walls of the chedis, catching just the right amount of light on my lens.

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On the way back to Chiang Mai, I waited at a stoplight and saw a small girl staring at me from the car beside me. She shyly opened her window and waved. I waved back from my scooter with a big smile and saw the delight in her face right as the light turned and I sped off up the rubber tree highway, Kanye West’s Bad News taking me home.

Had my husband been with me, this day trip would have looked quite different. On the back of our scooter I would have been navigator, looking at my phone and directing rather than driving at my own pace, stopping whenever I wanted, and taking my time in the deserted wats. I probably wouldn’t have had my headphones in. Sometimes it’s nice to have a soundtrack of my favorite music to accompany an experience. It was nice to have a day that was my own with my own agenda. If we had been on a short two-week vacation, we would have been rushing to maximize our time and fit as many activities into our schedule as possible. A day trip to Lamphun wouldn’t have been considered when there are flashier attractions nearby that we would both enjoy. It’s a healthy exercise to spend time alone and be forced to rely on your own strengths and spend time with your thoughts as you travel. Growing up as an only child, this was standard. Spending time alone used to come so naturally to me. Since being married, I can sometimes forget the way my brain works and thinks differently alone. While it is an incredible journey my husband and I have taken on together, having a solo adventure here and there has enriched the overall experience.

To read more about Maryanne’s travel adventures check out Unknown Home.

Posted by | Comments (1)  | January 18, 2015
Category: Asia, Family Travel, General, Solo Travel

The brotherhood of traveling children: on friendships

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We are asked, on occasion, what we “do” about the social needs of our children.

Granted, the question has never been asked by anyone who’s actually met our children.  Spend an hour interacting with them and you’ll know a few things:

  1. They love to talk.
  2. YOU are their socialization of the moment.
  3. They have friends all over the world (get out your note pad so you can keep track of names and places, they’ll expect you to remember later!)
  4. They don’t really know they’re kids.

Well, they do know they’re kids, obviously, but they don’t really see why that matters. They have friends of all ages, and that seems very normal to them. Perhaps because, it is.

What people mean, when they ask that question, is, “What do you do about your kids’ need to hang out with other kids?”

And that’s a fair question.

Obviously, they’re not in school 8 hours a day, 5 days a week with 20 other urchins of exactly their same age and experience, so there must be a social deficiency, right? They must be missing out on hanging with their buddies and doing “kid stuff,” right?

Erm… no. Not really.

The first thing I’ll freely admit is that being a family of six is different, socially, than being a family of two. 

My kids are friends with each other, so each of them travels with three unique friendships in their backpacks. They hang together sometimes, they pair off sometimes. They like to be alone sometimes. If we had just one kid, it would be much harder to provide the diversity of friendship and interaction that happens quite naturally with six of us.

Just this morning, as Hannah was crouched by the woodstove, hanging her hair over the vents trying to dry it, I asked, “So Peep, what are ya going to do today?”

“Well… I’m going to work on my book project with Jessie… then I think I’m going to do something with Ez.” 

At that very moment Ezra and Elisha were talking through an elaborate lego game that I do not understand but that they love passionately.

Where was Gabe? Out the door to work for the day. He’s got a gig working with an older man who’s become his friend while they haul brush, cut stuff up and rake.

So the first answer to that question: They have each other, and siblings really can be good friends.

I’ll bet your kids talk to their friends every day, don’t they?

My kids do too. 

I often wake up to updates about Will’s progress on his novel or how his trip to the Czech went. (Will lives in Germany.) I get daily reports on the status of the Wood children and their little ones’ antics. (The Woods live in the USA.) Gabe occasionally plays games with boys spread between three continents at the moment. Emails fly back and forth around the planet like notes passed in my seventh grade homeroom behind Miss More’s back. The classroom has just gotten exponentially bigger!

The second answer: Technology helps

There’s another obvious answer as well: They make friends.

Everywhere we go, and across culture and language barriers, they make friends. Some of their friends are people they’ve never even met!!

A list of people considered “best friends” that we’d never have met if we hadn’t started traveling:

  • Will
  • Katie
  • Noah
  • Libby
  • Laura
  • Ashley
  • Morgan
  • Jackson
  • Tucker
  • Anders
  • Melissa
  • Sarah
  • Oliver
  • Cosette
  • Sophie
  • Toby

More “buddies” they wouldn’t trade:

  • Kayden
  • Lan
  • Spencer
  • Dylan
  • Colin
  • Theo
  • Peregrine
  • Poppy
  • Christian
  • Athena
  • Davy
  • Darryl

 

When one of the kids reads this post I’m going to get in trouble for forgetting someone important, but honestly, I can’t keep track. I should also note that the age range of the above set of friends ranges from five to seventeen and my turning 13 year old would be FIGHTING mad if you suggested that he can’t really count the five year olds as his real friends. Age only matters if you let it.

Please note: these are ONLY their traveling friends, there are, of course, the long list of their long term bestest friends who they keep in touch with religiously, and who send us sweet little packages and cards and who we Skype with whenever we can.

There’s another factor at play though: Our kids have “friends” they’ve never met. 

These are kids whose blogs they follow, or who live in other traveling families that we haven’t crossed paths with. These are the kids they are sometimes in classes with or that we get updates on via Facebook.

Ezra is quite keen to meet a child we are sure to be his brother from a different mother, they’re the same age, the same “bent” and are equally traveled. For now they snicker at each other’s antics from afar.

The whole tribe is on the edge of their seats this week worrying about a boy who took a nasty fall from a horse in Mongolia this week. He’s being airlifted to Hong Kong for surgery. He’s Elisha’s age.

The second week we were in New Zealand our friends, the Alboms, hosted a dinner party for a group of traveling families. We are all converging on Auckland for one night, taking flights in and out, weaving our threads through the same city for one day. There were about ten kids between 7 and 16, none of whom had met in the real world. All of whom hugged hard when they left and swapped emails like day traders. The parents got on just as well.

There is a brotherhood among traveling children.

It’s not that our kids don’t fit “in the box.” Au contraire; I’ve never seen our kids in a situation where they couldn’t find common ground and enjoy their compatriots, even when they’ve visited “school” for a day. It’s that we’re raising our kids to be able to box hop, and peek over the top to realize that there is this whole space between the boxes that is also fair game.

Other traveling kids get this. No one told them. It has never been explained. It’s just part of their reality as what is sometimes called “Third Culture Kids.” 

You know how, when you get together with people you went to high school with, you all start swapping stories about this teacher, or that clique, or that time SOMEONE dressed the Virgin Mary in a bikini with a lei and propped a sign behind her praying hands that said, “Mother Mary goes to Hawaii!” there is instant camaraderie?

It’s like that. 

  • They tell stories.
  • They swap third world bathroom horrors.
  • They collectively roll eyes at overnight bus trips from hell, hot days spent looking at ruins their parents loved when they just wanted to go to the beach!
  • They trade tropical illness tales and they laugh about that one time when so-and-so was pooping to death!!
  • They tell the story of riding camels for Christmas and instead of the other kids calling them liars and threatening to punch their lights out (yep, really happened) the other kids ante up with their stories of riding elephants, and Mongolian horses, and giraffes and whales!

Okay, maybe not giraffes and whales.

I love those moments. Those moments are the BEST because those are the moments, and the friendships that are happening in the space between the boxes, you know?

Are our kids socially weird?

Definitely.

It is the family joke… kind of… that the only real social downside of our travels is that Ezra is quite convinced that his peers are the 24 year old backpackers we hang with in hostels. And they are… and since one day he’ll be 24 (and then 34, and 44) we’re not worried. It will all come out in the wash.

They would tell you that they have no desire to be “normally” socialized teenagers. Hannah and Gabe shudder at the thought.

Are they socially deficient?

No. There’s no deficiency… just difference; and difference is okay. It’s better than okay, in fact, it’s good.

Because they’ve been socialized differently they aren’t uncomfortable in the same ways that many teenagers are. They like the “teen box” but they like the other boxes too.

Their favourite place?

Running amok between the boxes with the handful of other kids who they love more than life and live there too. And the adults they run into between the boxes, now those are the people who are socially challenging and inspiring. Those are the folks I hope my kids crash headlong into whilst playing hide and seek and shouting from box top to box top and careening around corners out there in the real world.

So what do we do about the social needs of our kids? 
We introduce them to the world.

 

Originally published on Jenn’s blog: Edventure Project

Posted by | Comments (1)  | January 6, 2015
Category: Family Travel

Independent travel – not just for twenty-somethings

Not long ago I was asked to write an article about the differences between traveling independently as a senior and a twenty or thirty-something. Admittedly, I bristled. I replied that the essence of travel was the same regardless of our age. We all visit new places to satisfy our curiosity, to experience something different, and to learn about cultures different from our own.

The myth that independent travel is only for the younger crowd needs to be debunked.

Since then, however, I have not been able to get the question out of my mind. When I left corporate life to travel around the world nearly eight years ago, I was 54 years old. My luggage was a rolling case that converted into a backpack with a zip-off daypack. I carried everything on my back for a couple of years, but the combination of growing older and adding more camera gear and electronic equipment eventually meant the pack was too heavy for me. Grudgingly, I converted to a smaller carry-on backpack for my equipment and a small rollerboard case. I remember wondering at the time whether that meant I was getting too old for such long-term travel.

Barbara Weibel on a day hike atop the old city walls in York, England

Barbara Weibel on a day hike atop the old city walls in York, England

Independent travel means not taking a pre-arranged tour. It means not staying in an all-inclusive resort designed to keep guests from ever leaving the grounds. It means not eating at fancy hotel restaurants that are not representative of the country you are visiting. It does mean staying at guest houses owned by locals, eating at neighborhood restaurants, and wandering through areas of the city or countryside that are not on the typical top-ten list of places to see.

Independent travel is more difficult, (and infinitely more rewarding), but it is not only for the younger crowd. I will admit, however, to making some concessions over the past few years that have made this mode of travel easier. I hope that sharing a few of my tips will encourage other mature travelers to give independent travel a try as well:

  • Rather than opting for a pre-arranged tour, consider traveling to the destination, basing at a local guest house, B&B, or hotel, and then taking day trips. Facilities can often help guests arrange such local tours; look for an indication of this when browsing search engines for a place to stay and be sure to read the guest reviews.
  • Try a hostel! Unfortunately, hostels have a reputation as party places, where young people wander in at all hours of the night, drunk and rowdy, This couldn’t be further from the truth. In eight years, I’ve had only two such experiences, and I frequently choose to stay in hostels because of their affordable prices, access to laundry facilities, and great common areas where I meet people from all over the world. Though the average age of hostel guests tends to be younger, I have never felt unwelcome, and over time more and more mature folks are discovering hostels (I even shared a bunk bed with an 80-something woman once in Mexico). Finally, while hostels are best known for their dorm rooms, many also offer private rooms with en-suite bathrooms, especially those in the burgeoning new category of luxury hostels.
  • Upon arrival, pick up several business cards for the hostel/hotel. If visiting a country where you don’t speak the language, make sure these business cards carry the address in the local language so that, after a day of wandering, you need only hand the card to a taxi driver.
  • I love to hike, but a bad knee and hip means I can no longer do week-long treks in the mountains. Instead, I find a centrally located guest house and do day treks, returning to the hotel each evening. This way, I need only carry a lightweight day pack.
  • If, like me, you enjoy walking, consider taking regular breaks in coffee shops or sidewalk cafes along your route. Not only will it be more relaxing, it’s one of the best ways I know to strike up conversations with locals.
  • One of the best ways to discover a city is to use public transportation, however be aware that even in the world’s greatest cities, many metro and train stations do not have escalators. Do yourself a favor and splurge on a taxi or car service to and from the airport to avoid battling crowds and struggling up and down long staircases with heavy luggage. Use public transportation once you’re settled.
  • Speaking of luggage, jettison about half of what you want to pack. Build your travel wardrobe around one color and create diversity with ties, scarves, and accessories. Take only one pair of dressy shoes, one casual pair, and perhaps flip-flops if your destination is the beach. If you over-pack, you’ll quickly regret having to haul around a heavy case.
  • Finally, don’t try to cram too much in during your stay. If you build in some leisure time, your trip will be so much more enjoyable.

 

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 at Hole in the Donut Cultural Travels. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter (@holeinthedonut).

Posted by | Comments (4)  | December 30, 2014
Category: Female Travelers, Senior Travel, Vagabonding Styles

What adults can learn when traveling with their parents

My dad returning to Yosemite Valley, a place he knew well as a teenager in the 60's.

My dad returning to Yosemite Valley, a place he knew well as a teenager in the 60’s.

While not everyone grew up in a traditional family structure, this article can apply to anyone who has a loving relationship with a family member who was part of your upbringing. For me, that was my parents, but I recognize that some people were raised by foster families, the parents of your childhood friends, aunts, uncles, grandparents, or siblings. This article still applies no matter who was an integral part of your childhood or who you consider a parent or family.

Growing up, my family took a lot of camping trips. We could never afford to take trips outside of North America, so we stuck close to home in the mountains and forests of the Pacific Northwest. Traveling together as a family was such an important part of my upbringing since it taught me a lot about living simply and enjoying each other’s company as well as the world around me.

As adults, we carry these memories and values with us, shaping us as travelers, friends, spouses, and lovers. We have our own travel stories that range from road trips with friends, camping trips with spouses, and solo long-term trips abroad that redefine travel for the rest of our lives. However, there is something to be said about coming home and re-experiencing time with our loved ones. Traveling with our families, as adults, kicks this up a notch in a really special way.

Your parents can still pass on travel wisdom

You may be well-traveled by now, having taken your own adventures, maybe even becoming an expert in the art of travel. You may have surpassed anything your parents may have done when they were younger. You’re the travel expert in your family. This doesn’t mean that you have nothing left to learn from your parents. Taking a trip with a parent as an adult allows your parent to get back into their own travel groove. They’re not tasked with caring for you like they were when you were a kid and this lets them shine in an area they may know well.

This last summer, my cousin was coming back to California and I hadn’t seen her in twenty-one years. A family reunion was organized, so my dad and I decided to make it into a camping road trip and stop at many of the national parks on the round-trip trek from Vancouver. I was reminded how good at camping my dad really is. He had packed things that I never would have thought to pack, and those things ended up being small comforts and luxuries that I really appreciated. He even brought small pieces of sample carpet to put in front of our tent doors to help us brush our feet off when getting in and out of the tent. They were all particularly useful things that I’d incorporate into my next car-camping trip.

Exiting your context

You likely know your parents in a particular context. You see them in their home for holiday meals, you go out for dinner at your favorite Mexican place, or they come over to help you with your taxes. These places and situations have become so familiar that each interaction is usually quite similar to the one before it. The familiarity is comforting and your relationship can become strengthened by this. One thing that may surprise you is that once you exit this context by traveling, you may not recognize your parent or you may see sides of them that have been tucked away for years. Traveling with my dad reminded me that once upon a time, he was a young man who did exciting things. He shared memories of camping with his uncle in the 60’s, setting off firecrackers from the roof, and encountering bears in the woods. These stories didn’t always have a context at home, but in Yosemite Valley, memories came flooding back and I was there to hear about them.

Creating new memories

If you have had the chance as an adult to travel with your parents, the memories you share will be held dear to you. The snapshots and stories from those experiences stand out in your mind from the rest you had as a child, and your parents will feel the same way. They have an opportunity to spend time with their children in a new and exciting way and they’ll cherish that as well. I not only have the memories of the familiarity and the usual but the memories of an incredible two-week road trip through three states and six state and national parks. I have the wonderful memory of my dad and my husband trying to see who could keep their feet in a freezing river the longest, contorting their faces in pain as I watched and laughed.

 

While camping in Big Sur at the beautiful Pfeiffer State Park, my dad and I spent sunset discussing long-exposure photography.

While camping in Big Sur at the beautiful Pfeiffer State Park, my dad and I spent sunset discussing long-exposure photography.

My dad was capable of camping, hiking, and driving for days on end, but not all parents are. Travel can still happen in many different ways. For example, a week in Hawaii at a resort, a cruise through Europe along the winding Danube, or, for the more adventurous, even a camel trek through the deserts of India. The possibilities are endless and the memories are waiting to be made!

To read more about Maryanne’s travel adventures check out Unknown Home.

Posted by | Comments (2)  | December 21, 2014
Category: Family Travel, North America

Teen travel- more than being “thankful for what you have”

Over the course of my traveling years, I have made a fair number of trips with children, teens, and young people. I am a huge advocate for the benefits of travel on developing minds and souls. Many people recognize the benefits of getting outside of the comfortable bubble of Western adolescence and digging into new cultures, new customs, and new values. It is certainly satisfying to greet a young person, fresh off the plane from their first international trip, and hear them say just how thankful they are for what they have. Likewise, it’s refreshing to have conversations with well-traveled teens who recognize that designer jeans and name brand electronics are not the things to hang one’s entire being on.

But it’s more than simply “being thankful for what you have”. Not all travel happens in the developing world, where materialistic needs are quickly pulled into question. Not every trip to the developing world yields such a simple realization as thankfulness for one’s material possessions back home.

It’s so much more than that.

Here are six wonderful things young people have told me they gained a new appreciation for after traveling.

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6. “I am so grateful that my parents trust me enough to let me do this.” There is something incredibly liberating for a young person when the adults in their life make the decision to let them fly on their own, even for a brief time. Anxiety is ever-present in parenting these days. There is an almost relentless push to make us believe that danger lurks around every corner. Culturally, we make a sincere effort at keeping our kids absolutely “safe”. But, fairly or not, when Mom drives you everywhere, Dad takes two years to let you go to the movie alone with your friends, and everyone keeps telling you about all the “creeps” out there, you begin to wonder if they really are trying to keep you safe or if they just don’t trust you to make good decisions. In my experience, the most “rebellious” teens are the ones who are wrestling with this question the most. They are also the kids who get joyfully teary eyed when describing how it makes them feel to know that their parents have enough trust in them to allow them the freedom to explore this vast world. Being grateful that the people who care about you most also trust you is a huge building block in the creation of a confident, capable adult.

5. “I am so glad you told me to bring less stuff!” Funny, but true. When you have to carry everything around on your back, suddenly there are a whole lot of creature comforts that seem very, very unnecessary. Hair straighteners, expensive clothes, jewelry, and extraneous electronics continually try to wiggle their way into the backpacks of my young travel companions. Those who choose to heed my advice and put thought into each item they pack not only have an easier time boarding planes, buses, and trains, they also realize that “needs” beyond the basics are subjective. They don’t just learn to be “thankful for what they have”, they learn that “stuff” does not define them and that they actually could live without much of it.

4. “I chose my college/thesis/after school activity/job/partner partially based on my trip.” This happens more often than you think. Shaking up the norm sometimes leads to clarity. A young person who previously felt unsure of what they might be headed toward might discover a new interest they may not have been exposed to at home. New languages, customs, and flavors might spark interest in the world around us. Like other big experiences, international exploration can have positive reach far beyond the dates of travel and many young people express gratitude for the experience when they realize the far reaching influence of their experiences.

3. “This is so cool! I have friends in _____ now!” In this age of technology, keeping in touch with friends made at the far corners of the earth is easier than ever. Teens and young adults are known for being quite interested in their friend groups. Broadening that friend circle to include people from different countries, races, religions, and cultures has an enormous benefit in the long run. It’s not a magic pill for reversing stereotypes or ending racism but being thankful for having met people from backgrounds different than yours is certainly a step in the right direction.

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2. “I can’t believe I am here. This is… amazing.” This planet is full of awe-inspiring adventures. Exploring the Taj Mahal at sunrise, navigating ChiChi market in Guatemala, snorkeling in the Red Sea, and sharing a chai at a road side stand in Kolkata are just some of the big and small exploits that can make a kid say, “wow”. Connecting with people across cultures is often eye opening for young people seeking their place in the world. Realizing just how many experiences there are to be had in a lifetime can be freeing for young people, many of whom were just beginning to wonder if all there was to life was the familiar daily grind of their hometown. Recognizing the infinite possibilities in this world is something to be truly thankful for.

1. “I am so incredibly glad to be home!” Believe it or not, I love this one. Learning to “be thankful for what you have” is one thing, realizing with utter clarity that you are thankful for the “home” you come back to is quite another. Most often when a young person says this, they are referring to home cooked meals, playing games with siblings, and laughing with friends. Sure, some of them missed their cell phones, but that’s generally not the focus of their gratitude. Sometimes distance really does make the heart grow fonder.

The writer Frank Herbert once said, “Without new experiences, something inside of us sleeps. The sleeper must awaken.” This could not be more true for young travelers. New experiences feed their souls and make it possible for them to awaken to a new view of their own lives and the world around them.
Have you ever traveled with young people? Did they express gratitude in surprising ways?

Posted by | Comments (1)  | December 11, 2014
Category: Family Travel, Youth Travel