AK-47s and the Smoke that Thunders – Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls

Exclusive for Vagobond by Carl Grooms

Vctoria Falls, Zimbabwe © 2011 Carlton Grooms
© 2011 Carlton Grooms

You feel the rumble in the earth before you hear it. You see wisps of mist rise high into the sky as if a forest fire has commenced. As you draw closer your ears begin to pick up the roar, you feel it in your soul. The locals call it the Smoke that Thunders. You have arrived at Victoria Falls, one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World.

The falls are a UNESCO World Heritage site that straddles the boarders of Zambia and Zimbabwe. Here the Zambezi river drops almost 400 feet across a 1 mile wide face into a remarkably small cut in the earth, making it the largest falls in the world. The attraction is part of two national park systems. Mosi-ao-Tunya (translated to the Smoke that Thunders) National Park in Zambia and Victoria Falls National Park in Zimbabwe.

I awoke before the sun, on my first day. Eager to capture the falls in good light from the Zimbabwe side, I hired a taxi to fetch me and get me to the entry prior to opening. The silence enveloped us as we sat in the dark, waiting. I began to question my safety. Alone, with a strange driver, holding over $15,000 in camera gear could prove to be a poor idea. Young men walking past, AK-47’s on their shoulders, interrupted the silence. They were on their way to relieve the night shift guarding the border and bridge to Zambia. I’m starting to imagine the headlines that the western press will print when they find my body later today. Undeterred I await the arrival of the park attendant to let me in.

The Zimbabwe side of the falls is far more developed than the Zambian side. However, with the political strife and humanitarian crimes being brought upon the population by Robert Mugabe, their leader (in no sense of the word), hotel occupancy is low. The Zambia side has record occupancy and capital investment in facilities is up. An argument could be made that the falls are just as beautiful from that the other side, but I want to photograph them coming straight at me. So I’ve come to Zimbabwe.

Victoria Falls at Sunrise
Victoria Falls at Sunrise © 2011 Carlton Grooms

This is the second journey of my life to this region of the world. I grew up in Lusaka, Zambia 450 miles and a 12 hour drive north, in the mid-80’s. This was during the civil war that turned Rhodesia into Zimbabwe and during apartheid in South Africa. The ‘freedom’ fighter, Robert Mugabe lived in exile in my Lusaka neighborhood. Too bad he survived to release so much human tragedy upon his people. When I lived here the first time, we couldn’t come to the falls because of the war. Today, my first, I’ve come to photograph for my book, “Portraits of Our World”. The book is meant to build schools for the poor children in this region of Africa. The perceived risk sitting on this border today is worth it.

Perhaps the idea that this trip is allegedly risky is the point. I do not believe it is. The people of Zimbabwe are very warm and hospitable. They are often delighted to have you. The preponderance of the crime that occurs in this region is related to economics, motivated by the need to eat and feed one’s family. The Mugabe regime itself will not hassle you, as you bring hard currency and commerce. The hotels are at low capacity, meaning great rates. Now is a good time to visit.

The Vic Falls lookout area is not all that large. Big enough only to face the main body of the falls, it is easily walked carrying whatever gear you decide to bring. In reality you will be left surprised that there isn’t more too it. As you pay your small entry fee and move through the gates you are greeted with a spectacular rain forest made possible by the water spray of the falls. You will see mahogany trees, ferns, palms and various vines that you cannot see anywhere else in the area.

The Smoke That Thunders
The Smoke That thunders © 2011 Carlton Grooms

As you emerge on the other side your senses are inundated. The roar resonates at a bass level that you feel in your bones. Depending on the wind and time of year, you may not be able to readily see the falls because of the great mist it generates. The resulting, and always present, rainbow serves as the crowning jewel. Keep moving along the face and you will eventually find the perfect spot.

For the true adventurer you can hire a helicopter to fly up over the falls. We did this and were able to capture the most amazing images as you can see here. Don’t spend your entire time behind the camera. It is too easy to be caught up in capturing your surroundings and forget to actually enjoy the experience yourself.

There are a number of things you can do in the area to further enjoy the destination when you are done with the falls. White water rafting on the Zambezi is very popular. The river is very violent be forewarned. Don’t miss the chance to sample wild game meat. My favorite is the The Boma Restaurant, located at the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge. The $50 charge per person is worth it. Note that Zimbabwe no longer has it’s own currency. They rely on the US Dollar, South African Rand, Botswana Pula and the Euro instead.

In order to more fully appreciate my adventure I departed Zimbabwe via the bridge over the Zambezi to cross into Zambia. With loaded backpacks, together with my wife and children (11 and 12 at the time) we made the crossing. After stamping our passports upon departure, the border guard let us across the barrier.

Vctoria Falls Zimbabwe
Victoria Falls Aerial Shot of Bridge © 2011 Carlton Grooms

We crossed the bridge, a one mile long no man’s land between the countries. We had a surreal feeling as we walked towards the Zambian side, their armed border guards looking on. We were readily welcomed, cleared through and on our way.

Traveling is a matter of pushing all your senses beyond the daily norm. New people and cultures, new food, new smells, even new fears. Sometimes the fears are unfounded which allows you to open your eyes a little wider and gather the courage to head off to another life changing destination that is mistakenly avoided by the masses. Sometimes your new reality simply serves to open your mind to the world you live in daily. Either way, a journey to Victoria Falls can be much more than simply visiting the Smoke that Thunders.

Carlton GroomsCarl Grooms is the editor of the island focused travel blog, Coastlines & Tan Lines. He produced his latest book, “Portraits of Our World” after a one year trip around the world. He is the founder of Conch Republic Bikinis, as well as a former Naval Aviator. Carl led the business development of all Hong Kong Disney hotels and restaurants for Walt Disney Attractions. At last count Carl has visited 52 countries. He has run with the Bulls in Pamplona, braved the highest bungee jump in the world in South Africa and is an ultra-marathon runner. He holds an MBA from the Wharton School at The University of Pennsylvania.

Around the World through a Photographers Lens – China

Photos and Words by Dave Stamboulis

Around the World Through a Photographer’s Lens is a weekly feature from Award Wiinning travel photographer and writer, Dave Stamboulis.  Every Monday afternoon you can find Dave’s work here at Vagobond. See the world through a photographer’s lens.

1) The Long Haired Yao are an ethnic minority in China’s Guilin region. The Yao women never cut their hair and welcome visitors to their village with a hair braiding ceremony

Chinese Yao Long hair
2) Not only do the Yao women not cut their hair, they pick up any stray hair that falls out and weave them into their manes

Hair Weave Chinese Yao
3) The village elder, enjoying telling the history of his life in a sleepy Yao village

Chinese Yao Elder
4) The Yao women spend much of their free time weaving their colorful clothing and blankets for the cold winters

Yao Women in China
5) The lush rice terraces of Ping An village, home to the Yao of Guilin

rice terraces in Ping An, China
6) The Yao grow elaborate rice fields and terraces for their survival

Rice Terraces Yao China Ping An
7) Yao village elder doing a welcome ceremony to honor guests

Welcoming Ceremony Ping An, China Yao
8) Old traditions die hard in China, granny and her buffalo

Yao woman and Buffalo, Ping An China

La Fiesta Mama Negra in Ecuador

By Melissa Ruttanai

While the northern hemisphere hunkers down for cool autumn months, Ecuador blooms with warm breezes, clear skies, and the beginning of the festival season in October.

Peru FestivalsDown the spine of the Andes Mountains just one hour south of Quito, the city of Latacunga fills its streets with streamers and parades the cathedral’s statue of the Virgin and Child through several neighborhoods.

Locals and visitors alike gather in the main plaza. They snap pictures and dance to the bands. They buy snacks and pop open bottles of Pilsener beer. Horses enter the courtyard and astride one is the figure of Mama Negra, the city’s protector against volcanic eruptions and destructive weather. The band strikes a fast beat and Mama Negra herself unveils a black bottle and sprays the crowd in a ritual cleansing.

At the Fiesta of Mama Negra, prepare yourself for dancing in the streets and non-stop festivities.

On each plaza corner, bands whip up festival-goers with hip swinging music. All year long, musicians and townspeople have been saving up for this event.

And they don’t hold anything back. Pastel-hued colors burst across the promenade. Pink coats and blue skirts twirl to the melody. Costumed men carry portal altars on their backs, offering devout tokens of respect to the patroness that include a dozen bottles of whiskey, roasted chicken, smoked guinea pig, and one immense BBQ pig.

Ribbons decorate the spaces in between as each man hews the altar down the parade route. Even small boys get involved as each one carries a miniature sized offering.

While bands blast trumpets and beat drums, each parishioner dances euphorically through the streets of Latacunga. In between altars and bands, they strut their choreographed hips through the cobbled avenues.

With handkerchiefs men guide their partners through the routine, hollering and celebrating each step. The women purse pink lips, swirling with the beat and smiling with pride. At the Fiesta de Mama Negra, the parade snakes up and down the streets for miles.

For hours, the bands march and dancers dip and twirl their partners. Mama Negra sprays the crowd with alcohol and gangs of masked men cleanse innocent bystanders with branches of green leaves. In the crowd, onlookers share beer and whiskey. They cheer and push each other into the midst of the dancing parade. Amongst friends and family and strangers, they jest and joke from noon past midnight.

Latacunga, a city high in Ecuador’s Andes, offers an authentic insight into everyday life in the mountains and is a great cultural extension either in between the usual tours to the Galapagos and Machu Picchu.

Making Travel Plans for a Safer Future

With the current pandemic still an ongoing situation that is disrupting travel to many countries, travel lovers are unsure when they might be able to travel freely again. Everyone wants to be safe, but beyond taking responsibility for yourself, you also need to pay attention to the travel rules that many countries have put into place. While some nations are now starting to allow international travel again, there are some that are still restricting travel or are requiring periods of quarantine for new arrivals into the country. While you might not be able to go on a spontaneous trip right now, you can make plans for the future and even careful plans to travel now in some cases.

Here are some of the ways you could be making plans to travel for both now and when things are safer.

Image from Pixabay – CC0 License

Staying Up to Date with the Latest News

If you’re desperate to start traveling again, keeping track of what’s changing day-to-day is a must. Things are changing all the time, and it’s important to stay up to date with the different travel restrictions and guidelines that are in place. There are plenty of places where you can get information about the places you want to travel to or even suggestions for which are the safest countries for traveling right now. Official government travel information can be the best resource much of the time. As well as looking at the information provided by your own government, check out the official government or tourist board information from the place that you want to travel to.

Keep an eye on the news in general, too. You will likely find news items about what changes certain countries are making and what rules they have in place for travelers. These things will be changing gradually over the next few months, and there is a chance that they may not always move forward. Sometimes, restrictions might need to be tightened again if the need arises, so make sure you always have the most recent information.

 

Keep Your Plans Loose

How do you plan to travel when you’re not sure where or when you might be able to go? You most likely don’t want to end up having to quarantine yourself when arriving at your destination, either, which adds another level of complication. It might be best to keep any travel plans as loose as possible for now, especially if you’re planning to travel for fun and not for anything particularly necessary. You might want to make a plan for where you want to go and what you want to do, perhaps even thinking about some rough dates. However, it might not be the right time to book anything just yet.

 

Use Tech to Be Prepared

Technology can always help you with your travels. It makes it easier to plan and book your trips and to get the information that you need both before and during your travels. There’s plenty of tech that could prove to be useful when you’re making plans for travel in the near future. Still traveling? 6 apps could be all that you need to stay organised. Traveling can always be tricky to manage, but it’s even more difficult during this time. The right apps for booking travel and accommodation can make it easier to plan any journey, whether it’s for now or later.

 

Technology can help you to make travel plans in other ways too, even if it’s only through using spreadsheets to stay organised. Spreadsheets can help you to keep track of information, as well as things like budgets and how much you can expect to pay for things where you want to travel.

 

Make Bookings Far in Advance

Do you have a dream trip in mind? Maybe you can’t wait to get out there and see the world, but you know that now isn’t the right time to do it. However, maybe you want to get your next trip locked in now, or you’ve spotted a deal that you don’t want to let pass you by. If you really want to have something to look forward to, it might be a good idea to book a trip far in advance. Booking something for at least a few months down the line will help to improve your chances of being able to go where you want to and do what you want.

 

Take the Time to Save

Waiting for things to go back to normal might have you feeling antsy. However, you can also take advantage of the time that you have available. One of the ways you could benefit from being at home instead of traveling is that you have time to save. Maybe you have a big trip that you’ve always wanted to take, but you’ve never managed to save up for it. Or perhaps you just like the idea of spending a bit more money on your next trip so that you can enjoy a little luxury. Now could be time to do some serious saving and perhaps create a savings plan to help you to reach a specific goal.

 Image from Pixabay - CC0 License
Image from Pixabay – CCO License

Pay Attention to How to Stay Safe

If you are planning to travel anytime soon, you should make sure you know how to stay safe during your travels. Firstly, you need to know about the regulations for your destination, and anywhere you might be passing through. Do you need to wear a face mask and, if so, when and where do you need to wear one? Will you be expected to quarantine or perhaps give the address of where you will be staying? Apart from the official rules and regulations, make yourself aware of the expert advice on how to keep yourself safe and how to help keep other people safe and healthy too.

 

Stay Close to Home

It might not be the best time to travel internationally, right now. But if you really want to get away, traveling close to home could be an option that works for you. In fact, even booking into a hotel close to where you live could be a new way to experience your home. A staycation is the ideal way to do something different and get some time to relax without having to travel too far. You can find new things to do in your own town, or you could travel to the next town or city to see what you can discover.

 

Build Flexibility Into Your Plans

You’re not sure what’s going to happen in the near future, but you still want to book some time away. How can you make plans while still being able to change them if necessary? Paying a little bit more for flexibility could be the key to getting your plans right. Usually, you can pay a higher price for a more flexible booking, whether you’re booking a hotel, flight or something else. If you do want to postpone your trip, rearrange it or even cancel out, you will be able to do so more easily and affordably. You can usually choose from the cheapest and least flexible option for a room or ticket, or a more expensive but more flexible option.


Image from Pixabay – CC0 License

Consider Cancellations Carefully

There might be an occasion when you decide that you do need to cancel a trip that you have planned. Even if there is nothing official stopping you from traveling, you might not feel safe taking your trip because you feel that the risk of infection is too high. If you do cancel, it will be easiest if you have chosen to build some flexibility into your trip. If the things that you have booked have good cancellation terms, it may be easier to cancel and to get your money back if necessary.

Even if you can’t recover your money with a simple refund, there might be other options that allow you to get your money back. If you booked using a credit card, you might be able to get a full refund. Sometimes you might need to put some effort into chasing a refund if you really want one. Another thing to keep in mind is that it can be all about timing, too. If you leave it too late, it will be more difficult to get a refund.

 

Think About Traveling Differently When It’s Time

When everyone can travel freely again, consider how exactly you’re going to approach your travels. Many businesses and communities are being affected by the COVID-19 crisis, and many have not survived or will not survive before it’s over. For those that are left, they will need support to keep going. You might want to consider how you can give your business to local services and communities so that you can support them. You can help to rebuild the places and people that have suffered due to not having the visitor levels that they would usually rely on.

It might be a while before things are back to normal, but that doesn’t have to stop you from making travel plans.

 

Peru’s Chavin de Huantar – Epic Archeological Adventure

Guest Post by Greg de Villiers

Ancash lies quietly to the north of Lima, ignored by too many people who hop past to the golden northern beaches, the central jungle, or Cusco and Machu Picchu. But they are all missing one of the great jewels in the Peruvian landscape.

Ancash Peru, Hiking in PeruAncash is bordered by long sandy beaches but then quickly gives way to the mountain ranges which dominate it – the Cordillera Negra and the Cordillera Blanca, which contains the Huascaran National Park and the famous peak of the same name, at around 6000m it is the highest in Peru and 6th on the continent.

The landscape of Ancash is truly breathtaking, with wide open expanses, lorded over by massive, permanently white tipped peaks. Throughout the range there are some 300 glaciers – although all have been affected to some degree by a warming of the climate – and strikingly crystalline blue lakes – quite likely the origin of the provinces name – anqash in Quehcua means blue.

Tucked between all this majesty in a small valley, itself situated at a humble 3177m above sea level, at the confluence of two regionally important rivers, the Huacheksa and Mosna, is an ancient city built by a civilization that thrived nearly 3000 years ago.

The Chavin culture is one of the best known and influential pre-Incan cultures, at its peak from 900 – 200 BC, with its sophisticated art, metallurgy and textile work influencing many later cultures in Peru, and perhaps even as far abroad as the Olmec culture which shares certain artistic tendencies. It is theorized that the Chavin was not a great military power, but rather that the people of the large stretch of land (roughly between modern Piura in the north and Paracas to the south) under their sphere of influence were culturally colonized – i.e. they chose to follow the Chavin philosophy and religion.

The heart of this culture, is Chavin de Huantar, the remarkably well preserved archeological site in the Huascaran National Park. The main temple and surrounding buildings stand between the two rivers, a position carefully chosen for its supposed mystical energy. (Although the convenient positioning on a major riverine trade and transport connection between the coast and the high mountains was likely a key additional factor.)

The whole site should have been inundated and destroyed, but the builders rerouted one of the rivers and created a complex system of underground water channels, some of which are believed to have been used as acoustic tools which, with water flowing through them during the rainy season would, due to vents above ground, roar like a jaguar – likely the principal deity of the Chavin religion / cult.

The most renowned relics of the Chavin culture are the cabesas clavas or Tenon heads, large stone heads placed in the walls thought the temple complex. Some rows of these stone heads represent the transformation of human to feline (jaguar – and thus divine), a process brought to life by the Chavin shamans, most likely through the use of the psychotropic cactus, SanPedro which grows in the region.

The other relic of great importance and beauty is the Lanzon, a 4.5m obelisk depicting the main deity, located in the labyrinthine heart of the main temple. It is there where I found myself face to face with this ancient monolith; I have no clear picture of it, only swirls and patterns incised precisely into granite. These swirls, the taste of that entire moment, seem branded into my memory. Perhaps due to some mythical energy or more simply, highly sharpened senses as my body desperately tried to convince me that it was a bad idea to be standing underground, in a maze, in a 3000 year old building, in stale light and murkier air.

A visit to Chavin to Huantar gives you chance to come in contact with something unthinkably ancient, created by human beings completely different from (or perhaps remarkably similar to – depending on your perspective) anything we know today. And all within one of the most spectacular setting Peru has to offer.

Getting there:

The most common access to Chavin de Huantar is a three hour ride in a public bus from Huaraz, the capital city of the region. The route between Huaraz and Lima is well serviced by a number of companies and takes about eight hours. If at all possible, a rental car (preferably a 4×4, but this is not essential) is the very best option as the roads of Ancash are one of the best driving experiences in the country. If you are short on time you could book a guided tour with a specialist in Peru adventure trips.

The Choquequirao Trek or How to Be a Weekend Warrior in Peru

By Maureen Santucci

I love to trek – it’s one of my absolute favorite things to do. It’s one of the reasons I chose to live in Peru in the first place. In fact, I love it so much that I somehow decided to go on one of the most infamously difficult treks without properly preparing for it.

Choquequirao PeruWe were heading for the Inca ruins of Choquequirao: famed as the lesser-known “sister” to Machu Picchu. Ruins perched atop a distant and isolated mountain, said to be the last stronghold of the Inca.

To keep me company on the adventure I brought along two old friends, also trekking enthusiasts. We all knew it was going to be tough but had no real idea what we were getting into. I started getting a clue, however, when discussing it with my guide, Alfredo Fisher, along with another friend who intended to come with us. She has bad knees and had thought she could ride most of the way.

One look at Alfredo’s face told us that was not happening. Bless him, he can be overly optimistic but he doesn’t lie. He informed us that there were many areas of the trail that were too steep to ride on. With hindsight maybe he was lying: I’d say there are areas of the trail that were too steep to WALK on, let alone ride.

We set out by car from Cusco at around 5 in the morning and traveled a few hours through the hills to a town called Cachora from where we were to begin our trek. There, we met up with our horses that were to carry all the equipment and our bags, their handler (Don Julio) and our assistant cook. The cook had come with us from Cusco.

That first day we soon found out what Alfredo meant by steep. Before long we had left the smooth rolling fields behind us and entered the towering gorge of the Apurimac valley. An unspeakable distance below us thundered the river. Between us and the water stretched the thin line of our trail, following the near-sheer drop to the valley floor.

We negotiated the precipitous trail right into the fearsome heart of the valley. We descended such distances that the climate visibly changed around us, getting warmer and subtropical until the trees were dripping with ripe mangos and avocados. Just hours before we’d been shivering in the chilly, thin Andean air!

Part of the fun of trekking is the camaraderie at the end of each day’s hiking, enjoying a few drinks at camp after dinner. Not for us on day one of the Choquequirao trek: we ate dinner at the valley floor and took our weary legs to bed.

What goes up must come down. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true and on the morning of our second day we looked back up the other side of the valley, trembling with the prospect of climbing all the way back to the top.

The trail followed a seemingly infinite series of switchbacks, each turn blending into the last. Legs burning, mid focused on making it to the next turn, I almost forgot to look up from time to time; whenever I did I was virtually bowled over by the site of the enormous valley and up ahead, peaking out of the clouds, our destination; the ruins of Choquequirao.

When we finally reached our camp for the second night, the view was simply breathtaking. Eating dinner with the sun setting behind the mountains and the ruins almost within our grasp, we soon remembered why we willingly put ourselves through such ordeals: the payoff is easily worth the pain.

Waking up the next morning to the panoramic view is one of the reasons I love these treks. The scenery is so dramatic it is almost impossible for a camera to do it justice.

An hour or so after leaving camp we reached the gates of Choquequirao. Although not built with the same Imperial grandeur as Machu Picchu, the site is still an amazing place, if only for its isolation and lack of visitors: we had the entire place to ourselves.

trekking in PeruIt can take days to explore the ruins in their entirety and archeologists reckon most of the ruins are still hidden. Experts believe the city was originally an administrative centre for the region. It has a bloody and dramatic history: these mountains provided the final stronghold for the beleaguered Inca as the Spanish chased them from their capital in Cusco. The gates of Choquequirao were among the last to fall before the once mighty Empire was vanquished once and for all.

We took our time exploring the ruins; partially through fascination, partially through trepidation of resuming our hike through the valley.

After lunch we began the hike back down the canyon, on a trail that turned out to be the most treacherous part of the trek. Coming across a series of steep stone steps, our porters were forced to unload the mules for fear of losing them to the canyon.

Almost crawling along the last stretch leading to the trailhead, my self esteem received a welcome boost when our cook caught up with me, only to declare that this was the first and last time he would ever work on the Choquequirao trail! I wasn’t alone, and even better: my pain was being shared by someone born and bred in the highlands, accustomed to hiking and working on the mountain trails!

Thanks to the grueling trek, Choquequirao remains an under-visited site, but is within easy reach of Cusco and makes an excellent alternative to the Inca Trail. Maureen travelled with Alfredo who can be contacted on: pachamamawawakuna@hotmail.com. Alternatively book in advance through a reputable Peru trips provider.

Around the World Through a Photographer’s Lens – Myanmar

Photos and Captions by Dave Stamboulis

Around the World Through a Photographer’s Lens is an exclusive feature from Award Winning travel photographer and writer, Dave Stamboulis.  You can find more of Dave’s work here at Vagobond. See the world through a photographer’s lens.

1) Monks on the U Bein bridge at sunset, world’s longest teak bridge which comes alive in the late afternoon with thousands of workers, monks, and other Burmese crossing back home.

Myanmar, Burma, Mandalay
2) Nuns on their morning alms run in Bagan

Nuns on their morning alms run in Bagan
3) A young monk and his begging bowl on the U Bein Bridge in Mandalay

Myanmar, Burma, Mandalay
4) Young Myanmar beauty in Mandalay wearing tanaka paste on her cheeks, used as sunblock and as a beauty cosmetic, tanaka comes from the bark of a tree

Myanmar, Burma, Mandalay
5) Fisherman on Inle Lake. The fishermen of Inle are famed for their one legged rowing technique, which allows them to keep their hand free for fishing.

Fisherman on Inle Lake, Myanmar
6) Spinning silk on Inle Lake. There are many cottage industries along the lake, such as traditional weaving.

Myanmar, Burma, Mandalay, Inle,

7) Girl rolling cheroots. The cheroot tobacco industry in Myanmar is huge. Along Inle Lake, young women work long hours rolling tobacco leaf into the cheroot cigars.

Along Inle Lake, young women work long hours rolling tobacco leaf
8) Young monks on their alms run in Yangon. Many young boys serve time as monks from an early age in Myanmar.

Many young boys serve time as monks from an early age in Myanmar

Half Bed and Torture Devices at Rembrandt House

Story and Photos
By Melissa Ruttanai

Rembrandt's HouseAs a New York native, I grew up around big name museums like the Metropolitan and Guggenheim. When I hear the word exhibit, my mind immediately conjures up images of huge white spaces, queues around the block, and paintings you can’t get close to or else your breath may chip the paint. I supposed that’s why I like small museums and boutique exhibits that focus on one story or artist instead of 5000 years of human civilization. I can stand almost nose to canvas with a painting and won’t flinch as a security guard clears his throat aggressively. I like furniture original to a home and windows that play as much a role in the presentation of art as does the light they let in. So on a summer trip to Amsterdam with my husband and two best travel buds, I made a beeline for the Rembrandt Huis, a museum that should attract massive crowds but in the shadow of the Van Gogh and the Rijksmuseum enjoys a simple solitude in the heart of Amsterdam.

A Kitchen and the Half Bed

I love kitchens. This is probably because they are usually the heart of the home and the scene for baked goods, slow roasted meats, and crackling firewood. But most people don’t give this room enough credit as if they never had a grandma set out a special piece of cake just for them in their own homes. Sadly most visitors sail in, take a few pictures, and cruise right out the front door. But the kitchen is where you can get a true sense for the cultural values of any given time period. There are copper pots and large bowls, serving dishes and silver spoons. All these indicate to me that the household could and often did feed a steady stream of people. Little chairs sat by the fire place, not necessarily for children but for the soup maid to stir bubbling broths. But what I loved most about this room in the Rembrandt house was hidden behind a large cupboard in the corner of the kitchen. Less than 2 meters long, inside a lightless hole, a fluffy bed was constructed into the wall.

flags in amsterdam at rembrandt's houseActually, it was a half bed because even back in those days when people were smaller, no adult could stretch out on her back. Or even in the fetal position. Listening to the audio guide, I laughed out loud as other visitors gave a cursory glance and walked away.

In Rembrandt’s time, people believed that sleeping on your back could induce death. They feared that if they were not upright they’d literally lose there breath and suffocate before morning. So the cook and many people of her time slept sitting up. Hilarious to think of all those people in Rembrandt’s house nodding off as they leaned against the wall trying to get comfortable inside a tiny cabinet.

A Torture Device? Inside a Painter’s home?

Up the tight stairway that seems to also serve as the backbone of the house, a little room sits off to one side of the house between two large salons full of Rembrandt’s work. Delicate papers hang from the ceiling, drying on a clothes line. Tiny knives and inkblotters litter a table. And in the middle of the room, a giant oak machine is poised, ready to flatten its next victim. Get your hand too close and you’ll get it back paper thin.

Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam“Are you ready for the etching demonstration?” A woman in a smock called our attention as her hand rested on the medieval killing machine. “It’s a press that artists use to create imprints.” My heart sank. No bloody history here. No grueling secret prisons in Rembrandt’s home. My twisted mind quickly found new distraction as the woman began to create art using a metal plate and an assortment of etching knives.

I have to be honest. The only thing I know about etchings is what I’d puzzled together on Antiques Roadshow, a television series where professionals appraise junk that people have around the house. In one episode, a guy brought in an inkblot picture for appraisal. It didn’t look like much until the official looking man in the suit took out a stylus and pointed delicately to one corner of the picture and read out the name: Rembrandt. And like magic, the yard sale picture became a priceless family heirloom. Everyone watching from TV land saw dollar signs in the man’s eyes.

In the Rembrandt Huis, the employee showed us the different tools that are used to make a plate. What I liked during the demonstration was that the woman explained that the plates create the actual pictures on paper. So an artist must create their scenes in its mirror image and that includes their name. My death chamber machine that sat in the room was the rolling press used to place the picture onto the paper. If there is no demonstration during your visit you can still watch a video depicting the process.

Most of the time, these types of workshops and guided tours often leave me disappointed. The guide usually pontificates to the crowd and I then feel compelled to act engaged when in fact I am counting the seconds to exit and explore on my own. But the etching lesson was great, mostly because the woman was an artist herself. She explained each step, showing us inks and knives and answering questions. Then when she rolled the paper through the machine, it seemed that I didn’t need the doom and gloom of medieval torture chambers. The woman had created something unique to a time period and presented us with a piece of art.

After the workshop ended, we were invited to continue up to Rembrandt’s personal studio. The light from the bay windows seemed to cast everything in a clean golden glow. A giant canvas sat in the middle of the room beside a large desk with a visitor’s sign-in book opened to an empty page. I signed my name, adding the date and a brief message. “Love the half bed in the kitchen and the etching workshop was a nice surprise!”

There Ain’t No Party Like a Trenchtown Party! Jamaica Rocks

Guest Story and Photos by Edward Williams

partying in Trenchtown, JamaicaHigh expectations before a holiday can often leave you disappointed, so, despite my excited anticipation and romantic views of Jamaican culture I braced myself for a let-down; would I get mugged, murdered and left in a ditch, or racially abused for the historical misadventures of my ancestors? I seriously hoped not!

First on the list of priorities was a visit to the Bob Marley museum on Hope Road, very interesting and well worth a visit but the best thing to come out of it was an invitation to the Culture Yard at Trench Town. This is where Bob learnt to play the guitar; where he’d hang out and watch Georgie make the fire light, and leave log wood burnin’ t’ru da night… Trench Town is also one of Kingston’s most deprived and notorious ghettos.

Sophia Dowe, the wonderfully powerful and welcoming tour guide at the Culture Yard came out to meet us. When we stepped out of our taxi-bubble we could feel the atmosphere in the streets instantly; tough and poor, just like the people milling about on them. Having said that, the friendliness of the people we met soon eased our nerves and the tour of the yard was a very real, enlightening and informative schooling in the history of this famous ghetto. And it was very nicely finished with a cold bottle of Red Stripe in the local bar afterwards!

Kingston street art - JamaicaThe Culture Yard itself is like a living museum, one in which local artists still produce and sell their work, and it’s also a place where people congregate for meals, ‘reasoning’ and jamming sessions, just like they always have done. You don’t need an invitation to go there either, but a call to let them know you’re coming would be appreciated.

One of the beauties of travel is how one thing leads to another; “What are you guys up to this evening? There’s a yard party going on at the top end of Trench Town, you wanna go?” Wow! Of course! Thank you Sophia!

Six of us from the hostel were up for the party, but Sophia told us the appetiser would be a couple of hours in a club in Tivoli Gardens – another famous ghetto in Kingston. Tivoli Gardens is famous for being the home turf of the Shower Posse, headed by Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke who’s now serving 23 years in the US for drug trafficking. Despite the formidable reputation and intimidating look of the streets we had a good time in the club while our taxis waited outside, just in case anything untoward kicked off. It was still early though so it’s not as if there were many people in there…

Trenchtown, Kingston, Jamaica partyBack in Trench Town a couple of hours later we jumped out of the cabs and headed straight for the dancehall rhythms we could hear rumbling across the street. By two am the party was getting into full swing – a camera crew from the local party channel had turned up and plenty of revellers were shaking their booty’s and showing off their moves in the limelight when, all of a sudden, two armed cops barged into the party. Er, should we stay or should we go now?? We stayed. Nervously. Two minutes later the biggest, bald headed cop appeared again and grabbed the microphone, he told everyone they’d come to check for weapons but that everything was cool and we could start the party again. The DJ dropped the record in and then the cop, who still had the microphone, let rip with a wicked bit of freestyle mcing that sent the crowd absolutely wild! The atmosphere for the last two hours of the party were electric – as sure as the Sun rises in the East, there ain’t nothing like a Trench Town Party! Once again, many thanks to Sophia. Without someone like her we’d never have got to experience such a night.

I’d also been hanging out in the market just south of Twin Gates plaza with a record shop owner, Martin. He’s an old school reggae buff with an amazing collection of rare and collectable vinyl that he off loads to tourists, and he’s Trench Town born and bred – as tough as they come! “Eh bwoy, wha’ you do tonight? There’s a Trench Town derby on, a Jamaican Premier League spectacular! You wanna come?” I was there as soon as asked!

After a couple of warm-up drinks at the Michelle’s Halfway Pub in Concrete Jungle we walked to the stadium, it was still an hour or so before kick-off. By going so early Martin had given us the chance to watch the crowd and the atmosphere build. All the fans were mingling together, there wasn’t a cop to be seen in the stadium and the pre-match entertainment was in true Jamaican style – dancehall playing through the PA system and several dancehall-style cheerleaders showing off their athletic routine in the middle of the pitch. The home team, Arnett Gardens, were the strong favourites but after no more than fifteen minutes they were two goals down. Boys Town were getting all the luck, and the home fans were getting tetchy. The second half was a proper barn-stormer; Arnett Gardens managed to pull one back, and then a quick second to make it 2-2. The excitement was all too much for a group of fans on the terrace opposite us, a fight started and caused a bit of mayhem but credit due to the Jamaican fans because, with no police in sight, two minutes after it started it was all over and back to normal again. No harm done. Arnett Gardens then went and scored a winner, at which point the home fans erupted as did I! What a night! It was back to Michelle’s again for a few high-spirited post-match Red Stripes and a late taxi home…

Jamaica obviously has much more to offer than a few nights out in Trench Town, but if you’re going there on holiday try and tear yourself away from the beaches for a day or two; the real Jamaica is a lot less scary and a lot more fun than you might imagine!

Black Robed Kaffir: Adventures on the other side of Pakistan

Words and Photos by Dave Stamboulis

Pakistan by Dave StamboulisI am sitting in a small hovel just off the main street of dusty Chitral town, not far from the Afghan border, where a couple of old blenders, two dirty tables covered with an army of flies, some broken benches, and a very large slab of ice serve to create a mango shake parlor. I am surrounded by eight wizened old men with long wispy beards and skull caps staring at me, all of whom look exactly like Osama Bin Laden. At first glance, the traveler might find Pakistan to be a bit daunting.

However, minutes later, the bearded men have treated me to two delicious mango shakes, a wonderfully cool reprieve from the 40 plus degree searing temperatures outside, and after finding out I am American, the men are full of questions, wanting to know if I find their country safe, and why tourists no longer come to visit.

To say that Pakistan is a land of extremes is not to exaggerate. Home to some of the most inhospitable terrain on earth, from barren and baking deserts to the huge and jagged Karakoram Mountains; where dozens of indigenous tribes eek out an existence under towering peaks and massive glacial upheaval. Baking hot in the summer, a frozen wasteland in the winter, and yet containing some of the most beautiful and lush valleys in the world, with abundant fruit and vegetables during the harvest season.

Pakistan by Dave StamboulisThe international media portrays Pakistan as a land of lawlessness and evil, home to the Taliban and Al Qaeda mobs, and there are indeed areas such as Waziristan in the Northwest Tribal Frontier, which are very much off limits to foreigners. In Waziristan, everything off the main road is not subject to government jurisdiction, and the land is ruled by feudal clans who have been suspicious of outsiders for years. The inhabitants here sleep with their doors open, with the women in the family placed next to the door to serve as a frontline against intruders, while the turbaned men lie in bed clutching their Uzi’s, AK47’s, and just about any other of the latest military hardware, all of which can be copied from an original in 30 minutes in small villages whose existence serves only to replicate weapons.

Yet the traveler to Pakistan will never be allowed into these areas, and outside of the political violence that has disturbed the big cities, the rest of the country is safe and hospitable, especially in the north, with one being far more likely to be crushed by the never ending cascade of boulders falling onto the Karakoram Highway on an hourly basis than by any act of terrorism or violence.

The sectarian violence and Al Qaeda related jihad groups are restricted to most of the far west and south of the country, and government troops make sure that visitors cannot enter these areas while they are busy battling insurgents. Meanwhile, the north of the country is a mosaic of different ethnic groups and even religions, with Ismaili Moslems (following the leadership of the esteemed Aga Khan) and various tribes of the Pamir mountains making up a majority. Every bend of the raging Indus River brings about a language change, from Burusheski to Gojali or Chitrali, and often the only way one can tell the difference between a Baltit from a Hunzakot is by the color of his hat.

In the northwest, near the Afghan border in the Chitral district are the famed Hindu Kush Mountains, stretching across northern Afghanistan. In the shadow of the Hindu Kush, live one of the most interesting and remote ethnic groups in the world, the Kalasha, also known as the Black Robed Kaffir. The Kalasha are a non Moslem animist group with light skin and European features. Legend has it that they are the descendants of Alexander the Great, who traveled through the region on his journey from Europe to India. How the Kalasha have survived over the years is quite amazing. They are the only non Moslem group between Turkey and India, and they inhabit only three remote valleys, surrounded by conservative Islam on all sides, and a Taliban inhabited region of Afghanistan just across the border.

Pakistan by Dave StamboulisIn contrast to most of the neighboring villages, where women often are not even seen outside of the home, the Kalasha women are unveiled, attired in colorful headdresses made of cowry shells, pillbox hats, and embroidered skirts, and all are smiling and welcoming, even engaging in drinking wine and smoking cigarettes!

The Kalasha are pastoral, and make cheese, grow walnuts, wheat, apricots, and mulberries, which they store to survive the harsh winters that they endure. The valleys they live in are ringed by steep mountains and angry rivers, and the paths between the valleys are challenging treks over some extremely vertical terrain. In the river gorges, Kalasha men can be seen braving the whitewater rapids trying to free logs that have been cut to send downriver to be sold as timber. Each year, several men are swept away to their deaths by the powerful currents.

Pakistan by Dave Stamboulis

In the 1990’s, anthropologists, biologists (the mountains surrounding the Kalasha valleys are home to some of the largest populations of markhor sheep in the world), and tourists invaded the Kalasha area, and many feared that the consequences of large scale tourism would irreparably damage their indigenous lifestyle. But the September 11th attacks and subsequent war in Afghanistan virtually brought the tourist industry to a standstill, and the Kalasha have been left in peace ever since.

There is still a large selection of guesthouses in the Bumburet and Rumbur valleys, and I spent a week calling one of them home. My lodging was run by Engineer Khan, a jovial and energetic man who is the first university educated Kalasha from the valley, and now Rumbur village’s one and only esteemed school teacher. Interestingly enough, Khan received his first name not due to his being an engineer, but because his father wanted him to go to school and study, and his son took him to task, even going as far as leaving home to attend college in Chitral town.

Khan speaks Kalasha, Urdu, Farsi, Pashto, English, and a smattering of other languages, and is happy to show visitors into local homes, the traditional funerary totems of his people, and to indulge in long evenings of astute conversation over several bottles of mulberry wine and local moonshine, a boon for the visitor in mostly alcohol free Pakistan.

Pakistan by Dave StamboulisKhan doesn’t worry too much about the political instability in Pakistan or the fundamental Taliban push from neighboring Afghanistan, as he figures the Kalasha have survived far worse throughout the hundreds of years they have inhabited the valleys around Chitral. He worries more about young people leaving for the cities to find employment, about dependency on western medicine instead of traditional remedies, and about overpopulation, a topic he is hot to teach in school. As he warmly jokes, “I have five kids, so it is too late for me, but I think that about three per couple for the future generations would be just right.”

I am amazed at the continuous warmth that the Kalasha show me in household after household. Even trekking over the steep 3000 meter Donson Pass to get from Rumbur to the neighboring Bumburet Valley I am constantly greeted with warm cries of “ishtapa baia,” the Kalasha words meaning “welcome brother.” Women out tending the goats invite my guide and me in for tea and rest, interested to know if we have news from neighboring valleys, as the vertical landscape and dangerous river crossings make regular travel between settlements a rigorous undertaking. I still have a hard time getting used to the fact that I can have free and open dialogue with the women, as in most of the rest of rural Pakistan, women are wrapped in burquas and not allowed to have conversations with strange men, let alone even look at them.

The freckles, green eyes, and blond and even red hair that I see on many children as I walk makes me forget I am in Asia and for all I know I could be in the countryside of Ireland or Scotland, but then one look around at the towering peaks and endless alpine ridges reminds me that I am in a landscape far more magnificent and on a much grander scale.

 

Pakistan by Dave StamboulisIn the Bumburet Valley, many of the villages have been heavily populated by Moslems, who now run guesthouses and shops for the Pakistani middle class, who make up the majority of the tourist trade these days. Chitral can be reached by airplane, and the Kalasha Valleys are then a short drive away, a welcome respite from the summer heat on the plains, not to mention that nobody seems to make a big secret about the mulberry and other local wines openly available for consumption in this dry country.

The Kalasha seem to have survived the visitations, invasions, and designs of just about anyone for a long time, and it seems likely that their genetic makeup just might guarantee them to outlast the most stubborn of intruders. And if that is not enough, then the giant mountain walls of the Karakorams and Hindu Kush will provide the rest.

 

Travel Tips:

From Islamabad and Peshawar, local flights go to Chitral, and there is land transport available from Peshawar on a daily basis. From Chitral, local vans go to the Kalasha Valleys of Bumburet, Rumbur, and Birir.

Accommodation: Hotels and Guesthouses to suit all budgets can be found in cities. In Chitral town, the PTDC (Pakistan Tourism Development Commission) Hotel (#412683) is one of the nicer options, the Chinar Inn (412582) is basic, clean, and welcoming, and the HinduKush Heights (413151) is a swank resort just out of town.

In the Rumbur Valley in Grom village, Engineer Khan runs the Kalasha Home Guesthouse (email: ingeneerk@yahoo.com).

 

 

 

 

 

Caravaggio – Bergamo Revisited – Airport Refugees

One of the side effects of the renaissance of budget air and cheap flights is that a number of small regional airports have become major hubs for carriers such as RyanAir and Wizz Airlines.

Bergamo airportSmall airports in places like Volos, Greece ; Orio, Italy, ; and Charleroi, Belgium weren’t designed with thousands of passengers passing through each day in mind. They are adapting, upgrading, and building the infrastructure.

Take Bergamo – actually Caravaggio Airport Bergamo Orio al Serio or as referred to by RyanAir – Milan/Bergamo. In fact it’s about 45 km from Milan about 4 km from Bergamo and actually sits in the small city of Orio al Serio. Last year this small airport served over 7 million passengers!

A funny thing happens because of the mis-labeling and the fact that this is a transport hub for RyanAir, WizzAir, and Pegasus which has flights to and from destinations all over Europe, the Balkans, and Turkey. Lots of people come to ‘Bergamo/Milan’ simply because it is where they can catch a flight to where they are really going. That’s why I was there in September. I wanted to fly from Barcelona (actually Girona) to Volos, Greece but there were no direct flights and the cheapest way to get there was to fly with RyanAir to Bergamo, wait 7 hours overnight, and then catch an early morning flight (again with Ryanair) to Greece. Since I arrived at nearly midnight and left at 7 a.m. it seemed silly to go all the way to Milan or Bergamo only to wake up after a couple of hours of sleep and take the bus or a taxi back – who needs the expense of a hotel room and a taxi for a few hours sleep…I decided to sleep in the airport.

And so did hundreds of other people who were catching flights to Romania, flights to Turkey, flights to Barcelona, flights to Paris, flights to Moscow, flights to Sofia etc etc etc –

There just aren’t that many seats or benches in the waiting area and they weren’t going to let us into the departure lounges before 5:30 am. So, it was like being at a protest or stuck at an airport during a storm or at some kind of hippie camp.

Around me were circles of strangers making friends and playing cards on the floor. Groups of girls sleeping in a circle on the ground while one stayed awake to guard their bags, older travelers walking around warily and eyeing everyone as if they were potential thieves, a guy with a guitar sitting outside strumming. Groups sat around with beers or bottles of wine while others found bare floor to curl up with their bags under their heads.The scene was completely surreal and certainly would have been looked on with approval by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, for whom the airport is named – especially since I noted a couple engaged in some serious hanky-panky under a sleeping bag in the alcove where his bust looks out over the airport party. Here’s my favorite blurb about Caravaggio from Wikipedia:

Airport renaissance

Caravaggio’s novelty was a radical naturalism that combined close physical observation with a dramatic, even theatrical, use of chiaroscuro. This came to be known as Tenebrism, the shift from light to dark with little intermediate value. He burst upon the Rome art scene in 1600 with the success of his first public commissions, the Martyrdom of Saint Matthew and Calling of Saint Matthew. Thereafter he never lacked commissions or patrons, yet he handled his success atrociously. He was jailed on several occasions, vandalized his own apartment, and ultimately had a death warrant issued for him by the Pope.

An early published notice on him, dating from 1604 and describing his lifestyle three years previously, tells how “after a fortnight’s work he will swagger about for a month or two with a sword at his side and a servant following him, from one ball-court to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or an argument, so that it is most awkward to get along with him.” In 1606 he killed a young man in a brawl and fled from Rome with a price on his head. He was involved in a brawl in Malta in 1608, and another in Naples in 1609, possibly a deliberate attempt on his life by unidentified enemies. This encounter left him severely injured. A year later, at the age of 38, he died of a fever in Porto Ercole, near Grosseto in Tuscany, while on his way to Rome to receive a pardon.

caravaggio

And then – when they opened the departure lounges and allowed us to start going through security, the sweepers came in, the cleaners mopped and suddenly it all seemed just like any other busy little regional airport.

 

Five Offbeat Destinations in Morocco

Azrou, MoroccoMorocco is one of the most photogenic countries on the planet. From the markets to the sahara there is never a lack of wonders worthy of a photograph. Here are five off-beat destinations that you may not have heard about but are worth your time. Don’t forget your camera.

Azrou. In the Middle Atlas mountains there are vast cedar forests that the Phoenicians used to build ships. The mountain town of Azrou is a picturesque village with a lively market on Tuesdays where the Berber tribes from the surrounding regions converge to sell blankets, rugs, and handicrafts. If you trek into the mountains, you will find Barbary Apes swinging in the cedars.

SefrouSefrou. Sefrou has been eclipsed by it’s neighbour Fez, but the old medina (walled town) of Sefrou is actually older and more manageable than that of Fez. Just 28 kilometres south. Sefrou is great for a day trip. The waterfall just outside of Sefrou is a cool destination on hot summer days.

Sale. The ancient pirates of Morocco were based in Sale and caused problems for Europeans for hundreds of years. This was the center for white-slavery and nefarious deeds. Today it is a relaxed seaside city where you can find delicious seafood and uncrowded beaches.

OuarzazateOuarzazate. Morocco is famous for the Sahara and most people miss out on visiting Ouarzazate, also called the Hollywood of Morocco. It was here that films like The Mummy, Lawrence of Arabia, Prince of Persia, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Gladiator were made. Most recently it has been a location for the very popular HBO series Game of Thrones. There are studio museums and ancient desert fortresses that have been well preserved by the dry desert air.

MarrakechMarrakech. Everyone has heard of Marrakech, but most people go there for the old medina, Jmma el Fna, or the ruins. It’s the new parts of Marrakech you don’t want to miss with red hot world fusion cuisine, great chefs, fabulous nightclubs, and an annual red carpet Film Festival that brings some of the biggest stars from around the world.

Monkeys, waterfalls, pirates, mummies, and movie stars – I’ll bet you had no idea Morocco could offer so much!

Six Hair Raising Caribbean Nature Adventures

Caribbean holidays feature many breathtaking destinations for vacationers to choose from. The crystal clear blue water, white sandy beaches, lush greenery, exotic food and engaging music is a fantastic backdrop against welcoming inhabitants. Below are some of the natural wonders we found to be the most intoxicating.

cc Image courtesy of Frank Peters on Flickr1. Jamaica – Dunn’s River Falls. With its awesome 600 foot waterfall, the stone steps lead into clear, blue waters. The cold water runs over stone steps to the warmer Caribbean waters below. Be careful though – the steps can be very slippery, as we found out after landing on our behinds. Guides may offer visitors interesting historical facts and stories. After we were lucky enough to reach the finish line we were rewarded with a breezy marketplace full of interesting local fare.

2.Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands – The Baths. Not to be confused with the Roman or Japanese type, the mysterious, gargantuan boulders invited us in along the edge of the water. The cavernous structures may either spook some visitors, however. We found a welcome respite in the tidal pools for a swim. Adventure seekers may also snorkel or dive. Best to wear a bathing suit to transition easily from land to sea.

cc image courtesy of Paul-W on Flickr3. Cayman Islands – Stingray City. Unlike the “Survivor” television show that failed in the UK, this adventure featuring relatively docile stingrays is sure to amaze (notice I said, “relatively docile”). If diving is your thing, you are in luck here. Divers can easily conquer the 12 foot plunge into refreshing, crystal blue waters. The less daredevil inclined can visit the shallow, or “kiddie” end of the “pool” at the Stingray City Sandbar.

4. Barbados – Harrison’s Cave. The largest cave of its kind in the region, this limestone monstrosity is at the end of a Disneyland-esque electric train ride. Along the way, we passed all manner of amazing spectacles such as a 40 foot waterfall and many underground streams and pools.

cc image courtesy of Neil Chatfield on Flickr5. La Soufriere, St. Lucia – Volcano. This volcanic island is truly one for the books . A beach holiday in St. Lucia is one thing but the volcano takes it to a whole new level. Visitors either drive their cars or take a tour vehicle as near as they dare. Then they trudge with a guide (if they are smart) through a fault. The over 5 acres of hissing, bubbling crater and sulfur smell is not for the faint of heart, however.

6. Puerto Rico – EL Yunque. I found that this magnificent 28,000 acre rainforest is best visited with an expert tour guide to meander through any one of its 13 hiking trails. If you’re lucky, you may see a green parrot (unlike us), unless they have gone completely extinct. But not to worry. We’re told there are well over 67 other birds to choose from. The plentiful flora, blooms, greens and over 240 tree species are also sure to wow anyone.

Running a Business While Traveling the World – Secrets of Digital Nomadism

Digital Nomadism

The internet has made it possible to work from any location. As a result, it’s now possible to run a business and travel the world at the same time. Of course, there are some difficulties that you may encounter along the way – here are just a few tips on how to run a business and travel the world successfully.

Establish clients before you start travelling

It’s not a good idea to launch a new business while travelling. Establishing clients before you start travelling can ensure that you will have an income. Ideally you don’t want to be struggling to get work as you travel – if you can build a reputation first, it could make it easier to attract customers so that you’re not having to spend as much time marketing. 

Invest in the right technology

A laptop and a smartphone are essential tools for working while you travel, but there are other gadgets that you can buy to make working while travelling easier. A portable charger could allow you to go longer periods without an accessible plug socket – which could be useful for working on flights or coaches or trains. You could also consider investing in a portable router to give you internet connection on the go. This guide at Travel Away lists a few more handy gadgets that could be worth considering. 

Use a virtual address

If you still need to receive business mail, you could consider opting for a virtual address as provided by a company such as Physical Address. This involves renting out a mailing address from another company. You have the option to then redirect your mail to wherever you are in the world or view it digitally.

Learn to work flexibly

You’re not going to be able to keep up a standard nine to five workday while travelling. If you’re crossing time zones and you have clients back home, you may find that you’re constantly having to work at different times to conduct meetings and ensure communication. It’s important to still plan ahead your work, but allow yourself to be flexible with your schedule. A flexible schedule could also help you to work around flight times or activities that you may have booked at specific times.

Travel slow

Be careful of planning out a fast-paced travel itinerary – you don’t want to be getting to each location, spending your whole time working and not getting to fully appreciate the local sights. By planning a few days in each location, you’ll have more time to explore. On top of working, you need time to adjust to each new location and you can only achieve this by taking things slowly.  

 

 

No Free Lunch in Montevideo, Uruguay – But This Tour is Free!

Story and Photos by Melissa Ruttanai

Free tours in UruguayCited as one of the “most livable cities” in South America, Montevideo in Uruguay is often an overlooked city. To many, Uruguay sounds familiar… Montevideo rings a bell somehow… But this seaside metropolis is an underrated gem jutting out into the Atlantic, worth a visit especially if you are in Buenos Aires. The city sits on a peninsula with ocean breezes, sweeping positive ions over cobbled streets and the meandering beach palisades called Las Ramblas. Everything centers around the Old City, or Ciudad Vieja, and for visitors new to Montevideo, the best way to learn about the history is on a free tour, given by Alberto Rodriguez of Ciudad Vieja Tours.

How to Get a Free Tour on Friday in Montevideo

Every Friday, free tours are held at 10 am and 3pm. No reservations are necessary unless you’d like to hire Alberto for a private tour on a specific day. My husband and I rented a small beach-side apartment in Montevideo’s Pocitos neighborhood. It’s roughly 5 km away from the city center but on the straightforward bus system, we navigated our way through the city without any problems. On Bus 116, we cut westward through town, along the water at some points. The bus dropped us off three blocks from the meeting point of the free tour: the gateway to the city.

 Although we were 15 minutes late, our guide Alberto waited by the stone archway, sipping mate in the morning sun. At 10 am, we were the only two travelers who’d met up for the tour. We couldn’t be happier. Alberto tailored the tour to our interests, waiting for us as we took pictures of stained glass windows and local artisans painting in the market. Two hours flew by.

 Highlights of the Tour in Ciudad Vieja

Montevideo, UruguayAlberto walked us through the old cobbled streets of Montevideo, explaining the architectural influences and the mysterious etchings in town believed to be Free Mason symbols. Great highlights included the Teatro Solis, El Pie de Murillo, and the sidewalk art. Alberto told us that the tour follows a general route past some of the most important sites in the Old City. But he prefers to customize each tour based on the group’s interests. Since we were the only two with him, we skipped around and spent more time in the places we liked.

About Our Montevideo Free Tour Guide

Alberto Rodiguez is a New Yorker, born and bred and educated at Tufts University where he studied Latin American History and Revolution. When he’s not leading tours, Alberto teaches English and studies for his degree in tourism. He’s married to a lovely Chilean, Veronica and together they have fallen in love with Montevideo. With all their dedication and hardwork, please remember to tip US$10-15 per person. It’s worth every penny. If you can’t make it to the free tour on Fridays you can book Alberto for paid tours on other days. Tell them Melissa and Neil say hi!

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