On Influence, and Using It Wisely

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This week, Forbes named me one of their Top 10 Travel Influencers of 2017. You can also read CNN Travel’s piece about it here.

I’m deeply honored. After working so hard for so long, it’s gratifying to receive this kind of recognition, and all the sweeter to receive it alongside several of my friends.

And it got me thinking about the strange and wonderful industry in which I’ve been ensconced for the past seven years: professional travel blogging.

For those of us who are long-timers, dating back to 2010 or previously, we didn’t get into travel blogging for the money. There was very little money back then; if you made any money in 2010, it was probably from text link sales or a teeny bit of Google AdSense. Hell, when I started, I thought the only way you could make money as a travel blogger was through a book or TV deal.

We got into travel blogging because we wanted to tell our stories. Some of us started writing for our friends and family; some of us dreamed of writing for a wide audience from the beginning. We wanted to share the world with people, and for North Americans, we wanted to introduce our fellow citizens to the almost-unheard-of concept of long-term travel.

Me? I wanted to help women travel the world safely.

Of course I wanted to entertain strangers with my writing (I started blogging as a college freshman in 2002!) and share all my favorite travel stories. And once the money started rolling in, I wanted to keep my travels going as long as possible.

But helping women travel the world safely? Showing them that yes, it’s okay if you want to travel the world, you can do it alone if you want, and you’re not selfish or a horrible person for wanting that in your life? That has always been what drives me. That’s the audience I’m writing to with every word, including this sentence.

We all wanted to help — all us long-timers. We wanted to show people how to travel on a budget. How to hack points and miles. How to travel as a family. How to visit countries that were perceived as being too dangerous. Basically, we all wanted to change commonly held misconceptions about travel.

As the years passed — 2010, 2011, 2012 — more and more money entered our fledging industry. Freelance writing opportunities cropped up. Groundbreaking blogger campaigns took place in Costa Brava, Spain, and Emilia-Romagna, Italy. Sponsored content became a thing. Affiliates were no longer just for people with sky-high traffic. Bloggers proudly announced they were giving up text links. And then the holy grail arrived — the paid press trip.

It’s around then that the industry changed. In the early years, there had been plenty of bloggers who hoped to subsidize their travels and get some cool stays at swanky resorts; by 2014 or so, people were starting travel blogs specifically for the money.

When money is your biggest motivator, it affects everything — your travels, your content, and the industry as a whole.

I worry about the impact of other influencers entering the travel space.

As far as the travel blogging niche goes, it’s not as big or flush with cash as fashion, beauty, or home blogging. There are lots of reasons for that, but one is that travel is not an impulse buy. You see a pretty dress, a cool lipstick, or a cute set of placemats and it’s easy to rationalize buying it.

But planning a trip, especially an international, expensive, or complicated trip, can take years. You don’t just hit a button and randomly book a safari in South Africa for next week.

Case in point? I learned about the Sydney Bridgeclimb on season 2 of The Amazing Race when I was 17 and yearned to do it someday. I finally did it when I was 29. Travel ROI takes time.

There is money in the travel blogging industry, but it’s nowhere near the level of money for fashion bloggers. Travel blogging’s perks, however, are unbeatable. And that’s why lots of lifestyle bloggers, primarily fashion bloggers, have started to rebrand and add travel as a specialty. This mostly takes the form of posing in luxury hotels and in front of natural wonders in various outfits.

Some are quite good. Gary Pepper in one of the pink lakes of Western Australia is one pictorial that has always stunned me.

But to consider these bloggers and Instagrammers as travel influencers could potentially be dangerous. Why? Picture this. A luxury hotel invites a fashion blogger to Cartagena, Colombia. She gets picked up at the airport by a chauffeur, does several photo shoots in and around the hotel, and has a great time exploring the old city but doesn’t set foot outside it.

Predictably, her followers start asking her, “Is it safe to go to Colombia?”

And she replies, “Sure, it’s totally fine!”

Well.

For starters, Cartagena is by far the most touristy part of Colombia and isn’t anything like the rest of the country; walking around the old city of Cartagena at night is very different from other neighborhoods like Getsemaní, where non-luxury travelers are more likely to stay; the language barrier in Colombia is significant and you’ll struggle without knowing Spanish; much of Colombia is at a high altitude, which can lead to illness in some people; certain parts of the country are unsafe for overland travel; and Colombia at its core is a destination better for experienced international travelers, not newbies.

Colombia can be traveled safely — but it’s a challenging destination, even for experienced travelers. And a fashion blogger who waltzes in for a few days and doesn’t leave the old city of Cartagena doesn’t have the knowledge to advise her followers how to travel in Colombia safely.

That person should not be a travel influencer. But with lots of Instagram followers and partnerships with several gorgeous resorts across the globe, this person could be considered a top travel influencer. Even though she posed in the street with a designer handbag that didn’t zip up and are you kidding, this is Latin America, your wallet is going to be gone in ten seconds if you use that purse.

I worry that this is where the industry is going.

It’s time to stop ignoring politics.

One phrase you see frequently amongst popular influencers is, “I’m not a political person.”

Frankly, that’s bullshit. Are you breathing air in your lungs? Do you earn money and exchange it for goods and services? Do you cross borders and enter other nations? If so, your very existence is political.

I urge you to strike I’m not a political person from your vocabulary and replace it with one of the following options:

  1. I don’t care about people who aren’t as privileged as me.
  2. I do care about other people, but I’m afraid I’ll lose followers if I write about politics.

Boom. Honesty.

I’ve started writing more political content in the last year and a half or so. The ethics of attending a travel blogging conference funded by Robert Mugabe’s government. How to travel the world as an American without being embarrassed about Trump. Being the only white person to call out a racist travel blogger. Ways to travel more sustainablyThe overbearing whiteness of the wine tourism industry in Stellenbosch, South Africa. And in the aftermath of the 2016 election, why remote workers leaving the US can do more harm than good.

I started writing content like this because I wanted to go deeper. So much of the travel blogging industry had become increasingly shallow, the rise of Instagram no doubt being a factor, and I needed to plunge back in and bring something more meaningful to the table.

Did I lose followers? I sure did! Mostly people who called me unrepeatable names and told me I’d regret it when Trump’s army rose up. Which…yeah, I’ll let that speak for itself. But it wasn’t enough to derail my business. I also gained a lot of new followers at the same time.

Do you have to do the same thing? You don’t have to. But at the very least, you should take a look at your content with a critical eye and think about the greater political context in your travels.

One example is North Korea. I personally think there’s no way to travel to North Korea ethically at this point in time. And yet several top travel influencers have visited North Korea, often as a sponsored guest of a tour company.

Of the influencers who chose to visit, some of them did a ton of research beforehand, analyzed their options, and determined that visiting North Korea would do more good than harm (in the form of exposing North Koreans to outsiders, however briefly). While I disagree with their conclusions, I appreciate that they thought critically about this issue and did what they thought was ethical and right.

Others chose not to think critically at all. They ignore North Korea’s human rights violations and get hypnotized by the chance to visit North! Korea! And for free, too! and return with content about how awesome the trip was, and how North Koreans seemed happy, without examining any of the deeper issues.

But you know what’s worst of all? When people in the latter group come back and say they’re not going to discuss politics because they’re not a political person! Come on. You don’t get to have it both ways. All the videos of waving North Korean schoolchildren can’t make up for that.

People will always disagree on what is and isn’t ethical and on where people should and shouldn’t travel. Some will refuse to visit the U.A.E., Russia, or even the United States for ethical reasons. All I ask is that you do careful research, own your decision, and don’t let the allure of a comped trip or bragging rights cloud your judgement.

We can all do better as influencers — so let’s try to do better.

Nobody is going to be perfect. But all of us could stand to do a little bit better. Here are some ways:

Consider your purpose. Why are you blogging? What sets you on fire? Be honest with yourself.

If your reason is So I can continue my travels for as long as possible, I urge you to rethink your purpose. Even if it’s To inspire others to travel, I urge you to think a little deeper and see if you can come up with something that benefits others more than yourself.

Think beyond your personal experience. Did you manage a whole trip without getting robbed? Is that because you visited somewhere super safe like Japan or Iceland, or because you’ve had years of practicing travel safety to the point that you don’t even think about it anymore?

Not everyone is going to be as experienced a traveler as you, so share your knowledge. Put yourselves in the shoes of a less experienced traveler going through this for the first time. Your ultimate goal should be to do no harm.

Acknowledge that travel is not only for the most privileged. If you’re a straight, cis, white, able-bodied, English-speaking traveler with a first-world passport, you’ve won the global lottery. Travel is going to be much easier for you than literally anyone else in the world. Acknowledge that.

Talk to travelers of color, queer travelers, disabled travelers, Muslim travelers who wear hijabs. Read their blogs and share their narratives. The Philippines and India both have tons of excellent travel bloggers, along with eye-opening stories of jumping through legal and financial hoops in order to visit destinations you take for granted, like the EU.

Use your voice to amplify their voices as well.

Consider the impact that you have on the destinations you visit. Are you putting money into the local community or making a chain CEO richer? Are you causing harm to the environment or animals? Are you actually interacting with the people of your destination in a meaningful way or just using them for Instagram props?

Just doing a bit of research can make all the difference. Aim for sustainability — economically, environmentally, socially. When you’re an influencer, your actions are magnified by the travelers who follow in your footsteps.

Read as much as humanly possible. It always amazes me how many travel bloggers say they don’t read other travel blogs. How else are you supposed to stay up on the industry? But don’t limit your reading to just travel blogs. Read literature — fiction, nonfiction, travel-related and non-travel-related. Read the news from a wide variety of sources and stay up on issues of the world.

At the very least, reading will make you more knowledgeable and compassionate and turn you into a better writer.

Aim, always, to help people. And that is how you use influence wisely.

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In Odessa, Romance and Grandeur

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Several years ago, I was in Paris and perusing the books at Shakespeare and Company. As I lost myself in the colorful aisles, I came across a modest paperback: Moonlight in Odessa by Janet Skeslian Charles.

I was intrigued by this city I knew so little about, and after reading the back of the book, I decided to buy it. And while I liked the idea of the plot, about a twenty-something woman who tries to carve out a life for herself in Odessa and starts working part time at a mail-order bride company, it was the description of the city that won me over.

Odessa: a place where the streets were lined with candy-colored buildings, where people had conversations about classical music and art and literature, where cooking for friends and family was the greatest way to express your love, where women wore sky-high heels with miniskirts and clattered down the street. From that point on, I knew I had to visit.

Just as Bloodline brought me to the Florida Keys, it was Moonlight in Odessa that brought me to Odessa.

Did Odessa live up to my expectations? It went far and beyond. I fell madly in love with Odessa from the moment I arrived, and it’s one of my favorite destinations in years.

I arrived in Odessa on a bus from Chisinau, Moldova. After a quick stop at an ATM, I jumped in a taxi, agreed on a price that was likely far too much, and whirled down the pastel streets.

I was dumbfounded. I knew it would be beautiful, but how could Odessa be this beautiful?

I went out for a stroll with my camera and soon learned that Odessa is cheap. Ukraine is cheap overall. I knew it wouldn’t be too expensive, but I was shocked at just how low the prices were. Until this trip, I thought Albania and Macedonia had the cheapest prices in Europe; I soon realized Ukraine had them beat.

When Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea a few years ago (or as Russian loyalists would say, they took back what was rightfully theirs), Ukraine’s currency took a significant hit. What was already cheap became even more so.

Some examples of prices? I would regularly have a multi-course meal with wine for about $8.

A latte in a fancy cafe would cost around 95 cents.

The most expensive tickets at the opera? Around $10.

My boutique hotel room that would run for at least $250 if it were in New York? $42.

But on that note, there’s nothing to be worried about in terms of Russia and safety. There is no violence or military presence in Odessa. You wouldn’t know anything was happening.

You can’t travel to Crimea overland from Ukraine, and while Ukrainians now need a special permit in order to enter, non-Ukrainians can visit at their will. Flights from Moscow to Crimea are now considered domestic.

Today Odessa is just as safe as any other European city.

 

When I heard there was a bakery called Make My Cake, I had to stop by — there’s a Make My Cake in Harlem (and they make some of the absolute best cupcakes in the city, so if you’re in New York, you should come visit). Rather than cupcakes, though, this place was all about macarons.

Including black truffle macarons.

It sounds crazy, but trust me — they were amazing. Who knew that black truffles tasted so delicious with a bit of sugar? And each macaron cost less than a dollar, because why would you ever pay more than that in Ukraine?

On the more traditional end, I tried my first Ukrainian food at a restaurant called Kumanets. If you look for traditional food in Odessa, that’s the first restaurant that pops up, and you should go. It’s touristy as hell, with servers in traditional Ukrainian costumes, but the food is delicious and they have a lot of traditional Odessa dishes.

If you’re going to get the vareniki, or dumplings, get them with cabbage. Those are most traditional.

I also got my first taste of borscht — a new addiction that I would order nearly every day I was in Ukraine.

The next day, I met my guide Olga from JayWay Travel for a walking tour of Odessa with some food stops along the way.

I don’t often do private tours — it’s usually a group tour, a solo wander, or nothing — but I learned so much about Odessa from Olga that I was nearly bereft at how much I would have missed without her.

For starters, Odessa has been home to a multi-ethnic population for centuries. And if you’re Jewish and of Russian descent, chances are high that your family came from Odessa. Jewish culture is strong here to this day: I asked Olga what a traditional Odessa dish would be, and she replied, “Gefilte fish.”

Beyond the Jews, Odessa is home to Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Poles, Bulgarians, and of course Russians. All of these ethnicities melding together have made for some wild history — and some very interesting and surprisingly Mediterranean-influenced cuisine.

I had expected Odessa to be full of six foot tall blonde women, but it wasn’t like that at all. People were shorter, darker, and heavier than you might expect.

How amazing is this heart? I’m not a fan of love locks in general because they weaken bridges, destroy the look of architecture, and at this point, they’re such a cliché.

But Odessa has figured out the perfect solution. Instead of a bridge, they have a heart sculpture designated specifically for love locks. This way you can lock a symbol of your love to an icon in the city without destroying a bridge in the process!

Every city needs to do this.

Odessa is famous for its courtyards, Olga told me. She took me into several of them and pointed out wells that dated back generations, the only places where you could get fresh water in the city. Today many of them had old cars.

I loved this tiny house and its plants, just sitting in the middle of the courtyard!

And some courtyards are home to elegant restaurants.

The Potemkin Steps are one of the symbols of Odessa. The steps are actually an optical illusion — they’re much wider at the bottom than they are at the top. This was meant to give the appearance of a much larger staircase and intimidate any wayward sailor who found himself in the city!

The steps were actually under construction during my visit, but I was able to get this photo across the street from them.

There were happy yellow buses…

Teenagers out with their friends…

Poles covered in urgent advertisements…

Red brick houses topped with yellow…

Proud Ukrainians marching in the streets…

Outdoor restaurants with gauze-covered tents…

Indoor arcades lined in Baroque sculptures…

And picture-perfect street cafes.

I was so in love with Odessa. My heart swelled with every step I took.

And then a rogue hailstorm hit! I’ve never seen hail that big or loud in my life!

Roughly the size of canned hams, am I right?

Afterward I couldn’t believe that the walking street completely flooded! It was fine a few hours later, though.

Checking out the Catacombs

Also worth seeing are the catacombs. But unlike Paris and Rome, the catacombs are not filled with bones.

Here in Odessa, they were home to the resistance against the Nazis during World War II. The resistance lived down here, plotted and fought. People would stay underground for months at a time.

At one point, there were seven children living in the catacombs. This was their classroom.

Yes, that’s literal cave art about Hitler. This image is of a Nazi coming back injured. Translation: you’re losing the war!

The catacombs were also where Olga handled a mansplainer with aplomb. As we were waiting to go in, a tall hefty man in a navy blue pinstripe suit (with a royal purple pinstripe shirt…what?) said something to her in Ukrainian. She smiled weakly and ignored him. He then said a second thing to her, then a third. From the expression on her face I knew she was dealing with a mansplainer.

“What did he say to you?” I asked once we were inside.

“Oh, he said, ‘You can’t go in there, it’s locked.’ Then he said, ‘It’s too early for you to buy your tickets, they don’t have money.’ Then he said, ‘You’re not allowed to go in there.’ And I said, ‘I’m here five days a week,’ and walked in.” Of course. He didn’t believe she could possibly be a guide; he assumed he knew more than she did.

I sympathized with Olga and told her my own experience: on my flight from Bucharest to Chisinau, the man next to me kept explaining to me what happens when you fly on a small plane. I had given him the same weak smile while thinking, “I fly for a living, pal.

No matter how far you travel, some things stay the same.

The Takeaway

Odessa brought me so much joy. I felt so light and happy the whole time I was there, almost laughing for no reason. And as a result, I’m worried that this blog post didn’t convey enough information about Odessa itself. Does it make you actually want to visit? Or am I just a crazy lady distracted by pretty things that made her happy?

This shy balloon seller made me happy.

This orange bicycle made me happy.

This little pink car made me happy.

These little yellow chairs made me so happy.

Odessa, you were pure joy to me. Thank you for bringing such a big smile to my face.

Essential Info: In Ukraine I was a guest of JayWay Travel, a boutique Central and Eastern European travel company, for a custom itinerary they built for me with hotels, transfers, and tours. They do custom trips so whatever you’re looking for, reach out to them. It was so nice to not have to worry about transfers, and I was grateful that Olga went into the airport with me and found out where I was to depart (one terminal is currently under construction) — with the language barrier, I never would have been able to do that on my own. Contact them directly for tours or other bookings.

I stayed at the Hotel Milano, a brand new boutique hotel ideally located close to the walking street. I highly recommend it — it was extremely comfortable and modern, the staff were very helpful and spoke English well (a bit rare in Ukraine) and for $42 per night, it was a steal. (Olga pointed out that it’s a much louder neighborhood during the summer.) You can see more hotels in Odessa here.

There is a significant language barrier in Ukraine, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I feared. In central Odessa lots of people in restaurants and hotels speak a bit of English. I do recommend learning Cyrillic, which is pretty easy to do. It will make your life so much easier when you can read what’s in front of you, as many words are similar to English.

I visited Odessa in May, which was the perfect time. Odessa is a beach city and gets crazy in the summer months — which means it gets crowded, there are lots of late night parties with loud music, and older foreign men swarm the city searching for wives.

Moonlight in Odessa is out of print, but you can still get it for Kindle or secondhand.

Don’t visit Odessa without travel insurance. Whether you get appendicitis and need to be hospitalized, or your phone gets stolen, or an injury means you need to cancel all or part of your trip, travel insurance will help you out. I use and recommend World Nomads as travel insurance for trips to Ukraine.

Many thanks to JayWay Travel for hosting me throughout Ukraine. They paid for my hotels, airport transfers, and tours; I paid for flights, meals, and everything else. All opinions, as always, are my own.

Have you been to Odessa? Does it look like your kind of city?

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Six Ways to Travel More Sustainably

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The following branded content post is brought to you by AIG Travel Guard. When I was asked to co-host AIG’s solo and sustainable Twitter chat and write about sustainable travel here, I was all too glad to participate. I hope to see you at the chat on Friday!

We could all stand to do better when it comes to traveling sustainably. There’s more to it than choosing a green hotel and turning off the water when you brush your teeth.

Sustainability, at its core, is about making as positive an impact in your travels as possible. That means making compassionate decisions about where to spend your money, how to protect the environment, and how to interact with locals in order to leave the destination just as good or better condition than how we found it.

How can we make the most positive impact as a traveler? Here are some tips.

Support small businesses whenever you can.

On almost every occasion, you can eschew chains in favor of choosing a small local business. When you do this, you’re ensuing that the money goes into the pockets of local entrepreneurs, not CEOs who really don’t need a fifth vacation home.

Additionally, take time to support as many small businesses as possible, particularly when it comes to dining and shopping. You might find the most amazing textile shop on your travels and want to buy something for everyone in your family — and while that’s wonderful for the people who work in the textile shop, it’s less than ideal when you could be buying things from several different shops.

Educate yourself on local sustainability issues before your trip.

If you do any amount of research before your trip, don’t just look up the cool restaurants and hipster neighborhoods — also read about local issues and how they might affect your trip.

You might not be aware that there’s a drought in your destination, for example, and that water needs to be conserved even more closely than usual. If there’s significant unemployment, that might add to an increased amount of homelessness.

One of the biggest examples of this is elephant riding in various Asian countries. Elephant rides, no matter where they are done or what kind of place it is, are a form of animal cruelty. There is no way to train an elephant to give rides without abusing them, and no place that offers elephant rides should be financially supported.

One of the best things travel bloggers have ever done is create mass awareness about the cruelty of elephant rides. Because of their efforts, hundreds if not thousands of travelers have avoided elephant rides since.

Travel sustainably when possible.

In an ideal world, nobody would fly, ever. But if that were the case, few people would travel, ever. While flying is often unavoidable, there are ways to reduce your environmental impact.

Consider taking direct flights rather than indirect flights when you can. Consider contributing to a carbon offset program, of which new ones seems to spring up on a regular basis.

And once you arrive in your destination, stick to public transportation, rent a bike, take shared taxis, or walk whenever you can. If you’re driving, choose a hybrid vehicle if possible.

Eat locally and within the seasons.

It’s funny how things change over time. Having the finest tuna flown in from Japan used to be the hallmark of fine dining — nowadays, people are more interested in the basil that grows in the restaurant’s rooftop garden.

Local and seasonal dining used to be the only way to dine — and it’s nice that this year many restaurants are taking seasonality seriously even when you can get any food at any time of year. Focus on eating things like asparagus in the spring, tomatoes in the summer, squash in the fall, and root vegetables in the winter.

Another great way? Visit a farmer’s market! This way you’ll be eating locally, staying within the seasons, and supporting local farmers.

 

Plan to donate a set amount of money to a local charity.

Before you arrive, consider making a donation to a local charity. You may want to donate to a local food bank, school, animal shelter, or a local NGO. Chances are you’ll come across one in your travels or hear about one from someone you meet.

If you can’t find anything during your trip, local charities are easy to find online afterward.

Donating an amount of money you can afford is a kind way to ensure that your visit has a positive impact on the local community.

Talk to people — but also listen.

The easiest way to create cross-cultural understanding is to talk to locals whenever you can. Don’t use them as window dressing or Instagram props — make conversation.

Learn a few words of the local language — “hello,” “thank you,” and “delicious” are three good words to start with. And if there’s no language barrier and it turns into a longer conversation, continue the exchange — talk about your own life as well. Don’t seek to interrogate; seek to exchange and understand.

Join me in a Solo and Sustainable Twitter Chat on Friday, June 16 at 2:00 PM EDT!

I will be co-hosting a Twitter chat on solo and sustainable travel with AIG Travel Guard and Cassie De Pecol, who recently broke the Guinness Book of World Records for the fastest person and fastest female to travel to all 196 sovereign nations.

Join us for fun travel conversation — and the chance to win prizes, including a $100 gift card and a basket of travel gear curated by Cassie.

Date: Friday, June 16

Time: 2:00-3:00 PM EDT

Hashtag: #WhereNext on Twitter

Prizes: $100 gift card (three winners) or basket of travel gear curated by Cassie (Grand Prize)

RSVP: Please RSVP here in order to be eligible to win.

You can see the full list of rules here.

Note: you must RSVP to the chat in order to be able to win! RSVP here.

See you there on Friday, June 16, at 2:00-3:00 PM ET!

What steps do you take to be sustainable while traveling?

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Bucharest is Fabulous and Fun

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There are a number of countries where it’s recommended to arrive in the capital city and then get out as soon as possible.

The Philippines? Yeah, I’d get on board with that. I find Manila vile, but the rest of the country is lovely.

Nicaragua? Agreed. Managua has nothing to offer — you’re best off skipping town and heading to nearby Granada.

But what about Romania? Well, lots of travelers treat Bucharest, Romania’s capital, the same way, only passing through briefly before heading to the towns of Transylvania. But they really shouldn’t do that.

And this is where I raise my hand and admit that I’m guilty, too. Back in 2013, I found cheap flights from Istanbul to Skopje and, two weeks later, from Bucharest to Dubai, so I planned a big Macedonia-Kosovo-Bulgaria trip and only planned to arrive in Bucharest the night before my flight.

So what did I do on that first trip to Bucharest? I arrived off the train ride from hell, took a shower, got some pizza, slept in a dorm, and shared a taxi to the airport the next day. Not exactly hardcore tourism.

For years, I hated the fact that I counted Romania as a visited country but hadn’t done anything of value in Bucharest. But then I got a perfect opportunity to make up for that.

#ExperienceBucharest: A New Kind of Travel Influencer Campaign

Earlier this spring, my friend Monica told me about a new campaign taking place in May: #ExperienceBucharest. Several bloggers would be invited to a conference and event to show off the city.

Now, this was different than other blog trips. Most of the time, a PR agency rakes in the big bucks while the bloggers, the people who create the actual content, are undercompensated. In this circumstance, however, #ExperienceBucharest was put together by a team of volunteers who work in the travel industry in Bucharest.

This major campaign was put together by volunteers. They worked their asses off and made no money doing it — they just wanted to share Bucharest with the world and get more people to travel here.

They did it for love of their city.

When I heard that, I knew I wanted to be part of this campaign. And not only because it would give me a chance to visit some new Eastern European countries. I really enjoy trying to find the nicer places in less-appreciated cities like Colombo and Johannesburg.

So did this trip pay off? Did it ever.

Bucharest is an awesome city.

Bucharest is like Berlin. Alternative and gritty with epic nightlife.

Bucharest is like Paris. Grand and elegant and pulsating with style.

Bucharest is like Budapest. Weathered and proud and cultured.

And on top of that, Bucharest is a very affordable European city, it’s well-connected in terms of flights, the food is delicious, and the people are absolutely lovely.

I found the defining aspect of Bucharest to be its look — so many beautiful and elegant buildings, only they were interspersed with ugly communist architecture and covered in graffiti. At one point, I turned to my friend and said, “Bucharest feels like Paris if they neglected themselves.”

I don’t mean that as an insult — just an observation. I saw pictures of Bucharest from the late 19th century and it looked just like Paris. Maybe they didn’t prioritize their beauty; maybe it was simply bad luck and having to prioritize safety over beauty in times of upheaval.

But that look isn’t everything.

Bucharest has alleys that turn into elegant arcades.

Bucharest has traditional restaurants with stained glass.

Bucharest knows how to peekaboo.

Bucharest has murals all over the place.

Bucharest hides cheese in its tomato soup.

Bucharest is very gray.

But Bucharest can be gold, too.

Cafe Culture

Like elsewhere in Central Europe, Bucharest is all about the cafes. You go in the morning or afternoon for coffee, and by nightfall, people have switched to beer and wine.

One that I loved in particular is a little place called Artichoke Coffee Shop. It’s got plants perched on spiral staircases, water served in gin bottles, chunky chocolate chip cookies, and smooth flat whites that transport you straight to Australia. In other words, it’s Instagrammable as hell but with the delicious goods to back it up.

Greenery Everywhere

Bucharest is covered with parks — something that I didn’t expect in an Eastern European city. But Bucharest is actually one of the greenest cities in Europe.

I went to see Mogosoaia Palace on the outskirts of the city. It’s actually a pretty small palace, so don’t devote a whole day to it, but it’s a really nice place to stroll around and experience the greenery of the city.

May happened to be an excellent time to visit — I’ve never seen so many irises in bloom in my life!

Rooftop Bars

If you feel like drinking on a rooftop in Bucharest, you’re in luck: Pura Vida Sky Bar has excellent views in the heart of the Old Town. The cocktails are fabulous, too.

Yeah, you’ll have to walk up five flights of stairs, but trust me, it’s worth it.

The nightlife in Bucharest is pretty insane — Romanians like to party hard. Do yourself a favor and stay away from the bars catering to British stag dos and instead head up to Pura Vida for an Aperol spritz or some blue wine.

Want something crazier? Head to the Player Club to dance all night long with Romanians dressed to the nines.

Seeing Bucharest Through the Eyes of the Homeless

One activity in Bucharest that interested me the most was the Outcast Bucharest Tour from Urban Adventures, which is led by a guide who was once homeless in Bucharest.

Our guide Sergiu, dark and thin and in his late twenties, lived on the streets of Bucharest for years. He was an addict. He lost many loved ones to drugs. He did everything he could to survive. And eventually an NGO helped him climb out of homelessness and build a life for himself. Today he lives in an apartment and has a job.

A lot of poverty-focused tours, like slum tours and visits to impoverished villages, can venture into exploitative territory, but this one does everything the right way. It treats the homeless with dignity and respect, it’s not remotely voyeuristic, it creates jobs for the formerly homeless, and all net proceeds go to the Parada Foundation, a local NGO that gets children off the streets.

Sergiu’s story moved me deeply, and I’m so grateful that he’s getting his life together.

If you want to have an unforgettable experience in Bucharest, please go on this tour. You’ll never forget it.

The World’s Largest Collection of Irons

I love a few quirks in a city, and the best one I found in Bucharest was at the Museum of Romanian Records. They are home to the world’s largest collection of irons.

Yes. Irons.

I love crazy things like this — the weirder, the better. There are more irons there than you have ever seen in your life (well, I guess by being the world’s largest collection, that’s kind of obvious) — just when you think you’ve seen them all, they keep on going!

  

Get your mind out of the gutter. Those torpedo-shaped irons are for shaping collars and hats.

The Loveliest Chill-Out Spot in Town

On my final night in Bucharest, we had a going-away party at Podstel/Ceainaria 5, a combination hostel, tea house, and community meeting space. I had the most wonderful time here, and if you’re visiting Bucharest, you need to drop by.

I spent my time getting to know the owners and not only are they awesome people, but they were so smart in creating a hostel that ticks all the boxes. Not only did they optimize the (beautiful and modern) hostel itself, it was also important to them to have community.

So they have donation-based group dinners once a week. They have board game nights. Local musicians perform. There are yoga classes and all kinds of workshops. If you’re looking to meet people while traveling in Bucharest, I can’t imagine a better place to come than here.

In an age where hostels have gone from social gathering spots to places where people sit with their faces in their phones, it’s nice that Podstel is trying to bring back the community part of backpacking.

I think Podstel was my favorite place I discovered in Bucharest. So if you want to stay at a hostel, I encourage you to stay there. If you’re not into hostels, at least drop by for some tea (they have dozens of varieties) and a chance to hang out in that comfy outdoor room. Tell the guys that I say hi!

The Takeaway

I had such a nice time in Bucharest — an even better time than I was expecting.

I also feel like I didn’t see a fraction of what the city had to offer. Several of my friends arrived earlier and stayed later and got to take in a lot more — racecar driving, architecture photo hunts, communism tours, dance parties, dinners where a whole lamb was roasted on a spit.

A lot of people skip Bucharest in favor of other Romanian destinations, but now that I’ve experienced it, I hope that more people get the chance to explore Bucharest. If the rumblings are true, perhaps some of us will be back for an #ExperienceRomania trip next!

Essential Info: In Bucharest I stayed at the Radisson Blu. I absolutely loved this hotel, its design its luxurious touches, and the business areas. It’s also in a central location near the Old Town. If you’re looking for something on the luxury end but still surprisingly affordable, this is a great choice. Rates from 89 EUR ($100 USD). Just know that they put a hold of 89 EUR per night on your card until you check out — that’s the most I’ve ever had held by a hotel and it gave me a brief heart attack when I saw nearly $500 withdrawn on my bank statement!

You can find more hotels in Bucharest here.

Rates at Podstel start at 12 EUR ($14) per night. Thanks to Podstel for letting me use their photos of their property in this post.

The Outcast Bucharest Tour from Urban Adventures costs $47.38 per person.

Don’t visit Bucharest without travel insurance. Whether you get appendicitis and need to be hospitalized, or your phone gets stolen, or an injury means you need to cancel all or part of your trip, travel insurance will help you out. I use and recommend World Nomads as travel insurance for trips to Romania.

Many thanks to the #ExperienceBucharest team for hosting me in Bucharest. They covered my flights to Bucharest, accommodation, tours, and most meals and drinks. All opinions, as always, are my own.

Have you been to Bucharest? What did you think?

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AK Monthly Recap: May 2017

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This month I returned to my roots — I took a nice juicy solo trip to some countries I hadn’t visited before. Man, that always feels great. I took long walks. I photographed everything in sight. I drank lots of coffees in lots of cool cafes. Absolute bliss.

Since settling down in New York last year, I’ve been surprised at how much I’ve struggled with my identity. When you earn your salary based on your personality and then you make a major shift in lifestyle, on top of going from a moderate cost of living to a high cost of living, it can be quite disorienting. But after a year and a few months, I’m finding myself more relaxed.

Now, I think I’m getting pretty close to where I want to be — one week away per month, or two weeks away every two months, plus an occasional weekend trip thrown in. And the rest of the time I get to hang out in fabulous New York City. That feels right to me now.

Destinations Visited

New York, NY

Bucharest, Romania

Chisinau, Moldova

Odessa, Kiev, Chernobyl, and Pripyat, Ukraine

Favorite Destination

Odessa. Far and away. I’ve been dreaming of visiting Odessa for so long, and it didn’t disappoint me in the slightest.

Highlights

Bucharest was a lot of fun. I visited for the #ExperienceBucharest campaign, designed by volunteer tourism professionals to promote Bucharest to an international audience. Everyone was so passionate about sharing their hometown with us!

And I discovered a fabulous city. It felt a lot like Berlin in that the strangest little cafes and restaurants were hiding behind innocuous looking doors, but it also had a grandeur reminiscent of Paris. I loved getting to know the people of Bucharest, from formerly homeless tour guides to artists and entrepreneurs to the expats who had made Bucharest their home. It’s a special city. And while many Romania tourists skip Bucharest, you really shouldn’t.

At the conference portion of the event, I spoke on a panel about visual storytelling and didn’t mince words: “I am so sick of travel bloggers posting a million acro-yoga photos.” (Seriously, bloggers…no offense to my friends who are really into acro, but I hate looking at tons of photos of you balanced on the hairy legs of some random dude in short-shorts. Plus, doesn’t taking tons of photos of yourself doing yoga kind of defeat the mental benefits of doing yoga in the first place?)

Ukraine was awesome. Man, did I love that country! I had plans to visit Odessa, Kiev, and Chernobyl, and I partnered last-minute with JayWay Travel, a boutique Central and Eastern European travel company, for a custom itinerary they built for me with hotels, transfers, and tours throughout the country.

There is so much beauty and pride in Ukraine — a sharp contrast from Moldova. And it is by far the cheapest European country I’ve visited. Much cheaper than Albania and Macedonia! Think 95-cent lattes in fancy cafes and two-course meals with both wine and water for $8.

Odessa was my favorite spot, with its elegant streets and pastel colors, but I also really liked Kiev (especially the parts without Soviet architecture).

Chernobyl was unforgettable. It’s so hard to find the words to describe visiting the location of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986. (Yes, it’s safe to visit today. It’s the equivalent of staying in Kiev plus eating two and a half bananas. There’s radiation in everything.) It’s a site of great tragedy, but it’s also moving to see a town left frozen in time, as well as the effect of nature reclaiming a whole settlement.

Learning Cyrillic. I did learn a bit when I traveled to Macedonia and Bulgaria back in 2013, but I had forgotten most of it. This time in Ukraine, I jumped in and worked hard — and it paid off. There’s nothing more rewarding than sounding out a word and recognizing it. Once, I yelled out, “Oh! Sushi Bar!”

Some strange and lovely New York adventures. Like finally making it to Punderdrome, a monthly pun competition in Brooklyn. About a dozen people, some of them professional comedians, get up on stage and out-pun each other until there’s only one winner remaining. I loved it!

And, um, I ventured to HUMP!, Dan Savage’s independent sex-positive pornographic short film festival. If you ever feel like you’ve seen everything…that festival will assure you that nope, you haven’t.

I also made an appearance at Smorgasburg, a weekend food festival in Brooklyn, for the first time in forever. If you visit New York on a weekend, you should try to attend — they have tons of delicious and unique food offerings. It’s not a cheap outing, but it’s lots of fun!

Making lots of new friends — and connecting with two people in particular. I usually keep to myself when traveling solo, so that’s a bit of a novelty for me. And on this trip I met two different people — one in Bucharest, one in Kiev — with whom I connected in a deep, unfiltered way. The kind of connection you can only have with a stranger. It’s crazy to feel like someone can hold your soul in their hand for a few minutes.

Challenges

Moldova was a bit of a bust. After a few hours of walking around Chisinau, I felt like I had made a huge mistake choosing to spend three nights there. Over time, I found a few cool businesses and developed a bit of affection for the city, but I feel no need to return to Moldova and wouldn’t recommend Chisinau to the vast majority of travelers.

I wanted to see more of Moldova — Cricova Winery and Orhei Vechei — but Cricova wasn’t doing wine tastings (and what’s the point of visiting a winery without tastings? The visit is the boring part!) and the minibuses ran on a schedule that would have left me in the middle of nowhere for hours. I would have hired a driver, but I couldn’t find a professional and as a solo woman, I would only hire a professional, not some random dude wanting to make a few bucks.

By that time, I was just exhausted and didn’t even feel like venturing to Transnistria.

Illness in Bucharest. Conferences are a hotbed of germs to begin with, particularly when you combine it with party nights and lack of sleep. I usually get sick a few days after a conference, but this time it hit me earlier. Probably because everyone was sick. When it’s that bad, you know it’s a matter of time before you get sick, too.

Yet another far-longer-than-necessary journey home. It wasn’t quite as bad as my 48-hour Broome-Perth-overnight-Singapore-London-long layover-Boston journey last fall (which I am NEVER REPEATING), but my Kiev-Bucharest-overnight-Amsterdam-New York journey was 24 hours long. It pained me when I realized that I could have flown nonstop from Kiev to New York in just 10 hours, but alas, circumstances brought me elsewhere.

The older I get, the less I can tolerate those long journeys. I need to keep that in mind.

The Raindrop Cake is a lie! New York’s Raindrop Cake, a clear gelatinous half-sphere became an Instagram star a few months ago, and when I saw it at Smorgasburg, I wanted to give it a try. Well, it wasn’t anything great. It didn’t look THAT good, and it tasted like plain sugar-flavored gelatin.

Honestly, this was the most “the emperor has no clothes” trend I’ve found since moving to New York. And the fact that it cost $8 added insult to injury. Skip this one and walk to Ample Hills for ice cream instead.

And I dealt with a stye. I don’t get styes very often, but if you’ve had one, you know how unpleasant they are. They hurt, your face looks like you’re having a stroke, and you may need to throw your eye makeup away. A few days of tea bag compresses and baby shampoo washings got rid of it. Though several people told me that the best cure for a stye is URINE!

Most Popular Post

25 Things I Learned the Hard Way While Traveling — 25 mistakes I’ve made in 25 countries, some to hilarious effect, while on the road!

Other Posts

The First Step to Quitting Your Job to Travel — The best resource toward starting to work online, The Paradise Pack, is only available one week per year and that week is NOW. Check it out — ASAP.

TBEX Zimbabwe: An Unethical and Irresponsible Choice — TBEX, the largest travel blogging conference, is taking money from Robert Mugabe’s murderous regime in Zimbabwe in exchange for promoting the country.

Things to Do in Stellenbosch: A Guide to South Africa’s Wine Region — The absolute best way to wind down a busy trip to South Africa is to spend a few days lounging and wine-tasting in Stellenbosch.

Scenes from Košice, Slovakia — I loved this little Slovakian town and got some colorful pictures!

The Art of the Chilled Out Trip to Paris — Paris is so much better without a solid itinerary.

Most Popular Instagram Photo

Want likes? Post the Eiffel Tower. Pretty simple. I actually posted this photo to celebrate the election of Emmanuel Macron in France.

For more live updates in real time, you can follow me on Instagram (@adventurouskate) and Snapchat (also @adventurouskate).

Fitness Update

I’m officially in the worst fitness rut I’ve been in since the beginning of the year. I’ve just gotten lazy and I need to pick things up again.

I was so determined to work out throughout my Eastern Europe trip, but it didn’t happen. As a result, when I had my first zumba/training combo day after my trip, I was PAINFULLY sore for the next three days.

The good news? My trainer asked if I could keep my weight steady while away, and I actually kept it exactly the same, despite consuming tons of dumplings and wine. That’s something.

This month I also took the “Dance!” class at Equinox. The description said it could be from any genre of dance and I hoped it would be hip-hop…no. It was jazz. A jazz routine. I felt like I was back in high school drama class. Yeah, that one I won’t be repeating. I didn’t even break a sweat!

I’ll get back in there. I need to.

I’m also thinking about expanding to a global Equinox membership. It doesn’t make the most sense, since I live in Harlem and all the gyms are south of me, but it might be worth it to take classes with my favorite instructors on a more regular basis…

What I Read This Month

I’m up to 28 books read so far this year — I’m now officially more than halfway through the 52-book 2017 PopSugar Book Challenge! I had actually hoped to have read six to eight books this month rather than just five, but I’m working on a few others and will get there.

Also, I keep meaning to read literature from the country I’m visiting, but of course I spent two weeks in Eastern Europe and only read books set in Oklahoma, Florida, and Kansas. Go figure.

Losing My Virginity: How I Survived, Had Fun, and Made a Fortune Doing Business My Way by Richard Branson (updated 2011 edition) — I knew “a book that’s mentioned in another book” would be a challenging category — somehow, I could only think of the books that were mentioned throughout the Baby-Sitters Club series (Little Women and Baby Island?). But when I read You Are a Badass by Jen Sincero earlier this year, she had a list of recommended books and said that while you should always read books by people you admire, Richard Branson’s memoir was her absolute favorite. I was sold!

And what a thrilling ride this book was! It’s an in-depth account of Branson’s wild journey as an entrepreneur, as well as his adventures through love, life, and record-breaking. And I found it fascinating to see how he sees the world and makes decisions. He is just so optimistic and willing to jump into anything that seems fun, without even putting that much thought into it. I was also surprised to hear that Virgin had very little cash on hand until the mid-1990s, when they won a huge settlement from British Airways. (Consequently, I never want to fly BA again. They spied on Richard Branson and his family!!)

The best memoirs are ones that either show a major transformation or bare the soul of the writer. This book falls more into the latter category, and it’s absolutely worth it. Category: a book that’s mentioned in another book.

Nyssa Glass and the House of Mirrors by H.L. Burke (2016) — You know, I’ve made an effort to read a good book in every category, even the ones that aren’t really my thing, but when it came time to read a steampunk novel, I just wanted to get through one quickly. So I found the Nyssa Glass series: a set of mysteries about a teenage girl who solves mysteries in Victorian times while aided by cutting-edge steam technology. Steampunk has always made me roll my eyes a bit, but I’m sure it can be done well in the hands of a skilled author.

And this book? Just a quickie Young Adult book that wasn’t that compelling. I think younger readers might get more out of it. Category: a steampunk novel.

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann (2017) — I chose this book from Book of the Month because it’s one of the hottest nonfiction releases of the year and it tells a fascinating story forgotten by history. In the 1920s, the Osage Indians of Oklahoma were the richest people per capita in the world because there was oil on their land and the rights couldn’t be sold, only inherited through family. Then dozens of Osage began dying unexpectedly — some from illness, some from gunshots. Eventually the newly formed FBI discovered a mass conspiracy to murder as many Osage as possible.

In addition to learning about this heartbreaking and forgotten chapter of history, I found it fascinating to see how Native Americans were treated by white people and how it differed from other races. It was common for Native Americans and white people to marry, and rather than being segregated, the attitude was more, “They need to assimilate and start doing things our way.” Like other forms of racism, it never ended — it just changed form. Also, I was very interested in the FBI parts and think I might want to read a biography of J. Edgar Hoover next. Category: a book recommended by a librarian. (PS — Library Reads is a great resource to find books recommended by librarians.)

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937) — I had been meaning to read this book forever, along with more Harlem Renaissance authors, and when I saw it in a used bookstore near my gym, I snapped it up. In this novel, taking place in Florida not too long after Emancipation, a teenage girl named Janie yearns to fall in love — but she feels nothing for her first husband and runs off with a second, controlling husband. Then finally, as a 40-year-old widow, she meets a handsome 25-year-old and falls in love for the first time.

I love a good romance, and this delivered. But more than that, this book was about Florida, its stickiness and humidity, and its fledgling all-black communities created in the years post-slavery. And the only thing I love more than a good romance is a good ending — not necessarily a happy or sad ending, but an ending you’ll never forget. This falls into that category. Category: a book you got at a used bookstore.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1965) — This was my book club’s pick for the month, and I was glad to read a book that I’ve always heard about. Truman Capote invented the nonfiction novel! It’s because of him that one of my favorite books, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, exists today! At the time of publication, it was unheard of for a nonfiction book to be written in the literary style of fiction.

In 1959, four members of a family were murdered on their farm in Kansas. There were no clues and no motive — but eventually an unlikely source led to the case cracking open. Capote tells the story of the murder from the points of view of the victims, the perpetrators, and the local community.

The writing is captivating but something felt wrong to me — it felt so voyeuristic. These people died, and there was no reason for their deaths. (It’s the same reason why I don’t listen to murder podcasts, despite their popularity — it feels cruel to me to geek out over the deaths of people.) But I appreciated it as a piece of literature. I also enjoyed that my hometown of Reading, Massachusetts, made a most unexpected appearance near the end of the book. Category: a book with an eccentric character.

What I Watched This Month

Master of None, Season Two. This show means so much to me and I’m glad it’s finally back after a year and a half. Not only is it the show I relate to the most, it somehow hits me straight in the feels and brings me nearly to tears, even when it’s not that sad. HOW DOES IT DO THAT? Do they have a blueprint of my brain?!

And then it was like Season Two was even more precisely tailored to me:

–They had a performance by my favorite singer, John Legend.

–They cast my favorite celebrity crush, Bobby Cannavale (yeah, I say it’s The Rock, but it’s really Bobby Cannavale) playing an Anthony Bourdain-like role and it’s the hottest he’s ever looked onscreen.

–They filmed in two of my favorite small towns in Italy: Modena in Emilia-Romagna and Pienza in Tuscany.

–They had a discussion about the Italian word allora that was pretty much lifted from my time living in Italy — I had no idea what it meant, but somehow I always knew when to say it!

–There was an homage to my favorite American quirk: giant pharmacies. Which is one thing I talk about all the time — I always LOVE returning to giant American pharmacies when I come home from my travels! They have everything you could possibly need!

At any rate, it was such a lovely season and I highly recommend you watch. It’s tough, though — Netflix hit us hard this month with new seasons of House of Cards, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and Bloodline simultaneously…

Image: Jon Roberts

Coming Up in June 2017

After having a big trip in May, I’m taking it easier in June with only two short trips scheduled. First, I’m heading home to Massachusetts for my dad’s (milestone!) birthday at the beginning of the month.

And later in the month, I’m visiting Asheville, North Carolina, for the first time ever! I’ve wanted to visit this mountainside city for so long, but I was hesitant to visit North Carolina while HB2 (a.k.a. the bathroom law) was in place. The law has since been repealed by the new Democratic governor, so I feel comfortable going now. (Many LGBT advocates think that the repeal doesn’t go far enough. I agree with them. But I also know that political progress is most effective when it’s incremental and the repeal is a necessary step in gaining full equality for LGBT citizens in North Carolina.)

North Carolina is actually a new state for me — my final state to visit on the East Coast! And I’ve been working with Asheville to create a responsible and ethical itinerary that’s heavy on outdoorsy pursuits and features small local businesses. I’m really excited about it.

Any suggestions for Asheville? Let me know!

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The First Step To Quitting Your Job to Travel

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Soontreya Resort Koh Lanta

I remember back when I was one of few travel bloggers making a full-time living online. Those days are long gone.

It’s different now. Simply put, it’s become a lot easier and there are a lot more opportunities out there, so many more people are making a full-time living. And that goes way beyond the travel blogging industry — it’s never been easier to make money online.

Earning a living online, never having to go into work again, having the freedom to travel year-round, and being your boss — that’s the dream for a lot of people.

But travel blogging is not the only way. In fact, I’d discourage 99% of people against it. Travel blogging is a very tough nut to crack, it requires a lot of time and effort, and most people don’t have the writing and photography skills for it.

And being a professional Instagrammer? Well, honestly, that’s extremely difficult to do unless you’re young, thin, conventionally attractive, and, let’s face it — white and blonde. It’s hard enough if you have all those characteristics; if you don’t fit that mold, you’re going to have a much more difficult time.

But there are other ways to quit your job and travel.

There’s writing books, creating products, starting companies, becoming a coach. And for many people, it can earn them enough money to quit their jobs.

What if you’re not sure what you want to do yet? What if you are interested in multiple ideas — maybe you like the idea of freelancing, maybe you’d like to start a business — but don’t want to drop a ton of money on just one specific course in case it’s not right for you? Where do you even begin?

Enter the Paradise Pack.

The Paradise Pack

Introducing 2017’s Paradise Pack

The Paradise Pack is a collection of digital resources and guides that will teach you how to make money online so you can travel the world. They are sold together at more than 90% off.

Want to start your own business? Want to become a freelancer in your field, or even a new field? Want to build a blog and turn it into a business? The Paradise Pack will help you do those things.

Want to earn free flights from travel hacking? Want to teach English online? The Paradise Pack will help you do those things, too.

The products altogether cost more than $2600 — here, they’re available in a bundle for just $197

The Paradise Pack is only available for one week each year, and the products change every year, so this will be your only chance to get this exact pack.

Today is day one. I’m posting this today because people who buy by midnight tonight will receive a bonus: a workshop on how to make the most of the pack.

The Paradise Pack sale ends on Monday, June 5.

And now some questions:

Haven’t I seen this before?

I’ve promoted the Paradise Pack twice before, in 2015 and 2016 — but it’s a completely different collection every year. There are occasional repeat products, but for the most part they’re new offerings.

The guys behind the Paradise Pack, Jason and Travis, make efforts to put together an excellent, original collection each year. I’ve tried out some similar packs geared around making money online, and I think the Paradise Pack consistently has the best collection on the web.

Previous years’ packs have been fantastic — which you certainly noticed. More than 100 Adventurous Kate readers have purchased the pack!

Do you make a commission on it?

Yes, I make a commission. Regular people like me make 30% from sales. Authors of the products in the pack earn more, however — they make 50% from sales.

Someone makes a commission on every pack sold, no matter what. There are no discounted packs. So no matter how you buy it, a commission will go to somebody.

Do what I do — buy it through the blog of someone whose work you enjoy.

Is it worth the $197 price?

Absolutely. For all that you save and earn as a result of this package, from free flights to business income, it would be worth it if it cost triple. Quadruple. Quintuple.

$197 is a lot of money. I get that. If it’s too much for you, it’s too much. But if you actually put in the effort with these products, you will earn it back several times over. I promise you that.

Is there anything else I should know?

Yes. 10% of sales will to two charities: Pencils of Promise, a charity that builds schools for children in developing countries, and Travel Access Project, a charity that funds scholarships for travel and education.

So far the Paradise Pack has raised more than $50,000, enough to build two schools in Guatemala! Pencils of Promise is a rare charity that puts 100% of its online donations directly toward their programs.

The Paradise Pack

Paradise Pack Products That Are Especially Worth It

Every year, there are a few standout products in the Paradise Pack. Here’s what I think are the most valuable:

Zero To Your First $10K by Brian Lofrumento (value: $497)

Why? Because every beginner needs some extra help getting started.

No matter who you are or what kind of business you want to start, this course will guide you through earning your first $10,000.

This product targets people at the beginning of their journey, so whether you’re starting to make money online for the first time or moving into a new industry, it will help you find your way through launching a brand new product or service.

The Social Media Rockstar Academy by Ka Sundance (value: $299)

Why? Because a big audience translates into more money.

As much as I hate when the words “rock star” are presented as one, this course is valuable in that it shows you how to build an enormous social media following in a very fast time frame, as well as creating videos that showcase your product or services. The bigger base audience you have, the more money you can make passively.

Frequent Flyer Masterclass by Travis Sherry (value: $147)

Why? Because everyone wants to fly for free.

Getting free flights is one of my readers’ most frequent requests. This course will teach you how to hack the frequent flying system and get free flights, even business class flights, all over the world. With the Frequent Flyer Masterclass, learn how to travel anywhere in the world for less than a hundred bucks using frequent flyer miles.

Cruise Ship Jobs 101 by Amanda Hathorn-Geary (value: $147)

Why? Because working on cruise ships is one of the most surprisingly fun and lucrative ways to see the world while getting paid.

And if you want to find a way to work a cool job, save a ton of cash, and have months-long breaks, working on a cruise ship is a great way to go about it. This book while show you the ins and outs of getting hired for one of these gigs. It’s not a sustainable-for-the-rest-of-your-life kind of gig, but it can be a lot of fun for a few months or years, especially if you use it to start a nest egg for future travels.

The Paradise Pack

Other Included Products

Here are the other products included in the pack:

Rock Your Systems by Natalie Sisson (value: $69)

“How can you find more free time while still growing your business? Hint: It’s SYSTEMS. Put systems in place in your business in under a week using the power trio of Asana, Google Drive, & Slack. Get sh*t done so you can spend your time doing whatever else makes you happy.”

Easy Language Hacking Guide by Benny Lewis (value: $269)

“Discover the fast and easy way to learn 6 popular languages with these easy language hacking guides. You’ll learn tricks that show you where to focus your efforts for quick results in language learning. Plus, Benny is throwing in a live Q&A so you can ask all your language questions.”

A Better Life for Half the Price by Tim Leffel (value: $49)

“If you’d like to upgrade your life without giving up everything you like to do, lowering your cost of living may just be a matter of changing your address. You’ll get the ebook, special reports, and a three-part video series to help you choose the best destination for you!”

Virtual Assistant Foundation by Danielle Greason (value: $197)

“Become skilled in four core digital marketing support services to get started as a virtual assistant or freelancer right away. Learn Danielle’s in-depth client workflow processes and follow steps to landing your very first paying client.”

Become a Super Learner by Jonathan Levi (value: $147)

“We’ve all experienced the frustration of an ever-growing reading list, struggling to learn a new language, or forgetting things you learned in even your favorite subjects. This course is about hacking your learning, reading, and memory skills, improving your ability to learn new skills or information quickly and effectively.”

House Sitting and Travel Lifestyle Summit by Nat and Jodie (value: $97)

“Get all the inspiration, advice, and actionable steps you need to start house sitting and traveling the world with free accommodation. Learn actionable strategies from those already doing it — over 60 world-class house sitters!”

I Kinda Wanna Be a Coach! by Jacob Sokol (value: $197)

“In this virtual conference, Jacob Sokol and 27 other world-class coaches and business experts share the most important tools, mindsets, and strategies they wish they had known about when they first started. Includes audio, video and pdf versions. Get started becoming a great coach with a booming business!”

Freelance Writing Guide by Dave Lee (value: $197)

“Writing about travel in a way that transports, inspires, entertains, and teaches is easier said than done. Discover and develop your style of storytelling! In addition, you’ll have access to a private Facebook group to ask questions, get feedback on writing assignments, and connect with others taking the course.”

FYI, this course is a division of my beloved Travel Blog Success. Like all of the courses, the Facebook group is worth the cost of the course alone!

21 Days to Discover Your Passion by Chelsea Dinsmore (value: $97)

“Feeling uninspired? Have no clue what you’re passionate about? Break through with Passion Discovery Actions to help you build your mindset, create congruence, define your change, and set up rituals for success. Build massive momentum toward doing work you love in just 21 days.”

The Complete Guide to Starting a Lifestyle Business by Sean Ogle (value: $47)

“Sean’s a true pro who has had success with multiple types of lifestyle businesses. In this guide, he shares everything you need to create a business that gives you the freedom and flexibility to do what you want.”

The 30-Day Money Cleanse by Caroline Makepeace (value: $97)

“This six-week online program will help you improve your relationship with money (and create more of it!). Move from limitation and lack of money to confidence, comfort and security about where it’s coming from, how to value and treat it, and where to spend it (i.e. on things you love!).”

Teach ESL Online by Rose Breuer (value: $37)

“Ever thought about teaching ESL online? This ebook is for you! Learn how to start and run an online teaching business, how to make great lesson plans in less time, and much more. Includes recorded lessons with real ESL students and an exclusive Q&A video with Rose.”

Sweet Ass Journal to Develop Your Happiness Muscle in 100 Days by Heath Armstrong (value: $39)

“Create a personal foundation full of habits and strategies in alignment with your dreams. Build the foundation you need to smash resistance and build your freedom empire.”

Family Freedom: A Guide To Becoming a Location Independent Family (value: $27)

“Want to have more freedom with your whole family? Learn how to make money on the road, what to do about insurance, mail, etc., and options for schooling the kids! This guidebook shows you: it’s doable.”

Branding Masterclass by Tommo and Megs (value: $97)

“Follow an actionable system to create or improve a niche brand that will really stand out. Test your brand ideas for profit potential and assess your monetization options. Define your perfect target customer. Find your direction: complete your personalized blog brand business plan.”

 

Heart Centered Sales Systems by Emily Utter

“Rock your sales without feeling salesy! Be an expert with this collection of word-for-word scripts, trainings, and a cheat sheet for overcoming common buyer objections. Quickly add tens of thousands of dollars in sales to their bottom line.”

BONUS PRODUCT

There is one bonus available for those who buy on the first day:

Mastering the Paradise Pack Worship by Jason and Travis

“We’re offering a special bonus for action takers! Get the Paradise Pack before Tuesday, May 30 at 11:59pm, and you’ll be invited to a special Mastering the Paradise Pack workshop. Get your specific questions answered and walk through the best ways to use the Paradise Pack in this interactive workshop!”

The Paradise Pack

But does it actually work?

Will these resources help you build a life like mine with the ability to travel full-time? They only will if you make the effort. Nothing in life is free; if it were easy, everyone would be doing it by now. So be prepared to study, and work, and build.

And be ready to make mistakes. God knows I made about a million of them in building my business. The important thing is that I never stopped working on my business, even when times got hard.

Still on the fence? Read about the Paradise Pack here and see if it’s for you.

And if you’re ready to go?

Get the Paradise Pack here for $197.

And with that, I’ll see you on the road.

Please note that affiliate links are used in this post. If you purchase the Paradise Pack, I will receive a commission at no extra cost to you. By purchasing items through my affiliate links, you’ll help ireuce the ever-increasing expenses of running this site. Plus…the payment for this one comes in two days before my birthday, so think of it as giving me a little present while getting yourself something much better? Thanks!  :-)

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25 Things I Learned the Hard Way While Traveling

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One thing is true about travel — we learn a lot of lessons along the way. And many of those lessons are the result of making major mistakes on the road.

Not blogging errors. Not life errors. Just good old-fashioned travel errors.

I thought it might be nice to share them with you. 25 mistakes from 25 different countries. Just so the same things don’t happen to you.

China: Don’t fly through smaller Chinese cities.

Man, I thought I was so smart for getting that flight deal: just $400 from Dubai to Tokyo. It was on China Eastern Airlines and required stopovers in Kunming and Shanghai. But it was technically an all-the-way-through flight, so it wouldn’t be a big deal. Right?

Not so much. First of all, even if it is the same flight, you need to go through immigration, which in China is complicated if you’re using domestic flights for an international journey.

But the real trouble began when the flight from Kunming to Shanghai was canceled. The passengers were nearly revolting, yelling and banging the tables.

Had I been in Shanghai, or Beijing, or Hong Kong, I would have been able to find someone who could speak English and would reroute me quickly. In Kunming, a city almost the size of New York, almost nobody spoke a word of English and those who said they spoke English didn’t have much of a grasp of the language.

Getting rebooked onto a later flight to Shanghai took hours. I would show the English-speaking man my tickets to Shanghai and Tokyo, he would nod, walk away, and come back and do it all over again as if he had never seen them before. It was an utter nightmare.

When I finally arrived in Shanghai, an airline employee welcomed me in perfect British English. I nearly burst into tears in relief. I had to spend an overnight there, but the airport was filled with shockingly friendly and helpful employees.

I’m going to avoid flying through small Chinese cities for the rest of my days.

France: Always carry spare toilet paper in your purse.

Because if you don’t, that’s when your period will strike with a vengeance. Thank God you had some receipts in your purse.

Indonesia: Don’t stay in a hotel next door to a mosque.

Unless you like waking up at 4:30 every morning, that is.

Poland: Overpacking will bite you in the ass at the worst possible time.

I was only in Warsaw for one day, so I decided to stay by the train station. It was a brilliant idea, I thought — I wouldn’t have to walk too far and I could easily grab my 6:00 AM train to Berlin the next morning.

Until I realized that even though I was only a few blocks from the train station, there are no crosswalks in that part of Warsaw. There are underpasses instead. And no elevators or ramps. So you need to go down and up, down and up, down and up, down and up while holding your giant, heavy suitcase. Because this was a conference trip and I had overpacked a lot of my fancier duds.

After all those steep staircases, I was sweaty and exhausted. Then it got worse: I couldn’t find the guesthouse I had booked. I burst into tears, then looked across the street and saw the letters NOVOTEL.

I want to go to there.

Down one more flight. Up one more. The hotel was right there. And it wasn’t too expensive.

“Do you have any rooms available?” I asked politely at the front desk. I felt like a secret agent. I always book in advance; I had never said that phrase at a nice hotel in my life.

Argentina: Always use a purse that zips.

It was my first solo trip ever, to Buenos Aires in 2008, and it was one of the worst things that’s ever happened to me while traveling. I used a big, open purse from H&M as I went to visit Recoleta Cemetery. It didn’t zip; it barely closed.

Of course my wallet was snatched.

And that wasn’t all. I wasn’t as cautious a traveler as I am now — so the wallet was filled with literally all the money and cards I had. All I had left was my passport. If a nearby couple hadn’t taken pity on me and given me a ride, I don’t know how I would have gotten back to the hostel.

It was 2008 and the internet wasn’t as widespread as it is now. But I was able to get American Express to wire money to a Western Union that would accept my passport as identification.

Looking back, I’m horrified that I went through an experience like that on my first solo trip. But at least it didn’t put me off solo travel forever. I had an ulterior motive for Buenos Aires — how I handled this trip would show me whether or not I should plan a long-term solo trip. I survived and thrived, and soon I was on my first long-term trip to Asia, all by myself.

Austria: People really like to be naked.

It was just after my first-ever travel blogging conference and my friends and I were chilling out in the hotel’s sauna after a swim in the pool. And then a middle-aged man walked into the sauna, stark naked, swaying in the breeze. “Grüß Gott!” he sang out.

Grüß Gott,” we murmured back. We quickly exchanged a glance. And without another word, we all got up in unison and left that poor man alone in the sauna.

Liechtenstein: If there’s an early morning knock, someone will be naked.

I kept hearing incessant knocking at my hotel in Vaduz, the diminutive capital of Liechtenstein. It was 6:00 AM. Eventually I got up and opened the door, only seeing a completely naked man knocking on another door.

He looked at me. I slammed the door.

Germany: Double-lock your door because YOU’LL be naked.

It was just after midnight in Nuremberg and I suddenly heard my door opening. “No!” I gasped as the door swung open and a befuddled thirty-something man walked in.

“Oh — sorry. They gave me this room,” he said.

“Get out!” I rasped.

I wasn’t naked. I was nearly naked. And some dude had caught a glimpse of me in my undies.

That’s the reason you’re supposed to double-lock your door.

Jordan: Your guide is not going to leave you in the desert.

My wonderful tour guide, Ibrahim, told me that one of his favorite things to do was just sit by himself in Wadi Rum and enjoy the solitude. It was his favorite place. “I want you to have this experience, too,” he told me.

They dropped me off. I tried to relax. And yet I couldn’t. Were they really not going to leave me?

I pretended to chill out while keeping an eye on the Jeep. Were they really not going to leave me?

I sat and pretended to meditate while keeping the Jeep in my peripheral vision. Were they really not going to leave me?

Of course they didn’t leave me. I ran back to the Jeep fairly quickly. But I really wish I had taken Ibrahim seriously and took the time to feel the desert around me.

Denmark: Late at night it will seem like a great idea to take a ride on a meat cart. It is not.

Well, it was fun for about ten seconds before I fell off and slammed straight into the curb.

Sri Lanka: Keep your debit cards in different places.

I travel with two debit cards, and I usually keep the spare hidden in my luggage. That’s smart. But Sri Lankan ATMs were weird and sometimes they wouldn’t accept my main debit card, so I started keeping them both in my wallet.

Then came the fateful train ride from Hikkaduwa to Colombo. It was bad enough getting my ass grabbed by one rando (though that was probably the fastest I’ve ever reacted — “Hey, motherfucker! Do not touch me. Do not touch me ever”). Then when it was time to get off, the crowd swelled so tightly I had to fight my way off the train.

My wallet was stolen in the fray. Along with both debit cards.

Once again, Amex saved the day. They let me withdraw money at ATMs with my credit card until I got home.

Costa Rica: High season doesn’t always mean good weather.

I had made the last flight out of JFK before they shut down the airport for the biggest snowstorm of the year. Yet somehow I thought Costa Rica would be sunny and warm. Nope! There’s a reason why they call it the rainforest!

It poured buckets the whole time I was in La Fortuna. Then it mostly misted throughout my time in Monteverde.

Finally, I broke through the clouds and landed on the beach in Guanacaste. The sun was out and glorious. Finally, I understood the Pura Vida everyone was talking about.

Sometimes, even when it’s supposed to be the sunniest time of year, you can have shit luck in the weather department. Just be ready for that.

Philippines: It’s neither funny nor entertaining to stay in a “love hotel.”

It was a cheap hotel in a central-seeming neighborhood, and it had decent reviews.

The mattress was covered with a rubber protector and there were no windows.

One guy checked in with two girls.

Yeah. Nope. Not my thing.

Maybe if it had been one of the cool fairy-tale themed ones in Korea or Japan. This one was just sleazy.

Colombia: Altitude will kick the crap out of you.

I hadn’t traveled much in altitude before I arrived in Colombia. And while people said that altitude can knock you sideways, I thought I was immune — I felt fine!

I was hiking through the Valle de Cocora and met some girls from Bogotá. As the three of us walked on, suddenly the ever-so-slightly uphill road felt like I was scaling Everest. My lungs burned; my legs ached.

“I’m fine,” I told them, trying to hang onto my pride.

“Are you sure? Do you want to keep going?”

“Yes! I’m fine!” I had to make it around the corner to the next viewpoint.

Finally, I gave up — I felt bad that I was slowing them down. Bogotá is at a much higher elevation. For them, this was a respite.

Yes, altitude can certainly hit you hard, even if you feel completely healthy otherwise.

Turkey: When getting a massage from a large-chested woman, face away from her boobs.

One of my most famous adventures was when I visited a hammam in Istanbul for the first time, was massaged by a lady with giant swinging breasts, and took one directly to the face. I’ll never forget the “Oop!” that came out her moth. You can read the whole thing here.

Portugal: Don’t stay in a hostel with only one toilet.

There were only two cheap hostels to choose from in Évora. I chose the one that looked slightly better.

It wasn’t a good choice. My intuition had been pinging like crazy since I had arrived. Something was off about this owner. I was concerned about the lack of lockers; the owner told me I had nothing to worry about because the other hostel guest was “from a good family.”

Then late at night, I was ready to go to bed…and the owner was in the one and only bathroom.

I waited downstairs. He kept using the bathroom.

I got out my Kindle. He was still in there.

Finally, he came out of the bathroom after half an hour, newspaper in hand. “Oh,” he said, seeing me there. “Yeah,” I replied.

Finland: Don’t bring beer into the sauna.

Sauna time in Finland is a sacred ritual. I first got to experience it at the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival, where my media status got me into a musicians’ party in the woods. First the women would sauna and skinny-dip in a warm lake underneath a pink midnight sky, then the men would have their turn.

I brought my beer into the sauna.

You’re not supposed to do that.

I wrapped a towel around me in the sauna.

You’re not supposed to do that, either.

The women were nice. They didn’t scold me or even point it out gently. But I knew as soon as I stepped inside that I had made a grave error.

England: When Brits say, “You all right?” They’re not asking if something’s wrong.

I’m embarrassed how long it took me to realize this.

“You all right?” is the equivalent of “How are you?” in Britain.

Even after six months of living in the UK, I was still saying, “Yeah, why?” to everyone who asked me that.

South Korea: If Koreans give you mayonnaise noodles, it’s for a reason.

There’s not much that I won’t eat, but mayonnaise is one of those things. With very rare exceptions, I can’t stomach the stuff.

Then while in Seoul, I sat down to a barbecue dinner of super-spicy octopus. I put it in my lettuce wrap with the garlic and vegetables and accoutrements, ignoring the evil mayonnaise noodles.

Soon I was writhing in pain from the spicy octopus. And I’m a girl who likes spicy food ordinarily.

I didn’t make the connection until later. Those noodles were there to cut the spiciness. If I had just eaten them like a normal person, I wouldn’t have made an emergency 7-11 run for an ice cream sandwich and a yogurt.

Spain: Even meaningless Tinder travel dates can be duds.

It was supposed to be the Summer of Kate. A summer of rocking out all over Europe, going wherever the wind blew me, wearing cute dresses, and dancing all night long. So when I landed in Barcelona, I decided to try and get a date on Tinder. It didn’t take long. I found a nice Venezuelan guy.

It wouldn’t matter if this guy wasn’t a good fit for me, I told myself. I’m only here for a few days! Not to mention staying in a dorm room…

I put on my cute turquoise-and-white dress and met the guy. And for the next two hours, we walked along the beach and he did not stop talking about himself the entire time.

God, I thought. I left my blogger friends for this?

Eventually I tried to make a casual exit. He instead put his arm around me. I pulled away, yelping, “No, I’m too shy!” “Well, you need to get over your shyness!” he replied. “That’s okay, I should go!” I said.

Not my finest moment.

Thailand: Monkeys are intelligent little fuckers.

Monkeys terrify me. When I went to the Monkey Forest in Bali, I painstakingly examined my backpack to make sure there were no residual Oreo crumbs. And it worked — none of them jumped on me. Perhaps they could smell my fear and gave me a break.

But then I got to Railay, a beach in Thailand with a not insignificant monkey population. I had watched Railay grow more environmentally impacted from 2010 to 2014 to 2015 and one thing I didn’t realize was that the monkeys got wiser.

I had bought chips and Oreos from the store and carried them in the white plastic bag the store gave me. Well, the monkeys saw that white plastic bag and KNEW something delicious was inside. One ran up to me and grabbed the bag. I shrieked and let it go. He climbed to the top of the tree WITH my chips AND Oreos and proceeded to eat them all, mocking me from above.

Little fucker.

Norway: That burger and coffee will cost you $29.

Granted, it was a reindeer burger and a cappuccino — but reindeer is like the beef of Norway! It’s everywhere! It’s abundant! It should not cost $24! No wonder Norwegians go to Stockholm and booze it up like a backpacker in Cambodia. Stockholm is Norway’s Phnom Penh.

South Africa: When people say it’s a short walk, estimate that it will be three times longer.

When the hostel guys invite you to come walk back along the beach with them, you and your friend agree. It should only be twenty minutes. And yes, you’ve just consumed two beers at the nearby brewery, but you can hold your bladder for that long.

Well. That’s how you end up in the brush, holding onto a hanging tree branch and peeing in the dark, terrified that a creature will sneak up behind you and bite you on the ass.

It was 50 minutes into a 20-minute walk.

Bulgaria: Don’t take the train to save money if it’s much worse than the bus.

I had a Eurail pass with just one train ride left on it, and I needed to get from Veliko Tarnovo to Bucharest by the end of the day. It was July. The countryside was baking with heat. I decided to take the train instead of the bus, even though the locals told me the bus was faster. Why not? It was “free”!

That train was one of the worst travel experiences of my life. It was at least 110 degrees inside (43 C). The bathroom was putrid. The seats were uncomfortable and the air wasn’t moving. I burst into tears and sobbed for an hour, ending up in a ball of sweat and tears and snot.

A thunderstorm hit a few hours in and I leaned out the window, letting the rain fall upon my skin.

The bus would have been so much better.

In Cambodia: You look stupid in hippie pants.

Seriously, Kate. You are going to look back and cringe.

What lessons did you learn the hard way while traveling?

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Things to Do in Stellenbosch: A Guide to South Africa’s Wine Region

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South Africa is one of my top five favorite countries — but it’s easily my #1 favorite wine country in the world. The wines here are extraordinary, shockingly affordable, and they have tastes that I don’t experience in any other country.

I don’t know what it is about South African wines. I’m more of a red wine fan in general, and love me some Pinotage, but South Africa’s whites are magical — they have warm, vanilla-y notes that enthrall me. No other whites are like that.

If you want to go wine tasting in South Africa, many people spend a day in Constantia or one of the suburbs immediately outside Cape Town. But if you want to do South African wine country right, spend a few days in Stellenbosch.

Introducing Stellenbosch

Stellenbosch is a university town about an hour outside Cape Town. It’s one of the oldest towns in South Africa and it’s populated primarily by Afrikaners (Afrikaans-speaking people of Dutch descent). And it is world renowned for its wines!

Stellenbosch has a population of roughly 100,000, which makes it a great size for wandering. The downtown area is home to several top-notch hotels, restaurants, cafes, and shops. And because of the university, it has a laid-back, youthful atmosphere.

The #1 Reason Why You Should Spend a Few Days in Stellenbosch

Because South Africa is an exhausting destination and you’ll need a break.

Don’t get me wrong — I adore this country fiercely and whole-heartedly. But South Africa takes a lot out of you. You need to be much more cautious about safety, and not only in the cities (see my South Africa safety guide here). Going on safari is awesome, but game drives require pre-dawn wakeup calls and you may be out in the harsh sun or freezing cold for hours, often both on the same day. And if you’re diving into culture, much of South Africa’s recent history is painful and heavy, especially if you visit lots of Apartheid-centric sights.

In short, give yourself downtime.

One of the biggest mistakes I see travelers make is not leaving any time for downtime. Travel is exhausting under normal circumstances, and trying to see literally everything is a good way to run yourself ragged. So plan some low-key days into your itinerary no matter where you go, whether it’s a day chilling out at a beach club in Sicily or a day cafe-hopping and photo-taking in Paris.

For our two-week trip, my friend Beth and I started with a few days in Johannesburg. Next was a few days on safari in Kruger National Park. We then hit up Cape Town for a few days. Stellenbosch would be the final destination.

And that itinerary was perfect. By the time we arrived in Stellenbosch, we were ready to veg out and relax.

Day One: Stellenbosch’s Best Wineries

We lucked out on our first day — my friend Charmain, who is married to my college friend Mark, offered to drive us from Cape Town to Stellenbosch, visiting three of her favorite wineries. Charmain is from Pretoria but she’s lived in Cape Town for a long time and I found that many locals agreed that she took us to the best places!

Fairview Wine and Cheese — Come here for the cheese.

When you arrive at Fairview Wine and Cheese, you’ll see a few goats hanging out by the entrance. Yes, they make their own goat cheese here! And lots of other kinds of cheeses.

The three of us sampled several wines and cheeses. And while the wines were good, the cheeses were exemplary. We bought a few to take home as well. If you are a cheese fan in the least, you need to come here!

Spice Route — Come here for the food.

Spice Route is a collection of eateries and restaurants near Paarl, just outside Stellenbosch. Theres a section for cured meats, there’s a deli, there’s a pizza place, and there’s even a brewery called Barley and Bilton that serves beer and biltong (South African jerky). And of course, they have wine tasting as well!

We tasted four wines with some cured meats. You know I enjoyed that pairing! After, Charmain took us for some South African-style pancakes, rolled thin like crepes.

Waterford — Come here for the chocolate.

Waterford is the winery I heard recommended most often from locals in Stellenbosch. It’s got a luxurious atmosphere and feels like a grand manor belonging to some member of royalty. Their wines aren’t half bad, either.

At Waterford we took part in their chocolate tasting! We each received three wines to pair with three little squares of chocolate. It was a stormy day and it felt amazing to curl up by the fireplace.

Day Two: Vine Hopper and Four Wineries

For our second day, Beth and I decided to try the Vinehopper — a hop-on, hop-off van visiting several wineries. They take several routes depending on the day, so you can take three different routes three days in a row if you’d like.

I found this to be the best way for people without a car (or people who all want to drink) to sample lots of places in Stellenbosch. What you lose in spontaneity you gain in convenience.

We took the Southern Route. Here are the wineries we visited:

Neethlingshof

Neethlingshof had a modern atmosphere with a fancy dining room for sampling. We tried several reds and whites and I bought a bottle of The Owl Post to take home.

Spier

Spier was next, and while we didn’t do a full tasting, we sampled their sparkling rosé and a cheese plate. I also bought a bottle of their chenin blanc to take home (and it’s the only bottle I have left after nine months!). Spier has beautiful grounds as well, so it’s a good spot to take some outdoor photos.

Bilton Wines

Like Waterford, Bilton Wines is famous for their wine and chocolate tasting! But the pieces we got here were much larger than the ones at Waterford. Each one was roughly the size of a Kit-Kat strip. They also have award-winning merlot that pairs well with the cardamom chocolate.

Kleine Zalze

Well, let’s be honest — by the time you hit the fourth winery in a day, your memories start getting fuzzy. I did enjoy Kleine Zalze, though, and I bought one of their bottles of red to take home.

Vinehopper has three different routes. A one-day pass costs 300 rand ($22) and a two-day pass costs 540 rand ($40). Wine tastings are not included in the price, but they generally cost 15-45 rand ($1-3) for around six tastes at each winery. Note that the wineries close at 5:00 PM, so you’re best off getting an early start.

Day Three: Day Trip to Franschoek 

Franschoek is like a mini version of Stellenbosch with a French flair, about 45 minutes away by car. It’s a much smaller town filled with galleries, jewelry shops, and cafes.

We started with some wine by the fireplace at a restaurant called Dutch East. I’m pretty sure we were the youngest people there by 30 years.

Our one tasting of the day was at Franschoek Cellar, where we paired six elegant wines with six delicious cheeses. (Note: on the map it looks technically within walking distance from the town, and it was, but we were the only people actually walking on that road!)

When we were planning our trip, Beth and I discussed whether to stay in Franschoek or Stellenbosch. Overall, we were happy with our decision to stay in Stellenbosch. We would have been bored out of our minds after two days in Franschoek. If we had stayed longer, I’m sure we would have done their wine tram.

We took an Uber from Stellenbosch to Franschoek but couldn’t summon any in the area on the way back, so we had a restaurant call us a cab. The Uber cost us 258 rand ($19) and took 45 minutes; our cab on the way back cost 300 rand ($22).

Day Four: Unusual Stellenbosch Wineries

Our flight departed Cape Town late in the afternoon, so we were determined to get a few more tastings in before we left. Beth found a driver who would take us to a few wineries and then to the airport from there. It was the perfect way to enjoy our final day in Stellenbosch.

Fleur du Cap — Come here for their salt tasting.

As soon as I heard that there was a wine tasting paired with salts, I knew I had to try it! Fleur du Cap offers a tasting where they give you five wines, five salts, and several little dishes for experimenting with the salts. One was a stuffed grape leaf; another was olive paste.

It was so much fun! This tasting is why I now use pink Himalayan sea salt all the time in my cooking. (It sounds more expensive than it is — you can get it for like $4 at Trader Joe’s.) Beth and I were also both horrified by Indian black salt, which smells like rotten eggs. Apparently vegans like it because it’s an animal-free way to get the taste of eggs. But isn’t the taste of eggs the worst part about them? It’s all about the texture, baby!

Salt tastings take place at 12:00 PM only and you must book in advance.

Cavalli Wine and Stud Farm — Come here for the photo ops.

Cavalli Wine and Stud Farm was easily the most scenic winery we visited. The grounds were so beautiful and the building itself was a modern masterpiece. All of their wines are named after horses. We sampled a few wines and a cheese plate and they actually gave us a free bottle of wine to take home because they were busy and took so long.

And with that, we were off to Cape Town to catch our flight to Johannesburg, then to Amsterdam, then home to New York.

But which wineries were the very best?

If you’re limited on time, I would prioritize visiting the very best of Stellenbosch. That would be cheese tasting at Fairview, chocolate tasting at Waterford, and salt tasting at Fleur du Cap.

Where to Stay in Stellenbosch

My recommendation is to stay in a hotel within or just outside the city center. That way you can get around easily by walking. Here are my recommendations for places at every price range in downtown Stellenbosch:

If you’re looking for budget accommodation in Stellenbosch, Ikhaya Stellenbosch Backpackers has dorms, private rooms, and apartment-style suites for a low price and a great location right by the center of town.

If you want a mid-range hotel, Stellenbosch Hotel has the feel of a B&B with the amenities of a hotel, right in the center of town.

If you want something high-end but not too expensive, check out Coopmanhuijs Boutique Hotel, a stylish Stellenbosch boutique hotel with a pool in the center of town.

And if you want to blow your budget, you probably don’t care about being in town because you can afford to hire a driver for your whole trip. If that’s the case, go for Delaire Graff Lodge — it’s pretty much the most luxurious property in the Stellenbosch area.

You can find more Stellenbosch hotels here.

Where to Eat in Stellenbosch

Many of the wineries serve food, but if you’re looking for restaurants in Stellenbosch, here are some that we enjoyed:

The Big Easy is an excellent yet affordable high-end dinner spot. I loved my venison, but the standout was Beth’s parmesan and mushroom risotto.

Hudson’s The Burger Joint is a popular upscale burger chain. And it has a bit of a New York theme, which didn’t hurt. Get one of the burgers with bacon jam! (Thanks for taking us, Kate and Alessio!)

Melissa’s the Food Shop is an adorable cafe and grocery store. It’s only open for breakfast and lunch, and they have adorable pastries. This is also a good place to stock up on food souvenirs.

The Bird Cage is a quirky café that does lovely breakfast dishes. Their main business is wedding cakes. This is one restaurant that will look great on Instagram, FYI.

Tiger’s Milk is a delicious casual chain with great pizzas. I didn’t eat here, but I ate at the one in Muizenberg in Cape Town. Bacon-avocado-feta is a mysteriously popular combination in South Africa and I highly recommend their bacon-avocado-feta pizza! (Thanks for taking us, Mark and Charmain!)

And don’t underestimate having a meal of wine and cheese back at your place!

How to Get Around Stellenbosch

The conundrum about wine regions around the world is that they are best to explore by car — yet driving is the last thing you should be doing while wine tasting.

You may want to rent a car and have one person stay sober. But if you both want to drink, look into hiring transportation!

You can summon Ubers within the town of Stellenbosch, but summoning them at outside wineries and in Franschoek is difficult to impossible. In that case, ask the winery to call you a cab.

I loved the day we spent on the Vine Hopper and it was a great way to experience lots of wineries without worrying about transportation. And hiring a driver from a tour company was the most logistically easy way to visit a few wineries, leave our bags with him, and go directly to the airport from there.

When to Visit Stellenbosch

Stellenbosch is a great year-round destination. Beth and I visited in the winter (July) and while I was a bit nervous, as winter weather is roughest on the Western Cape, winter ended up being a great time to visit.

The main reason? Fireplaces. It seemed like nearly every winery had a fireplace or two, and it was so nice to bundle up near a roaring fire with a glass of Chenin Blanc in your hand!

Secondly, hardly anyone was visiting then. We were often the only two people visiting a winery. And because of that, hotel prices were lower, too.

Weather-wise, some days were sunny, some were rainy, and some were a mix, but a light leather or denim jacket with a scarf was all we needed. Pack an umbrella because the weather can change quickly.

You can’t go wrong any time of year, though. Fall is a popular time to visit, as that’s when the new bottles will be coming out, and summer is high season. Do be prepared for higher prices and bigger crowds in those seasons.

On Tourism and Race in Stellenbosch

One thing I noticed was that nearly every single tourist I saw in Stellenbosch was white. The only black people I saw were working. I noticed this often throughout South Africa, but it was more significant in Stellenbosch than anywhere else.

However, that changed at our final winery, Cavalli, where nearly every guest was black. (It’s worth noting that we were at Cavalli was on a Saturday, which is a popular day for Capetonians to visit rather than tourists.)

Racism in the wine tourism industry is not unheard of — a few years ago, a group of black women were kicked off a wine train in Napa Valley for apparently laughing and talking too loudly (aka #LaughingWhileBlack); they were met by police when they arrived at the station. The company claimed it was “acute insensitivity” and not racial bias at play; the women sued the company and reached a private settlement.

I’m not knowledgeable enough about race relations in South Africa to speak at length, but I will say this: Most non-South Africans assume that things immediately got better when Apartheid ended. That’s not true. Laws may have changed, but new injustices sprang up to replace the old laws. It’s similar to the United States — a lot of people assume things got better once the Civil Rights Movement happened, but the injustice only changed form. Now it’s in the form of criminal injustice and police brutality, among many other things.

What I do recommend is having conversations with South Africans about their lives. Talk to black people, white people, colored people (colored means mixed race and is a non-derogatory term in South Africa), Asian people. Don’t insist that everyone tell you about Apartheid, because it’s nobody’s job to educate you on their painful time in history, but you’d be surprised at how often South Africans bring up Apartheid on their own. Either way, I guarantee your eyes will be opened once you hear their life stories.

After seeing how white the wine tourism industry is in Stellenbosch, I wish I had made an effort to visit black-owned wineries. You should do the same. Here’s a list of black-owned wineries in South Africa; here’s a Guardian feature on black-owned wineries in South Africa.

The Takeaway

Stellenbosch was one of the highlights of our trip. Both Beth and I loved our time there and our three and a half days of drinking wine and eating cheese was the perfect way to wind down after ten busy days in South Africa.

Would I return? You absolutely bet I would! I only scraped the surface when it comes to wineries!

Oh, and one last tidbit:

I brought six bottles of my favorite wines home. I didn’t pay more than $11 for any of them.

Essential Info: To get into Stellenbosch, you can take a cab, bus, or train from Cape Town. There are also several private shuttle services. If we hadn’t had Charmain to drive us, we would have taken a private shuttle. Locals I spoke to recommended avoiding the train.

You can find hotels in Stellenbosch here.

I recently read Trevor Noah’s book Born a Crime, which is about his childhood during and after Apartheid in South Africa. It’s an outstanding, gripping, fascinating book and I urge you to read it before you visit South Africa. I actually recommend getting the audio version because Trevor does tons of different accents, languages, and voices.

South African power adapters are hard to find outside South Africa — get one before your trip.

Don’t visit South Africa without travel insurance. Whether you get appendicitis while on safari and need to be hospitalized, or your phone gets stolen in Cape Town, or an injury means you need to cancel all or part of your trip, travel insurance will help you out. I use and recommend World Nomads as travel insurance for trips to South Africa.

Have you been to Stellenbosch or gone wine tasting in South Africa? Share away!

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Scenes from Košice, Slovakia

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Imagine that you have a week in Europe to spare. Where would you go?

There are ten European countries you have yet to visit: Belarus, Cyprus, Estonia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Moldova, Poland, Russia, Slovakia, and Ukraine.

And your time is bookended by commitments in Cardiff, Wales, and Leipzig, Germany.

Turns out that flying out of Cardiff is largely impractical, so most locals fly from Bristol, England. And it just so happens that Bristol has a direct flight to Košice, Slovakia. You book it immediately.

Most people who go to Slovakia hit up the capital, Bratislava. It’s decently connected, it’s pretty, and it’s a short getaway from Vienna. Košice (pronounced koh-SHIT-sa), a university town in the eastern part of the country, is much more off the beaten path.

I didn’t do much during my time in Košice, but I found it a thoroughly enjoyable place to spend a day or two. Here are some of my favorite photos:

Košice is a city with a tiny moat running down its main drag, tram tracks on either side.

A city with pink flowers bursting out of ornate Baroque balconies.

A city where locals sip beers at the base of a cathedral.

A city where doorways in the old town lead to graffiti-adorned walls.

Most famous is Košice’s singing fountain. This fountain plays acoustic covers of pop songs all day. And to my delight, they played “I Swear” by All-4-One three times within a two-hour period. (Really not helping the “Eastern Europe still thinks Miami Vice is on” stereotypes there, fountain.)

I wonder where that doorway leads!

That sounds good. I’ll have that.

The colors of Central European buildings would look garish anywhere else — but warm and perfect under a blue sky here.

The gothic cathedral is enormous — it easily dwarfs every other building in town.

Perhaps my favorite thing about Central Europe is the cafe culture. People sit out all day long, starting with coffees and moving on to beer and wine.

It’s also cheap. Britt from Adventure Lies in Front, a friend of mine from Travel Blog Success, happened to be passing through Košice en route from the Tatras to Budapest. We got some local rosé — just two euros per glass!

I headed over to the mall to pick up a European converter that could take three-pronged plugs (of COURSE I had left mine in Wales!) and snapped this shot of the tram en route.

I love this dog! It could be a model.

Goodnight, Košice, and thank you for the briefest, loveliest stay.

I’ll admit that this isn’t the way I usually like to visit a new country — I like to visit at least three different destinations to get a better idea of the country as a whole. But sometimes you just don’t have the time. I would love to return to Slovakia and see much more, starting with the Tatras!

Essential Info: I stayed at Penzion Grand Košice but I don’t recommend it as 1) there is no staff present after 10 PM and 2) I got bedbugs 3) which you can imagine is extra complicated when you get bedbugs after 10 PM. It was cheap and decent otherwise, but I don’t think it’s worth the hassle of either of those issues. Find more hotels in Košice here.

Košice is well connected by train and bus. I had trouble finding information on how to get from Košice to Poland, but it was actually easy — I took a train to Poprad, walked next door to the bus station, and then got on a bus to Zakopane (you buy your tickets on board). From Zakopane you can easily connect to Kraków and beyond.

Don’t visit Slovakia without travel insurance. Whether you cut yourself and need to go to the hospital for stitches, or your phone gets stolen at a bar, or an injury means you need to cancel all or part of your trip, travel insurance will help you and keep you financially afloat if the worst happens. I use and recommend World Nomads for trips to Slovakia.

What’s your favorite random city that doesn’t get enough love?

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TBEX Zimbabwe: An Unethical and Irresponsible Choice

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Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, by quiquefepe

My dear readers, today’s post is about the travel blogging industry. I think some of you would find it to be an interesting read, but if that’s not your thing, feel free to check out my Best of the Blog page. 

On Saturday at the Travel Blog Exchange (TBEX) conference in Huntsville, Alabama, it was announced that the first TBEX Africa will take place in July 2018.

It will take place in Harare, Zimbabwe, to be exact. And the primary sponsor will be the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority, a government-run organization.

Holy shit. TBEX actually entered a business partnership with Robert Mugabe’s government.

Background: TBEX is not representative of the whole travel blogging industry.

TBEX is the largest travel blogging conference. A few different conferences are held in different parts of the world each year — generally one in North America, one in Europe, and one somewhere else. And because they’re so big, they tend to dominate the industry.

I’ve attended one TBEX, in Girona in the Costa Brava region of Spain in 2012. It was a fantastic experience, but that was more due to Jaume Marin and the team at Costa Brava Tourism, who have long been leaders in creating innovative marketing campaigns for travel bloggers. (I mean, they threw a party in a castle with a “ham room” filled with jamon iberico! Yeah. That had nothing to do with TBEX; that was all Costa Brava.)

TBEX is only interested in making money; they have zero interest in bettering the travel blogging industry. Because of this, most of their conferences are geared toward beginner bloggers. I call it “churning and burning newbies.” They’re the easiest to convince to buy a ticket; it’s easier to build a conference around the needs of beginners. Most of the talks are geared to beginning topics on SEO, Instagram, freelance writing, and the like.

And while the sessions haven’t changed much since 2012 (though newer platforms like Snapchat and Pinterest now have a presence), the demographics at TBEXes have changed a lot. Few long-time professional bloggers attend anymore; if they attend, it’s usually because they’re giving a talk. Nowadays, many of the people who attend TBEX haven’t even started a blog yet. Isn’t that crazy? I can’t wrap my head around that.

The watering down of TBEX has been bad for the industry. As the quality of the attendees goes down, the quality of would-be sponsors and industry attendees goes down, the work the newbies produce isn’t as good and doesn’t get as wide an audience, and because TBEX is such a big conference, this sends the message that travel blogging is ineffective and not worth it.

These are the reasons why I am no longer involved with TBEX, but it gets much worse.

TBEX has been under fire over the past few years.

The first major controversy was prior to the Cancun conference in 2014. One of the post-conference activities was swimming with dolphins kept in captivity, an activity that is cruel to the dolphins.

Many bloggers protested TBEX; 2,300 bloggers signed a petition asking them to remove the dolphin tours. And it worked. TBEX eventually removed the dolphin tours, but only after a major outcry.

The second major controversy was when TBEX selected Bangkok as their first Asian conference location in 2015. Almost every travel blogger has been to Thailand; plenty of travel bloggers have even lived there. I love it there, too.

But the hosting partner for this conference was the Tourism Authority of Thailand, a government organization, and Thai government has a long history of prosecuting journalists. While Thailand has never had free speech, the 2014 coup took a turn for the worst, when the constitution was suspended and any protections for freedom of expression were eliminated. By attending a government-sponsored event as media, the bloggers could have been putting themselves in danger.

The next uproar came when the 2016 Asian conference was hosted in Manila by Philippines Tourism, a government organization. President Rodrigo Duterte rode to the presidency on a promise to end drug crime by murdering all drug criminals, and these murders have been carried out at an alarming rate.

Additionally, the Philippines is also a dangerous country for journalists. 78 have been killed since 1992, most of the journalists focusing on crime or corruption. Duterte himself once said, “Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination if you’re a son of a bitch.”

And finally, the venue for TBEX International in 2017 was revealed: Jerusalem. A bit of a controversial destination, no matter how you look at it. And while it branded itself as an opportunity to explore both Israeli and Palestinian cultures, the main sponsor was the Israel Ministry of Tourism, which is an organization that condones the occupation of Palestine.

Shit hit the fan in late 2016 when it was revealed that TBEX wasn’t paying its employees and contractors.

Deborah Ng, former conference director of BlogWorld and New Media Expo, which acquired TBEX in 2012, posted a revealing account on Medium. In short, she and several other people were not paid for the work they did.

You can read the whole saga here. Here’s a taste:

“Around the time I left, I learned there was a long line of people waiting to be paid by BlogWorld/NMX/TBEX. I heard of tax liens, garnished bank accounts, bounced checks, and lawsuits…Since the owner didn’t respond to emails, Skypes, texts or calls, I sent an email around to the entire team letting them know I quit. It wasn’t until a couple of weeks later  — when he made a rare appearance on a team call —  that the owner learned I was gone.”

The owner, Rick Calvert, later admitted to everything in Ng’s piece:

“It is true that we owed Deb money when she left NMX and it is true we still do.”

Ng received the last of money she was owed in January 2017, years after it was due:

“Management is telling TBEX sponsors and attendees that they’re all caught up with their debts. This isn’t true. I know people who are still waiting to get paid.”

As someone who has done a lot of freelancing over the years, I know this: freelancers time their work contracts and payments carefully so they’ll have money to cover their bills and expenses at all times. When you miss a payment to a freelancer, you throw the whole system off and force them to dip into their savings — if they have enough in their savings. Many freelancers don’t make much, especially if they’re starting out or in a creative field.

There was one time in 2013 when I was down to $200 in my bank account and was owed more than $9,000 from companies that hadn’t paid me on time for various reasons.

It’s bad enough not to pay someone on time, but it’s especially cruel to do so to someone who makes a non-salaried living.

Kennedy Vlei, Zimbabwe, by Jason Wharam

What’s wrong with the Zimbabwean government, anyway?

The president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, is often cited as one of the worst dictators of the past century. Zimbabwe has terrible human rights abuses and a dreadful record on free speech.

On human rights violations:

“The government of President Robert Mugabe continues to violate human rights without regard to protections in the country’s 2013 constitution. It has intensified repression against thousands of people who peacefully protest human rights violations and the deteriorating economic situation. Police use excessive force to crush dissent, and violate the basic rights of civil society activists, human rights defenders, journalists, and government opponents. Widespread impunity for abuses by the police and state security agents remains. President Mugabe has undermined the independence of the judiciary and of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC) through verbal assaults on the two institutions.” —Human Rights Watch

On Mugabe murdering his way to reelection in 2008:

“In May, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission announced the presidential vote results, confirming that Tsvangirai secured 47.9%, to Mugabe’s 43.2%. As neither candidate secured 50%, a run-off vote was scheduled. Mugabe saw his defeat as an unacceptable personal humiliation. He deemed it a victory for his Western, and in particular British, detractors, whom he believed were working with Tsvangirai to end his political career. ZANU-PF claimed that the MDC had rigged the election.

After the election, Mugabe’s government deployed its ‘war veterans’ in a violent campaign against Tsvangirai supporters. Between March and June 2008, at least 153 MDC supporters were killed. There were reports of women affiliated with the MDC being subjected to gang rape by Mugabe supporters. Tens of thousands of Zimbabweans were internally displaced by the violence. These actions brought international condemnation of Mugabe’s government. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon expressed concern about the violence, which was also unanimously condemned by the UN Security Council, which declared that a free and fair election was ‘impossible’. 40 senior African leaders — among them Desmond Tutu, Kofi Annan, and Jerry Rawlings — signed an open letter calling for an end to the violence.

In response to the violence, Tsangirai pulled out of the run-off. In the second round, Mugabe was pronounced victor with 85.5% of the vote, and immediately re-inaugurated as President. —Wikipedia

Zimbabwe has a bad record on freedom of speech. This is how they deal with it on the digital end:

“In April [2016], President Mugabe threatened to introduce laws to restrict access to the internet.

In August, in response to the rising discontent expressed on social media, the authorities introduced a draft bill on Computer and Cyber Crimes to curb anti-government criticism. The bill had not become law by the end of the year.

During a national stay-away on 6 July in protest against corruption, fronted by the social media movement #ThisFlag, social media apps such as WhatsApp were shut down by the government.” —Amnesty International

And let’s throw in some LGBT rights violations, too:

“Laws passed in 2006 criminalize any actions perceived as homosexual. The Zimbabwean government has made it a criminal offense for two people of the same sex to hold hands, hug, or kiss. The ‘sexual deviancy’ law is one of 15 additions to Zimbabwe’s Criminal Code quietly passed in Parliament. The sections involving gays and lesbians are part of an overhaul of the country’s sodomy laws. Before then, laws against sodomy were limited to sexual activity, and the revised law now states that sodomy is any ‘act involving contact between two males that would be regarded by a reasonable person as an indecent act.’” —Wikipedia

In short, TBEX has chosen to partner with the government of a brutal dictator.

Bravo, TBEX. You’ve really outdone yourself here.

It’s not safe to host travel blogging conferences in countries that are hostile to journalists.

I never identify myself as a blogger, journalist, or member of the media when entering a country that is hostile to journalists. The reason is that I value my life and I’m not going to give them any reason to watch me.

But TBEX goes further — these conferences openly identify bloggers to the government as members of the media.

I’ll be honest: I worried during the entire TBEX in Bangkok that one of my friends would be reported to the police for saying something negative about the king. That’s what Thailand is like nowadays. When you’re living in a military dictatorship and you’re already identified as media, you never know who’s watching.

This goes back to my point that TBEX does not care about the travel blogging industry. If they actually cared about the industry and bloggers themselves, they would not host conferences in Thailand, Philippines, and Zimbabwe, where journalists are routinely murdered for writing negatively about the government.

That’s kind of a basic requirement, don’t you think?

But doesn’t tourism help locals?

Yes. When done the right way, tourism helps locals a lot, especially in countries with corrupt governments. Tourism strengthens economies, allows financial independence, and educates locals about the outside world. And that includes Zimbabwe. I want people to travel independently to Zimbabwe.

That said, when you attend a travel blogging conference, you’re not an independent traveler — you’re essentially a marketing consultant hired to promote their destination. And when you’re being hosted by the government, they are only allowing you to see what they want to see. When it’s a corrupt government in charge of your trip, they will likely only show you places that give them the most financial kickbacks.

The reason why travel blogging conference tickets are much cheaper than in other industries — tickets to TBEX Africa are literally only $97 right now — is because you’re expected to promote the host organization. Nobody is holding a gun to your head, but the host expects you to do so.

Professional bloggers generally provide accurate, truthful coverage of a host destination that isn’t too whitewashed. But newer, less experienced bloggers tend to write glowing accounts, thinking that it’s their duty because they got a “free” trip.

Also, a tidbit: the one time an organization ever asked me for more coverage was after my one and only TBEX trip in Spain. One hotel in Costa Brava felt insulted that I hadn’t written a fawning post exclusively about their property. It doesn’t work that way.

“As a tourist, you have a certain amount of control over where your money goes, using your own judgment calls. That’s theory, and practice may be tricky, but there’s more freedom there to do the right thing — partly because you’re a consumer, too, not a state-funded temporary consultant for the country’s marketing team. That’s supposed to be one of the great things about travel blogging — the freedom to sneak in, make your own mind up and write what you think and feel — and act according to your values as a traveler. Two kinds of freedom: one about strategic spending power, one about bias. Both are personal calls.” –Mike Sowden, Fevered Mutterings

In short, at TBEX Africa in Zimbabwe, participants will only be seeing what Mugabe wants them to see.

Would I visit Zimbabwe as an independent traveler? Yes, I would. (Though writing this post has probably put me on a list somewhere. Ugh.) I would spend my travel dollars close to the ground and learn as much as possible so I could have a well-rounded experience.

I wouldn’t dream of working for Mugabe and the Zimbabwean government.

How to Travel Ethically and Independently

Some people will argue whether it’s ethical to visit Zimbabwe. Yes, money from visas and taxes goes to the government no matter what, but it’s a small amount compared to what you can give to locals. I think that it can be done, and almost anywhere can be, if you make an effort to travel as sustainably as possible. Here are some ways to do so:

Research extensively in advance. Read up on the country’s history, politics, and environmental issues and use that information to illuminate your trip. Don’t show up clueless and unaware.

Visit on your own dime. Pay your own way. If you’re a blogger, don’t ask for comps at small family-owned places.

Spend your money, at small, locally owned businesses. Avoid major chains and international properties.

Buy from the source when possible. If local jewelry is popular in a place you’re visiting, buy from a local artist rather than a gift shop. (That necklace I’m wearing above was purchased directly from a Xhosa artist on the Eastern Cape of South Africa who took my hands and thanked me for buying directly from her instead of from a shop.)

Spread your money among as many businesses as possible. Don’t book tours through your hotel; book direct through the tour operator. Don’t buy all your souvenirs from one vendor; buy from several vendors.

Be kind to animals and the environment. Never ride an elephant. Never take part in activities with animals in captivity. Produce the least amount of waste possible and don’t waste water or energy.

Engage with the locals you meet. Don’t just talk to your waiter when you need another drink — have a full conversation. Rather than just taking, taking, taking, use conversations as an opportunity to exchange.

If you’re a blogger, write comprehensive, thoughtful, and well-researched posts. Be especially sensitive in developing countries, countries where the locals are of a different race than you, and countries with a corrupt government.

“This is one of the main criticisms about travel bloggers and I agree with it. As many don’t have professional journalism training or something equivalent, they run around the world publishing stories that lack cultural/political context and understanding. In some destinations that matters more than others. I don’t trust that a lot of bloggers will have the sophistication to write about a place like Zimbabwe.” –Mariellen Ward, Breathe Dream Go

And finally, if your destination has a corrupt government, absolutely do not go on a trip sponsored by the government!!!!

Sunset over the Zambezi, Zimbabwe, by Stephen Mawby

Should you go to TBEX Africa in Zimbabwe?

Since the Zimbabwe announcement was made, I’ve seen lots of starry-eyed travel bloggers excited to go to Africa. Some genuinely had no idea who Mugabe was and changed their minds once they learned about him. But others won’t let that stand in their way because, well, they really want some free trips in Africa.

The choice is yours, but I hope you choose not to attend. I urge you to do your research on Mugabe’s regime before deciding whether or not to attend. These are the people who are funding this event.

And if you’re thinking of speaking at TBEX Africa, I would reconsider. Apply for a different conference instead. I think the people who choose to participate in this conference are going to have a spotlight on them in a bad way.

The problem, just so it’s clear, is not the country of Zimbabwe itself, which could use the tourism. The problem is that this conference is being hosted and controlled by the government.

Outside Harare, Zimbabwe, by Romain

Should you go to Zimbabwe otherwise?

YES. Go to Zimbabwe independently! Zimbabwe is a beautiful country with warm people and some truly wonderful travel experiences. The wildlife in Zimbabwe is outstanding; Victoria Falls is an icon. And they could really use your tourism dollars.

“I’ve written extensively about Zimbabwe, its people and social programs where tourist dollars directly help the local communities and wildlife conservation and will continue to. I love the place, warts and all. The people are amazing, but I choose to travel independently or with companies that benefit the people/wildlife etc.

I don’t think for a minute that a travel blogging conference in Harare will have the same effect. It’s always going to be a personal choice, but not everyone against this is sitting back and not visiting Zim.” –Andy Higgs, Grown Up Travel Guide

You can cruise down the Zambezi, track lions in Hwange National Park, check out caves in Chivero National Park, or party the night away in Harare. Zimbabwe is huge and there’s a lot to see.

Are there good alternatives to TBEX?

TBEX is the big conference, but it’s far from the best. There are four small travel blogging conference that I recommend attending:

  1. Women in Travel Summit (WITS). A smart conference geared toward women covering thoughtful issues most others ignore. Men are welcome. The next one is in Québec City, Canada, in 2018.
  2. Social Travel Summit (STS). A small, Europe-centric conference for professional bloggers with great networking opportunities. The next one is in Kitzbühel, Austria, in September 2017.
  3. Travel Bloggers Conference (TBC). An invitation-only conference for professional bloggers that has been based in Sri Lanka so far.
  4. Traverse. I haven’t attended, but it’s made by bloggers and I’ve heard they do an excellent job. The next one is in Rotterdam, Netherlands, in 2018.

TBEX, you are welcome to respond to this.

I reached out to TBEX for comment; requests for comments were not returned. If that changes, I’ll share their response here.

What do you think? Is this conference a good idea?

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