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Tuesday, 05 April 2011

World’s Best Festivals

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    One of the most important parts of having a successful trip is choosing exactly when to visit your chosen destination. Should you go during the hot season, cool season, rainy season, dry season, festival season, etc. etc.?
    One great way to decide when to visit a country is to find out when national holidays will be taking place and what exactly they will be like. Some celebrations you may want to steer clear of, as they tend to draw a big crowd of both tourists and locals thus congesting the area and filling up restaurants and hotel rooms. However, some celebrations are more than worth the crowd, and are incredible experiences.
    Some of these holidays are very well known, others have yet to be discovered on a wide scale. Feel free to add any fun holidays you don’t find on this list in the comments section!

The Grand Daddies
You better know about these ones

1. Oktoberfest (Munich, Germany)

    Oktoberfest is one of the most well known festivals in the entire world, and for good cause. The festival is all about boozing it up with your compatriates, and lasts 16 days, putting St. Patty’s day in Boston in a scary perspective. Weighing in at over 5 million partygoers annually, Oktoberfest is one of the biggest festivals in the world. Gastrointestinally challenged beware: Oktoberfest is about drinking heavy beer and eating food designed to grind your metabolism to a halt. Bring you’re A-game. Or at least some antacid.

2. The Running of the Bulls (Pamplona, Spain)

    Quite likely the most well known and advertised festival the world over, The Running of the Bulls is one of the only festivals where death and serious injury at the hands of a 2,500 pound beast is a distinct possibility. The festival has its origins in the 14th century, although it is not clear when it became official, and little more than farmers running alongside their bulls in order to herd them (jealous you missed the good old days?)

3. Carnival (Brazil)

    Another one of the world’s most popular festivals, Carnival is 46 days of pure celebration. Music, dancing and fun times abound; Carnival is all about letting loose and celebrating the very essence of life. The biggest celebration is in Rio De Janeiro, but you will be hard pressed to travel anywhere in Brazil during the 46 days leading up to Easter that doesn’t require a party hat. Debbie downers and party poopers need not apply. If you’re ready to shake your rump and cast your stresses and real world responsibilities aside, this is the festival for you.

The mid-heavy weights
Not as well known but just as bucket list worthy

4. Songkran (Thailand)

    If you arrive in Thailand between April 13-15, consider yourself lucky if you make it out of the airport without getting hit by your first squirt gun, let alone getting into your hotel. For 3 days just about every man, woman and child cease all normal activity, take to the streets (usually in front of their home or business), and commence the biggest water fight in the world. Old ladies? Fair game. Driving a motor bike? Fair game. Wearing an expensive business suit? Guess what. You’re fair game. There’s only one way to avoid getting soaked during this festival: stay inside. Even then the hotel employees may get you. A better idea is to run out into the mayhem and let everyone have it.

5. Tomatina (Buñol, Spain)

    It might be unjust to give a country 2 shout outs, but Spain most definitely deserves it. What could be more fun than grabbing all the tomatoes you can and wreaking havoc all over everyone nearby? The fight begins at 11am, when several truckloads of tomatoes are dumped in Plaza del Pueblo and chaos immediately ensues. The fight is over after an hour, by which time everything and everyone is sporting a healthy shade of crimson. And no need to feel guilty about wasting food, these tomatoes are grown specifically for the festival and are not meant to taste good.

The Secrets

6. Holi (India)

    The fact that this festival is relatively unknown outside India combined with the date and duration changing every year, means Holi takes many travelers by surprise. It’s not an easy celebration to stumble upon either, as the partiers will not hesitate to cover you head to toe in colored powder and water. This holiday takes Songkran to an entirely different level. Steeped with Hindu tradition, this is a great chance to experience a new culture and have more fun than you’ve had since you were 5 years old smearing walls with finger paint with wreckless abandon.

7. Lopburi Monkey Festival (Lopburi, Thailand)

    Thailand reigns in as our second country with multiple mentions. You will undoubtedly see many monkeys here. Hopefully before it’s made off with your sticky-rice lunch. In Lopburi, however, there are so many monkeys they outnumber the dogs, and sometimes you wonder if they might outnumber the people. For one day during the last weekend in November the monkeys are celebrated with a giant feast just for them. The monkeys are small and cute, but make sure you’re guarding your pocket book

    So travel to the festivals, and make your experience that much more unforgettable, or be a hermit crab and avoid them at all costs, but either way make sure you know before you go.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Experiencing a Culture

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    When I was teaching English in Thailand, I found that I was one of the few teachers who was really into the idea of learning Thai, having Thai friends, and just generally doing anything except playing quarters with all my American friends on the weekend. Although it should be noted that I did play a fair amount of quarters… it was just on the backburner for me.

    I would often have people coming to me and saying things like ‘Alex, you are so good at doing Thai things.’ Or ‘Alex is really good at speaking Thai.’ Or ‘Alex you are the smartest, greatest person I have ever known, please teach me your ways.’ Ok, fine, the last one never happened.

    Anyway, what I believe people were really saying was more along the lines of 'I wish speaking Thai and getting into the swing of things came naturally to me too.’

     Well, guess what, it wasn’t natural. I didn’t have a chip implanted in my brain that taught me Thai while I was sleeping. I had to do things the old fashioned way; you know, actually trying. I know, I know, applying yourself to try to learn something that you are not getting graded on is absolutely ridiculous. I must have been under hypnosis or something.

    In order to learn Thai, I first invested in Pimsleur’s Thai, which is cheaper and better – IMO – than Rosetta Stone. It just teaches you the basics, like how to order food in a restaurant or ask for directions, but getting a little bit of basic knowledge provides a great platform for meeting people and striking up conversations, which allows you to branch out and learn much more.

    However, you may be surprised to learn that sitting in my room and struggling to learn a language from a tape was not how I got into the culture and made Thai friends. To do that I actually had to go out into the big bad world.

    When I first got to Thailand I was in Phuket, a resort destination, for several weeks. I had only listened to 2 of the lessons at this point, and it was really no time at all to sit inside, as there were beaches, bars and babes at every turn. The very first night we went to a bar around the corner from our hotel. After 30+ hours of traveling and attempting to sleep on airport benches, you can imagine how this went. My memory is a haze of playing pool and chatting up the employees.

    Lucky for me that after a few drinks, I get along swimmingly with just about anyone under the sun. After several rounds of playing pool with Benjo, the 14 year old son of the bar owner (children in bars are far from a rare occurrence in Thailand – get used to it and save your judgments for elsewhere), I must have endeared myself to the staff. I was laughing and joking around with them, and I remember one in particular making fun of me quite a bit. The next day I walked past the bar, and much to my surprise I heard my name being called.

    As it turned out, one of the girls that worked in the bar was from a town near where I taught, and she ended up becoming my closest Thai friend. I visited her on many occasions and she introduced me to  all her friends and family. If it wasn’t for that first night I never would have met her and had this opportunity. So the moral of the story is to learn a bit of the language, but more importantly to hit the ground running as soon as you arrive, and realize there’s no reason to be shy. Once they realize that you are just a human, the same as anyone else, you’ll find out there was never anything to be scared of in the first place.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Want to Publish your own Guidebook?

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Want to publish a guidebook or itinerary?

Here is a site I’ve come across that lets budding travel writers become self-publishers. Some interesting features on the Guide Gecko site: 

- You can write and sell your own guidebook. This is a neat feature. They make it easy with existing templates; you set the price and receive 50% from the sale of each guidebook that someone orders online. 

- After writing your guidebook, you can use them to print out multiple guidebooks and sell the hardcopies on your own.

- Your book can be available to buyers as a PDF download, perhaps for a reduced price.

- There are also the options to make your guidebook available as a Kindle e-book, an I-phone app, or as an attachment to your website. 

- If you don’t know what to do with those leftover tomes after your trip ends: you can sell existing guidebooks. Guide Gecko gives you 85% of the price you set for each sale. 

Technology continues to influence travel; its impact will only continue to grow. Kindles, I-phones and devices like them will come to replace hard-cover guidebooks for most travelers, cutting the costs of paper guides. Now you will be able to have interactive information on your portable I-pad and be able to download at a touch specific information, the moment need of it.

I like the opportunity Guide Gecko provides to make alternate guides available for your favorite destinations. While Lonely Planets and Rough Guides do contain a lot of information, they are lacking in some areas. What if you’re a vegetarian? Traveling to Germany with children? Brazil with pets?

Some of the more interesting guidebook titles:

“The 10 Best of Everything”

"Guide to Las Angeles Food Trucks"

“The Best Dives of the Carribean”

“100 Animals to See Before THEY Die”

“100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go”

“200 Waterfalls in Central and Western New York”

“A Nomad’s Guide to Uzbekistan”

“Destination Weddings”

“Great Cycle Journeys of the World”

Here’s to making an extra buck while we travel the world.

You can find more information here: 
Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Pre-trip Plans

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    Before setting out on a journey, it is always a good idea to take a few steps to prepare yourself for the road ahead. There are many things to do to prepare yourself for a trip, but I’ll spare you the details - hopefully you at least know that comfortable shoes and an extra roll of TP in the backpack are a necessity.

       It is always a good idea to grab your travel book of choice, but it doesn’t end there. I like to get all my reading done beforehand, and once I’m on the road I ideally will never have to crack this bad boy for anything but a quick phone number or address. If you’re reading your guide book everyday, you’re not watching the world around you – keep it to a minimum by giving the book a read and getting a checklist going - even if it’s just mental – of the destinations you’d like to see.

       The most important things I like to take from a guidebook are the best methods of traveling within your immediate surroundings, and I always take note of the scams that each area specializes in. The scam industry is quite advanced in most of the third world, and each place you go will have its own unique method of relocating those green backs from your wallet to theirs. It won’t take long to develop a 6th sense for scammers, but even then it helps to have an idea of what to expect before running out into the jungle with little more than swiss army knife and a fanny pack.

       Also, while we’re on the subject, fanny packs! As most of you probably know, fanny packs are not exactly the trendiest of items. That’s why I recommend going big and getting the brightest, most obnoxious fanny pack you can possibly find. Rock it on the side of your hip, rock it without a shirt on, or even rock it front and center in every photo op, but make sure you rock it with a sense of pride and grandeur that boldly tells the world you know how to travel like you mean business. Secretly give the head nod to all fellow fanny packers you pass. You’re in the club now.

       But, you know, in all honesty, fanny packs are the best way to protect yourself against forgetfulness and getting pick pocketed. It’ll make your mom happy! What’s not to like?

       Most importantly, especially if you are going somewhere for any sort of extended period of time, brush up on the local lingo. Even simply learning hello and thank you will get you a long way in some places, even if you are butchering the pronunciation like a cranky 3 year old. In most places the natives will appreciate the attempt, so even if it makes you feel awkward just show them you’re trying. You’ll be surprised how easy it is once you get the ball rolling and make it your routine, and you might even find people take a special liking to you.

       Once you’ve got this down, you should try asking one of the better English speakers you meet for a few more words or tips. Always a great way to make a new friend and learn a bit more. Offer to teach them some English in exchange – you can use little English lessons as currency if you play your cards right, everyone wants to learn it.

       But seriously, most importantly do NOT forget the extra roll of TP.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Are You Well-Traveled?

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That feeling - like a punch to your gut. You know it. When you think
you’re something, a big fish in a small pond - you can rest on your
laurels - and then you stumble on something that sucks out the air in
your lungs.

For those who think they’re well-traveled, the balloon is about to deflate.

The prick: an interesting website dedicated to the world‘s most
traveled people:

It is run by Charles A Veley, who currently holds the title as the
“World’s Most Traveled Man.”

According to its members the world is made up of 872 countries,
territories, autonomous regions, enclaves, geographically separated
island groups, and major states and provinces.

Veley has visited 822, and has only 50 remaining places to visit.

Next on the list is a Bill Altaffer, who has visited 815 places, and
has a purported 57 remaining places to visit.

And so on.

Compared to my previously laudable 30 countries...


The previous holder of the Guiness Book of World Records’ “Most
Traveled Man” was John Clouse - who had 7 wives and visited 315 of the
world’s 316 countries, regions, and islands. (I know you’re wondering
- it was Bouvet Island near South Africa.)

Equally emasculating.

Or is the most “traveled” man Fred Finn? Mr. Finn does not boast the
highest number of places visited but has logged 15 million miles on
airplanes. He’s crossed the Atlantic over 2,000 times and been to
Africa on 600 visits. He’s flown the Concorde three times in a day.

In my lifetime - assuming I have flown 500,000 miles - I have
accumulated at maximum, .03 percent of Mr. Finn's.

What does all this say about travel - when taken to the extreme?

For anyone else who’s suddenly feeling less accomplished, consider
this: Veley was a self-made millionaire in his thirties and retired at
35. Finn’s travel has been paid by the companies he’s worked for. Most
travelers make less and see the world on their own dime.

According to Pico Iyer, travel writer, and author of the
quintessential essay “Why We Travel” - we travel to lose ourselves and
find ourselves, to open our hearts and minds, and to become young
fools again. He reminds us that the most significant travel we do is

“Most traveled” - checking off destinations - going to a place to say
you've been there - does not equal meaningful travel. Unless you
strike up fascinating conversations each time, or there’s a stirring
documentary playing, sitting on an airplane doesn’t teach you much.

So the punch to the gut - only lasting a second - is gone. The air is back.

Some links:

(If you haven’t read Pico Iyer’s stunning article - my favorite - you
can read it here:

Veley’s site makes an interesting claim: To visit all 872 places would
be “to go everywhere.” You can sign up on his site and check off the
places as you go.

Veley has an interesting life story, which you can read here:

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