Tuesday, May 20, 2014

How to Prepare for Your First Visit to a Developing Country

Simone with artist Jorge Seleron, the creator of the famous Escadaria Selaron, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Recently, I received a phone call from a friend asking me whether she should be worried about traveling to Guatemala. Although she's an experienced traveler, it would be her first trip to a developing country and she had some reservations about going. It is a humanitarian trip, one that will give her the opportunity to significantly improve the lives of many poor families by installing clean water systems, so she is understandably torn between concern for her own safety and the desire to help others. My first instinct was to downplay her concerns since so many potential travelers tend to overestimate the dangers of traveling abroad, through, in fairness, very little fault of their own. For various self-serving reasons, alarmist media outlets (you know who you are), bombard their viewers with terrifying messages of greatly exaggerated threats of terrorists, flesh-eating diseases, violent crime and rude, non-English speaking, unhelpful foreigners. After watching these shows, it's amazing that anyone ever leaves the house, much less the country, but since I love my friend like a sister and would never want any harm to come to her, I decided to provide her with some real information. After all, knowledge is power, which hopefully leads to peace of mind and the freedom to go out into the world.
  Comparing mendhi henna tattoos in Agra, India 

1) Gather as Much Pre-Trip Information as Possible: before you go, visit several advisory sites for the current political and economic status as well as any weather or health-related issues of the country you intend to visit. Check back often, especially when you are getting closer to your departure date, since developing countries tend to have swiftly changing social and political environments and unstable infrastructures. Do not rely on one site as your sole source of advice since you are looking for a balanced, wide-reaching view. The U. S. State Department Travel Advisory, for example, tends to overstate danger since the government's aim is to mitigate the risk of lawsuits brought by US citizens. Australian, Canadian and British governmental advisory sites are generally less alarmist and so should also be included in your review. Visit the official website of the country as well as reliable news and non-governmental sites such as the New York Times Travel Blogs, Lonely Planet Thorntree Forums and Trip Advisor for up-to-date comments from recent travelers. Talk to friends and family who have visited the country. The idea is to arrive at a broad spectrum view: if only one source mentions a high violent crime rate or violence directed specifically at foreigners, you will probably not have to worry too much, but if the information appears repeatedly, you may want to rethink the timing of your trip.

Our 4 x 4 Jeep and fellow passengers, Salar de Uyuni Salt Flats, Bolivia (photo by Simone Cannon) 

2) Take all precautions: visit a doctor near your home that specializes in foreign travel to get all necessary immunizations and medicines before you leave. You should be able to find someone online or ask your own doctor for recommendations. Always keep emergency remedies and supplies such as anti-diarrhea pills, an all-purpose quick-acting antibiotic like Ciproflaxin, rehydration packets, toilet paper and a few bills and coins of local currency in your money belt or backpack; you never know when you will need them in a hurry. Make sure that your passport is up to date, you have all visas and you are fully aware of customs regulations so that your entry will be smooth. Make a copy of your passport, credit cards and other documents and keep it in a separate place than the originals; while you're at it, Google the international access phone numbers for your credit cards in case you have to call from a foreign country to report them stolen.

3) Do whatever you need to do to put your mind at rest: ask yourself (be brutally honest) what your greatest fears are and write them down, no matter how crazy they might seem. Air them out by talking about them with your spouse, partner, kids, friends. If fears aren't vented and sanity-checked, they tend to take on a life of their own out of all proportion to reality, creating fear and insecurity. Do practical things like buying life insurance, putting your will in order, paying off bills. Knowing that your ducks are in a row will give you greater peace of mind before you leave and also in the highly unlikely event that you do find yourself in a threatening situation later.  

Young girls celebrating a quinceañera party, Mexico City, Mexico (photo by Luis Bastardo) 

4) Learn Customs, Etiquette and Some Basic Language: the vast majority of difficult situations abroad (and at home) are due to miscommunication or misunderstood signals. Read up on the rules of society and culture of a place, including the meaning of gestures, which often have very different, often offensive, meanings in other countries. Learning what is considered to be polite and impolite behavior will often avoid landing you in trouble. Also take the time to learn a few basic words and phrases in the language of the country that you will be visiting. Knowing how to say hello, thank you, I'm sorry and excuse me can go a very long way in fostering good relations. Even if your pronunciation is not very good, most people will appreciate you for making the effort to learn. Check websites such as Kwintessential and Culture Crossing for global etiquette guides and Fodor's Language for Travelers site for a few basics.

5) Keep your faith in humanity, but trust your instincts: it's good to be prepared, but also maintain a balanced perspective. The criminal element in any society is generally a minuscule percentage of the population. Most people that you will encounter when traveling are hardworking family types who want the same things that you do: happiness, health, moderate success, to raise their family well, to keep their kids safe. In all my years of traveling, I have never found myself in a truly dangerous situation and have, in fact, been humbled by the incredible kindness of complete strangers who wanted nothing more than to show off their country and help me in any way that they could. I've been invited by complete strangers to stay in their homes, have been bought presents, had people cancel appointments to walk me 40 blocks to an internet cafe, have been invited to join others at their tables in restaurants and many other kindnesses too numerous to mention. People are basically good, but trust your instincts of course; if you feel that someone is acting suspiciously (not making eye contact, seeming distracted, making you feel generally uncomfortable), get out. Don't be polite, don't make excuses, just leave, quickly. 

Lone monk meditating, Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia (photo by Simone Cannon)

6) Keep a lowish profile: forget about not looking like a tourist; it is nearly impossible to blend into a place completely, even if you're actually a citizen of the country (think Nebraska natives in New York City). Everything about you, your mode of dress, your mannerisms, the way you walk, your language screams tourist, so people will immediately peg you as foreign, but you can minimize being targeted in several ways. Being cognizant of local customs and manners and using them appropriately, dressing in low-key clothing similar to what locals wear, not talking too loudly, but also not acting in a way that makes you appear too timid or tentative. In other words, act respectfully and confidently and try to get into the flow of daily life. Think of it as learning to drive in a place where the traffic has a different flow & rhythm than you are used to at home; you will have plenty of missteps initially, but will soon get the feel of the current.   
7) Remember why you're going: don't let fear rule your decision to travel. There is an element of danger in everything that you endeavor to do in life, even close to home. You have to weigh the risk against the rewards. Once you have made the decision to go and have prepared as well as you can, let it go. Sometimes you just have to take that leap: be courageous, trust yourself  to handle sticky situations if they should arise and know that the universe will provide. Have faith.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Strange Mother's Day Facts & Origins Around the World

Bouquets of flowers from a Seattle, U.S. farmers' market, ready to give to mom (photo by Simone Cannon)

Every year during the month of May in the U.S. and Canada, we celebrate the happy occasion of Mother's Day, honoring our mothers by bringing gifts such as flowers and sweets or taking them to a nice brunch. We recognize our moms for the sacrifices they have made raising us and for their ongoing support and friendship. We appropriately celebrate in the spring month of May, traditionally the season of birth and rebirth, fertilization, new beginnings and life itself. But not everyone in the world shares our traditions. Although we think of Mother's Day as a happy light-hearted day of celebration and spending time with mom, in some countries it is a more somber day or it occurs at a different time of year. Here's a look at the more unusual customs around the world.

Argentina: Mother's Day is also celebrated in spring, but because it is in the Southern Hemisphere, where seasons are opposite to those of the Northern Hemisphere, it falls during the third week of October when spring flowers for gift-giving are in full bloom. Other countries in the southern hemisphere, such as Malawi, follow suit.

Mother and baby, La Paz, Bolivia (photo by Simone Cannon)

Bolivia: Mother's Day, also known as the Day of the Heroines of Coronillas, is less celebratory and festive since it commemorates the deaths of hundreds of women in the battle for Bolivian independence against the invading Spaniards. When most of the male soldiers had been killed in the initial battles, the wives, sisters, mothers and daughters refused to give up and took up the fight. It may sound like a depressing day, but in fact, celebrates the bravery of these incredible, strong-minded and proud women who refused to surrender their country and freedom to the conquistadors. Thanks in great part to their efforts, Bolivia finally did achieve independence from colonial rule in 1825.

France & Germany: Mother's Day was originally adopted in these countries to promote child-bearing. In the early 1900s, the birth rate of many European countries was in steep decline and governments started to panic. In France, they even offered a merit award to mothers who gave birth to more than nine children. Mother's Day was seen as a way to "promote family values", that is, to encourage more women to take up what was considered at that time to be the only acceptable female role: to bear children. Today, mothers of all size families are honored.      

Frangipani (Plumeria) flower offerings in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia (photo by Simone Cannon)

Indonesia: empowering women is the time-honored basis for celebration on this island nation, where Mother's Day is held on the anniversary of the first Women's Congress. Indonesia has always been far ahead of much of the world regarding women's rights, having established its first feminist organizations in 1912. Despite the efforts of the late President Suharto to use the occasion to encourage women to stay at home and to keep out of politics, the day has continued to focus on improving women's lives through education and social policies.

Nepal: all mothers are honored on the roof of world, including the living and the dead. The holiday, which lasts for two weeks and is called Mata Tirtha Puja or "Mother Pilgrimage Worship", includes visiting local ponds in the hope of seeing a late mother's face in the reflective waters. As well as providing solace to grieving children, the practice is thought to bestow a sense of peace on the dead.

Staring into the pond, Mother's Day in Nepal (photo courtesy of demotix.com

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Never Choose The Tarantula Cabin and other Lessons of the Jungle

Happily on our way to the eco-lodge on the eco-bus (photo by Luis Bastardo)

"Tarantulas are usually nocturnal and are difficult to notice unless you are searching for them. Most people encounter adult males, which wander during daylight hours looking for female mates." - The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook: Travel 

As our plane reached cruising altitude, I leaned back in my seat, sipping my gin and tonic slowly, feeling a huge wave of relief to finally be free of the daily 10-hour hikes through the rugged Andes. For five days, Luis, my 50-something husband, and I had hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu with a group of 20-something athletic Spaniards. It was a terribly isolating experience since I was just starting to learn Spanish and so didn't understand much of what was said, my body was at the level of physical condition brought on by years of owner neglect and, even in the best of circumstances, I am a very slow hiker, so we spent most of the trip trailing far behind the other hikers and the guide. The declines were much harder on my knees than I had expected and I was now unable to walk for more than 15 minutes or so, even on a flat surface, without tearing up in pain. But far above the Andes with my gin and tonic in hand on the way to Puerto Maldonado in the Peruvian jungle, all that was behind me now. I had done it! 

From plane to bus to boat: arriving at the eco-lodge (photo by Simone Cannon)
When the plane landed, we rode the open-sided bus, then a boat to the EcoAmazonia Lodge were we were warmly greeted by the staff.
"Hola y Bienvenidos! We have a wide selection of eco-cabins; which one would you like?"
I looked at the list of cabins, then at Luis.
"I don't know. They all look identical to me...what's the difference?"
"They have different names."  
"There is the Llama cabin and the Caiman cabin and the Macaw cabin and the Iguana cabin and the Anaconda cabin and the Tarantula cabin and the..."
"We'll take the Tarantula cabin." Luis looked at me. "Really"?
"Would you prefer the Anaconda cabin?"
"The Tarantula's fine"
"We'll take the Tarantula."
"Excellent choice!"

We followed the front desk clerk to our eco-cabin and peered inside. It looked normal enough. No tarantula-shaped chandeliers, no tarantula-printed sheets, just a rattan framed bed and grass cloth walls and flooring. Nothing to worry about here. We dropped our bags and I sat on the bed with my back against the wall.
"So, what's our itinerary for the rest of the day?"
Luis looked up and past me. "Well, first, we'll have to kill that tarantula that's walking down the wall toward your head".
"Ha ha, very funny. Seriously, are we supposed to meet the guide or what?"

Now, one thing that you have to know about my husband is that his great delight in life is playing practical jokes. He is the original snakes-in-the-can guy, anything for a laugh, so naturally I didn't bite.

"Look, Luis, I'm tired and not in the mood for silly games. I'm so sure that there's a giant tarantula crawling down toward me in the Tarantula Cabin...I mean, really, what are the odds? A tarantula hanging on the wall five feet above my head in its namesake room? I doubt that tarantulas have a sense of irony."
"Actually, it's more like three feet."
"I'm not looking up."
"Suit yourself."
"I'm absolutely not looking up or moving because I refuse to fall for your infantile jokes one more...AGGGGGHHHH!!!"

Tarantula on the wall (photo courtesy of Matt Moyers)

My screams brought the eco-staff running into our room.
Señora! Señora! ¿está bien?"  
"Ah! You have a tarantula!" 
"Pero, Señora, a tarantula is good luck!"
"I don't care! If I want luck, I'll buy a rabbit's foot at the eco-gift shop! Get it out of here!"
"Yes, of course." 
Four more men arrived carrying a broom. 
"What are you going to do with that?" 
"Cut his legs off."
"Cut his legs off."
"So he can't crawl back into your room." 
"Oh, my God. I'm going to have a tiny disabled spider hobbling around outside my room?"
"More like gyrating."
"That's terrible!"
"Although of course his family will still have all of their legs. They will probably return tonight to see what happened to their relative. Tarantulas are well-known in the jungle for their vendettas." 
Peels of laughter. They were kidding. I think. I spent the night wide awake sitting up in bed with my flashlight in hand and my shoes on just in case.  

    Jungle Transport (photo by Simone Cannon)

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Travel as a Form of Pushing Your Limits or Why I'm a Glutton for Punishment

Luis and Sim still looking perky on the first day of the five day hike from hell, Inca Trail, Peru   

I stuck my head through the tent flap one last time, trying not to wake my snoring husband. The sky was jet black, filled with more brilliant stars and asteroids than I'd ever seen in one place. The sharply jagged, snow-capped Andes Mountains surrounded our encampment; tomorrow's climb would be steep. The frigid air cut the viewing short and, shivering, I quickly returned to the relative warmth of my sleeping bag, still fully clothed. I hadn't been able to bring myself to remove my sweat-stained clothes in the sub-zero temperatures, much less bathe, even after eight hours of strenuous hiking the previous day. I felt terrible. I was still suffering from the effects of altitude sickness, my feet had already developed several blisters, every muscle ached, my head pounded and I was dirty and (no doubt) smelly. And I couldn't sleep because of the giant pit in my stomach. This was only the first night; we had four more days and nights to go. How would I ever be able to traverse the Andes? The Andes! Planes crashed here and people were forced to eat fellow passengers. I thought of my buff traveling companions; they would barely make a snack, much less a meal. The terrain had defeated hundreds of steely Spanish Conquistadors in their normally unstoppable quest for gold. I was a 45-year old out-of-shape woman who had never attempted anything like this in her life. On top of that, the travel agency in Cuzco had, for some insane reason, placed us in a group of 20-somethings from Spain, all of whom were in spectacular shape, including one triathlete and one professional mountain guide. How could I possibly keep up? Well, nothing for it, really. I had three choices: keep up with them, turn back without a guide or move to this encampment permanently. Sigh...

Hikers and horses taking a break on the Inca Trail (photo by Luis Bastardo)   

It remains, to this day, one of the hardest things that I've ever done. It far surpasses other endeavors that I've more or less successfully completed: a 240-foot bungee jump over Miami Beach, a stint learning to swing on a circus trapeze, being awoken at 5 a.m. on an overnight bus through Bolivia by drug police dressed in black ski masks and jackboots and carrying semi-automatic weapons. All of those things were nerve-racking, but they were also over in less than three hours, not five days. Hiking the Peruvian Inca Trail from Cuzco to the ancient city of Machu Picchu was something that I'd wanted to do for a long time in order to check another box on my travel bucket list, but I never gave much thought to the actual logistics of the trip. Keep in mind that I am not what anyone would describe as even remotely athletic, or even coordinated. I have no interest in sports, I fall off bicycles regularly, I can't dance, and I trip over my own feet at least once a month (I have the scarred knees to prove it). The one thing that I do have going for me, though, is tenacity. I refuse to give up once I've committed to something. This isn't always a strength; sometimes it's wiser to walk away from a situation, but often it is the force that pushes me ahead and lets me accomplish things that I never thought were possible.  

A well-deserved siesta after lunch, Inca Trail, Peru (photo by Simone Cannon) 

For me, experiences such as this are one of the main reasons that I travel and will continue to travel for as long as I am able. Pushing myself past the boundaries of my perceived limits is much more likely to happen far away from home for several reasons: it is much more adventurous and exotic to challenge myself in other countries, I'm not able to easily quit and return to my comfy bed, and I have my husband, fellow travelers and guides to offer much-needed support and to push me along. Let's face it, very few accomplishments are completed without assistance in one form or another. But at the end of the day, I am the one who has to cross the finish line alone.

A refreshing cup of coca leaf tea, Peru (photo by Simone Cannon)

After five days of hiking on average, 10 hours a day, we arrived at the town of Aguas Calientes exhausted, but exhilarated. Luis and I had spent most of our time on the trail lagging far behind the younger hikers, with the guide running back to us a few times a day to make sure that we hadn't collapsed. In truth, my uber-fit husband could have kept up with them but he kindly stayed back with me. The deeply inclined downhill hikes would turn out to be much more damaging to my knees than the feared upward paths, my extensive blisters forced me to wear no other shoes than flip-flops for a month afterwards and, even after many cups of coca tea, my altitude sickness would linger for another week. But none of that mattered, sitting on a precipice at Machu Picchu , watching the sun rise and staring out at the breathtaking views of a real-life Shangri-La. Would I do it again? In a second.

Yes! We made it! 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

5 Quick Cures for TFS (Travel Fatigue Syndrome)

Simone, unable to visit one more historically important site, ready for a sanctuary and a stiff drink, Salvador de Bahia, Brazil (photo by Luis Bastardo)

You can feel it coming. You want to be excited, you know how life-altering travel can be, you want to get every minute's worth of value out of this expensive trip, you feel a moral imperative to understand the historical importance of the ancient cobblestones that you're shuffling across to reach El Plaza Mayor where the country that you are currently visiting (Colombia? Peru? Brazil?) staged its first political revolutions, but then...everything starts to become a blur. The walking tour guide's words start to run together, the dates become all mixed up (is this the plaza commemorating the revolution of October 12th, May 17th or August 10th?), your camera hand is on auto-pilot, snapping random photos of the latest commemorative plaque or castle ruins. Local touts are entering your personal space to sell you yet another postcard, t-shirt and tweeting bird toy. You can't figure out one more bus route, sign in a foreign language or whether the taxi driver is ripping you off or not. There are still seven days left in this trip and all you want to do is lie in a hammock with a tall, frosty cocktail (which you can do at home for free). What to do? No worries; it's perfectly okay to slow down and recharge. Here are some suggestions for quick  rejuvenation:

A warm and comforting bowl of Pho (photo by Simone Cannon) 

1) Find Some Comfort Food (and Drink): one of the fastest and easiest way to recover is to have a slow-paced, relaxing meal of simple warm food, such as a delicious bowl of soup or noodles. Take a break from touring and wander down the side streets of a city. Follow your nose or ask locals for suggestions (be sure to specify that you would like to know where they eat and not where they think you would like to eat) to find an inexpensive, local restaurant. For the most authentic experience, look for menus only in the local language, that is, without an English or German translation, try to find a family-run place, and check the proportion of local people to tourists eating there (should be high). Suspend your nervousness about eating something unusual, take a leap and ask your server to bring you whatever food is the most popular (be sure to mention in advance any serious food allergies of course, you don't want your sanctuary to be the ER). If you're a drinker, try the local beer, wine or cocktail. You might find a new favorite, like Sri Lankan Lion Stout or Brazilian Caipirinhas. Just don't overindulge; a little alcohol is relaxing, a lot may make you feel worse than ever.

Even in non-stop, full-on India, a traveler can find quiet places, such as the vast, peaceful lawns at the Taj Mahal, Agra, India (photo by Simone Cannon)    

2) Find a Sanctuary: even in the most frenetic of countries, there are many places of calm where it is possible to escape the constant barrage of sounds, colors, smells and activity which can overwhelm anyone in a new place and culture. Places of worship or memorial are usually a safe bet. For example, in Agra, India, although the Taj Mahal tomb itself is often flooded with tourists, the grounds are usually much less crowded. Since so many visitors make a bee-line for the Taj, then head back to their tour bus, a traveler in need of escape can wander across the lawns, sit under a shady tree, explore the numerous mosques, shrines and forts that are also part of the complex, all included in a low entrance fee. In Thailand, although most places of worship are bustling with people, there is a prevailing sense of reflection and peace which most visitors respect.

Taking a break for lunch on the beach while sea kayaking, Cathedral Cove, Hahei, New Zealand (photo by Simone Cannon)

3) Treat Yourself: the natural world is full of free treats such gorgeous beaches, breath-taking mountain trails, thermal springs, forests, rushing rivers and deep blue lakes. Whatever rejuvenates you at home will rejuvenate you abroad. If you enjoy splashing about in the ocean, mountain-biking, kayaking, hiking, sitting in the jacuzzi, fly fishing or photographing butterflies, you will almost always be able to find somewhere to indulge in your favorite pastime. You might even meet some fellow enthusiasts. If you are a spa-goer at home, you will be pleasantly surprised at the variety of spa treatments available around the world, often at much lower prices than at home. Book a 1/2 day at a local spa or get a foot and leg massage at a temple. Wat Po in Bangkok, Thailand is a Buddhist temple that also houses a massage school, where visitors can get a 1/2 hour or full hour fully-clothed Thai massage for 260/420 baht (approx. US $8 for 1/2 hr & $12 for 1 hr).          
Luis taking a very sexy tango lesson in (oddly enough) Lima, Peru (photo by Simone Cannon)

4) Teach or Learn Something: leap in and take advantage of your locale to learn something new. In Argentina, learn the tango or how to make a parrilla; in Calgary, Alberta learn how to lasso; in Norway, learn how to cross-country ski. The idea is to immerse yourself in what makes that country special. Aside from learning a new skill, you will almost certainly get some valuable insight into another culture, language and history and meet many people that you might not have otherwise encountered. If you have skills or an interesting hobby, especially if they are specific to your home country, you may consider offering your services to a local school, whose members are often thrilled to have international guest speakers. English conversational groups are extremely popular and, as a native speaker, you will be welcomed with open arms into the group even if you can only attend a session or two.

 Simone, listening to soul-saving music on her Ipod, after five days aboard a water barge on the Amazon River, between Manaus and Porto Velho, Brazil 

5) Listen to Some Energizing Music from Home: I always have a wide variety of music on my Ipod when traveling, ready for every possible situation. If I can't sleep because of noise or jet lag, I have soothing jazz or new age like Diana Krall or SpaTunes; for ratcheting up my energy level, I have the playlist that I use for running or walking at home, Katy Perry's Firework, Whitney Houston's I'm Every Woman, Earth Wind and Fire's Shining Star, etc. Music has amazing transforming powers and having my tunes loaded and organized into playlists for every musical emergency has saved my sanity more times that I can remember. Although I love the sights and sounds of a new place, after a while, I need some down time and just want to drown the noise out and return home for a brief 30-minute stop, then I'm ready and rarin' to go once more.