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Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, China, Compass Holidays, Guided Tour, Travel, Travelzoo

Guided China: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

TravelZoo Top 20 has offered some great trips in the past few years and I’ve taken advantage of some of their promotions, including to Ireland, The Azores, and Alaska. I’ve had my eye on the China trip for a while, and over the years, I’ve watched the price drop from around $1,000 to $499 for different trips respectively.

While January isn’t the best time to see China and while a guided tour isn’t my preferred way of travel, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to finally make this trip when the price dropped to $499 from Boston (and when I roped a travel buddy in.)

After a couple of days of deliberating, we finally locked in the deal for $588 for January 16th-24th. This included roundtrip airfare from Boston on award winning Hainan Airlines, one domestic flight from Beijing to Shanghai, all hotel stays (4 and 5 star), breakfast daily, guided tours to The Great Wall, as well as local city tours in Suzhou, Wuxi and Hangzhou and all transfers.

When I broke this down after the trip, I got this:

Airfare from Boston to Beijing and Shanghai back to Boston: $636.00

Airfare from Beijing to Shanghai: $153.00

3 nights at Beijing’s Garden International Hotel: $124 x 3 = $372.00

1 night at Suzhou Grand Metro Park: $80.00

1 night at Wuxi Jiangsui: $115.00

1 night at Hangzhou’s Xinghai International Hotel: $60.00

2 nights at Shanghai’s Crowne Plaza Pudong: $125 x 2 = $250.00

Before we even start adding in meals, local excursions, transfers, etc… we’re looking at over $1600.00 if you plan it yourself. This was too good of a deal to pass up.

However, the old saying, “If it seems to good to be true, it often is,” pops into my head. There was definitely a ‘catch’ to this trip. Obviously, tourism is suffering in China and the government have stepped in and are subsidising these trips. In turn, we get a good deal but have to make the obligatory daily factory visits.

If you know what you’re getting into, then ok, but know what you’re getting into. This isn’t for everyone. As an avid, independent traveler, I much prefer to plan my own itinerary, seek out my own hotels/guesthouses/restaurants and have the freedom to choose how I spend my own time.

That being said, having the assistance with the language barrier and all our transfers was extremely helpful. And as a budget traveler, I enjoyed a little bit of luxury at such a deeply discounted price. This isn’t for everyone, but if you’re up for a different sort of adventure and want to snag a good deal, I say go for it. At the end of the day, it is all what you make of it!

Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, China, long term travel, Shanghai, Travel, Travelzoo

Surviving Shanghai

Finally our moment of freedom has come. We have one more day in China and it’s a free day to explore Shanghai. Or so we thought. There’s mention of a morning factory visit and then optional city stuff followed by a farewell dinner and a boat cruise near The Bund, but we decide we will go our own way today.

I sleep in a little bit and leisurely head down to breakfast as the rest of the group is finishing up and headed to the bus. I grab a cup of coffee and pick up the local English paper. And just as I sit down with some dumplings, Katherine comes over to me and says, “We have to go on the factory visit this morning. And if we don’t, we have to pay $100 each.” At this point, I’m pissed. What kind of situation is this, where we’ll be fined if we don’t attend? I’ve visited more factories this week than someone on a business trip, and today is meant to be our free day. Katherine follows up with, “We’re free to go after the visit, but we have to go this morning.”

I look outside and the bus is waiting for us and a few others who had the same idea initially. I chug my coffee, grab my coat and head to the bus. I pass Michael on the way and say to him. “I know you’re in a tough situation, but this isn’t right.” I half jokingly tell him I feel like a hostage.

We make our way to the other side of Shanghai and as we turn into what will be the last factory visit of the tour, Michael says, “There’s something different about this business. This is the only factory that is not government run. It is private. They sell jade and jewelry.” Just what we all need more of!

We enter in and are taken to a fancy showroom where we’re seated around a big, dark wooden office table. A lady greets us and begins to ask us all about our trip – where we’ve been, what we’ve seen, what Chinese we have learned. She seems to be biding her time, and a well dressed overweight man walks into and out of the showroom a couple of times. I get the sense that something is off. I look to Jay and Ivy who are sitting next to me and say, “Are these guys Chinese mafia?” Ivy, who is Vietnamese starts nodding her head in agreement and says, “He is not Chinese, he is Vietnamese, and yes, I’m pretty sure he’s mafia.” As she goes on to explain the housing market crash and the relations between the Chinese and Vietnamese, I have visions in my head of what will happen if no one decides to buy anything. This really isn’t how I wanted to spend my last day in China.

Fortunately, I’m at the back of the room, nearest the exit, so Katherine and I walk out and wait by the bus. It’s at least another 30 minutes before the rest of the group finishes up. Michael asks us to sign a waiver, stating that we are choosing to leave the group tour and are responsible for ourselves for the rest of our time in Shanghai, as if we’ve never traveled before. And then, we truly are free.

Fuxing Road, Shanghai.

We begin our whirlwind tour of Shanghai, first jumping on the metro and heading over to Fuxing Park, where we watch a couple practicing their ballroom dancing moves (Yes, it’s a thing), while kids fly kites and a few practice Tai chi.

Shanghai is surprisingly orderly and modern compared to Beijing. I can see why people love this city. There’s a subtle energy here that isn’t overwhelming, but there’s definitely a buzz.

The master mixologist, Roger.

We decide to look for a spa to get a foot massage and then make our way over to The Bund, but Katherine recommends we stop at a little corner cafe for a drink. It’s still early, but after the morning we’ve had, we all oblige. We duck in to Sober Cafe, where we meet the friendly barman, Roger and spend the afternoon taste testing his award winning cocktails. Roger is originally from Japan, but he has been working in Shanghai for a couple of years now. He tells us of the speakeasy movement taking place right now and says he’ll message us later to see if we want to meet up.

A lot of the day has slipped away, but we head over to a local spa for one of our last opportunities for a massage. The boys opt for a one-hour traditional massage and Katherine and I take an hour of reflexology. I’m asleep 30 minutes in, but we all leave with a second wind and jump in a taxi to head over to The Bund.

Shanghai’s beautiful skyline.

Katherine, Warren, me and Ray.

The Bund is the former Shanghai International Settlement and is a collection of varying architectural styles, including Baroque Revival, Art Nouveau, Beaux- Arts and many more. Because of this, Shanghai boasts one of the most unique skylines in the world. We make it our mission to see it from a few different angles, heading up to Bar Rogue for one view and then over to the much more refined Hyatt hotel for a look down from the VUE bar.

The view from Bar Rouge.

It’s bitterly cold and Shanghai is due its first snowfall of the season tonight. As we sit huddled under heat lamps on the outside patio, the first flurries start to fall.

Katherine and I shoot each other a look that says, “I wonder if we’ll make it out of here tomorrow.” As much as we’re on the same page about being ready to head home, we both know we wouldn’t mind an extra day to explore independently.

Today was a reminder of how we travel – a free day to roam, explore, get lost, make friends, and discover the hidden gems on our own. It’s been a great trip overall, but to end with a day like today reminds me of how I like to travel. I’ve given the guided tour a try… and while there are many good things I can say about it, especially in China, I think there’s no better way than to go your own way.

Next post: Guided China, The Good, The Bad & The Ugly…

 

Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, China, Hangzhou, Travel, Travelzoo

Green Tea, West Lake & Outback ???

Terraced tea fields near Hangzhou.

The grounds of Dragon Well Tea Plantation.

Terraced tea fields near Hangzhou.

Hooray, it’s our last day of the guided tour before we arrive in Shanghai this evening. We start the day at Dragon Well Tea Plantation on the outskirts of Hangzhou. It’s a cool, damp morning and the mist hangs thick over the terraced tea fields. It’s a beautiful glimpse into an older, more rural China, away from the sprawling metropolises we’ve been spending a lot of our time in.

Lotus Lake

We tour the grounds and then head into a tasting room where we learn all of the detoxifying benefits of green tea, while leaves steep in cups in front of us. We finish our tea, and Ray and I sneak away across the road to frolic in the terraced fields.

West Lake pagoda.

West Lake.

From here, we head to our last group lunch, which is one of the better ones of the trip. We then head to West Lake, where we spend a damp and cool afternoon walking a small section of the 50 acres this park occupies. The lake is dotted with bridges, temples and pagodas, and despite being the off-season, it’s crowded with locals and tourists alike.

West Lake.

Despite being busy, there’s still a sense of peacefulness and I picture what the lake may look like on a spring or summer day, when filled with bright green lotus plants. We have a couple of hours to explore, so I wander off and watch house boats make their trips around the lake and then I stop to listen to a street musician playing guitar.

We reconvene at the bus at 2:30 and begin the almost 3 hour drive to Shanghai. I’m associating Shanghai with freedom, but learn that we won’t be going directly to the hotel. There’s an optional performance tonight, ERA- The Intersection of Time, Shanghai’s equivalent of Cirque de Soleil. The plan is to go straight to the show. If you don’t opt in for the show, well, you can just wait on the others who do.

I ask Michael if we can make our own way to the hotel, but no, he will need to be there to check us in. So there goes one free night in Shanghai. Katherine and Warren decide to opt in for the show, and Ray and I decide to grab a bite and then look for somewhere to get a foot massage. There’s a small shopping center near the show venue, and we agree on a western meal at Outback. Ray and I indulge in overpriced steaks and red wine. We then head over to the spa for a foot massage, only to find out the spa is under construction. We decide to tell Katherine and Warren we had the best foot massage EVER, as we’re sure we will hear ERA is the BEST show they have ever seen.

We all reconvene after the show, head to the hotel and have a nightcap, toasting to the end of our guided tour… and the full free day we have in Shanghai tomorrow.

 

Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, China, Hangzhou, Lake Tai, Travel, Travelzoo, Wuxi

Finally Wooed in Wuxi

Lake Tai

 We wake to a bright morning in Wuxi. Paired with the energy of our evening last night, I feel positive about what today will bring. After breakfast, we meet Angela in the lobby, where she again passes on her father-in-law’s compliments to the boys on their chopstick skills.

Lake Tai

We all load on to the tour bus and head back to Lake Tai. We have the chance for a short but brighter walk before heading to the pearl factory a few minutes away.

Cracking open oysters and counting pearls

You know the drill by now. We’re greeted at the factory doors, taken into a showroom, told about the cultivation of pearls and then let loose in the showroom. Well, we were all destined to break at one point in time, and apparently, today is my day. An hour (and a couple of hundred dollars) later, I now own two beautiful strands of pearls. (I keep telling myself it’s ok because the trip was so cheap!)

From the pearl factory, we head to a tea pot museum, home to the largest tea pot in China and some pretty impressive and detailed craft tea pots. However, after my little spree at the pearl factory, I won’t be spending $300 on a teapot and tea cups. Thankfully, this is a short visit and we then make our way to lunch before the afternoon drive to Hangzhou.

A typical lunch

Lunch is another game of “Is this pork or chicken?” but there’s an actual coffee shop downstairs, so Katherine, the boys and I excuse ourselves from lunch and indulge in a $5 cafe latte. It’s everything that lunch wasn’t!

From here, we part ways with Angela, thank her profusely for her hospitality and begin the 2 hour drive to Hangzhou.

En route, Michael comes around to collect the $90 mandatory gratuity that each person owes. This was clearly laid out to us at the time of booking and is non-negotiable. This money is to be shared amongst our two Michaels, all our local tour guides, and the bus drivers. It’s nothing when it’s broken down this way, and the trip still remains such a bargain.

Still, there are a few people who feel like the gratuity should be “optional” and not “mandatory,” and therefore decide not to pay it. It’s a little awkward for everyone.

Xing Hai International Hotel

Smoggy sunset in Hangzhou

We arrive in Hangzhou by late afternoon and check into a beautiful hotel. Michael checks in everyone who has paid the mandatory gratuity and we make our way to our rooms, curious as to the fate of the others… It turns out that the people who refused to pay up will be responsible for covering the cost of their hotel rooms in Hangzhou tonight. Michael says, “Sorry, in China, we have to punish you the Chinese way.”

Unfortunately we’re quite far from the city center and after venturing across the road to check out the dining options, we end up at the hotel buffet. I feel I’ve failed as a traveler again, but after all those meh lunches, a couple slices of pizza really hit the spot.

After dinner, we sit with Nick and Sue in the hotel bar, discussing our weird and wonderful group dynamics. The boys return from massages with a bottle of liquor that tastes more like lighter fluid, so Ray goes out to buy a couple of bottles of wine and we sit in the hotel lobby until the wee hours of the morning, talking life. We’re making the best of it, but there’s no denying we’re ready for our arrival in Shanghai tomorrow and to have our freedom back… Or so we think…

 

 

 

Around the world travel, Backpacking, Beijing, Bucket List, China, Compass Holidays, Travel, Travelzoo

How Do You Say “Softly” in Mandarin?

Ads on the Beijing metro.

We have one last free morning in Beijing, and Michael has organized a late checkout for everyone, so after breakfast, Katherine and I head to Tiananmen Square. We were here the other day but headed straight for the Forbidden City, and because of Tiananmen’s historical significance, I want to pay a proper visit.

Tiananmen Square

So, we head back to Happy Valley, make the journey by metro to Tiananmen East, clear security and walk from one end of the square to the other. Besides a few statues, there’s not much to see here, but I feel better having made the visit.

We hail a taxi and head northeast towards Dragonfly spa, a place that’s been recommended by a friend for massage and reflexology. Luckily, my maps is working without an internet connection, and I’m able to get us within walking distance to the spa. The language barrier is proving to make solo navigation challenging!

We arrive in an area that seems to cater to Westerners. A Hilton hotel sits next to a shopping complex that’s home to Starbucks, a wine shop, a public swimming pool, and the place we’re after, Dragonfly.

We take a few minutes to peruse the menu and both Katherine and I decide on a 1-hr traditional Chinese massage, which is a combination of deep tissue and acupressure. Andy, my masseuse, collects us from the waiting room, takes us to our respective rooms and shows us the linen tops and bottoms we’re to put on. They are made for petite Asian ladies, and I just about manage to get the pants over my hips.

Dragonfly Spa

Andy speaks very little English, but I tell him I like a strong massage. He goes to work, and I realize he has understood what I said. Maybe a little too much because as he works his way down my back, I’m literally twinging in pain. I start to say, “Ok, maybe not so hard.” But he thinks I mean the opposite and pushes so deep on my lower left back muscle, that I know I’m going to feel it for days. A little whimper comes out followed by “Owwww.” And he exclaims, “Ohhh, you mean softer.” Yes, softer, that’s the word I was looking for!

Andy finishes up an awesome massage, and tells me his name again, “You come back, you ask for Andy.” “Yes,” I say, not even attempting to try to explain I’m just visiting and actually leaving for Shanghai in a matter of hours.

I find Katherine in the reception area, and we laugh at the matching pillow imprints on our faces. We settle our bills, $30 each, head to Starbucks for something to wake us up, and grab a taxi so we can make it back to the hotel to check out and make our transfer to Shanghai.

A few people from the group flew out on a very early flight this morning, and the rest of us are on either a 5:20 or 5:55 flight from Beijing to Hongqiao. We drop half the group at Terminal 1 and the rest of us head to Terminal 2 and check in at the Hainan counter. We have lost Michael, who seems to have broken his own golden rule… “Follow Michael,” and don’t get the chance to say thank you and goodbye.

Katherine and I clear security, grab a snack at a Chinese fast food joint, top up our chocolate supply at one of the duty free shops, and board our flight.

It’s a short flight, but we have time to reflect on Beijing and the trip so far. Because I feel partly responsible for Katherine’s happiness on the trip, seeing as I’m the one that suggested it and sold her on China to begin with, I ask her, “So, what do you think so far?”  Her reply, “We’re in China. We paid less than $600. I’m just taking it for what it is.”

As independent travelers, it’s tough for us to have so many of our decisions made for us. We are used to doing the research, the planning, the bookings, the navigating. Doing that kind of work before a trip ensures (most of the time) an enjoyable adventure, and there’s a sense of satisfaction when you figure out a place. BUT, it IS China, and I’m not gonna lie, there’s something nice about these 4 and 5-star hotels, the bus that shows up for our airport and city transfers and the assistance with the language barrier, and oddly enough, the weird and wonderful members of our group are growing on me.

I think about what Katherine said, and agree that we could have never planned this trip for the price we got it for. (Hence the factory visits). I will move forward with an open mind about this “organized travel…” or so I tell myself tonight.

Around the world travel, Bucket List, China, Compass Holidays, Travel, Travelzoo

13 Hours and 13 Miles in Beijing

After surprisingly being able to sleep through the night, we wake feeling pretty rested and ready to tackle our first day in Beijing. First things first, breakfast… and oh, what a treat this is. It’s dinner time to our bodies and we’ve had nothing but airplane food for the past few meals, so we take advantage of what’s on offer, and that’s basically everything and anything you can think of… sushi, dumplings, steamed pork buns, preserved eggs, bok choy, omelettes, soup, fruit, etc etc.

A bike rental stand near Happy Valley.

While Michael rounds up the group for the guided tour, we try to get a cup of coffee from the very over-worked machine (It seems to be one employee’s job to monitor the machine, dump the coffee grounds, and generally encourage everyone to drink more green tea and less coffee!)

We  make plans for our day exploring Beijing. We’re on the southern outskirts of the city, and the closest metro stop is “Happy Valley,” named appropriately for the amusement park that sits between our hotel and the metro station. Unfortunately, we have to walk around it, but this affords us a little glimpse into rush hour. In a city comprised of 23 million people, there are 6 million cars on the road, but no motorcycles or trucks are allowed during the day. BUT, there are an estimated 10 million bicycles on the road (yes, you can google this to verify). Bicycles seem to have their own lane between walkers and the roadway, and all across the city are bicycle rental stops that look like the picture above. Bicycles are rented by using a QR code and are free for the first two hours. Michael informs us that funnily enough, most rentals last about 1 hour and 58 minutes.

Katherine getting tickets to Tiananmen.

Beijing’s metro system.

We make our way into Happy Valley metro station and begin to try to figure out our route to Tiananmen Square when a lovely young worker comes over to help us. She speaks no English, but chats away to us quickly in Chinese as we point to station names on the screen. She is all smiles and kindness and soon we have 2 tickets that will get us to Tiananmen Square East. The metro is extremely clean (like the rest of the city) and incredibly efficient. We have a couple of line changes, and about 30 minutes later, we arrive at Tiananmen Square.

Forbidden City

Forbidden City

We queue up with hundreds of Chinese tourists to clear security and immediately head over to tour the Forbidden City, which is the former imperial palace of the Ming (1490-1644)& Qing (1644-1912) Dynasties.

A giant marble carving at the Forbidden City

Details on the eaves, Forbidden City

This is a sprawling complex that occupies almost 200 acres and boasts 980 rooms. After two hours of exploring courtyards, pavilions, gates and halls of harmony and tranquility, we exit the Forbidden City to the north in need of our own tranquility.

Jingshan Park

Fortunately, we’re standing right outside Jingshan Park, so we purchase the 2¥ ticket and enter the grounds of this peaceful little park, which was built during the Jin Dynasty and opened to the public as a park in 1928.

Come to find out this is one of the best preserved imperial gardens in all of China and historically important as it’s the place where Emperor Chongzhen (a ruler during the Ming Dynasty) hanged himself in 1644.

Looking down to the Forbidden City

Beijing as seen from Wanchun Pavilion.

We climb the footpath up to Wanchun Pavilion (meaning Everlasting Spring) and enjoy incredible views of the Forbidden City below and panoramic views of Beijing’s skyline.

Candy apples for sale.

When we leave the park, hunger is setting in, but seeing no nearby restaurants or cafes, we’re at the mercy of the street food vendors. Lunch, or our snack, is street corn and candy apples.

The Temple of Heaven.

We begin the walk back to Tiananmen East station and take the train over to Temple of Heaven, where we spend the afternoon exploring another sprawling imperial palace complex.

After nearing the point of being “templed out,” we enter the Long Corridor and see hundreds of people gathered in groups of four, playing an intense card game. We take a break and look on for a bit, seeing if we can figure out who’s in charge, what the buy in is, and the rules of the game.

A lady debates her next move.

Scariest tuk tuk ride ever!

We’re getting seriously hungry, so we head to Hutong in search of food. We arrive (barely) by China’s equivalent of a tuk tuk. We were either going to die by ingesting fumes or getting leveled in traffic, as our driver seemed to think he was driving a truck, not a tuk tuk.

We begin to explore the many little side streets of this area, and it doesn’t take us long to spot a cook in the window of a noodle shop rolling out fresh dough for dumplings. We look no further and enter a stark, cafeteria style restaurant.

Best meal in Beijing.

Kung Pao chicken.

Dumplings!!

A lady ushers us to a booth and looks at us inquisitively. After using hand gestures to make the shape of a menu, she brings us a 40-page bound book with pictures of every dish available. We choose kung pao chicken and dumplings, which come out within minutes and immediately bring us back to life.

At this point in time, I decide to check my fitbit and see that we’ve walked close to 12 miles already. By the time we get back to the hotel, we’ve clocked another mile.

We see Michael who lets us know our start time for tomorrow is 8am, and there will be a 6:30 wake up call followed by breakfast at 7am.  I suck up all this “organized” stuff and let the excitement of our trip to the Great Wall set in.

 

Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, China, Compass Holidays, Guided Tour, long term travel, Travel

“Follow Michael” – The Beginning Of My Guided Tour Through China

Even just a few years back, if you’d asked me if I would consider booking, book, or actually go on a guided tour, the answer would have been “no.” Not just an “i don’t think so,” or a “let me think about it,” but an ‘it’s against my religion kind of “no.” ‘ You see, in the world of hard core travel, guided tours are like the cardinal sin. They’re the easy way out for the traveler who doesn’t want to do the planning, for the apprehensive traveler who’s afraid of the language barrier, or for the fearful one who thinks the location isn’t safe to tackle alone. They’re the opposite of authenticity.

Hainan Airlines from Boston to Beijing

Well, forgive me Father of Travel because I have sinned… and I’ve gone and booked a cheaper than chips 8-day GUIDED trip to China. I hope that given this is close to my 65th country, I have some sort of clout… but as I see the Compass Holiday flag in the busy arrival hall upon landing in Beijing, I wonder if I have sold myself out.

After the 13 1/2 hour flight, I’m too tired to really think about it that much, and in my zombie state, I curse the missing two travelers our group of 20 or so is waiting for.

After about an hour of waiting, our Chinese tour guide, “Michael” who refers to himself in the third person, rounds up the group, and exclaims very loudly and in his very thick accent, “Follow Michael.” And we do as said, and make our way to the tour bus waiting outside.

It’s 10pm now, 9am to our bodies, so we don’t know if we should feel ready to go to bed or start the day. We board the bus for the 40-minute drive to the promised 4-star hotel, and Michael begins our first Chinese history lesson… Communism, Socialism, Mings and Qings. My friend Katherine, who I roped into taking this trip with me, is asleep in the seat next to me. I fight sleep as Michael tells us, “China is a chicken: Beijing is the neck, Shanghai is the belly, Hong Kong is the foot. ” He then comes around to sell us water and see if we want to opt in for the Beijing City Tour the following day. No, no thanks. We’re all set and will explore on our own. Katherine and I are two of the four people not opting in to the guided tour the following day.

Garden International Hotel, Beijing

As we drive, I see a pretty, ornate building and wonder if it’s our hotel. I nudge Katherine. “Wouldn’t that be awesome if it was our hotel?” I say, as the bus turns around and pulls in to the entrance.

THE Toilet

We step off the bus, gather our bags and make our way to the lobby to get checked in. It’s late and the hotel is empty, but the staff is eagerly waiting to assist us. We get our keys and head to our room, which is just as luxurious as the view of the hotel from the roadway. Not to mention the heated toilet seat!

 

I call the front desk to confirm what time breakfast is, and the employee that answers the phone uses google translate to tell me to “hold on one second” and “I will call you right back.” And he does, breakfast is 7am-10am on the 2nd floor.

I quickly try to check Facebook, Instagram, email…Nothing. It’s looking like I’m going to have a nice digital detox while in China.

Despite the time difference, we crawl into our comfy beds and sleep. And I wonder what this guided trip has in store for us?

Backpacking, Bucket List, Chile, Patagonia, South America, The W Trek, Torres del Paine, Travel

Patagonia – How This Journey Came To Be

The desire to see this part of the world started long ago, just before my nomadic life began in 2009, but I guess you could say that despite it taking me eight years to finally make it here, Patagonia was the impetus for me setting off on my travels.

Back in my Sunnyside, Queens apartment in December of 2008, I was celebrating finishing my master’s degree and looking to plan a little get away between Christmas and New Year. Patagonia was where I wanted to go. Something about the raw beauty at the opposite end of the world intrigued me. Just the pictures alone made me want to jump on a plane.

After checking with my other broke friends in NYC and looking at the points in my Delta frequent flyer account, we quickly decided Rio was more feasible and affordable, so Patagonia took a back seat and there it sat for the next eight years.

Over these years, my travels would take me to Southeast Asia, Australia, India, Eastern Europe, Central America, Canada and even North Africa. The large continent of South America was somewhere I knew I wanted to go, but somewhere I wanted to go with the right amount of time and the right budget.

Over the years, the intrigue and desire to see Patagonia would grow… almost to the point where the thought of this trip took on a larger than life persona. I treasured the place before I visited and it became a dream trip… one I became hesitant to take, simply for the fact that I wouldn’t have it to look forward to anymore. I told everyone for years that Patagonia was the number one place on my bucket list, yet I was in no hurry to get here.

However, in January, I found myself with 4 ½ months before I had to return to work, some extra cash stashed away from my seasonal work, and the desire for a longer adventure… the time was right for South America, and the main reason for the trip was to finally visit Patagonia.

 

Albania, Bosnia, Bucket List, Burma, Camino de Santiago, Croatia, Czech Republic, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Hungary, Macedonia, Montenegro, Myanmar, Norway, Slovenia, Spain

The Travel Year in Review

me flies when you’re having fun, and the past five months have felt like five weeks. But what another incredible journey it has been, filled with some of the most profound travel moments yet.

Somehow, I feel like I was sitting at the table writing my 2013 bucket list yesterday, and here I am wrapping up the ‘Year in Review’ post. Don’t worry, this will be quickly followed by the 2014 “Travel bucket list.” But I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, and I do want to highlight what was an epic summer of European travel, followed by a very long walk through Spain and a visit back to Southeast Asia- a region I fell in love with four years ago.

To quickly review, my 2013 bucket list was ambitious. Many countries are being carried over to next years’ list, but I can cross Norway and Burma off. And, well, wouldn’t you know that many new countries have presented themselves. Next years list might be even longer than the last.

Holmenkollbakken Ski Jump
Viegeland’s Park

This years’ travels began in Norway, and it is a country that did not disappoint. It was an epic place to start, and logistically a smart place to begin. Norway is not for the frugal backpacker. A beer will set you back $15, a guesthouse $30 or above and sightseeing doesn’t run cheap either. The infamous Norway in a Nutshell tour costs around $200 USD. Ouch!! I was very fortunate to be introduced to new friends in Oslo, who put me up for a couple of nights. Oslo is packed full of things to see and do – The Munch Museum, Vigeland’s Sculpture Park, the new Opera House, the Viking Museum, Botanical Gardens, and the famous Holmenkollbakken ski jump, which overlooks the sprawling city below.

En route to Bergen

I traveled West on the ‘Norway in a Nutshell’ tour, taking two trains, one boat, and a bus and finally ending up in Bergen 12 hours later… after passing glaciers, fjords, waterfalls, remote villages, and stave churches. In Bergen, I savored salmon and whale at the famous outdoor fish market, and had my first sample of smoked reindeer. It was a culinary highlight.

A bird’s-eye-view of Alesund

From Bergen, I flew to Alesund and reconnected with a travel buddy from Honduras, who put me up and gave me a tour of the middle part of the country. Alesund is an interesting city in the fact that it burned down entirely in 1904, and was rebuilt in Art Nouveau architecture. Pair this with the surrounding Atlantic Ocean and a number of barrier islands, and you have a picture-perfect setting.

Preikstolen, or ‘Pulpit’s Rock’

Unfortunately, the weather had gone from bad to worse and continued to deteriorate throughout my time in Alesund, but the sun broke through for my late afternoon visit to Geiranger Fjord. And days later, after flying south to Stavanger, I managed half a day of sunshine for the hike up Preikstolen (aka, ‘Pulpit’s Rock).

I decided mid-way through my ten days in Norway that I would return one day with a camper van and an unlimited number of days with which to explore this picturesque place.

Prague’s colorful buildings and terracotta rooftops

How could I be sad to leave Norway, when I was headed to meet my best friend in the Czech Republic for ten more days of galavanting? I had visited Prague while studying abroad in Paris during college, but I had no idea what the rest of the Czech Republic had in store for me. What an incredibly amazing place?! Prague is rife with tourists, and you can sort of tell that the locals are over it. In fact, I was kind of over it too after a few days. Just too many people with their cameras, and not enough of the real, local culture to immerse yourself in anymore. But head outside of Prague city limits and it’s like traveling back in time to a place where the rich Czech culture still exists.

Cesky Krumlov

We hired a car and drove over 1500 kilometers in six days, heading northeast to Karlovy Vary, and continuing on in a counterclockwise direction. Karlovy Vary is one of the most picturesque villages I have ever seen, and it’s known for it’s natural mineral water springs, covered and protected by ancient colonnades.

Cesky Kromlov is also very picturesque and a UNESCO site, which in turn, brings many of
Prague’s tourists south. It was beautiful to see, but the true treats were discovered driving through the surrounding villages, getting lost (even if unintended), and exploring castle ruins dating back to the 11th Century. From Cesky, we headed to Mikulov, my personal favorite stop on the journey.

Velhartice Castle
Tapas, the Czech way

Mikulov is about 20 minutes from the Austrian border, and it is officially sleepy. Still, you can find plenty to fill three days with here, and if you really like wine, consider at least one more day for tasting. This is an undiscovered gem, which probably won’t stay this way. We toured the Jewish Cemetery, hiked up to a hilltop church at sunrise, toured Mikulov castle, and ate and drank our way from one end of the street to the other. We savored homemade dishes of roast lamb, spinach and potatoes, topped off with the family’s home vinted Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc, all served with heart, warmth and pride.

St. Stephen’s Cathedral

Mikulov was a great jumping off point for a day trip to Vienna, a city I had never made it to on past European trips. Yes, we downloaded Mozart for the drive, which took us from country lanes surrounded by vast sunflower fields, to city highways. In Vienna, we toured St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Hapsburg Palace, The Summer Palace, and the Opera House. There are no performances in July and August, so opera will have to wait…til next time.

We returned to Prague at the end of our trip, dropped off our very dirty white Skoda, and headed to Prague’s JW Marriott in the Old Town for two nights of luxury. We befriended a young Czech girl in the lounge, who took such good care of us, and told us what to see and do and where to go to get off the beaten path. Highlights at the back end of the Prague trip included, Ivan Lendl’s Mucha art collection, touring Prague Castle, sampling beers brewed by monks, and did I mention the Marriott – that was pretty nice too 😉

*side note- If you love to bike and/or are looking for a biking holiday, consider the Czech Republic for beautiful scenery and challenging daily rides.

The river Danube, separating Buda and Pest

From Prague, I booked a bus ticket to Budapest, another European city I had been wanting to check out for quite some time now. I arrived at the end of a day where temperatures had reached 40+ celsius (over 105 degrees Farenheit.) After checking in to the guesthouse, I went out in search of a cold beer, and ended up in a local joint, where the bar maid wore a wet towel around her neck, which she jokingly called her AC. I sat next to a train driver and we conversed in broken English about life in Budapest.

Budapest’s Green Bridge

The following day dawned clear, cool and windy, and I set out on a free walking tour of the city, enabling me to get the lay of the land and learn a little bit more about this city and it’s history. I find that I enjoy getting out of cities more these days, but as far as cities go, Budapest has got it going on. And it really feels like many people haven’t figured this out yet. Shhhh! That’s what’s so nice about it.

Szechenyi Baths

After a couple days of soaking in the sights and playing the tourist card, a great group of people from Bubble Hostel hit the town hard, exploring the ruin pub scene. Nightlife is unpretentious and fun, and the only event on the agenda the following day is soaking in the public baths at Szechenyi. I make it there just before sunset, plop myself in a heated pool and start to come back to life. Then I visit the sauna, where I follow the lead of a few, plump Hungarian men, who sit in the sauna, and then dip into the plunge pool that is a chilly 15 degrees (celcius). They get a laugh out of watching me psyche myself up to submerse myself fully underwater.

Lake Bled, Slovenia

Budapest is followed by a short trip to Northern Croatia. I arrive in Zagreb with big plans to really see this country.  These plans are foiled when I realize it’s August and the rest of Europe also wants to see Croatia. It is peak travel season and prices are uncomfortably high for my modest backpacker’s budget. I head to Pula (Northeastern Croatia) and meet Julie, who invites me to hop a ride to Munich with her. After little debate, I find myself on a crazy 36-hour road trip from Croatia to Germany, with Julie and her Slovenian friend’s brother, Duscan, at the wheel. Stops include wine sampling and swims at sunset in Northern Croatia, the incredible vineyards of Slovenia, espresso in Italy, back through Slovenia for seafood, lunch in Austria and finally our arrival in Garmisch, Germany. It was the most memorable road trip ever.

Garmisch-Partenkirchen’s Summer Festival

Julie’s friend Laura, is living and working in Garmisch at Eidelweiss, a resort for active and retired US military. After getting evicted for not legally being checked in for our stay, we are welcomed back the following day to stay for as long as we want. Laura is an awesome hostess who welcomes us to her college style dorm accommodation. Julie and Laura are in bunk beds and I’m on the sofa.

Garmisch is stunningly beautiful, and the cooler temperatures are such a welcomed change after the heat of southern Europe. We have arrived at the right time because it is Festival, which is Garmisch-Partenkirchen’s equivalent of October-Fest. And it can’t get any more authentic than this. For one week, the entire town dons their dirndll and lederhosen and celebrates with liter beers, sausages, music and dance. I feel like this puts OctoberFest to shame.

Paragliders over Zugspitze

The little town of Garmisch is surrounded by some of Germany’s highest peaks, so hiking is on the agenda almost everyday. The physical activity is welcomed, and I manage to climb three mountains surrounding Garmisch, each giving a different perspective on the little town below. But the best perspective came a few days later. After hiking one morning and seeing the sky above filled with paragliders, Julie and I inquired about going up ourselves, and Laura was able to book us in through Eidelwiess. What an incredible experience! Seeing the world from that far above and gliding through the silence left me speechless and wanting to do this again and again.

Wolfgang at Greisbrau in Murnau

The trip to Garmisch is topped off with a tour of the local brewery, Griesbrau, where Wolfgang teaches us the inner workings of the brewery. With the tour comes generous samples and a test/certificate of completion at the end of the evening. Wolfgang takes this very seriously.

It has been great to chill out in Garmisch, recharge the batteries a bit and figure out what is next. Now I’m ready to hit the road again, and while I may have skipped Croatia for the moment, I’m not okay with bypassing the Balkans. I have around three weeks before I need to be in Spain for the Camino, so I book a one-way ticket to Skopje, Macedonia, via Lubljiana, and begin the Balkan tour.

Let me just say that Slovenia might be the prettiest country on the planet. Between my road trip extravaganza and a 24-hour layover here on the way to Macedonia, I saw about three-quarters of the country (it’s small). If you like Northern Italy, then you will LOVE Slovenia, and to be honest, I don’t think this is a place on many peoples’ travel radars yet. Ljubliana is a sleepy little capital city, with cobblestone streets and an impressive cafe culture, Northeastern Slovenia is producing wines that will rival those of Italy and France, the seaside looks like the movie set for “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” castles and ruins top every hill in sight, and the people are just lovely!

Jeruzalem, Slovenia. Wine Country

On my second stop through, I reconnect with Duscan, my roadtrip buddy, and we spend most of our time in the northeastern part of the country, hopping from vineyard to vineyard. We also reconnect with friends of his, who run a family vineyard. I thought they just bottled wines for themselves to enjoy, but it turns out they actually run a successful business from their basement cellar. Bostjian gave me the full tour of the cellar and took me through the wine making process from start to finish. Samples were plentiful and I left with an invitation to return for harvest season…and a slight hangover!

Skopje’s statues, Macedonia

Arriving in Skopje, Macedonia with quite the heavy head, I was picked up at the airport by the hostel owner’s father, who, upon arriving at the hostel immediately gifted me homemade wine and rakia to enjoy during my stay. Skopje is an interesting city to say the least. The pride of the people is evident in new developments and the statue obsession sweeping the city, even if it is a little bizarre. The capital is clean and tidy and home to a number of interesting sights, including a museum honoring Mother Teresa and her birthplace, an old fortress, a number of ornate, old churches and mosques, an old bazaar, and did I mention the statues. If you want to escape the city, about 30 minutes by bus is Lake Matka, where you can walk trails, kayak and see even more old churches and monasteries.

St. Clement, Lake Ohrid, Macedonia

After a couple of days in Skopje, I traveled to Lake Ohrid, my favorite spot in Macedonia. I stay in a hostel within the walls of the old city and tour the ruins of an old coliseum, then climb the steps to Tsar Samuel’s fortress, follow a trail to Plaoshnik – a beuatiful Byzantine basilica, hike down to the lakeside church, St. Jovan Kaneo, and walk back to the center of town via a lakeside walking trail. I enjoy late lunches of freshly baked bread and Greek salads, served with delicious local wine. In the evenings, I watch the sun set over the lake in the tranquil gardens of St. Jovan Kaneo. Despite being peak tourist season, Lake Ohrid is a peaceful stop on my tour of the Balkan countries.

Albanian BBQ

I take a minibus from Ohrid to the outskirts of town where I am able to get a bus to Tirana. Now, my experiences in Albania were not seen through the backpacker’s lens. I have reconnected with an old high school friend, who is working in Tirane. She has offered to put me up for a couple of days, so after the five hour bus ride, I make my way to the Sheraton. I show up in the lobby, hot, sweaty and definitely receiving some stares. I’ve been on the road for about seven weeks, so three nights at the Sheraton is a welcomed treat!

After a hot shower, I put on the cleanest clothes I can dig out of my backpack and head to dinner with Rebecca and some of her colleagues. It is Friday night and seems as if the entire city is out for an evening stroll. Sidewalk cafes and restaurants are full to the brim, so we join the crowds and sample Albanian cuisine…plates of meat, all kinds of meat – pork, beef, chicken, lamb, sausages, kebabs, served with grilled vegetables and locally brewed beers.

Kruja, Albania

The following day, we make our way to Kruja to tour ancient monasteries and castles dating back to Skanderberg’s time. This is followed by a trip to A Mrizi i Zanava, a ‘slow food’ restaurant, where we enjoy an al fresco feast. The meal begins with a pomegranite juice aperitif, quickly followed up with carafes of Albanian red wine. Appetizers including bread, olives and peppers are brought out, followed with a massive cheese plate. Next come the meat dishes – plates of lamb shanks, beef sticks, and pork kebabs. By the end of the meal, no one can manage desert. We head back to Tirana for an afternoon poolside at the Sheraton.

I’m conscious of time, as I need to be in Spain at the end of the month for the start of the Camino, so I sadly bypass the southern beaches of Albania, head north for a night in Shkodra, and then make my way to Montenegro.

An old monastery in the hills of Kotor
Kotor, Montenegro

I’ve met two people at the hostel who are hitching to the border of Montenegro, so I join them for the morning adventure. Poor planning! Moments into our walk, the rain begins. Cars, trucks and SUVs pass by, but no one stops to pick us up… and then, the guy driving the smallest car, the one who has barely any extra room, stops to pick us up. The three of us squeeze in with the three of them and make our way to the border. I think if the driver had his passport with him, he would have driven us to our final destination, but we thank him profusely and bid farewell. We walk across the border into Montenegro and get stuck in a torrential rain storm. Finally, after a taxi, bus, and minivan along the coast, we arrive in Kotor, a beautiful medieval city built in a protected bay. I spend the afternoon beachside and watch as cruise boats come and go. Behind me is St. Ivan’s fort, but I save the steps for the following morning, which dawns cool and misty, but by the time I reach the top, the mist has lifted and the views into the bay and the walled city below are breathtaking.

Mostar, Bosnia

I take an afternoon bus from Kotor to Mostar, arriving about five hours later. I walk the streets trying to find my guesthouse and eventually ask a man standing outside a grocery store where I need to go. It turns out his brother owns the hostel, so he walks me there, and I thank the travel gods for these types of coincidences.

I only have a couple of days in Bosnia, but I had my heart set on seeing Mostar, a city which was completely destroyed during the Bosnian War in 1993. The bridge, pictured to the left, was considered the pride of this country, mentioned in national anthems, and recognized as a national landmark to people world-wide. It was originally constructed in the 16th century, but unfortunately, it was also leveled during the war after being shelled by the Croats. The bridge was rebuilt in 2001 to the exact same specifications it was first built to, and is now home to the famous Mostar Diving Club. Yes, a few skilled divers (and during my time there, a few crazy Aussies) jump off this bridge, plummeting into the cold river below. While the bridge has been rebuilt, much of the city still shows its war scars, but despite there being a long way for the city to come, the people are moving on and welcome tourists with open arms, eager to share their not so distant stories of darker, war-torn days.

The walls of Dubrovnik, Croatia

From Mostar, I head back to Croatia, and while I didn’t get to see nearly as much of this country as I had originally hoped to, I did manage a jam packed afternoon in Dubrovnik before leaving the Balkans for Barcelona. I leave Mostar by bus early in the morning, and I’m in Dubrovnik by 1:00. I check the airport shuttle times and work out that I have about four hours to tour the city. I change 20 Euros, check my backpack in luggage storage, and hop a local bus to the walled city.

The outskirts of the city are seething with tourists, but fortunately, cruise ships are on their way out of the harbor, and when I climb up the stairs to begin my tour of the top of the walls, I discover that most of the people have stayed down below. This may be in an effort to escape the heat…it is a scorcher and looking down I see kayakers, sunbathers and boaters enjoying the Croatian coast. I spend about an hour walking the walls and photographing the terracotta-tiled roofs of Dubrovnik.

A view to the new city from the old, Dubrovnik

At the end of the walk, I climb up to the watchtower for a panoramic view of the city… it’s magical – blue skies, even bluer water, burnt-orange rooftops and the towering hill behind. I could spend some time here, but I know this will be a separate trip in the (near) future. I head back down to level ground and decide to walk the cobblestone streets inside the walled city before walking back to the bus station. I arrive back in just enough time and with just enough money to pay for my luggage locker and a shuttle bus to the airport to catch my evening flight to Barcelona.

Like Paris and London, Barcelona is a city that draws me back again and again. This is a place I could really spend some time exploring, and eating my way through. Unfortunately, I only have a day before I head northwest to the start of the Camino, but I manage a nice walk to the Picasso museum where I spend the afternoon learning about the life and works of this passionate artist. A trip to Barcelona wouldn’t be complete without the tapas experience, and boy has this city capitalized on peoples’ love of tapas. What used to be a freebie offered with wine has now turned into a gourmet dining experience, and one that will easily set you back 20 to 30 Euros. I head to Tapa Tapa and savor olives, pimentos, four cheese risotto and an assortment of cured meats, all polished off with a glass of the house white wine. I soak in the sidewalk cafe culture and enjoy a bit of first-class people watching before heading back to the hostel to pack up for my travels to St. Jean Pied-de-Port.

Road markers in St.Jean Pied-de-Port

September and the early part of October are spent walking 800 kilometers through northern Spain on the historic Camino Frances pilgrimage. A curiosity began growing in me after watching the movie, The Way, and when I realized I would be in Europe for the Summer, I planned the trip with the intention of being in Spain by September, one of the so-say best months to walk the Camino.

People walk the Camino for many different reasons – some for religious or spiritual reasons, others for health reasons, some because they enjoy nature or just enjoy walking. Many people embark on this historical pilgrimage looking for answers to questions, or hoping to figure things out… some are mourning the loss of a loved one, some are looking for forgiveness, the list goes on and on. But everyone is united in the daily event of walking, and everyone for the most part is quite open to sharing his or her story. People seem to be operating on a different level of consciousness, and throughout my time on the Camino, great things unfolded due to open minds and spirits.

A message for pilgrims along ‘The Way’

Over the past four years of traveling, I have enjoyed my journey that much more because of the people I have met. Travelers seem to share the same thirst for adventure and the same open-mindedness. I was hopeful that I would find many like-minded people on the Camino, and I was fortunate to do just this, but any expectations I had of this long walk were far surpassed. People told me it would be ‘incredible,’ ‘the best thing I’ve ever done,’ and all I can say in hindsight is: it was profound.

There’s a slowing down that occurs that doesn’t even happen during normal travel for me. It’s easy to keep a fast pace when traveling… moving through places, seeing the sights, and moving on, but on the Camino, you’re literally slowed down to a walking pace, and when that happens, what you observe and experience changes.

A couple of things happen in phases. After an epic first day crossing the Pyrenees, I began to experience very bad foot pain. I thought I would be covering 20-25 kilometers a day, but for three days in a row, I was slowed down to a snail’s pace, covering maybe 15 kilometers in six hours if I was lucky. I was frustrated… I was so ready to go, but physically couldn’t. Most people were experiencing some element of physical pain. I saw blisters that made my heart sink, blisters that should have prevented some people from walking, but they doctored themselves and carried on day in, day out. The physical pain was bonding at the beginning, and smiles were shared in the albergues (guesthouses) every night as we all hobbled around. We doctored our pain and spirits with generous amounts of vino tinto and, very quickly, friendships began to evolve. Soon, without even trying, my Camino Family had formed.

Sunrise at Cruz de Ferro

Once the physical pain let up, we were left with six to eight hours of walking a day, and during that time, insightful and interesting conversations evolved- ones that enable you to learn so much about another person and their life, that in turn enable you to learn so much about yourself. So while the first phase is physical, the second phase turns into a true journey of the spirit. By the time we had cleared the meseta, the flat and notoriously monotonous stage of the Camino, we had solved the problems of the world, knew each other in an in-depth way you only know a best friend, and I was wondering what would come next in the third and final stage.

Santiago Cathedral

We enter into Galicia, a damp and cool region of Spain whose landscape reminds me of Scotland or Ireland. Our Camino Family is solid by now, but a few drop off here and there and rejoin one day later or so. When we are all together, we share rooms, beds, meals, wine, band aids, stories and obviously, walks. The Camino is doing what I had
heard it would- providing us all with exactly what we need.

Our group has become sort of exclusive. We love each others company, but we’re excited to welcome new pilgrims that we walk with each day. And finally, we arrive, 33 days after starting, in Santiago. It is a reunion of sorts, which is the only satisfying thing about finishing the walk. Standing in the square in front of the cathedral and seeing faces I hadn’t seen since the second week of the Camino is uplifting, especially at a time when I’m preparing for so many farewells. A group of about twelve of us head out for a final dinner of tapas and sangria, and as quickly as it all began, it is over… well, the walking is, but the lessons of the Camino will stay with me for a long time. My heart is heavy and full, all at the same time.

I could easily end my travels for 2013 with the Camino, but I have one more place I need to see, and that is Burma. Despite having traveled most of Southeast Asia three years ago, Burma was not open to tourists then, and it is now. I want to see Burma before tourism, commercialism and western influence have taken their hold. I sort tickets from Spain back to London, and book a decently-priced one-way ticket to Bangkok, via Mumbai. (It’s only a 23-hour layover!)

Schwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar

I arrive in Bangkok with no other plans than to sort my Burma visa. This takes a matter of days, and I enjoy Bangkok’s craziness, plethora of temples, and best-in-the-world street food. Less than a week later, I am boarding my Air Asia flight from Bangkok to Yangon.

I expect a slightly dated version of Bangkok to be awaiting me at the other end, but I end up in a city more reminiscent of what you find in India. After a Summer in Europe, I am certainly experiencing a level of culture shock, but it is softened by the kindness of the Burmese people.

Children playing In Bagan’s temple courtyards
Sunset over Bagan

My good friend, Christel, is working on her Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution and has an internship with ‘On the Move,’ a human rights organization based in Yangon. She is working with kids who have been displaced due to child trafficking. It is inspiring to see the work she is doing and to meet the people she is helping and working with. It is also a harsh wake-up call to the issues this country is facing. It is easy for people to travel here– to a country that has just opened up to tourism– see the temples of Bagan, the boats and fisherman at Inle Lake, and turn a blind eye to the heart-wrenching history this country has recently written. I am thankful to see both sides of the story.

Sunset at U Bein Bridge

We have the opportunity to travel together a bit, and connections are easy and smooth, which is surprising in a country just starting to cater to the tourist. We are fortunate to see a few good sunsets in Bagan, and we temple hop in Mandalay and watch the sunset over Ubein Bridge, while conversing with a monk who served eight years in prison after the Saffron Revolution.

Again, I have been made aware, through my travels, how fortunate I am for the life I was born into. I feel humbled, and hopeful that I might be able to make a difference through all I’ve seen, learned and experienced over the past four years. I leave Burma feeling the same way I did when I finished the Camino: with a full and heavy heart-full, from all of the adventures, but heavy, for the experiences that have opened my eyes to the life the less fortunate lead.

I make my way back to Atlanta on a long journey via Bangkok and Seoul. I arrive in time for Thanksgiving and Christmas with my family. It seems most appropriate to be at home during the time we ‘give thanks’ and I’m thankful, more than ever, to be with them. As the Grateful Dead would say, “What a long, strange trip it’s been.” That pretty well sums up the past five months… Stay tuned for what 2014 holds.

Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, long term travel

The Bucket List – International Travel

People always ask me how I pick the countries I end up visiting. I don’t think there’s a straightforward answer. Inspiration comes from many places, seeing a picture, hearing about another persons adventures, reading other travelers’ blogs, or just being curious about a place because so much IS unknown.

I do have lists though. They are everywhere… in notebooks, on my phone in the “note” section, in old journals… I love finding the old lists, so I can see which countries have drawn me in enough to actually plan the trip and visit. And then I create a new list, carrying over the places I haven’t made it to yet and adding new ones. Obviously, this list is always growing, despite how much I travel and how many countries I cross off.

I don’t know if I’ll make it to every country in the world in this lifetime, but I’m close to making it to all seven continents, and I have 39 countries crossed off the list so far. My goal this year is to travel to another five.

When planning a trip, I like to map out a logical route, so it makes economical sense and so I don’t waste time back-tracking. Unfortunately, the countries on my list right now are random, so it may just be that some are carried over to next year.

Here are the countries I am itching to get to…

Burma– I actually have a current visa in my passport for Burma, but unfortunately, I won’t be using it before February. So Burma stays on the list at number 1. Many think I’m out of my mind for wanting to travel to this “unsafe,” “poor,” “politically corrupt” country, but I’m anxious to get there sooner rather than later. A country which is now truly opening up to the idea of tourism is bound to change by leaps and bounds, and fast…just look at neighboring Thailand. Burma is the country of The Golden Rock, the temples of Bagan and Inle Lake. It’s a country of political unrest and a home to people fighting for democracy, people full of hope for a brighter and better future. Burma is on the brink of change, and while I hope for positive social change for them, I want to get there before there’s too much commercial change. I better hurry.

Norway– What sold me on Norway a couple of years ago were pictures. Just google Norway and browse the images that come up- bright green fjords plunging into deep blue rivers, colorful fishing towns, the aurora borealis. Norway is visually stunning and as a photographer, I can’t wait to get there. I have also met quite a few Norwegians on my travels, and they have added to my fascination with this Scandinavian country. I have had the opportunity to travel to other countries in this region, and I’m a big fan of the cleanliness and order that comes with being in Scandinavia. People are down to earth and systems just seem to work. Let’s face it though, Norway is expensive. This would be a great country to consider some couchsurfing in… A sofa or spare bed to sleep on will help you save some spending money and it always enables you the chance to get a deeper insight into life in a foreign land. (www.couchsurfing.org)

Jordan- I traveled to Israel in November 2011, and I am still kicking myself for not making it to Jordan. But I think Jordan deserves its own trip, and not just a side trip from Israel (or so I’ll keep saying, so I don’t feel too bad). First things first – Petra. I’ve seen the pictures, but I can’t imagine standing in front of, and looking up at this architectural marvel. I love being transported back in time by places, and I imagine this is what would happen here. Pair this with the fact that the Arabic people are some of the most hospitable in the world, and the cuisine is pretty damn good too, and you have the makings of an unbelievable journey. (Jordan remains open for travel, despite the political turmoil of neighboring countries.)

Patagonia– Ok, I realize this is a region comprised of both Argentina and Chile, so consider this a super-sized order. Patagonia’s been on my list since I started traveling hard core about four years ago. I am completely amazed by a place I have yet to visit. It’s all about nature here. I’ll leave electronic devices behind, put a backpack on my back and some hiking boots on my feet, and just go!  But I will make sure to have a camera in my hand. I’m looking forward to the evening when I watch the sun set over Torres del Paine and wake up the following morning to head to Perito Moreno for some glacier trekking. I’ve been dreaming of this for a long time! They say traveling to Patagonia is like traveling to the end of the Earth. In fact, Ushuaia (a jumping off point for exploring Patagonia) is considered the southernmost city in the world, but hold for the next one on the list…

Antarctica– If you find yourself in Ushuaia with some extra time on your hands, rumor has it you can score a week-long Antarctic cruise for around $1000 (USD). Alright, that’s still a good chunk of change, but considering these will set you back around $4000 (USD) normally, you’re saving considerably on this trip of a lifetime. Think about a crisp blue sky and massive white icebergs that are home to polar bears, seals, penguins, whales and albatross, and no one else around you for miles, literally. And if you’re like me, your life goal is to step foot on all seven continents!

Madagascar- Growing up my brother and I had plastic dinner placemats which were maps of the world. After dinner, my dad would always quiz us on the location of places, and I thought Madagascar sounded like the coolest place in the world.  I must admit my ignorance here, and tell you I don’t know much about Madagascar. I know it’s a place considered by travelers to be “the best kept secret.” It’s becoming a more talked about place on travel forums and over late night beers at the hostel. But what is the draw? Well, I think that’s where the intrigue lies here. It still feels like a place to be discovered. Better get there soon before it’s no longer a secret.  (And check out the baobab trees, a definite highlight for photographers!)

New Zealand-Spend the day trekking through terrain and scenery made famous by The Lord of the Rings, and end the day with a meal of New Zealand lamb paired with a local pinot noir or sauvignon blanc. Then head north to a 90-mile stretch of surfbreak. Visit Christchurch or Queenstown for a city fix, or learn about the ancient Maori traditions… I’m sold. New Zealand has so much to offer. The only thing that makes traveling here a challenge is it’s not in my frequent flyer network and the cost of living is high. I hope to make it here sooner rather than later though! (If you’re under the age of 30, you can easily get a working holiday visa- which can help with that whole “money” thing).

So that wraps it up. These are the places calling my name, topping the list. There are other places lingering in the wings – Portugal, Croatia, Hungary, Peru, Japan… but the countries listed above have my attention, and I need to get to see them soon. And now, I wonder, where will 2013 take me?? Which new stamps will my passport hold this time next year, and which places will still be left on the list? What new countries will I discover and add to the list? The adventure, like always, is yet to unfold. And that, my fellow travelers, is the best part.

Stay tuned…Next time I will share some personal advice and useful resources to help you plan your own Around-The-World journey.