Friday, November 28, 2008

Why rent a car when you can borrow one?

Here's a trend I like: hotels offering shared cars to their guests. Not only does it save guests the hassle and expense of renting a car, it also introduces many of them to the concept of car sharing. And it encourages travellers to use a blend of car trips and public transit--a great way to see a city like the locals do.

One of the first properties to jump on this idea was Toronto's Pantages Suites Hotel and Spa. It is currently offering all guests a free, one-year Zipcar membership and giving them access to a Zipcar parked at the hotel. Rates start at C$9.50/hour. (See my article in the late, lamented Checkerspot Magazine and a blurb on the hotel's website for more information.)

In San Francisco, the new Good Hotel (which bills itself, a bit grandly, as "the first hotel with a conscience") has an on-property Prius Zipcar for existing Zipcar members.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Voluntourism and "aliens" in Peru

Courtesy of, an Aussie travel insurance and travel services company, comes this great 25-minute documentary about a volunteer project to build a bridge and a water faucet in the village of Qelqanqa in the Peruvian Andes, southeast of Lima.

A page on the WorldNomads site provides more details on the project. The trip was organized by World Expeditions, which runs Community Project Travel trips in a number of countries. (It's running a trip to a different Peruvian village in 2009.)

While Qelqanqa is far from the regions of Peru I visited earlier this month, many things seemed familiar. There's footage of villagers preparing a pachamanca feast, and shots of mountaintops wreathed in mist. And a comment from one of the volunteers rang true: she thought the travellers must look "like aliens" to the Quechua people. 

That reminded me of a scene I witnessed just outside Lima, the day before I left. An itinerant farm family had set up camp for the season at the base of a mountain. Their rough tent was covered with a couple of tarps. Our guide told us that they had likely hiked here for days from higher ground, to find grazing land for their animals. 

Overhead, paragliders dotted the skies. Their nylon chutes were almost as incongruous with the campsite as were the goggles and space-age clothes of the mountain bikers who zoomed regularly along a dirt track just beyond the tent. 

Aliens, indeed.

Eavesdropping on the world

When I was a child, my dad and I used to sit in our basement tinkering with an old radio that, for reasons still unexplained, had incredible powers of reception. Late at night, we could pick up stations far from our home in suburban Toronto--New York City, say, or Chicago. The idea that sounds had travelled over such a long distance fascinated me.

As a young adult, I discovered the world of short-wave radio, tuning into the BBC World Service and music stations with commentary in languages I didn't understand.

Then came the Internet. Hallelujah. Not only could I choose from countless radio stations around the world that streamed their content online, and tune into scores of Internet-only stations, I could also download podcasts. And here's a funny story: iTunes has led me to rediscover a show I can also get the old-fashioned way, over the air on trusty CBC Radio One.

It's not that I didn't already enjoy "Dispatches," a world affairs show hosted by the thoughtful Rick MacInnes-Rae. After all, the show uses a Mark Knopfler track ("What It Is") as its theme song. And reports cover the globe--this week, stories ranged from drug trafficking in Guinea-Bissau to stand-up comedy in Jordan.

The problem was that I could never remember when the darned show was on.

The Internet has saved me from my own absentmindedness. Now each week's episode downloads automatically onto my computer, and from there to my trusty iTouch. (For those who don't want to bother with podcasts, you can also listen online at the site above.)

This got me wondering what other opportunities there are to eavesdrop on the world from my quiet Ottawa office. Here are a few choice discoveries.

Global News: A twice-daily news digest from the venerable BBC. (The BBC is actually a mother lode of world news--text, audio, and video--in several languages. Just go to the main BBC site and start digging. I can get lost there for hours.)

Audio News: The podcast service of the International Herald Tribune.

Pambazuka News: A weekly podcast on African issues by Fahamu, a social justice organization.

Radio Japan Online: News podcasts (in English and many other languages) from the Japan Broadcasting Corporation.

Radio France International also has an extensive English-language section where you can listen to world news online; podcasts are available in French.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Horror in Mumbai

I posted an item earlier today about homestays in India; I'd been captivated by a fascinating website describing opportunities to stay in private homes and meet local people throughout the country. That was about an hour before terrorists attacked Mumbai. I'm shocked and saddened, as so many are around the world, by the news coming from the city. And as so many are, I'm hoping that the chaos and devastation can be brought under control very soon, with no further loss of life. 

Homestays in India

Mahindra Homestays is a new venture from one of India's most powerful families (they're involved in all sorts of businesses, from auto making to finance). The website, aimed at European travellers, allows you to search by region, price, type of building or type of activity--you can specify that you'd like to stay somewhere where you can go bird watching, practise yoga or enjoy an Ayurvedic massage, for instance.

It's been getting lots of feedback from the U.K. media, including a funny, warts-and-all piece by Gerthin Chamberlain in The Guardian. 

Canadian family loses $4K in vacation home scam

As regular readers of this blog know, I'm a huge fan of vacation home and apartment rentals. I've rented properties on three continents and, fortunately, have never been the victim of a scam. But fraudsters are out there, as shown by this recent CBC story about a Gatineau, Quebec, family who lost $4,000 while trying to rent a Florida vacation home.

What's particularly galling about this scam is that the would-be renters did so many things right. They used what appeared to be a legitimate site,, that's affiliated with The Weather Channel. They checked that the home existed and that the bank account they were asked to send money to actually belonged to the home's purported owner.  

The details are still emerging, but it appears that had no knowledge that the home listing was a fake. Like many other RBO (rent-by-owner) sites, the site is a compilation of listings from hundreds of individual property owners and managers.

There is always a slight risk in renting a vacation home online, but there are a number of ways to reduce it. They include sending the smallest deposit possible, with the rest payable on arrival at the house; using a company that vets each property owner; and relying on recommendations from friends who have previously stayed in a particular property. I have a longer article outlining tips for vacation home renters on my website,

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A student's perspective on foreign maids in Jordan

One way to get unique, unvarnished insights into foreign cultures is to read blogs and articles written by students participating in semester-abroad programs. Today I stumbled on a recent post by American student Laura Ashbaugh, who is currently living in Amman, Jordan. 

In her post, she reflects on her conflicted relationship with her host family's Sri Lankan maid, who is close to Ashbaugh's age. She also discusses a friend's research into abuse of foreign domestic workers in Jordan. 

Until I read Ashbaugh's post, I had no idea that Jordan was home to so many foreign domestic workers. A bit of digging revealed that more than 50,000 workers--mainly women from the Philippines, Indonesia and Sri Lanka--are working in homes across the Middle Eastern country. 

So why do women go to Jordan to work? In a word: poverty. According to Human Rights Watch, Sri Lanka's foreign workforce sent home over US$2.3 billion in remittances in 2006 alone, accounting for over 9 percent of Sri Lanka's GDP. Female Sri Lankans working abroad support an average of five family members each back home. Put starkly, these women work as maids because they have to. An article from Jordan Business magazine provides many other disturbing details, as does a piece in Sri Lanka's Daily News outlining Amnesty International's efforts to help foreign domestic workers in Jordan.

(Jordan is just one of many, many countries providing work to migrant workers, by the way. And few, if any, of those countries have a spotless human rights record when it comes to treatment of those workers. For instance, a recent article in the Toronto Star detailed the poor treatment of Mexican women hired to pick apples in Ontario.)

Kudos to Ashbaugh for bringing to light a sad subject of which I was woefully ignorant. If posts like hers aren't an argument for travelling off the tourist grid, I don't know what is.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Glimpsing village life in Peru

As the sun came up, I peeped through the window of our guest house onto a timeless vista: fields of potatoes and other crops, rimmed by hills and mountains. In the distance, a farmer was already at work behind a horse-drawn plow. In the village of Huamacchuco in the Peruvian Andes, many people wake and sleep with the sun; without night-time distractions such as television, the Internet or movie theatres, that makes perfect sense.

It's hard to get more than a glimpse into a country's way of life on a week-long trip. But if you're heading to the Ancash region of Peru, I can't think of a better way to try than to stay in the Comunidad Campesina Unidos Venceremos, a small community of Quechua families in Huamacchuco. Together, they maintain five purpose-built guest houses and offer hospitality ranging from pachamanca (a traditional feast cooked over heated stones buried in the ground) to impromptu dance sessions to local music.

We spent a little less than a day in the community, but it was a highlight of my visit to Peru earlier this month. When people ask, "How was your trip?" I inevitably start telling tales of Huamacchuco: of sampling chicha (a beverage made from corn, lemon juice and cinnamon), visiting the tiny school (where the kids eagerly sang a few Quechua songs for us) and trying to engage the reserved village women in conversation, despite some language barriers (most conversations involved hand signals or simultaneous translation from our guide, who spoke Spanish, Quechua and English).

While unfailingly friendly and welcoming, our hosts had some unspoken rules. Despite our curiosity to see the inside of one of their homes, they kindly but firmly limited conversations to doorways, courtyards and public spaces. Perhaps that was just a coincidence, but I suspect it was an effort to maintain a modicum of privacy. Fair enough. We were there as guests and their homes are not museums. I'm glad they felt free to set limits. Once the visitors start calling all the shots, any cultural tourism project can quickly degrade into a soulless theme park.

Overnight stays with the community, which include all meals, activities and accommodation, cost US$16 to US$27 per night, depending on the size of your group and the length of your stay. To book, contact the Yachaqui Wayi Responsible Tourism Centre in Huaraz, Peru. The centre also has a comprehensive webpage with further information on Huamacchuco. The Mountain Institute, a U.S.-based organization devoted to supporting traditional mountain cultures and environments around the world, is one of the project's sponsors.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

New site promotes Scottish vacation rentals

The Association of Scotland's Self Caterers (ASSC) has launched a well-designed website, Embrace Scotland, to link travellers with more than 2,500 vacation rental properties. You can search by region, number of people, property type (apartment, lodge, cottage and so on) and star rating (currently assigned by VisitScotland). Check boxes allow you to specify that you're looking for a green, pet-friendly or handicapped-accessible property. There's also a handy search function that lets you track down properties available within the next four weeks.

ASSC members include a wide range of vacation rental owners, from people who occasionally rent out their second home to companies that own large self-catering complexes.
One minor quibble with the site: the main page mentions that you can stay in a castle, but there's no separate castle search category. Please throw a crust to all the aspiring Macbeths and Lady Macbeths out there, ASSC!