Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Another chance to win a home exchange club membership!

Julie Ovenell-Carter's contest to win a free membership in a home exchange club continues to generate interest! Just this week, another home exchange website, 1stHomeExchange.com, offered to give away a one-year membership to her readers--and sent a link to 66 great tips for home exchangers. Head over to the contest post at theseboots.travel for details.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Five great sources of international news

Looking to keep your eyes--or ears--on the wider world, even when you're curled up safe at home? Here are five great places to start.

  • The Economist: This venerable, London-based magazine may be a bit stodgy for some, but there are few better consumer publications when it comes to covering just about every corner of the world. Not surprisingly, given the title, there's a strong business focus, but you'll also find articles on science, books, the arts and more.
  • Dispatches: I've raved about this Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) radio show before, but it's still one of my favourite ways to get a glimpse of the world each week. If you miss the broadcast, catch the podcast.
  • The Globe and Mail: One of the last newspapers to maintain a network of superb overseas bureaus, this Canadian newspaper provides stories and insights you won't find anywhere else. In particular, I'm a huge fan of foreign correspondent Stephanie Nolen, who recently moved from Africa to India and is now writing a blog about the latter called Subcontinental.
  • PRI's The World: I just discovered this one-hour daily radio show, a co-production of Public Radio International, the BBC and Boston public radio station WGBH (all three are also great sources of international news, by the way). Also available as a podcast.
  • New Internationalist: Lefty? It sure is. But I included The Economist, so I thought it only fair to also include this feisty publication from the other end of the political spectrum, where you'll find lots of articles about various social justice campaigns in developing countries. And, yes, there's a podcast, Radio New Internationalist.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Home exchange: Win a free year's membership in a home exchange club

My friend Julie Ovenell-Carter writes a great travel blog called These Boots, which is aimed at independent travellers, and she's running a contest. The prizes? One-year memberships offered by two home exchange organizations, HomeLink International and Intervac. All you have to do to enter is go to the blog post announcing the contest and leave a comment on the subject of home exchanges: a story about one you've done, a wishful note about why you'd like to do one--anything, really. The contest is open to Canadians 18 and over, and time is of the essence: the deadline is Wednesday, March 25 at 8pm Pacific Time. Good luck!

P.S.: Julie was on the CBC Radio One program "B.C. Almanac" yesterday, talking about the joys of home exchange and fielding questions from callers. The show will be archived for a few days on the "B.C. Almanac" website. Scroll down and click on the Openline Archive link for the Friday, March 20 show. (You'll need Real Player to hear the sound file.)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Signs of the times

One great way to get a feel for the local vibe is to pick out one small part of it and focus on it while you're travelling. One avid traveller I know always takes a dance class, wherever she goes. Several people (including me) like going into grocery stores, just to see what's hot and what's not. A while back, I blogged about a lovely article written by a traveller who makes a point of visiting post offices.

Here's my tip of the day for getting inside the heads of the locals: pay attention to street signs. Sure, you'll see the usual "men at work" and speed limit signs, but you'll likely see a few unusual things. Like this "watch out for surfers" sign on Easter Island, for instance.

Or this "iguana crossing" sign on the driveway of the Gingerbread Hill guesthouse on the Caribbean island of Montserrat.

Few people do quirky signs quite like the British. On a childhood trip to the U.K., I remember being fascinated by ominous-looking roadsigns featuring a giant exclamation point. At one point we even got out of the car to photograph one that included the caption: "Caution: Road liable to subside." (Few things I've encountered since have summed up the British talent for understatement quite so succinctly.)

Even something as innocuous as a street name can merit a photograph, as a recent New York Times story featuring the unfortunately named Butt Hole Road in South Yorkshire shows.

So what's the weirdest road sign you've ever seen in your travels? And what did it tell you about the place?

Friday, March 13, 2009

Video: Song supports human rights

Amnesty International--the same folks who brought you those rockin' concerts back in the 1980s featuring the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Tracy Chapman--have released a new song and video to mark the 60th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. And "The Price of Silence" is a great tune, featuring artists ranging from Stephen Marley to Hugh Masekela. If you don't believe me, check out the video:

So what does this have to do with travelling like a local, you ask? Travelling like a local involves keeping your eyes open and trying to see things as they really are. It also means trying to understand the world from a stranger's point of view. And the sad truth is that human rights aren't a priority in many nations around the world--including many places that travellers love to visit.

I think we all have a responsibility to do what we can to improve that situation, whether by supporting Amnesty or another NGO, or taking other action. I know I often haven't been as thoughtful about these issues while travelling as I should have been. This song is a good reminder of the reasons it's important to stay vigilant.

Monday, March 9, 2009

How to Do It Like an Aussie: Video

Although I strongly suspect these two Aussie women, Pip and Kym, are playing up their Aussieness for the cameras, I still enjoyed this little video that tries to teach non-Australians a bit of Down Under culture--from how to make bush tea to what the heck "Good on ya" means.

It's a promo to draw attention to their book, "How to Do It Like an Aussie With Tongs and Thongs" (make all the jokes you like about the title--I assume that's the intention).

Friday, March 6, 2009

Greg Mortenson REALLY travels like a local

OK, I realize I'm very late to this party--the book came out three years ago. But I just finished reading Three Cups of Tea, the story of mountain climber-turned-philanthropist Greg Mortenson, and I was captivated.

For those of you who, like me, somehow missed this book when it first came out, here's the scoop. After a failed attempt to climb K2, Mortenson descends from the mountain ill and disoriented. He washes up in the village of Korphe in northern Pakistan, where villagers help him get better. He is grateful but isn't sure how to properly thank them--until he sees village children doing their lessons outdoors because they have no school. He promises to come back and build one.

What follows is the story of Mortenson's charming, naive, insane, determined quest to raise money for the Korphe school, co-written by journalist David Oliver Relin. This one project soon turns into Mortenson's life's work; he has since built dozens of schools throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan. Along the way, he has also forged enduring relationships with people from a host of different ethnic groups. Very few of us have the courage and dedication to "travel like a local" to this extent, but it makes for a fascinating and inspiring story.

Relin did phenomenal amounts of research and it shows in the evocative details, which sometimes become a bit overwhelming. The book could have done with some trimming by a ruthless editor, but stick with it--the story is worth it.

Mortenson has just released a new version of the book aimed at children--not surprisingly, since children are the focus of his work in Central Asia and since children back home in North America have been some of his most ardent supporters (through the Pennies for Peace fundraising campaign).

All in all, Mortenson's story is a wonderful antidote to the tide of doom and gloom in the news at the minute.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Tourism boards encourage local bloggers

I've long been intrigued by the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation's extensive "insiders' tips" site, uwishunu.com (pronounced "You wish you knew"). It features a wide range of blog posts by Philadelphians, on everything from swishy restaurants to tattoo festivals. And the city promotes the site in all the usual Web 2.0 ways, from Twitter to Digg.

The state of Pennsylvania has taken a similar tack. But instead of blog posts, its website features videos of locals waxing enthusiastic about their favourite Keystone State spots.

Now it seems Tourisme Montreal is taking a leap into the world of tourism promotion via blogging and social media. It recently announced that it would be hiring five bloggers for 10-month, part-time stints later this year.

As Gazette reporter Roberto Rocha points out in his article about the initiative, there's always a risk that paid bloggers will be little more than cheerleaders for their chosen city. And it's true that you won't find many colourful diatribes on uwishunu and similar sites. But for the sake of fun and credibility, I hope all of these sites start giving their bloggers the freedom to rant a little, as well as rave. (Yes, yes, I know there are always worries about liability, as well as internal tourism board politics, but there must be some way around those...)

Five tips for happy house swappers

Given the economy, more and more people are considering house swapping as a great way to save money on their next trip. (Of course, "like a local" sorts have been doing it for years, as much to get a taste of local culture as to cut down on expenses.)

On your next swap, here are five ways you can make yourself--and your guests--more comfortable.

  • Do those minor home repairs you've been putting off, so your house is in sparkling shape.
  • Be crystal clear about the location of the house key. In fact, leave a backup copy with a neighbour, in case there's any confusion.
  • Ask a friend, family member or neighbour to drop in on your house soon after your guests arrive, to make sure everything is going well (both from the guests' perspective and from yours). And call home once while you're away, in case your guests have any questions.
  • Speaking of neighbours: warn them that you're doing a house swap, so they don't get worried when they see strangers frolicking in your backyard. Nothing puts a damper on a holiday like a visit from the cops.
  • Heaven knows, I'm putting myself and my fellow travel writers partway out of business with this tip, but I'll share it anyway (after all, it comes from one of those fellow travel writers). If you're doing a home exchange, why not follow Julie Ovenell-Carter's advice and write your own guidebook, using the snazzy city guides produced by Moleskine as your base?
For more tips, see the detailed home-swapping guide on my website, LaVidaLocal.com, and my recent article about house swapping and apartment rentals at TheTravelersNotebook.com.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

For fans of Slumdog Millionaire: Video

For all of those who (like me) stood up and cheered when Slumdog Millionaire won the best picture Oscar, here's a weirdly compelling little video about life in Mumbai made by three boys, aged 8 and 9. They call themselves The 3 Musketeers, which I suspect is a shout-out to the film.

The video, which focuses on ordinary life in streets and homes, fascinates me in the same way an old after-midnight feature on Toronto's City-TV used to captivate me. The latter was just someone wandering around Toronto late at night with a camera, capturing anything interesting. This has the same unfocused but intriguing vibe.