Monday, September 13, 2010

In Toronto? Win an exotic trip TOMORROW!

Creative Commons photo by OliverN5 (Oliver Mallich).

Visiting Toronto for the Toronto International Film Festival? Or do you live in T.O.? Either way, drag yourself away from the movie screens tomorrow and you could win a free trip from Intrepid Travel.

Here's the scoop. The Australian-based adventure tour company will be placing a total of eight globes in various Toronto locations on Tuesday. Each globe will have a "boarding pass" attached describing the prize trip (exotic locales include Morocco and Peru). The company is also giving away vouchers worth up to $1,000 toward an Intrepid trip.

So how do you find these globes? Follow the company's Twitter feed (@Intrepid_Travel) for clues. The fun starts at 9am on Tuesday, September 14.

Curious about Intrepid? Watch this blog for my post about a fun Toronto walking tour I took with Intrepid's "day trip" company, Urban Adventures. My Multicultural Kensington Market and Chinatown tour included lots of historical tidbits and fun shopping stops.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Aussie cafe serves chocolate on steroids #wanderfood

If you've ever thought, "Gee, chocolate bars would be great if they weren't cluttered up with nuts and caramel," then Max Brenner's is the place for you. The Australian chain of chocolate cafes (which also has shops in New York, Philadelphia and several other non-Aussie places) has the genius to serve chocolate in its most unadorned form: the suckao.

The suckao costs $6.50 Australian and it's worth every penny. Basically, it's a mug of milk kept warm over a small candle, served with a small dish of high-grade chocolate chips. Stir the chocolate into the milk. Wait for it to melt into a gooey mess reminiscent of the icing you used to lick out of grandma's cake bowl. Inhale through the small metal straw, which doubles as a spoon. Repeat until your head explodes.

Feeling guilty about all that sugar and fat? You could always finish your meal with strawberries dipped in, well, chocolate.

FacingTheStreet takes no responsibility for your ensuing dental bills or sugar crash. Just enjoy the fun while it lasts.

P.S.: If you like reading about food around the world, check out the links posted each week at WanderFood Wednesday!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Book review: Writer explores England by kayak

As British writer David Aaronovitch points out in the introduction to his 2000 travel book/memoir, Paddling to Jerusalem, in the last few years writers have walked around England under the guise of just about every gimmick imaginable.
From south to north, around the coast, up the middle, round the sides, in wheelchairs, on one leg, carrying heavy electrical goods, with no money, with a dog, with a horse, in the company of Ian Botham, each walk slightly more improbable than the last.
He concedes that walking is the right pace for seeing the true England: "It is a micro-country, where everything is in the detail, and any speed of more than 5 mph means that most of what England has to offer must be missed."

However, instead of walking, Aaronovitch chooses a similarly slow method of transport when he sets out to travel from London to the north of England in the summer of 1999. He decides to go by kayak.

(And just in case you're curious: the title Paddling to Jerusalem comes from a William Blake poem, "And did those feet in ancient time," and the patriotic hymn "Jerusalem" it inspired, both of which retell an apocryphal tale of Jesus visiting England.)

Aaronovitch's accounts of his lack of athletic prowess in training for the trip are hilarious. In fact, I went to the effort of tracking down the one copy of the out-of-print book in the Ottawa Public Library system solely because he gave an hysterical account of his adventures at the keynote address of the Travel Media Association of Canada's annual general meeting last March.

And there are laugh-out-loud moments throughout the book, too. Along England's quiet canals and surprisingly challenging rivers, he runs into tattooed anglers and chatty lock keepers, delves into the novels of Georgette Heyer in dusty country inns, and develops a titanic loathing for swans. He's also a self-confessed history nerd, and the book is sprinkled with tales both funny and horrifying about everyone from 12th-century monarch King John to 20th-century prime minister Stanley Baldwin.

But at its heart, it's a more reflective book than I was expecting. Aaronovitch sets out on the journey for a few reasons. One of them is his self-proclaimed wish to transform himself from grouchy, stressed "Mr. Stormy" to cheerful, relaxed "Mr. Sunny." Even more than that, though, he is trying to come to terms with the death of his father the previous year. Father and son had a complicated relationship, which Aaronovitch slowly and skilfully reveals to the reader.

In the end, the kayaking trip--with its tendonitis, rainstorms and rock-throwing urchins--is just the framework on which Aaronovitch hangs a much more personal tale. He gets to the heart of what makes him tick. In the process, he discovers the soul of his country as well.
Middle England is a land of saucy grannies, voyaging landladies...childhood museums, 50s' nostalgia, opticians, aromatherapists, steam railways, scented candles, shopping malls, computers, coffee cake, stress phalli, Man Utd supporters, rock festivals, soap opera behaviour, of young men driving too fast and waterside views...Of Midde Earth, middle management and Middlemarch. A country, for all the public pessimism, surprisingly unafraid about its future.
The book will be too introspective for some, too flippant for others, and too full of historical asides for many. While I enjoyed it throughout, it took a long while to really grab me. Of necessity, any travel narrative in which most days follow the same pattern--wake up, paddle for four or five hours, negotiate locks and swans, tie up the boat, stay in some form of accommodation, eat a lonely dinner while observing the locals--is in danger of becoming monotonous, and Aaronovitch does fall into this trap a few times. But by the end, as his life story, his kayaking trip and the tale of England itself all came together, I found myself eagerly flipping pages to learn how it would all turn out.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Wind-powered transport in the Iles-de-la-Madeleine

Does Al Gore know about this?

The often-windy Iles-de-la-Madeleine in eastern Quebec are a hotbed for the sport of kite-buggying: basically, zipping along the beach in a buggy, powered by a parachute-like kite. The driver holds a set of lines made of super-strong Spectra. A tug on the left turns you left; a tug on the right turns you right.

After a quick lesson on kite management from Eric Marchand, a world champion kite surfer and owner of Aerosport, everyone in our group had the chance to sit behind him in a tandem buggy and hurtle across the beach.

I spent most of my time yelling in glee as sand sprayed in my face, but I survived to tell the tale.

Now if only they could reconfigure Highway 401 to run on wind power....

Disclosure: I travelled to the Iles-de-la-Madeleine courtesy of Tourisme Quebec.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Road sign: "Caution: Guitarists"

I have a strange fascination for oddball road signs, dating back at least as far as 1978, when my sister and I spotted a British road sign that consisted of nothing but a large exclamation mark and the dire words, "Warning: Road liable to subside."

Since then, I've photographed an iguana crossing sign in Montserrat, a surfer crossing sign in Easter Island, an Amish volunteer fireman sign in Pennsylvania and many others. I added the latest one to my collection today, my first day in Quebec's Iles de la Madeleine. ("Traverse" means "crossing" and a "Madelinot" is someone from the islands.)

This one was in a shop window, rather than on an actual road, so it is likely just a joke. But I liked the joke anyway.

I travelled to the Iles de la Madeleine courtesy of Tourisme Quebec.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Food that bites back in Peru #wanderfood

Warning: Those with squeamish stomachs might wish to skip this post. I'm just saying.

Throughout my week in Peru, one dish popped out on almost every menu: cuy.

I saw it on chalkboard lists on roadside stands in the Andes. I spotted it on fancy menus in Lima hotels. It came to seem like a challenge

Come on, coward
, it taunted me. You say you like to "live like a local." It's time to eat like one.
I do like to live like a local on the road. I'll happily rent an apartment, stumble through an unfamiliar language, wander the back streets of neighbourhoods far off the beaten path. But when it comes to food, I'm as unadventurous as a six-year-old.

And cuy--the Peruvian term for guinea pig--definitely challenged my self-imposed boundaries.

I told myself I was being a hypocrite. After all, I don't have a problem with eating chicken, lamb, beef or fish. Animals are animals, right?

But no matter how I tried to psych myself up, when it came time to order, I'd usually choose something safe, like lomo saltado (stir-fried beef).

What finally convinced me was the lure of cold, hard cash. An editor back in Canada had offered to pay me to write a story about cuy. So in a bistro in Huacho, I took a deep breath and ordered cuy. I was so flustered, I forgot to ask how the dish would be served. In the back of my mind, I was thinking everything would be chopped up and slathered in a thick sauce, like some sort of Peruvian take on curry or gumbo.

My stomach dropped when my plate arrived. Here's what I saw.

It had teeth. It had claws. It looked like a meal that could bite me back.

When I finally picked up my fork, I found the meat surprisingly bland, like overcooked pork. That didn't help, though, as you can see from my expression.

I managed just three bites before gratefully accepting my companion’s offer to trade lunches.

For a less drastic taste of Peru, I’d recommend ceviche (marinated fish) or chicha (a slightly alcoholic beverage made from corn and fruit juice). Save your bravery for the winding, potholed mountain roads, where many drivers think speed limits, signals and lanes are for sissies.

P.S.: My Aeroplan Arrival magazine article about cuy isn't available online, but you can read my short guide to Peru for the same magazine.

Disclosure: I travelled to Peru courtesy of Peru Tourism.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

HostelBookers contest offers cool prizes

Staying in a hostel doesn't necessarily mean you're going to travel any more "like a local" than you would if you stayed in a posh hotel. But it does increase the chances of running into fellow budget travellers, who may be able to point you to restaurants, shops and attractions a little off the tourist trail. That's one reason I've long been a hostel fan.

And here's another reason to check out hostels: until June 9, British booking agency is running an easy contest on its website. All you need to do is answer one question (the answer is drop-dead easy to find on the site) and you could win a Travelex cash passport (like travellers' cheques, but plastic) loaded with £1,000 of travel mad money, a Panasonic Lumix TZ8 camera or a 32GB iPod Touch. Not bad for a free contest (you do give them your e-mail address, though).

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Ontario walk/run combines fitness and...chocolate? #wanderfood

Haven't you always thought that fitness races would be much more fun if they involved junk food?

Well, have I got an event for you.

The Chocolate Race in Port Dalhousie, Ontario--a cute village in the Niagara Region--attracted almost 600 participants in its inaugural year in 2009. This year's event includes 5K, 10K and half-marathon courses open to runners and walkers alike.

But unlike most similar events, which reward health-conscious participants with fruit and granola bars, this one includes a "sweet aid station" on the course, as well as chocolate goodies before and after the race--everything from chocolate-dipped strawberries to fudge.

The unusual combination of fitness and indulgence takes place this year on August 28 and 29. If you need some training inspiration, check out the event's chatty blog, written by a runner-in-training.

And the best part? It's a chance to get a little off the packed tourist trail centered on the famous cataract nearby. Sure, Port Dalhousie is a bit touristy, but it can't hold a candle to casino-and-wax-museum-packed Niagara Falls.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

McChickens = prestige in Pakistan

I'm a bit behind on listening to my podcasts of the always-fascinating CBC Radio One foreign-affairs show "Dispatches," so I just heard an intriguing report from late March about the class differences in fast food in Pakistan.

Western tourists (myself included) are often convinced that one way to get into the "authentic" culture of a place is to eat cheap fast food: noodles from tiny kiosks, fritters from roadside stands, that sort of thing.

But when "Dispatches" correspondent Natasha Fatah went to Karachi, she found out that the local elites wouldn't be caught dead eating a kabab from an open-air grill. So are they flocking to white-tablecloth French restaurants instead? Nope. They boost their prestige with a trip to McDonald's or KFC.

Check out the Dispatches website for the full report (search on "Are You a Burger or a Bun Kabab?" from the March 25/28 broadcast).

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Grenada + nutmeg: Inseparable

Quick, now: Name a use for nutmeg.

I'm willing to wager the vast majority of the people reading this post immediately answered, "Eggnog!"

And while the spice is indeed a vital topping for the Christmas beverage, it's used in lots of other things, too, from cookies to sausages. You'll even find nutmeg and its sister spice, mace--they're both made from the same fruit--in medicines and cosmetics.

You'll rarely find a place as passionate about nutmeg as the Caribbean island of Grenada. Islanders use the fruit's sweet-smelling shells to build garden paths. Women in markets sell strings of nutmeg to intrigued tourists. In fact, Grenadians are so fond of the pear-shaped fruit, they put it on their flag.

So what is it with Grenada and nutmeg?

The British introduced nutmeg trees to the island in 1782, and it turned out that Grenada has an ideal combination of soil and climate for cultivating them. They grew like mad and spread everywhere, becoming a significant part of the local economy.

But it wasn't all smooth sailing. Hurricane Janet in 1955 wiped out 75 percent of the island's nutmeg trees. Almost a half century later, Hurricane Ivan caused similar destruction. In both cases, islanders worked hard to revive the industry. Today, nutmeg trees are beginning to flourish once again.

When I was in Grenada recently, I visited an organic farm belonging to Maca Bana, a charming, family-run resort. The farm is a short drive from the resort, high on a hillside. Originally it was completely planted with nutmeg, but Maca Bana's owners have added lettuce and other vegetables for use in the resort's restaurant. In an unusual twist, the resort's guests are welcome to come to the farm and pick their own dinner ingredients, which they can cook up in their villa kitchen. They may also have the chance to meet Brian Godwin, the farmer who nurtures all this organic bounty and is more than happy to show it off for visitors.

Brian Godwin gives visitors a glimpse of nutmeg.

So if you ever go to Grenada, hit the beach, by all means. But to really get a "taste" for the islands, don't forget to hit the fields, too.

Photo credits:
Flag: Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled "GNU Free Documentation License".
Brian Godwin: Photo by Laura Byrne Paquet, copyright 2009.

Disclosure: I travelled to Grenada as a guest of the Grenada Board of Tourism.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Cafe with a view in Melbourne

I discovered the St. Kilda Pier Kiosk cafe by accident. I'd strolled up the long pier in the beachfront Melbourne suburb of St. Kilda just to check out the view. And quite a view it is.

The fact that I could munch on a decent, inexpensive sandwich while absorbing the scenery was a bonus. To be completely honest, I don't even remember what kind of sandwich it was! It simply dealt efficiently with my hunger while I admired the sea.

The cafe is located in a cream puff of an Edwardian building dating back to 1904.

As well as sandwiches, it serves milkshakes, tea, pastries and other light snacks. But don't expect to enjoy your cheap meal and a summer sunset, too: the cafe closes at 5:30pm on weekdays and 6:00pm on weekends. (If sunsets are your thing, check out the somewhat fancier Little Blue restaurant in the same building, where dishes include classics like risotto and chicken Kiev.)

And here's the best part: behind the building, a long breakwater shelters a colony of little blue penguins. Ask the regulars sunbathing on the rocks to point them out to you. I took a million photos, but due to poor lighting and meagre skills, this was the best I could manage.

The cafe's food may not be memorable, but how many restaurants can boast their own penguin colony?

If you like reading about food and travel, check out similar posts on today's WanderFood Wednesday site!

Disclosure: I travelled to Melbourne courtesy of Tourism Australia.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

My new sweet-tooth fix: Welsh cakes

I'm just back from Wales and will put up some longer posts about my trip soon, but in the meantime I had to share my latest pastry addiction with you: Welsh cakes.
Yummy-looking, yes?

They're a bit like flattened scones and they are maddeningly addictive. I came to crave one at every tea break during my conference.

In case you'd like to sample them yourself, here's a yummy-sounding recipe for Welsh cakes from

But when you can't stop eating them, don't say I didn't warn you.

By the way, what fattening habits have you come back with after travelling? Let me know in the comments section.

Licensing information for photo:
This image has been (or is hereby) released into the public domain by its author, Moochocoogle at the wikipedia project. This applies worldwide.

Disclosure: My trip was partially subsidized by Visit Wales.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

What I love--and loathe--about the U.K.

I've been in the U.K. for a few days now, and my likes and dislikes are becoming clearer by the minute. My likes are legion and my dislikes are few, and I'm passionate about them all.

First, a few of my favourite things.

1. Teakettles

I'm a tea drinker, partly because I can't abide coffee. So it drives me crazy when I check into a North American hotel room and find a container of lovely tea bags on the dresser...and a coffee maker. Tea made with water run through a coffee pot is an abomination. Not only is the water not hot enough, but it tastes like coffee. What a delight to find a full-sized teakettle in all three of my U.K. rooms so far. Granted, coffee drinkers are probably put out by the lack of a coffee maker. I feel your pain, my friends. But I'm still pleased about the teakettles.

2. Expressions
I first fell in love with U.K. expressions while listening to my Northern Irish cousins as a child. (To this day, I think "brilliant" is a wonderful exclamation of delight.) On a trip to County Down at age 12, I decided "dual carriageway" sounded much classier than "four-lane highway." Years later, while on a cruise run by a British tour packager, my husband and I decided on a cruise that "Do you fancy a boogie?" (used in a promo for the ship's disco) was eminently more fun than "Would you like to dance?" And one of my great joys in reading British home decorating magazines is the line, "Ring [phone number] for stockists." Stockists! Much nicer than "Where to buy."

3. Trains
In the U.K., passenger trains apparently don't have to pull over to a siding every time a freight train needs the track, as is the case in Canada. As a result, the trains actually run on time--at least the ones I've been on so far. And those Victorians knew how to build train stations that really made you feel like you were off on a momentous journey--like this one in Manchester.

4. Funky buildings
OK, maybe these buildings in Manchester's redeveloped Salford Quays area are garish. And over the top. And not to everyone's taste. But I have to admire the ambition and bravery behind them. At least they're not boring mirrored glass boxes or brutalist bunkers, which seem to be the two favoured styles in most Canadian cities. These are from Manchester's redeveloped Salford Quays.

5. Lambs
Ah to be in England (and Wales), now that spring is here. On the train from Manchester to Cardiff today, I saw wee lambs everywhere, playing in green fields with their mums. Too darn cute.

OK, now to a scant few but passionate dislikes.

1. Stairs
OK, I understand the Underground stations. After all, they're underground, and many were built long before elevators were common. But why, why, why does every hotel entrance have a pointless set of steps? And why are there odd little staircases partway along every hotel corridor? Is it some sort of national endurance test? Was it a way to keep servants fit, back in the days when no one lugged their own suitcases?

2. Plumbing
Admittedly, it has improved from the days when toilets were operated by long chains dangling from the ceiling. But I have yet to hear a plausible explanation for showers like this.

Why not just affix the shower head to the wall? The rod-and-hose apparatus may be designed to accommodate people of different heights, but in my experience, when you try to adjust it, it detaches itself from the wall entirely and whips about like a watery snake, turning any hotel bathroom into a miniature car wash. Or maybe that's just me. Perhaps I should drink the tea first and get a good caffeine fix before attempting to shower.

3. Fire doors
Yes, I know the Great Fire of London was tragic. But it was almost 350 years ago. Do you still need to install massive great doors every few feet along every hotel corridor? And in front of all the elevators? Inquiring minds want to know.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

iPhone apps put cities in your pocket

Heading to London, New York or Chicago soon? Looking for travel tips about the Everglades or Napa? Check out Sutro Media Guides, iPhone and iPod Touch apps that serve as pocket travel guides to destinations in North America and the U.K. While there are a couple of comprehensive guides, billed as "Essential" guides to particular cities, there are also more targeted apps, such as "Quirky London" and "Cheap Eats in San Francisco."

I downloaded the New York City Essential Guide and found it wide ranging and easy to use. Each listing includes a photo and a Google map of the location. It also includes the distance from my current location to the location described (not a lot of use to me today, here in Ottawa, but it will be handy the next time I go to NYC). Pithy descriptions of locations such as Radio City Music Hall and Zabar's deli include the location of the nearest subway stop, hours, phone numbers and websites, where applicable. You can also sort listings by cost and by their distance from your current location.

The app was a bit slow to load, but that may be because I have the smallest iPod Touch--it would probably run faster on the latest iPhones.

Prices range from 99 cents to $4.99 per app, with most guides priced at $2.99 or under. While they're not as complete as a traditional guidebook, they're a lot easier to carry in your purse or pocket.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Q&A Part 2: Travel journalist Vicky Baker

Buenos Aires.

Last Friday, I ran part 1 of my e-mail interview wi
th British travel journalist Vicky Baker, who now lives in Buenos Aires. The interview took place back in the fall; it's only due to my disorganization that it hasn't appeared here before now! Here's part 2 of our virtual chat.

I was fascinated by your story about the Laotian village in French Guiana. Who knew? What were some of the other unique surprises you've encountered in your travels?

Travelling in the Guianas was one big surprise. So little is known about that part of the world. Hanging out with the Haitian community in French Guiana was also an eye-opener for me. We partied and had fun, but I also got insight into the life of illegal immigrants and the restrictions that brings. Plus, from the stories they told and the pictures they painted of life back home, I felt like I was getting a side trip to Haiti and from this I understood why people who can't travel themselves like to be involved in hosting couchsurfers: it can be a way to experience new cultures even if you can't get to the place yourself. [Editor’s note: Vicky recently posted a piece about her time in French Guiana’s Haitian community.]

What was it that drew you to South America in general, and Argentina in particular?

I grew up knowing nothing about South America. We never touched on it at school or university; newspapers carried (and still carry) relatively little coverage. After my first trip in 2003, I fell in love with it and wanted to get to know it better: the history, the arts, the politics. It's a constant personal discovery. I also love the openness of the people here and the language. As for Argentina specifically, I don't think there is a country in the world as geographically diverse.

When did you first visit Buenos Aires?

I first came on a three-week holiday in 2003 when I was travelling down from Rio de Janeiro. I'd always had an obsession with visiting Rio and BA was tacked on as an after-thought. However, it was BA I fell in love with. It's a city with such an incredibly strong personality. Not that Rio isn't, but I felt immediately at home in Buenos Aires.

What advice would you give someone visiting BA to help them step outside the tourist circuit?

I wrote a blog post on this.

In a number of your articles, such as the Going Local articles about Ecuador and French Guiana, you make a particular point of seeking out music in your destinations. Are you a musician yourself? What are some of the most memorable musical experiences you've had on your travels (in South America or elsewhere)?

I'm a huge music fan, but I'm not a musician in any way. My friends here in Argentina often have spontaneous get-togethers where everyone gets out guitars and has a singalong over a few drinks. It seems everyone can play a song or two--and they can ALL sing. It's all rather frustrating for someone with zero musical talent, but I love to be a part of it anyway. It's something I wish was more prevalent in the UK. If I'd grown up regularly attending such gatherings maybe I *would* be able to strum a few chords.

What would be your top tips for people who want to meet locals while travelling?

Be open minded, make an effort, step out of your comfort zone. However, don't see it as a big deal either. Sign up to a travel-networking site, exchange a few mails and see how you feel.

Do you still keep in touch with any of the people you met while doing your Going Local series--or anyone else you've met on your travels?

Many, many people. Admittedly, Facebook makes it a lot easier. I've met up with two of my Going Local contacts again--one girl from Panama, one from Venezuela. I've spoken to couchsurfing friends in Guyana and Colombia this week. And hopefully my path will cross with many more down the line.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Q&A Part 1: Travel journalist Vicky Baker

As promised, here is Part 1 of my e-mail interview with Vicky Baker, a Buenos Aires-based freelancer who blogs at Going local travel (a blog inspired by the “Going Local” series she wrote for The Guardian). Note that Vicky answered these questions way back in October 2009; the delay in posting them is all mine, and I’m very grateful that she took the time to respond in such detail!

Vicky and I “met” via Twitter. I was immediately intrigued by the fact that she lived in Buenos Aires, a city I fell in love with at first sight when I visited in 2006. I’ve often dreamed of going back; it’s fun to live vicariously through a British ex-pat who has put down roots there.

How long have you been writing about travel?

Six years.

Have you always been a journalist? (Well, not as a child, of course!) Or did you come to the job via another career?

I've always been a journalist, although I took various random jobs while I was studying and in university holidays, including working as a cast member at Disneyland Paris, running a karaoke studio in Ohio and trying to sell people paper rolls for cash registers in a hideous telesales job in Canada. I really got into the idea of journalism when I worked for my university newspaper. After that, I knew it was something I wanted to pursue.

What gave you the idea for the "Going Local" series for The Guardian that inspired your blog?

I'd been backpacking on and off for almost ten years and I was feeling disillusioned. Backpacking had created such a developed infrastructure that you could spend months in a country enveloped in a cocoon and spending all your time hanging out with other travellers. Or you can fall into the expat trap. For example, I spent months living in Sydney before I realised I only had one Australian friend there. I decided on my next trip I wanted to make more of a connection with the places I visited and the people that lived there, rather than just ticking off sites. I was also really fascinated by how the Internet was, and is,

helping travellers do this. Backpacking needed a shake up and travel networking provided it.

Had you tried and other "meet the locals" sites before starting the series?

Yes, I had limited experience. I tried a few sites to meet locals on trips to Berlin and Taiwan. The meetings really enhanced my trip. I always felt I was a little late to jump on the Couchsurfing wagon, but it's amazing how many people are still hearing about it for the first time, every single day.

I can see lots of advantages to travelling this way. But what are the drawbacks?

I don't see many drawbacks other than that you can become a little too reliant on the Internet. You need to be open to encounters the old-fashioned way too. It's amazing the affect of simply telling people that you are into learning more about their culture: many people are delighted to hear this and bend over backwards to help.

Did you have trouble selling editors, readers and/or nervous family members on the idea of planning a whole trip around meeting strangers? If so, what were their reservations?

A lot of other people seem to have a knee-jerk reaction to the word 'stranger' where they automatically expect the worst. Those that read more about hospitality tourism--or give it a try--realise it's not nearly so intimidating in reality. People do worry about the danger element (and they're right to be careful), yet they don't bat an eyelid when a backpacker goes out for a drink with someone they just met at a hostel. In fact, with extensive profiles and references, you often know more in advance about 'the strangers' you meet online than those you meet randomly when travelling.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Confessions of a disorganized blogger

OK, so it's a new year, and it's time for a wee confession: I have been a terribly disorganized and erratic blogger lately. Well, that's probably not much of a confession to anyone who has been following this blog for any length of time; my posts haven't been very frequent over the last few months.

I have as many excuses as a 10-year-old who didn't do her homework. Unlike the "dog ate my homework" brigade, however, it hasn't been due to lack of interest that I haven't been posting. The opposite is true, in fact. I enjoy blogging so much that it tempts me away from the work that actually pays the rent!

All of this is to say: I'm going to try to post more often from here on out. In fact, inspired by a post about blogging regularly on Darren Rowse's ProBlogger blog, I've even developed an ad hoc schedule for my next month or so of posts (yes, my ideas have been piling up that long).

First up will be a Q&A with Vicky Baker, a Buenos Aires-based freelancer who writes travel pieces for The Guardian as well as a great blog, Going local travel. A few months ago, she was kind enough to respond to a long set of questions I e-mailed her. However, what with one thing and another (a straight month of travelling, Christmas, insert other excuses here), I haven't gotten around to posting the Q&A. Watch for the interview (probably divided into two parts) by the end of this week.

Other topics in the queue include a post on oddball vending machines around the world; an excellent UK local shopping site; a review of "Frommer's 500 Places Where You Can Make a Difference"; and a review of a "learning Spanish" podcast. Stay tuned...and thanks for your patience.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

VIDEO: "All You Need Is Love" in 156 countries

Sure, it's a promotional vehicle for Starbucks. But it's also a way to raise awareness and funding to fight AIDS in Africa. And it makes me smile like a fool. What more, really, do you need from a viral video?

The video in question is a four-minute compilation of people around the world singing "All You Need Is Love," recorded all at the same time on December 7, 2009.

What does it have to do with travel, you ask? Not much, aside from the fact that many of the musicians are performing in front of famous sites or in national garb. (The Canadians, naturally, are in a hockey rink.)

It's all part of a bigger initiative called the Starbucks Love Project. You can record your own version of the song and upload it to the site, if you feel so inclined; the giant coffee corp will donate 5 cents US (to a maximum total of US$50,000) to the fight against AIDS for every video it gets.

Yeah, cynics will say it's all promotion for Starbucks. But in my books, I'd rather see Starbucks send $50K to Africa than see them spend it on yet another freakin' bus shelter ad.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Dancers liven up Lisbon airport

Yeah, I know, Christmas is over and done. But if you can stomach one more cheery holiday video, check out this great YouTube clip of a surprise dance performance at the Lisbon airport by the staff of TAP Portugal and Aeroportos de Portugal. If check-in agents at my local airport came leaping over the desks to belt out Mariah Carey tunes and do a bit of Saturday Night Fever-style shimmying, it would certainly take a lot of the stress out of flying!

(Thanks to Shashank Nigam at for spreading the word on the video.)