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Exploring the Swiss Alps

From the Road: Exploring the Swiss Alps

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When you think of Switzerland, you think of the Alps – the enormous snow capped mountains with an alpine backdrop. You barely ever hear mention of the Swiss cities like Zurich or Basel. Swiss cities display an impeccable mix of modern cleanliness and rich historical architecture. When one of these picturesque cities collides with the rugged Swiss wilderness, something truly special is born: Lake Lucerne.

I found myself headed to Lake Lucerne after a brief trip to Munich, Germany, and even the trip there was an adventure. We boarded a little stuffy bus in the early morning, only to find out that we landed on a ferry in the mid afternoon. It was on this ferry that I captured my very first breathtaking picture of Switzerland.

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Exploring the Swiss Alps

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Lake Lucerne became one of the most beautiful cities I’ve laid eyes on in Europe. For someone who is both- a European city fanatic and an outdoors enthusiast- it really was my dream location.

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Exploring the Swiss Alps

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I knew that I wanted to experience one of the Gondola tours up to the top of the Alps. The most popular two mountains in Lake Lucerne are Mount Rigi and Mount Pilatus. Unfortunately, both gondola rides for these mountains were shut down for the winter (it was early November) so I settled for Mt. Stanserhorn.

 

The bus ride to the base of Mt. Stansorhorn took us amidst the surreal Swiss countryside filled with small farmhouses, cattle, and some of the healthiest looking grass I’ve ever seen.

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Exploring the Swiss Alps

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The adventure to the top of Stansorhorn begins with a vintage wooden train that strolls along the meadows and up the side of the mountain. The sightseeing begins here, as you get higher and higher you can view the scenery in its entirety. The train ride is peaceful and quiet, with only the sound of the train tracks and some cowbells in the distance.

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Exploring the Swiss Alps

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Next, we reached the station of the Cabrio, an open top aerial cable car that would escort us to the top of the mountain (6230ft / 1900m). The view from the second deck of the Cabrio is an unforgettable experience.

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Exploring the Swiss Alps

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The top of Mt. Stanserhorn offered an outstanding panoramic view over ten lakes, 100 kilometers of Alpine mountain range and three countries. From here, you can hike to the lookout point, or choose from various other paths along the summit. When you get hungry, you can grab a bite at the Ronorama- a revolving restaurant at the top of the mountain. If you time it right, you can get the opportunity to watch the sunset over the mountains, which is a sight you won’t want to miss.

Exploring the Swiss Alps

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Exploring the Swiss AlpsExploring the Swiss Alps

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After returning to the city from our trip to the Alps, we worked up quite an appetite. We opted to take a stroll across the famous Chapel Bridge and grab some Swiss fondue along the water edge. The Chapel Bridge, a landmark of Lucerne, is said to be the oldest woodbridge of Europe (however it was rebuilt after an accident in 1993).

Exploring the Swiss Alps

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The next day we decided to view Lucerne by boat, which is a great way to see the other small towns located around the lake.

Whether viewing the city by boat or gondola, Lake Lucerne is an exceptional town and an enchanting place. I came for the lake, was charmed by the city, and fell in love with the mountains.

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Exploring the Swiss Alps

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Exploring the Swiss Alps

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Want to see more of Marteen’s experience in Lake Lucerne?

Watch Lake Lucerne: A Video Starring the Alps

 

Marteen is a travel obsessed twenty something trying to live the dream while maintaining a 9-5 to pay the bills (until she has the freedom to go rogue). In her blog, Lust For The World, she proves that it is possible to travel the world while your young, earning an entry level salary, and working 40 hours a week.

 

 

 

A Visit to Eilean Donan Castle in Scotland

A Visit to Eilean Donan Castle in Sctland

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Eilean Donan Castle: situated on a small tidal island where three sea lochs meet and surrounded by majestic mountains and Scottish wilderness, it is not hard to see why this castle is considered to be one of the most photographed in Scotland, and beloved of shortbread tins.

Eilean Donan was the focus for a road trip earlier this year. A spectacularly moody and dramatic image of Eilean Donan was featured in February’s edition of Countryfile Magazine and as soon as I laid eyes upon it I wanted to see it in the flesh. So off we went.

A few weeks later my partner and I set off from Kent to begin the two day drive north, staying with my parents in Yorkshire overnight. The second day of driving saw us skirt the Lake District National Park and enter Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park north of Glasgow a few hours later. But the best part of the drive for me was traversing the A82 towards Fort William through the misty, brooding mountains of Glencoe.

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A Visit to Eilean Donan Castle in Scotland

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And boy was Eilean Donan worth the long drive, all 610 miles of it.

The first fortified castle was built in the mid-13th century, with various alterations over the next few centuries until it was partially destroyed during the Jacobite uprising in 1719. It wasn’t until Lieutenant Colonel John MacRae-Gilstrap bought the island in 1911 that Eilean Donan was restored to its former glory. The castle was re-opened in 1932 and is now a popular tourist attraction.

As we visited during March there were few tourists around, and it was wonderfully peaceful gazing out from the small island across the waters to the distant mountains. The only way to look around inside the castle is by guided tour, for which we were more than happy to pay. Our guide was very knowledgeable (who wouldn’t be after working there for 15 years?) and told us so many fascinating things; the entrance hall has a barrel vaulted ceiling with no keystone to hold things in place – quite unusual and a master of design. And the walls of the great hall have narrow passageways within and peep holes, the better that people may listen in on councils in centuries gone by – perhaps where the saying ‘the walls have ears’ comes from…

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A Visit to Eilean Donan Castle in Scotland

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The tour finished with a walk through the bedrooms where the current family still reside; recent wedding photo’s lay side by side with old trinkets and old paintings adorned the walls with family trees. A wander through the original kitchens revealed a room trapped in time, stuck in the mid-1900’s when parties would have been hosted and friends invited to stay and plenty of food was required.

Oh to live in a castle!

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Rachel is a freelance ecologist based in the south of the UK. In between travelling around the UK to carry out protected species and habitat surveys, she takes any opportunity she can to explore the local area and hopefully discover hidden gems. Her blog Hither and Yonder documents her work, experiences and little local adventures.

How I Became a Vampire in Malta

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I always wanted to be involved in making movies, but I was from Ohio.

That’s not to say great movie people don’t come from Ohio; we’ve begotten our share of great actors, directors, producers, screenwriters, and editors, including such illustrious names as Wes Craven, Chris Columbus, and Steven Spielberg… and effectively exported them all to Hollywood.

Ohio is a great place for producing creative people because it’s very boring. Kind of like how so many comedians hail from Canada because it’s very cold and people have such a lot of time to sit around the fire making each other laugh.

Don’t get me wrong, Ohio is beautiful in it’s own quiet way, but until George Clooney convinces the big shots to haul their business over to the Midwest, it’s not a place where aspiring film people are going to make it.

And if you have neither money nor connections, and no way of making either, it’s really no use to hit the road for California.

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Eklissi Director Actors Extras

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As the strange twistings of fate would have it, last year I found myself living on a desert island in the middle of the sea. No, really. Frustration with the American economy had driven me to look for work elsewhere, and to my great shock, I had a contract 5 days after I started my online job search. The next day I handed in my notice. The day after that I bought my plane ticket. 2 weeks later I was here.

Here is Malta. Smallest country in the EU, crossroads of the Mediterranean, and strangely, a little island with a strong magnetic pull for the film industry.

Malta is made of neutral colored sandstone, which looks great on celluloid. Not to mention, there are a whole lot of castle-like structures, underground tunnels, natural rock formations, and a dazzling blue sea, which all make for great sets.

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Eklissi Cameo Shot

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Brad Pitt had been here filming World War Z just before I arrived. The Rome section of Gladiator was made here, as were several entire movies and many small scenes from both cinema and television. Often “at sea” sections are filmed off Malta. The film studio here specializes in coordinating maritime scenes.

I didn’t come to Malta to work in the movies, but it didn’t take long to learn that doing so was not so far out of the question. Though the entire island isn’t much bigger than my hometown Cincinnati, a lot goes on here in the industry, and oddly enough, it’s because of the short distances and thoroughly networked everyone-knows-everyone infrastructure that opportunities are so accessible.

One day as I was waiting for the bus, I got into a conversation with a boy selling tickets there who had worked as an extra in World War Z. He told me to join a facebook group called Malta Film Extras, where openings are posted. I did so, and one day saw a call posted. Interested persons were invited to join in a shooting at a certain street in the city of Isla, from 6pm to 2am. Dress code: Carnival.

I almost didn’t go. I wasn’t feeling good that evening, but I figured I could either stay home and feel sick or do something fun and try to forget about it. I had never experienced Carnival in any European city, and didn’t really know what to do. In the end I settled for my most brightly colored skirt and a polka-dot scarf.

I had never been to Isla either. I looked up where it was on Google Maps and found the nearest bus stop to the right street. When I got there, it was dark and the streets were quiet. I walked down to the marina where I found an old man and asked him for directions. He pointed out the street to me, so I walked all the way to the end of it but didn’t see anyone. It must have been canceled, I figured.

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Maltese Vampires plus Me

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Then I turned around and walked down the street in the opposite direction. And then I saw vampires. Vampires and a lot of people looking very busy. I’d found it.

I had to smile at the irony. This was a vampire show, and I was going to be in it.

I’m the kind of person that so pitilessly makes fun of Twilight that my sisters didn’t even tell me when they went to watch Eclipse. The irony went one step further. The name of this show? Eklissi. That means eclipse in Maltese.

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I spotted a man who looked like he knew what to do and asked, “Can I join?”

He brought me into an open door on the street and up the stairs. This was someone’s house, an old Maltese structure with bare limestone walls and painted floor tiles, with contrasting modern furniture. A bathroom was being used as the makeup studio. The man took a look at my face and gave some instructions to the artist in Maltese. When the girl got finished, I looked ready to suck blood.

Back in the street, I got an idea of what it means to be a film extra. Basically, there is a lot of waiting around. A lot of shutting up so that you don’t spoil scenes you’re not in. A lot of imagination required. But ultimately, a lot of fun too.

We spent several hours dancing around without any music, forming a backdrop for the actors who were performing the story. I had a few memorable moments, like when one of the vampires had to run through the crowd of us, and on every take slammed into me really hard, until I was convinced he was doing it on purpose and went scrambling to get out of the way as soon as action was called.

I even got a cameo. The director arranged a shot of me dancing with one of the vamps. I didn’t even know how to dance, and I got to dance on TV. Irony again.

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After that first time, I worked once more with Eklissi, and almost got to be in an action scene, but then I got terribly ill because we had been shooting in a freezing cold mansion while wearing summer clothes, and so I wasn’t able to make it.

Later I worked once on another Maltese TV show, two separate productions that were strangely both about boxing (lots of cheering and screaming for several hours straight for us extras), and finally on an actual feature movie, in Danish.

Is being an extra really being in the movies though? Yes and no. You get to be there, yes, but really your part is to be invisible, the scenery that needs to be there but that no one notices. You really can’t work your way up from being an extra, unless you happen to be David Niven. And you usually won’t get paid.

On the other hand, you get to watch how magic is made. You get to meet interesting people. You might even get a chance to be a vampire in Malta.

Images courtesy of Viktor Vella.

 

Stephanie Spicer is an American living in Malta. She works at Elanguest English Language School in St. Julian’s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oudtshoorn, South Africa – The Ostrich Capital of the World

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Each town on South African Garden Route offers a lot to tourists and it’s hard to choose the best one. However, there is only one town that’s called the capital of the world largest birds, ostriches. Sounds strange? The town has the world’s largest population of ostriches and ostrich related activities! You can’t miss the ostriches, because they are running around everywhere on their huge farms throughout and around town. If you decide to take a hot balloon ride you can feel like in you’re in Jurassic Park while watching ostriches running around on the ground.

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Entering Oudtshoorn is like getting into the kingdom of the ostriches. No matter if you’re staying in a hostel, hotel or guest house, in the morning you’ll be served some tasty scrambled egg. However, what you’ll be eating won’t even be one, because one ostrich egg can feed up to 12 people. While eating your delicious breakfast you might enjoy some amazing views of the mountains surrounding this little town. Your ostrich delights won’t finish after breakfast. Every restaurant also serves ostrich meat, as steaks, burgers, meatballs and manyother variations. However it doesn’t only taste good, it’s a great option for red meat lovers since ostrich hasway less fat, cholesterol and calories than beef. My favorite is still ostrich fillet from a braai, a South African version of a barbecue, finished with a glass of local wine.

People often ask, what can you do on ostrich farms? The tour around the farm starts by showing you many different types of ostriches and teaching you fun facts about them. Don’t get too excited about their cute faces, because won’t hesitate to bite you. One interesting fact about their eggs is that they are so hard an adult human can jump on one without breaking it. It’s pretty amazing!

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If you weigh less than 75kg (some farms allow visitors up to 80 kg) it means you’re eligible to ride an ostrich! I have to admit that riding this big bird has always been on my bucket list, but after seeing how strong and fast they are, I got a bit anxious about falling off.

The rancher grabbed my ostrich and put a white bag over its head. The reason for this being that because their minds are smaller than their eyes – poor ostriches don’t usually recall what’s happening. I was put on the top of the bird and told to hold the neck tight and keep calm. The moment the bag got removed from the ostrich’s head, it started running around. I was glad my ostrich didn’t get to leave the ranch, because ostriches can run up to 70 km/h.

At the end of your farm tour you can visit the gift shop. Even if you usually hate trashy souvenirs I strongly recommend a visit to one of the shops in order to see why an ostrich farm can be an excellent idea for a business. The souvenir store sells ostrich leather wallets, ostrich feather brooms, and perhaps the most fascinating, lamps made from their eggs. Each ostrich egg lamp has a unique design carved carefully onto the egg.

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Tired of seeing and eating ostriches? Is there anything else in Oudtshoorn apart from ostriches? The answer is YES, much more adventures! Oudtshoorn offers a wide range of activities at Cango Wildlife Ranch for the most endangered species in Africa, such as getting in a cage with cheetahs and petting them. The park also offers quite an adrenaline rush by offering a swim with live crocodiles. You get into a cage which is thrown into a pool filled with 4-meter long crocodiles. Don’t worry too much though; the crocodiles are fed before you get to meet them! Kids can also get a first-hand experience with birds, bats and other wild cats.

Situated 30 km from Oudtshoorn are the Cango Caves, some of the most spectacular cavern and tunnel formations in the world. Visitors can take a simple tour that takes you on a journey through the caves and their history while the more adventurous ones can take the adventure tour that takes you through the smallest tunnels, some as narrow as 27 centimeters, so get prepared for some crawling!

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Anna Lysakowska is a blogger at Anna Everywhere. She has visited more than 46 countries and lived in 7 cities, including Mexico City, Boston, London, Cape Town, Florence and Leiden. She studied journalism at Harvard, international law at Oxford Brookes, and obtained her Masters in Latin American Studies from Leiden University. Since 2013, she has been residing in the Netherlands where she works at a marketing company, but this doesn’t stop her from traveling.

About the time the monkey stole my GoPro... (WITH VIDEO!)
About the time the monkey stole my GoPro… (WITH VIDEO!)
I’ll start off by saying I half expected this to happen – and took steps to prevent it. I learned that it only takes a split second for things to go from ‘under your control’ to ‘not under your control – especially with an adept and agile creature. If you came for the video, here it is:
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The destination is Kosamphi Forest Park (AKA Kosamphi Monkey Park), located in Maha Sarakham, northeastern Thailand. It’s about a 40km ride from Khon Kaen, the largest city in the region. The park itself is free to enter, but you’ll definitely want to purchase a bag or two of bananas near the entrance at a nominal fee. Once inside, you have no shortage of monkeys to feed, photograph, video, or simply enjoy being around. Plenty of them hang out around the entrance, smartly realizing that being close to the food source makes you more likely to get the grub.
About the time the monkey stole my GoPro... (WITH VIDEO!)A bit further in, you’re faced with a choice – do you stick close to the road or venture a bit into the forest? You’ll see plenty of monkeys either way, and we started off exploring towards the trees a bit. I set my GoPro and pole down just behind a banana, hoping to get some video of the close-up variety. The monkeys, quite aware of my presence, cautiously grabbed the fruit and ran off… D’oh!
Then we came across a picnic bench further from the road, the sort of place where monkeys had the home-field advantage. Approaching the picnic table meant distancing ourselves from our rented scooter. Since the last thing I wanted to do was pay for damages caused by monkeys, I scared them off – naturally, they jumped back on the bike as soon as I was gone.
But no matter – they weren’t going to do much damage to the bike, I hoped. I planted the camera and pole on the picnic table, angling the lens up to catch more of the approachers and less of the table. No bananas this time – they were already approaching out of curiosity, or perhaps the blinking red light.
Just then, the unmistakable plunk! of a helmet hitting the road rang out by my bike. It had been hanging on the mirror, which of course the monkeys had knocked off. One of them looked like they were trying to chew their way to the styrofoam inside the helmet, which caused me to run over and scare them off…
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In the few seconds I was away, one monkey managed to grab the pole, climb up a nearby tree, and get to a branch maybe 12 meters off the ground. The red light was still blinking – it’s still getting video! – so I held out hope for some interesting video from a monkey’s point of view. The monkey seemed more interested in the orange rubber tip on the pole (which helps keep the GoPro in the plastic frame). Chewing on that eventually dislodged the camera and sent it tumbling towards the earth. See the very end of the video (if you haven’t yet) to see what happens!
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About the time the monkey stole my GoPro... (WITH VIDEO!)With the camera safely retrieved, I wanted my pole back, too. At first I threw some bananas, hoping he’d let go of the pole while catching a banana. My throws weren’t all that accurate, and before long I had worked my way through a bag and a half of bananas. The monkey, still on the same branch as before, seemed to realize he was a bit trapped – he wasn’t nearly as agile while carrying a meter-long pole, but didn’t want to give up his new possession. I happened across a beer bottle, and after a couple tries hit the branch. Seconds later, we saw the pole drop… into an area of thick brush and a steep hill. It was near impossible to reach, and after a half an hour of looking in the area we gave up.
And so, the lesson was learned – get a bigger pole, and anchor it to something!
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About the time the monkey stole my GoPro... (WITH VIDEO!)Chris Backe is the travel blogger behind One Weird Globe. He’s authored over a dozen books and itineraries about Korea and Thailand, and is currently working on a book about Thailand’s offbeat and bizarre destinations. He currently lives in Khon Kaen, Thailand with his wife, Laura. Find him onFacebook and Twitter.


Bangladesh market, latitude 34 travel blog, smile

From the Road: Stranded In Bangladesh

In March 2008 I found myself in Dhaka, Bangladesh with two weeks to spare, directions to a small village written only in Bangali and my comfort zone nowhere in sight. Landing at Zia International Airport in the middle of the night, the dust, heat and cold stares hit me like a slug to the chest.

With no hotel reservation I jumped in a cab and simply told him to take me to a cheap hotel. I had one goal, to find my way to the remote village of Reyenda, deep inside the estuaries of Southern Bangladesh, close to the Sunderbans National Park. The area had recently been hit by a devastating typhoon and I was meeting a handful of dedicated volunteers who had set up shop in the village to lend a hand in the rebuilding effort.

I was told to book myself a ticket on a ferry called The Rocket, which took daily trips down the Meghna River out of Dhaka. Finding the ticket office took two days, and once inside, I had to trust that whatever ticket they sold me would get me to my destination. After all, travel is all about the journey and not the destination right? The adventure is half the fun.

Ticket in hand, I found my way to the dock and boarded the vessel in a small, cramped room with a small bed with sheets, once white, and a small pillow. The total journey would take 24 hours, and would, unbeknownst to me, leave me on the side of the river, with barely a person in sight.

The ferry ride itself was not too bad. People packed in every possible compartment, and many families simply sleeping on the hallway floors or decks of the ship, we slowly made our way down the river. By early the next morning we we far from any city and deep in the muslim south. The stares got more and more intense, the clothing more traditional, the customs more foreign to me. By the time I was told to exit the ferry I was certain I had missed my stop but was forced to leave, and barely convinced, through body language, that this was my correct stop. After all, my directions were written in Bangali, not English, so I had to trust them.

Once on the shore, I deduced that I needed to find my way to the other side of the mighty Meghna river, as the village was hidden in the dense brush on the adjacent river bank. Lucky for me a small boat, a large wooden canoe, seemed to regularly cross the river carrying no doubt double its recommended weight in families, supplies and livestock. Aboard the small boat I found myself sitting on one far end as the eyes of what seemed like hundreds of people stared blankly back at me. I had no choice but look into their eyes and smile, a connection so human, it was my only means of communication. I was stripped of all my linguistic skills, my learned behaviors and my comfort as I learned to rely on simple, brutal and basic body language.

Bangladesh boat, latitude 34 travel blogAcross the river I was dumped into a small but bustling market with children, dogs and chickens running free. As I approached the small town square, the noise and movement of the locals seemed to slowly die down and everything around me seemed to freeze. The woman, dressed in full burka tried to hide their stares. The men, bright orange beards and stark white dress, starred with not hate nor malice, but with utter confusion. I cannot imagine what I looked like to them, a big white skinned california boy with bright clothing, a large backpack and a goofy smile, covered in sweat. I had never been so far out of my comfort zone and the feeling left me with a smile on my face but a determination to act like I belonged there and knew where I was going. I slowly walked through the crowd and tried not to focus on the small piece of paper I had with the Bangali name of the area I was headed towards scribbled on it.

After what felt like hours, but was surely only a minute or two, I was forced to resign myself to the beautiful situation I had found myself in. In a short matter of days, I had gone from every familiar surrounding I could imagine in Los Angeles, friends on speed dial, fast food on every corner, everything in English, to a deeply hidden and traditional Muslim village far in the wetlands of Southern Bangladesh without a soul I recognized, a single word to communicate and no idea what to do next.

The accompanying feeling was neither one of panic nor worry but rather of freedom. Freedom from all I had known, freedom from the familiar, freedom from the predictable and freedom from the comfortable. I was stripped of my built up walls, of 23 years of assumptions and met, quite literally, face to face with the unknown.

Bangladesh market, latitude 34 travel blog

The eyes of the village still fixed on me, I paused, sat my bag down and took a deep breath. I was giving myself to the humanity of the situation and trusting in the most human of instincts that the world would give me the answers, the guidance and the safety to help me along my journey. The children laughed, the men continued to stare, frozen in their steps. The woman, however, gave off a vibration I would not have expected but that I recognized instantly. They were motherly. They seemed to discard that I was so different, so foreign, so not Muslim. They seemed to only think about one simple fact. I was lost, and I too, was, somewhere, a mothers child.

Knowing eye contact with Muslim woman was traditionally frowned upon, and any contact, even that of shaking hands, was strictly shunned in most communities I attempted to return their warm looks without offending the men for fear of the repercussions. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a figure moving towards me, turning my head I saw an older Muslim woman, dressed in full Burka, only eyes viable, walking towards me. Unsure what would happen next, I too stood frozen by the moment. As she approached I could tell she had a rag in her hand and by the time I realized she had taken off my hat and was gently rubbing it across my sweat covered face, I could feel it was soaked in cool water.

Bangladesh market, latitude 34 travel blog

Realizing how taboo this interaction was, I only lived one second to the next and took her lead as how to act. Smiling, I thanked her for her kindness. Knowing she had shattered the social stereotypes and the local religious laws, I was left breathless by her kindness. Her deeply ingrained maternal instinct had taken over, unbearable was the thought that a lost child would stand helpless in her midst. All those watching, the children, the men and the animals seemed to agree with her actions. There was no gasp, no uproar, no resulting repercussions for her actions, only the silent feeling of approval from a small village deep in the heart of the Bangladesh jungle, whom, when faced with a lost child, no matter the sex, background or creed and surrounded it with love and care, gave it a sense of belonging, safety and love.

Minutes later a beat up truck rolled into the market and the driver motioned for me to jump in the back with my bags. The driver explained he had seen a couple other foreign people at a house a few km away and was certain they were who I was looking for, and he was right.

Bangladesh market, latitude 34 travel blog

The two weeks living and working in the village of Reyenda, Bangladesh were among the most rewarding of my life, and the experience I had that first day walking into the market one of the most memorable of my life. Travel the world, see new cultures, meet new people and shed those preconceived notions and stereotypes. People the whole world over all share the same instincts, to help those in need, lend a helping hand and contribute to the overall human experience.

I am lucky I was able to experience so many of them in one seemingly endless moment.

Safe travels, Jeff

* End note: Two days after riding the Rocket ferry back to Dhaka, as it returned down south full to capacity, it sank, leaving almost 200 people missing, many feared dead. Local authorities estimate that between 90-95% of small and medium sized vessels in Bangladesh do not meet basic safety standards.


Hoi An Vietnam
Hoi An Vietnam

From the Road: Solo Adventures in Hoi An, Vietnam

A few years ago while I was in college, I was fortunate enough to go on a documentary trip to Vietnam. As an American, Vietnam was an interesting choice and would be my first trip to Asia and only third time out of the country. I was eager, excited and nervous. I was one of ten students and a professor going with a goal of capturing the essence of life in Vietnam and exposing the realities of life in a country we knew little about.

We arrived in Ho Chi Minh city with eager eyes and trigger happy fingers grasping our cameras. Ho Chi Minh City is a great place. It is modern, chaotic and beautiful in its own way. Learning to cross the street here is the largest hurdle for travelers as crosswalks don’t exist. There are tall skyscrapers contrasted with hole in the wall restaurants. People are everywhere. From beggars to businessmen, people are the heartbeat of this city.

After spending some time based in Ho Chi Minh City, and getting used to life in such a hectic city, I was ready to explore more on my own. Halfway through the trip, the group was going to meet in Hoi An which is on the South China Sea in the South Central of Vietnam. As the student producer of the project, I wanted to get there early and find accommodations for the group and took the opportunity as my first solo adventure abroad. Translated, Hoi An means “peaceful meeting place” which was perfect for our group to meet halfway through our Vietnam adventure. I booked my flight on JetStar, packed my bags and headed out of my Saigon hotel looking for a cab.

I jumped in the cab and told him I was airport bound. This is where I made my first mistake. The driver saw a foreigner with all her luggages asking to go the airport so of course he thought I was flying home and took me to the international departure terminal. Since this was my first solo adventure I was at the airport several hours early and used those hours walking all over the airport trying to find the domestic terminal. Finally I found it and could feel some relief. Aboard the empty plane, I found myself sitting next to an older Vietnamese women while the rest of the plane was virtually empty. I’ll never forget the women’s smile as she offered me a box of chocolate milk. We couldn’t speak the same language, yet she was so warm and friendly and kept trying to make conversation. This is the beauty of Vietnam. The people appreciate life and everyone for who they are. It didn’t matter that we were from opposite sides of the world or our countries conflicted histories, all that mattered was that we were both on the same flight drinking chocolate milk together.

Hoi An, Vietnam Isabela Eseverri
Lantern Stall in Hoi An, Vietnam (photo by Isabela Eseverri)

Once I landed at the Hoi An airport and walked out of the terminal, there were dozens of cab drivers all yelling and trying to get me in their cab. If you’ve traveled at all around Asia, this is just a reality, however for someone who hasn’t experienced this before it’s a bit intimidating to say the least. I felt unsure and wanted to judge the situation before jumping into a cab. I had done some research before the adventure begun and chose a hotel for one night so that I would have an address written down to hand the cab driver. I had also previously called the hotel and asked how far from the airport and how much a cab should be so that I didn’t get taken advantage of, but in this moment with cab drivers grabbing my bags and yelling for me to choose them, all my confidence went out the window. Next think I know a man grabbed my bag and took off to put it in his cab leaving me no choice but to follow in his direction. I passively got in the cab and handed him the little paper with my hotel address feeling a little disappointed with myself for my lack of assertiveness.

What felt like an eternity later we finally arrived at the hotel. I was delighted to find that the hotel I stumbled upon online turned out to be a great choice. It was clean, modern and a much needed improvement from the cheap room I had in Ho Chi Minh City.

The next morning was dedicated to exploring the ancient town of Hoi An. First impression: beautiful, ancient, and full of tourists. I can imagine that 10 or 15 years ago Hoi An would have been a gem. The streets were made of cobble stone and the city was built around the river. Now days the town has succumbed to its rich history and been over saturated with tourists. On the brighter side, the city had great restaurants and beautiful people. Despite the tourists roaming the city like ants, the quant town had lots to offer. There was great shopping and I found myself buying all my souvenirs for my family here and even had clothes made to bring back home. If you want any custom clothes made in Vietnam, Hoi An is the place to do it.

I spent a few hours walking around the city peeking into all the shops and restaurants. I turned a corner and to my surprise the street was flooded. At certain times of the year the river raises and floods part of the city. I was shocked and had never heard of anything like this. There were shop owners sweeping out water and leftover mud as if it was just another day, which I suppose it was. Looking down the flooded street, I could see a bridge that went over the river but the water was so high only the top of the light posts were above the water. A few days later when my friends started to arrive the water had already subsided and you could walk over the bridge.

Hoi An, VietnamI was eager to show my friends everything I had discovered about Hoi An. There were little bars/restaurants all over the town called, “Same Same, But Better” and even one called “Same Same, But Best” where we played pool and ate pizza. During our stay, the end of the lunar calendar meant Hoi An was hosting a lantern festival in celebration. Lantern festivals or full moon festivals are a huge part of Asian culture and a must if you visit. Hoi An’s festival proved to be photo worth, as young photographers, and a beautiful part of the culture. We spent hours walking around the city learning how to shoot in low light and find precious moments.

Overall I was proud of myself for taking on this adventure alone. Although my friends met me there it was a big deal for me to get on a plane in Vietnam by myself. Now days, when I find myself traveling and scared I think back to this memory and remember that I can do it. Traveling alone is something that everyone should experience. I personally believe that it is empowering for women to travel alone, even if its just a small trip like this one. It builds confidence and helps you discover who you are and what you want out of the world.

Safe travels, Marina

 

Marina Dominguez Latitude 34Marina is the co-founder of Latitude 34 – Travel Blog as well as a photographer and documentary film maker.  

As a maturing women, Marina has dedicated her life to travel and new experiences. After working a 9-5 cubical lifestyle, Marina sold everything she owned, left her job and begun a new life with her boyfriend and travel companion, Jeff Johns. Together they relocated to Phuket, Thailand and founded Latitude 34 in which they seek to share their alternative lifestyle with the world.  

Marina is a Visual Journalism graduate of Brooks Institute of Photography where she studied photography, videography and ultimately caught the travel bug. Through creating several international documentaries, Marina realized there was more to the world than work and wanted something more.


 

India, tiruvanammalai worship by latitude34 jeff johns

From the Road: Climbing A Mountain In India… Barefoot

 

Ever had the desire to climb a mountain barefoot? Yea, me neither. But this is the story of why I decided to, the most miserable 12 hours of my life, and why even thinking about the story brings a smile to my face.

In December, 2008 I was working on a documentary project in India. Traveling with my good friends and fellow visual journalists, we made our way to the small city of Tiruvannamalai, about 200km south of Chennai. Each year the city if flooded with Hindu pilgrims for the Karthikai Deepam festival which celebrates the god Shiva’s transformation into the cities largest mountain. Normally a city of 130,000, each December it balloons to over 2 million.

India, tiruvanammalai worship by latitude34The vast majority of the pilgrims arrive set on walking the cities 14km perimeter after ritualistically shaving their heads and going to the local temple. Some of the more adventurous pilgrims opt to climb Mount Aranachala in hopes of reaching the summit where a vast cauldron of burning butter sits atop the peak for ten days.

Intrigued by the idea of sharing this experience with those who had flocked to the city, as well as the potential for great footage and a memorable experience, myself and fellow adventure junkie Alana Fickes, decided to make the trek.

Backpacks loaded, memory cards cleared, cameras in hand, we excitedly walked to the base of Mount Arunachala. All was going great, and with grins on our face, adrenalin from the excitement and a healthy dose of blind faith we would make it down alive we were promptly stopped and informed of one thing; we had to climb the mountain barefoot and must leave our shoes at the bottom.

Ten minutes later, I was nearly in tears. Growing up in the city, my soft and supple feet could barely make it across my grandmothers gravel driveway let alone a rocky mountain in India whose only train was but a faint suggestion by the bent grass around the jagged boulders. Alana, who had grown up in Hawaii, had feet of steel and happily lead the way as a struggled to tie my socks around the balls of my feet to prevent further cuts. I hid my pain as best I could, with little to no success. She was carrying a backpack twice the size of my I may add.

India, tiruvanammalai worship by latitude34 jeff johns

Eight hours later we were still climbing, and with the fall of night, had even less of an idea where to go. The scattered pilgrims had dissipated, and the terrain had gotten extremely erratic and unpredictable. What had started out innocently enough as a barefoot climb had turned into extreme bouldering in the black of night. It had gotten so steep, that although directly under the summit, the burning cauldron of butter was now out of sight.

We had to make a hard decision, and although I think we both regret it daily, we agreed the smartest thing to do was to turn around and attempt a descent towards the city lights below. As hard as it was to turn around, I was overcome with a sense of relief to no longer be blindly marching into the impossibly black unknown.

Two more hours later, at what must have been 10pm, we seemed to have  made little progress and hope was slim we would make it down that night. I remember thinking to myself that sleeping on a rock and waiting to the morning sunlight to help guide us down was starting to sound like a fairly decent option. Not wanting to give up, we kept sluggishly traversing the mountain towards the base, through areas so steep we resorted to sliding down on our butt.

Minutes later, out of the dark of night, an elderly man, wearing only a skirt and a turban, appeared with a small child on his back and motioned to us to follow him. Overcome with a sense of relief and sheer disbelief we followed this mystical man down the remainder of the mountain only to find our shoes had been stolen and the entire stand we left them at disassembled.

India, tiruvanammalai worship by latitude34 jeff johns

At this point we could only laugh or we would have been left crying. A short time later we were back at our hotel where we immediately threw out every piece of sweat drenched, mud covered clothing we had on. I’ve never enjoyed a shower more in my life.

Not having an extra pair of shoes with me, I wore a pair of flimsy hotel slippers for 3 days until our eventual departure from India.

Although right up there with the most miserable days of my life, and despite the blood, sweat and tears of that day, I still easily rank it right up there as also one of my favorite. A once in a lifetime memory, an unforgettable adventure with a best friend, an emotional roller coaster to say the least, and a mystical Hindu man on a holy mountain in a small city in the middle of India made for one of the greatest days of my life.

India, tiruvanammalai worship by latitude34 jeff johns

Six months later, back home in Los Angeles, I was at a party talking to an old college friend, whom upon hearing this story quickly replied with “Ohh yea, I climbed that mountain a couple times, right up to the top. I don’t think you really have to take your shoes off, I kept mine on and nobody ever said anything.”

Safe travels, Jeff

* For more information on “Svara”, the documentary project we were shooting during the trip, please visit http://documentary.brooks.edu/india/

** Additional pictures provided by Alana Fickes, Samantha Murphy and Adam Hererra


Camino de Santiago: A Life Changing Walk

Camino de Santiago: A Life Changing Walk

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Camino de Santiago: A Life Changing WalkIn August of 2012, I decided to buy a plane ticket to Spain and walk the Camino de Santiago.  At that time, I did not own a backpack or hiking shoes.  I filled in the blanks over the next three weeks.  On Sept 14, I began a 500 mile walk that began in St. Jean and ended in Santiago.  Those million steps changed my life.  I would like to share my reflections with you in this guest blog post.

 I had no eureka moments on the Camino. At kilometer marker 348.6, I uncovered no little vault with all the answers to life. Instead, just like life, I experienced a series of meaningful and small insights. I believe we all have an internal light, and the Camino acts as a rheostat to greatly increase the intensity. With care and awareness, I hope to keep that light glowing brightly until my last breath.

I continue to treasure the small moments that make up each and every day. A simple smile, a nice cup of coffee, a beautiful sunset, or some random act of kindness provides fuel for my light. When it all becomes too hard, I still use my “Refresh” move, walking in a circle, with or without my walking stick, to get a completely new perspective.

I am letting go of worry. Chronic worrying is detrimental to happiness. It is impossible to be happy and to worry at the same time. It is like trying to view a sunset with pirate patches covering both eyes. A friend sent me a simple poem about worry from an unknown author that sums up my newfound attitude:

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“For every problem under the sun

There is a solution or there is none

If there’s a solution go and find it

It there isn’t never mind it…”

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 For many years, people had extolled the virtues of deleting worry from my life. This was easy to say, but difficult to implement. During my million steps of reflection on the Camino, I spent some quality time focusing on the significant portion of my life that had been completely wasted on worrying about things outside of my control. The only thing we ultimately control is our reaction to events in our lives. I am spending much more time aligning myself with what is happening as opposed to trying to control what will or will not occur.

We all have our strategies for preventing worry in our lives. For starters, I eliminated all network and cable news from my life. Cold turkey! This is not a plea for putting your head in the sand. But reading a few headlines from the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Washington Post provides me with ample material to stay abreast of current events. The best part of reading is that I get to choose how to react instead of being told by a talking head. This liberation has taken my heart rate down.Camino de Santiago: A Life Changing Walk

Another of my foundations for keeping the light aglow is to live in the Now. It is impossible to eliminate the past or avoid all pleasant or unpleasant memories. However, when I visit my past now, I try to go in, learn, and get the hell out! I am not going to be anchored by some event or trauma from my past. The same goes with the future. While hopes and dreams for a bright forecast are always present, I refuse to walk the rest of my life with eyes solely focused on the horizon. I yield to the current moment.

Signs and faith in signs were very important throughout my journey. Walking nearly 500 miles through a foreign land without a map, dependent on little yellow arrows, can wrack anyone’s nerves. By letting go of the worry and placing trust in the arrows, I became confident that I would eventually arrive in Santiago. No need to question or overthink these little arrows. There were two times that I lost the Camino, each lasting for less than one kilometer. Within 100 steps, I knew in my head and heart that I was on the wrong path.

In the busy world of today, there are signs everywhere that will lead us down a path of contentment. Be open to the signs, listen to your heart, and act on the message. If you are in the wrong job, wrong relationship, or wrong country, there is probably a big neon sign begging you for change. Listen and change. There are an equivalent number of neon markers that point to a positive path. While going through life, pay attention to these affirming signs and keep marching forward with passion and enthusiasm.

On the release date of the book, I have been home for 11 months. During that time, the journey continued at a feverish pace. I never expected to write a book, yet I have spent hundreds of hours working on this project. I never expected to be a public speaker, yet find myself in front of audiences on a regular basis.

The best part about all of this is that I am enjoying each day and savoring the moments. I am content learning new things, meeting new people, and spreading an uplifting message.

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Camino de Santiago: A Life Changing WalkAfter retiring early from his job as a successful sales executive for a Fortune 500 technology company, Kurt Koontz volunteered in his community and traveled across Europe and North America. He never considered writing a book until he walked nearly 500 miles across Spain in 2012. Those million steps were so compelling that he returned home and began writing and speaking about his life-changing adventures. He lives and writes on a tree-lined creek in Boise, Idaho. Kurt Koontz is the author of A Million Steps, a book about his journey on the Camino de Santiago.  You can find out more on his Website and his Facebook.

Help From a Stranger in Madrid, Spain

Help From a Stranger in Madrid, Spain

Part of the Sunday Traveler (#SundayTraveler) series!

Part of the Sunday Traveler (#SundayTraveler) series!.

It was 7:30 AM in Madrid, my friend Roy and I had just left a dance club when we  boarded a bus that we hoped would take us to the Complutense, the largest public university in Madrid. We realized we were lost as well as dazed and confused from a combination of jet-lag and having spent the entire night dancing and chatting it up with friendly strangers. Just as we were about to get off the bus to find our way back to our hostel, a fellow student walked into the bus with a sense of purpose that immediately told us that she knew this city better than we could ever hope for. After debating in English for a bit about asking her for help, Marta turned around and with a lovely Spanish accent asked us: “Where are you guys going and how can I help?”,  as luck would have it she was heading to the university and thus begun one of my most memorable couple of vacation days.

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“You guys were completely lost and I wanted to make sure that when you go back to your country you have a good memory of my city… “

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After a couple of bus transfers, we finally arrived at the Complutense where the morning was spent meeting other students, most of them understandably curious as to why we would voluntarily head to a university during our vacation. Unfortunately, the professor in the class we attended did not share that same curiosity as she proceeded to throw us out of the class for not being registered students. After being thrown out, Marta decided to skip out on her last 2 classes to take us on a tour of Madrid that included Retiro Park, Puerta Mayor, La Latina neighborhood, her favorite tapas bars, paella dinner at her favorite restaurant and churros con chocolate as a nightcap at the famous Chocolateria San Gines.

 

ChocolateriaThe second day was equally busy as she took us on a museum tour after it was decided that we could not leave her city without taking in all the art found in Madrid’s world class museums: El Prado and Thyseen-Bornemisza Museum. This museum tour was the appetizer to what ended being the main course:  a dinner with a few of her friends at a local restaurant. We spent the next few hours discussing perceived and actual differences in political, professional and cultural views. It was an impromptu cultural exchange of the innocent kind, those that happen when you approach travel without any expectations and open yourself up to any experiences that might come your way.

 

To this day it surprises me that we kept up with her considering the fatigue we felt throughout those couple of days but we did not want to waste the opportunity of having Marta give us a free and private guided tour of her city. At the end of the second evening, I remember asking her:  “What drove you to such generosity? I mean how many people would actually take 2 days out of their busy schedule to show two, disheveled college guys, the city that you so obviously love?” To this she responded: “Well, you guys were completely lost and I wanted to make sure that when you go back to your country you have a good memory of my city… plus you seem like good people.” We ended up saying goodbye with a bit of sadness as we did not know when our paths would cross again…

 

I returned to Madrid last year with my wife and walking through some of the same streets I had passed by 15 years earlier made me both nostalgic and grateful for the lesson that Marta taught me so long ago: When in doubt, just ask the locals. If done respectfully, chances are that that at the very least they will provide you with direction on what to do and if you are lucky, you might just end up with a story you continue re-telling 15 years later!

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Cris Sierra is an avid traveler who has lived and traveled to 4 and 40+ countries respectively. He is a firm believer that travel is enhanced when you allow yourself to not only get lost in the destination but to interact with the locals. With that in mind he co-founded tripniks.com to help fellow travelers get free personalized tips from local experts. Cris really enjoys talking about travel so if you have questions or just want to chat about travel in general feel free to drop him a line at cris@tripniks.com

Dodging Landmines in Eastern Burma

Dodging Landmines in Eastern Burma

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For three weeks I had been traveling north on Highway 105 working on a photography book documenting the lives of individuals who had come to live on the Thai-Burma border.  I had visited refugee camps, tapioca plantations, rubber farms, orphanages, military outposts and villages listening to people’s stories of how they had left their homes and come to this area of the world.  After staying in Mae La Refugee Camp for a week, my friend and translator Sawkhalawtoo asked me if I wanted to cross over into Myanmar (Burma) and spend some time with a friend of his.  Despite the fact that the area was littered with landmines and scarred by brutal acts of war from decades of violence, I was thrilled at the prospect of heading into an area of the country I had yet to visit, and was restricted from entering.

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“I was there to document stories of survival in a war-torn land but for some reason I felt like I was living in a place which had never seen the likes of any conflict.”

 We rose early in the morning and made our way down to the banks of the Moei River to await Saw’s friend Naw Bee Po, who would take us thirty minutes upstream to her village on the Burmese side of the border.  After a brief encounter with a Thai border guard who didn’t think it the least bit suspicious that I was boarding a boat to enter one of Burma’s many “black zones,” we were off.  Naw Bee Po’s son Ku Dii was driving the boat while his mother explained the current situation to  Sawkhalawtoo.  Ku Dii seemed more than thrilled to have me on the boat and couldn’t wipe the smile of his face for the entire ride, neither could I. 

 

 Dodging Landmines in Eastern Burma The area we were quickly jetting through was a region in Eastern Burma known as Karen State.  For the past 62 years the Burmese military had been at war with the Karen people and much of the fighting had taken place on the banks of the river I was admiring.  For this reason, the Burmese government deemed the region a “black zone” which made it illegal for foreigners to visit. 

 

 Mugay Paw’s village was a different world compared to the refugee camp I had just come from where space was a luxury and having land to raise livestock or grow vegetables was simply not an option.  Upon reaching the top of the hill where the family of six lived, I noticed gardens, pigs, goats, and only one other home in sight.  As soon as I arrived and introductions were made, I was asked to join the boys for some spear fishing.  With that we stripped down to our skivvies and were back in the water skimming the surface with one-eyed goggles which I hadn’t seen since Sean Connery wore them in James Bond.

 

 Upon returning from a rather unsuccessful fishing trip which basically consisted of laying face down in the shallow waters and shooting my rubber band-rigged spear gun at anything that moved, the boys grabbed their father’s handmade rifle and took me into the hills to hunt for crows.  Prior to our departure from the house I was warned that the area was still littered with landmines and I should be careful not to wander too far off the trail, advice I would most certainly heed.  With my camera and bare feet I jogged behind the boys as they excitedly ran down the trail to scout for birds in the distance.  Even though we returned empty handed, Naw Bee Po and her husband Maw Toe Ae welcomed us home by serving potato curry with sides of steamed rice, fish paste, and pieces of dried fish.  I was there to document stories of survival in a war-torn land but for some reason I felt like I was living in a place which had never seen the likes of any conflict.

 

After breakfast the next morning I was taken 2 miles deeper into Karen State to see the school where the children in the area would attend, when a teacher was available, to learn a handful of subjects.   The students spanned from toddlers to 12 years of age.  I spent the afternoon playing games with the kids and trying to teach them a few English songs, which I knew very few of that were simple enough for basic speakers to learn in a short amount of time.  So after my ideas ran dry I thought I would go big and teach them a famous theatre song entitled “Dayman” from the comedy series “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.”  Needless to say it didn’t go exactly as I had planned and most of the kids couldn’t quite get past the second or third line, but they were happy to have learned a few new words in English. 

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Dodging Landmines in Eastern Burma

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 That evening several of the villagers made their way over to Naw Bee Po’s home and gathered around her television to watch their favorite Thai drama.    We sat laughing and sharing stories about one another, I couldn’t help but wonder how similar these people were to other villagers I had met throughout Southeast Asia.  They had similar occupations, homes, personalities, and lifestyles.  The only difference was that this group of people had spent most of their lives running through the jungle, living in refugee camps, dodging landmines, and seeing friends and family disappear.  Yet somehow they had managed to keep their sense of humor, dignity and most importantly their respect for the ones who had caused this madness in their lives.  Not once did I hear them curse the Burmese Military or wish harm upon them.  After all that they’d been through I can’t imagine it was easy to keep such an open heart, but they did.

 

 The next few days were spent visiting different homes throughout the valley to interview the residents about the events that led them to this particular area of the country.  Some had lost limbs from landmines, had their homes burned to the ground or had been forced to carry weapons through the mountains.  One family even swore that their 6-year-old daughter was a reincarnation of a man who had been shot in the head by the Burmese Military.  No matter how much they had been through or how many people they’d lost in their lives, everyone I spoke to always smiled when I left and gave me a gentle handshake while thanking me for coming to listen to them.

 

 Leaving the village was not easy and they insisted that I stay longer but I had to continue on my journey up the border.   Naw Bee Po and a few of the villagers accompanied me to the bus station where I gave awkward goodbye hugs (they generally never hug in Karen culture) to everyone and continued waving as the bus pulled off down the dusty street.  I felt like I had just left a family I never knew existed and began to feel very empty inside.  But as I continued down the road crammed together with many others in the back of an old truck, my feelings suddenly changed.  I felt a rejuvenated sense of pride in the human race and realized that the one way to never forget these people was to mirror their behavior by never seeking revenge for those that wrong me or holding hate in my heart.  I don’t know if I will ever be able to accomplish this as successfully as they have but I suppose if you want to see change in the world you must first see it in yourself.

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Dodging Landmines in Eastern Burma Kevin Connelly is a documentary photographer focusing on human rights and social issues in Asia.  Kevin has worked on projects dealing with land confiscation, refugees, landmine victims, and ethnic soldiers throughout the region.  He also teaches photography and has been leading adventure trips throughout Southeast Asia for 6 years. You can follow him online via his WEBSITE
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How to make friends and explore China

How to make friends and explore China

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Have you ever wondered how it feels to be a celeb? Well that is how we feel pretty much all the time when we walk around our corner of China. There are plenty of Non Chinese people in Beijing and Shanghai, but in Xiamen, even though there are expats around, mostly when we ride a bus, or walk into a mall or a train station, we stick out. And people do smile, gawp, wave ,say hello and ask us to have our photos taken with them. Some people think this is rude. We think it’s funny. Hell,we even had our photos taken with a bride and groom on the beach once.

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“In the middle of nowhere we got off one bus and on another, and then a couple of smiling chaps rode up on motor bikes and took us to the guest house in Hukeng village…”

 

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Anyway, one time on the bus a girl started talking to us, and told us she was an English Major called Sue,and can we be friends?  Cool, we said, come over for tea. So the following week, Sue and her friend Echo came over for tea, and before we knew it we had arranged to go on a trip with them to visit a place called Yongding, about a 3 hour ride from Xiamen, where there is a UNESCO Heritage site called the Hakka Earth Houses. Don’t worry, they told us, we will fix everything. Now this may sound weird if you don’t live in China. But these things happen to us all the time.We meet someone in a store or on a bus and we suddenly become lifelong friends.

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How to make friends and explore ChinaSo over the National Holiday in October, Sue and Echo took us to Yongding, on a rather bumpy bus ride. They booked the tickets and reserved a guest house, which was just as well since we had no clue how to do that as our Chinese is only good for ordering at the restaurant. In the middle of nowhere we got off one bus and on another. And then a couple of smiling chaps rode up on motor bikes and took us to the guest house in Hukeng village. The owner Stephen was an extremely helpful chap who actually knew some English. He also served a mean Hakka dinner. The room was pretty basic, but clean and with a shower,but the bed was really hard and looked at least 100 years old and was made of beautiful carved wood. The Hakka are one of China’s 57 Ethnic minorities, who built the circular Earth houses or Tulou as protection from wild beasts and invaders in the 12th Century, and have continued the tradition.The houses are communities, several stories high, housing many families, with a circular shared area in the middle, which is used for cooking,eating, playing with kids and selling. The tulou are built in clusters, sometimes with 4 or 5 round houses in a group.

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Over the weekend, we visited a number of different Tulou (Earth) houses, of varying sizes, the mostly round but we did see some square ones too. We travelled in a hired minibus with some other tourists, none of whom spoke any English but we all nodded and smiled a lot, and occasionally Sue translated something. The driver took us up in the hills above the villages so we could see the tulou from above and enjoy the view which was really relaxing and rural. How to make friends and explore China

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Over the two days we strolled around the villages,experiencing Hakka village life, picked some fruit (I don’t know what it was) and sat around drinking the local tea which is apparently very famous. We saw how village people prepare the rice grains and tea leaves, and there were also some graves of ancient people with some curious monuments. The older Hakka don’t even speak Mandarin, so we could ‘t ask Sue to translate them, but the universal nodding and smiling went a long way. The whole atmosphere of the place was amazing- it was really like traveling back in time,especially when the day trip people left as we sat around in the Hakka guest house enjoying the quiet and the slow pace. All in all the trip was something very special, and hard to describe, and something that never figures on a regular China tourist itinerary – we felt privileged to be able to have had this experience, thanks to Sue who was not afraid to say hi to us on the bus, and who of course is still our good friend in Xiamen.

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How to make friends and explore ChinaRuth Sheffer is originally from London, England. Ruth spent a year in France where she got bitten by the travel bug. From there she went to Israel where she met her husband Dan. After raising their family they took off to China looking for adventure and are now in their third year of teaching and exploring Asia.

You can read more about her and Dan’s adventures on their blog 

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