Plansify - Travel Advice

About 8 months ago, a friend and I had an idea for a new website. We worked hard on the project for a couple of months, we experimented, we tested and then, one day while in a cafe in Istanbul, we made the decision to trash the idea altogether.

However, the reason we trashed the idea is that, during the course of our discussion that day, we came up with what we believed to be an even better, more useful project. The goal remained the same – to help all kinds of people receive reliable travel advice directly from experienced travelers. It was just the platform and the method that changed.

Well, we got back to work, brainstorming, experimenting and testing once again, spending long hours for months on end figuring out every detail and turning our ideas into reality. And suddenly, just last week, my friend and I realized that our new project – PLANSIFY – was actually ready to be launched, in its beta form.

So, what’s this project all about exactly?

Plansify Travel Advice

PLANSIFY – Reliable Travel Advice

Purpose: To connect anyone who needs travel advice with experienced travelers who can provide the most reliable and direct advice possible. And the idea is to make it all happen through an easy-to-use, affordable platform.

How it Works: If you have a travel-related question, or questions, you can search our database of Travel Advisors in order to find an experienced traveler to help you out. Using the search tool, you can sort through our database by country, region and/or certain travel-related keywords such as long-term travel, adventure, work and travel, volunteering, couples travel, expat life, language learning and many more so that you see only the Travel Advisors who are experts in exactly what you want to know about. Simply read each Travel Advisor’s profile and then choose the Travel Advisor you wish to contact.

Every Travel Advisor sets their own rates for either a Skype call (up to 1 hour) or to answer up to 3 questions through our user-friendly online form. It takes just a minute or two to either send off your questions or schedule that call. And just like that, you’re on your way to receiving direct, personal and expert travel assistance!

For more information on how Plansify works, you can check out our How it Works & Help FAQ pages.

Plansify Travel Advisors

Who Can Benefit From Plansify?

Well, anyone with any kind of travel question and anyone who has the travel knowledge to become a travel advisor!

Travelers: If you’re thinking about traveling and you need some answers or you simply have a few questions about anything at all related to travel, this site will ensure you find the right people who can help you out. Who better to answer your questions than those who have already experienced exactly what you want to experience yourself?

You’ll find our current list of available Travel Advisors here: Travel Advisors

Advisors: Anyone can be a Travel Advisor as well, as long as you have some extensive knowledge about a particular country, region and/or aspect of travel. You don’t need a blog or any social media presence to be an Advisor. You just need that knowledge and a willingness to help others achieve their own travel goals.

You can check out the advisor sign up page here: Sign-Up

Try It Out!

Okay, here’s the part where I invite you to check out the site and give it a try. Of course, I only encourage you to check it out if you think that Plansify might be something useful for you or anyone you may know.

Keep in mind that Plansify is still in its beta form, meaning that it has yet to be tested with the general public and is therefore still a bit unpolished. With your feedback, which we hope you’ll provide, we can continue improving the project in order to turn Plansify into one of the most trusted, useful travel tools on the internet!

And if you do find the concept to be useful, we would be most appreciative and honored if you would help spread the word to your own audience, to your family and friends, those you work with, strangers in the street, your neighbors and the people in the car next to you at the red light. We are always looking for more Travel Advisors to sign up as well as more Travelers who need their questions answered!

There you go. That’s Plansify.

Thank you so much for reading and again, all feedback is welcome :)

Earl

Posted in Everything Else, Travel Tips & Advice | 51 Comments

The Uselessness of Getting Upset While Traveling

About a year and a half ago, I was sitting at an outdoor table in front of a tiny food stall in the small town of Izamal, Mexico. There was a large group of us and we had all ordered some lunch. After fifteen minutes of waiting, the woman working at the food stall began brining out our food, one plate at a time. The only thing is that what she was bringing us, wasn’t exactly what we had ordered.

And before we knew it, our table was full of more chicken salbutes than we could have possibly wanted to eat, yet there wasn’t a taco or panucho or beef salbute in sight, all of which had been asked for. Some drinks were missing and some drinks were incorrect as well.

Of course, as this was all playing out, it was only natural that there started to be some grumbling as we wondered how this woman had managed to screw up our simple order so much. There was even some talk that maybe she had brought out extra food just to try and get more money from us and the conversation then turned to cheating and ripping foreigners off and how we needed to be careful. The mood around the table had clearly shifted, from happy and jovial to a bit annoyed and upset.

But, why?

After we finished eating whatever was brought to us, all of which was quite tasty I might add, I went over to the counter and paid the bill. Looking at the piece of paper where she had written our order, I noticed that she had brought us exactly what she had written on that paper. Was it what we had actually ordered? I don’t think so. But given our lack of Spanish fluency and the fact that Spanish was this woman’s second language (Mayan was her first), she did the best she could to decipher what we had said.

Also, in this tiny town of Izamal, large groups is not a common sight at a local food stall, not to mention a group consisting of several foreigners who, once again, for the most part, speak no Spanish and if they do, speak a hacked up version of it. Second, in Mexico, it’s not common to ask a ton of questions when ordering food. You just read the menu, choose something and that’s about it. For many of us, we are used to customizing our orders back home, asking for clarification, asking for more specific descriptions of each dish and so forth, so I can only imagine the confusion we caused by bombarding this woman with our questions, again, in our hacked up Spanish which wasn’t even her first language!

If you look at the situation this way, from an entirely different perspective, you can understand how we might have overwhelmed this food stall in this tiny, laid-back town where life is quite basic and moves at an extremely slow pace.

So, why did we immediately start thinking that we were being cheated and ripped off? Why were we getting upset that our order was not 100% correct?

The thing is that we tend to interpret everything we do/see/experience based on our specific knowledge of how we think the world works, or how it has worked for us throughout our lives. And this knowledge comes from our education, culture, upbringing, social circles and other experiences that we go through. It is not easy for us to first recognize, and then accept, that every situation has an endless number of perspectives depending on the people involved. Everyone brings their own background and culture to the table, something that makes it nearly impossible for two people to interpret the exact same situation in the exact same way.

With the example above at the food stall in Izamal, we wondered why our order was incorrect, something that seems like a perfectly normal reaction in our culture. But as for the woman running the food stall, she tried her very best to do something that she almost never has to do – cater to a large group of foreigners who are asking lots of questions, making adjustments to their orders, speaking terrible Spanish and probably confusing her beyond belief! She didn’t ‘screw up’ our order on purpose. She wasn’t after our money and didn’t try to cheat us at all.

In fact, she always had a smile on her face as she ran around trying to provide good food and good service to us random visitors to her home town. Suddenly the extra salbutes and the lack of tacos and the absence of the agua de tamarindo on the table doesn’t really matter. Whatever this sweet woman brought would be fine with me and I truly appreciated the effort she put into serving us!

Avoiding Unnecessary Negativity
When we travel, we are going to face endless situations, where we interpret things one way and we then react accordingly. And sometimes, this is going to lead us to anger, frustration and a strong feeling of annoyance based on how we think things should work. But if we can somehow force ourselves to take a moment before we react, before we reach a conclusion as to why something has happened, why someone has behaved a certain way, why we are in the situation we are in, and remind ourselves that every situation can be viewed from many different perspectives, we might be able to avoid unnecessary reactions that could impact our travels negatively.

When something happens and you start to get upset or annoyed, look around you. Look at everyone involved and try to think of the reasons they might have for their actions. Think of their culture, their background and influences, their possible life experiences and what may or may not be normal for that person. And remember that we are only seeing the world through our own experiences and that our world view is not the same world view as everyone we come across.

I try to remind myself of this constantly.

And this is how I’ve avoided what I believe to be unnecessary negativity for a long time now. Rarely do I get upset or annoyed or frustrated these days.

Getting Upset in Bishkek

Those Rude Locals!
If you’re walking around Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and you get lost, and you walk up to a random taxi driver, asking for directions in English and a few mispronounced Russian words, don’t get upset if you are met with a serious look and a raised hand from the man in the driver seat, as if he was brushing you away. There is a good chance that this man was just shy and not at all used to interacting with foreigners, and he didn’t understand your attempt at Russian, and he didn’t speak a word of English, and maybe that raised hand gesture was his way of saying “I’m sorry, but I just don’t know how to help you”.

It’s the very same situation but, as I’ve pointed out above, it’s a completely different perspective. And while we’ll always tend to believe that our way of interpreting the world is right, believe me when I say that it’s worth the effort to push through that stubbornness and accept the fact that others may see the world and every single experience differently than we do.

What a shame it would be to walk around Bishkek all day unable to enjoy the city because you are annoyed that the Kyrgyz people are unfriendly and not very welcoming based on one misinterpreted interaction!

It happens more often than you may think. Every day we react to hundreds of different experiences, ranging from tiny to major, yet we seldom take into account anyone’s perspective on those situations except for our own. It’s unavoidable to an extent, but we can try to remember, as often as possible, that there is no absolute perspective for any situation we face.

Taking this approach quickly leads to a realization that getting upset or annoyed isn’t really something that makes sense most of the time. It’s usually just a waste of energy that can drain all involved of any happiness they might have been experiencing at the time. And besides, with less anger and frustration in our lives, especially the unnecessary kind, comes a calmer, healthier lifestyle, something that will ensure we enjoy an infinitely more rewarding set of travel adventures as well!

Are you able to view situations from different perspectives and avoid getting upset? Or do you find it challenging to do so? Any other thoughts?


Posted in Mexico, Perspectives | 99 Comments

Travel the World

Wait. Is this really possible?

No. Well, yes. Well, maybe.

If you look at travel as most of us do, an activity that involves the standard transportation, accommodation, sampling of the local cuisine and visiting sights and attractions, then it’ll be somewhat of a challenge to even imagine how your daily spending budget could be as low as $1.94 per day.

However, if you’re able to approach travel from an entirely different perspective, you may suddenly find it difficult to understand how you could possibly spend MORE than $1.94 per day during your adventure.

As for me, I have months where I spend well over $1000 USD and I have months where I spend well under that amount. While I don’t maintain a strict travel budget and I don’t watch every dollar I spend, I would estimate that during some months, I may only spend $300 USD or so.

How is this possible? How can I spend so little while paying for accommodation, food, activities and more?

I can’t.

The months where I spend so little are months where I’m not paying for a room or activities or transportation. They are months when I have managed to eliminate some of those expenses.

Again, how is this possible?

Here’s a few ways:

Make New Friends
Some people think that staying with friends while you travel the world, or staying with friends of friends or friends of friends of friends, is cheating and that it’s not honest to say that traveling can be so inexpensive if I stay with friends for free, some of the time. My response to that is that there is nothing stopping anyone from making friends all over the world. Get online, join forums, go on couchsurfing.org and communicate with locals, find blogs in the countries you are about to visit and email the writers. Connect with people, start building bonds and before you know it, you’ll have friends all over the world before you ever start traveling. You could also ask your current friends if they have any contacts in any of the countries you will visit, even the most distant of contacts, as that tiny little connection can lead to great benefits.

Make New Friends

Of course, don’t interpret this the wrong way. I’m not saying that you should make friends all over the world so that you can crash on their couch and not have to pay for accommodation. Make friends in order to connect with new people. Make friends in order to learn from their way of life. Make friends so that you can dive a little deeper into the destination.

And then, yes, you may also benefit from being able to stay at your friends’ places while traveling, of course with the understanding that they can crash with you as well when they happen to end up in a place you’re living or hanging out at for a while.

Do What You Love
The other day I heard about an Argentinian couple currently staying in Mexico that has been traveling the world for one and half years, drastically reducing their expenses by offering to paint the interiors of hostels, cafes, restaurants, etc, in exchange for a place to stay or meals. They love painting and so this kind of exchange works out quite well for them, saving them a great deal of money each month in the process.

Can you cook? Maybe you are staying at a hostel, so why not organize a group dinner where everyone contributes some money, you buy the ingredients and cook a great meal. You eliminate your food costs by being the chef and everyone gains from the experience.

Can you teach yoga or dance? Can you teach web design or an instrument? Offer classes for a few bucks so that you earn back your accommodation expenses. Teach a hostel owner how to improve his or her website in exchange for a place to stay. Offer what you can, offer what you love, offer anything at all and create a mutually beneficial situation.

Carry a Tent & Stick Out Your Thumb
Camp and hitchhike. Sleep in hammocks in the backyard of hostels or on the rooftop for less money than a dorm bed. Try to catch a ride with a passerby instead of using the bus or train. Sleep on the beach for a night or two each week. Find the most local transportation possible instead of the nicer, more direct, and more expensive, option. Hard core travelers can really cut down on expenses and I’ve met many people over the years who do just that. And they certainly have no shortage of interesting stories to share as a result of their ultra-budget style of travel! It’s not for everyone of course, but for those who truly want to experience the world on a tight budget, it’s another option to consider.

Carry a Tent

Research & Ask Around
There are promotions, deals, coupons and discounts everywhere. You just need to find them. During South Korea’s “Visit Korea Year” campaign in 2012, many of the country’s sights and transportation options were offered at heavy discounts for foreign tourists. In Playa del Carmen, Mexico, simply stating that you are a local (as in living there instead of just visiting for a few days), will get you discounts on meals at restaurants, at car rental agencies, on entrance fees and more. If you take the airport shuttle bus from Cancun, you’ll find a coupon on the bottom of your ticket for 14 pesos off your next airport shuttle ride. And while 14 pesos ($1.16 USD) might not seem like too much, that will get you a huge, tasty taco at Playa del Carmen’s most famous taco stand.

Many businesses offer discounts if you like their Facebook page or interact with them in other ways on social media and there are always 2×1 specials, or something similar, to be found on meals, activities, drinks and plenty more, all over the world. It’s all about being aware, not being afraid to ask for a discount everywhere you go and talking to both locals and other foreigners to see what kind of ways they might have found to save some money in a particular destination.

Travel the World - Riga Card

Like anything, this all takes some effort and it’s not for everyone as we’re not all comfortable with the same things. That’s why the purpose of this post is just to, once again, show that you can travel the world for much less money than you might imagine if you simply change the way you approach your trip.

You really could spend one month in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, for example, visiting destinations such as Playa del Carmen, Tulum, Valladolid, Merida and Izamal, for around $250 USD, or $8.33 per day. This would involve hitchhiking around, using Couchsurfing for accommodation and eating at local food stalls. Yes, you also have to pay for your flight to/from Mexico (which can be as low as $250 USD from certain cities in the USA), but if you stayed for two months, including that flight, you could still manage to spend a mere $750 USD in total, or $375 per month. Not bad for two months of exploring a foreign country.

Again, that may sound extreme to many of us and you probably won’t go and incorporate every money-saving tip that you hear about on your next trip and you probably won’t travel for $1.94 per day either. But you can take the ideas that suit you, the ideas you are comfortable with, and create your own travel style that allows you to save as much money as you possibly can.

And when it comes to travel, any amount you do save can make a major difference.

Also, before I end, I will state that, yes, $1.94 USD per day is an exaggeration. I’m sure it’s possible somehow and I’m sure there are people traveling for that amount or even less, but for the majority, that’s definitely on the extreme low side, a level that won’t be possible to achieve.

So take some time to create your own budget and to determine how much you can spend each month while wandering the world. Then, examine each individual potential expense and try to figure out how you can reduce or even eliminate it, knowing full well that, when it comes to travel, there are always ways out there to save some money.

Do you have any other simple tips to share that can help us save money while traveling? If you’re planning a trip, any questions on how to lower your expenses?


Posted in Travel Costs, Travel Tips & Advice | 45 Comments

Visit Playa del Carmen

Here I am, back in Mexico, having decided to visit Playa del Carmen again, a town I’ve been to many times before. And I’m thoroughly enjoying my stay right now, even more than previous visits. Now one might think this would be the result of spending time at all of my favorite places in town, eating at my favorite eateries, hanging out on my favorite stretch of white sand beach, going for a swim each evening at the very same spot I used to go for a sunset swim and taking day trips to the very same locations I’ve been to, and loved, before.

But actually, the reason why this current stay in Playa del Carmen is going so well is because I haven’t done much of the above at all.

Returning to a destination that you have visited previously and absolutely connected with can be a bit, well, interesting. There are expectations galore when you do this as you automatically assume that you are going to have the same rewarding experiences you once had, simply by showing up and repeating everything you did during that original visit. Unfortunately, it often doesn’t work that way because it’s almost impossible to repeat those ideal experiences and those ideal interactions that had made a particular destination so special in the first place.

When you revisit a destination and you sit down at your favorite restaurant or you go for a beer at your favorite beach hangout or you walk through that friendly neighborhood you used to wander around so often, it just doesn’t feel the same. You’ve changed, the circumstances of your visit have changed, the destination has probably changed a little as well. And all of those factors – the people you hung out with, the goals you had at that point in life, the activities that excited you, perhaps even the weather – might no longer be the same.

Sounds a bit gloomy, I know. But alas, that’s not the point of this post!

The point is that the above does not mean that you should never return to those ‘favorite’ destinations of yours, those destinations that you visited once and can’t wait to visit again. In fact, if you’re drawn to a particular place, there’s no reason at all why you shouldn’t go back for a second or third or fourth visit if that’s what you feel like doing. As I like to state often, there’s no right way to travel. Whatever suits you the best and wherever you decide to go, regardless of what kind of adventure you are seeking or whether or not you’ve been to that destination before, is your own right way of traveling.

Visit Playa del Carmen - cenote

Back to Playa del Carmen.

Yes, I’ve eaten at Dona Mary’s local tostada cafe on Avenida 30, my absolute favorite eatery here, and I’ve already gone to the same nearby street stall for some agua de guanabana, which I used to do almost every day when I lived here, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t hang out at my favorite cafe in the center of town or swim at my favorite part of the beach, just as I did before. But what I’ve realized this time around is, in between those meals and those hang out sessions and those swims, I’ve ventured off into new neighborhoods, eaten at new eateries, explored new stretches of beach and searched for completely new experiences.

When I came to Mexico to visit Playa del Carmen last year, I wrote a post about how different it felt and how I didn’t exactly connect with the town as much as I had on previous trips. But now, I’ve learned some things since then (travel is about constant learning after all!) and I’ve realized that I was going about it all in the wrong way. Last year, I thought I could just repeat everything I did when I used to live here and I would have an absolutely perfect stay as a result. However, on this visit, I realized that I need to take the foundation of why I used to love this town – the overall atmosphere and the people – and experience it all in different ways.

That’s why I’m seeking out unfamiliar places to eat, unfamiliar places to hang out, unfamiliar groups of people to meet, unfamiliar neighborhoods to wander around, unfamiliar, well, everything. And the result is an experience that far exceeds what I could have ever imagined, in the most positive of ways, giving me not only a fresh look at Playa del Carmen but a set of fresh rewards that will enhance my life from this point forward.

Visit Playa del Carmen - beach

You know, the more I think about it, the more this could apply to visiting a country for the first time as well. It’s quite difficult, after doing research online before we leave for a particular trip, to land in a country without having formulated some idea of what we think we should expect. And if we stick to that list we make about what we want to see and where we want to go, those real experiences will have to match up with our real, and often quite high, expectations. And if they don’t match, if those expectations prove to be grander and more rewarding than the real thing, it’s easy to be a bit disappointed with our travels and in turn, gain less from our adventures than we could have gained.

Should you skip the Eiffel Tower in Paris or Angkor Wat in Cambodia as a result? Of course not. Do what you want, go where you want to go, check off the items on your list. But the idea is to make sure that you go beyond that as well. Try to seek out experiences that you never thought of having, try to find towns or neighborhoods that you never came across in your pre-trip research, try to find restaurants that are recommended to you by locals, not only those that you heard about online or in guidebooks, and try to spend some of your time doing activities that you never even knew existed wherever you happen to be visiting.

These are the ways to enhance every day of your travels and to ensure that your trip is filled with so many new and memorable experiences that, regardless of what your expectations were at the start, your trip turns out to be far better than you ever thought possible.

From Playa del Carmen, Mexico, a town that I’ve visited many times before, yet which I almost seem to be experiencing for the first time right now – something I’m extremely happy about – I wish you safe and exciting journeys ahead!

How do you feel about re-visiting certain destinations? Do you ever run into an issue where your real experiences don’t match your expectations? If you haven’t traveled yet, are you creating expectations for your upcoming travels?


Posted in Mexico, Perspectives | 73 Comments

The Spa at Jalal-abad, Kyrgyzstan

Welcome to the second episode of Wandering Earl: Live From Here, my new video series. Here’s a little background for this next episode…

Two weeks ago, I was in the town of Jalal-abad, Kyrgyzstan when I learned about an old Soviet spa/sanatorium located on top of a nearby hill. With not much else to do, I decided to jump into a taxi and head over there, completely unaware at the time that the next few hours of my life would prove to be some of the most memorable of my entire 14 years of travel.

When I entered the first building I came across, I simply asked the woman at the reception desk, ‘Is this the spa?’. She smiled and picked up the phone, calling over the only English-speaking staff member on the premises.

Before I knew it, Elgar arrived and he absolutely could not believe that a random foreigner had shown up at this spa. He was smiling and laughing and so eager to show me around, which he, along with his equally surprised assistant, did, pointing out, in very limited English, everything that the spa offered. (The photo above is of me, Elgar and his assistant.)

And when I asked if I could book a mud treatment, he truly lit up and the fun really began. Suddenly, I was being taken care of by a team of excited, beaming, amazingly friendly spa attendants who showed me into a room and began preparing my treatment. Then, there I was, lying naked on a table, covered in mud, being wrapped in blankets, and loving every minute of it.

It was quite a day. And once it was all over, after having spent almost three hours at the spa, I went to pay my bill. But Elgar simply looked at me with another huge smile on his face and said, “No money. This is a present for you.

I was blown away. I felt refreshed and rejuvenated, not only from the mud and the minerals but also from being fortunate enough to have met such beautifully kind people. As a result, I will never forget that day, or the people I met, at this old Soviet spa in Jalal-abad, Kyrgyzstan.

Now I bring to you this second episode of my video series, an episode that takes place not just at that very spa, but during the middle of my mud treatment!


(If you’re reading this post via email, just click here to view the video on my blog.)

Have you ever had a day that involved a completely unexpected activity/experience that ended up being a highlight of your travels and/or life in general?


Posted in Kyrgyzstan, Live From Here!, Videos | 40 Comments

End of the World if You Don't Travel

Really, it’s no big deal. Even if travel is the only thing you can think about, the only goal that you truly want to achieve in life, if you don’t travel, if you don’t actually succeed, again, it’s no big deal. The truth is, some will travel, and some won’t. Life gets in the way for many and despite a strong desire to hit the road and venture off to those dreamed-about lands, it sometimes just doesn’t happen.

I am often asked what is the single greatest lesson I have learned from my travels and I always give the same answer: “The overwhelming majority of people on this planet are good people who just want to live a simple, happy life without enemies, without hatred, without war, with enough money to provide for their loved ones and to spend time with their friends, regardless of where in the world they live, what religion they practice, how much money they have or anything else.

However, despite the fact that I am always so quick to choose that lesson as the most important, there is also another lesson I’ve learned that definitely comes in a close second place. And the lesson is this: “It doesn’t matter what you do in life. If you have the right attitude, you can find the fulfillment and happiness you desire, we all desire, in almost anything.

And yes, this is true even if travel is your major goal and for one reason or another, it doesn’t happen. I really do believe that it’s all about our attitude.

It’s all about our attitude towards the experiences we do have and the people we do meet and the places we do end up. It’s all about our attitude when we wake up in the morning and before we go to sleep, while we eat, hang out with friends, walk down the street and go to the market.

We can all inject positivity into our lives, no matter what we are doing. Perhaps some meditation or exercise or reading or going to a nearby town every few days to try and discover new things. We can find activities that make us happy. We can find people that make us happy to be around as well. In fact, this can happen quite easily these days with websites that facilitate meet-ups all over the world based on every interest imaginable. The right people, the right activities, the right experiences are right there in front of us at all times, no matter where we may be or what we may be doing, and with the proper attitude, we can take advantage of them all.

I sometimes wonder what would happen if I just stopped traveling right now, moved to a random town and changed my life completely to that of a more normal routine. At first, that thought gives me a feeling of unease, of dread perhaps, that I would be unhappily plodding my way through such an existence. But the more time passes, and the more I dwell on this idea and endless others, I realize that this wouldn’t be the case at all.

My travels have taught me to face the world with a positive attitude, not only the world in general, but every single minute, every single interaction, possibility, experience and moment. They don’t all turn out positively in the end of course, but by facing the world with a positive attitude, I feel that I can not only handle whatever comes my way, but I can squeeze enough joy and happiness out of each day, and in turn, out of any kind of lifestyle, to make sure that my life is something I love living.

To break it down even further, I’ve also realized that I can’t say such things as, “it doesn’t matter where I travel at all because I can always find experiences and people in every corner of the world that can turn any destination into a rewarding one” and not apply that very same theory to every other potential lifestyle. If that’s how I feel about travel, then that’s how I should feel about living in one place, having a set routine and basically, living a lifestyle that does not include much, or any, travel at all.

It’s the positive attitude, not the destinations themselves, that leads to memorable, positive travel experiences. Therefore, it must follow that it’s the positive attitude, not the lifestyle, that leads to a memorable, positive life.

Try it out. Walk down the street with a smile, saying hello to strangers. Go to work ready to turn any mundane task into a challenge, ready to work efficiently so that you have free time to spend on activities you enjoy more. Expect to learn each day and the chances are high that you will. Expect to laugh, to be inspired and to feel alive, and laugh, be inspired and feel alive you shall.

The point is, if you expect to have a brilliant day no matter what you do or where you are, you’ll quickly understand how powerful that expectation can be. And this holds true even if you haven’t been able to achieve your goal of travel, or any other goal you’ve set for yourself, quite yet.

Are you able to approach life with a positive attitude each day? Do you find any benefit from it? Or is it difficult to do if you are not achieving your true goals?


Posted in Perspectives | 78 Comments

Traveling in Kyrgyzstan - Jeti Oguz shepherd

You know what happens. You’re wandering around some region of the world, happily backpacking along, visiting endless destinations, meeting endless people, enjoying endless activities.

And then one day, in the midst of all your adventures, you suddenly wake up in a new land. You vaguely remember getting on a bus or a plane but the details are a little fuzzy, perhaps due to the exhaustion of traveling around nonstop for a while. You sort of recall checking into a hostel or guesthouse the night before but you’re completely unsure of what city it was located in or with what currency you paid for your room. You hear different languages outside but you’re not familiar with any of them. You really have no idea where you are.

Unsure if this is a dream or not, you stand up, put on some clothes and walk outside, determined to figure out where on this planet you have landed.

I know. I’ve been there too. Travel can get confusing at times.

And in case this does happen to you at some point, you might want to browse through the following checklist so that you’ll at least know if this unfamiliar country where you suddenly found yourself happens to be a small, mountainous Central Asian nation.

Are You Traveling In Kyrgyzstan?

This is exactly how you can tell…

Once you walk outside, what language do you hear? Perhaps some Russian, maybe some Turkish-sounding words? What do you see? A mix of ethnicities everywhere you look?

Are people playing ping-pong all over the place? Seriously, are there ping-pong tables set up in parks and on sidewalks, with people playing all the time, morning, afternoon and evening?

Speaking of sidewalks, are there punching machines set up every now and then where you can pay a small amount of money to see how hard you can punch the machine?

Are you smiling all the time in amazement that the entire country seems to be filled with such genuinely warm and friendly people?

Girl in Karakol

Driver to Altyn Arashan

Girl in Osh

And are an incredible number of people eating ice cream while walking down the street, regardless of the time of day?

Are you quickly learning Russian and how to read Cyrillic simply because you have no other choice?

Jeti Oguz Sign

Do you run into the exact same foreigner a dozen times while you wander the streets as you realize that there just aren’t too many foreigners here at all?

Are people living in yurts over in the mountains and valleys? Is there an odd three-level yurt/museum in the center of town for you to visit?

Three-level Yurt in Osh

When you take a short rest on a park bench, do university students approach you all the time, asking ever so politely if they can sit next to you and practice their English for a few minutes?

Do some of them invite you to their home for a meal and to meet their family? Do some offer to help you find whatever you may need to find in town and to actually walk you there?

As you continue, does it seem that there are far more females out and about than males? But are the men wearing what appears to be some kind of traditional, and quite tall, felt hats?

Traditional Hat

Are hundreds of over-crowded mashrutkas (mini-buses) plowing through the streets every which way, bringing people wherever they may need to go?

Do you come across sprawling outdoor markets selling all kinds of goods, markets in which you can get lost for hours while having a great time browsing what’s on offer and communicating with the vendors?

Osh Bazaar in Bishkek

Does it seem that there are more restaurants than people?

And once lunch time arrives, does any of the following occur:

  • the waitress brings the menu and then immediately waits at your table ready to take your order despite the fact that you are sweating profusely as you attempt to pronounce each Cyrillic letter like a 2-year old in order to form words that you probably won’t understand anyway but that you hope will give you some kind of clue as to what dish is being described?
  • you ask for vegetarian food and you receive a blank stare, followed by a most absolute “Nyet!”?
  • you ask for chicken, pointing to the photo of the chicken dish on the wall, and you receive a blank stare, followed by a most absolute, “Nyet!”?
  • the waitress laughs at you, then smiles, then asks if you speak Russian and when you say “Nyet!”, she continues to explain the menu to you in Russian?
  • you ask, in broken Russian, if this salad has meat and the waitress says, “Nyet!”?
  • you somehow order a salad and a soup, with some bread and tea and the waitress smiles, then walks away as you feel quite proud of yourself at having ordered successfully?
  • a few minutes later, does a big bowl of noodles mixed with a lot of greasy meat and a salad with a few tomatoes, cucumbers and plenty of more meat arrive at your table?
  • do you finally recognize the Russian words for carrot salad on the menu and order one of those too?
  • when it arrives, do you say ‘Spasibo!’ (thank you) as the waitress smiles and then you shake your head as you eat carrots and tea, again?

Lagman

Carrot Salad

Does every interaction you have with every single person you come across end with a smile, handshake, hug or laughter?

Can you see the occasional man on horseback riding through town, maybe rounding up some cattle, or just traveling to his next destination?

Is vodka being sold absolutely everywhere?

Do the streets sometimes seem eerily empty and quiet, even when you appear to be in a big city?

Central Bishkek

When your feet are too tired and you need a ride, are you able to just stick your hand out until the next car that passes by picks you up and then keeps driving, without anything being asked or a single word being exchanged, until you tell them to stop and let you out, at which point you’re requested to hand over a small amount of money for the lift?

Can you see towering snow-covered mountains everywhere? Are there so many spectacular views everywhere you stand that on the few occasions that you are not some place that offers another stunning view of nature, you get disappointed? Are you quickly getting spoiled by the endless mountains, lakes, rivers, valleys and canyons all over the place?

Mountains & Lake on the way to Jalal-abad

Jeti Oguz, Kyrgyzstan (hiking)

Have you discovered that everyone seems quite honest and that nobody has tried to charge you extra for anything, not for food nor transportation nor anything else that you’ve had to purchase?

Do you notice that some cars have the steering wheel on the left and others have it on the right? Do you see brand new Japanese and American cars alongside twenty-year old Audis and Mercedes-Benz, alongside forty-year old Russian Ladas?

Lada

Are you finding it difficult to decide how to spend your time between all of the activities available (hiking, hot springs, horseback riding, camping, biking, rafting, etc.) and just walking around, an activity that seems to almost always lead to the most rewarding moments of them all?

Altyn Arashan, Kyrgyzstan

And every time you get into a taxi and the driver asks where you are from (Otkuda?), and he figures out you speak English, does he immediately pull over to the side of the road and phone everyone in his family and circle of friends until he finds someone who can speak some English so that you can talk to them and have a short conversation where you say “Hello” and the person on the other end of the line tells you to call them at anytime if you ever have any problems while in the country and then you all laugh for a while?

Taxi Driver in Bishkek

When you take a shared taxi to a different part of the country, and the other passengers in that shared taxi find out you are a tourist and that you, once again, speak English, do they call every single person they know to tell them about the foreigner in their taxi before passing the phone to you so that you can have a similar conversation as the above? Does everyone laugh and smile and shake hands and hug at the end?

Do you constantly feel high on life, high from the surreal views, high from the ridiculously long stream of positive interactions with the people you come across, high from the laid-back atmosphere and high from the sense that you’ve arrived in a land that you will never forget?

And do you have that rare feeling that, if all your travels came to an end this very moment, you could stop traveling with a huge smile on your face, fully satisfied with the experiences you’ve had and the lessons you’ve learned and how they have come together to change your life and your ideas about the world forever?

If you answer yes to these questions, my friend, worry no more. You are traveling in Kyrgyzstan, beautiful Kyrgyzstan.

Ready to travel here? Anything to add if you have been here already? Any questions about traveling in Kyrgyzstan?


Posted in Kyrgyzstan | 74 Comments

Tamga, Kyrgyzstan
This is a post about how the world is never as it seems, about how our travels can so often surprise us, about how we never know what we’ll find or who we’ll meet at any given time. And it is also a post about why that ‘unknown’ is, in my opinion, the best travel companion any of us could ever ask for.

There I stood. On a street. A quiet street. No vehicles, no people, not even any animals wandering around.

It had been almost thirty minutes since the mashrukta, the local style of mini-bus, had dropped me off in the center of Tamga, Kyrgyzstan, a small village located some 1700 meters (5600 feet) above sea level between the towering Tian-Shan Mountain Range and the beautiful alpine lake of Issky-Kul. And I wasn’t making any progress at all in terms of finding accommodation for the night. I had arrived without a plan and had only come to Tamga after meeting a local man in Karakol, a town situated 90 kilometers away, who recommended I pay this village a visit.

And now, here was I, just me and my stuff, looking all around and finding absolutely nothing, for quite some time. Eventually, I reached the conclusion that, “There’s nothing to do in this village. I’m ready to leave and find someplace ‘better’.” So I grabbed my bag and started walking towards the dusty patch of ground near the only intersection in the village, hoping to find some vehicle that would give me a lift out to the main road so that I could catch a bus to a bigger town further along the lake.

As I walked along, however, I soon noticed a tiny concrete building, more like a room, on my left with a sign that read “Beauty Salon” in both Russian and English. And out of nowhere I decided to go inside, ever-so-curious about the local price for a pedicure and for a trim of my afro. Actually, I figured that going inside the beauty salon would be my one last effort to find a place a stay and upon greeting the woman sitting at the table, I simply shrugged my shoulders and said, in English, “Guesthouse?”. Expecting her not to understand, quite surprised was I when she immediately walked over to a shelf, grabbed a business card and handed it to me.

It was a business card for the Askar & Tamara Guesthouse right there in Tamga. I called the number on the card, an English-speaking woman answered the phone and before I even had time to realize what was happening, a 10-year old Russian girl on a bicycle was leading me through the village straight to the guesthouse.

We reached the front door and out walked Tamara, the owner, a 60-ish year old Kyrgyz woman with a huge smile on her face. She extended her hand, introduced herself and I kid you not when I say that in an instant, Tamga went from being a town I could definitely live without spending more than five minutes in, to the town that will probably be the highlight of my visit to Kyrgyzstan.

That’s how travel works, and I love it. I love the ups and, yes, I even love the downs. I love the disappointments and the sudden, brilliant surprises that often soon follow. And I love the fascinating people that I meet when I least expect it as well.

A Glimpse Of Tamga, Kyrgyzstan

Let me show you what Tamga looks like.

Here’s the main street…The Main Street in Tamga

Here’s the only restaurant…Restaurant in Tamga

And finally, the only intersection…Intersection in Tamga

Perhaps you can understand why, after only thirty minutes in this eerily quiet village, I was ready to leave. I have a feeling that many travelers would gladly give Tamga a miss based upon first impressions. But had I left town so quickly, never would I have discovered what lies behind Tamga’s empty streets, behind its mix of wooden village homes and handful of Communist apartment blocks, behind the few shops, the empty bazaar, the donkeys hiding behind trees and the occasional Kyrgyz man on horseback riding through town. Just like with any city, town or village in the world, behind whatever leads us to form our initial impression of a place, lies the opportunity to have an unforgettable travel experience. And here in Tamga, this village in the middle of nowhere, in a country that is already quite in the middle of nowhere as a whole, an unforgettable travel experience certainly did unfold.

And again, it all began with Tamara and her guesthouse.

Tamara - Tamga

Askar & Tamara Guesthouse, Tamga

Tamara, along with her husband Askar, owns the kind of guesthouse that you don’t ever want to leave. It’s simple, the rooms are basic and comfortable, but the conversations with Tamara that take place all the time is what makes this place so unique. She speaks excellent English, she loves to talk about all aspects of Kyrgyzstan, the world and life in general, she is very outspoken, her laughter and smile are incredibly infectious, she takes extreme pleasure in cooking delicious local dishes for her guests to enjoy and she goes out of her way to ensure that one’s time in Tamga is as rewarding as possible.

I think I spent half of the three days I stayed in Tamga speaking with her, learning about her country, hearing about the trip to America that she went on a couple of years ago after winning a competition, exchanging ideas about politics, religion and travel, and on and on. I spoke more with her than with any other Kyrgyz person on this trip and I could have talked with her for a lot longer if I had the time.

A Beautiful Lake, Colorful Canyon, A Quiet Walk & Some Great Food

On my first day in the village, after expressing an interest in heading down to the shore of the Issyk-Kul Lake, Tamara walked me over to the beginning of a path near her guesthouse and, with that standard smile on her face, began excitedly giving me directions on how to get there. I had to hold in my laughter as her directions kept going and going and going while her genuine love for her village and for the lake became more and more apparent. She was excited for me to see this lake and after hearing how to get there, and remembering almost none of the directions, I was excited as well.

So, off I went, trying to play over in my mind the directions she had given, which went something like this:

Walk straight down this path between the trees until you pass two new houses, then find two more houses and walk slightly to the right around them before heading straight for some time until you reach the 120 steps. Go down the 120 steps and you will soon enter the large forest. Continue through the forest between the hills and eventually you will find a gate. Enter the gate and turn left, walk down, cross the stream and climb up the steps to the hanging bridge. Walk across the bridge until you reach the main road and turn left again. After walking for some time, you will look for the building with the blue roof, maybe it’s a green roof, and then look for a path that heads to the right. You will come to another gate. Enter that gate, turn left and soon you will reach the entrance to the beach on the right, down some steps.

Somehow, about forty-five minutes later, I found the beach and the lake, and was able to witness a remarkable scene of clear blue water with the massive snow-covered mountains in the background.

Issyk-Kul Lake with Mountains

Issyk-Kul Lake Swim

After an evening that involved more conversation with Tamara, some of her homemade pilaf, pickles and compote, I slept well in silent Tamga, waking up the next morning eager to see where the day would lead. And over the course of that following day, I ended up having a local man by the name of Bik take me over to the spectacular Skazka Canyon, located down a dirt road, with not a single other person around for miles. We hiked around for about an hour, soaking up brilliant view after brilliant view.

Skazka Canyon, Tamga

Skazka Canyon, Tamga (2)

Me and Bik, Skazka Canyon

Upon returning to the village, I went for a long walk through the fields, along the paths and into the tiny villages around Tamga itself, finding plenty of empty space, the kind of surroundings that made clearing my head so very easy, helping me to contemplate everything that I’ve been experiencing and what I can learn from it all.

View from Tamga

Fields Near Tamga

There was also a fifteen-minute ‘conversation’ with a drunk Kyrgyz man who must have hugged me more times than I’ve been hugged overall in my life. And I then spent considerable time waving and smiling to all of the people I passed, almost always receiving a wave and smile in return, whether from the men on horseback, the women chatting in front of their homes, the elderly man walking down the street with his cane or the children playing around.

Dinner was had at the only restaurant in town, with the two beautifully friendly women staff providing a most ideal meal of chicken soup and salad. And as I ate my meal in that empty, one-room, Soviet-style eatery, slurping up my soup and occasionally talking to the staff in a mix of my horrendous Russian and their limited English, I could not believe how much Tamga had grown on me so quickly. Had I not been pressed for time, I knew that I would have stuck around this village for many, many additional days.

But the next morning, after a leisurely breakfast of fresh mountain eggs, homemade pancakes and some hot tea, the time unfortunately arrived for me to leave. I went to my room, packed my bag, paid my bill, had one last conversation with Tamara, one last conversation so full of stories, of laughter, of insights into the Kyrgyz people and their culture, and then just like that, I said goodbye.

And moments later, there was I, right where the minibus had dropped me off a few days before, right where I had been looking around wondering how on earth I was going to find a way out of this dreadful place and reach somewhere ‘better’. But now I could only smile, feeling as happy as one could possibly be at having not skipped town that day, at having allowed the unknown to take over yet again.

And all I needed for this to happen was to simply remember that we never know what lies around the next corner when we travel, or in this case, we never know where a visit to a tiny concrete beauty salon in a remote mountain town in the middle of nowhere, might lead.


ASKAR & TAMARA GUESTHOUSE (Tamga, Kyrgyzstan)
Address: In Tamga village, directly next to the Bazaar
Website: www.askartamara.com
Email/Phone: askartamara@mail.ru / +996 394625361
Price: $16 per person (home-cooked meals for around $3-$4)
(Tamara has no idea how the internet works but if you’re in Tamga, be sure to tell her Derek sent you. It will blow her away as she loves how people all over the world can be connected through this internet thing that she doesn’t understand!)

Is Tamga your kind of destination? Have you ever had a similar experience, while traveling or at home, where everything changed for the better in one quick, random moment?


Posted in Kyrgyzstan, Perspectives | 59 Comments

After a bit of thinking recently, I realized that the time has come for me to….eat more pickles. I love pickles and it’s just a shame that I haven’t been eating them as much as I would like as of late.

Oops…sorry about that. The pickle thing was for another post I was planning on writing.

What I meant to say here is that the time has come for me to…integrate more video into this blog. That’s right, more travel video to go along with all of the written posts I publish.

I reached this conclusion a few weeks ago but it wasn’t until I was walking around the town of Karakol, Kyrgyzstan a few days ago that I realized there was no reason why I couldn’t start a new video series right away. So I did. Just like that. And the new series is called:

Wandering Earl: Live From Here!

While I admit that this first episode is a bit unpolished and very much non-professional (major understatement!), I was extremely excited to get this first travel video made and test this new idea out. It’s basically me yakking away in front of the camera, talking a lot of nonsense as usual, but also talking about the destinations I’m visiting and what I’ve been up to. And this first episode happens to take place in a very cool mountain location here in Central Asia.


(If you’re reading this post via email or RSS, just click here to view the video on my blog.)

I actually wanted to show this video back on April 1st, the day that I filmed it, but that didn’t happen. The main reason is that, here in the middle of nowhere, it has taken me two and a half days to upload it. The video finally finished uploading about an hour ago, just in time to get it up on the site today.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed it and if all goes well, I plan to add a new episode every few weeks. Either way, thanks for watching!

Any plans to visit Kyrgyzstan? Do you want your very own local Kyrgyz slippers?


Posted in Kyrgyzstan, Live From Here!, Videos | 128 Comments



This post involves something I’ve never done before – it is written by a guest writer. And the reason I decided to publish this article here is because the author, Darin Rogers, is a super nice guy who has taught me a great deal about photography over the past year or so. What I like best about his approach is that everything he teaches is simple, can be learned quickly and can immediately improve the photographs we take. That’s why I’m confident you’ll find his advice to be useful as well!

If you’re planning a travel adventure this year – be it a long-term, multi-country, round-the-world tour or a just a one week vacation – the experience may be a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, culminating what may be years of planning and preparation that you’ll want to remember with some great images. Unfortunately, many people come home from their travels disappointed with their photos.

Although it may be tempting to invest in a new or better camera before you go, thinking that will improve your odds, taking good photographs has little to do with what camera you use. All too often, too much emphasis is placed on megapixels and the latest wiz-bang technological wonder designed to take any thought and effort out of the photographic process. So here’s some steps you can take that will begin to help you get the most out of whatever camera you may be using.

1. SLOW DOWN

If your travels consist of rushing from one tourist attraction to the next extreme sport activity and then hurrying to meet your friends for beers, you’re probably not going to be getting a lot of compelling photos. Photography is about seeing, and seeing requires time and intention. Good images don’t just happen. Slow down and make a conscious effort at becoming aware of your surroundings. Find a place to sit and just watch for a while and see what happens.

Morning Reading

Slowing down in Oaxaca, Mexico

If you’re traveling with others who may not share your photographic interest, slowing down may be difficult. You may need to be willing to head off on your own occasionally, even if just for an hour or two.

This of course isn’t to say that you shouldn’t do that bungee jump (and that might be a great photo-op for some action shots). Everyone has different travel priorities and most people aren’t traveling just to take photos. But if one of your priorities is to take better photos, make an effort to slow down occasionally and focus on seeing.

2. GET CLOSER

One of the things I like to encourage is, after getting your standard tourist postcard shots, look closer for the details. You’ll often find that these details and vignettes can evoke a greater sense of place than will another snapshot of the Sydney Opera House. Take that snapshot; these are important reminders of significant events for us, but then look deeper.

Image 2

Postcard shot of Liberty Plaza, Taipei, Taiwan

A member of a flag ceremony team.

Getting closer at Liberty Plaza, Taipei, Taiwan

The things to look for are infinite, anything that may tell a story or help describe a place and the people who live there. One of my favorite subjects is doors, but the range of subjects could vary from fruit stacked at a market to street art and graffiti to, well, anything that catches your eye.

Opera House - Sydney, Australia

Opera House detail, Sydney, Australia

Getting closer doesn’t necessarily have to mean physically close. It can also be about finding a different or unusual way to present the same subject. This could mean finding an unusual or unique angle or perspective, or including some interesting element in the foreground, such as with the Taiwanese military officer in the above photo.

3. ENGAGE

This is not an easy one for many people, including me. However, getting over our fear of interaction, whatever that fear may be based on – rejection, embarrassment, language barrier – can lead to some rewarding experiences as well as some great images. Personally for me, my own fear is not so much about asking to take someone’s photo and being turned down, but rather being told yes and then wanting to make sure I do that person justice artistically.

Interaction doesn’t necessarily need to be a full-blown conversation. It can be as simple as a smile with a non-verbal acknowledgement that a photo is acceptable. But it can also be worthwhile to forget about the camera now and then and spend some time getting to know someone. Sit and watch that temple ceremony. Get to know your tour guide. You never know what photographic opportunities may arise from stepping out of your comfort zone.

Children are often quite willing and eager to pose for photographs. Despite that, be mindful of cultural practices and if someone, regardless of age, declines to be photographed, respect their wishes.

Image 6

Children posing in a rural Philippines village

4. TAKE A DIFFERENT PATH

Two women walk through the otherwise deserted and quiet streets of Mitla, Mexico.

Off the beaten path in Mitla, Oaxaca, Mexico

Following the backpacker highway doesn’t mean you have to come home with the same photographs as everyone else. When out exploring, venture off on a side road. Wander random neighborhoods. Get lost. Take a risk. Life, for most people in the places we visit, doesn’t happen around the tourist attractions, museums, and monuments so get out of the tourist zones and explore the areas where people spend most of their daily lives. Some of my best travel experiences have occurred through random wanderings, like hopping on the back of the motorbike of a young man in Bali who offered to take me to see a cock fight, or being invited into the nipa hut home of a family of dirt-poor Filipino fishermen to share rot-gut liquor and dried fish. To be honest, the photos I took of the Filipino family turned out less than stellar but the memories will last a lifetime. And really, isn’t that why we travel?

Men and rooster at a cock fight.

At a cock fight in Lovina, Bali, Indonesia

Obviously this needs to be done with awareness and caution as it could be easy to stray into a sketchy or unsafe area. Go with a friend. Be aware of your surroundings. Take the usual precautions, but don’t be afraid to take a bit of risk.

5. PUT THE CAMERA AWAY

What? Put the camera away? How will this help you take better pictures?

This may seem counter-intuitive but there are times when I find myself struggling, trying too hard to see and create something new and interesting. For whatever reason, sometimes the inspiration just isn’t there. It happens to the best of photographers. If this happens, don’t force it, you’ll only create more frustration. You are much better off just putting the camera back in the bag and enjoying whatever experience you may be having.

Tlaxcala, Mexico

Seeing again in Tlaxcala, Mexico

Often, by putting the camera away and letting go of the self-imposed pressure to create, to capture that elusive perfect image, your mind relaxes and you’ll start seeing again. Or maybe not. Either way is fine. Just accept it, remember why you are traveling in the first place, and enjoy the experience of being in the place.

Finally…

Following these steps won’t instantly make you a great photographer. As with any craft, proficiency, if there is such a thing in art, takes years of hard work and practice. And with photography, while it may be possible to become technically proficient, it can be argued that the art of seeing is like reaching for that proverbial pot of gold at the end of a rainbow: something every photographer is continually striving to master but never quite achieving. However, consciously following these steps as you go about your travels should at least put you on the path to increasing the number of memorable images you bring home.

Darin Rogers is a semi-nomadic writer, photographer, and part-time civil engineer. He is currently based in the Philippines. You can see more of his work at www.darinrogers.net or follow him on Facebook and Google+.

Any thoughts? How are your photography skills? Any other simple tips you’ve learned along the way?


Posted in "How To" Travel Guides, Travel Tips & Advice | 33 Comments