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Oh, no. No, no, no.

That’s my reaction, all too often these days, when I go on social media.

I’m sure we all have seen it.

The photo of a travel blogger or ‘travel influencer’ in their cutest or most striking pose, wearing a short summer dress or going shirtless with beer in hand…while standing on the streets of an impoverished, war-torn village in Africa or in front of a run down shack on a dirt road in India.

The photo is oh so perfect, oh so worthy of being shared across all social media platforms, and naturally, worth many, many ‘likes’.

But wait a minute…what about the very real people living with very real struggles behind the crumbling walls and bent tin doors?

When such photos are posted, is the traveler even aware that these people exist?

Once upon a time, the focus was on the beauty, the eye-opening moments and the education of travel. Now, that focus has simply been replaced by the heavily filtered ‘beauty’ of our ourselves. Everyone wants the attention to be on them, not the actual destination.

And there really isn’t much value in such infatuation with ourselves while traveling. Instead, it’s remarkably tone deaf and disrespectful to those places we visit.

All it does is show a lack of awareness about our surroundings, which doesn’t match the supposedly positive and life-changing aspects of travel – the sharing, interacting, learning – that we travel bloggers and influencers claim to promote.

Those ‘things’ are now only good enough to be used as a pretty backdrop for photos and stories about ourselves.

Where is the learning?

Look on any travel-related blog or social media profile. We all say that learning or education is one of the main, if not the main, reasons we travel in the first place. We all say it’s to interact with local cultures and people and to hopefully challenge and better ourselves and the world by doing so.

But in many cases, that learning and genuine interaction is nowhere to be found.

In my experience, learning is not rooted in selfish pursuits. Learning is not using or ignoring the difficulties and struggles of others for our personal gain (doesn’t that rusted shack with a family of 6 barely surviving inside look great behind my kapotasana yoga pose?).

Genuine interaction isn’t a photo of a pre-planned handshake in pre-planned, picture-perfect clothes, with a pre-planned smile or forced expression of interest.

And a casual mention of the surrounding reality – perhaps the devastation, the intense history or the general struggles of those that live there – in a two or three line caption next to our IG or FB photo…that’s not education.

This village was bombed. The people now live among the rubble. So sad But look at my gown!

Umm…yes, again, what about those people around you? The people right there in the houses in the background of your photo?

The world is not a movie set or a playground for us to stomp all over for our selfish desires just because we’re privileged enough to afford plane tickets.

Such activity really has no lasting impact on humanity. It certainly doesn’t encourage others to travel around the world learning, affecting change and being a positive force. It encourages others to travel around the world completely ignoring their surroundings, because the most important thing is getting the best photo of yourself.

I get it. It’s business for some. It’s a way to get attention and that attention turns into money or free travel and so on. But again, where’s the real value?

And if it is business, it shouldn’t be hidden behind a disguise of learning, as so many do.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with taking photos of ourselves. I take them all the time. But I also try, like most bloggers, to provide some value and to not make everything I do all about myself. That doesn’t represent how I think travel, or social media, should be.

And I don’t think I’m alone.

My friend Jodi Ettenberg, from the popular blog LegalNomads, summed it up quite well by saying…

“We are all imperfect, but that’s what makes us human. And that’s what social media should reflect: our collective imperfection. As travel writers, we should be setting an example by sharing what lies outside the glossy sheen of filters. It’s less photogenic, but it’s where the magic happens. And overall that makes it more aspirational, more raw, and more real. We owe it to our readers not to share some false, idealized version of ourselves. The good and the bad, the stories that get you thinking — that’s where you add value to the world in this space.”

This is travel

I know what you might be thinking. This is a bit too much. The times have changed, it’s the way things work now. It’s better to shrug it off or laugh it off and then carry on doing what we each feel is right.

At the same time, this is why travel blogging and travel influencing is a little messy these days. It’s why more and more people tell me, “I stopped reading travel blogs.” I keep hearing the same reasons. There’s too much fluff and useless content, too little authenticity. It’s about showing off and trying to earn money, not about the actual benefits of travel. It’s no longer about helping others travel. Travel bloggers seem quite entitled and cocky. And so on.

Perhaps I’m struggling with this because I’ve seen the change happen over the years and I remember when travel took on a very different meaning. There indeed was a time when it wasn’t about ‘look at me’ and was all about ‘look at this place, here’s what’s going on’ instead.

After all, travel is without a doubt an awesome and life-changing endeavor. I’m talking about the moments shared with people that you otherwise would never have come into contact with. I’m talking about the genuine exchanges, the handshakes and hugs, the laughter and meals eaten together, the stories about a place directly from the mouths of those who call it home. It’s all about the authentic cultural activities that might not make for a pretty photo but sure as hell make for an education like no other. It’s all of the above, and the influence this has on our own lives.

Just typing that paragraph gets my heart pumping and my skin tingling.

That’s what needs to be shared. That’s travel.

Focusing on ourselves first and foremost while ignoring the destinations, people and potential education around us – in other words, a lack of awareness – is not.

“As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life — and travel — leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks — on your body or on your heart — are beautiful.” – Anthony Bourdain

The post A Rant About Travel, Awareness and Social Media appeared first on Wandering Earl.

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One of my least favorite things to do is search for flights. I always end up spending hours and hours looking for the best flight deals, then hesitating for a day or two, repeating the process over again and so on.

It’s frustrating, it takes a ton of time and it’s far from being enjoyable. The goal is usually to spend as little money as possible of course but there are just way too many websites to search and methods to try in order to find those inexpensive fares…

Unless you let someone else search for you.

Enter the Dollar Flight Club.

What’s The Club?

This ‘club’ is for travelers that would love to have a dedicated team of travel experts do the work when it comes to finding the best flight deals. And it’s all very simple.

You sign up, choose your home region or airport and then you start receiving email alerts with the absolute best airfare deals to destinations all over the world.

As a result, you don’t need to spend hours and hours online searching for airfare. All you need to do is check your inbox.

Where Does It Work?

Whether you live in North America, Europe, Africa, Asia or South America, the Dollar Flight Club works. Again, when you sign up, you actually choose your specific region of the world or airport that you prefer to fly out of so that the DFC team knows exactly which deals are best suited for your needs.

Another cool feature is that you can even enter your dream destinations. The team will then search specifically for deals to those locations, working hard to get you exactly where you want to go for as little money as possible.

Who Finds These Deals?

The mission of founder Jesse Neugarten is pretty straightforward – “to alert you when really cheap international airfare pops up from your home airport to save you hundreds on airfare so you can explore the world“.

To achieve this, the Dollar Flight Club has a team of flight search experts that is constantly scouring the internet for flight deals.

They use every method possible, check every travel website and airline, search all kinds of dates and combinations, keep an eye out for mistake fares and try to figure out pricing patterns, all in order to find the lowest fares and best flight deals that can be found.

Then, as soon as they find a great fare, or fares, from your desired region, those deals are sent directly to you right away. They arrive in a simple, easy to read email along with details about valid dates and a link to the website or airline where the deal can be booked.

I like this. You don’t simply receive an email every Friday with the best deals of the week. If they find an unbeatable airfare from your departure region, you get notified quickly. If they find several, they’ll send you them all.

Since DFC looks for incredible flight deals (not just ‘good’ deals), this is why they don’t wait to let you know about them. They don’t want you to miss out because the kind of low fares they uncover generally don’t stick around too long.

How to Start Receiving the Best Flight Deals
      1. Visit the Dollar Flight Club.
      2. Enter your email address in the sign-up box.
      3. Choose your region or airport.
      4. Done. You’re signed up and will start receiving alerts.

    FREE vs PREMIUM Versions

    You have two options when signing up – the FREE version and the PREMIUM version. And you can actually start off by enjoying all the features with a free 7-day trial of the premium version (which also comes with a 30-day money back guarantee after that).

    What’s the difference?

    FREE version – you’ll be sent 25% of the deals they find from your general region

    PREMIUM version – gives you 100% of the best flight deals they find from your chosen airport(s) and you’ll be the first to know about mistake fares and other absurdly low airfares that they discover

    Of course, after the 7 days, if you choose to continue with the premium version, it costs a little money. However, it really is just a little – as low as $3.25 USD per month. And for that small amount, you can expect to receive about 25-30 deal alert emails per month, which is a ton of great deals to consider.

    According to Jesse, the average savings per ticket that members enjoy is over $500 USD. So if you buy only one flight from the deals they send you, the Premium subscription more than pays for itself.

    Why Do The Work?

    That’s what it comes down to. You can spend hours and hours looking for airfare deals or a team of people can do it for you. And that team is going to search longer and harder than we could possibly search since that’s what this highly motivated team does for a living every day.

    The result of dishing out a few bucks per month is a long list of bargain airfare deals for you to choose from, many of which are impossible to ignore, to destinations all over the place.

    My current list of deals I’ve recently received include:

    – US to China for $400 roundtrip
    – US to Maldives for $577 roundtrip
    – US to Costa Rica for $258 roundtrip
    – Montreal to Delhi, India for $398 roundtrip

    From other regions of the world, current deals are:

    – Europe to Miami for $341 roundtrip
    – Europe to Kenya for $390 roundtrip
    – UK to NYC for $362 roundtrip

    I’m perfectly happy waiting for the best flight deals to come straight to me instead of sitting at my laptop looking for flights myself.

    And while the free version of the Dollar Flight Club gives you some deals, it’s no surprise that the paid version (which is quite reasonable considering what you get in return) is where you’ll find the true value. But again, you can try out that premium version for 7 days and see for yourself if it’s worth it.

    I certainly have had nothing but a positive experience myself! And with over 500,000 subscribers, it seems Dollar Flight Club is providing exactly what they promise.

    *Also, the customer service at Dollar Flight Club is excellent. If you have a question at any time, send them a message and you’ll hear back quickly, often from the founder himself.

    The post Find the Best Flight Deals with The Dollar Flight Club appeared first on Wandering Earl.

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    When I travel, I use Uber and other similar ride-sharing apps from time to time. The reason is convenience, ease and in most places, the ability to save money with Uber over using taxis.

    Let’s go back to three weeks ago.

    I stood on a street corner in the Romanian city of Timisoara. My phone was in my hand and I opened the Uber app. I typed in my destination and an estimate of the fare was shown on the screen.

    However, I noticed that the fare was more than double the fare I had paid for that exact same trip 2 hours earlier.

    Why? Right there on the app it explained, “Due to increased demand, fares are significantly higher.”

    Intriguing.

    I looked more closely at the Uber screen. And I saw that there were only 3 Uber vehicles operating at that moment in Timisoara. I watched the map for a few minutes, noticing that none of those 3 cars picked anyone up. Two of them didn’t move at all and the third kept driving around one particular neighborhood.

    So where was the increased demand if the only 3 Uber cars in the city at that time did not have any customers?

    My conclusion is that ‘increased demand’ is not based on actual increased demand. It seems to be based on ‘assumed increased demand’. Maybe it’s based on the time of day in certain places or the amount of people that open the app or the amount of Uber drivers on the road (less drivers automatically equals more demand even if nobody is looking for an Uber). Whatever the reason, it doesn’t appear to be based on actual demand.

    *

    When I get this “Due to increase demand, fares are significantly higher” notification, here’s what I do:

    Save Money with Uber By Closing and Re-Opening the App
        1. Close the app
        2. Wait two minutes
        3. Re-open the app
        4. Enter the destination again

      Yes, that simple.

      Usually, this reduces the fare, helping me save money with Uber. If the fare doesn’t decrease, I’ll try it again. Spending a couple of minutes closing and re-opening the app might sound silly but it can certainly help save you money.

      While in Timisoara, the fare went down by 40% just like that. I then requested a vehicle and a few minutes later I was on my way.

      I’ve done this many times over the past couple of years. Closing the app and restarting it will generally help you save money with Uber, simply because the ‘demand’, or however it is calculated, might change in those few minutes. Or maybe Uber displays a lower fare the second or third time you re-open the app because you closed the app and showed signs of not using their service. They want to get you to book a car so they lower the fare…maybe?

      Again, it can take a few attempts at restarting the app, and you might have to wait a few minutes, but I’ve almost always ended up with a lower fare eventually.

      *

      Save Money with Uber By Always Checking Your Fares Carefully

      In addition to the above, if you really want to save money with Uber, you should always double check what Uber charges you after every ride.

      I’ve had to contact Uber 5 or 6 times about incorrect fares. Their customer service has always been excellent and in each case, they’ve corrected the fares, but if you’re not careful, you can pay more than you should be paying. I’m now in the habit of scrutinizing every fare after it ends because I noticed that drivers tend to play a few tricks.

      Example 1: When being dropped off at airports, I’ve had drivers charge a ‘parking fee’ when they never even went into the paid parking lot. They just dropped me off in front of the airport as normal.

      Example 2: In one case, my Uber driver actually did drop me off in the paid parking lot (as per the airport’s rules) but he left right away. The sign at the parking lot gate stated that every vehicle received 10 minutes free entry, but the driver added a parking charge onto my fare anyway, thinking I wouldn’t notice.

      Example 3: In Melbourne, Australia, I had a driver somehow change the destination on the app during the trip and then go a very long route to take me where I really needed to go. I’m still not sure what happened exactly but the final fare was very high compared to all online estimates for this particular route.

      Again, in all instances, Uber corrected the fare quickly. But these are all situations that we can easily miss and most drivers that mess around are counting on the fact that you’ll miss it. If you don’t already check your Uber fare for any suspicious charges or inaccuracies, it might be a good time to start doing so.

      If you do notice something strange, send a message to Uber customer support. If it is incorrect, they’ll correct it and if it’s correct, they’ll explain why. In the end, you’ll end up paying only what you should be paying and nothing more.

      Do you have any other tips on how to save money with Uber or tips for similar services around the world?

      *If you want to learn how I often get discounts on Airbnb, here’s my post on that: How to Get an Airbnb Discount

      The post How to Save Money with Uber (quick and easy) appeared first on Wandering Earl.

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      After a strange immigration experience at the Queenstown Airport, one that involved my girlfriend and I being interrogated in separate rooms about our online businesses, our 8-day New Zealand road trip finally began.

      Yes, New Zealand would prove to be spectacular, so much so that it far exceeded every expectation, every single day. If the country, at least the south island as that was all we had time for, is not the most beautiful location on this planet, it is definitely as close to the top of that list as it gets.

      And while 8 days is not sufficient time to thoroughly cover every corner of the south island of New Zealand, it is sufficient time to get a taste of what it offers, and to have an absolute ton of fun doing so.

      If you’re thinking about a New Zealand road trip, here’s the details from our own adventure:

      8-Day New Zealand Road Trip

      Day 1: Queenstown (arrival)
      • Rental car pickup – we chose Omega Car Rental and for $30 NZD per day we had a mid-size car that was a few years old but in excellent condition; Omega offered great service, convenient locations and an easy rental process
      • Queenstown wander – driving straight into town, we roamed around Queenstown for an hour; the town is small, pleasant and full of activity; it’s also quite crowded and very expensive
      • AccommodationQueenstown Top 10 Holiday Park in Arthur’s Point (5 km from Queenstown); it’s an odd name but we had a comfortable small cabin in a peaceful spot surrounded by mountains; it was great value and we preferred to be among nature and not directly in town
      • Arthur’s Point walk – we found a path across from our accommodation that led down to a narrow gully and we ended up on a great walk along the Shotover River (we loved this about NZ – you can find trails everywhere and most of them are empty)
      • Queenstown at night – back in town, the evening vibe is worth experiencing for dinner and a sunset walk along Lake Wakatipu
      Day 2: Queenstown
      • Skyline Queenstown – just a couple of minutes walk from the town center, the Skyline Queenstown gondola took us up to the top of a mountain for perfect views out over the region and a chance for some fun luge-riding at the summit
      • Glenorchy – a 1 hour drive along the lakeshore and we arrived in the small town of Glenorchy; it was more about the drive and the truly unbelievable landscapes than the town itself, although the Glenorchy Lagoon trail looked worth it (we had to skip it due to heavy wind and rain)
      • Paradise Road – craving even more stunning scenery, after a stop in a cafe until the rain stopped, we drove along the Glenorchy-Paradise Road for another hour, heading towards Kinloch; there’s nothing specific to see or do here but we must have pulled over a dozen times just to admire the mountain views; and we pretty much had the entire road to ourselves

      Day 3: Queenstown to Te Anau
      • Drive to Te Anau – driving south along State Highway 6, it took us 3.5 hours to reach the town of Te Anau, the gateway to the Fjordland National Park; naturally, we found an infinite number of places to pull over along the way as the views really never get old!
      • AccommodationTe Anau Lakefront Backpackers; decent place with small, inexpensive private rooms right by the lake
      • Te Anau wander – 1.5 hours is all it takes to walk along the picturesque Te Anau Lake and through the entire town, making for a good afternoon stretch after the long drive
      • Early night – after dinner, we went to sleep early in preparation for the VERY long day ahead

      Day 4: Te Anau to Milford Sound to Wanaka

      Did I mention this will be a long day? Long but oh so worth it!

      • Te Anau to Milford Sound – leaving Te Anau at 7:30am, the drive to Milford Sound only takes 2 hours, but we gave ourselves 4 in order to stop en route at Mirror Lakes, The Chasm, Eglinton Valley, Lake Gunn and Hollyford Valley; the peaceful Mirror Lakes and Eglinton Valley were our favorite stops; you also need some time to get through the one-way Homer Tunnel as you can end up waiting for up to 30 minutes to enter

      • Milford Sound cruise – we arrived at Milford Sound an hour before our 2-hour Milford Sound cruise that departed the harbor at 12:30pm; this cruise needs to be done on any New Zealand road trip as I can’t recommend it enough!; we booked our cruise with Go Orange Cruises through their website the night before (see below for more details)
      • Fjords – the fjords are simply spectacular and we couldn’t turn away for the entire 2 hours; waterfalls, dolphins, Mitre Peak, the Tasman Sea and endless other sights, not to mention an interesting narration from our captain the entire way

      • Milford Sound to Queenstown – after the cruise, it’s time to once again pass through the impressive Homer Tunnel and begin the long journey to Wanaka, some 450 kms away; the first stage follows a familiar route back towards Queenstown for 4.5 hours; we really wanted to get going at this point and we were happy that we had made all of our stops on the way to Milford Sound in the morning
      • Queenstown to Wanaka – with the second stage of this journey, from Queenstown to Wanaka (2 hours), the landscape changes dramatically; suddenly we were on a road wedged into narrow gorges, winding through rocky mountains towering all around us; if you’re there in the late afternoon/sunset time, the colors are surreal (it was my favorite part of the road trip from a driver’s perspective)
      • Accommodation: Oasis Yurt Lodge – awesome, comfortable yurts in a quiet, beautiful location just outside of town; definitely the best place we stayed at and well worth checking out!

      Day 5: Wanaka and surroundings
      • Late morning – naturally, this was a good morning to sleep in, not just because we were in a very cool yurt but also because we were exhausted from the long journey the day before
      • Wanaka town – for lunch, we went for a stroll through quaint Wanaka town and choose one of the cafes on the main strip, with views straight out over Lake Wanaka
      • Hiking – it was then time to burn some calories and luckily, there are several options for an afternoon hike, depending on the amount of time you have and level of difficulty you prefer: Roy’s Peak trek, Diamond Lake and Rocky Mountain, Mount Iron walk and the Rob Roy Glacier Track are some of the most popular
      • Diamond Lake and Rocky Mountain – we chose the Diamond Lake and Rocky Mountain hike, a moderate level walk of about 3 hours return, with unsurprisingly gorgeous views along the way; we kept stopping, taking a seat on the ground and just soaking in our surroundings (see below)
      • Random roads – from one of the viewpoints during the hike, we spotted a river not too far away with what looked like a beach; after the hike, we took some random roads and found the spot and it turned out to be a perfect post-hike location for a rest; this is another bonus of a New Zealand road trip – spending a few hours without following the map every now and then, just turning on to random roads, will always lead to a rewarding excursion (on this same day we also accidentally ended up on a private farm, hung out with a pony and had a great chat with the friendly owner)

      Day 6: Wanaka to Franz Josef
      • Wanaka to Haast – we took our time in the morning and then embarked on a relatively easy 4 hour drive, twisting around lakes, winding up over the Haast Pass and driving through rainforest, with several short walks as breaks; Thunder Creek Falls, Blue Pools and the Tunnel Hike are all worth a stop before arriving in the tiny settlement of Haast for lunch
      • Haast to Fox Glacier – leaving Haast, we continued along the coast to mysterious forest-lined beaches, picturesque cliffs and nature walks through all kinds of landscapes; eventually we reached the Fox Glacier
      • Fox Glacier – unfortunately, access to the Fox Glacier was closed when we were there but if it’s open, you can take the walking track that leads closer to its face
      • Franz Josef town – from Fox Glacier, it’s just a short 30 minutes drive to the small community of Franz Josef, a good spot to spend a couple of nights, which is what we did
      • AccommodationChateau Franz Backpackers; we booked a private room here because it was central, affordable and almost all the other places in town were sold out by the time we got around to booking; it wasn’t our favorite place as the rooms were quite grimy but it did the job
      • Franz Josef wander – you can easily take an evening walk around the entire town, with plenty of options for dinner afterwards and a decent sized supermarket if you plan to cook on your own
      • Glow worms – once darkness fell, it was time to go searching for glow worms!; at the south end of town, between the fire station and the St. James Historic Church, there’s a walking trail on the east side of the main road; we walked right in, let our eyes adjust and started looking into the trees until we spotted glow worms; in the end, we saw thousands and it was far more impressive than we imagined!

      Day 7: Franz Josef Glacier
      • Franz Josef Glacier – we drove the few miles to the main parking lot and then followed the walking trail towards the famous Franz Josef Glacier; the walk takes about 40 minutes each way and is quite easy as it meanders through some impressive scenery until you get a decent view of the glacier; if you want to splurge, this is probably one place to do it by taking a helicopter trip to the top where you can also go for a walk on the glacier itself; we simply enjoyed the walk and called it a day
      • Lake Mapourika – in the evening, we drove 15 minutes north out to Lake Mapourika to watch the sunset and it didn’t disappoint as we found a beautiful spot to hang out right off the main road

      Day 8: Franz Josef to Christchurch
      • Franz Josef to Hoktika – starting at 8:00am, we began the final stages of our New Zealand road trip by traveling north 2 hours until we reached the town of Hoktika, a good place for breakfast and to fill the car up with petrol for the rest of the journey
      • National Kiwi Centre – located in Hoktika, this is a sanctuary for native animals of New Zealand, including the kiwi bird; the centre was a bit rundown but the staff were wonderful and we thought it was well worth the entrance fee to catch a glimpse of the kiwis and learn more about them
      • Route 73 – Arthur’s Pass – Christchurch – a short distance north of Hoktika, we turned east onto Route 73 and began the 3.5 hour, coast-to-coast journey across the mountains and Arthur’s Pass; as you can guess, there are view points, walking paths, parks, small towns and more to stop at all throughout the route

      • Christchurch – just like that, we came out of the mountains and found ourselves in Christchurch, on the opposite coast from where we started our day; after a quick lunch and a wander through downtown Christchurch, we returned the rental car and took the shuttle to the Christchurch Airport; at 6:30pm we were on a flight to Sydney and our New Zealand road trip had come to an end

      Yes, it was a little rushed. We could easily have spent 2 or 3 or even 4 weeks on the south island alone. But we did what we could with the time we had and, without a doubt, we absolutely loved every day of our stay. I don’t think I’ve ever been as in awe of my surroundings as I was during this trip.

      And to be honest, no matter where you end up going in this remarkable country, it’s hard not to have the same reaction. Whichever route, activities and sights you choose, you shall be rewarded.

      You’ll see what I’m talking about!

      (I’m already looking forward to heading back for another New Zealand road trip once I get my new passport.)

      Useful Links

      ACCOMMODATION: Use this Booking.com link to save up to $30 off your booking (I’ll get up to $30 too): Booking.com $30 discount

      TRANSPORTATION:: We enjoyed hiring a car but many travelers prefer to rent camper vans instead. There are all kinds of options for vans of various sizes. If you go with a camper van, here’s a good app that lists all campsites in NZ: Rankers Official Camping NZ App

      MILFORD SOUND CRUISE: There are at least 6 companies running these cruises and they all have great reviews. I would go with the one that offers the best deal for the day you’ll be there. With a little research you can easily find heavily discounted tickets, even on the official websites for the cruise companies. (We paid $90 USD total for 2 people with light lunch included.) I would avoid going in the mid or late afternoon as there is a higher chance that heavy cloud cover arrives and your visibility will be greatly reduced.

      COSTS: New Zealand is indeed an expensive country but there are ways to keep your costs down. Accommodation and food are pricey, but you can also stay in hostels, guesthouses or campsites and you can always cook your own food to save money. Every place we stayed at had a communal kitchen. Also, the good news is that almost all of the places I mention above do not have an entrance fee. While activities such as a Milford Sound cruise and Skyline Queenstown cost money, all of the walks, hikes, views, scenic routes, glaciers, waterfalls and other stops we made every day didn’t cost anything.

      Any questions about taking a New Zealand road trip? Any input to share from your own experiences?

      The post 8-Day New Zealand Road Trip (Detailed Itinerary) appeared first on Wandering Earl.

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      After 9.5 years, 110 pages and 319 stamps, it’s time for me to renew my passport. Here’s a short video I made that talks about my torn and worn out passport and why it’s the stories behind the stamps that is really the most important aspect of this little book.

      Saying Goodbye to My Passport - YouTube

      How’s your passport? Care to share any stories behind your own stamps?

      Previous video: My Visit to a Remote Village in Nepal

      The post VIDEO: Saying Goodbye to My Passport appeared first on Wandering Earl.

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      I’m sorry, Sri Lanka.

      For many years, I chose to ignore you, to shun you, to shrug my shoulders and say “Eh” whenever you were mentioned.

      After a quick 3-day visit to Colombo back in 2002, I never thought about paying a visit to your shores again. This was despite 30 trips to India, your neighbor to the north, and despite rumors from other travelers that you really were an excellent and affordable beach destination.

      Why did I treat you so?

      Honestly, you just didn’t sound that appealing to me. You didn’t seem like the kind of destination I would enjoy or be interested in and so, I never found it justifiable to spend the money for a visit.

      But today, I sit here and say, “I’m sorry.”

      Back in January this year, after spending a month in Bali and after a couple of unexpected hiccups with our travel plans, my girlfriend and I found ourselves in East Timor of all places, unsure of where to go next.

      We had two and a half weeks and nowhere to go.

      We threw around some potential destinations – Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand and so on – before deciding on Sri Lanka. My girlfriend told me that her friends loved their experience there and that was all it took as we really needed to choose a place.

      We did some research. We chose the beach town of Unawatuna as our base. We booked our flights and accommodation.

      The deal was done.

      The Arrival

      Our flight from Kuala Lumpur to Colombo, Sri Lanka arrived late at night and so we stayed at a guesthouse near the airport. The following morning we hired a taxi for the 3 hour ride down to Unawatuna, sharing it with two other travelers we had met.

      Before long, we arrived in Unawatuna, coming in along the main road. And I began to get nervous. I simply didn’t expect there to be a heavily trafficked main road in this supposedly quiet town. But just as the sweat began dripping from my forehead, the driver turned right into a small lane, and the traffic instantly disappeared.

      A few minutes later we were in front of our accommodation.

      And just like that, we began to fall in love with Unawatuna and Sri Lanka.

      Asia’s Perfect, Affordable Beach Destination?

      It very well could be.

      I’m honestly not sure if there is another affordable beach destination that offers the same value in terms of accommodation, food and activities along with such a high quality beach, lack of crowds and incredibly welcoming atmosphere. And I love my beaches!

      Let me give you the run down…

      The Town of Unawatuna

      It’s a small town, with really one main lane that winds around from the main road, along the beach and then into the forest. There are smaller lanes that branch off here and there and then you have the 1 kilometer long beach. For the most part, nothing is more than ten minutes walk away from anything else.

      Also, even though we were there in high season, the town was by no means crowded. You could easily meet other people if you wanted to but you could also have a quiet vacation as well.

      The atmosphere is very laid-back, most of the travelers here are backpackers or mid-range tourists and while you can find some nightlife, it’s not a huge party place. I’d say this town has just a little bit of everything you could possibly want from an affordable beach destination.

      The Value

      It’s simple. For a beach town, Unawatuna is a great value. You could get by for as little as $35 USD per day if you stayed in a budget room at a guesthouse and ate at the local restaurants or food stalls around town.

      Here’s what we paid for various things:

      Beer – $1-2 USD
      Coffee – $1-2 USD
      Beach chairs – free if you order a drink or meal
      Local meal – $3 USD
      SUP rental (stand up paddle boarding) – $8 per hour
      15 minute rickshaw ride – $2-$ USD
      5 liters of water – $1 USD
      Large, comfortable double room at a top-rated guesthouse – $45 USD

      It’s pretty hard to spend money here since it’s the perfect setting to just relax on the beach and partake in some simple activities, but when you do have to open the wallet, it rarely makes much of a dent.

      The Unawatuna Beach

      Beautiful. Really beautiful. Unawatuna Beach is a long stretch of pinkish golden sand with clear, warm, turquoise water. As I mentioned, we were there in the middle of what was supposedly high season for tourists and the beach barely had any people on it. It was simply perfect, in every way. (I really was shocked by how beautiful this beach was and the fact that I had never heard of it before!)

      httpss://wanderingearl.smugmug.com/Travel/Blog-Photos/n-RhbrX/i-2N8zsZb/A

      Also, the entire village is within a few minutes walk of the beach, so you can always pop down for a quick swim or a breath of that fresh salty air whenever you want. There are very few vendors on the beach and the restaurants are set back quite a ways from the water, leaving the beach itself remarkably quiet and peaceful. In the evenings, several restaurants set up on the sand right as the sun sets, creating a pleasant atmosphere ideal for a drink or meal.

      But at any time of the day, it always remains quiet, making it feel as if you’re in some far more remote and less affordable beach destination!

      As a bonus, Unawatuna is only a 25 minutes walk (or 5 minute rickshaw ride) away from Dalawella Beach. This idyllic stretch of sand never had more than 4 or 5 people on it and while the sea was rough and swimming pretty much impossible, it’s a gorgeous beach worth visiting nonetheless!

      The Accommodation

      There are dozens of options for all budgets – dirt cheap dorm rooms, well-priced private rooms in all kinds of guesthouses, nicer rooms in boutique hotels, simple shacks down by the beach, rooms for rent in family homes and so on.

      We chose the Silva Rest Guesthouse, pretty much based on the photos of the room and the lush, tropical property. And it turned out to be one of my favorite places that I’ve stayed at, ever! It all starts with the young couple that owns the place, and their staff, all of whom are beyond lovely and helpful as they go out of their way to ensure that every detail of every guest’s stay is perfect.

      The rooms are spotless, spacious and creatively decorated, with super comfortable beds, a sitting area and a great bathroom (weird to say but it was!). We had a front terrace with two chairs and a table and the building was set in a remarkably quiet plot of land that was full of lush trees, bright green grass, a garden and mini-jungle and a mountain backdrop.

      The only noise we heard was of the colorful birds hanging around outside our room. There were also massive lizards wandering around the property and even the odd peacock flew by from time to time.

      We had an outdoor communal kitchen to use, with all the equipment you could possibly need, and a covered seating area, ideal for enjoying the freshly made, local and huge breakfast the owners serve up every morning.

      And to top it off, the Silva Rest Guesthouse is only a 3-4 minutes walk from the middle of the beach. As you can tell, we really loved this guesthouse.

      *For accommodation, you can save up to $30 USD (and I’ll receive the same) by using this link to Booking.com

      The Food

      Unawatuna is full of dining options. There are cafes with sandwiches, large restaurants on the beach serving up all kinds of fresh seafood, popular hangouts with menus full of local Sri Lankan curries and other dishes and simple roti stalls. You can also find western food, pizzerias, bakeries serving great coffee and tea and best of all, fruit stands selling dozens of tropical fruits at very low prices. (We made a huge fruit salad every single day of our stay with rambutan, melons, coconut, lemon bananas, mangoes and more!)

      Meals ranged from $3 USD for local curry and rice to $8 USD for a whole fresh fish or proper stone-oven pizza to $15+ for a full seafood meal on the beach.

      Our favorite places to eat:
      Happy Spice – fresh home-cooked food, local curries and western dishes
      Me-nu Restaurant – always crowded, with excellent food and cheap prices
      Baby’s Bistro – great seafood dishes in a relaxed setting
      Shifting Sands Cafe – run by some nice local guys, diverse menu, tasty Sri Lankan curries
      La Boheme – on the edge of the main road, very laid-back and good pizza joint

      And be sure to visit this guy and his fruit stall, located right next to Jina’s Vegetarian Restaurant!

      The Activities

      Right in Unawatuna, apart from strolling up and down the main lane and hanging out at the beach, there are also a handful of other options to spend your time.

      You can rent stand-up paddle boards for about $8/hour. There are jet skis, too. A bunch of yoga teachers advertise their classes and there’s a meditation center. You can hike 45 minutes to the more remote Jungle Beach, visit the Japanese Peace Pagoda, go snorkeling or scuba diving, take cooking classes or even go whale watching at the right time of year.

      You can rent scooters for a few dollars per day and cruise up and down the coast, stopping in dozens of villages and random beaches along the way.

      And of course, you can hop into a rickshaw for the 15 minute ride up to the town of Galle, where you’ll find the Galle Fort. This old Portuguese, and then Dutch, fort is still a living, working town and we ended up visiting twice because it was such a pleasant experience.

      You can wander the quiet lanes of Galle Fort, walk on top of the outer wall along the water and listen to live music or check out the local stalls in the park at Fort Square. You can step into one of the many cafes on Pedlar Street for an excellent meal and check out some of the free art galleries and free museums (the Historical Mansion Museum was especially interesting with it’s huge collection of antiques!). In the evenings the town becomes even more atmospheric once it’s all lit up and things quiet down a little.

      Given its proximity to Unawatuna, it’s the best, and easiest, escape whenever you want to hang out somewhere different for a few hours. (The rickshaw ride to/from Unawatuna should cost around 350 rupees each way.)

      And of course, you have the rest of Sri Lanka to visit as well. We were exhausted from a few months of traveling non-stop so we didn’t venture too far away from Unawatuna, but if you have the time and energy, there’s always…

      – Tea plantations
      – Kandy
      – Dambulla cave temple
      – Sigiriya rock fortress
      – Wildlife
      – Colombo
      – Udawalawe, Horton’s Plains, Yala National Parks
      – Even more beaches!

      …and plenty more than that of course.

      So, on that note, thank you once again Unawatuna!

      You gave us a brilliant two and a half weeks. Never did we expect to find one of the most perfect and affordable beach destinations in all of Asia. And we’re quite confident that you’ll feel the same if you choose to visit too!

      Any questions about Unawatuna?

      The post A Perfect, Affordable Beach Destination – Unawatuna, Sri Lanka appeared first on Wandering Earl.

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      If you’re thinking about visiting East Timor, this post is your quick travel guide to Dili and its surroundings. My goal is to provide the main information you need to start planning your trip, and all of the details below are based on my own recent travels to this country.

      Of course, once you have a read, if you still have any questions, just let me know!

      Travel Guide to Dili: PART 1

      TOURIST VISAS

      Travelers from the following European countries can enter East Timor without a visa for up to 90 days as a tourist: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland

      For all other nationalities, you must obtain a visa, which depends on how you enter the country:

      Land crossing – If you cross the land border with West Timor (Indonesia), you will need to apply in advance for a “Visa Authorization” using the government’s online visa system. You then take the visa authorization with you to the border, pay a $30 USD fee and if all goes well, you’ll get your visa to enter. This visa is usually valid for 90 days. (Indonesian and Portuguese citizens don’t need to apply in advance.)

      Arrival by Air – If you plan to arrive in Dili by air, you will simply obtain the visa at the airport upon arrival. You cannot apply in advance for air arrivals. The cost is $30 USD for a visa that should be valid for up to 30 days. However, when I arrived, the immigration officer only gave me a 10 day visa for some reason so the 30 days isn’t set in stone. (Instructions on obtaining the visa are below.)

      ARRIVAL

      Once you step off the plane, you’ll simply walk along the above walkway to the tiny Arrivals Hall. Before you enter the building though, you should head to the small “Visa on Arrival” window on your left. If you’re from one of the countries above that doesn’t need a visa, you don’t need to visit this window. For all other nationalities, you need to go to the window and pay $30 USD for the visa. Once you pay, you’ll get a visa sticker that you take with you to immigration right inside the building.

      Before standing in the immigration line, be sure to fill out an Arrival Card as they do not provide these on the plane.

      Once through immigration, there’s a sole luggage carousel. After collecting your luggage, you’ll head through a very casual customs inspection (although you will need to fill out a quick customs form here in order to pass through). And then you hand the form over, walk through the door and just like that you’re outside, where drivers are waiting for incoming passengers and where you can find transportation if needed.

      *Most hotels offer free airport pickup and drop-off or they can arrange it for a fee. Otherwise, from what I was told, it should cost around $10 USD for the 10 minute taxi ride from the airport to any hotel in central Dili.

      MONEY

      The main currency in East Timor is US dollars and that is what’s used everywhere. When paying for small items, you might receive small change in the form of Timorese centavos. However, 1 centavo is equivalent to 1 US cent so it’s basically the same as using US coins.

      ATMs – There are ATMs all around Dili and I had no problem taking money out of several different ones. With that said, the ANZ Bank ATMs charge a $7 USD fee (at least for US card holders) so you might want to use the other banks’ ATMs. None of the others charged me a fee.

      Exchanging cash – Apart from hotels, which offered lower exchange rates, I didn’t see any other money exchange offices around Dili. However, I’m sure you could go into a bank to exchange Euros, AUD, GBP and so on.

      STAYING CONNECTED/INTERNET

      If you need to be reliably connected to the internet during your trip, I highly recommend getting a SIM card. As my girlfriend and I both work online, we need a relatively good connection and the Wifi we experienced in our hotel and in a couple of cafes was poor at best. Often, it was not usable at all.

      To obtain a SIM card, simply visit the Timor Telecom shop inside the Hotel Timor right in the city center along the water. For around $6 USD you’ll get a SIM card with a 3GB data package. This connection worked very well everywhere we went in Dili and allowed us to hotspot to our laptops to get our work done. (There is also a Timor Telecom shop in the Timor Plaza Shopping Complex.)

      Travel Guide to Dili: PART 2

      ACCOMMODATION

      I did a decent amount of research before choosing a place to stay. In the end, I went with the Discovery Inn. For $70 USD per night, we had a large, comfortable room, with a slightly rundown bathroom, located right off a small courtyard. The location was excellent, only a 5 minute walk from the water and 10 minute walk from the city center. There were also plenty of restaurants and a large supermarket on the same block. The staff were incredibly welcoming and helpful and the room came with a great breakfast and free airport pickup and drop-off.

      Of course, there are other options in town too, not a ton, but a good handful. You can find a couple of backpacker hostels, decently rated mid-range hotels and a luxury property or two.

      One quick search for “Dili” on booking.com shows all the options on one page: Booking.com – Dili
      *With this link above you’ll also save about $25 off any hotel booking.

      Overall, for what you get, the accommodation prices are definitely high. However, that’s due to many reasons, such as the need to import everything, the expenses involved with offering constant electricity and maintaining the building and also the simple fact that most visitors to East Timor are business people whose companies are paying for the rooms.

      We flew in from Bali where the same room I had in Dili would probably cost $15 USD per night over there! But that’s how it goes and again, there are definitely reasons why the prices are higher.

      DINING

      When it comes to eating, there are a decent amount of options in the city. You’ll find small local eateries, Portuguese-inspired restaurants, Italian, Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, fast food and more.

      We didn’t venture too far from our hotel at night, mostly because we were tired after long days out and about and there really weren’t many taxis on the road in the evenings. So we generally stayed in our neighborhood to eat dinner.

      Here’s where we ate some meals:

      Diya – This restaurant is attached to the Discovery Inn Hotel and while it was a bit pricey, there were some reasonably-priced items on the menu, too. The food is more western style but was very good.

      Castaway – A friend of a friend that had lived in Dili a while back told me about this place and we ended up there for lunch one day. It has a huge menu with all kinds of food and everything we ate, from soup to homemade veg burgers to salads was excellent, and very well priced.

      Great Wall – This cozy Chinese restaurant was a great find. Excellent food, huge portions and decent prices. One dish would be plenty for two people.

      Places that we didn’t have time to eat at but that were also recommended were:

      DiZa – apparently a great place for a sunset dinner along the water
      Agora Food Studio – healthy food all cooked with local ingredients
      Rolls N Bowls – cheap and good Vietnamese food

      Food can naturally be a big part of travel so I would recommend doing a little research about specific places in order to figure out which eateries might be best for you. Or simply wander around and see what you find!

      TRANSPORTATION

      Walking – Getting around Dili and its surroundings was actually quite easy. First, within the city center, you can pretty much walk anywhere, if you’re there when it’s not 40C (100F) outside! There are sidewalks almost everywhere, very little traffic on the roads and you’ll end up seeing a lot more if you’re exploring by foot. And you’ll pass many people in the streets of course, most of whom will be super friendly and be up for a quick chat.

      Taxi – When you need a taxi though, all you do is walk to the street and wait for one to come by. Stick out your hand and that’s it. I would always tell the driver where I wanted to go before getting in and in the beginning, I asked for the price as well. Every single time, the taxi driver quoted me exactly what the hotel staff told me is the normal fare. For a short trip, it was $2 USD and for a longer trip across the city, $3 USD. When the driver didn’t know our destination, we settled on a price based on some other landmark that was close by.

      We never had any problems with taxis. They are actually quite fascinating in Dili as most of them have the front windshields almost completely covered up. Yes, they put on some kind of sticker to block out the sun but the problem is that the sticker that covers 80% of the windshield is not transparent, so it leaves only a tiny section of the window for the driver to look through. And then they stuff all kinds of circular mirrors, stuffed animals and other random things up there as well, which blocks the view even more.

      Sometimes, the driver didn’t really understand where we wanted to go and didn’t even know the street names (including the main avenues) but they’re all friendly enough and dedicated to figuring it out, which we always did. I would often turn on my Google maps and simply direct the driver as we drove.

      (We also took a taxi out to the famous Cristo Rei statue. This longer 20 minute trip cost $4 USD one way.)

      Microlets – Within Dili and its surroundings, you also have the option of taking a microlet. These are funky, shared minivans that are typically owner-operator and run along certain routes. We took one from Cristo Rei back to an intersection near our hotel towards the end of our stay but I wish we had taken these starting on the first day! The only thing is that you need to know which van to take but once you see your van (the route number is in the window or on the side somewhere), you flag it down and get in.

      When you want to get off, just yell out to the driver or push the buzzer, pay your 25 centavos on the way out and you’re good to go.

      Here’s a pretty good map of the microlet routes in Dili, although it might be missing a route or two: Dili Microlet routes

      Most vans are very creatively decorated and named and the drivers have their favorite tunes blasting out of the speakers, definitely making this a cultural experience worth trying out. And as more people get in to the van, it’s a perfect opportunity to interact with more Timorese that will definitely be surprised by your presence inside!

      (Van #12 goes between Cristo Rei/Jesus Backside Beach and the city center, making it a great option for this trip.)

      Rental Car – Apparently you can also rent a car or a car with driver but from what we heard, it’s quite pricey starting at around $100 USD per day. Also, while the roads in the city were quite good, many of the roads outside the city, especially up in the mountains, are not so good and require a 4WD vehicle, even if it looks like a main road on the map.

      Travel Guide to Dili: PART 3

      ACTIVITIES

      Within the city of Dili, there is enough to keep you busy for several days. Here’s a list of options:

      Timorese Resistance Archive and Museum – This new structure is a must-visit as the exhibits inside detail the difficult history of the island and its people. We tried to visit on Saturday and even though it said it was open, it was actually closed. It seems to only be open Tuesday to Friday. Entrance was $2 USD.

      Santa Cruz Cemetery – The site of a 1991 massacre, when Indonesian troops open fired on a peaceful memorial service, it’s another important place to visit to truly understand the history of this country.

      Tais Market – All of the stalls here sell Tais, which is cloth made from an East Timorese traditional method of weaving. It’s well worth a visit and even though this market in the heart of the city center appears to be set up for tourists, during the hour we spent here, we were the only people walking around the two dozen stalls. The shopkeepers were friendly, the products were good quality and colorful and the prices were extremely cheap. We ended up buying two small-sized pieces of work and one larger piece (about the size of a coffee table) for a total of $25 USD.

      Taibesi Market – This is the main local market and it’s located about a 10-15 minute drive out of town, at the foot of the mountains. It’s quite large and has everything you’d expect from such a market. And while there weren’t many shoppers there at all (it was basically empty), we had a great time interacting with the various vendors and learning about what they were selling. After meeting one very kind fruit seller, we decided to buy a few of the tasty red bananas he was offering. I handed over $1.00 and he just kept filling up the bag until we had 15 of those bananas. I highly recommend wandering around the market and talking to as many people there as you can!

      Sunset walks – As the sun begins to go down, it’s great to head down to the water and walk along the ‘boardwalk’ or the beach in front of the Novo Turismo Resort and Spa. There’s a few vendors out there selling drinks and coconuts, a few NGO workers jogging around and plenty of benches or stretches of sand to watch the sunset over the water.

      Cristo Rei – A towering statue of Jesus standing on a globe, it was built under Indonesian rule in an attempt to persuade the Timorese to abandon their desire for independence (it failed). Located at the edge of a hilly piece of land that juts out into the sea, there’s a 500 step climb from the parking lot up to the statue. I will say, the views from the statue looking back down towards the coast is beyond spectacular, making the climb up more than worthwhile.

      The drive there isn’t so bad either…

      Jesus Backside Beach – I have no idea what the official name of this beach is but it often is referred to as Jesus Backside Beach because it is the beach located behind the Jesus statue. When you walk back down from the statue towards the parking lot, about half way down you’ll find some steps leading off to the left. Take those steps and in a couple of minutes you’ll be on a beautiful white sand beach! The beach was very empty when we were there, with maybe 5 or 6 locals hanging out, too. There are no facilities, shops or food…it’s just a relatively untouched, super picturesque beach to enjoy, with warm turquoise water and some goats wandering around the sand as well.

      There’s another beach opposite the parking lot of the Cristo Rei statue but that one is right next to the road and didn’t look nearly as impressive as the huge stretch of white sand on the other side.

      DAY TRIPS / EXCURSIONS

      Getting out of Dili is also easy. There are local buses and also the possibility of hiring a guide/driver for a day trip, or longer. Since we had limited time, we hired a local guide, Julio, through Timor Adventures and he was excellent. He really gave us a great deal of insight into every aspect of life in East Timor and was ready to answer every question we had with statistics, personal stories and endless details about the history, politics and social situation of the country.

      Gleno – Julio took us out into the mountains, through the coffee plantations and over to the very quiet town of Gleno. We had a chance to hang out at the Gleno market where, once again, we met super friendly people everywhere we turned. There were no other foreigners here and it seemed like anyone we made eye contact with gave us a big smile and wanted to interact in some way. I could have spent a couple of days in this town, just for the interactions alone.

      Liquica – Coming back out of the mountains, we drove down the coast to the small town of Liquica where we had lunch along the beach and then walked along the sand (again, we were the only people around, with nobody else on this long stretch of beach).

      Maubara – From Liquica we continued further down the coast to Maubara, home of an old Portuguese fort. And even though it’s just the outer walls that are still standing, there’s a small little shop and restaurant inside those walls that is run by a local women’s cooperative. It’s a good place for a coffee, meal or to purchase some hand-made local items at, again, very inexpensive prices. The town also has a small market across from the fort and another stretch of beach without a soul on it.

      While the towns themselves might not seem like the most fascinating places on Earth, they are all worth visiting nonetheless. When traveling to East Timor, the experience is all about learning – about the people, the history and the current situation. And the best way to do that is to simply get out there, travel around and try to interact with as many Timorese as you can.

      All of the people we came across were simply wonderful. Huge smiles, enthusiastic thumbs ups and always a willingness to communicate, despite any language barrier. This is what greeted us every single day, everywhere we went. This is also what made this trip so unique and rewarding.

      For more reading about my travels to East Timor, here’s another post I wrote: What It’s Like to Travel to East Timor

      I hope this travel guide to Dili was useful and I wish you a great trip!

      Any questions? For those familiar with East Timor, any additional information or advice that I can add to this travel guide to Dili?

      The post A Quick Travel Guide to Dili, East Timor appeared first on Wandering Earl.

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      As time goes on, it takes more and more for me to get excited about a destination. Yes, after 18 years of constant travel, I have seen a great deal. And just like anything we do over and over again, travel has just become the norm.

      So, to combat this, I need to head beyond every now and then, I need to cross borders that for one reason or another, feel a little different.

      This was the case with Yemen and even with the Seychelles and with Kyrgyzstan.

      Recently, it was the case when I decided to travel to East Timor (Timor-Leste).

      Travel to East Timor: The Good

      A lot of people have never heard of this country, but…

      East Timor sure is a beautiful place. Mountains, beaches, coffee plantations, lush tropical forests…check, check, check and check.

      East Timor also has some of the friendliest people I’ve encountered anywhere on this planet. Almost everyone we walked by or came across gave us a wide smile or an enthusiastic thumbs up or quick “hello” or “bon dia” or a handshake. There are many ‘friendly’ countries out there but this was WAY over the top.

      The capital city, Dili, offers grand sunsets from the waterfront, a laid-back vibe and an immediate glimpse into Timorese life. It’s not the prettiest of towns but it was real and raw. There are no ultra-fancy shopping malls or built up waterfronts designed just for tourists, that’s for sure.

      When we hailed taxis, not a single taxi driver tried to overcharge us. I don’t think I’ve been to any city where taxis don’t use meters yet they still offer foreigners the normal rate. Of course, the drivers almost never knew the street names, even the main avenues, but we always figured it out with some fun back and forth chatting.

      The drivers also didn’t seem to know that being able to see out the windshield of their vehicle should be a priority…

      During our stay, we also ventured out of Dili. We took a trip, with a local guide, to the town of Gleno, set in the mountains. We drove down the coast to the tiny communities of Liquica and Maubara. We also visited museums, the famous Cristo Rei statue, beaches, markets and a variety of places to eat. And of course, we tried to interact with people wherever we went.

      And to top it off, we didn’t see any other tourists during our stay.

      Yes, when you travel to East Timor, it can indeed be fascinating.

      Travel to East Timor: The Reality

      This is where tourism gets confusing.

      Sure, I could say ‘travel to East Timor, it’s great, everyone should visit!’. But I wouldn’t mean that in the usual way.

      Despite the fact that we did have a good time, that we did meet some wonderfully friendly people, the truth is that going to this country without an interest in digging deeper, without an interest in venturing beyond the beaches, mountains and sunsets, would be a real injustice to the people that call East Timor home.

      As travelers, we tend to avoid this deeper digging. We tend to be quite satisfied labeling destinations based only on our limited experiences and what our eyes, or camera lenses, see. If we’re honest, we’ll admit that it is our pure lack of interest that prevents us from learning what life is really like in a place. We just don’t care enough to learn about the reality behind the sights and food and cafes and cool activities.

      Usually, we just want to have a good time and leave it at that.

      When it comes to East Timor though, I found that it wasn’t possible to just leave it at that.

      Alongside those sunsets and lush mountains were towns and villages full of people without any work. Over 40% of the Timorese population survives (or tries to) on less than $1 USD per day.

      Everywhere we went around Dili and its surroundings we saw and learned about massive, yet failed, projects – failed resorts, failed harbors, failed attractions, failed development schemes – that are now sitting ‘temporarily’ abandoned, billions upon billions of dollars possibly having been wasted.

      All the while, in comparison, the rural communities supposedly receive little attention or assistance, there are slums around Dili without any electricity or sanitation and things such as healthcare and education don’t seem to be high up on the agenda. Locals we spoke with pointed out that the population is being neglected while the government pins its hopes, and the economy, on large-scale, quick-fix solutions that rarely seem to work out.

      The infrastructure is poor at best, trash is piling up, too. Believe me, that stunning white sand beach in the photo at the top of this post has its fair share of plastic bottles scattered all over it.

      Markets were full of stalls yet barely any shoppers. Everywhere you went people were just hanging around with nothing else to do. This is East Timor, too.

      Travel to East Timor: The Challenges

      With a history that involves Portuguese rule starting in 1702, Indonesian occupation from 1975 – 1999, brutal massacres and starvation thrown in, as well as literally being far removed from the rest of the world, it’s understandable that this relatively new country is struggling to get on its feet. It’s only been fully independent since 2002.

      Spending an hour in the Timorese Resistance Archive and Museum (their website is quite barebones) is enough to leave anyone overwhelmed with grief at what the people of this country have had to endure. It’s not pretty.

      Also, the population of just over 1 million people speak a couple of dozen different languages. I imagine it’s quite difficult to create a strong sense of unity or a real identity to build upon when everyone isn’t on the same page in terms of general communication.

      Imagine walking through your capital city. One sign is in Portuguese, the next in Tetum, the next in English and then there’s one in Bahasa Indonesia. Now imagine that you can only speak one, maybe two of those languages, at best. I only met one person, who had the good fortune to be educated in Portugal, that spoke all of the main languages above. There are 14 languages with at least 10,000 speakers and while Portuguese is one of two national languages (the other is Tetum), it’s the first language of only 600 people.

      That’s a challenge.

      It was tough to see so many people struggling in this current situation. A great deal of work needs to be done for it all to improve, however, most Timorese I met were not too hopeful.

      Anyway, this is not a political post. I wanted to travel to East Timor, I went and this post is the first result.

      Travel to East Timor: The AMAZING

      So, I’ll now say this.

      What really is fascinating in this country is not the beaches or mountains or colorful fish swimming around the reefs. It’s the fact that despite all of the above, somehow, almost everyone we met showered us with those beaming Timorese smiles and enthusiastic thumbs up that I will never forget.

      I can barely crack a smile when I feel a little tired or I need to spend an hour sending emails. Quite pathetic when I think about it, I know.

      The word ‘amazing’ is quite overused these days but I really don’t hesitate for a moment to use it in order to describe the kindness and warmth we experienced as we wandered around.

      Amazing.

      I’ll end the post with this. Go and travel to East Timor. Really.

      Enjoy the beaches and mountains and snorkeling and markets and all that. Buy the handmade crafts. They are colorful and impressive and they cost so little. The people need it. They need the money, the jobs, the infrastructure and perhaps even more importantly, they need the awareness of their story.

      The only way to help with that last part is to remember that, wherever you venture in this country, the people all around you have gone through quite an ordeal and are struggling more than you could possibly imagine.

      So be sure to smile back, give a thumbs up, too, introduce yourself and get to know as many people as you can. They are wildly friendly and they would love to interact with you, in whatever combination of languages you can.

      Believe me, it’s these interactions, and what you will learn from them, that will turn your trip to East Timor into a trip like no other. Digging deeper is the key and it should be on every traveler’s itinerary.

      Have you ever thought about traveling to East Timor? Any questions?

      (More details on how to travel to East Timor, getting around, where to stay and more in my next post.)

      The post What It’s Like to Travel to East Timor appeared first on Wandering Earl.

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      It’s January. It’s Monday. I’m on the island of Bali. It’s my 6251st day of travel.

      I’m sitting here at a nice wooden table, with a ceiling fan whirling above my head and a mosquito whizzing around my left ankle. To my right I hear the occasional churning of an espresso machine. Behind me I hear some chatter in accents ranging from Australian to German to American to others my brain is not able to recognize.

      In front of me is a wall with a painting of a man with a unicorn on his head. It says “I believe in unicorn” in blue writing. Behind that wall is the rest of the Dojo Bali co-working space that I’ve been hanging out at lately.

      There’s a swimming pool in the back, a loft, a water dispenser, tables everywhere and some good people working away on their laptops. I think they’re good people anyway, I don’t really know.

      I’m a bit jittery this morning. It’s not the coffee though, as I’ve only had one sip. Maybe it’s because I haven’t done as much exercise lately as I was planning on doing.

      Either way, I need to get some work done.

      Let me check my to-do list for the day:

      – answer emails
      – look at new ways to promote this year’s Wandering Earl Tours
      – clean my flip-flops
      – order a birthday gift for my mom (important!)
      – update my How to Work on a Cruise Ship eBook
      – create a presentation for the workshop I’m giving on Thursday at the co-working space
      – 2pm: Skype call with a travel startup based in Dubai about possibliy becoming an advisor

      And write a blog post. I didn’t actually put that one on the list for some reason.

      Shrimp burrito, please. That’s what I’ll have for lunch. A bunch of people from this co-working space are going to a nearby Mexican restaurant at 1pm. My girlfriend and I will join them. I just pre-ordered a shrimp burrito.

      Oh shoot, speaking of burritos…I need to purchase flights to Dili, East Timor for next week. We need to do a visa run as our current 30 day visa for Bali ends on the 15th of January. The plan is to take the short flight over to East Timor, stay there for 5 days and then come back to the island of Bali for another 30 days afterwards.

      East Timor. Here’s an odd story for you.

      Back in 1998, I ate dinner one night at a Tibetan restaurant on Main Street in the town of Northampton, Massachusetts, USA. There were five of us at that dinner. Two of us were university students and members of the local Students for a Free Tibet chapter, one was a Tibetan woman and the last two were Xanana Gusmao and Jose Ramos-Horta. If you’re not familiar with Xanana and Jose, they would both end up becoming Presidents of East Timor after the tiny nation achieved independence later on, in 2002.

      I don’t even know how I ended up at that dinner. But there was I, eating Tibetan momos and noodle soup with two future presidents of East Timor.

      And now I’m actually going to visit their country. Maybe I should look them up.

      [5 minute break] I’m back. I just sent a message to Jose Ramos-Horta through his Facebook page. Let’s see if he remembers that Tibetan dinner way back then. I doubt it, but you never know! [2 hour break] That shrimp burrito was good.

      During lunch I also had a nice conversation with a guy from Belarus and a soft spoken gentleman from Turkey, both of whom have lived in Chicago and are passing through Southeast Asia. This island of Bali sure is a popular place. We were also invited to a BBQ this weekend by a Lithuanian fellow sitting at our end of the table.

      I’ll tell you this about travel. Once you get out there into the world, it doesn’t take long to realize that everyone is just looking for a place to fit in. Travelers certainly feel joy and belonging just from becoming part of that cool global gang known as, well, travelers.

      After all, there is no initiation or application – as soon as you get on a plane or train or bus, you’re part of the group. You can actually be part of the group before then too, why not?

      – Hey.
      – Hey.
      – You like to travel?
      – Yes I do.
      – Cool.
      – (High five)
      – Boom, we’re travelers!

      But here’s the catch…

      Through my travels, I’ve also realized that fitting in doesn’t really have anything to do with other people at all. Fitting in is more about feeling comfortable with yourself and not deviating from who you are at your core. When we don’t need to alter our behavior and we can stay true to ourselves, that’s when we actually fit in…everywhere.

      And travel does allow us to feel comfortable with ourselves.

      As we constantly interact with people of different nationalities, beliefs, perspectives, interests and personalities, we learn that there is no need to pretend to be someone else or to put on a show or to do anything apart from being who we really are and want to be.

      When we travel, we quickly learn that nobody cares. Nobody cares about our faults and defects and quirks. Most humans just want to meet and interact with genuine people – whether it’s for a few seconds, a few weeks or more – and most people are more than happy to accept anyone just the way they are.

      My coffee is getting cold. Let me take the final sip because here on the island of Bali they love clearing your cups away before you’ve finished.

      I just looked up and noticed that man with the unicorn on his head again. It puts a smile on my face, even though I don’t believe in unicorns.

      Anyway, my conclusion is this – the only group we need to belong to is ourselves. It’s that simple. That’s really how we belong everywhere else.

      I’ve learned this from my travels, through long talks with my girlfriend and in the pages of certain books. And it repeatedly proves itself to be true. The more comfortable I am with myself, the more comfortable I am with everyone else.

      So this is me, Derek Earl Baron: 40-years old, American, long-term traveler, currently on the island of Bali, slightly goofy, not so comfortable dancing, patient, don’t take things too seriously but can be cynical at times, bored easily, curious, always need to strive for more, analytical mind, sometimes talk too much, very part-time yoga practicer, enjoy being around people but prefer meaningful conversations over polite chit chat, vegetarian most of the time, armpit shaver.

      Who are you? Does travel help you be that person? Please share below.

      *Oh, Jose Ramos-Horta (or one of his staff) has read my Facebook message. But no reply yet. Oh well.

      The post Thoughts from a life of travel: Day 6251 – Bali, Indonesia appeared first on Wandering Earl.

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      How could I turn down an offer to visit a remote village in Nepal?

      After all, I’ve known my friend Bhudiman for over 5 years.

      When I first started organizing tours to India back in 2012, I was connected to Bhudiman through a mutual friend and he instantly became my most trusted driver for these group trips. Not only that, despite his limited English and my limited Hindi and Nepali, we became quick friends.

      Bhudiman has now been the main driver for all of the tours that I’ve led to India and my tours would not be the same without him. And while he’s lived in India for over 20 years, he’s originally from Nepal, which he travels back and forth to several times per year in order to spend time with his family.

      He has always invited me to join him in his home village too, but I usually couldn’t fit it into my schedule. So, after a few years of this, Bhudiman put his foot down this year and basically demanded that I visit his home.

      After my Wander Across India tour ended in November, I finally went to Bhudi’s remote village in Nepal and this is how it went

      VIDEO: My Visit to a Remote Village in Nepal

      httpss://youtu.be/uXiSVQhThAU

      The Journey

      To make this trip happen, Bhudiman and I flew from Delhi to Bagdogra, a small town on the opposite side of India. From there we took a bus, followed by a taxi, until we reached the simple border crossing at the town of Kakarbhitta. The Nepali immigration office there consisted of a small, unmanned desk in a dark room. I eventually found an immigration officer out back, I handed over the $25 USD fee and received a 2-week visa in my passport.

      We then took another bus and another taxi until we eventually arrived at Bhudiman’s village, Asculchon, in the Jhapa region of the country.

      I actually can’t even find anything at all about it online. I’m not even sure if Bhudiman is 100% certain that this is the name of his village!

      The Experience

      As you can see, I enjoyed two full days of hanging out with Bhudiman and his family, meeting his brothers and sisters, visiting markets and schools and friends’ homes, riding a motorbike through the countryside, eating wonderful home-cooked food, chatting late into the night, walking through the rice fields, having a drink at the local bar, throwing down dozens of cups of chai, taking bucket showers in the very simple outhouse and basically having such a unique experience that it can barely be put into words.

      It really was beyond memorable.

      Also, Bhudi and his family are always happy to have visitors so if you ever want to visit this village in Nepal too, let me know and we can try to make it happen!

      Have you ever been to a remote village? How was your experience? Is this kind of travel for you?

      The post VIDEO: My Visit to a Remote Village in Nepal appeared first on Wandering Earl.

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