Travel is the Business–The Secret to Creating the Time and Money


I made a goal for myself to go to a new country every year, about 8 years ago.  I travelled to over 100 during that time.  When you combine your passion and your career, what is stopping you.  I believe I can do whatever I want to, as long as there is passion to match the desire.

Question: I am curious about how you finance your trips, though that may be too personal a question to expect someone to explain–maybe instead, ways to travel within a budget….I am also curious as to whether you ever saw a “non-optimal” age for your kids to be traveling.

Joel: In the past nearly all of my trips are paid by my employer.  It started back in 2001.  I was invited to speak as a uniquely qualified expert in a new product that would be called SharePoint.  I was the only one who knew the product in Microsoft IT, and the European field was getting together for an event in Paris.  My manager wanted to go, but my director chose me.  He asked me to travel with him and to get a passport.  It was a unique opportunity or so you’d think.  It’s been repeated hundreds of times for me, but in this instance I had something… knowledge.  That was the difference.  So I packed my bags and got a passport.  My first real trip outside the US, Canada, and Mexico.  I was impressed with the crazy driving, and just about how everything was so different, the food, the culture, the people.  I couldn’t get enough.  I was afraid I’d make someone upset, so I only booked the time of the conference.  It wasn’t until I was headed home, and most of my traveling companions were staying for the weekend that I realized I had missed out on a secret thing known as extending.  There was no taboo for staying over and getting the flight on Sunday evening and spending the whole weekend in Paris instead of an evening or something like that.  I would never make that mistake.  I would always learn to incorporate a bit of adventure into every trip.  It’s the research… You can find out how I plan to travel: Top 10 Way to Prepare for Epic Travel

Now I find I don’t even stay in the city, I’m incorporating multiple events and multiple adventures.  The companies incentive is to support that because it costs less, and they get more out of a single trip.  If I hit London, Paris, and Prague, it’s only 200-300 for the side trips and 600-800 across the pond if not more.

When I was at Microsoft in IT I would get the Marketing product team to pay, I became an exception as someone uniquely qualified to share real world best practices from Microsoft for the field.

When working for Quest software there was value in putting together customer events around the locations I was interested in visiting.  With SharePoint (the product I am an influencer in,) it really is everywhere, and the power of community and my experience of networking and blogging has brought the world very close.  The community is extremely global.

One quick experience: I had made a connection in Egypt. I wanted to see the pyramids and speak at the user group.  I was speaking at a conference in London, and was willing to pay out of pocket to go.  The flight from London to Cairo was around $200-300 and I’m sure I could get a cheap hotel.  Instead I sold the value of speaking to the user group and $400 to reach a new community was worth it.  For me there was huge value in making connections all over the world.  Marwan the user group lead has been a great contact, and I’ve had incredible engagements with him.  He’s since moved to the UK.

That isn’t always true though.  I did pay out of pocket to fly my family to Barcelona and drove to Rome and to Pompeii.  That’s just watching flights to London and Barcelona.  It’s often cheaper to fly to London, and then fly on a discount European airline.  We did that to Morocco and Hungary and drove to Prague.

In Asia as well, I priced out flights to Bangkok one of the cheaper Asian hubs, and we spent most of our time in the mountains.  I often look at the main location of the event and see where I can fly for $300 or under per person.  It’s amazing what you can see in any region for just a little bit more.

Question: How do you make time to go on these adventures? Is your job really lenient and do you have to spend a lot to make these trips? I love to travel but I feel like I won’t be able to if I get a job and so I’ve been trying to research jobs that travel but that was a fail. What’s your strategy? (I’m a recent college graduate and I want to travel!!! Start my own adventures!!!)

Let me take this with each of my jobs.  While at MS, I would be working while traveling speaking at the conferences, and when the event is over each night or on the weekends I would be in travel mode.  I would also occasionally use vacation time or work while on the road, that was the more common thing while at Quest.  When I was at Quest software I’d be on the road for weeks at a time going from event to event, and often there would be lunches, or dinners or events and lots of filler time when I’d be doing email, working on strategies, and what things really turned to was anytime I was spending with my friends who were influencers became gray area.  Work and Play became a very thick gray area.  Now I have a hard time speaking to my arrangement because it’s one that I arranged with my boss.  There was more value to MS and Quest, and while now at the LDS Church, I believe the value is in me as an influencer and keeping connected with the community.  It doesn’t matter whether I bring a Book of Mormon with me, as that’s a different department.  I appreciate the flexibility I do have, and try not to abuse it.  Essentially I fit in extreme travel a few times a year, some of it is vacation time, and some of it is “training” or admin time.

Even if money was no object, then it’s time.  I have found that as long as my family has a big trip they are looking forward to, I can get away with some pretty incredible trips.  That’s a secret.  We’re planning on a southern Caribbean cruise, so my trip to Africa doesn’t seem as big of a deal.

Question: I also discovered Joel’s blog on yahoo and i think he is just a millionaire spending his fortune travelling the world…or maybe as he says he has some strategies that i would kindly ask him to share with us so that we can all share his experience of travel around the world or shall i say reading the full length of a book from page one to the last..

Let’s take one of my recent trips.  SLC->Frankfurt->Athens->TelAviv/Ramallah->Cyprus->Thessaloniki->London->Berlin->Tallin (Estonia)->Riga->Lithuania->Minsk->Kiev->Odessa(Ukraine)->Vienna->Bled(Slovenia)->Ljubljana->SLC

That trip happened in less than 2 weeks included 3 events that each helped cover the flights.  I shared hotels in a number of cities with friends, and ultimately spent about as much on food as I would at home. My other secret is I spend my blog sponsor/advertising money on community travel, so that’s hotel rooms, food, and expenses.  It’s all part of my business and offsets the taxes for my business.  My business is travel.  My SharePoint blog has done so well, that the ads do more than $1500 / month, and the reviews I do make more than that.  It’s a nice supplement for my travel budget, and ultimately the family cruise this summer will be paid by blog money. 

Travel tip: If travel becomes part of your business & work… the flights, hotels, and so forth become tax deductible.  Make your blog or writing, or pictures into your business.  Truth is I find that blogging, photos, videos (thanks penguin) and gathering the memories and networking is extremely valuable.  Traveling all over the world is more enjoyable connecting with people before hand through blogs, facebook, twitter and so on provide opportunities that otherwise would not be available.  No reservations is definitely how things happen.  I am a very risk taking kind of guy.  I’ve stayed with friends in Jordan, Israel, and stayed in $6 hostels in Cambodia and Indonesia.  (Not when I’m with my kids.)

Question: I just discovered your blog through yahoo’s post of your penguin vid, and since I’ve always had an interest in traveling, I subscribed via email. My very first question is the same as Sam’s – financing travel. That is the single my dreams of travel haven’t come to fruition. I look forward to reading your blogs, but I especially look forward to reading that particular blog when you write it.

Speaking at conferences as suggested above, it’s not big money, in fact the money will help you cover your main expenses and that’s if you’re a great speaker.  In the beginning I’d negotiate with the speaker manager and sometimes just get the flight covered and then work out sharing a room, or pay that part out of pocket.  To get started you speak for free, and network like crazy.  You find out who the influencers are and get to know them on a personal level.  The speakers in my community are a very tight group, we end up all connected to each other, so reputation and clout are huge.  Don’t burn bridges.  We help each other, including helping out those who run the events.  I am always disappointed when I don’t get invited, but rather than stew… I make sure the event manager knows I am interested for next year, and make sure I’ve got well prepared very early submitted sessions.  A bad reputation for doing a bad job, sticks around a long time.  A lot of that world is about timing, and who you know.  I don’t think that’s much different between industries.  My job is knowing who is doing what, and making sure they know where I stand.  Speaking in Bulgaria or Slovenia, or really anywhere on the planet is the trick.  There was an event in Bangladesh, and I was so upset I wasn’t invited even though there wasn’t anyone outside Bangladesh that was there.  I reached out to the coordinator and said, hey… I would like to speak at your next event.  Even if I can’t make it, I will make an effort.  It’s on my list of places I want to visit, and even though they couldn’t afford my flight, I may be able to find a sponsor that would want me there, and I may be able to work it out with my travel schedule.  My schedule being something that provides balance with family life, my 9-5 world, and my passion for travel that is always there.  I’ve found that my travel junkiness starts wearing off after 2 weeks of constant travel.  3 weeks without my family and I’m spent without some serious stimulation.

If you read my post on frequent flier miles, you’d see that getting the flight in coach doesn’t mean you’ll fly in coach.  There are strategies of getting status and keeping it, and leveraging those miles when you need to.

At this point I do believe I could fly free to anywhere in the world, because I know someone in that area that would have connections to vendors or events in that area.  I have a short list of places I’d like to visit and connect with people on twitter in my community in those areas.  It really is a Win/Win.  I get to visit the area and connect with the community to really understand the culture.

Lesson:  My business is speaking at conferences, money paid for sponsors on my blog/product reviews, social media consulting, I’m hoping to build not just the technical blog, but my travel blog to where I’m working with the National Geographic and Discover, and Travel Channel or vendors like ScottVest and whether it’s videos, pictures, articles or whatever, I’m partnering in that world and doing what I love.  I Love Travel and I love SharePoint which equals enterprise social networking, collaboration and Intranets… it’s awesome, but I like putting eggs in a couple of baskets, and I welcome more engagement in travel and money making ventures with vendors through this blog as the audience grows and is engaged in my trips.

My advice to anyone reading this would be to get involved.  Start a blog, start sharing your photos, videos, and begin networking.  SEO goes up with engagement.  That’s what the Google Penguin is asking for and that’s what the baby penguin delivered.  

This is what I’ve lined up for the rest of 2012:

  • I’m doing the Southern Caribbean in August including nearly a week in Puerto Rico. – Family trip, but I’ll likely be hooking up with a friend in PR.  I’ve been there once before on a speaking engagement (paid travel) that was a giveaway.  Great story for another time… a post on Puerto Rico. 
  • I’ll be doing South Africa, Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, and that region including a hike up the mighty Mt. Kilimanjaro.  Sponsorships are coming together…
  • I’ll be doing Slovenia, Tunisia and Malta and possibly Gaza – I’ve got a sponsor for the long haul and for Gaza.  Looking for sponsors to help me get to Tunisia and Malta.

10 Tips to Preparing for Traveling Epic


Chichen Itza - Traveling with my baby Dean
Chichen Itza – Traveling with my baby Dean

It’s important to listen to your readers as a blogger.  I was asked a direct question over Facebook and felt it was worth explaining and would make a good blog.  Here’s the question…

I was wondering if you could do a post where you share tips on how you prepare before you travel to a location. For example, I’ll be travelling to Toronto in a few weeks. Do you have a method you use before each trip to find out the “must see” locations and events going on at each location? Any details you could share in a post would be awesome. I really like your “immersion” approach to travelling.

1. Minimalist packing – I think think this is a key strategy.  Some people spend weeks to planning what’s in their bags, and end up worrying about all the junk they brought with them.  I literally don’t bring anything that I couldn’t spare to lose.  My phone is the likely exception to that, cause the cheap netbook I often carry with me for presentations is cheaper than my phone… by a long shot.  It’s also very light.  My goal is to fit everything in a Ogio backpack with a laptop slot.  I’ve done 2 weeks in a backpack.  I often bring another bag on the way home with stuff I bring home, but even that has gotten smaller and smaller.  I collect masks, and often bring so unless it’s a really good mask.  One of the tricks that not everyone could use… I’ve used that works for nearly all airlines is to bring a bag that looks like a bag that was stuff you purchased at the airport.  So every checkpoint it doesn’t really count as a bag.  Worst case I attach it to my backpack by tying it on, or rolling it up and stuffing it in. There’s always more room.

2. Twitter & Facebook – Research comes from friends on social networks, not just people I’ve met. I do enjoy posting where I’m planning on going on twitter.  It’s amazing the responses I’ll get from people who are passionate about the area.  My trip to Cappadocia Turkey to the underground city of Derinkuyu would have been very different had I not had a few conversations on twitter that encouraged me to go it alone.  I felt very comfortable understanding what I was getting into.  Knowing a local also made me feel comfortable bouncing ideas that I was planning. Thanks @captcappadocia

3. Lonely Planet – Some of the best destinations on the planet are featured and covered in the Lonely Planet guides.  I’ve personally bought a couple of them when I’m crazy committed to a place.  When I visited India, I really wanted to research the culture, the cities, the palaces, and I really didn’t want to miss anything!  One of the worst things ever is knowing I went to a place and I missed the most important thing.  There are iphone/ipad apps for lonely planet that you can download and take offline.  You can also buy books for your kindle and read them along the way.  Research on the culture. the festivals, and local research about a place is helpful, but you don’t need a book for every place you’re going.  I didn’t tell you this, but copying the pages of the city or region you’re going to is a lot more light weight.  Those books have a lot of research for places you won’t see.  I learned this from a traveller who was carrying the lonely planet guide pages for Cappadocia region of turkey.  Nice!  The online site has great research, communities and helpful forums.  I personally will copy paste things I like, and put them on a word or notepad page, I include pictures as I mention in more detail in #7 below.

4. VirtualTourist.com – Speaking of most important – I use the virtual tourist top “Things to Do” as a checklist.  I read through the descriptions on 10-20 of them and find what people are saying about a place and then decide what are the things I would like most.  Often I’ll add 5 or so of the top 10.  Many of them are the things you MUST do at a place, but I’ll also include the day trip type content, and often use the map to see what cities or towns are nearby and plug those into Virtualtourist.com.  What it does not do well is tell you what is nearby.  Those day trips some times reveal what’s good nearby, but often it will only tell you boring things if you pick a boring town.  Research does not conclude from virtual tourist, it is early research to help me know where to start.  Virtual Tourist in Albania taught me that Tirana is an under the radar tourist destination, and a lot of people didn’t like it, but I also found Durres, an ancient roman port town was only 45 minutes away.  Looking up that town, I found all sorts of things I wanted to see, but I also found key historical things I shouldn’t miss in Tirana.

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Russia Travel Rocks – St Petersburg to Majestic Moscow

Red Square Moscow

Russia is just the most amazing place.  Part of this for me is just the pure history of the last century, but also it’s just so prominent on the globe.  Russia has been so imperial.  So majestic.  So mysterious. There’s the crazy cold war, and my favorite the space race.  Forget about the arms race, although I really do need to visit Chernobyl.  I did fly over it on a jet on my way out of Moldova. Can you believe it? The US is now hitching rides with the Russians into space to the international space station.  Amazing how the dynamics themselves have definitely changed.  At least the space people are collaborating.

Red Square - State Historical Museum

When I was growing up I remember looking for places to hide just in case the Russians came.  There was the attic, and the potato cellar.  Either way Russians were always the enemy, but in church we would talk about when Russia would be open for the preaching of the gospel.  The end of the world would come shortly after missionaries entered Russia, or so it would seem. Ronald Regan had that big arms race thing.  The “Wall” comes down and shortly Russia would be open for preaching of the gospel.  I’d hear of friends who would go there on their missions.  There was stories that reached all the way to Idaho about the first McDonalds in Russia and how lines wrapped around the block or worse.  Fast forward a few years, and I’m a minority on a Russia majority software company up in Seattle.  I find these “refugees” are amazing, and I’m fascinated with their culture.  I never hated Russians, just fascinated by their culture and the communist machine.  So many stories about how we should be extremely worried about anything that had anything to do with it.  Living in Seattle, I’d find a HUGE Leningrad Lenin at a coffee shop.  There was even communist magazines and articles in Fremont area in Washington, that made it seem almost cool to be communist, because it was racy.  Why do I give you this terse background story?  Because going to Russia is a HUGE rush.  Most American’s have some weird ideas of what it would be like to go to Russia.  How dangerous it might be, what might happen.  The crazy Russian Mafia stories.

First thing I had to do as an American was getting the Russian Visa.  It was the longest visa form I’ve ever filled out.  I started having doubts that they might not admit me.  It’s not just asking about my passport details and where I’m going… It gets into my parents and grandparents on both sides.  It asks about every country I’ve visited plus dates, that’s a pretty good list that ends up being pretty complex.  Despite the complexity and the couple of weeks it took.  I get the visa!!  I’m on my way to Russia.  What’s better I’ve got colleagues in St. Petersburg and I’ve got a SharePoint user group meeting setup in Moscow.  So work is paying for hotels, and all I’ve got to do is cover a train ticket from St. Petersburg to Moscow.  The Nevsky express!  Strangely about a week after that train ride that same train would get blown up and derailed by Chechen Rebels. Crazy.

St Petersburg Church of Spilled Blood

Pictured Above:  One of my favorite buildings in St Petersburg is the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. This Church was built on the site where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated and was dedicated in his memory.

Continue reading “Russia Travel Rocks – St Petersburg to Majestic Moscow”

Secrets of Cambodia from Angkor Wat to the Killing Fields

Tomb Raider

The largest religious complex in the world.  Angkor Wat is one of the most amazing structures in the world.

Sure, Karnak in Luxor, Egypt is the largest religious structure, but Angkor Wat stretches over miles and miles including many many buildings.  I’d like to see a comparison of Tikal to Angkor Wat.  It’s a UNESCO world heritage site for good reason.  The complex itself was built 1110-1150.  It’s estimated it would take 300 years to do today, but took 40 years back then with thousands of workers brining in stones from all over.  Ok, read more on Wikipedia article on Angkor Wat beyond my research… If this was the only building that was constructed it would still be one of the most amazing in the world, but it is among 74 others in the complex of buildings many many miles apart.

This is definitely a bucket list item.  A New Seven Wonders runner up.  One of the most amazing places in the world!

Continue reading “Secrets of Cambodia from Angkor Wat to the Killing Fields”

Rock the Kasbah, Marrakesh Morocco


Let’s go back in time… to a more simple time, with rich flavor, and a close knit community.  Imagine the farmers near your home growing your food, you go to the market and find things that are both grown locally, but with no chemicals, and any meat you eat you can first look it in the eyes.  Go back in time with me to Morocco, I’m you’re guide Joel of Arabia.

I also wrote up about travel in Fez another look at time travel back 2000 years.

Ait Ben Haddou - Donkey Ride

We rode donkeys across the river and helped a Berber trader write a post card to his friend.  He’d been traveling across the Sahara for the last few weeks.

 

One of the most fascinating things about Morocco is the fact that at times you definitely feel like you’re in another world completely.  There are time warps you jump through as you see different parts of Morocco.

One place you must visit is the Atlas mountains.  The people of the mountains live like they do in Tibet.  They live off the land.  They eat their animals.  Life off the land despite the harsh conditions.  They walk up crazy steep slopes along goat and sheep trails.  This is the kind of place where if you visit a family, they may take a goat out and slaughter it for the meal in honor of your visit.  The culture is rich, the people are fascinating, and their lives reflect our heritage and history of 1000s of years ago.  What you expect to find in Jerusalem of the old way of doing things is in Morocco.  Part of that reason is literally hundreds of Christian films use this area for their life of Christ movies including, Jesus of Nazareth (1977) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).

Kasbah

 

An incredible day trip you MUST do is to visit the UNESCO world heritage site of kasbah-town of Aït Benhaddou. The city looks like it’s 2000 years old, and many of these buildings feel that old, and are built like they were.  It was used as a backdrop for more than 20 films including Films such as The Mummy (1999), Gladiator (2000), Kingdom of Heaven (2005), and the recent Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011).

One of the most important fortress strongholds on the old Salt Road where camel caravan traders brought slaves, gold, ivory and salt from Saharan Africa to Marrakech and beyond.  You gotta get out of the city and you can really see amazing things on the trip over the mountain to Ouarzazate.  Pronounced War-za-zot. These include trips to Zagora, an oasis town surrounded by palm tree plantations and a departure point for camel trains to Timbuktu, a journey that would take about 52 days. (Not yet recommended)  Careful on multi country treks as the Algerian border is some times closed.  Most would consider the 1 day, 3 day and 7 day caravan trips.

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The Berber people are from the desert.  They are nomads.  They trade and barter.  Every Berber has things he wants to show you, and you are his guest.  He’ll invite you in for some amazing and sweet mint tea.  As his guest he will roll out his dozens of carpets, and show you his finest jewelry.  It’s customary for him to show you everything, and you pick out various things you like, and then the bartering begins.  It’s natural for it to start out high, and then as you negotiate, you can take things out and barter for the things you really really want.  It seems like with me, I always win and they always tell me I’m a shrewd trader.  After that, they make me feel at home and we exchange gifts.  It’s good to bring something small from home that you can give to his wife, like makeup or perfume, or something for his kids.  It’s a bit embarrassing when he gives you a gift and wonders if you have something for his wife.   Be more prepared than I was.  One strategy I’ve learned from berbers and taxi drivers around the world is they like to be right, but they want to make sure you’re happy.  Learn that you don’t have to have the last say, and you’ll make your host a lot happier and you’ll get much better service even if you are a very shrewd trader.  In Morocco it’s not unusual to get 70-80% off.  I got some incredible massive fossils for about $20 and less.  The prices often start in the 100-200 range.  Something in the states that would cost me closer to $100.  One thing you do learn is you don’t ask the price unless you really want the item.  That often means, don’t ask unless you want to spent the next 10 minutes bartering.  It’s not customary to just make one offer and walk away.  They like the sit down and relax… you are my guest kind of bartering, not I’ll make you an offer and then walk away.

 

You feel like you must be Lawrence of Arabia, or the Prince of Persia a couple more of the many films that was filmed here. Be sure to wanted around Ouarzazate an important trading city on the edge of the Sahara desert. Get lost in the old Kasbah.

222596_4954813782_1933_nI encourage you to get a variety.  Across everywhere you’ll visit there are few shops with set prices, and even more rare in the villages.  For food you don’t have to do  bartering.  If you’ve ever had Moroccan food in your life you’ve likely either eaten dates and finger food on large platters sitting on big cushions and relaxing to music.  When the main dish comes out it’s smothered in amazing stewed carrots, zucchini, or egg plant including lamb, beef or chicken with the tender meat cooked in large clay pots over coos coos.  This earthen method makes it all very tender.  Incredible food.  As we ate we watched to storks making a lot of noise in a massive nest.  The city is made of the soil as well baked mud bricks… the pottery is everywhere.  Pride in every bite.

You can eat at a fine restaurant and spend $50 for amazing Moroccan food or spend $2 and pick the meat in skewers and sit under a tent near the square.  As well, stop at a café for a an amazing meal.  The salads are fantastic with fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, black and green olives and of course Oranges!  An incredible Mediterranean meal.  I hear you can even get camel meat.  Andrew Zimmern style meals are within reach, but even without stretching your pallete, you can have some of the freshest, best food you’ve ever tasted.  I seriously think we have a LOT to learn from the simple ways.  Our food has been messed up, and Marrakech and surrounding area and likely much of Morroco has got it right.  Western Europe and the US is missing out.  There are now restaurants who try to mimic this, that try to get back to eating local, but they may be missing elements.  The owners would do well to spend some time in Morocco to learn what it is that makes the difference.  There is something to be said of organic, locally grown, no chemicals, and that connection with the earth that’s in the oven, in the pots, and the open flame.  Turkey, Bulgaria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Israel… there are others that have this figured out as well.

 

Djemma El Fna – Currently my favorite market in the world! I LOVE the town square of Marrakech. Before there was TV, Radios, Phones, and iPads.  A thousand years ago, on the edge of civilization there was a mystical place.  A place with story tellers, snake charmers, acrobats, fresh fruit juices made by hand with fruit from the trees in the town you were in.  This place still exists!  Every day after my trips around the city, I would end my day in this place.  It was packed with locals.  The best nuts and juice in the world is available for the taking.  One amazing thing about Marrakech is the fresh smell of Orange.  The trees that line the streets are Orange trees.  I don’t know a city anywhere else where Orange trees are scattered throughout the city.  It’s like Johnny Appleseed had a counterpart in Marrakech and all he did his whole life was plant Orange trees in this one city.  While I’m sure it could make a mess in some cities here they gather them up and there is fresh orange juice anywhere you want.  We paid 35 cents (.35 USD) for our glass of orange Juice.  It continues to be the best glass of orange juice I’ve had in my life!

 

The square is filled with locals listening to these stories and watching what’s going on.  I wish I could be invisible and watch the goings on of that square.  Instead, I walk up to see the crazy acrobat, similar to those “artists” who do tricks or play music in most large cities around the world and collect money, but I barely get a chance to see what the tricks are, and they are up in my face asking me for some money.  Despite the fact that I’m happy to contribute a coin.  I just visited an ATM and I have no change.  No money no show, but wait I haven’t seen anything yet.  Tip: bring small change, and expect for them to seem a little insulted, but really that’s just the whole bartering pattern.  I’m sure if you gave them a dollar or more they’d be much happier, but maybe it doesn’t matter.  The first answer is always to ask for more in that culture.  Either way, I come back later with change, and I am fascinated by the diversity of what comes.

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It’s cool to see the cobras being charmed and then a harmless water snake strung around my neck without asking for it… Yes, I’ve seen a snake before, but I’m happy just watching you charm the Cobras.  Really it is an amazing place, but there are surprises.  You’ll see things here you won’t see anywhere else.  Just like mimes that want money from you if you take there picture, there’s these very colorful characters I call the Water guys, who want the equivalent of a dollar/euro/pound for a picture.  If you sneak a picture be really careful they don’t notice.  I didn’t pay.

One guy on the square is “the dentist.”  He has his crude tools to pull out your tooth.  Of course you go back a hundred years and a guy like this could come in handy.  He’ll really take care of that aching tooth.  He has a few hundred teeth to prove he really will do it.  If you look at his collection of teeth pulling equipment and hear his story, you should contribute to the cause.

Clips from our family trip…

Not far from the square is the souks and the medina.  The Old city.  I love telling people that if you went back in time, it would be no different than walking through these old streets.  The souks are walking only winding alleyways of a sort where you can go to amazing shops, and markets and see how the people lived 1000 years ago.  There are a lot of locals who are happy to be you’re guide for a small fee.  If someone wants to show you around, you can tell them, I don’t need a guide… but expect to be asked 5-10 more times.  I found I would get someone who spoke good enough english and negotiate some time.  It was worth it.  We visited a bakery, where the there is a community adobe oven where people who need a stove do their cooking old school.  There’s the chicken place where you can pick out your live chicken.  Simply tell them which one you want and how much preparation you want.  One word.  FRESH.  Just like the high end stores where you can pick out your fish.  Here you can get a chicken to take home with you…

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As well, we came by the baths and water place.  People come from all over to collect water to bring home.  It reminds me of the lady by the well, in Christ’s time.  People come water their animals, but also collect water for drinking.  The homes really are for sleeping.  The entertainment is in the streets, why do you need a kitchen when you can get it all fresh and local?  The people are simple, but it’s amazing to me the principles of life they live.  They eat better than we do, they eat local, they eat food that has been gathered or grown within less than 20 miles of the city.

As you wander the city don’t be afraid to slow down, and talk with the people.  They want to talk to you.  They are very interested in where you come from and how you are enjoying yourself.  Slow down and enjoy the mint tea.  There’s a fast pace of the city and there’s the slow pace of the desert.  Both of these cultures clash to make Marrakech as rich as the dyes in the colors of the carpets.  If you feel so inclined you can visit the place where they mix the dyes.  Again a place that will take you back thousands of years.

 

Marrakech MosqueLose yourself.  That’s the goal.  Go back in time.  There are so many adventures to be had here.  This is a place with a different pace, but also various modes of transportation.  Getting off the plane at the Marrakech airport, we were rushed off in a taxi that seemed put together with bailing twine.  You don’t just have to take taxis, in contrast to the western world where a carriage brings up memories of being a Prince and Princess.  Here a carriage is a good alternative transport.  There is no difference in price.  They both can be negotiated with.  When you slow your pace, you’ll definitely have to give it a shot.  It’s an oldie, but goodie.

The’s one story of Marrakech, that blows my mind, and my eyes.  The Saadian tombs were build in the 16th century, and lost to the world.  They were rediscovered in 1917 with a fly over.  Can you believe that?  A 15 minute walk from the town square and these tombs were simply walled off.  The colored tiles are beautiful and intricate designs.

Call to prayer echoing over the city, some westerners may be intimidated in this Arabian city.  Personally I think the singing brings an element that helps remind me I’m not at home anymore.  That’s a very good thing.  Jews live side by side with Muslims.  The locals tattoo themselves with their faith.  The door handles and markings on the hundreds of year old doors in the old city.  You can tell a lot about the people.  Marrakech is an old capital city and center of a major trade route a very old trade route that would bring in goods from Africa and goods from across the desert.  If you feel so inclined you can spend a week on a real desert excursion into the Sahara.  Live with the Berbers, live like the Bedouin people.image

Camels are majestic animal.  They meant the difference between death and survival in the desert.  An animal that was built for the conditions.

 

If you see a large group of camels.  The people with them will give you a small ride for a price.  There is actually very little difference in price for an hour ride and getting on for a picture.  They’ll get you loaded up and walking and tell you the price doesn’t matter.  It’s a good price for you.  Travel Tip: Always always negotiate before you get on the camel’s back.  It’s in their interest to have you think price doesn’t matter.  Negotiating Similar to the carriage ride.  They don’t know that you know that they are willing to take a local price.  Sometimes it even helps to say… I don’t want tourist prices, I want local prices.  The price will drop in half or more.  For camels you can end up paying easily $50 USD if they get their first price.  Instead be willing to walk away and you can get a good ride for $5.  They’ve been standing out in the heat, they want something fair, and depending on the time of day and how business has been really impacts their willingness to accept various prices.

Morocco, is one of the richest accessible and inaccessible place in the world.  It’s a world of extremes.  It’s the place of adventure.  Just the name sparks imagination of a country of Muslims poorly portrayed in Babel.  While I loved the scenes of Morocco in Babel, I fear the stereotypes create walls and prevent people from experiencing the richness that is so accessible.  Morocco is a bridge to our brothers in the Middle East.  If the western world is to ever understand the Arabic world, it begins by understanding, and the spice of Morocco is an incredibly colorful place to start.  As France struggles with it’s imperial past, and seeks to understand what it’s future is Christian, Jew, and Muslim have much to learn from the gateway to the Sahara.

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Pictured Above: My boys are getting a personal tour of the mosque from one of the boys of the souks.  They didn’t speak the same language, but they did communicate… volumes.

Chichen Itza Mayan Masterpiece Pyramid Perfection and Wonder of the World (6 of 7)

pyramids of chichen itza

Visit of Christ to the Americas

This post is in a series of 7 posts on the 7 Wonders of the New World

 

When I was planning our Cancun vacation, my wife was thinking… we’ll chill on the beach at an all inclusive resort, and I was thinking… we’ll grab a rental car and pick up as many of the Mayan temples as possible within a 2 week period.  Finally I can see one of the 7 finalists of the new 7 Wonders of the World – Chichen Itza.  As a traveller I was anxious to see real wonders of the ancient world. I love temples, I love archeology, and I love the mystery that surrounds these massive new world temples. I also was incredibly interested in Tulum on the coast, and my ultimate Tikal the Mayan Capital.  We know so little about the Mayans, but I was surprised to find out they weren’t totally wiped out.  There is a group of Mayans that give the tours in Tulum, and they speak the ancient Mayan language.  It’s so, so sad that the culture has so much of who they were.  They lost everything.  A few documents recently were rediscovered in Germany referred to as the Mayan Dresden Codex.  Mayan Temple of Chichen ItzaWhich some point to as the source of the 12, 21, 2012 apocalyptic date or the beginning of 1000 years of peace, but “A German expert who says his decoding of a Mayan tablet with a reference to a 2012 date denotes a transition to a new era and not a possible end of the world as others have read it…The interpretation of the hieroglyphs by Sven Gronemeyer…He said the inscription describes the return of mysterious Mayan god. Continue reading on Examiner.com German Mayan researcher’s 2012 conclusions.  Cool.  Beginning of the end of the world or return of a Mayan god… Bearded white god?  (By the way, ask to see the rock carving of the bearded god at Chichen Itza.  It’s pretty cool.  If it’s Lief Erickson or Jesus or insane stone carver it’s mind numbing given the carvings all around it.  Seriously fun stuff.  You gotta enjoy the speculation and not get too caught up either way, since we can’t know.

While I don’t think the end will happen in December 2012 (No one is suppose to know the day or hour when Jesus is coming back Matthew 24:36), I have used it as an opportunity to be prepared for disaster.  In my church, we have been asked to have a year supply of food on hand in case of disaster.  It has paid off with members all over the world.  As recent as the tsunami in Japan and earthquake in Hati, the members who obeyed have been blessed. As a member of the LDS Church there is a fascinating Book of Mormon back story of Christ in the Americas and Artists often paint pictures of Christ appearing to the righteous people in 3 Nephi 11 with the back drop of Tulum.  There are Mormon tours all over this region.  In fact we discovered that more Mayan Temple of Tulumthan 30% of the guides in Tulum were Mayan members of the LDS Church.  It’s understood that there really hasn’t been any LDS revelations on the locations, and anything discovered is purely speculation.  Our guide at Tulum was actually a Mormon Bishop named Mosiah.  It was a quick tour, which really didn’t add any info on what we had already got from our tour in Chichen Itza.  He shared pictures of Tulum where light shines through specific building on April 6th, and sold us a tree of life medallion.  Great stories.  Amazing place.  While I didn’t necessarily subscribe to all he shared, I was fascinated with the history of the Mayans, he being one himself.  The PC accepted story is that Mayan calendar simply points toward a new era.  Great.  Others are looking for the Age of Aquarius.

Dean%2520taking%2520it%2520inThese grandios temples are mucho bueno.  Very incredible.  Left: My trooper, Dean at Chichen Itza.  This is 3 of 7 New Wonders for him.  He’s been to Machu Picchu and the Great Pyramids in Egypt.

Travel Tip: I do recommend highly recommend seeing Chichen Itza.  I do recommend getting a negotiated tour there.  There are some inscriptions and history that you’d miss otherwise.  There are a lot of things to point out in the area.  There are half a dozen buildings and a great ball court area, and you need to know more about the rules of that game and what happens to the winners and losers.  Those stories you must hear.  There’s a lot of inscriptions and interpretations and stories you need to hear.  We got the 2 hour guided tour, that we negotiated on the spot after we arrived.  It wasn’t too outrageous.  There are a lot of people that can give tours, so shop around and negotiate.  Don’t take the first rate you hear.  Many hotels in Cancun can arrange transport and tour as well.  Just don’t over pay.  There is a lot of cushion.  In relation to Cancun both Tulum and Chichen Itza are both day trips. There is a toll road all the way to Chichen Itza from Cancun. You’ll pay 20-30 USD for that trip one way! We decided we’d take the scenic route on the way there, and hurry back. It is a difference of about an hour. You can get to other ruins as well including Coba. I didn’t make it to Coba, we were with my wife’s family and Jeff got sick, so we missed out on that one, but that’s ok because my eye was on the ultimate prize of Tikal, Jaguar temple the largest temples in the new world.  In contrast to Chichen Itza, I do not recommend the tour in Tulum.  The buildings are a lot smaller, things are close and if you did this one after doing Chichen Itza there’s a lot of overlap.  Our tour may have ultimately been 15 minutes of explanation and he didn’t even walk the whole thing with us.  Don’t miss the views from either side of the temple near the water.  There are some great photo shots by of Tulum by the water.  Another reason to do your research of Tulum ahead of time and get the guided tour at Chichen Itza.

Continue reading “Chichen Itza Mayan Masterpiece Pyramid Perfection and Wonder of the World (6 of 7)”

Collect Miles – Travel the World Free!

Beach Airplane

One thing is sure. If you travel, you must quickly figure out where to acquire miles and have a strategy.

My strategy is I want to be upgraded, I want to be in the lounge, and I want entertainment and extra room.  Boarding early is fine, but the ability to take whatever problem I have into the lounge to get it resolved in a short line vs. the line at the gate is a HUGE difference.  The ability to call a priority phone line on any airline that gives you respect and often gives you the benefit of the doubt really makes a big difference.  In my travels it is very frequent that status has made the difference in our ability to have flexibility.

It took me 2 years to realize I was acquiring miles on 5 or 6 airlines where I could have reduced them to a max of 3 airlines one in each category.  Ideally you should pick one as your main program, but cost and location play into this game.  The programs and treatment are NOT created equally.

The first thing to understand is that 60% of world’s airlines revolve around 3 Major Alliances, and really in the U.S. and Europe I’d suggest it’s much higher than that.

Star Alliance

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Adria Airways, Aegean Airlines, Air Canada, Air China, Air New Zealand, ANA, Asiana Airlines, Austrian Airlines, Blue1, Brussels Airlines, Croatia Airlines, EgyptAir, Ethiopian Airlines, LOT Polish Airlines, Lufthansa, SAS, Singapore Airlines, South African Airways, Swiss International Air Lines, TAM Airlines, TAP Portugal, Thai Airways International, Turkish Airlines, United Airlines (merged with Continental), US Airways

Coming Soon: 2012: Avianca, TACA, Copa Airlines, Shenzhen Airlines 2013: EVA Airways

One World

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American, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Qantas, Iberia, Finnair, LanChile, Japan Airlines, Royal Jordanian, Dragonair, LAN, including a variety of subsidiaries.  Malev and Mexicana are members, but stopped operations.

Coming soon: 2012: Malaysia Airlines soon: Kingfisher Airlines

SkyTeam

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Aeroflot, Aeroméxico, Air Europa, Air France, Alitalia, China Airlines, China Eastern Airlines, China Southern Airlines, Czech Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Kenya Airways, KLM, Korean Air, TAROM, Vietnam Airlines

Coming soon:  2012: Aerolineas Argentinas, Middle East Airlines, Saudi Arabian Airlines, Xiamen Airlines 2013: Garuda Indonesia,

My experience and preferences:

United – While United economy can easily be put down, and be seen as average or less, their mileage program is tops in the U.S.  After a friend of mine was sharing his experience as 1K, I put empahsis on making it my preferred program.  It was consistent upgrades and choices in United plus seating.  I got upgraded both ways to Cancun and Hawaii and was able to get a family member upgraded in both of those cases.  I had no problems getting into the very common United lounges all over the world.  Word of Caution: Miles can expire after 18 months of inactivity. 25,000 miles earns you Premier status with two bags free and unlimited domestic upgrades, but If you fly over a million miles with United or its partners (flying like George Clooney in “Up in the Air”), you’ll get lifetime elite status and other exclusive rewards.  Get into the 1K program and I truly believe you’re in the best program in the U.S. and the vouchers and handling you’ll get will really make you feel like a king.  Internationally Singapore Airlines, Turkish Airlines, New Zealand Air are Tops, the Turkish Lounge in Istanbul and Luftansa lounge in Frankfurt are both the best in the world.  You don’t always have to pick United planes, as an example, Air Canada has much better entertainment.  As well, a long haul international flight to Europe or Asia or Australia you are often better served on the International airlines I’d pick a Singapore Air any day over a United plane.  It always serves you to do your research.

Delta – Great domestic program, very frequent upgrades, the trick has been to check in early… as soon as that 24 hour reminder comes.  While I got into international lounges just fine, I never got any international upgrades.  The rollover miles has helped as well.  Basically if you get lots of miles past the top program they would roll over into the next year.  One thing that slowed that down was the Platinum and Diamond programs.  While Delta and Air France are aligned I’ve definitely seen mistakes between the two companies including on a recent trip.  I spoke to Delta where I have status to change my flight and while they said they made the change, Air France couldn’t see the change.  These mistakes cost me $500 and nearly a missed flight.  Delta miles don’t expire!  I carry the Delta American Express card which gets me extra miles when I use it to book Delta flights including a big discount as well as miles when I use it on the plane.  It can also get you an extra bag and/or an annual domestic companion ticket.  Rack up some miles… 25,000 miles can get you a round trip coach ticket in the continental US, Alaska, and Canada.

American – The least developed of the alliances is the OneWorld. American’s program hasn’t been that great.  It’s been a domestic catch all for me.  While I was at one company it was their preferred airline, so it was tough to avoid.  To reach the lowest Gold status tier, you’ll only need 25,000 miles, this is the only program where your miles earned from any source can get you elite status.  So that’s nice and flexible as the alternative mileage program. With all the European travel, and various flights on British that may have provided more benefits.  Flying first class round trip with my wife to Peru and visiting the wonder of Machu Picchu definitely means all this hard work pays off.  You’ll find both Hotels and Rental car companies are the other places in your travel where they specifically have alliances with specific airlines.  Parking is another place you might just find that gets you miles.

What about outside the Alliances?

Should we avoid those ones?  The three alliances combined fly 60.8% of all passengers, and it’s a great way to combine miles to have pre selected an airline in each of the three alliances.  There are exceptions.  I love Jet Blue, I love Virgin.  You can collect Delta miles on Virgin Australia.  Don’t pass up an amazing deal or an incredible ride.  Virgin American has some great prices and the coach class feels like business in most domestic airlines… remember why you are collecting.  For comfort, for upgrades, for future free flights.  That long haul to Australia and New Zealand, you should definitely make sure you’re actually collecting miles.  A friend once mentioned he was on Air New Zealand and they said at the fare he was at he could not collect partner (United) miles.  That’s a lot of miles to just go to waste.  I’ve gotten frequent flier numbers on the spot, just to make sure those miles don’t go to waste.  There are ways to transfer miles, even if you don’t, you’ll get that disclipine down of never letting those miles go to waste.  True story.  I had a fourth airline I was collecting miles on.  Alaska Airlines.  My parking would only support giving me Alaska miles, so I kept collecting them, but the airline itself at the time would take my Delta card.  Years later I now have enough miles I can fly 2 people round trip to Nome, Alaksa on miles and $80.  The Alaska program, while not directly aligned is a great program if you love alaska.  They have incredible redemption value.  For 25,000 miles you can go from nearly any Alaska hub to anywhere they fly for 25,000 miles. There may be a few exceptions.

What should I do with my miles:  At any point you can upgrade a leg.  I rarely if ever do this.  Personally I pull them out when I have to pay out of pocket for a rediculous fare.  I’ve seen domestic flights for way more than they should be.  Take this Nome Alaska flight.  It’s nearly $1000 USD and I can get it for 25,000 miles.  You won’t find that very much, but I had a $600 west coast flight I needed to get on a particular plane so I could get home on time or lose a day of work.  Using miles I didn’t have to pay.  Hopefully you can get vouchers for those comfort flights.  It may also be that you simply want to get from point A to point B.  Ask them how much, and then say… how many miles.  I’d give 10,000 miles for $500 USD.  I’m sure you could come up with your formula.

A Star award from North America to Africa in first class, for instance, will run 180,000 miles. A flight within in Europe will run 30,000 miles in economy, you’ll see it for 20,000 or 25,000 domestic US and more to Hawaii and Alaska.

How about waiting for the “Round-the-world tickets” award (a bargain at 180,000 miles in economy).

Where can I go? Look at the Star Alliance Airpass for going to many countries with 1 ticket. It’s fun to explore the regional options as well.

Tip: You can use TripIt.com or TripIt Pro on your phone to track your various mileage programs including expiration dates.  It also keeps your numbers handy, but don’t forget your card.

Travel Tip: Carry your frequent flier card.   You might even attach it to your carry on luggage.  Some frequent flier programs will send you multiple cards making this easier.  You can keep them in your carry on or purse, so you don’t have to actually carry it in your wallet.  Status does carry you internationally and give you great priveledges, but it’s at the 2nd tier.  That lowest tier is often overlooked.  Don’t forget to carry your card.  It really will keep you out of lounges if you don’t have proof.  The number alone often won’t do it!  As well, just because it isn’t the same company on your card doesn’t mean it won’t make a difference.  Your United miles status will get you into the Turkish lounge on a Turkish Ticket.A wider range of airport lounges shared with alliance members.  Bring your traveling companion… you may be able to bring them with you as well.  Your Amex or Interval Gold Travel card may get you in even if you don’t have status.  I’ve unloaded the point cards in my wallet more than a couple of times, and found something they liked.

Some other great resources:

Antarctica the Ultimate Final Frontier in Travel


Baby Penguins
Baby Penguins

As a global traveller, on this planet there is nothing more remote than Antarctica.  It is way bigger than it looks on any common map.  That place is just so vast. 14 million square miles and 1.5 times the size of the U.S. and is 98% ice and 2% barren rock.  In fact we learn that the largest countries in the world are Russia, China, Canada, but actually if Antarctica was a country it would be #2! See largest countries by area.  According to the CIA’s World Fact Book there is a population of 4,400 in summer to 1,100 in winter, with an additional 1000 in research boats off the coast.  In January, I had the chance to visit Antarctica on a research and speaking mission.  I wrote about the background details of this trip on my technical blog in a post called – Sharing The Point Antarctica.  We stayed on the Antarctic Russian base right next to the Chilean base and small Chilean village Villa Las Estrellas, and visited the Chinese base “The Great Wall” station, and saw the Uruguayan base.  It was an incredible experience as you can imagine.  Ice and barren rock sounds pretty boring, but this was anything but boring.

Villa Las Estrellas

The recent 100 year anniversary of the race to the south pole, and the Russian drilling at lake Vostok with 400,000 year ice history that may have been burried in ice for 15-25 million years, have put Antarctica in the media.  In 2012-2013 the Russians want to put a robot in the massive lake under the ice.  The lakes in Antarctica are recognized as the most ancient and inaccessible ecosystem. Exciting times! (Villa Las Estrellas  Chilean Base and village with blue roofs, grey buildings in the back is the Russian station)

If you’re planning on going to Antarctica there are a few ways to do it.

1) Cruise – There are a number of cruises that cruise around Antarctica.  The best way to reach Antarctica is by small-passenger cruise ship. Many tour companies run Antarctic cruises and expedition programs, providing a wide range of Antarctica travel options, ships, itineraries, dates and prices.  Pay particular attention to the excursion options.  Some, especially many of the large cruise companies do NOT include the ability to go to the mainland or even stop at the Antarctic islands, but just allow you to see it.  You want to look for Zodiacs that shuttle passengers from ship to shore and provide scenic tours or helicopter shuttles or flight-seeing… just depends on if you want boots on the ground. There are various options from Chile, Argentina, New Zealand, and Australia.  Antarctic Peninsula trips usually start from Ushuaia, Argentina. That’s the worlds most southerly city, known as the end of the world and is a great destination in it’s own right.  There is a limited number of visitors to Antarctica to help preserve it.  Something to be aware of is the Drake Passage can be pretty choppy. Those that don’t need the excursions may like the bigger boat.  Just do your research, so you’re not disappointed.

STP Crew
STP Crew

Our STP Crew on the gravel runway in Antarctica (l-r): Mark Miller, Dan Holme, Paul Swider, Ricardo Munoz, and Michael Noel

For our research and speaking engagement we chartered a 6 person jet with the help of our sponsors: AvePoint & fpweb

2) Plane – There is a gravel landing strip on King George island at Frei Base, Teniente Rodolfo Marsh, which houses the Presidente Frei Meteorological Center, one of the main meteorological and navigational stations in the Antarctic. In our research we went with Victory Adventure Expeditions which offers both cruise and fly options.  We were doing a number of stops in South America and decided the overnight option would give us the most flexibility and keep our entire trip under 2 weeks.  You do really have to plan ahead.  The plane we went on had minimum and maximum 6 passengers. The step up from that was min 33 max 70.  As well, there is a narrow window of end of Nov to early March for trips and they fill up. There are day trips as well as overnight.  We did the overnight option.

Antarctic Ice Field
Antarctic Ice Field

The scenery, fauna and marine life are the main attractions for the tourist; this place is one of the few in the world that has remained untouched by men, this is why it constitutes one of mankind’s most important biosphere reserves.” I agree.  The animal life is wild.  Mind blowing in terms of the diversity and how protected it has been over the last 100 years.  I hope it does continue for many generations and forever.

Really, we just laid down and these imagebaby penguins came right up to us.  On day 2 we visited a penguin colony with 3 different types of penguins a very rare occurrence. (Gentoo, Chinstrap, and Adele)

As well, we visited the other side of the island where we ran into a herem of elephant seals.  One male and 13 females.  Apparently that’s it goes.  We thought we’d join in the fun.  It was interesting to see that only the male had the major long elephant snout.

Curious little baby penguin

The penguins were amazing.  We went around in Zodiak’s and would see penguins swimming along with us and jumping out of the water like dolphins.

For me it was seeing the animals in their habitat and walking around on Antarctica which felt like being on Mars.  Not that I’ve been on mars, but definitely felt like another planet.  There aren’t any trees or bushes, just liken, moss, and strange grasses.  While some would describe it as a barren wasteland, the reality is it’s some of the richest fauna on the planet.  Tons of different kinds of whales, various seals and sea lions, elephant seals, various sea birds including various cormorants,  sea eagles, and we saw a huge albatross.

The conditions were great while we were there.  While we were glad we brought our snow clothes, the wind wasn’t too bad.  Our Chilean guide brought us to a couple of different glaciers.  For the zodiac rides we wore these orange Life suits that apparently can float.  They did give us the suits and we wore our normal clothes under them.

Zodiac Rides in Antarctica… Unreal

It was like a cartoon.  We rode past massive glaciers with penguins following us jumping out of the water at one point we had 40 of them jumping along.  As we approached one small glacier we saw two penguins perched on top.  We even witnessed one of the large glaciers calving.  The sound we first heard was this very deep moan and cracking sound.  It was a bit freaky.  Then we all started looking and finally large chunks busting up into the water which then created a pretty good swell which reached our boat.  Our guide knew how far to stay back.  He was smart.  I really wanted to get closer, but he knew the safe distance.

The biggest surprise to me was the flora.  I knew there were penguins and different types of whales and seals.  Tons more than I imagined, but what I didn’t know is that 2% of Antarctica is currently rock.  What is exposed during summer isn’t just barren.  There is green!  The plants are extremely hearty, these plants aren’t much of plants anyway.  They are liken, moss, and algae.  There is moss that even looks like grass!

This incredible penguin colony looks like they are hanging out in grass.  What I found fascinating was these baby penguins.  They haven’t learned to be afraid of humans.  There’s been so little interaction that it must feel like what Darwin experienced when he went to the Galapagos and studied birds of different islands coming up with “the origin of species.”

Baby Penguin sleeping on me
Baby Penguin sleeping on me

Interesting to be talking about Darwin as on this same trip I’d visit the Beagle Channel and see all sorts of birds and nests that have been in the same area for hundreds if not thousands of years.  This little guy and I would check each other out including having him jump on my chest.  In the course of the exchange I’d have his baby fur up against my face.

Life in Antarctica… can you imagine?  What would life really be like? A Bank, a post office, a cafeteria, a school.  Yes to all of these, the Chileans have really built a village that the other stations use. We saw a couple of Chinese Great Wall Station workers come and barter with the Chileans.  Apparently they don’t stay isolated.  Despite the fact that these are different countries, the lines are very blurry when it comes to Antarctica.  The Antarctic treaty keeps the peace, it doesn’t solve any of the disputes.  We visited the monument that marked the nations that signed the peace treaty including Russia, China, U.S., Britain, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, and more.  Michael provides more detail on this.  A link to his blog is at the end of this post.

We all sent post cards from this post office. My kids got my cards in the mail… 3 months later.

I built a series of videos to answer some of these questions… What is life like in Antarctica. (Most of these are less than 1 minute.)

One night, the one we had, it didn’t get darkish until around midnight.  Michael and I both were thinking, come on this is the place to take the polar plunge.  With all the ice in the water, this has to be the ultimate travel challenge of either pole.  We did it.  We both encouraged each other and ran into the water and dunked and threw water all over ourselves and ran back into camp half dressed or less.  One tip for you if you visit the stations and bases.  Bring gifts.  Michael had all the Russians we met getting really friendly.  He brought vodka.  One of them had mentioned we could use their Banya.  This was the perfect moment to jump in the banya (spa) and warm up… Unfortunately our directions weren’t as clear as we thought they were and we were afraid to knock on too many doors to cause suspicion.  What an incredible moment it was though!  I feel more like a man.

As I wrap up this post I reflect on the Titanic and it’s media mentions and fanfare.  Have we advanced as a society in relation to water travel?  I have to think it’s very ironic we had a cruise ship go down this past year when our cruise ships are unsinkable.  I think it’s important to reflect on our infalibility.  We have weekness, we do stupid things.  The captain and his men failed to correct.  I don’t know the whole scenario of either incident, but I do know we must learn from our mistakes or will we repeat them.

Penguin Skull
Penguin Skull

In conclusion. Antarctica is truly a life changing experience.  You really do leave life as it is, and look back at it from another perspective.  Travel does that to people, and Antarctica, the final frontier does that to the extreme.  Many ask how to top a trip like this… space? the Moon? Mars?!!  I definitely felt like that after this trip.  All trips will be compared from a nature perspective for sure.  I went to extremes to the ends of the earth and I came back a changed man.  I think you will too.

Enjoyed my post?  I recommend reading these other posts on this fantastic trip.

Must See Cathedrals of Sofia Bulgaria


Black Sea to the East, Turkey and Greece to the south, Macedonia to the Southwest, and Romania to the North.  Sofia is a feast of richness in culture.

I had a 5 hour stopover in Sofia on my way to Istanbul, and I asked the Taxi to drop me off in the center of town.  As we got close I saw this amazing gold roof, and I asked him to drop me off at what I’d find out was Alexander Nevsky Cathedral an Eastern Orthodox church that can support 10,000 people.

Cathedral of Alexander Nevsky Sofia Bulgaria
Cathedral of Alexander Nevsky in Sofia Bulgaria

What a fascinating area.  First you just start walking around and you find amazing vendors selling antiques.  Antiques including old money from Yugoslavia, Germany, Iran, Iraq, across the middle east and various EU countries prior to their adoption of the Euro.  Amazing masks, art work, and antique razors, knives, and swords.  What a beautiful area to wander around.

Next door sits St. Sofia a crazy old church even for Europe.  On the site of the church in the 2nd century was a Roman theatre, and over the next couple of centuries were built churches only to be destroyed by Goths and Huns, and in the 6th century was built the Hagia Sofia church, a contemporary of the Hagia Sofia church in Istanbul.  In the 16th century it became a mosque, and the mosaics destroyed.  Now one of the most valuable pieces of early architecture in Southeastern Europe.  The city took it’s name from this church.

Alexander Nevsky
Alexander Nevsky

The young population of the city breathes life in a big way.  My second visit to Bulgaria a week later after having traveled across Albania, Kosovo, and Macedonia to then drive from Skopje to Sofia in 3 hours with an impressive taxi driver. One estimate we had in Sofia was an 8 hour drive.  My hat off to our Macedonian driver.  The same driver who took us to meet the Roma.

Center of Sofia
The workers of Sofia Bulgaria

I’ve seen skaters in large cities in Europe before.  In fact in Paris, I saw huge jumps setup in a park, but in Sofia it was different.  Here it was as if the youth were the center of the city.  There presence is more important and embraced.  Vibrant youth. Radical change.  Hope.

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I met one such youth.  Yordan. He is full of hope, he is full of energy.  He was playing his accordion for fun.  It added a cultural element to the air.  We had a quick chat and extremely quickly we became friends and built trust.

Having a great meal in Bulgaria with locals
Having a great meal in Bulgaria with locals

Speaking of hope… I spent a few days with these guys at MS Days Bulgaria.  Two company owners and Microsoft Employee.  Radi, the Ninja Master, opened up his office and on my way home I had dinner with his team.  Again, passion, energy.  The old guard is getting old and retiring, there’s a lot of change a foot in Bulgaria.  A new generation is building businesses and generating successful employment.  Over 1000 attendees came to the event held in a very new Movie Theatre complex.

One of the coolest things about Sofia Bulgaria is the various fresh local markets. While the antique market may be catering somewhat to the tourist. The book market, the fruit and fresh market, and the vendors in the area.  Encouraging passion, intelligence, and getting people out into the streets engaging.  The culture is very open, very talkative.

Fresh Market in Sofia Bulgaria
Fresh Market in Sofia Bulgaria

Travel Tip: We had no problems with metered Taxis, but yes you might pay more than twice more if you don’t negotiate a local price.  Use the OK taxi, use the meeter and you’ll save a bundle.  Don’t believe them when they say fixed price from the airport, and don’t take a taxi that isn’t in line.  Those soliciting are going to charge you more than the yellow OK taxi.

The parks aren’t setup specifically for the tourist.  A book market… YES! Can you believe it!  Knowledge is power, and whether it’s the book market or the extremely passionate chess games with crowds as large as 20 people watching the intense game.  There’s something going on in Bulgaria.  It’s called life.

Sorry to say… I had a delay on my way home from Turkey which caused a domino effect.  It did put me in Sofia for another 5 hour layover, a third trip to Sofia in a 10 day period and rather than sit at the airport lounge, I reached out to my new friend Radi who invited a few friends.  Many thought it was an April fools joke.

One of the things I loved most of Sofia was how easy it was to find incredible food.  I didn’t have a single dish that wasn’t incredible.  The salads, the soups, the vegetables… I don’t think I’ll ever rave so much about various red and green peppers, cucumbers, egg plant, TOMATOs, and the cheese… yes the cheese.  I mean really, they were spectacular.  I’ve never tasted anything like it, there’s something in the soil, or something.  I have to imagine organic plus no chemicals, hormones, no accelerated growth, or weed killer.  Something I just can’t get in the US or in Western Europe.  When I saw goat head on the menu, I was getting a little excited.  The guys had some fun with that.  Unfortunately Goat head wasn’t available.  Parts and pieces depend on what’s available.

A crossroads of East and West, Bulgaria may hold an important piece of the future of Europe and hence the future of our world.  Often overlooked, but sleeping spark of economic growth.  While Greece, Spain, Portugal and others slow, there’s a sleeper that is emerging.  Let us welcome Bulgaria to the world stage.  I’d definitely welcome a Bulgarian restaurant in my home town.

Russian Orthodox Bulgarian
Russian Orthodox Bulgarian

Virgin Tourist Destinations: Albania and Kosovo


Albanian Art
Albanian Art

When I said I was flying into Albania and traveling across Kosovo to Macedonia some thought it was a very odd choice.  After having done it, I really enjoyed this trip and would recommend it for those looking for more of a raw European experience.  Some of the cheapest areas in Europe with the least number of tourists with some incredibly beautiful terrain.  At the end of this trip, from my UN country list I’m only missing Andorra from continental Europe, that may also explain our odd choice, but again, great adventure.  Did you know Mother Theresa is ethnic Albanian?  She was born in Skopje, Macedonia.

The Balkans are one of my favorite areas in Europe.  Dubrovnik, Split, Sarajevo, Mostar, Budapest and Belgrade continue to be some of my favorite cities in Europe.  The Balkans fail to get the best mention for beauty because of stains of war, but this history shouldn’t keep you from enjoying what hasn’t yet been claimed by tourists.  Seriously, you are missing out on the best if you ignore this region.

I met up with Paul Swider in Istanbul for his birthday, and Michael in Tirana.  You’ll hear a lot about these guys… my traveling companions for many adventures.  The night before our flight I was walking with Paul on the famous Taxim.  A walking street in Istanbul that’s known for it’s incredible night life, shopping, food, and it may have a million visitors in a day.  It’s pretty incredible area for getting the vibe of the city and just people watching.

Mega ATM Machine
Mega ATM Machine

Can you tell this city is interested in tourists?  This ATM machine spits out dollars, euros, pounds, and Turkish Lira!  Minutes later we’d be talked into going into this lounge.  They sell drinks for crazy high prices.  I had warned Paul, and thankfully we looked at the pricelist.  A couple years ago I was in a similar situation, but not with any knowledge of the scam that happens in that area with dancing Ukrainian girls sipping champaign, and within 20 minutes my buddy I had met that night had racked up a charge of over 500 Euros and was looking to split it.  Uhhh, no thanks.  Just a quick word of caution to not be talked into going into boring lounges with crazy expensive drinks.  Thirsty girls that just want to talk, is a bad sign.

As avid travelers Paul and I were so crazy impressed by the Turkish Airlines international lounge at the Istanbul Airport.  It wasn’t just the massage therapist who was walking around giving back massages, or the high speed wifi, the omelet bar, the huge free drink selection, breakfast buffet, but when you lockup your bags in a digital locker area with tons of space, a theatre room with rows of leather recliners, a news room area with 9 screens all showing different news programs all over the world and head sets where you could tune in at will.

Turkish Airlines Lounge in Istanbul
Turkish Airlines Lounge in Istanbul

I hadn’t really done much research, but after landing in Tirana, Albania and checking into our hotel, I quickly did some searches and found we were only about 40 minutes from the coast or better.  Tirana is named after a castle and is relatively a new city in European terms, but Durres, a roman port town was an easy drive.  So I convinced my traveling companions we needed to head for the coast.  After walking around down town, we saw some remnants of the communist era as well as a mosque that luckily survived 40 years of no religion in Albania and a touch of modernism.

 

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