Trek Talk - ElderTreks Blog

 

Almost 500 years ago, Spanish galleons made their way across the Atlantic and 'discovered' Colombia, where they founded the first European cities in the American continent. Now, after years of guerrilla and paramilitary unrest, and an unfortunate global reputation for drugs, Colombia has cleaned up its act significantly, and once again is a country just waiting to be discovered by you. In fact, it’s one of South America’s best kept secrets!

Here are 5 things you’ll discover when you visit this country: 

1. Colombia is incredibly beautiful geographically. From tropical, wet rainforest where no matter how hot it is, your cotton shirt will never completely air dry, to downright chilly plateaus at 10,000 feet, where the only moisture in the air is sucked out of it by cactus-like plants called Fraijelones, Colombia's diverse geography will surprise and impress you. Add in the Caribbean coast, and 3 sets of mountain ranges (the Eastern, Western and Central Cordilleras) and you'll feel like you've just visited 4 countries, not one. All equally stunning.

2. Colombia is not a third-world country. Perhaps city planning is not the best, resulting in uncontrolled growth, as in Bogota, or no sewage treatment plants in rural towns, .but Colombia is a country that is moving upwards. While there's no denying that the distribution of wealth is more than a little lopsided, development is happening, cities are modern, cosmopolitan and growing, and the Colombia of today is not a have-not nation with begging orphans in the streets. Developing yes, third world, no.

3. Colombia's coffee culture is different than ours. Colombia has always exported most of their premium beans (something you learn when touring the Coffee Triangle area), which has resulted in a very different way of enjoying coffee locally: to temper the bitterness of lesser quality beans, coffee is brewed with water in which raw cane sugar called panela is dissolved. Cafes typically do not serve up the North American creative concoctions that double as art-in-a-cup, nor do they use their cafes as virtual offices. Recently, however, this idea of coffee-as-art has become more popular in Colombia, and there are cafes, like this one in Salento, where they will serve you up premium beans in a work of 'latte art' that would turn any Starbucks barista green with envy. Just leave the computer at home.

4. Colombia has some impressive archaeological mysteries of their own. Near St. Augustin you'll find hundreds of large-scale anthropomorphic statues, burial mounds and tombs, at 4 different sites in this Alta Magdalena region - the origin of which is still a mystery. Pre-dating Machu Picchu by centuries, these 'Regional Classic-era' monuments date from around 900 AD, but are evidence of a culture that developed even earlier, around 1000 BC. We still know very little about these people, including the significance of the statues and their symbolism. One of the most interesting parts of the site is the Fuente de Lavapatas, a rocky streambed over which flow shallow waterfalls, and where channels carved into the rock divert the water into ceremonial pools, possibly used for religious ceremonies or even births. The surfaces of the surrounding rocks are decorated with carved symbols of snakes, monkeys, and lizards, some with human faces, which you can see from a bridge built over the stream.

 

5. ‘Authentic’ still exists here. You may be surprised to find that in most places outside the larger cities (and even there as well), English is not spoken – with the exception of Cartagena which is a cruise ship port. Which means that the Colombia you’ll visit hasn’t become a tourist trap that has evolved to cater to what visitors want to see - which is one of the best reasons to visit now, before outside influence inevitably takes away some of the warmth and charm that are yours to discover. 

Start by exploring our Colombia itinerary here.

Jane Canapini - June 26, 2014
 

In history, there are a handful of fabled explorers whose travels into the great unknown not only changed their perception of the world at the time, but also initiated the first great cultural exchanges between civilizations at opposite ends of that world.

Marco Polo is one of those explorers, whose journeys across the vast expanses of Asia’s deserts, steppes and mountains epitomize the words epic, exotic, adventurous and grand.  These descriptions still hold true today when you follow in his footsteps through the countries of Central Asia that were once part of the Silk Road, and which are now known as ‘The Stans”– because to explore Kazakhstan, Kyrgyszstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan today is to experience not only the exotic beauty of distant and wildly diverse landscapes, but to answer the call of adventure itself. 

Still relatively new to tourism, having gained their independence from the USSR in 1991, the Stans now offer a rare opportunity for travellers to rediscover what drew the early explorers to the region so many centuries ago.

Historically the Stans have been part of some of the world’s most powerful empires including those ruled by Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great. Recognizing the region’s strategic importance as a trading crossroads, these ancient conquerors fought for control of these lands and the thousands of caravans using them to connect the Middle East, Mediterranean and Europe with India and China. The legacies of these cultural giants are visible everywhere in monuments, archaeological sites, and storied cities like Bukhara, Samarkand and Khiva, where you will feel like you stepped into the pages of the Arabian Nights.

If culture and history aren’t enough for your inner explorer, the Stans boast some of the most varied and beautiful geography a traveller could hope to find: its huge land mass encompasses a terrain that includes deserts, oases, steppes, valleys and spectacular snow-capped mountains rising to more than 10,000 feet. Which means for hikers, adventure seekers, nature lovers and photographers, the vistas and activities are endless. 

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyszstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan offer the perfect trifecta of history, culture and geography to appeal to any modern-day Marco Polo who is looking for a route that is truly out of the ordinary. All that’s left to do is book the date!

Read more about our adventure to The Stans of Central Asia.

 

Jane Canapini - May 15, 2014
 

If someone were to make a list of the most exotic places on the planet, Papua New Guinea would probably be in the top ten. And justifiably so, not just because it conjures up images of primitive cultures and rugged, tropical landscapes, but because few people could probably locate it on a map!

The reality is that Papua New Guinea (situated 1400+ miles northeast of Australia) is as geographically and culturally diverse as anyone could imagine for a country barely the size of California. The tribes who have lived here for tens of thousands of years – some of which were only ‘discovered’ in the 1960s because of the impassable interior of the country – speak over 800 languages, with almost as many unique cultural and social traditions.

And there is no better place to see many of these than at two of the country’s most significant and spectacular local festivals: the Mount Hagen and Goroka sing-sings.

Originally proposed in the 1950s as a way to promote cultural interaction between warring tribes, these large-scale sing-sings now bring together over 100 different tribes in a purely peaceful celebration. Showcasing each tribe’s distinctive culture through dance, music, and traditional costumes, even though these festivals are not competitive, it is clear that the participants place great pride in the attention to detail in their costumes and performances.

For the photographer, it is a dream come true: elaborate costumes are everywhere, ranging from moss and lichen wigs and garments to tribal masks to colourful feather headdresses and brilliant body paint that mimic the Birds of Paradise that are native to this country.

But in order to get a better understanding of the people behind the masks, it’s important to leave the spectacle behind as well, and go to where the people actually live. Visiting villages, local schools, and even spending a couple of nights in one of the village’s longhouses will give you a sense of what daily life is really like in Papua New Guinea, and provide more context for what makes this country and its people truly unique.

Colourful, cultural, wild, and diverse, the sing-sing festivals may be what put Papua New Guinea on the map, and the reason why we schedule our adventures in August and September – but we’ll bet it’s the adventure you’ll have before and after that will make you remember this country forever.

Read more.

Jane Canapini - April 17, 2014
 

We had been driving for an hour en route to Abetavu, Uganda, when the first thing I notice as we near the village are several signs near the school which read: Do Not Accept Gifts for Sex.

What saddens me even further is that the school is for girls under the age of ten.

This was my introduction to the harsh reality that Carli Travers and her husband Robert deal with every day – and the motivation that led them to adopt 17 of the 21 children who now share their home in Uganda. It was also the reason why ElderTreks decided to help this family, and why I was so looking forward to finally meeting them in person.

As we reach Carli's security gate, we are greeted by many dogs, which I later learn are there for protection: there has been a recent influx of attacks towards them by people in the community, mostly men, angry that she has taken a stand for the wives and children in the community. Hard to imagine, but then, it has become clear this is a very different world.

A few moments later, Carli appears holding a newborn in her arms. The child was born in January - the result of a father raping his 13 year old daughter. Unmarried and pregnant, and therefore no longer worthy of a high bride price, the girl carries the blame for bringing shame to her family, and was thrown out by the same father who had raped her.

The daughter and baby are now both part of Carli and Robert’s every-growing family, making Carli a grandmother of sorts before she is even 30. But despite bringing this young girl and baby under her protection, Carli is still worried. The girl wants to go to school once the baby is older, but having known nothing but sexual abuse from the age of 4, she has no understanding of the difference between friendship and love.

I am reminded of the signs I first noticed in the village.

But not all our visit is as troubling. We sit and play with a few of the boys who are so excited to see visitors. They want to know if we are going to stay and if not, when we will come back to play.

They show us their pet turtle and monkey. It seems the kids have an art for bringing home whatever wild animals they find.

Walking around their property, we tour their garden, new bore hole, pigs and Robert's new game room. He tries to use it as an extra source of income and charges the locals 1000 Uganda Shillings (50 cents) to watch soccer matches.

As more children return from school, we are greeting warmly by them. I ask Robert and Carli how they do it, and their response was simply, ‘we make it work.” The kids are so thankful to have a life where they can actually be children, they all seem to just live happily together. Despite the hardships the kids have faced, they laugh and play together. You can feel the love they all share for one another. I watch as the older children care for the little ones. While not a biological family, you can feel the bond and joy they share.

At the end of our visit, Carli apologies for her being so tired and I laugh and think to myself, with 21 kids it is to be expected. She then proceeds to tell us she had spent the entire day before going between the hospital and the district police station to fight for a three year old girl who was raped by her father. She explains the worst part of the entire thing is that the police and father agree that it doesn't matter as the child was a "bastard".

Clearly, there is still much work to be done here, and as Carli thanks us for our donations and support, I can only think that it is us who should be thankful for people like her and Robert.

Chelsey Crossland, Operations Manager - March 19, 2014
 

As travelers we understand the transformative effect that visiting other countries and other cultures has on us. But at ElderTreks, we believe this works both ways, and that it is our responsibility to look for opportunities where we can give back to the places that give us all so much.

Two years ago we told you about a remarkable young Canadian woman, Carli Travers, and her efforts to help orphans in Uganda. Her story is one of generosity and love, and how at a truly grassroots level, she is making a huge difference in the lives of forgotten, discarded or abused children. At an age when many young people are not even thinking of starting a family, she and her Ugandan husband Robert had already adopted 6 of these unloved street children to raise as their own. Six soon became seventeen, and the challenges they faced grew as well. Carli’s story stole our hearts the same way the children had stolen hers, and in 2012 ElderTreks helped Carli and Robert construct the main building that would house this large and expanding family.

So much has happened since then that it seems long overdue for an update.

For starters, the finished house, “Abetavu Children’s Home”, is now home to 23 (Carli, Robert, 17 of their adopted children and 4 of their own) and the two young parents have recently become grandparents when their 13 year-old adopted daughter gave birth to a little boy, Jeremiah. Beyond caring for these children, Carli and Robert are involved in numerous outreach programs in the community where they live, offering financial support to girls attending school, teaching teenagers life skills and leadership, and working with local organizations to provide counseling, mediation and support for those who need representation the most.

Despite all this incredible progress, life isn’t always easy at Abetavu. Fundraising is an ongoing concern, and there is often resistance to the work that is done here, as incomprehensible as that seems. Which is why we are so happy to be an ongoing supporter of Abetavu. Just last month, Chelsey Crossland, the Operations Manager at ElderTreks, paid a visit to them, laden with clothing and supplies for the Abetavu children and got to meet some of the newer additions to the home. It made quite an impression on her, as she describes in her blog.

Beyond what we do from afar, these personal visits help us truly understand how small efforts can lead to huge changes in the lives of so many people around the world. We consider Abetavu a part of the ElderTreks extended family, and as one of our clients, we hope you will consider it as part of yours as well.

“We are so thankful that ElderTreks believed in us and gave our family such amazing support so that we could build our forever family home. Even in urgent crisis Eldertreks has jumped in without hesitation. Abetavu is forever grateful for our partnership with ElderTreks.” Carli Travers

If you’d like to know more about Abetavu, and the work that Carli and Robert are doing in Uganda, visit www.abetavu.com

Jane Canapini - March 19, 2014

It is a trip within a trip.  A journey from nowhere to even further beyond.....

The town of Turmi lies deep in the Omo Region of southern Ethiopia.  Two streets wrapped in their own heat and dust and a major terminus for the Hamer Tribe.   Known for their unique style of dress and culture, the Hamer are probably most famous for their bull-jumping ceremony - a rite of initiation into manhood for all Hamer boys.  

The rock-strewn path we travel along and which passes for a road in these parts is 28 kilometers long we are told.  I have also been reassured that there will not be any trekking required to reach our location.  After an hour of bumping along I am beginning to wonder if the advice we received in Turmi earlier is somehow wrong.  But soon enough we approach a dry riverbed and an oddly out of place collection of SUV's.  Apparently we are not the only ones who have been invited to witness this event.

I have been coming to Ethiopia for almost ten years and have never seen the Bull-Jumping Ceremony.  Time and circumstance have always seemed to intervene and I have often left this amazing country having felt somehow cheated. This year was to be different and it was with great anticipation that I jumped out of our vehicle and approached the gathering Hamer clans.  Women were huddled under a great lean-to, their leather skirts and dark skin making them almost invisible in the shadows beneath, only the shine of their cowry shells giving away their presence.  Smoking fires surrounded the area as preparations were underway to cook the local brew know as Fersi.  The Hamer women moved back and forth, with their distinctive coiled hair coated in red earth and butter.  Their necks adorned with brass rings, they are both fierce and attractive at the same time. I drifted in and out among the Hamer, some of whom welcomed me with curious smiles while others had no time or interest for a nosy Ferengi (foreigner).

The bull-jumping initiation actually consists of two parts- the jumping of the bull and the whipping of the women.  It was the latter that soon began as we followed the excited crowds to another side of the compound.  Male relatives (known as Maz) from the mother's side of the initiate first have their faces painted before they are taunted and teased into whipping these women with a branch. (I am told that branches from the acacia tree make the best whips.)  The men take turns refusing to use their whips while the women egg them on.  The more scars the woman receives the more pride she earns for herself and the family. As if in a fever the women are jumping around, chasing the boys as they become more animated.  Some blow on horns while others ululate and yell encouragement.   This part of the day soon becomes too much and I eventually depart to prepare for the main event.

Approaching the top of a nearby hill I am told this is where the bull jumping will take place.  Soon enough the bulls begin to make their way to the dusty square in front of us.  Some are complacent as if having been part of this ritual before, while others snort and stomp the earth.  I move closer and watch through my camera lens as a rather long-horned bull lunges in my direction before being yanked back into the herd.  As the crowd thickens voices begin to rise as the boy who will jump makes his way into the circle of cattle. One by one he goes around feeling each of the bulls, almost talking to them as if to see if they will cooperate in his upcoming test. When he is satisfied he steps back and waits to be called.

The bulls are then placed in a row while being firmly held by the tail and horns. The crowd moves in closer in anticipation. The Hamer women, also sensing the ceremony will begin, move in, their bodies as one, rising up and down to their own cadence. They are surrounded by a patina of red dust as the bangles on their arms and ankles chime with every step they take.

The boy steps forward. It is now his time. Naked except for two slim straps of vines criss-crossed over his chest he approaches the wall of bulls. Picking up speed he leaps upon the back of the first bull as the crowd erupts. The roar of the crowd, the calls of the Hamer women and the cries of the bulls all compete with one another. Quickly the boy runs across the other bulls to reach the safety of the other side. One jump done, 3 or 4 more return trips to go.

The second time around the boy is not so fortunate as he slips between the first and second bull. Kicking the dirt he backs up and attempts a second try. Again he falls short, practically enveloped in a sea of bovine backs. A man steps forward and proffers encouragement. It is time to jump again. One large stride sees him reach the top before he slides down again.  Someone calls out in Amharic that the boy cannot be Hamer as he jumps like a Konso (another tribe in Southern Ethiopia). With set determination the boy approaches the bulls and with the aid of some helping hands makes it across. He has only a few more jumps to go before he is gathered up by his fellow bull-jumpers, the Maz, who will escort him back to his village for a celebration lasting  deep into the night. In the morning he will have his hair shaved off and then he will be sent even further into the bush to spend a couple of weeks with some other boys from his village before returning home ready to choose a wife.

The Hamer Bull-Jumping ceremony has proven to be worth the wait for me.  It is a fascinating glimpse into a unique tribal custom. And in this day of mass-marketed tourism it is reassuring to know that this practice still continues, with or without our presence.

David Roth - February 24, 2014
 

The Iron Curtain. For almost five decades it served as a philosophical and physical divide that made travel to the countries 'behind' it impossible for much of the world. Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia are three of these, whose impressive mountain vistas were off-limits to westerners, along with their cultural and historical treasures. But now, all that has changed.

Since 1991 when the Wall came down, and Soviet rule was replaced with independence, tourism has slowly started returning to Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. But with nearby Sochi hosting the Olympics just to the north, all eyes are focused on this part of the world – so it won't be long before this region is on everyone's radar – making now the perfect time to go there before the tour buses do.

Nestled in dramatic mountain ranges after which they are named, the Caucasus countries of Georgia, Armena and Azerbaijan straddle the border between Europe and Asia, both of which have influenced the region's people and history – in fact, the Caucasus is considered to be one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse regions in the world. Georgia is a perfect example of this, having been destroyed and rebuilt more than 30 times, following struggles with Persian, Arab, Turkmen, Mongol, Turk and Russian invaders, each of which left their cultural and religious marks on the country.

Armenia, too, has a spiritual history that dates back millennia, with the 7500 year-old astronomical ruins at Karahunj, whose 'stone army' of vertical stones make Stonehenge look young. This was also the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as its state religion in 301 AD, making it a treasure trove of early churches and monasteries, some of which are literally hollowed out of mountain slopes, or perched on hilltops overlooking spectacular views of Mt. Ararat (where some believe Noah's ark rests).

Not to be outdone by its neighbors, Azerbaijan has some surprises of its own when it comes to ancient history, including 6,000 year old petroglyphs from the stone and iron age. There's also the Fire Temple in Baku where a natural gas vent provided fiery displays within the temple built over it, and was once the site of Zoroastrian fire-worshippers. This famous temple even made it onto on a postage stamp in 1919, and more recently was used as a location in the 1999 James Bond film "The World is Not Enough".

Beyond its scenic geography and storied past, perhaps the best part of visiting the Caucasus today is the fact that this lesser-known region of the world has not yet been overrun with the trappings of mass tourism. Still undiscovered by many, here it is possible to enjoy the warmth and hospitality of its people and savor the local flavor – figuratively and literally, with its delicious foods and fine wines.

Join us on our June itinerary to the Caucasus for an experience you'll remember for years to come. You can read more about our Caucasus itinerary and details here.

Jane Canapini - February 17, 2014
 

With our own New Year having just arrived, and the Chinese New Year fast approaching on January 31st, it seems appropriate to focus on China as we usher in the Year of the Horse, and our first newsletter of 2014.

New Year's celebrations are one of the most important festivals in the Chinese calendar, lasting almost a month and filled with a sense of optimism and promise. It's also steeped in rituals with rich symbolism and traditions originating from legends and myths that date back centuries.

Mythic Beasts and the Power of Red Underwear

Known as the Spring Festival, and lasting 23 days, Chinese New Year is a time to set the stage for a year of positivity and prosperity. A thorough house cleaning sweeps away any bad luck from the past year, and makes way for incoming good luck. Red scrolls inscribed with symbols for good fortune, happiness, or wealth are hung on doors, and token amounts of money are given out in red envelopes. Firecrackers can also play a significant part in the celebrations, and on the 15th day of the month, red lanterns are hung in personal and public spaces as part of the Lantern Festival.

But why the colour red?

Legend has it that in China, each new year began with a fight against a mythical creature called the Nian, a beast who emerged from hiding on New Year's Day to terrorize villages, and satisfy his appetite for everything from prepared food and livestock to children. One particular child, however, who happened to be wearing red, succeeded in frightening the Nian away, leading the villagers to believe that red would ward off the beast. For this reason, red scrolls and lanterns were hung on the doors of the village homes to protect them from the Nian. Of course, it probably didn't hurt that a few firecrackers were set off, too.

Eventually the evil Nian was tamed by the monk, Hongjun Laozu, who capitalized on this fear of red by sporting red underwear when he confronted the beast, thereby thwarting the Nian's attempt to eat him.

So if red lanterns aren't your style, you might want to think about adopting red underwear as another New Year's tradition of your own.

(Ironically, China does not follow this custom, but other cultures like Spain, Italy, Turkey and Mexico do, gifting or wearing red underwear as part of their New Year's Eve good luck tradition.)

Whatever your chosen tradition, here's to a new year filled with happiness, good fortune, and exciting adventures!

Jane Canapini - January 23, 2014
 

A message from ElderTreks President, Gary Murtagh:

The end of every year is both a time for reflection and looking ahead to the new year. Having recently returned from finalizing our new Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe itinerary, I can honestly say that this trip has contributed to many of my most outstanding memories of 2013. And I'm really excited to be offering it to you in 2014. Here's why:

1. Elephants. On this single trip alone, I saw not just hundreds, but I'm guessing upwards of 2000 elephants on our safaris! It seemed that no matter where we went, elephants were everywhere, including foraging for food in our camp one night!

2. The Big Five. For anyone who has been to Africa or is thinking of going, heading out on safari in search of the 'Big Five' (lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo and elephant) is a must. But it is quite an achievement to spot all five, and this was the first safari where I've actually seen all five of these magnificent animals on one tour. As an added bonus, I also got to see the extremely rare wild dog in its natural habitat. As one of the most endangered carnivores in the world, seeing these few surviving animals in the wild was particularly thrilling.

3. Big Cats. Like elephants, they are synonymous with Africa, but this was also the first safari where I spotted three of the big cats multiple times: leopards (3 sightings), cheetahs (2 sightings) and lions (3 sightings).

4. Malawi's welcoming people. Probably some of the friendliest people I've met in all of Africa, who greeted us with smiles wherever we travelled, and who couldn't do enough for us.

5. "The Smoke that Thunders" at Victoria Falls. People often ask what time of the year is best to view the falls, in the dry season (the fall) when you see less water and spray, which can be better for photography, or in the spring when the falls' raging waters are at their most impressive volume. Having seen both, we are considering adding a summer departure in 2015 to take advantage of the falls when they are near their peak, as well as our fall tour, so you can experience this destination at whatever time of year you prefer. It's just that beautiful.

I can't say enough about these experiences, and the opportunity this tour offers to showcase Africa is its pristine state - wild and majestic - and to see nature at its most impressive, all without the crowds you typically find in other parts of Africa.

To those who might be hesitant about visiting this part of Africa, let me say this: I last visited Zimbabwe four years ago, and since then much has changed to make it a much safer destination for travellers. The introduction of the US dollar as the official currency has stabilized the economy and the political situation, and I absolutely believe now is a great time to visit.

This new itinerary was definitely one of the highlights of 2013 for me, providing photographs and memories which I'll treasure for years to come.

Similarly, I hope that ElderTreks has contributed to some of your most memorable moments this past year, and I look forward to having you join us on more incredible adventures in 2014.

Gary Murtagh - January 06, 2014
 

This month, ElderTreks president Gary Murtagh has been touring with our Kingdoms of South Africa group, and while there the group paid a visit to the De Wildt Cheetah Centre where he met Zorro. And it turns out Gary is a 'cat person', because he adopted Zorro on behalf of Eldertreks and the Kingdoms of South Africa tour he joined.

The De Wildt Centre, recently renamed the Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre after its founder, has been a leader in the study and preservation of cheetahs since its establishment in 1971. Having successfully bred over 800 cubs in their sanctuary, the Centre is instrumental in helping maintain what are rapidly dwindling cheetah populations in South Africa. In fact, numbers are estimated at less than 1000, only half of which roam free in the wild.

Balancing wildlife preservation along with human needs is a challenge, to which there are no simple solutions, especially when it comes down to a choice between a farmer feeding his family or killing a wild cat. This is where the Centre's research and partnerships have already helped: De Wildt has partnered with another South African program that raises Anatolian shepherd dogs that are used to help farmers protect their livestock from cheetah attacks. Using these natural guard dogs to protect livestock has reduced losses to predators from between 95 and 100%. Which means there is no need for farmers to kill cheetahs in order to protect their livelihood.


© Jon Mountjoy

As a tour operator, we take our responsibility to sustainable travel seriously, and by adopting Zorro, these funds help contribute to the Centre's ongoing breeding and preservation initiatives, not only with cheetahs, but also other endangered species. It's one more way ElderTreks gives back.

For more information on the Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre, click here.

Jane Canapini - November 14, 2013

Last month I returned home from my second exploration of Egypt. My first visit was in 1986.

A few things really struck a chord with me. The first is just how vast the historic legacy of ancient Egypt is. The second is the incredible lack of tourists in Egypt at the moment.

I traveled with 3 family members, including my 10 year old niece. During our visit to the pyramids in Giza we had the grounds practically to ourselves. We walked through Tahrir square and talked openly with the friendly locals. On our journey to the oasis of Siwa we saw virtually no one. At the Valley of the Whales (UNESCO; 40 million year old whale fossils with 4 obsolete legs which theorizes that whales were once mammals which lived on land and returned to the sea) we explored the landscape and fossils without another person to be seen. We found tourism to still be alive from Luxor to Aswan but, even here, tourism was down 70 percent.

With the exception of some aggressive street vendors, I found everyone we met to be polite and welcoming. When talking to other travelers, they all expressed the same sentiment. "What a great time to come to Egypt!" No one we met had the slightest trepidation about being in a country which has been so inaccurately portrayed by news networks regarding current safety. Surprisingly, even the normally over-cautious US State Department does not have any travel warnings for Egypt. To put things in perspective, the only real concern for safety on our travels were crossing some streets and navigating through the congested and hectic Egyptian traffic. Granted, that's a common, courageous experience in many developing nations.

For anyone interested in traveling to Egypt, you may want to consider traveling on our October 26 - Nov 16, 2013 departure to see the magnificent sites, minus the hustle and bustle of crowds of tourists. To add an extra incentive, ElderTreks will be using Mena House hotel for 5 nights in Giza (formerly 1 of the top 10 hotels in the world), a former sultan's palace, with views directly in front of the pyramids. If you've ever dreamed of discovering this great country, 2013 may be the perfect time to visit Egypt!

Speak to one of our travel specialists or ask to speak to ElderTreks's president Gary Murtagh about his recent trip and any safety concerns that you may have.

Gary Murtagh - ElderTreks President and CEO - May 22, 2013
 

The World Economic Forum report on global tourism has an interesting map showing each country in the world’s attitude towards foreign visitors.  Countries are colored based on how favorable they are (blue) or how unfavorable they are (red).  What makes the map so interesting is that some of the countries that you would expect to be favorable (hence blue) are actually red and those you would expect to be red (unfavorable) are blue.

If you have not seen the map (see below) ask yourself which countries you would expect to be in the blue color and which would be in the red?  You might be amazed at the findings: parts of West Africa and even Yemen are in the most welcoming category, while parts of Europe are in the least welcoming?  Having traveled extensively I can positively affirm that Iran is one of the most friendly countries to foreigners that I have ever visited.  I started going over 12 years ago and this has not changed, despite that country’s standing vs. the rest of the world.  Surprisingly for me Iran is in red on the map.  Pakistan is another country that I found to offer a warm welcome everywhere that I went.  It is also in the red category, although perhaps that change has to do with their turbulent history during the last 15 – 20 years.  I was last in Pakistan in 1987 when things were a lot calmer.  Saudi Arabia and Russia are also in red but I can understand that based on their history and culture and the fact that these countries are or have been closed off to foreigners for so long.  But Ecuador or Denmark?  How to explain that?  The Washington Post author of the article suggests that a strong dose of nationalism may have something to do with it but even he finds that theory falters upon deeper investigation.

This article has made me question which countries I have found to be the friendliest and why?  Does economy have anything to do with it?  I don’t think so as Iran and Pakistan are relatively poor countries yet the locals were very warm and friendly to visitors.  Indonesia was another country I found welcoming to foreign travelers.  Bolivia was found to be “anti- foreigner” and this matched my personal experience (It was the only place I have ever been where I thwarted a brazen day-time theft of my belongings).  But could it be that a country's attitude to foreigners might fluctuate like their economy or even the weather?  I have always said I would visit any country twice, as sometimes you can go somewhere and everything just goes wrong.  Return a second time and all goes well.  Which trip do you base your judgment on?  Who knows, perhaps the surveys hit some countries at a low time and the replies were not that favorable as they might be later on?

I find that my attitude to those I meet on my travels has the strongest effect on the reception I get.   Go in happy, courteous and generally interested in their lifestyle, culture and country and I find you will tend to get the best response back – i.e. a welcoming reception.

 

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2013/03/21/a-fascinating-map-of-countries-color-coded-by-their-openness-to-foreigners/?k

 

 

 

David Roth - March 22, 2013
 

For 43 years Mr. Prakash Dhami owned an electronics repair shop in the small Himalayan town of Chamba, located in Himachal Pradesh which is in Northern India.  As times changed so too did his small electronics shop as business begin to fade away.  As a father and a husband Mr. Dhami had to think of something else to support his family.  Reflecting upon his childhood spent growing up in a small village Mr. Dhami recalled his love and passion for nature and ecology and especialy his fond memories of trekking through the Himalayan Mountains.  He thought how wonderful it would be to return to his roots and to share his passion with his family.  It was a stage in his life that he would refer to as “going back to nature”.

In 1990 Mr. Dhami decided to leave Chamba and move with his family into the foot hills of the mountains where he owned a plot of land and where he had previously built a 2-room hut surrounded by fruit trees and vegetables that he had also planted. This small hut became the principle residence of his family of four as well as a mountain retreat for anyone else who wanted to come and experience the wonders of the Himalayas.

Unfortunately “going back to nature” had its limitations.  Nearing the point of total poverty Mr. Dhami, a once-prosperous business man soon found himself struggling to exist.  It was at this time that he decided to throw all his remaining energy into what he loved the most – the mountains of his youth.  He began his own trekking company and started guiding treks into the snow-capped mountains of the Western Himalayas of India. As business slowly grew he trained his daughter, Tanu, to become the first and only female trekking guide in the region while his oldest son Nitin became a porter for those adventure trekkers that wanted a harder challenge. And this is where Mr. Dhami’s life began to take a turn for the better. 

In 1992 he registered with the Department of Tourism to cater to the various needs of travellers.  Not content with his trekking company Mr. Dhami took his two room hut and greatly expanded it to create a beautiful,  eco-friendly organic farm / home stay that now has sufficient accommodation, a spring water pool and the peacefulness of the mountains of the Western Himalaya that will capture you in a way you would not think possible in India. He has not only opened up his own home and family to visitors but he has also kept true to his heritage with how he built this home in the traditional mountain style using stone, clay and wood. The rooms are simple and clean and the views from the verandas are sublime. Guests can now soak thenselves in the spring water pool after a muscle-soothing massage, laze in a hammock, relish the mouth watering home-cooked local dishes, or simply grab a good book from the growing library and enjoy the hours in the tranquil surroundings.

Last year ElderTreks made a small but not insignificant change to our Northern India program.  We addded a 3 night home stay at the Himalayan Orchard Hut – the site of Mr. Dhami’s original 2-room hut.  Perched mid-way up a steep terraced slope at 4347 feet (1325m) above sea level and overlooking the Panj-La Valley, it offers a bird's eye view of the mighty Saal River in the valley below and is the perfect base to explore the Western Himalaya through the daily treks that are offered or to just relax and rejuvenate as Mr. Dhami originally intended.

If you want to experience true Himalayan village life then you must visit the Dhami family and learn how they live on the side of a mountain year round. You will be moved in many ways.

http://www.eldertreks.com/tour/ETTD000278

For more photos of the Himalayan Orchard Hut visit us on Pinterest - http://pinterest.com/eldertreks/northern-india/

 

David Roth - March 14, 2013
 

Travel and Leisure magazine recently announced the most important travel trends for 2013.  I often check these blogs to see if there is anything unique or interesting that is being suggested (in this instance there isn’t!).  One item however that caught my eye was listed as the 2nd most important travel trend and it involved those who take cruises.  Apparently the new trend is that people are turning away from the large cruise ships that ply the traditional waters around the Caribbean and are switching to more exotic locales such as Southeast Asia and South America.  They are also choosing smaller vessels that can accommodate less than 100 passengers.

I suppose for some that would be considered news but at ElderTreks those are the only types of cruises we have ever offered.  We like to consider ourselves to be somewhat above the travel curve!  Expedition cruises are what we know as a fact to be the ultimate way to travel to hard-to-reach places and have been providing them to our clients for many years.  If we believe that small-group adventures are the way to go on land it only seems reasonable to have the same philosophy when traveling on water.

Cruises to the Arctic, the Antarctic, the Amazon, French Polynesia, the Galapagos Islands or Baja California are some of the many locations that we offer trips to.  Imagine taking a small zodiac raft on to a beach covered with thousands of penguins practically awaiting your arrival in the Antarctic.  In French Polynesia the locals really are awaiting your arrival as the converted cargo vessel that you sail into port on carries the food and goods that they so anxiously await each month.

The Galapagos need no introduction but imagine exploring these ancient volcanic islands on a small luxury yacht with no more than 36 passengers.  You have the ability to go where no large cruise ships can venture and to get up close with very few other people to experience the many endemic species that are present.  Always dreamed of taking an Alaskan cruise?  Well our version is aboard a classic motor yacht that carries no more than 12 guests.  See humpback whales and orcas as we sail from remote fishing villages to glacial fjords with ample opportunity to hike and kayak in between.

Highly skilled personnel who are experts in the local history, flora and fauna lead all of our expedition cruises. Marine biologists and other naturalists will provide lectures and lead you on an in-depth encounter to experience the amazing wonders each of these regions can provide. 

Expedition cruising means that previously inaccessible parts of the world are now available for you to explore.  The only limitations are where you decide to go.

2013 is apparently all about the quest for new horizons.  That has been ElderTrek’s philosophy for over 25 years.

David Roth - February 28, 2013
 

I recently came across a travel article whereby the author was talking about the latest and greatest travel gadgets out there; things that would somehow make your travel experience easier or better; things that one should never leave home on a trip without.  It got me to thinking; what is the most essential item that I would always want to take on a trip?

Of course my passport is the most essential item I need to travel followed I suppose by travel insurance and/or my flight tickets (although in the day of e-tickets the latter is no longer an issue).  If you take prescribed medication then this would also be at the top of your list.  But I am not referring to these things.  I am wondering what non-essential items would you consider “essential” when you travel?

In the old days of traveling I would fret over how many books to take along.  Travel guides, novels to read etc.  It was crucial to not take too many books and even worse to take too few.  And considering that I was a bit of a hoarder/collector I had to keep all those books afterwards.   Everyone who travels more than once in a decade knows one of the cardinal rules about travel: go light.  Carrying all those books was a crazy idea.  Then the e-reader came along and took care of that problem.  Now I can travel with literally thousands of books all in one small and light device.  The only problem is making sure I can charge it up between reads and I am good to go.  But is an e-reader “essential” to my travels?

I am an avid photographer.  I could not imagine going somewhere without having one of my cameras along with me.  Those that wanted to look professional carried a large slr camera with a bag full of lenses so that they were prepared whatever the situation.  Another strike against the advice of traveling light.  Then the digital age of electronics arrived and meant smaller and better cameras.  The cost came down so much that there really was no excuse to not take a camera along on a trip.   The only issue was bringing extra batteries and memory cards and you would be set.  Yet despite these advancements I am meeting more and more people on the road who have sworn off of their cameras.  They tell me it just gets in the way of the entire experience; how they can focus on seeing things and meeting people and enjoying a meal without first trying to capture it in a digital image.

What about the Internet and computers?  When people book a trip or are on a trip that I am leading I am always asked about the situation re computers and Internet coverage.  It is not unusual to see people run off of the bus towards the hotel lobby looking to get on the computer.  Sure we have family and friends at home who may be ill or there may be a situation that could require our attention but honestly if it is critical and you need to be reached friends and family will find you.  What did we do before computers and the Internet?  We weren’t making long-distance phone calls a few times a day when on a trip.  Is this an essential thing to have when traveling?

Maybe it is the smaller travel items that I really need: a bed liner, quick-drying underwear, my wide sun hat?  I used to always carry a Swiss army knife with 200 features on it but with the increase in travel security I no longer risk bringing it near an airport.   And now that I think of it I have rarely found myself with a bottle of unopened wine or an apple that needs coring and wishing I had the Swiss army knife with me.

Those of us who are super-organized may travel with small travel bags within our larger bags as a way of keeping things in order.  Bags with rollers, 2 wheels, 4 wheels, extendable handles.  Collapsible bottles to hold fluids, mini stain remover sticks to allow us to keep on traveling with the same pair of pants through South-East Asia.  Packets of instant coffee, hot chocolate or soup.  The list goes on.

So what is the most “essential” item that I would not want to be without on any trip?  When I think of the many items above it is clear that I do not really need any of them to have a good time.  I suppose that other than myself, just being there experiencing all the joys of travel there is really nothing that I could not do without.

 

What is your most essential travel item you could not do without on a trip?

David Roth - February 15, 2013

I wanted to share a sample of some amusing pictures from Africa that were recently sent to us. Are things really that different over there??

David Roth - February 07, 2013
 

"I have never, anywhere, encountered such friendly, sincere, helpful and warm people."

"The apprehension and uncertainty I felt before departure were quickly dispelled upon arrival.  I felt completely safe throughout the trip. "

"It was one of the real highlights of a life full of travel experiences."

 

Can you guess where in the world these comments from our past travelers are referring?  China?  Turkey? Perhaps Myanmar?  Would you believe that they are comments from ElderTrekkers who recently visited Iran?  Yes that same Islamic Republic of Iran; the one country that is always making news headlines for all the wrong reasons.  Why would you go there when there are so many other safer places to visit you may ask yourself?  “They treat women so poorly, they are all terrorists”.  Have you ever asked those who tell you it is dangerous if they have ever been there?  Chances are they have not and they have gleaned their information from various media outlets.  They could not be more wrong.  Iran is a safe and friendly country with so much to offer for those who are willing to go.  It is precisely because no one goes there (or at least only small numbers of travelers versus other destinations) that add to its overall appeal.

If you truly believe what Mark Twain once said, namely that "travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindednessthen read on.....

Iran is a country with a long and rich history dating back over 2500 years with evidence of this past on display everywhere.  And best of all you can get right up close and personal.  Rock carvings from 1000BC stand alongside the tomb of Darius the Great in Naqsh-e-Rustam while the greatest glory of Iranian past – Persepolis is mere kilometers away and where you can walk right up to exquisite carvings in marble and tile dating from the 5th century BC that depict animals, flowers and the king’s ancient armies.  Travel to Isfahan and marvel at Naghsh-e Jahan Square, reportedly one of the largest in the world with its outstanding collection of Iranian and Islamic architecture.  The desert city of Yazd sits like a turquoise gem in the middle of the harsh desert offering a glimpse into its Zoroastrian past.

The Iranian people are proud of their country and its rich history and welcome visitors with open arms.  Having led many tours to Iran I enjoy watching the transformation take place with those in my groups.  They arrive unsure and weary and within a matter of days are wandering through the markets sharing stories or perhaps a cup of tea with the local people and wondering how they ever questioned coming to such an amazing country.  Wearing a scarf on your head becomes less onerous than one would expect, especially when each day brings a marvel of sights to savour and experience.

Our world is changing rapidly.  One of the benefits to travelers who are willing to visit countries considered “off limits” means not only having the place to yourself (I rarely if ever encounter any other tourists) but sharing in the amazing experiences that travelling offers us as we interact with those in other parts of the world.  It is an affirmation that we are not that different from one another and probably have more in common that we realize. Iran is an amazing country and one of my favourite destinations to visit.

After you visit Iran you will still encounter those at home who will think you were crazy to have gone but at least this time you will be able to tell them firsthand how wrong they are in their opinion.

 

David Roth - January 28, 2013
 

David Roth, ElderTreks Social Media Manager and Tour Leader was recently in Rwanda to trek with the mountain gorillas. This is the second of a 2-part article on his experience.

Climbing up a slope I am getting body-slapped by large thorn trees.   The ground is muddy and loose and a few times I can feel my feet slip as I take a step forward.  Grabbing at slippery vines and branches I decide to concentrate on the back of the person in front of me.  Soon enough we reach a clearing on the ground and come upon a large segment of the gorilla group.  It is mostly young gorillas and a female or two carefully overseeing them.  We stand transfixed as one and my immediate fears abate somewhat as we observe them playing with each other.  Two young males fight and roll amongst each other in an attempt to establish dominance.  A lone female lies prone on the ground resting, or rather scratching, at a hard-to-find itch.  Along with their grunts and snorts I hear another strange sound.  It takes me a moment to decipher it.  It is the thumping on gorilla-chest with their hands.  Pock, pock, pock.  Many of the gorillas take turns showing off this unique form of communication.  I am momentarily stunned for I honestly thought the chest banging was something created for a Tarzan movie. 

A bit later our guide asks us if we want to continue on to find the male silverback and we all readily agree.  Trekking upwards along the slope we soon find the dominant male sitting at the base of some bamboo trees.   And true to form he has a large silver patch across his back.  We were told in our pre-trek briefing that male gorillas take on the distinctive silver marking around the age of 12, after which it is difficult to get an accurate idea of their age.  Compared to the other gorillas we have seen this day the silverback is huge.  Placid estimates around 240 kilos.  We stand mesmerized as the silverback peels back a large piece of bamboo seemingly oblivious to the whereabouts of the others in his group.  I decide to move around to try and get a closer view of him.  Sliding down a slope I am trying not to lose my balance and remain silent in my actions at the same time.  I know I have failed miserably as my hand reaches out to arrest my fall and branches crack all around me.  Despite my clumsy attempt at discretion the silverback remains seated working on his piece of bamboo.  He has obviously deemed me a non-threat.  I crouch down low to take a few photos.

Suddenly he gives a start, gets up and starts running deeper into the forest.  Our guide points to the canopy above and indicates that the silverback was startled by the sound of an aircraft flying overhead.  As he leaves so do the other gorillas, instinctively picking up their cue through the thick rain forest foliage to follow.   I want to get up and run in the other direction but as I rise I can hear Placid call out in a soft but firm voice, “don’t move!”  I practically lean into the sharp thorns, clenching inwardly as one gorilla after another runs or leaps past me.  I quickly come to recognize the strong sweet/sour aroma that surrounds the gorillas as they pass.  I am so close I can reach out and touch them.  Placid has now moved close to me making his own imitation gorilla grunts.  We are later told it is the guide’s way of communicating with the gorillas and to let them know that there is no danger.  And just as quickly the gorillas are gone and we are all alone in the forest once more.

It is about this time that I suddenly recall the warnings about fire ants and begin moving my feet up and down while I stand in one place, all in the hopes of thwarting an attack.  Surely my guide won’t see this as a further violation of his ‘do not move’ command.  I breathe a sigh of relief when the order to continue trekking is given.

We need only a few minutes before we locate the group again.  They have settled in a small clearing that is even more contained under the heavy rainforest canopy.  I glance at my watch willing time to stand still.  To further add to my anxiousness I have not gotten a clear frontal photo of the silverback.  Every time I move around to get a shot it’s as if he can sense what I am trying to do and shifts his large body around.  Before I know it Placid quietly announces that it is time to leave the forest.  Our time is up.  I can hear a few grunts and groans from my fellow group members as they turn and depart one by one.  Suddenly I realize that I am the only one left.  I turn and can see that one of the guards is waiting for me at the trailhead.  I pause and look at the silverback one last time, just as the sunlight appears through the trees illuminating his face.  I marvel at the pure beauty of it all and wonder what would compel other humans to threaten the mountain gorilla’s existence.  I also question my earlier sense of panic for I now feel calm, almost serene.  Just then the gorilla turns his head and looks directly into my eyes.  I can feel myself nodding as I thank him for allowing me briefly into his world.  I say goodbye and head back down the trail.

David Roth - January 16, 2013
 

David Roth, ElderTreks Social Media Manager and Tour Leader was recently in Rwanda to trek with the mountain gorillas. This is the first of a 2-part article on his experience.

“When we enter the park you can take only a jacket and your camera. Leave all other essential items with the porters. This is not a zoo. These are wild animals in their natural habitat. Anything can happen. Also, you may wish to tuck in your pants to avoid the sting of fire ants,” says our guide Placid.

I glance at the seven others in my group to see if anyone else has any last-minute doubts as to what we are about to embark upon. They all look more confident than I suddenly feel. Then I notice that they are all wearing gaiters over their pants and the tops of their boots. I quickly fold my pants and pull my socks up as high as they will go.

One hour earlier we had entered the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda where I had finally arrived to fulfill a dream of trekking to see the famed mountain gorillas. The Volcanoes National Park is the name for the Rwandan section of the mountains straddling Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is Congo, which uses the name I am more familiar with: Virunga National Park.

We were met at the Park Ranger Station early that morning with hot coffee and tea as a local tribal group officially welcomed us with song, dance and drumming. They finished the performance with a cry of “you are welcome here” as the sun rose over the mountains behind them. Moments later we split up into small groups where we were introduced to our guides and briefed on the trek.

“We have been assigned the trek to find the gorillas in the group known as ‘Agashya’. It is a group of 26 gorillas with countless babies, young and females and only one silverback male. You are very lucky today as this is a special group,” says a smiling Placid.

What quickly follows is an almost violent 30-minute drive to the head of the trail where we meet our porters and guards. It looks like an entire village has come out to assist us on our adventure. The guards are easy to identify, as they are all carrying automatic weapons. I decide that the toughest-looking guard is the lone female. I can’t help but wonder what the weapons would be needed for.

Each of us is told to assign our bag to a porter and I choose the tallest person to carry my tiny daypack. I feel slightly embarrassed as I hand him my light load. I hope he realizes that I am hiring his services more to support the local community rather than because I don’t have the strength to carry my own bag. Waving goodbye to our drivers, we set off on foot, one long column marching across soft farmers fields as we make our way to the base of the mountains.

As we set out the sun is shining strong, however I know that the clouds and rain are a mere hour or so away from descending upon us. I find myself walking up front with one of the guide/trackers and willing the group to make haste. After only 30 minutes we arrive at a stone wall. A new guard peers his head over the wall from the other side with a walkie-talkie in his hand. Placid quickly emerges at the front of our line and after a brief conversation turns to face our group.

“The gorillas are near. Very near!” I can see smiling and eager faces all around. “First we must climb this wall to enter the forest”, he announces further. We all line up to take our turn at scaling the wall. Helpful hands are offered and one by one we climb up and over. Soon enough it is my turn. Climbing the wall I hop down on the other side and find myself suddenly standing in the forest. A guard herds the few of us who have climbed over to a small clearing.

We are all alone.

Suddenly I hear a rustle in the leaves and quickly turn only to see two purple/black hairy backs race by. I need a moment to realize that they are the gorillas I have come in search of. I didn’t expect to find them so fast. I am not ready; it is too soon, I almost shout out loud to no one in particular. It is with an unusual feeling of both exhilaration and fear that I stand in the jungle path watching the gorillas run and leap in the air through the trees around us. What do you do when the realization hits that something you have always dreamed of doing may actually be quite terrifying? Part of me wants to hop back over the wall while the other half, heart beating strong, wants to follow. The decision is made for me when the rest of our group makes it over the wall and we are herded into a tighter circle. Placid steps forward and motioning with his hand waves us on.

And then just like that the sunlight disappears as we enter deeper into the forest.

End of Part one.

David Roth - January 08, 2013
 

David Roth, who works in ElderTrek's Sales Department was recently on the Aranui 3 and sailed from Tahiti to the Marquesas Islands. Due to limited internet access his reports could not be uploaded during the cruise. We include them below in a series of articles where he shares his thoughts of the trip.

 It has been 17 years since I was last in French Polynesia and as my taxi raced around the hills outside of Papeete the sights and smells of this tropical island came roaring back to me flooding me with warm memories. Entering the town I could see how Papeete had grown – all relative of course to things in French Polynesia, which means not that much. I would not be stopping in town this visit for I was off to join the Aranui 3 on a 14-day sailing voyage to the Marquesas Islands.

The Aranui 3 is a combination freighter/cruise ship that visits the Marquesas Islands once a month delivering everything the islands need. The name “Aranui” means “The Great Highway” in the Maori language. I knew this was not to be like any other cruise voyage and my first clue came as we entered the port area of Papeete. Rather than embark here by all the major cruise ships my taxi continued on to the commercial area on the other side of the port. Passing freight yards and warehouses we met the Aranui 3 on a lonely pier. Shipping containers were piled everywhere and fork lift drivers were working feverishly loading goods onto her deck as my taxi came to a stop. At first glance the Aranui 3 seemed much larger than I had imagined.. At 386 feet in length she was much larger than some of the other expedition-type cruise ships I had sailed on in the past. I would estimate that 60% of the vessel was freighter and the remaining 40% for passengers.

I was early and one worker on the pier motioned that it was ok for me to board. No fancy welcoming party for me. I deftly avoid a large oil spill on the ground and struggled to carry my luggage up the narrow gangway. This was a working ship and appeared to be all business. Later on after getting settled into my cabin I found a spot on one of the upper decks and watched as the loading process continued. It appeared as if the Aranui 3 was loading everything imaginable. Frozen foods, refrigerators, pallets of powdered milk, cheese, even a small boat. There was a very methodical system whereby two huge decks swung open and each item was loaded in a particular order into the belly of the ship by one of two massive cranes which overlooked the foredeck. Amidst all this activity, arriving passengers were met on the pier by a crew member and their luggage was placed on a conveyor belt and brought up into the side of the ship while the cargo-loading process continued unabated all around them. At times it was difficult to tell the passengers from the cargo as everything was being loaded as quickly as possible.

Soon after, the horns sounded and we went back to the rails to watch as the ship slipped her moorings and began the long voyage to the Marquesas Islands. The sailing journey would take over 3 days and would include a stop in the Tuamotu Archipelago. The Aranui’s bar had prepared a welcome for us with snacks and a local punch. We sailed off in leisurely fashion as the heavily tattooed crew below worked feverishly hauling lines and storing cargo. It was a rather odd combination but then again the Aranui 3 is not your regular cruise ship. The rusting hull of the Aranui 1 sits at the opening of Papeete Harbor listing badly to one side and I could not help but glance over at her as we sailed past hoping our voyage would have a better ending.

David Roth - July 05, 2011

We are pleased to announce that ElderTreks has been named one of Entrepreneur magazine's 2011 100 Brilliant Companies in their June edition.  Their annual list showcases those companies deemed to be the most innovative and inspiring in their respective fields.  Their list included the brightest ideas, the hottest industries and the most insightful innovators out there today.  It is nice to know that what was an inspiring idea almost 25 years ago is still being recognized today.

David Roth - June 07, 2011
 

Bob Perry, one of ElderTreks Country Directors, will be blogging from the road as he sets off on an epic 25 days across central Asia as part of ElderTreks The Stans tour.  Keep your eyes on the blog as Bob will be posting updates throughout his tour. 

Our last full day in Kyrgyzstan and true to form the weather is still overcast and raining slightly. We are scheduled to go hiking in the Al Archa Gorge which is only 30 minutes from the city, but that 30 minutes takes us from a bustling city with monuments to Lenin (They actually keep them for 2 reasons one is that it is part of history, good or bad, and second, they have discovered that tourists want to see them!!! One of the last places in this part of the world that still has a few statues and where a whole floor of the state museum is dedicated to Lenin's life.) to the Al Archa Gorge where the mountains still have snow.

It's a real shame the weather is not better as the group is decked out in rain gear for a 2.5 mile hike into the park. The birds are quiet and hiding because they to do not like getting wet. The scenery however is magnificent.The hike (walk really) is refreshing, but it is cold.  You can see your breath. It is then onto the memorial for those lost in the Stalin years. During that time Kyrgyzstan was suffering sufficiently that a group of local citizens wrote to "Uncle Joe" asking that he help the people of Kyrgyzstan who were suffering greatly, if he could not help they respectfully suggested that Kyrgyzstan no longer be part of the Soviet Union. Well does "off with their heads" mean anything? All were rounded up and shot. It was only found out years later after the collapse when a daughter of one of those shot spoke up and in the ensuing investigation they found the remains of this group in the woods outside Bishkek.

The sun is shining the next morning as we say goodbye, maybe Kyrgyzstan is happy to see us go, and it is off to the airport for our flight to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Roger, our tour leader, has warned us of the security we will go through at the airport but 4 times!!!!!  Twice before we have even got to check-in. This is our first introduction to the forms that we will be completing every time we enter or leave Uzbekistan. Two copies detailing everything. But the flight is on time and Uzbekistan Airlines impresses everyone with the seat pitch and the service on this 60 minute flight. Many grumblings about the bag of pretzels they get on American Airlines compared to the service onboard Uzbek Airlines.

Upon arrival the line takes us about an hour to clear customs and immigration which, when you think about it, is less that arriving at Toronto with half the formalities. Not sure what I expected about Tashkent but it is a long time since I have been impressed by a modern city. There are parks everywhere, wide boulevards lined with the best shops and, best of all, it's hot!!!! That short hop over the beginning of the Pamir mountains has taken us to a beautiful city, where the streets are clean and there is a sense of a nation on the go. Our day in Tashkent is filled with Islamic Madrassas, Mosques and Mausoleums.

Tired after two days of the heat (yes I know we are never satisfied) tomorrow we aree off to Samarkand.

Bob Perry - May 20, 2011
 

Bob Perry, one of ElderTreks Country Directors, will be blogging from the road as he sets off on an epic 25 days across central Asia as part of ElderTreks The Stans tour.  Keep your eyes on the blog as Bob will be posting updates throughout his tour. 

Today it is a side trip from Taskent in Uzbekistan to Khojand in Tajikistan. Early morning start as it is 2 hours plus to the border, but that gives us just amount of time to complete the forms needed for exiting Uzbekistan and re-entering later in the day. Gosh do these people love paperwork. We arrive at the border that you would think is straight out of the cold war. Barbed wire, soldiers and the inevitable line up. The locals have to wait for us and it still takes 90 minutes to process us out of Uzbekistan!  Now our forms indicate not only how much money we arrived with but how much we are leaving with (remember we have to do this all again when we return). It also includes how many bags we have so even though we don't have our suitcases we have to put them on the form. Talk about a stupid waste of time. 3 Customs officers process us; one checks the forms, one checks our passports (we have already been checked at immigration) and one enters it into the ledger that should be renamed the doomsday book its so big. At last we take our walk across no mans land ( about 500 metres) to Tajikistan where they say Tourists? come on in. A perfunctory glance at our passports, a quick stamp and we are in Tajikistan.

We have also travelled back 200 years in doing so. It's about an hour from the border to Khojand and when we arrive it's just us tourists and the locals. A guided tour of the local museum by a woman whose English is remarkable but I'm sure she didn't take a breath the whole time.They have spent a ton of money on this museum but not sure who is going to visit it. Lunch is served in I think the only air conditioned restaurant in town (it's hot 37 Celcius) then onto the local bazaar for some Retail Therapy.

This is a local bazaar, no stuff from China here. Fruit, vegetables, nuts and to please the women a visit to the section where they make local dresses. It's remarkable that here the locals are as interested in us as much as we are in them. When we take a picture we have to show them the digital result which brings much laughter. The day soon comes to an end then it's back to the border where we are almost waved through on the Tajikistan side, walk the 500 metres and then, yes you got it, back to them looking at forms, scanning bags etc on the Uzbek side before walking to our bus some 90 minutes later.

Back to the hotel but tired.

Bob Perry - May 20, 2011
 

Bob Perry, one of ElderTreks Country Directors, will be blogging from the road as he sets off on an epic 25 days across central Asia as part of ElderTreks The Stans tour.  Keep your eyes on the blog as Bob will be posting updates throughout his tour. 

Samarkand land of mystique and stories of the Silk Road.

After a 5 hour drive we arrive in the new tourist Mecca of Central Asia. It is strange but we have only been on the road a week or so but in that time we were the only tourists around. To then experience the return of the big busses is really quite a shock. What do you mean we aren't the only people here? Tourists from France, Germany and the rest of Europe are flocking to see this part of the world before it is changed forever.

Samarkand is where we first experience what I am starting to call the "we can build bigger buildings than you can" mentality that seems to pervade the history of this country. Registan Square is a sight that must be seen. Absolutely stupendous. The observatory built by Uleg Bek defies the imagination about what this guy could do with almost unlimited funds but ancient tools. Spent most of his life studying the stars instead of concentrating on running his empire.  The end result - deposed by his son who then had him put to death. A bit rough don't you think?

All of these interesting characters come from "Temur" a figure still revered here as a ruler who actually cared about his people. Current politicians please take note. His statue is in Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara.

It's really hot today, 34 Celsius.  In and out of the bus, walking really starts to take its toll on the group. But it's a full day of being educated by our guide Babar.  Yes just like the kids cartoon from yesteryear, but he has an almost encyclopedia type memory, full of anecdotes.

This is one of those places where pictures speak louder than words, so I will let them speak for me [ed note: awaiting Bob's pics!]. Tonight however we have an experience I think most of us did not want.  Earthquake!!! Most of us were awoken at around 2:20 in the morning to our beds swaying from side to side.  It went on for about 25 seconds (or at least seemed it). Sufficient that you wondered if it would stop or should we get the heck outa here. Then as quickly as it came it was gone.

However we survived and it is onto Bukhara.

Bob Perry - May 20, 2011
 

Bob Perry, one of ElderTreks Country Directors, will be blogging from the road as he sets off on an epic 25 days across central Asia as part of ElderTreks The Stans tour.  Keep your eyes on the blog as Bob will be posting updates throughout his tour. 

Bukhara is our first walled city and the history here goes back 2700 years.  Until recently it was 2500 years, but they just changed it because of new evidence.

First impressions!!!  Remember, these are only mine.

They have carefully restored a lot of the city including the walls, but in doing so they have not recreated the atmosphere within it. By that I mean they have forced the street traders into alcove shops and in doing so have lost that hustle and bustle so prevalent from that time.

The Mosques, Madrassas and Mausoleums (now known in the group as the 3 MMM's) are beautiful but so much of it looks new. Now don't get me wrong the recreation when finished will create an attraction for tourists forever. They are already here in their thousands. At night however it seems to loose that newness and whilst the bustle is gone the hustle returns.

Silk from this part of the world is everywhere. En route our guide has explained that each silk worm will consume 30 Kilo's of Mulberry leaves before spinning it's cocoon. At that point they boil the cocoons to kill the worm before they can hatch as a butterfly. We stopped en route to photograph donkey-drawn carts carrying the cut Mulberry branches. For the ladies a hand made silk scarf will run you anywhere up to $25 dependent on the quality, for the men a bottle of Vodka is just slightly more expensive than a bottle of beer and that's the good stuff.

I'm not sure what season we are in here as the roses which are plentiful, have already started to whither. In Canada they are just starting to grow!!  But the fruit is ready.  Strawberries, cherries are available everywhere which brings me to the point of praising our tour leader Roger.

As this trip is technically work (ok it's a rough job but someone has to do it) I have been shadowing Roger from day 1. It's almost like doing 2 days each day. Wherever possible when we allow our clients a break in the afternoon it's off to visit the restaurant we are going to that night and a different one for lunch the next day. Here he goes over the menu of what will be served, order juices, water, sometimes vodka etc and most of all asks that 2 glasses be set for each person. Then it's on to a local market to buy whatever is needed for the next day.  Roger is the snack king of the tour leader world, so we look for local snacks he can give out on the bus or when walking, the man is always carrying this big backpack whilst the rest of us swelter in the heat.  Local fruits are the snack today, but they require their skins to be peeled before eaten as we cannot guarantee that they have been washed and so on. Back to the hotel just in time to freshen up in time to take the clients to dinner. He has done this trip several times before, has copious notes but things change. The puppet show he arranged one night used to be in one place that is now torn down so we have to track them down and rearrange another venue. Add to that the patience of Job and you wonder how they do it from trip to trip. Inevitably when we get to our restaurant no 2 glasses and patiently he goes through the process again.

Tomorrow it's onto Khiva, 11 hours through the desert!!!

Bob Perry - May 20, 2011

Bob Perry, one of ElderTreks Country Directors, will be blogging from the road as he sets off on an epic 25 days across central Asia as part of ElderTreks The Stans tour.  Keep your eyes on the blog as Bob will be posting updates throughout his tour. 

Waking up to the noise of a farm and seeing fresh snow on the mountains gave truth to the fact it was only +5 C. But what a glorious morning. A breakfast of yoghurt and bread and away we go en route to Chopon Alta which is on the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul.  We are told it's the second highest lake in the world after Lake Titicaca. The lake itself has a level of salinity which prevents it from freezing in winter.  An interesting drive from one valley in the Tien Shan mountains, around them to another where the lake is, and the contrast in landscapes. On one side it is green to a certain point and then tall fir trees take over until the snow line. On the other side, nothing but grass. The explanation; one side gets a lot more sun.  The grass side that is.

We arrive at Chopon Alta on the lake after visiting a delightful family who teaches us how felt is made.  Tough work all the pressing and rolling, but then she invites us in to a lunch of salad and local chicken noodle soup. Bones and all.  An abortive visit to the local museum (closed) and then onto this resort on the side of the lake.  We are early in the season so apart from a few hardy locals we are the only people at this property.  You look out across the lake here to yet another view of the mountains. We are already at 1500 meters above sea level yet these peaks reach 7500 meters.  Ok, ok I'm enamoured with the mountains.

Dinner is at the hotel tonight and, whilst you would not call it a culinary extravaganza, it was certainly passable. Something similar to perogies. The weather is still cool and overcast but it doesn't seem to stop the humour of the group.  We wake up to blue skies and cool winds, a 7:00am breakfast, then on to Karakol.  En-route visiting the petroglyphs, 8th century BC, scratched onto boulders left by the last ice age.  Karakol is not what you would call a hive of activity but it is "Victory Day", the 9th May (WWII), and along comes a parade.  It starts with a group of young men looking very serious and stamping the beat for everyone else to follow.   The age of the marchers decreases until we are looking at kindergarten kids decked out in their finest to celebrate the day.  Hey what school kid didn't like a day off? After this unscheduled activity we visit the Preshevalsky Museum.  One tough guy.  He did 4 expeditions into central Asia in the late 1800's, all trying to visit Tibet.  The only time he made it they refused him entry.   He didn't have the right visa!   Only kidding, but yes, they did refuse him entry.   What a bummer!!   It takes two years to get to the border and then "sorry you should have used CIBT".   (For those that don't know CIBT, it is the visa service ElderTreks recommends in Canada and its partner ZVS in the US.)

Lunch (are you getting the small impression that as a group, all we do is eat?) is in a busy local restaurant then a stroll to the local market which takes all of 10 minutes.  We do however discover the "Gold" street across the road.  What's that reality show, "Pawn Kings" or something like that?  Anyway here is where the local population comes to hock their rings and jewelry for it then to be on sale.  No bargains though.  I looked at some earrings and they were $500.  On the way back to the hotel we stop at a Muslim cemetery which looks like a small village. Then, as we are running late, straight to a local restaurant (food again) for a fish dinner that is supposed to be like salmon.  Well... it was good, don't get me wrong, but it was not salmon.

We awake again to bright sunshine, good weather for our ride to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan via the Burana Tower.  This thing is 40 meters high but they lost 20 due to an earthquake and we, the 4 fools that we are, decide to climb it inside. Challenging it is, almost vertical steps, and when we get to the top Roger (our Tour Leader) tells us we are the first ElderTreks clients to do it.  I'm proud to say of the 4, 2 are ElderTreks staff, but the view was worth it.  This on top of a lunch (yes food again) of a beef stew served in a "yurt".   Absolutely delicious, cooked and served by the staff of the local museum to get extra $$. Then onto Bishkek.

Tomorrow we hike (need it to get rid of the food).

Bob Perry - May 10, 2011
 

Bob Perry, one of ElderTreks Country Directors, will be blogging from the road as he sets off on an epic 25 days across central Asia as part of ElderTreks The Stans tour.  Keep your eyes on the blog as Bob will be posting updates throughout his tour. 

If it's Tuesday it must be Almaty, Kazakhstan?  Arrived in the wee small hours of the morning, 05:00, which is what all international flights do here, arrive in the wee small hours that is. Not sure what impression I had created in my mind but having received the highly official visa in my passport before I came it was if I expected this whole palaver to enter the country. Well it was all over and done with in 10 minutes.  Eat your heart out Toronto Airport.  Clear immigration and customs and outside being met by our local representative Ulan. Asked him one time the meaning of his name and in Kyrg it means "first of twins".

The city seems a little out of place here, one can almost imagine Stalin saying "There Will Be A City" and it was done. 6 lane highways through the centre of town, some areas still having the Red Star above the buildings, very Soviet Unionesque. The group all arrived ok via Frankfurt and Istanbul (there's a plug for Turkish Airlines again) and they are a good bunch. From the eldest who has a weakness for red wine to the youngest who is full of beans so we should have all have a good laugh as long as we keep our sanity.

As Almaty is a relatively new city there are limited things to see and do. Part of the day tour of the city includes a ride in a cable car to the top of a hill overlooking the city. You turn one way and spread out is the city of Almaty and it is only then you begin to realize how large it is.  Not one 6 lane highway but several. Turn the other way and you are presented with this incredible view of the Tien Shan mountains, covered in snow year round.

The weather later made a turn for the worse but by that time we were inside this incredible old wooden church where there were icons that the locals had saved during communist times and replaced in later years. Interesting diversity in Almaty, you go from being hassled by Tajik women on the street for money for their babies to stores from Brioni, Boss and D&G and they are at full Italian prices folks, no cheapos here.

Then onto Kyrgyzstan. Talk about a scene from a war novel!!! The border crossing looked like all the refugees trying to escape the country, pandemonium everywhere. We had to offload all our bags from the bus, walk through Kazakhstan customs (don't let the locals knock you out the way otherwise you will be there all day) cross the bridge with our bags and go through Kyrgyzstan customs and immigration. $60 lighter in our pockets we were then admitted to the equivalent number of people going in reverse.

After a superb picnic lunch organized by our tour leader Roger it is back in the bus for a few hours drive past cemeteries on the side of the road that look like small villages, to this small village in the Chong Kemin valley. Flanked either side by the incredible mountains of the Tien Shan range, we are staying at the Ashu Guest House, where a local family has created the right "ElderTrekky" experience. Walking to this area, out of the village over what could be laughingly called lanes, and seeing farmers and local people still working the land by hand, planting potatoes.  Being welcomed by a local shepherd and him insisting on shaking your hand even though neither of us could understand each other.  Just a feeling that they are genuinely pleased to meet someone from afar. A dinner provided by the family that runs the guest house of pilaf and a local sweet made from local crackers and honey, washed down with, yes, Vodka. The rooms seem basic but not.  I know that sounds strange but they have installed full bathrooms into each room that is so big you could hold a party but has the feel you are staying at a farm house.

Tomorrow we travel to Lake Issy Kul and deeper into an area surrounded by these incredible mountains so stay tuned.

Bob Perry - May 07, 2011
 

Bob Perry, one of ElderTreks Country Directors, will be blogging from the road as he sets off on an epic 25 days across central Asia as part of ElderTreks The Stans tour.  Keep your eyes on the blog as Bob will be posting updates throughout his tour. 

I have always thought that you could tell a city by its smell and its sound, not so anymore.

The Blue Mosque, Istanbul - Bob Perry

It has been 40 years since I first set foot in Istanbul and whilst I accept that is a long time I fully anticipated that both sound and smell would bring back memories of a city struggling to fully become the tourist mecca it should be. Well I can honestly say it's made it but the sounds and smells haven't.

Istanbul is the first stop for me on a trip that I roughly calculated would be 30,000km in 30 days. From Toronto to Istanbul to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan or as ElderTreks calls it the "5 Stans". Flying from Toronto or from some of the more major cities direct to Istanbul is no longer a hassle. Turkish Airlines provides non stop service from, and I'm going from memory here; Toronto, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.  I am most impressed with the level of service they provided. On time, which for me is a biggy, meal and beverage service beyond what you are going to get on US or Canadian airlines folks and non stop. Ok you arrive late afternoon in time for a small dinner, a couple of beers and bedtime. Wake up the next morning to the Muezzins call as I did.

Istanbul has really, really changed. The Sultanahmet area near to Topkapi Palace which, for me was a slightly decaying area of Ottoman houses is now the "Plaka" on steroids. Literally hundreds of small "butik" hotels (and no I have not spelt that wrong), mostly having between 15 to 25 rooms in the decaying Ottoman houses that are now renovated. Restaurants and bars along every narrow cobblestoned street. My hotel the Amiral (yes I'm giving shameless plugs here), was just in front of the Blue Mosque and within 10 minutes of Agia Sophia and Topkapi Palace.  Now walking in Istanbul may only take 10 minutes, but that could be straight up.  I've forgotten that this is a city of hills, good workout for anyone.

I spent the day walking from the hotel to Taksim Square and back via almost all the hotels that ElderTreks uses in Istanbul over what is mostly cobbled streets.  Talk about tired legs the next day. Had a beautiful lunch with our agent Berna and one of our guides, Gulin, looking over the Goldern Horn talking about how Istanbul was and now is. The Sultanahmet area comes alive at night with lights and, I'm sorry to say, tourist traps. Just like everywhere else the prices within this area reflect the tourist rather than the local, you could spend $30 on something that the next day you see in a small local restaurant for $3, but hey, tell me a city that isn't like that now.

The Grand Bazaar, Istanbul - Bob Perry

The next day I wandered into the Grand Bazaar to see how it has changed, but a tip: go early, after 12 it is a mass of people. The bazaar has now become, I think, the copycat capital of the world.  Everything from Ray Ban sunglasses to Prada handbags can be had for a fraction of the real price.  It's a shame they are copies but what can you do?  The gold stores however are just as I remembered, as I was early people were cleaning the windows to make sure that every gleam and glitter would be seen. Then time to make my way back to the hotel for the transfer to the airport for the flight to Almaty, Kazakhstan.  Five more hours of flying and another 4 hour time change.

Bob Perry - May 04, 2011
 

Have you ever wondered how some travel agencies get their name? Some are easy to discern without much of a thought process – “Good Times Travel” or “Sunny Skies Tours”. They appeal to our simplest emotions and are supposed to convey a sense of comfort and ease and most importantly with a vacation - the notion that all will be well should you travel with them. Other companies have tried to portray themselves as having an ‘exotic’ angle with names like ‘exotic tours’ or using the name ‘wild’. Wild Asia or Wild Africa is supposed to capture your desire to see the wild side of a particular country or continent. Yet others try for the erudite approach – ‘Road Scholars’ is one example and those connected with museums and universities all have their own travel programs – Harvard Travel, Smithsonian Travel.

Did you know that ElderTreks originally started out under a different name offering adventure-travel trips to all age groups? We realized early on however that there were no other adventure-travel companies catering to the ‘mature traveler’ – i.e. those over 50 years of age and in 1987 we became ElderTreks. We knew we were on to something big when every major newspaper in North America ran a feature story on this new concept. Despite our success some people have had trouble with the term 'Elder' being used.

In essence the word ‘Elder’ means more mature and wise, somebody who may be older than you, but not necessarily old. Granted maturity and wisdom do come with age. The adjective elder is not a synonym for elderly. In comparisons between two persons, elder means "older" but not necessarily "old". In other contexts elder does denote relatively advanced age but with the added component of respect for a person's achievement, as in an elder statesman. If age alone is to be expressed, one should use older or elderly rather than elder. Unlike elder and its related forms, the adjectives old, older, and oldest are applied to things as well as to persons.

Did you also know that there was another reason for the name change? Many of our early trips were led to destinations that were really off the beaten path. They were to places like Java and Irian Jaya where we ventured into small villages and really interacted with the local people. Many of these visits involved meeting up with the local headman and exchanging gifts and greetings and gaining their authorization to enter their lands. The term ‘Elder’ was really referring to the Village Elder and was thereby a term of respect.

We therefore thought it was appropriate based on our clientele and the destinations and types of trips we were offering to use the name ElderTreks. Over the years we still get asked “Why ElderTreks?” There is a least one person a month who says that they love our company but would prefer it if we changed our name. Does it really matter what we are called? If our itineraries are unique and our staff wonderful to deal with shouldn’t this really be the most important thing? Would changing our name change ones perception of themselves? Would it change how others perceive someone traveling with us? I suppose that when someone travels with a small group of people who are over 50 years of age they might not wish to be reminded of how old they are. To me it is more important to be traveling with like-minded people to a destination that we can all enjoy rather that letting age determine things. I have often encountered travelers in their 60’s who have more energy and interest in a country than someone in their 30’s or 40’s.

In the travel industry (just as in other businesses) your name and reputation are everything. While brand imaging is a key factor, name change should really only be undertaken as a last resort. There is one well-known travel company who did in fact change their name recently. The new name they chose was a bit strange. It had an odd Latin-sounding feel to it. I had trouble remembering it and kept referring to the old name. I can only assume others had similar trouble with it for they soon changed the name a third time shortly thereafter.

We have been Eldertreks for almost 25 years now and we are proud of our name. We must be doing something right as people keep coming back year after year to travel with us, despite our name.

So for those who ask “why ElderTreks?” at least you now know “What’s in a Name”.

David Roth - May 02, 2011
 

As fuel costs rise and security issues dominate the skies we can expect airlines to pass these increases along to the traveler.  We are seeing it now in the increase in departure/arrival taxes, security fees and fuel surcharges.  How many of us have booked a $500.00 flight to Europe only to find that the taxes associated with the ticket amount to a further $500.00?  It becomes even more important to save money where you can.  What are your sources to finding a cheap ticket in today’s market?  Travel agencies have been around ever since the major airlines gave them a role in selling tickets.  But as we all know the airlines today would like to put the genie back in the bottle and sell directly to consumers, bypassing the travel agent.  Airline consolidators still exist whereby your travel agent will have access to reduced fares but this is a shrinking market.  Remember travel agencies still need to add their administration fees onto any ticket that they sell you.  Depending on the type of discount they receive this may or may not be your best option.

It is almost a guarantee that the people sitting in the same row as you on the plane have all paid a different price for the same ticket.  British Airways was said to have more ticket options than seats on a plane.  To get the cheapest ticket means giving up your flexibility and purchasing well in advance.  By purchasing tickets that are 100% non-refundable and offer no opportunity to change you can usually save the most.  Of course you assume all the risk should something go wrong and you need to cancel (this is where trip cancellation coverage comes in handy).  Buy that ticket in advance and you could save even further.  Look for flights during non-peak travel periods will save as well.  Red-eye flights (at least domestically) offer a savings over other times of travel.  Multi-stop itineraries are usually frowned upon by frequent flyers yet those who collect airline points have long known that they can maximize their trip by including extra flights.

The Internet has allowed airlines to reach out directly to travelers oftentimes with last-minute specials and blitz seat sales.  Once they have sold a few seats they may remove the sale.  I have seen domestic seat sales offered at 9:00am only to have them gone by 4:00pm.  Unlike charter flights there is usually no great advantage to waiting until the last minute before purchasing your tickets. Normally airlines hold on to seats until the last few days before a flight in the hopes of being able to charge higher last-minute prices for those who really need to fly.   I always advise clients that if your travel dates are firm and you have found a good price, book it for you never know how long it will last.

Internet-related search engines provide a good source in comparing fares and booking flights.  Kayak.com does not sell tickets but is rather a source to direct you to other sites where you can purchase tickets.  Sites like cheapflights.com, or travelocity.com are good reliable options.  Hotwire.com, skyauction.com and priceline.com even allow you to bid for airline tickets.  For domestic flights the Internet is really the best way to finding cheap fares today.  It becomes a bit trickier once you start looking at international (i.e. long-haul) flights.   Here are few general tips to try when booking on-line:  Change your departure city.  You may be flying out of a smaller town that does not have the international connection.  By driving to a nearby (larger) city you might save a lot of money.  Check a few days on either side of your preferred travel dates.   Airlines have days of the week when the same ticket could be hundreds of dollars less.  Another trick that I have used to great advantage in the past it to sometimes break up a long flight and price the ticket out as 2 (or 3) separate tickets.  A flight from Los Angeles to Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea will cost over $3000.00 per person.  Price the same ticket as a return to just Sydney and then price a separate ticket from Sydney to Port Moresby and the total cost is $1500.00. Half the price of the original ticket!  Of course along with this option there is always the caveat that two separate tickets means checking in bags twice, sometimes clearing Customs, allowing enough time to make your connecting flight and possibly the additional costs of an airport hotel.  If the savings are great enough this may still be the way to go.

Booking from a specialist agency still has its advantages and in this super-competitive market they should still be able to find you some good deals.  Armed with the information that you can retrieve from the internet and the airlines directly this should make your decision process somewhat simpler and at least afford you the satisfaction of knowing that you have gotten the best fare available.

Safe Travels!

David Roth - April 12, 2011

You have to love stories like this.  A four person crew.  A homemade raft. 10 weeks at Sea, from Canary Islands to St. Martin.  The skipper, 85 year old Anthony Smith. 

Talk about your ancient mariners! British adventurer Anthony Smith, 85, and a senior citizen crew have sailed their tiny raft, An-Tiki, some 3,000 miles from Portugal's Canary Islands to St. Martin in the Caribbean. They arrived this morning.

Smith and his three-man crew wanted to show what the elderly can do when they set their minds and hearts to it. The crossing puts one more quill in the British traveler and author's already feather-festooned hat. As a young man, Smith traversed Iran by motorcycle and, as a man merely middle-aged, crossed Africa aboard a one-man balloon. He is the author of 30 books and lives in London.

Read the rest at the source, ABC News.

Gerry - April 07, 2011
 

We often get asked by clients, “where should I go next?”  I suppose the answer is best decided by a few return questions.  Where have you already been?  What are your interests?  What activities are you looking for?  There can be nothing worse than putting someone on a trip that they are clearly not suited for.  It only leads to troubles for themselves as well as the rest of the group.  At ElderTreks we categorize the activity levels on our trips from 1 to 5 with 5 being the most strenuous trip we offer.  This would include trips that involve extensive hiking, often at high altitude or through swamps and jungles.  Obviously those travelers with any mobility issues or those suffering from certain medical conditions should really think twice before joining one of these trips.  But what about trips of a lesser rating, say a 1 or 2?  Could we still have problems?  The answer is a resounding yes!  It may not be the physical limitations, which come into play, but rather the general conditions at the destination, which may affect the trip.  When traveling to less-developed countries conditions may not be what we are used to at home or even what we have experienced on previous trips.  It is each person’s reaction to local conditions that will largely determine whether the trip is a cultural odyssey or a disaster.

What do we expect when we travel to foreign lands?  I am the first to admit that nice hotels and clean restaurants are of primary importance but should they “make or break the trip”?  In my experience the answer has mostly been ‘no’.  When traveling I tend to remind myself of where I am and that things are not like they are at ‘home’.  Sometimes the level of accommodation or food served is truly the best available.  It often helps to find the humor in the little differences we may encounter when traveling.  I once stayed in a hotel in Djerba, Tunisia.  The room was OK but what caught my attention was the decorative trail of rose petals that were strewn about the room – including bed, shower and toilet - in an attempt to brighten up the place!  I stood transfixed upon entering not sure if I was supposed to move anything or just trample over the flowers.  I spent a restless night in a raised longhouse in Northern Thailand once.  The villagers had placed a pig under the floor and he squealed forever.  Rising groggily at dawn I was cursing the animal as I came down the ladder.  I did not have long to wait before a few of the locals arrived with long knives and untying the pig, proceeded to butcher him in front of my eyes.  He had apparently been brought in the night before for our benefit and was to be the main dish for our welcome dinner.  How many of us have been to a restaurant in China, eagerly awaiting a local dish only to have the proprietors proudly serve us a huge plate of French fries!  All you can do is smile.  No matter how difficult, frustrating or ugly things can get while traveling I am always glad to be on the road exploring somewhere new.  Remember, it is these interesting experiences that will make the best stories when you get home. 

If you feel you are someone who has to have their trip go smooth – in all aspects - then may I kindly suggest that you choose your next destination very carefully.  No matter how exciting you find the prospect of visiting somewhere like Ethiopia to be, the food and hotels will surely disappoint.  But then again if these comforts are what motivate your urge to travel you will miss out of some truly amazing experiences.

Safe travels!

David Roth - March 29, 2011
 

If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home.” – James Michener

 

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a tour leader? You probably think it is a life of glamor and excitement, visiting foreign countries and staying in upmarket hotels. Some of you may have even thought this might be a wonderful job based on your wealth of travel experience. There is another side to being a tour leader, one that is not as exciting.... Based on my years of experience as a tour leader I thought I would present this other side by way of a “wish list” of points that I hope will give you, dear reader another version of what it is really like. So in no particular order here they are:

 

  1. I wish you wouldn't complain about your recent bout of travelers diarrhea, which is quite common and should not be compared to bubonic plague.

  2. I wish people would not ask me what I think of their purchase of a water buffalo ashtray/lamp/incense burner at the local market. And yes, you paid too much for it.

  3. I wish everyone would get along on the trip and not form up into armed camps looking to curry favor with me and rejoice in the mistakes or slip ups of the other side.

  4. I wish those who suffer from excessive snoring or flatulence or some other such condition would admit to it and not look to share a room with someone else on the trip. Have a heart and pay for the single supplement. Or at the very least admit to your condition on the registration form and forewarn us.

  5. I wish people would willingly share the seats on the bus and not rush out early each morning to throw a sweater or book on the front seat.

  6. I wish people would try new foods on a trip and not look at each dish served like it was completely inedible slop.

  7. I wish people would believe me when I say not to pet that stray dog on the street in Lima, Peru. It is not as cute as you may think.

  8. I wish (after a day of seeing some amazing things) that people would not rush off the bus making a beeline for the hotel computers to check their email.

  9. I wish those joining a group tour would treat it like a group tour and not their very own private trip. I promise I will stop the bus for a photo opportunity but please don't wander off for 20 minutes while the rest of us wait for you.

  10. I wish people would understand that meeting on the bus at 8:45am to depart at 9:00am means just that and not for you to stroll down to the lobby looking to buy a postcard at 9:25am. There is actually a reason why we are leaving when we do.

  11. I wish people would not ask us what every bush or rock we drive past is called. We really don't know and will only make up an answer.

  12. I wish those who wish to shop and those who are fundamentally against it could get along. We won't spend forever in that market and yes we will get to the museum.

  13. I wish those who ask me to assist them with something on the trip would try and keep it to a legal request. And if not, to trust me when I say that what happens in Burma, stays in Burma.

  14. I wish fellow travelers would not berate or argue with local people on the trip. They are really trying to do their best and not ruin your vacation. It gives all of us in the group a bad name.

  15. I wish there were more people who thanked us at the end of a long day. It can be quite stressful looking after a group of people as we cross crocodile-infested waters in a dugout canoe or trek up the side of a mountain in search of gorillas.

  16. I wish more people were like the client who sent me photos of our trip on hand-made cards with local items from the country attached as decoration (thanks CC!).

  17. I wish to keep visiting more exotic countries and sharing the beauty they offer with those who truly appreciate it.

  18. I wish my boss would send me out on another trip soon....

David Roth - March 01, 2011
 

"I haven't been everywhere, but it's on my list." - Susan Sontag

You know who I am referring to. This is the guy at a party who proudly boasts how many places he's been to or that couple who just returned from a trip and boldly announced that they had now been to 50 countries. It's the person who would rather touch down in a different city for 1 hour in transit than miss the opportunity to add another country to their bucket list. What are we to make of these types? Are they guilty of not traveling in a proper fashion? And what truly constitutes having been to a country? Is visiting the capital city enough or do we suggest that there be a minimum percentage of territory covered to qualify as having visited somewhere new? I was in Yugoslavia back when it was one country. Does that mean I can add 6 more countries to my list now that the original Yugoslavia has dissolved? What about autonomous territories and disputed zones? Do they count too? At the end of the day who's to say what is right or wrong. Each of us travels for our own personal reasons. I once met up with a guy in Vietnam who told me that he had spent 3 weeks in a town in the Mekong Delta in order to try and 'experience' what their life-style was like. He looked down his nose at me when I told him I was trying to see the highlights of the entire country in 3 weeks! For each of us it is a matter of trying to find that perfect 'balance' between seeing and experiencing a place. For some, 2 days in Istanbul is enough. For others a month would be too short. For many of us we only have one chance at visiting a particular place. Could it be intent that counts? When you have a genuine interest in seeing a country and learning about its culture, history, people etc.(and would explore further if given the opportunity and time) that perhaps should be more of a determining factor rather than touching down in a country for 24 hours without a care of where you are. In the end I suppose what is right is what works for you. So go on people, keep counting. And for those who are keeping score, I have been to over 100 countries myself!

David Roth - February 17, 2011
 

Current events in Egypt (and last month in Tunisia) have once again raised the question of whether it is safe to travel to destinations when there is some sort of unrest occurring.  Your immediate answer would probably go far in defining you as an adventure traveler.  If you have traveled with ElderTreks before then you are probably more of an experienced traveler than the average person taking an all-inclusive package to the Dominican Republic.  Your response should be more measured and less panic-driven than others.  Or so you would think.....Our office routinely receives numerous calls from those booked on a trip where unrest has occurred and the attitude ranges from “hey cool, no problem, let me know what is happening” to “oh my god!  I can't travel there - are you guys crazy!”  Let's see if I can apply some objectivity to this question.

A few years ago I was due to lead a group to Ethiopia, spending 3 weeks visiting the sites around that amazing country.  Within 2 days of our departure violence broke out in the capital, Addis Ababa and spread to other cities in Ethiopia.  Media reports painted a bleak picture of a country about to explode.  Foreign Governments were advising their nationals to defer all non-essential travel.  The participants in my group were calling the office wondering what was going to happen, equally alarmed by what they had read in the newspapers and on-line.  I was faced with an immediate dilemma as to whether or not we should continue the trip as planned or cancel until a safer time.  I made one phone call to a colleague in Addis Ababa who assured me that the situation was under control and that the ‘problem’ as he described it was no longer an issue.  I ended up taking the group (our Ethiopian Airlines flight out of Washington D.C. was 75% empty) and even though we arrived to find a deserted airport in Addis Ababa we encountered no problems anywhere throughout the country.  In fact one advantage to the trip was that most tourists stayed away and our group had the whole country to ourselves.  Am I suggesting that you travel regardless of the situation?  Absolutely not but it is imperative to get all the facts clear.

How is one to determine whether the news we get is media hysteria or factual reporting?  With the world in constant change how is someone to decide if going on that trip to Morocco  or taking a safari in South Africa is a wise decision?  Flash points across the world can occur with barely a moments notice.  Today’s modern traveler has to be prepared to make an instant assessment on a trip they may have planned (and saved  towards) for a number of years.  There are many resources available that will enable you to make a well-informed decision.  Depending on how the trip is organized will define your first source of contact.

If your trip has been arranged by a licenced travel agency then you should be speaking with them to find out what they know and what they are prepared to do.  At ElderTreks we are in constant communication with our offices located around the world.  If a problem occurs in a destination where we have our groups we want to know the facts and to ascertain the security situation as quickly as possible.  If we have travelers in a troubled destination we quickly work to get them safely home.   If the group has not departed we need to assess the situation and to decide if the trip will occur.  Sometimes unrest is contained to a small part of a given country and it is possible to bypass the troubled areas and to continue our travels.  At other times the risk is too great and we are forced to cancel the trip.  Ultimately it is the safety of our clients which determines our course of action.

For those traveling independently or who just wish to get current information there are a number of resources at your disposal.  A good first source to check for updated information is your own Government.  The U.S. and Canadian Government's provide web sites where their citizens can view current country reports. Most governments offer web sites that they update regularly, especially in a time of crisis.  The U.S. Government web site can be found at: http://travel.state.gov/.  The Canadian Government's foreign assessment page can be reached at: http://voyage.dfaitmaeci.gc.ca/destinations/menu_e.htm.  Most trip cancellation insurance will cover you should your government issue an advisory warning against all non-essential travel to a particular country.  I find it is a good idea to compare country reports with other foreign governments such as the U.K. and Australia.  Keep in mind that governments always announce every little problem (perhaps for legal reasons?), while they seldom issue a follow-up memo to state that things are now calmer - much to the annoyance of the many countries that are targeted, such as  Ethiopia in my earlier example.

The internet is also a great source of current, up to date information.  People all over the world now have their own blog sites that give a local viewpoint.  Sites such as Facebook and Twitter are being widely used as recent events in Egypt and Tunisia have shown.  Travel web sites such as Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree Branch (http://thorntree.lonelyplanet.com/) allow internet users to post questions and get updated information from other travellers who are there or who have recently returned from your planned destination.  Another site that lists current country reports is: http://www.airsecurity.com, where you will find country updates under their Hot Spots listing.

Keep things in perspective. Unrest in the Congo should not make you cancel your trip to South Africa. The war in Iraq does not affect a trip to Dubai. The media’s job is to sell papers – bad news sells (if it bleeds it leads) – there is oftentimes a tendency to overstate a situation. How many times have we been in a country only to receive a frantic telephone call or email from a friend or family member asking if we are alright and that they had just heard that there was a massive earthquake in our region. For many of us it is simply an opportunity to thank them for the update and to reply that we had no idea of any problems and that we are doing well!

Try and get an idea of how any unrest affects tourists (and foreigners) in general.  Many conflicts are localized and may involve small street riots or demonstrations and are not specifically targeting tourists or foreigners.  For many years Nepal experienced a low-level civil war yet the only effect this had on foreigners was a “head tax” that was imposed on those trekking in the Himalayas.  It is also possible to amend an itinerary to avoid problem areas and still see the major highlights of a country. 

In the end you have to use your own best judgement to decide if you should travel or not.  Try not to fall victim to media/government hysteria.  After all it is your trip and you want to enjoy yourself as much as possible.  If traveling is going to make you uneasy in any way than you should reconsider or postpone your travels to another time.  But as I like to say to those who question my decision to visit exotic places - either you’re a traveler or you’re not.

Safe travels! 

David Roth - February 08, 2011

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