Sunday, December 28, 2008

Don't Go There - The Book

Dontgothere I’m a fan of Vagablogging, because I’m a fan of "Vagabonding" and Rolf Potts.

Sadly, on December 23rd Vagablogging has reached a new low. It posted a book “review” in which the contributing blogger freely admitted to not reading the book she was talking about. So, she trashed the book based on what? Her ESP perhaps and another review she had read elsewhere.

Is that even allowed? Not to mention, honest and ethical?

The book in question is “Don’t Go There” by Peter Greenberg. A wholly excellent book, which tells you about places you should put on your “must-miss” list. As a person who has her own must-miss lists (as opposed to “must-see” lists) I appreciate the idea. My must-miss list includes the Taj Mahal and Beijing on cloudy days (unless you really want to find out if your medical insurance covers hospitalization abroad due to sudden asthma attacks), Iowa on any day, the islands of Sal, Tenerife, and big chunks of Costa del Sol, among others. And Naples. I love Italy, but Naples is just dreadful in more ways that you can imagine. My list of must-never-stay-there-again hotels is by now about three pages long.

So, I understand Mr. Greenberg’s sentiment. But the person “reviewing” the book for Vagablogging, Abha Malpani, apparently did not.

Abha, honey, if you think there are no must-miss places, then you still have a long ways to go as a traveler. Get out and SEE the world, really see it, the filth, stench, bedbugs and all. Abha, the “reviewer” says, “You’ve got to be really travel frustrated to come up with a stink list of places not to visit, no?”

No hon, coming up with a stink list of places not to visit simply means that you’ve been around the block a few times and seen some REAL stink. Which only proves once again how pitifully arrogant and incompetent you are in your “review” and travel experience.

Oh, and not allowing any more comments on that post is a really good move. You’d get trashed.

Eeegadz, now you see just how low Vagablogging has fallen as of late. I didn’t even know they allowed total cretins to write for them these days.

PS. Since they’re also looking for contributing writers, I sent them an email, but needless to say, I don’t expect an answer. Oh well…

PS2. Mr. Greenberg also has a very cool website where you can send in your tales about places from hell.

And finally, PS3.

Because I am getting emails about it from people who obviously have serious reading and comprehension problems, let me spell it out here, in simple words of 3 syllables or less, OK?

I have nothing against Abha expressing her negative opinion about the book. But to do so WITHOUT reading the book first, and to do so under the highly-respected name of Vagablogging is not cool. If she had read it and THEN trashed it, fine, that's what people reviewing books occasionally have to do. 

And I apologize  that "occasionally" has five syllables.

Now, don't you people have some traveling to do, or something?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

CADIP Continued...

It's official, I am NO LONGER recommending CADIP as an option for prospective volunteers. Bad feedback has been piling up and the staffer at CADIP with whom I was corresponding was either unwilling or unable to provide his last name for the record. Instead, he kept responding with semi-correct pre-packaged bits of information.

So, to all you potential CADIPers out there - hold on to your monies. There are better options. I'll show you where, too! No worries.

PS> I apologize for my long silence. I was translating one book and finishing writing another and volunteering all at the same time. Life has been a little bit crazy over here recently.

But now, we're back in business! And by the way, I HATE the way that typepad has "improved" their text editor. Urgh! Who thought up this shit, huh?

Monday, August 11, 2008

I read books - about Mexico City

David_lida_book One of the fun things about blogging about travel is that people send you stuff. Just because. They don’t even expect you to write anything about it, but of course are delighted if you do. Especially when you write something positive.

Most of the time, I don’t bother to write anything, because either the stuff is crap, or totally irrelevant to this blog. However, books are always welcome. Send me more books, please. Even if I don’t like them, I can always use them as doorstops. Or give them away as last-minute gifts, or what-not. And I may even write about them, too.

And speaking of writing… I’m really enjoying the writing of David Lida. He’s a journalist based in Mexico City, and his new book “First Stop in the New World” came in the mail not so long ago. And this is one book definitely worth saying positive things about.

Mr. Lida moved to Mexico City in 1990, if I remember correctly. And if I’m not going totally senile here, my first Mexico City adventure was in the early 1990s, too.

I got robbed silly in Cancun and the friendly police chief there who took my statement, felt sorry for me and actually gave me enough money for a bus ride to Mexico City. I was to go straight to the embassy to sort out my travel documents, and then to an Amex office to pick up the cash my best buddy dutifully wired to me.

The bus ride was long. And boring. I was hungry and tired and did my best to sleep. We stopped in Veracruz and it seemed we were going to stay there forever. Which I didn’t mind at all, as I had the worst bout of the worst motion sickness ever. Later it turned out it wasn’t motion sickness at all, but a bad burger from Wendy’s in Cancun. Quite a few people got food poisoning from that joint that summer, and mine was a relatively mild case. Still, it was no fun to go through it on a cross-country Mexican bus ride.

But anyway, where were we? In Veracruz, right? So, this guy got on the bus, and because the only empty seat was next to me, he had no choice but to be brave, sit down and inhale the vapors of my vomit. The alternative was standing for the next 14 hours, or so. Actually, more like 20 hours, because the bus broke down soon after leaving Veracruz.

For the life of me, I don’t remember the guy’s name. He was from Arizona, or maybe Arkansas, and on his way to see his relatives in Mexico City. His car was stolen in Veracruz and we immediately bonded over our mutual misfortunes. He spoke Spanish, seemed to know where he was going and took me under his wing, vomit and all.

His relatives owned a swanky little restaurant somewhere in Mexico City and that was our first destination. To get there we rode the metro. I had been told what a horrid, dangerous place this Mexico City was, where at every corner evil characters waited to take my money, or my virginity. The metro was supposed to be even worse. But because I had no money left, and my virginity was highly questionable at that point, I let myself be led into the bowels of the Mexico City underground transport system. And surprise, surprise. It turned out to be clean, cheap and efficient. With helpful pictograms at every turn to aid those who couldn’t read Spanish (like me, back in those days, for example). Though my new friend explained the pictures were aimed at illiterate campesinos, who were flooding Mexico City with hopes of a better life.

I was enamored with Mexico City. It was frantic and crazy, crowded and vibrant, yet friendly and somehow oddly familiar at the same time. Exactly how Mr. Lida describes it.

We ate at the guy’s relatives’ restaurant and were quickly sorted a place to crash for the night somewhere behind the kitchen. We listened to live music long into the night, and in the morning were rustled back to life by the sounds of a produce deliveryman.

When my week in Mexico City had come to an end, I was in love. With the place. Not with the guy – in any case, he was batting for the other team. A pity, too. The guy was hot.

Reading Mr. Lida’s book brought back all those memories, and then some. His book is meticulous when it comes to facts and details. You can use it as a guidebook, if you want. All you ever needed to know about Mexico City is there. Now, if it only had a bit of humor in it, it would have been perfect.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

End of misleading airfare ads?

Hallefreakinlujah! It’s about time! What took them so long?

Finally, some big poobahs in charge woke up and decided it would be a good idea to tell Ryanair and other offenders just where they can shove their 1 euro promotional airfares.

Full article in The Guardian here.

Now all the budget airlines are required to include all fees and taxes in their advertised fares. Which makes me very, very happy. So now Ryanair quickly raised their promotional prices to the equivalent of 5 or 10 euro (at least in Sweden).


But it appears Ryanair bosses only got the first page of the memo, because their fares still don’t include taxes and other charges.

It seems that SkyEurope got the whole memo. They advertise prices for 1 euro/pound all inclusive. Which looks mighty fine until you actually try to book one of those special fares. Yeah, right. Good luck!


And then you read the fine print, which says:

One-way, ALL INCLUSIVE. Subject to availability. Web reservations only. 14-days advance purchase applies. Subject to payment of credit/debit card fees and baggage fee.

Some morons (I was going to use a much stronger word, but since this is a family blog and all that, morons will have to do for now) will just never learn. I hate budget airlines.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

What's the deal with CADIP? Part 2

UPDATE: I NO LONGER RECOMMEND CADIP. They need to stop treating every prospective volunteer like a brainless load of cash. And Roy needs to learn to sign his emails with both his first AND last names, if he wants to be taken seriously. Or better yet, he needs to be fired and a whole new management needs to be brought in.

If you're looking for an organized volunteering alternative, consider Service Civil International. Same setup as CADIP, but much nicer to deal with.

OK, I hope that now we can put the issue of whether CADIP is a scam out of its misery.

I promised you guys that if I got a reply from CADIP, I would post it on my blog. And here it is:

Dear Anna,

Thank you for your message and your interest in our activities. Please accept my apologies for the unusual delay in responding to your e-mail. We have received an extremely high volume of e-mails in the past several weeks and have been unable to answer all of the requests within our habitual time frame. Now is the busiest time of the year and, in this very moment, there are literally hundreds of volunteers taking part in so many different programs of CADIP or its partners around the globe.

CADIP is a non-profit organization, registered under the Society Act of British Columbia, Registration Number S-48793. It has no religious or political affiliation. Through various charity, volunteer and youth initiatives, CADIP promotes peace, cooperation, tolerance and understanding in multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and international surroundings. The organization also promotes patterns and examples of civil activities focused on serving others, on building social ties and strengthening communities, and on supporting civil society development.

CADIP is a reputable organization with a successful history and thousands of volunteers that are happy with our work. CADIP volunteers have been contributing for years to many charitable projects, development initiatives, cultural events, etc. around the world.

We strive to be the most reliable organization of this kind in North America and we constantly make efforts to give meaning the word affordable when it comes to international volunteering.
Actually, CADIP was created as an organization that would change the pricing of the international volunteer service for the people who want to volunteer abroad without breaking the bank. One of our unwritten goals is to provide affordable international volunteer experiences and to be an alternative to many organizations and private agencies that ruin the idea of volunteering by charging huge fees for similar activities.

We strive to provide a variety of volunteering opportunities in Canada and abroad for a really affordable financial contribution. And we truly believe that CADIP is working for the best of the voluntary service movement.

It’s just unbelievably inappropriate to blame Cadip of being a scam. We are respected not only by our members but also by our partners in Canada and abroad. It may be a good idea for you to check out the web site of the United Nations in its section for international volunteering, or go to the web of the Government of British Columbia in the section 'volunteering' or the respective section on the web sites of the biggest Canadian universities. We think that scams would never be listed there.

There is truly nothing that can lead someone to think CADIP is a scam.
Scams exist to make profit, and we are one of the organizations with the smallest fees ever. As a comparison, you can easily find organizations on the Internet that charge 10 times more and which start with a strictly non-refundable deposit that equals all our fees put together. By the way, we noticed that some of them have a twisted understanding for competition in the nowadays world. Trying to justify their high fees, some of them spread false information, sometimes they post fabricated opinions of former volunteers in blogs under fake names. We believe you understand what we are talking about. Just browsing on the net, you’ll find proof of all and any of our words.

If someone contacts you with a concrete case, we can comment, but only if we have the details, not in general. Of course, nobody is perfect, there is always room to improve the work of any organization, and we are always open for that.

We believe that we are a reliable and experienced organization and we are doing our best to provide not only affordable but safe and enriching international volunteer experience. We are proud with our achievements but we consider ourselves just as a part of the colourful and meaningful world of the world volunteerism. By the way, Canadian volunteerism is considered internationally to be one of the most developed and CADIP strives to be just one more reason for that.

At the end, let me thank you for your efforts to spread the word about CADIP’s activities.

We wish you success and personal happiness.


So if I get one more email from anyone who claims to have been mistreated by CADIP, I will forward it to Canada, because I am not a Better Business Bureau. Are we clear?

Now, go and bother someone else.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

They can't be serious!

Every so often I’m asked to review things, which if I feel like it, I do. Occasionally, an odd company here and there will flat out ask for a favorable review in exchange for monetary compensation. And that immediately makes me wonder just how lame you have to be to even suggest that. I never respond to such offers.

But then this morning, I got a very nice email from Katie, who also wanted me to review something. Katie went a step further – she asked for an unbiased review AND offered payment. Sweet! I get to trash something AND get paid?

Unfortunately for me and Katie, I do not accept money for reviews. If I recommend something, it’s because it’s good and useful and I like it. And if I don’t like something, I’ll tell y’all for free.

Katie wanted me to review a cheap airfare searching/booking site. I’m not going to give you a link, because trust me, it’s not worth it. It’s THAT bad.

The site claims to have 4 unique golden guarantees, with the first one being “Lowest Airfare & Hotel Rate”. Oh what a crock of BS! I plugged in a set of dates into their search boxes, Stockholm to JFK August 20-27, and the cheapest result I got was:

  • British Airways - $946.60 round trip - that was the lowest option.

I plugged in the same dates into and got $922 for the same flights, directly from BA.

But guess what? Kayak also provided options that the other schmucks didn’t, options that were even cheaper: $744 on KLM/Northwest.

There went that first golden guarantee. I really didn’t feel like bothering with the other three.

But wait! It gets worse. The airfares they list do not include all fees and taxes, you have to click something to get that info. You people can’t be serious? That is like so mid 90s. Do you honestly think that I am going to buy something, anything, from you if you can’t be upfront about the costs involved?

I’ll spare you the rest – pathetic hotel search results (again found cheaper elsewhere), bad design, lack of currency conversion function, and the most curious of all – the cheapest fares are NOT listed on the very top, you have to scroll quite a long way down to see them.

Either that site is a joke, or a scam, because I seriously cannot imagine why anyone with two brain cells to rub together would use it.


Yes, that unfortunate company is located in NYC (at least that's what it says on their website), about 12 blocks up from there. Ah, New York...

Friday, June 27, 2008

What's the deal with CADIP?


UPDATE: I NO LONGER RECOMMEND CADIP. They need to stop treating every prospective volunteer like a brainless load of cash. And Roy needs to learn to sign his emails with both his first AND last names.

If you're looking for an organized volunteering alternative, consider Service Civil International. Same setup as CADIP, but much nicer to deal with.

I see that a lot of you end up here when searching for “CADIP scam” or “CADIP legitimate”. Some of you even take the time to write emails and ask questions about that group.

I am not sure what’s responsible for this recent spike in interest in CADIP. I did see that the organization started to use Craigslist to recruit volunteers, and I can only assume that’s how most people heard about it for the first time. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that with everything else that’s on Craigslist, the company may or may not be legitimate.

CADIP is legitimate. At least it was the last time I checked. It’s a big Canadian volunteer work camp coordinator and has presence and connections all over the world. And because it’s big, it offers many volunteer options, and because it offers many options, it uses a lot of volunteers. And not only volunteers from Canada. As with any big organization, some of those volunteers have excellent experiences, and others -  not so excellent. And some – utterly crappy. A couple of people who had utterly crappy CADIP volunteer gigs sent me emails screaming at me for recommending the company on my blog.

I feel your pain, but the fact that your volunteer placement was less than stellar doesn’t mean that the company is a rip-off. I may hate Air France so much that my groin hurts, but even though EVERY flight I had with them turned into a total nightmare, it doesn’t mean that Air France is a scam. Or maybe it is, and I didn’t get the memo.  You never know with airlines these days.

As any placement agency, CADIP charges a fee. But unlike other placement agencies, their fees are actually reasonable. They also offer volunteer options in Europe, which in this day and age just might be the cheapest way for North Americans to spend some time on the old continent.

When it comes to CADIP’s volunteer programs elsewhere, they only act as a middleman offering placement with a variety of local NGOs in far away lands. With a little bit of detective work googling, you could probably locate the same opportunities yourself. That’s how I came across CADIP for the first time. I worked on the same program alongside their volunteers. They seemed well organized and happy with their lot.

After reading your less than pleasant CADIP stories, I sent an email to the overlords in Canada expressing my concern about the current state of things. If and when they respond, I will post their reply here.

In the meantime, cut them some slack. Just because they’re Canadian (hey, nobody’s pefect!) doesn’t mean they don’t know what they’re doing ☺

Monday, June 23, 2008

Musical journeys

When hearing musical journeys y’all probably think I’m gonna go all Césaria Évora or Maria de Barros on you. Nah, not this time. That would be way too easy. Though I admit to being a huge fan of Cape Verdean music, and I wish I could be in Mindelo for the Baia das Gatas festival in August, there’s more to Anna’s musical travels than São Vicente.

Actually, I’d much rather be in Canada on July 1st to see Daniel Lanois play at the Montreal Jazz Festival. Now, I’m not a fan of jazz - too noisy for my taste. But I do like Montreal, and oddly enough, have never been there during summer.

Daniel Lanois is a whole ‘nuther thing altogether. I bought “Acadie” way back when at a garage sale simply because I thought he looked cute in the cover photo. It was only 2 bucks and fortunately, the music turned out to be nice. Very nice, actually. A nice blend of something very listenable. I’m clueless when it comes to music and normally divide it into the kind I like and the rest. “Acadie” I liked. Which was odd, because to this day I’m not a fan of artists Lanois produced. Including U2. And even weirder, the only U2 album I do like – "Zooropa", he didn’t produce.

Acadie”, however, was impossible NOT to like. That the sexy voice occasionally sung in French helped, too. The following album “For The Beauty of Wynona” made me want to chew my leg off and bleed to death. And that was it.

I went about my happy life and listened to “Acadie” every now and then. For the past 15 years, or so…

Then sometime this April I turned on the TV and saw some ugly old fart talking at me about the new U2 album. I’ll be damned. Lanois was still alive. And on Swedish TV. He even had a record out of his own. And a documentary film. And probably a few other things as well.
I diligently trolled the internet to get the feel for his new album and decided I quite liked it. (Don’t worry, I didn’t deprive a rich guy of his royalties, I only listened to the free samples.)

Turned out Mr. Lanois has quite a following in Sweden, complete with hysterical fan girls fainting at the very mention of his name (not bad for an man, wouldn’t you say?). And it was one of those fan girls who told me about her planned trip to the Montreal Jazz Festival. 
And here I thought I was bad for flying down to Stockholm to see Crowded House last year! Ha! That’s nothing compared with a trek from Sweden to Canada. Well, at least Neil Finn being still somewhat vaguely good-looking wasn’t an assault on the eyes. But Daniel Lanois? Man! That guy has AGED!

However, if I didn’t have to look at Mr. Lanois up close, I quite would like to hear him play live, I admit. At least he still has his sexy voice. But maybe next time… So don’t die on me, old man! At least not before you play “Still Waters” for me live, OK?

And this is the song that has been the soundtrack to my travels for the past 15 years. A curious choice for a non-believer like me.

And here's a great site dedicated to Mr. Lanois put together by some guy on squidoo.

PS. I still can't over the fact that the old man has screaming fan girls who follow him around the world.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Voluntouring scams

The crappy voluntourism post prompted more emails (you people need to learn how to leave comments, or otherwise I’ll humiliate you on the blog, are we clear?), and the two messages that immediately stood out inspired the rant for today.

I also have to apologize for the recent voluntourism overload. This is not intentional, and I promise we will return to our regularly scheduled programming soon. I hope. Unless people will keep sending me goofy emails and cry about how they got ripped off.

Yes, today’s topic – volunteering scams.

What? You thought volunteering was immune to scams and rip-offs? I said it before, and I’m going to say it again – volunteering is BIG business. Bigger than you can imagine. And as in any business, some people get cheated.

What my correspondents described is a rather mundane volunteering placement scam. How anyone with two brain cells to rub together could fall for it, is beyond me. People, people… Just because someone posts on internet forums looking for volunteers, appears to have a website with pictures of sad children and has a sappy story to match, doesn’t mean that someone is legit.

Here are some warning signs:

1.    They (whoever “they” might be) won’t tell you upfront how much your placement will cost. They insist that you email them for more information, and when you do, they will still be very evasive.

2.    They claim to be a registered NGO in whatever country they are based, but refuse to provide the registration number. You did ask for their charity’s registration number, didn’t you? No? Oh well…

3.    The only form of payment they will accept is a bank transfer. They won’t agree that you hand them hard cold cash upon arrival. (Which, by the way, in my experience, is the preferred MO of most legit grass-roots NGOs to conduct business. Cash is king. Much easier to embezzle, too.)

4.    They refuse to provide you with any information regarding your placement until you complete the bank transfer.

Normally, the sums of money they ask for are not outrageous, anywhere from 300 dollars to 300 euros. These people know it’s about the standard going rate for a “budget” placement – the type where your room and board are covered for 2 to 4 weeks.  Where do they tend to operate? Anywhere! India, Nigeria and Senegal seem to be the most recent hot spots.

How to avoid getting ripped off? Do you homework, ask the right questions, and if the answers are not forthcoming, move on. There are hundreds of legit charities out there itching for volunteers. But the best way to avoid a scam, especially for an inexperienced first time wanna-be volunteer, is to use a reputable BIG organization such as CADIP or Service Civil International.

Case closed.


India is incredible and all that, but for the love of humanity, before you hand over your money please check out carefully any organization you're not familiar with.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Crappy voluntour experience?

Somebody asked me recently about a crappy volunteering experience. And then somebody else searched for the very same topic on this blog.

Hmmm… Interesting…

As with everything else in life, you really can’t predict how your voluntour will turn out. My absolutely worst experience happened in a (somewhat) civilized former Russian republic, where I was showing local teachers how to incorporate media and technology in teaching English. The donated media and equipment was stolen even before I got to the school. My handlers, unaware of the fact that I could understand them, tried to scam me in more ways than one. Let’s just say that after one week, I packed my bags and did a midnight run. And the worst part? This gig was arranged by a much recommended placement service in such a need of a volunteer for this particular post, they agreed to waive a program fee. When hearing about my complaints, the agency did absolutely nada to rectify the situation.

What became painfully obvious from this experience is that many volunteer placement services do not pre-screen local charities they work with/for. Even though they may claim otherwise, their grasp of what is actually happening in the host country may be minimal. And depending on the situation, there might be nothing they can do to help. Scary? You betcha!

Having worked on both sides of the volunteering business, because let’s face it – that’s exactly what it is – a big, fat, money-making business, the horror stories I could share with you are many. Local directors who embezzle the funds, local coordinators who don’t give a damn, volunteers who do nothing but drink beer and screw local girls, volunteers who are exploited financially by unscrupulous local staff and/or their host families, and the list could go on…

Yet for every crappy experience, there are hundreds, if not thousands of positive ones that change people’s lives, yours including, for the better. In my volunteering, I choose to remember and focus on these experiences.

If you prefer to dwell on the negatives, then maybe you should stay home. Just sayin’.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

On volunteering, AGAIN

It always amazes me when people bemoan the lack of affordable, low-cost options for volunteering abroad. They say that no matter how hard they look, all they can find are programs that charge steep participation fees. You know, the ones that want a couple thousand euros/dollars/pounds for 4 weeks of work in Peru/Africa/Nepal.

And hence many would-be volunteers complain that finding a low-cost, grass-roots opportunity is almost impossible without having contacts overseas. Well, them folks are not looking hard enough, me thinks.

After two days of trolling the internet (I’m researching info for my upcoming book), I have compiled a list of 175 organizations that are desperate for volunteers and don’t charge you an arm and a leg. Some don’t charge you anything at all. Some ask that you pay for your room and board. Some are so bold they even request that you contribute to the project you plan to work on. And even with those add-ons, the total expenses rarely go above $400 a month. Not a week, as some big guys want to charge you, but a month. These organizations are in all corners of the globe, from Nicaragua, to India to Kenya. And those are just the ones that have websites!

This makes me think that many of these “I can’t find anything! Boo! Help me!” wanna-be volunteers are simply lazy. Which on the one hand is good news for me – my book will have a captive audience. But on the other hand, this utter lack of initiative makes me sad. Truly, some people would do more good by staying home and donating money to a charity of their choice.

Harsh? Maybe. Rude? You betcha! However, if such a mind-numbingly simple task as using google proves to be too difficult for some, do you really think they are suited to more complex work abroad?

Let me get back to my research before I offend the two remaining readers of this blog…

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Ten airlines with decent ECONOMY class food

Articles like this one make me laugh. Golly gee whiz! So the airlines still serve gourmet meals in first/premium/business/or whatever it’s called these days class? And how exactly is that newsworthy?

Unfortunately, whenever we hear about improvements in the on-board chow, it’s always for the folks sitting in the front of the bus. For the cattle class economy, the reality is starkly different.

I bet if Ms. Heger was to write about outstanding food served in the poor people class, she wouldn’t have all that much to say. And why should she? It’s so much easier to blab on about the fabulous first class cuisine in first class on Singapore Airlines. And because I fly economy, stories like hers are about as useful to me as two tits on a bull.

A real achievement would be listing those airlines that still feed decent food to the cheap hordes flying in seats that don’t recline into lie-flat beds. Do such airlines even still exist?

Yep, and here’s a few:

1. Kingfisher. I dunno how they do it, but somehow they do it. They manage not to poison you with their meals. The food is always tasty, fresh and served with a smile.
I love Vijay Mallya, I love Kingfisher and can’t wait until they start flying internationally. Kingfisher is India’s first and only 5-star airline and it shows. Even in economy.

The rest is listed in no particular order.

2. Asiana. Even on short haul routes between Korea and Japan you get a nice, edible, pretty looking meal.

3. Japan Airlines. Not bad for economy class. But on shorter flights all you get is a drink. Bummer…

4. Korean Air. If you go for the Korean style meal, you will do just fine.

5. Singapore Airlines. I think this is one airline where you just can’t go wrong, be it in business or economy. They’ll feed you good.

6. Qatar Airways. I was duly impressed with the chow in the back of the bus. Nice and filling. And pretty looking, too. And I’m even more impressed now that Qatar flies to Stockholm.

7. El Al. This might be the only airline where the food in economy gets better marks than in business class. And I’m saying this even though I can’t stand hummus.

8. Emirates. Well, this is a toss up. Last time I flew with them, the food was only OK. But it seems that on flights to Japan, the food is much better than on those to India. Hmmm... Interesting...

9. Thai Airways. Personally I can’t stand this airline, but their economy food is good. Much better than Malaysia Air.

10. EVA Air. I somehow always end up with the Asian style meal on their flights but can’t complain. As most Asia based airlines, they take care of their passengers and don’t make them gag.

See, it wasn’t impossible! Ten airlines that don’t poison you in economy, at least not according to my taste. True, my taste has been known to be somewhat perverted, but I'm not dead yet (which incidentally, almost happened after consuming the suspicious goo served by Finnair on a flight to Narita.)

For more on airline meals go to this site. These people are hardcore and even take photos. Now, how’s that for dedication, huh?

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

In Pictures - Bhutan

I’m down with a vicious case of summer flu (or whatever it is that sits in my throat, nose and head) and that makes me a very cranky person. On a day like today, I just wish I were somewhere else. So to facilitate my escapism, I’m going to sort through some pretty photos.
(Because there's no Calgon where I live.)

Thimphu at night

On the way to Haa


Panoramic Paro


Seen in Thimphu

Friday, May 30, 2008

Some people should just stay home...

Oh no! This story is just too precious! You think this guy, being a lawyer, should be at least somewhat maybe perhaps vaguely smart. But noooooo!
And now he acts like he’s the only passenger ever, whose "vacation turned into a nightmare after his family was stranded in an airport for days and treated disdainfully by airlines employees." What a schmuck!

Mr. Lawyer, I guess you haven’t been traveling much these days, have you?

But let’s start from the top.

1.    Why did you book such a close connection in Atlanta? Especially when connecting to an international flight? In Atlanta! And especially when traveling from NYC? On Delta! During the Christmas vacation season!

Hmmm… How do you say “an IQ of a stool sample?”

If your flight from NYC was only 2 (yes, ONLY TWO) hours late, and you were denied boarding for your connecting flight to Buenos Aires, that means you (or your secretary, if she booked your tickets) knows zilch about air travel. Your connection was too close, and of course you missed it! Did you really think you could comfortably make a two-hour transfer from a domestic flight (from NYC!) to an international one? In Atlanta!

Let’s just hope that your secretary, if she indeed booked your tickets, has huge bazongas, because obviously she’s not all that when it comes to brain power.

And if you booked this flight yourself, then you got exactly what you deserved.

2.    Of course being a tightwad, you flew economy. Because if you were a first class crowd, they would have let you board late, or wouldn’t have told you that the next available flight was 2 weeks later. Trust me! You’d be whisked away to a lounge and sorted out in no time.

So not only you are dumb as a doorknob (or hire secretaries based on the size of their chests), you’re also a cheap doorknob.

And now you think you can sue Delta for 1 million dollars, because “through its gross negligence, malfeasance and absolute incompetence”, your vacation was ruined.

I have two words for you – travel insurance.

But why am I having this very strange psychic feeling that you were too cheap for that, too?
Wait, how did you describe Delta? Absolute incompetence? Or was that a reference to your own travel planning skills?

Well, Mr. Lawyer, thanks for the laughs, and good luck with your lawsuit!


(Photo courtesy of caribb. Thanks!)

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Do we need another one?

Do we really need more travel sites with user-generated content? Can we please stop already!
Or design one that is actually useful?

The new kid on the block is Placely. Kinda awkward name, isn’t it? The site is new and it shows. When typing “London” or “Berlin” into the destination box, it gave me no results. Just for the heck of it, I also tried “Sweden”. Still nada. And “Germany”. Zilch.

The options it does show you are: France, India, Los Angeles and New York. Which is, I’m guessing, where the contributors live. Let’s hope they get more contributors soon.

(Placely asked me to be a Placely guide, but I politely declined. An email sent to them inquiring about compensation for guides’ contributions went unanswered.)

I did sign up for Placely just to see what it looked liked for the initiated. It was still awkward. Inputting all this rubbish about my travels took more time than I had, and so I gave up. And what’s the point anyway?

It seems that Placely, just like Chickable, Matador, MyDayTrip and others, is trying to combine social networking with travel. Which will probably appeal to some people. Unfortunately, I am not one of them.

And just like the other sites, it also provides a platform for wannabe aspiring travel writers to share their stories in a non-threatening, friendly setting. And I’m either too anti-social, or too lazy to be bothered. Or both. Yeah, definitely both…

But I do like Placely, it means well and is full of youthful enthusiasm.

But that name! Dude, you know that half the known universe won’t be able to pronounce it correctly, right?

So, Pracery, I wish you luck! And I’ll be watching you!

Sunday, May 25, 2008

It's official - I'm dull and boring!

So, I finally got my hands on a scanned copy (thanks Nika!) of my story in the June issue of Real Travel mag, and yeah, just as I expected…

All traces of life and spunk have been very diligently edited out. Things that would have been obvious to American readers acquired additional explanations - not always correct, and one even with a typo. Portugal is spelled with a BIG “P”, you know?

The end result – a dull, boring story of some dull, boring chick who just happened to visit Cape Verde. The article was fashioned into yet another example of the “my friend and I” style of travel writing, which is a perfect way of making sure I stop reading, turn the page and never buy Real Travel again. Or maybe that was the editor’s plan? Dunno…


Anyway, onto bigger, better, brighter things.

The Eurovision Finals are tonight!!! I’m rooting for Latvia!


Ok, so Russia won Eurovision. Of course! All the former republics voted for the Russian entry.

And Herregud! The Swedes, judging from what the press writes over here, still don’t get it. It’s NOT about songs anymore! People, what year are you living in? Do you honestly think that a western European country will win ever again? Hahaha! Dream on!

Friday, May 23, 2008

Yes, we pay for that too...

It looks like travelers in the US are getting their panties all up in a wad, because American Airlines decided to charge monies for ALL checked bags.

So what’s the big deal here anyway? Have you been to Europe recently? We’ve been paying for the privilege of flying with checked luggage for quite some time now. For that very reason, I always avoided Ryanair like the plague…

Unfortunately, when FlyNordic merged with Norwegian, and became one of the two airlines that fly to my Arctic village (the third one doesn’t really count), they instituted the same policy.

Three days ago, on May 19, Germanwings began charging 5 euro per bag. WizzAir also wants money for checking in your luggage.

AirBaltic has this to say: Economy Class – there is fee of EUR 9 (if paying for baggage and ticket together) or EUR 15 (if paying for baggage separately) on each flight segment for each piece of baggage with total weight up to 20 kg.

And these are just the ones I flew on recently. The big national carriers are still trying to hold on to the “1 bag of up to 20kgs free” policy, though rumors abound it’ll change soon. It’s only a matter of time before the likes of SAS and Lufthansa start charging for all bags, as well.

I guess it will be a rude awakening for Americans traveling in Europe this summer. You see? Your airlines are just getting on with the program. Too bad it was the dismal American Airlines that decided to go first. And yes, I totally agree they suck. I’d rather walk than fly AA.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Charity begins at home

In more ways than one. And that’s a fact.

Every so often, to satisfy my need for feeling superior to other humans, I donate my precious time to a local organization that helps immigrant women. OK, you’re right. That’s a crock of BS. The real reason I do it is that a lady who works there gives killer manicures. And since our town lacks a proper nail salon, a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do. Especially since the lady also does massages and aromatherapy.

So, in exchange for an occasional pampering session, I am responsible for leading refugee and asylum seeking women through the intricacies of western bureaucracy. Which most of the time means, I do my best to guess which boxes on their many forms and applications I should check.

Such services should be provided by the state, but as in other civilized countries, the state does a poor job of providing anything, except mountains of paper to fill out.

Some volunteers teach English (because let’s face it, Swedish is as useless as two tits on a bull, and that’s a fact, too), some provide cultural information (we should take a bath everyday), and some try to convince their charges it’s OK to see a western doctor. It’s all women, by women, for women. Grrrl power at its finest.

My tasks vary. Recently, I taught a chick how to sign her name. I helped another during a visit to the ER. You know, your average do-good volunteer stuff.

Last week I was translating for a quiet woman from Africa. I asked her where she was from. Gabon, she answered. She came to Europe for her children, she said. What was she doing in Gabon? She was a midwife.

I mentioned that I would like to visit her country someday. And visit you should, she answered. The more you know about how people live, the more you can do to help.

After a bit of chatting I found out her brother, who’s a priest, runs a local charity school and would love to have some volunteer help with filling out grant applications, writing quarterly reports, and begging donors for more books and supplies.

So there you have it. You want to volunteer abroad, but can’t afford a program fee with one of the big voluntourism packagers? Get yer lazy ass to a library, ask to help with your local literacy/immigrant/refugee/ group and make friends. It’s one of the many ways to find leads for a DIY voluntour project.

See, your momma was right, charity does begin at home. Helping others will make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. And who knows, you might even get a manicure out of it.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Shopping and sleeping part 2

When living in more or less civilized countries, I never had to think about the lowly concept of sleeping in airports. There were always hotels around, some with airport pick-up, some without, some expensive, and some cheap. And with a bit of searching, I always managed to find a place for the night.

Even in one of the most expensive (supposedly) countries in the world - Japan, at the Narita Airport Washington Hotel a double room for one night set me back all of US$80. With a pick up at the JR station in Narita and a drop off at my terminal the next morning. And complimentary drinks, alcoholic even! Ha! 80 bucks at last year’s exchange rates, is what? SEK 560, and I’m being really generous here.

CDG, Paris? A slew of cheap options nearby. Heathrow, London? There’s a Travelodge right there under your nose, I mean the ill-fated Terminal 5. And if you’re willing to go a bit further inland, there’s no shortage of affordable places.


Enter Arlanda, Stockholm. Where affordable means a coffin-like room at Rest&Fly and communal showers at the end of the hall. And not just any old room, it’s a “night room” where your stay is calculated by the hour, and where 10 hours will cost you SEK 540. And dude! They have bunk beds!

Rest&Fly proudly proclaims on their webpage that 70,000 happy guests can’t be wrong, R&F is fab. Well, sure it is! It’s the ONLY budget option available.

Every time I attempted to book a coffin at R&F, the place was full. And just as well. Sleeping in the airport itself is not a problem at Arlanda, it’s a silent airport (the announcements are limited to the absolute minimum), most seats are padded and don’t have arm rests, and the security lets you be… And you save SEK540 in the process.

It’s a no-brainer to me. I’d rather sleep in the terminal. My favorite spots are:

  • in Sky City by the hairdresser's (comfortable and close to the bathroom)

  • downstairs in Terminal 5 in the left/lost luggage area (quiet).

Because seemingly, everyone else overnighting at Arlanda has the same brilliant idea, be sure to claim your spot early. Come 2AM Sky City will look like a refugee camp, or a homeless shelter. People on the floor everywhere, people under the tables everywhere. People on the tables, if all other space is taken.

And if you don’t feel like sleeping? There’s Sidewalk Café internet for your pleasure. Nothing like playing mahjong on-line all night long.

So, while Arlanda gets a big fat zero for its shopping options, it feels like a freaking Club Med when it comes to airport sleeping. I consider it my puny contribution towards reducing my carbon footprint. It’s economical and environmentally friendly, because hey, the bloody airport is always open, anyway…

Thursday, May 15, 2008

100 really cool travel blogs

So… The good folks over at Travel Hacker made a massive list of one hundred “required reading” travel blogs. And they even included yours truly. Thanks guys!

Their list saved me a lot of searching and googling (I love when someone else does the manual labor!), because now, I no longer have to worry about updating my links. And as y’all know, I suck at updating my links.

I’m already familiar with some of the blogs listed there, I even have quite a few of them bookmarked. But there’s also plenty I haven’t read before. And I can tell you already, I have a new obsession. And her name is Girl Solo in Arabia.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The idiocy of it all...

I admit it, I never understood the hoopla over airfare aggregator sites. You know, the ones like kayak, or kelkoo.

Kelkoo gets my vote every time, as it doesn’t limit itself to travel and aggregates just about anything you can think of, but in Swedish. Kayak, on the other hand, always rubbed me the wrong way. So what’s my problem? While these sites are indeed designed for lazy people, they are not for those of us who are both lazy AND cheap. Like me.

For people who don’t mind flying the likes of Frankie’s Western Sky Pacific Airservice (and who cares that there are goats on the plane, it’s CHEAP!), and who pride themselves on making it from Stockholm to Mumbai for less than 350 euro return (yes, it involved changes in Istanbul, Dubai, and Yerevan, but damn, it was CHEAP!), the aggregator sites offer little help. Because we give a whole new meaning to the word "budget".
And sorry, but I'd rather spend my money on designer purses (for me) or coloring books (for slum kids in India) than on airfares.

Today, just for gits and shiggles I gave kayak another run. And then went directly to the airlines’ websites. Just because, you know? And guess what? Nine out of ten, what kayak showed as the best deal, wasn’t.

And speaking of deals…

Why is it that a round-trip ticket Stockholm-Helsinki-Seoul costs almost SEK10,000 (well, 9 thousand and change), Helsinki-Seoul about SEK8,000 but London-Helsinki-Seoul less than SEK6,000? And Paris-Helsinki-Seoul around SEK7,000? (No, I’m not gonna give you the exchange rate! What am I? A bloody calculator?)

The Helsinki-Seoul leg of the trip is the same in all cases.

Finnair has me stumped. Or is Sweden really that much more expensive than the rest of the continent? I shudder at the thought…

Well, it’s a no-brainer to me. My frequent flyer miles will get me to London, I’ll go shopping, spend the night in some Travelodge, and still pay less than when flying from Stockholm to Helsinki directly…

But at least in London I’ll be able to shop at decent stores and hopefully pick gifts that won’t be cringe inducing… Sorry, I love the North and all that, but reindeer skins, Viking hats and bone-handle cheese slicers just don’t do it for me. And Swedish design is highly over-rated...

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Shopping and sleeping part 1

My last post made me think about airports in general. There are some that I love, there are some that I hate, and finally, there are some that I’d rather chew my leg off and bleed to death than visit ever again. In other words, I’m just like most travelers.

But unlike most travelers, I rate my airports according to a super-sophisticated, scientific methodology. It’s extensive and complex, and took years to perfect, but fortunately, it neatly comes down to two easy to grasp points: shopping and sleeping.

(Eating is not all that important to me, as long as there’s a soda vending machine nearby and a place to buy a bag of chips, I’m all set.)

Shopping is self-explanatory. I love to shop. It’s hands-down my most favorite activity. And because I’m lazy by nature, I don’t want to go far to indulge my need for designer sunglasses and skin creams.

Some airports, simply based on their proximity to shopping nirvanas of New York or Paris, you’d think would be magnificent places to buy, buy and then buy some more. Sadly, you’d think wrong.

Paris CDG is a vile pit of dirt with pedestrian selection of big-name brands. The airport shopping options seem to cater almost exclusively to Russians and Chinese, who push and shove and scoop up make-up on sale like it’s going out of style.

New York airports are shopping disasters not even worth mentioning here.

And then, there are the likes of Dubai and Narita. As far as I’m concerned, Dubai is as close to paradise as one can get. What am I saying? Dubai IS paradise. A 24-hours a day, 7-days a week shopping paradise, all within the comforts of your departure gate. And there’s even a Baskin Robbins there. Yes, I’m sure the rest of Dubai is also lovely, but why bother? I can satisfy all my needs without ever visiting the city.


After several years of living in a third-world country without a donut in sight, this proved to be an orgasmic experience.

Narita, on the other hand, is Narita, but you wouldn’t expect anything less from the Japanese, right?

Unfortunately, when traveling to Seoul this summer, I won’t be transiting through either Dubai or Tokyo. Not even Paris. I’ll have to make do with Helsinki. Which leaves me with a serious problem, and anyone who’s seen the airport shopping options in Helsinki will understand my pain…


Dubai, oh how I miss thee, let me count the ways... Chanel, Dior, Michael Kors, Prada...

Next time, we’ll discuss sleeping in airports.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Chickable disaster

So there’s this new website for women travelers, Chickable, whatever that means. Oh, wait, it means connecting chicks and travel!

And what’s up with the recent proliferations of women’s travel sites, anyway? Has somebody told the Gods of Internet that yeah, broads like go to places, too?

I just signed up for this Chickable thingy, and even though, the service is brand new, I can already tell you that I doubt it will be successful, at least as a social networking site. Why? Most of the travel forums out there already have a chick section, for one. And two, the details of this particular enterprise are not very well thought out.

For example, why can I select only ONE top interest? I have many! I resent to be limited to just one. Do you honestly think women are so one-dimensional? Or is it really only for specific targeted advertising purposes?

Same with a favorite chick trip. Why do I have to pick just one? I like to shop, but I like action/sport/adventure, too. And I adore spas. And culture. And volunteering. And speaking of volunteering, can you believe Chickable didn’t even provide such a choice? In this day and age?

But I’ll let it slide for now, and chalk it up as growing pains.

What I can’t let slide is padding up the site with fictitious members, or at least with members, who have a very curious penchant for using stock commercial photography as their profile pictures. That is just a tad bit too obvious, or perhaps desperate, wouldn’t you say?

And how come that the country option in the registration menu is not obligatory? It's not even included in the sign-up options, and to select a country, you have to edit your profile AFTER you register. Do you gals-in-charge really think that the civilization as you know it begins and ends in North America? Or are you planning to serve that particular market exclusively?

Chickable’s lack of attention to details is also evident in careless spelling. What the heck is an “Ice and Glod Adventure Girlfriends Getaway”? Or a “Sedona Splendor Girfriends Getaway”?

The thinly veiled primary purpose of the website seems to be selling girl-themed package trips. (And t-shirts! We can't forget about the t-shirts!) Nothing wrong with that, but it can be done with a lot more finesse and oompf. Traveling chicks are not dumb, so please don’t treat us like that.

In short, the site was not ready to be launched, I fail to see how it can provide a valuable service, the functionality is limited, and as much as it wants to (and COULD) fill a niche, it comes up short.

The idea is good, but the execution sucks. Big time.

Monday, May 5, 2008

When cats fly...

Much has been written about traveling with pets. And the bulk of it, seemingly, by people for whom the word “pet” is synonymous with “dog*.

I travel with cats. My cats clocked in more frequent flier miles than most humans I know. Every move, be it cross country, or across the oceans, is carefully evaluated from the point of view of a cat. I passed on a lucrative job offer in Australia due to their stringent pet quarantine requirements, and I’m not so keen on moving to the UK for the very same reason. My cats are my children, and no sane parent I know would voluntarily subject their pride and joy to the ordeal of forced quarantine.

My orange tabby is a veteran of long distance travel. His first inter-continental move brought him from Nara in Japan, via Los Angeles to Manhattan. Not too shabby for an abandoned, little stray! And his travels are not limited to airlines. He’s one of the few, special felines that completed a cross-country road trip – from New York to Seattle.

The trans-Atlantic move to Sweden was also carefully designed with the comfort and wellbeing of a Japanese shorthair in mind. The trip was broken into several legs, with overnight stays at kitty-friendly hotels in Chicago and Stockholm. The airlines were chosen based on their pet in the cabin policies, because sure as hell, my kids are NOT flying as checked luggage.

Cats travel remarkably well. They’re naturally squashy, and a proper carry-on bag ensures their comfort. Their biggest dangers are dehydration and constipation. The meticulously clean creatures that they are, they will refrain from doing their business inside the carrier. Don’t make it hard on them and their bowels and bladders – limit their food intake a day before the trip.

Just as humans on airplanes get dry and thirsty, so do cats. To ease their discomfort, I ask for a cup of ice and place it inside their carry-on. They’re reluctant at first, but as the ice melts, they can enjoy a little drink of cold water.

I am currently contemplating yet another inter-continental move with my feline children. This time to Seoul. Lucky us, Korea doesn’t require a pet quarantine for cats coming from Sweden. All there is to it is an inspection by a government veterinarian upon arrival at Incheon. Oh, the blessings of living in a rabies-free country!

Traveling inter-continentally with cats is not as bad as it sounds. Cats are tough little creatures. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

•    Have your paperwork in order. Start the preparations for your cat’s travel well ahead of time. Depending on the country of your destination (like for example Sweden or Japan) the requirements may be quite convoluted.

•    Assuming that your paperwork is in order, your cat - micro-chipped, and your pet booking is confirmed, call the airline yet again and reconfirm. And then do it a few more times. You don’t want to show up at the airport and discover that your precious fluffy has to travel as cargo, because some faceless automaton screwed up your pet-in-the-cabin booking.

•    Measure your cat carrier case. SAS is EVIL when it comes to that. Delta, JAL and Iberia were a breeze. So was Northwest and LOT Polish Airlines. And Air France. But the pet lovers at SAS whipped out a tape measure and proceeded to tell me that me airline-approved Sherpa bag was too big for travel in the cabin. What saved me was printing out the SAS instructions (scroll to number 18) from their own website recommending the very Sherpa bag they were telling me was too big.

•    24 hours before the trip, skip the food. I keep water available, and never had a problem. Plastic incontinence liners (like the ones used for old people and children, who pee in bed) are great for the bottom of the pet carrier. Just chuck them on arrival and line the bag with a new one. Easy peasy.

•    Cat harness and a leash. Essential, especially when going through airport security. Though some moronic, half-literate TSA screener could tell you that you have to take the harness off. My response – I’d sue the TSA’s bums off, if my cat escapes during their security check. The harness and leash stayed on.

•    On the plane, not much to do, other than spritz water on your babies, but that depends on the length of your flight. If you feel ambitious, take the carrier bag to the toilet, and let your baby out for a few minutes.

•    When arriving, if it’s an international flight, look for a bored customs official and thrust your pet import forms into his hands. Chances are, they won’t know what to do with them and will just wave you through. Or, they will lead you to a special room where you will spend the next few hours waiting for the approved vet to inspect your furry kids.

•    During a lay-over, get your cats out of the pet case and massage their legs to get the circulation going. You know, like your legs hurt like crazy? So do theirs! Your poor baby had to sit for many hours in a very uncomfortable position and is sore and stiff. Massage and rub like crazy. And give water. And let them walk around and explore a little.

•    Repeat the procedure for the second leg of your trip, until you reach your final destination.

I am a bit obsessive and travel with a disposable litter pan and a can of litter in my carry-on luggage, and during lay-overs look for a quite place to set up a cat bathroom. I have done it in a human restroom, in a prayer/mediation area, and in a club lounge, in other words, anywhere I can get away with it.

And a note about water. Frequently, tap water is disgusting. Many cats, especially fixed males, develop kidney/bladder problems, and require a low magnesium, low mineral diet. That includes water. Bottled water in many countries in Europe has minerals added to it, not to mention carbonation. Our friendly suggested distilled water, or purified water without any additives. But when buying bottled water at the airport to give to your cats, READ the labels. And think about (tap) water at your final destination!

I couldn’t care less about dogs. They are nasty little creatures that make too much noise, force you to go outside in the dead of winter, and then still shit on the carpet without any remorse!

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Shallow and proud of it

There are two things, on which I spend the majority of my hard-earned money. Beauty treatments and travel. The travel bit is obvious – I’m nosey by nature and want to know for sure that life is beautiful around the world. (Yes, someday, when I have enough time, I may compose an entire blog post using only RHCP quotes.)

Back to the topic.

And the other thing that gets my cash? Beauty treatments.
Yes, I’m THAT shallow.

I’m not exactly a ravishing blond with huge bazongas, you know? Despite many years of braces, my teeth are still crooked (and someday, I’ll just replace the bloody lot with dental implants, I swear!), I’m short and not particularly attractive. So, I’m forced to take care of what I’m stuck with. And even what I’m stuck with doesn’t have to be permanent – hello butt liposuction*!

Yesterday, instead of buying a round trip ticket to Dubai, I treated myself to botox.
Anna loves botox. Anna wants botox everywhere. Just pump it in! Though maybe next time, I should try Restylene, instead – that’s my spirit of exploration for ya.

I am seriously considering a trip to Iran for a nose job, a trip to Estonia for new teeth, and a trip to the gym for new abs. I know, I know… The last one will be the hardest – I’m allergic to gyms.

What about new funbags? Nah, for now I’m happy with trips to Paris for new heavy-duty support equipment – I’m still searching for that perfect push up bra.

And now, if you excuse me, I have to look for A-melan on the net, because they don’t sell it here in Sweden. Which explains, why Swedish women over 30 look like they’re over 40.

And next week, I'm thinking to go blond for a while...

* Yes, I do have an appointment with a plastic surgeon to discuss my butt. Oh, the things we do (ok, some of us do) to look good in a bikini! Because sure as hell, I’m NOT giving up ice-cream.

PS. For obvious reasons, I'll spare you the visuals today.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Lonely Planet, schmonely planet...

I am a poster child for brand loyalty. Be it face powder, fabric softener or cat litter, once I find something I like, I tend to stick with it. Sometimes my opinion is based on such important factors like the package design and pretty graphics, especially if they are in a language I can’t read. But more often than not, I am more concerned with the quality of the product, and if it works, I will keep buying it (like DiorSnow face cream for example). I’m simply too lazy to look for something else…

Same with travel guidebooks.

My very first guidebooks to Peru and Ecuador (sometime in the early 1990s) were Lonely Planet. The Peru book, by Rob Rachowiecki had not only pretty pictures, but also decent content. It got stolen, along with the rest of my luggage, somewhere on a bus to Ayacucho. But I remember it fondly, and when it came to getting an Ecuador guidebook, I also purchased a Lonely Planet edition. I liked it, too.

Then came the disastrous book on Bolivia. What a mess it was! We used the pages to make origami for school children somewhere in the Andes, because the paper was too hard and fancy to wipe our asses (even after scrunching it up).

And then the Colombia guidebook, the ancient one, written by Krzysztof Dydynski! What a waste of paper! And a lot of hurt national pride. I expected a better job from a Pole. The book was so useless and terrible, it ended up as a support for my wobbly desk in a Spanish class I was taking in Cartagena. I seriously questioned if Mr. Dydynski ever visited the places he was writing about.

The Colombia guidebook must have been cursed from the beginning. The new editions are as bad as the old ones.

And now LP is in all sorts of news, because of a writer's claim that he faked a book, including parts of the Colombia guide. Oh! For crap’s sakes!

Apart from the detail that the writer in question is a petty opportunist promoting his own book, and who obviously belongs to the school of “there is no bad publicity”, the fact remains that the LP guides are getting worse and worse.

I know, because I stayed loyal to the brand. LP can dispute the claims all they want, and stand by their accuracy, but the truth is, the days of Tony and Maureen Wheeler are over.

I don’t treat the LP books as a source of travel knowledge anymore. I read them for fun and amusement, because for anything else, they’re as useless as two tits on a bull – the West Africa guide immediately comes to mind.

The not so far-flung destinations are no better. I know, because I lived in a few, and just for gits and shiggles compared what’s around me with what’s in an LP guidebook.

So why do I keep on reading the Lonely Planet offerings? Well, this is the only English language guidebook publisher that my local library stocks, so I have little choice.

And once in a blue moon, there is a book that makes it all worthwhile, and for me it’s LP’s Bhutan guide. A truly excellent piece of guidebook writing. Accurate and to the point. A pleasure to lug around when you frolic in the Bhutanese countryside. But duh, no wonder! The first and second editions were written by Stan Armington, and the updating authors had enough brains not to fiddle too much with the Master’s words.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Oooohhhh... cherry blossoms!

Out of the many things that confuddle me about Japan, the national obsession with cherry blossoms is pretty high on the list. A cherry blossom is a cherry blossom is ought to be a cherry. I much rather prefer the cherries than the flowers. Cherries are yummy and don’t make me sneeze. But sadly, the yummy cherry comes from a different species of cherry trees.

Sakura, on the other hand, while pretty, provokes the consumption of massive amounts of Singulair. At least for me. And because I’m a crude gaijin, the esthetics tend to be lost on me anyway.

For years I managed to valiantly avoid cherry blossom viewings, claiming asthma, PMS, food poisoning and alien abductions as my excuses. And because the Japanese are, by and large, a very gullible breed, they just nodded and left me alone. Until one year when a non-Japanese cherry blossom obsessed friend got her hands on me... I was kidnapped in the middle of the night, whisked away in an unmarked minivan to Kyoto, and subjected to a sakura extravaganza.

From Kyoto to Nara to Tokyo, I witnessed numerous parks filled with herds of Japanese of all ages, shapes and sizes. From infants in buggies to old ladies in tour buses. There were poets, and painters, and lovers sitting under the cherry trees. And groups of retirees ooohhed and aaahhed, commenting that the blossoms of 1963, or 1971, or whatever year they happened to fall in love, were so unforgettable, and so much better.

I finally managed to chew through the restraints somewhere in the Tochigi prefecture and sought refuge at the Sano Outlet Mall.

And while the blossoms were indeed lovely, the Chanel coat I bought at Sano (80% off - an after season sale) was even lovelier.

One thing that I never had the pleasure of experiencing, however, was the nighttime sakura viewing – with the trees lit up from different angles, all to better showcase the beauty of the flowers. Yeah, only in Japan…

My super-dutiful friend, Miki of Soul Box in Tokyo, did the nighttime cherry blossom appreciation madness, and because she’s just all kinds of wonderful, sent me the photographic evidence. Now, how’s that for a really dedicated, proud Japanese woman?



And here's a bit of sakura in Kyoto taken during my cherry blossom viewing abduction a couple of years ago:



Sunday, March 30, 2008

Heathrow's T5 - I shudder at the thought!

My friend just called me from Heathrow’s Terminal 5. She’s been camping out there since Friday morning, and though she normally has the disposition of a saint, this T5 fiasco has been too much even for her. She decided to cancel her US trip and head back to Glasgow. But wait, she can’t head back to Glasgow, because the whole Terminal 5 went tits up! (BBC link)

That, my dears, is a very valuable lesson on oh-so-many levels.

First, why would any sane person with a shred of brain activity left choose to fly BA is truly beyond me. And why fly in or out of Heathrow is an even greater mystery.

I learned to avoid BA after a series of disastrous flights to South Africa back in the early 1990s. Not sure why exactly I was flying with them in the first place, they weren’t all that cheap or convenient. Or maybe because the other choices were just as bad. Remember Sabena? What a disaster of an airline! Nothing like being held-up on a runway in Brazzaville by a group of angry thugs waving machine guns. Oh, the good, ole days of African travel…

But, back to the story.

During my ill-fated transfer at Heathrow back in the hey-day of BA, I too was delayed for a few days. And there was no plush, brand spanking new Terminal 5 to sleep in. As a holder of a not-so-desirable passport (back then), I was not permitted to leave the transit area and had to camp on the floor for a couple of days. I made friends with other undesirables, from Sri Lanka and Uganda, Russia and Nigeria. I also made a vow never to fly BA again.

That vow was broken during my subsequent trips to Africa, until I learned not to be afraid of people who speak French and eat baguettes with every meal. Yep, I began to fly Air France. And never set foot on a BA flight again.

Got close a couple of times, but with the BA’s policy on cabin luggage (“and so what if you are stupid enough to fly with three cameras, we allow ONE piece ONLY and that would be your purse, missy”) I chose to pay more and make sure that my hand luggage is still in my hands when arriving at my destination.

And now my pal tells me that not only Heathrow hasn’t improved, it got WORSE! And she’s not going to Miami anymore, now all she wants is just to get home to Glasgow. I told her to take a train. She says, she would, but her luggage is stuck in the belly of the Beast Terminal 5, and after this monumental fiasco, she doesn’t trust BA to give it back to her if she leaves.

“Your cats would do a better job of running a bloody airport,” she said.

Yep, and they don’t even have opposing thumbs. Are my cats awesome, or what?

The only problem is – now that she’s not going to the US anymore, I need to find someone else to supply me with Jolly Ranchers and hair gel. Damn…

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Bhutan is voting today

Today the good people of Bhutan headed to the polls for the second round of voting in their first ever elections. And not just any “democratic elections” but first-ever-transition-from-absolute-monarchy-elections. Which means that now there’s only one absolute monarchy left in the world, and from the looks of it, the winds of change are blowing in the Desert Kingdom, too.

But, back to Bhutan.

While the foreign news outlets happily broadcast that the people of Bhutan voted, and are anxious to become a fully democratic society, that is just the official, politically correct version that the outside world expects to hear.

The reality is not quite as cheerful. Many Bhutanese I met in January were not so keen on democracy at all. They liked the way things worked in the old days, they were happy with the Fourth King (and I “heart” Jigme Wangchuck, too!), and truth be told, while they knew that change was unavoidable, they were not in any hurry to become a constitutional monarchy.

In January I spoke with a few politicians from the People’s Democratic Party, and they gladly shared the challenges facing both them, and their rivals – the Bhutan Harmony Party (DPT).

“People don’t know what democracy is,” an official from PDP explained. “We travel to villages, on horseback if we have to, and teach people about the election process, show them how to vote, and what the change will mean to them.”

Explaining the concept of democracy in a country where the king is universally revered is no easy task. Doing it in a region as mountainous and inaccessible as the interior of Bhutan is even harder.

And the biggest problem?

“People look at Nepal and are afraid that the same may happen here. People look at India and see how inefficient and corrupt democracy can be. Our job is to convince them that we can do better,” the young politician said.

And can Bhutan do better? Only time will tell.

Voting instructions in Bhutan, posted at the bank in Haa

PS. DPT won! Tashi Delek DPT!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Voluntouring continued...

A reader, who’s currently on a DIY voluntour, sent me an email with some very thoughtful comments and observations. She wishes to remain anonymous, because she doesn’t want her boss in real life to see what she’s up to. (And by the way, since when have I become the leading internet authority on DIY volunteer trips?)

This woman is not exactly a volunteer virgin, she did a fee-based program abroad with one of the many non-profits that offer them.  She liked the idea and decided to do something on her own. Emailing from an internet café somewhere in South-East Asia, she described how totally unprepared she was for the reality on the ground. According to her, fee-based programs, while providing a valuable service, shield their participants from the day-to-day realities that the local people live with. She likened the experience to an organized safari trip, or a “volunteer theme park” (her words, not mine), where you get a glimpse of what life is like, get down and dirty, think you’re roughing it, and go home feeling good about yourself.

Honestly, I wouldn’t know. I have never participated in a fee-based volunteer program abroad. I’m simply not that rich. And even if I had that much money (those fees can run into thousands of dollars), I can think of a few much better ways to spend it. There’s this one slum school in India that could really use some books for their students, know what I’m saying?

But, in all other respects, I have to agree with my reader. You are never truly prepared for what you will see at your destination. Every day when you wake up, you marvel at the resilience of the human race, and watch in awe how people, who have so little, manage to cope with smiles on their faces.

And then, there’s the issue of cultural sensitivities. And it's not just proper attire we're talking about.

As a DIY volunteer, you will most likely live with a local family. Your digs will be far from luxurious, just a piece of floor space to unroll your sleeping bag, and a couple of hooks for a mosquito net, if you’re THAT lucky. Yet, hosting you will be a source of enormous pride to the family, and they will frequently forgo their own comforts for your benefit. Daughters may be delegated to sleep outside, wives – to borrow chickens or eggs from the neighbors, and fathers - to work extra hours in order to provide you with basic meals. Your attempts at financial renumeration will be scoffed at, if not considered outright offensive.

My reader is in such a situation right now, and I have been there more than once myself.

How to relieve your hosts from the obvious burden that you are to them, yet without hurting their pride and honor? I still don’t have a good answer to that.

But here are some ideas that worked for me:

-    Make a deal with the family that since the woman of the house cooks for you, you should buy weekly provisions for the whole household. It will cost you less than a week of lattes at Starbucks back home.

-    Hire the daughter to do your laundry, or the sons to fetch your water. After insisting that these amenities should be free for their “guest”, they will eventually agree to your arrangement. Such barter system is normally accepted and you’ll be respected for your suggestions.

-    If money is scoffed at, contribute in other ways – buy the family a few chickens, or a goat if you can afford it, or new seedlings for their garden. Call it a payment for their services, NOT a payment for their hospitality. That subtle difference will allow them to save their face.

-    The parents may balk at outright charity, (yes they may be poor, but they also have dignity), but as most parents the world over, they will appreciate your praise of their children.

-    It’s much easier to convince a family to accept a gift, if it’s for the little wee ones in the house. Just make sure it’s not a mindless souvenir.

-    And finally, don’t force your charity on your hosts, it will be most likely resented.


Happy voluntouring!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Bhutan on my mind...

Pale_blue_skyBhutan was on my mind quite a lot lately. Maybe because of a dream I had the other night. Oh shut up! Not THAT kind of dream! What were you thinking???

I dreamt I was back in Bhutan. And in fact, I do indeed want to return.

My last journey was cut short due to the lame attempts at terrorist activity by the local Maoist rebels. And instead of exploring more of the country, at the recommendation of my tour operator we made a mad dash for the border. I understand it was for my own safety and protection. And I did get a refund for the “unused” days of my pre-paid trip.

But I think that for my next expedition to Bhutan, I will use a different company. And why wouldn’t I? There are more than 300 tour operators in Bhutan alone, and they all need to make a living somehow, you know? And that’s not even counting those outside the country. They’re all supposed to be government approved, they have to be in order to apply for visas for their clients, and provide the same level of service.

To be perfectly honest, there was absolutely nothing wrong with my previous company. From the looks of it, they actually seemed better than some others I noticed along the way. The guide was super-knowledgeable and went above and beyond his call of duty. The driver had nerves of steel, and even let me behind the wheel for a while - very much against the law. And the boss took upon himself to arrange permits for places normally not open to tourists. All under the assumption that I was a practicing Buddhist - that one semester spent at a Buddhist university sure came in handy.

So, how am I going to pick a new tour company? Why do you think I insisted on bringing back a Bhutanese phone book with me? Because I like to carry heavy objects around for kicks and giggles? Duh!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Voluntourism and visas

I wrote a little something for Intelligent Travel (love them, by the way) about voluntourism.
I’ve been volunteering during my trips near and far for the past 15 years. From teaching bad English to playing with orphans to distributing condoms to building irrigation systems, I’ve done it all. Without ever paying a program fee or using a voluntour packager.


There is one aspect of voluntourism, however, that I did not cover in my story for Intelligent Travel. The legal side of short term volunteering abroad.

Simply put, if you enter a country on a tourist visa, or a visa waiver, you are not permitted to engage in any paid or UNPAID work, unless you happen to be an EU national volunteering in another EU country. Many organizations and individuals, myself included, conveniently ignore that small print on the entry card. We simply write “tourist” as the purpose of our visit and NEVER mention any volunteer WORK.

In that respect, the adventure tourism packagers that organize voluntour programs are very straightforward and transparent and use the euphemism “recreational activities” on their Terms & Conditions forms. Which is true and accurate. You pay them money, and they provide you with activities, which may or may not include digging ditches and building houses.

Long-term volunteer projects require a special visa, which any reputable non-profit organization will help arrange BEFORE you arrive in your host country.

I am mentioning it, because while most police and immigration officers will let you be, there are some that can cause trouble and demand “baksheesh” for keeping their mouths shut. And as anyone who spent a night, or two, in a third-world country jail can tell you, it’s not pleasant. I did – in a certain banana republic, for this very offense. It cost me 400 bucks to get out without a nasty stamp in my passport. Your embassy will not help you – you WERE breaking the law, technically, by working without a proper visa.

Something to keep in mind if you plan on doing good deeds on your next vacation.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Bad, bad One Pass!

When I signed up for Continental’s One Pass program, I did it, because their miles don’t expire as fast as other airlines’. I also liked the fact that Northwest had a hub in Asia. It made my travels easy. In the past, I managed to redeem my miles for flights on KLM or Air France. I was happy. Even when an occasional One Pass Rewards booking agent screw up left me sleeping in an airport somewhere.

But I’m not happy anymore. These days I’m cheap and fly with whomever offers the best deal, miles and points be damned. My budget comes first! For a while, I did dutifully sign up for the miles thingies with Lufthansa and Finnair, and I even remembered to hand over proper miles thingy cards when checking in. Sadly, Star Alliance miles expire faster than I can earn them. And Finnair and their One World scheme? I fly them only once a year.

So now, I find myself with a bunch of miles. A bunch big enough for a round trip in Europe or Asia, with some left over… But not big enough for a trip between Europe and Asia.

Instead, I figured, it would be nice if I could turn the miles into a hotel stay. I rummaged through my pile of different hotel loyalty cards and picked those with properties in places I wanted to visit. And guess what? My miles are as useless as two tits on a bull. Can’t exchange them for/into hotel points.

“Continental miles no good,” said a friendly Hilton customer service rep, “Virgin miles much better!”

And the moral of the story? You get what you pay for. Continental cheap but no good. Virgin no cheap but better.

I guess I will have to fly somewhere to redeem those bloody miles after all. On a Sky Team airline, no less. Hmmm… Korean Air does fly between Ulaan Baatar and Seoul… Now that’s a possibility! And how I’m gonna get me to Mongolia? I’ll worry about it later. Gotta redeem those miles before they no good!