Месечни архиви: May 2017

The First Step To Quitting Your Job to Travel

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Soontreya Resort Koh Lanta

I remember back when I was one of few travel bloggers making a full-time living online. Those days are long gone.

It’s different now. Simply put, it’s become a lot easier and there are a lot more opportunities out there, so many more people are making a full-time living. And that goes way beyond the travel blogging industry — it’s never been easier to make money online.

Earning a living online, never having to go into work again, having the freedom to travel year-round, and being your boss — that’s the dream for a lot of people.

But travel blogging is not the only way. In fact, I’d discourage 99% of people against it. Travel blogging is a very tough nut to crack, it requires a lot of time and effort, and most people don’t have the writing and photography skills for it.

And being a professional Instagrammer? Well, honestly, that’s extremely difficult to do unless you’re young, thin, conventionally attractive, and, let’s face it — white and blonde. It’s hard enough if you have all those characteristics; if you don’t fit that mold, you’re going to have a much more difficult time.

But there are other ways to quit your job and travel.

There’s writing books, creating products, starting companies, becoming a coach. And for many people, it can earn them enough money to quit their jobs.

What if you’re not sure what you want to do yet? What if you are interested in multiple ideas — maybe you like the idea of freelancing, maybe you’d like to start a business — but don’t want to drop a ton of money on just one specific course in case it’s not right for you? Where do you even begin?

Enter the Paradise Pack.

The Paradise Pack

Introducing 2017’s Paradise Pack

The Paradise Pack is a collection of digital resources and guides that will teach you how to make money online so you can travel the world. They are sold together at more than 90% off.

Want to start your own business? Want to become a freelancer in your field, or even a new field? Want to build a blog and turn it into a business? The Paradise Pack will help you do those things.

Want to earn free flights from travel hacking? Want to teach English online? The Paradise Pack will help you do those things, too.

The products altogether cost more than $2600 — here, they’re available in a bundle for just $197

The Paradise Pack is only available for one week each year, and the products change every year, so this will be your only chance to get this exact pack.

Today is day one. I’m posting this today because people who buy by midnight tonight will receive a bonus: a workshop on how to make the most of the pack.

The Paradise Pack sale ends on Monday, June 5.

And now some questions:

Haven’t I seen this before?

I’ve promoted the Paradise Pack twice before, in 2015 and 2016 — but it’s a completely different collection every year. There are occasional repeat products, but for the most part they’re new offerings.

The guys behind the Paradise Pack, Jason and Travis, make efforts to put together an excellent, original collection each year. I’ve tried out some similar packs geared around making money online, and I think the Paradise Pack consistently has the best collection on the web.

Previous years’ packs have been fantastic — which you certainly noticed. More than 100 Adventurous Kate readers have purchased the pack!

Do you make a commission on it?

Yes, I make a commission. Regular people like me make 30% from sales. Authors of the products in the pack earn more, however — they make 50% from sales.

Someone makes a commission on every pack sold, no matter what. There are no discounted packs. So no matter how you buy it, a commission will go to somebody.

Do what I do — buy it through the blog of someone whose work you enjoy.

Is it worth the $197 price?

Absolutely. For all that you save and earn as a result of this package, from free flights to business income, it would be worth it if it cost triple. Quadruple. Quintuple.

$197 is a lot of money. I get that. If it’s too much for you, it’s too much. But if you actually put in the effort with these products, you will earn it back several times over. I promise you that.

Is there anything else I should know?

Yes. 10% of sales will to two charities: Pencils of Promise, a charity that builds schools for children in developing countries, and Travel Access Project, a charity that funds scholarships for travel and education.

So far the Paradise Pack has raised more than $50,000, enough to build two schools in Guatemala! Pencils of Promise is a rare charity that puts 100% of its online donations directly toward their programs.

The Paradise Pack

Paradise Pack Products That Are Especially Worth It

Every year, there are a few standout products in the Paradise Pack. Here’s what I think are the most valuable:

Zero To Your First $10K by Brian Lofrumento (value: $497)

Why? Because every beginner needs some extra help getting started.

No matter who you are or what kind of business you want to start, this course will guide you through earning your first $10,000.

This product targets people at the beginning of their journey, so whether you’re starting to make money online for the first time or moving into a new industry, it will help you find your way through launching a brand new product or service.

The Social Media Rockstar Academy by Ka Sundance (value: $299)

Why? Because a big audience translates into more money.

As much as I hate when the words “rock star” are presented as one, this course is valuable in that it shows you how to build an enormous social media following in a very fast time frame, as well as creating videos that showcase your product or services. The bigger base audience you have, the more money you can make passively.

Frequent Flyer Masterclass by Travis Sherry (value: $147)

Why? Because everyone wants to fly for free.

Getting free flights is one of my readers’ most frequent requests. This course will teach you how to hack the frequent flying system and get free flights, even business class flights, all over the world. With the Frequent Flyer Masterclass, learn how to travel anywhere in the world for less than a hundred bucks using frequent flyer miles.

Cruise Ship Jobs 101 by Amanda Hathorn-Geary (value: $147)

Why? Because working on cruise ships is one of the most surprisingly fun and lucrative ways to see the world while getting paid.

And if you want to find a way to work a cool job, save a ton of cash, and have months-long breaks, working on a cruise ship is a great way to go about it. This book while show you the ins and outs of getting hired for one of these gigs. It’s not a sustainable-for-the-rest-of-your-life kind of gig, but it can be a lot of fun for a few months or years, especially if you use it to start a nest egg for future travels.

The Paradise Pack

Other Included Products

Here are the other products included in the pack:

Rock Your Systems by Natalie Sisson (value: $69)

“How can you find more free time while still growing your business? Hint: It’s SYSTEMS. Put systems in place in your business in under a week using the power trio of Asana, Google Drive, & Slack. Get sh*t done so you can spend your time doing whatever else makes you happy.”

Easy Language Hacking Guide by Benny Lewis (value: $269)

“Discover the fast and easy way to learn 6 popular languages with these easy language hacking guides. You’ll learn tricks that show you where to focus your efforts for quick results in language learning. Plus, Benny is throwing in a live Q&A so you can ask all your language questions.”

A Better Life for Half the Price by Tim Leffel (value: $49)

“If you’d like to upgrade your life without giving up everything you like to do, lowering your cost of living may just be a matter of changing your address. You’ll get the ebook, special reports, and a three-part video series to help you choose the best destination for you!”

Virtual Assistant Foundation by Danielle Greason (value: $197)

“Become skilled in four core digital marketing support services to get started as a virtual assistant or freelancer right away. Learn Danielle’s in-depth client workflow processes and follow steps to landing your very first paying client.”

Become a Super Learner by Jonathan Levi (value: $147)

“We’ve all experienced the frustration of an ever-growing reading list, struggling to learn a new language, or forgetting things you learned in even your favorite subjects. This course is about hacking your learning, reading, and memory skills, improving your ability to learn new skills or information quickly and effectively.”

House Sitting and Travel Lifestyle Summit by Nat and Jodie (value: $97)

“Get all the inspiration, advice, and actionable steps you need to start house sitting and traveling the world with free accommodation. Learn actionable strategies from those already doing it — over 60 world-class house sitters!”

I Kinda Wanna Be a Coach! by Jacob Sokol (value: $197)

“In this virtual conference, Jacob Sokol and 27 other world-class coaches and business experts share the most important tools, mindsets, and strategies they wish they had known about when they first started. Includes audio, video and pdf versions. Get started becoming a great coach with a booming business!”

Freelance Writing Guide by Dave Lee (value: $197)

“Writing about travel in a way that transports, inspires, entertains, and teaches is easier said than done. Discover and develop your style of storytelling! In addition, you’ll have access to a private Facebook group to ask questions, get feedback on writing assignments, and connect with others taking the course.”

FYI, this course is a division of my beloved Travel Blog Success. Like all of the courses, the Facebook group is worth the cost of the course alone!

21 Days to Discover Your Passion by Chelsea Dinsmore (value: $97)

“Feeling uninspired? Have no clue what you’re passionate about? Break through with Passion Discovery Actions to help you build your mindset, create congruence, define your change, and set up rituals for success. Build massive momentum toward doing work you love in just 21 days.”

The Complete Guide to Starting a Lifestyle Business by Sean Ogle (value: $47)

“Sean’s a true pro who has had success with multiple types of lifestyle businesses. In this guide, he shares everything you need to create a business that gives you the freedom and flexibility to do what you want.”

The 30-Day Money Cleanse by Caroline Makepeace (value: $97)

“This six-week online program will help you improve your relationship with money (and create more of it!). Move from limitation and lack of money to confidence, comfort and security about where it’s coming from, how to value and treat it, and where to spend it (i.e. on things you love!).”

Teach ESL Online by Rose Breuer (value: $37)

“Ever thought about teaching ESL online? This ebook is for you! Learn how to start and run an online teaching business, how to make great lesson plans in less time, and much more. Includes recorded lessons with real ESL students and an exclusive Q&A video with Rose.”

Sweet Ass Journal to Develop Your Happiness Muscle in 100 Days by Heath Armstrong (value: $39)

“Create a personal foundation full of habits and strategies in alignment with your dreams. Build the foundation you need to smash resistance and build your freedom empire.”

Family Freedom: A Guide To Becoming a Location Independent Family (value: $27)

“Want to have more freedom with your whole family? Learn how to make money on the road, what to do about insurance, mail, etc., and options for schooling the kids! This guidebook shows you: it’s doable.”

Branding Masterclass by Tommo and Megs (value: $97)

“Follow an actionable system to create or improve a niche brand that will really stand out. Test your brand ideas for profit potential and assess your monetization options. Define your perfect target customer. Find your direction: complete your personalized blog brand business plan.”

 

Heart Centered Sales Systems by Emily Utter

“Rock your sales without feeling salesy! Be an expert with this collection of word-for-word scripts, trainings, and a cheat sheet for overcoming common buyer objections. Quickly add tens of thousands of dollars in sales to their bottom line.”

BONUS PRODUCT

There is one bonus available for those who buy on the first day:

Mastering the Paradise Pack Worship by Jason and Travis

“We’re offering a special bonus for action takers! Get the Paradise Pack before Tuesday, May 30 at 11:59pm, and you’ll be invited to a special Mastering the Paradise Pack workshop. Get your specific questions answered and walk through the best ways to use the Paradise Pack in this interactive workshop!”

The Paradise Pack

But does it actually work?

Will these resources help you build a life like mine with the ability to travel full-time? They only will if you make the effort. Nothing in life is free; if it were easy, everyone would be doing it by now. So be prepared to study, and work, and build.

And be ready to make mistakes. God knows I made about a million of them in building my business. The important thing is that I never stopped working on my business, even when times got hard.

Still on the fence? Read about the Paradise Pack here and see if it’s for you.

And if you’re ready to go?

Get the Paradise Pack here for $197.

And with that, I’ll see you on the road.

Please note that affiliate links are used in this post. If you purchase the Paradise Pack, I will receive a commission at no extra cost to you. By purchasing items through my affiliate links, you’ll help ireuce the ever-increasing expenses of running this site. Plus…the payment for this one comes in two days before my birthday, so think of it as giving me a little present while getting yourself something much better? Thanks!  :-)

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25 Things I Learned the Hard Way While Traveling

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One thing is true about travel — we learn a lot of lessons along the way. And many of those lessons are the result of making major mistakes on the road.

Not blogging errors. Not life errors. Just good old-fashioned travel errors.

I thought it might be nice to share them with you. 25 mistakes from 25 different countries. Just so the same things don’t happen to you.

China: Don’t fly through smaller Chinese cities.

Man, I thought I was so smart for getting that flight deal: just $400 from Dubai to Tokyo. It was on China Eastern Airlines and required stopovers in Kunming and Shanghai. But it was technically an all-the-way-through flight, so it wouldn’t be a big deal. Right?

Not so much. First of all, even if it is the same flight, you need to go through immigration, which in China is complicated if you’re using domestic flights for an international journey.

But the real trouble began when the flight from Kunming to Shanghai was canceled. The passengers were nearly revolting, yelling and banging the tables.

Had I been in Shanghai, or Beijing, or Hong Kong, I would have been able to find someone who could speak English and would reroute me quickly. In Kunming, a city almost the size of New York, almost nobody spoke a word of English and those who said they spoke English didn’t have much of a grasp of the language.

Getting rebooked onto a later flight to Shanghai took hours. I would show the English-speaking man my tickets to Shanghai and Tokyo, he would nod, walk away, and come back and do it all over again as if he had never seen them before. It was an utter nightmare.

When I finally arrived in Shanghai, an airline employee welcomed me in perfect British English. I nearly burst into tears in relief. I had to spend an overnight there, but the airport was filled with shockingly friendly and helpful employees.

I’m going to avoid flying through small Chinese cities for the rest of my days.

France: Always carry spare toilet paper in your purse.

Because if you don’t, that’s when your period will strike with a vengeance. Thank God you had some receipts in your purse.

Indonesia: Don’t stay in a hotel next door to a mosque.

Unless you like waking up at 4:30 every morning, that is.

Poland: Overpacking will bite you in the ass at the worst possible time.

I was only in Warsaw for one day, so I decided to stay by the train station. It was a brilliant idea, I thought — I wouldn’t have to walk too far and I could easily grab my 6:00 AM train to Berlin the next morning.

Until I realized that even though I was only a few blocks from the train station, there are no crosswalks in that part of Warsaw. There are underpasses instead. And no elevators or ramps. So you need to go down and up, down and up, down and up, down and up while holding your giant, heavy suitcase. Because this was a conference trip and I had overpacked a lot of my fancier duds.

After all those steep staircases, I was sweaty and exhausted. Then it got worse: I couldn’t find the guesthouse I had booked. I burst into tears, then looked across the street and saw the letters NOVOTEL.

I want to go to there.

Down one more flight. Up one more. The hotel was right there. And it wasn’t too expensive.

“Do you have any rooms available?” I asked politely at the front desk. I felt like a secret agent. I always book in advance; I had never said that phrase at a nice hotel in my life.

Argentina: Always use a purse that zips.

It was my first solo trip ever, to Buenos Aires in 2008, and it was one of the worst things that’s ever happened to me while traveling. I used a big, open purse from H&M as I went to visit Recoleta Cemetery. It didn’t zip; it barely closed.

Of course my wallet was snatched.

And that wasn’t all. I wasn’t as cautious a traveler as I am now — so the wallet was filled with literally all the money and cards I had. All I had left was my passport. If a nearby couple hadn’t taken pity on me and given me a ride, I don’t know how I would have gotten back to the hostel.

It was 2008 and the internet wasn’t as widespread as it is now. But I was able to get American Express to wire money to a Western Union that would accept my passport as identification.

Looking back, I’m horrified that I went through an experience like that on my first solo trip. But at least it didn’t put me off solo travel forever. I had an ulterior motive for Buenos Aires — how I handled this trip would show me whether or not I should plan a long-term solo trip. I survived and thrived, and soon I was on my first long-term trip to Asia, all by myself.

Austria: People really like to be naked.

It was just after my first-ever travel blogging conference and my friends and I were chilling out in the hotel’s sauna after a swim in the pool. And then a middle-aged man walked into the sauna, stark naked, swaying in the breeze. “Grüß Gott!” he sang out.

Grüß Gott,” we murmured back. We quickly exchanged a glance. And without another word, we all got up in unison and left that poor man alone in the sauna.

Liechtenstein: If there’s an early morning knock, someone will be naked.

I kept hearing incessant knocking at my hotel in Vaduz, the diminutive capital of Liechtenstein. It was 6:00 AM. Eventually I got up and opened the door, only seeing a completely naked man knocking on another door.

He looked at me. I slammed the door.

Germany: Double-lock your door because YOU’LL be naked.

It was just after midnight in Nuremberg and I suddenly heard my door opening. “No!” I gasped as the door swung open and a befuddled thirty-something man walked in.

“Oh — sorry. They gave me this room,” he said.

“Get out!” I rasped.

I wasn’t naked. I was nearly naked. And some dude had caught a glimpse of me in my undies.

That’s the reason you’re supposed to double-lock your door.

Jordan: Your guide is not going to leave you in the desert.

My wonderful tour guide, Ibrahim, told me that one of his favorite things to do was just sit by himself in Wadi Rum and enjoy the solitude. It was his favorite place. “I want you to have this experience, too,” he told me.

They dropped me off. I tried to relax. And yet I couldn’t. Were they really not going to leave me?

I pretended to chill out while keeping an eye on the Jeep. Were they really not going to leave me?

I sat and pretended to meditate while keeping the Jeep in my peripheral vision. Were they really not going to leave me?

Of course they didn’t leave me. I ran back to the Jeep fairly quickly. But I really wish I had taken Ibrahim seriously and took the time to feel the desert around me.

Denmark: Late at night it will seem like a great idea to take a ride on a meat cart. It is not.

Well, it was fun for about ten seconds before I fell off and slammed straight into the curb.

Sri Lanka: Keep your debit cards in different places.

I travel with two debit cards, and I usually keep the spare hidden in my luggage. That’s smart. But Sri Lankan ATMs were weird and sometimes they wouldn’t accept my main debit card, so I started keeping them both in my wallet.

Then came the fateful train ride from Hikkaduwa to Colombo. It was bad enough getting my ass grabbed by one rando (though that was probably the fastest I’ve ever reacted — “Hey, motherfucker! Do not touch me. Do not touch me ever”). Then when it was time to get off, the crowd swelled so tightly I had to fight my way off the train.

My wallet was stolen in the fray. Along with both debit cards.

Once again, Amex saved the day. They let me withdraw money at ATMs with my credit card until I got home.

Costa Rica: High season doesn’t always mean good weather.

I had made the last flight out of JFK before they shut down the airport for the biggest snowstorm of the year. Yet somehow I thought Costa Rica would be sunny and warm. Nope! There’s a reason why they call it the rainforest!

It poured buckets the whole time I was in La Fortuna. Then it mostly misted throughout my time in Monteverde.

Finally, I broke through the clouds and landed on the beach in Guanacaste. The sun was out and glorious. Finally, I understood the Pura Vida everyone was talking about.

Sometimes, even when it’s supposed to be the sunniest time of year, you can have shit luck in the weather department. Just be ready for that.

Philippines: It’s neither funny nor entertaining to stay in a “love hotel.”

It was a cheap hotel in a central-seeming neighborhood, and it had decent reviews.

The mattress was covered with a rubber protector and there were no windows.

One guy checked in with two girls.

Yeah. Nope. Not my thing.

Maybe if it had been one of the cool fairy-tale themed ones in Korea or Japan. This one was just sleazy.

Colombia: Altitude will kick the crap out of you.

I hadn’t traveled much in altitude before I arrived in Colombia. And while people said that altitude can knock you sideways, I thought I was immune — I felt fine!

I was hiking through the Valle de Cocora and met some girls from Bogotá. As the three of us walked on, suddenly the ever-so-slightly uphill road felt like I was scaling Everest. My lungs burned; my legs ached.

“I’m fine,” I told them, trying to hang onto my pride.

“Are you sure? Do you want to keep going?”

“Yes! I’m fine!” I had to make it around the corner to the next viewpoint.

Finally, I gave up — I felt bad that I was slowing them down. Bogotá is at a much higher elevation. For them, this was a respite.

Yes, altitude can certainly hit you hard, even if you feel completely healthy otherwise.

Turkey: When getting a massage from a large-chested woman, face away from her boobs.

One of my most famous adventures was when I visited a hammam in Istanbul for the first time, was massaged by a lady with giant swinging breasts, and took one directly to the face. I’ll never forget the “Oop!” that came out her moth. You can read the whole thing here.

Portugal: Don’t stay in a hostel with only one toilet.

There were only two cheap hostels to choose from in Évora. I chose the one that looked slightly better.

It wasn’t a good choice. My intuition had been pinging like crazy since I had arrived. Something was off about this owner. I was concerned about the lack of lockers; the owner told me I had nothing to worry about because the other hostel guest was “from a good family.”

Then late at night, I was ready to go to bed…and the owner was in the one and only bathroom.

I waited downstairs. He kept using the bathroom.

I got out my Kindle. He was still in there.

Finally, he came out of the bathroom after half an hour, newspaper in hand. “Oh,” he said, seeing me there. “Yeah,” I replied.

Finland: Don’t bring beer into the sauna.

Sauna time in Finland is a sacred ritual. I first got to experience it at the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival, where my media status got me into a musicians’ party in the woods. First the women would sauna and skinny-dip in a warm lake underneath a pink midnight sky, then the men would have their turn.

I brought my beer into the sauna.

You’re not supposed to do that.

I wrapped a towel around me in the sauna.

You’re not supposed to do that, either.

The women were nice. They didn’t scold me or even point it out gently. But I knew as soon as I stepped inside that I had made a grave error.

England: When Brits say, “You all right?” They’re not asking if something’s wrong.

I’m embarrassed how long it took me to realize this.

“You all right?” is the equivalent of “How are you?” in Britain.

Even after six months of living in the UK, I was still saying, “Yeah, why?” to everyone who asked me that.

South Korea: If Koreans give you mayonnaise noodles, it’s for a reason.

There’s not much that I won’t eat, but mayonnaise is one of those things. With very rare exceptions, I can’t stomach the stuff.

Then while in Seoul, I sat down to a barbecue dinner of super-spicy octopus. I put it in my lettuce wrap with the garlic and vegetables and accoutrements, ignoring the evil mayonnaise noodles.

Soon I was writhing in pain from the spicy octopus. And I’m a girl who likes spicy food ordinarily.

I didn’t make the connection until later. Those noodles were there to cut the spiciness. If I had just eaten them like a normal person, I wouldn’t have made an emergency 7-11 run for an ice cream sandwich and a yogurt.

Spain: Even meaningless Tinder travel dates can be duds.

It was supposed to be the Summer of Kate. A summer of rocking out all over Europe, going wherever the wind blew me, wearing cute dresses, and dancing all night long. So when I landed in Barcelona, I decided to try and get a date on Tinder. It didn’t take long. I found a nice Venezuelan guy.

It wouldn’t matter if this guy wasn’t a good fit for me, I told myself. I’m only here for a few days! Not to mention staying in a dorm room…

I put on my cute turquoise-and-white dress and met the guy. And for the next two hours, we walked along the beach and he did not stop talking about himself the entire time.

God, I thought. I left my blogger friends for this?

Eventually I tried to make a casual exit. He instead put his arm around me. I pulled away, yelping, “No, I’m too shy!” “Well, you need to get over your shyness!” he replied. “That’s okay, I should go!” I said.

Not my finest moment.

Thailand: Monkeys are intelligent little fuckers.

Monkeys terrify me. When I went to the Monkey Forest in Bali, I painstakingly examined my backpack to make sure there were no residual Oreo crumbs. And it worked — none of them jumped on me. Perhaps they could smell my fear and gave me a break.

But then I got to Railay, a beach in Thailand with a not insignificant monkey population. I had watched Railay grow more environmentally impacted from 2010 to 2014 to 2015 and one thing I didn’t realize was that the monkeys got wiser.

I had bought chips and Oreos from the store and carried them in the white plastic bag the store gave me. Well, the monkeys saw that white plastic bag and KNEW something delicious was inside. One ran up to me and grabbed the bag. I shrieked and let it go. He climbed to the top of the tree WITH my chips AND Oreos and proceeded to eat them all, mocking me from above.

Little fucker.

Norway: That burger and coffee will cost you $29.

Granted, it was a reindeer burger and a cappuccino — but reindeer is like the beef of Norway! It’s everywhere! It’s abundant! It should not cost $24! No wonder Norwegians go to Stockholm and booze it up like a backpacker in Cambodia. Stockholm is Norway’s Phnom Penh.

South Africa: When people say it’s a short walk, estimate that it will be three times longer.

When the hostel guys invite you to come walk back along the beach with them, you and your friend agree. It should only be twenty minutes. And yes, you’ve just consumed two beers at the nearby brewery, but you can hold your bladder for that long.

Well. That’s how you end up in the brush, holding onto a hanging tree branch and peeing in the dark, terrified that a creature will sneak up behind you and bite you on the ass.

It was 50 minutes into a 20-minute walk.

Bulgaria: Don’t take the train to save money if it’s much worse than the bus.

I had a Eurail pass with just one train ride left on it, and I needed to get from Veliko Tarnovo to Bucharest by the end of the day. It was July. The countryside was baking with heat. I decided to take the train instead of the bus, even though the locals told me the bus was faster. Why not? It was “free”!

That train was one of the worst travel experiences of my life. It was at least 110 degrees inside (43 C). The bathroom was putrid. The seats were uncomfortable and the air wasn’t moving. I burst into tears and sobbed for an hour, ending up in a ball of sweat and tears and snot.

A thunderstorm hit a few hours in and I leaned out the window, letting the rain fall upon my skin.

The bus would have been so much better.

In Cambodia: You look stupid in hippie pants.

Seriously, Kate. You are going to look back and cringe.

What lessons did you learn the hard way while traveling?

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Things to Do in Stellenbosch: A Guide to South Africa’s Wine Region

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South Africa is one of my top five favorite countries — but it’s easily my #1 favorite wine country in the world. The wines here are extraordinary, shockingly affordable, and they have tastes that I don’t experience in any other country.

I don’t know what it is about South African wines. I’m more of a red wine fan in general, and love me some Pinotage, but South Africa’s whites are magical — they have warm, vanilla-y notes that enthrall me. No other whites are like that.

If you want to go wine tasting in South Africa, many people spend a day in Constantia or one of the suburbs immediately outside Cape Town. But if you want to do South African wine country right, spend a few days in Stellenbosch.

Introducing Stellenbosch

Stellenbosch is a university town about an hour outside Cape Town. It’s one of the oldest towns in South Africa and it’s populated primarily by Afrikaners (Afrikaans-speaking people of Dutch descent). And it is world renowned for its wines!

Stellenbosch has a population of roughly 100,000, which makes it a great size for wandering. The downtown area is home to several top-notch hotels, restaurants, cafes, and shops. And because of the university, it has a laid-back, youthful atmosphere.

The #1 Reason Why You Should Spend a Few Days in Stellenbosch

Because South Africa is an exhausting destination and you’ll need a break.

Don’t get me wrong — I adore this country fiercely and whole-heartedly. But South Africa takes a lot out of you. You need to be much more cautious about safety, and not only in the cities (see my South Africa safety guide here). Going on safari is awesome, but game drives require pre-dawn wakeup calls and you may be out in the harsh sun or freezing cold for hours, often both on the same day. And if you’re diving into culture, much of South Africa’s recent history is painful and heavy, especially if you visit lots of Apartheid-centric sights.

In short, give yourself downtime.

One of the biggest mistakes I see travelers make is not leaving any time for downtime. Travel is exhausting under normal circumstances, and trying to see literally everything is a good way to run yourself ragged. So plan some low-key days into your itinerary no matter where you go, whether it’s a day chilling out at a beach club in Sicily or a day cafe-hopping and photo-taking in Paris.

For our two-week trip, my friend Beth and I started with a few days in Johannesburg. Next was a few days on safari in Kruger National Park. We then hit up Cape Town for a few days. Stellenbosch would be the final destination.

And that itinerary was perfect. By the time we arrived in Stellenbosch, we were ready to veg out and relax.

Day One: Stellenbosch’s Best Wineries

We lucked out on our first day — my friend Charmain, who is married to my college friend Mark, offered to drive us from Cape Town to Stellenbosch, visiting three of her favorite wineries. Charmain is from Pretoria but she’s lived in Cape Town for a long time and I found that many locals agreed that she took us to the best places!

Fairview Wine and Cheese — Come here for the cheese.

When you arrive at Fairview Wine and Cheese, you’ll see a few goats hanging out by the entrance. Yes, they make their own goat cheese here! And lots of other kinds of cheeses.

The three of us sampled several wines and cheeses. And while the wines were good, the cheeses were exemplary. We bought a few to take home as well. If you are a cheese fan in the least, you need to come here!

Spice Route — Come here for the food.

Spice Route is a collection of eateries and restaurants near Paarl, just outside Stellenbosch. Theres a section for cured meats, there’s a deli, there’s a pizza place, and there’s even a brewery called Barley and Bilton that serves beer and biltong (South African jerky). And of course, they have wine tasting as well!

We tasted four wines with some cured meats. You know I enjoyed that pairing! After, Charmain took us for some South African-style pancakes, rolled thin like crepes.

Waterford — Come here for the chocolate.

Waterford is the winery I heard recommended most often from locals in Stellenbosch. It’s got a luxurious atmosphere and feels like a grand manor belonging to some member of royalty. Their wines aren’t half bad, either.

At Waterford we took part in their chocolate tasting! We each received three wines to pair with three little squares of chocolate. It was a stormy day and it felt amazing to curl up by the fireplace.

Day Two: Vine Hopper and Four Wineries

For our second day, Beth and I decided to try the Vinehopper — a hop-on, hop-off van visiting several wineries. They take several routes depending on the day, so you can take three different routes three days in a row if you’d like.

I found this to be the best way for people without a car (or people who all want to drink) to sample lots of places in Stellenbosch. What you lose in spontaneity you gain in convenience.

We took the Southern Route. Here are the wineries we visited:

Neethlingshof

Neethlingshof had a modern atmosphere with a fancy dining room for sampling. We tried several reds and whites and I bought a bottle of The Owl Post to take home.

Spier

Spier was next, and while we didn’t do a full tasting, we sampled their sparkling rosé and a cheese plate. I also bought a bottle of their chenin blanc to take home (and it’s the only bottle I have left after nine months!). Spier has beautiful grounds as well, so it’s a good spot to take some outdoor photos.

Bilton Wines

Like Waterford, Bilton Wines is famous for their wine and chocolate tasting! But the pieces we got here were much larger than the ones at Waterford. Each one was roughly the size of a Kit-Kat strip. They also have award-winning merlot that pairs well with the cardamom chocolate.

Kleine Zalze

Well, let’s be honest — by the time you hit the fourth winery in a day, your memories start getting fuzzy. I did enjoy Kleine Zalze, though, and I bought one of their bottles of red to take home.

Vinehopper has three different routes. A one-day pass costs 300 rand ($22) and a two-day pass costs 540 rand ($40). Wine tastings are not included in the price, but they generally cost 15-45 rand ($1-3) for around six tastes at each winery. Note that the wineries close at 5:00 PM, so you’re best off getting an early start.

Day Three: Day Trip to Franschoek 

Franschoek is like a mini version of Stellenbosch with a French flair, about 45 minutes away by car. It’s a much smaller town filled with galleries, jewelry shops, and cafes.

We started with some wine by the fireplace at a restaurant called Dutch East. I’m pretty sure we were the youngest people there by 30 years.

Our one tasting of the day was at Franschoek Cellar, where we paired six elegant wines with six delicious cheeses. (Note: on the map it looks technically within walking distance from the town, and it was, but we were the only people actually walking on that road!)

When we were planning our trip, Beth and I discussed whether to stay in Franschoek or Stellenbosch. Overall, we were happy with our decision to stay in Stellenbosch. We would have been bored out of our minds after two days in Franschoek. If we had stayed longer, I’m sure we would have done their wine tram.

We took an Uber from Stellenbosch to Franschoek but couldn’t summon any in the area on the way back, so we had a restaurant call us a cab. The Uber cost us 258 rand ($19) and took 45 minutes; our cab on the way back cost 300 rand ($22).

Day Four: Unusual Stellenbosch Wineries

Our flight departed Cape Town late in the afternoon, so we were determined to get a few more tastings in before we left. Beth found a driver who would take us to a few wineries and then to the airport from there. It was the perfect way to enjoy our final day in Stellenbosch.

Fleur du Cap — Come here for their salt tasting.

As soon as I heard that there was a wine tasting paired with salts, I knew I had to try it! Fleur du Cap offers a tasting where they give you five wines, five salts, and several little dishes for experimenting with the salts. One was a stuffed grape leaf; another was olive paste.

It was so much fun! This tasting is why I now use pink Himalayan sea salt all the time in my cooking. (It sounds more expensive than it is — you can get it for like $4 at Trader Joe’s.) Beth and I were also both horrified by Indian black salt, which smells like rotten eggs. Apparently vegans like it because it’s an animal-free way to get the taste of eggs. But isn’t the taste of eggs the worst part about them? It’s all about the texture, baby!

Salt tastings take place at 12:00 PM only and you must book in advance.

Cavalli Wine and Stud Farm — Come here for the photo ops.

Cavalli Wine and Stud Farm was easily the most scenic winery we visited. The grounds were so beautiful and the building itself was a modern masterpiece. All of their wines are named after horses. We sampled a few wines and a cheese plate and they actually gave us a free bottle of wine to take home because they were busy and took so long.

And with that, we were off to Cape Town to catch our flight to Johannesburg, then to Amsterdam, then home to New York.

But which wineries were the very best?

If you’re limited on time, I would prioritize visiting the very best of Stellenbosch. That would be cheese tasting at Fairview, chocolate tasting at Waterford, and salt tasting at Fleur du Cap.

Where to Stay in Stellenbosch

My recommendation is to stay in a hotel within or just outside the city center. That way you can get around easily by walking. Here are my recommendations for places at every price range in downtown Stellenbosch:

If you’re looking for budget accommodation in Stellenbosch, Ikhaya Stellenbosch Backpackers has dorms, private rooms, and apartment-style suites for a low price and a great location right by the center of town.

If you want a mid-range hotel, Stellenbosch Hotel has the feel of a B&B with the amenities of a hotel, right in the center of town.

If you want something high-end but not too expensive, check out Coopmanhuijs Boutique Hotel, a stylish Stellenbosch boutique hotel with a pool in the center of town.

And if you want to blow your budget, you probably don’t care about being in town because you can afford to hire a driver for your whole trip. If that’s the case, go for Delaire Graff Lodge — it’s pretty much the most luxurious property in the Stellenbosch area.

You can find more Stellenbosch hotels here.

Where to Eat in Stellenbosch

Many of the wineries serve food, but if you’re looking for restaurants in Stellenbosch, here are some that we enjoyed:

The Big Easy is an excellent yet affordable high-end dinner spot. I loved my venison, but the standout was Beth’s parmesan and mushroom risotto.

Hudson’s The Burger Joint is a popular upscale burger chain. And it has a bit of a New York theme, which didn’t hurt. Get one of the burgers with bacon jam! (Thanks for taking us, Kate and Alessio!)

Melissa’s the Food Shop is an adorable cafe and grocery store. It’s only open for breakfast and lunch, and they have adorable pastries. This is also a good place to stock up on food souvenirs.

The Bird Cage is a quirky café that does lovely breakfast dishes. Their main business is wedding cakes. This is one restaurant that will look great on Instagram, FYI.

Tiger’s Milk is a delicious casual chain with great pizzas. I didn’t eat here, but I ate at the one in Muizenberg in Cape Town. Bacon-avocado-feta is a mysteriously popular combination in South Africa and I highly recommend their bacon-avocado-feta pizza! (Thanks for taking us, Mark and Charmain!)

And don’t underestimate having a meal of wine and cheese back at your place!

How to Get Around Stellenbosch

The conundrum about wine regions around the world is that they are best to explore by car — yet driving is the last thing you should be doing while wine tasting.

You may want to rent a car and have one person stay sober. But if you both want to drink, look into hiring transportation!

You can summon Ubers within the town of Stellenbosch, but summoning them at outside wineries and in Franschoek is difficult to impossible. In that case, ask the winery to call you a cab.

I loved the day we spent on the Vine Hopper and it was a great way to experience lots of wineries without worrying about transportation. And hiring a driver from a tour company was the most logistically easy way to visit a few wineries, leave our bags with him, and go directly to the airport from there.

When to Visit Stellenbosch

Stellenbosch is a great year-round destination. Beth and I visited in the winter (July) and while I was a bit nervous, as winter weather is roughest on the Western Cape, winter ended up being a great time to visit.

The main reason? Fireplaces. It seemed like nearly every winery had a fireplace or two, and it was so nice to bundle up near a roaring fire with a glass of Chenin Blanc in your hand!

Secondly, hardly anyone was visiting then. We were often the only two people visiting a winery. And because of that, hotel prices were lower, too.

Weather-wise, some days were sunny, some were rainy, and some were a mix, but a light leather or denim jacket with a scarf was all we needed. Pack an umbrella because the weather can change quickly.

You can’t go wrong any time of year, though. Fall is a popular time to visit, as that’s when the new bottles will be coming out, and summer is high season. Do be prepared for higher prices and bigger crowds in those seasons.

On Tourism and Race in Stellenbosch

One thing I noticed was that nearly every single tourist I saw in Stellenbosch was white. The only black people I saw were working. I noticed this often throughout South Africa, but it was more significant in Stellenbosch than anywhere else.

However, that changed at our final winery, Cavalli, where nearly every guest was black. (It’s worth noting that we were at Cavalli was on a Saturday, which is a popular day for Capetonians to visit rather than tourists.)

Racism in the wine tourism industry is not unheard of — a few years ago, a group of black women were kicked off a wine train in Napa Valley for apparently laughing and talking too loudly (aka #LaughingWhileBlack); they were met by police when they arrived at the station. The company claimed it was “acute insensitivity” and not racial bias at play; the women sued the company and reached a private settlement.

I’m not knowledgeable enough about race relations in South Africa to speak at length, but I will say this: Most non-South Africans assume that things immediately got better when Apartheid ended. That’s not true. Laws may have changed, but new injustices sprang up to replace the old laws. It’s similar to the United States — a lot of people assume things got better once the Civil Rights Movement happened, but the injustice only changed form. Now it’s in the form of criminal injustice and police brutality, among many other things.

What I do recommend is having conversations with South Africans about their lives. Talk to black people, white people, colored people (colored means mixed race and is a non-derogatory term in South Africa), Asian people. Don’t insist that everyone tell you about Apartheid, because it’s nobody’s job to educate you on their painful time in history, but you’d be surprised at how often South Africans bring up Apartheid on their own. Either way, I guarantee your eyes will be opened once you hear their life stories.

After seeing how white the wine tourism industry is in Stellenbosch, I wish I had made an effort to visit black-owned wineries. You should do the same. Here’s a list of black-owned wineries in South Africa; here’s a Guardian feature on black-owned wineries in South Africa.

The Takeaway

Stellenbosch was one of the highlights of our trip. Both Beth and I loved our time there and our three and a half days of drinking wine and eating cheese was the perfect way to wind down after ten busy days in South Africa.

Would I return? You absolutely bet I would! I only scraped the surface when it comes to wineries!

Oh, and one last tidbit:

I brought six bottles of my favorite wines home. I didn’t pay more than $11 for any of them.

Essential Info: To get into Stellenbosch, you can take a cab, bus, or train from Cape Town. There are also several private shuttle services. If we hadn’t had Charmain to drive us, we would have taken a private shuttle. Locals I spoke to recommended avoiding the train.

You can find hotels in Stellenbosch here.

I recently read Trevor Noah’s book Born a Crime, which is about his childhood during and after Apartheid in South Africa. It’s an outstanding, gripping, fascinating book and I urge you to read it before you visit South Africa. I actually recommend getting the audio version because Trevor does tons of different accents, languages, and voices.

South African power adapters are hard to find outside South Africa — get one before your trip.

Don’t visit South Africa without travel insurance. Whether you get appendicitis while on safari and need to be hospitalized, or your phone gets stolen in Cape Town, or an injury means you need to cancel all or part of your trip, travel insurance will help you out. I use and recommend World Nomads as travel insurance for trips to South Africa.

Have you been to Stellenbosch or gone wine tasting in South Africa? Share away!

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Scenes from Košice, Slovakia

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Imagine that you have a week in Europe to spare. Where would you go?

There are ten European countries you have yet to visit: Belarus, Cyprus, Estonia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Moldova, Poland, Russia, Slovakia, and Ukraine.

And your time is bookended by commitments in Cardiff, Wales, and Leipzig, Germany.

Turns out that flying out of Cardiff is largely impractical, so most locals fly from Bristol, England. And it just so happens that Bristol has a direct flight to Košice, Slovakia. You book it immediately.

Most people who go to Slovakia hit up the capital, Bratislava. It’s decently connected, it’s pretty, and it’s a short getaway from Vienna. Košice (pronounced koh-SHIT-sa), a university town in the eastern part of the country, is much more off the beaten path.

I didn’t do much during my time in Košice, but I found it a thoroughly enjoyable place to spend a day or two. Here are some of my favorite photos:

Košice is a city with a tiny moat running down its main drag, tram tracks on either side.

A city with pink flowers bursting out of ornate Baroque balconies.

A city where locals sip beers at the base of a cathedral.

A city where doorways in the old town lead to graffiti-adorned walls.

Most famous is Košice’s singing fountain. This fountain plays acoustic covers of pop songs all day. And to my delight, they played “I Swear” by All-4-One three times within a two-hour period. (Really not helping the “Eastern Europe still thinks Miami Vice is on” stereotypes there, fountain.)

I wonder where that doorway leads!

That sounds good. I’ll have that.

The colors of Central European buildings would look garish anywhere else — but warm and perfect under a blue sky here.

The gothic cathedral is enormous — it easily dwarfs every other building in town.

Perhaps my favorite thing about Central Europe is the cafe culture. People sit out all day long, starting with coffees and moving on to beer and wine.

It’s also cheap. Britt from Adventure Lies in Front, a friend of mine from Travel Blog Success, happened to be passing through Košice en route from the Tatras to Budapest. We got some local rosé — just two euros per glass!

I headed over to the mall to pick up a European converter that could take three-pronged plugs (of COURSE I had left mine in Wales!) and snapped this shot of the tram en route.

I love this dog! It could be a model.

Goodnight, Košice, and thank you for the briefest, loveliest stay.

I’ll admit that this isn’t the way I usually like to visit a new country — I like to visit at least three different destinations to get a better idea of the country as a whole. But sometimes you just don’t have the time. I would love to return to Slovakia and see much more, starting with the Tatras!

Essential Info: I stayed at Penzion Grand Košice but I don’t recommend it as 1) there is no staff present after 10 PM and 2) I got bedbugs 3) which you can imagine is extra complicated when you get bedbugs after 10 PM. It was cheap and decent otherwise, but I don’t think it’s worth the hassle of either of those issues. Find more hotels in Košice here.

Košice is well connected by train and bus. I had trouble finding information on how to get from Košice to Poland, but it was actually easy — I took a train to Poprad, walked next door to the bus station, and then got on a bus to Zakopane (you buy your tickets on board). From Zakopane you can easily connect to Kraków and beyond.

Don’t visit Slovakia without travel insurance. Whether you cut yourself and need to go to the hospital for stitches, or your phone gets stolen at a bar, or an injury means you need to cancel all or part of your trip, travel insurance will help you and keep you financially afloat if the worst happens. I use and recommend World Nomads for trips to Slovakia.

What’s your favorite random city that doesn’t get enough love?

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TBEX Zimbabwe: An Unethical and Irresponsible Choice

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Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, by quiquefepe

My dear readers, today’s post is about the travel blogging industry. I think some of you would find it to be an interesting read, but if that’s not your thing, feel free to check out my Best of the Blog page. 

On Saturday at the Travel Blog Exchange (TBEX) conference in Huntsville, Alabama, it was announced that the first TBEX Africa will take place in July 2018.

It will take place in Harare, Zimbabwe, to be exact. And the primary sponsor will be the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority, a government-run organization.

Holy shit. TBEX actually entered a business partnership with Robert Mugabe’s government.

Background: TBEX is not representative of the whole travel blogging industry.

TBEX is the largest travel blogging conference. A few different conferences are held in different parts of the world each year — generally one in North America, one in Europe, and one somewhere else. And because they’re so big, they tend to dominate the industry.

I’ve attended one TBEX, in Girona in the Costa Brava region of Spain in 2012. It was a fantastic experience, but that was more due to Jaume Marin and the team at Costa Brava Tourism, who have long been leaders in creating innovative marketing campaigns for travel bloggers. (I mean, they threw a party in a castle with a “ham room” filled with jamon iberico! Yeah. That had nothing to do with TBEX; that was all Costa Brava.)

TBEX is only interested in making money; they have zero interest in bettering the travel blogging industry. Because of this, most of their conferences are geared toward beginner bloggers. I call it “churning and burning newbies.” They’re the easiest to convince to buy a ticket; it’s easier to build a conference around the needs of beginners. Most of the talks are geared to beginning topics on SEO, Instagram, freelance writing, and the like.

And while the sessions haven’t changed much since 2012 (though newer platforms like Snapchat and Pinterest now have a presence), the demographics at TBEXes have changed a lot. Few long-time professional bloggers attend anymore; if they attend, it’s usually because they’re giving a talk. Nowadays, many of the people who attend TBEX haven’t even started a blog yet. Isn’t that crazy? I can’t wrap my head around that.

The watering down of TBEX has been bad for the industry. As the quality of the attendees goes down, the quality of would-be sponsors and industry attendees goes down, the work the newbies produce isn’t as good and doesn’t get as wide an audience, and because TBEX is such a big conference, this sends the message that travel blogging is ineffective and not worth it.

These are the reasons why I am no longer involved with TBEX, but it gets much worse.

TBEX has been under fire over the past few years.

The first major controversy was prior to the Cancun conference in 2014. One of the post-conference activities was swimming with dolphins kept in captivity, an activity that is cruel to the dolphins.

Many bloggers protested TBEX; 2,300 bloggers signed a petition asking them to remove the dolphin tours. And it worked. TBEX eventually removed the dolphin tours, but only after a major outcry.

The second major controversy was when TBEX selected Bangkok as their first Asian conference location in 2015. Almost every travel blogger has been to Thailand; plenty of travel bloggers have even lived there. I love it there, too.

But the hosting partner for this conference was the Tourism Authority of Thailand, a government organization, and Thai government has a long history of prosecuting journalists. While Thailand has never had free speech, the 2014 coup took a turn for the worst, when the constitution was suspended and any protections for freedom of expression were eliminated. By attending a government-sponsored event as media, the bloggers could have been putting themselves in danger.

The next uproar came when the 2016 Asian conference was hosted in Manila by Philippines Tourism, a government organization. President Rodrigo Duterte rode to the presidency on a promise to end drug crime by murdering all drug criminals, and these murders have been carried out at an alarming rate.

Additionally, the Philippines is also a dangerous country for journalists. 78 have been killed since 1992, most of the journalists focusing on crime or corruption. Duterte himself once said, “Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination if you’re a son of a bitch.”

And finally, the venue for TBEX International in 2017 was revealed: Jerusalem. A bit of a controversial destination, no matter how you look at it. And while it branded itself as an opportunity to explore both Israeli and Palestinian cultures, the main sponsor was the Israel Ministry of Tourism, which is an organization that condones the occupation of Palestine.

Shit hit the fan in late 2016 when it was revealed that TBEX wasn’t paying its employees and contractors.

Deborah Ng, former conference director of BlogWorld and New Media Expo, which acquired TBEX in 2012, posted a revealing account on Medium. In short, she and several other people were not paid for the work they did.

You can read the whole saga here. Here’s a taste:

“Around the time I left, I learned there was a long line of people waiting to be paid by BlogWorld/NMX/TBEX. I heard of tax liens, garnished bank accounts, bounced checks, and lawsuits…Since the owner didn’t respond to emails, Skypes, texts or calls, I sent an email around to the entire team letting them know I quit. It wasn’t until a couple of weeks later  — when he made a rare appearance on a team call —  that the owner learned I was gone.”

The owner, Rick Calvert, later admitted to everything in Ng’s piece:

“It is true that we owed Deb money when she left NMX and it is true we still do.”

Ng received the last of money she was owed in January 2017, years after it was due:

“Management is telling TBEX sponsors and attendees that they’re all caught up with their debts. This isn’t true. I know people who are still waiting to get paid.”

As someone who has done a lot of freelancing over the years, I know this: freelancers time their work contracts and payments carefully so they’ll have money to cover their bills and expenses at all times. When you miss a payment to a freelancer, you throw the whole system off and force them to dip into their savings — if they have enough in their savings. Many freelancers don’t make much, especially if they’re starting out or in a creative field.

There was one time in 2013 when I was down to $200 in my bank account and was owed more than $9,000 from companies that hadn’t paid me on time for various reasons.

It’s bad enough not to pay someone on time, but it’s especially cruel to do so to someone who makes a non-salaried living.

Kennedy Vlei, Zimbabwe, by Jason Wharam

What’s wrong with the Zimbabwean government, anyway?

The president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, is often cited as one of the worst dictators of the past century. Zimbabwe has terrible human rights abuses and a dreadful record on free speech.

On human rights violations:

“The government of President Robert Mugabe continues to violate human rights without regard to protections in the country’s 2013 constitution. It has intensified repression against thousands of people who peacefully protest human rights violations and the deteriorating economic situation. Police use excessive force to crush dissent, and violate the basic rights of civil society activists, human rights defenders, journalists, and government opponents. Widespread impunity for abuses by the police and state security agents remains. President Mugabe has undermined the independence of the judiciary and of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC) through verbal assaults on the two institutions.” —Human Rights Watch

On Mugabe murdering his way to reelection in 2008:

“In May, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission announced the presidential vote results, confirming that Tsvangirai secured 47.9%, to Mugabe’s 43.2%. As neither candidate secured 50%, a run-off vote was scheduled. Mugabe saw his defeat as an unacceptable personal humiliation. He deemed it a victory for his Western, and in particular British, detractors, whom he believed were working with Tsvangirai to end his political career. ZANU-PF claimed that the MDC had rigged the election.

After the election, Mugabe’s government deployed its ‘war veterans’ in a violent campaign against Tsvangirai supporters. Between March and June 2008, at least 153 MDC supporters were killed. There were reports of women affiliated with the MDC being subjected to gang rape by Mugabe supporters. Tens of thousands of Zimbabweans were internally displaced by the violence. These actions brought international condemnation of Mugabe’s government. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon expressed concern about the violence, which was also unanimously condemned by the UN Security Council, which declared that a free and fair election was ‘impossible’. 40 senior African leaders — among them Desmond Tutu, Kofi Annan, and Jerry Rawlings — signed an open letter calling for an end to the violence.

In response to the violence, Tsangirai pulled out of the run-off. In the second round, Mugabe was pronounced victor with 85.5% of the vote, and immediately re-inaugurated as President. —Wikipedia

Zimbabwe has a bad record on freedom of speech. This is how they deal with it on the digital end:

“In April [2016], President Mugabe threatened to introduce laws to restrict access to the internet.

In August, in response to the rising discontent expressed on social media, the authorities introduced a draft bill on Computer and Cyber Crimes to curb anti-government criticism. The bill had not become law by the end of the year.

During a national stay-away on 6 July in protest against corruption, fronted by the social media movement #ThisFlag, social media apps such as WhatsApp were shut down by the government.” —Amnesty International

And let’s throw in some LGBT rights violations, too:

“Laws passed in 2006 criminalize any actions perceived as homosexual. The Zimbabwean government has made it a criminal offense for two people of the same sex to hold hands, hug, or kiss. The ‘sexual deviancy’ law is one of 15 additions to Zimbabwe’s Criminal Code quietly passed in Parliament. The sections involving gays and lesbians are part of an overhaul of the country’s sodomy laws. Before then, laws against sodomy were limited to sexual activity, and the revised law now states that sodomy is any ‘act involving contact between two males that would be regarded by a reasonable person as an indecent act.’” —Wikipedia

In short, TBEX has chosen to partner with the government of a brutal dictator.

Bravo, TBEX. You’ve really outdone yourself here.

It’s not safe to host travel blogging conferences in countries that are hostile to journalists.

I never identify myself as a blogger, journalist, or member of the media when entering a country that is hostile to journalists. The reason is that I value my life and I’m not going to give them any reason to watch me.

But TBEX goes further — these conferences openly identify bloggers to the government as members of the media.

I’ll be honest: I worried during the entire TBEX in Bangkok that one of my friends would be reported to the police for saying something negative about the king. That’s what Thailand is like nowadays. When you’re living in a military dictatorship and you’re already identified as media, you never know who’s watching.

This goes back to my point that TBEX does not care about the travel blogging industry. If they actually cared about the industry and bloggers themselves, they would not host conferences in Thailand, Philippines, and Zimbabwe, where journalists are routinely murdered for writing negatively about the government.

That’s kind of a basic requirement, don’t you think?

But doesn’t tourism help locals?

Yes. When done the right way, tourism helps locals a lot, especially in countries with corrupt governments. Tourism strengthens economies, allows financial independence, and educates locals about the outside world. And that includes Zimbabwe. I want people to travel independently to Zimbabwe.

That said, when you attend a travel blogging conference, you’re not an independent traveler — you’re essentially a marketing consultant hired to promote their destination. And when you’re being hosted by the government, they are only allowing you to see what they want to see. When it’s a corrupt government in charge of your trip, they will likely only show you places that give them the most financial kickbacks.

The reason why travel blogging conference tickets are much cheaper than in other industries — tickets to TBEX Africa are literally only $97 right now — is because you’re expected to promote the host organization. Nobody is holding a gun to your head, but the host expects you to do so.

Professional bloggers generally provide accurate, truthful coverage of a host destination that isn’t too whitewashed. But newer, less experienced bloggers tend to write glowing accounts, thinking that it’s their duty because they got a “free” trip.

Also, a tidbit: the one time an organization ever asked me for more coverage was after my one and only TBEX trip in Spain. One hotel in Costa Brava felt insulted that I hadn’t written a fawning post exclusively about their property. It doesn’t work that way.

“As a tourist, you have a certain amount of control over where your money goes, using your own judgment calls. That’s theory, and practice may be tricky, but there’s more freedom there to do the right thing — partly because you’re a consumer, too, not a state-funded temporary consultant for the country’s marketing team. That’s supposed to be one of the great things about travel blogging — the freedom to sneak in, make your own mind up and write what you think and feel — and act according to your values as a traveler. Two kinds of freedom: one about strategic spending power, one about bias. Both are personal calls.” –Mike Sowden, Fevered Mutterings

In short, at TBEX Africa in Zimbabwe, participants will only be seeing what Mugabe wants them to see.

Would I visit Zimbabwe as an independent traveler? Yes, I would. (Though writing this post has probably put me on a list somewhere. Ugh.) I would spend my travel dollars close to the ground and learn as much as possible so I could have a well-rounded experience.

I wouldn’t dream of working for Mugabe and the Zimbabwean government.

How to Travel Ethically and Independently

Some people will argue whether it’s ethical to visit Zimbabwe. Yes, money from visas and taxes goes to the government no matter what, but it’s a small amount compared to what you can give to locals. I think that it can be done, and almost anywhere can be, if you make an effort to travel as sustainably as possible. Here are some ways to do so:

Research extensively in advance. Read up on the country’s history, politics, and environmental issues and use that information to illuminate your trip. Don’t show up clueless and unaware.

Visit on your own dime. Pay your own way. If you’re a blogger, don’t ask for comps at small family-owned places.

Spend your money, at small, locally owned businesses. Avoid major chains and international properties.

Buy from the source when possible. If local jewelry is popular in a place you’re visiting, buy from a local artist rather than a gift shop. (That necklace I’m wearing above was purchased directly from a Xhosa artist on the Eastern Cape of South Africa who took my hands and thanked me for buying directly from her instead of from a shop.)

Spread your money among as many businesses as possible. Don’t book tours through your hotel; book direct through the tour operator. Don’t buy all your souvenirs from one vendor; buy from several vendors.

Be kind to animals and the environment. Never ride an elephant. Never take part in activities with animals in captivity. Produce the least amount of waste possible and don’t waste water or energy.

Engage with the locals you meet. Don’t just talk to your waiter when you need another drink — have a full conversation. Rather than just taking, taking, taking, use conversations as an opportunity to exchange.

If you’re a blogger, write comprehensive, thoughtful, and well-researched posts. Be especially sensitive in developing countries, countries where the locals are of a different race than you, and countries with a corrupt government.

“This is one of the main criticisms about travel bloggers and I agree with it. As many don’t have professional journalism training or something equivalent, they run around the world publishing stories that lack cultural/political context and understanding. In some destinations that matters more than others. I don’t trust that a lot of bloggers will have the sophistication to write about a place like Zimbabwe.” –Mariellen Ward, Breathe Dream Go

And finally, if your destination has a corrupt government, absolutely do not go on a trip sponsored by the government!!!!

Sunset over the Zambezi, Zimbabwe, by Stephen Mawby

Should you go to TBEX Africa in Zimbabwe?

Since the Zimbabwe announcement was made, I’ve seen lots of starry-eyed travel bloggers excited to go to Africa. Some genuinely had no idea who Mugabe was and changed their minds once they learned about him. But others won’t let that stand in their way because, well, they really want some free trips in Africa.

The choice is yours, but I hope you choose not to attend. I urge you to do your research on Mugabe’s regime before deciding whether or not to attend. These are the people who are funding this event.

And if you’re thinking of speaking at TBEX Africa, I would reconsider. Apply for a different conference instead. I think the people who choose to participate in this conference are going to have a spotlight on them in a bad way.

The problem, just so it’s clear, is not the country of Zimbabwe itself, which could use the tourism. The problem is that this conference is being hosted and controlled by the government.

Outside Harare, Zimbabwe, by Romain

Should you go to Zimbabwe otherwise?

YES. Go to Zimbabwe independently! Zimbabwe is a beautiful country with warm people and some truly wonderful travel experiences. The wildlife in Zimbabwe is outstanding; Victoria Falls is an icon. And they could really use your tourism dollars.

“I’ve written extensively about Zimbabwe, its people and social programs where tourist dollars directly help the local communities and wildlife conservation and will continue to. I love the place, warts and all. The people are amazing, but I choose to travel independently or with companies that benefit the people/wildlife etc.

I don’t think for a minute that a travel blogging conference in Harare will have the same effect. It’s always going to be a personal choice, but not everyone against this is sitting back and not visiting Zim.” –Andy Higgs, Grown Up Travel Guide

You can cruise down the Zambezi, track lions in Hwange National Park, check out caves in Chivero National Park, or party the night away in Harare. Zimbabwe is huge and there’s a lot to see.

Are there good alternatives to TBEX?

TBEX is the big conference, but it’s far from the best. There are four small travel blogging conference that I recommend attending:

  1. Women in Travel Summit (WITS). A smart conference geared toward women covering thoughtful issues most others ignore. Men are welcome. The next one is in Québec City, Canada, in 2018.
  2. Social Travel Summit (STS). A small, Europe-centric conference for professional bloggers with great networking opportunities. The next one is in Kitzbühel, Austria, in September 2017.
  3. Travel Bloggers Conference (TBC). An invitation-only conference for professional bloggers that has been based in Sri Lanka so far.
  4. Traverse. I haven’t attended, but it’s made by bloggers and I’ve heard they do an excellent job. The next one is in Rotterdam, Netherlands, in 2018.

TBEX, you are welcome to respond to this.

I reached out to TBEX for comment; requests for comments were not returned. If that changes, I’ll share their response here.

What do you think? Is this conference a good idea?

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The Art of the Chilled Out Trip to Paris

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Paris is a city that I return to again and again. The city feels like home to me — and for that reason, my more recent visits are less about sightseeing and more about chilling out.

For me, what I enjoy most is the feeling of being in Paris. You can’t get that anywhere else. And I know that sounds rather obvious, but seriously, you can get a bit of a New York feeling in parts of Boston, or vice versa. Same thing with London and Rome, or Bangkok and Hong Kong.

Paris, however, has no equal.


Planning a trip? Check out 100 Travel Tips for Paris


If it’s your first time, by all means you should see all the sights you want to see. But also block out some time just to wander, sit in cafes, and feel the city envelope you.

That’s how I plan my trips nowadays. Think less time in museums, more time sitting in cafes. Fewer group tours, more self-guided photo walks.

It’s all about feeling good, you know?

And as a result, I got some of my best Paris photos of all time on my most recent trip last October. I hope you enjoy them. Here are scenes from a relaxed, chilled out trip to Paris.

Life lesson to you all: befriend a portrait photographer and invite him to come hang out in Paris!

My friend Jiyang Chen is an amazing portrait photographer based in New York — check out his work here — and he took a ton of fabulous shots of me in Paris. All photos of me in this post were taken by him. This one was in Père Lachaise cemetery.

(J: “So where’s your next trip?”

K: “Eh, a lot of places. A conference in Scotland, a trip to Wales, then I’ve got this conference in Germany but I think I can fit in Slovakia and Poland in between, then something else, maybe Luxembourg or Alsace, then a full week in Paris. I love Paris. I can’t stay away from Paris.”

J: “Cool.”

K: “…Wanna come?”

J: “Okay.” *Books flight 15 minutes later.*)

My favorite discovery of this trip was Rue Montorgueil, a street in the 2eme filled with amazing food shops. And it’s not overrun with tourists, either!

This is one of my favorite buildings on Rue Montorgueil. I think I might frame this one for my house.

One thing not enough people talk about is that Paris often has gray and overcast weather. Cloudy days are the norm; I once visited in August and it poured buckets every day.

Make peace with the fact that the weather won’t be sunny every day, bring an umbrella whenever you go out, and you’ll be fine.

Then again, you could be lucky. Don’t forget to relish the sun when it comes out!

I love you, cheese.

Jumping for joy outside the Louvre — and hoping to go inside for some macarons. And, um, a public bathroom (it’s before the ticketed area).

Yeah, this is what it’s actually like at the Mona Lisa.

Pastries, stop being so beautiful!!

Ever seen the Sinking House before? It’s on Montmartre, close to the Sacré Coeur. The hill is actually at an angle, so if you shoot with the hill straight, it makes the building look like the Titanic!

Oh, Paris at night. Even seemingly boring side streets can have the view of the century.

Love locks cover the Pont des Arts, but beware — locks today are frequently removed to preserve the bridge.

Ile Saint-Louis, the other little island in the Seine, has a village-like feel to it. It also has nice views of Notre-Dame from behind.

I’m a huge fan of Cobblestone Paris Rentals — it’s a rental company owned by two of my friends whom I met while traveling. Their apartments are gorgeous, luxurious, and SO Parisian.

And when you check in, their guides give you the most thorough and detailed introduction to the apartment and the neighborhood, even giving you a list of things to do that you won’t find in any guidebook. I’ve never had that good customer service at any other hotel or rental company. You can learn more about Cobblestone in my Paris accommodation post.

This apartment was La Charme du Marais.

I love the details — the chandeliers. The mirror. The perfectly coordinated pillows and blankets.

And it comes with a balcony! A wraparound balcony!

One day we headed to one of my favorite bakeries, Du Pains et Des Idées, only to find out it was closed for the weekend. We instead ended up at a sidewalk cafe eating the flakiest, most buttery croissants ever, and people-watching.

If you want to shop, check out Galeries Lafayette. It’s super busy with tourists, but the atrium is a stunning sight.

Ah, Paris. I love that you can order a salad and be proud of yourself for being healthy, then it comes with a mound of fried, melty goat cheese on top.

On a somewhat related note, I’m glad I’ve lost 15 pounds or so since these photos were taken, but I really miss looking like this from behind. (You should see some of the other pics. They’re borderline Kardashian-esque.)

I think our single best photo shoot of the trip was on top of the Sacré Coeur at sunset. This was right when the light began to change.

Also, fuck the Montparnasse Tower. It’s that ugly black tower on the left that ruins the cityscape. (Ask Jiyang how many times I cursed at the Montparnasse Tower on this trip.)

I am completely in love with this photo, taken on top of the Sacré Coeur. You can see a few more on Instagram with the #loveisus hashtag.

Jiyang captures a photo-ception! A selfie-caption?

JUST LOOK at that view and those colors. Staying for blue hour on top of the Sacré Coeur was worth it. (Sorry we kept you waiting so long, Edna! I still feel guilty about that.)

Chartier is one of my favorite restaurants in Paris. It’s got character for days, the food is delicious, and everything is shockingly cheap for Paris. Definitely go here but be prepared to wait in line.

I can’t go to Paris without having escargots at least once.

Sure, restaurants and cafes are great, but you need to have at least one dinner like this in Paris. A bottle of local wine, whatever fruit is in season, some cheeses, and some pastries. Magnifique.

Père Lachaise is famous for its graves — Jim Morrison, Frederic Chopin, Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, Molière — but it’s also a nice place to enjoy a quiet walk.

Hot chocolate at Angelina was one of the suggestions of our Cobblestone guide. It’s worth every bit of hype. Have some and go window-shopping for designer jewelry in Place Vendôme afterwards.

And finally, meet one of my new favorite spots to photograph the sunset: the rooftop of the Printemps department store on 64 Boulevard Haussman in the 9eme.

The rooftop at Galeries Lafayette is another great option nearby, but I think the view at Printemps is slightly better.

How could you not fall in love with Paris while looking at that view?


Read next: Where to Stay in Paris


Essential Info: Paris is one of the cities I know best and I’ve created lots of flagship content to help you plan your trip.

Definitely bring a Paris guidebook! Two that I recommend are Lonely Planet: Paris and Rick Steves: Paris.

For the best hotel rates in Paris, compare hotels here.

Don’t even think of going to Paris without travel insurance. Whether you cut yourself and need to go to the hospital for stitches, or your phone gets stolen on the metro, or an injury means you need to cancel all or part of your trip, travel insurance will help you out. I use and recommend World Nomads as travel insurance for trips to Paris.

Have you been to Paris? Is it your dream destination? Share away!

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AK Monthly Recap: April 2017

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It’s so strange that when I look back at this month, one random little memory comes to mind.

I was standing in the CVS on Broadway and 93rd St., fresh from a training session at the gym, picking up a bottle of coconut water, wondering whether I should pay my trainer more for analyzing my love life in between squats and deadlifts.

And then a song came on overhead — Sugar Ray’s “Someday.”

I was filled with nostalgia and warmth.

CVS was where I worked in high school; “Someday” was a popular song on the radio then. I remember the video, the band grooving on a beach in black and white, Mark McGrath all frosted tips and swaying hips. As it played, I moved over to the nearest speaker and danced a little bit, coconut water in hand, trying to pinpoint the feeling swelling through me.

Just close your eyes and I’ll take you there,

This place is warm and without a care…

The song ended too soon. I made my way to the self-checkout, feeling like something had been taken from me, but glad I had experienced it.

Destinations Visited

New York, New York

Reading, Beverly, Lynn, and Boston, Massachusetts

Favorite Destinations

It was so nice to get back to Boston — I actually haven’t spent much time in the city proper since I moved to New York. I used to know Boston like the back of my hand; now that I haven’t lived there for six and a half years, I barely recognize some parts of it.

Highlights

Meeting my feminist heroes. This was a fantastic month. I had no idea I’d be meeting feminist icon Gloria Steinem! My friend Amy invited me to an event honoring Dr. Willie Parker, reproductive rights advocate and author of Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice.

(John Oliver was there, too, and gave a hilarious introduction. Olivia Wilde was there as well, as an attendee, and I cracked up when Amy said, “Hey, Olivia, your backpack is unzipped so I’m just zipping it up for you now.”)

I got a chance to briefly chat with Gloria and tell her about the work I do to fight gender inequality in the travel blogging industry and elsewhere. (“Travel blogging. That’s interesting,” she said.) “I’m continuing your work,” I told her. “No,” she gently corrected me. “You’re continuing your work and I support you.” My heart felt like it was about to burst.

I also met Lindy West, one of my favorite writers in the world, whose book Shrill I named one of my favorite reads of 2016. She was giving a reading at the NYU bookstore. We had a nice discussion about the ramifications of standing up for your beliefs when it can negatively impact your career.

Enjoying flower season in New York. I’m glad I actually got some good photos this year! The cherry blossoms are so beautiful. Spring is one of my favorite times of year in the city. I love when you can ditch a jacket and have a coffee or drink outdoors.

Trying out crazy treats in New York. I’m on a mission to photograph some of the crazier foods in New York, so I waited in line for a cronut at Dominique Ansel Bakery in SoHo (and ran into two lovely readers while doing so!) and tried the fish-shaped ice cream at Taiyaki in Chinatown. Pro tip: if you want a cronut, go right when they open.

Trying out vegan restaurants in New York. No real reason for it; I just happened to try a few this month! I know I have some vegan and vegetarian readers, so here are some tips: if you want something high-end, check out Candle Cafe on the Upper West Side or Upper East Side. I loved the “lasagna” with tomatoes, pesto, cashew cheese, and thinly sliced zucchini. For something more casual, try out Sun in Bloom in Park Slope or Tribeca. They make sandwiches in collard green wraps and they got me to say the most Brooklyn thing ever: “What’s your Brazil nut latte like?” (It’s actually really delicious; you should get it, too.)

Returning to the Boston Marathon. The last time I attended was 2013, the year of the bombing, which was a very scary day. You can read about my experience here. I always find the marathon to be a moving event, and it especially was for me this year. I also got to cheer on my friend Matt, who is an avid marathoner but was running his first Boston.

Spending Easter at home with my family. It was a good time to go home. I also got my chowda fix at Legal Sea Foods. If you want the best clam chowder in Boston, that’s where you go (and don’t even THINK of getting the low cal version); if you want the best seafood chowder in the world, go to The Maine Diner in Wells, Maine.

Hanging out with a cool puppy with a bright future. My sister volunteers for Puppies Behind Bars, an organization where prisoners train puppies to become service animals for wounded vets. The puppies need to be socialized outside of the prison on a weekly basis, so Sarah gets to have a puppy stay with her overnight a few times a month. I loved hanging out with Waldo the black lab; he was so sweet. Also, you can bring a service animal anywhere, which is pretty cool.

Challenges

Overall, this was a very good month, and I’m grateful for that. Nothing worse than a traffic-filled bus back to New York that took nearly seven hours as opposed to the usual five.

Most Popular Post

“Do You Have Any Regrets?” — I extrapolate upon five regrets that I’ve encountered during my travels.

Other Posts

Miami Is Nice, So I’ll Say It Twice — I really enjoyed my time in Miami.

The Most Photogenic Places I’ve Ever Visited — Points for Copenhagen, Istanbul, and Lake Ohrid!

How I Joined Skillshare And Learned Cool New Skills on the Cheap — Be sure to check out this offer with two months free for AK readers, no strings attached.

Most Popular Instagram Photo

This photo from Samara, Costa Rica, taken two years ago, was just the prescription on a cold, rainy day.

For more updates, follow me on Instagram and Snapchat — I’m adventurouskate on both platforms.

Fitness Update

They say it takes a few months before your most observant friends and family notice any kind of weight loss. I’m glad to say that roughly 3.5 months into my fitness regimen, people are finally noticing and telling me how much skinnier I look. It feels awesome.

I took a few new classes this month: I tried out Orange Theory Fitness, which is an hourlong combination of running, strength training, and rowing in a small group setting. You wear a heart rate monitor and it tells you how many calories you burned. My friend Beth loves OTF, so I joined her at the Park Slope studio in Brooklyn. It was awesome — I loved the technology, the high calorie burn (635 for me), and how it feels like you’re on a team! I’ll definitely be back.

I also tried a combination trampoline and weights class at The Bari Studio in Tribeca, which was surprisingly hard, especially the weights portion, and I sweat SO much! Super fun, though. And I loved dancing to Beyoncé in Beyoncé’s neighborhood. (Me texting Beth: “DO YOU THINK THE BABIES HEARD US DANCING TO THEIR MOM?!?!”)

And if you’re ever around 145th St., check out Brahman Yoga. It’s a nice yoga space with cheap $8 drop-in classes. They specialize in vinyasa for all, from beginners to advanced practitioners.

These days there are two classes that I commit to at Equinox on W 92nd whenever I’m in New York: Zumba on Fridays with Adam, which is my favorite of the Zumba classes, and The Cut on Sundays with Chris, which is a hip-hop kickboxing class. Both Adam and Chris are fantastic instructors.

I will say, however, that I’m struggling a lot with diet this month. I need to smack myself back into shape.

Also — are you interested in trying out Equinox? Email me here, tell me which city you’re based in, and I can get you a free three-day trial at any Equinox gym (locations here).

What I Read This Month

This month I read six books and am now 23 books into the 52-book Popsugar 2017 reading challenge, putting me comfortably ahead of schedule. Here’s what I read:

The Trespasser by Tana French (2016) — I chose this from Book of the Month and I also suggested it to my book group. Tana French has written several novels about the murder squad of the Dublin police department; each novel focuses on a different detective. This book is about Detective Antoinette Conway, the only woman and person of color on the squad. There are two focuses: a case where a young woman is murdered and her new boyfriend would seem to be the obvious culprit, and the awful treatment Antoinette receives from her fellow detectives, from having her papers stolen and her coffee spat in to them urinating in her locker and worse. Because she’s a woman and biracial.

I don’t usually read thrillers or crime novels, but I loved this one. It unfolded slowly but soon I was wrapped up deep in the story, and I loved feeling like I was surrounded by Ireland. There were some weak points (and if you read it, you will probably agree on the same weak points), but I found this to be a compelling story along with a scathing account of what it’s like to be a woman in an aggressive male-dominated profession. Category: a book with a red spine.

Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh (2017) — This book first came to my attention when I saw that Zadie Smith, an author I love, recommended it in her NYT By the Book interview. When it was an option from Book of the Month, I had to get it! Moshfegh has already published a novel, but she’s better known for her short stories and this collection has been highly anticipated.

I’ll be honest. A lot of people would hate this book. I liked it. The stories are uncomfortable; the characters are unlikeable; there are a lot of bodily functions described in great detail. That discomfort reminded me of Elena Ferrante’s novellas — it’s like holding up a mirror to your worst self. But if you love great literature and can handle a bit of feeling off-kilter, read this book. Her stories are sharp and tight and I’ve never read anything quite like them. Category: a book recommended by an author you love.

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul (2017) — I got this from Book of the Month as well because it seemed like the kind of book I’d love — a collection of humorous essays by a rising star and Buzzfeed writer. Her parents immigrated from India to Canada and the book includes stories on being brown in Canada (especially when compared to being a light-skinned Kashmiri in India), sexism and rape culture, and why Indian weddings really aren’t that great, among others. It sounded like it was right up my alley.

Unfortunately, this book did not gel for me at all. I found the writing to be disorganized — Koul would veer off into different random topics in the middle of an essay, then circle back without making a point. She also seemed immature, which makes sense because she’s in her early twenties, and she wrote about her boyfriend constantly even though he had nothing to do with most stories. I did appreciate some of the stories, though, especially the one on body hair. I would totally be open to reading more of Koul’s work down the line, hopefully if that work is in the hands of a better editor. Category: a book where the main character is a different ethnicity than you.

Girls in the Moon by Janet McNally (2017) — I needed a book that took place in two time periods, and when I heard this one told of time perspectives from both a mother and daughter, it seemed like a good choice. It was a Book of the Month option as well, but it was actually a bit cheaper on Amazon, so I got it for Kindle. This book is told from the point of view of Phoebe, a 17-year-old girl visiting her older sister in New York. Her parents were once rock stars, but broke up and their mother abandoned fame to raise her children while her father chased fame and abandoned them; her sister is now becoming an indie rock star and following in her mother’s footsteps more than she will admit.

This is technically a Young Adult book, which I didn’t realize when I bought it. As a result, I felt like the young characters were FAR more mature than their ages (not unlike a Baby-Sitters Club book) and a little too perfect. But to my surprise, I actually ended up really liking the book and rooting for all the characters. I related quite a bit to the mother when she became more and more uncomfortable with fame, and I love that much of the book took place in Brooklyn Heights, one of my favorite New York neighborhoods. Category: a book set in two different time periods.

American War by Omar El Akkad (2017) — Yet another Book of the Month pick! I had been looking forward to this book’s publication ever since I first heard about it. It’s a dystopian book about the Second American Civil War, starting in 2074 and fought as climate change destroys the planet. America has prohibited the use of fossil fuels; the South rebels. The story of the war is told through the life of a young girl named Sarat, who goes from a six-year-old in a refugee camp to an indoctrinated instrument of war.

There were things I liked and didn’t like about this book. I loved the premise, as frightening and realistic as it could be. I loved how it was interspersed with academic papers detailing the war. But I felt like it held Sarat and other characters at so great of a distance that I couldn’t understand their actions and motivations (not unlike American Gods, which I read earlier this year). I will say, though, that the book makes a big shift at about the 75% mark and it becomes much more engrossing. Definitely worth reading. Category: a novel set during wartime. 

Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, And What It Means For Modern Relationships by Christopher Ryan and Cecilia Jethá (2012) — I bought this book a few years ago on the recommendation of Dan Savage, but only read a few chapters before losing interest. It was time to pick it up again. The book seeks to educate people that humans are not naturally monogamous. Monogamy between humans did not exist until the dawn of agriculture. Prior to that, we were hunter-gatherers and everyone had sex communally and indiscriminately with children being raised collectively by the tribe. This book is a dense tome of anthropological evidence, but it’s also quite funny at the same time.

Does this mean that everyone should give up monogamy? No, but monogamy is definitely not the best choice for everyone. I think this book is valuable in gently pointing out that you’re not a complete failure if you’re in a committed relationship, yet become attracted to someone else — this is how we’re wired. And perhaps more people would be happier in their long-term relationships if they rethought their views on monogamy and infidelity. Category: a bestseller from a genre you don’t normally read.

What I Listened To This Month

This month was all about Kendrick Lamar’s new album, DAMN. Kendrick is one of my favorite artists and I knew it would be tough for his new album to measure up to the tour de force that was To Pimp a Butterfly. But you know what happened?

Kendrick Lamar created an album I actually related to. A lot.

I feel like a chip on my shoulders
I feel like I’m losin’ my focus
I feel like I’m losin’ my patience
I feel like my thoughts in the basement
Feel like, I feel like you’re miseducated
Feel like I don’t wanna be bothered
I feel like you may be the problem
I feel like it ain’t no tomorrow, fuck the world
The world is endin’, I’m done pretendin’
And fuck you if you get offended

It’s rare for me to relate to an album, period (though Miguel’s Wildheart is the closest I’ve found so far); it’s even rarer for me to relate to a hip-hop album. Most hip-hop is about the experience of being black in America by artists whose lives are nothing like mine. I appreciate it; I learn from it; I seldom relate to it.

But so much of this album is about Kendrick’s insecurities and internal struggles, particularly after achieving success as an artist. And on that level, I felt like he was singing from my life.

I practiced runnin’ from fear, guess I had some good luck
At 27 years old, my biggest fear was bein’ judged
How they look at me reflect on myself, my family, my city
What they say ’bout me reveal if my reputation would miss me

The whole album is fantastic, but my favorite tracks are FEEL, XXX, FEAR, DNA, and DUCKWORTH.

What I Watched This Month

Who’s watching The Handmaid’s Tale? It’s outstanding. Beautifully filmed, scary as hell, and updated appropriately to take place in our current times. I read Margaret Atwood’s book years ago, and it’s amazing how it’s just as prophetic today as it was in the 1980s when she wrote it.

This is a dystopian show in the near future where America has been taken over by a militant theocracy. Environmental disasters and war are ravaging, infertility has severely declined, and fertile women become “handmaids” or forced surrogates to have sex with and bear children for the most powerful men in society. This is the story of Offred, a thirty-something Boston woman whose family is ripped from her and is then forced to be a handmaid.

The acting is fantastic across the board, but the biggest surprise is Alexis Bledel. I feel like this is the first time she’s been in a role where she can show her talents.

If you’re in the States, it is well worth getting a Hulu membership to watch it. But they’re only releasing it episode by episode, so you might want to wait until the whole series has been released.

Image: Stefan Jurca

Coming Up in May 2017

This month I’m heading back to Europe for two weeks. I’m starting in Bucharest, Romania, where I’ll be taking part in a multi-day event promoting Bucharest as a city, and after I’ll be exploring Moldova and Ukraine on my own.

I’ve only briefly been to Bucharest in the past, and Moldova and Ukraine are two of only seven countries I haven’t yet visited in Europe (the others are Russia, Estonia, Lithuania, Belarus, and Cyprus). It should be fun!

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What are your plans for May? Share away!

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