Category Archives: travel

Balkans- Conclusion


Blessed Are The Curious- For They Will Always Have Adventures

Kotor, Montenegro: charming, idyllic, picturesque. It was absolutely wonderful to walk around the smaller, quieter, and more relaxed feel of the city. The cobbled streets, small quaint shops, and way of life resembled a storybook! I’ve got this fascination with alleyways- the town square offered more than enough. Our time there was too short. On Sunday morning before leaving for the next country, we needed food for the long, twelve-hour train journey to Serbia. I ventured out alone, into the local market. I am African American, 5 ‘10’, with a two-toned mohawk. Some locals in the smaller cities, such as the one we spent the night before, don’t have televisions and haven’t seen a person of color before. Well, let me tell you, there was quite a commotion. I left them all with lovely smiles and waves.

Serbia! The journey to the country took us through one of the most scenic rails journeys in all of Europe. A mixture of canyons, gorges, and snow-capped mountains provided a stunning backdrop. Our first stop took us to the more laid back, and second-largest city of Novi Sad, and home of the Petrovaradin Fortress. Novi Sad has the largest preserved military base in Europe, is home to the Danube River. The stunning Roman Catholic Cathedral is not to be missed. To put it bluntly, I’m quite surprised by how rude people were in Belgrade! Having come from previous countries with kind, warm-hearted people, I was taken aback. The group collectively agreed this might be the default behavior. It was interesting to hear their side of the atrocities, that took place in Bosnia, and NATO’s bombing of Serbia. Nevertheless, we made the best of it. Serbia has incredibly delicious food!

Macedonia. We spent the longest time here. First stop- Skopje. A city rich in historical culture and Ottoman heritage. There is so much to love about this country and its kind people. I knew I was going to love this city, the moment we walked up to our hotel steps, and a group of young folks greeted us with warm, wide and inviting smiles! Welcome to Skopje!! The birthplace of Mother Teresa! We toured the small chapel where she was baptized, receive her first communion, and God revealed her life’s mission. On display are some of her last writings, copy of the Nobel Peace Prize Diploma, etc. Skopje is saturated with statues! The main square boasts one of Alexander the Great, riding into the city. The street fighters, aka dogs, customarily run after bikes, mopeds, cars… anything with engines, and cause quite a ruckus. Other POI’s are the archeological museum, old train station- the hands of the clock still at time the earthquake hit.

In Northern Macedonia, we stayed in Bitola; boasts a relaxed coffee culture, that is popular in Europe. This ancient city of Heracles, named after the Greek god, Heracles, dating back to the 4th century BC. Archeologists discovered it in the 1930s. Heracles was built by the father of Alexander the Great. It was a once prosperous city; the ruins were excellent, the amphitheater, once used for gladiator fighting is impressive, and of course some amazingly preserved mosaic floors. The 1km long” BSeen” is the most famous street in Macedonia. One of the most beautiful church interiors I have ever seen is at the 170-year-old St Demetrius Church. It takes your breath away

A scenic drive through the beautiful Galicica National Park brought us to stunning Lake Ohrid-one of Europe’s deepest and oldest lakes. Saint Naum Monastery, built in the 900’s, with the original artwork still in place, is the most photographed place in Macedonia. the surrounding it took my breath away. A highlight of this visit was an afternoon boat ride on the lake; enabling visitors to soak in historical settlements reported to be some 3000 years old. The architecture is captivating, as is the culture. We roamed around the city built by Phillip the First, the Father of Alexander the Great, and the home of the Cyrillic alphabet. No visit to Lake Ohrid is complete, without the view of the sun setting over its expanse.

Kosovo. We traveled through Monrovia National Park, as we made our way to our seventh and final country, making several stops along the way. We roamed around the grounds of the thousand-year-old St John The Baptist Monastery, saw pieces of the cross, on which Jesus was crucified, a small piece of John the Baptist’s rib, and was in for a treat, as we witnessed a Muslim wedding. By the time we arrived in Kosovo, everyone was knackered. There is a huge Bill Clinton statue in the center, along with a Hillary Clinton dress shop. For some time, Bill and Hillary were popular names given to children at birth.

The US Army base is one of the largest and most well-paid employers in the country. Kosovo is the poorest of the Former Yugoslavia nations, with unemployment at over 30%. Immigration to countries such as Germany, Italy, Austria, and Switzerland remain high. Our hotel was five stars… go figure, the poorest country, offering the best accommodation on this trip. While clearing through customs, the immigration officer chatted me up, wanting to know about my experience. His parting words were “You’ll always have a home here”

I had a glorious time in the Balkans, with the exception of Serbia. The majority of the group shared the same opinion. Two months later, countless photos remind me of how blessed I am, to have had this magical adventure. For the first time, I am able to say I ate breakfast in Bosnia, had lunch in Croatia, and dinner in Montenegro. Travel is fatal to ignorance, bigotry, prejudice and narrow mindedness, sometimes it’s the journey, not the arrival that matters, and adventure is always, always worthwhile.

Enjoy your next one!

Until the next post,

Best,

Juan

Adventure Is Worthwhile


Balkans- Part One

I wore my Fitbit during the 16-day Balkan adventure, over seven countries. The stats are staggering: 199,693 steps, climbed 387 floors, walked 92 miles, averaged 3500 daily calories, and returned home 10 lbs lighter. Whew! I’ve always loved traveling, but only decided to get serious about it, upon my return to the USA, three years ago. As I edge towards my mid-forties, my goal is to visit sixty countries by the time I hit my fiftieth birthday. I am more than halfway there and with a lot of traveling to do, between now and then.

By far, this was the longest, most extensive and tiring trip I’ve taken. I decided to use group travel, with no idea, the company, while it does have a range of ages traveling, mostly catered to an older crowd. Other than myself, there was a 33-year-old from Nottingham, all the others were over 60 years old, with the oldest being 77, an American from Boston. It didn’t take me long to get over the massive age barrier, as I threw myself into the experience, and really enjoyed every single day! We stayed in 11 hotels, took an untold number of bus and train rides, with the longest journeys being 11.5 by train, and 9 by bus. By the last day, I couldn’t care less what happened to my suitcase-I would have been happy if someone took it off me for good.

Slovenia. Our trip started in the capital city of Ljubljana, often called Europe’s green capital. It’s a perfect eco-friendly place! Filled with culture, art, music and German architecture Our guide informed us, it’s one of the richest and most developed of the Former Yugoslavia, and by far THE cleanest place I’ve ever visited. Endless vehicle restricted areas, underground parking, etc. I did not see one piece of trash on the ground! People were incredibly helpful and friendly. A shopkeeper gave me a free magnet after I bought a handmade ring, another immediately altered a belt that was too big. Locals went above and beyond to ensure our time there was memorable. Lake Bled is one of the most beautiful and tranquil lakes, I’ve ever laid eyes on. The view overlooking the city from the Ljubljana Castle tower is magnificent. I found a calligraphist in the church’s chapel making bookmarks; my request simply stated: “Live Your Dreams” Grabbing a bite one of the city’s cozy “Grostilnas” gives you a chance to taste a wide variety of mouth-watering local dishes.

Croatia. The women in the city of Zagreb truly look after themselves- even the elderly with canes and walkers, were well kitted out. Wowsers. Zagreb has a large mix of Austra-Hungarian architecture, with wide socialist buildings. The Cathedral and 13th century St Mark’s church is a highlight. Most tourists spend their time in the more popular cities of Split and Dubrovnik, which made Zagreb a delight to explore, without rubbing shoulders with strangers at every turn.  If you’re ever in Croatia, please plan a visit to the stunning tourist attraction of Plitvice National Park- a pride for Croatians! The park boasts 16 interconnecting lakes, waterfalls, and beautiful wildlife. Dubrovnik, the old city, and World Heritage site, was crawling with tourists. The popularity of Game of Thrones is a huge factor. Locals explained the municipality is thinking of a way to have fewer cruiser ships dock daily. I have this love affair with Cathedrals, and Dubrovnik has a particularly breathtaking one. The old pharmacy, thousands of years old, marketplace, and impressive sweet shops are not to be missed either. Dubrovnik took my breath away!

Bosnia & Herzegovina. Put it on your list. Especially if you like history! First stop- Sarajevo. We arrived at the train station where the time stood still. Ironically, on the day of our tour, it would be the coldest day, with nonstop rain. Other than Macedonia, it was one of my favorite countries on the trip! We visited the symbolical bridge, where the events which took place there, eventually led to WW1. There is a LOT of history here. Eye witness accounts relayed stories of the thousands of lives lost in the siege in the early nineties, the infamous tunnel, built by the Bosnians in an effort to maintain some method of control. The tunnel meant they could organize theatres, schools for their children, etc. The father of our local guide still has shrapnel in one of his legs. He saw his best friend killed before his eyes. Too many nations stood by and watched women and children die in the streets.

Despite what happened here, the resilient spirit of its people is reflected in their kind and easy smiles, eagerness to help, and generous hospitality! Apparently, it’s not unusual to be invited in for dinner/tea, even if you just met. The visit to the tunnel will always be etched into memory. There is a wall lined with photos of volunteers and servicemen, who worked for years, using manual tools. A water pump was the only available type of machinery used. A sweet older lady, whose home still stands with shrapnel in its walls, and is still alive, often waited with water, to give the weary men and soldiers, as they exited the tunnel. The original was about 800m long. Today, visitors can only walk about 25m, due to airport security. Celebrities like Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman, and Robert De Niro have visited and walked through portions of it. Please visit if you can!

The particularly scenic rail journey to Mostar was fantastic! We traveled through mountains once occupied by the Serbian army. The scenery gave nothing about the region’s dark period away. Cobblestoned streets, old stone buildings, and the famed Mostar Bridge, which spans the Neretva village, is something out of a fairy tale. Traditionally, local men go around collecting money from tourists. Once they get to about 30 Euros, a swimmer, dressed in trunks, jump into the lake below, which is some 23 meters high, to the delight of onlookers. The Genocide Museum sobers, but I was encouraged by thousands of handwritten, kind notes, lining the walls of an entire room. From strangers to visitors and locals alike. I always take time to add notes to places like this, and mine was a simple “Thank you” next to my name, along with one of my favorite quotes “If we judge people, we have no time to love them”. The ethnic cleansing in Bosnia is a huge stain on the world. Lest we forget.

One post cannot is enough, to squeeze the beautiful magic of my Balkan adventure into. Naw. I will conclude next week. Happy to answer any questions you have, if you’re considering a visit to these parts!

Until the next post,

Best,

Juan

Solo Traveling Made Easy!


 

Plitvice Lakes National Park (Croatia)

A few days ago, I returned from a 16 day/7 country Balkans adventure. My head has been spinning ever since, and honestly, I am still trying to catch up on much-needed sleep. On average I slept about 5.5 hours each night. But, who needs sleep for an undertaking of this nature? You sleep when it’s all over. What a thrill ride! It started in Slovenia, then onto Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and ended in Kosovo. Yes, I am knackered.

In the coming weeks, I will share with you my experiences. I need to finish gathering my thoughts, and catalog everything I saw, felt and experienced. I traveled through the Balkans with a group of strangers, who later became friends. I’ve also done solo travel. I thought it fitting to share some helpful advice, that has served me well over the years. It’s intimidating traveling alone. There is a fear of loneliness and boredom, staying safe, budgeting, and so many variables to consider. I hope you find today’s entry most helpful!

Traveling solo can be a great adventure. If you travel alone, you’ll get to know yourself better and follow your own schedule. If you’ve been holding back, these tips will make it easier for you to head out alone. You’ll learn how to deal with three of the most common concerns.

Coping with Loneliness and Boredom

You may wonder whether you’ll get lonely if you travel alone. The truth is that learning to enjoy your own company makes solitude rewarding. On the other hand, you can surely find companions if you feel like mingling.

Engage fully. Be mindful of your surroundings. Getting caught up in new experiences as you travel will leave little time for boredom.
Take a tour. A day tour is ideal for meeting new acquaintances. It’s easy to strike up a conversation when you share the same interests with others and you’re away from your usual routine.
Dine out. Look for places with communal tables or ask your hotel to recommend them. Eat at the bar if you feel conspicuous at a table.
Stay at a bed and breakfast. The owners of a bed and breakfast may be happy to talk about local attractions. Hostels are another good choice. There will likely be other guests and maybe even other solo travelers at these types of places.
Frequent local businesses. Visiting the same fruit stall every day will quickly turn you into a regular. Exchange greetings and let them know you appreciate any advice on what to see.
Talk to new people. Approach your fellow travelers or locals who seem friendly and helpful. Trains and coffee shops are two good places to start.
Do volunteer work. Sign up with a non-profit organization and perform group volunteer work. For example, travel to exciting places while building new homes through Habitat for Humanity.
Pursue solitary activities. Visit an art museum or lie on the beach with a good book. Enjoy the peace and relaxation you get from being alone.

 Protecting Your Safety

Security is an important concern for any traveler. Some basic precautions will reduce your risks.

Blend in. Looking like a tourist may leave you vulnerable. Walk with confidence and step inside a hotel to check your map.
Be alert. Observe what’s going on around you. Ask your hotel to advise you about where it’s safe to walk. If you’re near an unsafe area, avoid unnecessary risks by taking a cab to your destination.
Watch your money. You may want to wear a shoulder bag strapped across your body or under a coat. Consider using a money belt or clip. Solo travelers are often the perfect target for pickpockets.
Assess your fluency. Language skills also matter. Ask yourself if you can communicate clearly in case of a medical emergency.
Gather your documents. Put a copy of your identification and health insurance in your pocket. Leave a second copy with loved ones at home.
Check-in at home. Speaking of home, give your full itinerary to at least one person. Call or text them every few days to let them know you’re okay. There have been way too many instances of travelers disappearing on a trip and nobody realizes it for quite some time.
Pack light. Leave your valuables at home. Traveling with minimal baggage increases your comfort and your ability to move quickly.

Sticking to Your Budget

You may run into what’s called “single supplements” on cruises and tours. This is when the venue charges single travelers extra to try and make up for the lack of a second customer. Still, there are plenty of ways to vacation affordably on your own.

Save up in advance. Put money aside gradually. Small amounts add up over time.
Be flexible about timing. You’ll tend to find the best deals at the last minute or several months before your departure. Be open to traveling during the off-season for further monetary savings.
Look for special bargains. Check discount travel sites and look for deals. Some venues may even be willing to waive the single supplement.
Accept roommates. Contact travel companies who specialize in solo travel. Ask to be paired up with another single traveler who is headed to your same destination.

Spend a whole week at a pumpkin festival or browse the Louvre at your own pace. Avoid being intimidated by the thought of traveling alone. Solo travel creates memories you’ll treasure for life.

Until the next post,

Best,

Juan

Before You Go!


Views on The Inca Trail

Who LOVES to travel?

I do!

I get a massive buzz from it. For the past several years, my life has followed somewhat of a pattern. I work, save money, travel, return, rinse, and repeat! In the US, vacation days are like gold dust! There is something to be said, about the thrill of hopping on a plane, to a place you’ve never been, where no one knows your name, and the excitement of a different experience every day! I’ve told a loving universe, of my desire to travel for months at a time, volunteering from one country to the next, without the worry of having to return home, because I’m out of vacation days, or need to earn money!

Getting away can also be stress-inducing, especially as your departure gets closer. Years ago, I put off my trip preparation for weeks! The anxiety drove me nuts. I am so much better now at planning. In recent months, I’ve gotten inboxes, asking travel-related questions, from friends and co-workers alike. I am always happy to share my love of travel. I come alive giving tips, and hacks. Recently, I found myself reliving so many experiences, as I looked through multiple photo albums, containing years of memories. I am so grateful for the people, experiences, and opportunities presented to me.

In a month, I am off on a two-week adventure to Europe. I am so damn excited. This vacation is different, because it’s the longest one I’ve taken to date, coupled with the number of countries I plan to visit. Earlier this year, I set a goal to visit fifty countries, by the time I am fifty. I am approaching my mid-forties, and only just realized, by the time my birthday rolls around next year, forty countries will be off my list! So, I figured, why settle for fifty? Not me! So, it’s now sixty I am certainly going to try and smash this number!

The questions gave me an idea for this topic. Listed below, are things you should take into account before you go. Of course, the list is not exhaustive. If you find them helpful, have suggestions, or questions, I’d like to know! You can also email me, using the contact form above. In the future, I plan to blog about more travel-related topics; surviving the airport wait, long haul flights, trip planning, in-country support, etc. Follow my blog to get instant updates on new posts.

Ready. Set. Go.

What are the vaccination requirements for your destination?! If you are traveling to parts of South America, Africa, and Asia for instance, you need to be prepared. In some cases, you will not be allowed to leave the airport without proof of certain vaccinations. Consider the fact there might be a nationwide shortage of the one (s) you need. Always check at least 3 months in advance. There is a chance, you have not graced the door of your Doctor’s office in a while, for an annual checkup, no time like the present. Some health insurance plans, do not cover certain travel related vaccines. I needed Yellow Fever for Ghana, and was close to $200 out of pocket.

Seriously consider getting travel insurance! This aspect of trip planning is often hotly debated in groups. To me, it’s a no brainer. While I love the excitement and unknown in distant lands, there are some things I need to prepare for. Sickness, accidents, evacuation, repatriation, and yes, even death! I have seen, one too many Go Fund Me’s on social media, from families, begging for donations to bring their loved ones back home. Have you planned, and paid for a trip you can no longer take? You’ve lost out on thousands, in most instances. Consider annual plans if you’re a frequent traveler. Buy shortly after your initial trip payment, to save time and get better coverage.

If you are traveling with a friend or spouse, try selecting the middle and aisle seats respectively. Not many travelers want to sit in the middle. Unless the flight is full, you will end up with a seat between you two, giving you space to get a bit more comfortable. Go to sites such as Seat Guru, enter your flight details, and get advice. Sitting in the back of the plane, is also a good way to go if you are not fussy.

Make copies of your flight information, itineraries, and other travel documents, especially your passport. Take an extra step, and email a copy of the front page to yourself. There is nothing worse than being the victim of pickpocketing, lost/delayed luggage, etc., and not having access to this most important document. In the unfortunate event, you need to apply for a new one, it will speed things up. Always give a copy of your travel plans/itinerary, to at least one trusted person back home. Notify your State Department/Foreign Office of your travel plans (can be done online in most instances). Write down the address and phone number of your country’s embassy.

I don’t know about you, but I easily get lost in my handbags; so it’s crucial to be able to navigate new surroundings. Duh, get a map! Of course, some have a preference for paper versions. Furthermore, you might not have access to Wi-Fi/data to access one electronically. I love offline maps, such as maps.me, which gives turn by turn directions, of practically anywhere in the world! The app is FREE, detailed, and very functional. Another good option is Tripso; which doubles as a guide and map. Roam at your own pace, and discover thousands of locations, packed with experiences to suit a variety of tastes. There are many paid apps available.

Take a mini first aid kit, or at least, the essentials. Use items already in your medicine cabinet. When I hiked the Inca Trail earlier this year, altitude sickness was a beast! Headaches every day, lack of sleep, tiredness, and sore muscles, only contributed to the discomfort. I didn’t need to purchase extras. Walking around all day can result in calluses, blisters, and tired, aching feet.

Roll clothing, or fold them the Marie Kondo way. I have not used her methods. However, I can attest to using packing cubes and rolling clothes. Cubes are space-saving, allows for easy identification of items, and avoids clutter. Total game-changers. I have not reverted to my old habits! I always pack two extra outfits in my carry on. If your checked baggage doesn’t arrive the same time you do, you’ll have clean clothing to tide you over.

Regardless of what’s in your suitcase, mark FRAGILE on the outside! This tip came directly from an airline employee. I’m willing to bet, all of us have seen videos of the total disregard shown by baggage handlers. Marking your items as fragile reduces the risk, of them being tossed around, and protect them from damage.

Invest in a decent international adapter, and a portable charger. When I volunteered in Dodowa, Ghana, electricity was unstable. To my dismay, I couldn’t charge my phone using the outlets. To make matters worse I had left my charger at home, relying solely on the mercy of others. Ugh. An extra battery would have come in handy. I was a lot more prepared for the Inca Trail, as we couldn’t charge our devices for almost four days.

Today, with so much technology readily available, it’s easier for us to remain in touch with family and friends while traveling. Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp are great for this purpose. Add your friends and family, on the latter, before you leave. Notify your cellphone carrier of your travel plans. Turn OFF data roaming BEFORE you land. Unlock your phone before you leave, this allows you to purchase a cheap local sim plan if you chose to. Most major US carriers, have long-distance plans either already included or available to purchase, with slow speed data.

Look up monetary conversions ahead of time, though exchange rates change daily. Buy local currency before you go. With proper notice, most banks will order these for you, charge the regular exchange rate, minus fees. Avoid airport exchange counters. If you need more, use a bank or ATM at your destination. Some travelers prefer to load money on a cash card. Find what works for you!

Finally, let your bank/credit card companies know you are traveling! Nothing worse than having a transaction declined abroad, for being flagged as fraudulent. Same thing for credit cards. A simple phone call will do, or in many cases, use the mobile banking app. One extra thing to note, if you live in the West, look into travel hacking. Please be responsible with credit! With that being said, you are already paying monthly cellphone, cable, rent, and other bills, but are they translating into rewards for flights, hotels, activities, etc? Stop leaving money on the table. Travel hacking has revolutionalised the game for me.

I hope you found these tips helpful. Traveling has changed my life, which only began, outside my comfort zone.

Where will you travel to next? Perhaps a fun quiz can help!

Wherever your next flight takes you, remember, “If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine, it’s lethal.”

Until the next post,

Best,

Juan