Digging Deep into Vietnamese History at the Cu Chi Tunnels

Curtis Le May must be forever spinning in his grave. He probably deserves to be. He was the US general under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson who threatened to bomb Vietnam back to the Stone Age. Nice guy. And he gave it a good try. Seven million tons of bombs were dropped on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia – more than twice the amount of explosives dropped on Europe and Asia in the Second World War.

But amazingly, it didn’t work. Not only did the Vietnamese stubbornly fail to be destroyed, they won the war. How on earth could a relatively small, poor, underdeveloped country defy the might of the most powerful nation on earth and send them packing?

Ten minutes spent exploring the tunnels at Cu Chi about 40 miles from Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) reveals the answer. The Vietnamese started digging the tunnels in the 1940s and at their peak in the 60s, they covered hundreds of kilometres, at one point stretching from HCMC nearly to the Cambodia border.

In the Tunnels

Now, one section of the tunnels is a tourist attraction. You could dismiss it as turning the horror of war into little more than a theme park. And there is a cafe, a souvenir shop where you can buy Vietcong hats and scarves and figures fashioned out of bullets. You can even have a go at firing an AK47.

But it’s much more than that. You could see it as offering a unique insight into how one of the most bloody, devastating and ultimately pointless wars in human history was won and lost. And the tunnels also shine a light on the Vietnamese character.

They were carved out of the dense clay by men and women with the most primitive tools, little more than tin plates and scoops, in the most difficult and terrifying circumstances. You can only guess how tough and determined they must have been.

The tunnels didn’t just cover huge distances. They were on three levels and level three, metres deep into the earth, was where they took cover when the American B52s were dropping ton upon ton of explosive. It’s where they waited when the tanks rumbled through the undergrowth in a futile search for the enemy.

Down in the tunnels were communications rooms, field hospitals, kitchens, and workshops where they turned captured American weaponry and unexploded bombs into the most vicious and effective booby traps.

It all points up the absurdity of the Rambo-style image of the Vietcong as jabbering barbarians being mowed down by the dozen by an American warrior with a bad-ass bandana round his head.

So what’s it like in the tunnels? Helpfully they’ve enlarged some of the entrances so western tourists can get some way down to get a glimpse of the overpoweringly claustrophobic blackness. Some of the entrances have been left as they were – less than a foot square and invisible when covered with a layer of dirt and leaves. The only way in is to slither down feet first, arms straight up. Your shoulders would get stuck otherwise.

In the tunnel it’s impossible to turn around. You have to crawl on hands and knees and even so, the space is only just big enough. Two feet in and the light from the entrance is a pinprick in the blackness. The small flashlight they lent me highlighted the shadows which, if anything, made it seem even more terrifying.

Someone had come down behind me. “What can you see?” She had no torch. The dim beam of light picked out a bat dangling from the roof of the tunnel, stirring, no more than two feet from my face. There was another, also stirring. “Er…rabies?” said my companion, impressively calmly.

But I wanted out, and it’s only when you suddenly want to escape that you realise how oppressive the constricted space really is. The half-panicked scramble back to daylight leaves you with a deep sense of respect for the people that dug and lived in these tunnels.

Topside the shooting range and gift shop gives it a touristy, theme park feel. But down in the tunnels you realise you have come face to face with something serious and important. A visit to Cu Chi is a valuable insight into the insanity that took place here just 50 years ago, and the tenacity of the people who weathered the storm.

Back in Ho Chi Minh City it was hard to relate modern Vietnamese life with the terror and hardship that the people had endured so recently.

That evening we sat on the street, munching barbequed meat while the traffic raced by. Our server, bemused by our presence at his humble stall, was eager to figure out where we were from and what on earth we were doing here. “England! America!” he beamed as we told him our respective nationalities, humbling us yet again with a profound sense of respect for the people that could withstand and then bounce back from such a traumatic experience.

Visiting Cu Chi

You can easily visit Cu Chi on a day trip from Ho Chi Minh City. Tours can be booked anywhere in Pham Ngu Lao, the main backpacker area. Sinh Tourist is a reliable operator. You can also arrange for a private car to drive you directly, expect to pay around 150,000 Vietnam Dong (USD$7) per passenger. Entrance at the Cu Chi complex costs 90,000 VND, once you get inside there are English-speaking guides to show you around (free, but tips are appreciated). Many tours to Vietnam include Cu Chi in their itinerary; check with a tour operator such as Tucan Travel, who organise group adventure tours to Vietnam.

Kyrgyzstan: Genghis Khan, Mountains and Mutton

This article was first published by Travel Culture Magazine, who have agreed to its republication here. View original article on Travel Culture Magazine here.
By Michael Soncina

I often still find it strange that I can tell people I spent 2 months living in Kyrgyzstan. I am sure listeners conjure up images of something like Genghis Khan’s horde or a land ripe with civil war. Though there are times when I felt like a nomad or in potential danger, Kyrgyzstan is not a dangerous place. Actually it is a peaceful one with green hills, kind people and about 1000 different kinds of mutton.

I was fortunate enough to receive my introduction to Kyrgyzstan from a local NGO called CBT Kyrgyzstan, also known as Hospitality Kyrgyzstan. The organization set me up with lodging and food in the mountain town of Kochkor. This is where I would be living for two months in order to complete my internship requirement for my International Development degree in Canada. At MrSpins.ca you can find a list of best online casino in Canada and online slots.

Now I know what you’re probably thinking: why Kyrgyzstan? My answer: why not? The North American perception of the entire region of Central Asia is like a dark abyss, but what better way to approach the darkness than head on?

Unlike neighboring Uzbekistan which is famous for its Silk Road structures, Kyrgyzstan is a country of mountains. Because of this the Red Horde – descendents of the Mongols – settled and created the very distinct culture that is Kyrgyz. Sprawling mountains with flocks of sheep, sheppards, smoke-stacked yurts and wool tents, are common scenes for a country-side adventure.

CBT does a great job of utilizing the local people and nature to capitalize on a sustainable tourism approach that benefits both locals and tourists alike. Whether you are looking for horse trekking, chatting with a local over tea or checking out a handicraft workshop, CBT is able to provide the means and opportunity for a variety of budgets.

Ok ok enough promotion; though they deserve it, Kyrgyzstan is really a spectacular country, though small. Unlike France or Italy where tourists visit to see specific sights, it is much better to plan your trips in the country in relation the nature you want to see. Travelers tend to spend around four days traveling around Lake Song Kul by horse or exploring the walnut forests of Jalalabad in the south.

If history is what you’re after, Tash-Rabat in Naryn province is the place to be. The reconstruction of a Silk Road military post is something to be admired. Though the outside is beautiful once you enter you feel as if you have entered some forbidden dungeon.

Horse trekking, KyrgystanMy personal favorite adventure was a horse trek I took to Kol Ukok lake near Kochkor. I enjoyed this beautifully picturesque glacial lake with almost no other tourists. Here the mountains are breathtaking and the turquoise water will make you think you found a little piece of heaven! My second favorite destination was the hot springs at Altyn Alashan. I laugh at it now but every guide and guide book will tell you this is an easy trek for beginners. I am a beginner and I assure you it is not; the road is tough and the trek takes several hours so if you can I would rent a horse and guide for this part of the trip. But don’t worry, you won’t regret it once you arrive – the hot springs are perfect!

It is easy to let your guard down in this fantastic country because people are so helpful and the nature is so beautiful. But roads are bad and police are more than happy to intimidate to get what they want. Don’t ever show your passport – only photo copies – and if a police man demands it don’t be afraid to resist a little, a local that you drank tea with will probably back you up since they tend not to like the police either.

One last word of advice, as any other culture Kyrgyzstan has its share of customs. One is the consumption of fermented horse milk called Kumis. In my opinion it is horrible and you will always be offered it in generous amounts. But, refusing would be immensely rude. So take a small sip smile and just leave it, it is mildly alcoholic so some more adventurous people may want to enjoy… but drink at your own risk!

On a final note, one of the biggest hassles I had while traveling Central Asia, especially Kyrgyzstan, was with visas. Fortunately, the Kyrgyz government has recently announced free three-month visas for 44 countries, including Canada and the United States, making access to the country that much easier.

So for your next adventure why not considers Kyrgyzstan, you might be pleasantly surprised!

About the Author

Michael Soncina is a sustainable tourism enthusiast from Toronto, Canada holding an Honors B.A in East Asian Studies from York University and a certificate in Marketing and Post Graduate Diploma in International Development from Humber College. He has lived in Singapore, WWOOFing and working with youth groups as a volunteer throughout Japan. This past summer Michael went to Kyrgyzstan to intern with the organization “Hospitality Kyrgyzstan,” also known as CBT Kyrgyzstan.

About Travel Culture Magazine

Travel Culture MagazineTravel Culture Magazine is a combination of travel and culture enthusiasts, who live to explore the world, seek new adventures and inspire others along the way. Travel Culture Magazine promotes responsible travel, with the core belief that education and knowledge can change our planet for the better.

Seeking Positive Changes: Biodynamic Farm Internship at Finca Luna Nueva Lodge, Costa Rica

Here at Luna Nueva, we are preparing ourselves to be conscientious cultivators, dedicated to the seed, defenders of the soil. Farming in the biodynamic tradition empowers us with tools for healing and restoring the Earth. Walking these grounds awakens one to the vitality of a living Earth and the necessity of maintaining an open dialogue with Her.

In the tropics, life cycles are dramatic and accelerated, like “biology on steroids”. Things are either alive or decomposing, often right before your eyes. The deep ecology of the rainforest reminds the waking mind of its relationship to the real world, not the world of edifices but one that pulses and breathes with organic life.

Far from Eden however, it is more like unplugging from the matrix to discover muscles atrophied from disuse, skills not yet acquired, and an inherent lack of work hardening. The saying goes you are never alone in the jungle, and it’s quite remarkable how many of its inhabitants seem to desire a taste of you. Tiny ants and mosquitoes are so stealthy you are not aware of their presence until they are injecting you with formic acid or botfly eggs. Poisonous spiders, snakes, toads, frogs, and caterpillars abound. Some ants are big enough to see their facial expression as they bite down on your flesh. Is that a smile or smirk?

With biological diversity exceeding any other ecosystem on Earth, the tropics are so much more than the wellspring of oxygen production for the entire globe. Here there is cooperation, agreement, and interdependence. Where there may be risk from natural threats there are even greater offerings of healing and vitality. Healing plants like ginger and turmeric, super, nutrient-dense foods such as coconut, katuk and pejibaye and the milk from cows, goats, and buffalo grazing on lush, verdant jungle grass exist alongside powerful medicinal plants that show promise for treatment of ailments ranging from malaria to rheumatoid arthritis, influenza, and even cancer.

Finca Luna Nueva is the tireless Lorax poised to preserve irreplaceable botanical species through their Sacred Seeds Sanctuary and create a model for coexistence with a landscape that can simultaneously yield bountiful nutritious foods for humans while providing abundant habitat for diverse species of native creatures. It seems we needn’t compromise one for the other. It could be argued there really is no other way to be on this Earth.

Coming here to practice Biodynamics and continuing to learn this esoteric science and art, my ambition remains to imprint myself into the cosmic rhythm of Life. My own circadian rhythm has naturally recalibrated to the cycles of the Sun, and I am noticing waxing and waning physical energy as well as psychic activity that seems to flow with the lunar cycles.

Early upon my arrival, I was bestowed the chance to spearhead a rehabilitation project of Luna Nueva’s small cacao plantation. Suffering from a combination of what Luna’s Chief Executive Farmer Steven Farrell describes as benign neglect, poor soils, pod-eating squirrels, and frosty pod rot (Monilia roreri), it has become a life-affirming exercise in learning the language of the Lorax. We will be employing comprehensive cultural and Biodynamic sets of protocols for treating disease, nutrition, pest management, and overgrowth.

We began with heavy pruning during the second quarter, waning moon in May. It is in this period when tree sap recedes to the roots. We are learning here that the influences of the waxing and waning moon trump those of ascending and descending moon when you are this close to the equator. The opposite is true when one is north of the Tropic of Cancer or south of the Tropic of Capricorn. Observation, so far, is reinforcing this principle.

Next, fellow intern Sara Hartley and I made a huge batch of biodynamic tree paste which includes such nifty ingredients as: Fine Sand,clay,cow manure,wood ash,compost,whey,B.C.,crushed quartz,egg shells. In keeping with the spirit of biodynamic farming, all these were harvested from the farm. After the new moon, when I could no longer prune, I turned my attention to spreading the tree paste on all the cacao trees.

Hot sun, torrential rains, insect bites, bending and squatting at awkward, uncomfortable angles top the list of challenges to this task but the chance to saturate the cambium with invigorating nutrients and vital forces is too good to pass up. Added benefit: every day my relationship with the orchard grows more intimate. What began as the implementation of a series of tasks has evolved into a running dialogue. Now, I incline myself to contemplate the gesture of each tree and attempt to understand what it wishes to tell me. My profound aspiration is fluent tree-speak.

Earlier this week Steven ordered 35 hybrid trees bred by CATIE (Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza) that are the only varieties in the world which have shown resistance to Monilia. As such, we will be thinning the orchard and replacing aged and/or diseased trees with this new variety. I spend some of my time among the trees distinguishing gestures of vitality from gestures of morbidity. This challenges me to develop the skill of reading subtle, etheric energy. I am pushed every day into new frontiers. It is a project I pursue with rapt enthusiasm. Biodynamics is indeed a formula for positive change, even in ourselves.

Pura Vida!

Farm Internship Opportunity at Finca Luna Nueva

Finca Luna NuevaFinca Luna Nueva is inviting applications for farm interns. They are an organic and biodynamic farm and eco lodge, located next to the Children’s Eternal Rainforest in northern Costa Rica. This is a wonderful opportunity for those interested in studying and expanding knowledge about tropical biology, farming rhythms and practices and Costa Rican culture. As a farm intern there, you will engage in biodynamic and sustainable farming, rainforest ecology/gardening, medicinal plants and animal husbandry.

Responsibilities and expectations are to learn the current rhythm of the farm by working with the farmers every morning, to facilitate a smooth and rich experience for visitors by supplementing the staff with your knowledge and your ability to do farm tours, work with the administration on projects to improve the tourism component of the farm and design and carry out independent research of your own choice.

It is very important that you are a SELF-DIRECTED learner and willing and competent to work hard exhausting, but rewarding farm hours (in rainforest climate). A work day typically begins at 6 am and ends at 3 pm where you have time to relax and use pool or jacuzzi, take hikes in the trails, computer time or catch up on personal or academic reading. In return for volunteering and a commitment of at least three months, all interns are given lodging, three hot meals a day, internet, and laundry services.

There is no monetary compensation. It is a good life. Perhaps the highest quality of life you’ll ever live, but it’s an adventure, and it requires flexibility and a zest for exploring the unknown.

Intern applications are accepted at any time. Please contact us at stevenfarrell[at]gmail.com with your interest in the opportunity. You can also visit http://fincalunanuevalodge.com/ to find out more.

Meet a Sustainable Adventure Pioneer: Bodhi Surf School, Bahia Ballena, Costa Rica

Much Better Adventures Pioneer Series

We set up Much Better Adventures to promote adventure choices from people like us, who saw a problem with the world, but also saw an answer. This is an answer that begins with an adventure, but doesn’t end there. These particular adventures go on to advance local conservation and sustainable development, educate, change perspectives, and improve lives. These are our muchbetter Pioneers – world leaders in sustainable adventure.
Bodhi Surf School offer a fantastic surf school in Costa Rica, where not only can you learn to surf on some amazing breaks, but also take part in their yoga programs.

Who are you and your team?

Our team consists of 5 individuals: 2 husband and wife combos, and one baby:

Travis, 31, San Diego, USA
Pilar, 34, San Jose, Costa Rica
Gibran, 31, San Blas, Mexico
Adrianne, 24, Vancouver, Canada
Maya Paz, 1, San Jose, Costa Rica

Travis and Gibran both attended the University of San Diego and met during a semester abroad in Spain in 2002. They had both been surfing since they were kids, and found that they had much in common aside from just that. Gibran and Adrianne got married in 2007, and Travis and Pilar got married in 2009. Travis and Pilar had a daughter, Maya Paz, in 2011 and the team was fully formed.

Bodhi Surf School Locals

What inspired you to start, and how long have you been doing it?

Travis joined the Peace Corps in 2005 and was placed in Bahia Ballena, Costa Rica. He immediately fell in love with the community, and that same year when his friend Gibran came to visit, they spoke about some day starting a business together. When he finished with the Peace Corps in 2008, Travis saw that there was still a market for a surf school, so he and Gibran began discussing different possible scenarios. By the end of 2009 it was decided that the 4 of them would give it a shot, and by mid-2010 Bodhi Surf School was in existence.

While Bodhi Surf School is just that – a surf school, all 4 of the members have very strong inclinations towards environmentalism, social awareness, and responsible/sustainable business practice. The word “Bodhi” is Sanskrit for “awareness” and was chosen for that very reason; while the company aims to teach surf, yoga, and provide its clients with a fun and fulfilling vacation, it also strives to promote awareness about the spheres within which it operates (marine conservation, sustainable tourism in Costa Rica, and community outreach, to name a few). We aim to be more than just a surf school, to provide an experience that is unique to the area and our personalities.

Bodhi Surf School Team Building

Why did you choose Bahia Ballena, Costa Rica?

We chose Bahia Ballena, Costa Rica, for several reasons. First, during his time stationed in the community with Peace Corps, Travis became very well acquainted with the community, many of its members, and some of the issues that it faces. He decided he wanted to start a business not just for personal benefit, but also for the benefit of the community; to be able to give back to a place he had fallen so in love with. Second, he realized that the community’s main beach was perfect for learning how to surf – a long, flat, sandy beach with beginner-to-intermediate-friendly waves all year round. Third, we all knew that due to the beauty of the area, it was just a matter of time before it would become as popular as other areas of Costa Rica, and so we wanted to help the trend of sustainable tourism take off in the region.

What makes you “muchbetter?”

Our excitement for what we do makes Bodhi Surf School “muchbetter”. We have the great advantage of doing something that we not only totally and completely believe in, but also love with a great passion. We have been told by former clients that while the surf and yoga does indeed live up to (or exceed) their expectations, it is actually eclipsed by our very-apparent enthusiasm and joy for what we do.

Any insider tip for your area?

If you come to Marino Ballena National Park, keep in mind that you will have to pay a $6 USD fee as an international tourist. To get the most of your money, bring a lunch and make it a full day: you can surf, boogie board, and swim at high tide, read a book and do some sun-tanning during mid tide, and do the unforgettable walk down the whale’s tail during low tide.

There are a whole host of great surf holidays on Much Better Adventures – check them out!

Go Local Iceland: Grassroots Efforts to Promote Responsible Rural Tourism

Local Travel Movement in Iceland

In July 2010, I published an article on the Local Travel Movement website about how I saw tourism in Iceland at the time. I’ve always been particularly interested in regions off the beaten tourist track, which in the past would often be overlooked and overshadowed by the more commonly promoted highlights and ‘must-sees’ of Iceland.

In this context, I’ve been thinking about the different types of experiences tourists can gain while traveling, based on what kind of travel they choose. Over the years I’ve come to find that there are many people all over the world who are ready to travel mindfully and give themselves enough time to explore local culture and nature in a respectful manner. In light of this, I felt empowered and inspired to dedicate my time and efforts to promoting this type of travel in Iceland.

Initially, I had many questions about how to move forward with this. After a year of working on the Go Local Iceland initiative and exploring Icelandic tourism even further, I have arrived at some answers to these questions. In my quest for answers, I have also come up with some new questions and concerns.

Uniting Tourism Providers in Iceland

Tourism in Iceland is a young industry, and therefore is relatively uncoordinated. For example, in Eyjafjordur (the longest fjord in Iceland), there is not one institution that is responsible for promoting the fjord as a whole. There are seven municipalities included in the area of Eyjafjordur, although each municipality finds it more important to focus on their own designated area rather than on the fjord as a whole.

While Eyjafjordur represents great potential for local travel, it is not promoted as a destination in a cohesive manner and is every year losing thousands of potential visitors, who visit the touristic magnet of Grimsey Island, which is located in Eyjafjordur but don’t take the time to also explore the whole fjord with all of its beauty.

The Go Local Iceland initiative focuses on solid cooperation with local tourism providers who are interested in improving ethical standards of tourism. By uniting these people and organizations under one common platform we will be able to connect them directly to mindful travelers all over the world.

There are many rural destinations in Iceland that don’t get as much attention from mainstream tourists as do the typical Icelandic highlights. However, these relatively untouched places are dream destinations for the mindful traveler. It is important that such travelers find their way to these rural places. With some local assistance and guidance, you can find ways to reach any hidden fjord in any part of Iceland, whether you choose a destination in nature that is near or far from populated towns and settlements.

As of May 2011, I’ve carried out a total of 28 interviews with local tourism providers in Eyjafjordur. This research was a very important step for me, and has helped me to understand how local tourism providers see themselves and others, as well as what their visions for the future are. The results of the interviews varied quite a bit. However, a unifying concept was the desire to be advertised under one common image. These interviews, based on appreciative inquiry, contained some great material; the results of the study have been borrowed for use in further research within the tourism department of one of the universities here in Iceland.

Go Local Iceland continues to support local tourism providers, such as Iceland Hiking Tours, and our team continues to write about current offers in tourism in Eyjafjordur and the Troll Peninsula, regardless of municipal borders. You can view these Iceland Travel Tips here.

About the Author: Lenka Uhrova

Lenka was born in Slovakia, but has since spent many years in Iceland volunteering, working in the tourism industry, and forging sustainable tourism initiatives across the country. She has an educational background in tourism, although upon attaining her degree she was rather unmotivated to work in the tourism industry due to issues and controversies of the time. Something did not feel right. It was at this time that she discovered a deep passion for volunteering and community development, and a wish to work for an NGO. This passion for volunteering has been a constant over the years, and so as soon as she had the opportunity, she set off for a year-long volunteer project in Iceland. Having been working as a freelance trainer in non-formal education and facilitating various projects, she was lucky enough to return to Iceland a few years later, where she met the man of her life and settled in a small fishing village in North Iceland. At this point, she began to recognize both the potentials and threats of tourism in Iceland. She set to work conducting research on the subject, and volunteering in the field. Before long she started her own initiative, GO LOCAL ICELAND, with the aim of improving ethical standards in tourism.

ecoDestinations Scandinavia

From unique traditional foods to cutting-edge green technologies, to amazing natural wonders from across the region, Scandinavia offers a Smörgåsbord of eco-travel and adventure opportunities! Check out the ecoDestinations Scandinavia feature, and Explore various opportunities available for travelers and destinations from around the world, and support our efforts to protect and promote amazing travel experiences. Share your photos, stories and tips, and spread the word!

TREK (Trails to Empower Kids) Expeditions Support Local Children in Need

Mountaineering Takes on New Meaning
When I was first introduced to mountaineering as a sport, I knew I had to experience it for myself. Since then, years ago, trekking has become a hobby and a passion. It wasn’t until recently though, that with the help of friends this hobby was elevated to a new level – through it my friends and I have embarked on an important mission.

Our ascents to the summits helped us to see and feel the difficulties and realities of life among mountain dwellers. Inspired by our treks and visits to mountain communities, in 2007 we formed a group based on a shared common love for nature and compassion for the kids living in these mountains. We decided to hike on a new trail, and called our group TREK, or Trails to Empower Kids.

The First TREK Outreach Program: Benguet, Itogon, Philippines
Our first outreach program was held in the mountainous province of Benguet, in the municipality of Itogon, Philippines. Here we visited a primary school, where a group of 30 young students shared a common classroom and teacher. Before our trip, with the help of friends we were able to gather donations of school supplies, backpacks, raincoats and toys to share with these students.

This experience was an eye-opener for our group. We met kids who don’t know of chocolate or spaghetti, who have never heard of music besides country beats, and who have never attended a children’s party. We felt tremendous joy in providing supplies to this community, and were immediately motivated to do more. We began to spread the word through social networking sites, and invited people to help us with future projects. From an initial group of seven who planned the first outreach project, our family began to grow, and the magnitude of the tasks and challenges that we took on increased.

Unique Adventures Bring Inspiring Outcomes

During one trek, we encountered a large community nestled in beautiful rice terraces. We noticed that the community had less than ten “comfort rooms”. We couldn’t imagine the local youth, students in their puberty stage who would be leaving home in just a few years to enter college, not having access to adequate comfort rooms. So we partnered with a local mountaineering club who helped us to coordinate the construction of the necessary facilities with assistance from the parents of these students.

On another trip, we met young Agtas. Here we met a teacher who wanted her students to better understand other cultures; our group followed up with this, with the help of various media agencies, by collecting donations of audio-visual material containing videos of different tribes. We distributed these videos to the teacher so that she could share them with her students. On another occasion, the truck we rented was damaged, leaving our group with no choice but to walk an extra eight hours on a very muddy road.

In spite of the many challenges that we encounter though, we are always reminded that the rewards of our efforts are well worth it. There are simply no words strong enough to describe the joy we receive when we see kids faces lighting up, mothers expressing their gratitude, and teachers affirming the goodness that we’ve done. It also comes as a great bonus to our group that all the places we’ve visited so far have been truly amazing.

In Pudtol, Apayao, we cruised along the historic and scenic Apayao River on bancas (local boats). In Aurora, we frolicked on white sand beaches and took a dip in pools that had been naturally created by reef formations. In Itogon, Benguet, we crossed three hanging bridges, which afforded magnificent views of the Agno River.

Some of our trails may be difficult, but they are all guaranteed to be uplifting. The TREK team now has our eyes are set on our next mission, which will be held this July in Nueva Vizcaya. Preparations for the trip are underway, and we are once again inviting everyone to donate supplies and to join us on our treks.

WWOOFing: Trading City Life for Cabin Building in Utah and Kayaking in Alaska

My friend Greg and I arrived on Easter Sunday at organic farm and vineyard, Montezuma Canyon Ranch, just south of Monticello, Utah. This was our first wwoofing experience, where we stayed for two weeks (“WWOOF” stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms). During our two-month long trip, the longest stay we had was five nights in Denver, where it was nice to stay in one spot for a few days. I’d never stayed on a farm before, and was unsure what work we would be doing. The arrangement when wwoofing is usually such that the farm provides room and board in exchange for visitors working on the farm. Often a wwoofer is expected to work about six hours a day, for five days a week.

Joining us at Montezuma Canyon Ranch were four other wwoofers from Massachusetts, Texas, Tennessee, and South Carolina; all in their 20s. The work day here began at 9am, which was surprisingly late to me, but it was still cool out there. During the day we dug holes, a foot deep, to plant new shrubs. I smelled wild sage, which was a lovely companion as I put my hands in the hard dirt. The intent of this work was that the shrubs would keep the sinkholes from getting larger and that it would stop the erosion caused by the canyon wind.

We planted 300 plants consisting of Arizona Cypress, Utah Juniper, Big Tooth Maple, Box Elder, Cottonwood, and a few others. The ranch has 150 acres of land, 21 acres of which are for grape vines (currently there are 20,000 vines). Unfortunately for me, the year’s vines had already been planted, and since grapes are not harvested until the fall, I did not get the chance to learn much about the vineyard industry. We pruned the pear and apple trees and prepared them for mulching. During our work we had to duck from the bees, and to keep a close eye on our feet and hands for fire ants which are quick, sneaky little critters.

There is so much difficult hand and back-breaking work to do on a farm. My hands got sore within hours of beginning, and every day I felt new soreness in my body. Although I suppose there is an adjustment period. And I must remember that I am just a city girl learning the ropes; one who has always dreamed of working outside (be careful what you wish for).

During our wwoofing experience we all lived together in the same large, beautiful, ranch-style house. I have never lived with so many people before; it felt like I was on the Real World but with less drama! We were also a tad isolated from the nearest town, and so we spent our days and nights together on the farm.

We used solar power with a back up generator. I realized how much energy a dryer takes when we used up all the energy to dry one load. We had fresh well water and we hauled out the recycling and garbage in to town.

Danny, the 25 year old farmer, was in the process of building an 800 square-foot solar cabin to accommodate additional wwoofers. Danny gets many wwoofing requests, and there’s a lot to do here. Last fall the frames for the cabin were put up. After Joey and Greg did the electrical work, we all worked together to install the insulation and dry wall. This was a very new, dusty, and unexpected experience for me, but now I know that the construction business is not for me (and that insulation is itchy!). I must admit though, that I felt like a tough guy when I sawed window frames on dry walls. The work was not as hard on your body, at first, as farming.

We cooked our meals together and being a group of eight, you can imagine how much time it took to get things started and cleaned up. I’ve also been exposed to a variety of new music that I would never have otherwise discovered. It is one of the many cool benefits of travel – just like trying new food dishes.

Each wwoof experience will be different, and not all wwoofs are on typical farms. In Alaska, I noticed there were a handful of tourism organizations wanting wwoofers. This was right up my alley, as I am seeking a career change in ecotourism and I wanted to volunteer to gain some insight into the industry.

For my second wwoof in Homer, Alaska, I stayed with Seaside Adventures for three weeks. They are a small kayaking tour group with a lodge in Kachemak Bay. It was a completely different experience from my first wwoof. For one thing, I was the only wwoofer there. Many places in Alaska only have the capacity to host, and often only need, one or two wwoofers. In Utah it was nice to meet so many other wwoofers. Although on the other hand, in Alaska it was nice to have more one on one time with the owners, which allows wwoofers to really get to know their hosts, and to better understand how things operate. There were some similarities between the two experiences; both places are very remote, and need to conserve water.

I also noticed that if you are a girl, you will not be treated differently. In both places I was asked if I had ever used a chainsaw, wood splitter, drill gun, dremel, etc. It was nice that my hosts did not assume that I’d never used those tools before. And yet when I replied no, they were happy to show me how to use them.

To me wwoofing is like a different type of the typical internship. You get to learn about a new industry and gain new skills, but you gain much more because you live where you work and therefore experience a completely new living environment as well. You also build close relationships and learn about a variety of things by talking to new people.

Accessible Ecotourism: Brazil Eco-Adventures for Everyone

Ecotourism for people in wheelchairs? You may wonder what that looks like, how it’s done. You’d be pleasantly surprised to learn that in many destinations there are efforts in place to improve tourism infrastructure to better serve people with disabilities. Brazil is one such example.

Accessible Tourism
Travel and Tourism is recognized as the largest service sector industry, and as such it is imperative that people of all ages and abilities are allowed access to its activities. Accessible Tourism is a movement that has evolved to represent this important concept, as well as to represent a group which is too often denied desired travel experiences due to inaccessibility and a lack of knowledge at many destinations worldwide. Groups such as the European Network for Accessible Tourism (ENAT) promote extended travel opportunities for people with disabilities by establishing partnerships, networks, educational material and certifications/guidelines pertaining to the accessibility of service sector facilities and operations.

Accessible Tourism recognizes the universal right to participate in tourism by having access to “independent travel, accessible facilities, trained staff, reliable information and inclusive marketing,” and notes its wide-spread benefits. “Accessible tourism benefits everyone. More individuals enjoy the opportunity to travel; the tourism industry gets more visitors, longer seasons and new incomes. Society as a whole benefits from new job opportunities, more tax revenue and an accessible environment for both inhabitants and visitors.” (ENAT, 2011)

Virtual Accessible Tourism Project
Thankfully, these days one can find many accommodations and operators in Brazil that have adapted their facilities to receive individuals with decreased or limited mobility. Recently the Brazilian company Acessivel – Turismo Adaptado (Accessible – Adapted Tourism) has developed a new project featuring an online tour guide for travelers with reduced mobility.

This unique guide, only in Portuguese yet, is posted online through oviajanteespecial.blogspot.com and will soon become a website with information about Brazilian accessible tourism destinations. The aim of this guide is to enable people with disability and reduced mobility to travel throughout Brazil. Adriana Braun, who uses a wheelchair herself, is responsible for coordinating this project.

Accessible path Brazil

In 2001, Adriana was the first person in a wheelchair to travel to the Fernando de Noronha islands, a popular ecotourism destination in Brazil. Adriana realized that with a little guidance and specific training for local guides and service sector employees, accommodations could improve their offerings so that people in wheelchairs may travel more. Thus began her instrumental work in accessible ecotourism. For Adriana, ecotourism and responsible travel experiences represent an excellent tool for rehabilitation to people in wheelchairs.

wheelchairs on the beach in Brazil

Accessible Ecotourism in Brazil

Fortunately there are many ecotourism destinations in Brazil that can be visited by people in wheelchairs, yet there is one that deserves special mention: the beach settlement of Itacaré, in the region of Bahia on the eastern coast of Brazil.

Itacaré is revered as one of the most beautiful places on the coast of Bahia. It is synonymous with beautiful beaches and relatively few people, protected Atlantic forests, pristine rivers, amazing waterfalls, and a very lively town during the summer. Nowadays this small town of Bahia is very popular with visitors, and especially surfers, who are attracted to the local beaches and their famously rough waves.

If you are a traveler in a wheelchair and want to visit Itacaré, you can be assured that there are many opportunities for accessible tourism and recreation in the area. Many local service operators have met with trained ecotourism guides and consultants in order to enable them to better cater to the needs of travelers with special needs. Because of this, it is possible for people in wheelchairs to go hiking in the local forests, to visit the beautiful beaches, to walk in the mangroves, to visit stunning waterfalls, and even to enjoy adventure sports such as rafting.

Hiking Iceland a Locals Guide To The Troll Peninsula

Whether you believe in Old Icelandic tales or not, I have to tell you that Troll peninsula is believed to be the last home of ugly and quite dangerous giant trolls. They happen to be afraid of daylight, and a strong ray of sun can petrify them to eternity.

At the end of winter, forced by the ever-rising arctic sun, they make gigantic steps, crossing glaciers, plateaus, ridges and torrents to reach their secret hiding places, before it is too late.

Highlights of the Troll Peninsula?

Welcome to an awesome region of North Iceland, also known as the Icelandic Alps. Even though summits do not exceed 2000m, one shall keep in mind that when hiking in Iceland, they have their feet in the ocean.

Everlasting snow on its dominant peaks, luxuriant green valleys with small farms and cattle randomly scattered and much, much more is to be found in this tranquil area, suitable for trekking all year round. Hiking, biking, horseback riding, alpine climbing in the summer and skiing and ski touring in winter are just a few popular activities to be named.

There are also whales in the fjord, so whale-watching is always an option.It is truly special and very enriching, once you have a chance to enjoy hiking in the almost untouched Icelandic Alps in the North of Iceland, yet still being able to find some great service to make your stay a complete local experience.

Favourite spot for hiking on the Troll Peninsula?

There are far too many as the area is huge and very inspiring with only a few hiking trails being actually marked. Id recommend exploring treks in Skidadalur, Svarfadalur, Hedinsfjordur and Laheidi Plateau, with Dalvik, Olafsfjordur or Siglusjordur as possible starting points.

Favourite places to grab some food on the Troll Peninsula?

Dalvik cafe in a local cultural house called Berg: home-made bread and snacks as well as yummy home-made cakes.Siglufjordur any local bakerySiglufjordur restaurant called Hannes Boy is a place for a proper dinner made out of local ingredients and served with style in a pleasant atmosphere with the fireplace inside.Siglufjordur local fish shop selling fresh fish for your barbecue

Favorite places for a drink on the Troll Peninsula?

One of the best locally brewed beers in Iceland is in Arskogssandur. It is called KALDI and is one and only non-pasteurized beer in Iceland. Check it out, you can get a tour in this cute small brewery and taste the quality.When it comes to bars, its definitely worthwhile checking out the town of Siglufjordur and its cafe-bar by the harbour.

Whats the best time of year to come to the Troll Peninsula?

When you want to enjoy trekking in Iceland, then bright arctic summers (June, July, August, possibly September) are the best time for a visit. The everlasting days of those bright months permit hiking any time in a completely untouched nature. Its good to include places from which you can watch magnificent sunset of the sun that just gently touches the sea and carries on with the sunrise.

Anything else you need to share for people planning a muchbetter adventure to Troll Peninsula?

The area of Troll Peninsula is rather scarcely populated, concerning European standards (bear in mind that Iceland has around 300.000 inhabitants, out of which two thirds live in Reykjavik).

Its rather challenging to move between places here up north, using the public transport, though it is possible. Hitchhiking is a popular way and renting cars would do for those who come in groups.

Iceland is famous for its outdoor swimming pools with geothermally heated water. Theyre cheap, considering the service you get, including hot pots, so its definitely a must try in whatever small village you end up.

The swimming pool in a village called Hofsos is a special piece of art made in harmony with nature I highly recommend it.

When researching Iceland treks, its good to buy local maps in a bookshop called Eymundson (either in Reykjavik or Akureyri).

The weather in Iceland is extremely erratic and its good to be prepared literally for all kinds of weather in one day. The official webpage might be of help when planning your Iceland treks.

More tips on places to see and things to do on Troll Peninsula are also to be found here.

Why do I love going local, when hiking in Iceland?

I enjoy mindful travelling and thus love going local, whenever I travel. Iceland, the place where I live, is not an exception.

It can be tricky to find some quality service off the beaten track in Iceland, but its not a mission impossible. That is why Ill gladly share what Ive discovered so far, constantly adding any new discoveries.

Should you need any specific advice on hiking Iceland, do not hesitate and write to me.

Interested in going to Iceland?Check out other holidays and accommodation in Iceland.

Know somewhere in Iceland – or anywhere in the world that you want to share?

Share it! Put your favourite place on the map and grow your word of mouth travel resource (win somecool prizestoo!).

If you, like Lenka here, would like to feature your favourite places to hike, ski, surf, climb, kayak get in touch – we would love to hear from you.

Sharing is caring!

Yurt to Yurt Travel with Mongolian Nomads

Yurts are all the rage these days, with posh camping (glamping) sites springing up all over Europe. You are probably familiar by now with the yurt concept – rounded wooden structures, canvas covered, comfortable, spacious, more like a home than a tent. It’s no wonder they have converted many an ardent anti-camper. Easily dismantled and moved (in theory), Mongolian yurts evolved as the home of choice for the nomads of Central Asia. In Mongolia, one of the regions yurts originally hail from, an innovative foundation called Ger to Ger (or ‘Yurt to Yurt’) is working with nomadic families to invite adventurous soles to discover their world.

Since setting up in 2005, Ger to Ger have worked with dozens of Mongolian nomadic herder groups and their communities to develop a travel network of nomadic trekking, horse riding and 4×4 routes through the Mongolian steppe, taking you literally from Ger to Ger, staying with host families and sharing their way of life. It’s possibly as close as the modern adventure traveller will get to understanding life as a nomad. North, South, East and West, new trails are continuously being coordinated with the local communities. Check out their website for a full list: www.gertoger.org

For those less interested in being continuously on the move as the ‘nomadic’ lifestyle dictates, the agency have helped local community groups set up a series of cultural and homestay programs allowing you a rare insight into the local life and customs, including, for example, a trip that offers the chance to spend a week learning to train Kazakh eagles in Bayan Ulgii province. Here, Mongolian Kazakhs maintain a 2000-year old tradition of training female Golden Eagles to hunt foxes, rabbits, owls and even small wolves, and you will learn just how it’s done.

That might not be to everyone’s tastes, but is certainly going to be memorable, as would opportunities in different communities to, among other things, learn the language, work with horses, become a Mongolian archer, or discover embroidery and felt making techniques.

Ger to Ger is a unique travel foundation and social enterprise which takes an innovative approach to mobilize, train and support rural communities to develop sustainable livelihoods through community tourism.

Through tourism incomes, they say that rural nomadic herder groups and their communities are developing an understanding that they are custodians of nomadic culture and heritage, and guardians of local environment (as it becomes an income asset). The results are certainly tangible. One nomadic herder’s testimony mirrors that of many others: “Our household income has increased. So now, I can pay my daughter’s tuition. I have learned many things during the training and project.” (Mr. Chimiddorj)

Travelling to Mongolia to discover the origins of the yurt will certainly leave you with a different perspective on life, and gives you the chance to support others in their fight for a sustainable future in this brave new world.