Author Archive

Namibia in Photos

Zebras in Etosha National Park
Stretching from South Africa to Angola along Africa’s southwestern coast, Namibia is a large, wild, and relatively unknown land, often overshadowed by more renowned Sub-Sahara destinations. But while the country may be young (it only gained independence from South Africa in 1990), its treasures are truly ancient—a place of natural wonders and special encounters for those who pursue them. Here you’ll find expansive, other-worldly landscapes and bygone cultures found nowhere else on earth. It may be far-flung, but for those who make the trek, Namibia’s quiet beauty is endlessly rewarding. And short of seeing it first-hand, it is a place best experienced through photos.

Want to see it for yourself? Discover the Best of Namibia on our newest tour, and click below for some spectacular photos.

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The Way of Tea in Japan

Japanese tea ceremony

The Japanese Tea Ceremony, also known as the Way of Tea, is steeped in ritual and tradition, and can sometimes seem intimidating to the casual tourist. Luckily, we discovered this beautifully shot 3-minute video by Saneyuki Owada. It’s a presentation of the Way of Tea by Tea of the Men, a Japanese culture art performance group whose mission is to make the Japanese Tea Ceremony more enjoyable, more interesting, and easier to join for all.

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The epic love story that built the Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal: it’s one of the most gorgeous buildings in the world, the icon of India, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of the Seven Man-Made Wonders of the World. But do you know what this architectural marvel was built for, and the love story behind it?

Romeo & Juliet, Cleopatra & Mark Antony, Tristan & Isolde—to these famous tales of love, we must add the no less legendary (and tragic) story of Shah Jahan and his queen Mumtaz Mahal.

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Happy Diwali

Happy Diwali noCaptionIn the Hindu world, Diwali is celebrated with beautiful lights, sweets, feasts, fireworks and general partying. It’s a time to shed light on the darkness, a metaphor for a victory of good (the light) over evil (the darkness). A deeper meaning has to do with light as metaphor for wisdom and enlightenment. Diwali is actually a five day festival, but the main event occurs on the Hindu month of Kartika, the first and darkest night of the new moon, and in our Georgian calendar, between mid-October and mid-November.

If you’re planning a trip to India or Nepal (or half a dozen other countries around the world), you’ll be in for a major treat if you happen to travel during Diwali. You’ll see families out and about in their new outfits, participating in prayers to Lakshmi (the goddess of wealth and prosperity) lighting lamps and candles inside and outside their homes, setting off fireworks and exchanging gifts with families and friends.

The holiday of Diwali is all about the lighting of lights, both external, as in flames, fireworks, and candles, and internal, as in becoming happier, wiser and enlightened. In gaining this wisdom, you find the way to a more fulfilling, richer life, both for yourself and for others. It’s a beautiful holiday full of meaning and blessings for everyone who participates, Hindu or not.

Sustainable travel: taking the first step

Exploring a national park in Costa Rica

I’m Cameron, Friendly Planet’s web developer. And each year around Earth Day, I get a little edgy.

Part is my frustration as I watch companies large and small trot out their green credentials. It’s encouraging to see so many businesses taking earnest steps to reduce their impacts. But with so many of them—maybe even most—all I see is a thick layer of greenwashing over business as usual. And lately, it’s getting hard to tell the difference between the two.

The other part is my own introspection. Who am I to judge? What are my green credentials? Am I doing enough to reduce the impacts of my lifestyle? All my careful recycling, all those LED bulbs I shelled out for, all those trips by bike—am I really making a difference? Or just making myself feel better?

An eco-conundrum

My biggest eco-conundrum is that I love to travel. Nothing is more exhilarating. So I’m a lucky guy that I get to work for a travel company. I can probably blame my parents for my wanderlust. I was born in Australia to an American mother and a New Zealand father. Before I was three years old, we had already spent months hopscotching across the islands of the South Pacific. And once I was old enough, I began my own journeys. Wandering through the ancient streets and monuments of Istanbul. Gliding down the Ganges in a small skiff. Spending months becoming intimately familiar with London. Exploring an ancient, overgrown Mayan city in Guatemala. Watching the sun rise over the blue domes of Oia in the Greek Islands. Joining the locals in Carnival parades in a gorgeous Portuguese colonial town in Brazil. These experiences have been some of the pinnacles of my life.

So it’s quite vexing to know that perhaps the single biggest thing I could do to reduce my environmental impact would be to never set foot on an airplane again.

The impacts of travel

Case in point: last November, my wife and I headed to Australia, my first trip back since my family left in 1977. It was an incredible homecoming: I got to know the land of my birth, to rediscover the farm where I was born, and to meet up with cousins I hadn’t seen in 15 years. But yesterday, I ran the numbers on the carbon impacts of that trip. According to Sustainable Travel International’s carbon calculator, our round-trip flight from LA to Sydney produced 11.7212 tons of CO2—and that was just our share. Flights and driving within Australia produced another 0.68 tons. Grand total: 12.4012 tons of carbon emissions for a two-week vacation for two people.

To compare, I estimated the impacts of all our driving and home energy use for that same year, with the help of the U.S. EPA’s carbon footprint calculator. The total: 7.1304 tons. I was proud to see that our efforts to drive less and use more efficient lighting and appliances were paying off. But my heart sank when I realized that our short trip to Australia was responsible for 174% more carbon than all our driving, electricity and natural gas usage for the whole year.

I believe travel is one of the most valuable things a human being can do to appreciate other cultures and fall in love with Planet Earth. It’s difficult to understand how beautiful and fragile the whole thing is until you see it with your own eyes. Which is why some of the world’s most ardent conservationists are also some of the most well-traveled. So it’s ironic then that tourism is perhaps one of the more damaging human activities. According to various sources, tourism is responsible for about 5% of global CO2 emissions, most of it from air travel. And unlike things like eating and heating our homes, travel is a luxury that’s completely optional.

With that in mind—is there such a thing as sustainable tourism? There’s no shortage of so-called “eco-lodges” and companies claiming to offer green tour packages. But how much of this is simply greenwashing to assuage the guilt of first-world travelers like myself?

Steps for meaningful action

Here at Friendly Planet, this conundrum has been on our minds for some time now. Not only are we all travelers ourselves, but we want to be a force for good in the places we visit. That’s why we’ve worked for years on various philanthropic projects, such as providing clean water for villagers in Cambodia. We’ve tried to craft responsible tour packages that introduce our travelers to some of the more incredible (and threatened) ecosystems on earth—like Borneo, Costa Rica, the Galapagos and the Amazon. And it’s the reason we take our travelers to nature preserves and conservation projects that protect rather than exploit indigenous people and species, in places like Thailand, South Africa and Kenya.

Meanwhile, one incredible member of our staff is going much further. In her free time, 25 year-old Alyssa Ramos has founded a nonprofit organization, Schools for Sustainability, which is building a series of innovative learning centers in impoverished areas. Students obtain high school degrees while getting trained and certified in organic food production, water harvesting and purification, renewable energy, waste management, and more. The schools themselves will be built of sustainable materials and will serve as models of environmental stewardship. Development is already underway on the first school in Sabana Grande de Boyá in the Dominican Republic. Future schools are planned for Philadelphia, the Bronx, Tanzania, Haiti and Israel. Alyssa is an inspiration to us all.

With all that we’ve done so far as a company, we understand that it’s far from enough. That’s why we’re now working on a carbon neutrality initiative to mitigate the impacts of our tour packages and our office operations. We’re exploring possibilities including carbon offsets, renewable energy credits, and direct contributions to projects that reduce greenhouse gases. We’re certainly not the first company to embark on such a project. But as we follow the lead of other trailblazing organizations, we’re determined to offer our customers a way to travel that is both enlightening and responsible—a way to explore the planet while also doing less harm to it. Why? Because we want to live up to our name. Because it’s the right thing to do. Because we cherish the destinations we visit. And because we want to ensure they’re still there for our children to enjoy as well.

Solutions like carbon offsets and renewable energy credits are far from perfect. The best way to reduce carbon emissions is not to create them in the first place. But we believe there are so many overwhelming benefits to experiencing other cultures and places, and that offsets and credits offer probably the best solution right now to neutralizing the impacts.

Stay tuned for updates on our initiative. In the meantime, consider offsetting your own travel, using the Sustainable Travel International carbon calculator, or by purchasing carbon offsets through sites like the Carbon Fund, Native Energy or TerraPass.*

Cameron at a wildlife reserve near Brisbane, AustraliaI offset our Australia trip yesterday. And I’m feeling just a bit better today.

Cameron Clark has been Friendly Planet’s web developer and webmaster for over a decade, and is spearheading the company’s carbon neutrality project.

* These popular carbon offset websites are not necessarily endorsed by Friendly Planet Travel.

Using your Cell Phone Abroad

traveling with your cell phoneSo you’ve booked your dream vacation and plan to get in as much down-time as you can. But you still want to stay connected with your family and friends at home, or just need to be reachable in case of emergency. Do you take your phone? Will it work? How much will it cost? Here are some helpful options and considerations.

Which option you select will depend on where you’re going, how long you’ll be gone, and how much you’ll be using your device. For example, if you just want to be accessible in case of emergency, using your current phone with international roaming is probably easiest. If you want to check in with your loved ones each night or keep up on email, using WiFi at your hotel might be your best bet. If you are a data addict or will be making a lot of local calls, getting a local SIM card or renting a phone locally could be the option for you.

1. Use your existing phone ($$$)

Taking your phone with you and using it as normal will often be your easiest and most expensive option. Your U.S. phone should work in Canada and most parts of Mexico and the Caribbean. But unless you have a ‘global ready’ phone (such as the iPhone 5s or 6 or Samsung Galaxy S 4 or 5), it may not work in other countries. Call your carrier before you go and find out whether your phone will actually work abroad—for both voice calls and other features. Ask about coverage areas, international rates for calls and data, and special roaming plans that you can enable temporarily while traveling. Here are some examples of international rates from AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile.

You’ll want to do everything possible to reduce your data usage abroad—see our hints below. Outside of major cities, don’t be surprised if your 4G device which is normally speedy at home falls back to much slower 3G or 2G speeds—or has no data coverage at all. You could be paying a premium for frustratingly slow data speeds or voice-only coverage.

2. Get a local SIM card for your phone ($$)

Inserting a SIM cardA SIM card is a small removable microchip that identifies your device to the network and associates your phone number with your phone. Most cell phones contain a SIM card, though some Verizon and Sprint phones do not. Replacing your SIM card with a local one transforms the identity of your phone, giving you a local number and local rates. (It shouldn’t have any effect on your contacts, photos, music, or apps.) It’s like getting a local phone, but with less hassle.

First, ask your carrier if your phone will actually work abroad and is compatible with the networks at your destination. Next, ensure your phone is unlocked—not restricted to a particular network. Most carriers will let you unlock your phone, but usually only after a certain amount of time has passed on your contract and for a small fee. You can also buy phones that are already unlocked with no contract (Amazon: unlocked cell phones).

You can pick up a SIM card before you go (check out Mobal, OneSimCard, CellularAbroad, and Amazon). Or buy a local one upon arrival—they’re often available at the airport, at convenience stores, sometimes even in vending machines! But do a little research before you select one. In particular, be sure to find out the coverage and rates, especially if you intend to use the card for international calls. SIM cards come in different sizes—standard, micro & nano—so make sure you get the right one for your phone, and make sure you know where it is and how to remove it.

This is a great option if you’ll be making a lot of local calls while abroad. The downside is that anybody calling you from home at your U.S. number won’t be able to reach you (unless you set up some fancy forwarding). You’ll need to give them your new (temporary) local number, and international rates will apply.

3. Buy or rent a phone to use abroad ($$)

If your phone won’t work at your destination, and/or will be making a lot of local calls while you’re traveling, consider buying or renting a phone just for your trip, preferably one with no contract and pre-paid credits. You can pick up a phone before you depart from companies like Mobal, OneSimCard, and CellularAbroad, or get one locally once you arrive, which can be even cheaper still. Keep in mind that you may have to learn how to use this new phone, and options for sending text messages, installing apps and using data may be limited. And if you plan to make international calls, make sure you buy enough credits, which can be expensive.

4. Use your phone in WiFi mode ($)

These days, free (or cheap) WiFi Internet is everywhere—at musuems, coffee shops, hotels, airports, airplanes…even on some trains and buses. If your phone can connect to WiFi, then chances are you can disable the cellular network and only use WiFi. You won’t be able to use your phone for much when you’re not in range of a WiFi signal. But whenever you are, you’ll enjoy free unlimited connectivity, and with a couple of apps, you may be able to use your phone as usual—almost.

Skype on Android © SkypeTo make voice and/or video calls using WiFi, you will need a WiFi calling app (sometimes called VoIP). Phones from T-Mobile come with one pre-installed. Otherwise, download one such as Skype or Viber. For text messages, try WhatsApp. iPhone users can use FaceTime and iMessage to connect with other iPhone users (though these tend to need a faster WiFi connection). If you have a Gmail account, you can use built-in chat features to call or text the U.S. free of charge. There are plenty of other options, so try a few before you go.

Note that you can use WiFi with any of the other options described above, to reduce your use of the costly cellular network. But also remember that WiFi can sometimes be slow, unreliable or even nonexistant, especially in developing countries.

We couldn’t mention WiFi calling without a special shout-out to Republic Wireless, a small but promising U.S. carrier. Their phones use WiFi first and (with an appropriate plan) fall back to the Sprint network when WiFi isn’t available. They don’t offer international roaming yet, but with their $5/month, no-contract, WiFi-only plan, you can take your phone abroad and use it like usual, making and receiving calls and text messages just like at home, with no special apps—but only when you’re connected to WiFi. We’ve tried it and it works great.

5. Consider other alternatives

traveling with your cell phoneSmartphones these days can cost a small fortune. Are you sure you want to risk taking yours overseas where it can get broken, lost or stolen?

You might instead consider bringing a small, inexpensive tablet (Amazon: tablets). With a WiFi connection and the appropriate apps, you can make and receive voice and video calls, check email, and browse the web. Accustomed to taking photos with your phone? Consider an inexpensive digital camera, which may take better photos. Dependent on map apps? Think about carrying a standalone GPS device, or getting one with your rental car.

Another interesting option: take a WiFi hotspot with you. SkyRoam offers just such a product: a pocket-sized device which provides a wireless Internet connection for up to 5 devices. For a flat daily rate, you’ll enjoy unlimited data with no overage charges in more than 45 countries (more coming soon). It works through local cellular networks, but you won’t be fussing with any SIM cards. We haven’t tried it yet, but it’s an enticing new option.

Helpful hints

  • Disable data roaming while you’re away to avoid using the cellular network and racking up charges. iPhone users: tap on Settings > General > Network > Data Roaming and toggle to “OFF”. Android users: Tap on Settings > Wireless and network > Mobile networks > Data roaming and uncheck it. Or in most cases, you can simply set your phone to ‘Airplane Mode’ and then manually re-enable WiFi.
  • If you are using data, track your usage. Most phones have this option under ‘Settings.’ Some also have an option to set a data limit and display warnings when you get close.
  • Configure email and other apps so they don’t automatically download data. Otherwise, simply turning on your phone abroad could leave you with huge unexpected bill.
  • Using Google Maps? Cache maps of the places you’ll be going so you use less data when out and about. You can do this for many geo-location reliant apps.
  • Print out the international dialing codes you’ll need for local calls and/or dialing home. Bring a list of your important contact numbers too, written out with the international dialing format.
  • Make sure you know the emergency numbers in the countries you’re visiting. (Note that these may not be accessible from WiFi calling apps.)
  • Use hotel phones to call other rooms—and to make local calls, if there’s no charge. And most hotels don’t charge for incoming calls, in case somebody needs to reach you.
  • Consider suspending your cell phone account at home, if you won’t be using it and your contract allows it. Most providers charge a small fee for this, but it’s generally less than your normal monthly rate.
  • Note that outside the U.S., the terms “mobile phone” and “SMS” are often used instead of “cell phone” and “text message”.

Charging your device

But wait: how will you charge your phone or tablet abroad?

If your device can charge from a USB port, you might get away with bringing just a USB cable. Some airplanes have USB charging ports at your seat, and many hotels have charging ports at your desk or in a bedside lamp.

Input: 100-240 volts, iPhone charging blockBut it’s a safer bet to bring your own charger. And the good news is that virtually all modern chargers and USB power blocks will accept 100–240 volt power, so they’ll work just about anywhere without a voltage converter—but check the fine print on your charger to be sure. The problem is that the plug probably won’t fit, so you’ll need a simple plug adapter for your existing charger (Amazon: travel plug adapters). Or just get an inexpensive travel charger (Amazon: international travel chargers) appropriate for the countries you’re visiting. To protect your devices, you also might consider a small surge protector.

charging your cell phone at the airportBut finding a place to charge your phone might not always be easy—especially at the airport! Spend a few bucks on an external charger/battery pack and you’ll enjoy 2-6x your regular charge (Amazon: cell phone external batteries). Or if you can access the battery in your phone, considering purchasing an inexpensive second battery that you can swap in as necessary (Amazon: cell phone internal batteries).

Happy traveling!