About Sherry Ott

Sherry Ott

Sherry Ott is a refugee from corporate IT who is now a long term traveler, blogger, and photographer. She’s a co-founder of http://www.briefcasetobackpack.com, a website offering career break travel inspiration and advice. She posts over on https://plus.google.com/103115118174711820529/posts as well.

Additionally, she runs an around the world travel blog writing about her travel and expat adventures at http://www.ottsworld.com.com.


Latest Posts by Sherry Ott

The Architecture & Stunning Views of Peru’s Machu Picchu

September 26, 2014 by  

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Machu Picchu tree

I recently returned to Peru’s glorious mountainous spot after ten years and sat again on the terraces of Machu Picchu. The scenery has the same awe-inspiring feel. And once again for the 2nd time I am left wondering ‘how did the Incas do that?’ as I gaze upon the stone architecture. There is a constant din of noise filling the background; a baby cries, a guard’s whistle blows, rules are yelled in Spanish. It’s the progress of tourism in the last 10 years. A decade brings many changes; changes in me and changes in Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu Photography

The UNESCO World Heritage site has thousands more visitors and a number of new restrictions. It’s open much earlier so that more people can have access to the site. The tree in the middle of the ruins is definitely taller. Tourists follow llamas around trying to get the perfect Instagram shot. All of the terraces used to be open to wander but now there is just ¼ of one terrace open to the public. It’s where I sit as I contemplate these thoughts. It’s where I sat 10 years ago and contemplated the thoughts of leaving my job to travel around the world.

This time I have my niece in tow she vacillates from being in awe of the ancient site and then simply wanting to go back to town and have french fries. Last time I had a point and shoot camera, but this time I have proper equipment and I am eager to take pictures. However, it is a challenge to shoot around 2500 visitors. Our guide talks but I don’t really hear anything he’s saying. I’m too busy plotting the next photo and watching the light spread across the ancient site.

Machu Picchu Photography

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu Photography

Machu Picchu Terraces

 

Machu Picchu Pictures

Morning sun provides a spotlight!

 

llama Machu picchu

Llama Grazing in Machu Picchu. See above, the same lone tree stands in the middle of the ruins – a few feet taller.

 

Machu Picchu pictures

Machu Picchu as the sun rises

 

llama machu picchu

A llama checks out my niece Megan

machu picchu terraces

Green terraces

 

stone steps machu picchu

Descending the steep stone steps

 

machu picchu views

Surrounding views

 

Machu Picchu windows

Windows

 

Machu Picchu photography

The view of the river below

machu picchu architecture

Architecture

 

The Off the Beaten Inca Trail Route in Peru

September 24, 2014 by  

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Alternate Sungate

 

Taking the Inca Trail through the Sun Gate to Machu Picchu seems to be on everyone’s bucket list these days. The problem – not everyone can go on the Inca Trail (even if you plan it months in advance) as there are only 200 tourist permits given out a day for the trail. If you get turned away like my niece and I did, don’t panic there are alternatives to the Inca Trail that are just as impressive and often times more challenging!  In fact they even have a Sun Gate too! The Incas built Sun Gates all over the Andes. Sun Gates, called Inti Punku, are structures built to honor the sun, usually at such an angle that they frame a distant mountain and welcome the first rays of the winter solstice. Above - Hiking to the ‘other’ Sun Gate along the Quarry Trail. The Incas had many built all over sacred sites in the Andes. This one looks over Mt. Veronica.

The Quarry Trail

My niece and I decided to do the Inca Trail alternative, the Quarry Trail offered by Intrepid instead. The Quarry trail was nearby the Inca Trail as both depart out of the little town of Ollantaytambo. The Quarry trail takes you through a few ruins, but it also has some things that are different than the beloved Inca Trail such as hiking through townships, it’s slightly shorter, and slightly higher in altitude (14,700 ft). And the best part – it was not crowded! In fact, we never saw any other hikers during our 3 days of hiking the Quarry Trail. In addition, the trail could be traversed by horse – therefore it left a smaller footprint as it took fewer porters and the supplies and camping gear were carried by horseback. However you still had a beautiful camp setting with loads of delicious food.  Overall – this Intrepid Travel hike was a well-supported trip that provided a great alternative to the Inca Trail.

Quarry Trail Facts:
Distance: 16 miles
Duration: 2 nights camping, 3 days hiking
Altitude: 2 passes, the highest being 14,600 ft. (this is serious altitude – it’s not a walk in the park)
Organization: You are assigned a complete crew of horsemen and porters who put up the camp and maintain it, chefs, and one to two guides. Camping gear is furnished and food is included.

Day 1 – The starting point of our trek was Rafq’a and where we meet the horsemen and porters. After an approx. 1hr walk we arrived at the small community of Socma. We rested there by the school house and had a snack trying to catch our breath after our first hour hiking up in altitude. A further 60min walk took us to the Perolniyoc cascade lookout. From there we continued on to the campsite, at 12,139 feet above sea level.

Socma Peru Quarry Trail

Our first stop at the Community of Socma.

Inca Trail alternative

The longer more gradual route up was still not easy. I was huffing & puffing.

Inca Trail alternative

Ruins along the Quarry Trail

Perolniyoc lookout Quarry Trail

Perolniyoc cascade lookout

Alternative to Inca Trail

Our campsite at 12,139 feet

Hiking Peru

Day 2 – A 3hr walk takes us to the top of the first pass, Puccaqasa (approx 14,340 feet). The snow capped peaks were gorgeous as we rose over the pass – well worth the slow effort of getting up there! The views of the valley below are spectacular – the whole day I felt small among giant moutnains and wide open spaces. We walked down for 30 min to our lunch spot, and then continued on to Kuychicassa (14,600 feet). From there we went down steep scree-filled switchbacks for 2hrs to a site the Incas called Inti Punku, (Sun Gate) with stunning views over the valley bellow and the Veronica mountain raising over the horizon. We camped that night near Choquetacarpo (11800 ft).

Quarry Trail Andes Peru

Our view we woke up to – not too shabby

Puccaqasa pass peru

Climbing slowly to the first pass. Puccaqasa (approx 14,340 feet)

Inca Trail alternative Hiking in Peru

First glance at the snowy peaks!

Hiking Peru

A local girl along the way comes out and greets us

Inca Trail alternative

Hiking between the two passes was my favorite part!

 

Supported Hiking Peru

Our lunch stop – between the two passes

Descent Andes

Heading down the steep decline towards the Sun Gate and our camp

camp food peru

It’s amazing what the chef can whip up on a single burner

Day 3 – Day three is all downhill hiking with a stop at the Kachiqata quarry (from where the trek gets it’s name), where we learned about the masonry of the Incas. The Incas worked the rocks up here and then dragged the rocks down into town across the river. Some of the boulders were huge – the size of cars! The Incas were so industrious and ingenious. We finished in Ollantaytambo again. From there we had a quick snack in town and then rode the train to Aguas Calientes Town that afternoon. Aguas Calientes is gateway to Machu Picchu which we tackled the next morning by bus.

Campsite Quarry Trail

Waking up on Day 3 to a beautiful view

Hiking Quarry Trail

Sheep aren’t phased by us in their grazing area

Hiking Peru

An old home in the valley

Andes Hiking

Cows at lower altitude…

There are plenty of other alternatives to the Inca Trail – so don’t despair if the permits are gone. The Andes are vast and offer many challenges!

 

A Small Village in Nebraska Post Tornado

September 16, 2014 by  

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Twin tornadoes heading for my aunt's home. Image courtesy NYPost

We took a left off of highway 15 and drove through the north side of town. The familiar old weathered homes were there as usual. In desperate need of paint, love, and care I couldn’t help but wonder if people were cooking up meth in those homes in this small village town in Nebraska. My mind runs wild with the thoughts of Breaking Bad as I turn to look the other way at the water tower – the one icon of the town still standing after all of these years. In a quick ¼ mile we got to the end of town by the cornfield and took the right turn as we always do when we visit my aunt and there is was. Absolutely nothing.

A wide swath of nothingness threw my brain into a confused state. It was familiar, but it wasn’t. It felt real, or was it a dream? There were no trees, no homes, no cars, no electrical poles, no life – except for a few corn stalks. We stopped the car at where my aunt’s brick home used to stand. Nothing. I looked around – nothing. It was like a airport runway as I turned and looked clear through to the Main St. area which used to be hidden by houses and trees. All of the debris had been cleared away and put in large piles on the corner of town, but I could only imagine what it looked like right after the twin tornadoes rumbled through town.

I first heard about the storm and Pilger’s destruction while I was in Peru traveling with my niece. Yes, ironically as I was on the Niece Project, my aunt’s home was being destroyed.  We were getting ready to be offline for a few days for a Andes hike so was checking Facebook one last time.  I saw a post from my cousin saying my aunt’s house had been destroyed but she was ok. I had no idea what he was talking about.  It’s devastating hearing bad news when you are thousands of miles away in a foreign culture. You feel helpless. Luckily with internet connectivity it’s fairly easy to be in communication quickly. I immediately sent messages off to my family trying to get more information, but there was nothing I could do but watch the aftermath from afar. Digital hugs aren’t the same as the real thing – one of the downsides to always being on the move.

Tornado desctruction

The image of my aunt’s home on Facebook was the only information I had

Aerial view of the path of the tornado.  The town is really small and my aunt lived near the bottom left corner where everything was blown out into the fields.

Aerial view of the path of the tornado. The town is really small and my aunt lived near the bottom left corner where everything was blown out into the fields.

In June EF4 twin tornadoes ripped through a cross section of the tiny town of Pilger Nebraska, a town where my relatives and parents called ‘home’. A shrinking population of 328 people and no new growth meant that the community already had a lot stacked against it, but now this may be the final blow. 75% of the buildings in the town were damaged or destroyed. 45 to 50 homes were completely demolished, including my aunt’s on the end of town. The tiny Main Street area and buildings were left in a pile of bricks and the main business in town – the grain elevators – were left in a pile of twisted metal as corn and soybeans covered the whole town. My aunt who hid in her closet under a pile of quilts was ok, but said that when the noise was over, she looked up and saw blue sky – her roof blown off. Two people were killed in the storm and many injured.

See Video here

As I visited family in the Midwest this month, I of course wanted to go see my aunt and the town. It had been 2 months since the tornado, so I wasn’t really sure what I’d see in the twin tornado aftermath. I was gobsmacked as I looked at what was left of the town. The brick school where my parents had graduated from had been destroyed and then torn down. Only the facade remained. There was one miraculous tree standing as the rest had been cut to stumps on the tornado’s path. The church where I played my piano recital of “Here Comes the Clowns” for my grandparent’s 50th wedding anniversary celebration and subsequently the location of my grandfather’s funeral had been leveled. Only the cement foundation and the brick bell tower somehow remained. A miracle?  Maybe.  Main Street only had 2 buildings life – one of which was the library. The fire station and village clerk’s office was still in shambles as if people just gave up with the cleaning process and left it as is. There were American flags everywhere and the letters “OK” spray-painted on homes that looked as if they were held together by a thread. Stalks of corn and soybeans grew everywhere in the middle of this nothingness as when the grain bins were destroyed it left seed everywhere and now had taken hold in the newly upturned soil. Everywhere I looked it felt surreal, as if I were in a movie set.

pilger nebraska tornado

One of the few buildings near main street still standing

Pilger nebraska tornado

The village clerk’s office remained as is after the tornado. The whole town looked like this, but now was demolished.

There was a single grain bin standing – a new one that had been constructed since the 10 had been destroyed. The rebuilding process had begun. But after spending the day with my aunt hearing the stories and seeing the aftermath with my own eyes, I’m left wondering if Pilger will ever really be rebuilt. I don’t have high hopes. As I wrote about a couple of years ago, the town was on a fast decline prior to the tornado  – and this might just be the final blow. My aunt won’t relocate there, she’s still trying to decide what she will do, but there’s really nothing for her there any longer. I’m trying to convince her that this is a blessing really – she needed to downsize, she wanted to move, so maybe it will actually work out better for her. However at 75, she’s not quite as comfortable with nomadic living as I am.

pilger nebraska twin tornado

A flag flies on a remaining tree stump. You can see the nothingness in the background. This was the direct path of the tornado.

The clean up still continues and some rebuilding has begun, but I’m left wondering what is Pilger’s next chapter? I don’t really know. I have the pictures and the memories of what this little community once was and that will have to be enough for now. My grandparents are buried there, my parents will be buried there – so I know my time with this little town isn’t finished.

More Images of the Aftermath:

tree pilger tornado

A single tree survived in the path.

pilger nebraska twin tornado

Corn and soybean seeds spread throughout the town and is now growing everywhere.

pilger nebraska twin tornado

The path. Standing where my aunt’s house used to be looking through the empty section of town

Pilger nebraska school tornado

Before and after of my parent’s high school.

Pilger tornado before and after

The village clerk’s office before and after

PIlger nebraska tornado before and after

The row of grain elevators in the center of town before and after

Pilger nebraska tornado before and after

Main street before and after

Top photo credit: Twin tornadoes heading for my aunt’s home. Image courtesy NYPost.

The Best of Culture & Nature in Peru’s Sacred Valley

September 11, 2014 by  

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Sacred Valley Peru

Getting a close up view of life in the Sacred Valley

The man with the wooden flute plays a joyful high-pitched tune; the same few bars of notes over and over again. He is dressed in multi-color clothes, a warm woolen hat, and is accompanied by another man beating out the time on his little drum. The group of us follows them down the dirt path; where we are going, we do not know. We simply follow the music as if he was the Pied Piper mesmerized by the tune and the sites around us. Luckily we don’t have the same ending as the fairy tale; we are simply heading to the fields to gather potatoes with the locals of this village community in the Chinchero District near Cusco. Potatoes are a staple in this part of the world and we are here to get more in-depth into the culture of the Sacred Valley.

We get to do what few visitors to Cusco ever do – go out and really see and interact with the locals in this region. Normally in Cusco communication with locals is mainly commerce based. The communication is one way – they have something you’d like to buy – a deal is made and very little true interaction or learning happens. Sure, you smile, laugh, and have a brief interaction as you exchange money and you may think that you’ve made some local connection – but you really haven’t.

Sacred Valley Village Visit

Village Life

We’ve arrived in the little community village about 90 minutes outside of Cusco on our way to Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley. We were to spend a half-day there interacting with the locals and learning more about village life. The air was crisp and cool, but the sun beat down on us requiring a good layer of sunscreen. As soon as we arrived we were welcomed with a flower lei placed around our necks by a group of women dressed in their colorful red felt hats and clothes. They seemed to have layers and layers upon them, not to mention children strapped to their backs with heavy blankets in the traditional Peruvian way. After a short introduction in the community center of the village, we were off to the fields to get dirty and learn about the village’s lifeline – potatoes.

Sacred Valley potato farming

Working in the fields is a daily chore

No one was there to lecture us – this day was all about participation. Soon, I found myself crouched down picking up potatoes and throwing them into a pile on the tarp. Childhood memories came rushing back to me as this used to be how I spent my summer when I was Megan’s age – working in the garden doing chores such as digging potatoes. After Megan had her fill of potatoes, she went off and started playing with a few of the kids pushing rocks around making vroom vroom car noises, and playing catch with mounds of dirt and rocks. She remarked at how easily they were entertained by the stuff around them – quite a different experience than her nanny work in Minnesota where a constant barrage of stuff is needed to entertain kids. As I watched Megan play with the two kids in the dirt field I wondered if kids in the US today have any idea how to simply entertain themselves in nature anymore. I made mud pies with my friends in the summer, they now probably have an ap for that. And yes, I feel old by simply typing those last sentences.

When it comes to raising kids America and Peru look at things quite differently. You can’t come to Peru and not be entertained and amazed at how the mothers carry kids of all ages on their backs with a heavy blanket. The kids go everywhere with them like a kangaroo and a pouch. I watched as many of the local women dug up potatoes with the children perched on their backs all snug in their cocoon blanket.

The beauty of this is that it keeps the mothers really mobile and their hands free as opposed to pushing a stroller – which would never work in a hands-on community like this. Megan had been also marveling at this unusual way to carry and keep track of kids so I told her we should see if she can carry one of the local kids on her back like they do. She thought it sounded cool and smiled a ‘yes lets try it’ message to me. This is what I love about all of my niece trips so far – they jump into things, they are bold. I mimed the question to the local woman next to me and soon Megan was surrounded by local women strapping a kid to her back! The local women were tickled with this turn of events. They had big broad smiles – a young American girl carrying a Peruvian boy the local way. And the beauty was that the local women didn’t really seem to care that a stranger had their child perched precariously on her back hiking around the village – there were no doting mothers in this village for sure!

How they carry kids in Peru

Megan learns how to care for kids the Peruvian way!

After gathering a large tarp full of potatoes for lunch, we were off to have some fun – a little friendly football match was in order. While the World Cup enthralled everyone around the globe, we were going to have our own World Cup match between the tourists and the locals. The Pied Piper once again started his flute and we all followed him to the football field in the little village – complete with donkeys. I wondered if the flute was required to get us to move – but I enjoyed the tune, so fell into step. Megan with her new little boy in tow was climbing up and down ridges and the boy bounced merrily along without a concern.

Megan and I know very little about playing football, but we were game to try. Our Intrepid group was a mix of middle age men and women who knew much more about football then we did, and we would be playing the locals made up 90% of women! We learned that at this time of year the village population was mainly women as the men were away working as porters on the Inca Trail during the busy hiking season. There were a couple of men left in the village to take care of things – but it was mainly women and children.

playing soccer among donkeys

Football with a few new obstacles

Soccer with locals Peru

Megan defending the goal

I was really intrigued to see how the local women played in their traditional dresses, hats, and rubber sandals – but it didn’t seem to hinder them one bit. Megan once again boldly jumped into the game and was put as the Intrepid team goalie for the first part of the game. The field was rough and the competition high. I loved this light and playful air – everyone was full of smiles and laughs giving you a feeling of genuine fun as opposed to a manufactured experience. Our little Tourist vs. Locals World Cup match was a highlight of my time in Peru. And yes – the Tourists lost 2 to 1; I learned to never underestimate women in local dress and their abilities!

We had worked up an appetite and sweat running around in the high altitude, and next we were treated to a lunch of the staple product – potatoes. The women had been cooking up a storm when we arrived. I am always in amazement at what they can whip up in little mud, wood-fired “stoves”, when I can’t even seem to use a real stove that effectively. Kids played around us as we cleaned up and helped serve up the meal. I never knew there were so many different ways to make potatoes!

Peru village life

A traditional mud oven/stove – found all over the village

Sacred Valley food

Potatoes for lunch!

 

Disclosure: I was a guest of Intrepid Travel, however all opinions expressed here are my own.

 

 

Kings Canyon Rim Hike & Beyond “Down Under”

September 5, 2014 by  

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Kings Canyon Rim Hike

Kings Canyon Rim Hike

I heard the howling as soon as I lay down to go to sleep. Dingoes. The sound came from my left; it felt as if it was far away. I hoped it was far away. I dozed off for a few hours, however it felt like minutes when I woke up again to more howling. I could also hear a slow whistling hum. I lay there with my mind churning on the whistling sound. What was it? Then I realized it was the wind blowing through the tough, scrubby brush trees in the outback.

I wanted an Australian Outback experience, and now I was getting it – complete with a pack of howling dingoes. Howling again. The pack was closer, but I felt safe and secure in my tent. My brain, satisfied with identifying the unknown noises, was now free to go back to sleep. I fluffed my pillow, pulled my duvet cover up to my chin and settled back into a fetal position in my big fluffy bed.

No internet, no cell or mifi signal – this camping is the real thing. Never mind that inside the tent is a queen size bed, electricity, and separate tented bathroom with shower and hairdryer. Ok – it’s just about the real thing. It’s my kind of camping.

This glamping experience was a bit ‘rougher’ than the others I experienced in Australia but there is a reason it’s called glamping…it still was glamorous. The tent was completely canvas and built on a decked platform. It was simple compared to some of the high-end glamping I had done recently. It had 5 zip up windows, a separate tent bathroom, and even a little back ‘door’ and patio to sit and look out on the scrubby bushes of the red outback.

Outback Glamping Kings Canyon

Kings Canyon Wilderness Lodge

When I arrived in Kings Creek station via bus, Lily from Kings Canyon Wilderness Lodge was there to pick a few of us up. She was petite and in her 40’s with a sly smile. She drove an old dirty SUV, perfect for this desert environment. The Australian desert was not at all what I was expecting. I had expected this red wasteland – flat, red, and barren. But instead I was surprised with green plant life all around. Short, bushy, vibrant trees filled the landscape and seemed to glow against the red landscape. There was plenty of red sand and even sand dunes – but with the green trees and plants they looked like rolling hills instead of sand dunes. I was told things were greener than normal due to a very wet summer. I had arrived in the fall in the Northern Territory of Australia and I quickly determined that it’s the best time to be there – the temps were pleasant, and the flies weren’t as bad as the summer (I was told).

The outback doesn’t really have towns – they have stations. The stations (what we could call ranches) were the only things really on this land. Kings Creek Station was a camel farm and tourist bus stop. Most of the stations herd cattle and they are normally about 1,000,000 acres and can have upwards of 8,000 to 15,000 head of cattle on them. The areas are so vast that they herd them with helicopters (sounds fun huh?). Kings Creek Station was the only semblance of civilization I saw since leaving on the bus 4 hours earlier from Uluru.  The station was as simple as they come – a little café, tourist shop, camels, and a place to hire helicopters and ATV’s.

Lily didn’t have us waste too much time at the station and instead whisked us away in the SUV to Kings Canyon Wilderness Lodge. After settling into our tent accommodations I joined others for a communal dinner under the stars. Lily had transformed into a little black dress and was serving us drinks and canapés of smoked kangaroo, cheese, and avocado around the campfire to get things started. The juxtaposition of upscale dining with the smell of a campfire was a bit surreal, but the dinner and company was great.

Lily was our entertainment, putting logs on the fire and serving food and stories up in an equal amount in her black dress. The people who live in these remote communities fascinate me. She said that she hoards newspaper and magazines and reads them on special occasions. They get one mail delivery a week and one truck comes through a week which means that word from the outside world is minimal. This made me wish I hadn’t thrown away my newspapers before leaving Uluru. I have a hard time understanding how people can work here; Kings Creek Station and surrounds is a whole new level of remote. I don’t think I could last more than a few weeks, yet the environment seems to fit Lily perfectly.

Despite my restless dingo filled night, I had to wake up early the next day for the real reason I came here to Kings Creek Station; the Kings Canyon Rim hike. Graham was our tour guide and drove us to Watarrka National Park where we began the 6km rim hike. The hike winds around the top of the canyon providing you vertigo type views over the sheer sandstone cliffs and into the valley 150 m below. The only taxing part of the hike was the initial 10 to 15 minute uphill climb/slog, but it weeds out the unfit people from the trail! Once you get to the top you have 3 more hours of walking and enjoying the lovely views. We had cloud cover else I was told that it can get quite hot – so it’s a good idea to go in the morning.

One of the most stunning parts of the hike was the Garden of Eden, a little valley in the canyon where water pooled and there was an abundance of green plant life. Steep wooden stairs were built along this part of the trail to get you down and back up from the Garden of Eden. It was a lovely spot to stop and enjoy a snack and thankfully there were no snakes or apples. Graham pointed out various plant life and trees during the hike – some of which was over 600 years old. I sort of fell in love with all of the old gnarly trees – it’s a weak spot for my camera and me! He also shared stories about the aboriginal culture from this area, which was quite different from the tribes around Uluru. However, overall the morning was more about hiking and less about culture.

Kings Canyon Trees

Trees in the Outback Kings Canyon

I only stayed one night/day in the area, but I was able to get a small feel for the outback and the life around the remote stations. Graham deposited me back at the station to pick up the bus to Alice Springs. I took the opportunity to try the camel burger that Lily recommended at the station café. Camel meat is a staple out in these parts – so I figured what the heck. It tasted like a burger, however the only odd thing about this burger was the Aussie toppings. Get the true Aussie experience and order the deluxe and you’ll find a lettuce, tomato, cheese, onions, fried egg, AND a pineapple slice on your burger. After lunch I looked around the small, dusty station at the helicopter and camels and soon our bus pulled up in a cloud of dust. My short time in the outback was done, but it left me wanting more. As much as I loved the glamping at the wilderness lodge, the next time I go back to the Northern Territory, I’d love to really immerse myself in the station life without the tourism and learn more about their day to day lives and work. And yes, I want to herd cattle in a helicopter! I’m fascinated with the remoteness and lifestyle of the outback of Australia, minus the packs of dingoes.

Kings Canyon Rim Trail

Hiking the Rim and crossing over into the Garden of Eden

Kings Canyon Rim walk

HIkers stand upon a petrified sand dune!

Kings Canyon Rim Hike

Don’t go too close to the edge!

Kings Canyon Rim Trail

I peer over the ledge to the canyon floor

Outback plants

Some rugged plants survive in the harsh Outback environment

Garden of Eden Outback Australia

The water hole at the Garden of Eden

Kings Canyon Rim Trail

It all started with one small crack…and millions of years later you have a canyon!

Kings Canyon Rim Hike

Peering over the Garden of Eden

 

Disclosure:  I was a guest of the Tourism NT during my time in the Northern Territory of Australia.  However all the opinions expressed her are solely my own!

Family Travel Guide to Traveling With Kids

September 1, 2014 by  

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travel with kids

I may look motherly – but I’m not! I never wanted kids of my own. I’m not sure why, it just never appealed to me; taking care of someone, the diapers, crying, responsibility, and especially the toddlers – I don’t do well with toddlers. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t like kids – I love other people’s kids. Yes, they still may cry, but they aren’t my responsibility 24/7.

However, over the last 3 years I found myself traveling with other people’s kids quite often and that meant taking responsibility for them for extended periods. It’s quite a challenging and enriching endeavor for me personally. Whenever I start another trip with one of my nieces for the Niece Project, I still get a moment of panic that makes my stomach flip as we’re about to take off. It’s knowing that if something goes wrong – it’s my responsibility – my family is depending on me to keep everyone safe.

Since I’ve completed 3 trips now with my nieces, I also realize that I know a lot more now then I did on my first niece trip. I noticed my stress level was much less as we worked on our preparations to leave. This was niece number 3, I had learned a lot from traveling with the last two and I felt like I was really ahead of the game on this one. When I left with Evie last year to Vietnam I was a ball of stress, it was her first time abroad, and I was worried about everything – how she’d deal with the flight, the food, the jet lag, and how I could make sure her mother was feeling ok with this whole trip. However, maybe lesson number one to traveling with someone else’s kids is to make sure they have their passport before you pull out of the garage – which is what we forgot on our recent trip to Peru with my niece Megan.

I’ve had a lot of people contact me about their own Niece and Nephew projects with questions on how to prepare and how to cope with teenagers on the road, so I started compiling my steps I used for my recent trip.  Here are my top tips:

Build Anticipation

Vatican with kids

Traveling with my niece Bethany at the Vatican. A tour she chose herself after doing Italy research

For the time leading up to the trip, I try to do whatever I can to get them excited about it as normally I think they have a mixture of excitement and intrepidation. After all, for many kids this is the first time they will travel without their parents to far off places – and that can be intimidating. Get them a guidebook or send them websites or phone apps about your destination. Have them get involved in the research and decide what they want to do or see. This gives them more ownership of the trip and takes the pressure off you too.

Temporary Guardianship

As I said, you are responsible for the child you are traveling with and essentially their guardian for a period of time. It’s a good idea to talk with the parents ahead of time about getting a temporary guardianship document drawn up and notarized to take with you. I first did this when I started traveling to less developed countries with my nieces, but it’s a good idea to do no matter where you go. First off you’ll need this to prove you have responsibility for the child to any authorities/border regulations that might require it. In addition, you are the adult who has to potentially make split second decisions if something goes wrong from a medical emergency or country emergency. Luckily I’ve never had to pull out and use the document before – but I feel better having it.

Take Along Insurance Information

Insurance is always a good idea…Of course if you are responsible for them you’ll want to ensure you have their insurance information and proper coverage. But if you are traveling internationally, then the first step is to talk to their parents and make sure they contact their insurance company and find out what their kid’s international coverage entails. And if you are traveling remotely or doing adventure travel like I recently did with my niece Megan in Peru, you’ll want to ensure they have emergency evacuation insurance and all of the international coverage boxes ticked.

Make Copies

Before you leave make sure that you have digital copies of their passports and insurance cards (as well as yours!) and leave them in your email or cloud storage AND also with their parents.

Enroll in STEP

If you are traveling internationally, it’s always a good idea to register with the STEP program with the US State Department (Smart Traveler Enrollment Program). STEP is a free service to allow U.S. citizens and nationals traveling abroad to enroll their trip with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. It’s a good habit to develop and I normally make my nieces go and do this step themselves so that learn about the process and will use it as they continue to travel by themselves as they get older.

Picky Eaters

We all know how picky kids can be when it comes to eating food that looks foreign to them. I always try to encourage my nieces to try new things, however it’s still a good idea to pack some ‘emergency’ snacks for flight delays, long train rides or buses. I normally ensure that we have nuts and Cliff Bars from home so that they at least have something familiar with them if they are having one of those picky eater days.

Stay Connected

traveling with kids

Megan chatting with her friends on her phone. Her lifeline to not getting homesick

I mainly travel with teenagers, and you know how connected teenagers are to their phones – it’s their lifeline. I understand that the point of traveling with them is to transport them into another world, but they are still kids, and they do still want to stay in touch with their friends – especially if gone for a long time. I always carry a personal internet device (mifi) with me, which allows us to both connect to internet wirelessly. This way they can still get messages from their friends and more importantly share their experiences with their friends and family. It’s also a great way for them to stay in touch with their parents to let them now what they are doing

Share your Itinerary

I’m used to traveling solo and I practically never make an itinerary. However, to ease the parent’s concern and to let them know where you are, make sure they have all of your flight information as well as your itinerary of where you’ll be staying and any emergency numbers or ways to get a hold of you.

Make a Communication Plan

Before you leave talk with the parents to make a plan on how often you are going to contact them so that they feel comfortable. Also discuss the mode of preferred communication (email, skype, sms, phone calls) and test it out before you go. This includes the kid too – they should work out with their parents how they are going to communicate with them – especially if you are doing international travel. Before I left on my most recent niece trip to Peru, Megan had planned to use imessage to stay in touch with her parents and text them updates. We tested this out before we left and utilized the mifi device while in Peru to ensure she had internet connectivity to use the application. Just remember, every parent’s comfort level is different. Last summer my sister-in-law asked to have an email update every day. No problem – keep the parents happy is my main rule.

Consider Tours

When you travel together for a while 24/7 it’s pretty easy to get tired of each other, I love to use tours to kind of mix it up and give each other another social outlet. I’ve used Intrepid small group tours as a great way for my nieces to meet other adults and kids while getting to know a more local side of a country.

Your Daughter/Son is So Cute!

Daughter – what? “No, no, she’s not my daughter, she’s my niece.” I have finally gotten used to this exchange on the road. People will of course think that you are the parent. Even though this seems really strange to me (after all I don’t think I look like a parent – or that’s what I tell myself), it’s of course natural for people to think that. As much as I would like to believe that it’s normal for aunts and uncles to travel with their nieces and nephews, it’s not. Maybe one day the Niece Project will really take off and that will be the case – but until then graciously accept that you will look like a parent during your travels.

Make a Money Plan

Sit down and discuss with the parents how you will handle the access to cash and spending. If you are traveling internationally, this becomes a little more challenging. Many kids these days do have debit cards or prepay cards – but you have to make sure they are useable in other countries. Does their bankcard work as an ATM card and will it work overseas? What are the international charges? Make sure someone contacts the bank and works this out as well as letting them know where you’ll be traveling so they don’t put a fraud hold on the card. Sometimes parents would rather not have the kid responsible for money and they’d like you to take out the money and dole it out accordingly.

Be Prepared for Queasiness

barf bag travel with kids

Evie holding an important pack item!

I know this sounds strange – but on 2 of the 3 trips I took with my nieces it left me frantically searching for a vomit bag; not for me, for them. It took me completely by surprise, but kids are kids and they tend to get motion sick, nervous, and generally sick. After a few times caught by surprise – now I always have a barf bag with me and a pack of Dramamine. And while you are stocking the first aid kit, make sure you know of any allergies or medical issues they may have before you go. You don’t want to be surprised by a bee sting or nut allergy!

Do you have any other tips for traveling with kids you’d like to share?

 

Prince Edward Island For Oysters & Awe Inspiring Skies

August 25, 2014 by  

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I continued my seafood-a-palooza this week on Prince Edward Island in Canada.  What’s that?  You haven’t heard of PEI?  Well – if you are a foodie I’ll tell you a secret – get here now…it’s an island full of food that will tantalize your taste buds and warm your heart thanks to all of the local love going on.  The island’s top 3  industries are fishing, farming, and tourism – mix that together in a geographically beautiful landscape and you’ve got a culinary destination!

My parents and I continued to satisfy our seafood itch and not only enjoyed eating seafood on PEI, but we also did some great hands on experiences.   – We went out on a lobster boat and pulled traps as well as visited an Oyster farm and learned about aquafarming.  Much more to come on that in future writing – but just know that many days I had oysters for breakfast…nuff said.

We also got dirty in the local farms of PEI and then cooked up a feast at a cooking class.  But mostly we just drove around the island on the various scenic routes stopping at fishing villages along the way talking to fisherman, and farmers.  “Everyone is so nice here!” my dad exclaimed in the car today.  And he’s right – nice people, scrumptious food, fantastic hands-on experiences, beautiful national parks, sweeping landscapes, and a tight-knit community  = a great travel destination!  And that’s how I spent my week!

Canada National Parks PEI

The dune hike at PEI national Park in Greenwich was a highlight for me. You hike on a floating boardwalk to get to the dunes. Gorgeous!

Cooking class farm to table

Raspberry mint ice cream made today at our cooking class @AnniesTable – we even picked the raspberries ourselves!

French River PEI

The colorful fishing village of French River

Canada lighthouse

#PEI has an abundance of lighthouses but I loved this one w the Canada maple leaf at Covehead Bay.

raw oyster

My morning shooter from Colville Bay Oyster Company in Souris. Better than cereal

Prince Edward Island

Wandering aimlessly around the @gentleisland PEI near Kensington

Fishing buoys

Tools of the fishing trade in #PEI . Each fisherman has his own color so that he knows which traps are his.

Balsamic PEI

I walked into foodie heaven today @LiquidGoldCTown in #Charlottetown PEI. An olive oil & balsamic store offering tons of amazing varieties to try and mix. Flavors like blood Orange, maple, coconut, espresso, butternut squash, and Persian lime. It was 20 times better than an ice cream store as I sampled a ridiculous amount and wanted them all. Recipes are on their website www.allthingsolive.ca and if you are in the maritimes definitely make the trip here to try and buy!

PEI National Park

Hiking through the wetland dune trail @ParksCanadaPEI

cutting apples

Colorful apples and colorful arms at Annie’s Table Farm to Table Cooking Class

Disclosure:  I was invited to enjoy Prince Edward Island  by Tourism PEI.  However all the opinions expressed her are solely my own!

 

 

Ballooning: Taking in “Down Under” From “Up Above”

August 15, 2014 by  

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The first time I ever went up in a hot air balloon we had a crash landing. Ok – maybe that’s a bit melodramatic but I did end up with a bloody knee and a whole bunch of people on top of me as the basket drug along the ground. I called it a crash landing, the captain called it an ‘engergy disapation landing’…tomato…tomaaato.

ballooning gold coast australia

However, somehow I’ve been able to shake that experience off and get back off the ground. Why would I do such a thing?

hot air balloon gold coast

Because floating silently above the ground like a drone taking pictures is just that much fun.

Doing photography from above is one of my favorite things to do.  I must be the luckiest person around as I was able to go hot air ballooning in Australia not once, but twice! I feel like pretty soon I’ll be captaining them myself! Then again if I want to avoid more crash landings, it’s probably best if I stick to the photography.

Gold Coast in Queensland

If you are going to float above the beautiful Australian landscapes you have to get up early. The first morning in Southern Queensland near the Gold Coast I had my alarm set for 4 AM. I groggily woke up, put on warm clothes, gathered up all of my electronics and slept walk my way to the Hot Air Gold Coast bus that would take us away from the coast and into the hinterlands for a sunrise float. Luckily it was an hour drive so I was able to sleep on the bus after the safety video.

We arrived as they were filling the balloon. In the inky blue darkness all of a sudden you’d see a bright flame in the distance. It looked like a fire breathing dragon with knights surrounding it trying to get it under control. Maybe I had been reading too much Game of Thrones before bedtime? As the balloon filled up, it slowly lifted off the ground and became upright. The guide called us over one by one to climb into the basket. I was pretty loaded down by all of my camera equipment, but I managed to sling my leg over the basket somehow.

The ride was spectacular – and the whole time I had the song “Up Up and Away in my Beautiful Balloon” running through my head. We climbed quite high on this flight. You could see all the way to the Gold Coast once you got up there in altitude. The sunrise was a bit cloudy – but the views were still great. We were able to see the mountains of the Great Dividing Range as well as a number of farms and small towns. We had a nice ‘safe’ landing and then spent time helping them load the balloon back on the truck. After that it was off to a champagne breakfast at a local winery.

balloon sunrise

A cloudy sunrise above the hinterlands

Farmland below. The balloon scared the cows!

Queensland from above

Great Dividing Range of Queensland

Queensland hot air balloon

Where fields collide…

deflating balloon

Everyone chips in to deflate the balloon

Outback Ballooning Northern Territory

My second hot air flight was over the outback in the Northern Territory with Outback Ballooning. This was also a sunrise flight and we started in the complete darkness in the dusty orange outback outside of Alice Springs. This was a smaller group and a bit smaller basket. The sunrise was a golden orange without a cloud in the sky. It lit up the outback with long mystical shadows. This pilot took us much lower – in fact so low that it made me pretty nervous based on my first balloon experience. However he had it under control the whole time. We were even able to chase a few kangaroos through the outback!

At the end of this flight we all helped pack up the balloon again and we even got to witness the captain delicately lift the balloon and basket back onto the truck flatbed – not an easy task. Afterward we were all treated to champagne and biscuits to toast our safe flight.

Hot air balloon outback

Take of from Australia’s Red Centre

Outback sunrise

A perfectly orange sunrise in a clear morning sky.

outback hot air balloon

Bushy trees start to light up in the sunrise

Alice Springs from above

Long shadows form across the outback as the sun rises

kangaroo outback

Tracking kangaroos from above!

hot air balloon nothern territory

A perfect landing!

These were two iconic places and landscapes to capture from above. And the good news is that it looks like my days of crash landings are past me!

If you could go ballooning anywhere in the world – where would you go? Please answer in the comments!

More Australian Ballooning Info:

Hot Air Gold Coast Website – www.hotair.com.au/goldcoast
Cost: Sunrise ballooning and vineyard breakfast $250 AU

Outback Ballooning  Website – www.outbackballooning.com.au
Cost:  30 minutes $290 AU

Disclosure:  I was a guest of the Tourism NT and Queensland Tourism during my time in the Australia.  However all the opinions expressed her are solely my own!

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