Small Group Travel – Middle Agers

As a travel agent over the past few years, I’ve heard all the excuses. The general consenses is that group travel means 50 seniors on a big coach bus going at a turtle’s pace, following a colorful umbrella and stopping at each boring monument.

Please, let me educate you on a whole world of options that you are missing out on because of this widespread misconception! Please, open your mind for a few minutes and listen to what I have to share!

What if I told you that you can have a super-fun, yet still relaxing, vacation that combines the best of travel without all of the stress of planning it and booking every single minuscule detail?

What if I told you it doesn’t matter if you are single, in a relationship, married or divorced that travel is for everyone?

What if I told you that people from 18 – 99 travel in groups by the thousands every year with other people around their age and with similar interests?

What if I told you that you can travel anywhere in the world and never HAVE to be alone? (although if you choose to be, you certainly can)

I’ve done my fair share of solo travel over the last few years. In fact, I’m sure that’s what most of you think I do all the time, but that’s not true! I’ve been on several amazing group tours in the last four years as well, not to mention a whole bunch of day tours that I adore!

Myanmar – Tucan Travel
Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand – G Adventures
Chile & Argentina – Intrepid Travel
Belize – G Adventures (this itinerary is now a National Geographic Journey.)

There are group tours for everyone and some are specific to an interest, such as photography or cycling. Others are specific age groups, such as 19 – 20 somethings or seniors. Then there is a whole world of options for the middle agers, as well as for the mature 20 somethings and the extra active 60 – 70 somethings.

I hear these comments all the time …

“I can do it on my own.”
* Yes, you can. And, if you want to because you want to prove to yourself that you can, that’s great. However, if you simply don’t know the other options, you should learn why they are so awesome. Group travel isn’t any less adventurous, less rewarding or less worthy. It is often less stressful and better value though!

“I can do the same thing for cheaper.”
* Hmmmm …… No, actually you can’t. You might be able to book your flights, accommodations and entrance fees to the sites for slightly cheaper than a group tour, but you won’t have a local guide with you to share his or her stories and opinions (which, in my opinion is worth far more than the $200 bucks you saved and all of the hours it took you to book everything online!) You may or may not have a qualified guide to explain each of those sites you paid to get in to. You probably won’t have any meals included (maybe breakfast). Are you skilled at paying off people at the border to let you into a new country without a hassle? hmmm … And, if things go wrong at any step of the way, you are on your own. So, yes, you can book ‘something’ for cheaper, but NO, it will never be the same.

“I don’t want to travel with strangers.” (My favourite)
* So, you think you already know everyone you are going to see in the new country? (sarcasm). If you don’t want to travel with strangers, why are you traveling at all? If you want to be surrounded with your old familiar friends, that’s great, stay home. But, as soon as you head to the airport, you are with strangers (sorry to break it to ya). So, embrace the fact that you are surrounded by strangers, get out of your comfort zone and get to know them.

Oh, you meant you “don’t want to travel with other travellers”. You want to meet locals.
Alright, so I agree, traveling in a group of other travellers is not the same as meeting locals. However, if you think you are just going to arrive in a new country and locals are going to flock to you and become your friend, well …. it’s not really like that. It takes work to get to know the locals. So, if you are the extroverted type who can go hang out at a bar and talk up the bartender, or you go to the same market every day and chat with the lady selling fruit, that’s great. Not everyone can do that and don’t forget about the language barriers. If you think that you are getting to ‘know’ the locals by going to an all-inclusive resort … don’t forget, they are being paid to serve you. Chew on that for a few minutes. Is that what getting to know the locals looks like to you?

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve spent lots of time with amazing locals in many countries, but personally, I find it takes a lot of effort and a lot more than just five or six days to get to know people. Most times you have one encounter with a local. It might last five minutes or five hours, but you can hardly really understand an entire culture in that amount of time. You are only just scratching the surface.

Traveling with other travellers isn’t a bad thing! You get to learn about cultures and people from all over the world while you explore a destination that you are all interested in. You meet new friends (which you can then go visit in their countries – they are ‘locals in their own country you know!) and you have that little bit of comfort in knowing someone nearby likely understands why you are uncomfortable with the thought of eating a bug, a worm or spider.

“You’re so good at traveling by yourself. Why would you want to ruin that with a group tour?”
* Traveling solo is tough. It’s a whole other blog post (or series). Yes, I love my freedom and my alone time, but I also hate being lonely, going to dinner by myself and often being overwhelmed at the ‘newness’ of everything. Sometimes, it is just better to be with people who are seeing things for the first time with you. And, sometimes it is just a whole lot easier when someone else is in charge and deals with any mishaps or problems that arise! So, yes, I love traveling solo, but every time I’ve taken a group tour I’ve loved my experience and appreciated that things were just taken care of for me. I’ve also always loved my local guides and picked their brains for all kinds of information for further travel in their homeland … you know, the things you don’t find on the internet and in the guide books!

So, just what happens on one of these group tours?

For starters, most of them run in a similar fashion but all have their key features. In general, what will happen is you’ll meet with your group and tour leader on day 1. You’ll likely go out for a group dinner to get to know each other and go over the itinerary for your tour. Often (although not planned) this will turn into your first night on the town with your new friends, exploring the local bars or street foods. Sometimes your local leader will join you and other times, they will direct you to the best local spots, avoiding the tourist traps. You are not obligated to take part by any means, but it is a great way to get to know the people you’ll be traveling with. I’m not a drinker, but I often join in on the first night out just to chat with people.

Itineraries vary a great deal depending on destination and level of activity, but I can tell you from both personal experience and from selling hundreds of group tours, that there is something for everyone.

You’ll have a mix of included activities and free time. You’ll have some timelines that must be followed (for example 8am in the lobby to catch your 10am flight). And then other times your leader will say ‘this isn’t in the itinerary, but how do you feel about … ?’ However, don’t get wrapped up in thinking that you are tied to the group the entire time. Often the group will have a guided tour and then free time to explore further on your own, or with other group members. Often tour leaders will give options for free time, but that doesn’t mean you have to do any of them. Almost all tours have half or full free days scheduled in for you to take in specific activities of interest, to relax, shop or explore. Group tours are a good mixture of having friends and organization, but having freedom to do your own thing as well.

Picture yourself exploring a turtle sanctuary on a beautiful Costa Rican beach, hiking the inca trail in Peru, swimming with turtles and rays Mexico, meeting local farmers and helping with their harvest in Vietnam, hot air ballooning over Love Valley, Turkey, searching for the big five on a safari in Africa, enjoying wine tastings in France or Italy, climbing to the top of ancient ruins in Belize … the list goes on and on. And you don’t have to do it alone!

When I’m on a group tour and there is free time, I’m the first to go off on my own and do my own thing. I’m an introvert, so after two or three days spending a lot of time with a group, I find I need my own time. However, many of the people in my past groups have become great friends and spent all of their free time with other members of the group, exploring common interests in the new destination. It’s your choice. Go with new friends or chill on your own. Read a book in the sun or play cards with your new mates! Whatever makes your vacation perfect, that’s what you should do! Your local guide will be around to help you make plans and book tours whether you go it alone or in a group of new friends.

On the last night of the tour, there is usually another group dinner to enjoy the local food and beverages, which often turns into an evening outing drinking beer or wine with your new friends. It all depends on the group whether this becomes a wild and crazy goodbye party or a few friends at the pub sharing laughs. And, believe me, I’ve seen many a 50 or 60 year old have one too many and the 29 year old heads off to bed early. You just never know! And then the next morning, everyone parts ways to return home or continue on their journey.

It paints a little different picture than a group of 50 seniors on a coach bus stopping at monuments, right? And, I should point out that the 30 to 50 somethings love to nap on buses, likely more so than the seniors!

No matter what you are looking for, or where in the world you want to travel, don’t ever think that doing it on your own is the only option! It is AN option and many people love doing the research, the challenge of struggling with the language barriers, paying off police officers and border crossing guards, finding their way in a new land on their own. Many people love the challenge of saying they survived all of the obstacles. But, for many, all of the unknown is enough to make them want to stay home.

What I’m saying to you is get out there and travel. If you want to do it on your own, do it! If you’re apprehensive about doing it on your own, go with a group. And, don’t let your ‘do it yourself’ friend convince you that group tours suck. Group tours might suck for them, but might be perfect for you. After all, the same ‘do it yourself’ friend is probably great at fixing the electrical and plumbing in his / her house too, does that mean that you are?

Have you travelled on a small group tour before? Drop me a note in the comments about where you went and what you loved about your group!

If you are interested in exploring the plethora of options for group tours out there, get in touch. I’d love to help you, your friends or your parents get away and see something new in this beautiful world of ours!

Contact me at stucker@tpi.ca

 

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Life is unpredictable

 

Sultanahmet square

Obelisk in Sultanahmet, Istanbul, where the suicide bomber attacked in Jan 2016. 10 people killed. 15 injured.

In the old city of Istanbul, adjacent to Blue Mosque, stands the Obelisk. This photo was taken only a couple of days after the January suicide bomber killed 10 people and injured 15 others.

I was not in that part of the city when it happened. I did not hear or feel the bomb go off. It was a strong blast, but was only felt in the immediate area. And, it looks like most of the world has already forgotten about it and moved on to other news.

I was in Istanbul, only a few kilometres away, when the bomb went off. My local friends immediately began messaging me to make sure I was safe and to tell me to stay home, or at least out of crowded areas. I was shocked and saddened, but not really scared.

After the bombing, I never once considered leaving the city because of the events. I’m now in Amsterdam, but only because I had commitments with friends. I actually didn’t want to leave at all. I felt like I had the opportunity to show people that expats are alive and well in Istanbul and it is not a scary place to be. Yes, there was a bomb, but you can’t just run away from what ‘might’ happen next.

It would be easy for me to ignore the fact that there was a bombing only a couple of weeks ago, especially when I am in the process of promoting a Photo Tour to Turkey and want to encourage people to come with me, but truth is, I’d rather be honest. I would rather not ignore what has happened.

The truth is, our world is a scary place. There are terrorist attacks, bombings, traffic accidents, murders, thieves, plane crashes and incurable diseases. All of these things are unpredictable.

Life, itself is unpredictable.

I know many people are scared to travel, but to what end? I cannot stress enough what a negative impact the media has on travel. So many people believe that the entirety of Turkey is a dangerous place to be. When, in fact, the only areas that have strict travel advisories are along the borders with Syria. The other communities and cities are every bit as safe as any other large city in any destination, such as Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, Buenos Aires in Argentina or Barcelona in Spain.

I don’t mean to alarm you, but cities are not safe … ever. It is just that simple. There is petty crime, tourist crime, murders and traffic accidents in every single city. Then there are the mafia, drug crime and bombs … the list of ‘bad’ goes on. However, the stats show clearly, that the number of people killed by terrorist activities are far less than that from traffic accidents. Many more people are killed from hand guns than bombings. And let’s not forget traffic accidents. If you are operating a vehicle in Canada, you are more likely to be killed than by traveling to Istanbul or Paris or Jakarta.

Perspective …  There is no advance notice of either a traffic accident or a bomb and therefore you can’t purposely change your location to avoid it.

In the end, what I am saying is that you shouldn’t stop traveling to an entire country because a bomb has gone off in one small area of one city. Avoiding all of Istanbul because of the bomb in the Old City is like avoiding all of Prince Edward Island because a bomb went off in the centre of Charlottetown. Is that reasonable?

Isn’t it also amazing that the CITY of Istanbul is the same area as the entire province of PEI? Holy!

With that in mind, would you avoid all of Atlantic Canada because a bomb went off in Charlottetown? No, of course you wouldn’t. That would be ridiculous. But, if you are avoiding Turkey because of the bomb in Istanbul or because of the problems along the borders with Syria, it is the same thing. Media would have you believe that Turkey is a dangerous place and makes it seem so small, but it is not. There are hundreds of kilometres between Istanbul and the capital of Ankara. There are hundreds of kilometres between either of those cities and the borders with Syria and Iraq. Don’t let media scare you!

I ask you to remember the innocent lives lost in these tragedies around the world (Paris, Jakarta, Istanbul, 911, hurricane Katrina … the list goes on), but please do not stop living your life because of unpredictable circumstances. You might stay home for fear of a suicide bomb, just to find out that you’ve been diagnosed with cancer. You might avoid flying because of two recent severe turbulence incidents, just to end up in a car accident.

I don’t say these things lightly. They are spoken from experience and from the heart. I was in a plane crash in Fredericton, NB in 1997. I let that hold me back for over 10 years. For 10 years I missed out on incredible opportunities to see the world. I lived in fear of getting back on a plane.

I am here telling you that life is precious and unpredictable. Do not let your fear of the unknown keep you from living, tasting, touching, feeling all of the amazing things our great big beautiful world has to offer.

I am thankful to be alive. Thankful that my life has changed and that fear does not reign any longer. I am thankful to have been in the beautiful city of Istanbul to share my experiences with you first hand.

Travel. See the world. Enjoy the beauty that surrounds us on your own terms. Don’t let the unpredictable control your life.

With love, and passion for travel … from Istanbul,

Shari

 

How to help save a life

As many of you know, I returned to Istanbul, Turkey in December to search out opportunities to work with Syrian refugees. I had planned to stay in Asia over the Christmas holidays, but was feeling a pull to return to Turkey and to help out with the refugee crisis in some way. What way? That, I was unsure about, but I began looking into volunteering to teach English. I have been here for six weeks, made connections with a couple of great organizations and finally found one that would be happy to have me teach English. The problem is, I am leaving Turkey in less than a week. My heart hurts because I want to stay, but I have plans in Amsterdam with friends and have to leave Turkey for a certain amount of time before I can return for longer due to visa regulations.

To make my heart hurt a little more (in the best way), today I met a remarkable young man by chance, sitting in a little cafe in Istanbul. He was sitting behind me at the cafe, working on his laptop and he ended up chatting with a Syrian man who was also at the cafe. I tried not to eavesdrop (impossible) but when he started talking about working with refugees, I tuned in rather than out. A few minutes later I barged right in to the conversation and starting firing questions at him as I found his story so interesting.

I will write a longer blog about this young man, David Boulton, sometime soon, but in the interest of getting this information out quickly, I want to get right to the point.

Quick background:
David arrived in Turkey in July 2015 to volunteer teaching English in the Sirnak Ezidi refugee camp near the Iraq border. As you have all heard, camp conditions are pretty much deplorable, but David was lucky enough to be working at one of the ‘best’ (that’s the best of the bad). He was the only educator for the entire camp and lived by the same rules, in the same lodging and with the same food as the refugees. They were lucky to have buildings instead of tents, they had water most of the time and electricity (albeit, intermittent) and the local city council did what they could to provide food for the camp.

The Nitty Gritty:
Around November 2015, David’s students began to leave the camp. Their families were tired, without hope and were wasting away just waiting for ‘something’ to happen. The weather had turned cold, the seas had gotten more dangerous and the prices from the traffickers helping refugees get out of Turkey, had dropped because it was ‘low season’. Many of the families were now taking advantage of the price drop to get their families out of the camps. Doesn’t this alone horrify you?

NOTE: Traffickers (from my minimal knowledge) recruit families, charge them large sums of money and then put them on packed buses or other transportation to get them to ports where they are then put on rubber dinghy’s or otherwise deplorable boats to cross the Aegean sea to Greece. As I’m sure you have seen in the news, many of these boats never reach shore and thousands of people have drowned in 2015 alone.

Refugees are herded like cattle; no human rights, no medical attention, no guarantees of their safety. However, they have no reasonable choice, as staying in a camp with no work, no education, minimal food, lack of safety and complete lack of hope, is not a life at all. Taking a chance on a trafficker and getting to a country where they can start a new life, at least gives them hope. The hope of a brighter future for themselves and their children.

This is an incredibly simplified description, but I hope you will understand my point.

These refugees have left their countries because of war. They have already fled their homes, left their entire life behind and often walked literally over mountains and run through gunfire to cross the border into Turkey where it is safer, although the camps aren’t safe by any means.

These refugees have literally fled situations where entire communities have been captured, families have been segregated into men / women and then often by age groups. Elders and adults are often shot and killed and then teens and young children are sold into slavery, or into the sex trade.

These people are the community members … Doctors, lawyers, teachers, mechanics, librarians, farmers, entrepreneurs … just like you and I. Fearing for their lives and that of their families, they fled their cities and communities in droves, often, with only the clothes on their backs. They are running for their lives, literally.

My heart aches as I write this.

How can this be happening?

Back to David’s students:
As David began to learn that his students and their families were leaving the camp with traffickers to catch boats to Greece, he knew he had to do something. He couldn’t stop them from going, but he could make an effort to help them arrive safely.

How you ask?

He started buying life jackets for these kids (and their families). These families were about to risk their lives to cross the Aegean sea on rickey old boats, filled over-capacity with other refugees. They were willing to risk their lives at a chance for a better life rather than living in fear, desperation and slowly dying in the camps.

David came to learn that traffickers were providing poor quality / fake lifejackets to these scared families and convincing them that this would increase their chances of survival across the sea. Appallingly, it turned out that many of these poor quality lifejackets were actually mass made in factories and stuffed with packing supplies that don’t even float. If it isn’t bad enough that they were poor quality, they were actually not floatation devices at all. (BBC News story and video – Jan 6 / 2016)

David started spending his own money to source quality lifejackets to ensure that these people he knew personally, would have a better chance at survival.

If that’s not amazing enough … he has continued to spend his own money as well as raising funds from friends and family in England to buy over 565 life jackets since November that have helped families reach safety. His own money has long since run-out, but his very supportive parents help keep him going so that all monies raised can go directly to purchasing life jackets.

His connections in the refugee community are mostly with Ezidi refugees from Iraq, but when possible he provides life jackets to any refugees that are in touch and can prove they are indeed refugees. He goes to great lengths to ensure that the life jackets are only reaching refugees and not falling into the hands of traffickers or other people pretending to be refugees.

He is here in Istanbul at the moment, as the camp that he was working at is nearly empty. Almost everyone has left or is in the process of leaving. Many of the refugees are routed by traffickers through Istanbul before heading to the ports to start their horrifying journey by boat across the sea. He often finds out that the families are coming to Istanbul only 24 hours in advance, the amount of time it takes them to travel by bus (arranged by traffickers) to Istanbul. The families then stay in Istanbul for only one to two days before being moved along to the coast to continue their journey. In this 24 – 48 hours he needs to go to the life jacket manufacturer personally (approximately five to six hours round trip) to get the proper size life jackets for the family. He then hand delivers the life jackets to the family where they are, or at a central meeting point. He makes sure that the life jackets fit properly and then the family are on their way. He also provides instructional videos on his website which show families how to properly use each size of lifejacket. Thankfully, although migrants don’t have much, they often have a cell phone to make calls and access internet.

What got me tonight as I picked his brain for more and more information about everything he has seen and done over the past seven months was this …

He has been working tirelessly trying to provide these families with quality lifejackets but his limited resources have run out. His friends and family / connections etc have supported him with amazing efforts, but at this time, he only has 12 lifejackets left in stock, all of them for infants.

Yesterday, he delivered an infant life jacket to a family who left on their journey today. The family had four children and he had to tell them that he could only provide one life jacket, the one for the youngest. This family, like hundreds of others will be crossing the sea on an unsafe boat, without lifejackets.

This tears my heart into pieces.

The big ask (which isn’t so big at all really):
I am only in Istanbul until Monday (sadly) and I want to do something to help while I am here and I’m hoping you’ll be compelled to help as well.

Life jackets (depending on size) cost $21 – $41 USD per person. Families range in size, but I’m aiming to cover a family of seven members. That comes to just under $200 CAD approximately.

“All our lifejackets are made by reputable suppliers, are SOLAS certified and are suitable for non-swimmers in rough seas. They will turn an unconscious wearer face-up and keep their nose and mouth above the water.”

David’s project is called Life Line Ezidi. You can check out his website and / or Facebook group for further information.

I want to be upfront in saying that Life Line Ezidi is not currently a registered charity. David hasn’t had time to go through the bureaucracy of getting that set up yet (if you’ve ever tried to start a charity or organization you will sympathize with this!). What he is doing, is keeping track of all monies received and publicly showing receipts for all purchases. All money donated is going directly to the life jackets. It isn’t even going to his transportation / living / cell phone costs. He’s living very minimally and his amazing parents are helping to keep him going.

Have I mentioned that this amazing David fellow is the ripe old age of 20? Yes. You read that right. He is just a damn amazing 20 year old (as ‘Green as a meadow’ in his own words! ha ha). He doesn’t have savings from working all of his life, he just believes in doing what he can.

If I raise the $200 quickly enough (before I leave on Monday), I will go with David to the manufacturer to pick up life jackets and deliver them to the family. He is checking with the family now to see if they are willing to be photographed and have their story shared. Understandably so, they may decline due to safety / security reasons. But, if they agree, I will share photos when I can.

How can you donate?
Go to David’s website and donate through pay pal. Then send me a quick email (info@sharitucker.com) to advise me of the donation amount so that David and I can track the donations to ensure life jackets, in the right sizes, are purchased for an entire family. Of course, if I raise additional money, more life jackets will be purchased for other families. If I don’t reach my goal of $200, that’s ok too, any money donated will still go toward life jackets, it would just mean that the entire family would not be covered. I’m sure that with your help I can reach $200 though!

It’s a small ask, that will make a big difference. Can you spare $25 CAD to make sure someone has a life jacket to continue an already traumatic journey? If you can’t spare $25, donate $5 or $10 … every little bit helps and is greatly appreciated!

1 … 2 … 3 … Donate!

PS – before I even got a chance to post this, I’ve decided to go with David today to pick up some life jackets that he received donations for just last night. Watch my Facebook and Instagram feeds for updates on this journey (provided I have cell service)

Who uses a travel agent and why?

Shari Tucker in Thailand

Wouldn’t you love to visit Koh Phi Phi Thailand? Let’s Chat

With so much information on the internet, why would you want to use a travel agent? And, with booking flights online being so easy, why would you have someone else do it?

So many people ask me why I’m a travel agent and assume that we agents are a dying breed. On the contrary, we are becoming more and more in demand in specialty areas. My specialty being Adventure Travel and Around the World travel, with secondary passions for sailing and river cruising.

Well, here’s what you need to know!

I am a home-based agent with Travel Professionals Internationals. That means I work under their brand, with all of their products and resources, but I do so from a home office instead of a fixed office. They are a large, Canadian based company entirely made up of home-based agents. Our head office is in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

In my case (I’m a little extra special), I have decided to travel the world and take my home office with me. I move around a lot and my work goes with me. It’s not like being on vacation because it isn’t very restful, but it is certainly adventurous!

I get to experience both the tourist and the local side of destinations and get a real in-depth experience that I can than pass along to my clients. You can’t argue that hands-on experience in travel is a pretty big value-add when you are taking on a new adventure.

I’ve been to over 30 countries and have several more coming up in the first few months of 2016. I bet I can tell you some interesting stories about places you’ve never even considered visiting!

My clients are almost all Canadian and I work with them just as I would if I were in an office in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Most of the time this is by email, but I can Skype, whatsapp, twitter … whatever works for you! The only difference you’ll see is that you can’t meet with me face to face in an office setting. Skype is a pretty good replacement for that though!

I can’t stress enough that, although I am traveling, I am not on vacation. I spend my working hours to send you on vacation and that allows me to continue living this amazing lifestyle where I can to see our amazing world. This gives me pretty high motivation to keep my clients happy and give them the best advice and vacations possible!

So, how do I get paid? Don’t worry, lots of people ask and for those who don’t ask, they want to, they just don’t know how to approach it. So, here it is … I’ll tell you so that you don’t have to ask!

I charge a $60 + tax consulting fee per person for any custom itinerary (although if it is an extended trip, such as round the world, I charge based on the amount of research required, so it could be $100 or $120 + tax for a couple or family depending on the destination, length of trip and services required). This would always be discussed up front, not a surprise part way through the planning.

NOTE: If you are booking a straight up all inclusive package, cruise, or group tour, I do not charge the consulting fee. This way my rates are the same as you would find online, however sometimes I get better deals due to our supplier agreements. Things that you can’t find online!

The $60 + tax fee can be looked at as a consulting fee and you can take as much information as I can provide you in one or two sessions and use it to book on your own, however you wish. The biggest benefit of this is having a trusted source of information from a real person who you know, rather than a random google search.

Although google has many answers, it also has many scams, incorrect information, out dated information etc. Wouldn’t you rather get your information from someone you know?

Or, you can think of it as a booking fee. I give you lots of information and then also go through the booking process for you with each of the individual companies so that you don’t have to (flights / tours / hotels / cars etc). The biggest benefit of this is that it saves you HOURS of time. If you have to call 10 companies in different time zones, sort out details and then give each of those companies all of your personal information to book a tour, it takes hours of time. I can do that for you so that you don’t have to. We also have systems that streamline the process to make it faster and more efficient.

What do you really get out of the consulting fee?
1. It gives you access to me as your personal resource for information. I’ve travelled 30+ countries in the last 7 years with many more on the horizon. I’ve been there and done that in a lot of places, so I have a lot of experience and knowledge to share. Yes, you can get that knowledge from the internet, but you never know how honest it is, was it sponsored, is it old / new / valid / trash. And, the internet can’t tailor information to your specific needs like I can!

2. Further to that, if I don’t have the experience in a particular destination, I can reach out to my colleagues who have personal experience or a gazillion tried, tested and true resources that we have as a company rather than randomly on google. I’ve also sent many clients to destinations that I have not yet been to. I have lots of experience in Australian and New Zealand adventures, but haven’t quite made it there yet. Same goes for Africa, which is on my list for 2016 / 2017.

3. I will spend my time researching your adventure so that you can just go and enjoy without the hassle of figuring it all out. You might spend hours on the internet, whereas I might spend 1 hour through our resources or I might know the answer to your question immediately through personal experience.

4. It gives you a real person to talk to instead of booking online. If you have a problem with your flight, need to make changes, etc, you can contact me. That will save you sitting on hold for hours. Many online sites are now charging booking fees as well, so it is quite normal, although sometimes they are hidden amongst other taxes and fees so you don’t see them.

5. Being a real person, I can give you options that you may not have thought of based on your particular interests / needs. Websites can only know so much about you. Not to mention that I’ve traveled with many of the companies we sell, so I truly know what they are like.

6. Flight bookings. Prices are set by the airlines, not by travel agencies. This is very important because it means that we all have access to the same prices. There are some exceptions but not that many. Generally speaking, if you search the exact same flight route / dates / times and class of service, we should get the same price. If you see a different price online (through expedia vs red tag for example), it is likely slightly different routing. OR, it could be one of them has a different tax or hidden fee somewhere.

Where I am better than the online sites is that I can look for connection options that they don’t see because their algorithm has set rules. I can often get long haul itineraries for the same (or cheaper) than the big online sites AND either get you there faster, or get you a cool stop over at little to no extra cost. We also have bulk buying agreements with most of the airlines, so often I can get you a slightly better price than what is offered online (but not always).

7. Exclusive insider knowledge on specials and discounts. Especially if you are following one of my social media feeds! Twitter – @ShariTucker or http://www.facebook.com/ShariTuckerPhotoAndAdventures
Sometimes we get deals that are only open to our clients at TPI and cannot be found online anywhere. Sometimes we get advanced knowledge of upcoming specials or flash sales (usually on tours, not flights).

8. In case of an emergency, you have someone to help you through the situation. Whether it is arranging an alternate flight route due to a volcano eruption or reminding you to keep receipts and start a claim for travel insurance. If someone falls ill in your family and you need to be with them, the last thing you need to be concerned about is trying to cancel your vacation plans to get refunds. I can take care of that for you while you take care of your family.

Other than the $60 + tax consulting/booking fee for custom itineraries, I also get paid through commissions. (It would take a lot of clients at $60 each to make a living, so don’t be surprised that I get paid in other ways too!)

1. The consulting fee pays for my time / effort / knowledge to help you with your trip. If I were to spend four hours researching options for a client, giving them tips / advice and suggestions and then they booked everything online themselves, I would have wasted four hours and not gotten paid for anything. I’m sure you’ll agree, no one can make a living that way. So, therefore, I don’t work for free.

2. Commissions. Many of the companies that we work with pay us commissions for selling their products. I promise that I will always offer you options that are suited to your needs and you can choose what is best for you. We have hundreds of companies that we have great communication with and we can also work with lesser-known companies as long as they are reputable.

Who works with Travel Agents:
My top 10 types of clients are the following (but others are certainly welcome!)

1. Retirees who want to travel and enjoy doing some online research but have hesitations in actually booking online. Fear of making a mistake or not knowing all of the details.
2. Busy professionals (doctors / lawyers / executives) – They desperately need time off and have 4 – 8 weeks of vacation a year, but they are too busy to do the planning themselves.
3. Solo travelers of all ages – people who are tired of waiting for their friends to travel with them and are ready to see the world. Sometimes I help these people travel on their own, other times in small group tours so they are not so alone.
4. Adventurers – These are people who want to do something active on their vacation that is a little harder to plan on the internet, therefore they look for professional help in booking the trip that is right for their passions and skill levels. Think hiking the Inca Trail, climbing Kilimanjaro, hiking Mont Blanc.
5. People who are looking for round the world trips, complicated flights with multiple cities or stop-overs along the way to a destination. I can almost always get a better deal on these options than what is available on the standard expedia / red tag etc.
6. Groups of people looking to travel together, whether it be extended family or a girls trip. Who really wants to take responsibility for all of the planning for 6 or 10 friends / family? That’s what I’m here as an impartial professional. I gather all of the information, work with you to set the itinerary and make it all happen behind the scenes so you can have a fantastic vacation without the hassles.
7. People looking for sailing trips on large or small boats.
8. Honeymooners looking for something more adventurous than an all inclusive vacation. Whether that be paddle boarding in Hawaii, self-drive through Ireland, swimming with whale sharks in the Maldives or Greek Island hopping.
9. All inclusive Caribbean destinations. Sure, it is easy to book these online, but you’ll spend hours researching the best deals, locations and prices change before you can decide. Agents also come in particularly handy when you have friends traveling from different destinations, but want to arrive on the same dates, or share rooms.
10. Well traveled people who are either tired of doing all of their own planning, or they need new ideas about up and coming destinations that interest them.

Do you fit in one of these above categories?

Get in touch. We’ll chat about your needs and then I can give you suggestions and start the planning process whenever you are ready. I’m here to help. Don’t let the plethora of options overwhelm you. Let me help narrow them down for you!

Who I don’t normally work with, although there are always exceptions!
If you are the type of person who has lots of time, little fear and enjoys doing all of your own research on line, then you may not want to work with me. And, that’s ok. There are lots of people out there just like you!

If you are looking for the absolute cheapest option for anything and are willing to sleep in airports for 12 hour layovers to make it happen. If you enjoy bartering for every last little thing. If you will stay at a 2 star resort in Cuba or you want to arrive in destination and book your hotel when you get there then I’m not the best fit for you. If your money is that important to you, then you probably won’t see the value in paying me to help with your decisions. There’s no problem with this, but we’re probably not a good match.

If you are only booking domestic flights (Halifax to Toronto / Halifax to Vancouver or something into the US), it is likely just as easy for you to do that on your own instead of paying an extra $60 + tax to me. However, if you don’t have a computer, your internet doesn’t work well, you hate researching on line or have 10 people who need the same flight .. Let me help!

If you are going to Disney, I’m not the right person for the job. Disney is a category all of it’s own. I have no experience in this area, but can recommend people who do!

So, now you are armed with all of the information on how I work as a travel agent. My passion is helping people like you see the world and sharing my own experiences. If you are interested in a consultation or getting your next vacation booked, I would be thrilled to hear from you.

I am currently (Jan 2016) in Istanbul. Remember, I am working, not on vacation. The best way to reach me is by email. But, if you’d prefer to talk by phone or skype I’ll arrange a time with you, no problem at all.

Let’s chat!

Stucker@tpi.ca

Caring Counts for Critters too!

My business card says Photographer. Adventurer. Storyteller. But, in all honesty, I’m a story-listener as well. I love learning about people and why they are doing what they do. It’s amazing to start a small conversation with someone and have it turn in to a Caring Counts moment.

The owner of the Alona 42 Resort in Alona Beach, Panglao Island in the Philippines is a great example of Caring Counts (for Critters).

Christian is an engineer from Germany. He works five months in Germany each year and spends seven months in the Philippines. Contrary to popular belief, his time in the Philippines is not seven months of vacation, rather seven months of longer than normal work-hours managing his resort. The resort took three years to build and became operational in 2012.

When we arrived at the small resort, we were greeted by one of Christian’s four cats, Mary. She was in really rough shape, hobbling, dirty and looked like she was in a lot of pain. Her mouth and surrounding fur was black and her paws were balding. She was so dirty that I didn’t even dare touch her as I wasn’t sure what disease might be lurking. I was heartbroken and asked the staff what was wrong with her. They explained that she had some kind of mouth cancer and had been sick for quite some time. They also explained that she had been to the vet and that they had been trying to help her. As she hobbled over to the food dish that the staff set out, I found my heart aching that this poor kitty, presumably, was in so much pain, but happy that the staff were taking care of her despite her outward appearance.

Although we had only met one cat, Mary, at this point, Christian had actually taken in a family of four white cats Mary, Sophie, Chica and Mouse, all of whom we would meet in a short time. Within a couple of hours, we saw one or two of the other cats. It was difficult to tell them apart as all had similar markings with their white bodies, black and brown patches on their heads and various sizes of bob tails. They were all clean and appeared healthy which was a relief to see.

Generally speaking, animals aren’t cared for or respected here in the Philippines, which is sad. Many of them roam homeless, dirty, mangey and severely under nourished. Not to mention that they continue to reproduce, as very few are fixed. Due to lack of education, it is not uncommon for animals to be abused here. To control the animal population, every few months the government gives residents notice, sets a date and drives around collecting animals that are not tagged or collared. They are kept in a cage for approximately 24 hours. If you’re pet has been mistakenly captured, you can go and pay to have them released. After that time, sadly, the remaining animals are killed. It’s heartbreaking. And I’m sure that there is no hope of the animals being killed in any kind of a humane way.

As I spoke with Christian about the cats, I mentioned that I hadn’t seen Mary for a couple of days. He gently and sadly explained that she had been too sick. He had taken her to the vet the day prior and the vet confirmed that the medicine was not working and that she was in a lot of pain. He was given the option to take Mary for an operation in Manila which would cost several hundred dollars and may or may not work. Besides the fact that they would need to fly there and fly back which is particularly stressful for any animal, let alone one as sick as Mary. So, they made the difficult decision to put her down, humanely, by way of injection. You could tell that Christian was still a bit sad, but he went on to tell me about how he and his staff care for the other cats.

The cats are left to roam free, but rarely leave the property. They are outdoor cats, but have lots of shelter options when it rains under the balconies of the accommodations, or the small covered outdoor restaurant / seating area. They also tend to scare off new cats who decide to try for a chance at the good life at the resort. He chalks it up to them being fed and well taken care of on a regular basis, so therefore they have no reason to leave. He lamented with a smile that some days he wished he could be one of his cats as they have such a good life.

As I write this, Chica is snoozing on the mat outside my front door and Sophie is having a bite to eat at the bar. Mouse is sprawled out on the cement close to a wall, trying to cool off a bit. Chica doesn’t run away, but sticks her nose up at you if you try to pet her and saunters just out of reach. Sophie looks up with interest when you call her, but keeps her distance.

Although I was sad to know that Mary was no longer around, I was glad to know that she was no longer in pain. More than anything I felt warm from the inside that this man from another country had taken in not one, but four cats, to provide food and shelter for them as well as the necessary medical check ups. Even better, he had them all fixed as not to contribute to the overpopulation of animals. All of this paid for from his own pocket.

As I try to live in, and create a world around me that is full of kindness and caring, I am happy that I’ve had the chance to stay at this lovely little location where Caring Counts for Critters too.

Please take a moment to check out the fantastic Caring Counts movement that is going on in Halifax, Nova Scotia and spreading like wild fire. It’s all about the little things that make a difference and caring about one another. It’s for me and you and everyone! Let’s make this world a better place, just by caring!

What I learned about my body from taking portraits of others.

There’s nothing quite as liberating as being naked and being ok with it. For those of you who are cringing and groaning, that’s probably because somewhere in your mind you are harbouring ill feelings toward your body. I can hear your thoughts: “I’m too fat. My thighs touch. My boobs sag. I don’t want anyone to see me like this. What if I don’t look the same as the others? I have scars. You can see my ribs. I have no bum. My boobs are like grapes with nipples.”

Oh ladies (said in my sympathetic, soft voice) … let me tell you something.
Listen closely, promise?

It is time that you stop talking negatively to yourself about your body. It is time that we all stop talking negatively about other people’s bodies. It is time for you to renew the self confidence you had when you were two or three and everything was better when you ran around naked.

No matter what it is that you don’t like about your body, I can almost guarantee that you don’t like it because the media has told you (or your parents who then told you) something else is more beautiful. I can also guarantee that you are not the only one with the same concerns. Although all of our bodies are unique, we all have the same parts. Some are bigger or smaller than others, some are dark, some light. Some parts have become ill and have scars, battle wounds or angel kisses. And you know what the best part is? Those are your unique traits! If you tell other people these traits are ugly, they will probably commiserate with you about their own body ‘faults’. But, what if instead of talking negatively about our bodies we just loved them for what they are? Imagine if instead of saying, ‘Oh I hate this birthmark on my right shoulder because I can’t get a tattoo there.’ you say ‘That’s my mark! I can’t be mistaken for anyone else!’ What if instead of telling the world you are ugly and not good enough, you were to hold your head up high and believe that you are good enough and that your body does not define you?

It is time to love your body ladies. The sooner you stop criticizing your own body, the sooner you will stop wondering what everyone else is thinking about your body. Besides, do you really think they are worried about your body when they have their own insecurities to worry about?

Alright, I know that there’s this whole ‘fat-shaming’ society thing happening and yes, sometimes people can be cruel and criticize others. I am aware this exists. But ladies, don’t be part of it! Don’t fat-shame yourself, your friends or your neighbours. Don’t make comments on someone’s weight (heavy or light) on the street. It’s really that simple.

Just. Don’t. Do. It.

And, we’re all adults here … at least I think! So, when your friend starts talking badly about her own body, or that of someone else … don’t agree, don’t get wrapped up in the game, don’t respond with your own faults … STOP HER! It may be difficult at first, but just stop her. Politely tell her that you don’t feel right talking about someone else’s body as you wouldn’t want them talking about yours. Tell her that you’re trying to look at your body more positively and maybe you should both work on it together. Make a love-your-body pact! #LoveYourBodyPact

It’s a movement folks.

The first step is to recognize it when it happens. Whether you are saying negative things to yourself or you have friends who talk about their own bodies negatively. Be aware of this.

Once you are aware of this you’ll be amazed at how often it happens. Not monthly, not weekly, not once a day. You’ll hear it over and over and over.

Once you see how often it happens and how nothing good comes out of saying bad things, then maybe you’ll stop those thoughts in their tracks. Maybe you’ll meekly tell your friends that you don’t want to talk that way anymore.

Time will pass and you’ll grow stronger because you aren’t beating yourself down all the time. Your self-confidence will improve. The next thing you know, you won’t have to stop yourself from talking badly about your body because bad thoughts will rarely cross your mind.

And then … you won’t be so meek when your friends are talking negatively because you won’t want to let that negativity into your life.

Eventually, you’ll make a positive change in the way your friends see their bodies.

Imagine if we could all just do that, one little bit at a time. Support one another with positivity. Imagine what your daughters and the young girls of the world would think? What if they never ever learned from you and I, that their bodies aren’t good enough. Because you know what? That is something that is taught, not something that you are born with. No baby cries because their tummy sticks out or they have a cow lick. Four year olds run around naked because they haven’t learned shame of their body yet.

Yes, I know, everyone can’t run around naked all the time, but I think there are ways to teach your kids about this without making them ashamed of their bodies.

I’m not a skinny person. This is subjective, of course. It also depends on my (and your) definition of skinny. I also don’t consider myself fat. Well, quite honestly, I don’t consider my body to be anything except my body. I’ve been called ‘gordita’ (chubby in Spanish) in a beautiful and loving way, sexy, and most recently, I was told in Turkey that I am beautiful, but I would be very beautiful if I lost 20 kilos. Yes, folks, someone felt the need to portray their beauty standards directly on me. Luckily I don’t care if she thinks I’m beautiful. That’s the benefit of being self confident. My body is only important to me. Hmmm … interesting concept isn’t it?

I, like many of you, have been up and down in weight all my life. I played sports all throughout school and was good at them. I won lots of awards, played on championship teams and was always active. Somehow, I was still not skinny like many of my team mates.

I struggled with uniforms that didn’t fit properly because my bosom was too big or my legs too thick. Nothing like making someone feel self conscious by making them wear a uniform that’s too small for them! And, even worse, having the largest uniform available for the team and it still not being large enough. And ladies, I was really not that big! I played basketball and volleyball like a champ.

Jump forward a few years to when I was in my early 20’s and started my photography business. I was busy taking family portraits, children’s portraits and wedding photos. I began to see, very clearly that people generally disliked having their photo taken. Why? Well, because it was never good enough. Even if it was a beautiful photo of them, they wished they could look like someone else. Almost always stemming from someone wanting to be a thinner version of themselves because of course that is more beautiful! *sarcasm*

As the years wore on, this attitude tugged at my heart and eventually I couldn’t keep ignoring it. The more women would tell me to take 20 lbs off them in photoshop or to get the best angle to get rid of their double chin, the more I wanted to cry for them. What kind of life is it to live if you don’t believe in your own beauty? And, for those skinnier than me, who do you think you are complaining about being fat to someone who weighs 40 lbs more than you? At first, that hurt me. If you think you’re fat, you must think I’m a disgusting blob! And then I realized their opinions of their bodies had nothing to do with my body, nor did it change the way I see my body. This was a very big life lesson!

I can remember being frustrated with so many women during my photo shoot days. They had hired me to be a professional photographer and capture their family (or business shots … whatever the case). They were paying me to take photos of them. About 95% of the time, before I ever lifted my camera to even get light readings, the women were telling me ‘Oh. I hate having my photo taken. I never look good in photos.” Followed by one of the following qualifying statements, “I have a double chin. I don’t want my freckles to show. Make sure I look skinny. You can edit to take 20 lbs off right?”

80% of the time when I showed them their photos they were pleasantly surprised with them (and unedited at that!) and relaxed for the rest of the session. The other 20% of the time were women who either didn’t care what their photo looked like because it wasn’t important, or who had already made up their minds that it would be so ugly that they didn’t even want to look. If you are one of those women, please, give yourself a break. Beauty is so much more than outward appearance.

In the midst of all of that, I told myself I would never ever point out my shortcomings or body criticisms to someone else. For one, I don’t want to talk negatively to, or about myself. And two, it makes other people uncomfortable when you talk about yourself negatively! From that point forward, I would not be ashamed of my body, I would not talk negatively to myself and I would walk proud in the skin I am in. Seven or eight years later, I still live by this rule. Sure I slip sometimes, but I overcome it. Sure there are times when I would like to lose some weight, but if I choose to do that, it is for my health and comfort, not to look beautiful for someone else. There is a big difference.

I also decided that if someone was kind enough to give me a compliment, I would accept that compliment with a ‘thank you’. No more of this ‘Aw, no. I’m ugly’ crap. It really isn’t that difficult to bite your tongue, swallow those negative thoughts and spit out ‘Thank you.’ Once you get used to it, amazingly you’ll get more compliments. Funny how when someone compliments you and you react negatively, they aren’t as likely to compliment you again. How backwards are we women who want others to see us as beautiful and then we turn our backs when they tell us what we wanted to hear?

One day, I had had enough with women bullying themselves and dragging me into it.

My polite, politically correct statement for nearly every woman I ever worked with who expressed her concerns about having her photo taken was as follows, “I am a profesional, I will use the best lighting and angles to make sure you look your best.”

Inside my head and my heart I was screaming. “No, I am not going to stroke your ego. No, I am not going to argue with you that you aren’t too fat or too skinny. No, I am not going to commiserate with you that your body isn’t perfect. What is it that you want from me? If I tell you that you are beautiful you will only deny it. Oh, right … you want a beautiful photo! Well, let me see if I can help with that because I cannot be your psychologist.”

Eventually, I started explaining to women, “If I tell you there is an elephant to your left, would you look for it?”
“Yes,” they all replied.
“If I put a ball cap on right now and then asked you if my hair was natural or died and if I had roots, would you know the answer?”
“Um, probably not,” most of them would say.
“Well, I want to share a little life lesson with you to put you at ease. I am a professional photographer, who you have trusted to capture beautiful photos for you. I am going to do my best, as I understand lighting and techniques that are great for portraits. It is my job to capture the best you; a photo you are happy with when we are done, not one to cringe at. I am not here to take bad photos of you and I’m not just pointing and shooting like snap shots that your friends take. In order for me to do my job, the one that you are paying me for, I need you to be comfortable. I promise any photos that do not represent you beautifully, I will delete. Please, however, I want you to know this … If the first thing you point out to someone is all of your faults, what do you think they are going to see? Yes, that’s right, your faults. If you don’t want someone to focus on your faults, the best thing you can do is not point them out! It’s like saying ‘don’t look for a blue car’ and then all you can see are the blue cars on the streets. If you tell the world you are fat, they will see you in one of two ways, either fat, or insecure. If you say nothing, the world will see you as you. Even better, if you see yourself as beautiful, so will the world. I think you are beautiful. Now it’s your turn.”

Reflections on Religion, Racism and Judgements

Preface:
I am not a religious person. I very rarely discuss religion as, quite honestly, it frustrates me. When there are wars being fought based on what ‘power’ you believe in and people being killed in the name of religion, my heart aches over the irony. How ever you choose to believe in a God, or whether you believe in science, we are all here on this same big planet together. Although this blog discusses religion, it is not about trying to change your belief (or non-belief) in a higher power, simply a reminder of how to live as a good person. For me, it is a testament (pardon the pun) to my love of travel and the education that I earn every day by opening my mind to new cultures.

I hope you’ll take time to comment and discuss after you’ve read the following.

Reflections on Religion, Racism and Judgements

It was late afternoon when I was standing in the doorway to my private room-rental in the local community of Fatih in Istanbul with the sea breeze wafting past me into the kitchen. I was engulfed in a conversation with Babek, the building owner, who I had met only a few short hours earlier.

What started out as me asking questions about the week-long Bayram festival to understand more of the culture, as well as arming myself with knowledge about closures over the next week, turned into exactly the type of conversation that drives me to continue traveling.

Although my correspondence leading up to my stay in Fatih had been with Sourena, the son, Babek was the one to greet me at the un-numbered wooden doors. My transfer driver from the airport had chatted with Sourena only minutes before, so I was (fairly) confident I was at the right place despite not seeing a number on the building.

I was welcomed with Babek’s warm smile and then Sourena quickly peeked down from upstairs to say hello. Then the two men carried my heavy suitcase up the narrow staircase to their second floor home. I immediately noted that both of them had really good English. Of course, there is an accent and words here and there get confused or lost in translation, but overall, I was surprised at the level of their conversation skills.

Sourena showed me around the small apartment and then led me to the roof top to see a spectacular view over the Balat area and toward Emininou. Indeed, the view is worth seeing and was a great way for him to point out the attractions of the area, along with giving me directions. He welcomed me and offered me a Iyran (mixture of yogurt and sparkling water) to drink, which I promptly devoured in the heat of the midday sun.

I spent only 15 – 20 minutes with Sourena gathering information for my stay and then I settled in, cleaned up and took off for a meeting in another part of town.

After a busy afternoon I walked back home surprisingly, without getting lost. Babek came to offer tea, which is a staple of the Turkish diet and hospitality. Although I was too hot to drink tea, a conversation arose.

I asked Babek about the Bayram festival that I had been hearing so much about. My local contacts are expats, so I thought I would ask a local for the inside scoop. He explained that Bayram is a sacrificing festival, often celebrated twice per year for families. Many people who live in the city go to the countryside to be with their family for this week-long government holiday. Families buy (or raise) an animal to be sacrificed and then they share the meat with friends and relatives. Traditionally the meat was divided into thirds; one part for the poor, one part for friends and one part for family. The festival is all about sharing what you have with others.

Although I can’t say I agree with the practice of sacrificing a live animal, I do try my best to respect other cultural and religious beliefs. I was interested in seeing the ceremony and photographing it, as I had heard that it may take place in the streets or backyards in the communities. However, now-a-days, law requires the slaughterings to be done by a butcher, rather than just by anyone. In all honesty, it is likely more humane than many of our practices in North America with the way animals are treated before going to slaughter. And, it seems, that at the root of this festival, at least from my understanding, is the kindness of sharing with those you love and those less fortunate.

As I chatted away with Babek about what stores may or may not be opened and closed over the next few days and if there was an area that I could watch a sacrifice (horrified, but with camera in hand), he ended up telling me that he wasn’t really sure because he is not Muslim and it is a Muslim festival. I tried to hold back my surprise. Not Muslim in a Muslim society?

Many questions begged to be asked, but where to start!

Come to find out, Babek and his family are Iranian, not Turkish. Six years ago they moved to Turkey to escape punishment in their own country for their choice of religion. Three years ago, they relocated to Istanbul. They were Christians in a dominantly Muslim society in Iran. For this, they had been persecuted and they could have been killed. In Istanbul, although dominantly Muslim, they are more tolerant and accepting of Christianity with the religions existing side by side with little conflict.

Immediately, my heart sank for them, knowing that they had left their home because of fear.

Immediately, I also asked myself ‘If I had known the family I was about to live with was Iranian, how would I have reacted? Would I have made a different choice?’

I like to think that I am not prejudiced or racist. I like to think that I am open-minded. And, I truly believe that good people come from every country of the world. But, that belief was challenged when I found out that this family was not what I had ‘expected’. If I had known they were from Iran, would I have chosen another place to stay? I am sure that many people would have. For me, I also asked myself, if I knew they were from Iran, wouldn’t I have assumed that they were Muslim? And, if that were the case, what would be the difference between staying with a Turkish Muslim family and an Iranian Muslim family?

If my friends and family knew this (which now they do!), what would have been their reaction? It is so easy to say ‘Nothing would be different’, but I am positive that some of them would have a heightened concern for my well-being based on the fact that I am staying with Iranians and all we know about Iranians is the bad news that the media shares about war, terrorism and death. We never hear about their caring side, their hospitality or that they aren’t all the same! Imagine for a moment thinking that all Canadians were terrorists. Doesn’t that seem more than just a little ridiculous?

Luckily, in asking myself these questions, I also realized that in booking my stay with this family, religion never once crossed my mind and for that I am thankful. I try to be open to religions and cultures around the world and I try not to pass judgements, but treat it as an opportunity to learn about other beliefs. Having said that, it is not something that determines my comfort or happiness. Whether I stay with a Muslim, Christian, Buddhist or Jewish family, for me, I will look for the opportunity to learn from the experience. Will I agree with all of their practices and beliefs? No, but I will be respectful as I understand that is what they believe.

Learning of their background led to a particularly deep conversation with a man I had only met a couple of hours earlier, sharing our thoughts on religion. He thoughtfully explained to me that at the heart of everything, his core belief is to not judge others. “Judgement can only be handed out by God. It is your job to live and love under God and not to act as God by judging other people.”

Seems simple enough.

In Canada, we hear about refugees in the news. We see them in our communities, some Canadians more accepting than others. We (as a society) often pass judgements on these people without knowing anything about them.

Now, let’s take God out of the equation for a moment, as not everyone believes in ‘a God’. One of my core beliefs is to treat others with kindness. And really, isn’t this similar to not judging? Who am I to pass judgement on someone else. I don’t know their story. I don’t know their struggles. I don’t know their beliefs. It is not my business to judge them based on their beliefs and upbringing, as I would hope that they do not judge me for mine.

I think what makes our world so beautiful is the differences in opinions, the million ways that people can do the same thing but in different fashions, our different religious beliefs that really all come from the same core, yet they are interpreted and taught differently.

Be kind.

In any religion that I can think of, at the core of that religion is a message about love and being kind. So, why, if all religions want the same thing, can’t we all get along?

Isn’t that the big question?!

For Babek and his family, like millions of others, believing in kindness and love has led to persecution. Since moving to Turkey, he and his family can never return to Iran for a very real fear of being killed, as they have chosen to believe in a different teacher than the mainstream of that country.

Regardless of my religious beliefs, I applaud these people for standing up for their beliefs. Regardless of our religious similarities and differences, Babek and I were able to have great conversation about religion and the world as we both try our best to ‘not judge’ one another.

At no time did I feel that Babek was trying to convince or convert me to believing in God, or ‘his God’, but yet it was clear that he is a religious man. It was in this, that we discussed how backwards it is in many cultures that you are forced to believe in any one thing. In Iran, his government and the community were busy trying to force people to all believe in the same thing. This force came through fear and persecution. For Babek and his family, this was not acceptable. Babek expressed his frustration that the leaders in his community were trying to forcefully get people to follow their religion.

Believe or die.

Rather than conforming to the beliefs of the people around them, they fled. Had they conformed, they would have been doing themselves an injustice, as they would have been living a lie. Sure, they would have been able to stay in their country, but if they stood up against anything they believed to be wrong, they would have been killed. If they in any way rebelled against or questioned Islam, they would have been persecuted or killed. Can you imagine living with this fear? Not just a fear of being outcast by your community, but a real fear of you and your family being killed for having a mind of your own.

The problem with the world and religion is not religion itself. The problem is the leaders of the religion who have manipulated the teachings of the religion to benefit themselves in the form of power and / or money. If you read the ‘book’ of most religions, they talk about kindness, love and being brotherly to your neighbours. This message is not the problem. I think everyone can agree that this is a good rule to live by. The problem is those who manipulate this message to gain power and then use their influence to teach people differently. Funny how religion and politics seem so much alike at the moment … or is it just me?

For me, on my first day in Istanbul, regardless of my religious beliefs (or non-beliefs), ‘Don’t Judge’ is a reminder of how travel has opened my mind in the last few years. It is a reminder that people do things differently and that is ok. It is a reminder that there are more good people in the world than bad. It is a reminder that we are human-kind and should not be defined by our color, country or religion.

Despite having fled his own country for fear of being killed for his religious beliefs, Babek did not speak ill of the community that did not accept him and his family. He simply spoke of judgement and that it was not his place or right to place judgement on others.

A lesson that we should all live by, starting with the smallest of things in our lives. You only know your own story. Leave your judgements behind and ensure that you are living your life with kindness and love.

I hope that next time you meet someone from Iran, that you let go of your hesitation, put your secret, media-driven, prejudices behind you and see these beautiful people for who they are as humans and all they have to offer.

Dare to Dream

It’s approaching 2am and I’m awake.
My heart is beating faster than normal, I can’t calm my thoughts and they are bouncing around like pin ball in my brain.

No, I haven’t had a horrible nightmare!

Instead, I’ve come up with this crazy amazing dream for the next year of my life and I’m so excited about the potential it has that I can’t sleep. After an hour of trying, I decided that writing would be a better use of my time then laying in bed wide awake.

When I started this whole un-plan journey over a year ago, it was just that, unplanned. I didn’t know where it was going to take me, how I was going to get there or how long it would last. I didn’t know if I was doing the right thing or not, but I knew it would be the wrong thing not to try.

I’ve always said I’m more of a doer than a dreamer. Some people day dream their days away and never take action. Me, I get an idea in my head and I make it happen. Often though, I don’t really consider my ideas to be dreams. They are just the next step in my journey.

Tonight, I must admit, I feel differently.
The last time I remember having this strong, anxious-happy feeling was when I met Nora Gross and Brenda McAloney who inspired me to do my social awareness project – Young & Fearless – Inspiration of Cancer Survivors. The project started small and grew into two art shows and a published book. It gained a tonne of local media attention over the two years that I worked on the project, along with solidifying a strong connection with the Photosensitive project which gained me national exposure and publication in several other books. Now I feel like the time is right to follow this gut feeling again.

I’ve visited 11 countries in the last eight months. I’ve been on the road or in the skies more than I’ve been home. I’ve had so many amazing opportunities and experiences that many of them have never been told because I don’t have time to write about them all.

I feel like I have truly lived life in the last eight months. I’ve met amazing people. I’ve seen our beautiful world from boats, planes, trains, automobiles, bicycles, motoconchos and a hot air balloon. I’ve challenged myself and I’m sure I’ve challenged others (for better or worse!). I learned to surf. I can hold my own in Spanish. I’ve built life-long relationships with people I’ve met all around the world.

It’s not all roses though folks. I’ve been sick. I’ve dealt with the loss of important people in my life. I thought I found potential for love, but found out I was wrong (the hard way). All of this while being away from family and friends back home. Through all of the ups and downs though, I’ve learned an amazing amount and I have lived with my heart open.

After a short rough patch where I was feeling a little confined, sad and suffocated by the people and events surrounding me, I’ve emerged again. As I read about the devastation caused by the April 25th earthquake in Nepal, I was drawn to the images, the news, the search for survivors, the pain and the suffering of locals and volunteers who are living this horrible nightmare right now. I pondered if I could drop what I am doing in Argentina and head to Nepal to help out. However, two factors slowed me down. 1. I don’t do so well at altitude. 2. Nepal needs money not extra people at the moment. The thoughts of going to help these broken communities have been nagging at me, but I knew Nepal was not the best option.

I now feel like I’ve broken free from the confinement I had been experiencing and my brain has room to breathe. My mind went on overdrive in the opposite, but positive direction. After reading several articles about the Nepal earthquake, I found myself looking at volunteer options with a Canadian based organization Volunteer Abroad / Basecamp. I’ve worked with them before by sending travellers through their programs to work, including one girl to Nepal two years ago. I started meandering through the website and looking at placement opportunities.

There were two incredible volunteer opportunities (out of close to 100) that screamed for my help, my skill set and my attention.

The first one to catch my eye was the one that made the hair on my arms stand up and thoughts start jumping with excitement. It is a placement in Ghana, Africa to help educate women, children, and the community about the importance of education, to help stop the process of child and human trafficking and to discuss sexual health issues.

For quite some time women’s issues in Africa have caught my attention (from the missing girls in Nigeria to genital mutilation). I’ve often looked into various organizations or contacted people that I might be able to work with. Sadly, nothing has ever worked out, but maybe it just wasn’t the right time.

The second opportunity is in Tanzania, working with an orphanage to build a website / social media, including photography and writing. Then moving on to teaching local staff how to maintain it. This opportunity would give me hands on time with the local volunteers / teachers, as well as getting to know the children and their stories. Telling stories of people through photographs (and through blogging) is one of great passions. Here’s a chance!

Tonight as I chatted with a couple of friends on Facebook, my mind decided to dream …

What if I actually did decide to go to Africa and volunteer? What would that look like?
I’ll be in Nova Scotia this summer to get my yellow fever vaccine. I was already looking at the potential of staying away for a full year, just no solidified plans. And, I’ll already be in Europe for my Turkey Photo Tour come September / October which is a lot closer to Africa than I am right now!

Is this the year that I’ll see Africa and I’ll spend time making a real difference in people’s lives through a volunteer placement? Volunteering and travel together have been very important to me for quite some time, but somehow I haven’t made time recently to make it a priority. I’ve said for a long time that I should change this. Tonight the thought scurried out of the depths of my brain and had a little dance party.

 

NOTE: Initially this post was written at the end of April 2015 and I’ve revised it as of the beginning of June 2015 as I never got around to posting it. Shame on me!

Quick update: I have been in contact with Volunteer Abroad and am looking into several options for working with them later this year. I also have several new ideas that I am currently working on for potential projects with other Not for profit / Non-Government agencies.

Update coming very soon on my revised unplan for the next year of my life.

If you’ve been considering voluntourism, maybe this is your year too! Feel free to drop me a note to chat about your plans, or I’m happy to assist you in finding the right NGO/NPO to work with. Don’t be afraid to take the first step and get in touch.

Travel with your heart, not just your camera.

Hot air ballon, Cappadocia, Turkey

Hot air balloon ride over Love Valley in Cappadocia, Turkey

The above photo was taken on an amazing hot air balloon experience in Cappadocia, Turkey, thanks to Experta and The Gallipoli Artist. It captures perfectly what my heart was feeling … The appreciation of wide open spaces, the beauty of autumn in Love Valley and yet a few other balloons off in the distance to remind me that I was not alone.

Your camera is an object.
It is devoid of feelings.
It only works when connected to a human hand, which is connected to a human brain and human heart.
It is not the camera that takes amazing photos, it is the person behind the camera.
It is the person behind the camera whose eyes you are seeing through.
It is not just the emotions of the subject that you see, you are feeling the emotions of the photographer and how they saw the subject. You are connected to the photographer’s heart.

When you are traveling the world, it is exciting to capture everything with your camera. It’s wonderful to be able to share what you see with your friends, family and social media followers. Everyone loves photos and stories of far away places.

When you travel though, I urge you to go first with your heart and second with your camera.

When I travel, I go first with my heart.
I travel for the love of other cultures and for the open mindedness it has instilled in me. I travel to understand other people, their struggles, their way of life and their joys. I travel with my heart because no matter where I go, I still care about people, about humans.

I don’t travel to take amazing photographs, those are simply the byproduct of what my heart feels and my eyes see while I am there. I travel to have experiences that change my life, and hopefully change others’ lives for the better.

There are days when I am on the road that I leave my camera behind. It is so easy to get caught up in taking photos of all of the new and amazing things that you see everywhere in a new city or country. It is normal for a photographer to want to document them because that is what we do. But, sometimes I make a decided effort to leave my camera behind so that I am fully present in the moment and spend time learning, feeling and seeing the country, the people and the history without trying to ‘capture’ it.

If you are in a country for seven days and you spend all of your time wrapped up in taking photos so that you can ‘remember’ it, what is it that you are remembering? Simply the photos that you took. Instead, what if you took time to enjoy the country you are visiting and let the photos help remind you of the amazing people you met and things you did instead of missing out on the real country just to capture the outer layer.

If you just can’t bear to leave your camera behind, here are a few tips on how to travel with your heart, not just your camera, but still have your camera in hand.

1. If you are photographing people in another country, remember that YOU are the invader of their privacy. It is not your right to take their photo. If you approach people with your heart, with a true interest in them, they will be more relaxed and more willing to let you photograph them. If you stick a camera in their face without even saying hello, you are invading their space and intimidating them.

2. Get to know the people who you are photographing so that you don’t just have photos of random people, you have stories and experiences to share.

3. If you are traveling with a tour guide, I know this is hard, but try listening to what the guide has to say about his / her country and the location you are at rather than snapping away. Once you hear the history and stories behind the location you will look deeper for photos with meaning rather than snap shots of ‘interesting things’. You will photograph from the heart because you will understand the history, the struggles, the achievements of the place you are standing in. Listen and learn, then photograph to tell a story, not just to have photos.

4. Take days (or hours) off from photography. Choose to do something of interest and enjoy it fully without your camera. Maybe this is going for dinner in the evenings. Do you really NEED a picture of every meal? Will you do anything with the photo of that restaurant? Do you know how to properly take night photos so they are not blurry? Don’t take your camera with you because you feel you have to. Leave it behind you so can be present. It will give your brain (and neck) a break and you’ll be more refreshed for shooting the next day.

Your camera is an extension of your heart. You have the power to capture both your emotions and the emotions of your subject in one single moment in time. Make the most of it. Shoot from your heart.

What’s love got to do with it?

What’s Love got to do with it?

Having dated some really great guys over the past 7 or 8 years since my divorce and some really rotten ones, I find myself 35 and still single. There’s potential out there, but yet I haven’t found the ‘one’ yet.

Why am I telling you this?

Well, first off, some of you may remember my blog posts back in March / April where I was talking about a lovely man that I had met and although I was planning to move forward with my travel plans, they were changing to accommodate someone special in my life. I was considering traveling for a shorter period of time, possibly having him join me for portions of the trip and just in general, making choices with someone else in mind. I don’t say this in a bad way, just that I was open to seeing where things would go with he and I. I remember saying that I didn’t want to give up on a chance for love just because I had decided to go travel, yet I didn’t want miss my big journey for a relationship that may or may not be ever-lasting.

I’ve been asked about this mystery man regularly by my readers over the past few months. Sadly, we decided to part ways. We still remain close friends, but are no longer in a relationship. This happened months ago but I just wasn’t sure how to write about a break up. Months later, much less emotional it is easier to write it from a practical perspective.

When we parted ways, more than ever it drove the lesson home and reminded me that I need this trip for me, for my life for my health, for my happiness. I needed to make sure I was making decisions that were best for me, not best for anyone else. It’s something a lot of people struggle with … trying to please others before themselves.

Being 35 and single, successful and independent, many people say ‘what do you need a man for?’ Well it is true, I don’t need a man, but I am one of those ladies who does really want to find the right one and settle down. By the way, settling down does not mean quitting travel, maybe just smaller trips. Or, you never know. Maybe I’ll find a man who wishes to travel with me!

I think my biggest realization over the past few months was that even though I was open to finding that special someone, it just hadn’t been working out in Halifax. I felt like I was wasting my precious ‘young’ years looking for a special man rather than living the life I wanted to live. I was caught in the trap of what a ‘normal’ life looks like. What was the point in staying home in Nova Scotia waiting for a man to build a life with when I could be strengthening and building my own life while traveling the world.

Many people in my age group continually tell me they are jealous of my lifestyle. Most of them have partners and kids … or ex-partners and kids and feel like they missed out on the opportunity to see the world they way they want. I’m constantly reminding them that it’s a double edged sword …. Although I can go see the world and enjoy, I don’t have the pleasure and joy of raising children or a loving man to come home to each night. No point in being jealous of someone else’s life, you have to make the best of your own life. I’ve learned that my life will be what I make it and it’s up to me to make the choices to have the life that I dreamed of. In February 2012 I decided to design my life. I’m a doer and a dreamer and I am going to live a happy life with or without a partner.

So …. Here I am. I’m writing this post while sailing the Mediterranean between Italy and Croatia on the Royal Clipper. (although posting a few days later) I’m soaking up the afternoon sun with a warm breeze and ocean as far as the eye can see in any direction. I’m in the middle of nowhere, all alone, but surrounded by people and 100% completely relaxed and happy.

With about 120 guests on board, probably 50% of them are sitting at one of the several bars. A few are listening to the Captain’s lecture, and many are lounging on the sundeck …. Relaxing, chatting or reading.

For me, I’m on the sundeck, near the bar, drinking water … although I may splurge on a pina colada soon. Instead of reading a book, I’m writing one. A blog about my life, my travels and lessons that I’ve learned along the way. That’s pretty much a book right?

So, what does love have to do with all of this?

I’ve learned that love is everywhere, within everyone and its not just about finding a special someone. Before I left Halifax I realized that I am surrounded by love every day. Single or married, it doesn’t matter. Love matters, but love from friends and family and love for yourself, are the best way to live a happy life. And, isn’t that what everyone wants – a happy life?

Before I left to go away I moved everything (again) into my sister’s house. The first morning I woke up to my niece squeaking in through my bedroom door to come crawl in bed with me. As exhausted as I was, it was a moment that I cherished. What’s better than a morning cuddle from a child? Hmmmm not much. I felt loved and welcomed and content. So instead of focusing on love from only one person (an unknown man that I was looking for), I’m making a decision to make sure I fully appreciate the love of all of my friends and family … all of the time.

Life is good. Love is everywhere. You just have to open your eyes and heart to appreciate the love you already have rather than always wanting more!

And that, my friends is what love has to do with it.