Humblebrag – Dealing with Travel Envy

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The other day, I was discussing recent vacations with a few colleagues over lunch. At one point I mentioned a boat trip that we took, “while we were on a family safari in Nepal.” There was silence for a few seconds, then someone said, “that phrase must win everytime, unless you’re talking to someone who’s been to the moon.” I thought about that reaction for a few days. Had I been trying to “win” the conversation? Had I unwittingly fostered travel envy? Was I humblebragging?

It’s easy to say that I don’t keep score or try to “win” by having the most extravagant travel stories. It’s harder to examine this claim from a detached position and determine if that’s really true. Here are a few things to consider when you are faced with travel envy.

Travel Envy – Made Worse by Social Media

Safeguard Travel DocumentsSocial media sites are full of carefully curated photos and posts about sun-drenched beaches and pristine hiking trails. Everyone tries to put his best foot forward and show the glamorous side of life. This is even more pronounced with travel writing, where one’s job is to highlight reasons to travel and the best places to go.

This is going to inspire some people and frustrate others. A few might even get depressed, worried about how they can’t live the lives that they see portrayed online. You can’t control how other people feel. You can control what you put out into the world and your motives for doing so.

Examine Your Motives for Travel

Why do you travel? What drives you? Make an honest assessment of why you travel. For me, that’s an easy question to answer. I’ve always been driven by a sense of wanderlust and a desire to see the world. I realize it’s impossible to see all of the world. One could spend a lifetime in one country, whether it’s Germany or India, and still not see everything.

Because of this, it’s pointless to keep score. There is no way to “win” this competition because it’s not a competition. But that doesn’t make me want to stay home and not travel. It makes me joyous to know that there’s always going to be some new place or experience to look forward to. Where, how, and how long to travel are highly personalized questions.

Examine Your Motives for Discussing Travel

Why do you discuss your travels? In the instance that I mentioned at the beginning of this post, we were discussing things we’ve done on vacation that were risky. The boat trip definitely fit that description. So upon reflection, I still don’t think my comment was a #humblebrag.

It is useful, however, to think about those comments before you say them. Ask yourself, “am I trying to top the last thing that was said?” If so, maybe you just keep listening instead.

Looking back, there are times that I have bragged about travel, like the Twitter post below.

This conversation served to remind me to check my motives.

Have a Sense of Humor

No matter what you say, there’s always a chance that someone will be offended or envious. As I noted before, you’re not responsible for the reactions of others. You can help defuse any tension, however, with a good sense of humor or a self-deprecating remark. In my case, it’s far cheaper to get to Katmandu than Kansas given that I live in Singapore. I explained as much, and that went a long way towards defusing the awkward moment.

Have you encountered travel envy? How did you deal with it?

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Himalayan Trek

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I’m glad my phone tracks the number of stairs climbed, because I lost count after the first hour. I had read voraciously to prepare for our family’s Himalayan trek. Everyone mentioned the scenery. Very few mentioned the stairs. According to my phone, we climbed around 163 flights of stairs each day. That’s the number of floors in the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. I guess that’s fitting since we were in the Himalayas, the tallest mountains in the world.

Getting there

Most Himalayan trek routes last for a week or more. The route to Annapurna base camp can take 3 weeks. We didn’t have that kind of time, so we did a short trek – just three days. Based on a friend’s recommendation, I booked the trip through Bold Adventures Nepal. They provided us with a guide and two porters and made all of the arrangements.

We flew from Kathmandu to Pokhara, a 20 minute flight that saves you a grueling 8 hour drive. Plus now we’ve flown on Yeti Airlines, so that’s good.

It still took 3 hours on the road from Pokhara to get to Kimche, the starting point for our trek.

Life on the Road

Daily chicken delivery

We walked for three days, up mountains and down mountains. The first day’s climb took us to Ghandruk (elevation 2000 meters), the capital of the Gurung people. Gurungs are a minority ethnic group in Nepal. Ghandruk is a popular stop on the trekking circuit because it offers good views of Annapurna and other mountains.

Most of the Nepalese in the Himalayas live in villages where there are no roads. Everything gets carried there by mule train or on someone’s back.

We began to notice that prices increased as we went higher. A bottle of water that was 50 rupee ($0.50) in Kimche might be 200 rupee ($2.00) in Jhinhu. That’s understandable since someone had to haul it up there and haul the empty bottle back down.

Mule train

We left Ghandruk after an early breakfast and set out for Jhinhu. Distances between towns are measured in time, not miles. It’s a four hour walk to Jhinhu, up and down mountains. The reward was a natural hot springs where we could soak our sore muscles and relax.

Our porters carried some of our gear, though I carried my own pack. Time became elastic as we slowly climbed. My sons were the only children that we saw on the trail. I guess most people don’t bring their kids. I’m not sure why.

On the third day we walked to Siwai and met our car. Just a quick 3 hour drive back to Pokhara, which was starting to feel like a metropolis compared to the villages we stayed in.

Though we did see the mountains from the trail, one of the best views we had was from the roof of the Pokhara airport.

Going back

The stereotype of someone doing a Himalayan trek is a young twenty-something or a retiree, and that’s understandable. They’ve got time. I would love to go back to Nepal and do a longer trek. Take my time and relax. Enjoy the scenery more. Drink more tea. Live more simply. And someday I will.

Himalayan teahouse
The clouds are hiding the mountains above this simple teahouse.

 

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Dangerous Travel With Kids

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Our four-wheeler slipped and slid on the monsoon-soaked dirt road. I laughed nervously and gripped the door with white knuckles. As we came around the corner, we saw burning tires blocking the narrow road. That’s when I wondered if maybe I shouldn’t have brought my kids on this trip after all. Is it ever acceptable to expose kids to dangerous travel?

How do you quantify danger? What risks are acceptable? Do you take more risks traveling solo than you do with your kids?

I thought a lot about these questions this summer when I took my kids to Nepal. It was the height of the rainy season, which made the steep mountain roads seem especially treacherous. Almost every day I would read about a vehicle that slid off the road and fell hundreds of feet somewhere in the country. The incident with the burning tires was resolved peacefully, but not before we sat for a few hours on the road waiting.

As I reflected on these worries, I realized that what I was missing was not safety, but the illusion of control. Going about my daily life back home, I delude myself into thinking that I can control the threats that my kids face more easily than I could on this trip. In reality, motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death for children in America. There’s no guarantee that we would have been any safer on a road back home.

This is not to say that you should needlessly expose your family to foolish risks. Often though, we exaggerate risk when we are outside our comfort zones and minimize it when we are in our comfort zones. Do your research, take precautions, but don’t let fear paralyze you into not traveling.

Weighing the risks against the benefits of the trip, I’m still glad we went.  We’re going back to Nepal in a few weeks – not during the rainy season.

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Muscat – Things to Do in Oman’s Capital

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The history of civilization in Muscat stretches back into antiquity, with settlements dating back over 7,000 years. In the 18th century, Muscat was a major regional power whose influence reached as far as Tanzania. Today it serves as the fascinating capital of Oman. Here are a few things to do in this beautiful city.

muscat mosqueSultan Qaboos Grand Mosque

Sultan Qaboos rose to power in 1970 and has ruled as Sultan of Oman ever since. The mosque that he commissioned can hold 20,000 worshippers. In additional to the sprawling grounds and impressive architecture, the mosque has two unique features. The first is a massive chandelier, the largest Swarovski crystal chandelier in the world. The second is the carpet that covers the floor of the main hall. It’s the second largest carpet in the world, weighing 21 tons. The carpet took 600 weavers four years to complete.

Sultan’s Armed Forces Museum

This museum houses a collection of military vehicles, weapons, and uniforms that trace Oman’s military history. It is also notable because of the location. The museum is housed in the Al Falaj Fort, a 150-year old fortress.

Muscat cornicheMuttrah Corniche

Stretching along the harbor, The Corniche in Muttrah borders Old Muscat. The souq, or market, here has been open for business for 200 years. Shops and stalls disappear into the darkness as alleyways meander away from The Corniche. The smell of frankincense and spices fill the air and silversmiths, tailors, and hawkers sell their wares. Muttrah Fort, built by the Portuguese in the 16th century, sits west of the souq and watches  over the harbor.

Desert safari – Beyond Muscat

Escape the city and explore Oman’s vast deserts for a day trip or an overnight camping expedition. Areas like Bawshar and A’Sharqiyah are easy to reach with a 4×4. Enjoy the solitude of the desert or the excitement of dune racing.

More information

To learn more about Muscat, visit Oman’s official tourism site.

 

 

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Biscayne National Park – A National Treasure

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I love to travel overseas, but I don’t want to neglect the treasures that America has to explore right here at home. Today marks the 37 years since Biscayne National Park was created, so let’s take a look at what it has to offer visitors.

Biscayne National Park – History

Originally considered as part of the Everglades, Biscayne was designated a separate national monument in 1968 and re-designated a national park on June 28, 1980. Evidence of human civilization within the park borders goes back 10,000 years. Biscayne Bay has been home to Native Americans, pirates, and millionaires. Presidents have vacationed here and outdoor enthusiasts have long enjoyed its waters.

Nature

Biscayne National Park
Photo by NPS, public domain

Biscayne covers over 172,000 acres, stretching from Key Biscayne to Key Largo. Biscayne encompasses four distinct ecosystems; an offshore reef, coral limestone keys, Biscayne Bay, and the mangrove swamps along the shoreline. Biscayne National Park is home to several endangered species, such as manatees, hawksbill sea turtles, and American crocodiles. The park also protects hundreds of species of fish, crustaceans, and birds within its boundaries.

Activities

Biscayne National Park
Photo by NPS, public domain

Biscayne National Park is 95% water, so most of the activities require access by boat. There are campgrounds on Elliott Key and Boca Chita Key which are only accessible by boat. Canoeing and kayaking are popular, as are diving, snorkeling and fishing. Biscayne is home to the Maritime Heritage Trail, the only underwater archaeological trail in the National Park Service. This trail includes 5 shipwrecks that date back to the 1870s which divers can explore.

More information

Most visits to Biscayne should begin at Dante Fascell Visitor Center, 9 miles east of Homestead, Florida. For more information about the park, check out the National Park Service website.

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Haw Par Villa

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The sign warned of the graphic nature of the scenes inside the cave. Parental discretion advised. I’m sure Haw Par Villa’s Courts of Hell were shocking back in 1937 when it opened. The displays evoked only mild curiosity from my teenage sons.

Haw Par Villa warrior

Haw Par Villa was created by the Aw brothers, the founders of the Tiger Balm ointment company. It was briefly abandoned during the Japanese occupation of Singapore in World War II but restored after the war. The sprawling park is now under the management of the Singapore Tourism Board.

The 10 Courts of Hell is a well-known component of the attraction. It functions as a Chinese equivalent to Dante’s Inferno, as each court graphically displays the punishments that await the dead based on the sins that they committed in life. There’s a twist though, as souls encounter the Wheel of Reincarnation at the last court and start all over again. The scenes might be scary for younger kids, but anyone who has seen movies like Lord of the Rings will be just fine.

I was somewhat familiar with a few of the tableaux, such as Madame White Snake, but many other scenes were confusing to me. The one below, for example:

Haw Par Villa 2To say that I don’t get it is something of an understatement.

This was one of those day trips that my kids had to be dragged to. Once we were there, though, they were fascinated by it. I’m glad I dragged them. We wandered around the park for a few hours, checking out each of the displays. The park has over 1,000 statues and displays. Around every corner was something new and strange. Like life-sized sculptures of kangaroos, looking very out of place in this Chinese garden.

Haw Par Villa is open daily from 9am to 7pm and is free to the public. It’s located at 262 Pasir Panjang Road.

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Wild Life Sydney Zoo – Up Close and Personal with Australia’s Animals

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Australia’s famous for its endemic marsupials like kangaroos and wallabies. We wanted to see these unique creatures up close and personal while we were in Sydney. Fortunately, there’s a spot to do this right on Darling Harbour called Wild Life Sydney Zoo.

Wild Life Sydney Zoo

Located alongside the aquarium and Madame Tussauds, Wild Life Sydney Zoo is a small zoo dedicated to those animals native to Australia. This was great for us because that’s what we wanted to see. We got there just before it opened at 9 am and skipped the line because we pre-bought our tickets online.

Petting a wombat

My only experience with wombats up to this point was a children’s story called Where To, Little Wombat and a stuffed animal. They’re a lot bigger in real life. Like a furrier version of a large hog.

Like most zoos, there are talks by zookeepers throughout the day. Immediately following the wombat talk, a few of us were allowed to go into the wombat’s habitat and pet him for a small donation to a wildlife conservation fund. We went in one at a time and got a briefing from the keeper about how it would work and what to do if things went wrong. Like if we were approached by a rock wallaby, for example.

The actual petting was over a fence while the wombat ate some veggies. I listened to his contented snuffling sounds as I petted his soft fur. It was very cool.

Kangaroos

Wild Life Sydney Zoo KangarooThis kangaroo looked stoned.

We got to the kangaroo exhibit at the same time as a school field trip of what looked like 3rd graders. Needless to say, we waited until they were almost through before going in.

The zoo’s website states that you can go into the kangaroo habitat and walk around in the same space that they do. That’s true. It’s also true that there’s an area for the animals that you can’t walk in and the kangaroos learned long ago to stay in that area. Throughout the day, there are sessions where the keepers can lure one of them past you with some snackage and you can pet it. The keeper brought two kangaroos over but the one pictured above sat with its back towards us and pretended to ignore us the whole time. The fur on the other one was soft like a rabbit. We took our turn with the field trippers and moved on.

Koala at Wild Life Zoo SydneyWe also got to pet a sugar glider and stand within inches of a koala. Holding a koala is a key tourist goal, and lots of places with lead you to think you can do so for a fee. In New South Wales, however, it’s against the law. Tourists can get close but not touch. The truth is, koalas are very solitary creatures who like to sleep about 20 hours a day. Being used as a tourist attraction stresses them out. Get close, take the picture, and move on.

Other Options

If Wild Life Sydney isn’t your cup of tea, there are other options. Some friends of ours visited Featherdale Zoo in the Blue Mountains. You can read about their adventures here. There’s also the famous Taronga Zoo, of course, on the shores of Sydney Harbour.

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d-i-r-t

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(C) pixelheadphoto – stock.adobe.com

I could see that most of the fast food establishments were closed as I entered the food court. I had come in looking for a gyro but the gyro shop was closed. I felt annoyed about settling for a sandwich. The hall was nearly empty as I made my way across the room. The brightness of the fluorescent lights seemed to clash with the deserted room. A soft voice caught my attention as I passed one of the tables.
“Sir?”
I turned to see an old man sitting alone in the middle of the vast room. I say old but I tend to underestimate my own age and overestimate that of others. I saw the gray flecked in his black hair even as I ignore the gray spots in my own. His salt and pepper beard was neatly trimmed. His brown courdoroy jacket showed signed of wear. He looked up at me with a soft smile and chocolate brown eyes.
“How do you spell dirt?”
I stepped closer and leaned down. I was sure I had misheard the question. “Durp?” I asked.
“Dirt.”
I glanced at the round white Formica table. Hanging off the edge was a cane. A plastic shopping bag stuffed with clothes lay on the yellow chair next to him. His slender brown hands rested on an open book. I saw that it was a Bible. To the left of the Bible lay a spiral notebook. Three words were printed neatly on each line, like an elementary school writing assignment.

ball      spring      paper
home      clean      Jesus
apple      clothes      red

“You need to know how to spell dirt?” I asked.
“Yes, please.” Again the soft smile. “Sorry to trouble you.”
“It’s no trouble,” I said, but I still wasn’t sure that I’d heard him correctly.
“dirk?”
“dirt,” he repeated.
“It’s d-i-r-t.”
As I started spelling, he grabbed a blue ball point pen and wrote, repeating each letter aloud. He wrote in lower case and with effort.

“d-r”

“No,” I made an effort to speak slower. “It’s d-i-r.”
He looked up at me, confusion on his face.
I pointed to the space between the “d” and the “r”. “The ‘i’ goes here.”
“Would you write it for me?”
I took the pen and wrote, speaking as I did.
“d-i-r-t.” I handed the pen back.
He stared at the letters for a moment. I could see his lips moving as he repeated the sequence silently to himself. Then he looked up at me and smiled.
“You write real good,” he said. “Did you go to college?”
I felt my cheeks begin to flush. “Yes, I did,” I stammered.
The gentleman kept smiling. “Write real good,” he repeated, half to himself. I wanted to explain that I had learned to spell ‘dirt’ long before college, but that seemed like an unnecessary correction to his impression.
“Thank you,” he said.
I nodded quickly and turned away. He turned back to his Bible and kept working.
I thought of all the arguments and counter-arguments about poverty and race in America. About the differences in education outcomes based on socio-economic status and about the partisan bickering about the appropriate role of government in the lives of the governed. All of these concepts faded in comparison to the example of quiet perseverance in front of me.
As I walked away, my problems seemed smaller. I said a small prayer. I gave thanks for all that I have. I prayed for the old, gray black gentleman and his studies.

I thought about him for the rest of the week. I was happy that I had been able to help. I wondered if I should have bought him some food. I regretted that I didn’t sit down and talk to him about the Bible.

I wished my kids had been with me, but I couldn’t explain why. Would I have used him as a living teachable moment, to stress to them the importance of a good education? Would I have been worried that they would say something that hurt his feelings as I tried to help him? Probably both, I reflected. I decided that it was better that I had been alone for the encounter.

There are 7 billion people on this planet, each with a separate story. Everyday our stories intersect in ways planned and unimagined. This was one of those unplanned moments. It broke my heart and made me grateful for all of my blessings at the same time.

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Blue Mountains National Park – Part Two – Wentworth Falls Bushwalk

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Wentworth FallsThe varicolored leaves on the ground serve as a constant reminder that what I think of as spring is actually autumn here in Australia. The crisp air is a good reminder too. Crisp in this case is a euphemism for significantly colder than the humid tropical weather back home. But the sight of Wentworth Falls cascading down the cliff amidst the fall foliage makes me forget the colder weather for a moment.

The village and the eponymous waterfall nearby are both named for William Charles Wentworth, one of three explorers who led the first successful crossing of the Blue Mountains in 1813. There are several good bushwalks here of various lengths, including one that was used by Charles Darwin in the 1830s.

Wentworth Falls signWentworth Falls Bushwalk

The bushwalk is a clearly marked trail with steep hills and lots of steps. The waterfall plunges over 100 meters to the valley below.

I’m a big fan of the Danger sign post. In a country that is known for its dangerous animals, the park service pleads for you to use common sense as you navigate this natural waterfall/hazard.

Princes Rock Lookout

This track follows a steep path that has been used for over 120 years to amazing views of the falls and Mount Solitary. The half-mile trail from the picnic area is steep with lots of stairs. The railings at the lookout do not date back 120 years; my companions tell me that they weren’t present when they were kids.

Undercliff Track

Undercliff is half of the Overcliff-Undercliff Track, a 2.25 mile loop that goes over and under cliffs and through swamp and rainforest.

Conservation Hut

The Conservation Hut operates a cafe and has information on the surrounding area bushwalks.

You could spend a half-hour or a whole day hiking near Wentworth Falls. Read about the Three Sisters, another famous Blue Mountains landmark, here.

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Blue Mountains National Park – Part 1 – Three Sisters

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The weather did not look good but we had to make the best of it. When you only have a day trip to the Blue Mountains National Park to see the Three Sisters, you press on. We did and were rewarded with an incredible view.

Blue Mountains National Park

Blue Mountains National Park

Just 50 miles west of Sydney, the Blue Mountains National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site that spans over 600,000 acres. Sydneysiders come out here to get away for the weekend. There are lots of bushwalks (Australian for hiking) and the scenery includes deep valleys and interesting rock formations caused by erosion of the sandstone hills.

Three Sisters

The Three Sisters is the most famous rock formation in the Blue Mountains. Located high above the Jamison valley in Katoomba, this peculiar formation sits separated from the rest of the cliffs. Aboriginal legend holds that these rocks are three sisters that were turned to stone by their father to prevent them from marrying men from a neighboring tribe. The father was killed in battle and thus could not turn them back into women.

Scenic World

The easiest way to see the Three Sisters is to go to Scenic World. This tourist attraction includes a cable car and a railway that descend into the valley below. The railway is the steepest railway in the world at an incline of 52 degrees. You can even adjust your seat to make it 64 degrees. Once on the valley floor, you can explore the unusual flora and connect to Blue Mountains National Park bushwalks.

Scenic World also has a cable car known as the Skyway that crosses the valley. None of this is cheap, and you could easily spend a lot of money at Scenic World. It does have terrific views however.

Carrington HotelIf You Go

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