Nepal – Not just for trekkers – Part 3 – Kathmandu Valley

Most people, when they think of travelling to Nepal, immediately think of one thing: trekking. And, most notably, trekking at painful, nausea- and headache-inducing altitudes. And yes, while, Nepal is a haven for trekkers and is home to the dizzying heights of the Himalayas, there is so much more to do beyond trekking to Everest Base Camp. Best of all, much of it can be done at a relatively easy-breathing altitude.

During a trip with Intrepid Travel, I was able to discover this other (lower) side of Nepal, as we explored the towns and sites of the Kathmandu Valley for several days.

Langtang Mountain Range from Namo Buddha

Kathmandu Valley

The Kathmandu Valley is both the economic hub of Nepal, as well as the location of many of the country’s most noteworthy sites. In fact, the entire valley is marked as a UNESCO Heritage Site, with seven designated sites within it.

The bowl-shaped region is surrounded by towering mountains, but within the valley itself, the altitude remains relatively low. In fact, the valley communities I visited ranged from about 4,330 to 5,740 feet above sea level. For reference, that’s roughly the same altitude as Denver, Colorado.

To make the most of a trip to the Kathmandu Valley, you’ll want to pre-arrange your visits and accommodations. There are some incredible communities worth visiting that are off the typical tourist trail and can offer real insight into the people and culture.

To whet your Nepal travel appetite, here are some of the highlights of my trip through the Kathamandu Valley:

Exploring the ancient town of Panauti

It’s not a far drive from the city of Kathmandu to Panauti, but once you arrive in this town less than 40 kilometres away from the capital, you may feel like you’ve entered another time. Dating back to the 13th century AD, Panauti is one of the oldest towns in Nepal, and even today, it retains its historic charm, with medieval Asian architecture and narrow terracotta streets. It’s also one of the lesser-visited tourist sites, which adds even more to the back-in-time atmosphere.

Panauti also holds a fair bit of mystery, thanks to two distinct geographic features: the town sits at the junction of two sacred rivers, the Rosi and Punyamati, and it’s built atop a single, large rock. Interestingly, the locals in Panauti say these features are why the city is earthquake-proof, which might in fact be true given the city’s ancient monuments were untouched by the devastating Nepal earthquake of 2015. Some say the reason for Panauti’s survival is its location atop the rock, while other local legends point to the power of a mysterious third river that flows to this spot, the Rudrawati, but which is only visible to Nepal’s holy men.

Catching panoramic views from Balthali

If Panauti is a mystery to most tourists, then the hill-top village of Balthali is a total secret, typically only visited by the most serious of mountain bikers and hikers.

But thankfully, you don’t need to be a hard-core athlete to get here and appreciate the views. From Balthali Village Resort, where we stayed, you can catch vistas of terraced rice fields and lush forests, all backed by the mighty Himalayas, including the mist-shrouded mountains of Manaslu, Langtang and, yes, Everest.

And while the resort offers activities like yoga, hiking and off-road jeep ‘safaris’ for exploring the area, sitting under the flapping prayer flags and staring at the view is also a totally acceptable way to spend your day!

Going farm-to-table at Namo Buddha

From Balthali, we headed to Namo Buddha, one of the most sacred Buddhist pilgrimage sites in Nepal. As the legend goes, Buddha, in a past life as a prince, gave up his body here to a starving tigress, in the ultimate display of generosity and self-sacrifice. Today, the site is home to the Namo Buddha Stupa and the Thrangu Tashi Yangtse Monastery.

All across Nepal, including at places like Namo Buddha, you’ll no doubt see colourful prayer flags flying in the wind. They drape along stupas and hang across town streets, but visitors often misunderstood their purpose.

Many travellers to Nepal assume that the prayer flags are meant to carry prayers up to the gods, but that isn’t their intent. Rather, prayer flags are hung to blow in the wind so that they may scatter positive energy — wishes of peace, strength, compassion and wisdom, carried on the winds to the community and beyond. The flags are not so much for the benefit of the person who hangs them, but for the benefit of everyone who is touched by their blessings.

This practice of sharing positive energy can also be seen in community-focused businesses such as the Namo Buddha Resort, where we stayed for a night.

The Namo Buddha Resort is an organic, farm-to-table resort, featuring sweeping views of the soaring Langtang mountains. Here, the focus is on preserving local wildlife habitats and supporting the local economy. The majority of the staff comes from neighbouring villages, and while the resort grows much of its own food, what cannot be produced on-site is purchased from local farmers. Items from the resort farm include jams prepared from their own fruit, and ice cream from their own buffalo milk. Guests can wander the gardens and learn about Nepali vegetation as well as organic farming techniques.

Beyond food, the resort also follows sustainable practices in its design and operations. The cottages are built in traditional Nepali style by carpenters and masons from Kiritpur, using all-natural materials, including mud and natural paint. Bed linens are designed in traditional patterns, and the pottery comes from Thimi Ceramics in Bhaktapur, which was the first stoneware ceramics producer in Nepal.

Lastly, as part of the resort’s conservation efforts, water consumption is monitored daily, and grey water is recycled from the communal shower house. There are also water recharge ponds to replenish both the resort’s own spring and the neighbouring community’s springs.

Discovering the history and artistry of Bhaktapur

The Newar people are the original inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley, and currently make up about 5.5% of Nepal’s population, with more than two-thirds of them still living in the Valley. Today, the Newars are recognized for their rich contributions to Nepali culture, art, literature, cuisine and more.

In the UNESCO-recognized city of Bhaktapur, much of this craftsmanship can be seen through preserved palace courtyards, stunning temples and squares, and elaborate artwork crafted in wood, metal and stone. Most notably, their delicate woodcarving skills have become a defining aspect of Newari architecture.

Throughout the Kathmandu Valley, you’ll often see elaborate windows, featuring intricate carvings of things like deities or dragons or flowers. These artistic creations have become a distinctive feature of traditional Nepali architecture, and are called Newar windows, in honour of their origins. The style of these windows vary, depending on which floor of a building they’re serving. For example, the most popular form of Newari window allows light and air to enter the room, but the intricate design work prevents anyone outside from being able to see in. One of the most famous of these windows is the stunning peacock window of Bhaktapur.

As you can see, Nepal has so much to offer, and definitely more to offer than just altitude sickness! If you’d like to plan your own travels to Nepal and the Kathmandu Valley, please get in touch. I’d love to help you plan your perfect trip.

Want more Nepal stories? Check out Part 1 – Kathmandu and Part 2 – River Rafting.

Namaste. Thanks to our fantastic guide.

When can we Travel Again? A Travel Agent’s Opinion

In recent weeks, cities, communities and countries around the world have all begun to slowly make their way out of self-isolation. Some countries faster than others; some still struggling with near impossible numbers of Covid-19 overwhelming their health care systems (or non-systems). The number of deaths in the past few months is heartbreaking.

Here in Nova Scotia, and Eastern Canada in general, we’ve faired well, at least in the Covid numbers game. We locked down early, people followed the rules (for the most part) and we’re opening up slowly. I remember early on when governments were telling us, if we do this well, the effects will be minor and you’ll wonder why we made all of these sacrifices; that’s how we know that we’ve succeeded and that it worked.

Whether you agree with the government’s harsh restrictions, social distancing and closing of a large chunk of the economy, or whether you don’t, you can’t argue that we’ve come through relatively unscathed in comparison to the world’s hotspots such as Italy, Brazil and the US. This is not to diminish the lives lost to the disease and all of the other tragedies we’ve had to endure as Nova Scotians in the past few weeks. We’ve certainly had a lot thrown at us in 2020.

Trust me, no one wants the world economy to open up more than me (and everyone else in the tourism industry). My business has all but been demolished as the ground fell out from under the tourism industry in one big collapse. But, I’m still here!

Like many of you, I had my big travel plans for this year cancelled. I was meant to be in Australia for just over three weeks with my mom in May.

With the recent announcement of Air Canada’s summer destinations and schedule, I’d love for all of you (and me too), to be able to hop on a plane this summer and go somewhere … anywhere … safely and in good health, but realistically, what does that look like?

While countries around the world are lifting restrictions and beginning to open up to tourists, there’s still a lot to be done before international travel is viable on a large scale. Although I’m all for day dreaming about travel, I think logistically we need to start right here at home.

Halifax has never been overly well connected to the world with direct flights. A few to the US, a few to the Caribbean in the winter and in the past few years, a few direct flights to Europe. Now, with the Halifax airport running only about 2% of its normal flights, you can be sure you’ll need to pass through Toronto or Montreal before going international.

With Ontario and Quebec being some of our hardest hit provinces, that holds concern for a lot of travellers just to get out of Canada. Flying through the US is also not an option until at least after June 22nd at this point. While technically there are still a few flights between countries, they are for essential travel and cargo, not for leisure travel.

And, let’s not forget that the Canadian Government still has an Avoid Non-Essential Travel advisory out, worldwide, for Canadians. This means that they still feel the risk level is very high for travellers and it also means your travel insurance will be extremely limited if you choose to travel despite the warnings. Don’t forget to ask me (or your travel insurance provider) about Cancel for Any Reason policies, which I think will become the new norm for most travellers.

In my opinion, and it is just that, an opinion, I think it’ll be early August before we see the Avoid Non-Essential Travel Advisory lifted. While you may be able to get a flight Internationally for leisure purposes before then, it’s important to look at all of the risk factors. And, these are different for everyone. Personally, I’m very unlikely to travel before that advisory is lifted. It’s just too risky.

It’s exciting to hear about Air Canada increasing their flight schedule and destinations for the summer; to hear about countries around the world beginning to open up; and murmurs of international travel bubbling to the surface. But let’s not forget that many places still have 14 day quarantine requirements on arrival, not to mention on return to Canada. Some countries are also implementing same day Covid testing at their airports so that you can avoid the quarantine, but that poses the question, what if you are asymptomatic but test positive? Or, what if you get sick on your fifth day of vacation? On the surface, it may seem like a good idea to test everyone before allowing them to wander at will, but it’s far from fool proof.

You might be hearing in the news (if you haven’t shut it off completely) about lots of countries with plans to open up to travellers for June and July which are great steps in the right direction, but it’s important to look closely to determine who is allowed to travel. For example, most of the European countries are opening to domestic and regional travel first with plans for international travel to open up at a later date. It’s great to see that many countries with land borders are partnering up to boost tourism between their countries, freely, but they aren’t yet ready to allow international travellers in.

If you are looking at potential for somewhere to go this fall in Europe, my feeling is that Greece and Portugal will both be great options, as will Iceland and Greenland. All are anticipated to open in June / July for international tourists. I hope that Italy will be ready as well, as they need tourism dearly after the difficulties that they had with Covid, but it is yet to be seen when International tourism will return to any of these destinations for sure. Hopefully we’ll know more by the end of June or mid-July.

Lisbon, Portugal
Cinque Terre, Italy

Moving on to the Caribbean, various parts of Mexico, Dominican Republic, Antigua, Saint Lucia, Grenada and more, are reopening throughout June and July for tourists with various rules and regulations. Flights with West Jet and Air Canada are resuming out of Toronto or Montreal for many of these destinations at the end of June or beginning of July, although at a much lower frequency than past years.

I suspect most Maritimers will be waiting until the winter to head south. If you missed your Spring vacation this year, or you just need another one, you won’t be alone! Lots of travellers are booking All Inclusive and cruise vacations right now for November/December and March Break. If you wish to ignore the Avoid Non Essential Travel Advisory though, Saint Lucia is a great spot to go in June and they are not requiring you to quarantine for 14 days on arrival, so you can enjoy your vacation without stress. You may, however, still have to quarantine when you return to Canada depending what each province decides in the next few weeks.

South America and Africa are a little farther behind. They are having more difficulties with the testing and treatment of Covid-19 patients. In many places they have less infrastructure, larger populations of poverty and overall, more obstacles than we do, in fighting the disease. I think you’ll see most of these countries remain closed until the beginning of September. And then, it is yet to be sen if they will open up internationally or just regionally. Argentina, for example, has already grounded international flights until September.

Twelve Apostles Mountain Range, Cape Town, South Africa

Parts of Asia are open, although very few flight options to get you there. Air Canada has flights from Toronto to Hong Kong, Seoul, Shanghai and Tokyo with a small selection of flights from three per week to one per day starting late in June.

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Australia and New Zealand are doing well fighting Covid-19 and are working on an agreement between the two countries to allow travel, but it will be awhile before international travellers can enter without a 14 day quarantine.

All in all, it’s positive to see countries beginning to allow their citizens to move about more. Tourism is starting to open up world wide; restaurants, museums, parks and gardens are slowing getting back to business. This means many people in the tourism industry are going back to work. The progress will be slow over the summer though and many businesses who were forced to close will not reopen this season, if at all. This is the same all around the world.

In my opinion, I think we will be able to travel relatively freely throughout Canada by the beginning of July, hopefully with no further 14 day quarantines for changing provinces. This will also encourage lots of staycations in your own province, road trips to other provinces and domestic travel across the country. This summer and fall are going to be all about supporting local and supporting Canada!

Howe Sound, British Colombia, Canada

I’m hopeful that our borders will stay closed to the US for leisure travel until sometime in July as they have such a long way to go before the situation is controlled. I know the current ban is only until June 22nd, but I hope for an extension of another couple of weeks on top of that. I think shortly after travel to the US is reopened, we’ll see the Avoid Non-Essential travel advisory lifted. I wouldn’t be surprised though, if many provinces continue to recommend 14 day quarantine upon arrival home from international travel. And, unfortunately, that makes it a bit more difficult to take vacation. Unless, of course you work from home and can work and quarantine at the same time, or if you are retired and don’t need to return to work.

Tour operators around the world have suspended their tours until the end of June. Some have already further suspended until the end of July, August or September since it is clear that International travel will not be widely available to all countries this summer. I’m hopeful for September and October trips to Europe and the Caribbean and I’d like to think that international travel will be available to those interested in going to South America, Asia and Africa by November / December.

Of course, having the flights and borders open makes international travel possible, but for many, that won’t be enough to get them travelling again just yet. I know many of you are waiting for vaccines before you travel abroad and rightfully so. Everyone has a different risk tolerance, different health concerns, different family and work matters to attend to.

Most importantly though, when you do decide to travel again, it’s going to be a whole new world of processes, paperwork, testing, rules and regulations. There’s no time like the present to commit to working with a knowledgeable travel agent who will have your back if something goes awry along the way.

Personally, I hope to head across Canada some time late this summer or early fall just before business fully picks up again. Like many of you, I didn’t get my vacation this year and there are many spots in Canada that are worth checking out. Last year I had a fantastic trip to Vancouver, Squamish and Whistler.

This year, I’m thinking maybe Yukon for the Northern Lights or Haida Gwaii islands off the coast of British Colombia or Banff and Jasper. Watch my Facebook Page for upcoming webinars and conversations with companies who provide amazing trips right here in Canada. More information and inspiration will be coming your way soon!

As always, I’m here to help plan your next amazing trip. You can reach me by phone at 902 402 7646 or email – stucker@tpi.ca.

Five Reasons Botswana is perfect for your Dream African Safari

If geography isn’t your forte and you don’t know a whole lot about the continent of Africa, then you might have no inkling as to why Botswana is an incredible destination for your dream safari experience or what makes it special! Let me share with you a little about the country itself and then we’ll get in to the reasons why it is perfect for your dream safari!

Botswana is a land-locked country bordered by Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia. Over 70% of the country is the semi-arid, Kalahari desert, but within that desert is one of Africa’s Seven Natural Wonders, the Okavango Delta which floods every year and then evaporates. Botswana is one of the least densely populated areas in the world and its economy and standard of living are one of the highest in Africa!

hmmm … Maybe it’s not the ‘Africa’ you’ve been picturing for Safari! It’s low human population and large number of protected areas is a perfect harmony for wildlife viewing. Some of the amazing animals you can see on safari in Botswana are: lions, leopards, cheetahs, caracals, rhinos, hippos, crocodiles, giraffes, zebras, monkeys, bat-eared foxes, wild dogs and various antelope such as the kudu, impala and lechwe. Not sure what all of those are? You’ll be well-educated about these and may other animals after a week on safari with your expert guides!

Check out these five amazing reasons you should enjoy your dream safari in Botswana!

1. If you are an elephant lover, you will not be disappointed in Botswana! This beautiful country is home to Africa’s highest concentration of elephants! Sure, you can see elephants in many African countries, but Botswana is special for the sheer number of them. There are estimated to be over 130,000 elephants in Botswana, although it is hard to get exact numbers as the ones who make their homes near borders, roam freely between countries.

Momma and baby elephant in Chobe National Park, Botswana.

2. If you are truly interested in the well-being of our earth, the land and the animals that you are dreaming of visiting, let me tell you that Botswana is top of class when it comes to conservation and anti-poaching measures. They take poaching so seriously that they have a ‘shoot-to-kill’ law that allows rangers to literally shoot to kill anyone, unauthorized, who makes their way into reserves, parks or protected areas after dark. For this reason, all game drives close down at dusk and boats no longer traverse the waters of the Chobe River and the Delta. Not to worry, you are perfectly safe at your camp. Poachers are doing their best to avoid camps and people so they make their way to the deepest parts of the bush. The roadways, waterways and bush are highly patrolled by skilled rangers and anti-poaching units to protect wildlife in general, but most specifically Elephants, Rhinos and Pangolins.

Elephant in the Okavango Delta Region, Botswana

3. If you are a photographer or birder, you’ll be particularly taken with the colorful sights and sounds of Botswana! Home to over 595 species of birds, you’ll just have to look a different direction to find something new. Your safari guides are adept at deciphering and sometimes even mocking, bird-calls, almost as if they were part bird themselves!

4. One of Africa’s Seven Wonders, the Okavango Delta is truly spectacular. In the middle of the Kalahari desert, each year the inundation arrives and the plains fill to the brim with water. This begins most years, in March and continues to swell until August, before receding. What most people don’t understand about the delta is that it does not rise because of rains in Botswana. The water comes from rains in Angola, in the north, and can take nearly six months to make its way south into the great delta panhandle. The Okavango Delta is home to an incredible and diverse variety of wildlife, some whom have adapted specifically to live in both the desert and water-filled delta conditions.

Sunset on the Okavango Delta.

5. One of the biggest reasons I loved traveling in Botswana and that I love recommending Botswana to clients looking for a safari is for the different activities and styles of safari. While your anticipated game drives in open vehicle trucks will take you through great game-viewing such as, Chobe National Park, you also have the opportunity to speed along the Chobe River in and out of the tributaries on small boats perfect for bird watching, a fishing experience and to get a water-level view of elephants basking in the waters, hippo, water buffalo taking a drink and so much more! Keep your eyes open for incredible birdlife who stick close to the water and incredible crocodiles!

You can take a river cruise on the Chobe River in various levels of luxury, from four to forty passenger boats, where you get the experience of sleeping on the boat each night and exploring in smaller boats during the day. Or you can stay in a unique houseboat deep within the Okavango Delta! If you have the chance to enjoy a mokoro ride, don’t miss out! The polers are particularly adept and moving you in and around the delta, through the reeds and lily pads.

By land, you can stay at lodges and do open-truck, safari game-drives, or you might stay at one where all the safaris are done by some form of boat. Then there is the adventure, education and excitement of heading out into the African bush with your ranger on foot to learn about the plants, trees, animal tracks and smaller, but equally important insects and amphibians that you don’t encounter from your truck.

Want something even more unique? How about a horseback safari, riding along side a herd of elephants or zebras, a hot air balloon ride to see the vastness from above or a light aircraft sight-seeing flight to take in the wonders of the inundation of the Okavango Delta?

You can take a safari in many countries in Africa and each have their own special, unique features, but I for one, am a fan of Botswana for its beauty, its waters and its unwavering commitment to protecting the flora and fauna, which in turn help protect our earth as a whole. It’s all intertwined. We only have one Mother Earth.

If you’d like to start the conversation about your dream safari in Botswana, or explore other option, reach out by email or phone 902 402 7646.

Travel Industry Updates

They say hindsight is 20/20.
With the state of the Covid-19 situation in China, then Italy, Iran, Spain and then the USA, I think we were all a little naive about how hard coronavirus would affect us in Canada. Maybe it was denial or lack of information from those in power, who knows. No point in playing the blame game.

Not in a million years did I foresee a State of Emergency, Social Distancing, panic at the grocery stores and not being able to visit friends and family for months in 2020. Not in a million years did I see the travel industry crumbling and coming to a complete halt for an indefinite amount of time. It was unfathomable that cruising, river cruising, land tours and all but the most essential of flights would come to a halt long term.

Travel Industry Closures and Updates

The travel industry has been one of the hardest hit industries. It was the first to be interrupted and will be the longest lasting. Long after the parks open, you return to dining at your favorite local restaurants, you go back to having care from your trusted (and much missed) massage therapist or chiropractor, the tourism industry will still be struggling.

For some businesses (not all), it’s as easy as returning to work and within a few days to a week, paying clients will return, cash will start flowing and business will steadily increase. Not that it will return to what it was before, but cash will begin to flow. For much of the tourism industry (airlines / tour operators / cruise ships / travel agents), we have to wait for world borders to reopen, international flights to restart, tours and ships to fill and people to feel comfortable traveling abroad.

As of today, April 15th, here’s a quick, very short and general list of what is cancelled in the tourism industry. This changes regularly and is only up to date as of today.

  • Adventure Travel: G Adventures, Intrepid Travel, Peregrine Adventures – Worldwide tour operations suspended until (at least) May 31, 2020
  • River Cruise: Ama Waterways , Scenic Touring – Suspension of all river cruises embarking through June 30, 2020.
  • Ocean Cruise: Almost all cruise lines have cancelled sailings worldwide until June 30, 2020 / Many companies have cancelled their Alaska itineraries for the complete 2020 summer & fall season / Many new ship launches have been postponed / All ships sailing US waters are cancelled until July 19, 2020 / Canadian ports are closed to ships carrying over 500 passengers until (at least) July 1st, 2020.
  • Rail: Rocky Mountaineer – departures suspended until July 1st, 2020 / Via Rail Toronto to Vancouver suspended until June 1st, 2020
  • Airlines: Air Canada and West Jet are operating essential flights between various domestic destinations, but with extremely limited routes. Air Canada is operating flights to six international hubs, while also continuing to operate cargo flights of supplies. Most flights for the late summer and fall are still scheduled, as per usual, but I think we can expect to see many more cancellations, although hopefully only to specific routings and not en masse.

The Return of Travel

While I believe there will be travel to some extent this summer, fall and winter, I expect it to start with domestic and business travel before leisure travel picks up full force again. I think those great bucket list trips and dreams of traveling in our own great country of Canada will come to the forefront as many people still wish to vacation, but have concerns about going too far from home. I think we’ll see Nova Scotians who want to visit the Rockies, take that bucket-list Rocky Mountaineer train trip, Via Rail across Canada, spa vacations to Quebec, visit Canada’s North to see the Northern Lights, ski Whistler, visit the Polar bears in Churchill and Great Lakes cruises (did you even know that was a thing?).

Shameless self-promotion – I can help you with any of these amazing trips within Canada! If you’d like to go somewhere on short notice, maybe later this year, but aren’t ready to start international border hopping, there is plenty of adventure and beauty to explore in Canada. You can always reach me by email.

What’s Next?

It is still almost impossible for me to wrap my head around the complete crumble of the tourism industry, pushing back travel dates month after month, now shut down for the most part from mid March until the end of June. Will that extend further? We are yet to see.

I know many of my clients are itching to get a move on, but realistically we are all aware that international leisure travel is still months out of reach. The tourism industry has crumbled for the time being, but it will come back, one step at a time.

For now, don’t stop dreaming of where you’d like to go. Write down a list of places you’d like to wander to, things you’d like to see and do. Then, when the time is right, let’s work on making each one of those come true!

While I may not be earning an income at this time, my business is still very much here and I’d love to hear from you with what’s at the top of your travel list when Covid-19 is behind us, so leave me a comment below so we can all dream together.

When you are ready to plan your next trip, in Canada or International, I’d love to hear from you! You can email me, or contact me through social media on Facebook or Instagram.

Covid-19 – A Travel Agent’s Opinion

Coronavirus, or Covid-19, is top of everyone’s minds these days. It’s impossible to avoid the information overload through the news and social media. It is extremely important to make sure you are taking in reliable, factual information and not just the hype and fear that many media outlets are spewing.

My business
I am just one travel agent in Halifax, NS with a small, but mighty business. To date, I have not had one cancellation due to Covid-19. I’ve had to rearrange flights to avoid China, but not one of my clients has cancelled their trip.

It’s incredibly busy though. Airlines, cruise and tour companies are all fielding more calls than normal. This doesn’t always lead to cancellations though, just a lot of questions! Clients are calling with travel concerns and insurance sales are soaring as we are one of the few still protecting people if they purchase insurance before an Avoid Non Essential Travel Advisory goes out. Many companies have revised their policies to exclude pandemics, but as yet (March 6th, 11am AST), our policies remain the same.

I currently have clients traveling in Australia, New Zealand, Qatar, Thailand, Hawaii, just returned from Caribbean Cruising and Portugal, 17+ people heading to Italy in the next 2 – 6 months on various itineraries, River Cruise season is soon starting and my mom and I are heading to Australia at the end of April.

Despite mass media and panic, what seems like worldwide, folks here in Halifax, at least my clients, are taking it all in stride.

You are going to get sick. #SorryNotSorry
In case you didn’t know …. At any time, anywhere in the world, you can get sick. Comforting right? HAHA In fact, I’m sick with a cold right now as I write this. I got sick in November when I travelled to Nepal and I often get sick when I travel to the Caribbean. I’ve had stomach problems in various countries, I’ve gotten parasites, colds and who knows what else. If I stopped traveling because I ‘might’ get sick, I’d never go anywhere!

The truth is, there are a lot worse things out there than Covid-19 and you haven’t cancelled your trips for any of those … so why would you cancel for this?

You travel to the Caribbean all the time where there is risk of Malaria, Zika, Typhoid, traveller’s diarrhea or Africa where there is Ebola and Yellow Fever (although there is a vaccine for that!), along with other mosquito-bourne illnesses. You may or may not get your yearly flu vaccine; do you have your hepatitis shots? No?

I don’t say any of this to scare you, just to point out the hypocrisy in it all. If we aren’t scared enough of getting the flu to go get our flu shot … if we travel without our Hepatitis A & B shots, if we go to Malaria areas but don’t take medication, if we go anywhere without checking the health risks, if we eat fatty foods, smoke cigarettes, vape or drink too much, then why are we so scared of Covid-19? If you get it, you’ll likely be sick for 7 – 10 days and then you’ll be well again. Many of the things listed above do not have the same happy ending, but we don’t seem to be scare of those!

The flu is all around you right now. You are probably going to get the common cold if you haven’t already had it, and you might even get the flu as it goes around every year.

While I’m not saying that we should invite Covid-19 in and spread it around, I think it is truly impossible to stave it off forever and, quite honestly, maybe not even worth trying. If it doesn’t hit Halifax this year, what makes you think it won’t make an appearance next year? Hopefully vaccines will be tested and effective by then, but let’s be honest, if you didn’t get a flu shot this year, are you going to make time to get one next year? Or get the Covid-19 vaccine?

Should I cancel my travel plans?
For now, don’t cancel your travel plans. Don’t worry about the potential of getting sick. Just have better personal hygiene, wash your hands properly, stop picking your nose and biting your nails. Sneeze and cough into your elbow and if you are sick, just stay home. We will all thank you for it!

Getting the right information.
Last, but not least, follow credible health organizations like the CDC or WHO for your updates, check the Canadian Government Travel Site for health advisories and check your destination before your book! Work with a reputable travel agent who has access to the most up to date information, and can help you navigate your travel plans if cancellations are required. Stop listening to the bad news and surround yourself with the good news of the thousands of people who have survived Covid-19! We’ll soon have ‘I survived Covid-19’ T-Shirts, I’m sure!

Stay healthy everyone. Keep traveling. There are too many amazing things to see in this world to stay home because you ‘might’ get sick!

Disclaimer: Before anyone gets offended over my opinion … of course I understand that everyone’s health situation is different. People with compromised immune systems and respiratory problems have different concerns about Covid-19 and everyone has to look at their individual health situation. For the vast majority of people though, it’s time to just stay calm and wash your hands at home and abroad!

Orphanage Trafficking – It’s time to stop it!

In late 2019 I had the pleasure of traveling to Nepal with Intrepid Travel. What an incredible experience! Beyond the obvious education and excitement that comes with traveling to a new country; meeting the people, seeing the sights, tasting the food, there was a very specific “purpose” and educational component behind this particular trip with carefully selected agents from Canada and the USA.  Geoff Manchester, co-founder of Intrepid Travel would also be adventuring along with us in one of his favourite countries! Little did I know that one of the areas of education for us would be about orphanage trafficking.

Initially, I almost turned the invite down as I thought Everest and high altitude trekking weren’t for me. Then I discovered that Intrepid has this beautiful Experience Nepal itinerary that visits the cities, nature and cultural sites of the Kathmandu Valley. It had some great small hikes and everything was at low altitude. Even I, as a pretty savvy travel agent didn’t know this! Now I do. And now you do too!

Click these links if you’d like to read about my experience White Water Rafting on the Trisuli River or the story of Kumari, a living child Goddess in Nepal.

I accepted the invitation to go on this special agent-only trip and came out the other side, changed.

As a special inclusion, we got to visit Forget Me Not in Kathmandu, a project supported by the Intrepid Foundation.

Forget Me Not is not a tourist destination. It’s not a store. There’s nothing to buy. It doesn’t provide services to tourists. It’s an organization … a very powerful one … one that I truly will never forget.

Photo of travel agents from Canada & USA with Forget Me Not
Photo: Louise Booth

Years ago, The Intrepid Foundation partnered with an orphanage in Nepal called Twenty Girls.  These girls had been in the orphanage system for four to 18 years. Having done their research, the foundation was confident that this orphanage was well run and well equipped to support these young women with suitable living quarters, healthy meals and education. All checks were in place to make sure that this was a positive care facility, not one of the poorly run orphanages that were rampant in Nepal, Asia and Africa perpetuating the cycle of abuse to orphaned children. This orphanage needed funds and the Intrepid Foundation stepped in to help.

Not long after this, an orphanage in Uganda reached out to Twenty Girls for support in reorganizing and learning how to better operate. Throughout a long process of auditing, it came to light that many of the children at the Ugandan orphanage still had living parents or relatives. It was discovered that the children had been taken from their homes in various ways.

Around the same time, the girls in the Nepal orphanage had become their own close-knit family. They had begun to open up to one another and they were sharing their stories and feelings from what they remembered, if anything, of their families and their past communities. Some of the girls were having dreams, others had encountered people in Kathmandu, strangers, who seemed to know them.

Eventually one of the young women spoke out to staff at the orphanage in Kathmandu. Despite staff being threatened by organizations and government to stay quiet, they spoke up and began an investigation to learn where these twenty girls had come from.

With few paper records from their past orphanage stays, fading or non-existent memories of their families and often no information about their birth-homes because they were too young to remember anything when they were taken to their first orphanage, it was a struggle to retrace each girl’s history. Not only was it difficult from a paperwork perspective, as you can imagine it was also a delicate situation as the girls were remembering bits and pieces of a life that they believed no longer existed.  Most of them had been in the orphanage system for many years, suffering mental, physical and sexual abuse, living in deplorable conditions and being forced into child labor either at the orphanages or on the streets. For years they had been told they were orphans, that their parents and families no longer existed, that they were alone or unwanted.

Learning that the orphans they were supporting weren’t necessarily orphans, put the Intrepid Foundation in an awkward spot. They couldn’t simply pull their support and see these girls without funding or send them back into the corrupt orphanage system, but yet they couldn’t continue to support an orphanage where the children were victims of orphanage trafficking.

A large audit and investigation began into the operation of the orphanage, where the girls came from and what was really happening. Little by little, with funding from the Intrepid Foundation, cooperation from the Nepali Government and the incredible efforts of child welfare and social workers, the stories began to be revealed and families of these ‘orphaned’ girls were slowly, but surely being found. In the end, 18 of the 20 girls from this orphanage were reunited with their families after many years apart.

Through all of this, a new organization was born, called Forget Me Not. This new organization would never again operate as an orphanage, but instead would focus on child welfare and reunification of families.

At Forget me Not, they proudly have a Change Makers Squad made up of five teens and young adults who were part of the orphanage system, four girls from the original Twenty Girls and one young man who spent several years in orphanages. These young Change Makers are bravely sharing their stories, spreading the word, educating their communities, raising money and standing up to governments, pressuring them to make changes to child welfare acts and to shut down improperly run orphanages.

Each of the change makers stood in front of us to tell us their role in the squad and their dreams for their future. Anisha, only about 17 years old, shared part of her story and brought me to tears.

Anisha and her sisters were taken to an orphanage when she was very young. Her dad had decided to give her and her sisters up and paid for them to have a ‘better life’, because in reality, he had wanted boys, not girls. Boys were perceived as more valuable in society.

Her parents had paid a handler to give them a better education and better life. The parents were tricked, as millions are, into trafficking their children to the orphanage system. While the parents believed they were doing something good for their daughters, as soon as they were out of sight, the children were taken hundreds of miles away and placed in illegal orphanages where physical, mental and sexual abuse (still, today) run rampant. They lived in unclean conditions with little access to food or water and many children are forced into child labor or the sex trade.

It’s easy for us to judge and say ‘don’t give your kids to strangers’, but it can be compared to paying for your kids to go to boarding school. Traffickers are well-dressed, educated, well-spoken and professional. They are friendly and seem trustworthy. They are offering a better education and better life for these children. It is a professional operation. It’s easy to fall for their charm, but never an easy decision for parents to give their children up.

It’s easy to place blame on the parents, but let’s get real for a minute and talk about you and I, as tourists, and how this is our fault too. Unknowingly, tourists are helping grow the orphanage trafficking trade. The more donations that orphanages receive, the more orphanages open and traffickers need children to fill the beds. Children are being stolen from the streets and lured from their parents with promises of a better future. The money tourists donate to orphanages rarely trickles down to the children that it was meant to help. Instead, it just creates more demand from the traffickers who keep getting richer. It’s heartbreaking. We are part of the problem and we can be part of the solution!

Children from these illegal orphanages are also being sent into the streets to beg for money from tourists, never keeping a penny for themselves, for fear of further abuse. While it is so very hard not to give a begging child money, I can’t stress enough the importance of this in breaking the cycle. The only way for these children to get off the streets is if there is no money for them to earn there. We must stop giving money to children on the streets immediately. The traffickers have money to take care of the children, they are choosing not to. When you give money to a child on the streets, you are not helping to feed that child, you are helping continue the cycle of orphanage trafficking. Let this sink in.

After moving between orphanages, each of Anisha’s sisters were eventually adopted by two foreign families. Anisha continued to be moved from orphanage to orphanage until she was taken to the Twenty Girls orphanage, supported by the Intrepid Foundation, where she found a sisterhood of 19 other girls. The girls became family and began to talk about their dreams and memories.

Eventually one brave girl spoke up about her memories and despite the controversy, an investigation was started in to the history of each of the girls at the orphanage. Where did they come from and were they indeed orphans with no parents?

Most of the girls remembered very little of being taken from their homes as they were so young. They didn’t remember their parent’s names or their communities. It took considerable support from the Intrepid Foundation, social services and the Nepali Government to reunite 18 of the 20 girls with their immediate family members.

Anisha was reunited with her mom, dad and younger brothers whom she had never met. She also reunited with each of her sisters who were adopted and currently live abroad.

If hearing her tell the story of her difficult life, and the emotional rollercoaster of reuniting with her long lost family wasn’t enough … just one year after they were reunited, her dad fell ill and passed away. She choked up a little as she explained that she never got to tell him how she felt.

Not a year after her dad’s passing, her mom also passed away, now leaving her and her two brothers orphaned, with no able relatives to care for them. This time she was truly an orphan. Being underage and not able to legally care for her brothers, they were placed in a legal orphanage in Kathmandu, where she can visit them regularly while she continues to finish high school.

Anisha bravely told us not only her story, but her dreams of becoming a lawyer and reuniting with her brothers to all live in one house as a family, when she is able to support them.

My heart absolutely explodes with heartbreak and admiration for this strong girl who has endured so much emotional turmoil in her short life, yet presses forward to pursue her dreams and take care of her younger brothers.

The Intrepid Foundation supports the vision of Forget me Not to fund the long and arduous process of tracking children’s families and reuniting them when possible. This means supporting the Change Makers’ efforts to raise awareness, educate the public and influence change. It also supports the counselling services needed for the children while they are dealing with the emotional turmoil that trafficking has created. While research and hard work isn’t very sexy or instagram-worthy, it is the right thing to do and drives Intrepid’s mission, through their entire business, of Purpose Beyond Profit.

The visit to Forget me Not is a day that is etched into my heart. It has inspired me to look for ways to give back and to never underestimate the power that travel has to change lives; mine, my client’s and that of the communities we visit.

Each year I choose a travel charity to donate to instead of sending Christmas cards to my clients. I feel the money is better spent making a difference in the lives of women and children around the world rather than paper and stamps in Canada. In 2019, I donated to Forget Me Not.

If this story has touched your heart, you can contribute through the Intrepid Foundation where every dollar you donate is matched (up to $600 000 AUD / year) and 100% of the funds go directly to the organization as admin fees are covered by Intrepid.

NOTE: This post is not sponsored. Views and opinions are my own. While I talk about Intrepid Travel and the Intrepid Foundation, it is not because they have asked or paid me to do so. It is because they are a company that I whole heartedly support for the way they are making positive change in the Tourism Industry and the communities we, as travellers, want to visit.

If you are interested in making a positive impact when you travel, doing the right thing, all while having a great trip, I would love to help you book your next adventure! I can be reached at 902 402 7646 or by email.

Nepal – Not Just for trekkers – Part 2 – River Rafting

Trisuli River Nepal

When I say Nepal, I bet you immediately picture snow capped mountains and sherpas trekking up narrow pathways, right? I bet not even one person’s first thought would be White Water Rafting!  Little did I know, there is amazing river rafting in Nepal. There are opportunities to raft on several rivers and I was lucky enough to enjoy a two day experience on the Trisuli River in Kathmandu Valley with Intrepid Travel.  Despite my initial apprehensions, it was one of the highlights of my trip!

The Drive to Trisuli River

I’ll admit, I was apprehensive about White Water Rafting in Nepal. The last time I did white water rafting was class 4 rapids in Jarabacoa, Dominican Republic after a hurricane. While it was a helluva time, it also came with a sore back, a few waterfall drops and being flipped out of the boat under a waterfall. While I enjoyed it for the most part, I always wondered if I could do it again. I wasn’t a fan of being flipped out of the boat and caught underneath the pressure of a waterfall for a few seconds before being spit back up to the top. It scared me and I’ve never forgotten it.

I didn’t know what to expect for rafting in Nepal, but there was an option to sit the activity out, so I was safe. If I whimped out, I could sit out. Phew! That was enough of a safety net for me that I didn’t panic over being forced to do it. After our briefing with our guide though, it was clear that the rafting would be relatively tame in comparison to what I had done before. We’d be bopping along on class one and two rapids for a few hours, each of two days. And if we did it on one day and didn’t want to the second day, we could travel in the van (equally bumpy, by the way … just less wet!), to our next spot.

We drove about 60 kms from Kathmandu to Trisuli River, taking us about three hours to get there. Once outside of the city, the highway is not at all what highways are in Canada. It’s barely a two lane road, in various states of disrepair. This is the only road heading to the west, to Pokhara. It eventually splits where you can head to the south to Chitwan National Park and the Indian border, or there are a couple of branches off the main road to go to other cities or countryside areas. It is a very limited road network in general.

Being the only road between two of the major cities, Kathmandu and Pokhara, as well as connecting all of the other areas in the south and west to those two cities, as you can imagine, it is packed with traffic; buses carrying local people to the bigger cities, transport trucks carrying cargo, ambulances carrying patients to Kathmandu, locals going from home to work, or from one community to the next, tourists packed on buses and then us, tourists in a private van. Everyone uses this one road. There are no other options.

I can’t tell you how thankful I was for our stealthy, alert, non-risk taking and skilled driver who kept us safe the entire trip. We were safely tucked in to our clean van with an extra seat or two for space. Our luggage was all inside, not piled on top like on many buses. We had air conditioning, no crying babies and washroom stops. We could even request one if we needed it. You can’t do that on the public bus! The public buses, were standing room only, falling apart, dirty and dangerous. I can’t count the times they passed in precarious locations and the bus leaned so hard to one side that I thought it was just going to roll on over!

On one side of the road, the vehicle would be hugging the rock wall or dusty vegetation, which was only a foot from the window, separated from the road by a makeshift drainage system to keep the roads from flooding. The small drainage ditch had no recourse against mudslides though, which happen frequently during summer monsoon season, often creating damage so bad that it takes months to fix. On the other side were many sheer drops, only occasionally protected by cement block guard rails. Always, we were being overtaken by various trucks, buses and motorbikes weaving their way in and out through traffic, passing in the most precarious of locations with blind S curves ahead and patches of loose gravel everywhere. The buses and trucks have a way of communicating through beeps and blinker flashes to tell one another when it is ok to pass, but even still, it’s a dangerous situation. One of the only saving graces was that the roads were so narrow and bumpy that getting to above 60 kms an hour was near impossible.

We climbed up, up, up into the hills (they only felt like mountains) and started snaking our way through the S turns and switchbacks up, down and around the hills. The scenery was beautiful with its small communities perched high atop the mountains and intricately terraced rice fields spilling down over the sides of the hills.

We got stuck in a couple of traffic jams where it seemed like we might never move, but eventually the long line of traffic would crawl over the narrow bridge carefully or past a broken down vehicle, completely blocking one lane of the barely two lane road. Heavy trucks and buses struggled to slowly climb the hills, but most seemed to make it, eventually.

We passed through various communities and saw lots of rest stops, restaurants and washroom facilities along the way. Some looked better than others. At the halfway mark we made a pit stop for coffee, snacks and washrooms. While the washrooms weren’t sparkling, they did have one Western toilet and three squatter toilets. There was no toilet paper, but there were sinks with soap and running water. There was a coffee shop, chips, chocolate bars and local rum, which many of our group purchased to share around camp that evening.

As we passed the halfway point, the road levelled out and while still twisty and turny, it was considerably flatter as it travelled along the banks of the river. This made for beautiful views of the rushing waters, large boulders and suspension bridges stretching from bank to bank.

About three hours in to the drive, we took a sharp turn in a town and headed down a very steep road, on to a dirt road facing the river. We piled out, gathered our essentials for a day of rafting and got ready for the next part of our adventure.

White Water Rafting

Knowing the Trisuli River was fed by glacial waters, I struggled my way into a full-length wet suit with no sleeves. While the guide told us we weren’t going swimming, he said it cheekily and it was always questionable whether he intended to tip us or not. At this point, I still didn’t know what to expect for how big the rapids would be, so I decided a wet suit was the way to go. A couple of people in our group braved the trip without though and they survived just fine.

Trisuli River Rafting Nepal
November is peak season for tourism as the weather throughout the country is nice. In the Kathmandu Valley we had warm, sunny days of about 20 – 25 degrees most of the time. For the most part, swim suit, tshirt and shorts were fine for rafting, but it did get a little chilly if you were wet and in the shade, so the wet suits were a good decision!

After our safety briefing, we broke into two teams and hopped into our sturdy rafts. We practiced a few commands from our guide on the flat, calm waters and then we were off through our first class one rapids, smiling and bumping along, getting splashed with the chilly, refreshing glacial waters all along the way.

That’s me in the back!

We chatted amongst ourselves, laughed, shared stories, admired the beautiful hills, terraces and precarious suspension bridges. We rode the relatively mild rapids on and off for a couple of hours until lunch.

Here’s where my next big surprise came in. Our guide navigated us to the side of the river where we hopped off the boat and stepped on to a beautiful, soft, sandy beach. I was absolutely enamoured by it. Who knew there were beaches in Nepal? It was clean, soft and beautiful! The perfect little rest stop for us to refuel before our afternoon rafting.

Our guides and support rafters quickly busied themselves setting up tables, unpacking plates, cutlery and drinks. Then they whipped up lunch in a flash. There was no shortage of food: Croissants and breads with peanut butter or jams, potato salad, corn salad, salami and samosas. We sat in a circle in camp chairs and stuffed our faces, gathering energy for the afternoon’s ride.

The guides and support rafters packed up all the bits and bobs as quickly as they had gotten ready and once again we were ready to take on the river. In the afternoon we had a couple of stronger rapids, one big ‘get down’ moment where we all hopped in to the centre of the boat and held on while the water washed over us and then we leisurely floated our way to camp for the night, arriving mid-afternoon.

Our guides and support staff were super friendly and clearly were having a fantastic time on the river as well. It was interesting to learn that many of them travel to other countries, such as Japan to train and learn on different rivers. One of our guides was from Japan, practicing in Nepal, getting different experiences around the world!

Trisuli River Rafting Nepal

River Life Camp

Our guide had done his due diligence in preparing us for our accommodations for the evening to be basic. We’d be sleeping in tents on the river side, so we shouldn’t expect any luxuries. Much to our surprise though, we hopped off at another lovely river-side, sandy beach and were immediately greeted by friendly staff and the lovable camp dog, Jerry.  We peeled off our wet suits and safety gear, hanging it on the line, hopefully to be dry by morning and gathered by the riverside for tea, coffee, hot chocolate and popcorn to keep us going until dinner.

We were shown to our nearby tents which were much larger than I had expected. They had a cement floor, a wooden base for the bed, a thin, but sufficient mattress, electricity and a plug in to charge your phone or camera batteries. For a basic camp, it was looking pretty good. Of course there were shared bathrooms, but they were nearby, clean, had toilet paper and western toilets. The shower left a little to be desired with only cold water, but after all, it was a camp, not a hotel.

River Life Camp Trisuli River Nepal

River Life Camp Trisuli River Nepal

The sun went down early as we were hidden in a valley behind some hills, so everyone gathered near the camp fire and they fed us more popcorn, some papadam (local bread), bbq chicken and french fries.  It likely would have been enough food for dinner, but they had a whole other meal prepared for us!

Next up, the locals from a nearby village came to treat us to a small party as it was the end of one of their festivals. There was singing, dancing, lots of hot rum punch and blessings on us all! The red symbol on our forehead is a blessing. It’s made from rice, yogurt and red coloring. It’s quite common to see people all around Nepal with this on their forehead.

River Life Camp Trisuli River Nepal
L-R — Susan Williams, Shari Tucker, Geoff Manchester (co-founder of Intrepid Travel)

Around 6pm we moved from the riverside to the main dining tent where there was a feast of spaghetti, garlic bread and several side dishes. Unfortunately I wasn’t feeling well by this time, so I didn’t eat much and went to bed early.  I tucked into bed for the night with warm pyjamas and a sweater, hoody and all! It wasn’t really that cold, but it was very damp as the valley we were in was humid and the sun didn’t really reach it for long each day to dry things out.

We had a leisurely next morning. Some of my fellow group members did yoga, stretching and read on the beach. I wandered around and took a few photos. Then we were served up breakfast of pancakes, porridge, eggs and sausage before suiting up for another day on the water.

River Life Camp Trisuli River Nepal

Day two rafting

River Life Camp Trisuli River Nepal

After we wiggled our way into our semi-damp wet suits, put on our wind-resistant jackets and life jackets, we piled into our boats and off we floated! We passed through a couple of fun class one and two rapids and then our guide directed us to a rocky shore where we had to clamour up over some rocks and boulders around a class four rapid. While they did not take us through it, the expert kayakers and supply raft made their way through with ease. None the less, it looked pretty crazy from the shore and I was glad not to be taking a chance with flipping out of the boat in the cold waters and being tossed around by the rapids.

Trisuli River Nepal

We climbed back into our rafts on the other side of the big rapids and meandered our way along the river, having a few good water fights between our boats along the way and riding some pretty good rapids! Along the way, we stopped at a hidden waterfall, enjoyed the great scenery, had lots of laughs and played a dizzying game with our paddles on the beach.

We also had the chance to hop in the water and float several hundred meters down the river. Three people from the other boat were first in, then my roommate, Susan. A few minutes later I decided that I’d probably never get to do this again, so overboard I went and I came up grasping for air. Holy! Cold! Somehow in my debate in my head on whether or not to jump in I had forgotten to weigh in the fact that it was a glacial river, so it was ch-ch-chilly … even in a wet suit. I stayed in for 5 or 10 minutes, where as the others stayed in for longer. You did get used to it and it wasn’t unbearable, just shocking!

Trisuli River Nepal

Trisuli River Rafting Nepal
We bobbed through our last couple of rapids early in the afternoon to our final stop where we had lunch and changed into dry clothes.

In the beginning I wasn’t sure if I wanted to partake in the rafting as I wasn’t sure what to expect. Even after the guides explained that they were small rapids and it would be unlikely to fall out, I was still skeptical. In the end though, even though I wasn’t feeling well throughout the two days, I am glad that I chose to participate. It was fun and relaxing. It was a totally different experience to have in Nepal than what I expected and I got to float in the glacial waters of Trisuli River!

If you are interested in exploring Nepal and enjoying your own river rafting experience, please get in touch. I’d love to help you find the perfect trip for an unforgettable experience! You can call me at 902 402 7646 or email stucker@tpi.ca.

NOTE: Many of the photos throughout this post were provided by the Rafting Company who photographed and videoed all of our antics for the two days. Thanks Intrepid Travel and Adventure Aves for the photo-memories!

Want more Nepal stories and information? Check out Part 1 – Kathmandu and Part 3 – Kathmandu Valley.

Nepal – Not just for trekkers – Part 1 – Kathmandu

As a travel agent for the past few years I’ve chosen a career that not only allows me to make other people’s travel dreams come true, it also affords me the opportunity to see the world, and more important than everything an education far beyond what you can learn from hearing or reading it in a book. I get to choose when and where I go, how I see the world and I regularly remind myself to do so with open arms and an open mind. On occasion, I’m also rewarded with invitations to join exclusive travel-agent trips to experience a style of travel or a specific destination.

Sometimes though, I make assumptions and mistakes too. Despite all of the knowledge I have about geography, cultures and travel in general, sometimes I fall prey to stereotypes and misconceptions as well.

While I know in my mind that Nepal is a diverse country, I’ve only known people to travel to Nepal who want to trek to Everest base camp or who have lived in Kathmandu for work or volunteer purposes. While I know there are mountains and valleys, big cities and remote villages, Everest (and trekking) was still the only thing I could think of to ‘do’ in Nepal. Now, having spent 10 days in this unique, beautiful and welcoming country, I have experienced that Nepal is so much more than Everest. It’s not just for trekkers! Believe me, a trekker I am not.

I assumed that Kathmandu would be a large, hectic city. I had expectations that traffic would be bad, but having just arrived from Delhi, it couldn’t be THAT bad, right?

There are 29 million people in Nepal and one million live in the capital of Kathmandu. When you have that many people in a city, it is simply a given that the streets will be packed. There were cars and buses, motorbikes, people, dogs and the occasional cow wandering through the streets. Traffic moved at a snail’s pace and came to a stand still regularly. While motorcycles zipped in between traffic and people meandered in all directions, cars and buses simply couldn’t maneuver effectively around each other, many times because motorbikes had crammed themselves in the tiny spaces between autos. I had just seen this in Delhi, India; the traffic was the worst I had ever encountered.

Nepal was somehow different though. Almost instantly you realize that Nepalis are patient and kind. They beep to communicate rather than out of anger. They are careful not to run over dogs and pedestrians. They don’t road rage, yell or get frustrated, they just move forward little by little. This is vastly different from what I experienced in Delhi and was quite a welcome change from feeling like people in traffic hated everything, to people in traffic that was just part of their daily commute.

It took about an hour from the airport to my hotel, a total of 6.2 kms. Yes, you read that right. And so began this beautiful adventure into the patient chaos of Kathmandu.

Inside the city centre in the district of Thamel, the streets are narrow and winding and the buildings tall, blocking most of the sunlight from getting down to street level. Cars bump and crawl along in both directions, often on a street made for one vehicle, likely a horse and cart, after all the city was built over 1000 years ago.

Thamel is a hot spot for tourists, offering various types of accommodation, all of the services you need from ATMs to restaurants, souvenirs to top-quality trekking gear. It’s easy enough to get around here on your own if you have a good sense of direction and don’t mind getting lost in the winding streets without posted names. You can spend hours meandering through the narrow streets filled with prayer flags, decorative lights and (mostly) helpful storefront staff.

I was pleasantly surprised that once inside my hotel, on the other side of the lobby was a delightful courtyard garden. Other than the occasional car horn, you could completely forget about the chaos just 100 meters away. It was tranquil and just what I needed after the disorganization of the airport and the chaos of the traffic. It was a little reprieve from the real world outside. It was a moment of silence in an otherwise boisterous world.

That evening, I met with my travel group of six travel agents from Canada and the USA, two Intrepid Staff from the Toronto office, our local Guide and Geoff Manchester, co-founder of the Intrepid Travel Group from Australia who would be traveling with us for the next 10 days, which I must admit was an incredible opportunity.  Together, we would be enjoying the Experience Nepal itinerary, although ours ran backwards to the normal tour as it was a special departure date, rather than a regularly scheduled one.

First up for us was a day exploring Kathmandu and getting familiar with Buddhist culture. We headed off through the narrow, chaotic streets to the beautiful Boudhanath Stupa, best known and most important pilgrimage for Buddhists around the world and is a safe place for Tibetans to practice their religion freely. Many have immigrated to this area as they were ostracized from their own country.


The Stupa and surroundings are a large, circular complex surrounded by historic buildings, temples, monasteries and now, a variety of souvenir shops. Marked by the famous Buddha eyes on all four sides of the temple, we were reminded that Buddha is always watching and encouraging us to make the right choices. Locals and tourists alike wander clockwise around the complex spinning hundreds of prayer wheels that line the outside of the building. It is said that those who fully circle the complex with a pure heart create good karma, resulting in the fulfillment of all their wishes. Whether you believe in it or not, isn’t it nice to think that pure hearts and good karma exist in this world?

As we made our way around looking at the different prayer wheels and sculptures, we stopped to visit the Tibetan monastery (Guru Lhakhang Gompa), an important place of worship for pilgrims and visited inside to view the intricate design. No photos allowed inside.


On our way back to our hotel in Thamel we walked through Kathmandu’s Durbar square. Sadly, it was heavily damaged in the earthquake of 2015, reducing many of the centuries old buildings to ruble. Today, under Unesco supervision, many of the buildings are being reconstructed to their former glory, but the process is slow both from a construction aspect and I’m sure, due to the strict regulations of Unesco to ensure it is rebuilt the same as it was. Most of the buildings are covered with scaffolding, so I didn’t take photos, but peeking through the construction you could see the former beauty of the intricately carved wooden buildings. 3 – 5 years from now, there’s no doubt they’ll be returned to their former glory.


We also visited the Kumari’s palace. The story goes that Goddess Taleju  appeared to the king each night in human form to discuss important matters. If any other person saw her in human form, she would no longer appear. One night, the King’s wife followed him curiously as he stepped out every night after she went to bed. As she peered around the corner she saw Goddess Taleju in her human form. The Goddess was furious and instantly knew she had been seen. She disappeared forever from the King’s Palace. Later, she sent word to the King that in order to continue to worship her and partake in her guidance, the community would need to select a child to carry her spirit. This child would be the Kumari. This young child, pre-menstration, is chosen based on specific physical attributes (long dark hair, dark eyes, long fingers, unblemished or unscarred skin), as well as personality characteristics of fearlessness. She must never have lost a drop of blood from her body or she will be considered impure. It is believed that Goddess Taleju lives inside her and worshiping her provides power and protection. Still today, the Kumari lives in the palace and appears to the people to be worshipped, randomly, providing good fortune to those who lay eyes on her. On special occasions (13 times per year) she leaves the palace in a chariot pulled by many men and she is worshipped in the streets.

The current Kumari was chosen in 2017 at just three years old. We visited her palace in Kathmandu’s Durbar square and with good fortune, she appeared while we were inside. Before she was seen, the guards demanded silence and no photos. All cameras had to be set aside and they watched like hawks to ensure no one took photos. A young girl, just five years old, appeared for about one minute to be worshipped. The crowd stood in silence and then she was gone.

It’s hard to believe this ancient tradition is still upheld and we heard from our guide that child right activists are fighting to change the ancient tradition. They have made progress as the current Kumari has teachers who come to give her schooling. She has access to internet, books and magazines. Her parents are allowed to visit and she has playmates, the children of her caregivers. Otherwise she is not allowed to leave the palace except for the 13 special occasions throughout the year when she is worshipped publicly. There is pressure to end the tradition, but as it has been happening for so many years, it will take many years for the tradition to be abolished. It is hoped that this Kumari will be the final one of the tradition, once she is dethroned when menstruation starts and returns to peasant life with her family. Of course, she’ll never be a true ‘peasant’, as her family is compensated substantially during her reign as goddess and continuing through her life.

As you can see, Kathmandu has a lot to offer for tourists interested in culture, religion and history. Along with the locations mentioned above, you can also visit the Monkey temple, the Garden of Dreams, Pashupatinath Temple (Hindu), shop for incredibly cheap souvenirs in the markets or you can give back and make a positive impact by visiting and supporting social enterprises such as Seven Women Kathmandu by taking a crafting or cooking class.

You’ll need to be comfortable walking in busy streets, have an open mind for new religious beliefs and patience for the chaos. With that in mind you’ll likely feel as if you’ve stepped back hundreds of years in time and you’ll be won over quickly by the warm, friendly people, their incredible history and beliefs, different from your own.

If you’d like to visit Nepal I highly recommend considering a small group tour. I enjoy traveling this way because it gives me a chance to meet new people from around the world, share travel stories and bond over random adventures in new places. It also gives me a sense of safety and takes a load off my mind as activities are organized and I just have to follow along rather than plan and lead things! It’s much more relaxing to enjoy the best a country has to offer with the guidance of a local guide, rather than having to figure out each of your next moves on your own!

Take a look at the details of the Experience Nepal itinerary that I did with Intrepid Travel. I’d love to help you visit this amazing part our of world for a different view, with a company that not only gives you a great vacation experience, but also proudly supports women’s rights, animal rights, sustainable tourism, fair wages and giving back to the local communities.

You can contact me by phone at 902 402 7646 or email.

Want more? Check out Part 2 – River Rafting and Part 3 – Kathmandu Valley.

Private Vacation Rental Risks – Cancellation

I know a lot of people who use Air BnB, VRBO and Home Away in their travels. I too, have used Air BnB lots of times, all over the world. My first rental was in Vernazza, Italy. My most recent was here in Wentworth, Nova Scotia. In between there have been many in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Bangkok, Thailand, Panama City, Panama, Istanbul, Turkey, Georgetown, Malaysia and many, many others. Most of my experiences have been good, but a couple have been bad.  Now that I’m better educated, I know some of them were also not legal. If you are using private vacation rentals for your travels you need to know the risks, the first one being potential cancellation.

With the recent news about vacation rentals in Oahu, Hawaii shutting down, I think it’s important to address some of the risks you are accepting when you choose to rent from short-term rental sites such as those listed above. You can read the article about Oahu here, for reference (12AUG2019).

While this is just one article about illegal vacation rentals in Hawaii, it is a very real problem that you MUST understand before booking any private rental. This is commonplace in many countries. Private vacation rentals can easily be illegal and still available for booking. It can also be legal and unsafe (not meeting fire code for that country, for example). And of course, it can be legal, safe and wonderful, but how do you know?

Here’s the risk you are taking …

Every time you book a private rental you are taking a risk that they could simply cancel on you with very short notice leaving you in the lurch. In the case of this article about Oahu, huge fines are being enforced as vacation rentals are breaking laws. These are not new laws, as the headline suggests, rather they are old laws, being newly enforced. Due to these fines, vacation rentals are shutting down and cancelling current bookings (on very short notice) in order to avoid HUGE fines which in turn leaves the incoming vacationers in a panic.

Don’t think for a second that even if the rental IS legal that the owner can’t cancel. They can, and they do, regularly. Maybe their septic system needs to be pumped, they have a leaky roof, their fridge went caput, the renters who were there a day before you trashed the place and it needs repairs, or their family is coming to town and they need the place … so they cancel your reservation. Some even list their rental on multiple sites and if someone offers a higher price after you have booked they’ll cancel you to accept the higher bidder from another site.

What are you going to do if your rental cancels the day before you stay there? What if you are in transit and don’t get the notification until you show up and there is no one there to greet you? What if you do get one or two weeks notice, but you can’t find any other rentals in the same price range that are still available? What if everything is sold out because it is high season?

Sure, in most cases you’ll get your money back, but where will you stay for the night and for the rest of your vacation? How much time will it take out of your precious vacation to find a new place? And, how much is that going to cost you on short notice?

Lots of private vacation rentals go perfectly. I’ve had many of those experiences and met many wonderful people around the world! Those are the ones you hear about … the perfect ones. They can be great, but you need to know there are two sides and you need to decide, is the risk worth it for you?

If you’d like to explore vacation rentals that are legal, safe and operated by management companies rather than individuals, get in touch. Sure, they are not quite as cheap, but they do come with more support, more peace of mind and often more charm!

You can reach me by email or by phone at 902 402 7646.

Note: The included photo is of one of my favorite Air BnB rentals in beautiful Buenos Aires when I lived there in 2015.

Sustainable Travel with Wilderness Safaris

I recently spent three weeks traveling in Africa having some of the most amazing and fulfilling sustainable travel experiences of any of my travels to date. Let me share with you a little about why this trip was so different and so special to me.

For the first nine days, I traveled with Wilderness Safaris. They are a conservation company dedicated to protecting and rejuvenating wilderness in Africa, through tourism. What does that really mean? It means that their primary goal is to help restore any damages done to African wilderness through conservation and education efforts. From supporting anti-poaching units, to educating the local communities on harmful hunting practices, to tagging and researching elephants, wild dogs, rhinos and pangolins. To take it even further, they have spear-headed many national and international programs for conservation. They are leaders, not followers.

They have a wide variety of eco-friendly camps throughout Africa, most of which are built with a footprint so light that they could tear down the camps at any time, remove them and you’d never know they existed. I find this absolutely incredible.

When building these camps, every detail has been taken in to consideration from where to place the structures, to the materials that are used, to not cutting trees or driving over delicate areas, to not blocking animal highways, to not putting harmful chemicals into the earth. Every single detail is done with the animals and the environment as top priority. This is amazing!

I traveled with Wilderness Safaris and stayed at four of their eco-camps throughout Zambia & Zimbabwe. I find it hard to put into words what the experience is really like. Here is a quick list of my highlights from an amazing 9 day trip.

  • Walking with endangered rhinos in Zambia
  • Visiting Victoria Falls and exploring the park that surrounds the world’s largest sheet of falling water
  • Traveling in 6 & 12 seat bush planes
  • Staying at small eco-camps where often the number of staff out numbered guests on site. Not only did this lend itself to exceptional service, but also to an extra feeling of remoteness, tranquility and true African bush experience.
  • Meeting, dining with and laughing with the staff, guides, chefs and waiters who were simply the best kind of people. People around the world are generally kind, caring and helpful, but the people of Zimbabwe go far beyond this.
  • Incredible wildlife sightings including the endangered wild dog, hippos at sunset, leopards & cheetahs at the same kill sight, young lions playing in the early morning sun, elephants, elephants & more beautiful elephants!
  • Visiting the Scorpions Anti-Poaching unit. Learning about the importance of their work, the very real dangers of their jobs and their strong mandate to educate the communities to stop illegal poaching practices.
  • Visiting a local community in partnership with Children in the Wilderness where the Chief of the small town was one of the most welcoming, open-minded people I have ever met. He absolutely blew my (incorrect) expectations away.

If this kind of life-changing, perspective-altering trip to Africa is what you are seeking, get in touch to talk about traveling with Wilderness Safaris. You can reach me Monday – Friday by phone at 902 402 7646 or, you can email me at your leisure.