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.

HOPEFUL FOR NEW RAPID COVID TESTS TO ELIMINATE MANDATORY 14-DAY QUARANTINE IN CANADA

I try to limit my news intake on a daily basis to just what I need to know and not ‘everything’ that is out there.  I find the news negative, overwhelming and often lacking the ‘full story’. Often headlines are click bait to get you to read a story, but then the story doesn’t really match the headline. I don’t share news very often because it becomes outdated so quickly, but with today’s news about the new Rapid Covid test, I think it’s worth talking about!

Today, for the first time in many months, I feel there is news that is worth sharing as it shows actual progress in the right direction for Canadians wanting to travel without the 14 day quarantine on return.

Calgary is starting a testing program on Nov 2, 2020, at the International airport, along with the US/CAN border. People entering Canada will be tested and will only have to quarantine until their results come back (approximately two days). If their test is negative, they can resume normal activities and take another test on day 6/7 at a designated pharmacy. For now, it is a pilot program, but it’s a start!

Another program, coming soon, is designed to do a Rapid Covid Test on arrival to Canada and with results in 90 minutes. The idea is that the rapid tests will replace mandatory quarantine. The rapid test kits have been ordered in the millions and are anticipated to arrive by the new year. (Let’s all just anticipate delays though. It is 2020 after all.) It’s expected that this program will be tested at Toronto International and/or Calgary International before going Canada wide. No details on follow up requirements though, so there may still be a second test required.

Keep in mind this does not eliminate the need for negative Covid testing prior to departure, as a requirement of entry to many countries. Right now in Nova Scotia, voluntary Covid tests for travel purposes can be done but are prohibitively expensive for most people.

If you’re looking to skip that cost, Costa Rica announced today that Covid tests are not required for entry in to the country. You will, however be required to fill out a Health Pass, and provide proof of travel medical insurance. I suspect the requirement of travel insurance in order to enter countries will become more and more common going forward. If you used to take the risk and not buy insurance, for many places, that will no longer be an option.

And for those of you who are curious, yes, Covid coverage is now available to protect you if you do contract Covid while out of country; in addition to all of the regular protections for medical, such as breaking an arm, getting food poisoning, having a heart attack (if not a pre-existing condition), etc. When you are ready to travel, I’ll make sure you have all of the options and correct coverage for your trip.

While all of the details of the Rapid Covid Test programs aren’t yet known, this is GREAT news for all of you who are ready to get back out there (me included), but don’t want to ignore Canada’s Non Essential Travel Advisories, or don’t have the time or space to quarantine for 14 days on return.

It’s sooooo good to know that finally, progress is being made in Canada and while we don’t have a vaccine yet, these programs will help the world economy make it’s way back to ‘normal’ and help us learn to live with Covid, rather than locking ourselves away from each other.

Share with me what you think … Are you excited for the potential with the new rapid tests? Leave me a comment below.

When you are ready to look at options for your next great getaway, I’d love to help find the perfect luxury or adventure vacation for you. You can reach me by phone at 902 402 7646 or stucker@tpi.ca.

Benefits of Hiring a Travel Agent to plan your Staycation.

Last week I had a really great road trip to the South Shore, Nova Scotia. I’ll admit, like many of you, I usually just do my own road trips in Atlantic Canada. It’s easy, right? The primary language is English, I have my own vehicle, I have GPS and with a little research, I know what there is to do in each place. I’m a travel agent after all.

But, let me tell you …. traveling with a tour company in my own province was eye opening! I had no idea how little I knew about the South Shore of Nova Scotia.

I’ve been to Mahone Bay and Lunenburg countless times over the years. I’ve walked the streets, visited some shops, had lunch and dinner with friends. It has always been nice, but never like travelling! Going with a tour company this past week made it a totally different experience.

Here are six great benefits of working with a professional travel advisor and travelling with an organized itinerary for your next staycation.

RELAXATION. I didn’t have to drive, worry about parking or make any decisions on where to go next. I didn’t have to navigate GPS technology. Big check mark for giving my mind a break from decision making.

EDUCATION. When you walk around a town on your own, you don’t learn the history or the insider stories! How many times have I been to Lunenburg and I’ve never heard the stories of the Bluenose II?

HIDDEN GEMS. My guide knew back roads, secret beaches and hidden spots that I would never find on my own. I saw coves, quaint houses and the small little spot where Tom Selleck stayed during the Jesse Stone series. Who knew?!

CONNECTIONS. Our guide arranged a behind the scenes tour at the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic even though it wasn’t open to the public. Everyone in town knew her and I got to chat with the fisherman who approached her on the street to say hello. I learned a bit about their lives in the town. That never would have happened if I wasn’t with a connected local. I spend time building these connections and relationships so that I can help you have amazing experiences whether close to home or afar.

RECOMMENDATIONS. Our guide grew up and still lives in Mahone Bay. She knew everything to do in town and made great recommendations for things I didn’t even know to look for online! I never would have known Fat Biking was available in Nova Scotia and that it was for anyone! I thought it was only in Nordic countries and for people way more fit than me. So not true!

TIME SAVINGS. So many museums, restaurants and experiences that used to be first come, first served, are now on reduced hours or reservations required. I didn’t have to research opening hours or make reservations in advance, which are required in many places now due to Covid. Small businesses have limited capacity, be it a restaurant or an artisan shop. If you just show up, there’s a good chance you’ll be turned away. Travelling is not the same as it once was! I didn’t have to call all of these places individually to find out their policies and book times. Phew!

Of course you can visit the South Shore (or anywhere else in Canada) on your own. And, for some people that’s perfect! For sure, you can book each activity piece by piece, but you might be missing out on a whole world of local connections, back roads, secret views and insider knowledge that make your staycation a truly amazing experience, instead of just a nice day. And, don’t forget that time is precious and you have to do all of the research, driving and decision making on your own. That’s fine if you enjoy doing all of those things, but if you don’t …. If you’d rather have it all taken care of or simply don’t have the time or patience, work with a professional. We love making vacations unique and stress free for you.

Whether you are travelling at home or abroad, using a travel professional gives you access to insider knowledge and connections that Google and Trip Advisor simply can’t offer. You can’t search for something on Google if you don’t know it even exists. You won’t find anything for “Lunenburg Tour Guide with Grandfather in fishing industry”, just for example.

Having the right travel professional with connections to great tour companies and local guides can take your staycation from nice to amazing!

An organized itinerary might be for you if you:
– have been saying you’d like to do a staycation but never find time to plan it
– simply don’t want to spend time online researching
– don’t have your own vehicle
– don’t want to travel alone
– appreciate the experience of having a connected, local guide
– just want to relax instead of making all the decisions
– have been dreaming of travel, but second guessed your age and ability to do so

Talk to us about planning a weekend getaway or a two-week itinerary right here in Nova Scotia or elsewhere in Canada. We can help you with options that suit your activity level, your comfort level and your style (self drive vs organized group).

– We can arrange pre-organized road trips so you enjoy each day at your own pace, with accommodations and activities that are booked and prepaid before you go.
– We can arrange a private tour for your friends or family ‘bubble’ so that close interaction with others is limited.
– We can recommend a group tour and you can meet new friends!

Health and safety is the top concern for all of the partners we work with! The health and safety of clients is directly related to their reputations and the health and safety of their staff. It’s important to all of us for everyone to stay safe.

If any of this resonates with you, drop a comment below on this blog. I’d love to hear what you dream of doing right here in your home country!

Or let’s set up a 15 minute, no obligation zoom or phone call to see if it’s the right time for you to start planning a professionally organized staycation, for this fall / winter, or for 2021! You can reach me at stucker@tpi.ca.

World Tourism Day 2020

In a year when so many things seem to be going wrong, at times, it is hard to see the bigger picture; the one that says that the world being shut down is not forever. But, we really must actively work toward responsible tourism, protecting our people, planet and places.

Tourism is such a huge part of the world economy, that without it, families go hungry and communities who once pulled themselves out of poverty become impoverished again. But, you have a choice when you travel to make a positive impact, it’s called Responsible Tourism.

When you think of people in tourism being affected by Covid-19, you probably think first of the great tour guides you’ve met in your travels, travel agents like myself, flight, cruise ship and hotel staff. Those tourism jobs are just the tip of the iceberg though! With less people traveling:

  • There are fewer tourist buses, boats and ferries. This affects jobs for mechanics, maintenance staff, captains and drivers.
  • Fewer people staying at hotels means fewer jobs for cleaning and hotel staff, but also indirectly affects the businesses who clean the carpets or windows, replace the mats, do laundry or dry cleaning service or sell furnishings.
  • Fewer people exploring, means fewer people visiting rural communities and artisans that rely on tourism. Think of all the tours you’ve done to spice farms, coffee plantations, pineapple plantations, olive grove or lemon farms. Think of the distilleries, rum cake factories, blown glass workshops or weaving workshops you’ve visited. With no tourists, a large chunk of these farmers’ and artisans’ income is now gone.
  • Less demand for souvenirs and artisan’s works, so many tourist markets are closed and the small business owners and artisans have no where to sell their goods.

It really is such a difficult situation for so many. But, there is hope for a return to an even better world.

Today, Sept 27th is World Tourism Day. This year’s focus is on Tourism and Rural Development. Tourism is a viable sector for people in rural communities to build businesses and have employment opportunities that help them rise from poverty. But, it is not just about money. The tourism sector provides dignity and equality for many. It provides opportunities for women and youth which, in turn, provides better education for entire families. When you put that all together, it means a better world for all of us.

Please, take a moment today to reflect on your past travels. We ALL need to be more responsible when we travel in the future. If you reduce, reuse and recycle at home and are proud to support local in your community, then all you have to do is take those same principles with you when you travel.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself, or discuss with me, when you are planning your next trip.

  • Have you supported Rural Tourism by getting out of the cities and spending times in the countryside in the past? Did you enjoy the experience and feel connected to the locals?
  • Have you travelled with a company who takes a stand for Animal Rights, Women’s Equality, No Child Labour, Fair Wages and/or Environmental Action? If you aren’t sure, that’s ok. Commit to asking for this information going forward.
  • Have you made a conscious effort to go to a lesser-touristed destination and avoided the over-touristed hot spots? This spreads tourist dollars farther, supports more people and often means better value for your money! We all know the most highly touristed spots are full of tourist-traps!
  • Have you purchased souvenirs from the artisans themselves rather than bulk-made souvenirs?
  • Have you dined at a local restaurant that buys its food from within 100 kms, reducing the carbon footprint?
  • Have you stayed at accommodations that are locally owned & operated?
  • Have you done research on your Air BnB / VRBO accommodations to make sure they are properly zoned, owned by a local (not a foreigner) and that families have not been forced to move because of increasing rents to provide tourist accommodation?
  • Have you stayed at a restored Heritage building that is locally owned and lovingly restored?
  • Have you chosen to go to a smaller, locally owned resort rather than a Chain-resort so that more of your tourist dollars goes back to the local economy instead of to a foreign investor?
  • Have you used your spending money wisely to support local businesses, artisans and companies while you are travelling?
  • Have you visited a community where they’ve taught you about their culture and heritage?
  • Have you donated to a local not for profit organization rather than giving money or candy to children begging on the streets?
  • Have you packed responsibly insuring you have no single use plastic? Some countries ban plastic bags with HUGE fines, including zip lock baggies. So, pack your reusable bottle, reusable toiletry bags and a steel straw! Don’t leave any garbage behind in the country you visit.
  • Have you chosen to travel one country or area in depth to get to know the culture and the locals better, as well as reducing your carbon footprint by using ground or water transportation rather than flying relatively short distances between destinations?
  • Have you made a donation to a Carbon offsetting organization to help mitigate the carbon used on your trip?

If you haven’t done any of these, that’s ok! There is no time like the present to start your journey to becoming a better traveller. If you don’t know where to start, that’s ok too. I’m here to help you be a better traveller going forward.

You don’t have to do all of these things every time you travel, but even if you do some of them, what a difference it will make to the locals in the destinations that you’ve chosen to visit. Start with your next trip and see if you can incorporate some of these great practices. You’ll have the most wonderful trip AND it will be having a positive impact on the people and places you visit, as well as our planet. It’s a win-win-win!

If you are ready to get back out there in the world and are dreaming of where you’d like to go in 2021 or 2022, reach out to me. Let’s set up a time to talk about responsible tourism options that will make your dream vacation just that much more special! A few small changes can make a world of difference.

Happy World Tourism Day!

What do I need to know about travelling right now?

Peggy's Cove, NS

14JUL20 – There has been a lot of great news about international travel opening up around the world. Canada is on the EU ‘safe list’. Caribbean Islands are welcoming guests from various international destinations, including Canada. Flights have resumed to many destinations, encouraging tourism, albeit on a less frequent schedule.

Beware!

There is much more to consider outside of being welcome in your destination country. Just because we are welcome, does that mean you should book the next flight out?

Travel is possible, but very risky at the moment. The Canadian Government still has the Avoid Non-Essential Travel Advisory in place and our border with the USA is still closed. Even within Canada, our movements are restricted and quarantines are required for travel between many of our provinces.

Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia

Here are the top four things that you need to weigh deeply before deciding if now is the right time for you to travel:


POTENTIAL TRAVEL COMPLICATIONS

Travel as you know it, basically no longer exists. Your favourite flight routes may not be operating, or are at a much lower frequency. Masks are mandatory on most flights. New check in procedures are in place. Many international airports remain closed to international flights and are only accepting domestic arrivals. Almost everything is done contact-less, which means you’ll need to travel with a smart phone. Some destinations require you have a negative Covid test before boarding your flight. Other destinations require you to be tested on arrival. Sometimes tests are at your expense, sometimes they are free. The middle seat is blocked on some flights and on others, it is not. Every airline, hotel, tour operator and cruise line has a slightly different cancellation and change policy. It is not one size fits all.

Four complications to be prepared for:

1. Denied boarding – You get to the airport, have your temperature checked and you are denied boarding. No amount of arguing, pleading or smiling will get you on board that flight. At this point you may simply be asked to leave the airport, asked to get tested on site (if available), or you may be asked to self-isolate or quarantine.

On departure for your vacation, your flights / hotels / tours will likely all be non-refundable at this point, so you’ll also lose the money you’ve spent on your vacation. At least you’ll be in your home country if you do have Covid.

If you are denied boarding on your return to Canada though, you’ll need to be prepared for the costs of medical, accommodation, transportation and new flights from your destination depending on how long you are sick for and if it is just a fever, or a positive Covid result.

2. Testing Positive on Arrival – When you arrive in destination, you may be tested at the airport for Covid. Should you test positive, even if you are not exhibiting symptoms, you will be required to quarantine for that countries’ designated length of time. You will not be allowed to return home by flight until you have been cleared by a negative test. Depending on the country, you may be quarantined at a government facility or, you may have to find and cover the costs of quarantine on your own. This comes with exceptional difficulties of avoiding public transportation, seeking medical attention and having groceries delivered, all in another language.

3. Becoming Ill with Covid while Traveling – There’s nothing worse than enjoying a beautiful vacation for a few days and then becoming sick, be it with a cold, a stomach bug, or Covid. You’ll need to seek medical attention where you are, even if it is the tiniest of tiny towns. Medical and transportation costs will be yours to cover, as well as the loss of any pre-booked services that you won’t be able to make it to. You also have to consider that medical services may not be as reliable in another country, or if there is another outbreak in the area you are in, even the best of medical systems have become overwhelmed.

4. The dreaded Second Wave – While many countries are progressing well and some have gotten down to zero active cases, it is nearly impossible for the entire world to be rid of Covid. Because of this, as long as travel between provinces, countries and internationally continues, cases will continue to pop up. It’s just a matter of how prepared each country is to control it.

If you are traveling in the next few months, you have to be prepared for the dreaded Second Wave. It is possible that you may be enjoying your vacation with not a care in the world, taking all of the pertinent precautions and then within a day (or days), the world could be shut down again completely, leaving you with few (or no) options to return to Canada.

In this case, you’ll need to shelter in place until the bans are lifted and flights begin again. This could be a few weeks, or a few months, so make sure you have access to sufficient funds to support yourself abroad. At this point, the Canadian Government has made it clear that they are not planning any further Repatriation flights as the Avoid Non-Essential Travel Advisory is still in place. Traveling during this advisory is done at your own risk.


INSURANCE

Every insurance company and policy is different, so there is not one single answer for ‘Will I be covered for Covid?’ but chances are, right now, you will not be. There may be some exceptions, such as if you purchased your insurance policy prior to March or if you have Cancel for Any Reason insurance, but you’ll need to check with your specific insurance company about their rules. For policies being purchased now for future travel, most do not cover cancellation, interruption or medical due to Covid, at least not while there is an Avoid Non-Essential Travel Advisory in place due to the Covid pandemic.

Now, that doesn’t mean you should go without insurance! Insurance is still a very important part of travel and can protect you from all kinds of unexpected situations. If a loved one passes away suddenly (not a pre-existing condition or Covid-19), then you may be able to make a claim for any non-refundable items. If you have a stop over and your connecting flight is cancelled (maybe due to mechanical malfunction, not due to Covid) and you have to spend a night, or three … or when you are abroad, if you get in a car or pedestrian accident, fall and break your arm, chip a tooth or have a heart attack (not related to a pre-existing condition or Covid), then you likely qualify to make a claim. It’s very important to remember that insurance covers you for a multitude of reasons and unexpected circumstances. It is not meant to cover you for things you already know about, it is designed to protect you from those you don’t.

If you are choosing to travel despite the Avoid Non-Essential Travel Advisory, I highly recommend Cancel for Any Reason insurance. This allows you to cancel for any reason (including Covid), giving you a percentage refund, dependent on how far in advance you cancel. Only a few companies currently offer this product, but it can give you extra peace of mind knowing that you can recover some of your costs if you decide not to go. Feel free to contact me for a no-obligation quote at any time.


COUNTRY ENTRY REQUIREMENTS

Only some countries are currently open to receiving International Travellers. And only some of those are allowing Canadians. Some require Covid testing on arrival. Some require 10 day quarantine on arrival, others 14 day quarantine. Some countries have split districts where the north is allowing tourism and the south is not, or it may vary by province. How they are enforcing this, I’m not quite sure, but I don’t think I’d want to be wrapped up in being a foreigner somewhere that I’m not supposed to be.

And the most difficult thing is that the rules of today could be better or worse tomorrow, or in two weeks or two months. You could book a trip today because Canadians are allowed in and there is no quarantine required, but two weeks from now when you travel, the rules could be changed. Instability is the name of the game for the next few months, at least.


RETURNING TO CANADA

If you’ve decided to travel abroad, for tourism or to visit family, you need to be prepared to quarantine for 14 days upon your return to Canada. At this time, you are allowed to be ‘in transit’ at Canadian airports to get to your home destination, but once you arrive, you are expected to do a full quarantine. For us, in Canada, that means 14 days where you remain inside or on your property regardless of whether you have symptoms or not. You do not go out for groceries or to get gas. You cannot use public transportation and you’ll need to have your food delivered either by a grocery service or a meal service. You don’t go for a drive or a walk down the street. You don’t invite friends over and socially distance by six feet. You isolate yourself so that you don’t potentially infect anyone else.

Different provinces have varying degrees of enforcement to ensure you are following the public health guidelines. Make sure you know the rules for your home province.


2020 – YEAR OF THE STAYCATION

For these reasons, most people are still staying home and traveling locally, within their province or within their provincial ‘bubble’. For the average person, it’s simply too complicated and risky to travel far, for leisure purposes.

Trust me, as a travel agent who makes my entire living based on people traveling abroad and who is deeply passionate about travel, this is not the message that I’d like to be sharing, but it’s only fair to be honest and transparent about the risks.

Many people are traveling to visit family abroad that they’ve been apart from for too long. Some people are returning to their home to stay and a few brave souls just can’t wait any longer to explore; wanderlust is strong within them!

As a travel agent, I am still here to help you plan your vacation, visit your family, put your insurance in place and help you navigate all of the changes. If you are planning to travel abroad in the coming months, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

While I understand most people do not need a travel agent’s assistance to travel within their own province, if you decide you are interested in traveling across Canada and would like help planning some amazing experiences in Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario or Saskatchewan, which are all currently open for domestic travel without quarantine, or the Yukon or Northwest Territories when restrictions are lifted, I’d be pleased to help. If you are ready to start booking international travel for 2021, with many great deals and relaxed booking policies, I’d love to hear from you! Contact me today.

Stay safe at home and in transit. Things are getting better, it’s just going to take time.

Why Use a Travel Agent to Book Your Cruise Vacation – Case Study

If you’ve been wondering if you should use a travel agent to book your cruise, let me give you a few reasons why, yes, you should!

Working with an independent travel agent such as Shari Tucker Luxury Travel & Adventures can often be misunderstood. Many people don’t understand the value and benefit of working with an agent for something that you can seemingly, do yourself. However, all things are not created equal! Of course you can book your cruise online, but is that the best choice and best value for you? What might you be missing out on? Let’s look further.

If you’ve always booked your own vacations and have plenty of leisure time to spend researching your cruise, then you may not understand why anyone would use a travel agent. That’s ok! I’m here to help you understand what you are missing out on by booking a cruise on your own. If any of the following apply to you, it’s time you consider using a travel agent to book your next cruise:

  • Have little leisure time or little interest in doing in-depth vacation planning
  • Appreciate the advice of a professional in the field
  • Like speaking with someone who knows you personally
  • Find all of the options on the internet overwhelming to sort through
  • Have concerns about the reputability of companies you find online
  • Concerned about understanding cancellation and change policies or tend to ignore them and hope for the best
  • Enjoy supporting local or Canadian entrepreneurs and businesses

While I never promise anyone that working with me will be cheaper than booking on your own, I do always promise that you will get better (and more personal) service, you’ll be taken care of if something goes wrong and you will save HOURS of your precious time. It’s all about value for your money. On top of that, if I can save you money or get you extra perks along the way, that’s a great bonus! We all love to save money when we can!

To give you a tangible example of some of the benefits of working with Shari Tucker Luxury Travel & Adventures, check out the case study below of a recent booking with Royal Caribbean Cruises to see what you are missing out on if you aren’t working with a great travel agent.


Photo Credit: Royal Caribbean

CASE STUDY 1

BOOKING ON YOUR OWN

ROYAL CARIBBEAN CRUISE
Sailing:
11 night Canadian Adventure Cruise
Date: Oct 4, 2021 – Montreal, Canada
Ship:
Empress of the Seas
Category:
4N – Oceanview
Deck:
8 – 8022
Booking fee: $0
Service:

  • Self-service booking online, or you can call reservations with Royal Caribbean
  • Generally expect hold times of 15 – 60 minutes each time you call, longer during periods of high call volume
  • Speak to a different reservations agent, in the USA, each time you call.
  • Reservations agents answer specific questions about Royal Caribbean Cruises and input your information to book your trip
  • Reservations agents cannot provide information or book you on pre or post cruise land extensions

Public Rate for 1 cabin, 2 passengers: $3946 including port charges & taxes
On board credit or perks: $0
Deposit Terms: $960 – due day of booking – Non Refundable (except taxes & fees)


BOOKING WITH SHARI TUCKER LUXURY TRAVEL & ADVENTURES

ROYAL CARIBBEAN CRUISE
Sailing: 11 night Canadian Adventure Cruise
Date: Oct 4, 2021 – Montreal, Canada
Category: 4N – Oceanview
Deck:
8 – 8022 or 8026
Booking fee: $150 + tax
Service:

  • Speak with me, your personal travel agent, via email, text or phone
  • No hold times. If you are not able to reach me by phone on your first try, leave a message and I’ll call you back.
  • I get to know your preferences, your style of travel and make appropriate recommendations
  • You’ll speak with me directly each time you have a question or concern
  • I provide recommendations on the best available room, or best value category available and different price points.
  • If you are a past client, I have your booking details on file so you don’t have to go digging for passports and loyalty numbers.
  • I help you arrange insurance, flights, pre/post night hotels needed
  • I provide recommendations for land extensions to add before or after your cruise (additional fees may apply for booking).
  • I’ll help you navigate the new Covid-19 policies and procedures, on booking and at the time of travel
  • I can answer questions and give you advice on cancellation terms and conditions for your booking

Travel Agent Rate for 1 cabin, 2 passengers: $3568 including port charges & taxes (savings of $378 from the public rate of $3946, on the cruise rate)
Travel Agent Perk: On board credit of $25 per person / $50 per stateroom
Travel Agent Perk: Flexible Deposit Terms – $960 – due within 30 days – Fully refundable (in cash not future travel credit) prior to final payment
VS
Public Deposit Terms: $960 – due day of booking – Non Refundable (except taxes & fees)


SUMMARY

Clients paid $150 + tax up front to hire me to research and book this cruise. I then provide clients with on going service throughout the entire booking, travel and return process. I saved clients $378 from the public rate, plus secured them an additional $50 on board credit and better deposit terms. These clients still have flexibility to choose their own dining options on board, activities and port excursions. They can also use points, or book their own flights if they choose. If clients cancel before May 2021, they lose only the $150 that they have paid for my time and research. But, if they had booked direct they would lose their deposit of $960 if they cancelled prior to May 2021 because it is non-refundable.


NOW IT’S UP TO YOU

Still unsure if working with a travel agent for your next cruise vacation is the best option for you? Drop me an email to set up a FREE, 15 minute conversation where you can ask questions about the process as it pertains to your specific trip. Or, hire me for a 60 minute initial consultation by phone or video ($50 + tax) to discuss your trip and access my expertise on the various styles of cruise (or general) travel that you may not have considered. All cruises are not equal. They vary in ship size, amenities, age range, itinerary. You want to make sure you get the right fit, for YOU! From there, you can decide if you’d like to plan and book your own trip or hire me to organize it for you. The choice is yours.


Disclaimer: Information was correct at the time of publishing – July 2, 2020. Prices for cruises and promotions may change, rendering different results on different dates.

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.

Airline Prices in a Crisis

Covid-19 has set the world into a frenzy that saw thousands of people in difficult situations, trying to get home on some of the last flights departing many destinations. I understand that people are frustrated by not being able to find flights at a reasonable cost, but I’d like to clear up a common misconception.

AIRLINES DO NOT RAISE PRICES DURING A CRISIS!

At any time of a ‘normal’ year, if you try to book a one way flight anywhere internationally, on short notice (1-5 days, maybe even up to 14 days), prices are going to be high, you’ve probably just rarely had to do that, so you are surprised when you see it. The airline is not out to get you. They haven’t raised their prices. They aren’t trying to gouge you, but yes, the ticket price could be five times higher than what you paid.

Here’s what’s happening.

There are a fixed number of seats on any plane. Each airline has a variety of options ranging from the most restrictive of fares in economy class to the most flexible of fares in Business Class. While you and your bestie may sit side by side on the plane, have the exact same size seat and get the same meals and service, you may have paid two very different prices. Sometimes they could be hundreds of dollars difference.

How can that be?

Most people just think of it as Economy, Premium Economy or Business class, each with their own section of the plane, but it’s far more complicated than that.

It’s not just about the physical location on the plane. The prices are based on a package of benefits. It includes the location of your seat on the plane, the leg room, if your luggage and seat selection are included, if your ticket is non-refundable, changeable or refundable for a fee and how many loyalty points you earn. Then it is also based on the level of service you receive on board, how many flight attendants per passenger there are, the quality of food and extra amenities like hot face cloths and champagne served before take off, just to name a few.

Each class of service has a different set of rules, and a different amount of flexibility. The cheaper the price, the fewer benefits you get and the more restrictive the fare is. If you pay for a business class flexible ticket, you can change or refund for no fee in some cases. If you pay for a cheap, basic economy ticket, if you need to change, you are SOL my friend. You get to buy a brand new ticket and you don’t get a refund for the cheap one you bought earlier.

Keeping in line with this, as you can imagine, the bulk of the seats on a plane fall into Economy Class. Within that, there are various pricing levels with different flexibility options when it comes to inclusions, refunds and cancellations. You might have paid $100, but have a fully non-refundable ticket, pay for your luggage separately and only collect 25% loyalty points. The person sitting to your left might have paid $300, have a change fee of $150 and be getting 50% loyalty points. The person on your right pay have paid $500, have a change fee of $50 and be getting 100% loyalty points. All of you are in Economy seating.

Woah! Did I just blow your mind?

Covid-19 Crisis

Now, let’s bring it back to Covid-19, or any crisis, really, where people for whatever reason need to buy flights on short notice.

Airline tickets are normally available for purchase somewhere about 10 – 11 months in advance. It varies a bit by airline and route, but that’s a general rule of thumb.

Most people buy their airline tickets three to nine months in advance. Of course there are always people who buy flights, especially domestically, one or two months in advance.

The majority of people book into the Economy Class category where they are looking for the cheapest flight to get them to their destination. Let’s just say, for ease of math, there are 100 seats on a plane. 10 are business class, 20 are Premium Economy and the remaining 70 are Economy. Break it down further now and of those 10 business class, you have five basic business class and five flexible business class. In Premium Economy you have 10 flexible and 10 more restricted. In Economy, there could be up to four variations and different prices, so 17-18 seats at each level. In this example alone, that gives you eight different price points.

To complicate things further, the prices on International flights fluctuate not just with the class of service, but with the exchange rate of the connecting flights that are going through different countries and the taxes of each separate airport, which also fluctuate with exchange rate. Sorry, there is no ‘fixed price’ for an international flight.

If you are flying Halifax – Toronto – Frankfurt – Addis Ababa – Johannesburg and then return, you are affected by the taxes at five airports in four countries and the exchange rates of four different currencies that fluctuate daily.

If the majority of people buy their flights six to nine months in advance and are looking for the cheapest prices, what do you think is the first to sell out? That’s right, the cheapest fares on the flight with the most restrictive rules and fewest inclusions.

And, at two months prior to take off, what do you think is left? The higher priced classes of service within Economy, with more inclusions and fewer restrictions. By this point, you’ll also often find that Premium Economy is sold out as many people choose to pay extra for the extra comfort and benefits offered. Then you are left with Business Class, if it’s not full, and the most flexible options of Economy class.

Fast forward to the plane being nearly sold out one month in advance. People who were late buying their tickets missed out on the cheapest level of service and paid more. They likely don’t understand that they have a more lax cancellation policy or that the cheaper price didn’t included luggage.

Let’s say there are five seats remaining on the plane, because 95% of the plane sold out more than one month in advance. Let’s say there are three Economy seats, one Premium Economy and one business class seat available.

All of a sudden on March 13th, 2020 you are already in destination and discover that you need to get home before the borders close on the 15th at midnight due to a crazy pandemic. Let’s call it Covid-19!

There is one flight left and it has five seats available but 100 people trying to get those five seats. The prices of the five seats don’t change, but once the three cheaper economy seats sell out, all that’s left is Premium and Business Class. To make it more complicated, if you are searching for two seats, for you and your partner, and two of the economy class seats have already sold, you’ll get an error saying there are no seats available.

Not quite true! I’ll tell you a secret; one of you could go in economy and one in Premium Economy, but an online system won’t tell you this, or allow you to book this easily or quickly enough when there is high demand. You could get one seat booked and then the other one is gone and one of you is staying behind. How’s that for scary?

Travel agents have ways around this … It might literally be the difference in both of you getting on the same plane or not. You might not pay the same price for both seats, but you might arrive home together!

It is the same reason that your travel agent will tell you not to wait until last minute to book flights for your vacation and that it is very unlikely there will be a ‘sale’ if you wait until one month prior to travel. The cheap seats will already be sold out, therefore you end up paying a higher price. The airlines did not raise the prices, you are just paying the rate of the day for the class of service that is available at that time.

In a crisis situation, where countries are restricting travel and closing borders, it is also important to note that there are many fewer routing options available and much higher demand for those last few seats. If you don’t get on them quickly, you might miss out. It’s good to have a professional watching for these things for you while you are on vacation!

There are lots of reasons to book with a good travel agent. The intricacies of airline bookings are just one of many. If you get stuck abroad due to a natural disaster, or pandemic, do you want to deal with it alone, spending hours on hold trying to reach each airline or would you rather have a professional taking care of the arrangements for you and telling you what you should do next?

If you’d like to work with a professional on your next trip, for peace of mind and so many other great benefits, I’d be happy to hear from you at stucker@tpi.ca or 902 402 7646.

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.