Thursday, October 13, 2011

So...where to from here?

So by now a lot of you are probably wondering what we are up to? Why are we back in Australia? Why are we not building that world class eco-lodge in Guatemala's jungles? What is our future direction?

Click here if you are really impatient and want to know NOW!

This blog entry is all about answering those and many other questions regarding our grand future plans. Strap in, grab the popcorn and hold on tight!

During our family visit to Canada, one evening Colette and I were discussing our plans and ideas for the Guatemala eco-lodge project. We got to the question of "What are we really trying to achieve with this and what is the best way to do it?"

The answer to the first part of the question is to create an opportunity to enable people a perspective shifting type of travel experience. Why? Well because you can shout and stomp the ground all you want when it comes to world issues such as; environmental degradation, economic inequality, poverty, famine, war and hatred - but in this age that won't get you very far. In order to change the world, you need to change the way people think - the way you think. But the most important part of this equation is that you cannot force others to change their minds and ways of thinking, they need to willingly do it themselves. They need to be inspired, they need an epiphany.

We realized that we had gone through this very process in our travels and many new perspectives were made possible by our willingness to go out and see the world for ourselves. In the end this is why people travel, not just a vacation where you can relax from your everyday stress, but really a soul-searching kind of travel.

Running an eco-lodge we could really affect a lot of people in positive ways, but probably not enough people and with not enough depth. There is a limitation there, only so many people can visit over a certain period of time. It's located in one particular geographic spot and people are only ever visiting an experience that really belongs to others. So therefore it is not as effective as it would need to be in order to truly create the opportunity for big scale change.

Now comes the second part of the big question: What to do...?

During our travels the most influential experiences were the ones where we were truly able to get into the local vibe. To see, feel, smell and participate in the everyday lives of the people who are there all the time. This enabled us to experience true sharing of one another's world, walk in their shoes, so to speak.

But these experiences were very rare and hard to achieve in the current realm of travel possibility. When you get down to it, currently there are only three different ways to travel:

  • The guide book - Generally chosen by the younger and more impoverished travel makers. It has become quite the popular option really, and maybe that is the problem - everybody is doing it! You end up in the same places, doing the same things and eating the same stuff as pretty much everyone else who is travelling. This is alright and can be very social, but in reality has little to do with where you actually are and more to do with the international travel community.
  • The organized tour - Imagine walking into a travel agency and booking a tour to see a country over a few weeks, or even days! Once you get there, you are sharing the private shuttle with another 20-30 people and most of your travel is spent looking out at the world through the windows of a bus. It's the safer option, albeit more costly, and this might well be why many older or unseasoned travelers choose this option.
  • The independent - Arguably the most frustrating way to travel, particularly if you are entering an entirely different culture, language or climate. This type of travel can be very rewarding but it's a bit of a gamble and the sought after returns on your risky investment are sometimes very hard to accomplish. It is by and large very inaccessible to most travelers. Naturally this also ends up the most 'dangerous' option as you might often end up in completely disorganized situations without any ways out. Solid courage is a necessity and so most independent travelers turn out to be well seasoned before they even embark on their trip.

The gap in the travel industry becomes evident:

  • Travel needs to be decentralized to prevent a place and its people to be spoiled by mass tourism. 
  • People need more choice and accessibility to truly local and authentic travel experiences. 

But what if you could jump online, browse a map or search a few keywords that might interest you in your travels and end up with results showing ranked local 'tour-guides' in limitless locations around the globe? What if there was an easy system, one built on community trust and user ratings? What if it was accessible to all kinds of budgets? And most importantly, what if customizing your travel experience in a uniquely local way was the daily rule and not the annual exception?

Enter Talking About A Travelution, our new blog dedicated to developing these and many other questions and ideas. The ultimate goal - making it possible to revolutionize the way we travel, and share the world in a truly meaningful way.

Naturally, and sadly, this will be our last blog on this website. Please do stay in touch and keep following us, as you already have so faithfully, on to our next big adventure - the travelution project!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Croatian Islands = Love at first sight

Hooray!!! This is the part I've been waiting for: Installment 4 of Croatia and by far my favourite! Drumroll please as we make our way into the Dalmatian Islands, starting with Korčula but featuring.....Lastovo!

Korčula town on Korčula Island was our first stop. 
It's a delight, and a great gateway into the islands.
Korčula is littered with lovely heritage buildings and is allegedly the birthplace of Marco Polo

Looking out for invaders

Vinko's family hails from the islands Lastovo & Vis, and I've been hearing about the beauty and magnificence of these places as long as I've known him. He wasn't lying. It is beautiful and I instantly loved it. The sea around the island is unlike anything I have ever seen. From the ferry coming in to the island you can see meters and meters deep; all the rocks, fish, sea grass, everything. It is incredible.

Would that face lie to you?

The landscape is stark but beautiful on the island's outer edge

There are a lot of beautiful old buildings in Lastovo town

This is the trademark of Lastovo - the Fumari chimney

Soon after settling in, we strolled through town and heard the most magical music coming from the church. We peeked in to see a young guy sitting at the piano, playing this amazing music as if he wasn't even thinking about it. This was the very talented pianist Marko Ivic from Zagreb, who was on holiday in Lastovo and decided to do a concert for free the next night. And there began our adventure, for Marko did not come alone...

The getalonggang: Ugi, Miljenko, Vinko & Marko
at the start of our epic day hike to the blue cave

Pre-sweat, pre-grump. It was a long, hard, hot hike...

...but we found zen and peace at the end by the lighthouse...

...and after a swim and a cold drink I managed to smile again...

...and we rewarded ourselves with a feast at the end of the day!

Lastovo is the last in the chain of the Dalmatian islands, and it does feel a bit like a faraway, forgotten place. Because of complicated, communist-style property laws regarding family homes on the island, most of the houses are legally owned by 16-25 people, many of whom have moved to the mainland or overseas. As such, so many of the houses have no clear ownership and hence no incentive for investment or upkeep, rendering them completely decrepit. It is such a shame because the town, the people and the whole island is fantastic. But maybe that is exactly why it is so charming: only the die-hard locals live here all year, and the few tourists that do make it this far can hardly be found outside of July and August.

The Undertaker's hut in the cemetery

Shot from the cemetery

Building: 0
Nature: 1
The permanent local community take very good care of their homes and gardens

This one might still have a chance?

The Fumari features everywhere in old town Lastovo

Feel like you're in another world yet?

How about now?

View from the Church of Saint Cosmas & Damian, the patron saints of the island.
They were twin brothers who were persecuted in the 3rd century under Diocletian

In front of the church

On top of the world

When the tourists do come, they generally stick to the coastal villages and again I can't blame them. It is gorgeous (I am running out of adjectives here...). I can sing praises and tell you about lazy days spent in the sun, great produce and homemade wine you will not find anywhere else.  Instead, I'll let the pictures paint the glory.

Lučica, a small fishing village I fell in love with.
If anybody has a house here that I can squat at, please let me know.

The bay of Pasadur, where Vinko spent all his summer holidays as a child

The vista from the island's highest peak (Hum) over Skrivena Luka Bay

I believe I may have mentioned before that it was dry...

...and beautiful.

Dry and Beautiful!
When we finally did manage to tear ourselves away from Lastovo, we headed to Hvar on the 4am ferry. Not by choice. There is only one catamaran ferry between Lastovo & Hvar daily (the others are super slow barge ferries), and life on the island really does revolve around this ridiculous ferry schedule. It was brutal, especially because we had to get up at 2:30am to tidy and close the house up for winter (involving multiple sheets of plastic and laundry pegs). Just proving to us again that the people survived here for so long by virtue of of early mornings and hard work.

Hvar's small craft harbour. At sunrise.

Vista over Hvar. It's known as a party place and lives up to its rep.
Check out the massive yacht (complete with bouncer keeping curious plebs off).

On the recommendation of our fantastic hosts at Villa Skanski, we hired a scooter and headed out to explore the island. The thrill of being on a moped (yes yes, creeping over the mountain at 20km/h is not exactly thrilling, but the concept and experience as a whole was engaging and free) was only second to the incredible scenery. Add to that a swim in the most beautiful bay I have EVER been in, and a fresh fried fish lunch topped off with local wine and life is pretty much as sweet as it's going to get. 

Hvar's castle/fortress looms over the whole bay

The bay of Dubovica. Surely this is where the gods came on holiday.

He has the right to look mighty chuffed. It's awesome.

Token canon at Stari Grad (Old Town), which was much less crowded than Hvar Town,
much friendlier, and less flashy & pretentious

I think I've made it pretty clear: the Dalmatian Islands are incredible.  It was the most spectacular way to end our 18 month long travels and I feel so lucky to have had Vinko showing me around, bridging the language gap for me, navigating me through the customs and generally being my "in" with the locals, many of whom remember him as a hyperactive little boy, and were thrilled that he had come back to visit after so many years. (If you've ever seen an old grandma-lady pinch a 29 year old man's bearded face and coochy-cooing him like he was a child, you'll know what I'm talking about here!). Traveling as "partial locals" made a huge difference in how we were received and how we will remember a place. And that, my friends, is why we are moving on to bigger and better things still!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Being a visitor and a guide. Simultaneously.

Just a little note: Because I ended up with a ridiculous amount of photos of Croatia in just one month, I am going to break it down into four rapid-fire parts: Istrian PeninsulaCentral Coast, Southern Croatia & Montenegro, and end on a flourish with the Croatian Islands. This blog is the third installment, covering southern Croatia and Monte Negro.

Pomegranate, such beautiful fruits

Our South Coast Adventure started off with an abrupt, screeching halt. Literally. Just south of Split we drove past two red-faced, wilted people who were half melted over their backpacks by the side of the road and pulled over to see if we could help. Maja and Mariusz, two adventurous hitch hikers from Poland, told us how difficult it has been to to get a ride in Croatia and said that they want to head to Bosnia instead, despite the fact that they loved the coast and have not seen much of Croatia yet. In an instant, we "adopted" these travelers and Vinko made it his mission to show them as much of the country as possible, and make sure they leave with good memories and the desire to return. We absolutely loved our time with them and the perspective we gained from hanging out with open minded foreigner travelers. And we realised just how much of a difference it makes to have a "local" person, or even just somebody who speaks the language, to show you around a place.

Our Polish hitch hiker friends. You gotta be tough to get with us.

Zuljana. Can you imagine a more chilled out place?

Our adventure also had us staying a night in Ston,
where it was apparently imperative to protect the whole mountain,
even though the town is outside the fortress walls. Crazy.
But if you go here, make sure you try the mussels. They are amazing.

After cruising the coast, stopping at a few places to take a dip we ended up in Ston, the gateway into the Pelješac peninsula (which I repeatedly called an island and Vinko repeatedly corrected me on). It does have that certain faraway island feel to it. There are scraggy hills, valleys filled with vineyards, beautiful little coves and beaches. It's hard not to love this place. Especially when you can find a little family run wine cellar every couple kilometers where you can try the wine and other local specialties (like wickedly strong rakija). Divine.

We were sad to part with our new friends, but we were heading south into Monte Negro. First stop was the larger coastal town Herceg Novi, which is transformed into a vibrant, lively city just busting at its seams with young energy at night. There are kilometers of pedestrian paths running along the sea shore (which is brilliantly clear, to say the least) and all along this path there are little cafes, hotels, bars, clubs, swimming and lounging spots. We also headed further south to Kotor, along a spectacular coastal road, fringed on one side by a crystal clear, deep blue water and on the other by towering mountains like grey giants. It is one of the most impressive roads I have ever been on.

Lighthouse along the way

Just to demonstrate how close these gigantic mountains are to the coast

And also to show how big the cruise ship is compared to Kotor town,
and also compared to the Black Mountains

What do you know:  Kotor also has its own walled-in mountain!

For a small town, Kotor has an incredible amount of churches, monasteries and convents.
This is St. Tryphon's Cathedral

St. Lucas's Church

Compared to the small-town friendliness of Monte Negro, we were hit full in the face with Dubrovnik's uber touristy and incredibly unfriendly stance. No matter how hard we tried, people were not giving us the time of day, not even a glimmer of a smile. On one hand I can understand: Dubrovnik is completely overcrowded with mass tourists and it is daunting, if not impossible, to maneuver through the street when two of these herded groups collide. These tourists have their blinkers on for anything other than what the guide points out as photo-worthy and I imagine as a local it becomes extremely irritating to live with the masses and the ignorance every day. But on the other hand I would like to think that when you do encounter a traveler who is willing to be a one-on-one human with you, shouldn't that make you more inclined to be nice in return?

The shops in Dubrovnik all have these street lights as name signs.
It's charming in its own way.

The streets are filled with people night and day,
and I'm lucky I got this brief gap  where nobody passed by
The contrasting experience between our unique and personal time with the hitch hikers and the impersonal touristy time in Dubrovnik showed us that Travel as an industry has swung too far in one direction. It also clearly illustrated to us that mass tourism eventually ruins the very thing people come to see in the first place. Surely there has to be a better way. We think there is, and we are working on turning that idea into reality. We are talking about a travelution now.