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September 18, 2014

Futbol, Migas, and a Hailstorm: Our Bolivian Homestay Adventure

Tristan and his new futbol-loving friend!

Tristan and his new futbol-loving friend!

By: Noemi Gamel

In Sucre, we decided to do something different. Instead of renting an apartment, we participated in a homestay. For those who have never done one, a homestay means living with a local family, in their home.

Our Bolivian homestay has been one of our most positive experiences of the trip! We are staying in a typical Bolivian home where all the rooms open to a central courtyard. We are sharing this home with a family of five and any other guests that happen to be there (ranging from 1-4 people). While we have two private bedrooms, we share a bathroom, kitchen, and the patio.

Our host family is lovely, sweet, and inviting. They have been helpful and friendly from the start and give us privacy when we need it. These are some of the best aspects of the homestay:

1. The family only speaks Spanish, so Chris and the kids have been practicing their language skills. In fact, our landlords own the Spanish school Chris and the kids have been attending during our 3 weeks in Sucre.

2. We are getting a glimpse into how a real Bolivian family lives. Our host family is part of a large, multi-generational family. One weekend, they had a birthday party for one of the uncles, so we were able to experience the local food and culture first hand.

3. Tristan has been thrilled because he plays futbol (soccer) with the son of our landlords every day.

4. Our host family has cooked typical Bolivian meals for us a few times as a kind gesture (meals are not included in the price), and we have cooked for them too (they loved the traditional Mexican Migas, though it took a bit of running around town to find all of the ingredients). Sharing meals has been a great way to learn more about each other’s life and culture.

5. Like most typical Sucre homes in this neighborhood, all rooms open to an enclosed outdoor courtyard. This means that if you have to go into the kitchen or bathroom when it is raining or cold, you have to prepare for an adventure. This has not been a problem at all, except during the brief hailstorm that came down upon us one day.

Even though I was initially reluctant to book a homestay because I feared the lack of privacy, I am so glad I did. We will all be leaving with great memories and wonderful new friends.

Do you have previous homestay experiences? Share them with us in the comments below!



September 8, 2014

Bolivian Street Food

Digging into some salteñas in Bolivia

Digging into some salteñas in Bolivia

By: Noemi Gamel

When it comes to eating, Americans are used to two choices: eating at home or going to a restaurant. The idea of walking up to a cart on the street and grabbing a bite to eat is scary. Is it safe? What if I end up in the hospital? I could die!

Street food is a huge part of the culture throughout much of the world, especially in South America. While restaurants are fine, avoiding street food would have meant missing out on two Bolivian delights: papas rellenas and salteñas. Both of these delicacies are traditional Bolivian mid-morning snacks. In other words, you have to snatch them by noon or they will be gone!

Papas rellenas are “stuffed potatoes.” Think fried ball of mashed potatoes stuffed with meat, cheese, or a hard-boiled egg. Chris and the kids would often have a papa rellena for breakfast from a vendor that literally operated from an open window on the wall of a building.

Salteñas are heaven in a pastry pocket. They look like football-shaped empanadas. Originally made by a family exiled to Bolivia from Salta, Argentina (which is how they got their name), these snacks consist of sweet dough filled with either meat or vegetable stew. We ate our salteñas from an “upscale” street vendor. They actually had indoor seating, but all they served were saltenas and fresh fruit juice. These little pockets of goodness were the most delicious food I have had in Bolivia.

While eating street food is a fun way to experience the local cuisine and tend to be much less expensive than tourist restaurants, you should not throw caution to the wind. Here is a little secret: eat where the locals eat. If lots of locals are eating at a street vendor, it is a safe bet that it is safe to eat there.

What are your favorite street foods? Let us know in the comments below.



September 5, 2014

From Bhutan to Boston: Kinley’s Story!

Below is a post written by Kinley, who has been interning here at TFA for the summer while visiting the US from her home country of Bhutan!

Kinley's American adventure

Kinley’s American adventure

My name is Kinley. I LOVE traveling! I have come all the way around the globe from Bhutan to California and have settled down in Boston, Massachusetts, for three months. The time has passed so fast, everything has been so fun. Now I only have a few shorts weeks left.

I graduated with a degree in Travel and Tourism Management this summer from Calcutta. Many years of study in India have made me independent. It was always my dream to come to the States to experience and learn more about American culture and its tourism industry. My biggest thrill is meeting people from different places and learning about new cultures. Soon I head back home and begin leading adventure tours myself.

But how did I get here all the way from Bhutan? The story is quite fascinating. There are two families who visited Bhutan last winter through my father’s adventure travel company. I met the two families on the last day of their visit which happened to be my birthday. I was so lucky to get an invitation from them to host me for the summer. Great! It was like my birthday gift. I feel fortunate to be here and they are wonderful people. I even got an internship opportunity at Thomson Family Adventures. I am gaining experiences, building my confidence and learning many new things. The working environment at Thomson Family is far more advanced than ours in every way. I am excited to learn as much as I can so that I may bring new ideas and skills back to Bhutan.

Working at TFA has been a great experience and more fun than I expected. Jim Kackley, the General Manager, has been a really considerate person. He often came up with new projects, and I was able to experience a vibrant and busy American work environment. It’s difficult to describe how much I appreciate their taking a chance on me. I will miss everyone at the office.

My home country of Bhutan is a small, peaceful Buddhist constitutional monarchy, south of Tibet and north of India. There are many Himalayan mountains, but not one traffic light! We don’t have skyscrapers, but our sky dances with fluttering prayer flags.

I have been to many states in India, Singapore and Thailand. This is my first time in the United States. I LOVE being here. The most exciting part for me is every weekend I get to experience a new adventure at a new location. You guys won’t believe me! I have been to many more places than I ever expected just within these two months. Lucky me! I have been to Maine, Cape Cod, Westport, MA, Martha’s Vineyard and “The Big Apple.” I have enjoyed it all. Being an outgoing person, I have had many exciting adventures, including boogie boarding, learning to drive, learning to swim, hiking on the dunes in Cape Cod, riding the bus to work, crazy biking in New York City and even getting lost on occasion.

Some of the fun things I have experienced were watching American old movies, baking a cake, toasting s’mores over a bonfire at night on the beach, watching the play “Finding Neverland,” a whale watch tour, riding bikes, drinking margaritas, trying lobsters and shrimp (Yuck!) and of course my trip to New York.

Over all, my visit has been a marvelous experience and I will return to Bhutan with wonderful memories. The American people have been amazingly friendly. I miss my family and friends and I am almost ready to head home. But I cannot wait to someday return to the United States!



September 2, 2014

Why We Loved Salar de Uyuni

By: Noemi Gamel

We spent four glorious days traveling through the Bolivian Altiplano and the Salar de Uyuni (salt flats). Six weeks into our yearlong round the world trip, we all agree that the Salar de Uyuni is our favorite part so far. Interestingly, we all have different reasons why we enjoyed traveling through Uyuni and we want to share them with you.

Chris

As a wildlife photographer, Chris loved the biscachas (squirrel-like bunnies) of the Inca corridor, zorros (fox) near our rock hotel, and flamingoes in the Red lake. No other place we have visited so far had as much wildlife as this highland desert. Since we were on a private tour, he was able to ask the driver to stop whenever we had a good wildlife sighting. At one point, I told Raul, our driver, and Carla, our guide, that we had to pull him back in the car or he would stay shooting biscachas all day long.

Noemi

I loved learning about the history, archeology, and geological intricacies of the area. The tour was also a culturally eye-opening experience because we learned how the Andean people live in this harsh environment. Next time I feel like complaining about slow Wi-Fi, I will remember the huts with no running water or electricity in the Altiplano desert. I also enjoyed getting to know our guide and driver, Carla and Raul. They were wonderful.

Kara

Kara’s favorite part of the Salar Uyuni trip was taking the “crazy pictures” in the middle of the salt flat. Because there is no way to gage distance, you can come up with some funky images with your camera. We took a picture of a gorilla eating us, Tommy the Frog chasing us, driving inside a boot, and Chris stepping on us with his shoe.

Tristan

Tristan’s favorite thing to do in the world is to climb trees. While there are no trees in the Bolivian highland desert, we encountered many rock formations that he wasted no time in climbing, including the Army of Corals, the Stone Tree area, Valle de las Rocas, and Pia Pia Island.
Whenever you are afraid to travel to a remote and harsh place such as the Altiplano with the whole family, set your fears aside. The whole family can have fun and extract different joys from the experience.

Kara and Tristan playing with perspective at Salar de Uyuni

Kara and Tristan playing with perspective at Salar de Uyuni

The striking landscape at Salar de Uyuni

The striking landscape at Salar de Uyuni



August 13, 2014

An Abbreviated Guide to Seasonal Galapagos Wildlife

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A blue-footed booby performs his ritual mating dance on North Seymour

If you’ve heard of the Galapagos Islands, you probably know they’re famous for their spectacular wildlife, as unique as it is abundant. This staunchly protected archipelago was Charles Darwin’s ecological playground – the place where he made discoveries that led to our modern understanding of evolution and natural selection.

So, in terms of wildlife, which months are best for seeing which animals? There’s no bad time to visit the Galapagos, but here’s a quick breakdown of some key seasonal wildlife trends:

January:
Green sea turtles begin laying eggs on the beaches of the Galapagos, land birds start their nesting process, Isabela Island’s land iguanas begin their reproductive cycles, and adult marine iguanas become brightly colored.

February:
Flamingos start nesting on Floreana Island, marine iguanas nest on Santa Cruz, and nesting season for Galapagos doves is at its peak.

March:
Marine iguanas nest on Fernandina, the waved albatross begins to arrive on Española, and the snorkeling is excellent – waters are warm, and tropical fish can be observed right next Galapagos penguins.

April:
Española sees a massive influx of waved albatrosses, and they start their courtship. Giant tortoise hatching season ends, green sea turtles and land iguanas begin to hatch, and visibility is high for snorkeling around the islands.

May:
North Seymour’s blue-footed boobies begin courting, sea turtles are still hatching at Gardner Bay, Punta Cormorant, and Puerto Egas, and most of Española’s waved albatrosses start laying their eggs.

June:
Santa Cruz Island’s famous giant tortoises migrate from the lush highlands to the drier, warmer lowlands in search of nesting sites, and nesting season begins. The frigate birds of North Seymour start to puff up their red neck pouches in order to attract mates.

July:
Blue-footed boobies, flightless cormorants, and other birds around the Galapagos perform courtship rituals and breeding/nesting activities.

August:
Galapagos hawks court, Nazca boobies nest on Genovesa, and migrant shorebirds arrive on the island, where they’ll stay until March. The giant tortoises of Santa Cruz return to the temperate highlands, and sea lion pupping (birthing) season begins.

September:
Galapagos penguins are very active on Bartolomé, sea birds are active at their nesting sites, and sea lions throughout the islands are abundant, playful, and competitive.

October:
Lava herons start nesting, Galapagos fur seals (actually a type of sea lion) begin mating, and blue-footed boobies raise their chicks.

November:
Sea lion pupping season continues, and the adorable pups swim playfully next to snorkelers.

December:
Giant tortoise eggs begin to hatch, and green sea turtles begin mating. With the start of the rainy season, the Galapagos Islands become beautiful and green, as the plants in dry zones produce leaves. The first young waved albatrosses fledge, and the weather in the islands is ideal.



August 4, 2014

Axo Pachamama!

Firelight ritual to honor Pachamama

Firelight ritual to honor Pachamama

While we are in Cusco, we are renting an apartment from a local family. Chris and the kids are attending Spanish classes during the week while I am writing my next children’s fantasy book. Pammela and Washington have been amiable landlords during our stay in Cusco. Last week, they were kind enough to invite us over to dinner at their home.

The evening started as is customary from Latin American hospitality. Pammela cooked a delicious meal of Peruvian rice, boiled sweet potatoes, and baked tilapia with lemon-marinated veggies. Their oldest daughter, Vicky, made a wonderful dessert. We all had a chance to practice our Spanish talking to our gracious hosts as Washington signed copies of his books on Inca culture.

Soon, we got much more than we expected. Washington changed into traditional Cusqueno clothing, brought out a wooden bowl, filled it with “palo santo” (holy wood), and lit it on fire right in the middle of their living room! Helen, the youngest daughter, knew exactly what to do. She picked up a rain stick and brought out feathers, drums, and maracas. After turning off the lights, Washington treated us to a traditional Inkan ritual to honor the Earth Mother, Pachamama. In the firelight, he told us the story of the Inka hunter:

The Inka only hunts when it is necessary to feed his family. He dips the arrow destined for the kill in his own blood before discharging it, to share the pain of death with the animal and to show appreciation for its sacrifice.

After the ritual was complete, we all sat on the floor around the holy fire, and Washington asked us to express our feelings to the Earth Mother. Tristan summed it up for all of us when he said, “I feel very lucky”. Axo Pachamama! Bless the Earth Mother!



August 4, 2014

Cristo Blanco in Cusco, Peru

Cristo Blanco in Cuzco, Peru

Cristo Blanco in Cuzco, Peru

This week’s post from the Gamel family’s yearlong journey around the world, written by Noemi Gamel, with photography by Chris Gamel:

On July 28th, Peru celebrated its Independence Day, commemorating its proclamation of freedom from Spanish Rule in 1821. Chris and the kids had no Spanish classes that day, so we decided to spend the day as tourists in Cusco.

We started the day by having breakfast at Jack’s, a breakfast institution in Cusco. Then we walked to the Plaza de Armas to hop on one of the double decker city tour buses. The tour started through the main Plaza and worked its way up the valley until culminating at Cristo Blanco or White Christ. The structure is eight meters high and overlooks the beautiful Cusco Valley. I was struck by the history behind the Cristo Blanco. The structure was created by local artist Francisco Olazo Allende, who also built the arc of Santa Clara. The funding for Cristo Blanco was a donation by the Arabic Palestinian community who sought refuge in Cusco after World War II, in gratitude for the Cusquenos’ hospitality and sanctuary.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” ― Mark Twain

I thought about this quote by Mark Twain as our guide told us the story of the Cristo Blanco. As a traveler, who is neither Catholic nor Muslim, I saw beauty in its marble, stone, and history.



July 28, 2014

Shopping at the “Mercado” in Cusco, Peru

 

A local woman at the Mercado

A local woman at the Mercado

Here’s another post from the Gamel family’s year around the world:

Whenever you are visiting another country, make sure to visit the local “Mercado” or market. This is different from the “super-mercado” or supermarket, which is essentially a grocery store. The Mercado is filled with local booths selling everything from produce, meats, nuts, cheese, rice, beans, bread, pasta, textiles, and even grocery items.

The Mercado is the place to save some money and experience the local culture. During our most recent visit, our weekly groceries were half the price compared to the local supermarket. The Mercado also had a better selection. Imagine tables of cheese and fresh produce. The Mercado is also a great place to meet the local people. We had a wonderful conversation with one of the lovely local merchants at the Mercado. She was kind enough to allow us to take her picture for use in the blog after we bought apples, strawberries, and coconuts from her. The Mercado was also a great place for Chris and the kids to practice their Spanish when negotiating with the local merchants. This is the real Peru!

In Cusco, the Mercado is open every day and located only one block from the apartment we are renting. Shopping has never been easier or more enjoyable. We all look forward to our next adventure shopping at the Mercado!



July 21, 2014

Serendipity in Huacachina, Peru

The dunes of Huacachina, Peru

The dunes of Huacachina, Peru

Below is the second weekly blog post from Noemi and Chris Gamel and their family, currently on a yearlong journey around the world: 

We learned an important lesson in Huacachina, Peru. Well, two lessons if you include that we can survive cold showers. More importantly, we learned that beautiful experiences often happen when your best-laid plans are derailed.

Huacachina is a fresh-water oasis surrounded by sand dunes near the city of Ica. We arrived by public bus to our hostel/home stay mid-afternoon and then walked over to the dunes for Kara and Tristan to play in the sand. Chris and I were still recovering from the early wake-up that morning, so our plan was to save the hike up the massive 300+ foot dune for the next day. Tristan had different ideas. Nothing was going to stop him from reaching the peak, not even tired parents. He raced to the top as fast as his legs would carry him, Kara not too far behind.

When I finally reached the top of the dune, I found Kara and Tristan sitting on the sand looking out at the majestic scenery. At that point, I was so grateful that Tristan had dragged us to the top. When Chris, who had paused to take photographs on the way up, finally sat down beside me all sweaty and huffing, we agreed, “It is worth it.”

If our children had followed our plans, we would have missed a serendipitous, radiant sunset among the dunes. Chris took this photo as we all admired the sublime view over the Huacachina sand dunes. Disobedience never looked so magnificent.



July 18, 2014

PERFECTAMUNDO

On what I deemed Machu Picchu Monday, I had the opportunity to walk with our guide, Fabrizzio, on our way back from the Gate of the Sun, Inti Punku. We weren’t discussing the Incan Empire, the design of the terraces or the fact that you can tell the level of a importance of a place in the citadel by the construction of the wall, which honestly is an entire blog post in itself. Instead, Fabrizzio asked how I was feeling after our five-in-the-morning wakeup call and long day of hiking both Huayna Picchu and the Gate of the Sun, a total of at least 10 miles of stair climbing. I answered with a simple, “Todo bien,” or, in English, “It’s all good.”

My knees and quads were tired as could be and my backpack, though getting lighter with every gulp of water, weighed on my shoulders. The heat of the sun radiated off my back and I could only hope that my sunscreen had done its job. At the same time, I could not have been anything but completely and absolutely content. Our day in the cloud forest was absolutely unbelievable. We had watched in awe as the morning sun burned off those low-lying clouds, revealing the mountains that surround Machu Picchu. We caught our breath while resting on rocks at the summit of Huayna Picchu, taking in the 360-degree views of the Andes and snacking on pretzels. And at that moment, a cool mist with floating raindrops was giving us new energy for our final descent to the valley.

So yes, todo bien.

Fabrizzio then taught me a new phrase, a Peruvian phrase he said was popular and suited that moment exactly. “Perfectamundo,” he said, “describes what you are feeling.” Perfect world. It couldn’t have been more true. At Machu Picchu, todo es perfectamundo.

Huayna Picchu hike

Huayna Picchu hike

Fabrizzio explaining the terrace farming

Fabrizzio explaining the terrace farming

Walking down from the Gate of the Sun

Walking down from the Gate of the Sun