Uncornered Market http://uncorneredmarket.com travel wide, live deep Mon, 20 Oct 2014 14:21:30 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.2 Adventure Is a State of Mindhttp://uncorneredmarket.com/adventure-is-a-state-of-mind/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/adventure-is-a-state-of-mind/#comments Mon, 20 Oct 2014 14:07:37 +0000 http://uncorneredmarket.com/?p=19592 By Daniel Noll

What is adventure? We explore the definition and unpack 10 emotional and physical dimensions of adventure in travel and life.

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By Daniel Noll

A crumpled bit of inspiration I hijacked from Audrey early in our relationship hangs above my desk.

Who would accuse Helen Keller of not leading an adventurous life even though she never went skydiving, bungee jumping or mountain climbing?

While I was recently free climbing sandstone walls in Northern Ethiopia en route to a 2000 foot-high cave church, a question occurred to me: “What constitutes adventure in practice? Where do we draw the line, and how do we draw it? And why?”

Does hiking to a hair-raising cliff-side church in Ethiopia qualify? Some might answer yes, while others would answer no. For me, it certainly felt like it. I was testing the limits of my own fear of heights. Meanwhile, around the world, people are facing up to hazards, uncertain outcomes and risks in all manner of ways.

To some degree, our society often views adventure primarily as a physical act — our colleagues summit mountains, the Red Bull guy jumps from outer space, and friends throw themselves off buildings and bridges. Since we focus so much on the physical, however, we insufficiently acknowledge or altogether discredit all the emotional facets of adventure.

We often hear that people want more adventure in their lives. But why? What makes adventure desirable?

In the circles I run, adventure is assumed to be a positive force — and I agree with that — but the traditional sense and image is akin to conquering Mt. Everest a la John Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. Huge hurdles, push and transform. At the same time, the definitions of adventure and adventure travel are broadening to experiences that constitute almost entirely non-physical, emotional activities. In this way, some might even say that adventure is a bit like porn: hard to define, but each of us is pretty certain we know it when we see it.

Based on my own experience – in adventure travel in particular — and listening to and reading others, here’s my attempt to unpack what adventure means and why.

Adventure: A Working Definition

As I considered the meaning of the word “adventure” I consulted my old friend the dictionary to find that adventure comprehends a handful of accepted meanings that converge on the themes of excitement, risk, and uncertainty.

1. “An exciting or very unusual experience.”
An exciting experience? A 3-D horror movie might qualify, no?

An unusual experience? Have you ever eaten bugs? Maybe bug eating is an adventure, too? I’m surprised to find a definition so bland as to garner it the first entry.

2. “Participation in exciting undertakings or enterprises: the spirit of adventure.”
There’s the excitement again. But “undertakings or enterprises” begins to suggest that adventure can be found in our life choices — in arenas like education, personal development, business, and family. And it follows with an example of how we might use the term “the spirit of adventure.” This is where I imagine “adventure” really begins to resonate with each of us, for it’s a spirit, an attitude, one’s character.

What is the spirit of adventure to you?

3. “A bold, usually risky undertaking; hazardous action of uncertain outcome.”
Oddly enough, this entry is the third one down. It is broad and encompasses any sort of undertaking that involves hazardous action. But what is hazardous action? Is it something only physical? Or does it imply an activity that may begin to involve and chip away at such things as our emotions and comfy prejudices?

“Uncertain outcomes” speaks to uncertainty and vulnerability — terms that are de rigeur, in fashion for everyone to agree are helpful to embrace in building our resilience.

Adventure: The 10 Dimensions


1. Adventure is less about what you do and more about how you do it.

Adventure is an orientation.

I remember hang-gliding for the first time in New Zealand. For some, tandem hang-gliding with a hang-glide master is obviously adventurous. For others, maybe not so much — “You should hang-glide on your own; now that’s an adventure!” They might add.

Then, my hang-glide master told a story of a 96-year old disabled man he once took on a ride. Can you imagine? And I thought I was overcoming my fears and barriers.

2. Adventure is personal.

My adventure may not be your adventure.

What might be adventurous to Helen Keller because of her life circumstances may only be life’s baseline for you or for me. Adventure is relative to one’s individual situation, limits, constraints, and boundaries.

Take, for instance, para-olympians and the limits they overcome. Would anyone in his right mind accuse them of something other than adventure?

Sometimes we’re born with those limits, sometimes we develop them, sometimes we unknowingly foist them on ourselves.

3. Adventure is not only physical, but mental, emotional, psychological.

The first step in unpacking this is easy: any ostensibly physical, obvious adventurous activity — say, like climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro or running your first marathon — is often quite accurately referred to and reframed as a challenge of the mind, one that is more mental than physical.

I can attest firsthand that this is true. Some of the greatest challenges we must overcome during an adventure are not those involving whether our bodies can take on the task before us, but whether our minds are adequately prepared to handle the setbacks stacked on top of the entirely unexpected.

4. Adventure is about the courage to envision something different in our lives and in our world.

There are three steps to consider in this journey:

A) Courage to embark on experiences that will introduce doubt and cast into question your values, your preconceived notions, your prejudice. Your views may be reinforced, or they may be tipped upside down.

B) Courage to place yourself on the edge of the cliff not only to understand how you will respond to the danger, but also how you will emerge transformed.

C) Courage to see the world differently. Work and struggle to advocate for your values, placing yourself in mentally and physically precarious situations to do so.

What sort of physical, mental and moral precariousness am I going to place myself into in order to champion and fight for the things I believe in?

Take a moment to think on this. Come back and continue reading, if you must.

“What is he talking about, here?” You ask.

The true great leaders of the last and most recent era of societal transformation — people like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., Vaclav Havel — they were adventurers.

5. Adventure is inherently discontinuous.

Adventure forces disturbances in what we understand about the world and ourselves. Adventure is a break in the cycle.

You can’t adventure by doing the same thing over and over again, because then it’s no longer adventure. It’s inertia.

Adventure forces us to examine fears and feelings. We conflate them, we rationalize them, we package them, solve them, unpack them, reflect on them, and enjoy them.

6. Adventure is about uncertainty and embracing discomfort.

I’m not talking about discomfort for its own sake, but discomfort that results in a stretching of ourselves to build adaptability and resilience. If you think about it, “adventure” implies that precariousness is a prerequisite of permanence. Likewise, as we build stuff of lasting value, we also must accept that to varying degrees, all that stuff is fleeting.

It can – and likely will be – gone someday sooner than our choosing.

Similarly, adventure implies some level of inherent danger. If so, there’s risk, there’s reward. The idea: I’m going to face the danger so I can reap the rewards, often mental, on the other side.

Adventure in travel, adventure in life is about accepting this equation, this exchange.

7. Adventure is a bias to action.

We can’t adventure without doing. Nor can we adventure without doing differently.

In this way, adventure requires a certain amount of forward-leaning. That posture implies a sense that as we venture forth, we can rarely venture back.

8. Adventure is a balance.

We can’t successfully bring ourselves to state only by push without pull.

I believe it was Pico Iyer I overheard saying: “One hand to hold on, the other to let go.”

The wise adventurer understands who he is, so he can adequately question himself.

Adventure involves a sense of appreciating limits. No dragon slayer ever disrespected the dragon. Adventure is about the smart stretch, calculated risk and sense. You don’t go to the top of Mt. Everest without the right equipment. Also, you carry with you a sense and prepare for letting the dream go at the right moment. If the storm comes along, you test your limit and know when to turn back to take the mountain another day.

And even once the dream is achieved, you carry an appreciation that your victories are not permanent, but ones that must continually be built upon – by you and by others.

9. Adventure is an ability that is exercised like a muscle.

Adventure opens, stretches, enables, expands and transforms our knowledge, capacity, perception, and endurance.

Sure, there are some activities for each of us that will always be a challenge, but the more we adventure, the more we are able to endure what those adventures may throw our way.

Adventure is the tearing of mental and physical tissue. Adventure is rebuilding.

Not all adventures are certain to pay off. In fact, what makes a real adventure is that there are no guarantees. In this way, life is an adventure. Adventure is as much a comprehension of failure as it is the relish of success.

Adventure is knowing that once you’ve surpassed one limit, you’ll likely face another, if not seek it out. It follows that adventure is a function of deliberate and conscious practice.

10. Adventure is for everyone.

It’s easy to look around Facebook and watch all your friends jumping off bridges and summiting mountains. Sometimes their actions and stories inspire, sometimes they overwhelm.

Do yourself a favor and set social media aside. Look at yourself, alone. Examine your limits and ask yourself how you’ll begin to stretch them. Then act.

Adventure is there if you choose.

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Romantic Rhine Travel: On and Off the Beaten Pathhttp://uncorneredmarket.com/romantic-rhine-travel/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/romantic-rhine-travel/#comments Wed, 15 Oct 2014 12:16:11 +0000 http://uncorneredmarket.com/?p=19547 By Audrey Scott

Through sunny days and fog, famous towns and little known ‘burgs, wine cellars and village vintner festivals, this was our time on the segment of the Rhine River known as the Romantic Rhine. Half-timbered homes sit as the foot of cobbled streets. Vineyard paths wind into the hills. And foggy moments as castles disappear and […]

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By Audrey Scott

The Upper Middle Rhine Valley, no shortage of castles and medieval towns.

Through sunny days and fog, famous towns and little known ‘burgs, wine cellars and village vintner festivals, this was our time on the segment of the Rhine River known as the Romantic Rhine.

Half-timbered homes sit as the foot of cobbled streets. Vineyard paths wind into the hills. And foggy moments as castles disappear and re-emerge on hilltops hint at history.

If you have a fear of missing out on the must-see bits of the region, but long for a taste of the lesser-seen local experience, then this article and guide to the Upper Middle Rhine is for you.

Here is all the information we would have wanted to know before our road trip to the Upper Middle Rhine Valley, the 67-km UNESCO World Heritage segment of the Rhine River from the towns of Bingen and Rüdesheim north to the city of Koblenz at the confluence of the Rhine and Mosel Rivers.

Rhine Valley Road Trip, Up Above Oberwesel - Germany
Rhine Valley road trip, enjoying some late summer sun.

Skip ahead:

Recommended Rhine Valley Route and Towns

We traveled on the Rhine River from south to north, beginning in the town of Bingen and ending in Koblenz. Our recommendation is to spend at least three full days in the area. Ideally, give yourself more time so you can visit the area at a relaxed pace, leaving times for walks and hikes, a bicycle ride, and a few unexpected stops. (Note: We visited the area in just over two days and found our pace a bit rushed.)

Bingen am Rhein

We confess that we timed our visit to coincide with the Bingen 11-day wine festival, the longest such festival in the region. What makes this wine festival especially fun is the feel of locals enjoying their own wine and community. On the evening we spent in Bingen, absolutely everyone was in the streets enjoying the local product — even the mayor, who wanted his photo taken with us.

Bingen Wine Festival - Rhine Valley, Germany
People gather under Klopp Castle during the Bingen Wine Festival.

Many of the local wineries set up stalls on the various squares across town. We recommend that you ask to taste a few wines before selecting the one you wish to commit to by buying a full glass. This region is mostly known for whites – Riesling, Silvaner, Weissburgunder, and Grauburgunder. Show your curiosity and flash a few smiles. This will likely yield generous samples and a lesson on the different grapes in the area, the characteristics of this wine region, and the varietal in which the vineyard you are chatting with specializes.

Fireworks as Part of the Bingen Wine Festival - Rhine Valley, Germany
Fireworks over the Nahe River, Bingen Wine Festival.


Just across the river from Bingen, the town of Rüdesheim is the traditional favorite with Rhine River cruise passengers. It’s easy to understand why. Rüdesheim’s collection of half-timbered homes and narrow alleyways stuffed with shops make it feel like you’ve stepped into the set of a Grimm Brothers fairytale. Hopefully one with a friendly ending.

Drosselgasse, the most popular old town street in Rüdesheim.

Rüdesheim is also a wine town — more specifically of the Rheingau wine region — and is famous for its Rieslings and Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir). There are vineyards spread throughout and surrounding the town. We suggest that you try one of the terroir Rieslings, called as such for the distinct influence of the local soil and terrain noticeable in some of the wines. Taste a couple of terroir style Rieslings side by side and you’ll begin to understand how the expression of a single grape can be influenced by the various minerals present in a specific patch of soil.

Boosenburg Castle and Vineyard - Rüdesheim, Germany
Every castle needs a vineyard. Boosenburg Castle, Rüdesheim.

Rüdesheim gets busy with visitors, especially with river cruise passengers in the daytime. However, it begins to clear out a bit in the late afternoon and early evening. Consider spending the night here so that you can enjoy the feel of the town without the crowds.

Things to do in Rüdesheim:
Cable Car to Niederwald Monument: Highly recommended. A lot of fun to soar above the vineyards and gaze across the hills to the Rhine River below. At the top, take a walk over to the Niederwald Monument for even more views over the city and river valley. Cost: €7 roundtrip.

Dan enjoys the ride above the Rüdesheim vineyards.

Siegfried’s Mechanical Music Cabinet: Although we had our doubts — a museum full of mechanical music devices sounds a little yawn-inducing — our host’s excitement about the place motivated us to visit. The history of mechanical musical instruments — including contraptions like full air-powered symphonies in giant organ-sized boxes complete with single-stringed mechanical rotating violins — is almost unbelievable, particularly in light of how much we take for granted about the production of sound and music in today’s technology landscape. Cost: €6.50 (includes tour)


Lorch, a sleepy working wine town, proved our unlikely favorite spot along the Upper Middle Rhine Valley. It wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing town we visited and we were only there overnight, but there was something about the feel and personal nature of the place that we really enjoyed. Maybe it was our morning run through the misty vineyards above the river and town that made the whole area feel mysterious, as if the clouds were hiding secrets.

The sleepy town of Lorch in the early morning mist.

Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that Lorch wasn’t very touristed and featured a slow, relaxed pace. The personal touch and attention also helped, including at a family-run hotel in a converted schoolhouse (the owner went to school there as a child) where we stayed the night. Top that off with a last-minute decision to drop in on the Perabo winery restaurant for a some appetizers and local terroir wines. A great way to spend an evening.

Small Plate Eating at Perabo Winery Restaurant - Lorch, Germany
Small plates well paired with a Riesling at Perabo Winery Restaurant, Lorch. Fine and fitting.

Kaub am Rhein

The morning drive from Lorch to Kaub is one to take slowly, pulling the car over at every overlook to catch views of castles on hilltops across the river. Kaub itself is a small medieval town that looks over Pfalzgrafenstein, a colorful 14th century castle on an islet set in the middle of the river. We skipped going inside the castle in favor of a quick walk through town to pick up a coffee and morning snack — all before hopping the car ferry to Bacharach. Try to get here in the morning before 11AM, as we saw bus tours arriving around that time.

Kaub, a Little Town Along the Rhine Valley - Germany
The wee town of Kaub, complete with vineyards and a castle on the hill.


Bacharach is another absurdly cute town on the west bank of the Rhine. Among the more sight-loaded towns in the region, Bacharach also features a 1000 year-old castle (Burg Stahleck) perched high on the hill.

Burg Stahleck overlooks the town of Bacharach.

Our recommendation: find the walking path behind the church and head up through the woods to get to the castle (now a youth hostel) for a view of the town and river. If you have more time, get lost in the vineyard paths leading to and from the castle. Otherwise, head back down into town to explore the church and wander around the medieval streets and alleys. Stop by Eis Cafe Italia (Oberstrasse 48) for some Riesling ice cream. Yes, Riesling ice cream! We had our doubts, but it was surprisingly tasty and refreshing and featured hints of fragrant fermentation.

Bacharach Back Streets - Rhine Valley, Germany
The back streets of Bacharach, just one block from busy Oberstrasse.

Lorelei (Loreley) Overlook in Urbar

We confess that we don’t get the almost cult-like need to visit Lorelei. It’s a pretty rock and segment of the river, and we know about the legend of the mermaid and Heinrich Heine’s poem. Despite this, we don’t quite understand all the hype. Perhaps you can blame our literature teachers from high school. That said, we did enjoy — and recommend — the detour from Oberwesel to Urbar for the Lorelei overlook as the road and journey offers beautiful views of the river valley along the way.

Note: If you wish to see a photo of Loreley, it’s here.

A long look down the Rhine River on a day of blazing sunshine. Giving life to happy grapes overlooking the town of Oberwesel. Taken from the lookout en route to the Loreley overlook at Urbar. #Germany via Instagram http://ift.tt/Wu1uon
Rhine River and Oberwesel in the blazing sun – from the Loreley Overlook road.

Oberwesel, Boppard and Braubach

We stopped briefly in — or drove through — the towns of Oberwesel, Boppard and Braubach on our way to Koblenz. If we stayed another day along the Rhine Valley, we would likely have spent it in one of these towns. There’s a lesson here: everything in the region takes longer to cover. It’s also easy to get stuck. So it was that we ran out of time walking village streets in the early parts of our days there.


Koblenz served as the final stop of our Rhine Valley road trip. It’s the largest of the towns along this stretch of the Rhine River. As such, we kept our expectations in check, especially after all the fairy tale half-timbered homes and castles from the day’s earlier stops. However, Koblenz surprised us.

Koblenz in Late Summer - Rhine Valley, Germany
Late summer dining in Koblenz’s old town.

Koblenz was originally a Roman town, dating to over 2,000 years ago and making it one Germany’s oldest cities. Like Aachen and Cologne, it was under French rule for a spell at the end of the 18th century, and prides itself on still having a bit of French blood coursing through its cultural veins. Much of the city was destroyed during World War II. However, some sections survived while others were rebuilt with an eye to the traditional style, all of which made for pleasant atmospheric walks, especially in the old town.

We ended our visit to Koblenz by walking out to the Deutsches Eck (German Corner) where the Rhine and Mosel Rivers meet. The sun set as we took the cable car up to Ehrenbreitstein, the 19th century fortress across the river.

This aerial view of the Rhine River at dusk seemed a rather fitting close to our journey.

Deutsches Eck, the intersection of the Rhine and Mosel Rivers.

Avoiding the Crowds Along the Rhine Valley

We’d be lying if we told you this segment of the Rhine River is undiscovered and untouristed. We visited in early September, coming off the high season when river cruises and bus tours are still active. What we found, however, is that if you wish to get away from the crowds it is not especially difficult. All it takes is moving a block or two in either direction from the beaten tourist thoroughfare and you’ll have the streets, castles, and vineyards much to yourself. It’s literally that easy.

Even in the back streets of Rüdesheim, there's no shortage of color. Our journey continues along the Romantic Rhine route. #welterbegermany #germany #rudesheim
Even in the back streets of Rüdesheim, there’s no shortage of color.

We also suggest getting an early start to visit some of the more popular towns in the morning before the river cruises and buses arrive (in our experience, around 11AM). You’ll have the opportunity to see how the town wakes up — locals stocking up on bread at the bakery, picking up groceries, greeting shopkeepers as they make their way to work. We also tried to begin each of our days with a morning run or walk along the wine paths. Pleasant and mind-clearing.

Hiking and Biking in the Rhine Valley

Although our time was short and we couldn’t do this ourselves, we recommend incorporating hiking and bicycling into your trip. There are hundreds of kilometers of hiking and bicycle paths that take you through all of the towns we mention above, as well as through vineyards and other castles tucked higher in the hills and away from the banks of the Rhine.

It’s easy to pick up booklets from hotels and local tourist information offices that recommended day hikes and bicycle rides. And with the various options for train and boat transport (see below) you can easily return to your hotel at the end of the day.

The RheinSteig Weg includes 320km of paths along the east bank of the Rhine River. We ran along a very small portion of this through the vineyards outside of Lorch (called the Wein Wander Weg) and it was just beautiful. The paths on this side of the river seem a little less busy than those on the opposite side.

On the west bank of the river you have the RheinBurgen Weg, featuring 200km of hiking and biking paths. You can find some of the recommended day trips listed here.

Note: If you aren’t especially picky about your ride, don’t worry about bringing your own bicycle with you. Many, if not all, of the tourist offices along the Upper Middle Rhine Valley offer bicycle rental. They also offer the option of electronic-assist bicycles if you are worried about not being able to conquer some of the steep hills in the vineyards. In addition, we noticed many hotels and shops offering Rhine Valley bicycle rentals for €10-€12 per day.

Rhine Valley Transportation Options

The jury is still out for me on whether I would rent a car again to visit this area. While I enjoyed the flexibility of having a car, I was impressed by the public transport and boat options available that allow one to move around without the stress of driving and parking. It’s worth noting that I (Audrey) am not a big fan of driving. If you especially enjoy driving, by all means rent a car.

Renting a Car in the Rhine Valley

Pros: Having your own rental car provides the most flexibility to visit little towns and villages along the river. You can take car ferries from select towns to get to the other side of the river, as there are no bridges between Bingen and Koblenz. These ferries are quite reasonable at around €5 for two people and a vehicle.

Rhine River car ferry. Who needs a bridge?

Cons: Parking in some towns can be a bit tricky. It can also get expensive (10€/half day, for example in Rüdesheim). If you’d like to travel part of the Rhine River by boat (recommended, see below), then you’ll have to find a way to backtrack to pick up your car. Additionally, if you want to sample wines along the way, driving may impact your tasting and consumption options.

Rental car details: We rented a car from Cologne railway station and dropped it off at the Frankfurt railway station. If there’s not much difference in the cost, I suggest dropping the car off in Koblenz and taking the train to Frankfurt. Driving in central Frankfurt is stressful, particularly with construction, one-way streets and a hidden drop-off rental car lot at the Frankfurt central train station.

Note: If you are not a German resident, be certain to indicate this when you are booking your rental car. In searches I performed with various rental car companies, I found it much less expensive to rent a car if you are a resident of the United States than if you are a resident of Germany.

Boats Along the Upper Rhine River

There is definitely no shortage of boats going along or criss-crossing the Rhine River, and we recommend taking at least one trip as boats and ferries offer a different visual perspective on the towns and landscape along the Romantic Rhine.

We hopped on one of the KD Boats from Rüdesheim to Lorch (and then took the train to return to Rüdesheim to pick up our car). There are hop-on/hop-off boats that run up and down the Rhine River several times a day, so just check the timetables. You can buy point-to-point tickets, too.

For a budget option, hop car ferries to cross the river. It’s a short ride and trips are reasonably priced at just a couple of euros.

Regional Trains

There are regional trains that run up and down both sides of the river. Trains run more frequently on the east bank of the river (Rüdesheim-Lorch-Koblenz). We also know from experience that trains can be faster than a car if you time it well. You can buy a Rheinland-Pfalz ticket that provides unlimited rides in a 24-hour period. Alternatively, point-to-point tickets are quite reasonably priced (e.g., around €2.90 from Lorch to Rüdesheim, one-way).

Taking the train works well with hiking and biking as you can complete a trail and take the train back to wherever you are staying. Just be sure to check the schedule before you go so you aren’t spending unnecessary time waiting for a train at the end of the day.

We realize that we only scratched the surface of what there is to see, do, drink and eat along the Upper Middle Rhine Valley in our short time there. However, we hope this guide assists you in your planning and your approach to spending time in the area. 67 kilometers may not sound like much, but there’s a lot to unpack and experience in the area.

Our trip around the Rhineland of Germany was supported by the German National Tourism Board (GNTB). As always, the experiences and thoughts expressed here are our own.

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10 Ways to Make the Most of Any Tour, Anywhere in the Worldhttp://uncorneredmarket.com/10-tips-organized-tour/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/10-tips-organized-tour/#comments Tue, 07 Oct 2014 15:38:23 +0000 http://uncorneredmarket.com/?p=19302 By Daniel Noll

Have you ever been on a tour and felt like it’s just not working for you? Maybe there’s something missing? Or the connection just isn’t there? What do you do? When I consider this question, I’m reminded of a conversation with a passenger on a tour we took recently. The conversation with Miranda (I changed […]

The post 10 Ways to Make the Most of Any Tour, Anywhere in the World appeared first on Uncornered Market.

By Daniel Noll

Watching the Glacier from the Boat - El Calafate, Argentina
Capturing Perito Moreno Glacier — Patagonia, Argentina.

Have you ever been on a tour and felt like it’s just not working for you? Maybe there’s something missing? Or the connection just isn’t there?

What do you do?

When I consider this question, I’m reminded of a conversation with a passenger on a tour we took recently. The conversation with Miranda (I changed her name) went roughly like this:

“I don’t really feel like I’m engaging with [this place] on this tour. I don’t feel like I’ve done [this place],” she said with a look of disappointment. Clearly, Miranda wasn’t getting the depth of engagement she wanted from the trip.

“So what would you like to change?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she responded. “It would be great if maybe we visited a local market or somewhere where we can talk with more local people.”

“Funny you mention that,” I said. “It’s not on the itinerary, but we just heard about a weekly market tomorrow morning that’s a short walk. Come with us.”

She never came with us, she never visited the market. And this was one of several opportunities she missed that would have tuned her into the sort of experience she claimed she wanted.

It’s our experience that tours are often subject to the implicit assumption: everything is taken care of, so you should sit back and passively check off the elements of your itinerary as they’re delivered to you.

Not so. If you really wish to make the most of any travel experience, whether you travel independently or in a group, you must take ultimate responsibility for your own satisfaction. Sure, once you’ve booked a group tour, there are certain elements that are out of your hands — the guide, itinerary, and fellow passengers. Beyond that, however, it’s up to you to take control within those constraints. (Note: We’ve already discussed the various reasons why people choose to take small group tours here.)

Ugh, Dan. You mean I pay this money for someone else to organize my holiday and it’s still up to me?

Kind of. During the last few years, as independent travelers who’ve also taken small group tours to places like Iran, Ethiopia and Japan, we’ve discovered that the value we derived from the experience was due in one part to the organization of the tour, and another part to how proactive and engaged we were. If you want to have a great vacation, you must make an effort. You must invest a piece of yourself — to engage and participate in the tour and be a part of the experience. After all, you are ultimate arbiter of your own holiday happiness.

OK, you’re making a great argument, Dan. But how do I do actually this?

So glad you asked. Here are ten pieces of practical, actionable advice you can implement straight away to make the most of any organized tour. The upshot: consider the tour itinerary as a foundation, a basis for you to create ad hoc experiences in the in-between space.

1) Proactively communicate your specific interests to your guide.

Fact: it’s impossible for your guide to read your mind and to know everything about you and your interests. When it comes to travel, passivity does not pay. This goes for independent travel and tours alike.

If you have a specific interest – ancient history, sports, local foods, markets, weaving, ceramics, music, whatever – share that interest with your guide at the beginning of your tour. Then ask your guide nicely if he can direct you to places, experiences or people that will help you learn more about your interest.

This may sound obvious, but we’re surprised by how often it does not happen.

A couple things to keep in mind when applying this approach. Understand that you are a guest – a guest in a place that is likely the guide’s home. It’s best to express your interest in the form of questions, rather than in the form of demands. If you come at your guide combatively with an “I paid for this” attitude, forget it. Instead, show your interest and humble curiosity to provide your guide with a platform to share more of his knowledge of his home country and culture with you.

Ice Cream Stop - Kermanshah, Iran
Our G Adventures group in Iran, *all* with an interest in ice cream :)

Finally, understand that other people’s needs are at work, too. The trick: make your desires known in a good-hearted way, and position it to see if the experiences you seek may also meet the interests of others on your tour. If they don’t, then try to schedule these experiences during your free time.

We’re reminded of: We told our guide on the first day of our Ethiopia tour about our deep interest in learning about Ethiopian food. Over the course of the week he took us to a rural village preparing food for a 500-person wedding, organized an impromptu cooking course at a lodge, introduced us to restaurant owners who explained their cuisine to us, and found food markets along the way that were not on the itinerary. This not only added to our experience, but to that of our fellow passengers and our guide.

2) Perform your own research.

The first time we saw a person on a tour with a guidebook we thought it a bit odd. I mean, you’re paying for the tour and a guide who is a local expert so why bother?

We soon saw the light.

The more research you perform on the place you are visiting – by reading a guidebook, asking friends, doing internet research – the better prepared you’ll be to ask informed questions and go off-itinerary for a bit, either by yourself or with your group. At the very least, this research can help source new restaurants or cafes to explore outside of your hotel (see #6 below).

We’re reminded of: During our visit to Iran, our questions — prompted by advice from an Iranian-American friend — led to an unscheduled visit to the Tomb of Esther and Mordecai in the town of Hamadan. Our thirty-minute visit there was not only interesting for the tombs, including of the fabled Jewish Queen Esther, but for our meeting with the Iranian rabbi caretaker who told us about the lives of the Jewish community (surprising!) still living in town.

Tomb of Esther - Hamadan, Iran
An off-the-itinerary stop at the Tomb of Esther in Hamadan, Iran.

3) Ask questions, channel your curiosity.

Unleash your curiosity and leverage your tour guide as the resource he is — or should be — to learn as much as you can about the place you are visiting. This will not only benefit your understanding of the local context and history, but it will also jump-start your guide’s energy and direct his knowledge and explanations more to your interests.

This is especially important to break what I call “tour monotony” where it’s clear that the guide is giving an explanation on auto-pilot. This can get boring for everyone very quickly, the guide included. Asking questions changes the pace and energy and often surfaces stories that you’ll take home and remember forever.

We’re reminded of: During our tour to Antarctica we passed a pod of killer whales. Audrey took a bunch of photos and later approached the cetacean expert (i.e., whale and dolphin specialist) with her photos to ask more information about the whales and their behaviors. He was excited — because he was always excited by passengers’ interest in wildlife — but this time he was really excited. It turns out that we’d come across a previously unidentified sub-species called Type D Orcas, and Audrey’s photos were just the proof he needed. The photo later appeared in a scientific journal.

4) Take advantage of your free time.

Many tours incorporate free time into the itinerary — either entirely free days or chunks of time before or after scheduled visits to sites. Be sure to use these bits of free time deliberately to go off on your own and explore – perhaps to a café, market, or new street you haven’t walked down. Most often, it’s the ad hoc, unexpected experiences that not only provide real, authentic culture and context, but leave us with the “you wouldn’t believe what happened to us…!” stories that we tell our friends back home.

We’re reminded of: During our Japan tour, we visited the Nishiki market in Kyoto on a free afternoon. We took one of the people on our tour with us, walked through a market flush with local students and sought out freshly-made takoyaki (octopus balls!) from one of the food stalls. It was a simple yet resonant experience. The traveler who came with us told us it was one of her best memories from an already memorable trip to Japan.

Pickled Vegetables at Nishiki Market - Kyoto, Japan
The Nishiki market in Kyoto. A great way to spend a free afternoon.

5) Realize that you don’t have to do everything.

This is one that I struggle with. When I’m on a tour, I often feel compelled to do everything that’s offered. But sometimes the best decision is to strategically skip an optional activity or do something different so long as my choice doesn’t disrupt the group or their schedule.

We’re reminded of: While in Uganda, most of the group went off on all-day optional tour in the Lake Bunyonyi area. The itinerary sounded a bit hurried to us, and we were at the point where we needed a break. We woke up late, took a walk up the mountain and enjoyed a beautiful plate of crayfish curry at a restaurant with an incredible view. Rather than packing our heads with even more experiences, we needed a sprinkling of reflection. This was exactly what the doctor ordered.

An early afternoon hike from the water's edge to the Lake Bunyonyi overlook, where a fresh crayfish curry and a cold beer await. Unexpected Uganda. via Instagram http://ift.tt/1j0EF5l
The view above Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda.

6) Get outside the hotel.

As tempting as it is to stay in your hotel — it’s easy and close — push yourself to get outside to take care of basic necessities like eating, drinking and shopping. And use those journeys to find local restaurants, cafes, bars or shops. This approach forces you to engage with more local people, thereby expanding the nature of your impressions and experiences in a place.

These outings will also allow you to spread your tourism dollars to different businesses and families. Family-run businesses – particularly if you interact with the people that run them – will often provide you with a sense of connection and a handful of stories to take back home.

We’re reminded of: Finding small restaurants and street food stalls in Bali that were much cheaper and served tastier food than the shiny restaurants at the hotel. It took more effort to get out and find these places, but we were rewarded for it with beautiful local food and conversations off the most heavily traveled bits of the tourist trail.

Bumbu Bali Fish at Sanur Beach - Bali, Indonesia
A meal with a view at Sanur Beach, Bali.

7) Experience the beginning of the day.

Sleep is a precious thing, and it is especially important while traveling. But as much as a good lie-in helps sometimes, so does waking up early. In fact, it’s almost always always worth the effort.

Many towns and villages around the world come to life in the early hours of the morning as vendors carry their goods to market. Morning is also a great time to see children going to school and watch the day unfold as cafes and restaurants set up for the day. This time is often less stressful for everyone, so you are more likely to have friendly, focused interactions. For example, you’re more likely to get an answer to your question of a vendor when they are just getting set up than when they are in full swing dealing with a handful of customers.

After getting your fill of activity, you can return to the hotel for breakfast or a coffee to meet the group for the rest of the day.

We’re reminded of: Going to the weekly market at Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda before breakfast. Within a short walk from our campsite we found the market and saw dugout wooden boats transporting sacks of charcoal, fish, bananas, and vegetables from other islands in the lake and even from neighboring Rwanda. Nothing like sensory overload to kick off the day.

Sacks of Charcoal at Lake Bunyonyi Market - Uganda
Early morning at the weekly market at Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda.

8) Extend your time in the country.

A tour is a great way to introduce you to a destination. It can allow you to get your bearings, find your feet, and build confidence traveling around a new country with a different language and culture. Spending some extra time after your tour allows you to explore cities or regions more deeply than might have been allowed by your tour itinerary. Alternatively, you can further explore new areas of the country.

We’re reminded of: Spending an extra week in Iran to see the lesser-visited northwestern part of the country and to take a 60-hour train to Istanbul. As American citizens we were required to have a guide with us, but we were able to ad hoc visit towns where we had Iranian friends and see sites like the Armenian monastery of St. Stephanos and the ancient Tabriz covered market and carpet bazaar.

Armenian St. Stephanos Church - Jolfa, Iran
Armenian church of St. Stephanos in northwestern Iran.

9) Understand that alone time is OK.

The concept of a tour may make some introverts cringe and wish to crawl into a hole. So much people time! Even if you are extroverted like Audrey, you may still find yourself feeling something similar as your holiday progresses.

Understand that you don’t have to spend all your time with the group; be sure to take care of your needs, including the need to reflect. Don’t feel bad about getting dinner on your own or going solo for your free time or tuning out when the bus is moving. It’s your holiday, after all.

Having said that, you may want to let others know that you are not shunning them, but instead are taking some time to yourself to refresh. Reasonable people will understand and most will nod in approval. In fact, some may realize they need a bit of that themselves.

We’re reminded of: One evening on the safari portion of our Tanzania tour, I left the group early for some quiet time to reflect, take notes and read a book while the rest gathered around the campfire. After all, Audrey and I had only recently summited Mt. Kilimanjaro and had just finished an afternoon of tracking cheetahs. This is a lot to recuperate from and to process. The following morning, I rejoined the group refreshed and rested, and all the better for it.

10) Don’t let negative thoughts simmer to a boil.

Stuff happens. If something bothers you, tell your guide in private. Have an open conversation. His job is to try and make the trip as enjoyable as possible for everyone, within limits. It may be that he can’t solve the problem immediately, but at least he can begin to address the issue. Be sure to also give feedback to your tour provider after the tour is over so they can address issues on future trips.

What you shouldn’t do: Keep it bottled up inside so you’re outwardly angry (yet no one understands exactly why), complain publicly, particularly to everyone on the tour except your guide. There’s nothing that ruins a trip — yours and others — like shared misery.

We’re reminded of: Our tour in New Zealand was (at the time) a very new tour, so there were some inconsistencies between the accommodation description from travel agents and the reality on the tour. The tour leader couldn’t change where we were staying, but once he was aware of the concerns, he addressed them as best as he could. And, the trip was pretty remarkable.

The bonus nugget of travel wisdom: Even when we’ve paid for an experience and someone else is responsible for facilitating it, we and our actions help form the bridge to our own travel satisfaction.

The bad news: It takes effort.

The good news: That effort is often rewarded.

The post 10 Ways to Make the Most of Any Tour, Anywhere in the World appeared first on Uncornered Market.

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Aachen and Cologne: Instagramming a European City Breakhttp://uncorneredmarket.com/aachen-cologne-city-break/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/aachen-cologne-city-break/#comments Thu, 02 Oct 2014 14:13:49 +0000 http://uncorneredmarket.com/?p=19458 By Audrey Scott

Upon a recent visit to the German Rhineland cities of Aachen and Cologne and the surrounding area, we realized there’s a lot to experience and unpack — that is, to comprehend the full picture of what we’d seen and how astonishingly complex history can be. From Roman beginnings, to medieval ascendency to industrial superiority, Germany’s […]

The post Aachen and Cologne: Instagramming a European City Break appeared first on Uncornered Market.

By Audrey Scott

Upon a recent visit to the German Rhineland cities of Aachen and Cologne and the surrounding area, we realized there’s a lot to experience and unpack — that is, to comprehend the full picture of what we’d seen and how astonishingly complex history can be.

From Roman beginnings, to medieval ascendency to industrial superiority, Germany’s Rhineland seems to have known it all. It has been influenced by French culture, impacted by the Prussians, and even spiced by a dash of Eastern European industrial migrants. It knows a blend of influences, cultural imprints and scores continually settled and resettled through events like World War I and II. Pull out a map and note that by cause and effect, the region borders Belgium, The Netherlands and Luxembourg — in addition to France — and you begin to get a sense of the near randomness of the borders we draw.

How to come to this understanding? Visit the towns of Aachen and Cologne on a city break, take a couple of day trips and immerse yourself in the history, eat heartily and take more than a few photos along the along the way.

Here are a few quick ideas regarding what you’ll see, what to seek out and how to break it all down.

Note: All square photos below were taken with an iPhone 4s.

24 Hours in Aachen

The fame and development of the German city of Aachen is due in large part to Charlemagne, crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800, and his choice to make the city his imperial capital. Just as the Romans had been centuries before, Charlemagne was drawn to the location because of the presence of hot springs. After logging over 50,000km on horseback, Charlemagne chose to give up his nomadic ways, settle down, rule from Aachen — and take a long, hot bath.

Like any good emperor, Charlemagne built a grand palace — one with an octagonal domed chapel that is today part of Aachen Cathedral, the city’s most famous site.

Our host, Christina, joked: “Aachen is so small that everything is within 15-minutes walking distance. Don’t worry if you get lost.”

Good news for us, as getting lost is permanently on our itinerary. Here’s what we found while wandering — er, getting lost — in the back streets of Charlemagne’s chosen city.

A view of the Aachen Cathedral from the Katschhof. Because of its shape, the dome is affectionately referred to as "the lemon juicer." I wonder whether Charlemagne would approve. via Instagram http://ift.tt/1ns0OHx
A view of the Aachen Cathedral from the Katschhof. Because of its shape, the dome is affectionately referred to as “the lemon juicer.” We wonder if Charlemagne would approve.
Aachen in autumn. A shot of the cathedral down the lane from the Domhof. #Germany via Instagram http://ift.tt/YIijO7
Another view of Aachen Cathedral, this time down the lane from the Domhof.
Remarkable light and color overhead at the Palatine Chapel, Aachen Cathedral. Carolingian architecture meets Byzantine style. Begun in 792, consecrated in 805, this is serious scale of history. #Germany #welterbegermany #aachen #unesco
Remarkable light and color overhead at the Palatine Chapel, Aachen Cathedral. Carolingian architecture meets Byzantine style. Begun in 792, consecrated in 805, this is serious scale of both architecture and history.
Münsterplatz, Aachen (Aix-La-Chapelle). A representative slice of the city's architectural melange. Unsurprising given its proximity to Belgium and The Netherlands. #Germany via Instagram http://ift.tt/1sVv54x
Münsterplatz, Aachen (also referred to as Aix-La-Chapelle).
Looking up from Münsterplatz, Aachen. The light is mixed and the smell of freshly baked Printen (the local spiced cookie) reminds us that autumn creeps in. #Aachen #welterbegermany #Germany #travel
Looking up from Münsterplatz. The light is mixed and the smell of freshly baked printen (the local spiced cookie) reminds us that autumn creeps in.

Visiting Aachen: Travel Planning

Aachen Map by Use-It Europe: We enjoyed this Aachen map for the commentary and bits of local history and folklore interspersed throughout the actual map and practical information. It has solid advice for drinking and eating, as well as fun graphics.

Aachen Cathedral: It’s free to enter the Dom (Cathedral), but officials request visitors to donate a more than reasonable €1 if they wish to take photos inside (like this 360-degree panorama). If you’d like to take a tour, you should consider booking in advance with the Cathedral Information Office (Johannes-Paul-II-Str.). On the day of our arrival, Aachen Cathedral tours had already sold out. The ticket for the Cathedral Treasury (Schatzkammer) is €5.

Aachen’s Rathaus (City Hall): The Rathaus is used today for exhibitions instead of the coronation banquets of kings, meaning that it’s open to ordinary members of the public like us (with €5 admission). When we visited, it had been hosting Places of Power, one of the three Charlemagne exhibits running in Aachen to mark the 1,200-year anniversary of Charlemagne’s death.

Eating and Drinking in Aachen

Himmel un Ääd (Heaven and Earth): A hearty meal of black pudding, fried onions, mashed potatoes (earth), and apples (heaven). Trust us: the taste is better than it sounds. This dish can be found throughout Germany’s Rhineland region, but we’re told that each area executes it a bit differently. We recommend trying it at Restaurant Elisbrunnen on Friedrich-Wilheim-Platz.

Recommended areas for Aachen bars and restaurants:

  • The Hof: A cute, quintessentially European courtyard area located just near the Rathaus and dotted with several restaurants and pubs. After a heavy lunch of himmel un ääd, we enjoyed an early evening salad at Kaiser Wetter. Grab a beer before or after at Domkeller Pub and enjoy a vast collection of German, Belgian and Irish brews. When the weather cooperates, you’ll find everyone outside enjoying the atmosphere in the courtyard.
  • Pontstrasse: Follow this street from Aachen’s Marktplatz (main square at the Aachen Rathaus) and you’ll end up in Aachen’s university area where you’ll find endless options for drinks, cheap food and live music. If you take it all the way to the end you’ll find Ponttor, the city’s northern medieval tower.

Aachen Printen: Cookies with a pilgrim’s purpose

Aachen Printen in All Shapes - German
An array of Aachen printen.

Printen are the Aachen version of spice or gingerbread cookies (in German, lebkuchen). There are many different ways to eat printen — amorphous or in the shape of Charlemagne’s bust or the Aachen Cathedral; covered in chocolate or plain; fresh and soft or aged and a bit firm. Printen were favorites of pilgrims who made their way through Aachen in the Middle Ages en route to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Yes, that’s a long walk. Printen served as a long-lasting food that could be carried for days and weeks without spoiling.

Having sampled several varieties, we suggest Klein Printen directly from where they bake it on the corner of Franzsstrasse and Aureliusstrasse outside the center. Just follow the scent of spiced cookies to the bakery’s front door.

24 Hours in Cologne (Köln)

“It’s laissez-faire around here. That is, as long as you know the rules,” our guide, Claudia, explained to us the inimitable blend of French and Prussian cultural influence found in Cologne and its surroundings. Although our visit here was short, we began to understand and feel these contrasts.

Exit the Cologne train station and you’ll find it difficult not to run into Cologne Cathedral, as the structures are literally adjacent to one another. An urban planning oddity perhaps, until you understand that when the railway was built in the 19th century, the idea was for visitors to exit the Cologne main train station and be awed by the first thing they saw, the Cologne Cathedral. First impressions such as these were meant to be long lasting and to firmly stamp the idea of Cologne’s prominence in the mind and memory of the visitor.

Cologne, once a city loaded with medieval architecture, was badly damaged in World War II. Much of the city was rebuilt with an eye to the modern. However, there remains a small old town area between the Cologne Cathedral and the Rhine River where a few original medieval buildings survived and others rebuilt in a style to match the traditional cobbled roads and narrow streets.

Here’s a visual stroll through Cologne’s old town.

The ever-resilient Cologne Cathedral. So much of the city was demolished in WWII, but the cathedral survived. Maintaining it is a constant struggle, apparently. There's been some bit of scaffolding on it every day over the last several decades, except for 3 days in 1970. Photographers from all over the world flocked to take photos for all those postcards. via Instagram http://ift.tt/1y7WEP4
The ever-resilient Cologne Cathedral. So much of the city was demolished in WWII, but the cathedral survived.
Old Town Köln (Cologne). A view of Groß St. Martin looking up from the Fish Market. Next up: a glass or two of Kölsch. This is Germany's Rheinland. via Instagram http://ift.tt/1lGieF7
Old Town Köln (Cologne). A view of Groß St. Martin Church looking up from the Fish Market.
Back street shadows, Old Town Cologne (Köln). A city with almost 2000 years worth of history, a few ups and downs. #Germany via Instagram http://ift.tt/1CqU7iD
Back street shadows in Old Town Cologne (Köln).
Cologne skyline, from Hansaring south to the Rhine. I spent the entire day trying to cram the spires of the massive Cologne Cathedral into the frame. Then I looked out our hotel window and found a way. Dear hotel security: that was not me and Audrey crawling out our window onto the hotel roof. #skyporn via Instagram http://ift.tt/W8aWh5
Cologne skyline, from Hansaring south to the Rhine, taken after a day of trying to cram the spires of the massive Cologne Cathedral into the frame.

Visiting Cologne: Travel Planning

Cologne Cathedral: It’s free to enter the Cathedral (Dom), but if you would like to book a tour, be sure to do that in advance with the Cathedral Information Center. You can also walk up to the top of the cathedral (€3.00).

Hohenzollern Bridge (Love Locks Bridge): Even if you have limited time while visiting Cologne, consider taking a walk across Hohenzollern Bridge. It’s known as the “love bridge” or “love locks bridge” for all of the padlocks affixed to it by couples from around the world. Beyond that, the bridge also provides a terrific visual perspective on the Cologne Cathedral and the old town via the train tracks coming out of the city.

Recommended guide: Especially if you only have a short time in Cologne (as we did) and would like an excellent overview of the city’s history, we recommend Claudia Lupri as a guide. She can be booked in advance through the Cologne Tourist Office.

Kölsch: Cologne-speak for beer
On the surface, Kölsch is just a type of beer that happens to hail from its hometown of Köln (Cologne). However, Kölsch feels more like a culture unto itself. There are specific rules on how to make it, serve it, drink it, and enjoy it. In order for a beer to officially be called Kölsch, it must be brewed in a specific area in and around Cologne.

It's Kölsch Time in Cologne, Germany
It’s Kölsch time!

This top-fermented beer is only served in small, thin glasses, usually at 0.2 liters, meaning that the beer is always fresh and slightly chilled. It also means that it’s not difficult to fool oneself and drink a lot.

And then there is the person who actually serves the Kölsch: the Köbe.

Köbe is the local dialect for the name Jacob. This is a reference to the pilgrims in the Middle Ages who came through Cologne on the “Jacob’s Path” en route to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. These pilgrims were thirsty for beer by the time they arrived in Cologne, and those that served them — dressed in a blue apron and white shirt and just a tad rude — were referred to as Köbe. The name — and behavioral role — sticks to this day.

Recommended Kölsch: Of course, we didn’t have an opportunity to sample every variety of Kölsch, but we tried a few. Our favorites were Pfaffen and Früh. Each has its own brauhaus in the Cologne old town area.

Traditional Cologne Fare: The Brauhaus Früh just near the Cologne Cathedral serves up good traditional meals like sauerbraten (beef roasted in a sweet-sour marinade) and Halve Hahn (bread with Gouda cheese). Not to mention, the Kölsch is quite tasty there.

Recommended Day Trips in the Rhineland Area

Zollverein Coal Mine Complex — Essen, Germany

In full disclosure, we probably would not have gone to the Zollverein Coal Mine Complex had it not been suggested to us by the folks at the German tourism board. After all, a former coal mine and “industrial center” does not sound — on its surface — particularly enticing or appealing.

But Zollverein defies its seemingly mundane origins.

Late afternoon takes over at Zollverein, near the city of Essen in Germany's Rhineland. Once a sprawling coal mine industrial center, the Modern Movement brick complex is now a historical and design center. Readers of Anthony Doerr's "All the Light We Cannot See" will recognize the name. via Instagram http://ift.tt/1lrpJzg
Late afternoon takes over at Zollverein, near the city of Essen in Germany’s Rhineland. Once a sprawling coal mine industrial center, the Modern Movement brick complex is now a historical and design center.

The recent history of Zollverein is a story of transformation — from a harsh, angular industrial complex to one of culture, design and creativity. There is an odd beauty and surface aesthetic at work — one composed of industrial rusting metal and abandoned chimneys and brick buildings all seated in the surrounding green space. Inside, the museum complex does a remarkable job telling the story not only the coal mine, but also the area’s history. This telling includes the area’s prehistoric origins to its early development and right on up through the 20th century, and includes a found object storytelling exhibit and regional push button scents-and-smells exhibit like nothing you’ve ever experienced.

We realize this may still sound like an odd travel recommendation, but Zollverein is definitely worth a visit. It really did pique our interest to return so we can better understand the history and mindset of the local Ruhr area.

Recommended guide: We enjoyed an terrific afternoon with Sven Hilling from Visit Ruhr. He not only shared information about Zollverein and the Ruhr region, but also personal stories of growing up in the area and witnessing firsthand its transformation.

Augustusburg and Falkenlust Palaces in Brühl

Garden view of Augustusburg Palace as the seasons change. The palace is one of the few intact examples of ideal European noble life in Germany before the onset of the Age of Enlightenment. The pursuit of perfection in the public eye drove its owner, Clemens August, into bouts of depression whereupon he would seek refuge at nearby Falkenlust, his private hideaway. via Instagram http://ift.tt/1t2X9Tw
Garden view of Augustusburg Palace as the seasons change. The palace is one of the few intact examples of ideal European noble life in Germany before the onset of the Age of Enlightenment.

We’re not usually ones for ornate palaces filled with period furniture, but Augustusburg Palace featured a depth to it well beyond its glossy facade. The palace tells the story of mid-18th century, pre-enlightenment Germany through the story of its patron, Clemens August. In an era where families of nobility valued upward movement in status more than anything. August exhibited a public face of nobility full of pomp and ceremony while hiding another, that of a depressed intellectual who retreated to a nearby hunting lodge to get away from it all. Although the centuries are different, the desire to acquire what’s considered valuable at the time – wealth, power, and titles — is timeless and universal.

In order to visit Augustusburg and Falkenlust Palaces you must book a tour at the Augustusburg Information office (€6/person).

Schloss Augustusburg, Brühl. The epitome of early to mid-18th century pre-Enlightenment European life and art, particularly among nobility and the great families. Baroque to Rococo style, rationalism in mindset, French in its display of nobility, Spanish in its ceremony and a German blend of it all. #germany #travel #welterbegermany #UNESCO
Schloss Augustusburg, Brühl. The epitome of early to mid-18th century pre-Enlightenment European life and art, particularly among nobility and the great families. Baroque to Rococo style, rationalism in mindset, French in its display of nobility, Spanish in its ceremony and a German blend of it all.

Coming next: A road trip along the Upper Middle Rhine River. This doesn’t quite fit into the category of a day trip from Aachen or Cologne, but we recommend combining them together into a week-long (or longer) trip like we did.

Our trip around the Rhineland of Germany was supported by the German National Tourism Board (GNTB). As always, the experiences and thoughts expressed here are our own.

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The World Doesn’t End With The Blue Skyhttp://uncorneredmarket.com/world-does-not-end-with-blue-sky/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/world-does-not-end-with-blue-sky/#comments Mon, 22 Sep 2014 12:17:16 +0000 http://uncorneredmarket.com/?p=19411 By Daniel Noll

“You can call me Airport,” Esupat said, laughing. She sat atop a Maasai hut with her legs crossed, straddling a half-built chimney. Small piles of bricks surrounded her; wet cement fell from her hands. She was dressed colorfully, ornamentally. But this is how she goes to work. When she smiles, it is wide. Wide from […]

The post The World Doesn’t End With The Blue Sky appeared first on Uncornered Market.

By Daniel Noll

Esupat with her Smiles and Pride - Tanzania
Esupat, a Maasai woman in northern Tanzania.

You can call me Airport,” Esupat said, laughing.

She sat atop a Maasai hut with her legs crossed, straddling a half-built chimney. Small piles of bricks surrounded her; wet cement fell from her hands.

She was dressed colorfully, ornamentally. But this is how she goes to work. When she smiles, it is wide. Wide from unforced practice. Wide with pride, wide with ease.

Her given name was Esupat, meaning “the one who cares for others.” She was considered a master among a team of Maasai women installing clean cookstoves in Maasai huts in the hills outside of the town of Arusha, Tanzania.

More importantly, however, she was known by everyone in her village as Airport, the woman who went through the sky and returned to tell the tale.

But before we tell that story, some background.

Accidental Women’s Empowerment

We recently visited the Arusha area to see in action a new Planeterra Foundation project, a partnership with Maasai Stoves and Solar Project. The project mechanism: G Adventures travelers who are on safari in Tanzania have a portion of their tour fees go towards buying and installing a clean cookstove for a family in a Maasai village. The travelers then have the opportunity to visit the village, see a stove installation, and learn more about why this simple stove design can be life-changing, especially for children.

Maasai Children Greet Us in the Village - Tanzania
The local Maasai village welcoming committee.

During our visit, we spent a day with a young Maasai man named Kisioki, the local project coordinator who had been with the program from its inception.

One of the things that makes our clean stoves project unique,” Kisioki said, “is that we empower women as a core component.

Why did this project choose to include women’s empowerment?” Audrey asked, leaning in.

Well, it was actually an accident,” Kisioki laughed.

We appreciated his honesty. And we figured there was a good story behind it.

Maasai Woman Dressed Up for Party - Tanzania
Mela, our Maasai host and one of the women invested in the project.

Several years earlier, Robert Lange, a professor from the United States, successfully designed a new type of “clean” cooking stove for a community on the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar. He was then invited to bring his concept to the Maasai villages in the Monduli district near Arusha, a jumping off point for either climbing Mount Kilimanjaro or going on safari.

But there were problems: the Zanzibari stove design didn’t fit the cooking needs of the Maasai community. It would need significant adjustments.

In the beginning, the Maasai village men together with the women were involved in discussions and community events about the stoves. But the men quickly lost interest; things moved too slowly for them.

The women remained steadfast, however. They cooperated with the organization’s engineers, testing and providing feedback on several stove design iterations until nearly 18 months later, the design of the clean cookstove – a stove that women in the village would actually use — was complete.

When talk turned to training, organizing and paying stove installation teams, the men wanted back in. The women held firm said no. Their rationale: We participated from the beginning and we ought to be the ones to manage the project and, more importantly, to earn our own money.

Maasai Women Clean Cookstove Installation Team - Tanzania
An installation team of Maasai women installs a new clean stove.

And so the Maasai Clean Stoves project remained one led primarily by women, with women’s empowerment as one of its de facto core components.

Training Women, Esupat Rising

When the project first got underway, each village was asked to recommend ten women to be trained in stove installation. A young woman named Esupat was among the first selected.

When women like Esupat received training, it provided them not only with practical skills, but also a source of income in a society where men traditionally earned the money. Esupat estimates that she has installed over three hundred stoves in the five years she has been involved with the project.

Installing a Clean Cookstove - Tanzania
Women work together to install a chimney, a core component of the stove.

For a bit of perspective, a clean stove costs around 95,000 Tsh ($56) to produce using local materials and labor. A family is then expected to contribute 25,000 Tsh ($15) to cover some costs. This contribution includes the fees paid to the local women-run installation teams. It also ensures that the owner is personally invested in her new stove.

Eventually, the project took off. This system gradually meant greater economic empowerment for the women involved and also a societal shift in perspective regarding the capabilities of women in the village.

But Wait, How Important Can a Clean Stove Be?

Earlier that day, we’d visited a village to see a new stove in action and compare it with a traditional one.

Stove in action?” you say with a yawn.

This is a stove that reduces 90% of the smoke released into a hut and uses only 40% of the firewood of a traditional stove. Sure, this sounds mundane. Numbers are, after all, a bore. And stoves aren’t very far behind.

Firsthand experience is a different matter, however.

In the village of Enguiki, Kisioki led us into a hut with a clean stove. A few bits of wood poked out from a circular opening as a fire crackled away to heat a pot of water on top. Mela, the owner of the hut, was a mother of nine children, four of whom still lived with her. She earned the money for the down payment on her stove through her work as one of the installation assistants.

Inside a Maasai Hut with a Clean Stove - Tanzania
Mela’s puppies need warmth, too.

I didn’t have to depend on my husband at all,” she noted with a bit of restrained pride. “Now my children have fewer health problems. The food even tastes better without all the smoke.

Sounds good. But how bad could the smoke from a traditional stove really be?

Kisioki took us to see Mela’s neighbor, Nagoyoneeni, just down the village path. She had a traditional stove. Before entering her home, I could see smoke seeping out from around a blackened door jamb.

Kisioki looked at me, “We only need to spend a few minutes in here. Just let me know when you can’t take it any more.

C’mon. How bad could it be? I mean, a family of eight lived there.

Awful. I couldn’t take it, almost instantly. From the moment I ducked my head to enter the hut, my eyes, nose and lungs were accosted by acrid smoke, making it difficult for me to see and breathe.

I blinked repeatedly to clear the soot from my eyes, to relieve the stinging feeling. Our host went about her daily business, making porridge for her children. Not wanting to be rude, I attempted to suppress a cough. It was impossible.

Maasai Hut With Traditional Three-Stone Stove - Tanzania
Smoke in hut with a traditional stove.

We sat on little wooden stools and had a conversation about the so-called three-stone fire, the traditional Maasai open pit stove with a pot placed on top. Nagoyoneeni explained that there were eight people, children mainly, living in her hut. She planned to save money from this year’s corn harvest to help buy a clean stove.

Though we were there only for a few minutes, I was certain I could feel my lungs blacken. Imagine what the smoke must do to the health of the newborn at Nagoyeneeni’s side, or the children shyly gathering around us.

Children peek out from inside one of the huts.

OK, Dan. I’m getting antsy. What does this have to do with a woman nicknamed “Aiport”?

Breaking the Blue Sky

As Esupat slapped concrete into the gaps of the bricks, I tried to get a handle on the pronunciation of her name.

E – su – pat. Is that right?” I asked.

Airport,” I heard one of the village women mumble behind me. Others laughed.

Ooh, a story!” I said.

You can call me Airport,” she laughed.

Airport? What’s this?” I asked.

After the project got traction in northern Tanzania, Esupat was invited to share her stove installation techniques with a group running a similar project in western Uganda.

The problem,” Kisioki said “was that nobody from the village had ever been on an airplane before.

Esupat jumped in, “The plane keeps going up and up. And I think, ‘Are we going to see God?’

Maasai belief is that the world ends with the blue sky and clouds, beyond which their god resides.

I imagined what this looked like to a person who perceived the sky as a sort of ceiling. I remembered my own first flight, as I clung to the hand rest wondering how this hulk of a thing was going to stay in the air. I didn’t fear the ceiling in the sky, but rather the force of gravity.

Esupat paused laying bricks, her joy at the memory of flying unabated, “I think we are very close to God. Are we going to see him? The plane keeps going up. I thought I was going to hit God and make him angry. And not come back.”

Esupat did not hit God, and she lived to tell the tale. She did something that no other villager had done, men included: she not only saw the airport, but she also flew in an airplane. Her social status was elevated.

When she returned to the village, she told everyone about it — with a smile each time, I’m certain.

Esupat tells her airplane story.

The Future

In the last five years Maasai women have installed over 1,000 stoves in villages around Arusha. When you consider that each hut is home to somewhere between seven and ten people, you can begin to appreciate the impact of this project. This is hopefully only the beginning.

The goal of the Planeterra Foundation and Maasai Stoves and Solar partnership is to provide a sustained, reliable source of funding for the local organization drawn from a portion of the tour fees of a steady supply of travelers coming through the area. In this way, together with the family investment contribution, each traveler helps purchase a clean stove. G Adventures travelers will also have the opportunity to visit one of the villages impacted, and have an experience that will hopefully be as eye-opening for them as it was for us.

Maybe they’ll have a chance to meet Esupat or another trail-blazer who will never forget her chance to know that the world doesn’t end with the blue sky.

If you are interested in getting involved and purchasing a clean cookstove for a Maasai family, please go to this Planeterra Foundation online donation page and select the Maasai Clean Cookstoves project under the drop down list.

Disclosure: Our visit to Tanzania to visit this Planterra Foundation project was provided by G Adventures in cooperation with its Wanderers in Residence program. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely our own.

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Aachen Cathedral: Just Look Up [360-Degree Panorama]http://uncorneredmarket.com/aachen-cathedral-panorama/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/aachen-cathedral-panorama/#comments Fri, 12 Sep 2014 12:46:56 +0000 http://uncorneredmarket.com/?p=19409 By Audrey Scott

Some cathedrals — with their fanciful gargoyles, detailed carvings and elaborate flourishes — are best admired for their exterior. For others, it’s all about appreciating what’s inside. What makes Aachen Cathedral so special for me, despite the beauty of its imposing Gothic exterior, are the mystical elements within. Even with all that I’d heard of […]

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By Audrey Scott

Some cathedrals — with their fanciful gargoyles, detailed carvings and elaborate flourishes — are best admired for their exterior. For others, it’s all about appreciating what’s inside.

What makes Aachen Cathedral so special for me, despite the beauty of its imposing Gothic exterior, are the mystical elements within.

Even with all that I’d heard of Aachen Cathedral prior to our visit, I still found myself surprised by the ornate mosaics that sprawled under its dome and a Byzantine design that hinted of the Near East. As we walked the chapel’s inner octagonal ring, I was struck by arches that reminded me of sites like the Moorish Great Mosque and Cathedral of Cordoba and Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia.

The core of the Aachen Cathedral — the Palatine Chapel — from which the panorama was taken dates back to the end of the 8th century. Although there have been a few renovations over the centuries, the essence of this design has its origins in the era of Emperor Charlemagne, as he commissioned the building of the chapel as an extension of his palace. More than 30 German kings were crowned in this cathedral between the 10th and 16th centuries. The cathedral also served as an important stop along the “Jacob’s Way” pilgrimage route that devotees walked from Germany to Santiago de Compostela, Spain in the Middle Ages.

The scale of history through the lens of this cathedral’s past: mind-boggling.

So when you visit the Aachen Cathedral, put your camera down for a moment and simply gaze up for a long, long time. Details in the mosaics and arches will emerge the longer you look. Maybe if you close your eyes you’ll imagine the stream of people — from kings to pilgrims — who shared that same space in the last 1,200 years. Although the world outside its walls has known great tumult and change, the space itself has remained a constant.

Open up the panorama below of the Palatine Chapel inside Aachen Cathedral to full screen and press the “up” arrow. Then you’ll see what I’m talking about when I say, “Look up!”

panorama directions

Our trip around the Rhineland of Germany was supported by the German National Tourism Board (GNTB). As always, the experiences and thoughts expressed here are our own.

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How Travel Is The Classroomhttp://uncorneredmarket.com/experiential-learning-travel/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/experiential-learning-travel/#comments Tue, 02 Sep 2014 10:05:05 +0000 http://uncorneredmarket.com/?p=19285 By Daniel Noll

I recently came across an article about experiential learning that featured a list entitled 12 Things You Might Not Have Learned in the Classroom. The principles were adapted from a book entitled Weapons of Mass Instruction by John Taylor Gatto. The list was preceded by the phrase “Really educated people…” “Wow, that’s a pretty presumptuous […]

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By Daniel Noll

Dan in the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia
Travel: the ultimate experiential learning environment?

I recently came across an article about experiential learning that featured a list entitled 12 Things You Might Not Have Learned in the Classroom. The principles were adapted from a book entitled Weapons of Mass Instruction by John Taylor Gatto. The list was preceded by the phrase “Really educated people…

“Wow, that’s a pretty presumptuous lead,” I thought. Then I continued reading and found myself nodding in agreement through much of the list.

The beauty of the lessons and notions is that they are timeless and age-independent. They apply — from Millenials to Baby Boomers — to those, who whether they know it or not, are committed to lifelong learning. And they underscore an observation I have made in my own wanderings around the world: that travel can not only make us better, but it can also help us improve the world, too.

I felt compelled to add my own interpretation of how immersive travel offers the perfect experiential learning context.

Note: I’ve included Gatto’s original 12 entries in bold below, followed by my own thoughts.

1. Establish an individual set of values but recognize those of the surrounding community and of the various cultures of the world.

The phrase “finding our place in the world” suggests that we must first be grounded in who we are and the values we embrace in order to make room for the world and our position within it.

Audrey with Women Pilgrims - Paraw Bibi, Turkmenistan
Audrey is adopted by a group of women at Turkmenistan’s Paraw Bibi pilgrimage site.

The idea is not to be immovable or inflexible. Instead, understand that self-awareness better positions us to acknowledge and respect similarities and differences. This also suggests that you shouldn’t simply accept whatever opinions come your way. Instead, think critically, question heartily and consciously adopt new perspectives and practices as you test the ones you currently hold.

I’m reminded of what could have been a confrontation in Istanbul, Turkey.

2. Explore their own ancestry, culture, and place.

As we seek to better understand ourselves, it seems a natural progression that we will be better equipped to make room for others and their stories.

As for place and where we’ve come from, travel often helps us develop a deeper appreciation of all the things back home that we are tempted to take for granted. A change of place and context can often surface useful questions, stir productive (yet often uncomfortable) doubt, and help us carve out greater creativity and curiosity.

As for people and who we’ve come from, our stories are often more complicated than we imagine. Exploration of our own background can build empathy and also conspire to crowd out fear. In the absence of fear, we make room for more understanding.

I’m reminded of Audrey’s search for her grandfather’s childhood home in Qingdao, China.

3. Are comfortable being alone, yet understand dynamics between people and form healthy relationships.

Although some of our greatest achievements are those that we accomplish together, the place to gather the strength and perseverance to achieve these goals resides inside each of us.

Paradoxically, I find that being alone — do not confuse or conflate this with loneliness — is tremendously important to building confidence, clarity and security. With that foundation, we can better extend ourselves to others and appreciate our interdependent relationships with them.

I’m reminded of reaching out to build relationship bridges across cultures where traditional diplomacy doesn’t always work.

4. Accept mortality, knowing that every choice affects the generations to come.

The great irony of travel is that we often admire the cathedral, the bridges, the great works, the kingdoms and the vast networks and spans that took generations to build. But can our travels teach us what we, as individuals and as a society, need to do to build metaphorical cathedrals of our own?

What actions do we take today whose results will survive us, yet not be seen by us? This means taking action — and maybe even sacrificing — not because you will reap immediate benefit, but instead because you know the importance of your actions to future generations.

I’m reminded of our journey to Antarctica where we discussed the shrinking glaciers with an Antarctic scientist and veteran, and learned that our actions at home were doing more harm to the environment than the ships coursing through the region. John Oliver may take exception to that today.

5. Create new things and find new experiences.

Travel, particularly the sort that emphasizes engagement and participation in favor of consumption, can develop our creative and adaptive instincts. Even after all the places on earth are discovered, the possibility of authentic, meaningful experience is infinite — if we’re smart enough to recognize that it’s up to us to search ever more deeply for it.

To create more, to participate, to consume less. To engage fully, so that the mark of a place and its people are also left on us. This is the new travel.

This is not only the future of travel, but if we work for it, it will also be the future of our society.

I’m reminded of how travel helps us let go.

6. Think for themselves; observe, analyze, and discover truth without relying on the opinions of others.

If travel does nothing else, it provides endless opportunities to observe and experience for ourselves. That a place and its people can be so vastly different in person than we have been told by others — through news reports, opinions, travel articles — is the ultimate discovery.

Kurdish Truck Drivers at Road Side - Kermanshah, Iran
Meeting Kurdish truck drivers at a kebab truck stop in western Iran.

I travel so I can discover the world for what it is, not as it has been told to me. I do this for my own sake and vitality.

Opinions of others are often important, but forming and re-forming one’s own opinions through actual experience is where the greatest personal growth and progress is hidden — a transformation that displaces prejudice and preconceived notions. Travel continually reaffirms this.

I’m reminded of the main reason why we travel and how we find places so vastly different than the prevailing narrative on the news.

7. Favor love, curiosity, reverence, and empathy rather than material wealth.

Before studies told us that buying experiences provide more sustained happiness than buying products, our bodies and minds had been telling us the same thing. Material accumulation makes us feel heavy, it’s a quick hit; experiences on the other hand are light and have proven longevity.

But as we pursue experiences, maybe we can ask ourselves: “Why we do it? To what end?” I’d like to think that if we aim to draw the most from the world and our travel experiences in it, maybe we’ll do so in the pursuit of mutual understanding and respect. Not only will that make the world a better place, but it will make each of feel better and more connected, too.

I’m reminded of our realization of the value of experiences over stuff.

8. Choose a vocation that contributes to the common good.

The greatest art of all is the ability to enrich oneself while simultaneously enriching the lives of others. When one’s riches arrive entirely at the expense of others, I begin to wonder how bright that person is after all.

Travel the world, see the rich and the poor, and this will be laid bare. Then ask: “What is my purpose? Where can I contribute?”

I’m reminded of using our storytelling and photography skills to help microfinance organizations tell their story through images and vignettes to help raise awareness and funds.

9. Enjoy a variety of new places and experiences, but identify and cherish a place to call home.

Some of us have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel and float almost ad infinitum, like lifetime nomads. Social networks have grown into our sense of what we call home. But we’re still human, of the flesh. And we need connection and touch. This means places — and more importantly, people — that are ours, that we can return to after our journey. They are “home” to us.

Open spaces, long horizon. A gaze, a beer, a sunset. A space 100 acres larger than New York's Central Park. Old Tempelhof Airport. A Berlin silhouette.
Tempelhof Park in Berlin, one of our favorite places in the city we now call home.

Home is also an important place for reflection, to take pause to absorb all that you have experienced and digest all that you have learned on your journey.

I’m reminded of a discussion about what “home” really means by way of a visit back to a former home of ours: Prague, Czech Republic.

10. Express their own voice with confidence.

Confidence is about finding our voice and allowing it to co-exist with the voice — disagreement included — of others.

When we’ve done that, I suspect we’ve really found ourselves.

I’m reminded of a twist on voice and purpose.

11. Add value to every encounter and every group of which they are a part.

Every person and place, every handshake and interaction can make a difference, however small. Travel teaches us this continuously, that we are all connected to and inherently invested in something much bigger than ourselves. Maybe that lends to us a sense that we should give back to the world around us and view that motivation less as a burden and more as an opportunity.

I’m reminded of a story that demonstrates we are all more connected than we think and the power of citizen diplomacy.

12. Always ask: “Who am I? Where are my limits? What are my possibilities?”

Travel can be the mirror to aid us in understanding ourselves and our potential. It helps us reframe who we are and what we are capable of doing. Travel experiences, by placing us in contexts that are unfamiliar and unknown, regularly press our boundaries and limits. They often force us to face our fears and appreciate the permanence of uncertainty.

This exercise at once helps us find our feet, and stretch our sense of possibility.

Step by Step to Thorong La Pass - Annapurna Circuit, Nepal
Facing up to the physical and emotional challenges to cross Thorong La Pass, Nepal.

I’m not suggesting the next time you have an identity crisis (I’ve had a few), that you hop a plane. Use your traveler’s eyes to explore your city in a new way. You can also reflect on your previous travel impressions and use them as creative fuel to define what is possible and which steps you will take to get there.

I’m reminded of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, just as much a mental challenge as a physical one.

This is not only about travel. This is about life. Seek it. Find it. Experience it. And most importantly, go beyond the cliche to figure out what’s really underneath all that inspiration. And don’t be afraid to have your ideas and perceptions challenged along the way.

This is how we become “really educated people.”

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Next Up: From Mines to Wines, Germany’s Rhinelandhttp://uncorneredmarket.com/rhineland-travel-germany/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/rhineland-travel-germany/#comments Fri, 29 Aug 2014 16:42:02 +0000 http://uncorneredmarket.com/?p=19340 By Audrey Scott

As we set off for Germany’s Rhineland this weekend, I think back to an exchange I had with a tourist from Stuttgart the other night. “It’s been really fun visiting Berlin this week. It’s like traveling to a different country from Germany,” he said. We laughed. We understood. This is often what we tell people […]

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By Audrey Scott

As we set off for Germany’s Rhineland this weekend, I think back to an exchange I had with a tourist from Stuttgart the other night.

“It’s been really fun visiting Berlin this week. It’s like traveling to a different country from Germany,” he said.

We laughed. We understood. This is often what we tell people when they ask us how we like living in Germany. We’ve found that we picked up a bit of the Berliner habit of forgetting that there’s a country to explore outside of the city limits of its capital.

It’s time to do a little something about that.

After two months of enjoying summer in Berlin, we’re heading out by train to Germany this weekend. We’ll be exploring Germany’s Rhineland — a new part of the country (for us). Our trip will include places like Essen, Aachen, Cologne and the Upper Middle Rhine Valley.

Here’s where we’re going and what we’ll be up to.


I never would have thought to visit an old coal mining facility, but my interest in Zollverein Coal Mine was piqued recently when Dan mentioned the name in connection with a novel he’d read entitled “All Light We Cannot See.” Beginning on the eve of World War II, the novel tells the story of a German boy — whose father died as a miner in Zollverein — and a French girl, both trying to cope with the horrors of war.

Zollverein Coal Mine at night.

In addition to once being a coal mine, Zollverein is now known for its Modern Movement in architecture — something we know admittedly little about, but whose appearance we are often visually drawn to on bicycle rides around Berlin.

So we’re looking forward to understanding the historical, industrial, and architectural layers that make up UNESCO-protected Zollverein and learning more about the Ruhr region.


Aside from likely being a candidate for a spherical panorama of its interior, the 1,200-year-old Aachen Cathedral has been on our Germany sights shortlist, as it’s been recommended so often by others.

We’re looking forward to finally seeing this interior for ourselves.

aachen Cathedral
Interior of Aachen Cathedral.

Cologne / Köln

Years ago when I lived in Estonia as a Peace Corps Volunteer, my Estonian friend, Sirje, showed me her faded photographs of the Cologne Cathedral. I’ll never forget it. Visiting Cologne was among her first travels outside of what was the Soviet Union; she described her impressions of being in the “West” with all the fancy cars and endless shopping options. For me, as an American, the photo of the Cologne Cathedral looked like something straight of a fairytale with its towers and Gothic architecture. It will have taken fifteen years for me to finally see the Cologne Cathedral for myself…and share with Sirje an updated photo.

Cologne Cathedral
Cologne Cathedral at Night. Wow.

Another Cologne icon that we’re interested in getting to know a bit better is Kölsch, a local style of beer that is light in color and is only served in thin, tall glasses (in fact, we hear that drinking Kölsch in a beer stein is considered sacrilege). This style of brew does not travel well, so it’s necessary to go to the source — or to the Berlin Beer Festival — to enjoy it.

Given all that we’re heard about Kölsch, we imagine that it may someday achieve its own UNESCO culinary status.

If you have any recommended places to drink Kölsch in Cologne please let us know!


This is where the road trip portion of our Rhineland travels begin. We’ll pick up a rental car in Cologne and use it to explore the castles of Augustusburg and Falkenlust near the town of Brühl before heading further into the Rhine Valley. I’ll have an opportunity to exercise my newly acquired German driver’s license on both the autobahn and tiny village roads. Dan will have an opportunity to exercise his fatalism, as he’s the one who usually does the driving in our family.

He’s frankly terrified by the thought. This should be fun.

Augustusburg Castle
The Augustusburg Castle gardens in bloom.

Upper Middle Rhine Valley

As some of you may remember, we also never pass up an opportunity to taste and learn more about wine. So it won’t surprise you when we confess that we timed this journey to coincide with the Bingen Wine Festival, taking place in the first week of September. This segment of the Rhine Valley is smack in the middle of four German wine-growing regions: Rheinessen, Nahe, Rheingau and Middle Rhine. Although we have learned a bit about German wines over the years, we looking forward to a deeper dive by dropping in on the wine festival and by visiting a few wineries along the way.

This particular segment of the Rhine River has been a water trading route for over two thousand years, which is why it is dotted with castles across its various clifftops. Add to that its steep terraced vineyards that appear to fall right into the river and its almost too-quaint-to-be-true collection of villages that trace the river’s edge, and it’s no surprise that our parents have had nothing but great things to say about the region after their visits many years ago. My mother even made me promise to wave to the Loreley rock for her.

Upper Middle Rhine Valley
Marksburg Castle in the Upper Middle Rhine Valley. What a view.

Although we’ll have a rental car with us, we’ll leave it behind for a spell to take a boat ride or two and to explore by bicycle the surrounding hills, from Bingen to Rüdesheim, Lorch, Bacharach, Koblenz and all spots in-between.

UNESCO World Heritage Sites as Itinerary Anchors

We confess, we have a mixed relationship with UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

On the one hand, we find that tourists can sometimes approach them as places to “consume” or check off a box as if collecting, rather than experiencing. We find this approach can lend a little bit of tunnel vision to one’s travels — enabling visitors to ignore companion experiences or nearby areas that might help to round out their trip.

On the other hand, UNESCO sites have often pushed us to visit destinations we otherwise wouldn’t — often in the middle of nowhere — just because we’re curious about what makes that a place so special to have earned it official World Heritage status. It’s this curiosity that led us to UNESCO sites such as the Jesuit Ruins in Paraguay, Paharpur Buddhist Monastery in Bangladesh, Gobustan in Azerbaijan (and had to hitchhike back), or the Valley of the Whales (Wadi Al Hitan) in Egypt. We were even married at a UNESCO site in Italy. (Sadly, our fateful day had nothing to do with its earning UNESCO status.)

In this way, UNESCO sites can serve as itinerary anchors and can highlight an aspect of history or culture that a visitor would have otherwise never heard about (e.g., that Tantric Buddhism likely got its start in Bangladesh – who knew?!).

You may have have noticed that we’re anchoring our Germany trip around several of Germany’s UNESCO sites, taking us from a coal mine to cathedrals to castles to wineries along the Rhine Valley. And as much as we’re looking forward to seeing these sites, we’re just as excited for all the experiences that will happen in and around them — including getting lost.

How can you help with our trip?

If you have recommendations for places to eat and drink in Essen, Aachen, Cologne, and in and around the Upper Middle Rhine Valley, please send them our way! We’re looking forward to balancing out our historical and cultural learning with a bit of the culinary and vinicultural variety.

Follow along with our Germany adventures

We will share all that we see and experience during the trip on our various social media channels – Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus – using the hashtag #welterbegermany.

Feel free to engage with us there and share your own tips as we explore this new-to-us part of Germany!

Photo Credit: All photos above are courtesy of the German National Tourism Board.

This trip is supported by the German National Tourism Board (GNTB). As always, the opinions expressed here are our own.

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Gorilla Trekking in Uganda: A Beginner’s Guidehttp://uncorneredmarket.com/gorilla-trekking-uganda/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/gorilla-trekking-uganda/#comments Mon, 18 Aug 2014 12:30:13 +0000 http://uncorneredmarket.com/?p=19232 By Daniel Noll

I followed just behind our lead mountain gorilla tracker. In the hush of the moment under the canopy, I remembered our guide’s advice earlier that morning: “On your way to the gorillas, don’t forget to enjoy the sound of the jungle. There’s nothing like it.” My focus had been on climbing through the tendrils, on […]

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By Daniel Noll

I followed just behind our lead mountain gorilla tracker. In the hush of the moment under the canopy, I remembered our guide’s advice earlier that morning: “On your way to the gorillas, don’t forget to enjoy the sound of the jungle. There’s nothing like it.”

My focus had been on climbing through the tendrils, on getting there. I could feel the heat around me, the sound of swarms of bugs above my head.

Then our tracker pivoted and pointed my attention to the right, just past the thickness from which we’d emerged and into the clearing.

Suddenly, it was just me and a mountain gorilla.

Pensive Gorilla - Bwindi National Park, Uganda
Our first encounter with a mountain gorilla.

His name was Kakono, the silverback leader of the Mishaya family we’d managed to find. He sat just a few meters away, only a group of leaves and the floor of the jungle between us. I stared for a few moments, following his every slow, deliberate movement. Then I came to and realized I might want to capture the moment in pixels. A photo may be worth a 1000 words — I don’t know — but this moment seemed to require a few thousand more.

He had massive hands, blocky, like a catcher’s mitt. Inky black and leathery, too, with rough patches and texture. “A manicure,” I thought.

Kakono got up. He was huge — shockingly so. Fluid and graceful. Majestic and peaceful. He knew no hurry. The deliberate nature of his movements seemed almost oddly incongruous with his size.

I tasted a bit of fear – fear I now know was misplaced. Stereotypes of gorillas are so entirely off the mark. All those images we’re fed – King Kong, American Tourister luggage commercials and all the false clichés of violent Hollywood-styled apes — faded into the buzz of the jungle.

Despite what their size might suggest, mountain gorillas are vegetarian. Take that when you imagine they might devour you. Besides, they are peaceful, almost zen-like in a way we humans might never be able to comprehend. Maybe that’s what sitting and eating in contemplation does to you. That, and give you a big belly.

A connection, they look like us in another age, with more hair, more wrinkles.

A look into their eyes. Simple wonder. What do they think? What do they see? If they could, perhaps they might ask, “What do you people with those things around your necks find so interesting about me? Please, get a life.”

This is our world, together. But we were clearly in theirs.

For many travelers to Uganda, gorilla trekking is the anchor activity. To encounter mountain gorillas not only carries some expense, but it also takes planning and preparation to make the most of your outing.

In this beginner’s guide we share all you need to know to prepare for and get the most out of you gorilla trekking experience in Uganda.

Uganda’s Mountain Gorillas

Approximately 900 mountain gorillas live in the shared-border forests that extend into Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). After decades of decline due to poachers, civil war and diminishing forests, gorilla populations have begun to pick up in the last couple of years. In some respects, the growth of gorilla tourism may have helped protect these animals as the government receives funding for conservation and sees the economic benefit of protecting the animals and the national parks that serve as their homes.

Today, around 400 gorillas call the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park their home. Of these, nine gorillas families (each family usually consists of 10-15 members) have been habituated, meaning that although they are still wild they have become accustomed to humans and are unlikely to attack.

Gorilla Teenager with Belly - Bwindi National Park, Uganda
Teenage male, ready with a big belly for when he becomes a silverback leader.

When to go gorilla trekking

It is possible to go gorilla trekking all year round, but you may face rain or more crowds during certain times of year. The high season is June-September and December-February when Uganda has its dry(er) season and Europeans have their holidays. Even during this time you may experience rain in the forest. Trekking permits will be a bit pricier and more in demand during these times.

Low season is considered March-May or October-November rainy seasons. When trekking during this time you may experience more rain in the forest, making for a muddier, more slippery climb. However, during this time gorillas may be more likely to hang out in the low lands since food is abundant during the rainy season and they don’t need to search long and wide for meals. This means that your treks into the forest to find them will be shorter, often under two hours.

Our Gorilla Trekking Guide Waits for Information - Bwindi National Park, Uganda
Our gorilla trekking guide waits for information from trackers on the location of the gorilla family.

We went in May and lucked out with our weather. It rained the day before and the day after, but on the day of our trek it was sunshine the whole time we were in the forest and with the gorillas. For cost and crowds, we’d recommend trekking in either the off-season or shoulder season.

Obtaining a Gorilla Trekking Permit

Gorilla trekking permits are a hefty expense at $600 per person for most of the year, with April and May at $350 per person (2014 prices). The maximum number of visitors per day is 72, divided into groups of 8 persons maximum. Each group visits a different habituated gorilla family. The permit assigns you to a gorilla family and allows you to spend one hour with the family once your group finds them.

Our gorilla trekking permit and organization was included as part of our G Adventures tour in Uganda. This means that they took care of the paperwork as well as transport to and from our accommodation to the park. Each gorilla family is in a different area of the park, so your accommodation should be coordinated with the park entry point for that particular family. All we needed to do was show up and be prepared. Made for a very stress-free experience.

Even if you travel independently, it makes sense to find a local tour operator to help you secure your trekking permit and arrange transport, accommodation and other logistical support. The reality is that Ugandan tour operators purchase the majority of trekking permits so it’s very difficult for individuals to buy them directly from the National Park. If you want to go during the high season (June-September) you’ll need to organize everything months in advance to be sure you can get a permit.

And while there are no guarantees of mountain gorilla sightings when you set off, the tracking procedures in place at Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park virtually ensure you an unforgettable encounter.

Gear: What to Bring With You Gorilla Trekking

Everyone’s gorilla trekking experience will be different depending upon the weather, the depth of your forest hike, where the gorillas are hanging out, and other factors. It’s important to be prepared for anything so you can focus your time on enjoying your jungle walk and time spent with the gorillas, rather than being worried about your gear.

Gorilla Trekking, Just Before the Forest - Bwindi National Park, Uganda
Our group lines up before heading into the forest.

1. What to wear when gorilla trekking

Note: It’s likely that you’ll be trekking through mud and covered in dirt by the end of your trek so consider bringing clothes that you won’t mind ruining.

  • Trekking pants. If you have waterproof pants with you, carry these in your backpack in case of rain. You will also be recommended to tuck your pant legs into your socks to prevent nasty creatures from crawling up your legs.
  • T-shirt and long-sleeved shirt. We recommend a t-shirt with a light long-sleeved shirt over top to protect you against sun exposure and bugs (of which there are A LOT in the forest and jungle).
  • Waterproof jacket. Keep this handy, especially in the wet season.
  • Fleece or light jacket. The park is above 2,000 meters (6,000 feet). It’s unlikely that you will be cold when trekking in the humid forest, but you may become chilled waiting around for word of the gorillas’ location or when stopping for lunch.
  • Trekking shoes. For climbing hills, good traction on your shoes is essential. Even better if your trekking shoes are somewhat water-resistant.
  • Hat. Sun protection when trekking outside the forest.

2) Food and Water

  • Two liters of water per person. While this may sound like a lot, this amount is recommended in case it’s a long, hot hike. Better to have too much water than too little.
  • Lunch and snacks. Bring snacks that you can munch on along the way to keep your blood sugar and energy high before lunch, which will usually consist of a sandwich and fruit. Depending on how long it takes your group to find the gorilla family, it can sometimes be a while before you eat lunch.

3) Other useful gear for your gorilla trek

  • Small backpack. Be sure this is comfortable, as you’ll need to carry it for hours en route to and inside the jungle.
  • Walking stick. Do not worry about bringing your own. Wooden sticks are available to borrow at the park entrance.
  • Cameras and rain protection. It might be a bit overboard to carry a dry sack for your camera (although we did), but do carry a plastic bag or similar water resisting protection to keep your camera protected in case of rain.
  • Sunscreen and bug spray. Travel staples in this part of the world.

Note: If you’d prefer to enjoy your trek unencumbered, you can hire a porter to carry your small bag and assist you up hills and through the challenging parts of the forest. Just tell your guide that you’re interested in hiring a porter and he’ll find one for you at the National Park entrance. The fee is $15 per day (May 2014 prices).

What to Expect on the Gorilla Trekking Day

Your Team: Guides, Scouts, Trackers

Don’t forget to bring your passport with you as officials at the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park office will need to verify your trekking permit against your identification. After a quick briefing on safety measures and what to expect during the day, you will be assigned to a group of a maximum of 8 people for your gorilla family search and visit.

Each group consists of a main guide and two scouts who carry AK-47 guns and walk before and after the group. We were told that the reason for armed scouts is for protection in the forest against wild elephants or angry, unhabituated gorillas. The scouts are trained to fire shots into the air first in order to scare away the animals. We’ve never heard of anyone coming across these wild animals, but we understand that the policy of the National Park is to be safe rather than sorry.

Gorilla Trekking Guide, Scouts and Trackers - Bwindi, Uganda
Our gorilla trekking team of guides, scouts, trackers and a porter.

Your group will also have a pair of trackers who will have been sent out in the early morning (prior to your arrival in the park) to find the location of your specific gorilla family and to assess where they may be headed. Trackers communicate the gorilla’s movements to the guide so that he can decide on the best approach to meet the gorilla family.

Trekking to Find the Gorillas

The length of your overall experience and the amount of time it will take to actually meet your gorilla family is said to vary widely. It may take as little as 30 minutes to find your family and as long as five to six hours. The day we went, we spent about an hour looking for the gorillas while another group spent three hours searching in thick jungle.

The forest is lush, humid and damp and there are no discernible trekking paths. The terrain is full of hills and steep slopes where you will be required to pull yourself up steep jungle grades by grasping onto branches, plant roots, bushes and more. Follow the lead of the guide as to the best path and form to take.

Gorilla Trekking, Climbing Through Forest - Bwindi National Park, Uganda
Climbing hills in the lush Ugandan forest.

If you need a break, let your guide know. The worst thing that can happen is if you overexert yourself or don’t hydrate enough and are forced to leave the park before you find the gorillas.

Quality Time with the Gorillas

Once your group finds the gorilla family the clock starts: you have an hour to spend with them.

Now is when you want to stay quiet, move slowly and avoid sudden movements. I found that just sitting, enjoying being in the gorillas’ presence was the best experience.

Up Close with Kakono, the Silverback Male Gorilla of the Mishaya Group - Bwindi National Park, Uganda
Joining the mountain gorillas for their breakfast feast.

It’s not a problem to look a gorilla in the eye, but if he begins charging you, hold your ground but lower your eyes to indicate that you do not want a confrontation. Photos and videos are fine, but no flash.

Ideally, you’ve found several gorillas together in a clearing on the ground. This provides you easy visibility and you can just sit and observe. In other situations the gorillas are up and moving around — in the trees, behind bushes, or walking around through dense brush. Follow the lead of the trackers and guides and stay close as they move around to find other gorillas.

The trackers will often clear the brush with their machete so you can get a clearer and closer look at the gorillas. It is incredible how graceful and peaceful these animals are, especially considering their incredible size. You’ll be amazed when you see the silverbacks (mature males) get up and move around.

Huge Silverback (Male) Gorilla from Behind - Bwindi National Park, Uganda
Gorilla moon. Amazed at the sheer size and bulk of the silverback mountain gorilla.

Sustainability, Respect for the Gorillas

Gorilla trekking permits exist to limit the number of visitors and thereby reduce the stress on the gorillas. Our individual behaviors can also help to reduce the anxiety that our presence may effect, too. Give the gorillas the space they deserve.

Do not aggressively pursue them if it seems as though they are becoming annoyed and constantly moving to higher branches or behind bushes. Some of the most entertaining actions and displays (e.g., peeing or pooing on you from a tree, or chest beating) are usually an indication that a gorilla feels threatened. Good thing is, those displays are also a gorilla’s way of communicating “Keep your distance. I’d like to avoid resolving this with a fight.

Some travelers may ask: Are mountain gorilla encounters sustainable and ultimately beneficial to the mountain gorillas? On one hand, the visits are clearly an invasion. Imagine a bunch of photographers coming into your home at approximately the same time every day. You might tire of it, no?

At the same time, to the extent that gorilla treks provide motivation to protect the gorillas and their habitat from encroaching land development and farms, it’s not only worthwhile — it may be the only thing keeping human beings from driving to extinction what few mountain gorillas remain.

With that in mind, respect the gorillas as the wild yet sentient creatures that they are.

Kakona, the Silverback Gorilla - Bwindi National Park, Uganda
Up close and personal with Kakono.

As you stare into the eyes of a mountain gorilla you’ll likely feel a connection, one unlike you’ve ever experienced before. A connection of peering into the eyes of an exotic creature that looks and acts quite a bit like we humans do.

It’s a difficult feeling to articulate. We hope that this guide helps you experience it for yourself one day.

Disclosure: Our tour in Uganda was provided to us by G Adventures in cooperation with its Wanderers in Residence program. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely our own.

Our experiences above were from the G Adventures Uganda & Gorillas Overland Tour. If you plan to book this or another tour with G Adventures, please consider starting the process by clicking on the ad below. The price stays the same to you and we earn a small commission. Thank you!

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Travel to Rwanda: First Impressionshttp://uncorneredmarket.com/rwanda-travel/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/rwanda-travel/#comments Fri, 08 Aug 2014 07:52:27 +0000 http://uncorneredmarket.com/?p=19211 By Audrey Scott

Rwanda.  A country where the first thing that comes to mind when people hear the name: the horrific, tragic genocide of twenty years ago. When we mentioned that we were looking forward to visiting Rwanda, we weren’t entirely surprised by the confused looks and cocked heads: “Why?” We weren’t headed to see the mountain gorillas as most people visiting Rwanda […]

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By Audrey Scott

Fishing Boats on Lake Kivu - Kibuye, Rwanda
Another day comes to a close on Lake Kivu, Rwanda.

Rwanda.  A country where the first thing that comes to mind when people hear the name: the horrific, tragic genocide of twenty years ago. When we mentioned that we were looking forward to visiting Rwanda, we weren’t entirely surprised by the confused looks and cocked heads: “Why?

We weren’t headed to see the mountain gorillas as most people visiting Rwanda purely for tourism might do. We’d read about trekking, volcanoes and lakes, but mainly we were curious and wanted to see the country for ourselves. Atrocities should not be forgotten, but we know that people and places are resilient and they evolve, that life moves on. As interested as we were to learn more about the Rwandan genocide and its causes, our focus was to understand better Rwanda’s present and the future it hopes to build.

So what did we find? What surprised us about Rwanda? Read on.

If you’re looking for travel tips and recommendations for independent budget travel in Rwanda skip ahead to: Rwanda Travel Tips. If you want more photos, you can find our Rwandan photo gallery here.

1) Rwanda = The Switzerland of Africa?

The “Singapore of Africa” or “Switzerland of Africa.” Whichever analogy you choose, the meaning is clear: order, cleanliness, calm, rules enforced. To a surprising degree.

We arrived in Rwanda after a long bus ride from Kampala, Uganda. Even at the border, we could sense a different feeling crossing into Rwanda – greater calm, slower movement. Streets were wide and clean, with little to no trash to be found. Motorcycle taxi drivers wore helmets and safety vests. Honking was almost non-existent. There was none of the frenzy of humanity and movement we’d become accustomed to in Kampala. This order isn’t reserved for cities, either. As we trekked through villages in Musanze district, we found front yard gardens and paths there were also well maintained.

This is an image of Rwanda vastly different than most people imagine — with genocide, chaos, and lawlessness still in mind. After speaking to both locals and expats who had lived there for a while, the emphasis on order began to make sense. To rebuild a country after an atrocity like the genocide, where 100 days in the spring of 1994 left more than one million Rwandans dead (approximately 14% of the population), a society that hoped to recover at all might need a sense of security and stability. In some cases, order and rules can help achieve this.

With stability –- and an eye to human rights as a basis of discourse — reconciliation and rebuilding can occur.

2) Ubiquitous Rwandan genocide reminders

Our visit this year to Rwanda coincided with the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. The calendar year is packed with events for remembrance, Kwibuka in the local language of Kinyarwanda.

Throughout the country, we found memorial signs that read Kwibuka 20: Remember, Unite, Renew.  Signs were everywhere, in big towns and small, serving as a reminder that every village and every person was affected by the genocide.

We visited the Genocide Memorial in Kigali to learn more about the conditions that led up to an environment where such systematic killing could occur. It very well done and provides the historical and socio-economic background of the Hutus and Tutsis, as well as the propaganda and psychological games that were used to motivate ordinary people to kill their neighbors. The narrative is also quite damning of the role of the Belgian colonial powers in actively fomenting distrust between Hutus and Tutsis. It shines a light also on the fact that the international community turned a blind eye to the events even as United Nations officials working in Rwanda called for help. Although some may argue the exact figures, it’s estimated that as few as 4,000 U.N. troops sent in at the beginning could have prevented the slaughter that unfolded over the next 100 days.  

All that said, the memorial’s message is as even and even-handed as one could imagine emerging in the wake of such an atrocity. If you visit Rwanda, we highly recommend spending a few hours there.

We didn’t make any special trips to other genocide museums or memorials, including those that marked mass graves or churches where people were slaughtered. Quite honestly, there was only so much we could digest emotionally.

3) Rwanda, more than mountain gorillas

Most travelers come to Rwanda to see the mountain gorillas at Volcanoes National Park and leave, often to nearby countries as part of a broader trip in the region. This is really a shame as the country has some incredibly beautiful landscape, including lakes, volcanos and mountains. Not to mention the opportunity to visit local markets and villages to get a feel for everyday life in Rwanda. Note: We did not go mountain gorilla trekking in Rwanda as we were fortunate to see them in neighboring Uganda.

Rwandan Kids - Musanze, Rwanda
Playing games with school kids on their way to class.

We focused our time in Rwanda on three areas – the town of Kibuye on the shores of Lake Kivu, Musanze district in the north and the capital city of Kigali. Although we could have explored other areas such as Akagera National Park and Nyungwe Forest, we were traveling with our friend, Shannon, and found ourselves content to take our time and relax after being on the road for a heavy travel month in Ethiopia and Uganda.

Our first stop in Kibuye on the shores of Lake Kivu with a peaceful (and cheap) guest house run by the Catholic church overlooking the lake was just what we needed. I’m almost embarrassed by how much time we spent on the balcony gazing out over the lake, watching the light play games and absorbing the changes in the sky as the day progressed.

Mid-morning light, the deck outside our peaceful little perch ($12/night) above Lake Kivu -- near the Congo border in Kibuye, Rwanda. via Instagram http://ift.tt/1qMXH32
Early morning view of Lake Kivu from our room.

Lake Kivu, Calm Before the Storm - Kibuye, Rwanda
Late afternoon clouds move in on Lake Kivu for a sunset storm.

In Musanze, the jumping off point for Volcanoes National Park and Rwanda’s gorilla treks, we took a couple of day trips by jeep and on foot to see the twin lakes (Lake Burera and Lake Ruhondo), the nearby volcanoes, and a scattering of local towns and villages.

Audrey & Dan Goof Off at Mount Muhabura, Rwanda
Deciding not to take on Mount Muhabura, the extinct volcano behind us.

Lake Burera, One of the Twin Lakes Near Musanze, Rwanda
Farms and homes on the hills, Twin Lakes near Musanze district.

If you’re curious about the practical travel details for Kibuye, Musanze and Kigali, we’ve provided them at the end of this article here.

4) First country to ban plastic bags

Open your bags, please,” the Rwandan official asked at the land border crossing with Uganda.

While this is not an uncommon request at borders around the world – officials often search for contraband like alcohol, drugs, banned fruits and vegetables – Rwandan officials hunt for something more curious, plastic bags.

Border officials rifled through our backpacks. When they found a plastic bag, they would force us to remove its contents and hand it over. A bit of an inconvenience, but I was happy to forfeit a few bags for a worthwhile cause. If you’ve ever seen a landscape swamped in plastic bags, you’ll understand what I mean. And you’ll understand why Rwanda takes the approach they do.

So it is that Rwanda is the first country in the world to ban plastic bags (2006). And they take it seriously.

Even attempting to understand the world takes effort, more than a passing glance. And sometimes we get stuck, observing and unlocking. Rwanda, a walk through a village yields simple homes, yet well cared for. No trash & tended gardens. "There are rules here" said one Rwandan man, while another looked out and said "maybe this country aims to be the Singapore of Africa." This is just a little girl, the brightness of a future that knows different than the past. Taken near Red Rocks, just outside Ruhengeri / Musanze. via Instagram http://ift.tt/1jE7seT
Village scene near Musanze in northern Rwanda, plastic bag free.

As you travel through the country, you’ll notice that it is remarkably — and quite beautifully — plastic bag free. And when you buy something, the store provides you a paper or woven bag instead.

A nationwide plastic bag ban. It’s possible, and it’s an inspiration.

5) Inimitable African head-carrying balance

It’s not as if we’d never seen women carry things balanced on their heads before, but in Rwanda this practice seems to be taken to an entirely new level of artistry and color. A common scene on the street: four or five women walking, talking, laughing and gesticulating dramatically — all while keeping their necks perfectly erect and large baskets of food or agricultural tools on their heads steady.

The posture, strength and beauty of it all — incredible.  Would make the top models in the world jealous.

Balancing Baskets on Head - Kibuye, Rwanda
No hands needed, Rwandan women show off their posture and strength.

6) The slow food movement is taken literally in Rwanda

One feature that struck us in Rwanda was the glacial pace of food preparation and restaurant service. As in, you often must invest hours and plan ahead for meals.

First off, there is no street food in Rwanda — for hygienic reasons, we’re told. So options for a quick bite to eat are slim to none. So we often ate in restaurants, avoiding buffets where food had been sitting around, and ordering items a la carte.

We have no idea what was happening in those kitchens. At times, something as simple as beans and rice, fried chicken or pasta would take an hour or two – or sometimes several – to appear. This happened consistently, independent of the price level of the eating establishment. It progressed to the point where we were forced to strategize food ordering schedules several hours in advance to avoid becoming ravenous and gnawing on our hands.

I’m all for slow food and fresh ingredients, but Rwanda took it to a whole new extreme.

7) Overnight language switch from French to English

Parlez-vous français? Do you speak English?” This is how I approached everyone in Rwanda. I wasn’t linguistically schizophrenic. Rather, I just wanted to cover all communication bases. Older Rwandans often responded in French. Younger folks, English. Here’s why.

Until 2008, Rwandan schools and classes were administered in French language. Then one day, the government declared English the country’s official language in schools. Poof.  That was it.

The reasons for the switch are many: English is more of a universal business language, most of Rwanda’s neighbors are English-speaking, and shared business language promotes trade and exchange. Not to mention, the switch further distances the country from Belgium and France and its colonial history with them.

Laughing Kid on Fishing Boat - Lake Kivu, Rwanda
A smile and wave, the universal language.

However, the sudden switch meant linguistic confusion as instructors accustomed to teaching in French were suddenly expected to teach in English. Sink or swim, I suppose. As time passes, the level of English will improve as more English-speaking teachers are integrated into the school system. For now, however, it’s an advantage to speak a little French while traveling in Rwanda.

8) Umuganda: Community Days

On the last Saturday of each month, all Rwandans are called upon for Umaganda (meaning “contribution”), a national day of mandatory community service. Rwandans are expected to show up to contribute to public projects, to help build and clean. If you don’t show up, you can expect a fine. (Expats we spoke to told us they are exempt, however. At least no one seems to pursue them should they choose not to participate.)

In addition to helping to keep the country clean and organized, community service days are also meant to strengthen social ties by encouraging all members across society to work together, to know both your neighbors and local government officials better. While this practice has been in place for over a century, it now plays a particularly important role in promoting unity and cooperation in Rwanda’s post-genocide culture and society.

The road to Mt. Muhabura, now an extinct volcano. Seen on today's Rwandan real life drive. A little bit of red road, plenty of green, kids waving hello (and yelling "mzungu!"), everyone carrying all manner of stuff on their heads...and a whole lot of color. via Instagram http://ift.tt/1jVlhB4
Tidy roads and village in and around Mt. Muhabura

We didn’t have a chance to witness these community days in action, but I rather like the concept and appreciate the leadership and commitment required to maintain the practice.

9) Heavy influence of foreign aid

Although we’ve seen our share of foreign aid during our travels in the developing world, Rwanda stood out. In Kigali, our ride from the bus station to our hostel alone was striking. We were amazed by the shiny new buildings one after another, each owned and run be an aid organization — international, multinational, religious. Shiny cars, fences, fresh paint all stood out.

In the aftermath of the genocide, the international community contributed heavily to help rebuild the country. Much of this aid was based on need, but it was also doled out in part to assuage the guilt of the international and religious communities who didn’t do more to halt the genocide in the first place. Although the Rwandan government invests in education and infrastructure to help the country become a center for trade and business, aid still plays an outsized role in the country’s GDP (40% of it in 2011).

The effects of heavy foreign aid, both good and bad, are clear as one travels throughout the country. We rarely saw huts or shacks. More sturdy cement homes with shiny new tin roofs were the norm. Schools were in good condition and roads were sealed and so far in good shape. On the down side, one also felt an undercurrent of expectation on the side of local people that foreign money and resources will always be there – a stroke against self-reliance. Begging, even amongst kids wearing clean school uniforms, was the norm as they looked to foreigners for handouts. My hope is that that over time circumstances might conspire so that the Rwandan people believe more in themselves than in others, particularly when it comes to developing their own country.

10) Markets are where the action is

Although Rwanda may aim to be the Switzerland or Singapore of Africa, it’s still Africa. And its markets are where you can still find some action and lingering bits of refreshing chaos. Piles of everything from beautiful multi-colored broad beans to carved chunks of cassava root stir the senses.

Cassava for Sale at Kibuye Market - Rwanda
Learning about how to eat cassava at the Kibuye market.

In the open air markets we visited, we found people weren’t especially accustomed to seeing or interacting with wazungu (the plural of mzungu or “white person”). At first, locals appeared a bit wary or uncertain of us, but once we asked a few questions about what they were selling and how they consumed or used them — herbs, root vegetables, beans, sorghum, etc. -– they opened up and the fun ensued.

Note: Knowing how to speak a bit of French definitely helps, particularly among the older crowd.

Rwanda Travel Photo Gallery

Rwanda Budget Travel Tips

From our experience it seems as if most travelers in Rwanda are on a packaged tour and the country is aiming for a non-budget traveler crowd. It is possible to travel on a budget and arrange things independently, but it may take some extra time and effort. While public transportation between towns is efficient and reasonably priced, off track and independently arranged transport can by surprisingly pricey.

Here are our budget travel recommendations from our visit to Rwanda.

Kigali Travel Recommendations

For anything that you might want to know about Kigali – restaurants, bars, markets, shops, excursions, etc. – Living in Kigali is the first place to look. The founder (and our friend), Kirsty, has been living in Kigali for several years already.

Accommodation in Kigali Not a lot of good budget accommodation options in Kigali. We stayed at Discover Rwanda Hostel our first night, but thought the price ($42) was a bit high for a double room with a shared bathroom. On our return trip to Kigali, we were fortunate to stay with a couple of English teachers we met in Kibuye.

Food in Kigali: The highlight of our eating experience in Rwanda was Indian food at the restaurant of Blueberry Hotel in the Nyarutarama neighborhood. Highly recommend the paneer hadee and chicken kalimichi. Not cheap at $8-10 per dish, but portions are huge so it could last two meals. The menu was unusual and extraordinarily deep, and our dishes were nothing short of spectacular and featured a level of flavor and heat we often hope for in Indian restaurants but rarely find.  Also recommended is Republika for carafes of wine and grilled meat.

Motorbike taxis: The best (and cheapest) way to get around the sprawling city of Kigali is on the back of a motorbike taxis. Every motorbike driver will have a proper helmet for you. Most rides will cost you a couple of dollars, but be sure to bargain and note that the first price given is usually the mzungu (white person) price.

Chili Peppers at the Nyamirambo Market - Kigali, Rwanda
Chili pepper still art at Nyamirambo market in Kigali.

Lake Kivu – Kibuye Travel Recommendations

We chose to base ourselves in Kibuye over Gisenyi as we heard that Kibuye was less developed for tourism and was more laid back than Gisenyi. And that it was. Highly recommend spending a few days in Kibuye to relax.

Accommodation and food: We highly recommend staying at Home Saint Jean, a simple guesthouse connected to the Catholic Church on a hill overlooking the lake. A great laid back feel. There are rooms for all budgets. We took a double room with shared bathroom for $12/night. Bigger rooms with en suite bathrooms directly overlooking the lake are more like $20-$35. We also ate all our meals here. Good, but slow going (see #6 above). Tel: +250784725107

Transportation: Buses connect Kigali and Kibuye regularly (about 2.5 hours), departing on the half hour. We took the public boat from Kibuye to Gisenyi that leaves from a pier near Hotel Golf on Tuesday and Friday at around 1PM (depends on when the boat arrives from Cyangugu), takes around 2 hours and costs 2500 Rfw ($4). We recommend this option instead of the long, winding bus ride.

Musanze / Ruhengeri Travel Recommendations

This town and area are the jumping off points for gorilla trekking and excursions into Volcano National Park, so there’s a decent tourism infrastructure here.

Accommodation: We stayed at Amahoro Guesthouse – $30 for a double room, including breakfast. It’s in a good location downtown so you can easily walk to things. The caretaker of the house, Muhoozi, is very friendly and welcoming and takes good care of you (including, cooking your beans should you buy them from the market like we did).

Restaurants: La Paillote was our favorite place in town as it had a solid menu of pasta, pizza, sandwiches, and fish plates for reasonable prices ($4-$8). It also serves up good coffee. Many of the cheaper restaurants in town serve up buffets, which we weren’t so keen on.  We prefer our food to be cooked fresh to order.

We also cooked our own meal by picking up beans, rice and vegetables (like pumpkin squash) at the market and cooking them in the guesthouse kitchen. Terrifically tasty with the few of the local spices, curry packets and a dash or two of Ethiopian spices thrown in.

Musanze Day Tours: We took two separate day tours with Amahoro Tours, organized at the guesthouse. The first tour was a jeep ride out to Lakes Burera and Ruhondo (aka, the twin lakes), driving through villages and communities along the way. If you do this tour, ask the driver to open the sun roof so that you have good photo opportunities and have fun waving at kids and people along the way. Cost: $80 total for half-day tour, maximum of six people

The second day trip we did was the mountain hike of Rugalika that begins from Red Rocks Guesthouse on the outskirts of Musanze (hop on a motorbike taxi to get there). It goes for several hours up into the hills to a school and then through a couple of villages and rural communities on the way back out. It was a good walk through rural areas, but if you only have time for one we’d recommend the jeep trip to the lakes. Cost: $20 per person.

Volcanoes National Park Treks: Our original plan was to do some trekking in Volcanoes National Park, but as the weather was iffy (cloudy and rainy) and the costs were high we opted for the day trips above instead. In addition to the park fees (usually $75 per person for day treks), you also need to arrange private transport from Musanze to the park entrance ($80/day). Any guesthouse can help you with this.

Transportation: Musanze is a well-connected spot, so you should have no problem getting in and out. It took about an 1-1.5 hours by bus from Gisenyi (Lake Kivu) and then 2.5 hours by bus to Kigali.

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