about We are Akila and Patrick. Our minds (and waistlines) expand as we travel, cook, and eat our way around the world with our two dogs.
Browse by Travel
Browse by Food
Tag: Musings
five years!

Five years!  Five years ago, Patrick and I quit our jobs to travel around the world.

Last year was the year of staying still .  But, this year, we've found our traveling feet again, learning --- albeit slowly --- how to travel with a baby/toddler.

Costa Rica
Costa Rica chips Cheese in Costa Rica
Sloth at Manuel Antonio Costa Rica monkey
Costa Rica hiking with a baby Costa Rica with Akila

Highlights from our trip to Costa Rica

Costa Rica : Our first international trip with Amara was to Costa Rica.  The people in that country embrace pura vida and were so welcoming and accommodating of us, as we learned how (not) to travel with a baby .  We didn't pack enough clothes for her so we were constantly doing laundry.  We didn't realize that the time change would affect her so significantly so that by 7:00 p.m., she couldn't stay awake another moment longer.  We didn't count on how heavy a 14 pound baby can get on a four hour hike.

Despite the hiccups, we learned how to see the world through her eyes .  We spent leisurely afternoons, playing with plastic water bottles and meandering through butterfly gardens and jungles in Costa Rica.  We gorged on maduros and panela cheese.  We drank coconut water in the shade.  We pointed out sloths and monkeys to our baby.

We traveled and loved it.  Yes, our baby was a traveler and we were going to love traveling with her.

Airavatesvara Temple
Puducherry  hotel Sai temple
India with my family India

Highlights from India

India: Then, we headed to India for a month. Chennai is not picturesque, charming , or particularly interesting.  Rather, its main attraction is the love that envelops us as soon as we enter that city.  I have over 150 relatives in Chennai, who, despite not seeing us for years or years, welcome us every time with open arms, gifts, and (what I appreciate the most) platters of food.

And, this time around, we brought Amara with us, who quickly endeared herself to everyone.  She was pampered in Chennai and so were we.  There were always ten other hands who wanted to hold, feed, rock, and carry her.  Amara woke us up at 5:00 in the morning when the sun rose and the temple bells started clanging, and we handed her over to my uncle, aunt, and grandmother, and she happily played with them until we arose.  My cousins bought toys and beautiful silk pavadais for her.  My great-aunt made her fresh homemade yogurt each day.  And, when we walked from temple to temple, someone was always ready to pray for her.

We left Chennai for a week and a half to explore other parts of Tamil Nadu.  We swam in the mostly empty pool at our (very reasonably priced) resort in Puducherry and walked the deserted beaches.  We drove to Tanjore and Kumbakonam to visit the stunning Chola Temples , which surprised me with their gorgeous carvings, rivaling those we saw in Angkor Wat.

And, did I mention that we ate?  Oh, yes, we ate so much that we all gained several pounds by our return.  Highlights included the banana flower curries prepared by my aunt, the stunning assortment of food at the Chennai fresh market, and the thin, crisp dosas filled with masala in Puducherry.

Amara Amara at the Ferry Building
Crepe in San Francisco San Francisco
Peach sliders Atlanta Food and Wine Festival

Highlights from our United States travels

United States : For much of the remainder of the year, we've traveled within the United States.  We spent a week in San Francisco, enjoying plump pierogis at the Picnic at the Presidio , eating homemade ricotta from Cowgirl Creamery's shop in the Ferry Building, and eating our favorite dim sum at the always wonderful Yank Sing.  Back in the Southeast, we explored Atlanta with our toddler .  And, we gorged on peach doughnut sliders, the "perfect" brisket (according to Patrick), maple and smoked sea salt sipping chocolate, and sweet moonshine at our favorite foodie event of last year, the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival .

It's been a great year and we're kicking off the new one with two weeks in Brazil.  Thanks for joining us as we roam the world.  Happy travels to everyone reading and happy holidays!

on travel blogging, sponsorships, and ethics

Blogging and sponsorships

*I don't talk about the business side of blogging much mainly because there are a lot of other folks doing a great job thinking about professional travel blogging, it's very inside baseball (and I don't even like baseball), and I don't want to bore you guys with the very unglamorous side of this travel lifestyle.  So, if you aren't a travel blogger and can't imagine why anybody would want to turn this into a business, I highly suggest that you check out our recent posts on gorgeous Prague and Pompeii .  But, if you're in the biz, or someone curious about what I’m doing when I go on “sponsored trips,” or a newbie travel blogger, maybe you'll find this ridiculously long-winded post interesting.

There’s been a lot of noise in the last few months about travel blogging and ethics: namely, is it appropriate for travel bloggers to take sponsorships and paid press trips and write about these products and destinations?  Aren’t bloggers obviously biased if they receive a press trip in which they are wined and dined by a specific destination?  How can a blogger write objectively about such destination?  And, how can a reader/consumer of blogs know when a blog is “real”?  (See the following articles that generally discuss this topic: this article from BBC/Skift , a recent newsletter from Bootsnall (which I can't link to), this article from TNooz that describes the new FTC guidelines requires bloggers to disclose sponsorships in their tweets , and the recent FTC guidance itself that basically tells bloggers that we must plaster disclosures all over the place if we want to accept sponsorships.

(Side note: I'm not even going to get into the discussion of whether or not the FTC Guidance is fair or unfair and how traditional print journalists may accept press trips and don't have to disclose that press trip in their magazine article.  The FTC Guidance is a post/vent for another day.  And, yes, I am a totally nerdy lawyer and have read the whole guidance multiple times, parsed through it, and am still thoroughly and completely irritated by it.)

The ethics of sponsorships is something that I’ve been wrestling with in my own blogging because I’ve been getting increasingly more sponsorship offers and more pressure from sponsors to portray them in a positive light.  And, I’ve been mulling --- a lot --- about what sponsorships and sponsored travel means for The Road Forks, me, and you.

Why talk about travel blogging ethics now?

Simply put, travel blogging has become huge.  I began blogging five years ago --- around the same time that a lot of the biggest players in travel blogging began their blogs, such as Adventurous Kate , The Planet D , and Twenty-Something Travel. At that time, destinations and companies were just beginning to think about working with travel bloggers.

Blogging, itself, was a vague notion.  Patrick and I were in South Africa on one of our first sponsored trips --- which we had cultivated by directly communicating with the company --- and someone asked me to describe a “blog.”  Before I could answer, someone else responded, “Oh, basically, it’s an online diary.”  Why would a company or destination want to work with a bunch of people spilling their guts in online diaries?  At that time, we weren’t even on the map.  Heck, we couldn’t even see the map with the "real travel journalists" in the way.

Now, there's no comparison.  When Travel Bloggers Exchange (TBEX) had its first conference in 2009, a modest 150 people showed up in Chicago at the end of the much bigger Blogher.  Last year, there were four different conferences aimed solely toward travel bloggers hosted by three different entities across Europe and the United States with between 300 to 1,200 people at each conference.

Gary Arndt started a small Facebook group of travel bloggers around 2009 --- there were about 200 or so of us who chatted about random blogging stats, SEO, and industry issues.  Now, I'm one of the administrators of that group and there are 3,000+ travel bloggers and more joining every day.

And, now, companies are falling hand over feet backwards to work with bloggers.  I get offers nearly every day asking me to check out the newest product, app, book, hotel, restaurant, or destination. At ITB Berlin (a travel industry conference), travel bloggers became coveted and sought after , with specific events tailored to help destinations and areas meet travel bloggers.

(And, yes, I totally feel like the curmudgeonly old codger fondly recalling the good old days.  But, hey, that's what it's like in this business.  A year on the Internets is like ten years in the real world.)

As our industry grew, so did the avenues for cash.  Bloggers became entrepreneurs --- because we had to --- because that's the way to make money.  ( Go check out Kristin's amazing post on the need for entrepreneurism in travel writing/blogging .)  Blogging friends of mine are writing books , becoming brand ambassadors , developing conferences , and speaking at conferences .  And, we're getting respect.  We're no longer considered itinerant diarists (though, of course, sometimes we are) and amateurs.  There's a Professional Travel Bloggers Association , now, but the surest sign of the times: this year, three of the eleven National Geographic Travelers of the Year are travel bloggers and five of the winners of the Society of American Travel Writers' awards are bloggers .

But, with great power comes great responsibility.  Or, something like that.

bloggers have directly accessible personalities

Why do travel bloggers matter?  Why are destinations sending travel bloggers on press trips?

The explosion of travel blogging as a serious respected avenue for travel writing is still very much a work in progress.  Take, for example, this article from Skift/BBC which says, "The problem [of bloggers getting free press trips] stems not from freebies, per se. It stems from the disconnect between how travel bloggers position themselves as influencers of consumers.  They are not.  Their audience is a fraction of a sliver of a minuscule, but they make lots of noise.  On a good day, travel bloggers are marketers, and their audience is an echo chamber of equal-minded travel bloggers."

Here's what I know from my own work as a blogger: yes, there is a lot of this echo chamber issue in the travel blogging world, but I'd argue the same problem in any industry.  When I was a law student, I worked on a highly respected law journal: in it, academics talked to other academics.  When I was a lawyer, I went to numerous conferences where attorneys were talking to other attorneys and complaining about issues that, of course, no attorney could resolve because we were all part of the problem.  Judges mostly talk to other judges.  Doctors talk to doctors.  And, as we've recently discovered with the whole government shutdown, politicians seem to talk only to other politicians (and, they're not even doing a great job of that).

It's what we as a society do.  We talk to those who understand our industry the best.

Though bloggers do make a lot of noise, I'd argue that we are more influential than the Skift article posits.  No, we don't have the numbers of a Lonely Planet or a Frommers.  But, we have something that they don't: we have accessible personalities.  If people have questions, they can contact us.  If people have issues at a destination, they can talk directly to us to get our advice.  We are here.  We're available.

For example, check out my article on how to decide whether or not a Japan Rail Pass is worth the expense .  I wrote up this post way back in 2010 because it was an issue that I had spent a lot of time thinking about and worrying about and I wanted to help out other travelers.  The post has over 175 comments on it and, even now, I get at least one email a week from someone looking for Japan Rail Pass help, not to mention that it's one of the lead search results that sends people to my site.

Of course, the average non-blogging traveler could go to Lonely Planet or even to the JR Pass website and read up about the Japan Rail Pass system.  But, I can provide something that neither a guidebook nor a static website can provide: personalized help.  When people contact me, they don't address me as "Dear Sir/Madam" (well, unless they're a spammer, in which case they're equally likely to refer to me as Dear Mr. Patkila).  They address me as "Akila" because that's who I am.  The reason people ask me questions is because they know that I'll give them an answer to the best of my ability.  And, if I don't, they can hold me accountable (at least to a certain extent) because I am a real person and this is my blog.

That's the value a destination gets from sending bloggers on press trips.  No, we don't have the numbers of Conde Nast or National Geographic.  But, we have directly accessible personalities.  If someone reads about Namibia on my blog and they think this sounds like a great destination, they can email me or leave a comment and I'll get back in touch with them and help them sort out a trip to the best of my abilities.  And, those directly accessible personalities result in a pretty good return on investment for the destination.

How do you define a sponsorship?

A few years back, I would have told you that a sponsorship was a "free trip."  Or a free item.  In fact, Matt Kepnes of the huge Nomadic Matt wrote this great article on why he would keep taking free "press trips" and "free stuff" back in 2009.

But, if you ask us now, few bloggers will call a press trip "free."  Here's what we've learned in the intervening years:

  • DMOs (direct marketing organizations) and destinations demand a lot when on a press trip.  The pace is hurried and we're often writing blog posts, tweeting, Facebooking, and Instagramming on mediocre internet on buses as we run from one destination to the next.  We work a lot on a press trip, in the same way that I used to work a lot on business trips as an attorney.  A press trip is a business trip, albeit a fun business trip in an exotic locale.
  • Usually, we're not getting paid beyond the services provided by the DMO (i.e., lodging, food, etc.).  Now, this isn't always true.  There are some bloggers who make a salary from the organizations that they endorse, in effect acting as celebrity endorsers for a particular brand, in the same way that Lebron makes money from Nike (though, I can tell you that noone's getting super rich as a travel blogger).  But, that's the exception.  Most of us take press trips during our vacation time from our other paying gigs.  If we're professional bloggers or writers, the time that we are at a press trip is time spent not writing or pitching on other projects.  It's the loss of income and opportunity.
  • DMOs and destinations are starting to wise up to the fact that press trips aren't free.  In the last two years, I've started getting W-2s from organizations from whom I've received a press trip, meaning that I'm making "income" from these companies that I need to report to the IRS, even though that "income" may be in the form of lodging, dining, and air tickets, rather than cold hard cash.

All this goes back to the original question: how do you define a sponsorship?  I define a sponsorship as an arrangement in which I provide writing, photography, and linking services through my blog in exchange for a certain product or set of products.  A sponsorship is a bartering system.  Instead of providing cash for my services, the destination/product manufacturers are trading goods/products for my services.

And, that raises lots of questions: how can I accept goods or services from a company and then be honest in my writing about that company?  Isn't there an inherent conflict of interest if I'm getting "income" from X destination?

Online services consumers most trust

Why does honesty matter in travel blogging?

Many non-travel bloggers have assumed that it's not possible to go on a press trip and still write honestly about the product/destination.  It's the reason that the FTC has come down so hard on bloggers, requiring in their most recent guidance, that bloggers directly state that a review, blog post, or tweet about a particular topic was sponsored.

It's the reason that Sean Keener wrote in his recent Bootsnall newsletter (which is, in part, what prompted this whole blog post) that, "Many popular travel bloggers are given free trips (often called press trips) or in some cases are even paid to go to a destination, hotel, hostel, etc.  The blogger will often use this disclaimer: 'This trip/hotel/hostel/etc. was paid for by XXXXX, but the opinions are my own.'  Really? I call Bull-shitake.  Let's think about this for a minute. If that blogger paid for that exact same trip with their own coin, would the content be the same?  Quite simply - No...it wouldn't."

Let me turn this around: why is it assumed that bloggers can't be honest about a press trip?  Why is it assumed that we will automatically give glowing reviews of a product because it was given to us to review?

Personally, I didn't start getting sponsorships and offers for product reviews until I was already well-established as a blogger.  I'd been writing for a year or longer, had a decent sized social media presence, and was active in the travel blogging community.  I got sponsorships because I already had credibility with my readers.

Credibility is critical in this industry.  In fact, I'd say that you can scrap everything else: the quality of writing, the quality of photography, the quality of your web design, and, if you can be seen as a credible authority, you will succeed as a blogger.

Though not a blogger, Paula Deen is a perfect example of this.  She was a respected and credible authority on Southern cuisine.  She reminded all of us of our fondly indulgent grandmothers, who lived in a time when butter was considered a health food.  I've made her recipes before and I've eaten at her restaurant : I'm telling you, people, that she wasn't that great of a Southern cook.  But, people loved her because she was so honest and cute and round and full of buttery fun!  Then, all of a sudden, people found out that she had used racist terms.  She stopped reminding of us of our kindly grandmothers and started reminding us of those bigoted Southerners that every other Southerner would rather not know.  She lost her credibility and, in doing so, lost her TV shows and endorsement deals.

Now, there isn't a single travel blogger who is as famous as Paula Deen.  But, we, too, have reputations to uphold.  If you have been doing this travel blogging thing long enough to have developed a credible reputation that will earn you sponsorships, then you've probably worked pretty hard to develop such credibility.

And, it's that credibility that's getting you sponsorships and making you money.

In fact, Technorati recently concluded in its Digital Marketing report this exact same point: blogs are the fourth most influential online source for people making consumer decisions, behind retail sites and brand sites and the fifth most trusted source of information on the Internet.  (Note that consumers prefer blogs as a source of information over news sites and online magazines.  The King is dead.  Long live the King.)  And smaller communities actually drive purchases over larger bloggers because people believe that smaller communities have greater influence.

People trust bloggers because they think that we are credible sources of information.

online services most likely to influence a purchase

How much is your credibility worth?

So, really, when you look at this whole big question about whether bloggers should accept press trips and sponsored gear, the question boils down to this: how much is your credibility worth?

My credibility is worth a lot to me.  I've worked hard to build a credible reputation as a blogger.  I've worked hard to build credibility in the travel industry.  Why would I screw up that credibility by creating content that only favors a sponsor?

Our job --- or, at least, my job --- as a travel blogger is to write and be responsive to my readership. Not to any sponsor.  Writing for sponsors isn't a sustainable business model.

Sponsors come and go. Readers last

I think there's also a quantity issue: if you, as a blogger, take on too many sponsorships, people may assume that you're just a corporate shill.  Unlike a faceless guidebook entity, we bloggers are our brand.  As Nora Dunn eloquently put it , "out-of-sight/out-of-mind is a real problem in the ever-changing blogging industry."  I think that's part of the reason that The Pioneer Woman is so successful.  Even though she has many, many, many sponsors, she is always the face of her blog and always writes her personal stories on her "confessions" section.  She never loses sight of the fact that she is her brand.

I get over a hundred offers for sponsorship a year --- for gear, apps, websites, books, hotels, restaurants, cooking classes, tours, and destinations. Of that hundred, I accept less than 5 to take on as sponsors. Why? Because, frankly put, a whole lot of the stuff being put out there is terrible and I don't want to be associated with terrible stuff. Of the five that I take on, I'd say that I have a bad or a middling experience with one.  And, I write about why I didn't like it.

How do we keep ourselves ethical?  How do we deal with sponsors who provide us with bad products?

Not every press trip is full of puppies and rainbows.  In one of the more famous examples, Kate McCulley was shipwrecked on a sponsored trip. She wrote about it scathingly on her blog and warned people to never ever use that company again and Lonely Planet quoted her experience in their newest guidebook. Just to be clear: Lonely Planet --- an independent guidebook --- used a blogger's perspective of a sponsored tour in their newest book. Why? Because Kate was honest about the whole thing.  She kept her credibility.

Sadly, as more press trips have been coming in, companies have started asking me to sign contracts agreeing that I will only "write positive reviews."  I say no and I email them a copy of the FTC guidance.

But, it scares me that there are bloggers who are unthinkingly or unknowingly signing contracts like these.  And, in a Facebook group discussion about this concept, several bloggers mentioned that they feel like they have to write positive reviews in order to satisfy their sponsors.

That just makes me sad.

Our credibility is worth more than a few press trips and free gear.

At TBU Porto, I gave a presentation on Legal Issues for Bloggers and asked the audience to raise their hand if they wrote contracts with their sponsors.  Not a single person raised their hand (granted, it was a pretty small audience but even still.) .

I write contracts with every single one of my sponsors (or, at minimum, I write an email laying out what each party will be providing).  The contract includes the following information:

  • what I am receiving from the company with the retail value of the product or press trip
  • what I am offering, including the number of blog posts and whether or not I will be providing videos and posts via other social networking mediums (i.e., Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest)
  • the date by which such posts will be up
  • a statement that all posts by me will be completely and utterly unbiased with a disclosure made in accordance with the FTC Guidance, with the warning that I may write a negative review about their product, and I will notify them beforehand if I plan to write such a negative revview

I can't even count how many times I've seen people ask "how do I deal with a bad press trip/sponsor" after the press trip or sponsorship.  After the fact, it's too late.  This is a possibility that should be dealt with up front, before any product or value is exchanged.  (And, if you're a blogger and curious, I hoped to run a session on this topic last year at TBEX but Amara was only two months old at the time so I couldn't go.  I hope that I'll be able to run a session on contracting with sponsors at a later point.  Maybe next year?)

Where does that leave me and The Road Forks?

If you've made it through the last 3,000 words, bravo!  Have a cookie.

Where does this leave me?  Pretty much in the same place that I've always been.  I accept very few sponsorships every year with brands that I believe align with our core ideals --- promoting delicious, fun, and sustainable travel with companies that care about this good world.  I'd say that we pay for 95% of our travel and gear and perhaps 5% is sponsored.  I write contracts with those sponsors to ensure that my reviews are always 100% unbiased and independent, regardless of the sponsorships.  I keep a cordial relationship with my sponsors but, ultimately, my focus is on being honest and dependable to my readers.

Matt Kepnes recently talked about why very few travel bloggers succeed: that it's because few of us develop our blogs as a business with a business strategy. I've always been honest about the fact that I don't want to be a professional travel blogger and I treat my blog as a semi-business .

It's for that reason that I don't think I will be ever considered a popular travel blogger.  But, I do consider myself to be a credible one.  And, I'd like to keep it that way.

four years! + what's next

What I've been doing for the last year

Four years ago, on September 19, 2009, Patrick and I hopped on a plane to Australia .  For three years, we thought about now .  Where are we now?  What are we doing now?  What should we eat now?

In year one , we traveled through Australia, New Zealand, and Asia.  In year two, we explored Africa, North America, and crossed over the Atlantic Ocean with the pups to explore England.  In year three , we roadtripped from England to Turkey and back, with something like thirty border crossings with Chewy and Abby.

There is beauty --- often overlooked beauty, at that --- in the immediacy of now .  When we were traveling, we didn't have the time to think about where we would go next because we knew so little about the now.  Take, for example, the week that we arrived in Istanbul.  We arrived, put our stuff down, and immediately had to learn everything: where is the grocery store? where can we buy bottled water? what are the good restaurants? what is the easiest way to get to the European side versus the Asian side? what should we see?  And so on.

Because we knew nothing of our surroundings and were constantly confronted by new places and new experiences, we lived in the now .  We didn't have to think too much about what was happening next .  We had blinders on to our future.

And, then, in Greece, the future came roaring.

I think I first suspected that I might be pregnant in Santorini , when on the boattrip there, I was so nauseous that I couldn't leave the cabin.  Our friend traveling with us said, "It must be tough for you to travel so much since you seem to be motion sick all the time."  And, I thought to myself, no, that's not right.  I'm not usually so nauseous.  Days later, I stood in the bathroom in Naxos, trying to decipher the Greek birth control test instructions, but a + is a + in all languages.  Patrick and I celebrated that night at a restaurant that faced the ocean, gorging on eggplant and feta, cucumber salad, and giant capers.

We arrived in Athens a week later.  Graffiti streaked every single building, even the beautiful Hilton in which we stayed with the pups, and the sun forced itself upon us so that every movement we made, every second we walked, sent sweat streaming down our bodies.  It was a horrible, horrible week.  The worst week of my life.

It was the week that I learned the word chemical pregnancy.  I was pregnant one day and not pregnant the next.  It wasn't even a real pregnancy, the Internet said: 70% of pregnancies end in an early miscarriage, before most people even know they're pregnant.  But, it felt real.  We had dreamt up a little baby who would live with us in the next .

And, so we traveled, living in the now, dreading the next.  In Venice, a doctor confirmed --- him in halting English and me in halting Italian --- that there was no baby.  I drank wine, we ate bruschetta, and roamed the canals.  We went to Vienna and explored music and architecture.  And, then, we were in Prague.

Worried about my health, I scheduled an appointment with a Czech ob/gyn who promised on her website that she was fluent in both English and Czech.  I told Patrick that I would go alone.  He didn't need to be there for an appointment with her.  But, Patrick insisted.  We sat in a waiting room full of women with round plump bellies, and Patrick held my hand, as he has held my hands so many times over our sixteen years together.

We walked in and the doctor said, "We'll use a sonogram.  Yes, that will be best."  She led me over to the machine and let the wand linger over my stomach.  "Well," she said, "you're definitely pregnant."

"No," Patrick said, both of us thinking we didn't understand her thick accent.  "You mean, she's not pregnant."

"No, she's pregnant."

"You mean not pregnant."

"Pregnant," the doctor said, laughing at our shocked faces.

"But, but . . . the doctor in Venice told us that there was no baby."

"She's pregnant.  You want to hear?"  The doctor turned up the monitor and we heard a sound: thumpa-thump thumpa-thump thumpa-thump.  It was a beautiful, beautiful sound.  Thumpa-thump.  Thumpa-thump.  Thumpa-thump.

"Do you hear that?"  Patrick asked me, his eyes glittering with happy tears.

I nodded.  Coherent words weren't coming out of my mouth.  My brain couldn't process what my ears were hearing.  Finally, I stuttered, my hands gripping Patrick's.  "But, but, are you sure?"

She pointed to the screen.  "What do you think that sound is?"

It was the sound of next .

On September 21, 2012, a year ago, Patrick and I returned back to the United States with Chewy, Abby, and our little stowaway.  Year four was the year of being still.

Before remodel
After remodel
House before Kitchen after
Before kitchen After kitchen
Before living room After living room
Glenbriar old Dining/living
Before study After study
Before bathroom After remodel bathroom
Before nursery Amara nursery

Before and after shots of the house remodel

We bought a house, renovated it, moved in, and discovered that back in 2009, when we packed all our belongings into a storage facility, we had thoughtfully kept:

  • a VCR
  • a VHS camcorder
  • a fax machine
  • a desktop monitor, circa 2001
  • and over a thousand books, most of which we have now repurchased on our Kindles

We sorted and purged and sorted and purged and wondered how we had accumulated all of this stuff, when for three years, we lived out of two suitcases and two backpacks.

My belly expanded as a visual, tangible expression of next.  Patrick went back to work full-time.  I freelanced a bit.  I wrote some.  I thought a lot.  And, in March, Amara arrived.


Amara at four months

For me, motherhood has been a natural extension of our travels.  Though we haven't ventured further than Florida in the last six months, we're living very much in the now .  When we traveled, every day was distinct and nothing blended together: we were seeing new things and doing new things constantly.

It's the same with Amara.  Last week, she wobbled, barely able to hold her body upright.  And, now, she sits like a miniature Buddha, her legs spread before her and her back straight and stiff.  In another month, she'll be crawling.  Now is so fascinating because now is constantly changing with her.

But, we find ourselves aching to travel, still.  Though we've lived here a year, sometimes, America feels completely and totally foreign.  The other day, I stood in Target and took pictures of the candy corn related novelties: candy corn M&Ms, candy corn coated pretzels, S'mores candy corn, and, of course, regular old candy corn.  Only in America, I thought to myself.

We miss fresh food markets where the prices aren't jacked up because "farm fresh" is an anomaly rather than a normality.  We miss scenery that took our breath away.  And, we miss the rush of waking up somewhere and not knowing exactly where it is we are.

We're traveling to India in November for three weeks so that Amara can meet her great-grandparents and my grandparents can meet their great-granddaughter.  We'll be going somewhere --- possibly Goa or Kerala --- so that we can explore another area of India.  We know that we want to go back to Africa sometime soon and we're talking about a Great American Road Trip.

But, we wouldn't trade what we have now either.  Now is good.  Now is really, really good.

And, we're still trying to figure out what's next.

where communism was better

Dimitar and family Niko puppy
Baby pigs Bulgarian house

Elena, Dimitar, and Maria and their pup, piglets scrounging for food nearby, and their backyard

"Between the two --- capitalism and Communism --- yes, I preferred Communism."  Elena is in her mid-fifties, widowed, mother of two, and grandmother of one beautiful baby girl.  She brings us plates of pickled red peppers taken from their garden, fried sausage from their yearly pig slaughter, and poached eggs from their own hens.  Homemade items --- thick wool socks that reek of moth balls, jars of preserved figs and peaches, long strings of dried tobacco leaves --- adorn the rambling home and we are graciously invited to partake in their homegrown fare.

Roasted peppers Preserved peaches
Preserved figs Sausage and peppers

Lunch at Elena's house

The food is simple yet superb.  The red peppers are sweeter than any we have ever had and when I ask Elena for the recipe, she laughs incredulously, "There is no recipe.  It is just jarred peppers.  Do you not know how to make them?  You boil peppers for five minutes, then add a small spoonful of salt, a small spoonful of sugar, and a half cup of vinegar.  Then you put it in a jar."  Thin syrup clings to chunks of preserved peaches, figs, and nectarines and we find ourselves eating far more than we should.  I ask her for the recipe and she laughs, "It is just preserved fruit.  Do you not know how to make them?"

Ivailovgrad market
Ivailovgrad market Ivailovgrad market
Ivailovgrad vineyards Cutting Ivailovgrad vine

Ivailovgrad market and vineyards

There are lots of things like this --- survival skills, you might call them --- that Patrick and I never learned because we grew up in the United States, with abundance flooding our grocery stores, malls, and shopping centers.  Elena and her family buy very little from the stores and weekly market --- just bread, milk, and grain products.  At Christmas, they butcher a 100 pound pig that they've fattened up all year long and they freeze or saltcure the meat.  In the summer, they pickle and preserve vegetables.  Maria, Elena's daughter, cares for eleven turkeys, which they keep for eggs throughout most of the year and butcher in the winter.  They even make their own throat burning, mouth-on-fire, cough-inducing alcohol, known as rakiya, from distilled grapes or plums.

Tobacco seeds Tobacco leaves
Tobacco leaves Rakiya

Tobacco from seed to dried leaves; homemade ouzo

And, on top of their own household to maintain, they also sell tobacco to a large United States conglomerate.  Elena and Maria place the tiny tobacco seeds in water, move the seeds to a cloth for about a week, and then plant the tiny leaves.  Eventually, once the leaves are large, they are picked, dried, and sold, for, on average, 5 leva per kilo (about $3.40 USD per two pounds of tobacco leaves).  When you consider that a pack of cigarettes only has 0.65 ounces of tobacco in it (about 0.04 pounds) and sells in the United States for somewhere in the vicinity of $5.00 USD, and that they're selling for one Euro less than the Greek farmers across the border , it's not surprising that the Bulgarian farmers are annoyed by this system.  That's a markup of 5000%.

Tractors in Ivailovgrad

Horse drawn plow

Abandoned tractors and donkey-drawn plow

"All of our tobacco is cut by hand," Dimitar tells me, "and it is good quality, but they don't pay us the right price for it.  During Communism, tobacco was grown everywhere."  Elena worked in the Ivailovgrad textile factory and her husband was a combiner working on transformers and, in the evenings, they would work in the tobacco fields.  The Russians brought in tractors, cars, and new farm equipment every two to three years so that the citizens of Ivailovgrad used the best quality equipment to produce food and tobacco for the country and all of the Communist nations.

Today, the Ivailovgrad farmers are still using the thirty-year-old farm equipment and cars purchased by the Russians.  Patrick and I drive on empty streets because most of the cars in the city are immovable yard decorations.  We are more likely to pass donkey drawn carts than cars or tractors.

Cars at Ivailovgrad

Cars sitting in Svirachi

Dimitar says, "The best part of democracy is freedom because, during Communism, we couldn't go out of the Bulgarian border.  We couldn't travel.  We didn't have American clothes or Japanese cars."  Elena responds, "Yes, but, then, we worked and made money.  Now, we work a lot and make little money.  We have freedom but no money.  It's like prison."

March 2013

amara's oh the places you'll go! nursery
March 27, 2013

pregnancy is like backpacking through southeast asia
March 13, 2013

November 2012

on stuff and things
November 27, 2012

September 2012

because the world is a good place
September 4, 2012

August 2012

being on the aegean
in turgutreis
August 24, 2012

June 2012

on making money blogging
June 5, 2012

May 2012

why take guided tours
as an independent traveler
May 22, 2012

April 2012

airing that dirty laundry abroad
wash, dry, repeat
April 24, 2012

wake up to the olive trees
in radicondoli
April 17, 2012

March 2012

where everyone speaks your language
in zagreb
March 20, 2012

mercat de la boqueria
at the market
March 2, 2012

February 2012

changing perceptions in madrid
between ages 19 to 32
February 13, 2012

January 2012

when travel loses its charm
January 5, 2012

shiny 2012
January 2, 2012

November 2011

thankfulness for firsts
November 24, 2011

October 2011

changing lifestyles
in the cotswolds
October 21, 2011

August 2011

the ethics of shark diving
in gansbaii
August 8, 2011

July 2011

seven links from our archives
July 6, 2011

May 2011

on fear
May 16, 2011

April 2011

brown skin, white skin
travel as an interracial couple
April 20, 2011

March 2011

the digital nomad's electronics death toll
March 8, 2011

February 2011

doing now: a chandelier
January 21, 2011

December 2010

our santa
December 28, 2010

October 2010

when travel sucks
datong to hohhot
October 29, 2010

lost in translation
a bit of chinglish
October 12, 2010

one year of photography
October 1, 2010

September 2010

one year of dog toys
September 27, 2010

99 lessons learned traveling
September 24, 2010

one year!
September 20, 2010

August 2010

1.3 billion people
and beijing
August 27, 2010

the locals' route
at the great wall
August 20, 2010

the absurdity of the dmz
in north korea
August 17, 2010

July 2010

paper cranes and peace
July 23, 2010

what americans take for granted
July 4, 2010

June 2010

why i decided to travel the world
June 18, 2010

that alternate universe
June 5, 2010

May 2010

sweet georgia skies
May 25, 2010

writing down dreams + giveaway winner
May 19, 2010

4 countries, 40 hours
the journey back
May 18, 2010

April 2010

on the bamboo train
in battambang
April 26, 2010

April 22, 2010

March 2010

the currency of kindness
at angkor
March 26, 2010

the scuba saga
koh tao
March 15, 2010

February 2010

the importance of doing nothing
in mae sot
February 24, 2010

December 2009

hobbit hunting
across new zealand
December 29, 2009

three best kept foodie travel secrets
December 8, 2009

October 2009

grilled carrot and avocado salad
October 23, 2009

September 2009

peach tart with pecan gingersnap crust + we're off!
September 19, 2009

August 2009

the pre-world trip freak out
August 24, 2009

July 2009

why we plan our round-the-world itinerary
July 28, 2009

three ways travel strengthens a marriage
July 8, 2009