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Poets, Revenge, and Dragon Kings: The Stories Behind Dragon Boat Festival

Tomorrow China will be celebrating Duanwu Festival, known to most English speakers as Dragon Boat Festival.

When we taught in China, I always asked my students to explain the traditions and history of their holidays to me – but this particular one seemed hard for them to explain. There were many origin stories and many traditions to honor.

It almost seemed as if several holidays had merged into one – and some believe this is exactly what happened. It’s a day with a lot of roots, splitting and spreading in many directions.

From my conversations (and a little bit of research), here’s what you should know:

Passions of a Patriotic Poet

The most common story behind Dragon Boat Festival is that it honors Chinese poet and minister, Qu Yuan.

Qu Yuan was said to be a fair and loyal government official who truly loved his nation and the people he served.

But his corrupt political enemies convinced the king to strip him of his position and send him into exile.

While in exile, he discovered a love for poetry, stories, and legends. He began traveling through the country, collecting folk tales and finding inspiration in them to compose his own literature and verses celebrating the people of China.

His writings spoke of a love for his culture and history, but they also described a depressed man who mourned his own exile and the vulnerability of a beautiful country under corrupt leadership.

Eventually, legend says that his depression lead him to commit suicide – drowning himself in the Miluo River.

He is said to have left a final piece of poetry as his suicide note, entitled ‘The Fisherman,’ saying he must take these drastic measures to ensure he die an innocent who always remained true to his values.

The locals, who loved Qu Yuan dearly, raced out on their boats trying to save him – they were too late.

When they couldn’t immediately find him in the river, they worried the fish would start to eat his body before they could pull him to shore and perform the appropriate ceremonies.

They dropped balls of sticky rice into the water, hoping the fish would eat these instead while they continued the search. This is why sticky rice is often prepared during this festival, to be eaten or tossed into a river.

The Best Revenge Story You’ll Ever Hear

But not everyone agrees that Dragon Boat Festival is for Qu Yuan.

In some regions of China, General Wu Zixu is honored on this day. Like Qu Yuan, Wu Zixu’s father was said to have been a loyal and honest politician during a time of corruption. So when his father was unjustly executed, he fled the state while vowing revenge.

Legends claim that the grief of losing his father and the stress of being on the run caused Wu Zixu to age very quickly – his hair turned white and his face became like that of an old man. This disguised him from anyone who knew him before, and he was able to become an advisor to the prince of a neighboring state.

By the time the prince took the throne as king, Wu Zixu was his most trusted advisor. Using this influence, he guided the new king into a war against the state that had wrongly killed his father. Although outnumbered, they were victorious and the king who executed Wu Zixu’s father was killed.

One night, still not completely satisfied with his revenge, Wu Zixu went to his enemy’s corpse and delivered 300 lashes to it.

The Heartbreaking Story of a Devoted Daughter

Or maybe Dragon Boat Festival finds its meaning in the memory of a young Confucian girl: Cao E. Her father, a local Shaman, was performing a ritual by the Shun River and fell in. His body was not immediately found, but everyone presumed that he had died – except his daughter.

Cao E would not accept that her father had died until she saw a body.

For three days, the local people watched her search the river. On the fourth day she was also missing. On the fifth day, the bodies of Cao E and her father washed to shore together.

As loyalty to one’s parents (and ancestors) is central to Confucian beliefs, this act was incredibly moving to the local religious community. In her honor, a new temple was built and the river was renamed for her.

Pleasing the Dragon King

The final theory is that all these stories have been attached to a very ancient festival, celebrated during a period when the Chinese people worshipped a mythological dragon king. The dragon king controlled the weather, and honoring him near the summer solstice was said to ensure a bountiful harvest in the fall and winter.

Have you ever celebrated Dragon Boat Festival in China before? Which origin story were you told?

 

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The Illusion of India

Before we traveled to India, we already had a lot of ideas about what it would be like.

We’ve found that this attitude is common among some travelers – we often hear people talking about places they’ve never visited with just a little too much confidence that they have it all figured out.

We were definitely guilty of this. A year ago, India was often brought up in our conversations – usually when we were discussing the countries we didn’t want to visit. In fact, our no-go list was summed up like this: India and active war zones.

So we can’t really remember how we eventually talked ourselves into this trip, but less than a year later we had applied for our visas, booked out flights, and we were on our way.

And what we found was a beautiful, chaotic, at times overwhelming, at times breathtaking, endlessly complex culture that we could never fully understand after just a two week trip – its laughable that we thought we could make judgements about it before we had even arrived.

We had so many preconceived ideas, and most didn’t line up with reality.

What we thought India would be like all the time. 

Here are a few beliefs that we had, and maybe you’ve had similar thoughts:

(Keep in mind that we were only there for two weeks, so we are not an authority on this culture – not even close! These just reflect our experiences.)

 

What we thought: Transportation in India will be torture! The buses will be smelly, bumpy and painfully slow.

How it actually was: Well, for starters, we never even took a bus – though we were thoroughly convinced that buses would be the only affordable option, as they have been in many other Asian countries.

In reality, India was a breeze to travel through. The train system runs through most of the country. First class tickets are dirt cheap, and you’ll get an air conditioned cabin with comfortable seats and seemingly endless food – I think we were served at least once every hour.

The train rides weren’t too long – we thought we’d have an all-day ride from New Delhi to the Taj Mahal, but it was only 2 hours. When a train ride did seem too long, there was always another interesting place on the way to break up the journey.

While we took trains from city to city, there were many transportation options available when exploring locally. These include the famous green and yellow rickshaws, taxis, sometimes a subway system, and even Uber.

The final verdict: Getting around was 1000% better than we thought. As a couple who abhors nearly every transit option, these trains were like a gift.

These trains made India travel borderline delightful.

What we thought: The people will be horrible, rude and the service will suck.

How it actually was: We definitely encountered some pushy men selling souvenirs or hired cars, but majority of the encounters we had with the locals were pleasant.

It seemed that hotels and restaurants took pride in their customer service. We were impressed by those who went out of their way to help us. We also enjoyed taking a lot of selfies with locals, who often approached us and asked for a quick picture – eventually we started asking if we could get one too. Now we think of how many pictures of us are on the phones and cameras of locals around New Delhi and Rajasthan.

And when you’re trying to avoid those pushy drivers and salesmen? Look confident and keep your gaze steady and uninterested. When we were feeling a bit lost, we’d suddenly find ourselves surrounded by men offering us a ride, asking if we wanted to see the local fort, and telling us they could take us to a great restaurant. If we made eye contact with someone selling t-shirts, they’d suddenly be chasing after us, asking our size and how much we’d be willing to pay. But confidence and determination generally kept us free from this annoyance.

The final verdict: Very wrong! The Indian people we met were great, apart from the odd arsehole, but what country doesn’t have those?

The locals were great.

What we thought: India is just chaos – it runs at a thousand miles an hour.

How it actually was: Well, yes, all of the above. But, honestly, we loved it. I really don’t think anything can prepare you for how crazy and fast paced it is. If you’ve experienced Asia before, that might take away 1 percent of the shock.

It was like no other place we’ve been, and we’ve done a fair few Asian countries. The traffic is horrible, with everyone driving in any direction they please with seemingly no road rules. There are huge, sluggish cows strolling down the middle of the busiest streets. There are endless items being sold on the side of the road, laid out on blankets, along with people sleeping, eating, or even washing off their kids in a large bucket. Sometimes you feel paralyzed on the streets – incapable of moving and not knowing where it’s best to step next.

The final verdict: Spot on! This thought was a correct one! It is just crackers.

Cows just wandering the streets.

What we thought: The food is horrible and we will end up with the shits all the time.

How it actually was: Yes, we ended up with the runs, stomach cramps and poo smells that could pollute a small conglomeration. But! It was kind of worth it because the food was amazing.

The curries and side dishes were just so good. Even McDonalds and Subways had so many unfamiliar options, with new spices and unique twists. For vegetarians like Kristin, there were endless options everywhere we went.

But, from our experience, it was simply impossible to keep perfect digestive health. After the first few days, our stomachs felt a bit off, and it was a roller coaster ride from there – some days were better than others, but we never felt completely normal.

You just have to have a sense of humor about it, but don’t miss out on the local food. Sometimes this is just part of traveling.

Our one word of advice is to look for restaurants that look a bit cleaner and nicer. They might be more expensive, but not so much that you need to completely readjust your budget. Paying more is worth it to ensure you’re getting food that won’t make you too ill.

The final verdict: We were half right and half wrong. Yes, the shits were unavoidable, but it wasn’t as bad as we imagined – and pretty much everything we ate was delicious.

Think about where you decide to eat a little bit.

What we thought: The hotels will be dirty and inhabitable.

How it actually was: We found places that were very affordable but still nice (or nice enough), but we usually skipped the bottom-of-the-barrel cheapest option. We believe that you usually get what you pay for. If you always pick the cheapest available, you might find yourself miserable in some horrid accommodations.

When we arrived in Jodhpur, we had not booked a room yet. It was the end of our trip, so we were getting a little looser with our plans. Exhausted and trying to stretch our dwindling budget, we were willing to give a cheap option a shot. Within a few minutes of trying to get settled into our smelly room with an overflowing toilet, we realized that we simply had to get out immediately.

For just a little more money, we were able to stay somewhere much nicer. If you want to be comfortable, it is definitely possible.

The final verdict: You get what you pay for. Just figure out your priorities before you go. Want to save every penny possible? Be ready for questionable bathrooms and rooms without air conditioning. Want a little more comfort? Work it into your budget – honestly, these accommodations will still be cheaper than most others in the world.

Paying a tiny bit more gets you a lot more in India. 

Here are a few other things we got completely wrong:

Domestic flights will be way too expensive – we got a super cheap flight from Jodhpur to Delhi that saved us a full day on the train at the end of our trip

After seeing the Taj Mahal in so many pictures, the real thing will probably be a let down – Wrong! It was still stunning and surreal.

The Taj Mahal was stunning. 

After living in Thailand, we can handle any heat – We’ve never been anywhere hotter than India. Carry around the biggest water bottle you can (finding new water bottles to buy was sometimes a challenge) and don’t plan to be out in the middle of the day for too long. Mornings are best if you are sensitive to heat.

And here’s a couple we were right about:

The air in big cities will be polluted and breathing will be a problem – Yes, this was the case, especially in Delhi.

Those rickshaws will be kind of scary – They were! Some went way too fast, weaving around traffic, pedestrians, and bikes. Some even went the wrong way down busy streets.

They were a bit insane. 

Many things can put you off travelling somewhere new. You can always come up with an excuse to stay home or choose somewhere “safe.”

We learnt an important lesson with India: You always need to see a place for yourself before you make up your mind, Don’t rule something out based on what other people say (or a guidebook or the internet). You might think you know what it’s going to be like, but odds are that you have no idea. When it came to our assumptions about India, more were wrong than right. Even when we were right, it wasn’t that bad – sometimes we even loved the things we thought we’d hate.

Have you ever been put off somewhere because of what you thought it would be like? Have you ever been completely surprised by how different a country or city was? We’d love to hear your experiences.

 

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The Women of Indian Myth and History

As a woman about to head to India, I heard a lot of warnings and horror stories meant to prepare me for what I was going to face.

I was told I’d be stared at (true), ignored (true), and that I’d ultimately be okay since I was traveling with two men (I was okay) – but that a woman traveling solo would have more serious things to worry about.

Since I was only in India for two weeks, I can’t really comment much on these warnings given to traveling females. My experience was too brief to allow me to claim any expertise about what is typical and not typical in such a huge, complex culture.

But I did think a lot about gender roles, womanhood, and femininity when I was there.

Alongside the day-to-day modern gender customs that I encountered, I was also exploring forts, palaces, and temples that seemed to add their own stories and views about how women can fit into Indian history, religion, and communities.

As always, a sucker legend and culture, I was fascinated and instantly knew I wanted to write about it all – especially coming from the western world where our religions and stories seem to always be centered on the masculine.

These are only a few of the observations I had during my time there:

Women as Symmetry – Balance seemed to be an important part of many Indian beliefs, and one way to achieve balance is the equal presence of male and female energy. This was sometimes illustrated by joining Shiva (god of creation and destruction) and his consort Parvati (goddess of fertility) into one being – half male and half female.

They are often separate deities, but when conjoined they are called Ardhanarishvara. It is intended to show that masculine and feminine energies are equal and inseparable from each other.

Some legends teach that Ardhanarishvara existed before the beginning of time, and the split into a separate god and goddess occurred for the sake of creation. Another legend says Parvati asked Shiva to become one with her because she was being harassed by a demon and needed protection. Finally, there are myths that claim Shiva is always Ardhanarishvara, just as Parvati is always Ardhanarishvara. When needed, the illusion of one gender is dropped and the masculine and feminine energies work together to grant requests and offer guidance.

Women as Warriors – One characteristic you won’t find in the women of Indian lore is weakness. Femininity is shown as a double-edged sword, but both sides are very strong – one is protective (like a mother bear) and one is unpredictable and full of rage (like an angry lover). It is not uncommon for the hero of a legendary battle to be a woman – such as Mahishasura Mardini, “slayer of the buffalo demon.” She has eight arms, and they are usually shown holding her many weapons, along with the bodies of those she has defeated.

And the warrior queen isn’t limited to mythology in India – one of their bravest historical figures is Rani of Jhansi, a queen in the North who helped lead the Rebellion of 1857 against the British Raj.

Women as Lovers – When a woman is loved in an Indian legend, the man is often willing to go to uncomfortable extremes to get her. This includes creating dangerous political enemies (Prithviraj Chauhan and Samyukta), jumping into a blazing fire (Mumal and Mahendra), and even murdering a rival for her affection (Nurjahan and Jahangir).

I think the Taj Mahal might represent one of the greatest love stories in India. Even in a region where showy mausoleums were discouraged by religious leaders, one emperor loved his wife so much he spent over two decades and millions of dollars creating one of the most beautiful buildings in the world for her.

Women as Beauty – When visiting temples, you will see many statues of beautiful women. These are called Surasandaris, and they are meant to be attendants to the gods. Surasandaris are kept in holy places to keep the balance of masculine and feminine energy during worship, and they will be found doing many “tasks,” from swatting away to flies, to drumming, to tending to a pet parrot.

While the women in ancient Indian artwork were always beautiful, they can also be quite shy. Rather than purposely flaunting their beauty, you might find a mischievous monkey slipping a sleeve off the shoulder of a woman or pulling down her dress.

Some of these depictions of women were not surprising to my western perspective. I am very used to seeing women as wives, mothers, or lovers. But it was refreshing to also see such a strong feminine presence in their divinity and their revolutions. Do you have a favorite woman in Indian myth or history?

 

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Airports: The Best and the Worst

Lately, we’ve started to feel like we spend more time waiting around airports than we do in our own home.

These days, booking a plane ticket doesn’t feel too different from getting tickets for a bus or train. We can do it online, and if we’re determined, the tickets can actually be pretty budget friendly.

If only a day of air travel could also be compared to the simplicity of getting on and off a bus. Instead we find ourselves doing an annoying routine of rushing, waiting, rushing, waiting, repeat, repeat, repeat.

But airports are basically unavoidable if you plan to travel very far.

Sometimes we are pleasantly surprised by the comfort and facilities at an airport – but most of the time these buildings are nothing but pure misery.

In fact, sometimes it seems like airports might even go out of their way to make their customers as uncomfortable as possible. So when we find the rare gem with entertainment, luxury, or even just fast Wi-Fi and plenty of places to charge your phone, we take note.

Below we’ve listed some of the best and worst airports we’ve been to. If you ever find yourself in these areas of the world, here’s what to expect:

The Good Ones

Singapore Changi International Airport 

This airport is voted the best in the world and it’s very clear to see why.

It’s comfortable. It’s beautifully designed. It includes a few unique touches, such as butterfly and cactus gardens, massage chairs, and a cinema. It seemed as if it was put together by people well aware that waiting around the airport is mind-numbingly boring at best – so let’s give everyone something to do while they’re here.

If you’re in for a long layover, you can take advantage of the free 2-hour city tours. There are also sleeping areas, great Wi-Fi, music stations, a swimming pool, and play areas for the kids.

What to remember: Make this your connecting flight! Especially from Australia to, well, anywhere in Asia and Europe. 

Natures a big part of the worlds best airport.

Bangkok Suvarnabhumi International Airport, Thailand  

In a culture where most people are pretty laid back, often moving slowly and not worrying too much about the time, this airport is surprisingly quick and efficient. Check in takes minutes and you’ll whizz through immigration. The waiting areas are very spacious with plenty of seating, and before you know it, you’re on your flight. The facilities are good, the Wi-Fi is fast and the chairs are comfy. That, on top of the ease, certainly makes it a cut above many others.

What to remember: Don’t panic too much if you’re a little late. You should be fine. You can also let the staff know if you’re plane is boarding shortly, and they will usually help you out by getting you closer to the front of a line.

Its speedy in Thailand’s biggest airport. 

Others we’d recommend

Brisbane International – Very efficient and on the ball. Impressive.

Melbourne International – Must be an Aussie trend, but their airports are spot on. Very organized which is the most important characteristic in an airport.

London Heathrow – A lot of bad press, but we think they do very well for the passenger demands – and there are some good restaurants here too!

We wish this list was longer, but these are the only airports that we believe can honestly be recommended. Many others are simply average.

The Average

Mumbai International Airport

Like many of India’s airports, Mumbai International is known to be a layover airport. Mumbai seemed to get half the message. They provide good Wi-Fi and plenty of opportunities to cure your boredom with restaurants, bars and entertainment stations.

But if you’re expecting comfort, get ready to be disappointed.

You’ll find the most horrible sleeper chairs that are only half upright, made from a wood-like leather material. It’s not good for a 7-hour nighttime layover.

However, it was our own fault for flying from Colombo to Bangkok via Mumbai! You only have to take one look at a map to see why this made no sense.

What to remember: Don’t expect to get much rest here. If it’s unavoidable and you really need some sleep, pack something comfortable to lie on and find a space on the floor.  

Palma De Mallorca Airport, Balearic Islands, Spain

This one is just odd! The facilities are fine, it’s just strangely massive. You wouldn’t expect such a big airport for a small Spanish island. From check in to boarding, we were walking for about half an hour. The long empty corridors don’t really need to be there.

How to Prepare: Pack a scooter? A bike? Roller-skates?  At least a pair of very comfortable shoes.

But even average is preferable to our next category. We bring you to the terrible few:

The Terrible

Kalkota International Airport

Simply dreadful! This airport is absolutely massive but has nothing in it. Once you’re passed security on the international side, there is just one restaurant. And their service is slower than a snail’s pace. We also found some shop that couldn’t serve because their one crappy till was broken. Apart from that, there was literally nothing else.

“At least there’s WiFi!” you might think. But if you don’t have a phone number where you can access your text messages (many international travelers won’t), you won’t be able to get on. Because for some reason you need to get a code to sign in. Why isn’t the passport information enough?

Overall, the airport just felt miserable. Not to mention we almost missed our connecting flight thanks to the one rude man dealing with a massive line at immigration.

Avoid at all costs. Easily the worst airport we’ve had the misfortune of being in.

What to remember: Pick another Indian airport to layover in. If not, find some food beforehand, because your next flight might be boarding by the time they get around to serving you.

The dreadful airport itself. 

Surat Thani Airport, Thailand

It shouldn’t be too hard to avoid this small airport in the south of Thailand. If you ignore this warning, be ready for rude people who never should have chosen a career in customer service.

When you aren’t dealing with difficult staff, you’ll be stumbling over people and their luggage as they wait in unnecessary and poorly placed queues. No thought of organization seems to be put into this layout.

Finally, we have to talk about their chairs. They couldn’t have picked more uncomfortable seating if they’d tried. We compared them toilets – made of steel and stinking like sour drainage.

What to remember: Try other southern Thailand airports such as Phuket, Krabi or even Koh Samui. If you end up here, be ready to practice your patience.

Dubai International

We expected great things from Dubai, as it’s one of the most common travel hubs in the world and home of Emirates, an award-winning airline. You’d think comfortable layovers would be a top priority.

That didn’t seem to be the case.

The airport is huge. We didn’t see all of it, but the parts we did were poor. It was expensive as expected, but most businesses didn’t accept international currencies. The service was dreadful and the lack of facilities shocked us.

What to remember: Get some local currency if you want to eat or shop. Explore more and hopefully you’ll find something that we missed.

The let down that was Dubai International.

Others to avoid

Muscat International, Oman – For a city so immaculately clean, with such stunning architecture, they seemed to leave the airport behind.

London Gatwick International – It’s so crowded, you won’t be able to move, much less find a seat. For the love of pudding, make the airport bigger!

Kos International Airport, Greece – Had to throw this in from my younger days. Shithole!

Guangzhou International, China – Very bleak. The WiFi is a struggle and the restaurants have inconvenient hours. Just a strange atmosphere.

Airports are an unavoidable part of traveling. I’m sure in the future there will be many more to add to these lists. Have you had a terrible experience at an airport? Which do you think is the best or worst? Do you disagree with any of our thoughts? We’d love to know.

 

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Singapore Budget Travel Tips

This post is sponsored by 5footway.inn, but all opinions are ours.

Singapore is a lot of things – fun, bustling, modern, elegant, artistic.

And expensive.

If you are traveling Southeast Asia, where costs are usually comfortably low, this city-state might throw you.

But we could never recommend skipping it. There is too much to see and do. If your budget is an issue, you’ll just need to make very conscious choices to keep yourself from overspending.

Here are our best tips!

Accomodations

During our weekend in Singapore, we stayed at 5footway.inn‘s Project Boat Quay. This hostel is located right in the city center, so we were able to avoid expensive public transportation because we could walk everywhere we wanted to go (besides the airport). We were minutes from the main tourist attractions and surrounded by restaurants and bars. The hostel had very simple rooms, but a great view of the river from its balcony. At the time we were there, the prices matched the rates of other budget accommodations in the area, although I don’t think any other hostel in that price range could compete the location. To make it even cheaper for you, we have a 10% discount code to share. Email promotion@5footwayinn.com with code KD10.

Our view from the hostel

Food

While the restaurants in Singapore may come at a high cost, the city is also full of some amazing street food. Head to Chinatown or Little India, or seek out the hawker centres food stalls for a good deal on dinner. Street food is a huge part of Singapore, and the low price does not compromise on taste.

Drinks

You can’t spend time in Singapore without trying a Singapore Sling. While many travelers head to the Raffles Hotel, where the drink originated, you can find the exact same recipe at most bars around the city for a much lower cost. Walk along the river and look for good deals – happy hours and buy one get one promotions are usually advertised on signs outside.

We also discovered that sometimes you can create your own deals. Our first night we asked if we could get another two margaritas for the price of one. The bartender hesitated then countered four for the price of two, which we accepted. It never hurts to ask, and many places in Singapore are open to a little negotiation.

Enjoying our Singapore Slings

Activities

Since we were on a budget, we decided that we would have one splurge when it came to sightseeing – we wanted to go to the roof of the Marina Bay Sands and watch the sunset.

But aside from, we didn’t pay for any other activity. We recommend the same strategy for other budget travelers. Pick your top priority, and then enjoy the rest of the city for free.

Just walking around was an experience. We saw so many beautiful murals and bizarre statues, it was like the entire city was a giant art museum. We also saw an amazing light show at the Gardens by the Bay. I took so many pictures, my phone ran out of storage!

The light show at Gardens by the Bay

There is no denying that Singapore is an expensive place to travel. But it is doable on a budget if you set your mind to it, and you can still have a lot of fun. Have you ever visited? What are your best money-saving tips?

 

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The Annoyance of Travel Small Talk

Meeting new people is one of our favorite parts of living abroad and travelling often.

People are always coming or going, or we’re coming and going, so there is a constant rotation of new friends, work colleagues, and even people we don’t particularly get along with (but love to remember later with a laugh). This is very different from our life at home, where finding new friends as we got older was rare.

You meet some amazing people when traveling!

But – while most fellow travelers have interesting stories and perspectives to share with us, it seems nearly every conversation with a new person begins the exact same way. After a combined 7 years abroad between us, we are definitely 100% over “traveler small talk.”

Before we can get to the nitty gritty and discover someone’s best stories and general personality, we all just ask each other the same questions and generally supply similar, if not identical, answers. Here’s a few examples (and some alternatives):

Where are you from?

Without fail, someone will ask this question within 2 minutes of a conversation. Sometimes even before we get around to sharing our names!

While it’s a common icebreaker, hometowns are often the least interesting thing about a traveller. We aren’t exploring the world to keep our minds lingering on the place where we’ve already spent years – I think we are all far more interested in where we are right now, in that moment, rather than somewhere we’ve already spent a ton of time and words on in the past.

The desire for travel often comes from our desire to experience new things – so having this conversation countless times is just not very interesting to any of us.

But this question does help us all to identify each other in some way. We understand why it’s asked. It is unavoidable, but there might be a more interesting way to approach it.

Here are some ideas:

  • How is [the current country you’re in] the same or different to your home?
  • What do you miss most from home?
  • What are you glad to have escaped?
  • If I was visiting your hometown, what should I see or do? What should I eat? Where should I go for a drink?

Open-ended questions are always more fun to explore! Let’s give each other something more to think about.

How long have you been travelling?

What does this honestly tell about a person?

It doesn’t provide a story. The answer is just a number – no details about where the person has been, why they were there, how much they’ve seen, what they’ve loved, what they’ve hated, or what they’ve experienced.

When this is asked – especially without any follow up questions – it hints at a meaningless competition about who is the more serious traveler.

Get better stories and ask about someone’s travel history in a new way. Our ideas:

  • How did you come to choose this lifestyle?
  • What motivates you to travel?
  • Have you ever hated a city immediately upon arrival?
  • What’s the best thing that’s happened to you while traveling?
  • What culture do you think is the most fun?
How long have you been here?

This is another question that ends the conversation as quickly as it began. There is rarely going to be an interesting answer here to inspire a story or friendship. Prepare yourself for an awkward pause afterward while neither of you know what to comment on next.

Want to know about someone’s time in this specific region? Try these questions instead:

  • Are you happy with the hotel you chose?
  • What has surprised you most since you’ve arrived?
  • Could you see yourself living here?
  • Do you think the [local tourist attraction] is worth it?
  • Have you had any great nights out?
  • Would you come back?
Where are you going next?

Discussing future plans can also be a dead end. Why? Because we haven’t been there yet! We don’t have any stories or experience to share. The only response you’ll get is the location and maybe an “I’m really excited!”

To get a better idea about what someone has planned for the future, ask them:

  • What kind of adventures do you still want to have?
  • How do you choose the places you visit?
  • Where do you never want to go?
  • If you stopped traveling now, what would you regret not seeing?
Where were you last?

Asking about our last stop is a little better, but it’s not always likely to pull out the good stories without further prodding.  You don’t want the response “I was in the Philippines – it was beautiful.” You want “I jumped off a cliff and got stung by a jellyfish,” or “I got so drunk I pissed all over my backpack and clothes in the middle of the night.”

Here’s how you can get those stories instead

  • What’s the funniest thing that’s happened to you abroad?
  • Have you had any embarrassing moments when you weren’t familiar with the culture?
  • Have you ever stumbled upon something totally unexpected and interesting while traveling?
  • What’s your best drunk-abroad travel story?

Lets not get bored before we get to each other.

Then there are the questions that are just so boring, we both know that neither of us is interested in the answer.

  • What do you think of the food here? “It’s good.” Glad we covered that!
  • What airport did you fly from? Never going to be interesting.
  • Who did you fly with? Still snoozing!
  • How did you get from the airport to your accommodations? It’s actually surprising how often this question is asked.
  • Have you been in the pool/sea? Yes, but I don’t really have anything to say about it. Do you?
  • What time did you get here? 3:00pm. Where is this conversation going?

Small talk is never going to completely die out – we do accept this. But the type of small talk so common among travelers needs a complete makeover in our opinion. Tell us something that gives us an idea about who you really are!

” I’m excited to go sky-diving this week – would you ever give it a try?”

“I’m just looking forward to spending the next few days on the beach with a beer.”

Be random. Surprise people. And most importantly – ask questions that encourage stories and thoughtful opinions. If you can answer something with one word, rephrase it!

We skipped the small talk and went straight to the drunk

Do you find small talk difficult, boring or painful? Or are we just being too grumpy? If we are, tell us! If you like our suggestions for new questions, give us a few ideas of your own.

 

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How the World Celebrates Mothers and Women

We are approaching Mother’s Day in the US this coming Sunday, and it has been a couple years since I have been able to celebrate at home with my own mother.

 

Kristin with her mom in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
Simon has been away from home even longer (although the U.K. Mother’s Day is actually in March).
Simon’s mum came to visit in Phuket, Thailand
Aside from different dates, the British and American holidays are very similar. They involve cards, flowers, and time spent together as a family.
But we got curious – is this the universal approach to how people show love or respect for the women who raised them? Or are there different traditions around the world? Here’s what we discovered:

Thailand 
In our current home, Mother’s Day is celebrated on the Queen’s birthday. This gives the day twice the significance, as mothers are honored alongside the mother of their nation. Celebrations include a big parade, and mothers often receive gifts of jasmine.

Peru
In some regions of Peru, mothers share their day with Pachamama, a Mother Earth goddess who is petitioned for fertility and safety from earthquakes.

Russia
You’ll find another dual-meaning on Russia’s Mother’s Day, which takes place on International Women’s Day. This makes it a day for discussing and encouraging gender equality and women’s rights. While mothers are given special attention on this day, the holiday really celebrates all women.

The Middle East
Most Middle Eastern countries celebrate their mothers on the first day of spring, which is symbolic for fertility, birth, and family.

Mexico
Mothers are serenaded in Mexico for Mother’s Day, and they are given a day of rest – which means no cooking! This makes it the busiest day for restaurants every year in Mexico.

Ethiopia
Mother’s Day is actually a three-day festival called Antrosht, which is celebrated at the end of rainy season. There is no specific date, it begins as the weather starts to clear and the rain lets up, which is usually in October or November. The children prepare most of the food, with girls handling vegetable dishes and boys taking care of the meat.

Brazil
You’ll find this day is very important in Brazil – some say it is only second to Christmas! It is a time for extended family to join together for a huge barbecue, and children often plan and share performances for entertainment.
 
How many of you have spent Mother’s Day abroad? Did you notice any interesting traditions? And how did you still make the day special for your own mom?

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A Nightlife Guide for the United Kingdom

Living in the United Kingdom, there were many reasons I was eager to pack my bags and start traveling the world.  There weren’t many jobs available at home, the cost of living was high, and the weather wasn’t great either. But there is one thing we do have going for us – bustling cities and towns that have some of the most buzzing nightlife spots that you can experience.

If you are traveling in the UK, and you’re looking for a good night out, you are in luck.

Below are some of our best recommendations of where to visit for a night out – based only on where we’ve been. Great Britain’s party culture is widespread, so there are many more options beyond even these.

NEWCASTLE

Our top choice for a night out in the UK is definitely Newcastle. You’ll find friendly people, a positive atmosphere, and a variety of settings from traditional pubs to wild clubs and everything in between.

If you’re trying to go out on the cheap, this city is known for affordable trebles, and it only takes two or three to get a buzz going.

We’d also suggest trying a few of Newcastle’s endless clubs. We’ve enjoyed a few dances at Digital, Tup Tup Palace, Floritas and Madame Koo.

If you’re looking for a different atmosphere, head down to Quayside for a range of brewed ales. Join the Toon Army and enjoy an epic Northern England night.

GLASGOW  

Heading further north, across the border into Scotland, we’d recommend a night in Glasgow. I have been drawn back to this city many times – especially for a glass or several of Buckfast tonic wine. It’s absolutely gorgeous, and I’ve never seen it anywhere else.

Like Newcastle, Glasgow has endless bars and nightclubs ranging from basement clubs to converted churches. You won’t struggle to stay entertained.

Our recommendations include Glasgow’s famous underground club, Sub Club, The Teuchter’s Triangle, which is a trio of lively pubs, The Glad Café and O2 ABC.

MANCHESTER

I’ve only been to Manchester twice, but it certainly made an impression. It’s one of the largest cities in the United Kingdom, and it boasts a wide range of nightclubs and bars.

Manchester is well known for its live music scene. If you’re planning a visit, check to see if any good bands have a show that night. The music typically falls into genres such as rock, indie and alternative. Some bars to check out for a good show: Soup Kitchen, Band on the Wall, The Ruby Lounge and Dry Bar.

If you’re not looking for live music, head to the Northern Quarter. It has a large concentration of bars and nightclubs. Some include the famous Sankeys, Sound Control and the newly opened Hidden.

LEEDS

Leeds is another major player in British nightlife. We’d recommend exploring Briggate, a cobbled street filled with traditional pubs, including Whitelocks, which is around 300 years old. We’d also suggest Leeds’ version of the famous Tiger Tiger nightclub. Finally, if you want to turn nightlife into day life, check out the famous Otley-run pub crawl.

HULL 

We’ll admit, it’s not typical to see Hull at the top of a must-see lists – but when it comes to night out, Hull has a lot to offer. It is a university town, after all. And university towns will always include plenty of cheap places to drink and party.

You’ll find great bars, clubs, casinos – whatever your searching for during your night out. We suggest going for all three!

The two main clubs in the city center are Club Valbon (formerly Position) and Sugar Mill. Both offer some incredible drinks deals. Club Valbon is usually busy on Thursdays and Saturdays, and Sugar Mill draws the best crowds on the weekends and a Monday night.

Another nightclub I would absolutely recommend is Welly, just out the city. It’s not your typical scene, as it leans more toward an indie rock atmosphere. But be warned: the hangovers you’ll get from this place are practically a disease.

Getting ready for a Hull night in my university days. 

DONCASTER   

Of course, I’m also going to talk a little about my own hometown. If you’re ever unfortunate enough to stumble upon Doncaster by mistake, its only redeeming quality is its nightlife. Nearly all the bars can be found on Silver Street. If you’re feeling a little random and adventurous, check out the Mallard Pub in Cusworth – it used to be my regular watering hole.

Too cool for school on a night in the hometown. 

The United Kingdom boasts a great nightlife scene that few countries can rival. The above recommendations don’t even scratch the surface. If you have a bit of money to spend, London definitely has some gems, and you won’t regret stopping by Bristol, Southampton, Liverpool, or Cardiff – the options are endless.

What are your recommendations in the UK? Did we miss your favorite city or favorite pub? We’d love to hear from you.

 

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The Taj Mahal: Mysteries, Myths & Conspiracies

The Taj Mahal is a captivating place.

And not just because you can take some stunning photos there to delight your Facebook friends and Instagram followers (which we definitely did during our visit), but because it is filled with stories. Many contradict each other and some are even proven to be false, but I love the history of a place, including the history of its legends and tall tales.

Here are some of the stories that have been passed along about this famous monument.

A Temple for Shiva

Shiva is the god of both creation and destruction.

The biggest Taj Mahal conspiracy calls into question everything mainstream resources claim about it – including who built it, when and why.

Where the Taj Mahal is traditionally said to be an elaborate tomb, this theory states that it actually was built much earlier in history as a Hindu temple for Shiva. Later, as Islam became the religion of that region, an emperor took over the temple and tried to erase its religious past.

If you visit the Taj Mahal, you can find Hindu and Shiva symbols that might support this story.

A Fatal Contract

Many people claim that those who worked on the Taj Mahal were forbidden to ever work on a similar project going forward, but the darkest versions of this legend claim that workers were killed as soon as the building was completed to guarantee that construction secrets would never leak out.

The Black Twin

Similar black marble was later found on another site near the Taj Mahal. This rubble gave birth to stories that an identical monument was once in construction, but this one was intended to be all black instead of all white.

While I find the idea of this beautiful and intriguing, the theory has mostly been discredited by experts who say the marble was actually white years ago but has become dark and discolored over time.

The (Probably) True Story

The Taj Mahal was built for and named for Mumtaz Mahal.

Of course, the traditional story behind the Taj Mahal really needs no embellishment or conspiracy to make it interesting.

As a young teenager, Emperor Shah Jahan, a Muslim emperor in the 17th century, fell deeply in love with 13-year old Mumtaz Mahal. She was a Persian princess, and they eventually married.  Although he had 3 other wives, Mumtaz Mahal was his favorite. Together they had 14 children.

Tragically, she died during her final childbirth. Shah Jahn was devastated. Court records note that nothing could console him, saying his grief was like nothing seen before.

Although his religion discouraged it, Shah Jahan wanted to build his love a beautiful, unique, and eternal resting place – the Taj Mahal. It took 21 years to finally complete, and the equivalent of 827 million USD.

When Shah Jahan also passed away, he was also laid to rest in the impressive mausoleum next to his late wife.

Have you ever visited the Taj Mahal? Do any of the above stories ring true to you, or are some too far-fetched? Which is your favorite? Let us know below!

 

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