Each year-end I take some time to reflect back at what all I accomplished, where all I traveled to, and most importantly, what I learned from those travels. I sincerely believe that travel is the best educator. Through experiences, you not only learn about other countries and cultures, but also about yourself. You acquire skills for communicating with strangers, adapting to changes, thinking on your feet, being the moment, and accepting what is happening.
Here are some of my travel highlights from 2015:
In January, I flew to Cancun and skipped the all-inclusive resorts that most vacationers flock to in Mexico. Instead, I drove around with my friends from the Mexico Tourism Board exploring the state of Yucatan. We ate the local cuisine, stayed at boutique hotels, swam in cenotes, and visited historic sites in the small charming towns of Valladolid, Merida and Izamal. What I learned was that this part of Mexico offers safety, luxury and small town charm, though its away from the sea. In fact, many Mexicans and Americans look forward to retiring in the Yucatan.
The same month, I also took a weekend break at Serenbe Farms, located only 30 mins south of Atlanta, GA airport. This residential community has been remodeled after the hamlets in UK and sustains its own food, power, education, art, etc. It was very interesting to spend a few hours hearing the story by its creator, Steve Nygren, and to learn that visionaries like him still exist today.
In February, I traveled to the Dutch-Carribean island of Bonaire, just before the carnival. This tiny island is packed with natural beauty, good food and friendly people. I noticed a great diversity of people here, most of whom discovered Bonaire during vacation and decided to settle. Within a few blocks of downtown Kralendijk, you can find restaurants that are run by immigrant Italians, French, Dutch, English, Africans, Indians, Indonesians, Jamaicans, and many more. Even though I was traveling alone for a week, I was always surrounded by interesting people, who were eager to include in their international circuit. Read my blogs from Bonaire.
In May, I visited Japan for the first time. I loved getting a bird-eyes view of Tokyo from my room at the Mandarin Oriental and enjoyed the wonderful fresh food around the city. But I also took an adventurous journey with Walk Japan Tours trekking for 10-days through the Kyushu mountains in the Kunisaki Peninsula. What I realized during this trip was I was completely unprepared to be climbing mountains for 10-12 miles a day! Some of the days were very scary as I was far behind my 3 fellow trekking, often sliding down slopes and not being able to call for help. However, I indulged in the authentic culture, staying at ryokans where no one spoke English, eating the freshest sushi ever, drinking saki every night, and bathing in communal baths (something beyond my comfort zone). I also saw a whole new side of Japan, that went beyond skyscrapers, shopping malls and bullet trains. Read my article on Japan in Khabar magazine.
June took me to the farthest Caribbean island standing between US and Europe. Barbados has a rich culture influenced by the English and West Indies islands. You can see people playing the sport of cricket, eating fish fry, and singing reggae. There appears to be wide income disparity in this small country. Million dollar estates with private yachts can be found juxtaposition to shabby neighborhoods. Read Top 10 things to do in Barbados.
In July, I took a group of journalists for our inaugural Go Eat Give trip to Mexico City. This was an eye opening experience since media largely portrays the city as being infested with crime, traffic and pollution. Most Americans who visit Mexico City go for business or family, not tourism. I learned that Mexico City was extremely rich in architecture, art, music and food, which has been influenced by wealthy Mexicans who travelled to Europe during the 19th century. As a result, you can see neighborhoods with European architecture, Parisian cafes and gelato shops. It was clean and the traffic was far worse than what I have experienced in India. There were guards around, but I didn’t feel that I was going to get kidnapped or mugged. Also, I can never eat Tex-Mex anymore! Read Why Mexico City could be the next Paris.
I also led Go Eat Give’s culinary tour to Cuba in partnership with Cuisine Noir Magazine, who I have been writing for many years. Our all-women group experienced Cuban cooking, farming, food markets, rum tasting, mojito making, and much more. The highlight of this trip was having dinner at someone’s private home. The family was a friend of a friend and lived in a two-bedroom apartment that was falling apart. Yet they prepared an amazing meal for our entire group (perhaps the best food I ate in Cuba) with 10-12 dishes. We all sat outside in their tiny patio and ate with 3 generations of the family. I attempted to make some conversation with my broken Spanish, but mostly couldn’t stop admiring their generosity. Despite having so little (many food staples are rationed in Cuba), the people shared what they had. I also had some insightful conversations with Cubans about how they felt about easing relations with the US. Read about what has changed in Cuba.
Until traveling on Royal Caribbean’s Anthem of the Seas, I had ruled out cruising (unless it’s an adventure cruise) as a passive form of travel that did not interest me. But the Mediterranean Cruise this August journey took me on a once in a lifetime experiences across France, Italy, Portugal, Spain and UK. This new mega ship had large modern staterooms with balconies, live performances by artists flown in, 30 eateries, skydiving on board, and 18 floors of nonstop activities. The ship itself was a major attraction wherever we docked, but the tours offered during ports of call were pretty unique too. I visited the Rock of Gibraltar, hiked for the best croissant in Marseilles, took ferries around Cinque Terre, and explored the small towns outside Lisbon. I learned that given the right ship and itinerary, cruising can be fun for young active travelers too. Read my posts from my cruise.
In September, I stopped in Sydney for an amazing weekend, where I learned that there is much more to Australian food than steaks, barbie and pies. The restaurant scene in Sydney, though growing steadily, can compare to those in London and New York. People here like to eat well, enjoy life and stay fit. The Sydney seafood market comes second to Tokyo in terms of volume traded. I had the most amazing seafood paired with local wines and even took a cooking class at the largest cooking school in the southern Hemisphere.
I led my second Go Eat Give trip to Bali in September. Every time I go there, I realize there still exists a place in the world where no one frowns, gets angry or is stressed. There is a lot of poverty on the island, yet people are happy and content with what little they have. They pray every day, live among large families and help each other. I truly love the serenity in natural beautiful, the simplicity of living, and hospitality of the people of Bali. This year, we also offered an add on tour to Java, Indonesia, a predominantly muslim island, with a rich history of Hindu and Buddhist temples built from 9th century AD. I visited many sites I had only heard about in history books, such as Borobudur. I learned that my tour guide was a Hindu woman who had converted to Islam, but was also a practitioner of Buddhism. It said a lot about keeping harmony within religions and choosing a way of life that appealed to you as an individual. Read about sustainable tourism in Bali.
In October, I attend a Food and Wine tour of Israel with the Israel Ministry of Tourism. We went to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Acco, and Galile tasting up to 30 dishes a day. What I found out was that there is no such thing as Israeli food, but the food in Israel is some of the best in the world. With very high quality of produce traveling only short distances, and many cooking styles influenced by surrounding countries, the chefs in Israel have much in their favor. I had heard so much about the Old City of Jerusalem and its holy history, but walking down the streets and experiencing it was something else. Despite what goes on in the area, I felt the people were praying for peace and wanted to spread love more than anything else. Read 8 of the Best Culinary Experiences in the Melting Post of Israel.
I crossed the border on foot from Elat to go across to Jordan, a place that was high on my bucket list. I felt like an explorer as I was one of the very few tourists roaming the vast open desserts of Wadi Rum and the lost city of Petra. After speaking to many locals, I found out how badly this part of the world has been impacted from the image of the Middle East. Though Jordan is a peaceful country, disruptions in surrounding countries has led to a severe decline in Jordan’s economy, where hotels, restaurants and tour companies have had to shut down. It was surprising that I was in the middle of some of the most beautiful attractions in the world, yet it appeared to be a ghost town.
What did you learn from your travels this year?