Take Only Pictures, Leave Only Footprints

In my earlier post, I explained how to pack all of your trip essentials into a carry-on. This approach also leaves little room to bring anything back from your trip, which can sometimes be a blessing. Over the years, I have learned to curb my shopping by being choosy about what I bring back. Here are my suggestions on what to bring back, aside from photographs:

1. Music

I have to credit my older brother for starting me along this trend. I still remember the Moroccan mixtapes he bought in Tangier, filled with songs we have never, ever, been able to find elsewhere. From Yiddish folk tunes to Lanna music from Chiang Mai, I have a collection of CDs from abroad that are very dear to me. If you hear something you like, Shazam the tune or ask someone about it, because you may never have the opportunity to do so again. Sometimes, I even bring back a musical instrument, though I admit I have yet to master the didgeridoo.


2. Jewelry

I often buy earrings from abroad, not just for myself, but also as a gift. They’re tiny, useful (so long as your ears are pierced), and can become a great conversation piece. Just be sure to confirm what material they are made of to avoid any allergy issues.

3. Artwork

I try to pick small artwork pieces, canvases that can be rolled, or fabric work, so that they are easy to pack. One of my favourite pieces is the knotted carpet I brought back from Seljuk, Turkey, which I rolled and carried with me on the plane. When that doesn’t work, remember that shipping can also be an option (as I had to do with my didgeridoo). Artwork is a great way to weave stories from your travels into your home decor.

Painting of Angkor Wat

Painting of Angkor Wat

4. A signature item

Looking for a small souvenir on a family cruise at the age of 12, I settled upon a shot glass, whose purpose I didn’t quite understand at the time. I thought it was cute, and so began a habit of purchasing a shot glass from every country I visited. I still don’t use them for their intended purpose, but the collection grew into a reason to keep collecting, and it limited me to just one piece of kitsch per trip. A few years ago, I finally figured out how I would create something meaningful out them. Pour some wax and a wick into a shot glass, and you have a votive candle. Someday, when I have the space for it, I plan to convert all 60 or so shot glasses of mine into a floor chandelier. Al and I have also started to collect a particular type of decor item that we hope to someday incorporate into a future home, but that is a story that is still early in its making.

5. Knowledge 

One of my favourite takeaways from my trip to Thailand in 2011 was the knack for making a delicious Som Tam (green papaya salad). If you like the cuisine of the region you are visiting – take a cooking class! I especially suggest taking one that is geared towards everyday food, because it’s a great way to spice up your weekday dinner repertoire. Knowledge is the best thing you can bring back, because it can never be taken away from you.

Ingredients for Tom Yum Soup

Ingredients for Tom Yum Soup

Setting the mood for travel

When it comes to preparing for travel, we often think of all the usual suspects that make up trip planning: flight bookings, hotel reservations, visa arrangements, medical necessities, and some degree of research on your destination. My fiancé, who has a knack for all of the above, often says that his favourite part of a trip is the planning, because it builds anticipation. Looking forward to a vacation is a big part of the joy of travel, whether it entails finding the perfect flight permutation, or immersing yourself in cultural experiences that have a relationship to your destination.

In advance of our upcoming trip that includes some time seeing Sakura in Japan, we have been gearing our Sunday movie nights towards films that are set there, watching The Last Samurai and Memoirs of a Geisha. While we can’t expect Hollywood productions to substitute for a cultural lesson, tailoring our regular entertainment choices has given us glimpses of beautiful landscapes that we might try to capture on our itinerary.

Browsing at your local airport bookstore before taking off? Choosing your vacation reading list is another way to further immerse yourself in your travel experience. I chose to read Gabriel Garcia Marquez on my way to Medellin, last year, and there are many renowned authors to choose from for this trip, perhaps some more Haruki Murakami, Kazuo Ishiguro, or even classics like the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. Ideally, I aim for something that was either created by a native of the land, or something that is set in the land – it doesn’t have to be both. So if your tastes are more to James Clavell’s Shogun or the latest paperback thriller, read on!

Like for any other activity, music is often a great way to set the mood, but I have always found that this one works in reverse – hearing a song that I used to hear on a trip often transports me back to that time and place. So make it a point to add to your media library as you travel.

In the digital era, cultural immersion and trip planning can converge by tuning your social media channels to local bloggers and social media feeds. It’s an instant, visual way to see what’s happening or about to happen in your destination.

Enjoy the build-up to your trip, because travel is always better with a little bit of foreplay.

The Bucket List: Make the Bucket Big Enough

In my earlier post, I talked about one of the experiences on my bucket list. While I do have a vision board that illustrates some of my life goals, I have never made an official bucket list. Instead, I have a fluid, ever-evolving ‘secret menu’ of moments I hope to experience. If I look back at my life, especially my twenties, I feel lucky to have fulfilled many of these desires…like this one:


Skydiving near Cairns, Australia

…or this one:

Top of Grizzly Peak, Alberta

Top of Grizzly Peak, Alberta

Part of what made these bucket list items achievable was that I made them flexible enough for me to seize. While New Zealand is often considered the extreme sports capital of the world, I took the opportunity to skydive while I was in Australia. This is one case where I needed to commit myself to work up the courage, but I tried to keep my options flexible. Even though I was originally planning to do the jump in Brisbane, the to-do list item simply read: skydive somewhere abroad. I ended up having the opportunity to jump in Cairns, again having to shift my plans around because of the weather. Had I been too specific about jumping in Brisbane, I may not have had a chance to jump at all on that trip.

In the summer of 2007, I became frustrated with the fact that I had hiked extensively in the Rockies, but had never peaked any mountains, despite growing up in Calgary. Returning home from my penultimate semester at uni, I requested we change our plans for a family hike into one that would have us peak a mountain, any mountain. Taking advantage of Grizzly Peak’s proximity to home, our family outing turned into a family scramble (my dad and brother used to be avid scramblers). While my mom didn’t quite make it to the peak, she made it much further along than I would expect of any of her peers, and I got to enjoy the company of my whole family on this special trip. Had I been pickier about the mountain, it may have proved too difficult for my parents at that time in their life.

Some experiences are meant to be specific: like seeing the Grand Canyon – there is only one! Other times, a little bit of flexibility can help make something achievable. The same advice applies to travel – put yourself where you need to be, but don’t pigeon-hole yourself so much that you lose a chance to do something special. So, I now turn the question to you: what’s on your bucket list?

The Bucket List: Fleeting Beauty

I have always had a bucket list – it’s just not written anywhere. I like to think of it as an ever-evolving secret menu that a handful of people know about. Sometimes, even I don’t realize that I have ‘always wanted to do that’ until I have already done it. Other times, there is a clear vignette that I am chasing, which becomes a driver for making my travels happen a certain way. Our decision to divert to Japan for our upcoming trip is one such example. In 2005, I spent a co-op term in Vancouver, working in an office building which had many beautiful cherry trees in its garden. As March turned to April, I saw them in bloom for the first time, and it was a profound visual experience, especially when the breeze would blow. It was there that I learned of the importance of Sakura (cherry blossom) in Japanese culture, and it was there that I formed a desire to visit Japan to partake in Hanami (the act of appreciating the transient beauty of flowers).

Sakura in Heian Shrine

Sakura in Heian Shrine, by Oyvind Solstad (Used under Creative Commons license Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic)

I carried this desire in my heart, unspoken, until a couple of months ago when Al and I were deciding how we would fly back from Bangkok, the destination we had booked a year ago because of an exceptionally cheap flight deal. Flying back on points via Tokyo proved to be the most efficient way, and we planned a stopover in Japan, leaving Thailand (a country we had each already visited, separately) as our primary destination. Realizing that this would put us in Japan during prime Sakura season, I told Al about how it was on my bucket list, and we adjusted our plans to spend some more time in Japan, allowing us to travel to the northern parts where the trees would be in full bloom at our arrival. This is how we ended up with such a whirlwind world tour. While some of my earlier posts explored meaningful travel at a slower pace, seeking a natural/cultural experience is another way to make travel meaningful. In this case, I feel the pace is fitting. Life is guaranteed to be transient, like the Sakura. If we’re lucky, it can also be just as beautiful.

Around the World in 18 Days

travel guidebooksRemember that story last fall, where a man by the name of Jordan Axani was looking for a travel companion with the same name as his ex-girlfriend, Elizabeth Gallagher, to take advantage of an already booked around the world ticket? It looks like it worked out well for them – especially since Mariott paid for their accommodation at every stop.

Sadly, it doesn’t seem as newsworthy when two lovers book the same trip a year in advance and then…wait for it…are still together to go on it. Newsworthy or not, Mr. Pointster and I are very excited that our own ’round the world trip is about to commence. Thanks to Mr. Pointster’s travel reward wisdom we’re getting a lot of free hotel nights along the way as well. Of course, should Mariott decide to sponsor our good news story (does the fact that we’re getting married help?), we’d be more than happy to oblige.
Follow along as we journey from Toronto to New York, to Milan, to Prague, to Bangkok, to Tokyo, and back, circumnavigating the globe. Via planes, trains, and automobiles (we’ll have to see about steam boats), we are going around the world in 18 days, starting April 1, and taking you with us. Because when you jet set in the digital era, good company is easy to find.

Alternatives to the Selfie

We’ve all seen them, we’ve all done them – the ubiquitous “I was here” photo, consisting of a landmark, your tilted face, and a portion of your arm that you just can’t seem to crop out. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to catalogue the fact that you have seen something noteworthy, but before you go out and purchase the selfie stick, consider these other options for capturing your memories.

1. Shoot your view

You can always differentiate from standard postcard photos by taking a photo of a landmark from a particular view, like this one of the Hofburg, in Vienna.


2. Turn around

Sometimes, human awe itself is amazing. When I’m seeing a spectacle that has captured the attention of others, such as the sunset in Santorini, I like to turn around and take a photo of the people watching it, rather than just a photo of the event itself.


3. Create a signature pose

My brother has an album of doing headstands around the world. I resolved the need for selfies by taking photos through my iron ring –  my engineer’s ring that is always on my pinky finger. Since 2008, I’ve curated them into a unique album of the world as seen through the eye of an engineer. I try to pick obvious landmarks, like the Sydney Opera House. Friends have a good time playing ‘where in the world’ whenever I post new pictures on social media.


4. Make an awesome video

Have a signature pose that’s actually a dance? Then do what Matt Harding did. Enough said.

 5. Make a sketch

Even if you don’t know how to draw, you can learn. Taking the time to sketch allows you to get a deeper sense of the texture of a place. Drawing is not my strong suit, but I thoroughly enjoyed spending the time trying to sketch my view from a little café in the medieval town of Entrevaux, France.

Sketch of Entrevaux

Any other creative ideas for capturing your travel memories?

Travel With More Meaning – Part 4: Saarah’s Sanctuary


As part of our series on meaningful travel, I have been asking friends to share their stories on special experiences they have sought out in foreign places. From working in water security to volunteering at a permaculture farm, to studying European art history, there are many enriching experiences to be found abroad. Craving the opportunity to travel solo for the first time before a family vacation in Turkey, Saarah escaped to The Sanctuary, a wellness retreat on Thailand’s Koh Phangan.

As part of a larger focus on self-growth this year, Saarah went for a five-day course on meditation and yoga. In addition to finding relaxation, Saarah learned about asanas, pranayama (directed breathing), and chakra meditation. “I also met some amazing people who prioritize spirituality in their lives,” she explains.

Following on the advice of a friend who had gone there some years before, Saarah was seeking a learning experience. Especially memorable were the surroundings: “Beach, jungle, amazing food, great weather, and an awesome teacher.” While raving about the setting and recommending the venue to others, she still notes that this type of escape isn’t for everyone. “ You have to be interested in spirituality, self-growth, and alone time.”

Although she’s not sure what’s next, she wants to return to the Sanctuary someday. Her advice for making travel more meaningful? “Carry a diary to capture the memories, do your research, and pursue activities that promote self-growth, whether that be museums or just beautiful attractions.” She also knows the value of a good review. “I talk to friends to get ideas for the best places to go.”

Travel With More Meaning – Part 3: Avanthi’s Advice

Next up on our series on travel with a purpose is my friend Avanthi, who put her freshly minted engineering skills to use working with World Vision in Lusaka, Zambia in 2008. Creating proposals for well projects, her research led her to learn about the demographics of the country, and had her travel to remote areas to better understand the rural lifestyle and the kind of jobs that people could create for themselves using available resources.

It was an eye-opening experience for her: “It’s a completely different world over there and it made me appreciate what I have even more – healthcare systems, access to education, almost endless possibilities. I also started to question the need for all these ‘things’ we spend our money on in North America, and question whether they really enrich our lives.”

Photo credit Avanthi WIlliams - reproduced with permission

Photo credit Avanthi WIlliams – reproduced with permission

Working in a country is different from a pleasure vacation, she explains: “While I did get to do some fun safari-type trips with my dad, it wasn’t a trip where I was constantly eating out or paryting with friends. It was more about living like a local, learning about a different culture, and seeing the realities of how a large part of the world lives, well outside of our comfortable Canadian bubble.”

While the experience was memorable, Avanthi is well aware of the dangers of voluntourism: “Make sure that the work you do develops the skills necessary to sustain the project, so that the local population is not relying on outside support indefinitely. I’m pretty cynical when it comes to charities and voluntourism – it was an amazing trip for me, but I did notice that some people I met were in it for the right reasons, while others weren’t. Continuous foreign aid can sometimes create more of a dependency, so it’s important to look into the NGO, and make sure that they money raised is going to the right places.” She recommends lending your skills as a valuable eye-opening experience, but strongly suggests you do your research first. She points out that some types of international volunteer work might make more sense than others, citing projects like Habitat for Humanity and Doctors without Borders, which are well suited to short-term interventions.

Avanthi plans to discover more of her roots by travelling to Sri Lanka, visiting the northern areas that were erstwhile inaccessible during the Sri Lankan Civil War. Her advice for making travel more meaningful: “Spend time with locals as much as possible, learn about the history of the country, and venture off the beaten path.”


Travel With More Meaning – Part 2: Andrew’s Adventures

As part of our series on meaningful travel, I’ve invited some of my globetrotting friends to share stories of when they either learned something, shared something, created something, or undertook a challenge, against the backdrop of a foreign place.

First up is my friend Andrew. After taking a year’s leave of absence from his technical desk job, Andrew not only made travel with meaning part of his lifestyle, he’s made it his full-time mission to find meaning in all corners of the globe. Most recently, he has been in India, volunteering at Sadhana Forest. He spent about a month living and co-operating in a sustainable community with up to 100 volunteers from around the world, planting trees in a degraded ecosystem using permaculture techniques for water conservation. Andrew is the one who tipped me off to the helpxchange database I used in France, and he in turn found this opportunity through a friend of his who volunteered at the forest two years ago. Another resource for finding similar opportunities is WWOOF – Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms.

Photo credit: Andrew Lee (reproduced with permission)

Photo credit: Andrew Lee (reproduced with permission)

He eagerly shares what makes this experience a keystone life event: “Meeting and being around amazing people from around the world – fellow foreigners looking to give back, and learn an alternative way of living…eating vegan food every meal, learning about sustainable ways of living, participating in workshops put on every day by volunteers on subjects ranging from yoga, to meditation, to non-violent communication.”

Andrew especially liked the fact that it’s a non-consumer experience – volunteering to offer something instead of consuming. But he warns that other experiences may not be as altruistic: “There are many organizations that offer opportunities to travel and volunteer, that are seeking your money in exchange for a catered experience. You should do your research and trust recommendations from people you know.”

Having a nomadic lifestyle has helped Andrew cultivate a global network of friends and peers. He’s now in Italy visiting with friends, and plans to spend the next few months hitchhiking around Europe. His key to finding meaning in travel, even though it’s now his full-time occupation: “Taking more time to properly enjoy and appreciate the places I visit, spending less money, sacrificing expensive comforts for challenging experiences that expand my comfort zone and make me vulnerable to the spontaneity and kindness of others.”

Kind as he is, he allows others to live vicariously through him, thanks to his well-written blog: All I Need is my 2 Bare Feet. Warning: his blog is likely to inspire a little bit of envy. We hope it also inspires you to travel.

What makes lounge access worthwhile?

Food offerings in the SJC Airspace Lounge

Food offerings in the SJC Airspace Lounge

Frequent flyer forums abound with gossip about airport lounges. From the promise of massages at the Royal Thai spa lounge, to tales of disappointment at the tea selection, they are a hot topic among the jet set. Entry into airline lounges is typically gained via airline frequent flyer status and credit card based access, which our friends over at Creditwalk.ca have thoroughly analyzed. For the less frequent traveler, there is the option of paying for a one-time pass (or using a gifted guest pass). Here are the scenarios where I think that approach might be worthwhile, based on when I have found lounge access to be most worthwhile.

1. When you need a no-distractions environment in which to work

With many airports offering free wi-fi, the business centre aspect of airport lounges have lost some of their appeal. It isn’t the ability to connect, but rather, to disconnect from all distractions, that make a lounge worthwhile for the times you have a long enough layover and a fast approaching deadline. For the $27 it once cost me to enter the United Club (whose snack selection is fairly dismal), I was able to zone in and get about three hours worth of work done. Of course, day passes can range from $25 through to $75, so it depends on your circumstances. If you’re tighter for productive time than for money, this may be a worthwhile option for you.

2. In lieu of a hotel

I once had an eight-hour layover in Beijing Airport on my way to Malaysia. At the time, I was lucky enough to use my frequent flyer status to get into the Air China lounge, but I would have gladly paid for entry to this haven. After a long overnight flight, I was able to take a four-hour nap in a sleeping pod, enjoy breakfast, shower, get some reading done, eat lunch, charge my phone, and keep my luggage safe when roaming the airport. This was especially useful in a place where I would have needed a visa in order to go into town.

3. When they are serving a proper meal

On our recent trip to Hawaii, Mr. Pointster and I were debating which of our layovers to use our one-time American Airlines Admirals Club access. I mistakenly thought it would be more useful in San Diego than our departure point of Toronto, since our San Diego layover was longer than the one hour we had left before our flight. What I forgot to take into account was the fact that we hadn’t yet eaten dinner and were about to board a six hour flight with only food for purchase. We ended up spending about $40 on our meals and a frustrating public wi-fi connection. I now admit that we should have used our one-time pass then, but I still don’t think it would have been worth outright paying for, since different lounges offer differing degrees of meals and snacks. I’ve been disappointed with the ‘carrot-sticks and cheese-and-cracker’ offerings of the United Club, been satisfied with the Maple Leaf’s soup, salad, and sometimes pasta bar, and have been absolutely delighted with a full Turkey dinner at the Plaza Premium Amex Lounge in Toronto on Christmas Eve.