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Laurel Miller

Seattle - http://www.sustainablekitchen.com

Intrepid Travel Offering 20 Percent Off All Food-Centric Trips Through August 31

vietnam
Melbourne-based Intrepid Travel – known for its cultural and food-focused trips to remote corners of the planet – is now offering 20 percent off over 350 of their trips, including the newly-launched Food Adventures. The discount is good for all trips departing before August 31, 2013.

Last fall, Intrepid partnered up with The Perennial Plate, which documents these culinary adventures in bi-weekly video clips. If that's not inspiration enough, check out these "Summer of Adventure" trips on offer: Northern Spain (Barcelona to San Sebastian), India (Delhi to Goa), and Vietnam (Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City).

The trips run from four to 14 days, and have been designed in collaboration with renowned chefs, cookbook authors and other food experts, including Susan Feniger and Tracey Lister. Trip prices include accommodation, ground transportation, a local guide, activities listed on the itinerary and, in many cases, cooking classes, meals with locals and trips to local markets.

[Photo credit: Intrepid Travel]

Ultralight Hammocks: Your New Summer Camping Accessory

hammock campingCamping season is almost officially here, and that means it's a good time to take stock of your gear. Maybe it's time for an upgrade? If you live in or are planning camping trips in warm, dry climates, allow me to suggest an easy, affordable addition to your arsenal.

Hammock camping is becoming increasingly popular amongst car-campers and backpackers alike. Unless you enjoy camping in volcanic calderas, sand dunes, or similarly treeless places, ultralight hammocks are a great way to conserve weight and space. Best of all, they provide a more outdoorsy experience, yet allow you to remain high and dry, elevated from debris and critters (for those of you who are used to sleeping open-air on the ground). Many versions are enclosed, providing mosquito and rain shelter, although if you tend toward claustrophobia, you may want to stick with a traditional version.

For backpackers/campers like me, who suffer bad backs, a hammock can be either a blessing or a curse. Personally, I go for ultralight gear, and am more comfortable dealing with spinal curvature; it all depends upon your particular affliction and preferences. For my purposes, hammock camping is the ultimate for whitewater trips, because trees are abundant, ground conditions can be less than ideal, and I relish being out in the open.

Ultralight hammocks are generally made from parachute nylon; look for one that's mildew-resistant, and make sure it comes with a stuff sack so you can test its compression size. Last summer, at a street fair in Boulder, I even saw an ultralight all-in-one daypack and hammock. Check sites like REI or Backcountry.com, and be sure that whatever you buy comes with no-questions-asked return policy should you be less than thrilled.

[Photo credit: Flickr user andrewmalone]

A Visit To A Bolivian Medicine Woman

yatiriI'd never heard of a shaman until my first class on my first day of college. I'd signed up for "Magic, Witchcraft, & Religion" as an elective on a whim. It turned out to be one of my favorite undergrad classes and has been highly inspirational to my work as a travel writer.

The instructor was a short, plump woman of a certain age. She'd lived on a Hopi reservation while working on her doctoral thesis. She looked so exotic, always bedecked with ropes of beads, silver and turquoise necklaces and rings, and dangly earrings. She wore colorful indigenous skirts and told incredible stories, some of them involving the words "peyote" and "ayuhuasca." She'd traveled all over the world. I wanted to be her.

So, it's no surprise that I developed a fascination for indigenous cultures. Perhaps one of the reasons I find them so absorbing is because I don't subscribe to any religion myself, so I find the concepts of animism, polytheism and shamanism particularly interesting. I'm spiritually bankrupt myself, although I studied holistic massage in the '90s (big mistake), and through that developed a respect for certain alternative modalities of medicine.

But fortune-telling? Soul cleansing? Killing endangered species and then ingesting their body parts in foul-tasting teas? Um, no thank you. I find this stuff interesting, but I don't believe in it, nor do I endorse anything that involves sacrificial offerings in the name of fortune, fertility or romance.

I once had my palm read on a press trip in Hong Kong. The fortune-teller, a wizened old man, examined my hand (at the time cracked and callused from my part-time jobs as a farmers market vendor and waitress), and asked my translator, "Why no marry? If no marry by 40, never marry. Health good, feet not so good." Still single at 44, that asshole may well have sealed my fate, but on the other hand, my feet are in good shape.

Wanderu's Site Lets You Research And Book Bus And Rail Travel

chicken busIf you're a traveler, then you're a Kayaker. Not a paddler, but a devotee of Kayak.com, the airline (and hotel and rental car) search engine that makes booking the lowest fares a breeze. If you're a traveler, then you've also probably cursed the fact that a similar site doesn't exist for bus and rail travel.

We can now count our blessings, thanks to Wanderu. According to Thrillist, this ingenious domestic search engine offers "hundreds of routes, operators, and schedules into a free, trip-aggregating database." You can even make bookings, which is like a giant gift from the Travel Gods.

As soon as Wanderu or a competitor makes this info available for international travel, budget travelers won't have anything left to complain about – except maybe the quality of their guesthouse banana pancakes.

[Photo credit: Flickr user DavidDennisPhotos.com]

International Budget Guide 2013: Asuncion, Paraguay

Asuncion
Why is 2013 the year to get to Asunción, Paraguay's, lovely, riverfront capital? Because this landlocked tropical nation sandwiched between Boliva, Brazil and Argentina is modernizing at warp speed. Tourism is still a rarity (expect curious looks, especially if you venture into the countryside – and you most definitely should), but the city offers enough inexpensive, low-key pleasures to make spending a few days more than worthwhile.

While not as cheap as, say, La Paz, Asunción is still ridiculously affordable, especially if you're not looking for luxury accommodations (lodging and cabs are pricey, compared to everything else). Spend your days in the laid-back downtown, or centro, visiting the shops, market stalls and restaurants; stroll La Costanera, the two-mile riverfront walkway in the centro; take a small boat to the nearby island of Chaco'i to check out the bird life; hit the town (Asuncion has quite the nightlife, because that's when things finally "cool off"); or just do as Asuncenos do: kick back in the Plaza with a refreshing tereré (cold mate tea, often spiked with fresh medicinal herbs called yuyos) and watch the world go by (empanada in hand).

Although Paraguay is reputed to be South America's second poorest country, Asunción's centro has the feel of prosperity. The country is rich in cattle ranching, soy exports and other agricultural food crops and is the continent's only officially bilingual nation, thanks to the prevalent indigenous Guarani culture. (In most places, including Asuncion, Spanish is the dominant language over Guarani; you won't, however, find English widely spoken, so bring your phrasebook.) Paraguayans are also legendarily hospitable, so don't be surprised if you find yourself getting invitations to dinner or making friends at the drop of a hat.

Asunción calls to mind a smaller, saner, safer Rio de Janeiro, except that it's located on the Rio Paraguay, instead of the Atlantic. Multi-colored, colonial and gothic-style buildings from the 19th and early 20th centuries (both beautifully restored and in varying stages of glorious decay) make up the majority of the centro – although modern, upscale shopping malls and hotels are popping up, as well.

Picture Perfect: Why Bolivians Insist Upon Flawless US Dollars

moneyMy first encounter with the Bolivian mania for perfect U.S. dollars occurred at 3 a.m., as I blearily stood in line at Immigration, attempting to pay for my entry visa. I'd been in transit for over 30 hours, and was fumbling in my travel wallet for the stack of twenties I'd set aside specifically for this purpose (they want that $135 in USD, no exceptions).

The immigration agent examined each bill with an anal retentiveness surely rivaled by past appraisers of the Hope Diamond. He immediately tossed two perfectly-fine looking bills back at me.

"What's wrong with these?" I asked. "They are damaged," he snapped, and returned to closely inspecting my remaining twenties, running his fingers along each edge, and holding them up to the light. I looked at the offending bills, seeing nothing wrong. "Why can't you take this one?" I queried, holding out the bill in question. My silly question would have made my fresh-off-the-boat status obvious, even if I weren't standing in the immigration line.

"There is a crease in it," the officer said impatiently, pointing to a miniscule dent. Fortunately, the rest of my money passed muster. The final insult? Having my visa photo taken (despite the fact I'd brought passport-size photos with me for this very purpose). I now have a very special souvenir of what I'll look like in another 40 years. That cabin air is really dehydrating.

Over the next two weeks, I continued to observe the Bolivian obsession with flawless dolares de Estados Unitos. By then, I knew the reason. Counterfeit money is a big problem, but they're not nearly as concerned about the state of their bolivianos as they are our currency. Admittedly, their paper money is fairly pristine. Every trip to an ATM was an anxiety-inducing event ... what if the bills were wrinkled, or torn? What if, while in one of the godforsaken, far-flung outposts I was visiting, someone required U.S. dollars and I couldn't obtain any perfect ones? In Bolivia, you can often pay in either currency, so some travelers prefer dollars because they find them easier to use than trying to convert bolivianos.

Fortunately, it seems most Bolivian cash machines dispense quality bills. I was even able to bail out a befuddled traveler attempting to purchase a bus ticket. His dollars were simply not up to snuff, so I traded him some of my crisp Jacksons to defuse the escalating shouting match.

After I traveled on to Paraguay, I discovered that they're almost as strict about the appearance of U.S. dollars. It's a national joke, however, that this attention to detail doesn't extend to their guaranies. Never have I seen such woefully limp, bedraggled, filthy paper money. Which is ironic, given all the armed guards posted outside of banks and change houses. Then again, money is money, no matter how pretty. If only someone could tell the Bolivians that.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Unhindered by Talent]

La Paz's Museo De Coca: A Historical And Cultural Look At Bolivia's Most Controversial Crop

coca leaf"Hoja de coca no es droga." "Coca no es cocaina." You'll see these sentiments, which are indeed accurate, on T-shirts displayed throughout La Paz's tourist ghetto, which is centered on Calle Sagarnaga.

I should preface this post by saying I'm not a fan of recreational drugs (no judgement; I do live in Colorado, after all), so my recent trip to Bolivia had nothing to do with that. It's unfortunate, however, that a certain type of traveler has made Bolivia a destination to obtain cheap coke, because it's not doing the country any favors with regard to its reputation. But, if you know where to look, cocaine is available in abundance. If you know the right people, you'll also find it's the best-quality stuff available (sorry, Colombia). And yes, it's illegal.

How do I know this if I don't partake? Let's just say that I'm a journalist, and I read a lot and talk to a lot of people. I've also spent enough time traveling in South America to understand the difference between coca leaf– the raw ingredient– and cocaine, the manufactured drug.

For thousands of years up until the present, coca leaf has been an integral part of the cultural, spiritual and economic psyches of Bolivia, Peru and Colombia. A member of the family Erythroxylaceae, coca is native to the Andean lowlands and highlands of western South America.

For aforementioned reasons, the plant is considered a high-value cash crop because it contains trace amounts of alkaloids, including cocaine. It's important to note that ingesting the alkaloid is not the same as using the synthesized, concentrated form of the drug cocaine. Synthetic cocaine is, as we all know, a powerfully addictive stimulant that affects the central nervous system. Since this isn't an article about "Just Say No," let's get back to coca leaf, shall we?

International Adventure Guide 2013: La Paz And Southwest Bolivia

bolivia
Bolivia is the least expensive destination in South America, yet it has an increasingly efficient tourism infrastructure. Going now, especially to the remote southwestern part of the country, means faster, easier, more comfortable travel than in the past (although you'll still have to be prepared for your share of bus rides on rutted out, unpaved roads, depending upon where you're headed). In general, you won't find yourself tripping over tourists except for a handful of streets in La Paz.

In the remote Southwest (where the renown Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt flat, is located), you'll feel like you're in a vastly different cultural and geographic universe. Regardless of where you venture, Bolivia is a country of diverse and often harsh- yet starkly beautiful- environments; wimps and whiners need not apply.

You'll be rewarded for your efforts. Bolivia offers incomparable scenery ranging from towering Andean peaks and Amazonian jungle to crystalline lagoons, and high desert reminiscent of the American Southwest on steroids. Plus, there's world-class trekking, climbing, and mountain biking, gracious people, a thriving indigenous culture, and the kind of crazy adventure activities rarely found in industrialized nations. Bolivia is also politically stable, relatively speaking (there are frequent protests, but they're internal, and mostly in the form of roadblocks). Go now, before it becomes the next Peru and prices for guided trips hit the roof.

Historical Mexican Portraiture The Subject Of New Photography Book

mexican portraitsSince the invention of the camera, portraiture has been an important part of the cultural history of Mexico. Now, a new book, "Mexican Portraits" (Aperture, $85) curated by photographer and editor Pablo Ortiz Monasterio, beautifully captures the essence of this complex country's people.

The goal of Monasterio's book, however, is about more than mere imagery. According to CNN, the author was also interested in focusing on recurring themes, "such as lucha libre wrestling, or occupational portraits.

For anyone interested in Latin American history, black-and-white photography, or portraiture, "Mexican Portraits" is a striking, often haunting, story of a country rich in diversity, culture and humor, as well as defined by economic, religious and political instability.

Click here for a slide show from the book.

[Photo credit: Aperture]

Layover Report: Where To Eat At Miami, Lima, And Bogota International Airports

cuban foodI just returned from three weeks in Bolivia and Paraguay. In that time, I had 12 flights, five of which were required to get me from my home in Colorado to La Paz. Now why, you may ask, in this age of expedited air travel, does it take so many connections to travel 4,512 miles (or nine hours by air)? Budget, baby.

I'm also horrifically flight phobic, so for me to fly various Third World carriers from Miami to Bogota to Lima to La Paz (and then La Paz to Lima to Asuncion, and Asuncion back to Lima en route to Miami, followed by Dallas-Fort Worth to Denver), is probably the best example I can provide of just how much I love to travel. I really, really, really love it. I also really love having Xanax on hand when I fly.

One of the reasons I didn't mind my layovers too much is that I happen to adore most South American airports, especially Jorge Chavez International in Lima (so many cools shops, free snackies, great Peruvian food!). And since one of the things I most like to do in South America is eat, I used my downtime to see if there was anything worth writing about, foodwise. Indeed there was, and so I present to you my findings. Feel free to send me some Xanax in return (kidding! I'll take empanadas instead).

Miami International Airport
It's hardly a secret that the Concourse D location of Miami's beloved La Carreta chain rocks, especially in a sea of Au Bon Pain and Starbucks. Best of all, it opens at 5 a.m., so when I was rushing to make my 5:30 a.m. flight to Bogota, I was able to grab a jamon y queso sandwich en route. If time isn't an issue, sit down and feast upon Cuban-style roast pork, stuffed green plantains or fufu con masitas, or a medianoche sandwich.

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