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Considering… Namibia

Through watching many landscape travel videos on Vimeo and Youtube, I came across Namibia. It looks like a beautiful place with so much wildlife and incredible contrasting landscapes with bright orange sand dunes mixed with dead trees. Africa is a continent that contains so much beauty, and it would be a great addition to our world trip. Continue reading “Considering… Namibia”

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Considering… New Zealand

We’re ramping up our planning, so we need to bust out some more country profiles to help us decide where to go!

New Zealand invokes images of sprawling landscapes and stunningly beautiful mountain ranges thwarting hobbits’ journeys to Mordor.  It is known as an adventure mecca and a photographer’s paradise.

new-zealand_bernard -spragg2

Why do we want to go?

I’ve actually visited New Zealand once before, when I was much younger.  My family spent a couple weeks there on our way back from living in Australia for two years.  I remember the pervasive sulfur smell, riding in the back of our rented camper van (and my brief foray into flight when it unexpectedly stopped) down two-lane country highways, and glowworms.

But we did not see the most beautiful areas New Zealand has to offer.

Now armed with a camera, I wish to see the sweeping vistas firsthand and photograph everything.  Given Aaron has never been, and that it’s a quick hop from Australia (for which he has a strong fascination and to which I would love to return), it’s an obvious choice.

What are some bucket list contenders?

new-zealand_bernard -spragg1

Country Profile

COUNTRY | New Zealand
Region SW Pacific / Austrailia
Best Season Fall / Spring – moderate temperatures and lower tourist crowds
Average Temp / Weather Conditions Very temperate and mild with moderate rainfall; snow only in the higher elevations (seasons are opposite America’s)
Key Attractions Hiking, backpacking, outdoor adventures, national parks, skiing
Entry / Visa Requirements No visa required on trips shorter than 3 months; as an island nation, goods brought in are highly regulated (avoid bringing produce, dirty hiking boots, unfinished wood, and pets)
CURRENCY | New Zealand Dollar (~$1.40 NZD = $1 USD)
Daily Budget $100 NZD ($71 USD)
Frugal Tips Book activities, etc. in advance; cook your own food; WWOOF
THE STAY | Possible duration: a month
Lodging Types Hotels, hostels, Airbnb, couchsurfing, camping, WWOOF
Food Similar to American – hamburgers, steaks, seafood, variety of cuisines from other countries
Transportation Options Buses, bike rentals, car shares, hitchhiking, car rentals (roads are smaller and go through more rugged terrain)
Driving Requirements Drive on the left side of the road; brush up on the New Zealand Road Code
Connectivity Free wifi available intermittently; angled outlets (will need an adaptor for American plugs); buy a local SIM card or have a phone plan that includes international data
CULTURE | Language: English
Customs Smoking is not permitted in most public buildings, and it is expected to ask permission of those around you before lighting up; kiwis are friendly and love to socialize over food and drinks (much like the States); avoid personal questions in conversation; walk on the left side of sidewalks; take shoes off when going indoors
Local Laws Possession of illegal drugs is punished severely; sobriety checks are common
English Availability English is spoken natively, though British slang is used
Attitudes Toward Americans Generally friendly, though harboring some annoyances at US politics and world views
Photography Concerns Photography in public places is perfectly acceptable
SAFETY
General Safety Crime rates are low, though petty theft is possible, particularly in areas heavy with tourists; seismic activity is not uncommon; pedestrians only have right of way in crosswalks
Emergency Number 111
Location of U.S. Embassy / Phone Wellington (29 Fitzherbert Terrace, Thorndon, Phone +(64)(4) 462-6000)
MEDICAL
Medical Facilities Modern medical care is readily available, though American insurance may not cover expenses; many services require cash payments at the time of treatment
Vaccinations Needed None
Health Concerns No major concerns; the giardia parasite is common in natural waterways, so it is not recommended to drink untreated water
Water Quality There are strict water regulations throughout the entire country, so tap water is generally quite safe to drink

Additional Resources


Have you been to New Zealand?  What activities do we have to try out?  What other countries should we consider?

Photos by Bernard Spragg, public domain

5-Day Backpacking Trip – Brown Bears in Alaska

Backpacking will be a part of our world travel adventures in 2019. We dream of hiking El Camino Santiago in Spain and the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru. While these trails each have their own personality and beauty, taking a bush plane to the middle of nowhere to photograph brown bears is something else entirely. Brianna went to Alaska with 5 other photographers to get right in the heart of bear country hiking along the beach about 150 miles southwest of Anchorage.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

This kind of trip takes adequate preparation from the backpacking gear to the knowledge needed to stay safe and survive. There are no cushy public bathrooms every mile or so like on Camino Santiago. You are really roughing it out in the wild, far from civilization, cell coverage, showers, restaurants, and other people. It is definitely not for everyone and we would advise going with a group that has done it before so you are properly prepared.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

Many places in the world have incredible wildlife opportunities. We want to go to Africa for that very reason. Even there, we will likely seek out a guide who has a good understanding of the dangers and has all the precautions taken care of for us. Getting eaten on our world adventures is not how we want to go out. As such, here are some precautions to take with brown bears. Many of these apply to you even in National Parks in the mainland U.S., so they are good to know.

Precautions when hiking with brown bears

  • Avoid hiking alone and stay close to your group
  • Make a lot of noise to avoid startling a bear
  • Avoid dead animals that could become a bear food source as they will be naturally attracted to the smell
  • Be aware of your surroundings. Dense vegetation can increase your chances of surprising a bear.
  • Store your food in a bear can away from camp at night
  • Avoid wearing scented lotions, perfumes, deodorants, etc. Bears can smell 2,100 times better than humans, so it is best not to gain their curiosity. For perspective, they can smell a dead carcass from 20 miles away.
  • Don’t ever run, as they can and will outrun you. Stand calmly and quietly leave the area if they don’t see you.  If they do see you, slowly wave your arms up and down to identify yourself as human and never make eye contact. Talk, move your arms around, and leave the area if the bear goes back about his business.
  • Stand your ground if the bear decides to approach you. Most bear charges are false charges and they will back off if you stand your ground. If it escalates and they attack, it is best to get in a fetal position, face down with your hands covering your neck. Black bears are different as they will come after you and your best defense is to fight back.
  • Carry bear spray. If it comes down to it and you have no other choice, bear spray is a much better deterrent than bullets, which will only slow them down or kill them unnecessarily. It is kind of like a pepper spray that is for bears specifically. Find an EPA approved bear spray to take with you.

If the bears feel that you are a threat, you will become dinner for mama and her cubs. Male brown bears can weight anywhere between 500-900 pounds, with some as much as 1400 pounds. Females are smaller at 250-600 pounds. Just like the crocodiles in Costa Rica, you do not want to mess with them. Read more about the full adventure and see some amazing photos at LotsaSmilesPhoto.com.

Here is a somewhat cheesy video we put together to show the plane ride and bears with their cubs.

Have you ever backpacked in bear country?  Let us know about your experience in the comments section.

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to Use a Japanese Toilet

Ok, this post is mostly for the ladies, but men might learn something, too.

For those used to western-style, sit-down toilets, something that resembles an elongated sink in the floor might be met with trepidation and confusion.  These are squat toilets, and they’re quite common in Japan.  Sometimes, they’re your only option, so it’s good to know how to use them.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2015

Japan also has western-style toilets, but these usually come with a bidet and a host of electronic options to rinse your bum or even play music or ambient noise to disguise less pleasant sounds.  The controls can be a bit confusing at first, but they aren’t mandatory. These toilets are considerably easier to figure out.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2015

I struggled with the squat toilets when we went to Japan.  Fortunately, the bathrooms I visited had diagrams right in the stall to show me how to use them.  I also thought they were meant to be used only as a squatting urinal.  Sadly, others also had trouble figuring it out, as evidenced by the smell that exceeded that of the men’s room.

I avoided them as long as I could.. then I came to a bathroom that had no other option. Once I actually used one, I found I actually kind of preferred them!  They’re efficient, and you don’t have to touch anything.  Besides, it’s an ergonomic position for doing your business.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2015

It also helps that I camp a lot in the backwoods where there aren’t even outhouses.  It was this that prompted me to google how to “pee in the woods,” as I had previously been forced to practically undress to not soil my dropped drawers (men can’t possibly understand our struggles!).

As I have seen others question how to do this without falling over, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned.  Here’s how to do it properly:

  1. Stand over the toilet, straddling the porcelain in the floor, facing the dome and flushing handle (this is the front of the toilet).
  2. Drop your pants to your knees (not your ankles.. you don’t want your pants draped on the toilet – gross!).
  3. Squat straight down over your feet, keeping balanced (carefully).  I usually brace my elbows on my knees.
  4. Here’s the secret step!  Grab your pants at the crotch and pull them out of the way (toward the front of the toilet).
  5. Other secret step!  Pivot your hips so you’re aiming downward – below your raised garments (yes, you can aim).
  6. Do your business, wipe, carefully stand back up, and redress.
© LotsaSmiles Photography 2015
Toilet paper reading material

It might help to practice with a skirt or stretchy pants before graduating to jeans.  You might also consider brushing up on your squatting techniques prior to departure.

It’s really not as scary as it may seem, and in no time, you’ll be a pro!

World Travel – Factors in Deciding Where to Go

Deciding where to travel can feel like an overwhelming task. There are so many possibilities and narrowing down THE ENTIRE WORLD into something manageable is seems like a daunting task. Here are some tips to help you plan a world trip based on our experience so far. Continue reading “World Travel – Factors in Deciding Where to Go”

Should You Learn a Language to Travel?

World travel exposes individuals to new countries, new cultures, and new languages.  It’s all very exciting, but it can also be mildly terrifying – especially if you’re facing a language barrier.

If you’re a native English speaker, congratulations!  There are a lot of countries that speak English, if only partially.  After all, English is widely recognized as the most powerful language in the world.

For those who have learned English as a second language, I also congratulate you; English is one of the hardest languages to learn with its subtle nuances, quirks, and exceptions.  Most who speak English natively don’t even speak it properly, and we’re constantly studying it throughout our lives.  Truly, I commend you; I don’t envy that undertaking.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2015

And though you may not be fluent in English, I think you have another advantage over native English speakers.

In all my travels, I have found that non-native-English speakers tend to have a penchant for learning other languages.  Europeans, especially, know English, French, Spanish, and German, among others.  For most Americans, learning a second language is an overwhelming task, and I’m willing to bet native English speakers rank lowest in those who are multilingual.  Sure, Spanish is taught in most schools, but it’s never an expectation that we’d need to become fluent to survive our adult lives; it was merely an elective.  This is not the case in other countries.  If you want to travel or work with foreigners, you have to learn English.

As someone who aspires to someday be at least bilingual, I envy those for whom languages come easily.  I missed that conditioning when I was young, and it’s much more difficult as an adult.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

If you’re reading this, it’s probably safe to say you’re probably fluent in English (or have had the page translated – in which case, welcome!  It’s cool to think someone is so distant he or she needs to translate my page to enjoy its contents.  Please do say hi in the comments below (even in your native language), and I promise I’ll do my best with Google Translate :)).  You already speak the most versatile language.  Most locations – especially those that cater to tourists – have an adequate supply of bi- or multilingual folks, and you can usually get by with little to no foreign language knowledge.  So when traveling, why bother learn a new language?

We got to dust off our old Spanish lessons when we went to Costa Rica.  For the most part, those with whom we conversed spoke English quite well, and we relied on that heavily.  However, the comedy routines at the resort were almost entirely in Spanish.  I was glad that I could string together a few words to at least glean a vague gist as to what was going on.  I would have enjoyed it more were I fluent, but at least it wasn’t entirely lost on me.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2015

Aaron’s first excursion overseas (and my first outside of my military-brat upbringing) was to the Land of the Rising Sun.  We agreed that he would concentrate on planning the activities, and I would focus my efforts on learning some of the language to help get us by.  I already wanted to learn some Japanese, anyway, so that worked out.

When we got to Japan, I personally found it invaluable.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2015

Sure, most spoke at least halting English, especially in Tokyo.  But there were a number of occasions where it proved quite useful to know at least a few words.

“He said ‘eki’; it’s near the train station!”
“‘Dame’…  They can’t do that.”
“Wait!  That says ‘deguchi’; that’s the exit.”

And while my pointing skills became quite honed at street vendors, I was proud being able to whip out “futatsutsu, onegaishimasu” (two of each, please).

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2015

My favorite, though, was just after we took a dinner cruise on Tokyo Bay.  There was only one other English-speaking gentleman on the boat.  As we were filing off the boat, I casually asked a woman next to us in line, “Did you have fun?”  At the deer-in-the-headlights look she gave me in response, I quickly amended with, “Tanoshikata desu ka?”  Her face instantly lit up, and she nodded enthusiastically.  “Hai, hai!”  She proceeded to compliment me on my Japanese, beyond the moon I knew any of it.

That moment, alone, was worth the year of study.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

And beyond the communication capabilities, learning a language grants insight to a country’s culture.  The two are so intertwined, it’s impossible to learn one without the other.  This education beforehand taught me etiquette I might have otherwise missed, and I was less at risk of unintentionally offending.

That knowledge lent me confidence in a scary, foreign land, and I used it more than even Aaron realized (he thought we simply skated through our vacation there with nary an issue).

Could we have survived both Japan and Costa Rica without any secondary language?  Sure.  Am I glad I had it anyway?  Absolutely.  Even if all we could do was read a few words here and there, our understanding of our surroundings were greatly augmented by our preparation.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

Learning a new language is daunting and extraordinarily difficult.  But it’s incredibly rewarding.  Besides, I have found I’ve learned a lot about my own language because of foreign studies.  It also stretches your brain and opens the door for alternate thinking.  And I’ve always believed if one truly has a legitimate interest in visiting a location, some meager effort should be put forth to at least attempt to learn some of the language.  You’ll ultimately get more out of your visit, you’ll feel more comfortable while there, and you might just make someone’s day when they discover you cared enough to try.

So even if you have a few languages under your belt, if you aspire to travel the world, there’s no better time to whip out your Duolingo and quiz yourself on some new vocabulary from your next destination.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2015

How many languages do you speak?  How have these helped you in your travels?

Oregon Solar Eclipse 2017

A solar eclipse is something I have always wanted to see, but never really expected to. Especially not right in my home state of Oregon, where I live within 50 miles from totality! I have seen plenty of lunar eclipses which are a lot more common, but no where near as cool. This hasn’t happened here in nearly 100 years, so I would consider it a “once in a lifetime” event. And it definitely lived up to my expectations and beyond.


The Location

We were somewhere between Mt. Jefferson and Mt. Hood in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon. To get to the top of this mountain, you ascend 1,360 feet in 2.4 miles. We were trying to avoid the crowds of Eastern Oregon and ended up camping near this location without any problems or fees. It afforded us 360 degree views of the area, and provided an excellent vantage of Mt. Hood to our North. We expected very few to know of this “secret” location, and found out we were wrong. But considering other options in the area like iconic Smith Rock and anywhere in Madras, this was not crowded in comparison.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

The Event

We spent a lot of time getting our cameras set up and then slowly watched through our solar glasses as the moon began to overtake the sun. The light slowly disappeared over the next hour as we waited in excitement. I had two cameras taking video while Brianna had her two cameras going for all phases of the eclipse. The wind started picking up and then it got really dark fast as the last sliver of sun slowly disappeared. Everyone around us erupted with wow and every equivalent word to express their awe of the surroundings and the view above.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

We were all taken back by the surreal magnificence of the totality, taking our cheesy glasses off and looking up with our own eyes unfiltered. The darkness was eerie and it was surrounded by what looked like sunset on all horizons. I felt small, and somewhat insignificant compared to the big universe out there. The moon put me in my place compared to the vast expanse of infinite light above. For two minutes, we were without the sun to warm us. The moon cooled our location by 10 degrees Fahrenheit very quickly. To think we would be nothing without that bright orange bulb up there is kinda scary when put in perspective.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017Final Thoughts

The eclipse left me feeling awed and inspired. It put me in my place in the world and reminded me how life is fleeting and now is the time to make the most of it. Any moment could be your last breath and you shouldn’t take it for granted. There are so many amazing things to see out there, and I am ready to see them first hand. This was my first eclipse and it certainly won’t be my last. There are groups of photographers that travel the world chasing eclipses. When we travel the world, we may find ourselves in the path of totality once again. The next to hit the U.S. will be in 2024 and there is a pretty good chance we will be there to see it again. See more photography at Brianna’s photography blog at LotsaSmilesPhoto.com.

Here is a short video of our viewing of the eclipse.

Costa Rica: The Story of Rico

Now, this is just a fun little story from Costa Rica I wanted to share with you.

Our resort in Puntarenas featured nightly shows.  Between spectacular dance numbers, a small comedy troupe entertained the audience with humorous sketches and bits.

We met who we’d later come to call Rico on our first night, when he mimed a complex drum solo, complete with slapstick shenanigans.  This was one of the few acts I could fully enjoy because it had zero dialog.

We soon discovered he frequently had the word, “Rico” written in sharpie across his belly.  We were never quite sure why, though it did earn him our nickname.  He also wasn’t the only one; one of his stage partners often sported a shirt featuring the word “Tamarico.”

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

We also learned that these nightly shows finished with a focus on audience birthdays, where any celebrating a birthday could ascend the stage and receive their special happy birthday song.

Of course, Aaron was excited, knowing he’d have a chance on stage later that week (after all, we went to Costa Rica to celebrate his big milestone).

We talked about Rico’s latest antics daily.  Though most was lost in translation, we managed to extract just enough words from his acts to piece together a general gist.  Aaron took a liking to his comedic style (despite the limited understanding).

So when the big day came, in good, Aaron fashion, he chose to fully play up his five minutes.  He had me write “RICO” on his own belly, which he planned to reveal on stage (fortunately, I just happen to keep a sharpie in my purse).

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

But when the moment came, Rico wasn’t there.  Though Aaron was ecstatic at Tamarico’s head-thrown-back laughter, he was disappointed Rico couldn’t see it firsthand.

So I decided to share his pre-fame picture on Rico’s comedian Facebook page.  I accompanied it with this message:

We visited Costa Rica for my husband’s 40th birthday, and we stayed at the Doubletree. We had an absolute blast and looked forward to the shows there every night. And while we couldn’t understand most of what you said onstage, you gained a new fan with Aaron 🙂

¡Gracias para las risas!

I was sure he’d get a kick out of it.

But the next day came and went without any indication he noticed the post.  I knew he did shows late into the night, so I gave it time.  But I saw him add new posts to his page, and still nothing.  Perhaps I had overestimated his reaction.

Almost a week went by, and still I saw nothing.

And then, late the following Saturday, I got the notification that he “loved” my post and commented on it.  He then proceeded to share the post directly on his timeline – twice.  First, he did a straight share, accompanied with “something nice to share.”  He then screen-captured the picture, posting this:

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

See that translation?

Seeing that we had brought some real joy to this person half a world away was so incredibly gratifying.  I couldn’t stop smiling.

Who would have thought such a tiny act could make him so happy and, in turn, me?  It just goes to show that the smallest things really do matter most.  Happiness is contagious and strongest when given.

And all it took was a little bit of sharpie.

Jungle Canopy Tours in Costa Rica – Helpful tips

Whenever you imagine Costa Rica, you automatically think about waterfalls, exotic birds, sloths, crocodiles, snakes, and those cute (but deadly) frogs. You may wonder where the best place and time is to go see these things. While we were in Costa Rica, we went on two canopy tours and there were so many others we did not have a chance to see. Here are some helpful tips based on our time there.
Continue reading “Jungle Canopy Tours in Costa Rica – Helpful tips”

Costa Rican Food

We often say we merely travel for the food.  When scoping out a new place to visit, one of the first things we look for is good food.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

Tokyo was like that; we just wanted to eat everything we saw in anime.  Seriously, I went to Japan with a food bucket list.  We deliberately sought out taiyaki and ramen, and we really did just go to Osaka for the food (okonomiyaki followed immediately by takoyaki).  We looked forward to the amazing breakfasts served at our ryokan, and we couldn’t get enough of all the little street vendors.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

The truth is: we’re from Portland.  Portland is a serious foodie town, and we’re no exception.  We love to eat.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

So when we went to Costa Rica, I couldn’t wait to find out what kind of food they would have.  With this trip being largely a surprise, and with no anime to provide clues, I didn’t know what to expect.  I suspected tropical fruits and perhaps something with a Spanish flair.

We quickly found out that rice and beans are their thing.  Served with every meal, it provides the foundation of their diet.  We had it with our morning omelets and for lunch.  We had it before venturing out to Isla Tortuga and after our canopy tour.  And at our resort, we could count on it having a permanent spot on the buffet line.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

The resort of course offered other delicacies, and we ate almost all of our meals there.  They were included, for one, so that saved on costs.  But we also discovered that they actually served really good food.  Tamales, plantains, steak, salad, rice, pork, fish.  This wasn’t your run-of-the-mill Sizzler; they had top-class chefs pumping out phenomenal meals en masse.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

They also didn’t take the easy route of figuring out one menu and feeding that into a nightly rinse and repeat.  No; every day had fresh offerings.  And very much like the shows also offered by the resort, each night featured a theme, complete with appropriate decorations and music.  We saw Costa Rican food, Spanish food, Japanese, ocean, Mexican, French – and everything was done well.

And if we ever tired of the offerings there, there were two additional restaurants on the resort premises.  These were even a step above the buffet (if that’s possible), meals that would typically be reserved for a very special occasion.  Check out this seafood platter I ordered (I couldn’t resist)!

Even the snacks passed around the pool were amazing.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

And the desserts!  We ate so much because we wanted to try absolutely everything… and then we shoved everything aside so we could squeeze in some of the delectable desserts.  These differed each day, too, so I couldn’t even trust rotating through them over the course of the week.  Like the beans and rice, rice pudding seemed to be a dessert staple, so once I tried that by itself, I had the brilliant idea of trying the warm concoction over some ice cream – yum!

In fact, we were only disappointed with one meal, and that’s only because we missed the official buffet time.  The poolside cantina sadly left much to be desired after all we had come to expect; this “calzone” served with french fries (yeah) was dry, chewy, and greasy.  Needless to say, we learned to not miss mealtime again.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

Forgiving that, even the meals we had away from the resort were delicious (and accompanied by beans and rice).  The soda served authentic streetside comfort food, and our B&B in Alujuela was simply superb.  Aside from the one meal, we were met with only yummy food.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

Seriously, I think we could just eat ourselves around the world.  I love a variety of cuisines, and I’m fortunate to live in a town rife with restaurants and food carts catering to just that.  I admit I’ll miss that beans and rice staple, in all of its minor variations.  And I can’t wait to see what other countries have to offer our taste buds.  Until then, I’ll sample what I can locally and dream of the foreign culinary excellence from afar.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017