Holiday Gifts That Give Back

The Huffington Post Style, November 2015. Before you hit the Black Friday rush, or join thousands of other citizens on a month-long shopping spree, browse through this meaningful holiday gift guide. These products will not only bring happiness to your friends and family, but also impact someone in need. From chocolates, toys, pet supplies, jewelry, apparel, handicrafts, and mattresses, to sporting goods and more, these would fit within every budget, and can be easily purchased online.

The social enterprises listed below give back either a portion of the revenues to a cause, donate an item for an item sold, or directly invest in people by creating meaningful job opportunities. This season, make a pledge to beat the crowds and share the joy of the holiday season by purchasing gifts that also give back.

1. Accessories That Do Good

Accessories by For Goodness Sake show inspiring messages that remind people to give everyday. Enabling people to shop with purpose, this lifestyle brand provides a sustainable funding solution to its philanthropic partners by donating a minimum of 25% of net proceeds of every purchase. Donations made through the platform aid the underserved and support important health, environmental and educational initiatives. $20-1,500 at www.forgoodsake.org

2. Chocolates That Feed The World

Seattle Chocolate Company, offers a full line of premium chocolates that includes truffle bars, truffles, jcoco bars, in handcrafted flavors, like black fig pistachio, edamame sea salt, and agave quinoa sesame. The ingredients are all-natural, sustainably sourced, GMO free, and certified Kosher. For every jcoco chocolate purchase made online or in stores, SCC partners with Food Banks in New York City, Greater Boston Food Bank, SF-Marin Food Bank and Northwest Harvest, to provide food assistance to local communities in need across America. $1.75-78.95 at www.seattlechocolates.com

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3. An Outlet by Disabled Artists

Custom order a painting with your favorite pet or person’s profile. Chicago based Project Onward, is a nonprofit studio and gallery for professional artists with mental and developmental disabilities. There are very few opportunities for disabled artists who graduated from the city’s art program, and the organization provides them workspace, materials, professional guidance, exhibition opportunities and access to markets. The 60 resident artists represent 30+ Chicago neighborhoods. $25 – $7,000 at www.projectonward.org

4. Hostess Gifts That Fight AIDS

Support the global fight against AIDS with Alessi (PRODUCT) RED Special Edition Collection, comprised of elegant kitchenware and home goods. Led by chef Mario Batali and supported by more than 50 leading chef Ambassadors worldwide, the campaign rallies the culinary world around the goal of delivering an AIDS Free Generation, with Michelin-starred restaurants, food trucks and everyone in between offering special (RED) menu items during the month. $18-110 at www.alessi.com

Ana and Alessandro

5. Sweaters From The Largest Slum in Kenya

Slumlove classic sweaters for men and women are made sustainabily with 100% cotton. All products are made by people living in the largest slum in Kenya, called Kibera. The employees are treated with respect, given fare wages, plus a portion of every purchase is used towards educating the children in Kenya. $95 at www.slumlove.com

6. Books That Teach Animal Welfare

Children’s books Kamie Cat’s Terrible Night and Pablo Puppy’s Search for the Perfect Person illustrate the important healing potential that animals can offer. All proceeds from the books go to support the work of Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), a non-profit charitable organization founded in 1951 and dedicated to reducing animal suffering caused by people. $4 at www.awionline.org

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7. Bikes for Empowerment

Stylish and high performance Miir Bicycles come in different designs and sizes for kids, teen and adults. For each bicycle purchased from MiiR, a bike is donated to someone in need, to be used for access to education or employment. To date MiiR has helped to empower over 3,000 people with bicycles. $139-1,395 at www.miir.com

8. Pet Toys That Rescue Homeless Animals

PetSmart’s Luv-A-Pet Collection including Luv-A-Pet Lucky Dog and Chance plush toys, holiday-themed apparel with adorable sayings like Rescue Love Adopt, Best Present Ever, are great to give your furry family member or the animal lover in your life. 10 percent of the purchases of Luv-A-Pet rescue products will be donated to PetSmart Charities to help save homeless pets this holiday season. $3.99-$23.99 at www.petsmart.com

Brand: LUV-A-PET PB  Description: HOL15 SANTAS CUTEST RESCUE TEE M  SKU: 5241204, 5241203, 5241202, 5241201,   Group: Hardgoods   Buyer: Brooke Chaleff   WCA: Kellie Gonzalez

9. Wallets That Empower Women

The Eyerusalem Passport leather wallet by FASHIONABLE is hand crafted in Ethiopia by women who have overcome challenges ranging from prostitution to addiction to a lack of opportunity. FASHIONABLE invests in women and helps them find purpose in the work they do. The online store also sells jewelry, scarves, leather bags and home goods. $35 at www.livefashionable.com

10. Glasses That Give The Gift of Vision

Reduce digital eye strain while using computers and smartphones with these adjustable Interface glasses. With the turn of a dial, users can adjust the focus themselves from -6 to +3 diopters. In fact, Interface glasses can be adjusted to improve vision for 90% of eyeglass and contact lens wearers who do not have astigmatism. Through the Buy One Give One program, administered by Vision for a Nation(r), a pair of focus eyeglasses is donated to people in Rwanda. $49.99 at www.adlens.com

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11. Backpacks That Support Education
Teach your kids to learn, explore and change the world, with high quality and fun
Backpacks by Sydney Paige. For every Sydney Paige backpack sold, another one is filled with school supplies and donated to low income children in need. You can show your kids how to enrich lives with education and break the poverty cycle. $40-80 at www.sydneypaigeinc.com
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12. Baskets of Peace for Rwanda
Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, Macy’s Rwanda Path to Peace program includes colorful and symbolic baskets and bowls, handmade by Rwandan weavers who survived the country’s civil war and genocide. The baskets have led not only to peace between Hutu and Tutsi tribes, but also between men and women. $30-60 at www.macys.com

13. Fashion That Empowers Afghan Refugees

Raven + Lily’s Pakistan collection features hand embroidered eco-friendly dresses and tops, and empowers Afghan refugees living in the Pakistan region to help improve their livelihood. Raven + Lily currently helps employ over 1,500 marginalized women at fair trade wages to give them access to a safe job, sustainable income, health care, education, and a real chance to to break the cycle of poverty for themselves and their families. $99-232 at www.ravenandlily.com

14. Ethical and Wildlife Friendly Chocolates

Nuubia hand-makes San Francisco based specialty confections, is the first chocolatier to not only refuse to use palm oil, but to insure that what they make has no negative impact on the rainforests of the world. The OMG Candy Barwas awarded “Best Foods in the U.S.” by Esquire Magazine, and other products that standout include fresh squeezed Lime Juice with Vanilla Bonbons, Caramelized Hazelnut Spread Sauce, and Johnny Walker Black Espresso Ganache Half Spheres. $4.99-65.00 at www.nuubiasf.com

15. Mattresses That Care For The Earth

Leesa Sleep is an American-made, high-quality mattress that is more supportive than latex and memory foam and ideal for any body type. With its One-Ten program in place, Leesa donates one mattress to a local shelter for every 10 sold. Also, Leesa’s One-Earth Program plants one tree for every mattress that is sold. Approximately, over 1,500 mattresses will be donated to shelters and 20,000 trees will be planted by the end of 2015. $525-990 at www.leesa.com

16. Inspiring Jewelry to End Homelessness 

The precious metals necklaces by The Giving Keys come in sterling silver, 24k gold, and black rhodium, and share empowering messages such as STRENGTH, BRAVE, DREAM, etc. Based in Los Angeles, The Giving Keys’ mission is to end homelessness by partnering with organizations to provide housing and employment. $32-125 at www.thegivingkeys.com

17. Loungewear to End Human Trafficking in India

PUNJAMMIES™ are cotton loungewearbottoms that come in trendy colors and patterns. They are made by women in India who have escaped human trafficking. Proceeds go to provide housing and education for women and their children, as well as job security and a sense of self worth. $47.99 at www.sudara.org
18. Leather Bags That Help Kids in Rwanda
The Rawhide Crossbody Bag by Love41 is a unique gift for any girlfriend, mother or grandmother. 100% of profits from this bag go back to helping orphans, widows and street kids in Rwanda via Africa New Life Ministries (ANLM). There are also beautiful crafted leather ornaments, jewelry, totes, and luggage available on the website that support the same cause. $129 at www.love41.com

19. Gifts That Impact Children Around The World

Honor loved ones by making a meaningful donation in their name and supporting everything from poverty in USA, farming assistance in Uganda, to clean water in Niger. You may also purchase handcrafted gifts such as these Filipino coasters, through the World Vision Gift Catalog, which supports a variety of World Vision’s programs around the world. $65 at www.worldvision.org

20. Fashion Jewelry That Fights Childhood Cancer 

Inspired by the iconic elephant, a symbol of family, strength and good luck, Ann Taylor’s new Limited-Edition Elephant Jewelry Collectionis a wonderful gift for a special woman, that also gives back. From November 13, 2015 to January 30, 2016, Ann Taylor will donate 50% of the purchase price of each item sold from its collection to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, that strives to educate and fight childhood cancer and other life-threatening diseases. $39.50 – 59.50 at www.AnnTaylor.com

21. Winter Jacket That Alleviates Poverty

This stylish outdoor Tianjin Down Jacket by Cotopaxi will not only keep you warm though the winter, but also help alleviate global poverty. Cotopaxi gives targeted grants to advance health, education, and livelihoods initiatives around the world. Their products include all-weather jackets, ski gear, backpacks and outdoor accessories that make for good gifts for adventurous men and women. $249.95 at www.cotopaxi.com
22. Stationery That Gives Back to Schools
These fun and colorful stationery and office supplies make learning fun for your kids and those in need. Many kids in the U.S. don’t have access to basic school supplies unless teachers pay for them out of their own pockets. For every Yoobi item purchased on their website or in Target stores nationwide, Yoobi donates an item to a Classroom Pack which contain hundreds of essential tools kids need to learn and then distributed to classrooms in need. In one year, Yoobi has donated enough free school supplies to impact more than 1 million students nationwide.
Holiday bundles $15-40 at www.yoobi.com
 23. Cell Phone Cases That Empower Women in Africa
Africa themed iPhone and Samsung cases by Kidogo Kidogo make for great stocking stuffers. The profits are used to buy mobile phones for women in rural Tanzania. These phones help women support their families, run businesses, and stay informed. By providing a small mobile phone, the community in many ways is positively impacted, as the women feel more empowered, are able to work and support their families. $28 at www.kidogokidogo.com

24. A Gift Box That Feeds Twice

Looking for the perfect gifts for coworkers? The wine and cheese collection by That’s Caringcomes with a bottle of California Cabernet Sauvignon, White Blend or Sparkling, along with gourmet cheese spreads and toasts. For every gift purchased, That’s Caring provides meals to children in need through food banks in the US. There are also chocolate, coffee, tea and confectionary themed gift boxes available. $49.99 at www.thatscaring.com

25. Fair-Trade Gift Boxes That Support Global Communities

You may not be able to afford a trip abroad every month of the year. But what if the world was delivered to your door? Pumeli is a monthly subscription box filled with teas and textures designed to help busy women slow down, unplug and give themselves permission to relax. Pumeli works with small businesses and craft producers on different levels to bring well-designed and high quality products. $49.95 at www.pumeli.com

26. Fashion Jewelry to End Modern Day Slavery

Great stocking stuffers and gifts for women, these under $50 pieces of costume jewelry comes in beautiful designs, along with the name of the female artist who made them. Purpose Jewelry is an Orange County based jewelry line that is handcrafted by survivors of modern-day slavery in Mumbai, India and Orange County, California. 100% of proceeds benefit International Sanctuary, the brand’s non-profit that provides holistic care for young women rescued from sex trafficking. $38 at www.purposejewelry.org

27. Belts That Give a Hand Up

Mission Belt gift sets are great for men who want practical yet styling leather and nylon belts, that can go from the office to the golf club. Comes in different colors, as well as an assortment of licensed NBA, NHL and NCAA belts. A dollar from every belt sold goes to fight global hunger and poverty. To date, over 26K Kiva (peer-to-peer micro lending) micro-loans have been funded from the sales of Mission Belts. $99.95 at www.missionbelt.com

28. Pencils That Help The Environment

The Sprout pencil is an ingenious way to teach your kids about sustainability. Instead of throwing away pencil stubs, kids can plant them and have them grow into something delicious, beautiful, and fun, such as herb or flower gardens. Pencil are available in color as well. $8.45-20.95 at www.sproutworld.com
29. Golf Balls That Care for Kids
Most golfers don’t know which ball is the right ball for them. With Nicklaus Black, Nicklaus Blue, and Nicklaus White, all they need to know is the tee to play from. 18-time Major Champion, Jack Nicklaus, offers his famous Nicklaus Golf Balls, where $1 is donated to both Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation and St. Jude Children’s Hospital for every dozen purchased. For every order shipped using FedEx, an additional $1 is donated to St. Jude. $28 -32 at www.shop.nicklaus.com
30. Casual Ware That Does Good for Animals

The fun apparel, tote bags and accessoriesfrom Farfetched Apparel are great gifts for animal lovers. 100% of proceeds from their #DOGood campaign go to support animal shelters.
$29.00-54.99 at www.farfetchedapparel.com
31. Help Keep People on Their Feet

As you are shopping for trendy winter boots and booties or just everyday shoes, consider Vionic Shoes. Innovative and stylish, these suede booties feature advanced comfort technology and go from the office to a dinner out. Vionic donates through their Vionic Supports program to various charities and the Dr. Weil Foundation Recently, Vionic donated 1,200 shoes raising $50k for ovarian cancer research, and 1,000 supportive slippers at the AVON39 walk for breast cancer.
$149.95 at www.vionicshoes.com
32. Quilts That Save Traditions in India

Gift a rare and beautiful handmade lotus block print quilt and become a part of history. There are only two families in India left who do this traditional form of hand weaving. The cotton is sourced from organic farmers, dyes are plant and vegetable based, and each product is sown by hand to create a product that is environment friendly. Ichcha was founded by three sisters to encourage conscious living and support traditional craftsmen and women across India.
$200 at www.ichcha.com
33. Guatemalan Handbags That Support Down Syndrome

These limited edition, beautiful, handmade bags,have been named for the inspirational Madeline Stuart, the first globally-recognized model with Down syndrome. 5% of proceeds from The Madeline line of handbags, are donated to the National Down Syndrome Society. EveryMaya donates a portion of every sale to Education for the Children, a school in Jocotenango, Guatemala which provides education, nutrition, healthcare, counseling, and career guidance to local children from disadvantaged upbringings. $120 at www.evermaya.com
34. Scarf That Sustains Women in Peru

This classic 100% natural alpaca wool scarf is sourced from the Andes, and crocheted by local Peruvian women who are employing their unique skills in order to become self sufficient and earn a steady income. From handcrafted fashion accessories and jewelry made by a father in Lao, to one-of-a-kind home and décor essentials created by artists in Nairobi, each piece on Enrou tells a beautiful story of the person who created it and directly impacts the growth and development of his or her community. Many products start at only $9. $220 at www.enrou.com
35. Baskets That Help Indigenous Artisans in Mexico

Globein—an artisan gifting baskets can be purchased in colorful patterns or ordered filled with items from around the world that give back to the community and have a corresponding story. From Mexican woven baskets, Palestinian spice mixes, and South African bottle stoppers, to Ghanaian coasters, each handcrafted good is highly curated and made by struggling artists. Each month features a different theme and a membership allows you to gift someone a taste of the world throughout the year. $12 at www.globein.com
All Rights Reserved

All Rights Reserved

36. Knit Dolls That Help Feed Kids

Made of 100% cotton yarn and stuffed with hypoallergneic polyfill, these nontoxic handmade dolls by cuddle+kind will become your child’s favorite toy to cuddle with this holiday season. For every cuddle+kind doll purchase, 10 meals will be donated to children in need through World Food Program USA and Children’s Hunger Fund. $55 at www.cuddleandkind.com

8 of the Best Culinary Experiences in the Cultural Melting Pot of Israel

The Huffington Post. Nov 2015.

“There is no such thing as Israeli cuisine,” said Chef Roy Sofer at the hip Italian Bindela Restaurant in Tel Aviv. Over the next ten days, every person I spoke to in Israel gave me a similar answer. Just like the U.S., Israel is a melting pot of cultures and cuisines. Everyone here is from someplace else, and they have brought along traditional ingredients, spices and cooking methods that have become part of the new Israeli gastronomy.

There are a few dishes that you can say are true to Israel, but most bear some resemblance to something you may have tasted in Italy, France, Spain, Russia, Poland, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Iraq, or Bulgaria. Israel’s immigrant population has given way to a multinational restaurant scene. There is a wide range of sophisticated French and Italian bistros, casual American bars, as well as more sushi restaurants per capita (in Tel Aviv) than in any city in the world, including Tokyo.

Although half of this small country is a dessert, Israel produces 95% of its food. With the availability of the finest quality of olives, dates, nuts, pomegranates, avocados, citrus fruits, high-yielding dairy, and a variety of fish from the Mediterranean Sea, eating has become the national pastime.

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Israel is developing as a vital culinary destination. Here are the top eight culinary experiences to have while traveling in this cosmopolitan country…

1. Go Around the World in Tel Aviv – This vibrant city is packed with students and entrepreneurs who love to eat, drink and party. The international restaurant scene in Tel Aviv is comparable to most major cities of the world. There is also a new trend of chef-owned restaurants where experimentation is encouraged, perhaps led by the popularity of cooking shows and top chef competitions.

At Bindella, we see a play on Israeli cuisine with Italian dishes, such as the Tuscan cauliflower salad which resembles tabbouleh. Messa suggests a South Beach style ambiance, serving complicated European dishes that look like works of art. Chef Yuval Ben Neriah of Taizu Asian restaurant has put Asian-Mediterranean on the map introducing diners to tandoori calamari and hummus rissoles.

Vegan and vegetarian restaurants have also grown in popularity. Nana Schreier of the vegan restaurant Nanuchka features food from the Republic of Georgia, who is famous for her khinkali (Georgian stuffed dumplings).

You could easily spend your entire trip visiting amazing restaurants in Tel Aviv alone, but you might make the most of your tour by attending the annual Taste of Tel Aviv Food Festivalin the spring.

2. Shop at Carmel Market or Shuk HaCarmel in Tel Aviv – One of the oldest areas in the city, this is where the locals go shopping for fresh baked bread, cheeses, meats, fish, pastries, fruits, and vegetables. You may browse around the market on your own for few hours or ask Delicious Israel founder Moran Broza to take you to some establishments that you may not be able to find on your own.

During my walk, we visited a 100-plus-year-old Syrian bakery that did not have a name or showcase window. You simply walked in and picked up what you needed, such as bourekas out of the oven or Syrian cookies. Broza can also take you to the famous hummus hotspots and show you the proper way to eat this popular chickpea dip.

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3. Wine Tasting in Upper Galilee – For 3,000 years, wine has been a part of the celebration of Jewish holidays and the Sabbath. The industry was given a boost by France’s Baron Edmond de Rothschild and in a few decades, the production and flavor of wine in Israel had reached the highest international levels of quality. In 2008, the influential U.S. magazine Wine Spectator published a wide feature on Israeli wine and summed it up by affirming that “Israel’s wines are world class.”

Now, there are more than 200 wineries in Israel, producing excellent red and white vintages and sparkling wines. The non-profit organization Western Galilee Now allows you to create a custom day trip to the Western Galilee where you can stop for wine, beer, arak, honey, cheese, and ice cream tastings at your own pace. Routes are also mapped out so you can follow different historic and scenic trails.

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4. Cheese Tasting in Rosh Pinah – Taste farm-fresh milk, cream, yogurt, and 26 varieties of handmade boutique sheep, cow or goat cheeses, including Zfatit, Feta, Labneh, Mt. Hermon Goa, Casu, Tomme, Manchego, Emmental, Gruyère and more at Mizpe Hayamim Hotel in Rosh Pina.

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Dairy farms in Israel produce the highest amounts of milk per animal in the world. Sheep milk is used for cheese making and also imported. Mizpe Hayamim Hotel is a hotel, spa and organic farm where you can meet the farm animals, feed the baby goats, and taste their products at the hotel’s meat and vegetarian restaurants, as well as confectionery and bakery. Overnight guests come here to enjoy the natural surroundings overlooking the Sea of Galilee and stay in luxurious accommodations.

5. Cooking Lesson in the House of a Druze – Before visiting Pnina at her home in Maghar village through GalilEat, I didn’t know much about Druze cooking, or even their culture for that matter. During this 3-hour class, Pnina, a home chef, showed me how to make stuffed grape leaves using vines from her garden; majadara – lentils and bulgar pilaf; sinye – meat kebabs cooking in tahini; and a variety of salads. I spent the afternoon frying zalabya, a seeded flour bread, in her kitchen, and then enjoyed a nice dinner with her and her daughters, in her family dining room which overlooked the village. GalilEat helps coordinate authentic Galilean workshops at homes of Arabs and Druze, which helps the women gain employment, as well as share their culture with tourists.

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6. Learn the Fishing Ropes in Acco (Acre) – Located on the Mediterranean Sea, 12 miles from the Lebanese border, is the most famous seafood restaurant in Israel. A meal at Uri Buri Fish Restaurant is a must, but you can make it a tour by staying at historic Efendi Hotel in Acco, and indulging in the ancient city experience. From buying and handling seafood, shopping at the markets in Acco, learning about the spices and medicines during the Crusades, and preparing simple yet flavorful recipes, author, chef and proprietor Uri Yirmias shares his experience from over 30 years of cooking through guided tours.

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7. Taste the History in the Old City of Jerusalem – This holiest place in the world is also home to the largest diversity that can be found within .35 square miles. Just walking through the different quarters of the Old City, you will find an eclectic mix of people, art, shops, and of course, food! In the Muslim Quarter, taste Middle Eastern and Mediterranean foods such as falafel, shwarma, grilled meats, knafeh, and baklava.

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In the Jewish quarter, you will find lots of cafés serving jelly donuts, bagels, salads, and deli sandwiches. This is also a great place to try Kosher steakhouses. Catch a great view of the Old City from The Quarter Café where they serve kosher dairy and seafood. Lina is a famous hummus-only restaurant in the Christian Quarter. The Armenian quarter is lined with hip bars, traditional restaurants, and boutiques. The Armenian Tavern is located inside a 1000-year-old building that was once a part of a Crusader cloister, where you can try lachmanjun (Armenian-style meat pizzas), basturma (dried spiced meat), and Armenian variations on shishlik.

8. Get Shuk Bites at Mahane Yehuda Market aka Shuk Mahane Yehuda – Over 250 vendors sell ingredients as well as cooked foods here. Many of the establishments have been around since the market opened. They serve Moroccan, Yemenite, Russian, Turkish, and Czech recipes passed on through generations.

Purchase the Shuk Bites tasting card for only 99 Shekels ($25), which gives you access to six generous size tastings. You will be full, but there would be a lot more your eyes can feast on. Plan to spend one or two days here if you are a real foodie!

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In the evening, “the shuk” becomes a popular hangout spot with restaurants, bars, and live music. Have dinner at the namesake restaurant Mahaneyehuda where the chefs cook while dancing and drinking shots, creating some of the most amazing Israeli food served in a very casual and friendly setting.

The Many Faces of Sustainable Tourism – My Week in Bali

huffpost-travel

October 2015

Do you know the difference between ecotourism, sustainable travel, responsible travel and volunteer vacationing? While there is a lot of overlap with each of these terms, they all have one common theme – that is to improve lives through travel and tourism.

On a recent Yoga Retreat in Bali, Indonesia through international nonprofit, Go Eat Give, I experienced an all encompassing meaningful holiday where we actually supported the community we visited in many different ways, perhaps without even realizing it.

Ecotourism – “Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” (TIES, 1990)

Most visitors to Bali either head to the beach resorts of Kuta, or the hippie city center of Ubud. Our accommodations were at Puri Gangga Resort and Spa, a 4-star 20-bedroom property located in the highland village of Sebatu (about 30 minutes from downtown Ubud) in East Bali. Enclosed by rice paddies and forests, the resort was a peaceful oasis overlooking Gunung Kawi Sebatu, a tranquil temple with gardens, and ponds full of blooming lotuses and enormous carps.

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The resort was small, yet charming. It blended well with the peaceful environment and embodied nature into everyday living. From the fishpond at the reception, the stone pathways leading to the rooms, to the open-air restaurant, I always felt the presence of life surrounding me. Even my luxurious villa had thatched roofs that naturally repelled mosquitos and furniture made of Indonesian teak wood. My bathroom was huge, boasting great views of the surrounding paddies, and had a partially open roof in the shower. When it rained, the water just drained off into the rocks and plants around my toilet. I felt I had the luxury of indoor plumbing, set in an all-natural ambiance.

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Each morning I woke up at the crack of dawn to the sounds of birds chirping and roosters crowing. I walked along the infinity pool in the morning mist of the forest, to attend my yoga class. At 7am, a few early risers gathered in a spacious room with open windows facing east on one side, and west on the other. This week, we practiced meditation and graceful poses, using The Warrior of Light by Paulo Coelho as a spiritual guide.

Sustainable Dining – Food which is healthier for people and the planet.” (SustainableFood.com)

A relaxed yoga session was followed by breakfast at the resort’s restaurant, Kailasha, with a bird’s eye view of the temple below. The 3-course breakfast service included a plate of fresh cut tropical fruits, Indonesian coffee or tea, and tropical juices squeezed to order. A woven basket full of assorted baked breads arrived with pineapple and strawberry jams made on premise. Options for Western and Balinese style breakfasts were presented – coconut pisang rai (steamed bananas), Martabak sayur (savory stuffed pancake), Nasi Goreng (fried rice), Dadar Gulung (sweet coconut pancake), or eggs and toast. Like most Balinese families, the restaurant bought all the ingredients very early in the morning, many of which were picked from the adjacent farms.

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I returned to Kailasha restaurant for dinner a few times, and enjoyed healthy, fresh and delicious local flavors. Baby spinach dressed with sunflower sprout and tossed in virgin coconut oil was the perfect Nature Healing Salad, while the main course, Balinese Tipat Cantok – rice cakes with steamed beans, carrots, bean sprouts and peanut sauce, made for the most scrumptious vegetarian treat.

Cultural Tourism – A discerning type of tourism that takes account of other people’s cultures. (UNESCO)

My intention of living in the village was not only to decompress, but also experience the authentic life in Bali. At the resort I stayed, there were activities designed to do just that. Puri Gangga offers a “Living in Culture” package that includes accommodations with daily yoga, afternoon tea, massages, and several cultural activities.

Some of the evenings, young Balinese dancers and Gamelan players would be invited from the village to perform for the guests at the resort. Watching talented girls of 8-10 years of age up close, dressed in their colorful costumes, and synchronizing their eyeballs with the music, was simply mesmerizing. I looked around and noticed the reaction of all the other spectators – fixated on their camera lenses, wanting to capture every single moment of this special treat.

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I learned to make Balinese Canang Sari, an offering where we weaved palm leaves and decorate the square shaped plate with bowls. It took me almost an hour to make one, and every Hindu household on the island makes 20-50 of these each day! While walking around the streets, you will see these offerings left at the doorsteps of businesses and homes after being blessed at the temples.

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During the village tour, I visited the workshops and homes of local artists. Everyone I came across was busy working on some craft they had honed – be it sculpting stone statues, decorating wooden carvings, painting wicker boxes, or weaving baskets. Many of the products looked familiar, as I had seen them in the markets. It’s hard to conceptualize the time and labor behind the knick-knacks we pick up as souvenirs, and understand that someone’s livelihood may be entirely dependent on our purchase.

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Sustainable Tourism – Travel that attempts to minimize its impact on the environment and local culture so that it will be available for future generations, while contributing to generate income, employment, and the conservation of local ecosystems. (World Tourism Organization)

Everyone who worked at this resort was a member of Sebatu village, so my dollars spent remained mostly in the area. I visited the homes of a hotel’s staff – a petite girl in her early 20’s who taught yoga, led people on tours and conducted cultural lessons. She she lived with 50 of her family members in a compound where she had a little house of two rooms. Her parents slept in the kitchen, while she had a tiny windowless room to herself. When one of my friends gave her a generous tip of $100, she was super excited and narrated how she would purchase books for her younger sister, give some money to her mother, put some aside, as well as help with the temple maintenance. Imagine what a 21-year old in the western world would do with $100 in cash!

I also signed up for a Balinese cooking class at Paon Bali Cooking School, where aunty Puspa and her husband, Wayan run an enterprise out of their home in another nearby village. He picks up the guests, shows them around the rice paddies and brings them to their home, where Puspa teaches visitors how to cook 10 Balinese dishes in one session! Over the years, through the growth of their business, they have been able to employ many of their relatives and neighbors, who would otherwise be selling art on the streets for pennies. Here they get to walk to work, eat whatever they want, and have fun teaching tourists about their native cuisine.

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Batik is an ancient art form made with wax resistant dye on fabrics. Batik in Indonesia is perhaps the best known and an important part of their heritage. I decided to take a lesson in Batik at the home studio of a local artist, Widya where I spent about 5-6 hours learning the art from start to finish. I started with a blank piece of white cloth, stenciled a design with a pencil, and then drew it out with wax using a spouted tool called a canting. I wax stamped the borders of the cloth, while one of Widya’s many assistants, who are also excellent artists, help me correct my errors. They showed me my selection of all-natural colors to fill in between the wax. The cloth is then dried in the sun, boiled in hot water to remove the wax, and air-dried again. While I worked diligently to create a masterpiece, Widya’s wife took my lunch order and ran off to the kitchen to cook Gado-Gado (a traditional dish of cabbage, green beans and peanut sauce) and served it with fresh watermelon juice. It takes a lot of patience, good vision and a steady hand to create these pieces, and I was nowhere close to being able to fetch a price for my work! Widya sells his work to shops and galleries around the world. It can take him a week or a month to make a single wall hanging, depending on the intricacy of its design. Like Puspa, he has created a small business at his home to sustain other artists who don’t always get the fame they deserve.

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Volunteer Tourism – “A form of tourism in which travelers participate in voluntary work, typically for a charity: at the core of voluntourism is the desire to help others.” Oxford Dictionary 

Lastly, I spent some time learning about the poverty in Bali’s villages and how it has impacted the children. I met with the staff of Bali Children’s Project (BCP) and learned that many of the families are so poor, that the parents unable to sustain, end up committing suicide. Young kids are left to fend for themselves and end up working on the streets selling cheap souvenirs. I also saw some of their living conditions where a family of 4-5 would sleep in one dingy dark room on a torn mattress with dirty coverings. BCP has enrolled 300 kids to attend school through a sponsorship program, but that is only a fraction of the kids in Bali who need help.

I visited some of the schools where BCP sponsored kids are studying. We spend time doing arts and crafts with third graders. They took to me instantly, calling my name and teaching me words in Balinese. They were eager to show me their work and surrounded me when it came to picture taking time. Despite their circumstances, these kids were very outgoing – smiling, laughing and eager to know me.

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In my short time there, I couldn’t do much except donate some money to purchase beddings and commit to sponsoring two kids till the age of 18. It costs only $40/ month per child, a small sum in comparison to the big difference it can make in the life of a child. By receiving an education, these kids have some chance to break out of the cycle of poverty.

When I think about all the lives that were impacted directly and indirectly because of my 10-day visit to Bali, I am pleased. I feel I was a sustainable traveler, leaving a positive impact on the environment, society and economy.

Following Japan’s Buddhist Trails

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Khabar magazine. Print issue. October 2015

A thousand years ago, the Kunisaki Peninsula, tucked away on the western end of Japan’s Seto Inland Sea, was one of the country’s main centers of Buddhism. Even today, life in Kunisaki is a drastic contrast from Tokyo, with its sleek skyscrapers, neon lights, and high-end luxury malls. Time stands still in Kunisaki, where people in sparsely populated hamlets live a quiet life surrounded by mountains, sprawling farms, and picturesque valleys.

Even the type of Buddhism that thrived in Kunisaki is different from that in the rest of Japan. Strong influences of Shintoism, an ancient religion founded in the belief of shrine worship towards a multitude of gods, can be traced alongside the Buddha’s teachings. A famous monk named Nimom founded the Rokugo-manzan complex in the 8th century, which with its 28 temples and three sub-groupings of temples reflected the Lotus Sutra’s 28 chapters. The Kunisaki Peninsula was considered the mandala of the Lotus Sutra, and for many East Asian Buddhists, the Lotus Sutra contains the ultimate and complete teaching of the Buddha, and the reciting of the text is believed to be very auspicious. On the pilgrimage paths connecting the temples were 69,380 Buddhist statues, one for each Chinese character of the Sutra. Therefore, a monk walking the Kunisaki was essentially reciting scriptures from the Sutra.

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My journey with Walk Japan tours begins in Fukuoka, the seventh largest city in Japan, and a famous port known for its Yatainight food stalls. From here, I take one of the award-winning fast trains to Usa, passing lots of industrial areas, matchbox houses, the hills of Kyushu, and even a nuclear reactor. The tiny open-air train station is my first brush with rural Japan. No one here speaks English and all the signs are in Japanese. Thankfully, I have an American guide, Ted Taylor, who has been living in Kyoto for many years. Ted is a historian and writer, accustomed to Japanese traditions. We take a short cab ride to Yamaga, which appears to be a popular hillside resort among the locals.

We check into a Ryokan, and move to a different one each night. These are traditional Japanese inns with 5-20 rooms, oftentimes run by a local family. While staying at the inns, we have to follow certain Japanese customs. Similar to some South Asian homes, guests in Japan are required to take off their shoes at the entrance to the hotel’s reception and use only the provided slippers. My room number is marked in Japanese and when I walk in, there is no “bedroom” furniture in it, barring a television, refrigerator, a very low tea table, and a cushion placed on the tatami floor. I sleep on a thin mattress (known as futon), and use a comforter and a buckwheat pillow. It appears that the rooms are multifunctional—they could be used for sleeping, dining or meetings, depending on the occasion and capacity. Bathing is only allowed in the nude at the geothermal hot springs or public bathing houses, separated for male and female. After the evening bath, everyone dresses in a Yukata, Japanese dressing gown with a belt and jacket, which is provided to all guests.

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Since there are no restaurants around for miles, the innkeepers prepare scrumptious family style Japanese dinners. We eat endless amounts of fresh sashimi of sea bream, tuna, and salmon, accompanied by miso soup, silken tofu, steamed rice, seaweed salad, and vegetable tempura, washing it down with cups of cold sake. Japanese cooking emphasizes fresh ingredients, no spices, simple preparations, yet elaborate presentations. We have dozens of small bowls placed in front of us, each one with only a bite or two, looking like a piece of art. The Japanese diet is perhaps the healthiest on the planet, ensuring lack of diseases, sharpness of mind, and a long lifespan.

My guide Ted, an elderly couple from Australia, and I begin our trek around the Kunisaki Peninsula at Kumo-ga-take, or Cloud Mountain, as it starts to pour. We go up steep muddy slopes using walking poles. An hour later, we catch sight of the first of many ancient Buddhist statues that are a vivid indication of the rich history of Kunisaki. Our destination is Usa Jingu’s interior shrine, located in the middle of the mountain. A simple rustic building on the peak stands in startling contrast to the scale and opulence of Usa Jingu, which is far below us on a farming plain at the foot of Omoto-san. The shrine deifies the protector god of Japan, Hachiman, who was also instrumental in the development of Buddhism on Kunisaki. Most tourists arrive at the outer shrine by bus or car, while we trek about eight miles on foot in the footsteps of the monks.

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The lakes surrounding Usa Jingu’s beautiful orange gates are adorned by bridges and ducks. The scenery is breathtaking. I recall a recent photo of the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe feeding fish in a special ceremony thought to bring prosperity and good fortune, as Ted purchases a pack of fish food from a self-serve kiosk and starts feeding the carp from the bridge. “A wise man once told me that in order to have a good life, I must feed all the carp fishes I find,” he tells me.

The following day, we stay at an inn right next to a Tendai temple, Fuki-ji, the oldest wooden structure in Kyushu circa 718 AD and designated a national treasure of Japan. Tendai Buddhism was brought to Japan from China in the 8th century. Its philosophies are rooted in Mahayana Buddhism that preaches Dharma and the ability to attain Buddhahood. One of the innkeepers is a priest at the temple, while his mother does the cooking and cleaning. They have been running the inn for generations, as most families in the area. 

From here we take a 10-minute taxi ride to Makiodo temple, which looks more of a tourist attraction, as there is even a ticket booth. We see the largest statue of Daiitoku Myoo, the Wisdom King of Great Awe-inspiring Power, and a sitting statue of Amida Nyorai, the Buddha of Infinite Light and Life. The statues at Makiodo look like they could have been brought in from a temple in southern India. With fiery eyes, multiple arms holding warrior armor, and a seat on a cow, there is a strong resemblance to the Hindu goddess Kali.

Then we climb a steep but small peak to get a nice view of the charming village of Tashibu-no-sho. I take a panoramic shot of farmlands, peaks, river and houses—some of the most beautiful landscapes in the area that have not changed much in 1200 years.

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We walk alongside farmlands growing buckwheat, rice, soba, and a few other crops. The farmers here don’t use any chemicals and don’t believe in rotational farming. A lady farming by herself on her small patch, wearing denim overalls and rain boots, says that she feels the land should be allowed time to heal and replenish its nutrition. In the middle of nowhere, we stop at a house converted to a cafe that is run by three enterprising women who bake breads, brew herbal tea, and offer some snacks to passers-by. Today, they make a special vegetarian farm-to-table lunch buffet for us. We fill our bellies with organic steamed bamboo shoots, glassy seaweed noodles, boiled Komatsuna (Japanese mustard spinach), dirty rice with white and red lentils, a salad of daikon radish, and soba noodle and mushroom soup. The ladies tell me that this style of eating raw and vegetarian foods is gaining popularity within health conscious households in modern day Japan.

On the fifth day, we take a short ferry to Himeshima (Princess Island). We leave behind the ridges of Kyushu dotted alongside the clean blue waters of Seto Inland Sea. There are a few attractions noted on the board at the ferry terminal, but hardly any people to be seen around. Every August, there is a Shinto religious ceremony, Kitsune matsuri (Fox Marriage Festival) featuring dancers dressed as foxes that attracts many visitors, and October is the season for Kuruma ebi(Prawn Eating Festival).

As I walk along the crescent shaped, white sand beach, I run into a group of four elderly ladies covered from head to toe to protect against the sun, riding on their bikes. We talk briefly with the help of a Google translator, as they giggle every time they hear the sharp voice of modern technology.

Once we return to the mainland, we make a long ascent to the fortress rock peak of Mt. Fudo-san, from where we can see panoramic views across Kunisaki to Himeshima, and beyond to Yamaguchi Prefecture on Honshu. After a trek through the forests and climbing a long flight of stairs, we arrive at Monjusen-ji, a Buddhist temple where we rest for the night. The resident priest, wearing a white robe, welcomes us and takes us into a cave room that towers over the temple, for an evening ceremony. Here he beats a large drum and chants in Sanskrit. He lights a bonfire in the middle of the room, offering the Gods wooden plaques with inscribed prayers. He blesses each of us with good health, luck, and safe travels.

As a typhoon looms over us, the wooden doors and windows of the temple rattle against the strong winds. I ask the priestess if the building would survive and she offers me little consolation, “Well, it has stood here for the past 200 years, so we shall see tonight.” She serves us a simple vegetarian dinner with beer, and shows us her family photos. Her fore- fathers have served as priests at the grounds where we sit for the past thousand years. After dinner, each of us occupies a temple altar room, sleeping on mattresses placed directly in front of the shrines. The main altar has a captivating blue statue holding an upright sword that could easily be mistaken for Lord Shiva. Golden statues of Buddha, Japanese lanterns, drums, white handkerchiefs, and bottles of sake—all depict the intermingling of Chinese, Japanese, and Indian cultures that have come about in Kunisaki. Although we have only followed the pilgrimage walk of Buddhist monks, it feels like we have witnessed its evolution over centuries and across borders.

An Elegantly Bajan Barbados

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Elegant Hotels offers a unique collection of five luxury hotels beautifully situated along stunning beaches on the west and south coasts of sun-soaked Barbados. With 99% of the on-island staff hailing from Barbados, Elegant Hotels created an exclusive “Elegantly Bajan” program where they feature the island’s true culture and cuisine.

Crystal Cove is located on the west coast of Barbados, where the waves are gentle and beaches pristine. The boutique resort welcomes guests into its open lobby, adorned in graceful white tones. Bohemian style building with hues of pink and blue add Mediterranean architectural elements to the backdrop. Lush gardens filled with landscaped herbs, frangipani and bougainvillea surround the 88 contemporary rooms and suites, each equipped with a private patio or balcony. Although the resort is not small, it feels intimate and personal.

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As the name suggests, there is a man made cove right under the lobby, which houses a groovy looking bar. A cascading waterfall suggests guests jump into the refreshing swimming pool and take a seat at one of the stools at the swim up bar. There are three freshwater lagoon-style swimming pools on the property, each offering a spectacular view of the white sandy beach and turquoise blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

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Our evening at Crystal Cove Resort starts with a manager’s cocktail party (held weekly) where we mingle with the staff and other guests. All of the hotel’s staff members individually introduce themselves and offer their services to make our stay comfortable. We sip on champagne, and nibble on samosas and fish cakes at the resort’s elevated patio, overlooking a beautiful sunset on the sea. We browse through paintings, crafts and souvenirs displayed by few local artists.

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Speaking with the hotel’s management, I get the impression that they prize their warm Bajan hospitality and superior service. The staff gets to know your name, notes your preferences, pays attention to small details, and makes a sincere effort to meet any reasonable demand.

For dinner, we head to Drifters Restaurant at the beach. Here, the vibe of Oistins Fish Fry (a popular island Friday night tradition) is recreated. Delicacies include granny’s fish cakes with Mount Gay Rum cocktail sauce, fried flying fish with Bajan pepper sauce, grilled sweet potato, fried plantain, calypso rice and pumpkin and ginger soup. A live DJ takes us late into the night, playing popular tunes, ranging from calypso to reggae, to American 80’s and everything in between.

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The following day, we head out to the capital city of Bridgetown (located only 15 minutes away) for a Heritage Tour, arranged especially for the hotel guests. This daylong tour takes us through historic neighborhoods and important sites such as the Mount Gay Visitor Centre, Kensington Oval, St. Mary’s Church, Parliament Buildings, Garrison Savannah and the Prime Minister’s Office. Bridgetown’s harbor dotted with fishing boats, shops and restaurants, makes for a romantic stroll. We have some down time at one of Barbados’ most beautiful beaches, Brown’s Beach, to snorkel, swim and relax.

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Music is an essential part of Bajan tradition, and shares its roots with other Caribbean islands such as Bahamas, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago. While there is some form of live music at the hotel every night, on Heritage Night, Crystal Cove showcases a Caribbean cabaret with dancers wearing carnival costumes and performing a range of dances and feats, including fire eating and limbo dancing, accompanied by the Tuk Band and the famous Calypso King. We enjoy a glimpse of what Crop Over (Barbados carnival held in August) fiesta would be like, while we sip on coconut and rum cocktails, and taste more authentic dishes from around the Caribbean. Aspiring musicians can also get up and join the free steel pan lessons offered on site.

As a British colony, the national sport of Barbados is cricket and it is common to see practices and test matches going on as you drive along the road. However, Road Tennis is the little known national sport of Barbados, native to the island. It involves a ‘skinned’ tennis ball, a stretch of road for a court and wooden paddles to bat the ball between two players. There is a hands-on lesson across the street from the Crystal Cove for players of all ages.

After a fun and invigorating game of road tennis, we settle down for Rum Shop Initiation experience. Rum is an important part of the island’s economy and its culture. It is said there is a rum shop on every corner of Barbados and that liming (Bajan slang for relaxing) at a local village rum shop is an essential part of the Bajan experience. We learn a few rum shop games such as dominos, sample rum shop snacks including corn beef and biscuits, as well as cheese cutters made with local salt bread, and sample different flavors of local rum.

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The rest of the afternoon, we avail the benefits of the complimentary water sports offered as part of the all-inclusive experience. Beach ambassadors and lifeguards facilitate lessons in windsurfing, kayaking, sailing, banana boating and waterskiing. Kids under 12 years of age are whisked off to the Flying Fish Kids Club where they do supervised water activities, play Wii, pool and air hockey, and watch movies late into the evening.

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While many visitors to Barbados chose to stay at all-inclusive resorts and take little time to venture outside, guests of Elegant Hotels can get a peek into the island life, while being pamper in luxury. Owned and run by the locals, each of Elegant Hotel’s properties is conducive to enjoying an authentic Bajan holiday, while learning the culture and supporting the local economy.

Why Mexico City Could be the Next Paris

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August 11, 2015

North Americans need not spend hundreds of dollars to cross the Atlantic Ocean for a European getaway. With its historic architecture, booming gastronomy, and cutting edge cultural scene, Mexico City now offers the same charm as any big city in Europe.

Mexico City is a destination greatly undermined by its public perception. There is no more visible crime here than in other metropolises around the world. Pollution is minimal, and traffic a lot better than what you would find in São Paulo or Mumbai. If you take proper precautions, you will hardly feel the change in elevation. Most people working in the hospitality industry are fluent in English. The weather is temperate year round – it’s nice and cool even through the summer. Moreover, there is a lot to do beyond drinking tequila, listening to mariachi bands, and attending business meetings! Recently, the Mexico Tourism Board has done a great job in highlighting the city’s museums, artists, chefs, and boutiques – some of which are already on par with those in Paris.

There are enough museums to keep you busy for a month

Mexico City has more museums than any other city in the world (150+ at last count). Not only can you find huge collections of pre-Columbian, colonial and contemporary art, there are artifacts displaying Mexico’s rich cultural, social, political and economic heritage. The most famous national museums are the Anthropology and History Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Modern Art Museum, the San Ildefonso Museum, and the Templo Mayor museum.

There are also quirky and interesting themed museums around the city, such as
The Cartoon Museum, Shoe Museum, Pen Museum, Chile and Tequila Museum, Mexican Olympic Museum, and the wonderfully Interactive Economics Museum.

Remember that museums are closed on Mondays.

Its home to Frida and Diego’s world famous art

A visit to Mexico City would be incomplete without admiring paintings of this famous artistic couple. The largest private collection of works by Diego Rivera is housed at Museo Dolores Olmedo Patino. Casa Azul (Blue House) is Frido Kahlo’s private home, now museum and a shrine, where she was born in 1907 and died 47 years later.

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The city seems to attract artists from all over Latin America who want to learn and practice independent art expressions. At Galería At Despacho 29, you can see young artists at work as they display their paintings, sculptures, graphics and more, in this thriving artist colony. Galeria Omr in Colonia Roma is a must see with its international fame. Even walking around the city, you will come across many chic art galleries and stores representing all genres.

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Neighborhoods in Mexico City look like Europe

In the Colonia Roma neighborhood, you will see homes and building constructed in French, Italian and Spanish style architecture. Most of these were built in the 1800’s, when Mexican aristocrats traveled to Europe and modeled their surroundings based on what they saw there. Strolling through Colonia Roma’s Plaza Río de Janeiro Street, you will find bistros, cafes, gelaterias, bookstores, art galleries, as well as cantinas and dance clubs. Note that most art galleries are closed on Sundays.

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La Condesa is also a charming area that caters to the young and hip. Besides admiring the unique building styles and colors, you can also explore the nightlife here.

Zocalo (main plaza) bustles with organ players, street vendors, excited tourists, wandering bicyclists and downtown office crowds, with a backdrop of the Cathedral, National Palace, Federal District buildings, Templo Mayor site, and the omnipresent Mexican flag. At 57 thousand square meters, this is one of the largest city squares in the world. Explore side streets to see more architectural gems, such as the post office and the Opera Cantina. On weekends, the streets in Zocalo come alive with balloons, clowns, cotton candy, live music, and dancing.

Mexico City is the cultural capital of Latin America

Watch Mexican folklore ballet and temporary art exhibitions at the colossal white marble opera house with a Tiffany stained-glass curtain, known as Palacio De Bellas Artes. This beautiful building was designed by the famous Italian Adamo Boari, and inaugurated in 1934. Inside, you can see paintings by several celebrated Mexican artists, including Rufino Tamayo, Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros.

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View current artistic trends across seven exhibition rooms at the Centro Cultural De Espana, along with a museum, conference center, and jazz bar designed specially for art and culture lovers.

To explore more of the mariachi music scene, spend the evening at Plaza Garibaldi, where you can even rent a personal band by the hour. Dressed in embroidered “charro” outfits and large wide brim sombrero hats, these musicians play guitars, trumpets and violins, sing, dance and entertain crowds.

Mexico City also has gondolas

Take a short drive to the southern outskirts of the city for an authentic Mexican fiesta on the boat experience. Xochimilco, a World Heritage Site is best known for its 110 miles of canals where tourists and locals come to ride on colorful gondola-like boats called “trajineras.” You can see families’ picnicking, dancing, and singing on the boats, as mariachi bands and food vendors ride along.

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Here you can eat well without breaking the bank

From street food and hole-in-the-wall regional establishments, to upscale restaurants, Mexico City offers something for all distinguished taste buds. The best way to get oriented to the local cuisine is through Gastronomic Tour Sabores de México (Mexico Flavors Gastronomic Tour). A guided walking tour will take you through some of the best places to sample tacos, tamales, tequilas, beer and coffee.

Visit the largest family run taco franchise in Mexico, El Fogoncito, where you can trace the evolution of tacos from the Middle East to Mexico City.

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Even high-end cuisine can be quite affordable in Mexico City. A dinner at Pujol, rated in the top 50 restaurants in the world, will set you back only $50 per person (excluding drinks). Also noted among the world’s best, five-diamond restaurant Astrid and Gaston, was one of the first to put upscale Peruvian cuisine on the map. Now they have locations in Lima, Bogota, Santiago, Madrid, and Mexico City’s Polanco Area.

Try the chocolaty mole from Pueblo region, cooked with different chilies (even a pink mole for Valentines Day) at Dulce Patria. Martha Ortiz, known as one of the best chefs in Mexico City emphasizes her menus on contemporary Mexican cuisine, drawing inspiration from the opera and the visual arts; her insatiable reading habit; Mexican women whose lives have influenced Ortiz, among them Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Frida Kahlo, and the many home cooks of the Mexican state of Michoacán who she calls “the queens of cooking.”

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The city is dotted with parks and plazas for strolling

At Alameda Park in downtown Mexico City, you can envision viceroys and counts dressed in their formal attire, taking a stroll through the French designed fountains, while admiring sculptures based on Greco-Roman mythology. There is even a monument dedicated to Beethoven in commemoration of the centenary of his 9th Symphony. While no street vendors are allowed in the park, you will see couples of all ages sharing romantic moments, kissing and holding hands, not just here, but in most parks across the city.

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Joggers, walkers and tourists can be spotted at Bosque de Chapultepec, the city’s largest park, which also houses a castle, a lake, an amusement park, the Mexican president’s official residence, and five world-renowned museums. This is Mexico City’s equivalent of the Central Park of New York.

A must see neighborhood is Coyoacán. This charming and quiet residential area was home to many famous Mexicans including Miguel de la Madrid, president of Mexico from 1982 to 1988; artists Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and José Clemente Orozco; Gabriel Figueroa, cinematographer for Luis Buñuel and John Huston; film star Dolores del Río; film director El Indio Fernández; and writers Carlos Monsiváis, Jorge Ibargüengoitia, and Nobel laureate Octavio Paz. It’s also the neighborhood where the exiled Leon Trotsky met his violent death.

It’s a shopper’s paradise

From high-end boutiques selling limited edition Christian Louboutin and traditional Mexican apparel designs, fine art galleries, modern furniture stores, to dozens of weekend markets selling Mexican artesanías (handicrafts) such as colorful hand-painted crockery to innovative blown glass made by regional artisans in poor communities, there are all kinds of products available to shoppers.

While state of the art shopping malls are scattered all through the city, Centro Santa Fe, in the western part of the city, is the largest shopping center in Latin America and boasts nearly 300 shops, with department stores, boutiques, restaurants, play areas for children, and 10 movie theaters.

Mexico City is so close!

Mexico City is one of the largest cities in the world, yet largely undiscovered by vacation travelers. Delta Airlines and Aero Mexico serve nonstop connections from most major cities in US to Mexico City. Depending on where you fly from, you could be in Mexico City in 1-4 hours and discover that you can enjoy a European style getaway so close to home.

Must Have Accessories for a Yoga Getaway

gps-for-the-soul.gifAugust 4, 2015

Over 16 million Americans have practiced yoga or pilates in the last 12 months (source). Yoga studios are popping up in every neighborhood, and more travelers are choosing to go on yoga retreat to exotic destinations such as Costa Rica, Bali or India.

Accept it – working out is more fun when you have the right accessories to make you feel confident and when your practice is comfortable. Whether you are headed to the beach or the studio, here are a few must-have accessories for your next yoga getaway.

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Watch the slideshow on The Huffington Post

Join Sucheta on a Yoga Retreat in Bali in September 2015.

 

 

Hidden Japan: Atlantan Walks Small Villages Beyond Tokyo’s Glitter

Global Atlanta. July 2015

Often Tokyo overpowers our images of Japan. The automotive and electronics capital boasts sleek skyscrapers, busy intersections with neon lights, and high-end luxury malls dotted with hundreds of Michelin-star restaurants. But there is another face to the country that offers pristine landscapes, ancient history and a rapidly fading culture.

During my recent visit to Japan, I traveled to several small towns that even many Japanese people living in Tokyo have never heard of. On a tour offered by Walk Japan, a local operator that advertises hiking and cultural tours around the country, I spent 10 days exploring the Kunisaki Peninsula located in the southwestern part of the country.

Our small group of four stayed at traditional Japanese inns, known as ryokans, throughout the tour. A far cry from my luxurious room on the 37th floor of the Mandarin Oriental in Nihonbashi business district of Tokyo, these bare-minimum lodging facilities offer comfort, cleanliness and personalized service. I had to learn to sleep on tatami mats, bathe nude in common baths (called Onsen), wear a Yucata (dressing gown) every evening, and eat a regimental diet of raw fish, miso soup and steamed rice three times a day. All of this was very strange at first, nevertheless an experience that I learned to enjoy.

Small nuances made me realize the strong feeling of community that Japanese people share, which probably explains why Japanese tourists are always seen traveling in large groups.

For example, a room at the Ryokan is charged on a per-person basis. You may pay $400 for four people staying in each of their own rooms, or $400 for four people sharing one room. The Japanese tourist would prefer the latter. Most of the rooms at a Ryokan don’t come equipped with private toilets, and even outside guests come to bathe at the hotel’s hot springs and baths communal-style for a nominal fee. I never saw anyone dining alone at a restaurant in this area. There were always friends, families and guests sharing elaborate platters of homemade specialties prepared by the innkeeper, and very rarely any menus.

During the day, we discovered the rich history of Kunisaki, trekking through steep hills, dense forests and open fields. As we traced the paths of monks who had been through these areas for over a thousand years, we paid respects at rarely frequented Shinto shrines, stone carvings, statues, caves and Buddhist temples.

I found out that majority of Japanese people consider themselves Buddhist, as well as Shinto, an ancient religious belief that focuses on shrine worship towards a multitude of gods. Around the 12th century, when Buddhism flourished on this peninsula, there were more than 50 temples with 800 buildings here. We spent a night at a ryokan adjacent to Fukiji Temple, the oldest wooden structure on the island of Kyushu (circa 718 AD).

While some of the hikes were quite strenuous (8-10 miles each day), what I saw and learned during the day was priceless. Among other things, were shrines dedicated to Hachiman, protector God of Japan; Kumano Magaibutsu, the largest Buddha relief carvings in Japan; and Nyushutsu-nimon-ge’s resting place. Nimon was the monk that is reputed to have first brought Buddhism to Kunisaki approximately 1,100 years ago.

We ascended steep, slippery paths to Kumo-ga-take (Cloud Mountain) rising above the mists, to catch a glimpse of the lush green valleys below and Kyushu Mountains surrounding the horizon. Everyone took panoramic snaps of Tashibu-no-sho, a charming village with some of the most picturesque countryside found in Japan. A scenic drive through what looked like rolling hills of Switzerland, ended in Yufuin, a beautiful town where Mount Yufu (aka Yufu-dake) towers above a river cutting through the valley, scenic lake, paddy fields and temple bells.

As we walked through the rice paddies and farmlands growing buckwheat and soba, we rarely encountered anyone below the age of 70. An elderly lady tending to her vegetable farm wearing tall rubber boots and a peasant hat stopped us when she saw Ted, our guide, and invited us over for tea and cookies. We sat on the floor of her tiny cluttered room overlooking a coy pond, chatting about her grandkids and younger days.

She informed us that all of the villagers move to “the big city” in search of better education and work, leaving behind the elders to tend to the farms. When they pass, the kids end up selling or abandoning the family homes, since they no longer can take care of them. The government has started to offer free historic houses and a stipend to anyone who commits to moving to the village and restoring the properties, as well as actively participating in the community’s affairs. Although we saw hundreds of such homes collapsing, a few individuals disenchanted by the busy lifestyle have brought their families to raise their kids in the country where the air is fresh and life is simple and slower paced.

I noticed that the Japanese fascination for beauty was present whether one was shopping at Mitsukoshi, the oldest luxury retail store in Tokyo, or living in a remote island village.

One of the most pristine places on the trip was Himeshima (Princess Island), a sleepy town only 20 minutes ferry ride from Imi Port. There was a crescent-shaped, white-sand beach close to the harbor that was completely unoccupied on a Sunday afternoon. I spoke to three Japanese women in their 60s and 70s biking past. They were covered from head to toe in baggy pants, oversized long-sleeve shirts, and wide hats with built in scarves that covered their faces and necks. It was a far cry from the other beach destinations I am used to. The women couldn’t stop admiring my wheatish skin and couldn’t believe my age. With the help of Google translator (since we couldn’t converse in English/ Japanese), they were curious to know what kind of make up I was wearing.

Tech and tourism: 11 people changing the way we travel

cnnCNN – July 2, 2015

There’s never been a better time to be a tourist.

Whether it’s a cool new app helping find the best flight deal or a website to help book an authentic meal in a stranger’s home in a foreign city, travel tech has made it easier than ever to make the most of your time away from home.

And it’s all thanks to the people behind today’s great industry innovations — including these 11 individuals who make us more excited than ever to hit the road.

Chris Lopinto, ExpertFlyer.com

Claim to fame: Getting you out of the middle seat

We’ve surfed the Internet to find the best airline deal, only to get stuck in the middle seat on a plane with limited reclining space and no legroom whatsoever.

If we’d checked out ExpertFlyer.com beforehand, that scenario wouldn’t have happened.

Co-founded by Long Island, New York, native Chris Lopinto, it’s a free app and subscription-based website that offers a bit of empowerment for frequent bargain travelers.

Lopinto says ExpertFlyer was born out of he and his co-founders’ own bad experiences as frequent fliers.

They designed the site to give users a way to check ticket prices or “fare buckets” (along with respective restrictions), availability of award tickets and upgrades (in real time) and create automated searches for a better seat based on traveler guidelines (seat alerts) before purchase.

Even travel agencies and airlines themselves are now using ExpertFlyer’s Seat Alerts app.

Layton Han, ADARA

ADARA CEO Layton Han.

Claim to fame: Dissecting complex travel data

Next time anyone gets a tweet from an airline about a seat upgrade opportunity, it’s more than likely Layton Han was behind it.

As the man in charge of the ADARA Magellan platform, Han works with 80 of the world’s most established travel brands, including Delta, United and Hertz.

The way it works is ADARA collects information from 300 million travelers to customize marketing and advertising messages, personalize websites and tailor customer communications based on individual preferences.

Before joining ADARA, Han co-founded the online loyalty marketing company MyPoints.com (now owned by United Airlines).

“Today, there are many different ways to communicate with existing and potential customers, such as through social media and mobile applications,” says Han.

“Travel brands need to develop and synchronize customer-marketing messages across various channels.”

Harri Kulovaara, Royal Caribbean Cruises

Claim to fame: Bringing massive cruise ships to the masses

Harri Kulovaara, who heads up fleet design and new build operations for Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises and Azamara Club Cruises — his official title is “executive vice president of maritime and new building” — has a passion for the creating the biggest, most advanced and most exciting ships at sea.

In fact, he’s behind the world’s two biggest passenger ships — Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas — each one rocking 16 decks, over 2,700 staterooms and the capacity to carry more than 6,000 passengers.

Kulovaara, a naval architect with more than 38 years in the cruise industry, also launched the world’s first smartship — Quantum of the Seas — in 2014. This monster has virtual balconies in all indoor staterooms, skydiving at sea, an oversea viewing pod and robotic bartenders.

“Over the past 38 years, I’ve had the pleasure of bringing designers and builders together to push the boundaries of what’s possible on a cruise vacation,” says Kulovaara.

“At Royal Caribbean, we have some of the best, most passionate teams assembled to deliver the best product possible. I like to think I’m the leader that gives them direction, the glue that holds them together, and the catalyst that helps stimulate ideas.”

Roberto Milk, NOVICA

Claim to fame: Changing the way we shop for souvenirs

The “ah-ha” moment for Roberto Milk, co-founder and CEO of NOVICA (partly owned by National Geographic), came while he was in a Portuguese language class at Stanford University.

His professor remarked how hard it was for traditional Brazilian artists to make a living off their craft, giving Roberto the idea of creating an online, fair trade marketplace — all while working as an investment banker.

In 1999, Novica was born.

Fifteen years on, shoppers can now browse more than 45,000 pieces of limited edition and one-of-a-kind handmade works of art — including artisan-crafted jewelry, handmade apparel and world-style home decor — and get them delivered right to their door.

Championing local artists, NOVICA has given back almost $50 million to creatives worldwide by connecting them directly to consumers.

Geraldine Calpin, Hilton Worldwide

Geraldine Calpin, head of Digital for Hilton Worldwide.

Claim to fame: Opening hotel doors

Walking up to the check-in counter of a hotel could soon be an old school experience thanks to the technological leadership of Geraldine Calpin, SVP and global head of Digital for Hilton Worldwide.

She’s bringing the same level of convenience travelers are used to when booking airlines and car rentals to hotel rooms.

This year Calpin, who joined Hilton Worldwide in 2002, is spearheading an initiative that will enable Hilton’s guests to unlock rooms with their smartphones, a technology that has existed for some years but not been implemented on a global scale.

Guests can browse through floor plans at more than 4,100 properties globally before making a personalized room selection.

Then, they can check in digitally using the smartphone app.

Ed Kushins, HomeExchange.com

Claim to fame: Swapping bedrooms

The idea of trading bedrooms with a complete stranger might not be for everybody, but for those who want to save money and literally live like a local when on vacation there’s HomeExchange.com.

California-based founder Ed Kushins’ came up with the the idea in 1992 as a solution to the high expense of accommodations and the lack of cultural immersion that traditional hotels and resorts offer.

Kushins, a former U.S. Navy submarine office, was way ahead of his time. Back then, it was a printed, mailed book.

Today it’s the largest online home exchange network in the world.

To date, HomeExchange.com has facilitated an estimated 1 million property swaps worldwide.

Dale Moser, Coach USA/Megabus.com

Claim to fame: Making bus travel hip again

Thanks to Dale Moser, CEO of Coach USA/Megabus.com, bus travel doesn’t have to conjure images of sketchy seat mates and smelly washrooms.

Armed with a state-of-the-art fleet of double-decker buses equipped with Wi-Fi, power outlets, the latest safety technology and tickets that start at $1 sold online, Moser created “The Megabus Effect” and made traveling by bus between cities cooler and affordable.

By marketing to college students and young professionals, Moser has guided Coach USA, Coach Canada and Megabus into a $700 million business — with Megabus.com alone serving more than 40 million customers in just nine years, in more than 120 cities across North America.

Ruzwana Bashir, Peek

Claim to fame: Saving travelers hours in research time

Co-founded by CEO Ruzwana Bashir in 2011, Peek is a digital platform best described as an online concierge — a one-stop site for travelers looking to book one-of-a-kind experiences, from swimming with sharks to shopping with stylists.

It’s especially key for those of us disillusioned by the sheer quantity of attractions on the mainstream travel booking sites — and conflicting user reviews that accompany them.

With Peek, the theory is, we know we’re getting the goods.

The platform combines Peek.com — the online marketplace — with PeekPro.com, a suite of back-end software tools that power online bookings for activity operators on their own websites.

With Bashir leading the way, Peek Pro has grown more than 500% in the last year, while the Peek team has more than tripled in size.

How’d she do it?

Probably doesn’t hurt that she’s got an MBA from Harvard Business School — where she was a Fulbright scholar — and a BA in economics from Oxford University.

Zeke Adkins and Aaron Kirley, Luggage Forward

Aaron Kirley and Zeke Adkins,  Luggage Forward co-founders.

Claim to fame: Skipping the luggage carousel

After spending a fair amount of time schlepping bags through airports, Aaron Kirley and Zeke Adkins set out to form a company that ensures bags arrive at the destination at the same time as travelers — by mailing them.

Why not just check the bags?

Luggage Forward offers a reliable and cost-effective door-to-door luggage delivery service that saves time, excess baggage fees and customs hassles.

Naturally, the founders — who met in high school — say the idea sprang from their own unfortunate experiences lugging bags through airports.

Travelers can ship luggage and sports gear (bikes, skis, snowboards, golf clubs) to more than 200 countries and territories worldwide using Luggage Forward.

Travis Kalanick, Uber

Claim to fame: Changing the way we get from point A to point B

Of all the names on this list, Uber founder Travis Kalanick definitely has created the most headlines.

And not all of them favorable, with everyone from taxi drivers and journalists to politicians coming out to criticize his ride-booking app.

Just last week, the French government ordered Paris police to crack down on Uber after violence erupted at demonstrations by taxi drivers against the online ride service.

Neither fans nor Kalanick appear to be deterred.

His app is now available for travelers in close to 300 cities on six continents.

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, he sent a letter to investors announcing plans to invest more than $1 billion in its Chinese business this year.

Kalanick is also fighting to get legal access to major U.S. airports, most of which ban ride-sharing service drivers from picking up passengers.

Your next airport pickup could be just a click away, if Kalanick has his way.

Bonaire’s Top 10 – Must See for Cruisers and Travelers

huffpost-travel

 

June 2015

Turquoise blue water, picture perfect sunsets, Dutch Caribbean architecture, landscapes that vary from lush green hills to barren desserts, and not to forget some of the best dive sites in the world – Bonaire is a dream destination for nature lovers.

Located south of Aruba and 50 miles East of Venezuela, Bonaire is part of the ABC islands in the Dutch Caribbean. Whether you are docking for the day, or staying a week, here are some sights and activities you don’t want to miss on the island.

1. Shop and Dine in KRALENDIJK

With colorful buildings, downtown Kralendijk is a charming area with a cruise port (operating 6 months of the year), gift shops, restaurants and central amenities like tourist office, post office, police station, city hall. Surrounding residential neighborhoods and streets have theme names after musical instruments, names of countries, etc. making the city easy to navigate without many signs or even traffic lights.

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Downtown Kralendijk

Taste artfully created fresh catch of the day at At Sea French restaurant (Rated #1 on the island) or try the famous pasta flambéed table side in a huge block of cheese at Ingredients Mediterranean restaurant located at Buddy Dive Resort. Browse around the boutiques and souvenir shops. Pick up locally made dichroic glass jewelry at Elements, and Bonaire’s famous salt mills, grinders and bath salts at Sea Salt Bonaire.

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Elements jewelry store

2. Relax at HARBOUR VILLAGE RESORT AND MARINA

Many cruises choose to get a day pass to enjoy the nicest private beach on the island, where they can get access to hammocks, beach lounges, refreshing drinks, dive shop and turquoise warm waters of the Caribbean. Harbour Village Resort and Marinaoffers guests a charming Caribbean Bohemian style retreat with a private villa feel, surrounded by a burst of colorful flowers, yellow stucco facade, red terra cotta roofs, and golden tiled floors. There is also a spa, restaurant, swimming pool, gym and yacht club on premise. Overnight guests can choose from luxurious ocean front rooms and suite to family villas equipped with kitchens, dining areas and patios.

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Harbour Village Resort and Marina

3. Tour the island in an ELECTRIC VEHICLE

The coolest way to explore the tiny island of Bonaire is aboard a self-driven electric vehicle. Road Runner Bonaire offers tours of the North and South, which begin in the capital Kralendijk. South tour proceeds along the coast passing by famous diver spots, Cargill salt hills, abandoned slave houses, Atlantic Beach and Jibe City. On the way, you can stop to take photos, swim, dive, windsurf or kite board.

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Red slave houses

4. Take photos at WASHINGTON SLAGBAAI NATIONAL PARK 

A fifth of the island of Bonaire is a nationally protected nature sanctuary where visitors can spend an entire day hiking, walking, snorkeling, diving, swimming and bird watching. Expect to see more secluded beaches, caves, tall cactuses, giant windmills, goats, iguanas and hundreds of elegant pink flamingo parties. The geology of the coral island is also visible inside the park, forming interesting patterns and colors, making it a photographer’s paradise.

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Flamingos at Washington Slagbaai National Park

5. Enter the dessert and lagoons HORSEBACK RIDING

Horseback ride through a private ranch passing through cactus trees, dessert landscapes, open fields, and along the coast. Take a break at a secluded lagoon where you can go swimming along with your horse. Rancho Washikemba offers horseback riding lessons, tours and parties and since horses are not native to the island, this is the only official, fully licensed and certified horseback riding ranch on Bonaire.

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Sucheta horseback riding at Rancho Washikemba

6. Learn to WINDSURF 

Take a windsurfing lesson with one of the oldest companies on the island, The Windsurf Place. Here you can rent gear and lockers, eat lunch, and practice on your own or with an instructor. The waters are warm, shallow and picturesque, resembling a vast swimming pool.

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The Windsurf Place

7. DIVE and volunteer to restore coral

Beginner and expert snorkelers and divers will enjoy watching the underwater Coral Restoration Project at Buddy Dive. Help plant, cut, and clean the coral farm, while enjoying a swim in the Caribbean waters. The dive shop offers classroom training, certifications and personal instructors. It’s a great way to give back your time and skills while on vacation.

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Coral restoration project

8. Get lost in KLEIN BONAIRE 

An undeveloped little island makes for a perfect day out. Pack your picnic and beach gear for trip to Bonaire’s west coast. Water taxis and dive boats transport passengers who want to swim, snorkel, or explore the beautiful beaches and clear blue waters. Some natives claim this is their favorite spot to getaway.

9. Step back in time in RINCON 

Rincon is the only other city on the island. Once a town inhabited by the salt slaves who worked on the island, now Rincon is mostly a quiet residential area. Visit Mangazina di Reicultural center in Rincon to get a feel for Bonaire’s history. Aside from the nice views of the valley, you will also find a museum, gift shop, live music and interactive tours. Taste the local cactus liquor at the Cadushy Distillery.

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Mangazina di Rei

10. Pet the DONKEYS

Donkey Sanctuary Bonaire provides a sheltered, protected life to over 400 stray donkeys in Bonaire. It is open to tourists, schools and community members who want to know more about donkeys, have a fun day sightseeing, or want to volunteer. Visitors can drive through the sanctuary in their vehicle (very slowly to avoid accidents) or walk around and be greeted by hundreds of donkeys.

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Sucheta with friendly donkeys

* All photos and words belong to Sucheta Rawal.