Kotor Bay

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The medieval town of Kotor, Montenegro sits at the end of a placid bay that cuts deep into the surrounding limestone mountains. Often called the southernmost fjord in Europe, it is actually a submerged river canyon. Once you arrive in Kotor, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, you’ll have to catch your breath before you can attempt to name the majestic scenery surrounding you. You’ll be surprised that more people haven’t discovered it. No matter where you look your senses are overwhelmed by either the natural beauty of the area and the depth of history from which the Venetian influenced town has emerged.

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Kotor Old Town

Kotor Old Town

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Market in Kotor, Montenegro

The market just outside the town walls

While tourists flock to the nearby, cheesy and overdeveloped town of Budva to party throughout the summer, Kotor has managed to maintain a sense of history and tradition. There is still a nightlife to be found as delicious restaurants dot the bay’s shores and a few nightclubs rock the old town’s walls at night. However, Kotor’s old town has managed to maintained a lived-in feeling despite the restaurants and shops catering to the tourists who do come. The old city is nice to stroll around, but the main action still takes place in the shadow of the town’s walls where a wonderful market bursts to life each day. Plants, prosciutto, and olives are sold everywhere and you get the feeling that locals enjoy the market as much as the visitors. The olives are particularly delicious and I bought my fill from a seller dressed in loose white cotton paints, a tight red t-shirt and a classic sweater tied around his shoulders. He looked like he had just arrived from his stone house surrounded by olive fields overlooking the deep blue Adriatic Sea.

Kotor old town with castle above
The castle looms high above the old town

Carving in entrance way to Kotor old town
A carving in the entrance way to the old city. Above the entrance on the outside is carved “What belongs to others we don’t want, what is ours we will never surrender.”

No matter where you go in Kotor three things are constantly in view, the sheer limestone mountains surrounding you, the calm waters of the bay, and the ancient castle fortifications that scale the mountain behind the town. The fortifications are a dizzying mix of ramparts, towers, gates, bastions, forts, cisterns, a church, a castle and steps…so many steps. Over 1,500 steps lead you on a steep climb through history to the top of the citadel. You are free to scramble and climb around the ruins in a way unheard of in other countries. The climb is steep and it pays to take along some water, and appropriate clothes for hiking. The climb only takes about 40 minutes but it usually takes longer as with each step another amazing vista opens up to appreciate. Start early as the afternoon sun can be quite hot and the path becomes crowded with visitors in high heels and jeans unprepared for the steepness and the heat.

Kotor Bay and Church of Our Lady of Remedy

The tower of the Church of Our Lady of Remedy

Once you’ve taken in the old city and fortress you are free to enjoy the laid back atmosphere of the surrounding towns and the beauty of the mountains and bay. I would recommend spending time on the southern side of the bay where the small towns are filled with traditional stone houses and accompanying rock jetties which protect the simple row boats used for fishing. This is where the true rhythm of the area can be felt as neighbors meet for drinks by the water while they wait for husbands to return from fishing.

Priest in Kotor waiting in the entrance to his church
Priest in Kotor waiting in the entrance to his church

While the nightlife in the old city heats up in the summer I prefer the smaller towns where you have a chance to meet the locals and indulge in home cooking. One night we stumbled upon a quite little place on the water called Lantern. Full of wood, local memorabilia and hospitality it’s run by an older couple who go out of their way to socialize. At some point in the night, after a number of drinks on the house, a local entered to play the electric piano. Without any hesitation the wife grabbed a patron from a table and started dancing in the middle of the restaurant. Her husband wasn’t far behind and before you knew it most of the four occupied tables were up dancing. It was simple fun that would have been lost in the more touristy areas closer to Kotor.

The tranquility of the water penetrates deep inside the visitor and local alike. It’s impossible not to become relaxed by the majesty of the steep mountains, the deep blue skies, and the easy pace of the locals. Life is celebrated every moment in Kotor as it springs from the fish in the sea, the rich olives from the hills and the deep red vranc wine full of body from the fertile mountains.

Kotor Bay southern side

The view from the southern side of Kotor Bay

While the area is relatively unknown and visited compared to Dubrovnic, Croatia (about a 2 hours drive to the north) and the grand tourist areas of Italy across the sea, it pays to visit in the off seasons if you are looking for true peace and quite. Visit in the Spring or Fall when the little medieval town is not too full. Of course if you want to party with the best of them come in the Summer and don’t forget to hit the clubs and beaches in Budva as well. Kotor will be waiting to help relax your mind and ease your hangover when your done.

Two Monks walking

I love it when friends coordinate their outfits. Two monks walking along the old fort walls in Galle, Sri Lanka

Update:

The winner is Dave! The picture is from Galle, Sri Lanka along the old Portuguese fort walls.

Dave has decided to highlight UMCOR, the United Methodist Committee on Relief. I worked with UMCOR in Sri Lanka and I can confirm that they do good work.

Galle is a wonderful place to walk around and experience Sri Lanka’s colonial architecture. Interestingly enough the fort is mostly occupied by Muslims who have business ranging from antique dealers to gem and jewelry shops. Each year the city hosts a book fair  as well as the Galle Art Festival.

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Welcome to Travel Photo Contest Friday where each week I post a beautiful picture (at least I think so) from my travels and you guess where it is. The first person to guess where this picture was taken (Country and UNESCO Heritage site, yes that’s a hint) will win a link back to their blog with the anchor text of their choice in this post (keep it clean and relevant). Leave your guess and recent post in the comment section below.

I will also stumble and review the latest post of anyone who leaves a comment even if the winner has already been picked (up until next Thursday). Yes, the prizes heavily favor the blogging and travel geeks amongst us. If you don’t have a website, then leave your favorite website or better yet a charity that deserves attention.

This weeks picture is less obvious, but I think there are enough clues to help you out.

Guesses aside, all comments are welcome!

Town of Letnica, Kosovo from the hilltopThe road ends at the small Kosovar village of Letnica on the border with Macedonia. The white church of the Black Madonna watches over the town from a small hill. The large church only magnifies the empty feeling of the town where only about 100 people are left. Dirt roads snake into the town in between dilapidated stone houses. Despite the abandoned air the town is surrounded by forested rolling hills, giving the area a peaceful feel. The twittering of songbirds floated through the air as we climbed the small hill to the church.

Faithful kneeling before the Black Madonna of Letnica, Kosovo

The faithful before the Black Madonna

If the town was ever to have a crowd we found it as four men sat outside the church socializing and taking in the surrounding views. A middle aged man reeking of raki (the Kosovar equivalent to Italian grappa) shadowed us the whole way, pleading for money and trying to be best friends the way only drunk people can. Inside the church worshipers knelt below the 300 year old Black Madonna statue, made from blackened wood, praying for a child. Christian and Muslim couples alike venerate it and believe it can help childless families. On 14-15 August the town is beset by the faithful as more than 30,000 worshipers arrive to take part in the two day festival of the Assumption. Mass is held in multiple languages and the Madonna is paraded through the streets in between the thousands of newly pitched tents.

Traditional stone mill in Kosovo

The miller at work

The miller weighing this corn flour

The town has an authentic charm that is not easily found anymore in Kosovo as residents rush to Prishtina or abroad in search of work. The money they earn is usually used to destroy old stone houses and replace them with incomplete exposed brick structures. Below the church along a small river sits a traditional mill owned by Froke Dokic, an older Croat miller. The water powered stone mill ground the corn he fed by hand into fine flour. There was nothing modern about the building and I couldn’t even find a light bulb ensuring a work day that started with first light and ended with dusk. Everything in the old mill was covered in fine corn dust, from an old typewriter, to traditional clothing, to a coke bottle used to hold candles, and even to old Froke himself. The miller is a solid man, not given to speaking much but friendly enough and quick to let you in to see the old mill at work. We placed an order of 5 kg of flour before we set off into the country side for a hike.

Abandoned stone village in Kosovo

These beautiful houses were abandoned and left to crumble

It’s easy to leave the town and reach the surrounding hills. After just ten minutes we had left the town behind. Grazing sheep roamed the hills in the distance, and a pack of horses ate their fill right next to us as we took a short break near a natural spring gushing from the ground. A view of the church opened up before us below, revealing the rows of the pilgrim huts sheltered amongst its walls. As we wound our way higher into the hills we passed through a beautiful old village, filled with traditional stone houses and ottoman style windows and eaves. The heavy stone houses magnified the feeling of loneliness as we realized the town was deserted. Only one elderly woman was left, kept company by her sheep and goats. Supposedly the rest had left during the 1991 Croat war for independence, pushed by Serb hardliners to settle in abandoned Serb houses in Slovenia.

Todd in Letnica

Excited to see what's over the hill

No one seems to want to farm these days and the land around us lay fallow, satisfying only the hungry bellies of the grazing sheep and horses. Well worn but unmarked trails disappeared into the forests and most likely into neighboring Macedonia. Like most of Kosovo, Letnica requires a bit of work to discover. It’s not a place built for tourists, but you are rewarded for your adventurous spirit through the pleasure of new discoveries down each unmarked path or over the next bucolic hill.  It’s a wonderfully peaceful place just one hour from Prishtina, perfect for a day hike and a picnic. On our way out of the village we stopped by the old mill to pick up our natural flour and thank Froke for the trouble. He didn’t say a word, just turned back to his mill and continued feeding it corn.


Getting There

Statue of Mary and the Kosovo countryside behind her

If you have a car read on…if you don’t have a car, go rent one or find a friend with one and then read on. Ok, ok, it’s possible to catch a bus to Ferizaj or Gjilan and then transfer to a local bus to Viti and then rent a taxi to take you the final distance to Letnica (don’t forget to arrange a pick up time or get the taxi’s phone number for your return trip).

If you took my earlier advice and you found a car, take the Pristina-Skopje highway heading south for about 35 km and follow signs to Viti. Once in Viti things get a bit more complicated. Drive around the main square and cross the river at the Steta Petka church, turn right around the secondary school and follow the road to the village of Verbovc. Once there bear right and follow the road to Letnica. Yes, you will get lost a few times so ask directions often.

Blogsherpa Travel Carnival

Todd’s Wanderings is honored to host the second Blog Carnival by the Lonely Planet bloggers from the Blogsherpa program centering on Travel Safety. The last Carnival was hosted by Vagobond and he did a great job covering the ups and downs of Culture Shock. The next Carnival will be host by Jennifer at Orange PolkaDot in two weeks time.

Travel Safely

Sri Lanka Sign no GunsTraveling can be dangerous business. If you were to believe the US media you’d think that just about anywhere outside the US there are terrorists waiting behind corners to kidnap you. The reality of the situation is that things always seem more dangerous the farther away you are due to a lack of information and experience. My wife and I lived through the last three years of civil war in Sri Lanka and besides the mental stress of frequent bombings we were perfectly safe (yes, we are a bit strange!).

My biggest safety mishap during that time involved getting $500  stolen out of my hotel room. Since the incident I’ve tried to figure out the safety lesson learned to protect myself better in the future. My mistake was shopping for a  surfboard and mentioning where I was staying. The lessons are, don’t tell strangers where you are staying and don’t let yourself feel too at home with the locals even if you live there. There’s a fine line between being friendly and being stupid.

If you are already out on the road, or planning your next great trip learn from our mistakes, experiences and at times complete lack of sane judgment. Each of the following bloggers offers a unique perspective on how to travel safely.  Click the bold links through to their sites to read the full articles. If I had read their advice I might still have $500 in my pocket or a shiny new surfboard.


Tank in the Middle EastGeorgia, from Ginger Beirut, thinks that like peace, safe driving in the Middle East is an elusive thing. Much like American suburbia, most places here are built to drive in, with drive thru this and that and valet parking. The only difference is the apparent lack of urban planning and the regularity with which main roads and bridges get bombed into non-existence, wiping out any nascent impression that these rugged dark gray stretches were originally built for driving cars on, and not by tanks alone. If you’re planning to get behind the wheel anywhere in the Middle East then these, Tips on Driving in the Middle East, from a Beiruti driver may help you get to your destination in one piece.


Traffic accidents in developing countries account for a huge number of deaths and injuries every year. Even in countries that have established traffic rules you can still get hit out of the blue. Jason from Alpaca Suitcase advises to think like the Iraq war and use the “human shield technique” for crossing the street safely. I’ve been hit by two cars during my travels and wish I had Jason’s travel safely post on The Human Shield a few years back.


Taking the road less traveled means experiencing the good along with the bad. Often as we experience new places and people we forget that some of the best advice on safety we learned right back in our hometowns. Bret, from I Moved To Africa, shares his travel safety tips based on growing up in New York City. Like it or not, many of the cities in the United States are much more dangerous than the random village in Africa, although both sport some colorful fashion choices.


Pyrimads in EygptThinking about traveling to a developing country? Lewis from Backpacking on the Cheap shares his top 5 safety tips on how to avoid some common dangers in his article Top 5 Safety Tips for Americans and Other Westerners Need to Know NOW Before Traveling to a Third World Country. I’ve used many of these tips myself.


Female solo travelerCamden, from The Brink of Something Else, challenges us with a balancing act of a solo woman traveler – taking just enough risks to throw yourself head first into the experiences, to make dear new friends, to experience those moments that crystallize in time to be remembered forever. Unfortunately, the line is ill-defined and easily misjudged, and on the other side is the prospect of damage and ruin, of devastated parents, never able to understand why we took such a risk. She gives us all some great tips on managing this balancing act with Safe Travel for Women on their Own.


Madrid Gran ViaSpain is a popular tourist destination, it’s also popular with pickpockets and thieves. Erin, from La Tortuga Viajera, points out it’s not just tourists that get robbed. How does one avoid being a victim? This “Starbucks-coffee-cup-carrying American” has somehow managed to not have “victim” written on her forehead.  To help others avoid the fate of her grandmother and almost mother-in-law (read her post to learn how to say that in Spanish) Erin shares  her wisdom on How to Avoid Being Robbed, so that you don’t have to hide your Starbucks cup to blend in.


Most of us have experienced that moment of air sucking panic when we suddenly realize that we have lost out wallet, passport or insert important document. Most of the times we have just misplaced them, but other times we are less fortunate and they are truly gone. Lex from LeX Paradise shares his story of loosing his wallet in South Korea and Tips for Protecting your Wallet.


Keep your money safeVago, from Vagobond, travels a lot and in the places he visits $200 in US currency is enough to get him out of most situations. He also likes to have about $100 in local currency in reserve. The problem is, where do you keep it? If it’s in your pocket, any thief worth his salt will find it if they rob you. He never puts a lot of trust in ‘money belts’ with hidden places and zippers, and as far as wearing it around your neck with your passport, that’s just great- for the thieves. And imagine this, if you are like Vago, you probably like to take a swim now and then. What do you do with your belt, wallet, and reserve cash in that situation? The answer, follow Vago’s Solutions for Securing your Security Blanket.


Bulgarian road signThinking about taking a trip to the Balkans? Worried about getting ripped off? You’re in good company. Katya, from Great Places in Bulgaria, is a typical Eastern European  who gets pissed off by rip-offs. When you travel you can easily fall victim to “smart guys” who take advantage of your foreign-ness and your money:) The usual suspects are cabdrivers, waiters, shop assistants, hotel keepers…basically anyone a tourists comes into contact with. Katya has resigned herself to accept rip-offs as a common travel risk, but she still tries to be as prepared as possible to avoid giving money to swindlers. She has put together a great list of useful Tips for Travelers to Bulgaria to help keep more of your money in your pocket.


Solo travel in a canoeIt is easy to forget how lucky you are to have the opportunity to travel, to be exposed to the world in all of its ignorance, beauty and wisdom. Sash, from Barefoot Inked, a solo female traveler has  been there. She gets frustrated and gets afraid. She gets bored and closes her eyes. Sash believes this is the Biggest Danger of Long-term Travel… and the biggest challenge. To keep your eyes open, because the new and exciting things that places have to offer, become every day life quickly and you become desensitized. Sash advises us that constant reminders of your place in the world and becoming involved in the community, the charity, the support networks around the world are the best way to stave off complacency. Give yourself an action and a reason to show that you care – and you will travel safely, not only in mind but in body.

What travel safety tips do you recommend? Better yet, share the time you were the least safe in your travels and how you got out of the situation.

The Blue Mosque looking very blue from the outside

Welcome to Travel Photo Contest Friday where each week I post a beautiful picture (at least I think so) from my travels and you guess where it is. The first person to guess where this picture was taken (City and Mosque name) will win a link back to their blog with the anchor text of their choice in this post (keep it clean and relevant). Leave your guess and recent post in the comment section below.

I will also stumble and review the latest post of anyone who leaves a comment even if the winner has already been picked (up until next Thursday). Yes, the prizes heavily favor the blogging and travel geeks amongst us. If you don’t have a website, then leave your favorite website or better yet a charity that deserves attention.

Update:

The winner is Dina from Vagabond Quest a great Travel Blog by two Permanent Travelers.

We took this picture from our fantastic, if small, hotel’s roof patio. Eating breakfast in the morning with this view was one of the more magical experiences in my travels lately.

If you have been to picture’s location I would love to hear about your trip.

Author: Todd's Wanderings - www.toddswanderings.net

Click to access Travel Secrets eBooks site

Think I’m exaggerating? Well, OK, maybe I am a bit. But you can at least help secure clean drinking water around the world while you walk away with 500 new travel secrets…all for free. I love it when travel and international development combine as they are the two motivating factors for this site and my wanderings.

A few months back you may remember that I posted My 3 Best Kept Travel Secrets on Japan, East Timor and Sri Lanka. This was part of an online collaboration by 200 of the best travel bloggers and writers out there. Now, all of the secrets have been combined into a series of free e-books by Tripbase and they are using the opportunity to do some good in the world. Yes, my tips are in the books as well (in the Worldwide Travel and Worldwide Beaches books), but the important thing is that each time you download an eBook Tripbase will donate $1 to Charity: Water.

Right now, almost one billion people in the world don’t have access to clean drinking water. That’s one in eight of us. For every person that downloads an eBook Tripbase will make a $1 donation to the fantastic cause, clean drinking water for people in developing nations. 100% of these donations will be used to directly fund clean water solutions.
Our mission: to help bring clean and safe drinking water to people in developing nations.
Our campaign target: to build 4 freshwater wells, providing clean water for an entire school for the next 20 years.
Just click the link to download your Free Travel Secrets eBooks or you can click the image at the beginning of the post.
Finally, if you’re not satisfied with just contributing $1 to this great cause, make your own personal donation. Just $20 can give one person clean drinking water for 20 years.  Give one person clean water. I’ll skip the bar tonight if you do too!

Please pass this post on to your friends and family and make sure they click the above free travel secrets ebooks link or the picture to make sure Tripbase can track the number of downloads.

Chinese dish Mapo Dofu

The finished dish, yum!

I’d like to introduce you to one of my favorite Chinese Dishes, Mapo Dofu. This recipe is from my Mom who learned it from a Chinese chef over 30 years ago. Over the years she has made a few changes here and there. The process is not that complicated, but this dish requires some specific Chinese ingredients and spices. But don’t worry. You can buy most of them at an Asian grocery store, or even in a big grocery store in the US or in some countries in Europe. I also tried to put suggestions for substitutes for some ingredients. I’ve lived in countries where these ingredients are not always available and I’ve learned to improvise and be a bit flexible when I cook.

Doubanjiang, Chinese Sweet bean sauce, sake, soy sauce, and chicken stock (front)

Tricky ingredients (left to right): Doubanjiang, Chinese Sweet Bean Sauce, sake, soy sauce, and chicken stock (front)

Some ingredients may seem unfamiliar at first but I’ll be introducing more recipes that use the same ingredients in the future. Before you know it you’ll have Chinese chili paste in your fridge all the time :)

One tip before we start! This dish can be a Donburi Menu Part 2, if you put Mapo Doufu on top of a bed of rice in a bowl. In Japan, we call it Mabo Don (shortened from Donburi). You can serve as a regular dish or make it as Mabo Don as you like! Let’s get started!

Ingredients (for 2 people)

  • Tofu (firm): 1 pack
  • Minced pork: 100g
  • Leak or French onion (finely chopped: 3 Tablespoons)
  • Ginger (finely chopped: 1 Tablespoon)
  • Garlic (finely chopped: 1 teaspoon)
  • Chicken broth 250cc

Spices

  • Doubanjiang or chili paste (Chinese spicy and salty paste made of fermented beans) More Info: 1 Tablespoon (or more if you like a super spicy dish)
  • Chinese Sweet Bean Sauce, More Info: 2 teaspoons
  • Douchi (Chinese fermented black beans) More Info: 2 teaspoons- if it’s not available, you can live without it!
Douchi Black Beans

This is what those strange sounding fermented beans look like!

  • Soy sauce: 1 Tablespoon
  • Shaoxing wine, More Info (or Japanese sake): 1 Tablespoon – if it’s not available, you can live without it!
  • Starch: 2 Tablespoons mixed with 4 Tablespoons of water
  • Chili oil (or Rayu) More Info: to taste, more if you like it spicy
  • Shichuan pepper, More Info (or ground pepper)

How to cook (cooking time: 20-25 min)

Squeezing the liquid out of tofu

Squeezing the liquid out of tofu

(1)   Finely chop Leak (or French onion), ginger, and garlic. Rinse and finely chop Douchi.

(2)   Wrap tofu with a dish cloth and put some kind of weight on top to get rid of the moist of the tofu. Cut into 2cm cubes.

(3)   Heat the wok (you can use a deep fry pan if it’s all you have), put in 2 Tablespoons of oil, and fry garlic, leak, and ginger slowly with a medium heat.

(4)   Add minced meat and cook them together on high. Once the meat turns whitish, add Doubanjiang and mix it into the meat. Add Douchi and Chinese sweet bean sauce and continue mixing.

(5)   Add soy sauce, shaoxing wine (or sake), and chicken broth and cook until the sauce starts boiling. Add Tofu and continue cooking on low heat for 5 min or so.

(6)   Add the starch mixed with water into the wok to thicken the sauce.

(7)   Add Chili oil and Shichuan pepper (ground pepper) and serve on a plate.

Mapo Dofu cooking in the pan

Yup, just that simple. It's all ready, enjoy.

Eat with rice and enjoy!

Did you like this recipe? Leave a comment and let others know how it turned out.

Giant Reclining Buddha Statue

Beautiful reclining Buddha statue in...

I am adding a new twist to Travel Photo Friday by including a Contest. The first person to guess where this picture was taken (country AND area/place) will win a link back to their blog with the anchor text of their choice in this post (keep it clean and relevant). Leave your guess and website in the comments below.

I will also stumble and review your latest post. Yes, the prizes heavily favor the blogging and travel geeks amongst us. If you don’t have a website, then leave your favorite website or better yet a charity that deserves attention.

Update:

The winner is Kyung ah, who I think has the same photo here on Trip Advisor Congratulations!

I have decided that anyone who leaves a comment until Thursday next week (May 20th) will get a stumble and a comment on their latest blog post (so leave a link with your comment). The winner will also get the anchor text link.

I took this picture while in at Wat Lokayasutharam in Ayutthaya, Thailand. Let’s hope a little more peace comes to Bangkok soon!

Todd Wassel wins the Southeast Asia Writing CompetitionThis article won the People’s Choice award from the Southeast Asian Travel Writing Competition. Thanks to everyone who voted!

Street with Indochinese houses in Luang Prabang, Laos

No, Thank You Laos

How many people can you feed with a 600 pound catfish I wondered as I walked down the deserted street in northern Laos. Somewhere, in the darkness close by, the mythical Mekong River snaked its way through the intense blackness, hiding the massive catfish and the largest population of gigantic species in the world.

It was just after 9:00 PM but there was no one else on the streets. I walked cautiously, afraid to disturb the romantic stillness in the air and the humming wildlife from the encroaching jungle. I was in Luang Prabang, the ancient capital of Laos and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995.

Lost to a bygone era, the French inspired Indochinese houses surrounded me, converted to coffee and gift shops but still trapped in a memory of the past that attract nostalgic tourists in search of the Asia from grandfather’s stories. Latticed white balconies hung over the street as I moved farther down looking for signs of life. Nothing, no one was awake, doors were barred and windows shuttered. The only light came from an exposed light bulb dangling from a small overhang slightly ahead.

Buddhist monks accepting alms in Luang Prabang, LaosLife was slow but predictable in Luang Prabang. The locals rise at 5:00 AM to offer rice and vegetables to the hundreds of brightly robed Buddhists monks who walk silently down the road each morning seeking alms. Nothing exciting usually happens in this small town, especially at night. As I approached the light bulb I noticed a crackling sound as blue sparks danced from the frayed, dirty wire. Worried, I watched for a few minutes before moving on, conceding that there was nothing I could do. Electrical safety is not a strong point of the region and as I took one last look behind me the bulb exploded and a jet of orange flame raced up the wire, quickly taking hold of the wooden eves.

I looked around frantically, forgetting that I was all alone, as the fire began to flare just above the wooden door to a small shop. “Bang, bang BANG,” I pounded on the rough door as splinters and paint chips flew in my face. The fire was spreading quickly as a short middle-aged man opened the door just enough to peek out.

“Sir, there’s a fire on your roof. Please come out!” I pleaded into a blank face. Behind him, through a small crowded store stocked with postcards and bottled water, I could see his family sitting on the floor watching television.

“Closed,” he said and shut the door abruptly. I knocked again, feeling the heat spread just above my head. The door opened again. His face was no longer blank as he shook his head and waved me away. His family, three generations packed together, looked concerned as a crazed stranger jumped up and down yelling. Just before the door slammed shut again I grabbed the father and pulled him outside by his shirt. Screams of protest erupted from the family inside.

The father struggled against me as I forced him onto the street releasing him just past the fire, which was spreading to the next building. He yelled, went limp and then rushed into the house screaming. The family streamed onto the street yelling at the top of their lungs. The cry was repeated and soon the whole town was awake as Laotians, young and old surrounded the house.

The town organized itself to fight the fire. There was no fire station, or water hydrants. A fire threatened everyone as the rows of wooden houses held each other up. Buckets of water were passed in lines from the houses across the street and others set off in search of fire extinguishers. Smoke, ash, and the screaming of babies choked the once silent streets.

A young man ran up the street with the first fire extinguisher as the crowd cheered. “Phsst…” nothing happened. One more try, still nothing. A second, and then a third extinguisher arrived with the same result. We worked harder at throwing water towards the second floor. Thirty minutes into the fire a fourth extinguisher arrived.

A sudden jet of white foam shot from the extinguisher to the delight of the crowd. Ten minutes later the fire was out. Just as suddenly as it began the people disappeared. Without a word to each other or to me, they gathered their buckets and went home. Doors shut in unison and before I knew it I was once again alone in the middle of the dark street. I was confused and hurt. I had just helped save a house, possibly a whole UNESCO heritage site from destruction. Where was my thank you, or at least the collective camaraderie that comes with a challenge overcome? I walked back to my hostel in a daze wondering what had happened.

I woke up at five in the morning with the rest of the town and walked back to the scene of the fire. The blackened wall was the only evidence of the previous night’s excitement. The family waited patiently in front of their store and home for the monks to walk by. One by one they placed spoonfuls of rice into the alms bowls of the silent monks. Neither side gave or sought recognition. When their rice was finished they returned home without a backward glance. The monks continued on without offering even the slightest recognition.

At that moment I realized it wasn’t the architecture or the Buddhist temples that offered a glimpse of an older Asia. It was the people of Laos, of Luang Prabang. They taught me, or rather reminded me, that you do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. Good is its own reward, something we’re quick to forget in our media hyped, competitive modern society. It’s a lesson I have not forgotten, so thank you Laos, if you permit me to extend a bit of my own culture to compliment yours.

[photos by: Hanoi Mark]

The lost girls bookcover

The Lost Girls, due out May 11, 2010

Ever wondered what it would be like to ditch your jobs, boyfriends and families and set out around the world with your two best friends? What about turning those experiences into a published book? Well, here are some answers to those questions in an interview I conducted with the authors of the soon to be released travel memoir The Lost Girls, Jennifer, Holly and Amanda.

This is of personal interest to me as I ‘m writing my own book about my 750 mile walking journey to the 88 Buddhist temples of Shikoku, Japan. Jennifer, Holly and Amanda offer great insight and advice on the writing process, finding an agent and pitching your travel book.

Their book  details the journey of three friends who make a pact to quit their high pressure New York media jobs; leave their friends, boyfriends and everything familiar behind; and embark on a year-long backpacking adventure around the world. This interview is the beginning of new installment on Todd’s Wanderings where I’ll interview travel writers and bloggers, people making a difference in the world and anyone who is just plain awesome.

Todd: The Lost Girls started out as a blog about your round the world trip. Did you know from the beginning that you wanted to turn it into a book or did that come later?

During the trip we’d occasionally fantasized about someday writing a book about our adventures, but that was really just a pie-in-the-sky notion we didn’t pursue while traveling. As writers by trade, Holly and Amanda did pen a few pieces for magazines while we were on the road–while I (Jen) parlayed my TV background into becoming an impromptu photo journalist. But aside from writing the occasional articles and maintaining our travel blog, we didn’t want to squander our time on the road holed up in internet cafes working—we wanted to have authentic experiences and adventures exploring the countries we’d traveled so far to visit.

Although in the end, our blog was what inspired our travel memoir.  What started out as a creative means for staying in touch with loved ones soon became a matter of public interest. Apparently, our family and friends weren’t the only ones reading our website. Thanks to the viral nature of the web, news of The Lost Girls travelogue (www.lostgirlsworld.com) started to spread—first in the US, then overseas –as soon, tens of thousands of readers began logging on to live vicariously through our journey. Once we provided a dedicated email address for correspondence, readers wrote to us directly, sharing how our stories had inspired them and even changed the direction of their lives

As luck would have it, a few agents and one editor at a major publishing house stumbled across our blog while we were still traveling, and wrote to express interest in maybe turning our tales into a book. Of course, no one actually wanted to meet with us until we’d composed a polished book proposal, so the three of us holed up for an entire month at Holly’s family’s house in Syracuse to put our 60-page document together. Once we’d completed the proposal (including three sample chapters), we found an agent whom we really trusted at Writer’s House, and he managed to sell our book to HarperCollins. The memoir of our round-the-world journey comes out in May 2010, and is called The Lost Girls: Three friends. Four continents. One unconventional detour around the world.

Todd: Many travelers dream of writing about their experiences, but finding an agent and a publisher can be very competitive. How did you approach this and any advice for aspiring travel writers?

First and foremost, know that it is possible to find an agent and to get a book deal. Keep in mind though that it can take even talented writers several years before they connect with the right representative, and find a publisher, willing to take them on. Some of the most famous writers got doors slammed in their faces (or worse, heard nothing at all!) several times before they finally convinced someone to believe in their ideas, and their talent.

Before attempting a full-length book, we’d recommend honing your specific voice and narrative style as much as possible by, well—writing. Keep a journal and jot down notes and ideas everywhere you go. Sign up for your own a travel blog. Contribute pieces to other well-know travel sites like Vagablogging, World Hum, or Brave New Traveler (some will actually pay you to publish your work!) Pick up a copy of the Writer’s Market to find out which travel magazines and newspapers accept queries. Learn how to write an article query by snagging a few more books from Amazon.com on the topic (there are several guides out there to help you get started) or take a class through MediaBistro (locations in cities nationwide). The point is to gain both experience—and collect the clips—that will later show an agent and publisher that you have the chops to write an entire manuscript.

One interesting thing we learned when trying to shop around The Lost Girls: agents and editors have recently been flooded with book ideas from one writer who has visited a single destination. These ideas are often discarded, because they’re not viewed as compelling, or unique enough. Our editor at Harper Collins told us that the reason they liked The Lost Girls was that it presented a unique spin on a travel tale: Three best friends from New York City, who abandoned all of the things that 20-somethings are supposed to want (stable jobs, great guys, a positive bank balance) in order to travel around the world.

Todd: Writing a memoir can be an intense task just for one person. How did you manage writing one with all three of you? Any serious disagreements about what really happened?

Figuring out how to cover all the countries we’d visited, the myriad experiences we had on the road and divide up the chapters equally among three different women was no easy task.  Especially since we were faced with the challenge of meshing our individual and collective experiences into a single memoir, which took quite a lot of planning.   Everything seemed to take much longer because we had to coordinate with each other whenever we wanted to change an angle or write about a place we hadn’t originally decided upon in our outline.

On the upside, it forced us to be more organized since we had to map out exactly how we saw the book being organized right from the start. And having two other co-authors to be accountable kept us motivated to stick to our deadlines – and to be as honest as possible when sharing our stories.

We always joked that taking a trip around the world together was the best preparation for writing a book together –and likely the only factor that got us through the tough times where writers block struck or we had to rearrange our chapters. But believe it or not, never had any major disagreements about what really happened (again, co-writers have an annoying way of keeping you honest!).  And in the end, writing a memoir together has made our friendships even stronger we really feel so incredibly lucky to have shared not one, but two, life changing experiences together.

Todd: What travel book would you compare The Lost Girls to in terms of style and voice?

I’m not sure we can identify another travel memoir that has a very similar tone and style to The Lost Girls. At least we’ve never seen one that’s both narrative non-fiction and been written by three authors.  We do sometimes describe the rotation between authors (and the name of who’s speaking noted at the top of each chapter) to that of a Jodi Piccoult novel, but of course our “characters” are real and hers are fiction.

There have been several travel memoirs that have greatly inspired us, especially Honeymoon with Brother by Franz Wisner, who isn’t afraid to take chances and get off the beaten path when he travels, and writes about his experiences with compassion, humility, and humor. He was also a first-time book author who took a risk by quitting his job, just like us, and traveled around the world. So we really identified with that.

Todd: Some travel writers fictionalize their stories to make them more compelling. How do you feel about that and did you do this in The Lost Girls?

While it’s sometimes necessary to condense tales or rearrange certain details for the sake of storytelling, I think any good travel writer will try to stick to the truth as closely as possible.  When we set out to write The Lost Girls, there was no doubt in our minds that we wanted it to be a memoir versus a similar tale of fiction characters who resembled us.  We wanted to share the real story of our journey –the good, the bad and the road weary) in a very authentic, very relatable way –which we feel we’ve accomplished to the best of our ability.

Of course, the end result is really best answered by sharing the disclaimer from our book:

“When we finished our first draft of The Lost Girls, we realized that in order to print it in a typeface you didn’t need a magnifying glass to read—and make it light enough to carry on a plane without incurring excess baggage fees—we’d probably have to cut things down a little. And so we set out to streamline our tale, a task that required numerous late-night brainstorming sessions over red wine and sushi and a few workdays when we never changed out of our pajamas at all.

And though we’ve stuck to the real story of our adventures as closely and accurately as we can recall (cowriters have a wonderful way of keeping you honest!), we occasionally merged characters, reordered events, and condensed time to keep your eyes from glazing over. Many names of people and places (including the Indian ashram) have been changed and some of the identifying details altered to protect the innocent—and not so innocent—but the characters and stories themselves are entirely authentic. We really did bribe our way across the Cambodian border, really did sleep with cockroaches in Kenya, and really did get on a plane together and embark on a journey around the world. The trip turned out to be the greatest adventure of our lives—and that’s the most important truth of them all.”

Todd: What were the highest and lowest points of your trip?

Definitely our first major high came when we reached the top of Dead Woman’s Pass on our second day on the Inca Trail (notoriously the hardest).  Amanda and Holly and both fallen ill a few days before and we weren’t sure we’d even make it on the trek let alone make it to the top of one of the steepest impasses of the four-day, 3-night hike to Machu Picchu. So it was even more rewarding when we reached the Lost City of the Incas just in time to see the first rays of sunlight hit the ancient ruins.

The other major highlight of our trip was volunteering for a month in rural Kenya through Village Volunteers (www.villagevolunteers.org).  Since all three of us were interested in youth education, the company’s founder recommended that we work with the Common Ground Program, a grassroots NGO that housed The Pathfinder Academy primary school, which served hundreds of children, many of who were orphans or had lost at least one parent to illness or disease.

As for the lowest points, aside from a few bouts of road weariness, we fortunately made it through the trip with no major catastrophes.  That’s not to say we didn’t have a few bumps in the road.  The scariest was when we were pretty much held captive by a maniacal cab driver in Vietnam who’d rigged his meter to cheat us. When we protested he sped off into a dark alley and wouldn’t stop until we screamed so loud we likely woke up the entire Old Quarter of Hanoi.

Todd: What would you like your readers to take away from The Lost Girls?

We live in unique times where women in developed nations like our own have an abundance of choice (a luxury to be sure) but given the freedom to blaze our own path for one of the first times in history, which way do we turn? Every woman must decide for herself whether to take the road of marriage, or motherhood, or career. Or all three. Or something else entirely. Our grandmothers and mothers worked hard to get us to this place, but there is no roadmap that helps us learn how to trust our guts so we can make the right decisions for us as individuals that will ultimately leave us feeling happy, free, and fulfilled. We hope that after reading The Lost Girls, young women will understand that they’re not alone in their uncertainty, and that it’s okay for them to figure out exactly who they are on their own timeline. For us, the exploration process involved travel, with two friends at our sides.

If you liked this interview please leave a comment, or if you’ve read the book please tell us what you thought.

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