Trek Through Afghanistan Or Explore The Congo With Wild Frontiers

Wild Frontiers takes travelers to AfghanistanIf you still haven’t settled on an amazing adventure for 2013 then perhaps you’ll want to take a look at some of the trips that Wild Frontiers has to offer. The adventure travel company that operates out of the U.K. specializes in unique, one-of-a-kind tours to a number of great destinations on the planet and this year two of their itineraries are unlike anything you’ll find elsewhere.

The first of those trips will take adventurous travelers deep into the Pamir Mountains of Afghanistan as they spend a month trekking the Wakhan Corridor. This narrow piece of land once served as a neutral zone between the British and Russian Empires but now it is a seldom-visited region populated only by local herdsmen. Wild Frontiers is one of the few travel companies in the world that guides trekkers through this remote destination, which boasts breathtaking views and pristine valleys rarely seen by outsiders. This is a physically demanding and difficult trip but for those who truly want an off-the beaten-path adventure, it is tough to top a trek through the Wakhan Corridor. It is truly one of the most isolated places you could ever hope to visit. The price is £4495 or about $6820.

Wild Frontiers takes travelers to the CongoThe other unique itinerary on the Wild Frontiers schedule for this year is a 20-day journey by boat down the Congo River. Travelers on this excursion will follow in the footsteps of the famed explorer Henry Morton Stanley as they go deep into the wild and untamed African interior. They’ll visit villages inhabited by the last pygmy tribes, encounter a wide array of wildlife and observe life along the river as they slowly cruise past. For more of an idea of what to expect from this journey checkout the YouTube clip below. The price is £5995, which converts to $9095.

Some travel companies promise their customers an adventure but few actually deliver it in the truest sense of the word. But Wild Frontiers is a company that really does focus on putting the “adventure” in adventure travel. The two expeditions that I highlighted above are a good example of this, but they are also just the tip of the iceberg. Take a look at their full catalog by clicking here.

[Photo Credit: Wild Frontiers]


8 Delicious Street Foods From Around The World That You Can Make At Home


There is a certain beauty to street food: it’s simple and with one bite you have a true taste of the local culture. Some people even pick their destination based on how much street food they can get. But exotic street food doesn’t have to be restricted to the alleyways you found it in. With a little creativity and daring in the kitchen, you can turn your own dinner table into the best foreign street food stand around. Just make sure you get a stray cat or dog to sit next to it for the sake of ambience.

Bánh xèo
Bahn Xeo has always been a personal favorite of mine. The savory rice crepe, traditionally filled with shrimp and bean sprouts, is a common staple on Vietnamese menus, and despite its complex taste you can actually make your own in about half an hour. What’s key in this recipe is the mint and nuoc chom Vietnamese dipping sauce. Try this recipe from Closet Cooking.

Parisian Crepes
For a food lover, the ultimate question when roaming the streets of Paris is often: sweet or savory? It’s difficult to choose between a good crepe filled with cheese or one with gooey Nutella… or one with sugar and lemon… or one with gruyere and mushrooms. You get the picture. Look no further than the Parisian pastry master and food blogger David Leibovitz for this basic buckwheat crepe recipe, perfect for the savory versions.

Fish Tacos
Feet in the warm sand, a cold cerveza in your hand and a couple of fish tacos from the dilapidated stand at the edge of the beach. Life doesn’t get better than that. But for those times when you can’t hop on a plane to Baja, a super easy solution to making fish tacos is to coat pieces of fish in cornmeal. When you pan fry in a little bit of vegetable oil, the fish gets a nice crunchy flavor. The top with all the good seasonings: cilantro, red cabbage, pineapple, guacamole… whatever you have on hand. Foodista has this good basic recipe, which includes a spicy jalapeno mayonnaise.

Satay
A good satay, like the kind you’ll find in Malaysia or Thailand, complete with the perfect dipping sauce, is all about the marinade, which means taking the time to let the meat marinate. Of course having a barbecue will do wonders, but you can also make them with the use of a grill pan on your stovetop. Satay skewers are the perfect thing for an appetizer or dinner parties where you have to serve a lot of people. Start with this Malaysian recipe from Just As Delish.

Elote
I have a friend that brought this Mexican grilled corn to numerous dinner parties last summer, and it was always a hit. The trick is in its simplicity – it really is just grilled corn with a few additions – making it just what a street food should be. Warm and messy, it’s the kind of dish where you’ll definitely want some napkins. Try this easy recipe from Food Blogga.

Bolani
A common street food in Afghanistan, bolani is somewhere in between a calzone, a handpie and a quesadilla. In other words: fried, doughy goodness. The key in good bolani is in the filling. Go with a potato or pumpkin base and make sure to employ plenty of leeks and cilantro. If you are short on time, you can use tortillas instead of making your own dough, like Humaira at Afghan Cooking does, but if you’re up to it, it’s worth it to make your own. Conflict Kitchen from Pennsylvania has a solid one, although you may need to cut it in half depending on how many people you are serving.

Vietnamese Iced Coffee
I got used saying ca-phe sua dua (phonetic spelling of course) when I spent time in Vietnam a few years ago; there was no getting through a hot day in Saigon without one. You can of course get really complex with your coffee brewing and invest in a Phin, the filter that Vietnamese coffee is brewed in, or you can just use a good cold brew (let a French press stand over night) or some strong stovetop espresso, then just add sweetened condensed milk and ice cubes.

Socca
A sunny afternoon in Nice, France calls for a batch of socca. The gluten-free crepe made from chickpea flour is good on its own, or you can get creative with what you serve with it. Goat cheese and olives anyone? Drizzle with olive oil, serve with a good rose and it’s almost like you are on the Cote D’Azur. Try this recipe from The Kitchn.

[Photo Credits: MyDays, Charles Haynes, Serge Melki, abrowncoat, iPyo, sarihuella, Anna Brones, toehk, Tran's World Productions]

Biking In Afghanistan: The Power Of Two Wheels To Change Perspective

“Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of riding a bike.” John F. Kennedy

Bikes have long been a simple mode of transportation, getting us from point A to point B. But riding a bike doesn’t just get you somewhere; the process is fun. There is joy in riding a bicycle.

When I travel I am always on the lookout for bikes and what the local bike culture is. In my hometown of Portland, Oregon, bikes are everywhere. It’s a city filled with commuters, cross racers and road riders. It’s a city with a strong bike culture and thanks to the work of bike advocates and groups like the Bicycle Transportation Alliance there are plenty of incentives to ride.

Coming from a place like Portland, it’s easy to take my easy bike commute for granted. Other cities are not always graced with the same ease of life on two wheels; but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

My first day in Kabul, we were in the midst of afternoon traffic hour. Cars, minivans and motorcycles were everywhere. There was even the occasional goat on the side of the street. In the midst of this chaotic hustle and bustle, men on bicycles wove in and out of traffic, dodging cars and doing the kind of cycling maneuvers that are normally equated with bike messengers.I was stressed, and it had nothing to do with being in a conflict zone. The thought of bikes in this mess of traffic was too much.

I thought back to my own close calls with cars – the near misses that keep you aware every time you get on your bike. I shuddered and wondered if I would have the mental capacity to deal with cycling in the midst of Kabul traffic on a daily basis. The phrase “this isn’t Portland …” kept popping into my head.

Making a U-turn in the middle of a busy road to avoid a traffic jam, we nearly hit a man with a kid sitting on his handlebars. Both the driver and cyclist insisted on their right of way, resulting in the bicycle tapping the front of our minivan and both our driver and the cyclist shouting at each other. I looked at my friend Shannon who has worked extensively in Afghanistan and knows the ins and outs of daily life. She just looked at me and shrugged. This was normal apparently.

What is not normal, however, is seeing a woman on a bicycle. As Shannon said in a recent interview about her own experience with biking in Afghanistan, “I had one man say to me, with this very shocked look on his face, how impressed he was, that it takes a lot of intelligence to ride a bike, alluding that that’s why women don’t ride bikes,” she said. “It became an interesting conversation starter.”

But that perspective is changing. There’s an Afghan women’s cycling team that competes internationally. One day we happened upon a girl riding to school just south of Kabul. In a country where conflict is a constant and women’s rights have a long way to go, it’s things like this that keep you inspired. Small change leads to big change.

In the rural village of Istalif, Shannon and I were even invited to take a cruise down the main street on a well-outfitted old bicycle, complete with a siren-sounding bell and streamers on the handlebars. The men laughed as we pedaled back and forth. A woman on a bicycle? How amusing!

It’s interesting to think about how much a simple thing like a bicycle can do to change perspective. As Susan B. Anthony once said, “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel … the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”

The simple joys that come from riding a bicycle are undeniable; the smiles from a group of young Afghan kids on their way to school stopping to ride with Shannon when she was out on her mountain bike are a vivid memory. If there is a cultural bridge to cross, a bike may very well be the way to do it.

At the end of October 2012, Anna Brones spent two weeks in Afghanistan with nonprofit Mountain2Mountain working to produce several Streets of Afghanistan public photo exhibits. This series chronicles the work on that trip and what it’s like to travel in Afghanistan. Follow along here.

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World’s Worst Places: Top 10 Places In The World You Do Not Want To Visit In 2013

islamist extremists in maliI’m the kind of person who can conjure up an excuse to visit just about any place. I grew up in Buffalo, America’s most unfairly maligned city, and so I identify with underdog destinations – places with bad weather, crime, ugly people, rude people, you name it and I probably still want to go there.

But there are some places on this planet that even I do not want to visit. Places where you might be taken hostage and have your head chopped off; places where extremists shoot teenage girls in the head because they want to be educated; places where you could be stoned to death for having a child out of wedlock; places where terrorists plant bombs in churches, places so polluted the local fish have three eyes.
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One can make an anecdotal case against visiting just about any place in the world. As we saw in Newtown, Connecticut, evil can happen anywhere. And today’s hellholes could be tomorrow’s next hot destinations. But you won’t find me in any of these places in 2013.al shabaab in somaliaAnywhere Near Somalia

In March, my colleague Sean McLachlan reported that the security situation in Somalia was improving, but I wouldn’t rush right out to your travel agent to book a holiday in what most people consider to be the world’s most dangerous country just yet. Mogadishu made our list last year, but after talking to Paul and Rachel Chandler, a British couple who were taken hostage at sea by Somali pirates a good 900 miles off Somalia’s coast in 2009, I would avoid a much wider radius than simply “Mog.”

There may have been some improvements in the security situation since the Chandlers were released after a year in captivity, but there are still plenty of reasons to stay away. In January, gunmen kidnapped an American man in the northern town of Galkayo, the same town where an American woman and a Dane were taken hostage last October. In February, the militant group Al-Shabaab, which has been pushed out of Somalia’s cities by the country’s U.N.-backed government but still maintains control of some rural areas, merged with Al-Qaeda.

The United Kingdom’s Foreign Office details at least nine other violent incidents since then in its most recent travel warning on Somalia. If you do brave the risks and visit Somalia, think twice before checking into the Jazeera Palace Hotel in Mogadishu. Al-Shabaab killed eight people there in a failed plot to assassinate the Somali president in September.




m23 soldier eastern DRC north kivu

North Kivu, Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo

At least five million people were killed in the DRC in what’s been called Africa’s First World War from 1994-2003, and a proxy war, waged between rebel groups backed by Rwanda and the Kinshasa government, continued through 2008. Sadly the situation in the eastern part of the country has deteriorated this year as several armed groups like M23 continue to vie for control of this resource-rich part of the country.

In the U.S. State Department’s recent travel warning on the DRC, travelers are cautioned against the continued presence of Lord’s Resistance Army thugs and armed groups who are “known to pillage, steal vehicles, kidnap, rape, kill, and carry out military or paramilitary operations in which civilians are indiscriminately targeted.” The DRC is rated dead last in the U.N.’s Human Development Index for good reason: it’s a basket case in danger of becoming a full-on failed state. Other than aid workers, diplomats, mercenaries and shady businesspeople, no one in their right mind is traveling to the eastern DRC, and the rest of the country isn’t exactly the South of France either.

conflict in syria

Syria

Syria, with its ancient capital, said to be the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city, historic souks, castles and impressive archaeological sites, was once a popular destination for backpackers. Now, nearly two years into a bloody civil war, the tourists are long gone with seemingly little hope of them returning anytime soon. More than 30,000 people have been killed in a conflict that has created nearly 500,000 refugees and about 2.5 million internally displaced people. But when peace returns to Syria, the tourists will certainly return to this interesting and hospitable country.




helmand province afghanistan ied

Helmand Province, Afghanistan

Last year, we recognized Kandahar Province as a distinctly violent, nasty place we had no intention of visiting in the near future but given the fact that nearly twice as many ISAF Coalition troops have perished in neighboring Helmand Province, extremists there could make a strong argument that they were snubbed.

And Helmand isn’t just a dangerous place for Coalition troops. A recent AP story asserted that despite a vigorous effort by the U.S.-led Coalition to rid the province of insurgents, residents are still afraid to go out after dark when bands of marauding criminals roam the streets. The province is a hotbed of poppy production, which finances the insurgents’ campaigns, and many residents support the Taliban.

And if you find yourself in Helmand, perish the thought; don’t expect the police to help you either. In 2012, at least 62 Coalition troops and 86 Afghans have been shot dead by Afghan police or soldiers, including fatal incidents in Helmand in August, September and October. Only a complete lunatic would plan a trip to Helmand Province, but Trip Advisor, God bless them, does indeed have a page entitled “Helmand Province Vacations” under the tab “Helmand Province Tourism” as though such a thing existed. Not surprisingly, there are no hotels, restaurants or things to do listed.

mali extremists

Mali

Mali, home to the legendary city of Timbuktu and one of the richest cultural and music scenes in West Africa, took several turns for the worse in 2012 and is now off limits to any traveler hoping to go home in one piece. Mali has had not one but two coups in 2012, and in April, Tuareg rebels declared an independent state called Azawad in the north of the country.

Before you rush out to apply for a tourist visa to Azawad, be warned that the territory’s economy revolves around kidnapping, most of them carried out by the thugs who run the place. There are ten European and three Algerian hostages currently being held in Northern Mali and there have been several other hostage-taking incidents involving tourists and diplomats in recent years, including an incident involving a Frenchman in Southwest Mali in November.

Edwin Dyer, a British tourist, was taken hostage and then beheaded in 2009, and Michel Germaneau, a 78-year-old French aid worker was taken hostage in neighboring Niger and was then reportedly killed in Mali in 2010. In the north, Islamists are known to administer rough justice. In one case, a police chief sawed off his own brother’s hand, and in July, in the northern town of Aguelhok, a couple was stoned to death for having a child out of wedlock.




san pedro sula blight most violent city in the world poverty

San Pedro Sula, Honduras

Mexico gets all the bad press for its drug and gang violence, but on a per-capita basis, Honduras may be even more violent. Tourists flock to Roatán and other safe, idyllic beach getaways in Honduras, but San Pedro Sula ranks first in the world in per capita murders (1,143 murders in a city of just 719,447 in 2011) and Tegucigalpa ranks fifth. The Honduran districts of Yoro – with 110 murders per 100,000 – and Morazán – with 86 per 100,000 – both in the interior of the country, are also plagued by violence.

According to a 2011 UN Report, Honduras has the highest murder rate of any country in the world, with 86 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. I have a friend who used to teach English in San Pedro Sula in the ’90s and he said that the city used to be reasonably safe prior to Hurricane Mitch, which wreaked havoc on the country in 1998.

bomb blast in nigeriaNorthern Nigeria

Boko Haram, a militant Islamist group that seeks to establish an Islamic state under Sharia law, is one of the nastiest terrorist groups in the world. Their late leader, Mohammed Yusuf, told the BBC in 2009 that he believed the earth was flat and said that education “spoils the belief in one God.”

Their targets have included the Nigerian military, the police, opponents of Sharia law and foreigners. Their tactics have included planting bombs in churches, attacking a UN compound in Abuja, taking hostages and engaging in extrajudicial assassinations. Boko Haram militants killed at least 186 people with a series of gun and bomb attacks near their base in Kano in January 2012 alone. On Christmas Eve this year, gunmen shot dead six Christians and set fire to their church in the northern province of Yobe.

And Boko Haram aren’t the only troublemakers in the region. Another Al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist group killed two hostages, one from Britain, and one from Italy, in the town of Sokoto in March, and a German engineer that was being held hostage in Kano was killed in a rescue attempt along with five others in May. According to the State Department, criminals have abducted at least 140 foreigner nationals in Nigeria, including seven U.S. citizens, since January 2009.




kazakhstan nuclear testing

Semipalatinsk Test Site near Semey, Kazakhstan

Intrepid, some would say ill-advised, travelers can now visit Chernobyl, and some hard heads have even returned to live in the off-limits Fukushima exclusion zone in Japan, but the area around the primary testing venue for the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal, called “The Polygon,” remains closed, more than 20 years after Kazakhstan became the first country to voluntarily give up its nuclear weapons in 1991. The Soviets used the steppes of eastern Kazakhstan to test more than 400 nuclear bombs during the Cold War and to this day, residents of the city of Semipalatinsk (renamed Semey) suffer disproportionately from cancer and birth deformities blamed on continuing radiation.

Although the Polygon itself is technically off limits, it’s an area the size of Belgium with poorly marked boundaries and farmers allow their animals to graze there, according to The Telegraph. Stay away and avoid ordering horsemeat from eastern Kazakhstan if at all possible.

ghost town near chernobyl

On Holiday with Andrew Blackwell

Andrew Blackwell is the author of “Visit Sunny Chernobyl: And Other Adventures In The World’s Most Polluted Places. The interesting thing about Blackwell isn’t just that he actively sought out and traveled to the world’s most wretchedly foul, contaminated places, it’s that he apparently enjoyed it.

“It’s not that I love grossness itself, but I did come to love many of the polluted places I visited,” he told the New York Times. “And I object to the outright disgust these kinds of places get saddled with, because once that disgust becomes entrenched, we’re more likely to give up on them.”

In his book, Blackwell even defends Linfen, a coal town in Shanxi province, China, which was named the most polluted city in the world in 2006 by the Blacksmith Institute, and was subsequently put at or near the top of every top ten most polluted places list all over the net. (Last year, a city called Ahvaz in Iran topped a World Health Organization air pollution list.)

But it turns out that the Blacksmith list wasn’t rank ordered, but rather alphabetized by country, so Linfen was merely one of the ten nastiest places in the world and not necessarily the nastiest. Still, even Blackwell had to admit that the dust and pollution gave him a nasty cough.

“Chronic respiratory disease and even lung cancer must stalk the city’s boulevards and alleyways,” he wrote.




Malala YousafzaiPakistan’s Tribal Areas

Pound-for-pound the Swat Valley and the seven semiautonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) near the border with Afghanistan might have more ignorant, violent extremists than any other place on the planet. One could fill a large volume with horror stories about bad things that have happened in this part of northwest Pakistan, but exhibit A of the brutality and extremism that pervades this area is the October 9 assassination attempt on 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai that wounded her and two others perpetrated by vermin who personify the word evil.

Yousafzai, who was shot in the head on a school bus and is now recovering in Britain, became a target for advocating on behalf of locals girls who want to be educated. In recent years, thousands of Pakistanis have died in terrorist attacks in the northwest and despite the U.S. drone strike campaign, which has pushed U.S. favorability ratings in Pakistan down to 12%, the region is still a hotbed for extremists.

Pockets of ignorance and extremism exist in other parts of the country as well. On December 18 and 19, gunmen shot dead seven people working on a U.N.-backed polio vaccination drive, four were killed in Karachi, and the others perished in the northwest, most from gunshots to the head, fired at close range.




Notes: Special thanks to Jay Dunne and Bernard Londoni, security analysts at iJet, a risk-management firm based in Annapolis, for providing me with intel on some of the locales listed above. A previous version of this story incorrectly noted that Robert Fowler was taken hostage in Mali. He was taken hostage in neighboring Niger.

[Photo credits: Issouf Sanogo, AFP/Getty Images, AP Photo/Mohamed Sheikh Nor, AP, Getty Images, Freedom House, Al Jazeera English, Mahgrebia, CTBTO, and Tim Seuss on Flickr]

Faces Of Afghanistan: Why A Personal Connection Is The Most Important Part Of Travel

“The people are sweet, the country’s a mess.”

I had asked an NGO worker with a teaching and military background about his perspective of Afghanistan.

It’s always hard to sum up a place in a sentence, be it Australia or Afghanistan, but this one kind of said it all, in a particularly heartbreaking way.

Read a newspaper article and you get to know a place. Have an exchange with an individual in that place and you get to know a person. It is a lot easier to make assumptions about a place when we don’t have that personal connection. I am reminded of the Dagobert D. Runes quote, “People travel to faraway places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home.”

Ignoring is the easy route, facilitated by our illusion of being informed. In the day and age of the Internet and television we can know a lot about the rest of world, without ever leaving our homes, but how many of us stop to question how much we really know about the places that we read or hear about? If we do in fact “know” a place, do we take the time to do anything about it?

We travel because it’s the alternative to taking the easy route. It forces us to be compassionate. To make the kind of connections that are about more than what we have read about or heard on the news.

Numbers and statistics turn to an individual interaction. A person. A brother. A sister. A mother. A husband. A personal connection puts a face to a place, and in the process changes our perspective and attachment to that place.

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In Afghanistan, as I was offered cups of tea from strangers, taught words in Dari and asked about my own perspectives of the country, it was clear that for me this place of conflict was shifting from a far off war zone to a collection of faces and personalities. Before, when someone said the word “Afghanistan” my mind immediately went to suicide bombers and AK 47s. Now it goes to a handshake, a necklace given as a parting present, brunch in someone’s home overlooking a garden, an email asking if I am keeping up on my Dari.

We need policy and diplomats and humanitarian organizations to build a platform for positive change in this world. But we also need personal interactions – the kind that shape how we look at and understand a place.

At the end of October, Anna Brones spent two weeks in Afghanistan with nonprofit Mountain2Mountain working to produce several Streets of Afghanistan public photo exhibits. This series chronicles the work on that trip and what it’s like to travel in Afghanistan. Follow along here.

[Photo Credits: Anna Brones]