The Purple Passport launches chic urban guide for New York City

purple passportFor the hip, worldly, and discerning traveler, there’s a new guide on the block: The Purple Passport, which just added New York to its roster of web-based city guides.

The Purple Passport offers handpicked hotel, restaurant, spa, nightlife, shopping, and activity recommendations from its team of travel tastemakers, with an easy interface that allows users to add items to personal “passports” that can then be printed or emailed to travel companions. Their listings are candid, comprehensive, and current, with categories like “Well Coiffed” for nightlife spots with a door policy and “Chic & Design” for trendy minimalist hotels. Picks in the New York City guide include home decor emporium ABC Carpet & Home, the Ace Hotel in up-and-coming NoMad, and the swanky Rose Bar at the Gramercy Park Hotel.

Founded by friends and travel companions Emily Brands and Jennifer Garcia-Alonso, The Purple Passport aims to provide a one-stop-shop for urban travelers seeking carefully curated information on the world’s most stylish cities. Guides are also available for London, Paris, Los Angeles, Palm Beach, and Beijing, with Abu Dhabi, Taipei, Chicago, Miami, and Washington DC next on tap.

[image via The Purple Passport]

Tickets for the Nomading Film Festival in New York go on sale Friday

After a successful run this past June, the Nomading Film Festival is returning to New York this summer, June 23, 2012. Nomading Film Festival is an event that showcases stories caught on film during peoples’ travels, giving new talent a chance to share their stories and viewers a chance to travel all over the world without leaving Brooklyn.

The really early bird tickets will be sold at a very discounted price this Friday, November 11, 2011. Not only that, but travelers of all ages from all over the world can begin submitting their travel videos (must be under 15 minutes). Until April 30, 2012, submissions are only $10, and selected filmmakers will be notified by May 15, 2012. Prizes, such as trips, flights, and gear, are awarded in three categories:

  • The nomad I want to travel with
  • The most enlightening trip
  • Simply put, that trip makes me want to travel, now!

Guest speakers, workshops, games, and music will also be part of the fun. For more information, visit their official website. To get a better idea of what to expect, check out one of Nomading’s travel-inspired films:


Great Himalaya Trail now open in Nepal in southern Asia

the great himalaya trail opens in nepal The Great Himalaya Trail is officially open for visitors in Nepal in southern Asia. This trail, which stretches from Taplejung in the east to Humla in the west near the border of Tibet, is one of the longest and highest hiking routes in the world.

The goal of creating this trail is to boost tourism in Nepal and portray the country as the perfect destination for adventure seekers. During the 1,700 kilometer trek, hikers will not only experience nature but also a variety of cultures, as the five month or longer trip encompasses 16 different districts. For hikers who do not want to spend that much time hiking straight through the trail, it can also be done in sections, with each bit offering a different type of landscape to experience.

The Great Himalaya Trail is a great active adventure addition for Nepal, as it is already home to 8 of the world’s 14 highest peaks (all over 8,000 meters), including Mount Everest. For a list of companies that you can sign-up with to complete the trek, click here.

Exploring a Somali camel market

Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, is built on an oasis used by nomads since ancient times. It’s been a center for camel and livestock trading for centuries. Hargeisa’s camel market, the Senlaola Hoolaha as it’s called in Somali, is a huge and dusty field a mile from the city center. Most of the day it´s used as playground by schoolchildren, but between 7 and 12 a.m. the scene is taken over by camels, goats, sheep, cows, their respective owners and of course prospective owners.

It´s a tumultuous place. The men are inspecting the animals or standing in groups sharing the latest gossip. The women have occupied a big part of the field for their own business of selling food to hungry traders. Some have traveled for days to sell their goods. The camel herders, who generally travel without any motorized transport, have been traveling for as long as two weeks and from as far away as the Ogaden region of eastern Ethiopia.

A camel can cost anything from 300 to 1000 dollars depending on its age, strength, and of course the buyer’s ability to haggle. All camels have been marked with the owner’s special sign to avoid any conflicts about ownership.

%Gallery-93036%Not everyone can learn how to recognize a good camel, says Hassan, who has been buying and selling camels and goats at Senlaola Hoolaha for twenty years. He enthusiastically shows me where to check on the camel’s back to know its age and health. You have to know how what to look for or you’ll get cheated, he says. Many camel herders give their camels extra water to make them look fatter than they really are, and only a well-trained eye can spot the difference.

To make sure that your bargaining doesn’t affect anyone else’s deals, an intricate technique of hand signs has been developed. The two businessmen put a shawl over their interlocked hands, and the bids are communicated by touch. The negotiations usually last from five to ten minutes but can take up to half an hour. The system might seem complicated at first glance, but the logic is simple and easy to learn. Every finger has a number. All the numbers from 1 to 9 represented. One, for example, would be described by grabbing the index finger at the tip. In the case bigger numbers are needed a zero can be added by grabbing a bigger part of the finger. One finger can therefore describe 1, 10, 100, 1000. Since both parties know the general price for a goat or a camel the use of zero is limited.

If you’ve ever been to the camel market at Birqash, near Cairo, you’ll probably notice one significant difference. While in Egypt you’ll constantly be followed around by hustlers, in Hargeisa you won´t be offered anything but long gazes of amazement. Here you are the only tourist around and you´ll soon find yourself, not the camels, becoming the main attraction.

(Note: the photos and much of the text in this post are the work of Leo Stolpe, a Swedish photojournalist who joined me on some of my Somaliland adventures. I merely edited the text and added a few things. Unfortunately, the program I’m using doesn’t allow me to put him in the byline. Check out Leo’s website for more great photos from his epic travels in east Africa.)

East of Africa: Toliara (Tuléar)

Our driver has a big smile on his face. He points ahead at the landscape which has become increasingly flat in the past hour or so. I follow his finger up to see the road dramatically disappearing into a vast, clear, blue horizon.

After two days and 1,000km, we’ve made it to Madagascar’s southwestern coast – to the small, sleepy town of Toliara.

Within moments of driving into the town, it’s clear that Toliara has little in common with the other places that we’ve been to so far. It’s quiet; there are no taxis jamming the roads or honking their horns. Instead, an abundance of rickshaw drivers stand idly next to empty carts, sweating profusely in the harsh southern sunlight.

As we navigate between dusty paved and unpaved streets, there are signs for both Toliara and Tuléar – which can be confusing for new guests. Although both names are pronounced the same, the official title was changed to Toliara in the 1970’s to better reflect the spelling found in the Malagasy language. The two are basically interchangeable and both are found on maps and in guidebooks.

Much to the contrast of Antananarivo or Fianarantsoa, there are no two-story mud, wood and brick homes. The houses are mostly one-room wood structures with palm-thatched roofs, surrounded by tall scraggly sticks, nailed together to form a sturdy fence. There are a few western-style cafés and restaurants along the main streets, but most of the eateries are local Malagasy-rice-and-beans type of places.

Technically, Toliara and the neighboring beach community of Ifaty are considered tourist desinations – but they would be best described as places for a simple, quiet getaway rather than a luxurious, exotic adventure. I can’t imagine it every being overrun by tourist activity, but at the same time it’s apparent that the drop in tourism this year has hurt Toliara’s livelihood.

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The people milling about in the streets have darker skin than in the highlands, and faces topped with curly hair. The primary inhabitants are three of Madgascar’s eighteen ethnic groups; the Vezo, Mahafaly, and Antandroy (“People of the thorn bush”).

Of these three groups, the Vezo are the most well-known for their semi-nomadic migratory habits and practices as a fishing population. Using large dugout canoes with sails, they are the only Malagasy ethnicity to survive solely on fishing or other marine products like seaweed farms. They migrate during the long dry seasons and set up camps in family groups – often using the sails and masts from their canoes as shelter.

Surprisingly enough, the Vezo dialect suggests that their ancestry comes from Asia; probably via trade routes from Thailand and Sri Lanka. Just another prime example of Madagascar’s complicated ethnic mélange.

After settling into a modest guesthouse with a nice garden, we head out to the night markets so that the team can generate interest in the LED lamps. The streets are lined with vegetable-covered tarps lit by improvised wicks poking out of the tops of small cans of kerosene. Many of the women who operate these stalls have pulled out micro-finance loans from organizations like CECAM to fund their investment, and rely on a network of personal friends and loyal customers to keep their business afloat.

They are stunned by the lamps and thrilled that they might be able to purchase something that would easily eliminate one of their major daily costs (kerosene).

We drift towards a row of beachfront clubs as darkness settles in and make our way into a place with simple open-air dance floor. There’s a cover charge of 4,000 Ariary ($2 USD) – a trend that seems to be catching on quickly in African clubs where tourists are expected.

Inside, tracks from David Guetta and Bob Sinclar breathe life into dozens of young Malagasy girls in bright dresses and heels. They wait for the prospect of an old, lonely vazaa to dance with, and drink cosmopolitans – giggling with shy glances in our group’s direction. I pass on the dancing for now and lean back in a red plastic Coca-Cola chair to admire the sky.

The stars above are easily visible and comforting to look at from such a remote location. I muse to myself how strange it is to be sitting on the shore of one of the world’s largest islands, listening to a track that I danced to barely a month earlier at Ko Phan Ngan’s full moon party. In some ways it feels a world apart, but at the same time, it’s amazing how un-foreign it actually is. Something I’m sure the nomadic Vezo would agree with.

I soak up the scene around me and begin to look forward to the next few days in Toliara. It’s a perfect place to recoup from the lengthy trek down – before doing the whole thing again in reverse…

Catch the previous articles in the East of Africa series!