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Blogger Laurel Miller

Introducing another new blogger at Gadling, Laurel Miller…

Where was your photo taken? I was in Cusco, Peru, preparing to walk the Inca Trail.

Where do you live now?
I just moved to Seattle, after two years of couchsurfing between San Francisco and Telluride. Some people think marriage is the ultimate commitment; I find signing a lease terrifying.

Most remote corner of the you’ve globe visited?
It would be a tie between Cape Leveque, on Western Australia’s Dampier Peninsula, or the Haourani community of Quehuiri’ono, in the Ecuadorean Amazon Basin.

Scariest airline flown?
This is an interesting one…I have severe aviophobia, so even thinking about flying a commerical airliner freaks me out. I have to take Xanax to fly, unless I’m in a bush plane, in which case I absolutely love it! That said, I was in a near Cessna runway crash a year ago.

Have you ever had an unexpected layover, and if so, what did you do? I was stranded in the Hanoi airport for five hours, because our plane had mechanical problems (hello, Xanax!). This would have been fine if the airport didn’t resemble a gulag, and I’d known there are no ATM’s or credit cards accepted there. I had nothing to read, I was out of dong, and the only thing I’d eaten that day were a few mouthfuls of dog soup (basically, I was really, really hungry). I tried to nap on a chair in the “restaurant lounge,” and discovered about a decade’s worth of rat droppings on the floor. I ended up begging a German tourist for a handful of cashews in between weeping. I had a rare, really bottomed-out travel day, after a string of mishaps. The Hanoi airport broke me.

What type of traveler are you? I’m a classic dirtbag packpacker, even when covering high-end properties. I find it’s more convienient, and suits my style. I’m pretty low maintenence, but I definitely appreciate occupational perks like five-star hotels, showers, and funky resorts. It’s also great to get a break from from roughing it. Yet I always find myself anxious to get back on the road, having adventures.

Worst place to catch a stomach bug? Well, I can tell you the worst place to begin experiencing a stomach bug: I’d just flown in to a wine festival in New Zealand after a hill-tribe trek in northern Thailand. I was on-stage, assisting a famous chef with a cooking demo. Let’s just say I didn’t stick around for curtain call.

Who would you most like to interview for Gadling? God, it’s such a cliche for a food and travel writer, but Anthony Bourdain. I have so much respect for him as a culinary authority, writer, and traveler, and I think getting shitfaced with him on local hooch, in some foreign backwater, would be a career highlight.

What’s your favorite foreign dish? What about restaurant? I crave Peruvian choclo con queso (boiled indigenous corn with queso fresco), and I’d kill for a bite of calzone from the Porta Nolana market in Naples. My favorite restaurant? High end, The Barn at Blackberry Farm in Tennessee. Cheap eats: a bowl of green chile at El Farolito in New Mexico, or the pork-noodle combo at Chinese Noodle Restaurant in Sydney’s Chinatown.

What’s your favorite trip? I’d have to say the greatest experiences were trying mountaineering for the first time on an active Ecuadorean volcano, and running the Futaleufu River in Chilean Patagonia. Like my favorite place to eat, there’s no way I can choose!

Before You Book: Eco-Friendly Hotel Or Just Greenwashing?

can of green paint and brush

velo_city, Flickr

We’ve all stayed at hotels that proudly boast, via little signs on the bed and/or bathroom sink, that they’re doing their part to save the environment. Don’t want towels changed in order to save water? Just hang ’em up, and the housekeeper will know that you’re a carbon footprint-savvy traveler.

Sure. I can count on half of one hand the number of hotels that have actually paid attention to the location of my towel. I’ve seen countless housekeepers dump the contents of in-room recycling bins into their trash bags. I don’t have any expectations at motels, but when it comes to boutique, “eco-friendly,” or high-end properties making these claims, I find it infuriating.

My focus as a writer and traveler is on sustainability issues, and I’m overjoyed that an increasing number of hotels are more aware of their environmental impact. What doesn’t thrill me: the amount of greenwashing, or false eco-claims, that take place in the hospitality industry. This problem isn’t unique to hotels, but it’s prevalent.

African man holding fish

safari_partners, Flickr

We’re living in an era of climate change. Lowering our individual and collective carbon footprint should be something we do, to the best of our abilities, on a daily basis. Hotels are hip to the fact that an increasing number of travelers have an elevated eco-awareness, and they want to capitalize on that.

In the absence of a word-of-mouth or written recommendation, it can be difficult to ascertain a hotel’s eco-integrity (although certain chains are well-known for their green policies; a 2012 Reuters report cites chains like Six Senses Resorts & Spas, Taj Resorts, Kimpton Hotels and Marriott).

Sites like Green Traveler Guides, however, (full disclosure: I’m a contributing editor) exist as unofficial industry watchdogs, reviewing properties and assessing their green policies. If you’re looking for a hotel or resort that’s genuinely green, sites like GTG feature properties that are both green and great, as well as provide tips on how to be a more eco-minded traveler. Other resources include sites like Green Lodging News.

hotel with exterior living wall

Rev_Stan, Flickr

For a quick study, here’s a checklist of what to look for when researching hotels:

  • If the only mentions refer to buzzwords like “organic,” “local,” “eco-friendly,” “eco-lodge,” or “environment,” caveat emptor. There’s no law that prohibits the use of green jargon; it’s up to you as a consumer to do your homework.
  • Is there a bona-fide recycling (bonus points for composting) program?
  • Does the property employ locals/incorporate and support local culture and community? How?
  • Is the property built and furnished with natural and/or reclaimed or renewable materials wherever possible?
  • Are there green options for guests, such as bike rentals and local culture-based activities?
  • Does the property have green certification from a legit international or domestic organization or program?
Laurel Miller, Gadling
  • Does the property use alternative fuel or electric carts for guest transit on-site and off?
  • Are bathroom amenities and cleaning agents chemical-free? Bonus points your in-room goodies are locally made.
  • If there’s on-site dining, is the food seasonal and sourced locally whenever possible (which reduces fossil fuel output as well as promotes local food security)? Do family farmers, ranchers and fisherman supply ingredients? Is there a chemical-free on-site rooftop or other garden from which the restaurant sources product?
  • Does the property have a “living roof” or walls?
  • Is the property using alternative resources for operations? Examples include solar or wind power, geothermal heating and reclaimed water systems.

The Joys of Traveling Solo

woman with suitcase
Rob, Flickr

As travel writers, taking solo trips goes with the territory, so to speak. Sometimes, we’re able to take along significant others or friends, but that’s the exception. For my part, I prefer to travel alone, be it work or pleasure (which, given my occupation, generally turns into work in some form).

I just returned from a two-week-long solo assignment in Hawaii; it was my 15th visit, 14 of which have been made solo. In the early and mid-90s, I lived on Maui, and those experiences are what really cemented my love of traveling by myself, even in a place marketed to, and dominated by, couples. Sure, it can be lonely or a bit depressing at times to be a lone nomad, but I prefer to focus on the numerous advantages:

  • You generally get more of a cultural immersion when you’re by yourself. Depending upon where you are, locals may either pity you or find you an object of curiosity. This results in invites to dinner in private homes or to local events, and other experiences not easily had when you’re a twosome or in a group.
  • There’s no one to get pissed off at you when you inevitably get lost.

Salar de Uyuni
Laurel Miller, Gadling
  • You’ll likely get more out of your trip, because you can focus on your interests.
  • Even without someone to watch your luggage while you purchase train tickets or run to the bathroom, it’s usually less stressful to travel alone. Bickering is inevitable, no matter how great your relationship, be it romantic or platonic.
  • Locals are usually happy to show you the sights. Again, this depends upon where you are, but by way of example, on a recent trip to Paraguay, I encountered palpable national pride among every single person I met. Everyone was eager to show me why their country is incredible (and it is).
  • Per the above, you’ll see things “tourists” don’t, like hidden waterfalls, swimming holes, sacred sites, rituals, festivals, etc. As with accepting an invitation to someone’s home, you need to use good judgment so you don’t compromise your safety, but without question, my best travel experiences have come about in this manner.
  • Watching a sunset alone on a deserted beach is highly underrated.
  • You may save money; single rooms can be less expensive and cover charges are often waived for women.
  • While I don’t often go out alone at home, I usually love to grab a drink at a dive bar when I travel. It’s a great way to meet locals as well as like-minded fellow travelers (who are always happy to share tips).
  • I find I push yourself more when I travel by myself. My friends aren’t as adventurous or outdoorsy as I am (they might use the term “dirtbaggy“), so hostels, janky buses and ferries, extreme sports, weird street foods and backpacking are out. I happily partake in these activities on my own, which has also been a big confidence-builder.

5 Tips For Traveling With Pets

puppy in back pocket
Beverly, Flickr

For those of us who consider pets members of the family, leaving them behind when we travel often isn’t an option, especially if they’re a certified companion or therapy animal. Sometimes, however, we just want to bring our furry friends along. Fortunately, the travel industry has cottoned on to this fact (we hate to give Paris Hilton credit for anything, but she probably did help to facilitate this one), and an increasing number of hotels, airlines, bars, and even restaurants are cool with guests bringing along an animal.

If you’re thinking of hitting the road (or skies) with your dog, cat, or even rabbit (don’t laugh; the Fairmont Vancouver Airport hotel has a lot of guests from Asia who travel with their bunny buddies), here’s some tips on making the journey easier for everyone involved:

Do your research
Don’t waste your precious holiday time trying to find a hotel last-minute that accepts pets. Book rooms beforehand, and be sure to ask about pet deposits. CNN posted an article today on the 12 of the world’s dog-friendliest hotels. Many properties go to great lengths to ensure your loved one (no, we’re not talking about your spouse or partner) is comfortable, well-fed, and walked regularly, even if you’re busy enjoying other activities. The same book-ahead/ask questions before, not after, approach should apply with regard to airlines and other forms of public transportation.

cat looking out porthole
Eugenio, Flickr

Assess your pet’s attitude
The cardinal sin of traveling with a pet is toting along an animal with behavioral issues. This is especially true if you’re flying or taking another form of public transit. No one is going to sympathize with you if your cat is yowling or your dog isn’t housebroken. Hotels also don’t appreciate pet damage. We get it, it’s your baby. But be honest with yourself (better yet, ask someone unbiased, like your vet) about your pet’s behavior, and whether or not they’ll make a good travel companion.

Get to the vet
You should always take your pet to the vet for a physical before a big trip, or if you know they’re an anxious traveler. Sedatives can reduce their stress, (and in the process, that of seatmates and guests in neighboring rooms), and you also want to rule out any health issues. Try to avoid traveling with baby animals, especially those that haven’t had all of their immunizations.

If you’re traveling overseas or even out-of-state, certain documents such as rabies certificates will likely be required. A pet passport will also be required for certain countries, and will make traveling with your animal easier. Quarantine is also required for certain species traveling to and from specific destinations, including Hawaii (which doesn’t have rabies, and they’d like to keep it that way, thanks). A clean bill of health from your veterinarian is also commonly required.

hiking with dog
Laurel Miller, Gadling

Flying the furry skies
Airline policies vary, so be prepared to make a lot of calls. Pet Airlines is a handy aggregate site that directs you to the pet policies of various airlines and hotels. If at all possible, have your pet travel with you in coach. Airline travel is stressful for pets regardless, but in cargo, the temperature can reach dangerous levels (be it heat or cold), and once in a blue moon, mistakes do occur with regard to transfers or baggage handling. It’s worth the extra dollars to keep an eye on your pet; you may also want to consider pet insurance.

Try to stick to a schedule
As previously mentioned, travel can be stressful for pets. It’s important that you stick to regular feeding times (if there’s a major time change, you’ll have to slowly adjust it) and your usual pet food; changing an animal’s diet suddenly can result in gastrointestinal upsets. Exercise and playtime are also critical. While you’re at it, suss out the nearest 24-hour emergency vet clinic.

Visiting A Working Silver Mine In Potosi, Bolivia

Potosi silver mine
Laurel Miller, Gadling

Bolivia has a turbulent, often tragic history. Rich in natural resources, the country was plundered by the Spaniards for silver and gold in the 15th century, exploiting the indigenous Quechua and Aymara peoples in the process. Yet, Bolivia has managed to retain a strong indigenous cultural presence; something that can be seen and felt throughout the country.

Despite its abundance of precious metals and other minerals, however, Bolivia remains the poorest country in South America. The remote, southwestern department of Potosi is among Bolivia’s most poverty-stricken. The high-altitude city of the same name (elevation 13,420 feet) was founded by the Spanish in 1545, and ironically remains a rich source of silver, lead, copper and zinc. Recently, large reserves of lithium have also been discovered in the region.

Although poor, Potosi has remained a stunning colonial jewel, and intrepid tourists come to admire its lovely buildings and narrow, cobbled streets.The ornate colonial buildings are painted in faded pastels. There’s a bustling mercado, and a handful of restaurants and shops showcasing local handicrafts (silver jewelry, mostly) form the basis of the centro. It’s an exceedingly pleasant place to while away a day or two.

Potosi is also a magnet for adventure travelers, who come to tour the working silver mines of Cerro Rico (“rich hill”). A massive, barren red hump of a mountain looming over the town, Cerro Rico is the main mining center, containing roughly 650 entrances to the various cooperative mines. The co-ops provide little benefit to the miners, even in the case of accidental death or work-related disease. The average lifespan for a miner is 10-15 years; most die from silicosis pneumonia. Cerro Rico is also in a slow state of collapse, due to overmining. Despite the risks, it’s believed that half of Potosi’s population of over 2,600 (mostly Quechua) work in the mining industry. The miners may not be getting rich, but let’s just say I saw a lot of spanking new Hummers rolling around those cobbled streets.

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candelaria mine exterior
Laurel Miller, Gadling

Working mine tours are one of the most controversial forms of tourism. Some might consider them exploitative. Others might be tempted to call them educational. While conducting research prior to my trip, I remained conflicted as to how I felt about them. Is descending two miles below the earth in order to see firsthand the abysmal conditions workers – many of them as young as 13 – must endure for up to 10 hours a day voyeurism of the worst kind? I believe so.

Yet, I also see the value in showing visitors (who, let’s face it, are usually from industrialized nations) the dirt behind their pretty silver baubles. We all use products containing the precious metals mined from places like Cerro Rico, but I find that irrelevant. Rather, I feel it’s important for travelers to see how others live, even if that exposure makes us uncomfortable, guilty or depressed.

The deciding factor for me came when I read about the better tour companies in town. It wasn’t just about finding one with a good safety record. I also wanted it to employ former miners, ban the use of explosives for show (some companies let tourists detonate dynamite, which is potentially deadly for visitors and miners alike), and to donate part of their proceeds to mining families. The latter is used for fresh food, which, I later learned, is the most critical need, above even medical care.

If you look in guidebooks or online forums, you’ll see that mine tours are no joke. They’re inherently dangerous, and among the risks are cave-ins, toxic gases, explosions, falling rocks and runaway carts. If you suffer from claustrophobia, asthma, or other respiratory problems, you’ll likely want to give them a miss.

view of potosi from cerro rico
Laurel Miller, Gadling

A reputable company will require you to more or less sign your life away on a waiver. They should also provide good-quality protective gear, including rubber boots, coveralls, a helmet, and a headlamp. Mine tours are not, to quote Koala’s website, “FOR WIMPS OR WOOSIES.” You should also bring a bandanna or surgical mask to protect your lungs from silica, arsenic and asbestos dust. Don’t worry about carbon monoxide poisoning– acetylene lamps are now used to detect deadly pockets of the gas. Yes, I’m being sarcastic.

I ended up choosing Koala Tours, a small company based in Potosi. They also run an excellent hostel, the Koala Den, which is where the tours depart. I arrived at 5 a.m., not-so-fresh off an overnight bus ride from La Paz. The hostel allowed me to check my backpack for free during the tour, and afterward, I paid roughly $1.25 for a shower. They also booked, free of charge, my afternoon bus to Tupiza (due to time constraints, I literally had to do the tour and hit the road).

woman weaving palm fronds
Laurel Miller, Gadling

Our group of four met with our guide, a sweet, 30-year-old ex-miner named Melvin, who took us to Koala’s warehouse, where we were outfitted with gear. Then we headed by van up the road to a neighborhood mercado, where we bought coca leaf for the miners (all of whom are men; it’s considered bad luck for women to work inside the mines, although some do work in the industry).

We then stopped at a miner’s supply to pick up alcohol (more on that in a moment), water, cigarettes and dynamite. Although supplying miners with cancer sticks, deadly explosives, and 96% ethyl alcohol seems contrary to the idea of supporting them, the reality is that they rely on these items. Their wages don’t allow for much in the way of incidentals, so bringing them work supplies and “refreshments” to help them through their shifts in stifling heat isn’t just thoughtful, but more or less mandatory. No one will force you to purchase these items, but put it this way: it’s the right thing to do.

the author in mining gear
Laurel Miller, Gadling

The alcohol (brand name: Ceibo) is used as part of a daily ritual performed by the miners before they begin each shift. Every mine has a shrine, with effigies of the Virgin Mary and a “Tio,” or uncle. Tio is actually a representation of the devil (one with a very oversized phallus, I might add). The belief is that because the steaming bowels of the earth offer such riches, it must be he who owns them, rather than Pachamama (“Mother Earth”), or a Christian god from the heavens.

Every day, the miners perform a cha’lla, or offering, to the effigies. Tio is blessed by a capful of alcohol poured at his feet, and then a capful is consumed by the miner (since I like to think I’m a team player, I let Melvin convince me to try a shot, which unsurprisingly, damn near ate a hole in my esophagus). Tio is also proffered coca leaves and cigarettes, and then it’s time for work.

Before heading to the mine, we stopped at an ingenio, or smelter, so we could have a better understanding of how the rocks hacked from the mines are turned into semi-precious metals. We watched Melvin work his way through the machinery, and departed with glittering stripes of liquid silver on the backs of our hands.

Arriving at the 500-year-old Candelaria mine was almost anti-climatic. It was hard to believe that this splintered wooden-framed entrance hidden behind a few desolate, decrepit buildings, is one of Bolivia’s most prolific and historic silver mines.

coca leaves
Laurel Miller, Gadling

After a safety talk, we walked into the mine. Within minutes, the air turned humid and stuffy, and we were wading through puddles of water, and mud. Not far from the entrance was a small, makeshift shrine beneath a propped-up beam – the site of a fatal cave-in. Soon after, we ran into Carlos, one of many multi-generational miners working in Candelaria. He was awaiting the arrival of his father and brother so they could start excavating. Carlos had a wad of coca leaves the size of a tennis ball stuffed in his cheek, but managed to mumble answers to our questions via Melvin. Now in his early 20s, he’d been working in the mines since he was little more than a boy.

As we ascended deeper into the mine, the temperature soared, and the water grew deeper in places, sometimes reaching our knees. Our coveralls acted as private saunas; sweat dripped into my bandana. Periodically, Melvin would stop to point out some feature – a vein of silver running along a damp wall; 700-pound trolleys filled with rocks that would be pushed out of the mine; bulging shoulder bags full of raw metal and weighing up to 80 pounds, worn by the miners as they got off shift. Discarded plastic water and alcohol bottles littered the floors of the tunnels we explored; Melvin picked them up and tucked them into his shoulder bag for disposal, and we followed suit.

There were many disturbing images I saw in the depths of Candelaria – one of the most memorable was watching three 16-year olds taking a cigarette break in temperatures so hot it seared our lungs. But it was seeing Melvin’s face as he talked about what it’s like to work in the mines that will forever stay with me.

At times, his eyes would almost brim with tears while he explained something. I asked him why he stopped mining, curious about his response. He told me it was because he knew he would have a very short life if he didn’t. He began leading tours because he believes it’s important for visitors to know the working conditions miners labor in. He also wants to give back to the mining community (via the financial proceeds donated by Koala Tours).

Laurel Miller, Gadling

purchasing dynamite in the miner's storeThis led me to my most burning question: “Do the miners resent us for being here, especially while they’re working?” I’ll never know if Melvin’s response was sincere, but I’d like to take him at his word. “No, they are grateful, because the tourists bring them supplies. It helps them, and they understand that we are trying to educate people.”

Regardless of whether or not Melvin was speaking the truth, all of the miners we encountered were cordial. And I came away with more questions. Should I stop wearing silver? Or was boycotting it only hurting the livelihood of the miners? As a journalist, was it wrong of me to write about the tour, or was I performing a valuable service to the men and boys laboring beneath Cerro Rico’s barren soil?

As with many things related to tourism, there are no good answers. I’m grateful I made the trek to Potosi to tour Candelaria. It allowed me to see that behind the danger and desolation, there’s also a strange sort of pride in being part of Potosi’s mining heritage. It may not make up for the working conditions and other injustices faced by the miners and their families, but it made me understand that for many indigenous Bolivians, this is part of their story.