Trekking Couple Circles Planet Three Times In 424 Days

They started trekking the planet more than a year ago, promising to travel the globe bringing children in classrooms from around the world with them, virtually, as they visited scores of countries and continents. Now their journey is complete and Darren and Sandy Van Soye are back to tell about it.

The story begins in February 2012, when the couple from Southern California started on a global adventure to raise awareness about world geography and make the subject more accessible to children. Hoping to visit 50 countries on six continents in 424 days, they planned to share the journey with more than 700 classrooms representing 50,000 students.

“Our dream is to educate children about geography and world cultures so we’ve planned the ultimate trek around the world to do just that,” Sandy Van Soye told Gadling when they began. In January of this year after passing the 50,000 mile mark, they had stopped in 40 countries with another dozen or so to go before returning to the United Sates. At the time, they had already beaten their own projections with 850 classrooms in 20 countries following their journey online.

Now with their world trek complete, the Van Soyes have traveled a total of 77,000 miles or the equivalent of three times around the earth at its equator. Their trek is an impressive amount of travel in such a short period of time for sure. But how they went about it is even more interesting.Starting on January 28, 2012, the journey began aboard a cruise ship, Princess CruisesPacific Princess, a small ship, which proved to be an efficient mode of transportation.

“We used cruise ships to get us between continents so that we could see more of the world,” said Sandy Van Soye. Spending 97 days of the nearly 500-day trek at sea the couple racked up 35 ports in 18 countries. An impressive number but travel via cruise ship is not the fastest way to be sure. From San Diego, it took 29 days to reach Sydney Australia, normally a 16- or 17-hour flight. But along the way, they visited Hawaii, American Samoa, Fiji and New Zealand.

After a seven-day trek in Tasmania, the team boarded another cruise ship, Ocean Princess to travel near Australia’s eastern coast, along the way visiting the Great Barrier Reef, the city of Darwin, Bali, Indonesia, and Ko Samui, Thailand, before arriving in Singapore. At each stop, they selected travel plans that would show students following along the natural beauty and unique people they encountered.

On land for the next eight months via a series of multiple day hikes, they visited 27 more countries in Asia, Europe and Africa before boarding the Pacific Princess in Rome. That Mediterranean sailing crossed the Atlantic Ocean, sailing up the Amazon River all the way to Manaus, Brazil.

Two months on land took them through 4,600 miles of South America before the final leg of their trek a voyage on Star Princess in Valparaíso, Chile, for their fifth and final cruise home.

Of all the places they went, which was their favorite? Kenya because of its rich culture and natural beauty

“It is a place that kids (have) heard of, so it was a pleasure to go there and talk more about it,” said Sandy of their visit to three Kenyan schools, one in the Maasai Mara and two in the Samburu region.

The biggest surprise along the way? Riga, Latvia

“There was just so much to see and do here and, though it is a capital city, it was relatively inexpensive,” said Sandy.

In addition to a lifetime of memories, the Van Soye’s trek produced a library of 60 four-page education modules for teachers available as supplements to existing classroom materials.
Also, their Trekking the Planet website contains free articles, quizzes, more than 70 documentary videos and a summary infographic: “Trekking The Planet: By The Numbers.

So is that the end of the road for this couple? Hardly.

Driven by the fact that nearly a third of U.S. young adults cannot locate the Pacific Ocean on a map, Trekking the Planet hopes to help educators change these statistics with future geography-oriented projects.

[Photo credit – TrekkingThePlanet]

AirBaltic expands, spruces up

Yesterday, Latvian airline AirBaltic launched two new routes: Riga-Madrid and Riga-Beirut.

Riga-based AirBaltic is an airline to watch. Little known in North America, the airline is notable for its low starting fares and the inclusion of most of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations on its route map. But what really sets the airline apart from the pack is its range of underserved destinations across Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Middle East, and the Nordic countries.

These less well-served destinations include Baku, Tbilisi, and Yerevan in the Caucasus; Almaty, Dushanbe, and Tashkent in Central Asia; Amman, Beirut, Dubai, and Tel Aviv in the Middle East; and destinations like Kuopio, Tromsø, and Visby across Nordic Europe.

The catch is that most routes fly in and out of Riga, a beautiful city that is sadly not exactly top-of-mind among most visitors to Europe. While AirBaltic’s fabulous range of destinations can best be accessed from a starting-point in the Baltics or the Nordic countries, the airline’s fares for connecting flights from cities across Western Europe can also be quite competitive.

In anticipation, no doubt, of the summer traffic to come, AirBaltic also upgraded its site yesterday. The visual changes are minimal, but they go some way toward making the site more streamlined and enjoyable to peruse.

(Image: Flickr/Londo_Mollari)

Latvia fed up with “English pigs” – creates anti-Brit police force

The Latvian capital city of Riga is home to a lot of beautiful things, and I’m not just talking about their stunning blonde women.

Sadly, a lot of that beauty is being spoiled by British tourists who don’t understand how to behave when abroad. The mayor of Riga complains about large groups of drunk Brits screaming and taking over the local bars and strip clubs.

One local resident went on record to say “They are drunk by the time they get off the plane and they don’t sober up again until they go back home three days later”.

One British organization even offers full package deals of “strip clubs and shooting” where stag party revelers can get lap dances and then shoot a couple of rounds with an AK-47, all for just $260.

Apparently the extreme low cost of flying within Europe has brought out some of the worst the UK has to offer, forcing the mayor to take some drastic measures. Starting this week, a dedicated division of the Riga police will be on the lookout for British tourists who take their fun a little too far. One man has already spent 3 days in jail for peeing on the Latvian national monument, so they obviously are not joking around. Oh, and the phrase “English pigs”? That is how the Latvian interior minister referred to these tourists. Classy.

Riga, Latvia: Thriving rip-off scene is the other side of tourism

Tom certainly had some useful recommendations when he recently made the case for visiting Riga. But any pitch to check out the Latvian capital and all it has to offer — a charming old town, beautiful architecture, one of Eastern Europe’s better restaurant scenes, some nice museums — would be remiss if it didn’t acknowledge the growing problem of tourist-targeted scams that are prevalent in the very areas of the city in which you’re likely to spend most of your time.

Having recently returned from Riga, I remain shocked at the extent to which the city has adopted some of the nastier byproducts of a thriving tourist industry, namely the most inconspicuous, yet persistent (and dangerous) street hustles I’ve encountered in nearly five years of traveling in the former Eastern bloc.

I’m not talking about shout-out men stuffing strip club leaflets into your hands. I’m not talking about pick-pockets or complicated currency rackets.

Out on walks most nights, I watched as packs of well-dressed and beautiful women descended on groups of tourists — of course, mostly men — and lured them into bars and clubs not with the promise of sex of anything untoward, but simply for a drink. There these hapless souls will buy the ladies and themselves a few drinks (or, more likely, the drinks will simply start showing up) and when it comes time to settle up, they’ll find out that that bottle of wine they ordered for the table cost hundreds of euros. Upon balking at the expense, they’ll be greeted by one or two big, threatening bouncers and — in some reported cases, at least — roughed up if they don’t pay.

That’s a relatively easy scam to avoid: Don’t go anywhere with a woman who would not give you the time of day in your hometown.

A harder one to avoid, because it’s carried out even at a few reputable-looking restaurants and pubs, is the fake credit card machine. You’ll go to settle up, proffer your credit card and be told it was declined. You might hand over another card, which will also be declined. Eventually you’ll pay cash, and the next day you’ll find that said establishment has charged you thousands.

Think I’m just hating on Riga?

Search most travel forums online for Riga and scams and you’ll see travelers talking about this.

The problem is such that the government late last year announced that it would begin cracking down on establishments known to be rip-off centers (there are 180 criminal proceedings against fraudsters currently active). Also, at the behest of foreign embassies, who are pissed about fielding complaints from their citizens about this, police in Riga are gradually becoming more responsive to tourists in trouble. The government has outfitted patrol officers in Riga with 24-hour translation help, and tourists can now lodge official complaints in Latvian, English and German.

Speaking of embassies, the US Embassy in Riga has this extraordinary warning for tourists on its Web site, where it names the places to avoid in the city center. (The embassy has also officially banned its employees from setting foot in these places.) I’ve listed the places to avoid here.

All this started to be a problem back in 2005, about a year into Latvia’s EU membership. More recently, authorities say it’s gotten the way it has thanks, in part, to the onset of budget airlines that have made Riga accessible to most Europeans, lured here by low prices. British stag parties have made Riga a favorite party spot, which has probably contributed to the problem.

Such a reality doesn’t play well for guidebooks, I know, but it’s something to keep in mind.