With Elephants It’s Complicated – Win a Trip to Thailand

Riding on an elephant sounds a bit exotic doesn’t it?  I certainly think so. Immediately I visualize riding atop a majestic animal decked out in Southeast Asian silks and gems like some ancient Maharajah’s wife.  Ok, that’s a bit far, but you get my drift.  The thing is I’ve had the chance to ride atop and elephant, and not just at the zoo, and I passed.  That’s right, I gave up my opportunity to – for at least a moment – sit atop one of these beautiful animals and imagine myself as some exotic Asian ruler. Why?


elephantsdrinking With Elephants Its Complicated   Win a Trip to Thailand

Because I couldn’t guarantee their safety.  Yes, their safety.

The thing is, I wasn’t scared about falling off or hurting myself, I was afraid of being a part of the big tourist machine throughout Southeast Asia, the one that practices animal cruelty in the name of tourism and conservation.  You see, elephants are BIG business in Southeast Asia.  You can hardly get through a major city in Thailand, Laos or Cambodia without someone offering you an elephant riding tour or an elephant painting tour.  And some of these tours even  claim to be to conservation centers.  To me, there is nothing about conservation that puts an elephant on display like a circus animal performing tricks, and carrying humans around all day for their entertainment and enjoyment.  And so, offer after offer I passed on my dream.  And the more I heard about the way these animals are treated in the name of tourism, the better I felt about my decision.


elephantbutts With Elephants Its Complicated   Win a Trip to Thailand

Cruelty in the Name of TourismSave the elephant foundation With Elephants Its Complicated   Win a Trip to Thailand

As we traveled around the world we saw animals of varying species being used for transportation, work and entertainment.  Like the animals in a circus, we saw animals performing tricks in city squares, monkey’s chained to an owner performing for coins, larger animals hired out for transportation and in the case of Southeast Asia elephants being used for entertainment.  In some cases these were wild animals domesticated for human use, in others they were animals born and bread in captivity.  Sure, many of them were well fed, and in many cases beloved and well treated by their owners.  However, we had heard too many first -hand stories about what happens to the elephants in Southeast Asia to be willing to take a tour.   In fact, things are so out of control that elephant orphanages, rescue centers and homes for abused elephants exist in Thailand.

So what can we do?

Thankfully there are responsible organizations out there that protect these animals from abuse.  One of those organizations, Save the Elephants Foundation operates in Chang Mai, Thailand.  The provide safety, love and rehabilitation for elephants and open their doors to responsible tourists who want to learn about these majestic creatures without participating in tourism cruelty.  Although I never took a chance at riding an elephant, I do wish I had the opportunity to visit this organization and meet the elephants they’ve saved.

elephantlove With Elephants Its Complicated   Win a Trip to Thailand

Win a Trip to Thailand

The good news is – you can!  We’re working with a group of travel bloggers to raise awareness about the Foundation and collect donations to support their efforts!  100% of the proceeds go to supporting the foundation. And here is the best part, every donation enters you to win a TRIP TO THAILAND worth $3300.  Thanks to the support of companies like Flight Network, who is donating a $2000 flight voucher, and Where Sidewalks End, who is donating a Thailand tour for two people, you will be able to support responsible tourism in Thailand including elephants.  If you win, don’t forget to send us a picture of you with the elephants your donation supports!

Win a trip With Elephants Its Complicated   Win a Trip to Thailand*A donation entitles you to raffle tickets that will be used to raffle off a trip to Thailand.  Full details are available at: http://www.travelbloggingcalendar.com/about/


Why I Opt Out of TSA Body Scanners at the Airport

I think all Americans will spend some amount of today reflecting on the events of September 11, 2001.  For me, as a frequent traveler, I seem to do this every time I go through a TSA body scanner.  I was in Washington, DC at the time of the 9/11 attacks and remember them quite well but not knowing anyone, personally, who was killed that day, the TSA security procedures act as my reminder.  Each time I go through a TSA checkpoint, I am shocked and dismayed that I am the only visible person opting out of the TSA body scanner. My reasons for doing so are many, and it is frustrating to see so many pass through these machines without stopping to think about what they are doing.

There are many arguments against these TSA body scanners with most being a matter of privacy (they take a naked photo of your body) or safety (they blast your body with radiation). I think I was able to get past both of these issues until I watched the below video, taken from my home airport. The author of the video currently has a case pending in U.S. court system but he makes it quite clear that these machines raise some serious questions, but do little to enhance our safety.

The response of the TSA to this video, was quite telling in my opinion. More telling than this is the change of heart TSA officials have had since leaving the agency. A former director of the TSA now calls for a complete reversal of many of the TSA’s current practices because they do not add significantly to our security yet continue to raise privacy and safety concerns.

Basically, for me, it comes down to a few basic factors:

  • I am a law-abiding citizen and do not deserve to be submitted to inspection as though I am a criminal.  Although the ‘nudo-scope’ machines are not currently in use, they may return to use.
  • We really don’t know the long term affects of this radiation but there is significant research out there suggesting that these are not as safe as the government might have us believe.
  • TSA body scanners are very expensive and I don’t like paying for it with my tax dollars.
  • As the video above showed, TSA’s body scanners don’t really help to make us more secure but are just one piece of the ‘security theatre’ currently employed.
  • Many of the TSA agents I’ve spoken to, one agent each time I opt out, agree with my decision to opt out and tell me their reasons for doing the same.

I recently came across an article in the New York Times in which the author was very critical of the entire program. Although I am also critical of the program, I have to disagree with nearly everything this author wrote in BodyScanner Why I Opt Out of TSA Body Scanners at the Airporthis piece. Ever since I’ve educated myself on the program and decided to opt out I have repeatedly found TSA agents to be both friendly and understanding of my choice. Generally, they work to get me through security with minimal delay and usual confess they tell their friends and family to do as I am doing. One in Detroit recently told me their standard office joke is that there will be commercials in 30 years asking: “Did you or someone you know work for the TSA before the year 2020 who might be suffering from fill in the blank radiation disease, if so, call this number!”

I do generally believe that most people in government are in their chosen career because they have a desire to serve their country, hence my personal experiences with TSA agents are generally quite pleasant. This doesn’t mean that lobby dollars aren’t in play (feel free to do your own research on the staggering amounts spent to get these machines in airports) nor does it mean that anyone on either side of the debate truly knows the long-term health impact of these machines. For my money and time, I view it in my interest to opt out and I wish others would do more of the same. I have always assumed that opt out statistics are tracked by the TSA (I’ve actually seen daily counts) and the more people opt out, the sooner TSA PreCheck will be available to everyone.


image credit – NYTimes.com

Cedar Point Bachelor Party

Bachelor parties are one of those things that are supposed to be very special but often times, don’t end up that way.  A bunch of guys go out for a big night on the town, drink themselves into oblivion, then don’t remember most of what happened.  Recent movies have done a lot to cement this stereotype and for that reason, leaving town for a weekend away has become almost the norm it seems.  Imagine my surprise when my most recent buddy to get engaged suggested something completely out of left field, going to an amusement park none of us had ever visited: Cedar Point.

The park itself is known for one thing, roller coasters.  Big ones, small ones, and everything in between.  Here is a listing of some of our favorites for the day.

  • millennium force 250x111 Cedar Point Bachelor PartyMillenium Force.  We did this one first and planned to do it for our last coaster for the day as well.  One of the biggest and fastest in the entire world clocking at over 90mph we didn’t even notice that it didn’t go upside down.  The power of this thing was just massive and really incredible.
  • Top Thrill Dragster.  From zero to 120 m.p.h. in about 4 seconds it didn’t matter that the entire ride was only 17 seconds long.  You could watch the video but it really doesn’t do the ride justice.  The most incredible part, as the day wears on and the equipment heats up, the coaster doesn’t always clear the top and sometimes falls back down from where it came from.
  • meanstreak 250x111 Cedar Point Bachelor PartyMean Streak.  This was a very massive wooden roller coaster and because it was wooden we chose to do this as an ‘easy’ ride after lunch….bad mistake.  This coaster did not disappoint and also claims to be amongst the world’s largest wooden coasters.  It is due to be overtaken soon by the new coaster going into Six Flags Great America.
  • Mantis.  This ride will likely hold a special place in our hearts when we think of Cedar Point.  After ‘finishing’ our day at Millenium Force we walked past this entrance and saw no line.  Not only were we in the front row on the next run of coaster but then we ran to the back row for the run after that.  NOT A GOOD IDEA.  It was midnight and by that point we were toasted.

There were other rides of the day but overall these were our favorites.  Rapter and Maverick were both pretty solid coasters as well but I think we were all a touch disappointed in Gatekeeper which was the new coaster for 2013.  It was big but didn’t really differentiate itself from the others we did.  Gemini, another wooden coaster, was a bit of a bust for us as well but Blue Streak, originally built in 1964 was surprisingly fun and kid friendly at the same time!

IF YOU GO:  Stay at one of the many lodging options on the grounds as you get into the park an hour earlier.  We waited for our first 4 roller coasters for less time than any other single line the rest of the day.  We enjoyed a nice cabin in lighthouse point which fit all 7 of us but it was UN-surprisingly snug.  Best part, flying in and out of Detroit saw us for a detour to a Tigers game (they won) and saved us loads of money on airfare.


3 Insane Hotels You Won’t Believe Are Out There

According to Jake Bush, a Braun & Steidl hotel architect and developer, anyone who makes it their business to craft a hotel considers the following: “who is the guest, and why are they here”. With that in mind, it’s easy to understand why hotels across the board vary wildly—each one is trying to accommodate a specific kind of traveler.

For the most part, hotels are trying to cater to the business traveler, the luxury vacation traveler, and the budget-friendly traveler. However, there’s still another kind of traveler out there that some very unique and utterly strange hotels try to cater to, which is: the adventurous, experience-seeking, explorer.

These travelers want accommodations that are nearly the polar opposite of all the others—they want intrigue, danger, and a unique experience they can’t get anywhere else in the world—plus, they’re often willing to sacrifice a substantial amount of comfort, just for the experience. For every other kind of traveler, comfort is the last thing to be sacrificed when it comes to hotels. You can find out more at Accor, http://accorhotels.com.au/.

So, what kind of hotels does this kind of traveler frequent? Here’s my top picks for the world’s most insane, strange, and quirky hotels—some, you just won’t believe actually exist!

THE MIRRORCUBE |  Location: Harads—Sweden

What is This Place? Well, The Mirrorcube is exactly what it sounds like, actually; it’s an extremely lightweight aluminum box (4x4x4 meters) with one-way mirrors for walls.

Accommodations: At most, it can only accommodate two guests at a time—imagine the waiting list! However, the interior—albeit small—provides a double bed, a living room space, a bathroom, and the exterior roof provides a nice roof-tip terrace.

What the Adventure-Traveler Loves: Per the description thus far, The Mirrorcube might not seem that interesting, but I haven’t mentioned yet that this mirrored box is actually camouflaged within a tree canopy, suspended above ground, around a tree trunk that shoots up through the center.

How the world do you get in?! By way of a rope bridge, connected to a neighboring tree!

Fun Fact: Since The Mirrorcube is located in a tree canopy and is made of mirrors, occupants are provided a 360-degree view of the surroundings. Sounds cool, right? Well, to local wildlife—specifically birds that might fly right into it—it’s not so cool. To handle this concern, all of the reflective glass is embedded with an ultraviolet color that only birds can see.

mirrorcube 3 Insane Hotels You Wont Believe Are Out There

ICEHOTEL Location: Jukkasjarvi—Sweden

What is This Place? Again, the name really is what it is—it’s an entire hotel made from snow and ice! Apparently, it’s the largest in the world, which sparked this comment from me: There’s more than one?!

Accommodations: While the beds—as well as the furniture and fixtures—are made of solid ice, they’re covered in the finest, warmest, furs. From what I understand there aren’t individual rooms; guests enjoy a more of a community experience—sharing body heat probably helps!

What the Adventure-Traveler Loves: It’s a hotel made of ice—what wouldn’t an adventure-seeker like about that?! With temperatures never rising above minus 5 degrees Celsius, adventure travelers will have a wonderful time walking around in snow pants and furs, while enjoying the company of other like-minded travelers.

Fun Fact: The ICEHOTEL only exists in the winter months—it melts after that! Every year, in November, the ICEHOTEL architects get together and design a whole new structure. Several hundred tons of ice is used in the process and it provides return guests a different experience every year!

icehotel 250x250 3 Insane Hotels You Wont Believe Are Out There

KAROSTAS CIETUMS | Location: Leipaja—Latvia

What is This Place? It’s a prison—no, really, it’s actually a prison. Well, a former one, anyway.

Accommodations: It’s not terribly dressed up from being anything other than a prison. Guests sleep on grungy prison bunks, eat prison food, and even take a substantial amount of abuse from the guards—I’m assuming they limit that to verbal abuse. I think even the adventure-traveler draws the line at paying for physical abuse from the hotel staff.

What the Adventure-Traveler Loves: “A good hotel has got to be safe, clean, and have a good staff,” says our hotel developer Jake Bush, so the adventure-traveler loves that this hotel does all of the opposite. Karostas provides an experience—one that you can’t typically get unless you commit war crimes for a living.

Fun Fact: As a former military prison—constructed in 1905—Karostas imprisoned Stalin-era war criminals, revolutionists, and even KGB operatives.

KAROSTAS CIETUMS 3 Insane Hotels You Wont Believe Are Out There

All photos courtesy of the respective hotels.  adventure travel 3 Insane Hotels You Wont Believe Are Out There

Discovering the Romance of Berlin

When I was nine, my fourth grade teacher held up a small velvet pouch.

“Inside this bag is something very important,” she said.

The class was entranced. What was in it? Gold? Money? Chocolate?

She reached into the bag and slowly pulled out…a rock.

Our faces screwed up in disappointed confusion. A rock? Half of us could have turned out our pockets to reveal the very same thing.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Mrs. Trettin said. “What’s so special about a rock?”

Our interest was piqued. That was exactly what we’d been thinking. Mrs. Trettin’s mind-reading capabilities kept our attention where the rock couldn’t.

“This rock came all the way from Germany. It’s a piece of the Berlin Wall.”

Berlin Wall Discovering the Romance of Berlin
The Berlin Wall.

She went on to explain how the Berlin Wall had been formed and subsequently destroyed. I was fascinated. It was like the imaginary line I made in the living room that my little sister couldn’t cross, but real.

For the next 18 years, Berlin existed in my mind as a city full of rubble, war-torn and grey, host to an atrocious leader and military enemies.

I was wrong.

Berlin holds a special kind of romance. It’s not obvious, like the gondolas of Venice or a sidewalk café in Paris. It’s gritty but beautiful, scarred but alive.

Where I expected blandness and institutionalism, I got elegant architecture, archways, and mint-green rooftops. I wanted to stay longer than three nights; I wanted to rent an apartment and spend the whole summer there. Berlin has layers that can’t be peeled away in a few days.

The history is what made Berlin shine, and I’m not a history nut by any means. But when I stood in front of the remnants of the Berlin wall, I was fully awed. I love that pieces of the wall still stand as a silent acknowledgement of the past, twisted with metal and fractured by time.

Church Discovering the Romance of Berlin
Beauty in Berlin

Berlin’s romance comes from the way the German people have built towards the future without erasing the past. There are gorgeous old churches and museums to gape at, mysterious sculptures to stumble upon, and colorful murals in unexpected places.

It seems odd to call a place with such a tumultuous history ‘romantic,’ but it is. The city gets in your soul. In the Bebelplatz, formerly known as Opernplatz, the Nazis burned 20,000 books one night in May 1933. I stood there, 75 years later, staring at the memorial embedded in the ground. Unlike coming face-to-face with other pockets of history, like the coliseum or Gettysburg, this felt real. Right there, at my feet, history happened.

I remembered being nine and learning about Berlin for the first time; being introduced by a humble little rock. Mrs. Trettin told us about the burning books, and I was as horrified as a fourth-grader can be; who would have the audacity to burn books? I never imagined that one day, I’d be standing there in Berlin, seeing it for myself.

Berlin invokes feelings of nostalgia, love, and loss, even for someone like me who wasn’t there to experience any of it. The city still stands, vibrant and modern, yet somber and worn, ready to teach us all a thing or two about what it means to be romantic.

Sculpture Discovering the Romance of Berlin
Unexpected artwork