Tuesday, August 25, 2009
This week I am delighted to introduce you to Allan Rhodes, an English-Mexican friendly Tripbod who kindly agreed to be interviewed to be interviewed for our weekly blog interview.
Allan, with a University degree in Business Management and a Master in Tourism, Recreation and Parks Management, has worked for the National Commission in Protected Natural Areas (CONANP) for Mexico as a national advisor in tourism in protected areas. In the year 2001, he founded a website promoting ecotourism in protected areas called ecoturismo.latino.com and now he works as an independent consultant for ecotourism and community tourism in Chiapas (where he lives), Veracruz and Oaxaca.
In my interview, I asked him about his current exciting project, since I am especially interested in the awareness and promotion of responsible tourism in these times of mass tourism.
Alfonso Lara Montero (ALM): In 2001 you founded your website promoting ecotourism in protected areas. Where did the idea come from?
Allan Rhodes (AR): The idea came from after travelling through Europe in the years 1999 and 2000. Since I am half English half Mexican, I was working in a hotel near Plymouth in England, and the idea was to develop a website of Latin American destinations related to ecotourism. The idea was that I would travel through Latin America and write about the destinations I visited, the communities and protected areas. When I came back to Mexico, I set up the website, I worked in several projects. I have not been able to do that trip but I have been in contact and created the web called Ecoturismo Latino (www.ecoturismolatino.com), thanks to contacts made on line and it was interesting because it was a way to get involved in consultancy projects here in Mexico and, for example, I have developed the national strategy on tourism for protected areas at the national level with the National Commission in Protected Natural Areas in Mexico. After that, I worked within the Agency, and I have not really touched Ecoturismo Latino at lot because it was not proper to work in government and promote a private enterprise at the same time. The idea thus came from travelling that I love, and the idea was to create a space for travellers, and where ecotourism entrepreneurs could get in touch. That was the main idea.
ALM: What is concretely your aim with such a website? How do you implement that aim?
AR: The concrete aim was to create an information website. Created in the year 2000, then we did not have the tools we have now, Facebook, twitter, etc. The business model was about having online free information and a bit of advertisements that could sustain economically the website. That never happened and I made my living through more consultancy work. The aim of having information on line was achieved, but I had to concentrate on other projects that were giving me money. So, Ecoturismo Latino sustained itself thanks to other projects. Now the idea is to create a platform integrated with Facebook where travellers can share information. Also, we got in touch with Tripbod because we wanted to become advisers for travellers coming to Mexico or Latin America.
ALM: In your web page you speak of “Reuniones Verdes” or Green Meetings in English? What does this concept mean?
AR: Here you are referring to a different website: Ecoturismo Genuino (www.ecoturismogenuino.com), this is my consultancy website. The one I referred to previously is Ecoturismo Latino. In Ecoturismo Genuino we work with government agencies to help local communities develop eco and community tourism. The other area we work on is Reuniones Verdes or Green Meetings. This idea came out from an article talking about the States in which business where fostering corporate meetings in natural areas, so we thought it would be a good idea to develop the same thing in Mexico. Here tour operators are turning their operations to offer services to the big transnational corporations so that they can have team building meetings in natural areas, but we didn’t want to go into the team building business. The idea is that companies not have their meetings in a hired hotel but go out from the city and contribute to the local economy and ecotourism projects, and the company can have the strategic planning or evaluation meeting in a protected area. It was a different experience from having the meeting in the city and go into the country, enjoy the surroundings, but at the same time receive the services of facilitation provided by Ecoturismo Genuino.
ALM: It seems that you promote tourism at a sustainable pace and try to help local communities. How do local communities respond to such initiative? Do you cooperate with them? How is that cooperation implemented?
AR: They are responding positively because they have the infrastructure, since they have been helped either by the government or by NGOs, but the main problem in Mexico is marketing. They got everything but they can’t because they do not have connections. Tourism is becoming the economic alternative in rural areas, but most people there are farmers so they do not know anything about tourism, and therefore, they have lots of trouble in selling their services. We offer them this alternative, and they welcome the idea. We are developing contracts with several of the community based enterprises near to the cities or near airports.
ALM: Do you have any partner in this adventure? Are there similar consultancies in Chiapas or other Mexican states with whom you work?
AR: In the consultancy part we do have lots of partners for advising or helping communities developing. In the case of Green Meetings, we have made an alliance with IIFAC (International Institute for Facilitation and Conflict Solving) that works in Latin America and other countries. They are the facilitators and we provide the logistics. Please see this link to see how we are working with them: http://www.iifac.org/index.php?m=46&s=1&l=sp.
ALM: From 2001 to 2009, it seems that the project has been successful. How would you assess these years?
AR: I could evaluate it in 2 ways. One of the successes is that through the Internet, and working in consultancy and with the government, I have positioned myself as an export in ecotourism in Mexico. The Internet has been a tool to position myself and my websites as a good reference on responsible and ecotourism practices in Mexico at the level at which I do not even have to market my services, but my clients come directly to me. Economically speaking, Ecoturismo Latino has not been a business, more a non profit enterprise, but Ecoturismo Genuino has been very successful, we started this year our consultancy services and they have been very successful. As regards Green Meetings, this year has been the year of developing the idea, making contacts with the community based enterprises and we look forward to launching more formally and promote it more within national and transnational companies in the year 2010. I think that we need to work a bit more in Ecoturismo Latino to relaunch it and recover some of our clients. Now, we have to do that.
ALM: Thanks a lot for your time, I wish you all the best and all success in your professional adventure.
AR: Thank you very much and thanks for this little chat.
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
Crossing the border between China and HK, the landscape changes rapidly into an alternating series of lush green mountains, peppered with a few water buffalo, and clusters of impossibly high apartment blocks. A couple I met on the train from Shanghai were kind enough to give me a culinary tour of their country and invited me for a fantastic dim sum lunch, followed by a traditional street stall sweet, roughly translated as 'little egg balls', which were delicious. We also tried some of the medicinal teas sold on nearly every street - they were revolting and tasted more like a bitter, treacly, swampy liquid! They also took me to a great Japanese restaurant in Sheung Shui where trying the octopus sushi was mandatory...
I am still thoroughly enjoying travelling alone - I definitely see a lot more in a day and really absorb what I am seeing. Plus I get to meet lots of locals who are all keen to practice their English and help me out when I look lost!
Riding buses all around HK is a great way to see a lot as the scenery is spectacular, especially on the islands. It must be said that wandering around the denser areas of the city can be tricky as most of the walkways are raised above the roads and connect one mall to the next, so it is possible to cover great distances without ever touching the ground!
The hostels are generally terrible, and after changing a few times and realising they are all bad I settled on the cheapest in the notorious Chungking Mansions. There are lots of great bars in the city though, and I spent a night in a back street Egyptian bar for some guy's birthday smoking shishas and drinking mojitos; we ended the night with a lock-in playing poker and eating a baklava birthday cake the managers surprised us with!
HONG KONG HIGHLIGHTS
- Catching the legendary Star Ferry from Tsim Sha Tsui across to Central on a clear evening - without a doubt the best way to appreciate the incredible Hong Kong cityscape
- Riding the 1900s-style tram at a 45 degree angle to The Peak, again, best on a sunny day for stunning views of the whole island
- Relaxing in the tai chi garden of the surreal HK Park, tucked away in between the skyscrapers (don't miss the Jurassic Park style aviary)
- Visiting the many tranquil Tin Hau temples in HK: havens amongst the endless malls and offices. My favourite was one out near Jordan, with hundreds of spiral incense burners hanging above your head
- Spend at least a day wandering around the city's many markets. From the fairground-like fish market, flower, jade, bird and junk markets (where there were stalls dedicated to anything from bells to buttons), to the colourful food markets where fresh fish takes on a whole new meaning; they are typically kept alive in water until you pay, and in Sai Kung the fishermen don't even get out their boats - hungry punters simple point from the pier and the fish are handed straight to the restaurateurs for cooking
- Trying to catch a good photo of Hong Kong's legendary but endangered pink dolphins on one of the official HK Dolphin Watch boat trips, as featured in Rough Guides' Clean Breaks, as the fee goes straight to their conservation projects
- Kadoorie Farm in the middle of the New Territories is a must. I stumbled upon this place and was so glad I did! Nestled on the side of a steep mountain, there are terraces of organic crops, a collection of rare animals and plants, ideas for sustainable living and agriculture, with a real community feel to the place. The mere 85p for entry also included a fantastic 2 hour bus tour of the farm (although the guide only spoke Cantonese, I got the gist of it!). We were taken to the highest point on the whole island, where tucked away were beautiful shrines, an orchid house and an open-air butterfly garden
- Finally, the highlight of HK for me was Lantau island. The views from from the cable-car through the mountains and over the water up to the gigantic bronze Buddha were stunning. On the other side of the island is Tai O, a tiny fishing village raised above the mudflats on wooden stilts - a world away from the neon lights and skyscrapers of Central!
Thursday, August 13, 2009
Ireland is my new favourite escape.
This is not just because of the Guinness, the food, or even the beautiful countryside for that matter, but the fact that it's so easy to get to but still feels like another world.
Given that we try to avoid flying where possible, we booked our Sail Rail tickets, amazed they cost only £50 return from London
We jumped on a train at 0930 direct to Holyhead, which is one of the most beautiful train journeys sweeping the Welsh coast and passing small fishing villages along the way.
A quick change at Holyhead and you're on an Irish Ferry, which was surprisingly plush. You can choose to stand out on deck and watch Wales disappearing behind you or snuggle up in the comfy chairs and watch a movie.
We were in Dublin by 1730 feeling rested from a relaxing journey, then headed straight to Wicklow.
County Wicklow is a wonderful area, just 35 minutes south of Dublin yet boasting some of the most remote rural areas you could hope to find.
We stayed in a traditional hostel called Glenmalure Mountain Lodge. It was paradise, situated at the foot of the mountains along a 6km track from the nearest small road. It was about 15km from the nearest village shop.
In the hostel there is no electricity or running water, so if you like your creature comforts you may be better off staying in the cosy pub down the road. But for 15 Euro a night you can't really complain.
Burbling through the lodge's garden is a mountain river which has ideal bathing pools for washing and splashing around. There is also a natural spring delivering the crispest mountain water you'll ever taste.
I should mention that we were the only people staying here apart from the warden so we really had the whole place to ourselves.
By the time we had to say goodbye and return to the bright lights of Dublin we felt we could have done with another two weeks there. Still, we'll be back. And for just £50 return by Sail Rail, we might be back sooner than we thought.
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
Dot Pinkney: ok, so 1st question, would you recommend Moscow to independent travellers?
Baira: Sure, Moscow is a very unique city with amazing and complex history and a bustling mix of diverse cultures. This is truly the city where east meets west both in geographical, cultural, and religious respects
Dot Pinkney: what are the main cultures that come together in Moscow?
Baira: I also think that it's very important to travel in Moscow independently from touristic guidelines which cover mainstream attractions only
Dot Pinkney: what kind of mainstream attractions would you recommend to stay away from?
Baira: so sorry, my computer got a virus i guess
Baira: it switches off every 20 min
Dot Pinkney: oh no :(
Baira: so i need to be quick :)
Dot Pinkney: cool cool, so last question was 'what mainstream attractions would you recommend to stay away from?'
Baira: I guess Russian mixture of cultures can be described as a layer cake where the layers interconnect on mix with each other. The lowest level (the basis) is Slavic Russian culture. The main characteristics of which are orthodox religion, mentality of being the linking unit between west and east and at the same time the mixture of both east and west.
Baira: Plus due to the long historical relations with central Asian (Mongolian) and tartar Muslim cultures a number of Russian republics which comprise Russian federation are Muslim and Buddhist.
Baira: Besides, there are some autonomous regions which are populated by Greeks, Jews, Turkish and Finn nationalities.
Dot Pinkney: is orthodox religion still strong in Russia, or Moscow?
Baira: Yes, Orthodox religion is still quite strong in Russia. Despite recent communist atheist past Russians managed to revive their religiosity which was rooted about 13 centuries ago
Baira: So most of the older population are quite religious as well as many of those who are 40-50
Baira: Younger generation brought up with pop culture, freedom, and indifference caused by chaotic 90s is non-religious
Dot Pinkney: Is Moscow very different from the rest of Russia would you say?
Baira: Many Russians say that Moscow and rest of the Russia are different cultures.
Baira: = are different countries
Baira: Moscow is way more expensive and way more independent politically, economically, and informationally than the rest of the country
Dot Pinkney: Ok, so tell me what Russian people like to do at the weekends at this time of year...
Baira: well quite many people prefer going to the parks and residents like Tsaritsyno or Kolomenskoe with their families and friends to have a rest from hustle and noisy traffic.
Baira: the others go swimming/hiking/cycling..etc
Baira: some like to spend their weekends at night clubs mostly or numerous bars
Dot Pinkney: where can you go swimming near Moscow?
Baira: There are some small lakes and forests near the city like Serebryanyj Bor where people make barbeques and can swim
Baira: but they all have sth in common - Russians try to get the full advantage of summer and enjoy the sun and warm weather
Dot Pinkney: Can you experience true Russian countryside in a day trip from Moscow?
Baira: Sure, just take a short train (called elektrichka) to one of the ancient cities of Golden Ring like Vladimir or Yaroslavl which are incredibly beautiful and at the same time or have all the features of being really Russian: small wooden houses, slow pace, tiny orthodox temples
Baira: and very little traffic :)
Dot Pinkney: Is it dangerous for foreigners travelling outside of Moscow?
Baira: well if you take a short train to one of the cities of Golden Ring or St Petersburgh or other cities of up to 6 hours of travel it's quite safe I think
Baira: It can be risky to travel alone by TransSiberian train in the communal wagons where all people are located without doors and section divisions
Dot Pinkney: well I could go on asking you questions but it’s late in Moscow so I should let you sleep! I hope we can talk more and more about travelling in Moscow at our online seminar, which will be hopefully next week
Baira: superb :)
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
We started this tour last year on a trial basis and it has gone very well indeed, so this year its on the site.
The second tour that's coming up is in Jaipur, and it's in partnership with a local NGO as well, in the area of water management and local self government. Here is the story of how it all began....
CLICK HERE TO READ HOW IT ALL BEGAN
Friday, August 7, 2009
My last travel adventure was a good month ago now. I felt it was time to relive it by retelling it. I find recounting travel stories more than a little self-indulgent but its a Friday so I'll allow it.
I was staying in Boston so decided to go to New York for 24 hours and visit our Tripbod person there, Scott. The Peter Pan bus was great apart from the 8am stop to get something to eat when all there was was burger or pizza. To my suprise the other passengers all returned with greasy parcels in their hands. 8am.
I arrived in NY and met Scott. We walked around the city centre down to Madison Square where we saw around 50 people waiting outside a kiosk. Apparently its the best place to get burger in NY; the proof is in the queue. I think New York has a particularly faddy culture, but that may just be from watching too much Ugly Betty. We passed the New York library - the famous location of Ghostbusters.
We walked through the farmers' market in Union Square. Apparently NY state is so much bigger than people realise and they have a lot of their own produce, including wine. I didn't realise how small Manhatten was until my sister showed me the map. I said, 'that can't seriously be a real map'. It was just a massive grid.
We passed a closed-up building where Scott (a political student) had recently held an occupation against its closure and the policies of his University President. Some people got arrested and now face hefty legal fees. So friends throw warehouse parties to raise the fees. The parties get shut down by the police, which brings more legal fees, which leads to more parties. That's the life of anarchist for you.
We took the Statten Island ferry because its free. I felt a sense of the people who first arrived here once upon a time. Anyone with a name that couldn't be pronounced got americanized (recently referenced on the Simpsons who got changed to... The Simpsons). How times have changed. New York does feel like a tour of a movie set sometimes and I think the Statue of Liberty is better seen from the perspective of Superman as he whizzes by with Lois in arm rather than from the deck of a very heavy and slow boat.
They have just built their first Ikea in NY and there is a special ferry that runs from the store to a wealthy NY district. For reasons unknown, the opening of an Ikea store always needs a mention.
There were some interesting characters on the boat. A couple of guys were wearing peruvian style wooly hats in 28 degrees centigrade. Fashion these days... Another guy was sporting NY fashion of several years back. He was wearing a full multicoroured shell suit, had a Fresh Prince of Bel Air hair cut and was carrying an actual boom box.
As we headed through Wall Street I saw my perfect stereotypical NY woman (that is, Sex and the City) looking pristine in her well-cut suit, cashmere sweater, heels and pearls looking impatient with one arm full of large box shopping bags and one arm flagging down a taxi. She could have been made from wax from where I were standing, something about the melting makeup in NY summer heat.
We took the subway towards Brooklyn as it was time for a pint of water and a pint of beer. There was a great bar serving local beers such as Blue Top and with 3pm-8pm happy hour so we sweated the early evening away in the concrete beer garden out back.
View Larger Map
In the evening we walked in to Williamsburg. Down Bedford Ave there are loads of great places to eat, drink and hang out. Its full of young lively people sitting outside shops, on benches eating icecream, talking loudly and playing guitars. I saw something I liked to call a 'Highcyle' - a bicycle made of 2 frames stacked on top of one another so it looked double decker. We stopped at Dumont Burger for something to eat which was pretty good. I would recommend.
The next day it was raining so much that we decided to give Central Park a miss and have brunch in a place Scott's girlfriend used to work at called Noho Star. The owner is almost a celebrity. Once a well respected doctor, he opened this place 20-25 years ago. Now he has many different restaurants all over the place. He famously once offered $5,000 if someone could find out the recipe for a tuna sandwich from another restaurant. This place has a lot of charismatic regulars. One guy always has to have a full glass of ice next to him or else he starts banging his glass on the table. He orders ice cream after every meal and if you put the spoon down before the ice cream, he throws the spoon at the waitress. Bright red lipstick is part of the uniform here. They get paid only $2/hr which means they even have to pay tax out of their tips. Many of the NY hostesses are models and a headshot is always required.
The NY subway is in a bad condition. It is infrequent and regularly delayed. It wasn't as scary as my images of it from the movie Ghost but convenient it was not. The transport department are expanding the service to the wealthier areas and even re-painting stations instead of improving services down town. They are also increasing fares to support the lick of paint. Scott and his girlfriend are not happy about this at all.
So my time was up and I ran to the bus station as I found out I'd booked my ticket for the wrong day and had to buy a whole new ticket. I hate it when budget travel ends up costing you a fortune. My trip to NY was great but too short. My biggest regret - not trying a slice of NY pizza. I'll have to go back with more time and a bigger appetite next time.
Tuesday, August 4, 2009
Destination number one! Shanghai is a mental city - neon lights, bicycles, umbrellas and people everywhere! The very old and very new, plus the very poor and very rich makes the city feel very Blade Runner. It is divided into various districts from the sci-fi architectural playground of the Pudong (Canary Wharf x100) and the Bund's famous British imperial buildings, to the tree-lined avenues and stately homes of the French Concession and the two 'old cities' - one a replica which feels more like a Disneyland China Town, to the fast-disappearing ancient backstreets where I never seen so many different kinds of meat and fish (most of it still alive!).
The highlight for me has been Shanghai's amazing art scene. I stumbled upon a warren of tiny contemporary art galleries and boutique fashion shops and cafes in the south (Taikang Lu); a network of secret alleyways only accessible from a hidden entrance at the back of a car park. It was a world away from the hustle and bustle of the touristy Nanjing Lu in the city centre which is packed full of endless malls and shops (recession, what recession?!). To find the heart of the art scene, I headed out to the north of the city and into an industrial area, where tucked away was a complex of converted warehouses transformed into contemporary art galleries and studios, complete with the young artists on hand to explain their work. I loved this place and returned to it a few times. Between the baffled locals, rich dealers and paint-splattered artists, I sipped my espressos and absorbed the art and the atmosphere. If I had a bit more money to my name I would have certainly been taking home a few canvasses!
Things I have noticed about the Shanghainese (not sure if this is exactly the correct terminology, or whether these things are unique to Shanghai or are ubiquitous to China yet!)
- The women love to wear high-heels, everywhere. The girl in the bunk-bed above me wears hers to and from the bathroom
- The Shanghainese all have tupawear bottles of tea on hand - from green tea, to dry rose buds, unidentifiable leaves, to 'lotus hearts' as a friend explained (good for the organs, apparently. Tastes bitter as hell)
- On the whole, the difference between pavements and roads is ignored, as are traffics lights
- Recession, what recession?! It's all spend, spend, spend in this consumer-driven city
- Coffee is extortionate; often twice the price of food
- There is a deep respect for education and study. The first thing I was asked was whether I was a student, then where and what I studied. The many bookshops and libraries are always packed
- I have seen many couples hand-in-hand wearing matching t-shirts!
MONSOON RAINS IN SHANGHAI
The rain here is incredible. Through the thick heat, there are the odd days of constant rain. Sometimes it storms and when this happens the streets literally fill up with the immense volume of water that falls.
The first time this happened I was on Nanijing Lu in the city centre and within minutes everyone was ankle deep in rain water and endless umbrella-selling street vendors popped up from nowhere! The instant sea of multicoloured umbrellas was a sight to behold. With the crazy architecture and neon lights, the city already looks like a theme park, so as the rain continued it filled up until water was gushing down into the subways and metro stations - I felt like I was standing in water-park attraction! As the main streets are so clean, everyone either waded through the water barefoot, laughing, or headed straight for cover into the many malls and shops lining the street. However, it was not only the people that flooded into the shops, but the rising tide of rainwater too, so shop assistants quickly got to work assembling water barriers on the shop thresholds, then sealed this with clay which was on-hand, ready for such occasions!