How to Get Better Travel Photos from Total Strangers

Whether you’re travelling solo, as a couple, or in a group of friends, at some point or another, you’re going to need to ask a perfect stranger to take a photo of you. Oh dear. What will you do?

Now, some people might say, who cares? Just pick anyone who is willing. But not I. No, you see, I understand the importance of choosing the right person to capture your memories. For travellers whom genuinely seek quality photos of their once-in-a-lifetime adventures, who you pick matters.

Asking a stranger for a photo is like rolling the dice on your precious memories; there’s no way of knowing what the outcome will be. You’re taking a chance on their skill, commitment level, and eye for layout. So how can you guarantee a better picture? Well, you can start by better vetting your potential photographers. Not all strangers are made equal. Here’s what to look for:

Intense cameras 

No explanation necessary. You know these guys mean business. However, try not to interrupt them while they’re getting their own shots. They will take a rushed photo of you so they can get back to their own pictures. Let them do their thing.

Go pros

These people know how to take a mean action shot. In my experience, these guys are the most likely to give you a solid range of options. You can trust them.

Solo travellers

They need your help as much as you need theirs. Especially if they’re female travellers looking for that highly coveted insta worthy shot. You just can’t go wrong here.

400 photo takers

They may not take the best shots, but you know you’ll get lots of options to choose from. Chances are, at least one will be a winner.

People with your device 

Avoid confusion. Find someone who doesn’t need teaching. Especially if you’re shooting with a more advanced camera. iPhone, find iPhone, Nikon, find Nikon, etc. It just makes sense.

Additional tip:

Offer to take a picture of them first

You can subtly show them how you would frame the photo, and they will likely offer to return the favour.

Is this guide foolproof? No. Not at all. Not even a little. But, hope is not a strategy. This half-assed pseudo strategy may just be the one you need to help you get the photo you want.

If all else fails, get a selfie stick and call it a day.

Good luck, and happy shooting.

Travel photos of me taken by strangers: 

 

 

How to Build a Bucket List You’ll Actually Use

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A well-crafted bucket list is a beautiful thing full of wonder and excitement. These lists are born of dreams, and turn goals into realities. They help us keep our eyes on the bigger picture, remind us not to take life so seriously, and encourage us to always live adventurously.

While just about anyone can benefit from building a meaningful bucket list, it’s specifically a wonderful tool for anyone struggling with grief, depression, or anxiety. Bucket lists have the power to pull us out of a funk and be the guiding light that places us back on our paths. They’re a source of purpose, direction and above all, hope. But, only if they’re built to work.

You see, not all bucket lists are made equal. Slapping a list of hopes together will do little more than waste a sheet of paper or two. It must be built properly if you want it to work. Here are a couple of tips and bucket list strategies designed to help you build your best bucket list ever.

Dare to dream

To begin building your bucket list, let your mind wander as far as it wants to go. There will always be reasons not to put an item down on your list, but if you’re self-editing already, you may be self-limiting. Big or small, list them all! You can cut some out later.

Find meaning in your items

Yes, list everything and everything you want, but be intentional. List only the items that you feel are truly experiences you want. Irrelevant items will make your bucket list less meaningful and therefore hurt your drive to complete it.

Build sublists

Long bucket lists can feel a bit daunting. If your list grows and grows, try organizing your goals by breaking them down into sublists. For example, organize your list into items to accomplish in your 20s, 30s, 40s, for summer, for winter, international items, whatever trends seem to emerge. Go with it.

Build with a buddy

Bucket lists can be very personal, but they can also be a lot of fun when shared with an adventure buddy! A partner, a best friend, a sibling, anyone who shares your goals and drive to accomplish them. If they help you check items off your list, lean into.

Recheck, rewrite, refine

A bucket list is never complete. You will be forever be checking off items, removing some and adding others. That’s the nature of bucket lists. They’re always in a state of flux, always incomplete. But, that’s part of what makes them fun! You never know where you may end up next. Keep updating as you go to keep your goals fresh and relevant.

Be a yes man

Here’s a lesser known secret: an item can be added to your bucket list… after you’ve done it! Sometimes, you won’t even know it’s a bucket list item until it’s done. When an adventure presents itself, be open. Even if you’d never thought of it before, it could end up being a great experience that you cherish for the rest of your life. Say yes to opportunity and see where it can go.

Keep a list of accomplishment 

One of the most common pitfalls of a bucket list is that you risk bouncing from one finished item to the next without luxuriating in the success of the completed goal. That’s why it’s important to also keep a list of accomplishments. Each item checked off our bucket list is one you should be proud of. Savour them and allow them to fuel your future adventures.

Be patient

Your bucket list will be with you for life. If an adventure doesn’t work out, don’t fret. Have fun and remember, as cliche as it is, it’s about the journey, not the destination.Be committed to each item and believe that you’ll get to them as soon as you can.

With these tips, you’ll be ready to take your bucket list out into the world and crush it. Good luck and happy adventuring.

Need some extra inspiration? Here’s a few bucket list thought starters to help you get going:

  • Backpack through Europe
  • Get your scuba diving licence
  • Learn a new language
  • Drive cross country
  • Adopt a pet
  • Learn to cook a new meal every week
  • Go skydiving
  • Learn to snowboard
  • Complete a 10,000 piece puzzle
  • Get a matching tattoo with a friend
  • Read a book a month
  • Take guitar lessons
  • Write a novel
  • Explore Ireland by bike
  • See the 7 wonders of the world
  • Buy property
  • Travel solo
  • Try geocaching
  • See the northern lights
  • Mountain bike in Whistler
  • Eat at a new restaurant every month
  • Go to a drive-in movie
  • Volunteer with kids or animals
  • Visit Wizarding World in Orlando
  • Skinny dip (fresh or salt water)
  • Learn to knit
  • Go back to school for something fun
  • Say I love you to someone once a day
  • Ride a mechanical bull
  • Float in the Dead Sea in Israel
  • Ride in a hot air balloon
  • Get lost in a foreign country
  • Complete a marathon
  • Support a charity
  • Reconnect with an old friend or loved one
  • Get a wild haircut
  • See the cherry blossoms in Japan
  • Bungee jump
  • Get your M licence
  • Start an art collection

Riding and the Mistreatment of Elephants in Thailand

You see it all the time; tourist posting photos of themselves laughing and smiling as they take their first steps atop an elephant in Thailand. What. A. Rush. It’s a once in a lifetime experience, and really, the thing to do when travelling Thailand. Their friends see the photos, experience serious FOMO, maybe even go to Thailand one day and seek it out themselves. They ride elephants, post their once-in-a-lifetime photos, and the cycle starts all over again. Unfortunately, tourists are often unaware of the unpleasant truth behind the elephant riding industry in Thailand.

I’ll admit that before going to Thailand myself, I didn’t fully understand the ins and outs of elephant riding and the abuse these giant creatures face. It wasn’t until I visited an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai that I really learned the harm of the riding industry.

Elephants in entertainment 

Elephants are highly intelligent creatures and are capable of being taught to perform an array of tasks from hauling logs to painting.  Historically in Thailand, they have been utilized by logging companies, but widespread deforestation has caused legal logging to officially cease. Nowadays, elephants primarily work in tourism and entertainment. Unfortunately, very few companies treat their elephants ethically, or with the respect they deserve. Instead, they view them as a profitable business asset.

It’s easy to look at these massive animals and believe they are sturdy enough to handle just about anything. However, elephants are not designed to carry weight on their backs. They have evolved to support a mass amount of weight below their spine. So instead of having smooth, round spinal disks like a horse, for example, elephants have sharp bony protrusions that extend upwards from their spine. These bony protrusions and the tissue protecting them are vulnerable to weight and pressure coming from above. Many elephants are made to carry people for up to 5 hours, without adequate food and rest time for them to relax. These conditions permanently damage the elephants back and can have severe consequences on the elephant’s lifespan.

Additionally, if that wasn’t enough to convince you of the harms of riding, the elephants also go through a ritual called Phajaan.

What is Phajaan?

Phajaan is an ancient Thai ritual that can best be described as “crushing” an elephant’s spirit. This is the process in which a baby elephant is separated from its mother and tied down so that it cannot sit, lay down, move or turn around. Over the course of a few days, the baby elephant is continually tortured until its spirit is broken and it has nothing left to do but submit, listen and learn what their masters are trying to teach it. Half of the elephants that go through this process don’t survive, the others get mean and aggressive. 

Organizations like the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary work tirelessly to rescue these animals, give them a safe place to live and all the bananas they could eat.

Elephant sanctuaries 

This past May, I visited the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary Camp 8, one of the many elephant sanctuaries in Thailand that offer elephant interaction experiences. The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary is an ethical and sustainable eco-tourism project located approximately 60km from the city of Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. They have nine locations, or camps, around Thailand that house over thirty previously mistreated elephants. Their goal is to provide these rescues with a place to live safely and happily with their own kind.  They also aim to educate tourists and locals on the plight of the Asian elephant. This is where I learned of the harsh lives these elephants face. I was able to learn about the elephants and experience a side of them I would never have expected.  Elephants can be very playful and excitable. Along with a group of eager tourists, I was able to feed and interact with the goofy elephants, playing with them in the mud, and washing them in the river – experiences that are far more valuable than a five-minute ride could ever be. These elephants live a life of joy, every day like a spa day with the fam. Watching the elephants wander free and devour all the bananas their trunks can carry, it was clear that these elephants were truly happy. So happy you can actually see them smile.

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How you can help the Asian elephants

While the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary is a wonderful company to choose when looking for your own elephant experience, all elephant sanctuaries support the humane treatment of elephants. No, you can’t ride them, but you can do better! For either a half day or full day, you can walk with them, feed them, bathe them in mud and wash them in the river. Trust me when I say you will not feel like you’ve missed out on riding. Plus, with the delicious addition of an included lunch, it will be a day you won’t soon forget.

If you plan on visiting Thailand and are interested in getting up close and personal with Asian elephants, always choose a sanctuary over a riding camp. Many company names will not state that they are a riding camp, so make sure to read descriptions and reviews. If it says riding available, choose a different option. Most sanctuaries specify that they are sanctuaries and offer non-riding options only. So do your research, read tourist reviews and choose accordingly. If we want to see these abusive practices come to an end, we need to stop the flow of cash funding these companies. Book ethically, spread the word and help end elephant mistreatment together.

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Travelling with Grief

Anyone who’s lived through the loss of a loved one knows how truly challenging it can be to live with grief. While everyone experiences loss differently, it can often be a roller coaster of confusing and complicated emotions. Especially if your loved one had a big impact on your day to day life. From sadness to anger to a desperation, keeping up with the emotional fallout can be completely exhausting. Especially while trying to keep up with the ever-changing world that continues to buzz on around you.

Unfortunately, life has a way of moving on from loss faster than you do. For a while, friends and family do their best to help you through your tough transition. But, naturally, there comes a time when friends return to their lives, jobs expect you back at the office, and even your dog requires your return to daily rituals. While the world keeps on chugging forward, you feel frozen in your grief – stuck mourning your loss and trying to figure out how to start living again. Losing a loved one can change your life forever, and at times, it can feel like the rest of the world just doesn’t give a crap.

A few months after my mother’s passing, the world had already moved on. My friends assumed I was getting back on track, my extended family returned to their own lives, and the pressures of the post-grad job search started closing in on me. While life continued to happen around me, inside, I was nowhere near ready to start living again. So, overwhelmed, scared, and eager to escape the pressure to move on, I decided to pack up and run away to Europe for my first backpacking adventure.

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Spain, 2012

Travelling is great for the soul no matter what state that soul is in. The experience of getting out of your comfort zone, trying something new, and challenging your status quo can be incredibly liberating and enlightening for just about anyone. But travel can be especially fulfilling – and even therapeutic – for people going through serious life changes. Whether it’s a breakup, a loss of direction, or the loss of a loved one, travel allows you to grow and find yourself in a compact, approachable way. And when you bring your grief along for the ride, truly great things can happen.

The first thing I learned while travelling with grief – and it didn’t take long to learn it – was that no matter how far you go, you can’t run from your pain. It will always be there waiting for you whenever you have a moment of downtime. At your hostel, on a train, even at the top of a mountain. There is no escaping your grief. Luckily, I also learned why I shouldn’t try. When you travel with grief…

1. You give yourself time to transition

One of the more challenging aspects of recovering from loss is living with the ghost of your loved one. When someone close to you passes, they can leave a massive hole in your life, reminding you of their absence over and over again. Attempting to live on like nothing has changed is near impossible with this constant reminder. Travelling can act as a sort of pallet cleanser after a loss, helping you transition from your old life with your loved one, to your new one without them. Think of it as an emotional buffer, allowing you to step out of your day-to-day just long enough to get some distance and clarity, then return to your new situation as a new person.

2.  You escape external pressures

After a loss, it can feel like your life has stopped, but the world continues whipping around you at high speed. The expectations, responsibilities, and pressures to move on can add anxiety and confusion to an already challenging time in your life. When you travel, you strip all of that away, allowing yourself some time and space to focus on your pain – free of all the other emotional noise. Travelling allows you a chance to feel a more purified, distilled version of grief that can be hugely beneficial to your overall healing process. Sometimes, you just need the space to truly feel.

3.  You find yourself

If you were close to your loved on, their disappearance from your life can have you questioning who you are without them. Redefining yourself and rediscovering your certainty after loss is no small task. While it may take a long time to settle into the new you, travel can help you kick-start the process. You can learn a lot about yourself when you hit the road for distant lands. Experiencing new things and encountering new challenges can help you discover your likes and dislikes while diving deeper into what drives you and helps you feel alive.

4. You rediscover your self-confidence

Overcoming the challenges of navigating a foreign country can help you find the confidence you need to believe you can live on without your loved one. You will find the proof you need in your capabilities and self-reliance while you explore incredible new worlds.

5. Finally, you learn to embrace your grief

When my mother died, I literally fled to another continent in an attempt to escape my pain. I never expected that the resulting adventure would change the direction of my entire life. From that trip on, I learned that instead of fighting my grief, I could use it to fuel my adventurous spirit, letting it take me to places I never thought I’d go. I would never have gotten on that plane had it not been for my grief. Now, I have a long and exciting bucket list that I’m slowly chipping away at, taking the memory of my mother with me everywhere I go. A lot of good can come from loss when you learn to embrace it and let it lead you to new adventures.

You may never truly move on from your loss. But it doesn’t need to be a burden on your back. On my most recent hike of the Tour Du Mont Blanc, four and a half years after my first grief vacation to Europe, I found myself at the Grand Col Ferret, 2,537 feet above sea level, struggling to get to the peak. I had sprained my ankle and was exhausted from carrying my 40-pound backpack up the steep incline to the border between Italy and Switzerland. It was an incredible view, and the crisp mountain air helped push me forward. But that day, I was not on top of my game. The night before, I’d had a dream about my late mother, and while I always enjoy a surprise appearance from my mom in my dreams, the emotional distraction made my climb that day much more challenging. Nearing the end of my emotional rope, my resolve broken, I started to cry. So I stopped and took a few deep breaths. For just a moment, I stared out at the mountain, and I shared a moment with my mom. I showed her the view, shared a few anecdotes from my adventure so far, and asked her if she was proud of me. Though I knew I wouldn’t receive any kind of real response, I knew that she was. And with her support in my heart, I was able to pick myself up again and finish the trek to the top of the Col – an accomplishment I will always cherish.

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Grand Col Ferret

There will never be a time when I don’t miss my mom, but I know that she will always be with me, cheering me on from the sidelines.

Loss is something that is personal to everyone, and there are many ways to cope with it in your life. But if you have a few weeks and some cash to spare, my advice is to pack up your emotional baggage and hit the road. You will not regret it. I promise.

Throwback to Europe, 2012 – the trip that changed my life

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G Adventures Presents World Tourism Day & Sustainable Travel

Last week, I was lucky enough to join some of Canada’s most forward-thinking travellers in celebrating World Tourism Day. In an event hosted by G Adventures, we celebrated the amazing world of travel and the work, effort, and ethics that go into building a better travel industry.

G Adventures has long been a company built on sustainability and ethical travel. But this year, they’ve decided to take their philosophy even father.

Around 7:30 pm, after exploring some fascinating exhibits, enjoying their signature cranberry cucumber cocktail, and enjoying a few delectable appetizers, G Adventures’ CEO Bruce Poon Tip took the stage. He began by explaining the saddening reality of how little money spent on tours in impoverished countries actually stays in those countries. While many travel agencies make a profit off of our desire to see the world, the countries that rely on tourism for economic growth rarely see any of it. The percentage of the world’s population living in poverty has decreased within the last several years, but there is still a lot more that can be done to help bring that number down to zero.

With great passion and excitement, Bruce unveiled his 2017 plans to help do just that.

His first unveiling of the night was a series of trips under the Travel Better name. These trips are specifically meant to fund local communities, shops, and individuals in countries in need. Everything from cooking classes to bike tours to festivals will be offered, with proceeds going where they are needed the most. With a simple shift in mindset, Bruce and the G Adventures team are able to spread the wealth to those in need while inspiring us all to see every corner of the world.

His second announcement is the coming together of G Adventures with animal activist legend Jane Goodall. Together, they have created the new Jane Goodall collection. This is a collection of wildlife-focused tours allows travellers to get up close and personal with some amazing animals, while still respecting their freedom and safety. In the world of tourism, it’s easy to fall for the tourist traps that have foundations in animal cruelty. From camel tours to elephant rides and even tiger sanctuaries, many of these operations rely on the harming of animals to make a profit. These tours give travellers the assurance that they will be gaining unforgettable experiences without harming any of the animals involved. And I think that is something we can all get behind.

As tourists and guests in other countries, it’s important that we’re always aware of our impact on the places we visit. If we can leave a country even slightly better off than when we got there, then it’s worth doing what we can.

Congrats to Bruce and the team for their new tours. I can’t wait to see what you have in store for all of us.

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Why I Am and Why I Do

This is going to be hard for me.

I tend to be a relatively private person. I’ve even struggled with keeping blogs going in the past as I generally prefer to keep to myself. Opening up isn’t something I’ve ever excelled at. However, it’s time to take the step I’ve been trying to take for years. After much soul searching and growth, I’m finally ready to share my experiences and open the door for good.

Sometimes in life, we encounter pivotal moments that have a way of changing everything. Moments that redirect our entire life’s path and make us question every step we’ve ever taken and every step we’re planning to take. For me, that moment was on April 8th, 2012: the night my mother died.

It was around 11 pm on Easter Monday about four years ago. I had just gotten back to college after a glutinous weekend of food and family in my hometown. Just as I was getting ready to go to bed, my phone rang. Confused about who could possibly be calling so late on a weeknight, I reached over and glanced at the caller ID. It was my father, and I instantly knew something was wrong. I answered the phone, and he said the words I’d been waiting for since I was a child. “Mom’s gone.”

I remember my gasp. I remember my confusion. I remember being completely unable to process anything my Dad was telling me. I had seen my mother less than five hours earlier, waving goodbye to me in the driveway of my childhood home. It didn’t seem real. In just one moment, my whole life had changed, and it would never be the same again.

My mother was my whole world. She was also an alcoholic. I had spent the majority of my first 20 years of life deeply involved in her bumpy road to sobriety – an end goal she would tragically never reach. My mother was a loving, wonderful woman who left a mark on everyone she knew. But she was conflicted. Her greatest weakness was her inability to love herself, and that self-loathing is what ultimately drove her to an early grave with a bottle in her hand.

The family she left behind was more broken than we even knew was possible, more dysfunctional than we had even been while in the throes of her addiction. Through the decades of sadness and conflict, we had never noticed that she had become the centre of our family. She was the beating heart and soul, and without her, we all fell apart. My father, my brother and I all went our separate ways, and things have never been the same since. I had wanted nothing more than for us to come together and learn to be the healthy family I always dreamed we could be. But we weren’t healthy. We were broken and we didn’t know how to be a family without her. So I was left with no comfort, no direction, and only my cluster of conflicting emotions to tear at my mind day in and day out for the next several years. Only within the last couple years has that started to change.

My journey has been a challenging one. You see, I was young when I learned of my mother’s addiction, and somewhere in my little mind, I  believed I could fix it. I really thought I could save her life if I tried hard enough. So I dedicated much of my developing years to spending time with her, keeping an eye on her, and trying desperately to help her feel like she was loved. Most of all, I spent my childhood try to keep her sober. I would search her bags, learn all her hiding places, and confront her with the bottles I found. I believed that if I kept it up, if I fought her addiction with her, she would eventually kick it for good and we could all live happily ever after. Finally, the way it was meant to be.

Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as happily ever after.

That night, on Easter weekend in 2012, I learned that awful, painful truth. My mother was gone, and I had failed at the only goal I had ever had; saving her life. I was about to graduate college with no idea who I was and what I was supposed to do without her. I, Kay Benedek, didn’t exist as a whole person outside of the alcoholic situation. I had put all my own goals and desires aside to focus on her and her addiction. So when she died, I suddenly found myself, at 22 years old, with no idea what it meant to be me. Just me. So I grieved. I grieved for her, and I grieved for the version of myself that died with her. I was a blank slate. And that was almost as terrifying as facing life without her.

That was four years ago, and since that day, I’ve been on an unstoppable journey of self-discovery.

It has been anything but easy, and there have been days where it felt like I just couldn’t go on. It would be so easy to just give up and disappear forever. Just dissolve into nothingness. So many days I spent wishing I could do just that… but I couldn’t. My mother’s death had ignited in me a desire to live. I swore to myself that I wouldn’t die with the same regrets she had. I wouldn’t live a life of fear and doubt like she had. I would figure out who I was, and I would live – for both of us. Ultimately, I know that’s what she would want me to do.

So, here I am, years down the road with more miles on my soul than I can express, learning to make that work for me. Though my pain has been there with me through all of my adventures and experiences, I find myself being thankful for it. I have seen amazing things, been to beautiful places, and made lifelong friends. My struggles with my mother’s life and death have made me stronger, braver, and more determined than I ever knew I could be. And with her love and support never leaving my heart, I know that nothing can stop me from living my life to the fullest.

I am no less lost now than I was that day. I don’t really know what I’m looking for, but I do know that my journey is nowhere near complete. I’m scared and I’m hurt. I’ve been through a lot, learned a lot about myself, and I know I still have some things to work through. But in my pain and grief, I find the drive I need to keep pushing, healing through every new adventure. That is what brings me to this very step. This is the next stage in that growth.

Everyone has a cross to bear. Everyone is working through something. This blog is my attempt to embrace my complicated past, celebrate my incredible accomplishments, and inspire others to do the same. Together, we can all be a bunch of dysfunctional folks, living for every new day and every new adventure.

I am Wander Woman Kay Benedek, and I will never stop.

Mom – this one, and every one after it, is for you.

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