How to Enjoy Mexico: understand its background first!

Dear Reader,

It’s been almost three since I moved to Mexico and I don’t feel I have fully explained this wonderful country. I wrote several posts on it and it will probably take several chapters to even slightly envision what Mexico is and it’s worth doing so. I want you to feel it as if you were here with me exploring this remarkable land.

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The beautiful and shining Guanajuato town.

It sounds so basic and futile when you think about it, as if by reading the title the imminent thought would be “oh come on, no need for guidelines”. But believe me, there is a science behind the enjoyment of a new city or even country, especially one you hope to survive without stress and melancholy. You might also think that all it takes is to join a tour or simply read about it on a travel guide.

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Learn how to make tacos. It’s fundamental in order to understand how delicious they can be…

Let’s take Mexico as an example. Mexico is a huge country full of colours, culture and above all contradictions. They say that here in Mexico you will find four stories: the one the Government wants you to believe, the one academic institutions want to teach, one that foreigners want to explain. And the last one, the one you have to discover yourself. And this is mine.

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Cute little restaurant in Mexcaltitán, the Venice of Mexico

Certain beliefs and conceptions of reality characterise some populations more than others, and Mexico recalls images of ancient civilisations, plundering Spanish conquistadores and moustachioed revolucionarios. The many contradictions of this vibrant country lie in its unique history and are deeply reflected in the character and personality of the people. The expansive friendliness of norteños (Mexicans from the northern states) compared to the more defensive and rebellious southern Chiapanecos (people from Chiapas state). Mexicans can be intensely fatalistic, resigned even. And when the mood takes in, they are hedonistic and carefree. A reserved poker face will suddenly give way to astonishing warmth and familiarity.

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Indigenous children from the sort of forgotten state Chiapas

We know Mexico’s first hundred years were bloody while the last eighty-five years have been at peace; it shares a long land border with the United states and yet they couldn’t be more different.
When the Spanish brought Catholicism, the missionaries took a very pragmatic approach to it and incorporated many beliefs from earlier religions. That’s why there are so many religious festivals here like Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), the Muxis (gay/transgender divinity festival), the Guelaguetza and many others that blend Catholic celebrations with indigenous rituals.

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Mexico is dual.

It emerged from its bloody history and claimed its place in the modern world. And now globalisation and free trade is altering Mexican society once again.

 

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How to take Photos with your Mobile

Dear Reader,

It’s time to learn something new today 🙂
Experience teaches us a lot, especially when we’re on the road. Nothing makes a story more beautiful and interesting than colourful eye-catching photos taken on the go.
Most of us travellers rely on good cameras with settings. However, as we travel and share instant snaps on our blog or social media, we often recur to smartphones. You need to be able to use your smartphone well, especially if you go to places where cameras are either not welcome or you don’t have time to set up your regular camera. Smartphones are more conspicuous and with technology that allow us to do wonderful things.

So here are few tips I learnt myself 🙂

Think Mobile

Before using a picture, look at it on your smartphone and ensure your main subject is clear and any writing, such as a sign, is legible. Keep in mind that most people will check your photos and articles from their phones so make your shots mobile friendly and neat.

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If you’re able to read the 007 commemorative sign then it’s a successful mobile-friendly photo

Keep it Simple

I learnt that my most popular photos are the simplest ones. They don’t have many people in them, multiple props, and complicated staging. The most effective images so far have been those with simple subjects, such as a close-up of a situation, object, person or even buildings.

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Play with Light and Shadow

Both Samsung (S7 series) and iPhones allow you to adjust the lighting by simply tapping on the screen so pay attention to your scene’s lighting. Bright light and deep shadows create a stark contrast that can make your photo more interesting and dramatic.

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Natural light inside the peacock dome
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The Masjed-e Jāmé of Isfahan was a tad darker than the peacock dome mosque so here all I did was slightly augmenting the contrast level.

Sometimes you’re lucky enough not to need any of these 🙂 just because the light is so naturally beautiful and unique (Iran has plenty of these places where light is so mystical you can play with it for hours). So before you start thinking about tapping on the screen of your phone, analyse your surrounding and catch the elements already at your disposal.

Follow the Rule of Thirds

If your subject is a person or more people, have them closer to either side, or along the top or bottom, rather than in the center. This is the rule of thirds, where you basically break an image down into thirds (both horizontally and vertically) so that you have 9 parts.

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The Rule of Thirds

Studies have shown that if you place the subject along the intersection lines rather than the center of the frame – the photo becomes more balanced and will enable a viewer of the image to interact with it more naturally.

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If you divide this photo in 9 squares, my face comes right up to the lower right intersection.

An exception: Faces. Faces can be anywhere in the frame.

Subject / Try different Perspectives

Mix big and small things and create an interesting contrast with different perspectives. For example, put a subject close to the camera and others in the background to create a more spaced composition.

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The Salisbury Cathedral from a dark side.

You can either take a typical frontal photo of the Jame Mosque like this one…

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Or you can be creative by simply changing angle like my friend Marina did with this photo of me under the crystal-turquoise arch and make it sensational.

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Don’t Zoom and Don’t Flash

I learnt using my own flash is a terrible idea, just as bad as zooming.
If you really must use artificial light because you’re either in a dark setting or because you want to give your photo a magazine look, get help from a friend. Ask your friend to point their smartphone flashlight (or a proper flashlight, if available) at the subject from a different angle of yours.

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This photo was an experiment using my friend who was sitting next to me and her iPhone flashlight. The room was already very well lit but her flash allowed me to highlight the food in more detail.

Don’t photograph directly with Instagram

Instagram comes with a preset square mode that will not allow you to crop or give your subject proper focus. It is better that you take your photo with your regular camera vertically (regular full-sized portrait mode). This way you will be able to visualise more and not be limited to format constrictions. You can always edit the photo later, just get the first one properly sized.

Use interesting elements

Be creative and use the elements around you to make a photo interesting. Most of the time it will spontaneous but consider spending some time analysing the surrounding to create an appealing photograph in such way that it almost tells a story on its own.

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My subject was the balcony_restaurant San Fernando, however, what makes this photo attractive are the live musician dedicating their tunes to the restaurant’s clientele.

 

Add a focal point and varied textures

When setting up your photo, ensure you have a subject in the foreground that provides a focal point. Use varied textures that create an interesting contrast.

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A flower I found on Ometepe Island, Nicaragua. Notice the blurred background.

Blend in and Ask for Permission

Before snapping a photo of a local merchant or nomads, always ask. No need to invasively snap a quick shot and run (you probably wouldn’t like it done to you either). If you ask you’d be surprised at how receptive people are to smiling 🙂

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Nomads of Iran. It is a distinct luck to actually find and interact with them

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And last but not least…

Say NO to selfie sticks!

The idea of a selfie is having an impromptu photo of yourself with a background that you like. And as such, it should look like a rustic spontaneous shot. A stick defies this logic because it forces a selfie to look like anything BUT a natural moment.

Not only selfie sticks are very annoying (blocking views, turning a memory trip to a self-aware photo trip) and have a lot of tourist destinations now banned them, but also the angle that the stick creates is unoriginal and fake given the effort of hiding who’s taking the photo.

 

Take normal selfies. Be natural.

 

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How to get into North Korea

Dear Reader,

It’s time to answer some of the biggest questions that many travellers wonder about: how to obtain visa and access to North Korea! So here is my experience or better yet, my holiday adventure!

Entering North Korea (DPRK) is a very unusual and restricted process that requires months to be completed before actually receiving the green light.
Entering North Korea is very easy, but few things can get you in trouble or on the black list: your nationality and your profession.
If you are South Korean and/or Japanese, be sure that the authorities will never let you in. Historically, even the Americans wouldn’t be allowed in as they are still considered as the Empire which invaded and made a mess. But as America is symbol of money, now they are allowed because they are big part of the DPRK tourist consumption.

North Korean countryside on my way to Kaesong.
North Korean countryside on my way to Kaesong.

You can fly to Pyongyang from three places: Beijing, Vladivostok and a city in Malaysia that I cannot recall right now (perhaps its capital). However, the overwhelming majority of foreigners travel to Pyongyang from China, either by train or flight. Me and my friends traveled via Air Koryo, although I heard from my other tour fellows that the train experience is quite something.

Inside the airplane on Air Koryo on my way from Beijing to Pyongyang.
Inside the airplane on Air Koryo on my way from Beijing to Pyongyang.

The only way you can enter the country is by joining an authorised tour from an authorised company. When I signed up for the Young Pioneer Tours, all I had to do was filling an application form.

Of course the DPRK authorities reserve the right to reject your application for X,Y, Z reason, and luckily, that wasn’t my case.

I did managed to enter so you’re probably wondering “Ok, but how easy it is to get to DPRK from China?”, and my answer is… It is an absolute pain mixed up with lots of bureaucratic issues and in some cases even many visits to the Chinese Consulate.
Anyway, it all happened two weeks before my departure… I was told “Do not go to the angry Chinese girl, but instead the grey-haired Italian man!”. Sadly, by the time I went the Italian man was gone, the Angry lady (if angry) was still there, but luckily there seemed to be a different Italian there as well. So I sad “I won’t go against the odds, so I might want to try someone more familiar”. I wish I thought this through a bit more, because the Italian guy who attended me made the whole process a lot more complicated and frustrating than I thought.

My entry visa to North Korea.
My entry visa to North Korea.

Basically there was no issue at all until the North Korea tour came up in the conversation with the Man. He had checked all my papers, requested a booking for every single night I was going to spend in China, flights details and bla bla bla, so to sum up I was entitled to a touristic visa. But as there was gap he wanted to know where I was going to go. The minute he heard me saying “North Korea! :)” he freaked out. He took back my tourist visa and nervously said “We cannot guarantee you be safe in there, so we cannot grant you a touristic visa. People cannot go to North Korea…” to which I impatiently replied “Yes, people can, I’m going since I’m in a tour plan, departing from Beijing. See? It is possible”. My inner patience thermometer was reaching a dangerous level, at some point he even said to me “It is not possible to go to North Korea, you need to go talk to the North Korean consulate, I cannot give you a tourist visa if you plan to go there, I mean… it’s a dangerous place, we cannot take responsibility for you”. Not wishing to be rude, I demanded to talk to Angry Lady as she dealt with my friends’ application and simply said “Can you please help us here? He evidently has no clue on what to do and you helped my friend getting everything done, so your help in here is much needed”. In the end, I signed 6 declarations, 6! All aiming to exonerate the consulate from any responsibility during my trip. Angry and all, the lady took one minute, and I got my two-entry visa. Yayy!

Teen soccer players on their way to pay respect to the Dear Leader.
Teen soccer players on their way to pay respect to the Dear Leader.

So, as the hardest part is over, let’s go back to the North Korean entry process. After getting the visa and having indeed flown over to China, you must be aware of the following pieces of advice:

  1. Always show respect to the Koreans leaders and avoid offending the local guides and people. At certain places especially statues of the leaders we will often bow to show our respect according to the local customs.
  2. You are not allowed to use the local currency in North Korea. In fact, you won’t even see a local bill or coin. Most of transactions are made in RMB (Chinese currency).
  3. Professional video cameras are not allowed to be taken into the DPRK, but handheld digicams have recently been allowed as long as you don’t film anything you’re told not to! Regular digital still cameras are fine, for professional cameras, lenses less than250 mm are allowed- anything over that could be retained at customs until you depart.
  4. E-books are fine, and normal books are OK as long as it’s not a Bible,Qu’ran or any other religious text. A couple of people were in trouble because they were bringing Bibles with them, so e-hem, no religious text book.
  5. It is strongly recommend you bring gifts for your North Korean guides when you first arrive at the hotel, and have a ‘sit down’.

Having said this, you are ready to go and enjoy the most hermetic country on earth!

Japan Love #1: The Art of Bowing

Dear Reader,

Tokiko is a Japanese lady based in Guadalajara. She teaches Japanese and loves Mexican food. She says she likes the corn interference with most of the dishes, which is quite unusual in her home cuisine.

Thing is 🙂 … I see her everyday so I have many many chances to ask her questions, share experiences, tell her how much I love Japan and how I would move there in a second!

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One of my casual days in Tokyo.

She loves when people love her country so in return in our coffee moments she instructs me on important things I need to know in the event I move there. There are many things on the list but let’s start with the most important one: bowing.

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Ok it sounds easy. But after listening to her say on it… it isn’t as easy as you think.

I’m sure you have noticed that Japanese people bow at practically any occasion. Whether it’s about greeting a person, or apologising for something, a bow is always there. Believe it or not, there is an art and logic behind it: the more you bow, the more important and respectful it is.

Tokiko says that there three kinds of bow: Eshaku (会釈), Keirei (敬礼) and Saikeirei (最敬礼). Each one of this bow has a certain degree of “inclination”.

In the most informal settings and common greetings, you can use eshaku. With eshaku, the body takes a bow of about 15 degrees. It looks something like this:

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The 3 kinds of bow you find in Japanese culture. Please note the angle of inclination in each situation.

Then there is Keirei. Keirei is a slightly more exaggerated inclination of the body. In the pictures you can see it with a 30 degrees inclination.
Keirei is what you do when you need to show a higher level of respect. Higher respect in Japan is shown towards senpai (先輩), someone who is of higher age, level or even class.
Is very common that school mates refer to the oldest of them as senpai. Also, students might refer to their teacher as senpai to show respect.

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Another example of the bowing etiquettes. Notice how the head and looking direction of the person doesn’t change, the eyes keep fixed and the head remains straight.

And then we have the last kind of bow: Saikeirei. Seikeirei is the ultimate reverence gesture reserved for major occasions. You bow until 45 degrees of inclination (the fourth picture here above). This kind of bow is reserved for when you meet the CEO of your company, Prime Ministers and even the Emperor himself. Tokiko says that in such cases you need to stay inclined for at least 15 seconds to show the appropriate respect.
This kind of bow is also used for apologies. Apologies meant to mitigate disastrous situations: offending someone, destroying someone’s belongings, disrespect elders, etc.

Next post on this fantastic culture next week!

How to help turtles

Dear Reader,

My last trip left me with a huge question: how do sea animals responde to lunar cycles?
It all happened last week end…
We went to San Blas and found a turtle conservation center. There are many in Mexico and normally they take over the turtle eggs once the mother leaves them buried in the sand.

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Turtle eggs and baby turtles are very delicate and vulnerable to predators. One of the worse ones is the seagull.

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This is the container where the hatched babies are kept for few weeks.
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My friend’s finger serves as a reference to understand their size. They’re absolutely tiny 🙂

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The procedure is simple: few weeks after the eggs hatch the babies are ready to go into the sea. Because of the presence of predators, the center guardians protect them carefully to make sure that the babies are able to walk safely from the beach right into the water. This is to ensure that a significant number of them make it safely.

However, it happens that one of more baby turtles are unfortunate and/or somehow face bigger challenge. Below is a deformed turtle which never developed disproportioned limbs and one of them completely inexistent.

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The moon revolves around the Earth in an elliptical orbit. But astronomically, these two bodies revolve around their own center which is also revolving around the sun. Because of this synchronised rotation and revolution of the moon, only the near side of the moon is seen facing the earth.

As common as this birth defect can be in animals, I found the explanation of the center guardian quite interesting. She explains that baby turtles can be born with defects and deformations due to lunar eclipses (in fact that had been one only few days earlier our visit).
So how does that work? How to marine creatures react to lunar eclipses?
The indirect effect of lunar cycle on the marine environment is the tide as in response to the gravitational pull of the moon to the earth.
This attraction is is strongest on the side of the earth facing the moon causing a bulge of water.
This is a schematic drawing that shows the high tides on the lunar portion of earth’s side.
There had been studies on the effects of lunar cycle on the behavioural patterns of marine animals. Some of these researches are focused on certain marine creatures that seem to show occurrence of lunar rhythms and their respective mechanisms to adapt with their environmental changes.
Some scientists also argue that certain animal behaviour is a response to lunar stimuli (like moonlight) while others reason that most marine animals have adapted to the long-term cycles and continue to persist because of “biological clock”.
The sun and moon cause rhythmic changes in our environment as in light, temperature in a predictable manner. These variations inevitably affect us humans, plants and animals and we can see how behaviour is adapted to these changes by improving and/or changing body parts that are no longer beneficial.
However… I still fail to find evidence that supports the notion that a lunar eclipse is harmful during turtle pregnancyso I think maybe it’s a myth or some sort of superstition. Humans are big on superstitions, remember my past stories on the most common Italian myths and believes?  This particular superstition about how lunar eclipse affects unborn baby animals is ingrained in India.
So what happened to the unfortunate baby turtle? Well, it was safely released the following dawn into the sea. Her limbs were disproportioned as you can see in the photos but they still allowed her to move around the box with her peers so hopefully she’ll manage to swim.

How to make Tacos with Stanito

Dear Reader,

as easy as it sounds, Mexican tacos are a work of art that takes time, dedication and passion. Stanito is going to teach not how to cook (I’ll leave this for next post) but how to prepare it on your dish and eat it.

Today I’m introducing to you the Blue Taco tortilla, that you can find in central-south of Mexico and which is characterised by a nice blue color. It’s really blue. It’s not because it’s gone bad of because of fungi. The tortilla is blue because it’s made out of blue corn, a kind of corn you find in central-southern states of Mexico with a unique blue pigmentation due to a high amount of anthocyanin that also acts as antioxidant.

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First of all, you take the main course core food and place it on the tortilla. Make sure you put in the middle so that you have pace to add the next ingredients.

Exhibit A: Stanito is having breaded-fish taco

Once you placed the piece of fish on the tortilla, it is mandatory that you add guacamole. It’s a must, if you don’t do this it is a direct insult to Mexican Cusine world (and to Stanito!)

Exhibit B: Stanito is placing the guacamole in an orderly fashion

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Because this is a fish taco, it is mandatory that you add lemon to it because fish requires this mostly all over the world or in those countries where people really know about food 🙂 (Mexico and Italy)

Exhibit C: Stanito is carefully putting lemon on the piece of fish to highlight its delicate taste

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Mexicans like their food spicy and tasty, which means that if you have sauces in front of you, use them. They also like onion a lot, something that Stanito treasures very heartily. So gently place the onion on top of the fish and next to the guacamole.

Exhibit D: Stanito in this case is placing onion rings, which makes everything a bit more difficult because when the time comes to fold the tortilla the rings will break of won’t stay easily in it.

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Give one last check to the taco. Check that you have everything you want in it, no onion ring is missing, and if you feel like adding chilli this is the time to do it.

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Now you enjoy this delicious creation 🙂

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And why not combine it with one of Mexican most famous drinks? Beer with clamato sauces.

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Buon appetito!

For more information about real Good Food click here and here! 🙂

How to take photos of butterflies

Dear Reader,

Photos are awesome, and even more if you manage to take shots of particularly difficult animals. Clearly I’m still learning and I was VERY lucky this butterfly just stayed there on that flower for so long!

I can’t say butterflies are too difficult either as sometimes they do fly away slowly, but it is a challenge indeed when you see one so beautiful flying over a flower.

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This is a butterfly I found in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán. Michoacán is famous for its butterflies and every year you can witness the famous Monarch Butterfly migrating from south of the United States and Canada towards warmer Mexico.

These are some of the tips I learned (and still learning) as a beginner amateur photographer that I can pass you, hoping that your next butterfly stays as still as mine:

  1. Get a little down: Some of my best photos are taken lying down or kneeling. Not only butterfly seem to be less scared but also many of them, including monarchs, contrast beautifully against a blue sky background. It’s much better and more dramatic to have a blue sky background from ground level that merge with the butterfly colours.
  2. Get your settings right and play with them: It doesn’t matter how good your camera is if your settings are wrong for shooting butterflies outdoors. For instance, you’ll often need a faster shutter speed to prevent blur associated with a fast-moving subject. You can also play with your Settings in order to adjust the ISO (which is the sensitivity of the image sensor) to manage the movements of the butterfly and shoot it timely.
  3. Photo Editing Software: my camera actually does a good job by itself but if not there is rarely a photo or video you take that won’t need some editing. The editing program I use has lots of photoshop functionality, without the photoshop price and is included in my mac and it has served me well for the use of my blog readers 🙂

These are some things I use editing software for on a regular basis on my Mac Book with the Photo application within the new Yosemite theme:

  • cropping photos and centring them
  • sharpening images that are slightly out of focus
  • minor color adjustments or enhancements

Know thy camera, dear Reader, because colourful butterflies and humming birds move really fast so you want to try with a familiar camera to be ready at the right moment! Just have a few trials with your camera before attempting immortalise butterflies and other flying creatures. Stanito was purely lucky this time with the lazy butterfly 🙂 !

What to pack for a Dictatorship

Dear Reader,

Packing is a pickle, especially for people like me who tend to bring almost… everything.
A few months ago I received a question regarding packing instructions and advise for sporty countries. I thought that was a really good question because it will definitely vary depending on where to go.

DO NOT try and take everything with you. Exhibit A above.

Based on internet and common sense, it is easy to pack a suitcase if you go to Thailand, or Spain, or Jordan. But what about the special countries? Like North Korea? Yemen? Or China? Does the packing rule change? As these countries sometimes present warnings and limitations because of their governments (China, though, is not exactly a dictatorship but does present many limitations) sometimes there are rules set out in advance to prevent any difficulty for and from the visitor. Like North Korea. Myanmar didn’t have ATMs until couple of years ago, so rules and recommendations need to revised from time to time. For North Korea, I wasn’t warned about any specific rule regarding clothing (except the one piece of cloth for a formal visit to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun), but I distinctively recall the pre-tour information pamphlet with recommendations. Let’s see the bottom lines on packing:

  • Do not pack any religious book with you. You can’t play with this topic as it is highly sensitive in most sporty places (North Korea, Palestine, Yemen, China, etc).
  • Pack light and with the necessary, do not pack too many pieces of clothing, remember that is always best to travel light with the necessary items. If you find a pretty shirt, you’ll buy it in the moment, but depart light.
  • Photo equipment: bear in mind that professional cameras with lenses up to 250mm might not be allowed in some places. For the rest consider that in many places you won’t find lenses and other camera items, so pack them with you.
  • As ATM machines may not be available, bring lots of cash with you in sufficient quantity for the duration of your trip (Eur and USD will both be fine). Don’t waste time and space for travellers cheques. Just cash.
  • Lots of gifts like tobaccos and cigarettes, pens, mainly intended for bartering and gifts. Very useful items 😉 used by Stanito and Travel Buddy.
Cigarettes are always well accepted
… and chocolate too.
  • Wet Wipes are always a must-have for a number of reasons.
  • A torch or flashlight. This is a fundamental item. The best countries are those that are sporty, do not always expect light everywhere and have your own.
  • Take with you a useful passport. Many passports are not accepted, like in North Korea a South Korean passport will not be allowed to enter the country. Here is a list of friendly passports and here as well.
Italian_Chilean_Passports_Stanito
Everybody likes Italians, that is a certainty, and Chileans. Although Chileans are a more rare sight in sporty countries.
  • Notebook in case you want to write down interesting things you hear or see.
  • Minimized toiletries: we girls are specialists in finding teeny tiny tooth pastes, shampoos and creams. If you know you’re going somewhere where you will not find these items, use small containers.

Follow these rules and you’re good to go 🙂 !

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How to find Hell on Earth

Dear Reader,

I’m going to tell you how to find Hell on Earth, so please go and locate yourself in Italy in a town called Cumae, close to Naples. I like to start these stories from its fabulous ancient origins… the Greeks.

Once upon a time, when the Earth was flat and it finished right after Gibraltar, the Greeks used to rule it all. It was known as the Greek World. They believed to have only one ocean, called Ocean, they believed that thunders were the anger expression of Zeus and they believed that the Sun was carried by a chariot through the sky. As we said before, they had many fascinating believes, but let’s pick what we left last time: Greek Hell. It is possible to find it, dear Reader. Continue reading “How to find Hell on Earth”

How to make your dreams come true: the Japanese Shinto ritual

Dear Reader,

I bet everyone you know would love to have a formula to make their wishes and dreams come true, and the sooner the better.
Well, Stanito, big Japan fan as she is, found the way to do it. The Shinto way to do it, to be more precise.
She found it for you in the outskirts of Tokyo in a mid-summer afternoon…

Continue reading “How to make your dreams come true: the Japanese Shinto ritual”