How to Travel Solo and Fall in Love With It

RIshikesh, India, Parmarth Ashram, www.bartnikowski.com

Rishikesh, India, Parmarth Ashram, http://www.bartnikowski.com

Myth: it costs a lot to travel.

Yes it does if you stay in $400 a night hotels like I used to do.

It was fun.

The truth is I love to travel solo.

I don’t have to wait for a friend to break up with her lover, leave their job, or save enough money to go with me.

When I want to go to Nepal, Colombia, or Sardinia I put on my Van sneakers and go!

I can sit in a fancy pants bar/restaurant like I am now and write. And enjoy a superb glass of red wine and be at ease and comfortable.

You never have to negotiate where to go based on money.

I was backpacking in the Himalayas solo in 2009 in Sikkim, India and realized I was spending less money per month than I received for renting out my apartment in Palo Alto, California.

I was spending less than $300 per month to stay in guesthouses eating home made Tibetan soup and momos, traveling by share jeep in the Himalayas, and having a blast.

I came home from that 10-month trip with money in the bank.

Advice.

Don’t go over your budget on lodging. Yes you can splash out for a few days. But you can also get budget accommodation and live it up at the upper crust lounge/restaurant like I am now.

Secret: you can often work/write in 5-star surroundings enjoying the incredible views and then go back to your Airbnb room, campsite, or rented home.

You’ll discover that having a set amount to spend on lodging will keep you kosher.

I often times suggest a lower price on a room when the price suggested is too high.

It’s called rich foreigner tax. Many countries, like India, have no set prices on their rooms, the price is whatever they can get.

So haggle wisely, you’re still most likely paying too much.

Freedom!

One of the best things I ever did was travel twice around the world with no itinerary buying one-way plane tickets along the way.

If I felt like staying in Bali another month I could, no discussion.

If I wanted to explore Burma for a month, I went.

First time I went round the world I spent $2900 on plane tickets, the 2nd time I spent $1800. No I didn’t buy a RTW ticket, it doesn’t give you freedom on your journey.

For example I decided to stay in Cambodia for 4 weeks when I couldn’t stomach the thought of leaving.

I was falling in love with Siem Reap, where Angkor Wat is located and so I stayed.

No heated arguments. I found an incredible local guesthouse: Rosie’s guesthouse. And another one, Ou Malay where the Cambodian owners and I had a love fest of laughing and daily camaraderie.

It was $7 a night, no wifi but so what?! We loved each other!

Cambodia, Ou Malay Guesthouse Siem Reap, www.bartnikowski.com

Cambodia, Ou Malay Guesthouse, Siem Reap, http://www.bartnikowski.com

You meet so many people!

When you’re solo, there’s no one to listen or talk to. You can be alone with your own thoughts and then Bam! you meet someone seriously interesting who lights up your world and you wonder how you ever would have met them if you were with someone.

This has happened to me more times than I can count. And I’m still in touch with many friends I met traveling from Spain, Korea, Australia, Nepal, India, Germany, and Argentina.

They shook up my world and invited me into a new portal of love and friendship. I never would have met them if I wasn’t solo.

Being solo you have to reach out. It can be intoxicating.

Traveling solo, I mention my thoughts to whoever is standing by, I don’t take offense if they don’t respond, I’m simply radiating aloha which means, I’m spreading good will and happiness which is what the Dalai Lama advises but I didn’t realize until living in Hawaii that this means Aloha.

Pay attention. You might meet your soulmate, best friend ever, or meditation master around the next corner.

Suddenly you’ll be in a new world that you had no idea even existed.

Burma, Shwe Dagon Pagoda, Yangon, www.bartnikowski.com

Burma, Shwe Dagon Pagoda, Yangon, http://www.bartnikowski.com

Safety.

Yes you can be safe but you have to trust your gut. Don’t negotiate with the red alert warnings your instincts tell you. Pay attention.

Your body knows before your mind. Listen.

And while you are at it: don’t tell people you’re traveling solo. Don’t advertise your solo status by flagrantly drinking and carousing. Really.

Do make friends with families and women. Volunteer with humanitarian foundations that are educating and changing lives. Don’t be afraid to talk to people and smile.

A smile is universal. Yes it works in every country. Try it. It works.

Change Your Life, join Mary on Kauai July to December for a 3-day luxury private retreat, learn yoga and photography on the best island in the world.

 

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First Trip to India

Photo: Wolf Price

Photo: Wolf Price

I had no desire to visit India until my son asked me to go.

He was living in Nepal and ready for a fresh adventure after volunteering in Kathmandu.

I had missed out on Morocco when he asked me to go with him and a friend when we met in Spain (I had to go to Italy for the first time) so no way was I going to say no to India and a chance to let my son lead me to a brand new country.

So I jumped in with no prior knowledge of India except for seeing the movie Gandhi.

That first trip to India and Nepal changed my life, turned me upside down, and electrified my bone marrow. I was never the same again.

The photo of me above was shot right after rafting down the Ganges River in the winter; drenched with icy waves over our heads as we paddled to stay afloat.

Of course we had to volunteer for the front paddling positions in the boat which means you get the worst of the waves over your head and the rest of the passengers just get sprayed.

But I never felt so alive in my life.

My son pushed me to go.

I just wanted to read a book that day.

India blasted open my spirit, forcing me to leap way out of my comfort zone.

Photo: Bartnikowski, Dalai_Lama in India

Photo: Bartnikowski, Dalai Lama in India

I was cold in the Himalayas, I got deathly sick, but I also ate tasty delectable food, was immersed in a multitude of religions, saw the Dalai Lama teach at his home in Dharamsala, had my eye balls seared with women’s colorful clothing, met gurus, saints, and friendly elephants!

There is nothing India doesn’t have but order.

Amritsar, photo student from Miri Piri Academy, during the class I was teaching

Amritsar, India photo credit: student from Miri Piri Academy, during the class I was teaching

There aren’t any rules in India: you can have bonfires in the street with cows who want to get warm in the high ethers of the Himalayas.

People drive recklessly. Watch out crossing the street. You don’t want to get mowed down by a motorbike or attacked by a monkey.

Some monkeys are mean in India, one stole my new dress off the clothes line and I didn’t find it until 2 hours later in the dark with my flashlight.

I’ve since been to India 4 times solo. And as soon as I left that first time, I wanted to go back. I found myself in Bali which seemed awfully tame compared to jolt your eyes open India.

What made me buck up and get strong?

The fact that yes I’m deliciously free and can make all my own decisions.

This is a huge opportunity for possible risk but it was also a leap into the unknown, an adventure beckoning, a bewildering array of options, food I couldn’t identify and stumbling happily through a language I didn’t understand.

I tried to learn Hindi and the Nepali language.

“Sundar” means pretty in Nepal. And meeto-cha means this food is yummy. That’s all I learned and actually I didn’t need to know anymore on that first trip.

After traveling with my son for a month, we went solo on our own paths. And boy did my India adventure change.

Being solo is misunderstood in India.

Local people from India wonder why you’re not traveling with your in-laws, 7 children and two sets of grandparents. Really.

Many people want to help you in India, some are scammers, and some are saints. Both will approach you especially when you are solo.

Here is what I do now. I surround myself with a shield of white light and send out the message with my mind, you will not approach me unless I invite you.

It works.

Do you remember the Beatles White Album? Much of it was written in Rishikesh, where I shot the photo below.

The Beatles stayed at a now defunct ashram with Maharishi on the Ganges River while they learned meditation and wrote songs.

Rishikesh, India, Ganges River_Photo: Bartnikowski

Rishikesh, India, Ganges River_Photo: Bartnikowski

What I did was I was lay on the marble floor of this gorgeous “ghat.” (a river side temple, dock, or bathing spot)

The nightly puja was happening.

My tripod was only 6 inches high, one of those tiny jobs that don’t extend, but even though a policeman’s foot was inches from my head, I got this shot from a unique angle.

My body commanded me to capture it.

That’s the real secret of how I get the money shots. My body tells me to shoot and I listen.

So this was our happy hour of prayers, offerings, songs, and chanting.

Puja persuaded me to stop drinking wine when I hadn’t decided to give it up.

But Rishikesh is a holy town in the foothills of the Himalayas; you can’t get booze there.

I was not going to get on the boat, cross the Ganges, and go into town to purchase low grade wine or spirits.

I had spirits at the puja so instead of a cocktail I joined the young Hindu priests, the head swami, and countless tourists from India and worldwide.

Rishikesh_India_Ganges_River_Bartnikowski

Rishikesh_India_Ganges_River_Bartnikowski

I was in heaven.

Afterwards we would meet with Swami for a blessing (darshan) then I’d walk back to my room at the ashram, or go hook up with Skype, being careful not to step in the cow flops along the path.

Yes India has the internet. And this was in 2006.

But India is the mothership. All roads lead to her.

You don’t have to go to the Himalayas to turn your world upside down pineapple cake but it was just what I needed after living in Palo Alto, California, the epicenter of Silicon Valley for 29 years, not knowing that outside this comfortable bubble of technology, splendor, and genius, there was a world named India that whispered to me, Just Do It.

So I did and I thank my son for inspiring me to do it.

I took 3 months off from life in Palo Alto, turned down work, closed my apartment door, paid the rent which was significant, and set out for India, Nepal, and lastly, Bali.

If you ever hear the call to go to India, do it. Your life will never be the same.

Wolf, my son, and me.

Wolf, my son, and me.

Mary Bartnikowski is an author of 4 books, award-winning photographer in Palo Alto, Hawaii, and worldwide for 29 years.

She has led programs at Apple, Stanford, Intel, and globally.

Join Mary and Escape to the Best Island in the World, Relax, Recharge, learn yoga and photography on Kauai, in a private luxury 3-day retreat, fall asleep to ocean waves at the Islander Resort, and explore the power places of Kauai, for one or two participants.

Learn More or call 808-542-4566

Burma, One Woman’s Love Affair

One of the best countries to travel solo is Burma, AKA Myanmar.

I spent 31 days boating and bussing across this incredible, new to the Western world, country and I was amazed.

Warning: Don’t listen to any media news about this isolated and remarkable country. Ask a person who has actually visited Burma.

What did I love?

The non-stop devotional people who are kind caring and told me where to get off the city bus in Yangon before I asked.

This is the mark of a compassionate culture.

I didn’t want to leave, everywhere you looked, more lovely souls.

Example. My passport fell out of my camera bag in the taxi from the airport and I didn’t know it until I was checking in at my guesthouse and noticed I didn’t have it.

The smiling taxi driver returned it within the hour, without being asked to.

Wow.

The Hidden Places

I’d never heard of Pyinoolwin before arriving in Burma, but this place soothed my soul, the orchids and flowers in the botanical garden got me awake and strolling at 8AM in the morning.

I met kind women gardening who painted me up to look like them.

Yangon and Bagan are filled with little known temples, markets, and beckoning Buddhism that doesn’t make you feel like you have to be Buddhist. It’s serenity on tap, a simpler life than what most people are used to. It’s in the air and the soil.

Maybe even in the water but I didn’t drink any. I buy bottled when in Asia.

Burma has everything, kind people, holy places, simple tea shops selling noodles, and markets where the farmers will talk with you as they slice their fish, put out their wares, and haggle over price.

I didn’t feel unsafe at all. Yes I know what happened to Aung San Suu Kyi, but she’s off house arrest and things are beginning to change in this amazing country. Political prisoners are starting to be released and Burma is waking up to the fact that tourism can be good.

Don’t wait. Go now. You will never regret it. 

2motorbikingcuteBurmaGirl

Photo: http://www.bartnikowski.com

Want to see more of Burma and discover the highlights of my 31 days exploring this mystical country?

Check out my Myanmar issue of Vagabond Travel Mag in the itunes store. It’s for iphones and ipads.

Everything you ever wanted to know about Burma but didn’t know anyone who had the answers.

Here is the link.

Vagabond Travel Mag

See my gallery of photography from Burma here

Mary Bartnikowski is an award-winning photographer, author, educator, retreat leader, and lover of world travel. She has led programs at Apple, Intel, Stanford University, and globally. Come say hello at www.bartnikowski.com and get a free ebook, Secrets of Stunning Photographs.

#Kauai: Yoga and Photography on Kauai

I love helping people discover this stunning island, that I finally found after searching the world for it.

Suddenly I floated down into paradise when I got off the plane, the first time I arrived.

The truth is I feel that way every time I come home to Kauai.

I just led my most recent private luxury retreat here, for my amazing couple from Australia. They came all the way from another continent to learn yoga and photography with me. Lyn will tell you how she felt about the retreat better than I can as she actually did the retreat and didn’t want to go home.

Check out the video above.

The best thing is seeing your delight when you finally get away from your busy life and breathe in the jaw drop amazing nature here, the sparkling clean air, and the papayas and starfruit that make your palate sing.

Don’t put off your own peace of mind and relaxation. It makes your life richer to have had a recharging and rejuvenating time in a powerful place. I didn’t do this so much when I lived in the center of Silicon Valley working 18 hours a day.

I didn’t notice I was impossibly pushing myself. I loved what I was doing – shooting and writing but when you don’t get to the ocean and you live 30 minutes away – that’s just criminal!

Now that I swim in the ocean daily, I can’t even get my mind and heart around the idea of not doing it. The ocean is all the medicine you’ll ever need. It makes everything new again.

Photo Credit www.bartnikowski.com

Photo Credit: www.bartnikowski.com

Discover what people love about Kauai that words can’t describe, the sacred quality, the amazing food, the mesmerizing turquoise of the water, it’s all here.

Join me on Kauai to get a new lease on life. Learn more here.

Photo Credit www.bartnikowski.com

Photo Credit: www.bartnikowski.com

Why I Love People Photography

The truth is, if you go back to your childhood days you’ll discover what you loved.

I was given my first camera at age 7 by my grandfather from Poland. It was a plastic Diana brand camera and I was smitten. I immediately started taking secret shots of my family. They frequently wouldn’t know I was photographing them.

I felt powerful catching them so candidly, their faces remarkably real.

And it was ultra fun! And to magically get the photographs returned in prints holding each one in my hot little hands to see and study was a miracle.

And now 5 decades later I’m still at it.

I started shooting professionally in 1981 in Palo Alto, California. It was a heady time to be in the center of Silicon Valley.

Apple Computer was exploding, Facebook was not even an idea, and Google was just getting financed by my next door neighbor.

Steve Job’s girlfriend lived across the street. He’d pick her up in a convertible and one time I got a picture of them kissing with my telephoto lens. One day I’ll publish it. He later married her.

When I think of Steve Jobs I see him kissing his future wife, not selling computers. 🙂

So yesterday I shot a family portrait at the ocean here on Kauai and it was so much fun that they had to remind me about getting paid.

I’m so grateful to do what I love. And this is after 29 years of being paid to take photographs. I’m still jazzed about it.

All 13 people yesterday were at ease with me immediately and ready to try my ideas and express their ideas too.

The thing is when I’m asked to take a milestone photograph of a family, I absolutely know that this is a historically magic moment in their lives. We won’t pass this way again, not quite like this. It’s bordering on the mystical as it makes me see how temporary our lives are.

It took me many years to learn how to photograph a child. I’ll save you the learning curve, here is the secret.

You wait until they relax into the moment and then you pounce and capture it fast. That’s how I got the first photograph of the girl in the tree above. I waited. 

I’m not all that patient but photographing people educates me on how to be patient. Perfect timing has to do with waiting and pouncing. You have to be fast to get that magical second when she won’t look that way again, this is her moment in the tree, and she’s happy.

No one told her to smile or pretend to be happy to get some ice cream, this was real.

You might only have one chance so you have to go for the gusto at the same time you’re waiting patiently.

It takes practice.

I remember the moment I realized that my finger snapped the photograph before my brain suggested it.

I was photographing a wedding at Stanford University and I was waiting for that perfect photo of the bride being walked down the aisle by her father.

I discovered that the magic moment is quite often before they take the first step down the aisle not while they are walking.

Dad and daughter looked at each other for a fleeting second. Boom, I got it.

They didn’t even know I took the photo they were so caught up in the moment before Dad would give her away. Love poured out of them and I was crying too. But crying doesn’t keep me from getting the shot, it only adds to it.

So my family wanted a fun ocean shot before going back to the mainland. I loved that the grown-ups were even more excited than the kids about it.

See more family photography here.

One thing I’m grateful for is the amazing people I’ve met from doing photography all these decades.

I’m still friends with many of the people I’ve photographed. Most of the 722 weddings I shot in Palo Alto, those couples are incredibly still together.

Shooting weddings renewed my faith in humanity. True love does happen.

And if you’re ever unsure of what you love to do, go back to your early days of childhood and remember what put a smile on your face.

Mary Bartnikowski, award-winning photographer, and author for 29 years has led programs at Apple, Intel, Stanford University and worldwide. She daily has her toes in sand, swims in the ocean, and laughs often. Join Mary for a private luxury retreat to learn photography and yoga on Kauai, details here.

#Kauai: Helicopter Tour

Absolutely the best thing I’ve done on Kauai!

I’ve lived on this magical island for 2 years. But this opened my eyes all the way to my toes.

Soaring over the plunging velvety emerald cliffs and mesmerizing turquoise waters was a jolt to my soul.

How could all this amazing enchantment be sparkling in the now moment and I’ve never seen it?

I fell more deeply in love with this 25 x 33 miles tiny island. But no, it’s not so tiny. The power of the landscape made me tingle for hours, it was like having a crush on a hunky man turn into true love.

I was floating. My eyes grew new nerve endings, I could see more clearly and my heart busted open in gratitude.

Wonder and awe guide my life now. And I’ve never been more grateful that I sold my belongings, explored the world, moved to an island, and decided to be happy.

You can change your life. It all starts with that whispering in your spirit that says, yes go that way or no that is not for you.

Listen to it, even if it doesn’t make sense. Logic is not final wisdom.

Would your friends and family tell you not to move to another country or convert a used shipping container into a home? I am considering this.

Don’t live anyone’s life but your own.

It’s enough to do that one thing in your life. Truly live what is in your heart.

Yes courage takes practice. But there’s no other time like right now to start practicing.

Kickstart your motivation here, in my new video on the beach in Poipu.

Mary Bartnikowski, is an author, award winning photographer, and speaker. She has led programs at Apple Computer, Stanford, Intel, and worldwide.

Stay in touch with Mary and get her free ebook, Secrets of Stunning Photographs.

Go with www.sunshinehelicopters.com

Aging Gracefully

Mom's college graduation portrait, 1945

Mom’s college graduation portrait, 1945

My mother will celebrate her 92nd birthday this coming April. She’s been an active and independent woman all her life, and has lived on her own and forged her own path for over 40 years (my parents divorced in 1974). She currently lives in an assisted living community, but for the past couple of years her memory has been fading, and the facility coordinator is now saying it may be time for Mom to move to “memory care” or another place where she can receive more direct care.

Mom is still ambulatory, gets herself to meals on time and feeds herself, dresses herself, and doesn’t require any assistance with hygiene other than her three weekly baths in the facility’s whirlpool tub. After spending time in the sun nearly her whole life, starting when she was a child growing up in southern California, she only recently developed basal cell carcinoma in three places. She had a heart attack nearly 20 years ago, and has diminished lung function (even though she never smoked) but otherwise is in good health for her age. She has outlived all of her peers and her immediate family even though she was the oldest child/cousin. It appears her body will outlast her memory.

I genuinely hope to live as long as my mother has, and stay as active as she has for most of her life. Mom was still traveling abroad when she was in her 80s, still taking math classes (she was a math and biology teacher), and still running a small craft business. Until a couple of years ago she always kept a garden. Other than going to the hospital to have her four children, she never had stayed overnight in a hospital until she fell and broke her hip in late 2014 and needed surgery. It’s been very difficult to see her struggle with memory issues, and unable to remember things that use to come so easily to her.

Mom comes from a time when many believed that medicine could solve any problem – it was reactive versus preventative. She was never particularly careful about her diet – she loved sweets and always ate too much salt, among other things. She was a human whirlwind, but never regularly exercised other than doing some not-too-strenuous walking. For all the time she spent in the sun, she never used sunscreen.  She has lived with a family history of cancer, diabetes and heart disease hanging over her, and she has familial high cholesterol (which I inherited).

However, except for certain interludes, her life has been relatively stress free. She has kept her weight mostly under control. She has done what makes her happy. Up until the last five or six years, she still traveled all over. She loved seeing new things and having new experiences. She was always reading something, enjoyed doing jigsaw and other puzzles, kept up with her craft business, and loved watching the Denver Broncos play football. She found ways to help others or give her time and talents. All of these helped contribute to her longevity and quality of life.

My own goal for aging gracefully is to follow a modified “Mom Plan:” I am being careful about what I eat and making an effort to get more exercise. I’m more proactive about my health (and my skin!) and am going to try to not to have to rely on more and more medication as I age. I hope to still be traveling abroad when I’m in my 80s, and enjoying experiences with Brett, our children and grandchildren. I don’t ever want to lose a sense of wonder about the world, or refuse the opportunity to learn something new or have my mind changed about something. I want to continue on as a life-long learner, and keep my mind active every day with reading, writing, trying new things, going places, doing puzzles, staying connected with others, and keeping up with what’s going on in the world. Like Mom, I want to live as stress-free as possible, stay positive about life, and do the things that make me happy. I want to continue to give myself things to look forward to, set goals and figure out how to achieve those things. And, I want to remember every day all the many blessings that I have been given in this wonderful life.

Atul Gawande, in his book Being Mortal, posits that while we are not born pre-programmed for how long we will live, genetics doesn’t actually have all that much to do with longevity. Mom has lived a long time, as did her mother, but it’s no guarantee that I will. But, like my Mom, I intend to make the most of every day I’m given, and age as gracefully as possible.

Thank you, Mom, for everything.

Trail Encounters

As the frequency and duration of my hikes increases, I meet a variety of interesting people whose paths were not otherwise likely to cross mine. Whether tourists or local people, our conversations are always enjoyable, and some of these acquaintances are “almost” friends now.

Initially, all of my encounters were with tourists, perhaps because I was only hiking on weekends, and some, such as a honeymooning couple on a five-island tour, simply wanted to confirm that they were still on the right trail. We hiked together from where we met, and talked about some of the plants and vistas along the trail until we reached our mutual destination.

Still other hikers were genuinely lost, and often heading in the opposite direction (opposite from my direction, as well as the direction they wanted to go). Although I only offered directions at first, eventually I hiked back with them past all of the incorrect alternatives to ensure that they could easily reach their destination without further delay or missteps.

More recently, people have asked if this trail or that was the way to some destination that was quite out of reach, either because no trail existed or because it was kapu (prohibited).

Volunteer T-Shirt, Forestry & Wildlife, Hawaii

After I volunteered for trail maintenance in the Nounou Forest Reserve, and expanded that to the Kealia Forest Reserve, the people and conversations were altogether different from my initial encounters. People were interested in longer conversations, and in their words, we “talked story”—something I thought would not come about for another 15 to 20 years.

First I met a spiritual woman who encouraged me by saying that I was answering the call of my mother (no, not Mom), Mother Nature that is. We had met before, on the trail and in town, but our exchanges were more like nodding to strangers in an elevator. Now, she was sharing a bit of her faith with me, and thanking me for sawing up some trees that had fallen across the trail.

On a hot muggy day, I stopped on a bridge and on greeting a couple, realized that the man was someone I had met last year on another trail. This time he was with the friend he had mentioned when we last met, and they asked why I was wearing a long-sleeved shirt and trousers on such a hot day. So I explained that I volunteered with the Division of Forestry and Wildlife to maintain safe access to the trails, and had just come from clearing some heavy branches and fallen trees, for which shorts and “slippahs” simply would not do.

Most recently, Forestry and Wildlife brought over some grass cutting tools because people were beginning to ask when “we” were going to mow. Later, while laying waste to some bull grass and invasive ground cover, I met several local people, as well as their dogs. All thanked me for the work I was doing, and one woman stopped and asked, “Didn’t the county used to do this?” That’s when I explained that I was a volunteer for the county. Afterwards, she told me a little about her experiences working the kibbutzes in Israel in the 70s while I finished mowing.

Regrettably, I haven’t been back out on the trails for about a week now due to the intense heat and humidity trapped overhead by a series of tropical storms that bear down on us relentlessly. Longing for better days ahead, both to get back on my fitness regimen and to see old friends as well as making new friends while looking after the forests.