Category Archives: Environment

Starry, Starry Night

One of the most memorable experiences from my trip to Morocco was the night we spent in the Sahara Desert. From riding a camel into the deep orange desert, to singing and playing drums around the campfire while trying to stay warm in below freezing temperatures… it was all amazing.

But it was the experience of seeing the stars that night that is most memorable for me.

The sun was still setting when we arrived at our Sahara camp. We spent the last few moments of light setting up our sleeping tents and settling into our dining tent as we waited for dinner to arrive. After a while of playing word games while we waited for dinner, someone alerted us to the fact that it would be dark outside by now and we should go out to look at the stars. As soon as we stepped out of our warm tent and I looked up to the skies… I was floored. A vast sea of glittering stars were spread out above me. After the initial ooh’s and aah’s (think 4th of July  fireworks reactions), most people headed back to the tent for warmth. I knew I was experiencing a rare nights sky, so I grabbed a blanket, spread it out on the sand and laid down for the best seat in the house. In a unpolluted night sky, one can literally see layers of stars as if you were wearing 3-D glasses. And the milky way! It looked like a kid spilled milk on the sky and his mom tried to unsuccessfully wipe it up. With a sky so clear I spotted a handful of shooting stars. It was a truly magical experience.

Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly difficult these days to find yourself below a clear night sky as I did, devoid of light and air pollution. The good news is, there is a group of people trying to preserve said skies.

As I was taking in this magical ceiling above me, I remembered that one of my tourism professors, Dr. Edith Szivas, had told us a about a project she was involved in with UNESCO and the UNWTO called the Starlight Foundation. The aim of the foundation is to “promote the importance of clear skies for the humankind, emphasizing and introducing the value of this endangered heritage for science, education, culture, technological development, nature conservation, and tourism.” The Starlight Foundation has created a certification process, to help promote clear skies for the sake of science and tourism:

The Starlight Tourism Certification System was created with the aim of encouraging, at world-wide level, the improvement of the quality of tourist experiences and the protection of the night skies in Starlight Destinations.The Starlight Certification seeks to guarantee the capacity to enjoy the view of the stars and to discover the associated scientific, cultural, natural and scenic values.

The Starlight Certification makes it possible for the first time to bring science and tourism together, It aims to ensure the quality of tourism experiences involving the nightscapes, the view of stars and the cosmos and the related scientific, cultural and environmental knowledge. Recognition of science as a tourist product and, at the same time, as a working method in tourism, is the foundation of developing this standard. – Source

Looking to find an unpolluted piece of the sky to experience for yourself? Use this Starlight Finder to start your search!

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The Colors of Morocco

As our plane left Paris en route to Casablanca, I closed my eyes and started to imagine what my next 2 weeks would be like in Morocco. Having never visited the country before, I let my imagination take flight. I pictured being surrounded by varying shades of desert orange. Sand in my toes, my hair, and probably my mouth. Men and women adorned in scarves that kept the wind and blowing sand at bay. So you might be amused at my surprise when as we were about to land and I asked my sister, who had the window seat, “What does Morocco look like?” She responded… “Like California…”

California? Yah, I guess we have a desert, but that is not the first visual association most people have with the state. So, in disbelief I leaned over my sister to get my own first look of Morocco. She was right. It looked liked we were flying over Central California. There were bright green agricultural plots of land, rolling hills, and snowy mountains. All I could think was, did we get on the right plane?

Over the next 2 weeks I was amazed and in awe each day as Morocco surprised me with a new landscape, a new set of colors, a new destination image to add to my travel memories of this magnificent land. Here is a taste of  the kaleidoscopic backdrops of Morocco.

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Ruins of Volubilis which are surrounded by olive fields

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Evening walk in Midelt, a town known for it's apple production

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The Sahara Desert

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Palm grove oasis in Todra Gorge

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Snow in the High Atlas Mountains

Sunset in Essaouira

The day I won the trip of a lifetime…

I woke up on August 29th like any other weekday morning.

Step 1: Turn off iphone alarm.

Step 2: Put on glasses.

Step 3: Check email on phone.

Step 4: Email from Intrepid, could be interesting. I open it and it says “Dear Lizzie, Congratuations for being one of the winners…”

Step 5: WHAT???????????????

I can probably stop with the steps now. So, after seeing my name and the word congratulations in the same email, I realized this was something I should read on the big screen of… my laptop. I whip it open, and before I could open up my curious congratulatory email, my friend Lindsay starts sending me messages to the likes of “OMG!!! YOU WON!!! WHY DID IT TAKE YOU SO LONG TO WAKE UP!!!???” (please note, she lives in Canada and saw that I won on Facebook about 3 hours before I did).

As it turned out, I had entered an Intrepid Travel contest on facebook in early August. The concept of the competition was to win the ultimate adventure, where you don’t know where you are going until you get to the airport. In order to win, you had to identify the person you would want to take this ultimate adventure with and explain why you wanted to go with them in 25 words or less. So, out of 20,000 entries, my 25 words of why I wanted to take an ultimate adventure with my sister WON!

Now we fast forward to today, December 20th. My sister and I leave on our adventure in 17 days. Do we know where we are going yet? No. Do we have any hints? Kinda.

It will be entering the cooler months of the year where we are going = North of the equator? Or, very far south?

We need typhoid and Hep A vaccinations = South America, Africa, Middle East, parts of Asia (ya, that didn’t narrow it down too much)

We need to pack sleeping bags = Camping?

Basically, there is an infinite number of possibilities of what this trip has in store for us. And I can’t wait to find out!

One of the best parts about winning this mystery trip is that it is with Intrepid Travel, one of the pioneers in sustainable/responsible adventure travel. They use public transportation rather than high carbon emitting tour buses. They have participants stay in small locally owned accommodations and eat at local restaurants to help create revenue for the communities they travel through. They educate their travelers and the local people they visit on sustainable tourism policies. Being considerate of the environment, supporting the economic development of local communities rather than international investors, and supporting education. Does it get any better?

So my question to you is, have you ever wanted a trip planned for you, where all you have to do is show up at the airport and go? Could you handle giving up control like that?

An Urban Adventure In Your Own Backyard


Staycations seem to have become a rather popular replacement for vacations these days due to the current economic environment and growing environmental concerns over vacation related carbon footprints.

But doesn’t STAY sound boring? I don’t know about you, but when I take vacation days off of work I want to GO somewhere, not STAY at home. So the question is, how do you GO on a vacation while sticking to a low budget and a commitment to a small carbon footprint? An urban adventure, that’s how.

What is an urban adventure?

Urban Dictionary defines it as:

1. urban adventure
when you intend on looking up 1 random word on urban dictionary, but actually spend hours being entertained by the randomness

Well, that is one version of an urban adventure, but not really what I was aiming for. The Urban Adventure League in Portland, however, describes it more accurately as:

“…events that explore the urban environment using feet, bicycles, public transit, and possibly other alternative forms of transport… events and projects will emphasize fun, de-emphasize competition, and foster connectivity and awareness. There’s plenty of interesting things to be done in an urban environment, and we want to encourage and foster creative ways to enhance out living experience to its fullest. Boredom will no be allowed.”

Exploring urban environments while away on vacation is a pretty common activity. Most people, while away on a vacation, stay in centrally located accommodations so that they are able to walk around a town’s historic center or downtown area. But what is less normal is taking the time to explore the urban environment in your own backyard. This allows you to STAY at home, while still getting the sense of adventure that you would come from GOing on vacation.

There are two ways to participate in an urban adventure.

1) Book a tour with Urban Adventures.

Urban Adventures offers unique local day tours in over 100 cities around the world. They follow a simple recipe: small groups + local transportation + local guides + real local experiences = urban adventure. The best part? The affordable prices. For example, in New Orleans, for $25, you can: “See Hermann-Grima House, learn about Creole mourning customs, visit the oldest cemetery in the city, wander past the tomb of Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau, spot the tomb seen in the film Easy Rider, and take a peak at the future tomb of Nicolas Cage.”

So, the next time you plan your staycation, see if Urban Adventures has a tour in your city and maybe you can learn something new about your homestead.

2) Plan your very own Urban Adventure in your home or neighboring town.

Plan 2 was exactly what I did for myself and four of my friends a couple of weeks ago. We went on a homemade urban adventure in… drum roll please…. SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA!

After preaching about the benefits of sustainable tourism to my friends for the past couple of months, they finally gave in and demanded I plan a day of sustainable tourism for them. With some creativity, a sense of adventure, and a bit of research, I planned an urban adventure in Sacramento. The theme was Art in Public Places. I can guarantee that my friends were not expecting our plans would be to spend the day in our own city, Sacramento. But, at the end of the tour they were all asking when the next urban adventure would be.

The Sacramento urban adventure included the following: using public transportation (the light rail), visiting and learning about locally owned shops, uncovering and learning about some of the public artwork Downtown Sacramento has to offer, and some treasure hunting in the form of geocaching.

All-in-all the urban adventure was a great success. My friends were surprised at how much fun they could have by exploring their own city in a new way. So, with a little bit of creativity, I was able to successfully plan an urban adventure that was both economically and environmentally friendly, while also making it feel like we got to GO somewhere as opposed to STAYing at home.

Below are some photos from our Sacramento urban adventure:

My traveling companions and I enjoying the sunshine while on a break by the Capital.

Stanford Mansion - It was Free Museum Day so we were able to check out the Stanford Mansion for free, among other museums along our route.

We spotted this on top of a rooftop garden.  Photo by Emilia Cottrell.

"Golden State" by Lita Albuquerque and Mitchell De Jarnett

Sustainable Travel? There’s An App For That

There seems to be an app for everything these days. From different knock off versions of scrabble, to camera effect apps that make you and your nearest and dearest look fat, old, and/or bald.

So I was thinking, if there is an app to make you bald, there must be an app, or multiple apps, that can aid you in making more sustainable travel choices on your next vacation or weekend excursion.

I dug around the internet searching for mobile apps that might help the average traveler participate in sustainable tourism and found these 3 gems: LocalEats, Green Travel Choice, and World Customs and Cultures. Combined, these apps will help you cover all the bases of sustainable travel: supporting the local economy, supporting the environment, and supporting the local community and culture.

LocalEats – This app is hosted by www.WheretheLocalsEat.com. It is a great resource to find the best eats in town while supporting the local communities economy. The purpose behind the website and app is that it promotes local eateries in cities as opposed to large chain establishments. By supporting local businesses, you are supporting the local economy, as opposed to giving your money to international investors who are less likely to be connected to the communities they do business with. Favorite App Feature: The app has a ‘search nearby’ function. So, as long as your phone has GPS functionality, LocalEats can identify where you and produce a list of all the best local eats options in your immediate area.

Green Travel Choice – This is a pretty simple app that calculates and tracks your total carbon emissions as you travel. You can enter your starting and ending point and the app will produce a chart for you listing what your carbon emissions will be for 9 different transportation choices. For example, if I were to travel from where I am sitting right now, in Davis, California, and go to New York City, these are the carbon emissions I would potentially produce:

  • Hiking/Biking – 0.0lbs
  • Train/Subway – 573.9 lbs
  • Bus – 684.6 lbs
  • Motorbike – 1167.8 lbs
  • Small Car – 1409.5lbs
  • Medium Car – 2114.2 lbs
  • Large Car – 2970 lbs
  • Medium Hybrid Car – 1761.8 lbs
  • Airplane – 1872.6

I think the most interesting result here is that taking an airplane to NYC creates almost the same carbon emissions as driving a hybrid to NYC. This is a great resource to help you realize how your travel choices affect the environment. This app, however, could improve itself by offering a carbon offsetting program where you can donate money to tree planting to offset  your carbon footprint. Favorite App Feature: By purchasing the Green Travel Choice app, you get a $15 discount code for membership to the International Ecotourism Society (TIES).

World Customs and Cultures – I recommend this app to any international traveler. The value get from this app is that it covers a huge variety of country specific customs and cultural eccentricities. By studying up on the country you are visiting ahead of time, you can save yourself from potentially embarrassing and/or rude interactions with the local people. Topics covered range from communication styles, to eye contact rules, to local taboos. There is also a great greeting component that goes over the expected greetings between different relationships with people: man/man, man/woman, etc. If you have ever been to Europe I am sure you have encountered the awkward “how many kisses do I give this person” moment. This app could have saved you from that experience. Favorite App Feature: The random button. Every time you hit it, it will tell you a random cultural custom or ritual from around the world. Example: In Cameroon, sometimes the forefinger and pinky are extended and used to mime Dracula teeth, making fun of someone for having bad teeth.

Those are my mobile app recommendations. What are yours? Do you use any apps that help you travel more sustainably? Make better choices in your everyday life? Get you more connected with your community or other communities?

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