Author Archive | Sarah Duff

A green resolution for 2016

Mashpi Lodge, Ecuador

Lose weight, get fit, quit smoking, travel more: these are our most commonly made (and broken) resolutions at the beginning of each new year. What doesn’t make it onto the usual list but should be there is: spend more time in nature.

Currently more than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas and by 2050 that proportion is expected to increase to 70 per cent. While urbanisation has many benefits, studies show that city living takes its toll on us, as our brains are not optimally developed for living in concrete jungles. Urban living, with dozens of stressors such as traffic and noise, has been found to raise the risk of anxiety and mood disorders, while researchers in Germany found that people living in cities don’t handle stress as well as people who live in the countryside do. Living in an urban environment is also thought to cause cognitive load – the tiring of your brain from too much stimulation which is thought to weaken some functions such as attention capability.

This doesn’t mean we should all decamp to the country – what it does mean is that we need to bring nature back into our city lives. A lot of research has recently been done on the benefits of short exposure to nature, and the findings range from the alleviation of ADHD in children to improving memory. A study done at Stanford University found that volunteers who walked through on tree-lined paths through a leafy green park were more attentive and in a better mood afterwards than the control group of volunteers who walked for the same amount of time next to a traffic-choked highway. Researchers at the University of Michigan found that walking in nature for just a few minutes can reduce depressive symptoms, and studies have shown that children who attend schools with more trees and plants do better on cognitive tests than children at schools with no greenery.

The obvious solution for urbanites is to plan more weekends and holidays in natural environments. Spending time immersed in nature has been found to boost the immune system, lower blood pressure, reduce stress and increase energy levels. Luckily in South Africa we’re spoiled for choice when it comes to wilderness escapes, whether it’s wildlife spotting in Kruger or hiking in the Drakensberg. Going off the grid as much as possible is ideal: researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder did a study on campers sleeping out in the wilderness for a week and found that sleeping in a dark place away from the artifical lights of a city helped reset their circadian rhythms (which govern your biological processes like sleeping) and made them more alert.

While getting out of the city does wonders for your mind and body, you don’t have to go further than your garden to get a rejuvenating nature fix. Scientists at Westminster and Essex universities found that people who gardened for at least half an hour a week were in better physical health, had lower levels of tension and stress and higher levels of self esteem than people who spent no time gardening. Even short amounts of time spent looking at a natural scene – like some trees in a park – have been found to have a relaxing effect on the brain and to boost attention levels.

Whether you bring nature into your life by going on an epic wilderness trip, taking more long weekends in the bush or just starting a flowerbox on your balcony, getting more green in your life seems like one of the best resolutions to make for 2016.

This was originally published in Mango Juice magazine in January 2016

 

 

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On ditching the travel bucket list

Sarah Duff Machu Picchu

In the 2007 film The Bucket List, two terminally ill characters played by Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman meet in a cancer ward, which they escape to do a road trip to tick off their wish list of things to do, including seeing the Taj Mahal and skydiving, before they die. Since then the term “bucket list” – meaning a list of things to do, see and accomplish before you kick the proverbial bucket – has taken off, becoming firmly entrenched in popular culture, with travel being a big focus of many lists. The term “travel bucket list” yields nearly 50 million searches on Google: the Internet is awash with articles proclaiming “The ultimate travel bucket list: 1001 things to do before you die”, “100 places that should be on your bucket list” and even “The ultimate Harry Potter travel bucket list”. On Bucketlist.org you can get inspiration from other users’ three million things to do before you die, if you don’t have enough ideas to fill own list. There are multiple smartphone apps that help you create and manage your travel bucket list and share your bucket list experiences with your social media community once you’ve ticked them off.

If you read through some of the many thousands of travel bucket lists posted on blogs and websites, you’ll soon see that there’s a startling similarity in many of the lists’ points: from swimming with dolphins, seeing the Northern Lights and road tripping across the USA to witnessing the Great Migration in the Serengeti, the same things appear over and over.

The problem with bucket lists is that they reduce the vast wonders of the world to the easily packaged consumerist form of a shopping list – and unfortunately the other shoppers have the same items on their lists to purchase. Experiences become things to acquire – not unlike material goods. Ticking things off comes with a competitive edge. The benefits of travel – the learnings, cultural exchanges and personal growth – are glossed over in favour of the kind of things that look great in Facebook photos: jumping on Great Wall of China, getting a selfie with a penguin in Antarctica, riding a camel in front of the Great Pyramids.

When you make a bucket list, you presuppose what will be the most memorable part of a trip: the great sights. In fact the elevated expectations laden on these places and experiences often leads to disappointment when the pyramids aren’t as big as you expected, or the dolphins don’t seem as friendly as you thought they’d be. Instead, the many joys of travel are the spontaneous, unexpected ones – the kinds of things that aren’t included in brochures. From getting lost in a foreign city and stumbling on a wonderful local restaurant (the kind of place that wouldn’t have made it into the guidebook), making a new friend on a long bus trip who you stay in touch with for the rest of your life, discovering your own tenacity when your journey throws up an unexpected challenge – these are often the memories that we keep with us long after the trip is over. You also don’t have to go far for travel to be rewarding – according to research short, frequent trips boost our happiness much more than long, infrequent holidays.

The American historian Miriam Beard wrote that “Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” The transformative power of travel lies not in visiting the world’s most famous places, but in the way in which immersive experiences enhance, deepen and broaden the way in which you view the world and connect to other people. This kind of travel which cannot be checked off a list is the kind of travel that should make us leave home in the first place.

 

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Shoot less, remember more

Shooting hummingbirds in Costa Rica

Going trigger happy on holidays and shooting hundreds of photos may not be the best way of remembering those special moments you experience – doing a beautiful hike, taking in an idyllic sunset on the beach or standing in front of a famous view.

In a recent study, a group of students went to an art museum and spent time observing 15 works of art, and photographing 15 others. The next day, the students were asked to recall details of the art works. It turns out that when they had taken a photo of a work, they remembered far fewer details about it than when they’d just observed it. This is called a photo-taking impairment effect: when people rely on photos to store the memory of something they’ve seen, rather than using their own memories.

But using photos as a digital memory of your trips only works when you access the photos – in order to remember, you need to spend time interacting with the photos. Research suggests that most of us leave folders of hundreds of photos on our computers and hard drives and don’t browse through them very often. Because we feel like the photos are safely stored somewhere, there’s no urgency to look at them.

Relying on technology to remember for us – using a camera or smartphone to record events and a hard drive to store the memories – means we often aren’t fully engaged in the experiences in real time. We are so busy taking photos that we aren’t looking at the panoramic mountain vista or palm tree-fringed beach that inspired us to take the photos in the first place.

The 19th century English art critic, John Ruskin, who was an avid traveller, had a solution for preserving magical moments and beautiful scenes that you don’t want to forget which doesn’t involve any shutter pressing. He thought that the best way of capturing what we see is to draw, whether or not you have any drawing talent. Drawing makes you an artistic observer, helping you to notice details you would have missed looking through the viewfinder of your camera. To draw something forces you to slow down and spend many minutes – if not hours – taking in a scene, rather than the few seconds it takes to touch a smartphone camera button.

Not everyone has the time for sketching while travelling (imagine asking kids to stay in one place for two hours while you draw) but one alternative is to buy an old film camera and limit your photos from a trip to one roll of film. Try to think about taking photographs in the same way that you would think about drawing – the noticing rather than just looking, the attention to detail, and most importantly, the decision to take just one or two photos of each magnificent scene or place instead of dozens.

Even if you feel that you won’t be able to remember all the details of somewhere you visit without taking photos of everything, if you are present in the moment then it forms a part of who you are. This is one of the greatest benefits of travel, and most often it requires using only your eyes to take in a view, rather than a viewfinder.

This was first published in the September 2015 issue of Mango Juice.

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Interview with Anton Crone

Anton Crone (right) in NaboishoI first met Anton Crone when he’d just given up a long career in advertising and decided to try his hand at travel blogging. Even before I knew him well, he seemed like the perfect traveller (and a good person to drink many beers with and chat about everything) – a hardy motorbiker who takes everything in his stride with good humour and a sense of adventure. I love Anton’s take on slow travel (he once drove from Cape Town to the Serengeti in a Smart Car, for no particular reason), his genuine enthusiasm for Africa, wilderness and conservation, his choice of really off-the-beaten-track destinations (like Mali), his beautiful photography – and his portraits in particular – and his truly inspiring story (read it here) about how he decided to change life track so drastically and give up his career for travel, at a time when most people are settling down to stay in the same place for the rest of their lives.

Anton’s moved from blogging to a job as the publishing editor of Africa Geographic Magazine, and he’s about to embark on a new travel venture. He continues to write about what he loves – conservation, Africa and the beautiful wild places he’s been to.

Read about Anton’s travels through Africa on his blog, Bright Continent, and his blogs and articles on Africa Geographic, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

What was your first trip without your parents?

The first trip I remember with my folks was to the highlands of Nyanga in Zimbabwe. It was a strange time – there was a war going on. We explored ancient ruins and swam in mountain streams, but dad carried an AK and mom packed an Uzi. We left Zimbabwe for South Africa soon after that. My first trip alone was going back there as a teenager. My parents put me on a long distance bus. They were happy to see me go because I was a real shit, and I didn’t want to come back. I considered Zimbabwe home. I would be staying with family friends on their farm and I thought it was going to be like old times – playing the fool; getting up to mischief. But I was put to work branding cattle and hoeing fields. My folks had arranged it like that. It did me a lot of good. And I missed them.

What’s been the most meaningful journey you’ve done?

I hitchhiked from Anchorage to Acapulco in 1999. It was so far from my perceptions of America, and myself. I lived like a hobo. I loved it, and sometimes I hated it.

Where in the world have you felt happiest?

Probably the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. I had just fallen in love. While we were walking around the gardens, trying to figure each other out, I realised that she must like me because she was laughing at my silly jokes.

Pineapple salesman

What’s the best sky you’ve ever slept under?

The sky above Makgadikgadi Pans in Botswana. It’s a wonderful place to see the expanse of the Milky Way, and to feel ridiculously small.

What are your favourite travel books?

Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia of course! His Songlines I loved too. Then there’s Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari and Shackleton’s South. One book that really stuck with me was The Water in Between by Kevin Patterson.

Photo 2010-10-06

Why do you travel?

I travel to move. I get fidgety if I’m sedentary.

What places that you’ve travelled to have had the biggest impact on you?

Mount Assinboine in Canada. I felt so exposed to the elements hiking there. Denali in Alaska for the same reason. Djenné in Mali for its mud mosque and Koranic Island. Then there’s Africa’s Albertine Rift – the entire region astounds me, culturally as well as geographically. Lagos, for the mad energy. Malawi because I feel like I belong there – which is incredibly presumptuous of me, so let’s say I want to belong there.

What’s your favourite story you’ve written?

A little piece about a kid on a boat on Lake Malawi.

Moto Taxi

How can people learn to be better travellers?

I think the people who are better at travelling are those who travel like it’s their first time, every time. Who just throw themselves into it without planning; without following the same method or strategy. Who just travel to see what happens next.

What’s the wildest place you’ve ever been to?

Alaska.

What’s your favourite mode of transport and why?

I love motorcycling because it exposes you to the environment. But I would say hitchhiking is my favourite because you meet so many wonderfully interesting people. They tell you stuff they don’t tell others, and you tell them stuff you don’t tell others, because you think you’ll never see each other again. You get to really understand a country that way and you become a part of it.

Photo 2013-03-16

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Why you should spend money on travel rather than things

View from Wayna Picchu

Want to be happier? It’s simple: buy less material things and spend more money on experiences, like travel. This route to contentment is backed up by science: over the past decade psychologists have done extensive research and studies into why experiences make us happier than things.

Most of us have finite amounts of wealth and we have to make decisions every day how to allocate it. It seems to make sense to buy things that will last at least for a few years: cars, couches, coffee machines, rather than spending money on experiences, which are short-lived, because the material things will bring with them longer-lasting happiness than the fleeting experiences, which are over in a few hours, days or weeks.

From a happiness perspective, this assumption, one which many of us make, is actually wrong. There are a couple of reasons why. Firstly, we’re subject to something known as hedonic adaption, which means we quickly get used to anything new. At first a new purchase, like a new pair of jeans, fulfills a desire, so you feel good. After a short time though, you stop appreciating the jeans, and as they become part of the background you lose the happiness you felt when you first bought them. Hedonic adaption happens much more with objects than it does with experiences, because of the transient nature of experiences like travel: you’re usually not on a trip long enough to adapt to the point where you don’t appreciate it any more. Even when a trip is long over, the pleasure derived from the experience stays with you: think about how long the happiness attached to the memory of a weekend away in the countryside with a group of friends or a camping holiday with your family in the bush lasts.

The second reason why experiences make us happier than things has to do with anticipation. Waiting for the new iPhone to become available in South Africa is annoying, while looking forward to the start of your holiday – even if it’s six months away – is butterflies-in-your-tummy exciting. Planning for and anticipating the start of a trip is part of the fun of travelling – who hasn’t got through long weeks of work without the fantasy of imagining yourself far away from the humdrum of the 9-5 life, relaxing on a beach, hiking through the mountains or exploring the streets of a new city? (This, by the way, is also an argument for booking holidays way in advance rather than doing everything last minute).

It might seem like you can create an identity connected to the stuff you own – that your house or your artworks can help to define you – but material goods are not a part of you, they’re just inanimate objects we to which we attach meaning. Experiences, on the other hand, are you. Experiences make us who we are: our self is little more than a collection of the things we’ve done, seen and learned. Every time you travel somewhere you build up your experience bank, which forms your part of both your ever-changing self and changes your outlook on the world. It’s hard to say the same thing about the latest Apple gadget.

This column was first published in the August 2015 issue of Mango Juice

 

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How I #Achievemore on my travels

Sarah Duff Machu Picchu-1

I’ve been on the road for over a year now. Exactly 420 days ago I said goodbye to Cape Town and headed off on the biggest trip of my life with my boyfriend, Joe.

Fifteen countries and tens of thousands of kilometres later, I feel like we’ve had a lifetime of amazing experiences that have changed my perspective on pretty much everything. I still can’t quite believe that we road tripped across the USA twice, danced on top of a Celtic castle at Burning Man, trekked over a glacier in Patagonia, hiked in the driest place in the world, did yoga in the world’s biggest salt flat, fished for piranhas in the Amazon, saw Machu Picchu, swam with sea lions in the Galapagos Islands, learnt to scuba dive in Colombia, survived dengue fever, learnt to surf in Costa Rica, dived a cenote in Mexico, watched the sun rise over the rainforest from the top of a Mayan temple in Guatemala and dived between the continental plates in Iceland. 

I’ve learnt so much along the way – enough to fill reams of blog posts – but the very first thing I had to learn was how to be mobile. That meant giving a lot of my stuff away in Cape Town, packing the remainder up into boxes to store in my parents’ basement, and deciding what few things to fit into a suitcase to travel with me for over a year.

I’ve had to learn the hard way that travelling with a lot of stuff is not easy, and so right from the start of this trip I knew I had to pack light. I decided to go with a suitcase/backpack hybrid, so that I can wheel it around airports but also put it on my back when trekking across a beach to reach a remote backpackers.

My packing list was small and ultra-practical, with clothes that had to work for a number of different environments – from going out in New York, trekking in snowy Patagonia and surfing in Costa Rica to hiking in the humid jungles of Colombia.

This is what I call my #AchieveMore packing list:

Packing bag

– Uniqlo down jacket (which rolls up into a tiny pocket – doubles as a travel pillow)
– Black leggings (for yoga, exercise, wearing under a dress and as pants)
– Skinny jeans (essential)
– Denim shorts
– Black hoodie
– Black short dress
– Denim long sleeved shirt (remarkably versatile)
– Scarf and beanie
– Long sleeved thermal vest
– Hiking pants
– Comfortable shorts (for exercise, hiking, pyjamas)
– Trainers, hiking shoes, sandals
– Two bikinis
– Sarong (doubles as a towel, scarf, Burning Man head protector)
– A couple of t-shirts and sleeveless tops
– Yoga mat (this is bulky but I can’t travel without it!)

Add to that a bag of toiletries and that’s about it! Having less stuff means that catching lots of taxis/buses/trains/boats/flights isn’t a mission. It’s painful having to move around a lot when you are laden down with heavy bags.

Being mobile has also meant taking my office with me on the road, because I’ve been working right the way through this trip. Luckily as a travel writer and photographer, I don’t have too much equipment – just my Macbook, three portable rugged hard drives, my camera and a few lenses, my Kindle and an iPod for all those long flights and bus rides.

One of the most important things I have with my (other than my passport) is my smartphone. When I’m on the move, my phone – which recently has been a Lumia Device – is a camera, a notebook and a computer. While I shoot photos for magazine stories on my SLR camera, I take photos of little things to help me remember details for stories on my smartphone – anything from the writing on adverts on a noticeboard to the kind of sweets for sale in a market. I often don’t know what stories I’m going to end up writing about a place, so I have to be sure that I take down as many details as I can.

My phone is full of useful apps downloaded from the Windows Phone Store to help me #AchieveMore in while I’m on the road working.

One of my favourites is Evernote, an incredibly useful app that functions like a notebook. Evernote allows you to create notebooks filled with typed notes, photos and audio notes – perfect for a travel writer like me. I create a notebook for each place I travel to, and save things like photos of menus, audio notes describing a place I’m in and quick ideas or things I observe – the kind of things I would forget otherwise.

I always try to learn some phrases of a local language when I travel, and language apps are great for helping you master the basics. My two favourite apps are Duolingo, which helps you learn words quickly, and Babbel, which teaches you the basics, starting with easy sentences and grammar. Then there’s Translator, which is really handy if you’re completely stuck with deciphering a sign or a menu – the app allows you to take a photo of the words you don’t understand and then it translates them for you.

My phone is also my link to friends and family at home. I often get asked if I’ve been homesick on this trip and the honest answer is that I haven’t once missed home, because I’ve never grown tired or bored of any place I’ve found myself in – the constant novelty of new countries is endlessly stimulating and exciting. I do, however, miss the people I love – a lot. The only way around this is to keep in touch, which I do as much as possible. It’s obvious then, that an app I can’t live without is Skype. I really don’t know what I’d do without video conversations!

Deciding to go on this extended trip around the world was all part of a plan to #AchieveMore with my life – more adventures, more experiences, more learnings, more fun. I’ve made travelling longterm work by fitting my freelance work in around travel – luckily being a travel writer, the more I travel, the more I can work! Having a Lumia smartphone has enabled me to do just that – to seamlessly blend work and travel so that I can fit it all in. Working on the road like this has not always been easy – there have definitely been some down points – but being equipped to deal with the challenges that arise is all about the #AchieveMore plan.

Tell me in the comments how you #AchieveMore when you travel and you could win a Lumia device!

 

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