For over a decade, avid traveler Barbara Weibel has been sharing updates and photos from her adventures on her blog Hole In The Donut. She was kind enough to take the time to answer some of our questions about her travel experiences. That includes her #1 travel destination recommendation for 2019, some of the travel scams she's witness and one place she thinks is pretty underrated as a travel destination. Check out the full interview below...
TA: Tell us a little about yourself and your business.
Barbara: After years of working 70 hours a week at jobs that paid the bills but brought no joy, I felt like the proverbial "hole in the donut" - solid on the outside, but empty on the inside. In early 2007, searching for meaning in my life, I started my blog and set out to pursue my true passions of travel, writing, and photography. Nearly 12 years later, I'm still traveling and writing stories about the destinations I visit and the people I meet along the way, with an emphasis on cultural travel and local immersion.
TA: How many years have you been traveling and what got you hooked?
Barbara: I set off on my first long-term journey at the age of 18, in the days when I had to cram my vacations into two weeks. I was addicted from the from the start. Seeing unfamiliar places and learning about other cultures has defined much of my life. That was 48 years ago (hard for me to grasp that number, as I still feel like I'm in my 40's), and today I'm just as fascinated as I was on that first drive across the U.S. Today I consider travel to be more important than ever. In these days of polarization and fear of "others," travel has an immense potential to foster understanding between disparate cultures and help us to realize that people everywhere are more similar than different.
TA: Do you specialize in a particular type of travel?
Barbara: Solo travel and immersion into the local culture as much as possible.
TA: What is the best vacation you've ever taken?
Barbara: I've been to more than 100 countries and territories, so choosing one is quite impossible. However I can tell you that my favorite destinations are Thailand (where I now live), Nepal, Bulgaria, Croatia, France, Catalonia (Spain), Budapest (Hungary), and New Zealand.
TA: What's one place you've always wanted to visit?
Barbara: Oh gosh, again only ONE? After all these years on the road, you would think that my travel wish list would have dwindled, but the exact opposite has happened. The longer I travel, the more places get added to my list. I'll narrow it down to three. Antarctica, Tibet, and Easter Island.
TA: What's one thing you ALWAYS pack when you travel?
Barbara: My camera gear
TA: If you could only give a traveler one piece of advice, what would it be?
Barbara: Don't schedule every moment. Spend some time just wandering or sitting in local coffee shops. Leave time to let things happen and you will be amazed at the experiences that come your way.
A good friend advised me to "stay entirely present." It was the best advice I've ever received. If I'm obsessing about the past or worrying about the future, I'm missing what is right in front of me in the present moment, and those are precious moments I can never get back.
TA: What are some of your favorite travel blogs and communities?
Barbara: I've long been a fan and friends with Heather Cowper of Heather on her Travels and Sherry Ott of Ott's World. My biggest inspiration, however, is Evelyn Hannon of Journeywoman. Evelyn bills her site as the place "where the female travel revolution began in 1997." Today, more than 55,000 women are members of her forum, and I often refer to it for advice and destination information.
TA: What would be your #1 recommendation for a place to travel in 2019?
Barbara: If forced to pick only one destination, it would have to be Bulgaria. This is a country that is near and dear to my heart. Not only is the capital of Sofia a stunning city, the second largest city of Plovdiv is considered the cultural capital of Bulgaria and has a plethora of fascinating historic sites and ruins.
The northwest corner of the country has stunning geologic formations and caves where you can stand two feet away from some of the oldest prehistoric cave drawings in the world.
The eastern border is on the Black Sea, and the resort towns of Varna (in the north) and Burgas and Sozopol (in the south) are absolute jewels. Unlike other Balkan countries, which focus on heavy meat and potato dishes, the cuisine of Bulgaria is more Mediterranean, offering huge salads, fresh-caught seafood, and fresh fruit.
Prices for food and accommodations are extremely affordable and even the airfare is cheap - discount airline Ryan air serves both Plovdiv and Sofia from London. Best of all, the Bulgarians are warm and welcoming, though many outside the cities don't speak much English, so bring your translators.
TA: Do you have any good airport or flight hacks for people traveling by plane?
Barbara: I generally use Skyscanner, Hipmunk, or Google Flights to search for the best airfares, however not all airlines are fully integrated into search engines. For instance, though the occasional flight from Southwest Airlines will show up, the price of the flight will not be displayed. Rarely, if ever, does Southwest make their flights available to search engines. And special programs, like Spirit Airlines' $1 or one cent flights, also won't be shown.
To make sure I'm seeing all available options, I go to the Wikipedia page for the airport of my final destination. About halfway down the page, Wikipedia displays every airline that serves the airport and where they fly FROM. This way, not only can I check out any airlines that may not be shown by the search engines, I can also get a better idea of how to "piece" flights together to get the best possible fares.
TA: What is the best piece of travel advice you've ever been given?
Barbara: Right before I set out in 2007, a good friend advised me to "stay entirely present." It was the best advice I've ever received. If I'm obsessing about the past or worrying about the future, I'm missing what is right in front of me in the present moment, and those are precious moments I can never get back.
TA: What's a travel scam travelers should be wary of?
Barbara: OMG, there have been many. During my very first visit to Thailand, 16 years ago, I was stopped by an official looking man at the entrance to the Grand Palace in Bangkok, who told me it was closed for the morning because the King of Thailand was meeting with some king from another country. He said it would reopen in the afternoon and offered to hook me up with a Tuk Tuk (three-wheeled open-air vehicle) for a tour of other historic sites.Those turned out to be shopping centers, where I was pressured to buy silks, jewelry, etc. It was harmless, but I felt pretty stupid falling for it. The Grand Palace, of course, was open the entire time.
In Johannesburg, South Africa, locals tried to scam me by pretending they didn't know how to use the ATM machine and asking me to help them. By that time I was much more savvy and I knew they were either trying to swap my card or get my pin number. I tried reporting them to airport police, but they had no interest in following up, leading me to believe they were in on the scam and profiting from it.
In Quito, Ecuador, a woman tapped me on the shoulder and told me a bird had "shit on me." She pulled baby wipes out of her purse and started to clean off my blouse. When she couldn't get it all off, she suggested I take off my backpack and hand it to her so she could get at the rest of the stain. I knew what was going on from the beginning, but had been playing along just to see how the scam worked. At that point I laughed in her face and asked her if she thought I was stupid. I tried reporting them to the cops at the corner, but they just melted away.
In Sofia, Bulgaria, I was sitting on a bench inside the gorgeous Alexander Nevsky Cathedral when a Roma (gypsy) couple approached me. The man, sat down on my right and tried to engage me in conversation. The woman sat down on my left, the side where my daypack was sitting on the bench. Again, I knew what was going on. I picked up my bag, put it on my lap, laced both arms through it, and smiled sweetly at the man. They left immediately.
In Paris a couple of years ago, on the steps leading up to the Sacré-Coeur Cathedral in the Montmarte neighborhood, I watched a group of North African immigrants corral a family of four to weave yarn "welcome" bracelets on their wrists. The moment the bracelets were in place they began demanding, in a very aggressive fashion, a "donation" of $20 per person. I was so disgusted that I walked up to the family, informed them it was a scam, and told them if they had any problems a police car was just up the hill. The group of immigrants were incensed and surrounded me angrily (I was a little upset that the family had abandoned me to deal with their wrath alone), but I stood my ground and the scammers eventually walked away. Pretty stupid, I know, but sometimes you just have to do what's right. However I tell this story to make a point that it's a good idea to do a Google search about the most common scams in a country before traveling there.
TA: Which country has surprisingly good food?
Barbara: Thailand. Amazing food! Of course, the most famous snack Pad Thai, is a must, but there are so many other dishes. Among my favorite are Pad Krapow (stir-fried vegetables with basil over rice), all the curries made with coconut milk(my favorite is Green Curry, or Gaeng Khiaw Wan), Tom Kha (coconut soup with fresh vegetables), Tom Yum (Spicy Soup), Som Tam (Spicy Green Papaya salad), Kuay Teow (Noodle Soup), and Pad See Ew (Wide Stir-Fried Noodles with vegetables). But maybe best of all is dessert - Mango and Sticky Rice with coconut sauce!
TA: Which underrated destination deserves to be more famous?
Barbara: Hungary. Although the capital city of Budapest is finally getting well-deserved kudos, the rest of the country remains virtually undiscovered. My most cherished finds include summer resorts on the shores of Lake Balaton; the wine-growing region in the northeast; the wonderful eastern city of Debrecen, with its gourmet and farm-to-table cuisine; the wooden stave churches in far east Szatmar county; and the vast eastern Hungarian plains, with their preserved tradition of cattle herding and horse breeding.