The lighthearted side of Muslim men

Attallah Alblwi towers over me. Dressed in a gleaming white thawb, chequered keffiyeh and black agal, he is the type of man I’d normally find intimidating. Normally, I would associate him with the archetypal Muslim man: ascetic, righteous, upstanding; more concerned with decorum than needless things like fun and laughter. The Muslim men of my youth were idealised as guardians, protectors, keepers. They had no time for chatter or banter.

Attallah, however, has a playful smile and generous laugh, so full and deep that I wonder if there’s something more ‘interesting’ in his famous Bedouin tea. Continue reading

how to improve your vocabulary

How to improve your vocabulary: 6 tips for language learners

After five months in South America followed by several months of self study, I’ve finally got a handle on Spanish grammar. I’ve now shifted focus onto vocabulary which is much more fun. As part of my efforts, I’ve put together six tips on how to improve your vocabulary, along with useful tools that will help at each juncture. If you’ve successfully improved your vocabulary in a foreign language, share your secrets in the comments below. Continue reading

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How to start a travel blog – a professional guide

At Atlas & Boots, we are periodically approached for advice on how to start a travel blog. To help future bloggers, we have put our knowledge into a comprehensive but concise guide below. This covers not only the technical aspects of how to start a travel blog but also the editorial, helping you to plan, maintain and grow your blog in a professional way. Without further preamble, let’s begin. Continue reading

Most popular languages being learned around the world

At Atlas & Boots, we have mentioned Duolingo in nearly all our language posts, be it expert tips for learning multiple languages or tools for lazy learners. We are big fans of the app and were intrigued by its recent findings on the most popular languages being studied around the world.

The team mined data from every country in the world over the course of three months to identify the most popular languages being studied by its 120 million users. The results are fascinating. Continue reading

Lowest point on Earth: visiting the Dead Sea

Peter loves collecting titles. So far, we’ve seen the driest place on Earth (Atacama Desert), the hottest place on Earth (Death Valley), the northernmost capital in the world (Reykjavik), the highest capital in the world (be it La Paz or Quito), the highest point in Africa (Mt. Kilimanjaro), the seven world wonders, the tallest mountain in the world (Mauna Kea), the end of the world (Ushuaia) and the international date line.

So, when the prospect of visiting the lowest point on Earth presented itself, Peter was predictably keen. Continue reading

Visiting Petra: things to know before you go

If Christ the Redeemer is the most underwhelming experience of the seven world wonders, then visiting Petra must be the opposite. This “rose-red city half as old as time” was hewn from sandstone thousands of years ago.

Built by the Nabateans, possibly as early as 312 BC, Petra became a thriving trade center with over 30,000 people living within its boundaries. It was the capital of the Nabataean Kingdom from 400 BC until 106 AD when the Romans formally took possession. Continue reading

The ultimate guide to packing light

I started our big trip across the South Pacific and South America with a 45-litre backpack weighing 13kg. Over the course of the trip, I managed to drop a fair bit of weight and get my bag down to 10kg. Evidently, I had failed in packing light from the start.

In some ways, overpacking is a rite of passage: you have to do it to learn how not to do it. Of course there is an easier way. By gleaning advice from other travellers and being strict with yourself, packing light will become far easier. Here’s where to start. Continue reading

Most active volcanoes in the world

Volcanoes are inarguably nature’s most fearsome wonder. They feature in tales of ardour and heroism, tower terrifyingly above humble settlements and whisper threats of violence and destruction. They are overwhelming in both sight and sound and uniquely exhilarating for the intrepid observer.

The world’s most active volcanoes in particular offer a terrifying beauty irresistible to thrillseekers. Continue reading

10 newbie diving mistakes

At Atlas & Boots, we’ve dived in some incredible places, from Vanuatu and Samoa to Tonga and the Galápagos. Alas, it has been a whole year since our last dive and I fear making newbie diving mistakes the next time we head out.

I was a nervous first-time diver and I’m conscious of losing what confidence I built up after completing my PADI Open Water Diver course in Colombia. Sadly, there aren’t many opportunities to dive in London (especially in March) so I’m keen to brush up on my skills as soon as we head to Africa in August. Continue reading

World’s most stressed countries – ranked

It happened on a Wednesday morning. The Sandwich Man – dressed in a red T-shirt with white lettering – rode past me on his bicycle on the same stretch of the same road at the same time as the day before. I watched him roll by in a sobering moment that recalled all the horror of the five-day commute: the cyclical days, the tussling masses, the dull ebbing of a scripted month.

It took great effort to remind myself that my city, London, is in one of the safest countries in the world. More relevantly, it’s also in one of the least stressed countries in the world according to Bloomberg. We take a look at the data below.
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The countries I least want to see

“So what’s the plan after Africa?” I ask Peter.
He shrugs nonchalantly. “We’ll see after Africa.”
I frown.

As ever, I need a game plan. I know we’re planning to head to Africa in the summer but what comes after? Do we settle in London and travel in between things? Do we stay on the road? Do we move to Sri Lanka of which we occasionally and idly dream?

If I could choose, I’d settle somewhere quiet like our beloved tiny French village. The problem is, there’s still so much more I want to see.
Continue reading

5 multi-purpose products to help you pack lightly

I have a rule about restaurants: if one offers two markedly different types of cuisine, I won’t eat there. Think Thai restaurants that make pizza, or British gastropubs that offer Indian curry. More often than not, instead of doing one cuisine well, these multi-purpose restaurants will do two cuisines badly and are simply best avoided.

For a long time, I applied the same philosophy to multi-purpose products. But then I started packing for our trip.

Continue reading

luxury travel gifts: suitcase

6 luxury travel gifts we love

Sometimes, my siblings joke that our late father’s most lasting legacy will be our unrelenting concern about the gas bill.

In a household of eight children, there were restrictions on how long we could keep the boiler on to heat water, how long our baths could be, how long we could drain rice in the sink without turning off the corresponding hob (about five seconds) and so on.

Not surprisingly, these habits endured into adulthood. Last year, when winter set in on the tiny French village in which we were staying, I was horrified to learn that we would be leaving the heating on overnight. I expected a triple-digit gas bill. (Thankfully, it was all fine in the end…) Continue reading

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Geeking out at Itaipu Dam

Peter thought I was joking when I suggested booking the special extended tour of Itaipu Dam. The mega-structure, split geographically and politically between Brazil and Paraguay, is one of the world’s largest hydroelectric projects. With 18 massive turbine generators and a reservoir stretching 160km (100mi), Itaipu Dam generates 90 million megawatt hours of energy every year. To put that into context, Brazil would have to burn 536 thousand barrels of oil per day to obtain equivalent energy from thermoelectric plants.

Naturally, I wanted to know more. Continue reading

long-distance hiking trails pyrenees

How to deal with a weak hiking partner

It’s safe to say that Peter is a far stronger and more experienced hiker than I am. On Cotopaxi, he bounded ahead at the front of the group while I shivered and stumbled at the back. On Matavanu, he kept me calm when I nearly broke down in tears. On Nevis Peak, he picked up trails to which I was blind.

Of course, he’s not the first to hike with a weak partner. In A Walk in the Woods, author Bill Bryson describes tackling part of the Appalachian Trail with Stephen Katz, his paunchy friend who turns up wholly unprepared for the ordeal ahead. Continue reading

A dire day in Areguá, Paraguay

In Paraguay, we found ourselves in a rare predicament: instead of several weeks to explore the country, we had only days. Time and money were running out and we wanted to get to Brazil before heading home. As such, we could only see one town outside Paraguay’s capital of Asunción.

We considered the UNESCO ruins of La Santísima Trinidad de Paraná and Jesús de Tavarangue but at a distance of 400km, they weren’t exactly economic in terms of time. Instead, we decided on Areguá, a small town 28km from the capital. Continue reading

The oldest cities in the world

There’s a certain aesthetic attached to the oldest cities in the world: bustling souks beneath a bright blue sky, flowing garments made of whispery white cotton, stone masonry painted yellow by the sun.

In reality, however, the oldest cities in the world have faced deep unrest throughout their long histories. Tragically, some are still uninhabitable. The Syrian town of Aleppo, for example, is likely the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world but rages with civil war today. Damascus too is categorically off limits.
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PADI ReActivate: How to refresh your diving skills

I’m usually the weakest diver in the group. After nearly backing out of my first dive in Vanuatu and quitting the PADI Open Water Diver course altogether, I eventually certified in Colombia five months after my first attempt – and that wasn’t easy. I threw up into my regulator five metres down and then again back on the boat. By the time I got back to our room, I was so tired I fell asleep in my wet bikini and woke up two hours later in a daze. Continue reading