Cultural Connections by Bike

With time winding down before Stacey A’s fourth VBT vacation (she’s heading to Spain this week), she was kind enough to take a little time away from packing to share a few of the experiences she’s had while traveling with us.

Stacey and her husband, Steven, first heard about VBT through friends they’ve made at charity cycling events around the United States. Stacey notes that upon hearing VBT and thinking “Vermont Bike Tours,” she was a little surprised to learn that not only does VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations operate two great tours in our home state, but we also have 44 other (46 in total if you’re keeping score) active vacations around the world.

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Throughout their travels with VBT, Stacey and Steven have noted the importance of having great Trip Leaders. This asset was particularly prized on their most recent adventure through a country where knowledge of local wildlife is almost as important as remembering your passport. The destination in question is, of course, Costa Rica and as for local interaction, well it was a bit of a new experience for the couple. In general, Stacey and Steven have really enjoyed chatting and mingling with the local people in the country they are exploring. This time around, they found themselves learning as much about the flora and fauna as the native Ticos. Through rainforest excursions and a visit to a bird rescue center, the pair got a great sense for Costa Rica’s abounding natural diversity. And the biking was great, too! Even on days when a little rain fell, Stacey contends that it didn’t, “dampen the experience at all.”

A Tradition Continues

It’s been their great encounters with our Trip Leaders that led Stacey and Steven to join us for the second time in 2007. The two selected this destination not out of a particular connection to the area, but because they were confident that VBT would help them make a connection as they explored. They were right; once again, their guides’ tremendous knowledge and insights proved to be an invaluable part of their journey through Sicily. Edo helped bring the various cultures of Sicily alive as the group explored the Mediterranean island.

Establishing this theme of great biking vacations with great local Trip Leaders, Stacey and Steven first traveled with VBT to The Tuscan Coast, back in 2006. It was their first time in Italy, and the two had a wonderful vacation, enjoying the scenery and the food. But for Stacey, it’s the people even more than the places that make travel experiences stand out. “Of course it’s always great to get away, but immersion in other cultures, to meet and learn about other people—” That’s what Stacey was looking for on her first VBT vacation. And she and Steven seemed to find plenty of it!

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Meeting the Locals

Stacey recalls a scavenger hunt of sorts where travelers made their way around a small Tuscan town, asking residents and shopkeepers for help in translating an iconic Italian poem into English. Stacey and Steven didn’t know much Italian and the locals spoke little English, but everyone, visitors and residents alike, had a good laugh in their efforts to communicate without the luxury of a common language.

It wasn’t just the town residents that made this Italian excursion a hit. Trip Leaders, Elena and Melissa, truly made an impact on the trip. Stacey looks back on casually mentioning that Steven’s birthday was coming up. Not much was made of it at the time and the vacation continued as usual with great food, lovely wine and invigorating rides. Then, on a scheduled stop at a local Olive Oil Mill, the group was treated to surprise birthday cake and champagne in honor of Steven’s big day! And of course, there was enough for everyone to enjoy.

Biking Takes Balance

At this point, you might have picked up on another theme in Stacey and Steven’s travels— they’ve all been by bike. As avid cyclists, the couple values “vacations with cycling elements.” However, they certainly want their share of cultural experiences as well. Fortunately, Stacey and Steven have found VBT vacations to have “just the right balance, no matter how avid a cyclist you may be.” And these are just a few of the reasons that VBT is their preferred vacation operator.

In the interest of full disclosure, we should mention that VBT is the only active vacation company Stacey and Steven have traveled with, but only because they’ve had no reason to travel with anyone else. As Stacey puts it, “When we book with VBT we’re confident that we’ll have a great experience. And it always has been great!” That’s the attitude that they’re taking with them on their next adventure in Spain: Under the Andalusian Sky. We certainly hope that it’s another addition in a long line of exciting and rewarding VBT vacations.

Traditional Dress Around the Globe

Though your journey getting in touch with local life may begin upon your arrival in a new destination with a cautious, perhaps foreign, “Hello,” it’s helpful to remember that the culture you’ll be exploring has been developing for centuries. Often a quick glance into the past can broaden your understanding about modern life, wherever you may be. And one of the best ways (and easily the most colorful way) to explore the past is through Traditional Dress.

Thailand

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Most hill tribes in Northern Thailand have been residing in the areas around Chiang Rai for hundreds of years. Yet, most of these ethnicities can trace their roots back to surrounding lands, ranging from the neighboring countries of Myanmar (formerly Burma) and Laos to as far off as Tibet and China. Making use of the lush soil at higher elevations, Thailand’s hill tribes keep their heritages alive not only through agricultural tradition, but also through the garments they wear. Akha women pass along the skills necessary to make their family’s clothes, which usually feature wide leggings, black skirts, embroidered black shirts and a detailed hat adorned with silver trinkets and coins.

Vietnam

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The Ao dai is a long dress traditionally worn by women in Vietnam. The basic attire was initially only for Chinese imperials and aristocracy in Vietnam, but by the early 20th century the fashion had caught on through all classes. Though the fabric can be a number of different colors, the garments are often a simple, solid white. Eventually the presence of the Ao dai waned, as it was reserved only for formal occasions. However, a revitalized national spirit and the introduction of the Ao dai as a girl’s school uniform has led to a resurgence of the traditional dress, even in relatively casual settings like work or small get-togethers.

Peru

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Hats have many uses, beyond keeping your head dry or showing support for your favorite team. In the Peruvian Andes, a hat can almost say a thousand words, but in what language? A montera, a red and black hat, is also known as the “Native Hat” because wearing it suggests that you are very connected to Quecha culture, and you likely only speak the original language of the Inca. Brown bowlers can be found throughout the Sacred Valley. These are usually worn by people that are bilingual and have had some formal education as well as a bit of western exposure. Locals that don a purely white hat are proclaiming to the world that they’re full-on scholars, having completed 11 years of school. How much does your hat say about you?

Argentina

Touring the cosmopolitan city of Buenos Aires, you’re unlikely to find anyone dressed in gaucho garb; soccer jerseys, Levis and a few high fashion sightings are more probable. However, as you make your way south, into Patagonia you may find residents decked out in these eye-catching vintage vestments. A rough equivalent to the American cowboy, the gaucho dates back to the 19th century when cattle ranchers spread themselves across Patagonian plains, forging out a living through hunting and herding. Though the dress is generally reserved for special celebrations, the figure of the gaucho persists perennially as a symbol of the free, adventurous spirit that lives on in Patagonia.

Spain

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Flamenco stands as one of the most prominent features of Spanish culture. A derivative art that draws on influences from Moorish, Jewish and indigenous Andalusian people, its origins are cloaked in mystery. Yet its accompanying apparel has a much more public history. The draped sheaths worn by modern Flamenco dancers stem from the work dresses that women wore to livestock markets in 18th century Seville. Colorful and form-fitting, the dresses certainly turn a few heads, but there’s a reason for that. They have evolved along with the art form to draw attention to the performer’s every subtle step, assuring that the audience doesn’t miss a beat.

Costa Rica

Tico, Ticos, Costa Rica Dress, Costa Rica vacation, Costa Rica tourHistorical dress can vary quite a bit from region to region in Costa Rica. While many traditional outfits feature bold, solid colors, others are made up of white tops and colorful bottoms, or even all black clothing. Because the Costa Rican climate can fluctuate quickly, layers remain one of the most ubiquitous features of traditional dress throughout various regions. For women you’ll often note the common, loose blouse and draped skirt. Most Ticos have adopted the typical western-style dress that you see at home, but ancestral frocks are often sported during festivals and celebrations. And thankfully, Costa Rica has no shortage on reasons to celebrate!