Guest post: A note from the front of a Chinese orphanage

Around six months ago, I received an email from Susan Baller-Shepard. Susan has an adopted Chinese daughter and was planning to embark on a trip to volunteer in a Beijing orphanage. I asked her to send me a guest post of her experience and she agreed. True to her word, she responded with a suggested entry and some pictures that arrived in my inbox this week. True to mine, I publish it here, in full and unedited:

This is not your usual vacation

Have you ever taken a vacation or holiday to “get away from it all,” and returned to work, still feeling like you never did get away? This is one holiday where you will not only get out of Dodge, but you’ll arrive home with more than just dirty laundry, photos, and souvenirs.

Chances are, you will change on this trip, or something within you will shift, or like the Grinch your heart will grow three sizes, or something. Meaning, you will not return home the same person.

I just had the time of my life spending a week in and around Beijing, volunteering in orphanages. Sure, I am an adoptive mom, with a beautiful daughter from Yangjiang, but half of our group were people who thought helping out in orphanages would make for a meaningful trip.

Along with time spent in various orphanages, there is time for sightseeing and getting to see a country that is changing at the speed of light. We took a cycle rickshaw into a hutong for lunch made by a hutong resident. We visited the Temple of Heaven, the Forbidden City, the Lama and Confucious Temples, along with the Bell Tower, the Dirt Market, and the Great Wall.

The program I went on works with non-profit orphan care providers in the BORN (Beijing Orphan Resource Network) collaborative. These include such providers as Children’s Hope International, Philip Hayden Foundation, Hope Foster Home, and others, with volunteer experiences specifically tailored to a person or group’s travel plans. You can volunteer for a day, a week, or a month. They adjust to individuals and/or groups or families, and can work with school groups or civic groups as well.

At my computer, I find myself scrolling through my Beijing photos. I look at the faces of the children we met, played with, took on walks, laughed with, fed. It’s not everyone’s dream vacation, but it is one that you will not soon forget. This is a great way to get away from home, to focus on the needs of someone besides yourself for a week, and to enjoy a place that is both ancient and modern. It’s unforgettable. I’d go back again in a heartbeat.

“They must often change who would be constant in happiness or wisdom. “—Confucius, The Confucian Analects

“If a man takes no thought about what is distant, he will find sorrow near at hand.”—Confucius, The Confucian Analects Our Chinese Daughter’s Foundation “Volunteer China” Program

Spare us the pain of ash-gate

This week I did a piece for the travel section of The Sun on people’s rights if they have been stranded abroad by the fallout of ash from Iceland’s volcanic eruption (you can read it here if you want). One of the things that struck me while writing was the speed in which the travel industry, and particularly the large tour operators, have responded to the crisis.

Thomson, for instance were claiming yesterday that everyone would have been repatriated by last night and even Ryanair (though more on them later) have got all their passengers to their destinations.

There have of course been a couple of companies that have tried to take advantage of the situation. Michael O’Leary at Ryanair’s bluster earlier this week that he would take it to court if he was to pay for accommodation for those stranded was short lived (one hopes he made the decision himself but one suspects he was slapped down by the authorities) and travellers would be wise to boycott insurance companies that refuse to pay out. But other than that, as with the XL crisis, some pretty amazing things have happened.

While I have every sympathy for people who were about to go on holiday and ended up stuck in Blighty, I’m starting to loose patience some of those stuck abroad, though.

Clearly some people, such as those stranded in Bangkok airport as explosions take place a couple of miles away, are having a hard time, but there are others that need to get off the phone to BBC news and get back to the pool. Tour operators are spending thousands of pounds keeping them in hotels, food and drink while they are ‘stranded’ in some luxury resort plus they have the perfect excuse to phone into work and blag a couple of extra days holiday.

There was one woe-is-me chap this morning being interviewed on TV who has been on honeymoon in St Lucia for two weeks and has to now stay until May 6 until Virgin Holidays can get him home. ‘There’s so much misinformation,’ he whittered on, making me want to put my foot through the TV.

Mate, you’re on honeymoon, you’re in St Lucia, you’ve managed to get an extra two weeks holiday at someone else’s expense, you’re every whim and need is being catered for and you’re complaining you can’t come home? Put down the phone, pick up the pina colada and give me a break.

Redesigning the boarding pass

American designer and frequent flyer Tyler N Thompson was on a flight last year and took to dissecting his boarding pass. One of the problems he saw, and I tend to agree, is that much of the information on a boarding pass not only looks unattractive but is also hopeless for highlighting stand out information you need to know before flying.

He decided to have a pop at redesigning the pass, began to blog about it and loads more people have added their twopenneth. You can even download an Adobe Illustrator template if you want to have a go yourself.

See some of the – often brilliant – results at his website here

V.Hols in V.big travel writing cock up

Why on earth do people think that just anyone can be a travel writer? Because if you’re one of the dozens of scribes trying to scratch out a living at a time when newspapers are cutting commissioning budgets, the latest announcement from Virgin Holidays can only be seen as yet another  insult to the profession.

Get me Alex James. No, not the one who'sactually a travel writer...

Apparently, the company has done a survey of 2,000 holidaymakers and because less than a third of them say they would never use a guidebook, they have decided to ‘reinvigorate travel writing’ by appointing a ‘travel laureate’ to pen a series of ‘first-hand destination-themed novels’.

The lucky recipient of this fabulous new title? Alex James.

Sorry, that’s not Alex James the actual travel writer Alex James, the kind of person you might be expect to be commissioned to write travel copy… but Alex James, cheese-making, one-time bass player with Blur whose writing skills amount to the occasional newspaper column about what it’s like to have finally moved to a Country House and an autobiography that recalls the heyday of Blur through a haze of drink and heavy cocaine use.

Now don’t get me wrong, Blur were a fabulous band and I’m sure Alex James (not the travel writing one) is an affable chap but I’m not quite sure how he’s been elevated from the role of all-round half-decent celeb to travel writing genius – especially when there are dozens of brilliant travel writers out there who would have bitten Virgin Holidays hands off for the commission.

Of course, none of them have the ‘celebrity announcement’ factor that Alex James (not the travel writing one) has.

So there you are travel writers of the UK, once again, your expertise garnered travelling the world for a living has gone to waste and you’ve been dumped in favour of yet another celebrity, just because their name is more known than yours.

Guidebook publishers like Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, Frommers, Bradt et al might also be slightly miffed at James’ new role. The press release that accompanies the announcement claims that in some spurious and unattributed research, 8.5m Uk adults found travel guides ‘boring and staid’.

I normally like V.Hols and find them one of our best package companies, but I can’t help but feel that this whole ‘travel laureate’ campaign insults both travel writers and travel publishers and can’t be seen as anything else than one V.Big cock up.

One great idea and one good cause

Yesterday afternoon I went to the annual spring lunch of a company called Travel PR – for those not in the know they are, you guessed it, a travel public relations company that mainly specialises in small, independent and often quirky travel companies.

Their client list includes the Association of Independent Tour Operators (, Kirker Holidays (, Sunvil (, Voyages Jules Verne ( and many more… but it was two newish clients that really caught my eye.

One is a company that is just launching called Get Back To Me. Anyone who has tried to book an independent B&B in the UK will be familiar with how frustrating it can be. These days, people expect an immediate answer when trying to book online and unfortunately for many small B&Bs they just don’t have the manpower to do it.

While Mr Bloggs is out buying the bacon and eggs for the next morning’s breakfast, someone who is trying to get in touch and can’t is likely now looking up the number of the nearest Travelodge.

What Get Back To Me does is allow the consumer to input a destination and the site will send an SMS to all registered B&B and hotel owners in the vicinity, if they have availability, it costs them £1.50 to get back to the consumer and the deal is done.

The consumer facing side should be with us sometime in early summer – owner Anne Corbett thinks end May is likely – but B&B and hotel owners can register at now at

The other interesting lady I met was Stella Huyshe of Lyme Disease Action ( Like Travel PR’s MD Sue Ockwell, Stella is suffering from Lyme Disease – an infectious debilitating disease brought on by tick bites.

The symptoms sound pretty awful

Lyme disease can affect any part of the body and cause many different symptoms. The commonest symptoms relate to the person feeling unwell, having flu-like symptoms, extreme tiredness, muscle pain, muscle weakness, joint pain, upset digestive system, headache, disturbances of the central nervous system and a poor sleep pattern. In some cases a characteristically shaped, expanding ‘bull’s eye’ rash appears on the skin. However, a rash in any form is not a universal symptom. If the rash does occur, it is termed Erythema migrans or EM rash. It may manifest in a chronic form and be known as Erythema chronicum migrans or ECM rash. The list of symptoms known to be associated with Lyme disease is long and diverse. The symptom pattern varies from person to person.

But crucially, there are different views on how long the disease should be treated for. Government advisors believe a 28-day course of antibiotics will do it while other scientists are of the view that the disease can affect a person for much longer.

That Stella has suffered for almost a decade without any joy suggests the latter could be right.

They’re a decent charity that are trying to change the government thinking on Lyme Disease and deserve some attention.Please give them some!

Statement from Seaworld

This has just come to my inbox from Seaworld – happy to publish it.

February 24, 2010

A Message from Jim Atchison
President and Chief Executive Officer, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment

It is with great sadness that I report that one of our most experienced animal
trainers drowned in an incident with one of our killer whales this afternoon, February 24, 2010 at our SeaWorld Orlando park.

We have initiated an investigation to determine, to the extent possible, what
occurred. There are no other details to share at this point, but we will make
our findings known in due course.

I must emphasize that this is an extraordinarily difficult time for the SeaWorld
parks, and our team members.

Nothing is more important than the safety of our employees, guests and the
animals entrusted to our care. All of our standard operating procedures
will come under review as part of the investigation.

We extend our deepest sympathies to the family and friends of the trainer
and will do everything possible to assist them in this difficult time.
We appreciate everyone’s understanding and will share more information as it becomes known and available.

SeaWorld Orlando and SeaWorld San Diego are open today as scheduled (SeaWorld San Antonio is not yet open for the season) but Believe shows and Dine with Shamu experiences at all SeaWorld locations have been suspended for the time being.  We will update you on this as soon as we have more information.

The clue's in the name: killer whale

Dawn Brancheau at Seaworld

The death of killer whale trainer Dawn Brancheau at Orlando’s Seaworld yesterday is a tragic event and my thoughts go out to her family, friends and colleagues.

But some of the handwringing and bewilderment surrounding the incident leaves me perplexed.

Some years ago, I interviewed Penn Jillette  of Las Vegas magic duo Penn & Teller and we got around talking to how Roy of Siegfried & Roy got mauled by one of his own tigers in 2003.

Jilette said: “The magic of Siegfried and Roy is they made things seem so easy, so people sit around saying ‘how the hell did that happen?’. Well, I’ll tell you how it happened – 200lbs of tiger is how it happened. What do people expect? It’s a wild animal…”

The same goes for yesterday’s attack by the whale Tilikum at Seaworld. Dawn Brancheau had worked with killer whales at the park for more than 16 years, she must have been well aware of the inherent dangers of keeping wild animals in closely confined captivity.

Sadly until people people stop putting animals – and especially dangerous ones – on display for human amusement, deaths like that of Dawn’s should be viewed as the norm rather than a freak occurrence.