“Hole in the Donut” is as offbeat a name as you can find for a travel blog. The story behind its existence is equally, if not more, interesting. The Founder/Editor, Barbara Weibel, of the blog worked in various sectors (marketing, advertising, owning a public relations firm, and even sold snow cones in the largest water park in Puerto Rico) before she decided to fill the void in her life through travel. In this tell all chat with Tripoto, she narrates her cultural experiences, human interactions and spiritual lessons accumulated over many decades.
1: How did the name “Hole in the Donut” come about?
I spent 36 years building a successful corporate career that paid the bills but brought me no joy. In early 2006, a debilitating illness forced me to reassess my life; I realized that I felt like the proverbial donut – solid on the outside but empty on the inside. The following year, at the age of 54, I walked away from corporate life, strapped on a backpack and traveled around the world solo for six months. Before hitting the road, I launched my blog so that friends and family could follow me around the world, naming it “Hole in the Donut” as a reminder to never again sell my soul.
2: What were the difficulties you faced when you began to travel?
I’d traveled a great deal during my life, but most of my travel was within the United States, Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean. When I headed out on my first round-the-world trip, my itinerary was entirely overseas. I have vivid memories of sitting in the airport at LAX, fighting down fear of the unknown as I waited for my flight to Vietnam. Eight years later I can laugh at that recollection, as I now know that travel is not a dangerous activity. Aside from that, the two most difficult issues are time and money. Since travel writers do not earn a lot, I am constantly struggling to make ends meet as I pay my way around the world, and there is never enough time to do what needs to be done. Days are spent seeing the sights and interviewing people, nights are spent sorting the 200-300 photos I take each day, answering 100+ emails, meeting my social media obligations, researching for articles, and writing. Many times, I exist on 3-4 hours of sleep, which continues to be a problem.
3: At the end of 2009, you decided you no longer needed to maintain an apartment and hit the road full time. What is your idea of home?
For me, home has always been where I am at that moment. I’ve never really felt attached to any house or apartment, though there are places in the world to which I am particularly drawn.
4: How much emphasis do you give to the cultural aspect when planning a trip?
Culture is everything for me. I believe that the underlying cause of violence and war is fear of others whom we think of as ‘different’ from us. Yet, the more I travel, the more I realize that people the world over are pretty much the same. I believe that educating readers about other cultures can go a long way toward eliminating the fear and starting us on the road to acceptance. However, I rarely do any planning, as I want to be completely flexible in my travels. Generally, I arrive at a new destination and just wander for days, sniffing out stories and interacting with locals.
5: Tell us about one cultural experience or interaction that has stayed with you.
Aside from my Nepal experience (see my answer to question #7 below), one of the most powerful cultural interactions that I have experienced was in Tanzania, where I lived for a short time with a Maasai family. At my request, I was able to spend a day with a Maasai midwife and another with the village herbal man. Through interpreters, I learned about the familial structure of the Maasai and the medicines they source from their surroundings. These experiences are sometimes difficult, as I am faced with issues that I consider barbaric, such as female circumcision, but I try very hard to remember that it is my mission to learn about other cultures, not to try and change them.
6: You saw yourself as a hole in the donut – solid on the outside but empty on the inside. After many years of travel, how would you describe your present state?
These days, my donut hole is stuffed with delicious jelly filling. For the first time in my life, I am truly happy.
7: You have a special bond with Nepal. It is not only a place that you are fond of but also where you have an adopted family. How did you develop this bond?
The first time I arrived in Nepal I was in search of a Yogi whom could help with hip and knee problems that were plaguing me. After a couple of failed attempts, I found Guru Dhakal in Pokhara. I had intended to stay three weeks, but three months later I was still there. During my extended stay I gradually came to know Guru’s wife, Sara, and their three children. The family invited me to join them for the brother/sister tika ceremony during Tihar, a high Hindu holiday, during which siblings paint designs on each other’s foreheads with colored powder.
That evening, I thanked the family for allowing me to be part of their family for the day, to which they replied, “No Didi (little sister), you don’t understand. Now that you have participated in the tika ceremony, you are part of our family forever.” I’ve returned several times since them, and when I do I stay with the family rather than in a guest house. I truly consider them my adopted family.
8: Take us through a few travel planning pitfalls for first-time travellers to avoid?
I prefer to approach things from a positive standpoint, so let me provide advice on things to do, rather than pitfalls: Though I travel with the belief that most people are good, there will always be those who try to take advantage of tourists, so it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with the common scams in each country.
Never flash money around and leave your jewelry at home. Learn something about the culture, customs, and taboos of the country you will be visiting before you leave, including how to say hello, please, and thank you in the local language. After arriving, meet the local people and participate in the local culture, whether through a brief home stay, a cooking class, or a day spent volunteering at a local school or non-profit organization. Try to avoid all-inclusive resorts that “strongly suggest” you not leave the property.
Learn to roll with the punches. Especially if traveling overseas, you will encounter challenges. You might have to wait 12 extra hours for your room to be ready, the Internet might be unavailable for two days, or a taxi driver may say he knows the way and then become hopelessly lost (all of the above have happened to me). It does no good to get frustrated or angry because these situations are beyond your control. Better to just consider the experience as a good story to tell when you get back home and enjoy the ride.