Meet The Stamp Collectors: Jetset Christina

Meet The Stamp Collectors is a series of interviews with travelers who've reached the milestone of visiting 50 countries, hence they've collected 50 passport stamps. This elite group of adventurers share real-life insights about their love of exploring our precious planet. They are voyagers who seek out unique experiences and develop their own perspective through immersive travel experiences.

I hope their stories and sage advice will inspire you to push your boundaries and continue to travel near and far. This is not a contest about who's been to the most countries but a reflection on what it's been like to visit at least a quarter of the world's nations. If you're interested in being featured in the series please fill out this form.

Christina is the traveler behind Jetset Christina, a site showcasing the very best in luxury travel in the world's most swoon-worthy locales. @JetsetChristina is ranked as one of Travel & Leisure's Top 8 Luxury Travel Instagrams and one of TripAdvisor's Top 10 Blogs to Follow in 2017. Born in California, Christina still makes the golden state her home base for a few months out of the year in between jet setting around the globe. When she isn't overseas she can be caught road tripping along the Pacific Coast Highway or indulging in fine wines in Napa Valley. Like most Californians, her first adventure out of the States was across the border in Mexico. Her family made annual trips to Mexico and her childhood memories in the country have drawn her back many times as an adult. Mexico remains one of her favorites countries to explore partially due to the fascinating culture, but of course also because of guacamole and margaritas! 

She’s visited 55 countries but it's not surpassing the 50+ milestone that's memorable but the countries themselves. She loves the idea of getting to more countries because she simply can't get enough of the unique excitement of finding a new favorite place. Obviously, she wants to have that feeling as much as she can in her lifetime! Who wouldn’t?

What was the 50th country you visited? 

I think it was Montenegro. I will always remember that trip to Montenegro fondly because it was completely new to me; a beautiful, charming little pocket of Europe I never even knew existed! 

Which country cemented your love for travel? 

Italy, hands down. The first time I visited Italy, I was 12 years old and I remember telling my mom "this is my favorite place I've ever been." At the time we were on the island of Capri and had just finished fresh pizzas and triple scoops of lemon gelato. Life was pretty good! Since then, I've explored many parts of Italy. I still can't stop being completely mesmerized by every single part of the country - from the food, to the coast, to the history, to the wine, to the people. When I find myself in another European country, I always miss Italy a little bit. It's like having a crush that you can't get your mind off of... It's amore.

Which was your favorite country for food?

I absolutely love Greek food. Fresh-caught fish, octopus, gyros, Greek salads, spanakopita, feta cheese. Give me everything! The Greek diet is fresh, healthy, and so, so delicious. The best food I've ever had in my life was in Corfu, Greece. 

Which was your favorite country for architecture?

Seeing the unbelievable architecture of structures in Rome, Italy, like the 2,000-year-old Colosseum, or the 500-year-old detail of the Sistine Chapel, is absolutely mind-blowing. 

Which country exceeded your expectations?

Japan! My first time in Japan was also my first time in Asia. It was winter, and I honestly wasn't expecting much. But, oh my gosh what a fabulous country. The culture is so interesting and so different from any other country. The public transportation and the bullet trains are flawless, everything is unbelievably neat, clean, and organized and the safety in the country is incredible. You would see 3-year-olds taking themselves to school on the bullet train. I also loved the people and the nightlife. Tokyo is like New York City on steroids. I was blown away. 

Which country left a lasting impression on you?

Indonesia changed my life! The first time I visited last year, I knew I could live there. Bali is one of the happiest places on earth, and everyday there is a dreamy adventure, even if you're not doing anything at all. When I think about paradise, it's exactly what I imagine and when I left my first trip there, I had a pit in my stomach, I knew I had to go back. 

What country are you eager to get back to?

South Africa blew my mind. Its landscape, its beaches, its culture, its wine country, its people. Everything about it. It's so far away and hard to get to, and it is one of my very favorite countries. I can't wait for the day I get back to it. 

What is your all time favorite country? 

I am so bad at picking favorites. But Italy is pure magic. There are many reasons why it's the world's most popular tourist destination. Italy is so perfect, so beautiful, that it doesn't even feel real. Walking in Venice feels like you're walking in a dream. Boating in Lake Como feels like you're a celebrity. Jumping off the rocks of the Amalfi Coast feels like you're diving head first into the best day of your life. Walking the streets of the Vatican feels like you're living in a Renaissance painting. Eating fresh pasta in Positano feels like you may never be able to eat regular pasta again. Drinking wine in Tuscany feels with your loved one feels like you just fell in love all over again.

What's your favorite phrase in another language you've learned through your travels? 

"Il dolce far niente". The Italians love - and live - this phrase, which translates to "the sweetness of doing nothing". It is a perfect reminder to stop, relax, and enjoy la dolce vita that is Italian life. In a world that moves a little too fast sometimes, you have to love a culture of 4-hour lunches and endless bottles of wine. There's no doubt that the Italians know how to enjoy the present. 

Have you had any responsible travel experiences?

One of my favorite travel days was helping to get running water set up for a village in Ghana. We were only there for a day, but the love, appreciation, and happiness of the kids I met that day will stay with me for a lifetime. 

What is your favorite travel quote? 

"Paradise isn't a place, it's a moment."

What countries are on your bucket list? 

Argentina, because I have heard incredible things about the country, and I absolutely love South American culture. Egypt, for the history and the raw, otherworldly beauty of the Sahara Desert. Kenya, because I'm dying to do an African safari. Dubai, because it seems so futuristic and cool and like no other place in the world. Australia, although I know when I go I may as well get a one-way ticket. I have a feeling I won't want to leave. 

What keeps you motivated to continue traveling?

I'm motivated to keep traveling because every trip is different. The energy that comes from exploring a destination really gives me life. I love that no two people's experiences can ever be the same in a place. Your own experience will never be the same on two different trips to the same place. Traveling is the combination of so many different nuances, from each moment of the trip, who you're with, who you meet, where you go, what you do. You can visit the same place 10 years apart and it's completely changed. There are so many things that go into your experience. The world is ever-evolving. There are still places you've never heard of and places that haven't truly been discovered yet. Nobody will ever be able to say they've seen every place in the world and I absolutely love that. 

What is your top travel tip?

A smile is universal. 

What is the most prolific lesson you've learned through travel? 

Go with the flow. In travel, things happen that you can never plan for. And you know what? Sometimes it's those train delays, flight changes, weather changes, itinerary changes, that end up making your trip what it is in the end. If you let them get to you, or you let yourself stress out over them, you're just wasting precious time of your trip. Maybe it rained and your plans got changed, but maybe you wouldn't have remembered that lazy sunny day on the beach as well as you remember that magical tropical rainstorm day that you ended up swimming in a waterfall. Go with the flow, and let your destination unveil itself to you in ways you could have never imagined! 

Where are you headed next?

After traveling the Southeast United States for a month (Charleston, Miami, the Florida Keys), I will be based out of Bali for the fall. I am so excited to live there for a few months and to explore some of the beautiful places that lie both on the island and just outside of it. 

Inner Balance for Outer Peace at Mahagedara Retreat

When I was invited to spend three days at Mahagedara Wellness Retreat near Sigiriya to unwind and learn about Sri Lankan Ayurvedic practices I couldn’t contain my excitement. After months of non-stop travel a few days to unwind and simply focusing on my mental, physical, and spiritual health was simply irresistible. Mahagedara (meaning family home in Sanskrit) is truly a place to achieve inner balance, for outer peace. 

Mahagedara’s commitment to sustainability surpassed my expectations. The founder of the wellness escape, Lakmali Abeynayake, won’t quite call her property eco-friendly as she’s still sourcing a few more green bits and pieces. I admire her ability to avoid green-washing and be transparent. However, I’d say she’s nearly reached her goal.

In my hut there was a locally made clay jug filled with potable water and two clay mugs. The sensation of drinking out of a natural cup enriched the water with hints of herbs and spices that were purely delicious. Clay is used throughout the property in replacement of glass, plastic, and aluminum - primarily in the kitchen and serving utensils used during meals. The spoons are locally made with old coconut husks. The organic herbal toiletries in my indoor shower were housed in tiny clay pots, one for shampoo, conditioner, and body lotion. Body soap is presented loosely without packaging. The beautiful hand carved designs of butterflies, flowers and other flora and fauna were created by a Sri Lankan women’s cooperative. Many other decor aspects were purchased directly from small business, especially those who are female-run or support underprivileged women.

Mahagedara Retreat prioritizes the environment and local villagers. Lakmali employs locals from the nearby village, especially those who don’t have other employment opportunities. Men and women are paid fair and equal wages. Lakmali has battled the gender gap throughout her career and refused to allow this nonsense on her property. It can be difficult for women to find work in Sri Lanka which suppresses their freedom. The majority of the staff at Mahagedara are women, an astonishing 70%. Lakmali will accept anyone who is willing to commit to the sustainable ethos of the retreat and give them the necessary training to transform them into experts in their field - from gardening, Ayurvedic cooking, to hotel management. The environment is entirely peaceful, majorly due to the staff’s constant smiles and sense of well-being. During downtime many of the staff were seen studying, reading, or relaxing. They also were working on their inner balance for outer peace.

Lakmali once described her retreat as one that, “emphasizes wellness and sustainability and we focus on ensuring that nature remains unharmed whilst enjoying these surroundings simultaneously.” Mahagedara Retreat is situated on 8 acres of land that was once covered in long strands of grass taller than I am! It took three attempts to naturally remove the grasslands. Lakmali could have used chemicals to plow over the site and start building right away, but we know by now that is not her style. Her love of nature oozes through every corner of the paradise jungle oasis she has created. Not a single tree was cut down during the process of creating the luxurious getaway. It’s hard to imagine the property as grasslands and incredible to think of the process it must have taken to create the jungle oasis. Every tree seen on the property was planted here as well as every herb, every spice, every plant - there are over 3,000! The layout was very intentional and build in such a way to provide each hut privacy and the essence of being placed deeply in solitude in the Sri Lankan jungle. Even the animals seem to know that this home has been crafted with love and adoration for nature, rare birds flock and frolic around the grounds and monkeys swing high above in the tree tops.

The eco-conscious design doesn’t stop there. The entire retreat was built to compliment the surrounding jungle, not harm it. There are very minimal lights used at night in order not to disorient animals and waste electricity. But not to worry, you’re provided a massive flashlight and any member of the staff will happily walk you back to your hut if you’re spooked about some of the locals - like elephants and scorpions!

There are no plastic water bottles sold or consumed here. The on-site water facilities include two boreholes that are 100-feet deep. The water from the wells is filtered and used in the bathrooms and the kitchen. The wastewater from showers and kitchen is re-purpose to hydrate the jungle and plant life. Sewage water is treated with live bacteria to accelerate natural breakdown and the absorbed into the ground as fertilizer. All kitchen waste is natural and composted. During my stay the spa experiences were not available, due to a lack of natural water in the height of the summer heat. The water is best used to keep the plants, and humans, hydrated! I’ll have to come back another time to experience an outdoor floral bath.

I stayed in the siyambala jungle hut, the Sinhalese word for tamarind. My hut had an indoor shower with hot water, and an outdoor shower surrounded by the jungle with cold water. The ultra spacious home is decorated to compliment the surrounding jungle with recycled tree branches used to create the headboard and exposed closet. All of the furniture is made of locally sourced recycled tree trunks and wood. Each of the rustic village style huts boasts unique decor creating an individual identity. They’re named after the vibrant spices that can be found in the surrounding area and infused with the namesake scent making the huts smell heavenly of the gentle fragrance. The siyambala hut was my hidden paradise for a few days, surrounded by lush greenery and the beautiful sounds of nature. I enjoyed early mornings reading on my lovely wooden bench as dozens of butterflies surrounded me and tickled my skin with their kisses.

I got to explore each of the huts during my stay as we strolled through the property to collect spices, vegetables, and plants to use when preparing our Ayurvedic meals. Ayurveda food is exactly what my body had been craving. Nearly all of the food consumed at the retreat is prepared with produce grown on the property or brought in by the local staff from their home gardens. I joined the chef to stroll through the massive gardens at Mahagedara to pick ingredients for our Ayurvedic lunch. I was astonished to find that nearly everything grown at the retreat is edible, even outside of the food garden! We stopped every few feet to pick leaves from a tree, roots from a plant, and spices from a bush. Even the rice is locally grown here but a little-known fact is that elephants love rice! Earlier in the season, they stormed the rice paddy for a feast on the rice just as it was ready to be harvested. Rather than be angry at their lost produce the staff laugh at this oddity and are happy to have been able to provide for their majestic neighbors. Other nearby farmers set off firecrackers at night routinely to scare away herds of elephants but Lakmali chooses to just embrace being a part of the local flora and fauna ecosystem. Lakmali shares that, “more than half of the harvest is always eaten by animals and we let them do so, as we recognize their right to this land.”

I took an Ayurvedic cooking class during my stay to learn how to make some of my favorite Sri Lankan dishes including coconut sambal, garlic curry, jackfruit curry, coconut roti, and more. Ayurvedic Sri Lankan cuisine is built around fresh, local, vegetables, spices meant to collaborate with your specific body type, and a hearty serving of rice. An Ayurvedic diet is meant to stimulate the digestive system and help the body purge naturally of excess toxins. The taste of each meal was absolutely indescribable, partially because of the fact that chemicals aren’t used for treating the food farm right in the retreats own backyard, but mainly because each dish is prepared with an extra dose of love. If you’d like to try Ayurvedic cooking at home, Lakmali created an exclusive meal plan for Aaptiv which you can find in my story on the site about Ayurvedic eating.

Each meal was enjoyed in the beautiful open-air dining space which consists of these incredible chairs made out of recycled tree trunks. Each one is different and I loved testing out a new chair at each meal. The space is adorned with a massive mural which was painted by Sri Lankan art students who also created all of the other paintings and artifacts seen throughout the space.

Meals are presented communally - this was easily the most gorgeous buffet I’d ever seen. Each dish is served in a clay pot and served with coconut spoons. Fresh flowers picked from around the property garnish the table, they are arranged by one of the sous-chefs, talk about multi talented. The intricate cutlery was purchased from a social enterprise operated by the government that trains and employs local women.

I was the only guest which puzzled me as the weather was perfect. Don’t let Sri Lanka’s monsoon season fool you, it isn’t 100% torrential downpour, even though that’s what the weather app on my iPhone displayed during my entire month-long trip, regardless of where I was on the tear dropped island. I embraced the solitude and truly be at one with nature. Working remotely makes it incredible difficult for me to put my laptop away when I am approaching a deadline. I took a day to sit in the beautiful reading room and catch up on work but the next day I turned off my devices and my mind to my workload and purely focused on my well being. I strolled through the gardens alone and appreciated Mother Nature in all her glory. I spent hours reading and lounging in the pristine pool and practice yoga in the sala set amidst the sprawling jungle.

The entire experience at Mahagedara Retreat was fulfilling and transformative. I left with a better understanding of Ayurveda and a commitment to fold more of the ancient practices into my daily routine. I felt restored and balanced and ready to take on the remainder of my time in Sri Lanka enjoying the famous East coast beaches. 

Meet The Stamp Collectors: Thuymi of Adventure Faktory

Meet The Stamp Collectors is a series of interviews with travelers who've reached the milestone of visiting 50 countries, hence they've collected 50 passport stamps. This elite group of adventurers share real-life insights about their love of exploring our precious planet. They are voyagers who seek out unique experiences and develop their own perspective through immersive travel experiences.

I hope their stories and sage advice will inspire you to push your boundaries and continue to travel near and far. This is not a contest about who's been to the most countries but a reflection on what it's been like to visit at least a quarter of the world's nations. If you're interested in being featured in the series please fill out this form.

Thuymi is one-half of the duo behind AdventureFaktory, a digital platform gathering useful stories to inspire people to travel more around the world, mostly while having their 9 to 5 jobs. Born in Canada to Vietnamese parents the first country she ever visited was the neighboring U.S. which has been one of her favorite destinations for enjoying nature, especially in Hawaii. Her visit to the States made her want to see more of the world, and that's exactly what she's done. She's currently visited 52 nations but it was the third country she visited, Bulgaria, that cemented her love for travel. Not surprisingly, she's revisited the Balkan peninsula many times, the 50th country she visited was Slovakia. Thuymi has been living in the Middle East in Dubai for the last two years. Her signature move is to hop into epic head stands in front of the globes most amazing sites. A place she's eager to visit? Her birth nation to experience the picturesque West Coast.

What is your all time favorite country?
Vietnam, and not only because I am from there. I only visited for the first time when I was 23 years old. The food is incredible. The architecture is super diverse, every main city has different landmarks and scenery to see. You can find traditional apartment buildings that are built vertically with many floors. There is also a huge French influence. It is simply a photographer's heaven!

What's your favorite phrase in another language you've learned through your travels?
I love the Arabic word sahtein! It sounds so beautiful. It's used as bon app├ętit, so to wish a pleasant meal and directly translates to mean two-healths. Usually, the response is a'albak, which means to your heart.

What countries are on your bucket list?
All the "Istans" countries, like Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, etc! I am really looking forward to experiencing the silk road.

What is your favorite travel quote?

"Wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow." - Anita Desai

What is your top travel tip?
Expect as little as possible when you go to destinations! When you have expectations, you have a higher chance of being disappointed and not enjoying your destination.

In which country do you feel the most yourself?
I feel the most myself in Sri Lanka. It is so peaceful with beautiful nature. This place made me feel super focused on enjoying the moment and location.

Which country are you eager to get back to?
Tanzania, I keep thinking about it and feel like I need to go back to climb Kilimanjaro and experience a wildlife safari. We spent a lot of time on the beach in Zanzibar, which is incredible with sparkling white sand and crystal clear waters.

Which country amazed you?

Lebanon really amazed me. There is so much incredible nature. There's a lot more to see in the country beyond Beirut. But Beirut is an awesome city with tons of hidden gems to discover for nightlife, cafes, and restaurants! Lebanon is also so safe. It gets a bad reputation and we meet a lot of people who are afraid to visit, but they shouldn't be. 

Which country disappointed you?
Slovakia was the 50th country I visited but I was a bit disappointed by it. I had already been to most other Eastern European countries and couldn't really find anything interesting or different in Slovakia.

Where are you headed next?
I am off to the Maldives with my partner and the other half of Adventure Faktory, Mitch! You can follow our adventures in the stunning Indian Ocean islands on Instagram.

What is the most prolific lesson you've learned through travel?
Patience. My patience has developed a lot by always being open to others in terms of religion, beliefs, preferences, and cultural norms.  When you travel, you have to listen to others and locals and try to understand them, not to judge them, hence patience and understanding is super important!

What keeps you motivated to continue traveling?
The world is so big and there is so much to experience beyond the little bubble of our lives. I won't live forever. I am racing to see the whole world before I die or get too old and regret missing it!

You can follow Thuymi on Adventure Faktory, InstagramFacebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

Experiencing Buddhism in the Heart of Sri Lanka

During my month exploring Ceylon, I visited the historic towns of Kandy, Dambulla, and Sigiriya. These sacred locations serve as a living testimony of Sri Lanka’s rich Buddhist heritage. They are treasure coves of ancient societies and religious artifacts. Sri Lankan folklore believes that the tropical island is actually Lord Buddha’s teardrop. It is widely believed that Buddhism was first introduced in Sri Lanka all the way back to 236 BC. Buddhism is the leading belief system in Sri Lanka, the 2011 census gathered that 70.19% of Sri Lankans are Buddhist. The particular sanction of Buddhism that is practiced in Sri Lanka is known as Theravada. In short, this branch of Buddhism is all about following the doctrine of elders, aka senior Buddhist monks. There are over 30,000 monks living in Sri Lankan Buddhist temples. Buddhism goes beyond a religious practice and is the root of Sri Lankan lifestyle and immense love and respect for nature. 

My quest to learn more about Buddhism in Sri Lanka began in the country's UNESCO Sacred City, Kandy. Kandy was the last capital of Buddhist political power and remains the Buddhist capital of Sri Lanka. Here even riding the local bus can be a spiritual experience. As we swerved around traffic at top speed everyone on the bus maintained a calm composure and bowed their head over their hands in the prayer pose as the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic quickly came in and out of view. As the name suggests the temple houses the relic of the tooth of Buddha. I found that dozens of temples across Sri Lanka make similar claims, Lord Buddha must have had an extraordinary amount of teeth. However, I don’t discredit this fragment of bone as it is one of the most powerful items in all of Sri Lanka. It is said that the tooth was taken from Buddha’s funeral pyre and later smuggled to Sri Lanka in 311 AD. It’s believed that whoever holds the relic has the right to govern the entire nation. The relic is kept under close watch to keep it from falling into the wrong hands. It is kept in a golden stupa, so visitors actually see the tooth. This is one of the holiest places of worship for followers of Lord Buddha; over one million pilgrims visit each year.

Across the lake from the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic a massive white Buddha statue watches over Kandy from Bahirawakanda hill, also known as Gnome Mountain. The 85-foot tall image of Lord Buddha is not nearly as famous, or as old, as the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. While the Bahirawakanda Temple seems to have existed since the beginning of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, the sparkling white statue was only erected in 1993. The views from the temple are spectacular offering sweeping panoramic views of the town, lake, and many Buddhist temples below and the rolling hills that surround Kandy. Visitors are actually allowed to climb the staircase that runs up the statues back for an even higher vantage point and an amazing vista over Kandy.

Another one of Sri Lanka’s eight UNESCO World Heritage sites can be found in Dambulla which can easily be accessed from Kandy using via public bus for the 2 ½ hour journey. The Buddhist Temple of Kings, otherwise known as the Dambulla Cave Temple or Dambulla Rock Temple, is unlike any other temple I’ve ever visited. It’s the largest cave temple complex in the country, and likely one of the best preserved. This is especially impressive considering the site has been hosting pilgrims for over twenty centuries. It is perched 520 feet above the plains with sweeping views of the surrounding hills including Sigiriya and Pidurangala. Each of the five sanctuaries in the cave monastery are intricately designed with over 150 massive stone statues, mostly of Lord Buddha, and detailed Buddhist frescos covering the rock ceiling. The murals depict moments from Lord Buddha’s life and teachings. There are also statues of the Hindu gods Vishnu and Ganesh. Buddhism and Hinduism seem to cross paths often in Sri Lanka. During my visit there was a large group of local school children visiting the temples from a local Buddhist school. The tiny children were dressed in stiff white uniforms and the girls wore their hair in long braids tied into loops. They giggled sweetly as they approached the spectacular shrines to pray and place fresh lotus flowers on the altars. I was lucky to see the cave as unfortunately the Archaeological Advisory Committee in Sri Lanka has recently announced the site will be closed to visitors indefinitely for conservation. 

From Dambulla I visited Sigiriya. I didn’t hike the famous Lion Rock fortress as it goes against my responsible tourism beliefs to visit a place that is falling apart due to mass-tourism. Instead, I opted to climb Pidurangala. Both peaks were formed by volcanic activity! According to local legend, the Buddhist monks who lived at the Sigiriya monastery were relocated here when the King claimed Lion Rock for his palace. As you reach the top of the hill you’ll enter the Royal Cave Temple where the largest brick reclining Buddha in the world lays at over 41 feet! The last part of the trek is the most exciting as you’ll have to scale up boulders to reach the top. You’ll be rewarded with mesmerizing views of the ancient fortress of Sigiriya and a bird's eye perspective of the surrounding landscape. 

These various sites can be visited using Sri Lanka’s public bus system, but it can be a bit difficult to figure out as there is no posted schedule online and most bus stands I went to did not display any information in English. I can personally recommend Sri Lanka Taxi Kosala who lives in the area and drove me from Dambulla to Sigiriya. He was an incredibly safe driver, took very good care of his clean car, and was able to give me unique local insight into Buddhist culture and historical sites. During my quest to learn more about Buddhism in Sri Lanka I was a guest at the Hostels Lanka properties in Kandy and Dambulla. They are excellent budget accommodation options in the area and both have really interesting local murals which gave them a unique ambiance.

Buddhism is the heart of Sri Lanka, geographically, and of the people. Have you visited Sri Lanka? Did you have the chance to experience local Buddhist culture? Tell me about it in the comments!