Meet The Stamp Collectors: Travels with Talek



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.



Travels with Talek is the travel diary of an international voyager. Talek Cuban-American and a passionate travel enthusiast and enjoys sharing her travel experiences, information on unique destinations, actionable travel tips, and advice to help travelers make the most of their time away from home. Her focus is on cultural immersion and interaction with local people to help travelers create their own authentic travel experiences. She's traveled to 103 countries and has lived and worked throughout the world and speaks several languages. She's also the author of Don't just travel to Cuba, experience Cuba like a local: The Ultimate Cuba Travel Guide.

What was the first country you visited?


The first foreign country I ever visited was Cuba as an infant. My family came from Cuba, in fact, my mother traveled to the U.S. from Cuba when she was several months pregnant with me so I guess you could say I started traveling before I was born. We continued to travel back and forth from the U.S. to Cuba until the political situation made that difficult.

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


"Trata y talves fracases, pero no trates y es garantizado." I learned this in Cuba when I was a child. It means "Try and you might fail, but don't try and you're guaranteed to fail." I've used this throughout my life whenever I want to attempt something. It can be as trivial as running for the bus hoping to catch it before it pulls away to something critically important like interviewing for a job. I believe that this mantra has been responsible for about 20% of my successes in life. I always try to go for it because you just never know.

Is there a book that has greatly influenced you as a traveler?


There are many books that influenced me. The first is a sweet little love story, Ali and Nino, about a Christian girl and a Muslim boy in Baku, Azerbaijan. I found this book in high school and just fell in love with it. The descriptions of Baku fueled my already obsessive desire to travel. Many years later I read a book by famed travel writer, Paul Theroux. In it, he said that as a kid in high school he found a book called Ali and Nino and fell in love with Baku. Theroux credited his travel obsession, in large part, to that book. The other book is George Orwell, 1984. It's not a travel book but it has influenced all aspects of my life. It teaches the dangers of conformity.

What is your favorite travel quote?


“To travel is to live,” by Hans Christian Anderson. The quote says it all.


Which country cemented your love for travel?


I've never known a moment when I didn't love travel. As a kid in New York City living in a Spanish-speaking household, my family went to see Mexican movies because they were in Spanish and the only movies we could all see together. I saw what Mexico looked like and wanted desperately to visit. I eventually ended up working there for 4 years. As a teen, I went to study French in France. I didn't really like the school so a fellow student, a Polish girl, and I decided to wander around Europe together. It was wonderful. I loved the freedom of just wandering and wanted more, always more. It was all these countries that I visited that inspired me to travel even more.



Which was your favorite country for food?


I'd have to say Vietnamese food is currently my favorite and has been for some time. I love the fresh herbs that are a part of most Vietnamese dishes. I like the traditional pho as well as the papaya salad. China is a country that has always totally blown me away with their vast variety of delicious cuisines from many different parts of the country. Nobody does Peking Duck like the Beijingers. Mexico doesn't get enough credit for the sophistication of its cuisine. In terms of food, Mexico is like 5 different countries. You go to Yucatan and the food is totally different from what you would find in Oaxaca. Mexico is also one of the places where I've had the strangest food; fried grasshoppers, ant eggs, fried worms, and iguana have all been part of my menu at some point in Mexico.

Which was your favorite country for architecture?


I find that cross between Spanish colonial, Baroque, and Art-Deco you see in Havana, Cuba fascinating. Even though much of the architecture is crumbling due to lack of maintenance, you can still see how marvelous it once was. In the interior of the country around central Cuba, you see a blend of Moorish, French Baroque, and Spanish colonial that you don't see anywhere else in the world. It's so beautiful it's uplifting.

Which was your favorite country for nature?


I was once stuck in Ecuador over a long weekend national holiday and decided to rent a jeep and go driving around the Amazon and surrounding mountains. I drove deep into the jungle and saw giant orchids, drove through waterfalls that had washed away the road and witnessed beautiful sunrises. For many years whenever someone asked me what my favorite country for natural beauty was, I would say Ecuador...until I saw the area around the rivers Dee and Dun in Scotland. Ecuador is now a close second.

Which country left a lasting impression on you?


Italy left a lasting impression on me. I studied Italian in Florence one summer in a cultural exchange program. I loved it. Who wouldn't? I liked it so much that I returned there for several summers. The people in the exchange program treated me like a daughter. Many years later I returned with my husband and it was as if I'd never left. They were still among the warmest, kindest people I had ever met.

Is there a country that changed the way you travel?


When I went to France on one of my first trips to Europe, I brought a big suitcase with me full of clothes I didn't need. I didn't know any better. I soon realized that you don't really need that much clothing for traveling. Since then it seems that every trip I take I need less and less. I haven't checked bags in ages. Not even for a long, multi-country trip. The excess baggage from that first trip taught me to travel as light as possible.



Which country exceeded your expectations?


I didn't think I was going to love Mexico as much as I did. I had visited Mexico a few times before moving there and was not overly impressed. But once I moved there and explored the states through slow travel, I was able to appreciate everything Mexico has to offer. From the masterpieces in the beautifully curated museums to the towering pyramids of Chichen-Itza to the honey-colored beaches of the Yucatan, Mexico. I also like the music. There is nothing like a rip-roaring mariachi when you have a couple of tequilas on you. I'm also impressed with the art and that fascinating attitude Mexico has towards death exemplified by the Day of The Dead. I feel privileged to have lived there among such beauty and to have had the opportunity to take a little peek into the Mexican soul.

Which country was completely different than what you expected?


I didn't expect China to be essentially two countries in one. The modern and sophisticated big cities of Beijing, Shanghai, and others are beyond world-class. On the other hand, there is the interior where you see much poverty and pollution. Driving through central China to Tibet and sailing up the Yangtze I saw incomparable natural beauty but also many opportunities for improvement. I think China's big challenge in the near future is to bring the less developed China to the same level as the coastal cities.

What country are you eager to get back to?


I never get tired of returning to China. That's a lifelong love. There will always be more of China to see and it will always amaze and delight me. I'd like to see the Winter Festival in Harbin and explore the architectural fusion of Chinese and Russian styles. I would go back for dumplings on Muslim street in Xi-an in a heartbeat and Peking Duck in Da-Dong. I missed really getting familiar with the Sichuan cuisine of wonderful Chengdu.

What is your all-time favorite country?


My all-time favorite country would have to be Italy. I studied there and had the opportunity to travel all over the country. I keep returning every chance I get. I've been in love with that beautiful country since I first saw Il Duomo di Firenze. That did it. I was lost to Italy forever. I recently took a two-week road trip from Naples to Sicily all the way down to the Italian heel in Lecce to the tip of the boot in Reggio Calabria, crossed with the ferry into Sicily then drove around the island. I still feel that there was so much more to see. Italy is a feast for the senses. You find outstanding food and wine in the simplest establishments. It's part of the culture. You never tire of the art and architecture. I love the art of Italy from the Roman mosaics of Villa del Casale to the roof of the Sistine Chapel to the incredible architecture of its churches and palaces. Maybe it's their love of life in general. Maybe it's because I once fell in love with an Italian...a couple of them, actually. They are among my favorite people to hang out with. Italy is an astounding, magical place.



Have you had a responsible travel experience?



One of the most interesting experiences I've had in Cuba was at Las Terrazas. Las Terrazas is a UNESCO biosphere reserve found about an hour west of Havana, on the way to Pinar del Rio, Cuba’s westernmost province. Started in 1968, Las Terrazas is an eco-project. The food in the two vegetarian restaurants is all grown on the premises. It's a lush complex with dense foliage, tropical swimming holes, waterfalls and 18th century abandoned coffee plantations. Las Terrazas is home to almost half of Cuba’s native birds. For the adventurous, there's also a thrilling canopy tour which whizzes you over six lines extending over lakes, a vibrant artist colony and much more. It's spectacular and a welcome contrast to bustling Havana.



What keeps you motivated to continue traveling?


Travel makes me happy and I like being happy so I travel. When I was six I asked a relative where he was going. He flippantly responded, “To the end of the world”. I thought that was a real place. I became fascinated with knowing where this place was. What did it look like? What were the people like? How long would it take to get there? Shortly thereafter, on a cold morning, I woke up very early and left the house when everyone else was still asleep. I went to look for the end of the world which I imagined was somewhere beyond 72nd street and Broadway, the farthest I had ever walked. To this day I remember the way I felt that day; the excitement, anticipation, and wonder at what I would find once I reached the end of the world. I still get a little bit of that feeling whenever I plan a trip. The feeling intensifies the closer I get to the trip. I love the feeling of seeing and exploring a place for the first time.

What is your top travel tip?


Always know the price of something before you order or commit to it. Examples are taxi fares, meals, tours, and excursions. Don't be shy about insisting on a price. It'll save you many unpleasant surprises. Pack light so you don't have to check your bag, force yourself to use public transportation. You'll save a ton. Don't be afraid to try new things like unfamiliar food, a dance, zip lining, whitewater rafting, etc. Go out of your way to get to know the local people. It's fun and they have the best tips and advice on where to go and what to do in their country.

Read all 101 of Talek's travel tips in her book, 110 Best Travel Tips: Save time and money, stay healthy and safe, have fun!

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


I've learned that we're all more alike than we are different. People want the same things, nourishment, security, respect, acknowledgment. It's easy to get to know local people even if you don't speak the language. I once made a deal with a Greek taxi driver to meet me at the Acropolis at 6 PM with hand signals alone. He was there. Of course, I don't recommend this if your next flight depends on the guy showing up. People can understand each other if they really want to. People are also curious about foreigners and will appreciate your taking the time to get to know them. Of course, there are sketchy people everywhere so use your judgment when traveling to avoid getting ripped off or worse. Especially women who were raised to be polite, don't be afraid to raise holy hell if something makes you uncomfortable. But in general, there is a lot more good out there than bad. By far.

What countries are on your bucket list?


Iran. I want to see the architecture and taste the food. The archeology and antiquities in Iran are also a marvel. A big trip I want to take is on the Siberian and Mongolian railroad but I want to stop along the way for little excursions in the area. I especially want to see the Stans: Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, etc. and sleep in a caravanserai on the ancient Silk Road. How cool does that sound? Another bucket list adventure is east Africa; Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania. 

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