Inspirational Images and Tales From Years of Life-Changing Travel

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The entrance to Machu Picchu with the mountain Wayna Picchu in the background

It was as if I was saying goodbye to a dear friend.

I plopped my expired passport–the one that has traveled with me on all my adventures over the last 10 years—into the waiting envelope.  The time had come for me to give up my faithful, dog-eared companion. It was the end of an era; how quickly the decade had flown.

My worn blue book had been the key to unlocking the wonders of the world; It was a pocket-sized pass to the people I’d met and befriended over the years; incredible experiences; the endless conversations; the hours in planes, trains, and automobiles; the jaw-dropping landscapes and magnificent wildlife I encountered along the way.

Wanting to give it one last look, I plucked my passport from its confines and paged through the hodgepodge of ink.  Peru, Kenya, Bhutan, Costa Rica, Cambodia, Mongolia, Canada, Austria, Myanmar, Botswana, Thailand, Laos, Morocco, Ecuador, Guatemala, Tanzania, Turkey, Namibia…on and on.  Most of my travels occurred long before I created The Insatiable Traveler.

What a wild and wonderful ride I’ve had. How could I help but be nostalgic?

My First Stamp

Peru was the first stamp to christen my spanking new passport and my first time traveling solo. I was excited as I was terrified. Ironically, my fear was a good omen. Anytime I felt uncomfortable being alone I focused on taking pictures. Who knew my insecurities and a palm-sized Lumix camera would eventually lead me to my passion for travel photography?  Before then, I’d never given the art much thought.

For a long time, I planned my vacations around exploring ancient ruins. After Machu Picchu I wanted more. I loved standing among the remains, imagining the people who’d been there before me. I liked contemplating what the building looked like when it was brand new or who the last person was when it was abandoned. What were they thinking? What stories could they tell?

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A gorgeous waterfall near Luang Prabang

On a trip to Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos, I started photographing the locals I met along the way. I wasn’t very good at it. I was uncomfortable asking strangers for their photos and I found myself sneaking shots so I didn’t have to. Afterward, I always felt guilty. It took me a long time to work up the nerve to ask.

Morocco was different yet similar. Steeped in history, awash with color, intriguing people, and exotic tableaus, the country checked all the boxes. Touring the mosques, I learned first-hand about the Muslim faith, a welcome education compared to the radicalized version of the religion I’d become so used to seeing on the news.

The trip was a whirlwind; a Moroccan travel tasting menu of sorts. Casablanca, Marrakech, Fez, a night in the Sahara Desert, the mid and high Atlas Mountains. My seven days were nowhere near enough time to take in the country, its history and culture, but it was wonderful nonetheless.

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Berber man with his camels on a cloudy morning

In Asia, I stayed away from the towering skyscrapers and modern cities to seek out and photograph the lives of more traditional cultures, people who still lived in many respects like their ancestors. Buddhist monks draped in yards of blood-red fabric were the first to capture my attention. While they were just as likely to be found walking down a busy thoroughfare, amidst the arched ceilings and intricate carvings of an old temple I could fantasize that I’d gone back in time.  Not to mention they were wildly photogenic.

I booked a trip to Bhutan after seeing a segment on the Today Show where it said that the government limited tourism in order to control (as much as was possible) the impact on their culture. Hearing that, I had to go.

The country’s infrastructure was limited—there was only one airport and just two main “highways” (the roads were merely two lanes but the locals called them highways). One going east / west, the other north/south.  To accommodate the mountainous terrain, the roads were a ribbon of curves. To entertain myself on a six-hour drive, I counted the seconds between each bend and was never able to count past eight.

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A man prays in a mosque in Istanbul, Turkey

At that time, fifty percent of Bhutan’s population lived 2 hours from the main road, many families were without running water or electricity. A family of farmers we came across was planting potatoes using the old school method: a team of oxen and a plow.

One of only a few westerners, I went to a few spectacular religious festivals called Tshechus in small villages nestled in the mountains outside of Paro. The annual celebrations are large social gatherings with markets and entertainment, giving people who typically live far from each other a chance to bond and strengthen their ties to the community.  The main event consisted of dozens of dancers who performed for hours. They wore ornate handmade costumes in vibrant colors topped by elaborate over-sized masks depicting Buddhist gods and other religious characters.

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A dancer performing during a Tsechu (festival) in a small village in the mountains outside Paro, Bhutan.
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Novice monks at the Punakha Dzong in Bhutan, chat before prayers begin.

On a friend’s recommendation, Myanmar followed. The government had recently opened its doors to tourism, and I loved the idea of being able to visit a country that through its isolation had retained much of its old-world traditions.

At sunrise one morning, I floated in a hot-air balloon over many of the three thousand ancient temples in Old Bagan. Besides the breathtaking view, the sheer number  In Mandalay, I photographed the famous U Bein Bridge, the world’s oldest and longest teakwood wonder, and a well-known location to photograph silhouettes of the throngs that walk across at sunset.

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A woman spins the fibers from the lotus flowers found on Inle Lake, Myanmar

Inle Lake was one of my favorite stops. I loved floating down the “streets” where locals lived in stilted wood houses with thatched roofs and woven walls, that stood above the water. Farmers tended large floating gardens of tomatoes, flowers, and other fruits and vegetables, anchored to the lake floor with giant bamboo poles.  Onshore, there were more ancient temples as well as daily markets along the banks of the lake that rotated from village to village selling everything under the sun from electrical components to fresh fish.

In Turkey, the grandeur and beauty of the mosques in Istanbul had me mesmerized. My favorite was the Hagia Sofia, a massive structure that had been a Catholic cathedral before it was turned into a mosque. Inside, layers of disparate religious iconography are a testament to the region’s centuries of turmoil.

I went to Izmir to see the ruins of Pergamon and Ephesus, and in Cappadocia, I sailed in a hot air balloon over the sandstone spires lovingly called fairy chimneys (which should be called fairy penises because that’s what they look like, but I guess from a marketing standpoint it really wouldn’t work).

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Two female lions in Botswana’s Okavango Delta look intently at some zebra in distance

Safari Obsession

Late in the decade, I became obsessed with going on safari. It started in Tanzania then blossomed into multiple trips to Southern and East Africa. Over a span of three years, my trips focused exclusively on experiences in Botswana, Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa, and Namibia. I couldn’t get enough of the animals, the indigenous tribes and spectacular landscapes, plus I developed a passion for wildlife photography.

I witnessed the Great Wildebeest Migration, where thousands of wildebeest crossed the mighty Mara River–their calls rising above the water as if they were a giant swarm of bees. I spent hours waiting for just the right image of a lion in a tree.  There were rhinos battling for dominance in Madikwe and subtle dances of dominance between lions in the Masai Mara. I tracked a black rhino in Namibia; watched elephants play in the rain and a leopard gorge itself on a kill. I held my breath as a momma cheetah took down a Thompson gazelle and sat stunned when a zebra escaped from the jaws of a 16-foot crocodile.

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A young Himba baby crawls across the hot sand of the Namibian desert near Angola


While I could spend a lifetime watching lions play, I also spent time learning about and photographing members of the Maasai, Hadzabe, D’toga and Samburu tribes.

After three years focused solely on African safaris, it was time to broaden my horizons. I created The Insatiable Traveler during this period, and I felt I needed to move on before returning. So I pulled myself out of the bush and ventured to new destinations. It was time to explore more of the world.

I joined a photographic tour to Cuba with Santa Fé Photographic Workshops. With the travel restrictions relaxed by the Obama administration, I wanted to visit the island before a deluge of Americans changed it forever. I was curious to see how years of virtual stasis had impacted the country. What I found was a mix of beauty, hardship, and disrepair. The locals were incredibly welcoming, often inviting me (a stranger) into their homes.

Every day, I wandered the narrow streets of Havana and of the small towns nearby, taking hundreds (if not thousands) of photos. I found myself energized by all the activity in the streets, the bright colors and dilapidated cityscapes. I also felt a little guilty. What made Cuba so intriguing? It’s a throw-back to the 1950s, the crumbling mansions, contact with a restricted society—were all the reasons living in Cuba was so difficult. It was great for me from a visitor and photographer perspective, but living there, not so great for the Cubans.

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An old man who invited me into his home plays an old beat up guitar in Havana, Cuba

In Mongolia, I jumped at the chance to learn from one of my favorite photographers, Timothy Allen. I’d been following his extraordinary work for a few years. His use of ambient light makes me green-eyed with envy. We traveled through the Atlas Mountains in a Russian Van, camping near Kazakh Nomad families he’d befriended on previous trips.

We were hundreds of miles from modern electricity or running water and we had to poop in a rectangular hole in the ground, but I couldn’t have been happier. Every day was a new adventure. We went to teas and weddings and horse races. We raged for hours during an impromptu dance party in the middle of nowhere and got drunk on vodka after eating boiled goat that had been slaughtered an hour before. I had the time of my life.

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Kazakh nomads in the Altai Mountains of western Mongolia


Canada is a source of personal embarrassment. Growing up in Michigan, I avoided vacationing in Canada for no other reason than my friends and I used to drive to Windsor because the drinking age was 18. I didn’t think it was exotic or interesting. It was way too close to home. My bad.

In 2017, in celebration of its 150th year, I spent a lot of time in Canada in places I barely heard of before, but I’m so thrilled I went. There was a summer trip to the Yukon and Dawson City, the historic home of the famed Klondike Goldrush. I drank the infamous Sour Toe Cocktail (A shot of Whiskey with a real human toe in it….I swear to God), which put Dawson, from a tourist perspective, on the map. It was summer and Dawson was in the land of the midnight sun.

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The Kaskawulsh Glacier snakes through Kluane State Park

I remember standing outside Diamond Tooth Gerties, an early 1900’s themed casino (Canada’s first) at 1:00 am, with the sky as bright as day. (I also went to the Yukon—Whitehorse this time—in the winter and had a blast learning how to mush my own team of huskies.)

I also went flightseeing over the Kaskawulsh Glacier, following it as it snaked its way through Kluane State Park, then landed on an icefield near Mount Logan where the frozen remains of unlucky mountain climbers still cling to the sides of a jagged cliff. (I’m morbidly fascinated by that fact.)

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A cowboy prays before riding in the Lethbridge Rodeo in Alberta.

Afterward, I switched gears and headed to the Canadian Badlands, driving through the endless plains and spectacular rock formations that draw crowds from around the globe. I hung out behind-the-scenes of Whoop-up Days rodeo in Lethbridge, learning what it’s like to be a real cowboy and hung with Wendy Sloboda, a dinosaur hunter with a freakish talent for finding important fossils. She’s a number of paleontologists’ secret weapon and has two dinosaurs named after her—a portrait of the Wendyceratops is tattooed on her right forearm.

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A polar bear in northern Manitoba takes a nap

When winter hit, I went on an expedition to the wilds of northern Manitoba along the shores of Hudson Bay. For a week I searched for polar bears and other wildlife while walking in the snow and ice in -30F temperatures. (No wussy tundra buggies please)

The countryside was flat and barren except for the frozen willows that grew in large clumps around the Lake, and the endless sea of rocks and snow. On the Bay, the contours and shapes of the ice morphed at the whims of the tides—jagged and jumbled like the walls of a collapsed building one minute, then invisible, submerged underwater the next. Though the landscape had an apocalyptic vibe, it was unmistakably beautiful.

In addition to the curious, playful and often slumbering bears, we photographed wolves, arctic fox, and arctic hares, and at night, I got my first glimpse of the glowing green wisps of the Northern Lights.

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Floating down a tributary of the Amazon looking for birds and primates

Peru Bookends

Ironically, a Peruvian river cruise up and down the Amazon would deliver my final stamp.  Funny how my travels came full circle —it wasn’t even planned. To be honest, I hadn’t even thought about it until now—my 10 years bookended by trips to Peru.

I’d never been on a cruise before and I wasn’t sure how I would like it; I thought I might feel trapped. Thankfully, it was a lot of fun. Gliding down the river with the jungle floating by was like National Geographic coming to life before my eyes. Plus six hundred miles round trip and I never had to pack and unpack my undies. Perfect.

Being that the Amazon is, well, the Amazon, we focused on wildlife (tons of birds. Tons. And pink dolphins. Seriously, they’re pink) and visiting local villages along the route. The daily schedule was very much like a safari. Early in the morning and late in the afternoon when the animals are more active, we’d jump into the 12-person skiffs and explore different tributaries. Onboard activities such as meals, wildlife lectures, and samba lessons took place before and after.

My new passport

My new passport sits on my table stiff and empty, waiting for a few good trips to break it in. It’s clean blank pages evoking feelings of both hope and fear. On one hand, its blank pages symbolize a clean slate, the opportunity to start anew with endless possibilities before me. (This idea is both freeing and terrifying.) On the other hand, I have no idea what’s ahead. In another 10 years will this book reveal pages filled with great adventures or will my life take another turn? Who knows.

The future

A cruise to Alaska and Denali National Park is on the horizon, plus a six-day windjammer sailing trip in Maine. If all goes well I’ll be back in Botswana in October. (Three years away from safari is way too long.) More in the works.

Trips I hope to go on someday include Antarctica (I’m determined to get there), Papua New Guinea and Nepal. I want to see the gorillas in Rwanda and the Jaguars in the Pantanal. Friends’ photos from Patagonia have me hankering to see those beautiful landscapes. New Zealand and Iceland are high on my list. I haven’t been to Europe in what seems a lifetime ( I lived in Spain and Geneva for 3 years). Croatia, South Pole….

Oh heck… it’s probably easier to ask myself where I don’t want to go.

Here are instructions for renewing your passport and other great travel information.

As my passport expired it reminded me of 10 years of life-changing travel. #Peru #Canada #Thailand #Laos #Cambodia #Kenya #Tanzania #SouthAfrica #Botswana #Namibia #Morocco #Belize #Bhutan #Myanmar

66 thoughts on “Inspirational Images and Tales From Years of Life-Changing Travel

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      It’s definitely time! I think you’d love it. Start someplace simple like a Paris or another city then in the future, try something more exotic. 🙂

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  2. Melissa Theil says:

    Susan, I love this post!!! Just in time for my talk to Granpaparazzi Senior Citizens Camera Club on “Travel Photography – An Old Lady’s Passion”. I will tell everyone to sign up for your blog as you have so much helpful info to give us. B/C of your post about Manitoba and what to wear, I was not cold in January snowstorms in Montana last January. When are you going to Denali? I leave tomorrow for a workshop there with Mollie Isaacs. I’m glad I got my old passport back with holes in it. It holds my multiple entry visa to India which I will need in February when I attend the Kumbh Mela.

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      I’m thrilled you’ve found the blog helpful and I really appreciate you letting your friends know about it. Every little bit helps! I already went to Denali. It was beautiful but didn’t spend a whole lot of time there. Here’s a link to the story. Have a fantastic time during your workshop. It sounds fabulous! Can’t wait to see photos.

  3. Tiny says:

    Magnificent decade! Can’t wait for your new pictures from Botswana. I have a safari trip in my plans too, but have not yet decided where to exactly.

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      It all depends on the experience you want to have. If the wide open plains appeal to you (think Out of Africa) then you want to go to Kenya or Tanzania.

      • Tiny says:

        I love Kenya, but have been there a lot when I lived in Africa. Loved Luangwa valley in Zambia too, but have not been on safari in TZ (only in Dar) so that might be it!

  4. Leslee Hall says:

    Thank you Susan for taking us one a trip down your memory lane. Eloquent, moving words and images. Cannot wait to read about your next 10 years of adventures! And yes… 3 years is WAY TOO LONG to be away from an African safari!

  5. Chris Riley says:

    It was a fabulous book, so memorable for you, and inspiring for me. Can’t wait to see the chapters unfold in the new book. By the way, loved, loved, loved that photo of the baby crawling on the sand.

  6. suedavies689 says:

    This is a wonderful post and great photos. It inspires me to do a similar post about my last 10 years of travel. The photos are amazing (I know I said that already but I needed to send it again). I hope that your next tens years are just as wonderful.

  7. daytripper says:

    wow that was an amazing 10 years for you! wishing you more travels and discoveries soon. reading your blog makes my interest inthe simple (but beautiful) things and the outdoors even stronger… and my eagerness to try something off the grid. 😉

  8. Darlene says:

    Once again – a superb post – both your thoughtful (and sometimes with great humor) words and amazing photos. I’ve followed your posts since we both took a photo of the same car in Havana. We’ve just returned from six weeks in Peru and Ecuador and in addition to Machu Picchu found several other locations to be a photographer’s delight. I can highly recommend Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca during Festival of the Virgin of the Candelaria (just before Lent) for incredible people shots at a colorful parade many hours long, and of course the animals on the Galapagos with no fear of humans. No need for a telephoto lens!
    Looking forward to hearing about and seeing your continuing travels as you break in that new passport.

  9. Chris Riley says:

    I tiny little book with so many stories within its pages. And now you’re about to start a whole new book. I look forward to reading the chapters in this one too.

  10. maria constantinescu says:

    The beautiful review of your adventure in the 10 years.Thank you for sharing with us your trips throughthis beautiful world.

  11. Tony Olbrich says:

    Yes, getting a new passport is always emotional, but at least you’ll get the old one back (with a hole punched through it) as even the US government understands the sentimental significance of these records of our travels. I love your line about three years away from a safari being way too much. Couldn’t agree more, and so we’re booked for #4 (Botswana and Namibia) in May of ‘19. Safe & adventurous travels to you!

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      It’s true, I have my hole-y version on my kitchen table. Can’t quite throw it in a drawer quite yet.

      Congrats on the 2019 trip to Africa. Two wonderful places. 🙂

  12. Whitney Foss-Brown says:

    What a lovely tribute and way to savor not only your memories, but growth as a photographer. Thank you for sharing yourself and your photos…you are an inspiration. May the decade and empty book before you bring you more joy, world discovery, and safe travels.

  13. Grace says:

    No matter how many places you go to, there will always be another place or two that will get added to the list. I get it!

      • Grace says:

        And perhaps someday I will be able to take half as good photos as you. I kick myself for starting late on the photography side!

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      I started late too. Don’t let that get in your way. I started with a Lumix in 2008 but didn’t get serious until the last 5 years. Never shot when I was home, only on vacay.

  14. Heide says:

    OK, I’ll take the bait: Where DON’T you want to go? 🙂 But seriously, Susan … this is an astounding post. I loved reading about your journey as a photographer over the past 10 years. And my goodness, how you have overcome those early insecurities and fears! I hope you can put that old passport away, knowing that you truly lived every minute of those 10 years. Best wishes for an even more satisfying, adventure-filled 10 years ahead.

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Ha! I think I’ll stay away from Syria for the time being. 😉

      You are so kind. Thank you very much for your support and lovely message. I truly appreciate it. 🙂

  15. Dawn Robirtis says:

    Beautiful Susan. Your words and photos. You’ve drawn me in and I can’t wait to see where you go next.

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Thank you so much, Dawn. I appreciate you taking a look at the post. I’m so glad you enjoyed it. 🙂

  16. Donna Aceto says:

    Fabulous capsule! I recommend following every link to immerse yourself in much more of Susan’s incredible work. Can’t wait for you to get back from Alaska to see your new work! 😍

  17. kashishbarot says:

    So happy hear your future travel plans! Keep travelling, you never know what wonderful thing awaits ahead. Travel is really just so amazing! By the way I love the photographs of nature that you have included in this article.Keep sharing!

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