Friday, January 27, 2012

Aebi Walked "Barefoot to Timbuktu"

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Aebi Walked "Barefoot to Timbuktu"


Barefoottotimbuktuposeone.jpg Ernst Aebi
Who's the coolest movie protagonist in town? Gibson, Travolta, Downey, Washington? Beginning Friday, my choice is Ernst Aebi, the subject of Martina Egi's documentary, Barefoot to Timbuktu. The Swiss-American artist, author, and adventurer became rich by renovating nearly fifty lofts in SoHo and used the spoils to finance daredevil exploits around the world beginning in the late 1980s. According to the movie's production notes, Aebi "started by wreck diving in New York harbor. He walked to the North Pole from Siberia, lived for a while off the land in the Canadian Arctic, and another time with reindeer herders in Siberia. He went up the Rio Negro, crossed the Amazon jungle in a dugout on the Casiciares to the Orinoco. He raced across the Sahara in the Paris-Dakar rally, crossed the Atlantic four times in small sailboats, once with his children, once single-handed, and twice with his second wife Emilie. He and Emilie crossed the Himalayas, entering illegally into western Tibet where they became prisoners of the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army (described in the book "A Short Stint in Tibet" by Aebi, 2005). They tried several times to defy the Burmanese junta by getting overland from Burma to India. He drove all over Central and South America and the Australian Outback. He started rock climbing on vertical slivers in the Alps, went up Aconcagua and made it to the top of Mont Blanc."
The title of the movie refers to the time he an Emilie were crossing the Sahara on camels and had everything taken from them by bandits and had to walk...well, you get it. They were then taking part in perhaps Aebi's greatest adventure, saving a small Mali village, Araouane, by creating an oasis in the sand. Egi, also born in Switzerland, came across Aebi's 1993 book, Seasons of Sand, about his three years in Araouane, and decided to make a documentary that covers his time as a young, hitchhiking sidewalk artist and painter, his days of renovating lofts (and painting), and his relationships with his kids, but it centers on his time in Mali and his return twenty years later. The interview I did with Aebi in anticipation of the film's release this weekend is as free-wheeling as the movie, bouncing around from one subject to the next and then finding its way back. Like the film, I searched for Aebi's identity, beginning with questions about his brothers.
Danny Peary: In the film you make one of your periodic visits to see your two brothers in Switzerland. They seem like pretty cool guys themselves, and Peter was even adventurous enough to bring you supplies in Araouane, so why did they stay in Switzerland while you had the need to travel the world?
Ernst Aebi: They traveled plenty. We aren't much different. In fact, while I was in Japan doing my trip around the world, Peter, the second oldest, was hitchhiking from Switzerland down through Africa to South Africa. He had to wait for three weeks in Khartoum for a convoy to go down through the desert. Louis Armstrong was on his Africa tour with his wife and read about this kid and invited him to dinner at their hotel. He stayed about three years in South Africa. Also in the early sixties, my other brother, Kurt, was an apprentice cook. He was about seventeen and worked on a freighter from Indonesia that was smuggling illegal immigrants into Canada and he was cooking every day, curry, curry, curry, curry. Kurt became a research chef with Nestles, high up, in Switzerland, England, Ireland, Australia, South America, and then France. He developed nouvelle cuisine for first-class airline passengers. Then he became production chief for McCormick, the spice company. Then he retired but McDonald's made him an offer he couldn't refuse. They said they wanted to have healthier food, so they asked him to make something that wasn't calorie-rich and nutrition-poor. He stayed for two or three years but gave up in frustration because he was always told they couldn't do what he wanted.
DP: The brothers sound like you but they both ended up back home in Switzerland.
EA: They lived elsewhere but came back. Peter had this house-painting business with another guy and then came back and went into business buying dilapidated houses, fixing them up, and selling them.
DP: Is that because of what you did with renovating Soho lofts?
EA: No, I hadn't done anything like that yet. That was way before.
DP: So did you do what you did because of what he did?
EA: No. I just bumped into doing that, by default. When my first marriage went caput, I couldn't have clients come to the house to buy paintings. She'd actually destroyed some of my artwork. So my friend Fritz Gross and I bought a loft in Soho and fixed that up with stuff we collected from dumpsters. We did virtually everything ourselves--plumbing, carpentry, taking field stones from a brook for the bathroom. We made it totally cool. We each had a bedroom and there was a big studio for painting. Then I got custody of the kids and the loft wasn't suitable, so we sold the loft at a big profit and bought a much bigger space. Then Fritz and I each renovated three lofts, for painting, for me, and for the kids combined. Then we converted other factory lofts.
DP: Did you enjoy doing the construction?
EA: I really, really enjoyed doing it. I still love it. At my farm in Vermont, I'm always told, "Will you stop now!" If I see some wood, I have a mania about adding something new.
DP: As kids did the three of you ever sit around and talk about what you were going to do in the future?
EA: No, we spent time beating each other up. Actually, what our parents told us from an early age was that it was not allowed for us to say, "It can't be done." Nowadays our parents would be thrown into jail for the things they made us do or let us do. I'll give you an example. After the war, in 1946, our parents took in through the Red Cross a malnourished girl from Berlin. She came back by herself in 1948, and then in 1949,
the girl's mother said things were getting better in Berlin and invited Peter and me to visit them. I was eleven and Peter was nine. My parents scoffed at the idea because there weren't even travel agencies then and there seemed no way we could travel. I said we could hitchhike, which I'd been doing since I was about seven. They said, "Are you nuts?" They pointed out there was an Allied air bridge so we couldn't even go by land from West Germany to Berlin. We told them, "You always say that we can't say 'We can't do it.'" So they had to eat crow. They let us go. We couldn't even find out at first where you took the plane from West German to Berlin. It turned out to be Hanover. We got to Berlin and visited the girl in a bombed-out house and the food tasted like refried sawdust. We were supposed to spend ten days there but after two days we said we had to go home to do homework. So the mother put us back on the plane. When we got off in Hanover, I talked Peter into going to Hamburg because I'd heard there were women in their underwear in store windows. We hitchhiked there. We had no money and ate bread and slept in phone booths, stuff like that. I loved it. But we weren't old enough to see the women in Hamburg so we hitchhiked to Amsterdam. Then we went to Brussels where we had a married cousin, though we had no address or phone number. Some old guy thought we were runaways and took us to the Swiss consulate. We told them about our cousin and they had his number. He picked us up and the first thing he did was put us in the bathtub because we were totally filthy. He fed us and two days later he brought us to the railroad station and bought us tickets back to Switzerland. As soon as he left, we got off the train and got refunds for our tickets. And we hitchhiked home. It took three weeks. Our parents never got worried. That was typical. So for us to do what other people called an adventure was no big deal. If we got shot at, it was no problem as long as we were alive.
DP: When you took your trip around the world, did you drop out of college and later go back to get your degree?
EA: No, I didn't drop out. I first did an apprenticeship in electronics and ended up not liking it. Then I did a correspondence course at a night school. I took a college entrance exam but then went around the world. I made my living on the trip by selling artwork, painting on the sidewalk and also doing real painting.
DP: There's a photograph in the movie of you painting on the sidewalk in Japan. Who took that?
EA: In Japan, there was a big deal about what I was doing. I painted on the sidewalk and they needed to move me because the traffic stopped. There were a lot of newspaper articles and journalists took pictures. That was about 1960 and Japan was nothing like what it is now.
DP: You were an art sensation in Japan, but you always intended to get a degre?
EA: When I came back, I decided I had to do something after spending so much time preparing for the exam. So I started doing political science because I thought that was the easiest thing. I knew I wouldn't do anything with it because I wanted to paint. But I took my exams and passed and I have a diploma from Zurich University in political science!
DP: You also took economics.
EA: Right. I can't really translate what I studied. It was public economics. In Switzerland, there is directly applied economics, economic politics.
DP: So it was related to the political science you studied rather than something that helped you understand finances?
EA: I'm not sure I can say that's true. My dissertation was about three things: the possibility of an economic depression, investment motivation, and the Japanese worker movement.
DP: While watching the film, I wondered about your thoughts on money, having it and using it.
EA: Well, when I had no money or little money, which was most of my life, I was just fine. Now that I have it, it's highly commendable.
DP: It has made your life easier to do things.
EA: The way I travel I don't need any money. But once in awhile, when it hits me, I can change from a hotel with no stars to a hotel with five stars.
DP: Your brother says in the movie that you travel in coach and stay in inexpensive hotels.
EA: But that's just because it's more fun. If you travel by bus or a push-taxi rather than an airplane, you get to meet the people. Or if you stay at a back-packer dive you get to meet more interesting people than at a big, fancy hotel. Business people? I don't give a shit about them. If a place costs less, good, so be it, but I'm not staying there to save money.
DP: In the movie, we see some of the paintings you did as a young man. My first impression was: They're bizarre. Was your style unique or was that a common style among artists you knew?
EA: I was always different. Since I was a kid I was painting skeletal, grotesque forms. There is no explanation for it. [Pointing] That painting on my wall, it's all doodles that I did on my desk while I was doing construction and had to be on the phone a lot. There are even phone numbers on there. Some of these things--I don't know, it's like being hypnotized.
DP: That strange painting of those two women--did you have models?
EA: No! Where would I find zebra-striped women?
DP: I don't know--you've been all over! How much training did you have?
EA: Zero. Well, in Paris, I had a girlfriend who went to La Grand Chaomiere art school. It wasn't a typical school. You'd go there for the day, and pay by the day, and people criticized your stuff. So I went a couple of times.
DP: Was getting criticism good or bad?
EA: I didn't care what they said.
DP: Have you evolved as a painter, or have you been consistent? Looking at your wall, I'd say you definitely have a distinct style.
EA: There's a big difference between the paintings and drawings. The drawings are very intricate and if I charged by the hour I'd have to charge a fortune, the kind of price that in those days I never achieved. I had to do something to make a living, so I painted, and I consistently made compositions of motion. Dancing, cockfights, bullfights, horses or gazelles running. None of the paintings have titles. I don't paint anymore but for the film they wanted me to paint something, so I did seven paintings in one day. They took minutes only. There are three on the wall. The first weekend after I did them, I sold three for $18,000, so I could make money with paintings.
DP: When you started traveling in your early twenties, was there any motive beyond your just wanting to see places? Or did you then or ever want to go to places with the purpose of accomplishing something?
EA: My oldest daughter Tania brings that up in the film. She says, "He's going, going, but he never will get anywhere." I tell her, "You're right. I'm always moving, but I don't want to get anywhere. The going, the journey, is the idea. Getting there is anticlimactic, then it's finished. You should never stop. As long as you go you can hope something new comes your way and makes life more exciting. You don't want stagnation.
DP: When I read the bio of you in the production notes I was surprised that you crossed the Atlantic four times in a sailboat. I would think you'd do it only once and then move on to something else.
EA: They were all different. I sort of bumped into doing it each time. The first time came after I started making money with the lofts. I had four kids, so I thought it would be fun to have a sailboat. I discovered at the time that with the exchange rate it was cheaper to buy a sailboat in Europe than in New York. So I went to England and bought one and was going to ship it over. But I decided it would be a fun trip if I sailed across the Atlantic. But I'd never sailed before. So I went to Florida and took a five-day course in sailing. Then I went to England with three of my four kids. One stayed home so in case we didn't make it she could collect the loot. At the time she was training in hopes of becoming an Olympic gymnast, although she never got to that level. So we sailed home from England. That was the first trip. The next trip came about because I decided to be in the BOC, the single-handed race around the world. For that I needed a boat and to qualify. I bought a forty-seven foot racing boat in Holland and to qualify I had to do a single-handed trip across the Atlantic. I left in April and that was the wrong time of year. It was against the prevailing winds and northern gales, going from England to Newport, Rhode Island. But I made it. The third time I went was with Emilie, my second wife. We got attacked in the Sahara and everything was taken away from us. We had to leave Mali because of the uprising and went to Senegal and then I said, let's buy a couple of tropical tree trunks and tie them together to make a nice raft. Then we could sail to the Caribbean and sell them because it would be worth more money. But she refused to do that. However, in Dakar I found a sailboat that was stuck in the muck. I bought it for very little, and paid $50,000 to fix it up, and then sailed it to Florida and sold it for $100,000. I had always dreamed of doing the first circumnavigation of the Arctic, above Canada, Alaska, and Siberia. Lots of sailors had done the northwest passage above Alaska and Canada and others had done the Siberian part, but for political reasons nobody had done both. So I bought a boat and went to Ireland. That was the fourth time I sailed across the Atlantic but it wasn't a matter of just going back again to do that. Then there was a storm and Emilie freaked out and said she couldn't make it to Siberia.
DP: On your trips, do you prefer that they are ordeals or would you prefer them to be easy?
EA: The harder the journey, the more fun it is to say, "You, motherfucker, you did it!" The elation you get from overcoming something difficult gives you much more pleasure than at the end of a hike or stroll.
DP: You have said, "Emilie didn't want to do this or that," but was there ever a time when you realized something was too dangerous and it was you saying you didn't want to do it?
EA: No, because if it's dangerous it's more exhilarating since it takes more wits to make it through.
DP: But was being attacked by bandits in the Sahara something you enjoyed?
EA: Well, it wasn't much fun while it happened and I took it seriously, but in hindsight I wouldn't want to have missed it. In hindsight it was: "Wow, that was great!"
DP: In the film we learn that you discovered Araouane by traveling two days out of Timbuktu. But why were you in Timbuktu to begin with? Nobody goes to Timbuktu.
EA: There is a care race that goes from Paris to Dakar, across the Sahara. I had an Argentine friend who said he was doing Paris-Dakar and like a fool I thought he said something about Paris-stockcar. I said, "That sounds fun, I'll do it also." It wasn't a stockcar race but a twenty-one day race. He chickened out and I had already paid for the car and all that so I did it alone. I felt like a jerk doing this, racing through these villages that have nothing. On the twentieth day I almost lost a leg. When it was over, to atone for my sins I decided to spend more time in the Sahara, which I did love. I got a map and looked for a place to start, and I thought Timbuktu sounded good. From there we bummed around in the desert for about six weeks with no maps.
DP: And that's when you stumbled upon Araouane?
EA: We went there to get water for the camels. Then it seemed like a cool thing to show the people there how to survive, especially with their wells collapsing.
DP: This is in the late eighties. So were your kids old enough for you to disappear for three years?
EA: Oh, yes. All they needed was my checking account. I had three kids in college--one at Cornell, one at Columbia, and one at Stoneybrook. Can you imagine how much that costs. Plus I bought Tania a boat because she didn't want to go to college.
DP: And she went on to become the youngest woman to sail the Atlantic single-handed, as we see in the film. She seems on good terms with you now, as does your son Tony.
EA: My son graduated from Stoneybrook in Physics and Biochemistry, and now he's building net-zero-energy houses in upstate New York. I'm doing the financing and he's doing the building. He got the first New York state certificate for a house that is certified zero energy--in other words it creates the exact amount of energy as it uses under normal use. He's built a whole bunch of them.
DP: Solar powered?
EA: Solar, geothermal, superinsulation, all-concrete houses.
DP: In Araouane, solar-powered water pumps were introduced. Was that advanced at that time?
EA: That was there when I got there. There was a pump and the water just poured out into the sand. UNESCO did a study in the Sahara about water levels, so there were capped bore holes that had been drilled in many places. Then Michelin arranged to put pumps into the bore holes and to construct solar panels. That was there with the idea that the people would use it wisely, to maybe put up a garden. But they had no idea what to do, so when I arrived I made use of what was there, utilizing the solar panel in the hotel I built and with a transmitter, lights, a shower, etc. We constructed some nice things.
DP: I couldn't tell where the people lived.
EA: They lived in hovels.
DP: So these were for the most part starving former slaves of Arabs?
EA: Fritz and I bought the freedom of six slaves, $450 a piece. There were two Arabs still there, misfits the wealthy Big Cheeses didn't want. The Arab village chief who lived in Timbuktu sent his little brother to be there.
DP: So you had to win him over?
EA: Sort of, it was a nonstop hassle with him. It was a love-hate relationship.
DP: Did the people themselves think you were strange, a white man just appearing out of the desert?
EA: At the beginning, of course. They thought it strange when I brought them these little things--seeds. They had never seen a vegetable or fruit, and I was putting these seeds into the sand pouring their precious water over them, and crushing camel shit, which was their only combustible to cook with. They wondered what this strange man was doing. But in exchange for having them do this kind of work, I fed them, bringing food from Timbuktu.
DP: Were you planning on staying for longer than three years if it weren't for Civil War?
EA: At the beginning I thought I'd stay a month and leave after I taught them how to grow things. I was thinking I'd bum around some more in Africa or go to India or Siberia and cross the Bering Strait or travel the Burma Road. Then I found out by and by that there was no way they would know how to do anything on their own.
DP: So you felt responsible for overseeing their progress?
EA: Well, I got to like it, too. I got to like being there and liked the people, some who really were deserving of help.
DP: When you return to Araoune as you do in the movie, do you feel sad to see it swallowed up by the desert again?
EA: Oh, yes. It was a jewel. It was beautiful. There was the garden and we built a theater and I had a house. It was really working and whole social fabric changed, including with the women. Even the Arabs couldn't deny that it was great what happened. Today at least I have satisfaction knowing what happened with a couple of the kids. Girage called me on his cellphone from Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, where he was working as a coffee importer. Now he's back in Timbuktu and wants to open a restaurant. The best kid, Boujima, now has a hotel in Timbuktu. Of course I financed it. He didn't know a word of French, but now he has email and a cellphone and calls me every once in awhile. These kids would have been in a salt mine.
DP: I noticed that when Boujima was working in the garden as a ten-year-old, he had a watch on.
EA: Yeah, it was a Canal Street watch I gave him. If someone did something well, if he worked, he deserved a reward.
DP: How do your kids react to how you bonded with the kids in Araouane? The way the film makes it look is that you loved your kids but kind of neglected them. There's a line one of your daughters says about how you made them dinner and then disappeared and let them do whatever they wanted.
EA: They were totally cool to it all. The youngest visited me and was completely taken by it, and my son Tony loved the kids and they loved him. They were all supportive of my experience in Araouane. They were glad to get me out of their hair.
DP: It's obvious how much Boujima and the other kids in Araoune loved you, so did you think of it was being a second chance at fatherhood?
EA: Not at all. I'd done lots and lots of things with my own kids. When I sailed across the Atlantic when I wanted to qualify for the BOC, I read a letter from Tony that he said for me to open when I was at sea. He was about seventeen at the time. He wrote, "It's really, really not fair. You're going off on adventure doing single-handed racing around the world and maybe won't even come back. Now is the time we can really do stuff together. Afterward I'll have my own life." I felt like a total asshole being on that boat in the middle of the Atlantic. And I read that letter so closely that I didn't take the sails down during a storm and they ripped, forcing me out the race. The moment I came to Newport I put the boat up for sail and said the hell with this. So Tony, Fritz, and I took a survival trip to Baffin Island, above the Arctic Circle. We were there for three weeks, living off the land on a frozen tundra. That was really fun. The kids and I went all over, hitchhiking or traveling with a camper. And they did things on their own. Tania became the youngest person to sail alone around the globe. At one time Tony had a disastrous relationship and was crushed. He went to college and didn't do anything so I sent him off to the source of the Niger River and follow it to the ocean. I made him do it. He went to the jungle in Guinea. So they did things alone and with me and were very positive about my relationship with the kids of Araouane.
DP: Would you have gone back to Mali after twenty years if it weren't for the movie?
EA: The movie, for simplicity's sake, had me going back after twenty years. I went back three times. Once I went back accompanied by rebels because there was a ceasefire in Timbuktu and everybody in the desert was a bandit. The next time I was escorted by a truckload full of soldiers. That was weird. And one time I went with Emilie by camel, after we were attacked. I will probably be there a lot now, but I don't think I would start it all over again. Now nobody knows me in Araouane. You see in the film there are guys standing around and watching me. Those are Arabs from Timbuktu, who went to Araouane after the uprising in Timbuktu. Araouane is working fine now because all the rich Arabs with the goats and camels who had abandoned it years ago are back and the blacks are serving them again, only this time in exchange for food. In Timbuktu everybody yells to me. As you see in the film, even the kids who never met me know about me.
DP: During the three years you were in Araouane, helping set up the garden, putting up a hotel--was that you at your best? Is what you did there, coming through, how you wanted to be remembered?
EA: I did all that mostly out of selfish reasons. To me, it was a fun adventure. If I could make a go of it, I could pound my chest and say, "You did it!" I fell in love with the people, but I love my kids, too, and there are women, I love.
DP: But you did something there that you did nowhere else.
EA: A couple of years ago somebody called me up from White Plains and asked, "Are you Ernst Abei? Have you been to Mandalay in Burma?" "Yeah." He asked me if I knew a particular man and I said I did. He was a travel agent who went to Burma to organize tourist trips and he met another travel agent in Mandalay and they had dinner to discuss business. And he said there was a shrine by his house with a picture of a Western-looking person. So he asked the travel agent who it was. He said the man made it possible for his family to be what it was. I am the man in the picture on the shrine. What happened is that Emilie and I wanted to go from Burma into India, which is illegal. We did it about three times with a local who showed us the way through the jungle and did translating. It turned out that the police was on our heels and the guy would have been executed if it was discovered he helped us. We gave up on account of that. We asked him why he would take such a chance for only the $1,000 we were going to pay him. He told us he needed money to educate his kids and would do anything to get it. I said, "To hell with this. I'll give you $1,000. You don't have to risk your life." Today, he has a travel agency, one son has a computer store, the other is a dentist, and his daughter is married to a jeweler, all because of the $1,000.
DP: You mention doing things illegally. Do you always feel that that you have a sense of entitlement where you are allowed to do certain things?
EA: Probably. I guess it's arrogant on my part that I feel a sense of entitlement, but when the legal way isn't possible there are other ways to skin a cat. I converted all the lofts in Soho without building permits. Without anything. The first time I was in Mali I couldn't get a visa that allowed me to stay there for more than thirty days. I didn't give a shit. I was there for nine months. My car wasn't even registered. I started a school, a hotel, and transported people for pay, with goats and sheep, and importing things into Araouane. Everything was illegal. Because I couldn't deal with the bureaucracy there--it was too cumbersome. The second year a delegation of locals with gendarmes came and asked me questions. I told them, "If you don't want me to do what I'm doing, I'll pack up and go. Or you can arrest me now if you want." But they said, "Oh, no, we're very happy with what you do!"
DP: Do you worry about age limiting you?
EA: Well, certain things I can't do anymore but...well, we now have Viagra so there is improvement over what it should be.
DP: Are you happy this movie Matina Egi made about you?
EA: Of course. I'm thrilled. I had nothing to do with the making of the movie. Martina Egi came across the 1993 book I wrote about the experience and wanted to make the movie. She decided how it was going to be filmed and presented. I like what she's done. If I could add anything it would be that there be more emphasis on the theme of tolerance because of all the stuff going on around the world. I'm an atheist and don't give a shit about religion, but these people I met who regard religion as the most important thing in their lives completely accepted me. We know of people in Switzerland or here who criticize Arabs for being aliens who can't adjust or say, "If you come here but can't be like us then we want you to go home again." These simple people are so much more tolerant than we are, and we're supposedly educated enlightened people. I couldn't have been more alien to them but they accepted me. I would like to stress that. My kids laugh when I say this, but I try to be more tolerant! It works in some ways, maybe not in others.
DP: Since the film is a portrait of you, it tries to identify who you are. Is that possible?
EA: I think there might be many interpretations.
DP: Is Barefoot to Timbuktu's subtitle, Come Hell or High Water, appropriate?
EA: That was their idea.
DP: Your brother might have suggested, My Way of the Highway, which is how he describes you.
EA: Well, that's too arrogant. Come Hell or High Water is less arrogant.
DP: You talk about how you're never finished with anything, but so far do you think your life has been successful?
EA: Sometimes I sit at night either here in my apartment or in my farm in Vermont or in South America or wherever and I almost burst with joy thinking, "Holy shit, is this great!" Looking around, it's unbelievable. If a genie came out of a bottle and granted me a wish, I wouldn't know what to ask for. I got it all!


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