Archive | March, 2012

The Downside of Solo-Female Traveling

12 Mar

Self-timers are your best friend when traveling alone.

Traveling alone has been the one of the most liberating, eye-opening, beautiful experiences I’ve ever had and I think any woman who is considering it, should do it. I do what I want, when I want. I have no one to answer to, no one to oblige and the possibilities are endless. I learn more about myself with each city I visit, person I meet and adventure I have. I’m stronger, more self-assured, and I’m proud of myself for taking the leap and following my dreams even though I had lingering fears.

But there is a downside – there always is. Traveling alone as a female carries it’s own dangers. We’re more vulnerable to things men don’t have to think twice about and we’ve got to keep one eye open in every situation.

I never know if a man is offering to show me around or inviting me to dinner because he wants to show me his city, have some company, or if he’s just trying to get into my pants. And it seems men are the ones who take the most interest in me. Sure, there are other female travelers but we’re outnumbered.

Men want to take me for motorbike rides outside the city and show me things I wouldn’t have known about on my own. They want me to join them for dinner, take me to islands I’ve hardly heard of and show me why I should consider moving to their part of the world.

I live by the rule of accept every invitation, spend as much time with locals as you can and when possible, become a fly on the wall to observe their daily lives. But I keep running in to situations where I think the people (okay, men) I’ve met just want to be my friend only to find out that they’ve had ulterior motives all along or our “bonding,” what I see as moments where our friendship deepens, becomes their ‘in’, their moment to make a move. A few days, hours, minutes into our shared time together and the relationship turns. They start inching closer, complimenting me, turning the conversation to something sexual, or just go in for the kill.

I keep asking myself if I’m doing something wrong. Am I bringing this on myself? Am I dressed too provocatively? Am I allowing the conversation to go this direction? Have I mislead them?

In some cases I can see where guys might get the wrong idea. We’ll have dinner on the beach or go for a long walk together. I’m friendly, I laugh at their jokes, smile often and tell them how grateful I am that I met them. But that’s it.

I’ll mention my boyfriend, talk about how I miss him and how it’s hard on us to do the long-distance thing… I’ll even tell them how I’ve met many other guys on this trip who put the move on me when I thought we were just friends… but it doesn’t matter

Men and women can’t be friends. They’ll always hope for more. One of you will, at least. When you’re thinking he’s kind, he’s wondering what you look like naked. I never thought it was that black and white and when the men in my life tell me, “men don’t have friends that are girls, they have girls they haven’t fucked yet,” I vehemently protest that that is too black and white, that I’ve had platonic relationships with guys for years and that it isn’t the case with everyone.

But when you’re traveling alone your senses are heightened. Your awareness isn’t marred by the dullness of everyday life and ordinary things are viewed under your traveler’s microscope. You can’t ignore what’s happening in front of you, especially when it’s a running theme.

Local men ask me if all American girls are open about sex and if we’re as “free” as what they see in movies. And if you tell them they’re not they assume that you are, because after all you’re traveling halfway around the world by yourself and you come from a culture that allows women to embrace their independence and sexuality.

I’m tired of things turning this way. I’m tired of men taking advantage of my worldview that everyone is ultimately kind and coming from a good place. I’m not naïve, I just choose to see things this way and for the most part it has worked in my favor – opening doors and opportunities that I wouldn’t have had had I been skeptical of each man I met.

But it’s getting old.

My second day in Ho Chi Minh city, formerly known as Saigon, I took a walk after lunch and found myself in the middle of a park. I was the only white person there and people took notice and stared. I smiled and kept sitting, taking in the experience. An older man, possibly in his late 60s or early 70s, walked by me and did a double take. (I didn’t think much of it. Everyone was doing that.) But then he came back about five minutes later and asked me where I was from, how long I’d been traveling, what did I think of the city… Another series of questions I’d been familiar with.

He told me he was a physics professor at the university and that he’d never met an American girl. He asked if he could sit next to me and of course I said yes. His sweet presence and excitement about practicing his English made me feel honored to be his first American friend. He asked if I’d like to get a drink after talking for about ten minutes. I wasn’t sure what to think, but not wanting to turn down an invitation and having nothing better to do I said sure.

We found a place within the park and he bought me a coconut. He asked me about my family, my boyfriend, and life in America. Later he asked if I would join him for dinner. I already had plans to meet someone for dinner but when I saw the look on his face after telling him this, I decided to cancel.

He took me to a very famous restaurant in HCM. It was packed and I was the only foreigner there. The food was fantastic and the conversation was light but toward the end of our dinner, our very platonic dinner, he told me I was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen, that he loved my hair and my eyes, and that he could “contemplate my face forever.” He said he loved me. He said he’d never forget me. I laughed it off and started planning my escape route. He asked if I would come back to his apartment and listen to music with him, knowing that I write about music for a living. I told him I was meeting a friend later and thanked him for the offer.

Does he look like a threat?

He drove me home and kept asking when he’d see me again, saying a few more times that he loved me. I felt uncomfortable. I felt sad. Weeks of having guys my age push for more than my friendship had jaded me and I was excited to have the company of a man I saw as my Vietnamese grandfather, and to have a night that I saw as an innocent exchange between two people wanting to learn more about the others’ culture.

He wanted to take me directly to my hostel but I had him drop me off at a streetlight a few blocks away. He mentioned earlier that he could try to find me tomorrow since I didn’t have a phone and he didn’t have email. I didn’t want to take the chance.

As I hopped off, he turned around to face me and asked for a kiss. I laughed, sweetly, and said, “Thank you so much for the evening. I’ll see you!” And that was that.

These instances have left me disenchanted with the idea that there are men out there that are genuine – that are nice for the sake of being nice and aren’t expecting anything in return. Now, I question every man’s intentions. I feel them out a little longer before I accept their invitations. This awful truth saddens me, as I feel the true nature of traveling is being spontaneous and embracing moments like going to dinner with a Vietnamese physics professor because he wants to practice his English.

My advice for other free-spirited, solo-female travelers out there is to go with your gut and get out of situations when they start to get sticky. Don’t live in fear or hide behind what-ifs because it doesn’t always turn out this way, but beware that it can and a lot of the time, will.

Take care of yourself. Be mindful of what you talk about. Don’t dress too provocatively or act in a way that will give anyone the wrong idea. Talk about a boyfriend that doesn’t exist and most importantly, use your head.

It’s a different realm that we women live in but it doesn’t mean we can’t travel alone. Be smart, be aware and don’t let it ruin your trip.

Hostel Etiquette: A Guide

8 Mar

After spending the last seven weeks in dorm rooms I feel it’s necessary for me to write this post. It seems some veteran travelers already have this down and some newbies know the unspoken rules instinctively, but the others, well … the others give hostels a bad name and can ruin everyone’s experience.

Rule #1: Be aware of when people are sleeping.

If it’s before 8 a.m. and people are still asleep, take your conversation outside. If you have to talk, whisper. You don’t need to tip toe around but staying conscious of how much noise you’re making goes a long way.

Rule #2: Prepare before you leave the hostel. 

If you know you won’t head back until well after everyone else is asleep, lay your pajamas and toothbrush out on your bed before you leave. Instead of having to rummage through your bag in the dark (waking everyone up as you do so) all your things will be waiting for you.

The same applies if you plan on having an early morning. Prepare your bag the night before and lay out a change of clothes. It will save you time and you’ll be less likely to receive death glares once you return.

Rule #3: Don’t have sex in the dorm room. 

I know it’s tempting and I know you think everyone is asleep, but they’re not or they won’t be for much longer. Your innocent romp will end up making everyone else in the room feel extremely uncomfortable. Keep in mind that not everyone is as sexually open as you are and you could be traumatizing someone.

I had a friend who was about to get to up to pee in the middle of the night when two people starting going at. She felt so awkward about the situation that she decided to lie in bed until they finished and then couldn’t get back to sleep after the whole ordeal was over.

Get creative and take it outside or head to the bathroom. It’s just as exciting.

Rule #4: Keep your space clean.

Don’t unpack your whole bag or leave your stuff everywhere like a bomb went off. Remember: this is isn’t only your room and people on the top bunks need floor space too. You’re not entitled to more just because you have more things.

Rule #5: Don’t spend all your time in the hostel. 

This isn’t so much a rule as it is a suggestion. Don’t have every meal at your hostel or spend all day sitting at the computers. Get out there! See some things! Make some friends and discover the ‘real’ culture of a place. You didn’t travel this whole way to do the same things you can do back home, did you?

Angkor Wat: A Mini Photo Essay

6 Mar

Sunrise over Angkor Wat

The main temple grounds.

Weighing Your Options: Hostels, Hotels and Couchsurfing

6 Mar

The sign in the bathroom at the Little Bird Hostel in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

When traveling, where you rest your weary head each night ultimately depends on your budget, how much time you plan to spend in your room and if you’re traveling alone or in a group. I’ll breakdown the pros and cons of staying in hostels and hotels versus couchsurfing to give you a better idea of which option best suits you.

Hostels

Pros: 

Community – Hostels are the perfect option for the solo traveler because the common areas and dorm rooms offer plenty of opportunities to meet fellow travelers and find someone to explore the town with or to share a meal. In hostels, you’re hardly alone and since I’ve been traveling the constant influx of travelers from all over the world has been a godsend. Everyday new people come and go and it’s a great way to hear the insider track on destinations you want to go to or didn’t realize you’d want to go to. I’ve found wonderful travel buddies and new lifelong friends through hostels and I’ve also changed my trips around because of the recommendations of others. Hostels are the perfect place to meet your fellow travelers.

Price – Dorm room prices can range anywhere from $1-10 a night. Again, if you’re traveling alone dorm rooms are a great way to go because you pay for your bed, not the room.

Staff – The staff at hostels usually have insider knowledge of the town you’re staying in and can answer your questions with better, more current information than any guidebook can give you. Also, depending on the hostel, the staff will help you book buses, arrange visas and can recommend good restaurants and things to do. Sometimes they’ll even tell you how much a taxi should cost so you don’t get ripped off or they’ll arrange group outings so you can see the town with the people who know it well.

Cons:

Privacy – There is none, unless you opt for a private room which is typically double or triple the price of a dorm. Get used to changing in the bathroom and hearing when your bunkmates go to use it. Also, though I haven’t had this experience myself yet, many of my friends have woken up to the sounds of people having sex in their dorm. Sometimes to save money couples will stay in dorms but then after a few drinks they can’t contain themselves and hope everyone is asleep. Or, as I mentioned before, since you’re constantly meeting people sparks do fly and people get caught up in the moment. Don’t be that person. Take it outside, or in the bathroom.

Community – It was Jean-Paul Sarte who said, “hell is other people” and after sharing a dorm with enough oblivious or just plain inconsiderate people, I’d have to agree with him. In dorms you get the snorers, the drunks that stumble in at four in the morning, bumping into things the whole way, and sometimes you’ll come across a bad seed who will go through your things if you aren’t careful. (If there’s a locker, use it!)

Another issue is that everyone is on a different schedule. Some people want to start their days early, some want to stay out late. You’re all in the same room and when the earlybird is annoyed by the people who wake him/her up in the middle of the night because they’re just getting home, those same people will be annoyed when the earlybird is getting ready for the day and they’ve only had 3 hours of sleep.

Hotels

Pros: 

Privacy – In hotels you can shut the door and enter your own private world. You can sleep naked, go the bathroom with the door open, and waltz around at any hour of the night without worrying about waking up strangers. It’s complete freedom, but it comes at a price.

Cons:

Price – You pay for what you get. If you want a nice bed with a nice view it’s going to cost you, but if you all you want is a place lay your head then find something that fits those standards. If you’re only traveling for a few days or weeks and you’ve got the money, hotels are a great way to treat yourself and feel like you’re really on vacation.

If you’re traveling as a couple or with friends and can split the cost of the room, hotels might end up being more cost-effective and pleasant. When I backpacked with a friend through Europe there were several times when we found that the price of a hotel room for one night was cheaper than paying for two separate beds in a dorm. Look around.

It’s also nice to break up a few weeks of staying in hostels by splurging on a hotel for a night or two. You’ll be revived and ready to go back to shared dorms. You might even start to miss the chaos.

Couchsurfing: 

Pros:

Cultural exchange – With couchsurfing you save the money you would have spent on accommodation and often get a more genuine cultural experience because you’ll be staying with someone who actually lives in the place you’re visiting. Sometimes hosts will let you use their washer machines, cook you meals and even drive you where you need to go. That all adds up to major savings not to mention the fact that you could be making a new friend in the process. Hosts also know where the best restaurants, shops and hidden gems are. They’re a wealth of information and are usually eager to share it with you.

Cons:

Bad hosts – Sometimes you just don’t click with your host and other times you can’t seem to find anyone to host you at all. In places like Europe it’s relatively easy to find a couch but in Asia and America it can be difficult. Couchsurfing takes preparation but you can get lucky if you post in the ’emergency couch’ thread.

Intrusion – The other tricky aspect of couchsurfing is that your host has a life and you can feel like you’re intruding on their routine. They may have work from 9-5 but you want to stay out until 4, or after a few days you could start to feel some tension like they wished they hadn’t accepted your couchsurfing request.

In hostels and hotels you’ll never get that feeling. You paid for your bed/room and you have every right to be there and come and go as you please. Sometimes that’s worth shelling out the extra cash.

Community – While with couchsurfing you have a more honest experience with the country and the people you visit since you get to see the area through the eyes of someone who lives there, you miss out on connecting with the traveling community that is also seeing it for the first time. If your host doesn’t have much time to show you around you could end up going alone but in a hostel you have a lot better chances of finding someone who is excited to see them with you.

Everyone has different reasons for traveling and different ideals for what makes a good trip. Decide if your budget, cultural experience or need to unwind is most important to you. Or, you can do what I do and mix up your trip by choosing to experience all three!

Writer’s Guilt and Traveling

5 Mar

I feel like a bad journalist. Today marks my eighth week of traveling through Southeast Asia and I have yet to write one blog post. Every time I have a pang of guilt over this I rationalize it by telling myself I’m living in the moment. And I am.

But today it stops. Sort of. I’m in Battambang, Cambodia right now – a quaint little town with colonial storefronts, a smaller tourist circuit and a slower pace of life. I decided to splurge on a $16 a night hotel room with a desk, air conditioning and a giant window that lights up the room, just so I could put an end to this and start documenting my trip. (And, honestly I was dying for some alone time and some privacy. You can read my traveler’s guide to hostels, hotels and couchsurfing, here.)

I leave for Saigon, Vietnam by bus tomorrow morning and while it’s still fresh in my mind I’d like to share what I think about Thailand and Cambodia. It’s been 56 days since I left California and began my love affair with Asia, but it feels like my trip has only just begun. It’s funny how relative time becomes when you feel like all you’ve got is time.

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