Tag Archives: Asia

Water and Bathing On the Road

17 Sep

 

No matter what kind of hygienic ritual we’ve become accustomed to most of us can forego hot showers, proper toilets, sinks and washer machines for a week or so when we’re “roughing” it outdoors or backpacking on a budget. But when it becomes a way of life, as it has for my boyfriend and I, you start looking at things a little differently.

When you’re camping, it’s easy to take cold showers for a week and let your leg hair grow out longer than usual because you know it’s only temporary and you’ve got that hot shower waiting for you back home. But when the road is your home, any shower or clean bathroom you come across feels like a trip to the spa and running water is viewed as an invaluable resource for washing dishes and clothes, brushing your teeth, bathing, and even drinking – if you’re so daring.

I come from a world of designer water bottles and giant wholesale markets where people can buy their fancy water in bulk. Now, I drink from whichever faucet is available as long as it passes the clarity and taste test. (And I’m basically living off tea because once the water boils I no longer worry about it.) Blame it on the three months I spent backpacking Asia or my trips to Mexico but now I look at water differently. If I’m in a first world country and there’s no sign that tells me not to drink it, it’s fair game.

The same goes for bathing water. If we stumble across a lake or find an outdoor shower by the beach and haven’t had a proper shower in days, we thank the heavens and muster up the courage to face the cold water. It’s not so bad in the summer months but in the winter it’s a whole different animal. That’s when we heat some water in a pot over our portable stove, squeeze in our minty shower gel and use a tea cloth to give ourselves a sponge bath. If it’s cold outside or if we’ve got neighbors, we’ll bring the pot inside the van, shut all the doors, lay a towel down and be careful to drip as little water as possible as we take turns wiping each other down. We’ll even drape a blanket over the two front seats to block the windows and give us some semblance of privacy.

Other times, like mostly recently when we camped by the Clarence River in Grafton, NSW (which you can read about here), we’ll own the fact that we’re dirty hippies in need of a scrub. One early morning, after my leg hairs had gone particularly feral, I set up our bathing station on the public picnic table under the gazebo we’d camped next to and shaved my legs. When I was mid-shin boaters towing water skiers drove past and I shamelessly waved right back with a giant smile on my face.

Once finished, I put on a new pot to wash our clothes and hung the freshly laundered garments on the rack on the front of the car and on our camping chairs. Then Matt proceeded to give the van a scrub down and we both felt accomplished and grateful to have found “free” running water. It was certainly a step up from our campsite on the beach where the only water came from the ocean.

Later that day, Matt and I decided three days of salty beach hair was enough and we jumped off the jetty and into the cold, murky river water to wash our hair. When I was alone in the water I stayed as close to the surface as possible because I was terrified a croc would swim up at any moment and take me down with him. I could hardly see a foot in front of me and my mind kept playing scenes from really bad horror films where unsuspecting lovers were suddenly attacked by piranhas, sharks or some other unknown mythical creature. But then I’d see children fly past us in their inner tubes, towed behind the family boat and I’d relax and be thankful I was finally washing my hair.

When you’re on the road for a year and every penny counts, you find yourself becoming a bit of a schemer. You scope out locations based on proximity to free public amenities over beauty and you’re always thinking about your survival or how to stretch that dollar. While sometimes I wish we didn’t have to resort to drinking water from a dodgy faucet (we’re working on installing a water filtration/shower system so don’t worry too much!) living this simple life makes me appreciate the little things more and that makes every cold shower worth it.

What To Do Before Heading Overseas

18 Jul
Otres Beach, Cambodia

Otres Beach, Cambodia

Whether you’re traveling abroad for a week or a year, trip preparation is essential and can save you from many inconveniences once on the road. Here are some of the things I gratefully did, or wanted to kick myself for not doing, on my last trip:

1) Research Recommended Travel Vaccinations

Finding yourself in the depths of an Indonesian jungle wondering whether you have the right vaccines to protect yourself from the strange bug bite swelling up on your arm is not an ideal travel situation. Visit a travel clinic, with your childhood vaccination records in hand, a few months before your departure date for expert advice and up-to-date health information about the countries you’ll be visiting.

Some vaccines, such as hepatitis A and B, are administered in a series over several months and preventive drugs, such as antimalarials, are typically started a month before you even reach your destination so this is the one area where you really shouldn’t procrastinate.

Find out which countries require proof of yellow fever vaccination upon arrival and where malaria is most prevalent on the Center for Disease Control’s Travelers’ Health website.

2) Sign Up for Frequent Flyer Programs Before You Book Your Flight

Some programs require membership enrollment before your flight ever leaves the ground to redeem frequent flyer miles and others make requesting miles such a rabbit chase you’ll wonder why you even bothered.

Your best bet is to sign up for free airline partner programs such as Star Alliance, Skyteam and the oneworld Alliance, which allow you to earn miles through their affiliated airlines. Also, remember to save your boarding passes to redeem your miles after the flight is over!

3) Create a Rough Itinerary

Don’t plan your trip down the day because it doesn’t leave any room for spontaneity. There’s no way of knowing who you’ll meet or where you’re supposed to end up. Have a general idea of the places you definitely want to see and the things you’ll be sorry if you don’t do, but leave the rest of your schedule open.

It’s wise to book your first night’s accommodation beforehand, especially if you’re arriving late, but don’t forget to consult your fellow travelers for advice on where to stay and which city to go to next. I didn’t plan much for my 6-month-long Southeast Asian adventure and relied on my instincts, whim and the suggestions of others to get around. My “Southeast Asia on a Shoestring” guidebook rarely left my bag and as I looked around at all the people on the same buses as me, reading their Lonely Planets like they were bibles and meticulously highlighting each place they would go to next, I smiled to myself as I read my novel and listened to my favorite music. The unplanned route isn’t for everyone, but it felt more authentic to me.

3) Organize Your Electronics

Create your playlists, load up your kindle and organize your external hard-drive a few weeks before you leave. If you think you’re going to want to delete files on your laptop to accommodate all your new photos during your trip, when you could be staring out a train window contemplating your existence or socializing with that cute Swedish guy, you’re kidding yourself.

Make your bedtime playlists (for those nights when you’ve got a snorer in your hostel dorm), party playlists (for those half-drunken music discussions with your new international friends) and downtime playlists (for the aforementioned bus rides) beforehand, and with care. I brought two iPods and an iPhone on my trip. I ended up losing one iPod on a night train in Thailand and didn’t realize the majority of my music files were missing from my external hard-drive until I was abroad, so I was stuck with the music I had. And I’m sure we’ve all overplayed a favorite song or two… it takes a while for those to feel fresh again.

Have everything running smoothly so your devices enhance your travel experience rather than take you out of the moment you should be in.

My office for the day in Mui Ne, Vietnam.

4) Bring an External Hard-drive

I know I just mentioned this in the last one but, do it – really. You can use your external hard-drive to back up your photos from your trip and you can store all the music your heart desires, including pre-made playlists so you never have to suffer through if-i-hear-this-song-one-more-time-itis.

And never underestimate how many instances you’ll want to swap music and movies with your new international friends. Bring an external hard-drive, keep it separate from your laptop and camera, and if, by some stroke of awful luck, either of the two are lost or stolen you’ll have a backup.

5) Carry a Small Notebook

I highly recommend bringing a pocket-sized notebook and carrying it on you at all times. Store all your friends’ and family’s addresses inside for quick reference when writing postcards on the go and have it ready when your bartender suggests you visit that secret beach on the other side of the island. At the end of your trip, the notebook will also act as the perfect travel memento, chronicling your trip’s progression with funny hand-drawn maps and the email addresses of all the wonderful people you’ve met.

A Vietnamese neighbor started reading my journal upside down.

6) Pack One Week Before You Leave

Get all your necessary shopping done at least a week before you leave. Then get packing. Spend those days before your departure deliberating over what you really need. Take out what is just going to weigh you down (do you really need three pairs of shoes?) and put back the things know you use often and wouldn’t want to have to hunt down and buy on the road.

I never do this. No matter how many times I’ve done it in the past and immediately regretted it, I leave my packing to the night before my flight. Every time I get to my new destination I curse myself for forgetting those few items that should have been so obvious to pack at the time. Give yourself the time to take your packing seriously or you’ll end up lugging around things you hardly use or having to buy expensive foreign versions of what you do need. (No one told me sunscreen would be so expensive in Asia!)

Download the packing checklist by “go-light guru” Doug Dymet at OneBag.com to use as a reference point.

7) Go For a Test-Run

Once your bag is packed test it a few days before you leave. Make sure the zippers are where you need them to be and the weight isn’t going to break your back an hour after carrying it. See if everything is easy to get to but secure and remember this is the bag you’ll be carrying for the duration of your trip. If it isn’t comfortable and functional consider exchanging it for another bag before you go.

Also, check that your day bag or purse doesn’t scream “take me, take me!” Sometimes an older, less flashy school backpack is better than a fancy new one. I’ve also known people to purposely distress new backpacks, including sticking some duck-tape on it, to ward off pickpockets.  And don’t forget to break in your shoes to avoid nasty blisters once on the road. There’s nothing worse than having a raw blister while wearing new shoes that seem to stab it with every step.

Happy travels!

What I Learned From: Cleaning Out My Closet

7 Nov

One of the things I’ve been doing to prepare for my trip abroad is simplifying my life here, first. I’ve been going through my cabinets, drawers, and closet racks to weed out some of the things that have been weighing me down.

Admittedly, I’m a pack rat. I keep everything, and I had the clothes and old metro passes to prove it, but I decided it was time stop my hoarding ways and purge the junk.

I started with my closet – my logic being that if I haven’t touched it in a year, it’s only function right now is to take up space. I tried everything I owned on and started a Goodwill pile, a sell pile and a give-to-my-little-sister pile.

I realized how attached I am to objects because of what they represent: a time in my life, a memory, a goal…but they’re just things and they’ve become a strong link in the chain the keeps me stuck in Southern California.

The upside of decluttering is not only the lighter feeling that follows, but it also presents a great opportunity to make some money. I made over a $100 taking some of my old clothes and shoes into consignment stores and I plan on selling my old camera and camcorder on Craigslist.  And if I had enough things I’d have a garage sale.

As I sifted through the piles of clothes some things became apparent to me:

1. Impulse buys are never a good idea.

Just because some obscure trend comes back into fashion – like leg warmers, for example – doesn’t mean you should run out and buy some in every color. Trends fade as quickly as they begin and if you’ve got seven pairs of giant fake eyeglasses with the lenses popped out, a year from now you’ll feel like a fool. And speaking of fools, don’t fool yourself into thinking you can pull off looks when you can’t, because your impulse buys will collect dust and taunt you every time you find them.

2. Classics pieces are always in style. 

Classics stand the test of time. Peacoats, little black dresses, leather jackets and pencil skirts will always be in fashion and opting for a classic look over a trendy one looks effortlessly cool and can be worn for seasons to come.

3. Invest in one nice article of clothing rather than four cheap versions of the same thing.

I  learned this when I got my first pair of designer jeans when I was 15. At $125 a pair,  I had to beg my mother to buy me a pair for Christmas. I had so many $40 and $60 jeans with cheap fabric and bad cuts that I was always looking for a better pair. A decade later, I still have those jeans and they still fit. (I don’t wear them anymore, I’ve moved on).

But the point is: Invest in quality, style and a good fit. Your clothes will last longer and you’ll be happier having one item you absolutely adore over a few that barely make the cut.

4. Buy the right size.

I don’t know why this is such a hard concept for me, but buy clothes that flatter your body now. Don’t buy a dress that’s a tiny bit too small and then intend to lose the weight. And don’t buy something you’re swimming in just because you’re feeling like a chub that day – you’ll only end up looking bigger than you actually are.

And the same goes for shoes. Don’t buy a half-size smaller – because they’re the last pair or they’re on sale – thinking that they’re going to stretch out. And don’t buy them bigger and tell yourself you’ll wear big socks, or you’ll end up walking like a duck to try to keep them on. If your shoes don’t fit correctly or they aren’t comfortable, you’ll hardly wear them – or worse, you’ll mess up your feet.

5. Take stock of what you have every few months.

Taking inventory is not just for stores, it will help you realize what you have and how much you have of it. This will stop you from buying excessive amounts of v-necks because you’ll know you already have eight of them at home. It also helps with those days when you feel like you have nothing to wear because you’ll discover you’ve just forgotten about half of the things you already own.

They say we wear 20% of our clothes, 80% of the time. Mix it up every few months and stop consuming if you can’t afford to.

Comfort Zones

1 Nov

As I sat alone at a dimly lit wine bar in West Hollywood after work, killing time while the traffic died down, I took in my surroundings. The owner and waiters had thick Italian accents, the room was large but intimate and mostly everyone sat at the bar.

I took to the lounge area, where a black and white Audrey Hepburn film was projected on a screen on the wall. The candles on the tables were my only source of light and as I grabbed out my notepad, the waiter thoughtfully asked if he could bring me a lamp, then returned to clamp a book-light on the candle votive in front of me.

The tunes of Bruce Springsteen, Rod Stewart and the Eagles played in the background and posters of Old Hollywood graced every wall, even in the bathroom. I ordered a glass of Chardonnay and some roasted fingerling potatoes with sautéed green beans and a light dusting of Parmesan. And as I ate, I realized I was alone.

I wasn’t uncomfortable or embarrassed about this, but I recognized how out of habit I kept reaching to check my phone. It’s like I subconsciously pulled it out to remind myself that I wasn’t alone at all – that my friends and family were a phone call away. The phone acted as some kind of anchor to my life outside this restaurant, something to hide behind and something to find comfort in.

In that moment, I was struck with the realization that in 71 days I will be leaving all the comforts of home behind. Toilet paper, Western toilets and hot showers will become a luxury. I will have to question the safety of the water placed on my table and I’ll have to buy inexpensive bags to act as decoys for the valuables inside, rather than buying overpriced purses to hold my lip balm.

squat toilet

Western toilet

When I sit alone in a restaurant in Asia, I will have the accent. I will have to decipher the menu and I won’t have my handy dandy iPhone to help me, or to numb any lurking loneliness or boredom.

Reality sets in and I start to fear the change.

Why is that we always long for something different and then when we finally take the steps towards making a change fear creeps in? My mind begins to race: “What if the culture shock is so intense I regret going? Am I really prepared for this? What if I hate Asia? Why did I decide to buy a one-way ticket to a country I’ve never been to, to travel around for months or possibly years?”

But I snap out of it as quickly as I was sucked into it.

I am ready. I’m going because I’ve been wanting this, itching for it, aching for it, for almost two years now. I’ve traveled to Europe; I’ve traveled in North America, I to want something radically different. I want to be shocked. I want to be shaken. I want to learn and I want to change.

I’ve been juggling four different jobs over the past few months and every time I get burnt out because it’s been weeks since I’ve had a day off, thoughts of walking through wats, eating authentic street food, meeting locals, learning about the culture and creating lifelong memories, get me through it every time.

I’ve worked so hard to get here, why doubt myself now? How can I possibly be afraid of taking the reigns of my life and diving in headfirst into something I’ve always dreamed of doing? I can’t. I bought the ticket; I’m taking the ride.

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