Tag Archives: backpacking

The Night Of Couchsurfing That Turned Into Two Weeks

14 Nov

“Just to let you know, I collect body parts,” said Kimmii, shortly after greeting us.

My boyfriend and I just finished a long weekend of camping up at the Dorrigo National Park and hadn’t had a real shower in days. We swam in rivers, took sponge baths and wore hats but something had to give. When we drove down the windy mountain road back to Coffs Harbour we had two choices: check into an out-of-budget caravan park and have a shower or send out a last-minute couchsurfing request and hope that someone would invite us in.

I sent out two couchsurfing requests explaining that all we really needed was a shower and that we had a van to sleep in. After waiting for half an hour, our impatience got the best of us and we decided to have an ice-cold shower in the public bathrooms of the local surf club. As we got back into the van, our teeth chattering and our hair soaked, I had a message. Two empty nesters with a couple of spare rooms offered to let us stay and insisted that we sleep inside.

When we pulled up to the house Kimmii came to greet us at the front door while Paulie prepared the pizza dough for our dinner inside. Kimmi was in her mid-40s, a half-Aboriginal bipolar woman whose manic episodes led her to $3,000 shopping sprees on ModCloth for her 20-something daughter. She was short and overweight, outspoken, jovial and completely comfortable in her own skin. Paulie was a balding ex-surfer whose music and book collection filled me with envy. He was a talented cook but rarely ate his own creations, preferring a simple meat and potatoes meal instead.

Within minutes the wine was flowing and we were already telling deeply personal stories and laughing our asses off. Kimmii had this incredible story-telling ability and a wit about her that left Matt and I in stitches (even when she was only explaining what she did for a living!). We told her she should do stand-up and Paulie shouted from the kitchen, “Oh no, don’t encourage her!”

As we dug into the homemade pizzas Kimmii told us we were her first couchsurfers and that she signed up because her daughter would be backpacking across South America in a few months and she wanted to give back in the hopes that someone would do the same for her. She told us that after their four children had moved out they’d had several guests come and go. Some stayed for a few weeks and others for up to 9 months. When Kimmii invited us to stay as long as we wanted I thought it was such a tempting and generous offer but never expected that we’d actually take her up on it.

In a warm, wine-induced haze we said goodnight and crawled into our respective beds. Matt and I wanted to pinch ourselves when we felt the thread-count of the sheets and prefect firmness of the mattress.

A woman after my own heart!

“I really like them,” said a half-asleep Matt.

“Me too. I love it here,” I said in a daze.

“Someone stayed here for nine months!” said Matt.

“I know, but we’re not going to take advantage of their generosity. We’ll keep looking for jobs in the morning.”

And we did, but the day turned into two and then three. Then Kimmii left for a business trip and encouraged us to stay with Paulie while she was gone. He had a serious lung condition that often left him gasping for air and she felt more comfortable knowing someone was there with him. We happily stayed, mowing the lawn, doing the dishes and scrubbing the tubs to contribute.

Paulie made us amazing food every night: Moroccan, Mexican, Greek, and Lebanese. Well-fed and well-rested, we continued the job search with new enthusiasm. I attended an RSA (responsible service of alcohol) certification course and Matt contacted all his old rigging buddies for information on current projects.

At night, Kimmii and Matt talked politics while Paulie and I talked music and watched concert DVDs. I copied all his CDs to my hard drive and he’d pull out biographies of my favorite bands and tell me obscure facts about the members. We became a family and we got used to our routine.

When Matt received a high-paying rigging job offer, the news was bittersweet. We packed up our van the last night and Paulie made pizza for us to take on the road. Kimmii and I watched a documentary about Obama and Mitt Romney before she went to bed and Paulie and I talked about Jimmy Page and Jim Morrison one last time. We hugged goodbye, promised to stay in touch and when we locked up the door behind us in the middle of the night, Matt and I turned to each other and said, “I’m really going to miss them,” almost in unison.

Not every couchsurfing experience is like this but now my Australian family feels larger. We still keep in touch and if we ever make it back to NSW, we know where we’ll stay.

Kimmii also loved collecting sea shells.                                                                                                    I left this one in the guest room so they’d have something to remember us by.

Trouble In Paradise: A Guide for Traveling With Others

20 Sep

We all like to imagine that traveling with a friend or lover will be blissfully conflict-free, but let’s face it – sometimes you never really know a person until you travel with them… and sometimes you don’t like what you see.

You’re spending 24 hours a day with them, planning your trip, your meals, your stays and dealing with the stresses of unexpected travel inconveniences. He wants to go there but you want to go here and it’s your first time in a foreign country so you aren’t comfortable splitting up. Or maybe it’s just been two months straight of sharing the same room with that person and if you hear them brush their teeth that loudly one more time you’re going to scream!

Traveling with others is a beautiful thing because it gives you someone to share the memories with and someone to turn to if you’re in need of support. However, living in close proximity with someone and developing a dependency on one another can bring out the worst in both of you and can ruin your relationship.

I’ve traveled alone, with a best friend, in groups of friends, with people I just met, and with a boyfriend. These are my tips for traveling with others and keeping your sanity:

1. Discuss how you will address conflict before you leave. 

This is important to discuss before you ever board that plane because you can come up with a system of keeping the peace before emotions get involved. Agree on a statement beforehand that opens the floor for communication (like: “hey, remember when we said no matter what happened we’d talk about things because our friendship/relationship is important?…)

Sometimes when we’re traveling with people we love we try to avoid conflict at all costs and we don’t say how we really feel which only leads to resentment, passive aggressiveness and a compromised trip. A friend of mine is a skiing, snowboarding and kitesurfing instructor who served in the Swiss army and he finds that the best way to teach someone or to handle conflict constructively is to use the “sandwich approach.” With this method you sandwich the concern or complaint in between two positive statements that show what is working so the person you’re addressing doesn’t feel attacked.

For example, if you’re traveling with a best friend for the first time and you feel like he/she isn’t listening to what you want to do, say something like:

“I’ve enjoyed going to all these museums you found but I’d really like to change it up and start doing something off the beaten path. I think we’d both benefit from seeing the city in a different light.”

That will be much more effective than if you passive aggressively roll your eyes and say, “Another museum, seriously?”

Don’t foolishly assume that your relationship is so indestructible that you can handle anything that comes between you. Discuss the possibility for conflict before you leave and you’ll handle it better when it does happen.

2. Come up with a rough itinerary before you leave.

This is your chance to find out what each person is hoping to get out of the trip. Maybe one of your friends is a party animal and can’t wait to see the night scene in Barcelona and maybe you’re more interested in the history of the city. Use this pre-departure opportunity to come to a compromise and establish a few things that each of you definitely want to do, that way you’ll have a balance once you reach your destination.

3. If you need your space, take it. 

Don’t let bottled emotions explode and say things you can’t take back. Unaddressed tension can destroy a trip so if you feel yourself on the edge or you’re just the type of person who really enjoys her alone time, tell your travel partner(s) that you need to take some time for yourself. Then find an obscure cafe and people watch, take your book and head to the beach, or go for a walk to clear your head. A little of space can mean the difference between a lasting relationship and one that crumbles. And remember that little idiom about absence making the heart grow fonder? There is absolutely some truth to that. Test it out if you feel like you’re starting to take each other for granted.

4. Don’t be afraid to meet and travel with other people along the way.

Sometimes the best tension dissolver is the company of a new friend. A new group dynamic brings an air of lightness and before you know it the little things you were bickering about will seem insignificant and your perspective will shift. If it’s just the two of you, try couchsurfing for a night or stay in a hostel and go out for drinks with some of your dorm-mates. It’s human nature for you to tire of your travel partner, especially if this is the first time you’re learning all their quirks or spending this much contiguous time together. Don’t be dismayed, be proactive.

5. Go with the flow. 

Travel issues are bound to happen but it’s how you handle them that determines the quality of your trip. Your purse gets stolen, there’s no record of your reservation,  you get stranded in a tiny town or you get hopelessly lost… all of these situations are common and if you can handle them gracefully and make the most out of a bad situation, months later you’ll laugh back on that night when Charlie didn’t realize he was pick-pocketed and had to do the dishes at that restaurant with that big, hairy Russian woman who kept making moves on him. Some of my most interesting travel stories happen when everything goes wrong but I’m determined to stay positive. Keep your cool and learn from the experience.

6. If all else fails, be the bigger person.

No one said it would be easy but if whatever is bothering you is not that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things, maybe it’s time to suck it up and be the bigger person – for the trip’s sake!

You’re annoyed that your friend has a case of ‘travel love’ and now wants their exotic new lover around all the time? Tell the lover to invite some friends.

All your friend wants to do is get drunk every night? If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, or go do your own thing while they recover all day.

There’s no real problem you’re just snappy with each other because you’ve spent too much time together? Have a ‘you’ day and then share all your experiences over dinner.

The annoyances, bickering, and resentment that can come with group travel might not happen to every group but it’s important to realize that it’s one of the most common travel complaints and why a lot of people decide to go it alone. The level of disturbance is directly proportional to the length of travel, the ease of travel, the dynamic of the group and the personalities involved. If you communicate beforehand, address situations as they’re happening and take the time to reassess and get back to what is really important, you’ll be just fine.

I’ll leave you with my favorite lines from Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s poem, Worth While.

It is easy enough to be pleasant
When life flows by like a song,
But the man worth while is the one who will smile
When everything goes dead wrong.
 
Do you have any group travel horror stories? What are your tips for seamless group travel?

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!

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.

%d bloggers like this: