Tag Archives: travel

Watch the Australian Total Solar Eclipse Online

13 Nov

In less than 8 hours there will be a total solar eclipse of the sun in Cairns (pronounced cans) in tropical northern Queensland. The rare event, where the moon temporarily comes into perfect alignment with the sun and blocks it from view, won’t happen again in Australia until 2028. Some Australian cities outside Cairns will still see the eclipse but will lose total blockage. Here, in Brisbane, the moon will cover just over 80% of the sun at one time.

The last total eclipse was in 2010 and the next total eclipse won’t occur until 2015. If you’re like me and haven’t properly prepared for this cosmic rarity (or if you happen to be anywhere else in the world besides Queensland) you can stream a live viewing of the eclipse here. Even if you are in Queensland, it’s advised not to look directly into the sun because the irreversible retina damage leads to blindness and watching the eclipse online might be your best option if you haven’t done your research.

Since I waited too long to buy the protective welding glasses that allow you to witness the total eclipse firsthand, I’ll be watching the live stream as well. Also, I don’t really think the pinhole-viewing option, where you have your back to the sun and watch a homemade projection on a piece of cardboard or paper, will really compare. Who knows maybe I’ll make it to Spitzbergen in 2015, Indonesia in 2016, America in 2017 or Chile/Argentina in 2009! Sounds like the perfect addition to my bucket list (and another excuse to travel)!

Halloween Came And Went in Oz

1 Nov

Halloween 2011 – Me as a tourist, Jessica as a porcelain doll, Karen as a ghoulish demon and Lluvia as Frida Kahlo.

I look forward to Halloween all year round and by August I usually have a few ideas about which costume I’ll wear. But this year, half-way across the world from my Californian home, Halloween came and went. I sat on the couch in Brisbane having a few beers with my boyfriend and his friends. We watched TV, but nothing Halloween-related: no horror films, slasher flicks or classics to get us in the mood. Not one trick-or-treater rang the door bell, though I’m sure that even if there were trick-or-treaters they would have passed this house – there weren’t any decorations, all the front lights were off and the only candy on the premises was my chocolate bar in the van.

The changing leaves didn’t fall to the ground and decorate streets because it’s springtime here. Carved pumpkins weren’t on front porches because Australians eat pumpkins all year round – it isn’t an autumnal thing like it is in the States. The few Halloween parties you hear about are in backpacker areas or at bars and most Australians I talk to say locals have only been dressing up for the last five years or so. And if you talk to older Australians they’ll tell you how annoyed they are that this ‘American’ holiday has made its way to their country. When they head to the grocery store and see Halloween decorations for sale they scoff at the idea and consider Halloween another example of America’s consumer culture.

My best friend Kelsey’s pumpkins this year.

From the outside looking in, I think the fact that Americans celebrate Halloween shows our enthusiasm for life, our creative drive and our love of, and unique grasp of, entertainment. So what if we spend a few extra dollars on synthetic cob webs and plastic spiders?  So what if our neighbor wants to spend an entire day converting his front lawn into a haunted house? I don’t see anything wrong with getting excited about a holiday and Halloween is one of the few that people of all religious backgrounds can enjoy. It brings people together in a way that Christmas can’t. It lets you become another person for the night: a shy girl can become a vixen, a nerdy dude can show his sense of humor and people can express their political views through thought-provoking costumes. Everyone gets to show their artistic side and it’s good clean fun (except for when you make out with batman and can’t figure out his real identity the next day).

My best friend Kat dressed as disappointed olympian McKayla Maroney.

I missed Halloween this year. I missed my family and friends. I watched as they posted photos to Facebook and Instagram and for the first time since I came back to Australia two months ago, I felt homesick. And though it doesn’t happen often, especially whilst traveling, I was proud to be American. I am proud to be American.

Entering Our Van in a Kombi Fest

13 Oct

One morning a few months back Matt slid open the van door to grab some juice out of the fridge just as a middle-aged man was walking by. He saw our set-up and excitedly chatted our ears off about all things Volkswagen and reminisced about his days of living in a van. Matt proceeded to give him a tour as I lay in bed trying to hide that fact that I was only wearing a skimpy tee and some panties. He oo’ed and awed over our queen mattress, the solar panel on the roof and our pull out fridge.

“Have you ever entered in a Kombi fest?,” the man asked and then told us about the annual festivals in NSW where Volkswagen Kombi or Transporter owners get together to do a ‘van’ show and compete for titles like “Best Presented” and “Furthest Traveled.” He was convinced that if we entered we’d win something and told us it was a great place to get ideas and meet other van owners. Since the festivals weren’t coming up for another few months we put it in the back of our minds and it wasn’t until a few weeks ago when we were driving down New South Wales’ coast that we remembered to look it up.

We happened to be housesitting in Coffs Harbour, just a few hours north of the annual Old Bar Kombi Fest, which tries to break the record of getting the most Volkswagen vans in one spot, and though we really shouldn’t have, for practical money-related reasons, we made the drive down.

We registered at the very last-minute, drove onto the giant field that early Sunday morning and parked in our assigned spot. Disappointed with how plain our van looked next to the retro brightly colored ones, we knew ours had its beauty on the inside. Admittedly, we weren’t prepared at all – halfway through our drive down we decided to give the van a quick wash and the morning of the event we scrambled to organize all our things so the van looked somewhat presentable. I was so sad that Matt left our ‘love child’, Twiggy, a Bonzi tree that we kept on the dash, in Mackay at his parents’ house. I knew he would have garnered some attention.

We left the van doors open and strolled through the lines of Kombis and Transporters, noting how ours could improve but generally feeling very proud of how functional ours was. People had trailers with beds, pop-tops tents in the roof, tents that attached to the outside and some had sleeping pads in the back, but no one had a queen mattress and they certainly weren’t living in their vans full-time.

When we’d had our fill we walked through the markets, had a beer and some festival food, and listened to the live music. Later that day when they announced the winners we accepted that the van didn’t win because we knew we’d be better prepared next year. And next year, you better believe Twiggy will be on the dash where he belongs.

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?

Letters to C: Home

15 Aug

July 3rd, 2012

C,

I’m on my way to Arizona, to stay at my parents’ lake house for the 4th with Kat and Lluvia. Last week I took 4 flights, saw 8 cities and have been slowly reacquainting myself with California.

I went to Napa for my mom’s 50th birthday then hung out with Kat in SF and Santa Cruz and did the drive down the coast to her beach house in Huntington, where we stayed last night. And now I’m heading to Arizona…

I live a charmed and blessed life and believe me I’m taking full advantage of my time back here, soaking in this beautiful place before I leave it all again.

It feels so strange to be “home”. What is home when a part of you feels like you don’t fully belong anywhere? Or that you’ve outgrown the places you did? I love this state, I love my friends and family but I see this place for what it is and what it does to me.

I’ve been so fulfilled with my “hippie life” where I’m living out of the van and I don’t know when the money will run out or if I’ll have work. The stresses are there but they’re over real things. It was pure.

Now, in the states, I’m anxious. My chest is tight and I’m insecure about my looks. I care how I dress or what I say and how I say it. It’s like the environment here causes me to doubt myself and all the gossip I keep hearing from everyone just reminds me of how I’m constantly being judged.

It’s a really strange feeling and I’m worried all the growth I’ve done is going to unravel in my few short weeks here. I see myself slipping into the habits I’ve happily rid myself of. It worries me a bit.

These are the people I know and love and this my home country, but now I feel like I don’t belong or that it’s best for me not to belong. I guess what I’m saying is I think I’m making the right decision by moving to Oz and I think you did by moving to NYC.

Take Care,

Alex

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.

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?

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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