Saturday, October 25, 2014

International Housing in Auburn Alabama

I am not an international student, nor do I attend Auburn University, and yet I'm living in an apartment where they send their international students who are looking for a cheap place to lay their head while having the time of their life in the middle of nowhere. Tim is considered an international student here because his university is in Wales. No one here seems to care that he holds an American passport. So here we live in the only diversity that I can find in this town, and I'm grateful for it.

I've tried to stay objective and approach my new environment the way that I would any new place in which I find myself. So far, here is what I have learned.

Auburn is a football town. Auburn is a church town. And there you have every Saturday and Sunday respectively. So if you aren't into either or both of those activities, then you are up a creek with nothing to do. It's all about the tigers and the war eagle (I'll be posting more specifically about that soon).  The students here are quite different than what I have experienced elsewhere. There is a uniform that the majority adheres to. On weekdays, girls are seen in oversized t-shirts and either running shorts or leggings. The boys wear collared shirts and tailored shorts tucked and belted. On the weekends, the girls get dolled up for the games as do the boys: orange and blue. They are looking for a mate. It is also common to find moms hanging out with their children doing all sorts of things for them and their children not minding at all. In fact, they encourage it. They even dress alike when they come to visit. I find this a smidge disturbing. But I'm just the observer here.

If you have spent five minutes with me ever, or even if you have read even one of my blog posts, you will know that this is not my typical environment.  What's a girl to do?

I have managed to find a couple places where I feel at home. I've been spending my time in the university library and a place called the Coffee Cat sipping sludgy coffee and pumpkin lattes studying for the GRE and writing travel articles. I take walks, lots of walks. I have to because I don't have a car. I pass people working in their yards when I wander through the nearby neighborhoods, "hi y'all," they say, and they're talking to me.  But that's as far as the conversation goes. People are nice, but not too nice.  The grocery store is a sweaty mile and a half away, and the farm stand that I have grown to love is two miles. Luckily they deliver local produce in a basket every Thursday. The lemonade at Toomer's Corner is not all it's cracked up to be. Much too sweet for my taste.

 International housing is quiet with the most active place being the dumpster. Some walk to the dumpster to throw away a scrap of paper just to get out of their one room box. People are bored here. It's not what they expected being in America. There are no bright lights or big cities. It's a small town in the south. The only way out without a car is a shuttle, but it'll cost ya. There is no major city nearby, and the airport is a good hour and a half away. We're trapped, but it's only temporary.

I'm learning so much about a brand new culture, one that seems very far from the ones in countries like Thailand and Tanzania where I felt so comfortable.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Reaching Silver Status

I had to blog about this right away because it is one of the most unbelievable travel conversations I have ever had with myself. Yes, I have travel conversations with myself. I like to think of myself as a smart traveler, a little quirky at times perhaps, but this one takes the cake.
 It went something like this:

Me: I'm only $328 qualifying dollars away from silver status with United. I have all of the required miles and more than the correct number of required flight legs. This is great news. I should get pretty close by booking my one way flight to Atlanta at the end of the month. Oh look, if I do that, I'm only $86 away.

Self: Why get close when you can secure silver status right now?

Me: Let me see how much it would be to upgrade to first class. If I did that, it would put me only $7 away. Why isn't first class more expensive?

Self: Try another day. Or wait a few hours. It's sure to go up right?

Me: Wait, the prices are going down! They never go down. Why is first class so cheap?

Self: You know, if you fly first class, you get two checked bags free up to 70 lbs. per bag. Since you are moving that would be very helpful. Remember how hard it was coming back from Washington having to mail a lot of stuff and still ending up over the weight limit? And you had to pay for an extra bag.

Me: If I can find a more expensive flight I'll definitely fly first class. Oh look there's another day that's more expensive. That's perfect. But what about having all those bags? I have to take a bus to Auburn when I arrive in Atlanta.

Self: Wouldn't it be great if your luggage got lost? Then the airline could deliver it for you and you wouldn't have to drag it on the bus with you!

To sum up this whole ridiculous moment in my life. I was waiting for the flights to get more expensive and hoping that my luggage would get lost. Has this ever been a thought of any rational person in the history of air travel? All of this in the name of finally being able to be one of those card carrying members of the united club. Is it worth it? I'll let you know once I am treated to my first upgrade.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

5 Reasons Everyone Should Travel Solo

My solo trip to the U.A.E.
A short time ago, I spoke to a friend who, for unforeseen circumstances, had found herself alone in Australia. I was thrilled to hear this, but for someone who has never braved a new place on her own, it was incredibly scary.  Travel, as with anything new in life, has fear attached. Some of that fear is real like personal safety and some of it is imagined.

During this static-filled conversation she asked me a really interesting question: People speak so highly of traveling alone, and they make it look so easy. How do you get over the fear?

Meditating with some llamas at Machu Picchu
The truth is, it is incredibly daunting to be in a place where you know no one and very little about where you are. When you are traveling with someone else, there is always another person to motivate you to keep going because let's face it, travel can be exhausting. There is also strength in numbers.

When I first decided to travel alone I didn't think about it. I just did it, and I think that was the best thing I could have done for myself. My need to experience something new and different from my current situation was an override to any fear that would have kept me from getting on the plane. Not everyone just jumps without looking though.  My conversation got me to thinking about why I am such a proponent of traveling alone and why I think everyone should do it at least once.

After a long hike in Tanzania
1. Strength- Once you realize that you can navigate a foreign country, you can really do anything. You learn things about yourself that you would never know about. You learn how much you can handle, and you find out that it is quite a lot. Problems from home are put into perspective too.

2. Independence- Traveling solo allows you to be completely free: mind, body, spirit. No one is telling you where to go, what to do, what to eat. The place is yours to explore and enjoy.

3. Everything is on your own time. If you want to spend 2 hours sitting in front of the Sydney Opera House, no one is pressing you to move on. If you want to spend your entire afternoon sitting in a travel agency learning about Istanbul and drinking coffee, that's fine too. Solo travel allows you to linger in places where your soul is satisfied and move on from all the others.

Enjoying a brew with new friends in Turkey

4. Connections- You may think that if you are alone you will be lonely. That can't be further from the truth. I find that when I am alone I am more apt to start a conversation with a random person or talk to other travelers. Lone travelers tend to be more approachable as well. Some of my best travel memories are with strangers who I will never see again and friendships that were forged on some of my longer trips.

Learning about agriculture in Honduras

5. Looking inward allows you to appreciate your surroundings. You notice details, and you will be able to listen to the sounds and observe the sites around you without having to carry on a conversation with someone. Because of this you are able to learn more about your new environment and culture.

Even now when I travel with others I always find time to get away and explore things on my own, have a drink alone or take some time to write even if I have to get up before the roosters. To me, these are some of the best moments. There is no secret to how to do it. You just get out there and do it. Join a day tour, ask someone a question, and just be in the moment. The thrill of being completely reliant on yourself will help propel you along.

"If we would only see that all limitations are self-imposed and chosen out of fear, we would leap at once." ~Adyashanti

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Top 10 Unique Things About Living in the Pacific Northwest

Can you see the mountains in the distance?
I have lived in lots of places around the world, and each one had its own quirks and personality. For the past five months I have been living in Washington State on the Olympic Peninsula, and I can honestly say that it is one of the most unexpected and beautiful places I have ever been. This will be the first of several posts about this somewhat hidden gem of a region.

Here are some of the uniquely wonderful things I have discovered about living west of the Puget Sound.

1. Wearing things from Patagonia and REI and carrying a backpack wherever I go are everyday occurrences.

They are practically domesticated.
2. Embracing the healthy living culture: green smoothies every morning and an influx of things like quinoa, almond butter and chia seeds into my everyday diet.

3. I know what a marmot is, but I haven't seen one yet. The wildlife here is amazing. It's easy to get up close to a seal while kayaking or watch a deer leisurely cross a very busy road in the middle of the day.

4. There are always views of mountains wherever I go whether it is the Cascades, the Olympics, Mt. Baker or Mt. Rainier.

5. Pine forest goes right up to the ocean, and it's stunning.

6. There is a ferry just 30 minutes away that goes to Canada.

7. The women don't wear makeup, and sometimes they have a bit of tree in their hair. I haven't determined yet if it's an intentional fashion choice or not.

8. The lifestyle is laid back but in a productive way, and people smile because it's a great place to live.

9. People are seriously into the outdoors at every age. I could get smoked by an old guy on a bike here any day.

10. Nature! I never considered myself to be an outdoorsy kind of girl, but it's hard not to when you are surrounded with some of the most picturesque vistas in the country. Hiking is everywhere: up a mountain, around a lake, past a lagoon, to the beach- there are so many places to go.

Bonus: an abundant selection of local craft beer. I can think of two places in my tiny little town alone who brew their own, and it's delicious.

Ferry terminal with the Cascade Mountains in the background.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Greatest Collaborative Music Cafe & Boutique for Positive Impact

I always love to hear about new ideas that bring art and people together, and what I love even more is when I know the people involved in making it happen. This particular project is a Collaborative Music Cafe & Boutique for Positive Impact in Bagamoyo, Tanzania. If you have read some of my earlier posts, this place holds a special spot in my heart because of my former travels and volunteer work there. There are lots of organizations in action there because of the volunteers, but this one is something quite different.

This cafe and boutique will be bringing together a couple of the local organizations, APF which supports local arts initiatives in Bagamoyo and naSuma, the local clothing line that I have written about in the past.

"Our vision is to create a collaborative space in Bagamoyo that features all the different expressions of art present in the community from painting to music, tailoring to batik, and carving to cooking. We aim to attract local and foreign clients interested in sharing experiences, relaxing, and learning about Tanzanian culture. The aim of the cafĂ© is to create a space that is welcoming for tourists to relax or locals to come for work, a meeting, or a cup of coffee with a friend. We hope to host local musicians for concerts and to screen films and documentaries to raise awareness about relevant issues. Clothing created through the naSuma program will be on sale along with hand-made traditional music instruments, carvings, and paintings, all created by local artisans. The proceeds from all of the programs will continue to support the community and the arts through APF’s ongoing programs and women’s empowerment through Inua fund."

This project is not off the ground yet and is still in the crowd funding stages, so they still need some financial help. Bagamoyo is an artistic town with many talented artists and craftsmen. Streets are lined with people selling their work, but there is no central location to celebrate the arts. This project will not only do that but will add a necessary piece to further bring the community and its visitors together.

This is just a snapshot of all of the plans ahead for this initiative. To read more and donate, check out their fundraising page HERE.

I wish Hannah and all involved the best in this project, and I can't wait to write more about the progress in the coming months!

Friday, May 9, 2014

The Average Person's Guide to Airline Miles

Andes Mountains
Let me start out by saying that I don't have any sort of elite status with any network of airlines. I don't have a fancy gold card that gets me into airport clubs. I don't have a company who flies me business class to rack up a ton of miles along the way. I always fly coach with strong aspirations to some day be able to fly with the big boys. I am an average person with a less than average income who just so happens to travel more than the average person.

There are tons of blogs out there that tell you the best ways to "hack" airline miles for free trips and hotel stays. But I can't help but read them and think about how most people just wouldn't take a trip with 3 layovers over a weekend just to amass miles because of an airline deal. I love to travel, but I don't think I would do it. As with anything if it takes up too much time or is too complicated, it's just not worth doing for most people.

Here's how I have managed to go on a couple of free trips and get a few nice benefits due to miles accumulation.

How do I earn miles?

I am a member of any frequent flyer program I can get my hands on. Most of them never pan out, and the miles go by the wayside. I think that's true for a lot of people. Maybe you take a flight with American one time, Delta another and you may find a deal with Jet Blue at some point. The miles or points will never add up, never. But I still keep the accounts active because sometimes the miles don't expire, and I can accrue them over time.
The way they really do add up, however, is if you get yourself a credit card that will help you accumulate miles without changing your spending habits at all.

What credit card should I get?

There are credit cards that are affiliated directly with airlines, and there are credit cards that will help you earn points or miles that can be transferred to any airline or hotel chain for travel use. There are a couple of things to consider when thinking about the credit card to choose. If you always fly United or a Star Alliance partner and very rarely take a flight on another airline, then perhaps the United Miles Plus card is for you. All of your miles earned from purchases will go directly to your United account, and you will get a miles bonus every time you book flights through United. All of the airlines have their own cards, so if you are loyal, you can get some big benefits. If you seem to fly with a different airline every time you go on a trip, then perhaps it's best to look into a card that will allow miles to transfer to any airline of your choosing. There are a lot out there so compare all of the features like annual fees, foreign transaction fees, how long it would take you to build up enough miles to travel, airline partners, bonus miles when you sign up* and if there are any black out dates. An easy way to do this all in one shot is through Credit

*The bonus miles feature at sign up is huge, and it can usually mean a round trip domestic flight.

Which program should I choose?

Sign up for all of them, but also look at the airlines that operate out of your nearest airport. Signing up is free, and many of the programs have a long shelf life before miles expire. This comes in handy when there are mergers. For example, US Airways and American are merging and so are the miles programs. I have accounts with both, so the accounts will combine making me one step closer to a free flight. My advice, sign up for the major U.S. airlines that represent the different global partnerships and claim the partner miles upon return from your trip. Click on the partner link to find out which airlines are in each network.

United- Star Alliance
Delta- Sky Team
American- One World

And if you fly often on airlines like JetBlue (they are partners with a lot of international airlines too) or Southwest, join them too.

How do I earn a free flight?

There are lots of ways to earn a free flight. Your regular credit card spending and flying are the most common ways. There are, however, a couple others that have helped me boost my totals. Mileage Plus Shopping is a site that you can sign up for which will give you miles for purchases. For example, if I want to send flowers to someone for a special occasion, I can go into this site and see if there are any offers. This Mother's Day, FTD was offering 30 miles per dollar spent. So spending $50 will yield 1,500 miles for something that you were going to order anyway. There are tons of vendors, and deals change all the time. It's worth looking into. There is also a new site called Rocketmiles where you can earn up to 5,000 miles per night for hotel stays all over the world.

Each airline is different when it comes to how many miles you will need to a trip. Take a look at the three major U.S. airlines to compare with the links below. Also note, the way you earn miles in each program is different, so even though American may post 12,000 for a round trip flight, it may take longer to earn those miles. Delta has recently changed their miles structure as well, so read the fine print.


What are the drawbacks?

Let's face it, miles programs are difficult to keep track of. There are passwords and pin numbers to remember and partner miles that you have to remember to claim (I have forgotten to do this many times). It can also take a really long time to build up enough miles to go where you want. On top of that, airlines may not have the flights available that you want, and miles expire sometimes without you knowing about it. There are drawbacks, but if you are willing to jump through the hoops and stick with some of the hassles, the rewards are definitely worth it. I have created a spreadsheet detailing my accounts, so with just a click I have all of my miles information at my fingertips.

What are the perks?

Travel of course! Airline miles have gotten me a round trip to Hawaii, a first class ticket to New Jersey (that's where my family lives) and a one way ticket from France to the U.S. I also have over 100,000 miles burning a hole in my United account waiting for me to book my next trip to anywhere I want to go. I have been able to earn them from using my United card for all of my day to day spending and flying with United and Star Alliance partners. Because of this card I also get two airport club passes each year, my first checked bag free and priority boarding on all United flights.

Like I said, I don't have an unlimited travel budget, and I don't travel for a living (though I would like to). I am an average person who has just learned a couple of tricks. The better I get, the greater the benefits!

If you have any other tips or lessons learned, please feel free to comment.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Teaching Abroad: Getting Started

I'm still mustering up the excitement and inspiration needed to write about airline miles, so today I'm posting about teaching internationally. This post originally appeared (with a couple changes) on my Amsterdowd blog that is no longer active.

There are a multitude of really excellent resources online dedicated to teaching abroad. Some are obviously better than others, and they offer very different services. I can only speak from my own experience, but what I will say is that taking the time to research is a must.

Teach Anywhere

I started with which is a free recruiting website. I was matched with a recruiter, and I was very impressed at the individual attention that I received. It was through this site that I interviewed for a school in Indonesia. It was a unique opportunity at a small school with lots of opportunity to really make a mark on the local education system. I was intrigued, but it wasn't the right time for me to make a move like that. I soon learned that any of the other job opportunities that came my way from this recruiting site were similar, small schools with development opportunities. It wasn't a good match for me because at this time I realized that I really wanted to pursue opportunities at IB World Schools.


This is when I found ISS (International School Services), and I realized that I had to make that critical decision: if I was going all in or not. ISS is pretty expensive to join, but once you pay the annual fee, you have access to hundreds of jobs at some of the best schools in the world. It's not enough to just join and search the postings though. The head's of these schools want to meet you in person, and one of the only ways to do this is through a job fair. The drawback is that if there isn't one in your area, cost of travel can be pricey. For the 2015 recruiting season there will be fairs starting in December 2014 in Atlanta and others in Bangkok, Boston, and San Francisco at the beginning of the year.  I opted for Boston because I was able to stay with my sister in her lovely North End apartment. It is always a bonus when you can work family into a job search.

Do Your Homework

Something else to note, and this may seem like common sense, you need to do your homework. It is important to research the schools and the areas that you are interested in. My list started with about thirty schools focused on Europe. I sent individual email cover letters and attached documents to each of them. I personalized the emails to highlight the aspects of the school that I liked and why I thought I was a good fit. Most of the responses I received were generic responses from the HR departments, but there were some that contacted me directly, and it helped me move to the top of some recruiters' lists at the job fair.

TIE (The International Educator) and CIS (Council of International Schools) are also great places to look. TIE has a significantly cheaper membership fee too if you are short on cash.

The best thing you can do is keep an open mind, and don't focus all of your attention on one country or one continent. Some places are easier to get jobs than others, and some schools require very specific experience and training. Most of all though, don't give up. If this is something you truly want, the right job will come your way.

If you have any questions about how to teach internationally, leave a comment or send an email. I'm happy to help. 

Monday, April 28, 2014

How to Travel With Little or No Money

In my last post I told you why I travel, and today I explain some of the ways I have been able to do it. I didn't start traveling in high school or college like many people do with study abroad or gap years. Both of my sisters did, but for some reason it wasn't on my radar. For me, travels started after I started working, when I wanted to escape a job that I didn't want to do anymore. Knowing I wouldn't be able to spend much money, I sought out ways to go to the places I wanted for very little money. Here's how I did it.

Volunteering Abroad

About 9 years ago my travel journey began. I applied to a program called CHI or Cultural Homestay International to be an English tutor for a family. It was a great deal because all I had to pay for was the program fee which, at the time was only a couple hundred dollars and my plane ticket (the prices have risen quite a bit since my trip). All of my food and accommodations were included, and my host family even paid for me to travel with a tour group to a couple of different Greek islands while I was there. All of that to spend a couple hours a day with the twins teaching English. Volunteering can be a very cheap option depending on the organization you go through. There are tons out there, so the best thing to do is start pricing them out through websites like Go Overseas and Go Abroad. My trip to Tanzania was very expensive, but it was one of the best experiences I have ever had, so price isn't everything when it comes to volunteering. Research is key.


Free travel is hard to come by, the the next two trips required work but didn't require moolah. At the time of my next trip, I was working on my master's in global and international education. I was originally supposed to go on a trip through my university, but that fell through. I needed some international experience in order to finish my thesis. I had just started working with Heifer International and I found out about a scholarship they had for teachers to travel to Honduras to visit project sites and learn about the organization. I applied, and thankfully I received an all expenses paid trip to Central America. I met other teachers from all over the U.S. and learned enough stuff about international development to fill an entire notebook. While I don't think Heifer offers this scholarship anymore, there are lots of teacher friendly scholarships and grants available to anyone who can find them and apply for them. Here's a site to get you started or if you are looking into going back to school and want to do it abroad, check this out from the Matador Network.

Tour Leader 

Another fabulous way to travel for free is by being a tour leader. For teachers, this is a really easy thing to put together especially if you teach high school. When I led a group to Peru, I got a group of my fellow teachers together and it was fantastic. Once I got 6 people to join the group, my trip was completely free. Sure I was in charge of the group which entailed making sure I had the right head count where ever we were and having a couple meetings before the trip (we had ours at a Peruvian restaurant), but mostly I just got to hang out with a bunch of great people for a couple weeks. Another amazing bonus with EF (the company that I went with) was that because I was a first time group leader, they paid for me to travel to Spain for training. Here, I learned what the tours would be like and what to expect on my own trip. If I was still teaching I would organize another trip in a heartbeat, but since I have become a hermit spending all of my time writing, that will have to wait. But you should do it!

Teaching Abroad

Now this next one isn't for everyone, but it did provide me with a lot of opportunities to travel. Teaching in the Netherlands allowed me to have access to a very busy international airport that was only a short train ride away, and flights within Europe can be very cheap. Going to Spain for the weekend to catch some rays was only a couple hundred dollars including transport and accommodation. Trains were plentiful and the continent is small enough to go just about anywhere for just a couple days.

Some money is involved up front in terms of going to a job fair and paying for passport photos, and setting up a residence, but the benefits were huge. I'm not sure of the benefits for English teaching jobs, but changing up your home base is always a good way to expand your travel horizons.

The benefits were so huge for me, in fact, that I had a professional development budget of my own to spend on anything I saw fit. In this case I spent the bulk of it on a trip to Dubai to take a creativity workshop.

But you don't need to have a posh job in another country to travel. Working in a public school in Florida I was able to attend conferences and training in New York City, New Orleans and Indianapolis. Also, while I was involved with a volunteer organization, they sent me to Little Rock for training.

Opportunities for travel come in all shapes and sizes, and they aren't always the glamorous jet setting that you may have imagined, but a chance to see a new part of the world is always on the agenda for me.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Why I Travel

Aberystwyth, Wales

Over the past few years, many people have said to me that they are living vicariously through my experiences. At first I took that as a compliment, but then I began to wonder why they didn't do these things themselves. It got me thinking about why I travel, why I put myself into some of the ridiculous and sometimes reckless or dangerous situations that I do, why every time I get on a plane I wonder why I am doing this again when I could be nice and cozy at home and not flying through the clouds in a speeding tin can. I do it for a lot of reasons, and while there are about a million reasons to get in the way and cause me not to go. Here are the reasons I keep coming back to that keep me going.

I travel because the more places I go, the more I realize how small I am.
The more places I see, I realize how much I have yet to see.
The more blunders I have, the more I learn about myself and the world.
The more I am unable to communicate, the more I find new ways and become able.

The world has so much to offer, and the more I travel, the more me I discover.
I become a better person, a more motivated one.
My perspective is altered, and I am uncomfortable.
Because it is when we are uncomfortable that we learn the most.
I travel because it scares me, but it's good to be scared once in a while.

Travel is a priority; I make time for it.
Travel makes me feel alive, and when I come home from a trip, I plunge into my own life more deeply. I take some of the new place back with me, and I become more interesting.

For me,
Travel is not a thing to do, and it is not a vacation; it's part of who I am.

Something a little different, short and sweet to kick off your weekend. Enjoy, and I'll see you on Monday when I reveal how I have been able to go to so many different places for very little money!

Monday, April 21, 2014

There is No Ordinary While Traveling

It's Monday again, oh how quickly that seems to happen when I haven't decided what I am going to write about. I spent most of last night and every minute since I have woken up trying to think of an engaging post, something someone else may want to read. Sure, I have lots of ideas, potential nuggets of travel knowledge and clever lines from blunderous experiences, (Blunderous, if it's not a word, it is now.) but something was missing.

I just finished a book called No Touch Monkey written by Ayun Halliday, and I liked most of it very much. I won't get into all of the details, but many of the places she visited and the experiences she had are things that I have seen and done but didn't think were worth writing about like chafing while riding a camel and getting sick in Africa. While there is a blog post about me being sick in Africa and there is mention of me riding a camel, I think I have fallen short as a travel writer. I have packed lots of interesting moments together and left out the human details, the ones that everyone can relate to. This is something she did very well. Sure, I have had some pretty outlandish experiences in some of the countries I have visited, but I have also had some really normal but equally interesting ones too. Because that's what travel is all about isn't it? It's about going somewhere and doing something that you would normally do at home, but have a completely out of body experience doing it. Using public transport and going to the grocery store are good examples of this. There is no ordinary while traveling.

I started to make a list of the things I haven't written about, the ones that I had forgotten about and didn't think I had enough material for, and I think I'm going to delve into some trips from long ago even though my notes are in a box in my parents' basement in New Jersey.  It's another new direction; I'll try it out and see where it takes me.

And in the coming weeks I will also answer the question that many have asked are you able to travel as much as you do (with very little money)?

Stick with me, and we can take this travel journey together!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Top 10 Do's and Don't's of Airport Security

After coming home from a quick trip out to Houston this past weekend I got to thinking about my airport experiences particularly with security. I remember the days when your family could walk you right to the gate without a boarding pass, and you didn't have to take off your shoes or declare your toiletries for the whole airport to see. Tickets were mailed, and you dealt with people instead of kiosks. But alas, now there seem to be new rules and regulations every day determining whether or not you will be able to pluck your eyebrows while traveling and whether or not there will be an additional charge for checking a bag. Can I or can't I bring my tweezers in my carryon bag today?

TSA has a very informative site where you can type in any item and find out whether or not you can carry it on. I am thrilled to report that I can in fact bring my tweezers with me. I can also pack an ice pick or meat cleaver in my checked bags if I choose. And if you decide to buy a gold inlaid sword in Spain, you can safely check it in your suitcase without worrying if it will be confiscated.

All of that aside, there are some tips and tricks that I have learned (sometimes the hard way) over the past couple of years spending countless hours in airports around the world. You need a ticket to get through, so print it at home or check in at the airport kiosk.

1. Have your passport or identification and boarding pass easily accessible at all times. It's frustrating to be standing behind someone fumbling around for their documentation, so I always slide my ticket inside my passport cover and keep it in the same side pocket of my purse. You will have to show it at security and again at the gate. For international flights you may have to show your passport at the gate as well.

2. Choose your shoes wisely. Unless you are over 75 or have a pre check clearance, you will most likely have to take your shoes off. Shoes that slide on and off easily tend to work best. But if you are like me you wear the shoes that take up the most room in your bag. If that is the case, untie and loosen the laces while you are waiting in line.

3. Liquids- TSA still follows the 3-1-1 rule. You are allowed to have 3oz. bottles that fit into a 1 quart ziploc bag, and you can only have 1 bag per person. Factor your travel purchases into this as well. I have lost small bottles of olive oil and scotch that I was planning on giving as gifts because I forgot to take them out of my carryon bag.

4. Electronics- The larger ones like laptops and tablets will have to be taken out and placed in a separate bin, so pack accordingly. You may want to keep them in an outer pocket of your suitcase or somewhere easily accessible.

5. Know what is in your bags and where to find it. This seems like a no brainer, but I was going through security on a couple of occasions where something questionable popped up on the x-ray screen, and I had no idea why. One time was because I was moving and decided to carry all of my jewelry in a shoebox at the bottom of my backpack. All of the metal set off the machine, but I couldn't remember what it was. Another time that same bottle of scotch mentioned above was mixed in with a pile of scarves that I bought for Christmas presents. I had completely forgotten about it. It doesn't go over well with TSA officials when you can't remember what is in your bag.

6. Empty your pockets and leave the jewelry at home. The days are long gone where the airport is a place to dress to impress. You are basically sitting on a flying bus for a bunch of hours. It is best to be comfortable. The less you have going through security, the faster the process will be and the less hassle you will have to go through.

7. Forget the jokes. While it's important to keep things light and not get stressed while going through security, these guys have seen it all. They don't want to hear your jokes especially if they have to do with carrying a concealed knife. Be friendly and keep the line moving. And no, they won't let you bring in your water bottle just this once.

8. Priority Boarding- Yet another of the perks of being a frequent flyer or member of a credit card of an affiliated airline is that you can go through the priority security line. This can save tons of time, and the line tends to go more quickly because you are dealing with people who travel on a regular basis. I have a United card, and I have been able to glide through security at several airports around the world.

9. When in doubt, ask. Like I said before, rules change all the time, so if you aren't sure where your gate is or if you have to take your shoes off, ask someone. There are plenty of people who work there to ensure that things run smoothly. Asking ahead of time can mean the difference between making or missing your flight.

10. Assume that everything is going to take a long time and that you will be stopped and searched. This is a strange one, I know. Many airports institute random checks either at the gate or at the main security check points. I always have it in my head that I am going to get stopped and searched, so then when I don't it's like a great bonus.

Every airport is a little bit different, so be prepared for changes. Like in Honolulu for example, I had all of my liquids, electronics and shoes ready to go, but when I got past the drug sniffing dog they said to put it all back into my bags. They must have had some super scanner. For the most part though, you will have to follow all of the standard regulations.

Monday, April 14, 2014

My Thai: What I Loved About the Land of Smiles

I've written all of my specialty posts about the places I went and what it was like to be in a completely new part of the world. The only thing left is to break it down into the things I loved most, the distilled pieces of my experiences that will make me hop on a plane again at some random time in my life and sit suspended in the air for 24 hours.

This isn't a top 10 or top 20 because I didn't want to confine myself to a number. It's just a list of awesome things that if you should find yourself in the land of smiles, you should see, do or just immerse yourself in without asking too many questions.

Taxi driver playing American pop music when I arrived.

The sheer craziness of the Chatuchuk Market

The food

The atmosphere on the street in Bangkok at night

Ferry rides to islands that I thought I would only see in movies

Meeting interesting people like Emily and Tom the actors from London and James the circus performer who had just escaped from a silent meditation retreat

Writing early every morning in Thailand!

Street food that I wish I had eaten more of

Coconut water out of a fresh coconut

Finding quiet among the crazy

Learning how to cook Thai food from experts

The overnight bus

Sunset on the barge on the way back to Bangkok

Sunrise on the overnight train

Tuk tuks

The food

Massages that cost less than $10

The guy in Chinatown who gave me lots of advice and sent me on an adventure

Khlong rides

Mountain views from the Jungle Club

The lady selling a pile of chicken on the overnight train

Watching a little boy create a wood carving

Every sight and every sound was something new and exciting

And did I mention the food?

But the thing I love most about travel, solo travel in particular is that I became a little braver, learned a little more about how little I know and discovered a great enthusiasm for a new part of the world.


Thursday, April 10, 2014

All Massages are Not Created Equal

I thought that today, to usher in the weekend, I would write about a couple of the massages I have gotten throughout my travels. If you know me, you know that I am always in search of a good one for my tricky neck trouble. Here's a review of the ones I got in Thailand, and a little bit of trauma from Bulgaria.

One of the big draws of a trip to Thailand is the Thai massage. On every street there are all sorts of places, some nicer than others where you can get one of these famous rub downs. I had three while I was there, two in Bangkok and one in Koh Phangan. All three were very different. I felt like Goldilocks and each massage was a visit to a bear's house. The first was my most expensive, at the Ambassador Hotel. It was a lovely experience where I was given very large pants to put on (which I needed assistance with), and I got a nice massage with a cup of lemongrass tea to enjoy in the lobby. It had all of the normal stretching and cracking that you get, but it was too soft for what I needed on my neck. The next one was at a very cheap no name place on the same street as my hostel. This one was incredibly painful; I felt like I was being beaten up. It was terrible; the lady was digging her elbows into my spine, ouch. Reluctant to put myself through that again, I headed to the islands. I ended up having a few free hours in Koh Phangan before my ferry, so I found my way to a spa in town. I’m so glad I did because that is where I had my best massage. I got to wear the enormous comfy pants that I developed a fondness for, the facilities were clean and well decorated, I got a cup of lemongrass tea at the end and it was a fabulous massage. Phangan Leela Spa was the perfect mix of stretching, and massage, and there were no elbows in my spine which is always helpful. It was sort of a shame that I had to leave the island after finding something so fantastic. But alas, all good things must come to an end. 

I had just presented at my first international conference, and I was feeling pretty good about myself. As a reward I thought that a massage at the hotel spa was in order. It started out like all massages do by being taken to a room with a table in the middle. The lady who brought me there, however, didn't leave, so I had to relinquish my clothing while she waited, arms crossed with a scowl on her face. It was a stand off at first as I waited for her to walk out the door, but after much pointing, she won and I temporarily lost my clothes. The rest of that hour went on in similar fashion because she didn’t speak or understand a word of English. She shouted out instructions in Bulgarian, and I did my best to follow. There was even a chest massage that was incredibly awkward (for me) and completely uncomfortable. I felt lucky to get out of there alive because the massage was rough and anything but relaxing. At the end, I put my clothes back on as quickly as possible, paid the bill and ran back to my room for room service. That was enough Bulgarian culture for one day. 

The moral of this story is sometimes they are fantastic, life changing even like John in Amsterdam who would need his own blog post for the positive impact he had on my life. Sometimes they remind you of a medical exam, and most of the time they are just average. But wherever you go, a massage will give you a little insight into the culture and provide you with interesting stories to tell your friends. 

****If you ever find yourself in Amsterdam, pay John a visit at @Next in Nieuwemarkt (right around the corner from the metro station). He is the best at what he does, and he’s a great guy. Tell him I sent you.****

Monday, April 7, 2014

10 Tips for the Chatuchak Market, Bangkok

Outside of the Chatuchak Market from the train station.

You would think that the largest weekend market in the world would be something that I would have known about before arriving in Thailand. You would be wrong. I'm sure that many people know about this wonderful place before visiting, some may even plan whole trips around this location, but I was in the dark until I happened to look at a map sitting on my hostel common area table. In the corner was a map of a market that seemed to have everything you could possibly think of. It sounded like the perfect way to spend a Saturday, so off I went in search of some deals and a whole lot of people watching.

Practical information can be found on this website  I wish I had known about it before because I would have mapped out my experience much more carefully.

Don't be fooled by the market on the outside of the market. That's just amateur hour as I like to call it. Before you can even find your way to the real deal, you have to make it through throngs of crowds and vendors lining the streets. If I hadn't read about this place ahead of time I would have thought that was the market. It is not, press on because much more awaits inside.

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When you first arrive, you are immediately hit with stall after stall of the same item, in my case clothing, used clothing. Some things looked interesting, but it was all western clothing that had probably been donated by people like me. After weaving your way past the 50th stall, you begin to find yourself wondering why you shouldn't buy a used pair of sneakers from 1985. That was my cue to find something else, anything else.

I spent the whole day there, I could have spent a whole week there. I didn't even cover a fraction of what the whole place entailed. I had a train to catch otherwise I would have stayed and eaten and wandered until I couldn't stand up anymore. Which is sort of what ended up happening anyway. I apologize for the terrible pictures. I wish I had at least one where you could get the whole scope of the place, but once I was in there, it was like being an ant in a mansion, a good picture just wasn't happening. Take my word for it when I say that it was a fantastic day talking to vendors, wandering aimlessly trying not to get lost and watching other people shop. This was not a tourist market; this was very much a Thai market where tourists would go. If I lived there I would probably go at least once a month that's how awesome it was.

One of the many food vendors

My loot at the end of the day consisted of 4 dishes, blue flower tea, saffron, tom yum paste, a small ceramic pot for a plant, a decorative string of lights, a pair of awesome pants like the ones they give you during massages here and a bag with elephants on it to carry everything home.

10 Tips for a Successful Market Day
Going to this market will more than likely take the whole day, so you want to make the most of it. Here are some tips for making it a grand success.

1. Stick to a budget, it is so easy to get carried away with all of the choices and unique items. You could easily spend hundreds.

2. Know how much room you have in your luggage and how much you are willing to carry with you depending on how much longer your trip is. I really wanted dishes, but they are heavy. I had to carry them around with me and worry about them breaking for the rest of my trip. Perhaps I should have mailed them home. They have that service as well. You just have to find it.

3. If you love something, buy it on the spot. Sometimes you see an item and just have to have it. Don't talk yourself out of it because you want to "look around." You may never be able to find that stall again. Even if you think you will. You probably won't.

4. Go with a plan, or don't- It's really important to have some sort of game plan whether it is knowing what sort of items you want to buy or if you are really ambitious you can map out where you want to go and how long you want to spend in each area. The market is so big, there are maps and numbered lanes.  If you don't have a plan and want to wander aimlessly that's fine too, but you may want to remember where the exits are. It can be tricky finding your way out.

Don't buy plants, you can't take them with you

5. Choose a meeting place- I did this when I went, but there was no way I would have been able to find this spot once I was inside the market. The best place to meet is along one of the main walkways next to a numbered sign. That way if you can't remember where it is, you can easily ask someone. Asking where the exit is won't work because there are several.

6. Haggle, Haggle Haggle- The first price is very rarely the last price. The worst that can happen is that the price stays the same. The vendors, seeing that you are a westerner will sometimes jack up the price, so give it a try.

7. Don't spend too much time in one area- the market is organized mostly by items, so if you want to see a variety of things, keep moving. The place is enormous. You would honestly need a few days to get it all in.

8. Stay hydrated- it's going to be hot, and with all of those market stalls so close together, it can be a sweaty place. There are lots of places to stop for a coke or some fresh coconut water.

9. Wear comfortable shoes- This one is a no brainer, but seriously you won't just be walking around the market, there is all the area around the market as well.

10. Mail your items home- I always thought that it was sort of a travel badge of honor to lug all of your purchases around with you for the whole trip. It brings back memories of schlepping 4 bottles of wine around Europe for a month in my early 20's. Let's face it, there is no prize at the end of the trip for who can carry the most luggage. Find the nice booth with the packing services and mail the dishes home like I should have in the first place.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Great Places to Stay in Thailand

As promised, my accommodations review comes to you today. I can only comment on the places I stayed while in Bangkok, Koh Samui and Koh Phangan, so this is by no means a hotel guide.

Bangkok: Suk 11
I stayed here both at the beginning and end of my trip to Thailand. The reason I chose this particular hostel was because of another travel blog that I read. Finding a place to stay in Bangkok was really overwhelming because I didn't know the city at all, and it was very difficult to tell what the places were really like just from reviews that were all over the map. This place was exactly what I needed after a very long two days of flying. I was able to check in after midnight with no hassle, and my room was clean and provided a fresh towel and sheet. There was also air conditioning which was also very nice.
This place looks like a wooden junk yard, but in the best way possible. There are empty bird cages scattered around the place and wooden slats the form a path to your room. Past guests have written all over the walls, but somehow it all works. The lobby area has free wifi and very cheap water and snacks throughout the day. The staff is somewhat helpful and most of them speak decent English.

Restaurant: It was convenient, and the outside atmosphere was really lovely, but the food was nothing special. There is a much better place to eat right down the street called Kinnaree, or there are tons of street food vendors right outside the door.

Location: It is located in the heart of Sukhumvit Road across from the Ambassador Hotel with plenty to see and do all around you. There is a metro station just down the street and a 7-11 right outside the entrance of the hostel.

While I think it was a bit overpriced for what you get, it is centrally located, and you get the basics with a couple extras. Check it out on your next trip through Bangkok. 

Koh Samui: Jungle Club
My own jungle hut.
I cannot say enough about this place. It is a true hidden gem in Koh Samui, and I am so glad that I got to spend a majority of my trip here. From first glance, it is obvious that this place is something truly special. The views of the island are absolutely breathtaking. There is no main hotel area except the open air restaurant where the front desk is located. The staff is absolutely lovely especially Tsa who did it all from check in to taking orders at the restaurant. He even helped me with getting a bus ticket when my train tickets were wrong. There was always good music in the background, and I honestly just loved sitting in the restaurant with my laptop or notebook looking at the water and writing. It was one of the most relaxing places I have ever been. There is also an infinity pool and plenty of places to lounge and think. Many people come up to the club for lunch, but the staff does a really wonderful job of making the guests feel special and not have to compete for tables or space at the pool. The decor is smart and modern, but it still maintains Thai charm.

The hut was right in my price range, and it contained the bare essentials. One of my favorite things was the "Thai flush toilet" where you use a nice metal bowl to scoop water from a barrel into the toilet to flush. The hut is pretty much all open with no screens on the windows, but it provides a good breeze in the evening so no A/C is necessary. The huts were not the only option, however, there are also larger villas as well. There was even some wildlife hanging around including some pigs who make their way up the mountain in the morning, a squawky parrot, some sort of very loud lizard and a couple of friendly dogs who live there. It felt like home in a strange sort of way.

Restaurant/bar area with stunning views.
Restaurant: Serving both Thai and European fare, there was something for everyone. While I only ate Thai food while I was there, I can only comment on that. It was awesome especially the tom khar gai coconut soup. I could have eaten it every day. They have a full bar with delicious treats like pina coladas made from fresh ingredients and smoothies made from all sorts of fruit. The prices were affordable which made it even easier to stay there each night for dinner and admire the lights of the island from up above.

Location: Being situated at the top of a mountain on Koh Samui is both a drawback and part of what makes it so charming.  The drawback is that the only vehicles that can get to this place are the 4wd trucks from the hotel. There are two free rides per day (one in the morning and the other in the evening), but if you want to go up or down at a different time, you will have to pay a small fee. I saw motorbikes up the mountain, but they were locals. The hill is steep, and if you don't know what you're doing, it could mean disaster. But the views are priceless, and it's tempting to just stay there for the whole day.

I highly recommend this place. It can fit into anyone's budget, and it is both relaxing vacation and rugged adventure packed into one beautiful package.

Spend a day in a hammock looking at Koh Samui.

Koh Phangan: Hard Road Hostel
I don't have much to say about this place because I was only here for a few hours. What I will say is that the owners were very accommodating when I showed up on the doorstep in the evening asking for a room during full moon week. I was given a quick walking tour of the facilities by one of the guys, and I was given a larger locker to fit my laptop. The price was right (cheap), and I was given a top bunk in a room full of many other girls. That's really all I was expecting for the night, a place to lay my head and a spot to store my stuff. If I was about 10 years younger it would have been awesome. There were scheduled activities throughout the week, meeting areas throughout the property and a full bar.

Location: It was a bit of a hard road getting there. It's best to take a minibus or a regular taxi from the port. It will cost about 100bht which is about $3. It's far from the town, so it's best to plan accordingly.

I didn't eat at the restaurant, so I can't comment there. I did, however, find a really nice little coffee shop a little ways down the road that served coconut water right out of the coconut at the perfect cold temperature. And there is a pretty nice (in the dark) beach bar across the street from the hostel. It has the same name, and from what I saw they offer a free welcome drink.

Monday, March 31, 2014

My Thai Food Journey Continues

I took a cooking class while I was in Koh Samui, Thailand, and it was one of the few times I was in the country where I felt like I was actually connecting with the culture. Most of the places I traveled to were overrun with tourism, so it was difficult to find ways to push aside the fake and get to the heart of Thailand. I felt as though I was able to begin to do this through the food.

One of the disappointments about coming home from a trip is that there are things, little nuggets of deliciousness that you just can't find in the states. In Greece it was the tzaziki, France, the pain au chocolat, Peru, the pisco sours, you get the picture. It was really important for me this time around to attempt to bring some of the flavors back with me.

Lots of ingredients!
Thus begins my first attempt at real Thai cooking. I must say that I was incredibly excited because this time I actually had recipes in hand. I went to three grocery stories in search of all of the necessary ingredients, finding most, but still unable to find a couple things on the list. But I found, in my opinion, items that would be good substitutes.

I decided to do all of the chopping and prep in the afternoon. This was a very good idea because it took me a couple of hours to get everything they way it was for my class. I painstakingly cut up the pineapple in just the right way, peeled and chopped the ginger ever so finely, measured all the ingredients just right and neatly placed everything just the way it was in the photos I had taken. My back was beginning to ache as I pounded the spices and herbs in the coffee mug with the honey stick to make the curry paste (stone mortar and pestle were not to be found in my sparse kitchen). At this point it was getting close to dinner time, and the sun was starting to set.
Prepped and ready to go

I took a short break, and soon it was time to heat some oil in a pasta pot because I didn't have a wok either. The oil was hot, and it was time to begin adding the vegetables slowly and in the right order. I followed the directions to the letter. The kitchen began to fill with familiar smells which brought Tim out of his work room to find out what was brewing. There was only one small casualty with some oil splatter while frying tofu, but that's what happens when you get too close to the cook. The sweet and sour sauce was added and all the ingredients were tossed together. With a couple sprigs of cilantro and some fried garlic, the first dish was complete.

Sweet and Sour Tofu with Veggies
After transferring the completed dish to one of my new plates purchased while in Bangkok, I had to move on quickly to the green curry. As soon as the green paste hit the pan it was as if I had been transported right back to the cooking school. Within minutes, the curry was finished and plated and we sat down to feast. I was worried that it wouldn't be the way it was from the class. Everything had happened so fast I wondered if I had remembered everything correctly. Turns out I had. The first reaction from my official taste- tester was "wow." And it was a good wow, not the sarcastic kind of wow. Success. Even though it took me the entire afternoon to prep and chop it was worth all the effort. I still have one more dish to try, the noodle salad, but I'm sure that will go off without a hitch too. The Thai food obsession shall continue.
Green Curry with chicken and potatoes

For recipes and how to videos, visit

Friday, March 28, 2014

What to Eat When Visiting Thailand

If you have never experienced Thai food, find the closest restaurant and get yourself a curry, stat! This food is amazing, so amazing in fact that it becomes an obsession.  It became an obsession for me even before I hopped a plane to Bangkok. So today, in honor of this most appetizing and delightful cuisine, I bring you my favorite Thai food.

Be warned, this post contains a lot of mouth- watering photos of the food that I ate while I was there.

Pad Thai, my first meal in Bangkok.

Pad Thai is probably the best way to get your feet wet with Thai cuisine. It's not spicy, and you can see exactly what is in the dish: fresh noodles, chicken, green onions, roasted peanuts, sprouts and a fresh lime. It's also the national dish of Thailand.
Green curry with some added veggies
Tom Khar Gai, spring rolls and Singha beer

Known as gaeng kiaw waan in Thailand, green curry is one you will find at pretty much any restaurant. With little green chilies controlling the heat and some coconut cream to cool it down, it creates a perfect balance of flavors. The magic is in the green curry paste, and it can be served with everything from potatoes and chicken to eggplant and prawns. I prefer mine on the thick and creamy side with a medium spice level.

I could live off this soup. Tom Khar Gai quickly became one of my new favorites. With shoots of lemongrass, coconut milk and the Thai ginger called galangal, this soup is perfect even on a hot day. That's how amazing it is.

More green's important to compare

What's curry without rice?

Khao Tom

Penang Curry, spicy papaya salad and fresh coconut water!
Massaman Gai (yellow curry)
The khao tom above was a lovely morning soup of rice and chicken broth with lemon grass, ginger, cilantro and fried garlic. The surprise was on the bottom with raw eggs sitting at the base of the bowl waiting to be mixed in. The eggs were cooked from the heat of the broth. Genius.

A couple of other genius meals are the massaman and penang curries. The former is usually a mild and creamier version of a curry with a coconut flavor, and the penang is thinner and spicier using red chilies. Both are fantastic. If spicy is what you are after, then this papaya noodle salad is the way to go. The green papaya has been cut into noodles, and it is hot. I couldn't stop eating it even though my mouth was on fire. That's what the fresh coconut is for. When chilled to a very cold temperature, the water inside is heavenly. I bought one to drink every time I saw one.
Street Food!

Fried rice with veggies

Fried rice is also a staple, and so cheap. This one was from Maddie's Kitchen on Koh Phangan where they use "ingredients for peace." As soon as I saw the menu and the Dalai Lama quote on the front I knew I had chosen the right place for lunch. The food was really good too.

Finally, a conversation about Thai food would not be complete without mentioning street food. Street food in Bangkok is one of the things that I wish I had been more brave to dive into. While I did try one of these delicious meats on a stick and a donut on my last day in the city, there were so many more things I could have tasted. There were elaborate carts serving full menus providing plastic chair seating and ladies with trays full of all sorts of delicacies up and down all of the streets. I'll be honest, I was a bit scared of getting sick, but I know that when I go back, it will be first on my list. It all looked so tasty, and a little fear should never stand in the way of good food.

So what do you eat while in Thailand? Everything!

Before I left Bangkok, I ransacked a grocery store for an assortment of spices to take home with me. Today I attempt to make a green curry using the recipe I learned while I was in Koh Samui at SITCA (Samui Institute of Thai Culinary Arts). It's tricky to find some of the ingredients, so I will have to improvise. Check back on Monday for an account of how it all went.