Friday, February 28, 2014

Building an Itinerary to Thailand and Beyond

When you don't know much about the place you are going, research and the itinerary tend to happen at the same time. I have wanted to go to Thailand for a long time. I thought about volunteering there, and I always knew I would get there eventually. I just didn't realize it would be this soon. That said, I really didn't have any idea what I wanted to do when I got there. Just like with choosing the destination and booking my flights, I tapped into my Asia experts and started the job of figuring out where this journey would take me. Luckily I have a very understanding travel partner who let me run wild with ideas. Of course I had to dial it back a bit.

Here's what we are going to do:

Day 1: Travel day. I have 3 flights with layovers in San Francisco and Japan and will be in the air for about 22 hours. This is my longest stretch in the air ever. Wish me luck.

Day 2: Travel day. I'm still in the air, and due to the time change I lose almost a whole day in transit. Arrive in Bangkok just before midnight. Take some sort of sleep aid and crash in the hostel.

Day 3:  Zamin (my travel buddy who I met at the Creativity Workshop in Dubai) arrives, and he will be meeting me at the hostel. We will then begin our adventure eating street food, walking the streets and doing some sightseeing around the city.  Stay the night at the same hostel.

Day 4: Another day in Bangkok sightseeing perhaps a temple or two and more street food. Take the overnight train to Surat Thani. I can't wait to write the post about taking this train. I have never taken a train like this except the Amtrak Auto Train from Virginia to Florida, and it's totally not the same thing at all.

Day 5: Arrive in Surat Thani early in the morning where we will then take a minibus to the docks. The ferry will take us to the island of Koh Samui. Spend the rest of the day on the island doing island things. Spend the night in the jungle (in a hotel).

Day 6: Koh Samui doing more island things like hiking in the jungle and lounging on the beach. I'm also thinking of taking a Thai cooking class while I'm there and definitely at least one massage. Spend the night in the jungle again.

Day 7: Koh Samui in the morning and check out of accommodation. Mystery Location for the night. But wait, as I was writing this blog, the mystery location turned into Ang Thong National Park. So for one night I will be living among the native flora and fauna in a bungalow.  If you are familiar with the movie "The Beach" with Leonardo DiCaprio, part of the filming was done here. It's a national park with about 42 different islands and crystal blue water for kayaking and snorkeling and hiking on one of the islands. I can't wait to get out there. I just hope I don't see any pythons.

Day 8: Ang Thong in the morning and back to Koh Samui for the night. More island things will happen.

Day 9: Last day in Koh Samui doing island things. Evening ferry from Koh Samui to a minibus to Surat Thani where we will take another night train back to Bangkok.

Day 10: Last full day. Arrive in Bangkok in the morning to do whatever else we couldn't fit in at the beginning of the trip like eat more street food and shop in the markets. Stay the night at an undetermined location. Again, part of the adventure, and it gives us a chance to see if we like the first place. If not, then we can choose somewhere else.
Somewhere awesome in Hawaii!

Day 11: Early flight to.........Honolulu!!

The trip continues to Hawaii where I will be spending a few days with some fabulous friends. The best thing about this trip besides the lovely people I will be staying with is that there is no itinerary here. I did request to take "da bus" at least once and eat some awesome food, but I know I would have done that anyway.

As I was planning this trip I came across a couple other strong contenders for itineraries. Since I'm hoping to go back at some point (I know I haven't even been there yet, but I just know), and because I think there are so many awesome places to see, I decided to compile them here.

Here's another itinerary option:

The first leg of the trip in Bangkok would be the same. Then instead of taking the train, hire a taxi or minibus to Phuket enjoying the scenery and crazy local driving along the way. Stay the night in Phuket. Using Phuket as a home base, explore the islands of Koh Phi Phi, Ao Nang and Railay. Ferries are available to all locations.
And at the end, head back to Bangkok to do Bangkok things.

Here's an option for another trip:
So many people through blogs and the online travel community have recommended going north particularly to Chiang Mai. The more I read about it, the more I just have to find a way to get there some day. There are so many opportunities to take advantage of from this location. It is fairly close to both Myanmar and Laos, so train trips would be easy. There is also an elephant conservation and rehabilitation center right outside of Chiang Mai. Unlike the majority of elephants used for tourism purposes, this center is a place where you can volunteer and spend some time with these gray giants, and they don't get abused. Chiang Mai itself also has a lot to offer in terms of culture and, according to what I have read, a more authentic Thai experience.

****I will be doing a full review of all of the places where I'm staying, things I'm doing, and food I'm eating either on the trip or when I get back.****

Monday, February 24, 2014

Kiva 2013: A Year of Inspiration

This video is an addition to the post about 4 awesome organizations.  Micro loans are changing the way the world thinks about aid. Enjoy!

Four Organizations Doing Great Things for the World

Since my itinerary to Thailand is not quite ready yet I thought I would post today about four organizations doing very different things for very awesome reasons.
I first saw this one on Facebook. A friend had posted information that this website was selling t-shirts, and $7 from each shirt would go to Heifer International. Well naturally I jumped at the chance to help Heifer and get a really great shirt. Since my first purchase well over a year ago they have branched out by extending their clothing line, offering more products and even hiring artists to create some really nice pieces all in the name of helping others. Each week, the cause and the design changes. This week, for example, all of the money raised goes to 4 Paws 4 Ability, a program to match service dogs to kids with seizures.
I love these guys for lots of reasons, but mainly because the concept is so simple. Instead of trying to solve everything, they are working on just a couple things, shoes and glasses. For each pair of shoes or each pair of sunglasses purchased, Toms will donate a pair or shoes or glasses to someone in need somewhere in the world. The shoes are really awesome too, so comfortable. They even work in the US, providing shoes to kids in over 35 states and glasses to kids in California, New Mexico and New York.
This one is completely different. They don't raise money for donations, and you can't really buy anything. What you can do with Kiva, however, is make an investment. With as little as $25, you can help fund a man, woman or group with an idea to improve their lives and the lives of their families. And you can choose who you want to invest in. Here's the greatest part, when you invest, you get your money back and can then invest in other people and their dreams. I started with 3 loans of $25 each a couple of years ago, and I have had 6 people pay their loans back in full and I have 2 new loans pending. You can invest in higher education, starting a business or even help someone buy a pig. The possibilities are endless. It's a fantastic way to teach kids about micro-loans and entrepreneurialism as well.

**The video for Kiva is in a separate post. It's amazing, so go watch it after you read this!

This one is all about building awareness. The more people who know about the atrocities in the world, the more likely they will be stopped. Falling Whistles started because a traveler ended up in a military camp in the Congo and found out that young boys too small to hold guns were being sent to the front lines of battle with just a whistle to warn the others. This prompted a massive awareness campaign of wearing a simple whistle around your neck to spark conversation and get the word out about what is happening to kids. I wear mine often, and it never fails to draw questions from people. But they don't just sell whistles. The money earned goes to advocacy efforts, helping to build influence at a governmental level like holding safe and fair elections. They invest in entrepreneurs to help build a more stable existence for families. They are doing really great work on the ground level. A true example of grassroots activism.

This video is from 2010, but it gives you a look into the history of Congo and the beginnings of Falling Whistles.

So check these websites out, buy a t-shirt, a whistle and a pair of shoes and loan someone some money, or don't. But at least you know about some more innovative people doing amazing things.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Planning a Big Trip With Little Time

I'm back after giving myself a long weekend off from blogging to do some other important things like cheer on my country and the Jamaican bobsled team in the olympics and work on planning my next adventure. This one is coming sooner than I thought, but I try to live by my advice to grab opportunities when they present themselves. That said, I'm going to Thailand in less that two weeks. Yes, you read that right, less than two weeks, and I just found out. So I thought I would take this opportunity to bring you on this journey with me from start to finish.

How do you begin planning for a trip of this magnitude with very little time?
In my opinion, it's best to start with the most expensive part of the trip and work backwards. In this case, and in most cases, it is the flight. Since I had no idea what I wanted to see or do in Thailand I began pricing every major international airport in the country from Seattle (where I have to depart). I checked several travel comparison sites first to get a feel for the ranges trying different date and time combinations. My usual go- to sites are Cheapoair, Cheaptickets and Kayak to start. From there I look at individual airlines. I also look at partner airlines to my frequent flyer accounts with the most miles. It's worth taking the time though because it could mean the difference of hundreds of dollars. I did this over several days and checked at different times of day because sometimes airlines adjust their prices by hundreds over the course of a day as well.

During this booking, however, I was faced with a decision I know my fellow travelers have to make all the time. Do I choose the airline where I have a healthy frequent flyer account and pay a bit more, or do I go with the cheaper option? After seeking some advice and crunching numbers galore, I decided to bite the bullet and go with the miles. Turns out that by the time I am finished with this trip I will have more than enough built up to fly pretty much anywhere in the world for free and possibly be upgraded. Win!

So the flights are booked, now what?
I went into traveler mode reaching out to my sources for Southeast Asian travel and started plotting out sample itineraries, looking at in-country transportation options and overall budget calls. I'm lucky I don't have a full time job right now because this stuff takes time. I scanned the tourism websites, but really focused on the reviews and blogs that people have written. You gotta go to the experts when you are out of your element, and Asia is out of my element. This will be my first foray into this region, and I want to do it right.

But wait! I forgot a really important piece of information that determined why I am going to Thailand in the first place.

Visa requirements and health concerns?
Originally Vietnam was the front runner for this trip, but after a little research I found that there are visa requirements that I just didn't think I had the time to navigate. Not wanting a repeat of my Tanzanian visa issues (see prior blog post) I opted for a country that didn't have a prearranged visa requirement if you are staying less than a month. It's also pretty important to check the CDC website and additional info on the State Dept. site to make sure all the little duckies are in a row and ready for travel. Sometimes countries have vaccination requirements, so checking on those things really come before booking a flight.

Simultaneous Planning
The bulk of my budget has been spent on flights (7 to be exact), and I have found out that there are no health or visa requirements. There are also no warnings from the State Dept. either despite ongoing riots in Bangkok. On to the fun stuff.

I only have about eight days in the country, so a lot of my initial ideas about what I wanted to do had to be cut. You just can't do it all, and the elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai had to go. But going island hopping was definitely in. Complete itinerary will follow shortly as more pieces come together.

One of the biggest differences with planning a big trip in a little time is that everything has to happen simultaneously. Planning, booking, communicating with travel partners, prep (like shopping for random travel items) and actually traveling.  I don't have a car right now, so when I was visiting Tim's parents this weekend, I made sure to grab a couple things like bug spray, travel sized febreeze and a mini first aid kit while we were out. That's all the shopping I'm planning on doing though.

It's a whirlwind kind of a trip, but I know it will be worth it.

Why am I going to Thailand? Why not?

Monday, February 10, 2014

If a Tree Falls in the Forest...

I was scratching my head all week wondering what I was going to post on Monday. Well today is Monday, nearing the end of Monday actually and I don't have anything. It's almost 5pm on the west coast of the US, and I haven't posted anything yet. I have a bunch of things in the works though guest bloggers and other new ideas for directions to take. But I was struggling with an idea today that I just couldn't seem to shake, and because of that I have ditched my plan to write about some organizations I think are great. I think I'll save that for next week.

This week I've been thinking about the whole tree falling in the forest thing. You know what I mean, if a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound? Well, if no one is regularly reading my blog (or very few) does it make an impact? Is it worth doing? I've struggled with this question for most of my adult life first with teaching and now with writing my blog, a novel and these little freelance articles.

The conclusion I have come to is that I have to start asking myself some really hard questions. Who am I doing this work for? Who or what measures my impact? What is the end goal? Is it enough to feel satisfaction of completing something and putting it out there for whoever may stumble upon it?

That's what I have so far, and I don't have the answers. I may never feel like I have the answers, but I'll be working toward them.  It's so hard to stay focused on the journey of the present when you have hands from the past and future grabbing at you all the time. That's what this time of not really working is supposed to be for me, and I'm starting to make strides to get there.

With that in mind, here's some news for whoever may read this. I'm planning an impromptu and so very random adventure across the Pacific that will happen in just a couple short weeks. While reconnecting with friends, I'm hoping to sit back and enjoy the journey finding
lots of stories to tell along the way.

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Geography Lesson

“All you can change is yourself, but sometimes that changes everything!” 
Gary W Goldstein

Most change is resisted in the beginning, but over time thoughts start to loosen and reform around new ideas. This is what happened to my idea of wealth and access to travel. Going to Honduras opened my eyes to different types of poverty, but my time in Tanzania solidified my understanding. There were many moments during my time in Tanzania where I experienced the loosening of my own constructed ideas whether from my own interactions or stories from other volunteers. One thing can be said for sure, the change that happened for me during this trip did change everything.

Bagamoyo: A Community of Artists
Twisuka Group
I was teaching English and an assortment of other things at Twisuka Arts Group in Bagamoyo, Tanzania as my volunteer placement from CCS (Cross Cultural Solutions). I spent my days surrounded by local handicrafts and paintings that would cost a fortune if they were sold in the US. I only had about four students on any given day, mostly younger guys who saw learning English as a way to expand their opportunities in this world. Most of the time they laughed at my methods wondering why we were playing charades or bingo, but they always completed all of my assigned tasks with a smile. It was informal, and sometimes we would go for a walk to the market or over to the internet cafe to learn a new computer skill. Sometimes I would find things to bring to class like the day I brought the world map.

My Classroom
My students looked at me quizzically as I entered the small classroom in the back of the art shop hut. Under my arm I carried a large rolled up map of the world. It was an old one, and printed on it were some countries that no longer existed. But that wasn't the point of the lesson. We had been talking about directions in prior classes, and I wanted to give them more of a global perspective of what we had been discussing, a chance to apply their vocabulary. I unrolled the map and hung it from a protruding nail in the wall. I was met with oohs and aahs, and I knew that I was on to something.

For this class I was joined by a new student, an older man who I had never seen before. He had heard in town that I was teaching English and thought he would see what it was all about.  He was quiet throughout the lesson, standing to the side watching and listening. My other students were animated, pointing to various countries and practicing their new directional vocabulary. I talked about my journey to Tanzania and traced the route with my finger, and we talked about time zones and the Earth revolving around the sun. I was met with astonished looks and amazement at how far I had traveled and how long it took. But most amazing, however, was the realization that, "The Earth really travels around the sun?"

"Why did you want to come here," they asked. "When you can go anywhere you want?"
"I came here to meet you and teach some English," I replied.

They couldn't fathom why I would want to come to their little village when what many of them thought about was what life would be like if they could get out.

Suddenly the older gentleman began to speak, "I have a book shop right down the street. I have read many books about countries all over the world. I love to read about other places. But I know that I will never be able to see any of them. You are so rich that you can travel the world. I wish I could."

Some of My Students
I was speechless. I had nothing to say. I couldn't reassure him that sure, someday he would travel. That's what you would say in the US because there, anything is possible. In Bagamoyo, you make the best of what you have. I knew deep down that he was right, and it broke my heart. Something that was such an integral part of who I am and what I love about the world he and the others would never be able to experience.

There is not a time that I think about travel that I don't think about this man and how I wish I could have done or said something at that moment.

The man returned to all of my English lessons after that and was an active participant, and we never talked about wealth or travel again. He didn't really need to be in my class; his English was flawless, but I'm glad he was.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Cross Cultural Solutions Spotlight

CCS Main House in Bagamoyo, Tanzania
This week I'm excited to share an organization that, like Heifer International, provided me with beautiful experiences, the opportunity to bring more wonderful friends into my life, and extended my knowledge of what the world is really like. Cross Cultural Solutions, or CCS as it is more commonly known, is the volunteer organization that I worked with when I went to Tanzania. There are so many international volunteer organizations out there, but I can say without a doubt that CCS is one of the best. They offer programs for varying lengths of time to locations all over the world. Their staff is second to none particularly in the volunteer countries. The volunteer placements are varied as well depending on your interests and experience. I went to Tanzania alone and unsure about many things, but I came back with a new family and a much more confident approach to life.

Why should you leave your comfortable life and go into the unknown?

"More than ever, people around the world want change. Change in the inequities that polarize. Change in the corrupt systems that prevent self-determination. Change in the unjust repression of entire populations. 

But the change we all wish to see won't be realized through big, sweeping acts—not by governments, or armies, or the UN. Instead, lasting change will be achieved through small, personal acts of kindness and selflessness, and through the spreading of tolerance and understanding between people and cultures. Only as people become more willing to change themselves—the way they think, the way they act—will real change become possible. 

It is exactly these types of changes that Cross-Cultural Solutions makes possible. The passion that you bring to your volunteer experience will start a ripple effect, bringing change to people and the communities in which they live. Meanwhile, you’ll find wisdom and beauty in a way of life different from your own. 

You'll discover the critical role that every individual plays in achieving lasting change. You'll see that international volunteering can be a safe and exciting adventure—the trip of a lifetime where you can learn about another culture while learning about yourself. 

Change in the world begins with you. You're closer than ever to making an incredible difference." 

Me learning how to play the drums.
These words from the CCS website really strike a chord with me today. It is so easy to sit back and wait for others with more power to take charge and change the way things are. This is not just true globally. I have found so many examples in my own life. For example, maybe we think something should be happening at work, but either we weren't asked to help or we think it's someone else's job. Then nothing gets done and we wonder why. Change happens within ourselves first in very small ways, first in the way we think, then our actions share our thoughts with those around us. Someone once told me that I was a quiet storm, gradually teaching those around me about the world and what was important. It was probably one of the best compliments I have ever gotten because change does not happen over night. We need time to mull over new thoughts and welcome new ideas into our hearts.

Going to Tanzania gave me an opportunity to learn about myself as I learned the stories of my fellow volunteers and the people in the community. When I came home I didn't do anything drastic, but I made small changes in my life and my awareness of others grew. Change from that summer in Bagamoyo, Tanzania is still happening and will continue possibly for the rest of my life.

For more information on the Bagamoyo volunteer experience visit: