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.

Add caption
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.