Category: travel

Notes From The Road: Life In A Refugee Camp

life in a refugee campFriends, I would be lying if I told you that I was 100% confident about spending time at a refugee camp. When I decided to visit the Timai refugee camp in eastern Nepal, I was haunted by visions of starving, sad-faced kiddos and a crowd chasing down one, harassed chicken with sharpened sticks.And maybe a little bit concerned about how one showers or uses the bathroom in a refugee camp, in one of the poorest countries in Asia.

What is Life in a Refugee Camp?

what is life like in a refugee campThe politics and history surrounding refugees is rarely straight forward and the Bhutanese/Nepali refugee situation is particularly complex because most of these refugees are actually ethnically Nepali. About two hundred years ago, Bhutan invited Nepalis to settle in the southern part of Bhutan, a swampy, malaria-infested area. In the 1990s, new citizenship laws were implemented and the Nepalis who had been settled in Bhutan for generations were sent back to Nepal. Their homes were bulldozed, families were imprisoned, those who argued disappeared.

visiting a refugee camp

visiting a refugee campFor the last 18 years, the Bhutanese/Nepalis have been refugees within Nepal. They are given the options of repatriating in Nepal, attempting Bhutanese citizenship or resettling (again) in a third country. And in the greater scheme of “refugee-ism” the Bhutanese/Nepalis are quite “lucky” – they receive an English-medium education, they’re respected within their communities, their camps are (relatively) safe and they’re free to take jobs and live anywhere they want.

refugee camp lifeBut many of them choose to stay in the camps, preparing to relocate in a yet another country. Many of them end up in St. Paul, Minnesota in my classroom. In fact, one of the reasons I wanted to visit Timai was to meet my student’s families.

It was absolutely mind-blowing to duck into a thatched bamboo hut and see an older version of my student’s face staring back at me. Purna’s entire extended family crowded into his mom’s hut, all the better to take photos and eat sweet sticky rice. Of Purna’s 20 relatives that I met, 12 of them are heading to St. Paul, Minnesota in February. So I obviously spent twenty minutes expressing shock over this and acting out how I’d freak out over seeing them on the street in St. Paul. They nodded sagely at this and admitted that yep, that’d be weird.

life in a refugee campI spent the rest of my time at the camp leading orientations, teaching mini English classes, talking to people about which jobs they could get with their current training and addressing concerns like “American women are so tall! How am I ever going to find a wife there?! Everyone will think I’m a dwarf, right?”

I had a fantastic time meeting new people, talking to them about their lives and doing my little part to make the transition to their new lives easier.

visit a refugee camp
And those showers I was so worried about? They were buckets. Which I can totally do!

Have you ever stayed some placed really, really rustic? Once I slept in a Bolivian barn on a bed made of sticks – but that was a one-night gig!

Notes From The Road: The Wild West of Asia

One of my (admittedly weird) fears about traveling so much is that I’m slowly but surely becoming jaded and under-awed by the corners of the world. I fear that I’m going to get all “Temple, Sh-memple. Monkeys – who cares? Polygamy? I’ve seen it.”

But then? Then I spent three weeks in the eastern district of Jhapa, Nepal and realized that I’d happened off the tourist trail into the wild west of Asia. And I loved it! It was some of the most challenging, most unusual, most mind-bending travel that I’ve ever experienced. And you might like it too!

Things that may recommend Jhapa, Nepal to you (or totally, totally deter you from ever setting foot there)

* Goats ride on top of buses

* Totally straight men hold hands. All the time.

* Momos: tiny steamed dumplings stuffed with cabbage, carrots and onions, dipped in spicy chutney

* Pretty much every type of available transportation is nerve-racking: overcrowded buses (with goats and people on top), speeding taxis that pass other vehicles on winding mountain roads, motorcycles with three passengers (and one helmet), bicycle rickshaws powered by tiny men.

* The national greeting “Namaste” means “I greet the divine within you”

* There are only 13 hours of electricity each day. What? Yes. But this means that you spend a few hours every night playing cards, pouring over photo albums and chopping vegetables by candlelight.

* Nepali men are sweet, respectful, non-lecherous and (let’s keep it real) very cute. Big dark eyes, high cheek bones and hip haircuts? Yes, please.

* You’ll encounter tea fields that stretch as far as the eye can see, covered in fog. Women in bright saris pick tea by hand and carry it in huge wicker baskets.

* Foreigners are such a rarity that every single day someone will want to take a picture with you. They’ll often invite you to dinner. Sometimes they’ll ask for your autograph. Seriously.

* Roosters crowing at dawn. Simultaneously endearingly old-fashioned and really annoying.

* Chai and biscuits at 4 pm every day.

* There are zero McDonalds and zero Starbucks in Nepal.

* Your hosts will feed you delicious, spicy, oily dishes until you’re ready to burst. And then they’ll insist that you take another serving.

* Common questions that you will be asked include: “What’s your caste?” “Why are you so white?” and “We heard American teachers can’t beat their students. How do you punish them then?”

* There are no sidewalks. There are only dusty, gravel and garbage filled spaces in front of stores. Sometimes someone makes a pile of said garbage and burns it. Sometimes wandering goats eat it.

* Having a ‘picnic’ means driving a bus full of people to a open space where lots of other buses full of people are also picnicing. Then you spend several hours building a fire and cooking, and then playing Venga Boys really loudly on the huge sound system that you brought. Sometimes other people are blaring other music at high volumes 20 feet away from you. Sometimes said people are really drunk, shirtless and engaged in very complicated Hindi choreography

* Regardless of income, your hosts and friends will give you gifts when you leave. I was in Jappa for three weeks and I received 11 gifts from fifth grade students, refugees and high school English teachers.

Have you ever traveled to some place really wild and ‘off the beaten track’? Would you want to go somewhere like this?

Notes From The Road: Expectation Management

When I’m in America (or any western country, really) I’m one of those pain-in-the ass Virgos who strides around crowing about high expectations and how you get what you expect from people and how you live with what you tolerate and on and on etc.

Yes, it is approximately as annoying as it sounds. My BFF is a very patient person.

And even though I’ve spent a the majority of the last ten years traveling and living abroad, every time I travel I spend the first six weeks desperately try to manipulate this new country and culture into fitting my western expectations. Yes, I realize that I will be eating different food, in a different climate, possibly with different tools. But every time I travel (every time!) I spend the first bit freaking out about customer service, timeliness, cleanliness and ohmygod why won’t you just stand in line!?

A lot of these things seem like forgone conclusions to us westerners. If the time schedule says the train leaves at 9:30, it should leave around 9:30. Once you’ve finished eating that bag of chips, you should throw the empty bag in a rubbish bin. If one orders spaghetti, one would really prefer to get spaghetti instead of pad thai.

And it’s tempting to think “India! (or Peru or Cambodia) you’re doing it wrong!” Surprisingly, this mindset will not actually help you enjoy your trip. Weird, right?

May I suggest instead, altering your expectations?

Don’t expect:

* when you order a type of food that you recognize from home, it will taste the same. Sometimes you will ask for crackers in your soup and get crumpled Doritos (true story). And America-Indian food doesn’t taste the same as India-Indian food.* there won’t be cockroaches. Because there will frequently be cockroaches, regardless of how much you’re paying for that hotel room.

* that you can flush the toilet paper – you probably can’t

* that the sheets will be stain free. They’ll probably be clean, but they won’t necessarily be stain-free

* that there will be hot water

* the electricity/internet/time tables to be 100% reliable

* central heat or air conditioning

* that person really, 100% understood what you asked for

* that the piece of clothing you bought from a sidewalk vendor for $3 will hold up for more than five washes

* that it’s realllllly an antique

* that it’s going to look like the pictures they’re showing you

* that the village visit, the canoe ride, the dance performance is included in the price of the package

* handwashing clothes in a bucket to have the same results at your Maytag at home

* airplane/train food to be any good

* that you’re paying the same price as a local, even after half an hour of haggling

This all seems rather dire and disappointing but I swear my goal is not to make you preemptively hate travel. But maybe you can learn from my (on-going) mistakes and land in a new country with the appropriately placed expectations and then be pleasantly surprised when your hostel room has clean sheets, wifi, hot water and a conceirge with passable English.

What things regularly surprise you when you travel? Do you have to adjust your expectations?

The Four Cardinal Rules of Safe, Solo Lady Travel

Traveling alone when you're a woman isn't as hard or scary as people would have you believe! If you're looking for solo female travel advice, this is for you - I learned these safe travel tips from 20+ years and 38 countries! Click through to plan your solo trip today. #solotravel #singletravel #femaletravel #womantravel

A piece of personal trivia about me: despite having traveled through 20 countries, I’ve never had anything stolen, been seriously harassed or groped. I realize that this is craaaazy lucky, but I’d also like to think that it has something to do with my four cardinal rules of safe, solo lady travel.

How to Stay Safe as a Solo Female Traveler

1. Dress Conservatively

Come summer in America, I’m all over strapless sundresses, shorts that hit several inches above the knee and swishy little numbers. But outside western countries, these outfits aren’t necessarily appropriate.

And if you don’t look like the locals, wearing revealing clothing will only elicit cat calls, staring, glares and maybe even groping. But you don’t need to dress exclusively in muumuus, either.

I like to wear harem pants (cute, fashionable, not super tight) three quarter length tissue t-shirts, a scarf (dresses up any outfit and hides your boobs) and a cute pair of flats.

Cute, fashionable and doesn’t reinforce those stereotypes about fast western girls.

2. Walk Fast

When you’re walking around a new city, it’s really tempting to toddle along, looking from your opened Lonely Planet to the street signs, pausing to peruse the market goods, stopping to soak up the ambiance of this new place. Which you should totally do!

But, if you’ve got a usual route that you walk or a specific destination you should walk there briskly and stalk the streets like you’re a force to be reckoned with.

If you’ve got to reference a map in your guide book, make a copy of it (or just rip it out of your book) tuck it into your pocket and reference it when you’re in a cafe or bathroom, not standing on the street corner looking confused. Hold yourself like you’re not someone to be trifled with – people will respond accordingly.

Need inspiration? Try the Murder Walk!

3. Avoid Eye Contact

This is a slightly depressing one. If you visit a place where locals have been exposed to years of western media and western women’s very sexualized image, lots of men will imagine that you would very happily put out.

They’ll probably stare at you, they’ll probably talk about you and they might yell at you or make super disgusting sucking noises in your direction (yes. true story.) Don’t look at them. Don’t talk to them. Don’t make eye contact.

When you’re walking past a group of men that looks dicey, try to put yourself out of arm’s reach. Restrict your smiles and small talk to boys below the age of 10 and women. In lots of cultures, smiling and making 15 minutes of conversation indicates a certain amount of romantic interest.

And in defense of men the world over, 95% of the guys staring at you aren’t plotting to jump you. They’re just intrigued because you’re something of an oddity. They’d be just as likely to stare at a sheep dressed in a top hat walking down the road.

4. Make A Fake Phone Call

I almost never take taxis in America (so expensive!) so I kind of love taking them in other countries. But taking them at night, especially on your own, can be a bit dangerous.

I won’t give you The Fear by relating some of the horror stories that I’ve heard, I’ll just tell you about the clever, clever solution that my Peruvian host mom taught me.

If you find yourself out late and in need of a taxi (and you can’t get a safe, authorized “radio” taxi) flag down a taxi and jump in.

Once you’re settled in the back, take out your cell phone, pretend to dial and say to the imaginary person on the other end “Hi, Mom. Yes, I’m on my way home, I’m in the taxi now. His registration number is ___________ and his name is ________________. Yes, I’m sure it’s fine. See you soon!”

Of course, you could really actually call someone, but if you haven’t got a local cell phone or anyone to call, this is a good stand in. And I’ve even pretended that my digital camera is a cell phone – it’s dark, they’re not going to notice!

Other Safety Tips for Solo Female Travel

  • A regular pen gripped in your hand can be a good weapon – for eye-gouging or leg-stabbing. I also have and love this keychain; it looks like a friendly plastic kitty, but it’s actually a self-defense tool! Since it’s plastic, you can (usually) get it through airport security and metal detectors.
  • Get one of those money belts and keep your passport, credit cards and big bills inside your clothes all.the.time. Or get a scarf with a hidden pocket!
  • Don’t get super drunk or high. Maybe you can do this at your hostel bar, but do you really want to be that a-hole who wakes up everybody in the dorm room at 3 am?
  • If someone or something is giving you the heebie jeebies, get out of there. You don’t need to explain yourself or make excuses, just leave.

Have you traveled on your own? Share you safety tips with us!

P.S. How to live out of a suitcase – glamorously

photo by brooke cagle // cc

Notes From The Road: Namaste, Nepal!

As you lovelies are reading this, I’m wearing ridiculous technical gear, some of that awful high spf chapstick and slogging my way through the Himalayas. Yes! Trekking in Nepal!But before you get too impressed with my intrepidity, let me tell you that
a) I’ve hired a porter/guide to carry my bag and keep me from wandering off the trail towards friendly-looking yaks
b) This is tea house trekking, in which I sleep in a bed and eat a hot dinner every night
c) I’m doing a relatively easy, ‘low’ trek

And? This particular trek culminates with a yak cheese factory (!) at 3,800 meters above sea level. Also, I found a stocking cap that has ears and a kitteh face on it, so I’m obviously wearing that.

Apparently the worst part of the trek? The 12 hour, 117 km bus ride over rutted mountain roads to get to the trail head. See?
I’ve been in Nepal for three days now, most of it spent buying technical gear, getting trekking permits and unrepentantly drinking cappuccinos and eating things like hummus and spaghetti. During the trek I’ll mostly be eating dahl and omelets, so I have zero compunction about embracing a bit of decadent westernism before I head out. After I get back, I’ll rest up for a day and then fly down to the border where I’ll volunteer at the Timai Refugee Camp for three weeks.

Have you ever done any big hikes or treks? (I did another one in Bolivia and slept in a barn on a bed made of sticks)

How To Prepare Your Apartment For A Long Vacation

Do you need to prep your apartment for vacation? There are so many things to do before you travel and it's easy to forget! Click through for tips on how to prepare your home for travel!
I’m going to be gone for twelve days (wow, that seems like forever when I put it that way!). I’m actually waiting as I type this for my cab to pick me up!
However, I’ve just finished my checklist. I’m stoked. These are all the things I do to prepare my apartment for a long absence, ensuring safety, ease of travel, and a stress-free return. Read on!

12 steps to prep your apartment for vacation

Get rid of old food

You don’t want to come home to a moldy, sticky, smelly refrigerator. Throw out milk and dairy products that will go bad, as well as eggs, any open jars or beverage containers, and fruit. Or better yet: eat it yourself, or give it to a neighbor.

Do your dishes
Here again: you don’t want to come home to a sink full of flies (or, if you live in Brooklyn, possibly mice). Wash and put away your dishes before you leave.

Take out all the garbage and recycling
Here again, ad nauseum: garbage smells after one day. Imagine that smell multiplied by the number of days you’ll be gone. Get rid of it all.

Put open nonperishables in sealed containers
This is actually something you should do all the time. Don’t keep bagged or boxed rice, beans, pasta, or pet food in your kitchen. Rodents can easily chew through those bags and boxes, so keep them safe in plastic containers with lids. (I actually use 4-gallon Rubbermaid containers under my sink to store dog food.)

Deal with your laundry
If you don’t have time to do all of it before you leave, at least get it together so that it’s easy to combine with all the dirty laundry you’ll be bringing back with you when you come home.

Change your sheets and make your bed
When you’ve been sleeping in someone else’s bed for twelve straight days, coming home to your bed after the exhaustion of travel can feel borderline orgasmic…but only if it’s clean.

If your sheets are covered in dog hair and night sweat, getting into your own bed will be a chore. So make sure your bed is good-night’s-sleep-ready before you leave.

Make sure the space where you’ll do your unpacking upon returning is clear of clutter
Don’t stress about cleaning and decluttering the entire house, but unpacking will be so much less of a chore if it’s done in a decluttered, visually peaceful environment.

Stock up on essentials
It really sucks to come home and realize you don’t have any toilet paper in the house. Or to unload a sack of laundry that you’ve schlepped across seven relatives’ houses only to find that you don’t have enough detergent to clean it all. So don’t let this happen to you.

Unplug appliances
It’s no secret that leaving your appliances plugged in during a long absence is a fire hazard, but did you know that leaving them plugged in while they’re not in use actually uses electricity—even if they’re turned off? Unplug them and save a little bit of cash on your next bill.

Turn the thermostat down.
No one’s around to enjoy the heat, so why would you leave it on?

Pay your bills in advance, or arrange for them to be paid on time.
If you take care of your impending financial responsibilities before you leave, then there are no ugly surprises when you come back—”Oh, shit…I forgot to pay my student loan, and I spent that $500 on dresses while I was gone!”

I used Chase’s Online Bill Payment to send my bills in advance—the money is withdrawn from my account when I schedule the payment, but it’s sent whenever the bill is due. Convenient! (I use this compulsively, by the way…as soon as I have the money in my account, I set it aside for future bills.)

Have someone pick up your mail or stop the mail delivery
If your mailbox has a lock on it, you may be okay without doing this. But you don’t want someone stealing your mail. So don’t let it happen. If you’re in the United States, fill out the form.

How do you prep for a long absence? Tell us in the comments!

P.S. How to travel with a group without going crazy

Photo by STIL on Unsplash