Category: travel

Notes from the Road: NYC

One would think that if we left for Lima, Peru on Saturday at 8 a.m. we would be there by now. I should be on my third cup of coca tea by now and surrounded by my own herd of tiny llamas.

But I am not tucked in among loving alpacas. I am tucked amongst investment bankers and trophy wives at a swanky, swishy hotel in New Jersey. We landed in New Jersey after the first leg of our trip from Minneapolis, only to find our flight overbooked by six people. Which seeeeeems like it would be awful, but when you’ve got three months of wandering ahead of you, what’s one less day? Especially, when they give you each a $500 voucher for future airfare, a first class upgrade for our flight tomorrow, a room at a fancy place and heaps of food vouchers so I can indulge my cheese addiction in a new state? YES PLEASE!

After retiring to our giant room to inspect the complimentary toiletries and jump on the bed, we headed into Manhattan for an impromptu meet up with my favorite New Yorker and college roomie. We drove through Times Square, ate some yummo Mexican food, drank a bit too much bubbly red wine (who knew such a thing existed?) and cuddled Lulu the French Bulldog. We caught the train back to New Joisey at 1 am and have now slept in and lolled in bed watching cable on the giant TV.

Soon we’ll head back to the airport in the same clothes we wore yesterday. And we’ll be those people who get to load first when they say “We are now boarding all rich and fancy people.”

And it will be a lot of rich and fancy people and then us. The Mister in his zip-off hiking pants and me wearing skinny jeans and Eu du Bulldog.

Okay, see you in Peru! This time for real!

How To Have A (Nearly) Stress-free Trip

Sooo many good tips to help make travel less stressful! Particularly useful if you're traveling international or in developing countries

Something that a lot of people don’t talk about is the fact that travel can be stressful.
Wicked stressful. Navigating an unknown city, often in a different language and culture, while carrying a 25 pound bag on your back? And all while trying to have The Best Time Possible? Because this is what you’ve been planning and saving for over the past six months and you are going to have a great time if it kills you.
Annnnd cue the meltdown in line to the Louvre.
Because most of us have a very limited number of vacation days, we put pressure on ourselves to squeeze joy out of every minute that we’re in another country.
When I did my six month trip, I remember being haunted by the feeling that I ‘wasn’t doing it right’ because I was having an awesome time, yes, but I also got lost a lot, got hit by a scooter, overslept on the train and missed my stop, and got a rash from the overnight bus in Vietnam. Seriously.
So please allow me to share some of the tricks I’ve learned to help one chill the eff out and enjoy the ride. Reducing travel stress is more of an art more of a science and it requires you to change your perspective a bit.

How to Make Travel Stress-Free*

Realize that everything is going to take longer and cost more than you thought

One of the biggest stresses when traveling is money. When reading about the prices of food and lodging in a country, it’s easy to add those two numbers together and assume that’s how much money you’ll spend in a given day.
But then you get lost have to take a taxi back to your friend’s house. And you lose your return bus ticket. And the only restaurant that’s open has $17 entrees. It’s also possible (especially if you’re traveling outside of the western world) that your bus will break down, your captain will run on island time, or the roads have washed out now that it’s rainy season.
Of course these things are all hugely frustrating, but often unavoidable. You’ll be a lot happier and more relaxed during your travels if you leave some wiggle room in your schedule and budget.

Everything is just a matter of time and money

Oooh, that sounds rather ominous doesn’t it? I mean, isn’t everything in life just a matter of time and money? But especially when traveling, I think it’s worth remembering this.
Snags in your plan are not a matter of life and death, nor do they have to ruin your trip. Your flight is delayed and you’re going to get in to Edinburgh two hours late? Just message your friend, tell her you’ll get in at 11 pm, and take a taxi to her house.
Whenever I encountered these problems I would repeat this mantra in my head “Everything is just a matter or time and money. I have all the time in the world and a credit card with a high limit.”

That $3 means a lot more to them than it does to you

Bartering is par for the course in many cultures and it’s something that turns many of us westerners inside out with embarrassment. Negotiation + confrontation = nightmare scenario for most women I know, myself included. I have two settings: “Please, overcharge me! I implore you!” or “You want $99? How about $3? No? You are dead to me.”
Of course, as foreigners we are surely being offered extremely inflated prices and shouldn’t accept the first number offered. However, I have seen westerners joyfully embrace the bartering system and spend 20 minutes haggling over a difference of 20 American cents. It’s worth remembering that the four dollars that you’re saving means a lot more to these vendors than it does to you.
The average yearly income in Bolivia is nine hundred American dollars. Just sayin.

It's easier to make money than it is to make memories. Click To Tweet

For most people, money is a constant stressor while traveling. But remember the reasons why you’re traveling in the first place!
Now that you’re three weeks into your trip, funds might be getting a bit low. You find yourself eating a lot of bread and cheese and sleeping in the dorm room at the hostel instead of the double. When your friend suggests the $80 rappelling/black-water rafting/rock climbing trip you balk. That’s, like, four nights of hostel!
Dude, do it. Put that shit on your credit card. If you were at home, you would not think twice about buying a cute sweater from Target and then getting dinner with your friends – and that would probably run you the same amount.
If you’re getting too wound up about money while your traveling, just think about what this money would translate to in your life back at home. New pair of Frye boots or sky diving? Swim with dolphins or one new tire for your car? Not such a difficult choice.

When in doubt, cry

When things just get to be too much, sometimes you just need to let your emotions speak for you. Just as a smile is universal, so is crying. There are few people in the world who can look into the crumpled, messy face of a overwhelmed lady and not feel inclined to help. Or to let you off with a warning.
I really believe that everyone, the world over, is good at heart. You will be amazed at the things that people will do to help you when they can see that you need it.

Are you dead? Are you hurt? No? Then it’s not the end of the world

Travel stress can mount if you let it. It totally sucks to lose your passport or have your wallet stolen or for your luggage to get lost in transit. No arguments there. But all these things are temporary and repairable.
They will make for excellent stories later on in which you will be featured as The Intrepid Traveler Who Went Through So Much But Still Had a Good Time.
How do you stay zen when you’re traveling? Share your tips in the comments so we can learn from you!
* jk it’s 100% not possible to make any sort of trip completely stress-free
Photo by Ruben Gutierrez on Unsplash

How To Cure Homesickness

How to cure homesickness - tips about getting rid of homesickness when traveling abroad

Homesickness can be a serious downer in the face of all your globe-trotting and passport-stamping. There you are, eating gelato while looking at the Leaning Tower of Pisa and allofasudden you’re overwhelmed with a desire for some mall food and a matinee with your best friend.

There’s not one-size-fits-all, airtight cure for homesickness, but these tips have helped through five years of living abroad and 35 countries.

Ways to Cure Homesickness

Stay in touch with people from home.

No, I mean really stay in touch with them. Not just the ‘once a month’ update stay in touch, but the ‘several times a week, hey remember how I told you about that guy?’ stay in touch.
This will really help ease you into your new home, before you’ve made any new friends or really gotten accustomed to your surroundings. It is not an exaggeration to say that when I move to a new place, my best friend can expect daily emails, detailing the new food I’ve eaten, my most recent cultural faux pas and the caliber of fashion in my new home.
Good friends will probably be really excited/intrigued by your new adventure and email you back pretty quickly. You won’t feel so alone in this strange new place, knowing that someone knows exactly what you’re up to.

Think about what you’re really homesick for

Are you homesick for your friends? Your family? Food, language, weather, hobbies?

Of course, you probably miss all of these things in varying amounts, but it can be helpful to parcel them out and decide what you miss the most. If you really miss your friends and family, Facetime ’em.

Find an expat group, travel somewhere that has the snow/beaches/maple trees that you’ve been missing, find some restaurants that serve a reasonable facsimile of your homeland’s food.

Create a go-to homesickness ‘first-aid kit’

When you feel a bout of homesickness coming on (mine usually came around 2 pm on overcast Sundays) turn to your fail proof treatment. This might be a comfort food from home coupled with familiar TV shows or movies and a call home. Or it might be a visit to a mall or an ice skating rink or a national park.
When I was living in Taiwan, my triage plan was 1) go to the import store and buy refried beans and salsa a) eat burritos with Tamara while watching SATC c) go to the upscale bookstore and pay $7 for a copy of Glamour. This got me through the two typhoon seasons.

Try to push through it

I think it’s also important not to indulge your homesickness too much. Just as we often sugarcoat our time abroad, it’s easy to view home through rose colored glasses and lose sight of all the amazing things going on around you.
Get out an explore your new home, even if it’s just for a few hours at a time. Limit yourself to a few phone calls per week and one session of emailing per day. Try not to compare this new place to home. More likely than not, they’re apples and oranges.

Realize that homesickness is an unavoidable part of travel

Just like there will be days where you hate your job and nights when you question your decision to be with your partner, there will be times that you are fed up with being away from home.
You can’t read the signs, everyone stares at you and you can’t find clothes that fit to save your life. That being said, I know that one of the proudest days in my life was the day that I had to send in my passport to get more pages added.
You never hear people say “God, you know I really wish I hadn’t spent that summer volunteering in Greece.” Travel isn’t always easy, but if you realize that there will be tough days, you will be less likely to take them to heart.
And you can always, always go home.
What would you recommend, friends? How do you deal with homesickness?
Photo by Tom Barrett on Unsplash

Ready the Kleenex

photo by pearson251

So. I teach ESL to southeast Asian refugees. I love my job. I do. It’s amazing and humbling and I spend a good deal of time playing bingo and teaching chants about ‘be’ verbs. It’s a pretty sweet gig.

Several of my students are KaRen, an ethnic minority from eastern Burma. In the past fifty years, the KaRen have made several attempts to lead insurgencies against the military dictatorship and failed. When these attempts failed, the military began to ‘ethnically cleanse’ the country of KaRen, forcing more than 120,000 of them into refugee camps along the Thailand-Burma border.Though only intended for temporary use, many refugee camps housed KaRen for 10-15 years. The camps are halfway between a shanty town and a prison, where refugees live in tents or huts, aren’t allowed to leave the camp without a permit and aren’t taught the language of their host country. Refugees bide their time until they are allocated to a new host country, something that they often have no say in.

This is the history of my students. Now that they have been in Minnesota for a few months, they know how to take the bus and where they can buy coconut milk. They’ve experienced snow and escalators are officially old news. Now that they’re experts on American life, they get quite excited at the prospect of new students who they can surely ‘break in’ and impress with their knowledge of this cold, new place. They were all a’fluster when I told them on Monday that we’d be getting new students the next day.

On Tuesday, I ushered three demure KaRen women into the classroom when one of my students jumped out of his seat and started yelling … because thousands of miles away, years ago, in the mountains of Thailand, they all lived in the same camp. And now here they were again, in my tiny classroom in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

Needless to say, I had to busy myself with my dry erase markers for several minutes so I wouldn’t weep over the joy of it all.

More teaching fun:
In which the existence of beavers is questioned
English names chosen by my Chinese Students
Adventures in Non-traditional Adulthood: Teaching ESL Abroad

“I Want To Quit My Job + Travel. Now What?”

Can you really quit that job and travel the world? I did! Click through for tips on choosing a country, finding an ESL job, and calming your family down.

Want to quit your job and travel? If you’ve been dreaming of leaving your job and traveling the world, you might identify with the reader who sent me this email:

Dear Sarah,

I’ve done a bit of traveling in my past years, but in August I decided I was going to go to SE Asia for 7 weeks.  I had an incredible time, but am now itching to go back!! I’ve been looking into English teaching programs in Thailand even though I’m a bit hesitant…you know, I worry that I won’t be a good teacher, etc.
I also just want to see more of Asia as I think the people, the land and the cultures are absolutely incredible. Many people here, including my family, don’t understand this or why I would ever want to go back there long term. They have many preconceived notions, which drives me crazy!
I guess I just like the independence and dislike the way corporate America works and want to learn how others around the world live and work. Maybe I’m crazy? Maybe you’re crazy? What do you think? Any tips for English teaching? Any other suggestions?

Why Quitting Your Job to Travel is Okay

I think, if we are being honest with ourselves, not many of us truly thrive in corporate America. Two-week vacations, dress codes and cubicles are not the things are things our childhood selves dreamed of. Studies show that one in three American workers is chronically overworked and 85% of workers worldwide hate with their jobs.

It’s not too crazy to hate your job, find it unfulfilling or want to leave it.

Luckily, it sounds like you are in the position to do something about it.

Leaving a comfortable, reliable paycheck for the unknown is always scary, especially in our current economic and political situation. But you know what’s more scary? Waking up on the eve of your 45th birthday and realizing that you have not lived the life you want and that you’d like a do-over, please.

How to Quit Your Job and Travel Instead

As someone who bailed on her fancy event-planning job for a life in Taiwan, teaching the alphabet to Chinese kindergartners, here’s what worked for me.

Get some teaching experience

If you don’t know much about ESL or you don’t have any teaching experience, it’s a good idea to some class time under your belt. Because it would suck to move to a foreign country and discover you hate your job, right?

A great way to do this is by volunteering at an ESL school in your area. Many schools even provide training for their volunteers. A good place to start in Minnesota is at the Minnesota Literacy Council.

That being said, don’t feel that you need to complete a CELTA or TEFL certificate to get a job teaching in SE Asia. Most schools just require a college degree and a good attitude. If you really enjoy your job and imagine that you’d like to work in ESL for years to come, you can always get one of these certificates later.

Do heaps of research on your country of choice (and be prepared to present all of this information to any and all nay-sayers)

Many Americans have no idea what day-to-day life in SE Asia looks like. I certainly didn’t before I became interested in ESL!

When I told people I was moving to Taiwan they asked me
a) if I planned on eating cats
b) if I would be living in Bangkok
c) If I would live in a pagoda

So it’s really important that you can correct these misconceptions and point out the similarities between life in your two countries. The importance of family, the emphasis placed on education and a great work ethic are all great parallels to start with.

It’s also good to point out how developed and technologically advanced a lot of cities are … it’ll help allay those fears that you’ll be riding a water buffalo to work.

Lots of people don’t know that SE Asia is one of the safest places to travel as a single woman or that the capitol cities of Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Hong Kong have great health care facilities. Taiwan has four Ikeas for Pete’s sake!

Line up a job ahead of time

Your family will feel a lot better if they know that someone is picking you up at the airport, helping you find housing, and generally looking out for your best interest. It’s actually quite common to find a job before you go.

I would recommend frequently the expat message boards for your country of choice and seeing what people have to say about the different employers. Pay, benefits and expectations vary greatly between employers so it’s important to find a school that’s right for you.

It’s even a good idea to correspond with current employees at the schools your looking at. They won’t shy away from giving you the unvarnished truth.

Convince your family to chill out

Of course, your family is just concerned because they love you, they’ll miss you and they’re worried about you. All of this ground work and information should go a long way to calm your family’s worries.

It might also help to involve them in the process – invite them into your ESL classroom, take them out for red curry at Tom Rum Thai, talk to them about the amazing things that happened to your during your last trip to Asia. Enthusiasm can be contagious!

Even with all this work, it’s possible that they’ll never cheer your decision with cymbals and streamers. But at the end of the day, it’s your life and you need to live it in a way that makes you proud and makes you happy.

I have a good friend whose mother cried and cried when he told her he was moving abroad. However! This same mother regularly bragged to anyone who would listen about her brave, adventurous son and his globe-trotting life.

I think there’s often a difference between what our parents want us to do for them and what they want us to do for ourselves.

Your family will surely miss you while you’re abroad, but I bet they will also be incredibly proud of you and your bravery. I know I am!

What other advice would you offer our globe-trotting lass who wants to quit her job and travel?

P.S. 7 travel tools I will not shut up about + How to love your life if you hate your job

Photo by Leio McLaren on Unsplash


How to Travel on the Cheap: Part 2

cheap travel tips

Did you like part 1 of this super long post? What’s more awesome than traveling? Traveling for $2. Here are a few more ideas for cheapo travel…Travel during the ‘shoulder’ season

Sure, I’d like to be in St. Tropez for Valentine’s day … but so would every other girl and her sister. All those eager travelers equate to packed hotels and high prices. The shoulder season is the month before the ‘real’ tourist season kicks. You’ll still see good weather, but you’ll be privy to open beaches, short lines and even discounted rates on your lodging. Here’s an awesome list of shoulder-seasons for popular destinations the world over.

Sniff out the deals
There are travel deals to be had everywhere, it’s just a matter of knowing where to look. Kayak and Mobissimo both search heaps of travel sites for you so you don’t have to shuttle around from one site to the next. I’m also a huge fan of Travelocity’s ‘Last Minute Packages‘ tab. If you’ve got a three-day weekend coming up and your only requirement is ‘somewhere warm’ you can get amazing deals. Right now, I could get a round trip flight from Minneapolis to Atlanta, plus three nights in a hotel for $247!And don’t discount non-air travel. Though America isn’t known for it’s public transportation system, Megabus is making some pretty significant inroads. Routes are limited to the Midwest and east coasts of the US and Canada. But! You can get tickets for $1! $1! Of course, a lot of the tickets are a bit more, but they are always reasonable. I’m actually heading to Chicago next weekend for less than the cost of a new sweater.

Stay with friends or Couch-surf
I encountered some dumb luck while planning my world ticket and happened to have friends living in four amazing cities that I wanted to visit. If you have friends abroad at the moment, seize the moment and go sleep on their couch! You’ll get free lodging, your own tour guide and insight into the city. Just be sure to clean up after yourself, cook them dinner and send a thank-you gift … But you already knew that, right?But if you’re headed to someplace obscure or friend-free, give couch surfing a try. Here’s how it works: After you select a country you’re traveling to, you sift through profiles of various intrepid souls who have opened up their homes to travelers. You email hosts that interest you, introducing yourself and sharing the details of your trip. If both parties are keen, you stay with them on your way through their city, make a new friend and return the favor to other travelers when you get home. So lovely, right?

Rental relocations

Sweet Jesus, but these are awesome! Countries like New Zealand and Australia have huge tourist industries with heaps of tourists driving all over, very often in one direction. Many travelers land in Auckland, rent a car and then spend a few weeks driving down to Christchurch where they fly home. And lucky you – the car rental companies are happy to rent you that car for $1 if you drive it back up to Auckland for them! The Mister and I spent a three-week holiday on the southern island of New Zealand driving wherever the rental relocations were going . We even drove a $300-a-night camper van for a few days. This website will tell you everything you need to know about the rental relocation process.

Eat like a local
One of the best ways of experiencing a new culture is through the food, right? What would Bangkok be without mango sticky rice or Edinburgh without haggis? Lame, that’s what. But eating out all the time gets spendy! If you’re going to eat out, nosh during the lunch hour when prices are a lot more reasonable and take your leftovers back to the hostel for dinner. Or make a picnic out of nibblings from the grocery store or the fruit and veggie market. I’m also a huge fan of eating from street vendor carts. Authentic, adventurous eats for a pitance. But stay away from those grey cubes rolled in black sesame seeds. They’re not tofu. They’re congealed duck blood.

I nearly turned inside out with embarrassment the first time I haggled a price down in South East Asia. “But it’s already cheap! And it’s so damn awkward!” It doesn’t have to be – just like most things, if you approach haggling with charm and confidence you’ll be fine. Often prices are not posted and the price you are quoted is a) intended as a starting point b) inflated because you’re a foreigner. So smile sweetly, reduce the price by a third and have a go!

photo by Giuseppe Milo // cc