Minimalism and the Joy of Packing Light

If you want to see just how little you actually need as far as things go, I highly recommend backpacking. Nothing will put you to the test like living out of a backpack for 6 months (or longer).hipstamaticphoto-513373145.523072-1

I gave up suitcase-traveling for a good a few years ago, after I bought my first backpacking backpack right before a trip to Europe: A 55 liter Teton sport 3400 that changed travel for me and which I have been using ever since (pictured above). Suddenly, lugging a 50 pound suitcase behind me, getting caught and tripping over jagged, cobblestone streets, and dragging it up flights of stairs was no longer an issue. I could get around faster and with less annoyances.

As an added bonus, you are forced to bring less with you. “Bonus?” you say? Yes, that is to your advantage, because we should all be learning how to live with less. There is something freeing about having less things. The more things you have, the more you have to keep track of. The less you have, the less you have to worry about.

When I was first trying to figure out how to fit everything I needed to travel for six months through various regions with varying climates and temperatures, it was a daunting task. Then I read somewhere that the best thing to do was to lay out everything that you want to take with you, and then get rid of half of it. All the stuff you remove is stuff you don’t really need. And let me tell you, that was some great advice. You really don’t need as much as you think you do.

Now, anyone who looks at this picture of me from my most recent backpacking trip is going to call me a hypocrite, because I’m sure that many would not call this packing light:

Traveling Carly

In my orange pack on my back I have all of my clothes, toiletries and shoes. My Jansport on the front has my laptop and all my teaching materials for work. It looks like a lot but it’s actually worth your while to have a smaller day pack with you no matter what, for the times you go out on excursions and leave your big backpack behind at the hotel, etc. Lots of hotels and hostels will hold you big backpack for you so that you can travel lightly and comfortably to nearby destinations.

I was ecstatic about being able to leave my monster backpack behind at my hostel in Cartagena when I went to the islands of San Andres and Providencia for a week. At the San Andres airport, a fellow American tourist who was on the plane with me was in disbelief that I could be going on a trip for one week with just this little backpack. “Really? That’s all you’re taking for one week?” she gasped. “Give me your camera, I have to take a photo of this.” She snapped the picture and showed it to me. “Look at yourself!”

img_1103

I look pretty happy, don’t I?

If only she knew the joy I was experiencing being liberated from that big backpack! I was delighted to be able to bring with as little as possible for this week. Luckily, I was going to a beach destination so I didn’t need to bring much in the way of clothes and shoes. Of course, the bulk of your load is affected by the climate of where you are going and what kind of clothing you need to bring. If you are going to Europe in the winter, your clothes and shoes are going to take up a lot more room than if you are going surfing in Bali. Regardless of the weather, I still follow these general rules

-1 big backpack and an extra small, lightweight day pack on the front, like a Jansport

-1 pair of comfy pants that can be worn for hiking or lounging

-1 pair of jeans

-1 pair of hiking/gym shoes, 1 pair of flats, and 1 pair of flip flops

-1 sweater

-Various pairs of socks and underwear

-A few pairs of shorts, a few tops

-1 pair of long underwear and a thermal long-sleeve (to wear as pajamas or go underneath my clothes when I am hiking to stay warm)

-Some travel sized toiletries. I don’t worry too much about toiletries because you can buy most anything along the way. Same goes for bug spray, sunscreen, etc.

-My winter coat can roll up to a small size, so I make it as small as I can and clip it onto the outside of my backpack so it’s not taking up space inside. If you are traveling long term you are bound to go through some places where you will be wanting a coat- even for bus rides in hot countries where they crank the air conditioning to the max- so it’s good to have it with you. You can see what I’m talking about on my backpack in the second, “Traveling Carly” picture on this post.

-Passport, phone, wallet, credit cards, charger. That all goes without saying.

-My favorite travel item that I don’t need but can’t live without out: my travel speaker. It gets a lot of use and is a fun thing to have around in group settings.

Obviously if you are going to a cold weather destination, it would be an extra pair of pants and a few sweaters instead of shorts and tops, boots instead of flip flops, and a hat, gloves and scarf as well. It can still all fit in a backpack.

I had to bring my laptop and teaching materials with me because I was working while traveling but, ordinarily I’d say leave that laptop behind if you can. It will weigh you down and is an extra, valuable item that you will have to watch and worry about as you go. The less valuable things you can have on you the better, and if you do have valuable things, make sure they are always ON you. Don’t put them in your checked luggage, keep them as close to your body as possible.

If you’re worried about being smelly because you inevitably end up wearing the same clothes all of the time (which isn’t as big of a deal as you might think because you are constantly moving and meeting new people who won’t realize you’ve worn that same outfit three times already this week), don’t be, because there are always places to go do your laundry along the way. Most hostels offer a laundry service for just a couple bucks. It’s never a big deal to go find a laundromat and have fresh clean clothes in just a matter of hours.

It took me a few big trips to kind of narrow down what the essentials are for traveling on the long term and traveling light, but I think I definitely have it down to the point now that I can advise other people. Less is more. It might seem scary to bring so little with you on a long term trip but you will be surprised and delighted to discover how little you actually need and how nice it is to have less things to worry about. This is the joy of minimalism and it’s one of the coolest things you can embrace through traveling.

 

The Girl on the Bus: A Story About Privilege

“Do you need help with something?” she asked as she walked up beside me, noticing the lost look on my face as I stood at the entrance to the bus station of Pisco, Peru.

“I’m looking for the bus to Lima,” I replied turning towards her, happy to see a pretty young Peruvian girl that looked to be about my age.

“Well, you have two options” she explained. “There is a direct bus that is more expensive but faster. It leaves from over there” she pointed. “Or you can take this one which is cheaper but stops at the villages along the way and takes an hour or two longer.”

I thanked her and headed over to the direct line, where the attendant informed me the next direct bus wasn’t leaving for another hour and a half. Realizing that both buses were going to arrive to Lima at more or less the same time, I opted for the one that didn’t require an hour and a half wait in the bus station, and got on the slower, cheaper bus to Lima.

As I settled into my seat, pulling my headphones and laptop out in preparation for isolation, the young girl boarded. We made eye contact and smiled at each other as she walked down the aisle towards me.

“Well, why not?” she said, taking her backpack off and motioning towards the seat next to me. “May I?”

“Of course,” I said, moving my things to the floor to make room for her.

“Thanks,” she replied. She situated herself and pulled out a bag of pastries she had brought with to snack on during the journey. She offered me one, which I accepted gratefully. She explained that food is her job- as a food engineer she is always well-equipped with good snacks, wherever she goes.

“I’m surprised you didn’t take the direct bus,” she said. “The tourists usually take the direct buses because they are safer. The problems occur on these buses that frequently stop to let new people on. Burglars enter all the time. It happened to me…”

She went on to recount an incident that had happened to her just a few months earlier on the same route. She was traveling home to the small village where she grew up and her parent’s still live when a group of delinquents boarded the bus and robbed everyone who was on it. She was forced to hand over her purse and laptop, and only managed to keep her cell phone because as soon as she saw them stand up with guns, she discreetly sat on it.

I listened empathetically to her story. I told her I had heard about these bus robberies being a problem in Latin America, specifically on night buses, but had been lucky enough to avoid such misfortune myself. Considering the fact we were driving primarily through hours and hours of pure desert with nothing and nobody for miles around, it would be pretty easy to get on a bus and rob it. hipstamaticphoto-516220360.192344

This led us into a discussion about the problem of corruption in Latin America and how this long-standing issue has kept them from moving forward in the world, which escalated into a discussion of corruption in politics, environmental awareness, and beyond. The time flew by as we passionately discussed these issues together, as if we were longtime friends who shared the same dreams and ideas. Our lives had been so different but, there we were, laughing and smiling together, interested in talking about the same important topics on the bus ride from Pisco that day.

“So where have you been traveling in Peru?” she asked, curiously.

“Well, right now I’m just coming from Huacachina and Paracas” I told her.

“Ica?! How beautiful!” she beamed.

“Have you been?” I asked.

“No, not yet,” she smiled. “I hope to one day. Where else have you been?”

I explained to her that I was actually at the end of my trip, and how I’d spent the last five months traveling through Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. “Now I’m on my way back to Lima to get my flight home tomorrow,” I sighed, those mixed feelings about going back home arising in me as I said the words.

She asked where my favorite place was that I had seen in Peru. I told her of the places I had been so far, it would be Huaraz and the Santa Cruz trek, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to see as much of Peru as I wanted to this trip. “I ran out of time before I could make it to Macchu Picchu,” I lamented to her. “You must have been,” I assumed out loud.

“No,” she answered, to my suprise. “I would love to travel one day,” she gushed, that dreamy look in her eyes. “But it’s not possible right now. I have to work.”

She went on to explain to me that her parents are no longer employed, so she has been supporting them. Her sister is also unemployed and recently was forced to leave her husband with her two daughters and move back in with their parents. Since she was the only person in her family with work, she was currently supporting herself, her mother and father, her sister and two nieces on her salary.

“Someday,” she smiled, looking off.

I know from my travels around Peru that the average Peruvian salary is around five hundred dollars per month. If I were only making five hundred dollars a month, I wouldn’t be smiling as I talked about having to support my family or my laptop being taken from me. Yet there she was, radiating positivity as she talked about some heartbreaking parts of her life. Where there was positivity to be found in such circumstances, she found it.

This girl hadn’t even been able to travel around her own country, and it seemed unlikely that she will get to anytime soon. But was she upset about it? Hardly. She was well-adjusted and accepting of the situation, and was in no way complaining about her lot in life. Instead, she smiled. She felt blessed that she did have work and happy that she was able to provide for her family.

She was born in a notoriously dangerous neighborhood of Lima- La Victoria- but when she was only a small child, her parents decided to move to the small town a few hours away where she was heading at the moment. They wanted to raise her in a better place, give her a better future.

I grew up in a white, middle-class neighborhood in the United States- which means rich by the rest of the world’s standards. The hardest things that I have had to deal with in my life have been my own inner demons and emotional problems that I have struggled to understand and overcome. No outside oppression has made my life difficult, but yet, it has felt so hard so often. But this girl smiled as she recounted the adversity of outside circumstances in her life that she had to face, as if it was all okay. And I thought of how often, despite my privileged upbringing and lifestyle, I just do not feel that way.

I’m supposed to be “privileged”, due to the circumstances that I was born into, but am I? Or am I at a disadvantage in terms of life satisfaction? When you have everything, when do you have enough to be satisfied? In a society where success is measured monetarily and materialistically, how do you find happiness on the inside? And why is it so much harder for me, the world traveler, than it seems to be for this lovely human being beside me?

Some question how it is that people in less-privileged countries with so little can be so happy. To me it is simple: when you have less, you are happy with less. There are certain basic needs that we need to have met as a human being, like food and shelter for example. People who are focused on meeting those needs don’t really have room to worry about whether or not they feel fulfilled in life. They’re just trying to make it through the day. But for those of us from places where we have all of our basic needs more than accommodated, where do you draw the line at what is satisfactory? What is enough to be content in your life?

It’s always fascinating to me to go to poor countries and meet so many happy souls like this girl, and then come home and hear of so many that are struggling with things like depression and anxiety, myself included. The US has the highest rate in the world for mental illness, and it seems to be climbing every year. I am not in any way trying to say that these aren’t real problems. On the contrary, I know that they are very real. In fact, I think it’s something that needs to be addressed more seriously in our country and around the world. What I’m pointing out is that having too much opens up a whole new set of problems, and that people with less, despite the problem of having so little (if you would call it that), are often much happier inside.

She pulled out a little bag with some makeup in it that she had just purchased, unwrapping a small bottle of hair serum, squeezing a bit into her hands, and rubbing it into the ends of her hair. She looked at me. “You have very curly hair, you know your ends could use some extra moisture.” She handed me the bottle. “Try some of this. I just got it”. I mimicked her actions, applying a small amount to my ends.

I breathed it in. “Mmm. It smells so nice.”

“Keep it,” she told me.

“No, please!” I protested. “You just bought it. I don’t want to take it from you!”

“You like it,” she said. “I insist.”

While I felt bad taking her brand new hair product, I knew that she wasn’t going to take no for an answer, so I tucked the cream in my backpack and thanked her profusely. But I was floored by this girl’s natural inclination to give: asking me if I needed help, sharing her food and her new makeup, not to mention completely supporting her entire family. Would I be so generous to a stranger? If we were to trade lives, would I ever be able to handle what she is going through right now? If my privileged life seems this overwhelming sometimes, could I handle hers?

Sharing hair products, talking about world issues, giggling and smiling at each other: we were girlfriends from completely different worlds. And just like that, two and a half hours had gone by and we were pulling up to her village. If I had gotten on the direct bus, I never would have met her. I was sad to watch her walk awaymy kindred spirit. Some ugly part of my American identity had been exposed over the course of that bus ride, and she left me sitting alone and uncomfortable in my privilege. Like something wasn’t right. I can’t seem to shake the feeling since.

 

 

 

Things Traveling Has Taught Me

It has been said that “travel is the best education a person can give themselves” and I will second that. I think the things I have learned about myself and the world through traveling the last couple years have been infinitely more valuable than the knowledge- much of it long forgotten- that I acquired through years of formal education.

twain

We all experience things uniquely, and everyone will come away with different things from their travels depending on where they are at in their life and what they are looking for. A lot of people travel to learn more about or “discover” themselves; this is inevitable and a huge part of the allure of travel. An entire industry has been built on this romantic notion of travel with the popularity of books like “Eat, Pray, Love” and “Wild”. Of course, self discovery is important too, but I think the things I’ve learned about other people and cultures has been even more important; humbling me and giving me a realistic impression of what this planet that we inhabit is really like.

We are constantly learning, and this list could go on forever and ever for the rest of my life, but, here are some of the most important lessons that I personally have taken away from traveling so far:

The World is Safer than You Think

I’ve been traveling and living abroad for a decade now, but my trip to Southeast Asia last year was the first time I ventured into third world countries. I admit, since I do most of my traveling alone, I was apprehensive about going to countries like this by myself. I’m sorry to admit that I really let the media and those misconceptions we have about such foreign places get to me. Sure, there are the initial culture shocks and things you have to get used to, common sense is always going to be your best friend, but underdeveloped countries aren’t as run down and dangerous as we are often led to believe, and are worthy of a visit a million times over. If you don’t see places like this, you simply don’t have an accurate portrayal of what the world is really like, because way more people on this Earth are living in these kinds of conditions than in the cushy comforts of the first world- things that we most often take for granted.

When I got to Asia, this big step for me, I was astounded at how many nineteen and twenty year old solo backpackers- mostly European and Australian- that I constantly was running into. Many of them were obviously traveling on their parents dime. I would have never been so brave at nineteen or twenty to go to some of these locations on my own, and if I had been, my parents definitely would not have approved. But nowadays, it doesn’t seem so scary, since with the internet one can easily stay in touch with their family and friends every step of the way in their journey, and they don’t seem as far away as they really are. Also so many people are traveling now that, like it or not, you end up on a tourist trail with other travelers, and you are never actually stranded alone.

I wish that we could all just accept the fact that the media wants us to be scared, because it’s in their best interest to keep up feeling that way. With all this bad news, they end up putting us against each other by promoting fear and stereotypes about people and places that are different from us, when what we need to be doing is working together. However, while their business seems to be based on manipulating our perception of the world to keep us in fear of all the danger and the “bad” people out there, I have to say that traveling has shown me the opposite is true: there are more good people out there than bad, and the world is safer than you think.

The Power of a SMILE

I am certain that friendly interactions with people are highly determined by the friendliness that you put out. Nine times out of ten, if you start off any interaction with a person with a smile on your face and a friendly tone, that is what you will get back, and both parties will walk away feeling good about the exchange and happier in general, because friendly, nice exchanges with people- friends and strangers alike- make us feel good and reassure us in the good of humanity.

When traveling, you are quite often put in a position where you may feel helpless (out of your comfort zone) and need to rely on other people for help. In these moments, a smile is everything. People are much more willing to help and more receptive to you in general if you are nice to them. Even besides the fact that you are asking for help, it just feels good to smile and be nice to people. It’s in everyone’s best interest to smile and be kind to each other- for yourself and for the people you meet along the way.

In contrast, I have found the absence of a smile or a scowl to also be quite powerful, and I’d say there is a time and place when this kind of attitude can be used as a tool (as I talked about in my post about traveling alone as a woman) in moment’s when we do not want to talk to someone.

The bottom line is that there is so much power in your smile, facial expressions and attitude, and no matter how bad you might be feeling its worth it to just smile anyways to attract more positivity into your life.

hipstamaticphoto-515519649.922437

Staying in the Moment and the Value of Slow Travel 

I used to try and have everything planned out before I left, but a trip to Southeast Asia last year changed all of that. In just a little over two months, I traveled to five different countries in Southeast Asia- Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand. I remember prior to the trip thinking about the time frame I had and all that I wanted to see and being faced with a decision: to try and see just a couple of places and come back later for the rest, or try and do it all.  I foolishly chose to try and see it all. In the two months I was there I didn’t sleep more than two or three nights maximum in one location, oftentimes just stopping for one night before moving on. I barely got a chance to put my things down and relax. It felt like the whole time, I was just trying to get to the next place instead of enjoying where I was, instead of exploring and getting to know and fully appreciate each place and what it had to offer. This is the beauty and the gift of slow travel.

In hindsight, I would have done that trip differently. Maybe I would have picked two or three of those countries and just a few places in each one. I still feel like I didn’t really get to know Asia. But I learned from this mistake and since then when I plan a trip I plan as little as possible and see what happens. That’s how I ended up spending almost three months in Colombia and consequentially, did not get as far in South America as I originally thought I would. But I don’t regret a second of it, because Colombia was so good there was no reason to rush out of there. That’s the kind of freedom you want to have when your traveling: to be able to stick around longer if you really like a place and soak it in.

This way of travel is contingent on staying in the moment, which is another thing I am learning to do through traveling and is a really important thing to learn to do in life, albeit a difficult one, as we seem to be programmed to worry about what’s next as human beings. But the practice of centering yourself and trying to stay in the moment is a liberating one, just as is having the freedom to stay and enjoy where you are instead of fixating or worrying about where you’re going next.

mt

Stay in the moment

Whatever you Choose, It Will be Right for You

I used to be a huge sufferer of chronic FOMO- that is, Fear Of Missing Out Disorder. There are always times when traveling (and in life in general) when choosing to do one thing requires us to miss out on another, and I couldn’t bear the thought of missing out on something good, and so, decision-making was intensely stressful for me. Like it or not though, we do have to make a choice, and most choices come with their set of potential loss, potentially missing out on something else.  As much as I  wanted to do it all, see it all, not miss out on anything, the reality of being a human being is that we can’t do it all. We have limits. We have to make choices.

I would stress out about decisions that I had to make to the point that it made me sick. But ya know what? Things always worked out. Wherever I ended up going and whatever ended up happening once I made my mind up after all the angst of indecision, I wouldn’t take any of it back now. I was always able to see later on why it had to happen the way that it did and find meaning in the outcome. So the lesson is this: whatever you do end up choosing, you have to trust that it will be the right thing for you. All decisions come with some inherent regret for the lost possibilities of what you did not choose, that’s just a fact of life. But ultimately we can only choose one thing, and so we have to boldly detach ourselves from the could-have-beens and move forward firmly and confidently in the decision that we do make.

I will continue to expand on this list as I continue to live, learn and travel, and I would also be interested to hear reader’s comments on things that they have learned through traveling as well so, feel free to comment!

 

How Do You Do It? Tips for Making Travel Happen on the Cheap

It’s no secret that nowadays I, like many Digital Nomads have been able to fund my lifestyle by working online from wherever I am traveling. However, as I highlighted in the article I wrote about becoming a Digital Nomad, for a long time before this job fell into my lap I struggled to be able to make travel happen, and I still continue to explore and discover new tricks and tips to save money so that I can sustain traveling long term. Being able to make money while I travel has certainly taken a weight off, but it wouldn’t be enough by itself to travel for long periods of time. Over the years I have come up with an extensive list of tips and tricks that have saved me money and allowed me to keep traveling long term, which I am going to share with you curious readers here. Everybody is talking about working online right now but not everyone has found their dream online job yet. So for those of us who have and haven’t alike, here is a list of money saving tips I have discovered through travel:

1) Travel to Cheap Countries

Most of my traveling the last two years has been in second and third world countries, mostly because they’re still pretty new to me, honestly. The first 8 years I stayed in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, admittedly because while I knew I loved to travel, I was apprehensive about traveling by myself in less developed countries. Once I started though I immediately realized that no pasa nada- it’s all good (as long as you keep in mind a certain set of guidelines)- and this has opened up a whole new, enormous, exciting world to keep exploring. Besides the fact that these places aren’t as dangerous or run down as we might believe, I also discovered that my money goes way further, I’m talking way, wayyyyy further, than when I am traveling through countries like my own. Not only are the cultural and societal differences far greater and more interesting, but the economy is also a far cry from our own, which means you are going to be paying less for everything than you would in your country and therefore, you can travel longer or even try and do things you wouldn’t be able to afford in another place. It might seem obvious but, you can travel longer and do more by sticking with cheap countries, and at the same time get a deeply enriching cultural experience: that of seeing what it’s like to live with a lot less than you do.

 

The best Carne Asada tacos of your life for 50 cents?!? Viva Mexico!

2) Don’t have bills

When people from home used to ask me how I was able to do this- traveling all the time- the first thing I would do is implore them to consider how much money they spend per month on bills: rent, car insurance, car payments, cable tv, phone, whatever- and add all that up. I guarantee you I spend less than that traveling each month. I save a ton of money every month just by not having those monthly expenses. I feel like when they ask, people are expecting to hear that I have some kind of a family inheritance or a rich benefactor, neither of which is remotely true. I started working when I was fifteen years old. I have funded all of my traveling and my education by working and saving up, just like everyone else. I haven’t gotten any breaks, I just figured out a way to do this that works for me and that has become my lifestyle. Now the thought of transitioning back to a stationary life with bills and a full time job seems more complicated to me than the lifestyle that I’ve developed, which isn’t an entirely good thing but, that’s for another blog post. The point here is that by eliminating your high, monthly expenditures you free up a lot of money to travel, and depending on where you are in the world that money can go a long way.

3)Travel on a Shoestring

Obviously, that’s what this whole article is about: traveling on a shoestring. But what does that mean? I was surprised to find that the meaning of this phrase escapes not only my friends who don’t speak english as their first language, but even some of my friends and family from home who have never had to travel or do anything “on a shoestring”. It basically means travel on a budget. That means we are not on vacation, we are not splurging, we are trying to make our money stretch as far as it can. Which means things like: staying in hostels and not hotels, taking low cost airlines or buses or trains, preparing meals for yourself with food that you bought from a grocery store instead of eating every meal out, bargaining and looking around and comparing prices for different tours before you buy them. If you were on vacation for just a week or two, you would probably splurge on the finer things. After all you only have two weeks and then it’s back to work… so why not? But if you want to travel long term this just isn’t feasible, you have to make some sacrifices.

 

 

img_0096

Get around like the locals do: wave down a collectivo instead of hiring a taxi

img_0486

Many places in South America (where the weather is nice) offer hammocks in addition to dorm beds where you can sleep for as little as $5 a night.

4) Volunteer programs, Workaway and Woofing

I listed these sites in my Travel Go-To’s , and here they are again as a way to travel on the cheap. I reckon you could do an entire backpacking trip through a country or continent just hopping from Workaway host to Workaway host (that’s a good idea for a future trip) and never having to pay for accommodation- which is probably the thing you end up spending the most money on while traveling. These programs link hosts who are willing to provide room and board in exchange for a wide variety of services- you can browse them all and apply for the ones that interest you on the website. You usually only have to work 4-5 hours a day, 5 days a week, and in your free time you can explore the area that you’re in. Plus you get the experience of living with a local family and working or volunteering in a foreign country which is invaluable and adds a new dimension to your travels. You’re not just traveling to see things and spend money but to help out and contribute in some way.

5) Sign up for a Charles Schwab account

This is the most valuable travel hack that I learned about too late. Holders of a Charles Schwab bank account do not have to pay ATM fees anywhere in the world. I have paid ATM fee’s as high as $16 per transaction depending on where and how much money I was taking out, so you can see those really start to add up. I would have saved hundreds of dollars in ATM fees if I had found out about this years ago. I’m grateful to have it now though, and to no longer have to worry about these fines every time that I take money out. There is no fee to sign up for a Charles Schwab account and you can do it for free online. It sounds like there has to be a catch but, there isn’t! I’m not sure why more people don’t know about it but I’m sure they will soon as traveler’s are catching on to this sweet travel hack.

 

 

My Travel Go-To’s

This is a list of my favorite go-to travel resources. Notice that Lonely Planet guidebook is not one of them. In the internet age, I don’t see any reason to lug around a heavy guidebook – unless you are in a country like Cuba where there is no internet (or it is very limited), in which case, you should be enjoying every second of such a unique situation in which you are completely forced to disconnect. Even in Cuba, I wasn’t regretting the fact that I didn’t have a physical book with me, because there are always other travelers to talk to about where to go and what to do as well as the local people you meet along the way. In fact, I can say adamantly that this is absolutely the best way to travel if you can be okay with the fact you don’t have every step of your trip planned out and set in stone before you leave. This is the way I travel nowadays because I’ve learned over the years the best way to do it is to JUST GO. Make loose plans about where you want to be and when, and then just go with it. Talk to people and see what you find out about what is not to miss and what is. Be open to what comes up. It’s part of the adventure.

Especially when you are traveling by yourself, it’s good to have some resources to go to when you have questions about what you’re doing or need support, or need help making travel possible. Here are my favorites:

1) Join the Facebook group of Wherever You are Going

I list this as my #1 resource on purpose: it is the one I find most helpful and use the most, especially with this last trip that I did. When I started planning my trip to South America, I got tipped off by someone in another travel group to join the “Backpacking South America” group on Facebook. Soon after, I stopped using the other travel groups entirely because this one was so perfect I didn’t need anything else. Here’s how it works: You ask a question to the group about any aspect of your trip, and about 10 people will respond who have just been there and done it and can enlighten you on the subject. At this point, it seems like almost everything has been asked already, so before I ask the group I type the subject of what I’m going to ask about in the search bar to look at past posts that have been made about that topic, and usually I will find my question has been answered there already.

Also, just following the discussion of the group, you can see if any important topics or information comes up that you need to know about for your upcoming travels. For example, right before I left to start my trip in Colombia, someone had posted in the group  that Tayrona National Park was going to be closing for a month at the end of January so that the native people could celebrate their religious festivals. So I rushed right up to Santa Marta as soon as I got into the country to make sure I could get into Tayrona before it closed. Afterwards I met so many disappointed travelers who didn’t know and weren’t able to go to the park- one of the biggest tourist draws of Colombia- because they didn’t know it was going to be closed. That was the first helpful “head’s up”of many; I can’t stress how many times this resource saved my butt while I was traveling down there.

2) Girl’s Love Travel

This was formerly my #1 resource for travel and I talked about it in my piece about traveling as a woman.  It’s another group on Facebook that connects women all over the world who share a passion for travel. It goes beyond just asking and answering travel related or location-specific questions to providing support, encouragement, and empowerment to women who travel. For a lot of women and people, that is what’s standing between them and getting out there: self-doubt or a lack of support, so this resource is very important on a lot of different levels.

3) Trip Advisor

In my Guidelines for South America article, I wrote about the importance of checking Trip Advisor reviews before you book any tour so you know what you are getting into. This also applies for hotels, hostels and restaurants. Check first before you book anything to avoid being disappointed later. I think this is one of the coolest things the internet has given us: the possibility of being able to connect with other people who are doing and interested in the same things that you are and to inform yourself about things which a few decades ago we would have had no other choice but to go into completely blindly. It’s certainly added a new dimension to traveling when you can go into a foreign situation prepared, informed and knowing to a certain extent what to expect.

4) Workaway.com

Websites like Woofing, Workaway, and Helpx are all designed to link travelers with hosts that will offer them room and board in exchange for help with a particular service or job. I like Workaway the most because it has the most diverse offers for help- anything from helping the host learn english to yard and housework to volunteering at hostels. Usually the hosts require a minimum 2 week stay so this is for travelers who have more time on their hands, but it’s an awesome opportunity not only to save money on accommodation, but to get to know local people, other travels and experience living and working in another country. It’s a great jumping off point when you first get to a country to have a place arranged to go to, as well as a place to stop for a while when you’ve been on the move for a long time.

5) Dave’s ESL cafe

This website has an international job board with english teaching opportunities around the world. If you are lucky enough to be a native english speaker with a college degree (and probably even without it depending on the position) you can find a job working abroad easily. The pay is usually well or at least enough to live comfortably in that country. And it’s an opportunity to not only travel but live abroad and work there, which is a completely different experience then just traveling through a place.

 

 

 

Carly’s Guidelines for South America (also applies to South East Asia)

South America is the adventure of a lifetime. I have completely fallen in love with the chaos and charisma of this continent. However, I think that in order to appreciate and enjoy them, there is a certain frame of mind you need to acquire when you’re traveling through places like this. You’re not in Europe. You’re not in US. You’re not in the first world, so you have to be prepared for the differences you’re going to experience and subsequent challenges they may present. So, upon returning, I have compiled this list of guidelines for traveling South America. This list would also apply to South East Asia and I’m sure many other third world countries accustomed to tourism.

#1: Listen to the Locals

I would say that I owe the fact that I traveled for five months through South America without anything bad happening to me to the locals, with the aid of my own common sense (it’s important to have that while traveling 😉 ). I found that people would usually inform me about which areas to avoid or warn me to say, watch my purse, without me even having to ask them. Years of traveling have shown me that people are generally good, and they want to help and protect you from the ones that aren’t so good if they can. I always felt like somebody had my back the whole time I down there, when common sense alone didn’t cut it.

#2: Have Change!hipstamaticphoto-514841781.589933

The photo above cracks me up every time I look at it. I was so delighted when I saw this to be able to snap a photo of a sign that captures this widespread dilemma that all of us travelers were facing throughout South America: nobody ever has change for you. The irony is that ATM machines will always disperse large bills, but not many people will be able to break them for you. It starts to get frustrating when pretty much anything larger than exact change is too big for a vendor to break, or he ends up having to run down the block to get change from his buddy for you and taking fifteen minutes to come back. So, the best advice I can give you is to change out those big bills in a big supermarket (the corporate, chain variety of supermarket that can handle larger amounts of money) as soon as you get them and just have change on you all the time. It will save you a lot of time and headaches as you travel and spend.

#3 Go directly to the agency to book your tour

hipstamaticphoto-515607429.708478

The only real negative experience that I have from my 5 month trip involves being conned by a “captador” or tout at a bus station upon arriving at Huaraz at six in the morning who ended up selling us a tour for double what it actually cost, lying to us about what we were getting in the tour, and disappearing into thin air once the money changed hands. It was a rookie mistake and I absolutely should have known better than to listen to this type of character with the experience I have traveling, but the point is they are preying on tired travelers who just got off of long uncomfortable overnight bus journeys or who don’t speak Spanish. In a weak moment, it’s easy to follow these people who promise to take care of it all for you. But they are not your friends and they are not trying to help you.

In any case, before you book any tour anywhere you should talk to people who have already done it and find out what the going rate is for the service. This is what we should have done BEFORE booking the Santa Cruz trek through the tout, instead of finding out during the trip that everyone else in our group paid half of what we did. The saddest part is that all that extra money went directly into this crook’s pocket, instead of to our guide, the donkey driver, the van driver, and the people who actually do the work for it but, end up getting paid very little. So, avoid people on the street trying to sell you tours and go directly to an agency to find out what you should be getting and what you should be paying while traveling.

Our guide and the donkey driver: they deserved the money!

#4 Don’t expect the tour that you were pitched (especially at a backpacker price)

We may have been the ones who got ripped off the worst monetarily of our group on the Santa Cruz trek, but every one had at least one thing to complain about that wasn’t as advertised when they booked the trip. I can say that this pretty much rings true for every single tour I booked in South America: Not once were things as advertised. They will always talk it up in the agency when you are booking but at the end of the day, if you are booking a cheap tour at backpacker price, you get what you get. Now, there does exist the option of paying more money to get a better, private service for people who can manage it. If I weren’t a long-term backpacker trying to make my money stretch as far as it could, I would certainly sign up for one of those and save myself the frustration of feeling lied to all the time. But I think whether or not you can do that, the best thing is to keep your expectations low and don’t ever assume that things should or will be the way that they were pitched to you when you were booking, because they will not be and you will only feel annoyed and disappointed.

#5 Check Trip Advisor reviews

Continuing on the same theme/rant/lesson learned from #3 and #4, before you book any tour anywhere- check Trip Advisor! For example, when we looked up the tour “agency” we booked the Santa Cruz trek with (“Jhonny Tours” they were called, by the way) afterwards, we read that they are touts and crooks and to avoid them at all costs like I am telling you to do now. If only we would have checked Trip Advisor first! The same thing happened for our Amazon experience: there were several problems with our lodging, and we found all of them discussed in the Trip Advisor reviews of travelers who went before us when we checked afterwards. So I’ve definitely learned my lesson now to always check Trip Advisor BEFORE booking anything, again to save yourself the frustration of feeling deceived and let down.

#6 Bargain for Everything

Anyone who has experienced traveling in third world countries knows that the first price you are quoted is not the price you are supposed to pay. If there isn’t a price tag on it- and even sometimes when there is- you are meant to haggle for the price of what you’re getting. Bargaining can actually be fun once you get the hang of it, while in contrast not knowing how to bargain can make your travel experience miserable. I like being able to bargain because it gives the buyer back some power, otherwise you are going to feel like you’re getting ripped off all the time. I don’t blame them- if you are living in poverty and you can get some clueless gringo to pay three times what they are supposed to for something, why wouldn’t you? Of course they have to try. And you don’t have to let them. You can assert your power as the buyer by entering into the beautiful exchange of bargaining.

The general rule of thumb is to start by offering them half of what they first quote you. They are going to start with an unreasonably high amount, you will counter them with a low amount, and then you will keep going back and forth until you finally reach a price that both the buyer and seller are happy with. I’m telling you, it can be fun!

BUT there is one important thing I really want to stress about bargaining: Do it respectfully. If you are in a country where this is practice, it is most likely a poor country, and the person you are bargaining with is much poorer than you are. A few extra cents or dollars to them is a lot more than it is to you, so keep this in mind and be considerate. Don’t insult them or their service by refusing to give them a fair amount, so that they can make some profit off of what they’re selling. Respect, respect in general: remember you are a guest in THEIR country, and also you are representing YOUR country- and you want to be a good ambassador, don’t you?

#7 Cash is King

One thing that I have learned from traveling is that having a credit card and being able to buy things with invisible money is an enormous privilege that most of the world can not afford. They deal with real, tangible money and they need it to survive. So don’t be surprised if you go days or weeks without finding a place that will take a credit card for anything. Be prepared and have cash to spend wherever you go. And be grateful that you are privileged enough to have access to such a thing as a credit card, which is not the norm on world-wide scale.

I have seen travelers let these these things get to them to the point that it interferes with them enjoying their trip. It’s happened to me. That’s why it’s important to relax and try to understand where you are. Put yourself in a certain frame of mind to be prepared for these types of frustrations. Let them go, laugh them off, and learn to appreciate the differences instead of resist them. After all, this is the reason why we travel: to experience something completely different. We can’t expect that all of the differences will be extraordinary and beautiful without carrying some downsides as well.

 

The Urge to Compare

As I settle into my seat for my third overnight bus ride in the two weeks I’ve been in Ecuador, I try to start brainstorming what I want to say about this new country, but nothing comes. I find myself still only wanting to write about Colombia, and I can’t help comparing it to Ecuador. Didn’t Colombia seem way more developed than this? Weren’t there way less sketchy characters walking around? Is it just me or are the happy, uplifting interactions with people starting to feel fewer and further in between?

I can feel my heart is still in Colombia, so much so that I don’t even feel motivated to talk about this new place. But I know that that’s not right.

I remind myself that exploring these differences between cultures and countries is the reason why we travel, and what makes travel so thrilling, worthwhile and valuable. Being different doesn’t have to be a negative thing. The differences are what push us to keep going, to keep exploring this big, diverse, amazing world.

A good traveler will resist the urge to compare and judge, which inevitably leads to disappointment and dissatisfaction, and that’s not what travel is about.  We travel to appreciate, enjoy, and live each place for what it is; to take in the infinite uniqueness of the world.