Slovenia by the Numbers

Lakes circumnavigated on foot: 1

Lakes jumped in mid-circumnavigation: 1

National poets side-eyed for their choice of muse: 1

Fancy breed horses that rebuffed my attempts to pet them: 4

Entertaining guided tours taken: 2

Picturesque castles viewed from a distance: 5

EU-wide award-winning ice creams tasted: 2

Attempts made to take this one special elevator to a club in Ljubljana, only to have the elevator stop a floor below the right one every time: 5

Mini-waterfalls admired: 2

Total days spent in Slovenia: 6

Total money spent: $361

Average per day: $60

Times I said, “Seriously, so beautiful” out loud: It basically became my catchphrase

Lake Bled, Slovenia

Lake Bled, Slovenia

Croatia by the Numbers

Hailstorms spent hiding on the portico of a basilica/mausoleum: 1

Clouds of cigarette smoke accidentally walked through: at least a dozen, ew

Roadside breakdowns while driving up a mountain: 1

Elaborate breakfast buffets consumed on a hostel balcony: 4

Outdoor choir concerts stumbled upon: 2

Adorable French children befriended: 1

Bell towers climbed while Vertigo played in the back of my mind: 1

Nights spent dancing on a giant outdoor light-up disco floor: 2

Green-blue waterfalls admired: at least 10

Island beaches sunbathed on: 2

Servings of the very strong local rakia consumed: 5, aka plenty

Total days spent in Croatia: 14

Total money spent: $1,078

Average per day: $77

Total money spent, minus the airfare: $906.36

Average per day, minus the airfare: $67.74

Expanses of otherworldly blue water seen: leagues

Looks good from here

Looks good from here

Ecuador by the Numbers

Hours spent in Spanish class–my first classroom experience in a decade: 40

Hours spent valiantly struggling to make conversation with my host mother in Quito: 20

Iguanas encountered: 12

Delicious soups consumed: 20

Waterfalls admired: 8

Ankles sprained: 1

Inca ruins visited: 1

Equatorial lines straddled: 1

Waves dived in: hundreds 

Presidential palaces toured: 1

Chicago Bulls paraphernalia seen: countless items

Total days spent in Ecuador: 47

Total money spent: $2,663.25

Average per day: $56.66

Total money spent, minus the airfare: $1,983.25

Average per day, minus the airfare: $42.20

Blissful beach and waterfall moments experienced: many

Las Tunas, Ecuador; March 10, 2014

Vietnam by the Numbers

Delicious pork-based meals consumed: 20+

Delicious pork-based meals that were bun cha: 10+

Items of bespoke clothing purchased: 3

Animals seen: 10 or so (easily the fewest of my entire trip)

Entombed heads of state briefly glimpsed: 1

World Heritage sites admired: 2

Instances in which I was run over by a four-door sedan: 1

Packages of Oreos and Ritz crackers offered as recompense for being run over by a taxi: 4

Weeks for burns to heal: 4

Weeks for puncture wound to heal: 7

Major sightseeing trips canceled due to injuries: 2 (see you next time, Sapa and Halong Bay!)

Total money spent: $1,468.40

Number of days in the country: 28

Average amount spent per day: $52.44

Total money spent, minus the hospital costs: $1,026.30

Average amount spent per day, minus the hospital costs: $36.65

New friends made: 6

Old friends happily re-met by chance: 2

Reasons to go back and see more, uninjured this time: 100+

hue bike traditional hat

Back in the States Update

I’ve been back in the States for 8 weeks now, which sounds like a long time, but I’ve spent a lot of that time at weddings and catching up with friends, so it’s felt shorter. I’m settled in to my parents’ house, and I’ll be here ’til the end of the year. So what am I up to these days?

Today I took a look at my short-term goals from July, and I’m doing pretty well! 1) I bought catastrophic health insurance through Priority Health. It costs $72 a month, and that includes emergency room visits and not much else. Pre-existing conditions aren’t allowed (I cannot wait for the Affordable Care Act to be fully implemented so that kind BS is no longer permitted), and I pay full price for prescriptions and most doctor visits. But it’s one of the better plans I found, with a fairly low premium ($1,000), and I might not need it for very long, because… 2) I got a job! I start the day after I return from my sibling’s wedding in New York. I signed up with a local staffing agency, and they got me an interview at an auxiliary health care-type office. I’ll be doing data entry and a little proofreading, full-time, and the bosses seem very nice. It doesn’t pay a lot, but I’ve done the math and it should be enough to get me back on the road sometime next year. Also, I can walk there from my parents’ house, so I don’t need to buy a car.

I’m hoping that having taken care of #1 and #2 from the original list, I’ll be able to really dig into #3. Now that I’ve removed the stress of job hunting and hiding inside lest I injure myself and have no way to pay for recovery, I should be able to use my free time writing. The changing season will make that even easier, as the nights come faster and the days grow colder, and I stay inside and focus on writing. Fingers crossed.

Next week I’ll be in New York, helping set up for the wedding and then dancing the night away at said wedding. After that, I’ll be in an office for the first time in over a year. Wish me luck!

Cambodia by the Numbers

Ancient temples clambered upon: 14

Times the A/C went out at my guesthouse in Siem Reap, on days when it was 90% humidity and 90*F out: 5

Times I said “oh my god” in horror at Choeung Ek and S-21: 15

Times I said “oh my god” in wonder at Angkor: 15

Teenagers who chatted with me over a couple hours of lunch: 3

Water bottles purchased so those same teenagers wouldn’t lose their day’s earnings: 3

Fish spas undergone: 1

Contented pizzas consumed: 3

Friends who I first met in Laos and then had meals with in Cambodia: 4

Total money spent: $706

Number of days in the country: 11

Average amount spent per day: $64.18

Total money spent, minus the flight from Laos: $514

Average amount spent per day, minus the flight from Laos: $46.73

Times I nearly passed out from the heat: 3

Times I complained about the heat, then and since: innumerable

Seconds I’d take to consider going back and seeing more of this country: 5

Embracing the sunrise

Laos by the Numbers

New friends made over a big do-it-yourself hot pot meal: 3

Pick-up badminton games observed: 8

Laotian wedding karaoke performances stumbled upon: 1

Meals that made me cry from the spice level: 1

Bears seen playing in the bear rescue center: 2

Bears seen napping through the heat in the bear rescue center: 4

Monks and novices spotted: 56

Conversations with novices: 3

Boats used for transportation: 4

Buddha statues seen: 4,034

Total days spent in Laos: 10

Total money spent: $562.79

Average per day: $56.28

Total money spent, minus gifts: $341.04

Average per day, minus gifts: $34.10

Shifts volunteered at Big Brother Mouse: 3

Meals shared with students from Big Brother Mouse: 1

Total days I could easily have spent in Laos, given more time: 40

Good morning!

Good morning!

Now What? The Short-Term Goals After Nearly a Year Around the World

I’ve been back in the States for a week, and I’m just now starting to settle in. It’s been a whirlwind of cleaning and organizing the stuff I carried around in a backpack for the better part of a year, meeting up with friends I haven’t seen in as long, going to one of my favorite weddings ever, and dragging my family along to my most-missed eating spots in town. But now it’s the second week here, the jet lag is behind me, and it’s time to think about what’s next.

Lots of this in my future

Lots of this in my future

As I’ve mentioned before, my long-term goals involve more travel and finding the money to make that happen. I will definitely be in the States through the end of September, and possibly through Christmas, depending on what kind of employment I find. But I’d like to skip winter again this year if I can, so in the new year (if not sooner) I’ll be heading off to Africa or Latin America.

In the short term, I’m readjusting to suburban America, which takes some doing–the politics, the modes of transportation, the distances from place to place, the foods, they’re all different. I’m also living with my parents again for the first time since I graduated college 8 years ago. That takes adjustment on both sides! We’re figuring out how to make it work for everyone; they’re quite content with their lives and I don’t want to get in the way of that, and they want me to be happy but also productive. Which sounds about right.

Here are my goals for the next few months:

1) Get short-term health insurance. This is easily the biggest difference between where I’ve been and where I am now. I’ve had health insurance through my various employers ever since I graduated college, and before that I was covered under my parents’ plan. If I were in the UK, I’d show the National Health Service (NHS) proof of residency and they’d assign me a doctor (who I could change if I wanted), and that would be that, no fuss. But as we know, it’s a very big fuss in the States. It’s scary to be without insurance here, so I’m shopping around to find a short-term plan that won’t charge a huge deductible or monthly fee. If you have any leads, let me know!

2) Find employment. If I stay through the end of the year, I’d like something stable, but I also don’t want to feel bad ditching after just a few months. I’ll be signing up with temp agencies, which will hopefully provide me with admin or data entry work, or something that will put some money in my pocket. Of course, I’m always on the lookout for freelance editing work, so I’ll keep that search up, and I might try pitching some pieces of my own to online magazines and such as well. Be sure to tell your friends and neighbors they can hire me for odd jobs, housesitting, babysitting–just about anything!

3) Focus on the writing. I’ve been cranking out blog posts for y’all Monday through Friday for all of 2013, as promised, and I’m happy I challenged myself to do that. I’ll continue to make that a goal, but I’m also going to try my hand at more in-depth essays and pieces that someone other than me might want to publish.

4) Keep within a budget. It’s easy to simultaneously feel like I’m still traveling about and should experience everything at least once and the extra dollar or two isn’t that much, AND to feel like I’m back on familiar ground so all the old spending habits can come back. But I do not have the steady job I used to, and the whole point of this interlude is to save up for the next adventure. I have to keep that in mind.

Of course, there are other things I want to do, too: visit my friends in Chicago, make the playlist for my sibling’s wedding, learn new songs to sing with my dad, take walks with my mom, enjoy the beauty of a Michigan summer, read new books, and finally watch the new season of Arrested Development.

It’s going to be a good few months.  

Running the Numbers: Getting Ripped Off vs. The Bigger Picture

“Oh, you know they’re always trying to rip you off.” “They’re always looking for a way to scam you.” “You have to be really firm with them.” I heard variations on this theme so many times in Southeast Asia that I started to wonder what I was missing, because I didn’t feel that way. How much of this attitude comes from personal attitude, and how much from the many, many guidebook warnings on scams and ripoffs in Southeast Asia? Probably a mix. A not very pleasant mix of reality, stereotypes, and suspicion.

In the 40,000 kip tuk-tuk

In the 40,000 kip tuk-tuk

Guidebooks and websites list the various scams you can fall prey to–the gem scam, the tuk-tuk scam, the travel agency scam, to name just a few. I even knowingly went into one of the well-known scams, to see what it was like. There are a lot of setups to separate you from your money, and the more serious ones have legal repercussions if you don’t cooperate (see: anything involving drugs). Being wary of any deal that seems too good to be true is a smart move for avoiding scams anywhere you go, including SEA. That’s pretty straightforward.

It’s the ripoffs that are a murkier area. Traveling in SEA from a Western country means encountering new currencies, new modes of transport, new foods, and a new bar of “normal” prices for it all. I got pork satay for $1 and thought I’d got a bargain, until further up the street I saw someone selling it for 50 cents. Did I feel cheated out of those extra 50 cents? Slightly. Did it affect my budget or my mood? Not at all.

I met some women on the slow boat to Laos, and when we arrived in Luang Prabang we decided to share a tuk-tuk to the Kuang Si Waterfalls, 40 minutes outside of town. We found a couple tuk-tuks and asked how much to take us there and back. (You never have meters with tuk-tuks; you always negotiate price upfront.) The drivers wanted 50,000 kip per person, round trip. What a ripoff! That’s much more than it should be! We’re going to find someone else! And then they did start walking off to find someone else. The drivers let us get pretty far; this wasn’t a haggling technique, you could tell, they really didn’t want to drop their price. But finally they consented to 40,000 kip each, which was deemed acceptable. (I should say here that I really enjoyed hanging out with these women, as we did over the next several days, but we just disagreed on this point.)

We passed a checkpoint (all the tuk-tuks in Luang Prabang belong to a group that they report rides to and presumably pool some money for), and I saw a sign saying trips to the waterfalls are 200,000 per tuk-tuk. There were four of us, which meant the 50,000 was just basic math, not a ripoff at all. But when I mentioned this, the women said no, they’d read online that it shouldn’t be more than 40,000 per person, and it’s a matter of principle, not being ripped off. And “they” will rip you off any chance you get, I was reminded; hadn’t the price of a dress been slashed in half at the market yesterday when one of the women simply started walking away after hearing the opening figure? That proves that they’re always asking for way more than it’s worth.

How much, how much?

How much, how much?

But I think it’s not that simple. The dress, yes, that was a funny piece of haggling, because clearly the woman would have settled for much less than her opening price, but why shouldn’t she give it a shot? It wasn’t out of line with prices in other stalls, and it was still only $10. It’s frustrating when you’re not sure what the normal price is, but markets here are meant for bartering, so make up your own normal, or what feels comfortable for you without leaving the seller with no profit.

The tuk-tuk, though, is much easier to avoid being ripped off. They’d gone online to see what the norm was–40,000–so if the driver had said 100,000, we would have known straight away that we were being ripped off. But 50,000 isn’t unreasonable, and according to the tuk-tuk company sign, it was in fact appropriate for the size of our group.

And in the end, it’s a $1 difference. Yes, it was the difference between a $7 or an $8 ride–for 40 minutes out, waiting several hours, and 40 minutes back to town. That $1 means so much more to the driver than it does to me, so why begrudge him that slight boost in his pay for the day? It’s going to go a lot farther in his pocket than in mine. Sure, they countered, but if you keep saying, “oh it’s only one dollar” everywhere, those dollars are going to add up, and you’ll lose a lot of money that way. Yep, I replied, and I’m okay with that.

I complain about how much I’m spending on this trip more often than I should, but I’m still acutely aware of how fortunate I am. I’m far more upset about the ATM fees I pay every time just to access my own damn money than I am about the couple hundred dollars I’ve probably overpaid to people trying to send their kids to school or get dental care.

Finally, this kind of thinking can get dangerously racially based. There’s way too much “they” and “them” in the talk surrounding scams and ripoffs. If you’re always thinking that a certain group of people is always out to get you, you’re not allowing them any individuality, and you’re closing the door on opportunities for understanding each other. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t look out for ripoffs–I had to bail on a taxi in Hanoi with a super-fast meter, for example. But try not to make it the first thing you see in a person.

If you see someone as a scam artist solely based on his race, that’s racist. If you see someone as out for your money, that’s one more friend you haven’t made. That’s a lonely way to travel, and it doesn’t fit in my budget.

Thailand by the Numbers

Attempts to say ‘thank you’ in Thai before I got remotely close: 23

Attempts to bargain at night markets: 8

Successful attempts to bargain at night markets: 5

Elephants hand-fed: 10

Baby monkeys cooed at: 1

Fruit shakes consumed: at least 30

Laundry I washed myself during my six weeks in the country: 0

Meals I cooked myself during my six weeks in the country: 2

Oceans fearlessly kayaked in: 1

New fruits tasted: 5

New favorite fruits: 5

Meals that introduced a whole new meaning to the word ‘spicy’: 3

Total days spent in Thailand: 44

Total money spent: $2,947

Average per day: $67

Total money spent, not including airfare: $2,802

Average daily cost, not including airfare: $64 (yes, that is much more than many backpackers spend while there, but I got a lot of gifts and some comfortable private rooms, not to mention a week with the elephants, on that budget)

Pools, rivers, and oceans swum in: 3

Wats (temples) visited: countless

Times I tired of admiring the symmetry and detail of a Thai wat: never

Wat Po

Wat Po in Bangkok