Too Old for Hostels

Matador has a great post up about how you know you’re too old to stay at hostels. Just about every one of those applies to me, except I don’t think about telling people to shut the hell up after 1:30am, I actually say that to them.

Most cities have non-party hostels, so those are the ones I usually stay at, thus bypassing many of the problems mentioned in the Matador post (party boats, etc.). And in Southeast Asia, a private hotel room with attached bathroom was so cheap, I usually went with those.

But some of the things they mention–rolling your eyes any time someone talks about “just living,” stereotyping Australians–well, those apply anywhere.

The Things I Left Behind

Apparently, the latest travel advice is to take your grungiest underwear and t-shirts with you, wear them out over the course of the vacation, and then buy new ones to take home. I see the benefits of that, but when you’re traveling for longer than two weeks, it’s trickier. I take only one of just about everything–jeans, warm top, jacket, etc.–so it has to be able to last the whole trip. A lot of people do buy new clothes on their travels, especially in Southeast Asia and South America, where everything is cheaper, but I usually can’t find anything close to my size, so I can’t depend on that.

My Chacos lasted me over three years of hard use

My Chacos lasted me over three years of hard use

So it’s not surprising that a lot of things don’t make it home with me. On this last trip, my bag came home considerably lighter than it had left. Here’s what I left behind in the hostel trash in Buenos Aires:

  • one pair of Chacos, right shoe’s strap dangling
  • one pair of ripped-up yoga pants
  • one pair of destroyed leggings
  • one small backpack, strap dangling and hole near zipper growing more giant by the hour
  • at least a kilo of paper–notes from Spanish class, receipts, tickets, scribbled tips from other travelers about what to do in various cities

The backpack broke as I started out on my second day at Iguazu, so I spent the day carrying it around like a particularly cumbersome purse. The shoe broke in the last hour of my time at the falls that same day, so I flapped around the trails and switched to flip flops as soon as I got back to the hostel. Could’ve been worse.

Literally the moment I boarded the bus to the Brazilian side of Iguazu Falls, the strap on this backpack broke

Literally the moment I boarded the bus to the Brazilian side of Iguazu Falls, the strap on this backpack broke

Then there are the things I lost:

  • my purse and everything in it, stolen in Cusco
  • the scarf I bought to replace the scarf that was stolen
  • one charger, for the mp3 player I bought to replace the music on my stolen iPhone
  • one headlamp
  • one fleece, so warm and desperately needed (I bought a new one online before I even returned home, is how necessary a fleece is to my travels)

Material possessions take on a dual meaning when you’re traveling for a long time. On one hand, of course they don’t matter as much–you’re living a different kind of life from the one you lived when you were in one place, and you just need less stuff. On the other hand, you only have one of everything, so if something breaks or goes missing, you’re missing something that you considered crucial enough to carry around on your back for five months. You don’t need much, but what you do need, you generally really need.

Still, it’s all replaceable. Which reminds me, I’d better go shopping before I leave again.

The hole appeared one day, and three days later, there was hardly any point to having a zipper

The hole appeared one day, and three days later, there was hardly any point to having a zipper

Departure Date and Updated Pages

Dearest fellow travelers, I have a departure date! Friday, February 7, I will fly Detroit-Houston-Quito. The next Monday I’ll start a two-week intensive Spanish course, to shore up my nonexistent Spanish skills, and from there, who knows? I hope to be on the road for about six months, but we’ll see how it goes. Many thanks to those who have put me in touch with friends who live in or are familiar with South America; I’m grateful for that personal connection. As ever, feel free to email me at lisa dot findley at gmail dot com if you have tips or contacts to share.

I’ve also updated the Fund This Stowaway page. The two major expenses I expect to encounter on this trip are boating in the Galapagos Islands and hiking around Machu Picchu, and I’ve made them the goals you can contribute to if you so choose. (Said with no pressure. Seriously.)

Finally, I’ve updated the About page, so if you send friends over to check out Stowaway (and please do!), they can get a more accurate picture of what I’m up to.

I do plan to continue writing about my travels this past summer, and I’ll also write about the new adventures I’m having, so keep me in your bookmarks or RSS feed or whatever latest technology keeps Stowaway near and dear to you.

I can almost see home from here

Show me the way to the warmer climes

Days of Gratitude

I’ve seen a lot of “Days of Gratitude” posts on Facebook this month. People post about something they’re grateful for every day up to Thanksgiving, usually with an accompanying photo. I think it’s a great idea, but I haven’t taken part, mostly because I feel like every blog post I’ve written this year has been a gratitude post.

Every day I get to write, which I’m grateful for in the way that most writers are grateful for the chance to write—it’s an aggravation, sometimes nearly impossible, but occasionally totally satisfying. Every day I write about this amazing trip I’ve been on, so every day I’m grateful anew for the places I’ve been and the people I’ve met.

I’ve spent seven months of this year on a trip around the world, gone to the weddings of some of my most beloved people, celebrated my grandmother’s 80th birthday with the whole clan, and published a piece on a major website. It really has been a terrific year, and I’m grateful for every day of it. Can’t wait to see what 2014 brings.

Thankful for the laughs from this year

Thankful for the laughs from this year

A Different Kind of Lunch Break

One of my favorite memories of the temples of Angkor doesn’t involve the temples at all–it involves a sticky plastic seat, a table in the shade, and two hours of conversation. After a morning at a couple temples, I took my driver’s advice and ate at the little restaurant across from Banteay Samre.

My My, Jo, and Tui show off their drawings

My My, Jo, and Tui show off their drawings

Two teenage girls took my order, and their mother brought out a delicious fish amok soup. One of the girls disappeared in the back with her mother, but the other one stayed out with me and chatted. My My, as she introduced herself, was sweet and silly, giggling after every sentence. Her friends, Jo and Tui, joined us, and they talked with me about school–which they sometimes go to and sometimes skip–and boys–one of My My’s friends, age 15 like her, has just had a baby. Tui’s English was almost perfect, but Jo and My My were able to hold a conversation just fine as well. I brought out a packet of coconut crackers and handed them around for everyone to share.

Fish amok soup--so good

Fish amok soup–so good

But as with nearly all the friendly conversations I had with locals throughout Southeast Asia, I felt an undercurrent of discomfort because the income inequality was always so evident. All three girls were trying to sell me something over lunch; My My had bottles of water and Tui had little ornaments. For me, the two hours we spent talking over my soup were a midday break, a relaxing lunch, but they were still on the clock. Every so often, one of the girls would break into the conversation with “Buy this one, just one, please help”; Tui, especially, was persistent. I didn’t buy anything til I was leaving, at which point I bought a water from each of them. They were very clear that buying just one water would only help that one girl; is there a system of quotas going on? I’m not sure if I shouldn’t have bought a lot more things, or overpaid by a lot, or if that would contribute to their staying out of school even more often, or what. Not sure what the Good Tourist move was.

But before I bought the waters, My My ran into the back and came out with large pieces of paper. I loaned them my pens, and each girl drew a picture, which they then gave to me to keep. I played several games of tic-tac-toe with Jo and My My showed me how to write her name in Khmer script. They teased me about not having a boyfriend and turned shyly away when I asked them if they had boyfriends. We took a photo before I left, and My My shouted my name as I got into the back of the tuk-tuk and the driver headed down the road.

My favorite lunch in Cambodia

My favorite lunch spot in Cambodia

I was a walking wallet but also a source of fun for them. To me, they were an intimidating reminder of how much I have and how much others don’t have, and also lovely individuals with personalities I can clearly remember now, months later. I hope we were something good to each other and that they had as much fun as I did laughing over soup and crackers.

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.

It All Begins With a Smile

It’s been years since I took one of those Myers Briggs personality tests, and I don’t remember what four letters I got, but I bet it’s a strange mixture. My default setting is quiet, observant, hoping something cool will happen and I can join in. My approach after the disastrous years of middle school has been louder, friendlier, trying to start something cool. I still need a lot of privacy and alone time, but I wouldn’t say that I’m shy anymore, which is a big change.

Bol Beach, Brac, Croatia -- nice way to pass an afternoon

Bol Beach, Brac, Croatia — nice way to pass an afternoon

Still, it doesn’t always come naturally, and sometimes I need to remind myself that I like meeting people and some of my best friendships are a result of me going up to someone and saying, “Hi!” Travel is the perfect setting for such encounters, and I’m rewarded again and again for approaching someone with a smile and a greeting.

This weekend, for example, I was in Split, on the coast of Croatia. I decided to take a day trip out to the island of Brac, to see the beach Bol, described by everyone I talked to as “the best in the country.” I bought my ticket at the booth on the pier and started the long walk to the ferry boat at the other end. At one point, I noticed the guy who had been behind me in line pass me, and then later I caught up to him as he stopped and looked around. He seemed a little unsure of where he was, so I paused, smiled, and said, “Further up, further in” (a weird quote that’s stuck with me from the last of the Narnia books–the terrible one).

And from that smile and that comment! He grinned and we started chatting as we walked the rest of the way to the boat, and we didn’t stop talking for the next hour. Russ asked me where I was from, and when I told him, he went into rhapsodies about how much he loved Chicago. I rarely meet non-Americans who have actually visited Chicago, but those who have always say they liked it (unless they went in winter, in which case I can’t help you for your terrible life choices). It’s always nice to hear someone say good things about your city.

The ferries lined up and ready to go

The ferries lined up and ready to go

Then it got a bit freaky. We did the British Zoom, which is what I call it when you zoom in on where, exactly, someone is from/has been on the tiny island of Britain. For him, it went, “You know Shakespeare, of course, well I’m near Stratford-upon-Avon.” “Oh yes, I’ve been there.” “Oh, do you know Warwick Castle?” “Yes!” “I’m closer to there, to Leamington Spa.” That’s as far as I zoomed in, to a town a few miles away.

But Russ won the game, hands down. I said, “Oh, my mom’s from Worcestershire.” “Oh yeah, I know it.” “Okay, she’s sort of near Birmingham.” “Yeah, I went to school near there.” “Okay, so you know Kidderminster, then.” “Yeah! Never tell me she’s from Kinver, haha.” Kinver being a tiny town, this seemed highly unlikely to him, just as it was highly unlikely to me that anyone, even a British guy, would have heard of Kinver, which is indeed where my mom was born.

So we had a laugh about the smallness of the world and the importance of starting conversations with fellow travelers, because you just never know what strange and wonderful bits of information are going to turn up, or what kind of new friend you might make.

Russ was headed to Brac to research it as a possible destination for his travel company, Green World Holidays. Best part of the job, as he said, and I remarked that I need something that will similarly let me move around. Should be easy, as an editor, since all I need is a computer and an Internet connection, but it’s tough finding clients. He laughed and said this really was a crazy day, because not only do I know tiny Kinver, I’m an editor and he’s probably looking to hire someone to oversee the company blog in the next few months. We definitely exchanged business cards. (No pressure, Russ, but I needed to mention it for the story!)

Later, he overheard a Finnish woman at the snack bar say something about pooling for a taxi to Bol, and he brought her over to me so we could figure out the details. Turns out this woman from Helsinki had also been to Kinver! We decided that we should all buy lottery tickets that day, because something was clearly in the air.

Those sorts of kismet moments don’t happen to me often, but they do happen, and as everyone who’s happily settled will tell me about finding love, they happen when you least expect it. I thought I was taking a quiet ferry ride on the Adriatic, but instead I found an hour of friendly conversation and fun connections. All because I saw a fellow traveler and said hello. A conversation that not only started with a smile but ended with one, too.

The smile looks something like this.

The smile looks something like this.