Tag Archives: travel abroad

Month 1 in New Zealand

After traveling on and off for a few years, I finally took the leap to “live” and work in a foreign country – New Zealand. I began the journey by staying in Auckland for three weeks. A welcoming place for young people, New Zealand ranks high regarding shares of foreign-born residents, especially in the largest city, which is at 40%. Auckland in particular is a great gateway for those setting up a (temporary) new life. A strong community of foreign students and residents, and temporary workers flourishes in the city – we live together, work together and assist one another in navigating our new home – even my banker said she started her life in New Zealand on a Working Holiday.

Every place has an atmosphere that feels different to a visitor, however Auckland has familiar vibe, as if it’s some American coastal town (minus the accent). Like every major city there’s a business center and tourist hub situated in the heart with a few distinct neighborhoods clustered around it, each with their own flair. Outside of this urban core are a network of suburbs complete with green athletic fields, Crossfit gyms and little malls. Driving a personal vehicle is very popular and there are plenty of big trucks and vans. Things look like home but sound differently. A bit like Minneapolis, there are many green spaces for people to just be outside while in the city. I enjoy people watching and these little areas make it so easy to enjoy an ice cream or coffee and see what’s going on in the neighborhood. It’s also great to just be able to get me-time (a backpackers dream) and relax while still being in a public space.

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A sunny weekend on Waiheke Island, a short ferry ride from Auckland. I cycled the hilly roads, sipped local wine and read a book on beach.

Yes, some things are different here, but it’s been easy to adapt. One of the first things I did after arriving was buy a bicycle in order to get around quickly and get acquainted with the layout of Auckland. I must say the cycling here is horrible – poor infrastructure and dangerous drivers put the city, in my experience, as the worst Westernized urban area I have biked. This broke my heart a bit since it’s my favorite way to travel but hopefully I’ll stay safe when I do go riding.

So what am I doing in New Zealand? Working in tourism- absolutely unrelated to my professional background. Not on a long term work arrangement, I have a Working Holiday Visa (WHV) which qualifies foreigners age 18 – 31 for non-permanent jobs all over the country. This visa is normally used by travelers to fund their time exploring more deeply than a simple holiday and provides cheap labor to the New Zealand economy. The experience can be just for fun and personal growth or be thoughtfully blended into, or begin, a career path. Occasionally a WHV-holder is offered a normal working visa through a sponsor employer but the vast majority are here to try new things and meet people. So far I have meet WHV’ers from sixteen countries and have been brushing up on my foreign language skills, and even learning new vocabulary (and I don’t mean Kiwi English, which is it’s own thing)!

Bethells Beach, a gorgeous day trip from Auckland.

After staying three weeks in West Auckland volunteering with a hostel, I will soon begin work near Paparoa National Park. I will bake bread and treats and do whatever other help is needed at a retreat (basically a nice lodge with many cabins set in a rain forest). A low stress, part-time job perfectly situated for outdoor recreation was exactly what I had in mind when I sought a New Zealand WHV. There will be enough time and energy in the week to socialize with and get to know local people and live the “kiwi lifestyle” and I will walk away with enough cash to go camping and hiking for a few weeks when the position wraps up. Although it’s been fun, I am ready to step away from the backpacking community for a bit and immerse myself in a routine more typical to a New Zealander and be in a setting more Kiwi than foreigner. I came to experience how life is here and hope to learn a lot about New Zealand culture, work-life balance and all the little things that make it unique.

Mount Ngauruhoe, also known as Mount Doom and part of Mordor, is the crown of the famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

Before starting my job, I have been making my way down the North Island, enjoying hikes and the outdoors. New Zealand’s wealth of varied landscapes is impressive. Native bird songs, the strong breeze and occasional rains set a relaxing mood and outside of Auckland weather has been great. I especially liked the glistening blue waters of Lake Taupo and milky-white, thermally active Lake Rotorua. My absolute favorite place has been Tongariro National Park where I completed the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a 19 km hike through three volcanic peaks, across wide craters and around jewel-colored lakes. The hike is extremely popular with nature-lovers and the Lord of the Rings fandom, as the park was used as a set and inspiration for many scenes in the films. The South Island nature is also impressive and I’m really excited to see it for myself. Spotting a penguin in the wild is one of my dreams and with some luck it could come true in the next few weeks.

Thermally active Lake Rotorua.

I invite you to follow my journey in New Zealand. I will be living and working near Paparoa National Park in the South Island for several weeks. If you’ve been to New Zealand yourself, I would absolutely love to hear what you did and about the overall experience. As always, thank you for reading.

Ruby

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Prachaup Khiri Khan, Thailand

After spending three months in Southeast Asia, Prachaup Khiri Khan was one of my favorite places to visit. The small city, along a series of crescent shaped bays, is a perfect place for a solo traveler in Thailand. The laid-back feel, beautiful beaches, adorable monkeys (as well as some naughty monkeys) and a modest travel scene create an unparalleled atmosphere. It takes just a half day train ride from Bangkok to reach this paradise and it’s absolutely worth it!

I sort of stumbled on this location while researching hikes in preparation for visiting Thailand. I read about an amazing trek up Khao Lommuak that offers a magical view of the surrounding bays and islands. Unfortunately the grounds are only open to the public on special weekends and holidays, none of which occurred during the time I would visit Thailand. However, after reading a little about the adjacent town, Prauchaup Khiri Khan, I decided to visit anyway. The proximity to the sea, as well as multiple national parks was really attractive and it seemed less crowded than Hua Hin, the busy tourist town to the north which has similar features.

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Every night offered a watercolor sunset along the bay.

If you ever get to this part of Thailand, you must visit Kui Buri National Park! Seeing wild elephants was an experience I will remember forever. For about $30 (round trip taxi and entrance fee) myself and a few ladies from my hostel traveled to Kui Buri National Park. Once there, with guides in a truck, we played “hide and seek,” driving slowly with binoculars glued to our faces. The deal is that you pay to go into the habitat along a few dirt roads and if any elephants are spotted the trucks will pull over to let you observe (from a safe distance, for you them). If the animals can’t be spotted, that’s just bad luck. They are respected as natural beings and never forced out for visitors and you must keep a distance of at least 100 meters  (no elephant selfies). Patrons are allotted a few hours but many trucks will stop the tour after one or two sightings, thinking that guests have gotten their money’s worth. Fortunately, some of my companions were really outgoing and kind and somehow talked the staff into giving us our full three hours even though we saw a lot of elephants in the first hour. I’m glad she was so smooth because it was one of the best nature tours I’ve ever done and I didn’t want it to end. Also, after visiting a few national parks in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, this one was one of the most professionally run and the staff seemed to really like what they were doing and dealing with foreign visitors (that’s not always easy). No outside guide is needs to take you into the park in order to get a full experience, fees are upfront and simple, facilities clean and customer service is great.

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Elephant family in Kui Buri National Park.

Animals can also be found much closer to the city; adorable, natural monkeys live aside the gorgeous Kao Lom Muak. The Dusky Langur monkeys are small and shy but will show themselves to visitors. Their location provides some protection to them as their status is close toThey are found specifically in Wing Five of the Air Force Base where visitors are allowed in for free, one passport required per group. . This is adjacent to Ao Manao Bay, one of the cleanest beaches I saw in Asia. It is very much worth a visit to just run around in the sand and sea without worry of bottle caps or sharp trash. I was able to bike to the spot from my hostel in 20 minutes.

Now a bit of a warning: beware of the naughty monkeys in the northeast area of the city around “monkey mountain,” another hill with a temple on top, formally known as Khao Chong Krachok. The view of the islands and bays from “monkey mountain” is great but the monkeys living on it are a little creepy and aggressive. They are mostly known for stealing flip flops off feet and taking food – nothing horrible – but their waste litters the site and some are very obese and loaf in the center of stairways or sun shelters. They are known to some as the “bad” monkeys, while the Dusky Langurs are the “cute” monkeys. Maybe it’s not a fair label but it’s worth confirming which kind of monkey you will encounter while exploring the city. The “cute” monkeys will not steal your items or scratch you.

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A Dusky Langur

As with Kanchanaburi, Prauchaup Khiri Khan had a lot of solo travelers but this town attracted much more people in their 30’s – 50’s. This constantly shifting group of people were great to explore with and get to know. The city isn’t exactly out of the way or challenging to reach for foreigners but most of those visiting all had a lot of time devoted to seeing Thailand or the region. Some had awesome stories (one had biked there from the Netherlands!) and great advice about things to see and do throughout the country.

I absolutely never felt alone and met a lot of people at Safehouse Hostel. We went on bike rides along the bay (all day rentals are everywhere for about $2), ate delicious and spicey dinners ($1 – $3) or out for Thai Whiskey and music.  No matter where you stay everything in the city is in walking distance. The experience in Prachaup Khiri Khann was the perfect balance of fun and relaxation. Although I was not able to visit them during my visit,  both Khao Sam Roi National Park and Namtok Huai Yang National Park are realistic day trips from the area and provide even more opportunities for nature and exploring.

All these wonderful things made staying in Prachaup Khiri Khan of the best experiencesI had in Southeast Asia.  Originally, I planned to stay just two nights but extended my time into four. I wish I could have stayed longer! If I visit Thailand again I will have go back.

Thank you for reading!

Ruby

 

Bikepacking Spain: Andalusia

Spain is one of my favorite countries – the amazing array of cuisine, music, language, art and traditions. Each region has a distinct culture and history, making exploring the country a rich experience. The natural side of things is just as diverse; Spain is home to lush forests, winding rivers, rugged coasts, natural sandy beaches, expansive savanna, snow capped mountains, an island volcano, and even a desert. On top of that, most of the country is at a high altitude, which, combined with the Mediterranean climate, means very strong distinct seasonal changes.

I wanted to travel Spain by bike in order to cover more ground than a hiking trip but also remain in close contact to my surroundings. Although I have visited many times before, I had never made it to Andalusia in the southern area of the mainland. After looking at a few sample itineraries pulled from commercial cycling tours (I do this a lot – a great way to get a template), I decided on a route hitting major historic cities (Seville, Córdoba and Granada) and mixing in a variety of landscapes (orchards along rolling hills, curving river valleys, arid plains full of cacti, rugged mountains and maybe even some snow in the Sierra Nevada). Sticking with about 80 km a day, I would have the freedom to stop and linger in a place, wander a bit off course and keep enough time to camp and hike in the Sierra Nevada mountains all in eight days time, a realistic international vacation length for an American. The route gains about 2,400 meters in elevation, the bulk of that on day five, the second half of the leg between Córdoba and Granada.

Seville to Córdoba

I took off from Seville where I arrived the previous evening. One night was enough to eat a delicious dinner, walk about the old city center and get to know a few other travelers in my hostel. I departed from the beautiful city in early afternoon after zipping around the old quarter for sightseeing by bicycle before a Friday tourist crowd began to build. Seville is very bright and cheerful with a classic historic area, picturesque narrow and crooked streets and a massive bull fighting arena. The most interesting place for me was the Plaza de Toros, the famous bull ring and museum. I’ve visited much of Spain over the last few years yet haven’t seen an active bullring. Within the building, sits the Museo Taurino, a small museum decorated with old posters and images of past events and I enjoyed the photographs and artistic renditions of bullfighting.

The Plaza de toros de la Real Maestranza

As predicted getting through the suburban build up of Seville was a bit of a pain using roads suitable for a road bike. However, once out of the city, the 90 km route to Palma Del Rio felt easy on the legs and pleasantly flat, winding through farm fields and orange groves the entire way. Cacti grow aside the dusty roads along with colorful wildflowers adding some variety to the scorched fields. The area reminded me very much of southern California.

Many of the fields looked empty but I eventually passed a large orange grove in harvest with workers filling massive bins. Many wore a plain blue baseball cap to protect from a strong May sun. By early afternoon the air was thick with serious heat and my white t-shirt was soiled from sweat the dusty air. After battling to keep dry and warm in Portugal, Spain felt entirely different and like a whole new world.

My camping spot for the night was supposed to be in a park near Palma Del Rio. However, after arriving to the site around dusk, I found that camping was no longer offered and the park closed. Due to fatigue I just spent the night wild camping on a river bend just outside of the city. I had no interest in roaming around looking for guesthouses so late an in a transitional season.

Castillo de Almodóvar del Río.

Day two continued from Palma Del Rio to Córdoba after lazily drinking coffees at a cute cafe in the city watching elderly people out on walks, playing dominoes on picnic tables and just enjoying their Friday morning. After an hour or so resting in the town I started back along highway 431 headed straight to Córdoba.

It was foolish to start the day so late and I ended up feeling the heat quickly. Inland Spain doesn’t have a lingering spring like Portugal and leaps right into summertime heat. At round three in the afternoon when the sun was strongest, I noticed a bright blue baseball cap in the ditch near the road. I stopped to pick it up and gave it a once over and noticed what looked like some paint stains and minor use but it looked clean enough to be my new cap! My previous hat was lost to the sea winds between Sintra and Lisbon a week earlier and I very happy to shade my face with my harvester cap.

Some very friendly goats decided to investigate my bicycle.

Not long after, looking into the distance I was able to make out a very steep and high hill with a castle almost cartoonish in its size and appearance; it looked like something out of a movie. As I cycled closer a very well-preserved castle with Moorish details came into view. I decided to check it out and take a break to lunch in Almodóvar del Río. Through a brief conversation with the local townspeople, I found out the castle is 1,300 years old and got some major retouching about 700 years ago. The good condition of the structure has allowed it to be featured as setting for some television shows.

About 25 kilometers after my lunch break I reached Córdoba and went directly to one of the many squares for cake, coffee and people watching. Afterwards began a very difficult and long ascent to Los Villares Park for a night of organized camping. Only nine kilometers out of the heart of the city, the road to the park was incredibly steep and took any remaining energy I had left. I reached the hilltop park at about 9 pm and felt immense relief seeing cars in the parking lot and a small lit building. However, I was a month too early for camping season! The night workers were very kind and said that since I came all the way up on bicycle and darkness was fast approaching, I could pick a spot in the park for the night free of charge. Although that meant no amenities like a shower or a bathroom after the park closed at 10 pm, it was a welcome comprise. The park looked like a gorgeous place to explore and I tried to see as much of it was possible before heading back down to Cordoba the next morning.

A shot from historic Cordoba.

Spain ended up being a tricky place to camp on-the-fly: sometimes “camping” signs with tent icons really meant a site just for RVs or caravans. Many campsites with full websites online didn’t have information about when their season would begin or had possibly never been updated since the previous summer, making it seem open for business. Overall the camp accommodation scene felt a bit disorganized, especially coming from Portugal, where every location was up and running and any campsite located on major mapping apps were in fact campsites. I wrongly assumed camping and outdoor sports would be more common in May before the brutally hot Spanish summer set in. I ‘d recommend planning to stay in guesthouses, hotels or some other form of accommodation in this area in April and May.

I enjoyed grabbing a coffee and just walking the streets and seeing the Moorish-inspired building details in Granada and Cordoba.

Córdoba to Granada

After spending a full day wandering Córdoba and successfully camping (yay!) in El Brillante, actually in the city, it was time for a two-day challenging ride to Granada. Approaching Granada was like entering a magical world. For the first several hours of riding, olive tree fields hug close to the road and go on as far as the eye can see. The terrain slowly changes from flat to dramatic slopes with sudden sharp peaks. On these peaks usually perch fortresses and castles with little medieval towns below. The white red-roofed buildings sit in crooked rows along streets softy coiling around the hill. Highway 432 route passes many of these picturesque towns-Alcaudele, Alcalá al Real, Espejo, Baena. Only in Granada would I hear the term “pueblos blancos” used to describe these places, which apparently makeup a tourist route of sorts, connecting the major cities of Andalusia. I had no idea to expect this kind of scenery and really enjoyed the surprise.

The enchanting Sierra Nevada mountains are visible from far very away and provided a sort of motivation for the toughest part of the trip. It did take a while for me to notice them because snowy white peaks against a very bright sky create an illusion of jagged clouds. It is a strange visual but when you know to look for mountains, it becomes clear. The area between Cordoba and Granada is beautiful and it’s a lot of fun to just ride while enjoying the view.

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Scenes from a wonderful few days in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

The feel of Granada was unique among the Spanish towns. The “old town” is fairly spread out so although the entire neighborhood is dependent on tourism, there is no claustrophobic feeling or huge crowds like the old parts of Seville or Barcelona. There is a small shopping area in the center but it’s less youthful and trendy than Madrid, so there’s a bit less madness. I fount it clean, inviting, relaxing and characteristic of much of Spain, and especially Andalusia.

I initially passed through on the way to the Sierra Nevada but would return to Granada to close out the journey. The first three nights in the area were spent up in the mountains at Los Lomas sitting about 500 meters above Granada near a large reservoir with a wonderful view. Cycling up was tough but very much worth it. The area was just beautiful, refreshingly cool and near a nice network of hiking trails (some going deep into the mountains). Camping for a few days provided a bit of rest and recharging after five days of cycling.

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An archway in the Alhambra. I highly recommend a visit if you are near Granada.

After a few days it was time to go down to the city and see some sights. Andalusia is full of Moorish architecture but Granada is the single best place to see these buildings, along with many courtyard gardens and quaint homes along little streets winding up the hillsides. Even the adorable hostel where I stayed had an open central courtyard! In Granada I really took it easy. I spend a day visiting Alhambra, a palace with an amazing display of 14th-century Moorish architecture located on al-Sabika hill. I normally don’t do things like visit the inside of palaces, temples, etc. but I had a feeling this would be special, dazzling and different. The Alhambra was just lovely and each area had detail and color to appreciate; the visit took a long time and was a great experience.

Two days in Granada went by quickly and thus brought an end to a wonderful journey cycling through Andalusia, Spain.

Thanks for reading!

Hanoi, Vietnam

My ten-day* visit to Vietnam began in Hanoi. Upon arrival I noticed a completely different feel from anywhere I’d been before. Heading into the city at night from the airport, it was difficult to get a good view, however, it was quite easy to hear the noises of the metropolis. With roughly eight million people calling Hanoi home, the city is very much alive: talking, shouting, laughing, honking, screeching, music booming and roosters crowing. Even so, I enjoyed my short introduction to Vietnam; meeting other travelers was very easy and visiting alone worked perfectly. The city is full of exceptionally outgoing people and most days I was invited to a beer, dinner or coffee by a total stranger. *I loved my short visit so much that I soon returned for a road trip across the country – an experience I’ll write about soon.

Trying to piece together a vision of Hanoi before visiting was difficult. Easy-to-find information for prospective travelers is, unfortunately, repetitive and covers narrow ground; doing a circuit of war museums, gawking at the famous train street or grabbing bún chả where President Obama and Anthony Bourdain dined. I also found an appalling amount of “tip” sites exclusively directed at men focused on when and how to pick up drunk or drugged female backpackers or how to buy local women (tourists’ feelings of entitlement in Asia can be extreme and alarming)I filled information gaps with stories and pictures from small travel/personal blogs run by women, travelers living outside the U.S. and Australia, and Vietnamese people traveling their own country. Some of this was found on WordPress but many social media channels were used. After a bit of work I had a simple list of activities and places unique to Hanoi that would get me out and about and getting to see things for myself. In reality, it was challenging to actually follow the plan because of how social other travelers and local people turned out to be. Everyone wanted to chat, hang out, show me something or go exploring. I’m always a concerned while traveling alone that there may be times when I feel lonely or bored but I think it might have been impossible for that to happen in Hanoi.

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Rooftop view.

The first day I simply wandered the streets and alleys stopping when anything delicious came into view (or, as a coffee addict, the aroma of roasting beans hung in the air). Common Vietnamese dishes known to westerners – phở, chả cá, bánh mi, cốm and bún cha are easy to spot, as well as traditional, and all sorts of fusion and foreign eateries, including American fast food. During meal times groups of people just take over the sidewalk, and on occasion the street, with little plastic chairs and tables to sit outside for talking and eating (peoplewatching is top-notch in Hanoi). With so many people around it was fun to ask for recommendations for bars, coffee or snacks. One evening, after speaking with three different groups of people, the same corner was mentioned twice (a noodle stall served there) so I decided to find it. I ended up wandering the same few crowded and noisy blocks for about an hour before finding the place. While I had a big bowl of pho, I talked to the very friendly young lady running things. She laughed after I told her all the trouble that went into finding her place and informed me that Americans sometimes pronounce the Vietnamese word phở as they should for the word “đường phố, which means “street.” Apparently, when I thought I was asking for the nearby pho shop, I sounded like I was asking where the street was.

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Egg coffee and pho.

Getting around the city, even on foot, was an adventure in some of the busier neighborhoods. Nicer motorbikes and cars get parked on any empty patch of sidewalk available and people often converge on curbs and street side restaurants during meal times or just drink in hand, pushing walking traffic into the roadway. From the little alleys to main thoroughfares, everything turns into a gridlocked mess in the evening and traffic looked heavy most of the time. In the French Quarter the madness sometimes worked in my favor, allowing me to slowly walk into what looked like a parking lot and push through. When things weren’t jammed, I watched amazed at how effortlessly Vietnamese drivers just flow through the streets on scooters like a school of fish. They can avoid bicyclists, snail-paced walkers, buses, and opposite traffic even in nightmarish seven-way intersections; I don’t know how it’s possible. Although the tourist area is compact and very walkable, when it made sense to use wheels I found rides on the ride share app Grab – this way I didn’t have to haggle or negotiate a fare. (After Thailand, I never want to haggle again. Ever.) Buses were great for longer trips, though I was very dependent on my hosts to locate the correct pick up spot.

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The long history of the Vietnamese capital, and the almost constant attempts by outsiders to influence and control the country going back millennia, can be read through examining the architecture and layout; Taoist temples and other remnants from Chinese rule, French colonial buildings and related Haussamannization, the modernist-Soviet style monuments and squares, Vietnamese flags in every public place, pro-state propaganda with military imagery, run-of-the-mill modern office buildings, hip eateries and luxury apartment complexes are all mixed together. Going into the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum was interesting as well as visiting historically and politically significant places; seeing how the Vietnamese state defines itself verses the American-approved narrative of Vietnam’s history is illuminating and will be interpreted by each foreign visitor differently. It’s useful to seek out these different visual representations of some elements of modern Vietnamese life. However, the distinct atmosphere and many essential features of the culture will elude travelers that stick to museums and monuments; you will get a much more thorough feel for the city if you can ditch the tours and guides and get out into real life.

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Temple of Literature & National University, originally built as a university in 1070 CE and dedicated to Confucius and scholars. This temple is also  on the back of the 100,000 dong banknote.

Many aspects of life in Hanoi are very modern yet in many places the people face clear development issues. To a visitor on the street sanitation and infrastructure challenges are apparent. Hanoi air is usually of poor quality and it can really knock you on your ass if you are fortunate enough to have lived your life in a place with very clean air – I noticed travel forums and bloggers mentioned this frequently – be prepared, should you visit. Even though I was warned about public health problems and tried my best to take care of myself, after just three days I was struck with both pink eye and a respiratory infection. I will say, treating my conditions was easy with basic pharmacies all over the city, and exceptionally cheap while effective medications. Looking and sounding a bit ghoulish made it harder to make new friends but didn’t get in the way of enjoying the city – no grudge held!

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The fans!

On my final day in Hanoi, the Vietnamese men’s football team played in the Championship match for the AFC U-23 tournament. That morning the city erupted into a football frenzy with people driving slowly down the streets, blasting music, waving flags and wearing all kinds of red and yellow decorations, creating an infectious excitement. By afternoon televisions and radios had been rounded up and brought into any and all bars and cafes for public viewings of the match. Not wanting to miss out on watching, I ducked into a packed coffee house to watch the first half of the game among many families and children. During the half break I ran to a main street and found a bar with three huge screens outside and about 200 views jammed around little plastic tables covered with beer glasses and plates of food. Viewers even spread out into the road with a small clearing for delivery drivers, taxis, policemen and other people at work who wanted to pull over for a game update. Everyone was in a good mood and I was immediately offered a spot to sit with a group of strangers. My new friends didn’t hesitate to keep my beer glass full and filled me in on the team so much as language barriers would allow. As the game progressed the crowd erupted into different cheers and songs in several languages. Even though Vietnam would lose the match to Uzbekistan, it was some of the most fun I’ve had watching football and was yet another personal experience hinged on the friendliness and welcoming attitude Vietnamese people show towards visitors.

After the game I would catch an overnight bus to Cao Bằng, to the north, for a lovely few days exploring the rugged nature along the border with China.

Thanks for reading!

 

Bangkok, Thailand!

My five-week visit to Thailand and Vietnam has just begun. This trip is my first to Asia and likely the last multi-week adventure abroad for a while* so I’m really excited for the experience to play out. The itinerary is scattered but includes, Bangkok, Prachuap Khiri Khan, Kanchanaburi, Chiang Mai, Hanoi and Cao Bang. Each day I hear about something new to see, eat or do so plans are sure to change.

I wasn’t sure how to prepare for this trip since it would be so different from anything I’ve done before and especially Bangkok, home to more than 8 million people and thus the largest city I’ve visited. I’m happy to say I found that Bangkok isn’t intimidating, public transportation is easy to figure out, I generally feel safe (drivers are very scary though) and it feels like a fusion of other metropoles I’ve visited giving it a comfortable somewhat-familiar vibe for me. I like seeing the way space is used here and I’m very excited to slowly explore various areas of town and become acquainted.

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The first few nights I’m staying in a hostel in the Phaya Thai district. Not necessarily near the main sights but a refreshing location. Through past travel experience I’ve come to understand that sometimes I don’t enjoy staying in areas reliant on foreign visitors or tourism as they tend to be more expensive, have plenty of trendy restaurants but few food shops, and can be a bit “fast” or full of people lacking respect for the neighborhood. I’ve had some great stays while in areas that are built for daily life of the local population. Bangkok is the second most visited city in the world so everything is going to be geared towards the experience of the tourist, for better or worse, for some of us. Bangkok has a lot of sex tourism and many travelers come to party but I’m not interested so I’ll keep a bit outside the main tourist zones where this is facilitated and encouraged and likely not the most comfortable place for a woman to be on her own.

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The little alley leading to the hostel. Closer to the main road food stalls line the alleyway and a man with a fruit cart makes his way down, bells ringing, twice a day.

I’m pleased with the hostel I found- $10 a night which is actually a middle price point for the city. It’s quiet, has a coffee shop on the first floor and a very friendly French Bulldog loafing around. The shared bedroom is an interesting little space – a large room is portioned off into four smaller areas for each person, kind of like an office cubical space but way more attractive and cozy. I haven’t seen any other Americans staying here yet but it’s only been two days, and I was able to get some trip tips from a fellow guest already! Happy about that! Language barriers haven’t caused any issues yet but little bumps are sure to come up once more complicated interactions are needed for daily activities.

I feel like I’ve already done so much even though things are just getting started. This afternoon was spent in Chatuchak Park admiring the flora and being frightened by the fauna, specifically big monitor lizards! When it started raining I ducked into J. J Mall and browsed around for a while and tried some spicy lemon candy (it was good) and had a coffee. Yesterday I got a foot massage, ate some great food and checked out two beautiful temples. Tonight I plan to read (thank God the hostel has a book exchange) and rest up.

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From Queen Sirikit Park, which was so empty it felt like my own place.

The 30 hour journey to BKK from MSP wasn’t as brutal as I feared; I was able to get at least some sleep and the airline, although considered budget, fed me plenty, had good movies and was on time. In Bangkok I feel that I’m mostly adjusted to the time change but the heat, 100 degrees (Fahrenheit) greater than the temperature in Minneapolis when I left, is tiring and I probably won’t acclimate. I do know that soon in Chiang Mai and Vietnam it will feel a little more comfortable and I just try to think about that every time I start to sweat.

That’s all for now after 48 hours in Bangkok.

Thank you for reading!

*I’ve begun the visa process for a job located in Harbin, China! More details to come on that.

Work Holiday Visas for U.S. Citizens

Whether an experienced traveler or a newbie, obtaining a Working Holiday Visa, sometimes known as a Work and Travel Visa, can be the key to making a long-term travel opportunity affordable. Visa holders are legally allowed to work in jobs (under certain conditions) while they make their way through a country. The obvious benefits are having income while traveling, the opportunity to network and gain new skills, more intimate access to the local community through co-workers and other relationships built while working, and more time to immerse yourself in the culture of your country of choice.

Basic requirements vary but generally include: a U.S. Passport valid for at least 6 – 12 months past your exit date, a return ticket, be in overall good health and proof of health insurance, not have minor dependents and be able to prove a basic level of savings you can dip into during your stay. Unfortunately, US Citizens get the short stick in the developed world when looking at Working Holiday Visa opportunities; we have established programs with just five nations. We are eligible for Working Holiday Visas in Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, Singapore and South Korea.

Australia

Who hasn’t dreamed of visiting Australia? This huge country requires a lot of time to properly explore and a Working Holiday visa is a great way to make a visit budget-friendly. This visa will allow a holder to work for up to six months with each company.

Main industries: Tourism, agriculture, construction, skilled trades and healthcare.
Application fee: Free
Length: 12 months
Age Restriction: Age 18 – 30*
*Applying at age 30 and entering at age 31 after a visa is granted is acceptable

Visit the Australia immigration page for complete information and to start the process.

Ireland

Current and recent students can spend a year working in the gorgeous Emerald Isle, the only European destination on this list.

Main industries: Tourism, some engineering fields, healthcare, IT, finance/business.
Application fee: About $350
Length: 12 months
Age Restriction: Age 18+ Must be currently a post-secondary student or have graduated university in the past year.

Visit the Ireland immigration page for complete information and to start the process.

New Zealand

A beautiful country! A work and travel set up is ideal for the adventurer looking to maximize their stay while on a sporty holiday in The Land of the Long White Cloud.  I personally applied and was granted a visa. I felt the process was fast and no-nonsense. It’s completely uneccessary to pay an agency to do this for you.

Main industries:Tourism, hospitality, agriculture, skilled trades and healthcare.
Application fee: Free
Length: 12 months
Age Restriction: Age 18 – 30*
*Applying at age 30 and entering at age 31 after a visa is granted is acceptable.

Visit the New Zealand immigration page for complete information and to start the process.

South Korea

Forested mountains, beaches, castles and metropoles – Korea has everything.

Application fee: Free
Length: 12 months
Age Restriction: Age 18 + Must be currently a post-secondary student or have graduated university in the past year.

Visit the South Korea immigration page for complete information and to start the process.

Singapore

Singapore is the most competitive Working Holiday Visa open to U.S. Citizens – only 2,000 are granted each year. Be prepared and do your research beforehand to improve your chances of getting accepted.

Length: 6 months
Age Restriction: Age 18 – 25 Must be currently a post-secondary student from a recognized institution.

Visit the Singapore immigration page for complete information and to start the process.

A word of warning: Work and travel visas are best for someone comfortable with change, casual employment and open to doing work in a field that may be unfamiliar.  Although technically most of the visas listed here make one eligible to work a contract or “regular” job on non-permanent basis, these are tough to get. Keep and open mind and be aware your realistic opportunities are in tourism, hospitality or jobs that are seasonal in nature.

Traveling with an Anxiety Diagnosis

There are some things I’ve missed out on or know I cannot do because of my anxiety but solo travel is not one. I took my first solo trip abroad after my anxiety diagnosis. Although I had to work at it, I want to share the fact that I have anxiety and still travel abroad alone. Social stigma leads us (those with mental health conditions) to believe we are incomplete as people and inadequately manage our own lives. That’s simply not true! With proper preparation and coping we can travel, be brave, meet new people and break out of ruts.

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I cope on-the-go with sunshine, exercise and sleep. Many trips are focused on hiking.

Readers of this blog know I love an urban bike ride. Unfortunately biking can be dangerous and a few years ago I received a concussion after falling off a bike and landing on my head. If I hadn’t been wearing a helmet, I wouldn’t even have the ability to bike again, so I feel lucky being in the place I am. However, after my brain injury instead of responding to stress in a healthy way, I felt confused, panicked and moody.  I was soon diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and since have taken daily medication. Hopefully I will fully heal one day but I have adapted my life to fit my circumstances, although, still push to retain independence and feed my curiosity.

For years I thought about traveling abroad (studying abroad in college was economically out of reach for me) and visiting a Francophone country since taking French classes as a twelve year old. In my 20s I waited for an opportunity to travel on such a trip with friends, family or a partner but things just didn’t work out that way. Eventually it became clear that if I was going to visit France, or any other way away place, I’d need to go alone. After some research I chose to go to Paris; I couldn’t get bored with the art, movie theaters, live music, delicious food and day trip options. It wasn’t cheap (!)  but culturally France is not too different for an American to manage, with entire areas of the city geared toward foreign visitors. The idea of walking all day seeing sights in the sunshine and at my own pace seemed very calming and fun, not stressful at all.

Unfortunately, many people reacted negatively when I first explained my idea to travel across the ocean and stay a week in Paris by myself, and none of it had to do with the challenge of managing anxiety in a new place. I was warned about the dangers for woman traveling alone and some people even mentioned terrorism should keep me out of Europe. Some questioned why someone would want to go somewhere new and foreign by themselves (only a lonely person would do that). After sometimes being a person that skips things out of worry or fear, it felt strange to hear people come up with wild excuses about why I should be afraid to travel and see those comments as laughable and almost anti-social. It made me think about why I should even worry about traveling at all. I would be spending eight days traveling alone, not reinventing the wheel, so I decided to just focus on building the trip of my dreams and enjoying the adventure.

A few people were very encouraging and even shared their own stories of traveling alone. Hearing coworkers, neighbors, and teammates speak fondly about a period of military service, school, volunteer trips and just regular vacations and how they adapted and what they enjoyed about it was really cool. Listening to them made my plan feel more “normal” – if all these people did it before, then I can do it too.

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Paris at dawn and dusk is amazing.

Being concerned about becoming a person that gives up on things after a health setback, I made sure to go into the experience with an open mind and understanding that a smart traveler is flexible and prepared. If I didn’t enjoy the experience I’d never have to do it again. Even though some things did go wrong (my iPhone ended up falling into a sewer, lost forever), I loved the experience and will maintain that it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made – hence my enthusiasm for solo travel and this blog. Now I even make a point of taking winter trips to help stave off the winter blahs for a while and if I’m having a bad day, a future trip gives me something to look forward to. If you are battling moderate depression or anxiety and would like to travel, please do not feel discouraged. With planning it’s possible to have a wonderful, safe and healthy experience. If you are comfortable sharing, I’d like to hear your input on traveling with anxiety or depression.

Thank you for reading!

Spain: Castilla-La Mancha, a Road Trip

After spending a week in Spain with a friend and driving through Castilla-La Mancha on the way from Cuenca to Valencia, I’m so excited to share the beautiful journey. This trip was the first time I drove outside of the U.S. and although I found the cities nightmarish to navigate, the empty mountain roads were an absolute pleasure to drive!

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View of old Cuenca

After two great nights and far too much wine in old Cuenca, it was time to head for Valencia, starting along highway 2105 in a flamboyant orange Captur. The clear day offered amazing views from the winding road which looks down on the Rio Júcar gorge. The first stop, about a twenty minutes into the drive, was Ventano del Diablo. From this perch one is able to see the jewel colored river and impressive rocks that make up the river gorge. We missed all this during our extremely foggy and cloudy hike the day before. Between Villalba and Uña are several breathtaking views of the river and covering this route definitely set the tone for the day.

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Ventano del Diablo

The next break, not much further along, was Embalse de la Toba. Here you can get a closer view of the water while hiking on the rocky banks. It was a pity to visit the area in November, as it would have been a perfect location for dipping toes into the water to cool off on a hot day. The white, read and brown shades in the sides of the gorge contrasted beautifully with the cerulean blue water and green trees, and eagles soaring high above.

After the short break we continued through Serrania de Cuenca, a nature preserve that includes several towns. The road had many bends and steep grades do it needed to be followed slowly. As we went we were treated to views of dense pine forests, dramatic cliffs and rock formations, cute little farms, old villages and snow capped mountains in the distance. There was one magical moment when, with sun shining full, light snow fell down onto the road. We did not encounter anyone else during our stops. This made the experience feel more intimate, as if the landscape was a special place of our own for exploring at a leisurely pace.

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Rio Jucar

All the opportunities for exploration in the area could be enough to keep a visitor busy for a week and would be heaven for a backpacker or cyclist. Over the course of the trip I had been moved by the beauty of the mountains and forests we encountered but this day was even more special. I don’t believe I have ever experienced such dramatic change in flora, fauna and weather than the wonderful way between Cuenca and Valencia. I am so thankful for the experience. Each time I visit Spain I learn more about then nature and culture. Even now i know some day I will be back and find something even more amazing.

Thanks for reading!

Do I Need a Travel Visa?

Visas are a thorn in the side of frequent travelers. Determining whether or not you need a visa for your holiday abroad isn’t always simple and sometimes the visa process isn’t clear-cut; the requirements for a given country may differ according to how you enter (by land, sea, air) or how long you will stay. But there’s good news: US Passport holders can travel visa-free on short holidays to most of our world’s countries. This page can help you decide whether or not you need a tourist visa as a US passport holder headed to common destinations.

Visit Our Neighbors Visa-Free

When you are travelling to Mexico or Canada with a U.S. Passport, no visa is required for a stay of up to 180 days. You will need to fill out an immigration card on arrival to Mexico.

Visa-Free Europe

Fortunately for US passport holders, visiting Europe is simple and unless you have specific restrictions placed on your individual passport, you can visit Europe for extensive periods visa-free* and achieving free access for long periods if you move around different visa jurisdictions.

Schengen Travel

The following countries are in what is called the Schengen Area which is seen as one jurisdiction without border control and one visa policy: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway (excluding Svalbard), Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. The Schengen Area includes most of the EU, except for Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Ireland, and Romania. Non-EU members Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein are a part of the Schengen Area.

*The Schengen Visa is a tourist and business visa but you do not need to formally apply for anything. The”visa” is automatically issued to US Passport holders when they arrive in a Schengen country but is not a visa-on-arrival. If you’re planning to visit say France for 2 weeks (or two months) and you read something about a “Schengen Visa”don’t panic, you don’t need to do anything. The Schengen Visa grants travel to member countries for up to 90 days within a 180-day period. It DOES NOT allow you to become a resident or get a job.

UK Travel

When you are traveling to United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland) with a U.S. Passport, no visa required for a stay of up to six months.

Ireland

When you are traveling to Ireland with a U.S. Passport, no visa required for a stay of up to three months.

The Caribbean

When you are traveling to Dominican Republic or  Belize with a U.S. Passport, no visa required for a stay of up to 30 days. Jamaica is visa-free for up to 90 days. No Visa is required to visit The Bahamas.

Other Commonly Visited Countries

Argentina

When you are traveling to Argentina with a U.S. Passport, no visa is required for a stay of under 90 days. Be aware that there is a reciprocity fee charged upon entering the country, and a departure tax when leaving the country by air (normally included in your plane ticket).

Australia

When you are traveling to Australia a visa or Electronic Travel Authority (ETA) is REQUIRED. Most U.S. passport holders traveling to Australia for tourism or business purposes for less than 90 days can obtain an Electronic Travel Authority (ETA) for a  fee. Airlines and many travel agencies are also able to apply for ETAs on behalf of travelers.

Brazil

When you are traveling to Brazil a visa is REQUIRED and must be  obtained before you visit. Apply for an electronic visitor’s visa here. For more information visit he Brazil Consular website.

China

When you are traveling to China a visa is REQUIRED. Apply for a ten-year multiple entry visa, useful for repeated travel or trips to Hong Kong or Macau with returns to China. Visit the website of the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China for current visa information.

Colombia

When you are traveling to Colombia with a U.S. Passport, no visa is required for a stay of up to 90 days.

Costa Rica

When you are traveling to Costa Rica with a U.S. Passport, no visa is required for a stay of under 90 days.

Japan

When you are traveling to Japan with a U.S. Passport, no visa is required for a stay of under 90 days.

India

When you are traveling to India a visa is REQUIRED U.S. citizens seeking to enter India solely for tourist purposes, and who plan to stay no longer than 60 days, may apply for an electronic travel authorization at least four days prior to their arrival in lieu of applying for a tourist visa at an Indian embassy or consulate.  Please visit the Indian government’s website for electronic travel authorization.

Morocco

When you are traveling to Morocco with a U.S. Passport, no visa is required for a stay of under 90 days.

New Zealand

When you are traveling to New Zealand with a U.S. Passport, no visa is required for a stay of under three months.

Philippines

When you are traveling to the Philippines with a U.S. Passport, no visa is required for a stay of under 30 days.

Russia

Goodness, yes, you need a visa! The tourist visa process for Russia is notoriously long. Please begin your research and work on the visa 4-6 months before you intend to visit. Don’t be discouraged though. Just remain organized during the process.

South Korea

When you are traveling to South Korea with a U.S. Passport, no visa is required for a stay of under 90 days.

Taiwan

When you are traveling to Taiwan with a U.S. Passport, no visa is required for a stay of under 90 days.

Thailand

When you are traveling to Thailand  with a U.S. Passport, no visa is required for a stay of under 30 days. You may leave Thailand and do a “border run” and return one day later to extend your stay but may only visit for a total of 90 days in a 6 month period. I  did this and it is a common strategy for backpackers wishing to stay in Thailand for longer than 30 days or who are starting and ending a long trip to SE Asia in Thailand (usually flying to/from Bangkok).


Whether you need a visa or not, please note that to enter most countries you need a passport valid for six months after your arrival date and two (or more) blank passport pages. Also many countries require proof of an outbound journey. Specifics will vary and some countries require as many as six blank passport pages (when I was bouncing around Asia in 2018, I filled up five pages in three months so plan ahead if space is tight). Check specific requirements before visiting any country and don’t try going abroad if your passport expires within 90 days or you have less than two blank pages remaining. You could be refused entry to your destination. That’s a sign it’s time for a new passport.

Getting a US Passport, Step-by-Step

 

These directions are for individuals getting a first-time passport. For renewing your passport visit the passport renewal how-to. For other situations, follow instructions on the State Department website (don’t worry, they are clear).

1. Determine when you need your passport.

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Do not procrastinate! It’s safe to assume the full process takes 4-6 weeks and the expedited process 2-3 weeks. However, there are no guarantees and I recommend tackling this 3-4 months before a trip to save yourself stress.

2. Visit the. US State Department website to download and print the correct form.

For your first passport, you will need a completed DS-11 form. Use common sense and print it on clean white paper at full size (8.5” x 11”).

3. Gather your proof of citizenship and the supporting documents needed.

For most natural-born US citizens, this is simply a copy of your birth certificate and Driver’s License (both sides). If this is not your situation, you may submit items such as the following containing your signature AND a photograph: previous  U.S. passport book; previous or current U.S. passport card;  Certificate of Naturalization; Certificate of Citizenship; military identification; or federal, state, or municipal government employee identification card. The DS-11 form contains further instructions should you have none of these forms of identification.

For some this step can be tricky as birth certificates are so seldom used. Please allow yourself some time to track down a birth certificate. As an adult, I don’t even have a copy of mine at my own home and had to ask my parents for their copy!

4. Get a quality passport photo taken.

Pictures must be 2″ x 2″ show your full face with a neutral expression (no smiling) and eyes open and be taken against a white background.  The picture must be taken within six months of submitting your application. Specific US Passport guidelines are here. Depending on what countries you will be visiting you may want to go further than the US guidelines and keep long hair tucked BEHIND your ears (this is required for some countries).

This is something I STRONGLY recommend getting done professionally. It’s a fast process and they should be inexpensive – I paid about $8 for my pictures- get multiples! Department stores (Target in the Midwest), drugstores (Walgreens, CVS), government ID centers, UPS and any businesses that develop film will likely have passport picture services with same-day turn around and can ensure the technical aspects (white background, head placement) are accurate.

5. Budget for your passport fee.

Depending on where you apply and if you chose to expedite the passport, the total fee will vary. At minimum you will pay a application fee of $110 AND an acceptance fee of $35 for a passport using a DS-11 form. To get an idea of how you can pay (check, credit card, money order, etc.) check here.

I think of the passport fee as an investment; paying now to be able to receive the priceless experiences that come from seeing the world, living out your dream adventure and opening yourself up to new people, cultures, places and nature.

6. Visit a Passport Acceptance Facility and submit materials.

For a first time passport you must submit all materials and application in person at a passport acceptance facility. Find a facility near you and plan ahead as you may need to schedule an appointment.

7. Patiently wait for your passport.

Your passport will be mailed to you once completed. I received my passport three weeks but it may take longer depending on your location and volume of applications. If you are anxious or just want to check your application status, call the National Passport Information at 1-877-487-2778 or 1-888-874-7793 7:00 am to 10:00 pm EST (Monday through Friday).

8. Check the passport for typos and keep it in a safe place until your international adventure.

Once the passport arrives, take a high quality photo or scan of pages two and three (the pages with your picture and signature) and store it on a secure cloud platform or on a USB with other travel media you might be taking with you. This will come in handy if the passport is lost while traveling or you need to submit a copy for any reason. A US passport is valid for 10 years but you might wear it out or fill the pages before the expiration date comes.
  

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” 
― Lao Tzu