Monday, March 24, 2014

my blog has a new site!

I will no longer be posting to blogger, but instead, a new real grown-up blog!

All my previous postings should have transferred over. So bookmark it and be on the lookout for new posts!

Thanks for following me in my travels...even the cyber travels :)

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

My SE Asia route

Here's my itinerary to give you an idea of where to go and what to do:

Thailand: Bangkok >> Chiang Mai 
I landed in Bangkok and went straight to the other airport, and flew right up to Chiang Mai via Air Asia. If I had more time, I would have taken the train through the countryside. 

Chiang Mai is a mini-Bangkok. Easy to navigate as the city is a big square. There are many temples, lots of great food, and some of the cheapest hostels and smoothies! Also a great place to play with baby tigers, trek with elephants, or learn how to cook Thai.

>> Pai >> Chiang Mai 
From Chiang Mai I took a short bus to the backpacker town of Pai. Super chill place, lots of hippies, lots of hammocks and lots of great food...even decent mexican burritos and all-you-can-eat-sushi if you're craving something other than Thai. I'd recommend Darling Viewpoint Bungalows across the river.

Vietnam: Da Nang >> Hoi An >> Hue >> Ninh Binh >> Hanoi
Again, for lack of time, especially with the upcoming Vietnamese Tet (New Year), where it is recommended to not be in the country unless you know a family to spend it with, I flew from Chiang Mai to Da Nang. I had reserved the flight months in advance on Vietnam Airlines, but apparently hadn't actually booked the flight, so had lost my seat. Thankfully I was able to buy the flight on sight, but at about $60 more. 

As the cheapest option, and with some time to spare, I took a city bus to Hoi An from Da Nang. A bit confusing, but I made it. Hoi An is a beautiful small city of love, situated inland just a short cruiser bike ride from the coast. I'd recommend the Sunshine Hostel - and book in advance! This is the place to buy silk clothing. The waves were also small but powerful enough to try my legs at surfing. Afterwards, I celebrated with my new French friend at a restaurant called Bale Well tucked in an alley, and had 4 cent glasses of the daily brewed beer.

I left Hoi An for Da Nang and Hue, but wouldn't really recommend either of them, even though there is some history there, it didn't seem relevant (like the Vietnam war memorials closer to Ho Chi Minh City, which I thought would be too overwhelming for me but other travelers loved it!). I took the last seat/bed on the scenic train up to Hanoi, although it's not so scenic at night! Beware those who are claustrophobic, as the trains aren't exactly Amtrak.

Fellow travelers told me that Halong Bay was too touristy and too overcast that time of year, so I chose the 'mini' Halong Bay of Ninh Binh, a very long and confusing city bus ride from Hanoi. Regardless, I made it, rented my first motorbike, and attempted to find this park. Lost in translation with a hand drawn map, it was still a beautiful scenic drive outside of a big city.

Laos: Vientianne >> Pakse >> Don Dhet (4,000 islands)
I flew from Hanoi to Vientianne, taking a $5 taxi which took me to the wrong hostel as soon as the sun had set. A couple hours later I found my hostel. The city had delicious French and Italian food, from it's European roots. And cheese! The first I had in weeks. Otherwise, the city didn't offer much that interested me. While I should have backtracked north to go floating in a river of Vang Vien or Luang Probang, I took a fancy sleeper overnight bus south to Pakse. It was basically like sharing a twin bed with a stranger, but thankfully she was a nice German, also a freelance designer, also about my age. Pakse was another small city, not much to do, but I did have a wonderful 90-minute $9 swedish massage.

Next stop was a 4-hour bus ride to the 4,000 islands, right near the border of Cambodia, along the Mekong River. From the bus stop, long boats take you a short ways to a small island, which is about 3 miles in circumference. I paid $6/night for a couple's bungalow, with both sunrise AND sunset view. I ran into previous backpackers, including my German bunkmate, and sat on the beach and rode around the island on bike cruisers for the next couple days.

Cambodia: Siem Reap >> Phnom Penh 
I took the long bus ride to Siem Reap, which ended up being a bus ride that packs people with bags of rice, as tight as sardines. Everyone needs to try it at some point in their life. This is also a time where you've hopefully figured out how to use pit toilets. In my humbled opinion, I think they are better than the seatless South American toilets long as you don't have a 25 pound pack on your back.

Siem Reap is a must. Ankor Wat is an easy bike ride away to save you from renting a driver for the day. I'd also recommend stopping at the hospital afterwards to donate blood to the locals who are in desperate need. After you've done your good deed for the day, celebrate with a beer and happy pizza at Happy Herb's, and proceed with caution to the adjacent street's bar scene and begging families.

Next stop, Phnom Penh, where the Genocide Museum / Killing Fields is another place you must stop. You will look at these people with a much softer eye and much warmer heart. 

Thailand: Bangkok >> Koh Phangan >> Bangkok >> USA
I flew from Phnom Penh to Surat Thani, then took the last ferry to Koh Samui, and a speed boat to Koh Phangan. Avoid the extra expensive speed boat by not missing the last ferry! I stayed with friends in Tantawan Bungalows on Haad Yao beach, which is the NW part of the island. As tough as I thought I could be to bike around the small island, it would be strenuous with the hills, so we rented a scooter, or we walked everywhere. Koh Phangan is known for its full moon parties, which I did not desire to partake in, but I would recommend going if you have someone to go with. Even if you're a few years older than 21 :) Haad Yao beach was beautiful with the calmest waters I've ever seen. You won't see the limestone formations until taking the ferry back to the airport. If you care to scuba dive, Koh Tao is the next island over for that.

SE Asia backpacker circuit

Heard good things about traveling to Thailand? Sure, it's not so unheard of anymore.

So as long as your making the big trek over the little pond, why not make the trip worthwhile? Why not stay a few more weeks and visit some nearby countries while you're there?

Here's a visual:

There's no one defined loop that all the backpackers take, but generally speaking, it is easiest to fly into Bangkok then go up to northern Thailand, across to northern Laos, northern Vietnam down the coast to southern Vietnam, then Cambodia, back to Bangkok, and possibly down to a Thai island...or in reverse.

Here are some things to consider when planning your travel:

1. How much time can you be there?
The loop would take a minimum time of 1 month, hitting up 1-2 towns in each country for 2-3 days at a time, via bus...the cheapest and most adventurous mode of transportation!

2. How much are you willing to rough it...or how much are you willing to spend? 
As mentioned above, buses and trains are the cheapest options, but will cost you in time. It also means there will be more natives, less English, less Western toilets, but you will see much more of the countrysides.

Hostels are great for budget travel, and serve almost as little English-speaking embassies. If there are dorms, they will be your cheapest option, some as low as $3/night to share with 3-9 other roommates. Most all of them are safe and provide lockers to hold your bag (pack your padlock). Some even offer nightly activities that give you a chance to meet other hostelers. Chances are you'll be so tired that you could fall asleep anywhere! 

More remote areas only offer private rooms, so even if you're one person, you will have to pay for two people. All the more incentive to make a friend!

3. How do I get around the cities?
In order of most expensive to least expensive
- Taxis: mostly in the capital cities, just like in the US with a meter
- Tuk-tuks: everywhere. Negotiate the rate BEFORE you get into the tuk-tuk!
- Scooters/moto-bike: mostly in Vietnam and Cambodia. Just like a tuk-tuk, negotiate price first.
- Songthaew: Covered trucks with bench seats, basically a shared taxi to popular destinations. Negotiate price before getting into the truck.
- Public transportation: in the biggest cities. I've found that trains are generally way easier to navigate than bus systems. And city buses will have very few English speaking people to assist.
- OR if you have the time and the spirit, BUY a motorcycle or scooter and make your way across the country on your own time, then sell it back at the end of your trip! And if you're a real adventurer, bring your camping gear and set up tent every night (might not seem the safest, but it's been done many times before, so you won't be the first).
- Whatever you take, leave extra time for travel!

4. Are you a city or a country gal (or guy)?
Chances are that if you enjoy the city lifestyle in the US, you will appreciate all that the cities overseas offer. However if you really want to get to know the natives and hear their stories, the country folk, like in the states, are generally more laid-back and friendly. Same goes for costs. City folks can generally get by trying to make a buck off of a foreigner and after awhile you can start to feel like they are taking advantage. Country folks are more likely to offer you a plate of dinner and a room at their home, even though you are a complete stranger. Go with your gut...just don't let one person ruin your experience of the entire country!

That being said, restaurants in the bigger Vietnam cities had their daily brew on sale for 4 cents a glass, or 25 cents a pitcher. That was not a rip-off!

5. How much culture do you want to experience?
Keep in mind that the islands are beautiful, but touristy compared to other mainland locations. I found a remote bungalow on Koh Phangan for $20, which doesn't seem terrible, but tack on the little bit extra for transportation to get there, plus the little extra that meals and drinks cost, and suddenly you're going through money a lot faster than you were on the mainland.

You can scuba dive, play with baby tigers, ride an elephant, or take an Asian cooking class, and it's up to you to decide if they will be a worthwhile part of your experience or not. Remember to do it for you, not for Facebook.

And if you have more time than a month, consider Burma, Singapore ($$), or the Philippines. In my next articles I'll highlight where I went, and what to pack!

What are you waiting for?!

travel tips and bloggings...

Many of my friends have asked me for tips on where to go and what to see, so I have begun to rehash some old favorite spots to bring you 'best of' tips as an easy reference. 

I'm also hoping to write for some travel blogs, so many of these tips could be multi-purpose. 

Of course I will continue writing random babblings about my farm and the slow life as well. Comments and sharing always welcome!

Thank you for reading!

Top 5 Places to Visit in 2 weeks

Did the bossman only grant you 10 days off, even after you begged and pleaded for more? Not to worry, that's plenty of time to soak in the best of what Argentina has to offer. Keep in mind that you will have to jet-set a few times, but planned in advance, this should still be affordable. Check out LAN if you have status with United or Aerolineas Argentinas if you have status with Delta. Either of these can offer multi-segment flight passes throughout the country (or continent).

The trickiest part could be deciding when to go. If you're from the midwest US, that's easy. Go during the most brutal part of the winter...January-March, as you will be met with the opposite: Argentina's summer. If you're single, why no skip over Valentine's Day altogether and treat yourself with a mid-February getaway. Hate the same lame New Year's Eve scene? This is your chance to start the new year right...overseas!

So let's get to it...


1. Buenos Aires 
You will likely find the cheapest round-trip airfares in and out of Buenos Aires, Argentina's capital city. This is one of the best first places to go in South America, hands down. It has a very European style, with an easy transportation system within the city, and for the most part, is clean and safe for a large city. There are museums, walking tours of historical sites, as well as a huge selection of restaurants and bars. Visit the cemetery where Evita was buried, take some tango lessons, and enjoy some delicious steak and wine!

2. Punte del Este, Uruguay
Day 3 take a ferry and bus ride to Punte del Este, Uruguay. Although it's not actually Argentina, it's such a quick and easy day trip, that you might as well add another stamp to the passport while you are in the area. Be sure to see the infamous fingers coming up through the sand and this is your chance to eat some sushi instead of steak. As a resort, this will be one of the priciest areas, meaning drinks will be the same price as back in the states. You don't need much more than a full day here, so make the most of the beautiful beach scene.

3. Ushuaia
Day 5 take the bus and ferry back to Buenos Aires, where you will fly to Ushuaia (pronounced 'posh-why-ah'). It will be a bumpy landing into a tiny airport, but it will be worthwhile as you are surrounded by beautiful mountains at what is referred to as the end of the world, or the southern most point before Antarctica. Bring your raincoat, as storms are likely to pop up at a moment's notice, as you can't see them coming in over the mountains until it's too late! If you decide at this point to quit your job, or if you just happen to have an extra 2 weeks, why not check out a last minute deal to Antarctica? Ushuaia is the port town for these cruises, so at the very least, take a boat tour to see penguins or other sea birds and lions. Seeing them in their natural habitat beats any day at the zoo back home. Hike around town or at the nearby national park, then grab a brew at a local pub...and stay out until the sun goes down...which could be about 11pm in January!

4. El Calafate/El Chalten
Day 8 flight to El Calafate, then take a bus to El Chalten, the base town for Mount Fitz Roy. El Chalten is about like any other really small mountain town in Colorado or Alaska...even the majority of the other travelers are probably from there as well. Eat some good grub and drink some great brews while hearing others tell you which hiking trails to take the next day. If you have the time and the equipment (or are able to rent), pitch a tent at the base of Mt. Fitz Roy and enjoy the beauty of the true Patagonia for a few days.
Day 10 head back to El Calafate and spend the night there. This is a bit bigger city with more locals, but the next morning you will head out the Los Glaciares National Park, where you will witness one of the world's largest glaciers come crashing in front of your eyes. Plan to spend the entire day there if you wish to take a cruise up to the glacier, or even hike on it.

5. Mendoza
Day 12 fly out of El Calafate to Mendoza, more popularly known as Malbec wine country. There are plenty of wine tours to choose from, or you can be adventurous and take a city bus to Maipu and rent bikes from bodega to bodega...some even offer olive oil tastings as well. This is the last stop so that you can load up your bag with wine to take home to remember the experience! (If you can get it through customs!)

Sunday, March 9, 2014

reverse culture shock

I can't tell if the more I travel, the more it helps or hurts my life. I always tell people that it is worth the while. But they don't call it the travel bug for nothing.

Once you return from travels, your world is upside down. The normalcies of home...your bed, a hot shower, and in my case, Chipotle...they are more wonderful than you have ever realized. You appreciate them more than ever.

You can't wait to catch up with friends you've missed while you were away. You have so much to say about your much you learned, how wildly colorful the scenery was, how you cried when you had to say goodbye to the wonderful people you met. Yet when your friend politely asks 'How was your trip?', all you can muster is 'Great.' You don't know where to begin. Your friend, who hasn't traveled, asks where your favorite place was. Again, how do you begin to tell them that it was everything? You just respond 'I don't know' and then your trip begins to sound lame and your friend changes the subject.

You told yourself on the trip how as soon as you got home, you'd change the world with what you learned. You'll trash the rest of your useless CD collection and those outfits you only wear once. You'll be the friendliest kid around and start up conversations with random strangers like you did while traveling. You'll volunteer more. You'll be more honest and apologize more. You'll watch less tv. You'll read more.

By the end of the week, you're back into your routine. Your roommates are as messy as they were before you left. People are way to caught up in their cell phones and Facebook...including you. Your clients need everything pronto. You've stopped practicing Spanish because there's no need for it now in 'Merica. Your stomach is no longer nauseous, so you can go back to eating way too much of bad food.

The littlest things become nonsense to you. Your boss disciplines you for not filling out your timesheet before you left...probably secretly jealous that you were gone so long. You're bored with your friends stories of how their boyfriend isn't giving them the time of day yet they refuse to break up. The apples in the grocery store aren't as exotic as the coconuts you picked from the foreign trees. Your co-workers rave about this TV show you missed. There are way too many people buying way too much plastic crap at Wal-Mart that will just end up in a landfill next year. Commuting is a waste of time. As was a boring first date over a cup of tea.

None of that matters. And no one understands it but you.

What really matters were those kids in Cambodia who begged you for a meal. Those bricks you stacked to form a house in El Salvador. That perfect sunset on your last day in Thailand. That delicious 25 cent vegetable wrap your friend shared with you in Laos. That Vietnamese man who gave you a ride on his scooter because your backpack looked too big to carry. That moment you walked up the subway stairs and saw the streets of Paris unfold before your eyes. That Turkish woman who knew English and gave you directions when you were lost. That first kiss in the pouring rain. That Indian family who slept on the floor so you could have the bed. That final run along the beach at low tide in Ecuador, while the crabs ran frantically to the water.

Somehow you have to merge the two worlds...the mundane and the adventure. Make the mundane adventurous? You want to change the world. You want them to see it how you've seen it. You want to inspire.

Thank you to those who get it. To those who have been there. To those who haven't been there but have followed as closely as they can. 

A day in the life of an El Salvadorian...

manual labor

Here's some of the work we did in El Salvador. You'll note that most of it is very labor intensive, which saves on costs.

We would get to the job site around 8 am, the masons were already there and working since 7 am. We'd take breaks at 10:30 and 2:30, lunch at noon, and leave by 4 pm. The masons were still working until 7pm, at most, getting paid $3/hr.

Each house takes approximately 6-7 weeks to build, and costs roughly $7k. These were very simple 2-3 bedroom houses, about 500 square feet.

Some 80% of the El Salvador population lives in inadequate housing...whether nothing, or a tin shack, or a house that will collapse in the next earthquake. That's more than 500,000 houses. Forgive me if my numbers are off, but that's just a gauge to give you an idea of the conditions there!

manually mixing concrete

cutting blocks for the roof

manually unloading sand for the floors

leveling floors with sand and water

$84 tin roof

exterior of the house we worked on

safety first?

a finished exterior

finished interior

finished interior

typical porch...with laundry and drying beans

work hard, play hard!