Dangers of Solo Travel But Why It’s Worth It

Dangers of Solo Travel But Why It’s Worth It

Warning: This Post is… Intense Yesterday, I shared on Facebook Leah McLennan’s article “Why I’ll never stop traveling solo” which was written in response to the rape and murder of two Argentine female travelers in Ecuador earlier this month.  I didn’t follow the actual incident closely at the time because I stay away from depressing news but basically  Maria Coni, 22, and Marina Menegazzo, 21, did something many travelers do. When running low on money in Ecuador, they reached out to their friends for help with accommodation and were put in touch with two men who offered them a place for the night. When one woman resisted the advances of a drunk host, he hit her over the head and she was instantly killed.  The next morning, both women were found dead in garbage bags on a beach. Apparently, this event caused the Internet to erupt in discussions about solo female travel (even though these girls were traveling together) and caused many people to conclude that these women were to blame for traveling alone, or their parents were to blame for letting them travel alone, or other ridiculous accusations placed in all the wrong places.  Of course, this caused female travelers to respond speaking out against violence against women and victim blaming, with the use of #viajosola (I travel alone) hashtag trending on Twitter and a poem written by Guadalope Acosta from the perspective of the victims, (translated from Spanish) “Yesterday I was killed… But worse than death, was the humiliation that followed. From the moment they found my inert dead body nobody asked where the son of a bitch that ended my dreams, my hopes and my life was.  No, instead they started asking me useless questions… What clothes were you wearing? Why were you alone? Why would a woman travel alone?  They questioned my parents for giving me wings, for letting me be independent, like any human being. They told them we were surely on drugs and were asking for it, that we must’ve done something, that they should have looked after us… By doing what I wanted to do, I got what I deserved for not being submissive, not wanting to stay at home, for investing my own money in my dreams. For that and more, I was sentenced”.  As someone who has traveling extensively alone in dangerous countries, couchsurfed and spent time alone with probably hundreds of “strangers”, it’s pretty heart wrenching to read something like this because it could have easily happened to me, if God and my family’s rosaries weren’t keeping me safe.  Obviously, what’s even worse than thinking that I could be dead is thinking that if it did happen to me, people would blame me for being stupid or my parents for being irresponsible. Why I’ll never stop traveling solo Leah McLennan, the Australian solo traveler whose article alerted me to all this, came to a few relevant conclusions in her article, “Why I’ll never stop traveling solo” but I want to add my two cents and take it one step further.  She writes that she’s been in a few sketchy situations before but fortunately, “Fortunately, I can easily recount these travel stories as none of them turned into an assault.”  She concludes that the good experiences outweigh the bad and “Ultimately, there’s no one secret to staying safe while travelling, it’s a process of being wise, planning ahead, conducting thorough research and keenly listening to your instincts. While random and shocking, the murder of the two Argentine backpackers should not hold us back from living life to the fullest and exploring whichever part of the globe we choose.” She also announces, “I have decided I will not let these negative experiences keep me at home. Besides, violence against women is present in every country in the world, including here in Australia.” I agree with all this but want to come clean about what happened to me in Kenya because, while this is true, I believe there’s even more to it. My experiences traveling alone “By leaving our safety net, we have thrown our souls upon the wind, exposing ourselves to all the fears and dangers that we sought to protect each other from, and in doing so, we have made ourselves available to experience things that… border on the magical” -Wanderlust, Elisabeth Eaves Part of the scariest, but also most magical, part of really traveling is how vulnerable it makes you.  You’re in a foreign country by yourself, potentially surrounded by unfamiliar languages, different customs, different values and if you’re a blond and blue eyed, there’s practically a neon sign floating distinguishing you as a foreigner, someone who doesn’t belong.  Whether you want to find a place to eat that won’t give you food poisoning,...

Myths Debunked & Rumors Destroyed: Traveling China

Myths Debunked & Rumors Destroyed: Traveling China

“I have been groomed by media to expect walking into a smoke bomb of chemicals with images of smoke stacks in the back ground bellowing caustic chemicals so as to erode at the very people who work and put it in the air” -Friend #1 “There’s a ghost town in the most populous country in the world?  What is there to do in Shanghai except climb ever-growing skyscrapers?  Use and throw cheap stuff?” -Friend #2 “You’re in China?  Are you alive?  Chinese people are very hard to deal with.” -Friend #3 (Still not sure what specifically was meant by this…) Of all the places I’ve traveled, China has been the one that has truly blasted my stereotypes to smithereens.  In addition to the recent conversations I quoted above, I’ve had dozens of people made comments about visiting the communist kingdom that is stealing American jobs and flooding the market with cheap products that poison our babies.  I’ll openly admit that I held many incredibly misconceptions of China myself, partially from one day of teaching Chinese students in Durham but many from the American media.  I braced myself for mobs of people spitting and farting in public and eating cats like heathens.  I feared teaching would involve a lot of awkward silence as they tentatively typed on their translators, a refusal to get their hands dirty building things and robotic responses when I forced them to talk (granted I developed many of these fears after a day teaching Chinese high school students in Durham in February).  I expected dirty streets, stinky air and a month where smog strangled any sense of sunlight. I experienced some of these things.  Tourist attractions on the weekends were pretty packed, due to summer break and a growing middle class that wants to see their country.    At the Humble Administrator Garden in Suzhou, our experience of the UNESCO site was definitely hampered when we were stuck on skinny bridges, sandwiched and stuck between sweaty families shuffling slowly with minimal forward motion. “Sightseeing is one of the more doubtful aspects of travel and in China it is one of the least rewarding things a traveler can do- primarily a distraction and seldom even an amusement.  It has all the boredom and ritual of a pilgrimmage and none of the spiritual benefits”. -Paul Theroux, Riding the Iron Rooster: Travels Through China Zhongshan Mountain in Nanjing epitomized what I expected tourism in China to be like: mediocre attractions artificially reconstructed for click-happy tourists, with the featured Ming Temple empty except for shops that sold postcards, waving cat statues and lucky knots.  But that happens anywhere and I’ve discovered that there’s more to China than just the Forbidden City, the Great Wall and simplistic way this large and complex country is portrayed in the media. During orientation week of nerd camp, the academic coordinator showed us a “Danger of a Single Story” TED talk from a Nigerian author that warned us about making generalizations from isolated experiences. “The single story creates stereotypes and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.  They make one story become the only story” -Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Here’s what I learned about traveling China, based on a teaching month in Kunshan, traveling on the weekends to Suzhou, Zhouzhuang and Nanjing with a few days in Huangshan, Yanqing and Beijing at the end of the program.  Most of the time I traveled with someone who spoke at least basic Chinese but I spent a couple  days in Shanghai and a day in Beijing exploring independently.  There’s truth to many of these rumors but there are extremely notable exceptions so I’ll share tips that I picked up that can help you have a better experience. “You know more about a road having traveled it than by all the conjectures and descriptions in the world” -William Hazlirt Rumor 1: It’s hard to travel around China if you don’t speak Chinese  As with most of these rumors, it depends where you are.  In general, I was impressed with the amount of English on signs and on announcements on trains and even local buses around Kunshan.   It’s really easy to navigate the high speed train and city metro systems.  Shanghai is extremely well-labelled with English street signs which even include the cardinal directions.  All the tourist attractions in Nanjing, Zhouzhang and Suzhou had English signage and were easy to navigate, although maps were typically in Chinese. I think the hardest part for modern travelers could be the internet situation.  Free wifi is “readily available” in many train stations, cafes and some main squares but often requires a Chinese SIM card to get the password to unlock it.  So for...

Overall Impressions & Advice For Traveling Vietnam

Overall Impressions & Advice For Traveling Vietnam

For those of you who have read my other posts about Vietnam, I’ve had mixed feelings about my two weeks here. For some context before I dive into my overall impressions, I was initially hoping to spend this time in Myanmar, exploring a country that recently opened up to foreign travelers before it got too touristy. I had to fit the trip into specific dates before my teaching gig in China and when looking at flights, Myanmar would be much more expensive and require more plane transfers and time spent in airports. I decided I might as well see Vietnam, which eluded my prior trip to Southeast Asia because of Visa requirements, and finish off the region and visit without paying a penny for flights. So that’s why I’m here, wishing I spent the extra time and money on Myanmar. I think I would have liked Vietnam better if I was younger and less familiar with the region but this country is a well-trodden journey through the Southeast Asian backpacker trail and it was hard to avoid getting caught up in all that entails. First, the hostels are full of backpackers from the UK and Australia and vacationers from Korea.  Most travelers come here on summer break or a gap year between school, attracted by cheap booze and beaches, so the average age is around 20-22. Some of the people I saw looked barely old enough to drive a car, never mind travel around foreign countries. Since this many people’s virgin foray into foreign travel, the whole country is set up to shuttle people up or down the prescribed route from North to South. Everyone and their mother wants to sell you cheap trips to Halong Bay and Sapa, and since budget conscious people (me included!) just look for the cheapest price, I found most of the tours to be lots of people packed in small spaces with tour guides who can barely speak English and don’t even attempt to explain what you’re seeing. A typhoon in Halong Bay and my failure to just postpone the trip instead of listen to the travel agent and replace it with mediocre day tours, caused my week in the North to be back-to-back tours which are generally something I only sign up for as a last resort. Perhaps if you pay more, you’ll have a better experience. For me, traveling that way is a bit superficial and unsatisfying, however it’s often the easiest and cheapest way to get to these places if you don’t speak the language to get good taxi rates. If you have limited time, I’d recommend sticking to the North. Sapa, Halong Bay and Hanoi were all highlights for me and give a good sense of an urban experience as well as some of the most beautiful nature in the country. Hoi An, in central Vietnam, is usually the universal favorite. It’s a cultural city with cute yellow buildings, a river flowing through it and some of the best shopping in the country but definitely touristy. I had my most powerful experiences in the South of the country with the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City and the Cu Chi Tunnel tour, which is a half-day trip from Saigon. As much as read about the Vietnam war, watched travel shows about other people experiencing these exact same tours, the extensive scope of the devastation to both sides never sank in until I saw these two things myself. One of the most surprising things about this trip and knowing the history is that no one, anywhere in the country seemed to hold the slightest bit of resentment against me, being an American. Seeing photographs of people and villages destroyed and the atrocious aftermath of chemical warfare (Agent Orange) made me uncomfortable to be an American here.  It was truly heart wrenching for both sides.   I couldn’t believe the lack of lingering bitterness over something that many middle-aged or older people in Vietnam had to live through. I really wanted to get a local perspective on this but the Vietnamese couchsurfer who walked with me through the War Remnants museum and the other locals I asked, feigning incomprehension and/or dismissing my questions with “I’m-not-going-to-talk-about-this” smiles. The hard to overcome cultural barriers was another reason Vietnam wasn’t my favorite place to travel. People of Vietnam are “friendly” and there’s always someone around who speaks enough English to get your immediate needs met/sell you things (even in the middle of Halong Bay) but the culture is much more reserved. As much as I tried to talk to locals, I rarely got any meaningful information with three surprising exceptions: I spent...

Mud Sliding through Rice Paddies: The Real Story of Sapa Vietnam

Mud Sliding through Rice Paddies: The Real Story of Sapa Vietnam

After traveling most of Southeast Asia a few years ago when I spent a summer based in Singapore, my first week in Vietnam didn’t impress me much. Part of it was my fault because with all the traveling I’ve been doing lately, I didn’t have much time to do research beyond familiarizing myself with the typical backpacker route.  Ho Chi Minh City- Nha Trang- Hoi An- Da Nang- Hue- Hanoi- Sapa and/or Halong Bay…. but even after talking to dozens of travelers, that’s all anyone did so it seems like it’s a country where people don’t get off the beaten path.  The cities were crowded and loud, with only a few attractions within walking distance. Most of the things that were worth seeing required a motorbike and luckily, I could ride on the back of a bike with couch surfers braver than myself to explore the attractions of Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang and Hanoi but still it was a lot of temples and wading through Asian tourists armed with selfie sticks. When my trip to Halong Bay got cancelled, I was a bit bummed, especially when the replacement tours felt like something that had to be survived rather than enjoyed. But I was definitely looking forward to Sapa, the land of rice paddies and tribal minorities in the North. This trip also turned into a bit of a debacle, but in the end, quite a pleasant one. Getting picked up from our hostels was the usual hassle: we expected a sleeping bus but instead we got a crowded van with another non-verbal tour guide, so we sat on each other’s laps wondering whether we’d have to endure the 6-hour journey in a massive mosh pit. The man wordlessly checked a couple tickets, kicked two Russian girls on the street then took us down a dark alley where, thankfully, a sleeping bus awaited our arrival. The arrival to Sapa I passed out on the drive and around 4:45 AM, the bus pulled into a gravel parking lot. Some fellow travelers confirmed that we arrived in Sapa our final destination. we stopped somewhere which was Sapa according to some people’s GPS but when a brave soul tried to leave the bus, he was blocked by the driver and the assistant. The driver shut the bus doors dramatically and there we sat until 6 AM with no idea when we’d be released from captivity. At 6 AM, they forced us out of the bus into a rainy parking lot where the locals tried to sell us homestays and periodically arrived with signs with names like “Tim Thom” looking for people who didn’t seem to exist. As our group dwindled, about 45 minutes later, a man with a sign with our names on it welcomed us into his van. We drove up to Grand View Hotel, which was positioned to have a great view, but fog obscured our view. To enter the hotel, we had to elbow our way through a mob of Hmong women trying to sell us bracelets and wallets. We piled into a lobby filled with angry tourists trying to change their reservations to switch hotels and alarmingly, the receptionist didn’t even seem the slightest bit surprised. When we asked to brush our teeth in an empty room, we could see why. One of my fellow travelers aptly described the hotel as something out of The Shining. It had it all from exposed pipes, unexplained puddles, punch holes in the door, grimy glassware collecting decades of dust, a funky smell and inadequate lighting. We were invited to breakfast in the next room. A woman “dusted off” our table with a duster that looked like it was designed for breeding dust bunnies and we sat down, exhausted after our night bus ride and asked for coffee. “No coffee,” the waiter abruptly replied, throwing moldly menus like Frisbees at our faces, potentially to distract us from the cockroach running across the checkered tablecloth.  After a bit of squealing, we chose our breakfast based on which food would make us less sick and decided it would be hard to mess up bread with butter and honey. Sure enough, the waiter replied to that request, “no butter”. We meekly munched on our half-roll of bread, avoiding the wilted side of tomato and cucumber, skeptical that it would fuel our 12 km “hike”. The trek After finishing breakfast and another hour of waiting and discovering new reasons to be sketched out about the hotel, we were rallied by a young Hmong girl with a baby on her back who introduced herself as our tour guide. We donned our ponchos and...

Halong Bay Alternative: The Hilarious Misadventures of Plan B

Halong Bay Alternative: The Hilarious Misadventures of Plan B

“Imagine 2000 or more islands rising from the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin and you have a vision of breathtaking beauty. Halong translates as ‘where the dragon descends into the sea’, and legend claims the islands of Halong Bay were created by a great dragon from the mountains. As it charged towards the coast, its flailing tail gouged out valleys and crevasses. When it finally plunged into the sea, the area filled with water, leaving only the pinnacles visible” –Lonely Planet Halong Bay: UNESCO world heritage site, the top attractions in the northeast of the country and the sole reason that some people come to Vietnam.  So naturally, one of the first things I did after arriving to Hanoi and dropping my stuff at the hostel, was to arrange a trip there.  All I had to do was return at 8 AM the next morning with an overnight bag, packed to spend one night on a boat on the Bay. After booking the tour, I returned to my hostel where a Polish couch surfer, working at a local hostel, waited for me on his motorbike.  We buzzed around the major city sights in a couple hours, hitting a couple parks, a lame temple, two lakes, the fancy shopping street and Ho Chi Minh mausoleum.  Although the sites were interesting, much of our day was spent darting honking motorbikes, squeezing through Vietnamese ladies wielding long poles carrying their produce and arguing with people about parking.  All of it confirmed my readiness to get out of the city and into some beautiful nature, even if it was on a boat  (apparently the scars from my recent sailing trip didn’t take too long to heal).    As we emerged from a shady seat in the park and blinked in the hot Vietnam sun, I commented, “It’s supposed to be monsoon season but it hasn’t rained on me during the day once.”  He replied, “Monsoons are worse in the South… if you made it through that without rain, you’re probably in the clear”.  Despite both of us sweating a bit in the sun, I smiled, “Maybe I’m finally finished bringing apocalyptic weather on vacation with me”.   [If you haven’t been following my adventures, my February trip to Peru brought rains that contributed to me slipping on a rock and breaking my arm, my April trip brought snow to Jordan and atypically freezing temperatures to Cyprus, my road trip through the United States in late May brought 40 tornadoes to the vicinity of Oklahoma City the night we stayed there and a snow storm that piled 5″ of snow and freezing rain to Colorado Springs and of course, my sailing trip in the Florida Keys brought a whole new set of storms] So after a night in Hanoi, falling asleep a lullaby of roaring motorbike motors, drunken tourists and shop owners trying to sell people things, I bounced out of bed and to the tourist office, ready for the sea.  I arrived early and asked the guy at the desk if I could leave my bag, grab some coffee then come back.  He shook his head no, tried to sputter some things and dialed the phone furiously, but his English wasn’t good enough to explain why he was denying me my caffeine fix.  I sighed and sat down.  Fortunately, a few seconds later, the lady who sold me the tour arrived on her motorbike, and panted as she took of her helmet (as if she had to pedal the bike herself).  “Typhoon.  There’s a typhoon in the Bay.  First typhoon of the season.  Tour is cancelled,” she huffed and puffed.  I asked if I could postpone the trip until tomorrow and she vigorously shook her head no, “all trips for next three days, cancelled.  Big storm”.  Seeing the disappointment on my face, she offered an alternative.  “We switch your Halong Bay tour to two day trips.  Almost the same as Halong Bay”.  She explained an itinerary with boats and mountains that I didn’t quite understand but still half asleep, having been denied coffee, I shrugged in slightly skeptical agreement. Plan B, Part 1: A Cranky Bus of Hot Tourists on a Death March to Trang An & Bai Dinh Pagoda I sat in her office for awhile… waiting 15 minutes, 30 minutes beyond the  supposed “8 AM pick-up time”.  She didn’t seem surprised that the vehicle hadn’t arrived but saw that I was getting antsy so she started showing me some of her favorite music videos.  Apparently this 31 year old Vietnamese lady with two kids had a big crush on the Russian equivalent of the High School Musical Star.  She blushed as she showed me...

Guest Post: Preserving Balinese Tradition with Ethically Sourced Bones

Guest Post: Preserving Balinese Tradition with Ethically Sourced Bones

Written by Skull Bliss, an online shop selling exquisite, ethically sourced artistic animal skulls to support local Indonesian artists. When we found the amazing skill decorations with their breath-taking carvings in Bali, we were just in awe of the extraordinary craftsmanship and unique artwork.  From then on, we decided to create an online shop to spread the word about these gorgeous animal skulls as we wanted to give the Master Carvers a platform to offer their art to the world. It is a Balinese tradition to use an animal skull in order to transform it into an eternal piece of artwork which has a long, well-respected history in Indonesian society.  They no longer wanted to waste the by products of an animal after it was used for food so they started to clean the bones, bleach them and carve symbols and ornaments into them, usually religious in nature. Creating these stunning skull records takes about 6-8 days total. The sketching and preparation of the bones alone takes 2-3 days.  After applying the beautiful carving, the animal skulls need to get a finish and dry in order to prevent cracks during shipment. We take pride in supporting Balinese artists which gives them an opportunity to follow their passion, creating art while providing for their families.  We’re also proud to keep a Balinese tradition alive.  ‘SkullBliss’ offers unique art, where each animal skull tells it’s own story so you will never get tired of admiring the decor....