On Making Friends on the Road

People often ask me if traveling solo ever gets lonely. The truth is, I’m almost never by myself. I’m very energized by being around other people, and sharing experiences with others is what makes these experiences so meaningful (as can easily be seen from almost all of the blog posts I’ve ever written). Some of the most special memories I have from my travels are with people I meet totally by chance. It feels like magic sometimes. Since it’s something I’m asked about often, I’d like to share a little more about how it happens. (This post is essentially a continuation of what I experienced in Bangkok during my first week in Thailand.)

This morning I woke up with every intention of finding a cozy cafe where I could have breakfast and write for a while. I put my things down at a table in Om Garden, a place highly recommended to me here in Pai, Thailand, and went to the counter to order my food. When I walked back to my table, a friendly guy named Carl from New Zealand had sat down across from my things and offered for me to join him (even though my things were already there…a concept we don’t really have in the United States because sharing a table with strangers is just not part of our culture). We proceeded to have a very interesting chat for 2 hours about this and that. Some topics included: religion in Thailand, and why we find it so intriguing to visit temples here but would never walk into a random church at home just to check out what it looks like inside; how the current state of politics in the US is affecting people around the rest of the world (something people from other countries ask me about very frequently); how to know what to do with your life, especially when backpacking and exploring the world is such an enriching and addicting experience; etc. Before parting ways he invited me to join him at a drum circle tonight, which sounds like an unmissable experience! I didn’t get to any writing in that cafe, and that is entirely okay, because as often happens to me, talking with strangers who quickly become friends brings me so much joy.

The same thing happened last Sunday night in the common room of my hostel in Chiang Mai. I was chatting with a group from Canada and told them I was taking the 12:30pm bus the next day to Chiang Rai. Tyler from Toronto happened to have the same bus ticket, and we also just happened to have booked the same hostel for the next night. So I suddenly had a new friend. When we arrived at the bus terminal, it was a bit confusing as to which bus was ours, so I asked another friendly-looking backpacker (Jair from the Netherlands) which bus he was waiting for, and he happened to be on the same bus and booked in the same hostel as us as well. The 3 of us along with Angelico (also from the Netherlands whom we met in Chiang Rai) spent the next three days exploring and enjoying each other’s company. We quickly accumulated a few additional friends in our hostel from the US, France, England, and Germany, and had a great time exploring the area and crowding into the same small table at the Cat Bar in town each night we were there.

The conversations had in these scenarios seem like they would be quite shallow…where are you from, what do you do, etc. But actually those are some of the last questions to be asked. It’s amazing how quickly deeper topics arise, and how easy it is to share new ideas and consider new perspectives on things that often never get talked about at home with people you’ve known your whole life. I can’t quite put my finger on why this happens, but it happens with such a frequent consistency that I think it warrants some scientific research. Unfortunately these special moments always end as abruptly as they began as people set off on their own separate ways, but it’s also what makes these fleeting friendships so special. You meet someone and within minutes you could trust them to watch your bag, or drive you around on a scooter all day (thanks Jair!) because everyone is in the same boat. You hope for the best for everyone as you part ways, cross your fingers that your paths will cross again in the near future, and at the very least you have new friends to visit around the world on future adventures.

It happened on my trip through South America too. One evening in Taganga, Colombia I was booking a bus ticket to Parque de Tayrona and bumped into two French guys who were looking at taking the same bus the next day. I proceeded to spend the next week with their group of 4 French guys and 2 Argentinian girls in Tayrona and Minca (which was one of my favorite weeks of my entire 3 month trip). We slowly parted ways, but Adrien and I had similar ideas of our plans in Colombia, and flights out a day apart, so we spent 3 weeks traveling together. All because we happened to be in the same place at the same time.

And it happened again in Chile when I met Tom from Paris at our hostel in the Atacama desert. We randomly bumped into each other a few times over the next two weeks, and when we got to La Paz, Bolivia we traveled to Lake Titicaca together. That island is so spectacular, and my experience there was definitely enriched with Tom by my side. On a bus ride to Arequipa, Peru, Tom and I met Carlota and Anna from Barcelona. The 4 of us spent the next week together laughing more than I had laughed in a very long time all the way through the city of Arequipa, the Colca Canyon, and the desert oasis of Huacachina, Peru. Saying goodbye to those 3 was one of the most difficult things I did in South America.

The thing that all these meetings have in common is that they are each completely random in their own ways. In almost every case, had I booked a different hostel (it’s hard to choose from the multitude that exist among the backpacker community), purchased a different bus ticket, slept in an hour later…I may never have met any of them. Similarly, had any of the aforementioned happened, I’m sure I would have met equally as amazing people in other circumstances. But if I believe anything to be true in this world, it is that every single thing happens for a reason. I have faith in fate, and that the people who are meant to walk into your life will. And sometimes they leave abruptly, so it’s important to cherish the moments you spend together. There’s something about these fleeting friendships that force you to live in the moment and not take any moment for granted. Because life is happening right now – not yesterday or tomorrow. It also teaches me over and over that it is okay to trust other humans, something that is not ingrained in American culture. The profoundness that this trust has had on my life is difficult to articulate into words, and I am forever grateful to these people for reinforcing it on a daily basis.

When I set out to write this morning I had an entirely different topic in mind, but I was so inspired by my conversation with Carl that I wanted to share more about these special chance meetings. So cheers to Carl for sharing breakfast with me, and to everyone else I’ve met in my travels for making the experience what it is. May we meet again someday!

Warmly Welcomed in Bangkok

Like most major cities I’ve been to around the world, Bangkok is a little overwhelming. The strong sun mixed with the heat and humidity make it difficult to spend the entire day outside. The spectacular temples are filled with tourists speaking every language you could imagine. And in the background of it all, you can hear the constant rumble of motorcycles and tuk tuks in the endless traffic of the city.

But despite the mayhem, it is possible to find moments of reprieve from the chaos. I’d like to share the stories of a few sweet human beings that have crossed my path this week amongst the clamor and chaos of Bangkok.

Friday was my first full day in the city and I wasn’t quite over the jet lag of my journey. I wearily ventured out into the heat and headed to Wat Pho, Temple of the Reclining Buddha. This place is truly impressive. At 150 feet in length, the image of Buddha is one of the largest in the world. While waiting in line to take my picture next to this beauty, I overheard a conversation in Spanish being had by the guy in front of me in line with the guy in back of me. Realizing that they were together, I offered (in Spanish) for the guy behind me to cut in front, and they were both immediately impressed and confused as to why I spoke Spanish so well. Their other 2 friends quickly joined the conversation and suddenly I had 4 friends from Spain to spend the afternoon with. We left the temple and went to find some street food at a market for lunch before wandering around the neighborhood together. These guys are documenting their trip on YouTube, and you can see Bangkok for yourself (and hear me speak a little Spanish) in this cool video they made. I was able to meet up with them again in Chiang Mai a few days later for lots more laughs before they moved on to the South of Thailand.

On Saturday I met 3 girls from China at my hostel. We went to dinner together and had a great time talking about cultural differences between China and the US. They were impressed with my ability to use chopsticks, and I was impressed that babies in China know how to use them. They were adorable and I really enjoyed our cute photo shoot together before I headed out to a different hostel the next morning.

Monday was by far the most special day I had in this city. After a hectic morning spent in taxis between the train station and the bus station trying to organize how I would get to Chiang Mai on Wednesday, I was excited to spend some time with my friend Larry (who I haven’t seen since college) and his girlfriend Alix who were in Bangkok for a short layover before heading to Myanmar. Our plan was to visit “The Green Lung” of Bangkok which required a 1 hour water taxi down the Chao Phraya River, however, none of the piers seemed to have any available options. Since the ticket saleswomen we asked spoke limited English, and our Thai vocabulary consists of hello, thank you and no thank you, we decided to scratch that plan and get Thai massages instead. These are famous for being a little intense, but I had no idea it involved a small Thai woman digging her elbows into my back, standing on my legs while pulling my arms, and twisting me all around until my entire back cracked. It sounds painful but it was actually quite nice. We ate some delicious dinner at a street food stall and drank some refreshing Thai tea before meandering back towards my hostel.

On our way we passed a brand new hostel with a free art gallery in the entry way. We wandered in and ended up touring the place and hanging out in the lobby with the guy working there. A short time later, the hostel’s only 4 guests visiting from Pakistan came downstairs to join our conversation, and we spent the next 5 hours learning about each other’s cultures, and exchanging ideas of how much traveling truly expands your horizons about the world. I’m not sure how many Americans they had met before, but they kept saying how impressed they were with how kind and friendly we were. It’s safe to say that the US gets as unrealistic of a reputation in Pakistan as Pakistan gets in the US. These guys made me so excited to visit Pakistan someday, and we ended the night by learning some traditional Pakistani and Thai dances. This kind of evening is my absolute favorite way to pass time while traveling and is the #1 reason why I continue exploring new places.

Just before leaving Bangkok on Wednesday, I was able to meet up with Melissa (my brother’s girlfriend’s twin sister) and her husband Phil who were visiting Thailand for their honeymoon. At this point I was very tired of the madness and smog of Bangkok so we went to the Jim Thompson house, a nice break from the chaos in a garden oasis in the middle of the city. Jim was an American expat that became known for his involvement in the silk trade in Thailand. His beautiful house is now a museum and an awesome way to spend an afternoon. And I got to crash a honeymoon, which feels like something I should cross off my bucket list 🙂

Once again, traveling has proved to me that the best gifts that come from a trip like this cannot be purchased. They are those sweet moments shared with strangers who become friends. These experiences overcome all the barriers that language, culture, and distance attempt to use to divide us, and they always leave me hungry for more.

So What’s in my Backpack?

When I was in Colombia a very sweet woman leading a hike in Monguí asked me: “what’s the one thing that all backpackers have in common – something that I can see just by looking at them?” I immediately had the image in my mind. Someone who’s wearing two backpacks – one on their back about the size of their torso and a smaller one in front. And in these two small receptacles is everything they find valuable and necessary for the duration of their wandering.

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January 7, 2018 – Ready to go! (Not pictured: 20 liter Osprey daypack)

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March 25, 2017 – very nervous, unsure of what the heck I was doing, but at least I was packed!

I’ll be the first to say that packing for 3 months in two small bags can be very daunting at first. Everything you need? In a backpack?!? But once you accept the fact that humans do not need as many things as we are lead to believe, and that it is okay to wear the same clothes multiple days in a row (come on, everybody’s doing it!), you come to realize that you really don’t need that much stuff to survive.

So what’s in my little green backpack anyway? The contents varied slightly between my two trips, based a little bit on culture but mostly on climate. In South America I started on the hot and humid Caribbean coast of Colombia where I basically spent two weeks in a bathing suit and a pair of shorts. By the end of the trip I was south of the equator, in the high altitude dessert and mountains, during the winter. Which means I was wearing multiple layers and still had to buy Alpaca wool gloves, hats, and scarves. Packing for Southeast Asia proved a bit easier because I’m only going to be experiencing one climate – hot and humid, although there will be cooler nights in the more mountainous regions in northern Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. As I write this, however, it’s currently 93 degrees with 68% humidity in Bangkok.

So here is a list of everything that I currently have in my favorite green backpack for 3 months in Southeast Asia. May it inspire you to downsize your wardrobe and pack your own backpack for an unforgettable adventure!

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Packing for Southeast Asia, January-April 2018

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Packing for South America, March-June 2017

Backpacks, etc.

Bottom right: 48 liter Osprey Kestrel backpack – my main squeeze

Top right: 20 liter Osprey Tempest daypack – perfect for short overnight trips

Bottom middle: 8 liter Patagonia Atom Slim Bag – I affectionately refer to this bag as the magic backpack because everytime I think it’s full I somehow manage to squeeze something else in there. It’s perfect for city life and can easily fit anything I need for an afternoon out (including a 1 liter Nalgene water bottle)

Bottom left: “Pack-It Compression Bag” by Eagle Creek – this is a vacuum sealed bag that helps store heavier clothes and takes up less space (fits the two small piles shown in the top left corner)

REI Expandable Packing Cubes: these are absolutely essential for backpack organization. I also recommend small pouches to keep your electronics (chargers, headphones) and extras organized.

Clothes:*

  • 1 maxi skirt
  • 1 maxi dress
  • 1 pair of leggings (for chilly overnight bus rides and the crisp mountain air)
  • 1 pair of yoga capris
  • 2 pairs of athletic shorts
  • 1 lightweight long sleeve
  • 1 SmartWool long sleeve pullover
  • 1 Patagonia sweatshirt
  • 2 short sleeve shirts
  • 4 tank tops
  • 1 Buff (www.buffwear.com)
  • 1 Bathing suit
  • 1 Rain coat
  • 4 pairs of socks (2 hiking socks and 2 regular)
  • Underwear/bras: quantity depends on personal preference and how often you want to pay for laundry

*It’s important to consider cultural factors for the regions of the world you’ll be visiting. Many Asian countries tend to require more modest dress, especially when entering temples and sacred sites. For females this means covering your knees, ankles, and shoulders out of respect for the culture. This definitely influenced what made the cut for my wardrobe on this trip (hence the maxi skirt and dress). In South America, I substituted these items for a pair of jeans and a pair of jean shorts, which occupied the same amount of space in my bag.

Footwear

  • Hiking sneakers: I highly recommend trail runners. They’re lightweight and very durable, and also don’t look super hiker-y when walking through a city. The one downside to my Saucony Trail Runners is that they’re not waterproof (though they do dry unexpectedly quickly).
  • Chacos: although not the most attractive shoe, they’re very practical for cities, mountains, and beaches as they dry quickly and offer lots of support for long days of walking.
  • Flip flops: for showering and beachwear
  • Sanuk flip flops (not pictured): a last minute purchase before leaving the US, and a very comfortable/cute option for nighttime and city life

Toiletries: Keep in mind that you can purchase whatever you need in the places you visit. From clothing to shampoo, soap, and toothpaste, anything and everything you can imagine is also available wherever you may find yourself, so bring just enough to get you through the first few days. In Asia, for example, you can find a 7-Eleven on just about every street corner. With that being said, if you absolutely, without question, must havea particular brand of something, you may want to bring a sufficient amount (for me, my one necessity is my face wash and moisturizer).

  • Soap
  • Shampoo and conditioner
  • Face wash and moisturizer
  • Contact solution (and 3 months of contacts)
  • Deodorant
  • Sunscreen
  • Toothbrush, toothpaste, floss
  • Chapstick (with SPF!)
  • Glasses
  • Hairbrush

Med Kit: It’s definitely important to have some essentials with you just in case, but as similarly stated above, everything you could imagine ever needing is available to you during your travels.

  • Vaccination list: if you ever need to visit a doctor abroad, they’ll probably ask you for this in order to illuminate certain causes for potential illness
  • Ibuprofen
  • Bandaids
  • Hydrocortisone (for mosquito bites) and mosquito repellant
  • Anti-histamine: if you’re like me, you never know when allergies may strike
  • Traveler’s diarrhea meds: it’s a real and common thing, be prepared!
  • Antibacterial gel
  • Tissues/ toilet paper: you won’t find it everywhere

Technology

  • iPhone
  • iPad
  • Portable charger
  • Chargers (and adapters depending on where you’re going)
  • Headphones and headphone splitters (great for making friends on long bus rides)

Important Documents

  • Passport and photocopies
  • Extra passport photos (sometimes needed for visas issued on arrival to certain countries)
  • Printed address of your first accommodation (to show immigration and to easily ask for help finding it)
  • Proof of Traveler’s Health Insurance: I prefer to use the GeoBlue Voyager Essential plan whenever I travel – it’s comprehensive and affordable
  • Local currency for your first destination (equivalent to approximately $100USD). I highly recommend trying to purchase some from your bank before you leave home as exchange rates at the airport and other currency exchange points can be very high. Keep in mind it sometimes takes a week or so for your bank to order foreign currency.

Extras

  • Yoga mat: mine is the Manduka Eko Superlite – very lightweight and travel friendly
  • Towel: I love my Turkish towel, it drys very fast and is quite compact
  • 1 liter Nalgene
  • TSA Approved locks (for hostel lockers, and they’re also very useful for your small bag on overnight buses)
  • Sunglasses
  • Hat
  • Sea to Summit Waterproof Bag for electronics
  • Headlamp
  • Spork (I’ve rarely used it but when camping or on an overnight bus it comes in handy)
  • RFID Wallet: prevents your cards and identification form being scanned
  • Neck pillow: an absolute must for overnight buses and long plane rides
  • Ear plugs: a backpacker’s best friend in a 10 person hostel dorm
  • Ziplock bags (large and small): their uses are numerous and their value is priceless
  • Playing cards: it’s amazing how much fun international card games over beers can be!
  • Notebook and pens: call me old fashioned, but sometimes you just need to write things down

Keeping things organized in your backpack is my #1 piece of advice. Believe me – if it’s the middle of the night or early in the morning and you need something from your bag, the last thing you want to do is be moving all your crap around trying to find your toothbrush while your dorm mates are sleeping. I’ve been the person looking and the person awoken by someone else and trust me, neither is fun. This is why I love packing cubes and smaller compartments so much.

It’s also important not to pack your bag to the brim. Keep in mind you have to carry this everywhere, so extra ounces add up quick. It’s also nice to have a little space for things you pick up along the way, and to be able to bring home some souvenirs.

Back to Backpacking: How to Plan for a Long-Term Adventure Abroad

I arrived in Bangkok last week for another 3 months of backpacking – this time around Southeast Asia. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’m out to complete my goal of visiting 30 countries before I’m 30. Thailand is number 26 and my hope is to visit Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Malaysia before heading home to celebrate my 30th at home this spring.

Many friends and family have asked me what goes into planning something like this, so I thought I’d share some of the top things to consider before hitting the road.

To put it simply, there’s A LOT to think about. It is not a 3 month vacation at an all-inclusive resort where your every concern is considered and taken care of. This is you and your backpack full of everything you’ll need (stay tuned for another post about what’s in my backpack). For starters, you obviously need a passport, and you need to make sure it’s valid for at least 6 months after your return date to your home country with enough blank pages for required visas and entry/exit stamps. Then there are said visas to plan for which can be very stressful. Each country has their own specific requirements which often differ depending on your nationality. There’s a lot of conflicting information on the internet about visa requirements and it can be tricky to navigate. Luckily for this trip, the visas I need to apply for can be done at the airport on arrival (with a few minor exceptions).

One of the most stressful topics of research and preparation in my opinion are vaccines. First of all, I have a pretty bare bones health insurance at home in the US, so preventative vaccines for diseases that aren’t a concern in the US are definitely not covered – and they can be VERY expensive. This also means that it is unlikely your PCP carries them, making it necessary to visit a travel clinic. There are vaccines that are absolutely necessary in some parts of the world (Yellow Fever, Typhoid, and Hepatitis A&B for example) and others that are strongly suggested (such as Rabies, anti-Malaria pills, and Japanese Encephalitis) by the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization. Information on vaccines varies widely when reading blogs and forums among the backpacker community. Some people are quite relaxed when it comes to the suggested ones and others like to have all their bases covered just in case. I tend to err on the side of “better safe than sorry” but that means that I was looking at paying $1,000 – that’s right…one THOUSAND! – for a Japanese Encephalitis vaccine in the US. This is a mosquito-borne disease with side effects that include permanent neurological damage or death, but the likelihood of contracting it is very low. So understandably I went back and forth about this in my head for weeks…until I found out that the same vaccine costs $15 in Thailand. Granted it does take a few weeks for the incubation period to pass, but with such a low risk of contracting the disease anyway, I was absolutely sold on the idea of getting the vaccine abroad. In fact, I highly recommend this option. I had a very pleasant experience at a wonderful travel clinic in Bangkok that looked exactly like the one I visited at home. Now I don’t need to panic about possible paralysis every time I get a mosquito bite, and that $985 can be spent on fully financing an entire month of my travels. I also picked up some malaria medication at the clinic for a fraction of the cost that I would’ve paid in the US.

Speaking of finances, it is important to set a realistic budget for a trip of this nature, and to be quite strict to sticking with it. Backpackers choose to travel in the developing world because you can comfortably survive on $25-35 USD per day. I always recommend finding a credit card that does not charge fees for foreign transactions, and that incorporates a great points structure that can be redeemed for travel purchases. My personal preference is the Capital One Venture card and Capital One 360 debit card. It’s important to notify your bank that you’ll be traveling internationally so they don’t block your card from seemingly fraudulent charges.

Despite the aforementioned planning, as well as 10 years of travel experience under my belt, I was quite surprised to observe how nervous I was before leaving for Thailand. I’ve been preparing for this trip for months, and since I’ve done something very similar in South America, I would have thought that jumping back in would be a breeze. I was genuinely surprised to find myself on the verge of tears as I sat with my dear friend Karen at a cafe a few hours before my flight, very nervous about what I was about to do. I suppose it’s because aside from a general idea of my route, I don’t have anything close to a day-to-day itinerary. And I’ve never been to Asia before so it’s hard to know what to expect. I honestly think it would have been much less daunting to fly from Peru to Thailand last June than it was to come here after 7 months of being home. At the time I was used to the constant moving, the limited clothes from my backpack, and the sharing of a room with strangers that this lifestyle requires. It’s easy to get used to the creature comforts of home like showering without flip flops or not paying for laundry and drinking water. Despite my jitters, I never doubted that this trip is something I was meant to do, and I was meant to do it on my own.

I had two options for getting from the airport in Bangkok to my hostel – a $20(ish) taxi ride or a $1.60 bus. The taxi option is obviously more convenient and drops you right at the door, however, I do not speak a word of Thai and I knew I was risking being charged way more than normal for the ride – something to be expected when you’re in a new culture and at a linguistic disadvantage. Despite serious jet lag and the humid, sticky air in Bangkok, I bravely opted for the bus that spit me out a 15 walk from my hostel, which I successfully navigated without internet access. (Pro tip: download the map of where you’re going beforehand and have the address printed in English and the local language to easily ask for help.) As I sat on the sweaty bus and watched the city roll by, I was so proud of myself for opting for the less convenient option. After all I think that’s the true definition of backpacking. In that moment, all the overwhelm of the last few weeks melted away when it hit me that I’m traveling again. And it’s the best kind of traveling – the kind that makes me feel free. For the next 3 months I have the ability to change my plans whenever I want and to take things day by day. It’s the practice of staying in the moment and absorbing every second of it, because “normal life” just doesn’t allow for this kind of presence. I’m excited to see what this adventure brings my way.

A Plea for an Airport Nap

Have you ever had extremely bad luck with a flight that left you stuck in an airport for hours and hours? Did it happen to fall during a time of day when normally you’d be at home sound asleep in your cozy bed? What did you do? My guess is you walked around in circles for hours because you just couldn’t find a comfy place to sit. Maybe you read every label on every item in Duty Free with no intention of buying, just for the sole purpose of entertaining yourself. I would also venture to guess that you tried laying in a variety of strange positions on those long lines of plastic they call “chairs” and tried to go to sleep. Alas, all attempts produced no results. If you’ve ever been in a situation like this, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Let’s take a closer look at airport furniture. Why are all of the chairs connected with armrests that make it impossible to lay down? You can’t even move them around to put your feet on one and your butt on the other. Option 2 is the floor, a popular choice for sleepy wanderers. And every once in awhile, Starbucks might have a semi-cushioned armchair where you can park it for a while. If it’s really your lucky day, it’ll be next to an outlet (which of course requires you to have the correct adaptor with you if you’re not in your home country). Don’t even think about getting up to use the bathroom though, or that bad boy is a goner. This is a real problem when you travel by yourself.

I’ve been traveling pretty frequently for 9 years now and I’ve always had the same question: who are the people that are designing airports and why in the world are they not making them cozier?

Earlier this week on my way home from Madrid, I woke up at 4:45am and started my route to the airport. I had an 8-hour layover in London on my way home to Boston, but I was planning to head into the city to see some friends for a quick reunion. I even purchased an expensive express train ticket from the London airport to the city center the night before to save time the next day. Getting to the airport in the middle of the night when the metro is closed is expensive so I walked 30 minutes to the Night Bus where I could pay 5 for a ride to the airport instead of a 30 taxi. I arrived at the bus stop at 5:29am, 6 minutes before the bus left. I got on, rode to the airport, went to the desk to check my bag, and saw the message that no traveler wants to see:

This 8:00 flight has been modified. Updated departure time is 11:45am.

“You’ve got to be kidding me!” I said the words out loud, to no one, in shock that I was awake at this hour and suddenly 6 hours early for my flight. Not to mention I would no longer be seeing my friends in London (or using that £30 train ticket I’m still in possession of), but I was exhausted and all I wanted was a bed. I begrudgingly went through security and walked around for as long as my body would let me before it begged me to sit down. Let me show you what I found:

It wouldn’t do. I had to lay down. I’d like to think that my days of laying on airport floors are behind me, so I settled for a semi-cushioned booth in the corner of a Burger King, conveniently located under the air vent blowing chilly air on my face. I pulled out my trusty travel pillow, covered my face with a scarf, and laid on top of my important possessions to try to get some shut eye. I’m sure I looked insane but I fell into a deep slumber for 2 hours.

This is just one example of the many unfavorable experiences I’ve had during countless hours waiting for flights. In these moments of intense travel discomfort, I find myself wondering if I should make it my life’s purpose to make airports more cozy for haggard, jet lagged travelers who just want to make it to their destination.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, 2,586,582 people fly on international and domestic flights from the US alone, and according to the International Air Transport Association, over 8 million people worldwide are on airplanes every day. That’s a lot of people. Now imagine how many are crossing timezones, waiting during layovers, and becoming increasingly more grumpy the more sleep they lose.

If you’re reading this and you happen to be someone who’s passion is interior design in international terminals, call me. I’m interested in starting a business with you. Additionally, if you’ve ever met a cozy airport, I want to know where it is so I can make sure to book all my layovers through there.

Here are some ideas I have to make an airport terminal a happier place to be:

  1. It seems with all the technology of sleep number beds and lazy boy chairs, we can surely find some kind of couch-like surface that is acceptable for people to sleep on for a bit, right? Let’s put a bunch in all airports everywhere. Better yet, nap pods! You know, those egg-shaped pods that Google provides their employees for when they just need a quick siesta? Those are the perfect solution for an airport! We could even add a feature that lets you input your departure information so the pod will set an alarm for you, giving you adequate time to get to your gate. Genius!
  2. Why don’t we install vending machines that sell eye masks and earplugs for something like $0.50 each? That way, when everything around you is buzzing and people are stressing out, you can sleep like a little angel in your nap pod.
  3. Let’s figure out a way to find a comfortable temperature for these waiting areas. Typically airports have me sweating one minute and shivering the next. Not to mention that sometimes you travel from a cold place to a warm one, or vice versa, and there never seems to be a happy medium temperature-wise. I’m sure there are studies that show what the perfect temperature would be to make people happiest. Let’s go with that number and check it off the list.
  4. While we’re at it, let’s dim the lights a bit. It saves energy and it doesn’t make me feel like I’m sitting underneath a microscope.

Perhaps the lack of all of the above is a ploy to keep me awake so I’ll buy more overpriced airport food and more travel-sized everything that I don’t really need. But really, we’re all happier people when we feel cozy. And truthfully, traveling can be stressful. The least we can do is make these buildings slightly more enjoyable places to pass the time.

On Gratitude

I wrote this post on May 31, 2017 while sitting in a hygge cafe in the San Blas neighborhood in Cusco, Peru. I had just taken an amazing yoga class and was enjoying a delicious cup of coffee  when I was inspired to write about gratitude. And then for some reason, I never posted it. Below is what I wrote that day, word for word, with an updated version of things I’m feeling grateful for as of today (September 26, 2017).

From May 31, 2017:

I recently read an article about gratitude and how expressing it makes us happier people. Neurologically speaking, it forces you to think of positive things which then increases serotonin levels in the brain. I just left an incredible yoga class in Cusco where I meditated on this idea for a while. So this is my attempt to articulate the immense gratitude I feel in relation to my travels.

No matter where I am, I’m always grateful for sunsets – like this one in Paracas, Peru!

Things I am grateful for:

  1. My legs! They bring me to all the beautiful places I’ve seen and they never complain.
  2. Pachamama (Mother Earth): what a beauty she is! I’m so grateful for the opportunities I’ve had, and continue to have, to explore this beautiful world.
  3. My parents: although they’re mostly worried about me and they possibly think I’m a crazy person, their support of my adventures never fails. I see how hard this is for them sometimes, but they always choose to support me anyway and love me for who I am.
  4. FaceTime: it helps me feel like the people I love aren’t as far away from me as they geographically are.
  5. You, whoever you are, for reading this blog. My goal of turning my blog into something a little more than it currently is has proved to be more challenging than I thought, but you’re helping to make it possible, so thank you. I appreciate you!

We always have things to be grateful for. The important thing is to remember to recognize them.

With love from Cusco, 

xoxo

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From September 26, 2017

Life looks a lot different today than it did when I was sitting in that cafe. No more sharing a room in a hostel with 9 other people – I have an entire bedroom all to myself! Instead of living out of my backpack, I have a bureau and a closet full of clothes to choose from, and more shoes than I know what to do with. I have a job that I go to everyday, and I get to see my family on a regular basis. It’s been a challenging transition from that life to this one (more thoughts on that coming soon), but I’m working on finding ways to be as happy as I can be, even when the travel bug is constantly nagging me about where to go next.

So what are the things I’m grateful for today?

  1. Living at home: Not only does this give me the opportunity to see my family on a regular basis, it also allows me to save a lot of money. Seriously, it is crazy to me how expensive it is to rent apartments – and because I want to go on another backpacking adventure, I just can’t justify it right now. Although living at home at 29 isn’t the ideal situation, I realize not everyone has this option and I’m so grateful that I do!
  2. My parents: they deserve to always be on my gratitude list. Along with their continuing support of my adventures, they welcome me back home with open arms and a full refrigerator. I recognize how lucky I am that they provide me with free housing and food to eat, and I don’t even have to ask them for it. I love you Mom and Dad!
  3. Reunions: The best part about coming home is getting to see the people I love! Not to mention the yummy food and wine that typically goes along with these reunions 🙂
  4. My job for taking me back: This time last year I took a job serving tables at The Merchant Kitchen & Drinks in Boston. At the time I wanted a job that I could leave at short notice without burning a bridge, and the lucrative and transient service industry seemed like the perfect fit. I got so lucky with The Merchant because it came equipped with an awesome team of people that have become my friends. When I told them I was back in Boston, the owner immediately welcomed me back and then asked when my next adventure would be. I’m grateful to have found a place I can come back to that also supports my spontaneous lifestyle.
  5. My upcoming trip to Madrid: Next week I’ll be heading to Madrid with my best friend Claire for a week of indulging in our favorite places, foods, and Spanish wines. I can’t wait to be back in my second home and I’m so grateful for the affordable flights and free places to stay! I’ll even get a bonus visit with my Danish family during my 9 hour layover in Copenhagen!!

And of course, you! Whoever you are, thank you for continuing to read and share my stories. I’m endlessly grateful!

The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

Last January I was sitting in a café in Raleigh, NC with my best friend Claire. For a few months prior we had been vaguely talking about backpacking together, but she had decided it was time for her to look for a more stable job that allowed her to live closer to her family. I knew this was a possibility, and as she finished the sentence that I knew was hard for her to tell me, a question popped into my head. It actually felt like this question landed on the table between us and slapped me in the face. It said: “So Kelly, are you going to go backpacking alone, or are you going to forget about the idea entirely?”

I asked the question out loud to Claire, and her response was exactly what I needed to hear. “You can absolutely do this!” And that was that. The decision was made. Claire had done some backpacking in South America after her study abroad semester in Cusco, Peru, so we pulled out Google Maps and she started rattling off a list of must-see places in Bolivia and Peru. She also knew a little about the gringo trail in other parts of the continent, and soon I had a rough itinerary of places to visit. I ordered Lonely Planet: South America on a Shoestring and began researching my first solo adventure. At the top of my list of priorities was how to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. This was Claire’s biggest recommendation and it required some advance planning.

At the height of their history, the Inca Empire spread from Ecuador to Chile and east into Bolivia. Cusco, Peru was the center of their empire, and the Inca Trail was a 40,000 km network of highways to connect the various places to Machu Picchu, one of the most sacred of all the Inca sites. In an effort to preserve this Inca citadel, the government of Peru only allows 500 people per day to begin the 4 day, 26 mile (43 km) hike on the Inca trail which leads you along a mountainous path of Inca ruins and stunning nature. Hikers must be accompanied by a licensed guide employed by an authorized company for the duration of the trek. Permits must be purchased months in advance because of their limited quantity, and for this reason, many backpackers I met chose to hike other routes to Machu Picchu since planning is the last thing most backpackers are doing. (If you’re interested in how to hike to Machu Picchu for free, check out my friend Nick’s blog about the Salkantay Trek!)

Claire convinced me that the Inca Trail was the way to go and when I looked online, June 15 was the earliest date I could get a permit. I knew I would need to be back for my summer job the following week, so I bought the permit with Alpaca Expeditions before I purchased any flights. I remember receiving my confirmation email after paying a deposit and thinking, “okay, I guess this trip is really happening.”

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Getting ready to begin at kilometer 82

The price tag for this trek is no joke: $650 is the average cost! You can find companies that offer the trek for less, but I had read that they cut costs by paying their guides and porters lower wages. I wanted to make sure that the company I chose had high standards for paying their staff, and Alpaca Expeditions also seemed to follow environmental and sustainability best practices. The cost includes food and water, transportation to and from the trek, camping gear, Machu Picchu entrance fees, and a full team of staff dedicated to your group. I felt good about my choice, and continued to feel good about it after asking my guides lots of questions about the circumstances under which they and our incredible team of chaskis* worked.

*Our guide Herlín taught us the Quechua word chaski which means messenger, and out of respect for the job they do, this is how we referred to the group of porters who traveled with us.

Hiking with a dedicated group of porters made this trek immensely easier, and to be honest I will probably never do a hike this way again. These men worked so hard for the sole purpose of my happiness over these 4 days, and the humanitarian in me couldn’t believe that I was participating in this type of industry. I am aware that for many people this is the only way they could have completed this hike, and I both respect and understand that. From a humanitarian perspective however, although the porters in my group seemed to be paid well and treated fairly by the company they work for, it is not an industry that I want to support again. I don’t want to disrespect anyone who disagrees with me, but I don’t feel I can write about my Inca Trail experience without being honest about my thoughts on this topic. For this reason, I have decided to elaborate in a separate blog post in an effort to not take away from the experience of the hike itself, and you can read more about it here.

The day finally came to start the trek and I was picked up from my hostel in Cusco at 4:30am by our chipper guides, Herlín and Manolo. We drove for about 5 hours and made a quick stop in Ollantaytambo to pick up our team of 16 chaskis before arriving at kilometer 82 where the hike begins. As soon as we arrived, the chaskis jumped off the bus and got right to work setting up an elaborate breakfast to prepare us for the day.

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Our chaskis preparing their packs to hit the trail

Claire had described the experience as the physical feat of her life so I was nervous. I had read a lot about the difficulty of the trail because of the altitude and the steep inclines and descents. It turns out that having just finished the Ausangate Trek the week before was incredible training for this hike. The altitudes on the Inca Trail are lower than where I had been for 2 and 1/2 weeks, so I was definitely acclimatized. I wasn’t going to be carrying nearly as much weight in my backpack thanks to the chaskis. For the first time in my life, I was one of the more athletic people in the group. If you know me, this has never, ever been the case for me. Although I love hiking. exercising doesn’t bring me joy (especially cardio) and I’ve never been an athlete. During these 4 days, I was primarily at the front of our group instead of bringing up the rear like all of the other hikes I’ve done. I promise I am not trying to brag, but I was quite proud of my ability and felt stronger than ever.

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This map shows the 26 mile hike to Machu Picchu

The first day starts out at 2,600 meters (8,500 feet) in the Inca jungle – on a sunny day (which we were so lucky to have the whole time) it is hot! As we hiked up, we could see the Urubamba river below surrounded by lush green mountains. As we got a little higher we could also see a glacier in the distance (I sure do love looking at glaciers!!). We passed Patallacta, an archaeological site believed to have been a common place to stop and rest for Inca travelers along the trail on their way to Machu Picchu. The hardest part of the day came after lunch with a steep incline before arriving at our campsite.

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Patallacta

When we arrived at our campstie our chaskis were there working hard to set up and cook us an incredible meal. Seriously, the meals they prepared each day were impressive! I don’t think I could make this caliber of food in a full kitchen with all the amenities, never mind in the middle of nature with a camp stove lit up by a few headlamps. After dinner we gathered in a big circle with our guides and chaskis, and everyone introduced themselves and where they were from. Our guide translated to Spanish and to their native Quechua*, and I was so proud to be able to communicate my story in Spanish! The chaskis also told us what they were each specifically carrying in their bag. I was really happy that we had this time to learn a tiny bit about them and to make them feel like they were also a part of our group. After learning a little about the constellations thanks to some amazing stargazing, we were off to bed early to rest up for another long day of hiking.

*Although many Inca traditions were lost during the Spanish invasion, the Quechua language was kept alive and continues to be spoken in the Peruvian highlands. The Spanish were mainly interested in cities and places at lower altitudes. This was not so much the case for other indigenous populations in South America such as the Muiscas from Colombia.

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My spacious home during the trek

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Hard at work making a delicious dinner

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These meals seriously impressed me!

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Yummmm!

Day 2 was by far the most challenging day of the trek because it involves hiking to two summits and then ascending them both. After an intense ~3 hour uphill climb, we reached Dead Woman’s Pass at 4,215 meters (13,829 feet), the highest point of the trek. The top is incredible, complete with more glacier views. You can also see the trail leading from the campsite where you start the day, and I felt a huge sense accomplishment seeing what I’d just done.

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Dead Woman’s Pass at 4,215 meters (13,829 feet)

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We all made it!

Hiking down the other side was much harder than hiking up in my opinion. It’s the first time that I’ve ever used hiking poles, and I was so thankful to Justin in my group who had rented them but didn’t want to use them. We basically spent the next hour and a half walking down steep stone steps. Justin let me hang onto the poles for the rest of the trek, and they made the downhill parts SO much more manageable.

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What goes up must come down, as they say.

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If you look closely you can see our chaskis making their way past these ruins

After lunch it was uphill again for another 2 hours where we saw some waterfalls and more breathtaking views. We passed two Inca sites this day, Runcu Raccay and Sayacmarca. Inca sites had various uses depending on their location. Some were temples used for religious ceremonies and celestial observations while others were centers of urban life and agriculture. Agricultural sites are located at different elevations based on the crops growing there, which included potatoes, coca leaves, quinoa, pumpkin seeds, and corn.

I was beyond exhausted at the end of day 2, and it was a struggle to stay awake through dinner. When we woke up early the next morning, the spectacular 360 degree view which had been covered by clouds the night before was the first thing I noticed.

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Our campsite on Day 2

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Sure you can brush your teeth, but first we take a selfie.

We hit the trail again after breakfast for a much less strenuous and equally beautiful day. We had the Salkantay glacier in the distance and passed two more Inca sites: Phuyupatamarka and Wiñay Wayna. Both of these are only accessible via the Inca Trail, and they were two of my favorites. Since there weren’t many people around, it was easy to walk around and enjoy the structures without any crowds. We took some time at both sites to learn about some history from our guides (the details of which I really wish I wrote down or could have retained).

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Salkantay Glacier

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Herlín and Manolo making rope from straw

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Well hello there!

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Phuyupatamarka was my favorite of the ruins

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Admiring what we’ve accomplished

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If you don’t take a llama selfie, it didn’t happen!

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Manolo speaks Llama.

After dinner on our last night, we gathered up as a group with the chaskis again to thank them for all the hard work they had done to make this trek possible for us. I was so happy to not need a translator for what I wanted to say, but even still it was difficult to find words to express the gratitude I felt for what these men had done for us. They even made us a cake on the last night – in the middle of nowhere in the woods! Using a campstove! It was truly incredible.

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Our campsite on Day 3

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View from my humble abode.

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Seriously, they made us a cake in the woods!

Day 4 begins very early as groups rush to make it to the entrance of the last part of the trail. The gate doesn’t open until 5am but people start lining up to wait there at 3am. We were the second group in line. When they opened the gate, I walked right through and kept a steady pace until I arrived at the Sun Gate two hours later. I was among the first 10 or so people to arrive, and although I am not motivated by competition, I was happy that I arrived before 490 others obstructed the views. It made up for the hoards of people  I was about to bump into walking around Machu Picchu who had arrived from the train that morning. From the Sun Gate we looked down over Machu Picchu and watched the sun rise before the final descent into the ancient citadel.

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Machu Picchu itself is amazing, but I have to say that after 4 days in the woods, being surrounded by chipper, freshly showered tourists is quite annoying. I was so thankful for all the time spent listening to the history with our guides in some of the more peaceful sites because it was hard to focus on our tour inside with thousands of people pushing through the narrow walkways. The most impressive part of this ancient city is that it was built completely by hand without the use of modern technology, high up in the mountains. I don’t know how people weren’t careening down the sides with the pure weight of the stones they were carrying. Also amazing is the fact that when they were taken as slaves by the Spanish Conquistadors, the Incas kept Machu Picchu (along with some other sites along the trail) a secret, and instead purposefully led them to other sites with less importance than Machu Picchu in an attempt to preserve it.


I dedicated this hike to my cousin, Alex David who passed away in Peru in 2010 while fulfilling his dreams of seeing this beautiful world we live in. He shared my deep love for travel, and I’m told he especially loved Machu Picchu after hiking the Inca Trail. I’m proud to be following in his footsteps and aspire to be a great adventurer like him!

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I added the top rock to this cairn in honor of Alex.

I spent a lot of time hiking by myself during this trek because I was moving so much faster than my group. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to hike with them, or because I was trying to be as fast as I could, but it turned out that I was very prepared for the challenge and I was moving at a pace that felt good to me. I had a lot of time to reflect on my experiences of the past 3 months and try to make sense of how fast it flew by. In the end, it felt symbolic that I was often hiking on my own. I came to South America by myself to see if I could do it. I had a lot of doubts and I was really scared to be alone, but I’ve come a long way since the planning had begun in that little cafe in Raleigh.

My flight back to Boston was the following day. The Inca Trail was the first thing I planned and the last thing I did on my 3 month adventure. There was something strangely satisfying about ending my trip at the exact spot that made me make this trip happen in the first place. As I sat watching the sun rise over Machu Picchu, I was hit with an overwhelming sense of accomplishment, both for completing this hike and for successfully living out of my backpack and moving around South America on my own. I listened to my favorite song, We Don’t Eat by James Vincent McMorrow, which I discovered on my Camino De Santiago, and took a moment of solitude to reflect on how far I’ve come. I couldn’t help but cry happy tears. I’m so proud of myself.

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Among many other things, South America taught me how to fly!