A Love Letter to Perugia

Dear Perugia,

We met 10 years ago, can you believe it?! I distinctly remember the nervousness I felt getting ready to meet you – to get on my first ever solo airplane ride, to leave my family and friends for what was at the time the longest stretch I’d spent away from home. I didn’t know anyone that was going to be there with me to experience all the new things I knew you’d introduce me to. And remember that ridiculously large suitcase I brought with me?? Yes, the one that was big enough for me to crawl into which weighed damn near equal to my body weight. Good thing I’ve learned a thing or two about packing light.

So many things about our friendship were serendipitous. I never actually felt like I chose you as a destination for my semester abroad. I’d told people that perhaps I wanted to go to Ireland because of the apostrophe in my last name, or maybe to Italy because I’d heard the food was so delicious. When my advisor told me about the CISabroad program at the Umbra Institute, I knew it was the place for me. Like most of the best decisions I’ve made in my life, you just felt right – like something I was meant to experience. Something that didn’t so much feel like a choice but rather a necessity. I hesitate to call it destiny because that sounds so cliché, but ultimately that’s what I’m getting at. It took me years to convince my parents that moving to you for 4 months was a good idea. They thought I was crazy. They deeply worried about my safety and all those other things that parents worry about. And yet somehow, they said yes. I like to think they knew deep down that I was meant to meet you too.

I remember sitting on my bed about a week before I left, tears streaming down my face, asking my mom if I was doing the right thing. I was SO scared. But you kept calling my name and I kept believing that everything would work out. I knew that if I met at least one friend, all would be okay. Immediately you introduced me to Gina, my lively, curly haired, southern Cali roommate. I quickly realized that she would be the meaningful friendship I had imagined in preparation for my semester, and my anxieties subsided. As classes started you introduced me to Katy from Pennsylvania whose warm-hearted nature can light up a room, and who is still the smiliest friend I have to this day. And then there was Whitney from Colorado who is one of the strongest women I know and who helped me realize how strong I was too. Together these women gave me the confidence I needed and have relied on since to advocate for myself and the things I want in this life. They’ve taught me how to love myself for who I am and not for who other people expect me to be. They helped me shine as an individual away from all the people and things I knew about the world up to that point.

Before I left for Italy I never knew what I wanted to do with my life (or should I say my career). I was studying to be a teacher because I love children and it seemed like an okay fit for me. And then I met you, Perugia, and you gave me a taste of what else was out there in the world. With you as a home base, I visited 11 countries in 4 months! In retrospect I think we can both agree that was a bit excessive, but you made it possible for me to see more of the world than I ever thought I’d see. You instilled in me a deeply rooted passion for exploration which has since brought me to 19 more countries, and counting! You taught me to be curious about new languages and to ask interesting questions of the people I met from places and backgrounds that differed from my own. And truthfully, I still don’t know what I’m doing with my life. What I can say for sure though is that I’m living the life I want to live largely thanks to the person I became while spending a semester with you.

Perugia, you changed my entire life. You made me question every single decision I’d made pertaining to my future up to that point. You pulled me outside of my comfort zone in countless ways. And if I’m being honest, the person I became after meeting you has let some people down over the years. Becoming a world traveler has come between me and some meaningful relationships, and to the people I’ve hurt along the way, I am sorry. But what you demanded of me in terms of challenges, you returned to me 10 fold in love. You introduced me to some of the best friends I’ve ever known who are still in my life today. Not to mention the fact that every friendship I’ve made since then has had some connection to the traveling world, and without whom I cannot imagine my life. You gave me my first dose of the utter joy I now experience every time I visit a new place. Because of you I experienced my first miniscule European apartment, my first full conversation in a foreign language, and my first international romance. Most importantly, you taught me that the most impactful way to learn about myself and the world is to go out there and experience it. To eat new foods, to talk to locals, to laugh, to dance, to play, to try, to wonder, to wander, to ask, to flounder, to fail – and ultimately to be myself no matter the circumstances.

From the deepest depths of my heart, thank you for forcing yourself into my life in the way that only fateful experiences can.

All my love,

Kelly xoxo

When I was 29, I Learned How to Cross the Street

I’d been in Asia for a little over two months when I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, still known as Saigon among the locals. I’d heard tales of Vietnam’s glory from other backpackers – incredible food, breathtaking landscapes, and some of the friendliest and smiliest locals you can find. At the unbeatable budget of less than $25 per day, Vietnam certainly seemed like a great place to be. I’ll admit that I was skeptical. Southeast Asia has been a backpacker favorite for decades – how much can one country really stand out so much among its regional neighbors?

I’d also heard rumors of how intimidating it can be to cross the street in Vietnam. Motorbikes rule this country (they even drive on the freakin’ sidewalk!!!), and watching them on the main roads was like watching class 5 rapids on a river. I’d even heard stories that you could pay locals to hold your hand and help you cross. Since there aren’t many street lights for pedestrian use, parting the sea of bikes seemed like an impossible task. Everyone insisted the trick was to just go for it, and the bikes would simply weave their way around you. Seriously, this was everyone’s solution, but I figured it couldn’t possibly be true. So I wasn’t thrilled to arrive in Saigon by myself without anyone by my side to learn the seemingly-insurmountable task of crossing the street. I’d learned how to do it once before (around the age of 5), yet somehow I felt more intimidated by this than I had about a lot of other things I’d done – like fly to Asia alone for 4 months. Travel is weird like that.

My first meal in Vietnam was breakfast the morning after I arrived – the most delicious noodle soup I’ve ever eaten. In fact, this exact bowl of noodly goodness was the reason I chose this particular hostel. Choosing one can be a tedious task as most of them offer a lot of the same things. But as I perused the options for my first impression of Vietnam, I found a review of Vitamin Smiles Hostel raving about the breakfast soup made by a sweet Vietnamese grandmother who spoke no English, and with whom you had to communicate by pointing to a sign indicating your two soup options – vegetarian or pork. Grandma Saigon did not disappoint. I sat and talked with a German guy of Vietnamese heritage who gave me a crash course in Vietnamese – hello, thank you, and how to count to 10 – and then I set out to discover a bit of the city, determined not to let a few two-wheeled machines get the best of me.

Not long after I started my mission to visit the Vietnam War Remnants Museum, I came straight back to my hostel. The rumors were true. I would need to cross 3 lanes of oncoming traffic, reach a median, and then cross 3 more lanes with bikes coming from the other direction. I took one look at that road and immediately turned around. New cities can be quite intimidating, and this particular one had been extra hyped up. So, as sometimes happens when you’re getting accustomed to a new place, I silently gave Saigon one point and completed my walk around the block back to my hostel. I mean, I’d already eaten the soup. That certainly counted as enough cultural experience for the day, right??

I was starting to wonder if I should just get on a bus to my next destination (the much smaller city of Da Lat, and in my opinion, the much more approachable way to re-learn the basics of how to be a pedestrian) when I experienced a bit of travel magic. In strolled Ben from Colorado who’d just spent months riding his own motorbike from north to south, and who offered to sell it to me since he was leaving that night for Taiwan. I rolled my eyes as I recounted the details of my morning, and he laughed in that “you’re clearly new here” way. He assured me it wasn’t so bad as long as you just go for it, and invited me to join him for his favorite vegetarian banh mi – Vietnam’s famous sandwich that costs about $0.45. His humor and expertise on local crosswalk culture was exactly what my weary soul needed.

The sandwich shop was only a few small side streets away from the hostel, but at least I was getting a little more practice out on the road. He told me tales of his ride through the country and shared his favorite spots that were absolute must-sees on my 3 week journey north. He also gave me a crash course on vegetarian eating in Vietnam. Before parting ways, he assured me that I would be totally fine crossing the street, and that all I had to do was find a mini break in the sea of bikes and start walking. He was convincing enough, and I left feeling ready to conquer my ridiculous fear. Our friendship only lasted for a meal, but it was one of the most reassuring meals in my entire Asian adventure.

There I was, back at the edge of the crosswalk as a million motorbikes whizzed past. I watched a few people make their way from the other side, and learned that everyone was in fact right. I just had to start walking and the bikes magically made their way around the humans. I stood there for what felt like an eternity, talking myself into the treacherous crossing, when two elderly women suddenly appeared by my side. They didn’t speak to me (they didn’t even look at me), but I knew this was my chance. They started walking and I fell right in step with them, their bodies shielding me from the oncoming traffic to my left. We were in the middle of the mayhem and we weren’t getting hit. It was amazing. It was almost beautiful. And then we came to the median and I was suddenly the first of 3 in line with the bikes coming from the other direction. I almost panicked, but they kept walking so I did too. We magically reached the place I’d so badly wanted to be – the other side of the street. I almost cheered and jumped for joy, but then I realized that the women had already continued on their way, never even batting an eyelash at the remarkable feat we’d just accomplished together. We’d crossed the street, that was all.

Moral of the story: when in doubt, find a little old lady. They have been perfecting the art of street-crossing for decades and they quickly make you feel like a pro even if there’s no way for you to communicate. They also make a mean soup.

Despite my rocky start, Vietnam stands out as one of the top 3 places I’ve ever been, mostly due to the outstanding beauty of the country and the awesome people I shared my time with there. Stay tuned for more stories from 3 of my most favorite weeks on the road.

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.