Author Archives: Rebecca Anne Nguyen

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About Rebecca Anne Nguyen

Founder of TheHappyPassport.com, solo female travel cheerleader, author of 175 Ways to Travel Today.

The (Very) Long Road to Chitwan – Part 1

The ride is cold and wet, then cold and damp, then cold and dusty.

No amount of stopping for tea and momo can fortify my body against the onslaught of a Nepalese highway – two maniacal, unpaved lanes choked with motorbikes and trucks and baby goats and bushel-burdened women climbing through the misty morning.

The road curves along the Seti River, which grows in size and power as we descend from the high mountains.

Rolling hills give way to rolling fields and valleys, and as a few warm rays of sunshine bring relief, I feel like Apollo descending Mt Olympus in his chariot.

We stop at Deepak‘s sister’s home, a small convenience store where they sell oranges and cigarettes.

5 men sit perched on tiny, hand-woven stools, Nepal’s answer to the infamous plastic chairs of Hanoi, or the bean bag chairs of late 90’s North America.

They can’t help but stare as we dismount with some difficulty, my legs not wanting to work after so many hours in the saddle.

The river hugs the road leading to Chitwan

The river hugs the road leading to Chitwan

And although he probably hasn’t seen her in a year, and most likely didn’t tell her he was coming, let alone coming with this white woman in tow, there is this wonderful easiness in the way we are received – it’s this very Nepalese way of welcoming guests that says “Of course you’re here, of course you’re welcome, let’s not make a big thing of it.”

Because to make a big thing of it would be to point out how long it’s been since you’ve been gone, and that could get awkward. The Nepalese don’t like awkward.

I nod and smile as best I can, and Deepak offers a few words of greeting in that same casual, nonchalant, “of course I’m here” tone.

chitwan

“We take lunch?” he asks, smiling at me warmly.

Suddenly he stops and looks at me closely, a bit alarmed.

“You wash the face.”

“What?” I think maybe he’s using the wrong word for something.

“We wash the hands and face” he repeats, and I think maybe I’m learning about some new ritual that must be followed before each meal.

“I’d really rather not wash my face, Deepak, I have makeup on.”

One of the loveliest benefits of being around people who don’t understand English is that you get to say somewhat intimate, embarrassing things to your partner without anyone else realizing you’re doing it.

I’ve often wondered if people around me speaking Vietnamese or Lao or Khmer are actually saying things like “I think I have a hemorrhoid, will you take a look?”, or “Just wait til I get you home tonight, you sexy thang.”

chitwan

Deepak looks confused, grabs a bottle of water, and begins pouring it onto the grass. He holds one hand underneath the stream until I offer to hold the bottle for him. He rubs his hands together as I pour, my sense of alarm growing by the minute.

My fears are confirmed when he withdraws his hands from the stream, shakes them off, and says “Your turn!”

My mind is racing as I rinse my hands underneath the water, trying to keep a polite smile on my face for everyone’s benefit.

Is this supposed to count as washing our hands?!

Where is the sink? Where is the soap? Is this how Deepak always washes his hands?

In Pokhara there was always soap in the bathrooms. And toilet paper. And Western-style toilets.

It had never occurred to me that things would be any different outside of the city.

Maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe that was just a rinse.

“Now your face?” asks Deepak, as he pours bottled water on his own.

How is water alone going to wash my face?

“Very dirty” says Deepak.

“I am? Very dirty?” I ask, alarmed.

I scramble for a mirror and can’t believe my eyes – no wonder the sister and her husband and his posse had stared at me like that!

It had nothing to do with my white face, which was invisible beneath a thick mask of black, caked soot. I looked like Zorro, if Zorro had decided to go all out.

No wonder everyone in Nepal wears masks! I thought it was merely the pollution in Kathmandu that required protection. The air Pokhara is clear, but the air on the roads is not.

There doesn’t seem to be any kind of emissions regulations for vehicles here, and I counted at least 5 times when I had to hold my breath as we plummeted through a cloud of thick, black smoke expunged from a careless, farting truck.

Embarrassed, I ask for the bathroom. Deepak may be fine half-assing his hygiene, but I am washing these chemicals off of my face with soap, dammit.

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The bathroom is back there if you can find it.

I’m lead into the back room of the house via a tour that last about 10 seconds. I realize with some alarm that both husband and wife must sleep in the same room where they sell the coke and the cigarettes and the SIM cards.

I lock myself into the darkened bathroom and take a deep breath – an exercise I immediately regret as I choke on the dank smell or mold and urine.

There is no light, and by the light of my phone’s flashlight I see with much dismay that not only is there no soap – there is no sink.

It’s an indoor outhouse, and I’m on my own. the only water in sight is in a bucket meant to be used for “flushing” the toilet. After you’ve done your business, you must pour water down the chute to send your waste god-knows-where (quite likely directly into the water supply).

It takes an entire package of tissue and half a bottle of hand sanitizer before I begin to feel like it might be safe to eat with my hands.

Unable to remove the mask of Zorro completely, I now look like a preteen who doesn’t realized she’s chosen a shade of makeup 3 shades too dark.

I’m terribly uncomfortable and do my best to hide this fact from Deepak, who apparently sees nothing out of the ordinary with his sister’s set up. He waits for me patiently, sipping tea and chatting with the men.

“We eat?” he asks when I emerge from the soapless dungeon.

“Great!” I say, trying hard to appear cheerful and grateful and non-judgmental.

His sister has prepared dahlbat for us, or more likely for herself and her husband, but is now giving it to us since we’re here.

Found it!

We sit on tiny painted stools facing the interior of the shop, and use a glass case containing coke and cigarette reserves as our table.

It is from this position that I notice the flies for the first time. They are the happiest, fattest, most exuberant band of brothers I’ve ever observed, buzzing joyfully between piles of rice and pots of vegetables and everything in between.

“No big deal” I think.

We dig in to the dahl, and Deepak watches me like a delighted father, correcting my hand position as I form my fingers into a scoop and shovel the rice into my mouth.

I’m amazed at how easy this is for him to do, and watch as he effortlessly mixes the ingredients together with his fingers, spoons them into his mouth, and somehow manages to finish with perfectly clean hands.

I’m able to get most of the rice into my mouth, but the odd grain or 7 still manages to slip through cracks, falling to their deaths on the plate below.

It’s within the first few bites that I feel it.

Something deep within the innermost cavern of my belly saying “Wait, what?!” and then “Excuse me! What the hell are you giving me, here?”

I know it, I feel, and I keep eating anyway.

When Deepak is long finished and it becomes apparent that I won’t be able to, I apologize profusely saying “I am so full” and “I think I ate too much at breakfast.”

chitwan

The only thing worse than being served food by someone who barely has enough food for themselves and then not finishing it, is the way that food is making me feel right now.

I do not want to go back into that bathroom. I do not…..

Crap. Literally. Well, at least it’s coming out that end. Perhaps it was a one-time expulsion and we can continue on our merry way and –

Crap. My stomach is churning and gurgling, and I begin to worry about how I’m going to time all of this. And Deepak is waiting for me….and they all know I’m in the bathroom for the second time in 15 minutes!

It’s official. I rinse the regurgitated dahlbat down the hole, wiping my face with a t-shirt since there is no toilet paper and I’ve used all of my tissue on the first movement in this symphony.

My kingdom for a toothbrush, a shower, a bar of soap.

But back on the bike I go, thanking the sister for her hospitality and whispering to Deepak that I feel “a little bit sick.”

“It’s the weather” says Deepak, a mantra that seems to be repeated throughout all of Asia to explain everything from the migration of birds to sexually transmitted diseases.

He takes the burden of the backpack off my shoulders, and I wrap my arms around my own pack as we bump our way back to the main road. The long road to Chitwan just got a helluva lot longer.

This post is an excerpt from My Week With Deepak: A memoir of Nepal, available February 2015 from THP Publishing. To pre-order your copy, click here!

SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now. 

Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. Don't eat food if you see flies, even if it'd be really rude not to.

2. When you eat the food with flies because you didn't want to be rude, don't get on a motorbike afterwards.

3. When you get on a motorbike afterwards because there's no other form of transportation, be sure your backpack is well-stocked with tissue, toilet paper, towels, soap, and hand sanitizer.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

Travel Rebel: Far Western Nepal Part 4

“Travel is rebellion in its purest form… We follow our hearts. We free ourselves of labels. We lose control willingly. We trade a role for reality. We love the unfamiliar. We trust strangers. We only own what we can carry. We search for better questions, not answers. We truly graduate. We sometimes choose to never come back.” 

I’m running down a narrow path through the trees, leaping from rock to rock in an attempt to follow a young girl with pigtails who is leading the way.

Giggling as she runs, she is agile and confident on the small rocky path, scampering down the hillside like a goat.

She takes a sharp left turn up what looks like a wall of steep rock and within seconds is perched on the top, waiting for me with a grin. Her cheap plastic sandals don’t stop her. In fact, I don’t think anything could.

I turn around to look where she has led me and find a two story mud hut, a typical house in this region of Far Western Nepal, where the cows live in the bottom of the home and the family lives up top.

There is a small boy with torn shorts and a dirty shirt, and a girl wrapped in a small shawl waiting to join our fun.

far-western-nepal

It’s 7am and the sun is beginning to light up the valley 2,000m below, announcing another beautiful day in the foothills of the Himalayas.

There are birds chirping and I hear the distant sound of a crying goat, but besides that, the hilly mountainside is peaceful and quiet as it always is.

We take off again, running through a field of yellow flowers on a muddy path towards the next house. There is a beautifully wrinkled elderly Nepali women adorned with a large bull nose ring and a colorful headscarf sitting on the ground amongst five or six goats.

She looks up, her toothless grin turning to surprise when she sees me. She hardly has time to ask who I am before one of the children is tugging me along again.

They lead me up and down the small paths on a tour of the dozen or so mud huts scattered up and down this section of the hillside.

far-western-nepal

We come to the road, an unpaved rocky mess, and the race begins. “Ek, duo, teen,” (one, two, three) they yell, before taking off, sandals flying as they run as fast as they can up to the next house.

A small girl, her bare, stick-thin legs poking out awkwardly from her too-small shorts, is waiting for us and waving, eager to join in the fun as well. Her mother, feet and hands died orange with cow dung, comes out from behind the animals and gives her approval.

We fly down the road, all of us running with our arms out like airplanes yelling, “chitoooo, chito, chito, chitooooo” (quickly, quickly) until a beautiful woman with greenish light brown eyes flags us into her field.

She is holding her eighteen month-old daughter, an adorable girl covered in dirt like the rest of these nature-raised children. She invites me into her home, and I step inside to squat beside the small child’s laughing grandma.

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The baby eyes me warily before breaking out into a grin, extending her tiny fingers to grab onto my outstretched hand. The room is filled with smoke as are all of the houses in the area, and the sunlight pouring in from the doorway creates a cozy campfire feel.

There are a few pots and pans to one side, and to the other, a few blankets on the ground. It isn’t much, but it is home.

A small white kitten walks by and I quickly scoop him up and into my lap. He falls asleep instantly, purring contentedly while I wrap him inside my warm shawl.

The young girl grabs for her grandma, and they sit together laughing and cuddling. Their laughter is contagious, and soon all of the children in our gang are playing games, dancing, and giggling around the fire inside the small mud hut.

Far-Western-Nepal

It is an amazing feeling, running through the village with the children, visiting the different houses and cows, before sitting together around a warm fire.

I am an outsider, born into a world so different from their own, but they have accepted me with open arms and enabled me to immerse myself in their world completely, if only for a few days.

This is part 4 of a 4-part series on Far Western Nepal written by contributing blogger Shirine Taylor. 

For Part 1, click here. 

For Part 2, click here

For Part 3, click here

Shirine is a 20-year old solo female traveler cycling around the world, and a regular contributor to The Happy Passport. Follow her journey at awanderingphoto.wordpress.com.

SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now. 

Angkor Wat Revealed [VIDEO]

Angkor Wat is the biggest tourist destination in Cambodia, and one of the most visited religious sites in the entire world.

I took a one-day tour of the Angkor grounds, starting with watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat, the largest temple in a labyrinth of seemingly endless ruins.

One-day entrance to the Angkor area costs $20 per person. I also paid $15 for a tuk tuk “tour,” which didn’t include a tour guide so much as a driver to take me from one site to another (totally needed – it can take 10-20 minutes to drive between the various ruins sites).

Many people cycle through Angkor, which is a great idea if it’s not 100+ degrees outside (which it most definitely was on this day!)

angkor-wat-horse

Here’s what struck me most about Angkor Wat:

  • the enormity of the ruins
  • the Hindu relics that demonstrate the Cambodian pilgrimage from the Indian Subcontinent
  • the fact that the Angkor empire has fallen so far from its position as the most powerful empire in Asia

angkor-wat-girl

Today the Cambodian people are ruled in much the same way as they were a millennium ago, but without the glory of the powerful Angkor kings.

angkor-wat-floating-rock

Their nation remains one of the poorest nations in the world, still devastated by the effects of war and corruption.

angkor-wat-lily-pad

I as wandered around the ancient ruins, it was incredible to imagine what life must have been like in Cambodia over 1,000 years ago.

The irony was that although the empire has long since fallen, many Cambodians live in much the same way as they did back then – in stilted bamboo huts with no electricity, no possessions, and not enough food to feed their children.

To watch the video, click play now: 

Correction! In the video I say the Angkor area is 400 sq miles, but I meant 400 square kilometers.

Are you subscribed to my Youtube channel? Be sure to subscribe here to see more quick+dirty tours like this one!

SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now. 

Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. Angkor Wat is a must-see tourist destination for anyone traveling in Southeast Asia

2. One -day entrance costs $20/person, but you get more bang for your buck if you buy a 2, 3, or 7-day pass (and believe me, you'll use it - there's no way to see this place in one day!!)

3. Subscribe to The Happy Passport Youtube channel for more travel tips, video blogs and quick+dirty tours - http://bit.ly/1l4HAJs

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

Backpacking with a Purpose

When you think of backpacking, you probably picture yourself traipsing around Europe or Southeast Asia, subsisting on street food and cheap beer, taking 16 hour train rides, and sleeping in bunk beds next to strangers from all over the world.

For the guys of Veterans Trek, two of the most hardcore backpackers on the planet, backpacking has become more than a way to see the world, meet other people, and achieve a deeper understanding of yourself.

Backpacking has become a way to save lives.

 

In August of 2013, Tom Voss and Anthony Anderson strapped on their backpacks, laced up their boots, and took off toward the sunset – on foot.

They began in their hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and didn’t stop until they reached the ocean – you know, the one that’s 2700 miles away. The big one. The one in California.

Talk about hardcore – the guys had no support vehicle, hardly any equipment, and never knew where they were camping until the sun went down. There were no hostels, no hot showers, nothing but two U.S. Army Veterans and thousands of miles of open road.

As combat veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom, these backpackers were on a mission to heal themselves from the traumas of war, and to help other veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD –  an affliction both of the guys continue to battle daily.

vt-backpacking-featured

When local and national organizations heard about what Tom and Anthony were doing, they started to pledge money.

$10,000 if they finished the walk. $25,000 if they finished the walk. None of the funds went to Tom and Anthony personally, but got poured back into veterans organizations like Dryhootch, which helps vets reintegrate into society after returning from deployment.

5 months later, after nearly 3,000 miles, 150+ days on the road, and countless pairs of shoes, Tom and Anthony arrived at Santa Monica Pier in Los Angeles to hordes of national press, photographers, and a crowd of adoring fans.

Tom and Anthony found community, comfort, and healing on the road, but a lot of vets aren’t that lucky. According to CNN, a U.S. veteran takes his or her own life every 65 minutes. That’s 22 deaths per day, or 8,030 suicides per year.

But those numbers aren’t accurate. Not all states in the U.S. report veteran deaths to the VA, and many veterans are not registered in the system at all. It’s likely that the numbers are much higher, and that countless men and women suffer the tortuous symptoms of PTSD in silence.

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Tom and Anthony hope to use their backpacking experience to raise awareness about PTSD and its devastating impact upon veterans and their families.

What began as a deeply personal journey of healing has morphed into backpacking with a purpose.

During their 2,700-mile trek, the backpackers were followed by a documentary film crew lead by Emmy-nominated director Michael Collins, the powerhouse behind the multi-award winning film Give Up Tomorrow. 

The production of the documentary Almost Sunrise, which tells the story of Tom and Anthony’s journey, will bring awareness to the plight of millions of American families who are being impacted by PTSD and the after-effects of war.

If the profound impact of Collins’ last film is any indication, Almost Sunrise is sure to inspire monumental change in the way veterans are assisted in this country.

Thanks to the worldwide success of Give Up Tomorrow, a wrongly-imprisoned man named Paco Larranaga was taken off of death row. His life was saved because of a film, and because of all of the people who supported that film getting made.

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It is my hope that your support of Almost Sunrise will be just as effective, and just as powerful at saving lives.

When my brother returned from his year in Iraq, I mourned him as if he’d never come back. The truth was that a part of him died in the war, an innocent part of him that can never be reclaimed.

No matter what your politics are, no matter what you believe about the should’s and shouldn’ts of going to war, we are all responsible for the men and women who volunteer to sacrifice their lives for their country.

Sometimes I ask myself – “Am I willing to give up my life for what I do? Am I willing to die for the book I’m writing? For this website? For an ideal that I believe in?”

The answer, in short, is no. There isn’t much I could imagine willingly risking my life for, and if I found something, I highly doubt that it would be sacrificing my life for millions of people I’ve never met.

I believe in the power of backpacking to change lives, and I believe in the power of this film to save them.

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But this film doesn’t get made without you.

Here’s how you can help:

1. Check out this amazing trailer about the film

2. Share this trailer on your Facebook page, post it on your blog, and share it with your Twitter followers. Copy and paste this link: http://kck.st/1swgjSA

3. Give the guys a few dollars if you have it.

They’re doing a Kickstarter campaign, which means they don’t get any of the money they’ve raised unless they meet their goal.

They only have until Monday, June 9th so if you have a $1 or $5 and the cause sings to you please don’t wait – click here now: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1923228261/almost-sunrise-a-documentary-in-production

Listen, I know there are a zillion of these campaigns going on. I know you probably get bombarded with requests to donate to things on the daily. I know it’s a pain in the ass to get up and go get your credit card and navigate to the site and fill out the stupid form. I don’t like it either.

But I’m not asking for myself. I’m asking for my brother. And I’m asking for all of the “backpacking experts” (AKA soldiers) who have traveled overseas for reasons other than hostels and cheap beer and great beaches.

I’m all for hostels and cheap beer and great beaches. But the reason I’m free to travel and enjoy those things – the reason I’m free to live my life –  is because my baby brother was willing to sacrifice his.

If you don’t have a dollar, you can help immensely by sharing this link with your friends and family: http://kck.st/1swgjSA

Here are some snazzy “click to post” social links as well:

Tweet: How #backpacking is saving the lives of American #veterans @Almost_Sunrise @veteranstrek http://ctt.ec/90HeM+

Share on Facebook

Share on Google+

vt-backpacking-4Thanks for helping to make backpacking bigger than the backpacker.

SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now. 

Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. Between August 2013 and January 2014, Tom Voss and Anthony Anderson walked 2,700 miles from Wisconsin to California with nothing but their backpacks.

2. They did it to save lives, and to raise awareness about the growing problem of veteran PTSD in the U.S.

3. Emmy-nominated director Michael Collins followed Tom and Anthony on their journey and is making a film about it. The film is called Almost Sunrise.

4. You can help save lives by supporting the film. Copy and paste this link into your browser: http://kck.st/1swgjSA (or check out the bottom of the post for some nifty "click to post" options).

5. Yes, Tom is my brother, and no, he no longer has that awesome beard. Which is good because I bought him a really expensive shaving kit last Christmas that he hasn't been able to use until now.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

A Morning at Marble Mountain – Part 2

In our quest to see the entirety of Central Vietnam in a single day, Dan and I must move quickly – it’s already almost noon we’re only halfway done!

Having survived a near-death free fall from the top of Marble Mountain to the bottom, it’s time to head south to heavenly Hoi An.

11:47am: Hoi An Ancient Town 

We drop my bags off at my hotel, park the bikes, and continue on foot to Hoi An’s Ancient Town.

The city is set along the banks of the Thu Bồn River, its well-preserved ancient town bursting with colorful buildings and narrow, winding streets that make you feel you’ve stepped into another time and place.

120,000 dong ($6) gains you entrance into the five “attractions,” of your choice.

marble-mountain

Hoi An Ancient Town

We check out….

  • The Japanese Bridge
  • The Museum of History and Culture
  • The Tan Ky family house (200 years old and the ancestors of the original family still live here!)
  • The Cam Pho communal house, where Chinese immigrants held meetings and discussed town matters
  • The Quong Cong Temple, where huge circular spirals of incense are always burning to bless those who have purchased a “place” in the temple
marble-mountain-lanterns

Quong Cong Temple

The Japanese Bridge, Hoi An

The Japanese Bridge, Hoi An

After a quick lunch of traditional Cao Lau, a Hoi An specialty noodle dish made with pork, fresh greens, peanuts, and mint leaves, we are off to our last destination – the incomparable My Son ruins!

2:12pm My Son

The Champa ruins at My Son date back to the 2nd century. This collection of Hindu temples is yet another UNESCO World Heritage site in Central Vietnam, and according to Dan, is supposed to be “the most beautiful place in the entire country.”

Pronounced “MEE sun,” My Son is about 50 kilometers from Hoi An.

We learn that the site shuts down at 5pm.

“How long will it take us to get to My Son?” we ask my hotel concierge.

“Two, two and a half hours” she says. “You’d better leave now.”

We exchange a look that says “There’s no way it’s going to take us over two hours to go 50 kilometers!”, hop on our bikes, and head southwest towards the sun.

4:52pm My Son?

It’s been nearly three hours since we’ve left Hoi An, and neither Dan, I, or our combined smartphone powers have been able to get us closer to our goal.

marble-mountain

Somewhere between Hoi An and My Son

Names of streets appear then disappear, or change completely, or never existed in the first place.

Highways suddenly end, turns are missed, roundabouts send us back where we came from.

But we’re on the right track now, we think. I hope.

The sun is inching ever closer to the horizon. I’m tired and stressed that it’s so late, but the incredible surroundings make it difficult to succumb to negativity.

We’ve been up and over an enormous mountain that offered sweeping views of endless green fields and colorful towns.

We’ve seen gravestones painted like Christmas presents, bright altars lined up along the perimeter of lush rice paddies.

We’ve descended said mountain into a secret valley where locals plough their fields with the help of beefy buffalo, and children’s eyes bulge at the sight of white skin.

Dan’s GPS steers us down a dirt road that’s becoming increasingly narrow, increasingly rocky.

We pass a group of construction workers and then there is nothing, just us, the road, fields in Vietnamese green and blue mountains like Japanese brush paintings.

The road becomes more of a path – the kind you walk on, not drive a motorbike upon.

We stop to double check our phones. Yep, according to King Google this is the way. And we’re close, maybe just another five kilometers.

If we get there before the strike of 5pm, maybe we can bribe the ticket taker to let us in, if only for a few minutes.

We’ve not lost hope! Let’s go! Let’s do this! Let’s….

Start the motorbike already.

Dan disappears around the bend, and I struggle with the ignition.

It’s not turning over.

I wait a second, breathe, then try again.

Dead.

Am I doing it wrong? This is my first day on a motorbike, after all, and there does seem to be a delicate finesse required as one presses the left handle while revving the right.

I try doing it wrong on purpose. I try doing it backwards. I try waiting. I try again.

Dan is long gone, out of site beyond the curve of the road, and I am alone, all alone in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the central coast of Vietnam.

The sun is starting to set, and there is a chill in the air at this higher elevation. I’m in nothing but a tank top, with nothing else to keep me warm.

Seconds tick by. Then minutes. Dan doesn’t return.

I watch my thoughts with interest. These are the moments in which I thrive. My mind can make a mountain out of a molehill, but when faced with an actual mountain, I become instantly present, instantly calm. Someone cutting in line in front of me at the airport gets me more riled up than this….

marble-mountain-sunset

I wonder if I could camp out in that rice field tonight…

This being the strong possibility of being stranded on a dirt road leading to nowhere, unforgiving rock face to my right, sweeping fields of nothingness to my left.

“I wonder how cold it will be if I have to sleep outside tonight?” I think.

“If I walk back now and try to find help, will someone steal my bike?” I think.

“Dan’s not coming back for me” I think. “I’ve slowed him down all day.”

And truly, I have. Something about Dan made me relax, to point of indulging in solo travel sloppiness. I was so relieved to have a travel partner, if only for a day, that I relied entirely upon Dan for my survival.

He watched as I lost control of the motorbike while parked, the heavy burden crashing to the ground in front of a group of locals.

He saved me when twice I tried to pay for a 10,000 dong bottle of water with a 100,000 dong note (they look so similar!)

Something about Dan made me let go, let my guard down, take a much-needed break from a constant state of self protection.

And now he is gone.

marble-mountain-featured

“Where the hell are we?”

I begin to worry about paying for two hotel rooms tonight – my room back in Hoi An and whatever room I can find after walking to wherever the nearest hotel might be.

My phone is about to die.

I start to shiver from the mountain air, and have resigned myself to leaving the bike and continuing back the way we came on foot, when….

A blue silhouette appears around the bend, backlit by the setting sun, a lone figure against fields of brilliant green.

He is running up the road toward me, an Adonis kicking up dust, a savior from some ancient dimension sent to rescue a maiden in distress.

I almost cry with relief, but Dan would never go for that, so I play it cool and wait patiently as he catches his breath – he’d gotten a few miles up the road before he noticed I was no longer behind him.

The bike is indeed dead, very dead, and just as we’re weighing our options as to what could possibly be done in the middle of nowhere in the middle of Vietnam, we hear a rumbling sound.

This road, this path, is definitely not made for motorbikes, and it’s most definitely not made for cars, let alone giant flatbed trucks.

And yet there it is – this truck that just happens to pull up right when we need help, just happens to be the kind of truck meant for hauling large items, just happens to be completely empty with a bed just dying for a dead motorbike.

With much hand gesturing, we get two Vietnamese construction-worker-angels to load the bike into their truck bed and drive me back to town while Dan follows behind on his motorbike.

They take me to the only motorbike repair shop in town, then drive off into the sunset as if they’d never existed.

“You didn’t thank them” says Dan.

The repair shop owner takes one look at the bike, one look at me, and grabs the key from my hand.

He places it into the ignition, puts a practiced palm on the handles, and starts the bike instantly.

Dan and I stare in shock. The owner – and surrounding children who’ve gathered to gawk – laughs heartily. He turns the bike off and turns it on again, just to rub it in.

 

7:45pm Back in Hoi An

Dan and I commiserate over dinner. Our mission has been a partial failure which, to a Wisconsinite like Dan, is a total and utter travel fail.

Drowning our sorrows in cao lau

“Hey, three out of four isn’t bad!” I say.

“My Son was the only thing I really wanted to see” says Dan.

At least we got to see Marble Mountain. And the charming ancient town of Hoi An. And some seriously breathtaking countryside that we never would have seen if we hadn’t gotten lost.

The moral of the story?

It’s stupid to try and cram a zillion things into a single day. You end up feeling rushed and stressed, and you don’t begin to scratch the surface of what your destination really has to offer.

Plus, you’ll probably end up lost in the middle of nowhere with a dead motorbike.

For Part 1 of A Morning at Marble Mountain, click here

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. Technically, can you can see Da Nang, Marble Mountain, Hoi An and My son in a single day.

2. It's better to see less stuff than to try and cram a zillion things into a single day. We didn't have nearly enough time in Hoi An, and were so rushed that we ended up getting totally lost on the way to My Son.

3. I am infinitely grateful to a pair of construction-worker-angels who came to our rescue when my motorbike died in the middle of nowhere.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

Life in the Mud Huts: Far Western Nepal Part 3

“Nostalgia in reverse: the longing for yet another strange land.”

I have had people stare, even gawk open-mouthed when they see me, but I have never had people run away in fright like they are right now.

After a treacherous, three-hour bumpy bus ride on the precarious rocky path that winds up and over the Himalayan foothills, I have arrived in a small village in Far Western Nepal.

The village is comprised of a handful of mud houses scattered along the hillside, and not much else. I sit down, making myself less threatening, and see a few more heads peek out cautiously behind the trees below.

I see a child stirring an enormous steaming pot of liquid with a stick, while another half dozen children look on. I am curious and want to see what they are making, but the children and even teenagers are obviously still wary of me.

far-western-nepal

A women appears behind me, laughing a deep heartfelt laugh. She signals that I should continue down the path, and with her blessing, I approach the group around the large steaming cauldron.

“Basnu,” (sit down) she says, as I am handed a leaf wrapped around a warm, malleable hunk of brown sugar. It is delicious, sweet yet flavorful, and I realize that they are making this tasty brown sugar out of the boiling sugarcane syrup to my right.

Most of the children have scattered into the surrounding fields and sit perched atop enormous piles of discarded sugarcane branches. From these lookout points, they can alternate between practicing flips and watching me.

photo(8)

After a while a man appears and calls the children down so they can enjoy their own leaf-full of this sugarcane delicacy. Though they continue to watch me suspiciously, the temptation of sugar is enough to draw them near, and a few of the giggling girls even come to sit next to me. I knew it was only a matter of time before I won them over.

Once they’ve finished eating, they quickly set up a game, sort of like dodge ball, whcih draws an increasing number of children from the surrounding hills. They laugh and run like children everywhere, using a makeshift ball they constructed out of an old shirt.

far-western-nepal

After the game, as the children begin to peel away and return to their own houses, I am invited by the couple back to theirs, and readily agree to join them and their two children for the night.

Their house is small, a one room mud house with nothing but a few blankets on the ground and a pile of wood in the corner which serves as their stove.

There is corn hanging from every inch of the ceiling, drying before being made into the flour we will use to make dinner. The house is filled with dense smoke, there is no ventilation for the fire they are cooking over, but the smoke seems to swirl around the hut unnoticed.

far-western-nepal

Though there is no electricity, light shines in through the wooden door creating a comfortable, homey feel.

We all squat around the fire as the mother and father work together to make dinner, a simple meal of roti that we dip in a bit of spices. They have no money and no processions except their cows and chickens, but they seem content to be living freely off of their land.

The forested hillside is scattered with mudhuts, none of which have electricity, and the darkness signals that it is time to sleep. Once night falls it is completely dark all around.

I crawl under the blanket with the two children who have warmed to me, already calling me “didi” (sister), and fall into a peaceful sleep surrounded by nature and good-hearted people.

This post is part of a 4-part series on Far Western Nepal.

For Part 1, click here

For Part 2, click here

Shirine Taylor is a 20-year old solo female traveler cycling around the world, and a regular contributor to The Happy Passport. Follow her journey at awanderingphoto.wordpress.com.

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72 Hours in a Remote Village in Nepal

"Why must you wash your body every day?"

The 72 hours I spent in a remote village in Nepal have been burned into my memory – so much so that I’m writing a BOOK about them!

(no really – you can pre-order it here: http://amzn.to/1py99Ly)

In those 3 days….

I spent 8 hours on a motorbike but only traveled 50 miles (Pokhara to Chitwan – roads mostly made of ROCK.)

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I saw a buffalo get MILKED

 

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I got to hold a one-day old baby goat

 

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But that wasn’t all…..

  • I got food poisoning and threw up in a river
  • I stepped into a scene straight out of Oregon Trail (ox-pulled carts in 2013!)
  • I lived with no hot water and no indoor plumbing (while having food poisoning. Just think about that for a second.)
  • I washed my hair in a field full of garbage.
  • I fell in love with a wonderful family who took me in, offered me their home and took care of me when I was sick.

Check out this video I made during my time in a tiny farming community somewhere outside the Southern city of Chitwan, Nepal.

To watch now, click play:

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A Morning at Marble Mountain – Part 1

The second I hear Dan’s voice I know I know him.

“California!” I shout, pointing at him in the middle of a hotel lobby in Da Nang, Vietnam.

“Wrong” he says. “Weak guess,” he says, and I instantly like him.

How ironic that I guessed he’s from my home-away-from-home, when it turns out he’s from my home-home, the great state of Wisconsin.

After having a very typical “Oh-my-God-you’re-from-Wisconsin-too?!” discussion, which inevitably includes phrases like “Miller Park!” and “Don’t you miss cheese?” and “Isn’t it funny how PBR is now a hipster thing?,” I learn that Dan is in Asia to teach English.

On a break between teaching gigs in South Korea and China, he has exactly 2 weeks to see Vietnam. And in true Sconie style, Dan is determined to use those 2 weeks to see all of Vietnam.

The next day I find myself renting a motorbike for the first time in my life and hoping to God Dan knows what he’s talking about when he says it’s “really easy” to ride.

7:23am China Beach, Da Nang

Swimming "spectacle" at China Beach

Swimming “spectacle” at China Beach

We start at China Beach in Da Nang because our hotel owner says that each day just after sunrise, hundreds of Vietnamese take to the sea for their morning swim. “A spectacle!” he says.

Our reward for waking up at this ungodly hour is half a dozen swimmers and a couple of dudes kicking around a soccer ball on the beach.

So there weren't hundreds of swimmers, but we DID see a few guys playing soccer!

So there weren’t hundreds of swimmers, but we DID see a few guys playing soccer!

“Fail” says Dan. “I’m in charge now.”

It’s all I can do to keep up with his speeding motorbike as it soars down the highway that hugs the coastline between Da Nang and Hoi An.

8:40am Marble Museum and outdoor showroom 

marble-mountain

Before we arrive at Marble Mountain, the next stop on our list, we’re distracted by an outdoor museum filled with enormous marble statues of all shapes and sizes.

There are many such places lining the road to Hoi An, which boasts 5-star resorts on the ocean-side of the road, and marble shop after marble shop on the mountain-side of the road.

It’s free to walk around and check out the statues, and we get the idea that purchasing one would easily cost billions of dong.

Before leaving we see a group of women polishing the marble, and one who even seems to be making adjustments to the size and shape of one of the statues with a power tool of some sort.

marble-mountain

I fancy her an exquisite artiste, though from looking at how the women are dressed and seeing their lack of a proper workspace, I assume the brilliant artistes are getting paid less than artiste wages.

9:01am On to Marble Mountain!

marble-mountain-rebs-on-bike

Not to be confused with Monkey Mountain, home to the biggest Buddha statue in all of Vietnam, Marble Mountain is south of Da Nang and is exactly what it sounds like – a giant mountain made of marble.

The hill juts out of the earth suddenly, as if someone had been slowly carving away at her foothills for centuries (and people have – where do you think all the marble statues come from?)

Dan’s stuff is back at the hotel in Da Nang, but I’m staying in Hoi An this week and have all of my worldly possessions balanced precariously on the motorbike.

We park and find that there are no lockers, so I stash my backpack with the parking attendant and opt to carry my laptop case – filled with computer, chargers, my DSLR camera, and anything else remotely valuable – up the mountain with me.

marble-mountain

Marble Mountain is filled with labyrinths and caves and temples built into the slippery rock. You can see and feel the marble beneath your feet, and have to be careful so as not to slip and slide all the way down to the ground!

Dan leads me into a cave and through a narrow opening in the rock that may or may not be an official climbing area.

This guy is from Wisconsin, which means I’ll never hear the end of it if I punk out, so I squeeze through the narrow rock tunnel, shoving my giant bag in front of me and pushing it upwards with my hands.

It's Dan!

It’s Dan!

Next thing I know, we’re climbing upwards at an incredibly steep incline, and the entirety of Central Vietnam  suddenly sparkles into view. A large, flat rock juts out above all the others, and Dan is quick to leap upon it.

“Get up here!” he says, do-see-do-ing with me since the rock is only large enough for one person.

Alright, it’s no Nepal, but I do sort of feel on top of the world.

Until I have to get back down.

Climbing up was easy, but in order to get back down I must leap from one rock to another. The problem? Said rocks are a good 5 feet apart, the space between revealing a 500-meter drop to a cartoonish-looking receptacle of sharp marble spikes below.

I picture myself splayed across those spikes, each one stabbed through various major arteries. I imagine Dan attending my funeral in Wisconsin and trying to explain to my mother how I perished on top of Marble Mountain.

“No big deal” says Dan.

“C’mon, we’re wasting time!” says Dan.

I dance back and forth, about to make the leap, then thinking better of it, then working up my courage again.

It takes a good five minutes, but I finally get a running start and shoot my legs in front of me, landing hard on the rock face and scraping my legs up in the process.

“Was that so hard?” says Dan, shaking his head.

Yes. Yes it was.

I’m antsy to get back on the road, knowing we have a lot left to see.

“Five more minutes” says Dan, turning the corner to enter yet another cave. He disappears briefly then reappears, waving for me to follow him.

And I’m so glad I did.

Check out the guard in the lower left corner of the photo to get a sense of the scale

Check out the guard in the lower left corner of the photo to get a sense of the scale

Huyen Khong Cave is easily the largest cave I’ve ever been in, and the most beautiful. It is positively massive, with an enormous Buddha statue carved into the rock face, floating high upon the cave wall above our heads.

Candles illuminate the din, the face of the Buddha in shadow except for a few rays of sunlight that stream in from cracks in the cave ceiling.

We are afforded a solid two minutes of solitude here before a mass of tourists break the silence, but in those two minutes neither of us speaks. The energy is palpable – a sacred place.

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For some reason, Chinese characters have been carved into the rock face just to the right of the Buddha.

Dan is studying Chinese for his upcoming work assignment, and is eager to look up the meaning.

We throw out guesses, expecting no less than the profound, wise words of the Buddha or some poetry from Lao Tzu.

"Big dark cave."

“Big dark cave.”

“I found the translation” says Dan.

“What does it mean?” I ask.

“It means, ‘big, dark cave’” says Dan.

God, I love Vietnam.

Check back for part 2 of this series where Dan and I head to Hoi An and My Son on our 1-day lightning fast tour of Central Vietnam.

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. Marble Mountain is definitely worth seeing - it's about halfway between Hoi An and Da Nang and is filled with beautiful temples, statues, and incredible caves.

2. Make SURE you wear slip-resistant shoes - the marble is incredibly slippery!

3. If you park "for free" at one of the many marble shops, you will be pressured heavily to buy something. If you don't, you'll probably be charged for parking. (luckily the parking and entrance fees are only a few dollars.)

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

Eternal English Summer in Oxford, England

The night is dewy and cool. A wet breeze tangles my 23-year old locks into temporary white girl-dreads, foreshadowing my role as a dreadlocked, contemporary version of Sophocles’ Electra later that year.

The courtyard is silent, the students of the British American Drama Academy having ventured out into the Oxford evening to mingle with all the other tourists.

African, Chinese, Norwegian shoppers buzz outside the walls of the ancient university, whose ghosts pace the cobbled pavements in anticipation of our scene.

My partner is barely visible in the inky blackness. I’ve lost him.

My instinct is to scan the bushes, search the garden frantically. As fear wells up, I stop myself, and allow the discomfort to linger, to feed the scene.

Outdoor rehearsal hall at the British American Drama Academy

Outdoor rehearsal hall at the British American Drama Academy

We have chosen to play outside tonight, letting the environment feed us, effect us, give us fresh insight into the 400-year old text.

I imagine students attending the university when the play was the hottest thing in London. How would they have traveled there? How long would it have taken them?

Suddenly, my prince’s voice rings out across the courtyard, cutting through the velvet black like a knife to my young maiden’s heart:

“Nymph! In thy orisons be all my sins remember’d.”

He isn’t the greatest Hamlet. He is merely the only one of my classmates brave enough to work on the scene with me.

Exquisite Oxford, England

Exquisite Oxford, England

We struggle on the grass as he reveals the depths of his insanity – perhaps putting on a show for the lurking Polonius. Heartbroken, I am flung onto the lawn where hours earlier students had engaged in their daily game of Ultimate Frisbee.

But I am in Denmark now. Around the very time Oxford was founded. Crying on the cold castle floor as I realize I’ve lost my love forever:

“And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,

That suck’d the honey of his music vows,

Now see that noble and most sovereign reason,

Like sweet bells jangled out of tune and harsh

That unmatch’d form and feature of blown youth

Blasted with ecstasy: O! woe is me,

To have have seen what I have seen, see what I see!”

(Act III, scene i)

Meet me on the green for ultimate frisbee and iambic pentameter

Meet me on the green for ultimate frisbee and iambic pentameter

I breathe. Wonder if Ian thinks it was good. Begin to help myself up from the wet ground (this Hamlet is no gentleman).

Clap!

What the……?

Clap! Clap!

Sharp, piercing sounds echo across the courtyard as four hands break into thunderous applause.

“Bravo! Bravo!”

There is a lovely monologue in Tom Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz and Guilderstern are Dead, about the tragedy of performing without an audience. There is something about it that is absurd, hurtful, even damaging. Thankfully, it seems that our performance has not been wasted on the cool English night sky.

“You played it beautifully” a woman’s voice rings out, her gravelly British clip instantly giving her some kind of authority on theatre.  “Just wonderfully.”

“We’ve seen Hamlet played – what, Barbara? Twenty times?”

Barbara agrees. They are strolling through the gardens of Bailiol, and in my mind it is the very campus upon which they first met and fell in love about a thousand years ago.

We thank them profusely for their kind words, somewhat sheepish and embarrassed and exhilarated at being spied upon.

british-american-drama-academy

They disappear into the night, hand in hand, smiles upon their lips.

“Well, want to keep working?” Ian asks.

I consider, ever the workaholic, my answer to that question usually leaning towards “Yes. Again.”

But tonight we have achieved perfection. Our two beautiful audience members approved, and were satiated. Tonight, the opinion of our teacher, the other students, Shakespeare Himself doesn’t matter.

“You know what? I think we’re good.”

Ian agrees, an unspoken understanding having formed between us. We part ways, moved and exhilarated by one of those rare moments in life when you actually feel like an artist.

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. The British American Drama Academy offers month and semester-long Shakespeare intensives at Oxford University and in London.

2. Hamlet wasn't really crazy. Or was he?

3. That famous quote that tells you to "dance like no one's watching" applies to playing Shakespeare too.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

My Life in One Pair of Shoes

It all started when I broke my cardinal packing rule, AKA the Noah’s Ark Edict of 2013.

In preparing for world travel, I only allowed myself two of everything – two pairs of pants, two t-shirts, two long sleeved shirts, two bras, and so on.

The only areas in which I let myself splurge were with underwear and shoes.

I’ve never been as stylish as I’d like to be.  I’m not one of those women that can walk into a store, grab three pieces off three separate racks, and emerge from the dressing room looking like the lovechild of Audrey Hepburn and Jackie O.

Maybe it’s because while I greatly admire fashion and the fashionable, I just can’t be bothered to make the effort. I’d much rather sleep in than spend time putting myself together each morning. I’d much rather take a bicycle ride than go shopping.

Or maybe it’s because anything that looks dynamite on a 5’11”, 110-pound fashion model always manages to make me look like I’m wearing a Robin Hood costume. That, or Mr. Potato Head.

Whatever it is, I wasn’t blessed with an innate sense of style.

Unless you’re talking about shoes.

I speak the language of shoes the way other women speak French. I can look at a pair and instantly know if the heel is the right size, if the curve of the arch is tall enough, if the color is a bit too camel-toned.

I could probably pick out a fantastic pair of shoes just by feeling them with my eyes closed.

So when it came time for my great exercise in minimalism, it was easy to give up the fabulous leather jacket I’d never wear during springtime in Southeast Asia, and the cocktail dress that would be painfully out of place in Nepal.

But my shoes? How could I possibly narrow them down to just two pairs?

Nearly 6 months later, none of the four pairs of shoes that made it into my bag that fateful November day are with me any longer. They’ve perished, dissolved into the mist of world travel, sacrificed to unseen nomadic gods.

As the proud owner of only one pair of shoes at this moment in time, I thought it would be fitting to eulogize my fallen comrades, seeing that they’ve carried me some 7,000 miles around the globe and back again.

Shoelogy – Remembering those shoes no longer with us

1. DSW Boots

Beloved reminders of Los Angeles, devoted protector of lower legs, eclectic chameleons for any season

I don’t even remember the designer (see? So not a fashioinista!), but I bought these fantastic over-the-knee leather boots right before I left for Nepal, and refused to leave them behind.

Then I arrived in Nepal, and the sheer fabulousness of these boots seemed to scream “MY FOOTWEAR COULD BUY AND SELL YOU ALL THREE TIMES OVER!”

They were embarrassing, inappropriate. When it came time to leave Nepal for the 85° weather of Southeast Asia, I simply left them in my Kathmandu hotel room.

I hoped the guy who worked at the front desk would give them to his sister or his girlfriend.

It felt so good to be rid of them, like an enormous weight was lifted.

2. Super Cute Chinese Laundry Flats

Humble servants, queens of comfort, examples of that elusive, true beauty to which we all aspire

Yes, they were sort of ballet flats, which I realize is so-five-years-ago but I didn’t care.

They were patent leather in a shade of pink so pale, so understated that it was like wearing an 18th century Geisha on my feet.

During the great boot sacrifice of New Year’s Eve, 2013, I closed the door to my hotel room, thought better of it, opened the door again and unpacked my bag.

I placed one flat inside the left boot, the other inside the right boot.

That way, whoever inherited the boots would be gifted with a little something extra, like being given a new car only to be told “that’s not all – look what’s on the passenger seat.” (In my gift-of-car fantasy there’s always a diamond ring on the passenger seat.)

3. Really Comfortable Hipsterish Brown Sneakers from Sketchers

Champions of long walks, climbers of many mountains, supportive confidantes

I did everything in these sneakers. Hiked the Himalayas. Trekked through the mountains in Northern Laos. Went jogging along the oceanfront in Vietnam.

They were getting old, and kind of smelly, and rather than stink up my hotel room at night I’d leave them outside my door. I was staying in my dear friend’s guest house, and thought it highly unlikely that anyone would want to steal my smelly old sneakers.

Until I woke up one morning and they were gone.

“Mr. Ba!” I said. “Where are my sneakers?”

After a few phone calls and much discussion, it turned out that one of the new staff members threw them in the garbage when he was cleaning my room.

That was the turning point, the moment that lead me to…

4. One Single, Solitary Pair of Flip Flops

Beach lovers, protectors from dirty bathroom floors, whimsical scamps on a mission

And then the ocean ate my flip flops.

It was nighttime, and the moonlight tide swirled in all around me, soaking my clothes and gulping up my remaining pair of shoes. (But it wasn’t my fault – I was justifiably distracted when it happened.)

For a few hours of my life, I was completely and utterly shoeless.

I was then gifted with a new pair of flip flops to replace the ones gobbled up by the sea, and I’ve yet to add another pair to my collection.

I sort of don’t want to.

After all, in Southeast Asia one can perform most required tasks while wearing flip flops, including riding a motor bike, doing construction work, exercising, and working in the rice fields.

Plus, I sort of like having one pair of shoes. World travel has highlighted the importance of traveling light, sure, but it’s more than that.

I used to have this terror of letting go – like if I didn’t own enough shoes, or enough pairs of jeans, I wouldn’t exist. I wouldn’t know who I was. I wouldn’t be seen. Ownership gave me an identity, a relationship to the world around me.

“I am Rebekah and those are my jeans, my laptop, my flip flops.”

When you’re sitting on the beach with the ocean sparkling beneath the moonlight and the taste of salt on your skin, you realize that the world has so much more to give you than shoes (or clothes, or a new car, or really good knives).

You realize that instead of making you feel more important, more secure, more together, the shoes have been blocking the moon from your view.

Of course, my shoelessness is infinitely different than many people’s shoelessness, because I can go out and buy another pair whenever I want. That’s not the case in many parts of the planet, as world travel to places like Nepal and Cambodia has been quick to reveal.

While I can’t promise I’ll be a one-shoe wonder forever, for right now it is the thing that is keeping me grounded, and the thing that’s teaching me who I really am – sans baggage, sans fear, sans desire to acquire more and more and more stuff, just for stuff’s sake.

Minimalism is addicting, like getting a tattoo. If it feels this good to own one pair of shoes, imagine how I’ll feel with one shirt? One pair of pants? One pair of underwear?!

Okay, maybe not one pair of underwear, but you get the idea.

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. Accidentally owning a single pair of shoes has been the most spiritually fulfilling part of world travel thus far.

2. A Shoelogy is a eugoly for all the shoes you’ve lost during your travels. Don’t forget that it’s important to grieve.

3. Outfits that look good on fashion models make me look like Robin Hood.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

Top 10 Travel Photography Tips for Aspiring Shutterbugs

Your visa is secured, the flight is booked, and you’ve been willingly injected with a cocktail of vaccinations to protect you from diseases you can’t even pronounce.

In short, you’re finally off to see the world!

In addition to scribbling wildly in a wine-stained journal and blogging about your adventures, you’re probably going to want to take some photos of your trip.

The problem? You have no clue how to take a great photo, and the last thing you want is to have your pictures of such a life-changing period in your life turn out like a fourth grade art project.

Before you resign yourself to applying 37 Instagram filters to each and every lackluster snapshot, check out these top 10 travel photography tips from professional travel photographer Etienne Bossot.

Based in Hoi An, Vietnam, Etienne spends his days helping newbie and established photographers capture the beauty of their travel dreams on camera and in living color.

Travel photography tips from an actual travel photographer

1. Get some gear

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And by gear I don’t mean big, expensive gear. I mean something from this century. Technology is evolving so quickly that just about any kind of camera you buy today is going to be light years better than a used camera from five years ago.

Look at the latest trends, like the new lightweight DSLR cameras. They’re as small and compact as a cheap digital camera but take photos comparable to their bulkier counterparts.

2. Learn about settings

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Spend a little time learning about your camera’s settings.  Nowadays the auto mode of most cameras is more intelligent than ever, but why let your camera have all the fun?

Adjusting your settings as you shoot gives you far more control over your photos than simply leaving your camera in auto mode. Besides, there are only 3 things you need to know to be in total control of your camera, anyway.

3. Do your homework

travel-photography-tips-4

If you only want to capture tourist snapshots for Grandma to see, then stop reading this instant.

We’ll wait for you to leave.

Phew, not that she’s gone, let’s dive in to the juicy stuff – creative inspiration. I want you to do some research on the place you’re traveling to by searching for relevant photographs. You can use Google search, Flickr or 500px to find high quality images.

Find photographs that inspire you and save them somewhere you can see them. These will serve as a jumping off point for the photographs you’ll be taking in the very near future!

4. Stalk someone you like

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…on social media, that is.

In step #3 above, you probably found at least a few photographers whose work you love. Connect with them via social and check out their blogs.

In addition to examples of great photography, you will most likely find a huge amount of information on the craft of photography.

If you’re following a travel photographer, you’ll score travel photography tips in the form of top secret shooting locations, cultural idiosyncrasies, and so on.

5. pho·tog·ra·phy (or, the immense importance of light)

travel-photography-tips-6

How can you begin to master a craft if you don’t even know what it means?

In case you skipped out on all of your Ancient Greek classes at school, the word “photography” literally means “writing with light.”

Yes, it is that simple. You camera is your pen. The light is…well, the light!

Once you understand that, you’ll understand that beautiful light gives you beautiful photos.

And when is the light most beautiful?

Before 8am and after 4pm, so don’t forget to pack your alarm clock!

6. Get to know your subject

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If you are keen on landscape photography, go back and re-read tip #5, because it’s all about the right lighting.

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If you want to photograph people, learn about the customs of the place you’re visiting. For example, you will probably have a much easier time approaching people in SE Asia than you would in, say, Saudi Arabia.

7. Get lost

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I’ll go ahead and assume that since you’re a solo female traveler you’re not traveling in a country that’s particularly dangerous.

If that’s the case, I give you permission to get lost!

If you stay where all the other tourists are, and only visit sites all the other tourists are visiting, chances are you’ll be taking the exact same photos Aunt Jane took when she visited Thailand 10 years ago.

Get lost, get away from the tourist areas, find some local villages and walk through them. People will be surprised and happy to see you there, and that will make your experience – and your photos – that much more captivating.

8. Get close

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If I could only give you one tip it would be this one – get close to your subject.

There are many reasons why this is important, but getting close will greatly improve the overall quality of your photos (not to mention help you immerse yourself in the culture and make friends with locals).

Disclaimer: this tip does not apply to African safaris!

9. Lose the badittude

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Remember that you are a guest visiting another country and culture – smile! Your attitude and approach will have a huge impact on both your subjects and the photos you take of them.

10. Shoot!

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You’ll most likely be using a digital camera, so start shooting! Don’t be shy, and remember that the best shots almost never happen within the first few clicks. Work your subject and shoot as much as you can.

What questions do you have for Etienne about his travel photography tips? Post them below!

Etienne Bossot is a French photographer who’s been based in Hoi An, Vietnam for the past 7 years. In addition to shooting commercial and travel assignments for local publications and huge corporations, Etienne runs a variety of photography tours and workshops throughout Southeast Asia. For more information on his photography and photo tours, visit http://www.picsofasia.com/photo-tours/

All photos © 2014 Etienne Bossot

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Where Time Stands Still: Far Western Nepal Part 2

“Travel is about the gorgeous feeling of teetering in the unknown.”

I have walked into a National Geographic IMAX documentary, into a world where time stands still.   The people of Far Western Nepal live removed from society in a peaceful, exquisite world all their own.

A beautiful girl with wide brown eyes, no older than seven, approaches with her baby sister tied to her back with a scarf.

They are mountain children, children who have grown up chasing goats along small rocky footpaths that wind down to the valley below.

Their nails are caked with dirt and their stained clothes are torn in parts, but they are happy. They are free, living in an off-the-grid universe of their own, where they rely solely upon themselves for survival.

They cultivate crops, tend to their livestock, and make tools from wood. It’s a universe where leaves turn into plates, burning sticks into flashlights, and old clothes into toys.

These children grow up with an education in nature, learning from a young age how to cultivate rice and make sugar from plants. If they want a formal education, the type held in a classroom, they have to walk three hours each way, with a grueling 2,000-meter elevation gain on the way home.

As the girls squat beside me on the dirt, we are met by another small child, waddling and giggling with one hand outstretched toward her friend and the other cradling a broken sandal.

Her hair is sticking up every which way and she has dirt smeared across her forehead, a sign of a girl being raised by the land.

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As the two small children meet on the path and grab for each other, they shriek with glee and stumble and fall, like little girls everywhere.

In the distance I see an elderly man, hunched over and leaning on his cane. He is followed by one lone goat, a runaway he is escorting back up to the herd.

There are a few more people around, two ladies collecting leaves and grass for the baskets on their heads, and an older woman squatting barefoot by an open fire as she prepares tea.

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A young boy makes his way up the other side of the road. He is no older than eight, and yells confidently at the herd of cows he is ushering home.

This world is void of car horns, bartering, or noisy shop doors slamming. The sizzling of the fire and the scurry of the chickens pecking around my feet are the only sounds I hear.

While much of our world continues to change rapidly, I have found a corner of the world where time stands still.

Where people live one hundred percent off the land.

Where beds don’t exist and money means nothing.

Where old women squat barefoot by open fires cooking rice they themselves hand picked from the field.

Where electricity is still a fare-fetched idea for the future.

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It is a simplistic lifestyle, hard at times, but it is freedom.

This post is part of a 4-part series on Far Western Nepal. For Part 1, click here

Shirine Taylor is a 20-year old solo female traveler cycling around the world, and a regular contributor to The Happy Passport. Follow her journey at awanderingphoto.wordpress.com.

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. There are still parts of the world where people live completely off the land, without electricity, money, or any education to speak of.

2. To guest poster Shirine, this off-the-grid lifestyle accounts for the unparalleled happiness of the people in Far Western Nepal.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

Sunset at the World Peace Pagoda

I have no idea how to hike to the World Peace Pagoda, AKA “the stupa,” so I arrange for a taxi to take me there and bring me back. Sunset is supposed to be the best time to go.

The driver picks me up at the Harvest Moon at 4:30pm in another tiny clown car. I have to duck my head so as not to hit it on the roof of the cab, but my efforts are in vain – we plummet through the city, and I’m jostled and tossed in the backseat like a sack of potatoes, my head thumping upon the car roof every few seconds.

I end up pressing my hands against the ceiling so I won’t be completely brain-damaged by the time I arrive. I am, quite literally, raising the roof.

We ascend a steep hill, and the road changes from kind of paved, kind of not, to most decidedly not. It twists and winds ever upwards, and the cab driver slows to a crawl in order to make the sharp turns without sending us flying out over the city below.

I can see brush and tangled grass and rock. A young couple walks together through the dust, their motorbikes parked alongside the road like a pair of waiting steeds.

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Other taxi cabs descend as we climb, and we’re forced to dance an awkward do-see-do in order to get around each other. Higher and higher we go, the ascent is alarmingly swift, until the city below begins to reveal its true size – this is not a tiny town at all! It’s only the tourist area that’s tiny.

The rest of Pokhara scrambles toward the lake, choking, like a crowd of frightened movie goers bottlenecking for the exit door.  The lake sparkles far below like an elixir of life – it is the sun, and every crumbling building in the city stretches toward it like a starving palm.

The taxi, now sweating and sputtering with the effort of climbing a mountain not meant to be climbed by a tiny clown car, lurches itself onto a parking lot plateau like an exhausted trekker.

He parks, I get out, and manage to communicate that I expect he’ll be waiting for me when I return. I don’t know how long I have here, but the sun is threatening to walk if I don’t pay him the attention he deserves, and soon.

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Although we’ve spent the better part of 20 minutes driving a winding path up the mountain, the car tilted at a 45 degree angle the entire time, there are still more steps to climb in order to reach the stupa itself.

Several houses, shops and restaurants have sprung up around the steps leading to the World Peace Pagoda, and I can see the homes of mountain rice farmers resting in contradiction along adjacent peaks – small shacks with thatched roofs, the tiniest ramshackle abodes set atop the entire world. Humble peasants made rich with a king’s view.

My breath escapes me in fits and spurts, and I can’t keep myself steady. By now I’m used to this game, my lungs playing chicken with the paper thin mountain air.

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I emerge atop a flat, wide green with a single, straight path leading to the stupa.

A great, white monument with a rounded dome, the World Peace Pagoda was only built in 1973. The wide yard split by a single, straight path conjures images of the Taj Mahal. There is nothing to do and nowhere to go except straight toward the monument steps, which pull the viewer in as if they were magnetic.

But I’ve come so far to finally be here, to finally reach the top. It’s too much to just march straight up and look the stupa in the eye. I wander around the grounds, reading plaques set next various statues and relics. The sun continues to pout, refusing to stick around longer just for me.

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I want to eat the view. The entire Annapurna range stretches before me, more massive and higher than my mind can possibly conceive of.

It’s the first time in my life when I truly can’t believe my eyes. The mountains are so high, so white, that if you looked quickly you’d mistake them for clouds. And yet the peaks float above the clouds, which hang around their necks like fuzzy clown collars.

I am overwhelmed in the most wonderful way. It feels like meeting a celebrity who turns out to be super down to earth and who has taken it upon himself to fall in love with you. It’s like Maid in Manhattan, or one of those princess movies where Anne Hathaway turns out to be royalty.

It’s too much, it’s too good, and I wonder for a second if all of my relationships have failed because of too much love. Maybe I was too good to him, too patient, too kind, too understanding. Maybe we simply can’t handle too much of a good thing, or don’t think we deserve it.

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Maybe that’s why everyone around me is rushing straight for the stupa steps as if the view was a mirage, as if they weren’t tackled by the 360-degree painting that’s threatening to turn tears of anger into tears of joy.

I stroll from one side of the yard to the other – there truly is a panoramic view of the city, the lake, the mountains, the never-ending fields of green and brown that stretch across the earth in undisturbed patchwork.

I see that the lake is not in fact round, as I’d imagined, but that it curves quite sharply to the west, creating a bottleneck where boats cannot pass through.

I see pinks and oranges flickering on the white mountain peaks as the sun gives me one final chance to drink in its blessed light.

The stupa itself is unimpressive; modern and white-washed with the occasional golden relic presented upon a shelf that has been carved out of the building’s foundation. I’m somewhat incensed that one can’t “go inside” the stupa – it’s really just a monument, not a building that can be entered.

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Shoes must be removed before ascending the steps, and I grin remembering the scene in Slumdog Millionaire when Jamal helps himself to fine footwear outside the Taj Mahal.

A man begins speaking to me in rapid Nepali, forcing me back down the stairs. At first I think I’ve missed a ticket booth somewhere and am supposed to have paid, but I quickly realize that I’ve climbed too many stairs.

There are two levels to the stupa, and after some hand-gesturing I realize that I must circle the lower level first before I can ascend the final staircase and circle the upper level. I must walk clockwise around the stupa as I go.

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Women kneel and pray at each golden incarnation of the Buddha. My thoughts turn to the strangeness of religion in Nepal – I thought it would be filled with Tibetan Buddhist monks, yet everywhere I look are altars to Ganesh and Shiva. Hari and Shova are Hindu.

The people who “look Indian” seem to be Hindu, while the people who “look Tibetan” or Chinese seem to be Buddhist. It feels like a Hindu country to me, so I find it ironic that the defining monument of Pokhara itself is a Buddhist stupa, and that Nepal is the birthplace of the Buddha himself.

I beg the sun for a few more minutes but he’s stubborn, slipping behind the horizon and leaving nothing but streaks of fading twilight.

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My cab driver is waiting for me as promised, and we begin the treacherous descent back to town.

I brace my hands against the car ceiling to shield my head from further blows, and relish one of my favorite feelings in the world: I see the evening stretching out before me in all its glory.

Anything could happen. There will be drinking, and good food, and romance, and laughter.

Though it doesn’t feel like it, it’s the Christmas season and my heart is warmed to imagine the twinkling lights of home. Each fire burning in the town below becomes a lantern lit upon my family’s hearth; each street lamp the bulb upon a fragrant wreath of pine.

I’m in a festive mood, the sheer awesomeness of the mountain range infusing me with energy and anticipation.

I have been in Nepal for less than a week, 6 days in which God might as well have recreated the world.

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I decide that tonight will be my Christmas miracle. I feel Mariah Carey carols swirling around inside me, I am lighting a candle at 13 years old and praying for the boy I love, I am 17 and being touched for the first time in the backseat of a car as moonlight streams in through the windows, I am 7 years old and studying myself in the mirror and deciding that I like what I see.

Tonight, I give myself permission to fall in love without reason, without cause, without fear.

This post is an excerpt from My Week With Deepak: A memoir of Nepal, available February 2015 from THP Publishing. To pre-order your copy, click here!

SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now. 

Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. You can take a taxi up to the World Peace Pagoda, or you can hike.

2. If you take a taxi, you should be able to get there and back for less than 1000 rupees ($10). Make sure the driver waits for you while you explore the grounds.

3. If you hike, you'll have to take a boat across the lake to the trail head. It's a climb to 1000 meters and should take about an hour.

4. There are plenty of shops and restaurants at the top if you want to have lunch on top of the world.

5. The stupa must be entered by first walking clockwise around the first level platform. After you've circled once you may then ascend to the second level platform and complete another clockwise circle.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

Into the Unknown: Far Western Nepal Part 1

“But that’s the glory of foreign travel… Suddenly you are five years old again. You can’t read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.”

After twenty-four hours of sleepless travel, I hopped off the bus as they threw my backpack down on the ground.

I had arrived in Far Western Nepal, the most rural and undeveloped section of the country.This region is so remote that it’s closer to Delhi, the capital of India, than it is to Kathmandu.

Because of this, Far Western Nepal is left out politically and physically, a foreign land even to the Nepalese themselves.

In fact, until the mid 1990’s when the bridges were finished, this section of Nepal was completely cut off from the rest of the country for three months every year during the monsoon season.

A small, quiet highway has taken me into the terai, the flat area of Nepal where large open fields dominate the landscape.

I start walking alongside the people, cyclists, and cows who use the road more frequently than vehicles until I come to a village – just a few shops and mud huts gathered together to create a community.

I stop for a rest as a small crowd gathers around me, curious as to what a foreigner is doing in what appears to be the middle of nowhere.

An older gentlemen wearing the traditional small stripped hat of the region offers to take me fifteen kilometers up a small dirt path on his motorbike to a temple and lake.

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An hour long excursion turns into an all day adventure, when, after visiting the temple, we proceed up the unpaved rough road to the top of the immense Himalayan foothills in front of us.

Looking down I discover a whole different universe. There are a few mud huts two hundred meters down, and just below me, two ladies escorting their large black water buffalo up the hill.

They are farmers, one hundred percent self-sufficient farmers who live solely off of the land. There is no water, electricity, or anything made of plastic.

Money is useless here, there is nowhere to make or spend it. Upon watching life down below I knew that I would return, not just to watch, but to live with these families who have created their lives on the hillside.

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Guide books, which cover every inch of this tourist-dependent country in detail, write only a small paragraph about Far Western Nepal stating that the area lacks facilities and is virtually unexplored.

And if you turn to the Lonely Planet, it wastes no time depicting the area as dangerous, controlled by the sporadically violent Maoists, and a place that should be avoided.

The irony? This is the safest, friendliest part of the country I have visited.

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In fact, it is one of the safest places I have visited in all of Asia. The lack of facilities, the sheer distance, and the warnings from guide books have created an untouched jewel in a tourist filled country, a small piece of paradise where life remains centered around nature rather than money.

This is part 1 of a 4-part series on Far Western Nepal written by contributing blogger Shirine Taylor. 

For Part 2, click here

Shirine is a 20-year old solo female traveler cycling around the world, and a regular contributor to The Happy Passport. Follow her journey at awanderingphoto.wordpress.com.

SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now. 

Quick+Dirty Takeaway

Don't believe what Lonely Planet and other guidebooks say about Far Western Nepal. Far from dangerous, this area provided Shirine with some of her favorite memories of Nepal and an unparalleled view into an ancient way of life.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

The Most Beautiful Girl in Nepal

There's only one person in this picture who truly cares about the way she looks

My thoughts turn to the boy from last night, Deepak the Good. I smile sadly as I think I won’t hear from him, and how stupid it was of me to get my hopes up and think he might have actually liked me.

I’m too old. Too fat. Too old.

He probably has a stunning Nepali girlfriend who’s impossibly tiny and has skin like Brazilian caramel and manages to be both sexy, mysterious, and great wife material, all at the same time.

Maybe he’s dating the beautiful girl who works at The Lemon Tree with him. She has a face like a symphony, the kind that just takes your breath away.

I have this admittedly awkward habit of telling pretty girls that I think they’re pretty. I’m of the opinion that beautiful women are the most insecure, perhaps because a huge portion of their entire identity is built around something that time can’t wait to take away.

So I try to make them feel better by praising the exact thing that shouldn’t be important in the first place. I’m sure it all has to do with some deep-seated psychological issues with my own appearance, but that doesn’t stop me from doing it.

My parents took great care to devalue physical beauty as I was growing up. This served me well, since sometimes I was pretty and other times I wore braces and had eyebrows as thick as caterpillars.

I was not praised for being beautiful so much as for being intelligent, for getting good grades, for working hard. What feminists Pat and Margie were!

And yet here I am years later in Nepal, a veritable misogynist.

“You are very beautiful” I said to the beautiful waitress.

She shook her head fiercely, embarrassed. But since I’m intent on maintaining my title as the world’s most socially awkward person alive, I pressed further, attempting to force her to appreciate her own beauty as I did, and to comprehend her own loveliness right that second.

“You should be a model.”

Why do I do this? It’s not that I was hitting on her – I discovered long ago that I’d make a dreadful lesbian.

I think it has something to do with beauty being the ultimate achievement of the Western woman – whether we want to admit it or not, it is the thing that is prized above all other things.

“Nobody objects to a woman being a good writer or sculptor or geneticist if at the same time she manages to be a good wife, good mother, good-looking, good-tempered, well-groomed, and unaggressive.”

– Leslie M. McIntyre

Which is what I was trying to relay to this poor, trembling Chihuahua of a girl: “In my culture, you’re a success! In my culture, you win! In my culture, any of your failures would be forgiven instantaneously!”

It was then that the little Chihuahua proceeded to say something that transformed her into a bulldog before my very eyes.

In response to my suggestion that she was missing out on a lucrative modeling career in, say, Poland, she stared me dead in the eye and quipped “I have no interest in this.”

She went on to tell me that she was studying to be an accountant, but I didn’t hear much of what she said. My mind was racing. She didn’t care that she was beautiful. She didn’t care that I thought she was beautiful. She didn’t have any interest in earning money because of her beauty.

Every cell in her body spun in its place, keeping time with the spinning of the earth and the stars, just as mine did.

And yet her entire view of herself and the world was an inverse of mine. She may have been imprisoned by poverty, limited by the traditions and educational system in her country, forced to perform familial roles that she’d never think to question.

But as she grows older, as her beauty fades, she will allow it to pass like a friend into the foyer of her home. Her face, her body did not define her self in any way.

And it was surely that confidence, that sense of self, that rejection of ideals that made her truly beautiful in the first place.

Wow. I almost hope that if Deepak the Good has a girlfriend, it’s her.

This post is an excerpt from My Week With Deepak: A memoir of Nepal, available February 2015 from THP Publishing. To pre-order your copy, click here!

SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now. 

Quick+Dirty Takeaway

The parallel universe that exists in the quietest chamber of your heart, buried deep beneath years of conditioning and Cosmo magazine covers, isn't a figment of your imagination.

There is a place where it really doesn't matter what you look like. And not just in a lip-service, that's-what-I'm-supposed-to-believe kind of why.

In an honest way. In way that's impossibly free. In a way that's truly beautiful.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

5 Travel Apps for Staying Organized and Saving Money

I’m not really an “app person” (those people exist, right?) but for some reason when I started traveling abroad, I became addicted to travel apps.

This is probably because I actually need and use the apps I have, most of them on a daily basis.

These travel apps turn my iPhone into a compass, a receipt scanner, a translator, a currency converter, and a travel agent – and every single one of them was free.

1. GlobeConvert Free (my currency converter)

I still use this app all the time, even though I’ve been back in Vietnam for over 6 weeks and have a pretty solid handle on the conversion rate.

If a taxi driver quotes you 2 million dong for  a 3-km cab ride, you can whip out your phone and remind yourself that 2 million dong is about $100, and inform him that you’ll be using another taxi driver thankyouverymuch.

This app has just about every currency imaginable, and it’s easy to toggle back and forth between them.

2. Shoeboxed (my receipt scanner)

Here’s how my lazy butt “manages my finances” back home: I swipe my debit card, then I check my bank account online. That’s pretty much it.

The problem with traveling abroad in Asia is that the entire continent seems to operate on a cash-only basis, which means I need to get receipts, which means I need to keep those receipts organized.

I stay at a lot of different hotels, so I’m constantly collecting scraps of paper. The problem is that my backpack is already stuffed to the brim without adding an ever-growing pile of paper receipts into the mix!

Shoeboxed has been the answer to my prayers. With this travel app I simply snap a picture of the receipt in question, then toss said receipt in the recycling bin. All of the info from the receipt – including the date, amount spent, the vendor, and the location – is magically beamed to my Shoeboxed account.

Shoeboxed can even detect which tax category my receipt falls under. If I scan a receipt from a hotel I stayed at, it will be automatically labeled as a “travel and transport” write off.

This made doing my taxes so easy this year, that when I was finished, I had a big “I finished my taxes really fast!” party in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

If you like the sound of Shoeboxed, you can get a free 30-day trial by clicking here.

3. Compass by Tim O’s Studios (my – duh – compass)

This app has saved me a ton of money and has saved me from getting lost time and time again.

For some reason the Google maps app on my phone doesn’t always come through. Also, sometimes I don’t buy a local SIM card if I’m not going to be in a country for a long period of time.

In those moments – no cellular data and/or cranky Google gods – I’m flying blind and rely on this app to get me where I’m going. You may not know exactly how to find a place, but you can at least get yourself in the general vicinity.

It’s also great when you’re riding in taxis.

Make sure you know which direction you’re supposed to be headed by checking a map before you get in the cab. Then, whip out your compass app and make sure you’re heading the right way.

If your driver is happily soaring due east when the temple you want to see is most definitely to the west, you can speak up (before the meter runs up!)

4. Skyscanner (my airfare agent)

This is one of my favorite travel apps for booking airfare and checking airline prices, especially in SE Asia. Skyscanner shows you all of the available flights for your desired dates and makes it simple to filter by price.

It also shows you every airline that flies between your destinations, and lets you book airfare right from your phone.

5. Hostelworld (my accommodation agent)

Hostelworld’s app is a great research tool, even if you don’t end up booking through their site. A lot of the time, I only prebook a single night at a hotel or guest house in case I end up hating the place.

This travel app lets you see how much you can expect to pay for a private room at various hostels in various parts of the city.

Let’s say you look up hostel prices in Hanoi and see that a private room in the Old Quarter is around $12/night, while a private room in the West Lake area of town is closer to $30/night.

Armed with this information, you’re ready to negotiate a great deal on a room (and ready to laugh out loud when a $12 hotel tries to charge $30, knowing that you can walk next door and find a much better price).

Conclusion (starring Ryan Gosling)

I’ve heard some people recommend leaving the smartphone at home and buying a cheap cell once you arrive in country.

For me, having a smartphone and using awesome travel apps saves me money, keeps me safe, and even makes me feel a lot more organized than I typically do at home. I really couldn’t survive without it.

I also couldn’t survive without the hope that someday, somehow, Ryan Gosling will realize that we were destined to be together, will dump whichever gorgeous actress he’s married to at the moment, and will fly to Paris to sweep me up and start making a baker’s dozen of Little Goslings. (see how I’m in Paris in this fantasy? That’s what separates the dreamers from the deranged. I might even add a pet monkey into the scenario if the mood strikes.)

Yep, just struck.

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Which travel apps can’t you live without?

YE OLDE DISCLAIMER: If you sign up for a Shoeboxed account (which you should totally do, btw), the good people at Shoeboxed just might find it in their hearts to throw some scratch my way. But don’t get the wrong idea – I am a loyal Shoeboxed customer and would never recommend the service to you if it sucked. It sucketh not! Go get your free trial already!

SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now. 

Quick+Dirty Takeaway

I can't live without....

1. GlobeConvert Free for currency conversion

2. Shoeboxed for receipt scanning

3. Compass by Tim O for my compass

4. Skyscanner for checking and booking airfare

5. Hostelworld for researching accommodation prices

6. Eating great spring rolls with Ryan Gosling in Paris while my pet monkey sits on my shoulder and Ryan and I discuss whether or not we'll have to get rid of the monkey when the twins are born.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

Liebster Madness!

You may have noticed that I have a lot of fake awards and phony testimonials on the homepage of this website.

Well, it seems that I’ve been nominated for a real award, and the inner conflict that has resulted has kept me up nights for – well, for like one night. Ok, for 45 minutes. But those are 45 precious minutes of sleep that I will never get back!

Who nominated The Happy Passport?

I’m thrilled to announce that The Happy Passport has been nominated for a Liebster Award by travel gourmet Dave Cole, the eyes, ears, and nose behind the food-wine-travel triumvirate Cook Sip Go.

Cook Sip Go takes all of things you love about traveling – the sights, the sounds, the delicate clinking of fresh ice cubes entering your cocktail glass – and packages them together in a way that is purely delectable.

Bring you appetite for adventure (and your penchant for a spicy Malbec) and check out Cook Sip Go.

No really. Stop reading and go there now.

Here’s how the Liebster Award nomination works – since Dave nominated me, I have to answer 10 questions of his choosing. Then, I get to nominate 5 outstanding travel blogs and ask the creators of those blogs to answer 10 questions of my choosing.

It’s sort of like getting a chain letter in the mail when you were 12, except instead of throwing it in the trash, your mom puts it up on the fridge.

Without further ado, Dave’s questions, and my answers!

Cook Sip Go asked, and I answered…

1. What is the first travel experience you remember?

My first plane ride when I was 10 years old. My parents surprised us and took my brother and I to Disney World.

Everything about Florida felt so different from my home in Wisconsin – the air smelled different, the trees were different, there were lizards everywhere. It was pure magic to me and I spent the next two years planning to run away and live on the streets of Orlando as a vagrant gymnast.

2. Which destination is at the top of your travel bucket list?

I feel really drawn to Norway and the other Scandinavian countries. I’d love to spend time in Iceland, Sweden, Denmark.

India is absolutely on my bucket list, as is Ireland, Italy, Turkey, Greece…and then there’s the entire continent of Africa calling to me. Wait, was I supposed to pick one place?

3. Where did you experience your most memorable meal on the road and what was it?

It’s May of 1995, I’m 13 years old and sitting in a restaurant in New York’s Little Italy neighborhood.

It’s my first time visiting the city and I’m there to perform in Carnegie Hall with a children’s choir.

I order minestrone soup as a starter, and practically die of happiness the second I taste the first spoonful – my taste buds stand at attention, jump for joy, and proceed to perform choreographed acrobatics for the remainder of the meal.

I remember thinking “Ohhhh, so this is what real Italian food is supposed to taste like.” And that was in the States –  just imagine what will happen when I make it to Italy! (mouthgasm).

4. Who is your favorite travel writer/blogger?

Matthew Karsten of The Expert Vagabond. Reading his posts feels like having lunch with that one friend who always makes you laugh until you squirt beer out your nose. (Yes I drink beer at lunch. Stop judging me.)

If I could write one blog post that was 1/10 as funny and entertaining as his posts, I’d retire from blogging forever and go live in the mountains in Nepal.

5. Even though new destinations are fun, what is one place you could return to again and again?

Cat Ba, Vietnam (and I have returned again and again!)

Hoi An, Vietnam

Pokhara, Nepal

Vancouver, B.C.

San Francisco

6. What’s the most interesting wildlife experience you’ve had on your travels?

First of all, this is the most creative question anyone has every asked anyone.

And I was amazed to discover that I actually had an answer to it, even though I’m not what I’d call particularly “outdoorsy.”

I was trekking in the mountains just outside of Luang Prabang, Laos, and our group came upon a man with a rooster on a leash. Through our guide we learned that this rooster had been trained to call wild chickens out of the forest so that the man could shoot them.

He was an informant chicken. A traitor to his own kind. I still don’t know what’s worse – the fact that the hunter put this poor rooster up to this dastardly deed, or that the rooster failed to organize a proper mutiny against such an inter-species atrocity.

7. What’s one place you’ve traveled to and have no desire to return? Why?

Luang Prabang, Laos. It’s a lovely town, the rivers are beautiful, the night market is dazzling and the wats are gorgeous.

But everything else about the city feels like it belongs in the West – the old town caters to tourists in such a way that there doesn’t seem to be a scrap of Lao culture left to be seen. It’s all wine bars, retired French couples and Australian college kids walking around like they’re in Daytona Beach.

The famous almsgiving ceremony has become a caricature of itself – I hated seeing insensitive tourists up in the monks’ faces with flashbulbs.

Take Luang Prabang and plop it down in, say, San Diego, and you’d catch me at one of the (67) wine bars for happy hour every night of the week.

But when I was in Laos, I wanted to learn something about Laos, and the only thing I learned was that the tourists have taken over and the Lao people have done the best they can to cater to them, perhaps at the expense of their own way of life.

Then again, maybe the locals in Luang Prabang are making great money off the tourists and are perfectly happy having 67 wine bars and I should just shut my trap.

8. What is your favorite restaurant in your hometown?

Raffi’s Place in Glendale when I’m in Los Angeles. It’s the freshest, most delectable, most melt-in-your-mouth Persian food imaginable. I’d ask for their chicken kebabs, homemade hummus and cucumber yogurt as my last meal.

A very, very close second is Boneyard Bistro on Ventura Blvd in Studio City (also Los Angeles). I’ll just say this – there is macaroni and cheese involved, as well as fried dates, aged whiskey, and bourbon BBQ sauce. Insert Homer Simpson donuuuuut noise here.

9. What is the most athletic feat you’ve accomplished while traveling?

Climbing to the top of Marble Mountain in Da Nang, Vietnam with my ginormous laptop case in tow because I didn’t want to leave it with the shady-looking parking attendant.

At one point I even jumped from one rock to another, scaling a four-foot wide divide. If I had fallen, I would’ve fallen about 500 meters to the (very distant) earth below. All while carrying this bulky bag that contained my laptop, my camera, and all my valuables.

And I never would’ve done any of it if it weren’t for this guy.

10. Have you ever attempted to cook at home a dish you first tried while traveling? If so, what was the result? 

The only thing sexier than a woman who can cook is a woman who can eat like a linebacker and not gain weight.

Fortunately I never claimed to be sexy.

The answer, I’m afraid, is no. I love to cook sauces, but I’m dreadful at cooking anything that one might drizzle a sauce upon.

If I could learn how to cook one dish I’ve enjoyed while traveling, it’d be Southern Vietnamese pho tom. (noodle soup with shrimp).

I cut my teeth on Southern pho, not realizing that the soup would be so drastically different in the North. If I could learn how to get the broth just right, I’d make it every day for the rest of my life (except on the day when I get my last meal, because then I’m going to Raffi’s Place.)

Who I’m Nominating

Banker in the Sun – only Rashad (AKA The Banker) can get me interested in money and budget stuff when it comes to travel (everyone else who writes on this topic tends to make me yawn). I love the stories, the tales of romance, the wanderlust and the great cost of living articles on this site. The financial advice truly is unconventional as promised, and it’s nice knowing that it’s coming from an actual vagabond banker!

A Wandering Photo – Shirine is a regular contributor to this site and I’m lucky to have her. She is just 20 years old and is currently on a round-the-world cycling trip with her sweetheart. Shirine is a brave minimalist who writing is poetic, stark, and always thought-provoking.

Adriana Kupresek – Adriana is an author, inspirationalist, and nomadic feminist who’s created an artistic online community for female travelers. Her work is fearless, unabashed, and I love how she’s not afraid to say exactly what she thinks. I also really like how she blends travel tales with life lessons and deeply personal epiphanies.

Anna’s Friends – a great blog and networking site for women traveling and/or moving abroad. Anna is building a worldwide network of women helping women, and she truly practices what she preaches. When I first started travel blogging, she was one of the first people to reach out via social media and make me feel welcome.

Vivienne Egan – Vivienne is true digital nomad working her way around the world. I love following her blog because she covers everything you need to start traveling and to keep traveling by working for yourself online. I also hit up Vivienne’s site for budget travel tips, online marketing ideas, and inspiration to keep traveling long-term.

10 Questions for the Nominees

1. What is the single best part about living, working and traveling in a country other than your own?

2. You’re given a large chunk of money from a mysterious donor. You’re told that the amount is somewhere between $25,000 and $1 million. The amount you’re to receive won’t be revealed until you specify your dream destination, where you’ll have to spend the next 3 years of your life. You will not be allowed to work or make any money during this period of time. Where do you go?

3. Do you consider yourself a backpacker, flashpacker, midrange or luxe traveler? Is it by choice or circumstance? Would you “change teams” if you could? Why?

4. Do you prefer to travel solo, travel with a partner or travel in a group? Why?

5. Which 3 places you’ve visited so far have felt the most like home?

6. A proclamation is handed down from the Universe that states you may no longer travel, and you may no longer write about traveling (or anything related to travel). Where do you settle and what do you do with your life?

7. What is a single, unifying factor that you’ve observed in every single country you’ve visited?

8. Can cross-cultural romances ever work?

9. Name 3 things you do NOT miss about living in your home country (or staying in your home country 24/7/365)

10. 2014 will be a total bust for you unless you _________________.

I can’t wait to read your answers! Thanks again to Dave and the fine folks at Cook, Sip, Go for the nomination!

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By the Light of the Silvery Moon

He must have a plan, because the motorbike takes a decided left instead of right and we’re racing along the harbor shoreline, the festival music fading slowly in the distance.

Up a craggly hill then down again, and we’re welcomed into a deserted alcove of a parking lot. The curious sound of waves lapping below overwhelms me – this island is filled with beach after beach, harbor after harbor, nooks and crannies and watery roundabouts around every corner.

It’s a tiny Vancouver. It’s my personal ocean paradise. It’s cool and cloudy, lonesome and nostalgic by day, smooth silvery magic by night.

We do not speak, but then again, that’s no surprise. His English is about as good as my Vietnamese, which is relatively non-existent. (I can say “coffee with milk,” “bottle of water” and “noodle soup,” none of which are very useful when trying to communicate how long you’ve been waiting to kiss someone.)

Our long distance courtship has lasted nearly two months after my decidedly unladylike attempt to add him as a friend on Facebook.

He was so confused, so alarmed, so flabbergasted that I was even speaking to him – him, the chef who cowered in the bowels of the kitchen like an abused cat – that the entire interaction, our only interaction, consisted of a flurry of nervous laughter and smartphone screens and thick, palpable awkwardness.

I knew he didn’t know I liked him. Trying to express that, while simultaneously trying to make sure he was the one pursuing me, was a whole new level of challenging.

And yet here we are. Descending the crumbling steps down to the beach together, the gentle clinking of beer bottles in his bag like the triangle in the symphony of the surrounding night.

I can’t tell if he likes me. When I arrived today, the bus happened to drop me off in front of his restaurant, where I was greeted by a boisterous staff of 6 waiters and managers, all of whom remembered me from before, and all of whom apparently knew each and every – gulp – detail of my tryst with Truong.

“Your boyfriend here!” they cry, absolutely tickled by the entire situation.

“You no speak, I translate you!”

“Sometime you just need eyes. Just the eyes to look each other. When you love, no talk need!”

I blush fiercely, embarrassed at their enthusiasm but relieved to hear I’ve been on his mind enough to warrant a discussion amongst his colleagues.

“Sometimes your boyfriend, he talk you and he can’t concentrate work!”

He waits for me, having emerged from his kitchen cave to watch the welcome ceremony. He is grinning from ear to ear and my heart liquefies instantly, sinking down into my toes. On the 7th day, God made that smile.

I walk with heavy heart feet until I am in his arms for the first time, and he is generous enough to embrace me in public – a big faux pas in Vietnam.

I tower over him, or at least it feels that way, but he doesn’t seem to mind. I make a mental note to lose about 375 pounds so the two of us don’t resemble the “iO” in “iOS” while we’re walking down the street together. 

As we descend the gravel waterfall to the beach below, I’m suddenly awoken my from love-dream and tumble into something deeper still – I’ve been here before.

This place, this night, are as familiar to me as the sweet smell of hairspray and powder that linger in my mother’s bathroom after she’s gotten ready for work in the darkness of the early morning.

The earth has sucked in its belly, creating a deep, rounded bay flanked in semicircle by soaring limestone cliffs. The horizon is inky velvet, the indigo sheets of water ripple like liquid chocolate underneath the moon.

There is no one else in sight, and I wonder how so magical a place could have opened itself to us alone.

He pulls me across the sand, his dark eyes searching for a place to go, a place to be even more alone than we are right now. A place so secret, our solitude is turned inside out and we’re free to make loud, boisterous music in appreciation of each other, in celebration of the union of two souls.

The bag of beers hit the ground with a crash, my purse leaps from my hands, and he’s kissing me like a soldier waging war against every doubt that ever crossed my mind – yes, he likes me. Very much, in fact.

The water and sky enter me completely as I’m wrapped up in him, the smell of the water and wind is his smell, the power of the earth to comfort and caress becomes ours. His kisses spill to the earth below like strands of silver moonbeam.

We explore the craggly cliffs with our hands, finally finding a shallow cave that seems to have been carved to serve as a two-person throne.

And now he’s talking, talking more than he’s ever talked before, his fingers moving feverishly upon his phone’s screen.

My arm rests easily around his shoulders as I wait patiently for him to put into words – and then translate those words – and then see the terrible Google translation and start over – how he is feeling.

“You and I are God” he writes, looking expectantly at me to see if I understand his words, and more importantly, if I agree with them.

“In this time is my greatest happiness” he writes. Just when I thought my heart had solidified again…

He works on and on, wanting desperately to tell me everything, and I marvel at his tenacity and my own patience. His diligence is to be admired more, though – after all, I have the moon and chocolate-water to caress me as I wait.

“You my 3 girlfriend. I only 2 girlfriend, high school and college. Fortune teller say I have 3 girlfriend.”

I think I get it. I try to say “third time’s the charm!” but his crinkled brow shows me something important was lost in translation.

“But now I have girlfriend 3…and you are a FOREIGNER! And 2 years older than me!”

I’m actually three years older than him, but I let that one slide. And marvel at our cultural differences – it really does matter to him that I’m a foreigner, and that I’m older than him, if only by a few years. It really is a big deal. It’d be like me dating….I don’t know, a Martian?

Whether we realize it or not, we really do live in an “anything goes” culture, especially compared with many other parts of the world, and especially when it comes to romantic relationships.

And yet for some reason, he’s willing to overlook my “faults.”

“In this time is my greatest happiness.”

I am gifted with another silver moonlight kiss, and the moon follows up with a rush of cool affection – the tide swirls in all around us, soaking our clothes and whisking my sandals into the watery depths.

A very fair sacrifice for a night that was beauty incarnate.

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. Travel romance is possible, even when you don't speak the language.

2. Age is a big deal to Vietnamese men (and to Vietnamese women), but they might be willing to overlook the fact that you're "older" if you're persistent (and if you dye your hair - in Vietnam, having gray hair means you're "close to death").

3. One thing that might get in the way of your travel romance is the fact that you're a foreigner - for some reason that seems to matter a lot in SE Asia. Also, it seems to be much more culturally acceptable for Asian women to date Western men than the reverse.

4. If you date a Vietnamese guy, be prepared to state your intentions right off the bat - you'll probably be asked if you intend to marry him, and if you're "trying" to "get married with a Vietnamese man" in general.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

5 Ways to be a Total A*!hole when you Travel Abroad

Are you interested in coming across as a complete asshole when you travel abroad? If so, you’re in luck!

There are currently thousands, even millions of douchebag travelers who’ve perfected the fine art of offending everyone they meet when they travel abroad.

Don’t let those numbers discourage you – if you play your cards right and are diligent in your pursuits, you too can rise to top of the asshole traveler list, setting the bar for all the jerks who’ll follow in your footsteps.

But with an endless array of options to choose from, where does the aspiring asshole start? Which tactics are most effective when it comes to achieving the coveted title of Traveling Asshole?

1. Speak as loudly as possible at all times

Remember that while people may speak softly in other countries, that’s none of your concern. It’s much more important to be a cultural ambassador and impress upon those quiet locals how much better it feels to let loose and SHOUT REALLY LOUD BECAUSE YOU CAN.

Also, don’t forget to share the intimate details of what (and who) you did last night, which is obviously of genuine interest to anyone within ear shot.

2. Complain…about everything

It’s not enough to complain about the food, send it back, and indicate that your local chef is “doing it wrong.” That kind of half-assed move is for junior assholes.

To be a true asshole when you travel abroad, it’s important to complain about everything.

First, complain about the weather. Forget the fact that you were the one who decided to visit Cambodia in the middle of April – someone should seriously do something about this heat.

Next, complain about things like the lack of infrastructure, the price of your hotel room, and the lack of English spoken. Bonus points for making fun of locals attempting to speak English but failing.

By complaining, you’ll be demonstrating that your home country is superior to the country you’re visiting, and inspiring locals to make changes to their country based on your savvy recommendations.

3. Claim to be an English teacher

The fact that you’re a native English speaker means you’re perfectly suited to teach English to everyone you meet, whether they want your help or not.

When a non-native speaker can’t understand what you’re saying, simply increase your volume. This will help them understand what you’ve just said. If it doesn’t, get frustrated and be rude to them. This will motivate them to learn English faster.

If you’re in close contact with non-native speakers for long periods of time, be sure to speak to them in broken English, using only nouns and verbs.

In this way, you will reinforce bad habits they’ve already learned, ensuring they will keep speaking incorrectly. This in turn will give you something to make fun of when you return home – after all, just because you’ve stopped traveling abroad doesn’t mean you have to stop being a douche.

Finally, teach English to your non-native English speaking friends by demonstrating the proper use of the word “like.” Include like at least four times per sentence, more if possible.

A strong example of this would be:

“Is there, like, a safe in our room? Because we like, don’t want the room if, like, there’s no like, safe.”

Not only will this make your speech easier for locals to understand; it will make you appear very intelligent.

4. Travel in packs

It’s much easier to achieve asshole status if you travel abroad in a large pack. Grab at least 10-12 of your closest newfound friends from your hostel, and proceed to walk around town like you own the place.

Keep in mind that everyone – from restaurant staff to tour guides to pedestrians – should stop what they’re doing to cater to the needs of your group.

Don’t forget to utilize volume – particularly loud, high-pitched, maniacal laughter – to remind everyone that you guys rule.

5. Make it like spring break

Take your wildest nights during spring break in college and experience them again – but in another country. This is a delicate art form, but ideally you want to act like you never left home in the first place.

Don’t become distracted by things like cultural experiences and the local way of living. That stuff is stupid and boring.

Instead, make sure everyone you meet knows that this is your vacation, and they all should be working hard to make sure your vacation is awesome.

Bonus points for screaming “SPRING BREEEEEEAK” at 3am, especially in neighborhoods with lots of families with young children. Double bonus points for working in “Dude, I was so fucking wasted last night” into the conversation. Triple points if you’re still drunk from the night before.

 

Phew! Sounds like a lot of work, right? Don’t worry. Even if you’re only able to achieve one of the items on the list, you’ll still come across as a jerk, which is a good start.

Above all, keep in mind that when you travel abroad, it’s all about you. The world (and everyone in it) is simply there to make sure you have a great time, so treat it (and everyone you meet) accordingly.

  • Whatever you do, don’t cater your behavior to the norms of the culture you’re in – that would be admitting that their way of doing things is better than yours.
  • Don’t open yourself up to any experiences even remotely different from what you’d experience at home – eat Western food, drink in tourist bars, and hang out with people from your home country.

And whatever you do, never treat travel as a way to open your mind, examine your beliefs, or experience something infinitely different than your life back home.

If you do that, you’ll never win the travel asshole award.

SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now. 

 

 

Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. Speak as loudly as possible at all times.

2. Complain about everything.

3. Teach English to everyone you meet, whether they like it or not.

4. Travel in an enormous pack of 12 of your closest friends.

5. Treat every day you travel abroad like it's spring break in your home country.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

Sunrise at Sarangkot

Someone’s alarm goes off and I’m immediately pissed.

It’s a rare morning when the desire to continue sleeping doesn’t overwhelm me completely, dragging me back to bed like a clingy lover who doesn’t know when to let go.

I long for the day – that happy day – when I will suddenly wake up one morning at say, oh, 5am, joyfully jump into my running clothes, skip the coffee, and set off on my daily 5-mile jog, or mountain hike, or yoga session in the forest.

Today is not that day.

And it wasn’t my alarm that went off anyway, so what the hell….?

I squint in the darkness, trying to circumvent my mind’s fogginess, and realize with a bit of alarm that I don’t seem to be at the Harvest Moon.

The pale, pleasantly-painted indigo walls of this foreign room are offset by hand-sewn curtains in a shade of tangerine only acceptable in the dimmest light of early day. Shova would never be caught dead with such gaudy drapes.

Sarangkot-1

Plus, it’s fucking freezing, so it can’t possibly be the warm nest I’ve come to call home, the aptly named Harvest Moon “writer’s room,” where I can prance around naked in the middle of the chilly night behind double-paned windows as thick as layer cakes.

My nose is cold, my eyelashes are cold, the cold has woven itself around each strand of my hair.  And yet for some reason, every part of me below the blanket is cozy, comfortable, mysteriously immune to the high-altitude air seeping in through the cracks in the windows and door.

In my confusion I see that there is another bed in the room, and notice a thin, worn comforter carelessly tossed upon it. I look down and see that my body is covered with an identical comforter, whose threadbare fabric could not possibly be providing this much warmth.

I roll to the side – hoping to forget all about the alarm and my cold nose and the strange heat emanating from the lower half of my body, but – someone rolls with me.

The someone nuzzles the back of my neck with an equally cold nose, lets thick fingertips explore my left hip, and presses into me in a way that indicates that he is very much a morning person.

Holy shit, it’s Deepak.

Last night washes over me in an instant – the winding motorbike ride through Pokhara after a sudden decision to get out of town.

His call into the restaurant to say that he’d be gone for the evening shift.

The sky like the painting of a C+ art student who’s scolded for using colors that couldn’t possibly exist in nature – neon pinks, purples so rich you could taste them in your mouth, oranges that threatened to rip the sky apart and pull you through into another dimension.

Our timing was perfect, as we reached the summit of Sarangkot with just enough light left to illuminate our hunt for a guest house.

$7/night, plus you get to meet an angel.

$7/night, plus you get to meet an angel.

I thought that after visiting the stupa, the defining tourist destination of Pokhara, I’d have done my sight-seeing duty and could view the rest of my time in town as one long, extended happy hour.

But instead of finding camaraderie when discussing the stupa’s exquisite views of the lake and city, I was met with scoffs: “The stupa? Please. Where you really need to go is Sarangkot.”

The way Deepak’s eyes lit up when I suggested the place made me hope that there was something truly special about it (special beyond the fact that we’d have to stay overnight in order to enjoy a famous Sarangkot sunrise in the morning).

Sarangkot is a tiny village set atop a 1600-meter peak that lies about 30 minutes Northwest of Pokhara. It’s definitely hikeable from town, but in order to see the sunrise you’d have to leave in the middle of the night and climb with a headlamp, and I’m just not that adventurous (plus I can’t rock headgear, functional or otherwise).

I hoped that since I was rolling with a local we’d be able to score an incredible deal on our room, but our digs at the Mountain View Lodge and Restaurant were $7/night – just a dollar less than my room at Harvest Moon. This meant that I was indeed getting a fair price at my place, a realization that comforted me greatly.

When we stopped at the Mountain View to inquire about a room, we were greeted by a 6-year old welcome wagon of a girl whose name I can’t remember.

This child was grace incarnate. She was bubbling over with excitement to practice her English, which was impeccable, and to demonstrate her role as the family’s Master of Ceremonies.

She ushered us inside, arranged our room with her mother, ordered her older sister to make tea, and showed us to our lovenest. I spent all of 5 minutes with this person and I’ll never forget her as long as I live – she was the kind of kid who makes you happy to be alive, the kind of person you want to be around all the time. She was everything beautiful about Nepal with none of the ugliness.

As she quietly shut the door to our room, taking care to bow to me shyly as she did, I said a little prayer that she’d always stay exactly as she was, no matter what life threw her way.

Drinks and debauchery were enjoyed by all as the sun rested up for the next day’s opening act.

Romance, Nepali-style: cigarettes, beer, and coca-cola

Romance, Nepali-style: cigarettes, beer, and coca-cola

Deepak’s innocence and youth revealed itself throughout the evening, and I relished spending time with someone so easy to please (ok, ok, you want more details, but I don’t kiss and tell. Unless you buy the book, that is.)

The soft gray light outside is beginning to brighten. We need to move quickly if we’re not going to miss it.

We dress in the dark, Deepak shivering like he hadn’t been reared in the mountains and withstood similar temperatures his entire life.

“Too cold” he says, meaning “it’s very cold.” His substitution of “too” for “very” results in delightful phrases like “You’re too pretty” and “I’m too hungry”; as if I had somehow offended him with my good looks and his hunger was something that needed to be checked out by a doctor. I don’t have the heart to correct him – it’s too cute.

Sarangkot self portrait

Sarangkot self portrait

We bundle ourselves as best we can in the clothes we wore yesterday – impromptu trips to 1600 meters in the middle of December probably require a bit more planning, but oh well.

We climb the 100 or so narrow, winding steps through the mountain village to the lookout point. I still have to stop every 10 or 15 steps to catch my breath, and joke with Deepak that I’m not out of shape, it’s the altitude, I swear.

Rays of light begin to tap me on the shoulder, and I brace myself for beauty. It is quiet and still, I’m with a newfound love, perhaps we’re going to experience some sort of spiritual communion on the top of this impossibly high mountain in the middle of the Himalayas

In an instant, my dreams of having an out of body experience with Deepak are crushed by the cackling shouts of 50 tourists who’ve beaten us to the punch.

They’re chatting, coughing, laughing, and slurping tea sold to them by children too young to be working at all, let alone so early, let alone in such cold weather.

Something inside me retracts violently, ready to slide down the spiral of irritation, prepared to write off the entire experience as ruined.

And then an amazing thing happens. Deepak looks at the crowd gathered there, turns to me, and smiles in a way that says “Everyone is here! Everyone is here and we are too, because there is no separation between us and them. Because we have all come to see a beautiful thing happen. Because we have all gotten up at a godforsaken hour to watch God in action. Isn’t that incredible?!”

sarangkot-5

There will be thousands of chances, thousands of moments, to fall in love with Deepak, but this is one of my favorites. He has this unique ability to undo all of my negative conditioning in a single moment. I marvel at his power to see a situation – any situation – as beautiful. And perhaps what’s even more astounding is his ability to make me see it that way too.

The chatter and laughter and coughing and camera-snapping are instantly transformed from a failure to respect the sanctity of the moment, to a noisy celebration of nature; a cheer leading session for God.

We squeeze through the crowd and press our bellies against the wooden fence that wraps around the viewing platform. Deepak puts his arms around me, and as the first electric ray of the neon sun peeks over the distant horizon, the crowd erupts into thunderous applause.

sarangkot-4

This post is an excerpt from My Week With Deepak: A memoir of Nepal, available February 2015 from THP Publishing. To pre-order your copy, click here!

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. If you only have time to go to the stupa OR Sarangkot, go to Sarangkot.

2. The Mountain View Lodge and Restaurant has clean, cheap rooms that are perfect for a pre-sunrise snooze. Just be sure to bring warm clothing in the winter.

3. There is always a different way of looking at your current situation, even when it seems dreadful. Beauty and perfection can be found not only in simple things, but it things that at first glance appear downright irritating.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

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