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.

High Altitude Climbing in the Peruvian Andes

“Somewhere between the bottom of the mountain and the summit is the answer to the mystery of why we climb.”    

I’m standing nearly 6,000 meters above sea level, near the top of one of the majestic snow covered peaks in the Peruvian Andes. The sun is slowly rising, and with it, an orange glow is dancing on the ice all around me.

There are clouds down below covering the valley, but the high altitude sky is clear of anything but cold, poorly oxygenated air. I’m alone except for the two climbers roped up to me, and standing above the world watching a new day commence.

This is why people do it: why they quit their jobs, leave their families, and risk their lives just to reach a summit. It’s not actually for the summit itself, it’s for moments like these. Reaching the top and looking down is truly one of the most powerful feelings in the world.

high-altitude-climbing-2

I sit on the summit, taking in the other 6,000m peaks around me. The sun does not play favorites, serenading each and every peak with a shower of vibrant color.

There isn’t a hint of human destruction or creation to be seen, and I’m amazed at how beautiful pure nature can be.

We begin to head back to base camp, and I literally skip down most of the mountain. Though I’m exhausted and have been climbing since midnight, I am beyond happy. It was the perfect climb.

high-altitude-climbing-7

It began yesterday with the trek into base camp, a somewhat dull and dusty climb, but a beautiful one none the less. After five or six hours of scampering over the rocks and boulders that made up the moraine, we came to the base of an immense glacier and a flat stretch of land which would become our base camp.

I hiked in with five other climbers and one guide, a Peruvian mountaineer. Our diverse group came from different countries, backgrounds, and decades, but that didn’t stop us from quickly becoming friends.

high-altitude-climbing-3

After setting up my tent, drinking hot tea, and eating a bowl full of spaghetti, I curled up in my warm down sleeping bag and watched the sunset from the vestibule of my tent.

There was not a sound to be heard, and the colors dancing in the sky as the sun disappeared were magical. I quickly fell asleep and awoke a few hours later at 11 p.m. to a star-filled windless night, a dream for any climber.

Then the real fun began. After eating a few biscuits and drinking hot tea I put on my crampons and slowly started to make my way up the immense mountain in front of me.

The moon shone brightly, illuminating the way so clearly that I didn’t even have to turn on my headlamp. It is a beautiful thing, climbing at night, when you can’t see where you are going or where you have been. The only thing that matters at a time like that is the present.

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It was an easy climb, nothing more than a slow trudge up the glacier, and before long we reached an absolutely astounding summit. There is no way to describe the feeling of power yet powerlessness when surrounded on all sides by 6,000m peaks.

The night climb, the sunrise, and the summit culminated into the perfect climb, a climb that further strengthened my growing affinity for mountains – any mountains.

Of course, climbing isn’t always fun. In fact, “fun” is not a way I would describe most of my climbs. There is nothing more treacherous than putting one foot in front of the other at high altitudes. It’s amazing, really, how altitude can reduce even the strongest humans to nothing.

Your digestive system fails first, meaning that you set off to climb all night with hardly anything in your stomach. And though it is important to stay hydrated, peeing and even taking a sip of water requires such an effort that you would rather not.

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You spend hours slowly climbing uphill, sleep deprived, hungry, either too hot or too cold, on the way to a summit which never seems to get any closer.

You are constantly out of breath no matter how slowly you inch up the mountain – high altitude creates an atmosphere in which humans can’t survive for long.

By the time you do manage to reach the top, you don’t even care. You want to head back down, forget about ever climbing again, and sleep for the next two days straight.

And yet somehow, even after the worst climbs, you find yourself dreaming of standing atop a glacier once again.

Ambition, ego, and testing human limits fuels mountaineers to the top, but that’s not all. There is a side to mountaineering that has nothing to do with the summit, but rather with the experience of living in the mountains.

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You leave behind everything – your possessions, your troubles, and your life, to live fully enveloped in nature, if only for a few days.

Climbers struggle to survive through treacherous conditions just for the moments that make every hardship worth it. They do it for the beautiful sunrise above the clouds, for the star filled sky that portrays the immensity of our universe, for the comradery that is created between climbers as they struggle to test the limits of human endurance, and for the feeling of solitude and isolation only a fierce mountain can create.

There is nothing more physically demanding yet immensely rewarding than moutaineering, and once you have received your first taste of high altitude climbing, there is no going back.

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.

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. High altitude climbing is challenging even for the most experienced mountaineers.

2. Many climbs are difficult, exhausting and unpleasant, but the hardships are immediately forgotten the second you reach the summit.

3. There is much more to high altitude climbing than the physical challenges - climbing allows you to commune with nature and reach the summit of your soul.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

37 Crazy Things I’ve Seen While Traveling Abroad

Traveling abroad has completely shifted my perspective on a lot of things, but what’s changed the most is what it takes to shock me.

When I first started traveling abroad I remember being surprised to see stray dogs and cats just walking around wherever they pleased. I couldn’t believe there was no toilet paper in the bathrooms. I couldn’t believe grown men were peeing on the side of the road like the world was their toilet!

Now all of that stuff feels completely normal, as do a lot of the items on my list below.

So when I say the things I’ve seen are “crazy,” I don’t mean it as a judgment. I just mean crazy to a Westerner who’s never imagined these kinds of things before, let alone experienced them firsthand.

All of these visions have been burned into my mind – some of them are impossibly beautiful, others terrifying, others devastatingly sad. I love each of them because they serve as reminders of my state of mind at each phase of my journey, and through them I’m able to track my own prejudices unraveling.

#1

A mother pulling down her 2-year old son’s pants, positioning him to face me, then flicking his penis with her fingers to make him start peeing. Both of them stared at me somewhat menacingly as he proceeded to relieve himself. [LAOS]

#2

Vietnamese women physically pushing and even punching each other while standing in the ocean in thigh-high rubber boots. Apparently this is a ritual that plays itself out each morning as fishermen bring in their catch from the night before – sort of like MMA fighting meets The Old Man and the Sea. [HOI AN, VIETNAM]

#3

A monkey riding a donkey riding a truck [DA NANG, VIETNAM]

 #4

A man hanging on a suspended wire over an enormous gorge that must’ve been a 1000-meter drop to the river below. He was sitting in a makeshift basket that had been designed as a transportation pod of sorts, and he was pulling himself across the great divide using nothing but the strength of his arms. [NEPAL]

#5

A man transporting 25-foot wooden planks on his motorbike. The tail end of the bundle was propped up on top of a bicycle which was dragged along behind him. [VIETNAM]

#6

Cambodian fisherman casting their nets in the Siem Reap River right next to the spot where construction workers were dumping cement and (presumably) chemicals into that same river. [CAMBODIA]

#7

A Lao woman changing into her bathing sarong right in front of a huge group of foreign tourists, and bathing in the river with her naked sons as if 100 pairs of eyes weren’t watching them. [LAOS]

#8

A very-much-alive pig strapped to the back of a motorbike. The craziest part was that the pig wasn’t squealing in protest. [LAOS]

#9

A Cambodian girl in the laciest, most delicate formal dress imaginable mounting an enormous motorcycle and driving off into the dusty sunset. No one ever looked so much like they were starring in a music video of their own life. [PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA]

traveling-abroad-girl-in-dress#10

A very-much-alive wild bird resting in the hands of a Vietnamese man, who would periodically stretch out its wings to full span, just for fun. The bird did not struggle or squawk or try to get away. I still don’t understand this, it was like he was some sort of bird whisperer. [CAT BA, VIETNAM]

#11

The dismembered, fully-cooked body of an endangered Cat Ba langur right before it was eaten by my Vietnamese friends. [CAT BA, VIETNAM]

#12

Rat’s nests of wires in Nepal that were so tangled and thick they blocked out the sun – and yet still somehow managed to provide electricity 67% of the time. [POKHARA, NEPAL]

#13

Young Khmu village children who had been trained to pose for photos with tourists, and who sat for nearly an hour modeling for our group. Older children who were no longer “cute enough” watched the photo shoot from the sidelines, like cast members of Annie who’d been fired for being too tall. This was perhaps the most disturbing and conflicting thing I’ve seen. [LUANG PRABANG, LAOS]

traveling-abroad-laos

 #14

A Nepalese girl in high heels and a knockout red dress climbing an enormous hill with a bundle of 6-foot long sticks thrust over her shoulder. [NEPAL]

#15

A drunk Nepalese man attempting to stab another man with a butcher knife in the middle of a busy Turkish restaurant in Pokhara, Nepal. [POKHARA, NEPAL]

#16

An infant in Nepal being given a hard candy to eat and a plastic bag to play with. The crazy part was that he neither choked nor suffocated. [VILLAGE NEAR CHITWAN, NEPAL]

Please don't choke on that hard candy little baby!

Please don’t choke on that hard candy little baby!

#17

Monks doing everything you’d think monks shouldn’t do – texting on iPhones, flirting with girls, saying things like “y’know, I won’t be a monk forever” and then winking. [LAOS]

#18

A Nepali woman washing her dishes with clods of dirt (because when there is no soap available, you use….dirt.) [CHITWAN, NEPAL]

#19

A Cambodian man holding what must’ve been 15-feet long, 1-foot wide mirrors upright on the back of a motorbike as he rode in the passenger seat. He held the base and the remaining 13+feet of flimsy mirror flapped back and forth like a skinny palm tree swaying in the breeze, practically hitting other motorists that were driving in front of and behind him. [SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA]

#20

A mama monkey breast feeding her baby monkey at The Monkey Temple in Kathmandu. [KATHMANDU, NEPAL]

 #21

My guest house owner chasing after her 8-year old son with what could only be described as a pitch fork. [CAT BA, VIETNAM]

#22

Wild cows as thin as deer living in the mountains in Laos. [LUANG PRABANG, LAOS]

 

I am not a deer.

I am not a deer.

#23

A man tracking fowl with an “informant chicken.” This back-stabbing chicken had been trained to call the other chickens out of the woods just so his owner could shoot them. [LUANG PRABANG, LAOS]

#24

My trekking guide cutting a foot-long section of bamboo from an enormous shoot and whittling it into a flute in a matter of minutes (I still have the flute and play it sometimes when I’m feeling pensive). [LUANG PRABANG, LAOS]

#25

An entire village of Khmu people gathered in a single room around a single tiny television set. [LUANG PRABANG, LAOS]

#26

A beautiful young woman in a fabulous fuchsia coat riding side saddle on the back of a moving motorbike while reading the daintiest velvet-covered book. I watched as she carefully turned a single page and continued reading, as if she was taking tea in a European drawing room instead riding a moving vehicle in the middle of a crowded highway. [VIETNAM]

#27

Nepali men unloading huge tanks of gas next to a pig roasting over open flames. [POKHARA, NEPAL]

Open flames? Cool, let's unload our tanks of gas here.

Open flames? Cool, let’s unload our tanks of gas here.

#28

Men sleeping on top of sacks of grain that had been piled 30-feet high on the back of a moving truck. [NONG KHIAW, LAOS]

#29

A spa in Cambodia that looked pretty typical at first, with large hanging posters of women getting beauty treatments and enjoying hot stone massages, but upon closer inspection revealed one enormous, framed poster of…..Leonardo DiCaprio (wha??). It was like he was some sort of god, and every treatment was meant to beatify the recipient in preparation to meet Father Leo. [PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA] #random

#30

Two newborn kittens dying in the Cambodian heat, their eyes crusted over with disease. They were so near death that they wouldn’t even drink water. [SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA]

#31

People in a Cambodian fishing village just outside Siem Reap living in thatched, open air huts with no doors, no windows and no possessions. They didn’t even have a mat to sleep on, which meant they had to lie down on the bare wood floor in order to rest. [SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA]

#32

A baby with a distended stomach playing with her healthier brothers and sisters and unconcerned-looking mother. [CAMBODIA]

#33

An Australian man complaining about getting paid $200/month in Cambodia in front of his local colleagues who made $50/month. [CAMBODIA]

#34

Grown men wearing women’s sun hats – pink ones, with flowers. [CHINA, VIETNAM]

#35

A two-year old Vietnamese kid being dressed in girl’s clothing by his parents so they could laugh at him and take pictures. [CAT BA, VIETNAM]

#36

Makeshift gas stations that look like hospital IVs, where the gasoline is stored in clear pouches or bottles and administered to your motorbike as if it was a sick patient. [VIETNAM, CAMBODIA]

#37

An elephant slapping my hand with her trunk. I thought she was giving me a high-five, but she probably just wanted a banana.

What crazy things have you seen while traveling abroad?

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

Since traveling abroad I've seen my fair share of

- public urination

- live animals put into extremely uncomfortable situations

- starving children

- enormous objects being transported by motorbike

- women in pretty dresses doing manual labor

I've also seen a decidedly evil informant chicken whose questionable morality continues to haunt me.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

The Biggest Scam in Nepal

Ten thousand trekkers seem to pass by in the street, their parkas and backpacks and laughter mingling together like an enormous, cackling chorus of mediocre singers who think they’re really good.

The racket crescendos, then fades, and I watch it all through eyes that begin to swim deeper, deeper into the pleasant numbness of this dreadful wine I’m drinking.

A shadow side steps into my vision, a flash of dark denim and tendril-like fingers. Narrow hips face me like two tom cats ready to pounce.

These hips are in my space, they’re blocking my view of my own misery in the street below, they’re…attached to the thinnest waist I’ve ever seen on a man, the broadest shoulders, the longest flower stem-neck, the wettest lips, the darkest eyes….

He rotates his hips in perfect time with the slightest tilt of my head. As my eyes meet his, he reverses the aggressive sidle and backtracks a few feet, taking me in, grinning at my obvious inebriation.

We regard each other, two warriors ready to do battle, one joyfully and one dragged onto the field kicking and screaming. I wanted some company with a normal person, not with this weird skinny guy. Ugh.

“You were here last night. With the glass.”

I have no clue what he’s talking about. With what glass? Is this complete stranger commenting on my drinking habits? Yes, I had a few drinks last night, maybe a glass too many, but who the fuck are YOU to be asking about my –

“The glass, the glass. I don’t recognize you today.”

He compresses his long, marsupial-like fingers into compact claws, and gestures toward his eyes.

He means he doesn’t recognize me tonight because last night, I was wearing my glasses.

I can’t help but grin. “Yes,” I say. “I was here last night, wearing my glasses.”

He’s terribly embarrassed by his mistake.

“GlassES! Yes. You were here with the glassES, over there.”

All he needs to gauge the success of the entire conversation is a single response from me, and I’ve just given it to him.

He becomes gleeful, giddy even, and sidles back into the space directly in front of me as if he’s approached me a thousand times, as if we are continuing a conversation that’s been evolving over centuries.

It’s easy to sidle when you’re that compact a person – he could casually tuck himself into my jacket pocket and we could continue the conversation from there, were he so inclined.

“You were with that guy. Tonight though, tonight you are alone.”

Yap. Thanks for pointing that out.

“Is your first time Nepal?”

Uh-oh. I’m savvy enough to know by now that that question is code for “give me all your money, rich Westerner.” I’m seriously ready to get up from the table, pay my bill and leave. Why does everyone in this country want to be your guide?!

Flower stem either has no idea he’s pissing me off or is having a ball of a time pissing me off, because he continues smiling, giggling, and talking with his hands like a delighted Italian.

Doesn’t he have a bunch of equally offensive Nepalese friends to get back to?

“Is very quiet tonight” he says, gesturing around the dining room. “Last night you here, last night more busy.”

My eyes travel down his neck to the worn collar of his maroon polo shirt and rest upon a tiny, embroidered insignia on his chest…oh my. Oh dear. It seems to be…it is!

A tiny lemon tree.

“You work here?” I ask, astonished that the thought hadn’t occurred to me before.

His chest inflates like a proud pelican, his eyes become a deeper shade of chocolate brown, and the marsupial palm presents the room again with the flourish of a King in his Court:

“I am manager.”

He’s so proud, in fact, that I’m very impressed with his position, and assume it must be one of the noblest professions in all of Nepal to be the manager of a fancy restaurant like The Lemon Tree.

I relax completely – he’s not trying to insult my glasses or chide me for dining alone or get money from me or be my guide – dude is just bored at work.

I order another drink, the few remaining customers leave, and I slip into the conversation like it’s a freshly drawn bath.

On and on we parlay, ping pong balls of delight bouncing back and forth between his pallid, chestnut skin and my flush, fragrant smile.

Wait a second, are we flirting?!

We dance around the topic of getting together outside the restaurant, and what’s left of my guard goes up again. Maybe this whole flirtation is all an elaborate seduction to take my money.

I have to let him know I’m no sucker. This is the second time in 48 hours someone has tried to be my guide, I think, and I really didn’t like it the first time.

“What is your name?” I ask suddenly, boldly, not taking my eyes from his.

He smiles warmly, kindly, enjoying the challenge of speaking with such a brash, rude, sassy foreign girl.

“My name is Deepak” he says, almost forgetting to put “is” in the right place but catching himself at the last minute.

The guy who already tried to be my guide, and who hasn’t stopped calling me since I idiotically gave him my new Nepalese telephone number, is also named Deepak.

I tell Deepak #2 that I’m already wary of that name, and relay the story of Deepak #1. He shakes his head, sympathetic but not surprised.

“Yeah, he try to get the money.”

“But how?” I ask.

Was he going to rob me after hiking up the mountain with me? Invite me to dinner with his family then get my bank account details at gun point?

And does Deepak #2 want to do the same thing?

“No no no, I not want” says Deepak, giggling at my inability to tell a story without acting it out, cartoon-character style.

In a sudden surge of boldness (read: too much Gorkha), I say “Deepak, do you want to be my guide, or do you want to be my date?”

He laughs uproariously at the question, absolutely tickled by it.

“I don’t know!” he giggles, eyes shining with mirth. “Both?”

I instantly trust him. Deepak #1 had insisted, over and over again, that he didn’t want to be my guide, and that he wasn’t looking for money. Deepak #2 didn’t try and fake it – hell, if I wanted to pay him to show me around, great. And if I wanted to sleep with him too, even better.

“How much do you charge?” I ask, pressing him further into this refreshing truth.

“I don’t know, I don’t know” he shakes his head, seemingly a bit overwhelmed with where the conversation has headed.

And somehow, in what may very well end up being the biggest mistake of my life, I am pulling out my phone and taking his number, and even – Jesus Christ – giving him mine.

Hadn’t I learned my lesson from Deepak #1?

Apparently not. I show him how I already have a Deepak listed in my phone, and that I’ll need to find a way to differentiate between him and the guy who’d been harassing me nonstop for the past two days.

“He is the bad Deepak” I say in translator English. “You will be Deepak the Good.

“Yes” he nods, smiling as I enter his number – and that noble name complete with Knight-like title –  into my iPhone

We regard each other, a bit giddy. I try to be cool but he doesn’t care, openly letting me see that his heart is racing and he’s so excited and he can’t believe we’ve been talking and he really can’t believe he just got my number.

I feel beautiful, and young, and float out of the restaurant onto the darkened street below, my path lit by a few small fires smoldering in metal barrels.

He may never call, or he may call 1000 times and end up creepier than Deepak #1. But for a few precious minutes, I feel warm, hopeful, and finally at home.

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!

 

photo credit: media-cdn.tripadvisor.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

1. If someone in Nepal says they're not trying to be your guide, they are most definitely trying to be your guide.

2. Not all Deepaks are created equal

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

Guest Post: My Night in an Indian Slum

“The core of mans’ spirit comes from new experiences.”

Those damn rats! Their tiny pitter-patter is multiplied into a roaring thunder, at least to my sleep deprived brain, as they scurry to and fro on the tin metal roof above my head.

They have kept me awake all night, though I silently acknowledge that they aren’t the only reason I can’t sleep. There is also a passed-out drunk Indian lady curled up half-on half-off the blanket we are using as a bed, and someone is rattling the scrap piece of metal that doubles as a door to the shack next to mine.

I am sleeping in an Indian slum, one of the last places in India you would expect to find a young Western girl who is traveling solo.

Indian-slum-1

I didn’t exactly plan to be sleeping here, but I can’t really say I’m all that surprised either. I have been taken in by countless Indian families throughout the last few months, so why not experience life in a slum if the opportunity arises?

After all, it’s just a different kind of home. And thank goodness I’m here. Though I’m not exactly sleeping in my current arrangement, it is far better than being stuck on the side of the road with nowhere to go, which was the position I was in the yesterday evening when the girl approached me.

She was young but confident, sporting short hair and an absolutely radiant smile. She asked me, signaling with her hands as neither of us spoke each other’s languages, if she could ride my bike, and I somewhat hesitantly agreed.

It was late in the evening and I had yet to find a hotel or flat piece of land for my tent, but I figured I might as well let this girl have some fun while I was deciding where to go.

indian-slum-2

She had obviously never ridden a bike before, so after she climbed onto the seat I pushed her around, a difficult feat considering my bike was already fully loaded with all of my gear.

Pretty soon her younger sister, who had been watching us shyly from the side of the road, came over for a closer look. I helped her onto the bike as well, and began pushing them both to their home across the street, where a lady was waiting in front of six or seven tin shacks that had been built alongside the road.

I was surprised to see this women and her children here because I knew these to be the makeshift homes of construction workers. I passed these workers, predominately men, on a daily basis as I made my way along these treacherous mountain roads, which are always in need of maintenance due to snowfall and landslides.

The construction crews work all day, breaking the large rocks into smaller ones with a hammer before carrying the heavy loads in a basket on their backs. They spend their days in the beating sun, breathing in the pollution and dust from the passing trucks while putting themselves in danger of being hit.

indian-slum-3

It is difficult and dangerous work – road workers in India have a very low life expectancy. The woman, who turned out to be the girls’ mother, was herself a worker on these roads. She smiled slightly as I approached with her children and quickly invited me into her home for tea.

As I was sitting in their small shack, a one bedroom contraption that looked like it would fall over with the slightest wind, the girl who approached me first signaled that she wanted me to sleep with her tonight.

I looked at the mother unsure of how to answer until she gave her approval with a nod. Though there were already five people living in the hut, I knew we would make it work.

One of the neighbors, an older lady who had watched me arrive with the children, came over and laughed with me as I struggled to answer her questions in Hindi. After a few minutes she pulled me up from where I was squatting with the others by the fire and led me into another room.

This space seemed to be a communal shack with the dual purpose of a kitchen and shower. There were a few pots and pans on one side, and a lady squatting in the corner with a bucket of water and soap on the other.  Needless to say, she was very surprised to have a Westerner interrupt her shower!

indian-slum-4

The lady who had pulled me into the “bathroom” made me strip as she unraveled a beautiful cloth I have come to know as a sari. She wrapped it around me, giggling all the while as she redid it multiple times until it was perfect. She then added oil to my hair and pulled it back tightly.

I was at last ready to be presented, so we marched around the small compound as everyone admired my transformation into an Indian girl.

Just then, as I was parading around in my sari, a note arrived: “Send the girl down here. We need to talk.”

I had no idea who or where this note came from, nor was I excited to find out. One of the women escorted me down the hill and into a small building where three men in their thirties were drinking tea. Apparently these men were the heads of the construction project these families belong to, and they wasted no time explaining that they were in charge.

indian-slum-5

They asked me why I was here, and who I was with, but in reality all they wanted was to look at my Facebook profile. After leaving them a fake name I quickly excused myself to join the two children who, much to my relief, had followed me down.

I headed back up for dinner, which was rice and dal like everywhere else in India, before following the older lady into her shack. There was more room there than with the girl and her family, so I laid down and tried to ignore the drunk men (and much to my surprise, women) outside.

In the morning I pedaled away just after sunrise as everyone was leaving for work. There were young ladies, no older than me, who jumped into the back of pickup trucks with small children strapped to their backs.

Though these families have hard lives, they wasted no time inviting me into their home, feeding me, and giving me a safe place to spend the night.

All through India the rich warned me to be careful around the poor, uneducated population, and yet it’s been the poor and the uneducated – those with the least to give – who have ended up helping me time and time again.

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

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

"All through India the rich warned me to be careful around the poor, uneducated population, and yet it's been the poor and the uneducated - those with the least to give - who have ended up helping me time and time again."

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

A Crab-Dancing Couple and 2 Suitcases from Hell

Land of the friendly, home of the saved

It’s been said that travel is “fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness” (that’s Mark Twain, friends!).

I have found this to be true time and time again in my travels.

It only takes a step or two off the plane to see that many of our deeply entrenched cultural stereotypes are completely false, to the point where I don’t even know where they came from in the first place.

Stereotypes like…

  • “French people are rude” (I’ve yet to meet one who wasn’t classy, gracious, and suspiciously good-looking)
  • “The English are stuffy” (um, go to a bar in London. Any bar.)
  • “New Yorkers are mean” (like the cab driver who stopped in the middle of a traffic-choked intersection because I had dropped my glove?! And didn’t drive off until I had picked it up? Mean like that?)

It goes both ways, too. I take care to be less fat, dumb, monolingual and ignorant whenever I tell someone I’m American, but our reputation tends to precede us, making it difficult to pierce through people’s preconceived notions.

Rachel Maddow!” I sputter in protest whenever someone accuses us of being dumb. “Any celebrity!” I sputter when someone points out our rampant obesity.

But I digress. The point is that most cultures in the world don’t live up to their reputations – for better or worse.

Except the Taiwanese.

August, 2012

The steamy embrace of the sultry Taipei night envelops me as I emerge from the icy airport. It’s been an intense couple of days, with first-timer-in-Asia shock slapping me upside the head the second I land in Shanghai.

I’m standing near a friendly young couple who chats with me a bit in English and asks me where I’m headed.

I show them a piece of paper with my hostel’s name, and they smile and nod. Maybe they’re just being polite, but I assume the nodding means that my hostel does indeed exist, and that it is hand’s down the best hostel in all of Taipei. I feel relieved.

A bus pulls up. I automatically assume it must be mine, what with me standing right there and everything, and begin to lug my cumbersome suitcases towards the luggage compartment.

The couple moves like a crab, their bodies a single unit scuttling toward me. They shake their heads vigorously and block my way. This is not my bus.

They repeat this crab-dance for the next 4 buses that pull up, and I’m beginning to worry that maybe they didn’t understand where I’m going after all.

Just when I’m starting to feel hopelessly lost again, a fifth bus pulls up, and they gesture to me to get on.

I would’ve absolutely gotten on the wrong bus and been shuttled into the belly of a massive, sprawling foreign city had it not been for this couple.

As if that isn’t enough, they continue an abbreviated version of the crab dance on the bus itself, not letting me get off until they get off (thank God we happened to have the same stop!)

They then proceed to escort me 3 very counterintuitive blocks to my hostel, which is tucked away in some random alley south of the train station (how would I have found it without them? I am completely unprepared!).

The guy actually carries one of my suitcases while his tiny girlfriend offers moral support – she doesn’t seem in the slightest bit miffed that I have completely disrupted their evening with my foreignness.

When it is discovered that my hostel is on the third story of this back alley building, the gentleman crab carries my suitcases up the stairs for me.

It’s all I can do not to embrace him in gratitude, and since it’s late and I’ve traveled so far and I realize I would be (literally) lost without him, I’m unable to fight the urge and wrap him in a giant bear hug.

He blushes fiercely, terribly embarrassed, and I know in that moment not to do something like that again to someone I’ve just met (and certainly not in public!).

Swimming in Gratitude

The entirety of my brief time in Taipei was filled with occurrences equal to “the crab couple incident” in terms of generosity and kindness.

I’ll never forget…

  • the girl who approached me in the train station because I looked hopelessly lost, and made sure I got on the right train
  • the man who helped me lift my enormous suitcases onto said train and then proceeded to hold them up so they wouldn’t fall during the entire ride to Chang hua
  • the grandmother who sat down next to me in a busy mall food court and promptly divided her entire lunch in half to share with me (and then, when I tried to reciprocate, refused the offer with a kind smile)

I was swimming in gratitude for 72 hours straight as I slowly realized people weren’t putting on airs, or trying to get something from me, or playing out some sort of citywide “be nice to the tourists” campaign.

They really are that nice.

Kindness and generosity have been woven into the fabric of who they are as a people, making Taiwan hands-down one of the friendliest countries in the world.

I’ll never forget the crab couple, those slickly-dressed angels who seem to have been sent down from heaven just so I’d be a little less afraid. They ushered me into a sweltering city of warmth and made sure I wasn’t swallowed whole in the heat of newness.

Thank you, Taiwan, for your authenticity, your refreshing kindness, your unparalleled understanding of what it means to be human.

And to the crab couple, wherever you are, may your lives be filled with exponential kindnesses that dwarf those you showed me on that sultry August night.

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. The French are not rude.

2. Brits are not stuffy.

3. Americans are not (that) dumb.

4. New Yorkers are not mean.

5. Yes - Taiwan really and truly is one of the friendliest countries in the world.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

How I Live Abroad on $662 a Month

Um. That's the view from my room.

Right now I live abroad on a tiny island off the coast of Northern Vietnam, and my monthly expenditures total about $662 – for everything.

After spending 4 months straight traveling nonstop throughout Asia (while working full time, mind you!) I needed to recover, recoup, and stay put for a hot second.

That also meant I needed to choose a place where it was easy to get a visa, easy to find affordable accommodation, and easy to save money for future travels later this year.

Vietnam was the 3rd country I’d visited in as many months, but by the time I crossed over into Cambodia from Chau Doc in the Mekong Delta region, I was not ready to leave.

The country was so vast, so varied, so rich and diverse that one month wasn’t enough to begin to scratch the surface of all Vietnam had to offer.

A room with a view

A room with a view

My original plan had been to move on to Thailand as soon as my Cambodian visa expired, but as my days in Siem Reap came to a close, I felt called back to Cat Ba.

Cat Ba is an island off the Northern Coast of Vietnam. Its craggly limestone cliffs are perhaps the most photographed natural phenomenon in the world – I’m actually looking at them out my window as I write this sentence.

Cat Ba Town is a small fishing village on the southern side of the island. In the past decade, it’s been built up ferociously to cater to hordes of Vietnamese tourists who descend upon the island in massive droves each year beginning in June.

I mean, it's just stupid.

I mean, it’s just stupid.

But the town itself is anything but touristy. There’s not much to do here, besides take a boat tour of Ha Long Bay, rent a motorbike and explore the surrounding hillsides, or hike up to Canon Fort for breathtaking views of the East China Sea (sorry to my Vietnamese friends – the East Sea.)

Saigon was more exciting, Da Nang had better beaches, and Hoi An positively dripped with charm. Besides, there were so many places I hadn’t yet been to in Vietnam – Da Lat, Sa Pa, Hue, Nah Trang…the list of “don’t miss” places I had missed the first time around was extensive.

So why return to a place I’d already been?

A fisherman rowing his boat with his feet

A fisherman rowing his boat with his feet

Because in addition to being beautiful in a dark, romantic, even tragic kind of way, and in addition to great weather, and in addition to being home to some of the friendliest locals I’ve encountered on my journey, Cat Ba is friggin’ CHEAP.

And this is coming from someone who just spent a month in Nepal, one of the cheapest countries in the world for budget travelers.

I don’t consider myself a backpacker, and I don’t go out of my way to spend as little as possible. I work as I travel, so I’m not on a fixed income and I can always make more money if need be.

That's me, out on the boat.

That’s me, out on the boat.

I get private rooms instead of dorm rooms, I mix street food with restaurant fare, and if I can afford it and it’ll save me time, I’m quick to opt for a plane over a bus ticket.

But Cat Ba is so cheap, you automatically become a budget traveler without even trying.

The first time I stayed here, I rented a room at the Alibaba Hotel, which is on the main road facing the harbor. My high-rise, ocean-view room with en suite bathroom and two double beds cost $5/night.

I wondered if I could get it for cheaper. Not because I can’t afford $5/night, but because ever since I met some professional budget travelers in Nepal, I realized what a fun game budget travel can be.

My friends would one up each other constantly, asking “How much is your guest house?” And then, “Oh yeah? Well my guest house is only $2 a night, and I have hot water!

Kayaking, anyone?

Kayaking, anyone?

I knew I planned to stay in Cat Ba long-term (which, in travel terms, is anything longer than a few days’ stay). I wrote to the guest house owner and asked what he could do for me.

Here was his offer:

$3/night during the month of April

$9/night during the “high season” of May and June

He actually apologized to me for tripling the price, explaining that it was very busy during that time, and that “regular” customers would be charged $40/night.

Wowza!

That makes my monthly rent average out to $216/month.

Did I mention there are 3 beaches within walking distance of my hotel?

Did I mention there are 3 beaches within walking distance of my hotel?

As if that weren’t awesome enough, everything else on Cat Ba is cheap too.

I spend about $12/day on food and drink, and could easily spend less if I chose cheaper restaurants. (alas, I’m a sucker for ambiance. And dynamite spring rolls.)

That brings us to $588 for rent and food. So what other expenses do I have?

  • I pay nothing for utilities since those are included in the hotel room (hot water, electricity, WiFi, etc.).
  • I pay nothing for transportation because the town is small enough to walk anywhere, or I can hop on a motortaxi for a few thousand dong.
  • I spend about $10/month on things like shampoo, soap, and other toiletries.
  • I spend 100,000 dong (about $5) per month on a prepaid data plan for my cell phone. This comes in handy when the power goes out and there is no WiFi.
  • Visa fees: I paid $130 for a three-month Vietnam visa, which averages out to about $43/month.
  • I spend roughly $6/month on laundry

Grand Total: $662

i-live-abroad-6

Now, if I had no debt or other bills to pay back home, I could truly live a backpacker lifestyle in Cat Ba.

Unfortunately I have a big fat student loan payment that’s due each month, plus credit card debt and other expenses related to running this site.

But only having to spend $662 to live allows me to focus on writing my book and running this website.

If you’re looking to pay off debt while living a great quality of life in one of the most beautiful places on earth, I can’t recommend Cat Ba enough.

But if you do decide to come here, don’t tell anyone else, ok? I don’t want this place to lose its small town charm and become another Luang Prabang.

If you’re coming to Cat Ba, hit me up! Write to me and let me know if you want to stay at Alibaba’s too. I will speak with Mr. Ba and see what kind of discount I can get you!

Would you live abroad if it meant your could save hundreds, even thousands of dollars per month?

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. When looking to live cheap abroad, it's all about location.

2. There are cheap places just about everywhere - Vietnam isn't considered the cheapest place in SE Asia by any means, and yet it's been even cheaper to stay here than in Nepal.

3. Make friends with locals! Many people will give you a discount if you return to their hotel a second time, or if you're staying long-term.

4. Places that are slightly less touristy and difficult to get to will always be cheaper (but not less beautiful!)

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

Yak Cheese Balls with a Side of Loneliness

Lake Phewa/Fewa/Fua in Pokhara, Nepal

If I’m not careful, I might end up staying in this room forever.

Why leave this cozy haven, with its beautiful view of Fishtail Mountain, just to seek the outdoors? I am already bombarded by nature in all her glory from the welcome confines of my humbly-upholstered chair.

Bright fuchsia flowers wave playfully just outside my window, infusing my soul with the wonders of natural Nepal. Exquisite visions of mountain peaks hold fast to my right, while a lush rooftop garden rustles to my left.

“I’m not moving a muscle” I think, as I finish a steaming pot of sweet milk tea. But it’s my first day in town, and whether I like it or not, the city of Pokhara begins to beckon.

I stubbornly extract myself from “the writer’s room,” somewhat reluctant to perform what’s become a regular ritual in each new city I visit.

The first thing I do when I get to a new town – any new town – is walk around and get lost. I never take a map on the first day, and only ask for directions in the most general sense.

Today I ask Hari, my guest house owner, how to get to the lake – the sparkling blue lake I’d seen in so many pictures, the lake that is surrounded by snow-capped peaks, the lake that looks like someone plopped a chunk of Switzerland down right in the middle of Nepal.

“Very easy” says Hari, giving me directions to Lake Fewa (AKA Lake Phewa, Phewa Lake, Lake Fua, or however else one feels like spelling it given one’s mood that day). “Just follow the road.”

That certainly does sound easy. I’ve booked this hotel because of it’s proximity to the lake, which Hari promises to be just a five minute walk away.

I follow the winding road west, walking past narrow, colorful hotels and one-story cement homes.

Women work in their muddy front yards, taking pick-axes to the soil in bare feet and bright skirts. Shop owners and children stare at me as I walk past, or perhaps it just feels that way. I don’t see any other foreigners on the road – I barely see any other people.

The gravel veers sharply to the right and I’m suddenly thrust toward a main thoroughfare. Restaurants and bars begin to replace the hotels, and shop owners call to me to come look at their souvenirs.

Every other storefront seems to be home to a trekking company that offers bus tickets, organized tours, hiking, biking, boating, motorcycle rentals…absolute heaven for adventure travelers and outdoorsy types.

I arrive at the main road that runs along the lake – the aptly-named Lakeside Drive – and grin in appreciation of how the Nepalese people like to keep things simple.

The street is choked with rooftop restaurants, souvenir shops, merchants selling precious linens and silks, and signs boasting everything from lakeside seating to live music.

Backpackers, Westerners, and large groups of Chinese tourists dodge racing motorbikes and taxi cat calls. It is warm and sunny, and while I’m tempted to sample one of the many yak-themed dishes offered on every restaurant sign (yak cheese balls! yak cheese pasta! yak!), I have a single goal in mind: find the lake.

Lakeside Drive in Pokhara

Lakeside Drive in Pokhara

I must be close, since every other sign I pass seems to point toward the lake, but each alleyway leads me astray. I continue walking north along Lakeside Drive, hoping there will be an obvious opening and I’ll be lead to the placid promised land.

Fishtail Mountain is my guiding star, standing steadfast above the intricate nets of tangled electrical wiring that somehow powers the city (well, kind of).

A glance toward the sky fills my vision with a decidedly Nepalese triumvirate  – impossibly high mountain peaks, rat’s nests of wires, and the remnants of brightly colored, tattered flags.

The flags and the wires are strewn across the horizon and serve to remind the viewer that no matter how pristine those peaks, no matter how much English is written and spoken everywhere, no matter how many dread-locked Dutch guys you see, you are still very much in Nepal.

I’ve been walking for way too long with no lake in sight, so I decide to take the next left no matter what. The lake looked pretty big in those pictures – it’s not like I’ve somehow missed it, right?

I spy a shock of bubbling blue peaking through a hole in a distant fence, and I move toward it.

It’s the lake! Well, it’s the lake, kind of.

pokhara-3

I wind along a concrete path that wraps around private homes. The front yard of each home is made of water instead of earth, and hundreds of fish wriggle inside homemade nets, creating a row of miniature fish farms.

The metal fence that stretches along this path finally offers a checkered view of Lake Fewa.

The mountains are not snow-capped, but green, and it’s a bit hazy out, and I can’t get as close to the shore as I’d like, but there it is – the reason to build a town. The reason to journey 7,685 miles around the world. The reason to believe in a benevolent creator.

Lake Fewa is set against the mountains like a drawing, like a child’s idea of Eden. It is positively idyllic, with rolling hills and rocky peaks serving as the perfectly-shaped backdrop to an enormous, shiny blue pond.

The undulating earth hugs the lake in a crescent embrace, shielding it from the impossible peaks beyond.

The entire town of Pokhara seems to fall under the protection of this half-moon, which  towers over the hustle and bustle with a calming, fatherly presence.

Pokhara-4

I press my face against the fence like a five-year old at a baseball game, wondering how the hell I can get closer to the majesty. I want to sink into the view, to tumble into the painting and lose myself until I become one with the vision.

“Where are you from?”

Godammit. I’m starting to hate that question more than I hate people who chew gum with their mouths open (YOU LOOK LIKE A COW. STOP IT.).

The poser of the question is a bespectacled Nepalese student with the eager air of a salesclerk who works on commission.

I never know how to answer the question “Where are you from?” since I’ve been a nomad within my own country for so many years. Do I say the U.S.? Wisconsin? California? Los Angeles? Miami by way of Syracuse by way of North Carolina?

I mutter what I usually mutter when traveling abroad, because it’s just easier than going into the whole story, and because it seems to be a name most non-native English speakers recognize:

“California,” I say, and attempt to get back to the spectacular view.

But four-eyes is one eager beaver, and sidles up to continue a conversation I don’t want to begin.

“Is your first time Nepal? I show you around. I am a student. I study English here in Pokhara. You don’t know where to go, I help you.”

The look on my face must be screaming “Leave me alone you big scammer!” because four-eyes flails his hands in front of his body in protest.

“No no no, I not guide! I not want money! I want help you, you don’t know.”

I’m unsure of how to get out of this awkward situation, since his offer to help me find things is completely appropriate – I mean, I couldn’t even find the lake when it’s right there.

Pokhara-4

“I friend to you, you no pay money. I take you to the stupa. I show you around Pokhara. You meet my mother, you eat with my family.”

And then I do a thing that is so completely stupid, so ridiculous, so the opposite of what I want to do, that it’s almost as if an invasive, invisible entity is pulling out my iPhone and beginning to type…

I’m taking down Four Eyes’ phone number, and worse, I’m giving him mine.

Why would I do that, you ask? Because I am physically unable to do anything that even faintly reeks of rudeness. I would rather shoot myself in the foot – literally – than be rude. And somehow, in my mind, I equate not giving someone what they want with being impolite. It’s a terrible quality and I struggle with it daily.

What’s more, I’m suddenly very, very lonely.

There is nothing more isolating than longing for connection while traveling only to have the first person you speak with try to pull one over on you.

Maybe if I give him my phone number he’ll leave me alone. Maybe if I give him my phone number he’ll end up being really cool, and I’ll realize I was wrong about him, and we’ll turn out to be best friends. I mean, I don’t have a particularly bad feeling about him, but I also have no intention of hiring him to be my guide or going to eat dahl bat with his mother.

And because I’m a passive-aggressive-moron-idiot who can’t just say no when she means no, I give him my real phone number to boot. (I’ve never understood giving someone you might bump into again a fake phone number. How awkward.)

“What is your name?” I ask, so I’ll know who I’m hanging up on when he calls.

“Deepak” he smiles, shaking my hand vigorously. “I call you soon, we go tomorrow to stupa.”

“I can’t go tomorrow, I’m working” I protest.

“Ok. We go tomorrow. I call you soon.”

And he does. Over and over and over again beginning exactly one hour after I’ve left the lake, until I’m forced to edit his name in my phone to read “Deepak Don’t Answer.”

The best cure for lonliness in Nepal - Yak cheese balls

The best cure for loneliness in Nepal – Yak cheese balls

With each harassing ring I feel more and more alone. Is everyone in this country just out to take advantage of me?

I drown my sorrows in a plate of yak cheese balls at a lone table in the Monsoon restaurant while the staff watches cricket on a rickety television set. The meal is steaming and delicious, but it’s not enough to temper the utter isolation that suddenly permeates my heart.

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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My Scariest Moment as a Solo Female Traveler

“Destined to be an old women with no regrets.”

I hear the sound of an engine cut out and see a motorcycle parked up above. They are back.

Panic fills me as I grab a few rocks from the ground. I see him approach. He is staring at me intently without any hint of emotion, the exact same way all Indian men look at me.

I feel naked, and his greedy eyes undress me as he gets closer. I quickly run up the small hill I had climbed down moments before for a pee break.

I say “go away,” again, as fiercely as I can, and hold up my rock. He doesn’t come closer, but he doesn’t back away either.

I reach the top of the hill and see his friend, who has parked his motorcycle by my bike. He has that same nasty cold-blooded look in his eyes. I feel my insides shrivel as anger rises up inside of me.

There is no doubt in my mind about what they are planning to do to me, and I have never been so afraid in my life.

India's children: a reminder of Heaven

India’s children: a reminder of Heaven

I grab my bike and quickly pedal away, unsure of how to proceed. They pass by me, staring as they always do. I hope they are gone for good this time –  I have been playing this scary game of cat and mouse for forty minutes now.

I’m at least twenty kilometers out from the main highway, trapped on a small road I thought would be a shortcut. “A shortcut to hell,” I think to myself now.

And that’s when I see them, six of them. They have multiplied. The two men who have been following me have brought reinforcements. Their three motorcycles are parked by the side of the road and they are all waiting for me to pass.

I stop. There are too many of them, they can easily overpower me. One starts to approach me and my heart beats faster inside my chest, I am trapped.

I beg the next couple who pass on a motorbike to stop.

“Help, help me, please!”

I am lucky, there is a women on board, a rare sight in this part of India. And she speaks enough English to translate. I quickly explain my situation as the pack approaches. She tells them to go away but it is no use, they look at her with that same slimy look they give to all women. We aren’t respected here, we are second-class, unworthy. Disposable. I have never felt so angry.

The Sikh people were Shirine's saviors time and time again

The Sikh people were Shirine’s saviors time and time again

She flags down the next older gentleman who passes. Like her driver, he wears a turban that shows he is Sikh, a gentle group of people I have come to trust and respect throughout my stay in India. She explains to him that I need an escort and he readily agrees. My followers are dispersing now, they realize their fun has been ruined.

I follow the man for a few kilometers before he speaks. He tries to ask me in Hindi where I am going, and I struggle to explain that I don’t know. It’s 5pm and almost dark out. I have never been caught this late without a place to sleep, and given my last hour of hell, there is no way I’m sleeping in my tent tonight.

He signals me to follow him to his house and I immediately feel relieved, I have a place to stay. He is kind and gentle, the type of man any child would be proud to call their grandfather. I arrive at his house were his wife, daughter, and granddaughter are surprised yet elated to greet me. I am saved, and within the next few days, I will find heaven in hell.

They serve me a cup of steaming chia before I even have time to change out of my dusty cycling clothes. A neighborhood child peers over the fence, shy yet curious about this newly arrived Westerner. The family later tells me that they have never spoken to a white girl before.

solo-female-traveler

No one speaks English, but as always, I get by with a few words of Hindi and a lot of charades. They invite me to eat dinner, a meal of delicious Indian curry and rice, before taking me next door to meet the neighbors. I am proudly shown off to everyone in this small village, and pretty soon, they have all demanded that I spend at least one night with each of the different families.

As I sit on the ground next to the ladies they talk and laugh, and though I love seeing their smiling faces, it is hard not being able to understand what they say. I get up and find the children instead as language is never a barrier with them.

They warm up to me quickly and within minutes I have one on my back, and a child grabbing each hand. They show me their rice fields and their cows, and I stop to play with the smallest calf. He is soft, only a few weeks old, and nuzzles me to pet him. I’m in heaven, surrounded by playful children, laughing women, and a cuddly cow.

My anger slowly fades as I spend the next few days enjoying this family’s hospitality. I take a motorbike ride through the rice fields and taste my first stalk of fresh sugar cane. I spend hours with the children, and find myself happily in charge of the one year old granddaughter.

I sleep every night with the grandma, an arrangement I am more than used to now after staying with countless families as a solo female traveler.

The neighbors come over and I am ordered (nicely) to visit them daily. They are all incredibly hospitable, handing me cups of hot tea and different traditional dishes at each and every visit. It is overwhelming at times, the sheer hospitality and kindness, but every minute of overwhelm is worth bearing because of the amazing experiences I come away with.

solo-female-traveler

After four days I decide it is time for me to continue on my way. They beg me to stay, but eventually relent and let me ride out with two of the men as an escort.

The girls hand me beautiful earrings and necklaces as I leave, and though I am trying to thank them, they end up thanking me. They have relatives forty kilometers away and have already arranged for me to stay with them for the following few nights.

I arrive at my next homestay to find a beautiful sixteen year old girl who speaks nearly perfect English because she attends a private English boarding school. She shows me around, tells me about her secret boyfriend, and immediately makes me feel like family.

I cook with the oldest sister, go out with the teenager and her friends, and visit the Sikh temple with the whole family. Once again I am treated like a queen. I stay a few more days before eventually heading out. They are worried about me so I promise to find a pay phone and call them that night. When I do, they tell me they miss me and that I should give up my bike journey to live with them. I have never felt so welcomed in any other country.

India. It’s heaven and it’s hell, and you are sure to experience both journeying as a solo female traveler.

You will see the savage brutality of inequality and you will learn to stand proud as a woman. You are sure to be taken in as a daughter, friend, and sister by countless amazing families.

I have stayed in a slum, with multiple farming families in the villages, and with wealthy families in different cities. In each and every home I was treated like a queen. Go out and experience it for yourself. It’s worth going through hell to get to heaven.

Shirine Taylor is a 20-year old solo female traveler cycling around the world, and a regular contributor to The Happy Passport.

This post originally appeared on Shirine’s blog, awanderingphoto.wordpress.com.

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. Shirine was almost the victim of a gang rape in India.

2. She was rescued by a Sikh family who took her in and protected her.

3. India is both heaven and hell for solo female travelers.

4. Even though she endured one of the scariest moments of her life, Shirine wouldn't trade her time in India for anything and still recommends other solo female travelers visit India.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

Digital Nomad Dream: A Room with a View

I arrive at the Harvest Moon Pokhara Guest House in Pokhara, Nepal, after spending a very bumpy 7 hours on a tourist bus from Kathmandu.

It is Wednesday, about 3pm, and the taxi drops me off at a flower-drenched bungalow of a home, a two-story L-shaped affair that you’d never know was a hotel except for a single hand-painted sign sighing in the mountain breeze.

After the dirt and noise and pollution of Kathmandu, Pokhara has already proven itself to be the peaceful, clean(er), spiritual ski lodge oasis I’d been promised by some random Australian guy in an Internet cafe.

If the quiet streets surrounding Pokhara’s main tourist area are a refuge from the big city, then the Harvest Moon is a veritable bunker of well-being: rich pink flowers and shiny green leaves rustle in the breeze, their lush offerings turning the second story abode into a protected jungle-garden.

No other hotel on the street looks anything like it, and I get the impression that it’s the flowers themselves that serve as a protective force-field against the noise of the world.

I’m welcomed by the owner’s son Kshitiz, a painfully shy student of 19, and am promptly offered a tour of the place with much smiling and nodding and “Namaste”-ing.

The first floor lobby is the family’s living room, which lies open to the street so the cool mountain air can mingle with the scent of ever-burning incense.

A rooftop patio offers views of the surrounding mountains – to the Southwest I can see the World Peace Pagoda, affectionately nicknamed “the stupa” by locals. It’s possible to see the rounded dome of the enormous structure atop a 1,000 meter hill, and I marvel at how it watches over the city like an amiable guard dog.

View from the Harvest Moon Rooftop - Clouds roll in over Pokhara

View from the Harvest Moon Rooftop – Clouds roll in over Pokhara

After the tour, which takes all of 2 minutes, Kshitiz carries my bag to a second story room that is pressed so far back from the street, it must be playing hide and seek with the rest of the town. The outdoor hallway leading to my door is so saturated with flora, it feels like a terrace one might walk down in order to meet a waiting groom.

Somewhere deep in the bowels of history, a 17th century librarian is missing the key to her traveling trunk. It is with this archaic, cartoonish-looking key that Kshitiz opens the door to my waiting room. And it is because of this very key and its portal-opening capabilities that I am suddenly breathless.

I don’t worry about tipping Kshitiz right now – I’ll have plenty of time for that during the next three weeks of my stay. I thank him and shut the door gently before I attempt to regain my breath.

Terrified that it’s all a mirage, I squeeze my eyes shut and slowly turn from the door to face the room once more.

Welcome to the Harvest Moon

Welcome to the Harvest Moon

I open my eyes and the room is still there, every molecule in place. As I realize that it’s not just a mirage, a squeal of delight escapes me, bouncing off the freshly painted walls like a flying squirrel. Kshitiz probably just heard the shriek but I don’t care – such a beautiful room deserves nothing less than a vocal celebration.

When you’re a digital nomad, the only thing more important than a strong WiFi signal is your room. The room is everything – it’s your office, your creative haven, the place where the magic happens.

If the room sucks, your work will suck. If your works sucks, you don’t eat.

I have to have somewhere quiet, somewhere I won’t be interrupted, and somewhere with a window. It need not be big, and it need not even have a bathroom, but it must be all mine and it must facilitate motivated concentration. If it can inspire with a brilliant view or sparkle with feel-good energy, all the better.

But this room…..this room is other-worldly.

Garden view from Harvest Moon, Pokhara

Garden view from Harvest Moon, Pokhara

There is an enormous double bed with a comforter neatly folded to one side, as is the custom in Nepal. A beautiful, dark wood bed frame hugs the mattress. It has built-in cubby holes, each with a lock and key to store valuables.

I notice sturdy locks on each of the windows, and another enormous bureau with additional lock and key – have they had many problems with theft? I find it difficult to imagine that a place as perfect as Pokhara could ever fall victim to any sort of crime, but I vow to stash my valuables whenever I leave the room, just in case.

I have my own en suite bathroom in Pepto-Bismol pink, and there is even a “work area” where I can write – two leather chairs are gathered around a small bureau, creating an ideal office space that lies smack dab between two – TWO! – sparkling windows.

The room.

The room.

What have I done to deserve this room?!

My “office window” faces south and looks out over the garden pathway and into the yard below. From here I can see the owner’s wife, Shova, bless the yard each morning with prayers and incense as she happily hums her “Hindi song.”

And then there is the window that faces northwest.

From where I sit at my makeshift desk, the northwest window serves as a picture-perfect frame of Fishtail Mountain – that same glorious vision that defines the landscape and feeling of Pokhara for all who journey here.

I can sit in the same spot all day, writing and working, and watch as each minute is measured by the various moods of this mountain beauty. I can tell which jacket I should wear based on how the clouds hang around her neck. I make plans for the day based on whether or not I can see the top of her head in the morning.

View of Fishtail Mountain from the Harvest Moon Guesthouse

View of Fishtail Mountain from the Harvest Moon Guesthouse

At each break, every interval, every moment of frustration or joy, I am always accompanied by her, always watched over.

My room is known by the family as the “writer’s room” as I’m eventually told by Hari, the owner of the guest house.

I could stay here all day. I could stay here forever.

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. The Harvest Moon Pokhara Guest House is an oasis of awesome in Pokhara, Nepal.

2. As a digital nomad I always look for 3 things in a hotel room: strong WiFi in the room, privacy/quiet, and a window.

3. The better the room, the better your work will be. Having a stunning view, lots of light, multiple windows and gorgeous natural surroundings will help you thrive creatively, and help you work quickly so you can go out and see stuff when you're finished!

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

Travel Alone Vs Travel Partner

When people find out I travel alone, it usually goes something like this:

A well-meaning stranger, more often than not my guest house owner or waitress, cocks her head to one side and furrows her brow.

“Are you……alone?” she asks, every-so-slightly horrified and bracing herself for the answer she doesn’t want to hear.

I’m used to this question by now, just like I’m used to being asked how old I am, whether or not I’m married, and how much money I make (usually by people I’ve only just met and usually in that exact order).

“Yes!” I respond to her question, taking great care to demonstrate how very-much-OK I am with the fact that I travel alone.

And then, a funny thing happens.

Her head un-cocks, her eyebrows reach for her hairline like invigorated caterpillars, and her eyes widen in relief.

She can see that not only am I fine with solo travel – I relish it. I wouldn’t have it any other way, and because I’m so comfortable with it, she can be too.

The best response I ever got after answering “Are you alone?” with a resounding “Yes!,” was from a woman in Laos named Kam Phan (when I asked her how to spell her name, she pondered the question a moment before replying “You know what? I have no idea.”)

When Kam Phan (or Cam Fan, or Qam Fhahn) found out I was traveling solo, and was staying in one of her big, beautiful riverside bungalows all by myself, she threw her head back and laughed and laughed.

“Very good!” she exclaimed, wiping away mirthful tears that had collected in the corners of her eyes.

“Just one?” she asked again, wanting to be sure.

“Just one” I said.

“One is better” she nodded. “Sleep much better alone.”

And I do, dear reader. I really, really do.

Why you should travel alone

Travel alone and be surrounded by new friends

Travel alone and be surrounded by new friends

But the sleeping part is neither here nor there. I’m of the opinion that when you travel alone, you open yourself up to a world of opportunities that people with travel partners miss out on.

You should think about solo travel if you:

  • Are seriously sick of feeling stressed, anxious, depressed, and unfulfilled in your life 90% of the time

  • Want to have a big, fat, “ah ha!” moment that changes your life forever

  • Are the kind of person who doesn’t think twice about going to see a movie alone, OR
  • Are completely, utterly terrified of being alone, let alone traveling alone

That’s right – people who can’t stand to be alone stand to benefit the most from being alone, especially while traveling alone.

Fear isn’t a sign to move away from a situation, but to move toward it. Your fear of solitude is a signpost, and it’s pointing you back towards yourself. Lean into that fear and you’ll be rewarded with a complete paradigm shift that will change your perspective on just about everything.

When you travel alone, you learn to enjoy your own company. You discover what you like and don’t like. You start to see yourself with fresh eyes, just as the people you meet delight in aspects of you you didn’t even realize existed:

“Your skin is so white and beautiful!” begins to replace old beliefs about your “pasty white” skin.

“You look SO YOUNG!” begins to replace “Get me some wrinkle cream, stat.”

“You are so rich” begins to replace “OMG I’m so broke.”

Compared to many of the locals you’ll meet, you do look much younger and more beautiful than them –  after all, you haven’t spent your entire life working outside under the scorching sun doing backbreaking manual labor 12+ hours a day.

And compared to them, you are rich. Do you know how long it would take someone in Nepal or Cambodia to save up enough money to buy an iPhone? Like, a year. Probably more.

This woman is only 87 years old, but looks much older from a life of hard living

This woman is only 87 years old, but looks much older from a life of hard living

Slowly, very slowly, you’ll begin to see yourself the way they see you. Eventually, the physical beauty and riches they perceive will magically transform into the kind of beauty and riches that really matter – the kind that exist and thrive within the most private chambers of your heart.

And that transformation of your perspective is so personal, so subtle, so deeply spiritual, that throwing a travel partner into the mix makes it infinitely harder to achieve.

It’s difficult enough to face your own ideas about you; add someone else’s ideas about you into the mix and you’ve condemned yourself to remain exactly where you are now. And if you’re unhappy in your current state of mind, that’s a scary place to be.

Speaking of fear, all of this talk about being afraid is about the deep psychological fear of facing yourself, not the fight-or-flight response you get when someone comes at you with a machete.

But while we’re on the subject, if you’re under the impression that it’s not safe for women to travel alone, I assure you that most places in the world are far safer than many, if not most, American cities.

And if you’re concerned about the safety of your soul as you’re forced to face yourself without anyone to distract you from your own pain, good.

That’s what this journey is for, after all – facing your deepest fears about yourself and coming out the other side, unscathed and enlightened.

Phew, this is getting heavy! It’s a good thing there are puh-lenty of juicy, non-spiritual reasons to travel solo too.

Why you should NOT travel alone

But let’s be honest….solo travel is not a good fit for everyone.

And there are a lot of people who should never travel alone.

For example, if you’re a complete moron you should never travel alone because you will die.

Example: The other day I met two girls who decided to take a boat to their pre-booked island bungalow in the middle of the night.

I happened to be on that boat, and I also happened to witness them rock up to a dark, deserted island with their suitcases in tow, no one to meet them, no idea where their hotel was, and no way to call anyone.

They hid their suitcases underneath the debris of a construction site, stole a motorbike, and went off in search of their bungalow. In the middle of the night. In the dark. With barely a brain cell between the two of them.

Those girls could barely survive with each other to lean on, so I can’t imagine what would’ve happened had either of them decided to travel alone.

Travel alone and people will go out of their way to make you feel welcome

Travel alone and people will go out of their way to make you feel welcome

Other people simply don’t need to travel alone.

  • You might have a reeeeeeally special partner, or sister, or friend, or group of friends with whom travel would and will be the amazing, life-changing experience you’re hoping for.

  • You might be a completely enlightened being who has reached the zenith of her spiritual prowess, and whether alone or with others, you remain a beacon of peace and good humor. Going on a spiritual quest would be totally redundant for you, sort of like a frat boy going to beer-drinking school.

If either of those are the case, I salute you and can’t wait to hear your wonderful travel stories when you return!!

If neither of those apply to you, you might want to take a big, brave leap and travel alone.

But don’t worry – you may be sitting on the plane next to a stranger, but that stranger and many others will soon become your friends, your traveling companions, your on-the-road family.

You’ll also be able to count on other solo female travelers to help you along the way as you journey across the world to meet the love of your life – yourself.

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. Travel alone if you are....

-- super-comfy with solo travel
---terrified of solo travel
---an enlightened being in no need of further spiritual growth

2. Travel with a partner if you are...

---not the sharpest knife in the drawer and your own stupidity would compromise your safety
----traveling with Ryan Gosling, or someone who sort of looks like Ryan Gosling.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

Guest Post: An American in Siberia

At the corner of Lenin Street and Karl Marx Street. Seriously.

I am back on the train again after a two day break in Irkutsk, Siberia. This time I’m headed for Moscow, a three day, four night ride.

I’m currently sharing a compartment with three people, including a four-year-old child. He is surprisingly well-behaved, aside from the occasional “pay attention to me” yell, so the trepidation I felt when I saw him toddle into the room has subsided.

I haven’t seen nearly as many kids in Russia as I did in Korea, where they were bursting from every door, window, and wall (and not just because I worked at a school… they were EVERYWHERE). Perhaps this is because parents in Russia are used to things being much more dangerous than they are in other parts of the world.

It’s easy to forget that just twenty-five years ago, this was the USSR. Oh, and if some obnoxious know-it-all tries to tell you it was the CCCP, kindly inform them that this is just SSSR in Cyrillic, and that they should shut it.

One of many forgotten cities in Siberia.

One of many forgotten cities in Siberia.

But I have seen a few remnants of that time. There are rundown buildings and factories in many cities, every once in awhile I see old men who are missing limbs or eyes, and the utter lack of English spoken by older adults is due in part to the impracticality of teaching your children the language of a culture whose principles you thoroughly disdain.

For the most part, though, the Soviet Union lies in the distant past.

Irkutsk is an interesting town; it is one of the oldest and most populous cities in Siberia, with about as many people as Milwaukee, WI.

In the early 1800’s the Decembrists, in opposition to a newly appointed tsar (which may have been a convenient excuse), staged a rebellion in Moscow.

It was quickly defeated, and the leaders of the Decembrist Revolution (at least, the ones that weren’t killed) were exiled to Siberia, most to Irkutsk. This exile had a number of stipulations, although they are pretty tame compared to those imposed on later Siberian banishments.

This statue captures my mood perfectly.

This statue captures my mood perfectly.

For example, one prominent Decembrist was allowed to completely relocate his recently completed Moscow house to Irkutsk, and although many of the wives weren’t allowed to attend “societal events,” there was nothing stopping them from holding such events on their own estates.

This relocation led Irkutsk to become the intellectual center of Eastern Russia, with many explorers’ foundations and universities located there.

Many tourist sites in Irkutsk are centered around this era, and the tourist bureau makes it very easy to find them all with an easy-to-follow route through the city, supplemented by information posted at each site. AND it’s in English!

The train station at Novosibirsk

The train station at Novosibirsk

I spent a few hours wandering around these sites, most of which are statues or old buildings to which entry is forbidden, but there were a few churches on the list that I could check out.

Most of the older buildings in Irkutsk are wooden. Unfortunately the more recent trend is to use concrete and glass in construction, which leads to the creation of structures that are more stable but much less charming.

The hostel I stayed in is one of the older wooden buildings, a fact that – according to Igor,  the owner – is a huge disappointment for visitors from Moscow or St. Petersburg. Luckily I’m not from either city and I found the place much more inviting than expected.

It took a harrowing ride in a mini-bus, half an hour of searching, and a lot of gesturing with some very helpful cell phone store workers to find it, but the difficulty was immediately worth it when I opened the door to find the most unusual hostel I’ve ever stayed in.

After a steaming dinner of belmeny (dumplings) and, of course, vodka, Igor gave me a quick tour through the three-room hostel. He’s an older man who used to teach English, Russian, and French throughout Europe, and now directs plays in Irkutsk, which is why the house feels like the set of one of his productions.

The house was filled with old playbooks and music, along with all kinds of jury-rigged stage contraptions and old props – even the spiral staircase up to the attic is vintage Igor.

That’s a puppet show next to a handmade staircase at the hostel. SO AWESOME!

That’s a puppet show next to a handmade staircase at the hostel. SO AWESOME!

There were puppets (even an entire recreation of a house, filled with puppets) all over the place and the attic workshop contained a bunch of projects-in-progress. If anyone is in need of a place to stay in Irkutsk and isn’t bothered by waking up to miniature people staring at them in the middle of the night, the Auberge Theatrale gets my hearty recommendation.

My second day in the Irkutsk area was spent exploring Listvyanka, a small town on the shore of Lake Baikal, with two German guys that were staying at the same hostel.

Getting there was easy, although I almost got heat stroke. There are a number of vans that will take passengers from Irkutsk to Listvyanka, and all of them must be driven by men training for the sauna Olympics.

siberia-2

This guy turned the heat up as high as it went and kept it there the entire drive… even the other Russians in the car were complaining that it was too hot (although they still couldn’t be fussed to take off their giant fur coats and hats).

I was about five minutes from stripping naked in a heat-induced frenzy when we made it to the city and escaped into the freezing street.

We hiked up a few hills around the lake, and had some lunch in a local restaurant. Lake Baikal is home to a lot of unique fish, but the most famous is the Omul. I had some for lunch, and it was fatty and delicious. The only thing better than the Omul was the view—the lake hadn’t frozen over for the winter yet, but it was cold enough for icicles to form on just about everything surrounding it.

Igor told me that I should come back in January, when the whole thing is frozen over with almost completely transparent ice. It sounds amazing, but I don’t know if I can brave the average low of minus a zillion. We’ll see.

Even the trees are cold.

Even the trees are cold.

My butt hurts from sitting and typing, so I think it’s about time for a walk around the train. I’ll leave you with a word of the day:

PECTOPAH = restaurant. If you transliterate the Cyrillic, it is actually pronounced “restoran.” I picked this one because it’s one of the only words I can type in Cyrillic without having to figure out where my computer stores the special fonts…

Dan Gerber is a solo traveler from La Crosse, Wisconsin who has traveled to India, Vietnam, and just about everywhere in between. He is currently teaching English in China. Follow his journey at www.restofthebook.blogspot.com

Have a question for Dan? Post it below and he’ll get back to you!

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. If you find yourself in Irkutsk, Siberia, stay at the "puppet hostel," AKA Auberge Theatrale. It's a magical place that's decorated like a theatre, complete with vintage manuscripts, a handmade staircase, and a working puppet show.

2. Siberia is COLD.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

Kathmandu to Pokhara: A Journey Across Nepal

I’m weary of this city after only 72 hours and am itching to board the waiting bus from Kathmandu to Pokhara – if only I could find it.

I’m in a foul mood because a) it’s some ungodly single-digit-o’clock in the morning, a b) some street vendor just seriously tested my patience when he tried to sell me a Snickers bar for five times what it should’ve cost. I talked him down though – to four times what it should’ve cost. Doh.

Pissed that he so openly and willingly tried to scam me, and pissed at myself for letting him do it, I resolve to no longer trust anyone-I-meet-in-Nepal ever. (This is the way my mind operates when the sun isn’t yet up and I haven’t had any coffee.)

So while pacing back and forth along the metal necklace of waiting buses, desperately trying to find my rusty diamond in the rough, I ignore every single driver who tries to help me. When they ask which bus I’m looking for, I assume they’re trying to sell me something, and walk straight past them in silent protest.

My badittude is such a hazard of traveling – having a single bad experience, or a handful of them, and projecting that experience onto everyone you meet in the future.

The third time I pace past the waiting buses, rusty bullet shells gurgling and choking smoke into the street, a driver grabs my crumpled ticket out of my hand and reads it.

“You here!” he cries, very upset with me. “I tell you come my bus, why you no listen?”

Because I’m a crabby bitch, that’s why.

Our seats are assigned and I’m all the way in the very back, where a long, raised bench watches over the other inferior bus seats like a king on a throne. He’s a rickety king, though – this diamond in the rough is looking, well, a little rough.

The bus slowly fills and I’m joined on the throne by a devastatingly handsome German guy named Gabriel and a jovial Korean hipster named Kim.

Our bus charm breaks its link with the necklace, and we’re off, puttering through the traffic-clogged streets of Kathmandu, winding around parks where morning exercisers twist and shake, passing second-story bright orange restaurants with names like “Facebook Restaurant” and “Cafe Google.”

Yum?

Yum?

I don’t know how or when it happened, but suddenly we’re perched on the top of a very steep, winding road that cuts through an enormous gorge. A valley spreads out before me for miles, its rolling hills giving way to ever-growing mountain peaks in the distance.

There are no guard rails on the snaking path, and buses crawl like beetles down the rocky, two-lane road. We’re tilted at a 45-degree angle and when I peer through the bus window to the valley floor, I can see the metallic curve of a minivan bumper – a gravestone marker for some poor passengers unlucky enough to get a speed demon for a driver.

No guard rails, a 200-metre drop to the valley floor below, and direct evidence of the very real possibility of my impending death in the very near future.

And I feel no fear.

I don’t understand why I’m not afraid when there is a crunched minibus and probably a bunch of decomposing dead bodies right there to prove that I should be majorly freaking out right now.

And yet, just like my ride in the cab-o-terror from the airport, I’m eerily calm. Perhaps I know intuitively that everything is going to be ok. Perhaps I have a death wish. Perhaps traveling to the other side of the world was enough, and if God is in the mood to obliterate me now, I will go willingly, gratefully.

Whatever it is, I spend the next 7 hours being shaken like a rag doll and loving every minute of it.

“Not just anyone gets to go to Pokhara,” I think. Pokhara, that magical, mountainous town whose pictures made me want to come to Nepal in the first place.

No, if you want to see Pokhara, to drink in her brilliant blue lake, to be wrapped up in her snow-capped peaks, you have to earn it. You have to endure trials and tribulations and Gabriel falling asleep on your shoulder and drooling incessantly if you want to be rewarded with Pokhara at the end. (Not that Gabriel asleep on my shoulder is a trial – siiiigh.)

A lone dog guards a lone mountain shop

A lone dog guards a lone mountain shop

We head northwest slowly, steadily, and as the Annapurna range of the Himalayas grows taller in the distance, I’m ransacked by a seemingly random flashback of Denver.

It’s seven years earlier and I’m driving across the United States from Wisconsin to California. The flat, bashful cornfields of the Midwest serve as a red carpet that’s been reverently laid out to announce the growing proximity of Colorado’s Emerald City –  the promise of Denver looms lush and electric in the distance.

My ‘98 Civic traverses the cornfield carpet until, unexpectedly, the first glimpse of the Rockies appears on the horizon. The mountains are proud and headstrong, rising up from the earth like a hit and run car accident – no warning, no explanation, no apology.

How could I have known then, seven years earlier,  that in the time it takes for a marriage to get itchy I’d be quite literally halfway around the world, traveling in the same northwesterly direction, ingesting my first glimpses of the Rockies’ sister peaks?

It’s like the world used to be one of those collapsible, sphere-shaped plastic frames that children play with at carnivals.  A billion years ago, these two disconnected mountain ranges had formed as a single rocky beast in the mother belly of the earth.

And then everything expanded and the jagged embryo was pulled apart, leaving two reflected ranges longing for the day when the earth would once again collapse and they could be together.

I can’t take my eyes off the road and what lies below it.  Dark-skinned women in long skirts and bare feet climb upwards toward our bus from the valley below, enormous bushels of grass and leaves strapped to their backs.

The first glimpse of snowy peaks en route from Kathmandu to Pokhara

The first glimpse of snowy peaks en route from Kathmandu to Pokhara

A zip line stretches across an expansive river gorge, connecting the road with an isolated mountain village. A man pulls himself along the thin, swaying wire with the strength of his arms and the help of a rickety wooden passenger cage. He must be hanging about 200 meters above the earth.

Young boys strut between mud huts, their wrists weighed down by dozens of dead chickens swaying gently in the mountain air.

A toddler, barely able to walk, bounds down the middle of the road, her joyful, bouncing ponytail in stark contrast to the look of determination on her face. There is no parent in sight.

We weave through tiny town after tiny town, and something makes me feel like this road is the only road in Nepal. We follow a rushing river that is sometimes wide and fast, and other times small and pathetic.

Innumerable Turborg Beer signs work hard to convince me that the one-room shacks and convenience stores lining the highway are great places to party. The burning garbage and naked children and bent-backed grandmothers convince me otherwise.

A beautiful young girl in a red dress and high heels emerges from the hillside, having climbed from the valley below with an enormous bundle of 6 foot-long sticks balanced on her shoulder.

She is in full makeup, and I get the impression that she must finish her morning chores before she can leave the house to attend whatever fabulousness she’s dressed herself for.

 

Nepali woman working in the field that line the road from Kathmandu to Pokhara

Nepali woman working in the field that line the road from Kathmandu to Pokhara

We stop at a tourist restaurant, one of those enormous, impersonal affairs that pay the bus companies to bring passengers so they’ll spend money and buy souvenirs.

I eat samosas and curry with Gabriel, who’s beginning a trek in Pokhara, and Kim, who used to live in Pokhara and returns each year to see friends. The guys chat with each other more than with me, and for some reason their lack of attention makes me feel old and ugly and fat.

I excuse myself to take pictures, and peer across the road at a small, humble farmstead.

A woman washes dishes in the yard while her infant daughter plays in a small patch of grass that’s trying to grow amidst chunks of rock and dirt.

And then I see her. A Chinese woman breaks apart from her tour group, a rebel fish in a school of cackling amateur photographers.

She marches across the road, enters the farmstead yard, and without so much as a glance at the dish-washing mom, crouches down next to the infant and begins taking photographs.

Not every bus is a tourist bus.

Not every bus is a tourist bus.

The mother stops scrubbing and watches the tourist as my jaw slowly unhinges in open astonishment.

Click, click, click. She snaps photo after photo, getting up in the baby’s face as if she were a statue. Or an animal. Or an alien – anything but a human being, and a very young, very terrified human being at that.

I wait for the mother to say something, to yell, to run across the yard and snatch her baby away and spit on the Chinese lady in disgust. Or maybe that’s just what I want to do.

But the mother does nothing. After losing interest in the infant, whose scowl and subsequent tears surely ruined every single picture, the Chinese woman turns her camera on the house, the struggling grass, the munching goats, and finally the mother herself.

She seems to think that this private yard of a Nepali citizen has been placed here to serve as some sort of zoo, the primary purpose of which is to provide subject matter for her photography habit.

Finally satisfied, the woman yells something in Chinese to her waiting group, laughs uproariously, and marches back across the road to show off her images to 45 of her closest friends.

The scene of the crime

Market outside the tourist restaurant

The mother watches her go, crosses slowly to her child, and lifts the crying baby into her arms. She kisses her, rearranges the kid comfortably on her hip, crosses back to her makeshift kitchen, and continues scrubbing her dishes.

In this moment, I understand that it’s possible to experience love and hate simultaneously.

I also know that Nepal has a lot to teach me about acceptance.

Back on the bus, rolling green and gray hills begin to reveal the occasional spark of snowy white against the brilliant blue sky. The sparks morph into static cut outs, like pointy paper dolls bobbing on an azure sea.

Narrow, brightly colored houses strive to neutralize the surrounding ugliness – brown and rust-colored dirt, piles of rocks, garbage and debris, abandoned shacks, and soiled, thin men crowded onto the rooftops of ancient buses.

I hold my hand in front of my face, trying to block everything except the pristine, spiked tufts that are starting to overtake the horizon with cancerous abandon.

We are close now, perhaps 10 kilometers outside of the promised land, and I wait for the dirt and poverty to magically transform into the steel, sanitized cleanliness of commercialism and mass tourism.

An enormous, cone-shaped peak suddenly explodes across the sky, soaring above all the others and declaring “In case there is any doubt left in your mind, this is Pokhara. You have arrived.”

This cheeky peak is Fishtail Mountain, and it’s so striking and absolute and definitive and surreal that it seems more like the idea of a mountain than an actual mountain. Looking at Fishtail Mountain is like dating a really good-looking guy who’s also rich. And funny. And nice to you.

First view of Fishtail Mountain when entering Pokhara

First view of Fishtail Mountain when entering Pokhara

It’s too much, it’s too good, and I scoff at the look on Gabriel’s face when we pull into the disappointing bus station. For Gabriel, Fishtail Mountain isn’t enough to neutralize everything else that exists below the horizon. The snow-capped peaks can’t seem to  whitewash the wet plastic bags and scuffling cab drivers and rampant poverty.

But I’m unafraid. I know this is only the bus station, and that in every town on earth, the bus station – like the airport – is never in the nice part of town.

Instead I look at Kim – the guy who’s lived in this town. The guy who journeys thousands of miles every year just to visit again and again. He’s happily greeting the Nepalese friend who’s come to pick him up, and the look in his eyes is enough to quell any remaining fears about my destination choice – it’s the look of someone who’s just come home.

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. The bus ride from Kathmandu to Pokhara takes about 7+ hours

2. Most tourist buses leave Kathmandu around 7am and arrive in Pokhara after 2pm.

3. Don't plan on reading a book or sleeping on the bus - the ride is waaaay too bumpy. Luckily there's plenty of breathtaking scenery to keep yourself entertained.

4. A snickers bar should NOT cost 120 rupees no matter what anyone says.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

16 Reasons to Travel Solo

Travel solo and enjoy all sorts of benefits that people with travel partners miss out on. You know, like having impromptu love affairs with people who don’t speak English, and taking naps whenever you want.

Here are just a few of the zillions of reasons to travel solo when you travel abroad:

1. You can be selfish

How often do you get to go wherever you want, eat whatever you want, spend your money however you want and sleep until you wake up?

My guess is not very often. When you travel solo, the only person you have to answer to is you.

You can choose the restaurant, the activities, and the people you interact with based solely on how you feel. This allows you to be completely spontaneous, which in turn will lead you to the incredible, unexpected experiences that will come to define your travels.

The freedom that comes with taking no one else’s feelings or opinions or preferences into account is mind-blowing, empowering, totally addicting, and only available when you travel solo.

2. You’ll never get sick of anyone

I see it all the time. It happens between couples, family members, friends and roommates. It even happens between backpackers who’ve just met.

When you spend 24/7 with someone – even with someone you really like – you’re bound to become completely sick of them at some point.

The problem is that there’s no escape from each other – if don’t travel solo, you’ll have to face the irritating party much sooner than you normally would if you were back time. You don’t have enough time to cool off, which leads to travel tension and a soured trip.

It takes a very special interpersonal dynamic to be able to navigate this kind of travel tension. If you decide not to travel solo, make sure you’ve spent a lot of time with your travel partner in the past and know what you’re signing up for.

Travel can bring out the worst in people  because you end up in highly stressful situations about every 5 minutes.

Just make sure you can handle Danny’s dark side or Karen’s sneaky drinking habits without losing your shit.

If it’s annoying at home, it’ll be 10x worse on the road.

Travel solo and take copious amounts of selfies

Travel solo and take copious amounts of selfies

3. You can change your mind

Last night you planned to wake up early and go to the museum. This morning, you’re in more of a lazy beach mood.

Because you chose to travel solo, that’s no problemo! Let the wind blow you where it may, and start to understand the meaning of the phrase “go with the flow.”

4. You can plan ahead

When you choose to travel solo, you can start planning your trip today.

The only person’s schedule that matters is yours. The only preferences that matter are yours. You don’t have to wait and see if your man can get off work or consult with Stephanie to see if she’d rather do Paris in July or October.

This makes it infinitely easier to plan your trip. It’s also a bit scary, really empowering, and really exciting!

While you may not be able to get on a plane today, the choice to travel solo frees you to book the ticket today. Do it and don’t tell anybody. Walk around with a little travel secret in your pocket for a few days, and bask in the glow of your upcoming journey.

5. You’ll never be “that couple”

They’ve been sitting there for 27 solid minutes without saying a word to each other. In fact, they’ve barely looked at each other. She’s on her phone, he’s looking anywhere but at her. They both breathe a sigh of relief whenever the waitress comes to refill their drinks or take their order.

It’s the dreaded Fighting Travel Couple.

An FTC is easy to spot. If they’re not ignoring each other over some fine dining, she’s storming 6 feet ahead of him down the street, or trying to hold back tears as he yells at her in front of a crowd of baffled locals.

It’s a scene I see even more often than the fighting friends or sisters or roomies featured in reason #2. And it’s terrifying.

Whenever I’m sitting in a restaurant alone, sipping a glass of wine and listening to my waiter weave fascinating tales about his family’s village, I always thank my lucky stars that I chose to travel solo. I’d rather spend 30 years alone that experience one night as an FTC.

These two haven't spoken since they left Chiang Mai.

These two haven’t spoken since they left Chiang Mai.

6. You can save money

When you’re traveling with others, whether it’s your partner or your parent or a group, there is this pressure to do stuff, and see stuff, and spend all sorts of cash.

The group wants to do a full day motorbike tour, so you’ll do the full day motorbike tour. Your friend wants to try the fancy restaurant, and before you know it you’ve blown half your budget on a single bottle of wine.

When you travel solo, it’s a lot easier to find financial balance.

You can stay in cheap guest houses for a few weeks, then treat yourself to a night in a five star resort. You can opt to take the bus instead of fly, or vice versa, depending on how much you’re willing or able to spend at the time.

7. You can work abroad

Speaking of saving money, when you travel solo it’s a snap to work abroad. This is especially true for digital nomads, who may have to spend 40+ hours a week working even though they’re traveling at the same time.

But this sort of set up is not conducive to group or partner travel, especially if no one else in the group is working.

While everyone else is headed out to sight-see, you’re stuck in the hotel room finishing a project. You’ll be pissed you’re missing out, and your friends won’t understand why you’re in friggin’ Laos but are spending 12 hours a day cooped up in your guest house.

When you travel solo, you can make your own schedule, work when you need to, then go out and see stuff when you’re finished (and no one will give you any crap about it!).

8. Your budget can fluctuate

When you travel solo, it doesn’t matter if you’re flush with cash or are living on a backpacker’s budget. You stay where you can afford to stay, you eat what you can afford to eat, and you make decisions based on your own income and budget constraints.

Not so when you’re with someone else. It’s super awkward to be flash-packing with a bunch of backpackers, or to be broke when everyone else wants to do the $3,000 cycling tour.

You may also find that your budget fluctuates over time, making it even more important to travel solo. If you’re suddenly broke or suddenly rich, you can change plans accordingly without creating an uncomfortable situation between travel buddies.

9. You can take naps whenever you want

And no one will wake you up. Or give you shit for taking a nap in the middle of the day.

10. You’ll meet people in restaurants

When I eat with friends, I eat with friends and that’s that. We go to the restaurant together, we talk to each other, and we leave together.

When I eat alone, I make friends with the restaurant staff, I get invited to sit at stranger’s tables, strangers plop themselves down and sit at my table, and I begin to collect what always end up being my favorite travel experiences.

It's much easier to meet locals when you travel solo.

It’s much easier to meet locals when you travel solo.

11. You can fall in love

Travel solo and you just might have the chance to fall in love. Sometimes it will be with a handsome stranger. Sometimes it will be with that special someone waiting for you at home. And in the best of circumstances, it will be with yourself.

  • Your relationship back home will be put into perspective when you travel solo, and you’ll know whether it’s a good fit for you or not. If it’s not, it will be easy to let go. If it is, you’ll be more appreciative and more in love than ever when you return home.
  • You’ll learn to enjoy your own company when you travel solo. You’ll begin to feel as fabulous as your new friends think you are. You’ll see how little you need, how much you have to offer, and how whole you are, exactly as you are. It’s just a corny line until it actually happens – you’ll fall in love with yourself.
  • You are going to meet so many wonderful people when you travel solo that you heart might explode. You will meet men who change everything you’ve ever believed about “how men are.” You will meet men so wonderful that instead of trying to change them, you’ll want to be more like them. Falling for a handsome foreigner is a deceptive cliche – it’s not about the accent or the cultural differences. It’s about meeting the love of your life. You know, the soul mate kind.

12. You can leave when you fall out of love

And then, when it doesn’t work out and your heart is broken to pieces and it’s super awkward seeing him with his new girlfriend, you can peace out and move on to the next country.

13. No one will see you at your worst

Travel solo and don’t be surprised when it brings out the worst in you before it brings out the best. You’re lonely, the menus aren’t in English, and the diarrhea medication the doctor gave you is not working.

At times like these, it’s nice to be alone and regroup without having the added stress of your irritated lover or your judgey sister watching you vomit or cry or have a major freak out.

Travel solo and wear ridiculous hats.

Travel solo and wear ridiculous hats.

14. You’ll work through all your shit

You’ll return from a group trip remembering how much fun you had. You’ll return from a solo trip as a more evolved human being.

15. You’ll realize you’re never alone

When you look back on the time you chose to travel solo, you’re not going to picture all those nights alone in bed or all those meals taken alone in basement restaurants.

You’ll remember the lovely woman you befriended in Laos, or the welcoming restaurant staff at that hotel in Cambodia, or the couple you ended up traveling with for two weeks straight in Vietnam.

You’ll see that wherever you are in the world, you’re never really alone – it just takes going alone to make you realize it.

16. You’ll find God

If God speaks to us in the silent spaces of ours hearts, our only job is to listen. When you travel solo, spend time with yourself, and spend time in silence, that job becomes easier and easier.

If God exists right now, and not in the past or the future, then travel is one surefire way to connect with the divine.

When you travel, you are shocked into the present moment again and again. Every sight, every sound, every smell is new. You’re a child looking at the world with wonder and awe, and from this headspace, God is everywhere.

Would you travel solo to see the world?

What are you most afraid of?

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

When you travel solo...

1. You can be selfish

2. You’ll never get sick of anyone

3. You can change your mind

4. You can plan ahead

5. You’ll never be “that couple” (AKA a "FTC" or "Fighting Travel Couple")

6. You can save money

7. You can work abroad

8. Your budget can fluctuate

9. You can take naps whenever you want

10. You’ll meet people in restaurants

11. You can fall in love

12. You can leave when you fall out of love

13. No one will see you at your worst

14. You’ll work through all your shit

15. You’ll realize you’re never alone

16. You'll find God

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

Will You Get Altitude Sickness when you Travel Abroad?

My mind flashes back to the Los Angeles health clinic. I’m sitting on a metallic, art deco bar stool at a funky counter that feels more like “happy hour” than “vaccination hour.”

This place is actually really cool, the idea being that you can roll up, get what you need, pay out of pocket, and peace out. A la carte healthcare, they call it.

After discussing the various vaccinations I’d be needing to journey through Southeast Asia and the Indian Subcontinent, there’s one final issue to deal with – altitude sickness.

In researching the various ailments I’d be exposed to – typhoid, rabies, Hep A and B, and so on – I was determined to get the bare bones. Vaccinations aren’t cheap, and the thought of blowing hundreds, even thousands of my book advance on a big shot of “just in case” juice made me break out in hives. (Don’t worry – there’s a vaccination for that, too.)

Stupid mountains, making it all hard to breathe and stuff.

Stupid mountains, making it all hard to breathe and stuff.

I committed to only getting what was absolutely necessary to keep me alive. Typhoid seemed to be a big one, and so was malaria. I took the Typhoid shot and paid for a prescription of antimalarial meds. Hepatitis A made the list, Hep B didn’t (I just promised myself I’d cut down on my intravenous drug use and the $2 hooker habit.)

But what about altitude sickness? After all, the mountains in Nepal aren’t simply some of the highest peaks in the world, they are the highest peaks in the world. It’s the home of Mount friggin Everest, after all!

But I wasn’t planning on trekking, and according to Ye Olde Interwebs, both Kathmandu and Pokhara were only about a mile above sea level. It was like visiting Denver, but with air pollution and no hot water.

I’d been to Denver once, for a single evening, on one of my many road trips back and forth between the Midwest and Los Angeles. So clearly I was an expert on both Denver and its elevation level.

You're higher than you've ever been - even if you've been to Denver!

You’re higher than you’ve ever been – even if you’ve been to Denver!

“What about altitude sickness?” asked the nurse, who’d just been forced to explain why he was legally allowed to administer vaccination shots even though he wasn’t an RN. Apparently the woman in line before me was a doctor, and a snarky one at that.

I felt sorry for the guy, but I was also keenly aware that his job was to stuff me with as much medicine as possible in order to make as much money as possible.

“Do I really need something for altitude sickness?” I asked, playing innocent.

He regarded me, trying to decide if I was the swayable type. I’d already turned down the rabies shot, after all.

“Hmm….let’s see.”

He went online and looked up the altitude in Kathmandu. Yep, about a mile above sea level.

“I think that’s the same as Denver. Not too bad, right?”

The nurse wasn’t pushy, and he agreed with me. “Not too bad.”

So that was that. No altitude sickness meds for me.

Flash forward to Kathmandu, Nepal, 2 weeks later.

I’ve been in town for about 48 hours, without a symptom in sight. I’ve just had a simultaneously life-changing and somewhat-disappointing morning at The Monkey Temple, and am walking back to my guest house in Thamel.

It’s getting hard to breathe. The 200+ steps up to the temple summit really wore me out, but then again I’m not in the best of shape. For every zumba class I’d attended in LA this fall, there were at least 3 beers to counteract any health benefits I may have absorbed while shaking my thang to Shakira.

Wow, I must be really out of shape. This is pathetic. Maybe I should stop for a second and catch my breath…

I pause on the main road that wraps around The Dream Garden, a not-so-secret oasis that has somehow managed to shield itself from the city in its attempt to scale the high garden walls and envelop the grounds in a thick cloud of pollution.

Garden of Dreams, Kathmandu

The Dream Garden in Kathmandu

There don’t seem to be any rules or regulations regarding vehicle emissions here, and I’m the unwilling victim of thick spirals of black smoke that putter behind motorbikes like dusty fishtails.

When I keep walking, my breath catches in my throat, shallow and unsure. When I stop to pause, I’m choked with the thick air, which I’m starting to realize is a cocktail of vehicle exhaust, smog, and dust particles that have been stirred up by the rush of constant traffic.

No wonder everyone’s wearing a mask.

I never understood why people wore masks when I was teaching English in Taiwan. Was their some sort of filter on the mask? I mean, didn’t people realize that the same air was still going to get through the mask and enter their lungs?

Me at 1,000 meters above sea level.

Me at 1,000 meters above sea level.

Now I understood only too well – the mask protects you from breathing in physical debris that’s kicked up from the road. You’re still breathing crap air, but at least you’re not choking on granular chunks of sand and dust and feathers and bugs and –

Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz……………….

I stop. Put my head between my legs, right there in the middle of the street. My head rushes with dizziness, and I know that if I don’t bend over I will fall to the ground like a sack of rocks.

That’s when it hits me – the nurse-who’s-not-really-a-nurse was right.

This is altitude sickness. Full-blown, knock-your-socks-off altitude sickness. I hadn’t experienced it in Denver because i wasn’t there long enough – apparently it takes at least 24 hours to kick in.

I make my way slowly back to my guest house and have the brilliant idea to go on WedMD to check my symptoms. Oh great. Altitude sickness can be deadly.

I thought my fatigue and lack of appetite were just from being jet-lagged, but apparently I was wrong.

According to Doctor Web, it just takes the body time to “catch up” after being suddenly introduced to a higher altitude. Wow, if Kathmandu impacts me this much, what would happen if I decided to go trekking up in the real mountains?

At night, as I’m lying in bed, the altitude sickness crescendo washes over me like an electric love-dream: I’m overcome and paralyzed by an all-encompassing, powerful body buzz.

It begins in my feet and tingles up my legs until every inch of me is rolled into a pulsating current; I’m a hot dog in an electric bun.

The body buzz lasts about 5 seconds, and during that time, I’m fully conscious and unafraid. In fact, I realize it is another symptom of the altitude sickness and am not alarmed one bit.

That will come to be a theme during my time in Nepal – complete and utter fearlessness of terrifying things, and complete and utter terror of things that should feel safe.

The symptoms pass a few days later, and it’s a good thing to – I have a 7+ hour bus ride to the dreamy town of Pokhara on my agenda, and I don’t want to miss an instant of it.

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 travel to a high altitude country like Nepal, you may very well experience some symptoms of altitude sickness.

2. Symptoms of altitude sickness usually take a few days to appear - you might feel fine at first and then WHAM!

3. Symptoms include headache, lack of appetite, nausea, and dizziness. For some reason I'd also experienced this weird, electric body buzz whenever I'd lay down to sleep.

4. You should feel better in a few days as your body adjusts to the thinner air at that elevation level.

5. There's medication that can supposedly help with this, but I've never tried it.

6. I'm SO not a doctor and this is SO not medical advice. Please don't sue me.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

Guest Post: Hitchhiking to Happiness

“When I was 5 years old, my mom told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy.’ They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, I told them they didn’t understand life.”

I run beside a grandpa who’s pedaling his bicycle with a young boy on the back, and hold up my sign: an old piece of cardboard with the name of the town I am trying to get to written hastily in black sharpie.

“Por favor,” I plead jokingly, causing both the young boy and his grandpa to chuckle and wave. There is no way they could pedal me and my backpack 300km to my next destination, but hey, it was worth a try.

I see a few cars approach in the distance and get ready for my next shot. I run alongside them as they slow down to enter the small Argentinian village, and yell “Salta, Salta, Saltaaaaaaaa,” the name of the town I am trying to reach. I take care to yell in the same loud and catchy voice Latin American street vendors use.

The passengers all laugh and wave before signaling to me that they are turning left, not right towards Salta, at the intersection just up ahead. I have been running, dancing, and serenading every passing car for the past hour, but unfortunately my efforts have been fruitless; everyone is turning left.

As I retreat to the sidewalk to consult with my hitchhiking posse, two French boys who are also journeying to Salta, the couple selling street food to my right approaches me to thank me for the entertainment I have apparently been providing them for the past hour – them, and the entire row of street vendors beside them.

They hand me a basket full of fried donuts along with a beverage – some sort of sweet milky concoction to both drink and dip the donuts in.

They talk with me  awhile before heading back to work, and I’m able to put my Spanish to good use as I explain why I have been jumping up and down with a sign.

They are a fun young couple, so when they make me promise to give up and join them for the evening if I can’t find a ride within an hour, I readily agree.

As I run and dance alongside the dwindling number of cars for a while longer, I know it’s more for fun than anything else. I end up in the couple’s small, open road-side hut along with the French boys, and we enjoy eating, talking and laughing until late. I finally accept their invitation to set up my hammock in their hut for the night.

You might have to pay for gas. And the gas station might look like this.

You might have to pay for gas. And the gas station might look like this.

2 years later…

Though I didn’t find a ride that evening, the feeling of jumping and dancing with my sign in the middle of the highway and running alongside the passing cars has stayed with me even now, two years later.

It is the feeling of pure happiness, of absolute bliss.

Though hitchhiking can certainly be frustrating at times (nothing like standing on the side of a busy highway for hours without a single car slowing down), it is an amazing way to experience a country, especially in a place like Argentina where it is considered the norm.

I met countless other hitchhikers, mostly Argentinian students on their summer holiday, and quickly grew to view hitchhiking as my favorite form of transportation.

It is cheap, usually free in most countries, and it’s a great way for travelers to connect with locals and explore non-touristic regions of the country.

Hitchhiking also provides a great opportunity to practice (or learn) the language, eat the local food, and encounter adventures and opportunities you would never have dreamed of while sitting idly on the bus.

So weigh your options carefully next time you are about to hop on that bus –  instead, you might want to stick your thumb out and see where the adventure leads you.

Shirine Taylor is a regular contributor to The Happy Passport and is currently cycling around the world. Follow her journey at awanderingphoto.wordpress.com.

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. Hitchhiking is not necessary the most dangerous thing in the world for a solo female traveler.

2. If you're going to hitchhike, make sure a totally normal thing to do in that country (and in many countries, it is!)

3. Keep in mind you might be expected to pay your way, pay for gas, etc.

4. Hitchhiking is an amazing, eye-opening way to see a country, explore areas most tourists never see, meet locals, and have the kind of Eat, Pray, Love-experience you've been searching for.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

How to get a SIM card in Kathmandu

The card that launched a thousand questions.

Don’t freak out – it’s actually really, really easy to get a SIM card in Kathmandu, or pretty much anywhere in Nepal.

That’s because in other parts of the world, people seem to deal almost exclusively in cards – SIM cards for their phones, memory cards for their laptops, and all manner of removable sticks that, at least in America, having rarely been seen since the advent of the “thumb drive.”

If you haven’t spent much time abroad, you’ve probably never had to worry about getting a  SIM card. You bought your smartphone, signed up for a plan with a popular carrier like AT&T or Verizon, and that was that.

Little did you know that there was SIM card lurking inside your phone the entire time, just begging to be swapped for its foreign counterpart in France! Or Italy! Or Qatar!

WHY YOU NEED A SIM CARD

If you’re thinking of long-term travel, it’s a great idea to buy a local SIM card in whatever country you’re in.

A SIM card is just a little (very little) card that pops right into the side of your phone. Don’t worry if you have no idea how to get your SIM card in or out – when you buy a new SIM card, the vendor will pop out your old card and put a new one in for you.

With a local SIM card, you can buy a pre-paid phone plan and save a TON of money on calls, texts, and data.

My carrier in the States was Verizon, and when I heard what the international roaming charges would be if I made a call in Nepal, I nearly fell off my chair. It was something insane like $17/minute. That’s when I knew I’d need to get a SIM card if I wanted to use my phone while I was abroad.

It’s a good idea to have a local SIM card and phone plan for safety. You may not think you’ll need to call or text anyone, and you very well may not.

But if you have a prepaid plan that includes data, you’ll be able to check Google maps when you get lost, make an emergency phone call if need be, and contact your guest house to come pick you up when the cab driver leaves you stranded. You’ll also be able to easily keep in touch with new friends you meet while traveling.

Since the power goes out often in Nepal – and along with it, the WiFi – having a prepaid SIM is a life saver. If you’re relying on WiFi alone, you’re shit out of luck when the power’s out. But if you have a prepaid plan, you can still makes calls, send texts, and get online by using your smartphone as a WiFi hotspot.

Just make sure your smartphone is unlocked before you leave the country.

  • iPhone 4 and later come automatically unlocked.
  • If you have an older model, call your service provider to see if they’ll unlock it for you.
  • If you’re unsure about whether your phone is locked or not, try popping out the SIM card (use the end of a paperclip or a bobby pin) and inserting the SIM card of a friend who uses a different carrier. See if you can make a call or send a text. If you can, your phone is unlocked.
  • Don’t pay hundreds of dollars to have a third party service unlock your phone for you. I almost fell for this, but then I called Verizon. They would’ve been happy to unlock my phone for me for free (it turned out my phone was already unlocked).

HOW TO GET A SIM CARD IN KATHMANDU

Everything I read online about getting a SIM card in Kathmandu made it sound like you’d need to promise your first born child to a man clad in black who’d emerge from the shadows and offer your SIM card wrapped in goat hair and the blood of orphans.

According to these travel blogs, the government of Nepal wants to keep track of every single foreigner who plans on taking advantage of the golden NCELL network, the pride and joy of the nation.

First of all, the government of Nepal  doesn’t seem to be that strict about tracking anything, let alone who’s making cell phone calls.

Second, I was not required to give blood samples, sexual history, my passport, or fingerprints in order to get a SIM card abroad.

You can get a SIM card in Kathmandu at one of the zillions of convenience stores or phone shops that line the streets of Thamel. I’d recommend hitting up an official NCELL phone shop if you can find one, because they’ll have a big paper cutter-looking thing that can cut their giant SIM cards down to iPhone-size.

I wish I could tell you exactly which shop I went to, but even if it had a name, the street it’s on does not. Thamel is small, the streets wind endlessly, and a casual saunter will reward you with at least 12 options to buy a SIM card – promise. Just look for the giant signs that say “SIM CARD” outside every door.

Here is what I needed to make the purchase:

  • A photocopy of my passport (I’d brought an actual photocopy with me, not the passport itself, and the clerk photocopied my photocopy and returned the photocopy to me.)
  • The address of my guest house in Kathmandu
  • 1,000 rupees for the card itself (about $10)
  • 2,000 rupees for a 2GB data plan, which included a bunch of bonus minutes and texts ($20)

The clerk popped the Verizon SIM out of my phone using a pin, cut the NCELL SIM card down to size, and popped it into my iPhone.

Voila! I now had a phone number in Nepal and could check my Facebook page from the middle of nowhere in the mountains using my data plan.

When WiFi was spotty and/or the power was out, I’d use my phone as a WiFi hotspot and be able to continue working.

What questions do you have about getting a SIM card in Kathmandu?

Does it still seem as scary as it first seemed to me?

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. The Thamel district in Kathmandu is packed with NCELL shops and convenience stores that sell SIM cards.

2. Look for the giant "SIM CARD" signs that are posted outside shop windows and doors.

3. I did not need to give my passport or fingerprints (or anything else!) to get my SIM card. I provided a photocopy of my passport and the address of my guest house, and that was it.

4. A 2GB data plan cost about $30 - $10 for the SIM card itself, and $20 for the data plan, which included bonus minutes and texting.

5. You can always "top up" your plan by buying a prepaid scratch-off card at any convenience store in Nepal. The lowest denomination is 100 rupees ($1), which gives you about 100 minutes OR 100 texts. You can combine talk and text and you'll receive a text message when you're running low on minutes.

6. Make sure your smartphone is unlocked before you leave the country.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

Swayambhunath: The Monkey Temple

My internal clock is still messed up from 48 hours of traveling and a 13 hour and 45 minute time zone change.

Why 45 minutes, you ask? Because it’s Nepal, and strange little idiosyncrasies like that keep popping up every day. Like when the guy who runs my guest house told me how he graduated high school “back in 2065.”

This is because Nepal uses their own calendar, their own time zone…they even seem to breathe a different kind of air here.

It’s car exhaust and dust mixed with the thin strands of high-altitude oxygen, and I’m only walking for a few minutes before my heart rate starts to increase and my head starts to spin.

But I don’t mind – I am out! In Kathmandu! And en route to Swayambhunath, which is also known as The Monkey Temple.

The guy who graduated in the future gave me a map of Thamel and the surrounding areas, and I’m excited to see that the temple is located outside the invisible walls of the city’s tourist district.

On the map, the temple is west of my hotel, so I start heading west. I don’t have directions, and although I have a SIM card and in theory should be able to use Google Maps, the Google gods (or perhaps the Government of Nepal) have other ideas.

I’m flying blind, traipsing down dusty, winding streets that alternate between paved and sort-of-paved and used-to-be-paved and dirt. Large chunks of rocks lie next to enormous potholes, and it’s difficult to lift my eyes from the ground while walking for fear of tripping and swan-diving to the earth below.

I use the compass app on my phone to continue west, even when the streets insist on curving every way but. I pass empty lots strewn with garbage, stray dogs and tiny cats, women strapped with heavy basket loads, young boys walking with their arms around each other in friendship.

The sky is a brilliant blue, and the brightly painted buildings glimmer in the morning light. It’s quiet now, and I’m able to navigate large intersections with more ease than usual.

Bridge over the Bisnumati River

Bridge over the Bisnumati River

It’s happened in every city I’ve been to Asia, and it’s a phenomenon I absolutely love – just a single block outside the tourist area of Thamel,  I’m enveloped in Kathmandu Proper, the true city, the place that caters to itself alone.

I’m relieved to find the Bisnumati River, and hope I’m choosing the correct bridge across as the murky banks are flanked by crumbling overpasses. Chipped yellow paint highlights the way, and I pause for a moment to take in the narrow four-story buildings and metal-roofed shacks that line the riverfront.

The incline of the road increases and I find myself climbing steps to a shrine that overlooks the Bisnumati District. Is this the Monkey Temple?

There aren’t any monkeys in site, but there are a few men monitoring the shrine and they eye me with curiosity and suspicion. I wait for them to ask to me to pay, or to tell me to take off my shoes, but they lose interest and continue staring out over the hazy morning.

the-monkey-temple-3

I continue west, and soon enter a narrow street that hugs an unexpected mountain that seems to emerge from nowhere. The narrow shops and homes are separated by just a foot of breathing space between them, but it’s plenty of room to catch a spectacular view of the valley below.

Children giggle, women stare, but there is no sense of animosity here. They seem curious and a bit surprised to see me, which makes me wonder if I’m going the right way after all.

the-monkey-temple-2

After another 10 minutes westward, the street itself seems to buzz beneath me. Menus are suddenly written in English, taxi drivers emerge like statues come to life, and curious stares have turned into Nepali cat calls:

“Taxi, madam?”

“Nepali music, madam?”

“Where are you from?”

I smile and shake my head “no,” pressing on to the temple base – Swayambhunath! This must be it. If it’s not, forget the Monkey Temple, I’m going here instead.

It’s so enormous I can’t see the top, which exists as a floating rumor at the summit of steps that never seem to end. Lush trees jut from the hillside, their enormity hiding whatever treasures may lurk above, just waiting to be discovered.

the-monkey-temple-8

Before I can begin my ascent, something catches my eyes. I look to my right, and am rewarded with a view of dozens, no, hundreds of spinning, wooden prayer wheels.

The wheels are built into a high stone wall, where a long, rectangular alcove has been carved out just for them.

Worshipers begin at the northern end of the line walk and walk south, touching and spinning each wheel as they go. A few foreigners jump in and spin, but I’m too shy and afraid it will somehow be disrespectful.

the-monkey-temple-4

The hundreds of steep stairs are flanked on both sides by innumerable smaller shrines and pagodas. Women sell fruit and souvenirs from blankets while children and pregnant mothers beg for a few rupees. Stray dogs scratch themselves at the foot of The Buddha, and monkeys poke them playfully with sticks of broken incense.

Wait, what?!

Monkeys!! Oh my God, there are suddenly monkeys everywhere!

They emerge from the shrines, from the trees, from the very bowels of the mountain. And they are terrifyingly tame, not afraid to walk right up to you as if to say “Hey punk, back off, this is my turf.”

While filming one monkey, I seriously think I’m going to be attacked as she heads straight for my camera, then turns at the last second and struts past me. I think I even hear her giggle.

Monkeys fighting, monkeys making monkey-love, monkeys screeching at dogs and playing with cats and stealing fruit from tourists.

The people who run the temple apparently feed the monkeys in order to keep them (and the tourists who love them) around.

the-monkey-temple-5

Just when I was start to become slightly terrified of the monkeys, whose numbers seem to have no end, I glimpse an uncharacteristically still monkey perched on the ledge of the stairs.

She is squatting strangely, as if she is about to curl herself into a ball. Her head is down, her arms wrapped around herself in a strange hug.

Perhaps sensing me, she suddenly snaps her head up and stretches to her whole height, inadvertently revealing the cause of her strange posture  – her infant monkey, no more than a few days old, is sucking greedily at her monkey breast.

I’m staring at a monkey – a wild monkey –  breast-feeding her baby.

Ok, that’s it. I can go home now. If the ten thousand monkeys on this mountain decide to wage war upon me, I will die happily.

I finally reach the top of the stairs, though not without struggle. I keep telling myself I’m breathing heavily because of the elevation, and not because I’m pathetically out of shape.

After paying the 2,000 rupee entry fee (about $2 USD), I reach the summit. It is a flat-top platform filled with shrines and relics and the ever-present scent of burnt incense.

the-monkey-temple-featured

Golden-bodied towers watch over visitors with painted Siamese eyes meant to ward off harmful ghosts. Shrines are everywhere and are used to house the ashes of the dead and honor ancestors past – white-washed shrines, metal-gold shrines, dull shrines of deep gray meant for the poor. The carvings become less intricate as the color fades, which makes the gray shrines look more like giant chess pieces than monuments.

the-monkey-temple-6

Smog and a city-wide dust cloud hangs over Kathmandu, ruining the view. Later I find out that it’s best to visit the Monkey Temple in the afternoon, when it’s clearer. As an Angelino and an experienced avoider of smoggy views, this seems counterintuitive to me – wouldn’t the smog be worse in the afternoon, after hours and hours of traffic on the roads?

A holy man sits on a mat in front of one of the shrines, singing a Hindu blessing over what I assume is a soon-to-be or just-married couple. I desperately want to know what he’s saying and why, but the 12 offers from 12 would-be guides in the last 12 minutes has turned me off, and I explore the grounds alone.

A crowd has gathered on the southern side of the main stupa – they’re shooting a music video. The actress, in head to toe white, lip syncs cheerfully with her smitten co-star. As soon the director yells “cut,” she looks bored and annoyed, much to his disappoint. I may not speak Nepali, but I can tell a diva when I see one.

Nepali diva.

Nepali diva.

On a clear day, it’d be easy to ingest sweeping views of the entire Kathmandu Valley from this perch. But my timing is bad, and I begin the long descent a bit disappointed with the pollution, the snotty actress, and the complete lack of reverence or sacredness at what I thought was supposed to be a holy site.

the-monkey-temple-7

The Monkey Temple can potentially offer the best view in Kathmandu if the weather is clear, but don’t expect a chance for communion with the Divine. Or rather, look for the divine in commercialism, in crumbling history, and, of course, in the monkeys.

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. The Swayanbhunath Monkey Temple is located about a 30-minute walk west of Thamel in Kathmandu.

2. You can take a taxi from Thamel instead of walk, but it’s a very interesting walk through some great neighborhoods, so hoof it if you can!

3. It costs 2,000 rupees ($2) for foreigners to enter the temple. The ticket booth is located at the very top of the steps. If ascending from the east side of the complex, it will be on your left hand side.

4. If you accidentally walk past the ticket booth without paying, the collector will bark at you. Don’t take it personally.

5. Go in the afternoon (not the morning!) unless you want crappy, smog-clogged views of the city.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

What’s it like to do a homestay in India?

“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”

The pressure cooker is whistling, announcing that the rice is almost ready. The tractor drivers in the sugar cane fields out front are taking a tea break, so the rumble of their engines is no longer overriding the silence of the countryside.

I hear a child’s cry from one of the neighboring homes and the chomping of the cows a few meters to my right, but besides that, all I can hear is laughter.

I am squatting beside three radiant women around a small wood fire. A mother and her two daughters are teaching me to make roti, a typical Indian flatbread that we’ll end up eating at every meal.

Though the women – even the youngest girl who is barely nine – can all make their roti into a perfect circle, mine always come out completely lopsided and ugly; a fact that consistently results in a ruckus of laughter and gentle teasing.

I guess I need more practice. I only met these women a few hours ago when I stopped to buy bananas from their roadside fruit stand. Within minutes they had asked me, or rather, they had signaled me (since none of us spoke the same language), to stay at their home for the night.

Though it was barely ten a.m. and I had planned to cycle all day, I readily agreed. Being integrated more deeply into Indian culture and the life of a family is far more important than racking up kilometers.

After lunch the women decide to dress me in a beautiful yellow and red sari that is traditional to the area I am currently cycling through.

It is no longer just the four of us anymore. The youngest two girls, who have been kicked out for lack of space, have been replaced by five women from the neighboring houses.

homestay-in-india-2

I am probably the only Westerner they have ever spoken to and word travels fast – all of the curious women in the area have come to see this young white female who has stumbled upon their small farming village.

They strip me down in their small two bedroom mud hut, laughing when they see that the sari top is too small for my breasts. There are three women working on me simultaneously, I feel as if I am in a beauty salon.

A women in her mid-twenties is keeping the long piece of colorful cloth from touching the ground as her older sister begins to wrap it around me, creating a traditional sari. The third women is working on my hair, pulling it tightly back and into a braid.

Finally I’m ready. They quickly apply some makeup and give me their plastic slippers to wear before hustling me out of the door to present me to the rest of the village.

The women crowd around, laughing, talking, and pointing. They all want their picture taken with me, so I hand my camera to one of the younger girls to start clicking. Though she has never used a camera before and has no idea how to focus it, a few of the picture turn out all right.

It’s overwhelming – I’m not used to being the center of so much attention, but I know I will remember this moment forever.

homestay-in-india-4

I need a break. It is hard not being able to participate in the conversations going on around me, so I eventually change back into my “normal clothes” – an Indian suit I was given by another family I stayed with – before heading out to find the children.

They aren’t hard to find as they too are curious as to who this newcomer is. There are five of them who have been watching this whole episode from the corner of the field. As I approach, they giggle and a few of them turn to run away, but the smallest one sticks around.

I kneel down, put my hands in the prayer position, and say namaste. She smiles and does the same to me, an instant friend. Curiosity wins over the other children and they join her, quickly greeting me before grabbing my hands.

And we are off, I have my new tour guides. They show me their homes, small mud huts like the one I am staying in, and present me to their older siblings who have just come home from school. They too are shocked-yet-elated to meet me.

homestay-in-india-5

I am invited into multiple homes and each family gives me a steaming cup of chia before signaling that I should stay and spend the night with them. I explain, or try to, that I am already staying with their neighbor, but I will be sure to stop by tomorrow.

I know by now that I will be spending at least a few days in this village. The children tug me out of the third house into a game of chase. I catch them and throw them on my back as they scream with glee. Playing with village children has easily become one of my favorites parts of this trip. It is starting to get dark though, so I soon part with my young friends and head back home.

After a delicious dinner of rice and dal with curried vegetables, we wash our hands and feet in the freezing cold stream water and head to bed. It is only 8pm but the electricity has cut out and night has already fallen which makes it hard to do anything but sleep.

Plus I know we will be getting up before the sun tomorrow and I am exhausted. I crawl into bed with the two girls who are excited to have me sleep with them. The mother is in our room too, sleeping with the youngest boy, while the father has his own room next door. It is crowded with three in our small rickety bed but none of us seem to mind. It feels like home.

Throughout India and Nepal I experienced countless homestays such as this, where families, and even entire villages, adopted me for days or weeks at a time.

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My homestay in India, and all of my homestays, have left me with an overwhelming sense of gratitude towards the outpouring of kindness I have been shown since beginning my journey around the world. They have also enabled me to see a glimpse of what life is like in these parts of the world, and given me an insider’s view into the traditions, work, and home life of an Indian family.

Shirine Taylor is a regular contributor to The Happy Passport and is currently cycling around the world. Follow her journey at awanderingphoto.wordpress.com.

Have a question for Shirine? Post it below!

But what if I’m not as adventurous as Shirine? Can I still have an authentic Indian experience if doing a homestay in India sort of freaks me out? 

You don’t have to be as adventurous as Shirine to enjoy everything India has to offer. Homestays are amazing and everything, but there are lots of great ways to see the country if you can’t imagine yourself descending upon a village and spending the night with whomever happens to invite you in.

If you’re more of a “Type A traveler,” you may want to begin your Indian adventure by staying in hotels or guesthouses and exploring villages by day, or doing an organized tour. Our friends at HolidayME have awesome India tour packages that really feel authentic and less touristy than your typical group tour (and we all know how I feel about group tours, so this one must be the real deal!). You can check out their packages here: https://www.holidayme.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

There's much more to India than what you see on the news.

Solo female traveler Shirine was taken in by multiple Indian families during her travels throughout the country, and given food, shelter, and friendship.

Her homestay in India gave her a completely unique perspective into Indian life and culture.

The quick+dirty takeaway of today = people are kind, especially to travelers, and especially to women traveling solo.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

5 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Teaching English in Taiwan

Tell me that doesn't look like what it obviously looks like.

I’m awoken from a deep sleep – the kind that only severe, flight-around-the-world jetlag can create.

A curious sound begins pulsating slowly, steadily. It is a dull thud wrapped inside a dream, a deep, melodic moaning that begins in my belly and rises steadily, gently into my waking consciousness.

One hundred monks have gathered in the temple next door, their sole task to rouse me from my sleep as if today, of all days, will be the most special of my life.

It is 5:13am, and the air in Taipei is no cooler at this hour than it’s been at the sweltering peak of high noon.

I lie on the hard hostel bed listening to the harmonic chanting, deep and rich and straining to reach God. To feel God. To become God.

I’m absolutely certain at the time that this will remain one of the most beautiful, sacred moments of my life.

The room where the monk magic happened.

The room where the monk magic happened.

So how, after being awoken to the glorious, mysterious, unexpected chanting of Buddhist monks outside my window, could the rest of my time in Taiwan be so friggin’ awful?

I had signed a year-long contract to teach English at a private primary school in Chang hua, a sleepy suburb in the central coast on the western side of the island, about 100 miles southwest of Taipei.

I have yet to meet anyone else – not a single living soul – who disliked visiting and/or teaching English in Taiwan.

My experience was a massive travel fail, and after having some time to consider why I hated it there so much, I’ve come up with these 5 questions I wish I would’ve asked myself before signing that contract.

1. Do I LOVE teaching English?

I boarded the plane to Taiwan with a TEFL certificate I’d earned online. I found the course really challenging, even frustrating, and I had to force myself to muscle through each module.

I had enjoyed my previous experience as a theatre teacher in Miami and working one-on-one with ESL students in Miami and Los Angeles. I adored working on pronunciation and intonation – a throw back to my years as a theatre baby.

But pronunciation is one very small part of teaching English, and I had failed to account for all the friggin’ grammar I’d be responsible for imparting to beginning Taiwanese students.

What’s more, I never would’ve taught English at home.

When the glitz and glamor of teaching English in Taiwan wore off, and it was really just teaching English, I realized what a big mistake I had made. A classroom is a classroom, and you’ll be in it, many hours per day, doing the job you’ve been hired to do.

Sweltering August sky in Taipei

Sweltering August sky in Taipei

For some reason, I hadn’t thought about that. I’d been swept up in the idea of teaching overseas – hell, in the idea of just going overseas.

I thought about the money I’d make, the people I’d meet, and all the wonderful places I’d get to go. Maybe I’d weekend in the Philippines! Spend spring break in the mountainous regions of Eastern Taiwan! Fly to Vietnam on a whim!

The first day I arrived at my school, all of the teachers and staff were gathered for a weekly meeting where they discussed problems with students, upcoming events, and so on.

The head of the school turned to me in the middle of the conversation and said “Rebekah, what ideas do you have about new curriculum for our 1st grade students?”

Luckily one of my co-teachers jumped in and defended me, saying “She just got here, give her a break!”

If she hadn’t, I might have actually uttered the words “I don’t have any ideas, and I hope nobody ever asks me that question again as long as I live.”

I was a square peg in a round hole. God bless all teachers everywhere, and God bless that moment for revealing to me that I did not, could not, under any circumstances, remain where I was.

2. Will I be happy working a full time job that just happens to be in another country?

I really, really thought that I’d work 40 hours a week and spend my weekends traveling. Unfortunately, the school had other ideas.

When I got there, and only after I got my teaching schedule, I realized that my 40+ hours were spread out between 8am and 9pm, 6-7 days per week.

Meaning I’d work Saturdays. And sometimes Sundays. And be accountable to someone 12-13 hours per day, nearly every day.

There were breaks in between classes, yes, but for me finishing a class at 4pm and having to return to teach again at 6pm felt like I was working the entire day, almost like an on-call nurse.

Why does everyone else seem to be enjoying their food?

Why does everyone else seem to be enjoying their food?

There wouldn’t be time to go anywhere on the weekends when weekends only lasted one day.

I was saturated with the school – the school was Taiwan, it was my entire experience of Taiwan besides a few brief but fascinating days in Taipei.

There wasn’t time to do anything else but work. When there was time, I was too exhausted to do anything about it.

I found myself thinking “What’s the point of being here when I’m stuck in a classroom all the time? I could be doing this at home and getting paid a lot more.”

Ok, the getting-paid-more part may or may not have been true, but it sure felt true at the time.

3. Have I ever been to the country I’ll be working in?

Not only had I never been to Taiwan before; I’d never been to Asia before. Nothing could have prepared me for the intense culture shock I experienced the second I landed in Shanghai.

My own ignorance astounded me during those first few days. Somehow, I really imagined that most everyone I encountered would speak at least some English (why did I think that?!).

I also had no idea that people were still doing things like working in rice fields and living off the land. I had expected some kind of modernized, Westernized society to have sprung up across Asia, making the entire continent feel like a Chinese restaurant in the middle of Chicago.

Here’s the most embarrassing part – I had no idea that menus and signs would be written entirely in Chinese characters. I had expected everything to be accompanied by pinyin, the romanized version of simplified Chinese. In my ignorance, I also thought most places would have things written in English.

Shandao Temple in Taipei

Shandao Temple in Taipei

I’ll never forget the first time I walked into a Shanghai restaurant and was met with a giant menu board written entirely in Chinese. In that moment, all of my months listening to Pimsleur Chinese CDs became obsolete.

I could say “Hello,” “thank you,” and “I speak Chinese very badly” about 7 different ways, but I couldn’t decipher a single character. I was regressed back to childhood – illiterate, confused, alone. It was an awful, terrifying feeling I’ll never forget.

4. Am I in a good place in my life, like, mentally?

I really, really wish I would’ve asked myself this question before teaching English in Taiwan!

I wasn’t going to Taiwan because I was passionate about teaching English, or because I was particularly interested in Taiwanese culture. I was going because I didn’t know what else to do with my life.

An unexpected career change had left me in limbo. I dreamed of studying French in Paris, or backpacking Europe, but I was under the impression that it’d be way too expensive.

So I decided to teach English in Taiwan in order to save money to go to Paris later. In this way, I totally set myself up for failure. I was in it for the money, and after taxes the money was pretty much crap anyway.

Not only was I confused and directionless (a common hazard of being 29 going on 30), I had the brilliant idea to get involved with someone back home right before I left.

This genius decision resulted in hour after hour of tearful phone calls as he begged me to come home and marry him and have babies and forget Taiwan once and for all.

Culture shock + lack of passion + cute guy proposing marriage = get me out of Taiwan, stat.

5. Do the positives of teaching English abroad outweigh the negatives?

Don’t get me wrong – it wasn’t all bad.

The other teachers I worked with were absolutely wonderful human beings; well traveled, open minded, and incredibly patient with me as I wallowed in misery on their forest green couch for weeks on end.

They even let me live on that same couch after I’d decided to leave the school, and never once complained (at least not to my face) that I was being the biggest Debby Downer ever (which I absolutely was).

Offerings to Buddha in Taipei

Offerings to Buddha in Taipei

The kids were great as well. There was Hank, who at 4 years old had the scratchy, sultry voice of a has-been Las Vegas lounge singer. And little Cindy Lou, who fell into fits of delicious giggles every time I practiced my numbers in Chinese.

And there were great morning workouts with Zoe, a fellow teacher who’d just graduated military school and volunteered to be my personal trainer at 6am each day. Doing planks and pushups next to elderly Taiwanese practicing Tai Chi was always invigorating, even in the oppressive heat.

But I had zero desire to teach. I missed my boy back home. I couldn’t find anything I liked to eat after being served soup with what I swear-to-God was some animal’s penis floating in it. And I was completely closed off when it came to accepting cultural differences.

It was perfectly ok for the Chinese teachers to hit the kids, and to shame them in front of the others students if they misbehaved. (note – people in Taiwan often, if not always, referred to themselves as “Chinese,” which is why I just did too.)

One boy was made to wear lipstick in front of the class, while another was threatened with a diaper if he didn’t shape up (as in, he’d have to wear a diaper all day to show what a ‘baby’ he was being.)

Finally, a tale circulated about the worst punishment of all – being placed inside a large metal can or box that was 2-3 feet above the student’s head, making it impossible for them to climb out but easy for other students and teachers to peer in and taunt them.

Depending on the transgression, a kid could be imprisoned in the box-of-shame for hours on end.

Now it’s not my place to say whether all of this behavior is right or wrong. I’m not interested in making judgments, and I really think it’s impossible for a Western mind to understand the nuances of morality as experienced in another culture.

At the time, however, it was too much for me to bear. I couldn’t be a part of it.

The other teachers were fine with it because they knew something I didn’t – that there is relativism to right and wrong, and that the kids undergoing these punishments were no more traumatized than you were when you had your name written on the board in 4th grade. It’s simply how things are done in Taiwan, and everyone – teachers, students, parents – is perfectly fine with it.

My limited mind didn’t see it that way, though. I thought the Western teachers had turned into desensitized monsters. Pretty soon they’d be hitting the kids and putting them in diapers as well. I refused to put diapers on anyone over the age of 3, godammit!

So I left, like a chicken, my feathers between my legs.

Learning from my mistakes

For some reason, my second journey to Asia has been the incredible eye-opening experience I’d hoped the first time would be. Who knows why the second time’s the charm, but it is, and I’m grateful.

I’ve even eaten bone-in fish, fresh crab eggs, and shrimp with the eyeballs in-tact and enjoyed every bite of it!

If you’re thinking of teaching English in Taiwan, learn from my mistakes!

Before you sign your contract…..

  • Make sure you really, really like teaching English
  • Be prepared to work a full time job, and realize that working is going to be your main (perhaps your only) activity for the duration of your contract
  • Visit the country you’ll be teaching in before committing to a lengthy contract. Regardless of what recruiters will tell you, I think it’s almost always easier to find a job once you’re in-country anyway – you just have to time it right.
  • Bring a mind so open its prepared for anything.
  • Don’t expect it to be just like home, because it won’t be – that’s the greatest part about teaching English abroad, and it’s the part I completely missed. Of course the food is different, and the language is different, and the values are different, and the people are different. That’s why you’re teaching in another country in the first place, right?

Have you ever taught English abroad?

Did you experience major culture shock like me?

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

Before signing your contract to teach English abroad, ask yourself:

1. Do I LOVE teaching English? Like, reeeeeally love it?

2. Will I be happy working a full time job that just happens to be in another country?

3. Have I ever been to the country I’ll be working in and am I suuuure I want to live there for an entire year?

4. Am I mentally prepared for all of the stresses that come with moving to another country? Is this a good time in my life to make such a big change?

5. Do the positives of teaching English abroad outweigh the negatives?

If you answered YES to most of the above, then have at it!!!

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

HOTEL REVIEW: The Holy Lodge Kathmandu Guest House in Thamel

(this post is my overall review of my stay at the Holy Lodge Kathmandu Guest House. To find out what happened when I first arrived, check out Part 1 here.)

WHAT I PAID

Why is it that so many hotel reviews NEVER INCLUDE PRICES?

I think it’s because many of the people reviewing are getting kickbacks from the hotel or something. If those people list prices, it’s bad for the hotel because they can’t charge more.

My review is totally unbiased – I have no affiliation with the Holy Lodge and I didn’t receive any kind of discount to stay there.

I paid 800 rupees (about $8 USD) per night and stayed there for a total of 3 nights.

I booked the room through HostelWorld.com. I paid $2.40 deposit to hold the room, and paid $21.60 when I checked out.

I’m really glad I had my booking printed out and with me when I checked in. The staff seemed to have my reservation, but they also seemed surprised when I told them the rate I was guaranteed online.

At first, I thought this was because they had hoped to charge me more. Looking back, I now think it was because I could’ve gotten the room for less – there was sort of this energy of “Um….well, ok, if you want to pay more than we would’ve asked for, fine by us.”

kathmandu-guest-house-

WHAT I GOT

800 rupees per night got me:

  • My own private room that had two twin beds. This was perfectly fine with me, I used one bed for my stuff and the other for sleeping.

  • A shared bathroom on my floor with a hot shower and a Western-style toilet. The toilet was separated from the shower, which was nice because you could still use one if someone was in the other. (p.s. scalding hot water is a friggin’ LUXURY in Nepal, and this shower never disappointed, even in the middle of the night)

  • Free WiFi that reached my room – not lightning-fast by any means, but totally usable.

  • A great location in the heart of Thamel within walking distance of everything I wanted to do and see

  • Assistance booking a tourist bus to Pokhara – I got a pretty good deal (700 rupees) and a guaranteed seat on the bus.

WHAT I LOVED

  • I really ended up liking the staff, even though we got off to a rocky start. The guys working at the Holy Lodge are all young Nepalese dudes, and they never really get a break. They are at the hostel 24/7, and switch off taking breaks and sleeping. There was always someone there to answer my questions, help me out, make recommendations and give me whatever I needed.

  • Most of the staff spoke excellent English – we couldn’t exactly have a conversation about Chaucer, mind you, but they understood what I was saying and were able to communicate enough to get the job done.

  • The way the building is set up, there are only 4-5 rooms per floor, and they wrap around in a way that gives you a good amount of privacy. This place did not feel like a hostel to me – the other people staying here were couples in their late 20s/30s, couples in their 50s/60s, solo females, etc. I didn’t get a party crowd vibe at all, even though the location is in the middle of Thamel.

  • They have a great rooftop terrace with nice views of the city during the day and the stars (if you can see ‘em) at night.

NOT MY FAVE

  • My room was opposite a rooftop bar that had live music every night. I don’t know if you can stay in Thamel and get away from the noise, but man – it was as if the band had set up their amplifiers underneath my pillow. Thank God for noise-canceling headphones and prescription Valium from the plane ride.

  • The restaurant downstairs. Overpriced, and the food is just so-so. I asked where I could get a decent bite to eat at the front desk, and – duh – of course they recommended their restaurant. It’s fine for when you’ve just arrived and are still getting your bearings, but once you’re ready to venture out, you’ll find much cheaper, tastier fare outside.

  • I didn’t love how I was offered airport pick up for “only 650 rupees!!” – like that was some sort of deal. The airport to Thamel costs locals 350-400, and tourists shouldn’t pay more than 500. When I found this out, it sort of left a bad taste in my mouth.

View from the roof of the Holy Lodge Kathmandu Guest House
View from the roof of the Holy Lodge Kathmandu Guest House

MY RATING

Would I stay at the Holy Lodge Guest House Kathmandu again?

Definitely. But only with industrial strength earplugs.

Have you stayed at the Holy Lodge? How was it?

additional photos: nepalhotelrooms.com, hostels.com

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

The Holy Lodge Guesthouse is located in Thamel, Kathmandu, Nepal. It's a great choice for solo female travelers, especially those looking for budget accommodation without the "hostel feel."

Holy Lodge Pvt. Ltd.
7 Corner, Thamel, Kathmandu, Nepal
Phone no: + 977-1-4701763
Mobile: 9851036785/ 9851082990/ 9851040518
www.holylodge.com
info@holylodge.com

1. The Holy Lodge is a clean, comfortable guest house in a great location. It has the three essentials I look for wherever I stay: my own private room, hot water, and WiFi.

2. Only book your first night online to secure the room. After that, negotiate in person. The longer you stay, the better rate you’ll be able to get.

3. Skip the restaurant downstairs and venture out into Thamel for tastier, cheaper fare

4. You don’t need them to pick you up from the airport - there are plenty of cab drivers waiting at the airport who’ll bring you to Thamel for less than 650

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

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