Tag Archives: travel fail

What Puking in Parvarti’s River Taught Me About Life

“I am Parvati!”

She ambushes me, taking my face in her hands, her head jiggling from side to side in a way I’ve heard about but never actually seen until now.

“Are you okay? You are sick?”

Yes. Talk about a solo female travel fail – I’ve gotten food poisoning in the middle of an 8-hour motorbike journey, on the very day I’m supposed to be meeting Deepak’s family.

The timing could not be worse, and what’s more – I can’t. Stop. Puking.

Parvarti is the neighbor girl who lives next door to Deepak’s family, and her beauty trumps any that has yet to appear in these posts.

She is more fabulouss than the would-be Polish model at The Lemon Tree, more womanly than Mrs. DeKash, more angelic than Deepak in stolen moments under the covers.

Her dark hair hangs loose around her shoulders, free and wild where the other women’s hair is tightly bound and wrapped.

Her skin is pale, a stark palette that highlights the richness of her eyebrows, dark half moons sketched with God’s paintbrush.

Her nose is slightly upturned, which makes her look impish, like she’s planning a practical joke that you’re going to just love.

She takes my hand, touches my hair, inspects me all over with wonder and excitement.

I let her give me the once over as everyone else in the village stares, which is far more comfortable than the way my stomach feels after the putrid, stagnant water I just drank.

“Would you like to see my river?!” yells Parvarti, absolutely bubbling over.

How could I say no? I’ve never heard anyone refer to a river as their river, and for all I know she might mean that literally.

Besides, even if I had a knife sticking out of my stomach and had to choose between going to the ER and going to see Parvarti’s river, I’d pick the river.  She’s that charming.

The others make way for us, as enamored with her beauty as they are with my strangeness.

She is the darling of the farm, and I imagine suitors from the surrounding provinces descending in droves to beg her grandmother for her hand.

Parvarti takes my hand in hers, and for a moment I imagine myself her chosen suitor as we walk together across the dirt road towards the surrounding fields.

She leads me along a network of dirt pathways, helping me keep my balance without toppling onto the budding crops.

Each pathway is about two feet wide and a foot high, and runs the length of the land so that farmers can walk between crops without stepping on them.

“This my garden” says Parvarti, gesturing to the plot of land to our right. “I grow onion, tomato, cauli-flowers.”

“And this garden?” I ask, gesturing to the empty, overgrown, weed-infested plot to the left. “Is this yours too?”

“That Deepak garden” laughs Parvarti. “Is not very good.”

If I wasn’t so distracted by my nausea, I might be more inclined to investigate the obvious metaphor I’m now looking at – the lush, abundant field tended by Parvarti’s hand, and the hot, unattended mess that has been borne of Deepak’s neglect.

We make our way through the fields to a cluster of trees that lie along the banks of a bubbling brook.

“My river!” exclaims Parvarti proudly, looking at me to see if I’m impressed.

I withdraw my hand from hers, look wildly around for the best place to go, see nowhere, walk a few feet towards the water, and vomit right into Parvarti’s precious river.

“I’m sorry!” I gasp between wretches. She says nothing but waits, watches me, stands patiently by a tree.

Again. And again. Into the tall grass. Into her river. There is nothing to clean myself with, I am filth incarnate, I have never been so ashamed.

I dare to look at Parvati, who is doing the head bob at me, looking mildly concerned.

“I’m so sorry” I say again, not knowing what else to say. What are you supposed to say when you puke in someone’s river?

As we walk back to the house, me having completely defiled the most precious thing in her life, Parvarti takes my hand again and begins humming a soft little Hindi song.

She doesn’t care that I’m filthy. She doesn’t care that I’ve just vommed in her river, the only possession she has, the thing that is most precious to her in the entire world.

In fact, the entire episode, which seems incredibly dramatic and awful and unsettling to me, doesn’t seem to have ruffled her feathers at all.

She passes me off to the other women with an easy smile, certain that I’m going to feel better soon.

She leaves just as easily as she arrived, not knowing that she has dwarfed my childish, petulant ego with the might of her magnificent heart.

To be like Parvarti – filled with joy in the face of the everyday, unconcerned in the face of disaster – has become my only goal in life.

By Rebekah Voss. 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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Operation Bikini Wax

The mission:

You have less than 24 hours to a find salon or an individual to give you a bikini wax (preferably with hard wax, because we all know what a disaster crappy Sally Hansen wax can be).

“It’s too easy!” you say. “There’s a place right down the street!” you say.

I wasn’t finished yet.

Not only do you desperately (desperately) need a bikini wax: you also happen to be on a remote island off the coast of Vietnam.

How remote, you ask? Well, there’s WiFi. There’s cell reception. But there are no computer repair shops, there’s nowhere to buy a cell phone charger should yours break, and there are no English-speaking women (none that you’re personally acquainted with, anyway.)

On your mark. Get set. Go!

12:32pm: Enemy Challenge

Truong: “Would you like to go to the beach with me tomorrow?”

That depends, cute Vietnamese guy I’m dating, is this the kind of beach where wild, hairy Alpacas are welcome to roam at will? Because after 4 months without seeing the inside of a salon, that’s exactly what I resemble.

12:34pm: Mission Identified

Me: “Sure. Um. Is Anh around, btw?”

Anh is my best bet – after all, she’s the one who gave me my awesome Vietnamese makeover, she’s the one who yells at me when I braid my wet hair, she’s the one who gives me free pedicures in the middle of her restaurant when there aren’t any customers around, and she’s the one who used to own a salon.

Problem: Anh speaks as much English as I do Vietnamese.

In the nearby capital city of  Hanoi, all of the young students I’ve met speak English beautifully.  If I had to generalize I’d say that the girls tend to have a better command of the language than the boys.

But here in small town Cat Ba, it is the men who tend to speak English, their wives nodding and smiling in the background.

I can’t tell if it’s because the women just don’t care to learn, or they want to learn but their husbands don’t let them, or they’re way too busy running the family business and raising the children while the men sit around smoking cigarettes and watching cricket (I sort of think it’s the last one).

This saddens me both from an empowerment standpoint and from a bikini wax standpoint.

Back home, I wouldn’t think twice about talking to a male friend about this kind of thing, but in Vietnam, it’s different, especially in Cat Ba.

Here you can’t even hug someone of the opposite sex in public. And you most certainly can’t discuss an intimate, personal matter like waxing with a man who’s not your husband.

Heck, the best I can get from my sweetie is a kiss on the cheek – and that’s only if it’s dark out and no one’s looking. So I can’t imagine bringing up the subject of waxing with one of my English-speaking male friends  – I might seriously cause some instances of cardiac arrest.

1:17pm: Location Surveillance

I go to the restaurant. Anh is there, smiling her placid smile, but everyone else is there too. Her husband, his brother, and half a dozen (male) staff under the age of 25.

I hem and haw and order a coffee, and then I remember the powerful tool I have in my pocket – my Google translate app!

1:31pm: Brush Contact

“Where can I get a bikini wax?”

I type the question into Google translate, hoping for the best. The translation includes the English word “bikini” but everything else is magically transformed to Vietnamese. Looks good!

“Anh! Pssssst, Anh!”

I wave her over and covertly show her my phone’s screen. She reads the question, doesn’t bat an eyelash, and nods her head without looking at me.

Stealthy! Anh clearly knows how to be discreet, and she also must know exactly where to go to get the weed whacking done.

1:34pm: Covert Operation

She disappears into the back of the restaurant and magically reappears with two motorbike helmets.

Score!

Anh says something to her husband in Vietnamese, and he looks at me and giggles.

Oh, no! Anh! I thought we had an understanding!

“You go with Anh, you go shopping now” he says.

Ohhhh, I see what she did there. Good thinking, Anh.

“Yes!” I say. “We go shopping!”

I wink at Anh and she winks back and smiles at me. This was so much easier than I thought it would be, especially since I haven’t seen waxing offered as an option on any of the salon signs in town.

Anh probably has a friend who’ll do it in her back room. Or maybe Anh herself can do it – I sort of don’t want her poking around down there, what with us being as close as two people could be without speaking the same language, but oh well. I’m on a mission, after all. Some sacrificial awkwardness is to be expected.

1:47pm: In the Field

We’re off!

Anh’s motorbike races down the main drag, past restaurants and hotels, and makes a sharp right towards the local market.

For some reason we stop here and park. Fruit sellers and baskets of vegetables and electronic stands and shoe stalls are packed on top of one another, creating a loud, smelly, vibrant city within a city.

There are plastic shoes for sale, and fish sauce, dried pork, sweating fruit, leafy greens, duck eggs and knock off designer clothing. So it stands to reason there could also be a woman somewhere in the bowels of the market just waiting to pour hot wax on my hoo ha.

1:49pm: Gloria the Mole

I follow Anh through the market, my flip flopped feet stepping carefully around mysterious puddles of stank liquid.

She stops at a vegetable seller squatting in front of huge baskets of garlic. They exchange a few words, and I imagine she’s asking “Hey Gloria, does Debbie still do waxing, and is she still in the same location?”

1:51pm: Secret Lair

Anh thanks Gloria for what must have been an affirmative answer and we continue on, swimming from the primarily food section of the market to an outdoor mall of covered tents packed with clothing.

We step into an enormous closet. I feel like Alice after she’s gone through the lookinglass – rack upon rack stacked 20 feet high, pants and blouses and dresses leering at me from every angle.

Anh smiles brightly and rifles through the nearest rack until she finds what she’s looking for – a top in XL. She holds it up to me and says “Big! Big for you!”

One of the favorite topics of my friends here in Cat Ba is how large I am, especially compared with the tiny man I am dating.

Dear reader, I am 5’6” on a good day, and about 135lbs. And to them, I am the epitome of obesity. They are very concerned about my health, and everyday demand that I wake up at 5am to exercise with them (this has yet to happen).

2:07pm: The Drop Point

I pay the cashier 1 million dong – about $50 – and emerge from the closet with a new dress, and several Anh-approved (XL) outfits. Anh is very happy because the tunic top she’s chosen for me hides my stomach.

Fine. Good. We had been meaning to go shopping for a while, so I’m glad that’s out of the way. Now we’re going for my wax, right?

2:15pm: Anh’s tries a Starbust Maneuver

Anh straddles the motorbike and hangs her many plastic bags onto the bike’s convenient hooks. We’ve been to the pharmacist, to buy shoes for her husband, and to buy tank tops for my sweetie to wear while cooking in the steamy kitchen.

Is it possible that Anh…..didn’t understand what I meant when I wrote “bikini wax”?

“I need bikini wax” I say again, gesturing vaguely to my nether regions.

Anh smiles and nods, gesturing for me to get on the scooter already.

Ok, phew. I’m probably being really annoying. Clearly we just needed to run a few errands, and now we’ll go get waxed.

2:32pm: Back at Camp Swampy

Back at the restaurant. Anh just wanted to drop off everything we’d bought. We give the guys their gifts, Anh puts the vegetables in the fridge, I stand up to leave again and she….sits down. And pours herself some tea.

2:34pm: Abort?

My sweetie emerges from the kitchen just long enough to smile at me and say “beach tomorrow!”

I muster up as much enthusiasm as possible and smile at him, nodding.

As soon as he leaves, all decorum goes out the window. This is now officially an emergency.

2:33pm: Canary Trap

“Mr. Twin? I need….I need wax.”

Mr. Twin, Anh’s English-speaking husband, stares at me blankly. Anh just smiles and nods.

Oh, crap.

In this moment I realize that Anh smiling and nodding does not, in fact, mean “Yes, I understand” but instead means “I don’t have a clue what you’re saying but I like you and want to be polite.”

How the hell did Google translate “I need a bikini wax” into “Let’s go shopping for XL clothing right now”?!

“Mr. Twin, please. I need….”

I gesture ripping hair off my arm.

He’s not getting it.

“Much hair, Mr. Twin. I need off. No hair for me, please. Where can I go?”

His eyes suddenly light up in recognition, and for a second I think I’m in.

“You want hair gone?”

“Yes! Please! Where can I go to get hair gone?”

“I can do” says Mr. Twin, which is his answer for everything from cooking to teaching English to his daughter to hunting wild birds to online marketing. (and in most of those cases, he really actually can do.)

I blush, hoping Truong can’t hear our conversation.

“No, no, you don’t understand.”

“I can do!” Mr. Twin insists. “Many women come to me and I do. I do like this.”

He mimes the action of threading eyebrows.

“Not there” I say, gesturing again to other areas of my body without going for the gold. Meanwhile, Anh is happily sipping her tea, engrossed in her phone.

“I do anywhere!” says Mr. Twin. “The chin, the lip, hair gone anywhere.”

Last chance: give up or go for the jugular?

I think of Truong, hairless Truong with woven silk skin the color of caramel, lounging in the sand and surf like a Vietnamese Adonis.

And me on the beach  next to him in long pants.

“Mr. Twin, I need no hair..for swimsuit.”

And then it happens. I, a grown woman, standing in the middle of a restaurant, speaking to my friend’s husband right in front of her, point to my vagina.

Mr. Twin dies laughing.

“Noooooooo!!!!” he roars. “I cannot do there!”

And then “Truong! Come here!”

No no no no no don’t call Truong, pleeeeeease.

“I cannot do for you there, but maybe Mr. Truong must do for you!!!”

“But Mr. Twin, please, can someone do? Someone on Cat Ba can do for me?”

He says something to Anh in Vietnamese, who suddenly looks very surprised, and shakes her head ‘no.’

“No one” says Mr. Twin.

“Cannot do” says Mr. Twin.

I give up, defeated.

Maybe I can suggest a hike instead of the beach? Or a boat ride? Or anything where the entire lower half of my sasquatchian body can remain covered?

2:41pm: Mission Impossible

OPERATION BIKINI WAX: 100% FAIL

Here’s what I’m dying to know – what the hell did Anh read when she looked at my phone? What had I accidentally written in Vietnamese?!

And worse, what on earth did she think when I asked again in the market and gestured to the area below my waist?!!!

And finally, the fact that there is no waxing available on Cat Ba does not mean that Vietnamese women just let themselves go – I’ve never met a group of ladies so pleasantly obsessed with beauty, so pulled together, so fashionable, so diligent about straightening their hair and making sure each painted nail is perfectly glossed at all times – even if – no, especially if – they spend their days peeling garlic and washes dishes and shelling crab underneath the hot sun.

Which leads me to believe that they don’t NEED bikini waxing, because just like my hairless honey, they are blessed with this smooth, silken, velvety skin – sort of like human versions of hypoallergenic cats.

I wish I was a hypoallergenic cat. Or, at the very least, I wish I had a hypoallergenic va jay jay.

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. You may not get a bikini wax on Cat Ba Island in Vietnam - best take care of your business in Hanoi before you come.

2. Google Translate is not only FLAT OUT WRONG, the translations it comes up with are specific and absurd!

3. There is no way to communicate "bikini wax" without pointing to your hoo ha. If you find a way to do so please let me know.

4. If you are an esthetician of some sort, you could make a killing on Cat Ba because you will have zero competition and hordes of hairy tourists in need of your services.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

A Morning at Marble Mountain – Part 2

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

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

11:47am: Hoi An Ancient Town 

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

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

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

marble-mountain

Hoi An Ancient Town

We check out….

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

Quong Cong Temple

The Japanese Bridge, Hoi An

The Japanese Bridge, Hoi An

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

2:12pm My Son

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

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

We learn that the site shuts down at 5pm.

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

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

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

4:52pm My Son?

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

marble-mountain

Somewhere between Hoi An and My Son

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Start the motorbike already.

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

It’s not turning over.

I wait a second, breathe, then try again.

Dead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

marble-mountain-sunset

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now he is gone.

marble-mountain-featured

“Where the hell are we?”

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

My phone is about to die.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You didn’t thank them” says Dan.

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

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

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

 

7:45pm Back in Hoi An

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

Drowning our sorrows in cao lau

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

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

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

The moral of the story?

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

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

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

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

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

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

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

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

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

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

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

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

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

1. Speak as loudly as possible at all times

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

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

2. Complain…about everything

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

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

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

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

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

3. Claim to be an English teacher

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

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

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

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

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

A strong example of this would be:

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

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

4. Travel in packs

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

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

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

5. Make it like spring break

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. Speak as loudly as possible at all times.

2. Complain about everything.

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

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

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

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

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!