Tuesday, March 4, 2014

[Teach Abroad Blog Carnival] Do as I didn't, do as I did

[Today’s article is written for the Reach To Teach Teach Abroad Blog Carnival, a monthly series that focuses on providing helpful tips and advice to ESL teachers around the globe. I'll be posting a new ESL related article on my blog on the 4th of every month. If you'd like to participate in next month's Blog Carnival, you can find details in the above link.]

March's blog carnival entries can be read here.

Prompt: Travel, it's a whirlwind adventure! What advice would you give to people getting ready for their own adventure (in preparation) that you wish you could have done differently?

-- Do as I didn't --

I'll begin as a good blog carnival participant and actually follow the prompt, highlighting two things I would have done differently in my past travel preparations. And then I'll slightly stray, and offer two bits of advice based on what has worked well for me.

Don't be afraid to travel alone

My main exposure to travel began when I studied abroad in Madrid for a year during college.  I went on many little trips, mostly within Spain, but always with friends.  When I returned to Madrid to teach English after graduating from college, it took some time for me to make new friends in the city. We had a 3-day weekend not long after I'd started working, so I wanted to go somewhere. I never seriously considered going alone, though.  Instead, I found other English teachers in Madrid (via a Facebook group) who also wanted to go somewhere that weekend. So I traveled with one other from Madrid to Málaga, where we met up with a pair of girls who were also staying there for the weekend, just at a different hostel.

Now, it wasn't a bad trip. After all, this was the trip where a monkey sat on my head!

But it wasn't great. Since I barely knew these girls and two of them were already friends, I fell into my introvert role and listened to conversations much more than I ever added to them. It takes a while for me to warm up to certain new faces, and the time together that weekend just wasn't enough. Also, I need at least 8 hours of sleep to function normally the next day.  One night I was so ready for bed, but had to go with the girl I had come with to meet up with the other two in town for drinks.  I was soo tired the whole time, and just wanted to be in bed. Especially since we were taking a day-trip to Gibraltar the next day.

After I did lots of yawning and no talking, we got back to our hostel around 1 a.m. and had to leave by 7 something the next morning. I was not my normal self that Gibraltar day; I was tired and even quieter than normal because I didn't want something grumpy to slip out of my mouth.  So combining my introverted tendencies with my lack of sleep, I'm pretty sure I came off as a cold, unfriendly, and boring person to those girls. After that weekend I never heard from any of them again. Whoops.

But I learned from the experience. A few months later when winter break came, I wanted to go somewhere but again had no available travel companions. So I set off on my own for a 2-week HelpX gig over Christmas and New Year's.

That spring I spent a 4-day weekend in Barcelona, which I consider my first "real" solo travel trip. It was awesome! I got to do what I wanted to do, when I wanted to do it, and spend only the money that I was willing to spend. I also got to go to bed as early as I wanted and wake up when I wanted, yet I could easily find company in the hostel -- if I wanted it.  This is sounding really selfish, but when you have limited time in a certain location, and you're spending hard-earned money to be there, you don't want to be following someone else's idea of a good time.  I was on my feet walking in Barcelona for over 12 hours one day, and eight hours the next. My feet were so sore, but I loved every minute of it. No one in their right mind would have been okay with what I did -- but I was, and that's all that mattered!

Enjoying the view from Barcelona's Gardens of Joan Brossa

Since then, I've done a lot more traveling on my own, and it really seems to suit me.  My travel default is to just go alone if I want to go somewhere. Traveling alone may not be for everyone, I do understand. And if you have people you enjoy traveling with, then by all means, please go with them! But don't go with randoms or friends whose travel style isn't a match with yours, simply because you've never considered traveling alone. Give it a try and see what you think!

Bring some cash with you

During the two years that I lived in Madrid, the majority of my travels were within Spain, so currency was never an issue. I think the only time I needed a different currency was when some friends and I backpacked through Morocco for 10 days during our spring break (back in 2010). I just pulled some cash out of an ATM at the airport when we got to Tangier. Easy.

Since arriving in Korea six months ago, I didn't leave the country until this past January when I went to Bangkok.  I thought I'd do what I'd done before: Take out cash at an ATM in the airport. I made sure to set a travel advisory with my debit card so that there wouldn't be any problems.  Can you guess where this is going? I got to Bangkok and tried to take money out of an ATM but it didn't work.  I wanted to wait and just sort it out in the morning, after a good night's sleep at my hostel, but the metro token could only be purchased with cash at the machines. Rookie mistake, I realize now.  After some panic and trying other solutions, I ended up exchanging the 20,000 KRW (~$20) I just so happened to have taken out of an ATM that morning in Korea and was able to take the metro to my hostel. Lesson learned!

-- Do as I did --

I don't have many regrets when it comes to my past travel adventures; I really enjoy my slow-paced style of travel, and would like to share two related pieces of advice based on what I've done right:

Plan less

Nowadays I just book my transportation to/from the city, reserve a hostel, and usually skim the wiki travel page before heading somewhere new.  The rest I'll figure out once I get there, and I'm not worried about it beforehand.  Hostels almost always have lots of travel books and maps, should you be a travel book type of person. Talking with other hostel guests (or staff) who have already explored the city is another great way to figure out what you want to do each day.  My personal favorite is going on wander walks.  I like to discover places on foot, so I just pick a general direction or sometimes destination, and just walk.  It's on these walks that I see glimpses of local life, and discover neighborhoods on my own.

It was a wander walk that led me to Moontan Road the other weekend in Busan -- such a relaxing walk.  (I know what you're thinking, mother: It was also wandering that got you your very first dog bite that same weekend!  True, true, but I'll always remember my unique Busan experience - completely unplanned!)

While traveling somewhere new, you can't know exactly what to expect, so I've found that it's best just to give yourself lots of wiggle room. See what you feel like doing that day, in that place.  Plan less.

Be flexible

Another reason why I suggest planning less is because things will not always go according to your plan.  And when that happens, you could get stressed out or upset about what you've missed or will miss due to the bump in your plan, and that's just no fun.  If you've planned too much, setbacks will often cause a domino effect of problems. So be flexible and accept the surprises.

When I flew to Tangier, Morocco for that backpacking trip I mentioned earlier, our plan was to take an overnight train from Tangier to Marrakech, where we had hostel reservations the following night.  When we got to the train station and tried to buy tickets, we were told that there were no trains going to Marrakech that day (even though the online schedule had said there were trains). Apparently they were doing construction on the railway and had decided not to run that train, since it was Sunday.  Ummmm now what?  Would there be a train to Marrakech tomorrow? Maybe, the man said.  We couldn't rely on a maybe. The other little detail in this story is that our friend Mike had accidentally purchased his plane ticket for the wrong day, so he would be joining us in Marrakech; we had to get there by the following day.  We debated renting a car, or trying to take a bus that far. ("You take a bus, you will die," we were told).

In the end we took a 5 hour train ride to Rabat and arrived around midnight with no lodging. We were walking around in the dark with no maps, trying to find somewhere to sleep. The first places that we tried were all booked up, so we ended up paying a ridiculous amount (ridiculously expensive, that is) for one night at a hotel - but we had no other choice. The next day we successfully took a train from Rabat to Marrakech and met Mike at the hostel without any further problems. We just had to be flexible, scrap our "plans" and make new ones. You won't know the situation until you get there; planning can only get you so far.

My friend Izzy, sitting out of the open train car in Morocco

A second story about the importance of flexibility while traveling takes place in Mutriku, a tiny tiny town on Spain's northern coast. My friends and I had gone there for a relaxing weekend together before we parted ways at the end of our study abroad year.  It was our last full day of the trip, and we were going to go into San Sebastian for the day.  We got up and packed for a day away, then went and waited at the bus stop. We waited over a half an hour for the scheduled bus to arrive, only to discover there was a strike that day. Strikes were familiar to us after nearly a year in Madrid, but we'd had no idea or warning about this strike. So here we were: No buses. No grocery stores (the only two in town were closed for the strike). Oh, and the town's bars and restaurants were closed too. Looks like we weren't going to San Sebastian after all! Instead of getting upset about it, we were grateful to be stranded on this gorgeous coast, and somehow scraped up enough of the various items remaining in the fridge to eat something that day.

A closing, of sorts

Both of these pieces of advice are a lot easier to implement when you're not in a rush, which is why I tend to travel slowly. When I told people about my recent 10-day Bangkok trip, most of the reactions were the same: 10 days? Just Bangkok? With the protests going on?? Why didn't you go to one of the islands? Why didn't you go here, why didn't you go there?  

Because I wanted to relax and explore the city with flexibility! I did lots during those days and guess what? I didn't get to it all!  I'll go back and explore the rest of Thailand when I have more time. And when that day does come, you can be sure that I'll arrive with cash in hand.

What do you think: Can any adventurers take my advice, or only slow travelers? Have you traveled alone before? How did you find it? Let me know, and then check out the travel advice from other Teach Abroad Blog Carnival participants!
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  1. Nice post! Couldn't agree more on the perks of traveling solo, and being flexible with your plans - those buses/trains have a mind of their own!

    1. Thanks! They sure do -- I think the more often that you travel, the more obvious it is that plans will fall through. At least that's been my experience!

  2. Great read Rebe!
    It was nice to read about your adventures in Barcelona! I have visited the city often and its a place that holds a part of my heart for sure!
    I am a HUGE advocate for travelling alone. I have done both solo and group travel, group travel has its charms but I agree with you; I would rather carve out my own travel experience that I am in total control over.

    I look forward to reading your future blog carnival posts.

    1. Thanks Dean! That was the only time I've been to Barcelona, but it gave me quite the positive impression; I know I'll visit again in the future.