Saturday, December 8, 2012

5 Ways to Immerse Yourself in Local Culture

Time for another Blog Carnival!

Carol at Girl Gone Travel is the host this time around, so please also check out the other carnival posts! 

I used to teach English as a Second Language and these tips pretty much overlap with what I recommended for my students because the best way to learn anything is to just jump right in and immerse yourself!

Rule #1 - Get Over Yourself

Me in a fez in Marrakesh, Morocco looking ridiculous
Yup, you're going to have to drop your ego off and be prepared to look silly now and then. You're learning/trying new things so you won't fit in right away. However, if you have a really open attitude and not worry about how you look or sound, people recognize and reward effort. You stand a much higher chance of being accepted if you are not uptight or sensitive about everything. Don't try to be perfect - the fact is, no one else is really caring or watching. It's true!


Rule #2 - Watch TV from that culture

I always told my students to listen to the radio and watch TV (that's how I won the favorite teacher award! Joke) because not only is it in the target language which helps for learning, but because it provides valuable insight to how those people think. You can learn a lot about the values and humor of a people from their media. Yes, some is over the top and stereotypical, but it still gives you some clue (and it's easy and fun!). Not only that, but you can most likely get a head start by watching from home (on the Internet maybe) before you go, and keep the memories alive after you return.

Rule #3 - Find a lover

That sounds cliche, doesn't it? But it works! Sure, a local friend is good, but nothing makes learning about another culture more fun than a romance! You also automatically get a whole new group of friends to hang out with as well!

morocco arabic coke and sprite by solowomantraveler
These aren't hard to figure out!
 Rule #4 - Go OUT

Don't be shy, be a social butterfly! Go out and ride local transportation, get lost, get out of the tourist zones (consider safety) and try a little of all the local foods you can find. I love going to grocery stores and looking at the products. The less I understand about what it is, the more likely I am to buy it. I'm not even sure what I've eaten and I'm still alive! You don't have to like everything, but you should at least try everything!

Rule #5 - CouchSurf

Nothing immerses you more in a local culture than actually living with a local family. I highly recommend CouchSurfing for that (tips here and here). On more than one occasion, CouchSurfing has made my travel experience WAY better than anything I could have accomplished on my own. Locals help you avoid the tourist traps and get immersed in the authentic side of daily life.
Even if you're not comfortable staying on a stranger's couch, you can join just to attend public activities/meetings and you'll meet tons of people that way. Often tourists will get together and check out sites as a group, so if you get tired of being a solo woman traveler, you can always join up with a CouchSurfing group for a day.
(One caveat: don't just join Couchsurfing to score a freebie. See if you agree with the whole philosophy and then decide if it's for you or not. Us Couchsurfers really care about our community!)

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Will I See You at TBEX? TBEX

Hey, I'm going to TBEX Toronto but are you?

Early Bird pricing (a steal at $77!) is ending November 30th, so hurry up and register!

Let me know because it's fun not to always be a Solo Woman Traveler :)

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Tokyo, Kyoto and Kurama Advice Needed

Back in September, I put it on my vision board to visit China and Japan. Well, I bought the plane tickets to China just a few weeks ago and I just have to buy my flight from China to Japan, but I consider it a done deal. Just goes to show you the power of setting good goals :)

Now that I'm going for sure, I'm looking for advice on Tokyo, Kyoto and Kurama: namely where to sleep and onsen that accept tattooed people (this could be a longshot!).

Any other tips you want to give me on Japan are appreciated, so fire away!

cherry blossoms japan mt fuji

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween

A little blurry, but here is my Halloween costume this year. My hubby was a pilot and I was a stewardess...for Mile High Airlines! 

Happy Halloween everyone! 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

5 Travel Tricks & Tips for Travelistas on the Go

Time for another instalment of the Traveling Brown Girls Blog Carnival!

For more info, click here!

I've written a lot of "How to" posts in the past, but this one is going to concentrate on 5 tips for the jet-setting lady, someone who is always on the go! In my opinion, it's all about being organized and planning. Once you're all organized, it's easy to be spontaneous when you get invited to a last minute business convention or you take advantage of a last minute seat sale. Just roll with it, go with the flow and enjoy the journey :)

1) Always keep your toiletry bag well-stocked with must-have items

After a trip, even just a short weekend jaunt, I go through my toiletry bag and see what was useful, what was useless, what I was missing and what needs filling up. My toiletry bag is the easiest thing to pack because of this. I never have to worry about forgetting my toothpaste. You can spend as much time as you want picking out your clothes, but you shouldn't be worrying about where your deodorant is or if you have enough.

2) My father's advice - "carry a quarter and make sure there's always gas in the tank"

Ok, those days of only needing a quarter to make a call home from a payphone are far behind us, but my dad still had good advice! We can update it to "always keep your cell phone charged and paid up" and always have enough gas in your car to drive an hour. That was emergency advice, but it's also helps keep you spontaneous. You'll have a head start getting out the door if you don't have to stop to deal with those little time suckers. 

3) Make sure your passport is renewed way ahead of time

My recent passport issues prompted this tip. There can sometimes be processing delays and had I had something booked, I would never have been allowed to leave the country. Just plan ahead and it's preferable to not wait until your passport is about to expire. If you can do it about 6 months before, it helps. 

4) Have a travel fund

All this exciting jet-setting requires money, so put aside a bit every month in a savings account. The fact is, when all the stars align and you get that great combination of time off work and travel deal, you want to be able to take advantage without putting yourself in the poor house for it. If you always have a little set aside, you'll always be able to take advantage guilt-free when your girlfriends invite you on a last minute get-away. 

5) Trust your instincts

I have been to a few places people consider "dangerous" but I've never actually felt in danger. Trusting your gut or instincts helps keep you out of danger and helps you get out of sketchy situations before it gets worse. Remember, you are strong and capable. Don't let fear stop you. Listen to your basic instincts and then be cautious, but not afraid. You'll go far and see a lot if you stop worrying about being a woman and redefine yourself as a "traveler."  

Be sure to check out all the other great tips from the blog carnival here.

If you're interested in my other travel tips, follow the links below:

Monday, October 1, 2012

Travel Napping

I saw this product on today and it just cracked me up. It's called an Ostrich Pillow and you use it to nap in public.

Maybe people are more likely to stay away from weirdos with alien heads?

Hey, I know a third of people travel with teddy bears, so it's not all that far-fetched. The difference is your average adult doesn't take the teddy out in public and cuddle up. With this silly-looking pillow, you're actually attracting attention to yourself, essentially screaming, "I'm not aware of my surroundings, not watching my luggage and I certainly can't react quickly with this stupid thing on my head! Come, rob me, take my stuff!"

Not only that, but it looks HUGE. Not exactly light for travel unless you use it as your main pillow at your destination, but even then, it has limited use. There's no neck support for sleeping upright. I think they'd need to add an inflatable neck bit. Then it just gets weirder! 

Friday, September 28, 2012

Passport Problems

I've never had problems getting my passport before - and I've been faithfully renewing it myself since the age of 16. So that's 3 renewals that have gone on without a hitch. This fourth one though has been a doozy!
And if you remember anything about me and passports, it's that I'm not comfortable being without it in my possession!

I sent off for it in mid-August. From there their site says 10-20 business days, but in my experience, it has always been faster.

I heard nothing and received nothing for quite some time. Finally, on Sept.5, Passport Canada debited my credit card for the amount. On the 6th, they called to say they didn't like my signature - apparently it changed - so I needed to fax them a blank piece of paper with 4-5 of my signatures on it. I complied. Again, silence.

On the 11th I got another call saying I needed to fax them a piece of ID with my "new" signature on it. Again, I sent it off right away. Again, silence.

Finally, I called on the 19th of September, wondering what was going on! I told the agent my credit card had been charged, but I still had no passport. She told me they only put a charge through when it's accepted. Well, that was a lie!

Anyway, she was helpful enough to give me a tracking number and when I punched that in the Canada Post site, I discovered they had attempted delivery and apparently left a notice card. The notice card was not in my mailbox, however. It's as if someone was out to get me!

Finally, I managed to convince my local post office that my envelope was indeed there and they found a way to track it and give it to me. When I got home from the post office, the card was in my mailbox.

So now I should be good for another 5 years. Unless I temporarily lose it again. But that's another story.

Happy with my passport finally!
Not happy with this fiasco and you're not allowed to smile in  Canadian passport photos. This is close to how it actually looks :)

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

TBEX 2013

Wow, it seems like 2013 is going to be my conference year! I've registered for TBEX 2013, which will take place in Toronto. Being so close to home, how could I NOT go?

I have watched from the sidelines over the years as I wasn't able to go (pregnant/with infant, no money/bad timing) so I'm really excited to be able to finally make it to one.

See you in June! 

Monday, September 24, 2012

Virtual Travel Vision Board

I've always made (and achieved) goals, but I've always written them on paper - I believe in "write it down, make it real!" It's always best to share them with a friend. The more you put your goals/dreams out there, the more the universe has a way of helping you.

So because I think it would help and also just make a beautiful post, I'm going to post pics of some of the places I dream of going to. If you want to make your own, there are a few places online you can assemble free virtual vision boards also.  Feel free to share them with me in the comments!


I've always wanted to go to Chicago, so when BlogHer announced the 2013 conference would be in Chicago, it was like a dream come true! I wanted to go as a family, but it's looking mighty expensive at the moment, so it's on the vision board in order to help us focus and save as a family so we can all go.

 Picture courtesy of Lonely Planet


Beijing, China

One of my best friends packed up and moved to Beijing about 10 years ago. He married and has two kids there now. I've never been to visit! I've always wanted to see The Great Wall, so I really have no excuse!



Another one of my best friends moved to Aomori, Japan to teach and signed up for another year contract, so I need to get out there! I would do it during the same trip to Beijing. I figure, make the most of it while on that side of the world.

Where do you dream of going? Any tips for me?

Sunday, September 23, 2012

FlightFox Review

Gee, I can't believe I didn't write about FlightFox earlier! I signed up as a Flight Expert as soon as the site went live and I guess I just took it for granted that everyone would know about it. Well, if you don't know, is a fun site that can save you money on travel.

The way it works is this: you input where you want to fly, dates, class, how many stop overs you'll accept and any other details, then freelance flight experts (or Hackers, as the site used to call us) work to find you the cheapest deal, competing amongst each other (and it's fierce, I tell you, fierce! LOL, no, there's nothing wrong with a little healthy competition).
After a few days, you pick the one who got you the best deal and pay them a small fee.

I've seen both sides of the coin: I am still a registered Flight Expert (though since I've been working full time, not so much). It is a fun way to earn a bit of cash and I really do enjoy doing it even though I'm not the best hacker out there.

I've also used it to see if others could get a better flight deal for me because there are a lot of really devoted, expert flight hackers there who are better than me!

I recommend it even if you think you're a seasoned pro because you may just learn about a couple of options that will save you money in the future.

If you want to try it out, use my referral link to get you 25% off.

Read more - they got in the New York Times!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

BlogHer '13

I am so excited - I just bought my ticket to BlogHer 2013 in Chicago!

One, I've always wanted to go to Chicago. Oprah, deep dish pizza, hot dog stands, cool buildings um...lots of other cool stuff, but mostly food! It just seems like such a cool city and I can't believe I haven't been yet.

Two, I joined BlogHer maybe just last year (I know, I'm such a newb!) and it's such a great community! I am so excited to possibly meet some bloggers I've only seen online, like Dagmar Bleasdale and Caz Makepeace.

Can't wait!

Another great thing is I've switched to Disqus for comments on my blogs now, so people can reply and follow comments. So good things are coming up!

Let me know if I'll be seeing you at the conference next year! We'll make a coffee date!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

5 Travel Pet Peeves

I'm writing this post as part of the Traveling Brown Girls Blog Carnival.
For more info, check out OneBrownGirl's Blog! Enjoy!

The topic for this month's blog carnival is Travel Pet Peeves. I don't usually like writing about negative things; I try to be an optimist, so I had to dig deep! Here are mine:

1) People who forget they are a guest in the place they are visiting

Even if I'm just visiting a different city in North America, I try to remember I'm a guest and am on my best behavior. Yes, being a guest often comes with special privileges/treatment, but it also means you need to remember your p's and q's. It's one thing to make yourself at home and it's another to make a mess and put your feet up on the coffee table. I don't like it when people are rude and act like they own the place. Remember as a visitor, you are representing a whole group of tourists, not just yourself. Don't turn all of us into "unwanted guests."

2) Inconsistent airline security rules

This one probably bugs me the most. I re-read all the rules before I fly - especially since they like to change the rules every 5 minutes. I comply. I put all my liquids in the special zipped bag they provide. I don't try to hide anything. However, it seems that the rules depend on the mood of the security agent at any given moment. I have flown with the same bottles of the same liquids and 99% of the time, go through without any questions. Once in a while, one gets snotty or I don't know what  and wants to stop me for it. I've never had anything taken away because I can explain that I've flown with this particular item millions of times before and I happen to travel a fair bit, but it still annoys me to be questioned for what seems like a totally insignificant item.

3) People who complain things are not like at home

One purpose of travel, if you ask me, is to get out of your comfort zone and experience different things. Things should not be exactly the same as at home because, well, why not just stay home then? I can't stand to hear people complain about silly details and how this or that isn't like at home. You are allowed to not like a place, but every place should be judged on its own merit, not how much it meets the comforts of home.

4) Late check out issues

This really is a "First World Problem" but I like a late check out as much as anyone now and then. However, when checking out really late, I always inform them DAYS before and I also pay the extra hourly rate they require. I have no problem paying extra for what I need, this isn't my issue. My issue is the lack of communication to hotel staff and how my door gets knocked on at least 10 times by cleaning staff even after I've repeatedly told them I paid for late check out and no, I won't be leaving before X o'clock. I know they have to get a certain amount of rooms done in a certain amount of time, but my paying extra should compensate everyone for that inconvenience. Really, someone needs to find a way to put a note in the system (or maybe on my door!) and stop bugging me!

5) Stomach problems

Is it just me or are people more likely to get food poisoning while traveling? It could just be from eating out so much. Although with me, I don't get food poisoning as much as I get the opposite problem: constipation. I put this down to drinking less water while running around, not always being able to find a bathroom and the major change in diet. I have a wheat allergy, but travel often prevents me from avoiding wheat since it's in so many things and so hard to avoid. It's hard to maintain any sort of strict diet while traveling and yeah, I suffer for it! I might get stopped up, but I don't let it stop me! Ha!
Sorry I had to go there!

If you're not part of this month's blog carnival, feel free to share yours in the comments (with a link to a post if you like) and make sure to participate in October for the next one!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Group VS Solo Travel

If you read a lot of travel blogs, you'll hear a lot of disdain for group travel or organized tours, as if they are less valid experiences than hardcore "roughing it" with solo travel.

My opinion is any travel is good if it gets you out of your comfort zone and experiencing new things. Travel does not have to be rough, scary or constantly spontaneous. It doesn't even have to be adventurous. Just go out, follow your dreams and see the world.

So while I've never actually participated in group travel, I can understand the benefits and the appeal. As a solo traveler, I have done organized group day trips/tours. I'm going to try to compare the benefits of the two and people who have done both can correct me if you think I'm wrong!

Safety in numbers

People always say there's safety in numbers and it's true. That being said, there are tons of tips and articles about staying safe while travelling solo. Still, group travel is one way to at least make you feel like you'll have help if you need it. As long as it doesn't give you a false sense of security and you let your guard down, this is a great benefit.

Group Gouging?

The drawback to the group is touts can see you from a mile away and they see dollar signs painted on your foreheads. On the plus side, you can negotiate group discounts or deals.

Blame Someone Else

With an organized tour or group, if you don't like the food or the accommodations you were provided, you can complain and maybe even get your money back. Sure, a solo traveler could also, but there's more power in a group when it comes to complaints and tour operators want to keep everyone happy. As a solo traveler, if you've done your research and end up in a hell hole for the night, usually it's your own fault!

See More, Learn More, Do More

Some activities or sites have areas that are cut off from the general public, but will let guided tours in to special spots, so you actually get to experience more than a solo traveler would. I've also always appreciated the extra information provided during a tour, often from a local. As a solo traveler, unless you hook up with Tours By Locals, you might miss out on a lot of educational and enriching information.

Who Pays More?

This is the big question: does it cost more to take a group tour or to organize your whole trip alone? I think group tours are more expensive, but has anyone really looked at it objectively? Let me know!

Worry Free

The bonus to a group tour is you don't have to worry about getting lost and don't have to think about where you'll sleep any given night. All the thinking has been done for you. All you have to do is wake up at the right time and get on the bus/plane when they say. I'm a control freak, so I'm going to leave my personal opinions out of this one!

So what has your experience been? What other points am I missing? Lend us your wisdom in the comments! 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Charity for Uganda

My hubby got the idea to help out a secular school in Uganda and wants to fund the building of some chicken coops which will be used by the primary school students for education and to feed them. A lot of them show up to school not having eaten and it's hard to teach hungry kids. If you have a few bucks to help out, we all would appreciate it. If not, please at least share this post with everyone you know!

Use the bottom below to donate!

And here's my hubby's blog.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Travel Doesn't Always Change You

I look back fondly at the experiences and memories I had from my first solo trips because they changed me so much. They were filled with a energy and purpose, also prompting me to start this blog, because I was so excited by what had changed in me and wanted to share it.

I may have gone into some trips expecting changes to take place and they may or may not have happened because of the trip. In other words, they may have simply happened because I was ready for a change.

I was in a very different place mentally for my most recent solo trip. I had just quit my job. I am mother to a young child with special needs. I went across the country to help a best friend - not because I was looking for adventure or particularly wanted to go there, but out of sense of duty. Still, I resigned myself to see it as a new adventure and make the best of it.

At 6am, I held my son and said good-bye. I took a cab to the metro station, where I caught a bus to the airport. I had a backpack and a small carry-on bag on wheels. I sat at the airport and ate toast and jam I had brought with me. I then went through security. I boarded a plane to Edmonton and the flight took four hours. I landed in Edmonton, bought lunch and a toy for my son. I waited an hour and a half for a bus to take me to Cold Lake. The bus to Cold Lake took over four hours. I was picked up by my best friend's husband at the air force base. I arrived there around 6pm their time (which was 8pm my time). That's 14 hours of travel time!
Believe me, the fact I could have flown to Europe or China was not lost on me!

Unlike other solo trips, I did not feel nervous at all. In fact, I may have even been too relaxed. But I felt comfortable in my homeland of Canada and I also stayed with my best friend most of the trip. I spent only one day and night alone in Edmonton on the way back. Unlike other times, it didn't feel liberating, it just felt good - like a comfy old sweater. I'm past the liberation stage and into the "Old Hat" stage!

In the end, it was more reaffirming that I still have some travel left in me. My life has changed drastically - I'm a mom responsible for another person - but I'm still the same old solo traveler inside.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Ethical Travel Eating

I recently got into a debate with a vegan friend of mine over travel hospitality and dietary restrictions.

His stance was that a host should know about your dietary restrictions ahead of time and plan accordingly to accommodate you and your needs. He also believes it is easy to find foods suitable to eat everywhere and continue to stick to whatever restrictions you normally keep at home.

My stance is that as a guest, you should eat whatever you are offered unless you are allergic/intolerant to it and it would kill you or make you ill. In other words, however you eat at home is a privilege and you should not impose your privilege on your host.

For the record, I'm not talking about visiting your aunt in the States - where you come from a similar culture and socio-economic status. I'm talking about visiting developing/impoverished nations.

Now his stance might be tainted by the fact he has not visited any developing/impoverished nations (as far as I know, I could be wrong, maybe he can correct me?) while I have. I have visited places where foods of all sorts were limited in general, so it was essentially impossible to be picky. I also believe that you can't always call ahead and tell people what you want to eat. For example, I would have missed out on a rich cultural experience in Morocco had I refused to eat the lunch I was spontaneously offered by a family. I think it would have been insulting to them to refuse to eat with them. When people do not have much to offer, and go out of their way to share with you, well I just can't see myself saying, "sorry, I don't eat ______, gotta run!"

Barring that, maybe never visit a country where it's hard to find the foods you want to eat? Sounds ridiculous. It also sounds like a great way to never immerse yourself in a culture!

What do you do when you travel? How do you handle travel with dangerous food allergies or religious/ethical dietary restrictions?

(Note, I'm not interested in debating why people eat or don't eat what they do, just how they deal with it on the road.)

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

CouchSurfing Tips

As I mentioned in my other post, CouchSurfing can be good, fun and sometimes smelly. I've personally never encountered safety issues or had to kick anyone out, so if you follow the rules on their site and trust your instincts, I think you'll find it's a great way to get to know people and a fun way to visit a city.

Here are my extra tips that have worked for me:

Before I host, I clean the place top to bottom. No one wants to stay in a dirty place and two, it gives your guests a baseline that they should try to leave your place at during their stay and when they leave, at the very least.

I hide money and spare keys. I have a safe where all important documents, credit cards, check books, etc go. Yes, I work on a presumption of trust, but I also work to eliminate temptation.
If there is something I don't want to be used, say my favourite body lotion, I hide it also. Otherwise I work on the assumption that everything will be touched and if I cannot be comfortable with that, I shouldn't host.

Some people are ok with this, but I do not give my guests a key to my place. They can be in our space only when we are home. We let them know ahead of time when we are leaving and coming back and they have to work around our schedule. I give them my cell phone number so they can reach me.

I give my guests a section of the fridge for their food and tell them where they can put their bags/stuff. I found from experience, if you don't tell them where appropriate spots are, they don't tend not to ask and then you'll have stuff all over the place, or worse yet, food rotting that should be in the fridge.

I give them a tour of the place and explain how taps and appliances work here (since it's often very different in Europe). This is also a good time to discuss house rules - turning on/off lights, is it ok to listen to rock music at 3am in your place, or whatever specific rules you want followed.

I don't do this, but you have a right to ask to see identification from the surfer you're hosting. In the end, it's your place and you make the rules. If you are not comfortable, don't let them in. Anyone who puts up a fuss about being asked for identification probably is not trustworthy.

Involve your guests in what you're doing. Invite them to watch a local TV show with you. Going grocery shopping? Invite them along. It's a great way to break the ice and have a chat and it's also a cultural experience for them. Make them feel welcome.

I very much enjoy playing tour guide and taking surfers to see sights in my city. I think that's a big part of what makes hosting so much fun.

As a guest, I ask a lot of questions. I want to know if I can take a shower, what time is convenient and for how long. Hot water can be super expensive in some places and it's best to follow the lead of the locals. Take quick showers and don't monopolize common areas like bathrooms and kitchens - especially if other people are getting ready for work.

I unpack only what I need for that day and keep everything packed and in one place, making sure to take up the least amount of real estate possible. No one wants to be tripping all over your stuff, especially if you're staying in a common area and not a private room. The more you can keep stuff consolidated and make it seem like you're not actually there, the better.

Bring pictures of your home life to show your hosts and also small trinkets or gifts of appreciation. You don't have to spend a lot, just stop at a souvenir shop in your home town and bring them some postcards from your city, or a small keychain. Make your guest feel appreciated and not like hotel staff.

Clean up after yourself! If you use a dish, wash it. Wash the whole sink of dishes if there are some in the sink. Little things like that help "pay back" your free lodging. Leave the place better than how you found it.

Say "thank you"! This is a biggie. I had a couchsurfer who didn't say thank you. Ideally, since you're saving so much on lodging, you should have enough money to buy your host dinner. It doesn't have to be an expensive dinner, but you shouldn't be so skint that you can't afford to buy dinner or flowers or a small box of chocolates. That being said, if you really can't, "thank you" goes a really long way. I will forever remember the one who didn't say, "thank you." That's not a good thing!

Don't keep to yourself on your phone or on your computer the whole time. It's tempting when you're homesick to want to talk to home, but you're missing the best parts of travel otherwise. Immersing yourself in your travels or with your hosts can snap you out of your funk a lot faster. I found that even when I found a certain city boring, my hosts made up for it big time. Sometimes the people are better than the place! Get to know them.

Eat outside of the home or buy your own food to cook at your host's place. Do not steal their food! You should ask if they have certain food restrictions before bringing foods into their place. Are they vegetarian, do they have food allergies, do they keep a kosher kitchen?

If you had a good time, start hosting in your city and return the favour. That's what makes CouchSurfing special and the world a smaller place.

Any other tips you can think of?

Couchsurfing: The Good, The Fun and the Smelly

My first real solo travel experience was also coincidentally my first CouchSurfing experience. I joined after it was suggested by a friend and with only one reference on my profile (from said friend) I searched for hosts at my destination: Stockholm, Sweden. I had no idea what to expect, but I spoke with two people before I arrived and offered to bring them presents as a thank you.

The first person I met was Sarah, a Scottish woman who spoke fluent Swedish. She was about my age and asked for vodka and a hockey player (me being Canadian and all). I brought her a bottle of vodka, a stuffed moose and a keychain with a hockey player on it. She was pleased. In exchange, I received a small mattress on the floor of her living room, where I camped out for 3 nights.
I also met Anders, who could not host me, but made me dinner and showed me around his city.

That all sounds really simple, but it was a very deep experience to me: we knew hardly anything about each other, yet I was welcomed into their homes and fed. It took an exceptional amount of trust and humanity - me to trust them and them to trust me. Though we were only in each other's presences a few days, we are still in contact to this day. That's a testimonial to the power of CouchSurfing.

When I arrived back in Montreal, I opened my doors to many people. My husband and I continue to host and we both continue to CouchSurf solo (we've never actually done it together).

So here are our stories. It has always been good, some people are more fun than others and some are just smelly.

Our first guest was from England and was very well traveled. She stayed with us for seven days. Seven days can be a really long time when you don't know someone. It could be hell if they're not good guests, but she was absolutely great and we enjoyed her company. I can't say I was the best host at the time since it was minus 18 Celsius and I was working long hours late at night, but she is a very cool person. I met up with her the last time I was in London. I recommend her to all my friends who are visiting her city. We definitely lucked out with her!

We had one couple who were very strange. They arrived very late at night and left early the next morning, so we didn't really get to know them, but I learned a few things from them. One, it's important to explain how things in my apartment work, even if it's late at night. For example, when one person is in the shower and someone turns on the water in the kitchen, the person in the shower gets burned with hot water. I was the person in the shower at the time. Grrrr!
Then it seems like they didn't know where the garbage was and didn't bother to ask, so they left their bag of garbage on my kitchen table. Those ones were weird, but again, they only stayed the night so I can't complain too much.

In general people are clean, but extended backpacking can make anyone stinky. The stinkiest one we had was a young one with really cheap shoes. You know the type. Those cheap shoes that just stink. This girl's feet were SO BAD and I didn't know how to tell her. Surely she must also know?!
What made it worse was I was pregnant at the time, which gave me a heightened sense of smell. I can tell you, I never threw up while pregnant. I didn't even throw up during labour, but this girl's feet had me gagging! When she went into the shower each morning, I Febrezed all her stuff and sprayed inside her shoes. I washed all the floors as quickly as possible before she got out. I think she only stayed three nights, but it was almost three nights too long.

Otherwise, CouchSurfing is a lot of fun. You get to see a city in a way you would never get to otherwise. You get insider's tips on where to go and what to avoid. Sometimes you get a free tour. Sometimes you get a free ride. And sometimes it's as simple as having company when you're homesick and tired of traveling.
I'll put up with some stinky feet in order to keep those special friendships that last a lifetime.

What have your Couchsurfing experiences been like? Feel free to link to your posts about CSing in the comments and share the love!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Journey to the Middle of Nowhere

Can you really call yourself a travel blogger unless you've gone to some remote destination no one else wants to go? Well, I've already been to Yemen and I thought that was pretty hardcore, but I think my next destination might top that.

Where am I going in June?

Cold Lake, Alberta

Does anyone willingly go there? What does one do there exactly?

In my case, my best friend's husband is in the army and they've been posted there for the last six years. It feels like forever and it seems like she's on the other end of the Earth. When I think of Cold Lake, I think of this image: Nowhere, Canada (which interestingly, is a Canadian site. We seem to have a lot of desolation in this country).

I missed the birth of her first child, being pregnant myself at the time. Now I'm not pregnant. Now I have no more excuses not to go. Her second child is due and I'm going to be there this time, come what may. I am determined!

I'd be lying if the trip doesn't sound daunting though. Four hours on a plane (if all goes on time) and another three and a half hours of driving from Edmonton. A two-hour time difference. Think of the jetlag. Think of the culture shock! What will I eat? I don't think Cold Lake is in the Lonely Planet guide to Canada. I'll have to bring a survival kit.

What has been your most remote travel destination? Any tips for me? Help! 

Thursday, March 8, 2012

How Lonely Is Too Lonely?

A big concern and topic of conversation when it comes to solo travel is loneliness. There are countless blog posts about how to combat loneliness, how to make friends, how to appear less lonely (because it's not only off-putting, but can make you more vulnerable) or how to deal with loneliness when it strikes. A lot of people are hesistant to even attempt a solo trip because they're so terrified of being lonely!

Think about it, one of the biggest publishers of travel guides is called Lonely Planet! There's no denying travel can get lonely.

Turns out this fear might not be so unwarranted. According to this recent study, we're hardwired to not want to be isolated because loneliness can kill us over time.

Knowing that now, does it make you more reluctant to travel on your own?

For me, it was never really a concern, so I wonder if I'm missing something biologically. Maybe solo travelers have a defect? Either that or there are degrees of loneliness and isolation, and what can be too isolating and lonely for one person might feel like a loud party to another. What do you think?

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Not So Solo Travel?

I recently read an article about a Travelodge survey that says 35% of British adults still sleep with a teddy. Not only that, they bring it with them to hotels, on business trips and the like. I'm really surprised because I didn't think adults slept with teddies, but when I think about it, well why not? It's harmless.

Since I'm a person who tries to travel light and wants to bring the LEAST amount of stuff possible, I can't imagine doing such a thing. My most essential item for travel aside from my passport is a toothbrush. Oh and a sleep mask. And maybe lip balm. And gum. Ok, but those are small and that's it. The rest can be dealt with.

So do you travel with a teddy or other comfort object?

Sunday, January 15, 2012


I'm not sure how I spent a week in Paris and two weeks in Yemen and never ran into one, but I finally got up close and personal with a bidet in, of all places, exotic Toronto.

I recently stayed one night at Le Meridien King Edward hotel and in addition to early 20th century decor, my bathroom had a bidet. I've always been bidet-curious but never got to act on my curiosity.

My bathroom also had this strange alcove of emptiness:

I didn't know what to do with it, so I took a picture and eventually put a chair there.

Back to the bidet!

Like the empty spot, the bidet did not come with an instruction manual. Maybe I should have called the concierge for help. Maybe I should have gone online and read "How To Use a Bidet," but I'm an independent woman, how hard could it be?

So I did what I had to do on the toilet and with my pants down, waddled over to the bidet. There were quite a few knobs and levers. One said "stream/rim," another two had the standard "H" and "C." I opted for "stream" and turned on the hot tap. Water came bubbling up pretty high, so it took a bit of dialing up and down before I got what I thought would be the perfect height, all while growing a little chilly and having to reach around the stream to get to the taps. I added some cold water and stuck my hand in the stream to check the temperature - not too hot, not too cold.....or so I thought.

It seems that in the time it took me to turn around and squat over the bidet, the hot water came on full steam ahead (no pun intended), upping both the pressure and the temperature. Long story short, I burned my ass and jumped five feet in the air. No, I do not have a picture of the moment.

The Butt-Burning Bidet

All I can say is, if you get to play with a bidet, make 100% sure you use more cold tap than hot tap because it's probably better to have a cold butt than a burnt butt. I don't have any scars or anything, but it's such a sensitive area, that, you know, it's best not to take chances. 

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Vagabundo Travel Magazine Review

When I'm not traveling, I'm daydreaming about, planning or saving up for another trip. So aside from scouring travel sites, I have quite the Lonely Planet guide book collection:

No offense to Lonely Planet, but it's nice to have something a bit different to read now and then, so I jumped at the chance when offered a free copy of Vagabundo Travel Magazine.

I flipped through it in two ways: I downloaded the .pdf and viewed it on my Kindle and on my computer. There is a Kindle version offered, but only for certain countries and Canada isn't one of them. I wanted to see how versatile the layout was, since I figured it was geared for people on the go.

On my Kindle, I changed my view mode to landscape and I found the pictures stunning, even in black and white. They are, of course, even more amazing in colour on a computer screen. That's probably what stands out for me most at first - the photography is high-quality and it's just a beautiful magazine to look at.

The articles are a good mix of down-to-earth interviews and great story-telling, without being pretentious. A lot of travel writers start sounding a little holier-than-thou with the exclusive places they've been, but this mag is a refreshing change of real people telling real stories and all the awe and angst that go along with travel.

This is their very first issue, so it can only get more amazing from here, but I would offer a few suggestions. The text sometimes gets a little lost (and in one case, even eclipsed) by the excellent photography, so it's just a layout issue that needs to be sorted. What can I say though, stop including such great photography? That's hardly a fault!

My other recommendation is charge more, because at $1.49 USD it's an absolute steal! Seriously, they could charge more for it, so get it now before they come to their senses!

Note: In case anyone is interested and if you can actually read this small print, I received no compensation for this review, nor will I in the future and my issue was provided for free. I am writing this out of the kindness of my heart :)

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Where Are They Now?

The great thing about solo travel is it's easy to meet a lot of different people on similar journeys. The plus side is if you don't get along, you never have to see that person ever again. I guess the downside is losing touch with a person you made a great connection with, as is what happened to me.

In November 2008, I was stressed out with life. I had recovered from my third miscarriage and was told I only had a one in four chance of having a child. I was caring for my father, who was then dying from Parkinson's disease. I also recently left a stressful job I hated. I didn't know what else to do but run away from it all and get a different perspective, so I booked myself a solo trip to London and Morocco.

At 4am, I was the first to arrive at the departure lounge at Luton airport for a Ryanair flight to Marrakesh. I was on my mobile phone chatting with my husband when an older gentleman walked in, put his bag down at the front of the line and sat down on seats somewhere else. I found this odd and I found him odd. Everyone else lined up, though I didn't bother because I already knew how Ryanair boarding works and there's really no point; I don't care what seat I get. The Odd Man walked up to his bag on the floor and into the front of the line. I thought nothing else of it at that point.

Our flight got diverted to Agadir because of fog and we all got stuck on to buses back to Marrakesh. I checked into my hostel that night and went to sleep. When I got up for breakfast that morning, who else was at the table but the Odd Man! He was loudly talking about his travel plans - he wanted to head to the desert - so did I, but I wasn't about to share a car with a loud, obnoxious American. That was my first impression of him and I ignored him. I decided I wasn't going to head to the desert then and instead boarded a bus for Essaouira that afternoon.

On the bus back from Essaouira to Marrakesh, I texted my hubby to help find me some accommodation ahead of time because I was arriving at night and hadn't booked anything. From Canada, he booked me into a lovely riad deep in the souq of Djemaa el-Fnaa. I finally found it late that night and went straight to bed. The next day I was sick - something I ate, I suppose - and didn't leave my room until late afternoon. The night after that, upon returning from supper, I walked into the riad and was met by a familiar face - the Odd Man. I made a joke and accused him of following me. He said, "no, you must be following me!" and we started talking.

We talked late into the wee hours of the morning. I was freezing (we were in the court yard of the riad), but he was captivating. I told him of my father and my stresses and he helped me put things into perspective. If I hadn't had to pack and get ready for my early flight that morning, I'm sure we'd still be there talking! I left him my card with my info, but he never contacted me and I never saw him again.

They say people come into your life for "a reason, a season or a lifetime," and I presume he just came into mine for a reason, but I'd like to tell him I'm alright now. My dad has since passed on and I've had the child I've always wanted. Everything is less stressful now and for some reason I feel compelled to tell him he has made a difference to me.

That's where you come in! All I know is he is a retired architecture professor named Christopher Pardee. He is American, but lives in England. He's divorced, he has grown children and he spends his free time travelling. If you see him, please tell him he helped me a lot. Or maybe share this blog post with him. I don't expect to hear from him, but if you let me know you spoke to him, I will be happy. He probably won't even remember me, but that's ok. It's the thought that counts :)

And if you ever meet a really cool person, make sure you also get their contact info.