A lot of backpackers didn’t have great things to say about Malaysia before I came here. So, the expectations were real low. But honestly, I loved it! The food, the culture, the accommodations = 10/10. Plus, I had the interesting experience of being there on Chinese New Year AND I was my first Muslim country I’ve ever been in. Back at home, the Trump administration banned immigration from 7 predominately muslim countries while I was there. I’ll say nothing more other then I felt 100% safe and all the people I’ve met approached me (as an American) more with curiosity then hate. Of course, Malaysia was not one of the countries banned.
In a week, I was able to do Langkawi, Penang, and Kuala Lumpur. Here’s what I recommend.
1.) Watch the sunset from Cenang Beach in Langkawi.
2) Eat all the street food, preferably at places far far far away from the touristy areas. It’ll be cheaper and more authentic. Order anything that begins with Roti, meaning Bread in english, and don’t be afraid to ditch the knife and fork and just dig in there with your hands.
3) Buy all the fine chocolate. It is so cheap there.
4) Go see the street art in Penang. It’s easy to spend 1/2 a day just walking around, eating and looking at all the art.
5) Visit Kek Lo Si temple in Penang. If you’re lucky enough to be there on Chinease New Year in Jan/Feb, then DEFINITELY go. The whole place is lit up. It looks like christmas, only you’re in Asia, it’s 80 degrees and there’s giant Buddha’s everywhere.
6) Check out the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, especially at night. For around $30/night, I was able to book a room with a pool at the top floor overlooking the entire skyline.
7) Interact with the wildlife in Langkawi. I didn’t have enough time to book a wildlife tour in the UNESCO protected park, but met some locals who had sugar gliders as pets and were just hanging out with them on the beach. It’s also pretty easy to spot monkeys, birds and the like just from walking around.
I’ve put off writing this blog post for a while, because words really can’t describe the amount of fun that was a 14 day all-inclusive cruise from Panama to Portugal compromised of 1/3 backpackers, 1/3 old people and 1/3 large Venezuelan families.
If you’ve traveled with me or know me as a friend, you know the story of the cruise and how I can’t really finish a sentence about it without laughing. But for those of you who I haven’t gone on about this cruise to, basically Pullmantur cruise lines is an actual legitimate cruise ship line that runs really cheap trans-atlantic cruises twice a year. The reasoning for this is because they need to bring one of their ships across the Atlantic during hurricane season, so the cruise is only one-way and it’s really long (repositioning cruise). They just want to get their staff paid. Hence, an absurdly cheap cruise is born. It works out to something like 28$/day before tipping the staff. In some cases, this is cheaper then actually flying to Europe.
It’s really hard to write about this cruise in a public blog post, because most of what made it so fun was the people. There was the amazing group of people that I ate dinner with every night and then there were also the hundreds of other passengers on board whose stories and personalities played out in front of us over time because, unlike a hostel, you kept seeing the same people over and over… everyday.. for 14 days. Things got very weird.
The truth is, words will never do justice to the ridiculousness that was this cruise, but I will try with a few stories.
I think we’d been at sea for a long time when this happened, but basically my friend Alex came to me and said “I saw flying fish.” and I said, “No you did not,” because we’d been at sea for a while and it just seemed absurd to me. Then I told everyone else, “Alex thinks that he saw flying fish.” and for an hour everyone was like “Alex, you didn’t see flying fish.” Whelp, finally we all went to the side of the boat to see the flying fish and what do you know…. there are fish coming out of the water, gliding in the air, and then going back in the sea. Alex was right and we all saw flying fish. Sorry Alex.
That Time they Played “I’m On a Boat”
Again, I am challenged in my writing skills to fully describe the madness that was the night life of this cruise. First of all, it’s all backpackers who really just don’t care. Why should they? Backpacking is such a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that you really don’t want to sit on the sidelines. Then, you have large Venezuelan families who equally just don’t care. Combine these two groups at the Cyan Disco, where the dance floor is literally rocking back and forth with the motion of the waves and the alcohol is, as was always the case, free and flowing.
One night in particular, the incredible DJs of Pullmantur decided to play “I’m on a Boat” and everyone lost it. All the guys took off their shirts. People were jumping and screaming. The poor staff was forced to tell everyone to put back on their shirts or they would stop the music.
Another fun one was “Young, Wild and Free” by Snoop Dogg and Wix Khalifa. So dumb, yes, but there’s nothing like dancing when everyone is actually into it and the enthusiasm was ssstttrrooonnggg with this crowd.
Pulling into Lisbon
The last night on the ship, we went up to the top deck to watch the sunset. On the deck below us, a group of drunk people were cheering each other on while all getting naked in the hot tub. Standard background noise on Pullmantur. Since we’d already all gone out the night before on an all bar bar crawl (we went to every place that served alcohol on the ship in one night), we decided to all get some sleep so we could wake up at 4 AM to see the boat finally pull into Lisbon, Portugal.
Sure enough, as we made it to the top deck at 4 AM, it was a mix of people who were still drunk and looked like The Walking Dead and people who were sober and in need of coffee. We’d all been at sea 14 days and it felt like a lot had happened in that short period of time, but the People of Pullmantur weren’t ready to stop being ridiculous just yet.
As Lisbon got closer and closer and the sun began to rise, it became clear we were going to have to go under a bridge to get to port. Now, the bridge wasn’t small. It was a big bridge. It was clear this would not be an issue. The cruise ship would go under it no problem. Regardless, when we finally made it underneath the bridge everyone watching from the deck exploded with cheers. Some people behind us started chanting “Brazil!, Brazil!, Brazil!” very loudly. Hell, I was even clapping and cheering. It was awesome. Our journey on the boat was ending and here we all were, at the top deck in the middle of the ocean watching Europe come into view. My friend Edward had brought champagne for all of us and we all said cheers. We’d made it to land and wifi.
Sometimes when traveling (just like in life), things just do not work out in our favor. We can be trying everything we can to make it work and… nothing, situation still sucks.
That was Ho Chi Minh City for me. The weather. The jobs. The area where I was living. Nothing was working and it just didn’t feel right. To top it off, I also sprained my ankle, got an infected cut and was some degree of sick at maybe all times while living there.
Thankfully, I am not a tree, and I can leave a place or a situation if it’s just not working out. So, after a month of trying against all odds to make it work, I took a trip to Thailand and then headed to Hanoi.
Even on the way to the airport to leave Ho Chi Minh, I started throwing up. Right on time, my Uber driver calmly handed me a plastic bag without saying a word and, when I was done puking, he some how produced a damp towel. I don’t know how it was damp or how he knew those were the things that I needed, but I will forever remember our wordless transaction. A proper send off from that god awful city.
The debate between Hanoi and Saigon is ongoing and very polarizing. Hanoi, in the northern part of Vietnam, has more of an “older charm” then HCMC. It still has the traffic and pollution, but it offers way more respite from the craziness if that is what you are in search of. The weather is also cooler and doesn’t make you feel like you need to take a shower every two hours.
No, Hanoi is not as “high octane” as Ho Chi Minh, but who wants to live in a city that can be described in the same fashion as a Vin Diesel movie? No one. Literally zero people.
Ok, maybe some people. There’s actually a big expat community in HCMC and the few that I met were awesome. But for me, personally, watching Fast and Furious is enjoyable. Living in it was just way to much.
My experience on backpacking the Gringo Trail in Central America can’t really be described in a couple of words. I was a first time solo traveler and had no idea wtf I was doing. Which, in hind sight, was probably the best way to go into it.
Central America constitutes more than just the countries listed below – Belize, Honduras and Mexico are left out because I didn’t visit them.
My first stop in Central America was Guatemala. I landed in Guatemala City, a highly unremarkable city with a lot of crime.
After the scariest bus ride of my life, I arrived in Lake Atitlan. Situated around the lake are several little villages, each with their own vibe. Boats run across the lake daily and you can grab one for few dollars to visit each of the towns, since there is no road connecting all of them. I stayed here for a month working on a farm in San Marcos La Laguna, the hippy-est of them all, attracting a ton of new-agers.
Highlights of lake were going to the Butterfly Sanctuary in Panajachel, the Women’s Weaving Cooperative in San Juan La Laguna and camping at Indians Nose overnight to see the sunrise in the morning.
Next stop was Antigua and OMG DID I LOVE ME SOME ANTIGUA. I don’t know if it was because I stayed in sleepy San Marcos for a month or what, but everything about this place just felt right. Here I stayed at a home stay with some other backpackers who were also learning spanish. Well, they were learning Spanish. I was trying to and failing.
Highlights of Antigua include a night out of care free dancing where I was definitely sporting Jesus Sandals, a ten-hour round-trip overnight hike up Acatenango Volcano to see the sunrise and El Fuego booming and a local soccer game featuring a very animated hype squad / drum line.
Initially, I did not plan on going to El Salvador at all. It’s pretty dangerous and over run by gangs. The kind of gangs that have such control of the country that buses stop running after sun down. But, plans change, especially when traveling and, in this case, I’m so glad it did.
Highlights include Edward (the one-winged Pelican of La Tortuga Verde), the locals in Juyaya who told us that if we go to the store and buy a frog they’ll cook it for us, getting stuck in Rivas overnight because there were no more buses running and the “murder hostel” in San Salvador.
I guess some of these memories don’t really sound pleasant from an outsider’s perspective, but El Salvador ended up being one of my favorite parts of the trip.
By this point in the trip I had been going for about two months and had met enough people to start a small village. I had already booked the Pullmantur Cruise and knew I was going to Europe after, so I was a little tired and not wanting to spend a ton of money. Hence, I mostly remember Nica as a place where I relaxed, swam, and read.
Still, I had a lot of fun. Highlights include the Tortuga Boolada Hostel in Leon. That place was so relaxed and everyone was really friendly over breakfast. Surfing at Playa Popopyo, where they held the World Surf Championships a few years back, was a lot of fun. I nearly died, but still, good times. I’ll also never forget exploring Ometepe and the clean waters of Ojo de Agua.
Since it’s the most expensive country in Central America, I barely spent any time in Costa Rica. The time that I did spend here, two weeks, was spent teaching Yoga at Tico Lingo, a Spanish School in Heredia. It was a chill two weeks spent doing a whole lot of nothing with the other volunteers and teaching small classes to the owner of the school and some of the students. I found this program through Workaway.info.
Oh Panama, the last stop on my trip before taking a 14 day all-inclusive cruise to Portugal. I think I only spent a day or two here and it rained a lot, but it was a fun couple days as I stayed in this beautiful colonial mansion-turned-hostel called Luna’s Castle in Panama City. There I had the pleasure of meeting a fun group of people traveling together and we all went out and danced to Rihanna’s “Work” for what was probably the 1231st time that month.
It’s been exactly one month since moving to Ho Chi Minh City. As expected, it has not been easy. In fact, sometimes it was down right miserable. Adjusting to a huge change, although worth it, has it’s pros and cons.
So, before waxing poetic about Saigon’s more attractive features, let me tell you what absolutely sucks about it.
The Traffic. Good god. This traffic. Most Westerners, myself included, maintain the notion that walking into oncoming traffic is not safe. Whelp, in Vietnam that is not the case. If you want to cross the road, you better get comfortable walking into a mass of trucks, motorbikes, pushbikes and cars that somehow organizes itself despite the obvious lack of traffic laws.
The roads are both impressive and dizzying, showcasing the ways in which Asia’s collective society is different then an individualist one. In the US, at least in New York, this would never fly. Some asshole who has to get to work would do something dumb and kill everyone. But in Asia, admittedly, it works. Still terrifying though.
The heat. It’s hot and humid. Sometimes we’re given a break with a little rain, but otherwise, I’ve found myself retreating to that air con, which, thankfully, is very common here.
The air quality. Vietnam’s air pollution is among the worst in the world. At times it can feel like you’ve got chlorine in your eyes. Another reason to retreat to air con.
The people They smile. They’re friendly. They’re into public napping and setting up hammocks literally anywhere. In other words, despite the chaos of the city, Vietnamese people are a relatively chill bunch.
Also, plus side as a women, cat calling and general annoying male aggression isn’t much of a thing here. Perhaps they’ve figured out that yelling at random women on the street isn’t actually going to accomplish anything. Bravo, Vietnam. Bravo.
The food Oh, the food. If I could eat anything for the rest of my life I think it actually might be Vietnamese food. It’s pretty healthy, incorporating lots of vegetables, seafood and leafy greens WHILE STILL TASTING GOOD. And, since it’s a tropical climate, fresh fruits galore. All at extremely cheap prices (around 3-4 USD for a meal).
The English Vietnamese people want to learn English and they don’t give you flak if you don’t speak Vietnamese. It’s a sad fact for non-English speaking cultures that it’s basically essential to speak English in order to participate in the world’s economy, but Vietnam, the developing country that it is, seems to be embracing that fact well. There’s still some language barrier, but not as bad as other places I’ve been to, at least in Ho Chi Minh.
The cafe scene Coffee to-go isn’t really a thing here. In Vietnam, the thing to do is to hang out for hours in cafes, which are everywhere and all have different themes/vibes, ranging from the posh to the obscure.
Riding on Motorbikes
Also, if you order an Uber here, you have the option of getting either a car or a motorcycle.
Cost of living Those Ubers I mentioned costs anywhere from 50 cents to 2 dollars. Hostels are $6-13/night. My private room in a hotel right now is costing me $15/night. Monthly rent can be anywhere from $150-450 depending on your standards.
Great place to teach English Unfortunately, I am still not Paris Hilton and need to actually work to extend my travels. A sad fact of life, but I’ll do it. Armed with a TEFL and/or a Bachelor’s degree it’s really easy to get a gig teaching here. My first week here I got four interviews just from an hour or two of applying.
Great place to volunteer TBD, as I’m working on getting set up with an organization, but from what I’ve heard, you can definitely volunteer here and have a meaningful experience.
A lot of people have been asking me this, so here it goes. This is very base level stuff for people who’ve never traveled long-term before.
I moved out of my parent’s house when I was 21 and haven’t really stopped moving since (eight times and counting). Because of this, I’ve learned how to not get too attached to things. I don’t own a ton of stuff, but the things I do own, I adore. And, with the exception of an amazing butterfly t-shirt that I used to wear to concerts, I don’t miss a single thing that I’ve thrown out. Just think, if you get rid of all the crap you don’t want and only buy things you really love – you’ll forever be surrounded by only the things you love.
I’m not talking about being a hippie and casting away all your worldly possessions. I like nice things. We all deserve to have a bit of luxury in our lives, but the trick is learning to spend money on the things that are actually providing you that.
So yeah, in short, don’t buy crap. Don’t own crap. Drop cash on nice things that last and forget the rest. It’s a hard habit to adopt in our consumer-driven culture, but so so worth it.
I could write a whole book about this, but it turns out someone else already has. Highly recommend: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Mr. Money Mustache’s blog for more info on frugality.
Many options here: teaching english (TEFL), WOOFing, teaching yoga, babysitting, working at a hostel. The options are endless. It’s really easy to extend your travels by working abroad. Some jobs pay (especially TEFL), while others exchange room and board.
For more info try:
Workaway.info – This site has a lot of farm work and hostel jobs. I worked on a farm in Guatamala and taught yoga in Costa Rica, both of which were really positive experiences. I also was going to teach yoga at a hostel in Nicaragua, but left after two days because the culture of the hostel (ie: drinking until you blackout before breakfast) wasn’t for me. So, it’s important to have back up funds in case you really don’t like the set up.
I’m #blessed to have done Air BnB in my home for over a year when I lived in Brooklyn. Through this, I met a ton of people and gained an enormous amount of insight on the benefits of experiencing other places through the lens of someone who already lives there.
When traveling or just living life in general, you’ll come across a lot of people who will invite you to come stay with them during your travels. Take them up on it. Bring a gift. Don’t overstay your welcome. Cook a meal or two.
Couchsurfing is also an option. I can’t personally recommend it, as I’ve never actually done it, but I’ve heard good things. I’ve also heard a lot of bad things, so don’t be an idiot.
It’s also super important to be flexible on your preferred method of transportation. I actually saved money by taking a ship to Europe, instead of a plane. Specifically, a cruise ship. Definitely not conventional. Definitely one of the highlights of my trip.
Costs of living per day are not that high in places like Central America, South America, Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia. You’ll spend way less then you would just living at home and paying rent.
I’ve made money in some seriously weird ways. As mentioned, Air BnB is one way to make money on the side. Others have included, BIZARRE jobs found on craigslist, non-bizarre jobs found on craigslist (thank you Sangha Yoga Shala for being so incredible), helping friends with random side gigs and my job as a health educator for insurance companies.
I wanted to travel for so long, but never did it, because I thought I couldn’t afford it and/or it just wasn’t the right time. Then I just booked a ticket to literally the cheapest country I could find, Guatemala, and decided I’d figure it out a long the way. And I did.
Whelp, I’m here. After months of complaining about my job and threats to flee the country, I booked a ticket to Central America.
Like all my major life decisions, it was made on an impulse and with only the bear minimum of prior planning.
And here I am.
So, what have I learned so far?
1) Leaving New York was hard. There are a lot of things that become so familiar and you don’t realize how special they are until it’s time to say goodbye.
2) I am one lucky B. Just one week in a developing country and it became abundantly clear.
3) My Spanish is horrendous. Learning a new language (or anything for that matter) is hard and requires a lot of looking like an idiot in front of other people.
5) Traveling was the best decision I could have ever made.
I hate winter.
My body is literally made for the summer. For one, people with MS tend to live in northern colder climates and are low in Vitamin D (me). I was also born in Miami Beach and spent all of my summers at the Jersey Shore or the Suffern Pool (super exclusive hot spot for those of you who haven’t heard of it). I feel healthier and more alive when the sun is out and, when it disappears, I develop a deep understanding of all of Sylvia Plath’s work and start weighing the pros and cons of SSRIs.
And I know I’m not alone in this sentiment. There’s a reason Seasonal Affective Disorder exists. Winter blows.
But this year, as the leaves started to change, I had a conversation that set into a motion an entirely different way of thinking about it. Obviously, it was with a yoga teacher that I work with. I was complaining about the upcoming winter and my plans to disappear to another country entirely, a very rational and appropriate response to cold, when she said, “You know I used to think like that, but then one winter I decided to embrace it. Just get cozy.” She said this offhandedly as she was putting on her shoes and getting ready to leave, but it was such a departure from the usual cynical New Yorker response of “Oh yeah. I hate winters too. Remember the polar vortex?”, that it really made me stop and think.
And, of course, the one year I’m ready to embrace freezing cold temps (I even bought legit winter boots), we have an indian summer lasting all the way into Christmas. Not complaining though. That rules.
But moving forward into January, I am so ready to get cozy. So ready to cook all the food, read all the books, go to all the exercise classes and not drink all the alcohol. Not because these are the only options left to me, but because I think that’s what I really need sometimes. So, when summer comes around and people are actually leaving their houses, the introvert in me will be content with the time I spent hanging out with myself and my close friends, learning new things and getting cozy.
1. Tuesday will make one week without social smoking. I started casually smoking cigs after moving to Bushwick because loosies are only 50 cents here and old habits die hard.
2. Good books. Everyone should carry a book around for those inevitable dead spots in life.
I just finished Hell Bent by Benjamin Lorr and it’s totally perfect for anyone who practices hot yoga. Next up is Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl.
3. Yoga teacher training. Probably the best decision I’ve made in a while. Our group is particularly interesting, with two english second language folks and four other girls in their twenties. We spend all day doing yoga and talking about yoga and I’m genuinely surprised and in love with how much I’m learning and the stories and experiences that other people have been sharing. Also I can hold crow pose for a really long time now.
4. The kid I babysit is the cutest little bean. And that picture is definitely going on the cover of our new rap album that we’re about to drop.
5. Climb to the Top 2015. March 1st will be my third year climbing the top of the Rockefeller Center for The National MS Society.
6. It’s ALMOST that time of the year where I can run outside again.
7. On Saturday some people came over and filmed a movie in our apartment. NO BIGGIE. It was a low-budget film and we’re totally invited to the premiere. I
8. I live with my best friend. We joke because we’re both single and basically dating each other, but I will miss these years when I’m older and we don’t live together anymore. She also cooks some delicious food. Let me tell you.