Solo Travel

Iran…All Your Questions Answered

After two amazing weeks in Iran, it is nice to take some time to reflect for myself and to explain to others what I experienced. So here I am attempting to blog again. My two favorite blogs were my first one and the one I wrote in February 2015. These are question and answer type blogs, where I can just feel like I am having a conversation with someone, and not worry about paragraphs and sentence structure. So, here’s a question and answer blog about my trip to Iran….

Why would you go to Iran?

When I was in South Korea I met a really nice guy, Farzad, who was traveling alone. He told me that he was Persian, but living in China. Ah, Persian. I looked at him and nodded. And then he said “Iran”. Oh, yes of course. It was interesting to me that in my mind, Persian evokes positive images of carpets and cats and blue tiles and ancient history, while Iran evokes negative images of anti-Americanism, radicals, Argo, and terrorism. Could these two places be the same? It’s not surprising that he calls himself Persian and not Iranian. He told me how interesting Iran is, and how I should try to visit one day if I get the chance. I filed the information in the back of my mind until six months later when I met Anne.

I met Anne in Mandalay, Myanmar. She was working with an agency that does tours in Asia.  I signed up for a one-day bike tour of surrounding villages. We got to talking after my bike tour about travel and places we’ve been and places we want to go. She told me about a tour that she was going to take to Iran. She sent me the information, but the dates didn’t work with other plans I had, so I dismissed the idea quickly. Until she emailed me again a few months later that the plan was to go in August, and now I started to seriously consider going.

Before I decided to go, I researched. I googled about Americans traveling to Iran, safety, politics, dress codes, human rights violations, and visas. I read blogs from others who had visited. I also heard from a dear friend of mine, Elizabeth, my 92 year old solo traveling friend that I met in Guatemala and in Myanmar. She just got back from Iran, and she loved it. She emailed me a beautiful letter of how amazing it was there and in capital letters “YOU MUST GO NOW!”.  And so I my mind was set.

I decided that I wanted to see this country for myself. I decided that I wasn’t going to simply listen to and believe the media about the dangers of this country and their people. I was curious to see how the people in this “axis of evil” would treat an American. I wanted to see the culture and the history. A couple months before the trip my friend Beth took me to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and there was an exhibition on the art of Persia, and it was breathtaking…the textiles, the ceramics, the tilework. I was so excited to see all of this.

What about human rights violations? What about the poor treatment of women? How can you visit this country and support this?

These are very good questions. When I decide to visit a country where human rights issues are a problem, I do research and ask myself, what impact is my visiting (or not visiting) going to have? Is it best to not visit a country at all? Can my trip initiate positive change, negative change or no change at all? Does the country want me to visit? Does boycotting tourism to a country help fight against human rights violations? Is it best to ignore the country and isolate them from the rest of the world until they shape-up? I don’t know all the answers. I research for myself, and I make my own judgments and my own decisions. You may not agree with my choices, but that is ok. I personally feel that building bridges instead of walls is the best way to bring about change in the world.

Americans can travel to Iran? Really? Isn’t it impossible to get a visa?

Yes, Americans can travel to Iran; however, you must be on a guided tour. The same is true for holders of British and Canadian passports. I understand that holders of some European passports can travel independently in Iran, although I didn’t research this.

I decided to go on the tour with It’s Journey Time. Masha, the tour leader, has brought many groups to Iran in the last ten years, so she helped me with the visa process. Any agency you use should help you get the visa. I needed to supply some basic information (name, passport number, occupation, etc.) and she applied for me. After a few weeks, my application was approved, and I could go to a pre-specified Iranian embassy or consulate (I chose Istanbul because of easy, direct flights to Tehran) to get the visa. Unfortunately, there is no Iranian embassy in the U.S., but you can get the visa through Iranian special interest section of the Pakistan embassy in Washington D.C., but I heard this is more complex than getting the visa at an Iranian embassy outside of the US. It worked out better for me, because I was in Europe prior to my visit anyway. I was told to bring my itinerary, travel insurance information, visa photo, passport and the visa fee. When I got to the embassy in Istanbul, they told me I needed to pay the fee at the bank across the street (I think 60 euros) and I could pick up my passport and visa the next day. It really wasn’t a difficult process. It did take 4 or 5 weeks to get the initial approval, but the actual getting of the visa was straightforward.

Iranian Visa

Iranian Visa

A tour? I hate tours. I’m a traveler, not a tourist. I would never take an organized tour. etc. etc.

Ok, I hear this a lot from other “travelers”. Tours are for old people, non-adventurous people, scared people. Whatever. I personally like tours sometimes. For me it’s a nice break to not have to think about where I’m going, how I’m going to get there and where I’m going to stay. There have been times during my travels where I have been lost, both literally and mentally about where I am. A tour gives me a mental break in the planning and researching, so I like that. I read (if you are not British, American or Canadian) you can travel independently without a tour through Iran, but since I didn’t do this, I have no idea how easy it is with regards to booking flights, buses, hotels, etc.

So how was the tour? Where did you go? How many people were on the tour?

The tour was very good. You can see my full itinerary here. The thing I liked most about it was that there was plenty of free time to just go out and do your own thing. We were not required to have 24/7 supervision. We were free to walk around wherever and talk to whomever. We had 5 people on my tour:  me, a Brit, an Aussie, and two other Americans, plus the leader Masha (who is Russian), the local guide Mohammad (who is from Iran) and the driver Ali (also Iranian). We traveled around the country by bus, staying in most cities two or three nights.

My Wonderful Group

My Wonderful Group

Where did you stay?

Mostly 3 or 4 star hotels. They were fine, not especially posh, but not bad either. Basically what I have been accustomed to in my travels.

How did you get money?

U.S. credit cards and debit cards were not accepted in Iran, so I had to bring cash. You can easily exchange U.S. dollars and Euros for the local currency, Rials.

1 U.S. Dollar = 30,000 Iranian Rial

1 U.S. Dollar = 30,000 Iranian Rial

How much cash did you need?

It really depends on what you want to buy. Everything was included in my tour except meals, and that was usually less than $20 per day total. But if you wanted to buy some carpets or ceramics or other souvenirs, you might need more.

I did not buy this carpet (2000 USD), but I did love it.

I did not buy this carpet (2000 USD), but I did love it.

Is there really no alcohol?

Nope. Alcohol is illegal in Iran, even in hotels. We drank a non-alcoholic “malt beverage”, which to me tasted nothing like beer.

Peach Non-Alcoholic "Beer"

Peach Non-Alcoholic “Beer”

What did you wear?

This one was a bit of a hurdle for me. Women are required to wear long sleeves (to the wrist, although ¾ length sleeves is acceptable), long pants (to the ankle), and a shirt/top must come down past your hips (so you cannot see your butt or your waist). Also, a hijab (headscarf) is required at all times. When I first read over these requirements, I started stressing out. I googled images of what women wore, started following Instagram accounts of “hijab fashion”, and emailed questions to my tour leader Masha. I felt like I was invited to a costume party with a very specific dress code. I ran around H&M in Glasgow, Scotland looking for tunic-like tops that weren’t low cut and long pants. I read that women in Iran took appearance very seriously, and they were very fashionable even with the restrictions. I ended up bringing some long button down shirts and some linen pants and two “dressier” tops. I think I spent too much time worrying about the dress code. I’m not an overly fashionable person to begin with, and since I’ve been traveling, as long as I don’t look like a homeless bum, I think I’m doing ok.

Honestly, I didn’t like how I felt in those clothes and in the hijab. It was just not a style that I was used to, and things I would never wear at home, and it was really hot, so I was a sweaty mess most of the time. I never really considered that my wardrobe was an expression of myself or who I was, but being forced to wear something I did not like made me realize how much it mattered. I was resentful that males could wear whatever they wanted (except shorts), and I had to cover my head. Perhaps if it was colder, and not 100 degrees, and if I had the cash to get some really nice clothes I would’ve felt better. But as it was, I couldn’t wait to get back to my hotel room and take off the headscarf. Not everyone felt the same way about it as I did. My Aussie friend on the trip, Tracey, said she liked it and that she felt elegant and chic in her clothes. I felt the opposite…frumpy, unsexy and meek. I did adjust to it over the two weeks, and tried to see the positive side…No bad hair days! Always had a towel on your head to dry your hands after the bathroom! Decreased chance of sunburn or skin cancer!

In the second holiest site in the country, Fatima's Mausoleum, we were required to wear a full chador

In the second holiest site in the country, Fatima’s Mausoleum, we were required to wear a full chador

Selfies!

Selfies!

I thought a lot about the dress code requirement for women when I was there. Every society has rules and norms and laws governing what appropriate attire is. For example, it is ‘illegal’ is the U.S. for a woman to go topless as most beaches, while this is perfectly acceptable for a man. Is this discrimination? Are we women oppressed because we allow this to occur? Or is it acceptable? I think the difference is that in the U.S., when we are unhappy about a law, we have the freedom to express it, and we have the ability to make changes. In fact, I’ve been reading about a “free the nipple” campaign which would allow more toplessness by women in the U.S., especially in regards to breastfeeding.  On the other hand, some countries allow topless or fully nude sunbathing, and it is not an issue at all.  My point is that every society has a line, and just because the line is drawn either more or less conservative that yours, doesn’t make it wrong.  I wonder how many women in Iran are ok with the hijab and consider it an appropriately modest form of dress (as I am sure many American women consider having a top on appropriate too).

How did you get the scarf to stay on your head? Did the wind ever blow it off?

Some people used pins or clips on their headscarves, but I just draped it over and hoped for the best. If the scarf came off, our group had a code phrase to let each other know. We were all very conscious of the scarves and making sure it was in place. As Tracey said, if your scarf is off, it’s almost like your knickers are showing.

A few of us did adopt a local trick of using a “clip poof” contraption to help with the head scarf. It got your hair and the scarf off your neck for better air circulation, it helped to keep the scarf from slipping, and it made it look like you had piles of gorgeous hair under your scarf, so it was a fashion statement as well.

"Clip Poof"

“Clip Poof”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Were you scared?

No, not really. I was a bit nervous entering the country, as I wasn’t sure if they were going to give me a hard time at immigration. Turns out, it did take a bit longer for me to process my entry than some of the other people coming in, but I wasn’t questioned or detained or anything. It was pretty simple really.

Was it safe?

Yes, I would say that Iran is safer (in regards to crime) than many countries I have visited. I felt perfectly safe walking around alone. I was never hassled or bothered or catcalled or anything.

Was there a large military presence?

No, not that I noticed. We did occasionally see different military and security personnel, but they never bothered us.

Did you have Facebook? Wi-Fi? Email? Phone service?

There are many websites which are blocked by the government, including Facebook and YouTube. Most hotels and many teahouses and cafes had Wi-Fi. I was able to post photos to Instagram. (If you aren’t already following me on Instagram, my name is “Laurieseyes”).  I was able to check email. I was able to text on WhatsApp. I was able to purchase a local SIM card for my unlocked iPhone which was handy when Wi-Fi wasn’t available.

What did you eat? How was the food?

Food was good overall. Lots of meats like lamb, chicken, beef (no pork), rice, flat bread, olives, melon, eggplant, yogurt… One of my favorites was a chicken, walnut, pomegranate dish and a dish where you mashed up chickpeas in a clay pot with spices (both of which I don’t remember the names). When I was tired of Persian food, I went out for the local pizza, which is interesting because they don’t use pizza sauce, but instead put catsup on it! You could get fresh juices on the streets, like a carrot juice with cardamom ice cream! Or different local sweets and pastries.

Food!

Food!

So, how was it? Did they hate Americans?

No. Quite the opposite in fact. We would be walking down the street, and you could feel people looking at us, and as soon as you smiled at them, you would get a big smile back and the usual question, “Where I you from?” I would proudly respond, “America! I am American!” And without fail, I would get a huge smile and a look of shock and happiness followed by, “We love America!” or “America is good!” or “Obama is good!” or “Welcome to Iran!”. People would drive by and honk or wave or turn the car around to talk to us. Or people would stop us to chat and take photos. Or people in parks would come up to us and offer to share their food or whatever they had. The only negative comment I heard in my two weeks there was a man who told me “Bush bad. Obama good”. I couldn’t disagree. One restaurant we went into started playing the U.S. national anthem after we told them we had Americans in our group.

They loved Americans! We were so welcomed!

They loved Americans! We were so welcomed!

How can this be? How can a country whose government has been so anti-American have so many people who loved us? Why were they so welcoming and kind? I think the biggest lesson is that the government does not always dictate the thoughts and opinions of the people they rule, especially in a non-democratic government.

How were women treated there? Are they considered inferior? Were there things you could not do as a woman? Were you treated poorly by men? Did you see other women being treated poorly by men?

Women in Iran can go to school, hold professional jobs like doctors and lawyers, they can drive, but yes, there are differences in how they are seen in society. Women cannot go to soccer games, swim in a pool with men, dance or sing in public. There are so many things we take for granted and so many rights and freedoms we are given in the U.S. We can date who we want, hold hands and kiss in public, jump in a river on a hot day. The laws there are based on Islamic rules from an interpretation of the Koran. Unfortunately these laws have been so strict that many Iranian men and women have been leaving the country to the U.S. and Europe for better opportunities and more freedom.

I was not personally treated poorly, nor did I see other women being treated poorly while I was in Iran.

I think the one time I was irritated was when our group was going to a shisha (hooka) place to smoke some blueberry flavored tobacco, and we were told women were not allowed in. That was a bummer, but not a big deal.  Many shisha places do allow women and families.

My favorite teahouse/shisha place

My favorite teahouse/shisha place

The one time that really stands out to me is when we went to a rooftop “bar” of a fancy hotel. There was dance music playing, and I noticed a group of twenty-something guys and girls drinking sodas and juices and laughing and talking at a table. Some of them started dancing in their seats, moving their hands and shoulders to the music. One guy stood up and started dancing next to his chair. A staff member had to come to tell them to sit down. This broke my heart a bit. How can you be restricted from dancing? With dance music playing? I think dancing and moving along with music is such a basic human instinct, restricting it and limiting it is just so unfair in my eyes. I have heard that many people have parties in their own home where they service alcohol (illegally of course), and play music and dance, but in public this is strictly forbidden.

Tell me about Persian women.

Despite the restriction on the dress, Persian women (and men for that matter) are incredibly fashion conscious and looks-conscious, especially the younger women in modern cities. We saw many women with bandages on their noses from recently nose jobs, which is incredibly popular there. We were also told that some people would wear bandages on their noses even if they did not get a nose job, to give the appearance that they were wealthy enough to have had one! Women love brand named bags and shoes, make-up and nail polish. They push their headscarves back on their head to show a whisp of highlighted hair, or they allow their long locks to show down their back, below the scarf.

Persian family and me!

Persian family and me!

I read three excellent books on modern Iran while I was there that I highly recommend to anyone who is interested in the current culture:  Honeymoon in Tehran: Two Years of Love and Danger in Iran by Azadeh Moaveni, City of Lies: Love, Sex, Death, and the Search for Truth in Tehran by Ramita Navai and Iran Awakening:One Woman’s Journey to Reclaim Her Life and Her Country by Shirin Ebadi.  Or if you like to watch more than read:  Anthony Bourdain in Iran or Rick Steves’ Iran.

Do they have minorities/other religious groups?

Yes, while were there we visited an Armenian Christian church and various Zoroastrian temples. There are also Jewish synagogues, but the majority (98%) of people are Muslim (89% Shia, 9% Sunni).

Is it possible for a tourist (woman) to rent a car?

I don’t know about this one, as I didn’t try. I will say that the driving in Tehran was some of the worst/most dangerous I have seen in the world. There is a huge disregard for traffic signals, pedestrians, and laws. Lanes on the highway are barely used as suggestions. If there is room to pass between two vehicles, you are welcome to, regardless if there is a lane. I personally would not attempt to drive there, as they do have a high fatality rate of people both in cars and pedestrians. Also the pollution in Tehran was very bad.

What are the attitudes toward American policy in the Middle East?

I can’t comment on this one. Although we were not restricted in what we could say to locals, I did not bring this up to anyone I met. I avoided bringing up any topics of politics and government. In my time there I did have one conversation with a man in a coffee shop who spoke freely to me about his dislike of the government rule they had in Iran. He was a college professor, and he said that the isolation of Iran from Western society has negatively impacted the upcoming students in today’s world. He expressed frustration that English is no longer taught in schools, and that the youth are not able to be competitive in scientific fields, and that many were moving out of country for better opportunities. He said that he was frustrated that he could not have a conversation with me (a woman) in a coffee shop without looking around to see if anyone was watching. This conversation for me was enlightening, and I appreciate this man’s honesty and candor. But it was only one opinion of one Iranian out of 78 million people in the country. I cannot say if his views were held by many or a few others. This was the only conversation I had regarding politics in Iran.

How would you describe the “vibe” in Iran? Are people stressed out? Laughing? Happy?

I would describe it is casual. And peaceful. Families spend much of their social time outside having picnics on the grass. After the sun goes down and the temperature drops, they head out to parks and open spaces and spread out a blanket and eat and socialize and people watch. I think this is their equivalent of our “going out” to eat. While we were there we did the same, with the blanket and the food and tea. It was very casual and relaxing. They seemed much less addicted to their phones and TV than Americans. And when I think of American socialization, it seems like loud, active, exciting activities are most popular, like sporting events and concerts. It seems that interacting and just hanging out is more valued there.

Imam Square in Isfahan at night

Imam Square in Isfahan at night

There are no bars, but some really cool tea houses where you can smoke shisha or eat snacks or drink juices. Both young and old people and families enjoyed the teahouses. I really like the easy atmosphere of them as well, as it is more my speed than a loud nightclub. I did occasionally miss a glass of wine or a beer, but it was fine.

Cool restaurant

Cool restaurant

Are you allowed to take photos there?

Yes, we were only restricted against taking pictures of banks, military or security installations and other places like this.

Do they have gardens of flowers there?

Yes! Beautiful gardens that are listed as world heritage sites.

Ok, so that’s all the answers I have for now. If you have more questions, you can ask them below in the comments or email me directly.

In summary, I really loved the experience of being in Iran.  It was so different than anywhere I have ever traveled, and really opened my eyes to how different reality may be from what we are bombarded with in the media.

Peace and love everyone.  xo

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Categories: Iran, Recap, Solo Travel | 15 Comments

You Got Questions? I Got Answers!

It’s quickly approaching the two year mark of my travels, and when I mention this to people, I get a lot of wide-eyed stares and wows. After the wows come the questions. So in this blog post I’m going to answer the most frequently asked questions I get, in a similar format as my very first blog post.

Where have you been?

My summary answer is: Four months road tripping in the USA, ten months in Central and South America, two months in the USA and now five months in Asia. For the specific countries and timeline, check my “stats” page.

How much longer are you going to travel?

I really don’t know yet. It really depends on money, if I get a job and if I get tired of traveling. I’m pretty sure I have at least another year in me.

Do you love it?

This is an easy one. Yes, I do love it. Full time travel is not perfect and there are days that I’m depressed or lonely or sick, but those days come and go so quickly.

Aren’t you tired of it?

No, I’m not yet tired of traveling. I do get tired, but usually it’s when I’m moving too quickly from place to place. If I start to get tired of traveling, I just stop somewhere for a week or two or four and unpack my bag and rest.

You’re so brave. Aren’t you ever scared?

I always laugh a little when I get this question. I don’t feel like a particularly brave person. I am just living my dream. It feels natural and easy for me to do exactly what I want to be doing. To me that’s not brave, it’s just common sense. If you always wanted to get married and have children, and then you do that, people don’t say “you’re brave”. They say, cool. I think the difference is that my goal of full time travel is not as common as the goal of a house with the white picket fence.  And I’m very rarely ever scared of anything.  Travel has helped me to conquer most of my fears.

I'm not scared!

I’m not scared!

Have you fallen in love?

Yes, I have fallen in love hundreds of times, with cities, with trees and flowers, with sunsets, with people, with cultures, and with myself. It sounds kooky, but this whole experience has opened my eyes to so much. The world is so much broader and interesting than my old life. I call my mom on FaceTime and tell her, “Oh mom, this country is beautiful. I love it here!” And she replies, “Laurie, you say that about all the places.” And she’s right! Every place I have been has been an amazing learning experience for me, and I love them all in a different way.

2015-02-04 16.11.10

I fell in love with this lake in Nepal.

No, I meant have you found a boyfriend/husband?

Yeah, I know what you meant. I was just avoiding the question. I have met so many interesting and kind people from all over the world. I would be lucky to call any number of them my boyfriend, but I’m just not in a place emotionally or geographically to settle down. I’m still on my journey, and it’s a solo journey for now. I’ve broken a few hearts and have had my heart broken as well. What I do know now, is that I’m not worried of being alone or dying alone. I now see that there are so many great single people out there, who are ready and willing to share their lives. All of the good ones are not yet taken. I know that when the time is right for me, I will be ready. Until then, I’m having fun learning about myself and about others and what’s important to me and what qualities I want in a partner and what qualities I want to improve in myself.

I fell in love with this guy because he had my name tatooed on his chest, but after I snapped the picture I never saw him again.

I fell in love with this guy because he had my name tatooed on his chest, but after I snapped the picture I never saw him again.

Why aren’t you blogging more? Can’t you make a lot of money on the blog to keep the travels going?

The truth is I really don’t like blogging, and I don’t think I would be good enough at it to make money. I know some travel bloggers, and I know they work their asses off. You need to be in constant contact with your fan base, and you are often critiqued for your travel choices, your opinions, your spending habits, and your grammar and spelling. I just don’t need or want the constant feedback on my life from strangers who are not walking in my shoes. I also don’t feel like I have a unique enough niche in the travel world to be successful. I’m not the foodie traveler or the fashion traveler or the adventure traveler or the budget traveler. I’m just doing me, and I don’t have the ego to think that people would pay to read about me, except my mom and my aunts who are my biggest online fans and supporters.

In the past few months I have been loving Instagram. I do believe a picture is worth a thousand words, so a picture with a couple hashtags must be worth at least three thousand. #iloveinstagram. I’ve been having an on-going, internal debate about my Instagram though, about whether I want it to be ‘private’ for only my friends and family to see or ‘public’ to share my amazing photographic skills with the world. I actually opened my Instagram for public viewing, and I was oddly saddened by it. Now my likes and comments were from strangers and people I never met. It was different than when I got a “like” on my cat photo from my friend Katie because we met through our shared love of cats or a “like” on my bug picture from Glenn because he was with me in Nicaragua when my bug obsession started. These “likes” mean something to me, and in a small way keep me connected to those I love. The “likes” from strangers were just hollow and meaningless. My account is back to private, but who knows. Maybe someday that will change.

FullSizeRender1 FullSizeRender2

Are you going to write a book?

Maybe? I feel the same about writing a book as I do about writing a blog. Is there really something so special to write about? What’s the plot? What’s the lesson? What’s the ending? I could write a book that says something like “I went here and saw this and then I went there and saw that”. But that’s more just a journal, and I consider my Instagram my photo journal. I could write about my opinions on places I’ve been, but they are just that…my opinions, not facts. Does anyone really care what I think? I’ve read many travel books, and the ones that I loved have had some deeper purpose or some interesting challenge or some meaningful revelation at the end. If I have any of these, I will write a book, but I’ve read enough travel books to know that not all experiences are book-worthy. Granted, I still have more time. Maybe if I am kidnapped by North Korean dissidents and held captive for 76 days or if I meet a sexy billionaire who sweeps me off my feet and convinces me to sign a sex slave contract…then I’ll have a book idea worth sharing. But for now, I’m just having experiences and learning to enjoy the moments for myself instead of worrying about how to describe them in words for other people to read.

What do you do every day?

In my last blog posts, I described how I travel and what I do when I first arrive.  After that, I just try to live places. After seeing the major sites, I really like to settle into a city and just try to have a regular life. For me this includes reading (I’ve probably read more books in the past two years than I have in the past 20. If you like reading, hook up with me on Good Reads and let me know your favorite books), finding a yoga studio, meeting people, finding the best coffee shop and restaurants in town, and just walking around. Some days I quite literally do almost nothing. It took me some time to adjust from the hectic San Francisco lifestyle, where there were never enough hours in the day to do everything to a life of free time and relaxation. When I was in Nicaragua and I stopped going to Spanish school and first started doing nothing, I was so uncomfortable, I needed to make a list to make sure the hours of the days were full. My list included: walk on the beach, go to yoga, go to weekly poker game, do laundry, read a book, update blog (which was so rarely done I soon realized it wasn’t something I enjoyed).  At first, I felt bad about doing nothing.  I was “idle” and not contributing to the world. But eventually, I stopped worrying so much about doing “things” and contributing to the greater good, and started focusing on making myself a better person, through learning and reading and breathing and relaxing and yoga and eating healthier and drinking less beer and more green juices. I no longer consider these activities a waste of time or selfish endeavors. I think self-love and taking care of yourself are some of the most important things in life. Someday, I will go back to work, and when I do, I hope I keep with me some of my new-found lifestyle of relaxing and taking it easy and not stressing so much.

I love coffee.

I love coffee.

What do you miss most from your old life or the US?

My friends and family, of course, but today’s digitally connected world allows me to keep in contact from afar. I miss the endless food and restaurant options that were available in San Francisco.   I love Thai food, but right now I kill for some real Mexican or sushi. And when I leave Thailand, I’ll be craving Pad Thai like I was all last year in South America. I miss walking into a store like Target or Walgreens and being able to buy exactly what I want. Many of the skin care products across Asia have “whitening” agents in them to make your skin lighter. It’s so ironic because in the US, we like the tanned look, and have so many “self-tanning/darkening” lotions. I just want some regular SPF 30 sunscreen that’s not greasy and won’t whiten me, and it’s been impossible to find.

Do you miss working?

No. Even on my worst day of travel, there was not one moment that I thought, “I wish I was working right now”.

What will your next job be? Could you go back to your old business?

I wish I knew. I seriously doubt I could ever return to a regular 9 to 5 job in a cubicle, after 12 years of being my own boss, but who knows. I might be broke and desperate. I think a lot about what my “second career” will be, and I have some ideas, but nothing solid has materialized. I love animals so much, that I would like to have a career that has something to do with animals. I have also been enjoying yoga during my travels. I’ve done yoga on and off for over 15 years, but I really want to learn and understand more about it, so I am signed up to do a 200 hour yoga teacher training in Bali in April. I don’t know if I will ever actually become a yoga teacher, but I want to explore that. Also, through my travels I taken tons of tours, and I often find myself thinking, oh I could’ve given a better tour than that, so maybe a tour guide or speaker of some sort will be my next gig? Who knows? I have some time to figure it out, so I’m using this time to learn more about myself and what gets me excited. I bartended in Nicaragua, but quit in the middle of my second night, so that job is off the list. I chopped corn at the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand, and quickly realized it wasn’t for me, so farmer is also off the list. Although I don’t think I am particularly bad writer, I really don’t enjoy it, so blogger is out too.

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Laurie the Bartender

 

Laurie the Elephant Bather

Laurie the Elephant Bather

What have been your favorite countries so far?

Many people respond to this question by saying “Oh they are all so different. It’s so hard to decide.” Not me. But I do give the caveat that what countries I liked is completely influenced by where I went, how long I was there, how the weather was, who I met, what I did, if I got sick or tired, etc. So far my favorite countries have been Colombia, Nicaragua, Cuba, Cambodia, New Zealand and Nepal. Some runners up are Peru, South Korea, Thailand, and Italy.

Least favorites?

Switzerland, Laos and Belize. (Sorry Swiss friends, but full disclosure I was only in Zurich and only there for a day, so I do need to give it another chance. Why was everything so dang expensive?!)

What have you learned?

I have learned most how to be open to learning more, and to not let my prejudices and preconceived ideas about the world lead me. I’ve learned more about history and culture and people than I ever did in school or university. I’ve learned that I know very little and have so much more to learn.

How have you changed?

I am not sure about this one. I ask my friends and family if I am different because it’s hard to see changes in yourself. Like losing or gaining weight or going grey or getting wrinkles. You don’t just wake up one morning completely different. It’s a process over time. I had some friends say that I haven’t changed at all. I don’t know if that makes me feel more sad or relieved. I had one friend ask me why I wanted to change. Did I not like myself? I thought about it, and I do like who I am, but I do want to change. I want to be a better version of myself. Doesn’t everyone want that? My mom says that I am more patient. This is something that I am working on. I have learned to let things bother me less and less, and to accept the journey for what it is and to not rush. Everything will happen in the right time. Wow. Maybe I’m becoming a hippie/yoga/Buddhist. Maybe that’s not a bad thing…

Where are you going next?

I’m planning to visit Burma/Myanmar in the next month and then to Bali. After that, I’m wide open. At some point this summer I hope to return to New York to spend time with my mom and recharge the batteries. After that I’m thinking about Eastern Europe or maybe Africa? Or maybe back to Asia?   I have no idea, but I’m open to suggestions. I am estimating I have another year or so travel left in me, but who knows what the future will bring? I’m excited to find out myself!

If there are questions you have that I haven’t answered, please comment below and I will do my best to respond.

Cheers everyone!

Categories: Recap, RTW, Solo Travel | 11 Comments

How Do You Do It? (Part 2 – What to Do When You Arrive)

The first few days in a new city or new country are the most exciting.  I’ve developed a pretty standard routine that works for me to get settled in.

  1. Walk Around. On my first day, I typically don’t plan any activities. I just walk around. I find a coffee shop or park, and I sit and watch. If I only have one or two days in a city, I will not do any museums or tours or anything but walk around. I do like to have a map in addition to the google maps app on my phone, so I can find my way home. Also, I make sure I have the address of the place I am staying.  If I know I am going to be staying in the town or city for awhile, I like to scope out the best coffee shops and grocery stores.

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    Walking around my first day in San Jose, Costa Rica

  2. Find the Highest Point in the City. I got this tip from another travel blogger, and I think it’s brilliant. Whether it’s a hike up a hill or an elevator ride up the tallest building, getting a birds-eye view of the city can help you to get your bearings and decide what else you want to see.

    Tallest building in the city:  Eureka Skydeck 88, Melbourne, Australia

    Tallest building in the city: Eureka Skydeck 88, Melbourne, Australia

  3. Find out the local food, drink, crafts, wildlife, activities, etc. I want to know what the national drink is. Is there a local delicacy? Do the locals really eat it or is it served for tourists? I was surprised to learn that most Peruvians do not eat alpaca (this meal is geared toward tourists), but they do frequently eat guinea pig (cuy).
    Ceviche, a Peruvian dish much tastier than cuy.

    Ceviche, a Peruvian dish much tastier than cuy.

    Are there animals here that I can’t see anywhere else in the world?  What silly souvenirs or unique crafts can be bought here?  Finally, I want to know if there is something I can do there that I cannot do anywhere else in the world or something I have never tried.  What makes this city unique?  Volcano boarding, visiting a jaguar rescue, seeing the world’s smallest orchid, walking through the largest gold museum in the world, or jumping off a bridge…let’s do it!

  4. Get a new cell phone SIM card. With my unlocked iPhone 4S, it has been easy and cheap (less than 10 bucks) to get a new SIM chip in every country. It is convenient and affordable to have a local phone number, for both keeping in touch with new local friends and for booking future travel.  At this time, I also like to find out and program into my phone the local 911 emergency phone number.

    For $5-$10 I can get a chip for my iPhone and a local phone number

    For $5-$10 I can get a chip for my iPhone and a local phone number

  5. Take a walking tour or a bus tour. Many people are dead set against organized tours, but I actually enjoy them. Especially with a walking tour you can get a taste of the best sites in the city, and make plans to go back to spend more time there later. I like to take a map on the tour and highlight the route, so I can find places again.  If I don’t want to do an organized guided tour, I will find a self-guided walking tour online.
    Self-guided walking tour of Lima, Peru

    Self-guided walking tour of Lima, Peru

    In a guided tour, I will try to get to the front of pack, so I can listen carefully and ask the guide questions. I almost always ask the guide where they eat.  I remember after a walking tour in Florence, Italy, I asked the tour guide where she ate, not where she recommends the tourists go.  She took me to an unmarked restaurant on a side street. It was one of the best meals of my trip. After my walking tour in La Paz, Bolivia, I offered to take my tour guide out to lunch, where I was able to ask all the things I wanted to know about Bolivia from the politics to dating to reality TV to relations with the U.S.. I made an instant friend who I’m still in touch with.   Also, specialty tours can be fun, too.  I took a chocolate walking tour in Zurich, Switzerland, a horse and buggy tour in Cartagena, Colombia and a boat tour in Granada, Nicaragua.

    Horse carriage tour in Cartagena, Colombia

    Horse carriage tour in Cartagena, Colombia

So that’s my first few day when I get to a new place.  Tell me what you like to do when you get to a new city below…

Categories: Planning, RTW, Solo Travel | 1 Comment

How Do You Do It? (Part 1 – Deciding Where to Go and How to Prepare)

People often ask me how I decide where I’m going next in my travels. It’s usually a combination of two things, one is suggestions from other travelers (and travel bloggers) and the other is cheap flights. I try to ask everyone I meet on the road what’s the best place they’ve visited. I have a list on my iPhone of recommended places and places I want to go, and it’s been growing fast. The second way I determine where to go next is looking for cheap flights. For example, I knew I wanted to head to Asia in September, and I have a huge list of places I want to go, including Thailand, Laos, Burma, and Japan, so I consulted my favorite flight search website Skyscanner. You can enter your departure airport and the destination as “everywhere”, and the site will give you a list or a map of destinations and costs. When I did this, I checked flights both from San Francisco and New York, and the best I could find in September was a direct, one-way flight to Seoul, South Korea from San Francisco for $422. South Korea. Not on my list and I knew very little about it, but I thought, hey, why not? So South Korea will be my first stop in Asia. Now what?

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Skyscanner App

How I Prepare:
If you are time-limited, I recommend planning the crap out of your trip ahead of time. Book ahead of time, so you aren’t wasting precious vacation minutes doing this. If you love this research and planning, it’s a great way to get psyched up before your trip. If you find it tedious (like me) you can find a travel agent to do it for you. I used an agent to plan out my 3 week whirlwind around Australia and New Zealand. The agent planned and booked every flight, hotel, transfer and even some activities. This made things so simple for me to just show up and go.

I don’t love the process, and I have the luxury of time, so advanced planning is not required for me.  If you have time, I recommend booking things as you go, so you have the flexibility to make on-the-fly decisions. There is some basic planning that I always like to do ahead of time, though…

  1. Research the safety issues of the country or city. For me, this is important to know before stepping foot in country. What’s the crime like? What are possible scams? Are there potential natural disasters like earthquakes, volcanoes, or hurricanes? Are there particular neighborhoods in cities that should be avoided? Recent terrorism, protests, strikes, political unrest? A quick internet search can get you this info, but I also try to talk to other travelers who have visited recently for real-time facts. After I get a feel for the situation, I file the information in the back of my mind and move on. I am not easily freaked out, I understand that there are risks everywhere, and I try to behave in a way to minimize the probability of something bad happening to me. I think that arriving completely ignorant is foolish, but obsessing over the potential things that could go wrong is paralyzing.
    Is this an active volcano?  Yes!  Ometepe, Nicaragua

    Is this an active volcano? Yes! Ometepe, Nicaragua

  2. Register with the U.S. Department of State and keep in touch. I am not trying to run off-the-grid or hide in a foreign country. Whenever I go, I let the U.S. government know where I’m going to be. In case something goes wrong, I want the government to know I’m there and to help me get out. I also let my family know where I am and where I’m going, usually via Facebook. If I know that I am going to be out-of-touch for a few days, I let my family know that as well.
  3. Find out about money. Before I arrive, I want to know what the currency used is, and what the approximate exchange rate is to U.S. dollars. Are credit cards accepted? Are U.S. dollars accepted? Are ATMs safe and available? Can I easily get or exchange money at the border or the airport?  I also research approximate costs for travelling there.  You can do a simple google search like “cost per day South Korea” to get some benchmarks for budgeting.  Be careful though, as you need benchmarks from like-minded travelers.  I’m not a ramen noodle-eating backpacker hoping to spend $20 per day, but I’m also not a luxury, 5-star resort kinda gal.  I have found some travel bloggers with similar travel styles, who can provide me guidance, so there’s no sticker shock when I arrive.
    How much is a Happy Meal in Guatemala?

    How much is a Happy Meal in Guatemala?

  4. Find out if you have any friends or friends of friends in the area. I like to put out on Facebook where I’m headed next to see if anyone lives or has lived there or visited, or knows someone to put me in touch with. Having a local contact has always been useful. There is also a Facebook app I like to use called “My Friend Map”, where you can see on a map the home towns of all of you Facebook friends. This was especially useful during my U.S.A. road trip.
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    What!? I only have one friend in Asia? I am going to fix that! (I’m also going to visit Courtney in Hong Kong for sure!)

  5. Book the first few nights. As a solo traveler, I am not comfortable just showing up to a city without a place to stay. I have done this, but it often gives me a bit of panic, worried that everything is booked and I’ll be sleeping on the street. My current favorite lodging for the first days in a new city is Airbnb. You are often staying with a local family, which is great to get an understanding of the culture first-hand and get great local tips. I find that Airbnb is better in big cities, so I did this in Lima, Peru, Bogota, Colombia and will be doing it in Seoul, South Korea. Hostels are good if you are more interested in meeting other travelers and hotels are great if you are more interested in having your own space.
  6. Read a book. I tend to avoid travel guides, as they are expensive and heavy, and I hate navigating them on my Kindle. What I do like is to find a book that takes place in the country where I’m going to visit. Reading a book about a place (either fiction or non-fiction) can give you a glimpse into the country. Some of my favorites: Havana Real: One Woman Fights to Tell the Truth About Cuba Today by Yoani Sanchez (Cuba), Gringo Nightmare: A Young American Framed for Murder in Nicaragua by Eric Volz (Nicaragua), Marching Powder: A True Story of Friendship, Cocaine, and South America’s Strangest Jail by Rusty Young (Bolivia), and Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time by Mark Adams (Peru).
    I read about it, then discovered Machu Picchu, Peru myself.

    I read about it, then discovered Machu Picchu, Peru myself.

  7. Check the weather. I try to determine what kind of clothes and supplies I need before I arrive, but like the crime, I don’t dwell on this too much.
A baby sloth completely unrelated to this blog post (Costa Rica)

A baby sloth completely unrelated to this blog post (Costa Rica)

What do you think?  My ‘no planning’ actually involves some research.  How do you travel?  Leave me some comments and suggestions below.

And stay tuned for Part 2 of this post, where I tell you what I do when I get there…

Categories: Planning, RTW, Solo Travel | Tags: | 1 Comment

1 Year of Travel: A Look Back (Part 1 – The Beauty)

May 1, 2014 marks the one year anniversary of me quitting my job and driving away from San Francisco, my home of 17 years. I left behind my friends, my cats, my business, and everything I knew in life. I had no idea what lay ahead of me, but I knew I had to do this. In the last year, I drove over 12,000 miles (alone), visited 32 US states, 9 countries and took 12 flights. This trip has been everything I had hoped for and more. I am grateful everyday that I am able to live my dream, and I don’t have a single regret. A now for a look back at my favorite scenes…

This planet we live on is amazing. Beauty is everywhere you look, if you open your eyes. I don’t own a camera because I try to live in the moment wherever I am, and I find having a camera distracts me from this. Sometimes I wish I had more than my iPhone 4S to capture the loveliness in front of me, and to be able to share this with others, but I think the iPhone does a good enough job for me. Below are some of the most wonderful things I’ve seen.

Old Faithful Geyser, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Old Faithful Geyser, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

The Badlands National Park, South Dakota

The Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Chicago, Illinois

Chicago, Illinois

Niagara Falls, Canada

Niagara Falls, Canada

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

Parque Nacional Tayrona, Colombia

Parque Nacional Tayrona, Colombia

Guatapé, Colombia

Guatapé, Colombia

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La Antigua, Guatemala

El Tunco, El Salvador

El Tunco, El Salvador

Tikal National Park, Guatemala

Tikal National Park, Guatemala

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, Costa Rica

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, Costa Rica

Bocas del Toro, Panama

Bocas del Toro, Panama

Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua

Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua

 Continued…1 Year of Travel:  A Look Back (Part 2 – The Adventures)

Categories: Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, Recap, RTW, Solo Travel, USA, Year 1 | 2 Comments

I Hate Blogging

I hate blogging. There, I said it. When I started my adventure almost one year ago, I had these amazing plans for my blog to be a weekly update to document everything that happens to me. I wanted it to be a way to share with others (especially my close friends and family) as well as a way for me to remember things myself. I soon realized that blogging was hard. And time consuming. After I write, I re-write and edit and add pictures and re-write again and again. I am not a perfectionist, but I am incredibly detail-oriented, and will spend hours fighting with WordPress to make sure the justification on a photo caption is just so. Blogging started to feel like a job to me. A job that I wasn’t being paid for. I didn’t feel like working, so I quit my blogging job. Just like that, I realized that if I didn’t want to do it anymore, I didn’t have to.

One of my awesome Instagram photos

One of my awesome Instagram photos

However, there are two times that I feel like blogging. One is when I re-read my old blogs and it brings back memories of where I have been and what I was feeling at the time. I want to remember everything I have been going through. I tell myself that the photos I take will be enough, but I’m not so sure. Although my Instagram account is pretty killer right now, it is quite possible that I am forgetting memories as we speak. What’s funny is, I actually write blogs in my head almost every day. I think while I’m walking on the beach, hey, this would be interesting to write about. I even have a file on my iPhone notepad of future blog topics, many of which will probably never be written.

I have an unwritten blog about what makes a beautiful beach

I have an unwritten blog about what makes a beautiful beach

The second time I feel like blogging is when I read other people’s blogs. I am obsessed with travel blogs and probably follow at least 20 different travel bloggers around the planet. I am fascinated not only with the destinations and recommendations, but their voices and their views and often the views of their followers. I actually follow some bloggers who I completely disagree with their opinions and actions on the road and travel style, but I am riveted by their blogs, as I can’t wait to see what they will do or say next.  Today I spent some time reading a friend’s blog and was dazed by how personal it was and how vividly he expressed himself in his writing and how grateful he is going to be to have this documentation later in life. I was inspired by his candor, and although you won’t catch me writing about my almost-non-existent love life on my blog, I feel the desire to write again, and I want to share and I want something for myself to remember.

So I have recommitted myself to this “job” that I quit in January, and I am going to try to change my attitude on it, and try to think of it less as a job and more as a gym workout, where I hate going, but always feel better after. Look at that. I feel better already. Maybe I don’t hate blogging after all….

Categories: Friends and Family, Solo Travel | 2 Comments

Solo Travel: The Good and The Bad

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I’ve been traveling for over eight months now. Eight months and eleven days to be exact. When people ask me how it’s been, I immediately say that I’ve loved every minute of it. But to be honest, this is not exactly true. Solo travel for me has (overall) been wonderful, but it’s far from perfect.

The Good:
1. The best thing about traveling alone is being able to do whatever I want and whenever I want. I never have to deal with the conversation: “What do you want to do today?” “I don’t know what do you want to do today?” Or “I’d love to visit the museum of firearms.” Or “Another beach day, Laurie? Aren’t you tired of beaches?” (Um, no). It is completely freeing and liberating to wake up and do exactly what I want to do. Or to do exactly nothing.
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2. The second best thing about traveling alone is the ease of meeting other people. When I traveled with my ex-boyfriend we rarely met other people. Occasionally we’d meet another couple, but mostly we were each other’s company. Traveling alone forces you to talk to strangers or at least a bartender. I personally think bars are great. My parents owned a bar when I was young, so I always say that I grew up in a bar. I’m comfortable on a bar stool, even if I’m alone. In fact I’m writing this from a bar stool at my hotel in Rio Dulce, Guatemala. My theory on bars is that people go there to socialize, if not they could just drink from home. If there’s an option, I’d rather eat at a bar than at a table for one. Best case scenario, you meet someone interesting and end up talking all night and they buy your dinner (which happened surprisingly often when I traveled in the US). Worst case scenario, the bar is dead, but you have a beer and write a blog and go home early.

3. For me, the third best thing about traveling alone is just like you aren’t counting on anyone else for your fun and enjoyment, no one is counting on you. You have no pressure to find the best hotel/tour/beach and you don’t have to worry about disappointing someone. I don’t like the pressure/responsibility of having control over someone else’s happiness…(hmm, maybe this is why I’m single…. ) When I’m traveling alone if the tour is a bust or the hotel has bedbugs, it was my decision and I never have to deal with someone else’s complaining/unhappiness/unmet expectations. And the biggest change I’ve found in myself over the last eight months is the lowering of my expectations and the increase in my patience. I told a new student (and now a friend) at my Spanish school in Colombia to be prepared for disappointment. I’ve found often in my travels (especially in South/Central America) that things don’t often never go as planned. Buses are late, people are flaky, plans are canceled last minute, etc. For example, I’m currently in this small Guatemalan coastal village waiting to get on a sailboat for a week-long sailing trip to Belize that will never happen because it was canceled because not enough people signed up. So I’m going to try to head somewhere else tomorrow. Instead of my usual crushing disappointment, I just shrugged, and I’m moving on. I would feel awful if I convinced a friend or a travel partner to come on the sailing trip, and they were disappointed.
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The Bad:
1. The worst thing about traveling alone, is yes, at times it is lonely. The bar is empty (or worse, full of couples holding hands), they are playing sad Adele through the speakers, and the bartender doesn’t even want to say hello. This happens. You had a great day and saw something amazing like a volcano or a sunset or a guy on the street playing violin with his feet and you have no one to discuss it with. Actually I like Facebook for being able to share my experiences when I don’t have someone to talk to.
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2. Making decisions and planning can be hard and exhausting. Yes, I get to make every decision and do what I like, but sadly I have to make every decision. I’m often oscillating between over-researching and reading every Trip Advisor/Lonely Planet review for every hotel in an area to not even knowing where the bus I’m on is going. I actually prefer the latter. But mostly when I’m on a bus not knowing where I’m going, someone else has done the leg work and I’m just tagging along on their research and advice. I can get paralyzed with the research and the decision making side of travel. It would be great to have a travel partner who loved to handle the details. Or maybe a travel agent that knew what I liked to do and just planned everything for me. I was actually on Trip Advisor today wishing there was a function to sort by things I like (ex. Quiet, close to restaurants/bars, safe, mid price range. etc. Or better yet, eliminate places that have things I don’t like, like crazy backpackers or kids yelling in the pool.). Like a personalized trip advisor. Business/ap idea anyone? Or anyone like doing research want to be my personalized travel agent, I could use a good two week itinerary in Costa Rica starting on January 20.

3. On the practical side of solo travel, things are just more expensive when you are a party of one. All hotels and car rentals would be half price if I had someone to share with. In many restaurants the entrees are often too big for one person. I would love to be able to “split an appetizer and an entree” every night instead of ordering just an appetizer or worse, ordering an entree and wasting half.

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So that’s my take on solo travel. It’s not always rainbows and butterflies, but it’s a journey and I’m growing and changing everyday with the experiences I’m having and the people I’m meeting. I met a fascinating women named Elizabeth in a bar a few weeks ago. She has been traveling the world alone for the last two years since the death of her husband. And she’s 90 years old. She amazed and inspired me with her courage and her strength and her stories of China and India and Mexico. She made me feel young again, although I’ll be celebrating a big milestone birthday this year. When I start to question whether I can navigate this world alone I think about Elizabeth and I realize that my life is not even half way done, and it’s never too late to travel alone.
What do you think? Do you love traveling alone? Prefer with a partner? Let me know in the comments below. Adios!

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Categories: RTW, Solo Travel | 10 Comments

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