Quick Colombia Tips

From Medellin to Cartagena, here are just a few quick tips based on my experience in Colombia.

A few years ago I spent a month exploring Colombia, and a colleague recently asked for tips. I wrote up a quick doc for her professing my recommended highlights, and thought others might appreciate it, as well. Without further ado…

Read before you go:

Anything by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but specifically Love in the Time of Cholera; here’s a blog entry I wrote about Cartagena.

Eat while in Colombia:

Arepas (I personally find sweet corn arepas and the plain ones to be meh)–go for the ones like Arepa con Huevo or Chicharron.

Papas rellenas.


Fried fish with coconut rice and plantains — a must have when on the coast.

Bandeja Paisa–a big plate of meat and meat and carbs and starch. This is a popular meal in the more rural and mountainous regions.

Trout (La Trucha) especially if in the Coffee Triangle.

Casuela de Frijoles— sort of a bean stew. You can get a great bowl of it at Ajiaco y Mondongo’s in Medellin

Mondongo, of course, is a garlicky, creamy soup most popular in Bogota.

Patacón con Todo— Heaped onto a styrofoam plate with the routine precision of a Michelin star chef, I saved this baby for last. Patacón is the same as Tostones, or twice fried plantains. On top of this is seemingly everything you’d want on a mountain of plantains. You’ve got your sausage, your shredded chicken, your onions and cheese and beans. Top it with potato sticks and three kinds of sauce (my guess is pineapple, ketchup and mayo), and there you have a perfectly edible munchie meal, one that’s good enough to write home about. Where can you find this delicacy? I popped my Patacon cherry at a stand along the borders of the Plaza in front of the Iglesia de la Trinidad in Cartagena.


Medellin Breakdown:

Where to stay: The neighborhood El Poblado is where a lot of backpackers stay. A bit nicer and trendier.  What to do: Visit Parque Botero, eat a nasty hot dog. Take a salsa class and go dancing at El Eslabon Prendido! Go paragliding because you’ll never be able to afford it here and the views are increíble. Take a Pablo Escobar tour and find out why Medellin used to be the murder capital of the world.

Bogota Breakdown:

Bogota is the kind of city where you want to spend some time. Similar to New York, it’s hard to feel as if you’ve gotten an understanding of the place if you’re just passing through. However, if you must, some highlights are: Go on a graffiti tour Watch the sunset at the top of Montserrat Learn about gold at the Museo de Oro Shop. You’ll find your market somewhere. ……… You can read a bit further about my Bogota experience here.

Salento Breakdown:

Salento is the type of small Andean town in the middle of Colombia’s coffee triangle where you can expect to find men walking between colorful craft shops in small ponchos and cowboy hats, where you can perch yourself on a hillside hacienda drinking freshly roasted coffee and looking out at the snow-capped peaks of Los Nevados National Park. The town itself is lovely, so make sure not to just pass through it, as it’s not to be overlooked. Coffee farms surround the small town, so make sure to take a coffee plantation tour. But the main allure of Salento is its role as a gateway to Cocora Valley, the home of the stately wax palm trees, a national symbol.

Cartagena Breakdown:

Where to stay: I stayed at El Viajero Hostel, close to Monumenta India Catalina and the best damn arepa stand in the city. Many tourists like to stay on the lively Calle Media Luna. If you’re looking to stay on the beach, there are a ton of high rises in Marbella, but the beach isn’t incredibly impressive. The city is far more fascinating. The neighborhood of Getsemani is the new hot spot in Cartagena, so might be worth checking out hotels there.

**if you do decide that you love the reviews of el viajero and want a hostel vibe, it is worth noting that the private rooms, while air conditioned, are directly next to the courtyard where you will never get a peaceful night’s sleep. Not that you want one in Cartagena…

What to do: Beach is nice, but as you see if you read my post, I just loved walking around and eating, drinking, smoking, napping, getting caught in torrential downpours. It’s fucking hot in Cartagena.

A lot of people go to the mud volcano which I heard was over touristy, or take a day trip to Playa Blanca which is meant to be gorgeous, but I didn’t go…

Santa Marta Breakdown:

Santa Marta is a great gateway to other cool parts of the coast like Tayrona National Park, Minca, Palomino, Taganga, etc. The city itself is really not that cool (although some may disagree), but The Dreamer Hostel was actually a dream. You can see some of the pics from there in a blog post here.

Taganga Breakdown:

Alternately, you can even stay in Taganga, although I don’t have recommendations for where. Known in Colombia as “the backpacker’s ghetto”, it’s a sleepy fishing village, a little gritty, but absolutely lovely. We partied there one night at arguably my favorite club in all South America called El Mirador. As its name suggests, it looks out over the port. There’s a ton of different indoor and outdoor dance floors, a good mix of tourists and locals, and you can party till the sun rises and you can see little fishing boats bobbing calmly in the water. You can also walk along the beach during the party to look for drugs or arepas. And there’s always an after party.

Minca Breakdown:

Minca is a little village that is known among backpackers for two things– 1) A waterfall; 2) Casa Elemento–Pro tip: book in advance (if they have no beds, you can also pay to sleep in a hammock, which I did). The town is quite small, so if there are other things to do there, I didn’t hear about them.

Whatever hostel you stay at can arrange for you to take a taxi to the waterfall, which is a short trip and not a big hike to the falls.

A taxi can also take you the center of town, where you can take a zigzaggy, adventurous ride up to Casa Elemento, a hostel in the sky boasting the world’s largest hammock!!!. Make sure to find out how much the moto-taxi up will be before you meet with a driver and pay him before you sit down on the back of his bike so that he doesn’t try to get more out of you at the top.

The ride to Casa Elemento is super fun, but about an hour long into the mountains. Can read about my experience with this hostel here. **make sure to bring tons of deet/bug spray and something warm and covered up at night.

Palomino Breakdown: 

Again, stayed here at the Dreamer Hostel sister. It’s the prettier of the two with an excellent bar, restaurant, pool and rooms. It’s right on the beach, as well, and the water has the craziest current I’ve ever seen, so not swimmable but def something to see. You can also go river tubing in Palomino, but I didn’t get around to it.  


I didn’t make it here because I heard mixed reviews. I think the deal is a massive sweaty hike to a gorgeous beach where you can camp out for the night, sleeping on hammocks or in tents rented from the vendors there. I hear these hammocks and tents are pretty vile and a lot of people said that while gorgeous, the whole ordeal was more of a headache than it was worth.

by Rebecca Bellan

Dear USA, I’m breaking up with you

Please don’t launch a premature air strike on an Afghani hospital in your irrational anger.

Source: Dear USA, I’m breaking up with you

*Note to reader: This was first published by Matador Network, but as this is my own blog, I have published here the draft that I liked best, without their edits.


Dear ‘Murica,

I think we need to take a break. So take me off your Christmas card mailing list. I’m sick of seeing your pasty extended family lined up with their rifles on the porch in their Sunday best.

I’m not saying this is the end, so please don’t launch a premature air strike on an Afghani hospital in your irrational anger. Despite your faults, I still truly love you. You get caught up sometimes in fear, anger and ignorance, but I haven’t forgotten your virtues. You’re the strongest advocate for Freedom of Speech, you legalised gay marriage and you elected our first black president. However, your accomplishments are beginning to fade as I spend more and more time away from you. I’m starting to see you how a lot of other people around the world see you, and it’s not looking good.

We’ve been doing the long distance thing for nearly a year now. I’ve been enjoying a new kind of first world life in Melbourne, Australia, and from what I see online and on the news, you are having a sort of identity crisis and dealing with some raging demons. We’ve never spent this much time apart, but the distance has made me into a different person. I’m sorry to break this to you, but I’ve fallen in love with another country. Australia is like you, but better in so many ways. It’s an advanced democracy too, but it actually provides its citizens with basic civil liberties and rights, like Medicare, comprehensive welfare allowances and affordable education with interest-free government loans. Most people live comfortably off of what they earn here—without getting a second or third job to make ends meet—and still have the freedom of will and the excess dollars to spend on trips around the world. Your citizens, on the other hand, almost never travel unless they’re taking their meagre two-week holiday of the year to sit poolside at a lavish resort in a country that’s slowly developing from squalor to poverty.

Being with Australia has opened up my eyes to the fact that there are plenty of countries in the world that can give me freedom and the pursuit of happiness. Right now it’s Australia, but if things don’t work out, who knows? Denmark? Sweden? Canada? All I know is that I have finally gotten the perspective to be able to tell you what I didn’t know I wanted to tell you until now.

Fuck you. I’ve defended you to my friends abroad for far too long. You have no idea how you relate to other people in the world, and no wonder, with half your population being so stubbornly backwards that you find it impossible to join the global society. Ever think that maybe you shouldn’t let Bible Belt douche bags vote on local school board elections to keep Creationism in the lesson plan?

Fuck you for not being the country that I thought you were. You looked so good and welcoming on paper. I was taught that America was the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” I thought that we had settled the fact that Black Lives Matter when you rightly abolished slavery. You were the first country to break free from British imperial rule, the first country to put separation of church and state into your Constitution, the first country to invent flight and land on the moon and build skyscrapers. You gave the world jazz and Jimi Hendrix and Shark Week and Apple products and Mark Twain. You’ve shown me some of the most amazing natural wonders in the world, provided me with year after year of whimsical Halloween celebrations and fat turkeys on Thanksgiving, and given me endless hours of Hollywood entertainment. But I can no longer look the other way while you slaughter Yemeni mothers with drones or encourage your citizens to keep up with the shallow existences of the Kardashians.

I’m not saying that I was naive to the fact that we had our faults, but I just never felt them. I mean, I was a part of them, and a part of you, as much as you were a part of me. I used to meet a cacophony of sneers and jeers from Europeans and Australians in hostels abroad with a knowing smile, because I knew that everyone just hated the United States of America because we were the best. I mean, back to back World War champs, am I right?  Except now I see it. Now I see that everyone hates us because we’re kind of the worst.

When I look at your Facebook profile, I not only see that the NRA still has you by the balls and you haven’t put any logical gun laws in place, but also that you’re continuing with this spectacle that is our presidential election process. Meanwhile, my new beau’s profile got the attention of the masses for their election for about a month, during which time they debated about who would provide Australia with the fastest internet and better universal healthcare. (Also, it only took one massacre for Australia to revoke their citizens’ gun rights, and they’re just fine without them.)

This election has gone on for far too long. Don’t you know that it’s just a reality show for the rest of the world? Every Aussie that meets me for the first time and hears my unmistakably stupid American accent feels the need to ask me if I’m voting for Trump…because clearly you’re considering this madman! You’re making me choose between Godzilla and the She-Wolf of Wall Street as the leader of our nation. I feel like I don’t even know you anymore. In fact, I’m embarrassed by you. In so many strangers’ eyes, I am guilty and stupid until proven innocent and intelligent. Australia won’t even let me extend my working holiday visa for a second year, probably because they can’t stand that they let me in in the first place.

At least they let me in fairly easily, unlike you who only gives out J-1 visas to students. That doesn’t seem very fair. I mean, it’s no secret that you’re rather lacking in foreign policy (cough cough occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq cough cough). But foreign policy should extend beyond war and trade and merge with cultural exchange. I know you’re stubbornly persisting this (the popularity of Trump’s anti-globalization “foreign policy” being a prime example), but we are living in a global community, a community that America should be the leader of but is hardly even a part of unless we’re at the butt of a joke. To re-earn the reputation of “USA Number 1”, we need to produce global citizens, to encourage our people to live and work abroad and come back to us with what they’ve learned.

I wish you’d offer meaningful reciprocal working holiday visas, at least to our allies– the countries, like Australia, that fought in all our wars. The Coalition of the Willing, and you’re not even willing to invite their citizens to live and work with you. If our soldiers can fight together, why can’t our citizens work together to create a greater bond among friends through cultural exchange programs? Is your relationship with your allies purely dependent on the existence of threat and tactical geographic advantage, or can it be based on a system of shared values of liberty and democracy and equality? I don’t think you realise that most other developed countries send their citizens abroad with backpacks on their backs, not M16s in their hands. I feel far too singular as an American on the backpacking trail.

You need to promote real travel, to encourage your citizens to get a PhD in Life rather than stressing out every junior in high school with SAT scores and acceptance letters to prestigious universities. Because any American who’s gotten a useless higher education in a subject they chose as an idiotic child knows that the exhilaration of acceptance and four years of intellectual pursuits and frat parties will amount to fuck all once the grace period ends. The rest is all existential dread, the occasional Groupon voucher for an all-inclusive resort in Costa Rica, and paying off student loans until we’re 50. ‘Sup with that 6.8 percent interest on my federal student loans, by the way? Unbelievable.

You’re cheap, you’re sexist and you’re weirdly religious, even though you promised from the start that you’d leave the church stuff away from the state stuff. Honestly, the list is just getting too long. Aside from our country code, the USA is only number 1 in three categories, best described by Aaron Sorkin’s character Will McAvoy in the Newsroom: “We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real and defense spending, where we spend more than the next 26 countries combined, 25 of whom are allies.”

Look, I’ve tried and tried again to believe in you, to carry the pride that made us work in the first place. But now, you’ve gotten too comfortable. You’re stuck in your ways, while I want to grow and change and make friends with other nations. I’d like it if you did the same. Until you get your shit together, I really don’t want to come home. I’m truly terrified for what outcomes November will bring. I hope you smarten up and get on board with the rest of the world.


With love and hate,

Your former flame…of liberty


PS- The imperial system of measurement is stupid.

6 issues millennials need to be looking out for this election

“Many millennials aren’t earning salaried or union jobs and are instead scraping by with contracted or freelance work, along with a second job in hospitality or retail to make ends meet.”

Source: 6 issues millennials need to be looking out for this election

1. The importance of urban policy

Most presidential candidates have avoided or skimmed over the topic of urban policy and housing, despite our ever-growing urban populations. Our cities aren’t just hubs of earning and wealth dispersal amongst and between classes, they’re the lifeblood of our banking system. Real estate is the largest asset category in the United States and the center of the greatest market crash since the Great Depression. We are in the midst of a rental housing crisis, where the rents are rising faster than inflation, leaving people in the lurch for affordable housing and mortgage lenders hesitant to finance anyone looking for a loan.

Our next president should be making policies that support a beneficial transition of our cities. U.S. cities should be shifting toward becoming pivotal spaces for innovation, creativity and togetherness — not just places for certain people to grow richer. We need to do things like invest in better infrastructure and public transit, tackle poverty, and create more affordable and diversified housing.

Bernie and Hillary both seem to see rebuilding America’s infrastructure as a great way to create jobs and improve on roads, bridges and transit, both local and national. However, they’ve both stopped short of getting into the nitty-gritty of urban policy and the housing crisis. Maybe they, and the Republican candidates, see urban policy as too small-time for their national agendas. If that’s the case, they all need a wake-up call from their millennial voters who mainly live in urban societies and are affected by unsustainable and unaffordable housing, poor public transit options, low-wage jobs and other city-stemmed issues.

2. The fact that racism still exists

As much as we might like to think that we do, we don’t live in a post-racial society. The Guardian released a study that showed that young black men were nine out of 10 times more likely to be killed by police in America during 2015. The study tallied a total of 1,134 deaths by police brutality last year. The challenge moving forward will be in finding a candidate who is serious about creating solutions that don’t allow the use of lethal force by police to go on without scrutiny. The present policy measures are insufficient and this unjust structure must be called into question, according to one opinion piece by the Roosevelt Institute.

“…we must show Millennials — the leaders of today and tomorrow — that racism still exists so that they can press on ever more firmly toward extinction.”

Clinton, during the January 17 debate, took a notable stand against racial disparity in policing and acknowledged that much of the nation sees the lives of young African American men as worthless. “Sadly, it’s a reality,” she said. “There needs to be a concerted effort to address the systemic racism in our criminal justice system. And that requires a very clear agenda for retraining police officers, looking at ways to end racial profiling, finding more ways to really bring the disparities that stalk our country into high relief.”

Sanders has been publicly outraged by police brutality and racial profiling from the start of his campaign. He gained popularity among the black community after his interview and discussion with rapper Killer Mike. Sanders believes that the US Department of Justice should do a thorough investigation anytime someone dies in police custody.

Marco Rubio has said little to nothing on changing policies so as to ensure that police brutality is not tolerated at all in our country. Instead, he has defended the vast majority of police officers who are not to be blamed for these “rare” incidences of violence against local communities. There’s no point asking what Trump or Cruz would have to say about this as they both, based on their past statements, seem to be rampant bigots — especially against Muslims and illegal immigrants.

3. Education standards in the United States

Many candidates are busy in discussion about makinghigher education more affordable, or even free, and allowing post-grads to refinance their loans and start a new income-based payment plan. While we millennials are ever grateful (but mostly hopeful that our next president will just magically erase our loans), the candidates seem to be largely ignoring or bypassing discussion of K-12 education.

The U.S. ranks 14th globally in education, 24th in literacy and 2nd in ignorance. Our educational statistics should reflect our status as a world leader. Maybe our numbers leave something to be desired because according to amonthly Gallup poll, only 3 percent of Americans believe education to be our nation’s most important problem. Net economic problems cover 27 percent of Americans’ fears. We need to realize, as a nation, that there will never be an economic change if we don’t put in the time and effort to correctly educate the generation that will be heading any potential future change. We’re talking less standardized tests that don’t prove much about a child’s intelligence, and more class subjects that will prepare children for life outside of education and life in the global arena.

Candidates aren’t talking about it because we aren’t talking about it. Part of the reason our global educational statistics are so low is due to our varied and out-of-date curriculums. We’ve got Bible Belt school boards voting in favor of students learning creationism over evolutionism. How are our children meant to grow into rational and logical humans that can lead the United States, if there continues to be no enforcement of the principle that we are a country with a separation of church from state?

Nearly each Republican candidate, from Jeb Bush to Chris Christie seem to refuse to discuss evolutionism or how old the Earth is, and instead say that they believe that it should be up to the school to decide how many varying “theories” or “viewpoints” to incorporate into their curriculum. Bush went so far as to say that his education plan would give more power back to the “states, local school districts and parents.” Right, because taking funding out of the Federal Department of Education and putting it into individual states wouldn’t divide our country further.

The curriculum is only part of the battle. How are students meant to find a love of learning when there is an overwhelming number of under-qualified teaching staff? There needs to be more incentive to become a teacher, as well, so that we have truly influential teachers shaping the next generation’s minds. Currently theaverage teacher salary is around $56,000. We need a candidate who believes in placing a higher value on education.

4. Who does the government really work for?

“We the people of the United States…” don’t really seem to have much of a say when it comes to prosecution of criminal misconduct. According to a statistical analysis on the Federal Prison population, nearly three-fourths of the population are non-violent drug offenders, yet corporate criminals are constantly escaping justice for their actions. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren cited many examples of corporations evading meaningful prosecution for their crimes in her New York Times opinion piece. Novartis, for example, is a major drug company that paid pharmacies to push certain drugs that ended up costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. Warren said that the government has full authority to dismantle companies that defraud Medicare and Medicaid. Novartis was sentenced with paying a fine so small that the CEO sort of shrugged when considering if they’d change their ethical behavior.

“The failure to adequately punish big corporations or their executives when they break the law undermines the foundations of this great country,” said Warren.

The legislation is in place, but deregulation is the main problem here. This, combined with consolidation of wealth, will lead us into the same traps we fell into during the 2009 financial crash. Think of how much of that dirty corporate money could have gone to other enterprises, like tertiary education and health care. The president nominates government division heads who enforce the laws. Nobody is above the law. For millennials, it’s a matter of choosing a candidate who we think won’t align themselves with Wall Street and other corporate giants, and instead work to enforce our laws.

It is more or less common knowledge that Sanders is for breaking up big banks and reforming Wall Street, and that Clinton wants to appoint more regulators, prosecute individuals and firms and ensure that no wealth is too complex to manage.

5. Income inequality and middle class labor economics

While we’re on the subject of economics, let’s talk about the disparity in wealth distribution in our country — where the “middle class,” or lack thereof, is barely distinguishable from the poor. And the richest 1 percent (there are those words again) has 40 percent of all of America’s wealth. The bottom 80 percent only has 7 percent of the wealth. This is because the uber rich and the big corporations aren’t paying taxes like they should be, so there isn’t enough funding for nearly any type of system that might alleviate these inequalities. Maybe you’ve heard these statistics before, but for the next election, we cannot allow this issue to fizzle out like it did after the Occupy Wall Street movement became more or less extinguished. We should be watching out for a candidate that expresses in earnest his or her plan to reform the tax code so we can break this cycle and spread the wealth a bit.

There is no longer a middle class in America, which is a huge problem for millennials, especially those just coming out of college and looking for a job. Declining union coverage is leading to a third of the disappearance of middle class workers from the workforce, according to a report by the Center for American Progress. Many millennials aren’t earning salaried or union jobs and are instead scraping by with contracted or freelance work, along with a second job in hospitality or retail to make ends meet. This means that we aren’t entitled to any healthcare, extra benefits, or even job security that the past few generations before us have had. We aren’t enjoying our 20s because we are working through them, just to survive and pay off our student loans.

Sanders, a self-proclaimed Socialist, is well known for his fight against this income inequality. On February 9, he even tweeted, “In our rigged economic system, almost all of the new income and wealth are going to the top one percent” and “We need trade policies that work for the working families of our nation and not just the CEOs of large, multi-national corporations.” Clinton also seesincome inequality as a drag on our economy and proposes things like tightening the tax code so “millionaires don’t pay lower tax rates than their secretaries” and raising the minimum wage. She stops short of saying just how high she’d raise the minimum wage, where Sanders has been pushing for a whopping $15 an hour.

6. Falling into “Kardashian politics”

As millennials, we have the unfortunate tendency toward a behavior that supports sassy headlines and sensationalist media — all in 140 characters or less. Millennials often think and converse in terms of social media and what is trending, but if we want a president in office who will act in our best interests — whatever you or I think those be — we need to avoid the system that propagates ignorant behavior. Following trending articles and clicking links about Donald Trump or other outrageous stories will only lead to a never-ending cycle of extremist statements. Even talking about how much you hate Trump, is cause for him to get more undeserved media attention. According to a poll conducted by Monmouth College in December 2015, only 17.5 percent of millennials favor Trump, yet he’s still constantly one of the top searches on Facebook and Twitter.

On that same token, Sanders’ political rhetoric seems to be optimistically filled with hope and anti-capitalism. He is our left-wing buzzword enthusiast, not far off from Trump blatantly stating, “9-11” when questioned about his desire to keep Muslims out of America. Liberal voters need to be wary that Sanders may not be the magician he claims to be. Obama hooked voters with his own rhetoric of hope and change, yet found himself going back on nearly every policy that he included in his election campaign. Voters give Clinton slack for rattling off lists of priorities were she to become president, whileSanders’ message is clear: “So long as big money interests control the United States Congress, it is gonna be very hard to do what has to be done for working families,” he said at the February 6 Democratic Debate. While Sanders’ message may give you chills, will it give you results? Whoever we decide to vote for, we need to make sure that vote has been based on more than just Facebook shares and buzzwords.

I’ve waitressed in the US and Australia, here’s why Australia is way better. Hands down.

Waitressing in Melbourne at the Kent Hotel

“But even though I’m possibly making three times less here in Australia, I still don’t miss serving in the States.”

Source: I’ve waitressed in the US and Australia, here’s why Australia is way better. Hands down.


WHEN I ARRIVED IN Melbourne, Australia, I gravitated toward what I already knew: the hospitality industry. Serving is the old song and dance wherever you do it. You learn the menu, you learn the computer, you remember where shit goes. And I did catch on to the different names for things pretty quickly — ‘capsicum’ for bell peppers, ‘rocquette’ for arugula, and ‘lemonade’ for Sprite. (Although I still can’t quite wrap my head around that last one.)

And yeah, in Melbourne, customers obviously love to crack jokes at me whenever they hear my American accent.

“Oh, I bet the portions are much bigger where you’re from, eh?” They’ll say.

“Yes, we’re all fat Americans, aren’t we? Have another bowl of chips, cunt,” I’ll politely reply.

But my favorite remark is: “Must be nice to make a living wage over here, isn’t it?”

And that’s where they’re wrong. True, the hourly wage here in Oz is much higher than in the States. I make $20 an hour after taxes here, versus the $3 an hour before taxes that I made back in Boston. But as anyone who has worked the floor in the US knows, that good-old American tipping culture had me, more or less, rolling in cash. Twenty percent of that upsold check went to yours truly, so it wasn’t a big deal to walk out with $350 on a Friday night. (And that’s modest compared to a lot of big city bartenders.)

But even though I’m possibly making three times less here in Australia, I still don’t miss serving in the States. Here’s why.

There is no “good section.”

Each shift started with a gander at the floor plan and either a sigh of relief that I got “the good section” or a wave of angst because I fucking hate “the cubby” and “I never make money there.”

In Australia, it truly doesn’t matter. I’m making the same money no matter where I serve.

It’s not the end of the world if you fuck up a table’s order.

It’s not my style to give bad service and it’s definitely not in my job description, but I am human and I’ve made mistakes. Shit happens.

I don’t know how many asses I’ve had to kiss, how many meals and drinks I’ve had to comp, all so that that one mistake doesn’t reflect upon my tip, and therefore, my livelihood. Hospitality can be a vicious place back home, but in Australia it’s far easier to let the little things roll off my back, and I notice my customers do the same.

There is zero competition.

It took me some time, but I learned in Australia that I don’t really need to be territorial over my section any more. Here, a team works together for the greater functionality of the restaurant. It’s no big deal to find managers or coworkers taking orders in your section and ringing them in for you. You needn’t worry that they are trying to steal your table, and therefore, your tip.

I could care less if people camp out in my section.

Back in Boston, every time I walked past a table of people who I knew were going to be there for hours, not ordering a thing, I’d get a pang in my chest. “Campers” come in many forms. They could be a couple on a first date, some lady with a glass of Chardonnay and a book, or some drunk sports fans who only want to order nachos and a pitcher of water. In the United States, campers are the worst patrons because they deprive paying and tipping customers from eating, paying, tipping and leaving like a good American diner.

But here in Australia, please, camp out. I want you to. Read the newspaper and sip your extra hot flat white all day, for all I care. I don’t have to wait for you to close out your check before I can go home, and I’m not relying on the girth of your bill or your generosity to pay my rent.

People actually order what’s on the menu.

None of this: “I’ll have the roasted salmon please, but could you put the bechamel on the side? And I’ll have it with the caramelized carrots from the beef dish instead of the confit potatoes that it comes with. Oh, and I’m gluten free and lactose intolerant.”

Here’s how a typical Australian orders: “I’ll have the fish and chips, please.”

The end.

Your managers won’t keep you on the clock just to spite you.

I’m not saying it’s the same at every restaurant, but who hasn’t had a manager who claims that staff asking to be cut first or early is their personal “pet peeve?” Why, I couldn’t say, but if a manager even gets a whiff of your desire to screw, you can almost bet that they’ll make you jump through hoops to get what you want. Because what do they care? They’re paying you chump change, so it’s nothing to keep you on the payroll until the place closes, even if it’s dead. “It might get busy,” they always say.

Maybe it’s not universally Australian and I just happened to find an incredibly accommodating restaurant, but if you’ve got something else going on and the restaurant can function without you, they will let you go. Have to study? Not feeling well? Got a gig you’re trying to see? A friend’s in town visiting? “Yeah, it should be alright. Do you want dinner before you go?”

Because, in the end, they’re happy to just not pay you that $20 an hour if they don’t need to.

We get family dinners and shift drinks here.

I think I’ve worked one restaurant job back home that actually gave me a shift meal. I’ve never worked at one that offered me a shift drink. These are just mythical concepts in the States, rarer than a unicorn or someone from New Hampshire who wears a seatbelt. Here, I get both. Each and every shift. Sometimes the meal is swill, to be honest, but for the most part it’s edible and made by a chef, and I’m not paying out of my own pocket for it. Not even paying 50 percent for it. And because it’s Australia, that free shiftie can easily become two or three…no worries, mate.


By Rebecca Bellan

26 Flying Travel Hacks

Check out these sick flying travel hacks so that traveling sucks less.

Ok, sometimes it’s the destination, not the journey. Globetrotting can be stressful, but it doesn’t have to be a nightmare. I sat down with an incredibly well traveled friend (been to 61 countries!) and jotted down a few tips to make your flight and time at the airport suck less:

Thinking ahead…Some pre-departure tips:

1)Pre-order a vegetarian or vegan meal with your ticket if plane meat grosses you out.

Or, obvs, if you don’t eat meat. This doesn’t apply to everyone, but personally, I can never stomach the mysteriously cooked meat that comes with my plane meal. I’m pretty sure airlines don’t charge for special meals (ie, gluten free, Kosher, etc.), so take a page out of Orange is the New Black, and lie about your dietary requirements for a better plate. Oh, did I mention you get served your food first!

2) Confirm with airline 24 hours in advance for special meals or baggage.

If your gluten allergy slipped through the system somehow, there will be nothing they can do about it once you’ve taken off. For special baggage, like a surf board, it’s just good to confirm so that there are no problems when you arrive at the airport.

3) Get travel insurance.

Maybe you’re a risk taker and don’t think that you’ll need the insurance. However, I always think it’s good to have, and companies like World Nomads offer really affordable and comprehensive insurance that covers everything from trip cancellation to emergency dental. Your insurance is likely to reimburse you if your baggage is damaged on a flight if the airlines won’t, and they’ll even give you money if your baggage is lost or misdirected so you can buy new clothes while you wait for your baggage to arrive. I wish I had had this many times on a Eurotrip I took a few years back because Alitalia lost my luggage twice! The most frustrating instance was when I flew to Warsaw from Sicily and had a train immediately booked to take me to Krakow, so I couldn’t stick around the airport. I had to go out for drinks that night, sleep and do a day tour in my plane clothes before the airline finally delivered my bags to my hostel.

Travel insurance is also good if you are flying to or from remote locations where there are natural disasters or extreme weather, because flights often get canceled and airlines don’t always reimburse or reschedule you.

4) Always try to join a rewards club or frequent flyer program. 

You can get free tickets, bumped up to first class, or use your points to purchase things in flight. In addition, you often gain access to airport lounges (which you can usually pay something like $50 to enter anyway), which often include free food, drinks, coffee and wifi.

A friend of mine, Napoleon Streisand, is an absolute champ at getting rewards and miles. He traveled to all seven continents in four months and only accrued $241 in flight costs. He’s a fucking legend, and lucky for us all, he’s writing a book about his travels so we can all learn a thing or two. Check out his site here or watch his book trailer below.

Airport tips:

5)Check the baggage weight limits for each airline so you know how to pack.

That seems to go without saying, but suddenly you’re at the baggage drop off counter and the unfeeling stewardess tells you that your bag is 2 kilos over. Next thing you know, you’re crouched over your bag on the floor, trying to put on as much extra clothing as you can and stuffing whatever looks heavy into your carry on. While you should always check the weight limits, DEFINITELY keep this in mind if you’re flying with a budget airline, like AirAsia or Ryanair. These airlines usually only allow only 20 kg (44 lb) for checked baggage and 7 kg (15 lb) for carryon. (Ryanair allows 10 kg carryon, and you have to pay to check 15-20 kg of luggage.) You can always call ahead or change it online if you really feel that you are going to go over the limit.

If you are flying a budget airline, try to pack as many heavy things as you can in your carryon, for example, laptop, books, etc. If you can stuff it all in a small roll-on, duffle or backpack and walk past the stewardesses like it ain’t no thing, chances are they aren’t going to stop you to weigh the bag. Although they might make you try to shove it in some metal crate thing to see if it fits…

Check out this list of luggage restrictions by airline for more specific info.

6) Don’t lose your arrival and departure forms.

Even if they give you one for a layover somewhere. I had a layover in Thailand, and they made me go through immigration and stamped my passport and everything. Some countries are really strict about those forms, and they’ll hassle you even if you have stamps on your passport to prove when you entered the country.

I remember Peru being a particular pain in my ass. Every hostel needed to see my arrival form, which I lost, and I had to pay a fine on the Chilean border because I didn’t have the stupid thing.

7) Carry a pen.

Not just for your crossword puzzles and sudokus. There’s almost always some form to fill in. It sucks to make it to the front of the line at customs or immigration or wherever and you have to let others pass you because you didn’t have a pen and didn’t fill in your forms.

8) Don’t bother waiting on that line to board the plane.

You know how the second your flight starts boarding people with disabilities or pregnant ladies or old people, everyone else gets anxious and starts racing to get on line? Don’t be one of those idiots. It’s useless, unless you feel like standing, of course. The only time it makes sense to wait there like a cow for the slaughter is when you have a big carryon and you want to make sure you shove it into the cabin before a stewardess sees it and tries to make you check it. Or if it’s first come, first serve seating (Ryanair, again).

9) Don’t lose your boarding pass.

It has often been in my nature to throw away papers I don’t think I need (see tip 6). However, not many people know (or at least I didn’t know) that the little sticker that the flight attendant puts on the back of your boarding pass at checkout has a barcode on it that tracks your baggage. The first time Alitalia lost my baggage, it was much harder to find my luggage (or maybe the guy working at the lost baggage desk was just a dick) because they couldn’t track it via the barcode that I threw away unknowingly.

10) Check the departure board for your gate, even if your gate is written on the ticket.

Sometimes, your gate gets moved. They usually make an announcement about it, but you can’t always hear the accented, quick-talking flight attendant over the hum of the airport. As you walk to your gate, just do yourself a favor and check the scoreboard in case anything has changed so you don’t have to make a mad dash to the right gate after zoning out on your phone at the wrong one for an hour.

Tips for comfort on board:

11) Upon check-in, ask the flight attendant about emergency exit seating.

Unless you’ve picked your seat in advance, they don’t always have a seat assigned to you until you check in. That’s why the flight attendant will sometimes ask you if you’d like the window or the aisle (only happens if you’re there early enough, usually). If you like a bit of extra legroom, and really, who doesn’t, ask if there is any emergency exit seating available. It usually is, and you only have to worry about being a hero if the plane crashes, which Superman tells us isn’t all that likely, statistically speaking.

Alternatively, or in addition, if you’re on a long flight and aren’t the type to cozy up to the window and knock out for the whole ride, ask for an aisle seat so you’re not jumping over sleeping passengers every time you have to pee.

12) Always ask if you’re on a full flight.

You can either ask at the check in counter or once you’ve boarded. If it’s not a full flight, you may have the option of moving to an empty aisle, or even getting bumped up a class.

13) Never be afraid to ask to switch seats.

Maybe you’re seated next to a baby, or a loud douche bag, or a smelly one. You can always ask the flight attendants to move you. On a flight home from Israel, a young Orthodox Jewish man sat next to me. I smiled at him and said hello, and he responded by promptly turning to get the attention of a male flight attendant and asking if he could switch seats because his religion doesn’t allow him to sit next to a woman, or something.

14) Never assume the in flight entertainment will be sufficient.

Sure many airlines boast having in flight entertainment, and often you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the high quality and wide variety of entertainment offered (United Airlines is on point!) However, you might get stuck on an old plane with outdated entertainment, or worse, a throwback to the 90s, when one movie plays on a big screen for everyone, and every time the pilot makes an announcement, the movie starts from the beginning. The horror!!! Always plan ahead, whether that means stocking up your hard drive with downloaded movies and making sure your computer is fully charged, or bringing a book and some sudokus. Or some valium. Maybe eat a pot brownie first. Whatever does it for you.

15) You can ask for more food and drinks at the service station at any time.

Nobody wants to be that guy, but technically, the flight attendants cannot decline your request for more than that stupid tiny cup of water, or a few extra airplane snacks. It’s one thing if they’ve run out of meals, but there is almost always something extra to consume on board if you’re starving.

16) Almost every airline serves free booze on international flights.

Some even do it on domestic flights. Some only serve wine or beer, but most have a pretty stocked bar that you can get your hands on. You only need ask, because they will rarely offer. Check out this super helpful list of airlines that serve free alcohol.

17) Ask for a courtesy pack on long or international flights.

Now, they don’t all offer it anymore, especially if you’re in steerage with the unwashed masses. But every once in a while you get lucky and are handed a lovely pack with socks, toothpaste, toothbrush, and other generally refreshing items. If you’re traveling with children, you can also ask for games and activities like coloring books and crayons.

18) Bring your own courtesy pack.

You know those days that turn into multiple days where you’ve been on and off planes for 40 hours and you feel and look and smell like a dumpster. A quick refresher in the bathroom never hurt anybody. I like to pack a small tube of face wash, toothpaste and tooth brush, baby wipes, and a change of undies and socks.

19) Stay hydrated.

While many of us might like a glass of red to calm us of our flight jitters, keep in mind that you’ll feel that glass as if you downed three glasses up in the air. The air on planes is very dry, so it’s important to keep drinking water. I like to buy a giant bottle at the airport and bring it on with me so I don’t have to keep asking the flight attendants for drinks (Note: Flying out of Israel, you are often not allowed to take ANY liquids on flights, even if you bought them at the airport.) It’s also a good idea to use some sort of face and hand moisturizer if you’re on a long flight or if you’re a frequent flyer, as well as lip balm.

20) Keep moving.

According to the CDC, blood clots can form in your legs if you are sitting still in a confined space for more than 4 hours, so this means it can happen when you’re on a bus or a boat, as well. Your chances can increase if you are older, obese, on the pill, etc. Try to reduce your chances by getting up and walking every once in a while, or by doing some seat exercises to keep the blood flowing. For example, you can point and flex your feet, raise and lower your legs while keeping them in a right angle, or do shoulder shrugs. My mother recently bought me some compression socks that look sort of ridiculous and go up past my knee. She also insisted that I take baby Aspirin to thin my blood before long flights. I did the things, because Mom’s always right, right?

Compression socks and baby aspirin
Compression socks and baby Aspirin to combat blood clots on long flights

21) Pack extra socks, a blanket and a sweater. Maybe you’ve already thought of this, but there have been plenty of flights where I was freezing even though I was already in a sweatshirt and they gave me blankets. You never know, and remember, the blood isn’t running as smoothly to your lower extremities on a flight. So if you hate being cold, and you hate your feet being cold, pack some extra bits of cloth for comfort.

22) Bring a sleeping mask and earplugs. These should just be staples in your travel bags. Jet lag sucks, but if you can get some rest on the plane, you’ll be much happier for it later. If you’re lucky enough to have noise canceling head phones, those work better than earplugs on flights because your ears may be more sensitive to the change in cabin pressure and it’s just never good to be sticking things in your ears.

23) Chew gum, yawn and swallow to keep your ears from popping during takeoff. You can also equalize by moving your jaw or holding your nose closed and pushing air out of your ears. If you have a cold, it’s definitely a good idea to take a decongestion pill before you board, as well, because the pressure in your sinuses and blocking your ears could grow with the changing of cabin pressure.

Post-flight tips

24) If your baggage comes out of baggage claim damaged, contact the airline to see if they’ll compensate you. If you notice it while still at the airport, go immediately to your airline’s baggage service office to file a claim. Usually, if you were on a domestic flight, you have one day to show any damage to the airlines in person. If you flew international, you usually have about a week after the date of arrival to get in contact with your airline.

25) Contact your airline to see what you can get if you have a long/overnight layover. Before you decide to set up your sleeping bag in a cozy corner of the airport, check to see if your airline offers courtesy overnight accommodation for long layovers. Korean Air, for example, offers a nice free room in a hotel plus free transfers to and from the airport for layovers over 8 hours. Some companies just provide food vouchers, but again, it’s always worth asking!

26) Leave reviews for good flight attendants. It’s not every flight that you find yourself with a flight attendant who is happy to help you and goes the extra mile. Pay it forward by getting their name and going on the airline’s website to leave a good review. This could increase their chance of getting a pay raise or getting put in first class.


by Rebecca Bellan

How to prepare yourself for a big jump

Steps to preparing yourself for a big jump.

You’re thinking of making a life change, but something’s holding you back. In this post, I equate that fear with my fear of bungee jumping. There were a lot of excuses, but in the end, I just jumped. The lesson? Don’t wait until you’re “ready,” because you may not ever get there. That’s why they call it a JUMP, not a step!


Part 1: The Story

It felt as though I were watching through someone else’s eyes as the distance between the ground and my feet grew and the tan, tiled roofs of Cusco spread out before me. I was in a steel-caged cherry picker bound to slowly ascend 122 meters only to plummet without it. This was my first bungee jumping experience, and while it’s easy to say you’d love to try it, it’s a whole other story when you’re actually about to jump to your potential death. The harness attached to my ankles, hips and neck was heavy and slightly suffocating, but I was glad for its existence. It made me feel supported. My guide Raul chattered away in Spanish behind me, giving me instructions that I only half listened to and asking small talk questions that I responded to like an automaton.

I gazed calmly at the portion of the Peruvian Andes in my field of vision, infinite and brown. Tall Eucalyptus trees surrounded the adventure park I had decided on coming to only an hour or two before. I could see my Irish friend Laura, whom I met while volunteering at a hostel in Ecuador, standing a safe distance away, snapping pictures with my iPhone, awaiting her turn at this adrenaline rush. I focused on my feet, which were planted to the base of the cherry picker, and my hands, frozen and clamped to metal bars on either side of me. If I let myself think about all that could go wrong, or even picture myself jumping, I might have backed out. So instead I denied my purpose for this ascension and breathed long and deep, nodding my head at Raul but otherwise standing still as a statue. Then the cage came to a sudden halt, and panic filled every muscle in my body. Logic was no match for my body’s survival instincts, and when Raul opened the steel door in front of me and instructed me to step out until my toes were over the edge, I couldn’t make my legs move. My whole body felt heavy and my hiking boots were glued to the floor.

“Are you OK?” he asked.

“Yes,” I lied.

“OK, so you need to walk to the edge now.”

“OK,” I said, and stayed where I was.

He told me that the longer I waited, the more scared I would be.

“Just jump!” he said. “Let yourself go.”

I almost threw up in my mouth. His hand gently nudged my back forward, but I remained rigid.

“Do you want to go back down?” he said.

I considered it. How bad would it be, really, if I just admitted I was too afraid and went the safe way down? Nobody would hold it against me or call me a coward. Nobody but myself. I thought back to how I ended up in Peru, trying to force myself to be fearless, both mentally and physically.

Just a few months earlier, I was shacked up with an ex-boyfriend whom I loved very much. We were partners, planning out a comfortable and snug future together. The more we planned, the more I felt panic similar to my current vertigo. Seeing my future laid out before me meant that there was less room for new possibilities, for experiences that were my own. I was 22 and the man I loved had no desire to travel, yet somehow our lives and desires were supposed to be bound together forever. It was suffocating, but I was just as scared of giving up a good thing for the unknown as I was of committing to this ordinary future. In the end, I couldn’t see myself as just a half of a whole. I wanted to be whole, independent of anyone else. When I confessed to him that I had more living to do on my own before I settled down with him, I knew that I had to see that claim through. If I didn’t, I would never forgive myself or him for missing out on the life I truly wanted to live.

I moved out of our apartment and bought a one way ticket to Ecuador where I started my four month solo backpacking trip through South America. Did I want to cancel the flight and run home to my man? Of course I did. I was scared of a life without him, scared of having only myself to rely on. None of my friends or family would have blamed me or thought it strange if I went back to him. Half of them didn’t understand why we broke up when we were so in love. But I knew I wouldn’t be happy with myself unless I took the risks that I had only dreamt about until then. Just like I knew that if I didn’t jump off my perch in the sky, I would never forgive myself.

Raul asked again if I wanted to go back down, but I didn’t come all the way up here to wuss out. I knew the risks of jumping. They had made me sign a waiver before they harnessed me. But to hell with them! There was only one way I was descending, and it wasn’t on the cherry picker. I took a step with my left foot, then dragged my right one to meet it, my hands still on the railings beside me. Raul looked over my shoulder and told me that I needed to move up a little more so my toes were over the edge. Again, that feeling that I would throw up in my mouth, only this time it was coupled with the feeling that I would crap my pants. At Raul’s behest, I took a deep breath and moved my toes over the edge.

“Good,” he said as he grabbed hold of my harness from behind. “Now, you need to release your grip on the rail.”

I did as I was told, feeling incredibly unstable, balanced as I was on the edge.

“Are you ready?” he asked.

“No,” I replied.

“Breathe,” he said.

I took a deep breath, felt a gentle push, and jumped with it.

Part 2: The helpful steps

  1. The Buildup– You’re scared and you’re scaring yourself more by thinking about all the things that can go wrong. Maybe you’ve even researched what can go wrong. Eye injuries are most common when bungee jumping because of the pressure of the snap? Most common? I don’t want to do anything that will commonly injure me. So, you decide against it because it’s not worth the risk. Whenever I’ve contemplated bungee jumping, I’ve always said that I couldn’t do it because I didn’t have enough money, or I have a bad back and I was worried about what the snap of the bungee would do to it. Excuses, excuses.
  2. The Nagging– Despite your better judgment, there is still that nagging curiosity about what is on the other side of that wall you put up. All those other world-class travelers have gone bungee jumping. Your old high school friend went bungee jumping AND skydiving. You’re going to miss out if you don’t at least try it. Would I have ever forgiven myself for making it to the top of that cherry picker and then taking the long way down? Absolutely not.
  3. The Dreamer- You start to envision what would happen if the risk you were about to take goes well. You’re peeking over the wall and the grass is definitely greener. When I pictured how freeing it would be to soar through the air and get butterflies in my stomach, I got excited and couldn’t wait to feel the adrenaline. Plus, how cool would it be to be able to say you went bungee jumping?!
  4. The Objectivity- You allow yourself to be aware of the potentially bad outcome, but not to let it touch you. After all, part of what makes fear so strong is that we fear what we do not know. When you accept both good and bad potential consequences, at least you know what’s on the other side. So maybe my retinas will explode or I’ll be sore tomorrow. I’m tough enough to handle a few battle scars. Even if I did feel like I got hit by a truck the next day.
  5. The Bragging- Once you’ve decided that you’re going to take the plunge, you have to say it to yourself and say it to others so that it becomes real. After Laura and I signed up for our bungee jump, I posted a status on Facebook asking friends to wish me luck, I texted my mom and my best friend, and I repeated to myself “I am going bungee jumping,” like a mantra inside my head.
  6. The Jump- It’s time. You’ve made it this far and there is no going back. The only direction to move now is forward. So you jump. Once I had made up my mind that I wasn’t going to back down, I took a step with my left foot to the very edge of the cherry picker, then dragged my right one to meet it. I immediately felt like throwing up and releasing my bowels, but instead I took a deep breath and peeled my hands off the safety of the railing. Then there was only one thing left to do. “Just jump!” My guide, Raul, told me. So I jumped, and I’ll never be sorry that I did.
  7. Yes- Now that you’ve pushed through one fear, you can allow yourself to experience all of the possibilities that open up to you when you start to say ‘yes’ instead of ‘no.’ I took my first big, scary leap when I left everything I knew and loved to travel around the world solo. I’ve tried to fill my travels with as much adventure as possible, and not just because things like bungee jumping or surfing lessons are cheaper in other countries. After I conquered my fear of free falling 122 meters, I realized that the only thing standing in between me and everything I’ve ever thought of trying was myself. So I said yes to learning how to kite surf, yes to hang gliding, yes to surfing and yes to all my future adventures.


8 reasons a work exchange is the best way to travel

notched bow, archery, ITH big bear mountain adventure lodge

“#3. You’ll learn something new: You are guaranteed to pick up a new skill with each new place you volunteer.”

Source: 8 reasons a work exchange is the best way to travel


1. Accommodation is going to be cheaper for you.

Now, I’ve only used Workaway and HelpX as a source for my work exchanges. (Something about the different website layouts for each country’s WWOOF page is displeasing to my eye, and I don’t really care for children.) But each host only expected me to work an average of five hours a day, five days a week. In exchange, I’d get a bed to sleep in and at least breakfast, sometimes lunch or dinner. Not a bad deal, right?

I can’t imagine the amount of money I saved by working for my bed. Last year, I worked for two weeks at a bed and breakfast on Santa Marianita beach outside of Manta in Ecuador, a location I already wanted to visit for its sick kite surfing culture. If I had stayed in the dorm rooms for $15 per night, I’d have spent $210, not to mention the cost of ordering off their delicious breakfast menu every morning. Instead, I saved an average of $300, which I spent on kite surfing lessons, and got to feast on breakfast burritos and stuffed french toast every morning, prepared by the hotel’s charming Ecuadorean cook, Martiza.

2. It’s the easiest way to immerse yourself in the local culture.

Most hosts ask their volunteers to stay and work for an average of one month, sometimes more and sometimes less. In this time, you’re not merely stopping in a city for a weekend, seeing the touristy sites, and going on your merry way. You can truly embrace “slow travel” because you have the time and the resources to really get to know the place and the people who live in it full time.

I did my first work exchange at a hostel in Catania, Sicily. I stayed for two months, which was a little more than I needed at the time, but there were other volunteers who had been there for nearly a year. One British girl, George, in particular was practically Sicilian by the time she left, complete with big hand gestures, homemade pasta and recommending horse meat as a delicacy.

By staying in Catania for an extended period of time and not just passing through, I felt that I was able to assimilate a little more into the Sicilian culture, and therefore, adopt a little of that culture into myself. In general, I learned to slow my roll a little bit. I’d wake up in the morning and stroll to the bakery for some fresh bread to put on the table for the guests. The baker would help me practice my Italian by asking me if I’d like a little something sweet for myself, to which I’d demurely refuse until she asked if I was sure, and then I’d say, forse solo uno.

After the bakery, I’d stop at the fruit stand on the street, buy whatever the young man working there recommended, refuse his marriage proposals and head back up to the kitchen to lay out my purchases and make espressos for the guests.

I even spent enough time there that the manager, Rosario, had his mother come in and teach me how to make pasta a la Norma and a traditional tomato sauce, with just a touch of heat. I’d spend my days buying the freshest tomatoes and seafood from the outdoor market, stirring a simmering pot of sauce or soup that I’d serve to the guests for dinner, and putting laundry out on the line to dry, all the while staring off into the sea and listening to the hostel’s neighbor practice his cello for the Catania orchestra.

3. You’ll learn something new.

You are guaranteed to pick up a new skill with each new place you volunteer. Whether it’s learning everything there is about horse maintenance on a Midwestern ranch or excavating an archaeological monument in Siberia, you will walk away with more than what you arrived with.

If you’re like me, and basically the entire American millennial population, you’re not quite sure what career path you should be on. And that’s fine, work exchanges are a great way to try out different jobs and explore your interests.

It’s always been a far off dream of mine to open my own hostel, so that’s why I gravitate toward hostel work. As I write this, I’m volunteering at my third hostel, ITH Mountain Adventure Lodge in Big Bear, California. Due to my past experience working in hostels coupled with my general hospitality expertise, the managers here trust me to basically run the place while they’re away. I understand the flow of this industry, and now I’m learning how to use different booking software. Not to mention they have me splitting wood and teaching guests archery. I had no idea how to do either of those things until I got here. And I got to learn all these rugged and useful skills for free.

Last year, I volunteered with a family in the jungle in Peru. The other volunteers and I tended to their land, planting crops, feeding chickens and contributing to the compost pile. But mainly, we spent a ton of time digging an irrigation ditch that would hopefully redirect the heavy rainfall that completely flooded their house the year before. I learned a lot about the struggles of the residents of the Peruvian Amazon and got to contribute to the family’s well being. Not to mention how cool it was to have monkeys for neighbors, the Tambopata River as my personal bath, and fresh papaya to pick off the trees for breakfast.

4. Even though it is work, you can really just take a break.

If you’ve been moving non-stop around the world, living out of your backpack and in a new hostel every third night, you’ll definitely enjoy a chance to stop and rest for a while. It will feel good to have a purpose again other than just going and going, not to mention the wonderful feeling of being able to unpack without knowing that you’ll immediately have to roll and stuff everything into your bag again and hoist it on your shoulders within a few days.

As I travel, I always know that work exchanges are an option for when I’m just too tired to go on. Here at my current Workaway, a nice Swiss boy has just arrived. He’s been traveling around the States for a little over two months and hasn’t stayed in one city for more than five days. For the first two days of his arrival here, he couldn’t stop exclaiming how happy he is to get back to a routine that includes a normal work, exercise and eating schedule. He now has the responsibility of splitting wood and he says he couldn’t be happier.

And guess what, you can leave again whenever you want.

5. Work exchanges are also a really good way to start your trip.

Maybe you’ve never traveled solo before, or maybe you haven’t been to this particular part of the world before. Doing a quick work exchange will help you acclimate to being in a new environment.

When I graduated university two years ago and decided that I wanted to travel, I wasn’t quite sure how to go about it. So I checked out Workaway’s website to see what opportunities different countries had to offer. I had been to Italy before, but only for ten days. If you’ve been to Italy, you’ll know that ten days isn’t nearly enough time. I could spend my life in that gorgeous country getting fat off pasta. So when I saw a post about a unique hostel where volunteers live with the guests and contribute to the running of the place, I thought it would be a great way to start my travels. I would know exactly where I was going and have a support system while away from home.

6. There’s going to be people from all over the world working alongside you.

Even if you’re the only volunteer at a farm in Nowheresville, Albania, you’ll still meet new people who will contribute to your sense of self. At hostels, obviously, the amount of people you meet is much more varied. I have so enjoyed comparing small traditions with people I’ve met from other countries, sharing stories about our different holiday experiences or hearing about what they eat for meals in their own countries. It never gets old when my German friend, Lara, complains about the amount of meat we eat in America and that we don’t know how to make bread.

Also, the people you meet can provide unique and valuable information for your future travels. They can recommend a great hostel or restaurant where they just were in Vietnam, or give you detailed notes about what you must see while you’re traveling the Rhine Valley, photos and all.

7. You can learn a new language, or practice a second or third language.

Many work exchange programs are specific to language exchange. If you search the Au Pair websites, you’ll see that many European families want to host native English speakers to speak to their children in English. At the same time, you’ll definitely get a chance to practice your French.

I loved volunteering in South America because I am passionate about becoming fluent in Spanish. The language is so beautiful and so useful to know. Speaking Spanish has helped me both abroad and back home. In fact, one of the reasons my work exchange in Ecuador hired me was because they desperately needed a translator. I’m not fluent, but dealing with vendors and guests forced me to practice my Spanish and even learn some new words, rather than just getting by on smiles and hand gestures.

8. You can use your host as a home base while you work on other important things.

Every morning, one of my fellow volunteers in California, Kaja, from Poland, wakes up to Skype with clients from home. She has her own marketing business which funds her travels, and she can keep up with her workload online.

That’s the great thing about these work exchanges, or at least the ones I have engaged in. Your free time is your free time. After my shift is up, or when I have a day off, I take time to write or edit photos and videos. I am currently enrolled in a few online classes that I feel I can dedicate more time to here than if I were back home, chasing money and keeping up with my social life. I feel as though I am living in some world that is separate from the real world, a world where I have the time and the freedom to explore any interest and dedicate time to it. 

Madrid in a Day- Part 2- Sunday

El oso y madroño shots, a strawberry liqueur poured into chocolate filled waffle cups

A Sunday in Madrid is anything but lazy.

Fill your day with el Rastro flea market, off-the-beaten-track sightseeing, and tapas in La Latina.

There’s nothing better than a lazy Sunday, am I right? Sleeping in until 10 and spending an additional 15 minutes or so slowly stretching beneath the covers before you tumble out of bed to make a cup of coffee that you’ll serenely sip on as you flip through The New York Times. You’ll either remain in your pajamas all day or, if the weather is nice, venture out to the park or the beach to sip and read something there. Maybe you’ll go out for breakfast. Maybe you’ll catch a movie. Either way, you can rest easy knowing that the day will stretch long and uneventful in front of you, for the Bible tells us so. “And on the seventh day He rested from all his work.” (Genesis 2:2)

Lazy Sundays in Madrid are not an option because this is one of the liveliest days of the week. The two bookends to your Spanish Sunday are El Rastro marketplace and tapas in La Latina. The filler activities are simply activities that you shouldn’t leave Madrid without partaking in. If you read my first post about what to do with a day in Madrid, you’ll have gotten most of the mainstream events out of the way and can look forward to a day slightly more filled with locals. Shall we begin?


The never ending flea market in Madrid, el Rastro
White tents mark the vendors of el Rastro marketplace

El Rastro is Madrid’s famous open-air flea market and is held on Sundays and public holidays. Beginning in the Plaza de Cascorro near La Latina metro station and ending with Ronda de Toledo, the declining street of La Ribera de Curtidores and its smaller side streets are completely packed with vendors selling everything from cheap scarves and artisan jewelry to painted clay sangria pitchers and bootleg DVDs. You can literally find anything you’ll ever need here, except produce. Make sure to grab a café con leche and a quick breakfast at your hostel, Way Hostel, or a nearby pastelería before taking the short walk to the Plaza where the market begins. Also, don’t forget to stop at the ATM for cash. Some of the vendors have credit card machines, but most don’t. And remember my tips! Keep that money on lock down to avoid pickpocketers in the crowded space. I also recommend bringing a backpack or a larger bag to put your purchases in because we’re not going right back to the hostel after the market.

crowded side streets of el Rastro, Madrid
Every side street of el Rastro is just as packed as the main hill.

They say el Rastro runs from 8am to 3pm, but if you get there after 1, you’ve basically missed it all because the stands like to pack it in early. Try to get to the market by 9 or 10 so you have plenty of time to stroll and shop at your leisure. Don’t buy all the things you want at the first few stands because you’ll see about a hundred more stands along the way with better items, and you’ll wish you had bought that cool Heineken sweatshirt instead of your lame I ‘Heart’ Madrid sweatshirt. Do haggle, bat your eyelashes, and speak in Spanish. ¿Cuanto cuesta, señor?


Tostas in Madrid offer a great variety for tapas or a meal.
Tostas, or open-faced sandwiches

When you’ve finally made it to the bottom of the Rastro hill, it will most likely be around 1 o’clock. You must be hungry. Grab some fresh fruit from the frutería and chow down on inspired tostas, open-faced sandwiches, from one of the restaurants near the Plaza del Campillo del Mundo Nuevo. Rest your weary feet while you people-watch with the locals.


Entrance to La Tabacalera, art exhibit in Madrid
Entrance to La Tabacalera

A very short walk away from where you are luncheoning is la Tabacalera. The first time I bought weed in Madrid, my new dealer friend took my BU friends and me to this abandoned tobacco factory-turned-art exhibit, and it was so fucking cool. To get here, simply walk down the Ronda de Toledo towards the Embajadores metro stop and then make a left up Calle de Embajadores. The Tabacalera will be on the right side of the street. “FABRICA DE TABACOS” is carved into a worn cement plaque above a graffiti-covered metal gate that has turned a dark green with rust, but this isn’t the entrance, which is down a side street. You may have to do a bit of exploring to find it, but when you do, you will be blown away by what is inside.

Dancing until Death in la Tabacalera, Madrid
“Bailando hasta la Muerte”, Dancing until Death.
Trippy art on the walls of la Tabacalera, Madrid
Some trippy, sci-fi art on the walls.
Poetic art on the walls of La Tabacalera, Madrid
Sometimes you feel so small…
graffiti covered skate park, La Tabacalera, Madrid
A skate park in the back is also covered in graffiti and art.
skeleton art, La Tabacalera, Madrid
A skeleton janitor appears to be sweeping piles of bones into a fire.

The cultural space is part government-owned and part self-managed social centre. Art of all genres covers the white walls. A culture dedicated to freedom and exploration resides here, and La Tabacalera de Lavapiés is home to many different exhibits, performances and even parties. Take some time to walk around and enjoy the gritty art scene of Madrid.

dark art, La Tabacalera, Madrid
sick, artsy archway in la Tabacalera, Madrid
sick, artsy archway


The Royal Palace of Madrid is one of the finest palaces in Europe.
The front of the Palacio Royale

The Royal Palace, while the official, not the actual, residence of His Majesty King Felipe IV of Spain, is an impressive piece of architecture. Either walk the half hour there or take the metro to the Opera stop.

Entry to the palace costs about 10 euro. The palace is home to interesting exhibits like the Royal Armory and the Royal Pharmacy. You can spend some time inside enjoying the rich mahogany windows and doors and fine Spanish marble. Truth be told, I never made it inside, but instead walked around the exterior and toured the Plaza de Oriente on the west side of the palace.


Watching the sun set at the Templo de Debod in Madrid, Spain
Sunset at the Temple of Debod

By the time you make it through the Palacio Royale, it should be nearing sunset, the perfect time to head over to the Temple of Debod. The temple is an Egyptian temple that was dismantled and reassembled in Madrid in the Parque del Oeste. The site is at a slightly higher elevation, and it overlooks Madrid’s large urban park, Casa de Campo. There is actually a cable car that runs out of the Parque del Oeste to Casa de Campo, but the teleférico isn’t always open, so best to check their website for hours.

gorgeous sunset at over the fountains at the Temple of Debod
Sunset over the fountains at the Templo de Debod
view over to Casa de Campo from Templo de Debod
view from Templo de Debod

After you’ve had your fill of site seeing, feel free to either take a half hour stroll through the city back to your hostel in Tirso de Molina, or walk over to the Ventura Rodríguez stop and ride the 3 metro to Puerta del Sol. Either way, you’ll have to walk through Sol, so might as well take a break along the way in one of the many bars for a caña of Mahou, a refreshing Spanish lager. Go drop your Rastro purchases off, take a shower and put on something fly, yet easy to walk in, for the rest of your night out.


I know, I know. Flamenco is an Andalucía thing. But the dancers at Las Carboneras in Madrid have just as much foot-stomping, chest-beating soul as the Romani gypsies who created flamenco to begin with. Traditionally, this folk music combines singing, dancing, guitar playing and rhythms of hand clapping and finger snapping. It is passionate and fiery, and the dancers and musicians put all they have into their performances.

Flamenco dancer at Las Carboneras, Madrid strikes a pose
The dancer strikes a pose before she breaks out into stomps and swirls.

Flamenco dancers take control of the scene. Whether they dance fast or slow, hard or soft, the guitar player and singer watch for what the dancer is going to do next and strum or sing in that sexy, raspy voice accordingly. The other dancers sit on stools near the musicians on the tablao, clapping their hands rhythmically, occasionally letting out an encouraging cry or yelp. The display is heartfelt and fluid and will leave you entranced and clapping along.

While there are, of course, many flamenco clubs in Madrid, Las Carboneras is my personal favorite and in a perfect location to continue on to your final activity of the night. Make sure to be there by 8:30 for the first performance.


My favorite part about living in Spain was how socially acceptable it is to munch while you drink. More often than not, bars will offer you anything from potato chips to tortilla española to croquetas to go along with your copa de vino tinto, or glass of red wine. (Check out my tips for visiting Madrid for a rundown on the history of tapas.) Sundays are the best days to go out for tapas, an activity that the Spanish have turned into a verb, tapear. I’m not sure why, but it seems like everyone who’s anyone is out and about tapeando in la Latina on a Sunday in Madrid, so dress accordingly.

Locals enjoy tapeando, going out for tapas, along La Cava Baja, Madrid
Locals enjoy tapeando, going out for tapas, along La Cava Baja.

The main streets to enjoy the tapas culture are Cava Baja and Cava Alta. They are both a short walk from Las Carboneras and run parallel to each other. Young people crowd these two thin, winding streets with terraced buildings, looking unfathomably chic and classy as they duck in and out of bars or stand around high tops taking dainty bites of patatas bravas. There are endless spots to stop for a bite and a beer over here, so don’t miss out on Casa Lucas, for higher end traditional Spanish cuisine, and Cervercería la Sureña for a 5 euro bucket of Mahou and some chicken fingers with other 20-somethings.

Cervecería la Sureña offers bucket of beer specials and tons of cheap tapas.
Cervecería la Sureña offers bucket of beer specials and tons of cheap tapas.
Open kitchen at Cervecería La Sureña, Madrid
Open kitchen at La Sureña
chicken fingers and beer, Cerveceria la Surena
chicken fingers and beer, Cerveceria la Surena

If you come to these streets to engage in tapas culture, and you will, make sure to make a stop at El Madroño in the Plaza de Puerta Cerrada before you reach Cava Baja. Have a shot of Madrid’s strawberry liqueur named for their Coat of Arms, “El oso y el madroño,” meaning, “The bear and the strawberry tree.” The shot is served in a chocolate filled waffle cup, a delicious chaser to your sweet chupito.

El oso y madroño shots, a strawberry liqueur poured into chocolate filled waffle cups
El oso y madroño shots
Bottle of El oso y madroño liqueur from El Madroño, Madrid
Bottle of El oso y madroño liqueur

Below are some of my favorite places to eat tapas outside of Cava Baja and Cava Alta. Keep in mind, you’ll have to pay for some things, but all in all tapeando is cheap and a great experience to share with a few friends.

  • Mercado de San Miguel
    Glass facade of Mercado de San Miguel, a great, yet touristy, place for tapas
    Outside of the Mercado de San Miguel

    This is a tourist trap, but I don’t care. The San Miguel Market is a big, crowded glass market place with over 30 vendors placed in strategic sections, selling everything from cold drafts and select wines to pickled onions and olives to every kind of meat you can think of cooked up Spanish gourmet style. It’s hard to find a table to stand by, not sit at, so somebody should hold one down while the other goes to pick out some delicacies to enjoy. I couldn’t get enough of the fresh croquettes and empanadas. Don’t buy too much here- it’s not cheap, but it is something to see.

classy croquettes from Mercado de San Miguel
Croquetas de espinacas
  • El Diamante
    El Diamante, great stop for tapas in Madrid.
    El Diamante from the outside.

    All walks of life come into this low key bar just off the La Latina metro stop for the fast service and the plates of warm tapas that the bartender places in front of you with every new beer. It’s a great place to relax and watch fútbol and enjoy some salty fried food and cold beer. Make sure you try the calamares!

  • Cervecería el Cruz
    Cerveceria la Cruz in La Latina dishes up delicious fried lamb intestines.
    Enjoying some fried lamb intestines and olives with our beers.

    This is a classic bar to stop by at any hour, even for a break while you’re at el Rastro because it is right in the middle and a stone’s throw away from el Diamante (in case you can’t find this place on Google. Because you can’t. It will take you to the wrong bar). You may not recognize the Plaza at night without all the stands, but Cervecería el Cruz is a la Latina staple. Enjoy super fresh razor clams and deep fried lamb intestines with a squirt of lemon. Tastes better than it sounds!

fried lamb intestines at Cerveceria la Cruz
It tastes better than it sounds! I promise!
Still living razor clams at Cerveceria la Cruz, La Latina, Madrid
Raw seafood and razor clams await an order to be cooked.
  • Museo del Jamón
    All types of ham are on display at the Museo del Jamón chain in Madrid
    One of the many Museo del Jamón

    This chain is dedicated to Spain’s most prized meat- ham.  Cured ham legs for sale, Jamón Serrano or Jamón Ibérico, hang from the ceiling, and the walls are covered with photos offering meals like bocadillos de jamón, ham sandwich, and a beer for 1 euro. Get a beer there and wait for your tapa. It’s disgusting and hilarious. It’s a bowl of different types of cubed ham.

Cured ham legs for sale hang from the ceiling of Museo del Jamón.
Cured ham legs for sale hang from the ceiling of Museo del Jamón.

I hope you enjoyed your Sunday in Madrid! Please feel free to ask any questions in the comments section if anything is unclear or you’d like some more advice.


by Rebecca Bellan

12 Tips for Visiting Madrid

street performer Madrid, Spain

Some advice before going to Madrid, from how to avoid getting your pocket picked to what you can’t leave without eating.

Like many university students, I made the best decision of my life when I chose to spend a semester studying abroad. Madrid presented me with an adventure everyday. From practicing my Spanish to trying different food and exploring a new city, to fitting myself and my habits into the molds and customs of a fascinatingly foreign culture, I enjoyed allowing myself to be swept into the tide of Madrid, a city that is both Euro-chic and very old, with a sort of royal grandeur backed up by centuries of Spain’s role as a major world power.

At the end of my studies, I jotted down a few tips that I would pass on to friends who were looking to tour the city themselves. Here are my general impressions of what you should know before you go to Madrid.


1) Guys, keep your wallet and valuables in your front pockets. Ladies, wear a small messenger bag for your passport, money, lipstick, whatever. Keep that thing on lock down. I don’t want to see it creeping to the side of your hip, and then behind you, because you will have your pocket picked. Man, woman, young, old, the Madrid pick-pocketer is a pro. Stay away from the doors on the metro, anyone in a suit, and anyone reading a big spread out newspaper. And don’t even think about wearing a stupid fanny pack. You better look fresh if you don’t want all the Madrileñas snickering about how stupid you look in that throaty, mouth-full-of-spit-and-cigarette-smoke way of theirs.


2) Wear comfy shoes. Madrid is a walking city, so why hide underground in the metro when you can take in the sites as you take in the sites? Also, again, ladies, unless you want to roll your ankle, find some cute wedge heels to wear out to the clubs. This city is old and full of cobblestones. A stiletto heel will be your downfall, literally.

3) I shouldn’t have to tell you this, but try not to act too touristy and attract unwanted attention. Try to blend in, or you will be harassed often. When my Irish friend came to visit from Dublin, I had to protect her from a pickpocketer before we even made it to the hostel from the airport, and on our walk to the hostel from the metro, a group of men tried to put a scarf on her. Don’t ask me why, the point is she stuck out like a sore thumb and people took notice.

This is the Irish friend, Erin.
This is the Irish friend, Erin.

4) “Chinos” are like bodegas, or corner stores, run by Chinese immigrants. Yes, it’s a little racist to identify the stores by the race of people running them, but Madrid is a little racist. Chinos are mostly open all night and will sell you all the munchies and wine/liquor that your heart desires. While some stop serving liquor at a certain time at night, most are just trying to get money, so you shouldn’t have a problem buying a bottle whenever the spirit takes you.

5) While you’re in Madrid, there are a few things you can’t leave without tasting. Any bar/restaurant will have these staples: Spanish tortilla (like a potato omelette), Jamón Serrano (salty cured ham), vino tinto (red wine), croquetas (omg so good), paella (you should know what this is), patatas bravas (potatoes with a red sauce), etc…..

tapas at El Tigre, Madrid, Spain
tapas at El Tigre, Madrid, Spain

6) Bocadillo means sandwich. Eat this often. 100 Montaditos is a chain with many bocadillos. Most common is Bocadillo de Jamón Serrano, and it will be your whole loaf of bread and butter, or should I say, bread and ham because there aren’t many other fixings on a Spanish sandwich.


7) There will be promoters everywhere trying to entice you into their bar/club with free shots (chupitos) or free mojitos and sangria. Don’t, as I once did, go to each place, take your free drink, and leave. The drinks they give you for free are sugary and awful and will result in the worst hangover of your life. I’m talking opening the door of the cab at a red light and only managing to say, “Lo siento, señor,” before you vomit onto the street.

8) With the castellano accent, or Spanish accent, C’s and Z’s are pronounced with a lisp, not S’s. If you’re trying to sound like a local, make sure to put your tongue between your teeth when saying “Grathias,” not “Adioth.”

9) You will see many statues and sigils of a bear on its hind legs next to a tree. This is Madrid’s Coat of Arms, and its origins date back as far as or even farther than 1212, when the council of Madrid hailed a flag of a bear to identify themselves when they arrived in support of the Christian King Alfonso VIII of Castille during the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa against the Almohads. The strawberry tree came into the picture later.

Madrid Coat of Arms
Madrid Coat of Arms

10) Tapas are not just small plates of food that you order to share, as American Spanish restaurants and other “tapas bars” would have you believe. Tapas are the free swag that comes with your alcoholic beverage at any bar/restaurant in Madrid. Some places offer some great free food, like croquettes and paella. Others only offer pickled onions or olives or potato chips. You can, of course, order off the menu if you want a little extra. The point is, eating with your drink is something I got used to very quickly and still take part in today. According to the tour guide of a tapas tour I went on, it’s some sort of a law in Spain that you must serve food with drink. Legend has it that this king was very sick and got better by drinking a little wine and then eating a little food, repeatedly. At the same time, the peasants would come into town and spend any extra money they had on wine, getting absolutely hammered, and bringing down production. So, the king decreed that every tavern must serve food with drinks so the farmers don’t get too drunk and stay healthy.

vino tinto with olive and potato chip tapas, Madrid, Spain
vino tinto with olive and potato chip tapas, Madrid, Spain
tapas of tostas in Madrid, Spain
tapas of tostas
croquettas, croquettes, Spanish tapas
croquettas, croquettes, Spanish tapas
Chorizo and Sangria, Madrid, Spain
Chorizo and Sangria, Madrid, Spain

As you can imagine, tavern keeps probably didn’t like giving out free food. In an attempt to cheat the system, they would pour all their old wine and liquor together with some fruit and other stuff and call it Sangria. That’s right. Your favorite white girl cocktail is actually just jungle juice. But I digress. The reason tapas are called “tapas” is that some other king was at the beach once drinking beer and someone put a piece of ham over his glass to keep the sand out. He absentmindedly ate the ham, enjoyed it, and asked if someone would bring him another one of those “tapas” or “tops.” Well there you go. There’s your history for the day.

11) El Prado, the national art museum, has free admission Tuesday through Saturday from 6 to 8 pm and on Sunday from 5 to 8 pm, but the lines are long, so get there early.

12) Don’t rush. Relax and enjoy yourself, because that’s how the locals do it. You won’t be eating lunch until around 4pm and dinner isn’t served until around 10 pm, so if you need a small snack in the in between hours, sit down and have a beer or a glass of wine and enjoy whatever free plate of food comes with it, whether it be potato chips and olives or small tortilla bites.


I hope you enjoy your trip to Madrid! Check out my other posts on what to do once you make it to the city.


by Rebecca Bellan

9 Tips for New Travelers

Traveling for the first time can bring you a whirlwind of emotions, from excitement to fear. So I offer you a bit of advice to help you take that first step into the wonderful world.


I’m talking about long-term, solo travel, here. Just because you spent a week by the pool at a resort in Mexico, getting drunk off margaritas and riding ATVs on the beach, doesn’t mean you’ve truly been to Mexico or traveled. So for the individual looking for a more real experience, but who is maybe afraid to take the plunge, keep reading.

I’m no expert, and I certainly have a lot to learn, but I’ve figured out a few things that I wish I had known when I first started traveling.

1) While saving up money as a fallback is a good idea, you don’t need to be rich to travel. So many people that I talk to back home are always saying how they’d love to do what I do, but they don’t have the money. And I do? You just have to want it. What’s the point in slaving away at a job you hate, living the same life every week, just to scrape by? Hell, I can just scrape by anywhere in the world, but at least I’ll be adding experiences to my belt, possibly on a beach somewhere…

2) No, hostels aren’t gross and scary places. I don’t know if it was that ridiculous horror flick Hostel or what that has made so many of my fellow Americans fear hostels, but many of my friends and acquaintances back home have been horrified by either my staying in hostels or my suggesting that they stay in hostels. Either they think they’re bound to be dirty places, filled with leering foreign men who are just waiting to rape you or rob you in your sleep, or they are just not thrilled with the prospect of sharing a room with 11 other people. My advice? Get over it. Hostels, in my experience, are often the highlight of a trip. Sure there are some shitty ones, but for the most part they offer a home away from home and are a great way to meet other travelers and find things to do. You needn’t worry about privacy, either. There is definitely some unspoken rule about reading other people’s energies. If you want to be left alone, your new roommates will pick up on that and stay clear, and if you want to make friends, the possibilities are endless.

3) Learn a trade. I can bartend, serve and generally work in any sector of the hospitality industry. I am also a writer and possess a fair knowledge of social media, brand marketing, research, etc. These skills have helped me find places to work in exchange for food and a place to sleep. And when the day comes that I can stop moving, I’m sure that these skills could also provide me with a paid job in a foreign country. Sites like workaway, helpx and WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) are great sources to find volunteer work in exchange for room and board and at least one meal a day. From working the front desk at a hip hostel in Santiago, Chile, to picking grapes in a vineyard in Italy to helping at a zoo in India, the opportunities are endless.

4) Trust people. I don’t know about the rest of the world, but Americans seem to generally not trust foreigners. Our media has instilled us with such fear of “the other” that many Americans are afraid to branch out. “You’re going to Colombia?!?!” Friends and family would ask me. “But it’s so dangerous. Don’t get your head chopped off!” Ok, Mom. Colombia was a grand old time, and I felt perfectly safe there. The whole world is dangerous, even America. That doesn’t mean that everyone is out to get you. Using sites like workaway and helpx is a good way to realize that the world is full of good people, just like you, who want to help you and welcome you into their country. Couchsurfing also promotes building bonds with strangers. Obviously, keep your wits about you and trust your gut, but you won’t immerse yourself in any culture if you stay hidden in your bubble.

5) Embrace the journey, not just the destination. I get it. You’re eager to make it to the next city. But what about all that space in between? You may not save time, but you’ll certainly save money and gain experience if you take the long way. Instead of flying, try booking passage via boats, buses or trains. You get to see much more of a country when you take your time moving through it, and you train yourself in the art of patience along the way.

6) Enjoy just being somewhere new. Every traveler knows that small thrill in the pit of your stomach, that quiver just below your ribs and into your heart that bubbles up and out of your throat, manifesting itself into a giddy giggle. It’s the excitement of being somewhere new, anywhere. It could be a pit stop in the middle of Colombia or a big city in Vietnam. Every place on Earth that you haven’t been before is new and offers fresh stimulation that should be celebrated.

7) Learn to be low-maintenance. When you’re backpacking or traveling for a long period of time, chances are, you’re trying to save money. You’re probably also trying to save luggage space. Many people aren’t good at traveling because they find it difficult to live without their comforts. If you’re serious about seeing the world, then you need to learn to be comfortable with less. I wouldn’t call it “survival,” but it’s damn near close. Carry the essentials and be thankful when you get a bed or a hammock to lie down in. Accept any free meals offered to you. When it comes down to it, you’re not going to need all the things you think you’ll need, and chances are, you can buy whatever you’re lacking in your backpack along the way. This lesson never became more clear to me than when I was backpacking in South America with only a handful of comfortable outfits, no makeup and a kindle. As long as I can stretch my legs and read a book, I can be comfortable anywhere.

8) Plan, but also be spontaneous. Resist the urge to spend hours scouring the internet and planning out an exact itinerary. Don’t only rely on your guidebook. If you’re going for a long period of time, planning out everything will only serve to limit you. With each new hostel or town you enter, you will meet so many people, locals and travelers alike, who will tell you where they went and show you pictures, so that you’re now wishing you didn’t bother buying that flight to Santiago out of Cusco, and you’d much rather have more time in Peru so you can see some other cities, maybe venture into Bolivia… The point is, you’re free and you can go wherever you want. Your choices and your plans will constantly change. Accept it, and go with it.

9) Embrace your freedom. Travel solo. Maybe you disagree, but I don’t think that you’re truly free if you have to worry about someone else’s wishes. For this reason, I prefer to travel alone, and I think that new travelers should learn to go it alone, as well. I’ve noticed, from traveling with others and from talking with people I’ve met in hostels, that traveling with a best friend or boyfriend/girlfriend can often harm your friendship and your experience abroad. Obviously this doesn’t apply to every friendship or relationship, but I’ve found that when you travel with someone you’re comfortable with, you tend to complain more to them about the strains of travel, and they complain back, fueling a circle of negativity. When shit hits the fan, you’re more likely to blame each other than keep a cool head and just figure it out. When you’re alone, you have no one to blame but yourself if something goes wrong, so you just move forward because, in a foreign country, you don’t want to dwell on hiccups and attract attention to whatever situation you’ve gotten yourself into. Another issue comes up when you want to do different things. Maybe your friend wants to stay up all night getting drunk with those cute Argentinian boys, but you want to get a good night’s rest so you guys can make that 8 am tour of a waterfall. Maybe you want to talk to that Swedish nice girl with the guitar, but your friend hates her because she was loud in the dorm rooms that morning and woke her up. Somebody either has to trudge along unhappily to something they’re not interested in, or you guys split up for a few hours.

There are good parts of traveling with others, of course, including having someone to watch your bag at the bus station while you go to the bathroom or rub your aching shoulders. However, I’d prefer, at least in this stage of my life, not to be tied down by anyone or anything, and to have the freedom to do whatever I feel like, wherever I feel like doing it.


by Rebecca Bellan