Volunteer Travel in Baños, Ecuador

By Melissa Ruttanai

Volunteer Travel Makes a Difference to You Too

“We’ll sing the Preposition Song to the tune of Yankee Doodle Dandy.” My husband Neil passed out copies of song lyrics. In a tight semi-circle, twelve people from around the world congregated inside the Biblioteca Interactiva de Baños for the weekly language exchange called intercambio. A guest volunteer, Neil led the session with an activity geared toward learning English and Spanish prepositions. We introduced ourselves, practiced translating, and sang aloud on our feet without shame that we might be off key. Volunteer travel rocks!

VoluntourismEach Monday, the Biblioteca Interactiva de Baños or BIB begins its week like a well-oiled machine. Coordinators Karl and Mazz sit at the head of a large table, welcoming new volunteers and reviewing the previous week’s accomplishments.

Though technically not volunteers, Neil and I had become good friends with the staff and were invited to attend their weekly meeting. Laughter mixed with serious brainstorming as Karl eyed the clock and Mazz kept minutes. From all over the world and of every age, volunteers commit to a month of community service: running English classes for local youth, holding cinema nights, and participating in the popular language exchange. They live together, share household chores, and help local Ecuadorians learn English. International and domestic travelers stop in Baños on their way up and down the Andean Mountains, and like Karl and Mazz, many stay.

Volunteering in Baños, Ecuador

Volunteer teaching in South America
The Library in Banos

In general, Baños de Santa Agua is a major stop along the tourist trail. With hot springs and fusion foods, Baños offers a getaway from Quito and mountain retreat beside the Rio Pastaza. Package tourists soak in mineral waters and return to the capital within the week. Long-term backpackers camp out in local hostels. But BIB volunteers are different. Immersed in the community, they get to see what real Ecuadorian life is like. They read to school children and shake hands with thankful parents. At night, people wave “hola” to volunteers and often—because they know Karl—their drinks are discounted at popular bars.

TEFL courses online
It’s not easy being on center stage!

Each weekday at 3pm, the BIB’s painted shutters open and young children begin calling out for their favorite teacher. Karl knows each child by name, hugging one and rustling another’s hair. On beanbags and benches, the volunteers sit with Ecuadorian children. They read Curious George, Star Wars, and Cinderella in Spanish and English. During Halloween, they parade through town in costume, handing out flyers for the BIB’s programs. As Karl stated, “We’ve lots of volunteers, but we can’t have a BIB without the children. So sometimes we have to remind the town that we’re here.”

During meetings, I can see that each volunteer loves this program in a different way. “Listening to [the kids] read in their own language has helped me learn Spanish quicker,” said Drew, a volunteer from Massachusetts. “They pronounce every syllable carefully and it helps me too.” In many ways, volunteering in Ecuador is symbiotic. Both volunteers and students benefit. Kids receive language lessons and role models from overseas. Volunteers become part of a mission to help the local community and experience Ecuador differently than most travelers.

Living as a Volunteer at the BIB

working with kids abroad, voluntourism
In travel, it is the relationships that matter.

One multi-story building and a large courtyard comprise the BIB property. On the second and third floor, double and triple rooms line the shotgun hall. A large kitchen and living room offer common areas for reading and relaxing. On the first floor, a learning lounge opens to the street and welcomes students with shelves of Spanish and English books as well as comfy beanbags. Off to the rear, a crafts center has long tables and painted murals for art and group projects. Through a generous donation, the BIB also has a movie projection and sound system for Wednesday’s cinema night.

While living at the BIB, volunteers work together and care for the house, courtyard, and sidewalk. Each week during the Monday meeting, chores are divvied up so that floors are mopped, the street swept, and bookshelves organized. At night, volunteers enjoy each other’s company with walks around the basilica and drinks at the bars. Life is relaxed and fulfilling.

make a difference in your travel
You can travel and make a difference in the hearts and minds of kids anywhere.

During Neil’s intercambio, the atmosphere continued to be laidback and welcoming. Four Ecuadorians sang the Preposition Song and several foreigners translated phrases into Spanish. The hour and a half ran quickly as participants chatted with each other and joked about strange diction. By the end of the session, we laughed about the singing competition that turned into rap songs about prepositions. Karl closed up the BIB and we waved “Hasta luego!”

“See you in an hour.” I said to Mazz, who smiled and waved back.

“Yep, see you at the bar.” She turned to ring her boyfriend and get ready for a nightcap in town. Unlike an office job or regular internship, volunteering at the BIB is about an expat lifestyle centered on social living.

Details & How to Become a Volunteer
To become a volunteer at the BIB, applicants should contact Karl and Mazz at artedelmundo21@gmail.com with a letter of introduction and ability to commit up to 3 months in Baños, Ecuador. Volunteers do not pay for the program. However, participants are expected to pay a monthly donation for their room, starting at US$120 per month that includes bedding, utilities, laundry access, WIFI, and cookery. Accepted applicants should inquire about paying in advance in order to receive a discount. Baños de Santa Agua is located in Tungurahua, 3.5 hours south of Quito, 9 hours east of Guayaquil and 7 hours north of Cuenca via bus.

 

Doing Rome on the Cheap and on the Fly

Doing Rome on the Cheap and on the Fly

Rome on the CheapAfter visiting Paris in 2 days, Amsterdam in 1 day, Washington DC in a weekend, I’ve now seen Rome in 3 days. And I’ve learned some new lessons about traveling. You can do Rome on the cheap. First, when you take a quick 3-day vacation to see a city, you should have three goals.

1. See as much as you can.

2. Don’t break the bank. Nothing replenishes your stress faster than being broke.

3. Don’t get exhausted. Remember, this is a vacation. You don’t want to be so tired you need to go on another siesta when you get back to work.

Also, you need to have enough money to get home from the airport when you return. Here are some tips to help you enjoy experiencing Rome, Italy no matter how small your wallet or how tight your time frame.

Forego Hostels in Rome:For lodging, you want cleanliness and security so you don’t have to carry and worry about your valuables all throughout the day. You get more than that from La Casa per Ferie Preziossisimo Sangue. Each room (Single, double, triple or quadruple) has its own bathroom, and the card key locks are the electronic sort. The place is run with the attention to detail of a hotel, complete with bed turndown, housekeeping, little shampoos, towels, soap and climate control in each room. There is a continental breakfast in the morning. The nuns are friendly and genuinely interested in why different travelers sojourn to Rome. Their religious spirituality appears to fuel their passion to provide a place of true respite each person’s journey. I have to say, this is one of the nicest hotel experiences I have ever had. The shower (Complete with hot water and great water pressure) was better than mine at home. There is Wifi and a television as well. There is a curfew of 12am, but after walking around Rome all day, you’ll be more than glad to retire here! Prices range from 35 Euros to 52 Euros per night, depending on the “High” or “Low” tourist season.

Food: When it comes to food and drink in Rome, resist the urge to hunt down the “Best (Insert food item here)”. Instead, make Borgo Pio, a side street close to the Vatican Museum, the main stop in your dining experience. Yes, the restaurants are for tourists, but they’re for Italian tourists and a quality 10 Euro authentic Italian meal is easily available until 11pm. The warm air, the Italian cappuccino, the quintessential romantic Italian waiter, yes it’s all worth it!

Transportation: For city-wide travel, don’t waste time learning a new Subway system. Instead, pay E17 for a 2-day See Rome bus tour. The bus runs a circuit around 9 tourist destinations in Rome every 20 minutes, so you don’t have to tire yourself out by walking in the heat. Spend as much time as you want at each general locale with no annoying tour guide to drag you everywhere. Stops include the Pantheon, St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, the Coliseum and Rome Termini train station. If you do want a little more information about the places you see, the bus offers headphones and a tour recording in a number of languages. Take pictures from the open-air rooftop seats and enjoy the breeze as you watch pedestrians swelter!

For snacks in the heat, never pay over 2 Euros for gelato, or over 1 Euro for bottled water. Walk 2 blocks from any tourist attraction and the price of both immediately goes down. Or go native, and fill your water bottle up at the freshwater fountains.

Sightseeing for Free: If you don’t want to pay the entry fee, instead of seeing the Coliseum from the inside (a time-consuming 2 hour hike through old ruins to the site), behold its majesty on the outside. You can still touch it, snap pictures of it and walk around the entire edifice. However, you can do it in 45 minutes, and the bus drops you off at the immediate location. No long treks, and plenty of time to enjoy a drink.

Instead of paying to see the Sistine Chapel (Which has pretty much lost its “Sacred” appeal thanks to the throngs of tourists), try St. Peter’s Square at night. The soft glow of lights from the Vatican create a beautiful picture, and in the center of Rome it is safe to let the atmosphere enchant you during an evening walk.

You can’t take pictures in the Sistine Chapel, but you can take photographs in St. Peter’s Basilica. The church in St. Peter’s Square is filled with breathtaking paintings to rival even – yes, the Sistine Chapel. It is free to enter, and you have to be respectful of the religious setting, but if you arrive at 9am, you miss the crushing crowds.

Rome doesn’t need to break your bank or your back. It will definitely break your heart to leave.

Caravaggio – Bergamo Revisited – Airport Refugees

One of the side effects of the renaissance of budget air and cheap flights is that a number of small regional airports have become major hubs for carriers such as RyanAir and Wizz Airlines.

Bergamo airportSmall airports in places like Volos, Greece ; Orio, Italy, ; and Charleroi, Belgium weren’t designed with thousands of passengers passing through each day in mind. They are adapting, upgrading, and building the infrastructure.

Take Bergamo – actually Caravaggio Airport Bergamo Orio al Serio or as referred to by RyanAir – Milan/Bergamo. In fact it’s about 45 km from Milan about 4 km from Bergamo and actually sits in the small city of Orio al Serio. Last year this small airport served over 7 million passengers!

A funny thing happens because of the mis-labeling and the fact that this is a transport hub for RyanAir, WizzAir, and Pegasus which has flights to and from destinations all over Europe, the Balkans, and Turkey. Lots of people come to ‘Bergamo/Milan’ simply because it is where they can catch a flight to where they are really going. That’s why I was there in September. I wanted to fly from Barcelona (actually Girona) to Volos, Greece but there were no direct flights and the cheapest way to get there was to fly with RyanAir to Bergamo, wait 7 hours overnight, and then catch an early morning flight (again with Ryanair) to Greece. Since I arrived at nearly midnight and left at 7 a.m. it seemed silly to go all the way to Milan or Bergamo only to wake up after a couple of hours of sleep and take the bus or a taxi back – who needs the expense of a hotel room and a taxi for a few hours sleep…I decided to sleep in the airport.

And so did hundreds of other people who were catching flights to Romania, flights to Turkey, flights to Barcelona, flights to Paris, flights to Moscow, flights to Sofia etc etc etc –

There just aren’t that many seats or benches in the waiting area and they weren’t going to let us into the departure lounges before 5:30 am. So, it was like being at a protest or stuck at an airport during a storm or at some kind of hippie camp.

Around me were circles of strangers making friends and playing cards on the floor. Groups of girls sleeping in a circle on the ground while one stayed awake to guard their bags, older travelers walking around warily and eyeing everyone as if they were potential thieves, a guy with a guitar sitting outside strumming. Groups sat around with beers or bottles of wine while others found bare floor to curl up with their bags under their heads.The scene was completely surreal and certainly would have been looked on with approval by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, for whom the airport is named – especially since I noted a couple engaged in some serious hanky-panky under a sleeping bag in the alcove where his bust looks out over the airport party. Here’s my favorite blurb about Caravaggio from Wikipedia:

Airport renaissance

Caravaggio’s novelty was a radical naturalism that combined close physical observation with a dramatic, even theatrical, use of chiaroscuro. This came to be known as Tenebrism, the shift from light to dark with little intermediate value. He burst upon the Rome art scene in 1600 with the success of his first public commissions, the Martyrdom of Saint Matthew and Calling of Saint Matthew. Thereafter he never lacked commissions or patrons, yet he handled his success atrociously. He was jailed on several occasions, vandalized his own apartment, and ultimately had a death warrant issued for him by the Pope.

An early published notice on him, dating from 1604 and describing his lifestyle three years previously, tells how “after a fortnight’s work he will swagger about for a month or two with a sword at his side and a servant following him, from one ball-court to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or an argument, so that it is most awkward to get along with him.” In 1606 he killed a young man in a brawl and fled from Rome with a price on his head. He was involved in a brawl in Malta in 1608, and another in Naples in 1609, possibly a deliberate attempt on his life by unidentified enemies. This encounter left him severely injured. A year later, at the age of 38, he died of a fever in Porto Ercole, near Grosseto in Tuscany, while on his way to Rome to receive a pardon.

caravaggio

And then – when they opened the departure lounges and allowed us to start going through security, the sweepers came in, the cleaners mopped and suddenly it all seemed just like any other busy little regional airport.

 

Yodeling Vagabonds in Idaho Hot Springs

By Brian Leibold

In the course of our bike trip together, my cousin and I disagreed about some things. For one, Richard despised Vienna sausages with a passion, while I ate them cold out of the can like a voracious vagabond wolf. Something else we disagreed on was hitchhiking. Richard saw it as an absolute last resort, whereas I saw it as something of a psychology experiment (Hypothesis: to see what types of people would pick up. Conclusion: the most awesome people) that should be conducted on many an occasion. But one thing we agreed wholeheartedly on was the incredible and heretofore undisclosed beauty of Idaho.

Of all the states I biked through from Montana to Arizona, Idaho was my favorite.
Boise National ForestThe story of why we entered Idaho in the first place is short but memorable. While we were at Grand Teton National Park, we exchanged travel itineraries with a woman who said her name was Lois. We asked her if this was really her name, and she said it was. We told her we were heading into Jackson, Wyoming and then due south into Salt Lake City. Lois asked Richard while I was away from the campsite,

“Why aren’t you biking through Idaho? There are hot springs there…”
And she explained how these hot springs were heaven on Idahoan earth, off the beaten path, and only heard of through word of mouth, an Eden-like paradise where 20ish tanned backpackers create a utopian society and stealthily steal pot from an endless marijuana field guarded by Thai farmers with AK-47’s but which quickly dissipates into confusion and dissolution.
But not really. That is actually the plot of The Beach by Alex Garland, a very good book and a much less good movie.
And when I got back, Richard said
“New plan, Brian! We’re going to Idaho!”
Idaho VagabondAnd I was all for it. Never mind that Richard was biking southeast home to Virginia, or that my destination was due south and Idaho was due west. I was on the road, living spontaneously and on the spur-of-the-moment, such as those on the road do. So, sure, I’ve never been to Idaho and let’s go!
And so into Idaho we did go, two vagabond desperadoes heading west into the setting sun on a detour for golden springs which would prove to be one of the highlights of the trip.
Words of Wisdom #1: In bike journeys as in life, some detours become the tour.

Stanley Lake, IdahoIdaho considered us brash and made her feelings known to us by deciding that before we could enter into the kingdom of her heavenly hot springs, we must climb Teton Pass, a six mile monster at a 10% grade. So we climbed Teton. This is all I will say. I will not say that we cried like Mormon babies who have not yet proselytized, or that we fell on our knees and begged for mercy from Lord Idaho herself, or that we beat on the ground and wailed and howled in pitiful tones that would ostracize us from any self-respecting society. I will say only that we climbed it.
But Idaho had tricked us. After the pass, there were still another 300 miles and three more passes to go until the hot springs. All the better, though, for Idaho had many surprises in store. Allow me, if you will, to entertain with some fun facts about the places we stayed in Idaho:
1)Idaho Falls, where we worked on a potato farm in exchange for delightful meals and warm beds and insightful conversation with Bruce Hansen and his family.
2)Arco, the first town to be lit by nuclear power.
Idaho Bike Trip3)Craters of the Moon National Monument, a unique landscape shaped by volcanic activity which stands in stark and wonderful contrast to the surrounding foothills of Southern Idaho.
4)Ketchum, where we had lunch at Johnny G’s Sub Shack, met the generous and aptly named owner, and set up our tent in his backyard.
5)And Stanley Lake, where I stared with wonder for many moments at the most glorious sunrise I have ever seen.
All of these places we stayed and the people we met merit far more than a sentence, and I have written more about them on my own blog which you will find in my bio below.
And so in the morning we woke up at Stanley Lake and we burned down the road, ecstatic at the prospect of steaming springs ahead.
Idaho heavenMost of the day consisted simply of exhilarating downhill, as if the road was facilitating our date with the hot springs and was now moving us as swiftly as possible towards our goal. The wind disagreed though and she did her best to keep our speed manageable, but for once she failed and so we flew downwards with uncontrollable speed surrounded by firs and ponderosa pines and spruces, which towered on the tops of mountains on either side of the Ponderosa Scenic Byway. We hurtled onwards with hastening speed, powerless against the pulling magnetism of the promised hot springs, and yodeled excitedly at the thrill of downhill travel.
We biked into Kirkham Hot Springs.
The rest of the day we dawdled and waddled; we sprawled and crawled with perpetual grins in the fountains of warmth as if they were fountains of youth, which magically healed all ailments of the road, leaving in its place an uncontrollable child-like carefree wonder. The springs engulfed all our tiredness from weeks on the bike; she swallowed whole all our doubts in our ability to keep riding; she absorbed all that ailed us in her submerging warmth and idly washed them all away in the restless Payette River that rushed below. While I lay in her warm waters, she soothed my roving spirit that always in unabashedly crazy hyper-manic phases races and rages ever onwards and allowed me to rest, if only for a short time.
She was very kind.
Idaho scenery bike tripBut by the second night we were restless again, and we went to bed ready to hit the road and ride along the river, which was hurrying westward to the sea.
And that night as we were encircled on all sides by thousands of acres of towering trees swaying and flowing tranquilly in the slight winds of the chilly October night, the forest winked to us mischievously, glad to share its secret wooded home in the Idahoan wilderness with heavenly hot springs below and heavenly hot exploding stars above with two vagabonds whose rested bodies were matched only by our roving souls raring to ride on.
And so in the morning, saluting the hot springs that had propelled us into Idaho, we curved and winded down the byway, zooming onwards towards Boise, the next town on our journey. And though Richard and I may not have agreed on everything during the trip, we were in total agreement on the fact that Idaho was an indisputably beautiful and vastly underappreciated state.

And though it had been over 300 miles and we had climbed over 4 mountain passes, another thing was certain: the hot springs had been worth it.
Words of Wisdom #2 (which also became the first Rule of the Road): Hot Springs Are Always Worth It.

Staying in Capsule Hotels in Australia – Capsules Down Under

I’ve always been fascinated by capsule hotels – but never really had the chance to stay in one until I came to Australia about ten days ago – for some reason I always thought they were more expensive than they actually are – I booked all ten of my days in Australia in three different capsule hotels. Here is what I found:

Capsule Hotel #1: Space Q in Sydney – One Star – At Best

This was my first Sydney location and I came there straight from the airport. Went through customs, caught eat train to Central, walked to King Street and walked into the unlockable glass door between two massage parlors in Chinatown. The smell of mildew and dirt greeted me. I took the plywood lined elevator to the 1st floor where reception was. The capsule was tiny, no electronic gadgets like I’d seen on TV (TV with remote, etc) and to my surprise no climate controls and not sound proof. A keycard controlled the lockable pod and a separate locker. They gave you one towel for free but would charge if you wanted another one. Free coffee and tea provided. The common areas in Space Q were essentially 1-star hostel. Bathrooms were tiny and often broken. Showers were so small you couldn’t move in them and there was nowhere to get dressed or keep your things dry and secure while you showered. Staff was nice.

I was woke up by my neighbors moving around, opening and closing their capsule doors, and then at 5 am  the next day by a bunch of Sydney police who showed up because a man claimed a 72-year-old woman had stolen his Nike pants and they came to arrest her. They were both guests. It was that kind of place.

The room was supposed to be air conditioned so the fans in the pods could keep them cool, but two nights in a row guests who got cold just got up and unplugged the A/C and it became too hot for me to sleep. The common rooms (kitchen, study, etc) were closed from 11pm to 8am which meant that you had to either be out in the streets or in your pod – there was no other option. I asked about doing laundry and was told $8 for wash and $8 for dry – so $16 to do a load of clothes. I passed.

 

Capsule Hotel #2: Pod Inn in Launceston, Tasmania – Two Stars 

The Pod Inn is a newish venture in Launceston and essentially, it is a hostel with pods. The facilities are newish, the showers and bathrooms were big, they also issued a towel. Pods and lockers with a card key. No TV again – but that was okay. Had a nice restaurant attached, great, clean common areas. Located centrally. It was a really nice place. The only reason I give it two stars was that the pod areas get really loud. Light bleeds through from other pods, the voices and movements of other guests will wake you up, and there is no one there after a certain time at night to ask people to be quiet. There were four people staying in the pod next to me. No windows in the pod rooms and no real ambiance but clean, friendly, and affordable.

 

Capsule Hotel #3: The Capsule Hotel in Sydney – Two  1/2 Stars

This pod hotel suffered from the same issues as the other two, but was in a cool old building, had big bathrooms and showers, offered free coffee and tea in the morning, and from the pod rooms, offered a great view looking down at the city streets. I could open up my pod and look out at a cool view (which I’m doing as I write this). There are chairs throughout and they were the only pod to offer toiletries if you wanted them.  First towel free, $3 after that. Keycard worked on the locker but the pods don’t lock – which means that if you are there for multiple days and want your stuff secure, you can’t leave it on your bed – kind of a bummer. I asked if I could check out later than 10am and they told me 10:30am at the latest.

 

Bottom Line: Pod or Capsule Hotels kind of suck but they are useful.

The idea is good but essentially, you are staying in a hostel with the difference being that you have a door you can close for a sort of privacy. A bit like a micro pension. They are cheap – which means they are useful – I paid a grand total of something like $290 for ten nights in Australia – the same cost I would have paid for one night in a good 4-star hotel. In this case, I was traveling by myself and the bed I slept in was the least important part of my trip. I just needed a place to sleep, shower, and shit.And a place to charge my devices. I was traveling light and could have easily kept my kit with me through most of my days, but it made it nice to be able to leave my bag somewhere secure.

A four star pod would have internal climate control, block out most of the noise of other guests, and offer the best amenities of the capsule hotels above. 1) Clean 2) Common Areas where guests could hang out, cook, eat, or socialize 3) Free coffee and tea 4) Big and useful bathrooms, toilets, and showers 5) Affordable laundry facilities 6) secure pods and lockers 7) a manager or security person on site 24/7

I wrote about why I no longer stay in hostels many years ago – those reasons remain true. I’d hoped that Capsule Hotels might offer an alternative, but I’m afraid that they do not. Still, they are kind of cool and if you are on a budget and traveling solo – you might want to give one a shot.

 

Five Free Things To Do In Venice

For anyone heading to Italy, Venice will probably be one of the first destinations that you aim for. A historical maritime trading republic cloaked (literally) in golden opulence, Venice’s “golden age” in the late middle ages and early modern period left it endowed with a unique legacy of neo-classical bronze artwork and architecture. It is this legacy that still continues to astound millions on a yearly basis. 

Unfortunately, this attractive wealth and prestige means that Venice can end up as a very expensive place to visit for the uninformed. However, you don’t necessarily need the bank balance of a Doge to enjoy the city if you know what you are looking for. Here are five of the best Venetian attractions that are absolutely free to visit and explore.

Ghetto Ebraico di Venezia

Venice Italy
One of the lesser known parts of Venice, the historical Jewish ghetto still forms the hub of Orthodox culture in the city. Exclusively home to Venice’s Semitic population between 1516 and 1797, the series of enclosed squares offers an authentic look at the traditional Venice that many feel has been lost in some of the more “touristy” areas. The five synagogues are well worth visiting, and Kosher restaurants abound for those so inclined. Please remain respectful while visiting; the area is still very much an active neighborhood, and the Shabbat (Friday evening and most of Saturday) is almost universally observed.

 

Basilica di San Marco

Although many churches in Venice increasingly charge for entry, the iconic early twelfth century St. Mark’s Basilica remains completely free to visit. The spectacular Italo-Byzantine façade and soaring, elaborate exterior arches mark out the cathedral as one of the finest examples of classic Catholic architecture in existence. Inside and outside, the famous golden mosaics, latticework and painted domes provide visitors with a glimpse into a world of beautiful religious artifacts and artwork. Please keep in mind cultural concerns, in that you must be what the Catholic church considers “dressed respectably” to visit. Bare shoulders or limbs (above the cuff or lower leg) are generally forbidden for religious reasons.

Rialto Bridge

rialto bridge venice
A trip to this iconic building should be added to every traveler’s list of necessities (amongst travel insurance and so on.) The symmetrical white clad stone structure is instantly recognisable, and is considered one of Italy’s finest examples of late renaissance design. Built in 1591 to bridge the districts of San Marco and San Polo, the Ponte di Rialto gives (and contributes to) fantastic views of the heavily trafficked, world famous Grand Canal.

San Giorgio Maggiore

This small, unassuming island lagoon houses some of Venice’s best known landmarks. The seventeenth century church gives the island its name, and the striking marble façade is well worth seeing. It is also worth making time to take a good look at St. Mark’s Campanile. One of the defining symbols of Venice, the bell tower and clock mechanism are available for viewing if you pre-book a guided tour.

La Zecca (The Mint)

venice italy
The historical mint of Venice may not immediately strike you, but it is one of Venice’s best kept secrets. The mint served from the sixteenth century as Venice’s main source of currency, and the elaborate, rich decoration that remains in place is reflective of that former status. Often home to special exhibitions, the building now houses most of the main reading rooms of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana.

25 Reasons to Avoid Hostels

Polynesian Hostel Beach ClubI wrote this nearly a decade ago – it was one of the most popular posts on the old Vagobond.com – feel free to disagree. I don’t even agree with me at this point. I have not stayed in a hostel since I wrote this, so I hope that things have changed for the better.

I know this might go against the grain with a lot of you, but as someone who has stayed in a lot of hostels, ran hostels, and written about hostels – this is what I have to say.

First of all, here are the main reasons you might choose to stay in a hostel:
1) Cheaper than a hotel – good for budget
2) You want to hook up (or hang around) with foreign women/foreign men
3) Budget group activities/free breakfast

That’s it for the positive as far as I can tell. In my opinion, these are all bullshit. Here are the 25 reasons not to stay in hostels while you travel.

1) They aren’t really that cheap. Generally, you can find a 1 or 2 star hotel for the same price as a bed in a hostel dorm room. In the past few years, hostels have gone way up in price so in many cases if you take the time to look, you can find a private hotel room for less than the cost of a hostel or something even better on AirBnB.

2) If you want to make friends with foreign people you should go with Couschsurfing or AirBnb instead. If you want to have sex with foreigners, there are probably better places to meet them than at hostels.

3) The truly interesting, intrepid, and attractive travelers usually aren’t at hostels. Instead you find boring, cheap, and unattractive in just about any way you can think of people – often not travelers at all, just down and out.

4) Hostels are filled with thieves and creeps. I know, not everyone is a thief or a creep, but as a former hostel manager, I can tell you that there are a lot of both in hostels. If it can be stolen, someone in a hostel has stolen it whether it is food you put in the refrigerator, your laptop, money from a ‘security box’, or your girlfriend. Date rape, by the way is very common in hostels.

Polynesian Hostel Beach Club
5) Rubber sheets. If you like sleeping on rubber sheets – just stay at a hostel. If there aren’t rubber sheets you may want to consider how many drunk pukers, bed wetters, or droolers there have been before you.

6) Bed bugs and other pests. More likely to happen in a hostel than in a well run hotel.

7) Squeaky top or bottom bunks. There’s nothing like sleeping in a bunk bed as an adult and having to wake up every time the person above or below you moves or needs to take a piss.

8) People who snore, fart, or breathe loudly. In hostels you are sharing a room with strangers and you get to know all their bodily sounds and smells intimately.

9) People who turn on the lights while you are sleeping. – My drill instructor used to do that but I don’t want some 20 year old English kid to wake me up that way either.

10) Crappy breakfasts. The breakfast in the Shelby County Jail of Memphis Tennessee consists of white bread, jelly, and tang. That’s pretty much what most hostels offer guests. How much would you pay for that? How much does it cost? $1 or less – is that really worth it?

11) Shitty locations. Out of the way, in bad neighborhoods, or in disgusting buildings. It’s probably worth it to pay a few bucks to avoid these – there are exceptions, but not many.

12) A total lack of privacy.

13) The sound of people’s bags when I am trying to sleep another hour.

14) One television set to a program I don’t want to watch or hear.

15) Drunk teens or 20-somethings – there are websites you can watch drunk teens if that is your thing, me, I’m not amused by them.

16) Rude staff. I don’t know if they get this way because they are used to dealing with people who don’t speak their language or if they become condescending to people with no money, but far too often, hostel staff are rude as hell. It could also be that they are working for no money and so don’t feel they have to be nice.

Polynesian Hostel Beach Club17) Hostel rooms are generally about as cheery as a jail cell and just like a jail cell you don’t get to choose your cell-mates.

18) You won’t meet the locals staying in a hostel. If you do, they are the down and out locals.

19) Filthy bathrooms. Even good hostels have filthy bathrooms after the 4-8 people you share the dorm room with use it. Or, maybe it’s shared with everyone in the hostel…no thank you to gas station toilets.

20) Uncomfortable mattresses. Hostels make a lot of money and they squeeze every penny they can by keeping old uncomfortable (usually cheap to begin with) mattresses.

21) Cigarette and change bummers. I watched a guy bum a cigarette from four different people this morning in 30 minutes.

22) Wankers. Seriously. In hostel dorms…give me a fucking break.

23) Couples sharing a single bunk. Seriously. In a hostel dorm. Give me a fucking break.

24) Pukers. Just tonight (the last time I will stay in a hostel) some kid in the bunk next to mine puked all over himself and made the whole room smell like red wine vomit.

25) Having to navigate around other people’s messes. There are usually lockers so why is there always a huge pile right next to or hanging on the ladder to the top bunk?

Yeah- I’m not 25 anymore. I’m married and not looking to screw some drunk Danish girl or British girl away from home for the first time. I’ve done my share of ‘partying’ and I don’t have much tolerance for it any longer.

The fact of the matter is that a hotel can be cheaper, get you a better night’s sleep, and provide more of everything else too. If each of the above is worth $1 to avoid, then you can add $25 to the $20 you pay for a hostel bed and get a decent 2 or 3 star hotel and buy your own breakfast. Or, if you are really broke, you can just go to jail and get the same experience as being in a hostel cell.

5 Free Things to do in Hawaii that Should Cost a Fortune

5 Free Things to do in Hawaii that Should Cost a Fortune

They say that in life the best things are free, but we all know that usually is a crock of malarky. Food, housing, travel, clothing, family, medicine, eductaion – all of these things cost money. The thing is, though, sometimes you find that there is some truth to that old saying after all. Here are five things in Hawaii that are free to do but should cost a fortune.

Going to the Beach

Going to the beach in Hawaii

The beaches in Hawaii are among the best in the world. That’s the reason people are so surprised when they come to Hawaii and find that public beach access is a right that is protected by law. You don’t have to pay to go to any beach in Hawaii. They are all free and everyone is welcome.

Hiking in the Rainforest

Rainforest Hawaii

You can pay for a guide if you want to, but the truth is that you can find plenty of information online about where to hike in Hawaii and it won’t cost you a cent. You can hike all day in public rainforest with no entrance fees, no charge for the guavas, and no charge for the bird watching.

Swimming in a Tropical Waterfall

Hawaii Rainforest Hike

You need to pay atteintion to the signs and learn about Leptosporosis, but while you’re sweating on that hike in the tropical rainforests of Hawaii, don’t be surprised to come across a waterfall in the jungle. Falls like Mauawili and Manoa falls are fantastic for swimming and wading. Let the warm water wash over you and imagine yourself in a soap opera.

Seeing Giant Sea Turtles and Hawaiian Monk Seals on the Beach

Giant Sea Turtle Hawaii

Nobody will charge you to see the wild life in Hawaii, but if you harrass the animals you will get charged a hefty fine so remember not to approach too close to the sea turtles or Hawaiian Monk Seals while they are lazing on the shoreline.

Watching the Sunrise and the Sunset over the Pacific Ocean

Sunrise

Because the islands aren’t very big, you can watch the sunrise over the Pacific Ocean as if you are in Japan and then watch the sunset over the Pacific Ocean as if you are in California. My favorite spot to watch the sunrise is from the bunker in Lanikai on  Oahu’s Windward side. My favorite sunset spot is from Sunset Beach – it’s called that for a reason.

World Travel for Almost Nothing #3 – Budget Airlines vs. Regular Airlines

(This is a repost from 2011 but not much has changed in terms of cheap travel)

AirplaneI travel by international airlines more than most people. In particular I travel more than most people who don’t have an obvious source of income i.e. a job.

In 2011, I traveled in Turkey, Morocco, Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia, Italy, Greece, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Spain, and Switzerland – and I might be leaving a few places out…

In any event, I can say that I travel because I’m always looking for deals and because I’m lucky, for example I won the round-trip ticket from Malaysia to South Korea and I sometimes find bargains that others miss. I’m not some guy who inherited money, I don’t have a trust fund, I’m not a wall street banker and point blank – I don’t have a ton of money, I support my wife and daughter in a comfortable lifestyle (sometimes bringing them with me) and while I work a lot, I don’t have a boss.

While there are many lifestyle and travel choices involved in how and why I am able to travel as much as I do, one of the biggest factors in my being able to travel is living in the age of budget airlines.  I’m like everyone else, I carp about the bad service, the uncomfortable seats, the charges for every little thing and the feeling of being cattle – but at the same time – I’m always aware of the magic pointed out by some comedian that I’m able to ‘sit in a chair and fly through the air’ and I can do it without actually spending very much money at all.In fact, I usually spend less to fly to another country than my countrymen spend on a Greyhound bus ticket between two neighboring towns.

AirplaneThink I’m lying? A Greyhound bus ticket from Bellingham, Washington to Seattle, Washington will cost you $22.50 – I flew from Volos, Greece to Milan, Italy for $18 U.S. I flew from Milan, Italy to Tangier, Morocco for another $18! That’s three countries and two continents for 30% more than it costs to go 90 miles by bus in the USA.

Okay, I admit, the fares aren’t always that good but sometimes they are even better. I flew from Brussels, Belgium to Fez, Morocco for $1! And it’s not just Europe and North Africa – recently AirAsia had $10 fares from Kuala Lumpur to Australia or South Korea!

So, to answer my own question. Yes, budget airlines are definitely worth it. This year I’ve flown with several budget airlines: Air Arabia, WizzAir, Pegasus, Onur Air, Air Asia, Air Asia X, and of course RyanAir.

How do they stack up to other airlines? The truth is that most U.S. Airlines I’ve flown with (except for Virgin America, Hawaiian Airlines, and AlaskaAirlines – don’t give much better service or more comfortable seats. And the prices? Forget about getting anything for under $200 US unless you are flying from cities in the same state or to Vegas from California…it just doesn’t happen very often.

AirplaneAs for international airlines – well if you fly with Turkish Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, Thai Airlines or just about any other Asian carrier – you will be treated with respect, get great service, and have great amenities. You end up paying four to ten times the price of a budget airline, but in this case – especially for real long flights, the extra expense might be worth it. Unless, you are on a super duper budget in which case you might want to go budget all the way.
You can fly from the UK to Morocco with Ryan Air for less than $100, then fly from Morocco to Turkey for about $200 using Air Arabia (or alternatively you could fly from Morocco to Spain, France, Italy or Belgium with Easy Jet and then take a Pegasus flight to Turkey for less than $100 each). From Turkey you can fly with Air Arabia to the middle east or Egypt for next to nothing and then you can fly to India for another next to nothing. Then from India you can go with Air Asia to Asia, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Japan or more. I’m not sure if South America has budget airlines but from what I can tell, North America doesn’t though in Hawaii you can island hop with Go Airlines for less than $100 each leg.

But I have to admit – flying Malaysia Airlines earlier this year was incredible. No extra charges, great food, beautiful flight attendants, great service, free drinks and free in flight entertainment.

If I had the money, I’d never fly with budget airlines again – but as it stands now – I’ll probably be on another Ryan Air flight before the year is done. At least I hope so!

Is Budget Travel Worth It?

Today, I want to hear from you.

What do you think? Is budget travel worth it or is it better to just put your nose to the grindstone and stay home until you can afford to indulge yourself a bit more?

Is there something you get from budget travel that luxury travel can’t give you? Is there really anything beween budget and luxury travel or are those the only real options?

What do you think? I want to hear your thoughts. I’ll provide some of my thoughts in my next post.

Beijing 2001
These two Dutch girls were among the first ‘real’ backpackers I ever met.

 

You’re Not Going Anywhere! How to Travel Constantly!

Lao Tzu, the father of Taoism, said that ‘without opening your door, you can see the world’. He was right, because travel is a state of mind more than a journey from place to place. Still, it’s nice to change your environment from time to time. So, even though now you can put on some VR goggles and see the world without opening your door – let’s not go that far.

Oregon CoastA few years ago, I submitted a reality TV show concept to Mark Burnett, the creator of Survivor. The show would be called “You’re Not Going Anywhere” and it would work like this – casting would solicit families, couples, and groups who were interested in the trip of a lifetime. They would submit videos about their dream vacation – where they would go, why it would be amazing, what they would do, and background. Once the finalists were selected, the entire season would be shot before airing.

Here’s how it works. The hosts show up at the home or location and meet with the family to tell them they have won, they have been selected for the show and then ask them to prepare. Then, when they are all packed and ready to go they are picked up by a bus/van and the host would say the tagline/show title “You’re not going anywhere” .

And the truth is, they wouldn’t be going anywhere. They would be staying in their own town/region and would be introduced to it as if for the first time. A team of experts would identify the best hotel, spas, innovative entrepreneurs, restaurants, history, historic points of interest, natural attractions, and famous citizens. Without going anywhere, these lucky people would learn that travel is a state of mind, it’s a willingness to look at the world with fresh eyes, it’s a way of thinking, feeling, and relating to your destination. Any location, any town, any village – all of them are remarkable places. You don’t really need a team of experts to discover where you live. And, let’s say you live in the most boring place on the planet – well, once you’ve spent a day or two exploring it, you can move on to the next village, the next town, the nearest city. This is how you travel all the time.

Hawaii Rainbow

Travel is not about getting on a boat or plane. It’s not about taking a tour. It’s not about buying a guidebook. Travel is about the openness to feel the texture of the air. It’s about the ability to be thrilled with foul weather. It’s about the sound of traffic charming you instead of annoying you.

One of my favorite parts of travel is sitting in travel terminals – bus stations, airports, train stations, ferry terminals – and lets face it – these places are rarely wonderful (Okay, Seoul and Kuala Lumpur both have pretty awesome airports) but what is special about them is that they are the space where your mindset changes from a day-to-day one to a travel mindset. Think about it and you know it is true. If you can find the mindset all the time, you can travel all the time.

Lao Tzu was right – you don’t need to open your door – you only need to open your mind and heart.

Iwahai: Save Memories with Voice and Place

Introducing Iwahai.  Sign up for the free email tutorial here. Iwahai lets you put voice recordings on a map. It’s easy, it’s revolutionary, and it’s free. Designed by travelers for travelers…and everyone else.

Iwahai Time MachineIwahai Time MachineIwahai Time MachineIwahai Voice Recording on a MapIwahai Time Machine

 

 

Beyond the Hotels – Big City Homestays in South America

By Melissa Ruttanai

alternative to hotelsIn South America, accommodations are classified into categories and awarded stars for service, similar to the way guidebooks and AAA function. But travelers coming to South America for the first time may be a bit confused over the categorization of the sleeping arrangements south of the equator. For example, just because one business is a hotel it is not necessarily better than a hostal, or small guesthouse. Visitors to the region must do their research and investigate star-ratings for each place that they stay. Overall, hostals are a good budget choice where private bath, clean sheets, and family-run service is provided. Hospedajes are also nothing to ignore. They are even smaller establishments than hostals with perhaps 4-5 rooms often with private bath, but lacking in other amenities such as restaurant, bar or communal kitchen. We’ve found some of the best deals via hospedaje in Huanchaco and Nazca, Peru. But a new class of accommodations has emerged in South America and savvy travelers should take note. Private homestays are a fantastic way to relax but also immerse yourself in the local culture.
What is a Private Homestay
homestay peruUnlike hostals, hotels, and hospedajes, a homestay is often a rented room in a private home. In the past, companies would arrange “homestays” with local families in order to allow travelers to see what life is like for the locals. Often, the experience was trite. But now from Ecuador all the way down to Patagonia, private homestays offer more authentic and sincere experiences.
Neil and I have had four homestays overall, two in Ecuador and two in Peru. All have been fabulous. In a homestay, you live in the home of a local, practicing Spanish, taking your meals, and learning about the best places to shop and visit from the insider’s perspective. You’ll receive your own key, sometimes your own entrance. But for 4 days or 3 weeks, you will get an experience that cannot be mimicked in a hostel or hotel. Guests eat and socialize with the host family and other travelers. The experience is not about partying all night or locking yourself in your room. Here, the crowd is diverse—ranging from traveling couples, 30-something backpackers, expats, and even young families with kids.
the good life in travelFor all four stays, we’ve utilized Craigslist and AirBnb. Do your research. Find comments left by previous guests and secure a deal that suits your budget. As two people traveling on the road for over 2 years, Neil and I love homestays. The room is usually slightly more expensive than a hostal guesthouse but less than a hotel. However, security, cleanliness, and warmth of each place have been fantastic, especially in the city. When we stayed in Quito and Lima, our hosts gave us specific information about the city regarding safety, bus routes, and restaurants. Our hosts took great care in making sure we had everything we needed. That doesn’t always happen in the other accommodations.
Every Homestay is Different
homestay Peru friendsDepending on the family, every homestay is different. In Quito, our “Ecua-mama” picked us up from the airport, offered us dinner and even played a very competitive round of Rummikub with us. In Manta, our hosts let us have the run of their waterfront apartment. Dinner was not included but breakfast was a culinary event with homemade broccoli pies and hand-ground plantain and cheese fritters. While in Lima, we had a private apartment with bathroom, TV, living room, and private access to the kitchen. Currently in Cusco, we are in a cozy cottage-like house with flatscreen TV and great WIFI.
So, before booking and after you’ve researched their online reputation, think about asking your homestay hosts the following questions:
Are they renting a private room or an entire apartment?
Are there private bathrooms?
Is there a kitchen to use?
Are there any discounts for multiple guests or longer stays?
Can they pick you up from the airport or bus station?
What meals are included?
Do the hosts live in the house?
What kind of neighborhood is the homestay in?
How far is the walk to the city center?
With four homestays under our belts, Neil and I have had four unique experiences. While some homes were about total integration into the family, others give travelers space to rest and relax. Though you never know for sure which host you’ll have, from what I experienced, both are fantastic with accolades of their own. In April, we will be in Buenos Aires and have already started to research homestays and apartment rentals. Since three friends will travel with us, I’m toying with the possibility of renting a homestay that is an entire penthouse or maybe a multi-level colonial house. Though I love affordable hospedajes and even party hostels, our preference for homestays has eclipsed them lately especially in the big city.

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