Because traveling makes us better humans | Travel/Volunteer Guest Post Series: Terra Gatti

Today’s guest post is from the very compelling writer and brilliant photographer that is Terra. Don’t let the goofy warrior viking hat fool you – she is one of the most bad ass ladies I know. I wouldn’t stand a chance in a fight against her but she also has a heart of gold for any and all animals and friends. I always love what she posts and this is no different. I completely agree with her that traveling makes you a better, more cultured person. Be sure to check her out at Terra-Bear.com 

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There’s something special that happens when you’re catapulted into the culture of others, when the rug you’ve nestled upon your whole life is suddenly swept up and out from under you and you find yourself far away from home and all the privileges of the Westernized world. There’s a certain type of magic that arises when you step outside of your comfort zone and into the reality of others, others who don’t share a language, culture, religion or reality with anyone you’ve ever known before.

For me, that moment happened on a mountainside in Kosovo when I was deployed there in 2007. Someone had a found a family, a mother and a father and countless hoard of small children, way up in the mountains living in this tiny little house without plumbing or electricity or shoes. Kosovo, a country whose history for more than the past millennium has been filled with bloodshed and war, is a cold place in the winter and here were these beautiful and small little children running around barefoot and coatless in the middle of winter.

It was there in that moment that I felt simultaneously farther from home than I’ve ever felt before, but also incredibly thankful for all that I’ve been blessed with. I grew up poor by American standards, even lived in a house without plumbing for a few years, but nothing I’d ever been without even remotely compared to what that family was living, had been living and probably still is living without.

While we were in Kosovo, a few people made it one of their personal missions to made life a little bit better for that family. We took shoes, coats and occasional grocery items up there and gave the family lessons on how to effectively and properly brush their teeth. Those experiences, the simple offering of a donated pair of shoes or a banana from the grocery store, changed my life in so many very real ways that, five years later, I still think about.

It’s one thing to go to Europe, to travel to Paris and London and Amsterdam and all those beautiful and fabulous places. It’s one thing to go there and marvel at how old everything is, how different and alike things are compared to the way we live here in the States, but it’s a whole different box of potatoes to travel to a place without five star hotels and where literacy rates are barely scraping 25% and where the things we take for granted – our hair dryers and easy access to clean drinking water, our warm beds and dishwashers, our cable TV, gym memberships and yoga classes – aren’t even in the domain of reality for most of the population.

All this to say, travel makes us better people. It makes us more aware, not just of the world around us, but of the luxuries our lives contain and of the variances of human life.

One of the kids of Kosovo.

Bio: Terra lives in Richmond with a herd of vaguely wild cats and dogs, lives off popcorn and tacos, blogs at terra-bear.com and tweets as @terrabear.

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Never Drink Absinthe in the Shower & Other Things I’ve Learned from Travel | Travel/Volunteer Guest Post Series: by Simone

If you’ve never read Skinny Dip you are missing out. Simone is a great story teller, one of the funniest, most open and honest bloggers out there. Oh, did I mention her blog is mostly, okay, all about sex? I met her last year at BiSC and had the pleasure of getting to spend more one-on-one time together this year. She offers some quality advice on things she learned while traveling with teenagers. 3 & 8, in particular, are good reminders about the value of travel.

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Travel has always been high on my list of priorities. When I graduated university in 2004 with a degree in Anthropology all I wanted to do was travel the world and experience all of the places I had only read about in textbooks. However, after 4 years of working multiple jobs and taking out student loans to put myself through school, I was completely broke with hefty loan payments looming in the very near future. What’s a broke girl with globetrotting dreams to do? I needed to find a job that would pay me to travel, so when it came time to look for my first “real job” I turned to the travel industry. After a very brief stint as a flight attendant for a Canadian airline, I realized working in the sky was not for me and I gladly accepted a desk job with a international company that specialized in educational travel.

For 3 years I had the best and worst job in the world.

I worked in a department that sold and produced international educational tours for high school students. If your high school ever did one of those “Go to Europe for 10 days and see 5 countries!” class trips, there’s a good chance that my former company was responsible. My job specifically was to sell these tours to teachers and then work with them throughout the booking process from recruiting students, booking the tour and following up with any “issues” once they got back (I’ll explain about that last part in a second)

The big upside to my job was that I got to work with some of the best people ever (many of whom are still good friends) and once a year I got to go on a free trip. In the three years I worked there I travelled to Germany, Paris, The South of France, Rome, Florence, Tuscany, Naples and spent 17 days in Greece taking in Athens and the Islands.

The downside? Most of this travel involved actually travelling with high school students. Yes, high school students – as in actual teenagers. From my experience, when you mix students and travel, crazy shit inevitably happens. The other 50 weeks of the year when I wasn’t traipsing around Europe, I was at my desk for 10 to 12 hours a day trying to “fix the crazy.” From exploding luggage, sinking cruise ships, bizarro teachers and stolen snowmobiles, to bus accidents and students giving birth on tour, you haven’t experienced “crazy” until you’ve worked in student travel. Anything that could go wrong, usually does at some point and you have to fix it. Yes you. The recent graduate who’s making 27k a year.

Here’s 10 life lessons I’ve learned from travelling and working in the industry:

1. Roll with the punches. This is true in both life and travel as both are totally unpredictable. You can prepare all you want but there’s always going to be something unexpected that happens. If you’re travelling, stay calm and work it out. Don’t let the fact that things aren’t absolutely “perfect” ruin your trip.

2. Your hotel room doesn’t matter. Ok, so I hope none of you ever have to have the following conversation with your travel agent: “So, that hotel you booked us into in Rome has blood stains on the wall” (true story) but at the end of the day, as long as your hotel room is clean and safe the rest doesn’t matter. It’s always amazing to stay at a super luxe hotel, however in my opinion, if you’re “doing travel right” you won’t be spending much time in your room anyways.

3. Not everything is going to be like home and that’s a good thing: I remember sitting in a restaurant in Nice with a group of students and chaperones from South Carolina, eating a plate of roasted chicken and fries that the waiter had just served us. As one of chaperones bit into her chicken she screamed out in horror: “This ain’t Southern Fried Chicken!” No, no it’s not – BECAUSE YOU’RE IN FRANCE. Although sometimes regional differences can be unsettling (this chicken did taste pretty weird, dude) try to embrace them. If we wanted things to always be the same we’d never leave home.

Hanging out in Delphi, Greece 2006.

4. Drinking Absinthe in the shower is a very bad idea: This sounds like it should be yet another story about me making a drunken fool out of myself, but for once it’s not! Two of the students I travelled with purchased a bottle of Absinthe in Rome and decided to spend the evening drinking it in their hotel room. In an Absinthe fuelled haze they thought it was a good idea to turn on the shower, promptly forgetting about it for the rest of the night. In the morning they woke up to a flooded hotel room. The lesson here: don’t consume strange alcohol or substances in foreign places, or at least not while you’re bathing.

5. Some people have a very bad sense of geography: Don’t assume that just because someone is booking a trip with you that they have any clue about where they are going…even if they’re a teacher. For example, “Monocco” isn’t a real country, nor is “Budapest” a country (and no, there’s currently not a war happening there). You can’t take a “quick ferry” from Costa Rica to Puerto Rico and driving from London to Athens isn’t “an easy day trip.” I know these things because I am Canadian, don’t live in an Igloo and have access to these things called maps.

6. My knack for attracting weirdos is an international phenomenon: While walking through a square in Florence I was stopped by a man who claimed to be a modelling agent. He asked me if I wanted to go out that night and “party with some of his girls” I’m pretty sure by “modelling agent” he meant “pimp” and by “party” he meant “recruit me into the white slave trade”. Lesson here: trust your gut. If something seems “off” – run in the other direction.

Posing in front of the Acropolis in Athens

7. If you’re going to engage in questionable behaviour, always lock the door: This goes out to the group of students who thought it was a good idea to make a homemade porno during their class trip to Italy, only to have their teacher walk in on them while filming. If you’re going to do something creepy like that, at least have the curtesy to lock the door. Your teacher now has that traumatic image burned into her brain forever, as do I.

8. Every travel experience changes you: No matter where you go, there’s always value in travel. I can’t think of a single trip I’ve taken – even if it’s just a weekend getaway – that hasn’t given me a new perspective of some kind.

9. Be nice to your travel agent: It’s bad karma to constantly complain and yell at her until she cries. If you don’t she might enact her silent revenge by specifying that the airline serve you “baby food” when it comes time to order your airplane meal. (That guy never complained again.)

Sitting on the black sand beach in Santorini – one of my favourite places in the whole world.

10. I’m stronger and more capable than I ever thought: I’ve consoled a crying father who hadn’t been able to get in touch with his son when the London subway bombings took place. I’ve also dealt with a tour that had to be evacuated from a sinking cruise ship and re-booked a group of 30 students who were stranded in Miami from the darkness of my living room at 3:30 AM. While I was doing these things, I kept saying “I’m clearly not equipped to deal with any of this” but the truth is I am and that’s something to be proud of.

What have you learned from travelling?

Bio: Simone is a freelance writer and author of the sexy and irreverent blog Skinny Dip. When she’s not writing her heart out, she loves wandering her city with a large cup of coffee in hand, in search of the next great story. You can visit her blog or follow her on twitter or catch up with her on facebook.

My spring break volunteering for Habitat For Humanity | Travel/Volunteer Guest Post Series: by Sara Fry

Today’s guest post comes from Sara Fry of Bungee-coasting.com. Sara and I started chatting in the months before we ever met IRL, so by time we were actually at Bloggers in Sin City in May, it felt like old friends reuniting rather than meeting for the first time. She has been a solid voice of reason for me and I’m grateful for her friendship. I admire her for spending her college spring break volunteering to help a stranger.

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When I’m looking back on my life, it is split into various geographical buckets. There’s the time I spent at this place and that one, in this house and the other one. I lived here, here, and here, I say.

And then I define my current life by where I am. Literally.

When I’m telling stories about my life, I like to tell stories about the different places I’ve lived. I like to talk about moving and adjusting and my various homes. I tell stories about how I can remember my old phone numbers and addresses.

The stories of my life are centered on physical locations. Those are the defining moments.

So it’s odd, then, that when I’m telling stories about my life, I usually forget about the time I built a house.

It was my senior year of college and I couldn’t afford to go on a wild, tequila-fueled spring break trip. There would be no Cancun for me or any of my friends, but we still wanted to do something. So we signed up for the Habitat For Humanity Spring Break Trip. It cost $100 to volunteer a week of our time, including the 11-hour drive from Gettysburg, PA to outside Atlanta, GA.

Looking back, I like to think that we started the trip with the noblest of intentions. The truth is, the four of us fully expected to half-ass our way through the construction part of the trip and booze our way through the nights. We’d make it the crazy spring break we thought we wanted, no matter what.

Turns out, it was a crazy spring break, but not the way we expected.

Each morning started at 7am as we set out with tool belts and hard hats and pounded nail after nail into hundreds of planks of wood. On day one, there was a cement foundation and a pile of lumber. Seven days later and the entire structure was completed.

Habitat For Humanity doesn’t just give houses to people who need them, which is easy to assume about an organization that constructs houses for people who need them. Whoever is receiving the house has to help out a certain number of hours – and then pay a mortgage – which meant that I got to interact with the woman who would eventually tell her own story about that time she helped build her very own house.

I think I forget about this story because it isn’t a defining moment in my life. It was just one week among hundreds of others, albeit one week I feel particularly proud of. But I didn’t volunteer my time that week to have some life-altering experience for myself.

I volunteered my time to contribute to someone else’s.

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Bio: Sara is a recent transplant from NY to LA. She blogs at Bungee-Coasting and Tweets as @sarafrita. 

I Always Knew I Wanted To Live In Asia | Travel/Volunteer Guest Post Series: by Abby Stewart

I can’t believe it is actually here but I am off volunteering and teaching kids in Kilimanjaro-Tanzania for the month! Don’t fret! I haven’t forgotten about you, readers! I have a lineup of some very talented and wonderful bloggers who will guest post for me while I am gone.  The guest post series topic is on travel experiences OR adventures in volunteering locally or abroad to go with the theme of my volunteering & traveling adventures in Africa. I’ll be back before you know it with plenty of stories of my own, I’m sure! Enjoy!

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 My first guest post is from a fellow blogger whom I am lucky enough to have met IRL while she was in Chicago for the 20sb Summit last year. Abby Stewart is currently teaching in South Korea, just self-published her novela Menthol Kisses (which I am dying to read on my long flight!), and blogs at A Geek Tragedy. I LOVE this post about following travel dreams and learning about yourself.  Easy for me to say, I am doing just that right now as I am in Tanzania volunteering!

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I think junior high was the first time I ‘officially’ announced my desire to live in Asia. At the time my preferred destination was Japan. When my grandparents asked what they should tell my extended family to get me for Christmas, I replied: “Oh, anything to do with Japan.”

I received a VHS travel documentary about Hawaii. I’ve considered the obvious explanation, they are both islands. And the more nuanced one, perhaps the older generation, filled with World War II memories, was providing me with a subtle hint.

At any rate, I was not dissuaded. In high school I didn’t move toward this goal in any real way. I spent much of my time on Internet forums and pinning up anime pictures next to the dragon figurines around my desk (whatever — I was super cool). However, in college I took the first step toward making my dream a tangible reality.

Walking across the university courtyard I noticed a single booth set up with a banner that read JET. I knew immediately what that banner was for, The Japan Exchange and Teaching Program. I walked past the booth twice, maybe three times, before finally approaching the booth’s solitary inhabitant and requesting an information packet. The guy seemed almost elated to speak with me, and I got the sense that he hadn’t spoken to many people that day. I, on the other hand, was quiet and reserved in my questioning. I didn’t want to seem over eager, after all.

I kept the JET packet sitting above my computer until I graduated. When I graduated, I moved the packet with me to my new apartment and my new job. It became a dusty, manila receptacle for my hopes and dreams.

Eventually, I figured I would never act on the packet — and it had to be out of date by that point anyway — so I tossed it. I felt nothing more than a soft flicker of guilt as I trashed the college artifact. But I had a lot going for me then — I had a job, a car, health insurance, a seemingly stable relationship, all the trappings of a successful “adult” life.

And then suddenly, I didn’t have any of that anymore.

After I lost my job, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I felt purposeless. Then, I realized what I should have been doing all along. I started doing Internet research and decided that I was finally going to move to Asia for a year to teach ESL. At first, I began researching jobs in China, South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and Thailand — I don’t quite remember how I settled on South Korea, but I’m glad I did. Then Jared (my boyfriend) told me he wanted to go with me, and so here we are!

We recently passed our six month mark in South Korea, and I’ve learned so much about myself. I am definitely not the same unemployed sad sack that I was last year. I’ve walked on the Great Wall of China, learned phrases in a previously incomprehensible language, successfully navigated public transportation (which doesn’t exist in Texas), and immersed myself in a culture I knew little to nothing about. Every day I teach (mostly) enthusiastic students how to read, write, and speak in English. I’ve enjoyed every minute of my time here! And I am so thankful that I finally gave my dreams a chance.

My advice? If you’re thinking about traveling, teaching, volunteering, do it now. Do it while you’re young and impulsive and willing to take more risk. There’s nothing to regret, except never trying.


Bio: Abby is an indie author, blogger at a geek tragedy, and ESL teacher, living with her boyfriend, in Seoul, South Korea.

Life in New York: Observations of a Newbie

This post is brought to you by the 20SB Blog-Swap.  June and I swapped blogs today. You can find her over on The VayaBlog.  My own post on Explorer Perspective: Tips and Personal Experience about Studying Abroad in Florence, Italy is featured on her site today.  Please read June’s post and say hello!

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TwentyTwenty

 

So I’m spending the humid, mucky month of August launching my startup here in New York City. So far, in four days, I’ve been running around the city producing a video, having meetings up the wazoo, going to parties, prepping for a press release, and attempting to catch up with friends. And in those days I’ve turned into one of those stereotypical New York people – always running to meetings, getting very little sleep, and pushing through people to get through. The only people who seem to actually be late to meetings and social obligations are people who are not originally from New York. And that person is usually me.

There’s something about the energy of a place that makes you take on the characteristics of other people who live there. You’re always trying a little harder to make it – the next train, the next green light, in life. During bottomless mimosa brunch on a rainy Sunday morning, my friend said that “everyone in this city is skinny because you walk everywhere and can’t afford to eat that much. Plus there are models everywhere – skinny women that make you feel like a cow when all they have for lunch is a tiny cup of soup.”

I’m kind of intrigued by what it’s like to live here full-time, if only it weren’t so damned humid. I miss the San Francisco weather – fog, wind, briskness, and all. Even though New York City is one of the most diverse in the world, it is incredibly insular as well. There are so many ethnic neighborhoods that are packed with people from the same place – Polish, Eastern European Jews, Dominican, Puerto Rican, Chinese, West African, and so forth. I guess most cities are kind of like this, but it’s especially pronounced here.

Those hatches on the sidewalk are fucking scary. Every time I walk past one, I look at the ominous steep stairwells that just go straight down and shudder. Sometimes there’s a little bar that attempts to prevent you from falling into it, but most of the time it’s just left open. It baffles me; this must be a safety code violation of some sort – maybe one that Giuliani missed when he was cleaning up the city. I don’t want to imagine what it’s like to fall into one of those things. The massive amounts of steam coming out of manholes also freaks me out.

Also, there are so many beautiful, tall, well-dressed people, that it must suck to be the ugly here. There also aren’t as many people here as I previously remembered, and it’s actually a pretty quiet place. In general, the places I’ve been in Brooklyn are also nicer and cleaner than in downtown Manhattan, unless you’re in the West Village or something. The thing I love most about NYC, though, is that people actually get things done and there’s tons of pressure to perform. Love that.