My Getaway | Travel/Volunteer Guest Post Series: by Megan Stanley

Today’s guest post is from the beautiful Megan Stanley of Well That’s Awkward. I wish she didn’t live so far away, it would be amazing to see her more often. Whether you need a vacation or not, this is bound to make you want to click over to Expedia and book your next getaway immediately. You can find her tweeting at @meganstanley.

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Some travel experiences are filled with adventures in faraway places, stepping out of one’s comfort zone, trying new foods and exploring new cultures, learning something new at each and every turn.

My trip to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, was NOT like that.

I KNOW. There are so many great things to do in Puerto Vallarta, so many zip-lines and gorgeous viewpoints, so much hiking and snorkeling to do, so much Mexican food to eat, and a whole city to explore. But when I went there in early 2011, after a really rough 2010 and a job search that deemed me either un- or over-qualified for every single opening I applied for, all I really wanted was to relax.

We spent four days at an all-inclusive resort on the southern end of the city, about an hour’s drive from the airport, and from the moment we pulled up to the front door, I was in heaven. We were greeted with champagne at the front desk, and when we arrived at our room we found a plate full of fresh fruit and three different kinds of tequila. From our balcony, we overlooked the pool, with its hot tubs, waterfalls and palm trees, and then beyond that to the Banderas Bay, where cliffs, lined with beautiful houses, dropped down into the water along the white sand beach.

Our vacation package included three meals at any one of the a la carte restaurants at the resort, and for all of our other meals, we had access to an all-you-can-eat buffet. We also had free room service. We did not go hungry.

On our first day there, we decided that we wanted to do nothing except lay around in the sun at the pool, drinking unlimited free mojitos, people-watching and enjoying our break from the rainy Portland winter and the difficult ten months or so we’d just finished, with nothing else on our agenda. We’d leave the resort another day, maybe go zip-lining or wander around the city, or hit up that taco joint right up the hill that the bellhop told us about and that would undoubtedly be fantastic. 

The next day, we decided the same thing. We still had another day, after all. We still had so much more relaxing to do. There would be plenty of time for exploring Puerto Vallarta.

On our third and final day, we woke up and wanted nothing but our pool chairs, a good book, and the attention of the poolside servers who would bring us whatever food and drink we wanted. Anything that required more energy just seemed so… unnecessary. 

HERE AS EVIDENCE THAT I WAS A RAGING ALCOHOLIC ON THIS TRIP

On the day we left, we purchased souvenirs and reluctantly turned in our wristbands and keycards, took some photos around the resort, and settled into our taxi for the hour-long trip back to the airport. As we drove around the winding curves of the road along the bay, I caught my last few glimpses of the blue-green water, wishing we didn’t have to leave. And on our trip through the city, it occurred to me that we had wasted the opportunity to explore a completely new place, to find something we would never find in Portland, and to do something completely new. And while, even a year and a half later, I still somewhat regret not taking advantage of that opportunity, I also know that the vacation we had was exactly what we needed – no agenda, no obligation to do something we didn’t really feel like doing just to say we had done it, no one to answer to except ourselves and our own impulses.

There are many ways to travel. Sure, it can be very rewarding to fill a vacation with activities, to truly experience a new place, a new culture, or even just a new city. But sometimes, it’s enough to just get away. 

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Volunteering Can Be Fulfilling (But Not For Me) | Travel/Volunteer Guest Post Series: by Treavioli

I had the great pleasure of meeting Treavioli in Vegas at BiSC. You meet in him person and just want to be his friend and hug him. This story cracks me up because while he was terrified, I would have done anything to have been sitting in his seat. Literally. Let’s just hope my experience on Safari isn’t anything like that man’s! 

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I was on my first flight out of the US, bound for Costa Rica. Nerves and excitement fueled my body and kept me awake, which was unfortunate because I had only slept 2 hours that morning before my red eye shuttle came to carry me off to DFW International. After connecting in Houston and Miami I was well on my way to seeing baby sloths and other cute animals in the lush tropical forests of Arenal and Monteverde.

It was a long flight so I occupied myself with my Nintendo DS (yes, I am 14 years old in maturity) and the tunes on my iPod. Towards the end when the pilot appeared on the speaker letting us know we were beginning to descend I had no choice but to come out of my self-contained world of 8-bit pixels and forested mixtape of tunes. It was then that I actually realized I was sitting next to 2 middle-aged women, who appeared to be traveling together. During a lull in their conversation, I interjected with something light and unimportant, but it led to me realizing that they were kickass, traveling women. They had been on all 7 continents, set foot in several countries, and had many adventures as a wildlife biologist and a middle school teacher!

I was particularly interested in what type of animals the biologist took care of and studied. She told me thewild kind. And I was skeptical looking at her, she was an older Caucasian lady, about 55-years old with a short and grey hairdo. How wild could they be. I mean, she wasn’t frail looking but she wasn’t a Hulk either. She went on to tell me about an incident that involved an over-zealous photographer and a leopard.

“We warned him not to get too close,” she said as a matter of fact. “But he got closer and closer to the fence.”

I winced a little, bracing myself and remembering the scene in Jurassic Park when T-Rex rose up with bloody goat strips slipping out of his mouth.

“He got too close and that leopard grabbed his arm, took a bite out of it and wouldn’t let go.”

“Did anybody do anything,” I asked, clinging to hope for the guy.

“Nope,” the biologist said. The school teacher laughed, and I looked at her like she was insane. She didn’t have compassion for idiots. “We raced him to the doctor, and the doctor asked where the arm was. I said, ‘Duh, the leopard has it!'” And we all laughed, but I felt bad for the guy.

She went on to say, “So yeah, I’m connected with some African wildlife conservation reserves. If you ever want to volunteer, let me know.”

I thought to myself, Volunteer to be some lion’s meal? Uh no. She’s probably in cahoots with a killer sea turtles, too. I gave her my business card anyway. Gratefully she hasn’t called, or worse, shown up on my doorstep with one of her furry wildlife friends.

Treavioli (treh-vee-oh-lee) is a Dallas-based traveler, who curates a YouTube channel and his blog,Endeavors, where he writes about self-improvement and travel.

Outside of My Bubble | Travel/Volunteer Guest Post Series: by Jenna Britton

Today’s guest post is none other than the very lovely and talented writer, Jenna Britton of Splendid Really. This fellow BiSCuit has such a sweet and charming demeanor that you can’t help but want to be her friend. I enjoyed this post because it was fascinating to see someone else’s perspective on travel and volunteering as one unit. She is such a simple and articulate writer and I am excited to share her post with you. Enjoy!

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I have been lucky enough to travel quite a bit in my short life. I have been to the UK, Hawaii, Italy, Tennesse, Cabo San Lucas, North and South Carolina, Australia, Oregon and New Zealand, amongst other lovely places, since I first traveled outside Southern California many years ago. I have also volunteered a great deal. I’ve built houses in Tijuana, spent my mornings teaching elementary school children how to read, spent weekends as a College Writing Coach for high school students from underprivileged communities, and spent two years serving as an advisor for the YMCA’s Youth & Government program. But travel and volunteering have never coincided for me, and it wasn’t until recently – when I spoke with Caryn about writing a guest post for her blog – that I even considered why.

Travel and volunteerism are both very important aspects of my life. I feel lacking, self-seeking, and truly left in a funk without them both. But it seems that they each bring a different kind of joy to my life, they fulfill entirely different needs, and I think that’s why I’ve often kept them so separate.

Traveling is, of course, an escape for me, but it is also an opportunity to learn. I learn about new countries (or states), I learn about different cultures or languages or accents, I learn histories that often vary significantly from what I was taught growing up, and I learn my own threshold for patience and perseverance in the face of unexpected twists and spontaneous adventures. Travel is an opportunity for me to sit back and observe, while understanding that I am just one small, fairly insignificant part of a very big, beautiful world. When traveling, I am the one being filled by the knowledge and allure of a world entirely different from my own.

Volunteering, on the other hand, is my opportunity to teach and to give. It is my opportunity to take all that I have been given and, hopefully, share it well with those who haven’t been as fortunate as me. Volunteering gives me the perspective to realize that I have been blessed beyond measure and that, no matter how hard I’ve worked in my life, I have been given opportunities other people only dream of just because of where I was born and who I was born to. It allows me to be grateful for what I’ve been given – whether it’s come easily or not – and to give some of that back to people who deserve it just as much as I do, if not more.

But as I thought more about each of these very important parts of my life – as I began to write this blog post – I realized how deeply connected the benefits of travel and volunteerism actually are for me. Each experience opens my eyes to the lives of others, each experience gets me out of my own solipsistic bubble and offers me perspective and growth, and each experience highlights the importance of being connected with the wide world. And, no matter what I previously thought, each experience is actually a give and take – I learn and teach through both.

So why haven’t I yet combined the two? Well, it takes a lot of guts and a lot of self-sacrifice to do what Caryn is doing – to spend time in an exotic, faraway place helping others instead of simply enjoying it herself. But I can’t imagine she won’t benefit from this experience, as well. I can’t imagine she won’t come home from Kilimanjaro-Tanzania feeling enriched, fulfilled, and as if she learned more than she ever thought possible, even if it’s some of the hardest work she’s done in her life. And I suppose I haven’t yet tried to combine these two experiences, because I never fully realized that they were not mutually exclusive exercises for me; that I could both learn and teach, observe and present, give and take by simply integrating them together. It is possible to get so much from an experience where your main goal is to give back. Maybe that’s still selfish. Or maybe it’s the best motivation.

Maybe it’s time to take another trip.

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Jenna Britton is a copywriter and public relations professional, living in Los Angeles. She is also an avid reader and writer, particularly of personal essays. Most recently, her work was published on Salon.com. You can follow Jenna on Twitter at @jennanicole or find her occasionally musing at SplendidReally.com.

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.

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.