Archive | January, 2011
January 28, 2011

Erupting with Excitement? Not Quite.

Erupting with Excitement? Not Quite.

After spending a few sedentary days in Antigua, I was ready for a little activity. So, I signed up for the afternoon hike to volcán Pacaya. It’s one of Guatemala’s active volcanoes and last erupted in May of 2010. You can still see it smoldering on the skyline.

I had high hopes for this hike. It would be my first time climbing around on a volcano, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I just kept thinking of that Reading Rainbow episode when Levar Burton climbed around the steaming rocks with red-hot lava flowing in the cracks. I was really excited!

I climbed into a shuttle bus with about eight other people and we bounced our way out of the cobblestone streets of Antigua. It was a beautiful hour and a half ride to get to the base of the volcano. I spent the time chatting with my group and taking in the view.

Hiking Pacaya VolcanoWe arrived at the base, met our guide, purchased some walking sticks from some kids, and hit the trail. Then came my first disappointment. Our guide only spoke Spanish. So, for most of the hike, I had to guess at what he was pointing at and telling us.

Every once in a while someone would ask follow-up questions or discuss what he just said in English, so I got the idea. I even got used to that after a while and began to catch on to more and more of what he said.

No one had prepared me for how difficult this hike would be. It’s quite hard climbing up a steep incline through slippery gravel with short little legs. We were continually losing our footing and catching our balance on whatever we could grab, even each other. About 15 minutes in, my legs were covered in volcanic dust from the shins down.

Our canine companions (who probably make the journey several times a day) were even huffing and puffing.  To make matters worse, a happy-go-lucky group of Australians bounced ahead of me, chatting away like it was nothing!

Luckily, I wasn’t the only one struggling. A couple of Israeli guys, a girl from the Netherlands, and I took up the rear for most of the hike. We were continually shouting encouragement to each other, offering our assistance, and frequently stopping for water.

Volcanic Dust from Pacaya - Guatemala

I nearly took up the offer for a horse-back  “taxi” ride about half-way up. But, I managed to stick it out.

The thought of the beautiful view of the smoldering volcano, possibly oozing red-hot lava helped sustain me during the hour and a half struggle. Imagine my surprise when I saw this instead:

Hiking Pacaya - Guatemala

Foggy Pacayay - Guatemala

This is it? This is what I climbed up here for? Visibility at the top was about 10 meters. We were all noticeably disappointed as we snapped photos of white nothingness. Then, our guide said it was time to continue on.

What? It’s not over? The hope of seeing rivulets of lava (or ate least seeing something) re-kindled in us and we all followed him eagerly down a steep slope into the thick mist.

Hiking Pacaya - Guatemala

Instead of flowing lava, we got deep cracks in the side of the mountain with hot air gushing out. Okay, that isn’t too bad. It’s something volcano-ish, at least!

We spent some time throwing little pieces of paper into the cracks and watching them burn. We also enjoyed cheering on the Australian guy who took his life into his own hands by jumping over the crack, scorching the hair on his legs.

Hiking Pacaya - Guatemala

The sky also cleared up right before sunset so we could get a few photos of us close to Pacaya. Our guide took us into the “sauna” which was a cave that felt like an oven. Then, we turned around and made the long trek back.

Kim y Voclan Pacaya - Guatemala

Needless to say, I was a little disappointed in my Volcano journey. Our guide didn’t even bring marshmallows to roast over the cracks! I felt a little cheated.

If you plan on hiking to Pacaya, I highly recommend taking the morning tour and BYOM. I saw several people’s photos and the sky is much clearer in the morning. Every evening I was in Antigua, there were clouds and fog around all the volcano peaks, but it was quite clear in the mornings.

I don’t regret going on the hike. I did get up close to my first volcano, got a good work-out, met some fun people, saw some great sights, and it was fairly inexpensive. I’m sure I’ll hike another volcano during my time here in Guatemala. The country has 33 volcanoes that are begging to be explored!

Have you hiked a volcano? Comment below and share your experience!

January 26, 2011

5 Things I Love About India

5 Things I Love About India

I was back in the U.S. for a few weeks around the holidays and really enjoyed talking about our trip with our friends and family. We got the usual questions about favorites and least favorites. Some comments and questions about India made me think we were too harsh in our previous posts.  A lot of people assume we didn’t like India. (Maybe it was all the cow shit talk…) On the contrary, we liked it quite a bit, it’s just a tough place. In an effort to help people understand the great things about India, without going into the negative, here are my 5 favorite things!

1. The Food

Thali time - Jodhpur, India

A typical thali feast

No surprise here. I already loved Indian cuisine, so how could I not love the better, and cheaper, real thing? Some of my favorite items were veg pakora, bhindi masala, and palak paneer. We also ate a lot of Thali, which is like a sample plate of a few curries and sauces with naan or roti. Even in SE Asia we made it a point to seek out Indian neighborhoods for a meal at least once a week. Travelers shouldn’t be afraid to jump right in and enjoy the food in India. Just use your head and watch for anything that looks unsanitary. If the place is full of locals, the food probably isn’t making people sick, or they wouldn’t be in business.

2. Saris

People - Jodhpur, India

The colors, textures, and sparkles of the Indian saris are vibrant and beautiful. It seems that the sole purpose of an Indian woman is to look pretty. We were in India around the time of Diwali so maybe the women were stepping it up a notch for the holiday. I loved seeing a girl in a colorful sari clinging to the back of a scooter with her scarf blowing in the wind. Somehow, they keep that scarf on while zipping through traffic! I didn’t buy a full sari, but I did buy a silk sari-like shirt and beautiful Pashmina scarf for a great price. If you’re going to be in India for a long time, go ahead and get a sari. Locals love too see non-Indians trying to blend in!

3. Masala Chai

Chai Tea

Chai Tea by Carlos A Zambrano , on Flickr

Already being a tea fan, this drink won me over instantly. It’s black tea mixed with a healthy dose of warm masala milk and sugar. Sometimes is spicier, sometimes sweeter. It depends on who buy it from. You’ll find it served absolutely everywhere, usually in little paper cups. It’s the perfect way to start the day and end each meal!

4. The Smells

Garlands

Garlands by chooyutshing, on Flickr

Of course I’m not talking about the sewage and cows. What sticks with me the most is the incense and flowers. Every business and home has a little shrine set up and a sweet smell pours out of every doorway. Women and children make garland to sell on the streets, especially during holidays. It adds to the colorful atmosphere and definitely improves the smell! You also can’t beat that wonderful spicy smell that comes out of every market and restaurant. Just thinking about it makes my mouth water.

5. The Photos

Kids - Jodhpur, India

India is a photographer’s dream. Everything is colorful and interesting. You can take dozens of photos just standing on one street corner. It’s also a lot of fun taking pictures of the kids and people. They are all friendly, outgoing, and very willing to have their picture taken. This is not true of the locals in some countries we visited. We even felt like celebrities sometimes. Families wanted to shake our hands and takes photos with the white people. Hordes of kids swarmed us screaming “photo, photo!” Some of our favorite photos on this trip are from India.

Taj Mahal - Agra, India

What do you love about India? Leave your comments below!

January 22, 2011

Sometimes the People Make the Place

Sometimes the People Make the Place

It’s amazing how your perception of a place sometimes solely depends on the people you are with. That is certainly the case with me and Guatemala City.  I’m convinced that had I come here and stayed in a sleepy hostel with no people and tried to fend for myself, I would have hated it. I can’t walk around alone and I don’t want to bring my SLR camera anywhere for fear of it being stolen. I’ve heard first hand stories of violence and being held up at gunpoint on buses. Not a great introduction to the country.

Luckily, my opinion of Guatemala City was somewhat saved by Manuel and Quetzalroo hostel.  This is one of those hostels that just has “it”.  It isn’t sleek and trendy, the beds are even kind of hard, and I have yet to enjoy a hot shower. But, the place is clean, safe, and Manuel really knows how to make people feel at home. His love for Guatemala and open, friendly manner win everyone over instantly. His hostel is cozy and encourages guest interaction which, in my opinion, is one of the most important qualities of a good hostel. After the bazillions of hostels I’ve stayed in on our RTW trip, I’d definitely rank Quetzalroo in the top five.

Doña Mela - Guatemala City

Manuel with is pals at Doña Mela.

Manuel takes you under his wing right away, gives great advice, and frequently takes his guests to his favorite spots in the city. Some are touristy (like Plaza Mayor de la Constitucion) and some are not (like la Terminal Market), which is just the right balance. I don’t think the guy ever sits down (except to play Lemmings online) or sleeps (except to be woken up at one in the morning by drunk guests ringing the doorbell).

Pigeon Time - Guatemala City

It’s because of Manuel that I got to experience “the Schwarzenegger” on Hot Dog Row, piling eight people in a tiny car (including the trunk) to go sightseeing, running through the pigeons at Plaza Mayor, buying 100 oranges at la Terminal market, eating dobladas from Doña Mela, and pulling up next to a police escort to stare a prisoner in transport right in the eyes.

El Schwarzeneger - Guatemala City

The Schwarzenegger

Naranjas - Guatemala City

La Terminal Market

Dobladas from Doña Mela - Guatemala City

Dobladas from Doña Mela

And it’s because of the people I met at Quetzalroo that I ended up having a great time in Guatemala City, despite it’s shortcomings. We wandered around the plaza, went out to dinner, had a few cervezas, talked with locals (or tried to), watched movies, danced, played guitar, ate McFlurries, and were surrounded at a bar at closing time by 20 Guatemalan police wielding guns. This is what traveling solo is all about.  You really are never solo because of the people you meet along the way. It’s about putting yourself out there, being bold, and making new friends.

Cervezas para mi amigas! - Guatemala City

Tomorrow I’m off to Antigua on a Chicken bus with Sami, a Peruvian girl I met at Quetzalroo. Because of the people I met in Guatemala City, I already have friends to meet up with in Antigua. Who says I’m traveling alone?

January 19, 2011

Next Stop: Guatemala!

Next Stop: Guatemala!

I just got to the airport! I’m on my way! I’ve got pretty much the same gear packed with a few different shirts. I’m bringing jeans this time around since I’m going to be staying put for a few weeks at a time and sitting in class all day. And yes, the travel hair dryer and straightener are also coming along! Go ahead and judge, but I’ll be the one with dry, uncurled hair.

I’m excited to test out my new backpack despite the nasty letter from my old pack. I switched from a 70L REI Venus to a 65L REI Ridgeline. The Venus was just too big for my small frame. I’ve been wearing the Ridgeline around a bit, and I really like it. I wish I had chosen it in the first place.

I’m also armed with a new Acer Aspire. The MacBook Pro was just too big and heavy to fit in the backpack with all the camera gear. Plus, Clark needs a computer for his job search and/or travels. This Acer is a real piece of crap, but this blog isn’t going to write itself. Clark’s one post per month won’t satisfy our dozens of readers.

Just made it through security at O’Hare. I’m on Continental Flight 463 leaving at 5:23 this morning. We’ll see how I feel at noon when I finally arrive in Guatemala City and haven’t slept in 24 hours. Maybe I can find a nice comfy bench or piece of carpet to nap on.

I have a few butterflies in my stomach, but I think solo travel will be really good for me. I have to keep reminding myself that I just traveled the world. This should be a piece of cake…o tarta en español.

I’ve smoked hookah in Istanbul, been mobbed by kids in Cairo and Jodhpur, been busted for riding the metro for free in Vienna, driven my scooter into a wall in Cappadocia, CouchSurfed and ridden on local buses in India, attended a Red Shirt rally in Bangkok, and navigated my way through countless train stations and airports. I can handle this.

Wish me luck!

Check out our latest video covering our adventures to date! It includes a new packing time lapse and deleted scenes from our world travels!

January 16, 2011

Five of my Favorite Travel Blogs

Five of my Favorite Travel Blogs

I love when I run across a great blog that was recommended to me by another blogger. Some incredibly “with-it” writers do this weekly or monthly, I’m definitely not organized and dedicated enough to do that. But, I do like the idea, so I thought I’d pass a few along. Maybe I’ll do it again in a few weeks when I make some new discoveries. ENJOY!

Disclaimer: I read a ton of blogs, but these are five blogs that I’ve been really enjoying lately. I definitely don’t want to diss (yes, I used that word) any of my other blog friends! Also, these bloggers paid me the biggest bribes.

Johnny Vagabond

JohnnyVagabond.com – Twitter: @JohnnyVagabond

Not only is Wes a great photographer, but he is an amazing story teller. His photos make me seriously jealous! With each new post I loath love him even more. His recent stuff on India is amazing!

Unbrave Girl

www.unbravegirl.com – Twitter: @unbravegirl

Sally is anything but cowardly. She’s not afraid to make fun of herself or the travel-blog world. She’s truthful, witty, and just plain funny. Her writing style is so natural and readable that you don’t even notice she’s a little long-winded. (I’m not hating, it’s self-proclaimed!)

Adventurous Kate

www.AdventurousKate.com – Twitter: @adventurouskate

Here’s another super-funny, snarky, and bold solo travel girl. Kate’s fun experiences and easygoing style make me smile and even laugh out loud sometimes. She quit her job to travel, write, and show the world that solo female travel is safe and fun.

Bacon is Magic

www.BaconisMagic.ca – Twitter: @Ayngelina

This girl is a risk taker! Her blog is fun, interesting, and truly straight from the heart. She just decided to take a leap of faith and try to travel indefinitely! Check out her photo stream on Flickr too!

One Giant Step

One-Giant-Step.com – Twitter:@OneGiantStep

When we first began planning our RTW trip, we started following this blog. Gillian and Jason did the same thing as us and we used some of their knowledge and tips to help us along our way. One year and fourteen countries later, she’s still blogging and trying to pursue her dreams. Her site is full of great travel info!

January 13, 2011

A Letter from Kim’s Old Backpack

A Letter from Kim’s Old Backpack

Dearest Kim,

It’s been nearly a week since I last saw you. I should have known something was wrong between us. We used to carry everything together. You used to never take your eyes off me, but these past few weeks have been different. You left me completely empty in a cold, dark corner with nothing but my hydration port.

I was so excited when you put me on last Tuesday. “Yay! We are finally together again!”, I thought. As it turns out, it was all a lie.

I had such high hopes when we got to REI. I thought you might buy me some accessories or wanted to brag to the clerk how pretty I look after all these months. But nooooo, you abandoned me! You tossed me aside to be thrown in the storage room with the Christmas rejects.

You didn’t even say goodbye.

When the cashier asked you what was wrong, you said, “It just isn’t right for me.” I still can barely write the words.  Just isn’t right for you?! You hurt me to the zippers, sweet Kim.

How could you after all we’ve been through? Why did you leave me, when we fit so well together? Sure, I might get a little pudgy when fully stuffed. I’m a little heavy sometimes, I admit, but no pack is perfect!

On your way out, I saw you from the returns bin. I nearly broke my internal bladder when I saw the bitter truth. You exchanged me for a newer model! And, what’s worse, you exchanged me for a Ridgeline 65?! A Gregory Baltoro 75, I could understand at least, but a puny, little Ridgeline?

Does that blue floozy have the capacity that I have? Does it have the convenient and spacious outer pocket? Is it fully front-loading? Can it snap around you as tight as I can?  I don’t think so.  What does it have that I don’t, huh?!

To think of all those times I unzipped for you. All those times you reached deep in my compartment.  The thought makes me sick now.

Just so you know, I am done crying for you. My Coating Finish™ shell with individual fibers resulting in reduced water absorption and stronger durability was nearly soaked to the internal frame. The REI Garage Sale is on the 23rd, and I am looking forward to meeting someone who will truly appreciate this sexy, green machine.

I wish you and your J-zipper, strap-deprived sack all the best.  You deserve each other.

Sincerely,

REI Venus 70

P.S. You left a pair of socks in my main compartment. I’m keeping them.

January 12, 2011

Solo Travel – Is it for me?

Solo Travel – Is it for me?

So, I’m heading down to Guatemala in about a week all by myself.  I’ve always wanted to be a Spanish speaker and in Spain my love for the language grew even more. I’m a teacher and just got my Master’s degree in Urban Ed. Leadership. My goal is to be a leader of some sort in a large urban school setting. This means that Spanish will most likely come up every so often and I should probably be able to say more to a parent than “Su hijo es muy malo.” or “¿Dónde está el baño?”

So, I started looking into immersion programs in Central and South America. I found that Antigua, Guatemala is the perfect place to go.  There are over 70 schools there. They set up a home-stay for you (including meals) and give you 5 hours of lessons a day for under $250 a week! How could I not jump at that? I chose the Sevilla Academia de Español. The best part? You pay by the week! If my brain feels fried after three weeks, I’ll stop, if not, keep going! There’s no financial commitment or pressure.

Chinatown - Bangkok, Thailand

Street market in Bangkok's Chinatown

The only thing is, I’m not sure if I’m the solo traveler type. Sure, I can hold my own on “the streets” and not get ripped off by tuk-tuk drivers. I know the ropes of avoiding scams and don’t feel nervous about staying in a hostel or home-stay on my own. It isn’t the “travel” part of the trip I’m nervous about.

There are two things I’m worried about: not enjoying it and being safe.

For me, a lot of the fun of traveling is sharing it with someone. And, I don’t just mean with a spouse.  When I think about my past travels, the memories I have are about the people, not just the places. The moments I remember are heading out with Jesse in London in search of a Harley Davidson shop on a college choir tour, gazing at the Jefferson Memorial from a paddle boat with three high school friends, or stopping in Janesville, Wisconsin to take our pictures with the giant cow with Heather and Allie. I enjoy traveling with people.

Old Town - Dubrovnik, Croatia

Lonely street in Dubrovnik

I was a solo-traveler two times on our RTW trip for just a couple of days when the computer broke. I walked around Dubrovnik for a whole afternoon and pretty much got nothing out of it. I only made mental notes of where to bring Clark when he arrived and which ice cream shops to avoid. I didn’t even take photos. I spent another day reading and relaxing on the beach alone. I didn’t even get in the water. What’s the point when I’m by myself?

Will I even enjoy doing this next leg of my journey alone? More importantly, how will I take pictures of myself with a big SLR camera and short stubby arms?

The other source of anxiety is my safety. Solo women travelers sometimes have a hard time in Latin American countries.  I’ve been reading up and talking to friends who’ve been to these countries. The general idea is to stay in crowded areas and not go out at night, especially alone. Don’t take overnight buses or encourage any cat calls. Don’t respond at all, as that could be considered encouragement.

I experienced some of this in Egypt, Jordan, and India, but I have a feeling it’ll be kicked up a notch in Guatemala, especially without Clark by my side. By the end of our RTW trip, I began to feel pretty safe almost anywhere. I definitely have encountered more violence and theft on the train in Chicago than anywhere we went on our trip.

It doesn’t help that Clark even mentioned being a little worried for my safety. He never had qualms with me riding the El in Chicago late at night or wandering the streets of India alone. Will it really be that bad? Maybe I should re-read our Travel Trepidation post on fear and remind myself that if I don’t jump in and do it, I’ll regret it.

At least during my time at the language school in Antigua, I’ll be able to stay in safe areas. The place is overrun with tourists and I’m sure the school has lots of great advice and tips.  But, I don’t want to just stay in Antigua. After I’m done with classes, I’d like to head out and see more of Guatemala and practice my newly acquired Spanish expertise.

Can I do it alone? Should I try to find another solo traveler to join up with? Can I just tag along with a small group of people? Should I join one of those packaged tour groups I’ve spoken out against so strongly?

So, with all these thoughts running through my  head, I’m getting my gear ready and packed up again. I downgraded to the smaller Ridgeline backpack and am very happy with that decision. (Yes, REI took my old one back after 9 months! The new one was on sale so I got a RTW trip’s use out of the Venus, traded it in for a brand new pack, and got $65 back. This is why I love REI.)

Even with my hesitations, I will be very happy to leave the bitter cold of Chicago behind. It has been a slap in the face after coming straight from months in hot, humid climates. I’m ready to get out of here!

Wish me luck and please comment if you have any advice about solo-female travel!

January 11, 2011

Home for the Holidays

Home for the Holidays

We never had a strict plan for our trip. That was, sort of, the whole point. We promised each other to keep traveling as long as we both felt like it. This is the ideal itinerary, in my opinion. You do what you want, when you want, for as along as you want.

After the six month mark, many travelers feel desensitized and road weary. The UNESCO sights just don’t blow you away like they did at the beginning. Another ancient temple? Eh. One more perfect beach? Ho hum. There is so much to see and do in Southeast Asia, but Kim had days where she had no practically zero motivation to do much besides order Pad Thai across the street. After 200 days on the road, very little was new, different, or surprising to us anymore. We were still having fun, but the constant small battles really wear you down. Can you show me one taxi driver that knows where he is going in Bangkok? Do the tuk-tuk drivers really think I need a ride when I just stepped out of a cab?

Honestly, we weren’t getting the most from travel anymore. We needed a break. We needed to regain our motivation to see and do the things we quit our jobs for. “Different” became so routine that almost nothing felt different. Again, we were still enjoying ourselves, but we needed a change of pace.

As fate would have it, a few opportunities sprang up for both of us back home. A visit home started to make a lot of sense. We acknowledged we would have to see Cambodia and Vietnam another time, and we booked our return flight to the States. Soon after, we hit Bangkok’s many stores and loaded up on inexpensive goodies.

We even gave ourselves a bunch of tailored suits for Christmas, but that’s for a later post.

We let my family know of our plans (so we wouldn’t be out in the cold, literally) but decided to make it a surprise for Kim’s. We pulled it off pretty well. Her parents were definitely surprised.

We’ve been back for three weeks now, and we are still quite mobile and very homeless. Kim will be traveling solo to Guatemala to study Spanish, and I will…do something, I guess. She has a Master’s in Urban Education Leadership and will need to brush up on Español to boost her career as a school administrator.

I might travel. I might work. I am waiting on a few job opportunities, and depending on how things go, I am seriously thinking of spending some time in Costa Rica or Mexico to escape the unbearable Chicago winter. Maybe one of the drug cartels could use another henchman. I’ve heard Colombia is nice. I’ve also looked into backpacking the United States, but that is a difficult proposition. Unlike the rest of the world, our public transportation system is quite lame.

In the mean time, we are having fun in Chicago. It was great to be back for New Year’s Eve and catch up with our old friends. We rang in 2011 at a house party and sampled some ’68 Champagne. Not too bad.

Happy New Year - Chicago, USA

Happy New Year - Chicago, USA

Our decision to come back was made at the last minute, but it was the right decision. We are well rested and looking forward to more adventures. Kim flies to Guatemala City on January 19, and I’m sure I’ll find something of interest– career or travel wise.

There are more posts to come, so don’t un-bookmark us quite yet. We have covered “uncertainty”, but haven’t even touched on “beyond” yet.

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