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Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Experiencing a Culture

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    When I was teaching English in Thailand, I found that I was one of the few teachers who was really into the idea of learning Thai, having Thai friends, and just generally doing anything except playing quarters with all my American friends on the weekend. Although it should be noted that I did play a fair amount of quarters… it was just on the backburner for me.

    I would often have people coming to me and saying things like ‘Alex, you are so good at doing Thai things.’ Or ‘Alex is really good at speaking Thai.’ Or ‘Alex you are the smartest, greatest person I have ever known, please teach me your ways.’ Ok, fine, the last one never happened.

    Anyway, what I believe people were really saying was more along the lines of 'I wish speaking Thai and getting into the swing of things came naturally to me too.’

     Well, guess what, it wasn’t natural. I didn’t have a chip implanted in my brain that taught me Thai while I was sleeping. I had to do things the old fashioned way; you know, actually trying. I know, I know, applying yourself to try to learn something that you are not getting graded on is absolutely ridiculous. I must have been under hypnosis or something.

    In order to learn Thai, I first invested in Pimsleur’s Thai, which is cheaper and better – IMO – than Rosetta Stone. It just teaches you the basics, like how to order food in a restaurant or ask for directions, but getting a little bit of basic knowledge provides a great platform for meeting people and striking up conversations, which allows you to branch out and learn much more.

    However, you may be surprised to learn that sitting in my room and struggling to learn a language from a tape was not how I got into the culture and made Thai friends. To do that I actually had to go out into the big bad world.

    When I first got to Thailand I was in Phuket, a resort destination, for several weeks. I had only listened to 2 of the lessons at this point, and it was really no time at all to sit inside, as there were beaches, bars and babes at every turn. The very first night we went to a bar around the corner from our hotel. After 30+ hours of traveling and attempting to sleep on airport benches, you can imagine how this went. My memory is a haze of playing pool and chatting up the employees.

    Lucky for me that after a few drinks, I get along swimmingly with just about anyone under the sun. After several rounds of playing pool with Benjo, the 14 year old son of the bar owner (children in bars are far from a rare occurrence in Thailand – get used to it and save your judgments for elsewhere), I must have endeared myself to the staff. I was laughing and joking around with them, and I remember one in particular making fun of me quite a bit. The next day I walked past the bar, and much to my surprise I heard my name being called.

    As it turned out, one of the girls that worked in the bar was from a town near where I taught, and she ended up becoming my closest Thai friend. I visited her on many occasions and she introduced me to  all her friends and family. If it wasn’t for that first night I never would have met her and had this opportunity. So the moral of the story is to learn a bit of the language, but more importantly to hit the ground running as soon as you arrive, and realize there’s no reason to be shy. Once they realize that you are just a human, the same as anyone else, you’ll find out there was never anything to be scared of in the first place.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Want to Publish your own Guidebook?

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Want to publish a guidebook or itinerary?

Here is a site I’ve come across that lets budding travel writers become self-publishers. Some interesting features on the Guide Gecko site: 

- You can write and sell your own guidebook. This is a neat feature. They make it easy with existing templates; you set the price and receive 50% from the sale of each guidebook that someone orders online. 

- After writing your guidebook, you can use them to print out multiple guidebooks and sell the hardcopies on your own.

- Your book can be available to buyers as a PDF download, perhaps for a reduced price.

- There are also the options to make your guidebook available as a Kindle e-book, an I-phone app, or as an attachment to your website. 

- If you don’t know what to do with those leftover tomes after your trip ends: you can sell existing guidebooks. Guide Gecko gives you 85% of the price you set for each sale. 

Technology continues to influence travel; its impact will only continue to grow. Kindles, I-phones and devices like them will come to replace hard-cover guidebooks for most travelers, cutting the costs of paper guides. Now you will be able to have interactive information on your portable I-pad and be able to download at a touch specific information, the moment need of it.

I like the opportunity Guide Gecko provides to make alternate guides available for your favorite destinations. While Lonely Planets and Rough Guides do contain a lot of information, they are lacking in some areas. What if you’re a vegetarian? Traveling to Germany with children? Brazil with pets?

Some of the more interesting guidebook titles:

“The 10 Best of Everything”

"Guide to Las Angeles Food Trucks"

“The Best Dives of the Carribean”

“100 Animals to See Before THEY Die”

“100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go”

“200 Waterfalls in Central and Western New York”

“A Nomad’s Guide to Uzbekistan”

“Destination Weddings”

“Great Cycle Journeys of the World”

Here’s to making an extra buck while we travel the world.

You can find more information here: 
Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Pre-trip Plans

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    Before setting out on a journey, it is always a good idea to take a few steps to prepare yourself for the road ahead. There are many things to do to prepare yourself for a trip, but I’ll spare you the details - hopefully you at least know that comfortable shoes and an extra roll of TP in the backpack are a necessity.

       It is always a good idea to grab your travel book of choice, but it doesn’t end there. I like to get all my reading done beforehand, and once I’m on the road I ideally will never have to crack this bad boy for anything but a quick phone number or address. If you’re reading your guide book everyday, you’re not watching the world around you – keep it to a minimum by giving the book a read and getting a checklist going - even if it’s just mental – of the destinations you’d like to see.

       The most important things I like to take from a guidebook are the best methods of traveling within your immediate surroundings, and I always take note of the scams that each area specializes in. The scam industry is quite advanced in most of the third world, and each place you go will have its own unique method of relocating those green backs from your wallet to theirs. It won’t take long to develop a 6th sense for scammers, but even then it helps to have an idea of what to expect before running out into the jungle with little more than swiss army knife and a fanny pack.

       Also, while we’re on the subject, fanny packs! As most of you probably know, fanny packs are not exactly the trendiest of items. That’s why I recommend going big and getting the brightest, most obnoxious fanny pack you can possibly find. Rock it on the side of your hip, rock it without a shirt on, or even rock it front and center in every photo op, but make sure you rock it with a sense of pride and grandeur that boldly tells the world you know how to travel like you mean business. Secretly give the head nod to all fellow fanny packers you pass. You’re in the club now.

       But, you know, in all honesty, fanny packs are the best way to protect yourself against forgetfulness and getting pick pocketed. It’ll make your mom happy! What’s not to like?

       Most importantly, especially if you are going somewhere for any sort of extended period of time, brush up on the local lingo. Even simply learning hello and thank you will get you a long way in some places, even if you are butchering the pronunciation like a cranky 3 year old. In most places the natives will appreciate the attempt, so even if it makes you feel awkward just show them you’re trying. You’ll be surprised how easy it is once you get the ball rolling and make it your routine, and you might even find people take a special liking to you.

       Once you’ve got this down, you should try asking one of the better English speakers you meet for a few more words or tips. Always a great way to make a new friend and learn a bit more. Offer to teach them some English in exchange – you can use little English lessons as currency if you play your cards right, everyone wants to learn it.

       But seriously, most importantly do NOT forget the extra roll of TP.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Are You Well-Traveled?

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That feeling - like a punch to your gut. You know it. When you think
you’re something, a big fish in a small pond - you can rest on your
laurels - and then you stumble on something that sucks out the air in
your lungs.

For those who think they’re well-traveled, the balloon is about to deflate.

The prick: an interesting website dedicated to the world‘s most
traveled people:

It is run by Charles A Veley, who currently holds the title as the
“World’s Most Traveled Man.”

According to its members the world is made up of 872 countries,
territories, autonomous regions, enclaves, geographically separated
island groups, and major states and provinces.

Veley has visited 822, and has only 50 remaining places to visit.

Next on the list is a Bill Altaffer, who has visited 815 places, and
has a purported 57 remaining places to visit.

And so on.

Compared to my previously laudable 30 countries...


The previous holder of the Guiness Book of World Records’ “Most
Traveled Man” was John Clouse - who had 7 wives and visited 315 of the
world’s 316 countries, regions, and islands. (I know you’re wondering
- it was Bouvet Island near South Africa.)

Equally emasculating.

Or is the most “traveled” man Fred Finn? Mr. Finn does not boast the
highest number of places visited but has logged 15 million miles on
airplanes. He’s crossed the Atlantic over 2,000 times and been to
Africa on 600 visits. He’s flown the Concorde three times in a day.

In my lifetime - assuming I have flown 500,000 miles - I have
accumulated at maximum, .03 percent of Mr. Finn's.

What does all this say about travel - when taken to the extreme?

For anyone else who’s suddenly feeling less accomplished, consider
this: Veley was a self-made millionaire in his thirties and retired at
35. Finn’s travel has been paid by the companies he’s worked for. Most
travelers make less and see the world on their own dime.

According to Pico Iyer, travel writer, and author of the
quintessential essay “Why We Travel” - we travel to lose ourselves and
find ourselves, to open our hearts and minds, and to become young
fools again. He reminds us that the most significant travel we do is

“Most traveled” - checking off destinations - going to a place to say
you've been there - does not equal meaningful travel. Unless you
strike up fascinating conversations each time, or there’s a stirring
documentary playing, sitting on an airplane doesn’t teach you much.

So the punch to the gut - only lasting a second - is gone. The air is back.

Some links:

(If you haven’t read Pico Iyer’s stunning article - my favorite - you
can read it here:

Veley’s site makes an interesting claim: To visit all 872 places would
be “to go everywhere.” You can sign up on his site and check off the
places as you go.

Veley has an interesting life story, which you can read here:

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Teach Abroad!

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Last week I wrote about getting off the beaten path when you travel, going to places that most tourists don’t go and doing things that most tourists don’t do. This is, after all, how you really get something out of traveling, and how you really experience something new and foreign.

That being said, getting out there and into the thick of the ‘real’ part of a country is easier said than done. So exactly how is someone supposed to finagle these sorts of adventures?

There are a number of ways, but some are more feasible than others. There are a number of jobs that are common to find abroad, but many of these are either involved in the travel industry (which will keep you very much on the beaten path), or they don’t pay anything, like working on a self sustaining farm (known as wwoofing). However, there are still other options. One of the best, and my personal weapon of choice, is becoming an English teacher.

I taught in a small town in Thailand which was, by all means, very far off the beaten path – about 6 hours by bus off of it. I taught at a primary school, and my students were ages 10-12. I had 800 students, which was a very daunting task at times, but the expectations are not unreasonable (in fact at times I even wished they were higher). Many schools will help you learn the language as well, although I did this the old fashioned way – by just getting out there and mingling with people who don’t speak English.

Although it was not always easy being a teacher, getting to know my students was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, and the skills I picked up as a teacher are invaluable. It’s good to remember that this is a job that is not only easy to get – if you have a college degree you’re pretty much in – it’s also an amazing experience, AND looks good on your resume.

Thailand is a very friendly place, and my friends and I were made to feel at home immediately. We got invited to other teachers’ homes for dinners and parties so frequently we had to turn down as many invitations as we accepted. Furthermore, it was almost impossible not to immediately make friends and have a fun time with the locals, which is important because most teachers are older, and this way we were able to make friends our own age. Believe me, sharing beer with ice cubes or whiskey and soda water with a group of people who are just happy to be alive is a liberating experience and can be far more fun than partying it up at a hostel with your cronies.

Many countries, Central and South America in particular, do not have the funds to pay very much, but the areas that don’t have as much money will provide you with the best cultural experiences. If you need to make money while abroad, look into Asian countries. Thailand pays well (about $900/month for your first semester), China, Japan and South Korea pay even more. Certain countries in the middle east pay up to $60,000 per year, including vacation time and they cover your flights to and from your home.

The best way to become an English teacher is to find a TESOL or a TEFL program, which have placements in almost every country the world over. allows you to search for programs in the country you would like to teach in. The site even verifies the programs so that you know they are not scams (the ones that have green check marks have been verified).

Additionally, is run by the same company, and is a great place to find farms to work on for extended or short periods of time.

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