Birthdays Abroad: Turning 26 in Nicaragua


Growing up I had always envied my friends with mid-year birthdays, being able to tie balloons to your backpack and bring in cupcakes for the class. But on the flip-side, having a mid-August birthday meant I was lucky enough to celebrate wherever my family was vacationing that summer.

 A couple younger birthdays were spent on the island of Kauai. Exhausting days spent waterskiing, swimming and finishing the evening with the “Mustang Sally” sundae at the corner ice cream store.

My 17th was one of the most memorable, celebrating with my family in Morocco. The waiters of the hotel had constructed a type of Mediterranean cake and did their best version of Happy Birthday.

I don’t say these things to brag. Only to reflect that after years of celebrating getting older abroad, I should be used to it. In fact, spending birthdays abroad are kind of a metaphor for my life at the moment. Birthdays in another country are undoubtedly exciting and usually full of adventure. But what does it really mean to turn another year old if you can’t celebrate with the people who know you? Who’ve seen you grow up, evolve and mature?

I say that this is a metaphor for my life right now because as I continue to travel, I’m learning that I can’t have my birthday cake and eat it too. Traveling long-term and spending quality time with my friends and family are, unfortunately, contradictory. This year, for example, my birthday was action packed. Jules surprised me by taking us to a salsa class, then we went on a factory tour of my favorite rum and capped off the day by getting drunk with our hostel mates and dancing the night away. It was possibly the perfect travel birthday. Culture, dancing and lots of Nicaraguan rum. Still, there is a part of me that misses the tradition of my family signing Happy Birthday off-key. And as much as my new hostel friends cheers’d me with cold Toñas, I know my home friends would have cheers’d even louder.

Travel is by far my biggest passion in life and I love it inside and out. Even if it leaves me broke, lost and full of parasites, I still love it. I wouldn’t trade my life in for anything and I acknowledge everyday how lucky I am. But it’s not without its sacrifice. Where some people sit in their 9-5 cubicle daydreaming of exotic islands, I sit on the beach and daydream about having a normal life. Okay, maybe not while I’m on the beach.

But I do daydream at times of having a normal job, the same bed to sleep in every night, being able to count on a hot shower, having a refrigerator full of fresh (parasite free!) fruits and vegetables and hummus and Greek yogurt and OMG now I’m drooling.

I daydream of being able to do normal things like meet up for happy hour, bitch about normal things like bosses instead of things like bed bugs, make weekend plans with friends, having friends that stick around for longer than 2 days! These things may sound trivial to everyone at home, but these mundane, everyday life things are what I miss most. That, and being able to surround yourself with people who know you. Truly know you! Who know not to be offended by your ill-timed inappropriate laughter, when to offer a hug and when to leave you alone.

Lucky for me, I get to travel with my best friend and love of my life rolled into one. He is my rock and without him I would never be able to travel this long without going insane. But I do miss being able to say those things you can only say to your best girlfriends. I miss the unconditional love I receive from my family. And I miss my friends.

There is a part of me that feels a sharp shooting pain when I see Facebook photos of all my friends getting together or status updates about the latest music festival. I may have even shed a tear after looking at everyone’s Coachella albums earlier this year. Should I be complaining about missing a music festival when I’m living on the Oaxacan coast of Mexico? No. Does it still suck? Yes.

I wish I could fly home for each of my birthdays, or better yet, fly all the important people in my life here, but its not possible. Right now in my life I’m choosing to explore the world over spending time with my friends and family back home. It’s not an easy decision, but it’s made a thousand times easier by knowing that whenever I do come back home, even if I am gone for a year, I will still be welcomed with the same warmth as if I never left.


5 Overrated Travel Books to Leave at Home

1) Eat, Pray, Love.

Now, don’t get me wrong. This is a great chic-lit book to kick back by the pool with. Easy to get through and a quick read. Her book is all about trying to find herself after a painful divorce by becoming immersed in the cultures of Italy, India and Indonesia. Unfortunately, her introspective narrative borders self-absorbed. She is praised for her courage in leaving her life behind to explore new territory. But should we really be applauding this upper-class white lady for taking a cushy vacation with a book deal in tow? She desperately tries to find herself through travel, but instead of allowing each country to change her through personal experience, she tries to impose her already established idea of who she wants to become and how she wants to get there. The sub characters in her book read like stereotypes and end up revolving solely around her, forced into her preconceived notions of how each country will influence her as a person. If I wanted to read self-centered gushing about foreign men, I’d dig out my first travel journal.

2) Marching Powder

So for the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that I never actually finished this book. Even with its fast pace and shocking details of life in San Pedro, a Bolivian prison, it did not hold my attention all the way through. The book recounts the true story of Thomas McFadden, a young British man caught smuggling cocaine out of Bolivia. He gets locked up for 5 years and slowly works his way up the pecking order of the prison to the point where he gives prison tours to thrill-seeking backpackers. The book describes Thomas as charming and charismatic, but it just didn’t come across that way. He develops a “poor me, I got caught smuggling X amount of cocaine because I was ratted out by my accomplice and now I have to go to prison” attitude. Sorry, I can’t really sympathize. He complains about the unfair conditions of the prison, even when he is allowed outside visitors, a girlfriend comes to live in his cell with him and he gets to have day trips to eat, drink and party in the outside world. And he “admits” to readers that his first experience trying cocaine is inside the jail. As if a large scale drug smuggler would never have tried his product before. Yeah right. Which only makes it more difficult to believe his outlandish tales. In South America I saw a copy of this floating around almost every hostel, so when I spotted it in a book exchange, I thought I had snagged some hot property. I totally get the appeal of the true story of seedy Latin American corruption. I just don’t need it told to me by a twat who thinks he should be above the system.

3) On the Road

I wanted to love this. I wanted to carry this from country to country like my own personal travel bible. I wanted to relate to Kerouac’s free spirit and unsettled roots. I wanted the spontaneity of their destinationless road trips to inspire me to sell everything and drive across America. But it didn’t. And I’m not ashamed to say that this book sucks. The narrator thinks he’s on some important journey, “sympathizing” with the American working class because he chooses to live like a bum, all the while idealizing his best friend who is really just a mooch and womanizer. You either love this book or you hate it. If you must read it, it’s best left for a sleepless night fueled by coffee and cigarettes, consuming it all in one go. Picking up and putting down this book while traveling just gets confusing. And as cool as you think you look with a beat up copy of On the Road under your arm, you just look like a tool.

4) Life of Pi

“This book will make you believe in God” reads the prologue of Life of Pi.
Whoa, Yann Martel, big effing claim. Well, needless, to say it didn’t. This book is like a really long session on the Stairmaster. It’s feels like a century, but when it’s over you feel proud and can convince yourself it was worth it. The beginning of the book was gorgeous and kept me intrigued, but the middle, despite focusing on a talking Bengali tiger, dragged on and on. Even though this is a popular backpacking book, it’s not really a travel-inspiring story. It’s more of a gruesome survival tale with a twist ending. The book deals with the themes of truth and faith, a bit heavy for a travel book. In the end the author subtly presents the reader with 2 options: believe in God and live in a fantastical world full of excitement and adventure, or don’t believe and live in a boring reality of misery. As an agnostic, I felt a bit cheated.

5) Your guide book

Yep, that’s right. It’s not that they aren’t a wealth of information, but in this day and age everything you could ever want to know about a place is online. Besides, every restaurant/hostel/bar that has been published in the Lonely Planet has become half as good and twice as expensive from it. Okay, maybe that was a big generalization, but still, keep your $25, ditch the weight and check out the online resources of Matador Network, Rough Guides and of course, Don’t Forget to Move.

The Art of Haggling for Travel: A Beginner’s Guide

The Art of Haggling for Travel

Haggling for prices in foreign countries isn’t just about savings a dollar, it’s a full blown tactical sport. Natural competitive instincts kick in, you size up your target and attack it with a well thought out game plan. Sometimes the shear thrill of the chase can take over and become the best part. But before you hit the local markets and souvenir stands to try your luck you’ve got to have a strategy. Going in unprepared is the fastest way to watch those precious travel savings disappear. If you’re a seasoned veteran then most of this stuff will be common knowledge, but for those new to the art of haggling this will give you a good grounding in a very vital skill. Like reading a chapter out of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, this article prepares you with an appropriate battle plan, because you’re going to need it!

Learn the Local Language

Even a basic knowledge will get you started on the initial negotiation. If you can’t haggle in the language they’ll pin you for a sucker straight away, no matter how decent you are at getting the job done. You’d be surprised how far knowing the numbers and some really basic conversation skills will go. Vendors are used to foreigners having zero language skills, so you’ll impress them into some great travel souvenir bargains. If you’re cruising around Latin America be sure to check out some of the best choices for a Spanish school in Guatemala.

Do Your Souvenir Research

If you come into a negotiation with a rough idea of what you should pay it will make it a lot easier to whittle them down. Visit a few places selling the same things and practice before making a purchase. Work out an average estimate and start with that. Know how much you should paying and then work on it from there.

The Walk Away Tactic

Never disregard the power of the walk away. If you find yourself in a little stand-off with someone over a price, try telling them politely ‘no thanks’ and walk away. 90% of the time you’ll get them down lower. Even if they decide not to budge on the price, you can always give in and go back if you really want the item. Don’t let pride get in the way of a decent travel memory.

Know Your Transport Costs

Always pre-settle transport costs before getting in a taxi, bus, etc. Once on the road you’re in their world and abide by their prices. Don’t be surprised if it costs more than you thought when you ask them at the end of a trip. A lot of the time if you ask how much it is, chances are you’ll pay more. Be confident with your price knowledge and tell them how much it should be. Maybe even start lower just to rattle them.

The Bulk Deal

If you’re interested in buying a few items never tell them straight away. Haggle your first item down, and then start round two on the next item. Ask them for a discount if you buy 2 or 3 and I guarantee they give you one. If you and a friend are thinking about buying some items be sure to shop together and bundle as much into the deal as possible. Any smart vendor will start dropping prices for the next few items if you’re interested in purchasing a new wardrobe.

The Best Haggling Method

Try your luck on different things and see what works for you. You’d be very surprised just how negotiable prices are. Ask for discounts or to round prices off with a friendly smile. I’ve managed discounts at pharmacies, set menu restaurants and even clothing stores. It’s not about being cheap, it’s just ensuring you get the best price available so you can travel longer.

Don’t Fall for the ‘Special Price for You’ Trick

Before they’ve even met you they’ve opportunistically pumped up the prices. As soon as you show your face they’ll ‘drop‘ it for you out of good fortune. Their salesmanship charm can be a little cheesy at times, but they’re only trying to turn a buck. The price that is special is usually the start of the negotiation process, so don’t think you’ve already got them down too much. There’s still a little juice to squeeze.

Don’t Show Too Much Initial Interest

If you go in guns blazing they’ll see you as a walking cash machine right off the bat. Don’t walk into a store with wallet in hand and an eager look that says ‘I want to spend shit loads of money‘. Leisurely cruise in, ponder over items, hum and ahh and examine things you might not be interested in. If you act casual they’ll try harder to put the sale you on and start the bargains before you even ask.

Find the Balance: Don’t Become the Rip Off Yourself

At the end of the day there’s a definite line between haggling, and becoming the rip off artist yourself. Some people will drop their prices lower than they should because they’re desperate, and you shouldn’t take advantage of that. Haggling is a bit of fun, and in some cultures is part of the purchasing process. Next time you aim to pay record low prices, remember that a 50 cent savings for you won’t go as far as an extra 50c for them, especially in developing countries. You’re already traveling in their country for a fraction of the price, don’t be a tight ass on everything.

Happy shopping! And if you’ve got some other ideas please feel free to add them to the comment list. You can never have too many strategies!

Is There Really a Difference Between Traveling and Vacationing?

Stepping off the plane after returning home from a long-term backpacking, I feel like a rock star. My family is waiting, my mom crying, shrieking, hugging. My phone blows up and everyone wants to treat me to a drink. Questions are thrown at me a mile a minute and my stories are captivating to my audience. Consciously or not, I feel pretty badass. I am a traveler. One of the elite. The brave. The minority that bucks the trend, ditches conformity to follow their own path in a whole new world. I am a long-term traveler.

Then someone asks, “How was your vacation?” That question is a sharp pin sticking me in my overinflated ego, deflating me into a thin mess on the floor.

Vacation?! VACATION?? I want to shout. It wasn’t a vacation! I am a traveler! I don’t book into all-inclusive resorts and lay on the beach drinking margaritas all day. I get off the beaten path! I connect with the people. Experience the culture. Take local transportation. Eat at the hole-in-the-wall comedors! Okay, there may be some beach-laying involved, and definitely a bit of margarita-drinking. But traveling isn’t a cake-walk! It’s exhausting. It’s challenging. It’s not some vacation.

But it got me thinking. What is the difference between travel and vacationing?

Most travelers would scoff at this question. To travelers, there’s a huge difference. Calling a long-term backpacking trip a “vacation” is an insult.

But to non-travelers, taking 3, 4, maybe even 6 months off to travel Central America, Europe or Asia does sound like a vacation. A break from work and the monotony of daily life to eat exotic foods and see gorgeous sights? Who would turn that down?

So if all I’m doing is “vacationing” why am I so self-congratulatory? Why do I feel like I’m doing some noble, important thing? Why do I see myself as some sort of low-level diplomat? Liaising with other everyday diplomats like the women selling at the market and the men walking home from the fields, a hoe slung over their shoulder. Why should I be so proud of my traveling accomplishments?

Nobody comes home from a week in Hawaii thinking, “I am a cultural diplomat of the world.”

So am I being too self-congratulatory or do non-travelers just not realize what a long-term trip is like?

Well, after much thought, I think it’s a bit of both. Yes, traveling is important. And although I’m not changing the world in any significant way, at least I’m doing something small. Besides the non-profit work we do, I think travel is important on a human level. If we lose connection with our (okay, being cheesy here) brothers and sisters around the world, we lose ourselves. If we don’t take on, at least in some part, their suffering as our own, if we don’t share in their joys and their culture, then we miss out a huge, gorgeous part of what this world is. You wouldn’t read the first page of a book and assume you’ve gotten the point, would you?

Okay, okay, I’ll get off my soapbox. So in that aspect, travel is innately and inherently important. And I’ll stick by that.

But on the flip side, travelers are extremely lucky. It may not be a vacation, but it is a privilege. I don’t mean in the way that jealous friends always say “omg you’re so lucky!!” I worked and saved for a long time to be able to travel now. And I’m proud of that. But I am lucky to be able to travel in the first place. I am lucky to come from a country where employment is available and the currency is strong enough to let me travel long-term in developing countries. I am lucky to have all my arms and legs and my health. I am lucky to be in a circumstance where I am the only one who depends on me financially and I can live my life on my own terms. I am lucky to have parents who happily house me whenever my restless legs direct me back home.

And comments like “how was your vacation?” from tired 9-5ers make me realize how fortunate we travelers really are.

But it’s still not a f*%$ing vacation!!

7 Ways to Survive an Overnight Bus in Latin America

You’ve all heard the horror stories in the past about taking an overnight bus in Latin America. Whether it be in Murderous Mexico, Cut-Throat Colombia or Gruesome Guatemala. Back home your country’s travel advice warns against even visiting these countries, let alone get on a bus in the middle of the night. Stories of kidnappings, robberies and crashes play havoc on your mind.

But is there anything to really be scared of? Media beat up is prominent around the world, but nevertheless there are still some precautions to take. Taking over night buses on a budget not only saves you on a nights accommodation, but it also means you get to see more during the day. Plus they can be a lot of fun. Where else would you get to watch poorly dubbed and ridiculously inappropriate movies shown to young children, like Crank 2 or Machete?



After countless overnight buses in the last few years I can tell you it doesn’t get less worrisome. But it’s not about being paranoid, it’s just about being prepared. While I can’t guarantee you won’t be robbed, take note of these tips to best prepare yourself for the ride.

  1. Bring on extra clothes to rug up. While it has nothing to do with being robbed, it’s probably the most useful thing you’ll need to know. No matter what the climate, bus drivers will find a way to tap into subterranean temperatures at night that make you beg for the suffocating hot air of the day.
  1. Carry the important stuff with you on board. It might feel safer underneath, but at least up top you can keep a constant eye on it. Stops in the middle of the night can be the perfect opportunity for someone to slip in and grab your bag, or ruffle through it. If you’re awake always pop your head out the window at stops to to have a quick peek.
  1. Avoid putting anything resembling valuable luggage in the designated space above your head. This is an easy way to loose your things. Additionally, be careful with your luggage on the ground. In some places people have been known to slide under your seat from behind, slice open your bag with a razor and take anything they can. It’s a long shot, but be aware. I usually sleep spooning my bag, zippers facing inwards.
  1. Pre-pack some food. Some companies feed you on the bus, but don’t expect anything too delicious. Especially if you’re a vegetarian, there isn’t much choice. Stale ham and cheese sandwiches with a sickly sweet dessert are the usual go to. If the bus is lucky enough to stop along the way, you still won’t find much. Pack some bread rolls and fruit as a last resort.
  1. Don’t be judgemental. You don’t have to suspect every shady looking person as a potential thief, but always keep yourself alert. If someone is eyeing you off they might not be interested in your luggage, they might just be interested in you.
  1. If you make a stop for the bathroom or food always take your stuff with you. Never leave anything on a bus, no matter how long you’re off it.
  1. If you’re paranoid about losing your travel photos you should separate the memory card. A camera can always be replaced, but the photos on your card can’t. Stick your memory card into your undies and you’ll be fine.

Travel safe amigos!

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