Monthly Archives: February 2016

You’d think I’d learn

We all make mistakes… especially when doing something you’ve never done before, and traveling to a new place definitely fits in to that category. It seems as if I make at least 10 mistakes a day when I’m traveling. In that regard, I am just like everyone else [although I am not ashamed to admit my shortcomings], and when it comes to traveling, I make plenty of mistakes… usually the same ones or variations of the same theme.  You’d think I’d learn, but so far, I haven’t… it’s almost as if I am allergic to learning or something.

I’ve been on my own now for half of my life, and sneaking away to travel even earlier than that [Exhibit A–Alone in Atlanta as a 7th grader… Exhibit B… Baseball in Baltimore as a 14 year old], so you would think I’d learn a thing or two about this whole put stuff in a bag and go somewhere thing.  Yet, I am surprised as anyone…maybe more so because a reasonable person wouldn’t keep doing the same things over and over again… when things don’t go according to some ill defined plan.

Traveling is not easy… Things do not always work out like you think they should in your head… There are often hiccups, last minute change of plans, substitutions, and other clusterfucks that a lot of people never talk about. So with that in mind, let’s review the travel mistakes I keep making.


Mistake # 1  Not making reservations ahead of time.

I really [REALLY!] hate planning.  I also hate commitment, and to me, making reservations, is both planning AND making a commitment.  In my head, I’m screaming “Reservations cramp my style.  I want to be free.  I want to be spontaneous.  What if I change my mind?  What if something better comes along?”  In reality what happens is the flight I want is already booked.  There are no more hotel rooms to be had.  I have to keep changing hotels everyday because none of them had availability for the duration of my stay.  Or I have to scrap plans all together.  I really should get my ass in gear and make reservations more than 45 minutes before something starts.

Seeing fireworks at the Eiffel Tower on New Year’s Eve was awesome; arriving in Chamonix, France in the French Alps on January 2 without a place to stay and without a cellphone [see #4] during a snowstorm was not awesome.  Spending 400 Euros for the last remaining hotel room [#truestory] in town also was not awesome.

Mistake # 2  Packing the wrong things

I’m a pretty light packer as things go.  I have never had my bags go over the weight limit, and I’ve never had more than I could handle.  South America in general was a lot colder than I thought it would be… [altitude is a tricky beast]  I ended up wearing the same clothes for days… [I did change my underwear though] because they were they only warm clothes I had… I even slept in my fleece pullover a few times… In the end, I had to buy some things while I was on the road, and at least in the upper half on the continent 5’9″ women aren’t too common so fit was generally an issue.

You’d think that in those two bags, I’d have everything I need for a year in South America.  Nope, I had to go shopping in a mall in Quito for for jungle/cloud forest gear.  I had to buy a poncho for warmth in Peru [and used it in Bolivia].  Traditional Andean clothing does not come in tall… just so you know.  My flip flops fell apart in Chile.  I rented clothing for the Inca Trail.  I bought a warmer jacket [down in case you are wandering] for Patagonia, and by the time I hit Brazil, I was ‘accidentally’ leaving things behind.  Let’s not even talk about the time I showed up in a ski resort area without appropriate gear. I am ever hopeful that I will eventually happen on the right combination of clothing for the actual destination and the actual weather.

Just a few weekends ago, I went to the coast for a few days.  When I left it was 75F with highs in the mid 80s.  When I came back it was 48F.  I did not pack for 48F… Yes I knew was October, but it was 75 degrees at 8am.  I threw in my swimsuit, a pair of shorts, water sandals, 2 t-shirts, and one long sleeved shirt… Yes I probably should have thrown a sweatshirt and jeans or something in my bag, but my mind was singularly focused on being on the water and 80 degrees.  Friday and Saturday were awesome; Sunday I froze my ass off.

Mistake #3 Not letting anyone know my itinerary.

This all goes back to #1.  I don’t intentionally wander; I just change my mind.  I may intend to go one place, but hear something great about another so I just go… Or some place may be great, and I end up staying there longer than planned.  Or I meet fascinating people and want to hang with them.  All of these things have actually happened, and all have changed my original plans.  I’ve boarded a plane for Chicago on the spur of the moment.  I was in Serbia when I ‘should have been’ in Austria.  I was having such a good time in Peru that I got an apartment.  Chile wasn’t as awesome as I thought it would be so I dipped in and out, never staying in one place very long.  Venezuela nor French Guiana were never on my original itinerary, but I made allowances and ended up spending Euros in South America.

Although I should probably let people know if I am headed to an area where there are landmines.

Mistake # 4 Not using a smartphone when I travel.

I realize that a smartphone is so much more than a phone, but I’m terrified of forgetting to turn off the roaming or something and the racking up a $500 bill.  So on international trips, I turn the phone off completely.  I know I need to suck it up, move into the 21st century,  and just get an unlocked phone.  Life abroad would be SO.MUCH.EASIER. [2018 update. I now have a dual SIM unlocked android phone I use exclusively for travel.  Although free wi-fi is not universal, life is way easier with the smartphone]

Mistake#5 Not signing up for any loyalty program

Nothing. No travel rewards credit cards. No airline frequent flyer program. No getting triple points for every $ I spend. Nothing. I don’t know where to start. I have rarely fly the same airline twice, and 10,000 miles just  doesn’t get you very far.  If I had started way back when I could have at least gotten an upgrade by now.

Mistake 5.5 Booking things at the wrong times.

I am inherently a night owl. I am much more likely to stay up until 5am than get up at 5am. I know myself enough to know that there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell that I am going to be able sleep the night before anything is scheduled, and if I do, I’m likely to nod off 30 minutes before it’s time to get up and wake up in “oh shit!” mode… either I’m in a rush or I’ve missed it all together. I’m getting better at picking the right flights, buses, tours, ect, and I am fortunate enough to be able to sleep just about anywhere. As long as I can make it to the beginning point, I’m all right.

Mistake # 5.75  Not having insurance.

After getting severely dehydrated in the jungle… falling a breaking my arm in Mexcio… needing stitches in Belize, I have come to accept that I am inherently clumsy, and as I get older, I am less likely to bounce back from various injuries. Starting a couple of years ago, I never leave the country without travel insurance.  Since I’ve started buying travel insurance, I’ve yet to have an accident. Coincidence… I think not.  I’m never leaving home without it again.  See… all is not lost… I do learn… eventually.

The Lover’s Walk

2016 Michelle here. Here I sit… older and wiser and all. 2005 was a particularly low spot in my life, and going in Italy in 2006, while not the best idea I’ve ever head, was really what jump-started my love of travel.  And also here I sit, older and wiser and all, dating a special dude.  One day I may even commit  to something more serious… like a love lock.

As a single, late-20-something suffering 3! break-ups in the last year, I’m pretty cynical about love these days, and not even being in the undisputed romance capital of the world is changing that. In the last 12 months I’ve caught a boyfriend with another person, had a few months’ long fling, and returned– against better judgment– to hook up with a previous partner. If my judgment is any indication of how my life is going to go, I should run, not walk away from any man that approaches, but me being me, hope springs eternal.

cinque terre 12

The Lover’s Walk is one of the easiest trails in the Cinque Terre. It’s just over a mile, flat, and connects Riomaggiore with Manarola. It could be the perfect trail to stroll with a lover… not very private if you catch my drift, but wide enough for two people, and the views are amazing.

cinque terre 14

Like nearly everything, there’s a story that goes along with the trail.

Built between 1926 and 1928, the Via dell’Amore was born out of necessity and not at all with love in mind. As workers blasted through the rock in order to upgrade the railway line, they found it necessary to build a gunpowder warehouse safely away from the two towns. They created a pathway from both villages that lead to a central storage area. After the railway was finished, locals rallied to reinforce the pathway, cover part of it, and keep it open as a second link between the two very isolated villages.

The story goes that, apart from aiding in commercial dealings, the new pathway also made it easier for young men and women from Riomaggiore and Manarola to meet and fall in love. Thus the pathway came to be known as the Via dell’Amore. Through the decades, the Via has stayed true to its name with lovers from all over coming to enjoy a stroll through its cliff side galleria, which displays breathtaking panoramas to visitors in any season. Approximately halfway along the Via sits the Bar dell’Amore, the original gunpowder warehouse that is now a quaint and welcoming café where visitors can rest, sample a glass of local wine and enjoy 180° views of the coastline and the turquoise waters below.

bar

lover walk

Decades’ worth of amorous graffiti painted onto or carved into the rock adorn the cliff face and the walls of the path’s galleria. Although off-putting to some, true romantics seem to find the sentiments behind the graffiti endearing. “Lucchetti d’amore” or love locks — padlocks marked with a couple’s name and locked in a public place for all to see — are a frequent sight as well.

kissing statue on cinque terre

cinque terre 8
You know, one day I’d like to lock a lock somewhere special with some as of yet undetermined male.

Women traveling alone-A different point of view

Women are in the news yet again.  These days it has to do with the current US president’s views on women (and other marginalized populations), but honestly, it’s always something. A few years ago, it was the media giving women traveling along a hard time.  This post is from my previous travel blog and seems like a good time to keep in mind that for women every day life boils down to one thing–personal safety.  It doesn’t matter if it is the president of the US talking about ‘grabbing the by the pussy’ or female genital mutilation [a subject I wrote a paper on in college], daily life for women is all about personal safety.

Women traveling alone are in the news again [A woman hiking the Camino de Santiago has had her body found months after she went missing along with the woman who was killed while CouchSurfing in India] so it seems like an appropriate time to revive this post from my previous travel blog.

It seems like every few months or so something happens and all the news outlets rush to make up stories about why women shouldn’t travel alone. I am referring to the latest story to attempt to scare people [especially females] away from traveling alone.  Almost every news outlet has an opinion on the subject.  [comments from the NBC  site–““A woman has no business traveling alone,” FOX news’ take, another FOX gem, CBS has an opinion too, let’s not leave out ABC] The current theory is that the victim was ‘hanging out with criminal element‘ and therefore, it shouldn’t be surprising that she got her skull bashed in.  Several travel bloggers [who travel much more frequently than I do] have already weighed in on this issue,[see the posts here, here, here, here, here, here, and here,] but I am more inclined to go with this viewpoint.  It is the violence directed at women, not necessarily the traveling abroad, that is the real issue.  For whatever reason, women are a target when it comes to violent crime–not just abroad, but at home too.  As for me, I would not be the same person I am if I hadn’t traveled solo at various points in my life.  Truth be told, I’ve experienced violence directed at me at home, and I’ve experience less subtle attempts at violence  while traveling. At home sometimes we let it slide because it’s someone we know; while traveling, we usually have out guard up–at least to some degree.

Traveling solo has helped me to:

  • not feel guilty that I majored in foreign languages in  college and didn’t add a teaching degree with it
  • end a relationship that was seriously bad news
  • meet new people that I wouldn’t have ever had the opportunity to meet before [people that are definitely different that the crowd I normally meet in South Carolina]
  • develop a quiet independence
  • come out of my shell [It’s hard NOT to talk to someone, anyone when you are traveling alone]
  • make decisions about where I want my career to go
  • be confident in making decisions
  • explore my photography passion
  • go where I want and do what I want
  • be a better citizen of the world
  • build self-esteem
  • develop an inner voice
camellia in winter

Traveling alone isn’t rocket science. Use common sense.  Let someone know where you will be.  Trust your instincts.  Don’t advertise that you are alone. Don’t be a idiot.  Don’t flash around jewelry, electronics, or cash.  Know where you are going, or at least act like you do.  Research your destination ahead of time.  Just be smart about being out there by yourself.  These tips apply whether I am traveling in Charleston, SC, Cape Town, South Africa, or even my hometown.

Let’s get honest: traveling solo

Today is Valentine’s Day–a day where couples celebrate their love, or for the more cynical among us, a day capitalized on by card makers, candy purveyors, and jewelry hawkers. Despite any appearance I may give, I’ve been coupled up [and mostly happily coupled] every year since I was 19 years old.  My sole year as a singleton, I happened to spend in Italy–a placed designed for romance.  I survived asking for a table per uno when dining alone in Tuscany.  I was treated to a free tour and then some by an amazing vespa driver who decided no one should be alone in Rome, and no one should be alone on their birthday.  Never-mind I was meeting a group of people for a tour the very next day.  What happens in Italy, stays in Italy [you know, at least the non-travel parts].

Overall, I am a private person and just because I choose to be on the internet doesn’t mean my partner does.  I respect that.  My current partner hates airplane travel, and doesn’t really enjoy long car rides– the most distance we’ve traveled together is Florida [about 8 hours in the car together].  And you know what, that’s OK.  That means I have an automatic support system at home.  I have someone to feed the cats and check the mail.  I have someone who can contact banks and such if  I’m abroad.  Sure, we haven’t invented a way to literally ‘reach out and touch someone’ but with technology being what it is, I can video-chat, talk, text, or whatever anytime I’m gone.  And missing someone makes coming home so much sweeter.  And there’s always someone to pick me up at the airport. So, I am not a solo traveler.  Or at least not by choice.  Given the opportunity, I would rather share amazing sunsets or  discover interesting things or go on hikes with someone than do it alone.  But I’d rather do all these things alone than not do them at all.  And therein lies the quandary.

At the Olympic Stadium in Berlin

Long-term solo travel is still an uncommon practice in the United States [as compared to Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, but getting more popular every day] so when I announced my plans to travel around South America for a year plus my news was met with trepidation more than excitement.  Perhaps the main issue was that most of my friends, co-workers, and family had never heard of someone taking a year off and heading off without concrete plans.  Add in the media hype of danger at every turn outside the US borders and I can *somewhat* understand their concerns.

However, sixteen months after leaving, I returned, all in one piece, only having one real story of danger to report. I have since traveled even more extensively, to places where I don’t speak the language, and *somewhat* off the tourist trail. I have not found the media view of danger at every turn to in fact be a fact.  BUT in the early days of planning every time someone told me of ‘something’ happening ‘somewhere’ I wondered if I needed to be prepared for that–whatever ‘that’ may be [‘That’ ranged from the plague to kidnappings to earthquakes].  Eventually I said fuck-it-all, and just went with the fact that I’ve successfully gotten myself ‘un-lost’ on several occasions, have survived natural disasters, and have even managed to disentangle myself from unsavory characters while at home.

DSCF0298

So while safety was always the first thing someone brought up upon hearing my plans, the ‘solo’ aspect was immediately next as in ‘aren’t you afraid to go by yourself?‘ or ‘what if you get lonely?‘ or several other well-meaning but misguided questions. The truth of the matter is that as an only child who grew up in the country instead of a neighborhood full of other kids being by myself is the least of my concerns.

For me, it was always the opposite.  I am/ was worried other people would get on my nerves and I’d have no alone time.  I have since learned that as a solo traveler I can have as much or as little ‘alone’ time as I want, and it’s always easy to meet up with other travelers for activities, day trips, or whatevs.


At 19, I planned to go to England with my then-boyfriend.  I worked my entire freshman year of college to save up enough money for flights, train tickets, souvenirs, ect. A last minute change of plans on his part meant either go by myself  or not go at all.  And so I went.  By myself.  Which was the last thing in the world I wanted to do. I hate asking for directions, or talking to strangers.  I don’t trust easily. But I went anyway. And I had fun.  I learned to trust my judgement.  I learned not to be scared of everything and everyone.  I hung out in pubs in England.  I discovered the joys of hiking in Wales. I discovered Harry Potter in Scotland. Sure, I read some when I was out eating.  I didn’t eat a whole lot of dinners in restaurants.  I was 19!  I wouldn’t have felt comfortable eating in restaurants with someone.

sleepy kitty at the farm
At Muckross Farm in Ireland

What I did learn is that young, solo female travelers are pretty much on the lowest of the low of  in terms of travelers. Couples have safety in numbers, even groups of 2 or 3 females traveling together have it made compared to the single traveler, and male solo travelers — well, it’s just different for a solo man. And as I’ve gotten older, well, let’s just say I attract less attention than I used to– and I am more than OK with that. Of course I still get nervous if I get lost and followed by strangers; that’s just the evolutionary equivalent of being chased by saber toothed tigers.

Taking Risks

There is no one-size fits all rule. Life, and travel, is about constantly assessing a situation, making predictions, observations, and acting based on those assessments. I do this everyday at work. Seeing people, assessing the situation, making decisions based on those assessments. Traveling [and working in healthcare] has greatly increased my ability to size up a situation and a person and make an accurate judgment. In talking to people from all walks of life, all cultures, backgrounds, attitudes I have created a mental book of knowledge from which I pull when I encounter something new. If safety is the topic, then I have only increased my safety by traveling and added new experiences from which I can draw in uncertain situations.

So what have I learned

  1. Understand local cultural norms…. don’t expect them to conform to you.  I always try to learn a bit of the local language before I arrive– even if it’s just hello.
  2. Involve others in your safety…. let others [even if its just the hotel staff] know your plans.
  3. Stay aware….
  4. Stay sober…. being fucked-up greatly diminishes your situational awareness
  5. Know basic self-defense…. even if you never plan to use it
  6. Carry travel insurance… stuff can be replaced; you can’t
  7. Pay for your safety [even if that means a paying more for a cab or hotel versus the metro, u-bahn, subway…].

alexanderplatz christmas market
Enjoying local beverages should be fun; getting drunk while doing so should be verboten!

Which brings me to my final point– Anything can happen anywhere.

  • I have never been robbed while traveling. But I have had my wallet stolen and my car broken into in my driveway while I was  at home [upstairs] minding my own business.
  • On the other hand, I left my backpack in a taxi en route to the Cancun airport in 2002 and not only did someone return it to the airport lost & found, but everything was intact, including cash [$MEX and $USD] and credit cards.
  • I’ve never been physically hurt while traveling… I can’t say the same for life at home.
  • Other than a few cat-calls while in Mexico and Italy, I’ve never been sexually harassed while traveling.  Not so for life in the good ‘ole U S of A.

Above all, whenever you are out and about – at home or abroad – be aware of your surroundings and trust your instincts.  If something feels wrong, it probably is.

Beware of  bears