Category: Advice (you probably should not follow)

Flu advice circa 2018

I had a little bird

Its name was Enza.

I opened the window,

And in-flu-enza.

Children’s nursery rhyme, circa 1918

There is nothing I like more than when history, science, medicine, and travel interact, although in this case, it’s not me doing the traveling, it’s the flu virus. Although I mostly write about travel, occasionally about history, less occasionally about other things, my day job [so to speak] is being a registered nurse.

It’s 2018 and even if you aren’t a medical science/history junkie like myself, you’ve probably still  have heard of the Influenza Pandemic of 1918.  It’s the illness that killed more people than WWI and the Plague [the Black Death Plague of the middle ages] combined, and while the exact strain of the 1918 flu was never isolated, we do know it contained at least one strain of H3N2.  And that my friends is what is circulating now. And why the 2017-18 flu vaccine is so ineffective. [But still, 10-25% effective is better than 0% effective].

Ok people, real advice from a real RN: The flu is real this year, Read carefully and stay at home if you feeling sick and if at all possible! So sorry for those of you who have had it or are currently experiencing its wrath. Hope this is helpful for those of you who have so far avoided it, are caring for family members, or have contact with people on a regular basis–so pretty much everyone.

THE LOWDOWN ON THE FLU:

  1. You CAN get the flu even if you received the flu vaccine. This is true every year,but especially this year, since this year’s vaccine has a range 10%-25% effectiveness. [The H3N2 strain is particularly difficult to grow and add to a vaccine and that is the predominant strain of the circulating virus.]
  2.  If you find yourself victim of the flu, you have a virus. It lasts 7-14 days during which you are going to feel like you want to die; you may/will have fever, chills, severe headache, sore throat, chest congestion, nasal congestion, coughing, sneezing, sore throat, severe weakness/lethargy, nausea/vomiting, diarrhea and severe body/joint aches. Viruses DON’T get treated with antibiotics; it has to run its course.                                                    
  3. Go to your primary care doctor, urgent care, or telephone triage nurse FIRST, but know there is little they can do to help you. The only thing they can help you with is medication for severe coughing unresponsive to over the counter medications or severe diarrhea/vomiting. You do not need antibiotics unless you develop a secondary lung infection.
  4. DO. NOT. COME. TO. THE. ER… UNLESS you have shortness of breath, cannot keep down fluids for 24 hours, have persistent liquid stools accompanied by dizziness, have a sustained fast heart rate or low blood pressure.
  5. Tamiflu is an antiviral drug that is found to be mostly ineffective, and comes with significant side effects and price tag.  It’s also only effective if taken within the first 48 hours of contracting the virus.  Most people don’t know they have the flu until after this window has closed.
  6. DO take Tylenol AND Advil/Motrin/Aleve [pick one; don’t take all] at MAX doses [unless contraindicated by other health issues or allergies] to alleviate fever, headache and body aches.
  7. DO take over-the-counter flu remedies. DO be careful taking combinations of different medications to avoid overdosing and over treating [example; some flu medicines already have Tylenol (Acetaminophen) in them; read the bottle].
  8. Use home remedies such as “hot toddies” [whiskey/lemon/honey, if appropriate, and obvs… FOR ADULTS ONLY], hot showers, vapor rubs, vapor humidifiers, essential oils, onions around your neck, potatoes under the bed, ect.
  9. Drink fluids! All kinds of fluids. At every waking moment. DO NOT underestimate the  power of fluids. Hot liquids and soups may be helpful. Try to maintain nutritious intake. Milk products may thicken mucus and worsen coughs. If your urine is yellow or darker, you are not drinking enough.
  10. Coughing… this is IMPORTANT: If it’s productive [stuff coming up], DO NOT suppress it with meds. If it’s non-productive [dry and annoying], DO suppress it. Make sure you’re properly hydrated, especially with a productive cough. Proper hydration thins out secretions and makes them easier to cough up and out. Elevate your head when you sleep to decrease coughing/secretions.
  11. PLAN AHEAD.   Stock up on medications, juices, drinks, soups, popsicles, and broth so you’ll be ready. This time of year it is not unusual to find store shelves empty. You will not feel like going shopping when you are sick… which brings me to my next point.
  12. DO NOT GO OUT IN PUBLIC FOR ANY REASON!  Someone with a compromised immune system, an elderly person, an infant, or someone in poor health can easily die from the flu. You don’t want to be the one who exposed them. For the love of all things holy, DO NOT send a child with a fever to school during flu season. DO NOT go to work with a fever.  Or church. Or anywhere else where you think it might be OK.  Fever means you are in the contagious period where you can spread the virus to others.
  13. PLEASE. PLEASE. PLEASE. WASH YOUR HANDS WITH SOAP AND WATER!! OFTEN.

Professional disclaimer:

[Take meds responsibly. My advice is my opinion from personal and professional experience. I am not liable for any actions taken or not taken based on these recommendations.]

Take Photos of What You Love

From time to time I get reflective and think about what real motivates me to get out of my [oh so comfortable] bed, and while I’ve pursued many hobbies over my life, the one consistent one has been photography. I got my first camera in first grade, and have been happily snapping since.

My ‘day’ job doesn’t allow for much creativity, my written notes aren’t meant to be creative. In fact brevity and details are praised much more than creativity and embellishments.  This blog [and its predecessors] was started as nothing more than a creative outlet.  I like being a writer and photographer; I also like saving lives. My ‘day’ job requires me to talk to people all day long, and for a natural introvert, that’s hard. Writing and photography are more solitary pursuits and combined with hiking, these are the passions that have stuck with me throughout my life.

I love storytelling, and I love being creative. I thrive on taking risks, stepping into the unknown and exploring new places, and if I end up inspiring others to do the same, well that’s just the icing on the cake. I would never call myself an ‘artist’, but in some way I think all photographers are artists to some degree.  I may not be able to draw a straight line with a ruler, but perhaps I can see things in a different way, and that may inspire someone in some way.

I do almost no post-processing.  I used to use Flickr a bit, but they had some issues last year, and I do love the new flickr. However, I have nearly 4000 photos on the site so I still visit it from time to time. I’ve never used Lightroom or Photoshop but I’d like to learn . This is what I’ve learned in 30+ years of snapping photos

  1. Animals are where it’s at

I don’t like taking pictures of people.  Maybe it’s because I live alone.  My entire family could fit inside a thimble.  I don’t want to take photos of strangers, and I don’t want to be one of those self-obsessed selfie taking insta-grammers either.  So yeah–people aren’t my favorite subject.  But animals. How many  people say that they do not like animals?  Almost no one. And those people who say they don’t like animals, well I probably wouldn’t like them either.

Glance at almost any travelers’ bucket list and you’ll see animals predominantly featured. Maybe not explicitly, but ask anyone who has listed African Safari on the list what part of the African Safari they’d  like to see, and most will respond ‘Lions’ or ‘Elephants’.  My point being, the animals are the draw.  Same with visiting the Arctic.  The main draws for the frozen tundra are northern/southern lights and polar bears, grizzlies bears, penguins and puffins. I mean even I’d brave the cold for a chance to see that.

I think seeing wild animals is a great appeal to travel. And for me it certainly makes a good story. How can you begin to compare seeing a lion sleeping in a zoo with tracking a pride of wild lions on safari in Africa? Or seeing lemurs on fake tree branches versus seeing them in the wild of Madagascar.  And most of the time, animals carry on about their business paying you no attention so you can shoot to your heart’s content.  And after about 100 shots, you may just get ‘the one.’

2. Have the right equipment

Despite what people say, there is no “right” camera. The best camera is the one you have with you. Growing up, I would have sold my soul for a Nikon D90,  but I never got one.  Instead, I once I had enough money, I went to the local pawn shop and bought two Pentax camera  bodies and 3 lenses. I learned a lot using those cameras, and some of that knowledge sticks with me today. I’ll shoot with whatever is in front of me. I used to be staunchly anti- camera phones, but have been in situations where that was  the only camera I had available.  I’ve used all sorts of different cameras and lenses over the years when shooting wildlife and I have only one piece of advice – get a good zoom.

 

Using a telephoto lens, I’m talking more than 100mm or its equivalent, is something I feel strongly about; I’ve seen too much bad behavior concerning wildlife and personal space. For example, National  Parks have signs all over the place telling you what distance to keep between you and animals, but do people listen? Nope. They do not.  And then they wonder why the bear takes a swipe at them.

I currently use an Olympus Mirrorless 4/3 camera set-up, and one of my favorite lenses for animals in the 150-300mm.  I can safely keep my distance, yet get up close and personal.

3.  The right time, right place, and lost of patience is key.  On that note,  be proactive and eager.

You can’t force wildlife photography – that means being in the right place at the right time. Whether you  plan your trip around a specific event or make sure your schedule is  flexible enough to accommodate spending extra time here ort her, it’s up to you. Also make sure you’re prepared with all the equipment you might need including enough memory cards and batteries. You can never have too many batteries.

Giant pandas at Edinburgh Zoo

Always take more photos than you mean too. Always. When you are out in the elements looking at the tiny screen on the back of your camera, it is really hard to tell what’s in focus, what isn’t, and if you have it composed how you want to, and if it’s properly exposed if you are in a harsh environment or if the animals are on the move.

Even when I want to stop, I fire off a few more clicks of my camera. Sometimes I even go back another day if possible. Everything is changing, and wildlife photography is so unpredictable so it’s important to keep trying because even when you think you nailed the shot, you might not have or there’s an even better shot just around the corner.

If you are really passionate about wildlife, then it’s easy.

4. Practice and focus

If I know that I am going to be snapping animal photos, I like to use my portrait lens. It’s a Olympus 25mm [50mm DSLR equivalent] and I wish it was the first lens I ever used. It’s perfect to learn on. Because you can drop the aperture down to 1.4 (which is really big) and you can get the most beautiful portraits with stunning depth of field. This means that the face is really sharp and focused and the background is blurry.

In fact, if you are shooting at f/1.4 it’s so sharp that you have to focus on the eyes because the nose will blur a bit and vice versa. Learning to shoot focusing on the eyes is hard, especially with animals and takes practice – the details are always in the eyes. In fact, shooting wildlife in general takes practice because you have no control over their behavior and you have to be fast and prepared for anything.

So if you have any pets, practice taking their photos. I’ve spent hours practicing with my new lens on my  cat. Anad not just my cat either. I take pictures of friends’ cats and neighbor’s cats too.  I want to get as much practice as possible photographing animals that aren’t familiar with me so that when I encounter animals in their natural environment. For me, the hardest thing is getting the focus right so I practice as much as possible whenever I can.

To me, wildlife photography is essentially the same as portrait photography, except animals don’t listen  and might eat you given half the chance. Kind of like photographing children, I guess.

5. R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Wild animals are in fact wild animals.  They deserve our respect and when we are in their territories, we should play by their rules.  We live in a world where people are obsessed with the perfect selfie or snapping the most amazing photo ever–consequences be damned. But if an animal bites you or scratches you, then you are at fault and  have no one else to blame when you end up in the hospital for months receiving IV antibiotics. Be patient, give them space, and let the animals come to you.  Unless it’s a bear. Or a lion.

 

6. Keep learning, be open

Just when I think I’ve mastered the art of taking photos, someone shows me something I never seen or even thought about before. So much of what I have learned has come from talking to other photographers, asking questions, trial and error, and watching video tutorials online. Even now I still download courses and am always Googling photography tips trying to get better.

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.

Straddling both worlds

Part I [The Travel Life]

When I was little, my fiercest desire was to be a National Geographic Photographer.  [Or a veterinarian] I was the elementary school kid reading National Geographic and being mesmerized by the stories and photographs on those pages.  I stalked my cat–hardly taking National Geographic-worthy images, but getting some really good shots of her.  I took my little camera everywhere and there were tons of pictures to prove it.

Fast forward 20 or so years… I still take a camera with me everywhere.  I still stalk my cat.  [not the same cat, obvs] I know that I will probably never be published in National Geographic, but that doesn’t stop me from traveling.  And taking pictures. And making up stories to go with the pictures.  The only [well, not the ONLYdifference between me and those National Geographic photographers–I don’t get paid to do what I love… not one little cent.  In fact, every trip I take, costs money… $100 for a weekend trip away to $1000 or more for a month away.  I could play golf or tennis or going out, but I choose traveling as my hobby of choice.  I absolutely loved my time in South America.  I would do it again in a heart beat.

Part II… [The ‘normal’ life]

I have a job that I love.  It is not travel related at all.  It is not location independent.  I rarely have weekends off.  I have to be where I have a license to practice [currently SC and NC].  I have to be where there are sick children.  I am in  graduate school to hopefully get to what is my dream job… As it is, the program will take me about 4 years or so to finish.  I have an address.  I have a car and a cat. And I like that.

Part III… [Straddling the line]

How do I make it work?  I work in a field where 3 days a week is considered full-time.  I choose to work on an as needed basis [I am almost always needed somewhere so there no fear there]  so that I can make my own schedule.  Do I get paid time off?  Nope.  Insurance paid partly by the company?  Nope.  Participation in the company’s retirement plan? Nope, again.  Do I get ‘guaranteed’ hours each week?  Nope, but neither do the full-timers [I may be the first to go, but not usually the only one].

So how do I make it work?

First, I buy insurance as if I were self-employed.  I have a catastrophic health plan with a Health Savings Account attached to it [Tax benefits#1].  I am generally a healthy person and don’t take any medications on a regular basis.  Second, I opened up an IRA on my own.  Non-profits generally don’t have the best plans anyway, and I don’t have to wait until I am vested should I want to leave. [Tax benefit #2].  Third, I work in different facilities.  This way, if one place slows down, I can usually pick up more time at the other place.  It’s a win-win situation. Fourth, I have a $100 a week deposited into a separate account.  This is my discretionary income.  I could use it to go shopping or out to eat or whatever; I choose to use it to travel.  $5200/year can go a long way. Fifth, I let my boss[es] know that traveling is a priority for me.  When I am home, I am available to work 95% of the time.  When I go away, I am not.  It’s that simple.

Thinking about what to do

Since starting this way of life in 2007, I have managed to take 16 months off to travel in South America, one month off to travel in New England and Quebec, Canada, another month to enjoy Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite National Park, San Francisco, Seattle, and Mt. Rainier National Park, and another month to travel in Central/ Eastern Europe.

People constantly tell me how jealous they are of all my travels. They tell me how “lucky” I am. They say they wish they could travel like I do.

But you know what?

They absolutely can do it. They just choose not to.  For whatever reason. [Usually it’s a job, relationship, home, money, or some combination of these four things that holds people back]

A lot of travel blogs are written by professional nomads who are actively traveling. Or people who have been professional nomads at one point.  Many of them lack a home address, and can fit most of their worldly possessions into a [somewhat large] backpack. [I have one of those too] They flit from here to there to back again, and we ordinary people think –“wow, I wish I could do that”, or “this is so awesome that I will never be able to do that”, or “I  would do that if I didn’t have significant other/mortgage/car payments/ kids or whatever.”

We psyche ourselves out and buy into a lot of misconceptions about living a life full of travel. We begin to believe things like:

  • You must be rich to travel.
  • You must be single to travel.
  • You must be brave and outgoing to travel.
  • You must be free from responsibility to travel.
  • We convince ourselves that we can never be one of “those people” because we have a job and debt and a family and pets.

These misconceptions are just that — misconceptions. You can travel without being rich and single. [Although I am currently single, I am certainly not rich.  I traveled for nine months with a boyfriend at home] You can travel without being particularly adventurous [ I am not the most outgoing soul.  There are things that I will never do voluntarily such as jumping out of a plane or off a bridge with a rubber band on my ankles] And, most of all, you can travel without completely setting aside responsibility.  [Find a good pet sitter/house sitter.  Find a job that allows a modicum of flexibility.  Work two part-time jobs if necessary.]

There are ways to have a normal life and a traveler’s life…you just have to be more creative to make that happen than you do in either one.

I’m not going to lie and say it’s easy, though. Because it’s not. If you have a strict work schedule or a young family or a lot of debt to pay off, it may be challenging to live your “ordinary” life and still manage to fit in travel.

But just because something is challenging doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

Here are some tips for how to fit travel into your ordinary life:

  • Start saving now. It’s never too early to start saving for a trip. Even just setting aside $25 per week can go a long way quickly [$1300/year and you will probably never miss it]
  • Plan your dream vacation. Even if you won’t be able to take it right away, planning a vacation can keep you upbeat about traveling and give you something to look forward to. I really, really, really want to go to Spain, but I want to have the time to do it right.  The right time for Spain is not now, but it will happen… someday.
  • Make the most of vacation time and holidays. Americans get a raw deal in my opinion when it comes to vacation time. 2 weeks is a joke, and if it’s like most places I know, you can’t even do the two weeks consecutively. If your employer isn’t cool about letting you work overtime or giving you unpaid days off, you’ll have to get creative in order to make the most of the vacation time you have. You can stretch your 2 weeks much further if you plan travel around paid holidays, or if you can elect to work your holidays and save them up for later.
  • Don’t wait for someone to travel with. I would love to have a travel partner, but no one I know wants to travel the way I do.  They all have full-time jobs and/or small kids. Sometimes it’s hard enough just to be able to coordinate dinner with friends. But that doesn’t mean you should forego travel. It just means you may need to consider adding “solo travel” to your vocabulary.
  • Pick up new hobbies. I am a shutterbug.  Part of my reason for traveling is wanting to capture a fresh perspective on life.  And see some amazing scenery along the way. I have taught photography in Peru, public health in Brazil, and English in Mexico.  I have helped with sea turtle conservation in South Carolina and Uruguay and animal conservation in Ecuador and the  Galapagos Islands.  I have volunteered with big cats in Bolivia.  My goal is to volunteer my way around the world.
  • Take advantage of all opportunities. Right along with picking up new hobbies, be sure to take advantage of any travel opportunities that those hobbies might afford you. For example, I traveled a lot during college because I was on our the fencing team.  We weren’t great and didn’t get to compete internationally [like Notre Dame’s football game in Ireland this year–so jealous], but we did get to go to a lot of places in the USA that I would have never thought of visiting before… and it was [mostly] paid for by the school.

Most of all [and this one is important]

  • Don’t make excuses. Any excuse you can make about why you can’t/don’t travel can be overcome.  I’ve seen parents eschew traditional schools in favor of the education traveling gives.  I’ve seen professionals take jobs in other countries.  I’ve seen couples travel in a RV [or motorcycle] from Alaska to Argentina.  I’ve seen people start location independent businesses so they can be anywhere.  In the famous words of Nike–JUST DO IT.

I’m not scared, and you shouldn’t be either

Danger...danger

The other day I was in Target getting a few things for my upcoming trips.  One of these things just happened to be a portable luggage scale. And that set off the questions by the friendly, but misinformed cashier.  I should point out that the cashier was a woman, most likely in her 50’s. The conversation then went something like this.

Cashier:  I wish I could travel.

Me:  You can.  Anybody can really.

Cashier:  I have a job      

Me:  So do I

Cashier:  Well, I don’t have anybody to go with me.

Me:  Neither do I most of the time

Cashier:  You go BY YOURSELF!  Aren’t you scared?

Me:  [Commence Eye Rolling]

And that is how nearly every interaction goes with someone who I don’t know well or not at all whenever they find out I do this thing called TRAVEL BY MYSELF. In the past couple of weeks, I’ve received a handful of emails and comments from seemingly well-meaning people [mostly women and mostly older than me] asking me all kinds of questions about traveling solo. I don’t necessarily want to be pigeon-holed as a SOLO FEMALE TRAVELER [or solo female traveler blogger for that matter] because what happens when I have a travel partner, or a sex change?  Does that mean my experience is no longer valid or relevant?  I’d like to think not, but the fact remains, that as of today, I am decidedly female, and I do travel alone about 95% of the time.  So I guess that sort of makes me an ambassador for girls traveling alone.

kitty hiding We all can’t hide under a blanket forever


Anyway… I’ve been traveling alone for a few years now — not because I inherently dislike people, but usually because I don’t want to wait around for someone to travel with me and because I kind of LIKE to be on my own and have the freedom to do what I want when I want.  And yes, since I am being honest , I WAS scared the first time I traveled by myself, and I was probably scared the second and third times as well.  And planning trips with others in mind is a huge task… especially when said others don’t have a fucking clue about what they want to do in said place.

The media–whether you are right leaning or left leaning or somewhere out in left field– is our common enemy when it comes to traveling alone. It’s a common misconception that it’s inherently dangerous to travel solo if you are a woman. I’ll admit–traveling solo as a woman IS a different experience than traveling solo as a man. As a woman, you DO have to be more careful and more vigilant in some cases. You have to be more aware of how you’re dressed, who you decide to trust, and how decisions you make could affect your safety. However, this doesn’t just apply to traveling. In a world where violence against women is a growing problem [even here in USA and especially in SC which ranks #1 for violence against women], being careful and vigilant is something women just DO. EVERY. SINGLE. FUCKING. DAY. It’s certainly not confined to traveling. Which brings me to my point [and I do have one, in case you were wondering]:

Traveling solo as a woman is not automatically dangerous.

It’s no more or less dangerous than doing things alone as a woman in your home country or town. People ask me [quite frequently these days] if I’m ever afraid to travel solo. And my answer is always no.  And these are the reasons why:

I Trust Myself

This hasn’t always been true.  There have been times in my past where I didn’t always trust my instincts or did things that dulled those instincts.  Common travel wisdom is don’t do anything abroad that you wouldn’t do at home. I take that a step further.  Some of the things I would do at home, I would never do abroad.  So I evaluate the situation and assess the risk.  Things that I would do at home like wander around, accept rides from strangers [yes, I’ve done it], go off without telling somewhere where I am, get blitzed on a night out are things that I’d never consider doing abroad. I also get a map and study it on day 1 so that I can be aware of my location.  I have learned to be aware of my surroundings and to trust my gut. Should I find myself in a situation where I feel uncomfortable, I do what I can to remove myself from it. When you travel solo, you are your own best, and sometimes only, defense. st wenceles square

I Trust strangers

People you meet on your travels ARE, for the most part, going to be helpful rather than threatening. As a solo female traveler, I’ve had countless experiences where I’ve actually had complete strangers looking out for me on subways [giving me directions when I got on a wrong train],  making sure I got off at the right stop on trains or buses, or given me rides when it was needed. My travel experiences have be greatly enhanced by trusting my instincts when trusting strangers. Just as the world isn’t an inherently dangerous place, people are not inherently evil. I don’t always make conversation with strangers and occasionally I am suspicious about anyone who tries strike up a conversation with me, but most of the time people are just trying to be friendly. Which brings me back to point 1:  Yes, it’s important to be careful and to trust your gut. But every unknown face as a threat. Your travels will be enriched when you open yourself up to new conversations and meeting new people.  And you’ll learn that people are more similar than different.

kissing the blarney stoneI had to trust that this guy wouldn’t drop me as I leaned over the cliff, upside down.

I Trust the Herd

If I ever DO find myself in a destination where I don’t feel completely comfortable on my own, I know that there are always ways to ensure that I’m NOT alone. A lot of times, I may book myself on a day trip to a place I’m unfamiliar with or want to visit, but don’t feel confident visiting it solo. It’s rare that you’ll find my in a hotel. I opt to stay in hostels or guest houses where it’s easy to meet other travelers and join in on group activities.  Usually people don’t mind if you tag alone. I’ve learned that traveling solo doesn’t necessarily have to mean being alone all the time.  

I Trust my research

I am not a planner, but I do like doing research on new destination.  I will always have a couple of things in mind that I’d like to see or do for any new destination.  If it is a truly foreign destination, I’ll brush up on a bit of the language, read up on things like cultural norms, common scams, and how I should dress as a tourist. If I am traveling to some of the more conservative countries, I make sure to pack more modest clothing. Not only does this make me feel more comfortable, but it also tends to cut down on unwanted attention. Doing my homework helps me fit in to new cultures better, and also makes it easier to be vigilant without being scared or paranoid. firing demo
It’s, OK…I knew ahead of time there would be a musket firing demonstration

I trust humanity

Every country has statistics of which they are not proud, but that doesn’t mean every person who lives in that country has contributed to those statistics. The US has some of the highest violence rates in the world, and yet I wouldn’t consider it a dangerous place in which to be a tourist… although once again, there are some places that I am scared to travel by myself in the USA.

We see so many movies and read so many sensationalized headlines that we’ve become conditioned to assume that the world “out there” is a scary, dangerous place. But guess what? It’s not, and if you were that scared and that worried about safety, you’d never venture outside your front door.

black sheep 1
You can’t be scared of a  little black sheep

and if you can’t trust people, trust animals… animals will never lead you astray, but sometimes, I get scared of animals… especially bears.

Photo tips 2

Often I wonder if I travel to take pictures or do I take pictures as an excuse to travel.  For me the two are intimately interconnected and I almost always have a camera on me no matter where I am.  I freely admit that I prefer taking landscape and scenic photos to photos of people, but it is the photos of people that make for a more telling story.  So when I travel, I really try to do both.  Below are my non-technical tips for taking great photos.

    • Don’t ask people to pose. Captured shots look so much better.  Yes, sometimes people will get angry if you take their photo without asking, but take that risk.  The results are worth it.

Would this photo have worked if the little girl looked up and smiled?  Maybe, maybe not?  But this way definitely works.

 

    • Go where the people are. [ok, this one is obvious]
    • Stop. Observe. Take a step back. Wait.

Had I just been taking photos of the parade I would have missed this decorated [and almost] naked lady dancing her way down the street.

  • Never go with the first shot.
  • Try a different angles–get on the ground, climb a few [hundred] stairs, get in the middle of the road or river.  Use glass or water as a mirror and have the image reflected.  Get close.  Or step back. A change in perspective can sometimes make all the difference.  You’ll never know until you try out different ways of photographing the same thing.

  • Show off the results.  Especially with kids–>Kids love to see photos of themselves.  Even if you delete them all showing off the results can result in a little good will that may lead to a spectacular photo
  • Edit with vengeance.  Nobody really wants to see 500 of your travel photos.  Not even your mom or best friend.  Even you will start to go cross-eyed after looking at them.  Edit to about 25-50 and not only will people think you are an awesome photographer, but they will be easier to show, too.

Paddle harder

Love many, trust few, and paddle your own canoe.

“You have to sign this release and watch the safety video, and then will be on our way, and make sure you check the box that says ‘no guide’.”  I looked at my friend Greg, and said ‘No guide?’ and he said ‘Yep, no guide.’  I wasn’t so sure.  I probably needed a guide, and extra time with that safety video, if I’m being honest.

nantahala-river-4

I always feel apprehension and anxiety before any new adventure because let’s be honest, I’m not the most graceful person in the world.  There’s always the chance that the boat I’m in will capsize, the equipment I’m using will malfunction, or I’ll trip, fall, and break something.  Usually once I get started, I’m fine, but those moments before, I’m a giant scared-y cat.

nantahala-river-2
Although floating down the river is nothing to be afraid of.

I took some solace in the fact that the Nantahala is one of the easier whitewater rivers  to raft in the eastern US.  It’s great for beginners [like me!].   The run is 8 miles of Class II rapids with one tiny little bit of Class III rapids right at the end.nantahala-river-3

The water was fast and mostly flat. I am not a good front boat paddler. I’d probably be a worse rear paddler. I got yelled at several times… “paddle harder, paddle harder”. I paddled harder; I paddled my little heart out. I don’t think anything I did mattered. We made it 8 miles down the river without anyone falling out.

I suck at paddling a raft. I’m decent in a kayak, but rafting, I completely suck. But every adventure isn’t always about experiencing the biggest adrenaline rush or taking it to the edge. I don’t have to be the best at everything or have the greatest story to tell. Sometimes doing something I’ve never done before allows me to challenge myself. It allows me to let go a fear… Fear that plagues everyone at some point in life. Sometimes it allow me a chance to be humble and reconnect with my inner self.

Life isn’t always a contest.

nantahala-river-1

How to travel in any kind of weather

Keeping in contact with the weather Gods

Whenever I plan a trip especially a short one, I always check the weather forecast, and plan accordingly.  However, when traveling longer term and in varying climates what’s a girl to do.  Have a sense of humor of course; the weather gods most certainly do.

I’ve traveled in the rain, snow, heat, and cold, and it’s all been completely wonderful!  I’ve traveled in warm, sunny weather and it’s been awful.  So there’s that.

Varying weather makes the stories and memories from travel even more rich. Sure, unbelievably gorgeous skies are nice and make for fabulous photos [but it’s also hard to photograph sometimes… overcast skies are amazing], but how often do you find yourself recounting your stories tears of laughter a story from a picturesque day where nothing went wrong as opposed to that time you tried to wander a city in a torrential downpour when you’d completely lost your way? 

Despite the fantastic memories that can come from times like these, it’s still better to be a bit more prepared than not, so here’s what you can do to be ready without feeling like you’re hauling your parka, umbrella, bug repellant, and sunscreen with you at all times: 

    • Read up on what the usual weather patterns are for where you’re going. London’s reputation is pretty much a city beneath a giant water spout? Maybe it’s a good idea to pack some waterproof shoes even if meteorologists are predicting a sunny day.

      Look at those blue skies near the tower of London on a beautiful October day.
    • Beautiful snowy days in the French Alps…
    • Keep an eye out for stores carrying what you may need. You don’t have to buy everything at home and carry it with you.  Nearly every location in the world has exactly what you will need. Don’t be a paranoid lunatic glancing with crazed eyes from one shop to the next jotting down addresses for where umbrellas are being sold, but be aware. Make a tiny mental note if you see a place selling basic knit gloves, or ponchos, or sunscreen. That way, if a rumble of thunder shakes the area, you already know of a few places that might have what you need.

      Target and Primark are my favorite stores for travel goods.
    • Layers are your friend. If the place you’re traveling to has varying weather, and really, even if it doesn’t, try planning to layer. It’s easy to shed a button-up or add a light sweater if needed. It’s so much better to roll up a layer and stick it in a bag than to be hot wearing that now-too-warm shirt you’d picked in the cold morning once the afternoon heat has arrived.
    • Embrace rain or snow. It’s a beautiful thing and can add a whole new dimension to the way you see a place  [Paris’ lights reflecting on wet cobblestones, anyone?  Snow covered tombstones?]. Rather than putting the camera dejectedly away, why not embrace the wet and love it too? And what about snow falling softly in a town in the evening? Ahhh, cozy bliss.

      camellia in winter
    • Always have a bag for camera or other sensitive items that is water proof. You just never know and for these kinds of things it’s just not worth the risk.
    • Most importantly: keep an open attitude. You never know what weather your will get on a trip, but don’t ever let something like a gray sky ruin your experience. Roll with it, and try to make it a part of everything by exploring cozy cafes… or searching for shady woods to escape the heat rather than laying on the beach burning all day… or build snowmen when life gives you a blizzard.

The romance and wonder of travel comes from embracing whatever comes your way. Quirks and kinks are how you know your on adventure! Don’t shy away from having an epic story to tell when you get home.

5 steps to survive taking an electric shower

2018 Michelle checking in here:  The electric shower is a scary occurrence in several areas of central/south America.  One one hand, I’m grateful for hot, flowing water; on the other hand, I was seriously scared for my life. BUT figuring out how to work this calamity was one of my greater travel achievements.  I don’t think there will be electric showers in Rwanda, but if there are, it’s OK. I’ve figured that out once before.

It's a toss-up: You may get clean; you may die
The shower in my hostel in Bogotá. It’s a toss-up: You may get clean; you may die

Either this was such a traumatic experience for me before that I’ve put it out of my memory or this is some Colombian designed torture device; this is what greeted me the morning after my arrival to Bogotá.

It’s a large electrical time bomb hanging above my head; luckily all the ends of the electrical wires were covered in electrical tape. I have since found out that this is not always true nor is this device confined to Colombia.

5 steps to surviving an electric shower

  1. Is it high enough so that you will not hit your head?  I’ve had problems with showers before that were mounted for people no taller than 5 feet tall. Luckily, all the electrical showers I’ve encountered are way up there out of the way of an errant splash.
  2. Are there any bare wires that could come in contact with water?  Did you bring electrical tape?  If not, a  wash cloth and the sink might be the best option.
  3. Get naked. Do your thing, and get out.  If you have rubber soled sandals, wear them.  This is not the time to reminisce about the day.  Chances are the water won’t be at optimum temperature anyway.  The only way I’ve found to control the temperature of the water is to control the flow of the water.  There’s a science-y explanation for this but essentially the water needs time to roll through the metal plumbing to heat it up before it before comes out.  So you can have warm water flowing like maple syrup in winter or cold water flowing like a fire hydrant.  But not both. Your choice.
  4. If the pop off valve does indeed pop off– DO. NOT. SCREAM. Like I did the first time this happened to me. Uninvited visitors will show up and cause some slight embarrassment.  It is supposed to keep water from spraying up into the wires which could save your life,. However, I have found that they just pop off whenever they feel like it.
  5.  Yay! You are clean, but also soaking wet.  How to turn off the faucet?  You will only reach for the metal knobs once before muscle memory kicks in and you will remember why you never want to do in again. Nobody in these parts have ever heard of grounding wires.  My suggestion is to have a small towel–hand towel sized–that you use for turning off the knobs.

No need to fear the electrical, non-grounded shower.  I, like several before me have survived; you can survive it too.