Nepal: My Journey to Everest

EBC Trek

I’ll never forget the first time I saw Mount Everest. It was on day three of my trek to Everest Base Camp, on a ridge high above the Sherpa village of Namche Bazaar. We had arrived in Namche the day before, socked in by a thick cloud cover. Nearly all trekkers making their way to Everest stay at least two nights here to rest and acclimatize. To better adjust to the altitude, people make the most of their free day by making a popular day hike to Khumjung, a smaller village above Namche. We set out for the day after breakfast and started the steep uphill climb from right outside our guesthouse.

The day was an absolute stunner. Being December, the air was cold and crisp, but the skies were unbelievably clear and so deeply blue. I recall being able to make out every ridge and crevice on the snowy mountains in the distance as we made our ascent. Weather-wise, it couldn’t have been any better. Together with two fellow solo travelers I had met on the first day of the trek, we marched our way up the steepest section. Eventually the slope transitioned into a more gentle climb through yak pastures and the odd little stone house. After about an hour, we made our way over the last small knoll–and there it was. From this viewpoint, you have a remarkable sweeping panoramic view of the Khumbu Valley, home to some of the highest mountains in the world. Peaking out behind Lhotse, another Himalayan giant and the fourth highest point on Earth, the summit of Everest rose high into the dark blue sky. It didn’t tower over the other nearby peaks like I thought it would, but one could still easily point it out. On this day, the winds were calm and gentle from where we were standing. But at 8,848 meters (29,029 feet), the jet stream was slamming into the mountain’s distinct black pyramid-shaped summit, leaving a long wispy trail of snow and ice being blasted off by hundred mile an hour winds. It was hard to believe I was actually standing in the shadow of the highest point on Earth–the roof of the world. I’ll never forget that moment.


Kathmandu (elev. 4953 ft/1400 m)
Kathmandu

My journey in Nepal began in the bustling capital city of Kathmandu. Having been just traveling through Southeast Asia for the past three months, the crazy driving, congested streets, and hazy air pollution that hung over the city was nothing new to me. What was new was the slight chill in the air. Being early December in the foothills of the Himalayas, I had left behind the the heat and humidity of the tropics. Instead the days were cool and dry–and I was freezing. By cool, I mean it was probably still 70 degrees (21 C) during the day, dipping down into the low 50s in the evenings. But after 2 years of chasing summers, this was the coldest I’d felt in a long time. Living the past year in Australia, my wardrobe mostly consisted of shorts, tank tops, and a pair of flip flops. It was time to trade it all in for some warmer clothes.

Luckily, Kathmandu is a backpacker’s dream when it comes to shopping for trekking gear and clothing. Particularly in the district known as Thamel, which is one of the main tourist areas in the city, where the narrow dusty streets are lined with shops selling backpacks, sleeping bags, trekking gear, wool hats, scarves, and knock-off North Face jackets. I spent a few days in the city getting adjusted and prepared, shopping around for some new warm clothes and getting some things I needed before starting my trek. Since I was going alone without the assistance of a trekking company, I had to organize my permits and flights on my own, which turned out to be easy enough.

In order to do any trek in Nepal, tourists must first obtain a tourist card (TIMS card) from a either a travel agency or from the Nepal Tourism Board in Kathmandu, which essentially is a record of your travel plans. In case of an emergency, the government can keep track of your whereabouts in the country. I went to the Nepal Tourism Board for this since I could also get my national park entry permit there. Between the two, the TIMS card was 2400 rupees (about $22) and the park permit came out to be 3000 rupees ($28). Not the cheapest, considering how cheap everything is in Nepal (which is pretty dirt cheap), but it’s necessary for anyone wishing to go trekking.

Thamel

Some other miscellaneous things I shopped around for to prepare for the trip included Diamox (altitude sickness pills), baby wipes (because there are no warm showers up in the mountains, and being gone for two weeks you gotta stay clean somehow!), heaps of Snickers bars (gotta load up on the sugars and protein when you’re burning all those calories), trekking poles (only $8 for a pair!), and best of all a nice big puffy down jacket I scored at a shop for only $50 (to this day it’s still the warmest jacket I own, and I still happily wear it on cold winter days). Also since there are no ATM machines on the trail nor any means to pay for anything by card, you have to take a ton of cash with you on the trek. I took out about 32000 rupees, or roughly $300. Enough for 2 weeks worth of food and accommodation (which gets expensive the higher and more isolated you get). For 14 days of trekking, I averaged out at about $18/day for everything, not including the cost of the flights. I also packed my handy water bottle, which has a strong filter straw to purify the tap water that I could at tea houses along the way. This not only saved money on buying plastic water bottles (again, things get expensive the higher up you go as it all has to be carried in on someone’s back) but also reduced the amount of litter I was bringing.

Having gathered all the essentials for the trip, packing and repacking to make sure I had everything prepared, I only felt somewhat ready. I had to wake up at 4:30 the following morning to catch my flight to Lukla, but I found difficulty sleeping that last night in Kathmandu. Deciding to go on this trek independently without a guide or tour group was a choice I knew was a bit unconventional, but I was counting on finding other solo travelers to join. Having only been 9 months since the devastating 2015 earthquake that rocked the country, tourism in Nepal had fallen drastically. My hotel was nearly empty. During my first few days in Kathmandu, I hadn’t really met any other backpackers, other than a nice Canadian I had dinner with on my last night. He had just finished his trek and insisted that there were lots of solo travelers taking on the EBC to meet. This was at least assuring to hear.

Day 1: The Crazy Flight to Lukla and the Walk to Phakding (elev. 8562 ft/2610 m)
Lukla Airport

Getting in a whopping 3 hours of sleep, I actually somehow felt quite energized when I woke up. With no one out on the streets at that hour, getting to the airport took no time at all. Before I knew it, I was boarding a tiny de Havilland Twin Otter aircraft, crammed in with about 15 other people. Soon enough we were climbing out of Kathmandu into the thin mountain air and set a heading for our destination about 30 minutes away: Lukla. Having read articles and seen Youtube videos about this flight titled “World’s Scariest Airport“, this was a major portion of the trip that I was both really excited and nervous about.

Lukla is a busy little village right at the start of the EBC trek and serves as the gateway to the Everest region. Walking there from the nearest road takes 5 days, so most people opt to fly in to the town’s tiny airport. The runway itself is only 1730 ft (527 m) long and is not flat at all–it’s literally perched on the side of a mountain on an 11.7% gradient. With a wall of rock sitting at the far end of the landing strip, planes can only fly in and out in one direction, using the forces of gravity from the slope to speed up for take off and slow down for landing. Due to several crashes in the past, flights only take place when the weather conditions are favorable and visibility is good. Rising out of the cloud of smog hanging over Kathmandu, the morning skies were crisp and clear. The view from my window of the sunrise over the Himalayas  was breathtaking. We passed over hilltops, deep ravines and valleys, roaring rivers, and in the distance massive snow covered peaks lined the horizon and seemed to go on forever. A wondrous sight that distracted me from the nerves I had earlier upon take off wondering if I’d ever get back on the ground again safely.

Cruising Over the Himalaya

Our 30 minutes in the air flew by quickly and before long we were on final approach to Lukla Airport. From my seat, I could see through the cockpit window–it literally looked like we were going to fly straight into the side of the mountain. Eventually what looked like the shortest runway in the world came into view. Touching down, the pilot immediately threw on the brakes and within 5 seconds we came to a near stop before the rock wall and rolled onto the tarmac. As we exited the aircraft, 2 other planes arrived behind us. Within 10 minutes, the planes were unloaded, reloaded with new passengers and cargo, and were rumbling down the runway back to Kathmandu. Incredible. The noise of the prop engines soon faded out and we were left to nothing but silent mountain air.

Somehow my backpack and that of a fellow American from Alaska were the only ones that ended up on the last plane in, so we had to hang around the airport until the next fleet of planes arrived and dropped them off. He was also traveling solo and we clicked pretty well, so from the start I had a hiking buddy and didn’t have to walk by myself! In fact on that first day we met a couple other people who were doing the trail independently, and throughout the duration of the trek I was never really alone. Since everyone is going in the same direction at the same pace, you see familiar faces day by day. After the first few days, our group had grown to include a Dutch guy, a woman from Jordan, an Australian couple, a Thai guy and his guide, among several others we saw frequently. It was quite the international crowd!

EBC Trek

Passing through the shops of Lukla (which was so touristy it even had it’s own unofficial Starbucks), the walk to Mount Everest began with a gentle downhill stroll. Even without a guide, following the trail was easy enough to navigate on our own. For the most part it was pretty straightforward, but at forks and other spots where you needed them, there were signs pointing out the right direction. After three hours of following the milky blue waters of a mountain river, we arrived in the village of Phakding and found a guesthouse to stay the night in for only 300 rupees (less than $3).  That first night was the best night of sleep I had on the trip. From that point on the higher we went,  between the thinning of the air and freezing temperatures at night, it became much more difficult to get rest.

Day 2: Namche Bazaar (elev. 11,286 ft/3440 m)
High Bridge

The following morning after a breakfast of tea and Sherpa bread, we carried on with our first hill day. During the night clouds had rolled in so the warm sunny valley we had walked through the day prior was now cool and misty. We continued following the river upstream, occasionally crisscrossing our way to the other side via long metal rope bridges. After a couple hours, we arrived at the park border and checked in with the officer. While he was processing my information, I noticed on the wall in the back of the office a chart that listed visitor numbers month by month, year by year. The number of people visiting the park had been steadily increasing throughout the years, but this year, following the massive earthquake that had taken place that April, the numbers had tanked to nearly half. It was pretty staggering to see how much the earthquake had influenced tourism in the country, even in areas like the Khumbu Valley where the effects weren’t as severe.

EBC Trek

After passing through the park gate, we walked onward toward the base of Namche Hill. All along the way since we had left Lukla the day before, we had been passing numerous Sherpa people carrying heavy loads up and down the trail. Since there are no roads here, everything has to be carried in by yak or on the backs of human beings. Some of these porters were carrying ridiculous loads–bundles of 2x4s, metal doors, and even once we saw a guy carrying a porcelain toilet. On average, porters carry up to 80 pounds strapped to their heads and backs delivering supplies and materials to villages and communities all throughout the region. This made my 14 pound backpack look like a little handbag.

Namche Stupa

After about two hours of steep climbing through the forested mountainside, we finally stumbled into a very foggy Namche Bazaar. This is the largest settlement in the Khumbu region and Sherpa capital. The narrow stone streets are all lined with hotels and guesthouses, shops selling more trekking gear, bars, restaurants and coffee shops. During the busy peak season the town can accommodate several thousand people, but in cold December post-quake, the town was quite. We booked ourselves a couple of nights into a big three story guesthouse that was pretty much empty for about $2 a night.

Day 3: “Rest” Day – First View of Everest (12,401 ft/3780 m)
Tenzing Sherpa Memorial

As previously stated, nearly everyone on the EBC who makes it to Namche Bazaar and wishes to go higher stays an extra day to acclimatise. If you go up too quickly, you risk getting altitude sickness which is no fun (I had it once before while in the Andes in Ecuador and it’s no fun. Imagine having the worst hangover for three days). It’s best to acclimatize by going up high during the day and then sleeping at a lower altitude at night, so we decided to climb further up the hill behind town to visit the nearby village of Khumjung.

Namche From Above

The cool, misty clouds from the day before had lifted so when we woke up we were greeted with an amazingly clear blue sky and visibility was absolutely perfect. It took a little while getting up the hill–not because we were too tired, but because we were constantly distracted by the view the whole way up. Eventually we arrived at the top of the plateau where we were greeted with our first view of Everest as well as other notable Himalayan giants, including the very prominent and beautiful Ama Dablam. Nearby was the Everest View Hotel, which at 12,400 feet claims to be the highest in the world. We stopped here to have a quick lunch and warm up a bit while enjoying the views on the back patio.

Afterwards we carried on doing a loop through the nearby Khumjung village. I had heard rumors that there was a monastery somewhere around the village that housed a supposed yeti scalp, but we never found it. We had spent most of the day out hiking around so we were pretty beat by the time we wandered back into Namche. So much for a rest day. We walked into a bar that was showing reruns of Everest documentaries and movies. It was also the only place I found on the trail that had free WiFi so I sent off a few last messages to friends and loved ones back home.

Day 4: Tengboche (12,700 ft/3870 m)
Ama Dablam

After a “restful” two nights in Namche, we carried on to the next village–Tengboche. This was meant to be a long day, with 6.4 miles (10.4 km) of walking up and down mountains. The distance wasn’t too bad, the annoying thing was that to get to Tengboche we had to hike back downhill to the river and then climb all the way back up to the top of the ridge where the village sits. It was a long day that took about 6-7 hours.

Shortly after leaving Namche, we soon came upon a stupa (a dome-shaped structure serving as a Bhuddist shrine) memorializing Tensing Norgay, a Nepalese citizen from the Khumbu region who, along with New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary, led the first successful ascent of Mount Everest in May 1953. The memorial was adorned in lines of colorful prayer flags, slowly flapping in the gentle breeze, in plain view of Everest’s summit. It was a peaceful place for a break.

Tensing Norgay Memorial

The first portion of the day was actually really nice. The descent back to the river was mostly gentle–more of a traverse across the ridge. Being above the tree line, we had stunning views of the Khumbu Valley for a good portion of the walk. Eventually we got to a fork in the road and we steeply descended downhill  toward the river. Along the way, we encountered several groups of trekkers returning from Everest. Their faces showed signs of utter fatigue and weariness–a foretelling reminder of what was to come and that about a week later we’d be making the same grueling uphill climb back.

EBC Trail

After what seemed like an eternity, we finally arrived at the river and took a long break eating lunch at a little cafe in the village. Crossing the river was yet another classic Nepali-style swing bridge (we had crossed several the first few days). We bathed in the sun, we watched a yak train, a common sight along the trail, make its way over the bridge. I thought all the swinging rope bridges looked sketchy, but it was assuring to know that if the bridge could hold up all those yaks it could certainly hold 150 pound me.

After lunch and lazing about in the sun a lot longer than we probably should have, we crossed the river and started the slow uphill climb for the next hour and a half. Despite being December, when the sun was out it actually got quite warm, especially going up hill. We peeled off our layers and slowly made the dusty, sweaty climb up the hill stopping occasionally to snack on Snickers. By the time we made it to the top, the clouds had started to move in again and what was a mostly warm sunny, blue sky day quickly turned into a cold mist. We each booked a room in one of the big guesthouses where everyone else was staying at. My room was north facing and absolutely freezing, so I piled on all the layers I could find in my pack.

Tengboche Monastery

The hill-top village is well-known to be the home of the largest Bhuddist monastery in the Khumbu region, Tengboche Monastery. Joining the rest of the group outside, we all walked over to the large monastery to watch the monks do a meditation ceremony. We all sat down along the wall of a large room, the air heavy with the scent of incense. In the middle of the room were dozens of monks sitting in rows slightly hunched over while they chanted and played their instruments. The vibe and atmosphere was somewhat haunting, but in a good way. It was an intriguing spectacle to watch. The room didn’t have any heating however, and it was absolutely freezing. Since we had to take our boots off and leave them outside, my feet felt like bricks. It also appeared that a few of the monks were sick. One had a horrible cough. It made me feel a little sorry for them that they were exposed to the damp and cold all the time.

Day 5: Dingboche (14,469 ft/4410 m)
Ama Dablam

Day 5. Woke up from the coldest night yet (and it only got colder from there). There’s no heating in the rooms in any of the guesthouses along the way. It was hard getting out of my sleeping bag as my room felt absolutely frigid when I got up. My water bottle actually had little bits of ice floating around in it. The only place to warm up was around the stove in the dining area downstairs, which we all would huddle around and socialize while waiting for breakfast. Once breakfast was done, we headed out for another long day of walking. The morning fog broke just in time as we were leaving, the sky opening to another crystal clear blue day. On this day, we’d wander up further into the valley, right in the shadow of Ama Dablam. Everest may be the highest in the world, but Ama Dablam is seriously one of the most majestic mountains in the Himalayas.

Crossing the 4000 meter mark, I could definitely notice a difference in my breathing and overall energy levels. I’m naturally a fairly fast walker and at sea level I can walk for hours and hours without getting tired. Up here, my pace was much slower and I needed to take a break every mile or so. But given the remarkable views everywhere, a break was really necessary to take it all in properly! Aside from being wide-eyed and in awe of the scenery and making a new “friend” with a stray dog that had followed us all the way from Tengboche, the rest of the day was pretty mundane. Nearly 7 miles (11 kms) later, we rolled into Dingboche later in the afternoon than we usually did. Luckily Dingboche is wide out in the open on the valley floor, so with the sun still up we had some time to warm up a bit and relax before sunset.

Day 6: “Rest” Day 
Himalayan Companion

Now having ascended 3500 feet (1000 m) over the past two days, it was time for another rest day to acclimatize. We still spent a portion of the day going out and hiking up to the top of one of the nearby hills, but it was not nearly has strenuous as we did on our rest day in Namche. When I arrived at the top of the hill, I found the little black dog that had followed us from Tengboche the day before. That little guy was everywhere! I was finished with my morning hike before noon and spent the rest of the day actually getting some well needed rest, hanging out in the common room and catching up on some reading (I had bought a copy of Into Thin Air while in Namche, a fitting book to read while hiking to Everest).

Sunset in Dingboche

I forget what the name of the guesthouse we stayed in was called, but it by far had the warmest stove of anywhere on the trek, which we all happily huddled around. There really wasn’t much to do in the in the evening except talking and playing card games (I became really good after spending endless hours playing card games like President in the evenings in Nepalese guesthouses). With no Internet, it was actually quite liberating being disconnected and off the grid for a few weeks. Everyone was actually interacting with another rather than sitting off in a corner somewhere glued to the screens of their phones. The camaraderie between my fellow trekkers and Sherpas is something I really miss about Nepal.

Day 7: Lobuche (16,210 ft/4940 m)
On the way to Dingboche

Trying to catch up on as much sleep as possible, I had a late start on this day and ended up walking alone for half the day. The first portion of the trek was pretty easy, crossing a big plateau through grassy fields where yaks roamed and grazed. Eventually I caught up with my friend from Alaska that I had met at the airport and we trudged onward to our lunch spot at a guesthouse settled right at the base of a big steep hill that we’d have to climb. I was already feeling a headache coming on that that day from the altitude so I had started taking Diamox pills to ward it off. We took an extra long lunch break, drinking mint tea and eating garlic soup (which apparently also helps with the altitude).

The rest of the day was exhausting. Now at over 15,000 feet (4600 meters), my 14 pound backpack seemed to weigh like a ton. My steps became slower and breathing heavier. We slowly trudged up the hill. Not wanting to overdo ourselves with the altitude, we took a short break every few minutes. After about an hour we finally reached the crest of the hill and took a break. Nearby I noticed several stones decorated with prayer flags, painted and engraved with names of those who had lost their lives on Everest. Among the names were some I had recognized from the book I was currently reading, including Seattle climber Scott Fischer who was one of 12 people who died in a single night during a blizzard in May 1996.

Everest Memorial

Beyond the Everest Memorial, we reached the toe of the Khumbu Glacier, which flows down the valley from somewhere around the 25,000 foot level on Everest, making it the highest glacier in the world. The last 45 minutes or so of the day was spent following the glacier to the pit stop of the day, Lobuche. The clouds had moved in again around this time and aside from the sound of our breathing and footsteps, everything was eerily silent.  Occasionally you could hear the thunderous rumble and groans of ice breaking and shifting, which echoed through the valley. By the time we reached Lobuche, I was dead tired. I tried to refuel on Snickers bars and momos (Nepalese dumplings) while rehydrating on tea, but was starting to lose my appetite (especially when you’ve been eating the same meals for a whole week). I didn’t stick around for long in the evening playing cards with everyone else. Instead I went to bed pretty early, bundled up in all the clothes I had to keep warm.

Day 8: The High Point – Kala Patthar (18,514 ft/5643 m)
View from Kala Patthar

Today was the day when we would reach the highest point and spend the night in the small village of Gorak Shep. After another cold, unrestful night’s sleep the night before, I had another late start getting out the door. Despite being on Diamox, I still had a headache and I tried to stay rehydrated on several cups of tea. Everyone else had left by the time I finally started walking.

I made the effort not to overdo myself on the last day of gaining altitude. My Alaskan friend was feeling pretty ill so he went back down that day. The pace was pretty slow going. For the past several days helicopters had been flying overhead occasionally. None of us were really sure if they were just transporting supplies or evacuating injured trekkers, but according to one of the Sherpas we met along the way, the latter wasn’t all that uncommon. Altitude sickness (acute mountain sickness) is commonly experienced by visitors who aren’t accustomed to the lack of oxygen at altitude. In rarer cases, high-altitude pulmonary edema (fluid accumulation in the lungs) also poses a risk to even the healthiest of climbers. Deaths on the EBC itself are uncommon, but not unheard of. This is why rest days and acclimitization is so important.

I arrived in Gorak Shep around 2:00 pm and dropped my bag off at one of the guesthouses and rested for about an hour after lunch. Gorak Shep, one of the highest settlements in the world, was more like a few buildings scattered across a big dusty field. On the opopsite side of the field is the base of Kala Patthar, a large hill that is usually the highest point that trekkers go on the EBC trek. When I felt rested and energized again, I set off across the field and began the final ascent.

Kala Patthar

In contrast to the surrounding giants Kala Patthar looks fairly small, but from Gorak Shep it’s another 500 meter (1,600 foot) push. At sea level, another 500 meters would have been a piece of cake. But when you’re enduring the effects of altitude, it was a struggle. My pace was very slow–I’d take a few steps up and then pause for a second to catch up on breathing. It’s a weird sensation, experiencing the thinness of air. Not that I was gasping for it, but it just never felt like my lungs ever got full no matter how much I breathed in. The other thing about this particular hill were the false summits. Right when you thought you were nearing the top, you’d come over the ridge and find the true summit was still high above. It was disheartening as it seemed so far away. The silver lining to my slow progress however was by the time I actually had made it to the top, it was right around sunset and it was a perfect clear day. I climbed up onto to the summit block decorated in colorful prayer flags–at 18,514 ft (5643 m) it was the highest I’ve ever been. Even at this height, I was still a solid 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) below the top of Everest. From here you get a 360 degree panoramic view of the valley. Far down below, somewhere on the Khumbu Glacier, was the site of Everest Base Camp. And far up above, so close yet so seemingly far away, the summit of Everest basking in the orangish-pink alpenglow. Being lost in the moment, I barely noticed the heavy fatigue or biting cold of the strong winds whipping across in my face. A few of the others I had been walking with the past few days were also at the top and we shared the moment together.

Everest

After about 20 minutes of summit time, we headed back down. Going down was much quicker than going up, but at this point I had a throbbing headache and my legs were killing me. Stumbling back into the guesthouse, I went and threw on some more layers of clothes to keep warm and ordered some dinner in the dining area. From that point, things started going downhill from there. Aside from the headache and loss of appetite, my stomach also felt a bit off. I tried to force myself to eat and drink up some tea but it was no use. I felt terrible. I got really nauseous at one point and went outside and got sick. When I came back in, the guesthouse owner came over to check in on me and said he was a little worried about my condition. He suggested that if I didn’t get any better by the next morning, he’d offer to call in a helicopter. Although I had travel insurance, a $10,000 helicopter evacuation wasn’t something I was really keen on dealing with. I drank a couple cups of tea and headed off to bed for a much needed rest.

Day 9-13: Back to Civilization 
Trekker

Luckily, aside from another night of not getting a whole lot of sleep, I didn’t get sick again and managed to eat a small breakfast the next morning. The original plan was to wake up early and do the final stretch of the walk to the actual site of Everest Base Camp, but I opted to start heading back instead, satisfied that I had at least made it to the top of Kala Patthar (which is much higher than EBC and actually has a view of the summit). Initially the walk was a bit rough considering the condition I was in, stumbling over stones through the boulder field just outside Gorak Shep. I spent the whole day walking back from Gorak Shep to Dingboche, happy to return to that warm guesthouse and thaw out by the stove. I got a restful night sleep there and continued on the next day, all the way to Namche Bazaar. By now I was feeling much better. The oxygen-rich air of the lower valleys was so rejuvenating–I felt stronger with each step I took. It was amazing how much my overall mood and state of health had changed in just a day. After one last night in Namche, I walked the remainder of the way back to Lukla. What took 9 days to walk up only took 3 days to walk down, a total of 89 miles (124 km) to Everest and back.

My flight back to Kathmandu the following day got cancelled due to heavy fog that never lifted until the next day. I didn’t mind since I could at least relax and socialize with some of the other people I had been walking with the past two weeks. Luckily we were only “stranded” in Lukla for the one extra day. The day after that the weather was clear enough to fly and we were back in Kathmandu in no time at all.


One week after finding myself face-to-face with the highest mountain in the world, I found myself a world away in Paris. It was a weird sensation to be back in a western society after three and a half months of Asia. The last few weeks of clear, clean air and the silence of nature was replaced with crowded streets and hazy skies. I was very thankful however to be able to take a proper shower again and have a nice warm bed to sleep in. Ever since Nepal, I’ve never taken having a soft, warm bed to sleep in every night for granted again.

Doing the trek to Everest was something I had dreamed about doing for years and I was very happy to finally tick it off the bucket list. What a challenge. It was by definitely one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, both physically and mentally, but it was all worth it.

Everest

Culturally and aesthetically, Nepal is one of the most beautiful and amazing countries I’ve ever been to. As a lover of hiking and the mountain, it’s no surprise that it’s on my top 10 favorite places I’ve been to so far. Even today from time to time, I still daydream about those deep blue clear skies, the giant craggy snow-capped peaks, and the warm hospitality of the Sherpa people.

Vietnam

Hoi An

Now that I’m more settled back to life in the United States, I’m finally getting around to posting more about my travels from the past year. There’s so much to catch up on! It’s hard to believe that it’s been a year already since I left Australia and began my journey through Asia and Europe. This post is written to reflect on my time in Vietnam.


From what I had heard from friends and fellow travelers, Vietnam was always one of those places that you either loved or hated. While the general consensus was mostly positive, regarding Vietnam as a place not to be missed, there were the few I came into contact with who would say otherwise. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it was one of the countries I was most looking forward to visiting during my time in Asia.

Luckily, it lived up to the reputation that lots of people had talked about. In fact, it’s one of my favorite countries that I’ve been to thus far! Finding the allure in Vietnam I think takes a certain type of traveler and personality to appreciate. Compared to other SE Asian countries, it doesn’t really have the best beaches. The cities are crowded, polluted, and chaotic. Petty theft and scams are common. Street vendors and touts are constantly buzzing around trying to sell you something. The people have a reputation of being unfriendly to tourists. The heat and humidity is drains you. Despite all these groans that many travelers have when they visit Vietnam, some of these negatives where actually positives for me. I loved the crowded, chaotic streets buzzing with endless motorbike traffic and honking horns. I’d never seen such chaos and activity like that before. It was absolutely crazy and there was always something interesting going on around the next corner. And ever since Vietnam, I’ve never worried too much about crossing the street in traffic anywhere else in the world!

Hanoi LocalsAs an American in Vietnam, I wasn’t sure what the reception would be to locals I’d meet considering my country’s bloody history and involvement there in the past. While I didn’t find people there as friendly as those in nearby countries (mostly people from older generations), I generally got that the resentment was because I was a tourist not just because I was American. However, there were several times where I had positive interactions with people who seemed genuinely curious in where I was from and what I was doing in Vietnam. Oftentimes, especially while hanging out in city parks, university students would come up and politely ask if I could talk with them to help practice their English. I remember one particular group of college students who went out of their way to buy me ice cream (for those who know me, nothing makes my day more than free ice cream)! There will always be bad apples anywhere you go, but I like to think that there are more than enough good ones around to make up for it.

Vietnamese CuisineThe thing I loved most about Vietnam by far was the food. With over 500 traditional dishes varying region by region across the country, there was such a multitude of flavors and culinary wonders to try everywhere you go. With the mix of the French, Vietnamese, and Chinese influences, Vietnam is a melting pot of different cooking styles. Being in tropical Asia, there are also plenty of strange and exotic fruits to try. Best of all, eating is extremely cheap and there’s always something yummy cooking somewhere.

There is also a lot of natural beauty packed into this country, with lush jungles and rain forest, wondrous caves, steep misty mountains, stunning karst landscapes, and vibrant green rice paddies that cover entire hillsides. Although the scars of war and modern-day industrialization have altered the environment in negative ways, Vietnam is still a stunning place visually.

Trying to pack in as much as I could, I spent nearly a month traveling through this marvelous country. Here were some of my favorite places:

Ho Chi Minh City Ho Chi Minh

My favorite of the two major cities in the country, Ho Chi Minh (called Saigon by the locals) is bustling, crowded, and the streets are chaotic, amok with endless motorbike traffic (fun fact, Vietnam has more motorbike drivers per capita than any other place on Earth). Even crossing the street here is an adventure—the traffic rarely ever stops so you just have to bravely and confidently just keep walking as everyone drives around you like the parting of the Red Sea. We stayed at an amazing hostel in a high-rise building for just $6 a night, which had a pretty cool rooftop bar with fab views of the city.

Ho Chi Minh at Night

One thing I noticed about Ho Chi Minh, as well as several other Vietnamese cities, were that they were very green despite being so polluted. Hoi Chi Minh especially was full of parks and green spaces where people could go out and enjoy the nature. It was often a place where people gathered in the morning for group exercise and in the evening to socialize.

You can also learn quite a bit about the history of the Vietnam War here. The War Remnants Museum gives an interesting perspective on the war, and the nearby Cu Chi Tunnels allows you to see and experience how the Viet Cong carried out their military campaigns using their extensive underground network of tunnels.

Mui Ne
White Dunes at Mui Ne

Mui Ne was originally a sleepy fishing village, but now most tourists come here to windsurf and check out the nearby sand dunes. The hostel I stayed at, was one of the nicest I had been to in Asia, was right on the beach for only $6 a night! The whole town is very spread out, all along the coast with accommodations and restaurants catering to tourists. We took a tour in an old US Army jeep for the day that made several stops around the area, including the village where we could see how the fishermen make their catch with nets and a little round boat that resembles a soup bowl. That part of beach was really polluted however, with trash strewn everywhere and the air was thick with the smell of dead fish. Not super interesting really. We also stopped by this really unique place called Fairy Creek, a little stream flowing through reddish/orange rock and sand formations. But the big attraction here are the sand dunes. Far out of town are mountains of sand that resemble more of a Saharan landscape than one in Southeast Asia. Not as impressive as the ones in New Zealand, but still very cool to see and worth the visit! Also Mui Ne was where we had the best bahn mi in all of Vietnam, right from this little old lady’s street cart.

Da Lat
Cayoning at Da Lat

Farther inland and high up in the cool, misty mountains, is the city of Da Lat. Also known as the “Paris of Vietnam”, Da Lat is not your average Vietnamese city, full of French-style bakeries, well manicured parks, and Parisian-esque architecture (the town even has it’s own version the Eiffel Tower). Situated in the Vietnamese highlands, the climate here is much cooler than what you would normally expect in Vietnam. The city is popular among Vietnmese tourists and newlyweds as a honeymoon destination. We came here for a few days to get a relief from the heat and humidity that Vietnam is so well known for, and to  check out the several waterfalls that are located around the region. The waterfalls and surrounding mountainous terrain make the area ideal for adventure sports, including canyoning, which involves the exploring a canyon by a range of different activities such as rappelling and cliff jumping. I had never done it before so I decided to give it a go and had a blast scaling waterfalls, floating down the river, and jumping off a 40 foot cliff with a diverse group of fellow travelers.

Hoi An
Evening In Hoi An

Oh Hoi An. Easily one of my favorite places that I went to in Southeast Asia. This ancient town by the river is incredibly atmospheric and fantasy-like, almost something like you might see in a Miyazaki film. The Old Town is so well preserved, with colorful old weathered buildings evoking French, Japanese, and Chinese influences during its heyday as a major port city and cultural melting pot. Unlike other cities in Vietnam, the pace of life in Hoi An is taken back a notch. As a UNESECO world heritage site, some of the streets are pedestrian only, and what a difference a place makes without the constant buzz of motorbikes.The atmosphere is calm and peaceful. At night the whole city lights up with beautifully decorated lanterns lining the streets and floating serenely down the river. It vaguely reminded me of a scene from a Miyazaki film. Aside from lanterns and old buildings, the town is also known for its tailor shops where can get a custom made suit or dress made for you for a really good deal. Being situated near the coast, the beach is an easy bike ride away as well, making it a relaxing place to hang out at for the afternoon. I ended up staying here for five days with a group of friends and would still go back if I ever find myself in Vietnam again.

Hue Hue

I was only in Hue for less than a day, but I thought what I saw there was really impressive. The city was the seat of the Nguyen Dynasty emperors and is home to a massive complex known as the Imperial City. Located in central Vietnam near where the north and south halves of the country meet, it was also the spot where one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the war took place. I spent a good portion of the day wandering around the city, a lot of which was damaged during the war but now restored.

Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay

A UNESCO Heritage Site, everyone who comes to Vietnam inevitably ends up here at some point of their trip. It’s well known for it’s emerald green waters and the thousands of stunning limestone rock formations and islands that rise straight out of the sea. Given the sheer size of the bay and the fact that’s only accessible by boat, the best way to see it is to do an overnight cruise, which we did. Our itinerary included a visit to the cathedral-like Thien Cung Cave, kayaking in the bay at sunset, an on-board Vietnamese cooking class, and hiking on the famous Cat Ba Island. It was super touristy, but given it’s status as one of the great natural wonders of the world it was so worth going to!

Tam Coc & Trang An
Tam Coc

Just outside of the industrial and not-so-attractive city of Ninh Binh lies one of Vietnam’s lesser known gems. From here rice farmers make their living working the fields and paddies in the shadow of a dramatic karst mountain range, resembling somewhat of a terrestrial version of Ha Long Bay. Here slow moving rivers lazily meander their way through the steep mountain valleys and cave systems, which also harbor old sacred temples and pagodas. Low-lying wooden boats gently glide down the river, typically rowed by local women. While the stunning scenery rivals Vietnam’s other natural wonder, Ha Long Bay, the atmosphere here is much more relaxed and you gain a sense of what rural Vietnamese life is like. Aside from taking a cruise down the river, I fondly remember renting a bicycle and riding deep into the countryside, past villages, waving kids, farm animals, stray dogs, and vibrant rice terraces. It was here that I felt like I had somewhat left the main tourist trail and was seeing the real Veitnam. I’d take Tam Coc & Trang An (the two rivers that flow through this region) over the hyper-touristy Ha Long Bay any day.

Sa Pa
Sa Pa

Sa Pa was a highlight of my trip to SE Asia. The town itself is just a pretty little mountain station, perched high on a hilltop in Vietnam’s northern highlands near the Chinese border. The town faces across the valley towards Fansipan, the nation’s highest peak at over 3100 meters (10,312 feet). The valley below is beautifully sculpted by rice terraces that seem to go on forever, built and taken care of the the various hill tribe communities that make their home here. The region is known as a prime spot for trekking, which becomes apparent as you walk down the streets with shops full of North Face backpacks, trekking poles, jackets, and other mountain gear. You can have a trek arranged through your hotel or travel agency, but we decided to just go along with these two little Hmong ladies who convinced us to go on a walk with them to their village (one of which was 8 months pregnant–such troopers!). They guided us through the rice terraces, showed us which plants they use to make dye for their clothing, how to extract and process it using their traditional methods, as well as making the material for their clothing from hemp, which grows naturally on the mountainsides. I even did a home stay in one of their homes and got to see how they live on a daily basis. It was an eye-opening experience and incredible seeing this lifestyle still existing in the 21st century. Something I will never forget!

Although I spent nearly a month here, I still feel like I only scratched the tip of the iceberg so to speak in Vietnam. There’s so much packed into this country, I don’t think it’s possible to see it all for what it is in just a single trip, or even multiple ones for that matter. I’ve heard so many stories and experiences from friends and fellow travelers of incredible places they went to that I never had the time to see. I don’t know if I’ll ever make it back to Vietnam again any time soon (so many other places in the world left to see) but if I do, it’s assuring to know that I can come back here again with so much more to discover.

Heliotrope Ridge

A Day In The MountainsIt’s been a long time since I’ve posted one of these trip reports! Now that I’ve moved back to Washington, it’s likely I’ll be posting more on adventures in the mountains throughout the summer as the hiking season gets going. I also still plan to write more travel posts from time to time as well.

I was up in Bellingham dog sitting for some friends last weekend, debating whether or not it would be a good day to go out into the mountains weather-wise. It was meant to rain, and while it was sunny where I was, I could see an overcast sky hanging over the North Cascades. I’d been itching to do something around Mount Baker as it’s one of my favorite spots in the state. Someone had recently told me about Heliotrope Ridge, so after a quick search I saw the trail head was only a 70 minute drive away so I decided to go for it.

After making a quick stop at the ranger station in Glacier to pick up a $5 day pass and navigating 8 miles up the narrow and curvy mountain roads, I arrived to a full parking lot at the trail head. Obviously I wasn’t the only one who thought of spending their Saturday afternoon in the mountains. I ended up parking along the road behind a line of cars and started my way up the trail. Luckily, despite the overcast skies driving up the highway, there was a convenient hole of blue sky right over Mount Baker–it was a good choice to go up there after all!

Baker Meadows

The trail itself, at 2.5 miles one-way, isn’t really all that long. It’s not all that steep either as it gently switchbacks through a quite forest of towering Douglas Fir trees. Aside from dodging the occasional mud puddle and crossing a few stony rivers, this was a pretty easy hike I’d say for the big reward you get at the end.

The DivideTowards the end of the trail I came to a fork in the road, one heading toward the proper end of the Heliotrope Ridge trail and the other labeled “climbers trail” that leads up a popular climbing trail to the summit of Mount Baker. I decided to opt for this one first just to see how far up I could go without gear. The path here gets really steep and gains altitude quickly. Within minutes I was above the treeline and was offered stunning views of Mount Baker and the massive Coleman Glacier. I encountered a few climbing groups and skiers making their way either up or down the mountain. I can’t imagine hauling all that heavy ski gear such a distance! I said hello to a few of them and only got blank glances back, so they must have been pretty beat.

On The Way To Base Camp

After about 20 minutes of climbing I eventually got to the point where the dry ground and snow meet and decided to call it quits there. This was the high point for the day at around 5,400 feet. I hung around a while taking pictures and chatting with a couple who also was curious how far they could go up the climbing route. I decided to go back down and check out the last remaining portion of the Heliotrope Ridge trail as it took you as close to the glacier as you could get. Another 20 minutes and a sketchy river crossing later I was nearly rubbing noses with a huge cascading river of ice. At this point the clouds around the mountain had completely given way and you could see the mountain in its entirety. Every now and then I could even hear the deep rumblings of ice moving somewhere within the mass. Amazing.

Coleman Glacier

The way back down went by rather quickly and I made it home around dinner time. Overall a good day and another testament that hiking in the North Cascades is never a let down!

 

The Hardest Part Of Traveling: Coming Home Again

Mount Erie Summit

Before beginning my travels, I thought the hardest part would be leaving. I’d be leaving behind the only home I’d ever known–friends and family, trading a life of familiarity for uncertainty. In those early days I had so many worrisome thoughts running through my mind. What if I don’t like living abroad? What if I can’t find a way to sustain myself? What if I get sick? What if I get robbed? What if I don’t make any friends? Everyone said the hardest part about a journey is getting out the door. Once you do that, everything just falls into place.

And it did.

I discovered I loved living abroad. I found jobs and found ways that would allow me to travel longer. I did get sick a few times and I got over it. Luckily I never got robbed. I met incredible people, saw amazing places, fell in and out of love, and made friends with people who became more like family to me.

Leaving home was difficult, but they were right: once you get out the door, it gets easier from there. What they don’t say is that the hard part is actually just the opposite: coming home again.

I’ve been back in Washington for about two weeks now and it’s been an interesting transition. After being away for over two and a half years, I thought I’d be ready to come home. Traveling does wear you down after a while and I needed a break. I wanted to see my family again. I wanted to rekindle old friendships. I missed my dog. I felt ready to get back into a routine that didn’t involve packing and unpacking a backpack nearly every day. To get back to work again and live a more settled life for a while.

But since I got off that last plane ride and began the process of readjusting to my old world of familiarity, the shock of being home again has hit me. In a way, the place I grew up in seems more unfamiliar to me than being in a foreign country. It’s not necessarily culture shock per se. Rather I’ve just become increasingly aware of how different everything seems, yet at the same time everything is still mostly the same. It’s both enlightening and underwhelming. It’s amazing how travel changes your perspective on so many different aspects of life. I notice things now that I might have overlooked before. I’m constantly amusing myself “discovering” new Americanisms that I wasn’t too aware of before I started traveling. My thoughts and opinions on certain issues have changed. Things I never used to think or care about have become more important to me, and things I used to fuss over no longer bother me.

There have been changes here and there of course–friends have gotten married, some even have kids now, others have gotten new jobs or promotions. There might have been some new developments in town, some new businesses have opened, others closed. But in general, everything still feels mostly the same. It’s almost as if time stopped back in 2013 when I left and is only now resuming again.

The other shock that has come with being home is the sudden change in pace of life. One day my life consists of constantly being on the go, being surrounded by people almost 24/7, exposing myself to new places, smells, sights, foods, and cultures on a daily basis. And with a single plane ride, it all came to an end just like that. This has been the hardest part of the transition for me so far. Sameness and familiarity has become dull and depressing. I’ve been feeling anxious and jittery. I’ve become restless (actually I think I’ve always been that way to be honest, but this has just made it worse!). Luckily I’ve managed to find ways to keep myself occupied by seeing friends, going on hikes, hunting for jobs, and going through my old stuff and purging things I realize I don’t need anymore.

Don’t get me wrong, home has been wonderful. I’m happy to be with friends and family again. But the truth is, I don’t think I’ll ever truly feel “at home” again. Physically I’m here, but my heart and mind ceaselessly wanders off, thinking about people and places afar. Back to New Zealand, back to Australia, back to Europe, among other places. Places I called home for a time. I can’t help but keep thinking of a quote I wrote down from somewhere a long time ago that describes exactly this feeling:

“You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart will always be elsewhere. That’s the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place.” – Miriam Adeny

It’s both a blessing and a curse. While I may not really feel like I have a solid place to call home, I still feel so lucky to know so many incredible people and have friends scattered across the world that I can always see again.

I know it’s only been a few weeks since I’ve returned and with time I’ll adjust back to a less nomadic lifestyle eventually. I actually am excited and looking forward to the new possibilities that come with being back in America again. But I’ll always be a traveler at heart and I know the road will continue to beckon me until I return again.

14 Lessons That Travel Has Taught Me

Going Somewhere

After two years and eight months of traveling, I’ll finally be returning home. In just a few hours, I’ll only be a plane ride away from finishing this wonderful, amazing, and crazy journey. It’s a bittersweet feeling. A part of me is actually looking forward to settling down, getting back into routines again, having a regular group of friends around, perhaps getting more serious about having a relationship with someone. Overall, having a place to call home–something I’ve really been craving for the last few months. At the same time it saddens me that a life I’ve grown so accustomed to–constantly being on the go, seeing new places, meeting people from all over the world–is coming to an end…for now.

Originally this trip began as a one year gig working and traveling around New Zealand. Way back then I would have never guessed that it would have evolved into this adventure of nearly three years that literally took me around the world and back, but I’m so glad it turned out the way it did. I would have never imagined going to the places I did, seeing and doing the things I did, meeting so many incredible people and making the friendships and relationships that I did. It makes me feel so incredibly lucky to have lived these past few years the way I have.I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Along the way I also did a lot of learning. About myself. About different cultures. About the way other people live. About the world and getting a better idea about how it works. Things I could have never learned in any classroom. Here are just a few of the lessons that travel has taught me.

Killarney National Park

1. Traveling solo is the best way to travel.
A lot of people thought I was crazy when I told them I was traveling the world on my own. Their biggest concern was how I was able to deal with loneliness. While it’s true that loneliness does come time and again while you’re traveling alone, I found myself more often than not surrounded by people and making new friends constantly. This was generally the case because there are actually a lot of other solo travelers looking for the same thing you are–companionship. When you travel solo, you’re more likely to reach out to other travelers to make friends to avoid being lonely than you would if you were traveling with friends. As much as I enjoy taking trips with friends, I actually prefer being on my own. The other benefit of traveling solo is the freedom that comes with it. You can do what you what when you want.

2. It broadened my perspectives.
Before I started traveling, my world view was basically limited to my experiences and knowledge of living in the US. But once I got out there and started meeting new people and experiencing new cultures and understanding the different ways people perceive the world, my own perceptions changed as well. Everyone has a story to tell and it’s amazing the things you can learn from them. Things I cared about before no longer mattered to me and things I didn’t care about before have become things I care about. I feel much more comfortable stepping out of my comfort zone to try something new. It also fueled my desire to continue growing and learning as much as I can.

Angkor Wat Monks

3. The world isn’t that scary of a place after all.
With all that we see and hear in the media these days, it’s no wonder why so many people find the world to be a scary, dangerous place and are sometimes prohibiting themselves from traveling abroad out of fear. It’s actually quite the opposite. In my experience I’ve felt just as safe being overseas as I would be at home–sometimes even safer! There is always the risk of getting robbed or getting sick wherever you are in the world, so it’s important to always play it smart, use your wits, and follow your instincts. Generally, you’re just as likely to have something bad happen to you abroad as you would be in the perceived safety of being at home.

4. Spontaneity is a good thing.
When I first started traveling, I had everything organized and had set up itineraries during my first few weeks. That soon quickly went out the window as I found it easier and more exciting to just go with the flow. If you have time and flexibility while traveling, take advantage of it. You might fall in love with a place and might want to stay longer than planned. Or you might hate it and will want to leave earlier than planned. Or you might even meet someone somewhere along the way that you want to travel with who’s worth changing plans for. You can’t do that if you stick with your plans all the time. Outside of traveling, I think spontaneity is a healthy thing even at home. While routines naturally develop when you have a job and are living the “normal life”, being spontaneous and stepping out of those routines every now and makes life more exciting. It helps you to live in the moment.

Hmong Family

5. You learn about different cultures.
Traveling exposes you to a vast variety of things–different ways of living, different thought processes, different sceneries, different beliefs, different cuisines, different languages. The more you travel, the more you begin to understand why people do what they do or think the way they think. It makes you appreciate the diversity and uniqueness of the people in our world.

6. It taught me patience and the importance of being flexible and adaptable.
Since I’ve started traveling I’ve learned the importance of being flexible and being more adaptable. Whether it’s having your flight cancelled, having to undergo a 15 hour bus journey, having your ride breaking down along the way, or being thrown into a new environment where you don’t know the local language or customs, you have to be patient and willing to adapt. With all the mishaps that inevitably happen at one point or another during a long trip, you just learn to accept change and go with the flow. In the end, you always manage and find your own way to make things work out.

Kala Patthar Summit

7. You discover how capable you actually are.
When you travel, oftentimes you’re pushed beyond the limit of your comfort zone. In a lot of ways, traveling challenges you mentally and socially. Being in a foreign country alone can be a daunting experience, and it’s never any easier when you don’t speak the local language. Sometimes you’re even pushed to your physical limits, like I was while trekking in Nepal to Mt. Everest. It’s not until you actually start facing these challenges that you can learn how capable you really are. Unless you want to be a lone wolf, you have to interact and introduce yourself to strangers and force yourself to become more social. Other times mishaps will occur (and trust me, they will happen) that you’ll have to deal with—canceled flights, missing the bus, crappy weather, sudden illness, losing your belongings, etc. It’s not until you actually experience these things that you’ll find it easier later on to embrace change and the unknown. You become less afraid of things you might have been afraid of before. You become more independent. You can discover skills and talents you didn’t know you had. Most of all, you become more confident with yourself and you’ll discover you’re made of.

8. Look up from your phone/computer and pay more attention to the things happening around you more often.
This is something I struggle with and really want to keep working on, but during my trip there were several times where I didn’t have reliable internet service and had to accept being unplugged for a short while. When I was in Nepal, for example, I went 2 weeks without WiFi. Since no one else on the trek had internet access either, we spent more time talking like normal human beings do and playing card games together in the evenings without feeling the urge to check our messages constantly. It feels liberating to be “off the grid” every now and then. There’s a lot that we potentially miss out on when our eyes are always glued to our phone screens.

Dunsborough Family

9. Family comes in all shapes and forms.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the family I was born into. We still agree and disagree on things like any other family, but regardless I still love them. But I also think family can be more than just the people you are related to by blood or marriage. For me, family can be anyone you can trust and rely on–people who accept you for who you are without judgement and will be around when you need them most. I was lucky enough to have a few “families” consisting of people from all over, especially during the times when I was taking a break from traveling and working; places where I was settled long enough to establish longer-term friendships. While I was generally very happy while traveling, life still has its usual ups and downs and I’m thankful I had people I could count on to get me through it all.

Bayon

10. How to love and be comfortable with being yourself.
Since I started traveling, I’ve grown to be more confident and comfortable with being myself. In the past there were a lot of things about myself that I was unhappy about and was quite self-conscious about what people thought of me. When you travel, you’re not hindered by some of the social barriers or expectations that you may believe people back home may have of you. Travelers in general also tend to be an open-minded bunch. I feel like most people I meet while traveling are less likely to judge. In this type of environment, I felt I could really be myself and express myself in ways I may have been uncomfortable with back home. Nowadays, I really just don’t care what people think about me as much. I’ve learned to be happy with being me.

11. Travel taught me to think on my feet more and be more creative.
Life on the road doesn’t always go as smoothly as we’d like it to. I’ve missed buses, had flights cancelled and missed connections, I’ve been stuck in the middle of nowhere as the sun was going down without a place to stay, I’ve fallen ill a few times, and have encountered countless other mishaps. When things don’t go as planned, you’re forced to use your wit and think on your feet more. Oftentimes it’s easy enough to fix, other times it requires more patience and a greater need for the acceptance of change. In the end it all comes down to quickly making up a new game plan and carrying on. Over time you just get used to it and you eventually stop sweating the small unfortunate things that happen in life sometimes.

Ring of Kerry

12. You learn to enjoy the simple things.
Living out of a backpack for the past two years, I’ve gained a better sense of what I actually need to live and what things I can do without. I’ve come to realize that you don’t really need a whole lot to live off of to be happy. Just ask anyone who has ever been to a third world country–the happiest and most generous people always seem to be those with very little. Investing more in life experiences have become more of a priority for me than focusing on material goods because they’re life-lasting.

13. You become fiercely independent.
To go off a bit more with the previous point I made above about growing in confidence, traveling solo also made me become more independent. When you’re on your own you have to find ways to take care of yourself and when there an issue along the way you have to rely on your instincts and solve problems by yourself. When I left home for New Zealand, I was going to a place where I had no friends or prior connections, no job lined up, no idea where I was going to live, or where I was going go. I started from ground zero. Having done that successfully gave me a deep feeling of self-fulfillment and confidence.

The Days

14. You also learn that you can rely on others.
At the same time, I’ve found it so essential to network and reach out and work with other people to survive as a solo traveler. You can’t do everything by yourself, something I personally find hard to admit sometimes since I tend to be the kind of stubborn person that doesn’t like to ask for help. Aside from avoiding loneliness, you can learn and benefit so much from people you meet on the road. As travelers, we’re always sharing information with each other regarding our experiences in places we’ve been–what to avoid, what to see, tips on how to save money, etc. Even though I was a solo traveler, I usually teamed up and traveled with others because, for one, it’s much more enriching to share an experience with someone else. Secondly, it also helped to keep costs down as we would share accommodation, share a taxi ride, or even buy groceries and make our own dinners together and split the price among everyone. Plus the friendships you make with people you travel develop strongly even after just a short time—bonded together by shared memories and experiences.

Traveling teaches you so many things. While the plan is to settle down somewhere for now, I will still always travel as much as I can. Maybe not for as long as I did on this big trip, but my goal is to go to at least one new country every year and to never stop learning from those experiences.

Backpacking In Portugal

Portas do Sol

Ever since my first trip to Europe in 2014, Portugal had been on my mind as a place I wanted to go and I made it a goal try and get there one day. While I never got around to getting there on my first trip, I finally fulfilled my wish this time around after looking for a place to escape from the grey northern European winter. I managed to find a cheap ticket from Paris to Porto and planned out a trip to travel north to south.

Although I had always heard Portugal was a nice place and friends I know who have been there before said they loved it, I never knew the reasons why. People told me, “you just need to go!” So with only that, I really didn’t have very many expectations before going. Little did I know, Portugal would become among my favorite travel destinations to date!

The moment I stepped off the plane in Porto and began wandering around the city, I found myself immediately at ease. It’s a strange feeling to have–I’ve only experienced in a handful of places across the world. The feeling you sometimes get arriving in a place that you’ve never been before, yet somehow you find familiarity as if you were coming back after being away for a long time. This is how I felt about Portugal. Right away, I knew we would get along just fine.

Tram 28 - Lisbon

I strongly believe that what makes a country an enjoyable place to visit is its people, and the Portuguese do not shy away from making you feel welcome. Many people I encountered spoke very decent English, some even with little to no accents. From my experience in neighboring Spain and even a bit further away in France, English isn’t so widely spoken so I didn’t imagine Portugal to be so English-friendly considering how isolated it is from the rest of Europe. It took me by surprise, but  it made things a lot easier to engage in conversation with the locals and learn more about the way they live and their culture. The slower and more relaxed pace of life and the fact that people take the time out of their day to enjoy a good meal was pretty appealing to me.

Secondly, Portugal is a very cheap place to travel in and is a great deal whether you’re traveling on a budget or not! Whether you’re the kind of traveler that likes to stay in a hotel or the kind that stays in hostels, you still won’t be spending anywhere as much as you would in other parts of Western Europe. Food is inexpensive and there are plenty of places to pick up very cheap and tasty snacks as you tour around for the day. At restaurants, you can get some good seafood and other amazing Portuguese dishes at an inexpensive restaurant with drink for less than 10 euro. A meal at a nicer restaurant for two people can cost 30 euro with wine if you shop around and find the good deals. I found Portuguese food to be really good, it was definitely worth paying that little extra to go out for a nicer meal!

The country is also quite beautiful. Despite its small size (roughly the same as the US state of Indiana), it’s blessed with a diverse landscape and a beautiful coastline with some of the most amazing beaches in Europe. It’s position in southwestern Europe bordering the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea gives it a unique climate where summers are hot with refreshing sea breezes and winters are wet and cool, but not freezing. It’s no wonder why many European come here for their holiday and vacation periods!

Lonely Beach | Lagos, Portugal

Portuguese towns and cities also took me by surprise. One of the few expectations I did have of Portugal was that it would be dirty and underdeveloped, but what I found were clean streets and an attractive mix of both old and modern designs in their buildings. Brightly colored buildings adorned with colorful ceramic tiles and mosaics sprawled about streets and sidewalks everywhere give Portuguese urban areas a unique and appealing look.

Overall, I spent 9 days traveling from north to south. Here’s a brief rundown on the places I went to:

Porto
The View From Taylor's

If you’ve read my previous post on Porto, you’ll know I absolutely fell in love with this city. The city is beautifully situated along the Duoro River, with its colorful old buildings hanging along the steep sides of the valley. The city center is quite small in comparison to Lisbon, but that doesn’t mean it has less to offer. Despite its old and somewhat grungy appearance, the crammed center is a maze of hilly cobblestone streets bursting with trendy shops, cafes, restaurants, and bars where you can spend hours exploring and getting lost.

The Most Beautiful Book Shop

One unique landmark in the city center is the famous Livraria Lello, possibly one of the most beautiful bookstores I’ve ever been to. Farther out from the city center, you can see the city’s more modern side at the Museum of Contemporary Art, where you can also walk through the museum’s beautiful gardens. Of course, no trip to Porto is complete without taking a trip over to Gaia to experience the taste of the city’s prized signature drink, Port wine! One of my favorite spots in the city was on the terrace at Taylor’s–a good place to relax in the sun and enjoy the views of the city over a glass.

Lisbon
Rossio Square

While Lisbon is a lot more crowded and touristy than Porto, I still found the country’s capital charming for a big city! A majority of the city rests on several hills, which means you’re going to find plenty of places for some amazing views. While I didn’t really take the time to explore any of the museums or castles, there are plenty of places to explore and learn about the history of the museum. I was happy enough getting lost wandering around and finding places on my own. In fact there are several great free walking tours that take place daily that give you a good orientation to the city and its history, as well as some offbeat facts you otherwise wouldn’t find in a guidebook (shout out to John Doe’s for their amazing walking tour!). There are several big beautiful plazas throughout the city–ideal places for people watching. Some of the plazas are also home to markets on the weekends where you can chill out with some good local food and drinks from various vendors. In the evenings, the neighborhood of Barrio Alto is among the better places to get a meal and have a night out.

Torre de BelemAnother remarkable part of town worth seeing is in Belém, about a 15 min tram ride west of the city center. Here you can indulge in a staple Portuguese pastry, pastel de nata, at Pasteis de Belém which is famous for their original recipe, before heading out to see the nearby Jeronimos Monastery and nearby monuments decorating the waterfront area.

Sintra
Castle of the Moors

Located about 45 minutes away to the west of Lisbon is a small village surrounded by several castles. This makes for a great day trip if you’re looking for a reason to get out of the city, especially on a nice day. It was one of my favorite places in Portugal! There are three main castles near the village: the Castle of Moors, Pena National Palace, and Quinta de la Regaleira. It’s possible to access all on foot, but there is also a bus that takes you to the two located high on the hills (about 5 euro round trip). We were feeling lazy that day and opted for the bus, which we were happy about since it would have been a long crazy walk up to the top of the mountain! While we didn’t do Pena, we did see Castle of the Moors (8 euro entry), which is a stone medieval-style castle built during the 8th and 9th centuries. We were lucky to have clear skies that day and had the most incredible 360 degree views of the area.

Initiation WellAfterwards we descended the mountain to Quinta de la Regaleira, an estate designed with Gothic, Egyptian, Moorish, and Renaissance elements to create a really unique looking castle. Aside from the  design of the building (which even has a “secret room” on the top floor!), the estate also is known for its gardens and grottoes which maze their way under the hillside. The entry fee here was the cheapest out of all the castles (6 euro entry), but it was easily my favorite as we spent well over an hour and a half here.

Lagos
Exploring the Algarve Coast

Lagos is a fun little seaside town along the country’s southern Algarve Coast. During the summer months it’s a wild party town, but during the other months of the year it has a much quieter and more chilled atmosphere. The big allure here are the beaches and the stunning rugged coastline. I was there in March, just before the busy season started to get going, and the beaches were free of crowds. The best way to see the coast is by taking a kayak tour, but if water isn’t your thing you can also do a nice walk by land that traverses across the tops of the sea cliffs. Unfortunately I only had a two short days here, but could have easily stayed a whole week. It’s much warmer down here than in other parts of Portugal–both in terms of the weather as well as the people. Everyone down here as the “no worries” carefree attitude and are very friendly and smiley. The hostel I stayed at, Olive Hostel, was one of my favorites as it felt more like a home than a hostel thanks to the very welcoming owners and comfy atmosphere. Stay there if you visit Lagos!

Now that I’ve been, I  an understand what the hype is all about. I normally don’t like returning to countries I’ve been before, but Portugal is one of those places I would make an exception for. I would love to come back again one day to explore more of the smaller towns and other regions that I missed, as well as revisiting Porto and Lagos again as they’re some of my favorite places in Europe.

How To Save On Accommodation While Traveling

When it comes to traveling, accommodation will generally be one of your biggest expenses, behind the cost of your flight and transportation. Especially in western countries, where a night in a basic hotel room can cost well over a hundred dollars in some places. Since I’m more keen on budget travel, I would rather use that money for other things. With so many alternatives out there, it’s easy to cut down on your accommodation costs. And sometimes spending less on accommodation doesn’t necessarily sacrifice comfort! In this day and age, you can still get the same comfort and privacy you would get in a hotel for less.

Hostels
elcafegroup
Hostels are the obvious pick for budget travelers as they can offer a cheap place to sleep. Privacy isn’t usually a priority for people who stay in hostels as they are more well known for dormitory-style sleeping environments. Typically you’ll share a room with 3-6 other people, but there are some pretty big hostels out there. I once stayed in a 40-bed dorm in Munich! On the other hand, plenty of hostels do offer private rooms for people who like their own space, and it’s usually a lot cheaper than a private hotel room!

Hostels tend to be thought of as dirty, your things can get stolen, and in the movies, a place where you might be sharing a room with a serial killer. Granted I have seen some pretty disgusting hostels, but the vast majority of them were actually decent and quite nice. Security matters a lot to guests, so many hostels are often equipped with lockers you can use for free or for a small fee. A lot of times you’ll also find many hostels out there that offer perks like free WiFi, free breakfast, or free BBQ dinners. I even stayed a hostel in Australia once that offered free kayak and surfboard rentals! Nearly every hostel I’ve been to was also equipped with a kitchen, so you can save even more money by cooking your own meals.

Not all hostels are the dark, dingy, and cockroach infested places like you see in the movies. There are a lot out there that are clean, comfy, and sometimes even quite homey and stylish. I’ve even gotten lucky in some places where my “dorm” bed turned out to be a queen size all to myself! Typically a good hostel has social areas where you can meet other travelers. This is why I usually prefer staying in hostels when I travel, because it’s where you can make new friends!

Airbnb
Airbnb is a great resource for people to find and rent lodging while traveling. I’ve used it a few times and it’s especially great when you’re traveling with someone or a group of people since you can split the costs. The way it works is people who have a spare room or even a whole apartment available, lease it out for short-term (and sometimes long-term) stays. You can rent out a room in a shared apartment or even a whole private apartment/house for yourself. You can find some good budget deals on here as an alternative to a hotel, especially when you’re staying in a more expensive city. But if you have the money, you can also find some very unique and interesting places to stay in. There’s even a listing to stay in a castle! 

Housesitting
Another interesting accommodation alternative, if you have the time and flexibility, is housesitting. There are several websites out there, such as TrustedHousesitters and Housecarers, where people who are going on holiday for a period of time are in need of someone to watch over the home and/or take care of pets while they are away. I’ve personally never tried this, but I know people who have and they saved hundreds if not thousands of dollars on accommodation during their travels. The catch is you do need to commit to a longer time period in one place (which isn’t always a bad thing if you have the time). But having a free place to stay for a relatively small amount of work sounds like a fair trade to me!

Camping
Starry Night
Camping is another alternative that can be fun and cheap. Sometimes it can be free! In some countries like Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, freedom camping is pretty popular and can be done in a lot of areas. While road tripping across Australia, my friends and I camped most of the way. It saved us a lot of money and made for a more memorable experience! There’s nothing like sleeping under the stars deep in the Australian Outback.

Couchsurfing
Another great way to cut down the costs of accommodation is to stay with someone who lives in the place you’re visiting. Couchsurfing is a great networking site of people who offer their couches or any free space in their homes for other travelers. While it’s nice to have a free place to stay, I find the most rewarding aspect about this option is that you meet and stay with a local who can show and teach you things about their city that you otherwise might not have known about. I use it from time to time and have had some pretty great experiences! There have even been times where I’ve been invited to local events and parties with my host’s friends. The service is free, but in exchange for letting me stay at their place I generally like to take my hosts out for drinks or make them dinner. It’s a great way to make new friends with the locals and have cultural exchange.

Of course sleeping at a stranger’s place sounds a bit weird and unsafe, but you just have to think smart when you’re searching for a potential host. Key things I look for are people who have complete profiles with pictures, details about their interests and hobbies, and most importantly reviews from other people who have interacted with them before.

Volunteering
Volunteering can add a rewarding and enriching experience to your travels. There are endless organizations and resources out there to find projects and opportunities, from taking care of sea turtles in Costa Rica, to helping out at local schools in Peru, to working on organic farms in New Zealand. In most cases you’re given a cheap or sometimes free place to stay in exchange for your work. I’ve used sites like WWOOFing, HelpX, and Workaway to find opportunities to work a few hours a day in lodges, hostels, and B&Bs in exchange for free accommodation.

My Favorite Places In The World

A lot of times I get asked what my favorite place in the world is. And the answer I give is pretty ambiguous, because it’s hard to choose just one! There are several places I can think of that were especially memorable and favorable, all for different reasons. If I had to narrow it down to a top 10, these would be the ones (in no particular order):

1. New Zealand
Emerald Lakes | Tongariro
Might be a bit biased since I lived there for nearly a year, but New Zealand is one of those places that always seems to be on everyone’s top lists! And for a good reason too, there is so much packed into this little country–towering volcanoes, lush rain forests, beautiful beaches, charming rolling hills, fjordlands, gorgeous mountain ranges. It’s a stunningly beautiful country everywhere you look. As an outdoorsy, nature-loving kind of guy this is the perfect country for me and I love that fact that there’s so many things to do here to get your adrenaline rush fix. Besides that, Kiwis are some of the nicest and friendliest people I’ve met! The Maori culture here is strong and very interesting to learn about.

Highlights: Doing the Tongariro Crossing; heli-hiking on the Franz Josef glacier; black-water rafting Waitomo glowworm caves

2. Australia
Golgum Pool
Even as a kid, I always wanted to go to Australia so having the opportunity to live there for a year was a dream come true! Australia has become my second home and I’m considering moving back here again one day. I’ve fallen in love with the laid-back, easy going lifestyle that defines Aussie culture. The work/life balance here is something I admire. I’m also a lover of the sun, so a sunny warm climate is also pretty ideal for me. Two of my favorite places in the world are here, one being Sydney. I’m not normally a big fan of cities, but Sydney is one I’d live in. The other being the Margaret River region of Western Australia, where I lived and worked for 6 months. Some of the best beaches I’ve seen to date are there and it’s also one of the country’s premiere wine regions. It’s a beautiful place to live. I really hope to make it back to Australia again one day!

Highlights: Living in Dunsborough, WA; road tripping up the East Coast and across the Outback; exploring Kakadu National Park by 4WD

3. France
Birds Eye View of Paris
I’ve spent quite a bit of time in France now, more than any other European country, and I’ve grown quite fond of it! Most of the time I’ve spent there has been in Paris (one of my favorite cities in the world), but in this most recent trip I also got to see a bit more of the countryside in the Alsace Region as well as the city of Lyon. The thing I love about France is despite it’s relatively small size (well compared to the US at least) is how diverse it is. It’s got beautiful farmlands and rolling hills, wine regions, rugged coastlines, high mountains, a warm Mediterranean climate in the south. Plus I have an affinity for French language and culture, making this one of my favorite places!

Highlights: Walking the streets of Paris at night; wandering around the Christmas markets in L’Alsace

4. United States
Daydream
Even though this one is obviously biased as it’s my home country, nothing beats the diversity of the United States. From the polar regions in Alaska, to tropical jungles in Hawaii, to the stunning deserts in Utah and Arizona, there is such a huge range of places to see in the US. As a nation made up of immigrants, there is also such a huge pool of diversity in the people as well and you can find pretty much any kind of food from around the world that you can think of if you look in the right places. Despite living there most of my life, there’s still so much I have to see!

Highlights: Washington State in general, my home state (and the best state!); road tripping around Utah and Arizona; summer days with family on the New Jersey shore

5. Ireland
Stormy Skies Over Connemara
I’m currently backpacking through Ireland at the moment so I might still be caught up with the initial awe and excitement of being here, but I’ve loved every bit of it so far! Ireland is an absolutely beautiful country, especially out west and to the north along the rugged, weathered coast. While the weather might not be so nice all the time (where else is it sunny, then rain sideways, and hails all within a 10 minute time span?), it’s breathtaking when the sun is out. Irish people also have to be the among the most charming and friendly people I’ve met so far. I love Irish accents and find some of the expressions and things they say very amusing! Everyone is so chatty and welcoming that it’s super easy to make friends with the locals here!

Highlights: Driving around Slea’s Head; Killarney National Park; hanging out with locals in pubs

6. Portugal
Lonely Beach | Lagos, Portugal
Portugal is another place I’ve visited recently and absolutely fell in love with. I had no expectations coming here and ended up finding a place with picturesque cities, warm and welcoming people, amazing food and wine (port wine is out of this world), a nice warm climate most of the year, and beautiful landscapes. I was very surprised to find that many people here speak very good English, making it a lot easier to talk to people! It’s also a great destination to go to if you’re on a budget, as everything is cheap here compared to the rest of Europe. I’m still getting over the buzz of being in Portugal and really want to go back again sometime!

Highlights: Drinking port wine in Porto; exploring castles in Sintra; kayaking along the Algarve Coast in Lagos

7. Vietnam
Hmong Family
Vietnam is one of those countries visitors either love or hate, and fortunately I fall in the love category. From the chaotic streets of Ho Chi Minh which are buzzing day and night with the noise of endless waves of motorbikes, to walking with the ethnic Hmong people in the quite rice terraces in the north around Sapa, this is a country rich with history, cultural diversity, and one of the most distinguished cuisines in the world. The food alone is a major reason to love Vietnam. The variety in different dishes they have is astounding. There is quite a defined backpacker/tourist trail that runs the length of the country, but there are so many relatively undiscovered places to explore if you go off the beaten path.

Highlights: Boat trip on the river in Trang An, through stunning karst formations; Hoi An; canyoning in Dalat; trekking and doing a home stay with Hmong people in Sapa

8. Peru
The Locals of Machu Picchu
Peru is a special country to me, because it was the first place where I began traveling solo! I spent a week there in the area around Cusco and hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, which is still one of my most memorable trips to date. While I would have liked to have stayed longer to see more of the country, what I did see and experience there was inspiring and made me want to travel independently as much as I could from that point on. I remember feeling so nervous and awkward when I arrived at the airport and I had to bargain with some dodgy cab drivers to get to my hostel. I stayed in a hostel by myself for the first time and forced myself to talk to strangers to make new friends. I Wandered around and got lost in the streets of Cusco and tried new foods in the local market. On the day of the trek our group had breakfast with a Peruvian family on their farm. It was exhilarating Walking through the Andes and being surrounded by stunning scenery everywhere, being in awe as I walked through the ruins of Machu Picchu. I would love to go back here again and see more of South America in general!

Highlights: Cuy (guinea pig) breakfast on a farm in the countryside; trekking on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu; climbing Huayna Picchu

9. Hong Kong
Hong Kong Lights
I love Hong Kong. It’s the kind of city that’s always buzzing with life and there’s always something interesting happening around the corner. It’s blessed with a beautiful harbor and surrounded by jungle-covered mountains. The contrast between nature and cosmopolitan city life here is amazing. One minute you can be on a bustling street surrounded by enormous sky scrapers, the next you can find yourself on a quite path going up into the mountains. And the food here is to die for! I loved exploring all the exotic fruits in the street markets (rambutans and mangosteens are my Asian favs). Chinese food in general is addicting, and the experience of being the only westerner in a family-owned noodle restaurant is memorable. I’ll never be able to look at Chinese food anywhere else in the world the same way again, the real stuff is so good!

Highlights: Eating amazing Chinese food; seeing Victoria Harbour at night; exploring the markets; cable car ride up to the Giant Buddha statue

10. Nepal
Swayambhunath | Kathmandu
As a lover of hiking and mountains, Nepal was always on my list of places to visit. Now I can say I finally have and it’s just as brilliant as I thought it would be! Despite going in the aftermath of the April 2015 earthquake, the country is very much open for tourism. The country is one of the best places in the world for trekking, the opportunities are endless. I did the Everest trek and although I did have a bout of food poisoning and altitude sickness (not a great combo), it was a very memorable experience. Aside from the stunning beauty of the Himalayas, Nepal is also very rich in culture and diversity. There are over 40 different ethnic groups and tribes living here and the beauty of the Himalaya is stunning.

Highlights: Trekking up the EBC trail and seeing Mount Everest up close.

How I’ve Managed To Travel For So Long

The Beach

Now that I’ve officially been on the road for 2 1/2 years, I think it’s about time to share how I’ve managed to travel for as long as I have. This is one of the most common questions I get asked by people when they discover I’ve been away for so long. “How is it possible?” some ask. “You must surely have taken out loans or have been racking up credit card debt all this time. Perhaps you’ve won the lottery and didn’t tell anyone!” Truthfully it’s neither of those things, so this post is going to answer the big question and talk about a few of the things I’ve done to make long-term travel a possibility.

But first, let’s go back to the beginning a little while before I even left home. It was 2011 and I had just graduated from university, not really sure exactly what I wanted to do even though I had a shiny new degree. I knew for a fact though, that I wanted to travel. I never studied abroad when I was in uni, so I made it a goal to one day have the experience of living in another country. Fortunately, places like Australia and New Zealand make it easy for Americans to get working holiday visas. So shortly after graduation I made it my goal to find a job and work for a year, saving up as much as I could, and I would then spend a year abroad in New Zealand. While it took much longer than I anticipated to find a job (I was unemployed for nearly 8 months), I finally ended up working for Washington State Parks for two summers and at a local hotel in between seasons.

In total, I worked for 1.5 years and managed to save up $14,000, which is actually more than enough to qualify for a working holiday in New Zealand (which requires only $4000 NZD to sustain yourself when you first arrive in the country in case you don’t find work right away). The reason I saved up for so long was because I still had student loans to pay while I was traveling and I wanted to have a big cushion of funds to live off of so I wasn’t so stressed about having to find a job right away when I left. Of course, being able to save so much wouldn’t have been possible without the help from my parents, who allowed me to live with them during this time period so I had very little rent to pay (compared to what I would have been paying if I still lived in the city) and things like food and phone plans were all paid for.

Another factor that helped with savings was rethinking the way I spent my money by keeping track of my expenses. Using a nifty little apps like CashTrails, I started to watch where most of my money was going on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. After a few weeks, I began to see and prioritize on spending and buying things I actually needed (fuel, insurance, loans, etc) and less so on things I didn’t (eating out, going to the cinemas, etc). There are lots of little expenses we pay almost on a daily basis without thinking about it. A $4 Starbucks frappuccino may not seem like a lot, but if you get one several times a week it adds up in the end. Realizing this really helped change my spending habits and I became much more efficient at saving money that could be used for better things later on (like traveling).

Fast forward to September 2013 and I’m on a plane jetting across the Pacific to start a new life in New Zealand. In retrospect, all it took to get there was a willingness to never give up, hard work, and a lot of patience. But what about the actual traveling part? Surely once you start traveling your bank account starts to drain? This is true, but fortunately there are so many ways in which you can stretch your dollar to travel longer.

As I said earlier, I traveled to New Zealand on a working holiday visa (and later Australia), which allows people from participating countries to work and travel within NZ for up to a year. Of course when you’re getting paid to work, you replenish your travel funds as you go. But even when I wasn’t working, there are plenty of ways to keep spending costs down and stretching dollars a little further. Here are some of the ways I saved money while traveling:

Getting Around
Transportation is typically one of the highest expenses you’ll pay for on a trip (especially airfare), but there are plenty of cheap alternatives to get around. As much as I love taking trains, I usually opt for riding the bus which is a lot cheaper and while it may take longer, it saves a lot if you have the time. Sometimes the bus even comes with free WiFi, which makes the time seem to pass by a lot faster anyway. Another faster alternative I recently discovered here in Europe by carpooling with other travelers. Sites like BlaBlaCar (available in Europe only it seems) is one of of a few out there where people offer open seats in their cars for those who are looking in going the same direction. You just split the cost of gas along the way. So rather than taking an £80 train ride from London to Bath, I got there for only £14 by carpooling in the same amount of time and made a new friend along the way. Then of course there is always hitchhiking, which requires a higher degree of caution of course, but it’s free, and you meet really interesting people along the way. I got around most of New Zealand this way!

Cooking Meals
While it’s tempting to eat out all the time when you’re traveling, especially after you’ve spent a whole day touring around and exploring and you don’t really feel like cooking, you save so much by doing your own groceries and cooking your own meals. Most hostels have their own kitchens anyway. If I stay in one place for a few days, I’ll cook up one big meal that can feed me for a few days, saving both time and money.

Visiting Places Where Your Dollar Goes A Long Way
Sometimes deciding where to travel can also save you money. In some parts of the world, such as Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and South America, the cost of living is so low you really don’t spend that much on a daily basis. In Southeast Asia, for example, it was actually cheaper to go out and eat (you can easily have a decent sized meal for $2-5) than buying groceries. Hostels and guesthouses typically go for $5-10/night (even cheaper if you share a room with friends) and transportation and most activities are relatively inexpensive compared to other parts of the world.

Staying Sober
I’m not really that big of a drinker to begin with compared to your average backpacker, which has also helped keep costs down. In places like Australia and Scandanavia, where everything is fairly expensive, a beer can cost up to $10 each! So I usually avoid drinking in places like that. Not so much in countries like Germany where they’re known for good beer or France for wine and it’s cheap!

Carry As Much Cash As I Plan To Spend
When you travel long term, it’s important to create and stick to a budget to keep track of your spending. It’s common to spend more when you bring your wallet with you everywhere, so what I usually do is only bring as much cash with me as my daily budget allows and if I run out, then that’s all I have to spend for the day. Of course for special activities and events it’s fun to splurge every now and then. But sticking to this method has helped me save heaps, and if I ever do get robbed (still hasn’t happened yet) I won’t be losing everything so it’s a lot safer as well.

Alternative Accommodations
I’ll admit, I actually hate staying in hotels when I’m traveling solo. You normally pay too much money spent for something you’ll only use at night, and it gets pretty lonesome having a room all to yourself. Usually I prefer to stay in hostels since they’re cheaper, have a much better social vibe where you can meet new people, and sometimes include little perks like free breakfast and bicycle rentals. I think I’ve been pretty lucky with hostels I’ve stayed in, there are good ones and bad ones, and I’ve stayed in some places that felt more like a home than a business. And it’s not only for young people, I’ve met some really interesting older people staying in hostels as well.

When possibly, I usually try and stay with friends whenever I can because A, it’s always nice to see your friends again, and B, you get a free, safe place to sleep! It’s also nice because you also have a sort of a local guide to show you around and hang out with. When I don’t have friends to stay with, every now and then I couch surf, another alternative where you don’t spend a dime and you have opportunities to meet and connect with new people.

I could go on about saving for accommodation as there are so many alternatives to sleeping in a hotel (Airbnb, House Sitting, Camping, etc), so I’ve written a seperate blog post on how to save on accomodation while traveling!

Cleaning for Accommodation
This kind of goes along with the last point in terms of reducing the costs of your accommodations. While I was living in Australia and New Zealand, there were a few times where I volunteered to help with cleaning around the hostel in exchange for free accommodation. Although I may have had another paid job in the evenings usually, it didn’t consume a lot of my time, just a couple hours in the mornings. In New Zealand especially, I hardly spent anything on accommodation the whole 10 months I was there and all those saved dollars went to better use elsewhere.

Changing Spending Habits
Most of all, realizing where your money goes and adjusting to buying mostly things you need versus things you want has been a game changer for me. It’s amazing how your mind thinks when you start traveling long term, because you’re always thinking in terms of what your spending now and how that could be used on something more rewarding later. Traveling became a priority for me, so I did all I could to cut back on other expenses so I could put more money towards my trip. I would much rather forgo that daily Starbucks run or trip to the cinemas if it means I can have another day of traveling. There are a lot of little things we spend on a daily basis, that add up over time. Once I realized what all those little things were, I started to prioritize my spending on experiences rather than materialism.

Traveling doesn’t have to be as expensive as most people make it out to be. There are loads of people out there who are doing the exact same thing I am, it’s nothing original. There are ways to do it if you have the time and are willing to do something a little different. If you’re the kind of person who likes to stay in all inclusive resorts, eat out all the time, and do package tours that might be a different story. But if you’re the backpacker kind of traveler, then you can easily get around on a budget if you’re willing to stretch your comfort zone. And travel is usually a lot more rewarding when you do.

How I Fell In Love With Porto

Porto

Recently I took a trip to Portugal. After traveling around the cold and gray northern parts of Europe most of the winter, I started daydreaming about warmer places where I could thaw out and get some sun. Many of my friends who had been there before said it was a really nice country, so after a quick look on Skyscanner I found a cheap flight from Paris to the northern Portuguese city of Porto. As I got on the plane, I realized I really didn’t know anything about the city other than that it’s the place where port wine is produced and stored. With this I didn’t have a lot of other expectations, but what I wasn’t expecting was how much I would fall in love with Porto (and Portugal)!

My visit was fairly brief–only three days–and I regret not staying a few extra. Despite being one of the biggest cities in Portugal, I found it rather small with a lot of charm and a very relaxing atmosphere. Being situated on a river near the coast, the city is surrounded by water and so there is that hint of fragrance from the sea in the air. The smell of fresh cooking from somewhere within the colorful homes lining the steep, tiny streets was also everywhere. The sound of seagulls, church bells ringing in the distance, and cars driving over cobblestone roads were constantly filling your ears. Everywhere you look, there is something beautiful or interesting around the corner. I was constantly wide-eyed the whole time I was there, letting my senses take everything in.

The people of Porto were also so warm and friendly. Being so far away from the rest of Europe, I thought it would be a little difficult with the language barrier, but I was surprised to find that a lot of people actually speak really decent English! Especially younger people, some of which had perfect American or British accents, making it really easy to communicate with some of the locals. The pace of life for people in this city is also very relaxed and easy going. Unlike me, who is a notoriously fast walker, no one is in a rush to get anywhere. People take their time.

Despite being a small city, there is a fair amount to do and see here. Getting around to most places can be done by foot, although they do have a good tram and bus system to get you to places farther out from the historic city center. Here are some of the things I liked most about Porto:

Beautiful Parks
Spring in Porto

One of my rules of thumb to determining how nice a city is by the amount of parks it has. I like my cities green, with lots of places you can “get away” from the urban jungle and escape to a small patch of nature. Porto has just that, with some beautifully landscaped parks. One of the best ones I thought was Jardins do Palacio de Christal, which was decorated with lots of local and exotic flora. The views of the river and city are pretty outstanding from there as well! The gardens at the Contemporary Arts Museum (Fundação De Serralves) has an entry fee (included with the price of the museum), but is also very nice place to walk through.

The Food & Wine
The View From Taylor's

The most thing that Porto is known for is it’s famous port wine. Port is a very sweet, fortified wine that comes in quite a few varieties, and is a must try when in Porto. Just across the river from Porto city center is the city of Gaia, home of several different wine cellars and producers. You can make a whole day going from cellar to cellar and trying all the different wines. Taylor’s offers a very nice tour of their cellars for just €5 and you can learn about the whole wine making process. It also includes 3 different wine tastings, which you can enjoy out on their terrace that overlooks the city (seen above). I went to a few different cellars, but Taylor’s was the best one I thought. Another producer, Graham’s, is also a nice spot for wine tasting and they also have an outdoor deck with nice views of the city and river. If you have the time, you can even take a tour to the beautiful Duoro Valley region, to the east from Porto where you can see where all the grapes are grown and harvested.

Aside from wine, the food in Porto (and Portugal in general) is splendid and very cheap. You can try Francesinha, a typical Porto dish which is sort of like a meat sandwich covered with cheese, an egg, and sauce, at any cafeteria. A good spot for cheap eats in the city center is a little café called Badalhoca. Most dishes (about €2-€3) are served like tapas and consist of meat or seafood. It’s best to come with friends and order a few dishes to share. Afterwards you can get something sweet and head over to Santinis for some really good ice cream!

If it’s a Monday evening, you can head down to the old district of Rebeira on the riverfront. It’s where all the young people go to socialize and have cheap drinks and baldes (buckets) for only a few euros. Seeing the city from the river at night is also really beautiful!

This Book Store
The Most Beautiful Book Shop

Kind of an offbeat thing to see, but something really worth going to is the Lello & Irmao bookstore located near the city center. It has to be the most beautiful bookstore I’ve ever seen–also known as the Harry Potter library (you’ll find out why when you see it). It’s a small shop, but the décor and atmosphere is amazing with a beautifully carved staircase connecting the first and second floors. There is a small English section for non-Portuguese readers, and your €3 entry ticket can go toward getting a discount if you buy a book!

The BeachPorto Beach

Not only is Porto a river town, but is also blessed with several beaches that face west, making it a perfect place to watch the sun set over the ocean. There is a really nice coastal walk you can do all along the beach area on the north side of the river that makes its way down the coast and along the river back into Porto, with a fortress you can see along the way. Getting to the beach can be done by bus or even better, by trolley car, and only costs a couple euros. Farther north of Porto I heard there are also some good surf spots as well.

The Architecture
Clerigos Tower

Many buildings are decorated with colorful ceramic facades, which is really unique to Portugal. Even the sidewalks are pretty, made out of small black and white stone tiles in a mosaic-like fashion. Closer to the city center you can get lost wandering around the steep and narrow streets, past old churches and little shops. Unlike Lisbon, which suffered heavy damage from a massive earthquake a while back and had to be rebuilt, Porto’s buildings are mostly original and well-preserved. This gives the city a very old and rustic feel, which adds so much to its charming atmosphere. It’s a very pretty and well-designed city.

The Views
Porto

Situated on steep cliffs and hills next to the river, Porto is a very picturesque city (how many times have I said this already?) There are so many places in the city you can find with sweeping vistas, especially from the famous bridge in the middle of the city, Ponte de San Luis.

It may have been all the wine I drank or maybe just the relaxed vibes as I made my way through the city, but I can say Porto is one of those special places that I’ve really fallen in love with and can see myself coming back here again. If I was Portuguese I would definitely live here!