10 Quirky Things About America That I Learned From Traveling Abroad

Lady Liberty

Today marks my 1 year anniversary since being back in the United States! It was bittersweet coming to the decision to conclude my long-term travels and returning to my home country, but after a year of being back I’ve slowly adjusted from a life living out of a backpack and being somewhat settled. I’ve been fortunate enough to work for a great company that gets me out and traveling a few weeks out of the year in Europe, so I’ve managed to find a compromise! Although I’ve gotten back into the routine of working 9-5, paying rent, and being able to hang out with friends and family again, one thing that’s different is now I notice things that I never did here before. Oftentimes we don’t think a whole lot about the little quirks and behaviors that we encounter everyday, but after being away so long I began to notice things that I was so accustomed to before:

1. We Sell Cigarettes and Alcohol in Pharmacies
During my first weekend back in the US, I walked into a Walgreen’s in New York City with some British friends and they pointed this out to me. I never thought of it before, but it really is pretty silly that we sell alcohol, cigarettes, candy, chips, and other unhealthy foods at the same place where you go to get medicine! In other countries, you go to the pharmacy specifically for prescription drugs. Although pharmacies here are really more like convenience stores than a true drugstore, it is a bit of a medical paradox!

2. We’re Super Casual When It Comes to Dress
In other countries, especially in Europe, I’ve noticed people seem to be more well dressed while they’re out and about. Not necessarily fancy dress, but overall it seems people are more mindful in presenting themselves in a fashionable way when in public. In the US, especially in smaller towns like the one I grew up in, it’s not uncommon to see people shopping at the store in their pajamas or gym clothes (even if they didn’t actually just come from the gym). Baseball, football, and other sport related apparel for men, yoga pants for women, and tacky graphic t-shirts are also more common here than most other places.

3. We’re Behind In Credit Card Technology
Does anyone else think it’s weird that we’re okay with letting our server walk away from the table with our credit cards in hand? Or that we simply authorize the transaction with an illegible scribbled signature? I never thought it was until I moved abroad and started using foreign banks and credit cards. In pretty much every other modern country, your card has a chip in it and you verify a transaction using a personalized pin number. Oftentimes at the restaurant, the waiter will actually bring a wireless card reader to your table. While I noticed we are starting to see more cards with chips in them here in the US, nearly all of them still require a signature. Pin numbers clearly seem more secure.

4. We Tend to Wear Shoes Indoors
This doesn’t apply to every household, but it’s not unusual to walk in and around the house with shoes on. Which when you think about it is super unsanitary, especially after walking around in who knows what is on the ground outside! There are exceptions though, usually it’s polite to take your shoes off when you’re a guest at someone else’s home or if it’s been raining. But generally I’ve noticed we don’t always take shoes off in our own homes.

5. We’re Obsessed With Gift Cards
Again, something I never really thought about much before, until I walked into a Walmart the first few days back in the States and saw an entire shelf stocked full of hundreds of gift cards–all for random things! Gift cards for restaurants and retail stores are the most common, but we even have gift cards for airlines now. I have even seen gift cards for Harley Davidson–just a little something to go towards your next motorcycle purchase!

6. We Don’t Include Tax In Our Prices
This is probably one of the little Americanisms that irks me the most. Every other country I’ve been (except maybe Canada) includes VAT (value-added tax) in the price. It was pretty convenient in other countries knowing that a $5 box of cookies is going to cost $5, not $5.52. I’d rather know the total price I’m paying for something before I buy it, rather than having to guess or calculate how much tax will be added on later.

7. It’s Necessary to Own A Car
Unless you live in a big city, it’s pretty much necessary to have a car in order to get around here. Especially out west, where communities are sparser and farther in between. I was amazed in Europe especially at how well connected everything is by train and bus–even between small rural towns.

8. Our Country Is Huge
It’s no secret that the US is a big country, but I never realized how vast it really was until I started visiting others. I once took a train from Amsterdam in the west of Holland to Arnhem near the eastern border and it took 1 hour to cross the entire country. To compare to the US, a cross country rail journey can take nearly 3 days (or 5-6 hours of flying time)! Even France, the largest country in the EU, takes about 10 hours to drive from end to end. My home state of Washington takes about 8.5 hours to drive from the westernmost point to the border of Idaho, and we’re not even among the biggest states!

9. Our Vacation Times Are Short
The average American gets 2 weeks of vacation–and it doesn’t necessarily mean paid time off since we’re the only developed country in the world that doesn’t require employers even a day of paid leave. Even working a modest job as a bartender in both Australia and New Zealand, I had 4 weeks of paid holiday time per year. In France it’s 5 weeks. Pretty much every other developed country guarantees some sort of paid vacation time.

10. We Pronounce Our Z’s Differently
We’re the only English-speaking country where we pronounce the last letter of the alphabet as “zee”. Everywhere else (neighboring Canada included) it’s pronounced as “zed”, which blew my mind when I learned everyone else pronounces it this way! Even in other non-English languages, such as French, German , and Spanish it’s “zed”. How and why Americans ended up pronouncing Z this way I have no idea, but I’ve found that we like to be a little different from everyone else sometimes.

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10 Things I Hate (and Love) About Seattle

Emerald City

Having been back to living in Seattle again for 8 months now (after being away 5 years), I’ve noticed that there have been both a lot of big changes in the city and there are things that still remain the same. It’s definitely not the same place it was even 5 years ago, and as much as I love being back here again, there are also a few things I love to complain about (because that’s what Seattleites do best). Here are some of the best and worst things I’ve found about living here:

1. The Weather
Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first, although it really goes two ways. Seattle has a reputation of being “the rainy city”. We do get a good amount of gray, overcast days that gives the city a moody, dreary vibe for several months of the year, but in terms of actual rainfall we don’t get all that much (New York and Miami actually get more rainfall). That being said, the lack of sunshine throughout the winter and spring can get quite depressing. Seasonal affection disorder (SAD) is a thing here, which is a type of depression that is influenced by the changing of seasons. There is even a special type of lamp or “happy light” that some Seattleites use for therapeutic remedy. Personally, during those long spells without sunshine, I find myself thinking, “why on earth did I choose to move back here?”

But then comes the silver lining.  Summers here are absolutely stunning–when the rest of the country is suffering with intense heat and humidity, we enjoy beautifully warm, long days (the sun goes down around 9:30 at night on June 21st). In the warmer months, typically May-September, the entire mood of the city changes with the changing of the seasons. People become so much more friendlier, and like furry woodland critters emerging from their long winter hibernation, everyone in the city is suddenly out and about, staying active and indulging in a vast array of outdoor activities. This is the time of year when I find myself thinking, “there isn’t any where else I’d rather be.”

2. The Neverending Construction
Since the arrival of Amazon’s headquarters in South Lake Union and the massive tech boom that is still well underway here, Seattle has become one of the fastest growing cities in North America. With it has come a tremendous amount of new high-rise condos and office buildings popping up around the city, with many more on the way. With this “Manhattanization”, the city is now littered with construction cranes reshaping the skyline (58 as of summer of 2016). Going up isn’t the only direction the city is going in–on the ground, there are endless construction projects on the roadways that make getting around the city like an enormous obstacle course.

3. The “Big Town” Feel
Despite being among the largest cities in the United States, Seattle’s relaxed and laid-back vibe makes it stand out from most other major cities with a distinct “big town” feeling. The city is divided into several distinct urban neighborhoods that all have their own flair and personality, making this big city feel like a smaller place than it really is. Even the downtown area is quite small, taking only 20 minutes or so to walk across. Despite all this, Seattle still offers what every great major city does–a robust bar and restaurant scene, lots of green space, and a plethora of major music and cultural events that take place year-around.

4. Asian Food Here Is Amazing
Although seafood and coffee are the classic and most well-known fares here, Seattle also has a diverse international food scene here, particularly from Asia. With a large Vietnamese population, pho (beef noodle soup) is to Seattle as Turkish döner kebabs are to Germany, and Indian curry is to London. There are also a healthy amount of great Korean, Japanese, and Thai restaurants all around. I can personally vouch that the Thai food in Seattle competes pretty closely with the food I tried in Thailand–it’s good stuff. Best of all, they’re usually great places to go if you want to eat cheaply. A lot of the good Asian restaurants and eateries are found in the International District (Chinatown) or U-District neighborhoods, although you can find them scattered about around the city. Some of my favorites include Jai Tai (Thai – Fremont), Pho Than Brothers (Vietnamese – U-District), and Musashi’s (Japanese – Wallingford).

5. The Terrible Drivers & Traffic
I suppose everyone would suggest that their city would boast the worst drivers, but Seattle’s motorists are by far the worst I’ve ever seen. It’s not so much that people are reckless or aggressive like they are in other parts of the country, but just the opposite. Seattle drivers are super passive aggressive, oblivious, and clearly must have bribed their driving instructors in passing their driver’s test. The number of people on the roads here who fail to use their indicators before switching lanes or drive slowly in the left-hand passing lane (and then suddenly match your speed when you try to pass them–super frustrating) is astounding.

Or the “you go, no you go” game that’s played at 4-way intersections everywhere. Although I think people are generally trying to be polite and have good intentions, it becomes awkward and confusing forfeiting your right of way when it’s your turn to go. All of this, in addition to the horrendous traffic (listed as the #4 city with the worst traffic in the US), makes driving here a major headache. And forget snow days–the whole city shuts down since no one can handle driving in it. (see link for video)

6. Lack of Train System
Unlike our neighboring cities, Vancouver, B.C, and Portland, Oregon, Seattle is way behind in having a good rail network. We only received our single-line light rail in 2009, which stretches from the airport in the south to the University of Washington in the north. For the most part the public transportation system here is mostly made up of bus routes. Don’t get me wrong, I’m so thankful for the light rail (especially now that I can get from the university to downtown in a matter of minutes) and the bus network is quite extensive (you can get to pretty much anywhere you need to by bus). The only thing is 1. getting around primarily on a bus system is painfully slow (especially when there are a few connections involved) and 2. less trains means more traffic on the road (buses make up part of the traffic as well) and as mentioned before, the traffic in Seattle is already bad enough and will only get worse as more people move here. Fortunately, as of November 2016, Seattleites voted to expand our rail system with a new network of both underground and overground light rail routes. The only catch is it’s not projected to be finished until 2041–25 years from now. So I guess I’ll just have to be content with the bus network for the time being.

7. Dogs Are Everywhere
As a lover of dogs, this is something I absolutely love about Seattle. It’s a very dog-friendly city, several designated off leash parks and beaches throughout. There are lots of dog-friendly hotels and shops around, and they’re allowed to ride on the bus with you! Many restaurants even now allowing dogs to dine with you on their outdoor terraces and patios. It’s also quite common seeing dogs out on the lake with their owners riding in kayaks and stand-up paddle boards during the summer. In fact, there are actually more dogs within the city limits then there are children. This craze for dogs here is huge and is one of the funnily odd things that make Seattle a great place to live (for dog lovers).

8. Clean and Green
When it comes to good air and water quality, Seattle ranks high on the list among US cities. Thanks to fresh snow that falls every year in the surrounding mountain ranges, we’re lucky enough to have clean, great tasting water that you can drink right from the tap. People here tend to be quite mindful of the environment, where many people choose to bike to work, plastic bags are banned in retail shops, and people vote for eco-friendly initiatives. Recycling is taken seriously here–our recycling and compost bins are larger than our regular garbage containers.

Even the city’s nickname as the Emerald City reflects the vast amount of forests that are found throughout the region. There are several large green spaces scattered about throughout the city limits, including Gasworks Park, Discovery Park, and Warren G. Magnuson Park–all of which were either former gas plants or military installations. The Cascade mountains are just a 30 minute drive from the city center, where there are endless opportunities for hiking and climbing. Getting close to nature is incredibly easy here.

9. Seattle Freeze
One of the most annoying realities of living in Seattle is dealing with a phenomena known as Seattle Freeze. This term was coined in an article of the Seattle Times back in 2005, which describes the belief that it’s difficult for newcomers and transplants from elsewhere to make new friends. Although very polite and easy to talk to, people from Seattle aren’t particularly friendly and are sometimes described as cold, standoffish, snobby, flaky, superficial, introverted, and passive aggressive. For example–I can sit alone at a bar anywhere else in America and eventually someone will come over and spark off a friendly conversation. That’s never happened to me here. There are exceptions of course, but these were people who had moved here or were visiting from somewhere else and had made similar observations. To contrast to a direct nature of communicating, as New Yorkers are so famous for, Seattle is the exact opposite–people here are quite indirect. Seattleites are also notorious for not following up on plans. If I had a dollar for every time someone said “let’s hang out sometime” and got bailed on at the last minute, I’d be rich enough to have a house on Lake Washington next to Bill Gates. There are a number of theories on why Seattleites seem to be more indifferent socially than your average American, but I can only hope that things will get better there as more people move into the city and bring better attitudes from elsewhere. The exception is during the summer when it’s warm and sunny and suddenly everyone becomes super happy and friendly (another reason why Seattle is so great in summer!)

10. Spectacular Scenery
Probably one of the best things about living here is the fact that Seattle is surrounded by water and mountains. There aren’t many places in the world where you can ski in the morning and hang out on the beach in the afternoon, nor are there many places where a massive snow-capped volcano graces the city skyline. To the east of the city lies several lakes. To the west, you can watch the ferries sail out into the hundreds of inlets and waterways of Puget Sound.  Winter or summer, Seattle is green year around with lush forests. The hiking, cycling, paddling, climbing, and the opportunities for pretty much any outdoor activity you can think of is endless.

The truth is that we’re all actually really spoiled and lucky to live in such a gorgeous corner of the world.

My Top 10 Destinations for 2016

St. Mark's Summit

Although 2016 is a year I’d rather forget for the most part, there were still so many good things that happened to be thankful for. I rang in the year in Paris, one of my favorite cities in the world. While traveling through Europe and North America, I was able to reunite with old friends and meet many new ones. I revisited some of my favorite places in the world and also discovered places I hadn’t been before. Upon moving back to the US, I got a new job that allows me to travel and share my passion for travel with others. I moved to Seattle and have, for now, readjusted to a more settled life living in the US again, being closer to friends and family. To finish off the year, I’ve decided to write one last blog post for 2016 highlighting some of my favorite places I went to this year.

London
London Bridge

Despite being horrendously sick my first few days here, I finally made it to the British capital that I had missed during my first trip to Europe in 2014. While England wasn’t my favorite country, I loved London. Aside from catching up with a lot of friends who live here, it was amazing finally making it to this world-class city and seeing it in person. In some ways, London reminded me a lot of New York—the vibe and energy here is astounding. People here walk with purpose and there seems to be a lot of things going on.

Tallinn
Old Town Tallinn

When I heard that some of my good friends from Estonia had temporarily moved back to their hometown of Tallinn from Australia, I couldn’t pass the opportunity to see them again and check out this relatively little-visited corner of Europe. Although there are still some things here remaining from the former Soviet Union days, this little country has come a long way in just the past 30 years or so and is now quite modern and well-established. In fact, Tallinn is one of the most tech savvy capitals in Europe, with a booming market for tech companies and startups. While also very modern, the city also retains its medieval heritage–walking through the city’s snow-laden Old Town at night was absolutely breathtaking.

Copenhagen
Copenhagen

Like London, Copenhagen was a city I had really wanted to visit during my first summer trip to Europe, but just never got around to going so I made it my goal to finally make it this year. Copenhagen is a wonderfully old and charming capital, yet also very modern and beautifully designed. Having some local friends to show me around, I learned quite a bit about Danish culture, fashion, design & architecture, and other quintessential Danish things I hadn’t really known about. Even in the middle of snowy January, I loved wandering the streets and canals here. It’s definitely a place I’d love to come back to again in the summer time.

Salzburg
Salzburg

While in Germany, someone had suggested that I take a trip out to the little city of Salzburg in Austria, just across the border from Munich. So I made a day trip out of it and I wish I had decided to stay longer! Situated alongside a river, crowned by a massive old fortress on top of a hill overlooking the city, Salzburg may as well be something you would hear about in fairy tales. Simply getting lost among the city’s charming narrow streets is enough of a reason to come here.

Lyon
Lyon

While it’s not as glamorous and glitzy as Paris, Lyon is a very overlooked destination in France. Despite being the 2nd largest city in the country, it isn’t overwhelmed with tourists or feel overly crowded like other major European cities. The relaxed vibe here was very appealing. It’s also the foodie capital of France–the gastronomic selection here is enormous. And being within driving distance to the mountains, it’s also a good base to explore some of the stunning mountain scenery that France has to offer.

Portugal
Exploring the Algarve Coast

If you’ve already seen my other blog posts about Portugal, you’d know that it’s one of my favorite countries in the world. Since I loved everything about it, I couldn’t just decide on one place that stuck out to me the most! From sipping on Port wine in Porto, to wandering through the beautiful streets of Lisbon, to exploring hilltop castles in Sintra, to kayaking along the country’s stunning Algarve Coast, visiting Portugal was the biggest surprise I had while traveling in 2016. It’s definitely a place I’ll be back again!

Ireland
Ring of Kerry

Like Portugal, there really wasn’t one place in Ireland that stuck out above the rest, so I’m listing it here as a country. Ireland was rugged, beautiful, populated with some of the friendliest and chattiest people I’ve met on my travels. Some of my favorite memories here were chatting with the locals in the pubs in the evenings, something that I found very easy to do here compared to other places.

Washington, D.C.
The National Mall

I’ve been to DC a few times before on day trips with the family when when I was younger, but had never been as an adult until this year. Staying here for a week gave me a chance to explore and see the city more. I spent the week exploring museums, going for runs around the mall, taking a tour of the Capitol Building, watching the sunset from the top of the Washington Monument, and even checked out some of the embassies that are based here. Even after a week, I still don’t think I saw everything—there’s just too much to see and do.

Oregon
Cannon Beach

Despite having grown up in the Pacific Northwest and having passed through it several times, I’ve never made a proper trip to Portland until this year! Portland has a good reputation for being a nature city and a great foodie scene. In a lot of ways it reminded me of a smaller version of Seattle (just with a lot more bridges). It’s easy to get close to nature here as the Columbia River Gorge is only a 30 minute drive away, home to so many waterfalls. It’s also within easy driving distance of the famous Oregon Coast, making the city an ideal spot for a base to explore other parts of Oregon.

Vancouver
Vancouver Sunset

Another one of my favorite cities in the world, Vancouver is always a fun place to visit. Situated right between the mountains and the sea, it’s highly picturesque (when it’s not raining at least). There aren’t many places in the world where you can go skiing 20 minutes from a major city center and then walk on the beach in the same day. With so much nature around, there’s always a reason to be outside and active. Some of my favorite things to do here include strolling through the large public market on Granville Island, riding a bike along the Seawall around Stanley Park (a huge park just north of downtown, like a big Canadian version of Central Park), or going on a hike in the mountains just outside of the city. Within easy reach of Seattle, I’ve already been up 3 times this year!

 

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!

 

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.

Aloha From Hawaii!

Hello family and friends (and any readers who happen to stumble on this blog)!

I’ve been in the Aloha State now for 3 days and today will be my last day here before I hop on my flight to New Zealand late tonight. This is actually my first time back in Hawaii since I lived here 20 years ago and even though I was just a little kid when we moved I still remember quite a bit living here. I’m staying at my cousin’s place in central Oahu and we’ve been going around the island here and there for the past few days checking out the sites. I also managed to make it down to our old neighborhood in Ewa Beach and found the old house I used to live in!

I could go on on all the cool things there are to see on Oahu, but I’ll keep it short and just share some of the photos I’ve taken so far. Highlights include: hiking Diamond Head, eating shave ice from Matsumoto’s (the BEST shave ice in Hawaii in my opinion), snorkeling in Waikiki, and cliff jumping at Waimea Bay. I think today we’ll be heading off to Kailua and then go snorkeling at Hanauma Bay before I head off to the airport for New Zealand!

Miss you all and enjoy the photos!

Diamond Head Summit Waikiki Waikiki! Monk Seal Surfer on the Jetty The Punchbowl Ewa Beach Ewa Beach Fisherman Ewa Beach Palms Rainbow Eucalyptus Sign to Everywhere Kamehameha Highway Matsumoto's Surfboards Waimea Bay Cliff Jumping Waimea Bay Turtles Hawaiian Sunset h3mountains2

lanikai

Climbing Mount Adams

View from the South Climb

This Labor Day Weekend, I traveled to southern Washington with some friends to climb Mount Adams. At 12,280 feet above sea level, it’s the second highest mountain in the state and is also one of Washington’s five main volcanoes. Located in a rather isolated region, it doesn’t appear to be as well known as some of the other prominent Cascade peaks, like Rainier or Mt. St. Helens. In fact, when I told people what I was doing for the weekend, most didn’t even know where it was. It’s a long 5 hour and 40 minute drive from Whidbey. In fact, we actually had to drive through Oregon in order to get there. By the time I had met up with my friends, picked up our climbing permits at the Trout Lake Ranger Station, and made our way up to the campground, it was already 10 o’clock at night. The plan was to do the whole climb in one day, starting early the next morning at 5:00 am. We quickly got our tents set up and settled, had a small birthday celebration for my friend Lindsey, and went to bed hoping that the weather would be in our favor when we woke up.

The alarms all went off around 4:30 and we woke up to the sound of drizzling rain pitter-pattering steadily outside on the tent. Not the greatest sound in the world to hear at the time, especially since we were told there was a chance for snow and strong winds forecasted for the higher elevations where we would be going. We considered getting a later start in hopes it would sotp, but after a few minutes of debating the rain gave way to moonlit partly cloudy skies. That was good enough for us, so we packed everything up and headed on over to the trail head for the South Climb Route.

Sunrise

The first few miles of the hike was pretty easy going. There was actually a wildfire that burned through the area the year before, so the first portion was mostly through a forest of dead trees. With the lack of vegetation, we could clearly see the sun rise on Mount Adams ahead of us. After leaving the burned forest, the vegetation became more sparse and turned into a lunar landscape–nothing but rocks, ash, and snow. It was pretty cold and breezy once we got above the treeline, even after we got into the sunlight. We eventually got to our first snowfield and put on the crampons and made our way up to what is known as the Lunch Counter (elev. 9,000 feet). I can only guess it’s called the Lunch Counter because it’s a good spot to fuel up on food before tackling the steep slopes up to the false summit. There are also several campsites here for those who do the climb over a course of two days. When we arrived, there wasn’t anyone else there. After taking a food break, we got back into gear and started the climb up the steep, snowy slope.

Walking Through Lava Fields

From the Lunch Counter, it didn’t look like the false summit was too far away. I think distance wise it was about a mile away. But elevation wise, it was a 2500 foot vertical climb so it was a long, steep, trek up the mountain. It got more difficult going up as the sun rose higher in the sky and the snow turned slushier. At one point we were passed by a guy going up on the rocks (the first person we had seen all day) who apparently had been hiking the Pacific Crest Trail all summer (from Mexico to Canada). He was in pretty good shape, because he breezed on by us up the 30 degree slope like it was a bunny hill.

adamsascent adamscrampons

After a few hours, we all finally made it over the edge at the false summit at 11,500 feet. Unfortunately, no one was really motivated to continue on from there for the final push to the summit since it was getting late in the day (it took us a lot longer to get up there than we thought it would) and we weren’t sure what the weather was going to do as the clouds were coming and going throughout the day. So after debating on what the next move would be, the group decision was to turn back, which was disappointing considering the true summit was only a half mile away and 800 feet up.

However, we were ready for the fun part: glissading back down the mountainside. If you don’t know what glissading is, it’s basically like riding a giant snow slide using an ice axe as a brake. What took us a couple hours to go up only took about 30 minutes to get back down to the Lunch Counter. We saw the PCT guy again on the way back down, returning from the summit. No gear, just the “12 inch skis” he had on his feet. And he kept up with us pretty well as we glissaded on down. By the time we got to the Lunch Counter, there were several other parties making their way up to stay the night, making their attempt to summit the following day.

adamstop adamssummit adamsgroupb&w adamsdescent adamsportraitb&w

By the time we returned to the campground, it was a warm sunny day and the lot was packed. Despite not making it all the way to the top, I had a good experience practicing basic mountaineering skills for the first time. I’ll be back to finish someday I’m sure. 🙂

Adams Road

Hiking in the North Cascades: Sahale Glacier Camp

sahalepano1

It’s about time I got another post up! The weather has been absolutely fantastic here for the past several weeks now; long days, sunny blue skies, warm temps, and hardly a drop of rain since June. I’ve been wanting to go on a good hike for a while now, but since I work weekends, it hasn’t been easy making arrangements with friends. So the other day I decided on a whim to take the initiative and just go solo. So off I went, on August 8th, venturing off into the wild North Cascades on my own.

I had read an article in Backpacker magazine featuring the Sahale Glacier Camp and Sahale Arm Trail. Perched at 7,686 feet (2343 meters), it is the highest designated campsite in the park and overlooks a seemingly endless sea of rugged snow-capped peaks. Now, a few of my friends and I have categorized hikers into two groups: people who like lakes and people who like peaks. I’m definitely a “peaks” person and this definitely sounded like my kind of place. I originally planned on spending the night up there, but it ended up turning into a day hike after I discovered that all the backcountry permits had been issued for the day by the time I got to the ranger station in Marblemount (around 10:00 am). I was somewhat surprised to hear that, given that it was a weekday. Although knowing that it’s a popular destination I should have known better. Oh well.

The scenic drive up the 23-mile Cascade River Road to the trailhead took around 45 minutes. The road is one of the nicer gravel roads (and also partially paved) I’ve been on, but there were a few steeper parts where I wondered if my old ’89 Toyota Camry was going to make it or not. Fortunately it did and I pulled into the nearly full parking lot around 11:00 am, taking off on the trail at 11:15 am.

The hike itself actually began on the Cascade Pass Trail, which I had previously done almost a year ago to the day. It’s an easy hike up to Cascade Pass (elev. 5392 feet), which starts steadily by switchbacking through forested slopes for the first two miles before eventually leveling out. Once out of the trees, it’s a simple traverse over to the pass.

Cascade Pass Trail

It took me a little over an hour to reach the pass, where I met up with the crowds of people eating lunch, taking pictures, and talking with the NP rangers who had also hiked up. I ate a quick snack before continuing on to the Sahale Arm Trail. This is where the trail difficulty got more intense. The first mile ascends steeply up the hillside right away. It got slow going at some parts where the trail was loose dirt and rocks. Once that was done and over with, the path leveled out into open green meadows just before reaching the junction for the Doubtful Lake Trail. I could see trail make its way back downhill towards the cobalt blue lake far below. I also had my first glimpse of the glacier camp across the basin high above me. The sight was slightly disheartening, knowing that I still had quite a ways to go before I reached my destination. For the most part though, hiking up Sahale Arm itself was pretty steady. It wasn’t until the last last half mile where it got really steep again, requiring an ascent up loose rock & dirt. In some spots, rock cairns were the only markers indicating where the trail was and it was practically going straight up to the top. I’ll admit, I was pretty exhausted by the time I reached the camp, taking deep breaths in the thin air.

Forbidden Peak Looking back down Sahale Arm Looking up toward the last stretch of the trail

It took a little over three hours to walk from the car to the top: a 5.9 mile hike with an elevation gain just shy of 4000 feet. I found a spot near the toe of the glacier and literally sat down for hours; waiting for the lighting to get better for taking photos, snacking on the dried cranberries and granola bars I brought, watching the other hikers make it to the top, and of course taking in the endless views of the jagged snow-capped peaks all around me. Occasionally, I would hear a loud crack followed by a low rumble echoing through the valley below as chunks of ice fell off the surrounding glaciers.

Sahale Glacier CampA few climbers went up the glacier to the top The Heart of the Cascades

I think it was around 5:30 pm before I finally started heading back down. I took my time taking pictures now that the lighting was way better at that point. The wildlife seemed to be more active during this time of day, after the afternoon heat had passed and the crowds of people had already gone home. There were tons of hoary marmots and ptarmigans running around. Either one or the other would cross my path every few hundred feet all the way back to Cascade Pass.

There be critters in them hills! Ptarmigan! Cascade Pass Cascade Pass

Another hike crossed off my Washington State bucket list! I’m really glad I went when I did and didn’t wait around to do it. Just two days later, I found out that unusually heavy rains washed out a portion of the road, stranding 65 people and most likely making the trailhead inaccessible by car for the rest of the season. A good lesson in life–take advantage of opportunities as they come to you. You never know when they’ll come your way again!

Backpacking in Olympic National Park: Klahhane Ridge

It’s been a long stretch since my last post (way back in November), but I’m happy to share some photos from my first real hike of the 2013 season! Woot woot! Since most of my stomping grounds in the Cascades are still under several feet of snow (and will likely still be that way for a few more weeks), my buddy Tim and I opted for an overnight trip to the Olympic Peninsula. Despite only being a short ferry ride away from home, we rarely ever venture out to this part of the state so we thought it would be a good opportunity to explore some “new territory”.

We got up bright and early to catch our morning ferry to Port Townsend, where we then drove onward to the Olympic National Park Visitor’s Center in Port Angeles to register our camping permit and pick up a bear can to stash our food in while up on the mountain. From there we drove 40 minutes up the well-paved road through lush forests and grassy alpine meadows to Hurricane Ridge. This is a popular tourist destination here in Washington State and on a clear day it offers spectacular views right into the heart of the Olympics. Not this time, however, since thick clouds had rolled in the night before. Fortunately, this meant less people out and about and being the middle of the week, there were only a few cars in the parking lot.

3D map of the ONP at the visitor's center

Both of us have actually visited Hurricane Ridge in the past, but it was our first time hiking beyond the visitor center/tourist bubble into the “real” Olympic National Park. Our destination was Klahhane Ridge, which lies just to the east of 6458 foot Mt. Angeles. This is the same location where a hiker was gored and killed by a mountain goat in 2010. We didn’t see any goats on this trip, but we did encounter lots of other critters. In just the first 15 minutes, we saw several deer, a few marmots, and even a black bear crossing a snowfield below us on the north side of the ridge.

Bambi

The Klahhane Ridge trail can be accessed from four different approaches: from the north via the Heather Park Trail, the Lake Angeles Trail (another route from the north), the Switchback trail from the south, and from the Sunrise Ridge Trail from the west. We took the high road via the Sunrise Ridge Trail, which eventually connects with Klahhane Ridge via the Switchback trail.

From the parking lot, the trail starts off rising gently along a grassy ridge. As expected, there was a lot less snow on the ground than what we are normally accustomed to this time of year in other parts of the state. We only had to deal with a couple patches of snow here and there for the most part. There was only one section where we couldn’t see the trail at all under the snow and had to glissade down a hill to get the next dry spot. We only encountered four other people along this trail over the course of 3.1 miles. Once we got to the Switchback Trail, we were on our own for the rest of the trip.



The Switchback Trail was less spectacular than the previous trail we had been on. Like the name suggests, it switchbacks up a steep hillside for about a mile. It’s a surefire way to get those buns and legs a good workout! At the top near where the Klahhane Ridge Trail starts, we came across a marmot sitting on a rock outcrop who was not phased at all by our presence. I got some pretty good closeup shots of him, who seemed to pose in every photo I took.

Marmot
Marmot

We followed the Klahhane Ridge Trail for a ways, getting caught up in the clouds drifting by. Every now and then it would clear up enough to where we could see the road far below us and the distance peaks around us on the south side. Then just to our left, a sheer drop into a white abyss as the ridge acted as a natural barrier to clouds coming in from the north side. We found a fairly flat spot to set up the tent and as soon as I took it out of my pack it started raining (talk about good timing!). And that’s how it stayed for most of the afternoon, raining on and off with the wind picking up in the evening. Since there wasn’t much to see due to the cloud cover and poor weather conditions, we didn’t get to do a lot of exploring around the other parts of the ridge. Instead we had an early dinner (beef jerky, dried cranberries, and a hearty bowl of dinosaur egg oatmeal) and headed off to bed.

Mt. Angeles hidden in the clouds
Mt. Angeles
Hiking up into the clouds
Clear on one side and a white abyss on the other
We hit larger snowfields at the top of Klahhane Ridge
Our campsite high on a windy hill
View of the valley from near our campsite

The next morning we got up bright and early to foggy and windy conditions and made it off the mountain as soon as we could, taking the Switchback Trail all the way down to the road and walking back to the Hurricane Ridge parking lot.

Overall, not a bad hike despite the clouds and rain. I’ll probably be back in this area again later this summer if the Obstruction Point Road to Grand Ridge opens. Thanks for reading!