7 Items that All Backpackers Should Always Pack

7 Items that All Backpackers Should Always Pack

Hostel life can be easy and comfortable if you remember to pack beyond the basics. Although I try to keep my backpack as light and compact as possible, there are a few “extras” I always bring with me. 

Here’s my list of seven things that you shouldn’t leave home without, whether you’re backpacking for a week or a year.

Locks: This is essential for staying in dorm rooms.  Most provide lockers, but you are normally expected to bring your own lock.  I prefer using a combination lock so I don’t have to carry around a key, but sometimes the lockers won’t fit a regular combination lock, so my small padlock that I use to lock my suitcase comes in handy.  If you have room for the extra weight, a cable lock is a good tool for the solo traveler in case you need to momentarily leave your baggage unattended.  (Which I don’t recommend, but sometimes you may leave your bag in a bus agency office or something while waiting for a bus.  If you do this, always make sure all of the zippers are locked.

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Don’t Forget Me!: Important Tips to Prepare for an Extended Trip

Don’t Forget Me!: Important Tips to Prepare for an Extended Trip

Planning a long-term trip?  Amid all of the chaos of packing, finishing up at work, and saying goodbye to family and friends, there’s a lot to keep track of.  Outside of making reservations and printing off ticket confirmations, I have a few other less-obvious steps that you might easily forget.  Here are a few of the important things that I always do before any long-term trip.

1) Purchase Travel Insurance: We’re so busy focusing on all of the exciting aspects of our trip that we forget to prepare for the worst.  Nobody wants to think of a trip gone wrong, but our health is not always predictable.  The last thing you want is to be caught without insurance.  How many times have you read an article about someone who ended up getting injured abroad (likely in the States), and went into debt trying to pay for the medical bills?  I personally know a family who has been in that situation.  When I traveled to South America, I bought insurance through Travel Cuts, which had the best deal I could find.  It cost me around $700 (cancellation and baggage were included), but I used it several times.  It didn’t make up for the cost of the premiums, but I at least got a few hundred dollars back. Read more

On the Road, Always

On the Road, Always

“I was surprised, as always, be how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility.” 

― Jack Kerouac, On the Road

 

These days, it seems that almost anyone with the “travel bug” will try to justify his or her affliction by quoting one of three literary figures:

St. Augustine: “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.”

Mark Twain: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do…” 

Jack Kerouac: “Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.”

I was no exception to this trend.  My Facebook and blog were littered with my over-eager attempts to prove that a life of travel is the manifestation of a “carpe diem” mentality.  But as more and more of these quotes began to pop up on my social media feeds, many from people who probably couldn’t even tell you who St. Augustine was, I started to feel a sense of obligation.  If I was going to adopt Kerouac’s philosophy, I should at least have read his work. Read more

Money Matters for Travelers: Tips for Keeping your Funds Safe Abroad

One of the most important factors in any trip is the budget and finances. How you carry, organize, and spend your money will affect the length and outcome of your trip.  Here are twelve tips that should help keep you and your money safe and secure for the duration of your travels:

1.  Familiarize Yourself with the Currency in Advance: I crossed the border from Ecuador to Colombia late one evening, and immediately was faced with the problem of taking a taxi to a nearby town.  I wasn’t completely certain of the exchange rate from Colombian pesos to Canadian dollars, and the taxi driver had anticipated that, since I was just coming from Ecuador.  He tried to charge me ten times the amount that the ride should have been, arguing that the exchange rate was around 18 000 to 1, instead of 1800 to 1.  Luckily, I caught the trick before handing over the cash.  So make sure that you are confident in new exchange rates before you have to use them. Read more

Wisdom from Mothers Around the World

Wisdom from Mothers Around the World

While many customs and behaviours differ around the world, there are some things that all cultures share.  The love of a mother is one of them.  Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to meet numerous local families on my travels.  It never ceases to surprise me just how similar these families are, and especially how strong the mothers are.  Here is a small collection of some of the lessons and wisdom I’ve gained from mothers met around the world:

 

Nelly from Colombia:  Nelly showed me the meaning of strength.  No matter what a family goes through, a mother will try her hardest to keep the family safe and happy.  Nelly also was also a really “cool mom.”  She seemed like she was one of the guys, and I think her sons’ friends were just as likely to come over to hang out with her or lend her a hand as they were to see her sons.

Anneke from the Netherlands: Anneke showed me two things: what it would be like to be the only woman in a house of boys (especially rowdy Dutch boys!), and how to make any newcomers to the family instantly feel very welcome.  She is a warm, loving woman who embodies exactly what I imagine when I think of Dutch mothers.

Marcela from Mexico: Marcela taught me how difficult it can be to be a stay-at-home mom.  There are constantly things that need to be done, and it really is one of the busiest full-time jobs.  But even when things get hectic, there is still the satisfaction of spending the evenings surrounded by your husband and children.  Marcela is one mother who puts her heart and soul into organizing her children’s lives.

Nelly from Colombia, teaching me how to cook Christmas dinner!
Nelly from Colombia, teaching me how to cook Christmas dinner!

Siemke from the Netherlands:  Sometimes women end up having to be mothers to both their children, and their husbands.  This woman is an inspiration for her strength in dealing with a difficult situation, and a tough loss, all the while caring for everyone else in her life.

Ana Maria from Uruguay: She taught me that love is blind to age.  She fell in love with a man thirty years her senior, and they remained madly in love until the day he passed away.  He used to write her poetry, and she said that she had never met someone more romantic.  For her, it felt like they weren’t a day apart in age.

Evelin from Peru:  Evelin reminded me that a mother will go to any length to try to keep her family together, even if that means doing some questionable things.  Anything in the name of family!

Gaby from the Netherlands: Gaby showed me that, more than anything, mothers care about the happiness of their children.  Any triumph, any failure, any love, or any heartbreak that a child experiences is magnified through the empathy of a mother, and a mother’s love is stronger than no other.

Cindy from Canada: Auntie Cindy showed me that there is absolutely nothing that can bring a determined mother down, be it a stressful day, a heavy workload, or something far worse.  She’s a warrior mom.

Me with my "Mexican Family" -- Liz, Carlos, and Carlitos
Me with my “Mexican Family” — Liz, Carlos, and Carlitos

Liz from MexicoLiz is a power-mom.  Accustomed to taking in international students year-round, she knows how to take care of an ever-changing and ever-expanding family.  The wonders of her kitchen continue to spellbind me, and because of her, I can’t stop dreaming about my next homemade Mexican food!

Laura from Costa Rica:  Laura taught me the importance of making sacrifices for your family.  She uprooted her home and life to bring her children to Canada, where her husband was working on his Ph.D..   A mother almost always has to put her family first.

Roberta from Italy: Roberta showed me the joys of new motherhood.  The excitement of your baby’s first holidays, and first vacation, and the anticipation of everything that’s to follow.

And of course, I couldn’t forget …

Who else’s grandmother hangs out with Justin Bieber?

 

 

Evelyn from Canada:  My mom taught me the love of travel, and that it’s important to realize that every culture is different but equally important.  In that sense, that every day is a gift and that we should never take what we have for granted.  She taught my brother and I to follow our dreams, and that sometimes it’s better to stray off the beaten path.  Money is important, but not so much as happiness.

Harmien from Canada: My Grandma taught me that a woman can be graceful and classy at any age.  At 78, she is the most fashionable, tech-savvy and “together” senior I know, and she’s also the most loving grandmother that anyone could ask for.  She’s also the only grandma I know who would use the word “boner” at Easter dinner! 😉

Things to Do in Arequipa, Peru

Things to Do in Arequipa, Peru

Arequipa, Peru.  Haven’t heard of it?  While it may not be as widely known as Lima, Cuzco, or Lake Titicaca, Arequipa is a major Peruvian city with a lot to offer travelers.  Located in the south of the country (a few hours from the famous Nazca lines), Arequipa is home to close to a million inhabitants.

It’s known as “La Ciudad Blanca” (The White City), a nod to the stunning white architecture that fills the city centre.  These buildings were constructed with sillar, white volcanic stone from the three volcanoes that loom over the city — the most prominent being “El Misti”, which is pictured above.  Partially because of the colour of the stone, but also because of the colonial and heavy Catholic influence in the architecture, Peruvians consider Arequipa to be one of the most Spanish or Mestizo cities in the country.  There is much less outright indigenous influence than in a place like Cuzco, for example.

That may sound nice, but what is there to actually see and do in Arequipa?

I arrived in Arequipa on a bus straight from La Paz, Bolivia, a city that had overwhelmed me with its chaos.  I have to sheepishly admit that I completely embraced Arequipa for its modernity, and tourist-friendly atmosphere.  Arequipa is a city fit for tourists of all types and budgets, not just hippy backpackers.  It has luxurious hotels, high-class restaurants, and even plenty of air-conditioned malls with western-style gyms.  However, you’ll still find plenty of local eateries, budget hotels and hostels, and family-run businesses.

Here are some of my recommendations on how to spend your time in Arequipa:

1. Walk the City Centre: The historic centre occupies roughly a five-block diameter of the city.  It’s easily accessible, and safe to walk around in.  There are plenty of small museums, and some converted mansions which you can view.  It’s great to just wander the streets, and observe the activity.  The hub of the centre is the Plaza de Armas, the main square.  In true colonial tradition, the square is dominated by the cathedral, but it’s also filled with hawkers, and promotion people who work for various tourism companies.  Most will try to sell you packaged tours to the Colca Canyon, Cusco, or Lake Titicaca.  Try to avoid them by sticking to the side streets, which are almost equally beautiful and full of small shops.Arequipa

2. See a Frozen Inca Princess: Ever seen a mummy?  How about an Inca mummy?  Although the Museo Santuarios Andinos may seem a bit pricey, (20 soles), it’s a worthwhile experience.   “Juanita” is the name given to the frozen, preserved body of a young sacrificial victim, who was found by an anthropologist in 1995.  Her corpse was discovered high on the volcano Ampato, and now resides in this museum.  Watch a short documentary, see some of the artifacts that were buried with her, and learn a bit more about Inca history.

3. Tour the Santa Catalina Convent:  One of the best pieces of advice I got about Arequipa was from Carlita, a local who I met through Couchsurfing.  She told me that I should visit the convent in the late afternoon, about an hour and a half before sunset.  This way, I could take photos and see the site both in daylight, and during the magnificent sunset.   Established in 1579 (only a few decades after the Spanish conquest), the entire complex was built out of sillar.  (Most of it has been painted a beautiful blue or reddish-pink.)  Although part of it is still in use, the majority of the convent was opened to the public in 1970.  Don’t forget to climb up the stairs onto the roof to view the sunset!  (Give yourself lots of time here; there’s plenty to see).

4. Have a Rooftop Drink: If you visited the convent earlier in the day, you can always catch the sunset at one of the many rooftop bars in the Plaza de Armas.  One of the best views is from the restaurants in the upper-right corner of the plaza, if you’re facing the cathedral.

5.  Take a Cooking Course: Peruvian Cooking Experience is a fantastic company that is located in Hotel Casa Avila, just a six or seven minute walk from the main plaza.  The class I took cost 45 soles, and was some of the best money I spent on my entire trip.  There are a few different menus you can choose from (classic, Andean, and seafood), and they also cater to vegetarian students.  In my class, we cooked the Andean Menu: Soltero de Queso, (a cheese and corn salad), Rocoto Relleno (see below), and Pastel de Papas (potato pie).  My class began at 11 AM, and ended at 2.  Book ahead of time, here.

Try your hand at some typical Peruvian dishes.
Try your hand at some typical Peruvian dishes.

6. Eat and Drink!: Arequipa is home to some very popular Peruvian dishes, such as Rocoto Relleno, Rocoto hot peppers stuffed with a mixture of beef, raisins, eggs, cheese, peas, carrots, milk, and potatoes.  These have a real kick to them, but are probably my favourite Peruvian dish!  Soltero de Queso is another popular dish here.  It’s a  tasty, brightly-coloured salad, with lots of cheese, corn, lima beans, onions, tomatoes, carrots, all tossed with a lime dressing.  (For more Peruvian food, see my list of some of my favourites.)  When you’ve had your fill, wash everything down with some Pisco Sour, a famous cocktail made with egg whites, lime, and Pisco alcohol.  If you’re looking for a mid-range restaurant and want something less traditional, visit Crepisimo (right by the convent).  It has a beautiful courtyard, so eat outside.

7. Couchsurf: Arequipa has some great couchsurfers, and this is one city where it’s nice to go out and meet people.  I met up with Carla and Carlos during my stay here, and both were eager hosts who were more than willing to show me the city.  Carlita also introduced me to spicy versions of Pisco Sours — the best way to cool off on a warm afternoon! 😉

8. Hike the Colca Canyon or El Misti Volcano: The Colca Canyon is one of the deepest canyons in the world, and is home to the Andean Condors, which can be spotted from the Cruz del Condor lookout point.  El Misti is the volcano that towers over Arequipa.  I did not do these myself, because I had to hurry over to Cuzco for the start of my Inca Trail trek, but all of my friends who have done it, loved them.  Give yourself a couple of days for either of these excursions, and make sure you compare prices before booking.  You can do the Colca Canyon on your own, but you need a guide for the volcano.  Expect to pay around 150 soles for a 3-day (2-night) Colca Canyon tour.

 

There are many, many more things to do in Arequipa, whether you’re looking for culture, history, or adventure tourism.  Get out there, and explore.  Give yourself at least two or three days in the city, and two or three more for nearby excursions.

Where to Stay: I stayed at the Arequipay Backpackers’ Hostel, and loved it.  It’s only a few minutes’ walk from the main plaza, and right down the street from the Peruvian Cooking Experience.

“So Why Don’t You Have a Boyfriend?” — Reflections on Being a Single Traveler

“So Why Don’t You Have a Boyfriend?” — Reflections on Being a Single Traveler

“¿Por qúe no tienes novio?” 

It was always the most pressing question on the minds of the Mexican women I met.  Why don’t you have a boyfriend?

I had come to Guadalajara to visit my best friend, who in turn was there to visit her long-distance Mexican boyfriend.  Over the course of the month we spent there, we got to know the women at the bootcamp gym that we went to.  These ladies just couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me.

“You’re pretty and you speak Spanish.  So why are you alone?  Why can’t you find a Latin boyfriend too?”

Up until this point, my status as a solo/single traveler hadn’t bothered me.  I felt safe, confident, and adventurous on my own.  I was meeting new people, taking risks, and knocking items off my bucket list like they were bowling pins.

But as I practiced squats in front of the Real Housewives of Guadalajara, I couldn’t help but stop to wonder, why was I alone?

I compiled a list of possible reasons:

Being a single traveler, great or depressing?
Being a single traveler, great or depressing?

– Long Distance is on the out:  “Is there someone back home?”  That was always the next question.  The truth is, maybe there was.  Not back home, because I didn’t really have a home, and in the year leading up to my trip, I refused to get into anything.  I’d done long-distance enough in the past.  There was no way I’d tie myself into that during a 10-month trip.  But for the first four or five months of my trip, there was always that tiny part of me that considered what would happen if I left South America and flew elsewhere.  To a certain someone.  I never did.  Because if there’s one thing that life has taught me, it’s not to plan your life around something (or someone) that is uncertain.  Things can change in an instant, and you don’t want to sacrifice your goals only to face disappointment.

– Still Hung up on Him: “Are you suffering from a broken heart?” Along the complicated path of adolescence, I made a mistake.  I let someone go.  It’s not like he didn’t fight, but I pushed away with both hands.  By the time I realized my mistake, things were not the same.  I tried to make them be, but then it was my turn to feel hurt.  “It will take you until your trip to get over him,” my friends said.  They were right.  But, get over him, I did.  Finally.

– I Have a 2-Second Interest Rate and Too-high Standards: “Haven’t you met any nice Latin boys?”  Of course I had.  The thing about backpacking is that you meet at least ten new people every day.  When you’re a salsa-dancing backpacker, you meet a single, potentially good-looking Latino every single song you dance.  Multiple these together, and you’ll really understand the saying “There’s plenty of fish in the sea.”  Yet the problem was, rarely did I meet someone who could hold my attention for more than a day or two.  Maybe my standards are too high.  Or perhaps this was a sign that I wasn’t ready for anyone.

Maybe my heart was elsewhere?   (Photo credit: unknown?)
Maybe my heart was elsewhere?
(Photo credit: unknown?)

 The Trip Must go on: “But surely you’ve met someone.” I couldn’t pretend that, among all of those hundreds of guys I had met, there wasn’t anyone who meant something.  Yes, there were a couple of people with whom I really connected.  One or two instances in which I felt something.  That purported “spark.”  Yet the timing wasn’t right, or the person wasn’t right enough.  There was nobody who could make me take root and settle.

– I’m Having one of Those Eat, Pray, Love Years: I was the girl who was always dating someone.  I could never be alone.  After a few months of solo travel, I noticed that I had changed.  I was independent.  Too independent, perhaps.  Gentlemanly gestures that I had previously called sweet and thoughtful (guiding your elbow across the street, opening car doors, helping you do things) were getting on my nerves.  My new attitude was: don’t you think I can take care of myself?.  I truly had the sense that I was a new person after my cliché journey of self-discovery.

Or maybe I was single because I let myself go out dressed like this? ;)  (I'm not that fat.  I have seven layers of clothing on, I swear).
Or maybe I was single because I let myself go out looking like this? 😉 (I have seven layers of clothing on and an SLR camera shoved under this coat, I swear).

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was a combination of all of these factors that made me single.  Still, I couldn’t see why my workout companions in Guadalajara were so determined to set me up with a nice Mexican boy.  I was fine being alone, wasn’t I?

It took me months to understand that there were some cultural associations underlying these women’s worries.  I adore Mexico, and love (almost) all of the women I’ve met there.  They’re fantastic cooks, caring mothers, and model wives.  But that’s just it.  Much as the country is progressing, Mexico still hasn’t reached its peak of feminine liberalization.  You do see  a handful of powerful Mexican businesswomen and leaders, but most Mexican women are defined first and foremost by their roles as wives and mothers.  In their eyes, a relationship is not a side thought — it’s essential.  It helps them forge a life and a family for themselves.

Having grown up in Canadian culture, I feel that my primary responsibility is to myself.  Marriage and kids will come when the time is right, when I’ve formed my own identity and started a career.  Or maybe these things won’t come at all.

People always tell you that you can’t go looking for love.  Maybe you can, maybe you can’t.  I think when you start doing what you love, love will find you.

 

— On a final note, maybe I’m single because I spend all my time writing about my personal life and embarrassing myself with horrible photos online! 😉

La Viajera Auditions for the Amazing Race Canada

La Viajera Auditions for the Amazing Race Canada

“Esther asks why people are sad. ‘That’s simple,’ says the old man. ‘They are the prisoners of their personal history. Everyone believes that the main aim in life is to follow a plan. They never ask if that plan is theirs or if it was created by another person. They accumulate experiences, memories, things, other people’s ideas, and it is more than they can possibly cope with. And that is why they forget their dreams.’” — Paulo Coelho, The Zahir

 

In line with the idea of forging our own paths in life and ignoring the “American Dream” plan, my younger brother, Peter, and I have sent in our audition tape to Canada’s version of Amazing Race.  We are just one of hundreds and hundreds of pairs who entered, but we thought it was a fun project to do together.  You never know, maybe we’ll have a shot.

For our video, we decided to do a spoof of the new Molson Canadian commercial (Check it out here).  Enjoy!