An invitation to Vietnam

Have you ever fallen in love with a place at first sight? I know that I have.

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To say the least it was enchanting to be given the chance to take tours in new countries and see things that were brand new to me as my contract got extended for a month in Asia while working on a cruise ship. There are definitely worse things that can happen in life.  We docked in Da Nang, Vietnam which was about thirty minutes from the popular tourist areas along the beach. En route to Hoi An for some free time in the town and lunch at one of the best Vietnamese restaurants I really didn’t know what to expect. Before reaching Hoi An we stopped in the outskirts for a small town walk visiting a temple and a local neighborhood. Following my group from the back of the line I just soaked up everything. How people live. What their houses look like. What people wore. Listening to their language. We reached a huge space of what seemed to be rice paddies. Well this view was not so foreign to me because I once lived in the countryside of Korea and this was all that I saw!
Finally reaching Hoi An my mind was playing tricks on me. Wait, was I back in Bali again? Am I in Ubud? As both Hoi An and Ubud appeared to have many similarities I knew that I was in Vietnam. Hoi An reminded me so much of the heart of Bali; Ubud. With small art shops, beautiful pottery shops, locally made arts and crafts, colorful and exotic fruits on the side streets, small local venders cooking up noodles and dumplings I felt like a spell was put on me. I was truly in love all over again. With exquisite colors of fabrics, paintings, lanterns flowing down the street I felt helplessly in love. There was no turning back at this point. I was completely, magically, and helplessly in love with Hoi An. Walking past me was an older woman carrying large fruit baskets hooked onto a long rod that she held over her shoulder. Colorful dragon fruits, snake fruits, and star fruits jiggled in the basket as she walked past me. Lunch time was around the corner.

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As I thought that Pho and spring rolls filled with shrimps and basil were all that Vietnamese cuisine was all about, I was completely wrong. Reaching our restaurant the chefs were preparing the dumplings, soups, and fresh salads in the entrance. As I made a special request for a vegetarian meal I was hesitant what I was going to be fed. As the other guests in my tour had the same meal I was the special case and I was hoping that I would get just as delicious food as them. Soon, warm dumplings filled with veggies and shrimp with a dipping sauce was placed in front of me. It looked too beautiful to eat at first then I slowly took my first bite. Then a big bowl of soup that looked like a combo of curry and pho was delicately placed on my table. Have you ever eaten a meal so delicious, ingredients so fresh, that you almost feel sad to finish your food? Each bite I took was small as I soaked in all of the flavors from this soup. I was sad to see it go.

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When I fall in love with a place sometimes I fall in love with every bit. The cafes, the people, the smells, the sights, the pace, and the nature. This happened to me once when I visited Bali and now I was experiencing falling in love immediately with Hoi An. Why? Because there is no place quite like it that I have ever been to. Korea doesn’t look like Hoi An. Singapore doesn’t have a small town like this that offers you everything to fall in love with.

I found Hoi An an enchanting town with the river that flows through the city with small fishing boats locals sail on and the yellow and red lanterns that line the town. The little touches the locals put into your experience. With my last thirty minutes of free time I sat and enjoyed what was the largest and most delicious coconut I ever drank out of. With that came a full bladder where I had to find a bathroom immediately for the bus ride back.

Hoi An is a place that made me fall for it all. It’s a place that I always recommend. It’s a place that when I think of it, it brings me peace and a smile on my face. There was so much solitude and joy I experienced by walking around just on my own, just as I like to. There is something to be said about places that immediately make you feel like you’re invited even though you never received an invitation. I think that is called grace.

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Have you ever traveled to a place that you fell in love with at first sight? I’d love to know. Share your comments below to get this conversation started!

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How I fell in love with Singapore

So I am a self-proclaimed Singapore junkie. I love many things about Singapore. Starting with the food. Food always seems to fascinate me especially when it is delicious and available for vegetarians. I love the vibrancy of colors at night in Chinatown. I love testing my taste buds in Little India trying new Indian dishes. I love getting  lost inside the Mustafa Centre with all the latest electronics, clothing, shoes, and wellness products at the best prices. Don’t believe me? Check out my video on Youtube where I explain a bit more.

 

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As one of the busiest city-states left in the world Singapore (located in southeast Asia) has many things to offer to a hungry traveler. With a little over five million people living on this multicultural island Singapore marks itself as “The Lion City.” Rest assure as there are no lions roaming the city however at the Promenade you will be sure to see the Merlion fountain spitting water into the bay. With many waiting in a que for a selfie with it.

What attracted me to want to explore Singapore started over six years ago when I settled into my new job in South Korea. Many of my  expat friends were visiting Singapore on short layovers with AirAsia on their way to and from Bali or Malaysia. But for me I wanted to dig a bit deeper to really get the full picture of what Singapore is really like. With mentions of great foods at the hawker stalls, the pristine flora inside Gardens by the Bay, and enjoying the views of the city from the top floor of the Marina Bay Sands I was hooked.

The organization and system that this country follows was very apparent to be when riding the MRT. Singaporeans que up in the proper lines when getting on and off the trains. There are some interesting rules that people must follow in order to not pay a heavy fine. Take for example the exotic fruit, the durian. As this prickly fruit is compared to eating ice cream out of a toilet bowl, the smell in fact is atrocious (to me). With strict fines of up to $500 SD people are banned from carrying this fruit with them onto public transportation, into hotels, and restaurants. There is a reason why nobody wants to smell this fruit! Gum chewing is another rule that you really don’t want to be caught partaking in.

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As our ship was preparing to dock in Singapore our HR team on board trained us the rules of the land. Starting in the early 90’s bans on gum chewing were enforced because of the vandalism it created around the city with people sticking their used gum in many places.  With that said, “No gum chewing!” If you are caught chewing gum anywhere in Singapore you can be charged a hefty fine.  I found the sidewalks so pristine with zero garbage anywhere. The ques that people follow an the organization of the city really drew me into immediately falling in love with Singapore. People really care about keeping it clean!
With the convenience of cheap and accessible trains you can literally visit the most popular destinations without paying more for taxis. Gardens by the Bay located near the Promenade and Marina by Sands at MRT Bayfront. It is a place that I highly recommend to travelers because the exotic flora from all corners of the world is so magnificent. To keep cool you can browse and check out the flora inside the domes for a small fee ($12 for one conservatory)  for the day or you can check out the gardens outside free of admission. Either the early morning or later in the evening is the best time to go to beat the sun and heat midday.
Chinatown was quite impressive with a monstrous food scene. Whether you like noodles, laksa, Chili crabs, soups, Chinese food, Malay, or Indian fare you are sure to find it all in Chinatown. As a multicultural island-state with four distinct languages (English, Malay, Mandarin, and Indian) you are sure to find all the foods that represent these languages: Western foods, rice, spicy dishes, meats, dumplings, ramen, fried rice, curry, lassis, briyani, and the list will go on and on.
As a lover of international cuisines I was in food heaven (soon to be food coma). Once I arrived at the MRT in Chinatown there huge food stalls everywhere. From specialty Chinese dishes, to fresh juices, to sliced fruits, to noodles, I had so many choices of delicious things to eat. From there I did some souvenir shopping, sampled Chinese teas, ate some dumplings, watched monks pray in a Buddhist temple, and people watched by snacking at Maxwell Food Court with a cold local Tiger beer.

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Inside Gardens by the Bay

Singapore is highly user friendly. I find it super easy and accessible to find my way around the island and it can all be done by the MRT. As a traveler who loves creative cuisines, night markets, hawker stalls, and ease with getting around Singapore is a touchdown for me.

ACCOMMODATION:

I booked with Agoda to sort through the best deals in Singapore. I stayed at the Intercontinental Hotel in Bugis and it was beyond awesome. The breakfasts that were included in my room rate each morning were exceptional.  Starting with the fresh pressed juices of my choices (beets, orange, watermelon, ginger), an array of Indian fare, omlettes, and fresh fruits, it was excellent. The staff were great and it was very luxurious. I would gladly stay at the Intercontinental in Bugis (MRT) because of the location (very close to the Sultan Mosque) and the proximity to shops, dining, and entertainment.

Have you ever been to Singapore before? What did you think?

Swiping your card in Korea

Getting around South Korea is mindlessly easy when paying with a credit card. Compared to many other cash based travel destinations I have been to, South Korea is the most convenient and user friendly when it comes to ease when making purchases at train stations, restaurants, cafe, and shops.

Can you imagine traveling around a country where literally almost every place accepts your card for each transaction? Buying an expresso at Cafe Bene ? Hand over your card.  Ordering tale out cham-chi kimbap from a local fast food eater? Swipe your card. It’s really that easy. As most street food carts only accept Korean won as well as subway tickets around Seoul, Daegu, Busan, and Gwangju you can literally pay for just about anything else with your card (including small businesses).With all this information in mind try to have a credit card with zero international transactions fees so that you don’t rack up fees.

As South Korea is a generally safe place to travel around I still don’t like traveling with paper money because of my personal travel style but keep in mind that getting robbed can happen anywhere in the world as there are crazies everywhere. I recently revisited South Korea for a week beginning my sightseeing in Seoul. Beginning with buying my AREX ticket from Incheon Airport to Seoul Station and popping by GS20 to find my favorite drinking yogurt I was paying with my card. Buying over the counter medicine at a small pharmacy (yak) to lunch in Itaewon to purchasing my train ticket to Daegu, I was swiping my credit card left and right. This really makes travel so much easier because you don’t have to keep checking your wallet for how much money you have left. You don’t have to worry about accidentally dropping money or keeping track of cash when you can just use your card. You can easily access wifi and browse your recent transactions online which I prefer hands down.
Another benefit of using your credit card is that you can continue to rack up your points. With my Capital One Venture card I don’t have to pay for international transaction fee and I am constantly earning points for my purchases that I can redeem later for gift cards or airfare once I have enough points. If you are paying with cash for everyday purchases you can say goodbye to these points when traveling around.

TWO PLACES WHERE USING A CREDIT CARD MAY NOT BE ALLOWED:

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A LOCAL FARMERS MARKET
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YOUR LOCAL KIMBAP SHOP

IN CONCLUSION:

Overall, out of all the countries that I have visited I was completely blown away by the convenience of credit card acceptance around the country. Don’t have any won left? Just swipe your card. Lastly I always recommend keeping spare cash in the case that credit card machines are down or your purchases are cash only. There are delicious streets foods to try in and around Korea including tteokbokki, hoddeok, and these corn bread muffins baked with an egg inside. There is new grapefruit craze at food stalls where the pulp and juice is blended and poured back inside the grapefruit that you drink with a straw. Who knew?! I specifically found these all around Myeongdong and I know for sure that the food stall owners aren’t accepting your visa for that. Happy travels.

Note: Mastercard and Visa are the most widely accepted credit cards in South Korea in hotels, coffee shops, eateries, and for paying for train stations. When purchasing subway tickets you need the Korean currency of the won. Street foods and outside markets only accept cash.

Setting your sights on teaching English in Korea

 

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My EPIK orientation in Seoul (October 2010)

So you’re thinking about teaching English in South Korea but you’re stumped on whether you want to teach at a public or private institution. There are many pros and cons in the decision making but overall you want to make the right decision based on your personal and professional needs. After three years in the ROK I can safely give you the best advice based on my personal experiences, my friend’s comments, and the information available to you on the internet.

Aside from which kind of institution you would like to teach at keep in mind the fact of your placement; you may be placed rurally. Be sure to be specific as to your preference of rural of city living. After living in rural Korea for more than a year I will say this now and say this again to any prospective English teacher: I would much prefer basing myself in the city so that I can easily get around by train and enjoy all the things that will make my life a little more convenient to have when living abroad: international dining choices, cafes galore, international expat meetups, choices of shopping, KTX and train stations to get around on weekday and weekends. If you are based in a rural placement you will be literally spending your Monday to Friday after school there with limited bus times returning to your town in the evening. Know that you can always visit countryside temples and hiking national parks on your weekends.

English Program in Korea (EPIK)

Public Schools in Seoul and Gyeonggi (province)(GEPIK)

Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education(SMOE)

KNOW: The English Program in Korea hires Native English Teachers in the provinces of Gangwon-do, Gyeongbuk-do, Gyeongsang-do, Chungcheongnam-do, Jeallanam-do, and lastly Jeju-do.
PROS:
• FREE accommodation provided by employer (Usually a studio or one room apartment)
• Regular working hours Monday-Friday 8:30-4:30
• Weekends OFF
• All national holidays OFF and PAID
• Communication with your regional coordinator in the case that you have questions that your co-teacher is unable to answer or solve
• Winter and Summer Vacation days OFF and PAID (At least 15 per year)
• Health care coverage (half is paid by your employer while you pay the other half; approx. 70,000 ($66 USD) deducted from your salary each month
• Regular monthly payment (25th of each month)
• Resigning bonus
• Regular contributions to pension & severance pay upon completion of your contract
• Free flight to South Korea provided by the government. Reimbursement given to you upon arrival
• Free orientation training in Seoul upon arrival

CONS of teaching in a public school:
• Last minute changes in the schedule that means that you may be teaching last minute classes or your classes are cancelled
• You cannot exactly choose your placement by city or town. You have to understand that many logistics change last minute so you are placed on need
• End of semester summer and Winter desk warming. Even though you are not scheduled to teach classes on these days you are required as per your contract to be at school during regular desk hours. This can possibly last for up to a few weeks.
• Choosing your vacation dates is planned last minute based on the dates of your schools summer and winter camp dates that the head co teacher usually decides. you cannot book ahead of time your dates for going home or elsewhere plans of abroad travel until vacation dates are planned
• Your co-teacher can make or break your teaching experience based on their personality and teaching style. That means, begin your contract on the right foot with your best intentions set
• You will be the only foreigner at your school. This can be good or this could be bad for you. If your coworkers and co-teachers are not very friendly to you or they are too shy you might feel very lonely and wish there were other foreigners there teaching English with you

Private Schools (Hagwons)
{Hagwons are located all throughout Korea in all metropolitan cities and small towns in the nine provinces through South Korea}. Keep in mind that Hagwons are after school study sessions that Korean parents pay to the private institution for their children to study and practice English with foreigners.
PROS:
• Later teaching hours ( after children complete public school at 4:30 they head to their private institutions to study with a foreigner)
• No co-teaching. You are the one in charge teaching the little monsters all that there is to know about English.
• Severance and pension contributions???
• Health care coverage (half is paid by your employer while you pay the other half; approx. 70,000 ($66 USD) deducted from your salary each month
• FREE accommodation provided by employer (Usually a studio or one room apartment)
• Free flight to South Korea provided by the government. Reimbursement given to you upon arrival
• You will have many foreigners at your workplace to socialize and mingle with to make the adjustment to living in Korea a bit smoother
• No desk warming EVER

CONS of teaching at private institutions:
• Hagwons can close at a minutes notice if there is not enough business which means you are out of a job.
• You have less vacation days per year in your contract compared to teaching at a public school. I have met foreigners who only get five vacation days per year.

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TO SUM IT ALL UP:
After weighing out all of my options I think that hagwons (as long as you research well) might be the best option for teaching English abroad. With little to non-existent desk warming you are at your workplace to work, not wasting time on youtube or fiddling your fingers thinking of how to spend your day at your desk. My biggest concern with EPIK was the amount of time wasted with next to nothing to do when my classes were cancelled due to testing and the desk warming I had to due before and after winter/summer camps. Lastly I realized that there is no upward mobility in future career aspirations being an English teacher at a public school in Korea. There are no opportunities to raise the bar or expand your job experience.

I recommend Dave’s ESL Cafe to browse job opportunities in South Korea and abroad. For information about life in Korea check out my list of vlogs on my Youtube playlist.

Exploring the Blue Mountains

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In a fluke of a travel opportunity that came to me when my ship was based out of Sydney I decided to take myself and my carry on onto an adventure in New South Wales, Australia on my first solo extravaganza in OZ. Exploring Australia was a dream for me for a very long time. I can clearly recall sitting in the back of my world geography course in college studying the map of Australia while my professor was lecturing about the Great Barrier Reef. My listening was checked out for a bit as I pinpointed where Perth, Melbourne, Sydney, and Cairns were on the map. I was stunned to read about the aboriginals who still try to make a living in Darwin, around Cairns, and into the outback.

I couldn’t predict when my crystal ball would take me out to Australia but it came soon enough I believe.Seven years later after my fascination began to grow with visiting Australia I was striding off the ships gangway with my travel plans next to the Opera House and heading toward the botanical gardens ready to explore OZ. The smell of the sea air, the bright flora covering the grounds and trees I have never seen in my life made me want to just cry out of happiness. I had truly landed in OZ!

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The Three Sisters

With my sights set on exploring the Blue Mountains region I headed toward Sydney Central Train station to begin my journey. With a ticket booked from I was on my way to Katoomba out to explore the majestic Blue Mountains with serene and enchanting scenery outside my window. After snacking on Tim Tams and enjoying the Aussie accents around me my train arrived in Katoomba. Nested in the gateway of the Blue Mountains this cozy town has plenty of impressive cafes, restaurants, shops, and little nooks and crannies you just have to find for yourself. With my big map properly sprawled out and the best cappuccino in the world, I was making my plans.

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Leura Cascades

Now Katoomba is a place that is very easy to reach via Sydney and the sights there are sometimes compared to the Grand Canyon (just not as big).To completely enjoy the Blue Mountains region the best way to see everything is to purchase a hop on hop off ticket next to the train station upon arrival. I purchased the two day pass so I didn’t feel I had to squeeze it all into one day. There are more than a dozen stops with drop off points all around different hiking courses as well as little town centers to enjoy a bite to eat or some window shopping. From hiking around the Three Sisters to Leura Cascade Falls I was truly amazed by the incredible sights. Australia is such a fascinating continent that I hope I have to chance to explore more of one day.

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I really couldn’t have been more excited to be in Australia!

Oceania and beyond: Isle of Pines

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The more beaches I have the opportunity around the world to visit the more over development I see with my own eyes.

From the islands around the Caribbean such as Aruba and St. Maarten to Bali and Borocay, as much as I adore these destinations I still crave to soak in a piece of paradise that doesn’t have a lot of traffic and remnants from tourists. But if anyone were to ask me the best spot in the world for the best beach it would have to be Isle of Pines in New Caledonia. Off the southeast coast of Australia (about two sea days away) lies  the island nation of New Caledonia. French speaking New Caledonia offers breathtaking beaches around the island as well as smaller islands off the coast such is Lifou (the Loyalty Islands). As New Caledonia is not a common or known destination to many travelers it can still be reached by many cruise ships including Celebrity, Princess, Royal Caribbean and P&O. As it is a fairly difficult and expensive place to get to on your own a cruise ship would be the most suitable way to visit.

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I visited Isle of Pines two years ago as my ship anchored into the bay. I truly felt swept away from society with a bit of curiously lingering. Truth be told I was blown away but the natural beauty, solitude, and the unsaturated footprints that tourists leave behind here. Pulling up to shore looking out the tender boat I witnessed a local man playing with a huge black and white striped water snake wrapped around a stick before letting it go into the sea. As my body cringed as it slipped away and began bobbing it’s head in and out of the surface I hoped I would never come face to face with one of those. With this sight leaving me feeling a bit queasy I began my journey exploring the wilderness of an island layered with towering pine trees lining the coast line sipping a young coconut.

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With gentle breezes swaying back and forth I staked my claim on the sandy shore and sat back to take in what I thought was some kind of dream. Isle Of Pines is a place that is mostly unknown to many travelers based on its location in Oceania. If you do however find yourself in Australia or New Zealand or are thinking of cruising in that part of the world, make sure that Isle of Pines is on your itinerary. There is simply no place like it on our planet Earth. I cannot compare it to any Caribbean island or paradise that is similar in some parts of Southeast Asia. The beaches are untouched. The locals selling coconuts are just as curious about you as you are about this place created by the heavens. I am a huge lover and fanatic about Isle of Pines and I hope that one day you are too!

Travel Guidelines in the Philippines

Mabuhay!

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Puerto Galera, Mindoro Oriental

If you love exotic beaches, landscapes that vary from the capital to the provinces, a cuisine with plenty of variety, and meeting very friendly locals who can speak English very well then maybe the Philippines is a place that is next on your list of destinations to visit. As the Philippines is a developing nation with plenty of resources and wonderful things happening in and around Manila the right precautions should be taken as with any place you plan to visit.

As I have spent about three months in the Philippines between all my visits combined I have seen many places near and far. From the Intramuros fortress in Manila to the rice terraces in Banaue, down to Chocolate Hills in Bohol, I am truly in love with all the sights in the Philippines. I believe that I have the authority to share my top tips of advice for the traveler interested in the Philippines because from first hand experience I know what expats are going to face when finding their way around the first time. And one piece of advice concerning my two favorite things you must try; buko (coconut) pie and lumpia(spring rolls). They are my favorite. Enjoy!
1. Travel with Local Currency
As you go on your journey around the Philippines it’s important to keep in mind that you really need local currency on you because outside of the big malls credit cards are not going to get you very far. Compared to other Asian destinations where paying with a credit card is everywhere like in South Korea where I recently traveled to, it’s better to know this now before you are in for a big surprise in the Philippines. When taking public transportation such as jeepneys, tricycles, and buses not only do you need pesos to pay but you need small change and even sometimes exact change to pay. You don’t want to be paying for a tricycle ride with a 1000 Peso bill. You especially don’t want to hand your jeepney driver 500 pesos when getting out to pay. Traveling with smaller bills is especially going to help you when you find yourself on Session Road at the Baguio Market paying for a bag of apples.
Unfortunately, there are so many thieves and pickpockets around so have small change on you preferably in an easy to reach purse or even in your front pocket. This happened to me when I was at the Baguio Market last month and the shop owner actually tipped me off saying how many pickpockets there are so better I have coins on me and small bills on me that I can easily reach to pay and go.
2. Watch your belongings
Like anywhere you travel to around the world you always want to keep your eye on your things. With the growth of terrorism more recently you especially don’t want to keep multiple bags unattended for a period of time. This itself could set you up for some trouble. You always want to use your common sense whenever you travel but make sure that your electronics and cash are literally in plain view so that you know where they are. Don’t leave behind your phone next to your meal and get up and go to the bathroom. Don’t walk around busy areas including malls and public markets with your phone or a large stash of cash in your back pocket. These are all basic safety measures to ensure that you are taking ownership and care to your possessions.
3. Taking Precaution when exchanging money
I was tipped off by my boyfriend and his sister in Robinsons Manila Mall that I could get the best exchange rate for my USD to PESO conversion. However, I received some tips that I want to pass on to the next traveler who may need this. Really, I mean really, keep an eye out when exchanging money in the malls and outside. You many not be aware of who is watching you to see where you go next after you just exchanged $500 and now you have 23,250 pHp on you. Be critically aware of your surroundings for real. Sometimes people get followed without any idea that they are being followed. Also when walking around Manila try not have a lot of cash on you because it’s really not safe. If you are planning on going for a walk to get some coffee or a meal in the mall or nearby, realistically you don’t even need 2,500 PhP on you. It’s better to have small denominations on you such as 20,50,100,500 so that the cashier can make change for you to make the payment paying smoother. Going to Starbucks? Just pay with your card.
4. The reason for carrying PhP cash on you as backup
I had been paying with pesos the whole time I was in Manila until I literally ran out and decided to use my credit card this one time to pay for my Vietnamese meal in the mall. I was having lunch at Pho Ha at Robinsons Otis in Paco, Manila when suddenly the electricity went off for about ten seconds. Taking my time slurping on my pho noodles and enjoying each bite I had no idea that the credit card machines went down and only cash was being accepted at this time. With only 40 php in my wallet I was about the get myself tied up in a mess.
I asked for the bill and took my credit card out. “Oh, I’m sorry ma’m we are only accepting cash at this time because the credit card machines are currently not working because of the electricity outage”. I didn’t even have the equivalent of $1 to pay for my meal. “Better you wait a while for them to work again,” my waiter explained. With no USD in my wallet to exchange upstairs I waited the first hour watching time pass. Finally I explained to the staff that I understand the situation and that I have no pesos to pay for my meal but I can’t wait all day for the machines to magically begin working again. “Ma’m we talked with our supervisor and it’s ok if you come back later or tomorrow to pay”. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. This has never happened to me before and I couldn’t believe that the entire staff was letting me “walk off” without paying while trusting me enough to come back. “My name is Alana. I am currently staying at Peninsula Gardens. You can find me there if you don’t see me by tomorrow afternoon”. Was I really just telling the restaurant my current address?
Owing the restaurant 700 php I felt a heavy weight on my shoulders to hurry the hell up and exchange my dollars at Robinsons Manila A.S.A.P. When I returned the next day with my receipt in hand and the exact amount to pay I swear, the staff looked so proud and relieved to see me with big smiles. I felt like I had proved to them and to myself that I am a trusting dignified human being and that I would never take off from a restaurant without paying them back. Words of advice, it’s always best to have local currency on you for the unexpected.

For more information on the Philippines check out my vlogs on Youtube where I cover places I visited, travel advice, and much more!

 

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Batad Rice Terrace; UNESCO World Heritage Site

Planning your safari

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Drums and drinks under the stars at Lake Malawi

Do your research
Where do you want your safari to take you? What main sights do you want to see? Dying to see the big five in Kruger National Park? Curious to go off the beaten path and camp inside a game drive and wake up to lions roaring in the middle of the night? Head to Zambia for that along the Zambezi River. Want to wrap up your sightseeing with the spectacular Indian Ocean for whale watching, snorkeling, and relaxation beach time? Head to the coast of Mozambique.

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Elephant sighting along the Zambezi River

Choosing a safari is very overwhelming with many fine details to be mindful of and with so many tour operators to choose from the decision making seems endless. The best rule of thumb is to really narrow down and to finally make your decision by focusing on the content, not the frame. Make a detailed list of what it is you really want to see. Take a look at the countries you want to go to. Check out Drifters Tours (based in Johannesburg) which gives you the options of longer safaris as well as short tours.

I took an unforgettable 24 day safari which included South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, and Mozambique with the main highlights of Victoria Falls, Chobe National Falls, Mount Mulanje hike in Malawi, camping on Lake Malawi, and sleeping in beach bungalows in Inhambane, Mozambique. For shorter safaris around South Africa check out Nomad Tours that depart from a few different places in SA. I did a 7 day unforgettable Swaziland and Kruger Tour that blew my mind. With regular game drives, free time in our base camp in bee hive huts in Swaziland and night game drivers followed by campfires under the stars in Kruger, my time there was well spent while spotting the big five.
Get all immunizations
As malaria is common in Africa with all of the mosquitoes, talk to a specialist on the topic of proper malaria medicines you need and whether or not you need a yellow fever shot. Your safari operator may be able to give you some tools and advice as well. Two weeks before departing from Johannesburg for my safari I began taking malaria pills. These pills gave me wild and crazy dreams, not to mention deep sleeps where I slept like a rock for up to nine hours without waking up. It took a while for my body to adjust especially with the wild food cravings I started to have. Be sure to take your prescribed meds after meal as I learned this the hard way.

Pack in layers
Like anyone planning to take a once in a lifetime safari might think that because they are going to Africa it is going to be stiffing hot the whole trip, wrong. I took a 24 day safari in June and because southern Africa is in the southern hemisphere the climate is opposite of my summer back home in Connecticut. As the sun was strong during the daytime the evenings became very cool where many layers were needed as the nights became freezing in the bush. I can distinctively remember opening my suitcase in the middle of the night to find more sweaters and long shirts to layer myself with because I was that cold. Just know that evenings may be chilly depending on which country and time of the year you are traveling.
Put down your camera
Of course you want to take loads of pictures to share with your family and friends back home but after a while looking through a lens during a once in a lifetime moment doesn’t really capture the moment. After a few game drives I literally had to just put the camera down to truly be in the moment to establish my reality. Viewing a mommy elephant with her baby crossing a river together during sunset doesn’t do itself justice when you are more concerned about getting the best shot. I distinctly remember paddling in my canoe with my group along the banks of the Zambezi River in Zambia with crocodiles sunbathing without moving an inch. To my left I watched a family of elephants playing in the water at sunset. In these moments I had to pinch myself, asking myself If I had died and gone to heaven and was looking down at this beauty, if I was dreaming this, or if yes, this was reality. You will reach a moment in time during your safari where you literally put away your camera and just sit an awe of what you are viewing. I sure hope this happens to you.
Once in a lifetime memories.

Final Words
Finally, with all the tips here to gain so that you can truly have a once in a lifetime safari don’t forget all of the great things to come. Whether you are doing a five night or twenty four night over landing safari tour you are bound to create beautiful friendships with those traveling with you from all over the world. Imagine yourself under the stars at night drinking a hot tea sharing your travel experience with those on your tour. I won’t forget those experiences and I’m sure you won’t either. As most travelers are open minded, get yourself ready to exchange contact details at the end of your safari with beautiful photos and memories that will last you a lifetime. Lastly, put down your camera and enjoy with your own pair of eyes the majestic wildlife and scenery around you.

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Dhow sailing into Mozambique

Volunteering in Taiwan: Dada School

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Interested in getting out and seeing a new country but wanting to volunteer and get involved in local culture and community at the same time? Do you like children? Are you interested in teaching English learning activities? Have you been to Asia yet? Not yet? How about Taiwan?

If you’re still reading this then I’m assuming you are looking for the nitty gritty behind getting here. Let me explain.Named by the Portuguese, Island Formusa, Taiwan lives up to it’s name with sensational landscapes, colorful and lively night markets filled with exotic treats, and very friendly people. A nation very different from mainland China and a place unlike any other Asian nation Taiwan is known for stinky tofu, the bettle nut beauties, it’s gorgeous eastern coastline, and the mighty gorges of Taroko National Park in Hualien. Taiwan has so much to offer the curious traveler whether it’s explores the concrete jungle capital of Taipei, getting lost in the night markets, or tasting the blends of tea that Taiwan is known for.

I was really interested in exploring more of Asia while volunteering in an Asian country.Taiwan had been on my mind for some time because I had a guide book sitting on my night stand for months just looking back at me. With the deep interest to explore exotic night markets, go hiking, and immerse myself in everything Taiwanese I knew I had to find a way to plan my trip there. Then I stumbled upon Dada School in Chungli, Taiwan online.

From the summer of 2011 through the fall of 2013 I have participated in their lovely program for students while also taking trips with them. I have assisted in their summer camps to the east coast of Taiwan all the way to Hualien down to camping in the southeast region of the island near Taitung. With three separate volunteer experiences here I want to share with you all that you need to know and why I love John and Ching and they teaching assistant Sonny, who brings the sunshine everyday. By the way, you can find more about Dada School from helpx.org.
WHAT: John and Ching operate an after school program (similar to Buxiban but better) where students from elementary to high school level come to learn and practice their English with international volunteers. Dinner is prepared at the school every evening by Chef Sonny and Ching with the help of volunteers to assist in cutting and preparing the meal. The food is seriously a delight, trust me on this one. With Ching’s high ability to prepare delicious meals without a recipe with your personal dietary needs in mind I don’t see how you could be disappointed with her cooking.

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Road trip down the east coast with the kids

WHERE: Located next to Linsen Elementary School in Chungli and a ten minute walk from Chungli Train Station, Dada School is in convenient and central location in Chungli. A two minute walk away is 7-11, a handful of tea shops, and a few sandwich breakfast shops that offer soya milk. The fresh market with local fruits and vegetables is less than a five minutes walk. Also there is a Watsons drug store where you can find all of your every day beauty and hygiene products that is less than a eight minute walk. In terms of finding snacks and every day needs, it is all a stones throw away.

ACCOMMODATION: An apartment located less than a five minutes walk from Dada School is provided for volunteers ( no cost). The apartment is two floors with four bedrooms and two bathrooms and a large open space living room. Please leave the apartment in the same way when you arrived. Trash can be taken to Dada School for disposal
VOLUNTEER: Some students are paired with volunteers for conversation class. Ching might ask you to help correct essays and homework. Helping clean up the kitchen area and preparation of meals may be asked. However, if you enjoy food prep and cleanup this may be up your alley.
EXPECT: Expect enriching life experiences that will change the way you view learning. Expect to assist helping children learn, delectable meals, and Taiwanese culture combined into a combination of experiences that will shape your life and change you forever (in a good way).

Taking the unplanned route: Thailand on my own

I knew that I always wanted to visit Thailand, it was just a matter of getting myself there and having a plan. I was in love with my favorite Thai restaurant back home, Bangkok, and because of my curiosity I knew that I would eventually find myself there sooner than later. Looking around at all the beautiful deco and photos that the restaurant owners carefully placed around the seating areas I knew that I would pick Thailand as my travel destination during my winter vacation after settling into South Korea.

Sidenote: I recently found out that the owners of Bangkok in Danbury, Connecticut who inspired me to take my first journey to Asia on my own died in an airplane crash in 2015. I want them to know that because of their restaurant I was deeply inspired and moved to venture to Thailand on my own.

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Na Muang Waterfalls, Koh Samui

Fast forward five months later and there I was on a bone chilling morning still dark outside finding my way through the underground in Seoul on my way to Incheon Airport. I was so ready to be in a warmer climate, eat the delicacies of Thailand, find myself in  night markets soaking in all of the culture in Bangkok, and enjoying a proper Thai massage. In the midst of my own excitement I had done little planning because this was my first trip traveling Asia by myself. Two years prior I had backpacked my way around South Africa on the Baz Bus from Jo-burg to Cape Town but planning was minimal because all I did was have to pick my accommodation from the guidebook and I would be dropped off door to door.
There was something so scary to me at first about traveling to Thailand by myself without a plan. I didn’t know the language, transportation system, most visited destinations, and I felt entirely self conscious and overly nervous about this adventure that I found myself in a panic on the plane. With only my first night booked at a highly recommended backpackers in Bangkok, I had no outside knowledge of where I would be traveling to next or how I would get there.

 

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After checking in and dropping off my luggage I was out on the town riding a tuktuk and enjoying local pad thai at a night market with a fresh mango smoothie. On Ko San Ro there was so much to take in. Lots of street eats, massage parlors, shopping, and more. My first night was cool to take in but I knew that I wanted to get out of the capital and discover beautiful beaches and scenery. With Christmas and New Years only days away I browsed for accommodation online and found that most places were sold out. With a little more last minute research on a whim I booked at I-bed in Ko Samui not knowing exactly how I would get myself there. Following the sketchy directions from the hostel desk workers I arrived on foot to a bus station that would take my first to Cha-Am then onto Ko Samui. I spent my four remaining days meeting really cool people at I-Bed, toured around the island visiting the waterfalls, and enjoyed as much curry and Thai food as my body could handle.

I want to say that I fell in love with Koh Samui at first sight. This island is lush, beautiful, and has gorgeous beaches. The Celebrity Millennium tenders in Koh Samui and I so deeply hope that one day soon I can work on that ship with the chance to return to my type of paradise.

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