Cash splashing on a budget

I’ve always done my travelling on a tight budget but every now and again I splash out on something a bit special.

For all it’s good qualities, travel can be exhausting, difficult and incredibly frustrating, and it’s at times like these when I like to treat myself.

Here are some of the things I find it’s totally worth extending my wallet to:

 

1) A hotel rather than a hostel (air-con optional)

When I was in Honduras, in some of the smaller towns which attracted little to no tourists, I had to stay in rooms that pretty much resembled prison cells. A creaky bed, an even creakier bed side table, no window and a light bulb of about

Bunk in a 48 bed dorm

ten watts. That’s it. Seriously, people on death row probably have better accommodation.

But hey, this is what you get for $2.50 per night and it’s all part of the backpacking experience, blah blah blah…

After several nights in these cells, when I crossed into El Salvador I found myself walking past a “proper hotel” in Perquin on my way to somewhere a bit more to my standard. I looked up at it longingly and then thought, ‘why the hell not? I think I’ve earned it’.

So for three nights at something like $15 per night (including breakfast) it was like living in a palace. As I entered my room, the first thing I noticed was the smell. Or rather, the complete absence of one. In fact, the entire room was spotless. The double bed was wonderfully mute, my ensuite (oh, yes) bathroom had hot AND cold water – I was actually in charge of what temperature I washed myself at. This was amazing.

Fresh towels provided, two bottles of water, soap, and the ceiling fan was not only quieter than a jet plane for once, but it did it’s job with aplomb.

Occasional luxury like this always gives me the perfect battery recharge.

 

2) A proper restaurant meal rather than street food

Don’t get me wrong, I love street food and I eat it wherever I go. It’s great because you know there will always be an opportunity to eat wherever you and whatever you doing. Whether it’s pineapple for breakfast on the bus or whatever meat on a stick for sale that you happen to walk past next.

Amazing food. Mmmm...

However, a nice sit down meal once in a while in a proper restaurant where you have a proper waiter/waitress, perhaps a pre-chilled glass for your beer, a starter, and maybe even a dessert, are so much more special and appreciated when you’ve been on the road for a while and necking pad thai or menu del dia every day.

 

3) First class rather than economy (excluding aeroplanes – I’m not mental)

You’ve slummed it with locals, you’ve sat shoulder to shoulder with chicken buses full of kids, you’ve stood arse to face with somebody’s grandmother on the back of pick-up truck so now it’s time for your reward.

If it’s a really long bus/train journey (or even if it’s not) and you can’t bear the thought of playing share the seat with another sweaty, dribbling drunk then

Chicken buses

making that step up to first class is well worth your consideration.

Give yourself a bit more leg room, entertain even the possibility of sleep, and the notion that you could actually make it through this journey in conditions that are neither arctic nor tropical.

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Advice: take it or leave it?

There’s a saying that goes around: what is it everybody gives but nobody takes? The answer is advice. And while I’m not sure that’s strictly true it seems even less true when you’re on the road.

Guide books. They are FULL of advice. That’s what they’re there for – to guide. Hundreds of pages filled with advice on where to stay, where to eat, what do to, where to go, what to avoid, you name it, there’s an opinion on it.

Don’t get me wrong, I like guide books and for the most part I have used them to good effect and found them to be very informative. But I’ve always thought there are some things that are so subjective I don’t know how it’s even possible to tell someone else whether or not they will like it.

Backpackers, travellers, call them what you will, are full of advice. Whether they are giving it in person, tweeting it, blogging it or posting it on a wall, if you’re looking for it, it’s there.

When you meet someone on the road who has been somewhere you’re going, be it a city or a country, you ask them, what did you do? Where did you go? What should I look out for? What should I be careful of?

And often responses will be hearty, full and leave no stone unturned. Whether someone’s telling you why Delhi is the dirtiest place in the world and why you should never go there, or what makes a Thailand full moon party so special and why it should be top of everyone’s bucket list.

When I was in Guatemala last year, I met a whole bunch of people in a hostel on the Rio Dulce who were travelling south through central America – the exact route I had just done (except in reverse, obviously).

Semuc Champey

Somehow I found myself giving something that vaguely resembled a presentation on my trip to date. People were even taking notes. It was ridiculous.

While I was more than happy to help out my new friends, and talk about my adventures (who doesn’t?) I did find the situation a little uneasy. It was like I didn’t want to be held responsible for any disappointments.

For example, I had been told by many people about a beautiful place in Guatemala called Semuc Champey – a series of natural limestone pools. Sure, it was pretty and a nice place to hang out but I actually found it quite ‘meh’ (as the kids say).

Maybe I was expecting the eighth wonder of the world or something, I don’t know. But my point is I should have taken the advice with a pinch of salt.

One of the things I love about travel is that it IS so subjective. A hundred people can go to the same place and each can have a different opinion on it. There are so many contributing factors that influence how you feel about somwhere: who you go with, what the weather was like, if it was busy, if you were bitten by mosquitoes, if you were robbed… you see where I’m going with this.

So, MY advice would be to listen to your fellow travellers, ask them whatever you want but remember you are going wherever you are going for a reason. That is, to have the experience for yourself.

The Thai taxi haggle

We are on the beautiful island of Koh Tao, Thailand. There are five of us, and there is one taxi driver. He is leaning through the driver’s side window of his pick-up, arms resting and wrists flailing in animated nonchalance. We are in the midst of a haggle.

It is warm, sticky and the smell of rain on dry concrete hangs thick in the air. As I look beyond our would-be ride, I see the pond-sized puddles that await our permanently flip-flopped feet on the muddy track back to our hostel.

But we have been in Thailand for over two weeks now. He knows not with whom he deals, for in that time we have become master hagglers.

We have grown into our status as ‘travellers’, we have become pros at this financial game of cat and mouse. We can sense a rip-off a mile away – we are Backpackers.

We’ve been ‘had’ before of course. For example, I now realise the 2000 Baht paid to get from Bangkok airport to our accommodation in the city did not represent the value for money we had hoped. To this day I remain unconvinced it was a limousine as advertised by the baseball-capped gentleman who escorted us to the vehicle.

But that was way back on day one. Does he not see the translucently thin shirt sticking to my moist, beaded back? My unfeasibly decorated wrists? And where else could I have rendered my face such an ailing shade of red, punctuated only by a nose of such delicate skin flakes? Surely, these are the benchmarks of seasoned backpackers?

Koh Tao. Never got tired of these sunsets.

This is the face of experience. People like me know what the Khao San Road is, and anyway, I’m already aware of what follows in these situations:

After a lengthy stand-off, we will finally agree a fee, get in and it won’t be long before I feel guilt for not sharing my comparative western wealth as a tourist in his lovely country. I will mull over it for the rest of the evening, unable to shake the uneasy feeling I should have paid a fair price. At least, that’s how it goes if I feel I won the haggling match.

If I believe I lost it and paid over the odds, I will have nothing but contempt for the driver. Because now he will be the anecdote I share with fellow backpackers in late night bars, around worn out pool tables, and lying on dorm room bunk beds.

When tales of cockroach confrontation and full moon parties make way for stories of monetary misdemeanour, you will be my fable of swindle.

Except I won’t let that happen. Come on, I urge my friends, let’s be strong. The monsoon has passed and I’m sure the hour long walk back will be just as pleasant in the pitch black. We don’t need him or his pick-up so…

What, he only wants 50 Baht? Between the five us? Yeah, go on then.

Surely this experience is not unique to just me?

The art of patience

That’s another day in the office gone. One day closer to another week’s wages in the bank. Which will be one week closer to hitting that financial target, and one week nearer to a departure date.

In many ways this is the most painful part of the build up. It almost feels like wishing time away which is never a good thing.

So I started to think of the positives I can take from this experience because, unless you’re lucky to be simply handed wads of cash, burrowing away pennies is all part of the experience of travelling (namely, the first part) and almost every backpacker out there has to suffer the same torment.

Here are three things to think about that will hopefully give you the juice to keep going on the occasional moments of weakness:

1. Saving teaches you the value of money. Going months on end without splashing on frivolous accessories, not spending every Friday and Saturday in a bar or club is not easy, especially when your friends are out living it up. At this time, it helps to look at the bigger picture. The cost of a beer could be a night in a beach hut on a beautiful Thai island, so a whole night of drinking is one week’s accommodation when you’re away. Totally worth it.

2. Patience is a virtue, as the saying goes. I know from experience it’s a satisfying feeling when you look at your swelled bank balance for the final time before you begin to devour it in some far away land. Knowing you achieved that through sheer determination and discipline is no mean feat and one you should be proud of. It makes it all the more special when you hand over a fistful of notes for your Queenstown bungee jump.

3. Keep your eyes on the prize. Surround yourself by reminders of what the next chapter of your life has in store for you. Set your desktop background to Ayers Rock, make travel websites your homepage, go on forums and social media sites to talk with people also preparing to go.

I’m sure you have some of your own ways of dealing with this difficult time and I’d love to hear them!

Whether it’s days, weeks, months or even years until your trip starts, it’s a rite of passage you have to go through so try to embrace it. What doesn’t kill you…

Looking into the abyss at Nevis Bungy, Queenstown, NZ.

Teaching English in Mexico: a day in the life

I was standing up in front of about 20 Mexican students reading from a script I had prepared which explained exactly what a 21-year-old lad from England was doing at their university.

The palms of my hands grew sweatier by the second as I told my students-elect what my role would be for the next three months and when I got to the end I looked up to see a potent combination of raised eyebrows and tilted heads.

The former signifying confusion, the latter in recognition of the fact I was trying my best. Anyway, it ended well because lots of people signed up to my classes which meant one of two things: they were blown away by my enticing speech, or they were so desperate to learn some English (for free) and decided I would have to do.

See, in my head I was going to Mexico to teach and that was it. Little did I know the project would become just a small, though still significant, part of my experience.

It was strange because on the face of it my daily routine was no different from that of an employee back home. I got up, showered, breakfast, got the bus to work, worked, had lunch, worked some more, got the bus back home, went out for a beer at night.

But underneath that exterior lay a complex web of bewilderment and fear. But for whatever reason, and this isn’t just looking back and idealising, I found it exhilarating.

There was the massive cockroach I had to share a shower with on many a morning which initiated a paralysing fear of these ghastly creatures.

The failure to communicate to my host family on day one that I was not too fond of papaya (thank you, lack of Spanish) which lead to almost daily doses of papaya with papaya juice for breakfast.

The straining of the eyes as a bus appeared on the horizon. You see, there were no bus stops, no timetables, and although there was a vague bus route, it was lottery as to whether or not a) I would be able to read the number on the front as it blew past me in a blaze of black smoke, and b) simply whether or not the driver felt like stopping that day.

The constant risk of eating street food for lunch and wondering, with every mouthful, whether or not this particularly spicy taco would be the one that killed me. Or at least lead me to a diet of Imodium.

There was the casual nature with which my students would sometimes turn up late, incredibly late or not at all and think little of it as they introduced me to ‘Mexico Time’ and a land where the clock is of little relevance.

Finally, meeting up with other volunteers from all over the world to indulge in a couple of drinks, perhaps a little salsa dancing or some live Mexican banda music ending the night by gorging with the locals at late night taco stands.

Living the dream? It certainly felt like it.

My first steps

After graduating from university in the Summer of 2006, I made a decision that would shape the next few years of my life in a way I could never have anticipated. I decided to go abroad to undertake voluntary work teaching English in Mexico.

Growing up I was never big on holidays. I didn’t like flights, particularly those of a long-haul variety, and I didn’t like eating strange food that didn’t taste like it did back home. I didn’t like going out, seeing the sights, trying new things and being a general tourist.

Looking back, I used to find the whole experience overwhelming and was always glad to be back on English soil where everything was familiar, comfortable and, importantly, I could sleep in my own bed.

I remember a family jaunts to Italy, Greece and America and feeling pretty certain I would not be much of a mover when I was all grown up.

Anyway, this is why it was a surprise to me when I felt the urge to get out of the UK and do something completely different. Educated up to my eyeballs with my degree, the last thing I wanted to do was continue studying in any kind of post-graduate capacity, while the idea of going straight into a 9-5 didn’t fill me with joy either.

Many of my friends had their career paths in mind while I felt at a little bit of a loose end. I had no partner, no ties, no responsibilities, no dependants and no job which to some people sounds like an absolute nightmare of a scenario. But not me.

That picture is the epitome of freedom and when I realised this, I got such a rush. So after googling all kinds of phrases with the words “gap year” in them, I did some destination research and decided it was to be Mexico and it was to be a purposeful trip to one place for three solid months.

Had I ever been so far from home before? No, well not alone anyway.

Had I ever taught anyone before? Certainly not another language.

Did I speak even a little bit of Spanish? I did not.

But on January 8th 2007, when I took my first steps out of Guadalajara’s Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla International Airport, sweaty, tired, nervous, jet-lagged and hungry, little did I know this would be a state that I would come not only to crave, but actively pursue.

Before I left, I’d had warnings of rabid dogs and malarial mosquitoes but nobody warned about the strange, almost inexplicable, phenomenon that is the travel bug.

That was the day it bit me.