Who uses a travel agent and why?

Adventure Travel in Koh Phi Phi
Shari Tucker in Thailand
Wouldn’t you love to visit Koh Phi Phi Thailand? Let’s Chat

With so much information on the internet, why would you want to use a travel agent? And, with booking flights online being so easy, why would you have someone else do it?

So many people ask me why I’m a travel agent and assume that we agents are a dying breed. On the contrary, we are becoming more and more in demand in specialty areas. My specialty being Adventure Travel and Around the World travel, with secondary passions for sailing and river cruising.

Well, here’s what you need to know!

I am a home-based agent with Travel Professionals Internationals. That means I work under their brand, with all of their products and resources, but I do so from a home office instead of a fixed office. They are a large, Canadian based company entirely made up of home-based agents. Our head office is in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

In my case (I’m a little extra special), I have decided to travel the world and take my home office with me. I move around a lot and my work goes with me. It’s not like being on vacation because it isn’t very restful, but it is certainly adventurous!

I get to experience both the tourist and the local side of destinations and get a real in-depth experience that I can than pass along to my clients. You can’t argue that hands-on experience in travel is a pretty big value-add when you are taking on a new adventure.

I’ve been to over 30 countries and have several more coming up in the first few months of 2016. I bet I can tell you some interesting stories about places you’ve never even considered visiting!

My clients are almost all Canadian and I work with them just as I would if I were in an office in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Most of the time this is by email, but I can Skype, whatsapp, twitter … whatever works for you! The only difference you’ll see is that you can’t meet with me face to face in an office setting. Skype is a pretty good replacement for that though!

I can’t stress enough that, although I am traveling, I am not on vacation. I spend my working hours to send you on vacation and that allows me to continue living this amazing lifestyle where I can to see our amazing world. This gives me pretty high motivation to keep my clients happy and give them the best advice and vacations possible!

So, how do I get paid? Don’t worry, lots of people ask and for those who don’t ask, they want to, they just don’t know how to approach it. So, here it is … I’ll tell you so that you don’t have to ask!

I charge a $60 + tax consulting fee per person for any custom itinerary (although if it is an extended trip, such as round the world, I charge based on the amount of research required, so it could be $100 or $120 + tax for a couple or family depending on the destination, length of trip and services required). This would always be discussed up front, not a surprise part way through the planning.

NOTE: If you are booking a straight up all inclusive package, cruise, or group tour, I do not charge the consulting fee. This way my rates are the same as you would find online, however sometimes I get better deals due to our supplier agreements. Things that you can’t find online!

The $60 + tax fee can be looked at as a consulting fee and you can take as much information as I can provide you in one or two sessions and use it to book on your own, however you wish. The biggest benefit of this is having a trusted source of information from a real person who you know, rather than a random google search.

Although google has many answers, it also has many scams, incorrect information, out dated information etc. Wouldn’t you rather get your information from someone you know?

Or, you can think of it as a booking fee. I give you lots of information and then also go through the booking process for you with each of the individual companies so that you don’t have to (flights / tours / hotels / cars etc). The biggest benefit of this is that it saves you HOURS of time. If you have to call 10 companies in different time zones, sort out details and then give each of those companies all of your personal information to book a tour, it takes hours of time. I can do that for you so that you don’t have to. We also have systems that streamline the process to make it faster and more efficient.

What do you really get out of the consulting fee?
1. It gives you access to me as your personal resource for information. I’ve travelled 30+ countries in the last 7 years with many more on the horizon. I’ve been there and done that in a lot of places, so I have a lot of experience and knowledge to share. Yes, you can get that knowledge from the internet, but you never know how honest it is, was it sponsored, is it old / new / valid / trash. And, the internet can’t tailor information to your specific needs like I can!

2. Further to that, if I don’t have the experience in a particular destination, I can reach out to my colleagues who have personal experience or a gazillion tried, tested and true resources that we have as a company rather than randomly on google. I’ve also sent many clients to destinations that I have not yet been to. I have lots of experience in Australian and New Zealand adventures, but haven’t quite made it there yet. Same goes for Africa, which is on my list for 2016 / 2017.

3. I will spend my time researching your adventure so that you can just go and enjoy without the hassle of figuring it all out. You might spend hours on the internet, whereas I might spend 1 hour through our resources or I might know the answer to your question immediately through personal experience.

4. It gives you a real person to talk to instead of booking online. If you have a problem with your flight, need to make changes, etc, you can contact me. That will save you sitting on hold for hours. Many online sites are now charging booking fees as well, so it is quite normal, although sometimes they are hidden amongst other taxes and fees so you don’t see them.

5. Being a real person, I can give you options that you may not have thought of based on your particular interests / needs. Websites can only know so much about you. Not to mention that I’ve traveled with many of the companies we sell, so I truly know what they are like.

6. Flight bookings. Prices are set by the airlines, not by travel agencies. This is very important because it means that we all have access to the same prices. There are some exceptions but not that many. Generally speaking, if you search the exact same flight route / dates / times and class of service, we should get the same price. If you see a different price online (through expedia vs red tag for example), it is likely slightly different routing. OR, it could be one of them has a different tax or hidden fee somewhere.

Where I am better than the online sites is that I can look for connection options that they don’t see because their algorithm has set rules. I can often get long haul itineraries for the same (or cheaper) than the big online sites AND either get you there faster, or get you a cool stop over at little to no extra cost. We also have bulk buying agreements with most of the airlines, so often I can get you a slightly better price than what is offered online (but not always).

7. Exclusive insider knowledge on specials and discounts. Especially if you are following one of my social media feeds! Twitter – @ShariTucker or Http://www.facebook.com/ShariTuckerPhotoAndAdventures
Sometimes we get deals that are only open to our clients at TPI and cannot be found online anywhere. Sometimes we get advanced knowledge of upcoming specials or flash sales (usually on tours, not flights).

8. In case of an emergency, you have someone to help you through the situation. Whether it is arranging an alternate flight route due to a volcano eruption or reminding you to keep receipts and start a claim for travel insurance. If someone falls ill in your family and you need to be with them, the last thing you need to be concerned about is trying to cancel your vacation plans to get refunds. I can take care of that for you while you take care of your family.

Other than the $60 + tax consulting/booking fee for custom itineraries, I also get paid through commissions. (It would take a lot of clients at $60 each to make a living, so don’t be surprised that I get paid in other ways too!)

1. The consulting fee pays for my time / effort / knowledge to help you with your trip. If I were to spend four hours researching options for a client, giving them tips / advice and suggestions and then they booked everything online themselves, I would have wasted four hours and not gotten paid for anything. I’m sure you’ll agree, no one can make a living that way. So, therefore, I don’t work for free.

2. Commissions. Many of the companies that we work with pay us commissions for selling their products. I promise that I will always offer you options that are suited to your needs and you can choose what is best for you. We have hundreds of companies that we have great communication with and we can also work with lesser-known companies as long as they are reputable.

Who works with Travel Agents:
My top 10 types of clients are the following (but others are certainly welcome!)

1. Retirees who want to travel and enjoy doing some online research but have hesitations in actually booking online. Fear of making a mistake or not knowing all of the details.
2. Busy professionals (doctors / lawyers / executives) – They desperately need time off and have 4 – 8 weeks of vacation a year, but they are too busy to do the planning themselves.
3. Solo travelers of all ages – people who are tired of waiting for their friends to travel with them and are ready to see the world. Sometimes I help these people travel on their own, other times in small group tours so they are not so alone.
4. Adventurers – These are people who want to do something active on their vacation that is a little harder to plan on the internet, therefore they look for professional help in booking the trip that is right for their passions and skill levels. Think hiking the Inca Trail, climbing Kilimanjaro, hiking Mont Blanc.
5. People who are looking for round the world trips, complicated flights with multiple cities or stop-overs along the way to a destination. I can almost always get a better deal on these options than what is available on the standard expedia / red tag etc.
6. Groups of people looking to travel together, whether it be extended family or a girls trip. Who really wants to take responsibility for all of the planning for 6 or 10 friends / family? That’s what I’m here as an impartial professional. I gather all of the information, work with you to set the itinerary and make it all happen behind the scenes so you can have a fantastic vacation without the hassles.
7. People looking for sailing trips on large or small boats.
8. Honeymooners looking for something more adventurous than an all inclusive vacation. Whether that be paddle boarding in Hawaii, self-drive through Ireland, swimming with whale sharks in the Maldives or Greek Island hopping.
9. All inclusive Caribbean destinations. Sure, it is easy to book these online, but you’ll spend hours researching the best deals, locations and prices change before you can decide. Agents also come in particularly handy when you have friends traveling from different destinations, but want to arrive on the same dates, or share rooms.
10. Well traveled people who are either tired of doing all of their own planning, or they need new ideas about up and coming destinations that interest them.

Do you fit in one of these above categories?

Get in touch. We’ll chat about your needs and then I can give you suggestions and start the planning process whenever you are ready. I’m here to help. Don’t let the plethora of options overwhelm you. Let me help narrow them down for you!

Who I don’t normally work with, although there are always exceptions!
If you are the type of person who has lots of time, little fear and enjoys doing all of your own research on line, then you may not want to work with me. And, that’s ok. There are lots of people out there just like you!

If you are looking for the absolute cheapest option for anything and are willing to sleep in airports for 12 hour layovers to make it happen. If you enjoy bartering for every last little thing. If you will stay at a 2 star resort in Cuba or you want to arrive in destination and book your hotel when you get there then I’m not the best fit for you. If your money is that important to you, then you probably won’t see the value in paying me to help with your decisions. There’s no problem with this, but we’re probably not a good match.

If you are only booking domestic flights (Halifax to Toronto / Halifax to Vancouver or something into the US), it is likely just as easy for you to do that on your own instead of paying an extra $60 + tax to me. However, if you don’t have a computer, your internet doesn’t work well, you hate researching on line or have 10 people who need the same flight .. Let me help!

If you are going to Disney, I’m not the right person for the job. Disney is a category all of it’s own. I have no experience in this area, but can recommend people who do!

So, now you are armed with all of the information on how I work as a travel agent. My passion is helping people like you see the world and sharing my own experiences. If you are interested in a consultation or getting your next vacation booked, I would be thrilled to hear from you.

I am currently (Jan 2016) in Istanbul. Remember, I am working, not on vacation. The best way to reach me is by email. But, if you’d prefer to talk by phone or skype I’ll arrange a time with you, no problem at all.

Let’s chat!

Stucker@tpi.ca

A Girl and her hair

Voila!

A bad hair cut or dye job sucks. Come on ladies, I know you feel my pain and probably lots of men out there too!

For whatever reason, much of our confidence, for better or worse is built around how we look. It directly relates to how we feel. Hence, the old advice to dress up every day even if you have no where to go. Or, in business, to dress in business attire even if you work from home. (Advice I could never follow!)

You’ve all been there. You’ve all gone to a new hair-dresser, told them exactly what you wanted and ended up with something horribly different. Whether it is too short, the wrong color, styled like you belong in the 80’s … it sucks. We cry over it. We get angry. We refuse to leave the house. We rewash it immediately when we get home hoping that it’ll look better if we just do it ourselves.

Luckily for me, most of my life I’ve subscribed to the belief that my hair does not define me. Although I love my hair, I can’t be bothered to make it perfect every day, to get my roots coloured every six weeks (sometimes not even every six months) and hair cuts? Well, a couple of times a year is good enough for me. (three times in 2015!)

I had been staring at my lengthening roots since I was in Asia, being slightly annoyed with them. The blending that I had done when I was in Nova Scotia was growing out and wasn’t working for me any more. My hair is longer than it has been in probably seven or eight years and it was getting tangled. I’d roll over and get it caught under my shoulder at night or sometimes in my armpit. I don’t know how women deal with really long hair!

I had thought about it for several days, but being in Turkey, I was really only pondering the idea. I wasn’t really going to get my hair done, was I? I passed a couple of salons here and there, but never went in. What were the chances anyone would speak English anyway? I passed a few blonde women in the streets and thought about stopping them to ask where they had gotten their hair done, but stopped myself as that was a combination of weird as well as not knowing if they would speak English.

Finally, the other day, after working from a cafe for most of the day, I just up and decided that I was brave enough to give it a go. After all, it’s just hair right?

I walked out of the cafe, two doors down and realized that one of the salons I had been looking at was for men. Boo. Then I noticed the one right next door was for women! How convenient. And this is where it begins.

I walked downstairs to the empty salon that was below street level and was greeted by a man with a nervous smile. It was almost as if he expected me to ask for directions rather than asking about getting my hair done.

I asked if he spoke English, to which he said ‘a little’. Well, that’s better than none at all, right?

I showed him my roots and explained that I wanted blonde. To which he confirmed understanding by saying “Highlights!”

Ah. We’re off to a good start!

I asked him how much and he paused. I wasn’t sure if he was thinking about a price or trying to find the right words in English. In the end, I think it was both.

Him: “Two hundred and fifty lira.” (About $100 – $115 CAD)
Me: “Are you sure? That seems like a lot. That’s the same price as me getting it done in Canada!”
Him: “Yes. 250 lira. I give you beautiful highlights.”
Me: “Ah, that’s too much for me, I’ll have to go somewhere else.”

And, I started back toward the door.

Him: “How much?”
Me: “There was a place down the street for 150 lira.” (complete lie, but that’s as much as I was willing to pay)
Him (without hesitation and with a chuckle): “Ok. Ok. Come in. 150 Lira.”

** That’s 100 Lira less than he originally asked for which is about $50 CAD.

Picture me with my hands on my hips, smiling at this short, older man. He’s got wavy-ish grey hair and great laugh lines.

Me: “What if I had said 50 Lira? Would you have done it for 50?”
He laughs: “No, no. 150 yes.”
Me: “Are you sure you can make it pretty?”
Him: “Yes. Yes. Beautiful highlights. Come. Come.”

Next thing I knew I was sitting in the chair and another man was wrapping a towel around my shoulders and then a small plastic cape over top of that. He fumbled a bit with pinning both closed and I thought to myself that he hasn’t had a lot of practice. This is when I got nervous.

A couple of minutes later, the older man came back out with the dye all mixed up and ready to go. There was no discussion on color, no discussion on what I’d like the final product to look like, he was just ready to go for it.

Deep breath! Here we go.

He meticulously parted my hair and I could see him weaving the end of the comb in and out to pick out the pieces to be highlighted. He then put some plastic (not foil) under the first bit of hair and started slathering on the bluish white goo. The second guy had prepared the stand and was busy crumpling the plastic pieces and handing over clips to the hair dresser.

After a couple of plastic sheets were in place and more plastic was prepared, the ‘assistant’ started holding the plastic in place against my head while the hair dresser globbed on the goop a little faster; sometimes stopping to look closely at the ends of my hair to determine if he should color them or leave them sticking out.

As in any salon, the process of putting in a full head of highlights took about an hour or so. Throughout this process it became clear to me that the hair dresser was instructing the assistant and explaining things along the way. Of course, they weren’t speaking English, so I’m not exactly sure if it was just instructions for him to help out or if he was teaching him how to do it on his own.

They chatted away as I nervously watched them using plastic instead of foil and wondering if the hap-hazard sloshing on of product would be a nightmare in the end.

Every few minutes they would stop and ask me if I was ok. They would grin at me and give me a thumbs up. Or, the hair dresser would tell me how beautiful it was going to be. Almost reassuring … almost!

About a third of the way through, we had a bit of a conversation and I learned that my hair dresser, Ahmed, is Syrian and he had been living in Istanbul for about two and a half years. He also has family living in Vancouver. Then, there was Hussain, who was from Iraq and had only been in Istanbul a few months.

So, here I was, in Istanbul, Turkey, having my hair done by two men from Syria and Iraq who barely speak English. I was putting my confidence in their hands by letting them change my hair and wow was I ever hoping for the best.

I won’t lie. I sent a few text messages to friends saying that I was scared to death of how it was going to turn out! I wasn’t feeling very confident, but I was there and there was no going back!

After finishing the back, they moved on to the front and sides, doing so in a very different way than what I’ve ever seen done in Canada. They started with the three strips along the front and sides and then worked their way toward the back.

Ahmed, being only about five feet six inches tall, was tip-toeing to see the top of my head, so finally I slouched down in the chair. It wasn’t one of those fancy foot-pump chairs, just one fixed height! We all had a good chuckle over this and Ahmed jumped up and down a few times peering over the top of my head making fun of himself.

He finished up all of the highlights and went to have a cigarette in the office. Next thing I knew he was coming out, phone in hand, on face time. He was laughing and chatting and telling some guy on the phone to say hello to me. It was the weirdest experience ever. I was being shown off while in full foils by a man speaking another language (not sure if it was Turkish or Arabic at this point). Next thing I knew, I was fully on the camera saying hello, and then he was showing the guy my hair close-up and in great detail. I’m still not sure what this was all about. Was Ahmed asking for someone’s advice or showing off his great work? Was he proud to have a client because he hadn’t had one in quite some time? Or was it because I was blonde? So hard to know!

My FaceTime face
My FaceTime face

Ahmed finished up his phone call, gave me a very excited kiss on the hand and told me how happy he was that I was there. He said it with all of his heart. I don’t know the whole story, but I know that he meant it.

I sat by the sink while he removed the first layer of plastic foils and then Hussain got me some tea to sip on while the rest of the highlights continued to bake. Every few minutes he would come back and take out a few more of the foils. He could obviously see my apprehension, so he got a mirror to show me a couple of the front ones that he had taken out.

WOAH! They were white-blond. My heart nearly stopped. I think I was better off without the mirror!

After all of the plastic was out and the dye rinsed out of my hair, he proceeded to shampoo my hair and then give me the strongest and best head massage I’ve ever had in my life. This wasn’t just a little massage while he worked the shampoo through my hair, this was the royal treatment, hitting every pressure point on my head. I could feel myself relaxing even in the awkwardness of the sink / chair combo.

Once the shampoo was rinsed out, the process started over with conditioner. This led to a second head massage, including into my neck. At this point I was thinking I was getting a good deal for 150 Lira … hair dyed, cut and a massage! Yay me!

And, it wasn’t done! He then folded a hot, damp towel over my eyes, around my cheeks and chin, somehow leaving my nose and mouth open. And then came the gentle face massage.

I’m telling you … it was lovely.

When it was all over, I had almost forgotten that my hair could be platinum blond!

At this point, another man had arrived at the salon and was super excited to meet me. He started chatting away in pretty good English. He offered me more tea, gave me options of Earl Grey, Apple or regular turkish tea. Then he brought out sweets and wouldn’t take no for an answer. He asked all about where I was from and what I was doing in Istanbul. All the while, he communicated back and forth with Ahmed, filling him in on the whole conversation.

When it came time for Ahmed to cut and style my hair, this third man translated everything and Ahmed went to work. He worked on my hair like an artist with his masterpiece. He parted and combed it perfectly straight and then chopped and clipped to the beat of his own drum. A little snip here, some hard staring and then a big snip there … all in some kind of rhythm.

I have to admit, with my hair wet and combed all straight, the highlights were looking pretty good and the blond wasn’t quite as frightening once it was mixed in with the other shades of my hair. Either he had done a good job, or the massage had relaxed me enough not to care.

After drying my hair, he went about perfecting his masterpiece by curling my hair with the straight iron. And this was not a normal process either. He clacked the straight iron arms together in a beat while contemplating if he should curl toward or away from my face and then the dance began.

He would find a piece of hair, wrap it tightly around the straight iron, pull on it, twist it and then tilt his head, maybe screw up his face a bit. He’d release the heat and then whirl and twirl it around in loop and then let it bounce down into a corkscrew. This dance with perfecting my hair lasted another 20 minutes until I had perfect corkscrew curls all around my head.

To finish it all off, he ran his fingers through it to separate all of the curls and give it lots of body, fluffed it up, sprayed it and said ‘Voila!’

Voila!
Voila!

I really was happy with it in the end. How could I not be after the royal treatment, the warm welcome, all of the smiles and laughs throughout the past few hours.

The third man invited me to stay for another cup of tea and wouldn’t let me say no even though it was already 5pm. I stayed and chatted for another half hour and listened to stories about his family, life in Syria and his plight to find a better life in Turkey. He had come as a business man, not as a refugee. He is working on a vegetable oil import / export business and once it is in operation, his family will come join him in Istanbul or Ankara.

When it was time for me to leave, the two friendly men, who had known each other for 25 years, were truly disappointed to see me go. They told me over and over how happy they were to meet me, how happy they were that I had come in on that day and that 2016 would be a good year.

I left the salon with a much improved head of hair, a smile on my face and a full heart. Despite my own apprehension for getting my hair done by someone new, in a new country and our lack of communication skills, I felt good having helped out a struggling business and meeting the best kind of people … the warm, friendly, appreciative kind. It doesn’t get any better.

Yes, indeed, I think 2016 will be a good year.

Adventures in Local Transportation – Philippines Part 2

BUS RIDE – EL NIDO TO PUERTO PRINCESA, PALAWAN

For the three days that we were in beautiful El Nido, I was slightly rattled by the accident that we had seen. There was nothing I could do to help and no way to know if the victims had been alright, but none-the-less, I couldn’t quite get the images out of my head.

When it came time for us to leave El Nido, we booked our van the night before, choosing a 1:30pm departure to hopefully put us in Puerto Princesa after the rush hour traffic and to give us time to sleep-in and enjoy the morning. We paid only 500 pesos ($15 CAD) for the return trip to the city, as we would also need to make our own way to the bus terminal.

After lunch, with our overnight bags in hand, we went searching for a tricycle to take us to the bus terminal. One tricycle driver asked us for 100 pesos.

Me: ‘Hmmm sounds like a bit much, we were thinking 15 pesos each’
Tricycle driver with a sly little laugh: ‘Just joking, it’s 50 pesos.’

I was quick to offer him 30 pesos for the two of us, which he declined, reiterating 50 pesos. We politely declined saying we would try with someone else. He quickly turned the tricycle around and rode off. Not too far down the street another driver asked if we needed a ride and we were able to negotiate a fare of 40 pesos for the 10 minute ride to the ramshackle bus terminal.

It was a bit disconcerting from the beginning when no one seemed to know the name of the company that was on our receipt, but after a couple of short conversations between men at the station, they directed us to a van and a friendly van assistant welcomed us to have a seat. We shifted into our chosen, assigned seats in the front row. We had chosen the front row hoping for a bit of extra foot and knee room, but were disappointed to see a hump on the floor giving us even less than normal foot space.

Two other passengers hopped in the van and off we went, departing nearly 10 minutes ahead of schedule. For the first few minutes, the road was more or less straight ahead and the driver clearly was excited to get going. He sped along the straight-away passing every vehicle (fast or slow) along the route. My friend and I exchanged a few questionable looks, but didn’t say anything.

The friendly assistant quickly became over friendly chatting away, asking questions and leaning over my shoulder to yell out the window to people of the side of the road to see if they needed a lift. Again, my friend and I exchanged glances wondering just what type of bus we had ended up on.

After picking up a local or two along the highway, the assistant leaned over me and adjusted the ceiling air conditioning off of me and on to himself. When I shot him a look, he adjusted one of the other vents to me and the one I had been using on to himself. Five minutes later, he moved to a different spot and readjusted the air conditioning that was on me, to him.

This cycle continued a ridiculous amount of times during the 4 – 5 hour transfer. The assistant couldn’t seem to sit still. Between leaning in beside me to yell out the window, to struggling to opening the door, to having a loud conversation with the driver from the back of the van … Not to mention the minimum of 10 times that he adjusted the air conditioning to himself.

Now, I know it sounds selfish that I would want the air conditioning all to myself, but that actually wasn’t the case! There were three ceiling air conditioning vents. I simply wanted one of them on me in the 40-degree heat. For whatever reason, he kept turning the one I was using on him and I would then have to adjust another one to be on me. Why he couldn’t have just adjusted the one that wasn’t in use, I will never know. He was antsy and kept changing seats, so he would change one vent and then change seats and change a different vent. I nearly lost it on him more than once.

As we barreled down the road at top speed passing everything along the way, I found myself thinking about the moto accident we had seen on the way to El Nido and remembering how thankful I had been for our reasonable and careful driver. Now, I felt like I was traveling with the devil!

About 15 minutes into the trip, much to my dismay, the driver’s speed stayed the same despite the hairpin turns going up and down mountains. After a short time, I stopped reaching for something to hold on to when we went around a turn, but instead, just held on for dear life.

As we careened down the steep hills, around corners and then back up again over roads in much need of repair, I thought to myself ‘Time to eat a cookie.’ Strange thought, right? True story … I was not going to die with home-baked cookies in my bag, so I was eating it to enjoy every last crumb … you know, just in case!

Along the way our driver would slow and occasionally stop to pick up new passengers and then put the pedal to the metal to make up for that lost thirty seconds. The craziness of the situation really set in when I realized that the driver of this rickety old van was leaning into the turns like a race car driver. Somehow he was delusional and thought we were in Formual One. How could this be?

Scared to death, annoyed by the unsettled assistant with his loud voice and increasing anxiety, I did the only thing I could in order to deal with it. I found a place where I could balance myself without falling out of the seat, stopped looking at the road and closed my eyes hoping for a nap. I was startled awake with the assistant mistakenly grabbed both sides of my head when he must have been reaching to hold on for a fast turn. I can’t even lie. The look I shot the assistant after his hands had come in contact both sides of my head while I was trying to sleep was a look of death. I managed to go back to a restless nap for another few minutes until we stopped at the halfway point.

Unbelievably, we had arrived at the halfway point in 45 minutes less time than it should have taken. I didn’t dare eat anything for fear that the roller-coaster of a drive would continue and that I would fall ill to motion sickness. After about a 15 minute stop, we piled back in the van with the other six or eight locals who we had picked up along the way and continued our mad dash to the city.

The assistant started up a new conversation with me about an hour in to the second part of the drive, tapping me on the shoulder and asking for the time. I quickly gave him the time. Not two minutes later, I was tapped on the arm and he asked again for the time. I looked at my phone, gave him the time and mumbled … ‘It’s two minutes after when you asked me last time.’ I had never met someone so constantly annoying. All I wanted to do was tune out, breathe and get through the crazy ride. The assistant then leaned in to the back of my seat and loudly had a conversation with the driver about the airport. That was the only word I understood in the local language. Then, a third tap on the arm from the assistant asking me what time we needed to be at the airport.

Seeing as we had bought our tickets specifically with a drop off at our hotel, it was a little frustrating that they wanted to drop us off at the airport. I explained that we were not going to the airport and that we needed to go to Puerto Princesa. A couple of minutes later, the assistant was trying to explain that one van would take us to the airport and another van would take the other passengers in to the city. I again explained ‘No Airport. No Flight. Hotel in Puerto Princesa.’ Who knew if we would end up in the city or at the airport.

To add to the joy of the ride, after another section of continuous S turns with the driver leaning in to each one, I heard the horrible sound of a cough and then a small choke and a splat. One of the two girls sitting in the front seat fumbled around for a plastic bag to give her friend. A couple more coughs and I cringed, now being sure that she was motion sick. I waited for the smell of vomit to permeate the rest of the van. As the poor girl continued to be sick, I wondered why she didn’t ask the driver to pull over for a moment. I then wondered why the driver wouldn’t offer to pull over. And then, my biggest wonderment was if the driver knew that it was likely his fault that this poor girl was motion sick. Had he driven like a normal person instead of a race car driver, he may not be smelling the puke of the girl sitting in the front seat with him, nor would we!

The friend tossed the plastic bag out the window and consoled her friend as we continued full speed ahead.

As we rounded the last few bends and started to see the slow rush hour traffic, it was a relief to know that the driver would have no option but to slow down. Sadly, the girl in the front was still sick once or twice more before the drive was over.

Next thing I knew, I was being tapped on the shoulder again, this time to be told we would be getting out and would need to hire a tricycle to our hotel. After 4-5 hours of life-threatening driving, a loud voice yelling in my ear, being woken by a strangers hands on my head and having the air conditioning re-directed every 10 minutes for no rhyme or reason, my sanity was nearly gone. I slowly and clearly explained (at least twice) that we had paid for the van to take us to our hotel and we would not take a tricycle. The assistant tried to tell me that we would get out at the next intersection and take a tricycle, but I refused, insisting that they drive us to the hotel.

In the end, the few remaining passengers piled out of the van and we continued on, stopping at a gas station along the way into the city. Within about 10 minutes, we were dropped off at the door to our hotel. Never had I been so happy to arrive at a hotel and get out of a vehicle. I was thankful that evening for being safe, for having a friend to travel with and endure the horrible ride with and I knew that eventually I would look back and have a laugh at the situation. I was wrong about that part though … two weeks later, I’m still not laughing.

Word of the wise:
If you are traveling from Manila to Palawan and plan to see both El Nido and Puerto Princesa, book one flight in to one airport and the other flight out of the other airport. This way you only have to do the crazy long drive once.

Secondly, we were really happy with the van and service of Camarih Palawan Shuttle Transport and I would strongly suggest NOT traveling with a company whose name starts with “B”. Sadly, they took our receipt when we got into the van and we had no idea that we would want to remember the company name, so I never asked for it back, therefore I can’t recall the company name. Do a little research, pay that extra $2 – $5 and make sure you arrive safe and sound.

Adventures in Local Transportation – Philippines Part 1

BUS RIDE – Puerto Princesa to El Nido, Palawan

El Nido is a small beach side community about 400 kms north of Puerto Princesa, the capital of the island of Palawan in the Philippines. It is a magical beach side community where limestone karsts protrude from the crystal clear waters and tower protectively around you.

El Nido, Palawan, Philippines
El Nido, Palawan, Philippines

Certainly one of the best-known tourist areas on Palawan, it had been highly recommended that we make the trip to bask in the natural beauty.

Staff at our Puerto Princesa hotel arranged our transfer for us with pick up from our hotel and drop off at our hotel in El Nido for 700 pesos. There was also an option to take a tricycle to the bus terminal and pay only 500 pesos for the van transfer, but after paying the 700 pesos and arriving on the side of the road to transfer to a different van, we knew we had made the right decision as the ‘terminal’ would have been a bit difficult to find.

We had been prepared for a five and a half hour transfer to El Nido, but hadn’t realized that it would take one hour to also get us from the hotel to the terminal during morning rush hour traffic.

We crammed in the very back of an 11-seater van with our small luggage stored under the seats and our feet propped on top of two other travelers’ rucksacks. It looked like it was going to be a long ride. Little did we know that the road would be nearly a constant S turn going up and down mountains. I would guess that the average speed of our van was in the 50 km / hour range for the most part. Regularly I stared out the window and was thankful that I was in my relatively slow moving van as other vans and motos zoomed past.

We travelled along the coast for awhile with the beautiful bays to our right and lush fields and mountains to our left. The first two hours of our journey were bumpy and curvy, but relatively uneventful.

We stopped at the half-way point for lunch and a bathroom break. Local dishes in heated plates were waiting for customers to make their choices. I opted for a bag of corn chips, some mentos, cashews and a small chocolate bar. Delicious and not at all nutritious but I wasn’t sure how fresh the local food was, or what any of it was!

The second half of the drive was somehow bumpier, windier and more mountainous. Throw in a few construction areas, gravel roads, school zones and rice laid out to dry on sheets in the roads, and you have a recipe for disaster. About 20 minutes outside of El Nido we had just started to see our first glimpses of water and the beautiful karsts jutting out of the water. We wound down, down, down around a big mountain when the driver put on his breaks quite hard. There were three other vans stopped ahead of us in the middle of the road. After waiting a moment, the driver and assistant popped out to see what the hold up was. Realizing that there had been an accident, one of the passengers in our van went to see if he could help as he was medically trained.

As we sat in the van, we could see only the signs of an accident to our left. There was a group of people crowded around something, a few stray car or moto pieces, a helmet and some flip flops on the road. To the right, a young girl of about 14 years old leaned over in the ditch and vomited. Whatever had happened wasn’t good.

A few minutes later, our drivers and the passenger came back to the vehicle. The passenger explained to us that there had been a motorcycle accident and that someone was hurt quite badly. She was unconscious and likely had internal bleeding. He went on to explain that they had assured him that help was on the way and that the hospital was only five minutes away.

As the line up of passenger vans slowly started to move forward and around the group of people who had gathered around the accident victims, it was one of those horrible moments where I knew that I shouldn’t look, but I had to. As we inched forward past the accident I saw a crumpled motorcycle and a second badly damaged one. Next, I saw one of the victims sitting on the pavement and the other lying unconscious with a river of blood running across the pavement.

I drew in a sharp breath and my eyes instantly filled with tears. I sat in silence for the remainder of the drive to the small town of El Nido, hoping that the two victims would be ok. Again, I found myself thankful that despite the crazy twisty, turny, mountainous roads, our driver took his time and we arrived safely. Thank you Camarih Palawan Shuttle Transport.

Bangkok Photo Essay

Reclining Buddha Wat Po, Bangkok

In October 2015, I had the opportunity to do Urban AdventuresTuk Tuk Experience tour. I was invited along to take in a city tour by Tuk Tuk and share my experiences with you through this Bangkok Photo Essay.

Early in the morning I met my small group and we hopped in our Tuk Tuk’s to head off to Phra Sumeru Fortress. Sadly the fortress itself was under construction, but we still got to have a peek, as well as see the beautiful river views and learn about the murals nearby.

We were whisked off through the hectic streets to the bottom of the Golden Mount where we climbed 319 stairs to the top for breathtaking views. There were locals wandering around praying and presenting offerings. Inside you could see beautiful, colorful art, various statues and carvings.

Over the next hour or so, we wandered through the amulet Market, the flower market, a wet market and the Phahurat Market in Little India. All were filled with interesting history, unique scents and locals buying and selling nearly everything you can imagine, from fruits to trinkets, statues to flowers, street food, material, clothing and herbal remedies. It’s crowded and hectic, but as local as it gets!

Last, but not least, we zoomed our way through the streets to the famous temple of Wat Po where the world’s largest Reclining Buddha resides. I’ll admit, I wasn’t sure what the ‘big deal’ was until I arrived. I had no idea how massive the Buddha would be and I had no idea how beautiful the temple would be. We spent about an hour wandering around the complex viewing everything from the stunning architecture to children’s music and dance classes.

And with that, we finished up the Tuk Tuk tour by returning to our starting point. The Tuk Tuk Experience was a great overview of some of Bangkok’s important sites and certainly a great way to get acquainted with the culture. Why not give it a try if you are headed to the city!

Hope you’ll enjoy a few of my favourite photos from the tour!

This post has been sponsored by Urban Adventures, a division of Intrepid Travel.

“Urban Adventures is about a new style of travel experience for those who want to get off the beaten path and really connect with a destination. The experience can be as short as a couple of hours, or as long as a whole day, but in every case our Urban Adventures tours take travellers to interesting places to meet locals, and to really see what makes a place tick.”

Love Letter to Turkey

Dear Turkey,

It’s been two months since I’ve seen you and I still remember the kiss of your crisp fall air on my cheeks and your mouth-watering cuisine. I remember your bright colors, rich history, your friendly spirit and the beauty of every sunrise and sunset that I saw over your sprawling cities and weather-carved landscapes. I remember feeling happily breathless as I floated above your valleys, wafting in your light breeze in a hot air balloon at sunrise. You wrapped me in your warm welcoming arms and took care of me like I was one of your own.

I know that your government is a work in progress, that many of your borders are riddled with controversy and that no matter how much you try to help the Syrian refugees, the backlash seems to be an on-going battle. I know that being a primarily Muslim country in a time when Muslim’s are being bullied and discriminated against is not easy, but you have been strong throughout history and I believe you will keep your spirit alive.

After hearing the recent news of attacks in Paris and Beirut, I checked with the (Canadian) government to see if I should be concerned about coming to see you again. They say that I need to be cautious, but that as long as I stay away from the Syrian border areas, that are no immediate concerns. In fact, the concerns are the same as those listed for many countries that I’ve visited before that many people think of as safe, such as Peru.

Ah. What a relief to know that as of right now I can return without any serious risks. And, unless this changes, I know we will get to spend some quality time together soon.

I know that Istanbul has been known for it’s historical, very powerful protests and statements from artists. I was also there when a bomb killed people in Ankara in October. I saw your tears and pain. I hope that your healing has begun and that you continue to fight the good battle.

As you go through these difficult times, try to remember that bullies exist everywhere in the world and you are not alone. There are those from outside who scrutinize your every move and broadcast it to the world through television and media. Some of their findings may come from the truth, but they twist and stretch it so much that it is often unrecognizable. Sadly, people too often believe what these loud voices are saying without seeing with their own eyes. Keep whispering your truths until enough voices join together that it drowns out the lies.

In order to survive these difficult times, you need to find it within yourself and your people to continue doing good. For every bad story that reaches outside your borders, make sure that you are creating 10 good stories. Not as many of these good stories will reach the world, but for the one that does, it makes a lasting impact. And, don’t forget that the other nine good stories have a huge impact on your own people and their spirit. Bad news is immediate, but feel-good news lasts longer in people’s hearts and minds. You are strong. I believe in you.

I may be far away at the moment, but I think of you often and dream of when we will be together again. I may even like to make you my home for a few months, despite the difficulties you are enduring. Just as people stand together and continue to visit Paris, I will do the same for you.

I hope that in a few short months I will be sharing your beauty with some of my friends and showing them how to look at the world through their lens. I hope that they will then share your beauty and fond memories of your warmth and hospitality with their friends in their own countries. I hope that by continuing to visit, by continuing to believe in a country that embodies so much history, culture and beauty, that it will help people to look beyond the loud voices and see for themselves what you are all about.

Until we meet again, may your call to prayer be unwavering, may your tolerance for one another be strengthened, may your caring hands take care of many in need and know that I will continue to share your culture with the world outside your borders.

With Love,
Shari

Istanbul Night Tasting Trail

In September 2015, I explored the foods of Turkey on a great tour with one of my favourite companies, Urban Adventures. They welcomed me along to enjoy their Istanbul Night Tasting Trail and share my food experiences with you!

I met up with my local guide, Beatrice, and four other passengers; two were from Germany and two from the United States. We set off from the Galata Bridge, taking the Tunel (one of the oldest in the world) to the top of the hill where we began our evening food adventure. Trust me, the two minute ride is well worth it, it is a steep hill!

The tour itself was presented as a day in the life of a Turk, through food. We started at a small cafe eating a breakfast food called su boregi (directly translated to Water Pastry) and a sampling of Turkish coffee or tea. The su boregi was light and mild. Layers of dough boiled and then flipped to keep the inside moist and the outside crispy. Sometimes they are filled with meat, cilantro, eggplant or yellow cheese, but ours was light and simple with just a sprinkling of white cheese inside, mixed with oil and hang yogurt. The texture is like eating pasta, but with no sauce, it is light enough for breakfast.

Su boregi
Su boregi

With Turkey being the world’s second largest tea producer, you might understand that it is an important part of their culture. Most of the tea is grown in the Black Sea area and Turkey as a whole, produces 1/3 of both tea and hazelnuts in the world. You don’t see Turks just sticking a tea bag in hot water though. There’s a delicate process where they use two tea pots with water in the bottom pot and loose tea in the top. They pour the boiling water from the bottom over the loose leaves. A bit of this extract will be mixed with more of the hot water and voila, the perfect cup of Turkish tea!

Turkish Tea
Turkish Tea

For ‘lunch’ we headed to a lovely little patio restaurant where they served up a bottle of Raki for us to share as we pondered our meze options. Raki is a local liqueur. When mixed with an ice cube and water, watch the magic happen as it turns from a translucent liquid into a milky substance that they refer to as Lion’s milk. It has a distinct liquorice flavour and is regularly compared to ouzo, but don’t say this out loud as you will start a big debate that cannot be finished!

Raki
Raki

Meze is a variety of hot or cold small plates, served with bread. Our group poured over the options, asking what each one was and then a handful were ordered to give us a little taste test of everything. From denim borulcesi (sea weed / sea beans) to atom (a powerful chili), kozlenmis biber (red peppers), patlican ezme (mashed eggplant) to the most delicious hummus I’ve ever tasted. Of course, it was accompanied by the standard onion, tomato, garlic, pureed salsa and haydari (hang yogurt with garlic and herbs). Add a spoonful of any of these tasty dishes on top of bread baked soft in the middle and crispy on the outside, and you have yourself a meal! Did I mention we were only on lunch at this point?

Meze
Meze

As we moved on from the outdoor patio to our next destination, we stopped for a quick bite of street food. Vendors throughout the streets of the Taksim and Galata districts are always hopping with the crowded night scene streaming by at a constant flow. As two men stopped for a quick snack from the muscle vendor, we joined in the fun. A muscle shell filled with rice, drenched in lemon and popped in your mouth is apparently the way to go for your mid-evening night-out-drinking snack! Seeing as we had already had our afternoon Raki, I guess we had caught up with the youngsters. I’m not a huge fan of muscles normally, but decided to give it a fair try. After staring down the shell convincing myself that I could do it, I popped it in my mouth and was pleasantly surprised at the mix of soft flavors and absence of distinct seafood taste. I almost had a second one and then remembered that I needed to save room for dessert! Oh wait, dessert isn’t next?

Stuffed Muscle
Stuffed Muscle

You can’t have dessert before you’ve had at least one more Turkish tea or coffee! So off to an open air cafe near the Passage Hazzopulo, we went! With a mixture of both tea and coffee drinkers, we got to enjoy the thick bold goodness of Turkish coffee, the smoothness of Turkish tea and the sweetness of emil cay (apple tea). Apple tea is my favourite, but apparently it is more of a tourist drink than one of the locals.

Turkish Tea and Coffee
Turkish Tea and Coffee

To give us a feel for a real ‘afternoon’ out in the life of some Turkish ladies, Beatrice offered to do a coffee grind reading for one of the guests. Often a way for ladies to pass the afternoon, is to sit and have tea / coffee with friends and then read each other’s fortune from the upside down settlings of the thick sludge at the bottom of the coffee cup.

We then meandered off through some of the narrow streets and were drawn in by the methodical clickety-clack of metal utensils on a hot metal cooking service. As the minced meat on the cooking service was broken up, tossed around and loaded up with spices, you could see people piling around to get it while it was hot and fresh. Kokorec it was called and our guide asked if we wanted to know what it was before or after trying it.

hmmmm … that doesn’t really sell it for me!

Kokorec is a very popular delicacy of cow or goat intestine mixed with spicy tomatoes and onion and then served on a small bun. I was sorry that I had asked what it was beforehand, but dug out my inner bravery and gave it a try. Much to my surprise, it was actually pretty tasty. It had the texture of minced beef or lamb, although maybe a little greasier, and the spices added a nice flavour. I even managed to take more than one bite, so it must not have been too bad at all!

Kororek
Kokorec

With our bellies warmed up from tea / coffee and spicy Kokorec, we headed off to a narrow, off the beaten track street for a taste of Efes, Turkey’s famed beer. Although I’m not a beer conosoeur, the gentelemen in my group described it as an “Easy drinking beer. Sweet and not too hard.”

Efes Beer
Efes Beer

After our ‘night out’ for a beer, next up was the typical ‘after-the-bar’ food; a little something called a wet burger. And, it was just that. It is a small, smoked, beef patty cooked with garlic and tomato paste and then smooshed into a small bun and left to get soggy. Chow down on a couple of these with a few big gulps of Ayran, a salty yogurt based drink and they say you’ll be hangover free!

Wet Burger
Wet Burger

At our final stop, we got to indulge in the delectable Turkish sweets. We were served delicious baklava which is many layers of phyllo pastry, filled with pistachios, baked and then drizzled with sugar water. To take the edge off the exceptional sweetness, we shared some gooey Turkish ice cream. The ice cream has the same substance as chewing gum, so it doesn’t melt quickly and is slightly chewy, but mouthwateringly delicious.

Baklava and Turkish Ice Cream
Baklava and Turkish Ice Cream

As if that wasn’t enough, Beatrice then pulled out a chocolate bar chalked full of hazelnuts which is one of Turkey’s big exports. I have a special soft spot for chocolate and hazelnuts, so I managed to find an empty spot in my tummy to try a couple of squares.

And with that, we finished up the evening near Taksim Square with full bellies, new friends and a feel for how the locals eat. I would highly recommend giving the Istanbul Night Tasting Trail a try for a great way to explore the foods of Turkey and a great way to see a bit of the amazing city by night.

This post has been sponsored by Urban Adventures, a division of Intrepid Travel.

“Urban Adventures is about a new style of travel experience for those who want to get off the beaten path and really connect with a destination. The experience can be as short as a couple of hours, or as long as a whole day, but in every case our Urban Adventures tours take travellers to interesting places to meet locals, and to really see what makes a place tick.”

 

Love at first sight Photo Essay: Ljubljana, Slovenia

Ljubljana Castle, Slovenia

In September 2014 I went on a spectacular tall ship sailing with Starclippers. We were scheduled for six ports of call and I was least excited about Slovenia as I knew nothing about it and knew no one who had been there. I decided that I would do the day tour to the capital of Ljubljana without really knowing anything about it. It’s actually one of my favourite things about traveling solo … you can do as much or as little research as you wish. I had done very little (none actually) on Slovenia. I like doing zero research because then I have zero expectations. Now, it doesn’t always work out for the best, as sometimes research can be a good thing, but this time, it was perfect.

After a couple of hours by coach from the seaside town of Porec, in land to Ljubljana, our group hopped out and started walking toward city centre. It was a crisp, sunny autumn day. The sun was shining, everyone was a little chilly but the fresh air made me feel alive. I can’t quite pin-point it, but every once in awhile I fall in love with a city and this one was love at first site. Immediately I noticed the beauty of the old buildings – a mix of various periods of famous architecture. I’m not a history buff so knowing the difference between Gothic, Romanesque and Baroque architectures is not my strong point, but whatever the mix is that presents itself in Ljubljana is undisputedly beautiful. Take a look for yourself from the Ljubljana Castle to the city’s dragon bridge, the detail, history and strength show through. The streets were old, steeped in history but wide and open, interchanging with newer style architecture. A large section of the main core is pedestrian only and the streets were impeccably clean. I had 2 – 3 hours on a group tour to learn about this lovely city, along with taking in a local lunch of sausages, wine and potatoes. The quick overview didn’t even begin to scratch the surface. It did, however give me the yearning to go back, not just to Ljubljana, but to Slovenia in general. Check out some of my favourite photos of Ljubljana below.

If you are interested in a Slovenian adventure, drop me a message. I’d be happy to set you up with an interesting small group tour, a tall ship sailing that has a Slovenian stop or help you with your own custom itinerary!

Halifax to Santiago – the usual Shari glitches

November 14, 2014
NOTE: Many more past posts coming up about my six weeks in Europe (Sept / Oct 2014), but I’m going to try to keep up a little better on this trip as it is at a more leisurely pace. So … here’s a post about TODAY!

I never leave Canada without some kind of small (or large glitch) and once again, this trip has proved no different.

I set off from Halifax, Nova Scotia at 8:30pm on November 13th, our plane was late arriving, but we boarded and arrived in Toronto on time. I had an hour and a half layover in Toronto which was just enough time to change from terminal D to E (a lot of walking) and respond to a couple of work emails before boarding. I was pleasantly surprised that my gate had an open lounge concept set up with loads of free charging stations, tablets for your use and free wifi. I really appreciate it when airports have free reliable internet, but so many of them are one or the other.

We were scheduled to board at 11:45pm, but the first call for boarding came shortly after 11pm along with an announcement for passengers from several countries to have proof of payment of your reciprocity fee. Huh? Being a little tired, I thought maybe I had heard wrong. I knew I had to pay a reciprocity fee, but I was sure that I only had a printed copy for Argentina and I was going to Chile … wasn’t I?

I went and asked one of the Air Canada staff who looked quickly at my Argentinian reciprocity receipt and said that’s what I needed, but I said ‘but I’m going to Chile first and Argentina later.’ I wasn’t in a panic, but we were boarding, so if I had to pay the Chilean fee upfront, I needed to do so online with that free wifi quickly.

The man had to go ask. He came back and told me that they were only announcing it because the plane was continuing on to Buenos Aires, so passengers to Argentina had to have proof of theirs being pre-paid. For Chile, I would pay at the airport. Now why they couldn’t have announced it that way, I’m not sure … but …

Crisis averted.

I had picked my inside aisle seat in a row with no other passengers in anticipation that I might get to lay down vertically for the 10 hour flight. To my dismay, since I had chosen that seat, a man had chosen the other aisle and he had already laid claim to the centre seat with all of his stuff as well. GRRRR … Sleeping sitting up it was!

I managed to sleep through most of the night, waking up when there was turbulence or meals were being served, but overall I got enough sleep. In fact, I couldn’t believe it when I woke up the last time and it was only 1.5 hours until touch down. Wow! That went really fast.

Dinner was some kind of horrible chicken in a white cream sauce with very little flavour and then I had pancakes with fruit and what tasted like cream cheese frosting. I usually don’t mind plane food, but honestly, both of these were the pits.

Sadly I couldn’t see the beautiful mountains on the way into Santiago because I had chosen a chance at vertical sleep over the window seat that I originally had. I should have known better. From what I could see from staring around my neighbours, the mountains were spectacular.

Overall, a relatively uneventful trip. Despite the fact that I still hate flying, there was very little turbulence and when there was, it was minimal. And then, the pilot landed that jumbo jet like it only weighed 10lbs. It was the most graceful landing ever, barely even noticeable.

I was less than half-way back on the plane, so it wasn’t much of a wait to deplane. I followed all of the signs and even pointed someone else in the right direction to go pay the reciprocity fee, which the sign said was on ‘level 1’. I got to level one and the greeter spoke to me in Spanish. She asked where I was from, I said Canada and she pointed me off to the right. I got in a line with about 50 other people and thought … hmmmm … this line is very short. Could I really be this lucky?

UMMMMMM … NO.

My turn came and the lady told me I had to go pay my reciprocity fee. Damn it. I thought that was what I was waiting in line for … Meanwhile, the line of 50 that were in front of me had turned easily to 200 behind me. And, off I went to another line up to pay my reciprocity fee ($132 USD for Canadians – which was payable in US dollars or by credit card). It’s really nice that the reciprocity fee is good for the life of the passport, sadly, after this Latin America / Caribbean / Central America trip over the next 3 – 4 months, my passport will be out of pages and I’ll be renewing. That means if I head back to Chile, I’ll pay the fee again. But, if you have a new passport when you go to Chile for the first time, it’ll be valid for the length of your new 10-year Canadian passport. So, I hope some of you other Canadians benefit from it!

Then, I returned to the immigration line up behind 300 or so people and patiently waited my turn. UG! Not that it really mattered. I didn’t have a transfer or tour waiting, so I was in no particular hurry … I just wanted to get to the sunshine! (A high of 31 degrees here today. AHHHHH SUNSHINE!)

How to travel solo and not be lonely

Urban Adventures Food Tour in Malaysia

Every time I head out on a trip, whether it be an all inclusive vacation or to the other side of the world, everyone always asks ‘Are you traveling alone? All by yourself?’. My answer is pretty much always the same … ‘I’m traveling solo, but I’m never alone.’

It’s funny how needy we are (people in general). Everyone thinks you need to have someone else in order to travel, a partner or a friend. People don’t seem to get the whole travel solo idea even though millions of people are doing it. And, not just doing it but LOVING it.

All different types of personalities travel alone … some like peace and quiet, some like being social and meeting new people, some are nearly hermits at home, but when they get to a new country they flourish! Some people enjoy travel but there partner, spouse or friend does not or can’t get the time off. Everyone has their reasons.

Travelling solo gives you a great deal of confidence in yourself because it is up to you to make good decisions and hopefully non-harmful mistakes. We all make mistakes, it’s all about learning from them and hopefully making mistakes that make you stronger in the end. There is no one there but you to take responsibility for yourself and you truly learn a lot from that. Not to mention how much you learn about yourself! What you like and don’t like, how much stress you can handle, how resourceful you are …

It is true that I often get on the plane and leave my home in Halifax solo … yes, at that point I am alone – wait, not really … there’s another 100 people on the plane plus staff and crew. If I was really lonely, I could strike up a conversation with my seat mates or the staff, but most of the time I take that time to decompress, de-stress and get excited. Then I land in a new destination and there’s a whole new world out there waiting for me!

Don’t ever let not having a partner to travel with hold you back! Being alone is good for you sometimes and when you’re not ok with being alone, you just have to know where to find people … then you can make friends!

Generally speaking, people around the world like travellers. If you are lost, they’ll help you. If you are scared, they’ll get you to safety or take you under their wing. If you friendly, they’ll be friendly back. Ok, ok … unless you get yourself into some crazy gang area or unethical situations … then you might be on your own, so don’t do that! But, almost everywhere I’ve travelled I’ve found good people who want you to enjoy their country.

As we grow older, we forget how to make friends. As students, you spend time in class with people and create study groups. You hang out after class and have drinks together. But, as adults, we work and we don’t always want to work and play in the same sandbox, so where do you find friends then?

Students, hold tight to your best friendships in university. Work at keeping in touch with your best friends while you are traveling or when you move to different parts of the country. Sure, each of you are going to change, but you’ll always be bonded by memories of school years. These friendships can lead to interesting travel opportunities later on depending on where your friends spread out around the country and the world!

Here are a few tips for traveling solo but not getting lonely.

1. Small Group Adventure Tours – These tours are usually made up of 10 -12 like-minded travellers and are guided by a local. You get to go to some really interesting places and get a local’s insight along the way. You’ll meet new friends, see new places and not be alone which is great to stave off loneliness, but also for safety.

Visiting Angkor Wat in Cambodia

Have questions about which tour company is best or you or need help deciding on your destination? As an Adventure Travel Specialist & full service travel agent, I would love for you to contact me to discuss your many options! Keep in mind that prices are the same through a travel agent as online, but you get the benefit of personal experience, professional expertise and a real person to help sort out all of the details of your trip! Have questions? Let’s chat!

2. City Tours – Not up for a week or month long small group tour? That’s ok, you can still join in on day tours. Again you’ll get to travel with a local and see some of the ins and outs of a city or area plus you’ll meet the others in your group and make plans for other day tours or hanging out for drinks later. As a solo female traveller, my favourite are the city by night tours. If I’m alone, I don’t normally go out in the city at night, so I love to go on night tours because I can meet people and travel the streets safely. It’s also nice to have a group to dine or have drinks with.

Urban Adventures Food Tour in Malaysia

3. Bars – Although you have to be careful, bars are still a great place to meet people. Although I’ve never been very good at this one, lots of people are and I think it just takes practice. Find yourself a seat at the bar. Make sure you sit in the middle so there is a free seat on either side of you. Strike up a conversation with the bartender – male or female, doesn’t matter. Ask them about their community, their life, other fun things to do. Soon enough, you’ll probably have people sitting on both sides of you joining in the conversation. Just remember to keep your wits about you and be safe. Watch your drink at all times to make sure no one slips anything in it!

4. Hostels – Travelers of all ages use hostel accommodations these days. Staying at a hostel immediately gives you a sense of community. You are amongst fellow travellers. Don’t be shy. Ask someone if you can share their table at breakfast and start chatting about your travels. Some hostels have a bar or activity nights or a sitting / lobby area. Don’t be afraid to hang out there and chat with other travellers! Many a great travelling friendship has been born through hostel connections.

5. Couch Surfing – Looking for cheap accommodations? You can’t get much better than free! People offer up their couch (or spare bed) for travellers passing through for a day or two, sometimes longer. These folks are also often eager to show you around, tell you about their community and sometimes even take you out on the town. What a great way to meet new friends and stay on budget! Just make sure you check references and reviews carefully. If you ever arrive at a home and feel uncomfortable, don’t worry about anyone’s feelings, just keep yourself safe and leave the situation. Enjoy the local living and respect the people you stay with. Then, when you are done traveling and have a home of your own re-pay the favour to other travellers and offer your couch up for surfing!

Until the day when I meet the perfect travel partner who I am fully in tune with, I’ll continue traveling solo and loving every minute of it. You get to make the decisions that affect the outcome of your travel experience and you don’t have to be responsible for anyone else’s decisions.

Get out there. Step outside of your comfort zone. Start small with a week long trip to somewhere on the same continent. Challenge yourself to be fully responsible for your own happiness and travel alone. Cast aside the possibility of loneliness. With the few tips above, you’ll be well on your way to meeting new friends and having no shortage of fun options no matter where you travel. Once you get a taste of the freedom that solo travel provides, watch out … wanderlust is a disease that can’t be cured!

*** Credit Card Insider’s Visitor Experience department has requested that I write this post as a resource for their current and potential clients. If you wonder what credit card might be best for you, they are a great place to start. Give them a quick click and check it out! This is an unpaid post, solely on a collaborative basis.