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.

Free flying

One of the best ways to travel is for free, don’t you agree?

I’ve done it. Earlier this year I used Aeroplan points to fly from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Quito, Ecuador and home from Lima, Peru … for almost free (I had to pay the taxes). The flights would have cost in the vicinity of $1500 and I paid less than $200. Not a bad deal!

On top of that, I was super impressed with the ease of booking my flights online with my points and had no trouble at all locating flight segments that worked for me. I had heard that you might be out of luck if you didn’t book far enough in advance, but I booked only 1-2 months in advance and had no trouble at all.

You can do it too!

I’ll admit, gathering 40 000 – 50 000 points in order to get a free flight out of the country seems a little bit daunting. It may even take years to get there, but don’t give up! For me, I got mine in less than two years which turned into me visiting the Galapagos Islands and Peru!

I signed up for CIBC business bank accounts and a CIBC Aeroplan Visa about two years ago when they were running a joint promotion, offering 20 000 Aeroplan points for a certain combination of CIBC products. It wasn’t without a struggle … but I made it work. I was in the market for a new bank because I was horribly discouraged with the customer service of my previous bank, I needed a new credit card specific for business expenses and I needed to fly to South America (don’t we all need that?).

Of course I was promised the world (meaning my points) and then, after they had all of my information and had set up accounts, they told me that I didn’t qualify because they wouldn’t approve me for a $10 000 line of credit which was one of the qualifiers (yet they continue to up my credit card limit regularly!). Well that wasn’t good enough for me. They had promised the points and I made them follow through … at least with most of them. After appealing the decision and a couple of customer service phone calls, I ended up with 15 000 points. I should have gotten the full 20 000, but I was tired of begging. And, honestly, my new banker wasn’t much better than the bank that I had just left .. but he’s no longer there. Man, I have crappy luck with banks! I just want a banker who cares about me and my business!

My next step was to ensure that every time I could, I collected Aeroplan points. There are loads of offers out there for double points on car rentals, hotels, gas and much more. Many of them don’t apply to me, but I diligently watch for the ones that do. Below are the ones that I found easiest to use, but here is the list from Aeroplan themselves.

– I used my Aeroplan Visa for everything I could that was business related. This included some new equipment purchases (like a new camera) which brought in some big miles!
– I used my Aeroplan Visa in conjunction with my Aeroplan points card while filling up at Esso and got double the points. And, I became a loyal Esso customer. I fill up at the Esso close to my house all the time and keep my eyes open for an Esso wherever I am. If I’m not quite on empty, but I’m close to an Esso, that’s great. I fill up in case I don’t find another one later. I might be a little anal about it, but it gets me double points and I drive an SUV, so that’s about 50 points per fill up! I used to travel out of town 2-3 times a week which meant I was earning 100-150 points each week from this tactic!
– I signed up for a Costco membership when they were offering 1000 Aeroplan points.
– I bought books online from Indigo / Chapters using my Aeroplan points and my Aeroplan Visa in order to double up on the points.
– Add a couple of flights in there – which I try to book with Air Canada and Star Alliance when possible and bam! I’m almost ready to fly again for free now. I have 33 000 miles. Just looking to get to 40 or 50 000 before my next free flight (to South America). Or, maybe I’ll save to 75 000 for free return flights to Hawaii. That might be worth the wait!

One of the best ways to get points is by signing up for a credit product because they often offer large chunks of points all at once. You have to be careful for the annual fees though and decide if it is worth it. For me, the business visa was a good choice despite the annual fee. It was a business expense and I needed a second credit card. It’s not the best choice for everyone.

My experience has fully been with Aeroplan. I decided to stick to one points product and try to get as many as possible rather than splitting them between two different rewards programs. For example, choosing to go for Esso for gas every single time I fill up rather than 1/2 the time at the one that let’s you collect Air Miles and 1/2 the time at Esso. I wanted the most points, the fastest. After all, I had South America as a goal in mind.

Aeroplan is running a deal right now as well where you can transfer your points to a friend (or a friend to you!) for just 1.5 cents per mile. This seems like an ok deal to me if you only need a few hundred miles to get you to a ‘free’ trip. So, you might pay $300 for your flight in the end, but if it was worth $2000 and makes the difference in you going on your dream vacation or not, then it might just be worth it.

Now, Aeroplan is not the only points plan out there, there are lots of them! Aeroplan is just the one that I decided to join.

I also joined West Jet rewards for the times when they have better deals or happen to have a better connecting flight. I figure if I’m flying, I might as well be collecting points somewhere! I always check Air Canada options first, but if I can find a flight that is cheaper by several hundred dollars, I’m still going to save money where I can! It’ll take me a really long time to get enough West Jet points, but someday maybe I’ll have enough for a free short-haul! In the end though, West Jet doesn’t fly as many places as Air Canada and I want to see the world!

If you have travel on your mind and you want to enjoy a free flight once in awhile, why not sign up for one of the million plans out there and start collecting to see how fast they add up! My suggestion is pick one and stay loyal! Your points will add up the fastest this way.

Cheers to Free Flying!

PS – This post is in no way endorsed, or paid for by any of the companies listed above. Solely my views and suggestions. Feel free to add your own views and suggestions in the comments section!

Notes to Self

So …. I went slightly over my planned budget (by $800) for my Dominican 2012 trip to learn Spanish. However, all things considered, not that bad seeing as I cancelled a flight without refund, stayed and extra week longer than planned and took two weeks more of Spanish classes than I had initially intended!

I already know that I want to do a similar trip again, so before I forget what I learned, I’m going to put it in this nice little ‘Notes to Self’ blog!

– To save money, plan ahead and get drives to the airport from a friend (save $100).

– Find a taxi at the airport in Santo Domingo (or wherever you land) and negotiate a price. If someone else books it for you (school or hotel), it is always more expensive. I could have gotten taxis to/from Santo Domingo for a regular price of $33 ($1300 RD). (save $15-30)

– Caribe tours is only slightly cheaper than Metro. Caribe = $350 RD from Sosua to Santo Domingo. Metro = $380 RD from Sosua to Santo Domingo. Always travel with Metro. Much cleaner and more comfortable. Fewer stops. For the $1-$2 extra per trip, it is well worth it!

– Moto Conchos – do not take them after dark or for long trips. Negociate price. In Cabarete they start at $250 RD for a trip to Sosua. I haggled down to $150 RD.

– A Taxi from Cabarete to Sosua at night usually starts at $500 RD. I haggled down to $400 RD. Much cheaper if you take one as a group, but I was alone at the time.

– Always have correct change for moto conchos because sometimes they don’t have (or try not to give you) change. This is there way to try and get more money from you. You can always go buy a bottle of water at a local store to get change if you need to. That’s much better than giving over $500 RD for a $150 ride!

– Don’t go to Santo Domingo – you hate it there. It is hot, dirty and uninspiring.

– Don’t go again until you have enough Aeroplan points to cover your flights. (save $1600!)

– Don’t go in July / August – it is too friggin’ hot! Also bad time of year for flights. Go when there are direct flights to Puerto Plata (likely December – April) – reduce stress and travel time by MANY hours!

– Spend more time in Jarabacoa and visit the city of Santiago. Do these at the same time because they are close to each other.

– Plan a few days to a week to travel to Rio San Juan, Las Teranas, Samana. They are all along the north coast and so many people told me how beautiful these areas are, but I didn’t get the opportunity to visit.

– Find a place to rent for 1-2 months. This will cost $200 – $500 US instead of $30-45 per night. (Savings over 8 weeks of $1200 – $2000)

– Buy groceries and cook at home. Don’t buy too many brand names, buy lots of local fruit (cheap) and don’t eat out or drink alcohol too much! Shop in the local communities instead of tourist districts if possible. $6-$10 per day for three meals instead of $15-$20 per day. (Savings over 8 weeks of $300 – $600)

– Look for a local person who teaches Spanish classes, not through a ‘branded’ school. (save $50-$100 per week of lessons)

PACKING

– Don’t take your fancy heels or a nice dress, you will not need them! Sun dresses only!

– Take two to three weeks worth of underwear. Small, easy to pack and I appreciated never running out!

– Two pairs of jeans or pants. You will wear them more often than you think!

– Pack 3-4 pairs of light weight shorts – not jean shorts.

– sneakers, hiking sandals, flip flops, dress sandals – all necessary

– two swim suits and a beach towel (or buy one when you get there)

– rain jacket or good umbrella is nice to have

– leave hair dryer, straightener, curling iron at home. Too hot / humid to use them unless you have air conditioning in your apartment and still, once you go outside, the straightening would be ruined by humidity.

– Take only enough liquid toiletries to get you through the first week. Then buy them down there. Keeps your suitcase light.

Lost tourist card

Often when you travel to Carribean countries you pay a tourist fee when you enter and / or when you leave the country. Dominican Republic is one of these countries. I paid $10 US for a tourist card when I entered the country and then you pay a fee when you leave the country based on how long you stayed.

In many countries, you have to have your tourist card in order to leave the country. I remember it being very important in the Galapagos Islands!

So, about three days before I left Dominican Republic, when I realized I couldn’t find my tourist card, I started to look harder for it. I looked with my passport, through all of my luggage, in every pocket, in my secret hiding spots for money and with all of my receipts that I had collected. No luck.

I left for two more days in Sosua and put it out of my mind.

As soon as I returned back to Santo Domingo the hunt began again. At this point I only had 12 hours before leaving the country. What was I going to do if I didn’t find it? The panic set in!

I unpacked EVERYTHING from my suitcase and dug through all of the pockets of the suitcase and my clothing. Nothing.
I checked through all of my toiletries, including my cosmetic bag with feminine products where I had been hiding some money earlier in my trip. Figured not too many people would search through tampons to see if there was money there! I thought maybe I had put my tourist card there.
Then I checked through every single receipt / piece of paper and business card that I had collected over the past seven weeks.

Still nothing.

I called my mom on Skype in a panic because I had lost it.

Then I shed a few tears … annoyed at having lost the tourist card and overwhelmed because my time in the Dominican had come to an end.

I did a little internet research and found out that I might get charged a fee for having lost the tourist card. Someone suggested it would be $200 RD, equal to about $5 US. I thought if that’s all it is, I could handle that.

Then I decided there was nothing further I could do about it and I would just have to wait until I got to the airport to see what was going to happen.

I got everything packed and headed to bed at around 11pm, just to get up again at 2am to shower and be ready to leave the hotel at 3am.

Of course, you are supposed to be at the airport three hours early when you are taking international flights. My flight was at 6:25am, so I was supposed to be at the airport for 3:25am. Would the airport even be open? Would I be able to check in?

Of course not.

Well, the airport was open … that was a good thing! I went straight to immigration and used my newly learned Spanish skills to explain that I had lost my tourist card and ask how to get it replaced. The man explained that I would do that on the other side of immigration, but that I would have to check in through my airline first. So, I went and stood in line at American Airlines. It was about 3:40am. Of course no employees were there at 3am! Someone finally told the line up of people that employees start at 4am. Lovely! Sure enough at 4am, about ten employees filed in the the American Airlines area and proceeded to slowly get everything ready, turn monitors on, put out customs forms, stand and chat etc. It was 4:30am before the first person in line was checked in.

At this point I was a little annoyed and super tired! I got checked in around 4:40am, but was starting to worry about getting through the line ups at immigration and security and making it to my flight on time. I had only an hour and a half before boarding.

Getting through security was relatively easy, other than the fact that I forgot to take my shoes off (required), so I was sent back through. Then, once I took my shoes off and put them through the scanner, they got ‘lost’ on the other side. So I was standing waiting for my sandals to come through and they didn’t appear. Finally I asked one of the workers and she found them, they had slipped through the rungs and were on the floor waiting for me!

Next stop, the immigration area where I would find out the real deal about my lost tourist card. The man took my paperwork, did not ask for my tourist card, saw on my immigration form that I had been in the country for seven weeks and told me I would have to pay the extended stay fee. He sent me to another kiosk to pay and told me to come back and see him after as he was holding on to my paperwork. All of this in Spanish! Yay me!

So, off to the payment kiosk I went. I waited and waited and waited … there was no one at the desk and no one around for me to ask what was going on. So, I waited more.

Finally, an employee walked up with another customer. Took care of her fees and then got ready to help me. Very nice man who spoke to me in both English and Spanish. I paid $800 RD (about $20 US), he gave me a receipt and sent me on my way.

Imagine that, no one ever asked me for the tourist card that I had lost. Hmmmm … or had I lost it? Now I wonder if they actually gave me a tourist card when I arrived or if I just paid the fee for it? Or maybe I got one, but it got collected with the immigration paperwork on my way out of the airport? Regardless, I didn’t need the tourist card to leave the country. I didn’t end up paying a fine for it to be replaced. I simply paid the extended stay fee which I had to pay no matter what!

As for the fees they were something close to this:
1-30 days – $400 RD
30 days – 3 months – $800 RD
6 months – 9 months – $1000 RD
1 year – $2500 RD

In the end, after waiting in line up after line up, I arrived at my gate for around 5:30am and then only had to wait half an hour before we boarded. It ended up being perfect timing!

Google Translate I love you!

One of the biggest and best things I learned while I was away traveling was the existence of Google Translate! Every traveler should know about this if they are going to a country where they don’t speak the language! It works for about 30 different languages.

As always, there is a story of how I learned about Google Translate. I was at Hotel Crossman in the Galapagos Islands and had been having some difficulties communicating. Let me just clarify that the staff were all very nice and willing to help, however I spoke pretty much zero Spanish and their English was very minimal.

One afternoon I came back to the hotel not knowing what my next tour or excursion was or what time someone would be picking me up. The guy at the front desk told me (or what I understood) was that someone would be picking me up in 30 minutes (at 1:30pm).

I went upstairs, got ready and returned to wait in the lobby for my driver. A couple of minutes after I had been waiting, the guy from the front desk came over and motioned for me to come to the front desk with him. On his computer he had pulled up Google Translate and showed me a message that he had written in Spanish, but it was translated into English.

The message explained that my driver would be there to get me at 3pm, not in 30 minutes. Wow! Was I ever thankful not to sit in the lobby for an hour and a half waiting for my driver. I was super excited that the staff member had thought about this and cared enough to try and find a way to communicate with me.

Further than that, Google Translate became my new BFF and translation miracle! Several times I typed messages in English and then ran downstairs to the front desk to explain something or to ask a question. Because of Google Translate I was able to better understand when and where my ‘included’ meals were, how to tell the restaurant who to bill and when my next tours were. Google Translate made a huge difference for me. I wasn’t really stressing over the communication challenges, but I didn’t shy away from a solution!

Google Translate also helped me get my laundry done, understand the price and when it would be ready … oh yeah and someone also wished me Happy Valentine’s Day by typing it in Google Translate. Awwww.

Now that I’m back in Canada I’m still using the program on a regular basis to try and learn new things that my Spanish program hasn’t taught me. I have a few people that I am trying to communicate with minimally in Spanish just to get practice. I can actually have full conversations with them in Spanish if I want, but I’m finding that doesn’t teach me as much because it takes all of the thinking out of of the process. It is kind of like cheating on a test.

Regardless, I love that I have the option to communicate in a language I don’t know! The downfall of course is that you need internet in order for it to work. You can also use it on your phone and I’ve now found out there are some really cool apps for translating although I haven’t tried any of them out yet. I’ll post about them when I find one that I love.

Go forth and try Google Translate! Communicate with people in other countries with other languages and enjoy great conversations with new friends!

15 ways to be a bad traveler

I’ve done a whole lot of travel including flights, boat rides, train rides, tourist buses and private buses, taxis, ferries, tuk tuks and more! I’ve seen A LOT! Now, here are my top 15 ways to be a bad traveler.

1. Ignore carry on luggage rules then move everyone else’s already stowed luggage to try and fit your oversize bag in the overhead compartment. Don’t forget to poke, prode and squish everyone else’s stuff first. I know you’d be very calm if a stranger was man-handling your fragile carry on items!

2. When that same carry on bag doesn’t fit, throw a little tantrum and explain that it is exactly the same size as the blue bag that ‘that lady’ is putting up there … because OBVIOUSLY yours isn’t larger than hers.

3. When the airlines call for rows 15-30 to load the plane, be one of the passengers in row 1-14 who just can’t wait to get on that plane and hold everyone up so that no one can get past and actually cause the plane to take longer to load.

4. When the airlines make their announcements in both Spanish and English for rows 15-30 to load, and you speak both languages, make sure that you still go ask at the airline booth if row five is loading. They LOVE it when you do that!

5. Play solitare or bejewled on the touch screen on your Continental flight by pounding your fingers into the screen to get it to work, forcing the person in the seat in front of you to bob forward every time … do this for at least an hour in the middle of the night.

6. Complain about everything. It’s too hot, it’s too dirty. The food is bad. The line is too long. Why do I have to sit in the centre. Complaining is my favorite!

7. You should definitely pack your passport away in your carry on luggage after each security person sees it. Then when you go through immigration, customs, recheck your luggage, security you should take at least three minutes to track down the passport that you put away in the same pocket five times in a row in the past 15 minutes.

8. When going through security, please keep all of your jewelry on, your cell phone in your pocket, your ball cap and your shoes on. Then look really annoyed and embarrassed when the scanner beeps.

9. Instead of asking the tourist bus to stop, you should definitely do your smelly number two on the bus. Please make sure that it doesn’t flush and clogs the toilet. That’s always particularly fun for all of the passengers who can breathe and for all those who only have to do a number one and can’t.

10. When the plane or bus stops, rush into the aisle to try to be the first off the bus even though your connection isn’t for five hours. Make sure you stick your elbows out and be rude to anyone who tries to get past you for their connecting flights in less than one hour.

11. Worry about everything and express every single worry that you have out loud … regularly. Definitely try to pull people in to being worried with you rather than staying calm. It is always better to create panic over simple things rather than breathing deep and letting them pass when you can’t control them.

12. Get really annoyed and speak quickly in your native language (English) to someone in another country who doesn’t speak English. It only makes sense when you travel to another country that they should be able to speak every language in the world and cater to your frustration in your one language. You should definitely not even try to communicate in the language of the country you are in. That would be ridiculous. Definitely demand that they cater to you in your native language.

13. While people are still loading the plane or train, try to change your seats so that you can sit with your “bestie” that you only met five minutes ago standing in line. When someone tells you that you are in their seat, play dumb like you couldn’t read the numbers / letters on the rows.

14. On public transit when there are a lot of people lined up to get on a bus, you should always get on, sit in the aisle seat and pile your bags on the inside seat to welcome someone to come sit with you. It’s even better when a stewardess is specifically counting the number of seats left to let passengers on. You’ll definitely get away with sitting on your own.

15. Last, but not least, when you are at any of the tourist hotels in Peru, come in after midnight make sure you bang your suitcases up and down the stairs instead of carrying them … You’re entire tour of 15 people should do this to make the loud banging noise last for 10-15 minutes. It also helps if you start yelling for your friends to see where they are.

Slow and Steady – except when in transit

One of the biggest things I’ve noticed over my past week of South American travels is the pace of life. Originally I noticed how slow people walked in Quito, Ecuador. They just seemed to meander or wander around. No one is ever in a rush when on foot.

There is a whole lot of traffic though, and that is a different story! Both in Quito, Ecuador and Lima, Peru, the music of blaring horns reaches your ears and startles you regularly. People beep to say hi, they beep if they are mad, they beeb to let you know they are coming up behind you, they beep if you haven’t moved fast enough, they beep and yell with road rage. It is a constant stream of little beeps.

And, you don’t have to search for cab drivers here, they are more than happy to track you down … by beeping of course! If you are walking down the street and a taxi driver sees you he will beep to try to make eye contact and you can nod yes or no. It makes it really easy to get a taxi! Then you just have to negotiate your price before you get in so there’s no surprise at the end.

Once again, walking through Lima today I was reminded of just how slow paced life is here. People aren’t rushing to get past you. They aren’t stepping on your feet or weaving in and out of people on the streets. No one is getting annoyed at the slow walkers in front of them, everyone just kind of minds their own business and strolls along.

It really is a beautiful reminder to slow our minds down, be aware of what’s around us and stop rushing to get everything done. I definitely feel the difference. I’m not stressed here, despite all of the mishaps I’ve had, I feel alive and happy. I’m not on a specific schedule, no deadlines, but yet, I’m still here working.

Slow and steady …

Now, when you are in a vehicle, that all goes to hell. There is mucho traffico here. With 10 million people in the city of Lima, there are a lot of cars on the road all of the time. Rush hour traffic last night was still happening at 8pm. Drivers are like mad men pushing their way into crowded streets, inching past cars parked on the sides of the roads, making two lane streets into three .. and all at a nice little pace! It can really be quite terrifying.

Even though slow and steady is the way of life when you are on foot, as soon as you take that step off of the side walk, you are all of a sudden in transit. That means you’d better move as fast as the cars or else they will run you over!

It is totally different here than even in New York city. At least in New York it is often the pedestrian’s fault for not paying attention to walk lights, but here in Lima, it is like pedestrians have no rights.

You just wait and wait for traffic to pass you by until there is a really clear bee-line for the other side of the road. Take a deep breath and jump off that sidewalk … don’t trip, just get to the other side!

Traveler’s Diarrhea

So, here you are … about to read about poop. Seems like an embarrassing thing to talk about, but since I don’t see many people talking about it, I figured I might as well tackle it. I mean really, you are here reading, so you must be interested in knowing something … maybe how to prevent it, maybe you are looking for a funny story, maybe you are just weird and find pleasure in other people’s embarrassing and uncomfortable situations. Regardless of your reasons, I’m glad you’ve joined me for this stinky blog post.

Traveler’s Diarrhea – No one wants to be overcome with the urge to run to the bathroom no matter where they are. It is even worse when you are trying to enjoy a relaxing vacation. Wait, even worse when you are trekking or staying in areas where they don’t have the bathroom facilities that you are used to. Wait … I think it gets worse when you also realize that many places don’t provide toilet paper, or you pay for it before entering the bathroom. YIKES! Dealing with all of that while trying not to make a mess … doesn’t sound like fun to me!

My family physician explained to me that traveler’s diarrhea is incredibly common. It isn’t necessarily due to poor hygiene in the country you are traveling to although that is a major contributing factor, it is just simply that their stomachs have different flora to deal with bacteria present in that area. In fact, someone from South America coming to Canada could end up with traveler’s diarrhea too! This is why if the food is perfectly safe, well cooked and washed in clean water that you still may end of with a case of the runs. Your stomach just isn’t used to the bacteria in the food (good or bad). Some people are more sensitive to this than others.

Unfortunately, it appears I am one of the sensitive ones.

In February 2011 I headed off on a beautiful vacation to the Mayan Riveria in Mexico, which someday I will write about with all of the beautiful details of the trip. Today, I’m writing about poop.

Almost every day of our vacation we went off the resort for some kind of tour, park or little adventure. This meant that we also ate off the resort several times. I thought we were ‘safe’ because we were at well known restaurants and with tours. I was incredibly careful about drinking lots of bottled water. Surely a tour wouldn’t serve you bad food would they? Well, no, probably not knowingly, but now that I know it isn’t ‘bad’ food that causes traveler’s diarrhea, I better understand that I probably just ate something that I wasn’t used to and my stomach wasn’t prepared to battle the bacteria in it.

I wasn’t feeling well for most of the trip, suffering from major bloating, sore blistered feet and trying to fit too many activities in. But, by the time we were headed back home, I was also making extra (emergency) trips to the bathroom. Luckily it wasn’t so far advanced, or so severe that it was an issue on the flight home! Although I think I took some immodium or pepto to try to keep it in check.

The next several days back in Nova Scotia, my trips to the bathroom became much more frequent. Up in the middle of the night stumbling to the bathroom … up early in the morning trying to make it there on time … get to the bottom of the stairs, turn around and have to go right back to the bathroom again … eat something, run to the bathroom, get dressed, go to the bathroom … plan your day around where the nearest bathroom is in case you have an emmergency. You know, your average, every day schedule completely turned upside down and now scheduled based on the ability to get to a bathroom! Most of us have experienced this at one time or another in our life, but how about for a whole week?!

The kicker was six days after our return to Nova Scotia. I had been up early in the morning to run to the bathroom. I went back to sleep on the couch. Woke up freezing and couldn’t get warm. Decided to go back to bed. Got out of bed to go to the bathroom and was shivering uncontrollably, so I decided to take a warm shower to try and get back on track. Much to my dismay when I put my head under the water to wash my hair, I nearly fell over. I opened my eyes, stumbled and grabbed the slippery wall. I teetered, but didn’t fall down. I stood for a moment thinking it would pass, but it didn’t … then everything hit me all at once in that flash of warm spreading through your body and then all of a sudden you go cold. I delicately balanced trying to get out of the shower to make it to the flush without falling head first IN to the flush (my bathroom is pretty tiny). I turned around and grabbed the garbage because I thought I might need it too. I was dizzy, nauseous, weak and couldn’t seem to get it together.

Finally, I called out to my roommate to ask her to call my sister to come take me to the hospital as I was pretty sure at that point that I was going to pass out, or puke … maybe both. I was able to manage to get dressed by the time my sister arrived and she took me to the Cobequid Community Health Centre where she waited with me for EIGHT HOURS. I was miserable, running to the bathroom, dizzy, tired, cold and we all knew that I was dehydrated. Unfortunately, it took a full day for them to take me in, have a doctor look at me, put me in a bed, hook me up to IV and fill me full of fluids. Then I started running to the bathroom to pee because they put two litres of water in to me!

Worse than the way I was feeling, worse than the embarrassment of being at the hospital for a problem with diarrhea, I was scared. I was only two days away from a two-week trip to Poland with Coalition for Kids International to photograph Canadian teens granting wishes to terminally ill children there. I was concerned that I wouldn’t be well enough to travel. Worried that they would keep me in the hospital to re-hydrate me, or that my diarrhea would continue while I was in Poland! Yikes!

In the end, they sent me home with a prescription to start right away and strict rules to drink lots of water and stay on the B.R.A.T diet for the next couple of days.
B – bananas
R – rice
A – applesauce
T – toast

Two days later, drained, but better hydrated, I headed off to the airport to travel to the other side of the world. I hadn’t eaten a real meal for several days, but I had crackers and applesauce in my carry on to get me by! Mostly I just tried not to eat during the eight hour flight from New York to Berlin. The last thing I wanted to do was be running to the tiny little airplane toilet. By the time we got moving in and around Berlin, the fluids and prescription had kicked in … I was back on track for regular, non-emergency bathroom visits. What a relief! And, in Berlin, you don’t have to pay for toilet paper, but you do have to pay to get into the bathroom!

What did I learn from this whole stinky experience?

1. There’s a vaccine out there for this! If you don’t know about it, it might be worth looking into. As soon as I saw the ad below on TV I booked a doctor’s appointment to get a prescription. There’s no way I’m sacrificing a trip to Peru to the runs!

‘This is not a good time.’

2. Never book two trips to opposite sides of the world with only one week in between!

Hope you had a giggle at my expense and that you’ve learned a little more about traveler’s diarrhea!