Wanderer

My 5 Travel Site Musts

The verdant limestone bluffs that form the Phi Phi Islands open at Wang Long, a famed dive site with submarine tunnels and caverns. Though hit hard by the December 2004 tsunami, the place has been cleared of debris, and diving is as popular as ever

At a glance, I have about 1050385 travel-related web pages listed in my web bookmarks. I’ve become weirdly OCD about organising my bookmarks, so I know exactly how to find just that exact website whose entire url name escapes me.

Still, out of those 1050385 bookmarked web pages, there are a select few that I use again and again, be it for booking my flights, finding a bed for the night, or reading about the adventures of others.

  1. Skyscanner. Let’s start with the most addictive, shall we? Skyscanner is simple enough: select the airport/city/country from which you wish to depart, choosing either a specific date or the month in which you will be flying, select where you’re flying to, and behold, a list of prices with various airlines. It’s a flight comparison website. What I find most addictive is the ‘fly anywhere’ option… I love browsing and seeing where I can jet off to. Many a spontaneous trip has been born from my Skyscanner addiction, I can tell you. Sure, it has a few hiccups – sometimes it will display an incorrect flight price, but generally it’s accurate. And you always find those mistakes before booking any flights, so no worries there.
  2. Couchsurfing. I have met so many lovely people through this website, many of whom I’m now fortunate enough to call my friends. Thanks to the freedom of modern day travel, I have friends in more countries than I have visited – often due to this website! This is the perfect website for if you’re short of cash, or, like me, you simply prefer to stay with locals when you’re travelling. It’s an online community designed to bring together ‘surfers’ – aka, the adventurous traveller, to you and me – with hosts, who will offer them a bed for the night, or if they can’t do that, their company, a drinking partner, a tour guide – whatever. Yes, there can be some safety concerns. I’ve heard them all from my loving but a tad over-protective friends. You know, warnings about lone young women staying with strange men, in a strange city, in a strange country with a strange language and no money. Blah blah blah. Honestly, as long as you’re careful, and you keep your creep-radar on full at all times, you’ll be fine. There are women hosts too, you know (if it does worry you).
  3. Seat61. While I love flying (a little too much, perhaps. I get such a rush from take off), I like to travel by train as often as possible. The views are nicer (and there are many more window seats, so it’s much less likely that I find myself wrestling with strangers over the best seat), the ride kinder on my ears, and it gives me a chance to say ‘ooo what a lovely little village… I think I’ll go and explore’. Somewhat adrenaline junkie I may be, but I am not about to jump out of a plane because ‘ooo, that mystery space of Earth 30,000ft (at a guess) below me looks pretty… I’m sure they won’t notice if I borrow a chute and just float on down there for a browse.’ This site is the creation of Mark Smith, ‘career railwayman’, who luckily saw a need to breakdown to us wanderlusters exactly how to get from any A to any B via train, from routes, approximate prices and timetables. Very handy!
  4. NomadicMatt. This guy is something of a budget travel king. His blog focuses a lot on money-saving tips, from how to get cheap flights and cruise tickets, how to choose the best insurance and credit cards, to how to build a successful travel blog of your own. While now days he has a base in NYC (though according to his blog he only spends a few weeks there at a time before jetting off again), he travelled constantly as a digital nomad from 2006 until New Year 2013. Six and a half years of travel!? I think he’s definitely earned his crown.
  5. BlaBlaCar. Again, for when I want to see the world pass me by – or I just want to nip to the next nearest city or a quaint nearby village with no public transport links. If people have planned a car journey, they can sell spare seats for a small fee. Tip: even if you think you’re travelling light, always message the driver to check that there is space for your luggage. Don’t just presume that they will have room for your matching LV luggage set – or your teeny tiny rugged canvas rucksack, if you’re me.

Honourable Mentions:

Finding the bare essentials:

Airbnb.
Hostelworld/Hostelbookers.
Warm Showers. <—-so useful when you’ve just stepped off a stuffy train/bus/boat after a day-long journey with no air-con, having spent the entire trip stuffed into a sweaty overweight stranger’s fat folds. Yes, such an event has happened to me. Yes, therapy is ongoing.

Money makes the world go round…

Global Work and Travel. A great site for finding work abroad; paid, voluntary, internships, etc.
‘7 digital nomads explain how they live, work and travel’ <—- very inspiring post, and links to several great blogs.
WWOOF. While it’s really useful that every country has it’s own WWOOF website, I find it a little annoying that each of those websites requires a seperate membership, and even more so that each membership ranges everywhere from £0 to £50. If you’re planning to ‘wwoof’ and travel across many borders, this can get quite pricey. Still, a great source for finding fruit picking/farm work if you’re looking to experience something different than museums and beaches.
Verbling. Teach English online.
’50 Travel Magazines that want to Publish your Writing’

Inspirational bloggers:

Adventurous Kate.
JacksGap.
The Odyssey Expedition.
The Runaway Guide.

A to B:

Hitchhikers.org 

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Wanderer

Portugal is beautiful… if only they could understand a word I say…

I know, I have a bit of a tendency to stammer.. or rather, not quite stammer, but more like stumbling, when I talk it’s like running downhill in flip flops, there’s so much that I want to say, and sooner or later I’m going to fall flat on my face at the bottom of the hill in a muddy pile that was once a sentence. That’s why when I travel I slow down, I take my time, I take off the verbal flip flops and I enunciate. And so when I arrived in Porto I thought, my Portuguese may be pretty much non-existent (despite having read through my phrase book about 50 times!!), but my English-speaking friends will be able to understand me. So, I arrived, and in this one apartment there are my three Portuguese friends, two people from Turkey and there was until yesterday an Italian guy, and I have also been introduced to a third Turkish guy and a girl from Finland. Can any of them understand me? No.

The stumbling stammer has been left behind in England, I’ve never spoken so clearly in my life and still, no one can understand me. It’s pretty frustrating to sit in a room with people from all over Europe, talking easily in broken English between each other and as soon as I ask ‘how are you?’ or ‘how was your day?’…. ‘what did you say?’

I think it’s partly because I say things like ‘gr-arse and ‘b-arth whereas they say ‘gr-ass‘ and ‘b-ath‘, but for the most part… apparently I am just too English. It’s one thing when I can’t join in a conversation because I don’t know the language, which of course is my own fault, but quite another when I can’t join in a conversation because I have the wrong accent.

Strangely, people here always presume that I’m French. I don’t know if it’s the clothes (mostly people ask if I’m French when I wear this skirt) Can’t say that I’m complaining. In fact, early today it took me five minutes to convince an elderly Portuguese woman that I am in fact English, despite my English accent and of course, the fact that I was speaking to her in English. ‘No, no, Français!’ Sure, if you say so.. it’s not an insult so, whatever.

I really have tried to learn at least some Portuguese though, but still after 9 months, I’m still stuck at the basics: hello, please and thank you. My first phrase book wasn’t really helping me though, as it contained such ridiculous phrases such as ‘Please help me, I have lost my pen’, ‘I have ripped my pants’ and ‘I have many diseases’ and in the ‘everyday use’ section, some worrying phrases about rape and murder. Yes, you could argue that these are important phrases, but everyday use? That’s worrying.

I’m sure it’ll just click for me eventually though, especially as here people are so friendly, even when they realise I can’t speak Portuguese, they insist on talking to me all the same, which is nice I suppose. I’m not really used to it yet though, I mean personally, if there is a language barrier, that ends the conversation right there unless I have to continue it, like when I am couchsurfing or if there is something urgent that I can only say in English; ‘your house is on fire’, ‘I am having a heart attack’, ‘a bird has just pooed on your head’ etc. Maybe people think I am lying, or maybe they think that as I am apparently French, I would be able to magically understand Portuguese?

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Anyway, on a cheerier note, I’ve fallen a little bit for Portugal again. I realised it while sipping cappuccino on the harbour front in my favourite cafe; it’s unbelievable cheap for a harbour-front cafe, modern and beautiful and yet I’ve never seen it more than half full, which is just perfect. Porto is one of those places when you can just spend hours people watching, and I’ve started to collect interesting characters; Portuguese Sean Penn with a mouth ready for false teeth; a cat with a mouth like Carey Mulligan (as in it looks like a corner of it’s mouth is being pulled up towards the sky with a fish hook); a morbidly obese woman with smiley face shaped sweat patches (and somehow the face had a ketchup nose) on her back; Asian Indiana Jones meets Dame Edna. Everyone has something that they collect when they travel; this is mine, and I’m rather excited to add to it.

I love that Porto has red phone boxes and postboxes like in England. It’s taken me three days to re-notice since September, but there they are, right in Avenida dos Aliados. I love that the metro is 1000x simpler than those in London and Paris, though sometimes I think the simplicity takes the fun out of it somewhat, and I especially love that the metro has air con! Both the stations and the tube itself. London, take note, you may not have Porto’s climate, but for god’s sake, you need air con too! I love Livraria Lello bookshop, which is quite possibly the most beautiful bookshop of all time, though I rather wish they didn’t have a no camera rule… and I also wish they’d allow me to have a shoot there, but alas, no.

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Photo from hereImage

Photo from here

I was not at all surprised to learn that JK Rowling once lived in Porto and that this bookshop was a thread of inspiration behind Harry Potter.

I even love the beach, Matosinhos, though generally I am not a beach person. I hated it for a moment when the sand (I swear it wasn’t sand, it was glitter, someone has emptied 100 million pots of gold glitter and called it a beach), almost stripped the flesh from the soles of my feet, but I forgave it. It was my own fault, and I have learnt my lesson; keep the sandals on when it’s 35C+ degrees. The sand will be hot.

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Wanderer

And so it begins…

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Porto. Second city of Portugal after Lisbon, with a population of 238,000, and famous of course for port wine. I’ve been here before; last September, for just a short 4 day trip to end last summer’s adventures. It was a lazy holiday to end the chaos, and I was too poor to do anything much at all, having spent all of my money in Italy and France and the various other countries that I had wandered into last summer. But this time, Porto is the first stop…

I do still love Porto, but that fuzzy haze of last summer has faded; last summer I could compare the row after row of derelict shabby chic buildings to beautiful, crumbling Venice, but now they seem very much apart to me. Maybe the fuzz will be back by morning, and it will turn out that it was just the less than perfect Ryanair flight that has clouded my opinion for now… we’ll see.

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Of course, I feel like I shouldn’t bother to complain about Ryanair; you get what you pay for and for a £50 flight (and 100000000 Ryanair flights under my belt already), I really couldn’t have expected much. It was all very same-same; they don’t even consider opening the gate for boarding until the plane was due for take off, then we are all prodded and poked like bad tempered cattle up the narrow staircase with our as-heavy-as-we-dare case, and into any available seat, while we are then stripped of our luggage and watch cautiously as it is launched from one end of the cabin to the other and following a brief game of catch between crew members during which I swear they earn points as to how many heads they can clobber with each case, it is finally placed in a luggage rack miles away. None of that bothered me in the slightest, I’m more than used to Ryanair’s typical passenger treatment by now, I’ve learnt how to just breeze by, which I think is quite impressive when I’m wearing as many layers as I can get away with without looking like the Michelin Man’s self-combusting wife.

Still, I honestly think I was the cheeriest person on that flight; everyone let the 15 minute delay get to them far too much, or maybe they were just naturally a bad-tempered bunch. Even my meagre lunch of overpriced sweaty cardboard chips and soggy salt which fell in clumps onto my food couldn’t put a damper on my mood. They tasted as if they had been re-heated at least twice. In fact, I’d swear that they had been, as they tasted exactly like a bowl of chips that I ate last year shortly before we caught the freezer out on it’s infamous game of sneak-a-defrost. Sneak-a-defrost was an irritatingly secret game played by the household freezer during which it would switch off just long enough for everything to thaw, and then magically repair itself, leaving us oblivious. They tasted exactly like sneak-a-defrost chips. Still, I’m off on my big adventure, so I can forgive a short delay and a dozen re-heated chips.

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As soon as I stepped from the metro at Sao Bento, I just so happened to bump into an old acquaintance (of sorts), Scary Mary, a local homeless woman who despite a pretty serious limp and her feeble remains of a pair of sandals can chase after you at about 100mph, jingling coins at you and shouting in Portuguese about lord knows what… my bets are she’s either shouting at me about her unfortunate living conditions as one of Porto’s homeless or a detailed fantasy about the various ways she’d like to kill me; batter me to death with the sandal remains. I bet it’s one or the other. If she wasn’t so terrifying, I’d buy her a McDonalds and a coffee, but I just don’t dare to linger when I see her charging towards me, filthy, wild-hair flailing all over the place, even wilder-eyes burning through me, limping away in her shit-stained trousers and those damn sandals scraping across the cobbles. She’s truly terrifying.

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Don’t get me wrong, Porto isn’t all homeless people and crumbling buildings (though sadly 70% of the buildings here are derelict, so I’m told). It’s a beautiful city which is a strange mix of being loud and lively and full of dancing and music and people congregating in squares and at the river to laugh and talk, and equally you can walk down eerily quiet, deserted streets moments later, which is perfect for someone like me; I like my me-time, and I like my space, which of course can be impossible to find when travelling. I find it pretty admirable how happy people are here, despite buildings around them quite literally falling down around them. It’s just one of those infectiously cheery places.

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Tomorrow I will probably head to the beach, and make the most of this lovely 30-35C heat! Are you jealous my lovely friends back home in England? I hope so.

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Is Hitchhiking as dangerous as people think? (Especially for lone women)

In short, no.

I have been hitchhiking for quite some time now. How else can a poor student without a driver’s license explore Europe? I’m the only English person I know who is ‘brave enough’ to hitchhike, and I only know a small handful of people from other countries who hitchhike. It’s a rare thing now, which is a real shame because 99% of the time you are picked up by lovely, inspiring, fascinating people. I haven’t yet experienced the other 1%, and anyone who my guts tells me could possibly be in that small minority, I refuse to get into the car with.

Image from Something About Iceland

Hitchhiking comes down to common sense and listening to gut instinct. If I don’t feel right about someone, I’ll refuse to get into their car, even if it causes offence (especially if it causes offence!) As a lone female hitchhiker, I also have one personal rule which I always follow: never get in a car with a man or group of men, only women, couples or families. Even if it means having to wait all day for a ride, that’s my rule. When I’m travelling with a friend, then we’ll travel with anyone who passes our ‘danger sensors’.

Pepper spray is also a good precaution, and Bear spray even more so (which is basically super powerful pepper spray), though always read up on the laws and regulations on pepper/bear spray before you travel, as in some countries its classified as a prohibited weapon, whereas in others its an openly available self-defense weapon. You’d have thought that if you can show that you’ve just saved your own life by pepper spraying a dodgy character in self defense, no one would care that you were carrying a prohibited weapon in the first place… but you never know these days.

I constantly have people lecturing me on the ‘insanity’ of a woman hitchhiking alone, and my answer is always the same: people only have this idea that hitchhiking is a guaranteed way to end up raped and murdered because of the media. You never flick through the paper or turn on the evening news and see ‘News just in, lone female hitchhiker made it safely to her destination’ or ‘New study has shown that 99% of hitchhikers have no problems whatsoever on the road.’ Instead we only hear about the horror stories, the rapes, the murders, the missing people.

I don’t think we can live our lives around what the media says. We can’t not hitchhike simply because there’s a small risk it could end badly. The way I think about it, there is statistically a much greater chance of you going for a drive now and dying in a horrific car accident, or walking outside and being hit by a car than there is of coming to a horrible and gruesome end when hitchhiking. I personally would rather hitch and be considered ‘insane’ for doing so than sit in my house in my ‘safe’ city or town and wrap my life in cotton wool. That to me is insanity.

Photo from Pretty Little Treasures

HitchingHobo rules of Hitching:

  • If a woman travelling alone, only hitch with women, families or couples.
  • If possible, carry pepper/bear spray or similar.
  • If people are confused as to whether you’re a hitchhiker or a prostitute, re-think your wardrobe.
  • Have a look into the meaning of the thumbs up in certain countries. E.g. in certain countries such as Greece and Iraq, giving the thumbs up is equivalent to giving the finger.
  • Don’t be afraid to offend. A common issue with us Brits, we can be overly polite and considerate to other people’s thoughts and feelings. If I don’t like the look of someone, that British part of me thinks ‘oh but this nice man didn’t have to stop with me, he’ll be offended if I say no’, and I have to slap that side of me away. Its still important to be polite, but as long as you’re polite without going against what you want to do.
  •  Try to keep your bag with you rather than in the boot. I’ve personally witnessed an Aussie hitcher lose his bag with all of his possessions when the car sped off before he had time to retrieve it from the boot. Even if it makes travel slightly more uncomfortable, its worth it.
  • You can check that doors open from the inside by pretending not to have shut the door properly. If not, bring it up!
  • Its safer to sit in the front of the vehicle. If anything happens, you can always grab the handbrake!
  • Make a note of the registration number and at least pretend to text it to a friend. Make sure that the driver sees you do this and explain as you do it.
  • Wear visible clothing and hi vis for when its dark.
  • Be sensible when choosing where to stick out your thumb. The amount of times I’ve seen people trying to catch a ride on a blind corner!
  • Also don’t be afraid to ask a driver to drop you off somewhere else if you don’t feel they have selected the safest spot.
  • Sensible conversation. I never mention that I am a photographer, and my camera is always safely stored in my bag when I’m waiting for a ride, and remains there until they drop me off.
  • Emergency exit tip: If you find yourself wanting to get out of the car, but the driver won’t pull over, ready yourself to unlock your seat belt, wait until they come to traffic lights or a stop sign, and then in one swift motion open and door, grab your pack and get out!
  • Another one is to complain that you’re travel sick and need to get out now before you ruin his/her car!
  • Just have some common sense and listen to your gut!

There are certain countries where I would perhaps think twice before hitchhiking, particularly countries with certain views about women, but generally I think its no where near as dangerous as people think as long as you are sensible.

Don’t allow the media’s horror stories to scare you into wrapping your life in cotton wool!

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