Quito.

I haven’t written since mid-April for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I made my way from Mancora, Peru up through the entire country of Ecuador, and finishing in Quito, in ten days. There wasn’t much time to write. When I did feel called to write, I was reminded of why I couldn’t easily pick up my small Chromebook that I have been using the past five months to write my posts. I am writing to you from a computer at a hostel in San Jose, Costa Rica. Unfortunately, my Chromebook is now in the hands of an anonymous Ecuadorian who expertly removed it from my backpack. As I dozed off on a short, 3.5 hour bus ride from Baños to Quito, the man sitting behind me broke the lock to my day-bag that sat by my feet, removed my computer from its case, opened my money pouch to remove just the cash, and then closed my backpack before leaving the bus halfway through the ride, leaving me clueless until realizing what had happened in the middle of the night as I arrived in Ecuador’s capital city. It was the first time on the entire trip that I forgot to wear my cash and passports on my person. I am incredibly grateful that he left my passports in the pouch. I had heard multiple stories of theft on Ecuador’s busses, and of the general dangers of Quito itself, but I didn’t think that someone like me, someone who is so careful with her belongings, would be robbed at my feet. I wasn’t so much upset as I was frustrated with myself. I should have kept the backpack on my lap, hugging it in my sleep. I should have worn my cash and passport on me directly. I became a complacent traveler, forgetting simple safety rules in the context of my surroundings. Have I been traveling too long? I’ve realized now that maybe it’s not entirely a mistake I’ve made: it is merely the reality of traveling, of the types of people who are dexterous professionals who can easily pick out those who seem vulnerable at any given moment.
The other reason I haven’t written much is that I haven’t felt inspired by Ecuador as much as I had hoped. The rushed pace and the loss of my belongings at the back of my mind didn’t offer me the chance to slow down and reflect on the current state of my journey. But I can offer a quick summary of my thoughts in the places I visited.

My first stop was in Cuenca, the lovely colonial town that is known for its handmade Ecuadorian hats, a misconception known by most people as “Panamanian” hats. These Toquilla hats are in fact produced in Ecuador, using a traditional straw weave technique. From Cuenca I took with me memories of delicious coffee, quaint little artisan shops, expat-owned health conscious cafés, street art, and a generally livable and relatively safe city. Although expensive, just as the rest of Ecuador would turn out to be (the country’s currency is the US Dollar, making everything more costly relative to Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia), I wholeheartedly found Cuenca to be a nice city to explore for a couple days. A fun fact: one of Ecuador’s biggest exports is cut flowers, of which 75% go to the United States (another 10% goes to the Netherlands). In Cuenca I could see how the cut roses, sunflowers, and lilies were of top quality. I was also lured into one bakery after another in the city, the smell of fresh bread flowing into the streets; I realized how scarce high-quality pastries are in South America (except in Argentina, where the chocolate croissants left me feeling like I was in Paris again.)

Flower market in Cuenca

Ecuadorian hat factory and shop.

Saddles and horseback riding gear for sale at a local market.

Spotting street art on a rainy day.
Next I made my way by bus to Baños, a small adventure town at the base of the volcano Tungurahua complete with thermal baths to be enjoyed in the evenings. We rented an ATV and made our way up to the highly photographed swing at the “Tree House,” where on a clear day you can see the volcano as you’re pushed over the countryside while friends are snapping your next instagram photo. The ride to the Pailon del Diablo, an immensely powerful waterfall, was beautiful. Nuestra Señora del Agua Santa is the main neo-Gothic style church named after the vision of the Virgin Mary seen near the town’s nearest waterfalls. It is a place of pilgrimage, was built with volcanic rocks, and is lined inside with paintings depicting the Virgin’s miracles in Baños, which include saving the church from multiple volcanic eruptions. The Piscinas de la Virgen thermal baths, at the base of the miracle-laden waterfall, were a lovely way to end the evening, where you can move from an extremely hot bath to a freezing cold one in an effort to stimulate the nervous system and help remove any toxins from the body.

Swinging from the “Tree House” in Baños.

On a clear day you can see Tunguharua volcano in the background

Nuestra Señora del Agua Santa.
After I had gotten over the moderately traumatic incident that occurred from Baños to Quito, I found myself in a capital city where I felt unsafe nearly all the time. I hadn’t felt this energetic heaviness before on my trip, and it was a surprise how unease I felt, even during the daytime. Perhaps it was still too soon after the incident, but I actually felt the danger that I had been warned about. Other cities always turned out to be less foreboding than what I had expected, but not Quito. The historic center is the largest, least-altered and best-preserved historic centers in  North and South America, and was the first (along with Krakow) World Cultural Heritage Site declared by UNESCO in 1978. This historic center of the city was also not the safest neighborhood. Nearby Bellavista, with more restaurants, nightlife, and upscale residential housing along La Carolina Park, was far more enjoyable to walk around.

 

Basilica del Voto Nacional.
 
View of Quito from the Basílica del Voto Nacional
Otavalo, known for its famous Saturday market two hours away from Quito, was a disappointment. Outwardly a tourist shopping destination, it didn’t have the feel of an authentic marketplace I had seen in so many other cities in South America. Another well visited site taken as a day trip from Quito, the Mitad Del Mundo, was worth seeing for the photo opportunity, but if in a rush it’s easily skippable. The “Center of the World” is at 0’0″ Latitude, at the equatorial line. There are two sites: one that is supposedly the true equatorial line according to exact GPS coordinates, and another that houses a large monument and Disney-esque park activities.

The old town in Quito.

The Mitad Del Mundo.
However, Quito had some redeemable qualities. First and foremost was the Guayasamín Museum and Foundation, where we visited the late artist’s house and studio, as well as his Capilla Del Hombre, which housed some of his well most well known large scale paintings, of which I find absolutely incredible.

The artist Guayasamín’s home, now a museum in Quito.

Capilla Del Hombre
The capital is also the launch point to the hiker’s hideaway 50 km south of Quito called Cotopaxi National Park. I stayed for two days at a lovely hostel looking out to Cotopaxi Volcano, the second highest summit in the country at 5,897 meters above sea level. Unfortunately the volcano was closed for climbing due to recent volcanic activity, but the nearby inactive volcanoes were open. It was a beautiful area with lush countryside, and I was thankful for the brief but tranquil escape from Quito .

Cotopaxi Volcano

Hiking in Cotopaxi National Park.

Our lodge overlooking Cotopaxi Volcano.    
Ecuadorians are some of the nicest people I have met in South America. They were so friendly and helpful, and even the tourism police were extremely quick and compassionate when I had to fill out a police report my first night in the city. Overall, it was a country where I had felt only the extremes: at times I was terribly frustrated, unable to understand how on earth their country made it through the day, and other times I was just so happy to be there.

Night view of Quito.
Unfortunately, my time in Quito ended on a low note; at the airport, ready to take my flight to Panama City and then San Jose, I was almost made to miss my flight due to two completely absurd reasons not worth talking about here. It didn’t make my farewell to the country all that difficult. However, I am thankful that things could have turned out far, far worse than they had, and I am also grateful that I had traveled relatively painlessly throughout the whole of South America until that point.

And so, after arriving to Cartagena, Colombia on December 1st 2015, I left South America, exactly five months and six days later. I wasn’t ready to go home just yet, though. My original plan was to visit Costa Rica at the end of February, when I first imagined my backpacking trip to last only about two and a half months. I was a little behind schedule, but I would finally head to Central America to explore what Costa Rica’s “Pura Vida” is all about.

Why We Travel, and Why Americans Don’t Travel Enough

Travel is addictive, and I never really realized why until my most recent trip to Southeast Asia. While exploring Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, I had time to reflect on what it is about traveling that is so inspiring to me, and why it has kept me on a travel binge nearly my entire young adult life.

I travel for two reasons — the first is to immerse myself in all aspects of a destination: the sights, the culture, the food, and the people who live there. The second reason, which I’ve found to be growing more important to me the more that I travel, is to meet other travelers, people like me and people not like me, and learn about their stories and where they come from. The reasons people travel change over time, and at this time in my life I travel to see a new country but also to meet others from around the world. I’m slowly discovering why so many people around the world are compelled to travel for long periods of time, to give up their comforts in order to lead a nomadic, ever-changing, and oftentimes-lonely lifestyle.

When I returned to New York I continued reflecting on my experience. I realized that one of my fondest memories of my travels was meeting other backpackers from around the world. I kept coming back to the many conversations I had with people about my place in the backpacker community as a female American traveling for a long period of time, and why I seemed to them to be a rare sight amongst the other nationalities people encountered. I’ve discovered that are very distinct reasons why Americans aren’t part of the long-term travel, backpackers landscape in the way their European, Latin American, and Asian counterparts are.

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Buddhist Temples in Bagan, Myanmar

Whom did I meet in just six short weeks in Southeast Asia? There was an English masseuse who planned to travel until her money ran out, so far four months into her journey. A Brazilian man who’s lived in Australia the past seven years and who works with a sole purpose of traveling around the world. My scuba diving partner from Canada is just…traveling; his end date remained a mystery even to him. An Italian man from Napoli who won the award for smallest backpack. His bag, smaller than my own, will be by his side for a worldwide adventure totaling a year and a half. There was an Australian man from Tasmania who worked six years without a break so that he could travel with his 50-liter backpack for the next ten years, and with the goal of working in Canada and England for a year or so in between. A man from London whose travels will total one and a half years, abiding by one single rule: not to take an airplane. Starting and finishing in London, he had already taken a transatlantic cargo boat, and when we had met he was planning to cross the Pacific Ocean via a 14-day trip on another cargo boat. There was 29-year-old German man from Berlin who quit working for Boston Consulting Group after a year to travel for at least nine months. A 19-year-old woman from Alberta, Canada who after high school had begun her travels and plans to become a certified yoga teacher along the way. There was a 30-year-old woman from Belgium who was the co-founder of a successful beer startup, and who left the business to travel indefinitely. A chef from Amsterdam who just plain quit his job and is exploring the world, so far nine months in. A French couple from Normandy who quit their jobs and are planning to travel for six months, or when their money runs out, whichever comes first. There were two 20 year-old German men who are planning to travel 13 months before going back to finish university. A born and raised New Yorker, who since September of last year has been traveling and will only return when he has to start to medical school in June. A group of American NYU MBA candidates spending their seven-week break abroad together. Two American girls spending ten short days on vacation from work. A finally a 23-year-old from New Hampshire. He just got up and left, and has no plans to return anytime soon.

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Chiangmai, Thailand

These are just a handful of the many people I met. It was so refreshing to have conversations with people that don’t revolve around what you do, as in your typical introductory exchange in New York City. It’s where you’re from and where you’ve been, how long you’ll travel for, your favorite destinations so far. It’s a conversation around places and cultures, around experiences. Rarely does the conversation escalate to what your old job was or what you plan to do in the future. It’s just the now. And although for most of us it’s hard to connect with the now, traveling forces us to be present.

But are twenty to thirty something Americans traveling in this way?

Here are some startling facts: the average age of American leisure travelers is 47.5 years old. Twenty percent are between the ages of 25-34 and only eight percent are 18-24 years old (Source). Only 30% of Americans have passports, compared with 60% of Canadians and 75% of people from the UK (Source). Furthermore, nearly half the global market of 15-29 year old travelers comes from Europe, with some 93 million outbound trips in 2011, according to IPK International’s European Travel Monitor. Germany (17 million outbound trips), France (7.9m), and the UK (7.3m) are the largest three markets in Europe (Source).

Sadly, so few of the people I met who were traveling over long periods of time were Americans. And my new found friends would ask me, why don’t more Americans travel? Or when they do, why for only ten days to two weeks at a time? I believe that answer has three parts to it. The first is a reflection of the discouraging higher education system that we have in the United States, where a private university costs 30 to 60 thousand dollars a year. If anyone wants to have a “good job” these days, they need to get their undergraduate at a “good” school (not to mention think about heading straight to a graduate program). This in turn leads to a tremendous amount of debt. Students need to pay off their loans quickly, because the government charges interest after six months to a year depending on the loan. Graduates are forced to get a job to pay off those debts, and there goes that gap year that they were planning to take.

The second reason is that the United States remains the only developed country in the world without legal minimum vacation days. Meaning we are entitled as employees of any company to zero vacation days. More than a quarter of working Americans currently do not have vacation time. The average American worker is entitled to 16 days of paid leave (keep in mind this is after a few years in the work force. If you’re an entry-level employee, that number is closer to seven). But the length of the average vacation lasts just over four days! Only 25 percent of workers say they take all the time off that’s due them (Source). In fact, 15 percent of Americans report taking no time off (Source).

These numbers are disturbing, particularly when you compare to other countries around the world, where the average vacation days plus paid holidays total 28 in Australia, 33 in Croatia, 34 in Germany, 38 in France, and finally the winner, Brazil, with 41 days (Source & Source).

The final reason, which I feel is the most difficult to overcome, is that American culture in general does not value independent, backpacker travel. Speaking here in generalities, American families and the institutions they attend in higher education instill this sort of mandate that you should be seeking an internship or a paid job immediately upon graduation in order stay ahead in the workforce. Particularly in finance, where some students intern at investment banking firms even during their summers in college, these graduates are primed to head straight to work. And the working hours are long and hard. Many young people feel that this type of lifestyle will pay off because they can retire at a young age, and then enjoy their free time.

Ayutthaya, Thailand

But what our family, friends, professors, and employers have trouble understanding is how profoundly traveling as a young adult shapes the rest of your life. It develops strength of character. Without any exaggeration, it makes you who you are. And I’m witnessing it when I travel, not only within myself but in the other people I meet along the way. You learn to be not only independent but also you are humbled, becoming supremely aware that you are only but a small part of this very complex world. Traveling reminds you that your nine-to-five desk job is not what defines you. You learn that not everyone is like you, and you experience that first-hand.

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Halong Bay, Vietnam

Perhaps one day the young backpacker community will be filled with Americans, but for now, we have a long way to go. In the meanwhile, I encourage young women and men not to wait, but to do what may be a little different than what others around them are doing. Don’t take a vacation. Instead, travel.

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Siem Reap, Cambodia

This post also appears on Women’s iLab to inspire the next generation of female leaders.

Ladies, Looking to Travel the World Alone? 8 Tips on Savvy Solo Travel

I spent a little over a month this summer backpacking through Europe. I’m a seasoned traveler. However, this was my first time truly traveling by myself. As a woman, I have to admit I was a little apprehensive at first. But I quickly realized that this was a journey I just had to make. It’s a traveling experience that I recommend all women take at least once in their life. I want to share with you some tips and recommendations for your next trip as a female traveling alone, no matter where in the world you decide to experience that journey.

1. Embrace the solo spirit

Contrary to what you may believe, most people actually deeply respect the solo traveler, particularly if you’re a woman. You’ll look a lot more badass than you think you do, and even if you’re lost, you’ll have this aura of bravery and resourcefulness. I met some Danish locals in Copenhagen who were very impressed when I told them I was alone – it gave me a little self-confidence boost. You’ve made a conscious decision to travel alone – be proud of it.

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2. Don’t be afraid to say hi

Transportation on long journeys is the perfect time to strike up a conversation. When you’re traveling by bus, train, ferry, plane, (or maybe camel?) try to get to know the person next to you. On line to take a ferry boat heading from Split to Hvar Island in Croatia, I met a Colombian girl named Carolina. She was also standing on the ferry line by herself, and so I said “hi” and introduced myself. We ended up sitting next to each other on the ferry, and for the next three days we explored Hvar together. She and I became friends and we still keep in touch. I can honestly say my experience in Hvar wouldn’t have been the same if I hadn’t approached her. So just say hi, and be open to talking to strangers (even if you were taught otherwise as a kid). You never know where a simple “hi” will take you.

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3. Other solo travelers are approachable – and for ladies, can be a nice safety net

You’ll find that when you meet someone else who travels alone, there’s this immediate bond that you’ll have with that person. For some reason solo travellers are concentrated in hostels – and it’s pretty easy to make friends with others when you share a room with them for a couple of nights. Many hostels organize pub-crawls and other social events in the evenings, which is a great opportunity to socialize. For added safety when going out at night, find another lady to stick with – she’ll be like your wing woman that you have at home, and you’ll both be accountable for each other. As a woman I often found myself gravitating towards a fellow female going solo at my hostel when I went out – we were both in the same situation, and there’s an unspoken level of trust you end up forming with them.

4. Be social, but also be anti-social

Social media is a great way to connect with your friends and family back home. If you’re missing some real connections with people you know and trust, create a public blog with photos of your daily travels. If you have a smartphone that only works with Wi-Fi abroad, I suggest you invest in a cheap unlocked smartphone and buy a local SIM card with a data plan. This way you can be connected whenever you’d like to be.
But also, keep it a little anti-social. Try to journal or keep a private blog. Turn off your phone for a couple of hours every day. Remember the journey is about you, and being alone is a gift that very few people have while they travel. You’ll be happier for it.

5. You don’t have to actually couch surf to be a couch surfer

Couch surfing (staying in someone’s home for free) isn’t for everyone. However, it is a fantastic source of insider tips from locals. People who belong to the couch surfing community are really open to helping tourists, by definition of what they do by hosting people in their homes, so they are incredibly approachable. Create a profile and use it to connect with locals by asking them for tips, recommended eats, sites, shopping, and bars. If you want to take it a step further, you can take them up on meeting them in a public place. I connected with some couch surfer hosts in Athens and Reykjavik who offered to just to show me their city and the nightlife when I was in town. You can go to Couchsurfing.org to check it out.

6. You’re not really alone

You’re not the first to travel alone, which is a good thing! There are tons of online resources to help you. There’s Solo Travel Society, which has a blog and facebook group devoted to people who travel alone. There are also a few long-term female travelers who travel alone and blog about their experiences, such as LegalNomads and Adventurous Kate.

7. Connect with your third cousins

Meeting up with my mom’s friend’s son in Munich (as random as that sounds) really changed my experience of the city. One night he and his friends took me to a fantastic local pub, and I got to experience an authentic “Bavarian” night out. While you’re planning your trip, ask all your friends and family if they know someone in the particular city you want to go to, and try to link up with them. If applicable, make sure to pass through cities where you do have a good friend to meet up with, that way midway through your travels you can have some catch-up time with a loved one.

8. Smile

Trust me, it really helps. If you’re stressed, lonely, tired, or whatever, just smile. I promise it will help. And then usually something unexpected happens, and you’ll wonder why you weren’t smiling the whole time!

If you don’t feel like following any of these, at least remember this: Do something that falls a little bit outside your comfort zone – whether it’s engaging with other travelers, linking up with locals, trying a new dish, or saying yes to skydiving or para sailing. After all, no one from back home is watching; you’ve got nothing to lose. And, enjoy the ride; you’ll never forget it.

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This article also appears on Women’s iLab to inspire the next generation of female leaders.