Category Archives: Travel

Meetup Groups Korea: Why Bother?

As I emerge from Hansung University station, I’m greeted by a mass of people, the smell of beer, and a DJ pumping dance tunes across a square. It’s the World Beer Festival hosted in Seoul. Like an excited eighteen-year-old, I smile from ear to ear.

My Korean friend Buyeon emerges from the throng. We hug. I hear my name shouted out. It’s Harry, the Meetup host. He remembered me from my last visit with his group at the Latin American Festival. After greetings, he announces that we’ll wait for other joiners before we disappear into the crowd in search of beer and food. That evening, I meet local Koreans, expat teachers, a retired international footballer. We take photos with celebrity Bulgarian chef, Mikhal, and dance with the live DJ. If I hadn’t stumbled across Harry’s Meetup invitation the night before, I wouldn’t have known about this marvelous event.

As an expat deprived of my long standing network of friends and family, it’s very easy to feel isolated. Meetups cater to several needs, the need to belong to a group and receive support, indulging adventure and trying new experiences, as well as meeting people with similar interests.

I discovered Meetup.com through a friend. He casually mentioned ‘Meetups’ and curious, I went online to discover that this network offered. I joined particular groups that were located in or near to my current city, Seoul, and began receiving invitations to attend planned events. Over the last fourteen months, I have attended all kinds of Meetups which I’ll present shortly.

Attending meetups has been one of the best ways I have found to network, make friends, and meet people who have similar interests to me. Many Meetups are attended by international traveler-types as well as locals who like meeting international travellers. As an expat, it’s challenging always feeling like an outsider or guest in Korea, but when I’m with world travelers, these people ‘feel like’ home.

Through Meetups, I’ve met outstanding people. These include Traditional Korean medicine doctor, Yoon who I continue to visit for natural beauty treatments (see my article about Dr. Yoon’s natural fillers and acne scar treatments here). I’ve also met CC and Mr. Kim, two remarkable (and fit) Korean men who encourage hikers to push through the physical and mental challenges of hiking. I met Ernesto who reintroduced me to the Latin dance scene and reignited my passion for traveling around Korea itself. Recently, I met Marco, Andii, and many Spanish speaking friends through Hola Cafe Meetup. I attend Hola Cafe regularly, and these friends are becoming my new family.

I receive multiple invitations to events every week, but I only attend whatever I feel like doing. I hit the ‘attend’ button and show up the day of. There are many interesting Meetup groups, but here are my favourites.

 

Festivals

All kinds of festivals regularly take place all over the country, and particularly in my current home, Seoul. I joined Harry’s The Seoul Expat Global Meetup Group, and together, we attended the Latin American Festival in May 2017. Once confirmed attendees arrived and we all introduced ourselves, we roamed around the festival, trying sangria, Spanish vino and all kinds of foods, mainly from Latin America. Harry’s events often attend festivals. It’s a brilliant way to enjoy a festival and meet fun new friends too. See The Seoul Expat Global Meetup Group here.

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Language exchange

There are many language exchange groups. The events seem to be concentrated in Gangnam and Hongdae, and take place at designated cafes. These seem to entail Koreans teaching expats local Hangul, and expats teaching Koreans English language, and this is done mostly through conversation. I don’t attend these Korean/English language exchanges, but I’ve heard that these events are sometimes used to find people to date.

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With host, Marco

I regularly attend Mangwon Spanish Language & Culture Meetup, hosted by Marco on Saturday afternoons at Hola Café. Marco offers Spanish and English language classes throughout the week, but Saturday from 5pm is allocated for a large mixed group of Spanish speaking people to share their cultures together. I’ve met people from Mexico, America, Kazakhstan, Venezuela, and a large number of international Koreans who have lived in Spanish speaking countries. Every week, I encounter people from previous events, and there are constantly new faces to meet. Find Marco’s Spanish Language Meetup here.

 

Hiking

I like to hike with Climbing In Korea (CIK) Meetup Group. It’s run by Mr. Kim, and he is very organized leader. I try to attend the hikes identified as ‘easy’ because many hikers are really fit in this group, and hikes at intermediate level entail rock climbing and considerable stamina. The group also organize trips to see other locations throughout Korea. I enjoyed a CIK weekend camping trip to Pyeongchang where we were introduced to preparations for the upcoming 2018 Olympics. I reviewed the event here. To find CIK meetup group, click here.

 

Discover Seoul/ new experiences/ dinners

Johncito of Seoul Village organizes events including hanbok dress-up, visiting palaces, touring central Seoul, particularly Myeongdong, visiting Kwangjang market, and enjoying walks along the Cheongyecheon stream. I’ve attended several events by Johncito, including language instruction (Korean and Spanish) within a café setting, walking and talking (in Spanish) at Namdaemun market, enjoying traditional Korean lunch at Kwangjang market, and dinners at Buddhist, Thai and other restaurants. Johncito is lots of fun to hang out with, and he also mentors expats who want to start their own meetups! To find Seoul Village, click here.

Latin dance classes

I just attended my first Latin dance class with dance instructor, Mr. Kang. I simply had a blast learning Salsa, Bachata and Cha cha. I have every intention to return as soon as possible! Mr. Kang is professional and patient, and plans to teach us Tango too! To find Let’s Learn Latin Dance with Mr. Kang via Seoul Village, click here.

 

Photography Groups

Photography groups are useful for people looking to meet and share skills with other photographers, and other people related to the industry. I just attended an event with Seoul Model/ Photographer/ MUA/Stylist/ Community. We were a team of approximately seven models and six photographers, hosted by Don and Izzy. We used the Seoullo overground pass, and surrounding area near Seoul station to look for ideal backdrops and places to shoot.

Izzy specializes in fashion photography (see Izzy’s site here). Don, in addition to portrait photography, creates videos and documents his photography in articles published on his website. I’ve included Don’s video below.

Izzy and Don are two very professional and fun guys to work with. See Seoul Model/ Photographer/ MUA/ Stylist/ Community page here.

 

Literature and writing clubs

I recently attended Christine’s Meetup, Seoul Writers’ Collective. The workshops focus on developing writing skills for writers working on prose (books, articles etc.) and poetry, and developing critical thinking skills. I attended an event at Dan & Chung Café, Itaewon, where after introductions, attendees were presented with a poem that we broke down and discussed. The process was fascinating. As a blog writer, the development of discussing chosen words and punctuation helped me consider aspects of my own writing that I had previously overlooked. I definitely intend to return and hope to bring friends with me! Find Christine’s writing group here.

 

There are plenty of other Meetup groups which I haven’t attended. These include weekend drinking parties in Hongdae for those interested in drinking or dating, as well as art, and many others. Additionally, if you see that no Meetups are offered for your particular interest, you can create and host your own one!

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Horror travel stories: Koh Samui, Thailand

It started out as a peaceful day on Chaweng beach, Koh Samui island. Later that evening, while walking along a main road, my friend Beth and I heard a crash, followed by shouting. Alarmed, I shouted out, and we began to run to where the incident originated.

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Chaweng beach on Koh Samui island

On arrival, there was a crowd of about twenty Thai people around two men. Both were cyclists. One cyclist had fallen off his motorcycle, and was sprawled out on the road with his head against the concrete sidewalk curb. He looked unconscious or dead. Meanwhile, the second cyclist seemed fine, and was yelling about the damage to his motorcycle, presumably caused by the guy lying on the road. I think he was yelling at the seemingly unconscious or dead guy lying on the road.

My friend and I were shocked at the situation. We were surprised that the cycle guy who was clearly unhurt was more concerned about the damage to his bike rather than whether the man lying on the road was seriously hurt or dead.

One onlooker was on the phone, presumably calling an ambulance. Two people crouched down, trying to assess how hurt the man lying on the ground was. They began lifting his torso. I was thinking at the time, shouldn’t he not be moved until specialists arrive? He could have internal bleeding or other complications that weren’t visible. After a few minutes, the injured cyclist actually began to stir. I felt relieved. He looked around at the crowd and at his motorcycle lying on the road, and appeared confused.

I began to understand the situation a little better. The man on the ground seemed to be very poor from the look of his clothing and his scrawny motorcycle. The angry man was clearly much better off. He had nice clothing, he was much heavier, and his motorcycle looked new, shiny and wider.

As the crowd looked on, wondering about the condition of the injured cyclist, an ambulance siren blared in the distance. Slowly, the injured man dragged himself off the concrete, and just as the ambulance pulled up to address his injuries, he got on his bike, started the engine, and took off in the same direction that the ambulance approached from. As the paramedics emerged from their vehicle, the angry motorcycle man continued cursing, furious about unpaid damages to his property. The crowd looked on, seemingly unsurprised. I suspected they had seen it all before. My friend and I stood there for a while with our jaws hanging open. We eventually walked off.

 

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Introducing K-POP’s SM Town at COEX Samsung, Seoul

I’m not a K-Pop fan. But, I have a friend that is. Riley wanted to grab a new edition of EXO‘s newest release, and so we popped into SM Town‘s multi story building to pick up her stuff. Little did I know that I was about to embark on an adventure!

Before we could even enter the doors, Riley got distracted by a crowd of girls waiting around at an adjacent car park, and after plucking up the courage to ask fans who the hell we were ‘waiting’ for, we discovered that Red Velvet, a local girl band who were attending a signing event at SM Town, were expected to appear at any moment.

After waiting around for about fifteen minutes, Riley decided that since we didn’t know when they would appear, we could move on. We resumed our hunt for EXO’s “The War: Kokobop”.

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Serious, but curious…

We took the escalator up, and here, we found a hall with posters featuring bands managed and produced by SM Entertainment.  After encountering some younger Korean ladies sprawled all over the floor in the hall, Riley explained to me that these girls had cards of pop idols that they wanted to trade. That explained why they had merchandise scattered around them. Essentially, when you buy merchandise like albums, they come with cards (like collectors baseball cards) featuring cute band members, and many girls have a favourite member. Often, girls receive cards that they’d prefer to trade for cards that feature their crush.

We stepped onto the brightly lit sales floor. The room was packed with mostly young women in their teens to mid twenties. A few boys were there too, mostly because they worked there, or were boyfriends waiting while their girls shopped.

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Exo on vinyl: The War: Kokobop
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Do you need my umbrella, (possibly famous) fella?

Here, we found a large open area featuring all kinds of stuff: fancy record displays, live-sized cardboard cut-out pop stars, album displays, posters, tote bags, hats and clothing merchandise. There were even traditional style Korean items usually featured in museums on the display cases.

We got into a line up, and were handed a paper so Riley could mark down what she wished to purchase. At the paying counter, Riley handed over 45,000 won, and in return, received three albums. She explained that she was getting EXO’s The War: Kokobop version a, version b, and a private version, all sung in Korean and Mandarin. Apparently EXO pride market themselves as a band that release songs sung in various languages.

 

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Riley collects EXO memorabilia

Happy with her purchase, which included poster gifts and trade-able cards, our adventure continued. We meandered up to the next floor, which opened up into another hall. It had a long, central display case of clothing used by band members while shooting videos that later became famous. There were many sexy posters featuring SM’s bands dotting the walls, and plenty more girls sitting on the floor displaying their pop idol cards. The environment itself gave a feeling of close accessibility to the stars, and this presumably, is why so many fans flock to this venue.

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Red Velvet video outfits

Riley explained to me that SM invites clients to experience various degrees of feeling like a star, by offering services like recording a video at their studio, for around 200,000 won (approximately $200 US).

At the end of the hall, was another large room named the SUM Cafe. It was filled with hundreds of girls sitting around tables, displaying their idol cards that they hoped to swap. There was a section dedicated to K-pop food, including tea and snacks, and there was a very long cafe counter, displaying macaroons and other delicious delights to entertain the fans that wile away their time with other like-minded girls.

 

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My favourite feature was the ceiling lamps which had many idol cards hanging down. The arrangement reminded me of tree-like chandeliers. Everywhere I looked, fans were comparing and admiring cards. Signatures from the SM stars were applied to the backs of chairs and table surfaces. Girls played video games. Riley explained that these games were based on reactions to rhythm, and were designed by some of the pop idols themselves.

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Busy space, and art-deco lamp shades
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Band members’ signatures’ on the backs of cafe chairs
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K-pop rhythm gaming

Leaving the room, we were about to go to the top floor, which Riley described as the best floor of the three because it contained handprints from EXO and other bands, and fans could place their hands within the handprints of their favourite stars. Unfortunately, the top floor was temporarily blocked off to the public because of the Red Velvet signing event, which presumably was taking place upstairs. I agreed to visit again with Riley as I would like to see the third floor displays.

Overall, the experience was fascinating to me. The entire building seemed like a sacred space for these fans, and I felt like an undercover alien discovering a young female ecosystem. It was fascinating, and I have every intention to return, if only to explore the treasures closest to heaven: the top floor.

 

Shout out to Riley Haslett, K-pop expat consultant and specialist.

 

What do you find interesting about the K-pop culture in Korea? Have you visited SM Town or any production studios that you would recommend experiencing?

 

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To travel with friends, or travel alone… Part two

At some point or another, every experienced traveller has asked themselves, “Should I invite Jane (or John) on my next trip?” Travel partners impact a traveller’s experience, so choosing who to travel with is an important factor in your travel planning.

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Petra, Jordan

 

This article is the follow-up to Part One https://travelandtash.wordpress.com/2017/02/19/to-travel-with-friends-or-travel-alone-part-one/ which presented my challenges traveling with romantic partners, the importance of communication, compromise, flexibility and patience, as well as the pleasures of independent travel.  Once again, Part Two is a collection of experiences, rather than an explicit comparison, and I draw on these experiences to show the positive and challenging sides to traveling with friends and traveling alone.

STAMINA

People have different expectations or ideas about what they want to do while traveling, and these are somewhat dictated by their levels of endurance or stamina. Here, I refer to physical stamina as the ability to 1) walk , trek, or stay out for long periods of time. This is not necessarily a physical fitness measurement as I’ve travelled with people who are not especially fit or strong. Less fit friends can be driven and push themselves longer and harder to experience more things while opportunities are available. Indeed, my own levels of stamina have fluctuated over the years and have impacted my ability to do what I wanted to do.

I also discuss 2), ’emotional’ stamina, or the drive to seek challenges by leaving your comfort zone. Travel always presents challenges, so unless you travel in a bubble, you will no doubt be pushed beyond your comfort zone. Travellers have different degrees of emotional stamina. Some endure challenges while others seek them out.

I became increasingly aware of physical stamina on my latest trip abroad. While in Kyoto, I discovered that my traveling companions (and work colleagues), CeCe and Riley, preferred to stroll through the streets and sites, while I wanted to walk at a faster pace. My energy levels were so high that I almost skipped through the streets. My physical and emotional states were so energized that I wanted to charge up mountains, and I generally found it impossible for the first two days to slow down.

On our first night there, Riley declared that she would not change her walking pace. Suddenly, our differences in physical stamina placed our trio in a tricky position. Either I had to slow down and possibly resolve to not see or do everything that I planned for, or I had to convince her to speed up. About two days into our stay, we both met halfway. I slowed down while she sped up. The interim, however, had been difficult to navigate. Our third companion, CeCe, had been forced to chose whether to walk slowly or walk quickly, and thus had to chose between which friend to spend more time with.

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Rearing to go! Charging up Fushimi Inari mountain, Kyoto

 

Since the three of us invested time, money and expectations into our trip, compromise was tricky. The potential for resentment to build was present. Thankfully, I had already visited Kyoto, and we were visiting sites that I had visited recently. Not climbing to the top of Fushimi Inari mountain was not problematic on this occasion. But, this would have become an issue for me if we were visiting a location that I had not seen before. To avoid disappointment, I would have split from the group.

My experience at Petra, Jordan was quite the reverse situation. Petra was larger and hotter that I had expected. The famous tomb façade that I expected to encounter was only one in a complex of numerous tombs spread out over a large area. I decided to abandon my usual travel group who were seasoned Canadian hikers ten years younger than myself and all physically fit. They intended to charge around the complex at break-neck speeds to see everything. Thus, I decided to travel with a different crew of friends who wished to savour the experience at a slower speed and were content to see fewer tombs. As a result, I had more time to take stunning pictures and appreciate the site at my own pace.

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Traveling companions (from left), Lisa, Miranda and Aaron: Petra, Jordan

 

Travel with Beth in Asia was simple because we had similar physical stamina. We could both walk for hours, and had comparable energy patterns for travel, rest and play. But, when we met Leonor from Paris, she challenged our emotional stamina by getting us to leave our comfort zones. Walking and touring sites together, we had similar physical stamina, however biking was a different story.

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Touring Ayutthaya temple sites by bicycle

 

In Ayutthaya, Thailand we rented bicycles, and since Leonor was an experienced cyclist back home, she led our little group.  Beth and I struggled to keep up with Leonor, while she was very confident navigating through the Thai traffic. Beth and I were apprehensive and were convinced that we wouldn’t survive! We were glad for her confidence and we learned that we weren’t as hard-core as we thought we were!

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(left to right) Beth and Leonor, Ayutthaya, Thailand

 

Traveling alone is very different. I don’t have to consider anyone else’s physical or emotional stamina. I speed up and slow down at my whim. I may seek out ways to take me out of my comfort zone, or avoid situations that may challenge me. The decision is mine alone. If I join new friends while traveling, once again, I have to negotiate these details, however the rules are simpler.

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Lunch at Ichiran, with Kevin (back) and Marco (front right)

While traveling with my new Australian friend Kevin, I’ve found that we had fewer expectations. We met at our hostel in Kyoto, headed out to lunch, together with our new German friend, Marco and during lunch, we discovered that we had similar plans for the afternoon. We decided to explore Gion together. Neither of us were in a rush to do anything, and so stamina didn’t matter. Kevin patiently accommodated my random souvenir shopping and photo-taking at temples. Later, we parted, and I continued my evening exploration alone. Joining up for adventures and parting ways was easily because there were no expectations which required negotiation.

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Kevin captured this romantic moment on camera at Kenninji Temple, Kyoto

 

MEETING NEW PEOPLE

I found it harder to meet locals and travellers when I traveled within my trio. We also stayed at an Airbnb, with the result that we had few opportunities to meet other travellers. Both CeCe and I are outgoing and talk to strangers easily, and travellers we encountered were eager to reciprocate. But, our opportunities to meet other people were largely while dining at restaurants.

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Meeting new friends, at Wadachi Sake Bal, Kyoto

When you already have friends to share your experiences with, it seems less necessary to reach out to locals and other travellers. Also, others may presume that because you already have a group of friends, that you don’t necessarily want to meet new people, and therefore not take the initiative to strike up a conversation. Also, our Airbnb accommodation provided little opportunity to meet anyone (see my blog: https://travelandtash.wordpress.com/2017/02/05/airbnb-vs-hostels-my-experience-in-kyoto-japan/).

Whenever I travel alone, meeting people seems more necessary and is far easier. After CeCe and Riley returned home, I met numerous fun people at my new hostel residence. Khaosan Theater Kyoto hostel provided a very social environment. I meet Kevin, Marco, and many other travellers in the kitchen, basement workshop and bar, and repeatedly hung out with them and shared stories and recommendations. I stayed up until 5am talking with Juan on my first night there, and randomly stumbled across new friend Sandra in a nearby restaurant and joined her for dinner. Making new friends while alone was super easy.

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With new friends, including Bill, Sandra and Josh at Khaosan Kyoto Theater basement bar

To complicate the topic of meeting new people a little further, I will point out that while traveling with Beth in Thailand, as a pair of girls, rather than a group of three, it seemed easier to meet other people. Perhaps our tiny unit made us seem more accessible. This may be an interesting discussion for another blog.

MONEY

Last but not least, CeCe, Riley and I discussed expectations and budgets in the planning stages of our trip. We talked about the kind of activities we wanted to do and could afford to do together, and figured out how simple or posh we wanted our dining and accommodation experiences to be. CeCe initially explained that she wanted to stay in a classy Airbnb and dine out at a fancy restaurant on at least one occasion while in Kyoto together, while I wanted to spend more cash on evening dinners in general. Riley didn’t want to spend money on souvenir or fashion shopping. We all had to compromise because we all had different ideas about how to spend our cash.

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CeCe handing over the mula! Malebranche Green Tea products by Kiyomizu Dera Temple

When I travelled alone, however, I decided how much I wished to spend on food, accommodation and so on. I could be luxurious or a penny pincher, and I didn’t affect, or was affected, by others. I was also solely responsible, however, for my finances and if I got into financial trouble, only I could fix it. I couldn’t rely on friends to provide any emergency funds if needed, so essentially, I was forced to become more responsible.

LEARNING ABOUT MYSELF

One of my personal goals this year has been to become a genuine team player. Traveling with two of my work colleagues in Kyoto was a very good way to develop team skills. I learned to hold my silence when I disagreed with something because it wasn’t worth the confrontation, and also had a refresher course of how to compromise. I’ve also learned that I prefer to travel in a pair, rather than a group of three. It’s easier to compromise with one woman than compromise with two. There were at least two alpha females in our group, so that alone kept things interesting.  Also, I’ve learned that when visiting new locations, a travel partner needs to be willing to compromise as well as have compatible physical and emotional stamina to my own.

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With a handsome stranger: Kyomizu dera, Kyoto.. Me. Happy to be traveling.

Finally, I’ve learned that I really love traveling alone. I enjoy the time to think, make decisions for myself, and be able choose when I want to socialize. Traveling alone reminds me of just how outgoing I am, how independent and self-sufficient I can be. It is one of the biggest self-esteem boosts I’ve discovered to date. If you haven’t travelled alone yet, I highly recommend it.

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What is one thought you agree or disagree with here? Can you add other reasons why you prefer to travel with friends or travel alone? What have you learned about yourself through travel? Share you thoughts in the comments below.

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To travel with friends, or travel alone… Part One

Two new friends, Riley and Cece, joined me in Kyoto, Japan for the first four days of my January 2017 week-long trip. The final three days, I remained alone. There were ups and downs, challenges and laughter. This trip got me thinking. How does traveling with friends or traveling alone impact a traveller’s experience, and is one option more advantageous than the other?

I began writing this blog with the intention to produce a quick comparison, but while writing, I realized that this is not a simple topic. As a result, I split this blog into Parts One and Two. Rather than produce a systematic comparison, this is rather a collection of experiences that I use to present  both positive and challenging things about both types of travel.

ABOUT ME

Firstly, I should establish that I consider myself an extrovert. I love meeting new people, and tend to make friends fairly easily. With the exception of awkward teenage years, I’ve always been outgoing. As the oldest of three, I have always been the assertive big sister. I loved adventure films, like the Indiana Jones series and the book and movie, The Beach. I grew up in England within a multicultural family with bilingual parents. From infancy, our family traveled to Spain to see grandparents, aunts and uncles. I first travelled alone with my aunt at age eight, and as an adult, later moved to Canada. I now reside in South Korea.

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Humayma archaeological site, Jordan

BACKGROUND TO MY TRAVEL EXPERIENCES

I just took a week long trip to Kyoto, as mentioned above. In the summer of 2015, I also visited Kyoto with my university friend Beth. We stayed there for a week, and thereafter toured Thailand for a month. She returned home, while I continued travelling solo in Thailand, and later Cambodia and Vietnam.

My first time traveling or backpacking alone was in 2012. I traveled to Istanbul, Turkey for a few days. I discovered the experience of traveling alone exhilarating and addictive! I later traveled to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv with another university friend, Ana.

In Jordan 0f 2012, I travelled on numerous occasions with groups of friends. As part of an student archaeological team based in Aqaba, we took weekend trips throughout the country over a period of six weeks. These included Wadi Rum, Petra, Jerash, the Dead Sea and desert camping with the local bedouin. We were grouped together to travel as units. I often traveled with my closest friends, Erin and Mike, however each weekend trip brought different hangout friends, and these included Miranda, Aaron, Lou, and Victoria.

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Petra, Jordan – From left: Aaron, Miranda, Sarah, myself and Mike

I’ve also traveled with romantic partners (former boyfriends). We visited Spain, England, Italy, Canada, America, The Philippines, Mexico and travelled through S. Korea. Finally,  as an adult, I’ve travelled with my sister Vivien, brother Joel, and aunty Angela. These were trips to various locations within England, France and Spain.

TRAVELING WITH BOYFRIENDS

They say that if you want to know if a new boyfriend or girlfriend is the right one for you, take a trip together. Travel is stressful. It can be long, uncomfortable, and you are forced to deal with language barriers, cultural differences, frustrations, scams, heat, hunger and irritability from lack of sleep to name just a few.

I travelled to Rome, first with one partner Jeff in 2009, and later, in 2015 with another partner, Wayne. On both occasions, friction began right away. Petty things caused small arguments.  I wanted to shop for footwear which Jeff had low tolerance for. Wayne enjoyed shopping, but we bickered about other things. Our hotel was located a twenty minute train ride from most of the locations that we visited which seemed to extend our travel unbearably at the most exhausting of moments. The forty degree August heat and the lack of air conditioning in our room caused restless sleep, and as a result, our week there was memorable for all the wrong reasons. In the future, I will prioritise having some alone time to indulge in my interests where necessary, and ensure that distance to sites, temperatures anticipated and hotel comfort are addressed better.

COMMUNICATION, COMPROMISE AND FLEXIBILITY

Before we set out for Israel, Ana and I discussed our travel style and needs beforehand. I discovered that she was not interested in going to religious sites, and she wanted a more relaxing vacation pace while I wanted to challenge myself, do lots of walking and see pretty much everything.

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With Ana, overlooking the Dome of the Rock and the Wailing Wall, Jerusalem

At our hostel located within the old city of Jerusalem, we met travellers, Roxanna and David, and while Ana relaxed at the hostel, I travelled up to Bethlehem with Roxanna and David.

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At the Wailing Wall, Jerusalem. From left: Ana, Roxanna, David and myself

As a fellow Greek and Roman History student, Ana was interested in going to Roman historical sites and the Dead Sea, so we rented a car and, together with Roxanna, visited Masada, the mountain plateau fortress where the rebel Jewish group, the Sicarii, took their stand against a Roman siege in 73AD (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masada). When we descended, since I enjoy physical challenges, I walked down the snake path while Ana and Roxanna took the less strenuous cable-car.  Thus, although Ana and I had different travel styles, we had agreed in advance to be flexible as we travelled together to accommodate our different preferences.

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The Snake Path, a blistering hot, one hour walk down from the Masada fortress. This aerial shot was taken by Ana looking down at me from the cable car

 

PATIENCE

In 2012, I visited Granada, Spain, with aunty Angela. We both wanted to see the Moorish legacy, Al Alhambra palace (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alhambra), so we booked a twin room at Hotel Atenas in central Granada. On this occasion, Patience was a very important ingredient for traveling together successfully. Fresh from my travels in Israel, I was eager to get going in the mornings. My aunty however, has trouble sleeping. Despite this challenge, she was driven and wanted to maximise our short trip there.

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Mosaic courtyards, Granada – With aunty Angela

Aunty Angela took more time getting her day started, so while she prepared, I would wonder the neighbourhood, scope out potential breakfast cafes and take photos of local architecture. When I returned, aunty Angela would be ready to leave.

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Photographing the honeycomb ceiling, Al Alhambra, Granada

INDEPENDANCE = COURAGE, NEW FRIENDS AND PERSONAL GROWTH

The first time I travelled alone, I visited Istanbul. I was worried before traveling and arranged to be collected from the airport and transported to my hostel to ease my nerves. On arrival (Bahaus hostel, Sultanahmet), I met outgoing staff and travellers. Straight away, my fears subsided and my courage grew. Thus began my “romance” with traveling alone.

I realized that it was so easy to make friends with other guests. After venturing out alone on my first day, I joined Bahaus travellers and together we toured the Topkapi Palace, the Spice and Grand Basaar, the Hagia Sophia, and enjoyed a cruise on the Bosphorus strait. This was the singular, most formative adventure that emboldened me to travel the world.

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At the Topkapi Palace overlooking the Bosphorus, Istanbul, with new friends, Chris, (myself), Romain and Nisa

In 2015, I travelled from Koh Samui to Phuket, Thailand. On this trip, I discovered that traveling alone promotes growth by testing your levels of endurance. The journey was physically exhausting as it was twelve hours long, and I switched vehicles (including a ferry) at least seven times. The last vehicle on my journey had no suspension and each bump on the twisty, never-ending roads made me feel like I would throw up. I additionally put myself in a dangerous situation by mouthing off at a Thai head honcho who disrespected me in a jungle clearing. That day,  I wished I had a travel companion there for emotional support. This experience taught me about my limitations for discomfort, ability to befriend travellers out of necessity, and to support each other in tricky situations. See my blog, “My Journey from Hell,” here: (https://travelandtash.wordpress.com/2015/09/07/the-journey-from-hell/).

The aforementioned situation quickly reminded me of the advantage of having travel companions. As a unit, Beth and I had numerous advantages. We had navigated our way to  various locations, tag-teamed to negotiate down fares with tuk tuk drivers (Bangkok), identified scams such as misinformation about the location of train stations (Hellfire Pass), warded off threatening packs of dogs (Kanchanaburi and Ayuthaya), and more importantly, supported each other emotionally while experiencing travel fatigue (everywhere). Also, I felt like I had a special friend with whom to share these amazing adventures.img_20150527_230553

In Part Two, I will address the importance of stamina, opportunities to meet new people and managing money. Finally, I will disclose my personal lessons and recommendations from travelling alone and with others.

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What is one thought you agree or disagree with here? Can you add any other reasons why you prefer to travel with friends or travel alone? What have you learned about yourself through travel? Share you thoughts in the comments below.

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Airbnb VS. hostels: my experience in Kyoto, Japan

I was about to book my flight ticket and hostel to stay in Kyoto for seven days, when suddenly, two of my colleagues from work decided to join me. Neither of them, however, were keen on staying at a hostel. They raved about “Airbnb.” I found out that Airbnb is a host site that facilitates booking to stay in someone’s house or apartment at your holiday destination. These homes provide  usual household comforts like your personal kitchen, bathroom and so on. These are especially ideal for friends or couples traveling together in pairs or groups. I was curious about which accommodation I would prefer, so we went ahead and booked four nights together in our Airbnb, and I booked three nights to stay alone at my hostel for the last leg of my trip.

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Kiyomizo-dera temple

The Airbnb was a bachelor style apartment. The location was fairly central as it was halfway between Kyoto station (south of the Kamo river) and Nishiki Market (north), and just a three minute walk from Gojo station. I booked my hostel accommodation at the Khaosan Kyoto Theater, as I had originally intended. This hostel (https://www.facebook.com/khaosankyototheater) received rave reviews on hostelworld (http://www.hostelworld.com/), particularly for its ideal location, friendly staff and cleanliness. It also had a bar in the basement and a large dinning room/ kitchen on the 5th floor.

My Airbnb and hostel experiences were quite different. As I compare my them, please note that my opinions reflect my personal tastes and my experience with these two locations specifically. Another Airbnb and hostel may provide a completely different experience for you.

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Sanjusangendo: Temple of 1000 Buddhas

Pricing

I travelled in late January, 2017. Airbnb apartments were rather hard to find for three friends traveling together. Most Airbnb places accommodate pairs. When we finally found a suitable size with three separate beds, the price worked out to around $25 US per person per night. When looking for hostels, I usually use hostelworld.com because the website makes managing bookings very easy. Khaosan Kyoto Theater was just under $30 US per night, so the hostel stay was a little dearer than the Airbnb shared between three people.

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With travel buddies, Riley (center) and CeCe (right)… When they returned home, I checked into Khaosan

Privacy

Our Airbnb was bachelor size, and we quickly found that sharing a small apartment gives you little privacy. If your friends adventure without you, you may get some alone time, but otherwise, you could be together most of the time and will have to adapt to each other’s needs for downtime while at the apartment. At Khaosan, I had a solid wood ‘pod’ sleeping-space with a curtain which drew across. The height was tall enough for me, at 5’6, to sit up in. Although I could hear noise from my neighbours since I shared a room with possibly eight other people, I felt that I had my own privacy within my pod sleeping area, and largely, everyone in our shared room was very considerate. The enclosed wooden bed functioned well in keeping out neighbouring noise, however,  the top bunks are a little harder to climb up and down from. I had to plan more carefully what exactly I needed to bring with me, for example, organizing for bathroom trips and bringing everything I needed which was temporarily residing in my pod area. I didn’t have this issue while at the Airbnb.

Wi-Fi

My Airbnb apartment had unreliable Wi-Fi which would drift in and out. Khaosan Wi-Fi  was largely consistent, and if it dropped out, I could log into the hostel Wi-Fi on another floor. Khaosan’s Wi-Fi was infinitely better than the Airbnb internet service.

Planning travel

Staying at an Airbnb means  you largely have to plan your travel yourself, whether it be to explore the local tourist spots, find your way to your next destination, or return home. This could be challenging if information is largely available in Japanese and you can’t read it. At Khaosan, the front desk staff helped me plan out how to return to Osaka airport early in the morning. They listed for me exactly where my local bus stop toward Kyoto station would be, and printed out the timetable for the JR express trains headed for Kansai airport. Khaosan hostel also plays videos featuring the local sites so that tourists can receive easy reminders about the popular tourist spots.

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Tourist hotspot, Fushimi Inari

Space

As mentioned earlier, the Airbnb I stayed at with my two friends was bachelor size, and although it was comfortable enough, it was by no means spacious. Many of the Airbnb properties in central Kyoto seemed to be small, and while small living spaces may be a Japanese city norm, the hostel was a very different experience. Although my private pod space was small, it felt larger than beds that I’ve experienced at other hostels. Additionally, the numerous open spaces for the guests’ use, like the lobby, the upstairs dinning room/ kitchen, the basement bar, and the workshop, gave me a feeling that I had a large, temporary home to live in. The minimalist décor as well as the well-situated furniture added to a feeling of more space.

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Basement workshop chopstick-making event, Khaosan Kyoto Theater

Meeting new people

Finally, and I suspect that this is true for most Airbnb and hostel experiences irrespective of where they are in the world, that when you travel with friends or a partner, you are likely to continue hanging out with them almost exclusively. No matter the accommodation you chose, you will likely come across opportunities to meet locals and other travelers while out and about, however, it easier to meet new people staying at a hostel as a single traveler. At Khaosan,  I meet a stream of new guests constantly within the hostel itself, whether at breakfast time in the kitchen, chatting to guests during hostel organized workshops, or enjoying the bar scene in the evening. I found easy access to socializing with new people especially appealing as I was able to seek social situations when I wanted them.

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Fun at the Khaosan Kyoto Theater bar

In conclusion, generally, the Airbnb was comfortable, while the hostel was sociable. I’m glad I tried the Airbnb experience, and intend to use it again if I’m traveling with a group of friends or in a pair, however I will definitely continue to stay hostels, especially when traveling alone.

What has your experience using Airbnb or hostels been like? Is there anything mentioned here you agree or disagree with, or can you add any comparisons between these two types of accommodations?

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