How to spot Canadian backpackers

HABF02_2Let’s face it, we all need to entertain ourselves during 4 hour layovers, delayed buses, and chilling time on the beach/hostel/restaurant/anywhere you can sit for awhile! To kill some time, let’s see if you can spot a Canadian backpacker! And no, we don’t all say “eh?!” at the end of every other sentence.

Tell-tale signs of a travelling Canadian:

  1. Canadian flag sewn on the backpack. But watch out for those Americans who pretend by having the maple leaf on their bag. A good way to find out whether they’re from north or south of the border is to ask them what flavour poutine they like the best. If it’s anything else other than pure cheese curds and gravy, then they’re lying. Canadians are poutine purists.
  2. Mountain Equipment Co-op backpack and gear
  3. Roots, lululemon or Arc’teryx clothing
  4. Sports team clothing with any of the following teams: Canucks, Leafs, Habs/Canadiens, Sens/Senators, Oilers, Flames, Jets, Jays, Raptors, Lions, Argos/Argonauts, Stampeders, Eskimos, Ti-Cats/Tiger-Cats, Als/Alouettes, Roughriders, Blue Bombers, TFC, Whitecaps, Impact
  5. Saying “sorry” even if you bumped into them
  6. Zed, not zee
  7. The nicest people in the entire world!

What have you noticed about Canadian backpackers? Or what’s unique about backpackers from your home country? Post your comments below and let’s get a global backpacker spotting game started!

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Tips for women travelling alone

Simon's Town, South Africa

Simon’s Town, South Africa

Hey ladies, thinking about travelling solo? First things first, just smile and pretend to agree with all the naysayers who say it’s way too dangerous to travel alone. Next, check out some tips below for women thinking about travelling alone. Trust me, after 3 trips in 1st and 3rd world countries, the boogeyman hiding under your bed is scarier than travelling alone.

  • Be smart! Can’t stress this enough people! Yes, we all want to have fun and enjoy everything that independent travel has to offer. But does that mean walking down a dark alley all by yourself in the middle of the night in a sketchy part of town? If you answered yes, please find the nearest adult and ask them to be your travel buddy.
  • Ask locals where the sketchy parts of town are and try to avoid those at night time if you’re alone.
  • Make friends with other travellers! Especially other solo women. On every one of my trips, I’ve made instant friendships with other females travelling alone (yes, there are more than one of us out there!) and ended up travelling for a bit with them. We understand each other and can even swap hilarious pick-up stories. Did you hear the one about the guy who mooned me on the back of a truck in South Africa and then promptly asked for my hand in marriage?
  • Go out in groups. Chat up your bunk mates and fellow travellers and see where they’re headed. Yes, it’s awkward at first to invite yourself but unless they’re part of a secret organization or undercover narcs, most travellers have the same motto, the more the merrier!
  • Be polite even if someone is nagging or bothering you. You will encounter a lot of touts trying to sell you things, would-be admirers, and expert cat callers (being Asian, I often get “konichiwa!” or “ni hao!”. I even got a “Fukushima!” once, mind you this was around the time of the Japanese earthquake in 2011). Instead of escalating the situation and telling them to f-off, just ignore them or smile and move along. I usually just get a laugh out of the crazy English sayings that people come up with!
  • Avoid telling complete strangers that you’re travelling alone, you’re single, or where you’re staying. We all want to make instant friendships and have the local experience, but if you just met this shady-looking guy on the street, volunteering to him a rundown of your relationship status and where he can find you naked in the shower later may not be the best idea.
  • Stay in accommodation that’s safe. Whether you’re staying at a grungy hostel or a quaint guest house, make sure that it’s safe and secure. This means that the doors lock and no one can climb into your room if you’re near the ground floor. It may not be as cheap as the $5 per night shack that’s a little easier on your budget, but your belongings and your safety are worth much, much more. If you are stuck at a seedy place for the night, make your own safety. Whether that’s pushing furniture against the door to keep it shut (which I had to do in Bali) or keeping your important belongings under your pillow (sleep sacs and money belts are great for this!), do whatever makes you feel safe and allows you to have a good night’s rest.
  • Avoid getting into sketchy transportation. We’ve all done it, gotten into the unmarked taxi/songthaew/matatu to save some $$$, but if you’re the only one in it and it’s midnight, maybe it’s a good idea to walk into the nearest classy-looking hotel and ask them to call you a taxi. A really good way is to arrange transportation through your hostel since they’re used to dealing with tourists. It may be a bit more expensive and they might rip you off, but at least you won’t get robbed. See, silver lining.

So that’s it, nothing mind-blowing, just common sense.  You may agree/disagree with this since I usually err on the side of caution but that doesn’t mean that I’m scared of everything or suspicious of everyone while travelling alone. I’m also not saying that following these tips will 100% guarantee you or your money back that you won’t get robbed: shit happens right? However, travelling is one the best ways to let your hair down and relax so don’t let the horror stories from home stop you from being that fierce, independent woman that you are (cue Destiny’s Child) and truly enjoy your adventure!

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Thinking about a solo backpacking mission?

Whenever I tell people that I’ve backpacked alone, the normal reaction is either “Good for you!” or “Are you crazy?!”. Travelling alone is not for everyone and it doesn’t mean that you’re more or less adventurous or selfish. It’s a matter of preference – similar to whether you like boxers or briefs, salad or fries as a side, or rom coms or blowup action movies (all the latter for me!). My first backpacking trip was with a travel buddy to Europe but after I felt comfortable with being new environments and gained some travel savvy-ness, I decided that my next trip would be a solo mission to South East Asia and this continued on my trip to Africa.

So here are some pros and cons with travelling alone. Some of my pros may be your cons so I suggest you make your own list and regardless or which way you go, you’ll end up having a great time as long as you open yourself up to experiencing new cultures and commit to having a memorable trip!

Pros

  1. You can be selfish. Feel like sleeping in all day? Go ahead! Rather go hiking instead of checking out a museum? Who’s stopping you? Travelling alone lets you decide what you want to do, when you want to do it. You don’t have to compromise and whatever you want to accomplish on your trip is up to you. You don’t have to play with your friend the awkward mind game of “I don’t know, what do you want to do?” and ultimately, you are responsible for your decisions, whether good or bad.
  2. You’ll be more open to meeting new people. You don’t have a social crutch anymore. If you don’t want to eat alone, you’ll have to chat up that nice-looking Brit staying in your hostel. This is one of the main reasons why I travel alone. I get to meet other people like me and discover those instant best friends forever connections. Sure, there are times where you may just want to be alone, but you’ll find while travelling alone that if you make the first move and chat up your bunk mate or bus seat partner, almost everyone will be more than open to tell you all about their trip experience so far and where they’re headed next. After you get through the small talk chit chat, you may find that these people will become your trusted travel buddy or maybe just an interesting story to tell your friends back home. 
  3. Curious locals will want to talk to you. Once you pick pass the touts who are trying to sell you things or for the ladies, creepy guys that are picking you up, talking to locals is a great way to gain insights into the places you are visiting outside of the “tourist bubble”. This is especially true for solo female travellers. Locals will see you taking selfies and ask questions, maybe even have no shame asking very personal questions (“Are you married? Why aren’t you married?”). Just be nice, smile, answer whatever you feel comfortable with and ask them questions in return. This is the way I found out that certain Thai islands have a strong Rastafarian culture or that there’s a witch doctor in Tanzania who’s a pastor and can apparently cure heart diseases and diabetes.
  4. You will get preferential treatment. It may be a demoralizing situation but when you’re travelling alone, you will get special treatment from people who feel sorry for you. Hey, they can feel sorry for me all they want, I don’t mind as long as I get something out of it! In South Africa, it was the spacious front seat of a smelly, packed minibus, beside a friendly local driver, Rob, who told me all about his 7 kids and taught me phrases in Xhosa.

Cons

  1. Everything is divided by…1. The costs of your trip will be higher if you’re travelling alone simply because you can’t share the costs of  accommodation or taxi trips with anyone else. However, if you are good at #2 above (making friends), this will help bring down your costs. If you’re in an anti-social mood, look for shared accommodation in hostels or just take local transportation like everyone else to lower the drain on your wallet. 
  2. You’ll have to keep funny things to yourself until you can tell someone. Every time I meet someone new after being alone for awhile, I get a major case of verbal diarrhea. It’s just that I literally haven’t talked to anyone for awhile (talking to yourself doesn’t count, although you’ll start doing that after about 3 weeks of travelling alone. Don’t worry, it’s completely normal. Right?) and have seen/experienced so much that I just need to tell someone. Travelling alone means you won’t have someone to confirm with that yes, those are blatant abortion ads plastered on lamp posts in Durban or laugh with you over the random child that was tossed in your lap for an 11 hour minibus ride to Tofo. Keeping a journal helps remember and get some of those funny moments out on paper. I still laugh reading through my journals because it brings me back to those exact moments.
  3. You have to be more aware. Travelling solo means that you don’t have someone else looking out for you, this doesn’t mean that you should be yelling “back off!” to anyone who comes within 2 feet of you but you will need to be more cautious (especially women). I’ve experienced some shady situations (getting dropped off the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night or sleeping with my tiny Swiss Army knife under my pillow) but in the end, I’ve never been robbed or harmed while backpacking. This is because of a simple rule I made: I vowed never to put myself in any dangerous situation. This meant not going out by myself at night in a shady neighbourhood or getting so drunk at the bar that I couldn’t put myself to bed. Use your common sense, street smarts, buddy system, peripheral vision, instincts, whatever it takes to keep yourself safe.
  4. It gets lonely. Even after all my trips, I still get home sick around the 4 week mark. It’s just human nature to miss creature comforts – your family, friends, your bed, etc. This coupled with being alone will give even the most optimistic people the case of the Mondays. How to prepare for this is to tell yourself that it’s totally fine to feel lonely, and instead of having a pity party for one where you’re the guest of honour, it’s your trip and you can do whatever you want. So eat your feelings with that tub of ice cream on the beach but remember to look around and take in your beautiful surroundings because when you’re back home in your tiny cubicle at work, the place where you rather be is on that beach eating a tub of salty tear-infused ice cream.

Obviously, there are many other reasons that I haven’t included so feel free to post them below. For those who rather travel with a buddy, you can check out TravBuddy, FindMeetGo or search the Thorn Tree travel forums for travel companions. Whether you decide to take the “table for one” route or make it an extended group hang with your closest friends, your trip is what you make out of it so go out there, chat up your neighbour and try to learn as many swear words in different languages as possible (we all know those are the first words we learn so don’t even try to deny it)!

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How to survive India while backpacking and have an awesome time!

Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh, India

Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh, India

Oh India…the pot of gold at the end of the spice route, known for delicious food, sacred gods and Bollywood. Such an interesting and friendly country but for those who don’t know what to expect, India can be a huge culture shock from our comfy western ways. Never fear! Here are a few tips on backpacking through India, actually surviving, and having an AWESOME time!

1. Bring an antidote to the dreaded “Delhi belly”

I don’t know the exact statistic but out of all the people I know that visited India, 90% of them have had stomach problems while there (the other 10% were either from India and somehow grew immunity which seems like a scientific enough explanation OR they have been feeding their stomachs disgusting food for years so it was a walk in the park. I belong in the latter – all those years of greasy Chinese food and late night McDonalds visits finally paid off!)

For the rest of the 90%, the best way to combat stomach problems is precaution and drugs! And no, I don’t mean illegal drugs. I mean the talk to your doctor and get a prescription kind of drugs. I went to see my trusty travel doctor in Canada and he suggested that I don’t take Dukoral because it wouldn’t help in India. Instead, I was told to stay away from drinking tap water, bring along anti-diarrhea medicine (Immodium) and received a prescription for trusty ciprofloxacin which is an antibiotic taken after the initial signs of Delhi belly (i.e. diarrhea). I didn’t need to take the cipro in India but my friend and travel buddy, Mike, swears by ciprofloxacin when he took it and regained his appetite after losing 10 lbs in a week-long battle with the toilet. Trust me, even the strongest and healthiest get sick in India. Just ask Mike – all it took to take him out of commission was one dirty train ride.

2. There will be people EVERYWHERE.

The country’s population is over 1.2 billion and all of that is squeezed into around 3,287,263 square kilometres - that’s approx. 371 people per square kilometre which means yes, there will be lots of people and yes, they will be everywhere that you want to be. Instead of stressing out about how congested the streets are or getting pushed around in a train, just sit back, relax and enjoy the symphony and theatre show that is before you.

The best way to conquer it is to join in on the fun. Mike and I quickly learned that crossing 8 lanes of traffic is a lot easier when there are 50 other jaywalking buddies beside you. We played the game of count how many schoolchildren they can fit onto one bike rickshaw (the number to beat was 13 by the way) instead of turning on the TV while enjoying our morning chai tea. The intense density of the country only adds to the buzz and will make you even more grateful when you eventually get a patch of sand that you can claim as your own to wiggle your toes in.

3. Queuing is an art.

Queuing (or lining up for us North Americans) does not really exist in India. It’s more of an elaborate dance of wits and patience. Don’t be surprised if you are touching the person in front of you in line and same thing for your suddenly very friendly neighbour behind you. This is to prevent anyone else from slipping in between or any type of budding (front bud, back bud, switchbacks etc). However, none of this actually makes a difference because it’s all about commanding the attention of the person behind the counter – think of a super busy club bar but a thousand times worse and on crack. Whether it’s buying a ticket at a train station, queuing to see the Taj Mahal or lining up to buy water, it all comes down to an art.

I suggest you come up with a plan because here’s one place where western manners and etiquette will not make a difference in service quality. Mike and I devised a very clever and effective method. Due to my smaller, ninja-like size, I would squeeze my way into any small opening at the counter and Mike, being double my size, 6ft 100 inches tall and sporting a very threatening beard, would put both of his burly arms out straight and rest his hands on the counter surrounding me in a protective shield and allowing me to shout at the person behind the counter. This helped tremendously as Mike’s main responsibility was to prevent people from sneaking in so I could focus on our primary task of buying Micky D’s vanilla ice cream cones.

4. Bargain everything.

You know how you always wonder if you’re being ripped off while in a foreign place? Well in India, that answer is always yes. The fabric of Indian consumerism was built on bargaining so everyone knows that the listed price is not the real price. You can bargain taxi rides, hotel rates, souvenirs, heck, you can even bargain internet cafe rates. The key is not to get the lowest price possible but to get to a price that you’re comfortable with paying while keeping your dignity. Some people are masters of the bargain and can put on a bluff worthy of an Oscar. Others can’t hide how much they want something and give in at the earliest sign of defeat. It doesn’t matter if your rickshaw ride was double what your bus seat neighbour paid, you’re comfortable with what you paid and didn’t get spat on. I would call that a win.

My general rule of thumb is to ask for the price, think about it and come up with a maximum price you’re willing to pay. Then counter offer with 50% of the asking price. If you think they quoted something ridiculously high, 20-30% of that will put them in their place. Act like you can walk away with it (even though we all know we can’t walk away from pashminas and wood-carved statues of Ganesh). Never get angry and always be polite and courteous. This is all part of the game so instead of being insulted, look at it as a challenge.

5. Last but not least, just take a deep breath and relax.

India can be stressful – you’ll get lost in alleyways, transportation will take twice as long as you originally planned, and you will be side-stepping cow, dog, chicken, goat and buffalo poop in flip-flops – but just take a minute to pause and remember, you’re in frickin’ INDIA! How awesome is that?!

For all the stress and hectic days, India has so many beautiful and unique things to offer. Don’t let the little, unfamiliar details ruin your trip and if anything, these stressful moments will all turn into great party stories at home. Just ask me about the time I was dragged onto a movie train by a crowd of people or woken up by kids yelling and trying to feed an elephant that was dodging traffic in the narrow streets. That’s India for ya!

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Essentials for a comfy trip

Yes, you can rough the backpacking trip and only bring 1 change of clothes and a Swiss Army knife like Bear Grylls on Man vs. Wild but if you have the extra cash and prefer some comforts to backpacking, there are some items that will make a huge difference but not weigh down your bag.  Most of these items can be found at the drug store, Walmart, bartering with friends or for those Canadians out there, Mountain Equipment Co-op.

  • Ear plugs – to drone out a noisy hostelers, fighting geckos, snoring bed mate
  • Quick-dry towel – when you don’t have time to properly dry your towel or if you’re visiting humid places, this is a must to keep your towel bacteria and odour-free.  I have the Adventure Towl which has lasted me 3 backpacking trips so far.
  • Travel wipes – shower replacement, wipe your hands, face, butt (although hopefully not all with the same one)
  • Laundry detergent – just bring a small travel-sized bottle to wash your clothes along the way
  • Sink stopper – you’ll have to eventually wash your clothes (at least underwear) so you’ll need to plug the sink.  This will make any sink your personal washing machine.  Find one that’s a flat mat to fit most sinks.
  • Swiss Army knife or Leatherman multi-tool – I joked about this above but it is very handy to have in case you need to cut anything, open beer bottles, measure something? (why is there always a ruler?!)
  • Head lamp – if you’re going to be doing any camping or be in areas with no electricity, there’s nothing worse than going to bathroom in the dark.  Check out this awesome head lamp!
  • Hostel sheet/sleeping bag liner – this is a MUST to prevent getting bit by bed bugs! You can either buy one or sew a bedsheet in half (very easy instructions here)
  • Plastic and Ziploc bags – these will make it easier to find and pack your things since everything is compartmentalized (i.e. put all your clothes in one bag, toiletries in another, shoes in another etc.), also used to put wet bathing suits, shoes or laundry

As always, open for suggestions so please suggest anything you found that was helpful on your trip!

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