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Do's and Don'ts, South America

Travel fail day in Bogotá

December 12, 2015 • By

Arriving in Bogotá, Colombia after a mere six hour flight from New York City, I should have felt refreshed and ready to hit the streets but what ensued after Colombianos partied all night celebrating the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe shows what happens when travelers visit a place unprepared.

In reality, I broke every rule in my self-proclaimed Travel 101 Guide.

1.) Blend in with the locals. It is obvious I have blonde hair and already stick out in most countries but I normally pack demure outfits as to not draw attention.  With colors blazing on my first day in Bogotá, I donned my purple vest and pink fleece to attract even more gawkers.  If that wasn’t enough, I let the sun scorch my face and now I am certainly not blending.

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Soaring over Bogotá, Cerro de Montserrate

2.) Check for environmental limitations: When I was huffing and puffing up Cerro de Montserrate, I blamed lack of exercise the last few weeks but then my mouth begged for water and it dawned on me I was suffering from altitude. Ding ding..that would be the right answer as Bogota sits at 8,660 feet (2,640 meters). Oh and I am susceptible to altitude sickness.  No bueño!

 

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Pint size Taxis in Bogotá

3.) Ask a local: When in doubt, ask a local they are typically keen to assist. What I did was plain wrong. I asked every local I passed by if it was safe to walk down this block. Even though many locals commented on my poor Spanish or prompted that I take the bus, I convinced myself the exercise seemed more important than my safety, which brings me to my next point.

4.) Safety: Former Colombianos living in the United States told me safety concerns were definitely exaggerated. Articles online referenced petty theft so I mentally prepared myself to be mugged (It’s a common thing for me). After spending a few hours walking around and dodging many of the roughly 8 million people who live here, I am now bracing to be killed at the hands of a daredevil motorcyclists or an everyday bicycler rather than a mugger but I am open to that as well.

5.) Vulgar language: A tourist should never raise her voice when talking to locals. It’s a sign of respect and privilege to be visiting another country. That lasted for all of 45 minutes once I missed two buses, toured four different blocks looking for another bus and returned to the hotel exasperated. I highly recommend having a breakdown in English when the hotel staff only speak Spanish.  They are convinced I am deranged.  I am confident my performance was effective.

6.) Hire a local guide: When my first attempt at public transportation and touring failed, I hired Gustavo, an English speaking driver who lived in NYC for 20 years. He promised me a three-hour scenic tour, which turned into five hours because we sat in traffic much of the loop.  If learning is a priority, book tours in advance or figure out an agency to visit right when you arrive.  I paid by the hour.

 

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Juan Valdez does Coffee in Colombia

7.) Eat local: It’s early. I am in a new country and I see a Starbucks like a mirage in a desert. I pause and even go inside but I depart wiftly and walk to MY girl’s favorite neighbor Juan Valdez because 1.) Juan has a bathroom I desperately crave and 2.) this Starbucks is not selling my prized collector mugs.   I only ended up at Juan Valdez because my patience got the best of me and I abandoned dunkin donuts after a 10 minute wait (in fairness my seatmate told me their dulce de leche donuts called Arequipe.

8.) Shop ’til you drop: Markets and I are like salt and pepper or Baileys and coffee or maybe eggs and bacon. When the driver pointed out the gold and emerald jewelry shops, the skin on my arms stood alert and my heart started to beat a little faster but then he described how the area area used to be controlled by the cartel and the thought of being ripped off and finding myself followed by thieves curved my appetite.

9.) Don’t ask Stupid questions: I maintain I am very respectful of my host country but in this instance I claim utter stupidity. Bogotá is divided by a social class system, 1 being the very poor and 6 being rich, after about 2 hours with my driver I thought it would be a smart idea to ask him which class he considered himself.  He answered 4.  I thought that sounded pretty good until he pointed out typical 4 housing and I realized the middle class in Bogotá get by but nothing more.

 

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Christmas Lights Plaza de Lourdes in Chapinero

10.) Trust yourself: My driver gave me a second cell phone and at first I thought it was strange but then I realized he cared for my safety and didn’t want me to get lost. I smiled. I felt welcomed and I confirmed this will be a great trip.

Up Next a Historical look at Bogotá

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Do's and Don'ts, Travel Tips

Why I travel alone

September 1, 2015 • By

When describing my wanderlust, I am often asked why I travel alone by friends, colleagues and even relatives. It’s not something I intentionally set out to do when I started my solo travel adventures nearly 11 years ago; it occurred more out of a desire to travel and a lack of people interested in doing the same.  Now that I am on day four of a nine day trip with my mother, I think it’s a swell time to give this topic further attention.

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After a day poolside enjoying the marina and a gelato with my mom

Occasionally, I’ve traveled with friends and, together, we have tackled cities across Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia and South America.  I enjoyed these bonding experiences and the moments shared eating, drinking, laughing and sightseeing.  It was most fortunate that I was not alone in Peru as I fell ill with a parasite and altitude sickness, or when I succumbed to “Delhi belly” in Jaipur. Sharing Oktoberfest in Munich with companions is absolutely as amusing as one would think after several pitchers of beer and oompah music. Climbing Machu Picchu, wine tasting in Mendoza and Stellenbosh, shopping in Bali and dancing until 4 am in Istanbul with friends are some of my most treasured memories from my travels, and I appreciate those dear souls who contributed to the joy of the journey.

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Pam and me in Munich 2013 – just a wee pint

Amongst all the treasured memories, travel with friends also has its share of ups and downs. A trip to Montreal turned disastrous when a friend insisted on saving her money and eating at McDonald’s, something I wish she shared prior to me selecting the city’s cool restaurants to try.  A girl’s trip to Paris placed four women, ages 30+, in one hotel room with a queen size bed and a shower down the hall–a catastrophic fact the planner failed to mention until I arrived after a seven-hour flight.  I ended up eating alone and booking myself into a more adequate hotel across town.  Lastly, I booked a post-college European trip with girls from school who preferred partying and sleeping to visiting churches and museums. The group split apart and I traveled to Spain and Germany independently.

A bad travel experience can not only ruin the trip, but can also terminate the friendship. It’s more common than you would think because you are spending excessive time with a person day in and day out who may not possess the same enthusiasm for hiking or biking and eating or relaxing, or whatever preferences you may desire.  You must be clear about your intentions from the beginning for the trip to go smoothly.

I prefer to travel alone because I’m cognizant of my strengths and weaknesses. I’m single, live alone and I’m fiercely independent.  In other words, I am not always accommodating to others.  It’s nice to wake up when I want, traipse through cities at record speeds or meander with no plan, sleep when I want, exercise if I must and spend money on emerald rings or Indian rugs if I feel like it.

I prefer personal guides to tour buses, trains to cars, shopping to sunbathing and lots and lots of activity where I am learning history, sampling local culture and meeting kindred spirits.  People assume solo travelers are lonely, but I prefer it because I can assimilate easier, talk to locals and force myself to do all the things I am too afraid to try at home.  It’s the best, my version of serenity.

However, I really do enjoy traveling with my dear friends Pam and Jill, and I am blessed they still sign up for my shenanigans from time to time.

Where are we going next, ladies? Wimbledon and Paris are calling!

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Jill and me at our dinner at Sortie in Istanbul where we danced until 4 AM

Top 10 Considerations for Traveling with a Friend (or Alone)

1.) You must both agree and be excited about the planned destination.  If you like the beach, don’t go skiing.

2.) Discuss your aspirations for the trip.  This includes a budget and planned activities.  Your budget may allow for only one meal a day or one museum and a lunch to go. Share that information with your travel partner(s).

3.) Admit your quirks, faults or needs in advance of departure, preferably before booking flights and hotels.  Would you prefer your own room?  Are you afraid of heights?

4.) Discuss payment in advance of trip.  When I travel with friends, we keep accurate records on spreadsheets and match with credit card bills to ensure the conversion rate matches.  It usually works out that we break even or close to it at the end of the trip.

5.) Plan a reasonable schedule of time together and time apart.  Ask yourself and your friend, “Do you need ‘me’ time?”

6.) If you are sharing accommodations, confirm with your travel mate sleeping patterns, safety needs and also whether or not you expect or will permit new found friends in your room at any time of the day.

7.) Plan any balloon rides, hikes or group activities together in advance.  This way you can both have something to look forward to at some point during the trip.

8.) Strategize who carries cameras, electronics, toiletries etc. so you can share and not be lugging around multiple items.  It saves space in your luggage and your sanity.

9.) Be open and honest and agree to disagree.  There will absolutely be a few hiccups in the road.

10.) Have fun and share your experience with others.