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10 Things my first months of Living in China has Taught me

Moving halfway across the world to live and work abroad is always a big challenge, but also hands down my favourite way to explore this amazing world. I’m still new to Shanghai, China but reflecting on the experiences and lessons I’ve learned in this short period of time I know this has been a good move. I moved to China with the idea of living here for a year, but one month in I realised that I would definitely be living here for longer.

Here are the most important things I have learned so far while living and working in Shanghai, China.

1. WeChat is Everything

The mobile phone is king in China and you will be lost without a smartphone. I had my smartphone unlocked before I moved to China and downloaded WeChat the Chinese version of Whatsapp. But that’s just the beginning, because WeChat is your life. Chinese people actually don’t use regular text messages, they just use WeChat to text, send voice messages and even to send actual documents as attachments. I have also embraced WeChat pay which you can use to pay for almost anything, so I don’t need to carry cash with me here in Shanghai. Even the tiny hole-in-the-wall places has a QR code that you can scan to pay with WeChat. Other than WeChat you need a smart phone to order taxis, food delivery and train or plane tickets by using different apps on your phone. You also need your mobile phone to access the shared bikes here in Shanghai which makes life so much easier.

2. Free VPNs Will Not Cut It for Internet Usage

If you want to access sites and apps like Facebook, Google, Gmail, Twitter, Youtube, Instagram, Snapchat, Netflix, Tinder, and more, you’ll need a VPN. It is a virtual private network which allows you to access sites that are blocked here in China. I am so glad that I was warned about this before moving to china. The going rate tends to be about $50-$100 USD per year for a functioning VPN. Trust me, the free ones might work for a week or so but in the long run you realize how lost you are without access to the big world wide web without a VPN.

3. In winter, AlWAYS go well wrapped up to restaurants and cafes

I wish someone had told me that, due to a government decree, there is no central heating in public buildings south of the Yangtze river. This policy was intended to bring about huge savings in energy costs. Just a few miles to the north of Shanghai, the public buildings are toasty warm throughout the winter. However, in Shanghai itself, we are expected to happily shiver through freezing winter temperatures whenever we leave our houses.

4. Invest in a proper face-mask as Surgical Masks Don’t Do Anything

When I moved to China I had no idea what the pollution level was. I have seen images of very polluted days in China, often accompanied by photos of people in surgical masks. I thought these might be rare occurrences but soon found out that this is quite common during the colder months. Forget the surgical masks, they are great for keeping yourself from getting sick on a crowded subway, but they will not work for the pollution at all. What you need is a 3M mask that will protect you from PM2.5. Don’t worry, you will be able to buy one here in China, and they even come in funky colours!

5. Buy an Air Purifier, your lungs will thank you

The media emphasizes wearing a mask outside, but let’s be honest, if it’s really polluted, you’re probably staying indoors. This is an option I have opted for a couple of times so far this winter. Unfortunately the pollution filters into our houses and I have woken up coughing more than once on heavily polluted days. I now know that it is very important to invest in a good air purifier for your apartment if you plan on living here for a while.

6. Fitted Sheets Are Not Popular

I never really thought twice about my sheets. While I like to sleep with soft and comfortable blankets, my bottom sheet never concerned me all that much. Well, over my lifetime I’ve become very accustomed to fitted sheets, and I was shocked to find that China does not share my love for fitted sheets. After searching a bit online I eventually found a place that sold them. But next time I am definitely bringing some from home!

7. Coffee Is Expensive

While many of the foreign restaurants are only expensive by comparison, imported foods and coffee are much more expensive than they are back home. Thanks to China’s tariffs, you can expect to pay up to two or three times the original price for items like coffee, cheese, peanut butter, and cereal.

Coffee is seen as a luxury in China, and many coffee shops price the drink accordingly. I was shocked to find that I could buy an entire meal for half the price of a tiny latte.

8. Bring Your Own Sunscreen

I was warned before moving to China that sunscreen isn’t very common here. Most people in China cover up to avoid the sun’s harmful rays so sunscreen tends to be sold in small bottles and is super pricey. In China you will also find the term “whitening” on your sunscreen along with most facial moisturisers. So I have brought my own, as personally I am very nervous about using a product that will end up bleaching my skin.

9. Don’t Flush Your Toilet Paper

While I knew about squat toilets, no one ever told me not to flush my toilet paper. Next to every toilet you’ll find a small basket for you to throw your used paper. Chinese pipes aren’t equipped to handle non-organic waste, so you may find your toilet clogged if you try flushing your paper one too many times. Trust me, I learned this the hard way.

Many public restrooms also don’t have toilet paper or soap, so you’ll probably want to bring some hand sanitizer from home and pick up a mini pack of tissues when you arrive.

Living in Shanghai, China
Bike of Burden

10. “That’s so China” Is an expression you will also end up using

Being open-minded is so important, as cliché as it may sound take everything with a pinch of salt and remember that you are a guest in another country. What you may see as the cultural or social norm will most likely be different, once you learn and adapt to living as a ‘guest’ in another country you will enjoy the experience a lot more. A saying that has stuck with me and can only be fully understood by individuals who have experienced travelling or living in China is to “expect the unexpected” and “that’s so China”. As soon as you think you have seen it all, whether it’s something new or shocking, positive and/or negative something else will occur making you say “that’s so China”.

Living in Shanghai, China
Drying chickens with the laundry on a sidewalk next to a busy street…..only in China!

China is a complicated country with a long history, and living here has been positive and negative all in one. I have experienced and accepted some of the ‘negatives’ to living and working in this big city but still love the country as the positives out shine any of the negatives. I think the surprise of discovering new things every day has made my life here an adventure. The biggest piece of advice I can give you is to arrive in China with an open mind. China is so large and complex, discovering new aspects of life and culture are just part of the fun!

Living in Shanghai, China
Happy Chinese New Year!!!

Don’t let your fears and apprehensions hold you back from the adventure of moving to China.

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Preparing to Teach English in China

Moving to a foreign country to teach English is a huge step and needs preparation; mental, financial and physical. It can get hectic trying to figure out what you will need to do and at times you may feel overwhelmed. I always make myself a checklist of all the things I need to do or take with me before I move to a new country. It helps me stay calm and focussed so maybe it will help you too.

Here is a checklist that could help you a bit in your preparation to teach in China.

Passport and Visa

First off make sure that your passport is valid for at least a couple of years and not expiring within your contracted work year. But, most importantly, have your work visa ready before the day of travel. Make sure you get the appropriate visa to enter and travel around China. If you are going to teach English in China, you will need a Z visa. This visa allows you to work in China legally. Registered schools are authorised to provide Z visas for their teachers. Do not trust a school who says its okay to start work on a tourist visa and that they will issue you a work visa later, this is illegal. For you to be given a Z visa you must be a native English speaker, have two years’ work experience or a minimum of 120-hours TEFL certification and possess a bachelor’s degree. Once you arrive in China, you are given 30 days to convert your visa into a resident permit.

Prepare to Teach English in China
China is filled with unexpected things….#onlyinchina is a real thing!

Personal items

It is advisable that you pack wisely, pack only what you need for your travel and especially for work. Leave the just in case items but be prepared for all kinds of weather as you are planning on being in China for at least a year.

Clothing

Pack enough light, easy to dry clothes including a sweater or light jacket. Remember summers in China can be incredibly hot so to pack enough sunscreen (SPF). It is quite expensive here in China and often contains whitening, bring your own sunscreen and protective creams for the skin. You will definitely need rain gear (raincoats and umbrellas) but those are easy to purchase once you are in China. Pack a comfortable pair of shoes because you tend to walk a lot in China, especially in those first couple of months while you are still trying to orientate yourself in your new city.

Personal effects

You will find most personal effects readily available in China. Pack enough toiletries for the first month as it can take time before you find the brands that work for you in China. Pack some tissue, wet tissues and a hand sanitiser for use in toilets during travel. You can find sanitary towels al over china but only the big cities sell tampons so you might want to stock up on those before travelling. Due to change in climatic zones, our skins tend to react so remember your lotions and moisturisers.

Medication

When travelling, it is advisable to have a small travel medical kit with you. If you suffer from a chronic disease, pack up all your medication and stock up enough for a given period of time. Other medications you can include in your kit are laxatives, painkillers, allergy medicine, motion sickness medicine and contact lenses or eye drops. Have bottled water to accompany your medication and to drink too as tap water in China is not safe for consumption.

Plane Tickets

Book your plane ticket only once you have signed your work contract and have a start date. Because you are travelling with a work visa you will not need to buy a return flight which is great as you don’t always have your end date in advance. Pay that little bit extra when booking your flight so that you are able to change the date without having to pay again. Do some research to find out which airlines offer the best baggage deals as you might need to check in an extra bag and don’t want to pay exorbitant fees. Check in online the night before you travel to make sure you get a seat where you are not squashed between 2 other people for eight hours. On the day of travel, arrive at the airport about three hours earlier as sometimes there are delays at the airport and its best to keep this at the back of your mind just in case. The good thing about working in China is that most schools will reimburse you for the price of the flight ticket after a couple of months!

Locks and tags

Ensure that your suitcase or backpack is comfortable and that it can be locked. Have luggage locks and identity tags to ensure the safety of your luggage during travel and to make your suitcase stand out on the conveyor belt.

Electronics

Remember to pack your camera because China is an endless adventure with photo opportunities around every corner. Pack your mobile phone too and a tablet or laptop. Do not forget your chargers and adapter plugs or converters.

Of course, everything you can think of is available in China, so there is no need to worry if you forgot a charger or a shirt!

Money

When travelling to teach in China, convert a substantial amount of your money into Chinese Yuan. You will need to purchase a new SIM card and there are some other set up costs to be covered your first week or two in China. The first month you can withdraw money from foreign accounts at institutions such as HSBC and Travelex. But do not forget to inform your local bank about your travel, they could be of assistance if you got stuck while in China. Your school should help you to open a bank account into which they will pay your salary for you.

Apps and VPNs

China censors the internet, they have put up a great firewall which blocks foreign websites such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat among others. Luckily, WhatsApp and Pinterest are not censored. To get around these restrictions, it is best to download some Apps and VPNs before you leave for China. WeChat (Weixin) is the most commonly used social media in China. It operates like a combination of Facebook and WhatsApp and is mainly used for communication. You may also need Chinese dictionary apps such as Pleco, Hanpinlite and Baidu Translate. These will teach you a few survival phrases you may need for communication in China.

You will need a VPN (Virtual Private Networks) to visit a blocked website. VPNs are used in China to bypass the great firewall. As a teacher of English in China, you will need some websites to enrich your lesson. To make this possible, VPNs such as ExpressVPN, Betternet, Buffered and VYPR are used to enhance internet access in China. Ensure you download a few on your gadget because the Great Wall causes most to have fluctuating performance. And do this before you travel as you cannot download it once you have entered China.

Books and Films

Before leaving your country, buy some books and save some films to help you deal with the homesickness that comes with being in a foreign country.

All the best as you prepare to go and teach English in China.

Feel free to contact me if you have any questions.

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Is it Ethical to Visit Thailand’s Long Neck Women Villages?

In my earlier years of travel I would often only read about the ethical concerns about certain places after I had been there. These days I try to be informed before I go on an adventure to see the most popular tourist attraction of the area. For a lot of people, seeing the giraffe-like, long neck women is just another stop on their Thailand adventure. Many tourist agencies make a quick stop at these hill villages so that tourists can have a quick photo opportunity with exotic-looking women before being shuttled on to the next destination.

But do you know who these woman are? And the biggest question is, should you support this controversial tourism attraction?

Thailand’s Long Neck Women
Young girls keeping up the Kayan tradition

Over two decades ago, a civil war caused the Kayan residents to flee Myanmar. Thailand granted them temporary stay under “conflict refugee” status, but now they live in guarded villages on the northern Thai border.

What makes the Kayan woman unique is their custom of wearing rings to create the appearance of a long neck. This exotic tradition inspired the creation of tourism villages in 1985. Unfortunately, without citizenship, Kayans have limited access to utilities and aren’t allowed to resettle outside of these tourist villages. This is because the Thai government claims they are economic migrants and not real refugees.

Thailand’s Long Neck Women
A young kayan long neck girl

Starting at the young age of four or five, Kayan long neck women wear these rings, adding more annually as they acclimate to the increased weight. These coils weigh up to 25 pounds and depress the chest and shoulders. This creates the illusion of a disembodied head hovering over a shimmering pedestal of gold rings. Contrary to popular belief, the coils don’t lengthen the neck itself and thus can be removed without the neck snapping. Yet, women still wear these coils year round, even while sleeping.

Thailand’s Long Neck Women
Its a family tradition

The origin of the tradition is a mystery even to the Kayans. An ancient legend claims rings protected villagers from tiger attacks, since the cats attack victims at the neck. Another theory said the rings helped ward off men from rival tribes by lessening the women’s beauty. Today, people believe the opposite– the longer their neck, the more beautiful the woman. It is true that some women enjoy upholding this tradition but others feel pressured to endure the painful custom to make a living.

Thailand’s Long Neck Women
Young Kayan girls selling some of the handmade crafts

An estimated 40,000 tourists per year pay between $8-16 to stop by these hill tribe villages to gaze upon the women’s unusual appearance and take pictures. Unfortunately, the entry fee is rarely dispensed to the villagers directly. Instead, the long neck woman have to sell trinkets, crafts and photo-ops to make a living, essentially working in a live-in gift shop. The women are known for their tremendous weaving skills which is done on a backstrap loom. You can witness them practising their impressive craft while getting to know them. While some say the villages give Kayans a paid opportunity to retain their culture, others condemn this arrangement for exploiting stateless women and children in exchange for tourist dollars.

Thailand’s Long Neck Women
They learn to weave from a very young age

Here is my answer to the big question of, can you justify ethical travel to these villages?

Yes, just do your research. Most women view tourist visits as a way to make a living since their non-resident status limits employment opportunities. However, sensationalizing dress, customs, and unique traditions of these people mean nothing if they are not treated with respect.

Thailand’s Long Neck Women
Young Kayan girl

Here are some recommendations for when you visit:
1. Do some research and find a responsible tour company that will promote a socially responsible visit.
2. Make sure your money benefits the village directly instead of third party companies. Support the women by purchasing their handicrafts and by paying a fair price for their beautiful handwork.
3. Don’t just stop by for a photo shoot. Learn about the people and hear their stories.
4. Consider volunteering in a village if you are staying in Thailand for a while.

Thailand’s Long Neck Women
Youung Kayan kids playing around the village

The goal of travel shouldn’t be taking pictures of exotic things to brag about back home. Travel is about forging relationships and making connections with people from different cultures. Create a symbiotic relationship with locals by reaching out to find common ground with the people you met, instead of treating them as spectacles to exploit.

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Why Nature is Good for the Soul

Cape Point Nature Reserve
Just an hour’s drive from the bustle and buzz of downtown Cape Town lies a large and peaceful reserve: Cape Point – one of the most scenically spectacular parks in the whole of South Africa.

Being out in nature is not only good for your physical health, it is also very beneficial for your mental health. Have you noticed how grumpy people get in winter compared to their mood during spring and summer? I think it is because we don’t always get out into nature during winter and that this affects our mental health negatively.

Here are some reasons why nature is good for your soul.

( All of these photos were taken on a recent trip I went on to the Cape Point Nature Reserve. It is a rocky headland on the Atlantic coast of the Cape Peninsula, South Africa.)

1. Nature helps to center your mind

If we don’t watch out we are constantly glancing at your to-do list or worrying about, our finances, our relationships, or something else. It seems like we constantly have a never-ending list of things to do. We need to make it a point to give ourselves a cognitive break by distracting ourselves with the sights and sounds of the outdoors. Watch and listen to the birds chirping, the waves crashing, the trees swaying in the wind, and the bugs moving around you. Taking at least a 30min break a day will help improve our mental health.

2. Unplug and Escape the technological trap.

Multi-tasking, particularly with electronic devices, is a leading cause of stress. Breaking free from the never-ending loop of your Facebook or Instagram newsfeed should be a top reason for getting outdoors. After all, staring at screens too long can hurt your eyes and strain your neck, and it’s often a sedentary activity. Nature, on the other hand, offers a beautiful window into real life. Put down your phone. leave your devices behind and head into nature and just enjoy the calming effect this will have. Nature allows us to to leave the stressors of our everyday lives behind and instead focus our minds on something more pure. By centering your mind, you can relax your body.

3. It Lowers Stress Hormone Levels

It’s true that many of us don’t realize how highly strung we’ve become until we take a step back from it all, let go of the pen welded to our fingers, and tell our shoulders to come back down from our ears.

A recent Dutch study suggests that spending time in nature and performing repetitive tasks such as gardening can fight stress better than other leisure activities.

In Japan, this has really caught on and forest bathing is now an official stress management activity. Research into the effects of these au naturel excursions has found a significant decrease in anger, anxiety, and depression, as well as better immune function.

4. Nature Heightens the Senses and Memory

Spending time outdoors can actually strengthen your senses and memory. When in nature, you’re exposed to plenty of sights, smells, sounds, and touches and have ample amounts of new things to take in.

These experiences help enhance all your senses, and being outdoors has also been proven to improve short term memory. You don’t need to spend hours outdoors even short periods of time are very beneficial.

5. Learn something new.

Walking around and exploring your surroundings is an excellent opportunity to learn something new about the world. We often take things for granted and it’s only when we look around us that we notice how little we know about the world. What’s the name of that flower that you see around the corner every day? What sort of tree grows along the path you are on? And what do you call that critter that scooted across the road this morning? After a walk, Google what you saw or take out books from the library on flowers, trees, or animals to find answers. You can also arrange for walking tours with experts or visit local botanic gardens that have informative signs. Then when you go for walks with others at a later date, you can wow them with your newfound knowledge.

6. Nature can help you keep it together

It’s all too easy to get caught in a busy cycle of working non-stop and not taking breaks to go outside, relax for a moment, and breathe in some fresh air. But having a good work/life balance is crucial if you want to have a long, happy existence.

Nature is the glue that can help you keep it together in this increasingly noisy world, as research shows that it can improve both your mental and physical health. No matter how far you feel like travelling, you can always spend at least a little time in nature each day. Whether you take a short, 10-minute walk around your neighborhood or a one-hour stroll along a trail in the woods, getting outside more often is a wonderful first step toward living an even healthier life.

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Why the Floating Markets of Thailand should be on your Bucket List

One of my biggest highlights while visiting Thailand, was getting to visit the floating markets just outside Bangkok. This was one of the only outings that I had booked long in advance and I couldn’t wait to see this bustling market. It is quite a long trip and you have to get up ridiculously early but don’t let that discourage you. The trip is worth every penny you pay, which might be quite a lot as visiting the floating markets are on more than a couple of bucket-lists.

The most famous of the floating markets is the 100 yeal old Damnoen Saduak Floating Market. The original canals which now make up the Floating Market were built in 1866 on demand of His Majesty the King of Thailand to help ease communication in the province.

After a 40 minute bus ride we all clamber onto longboats that take up along the canals to the market. The roar of the boat engine disturbs the quiet as the boat glides down the narrow canals with small wooden houses on stilts covering the banks. The boat driver slowed down to let us appreciate the winding waterways and get a brief glimpse of those who live on the river. The journey took around 20 minutes and it’s great to enjoy the peace before the hectic pace of the market. It feels quite overcrowded with visitors and sellers bringing noise and colour to the area.

A large part of the Floating Market is now a souvenir stand filled with hordes of tourists from all over the world. This in itself can be a fascinating insight into Thai culture, as the vast majority of tourists here are Thais. Most of these boats are mobile food stores piled high with tropical fruit and vegetables, fresh, ready-to-drink coconut juice and local food cooked from floating kitchens located right on the boat. I sampled quite a couple of the different delicacies that were on offer. Each dish with its own strange tastes and smells that enhances the whole market experience.

The fruit and vegetable are super fresh and mostly grown by the people who live densely along both sides of the canal. Unlike most of the other floating markets, the popularity of Damnoen Saduak attracts many fruit sellers rowing their boats along the narrow canals, meaning that you’re guaranteed great pictures.

If you are ever in Bangkok, make sure you visit a floating market and be sure to do it on an empty stomach!

Floating Markets of Thailand
The Floating Market is such a unique place
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Top 5 Reasons Why Street Art is Important

In the last couple of years I have come to appreciate street art. I now go out of my way to see street art and even go on street art walking tours if they are offered. There are so many reasons why people love street art and why it is becoming more popular or important for people of all walks of life. Street art is an important part of history and identity for many metropolises, and sometimes even has the ability to breathe life into communities.

People are starting to accept that the creative and talented people involved are seen as artists, not vandals. And that their work, however ‘urban’, is still worthy of being considered art. People are becoming more open-minded to urban and street art and appreciating where this art form has come from.

Here are the top reasons why Street art is important and why you should love street art.

1. Street art is freedom and diversity

Art is about expression, creativity, freedom, asking and raising questions, protesting, analysing and even beautifying. A way to step beyond convention. There’s freedom with putting work in the street. You don’t even need to be considered a ‘legitimate’ artist; don’t need to have thousands of fans, have a huge social media presence, be taken seriously by galleries or be picked up by an artist agency. all over the world.

Street art is a very diverse form of expression for people from all over the world. There are street artists in nearly every country in the world who are influenced and inspired by a multitude of cultures and styles. This has resulted in a wide and diverse body of urban or street art found all over the world.

2. Mystery &Intrigue

There are so many questions when you’re a street art lover! Who did it? Why did someone put this work there? What does it mean? Does it even mean anything?

But with the invention of Instagram it’s now easier than ever to find artists’ official profiles and learn more about their work and why they do what they do. But a lot of street artists prefer to remain anonymous or use aliases for both privacy and legal reasons. There are also still artists who don’t even tag their work so the intrigue and mystery lives on.

Woodstock, South-Africa, Street Art
Doing a street art walking tourn in Woodstock, South-Africa.

3. Political or Social Statements

Graffiti and street art has always had a history of being influenced by the present political and social issues. A lot of people have painted on the walls and buildings in their cities as a form of anonymous political protest.

Some political statements are quite controversial; scrawled illegally and boldly in various countries and for various reasons. When people feel they have no power or influence but want to express their anger, hatred or defiance towards political injustice, this kind of art happens. But it is still a peaceful kind of protest.

4. Colourful surroundings = Happier Life

Art in the street makes people happy and can cheer them up. Street art makes their day and their commute more interesting and adds character to what would otherwise just be grey and boring. Art reminds people to feel alive. It’s there to beautify a space. It wakes people up, inspires and motivates them. And sometimes it can make people think.

It may have some broader social commentary, or just be there to bring some chaos to the establishment. Street art takes the ‘normal’ and makes it a thousand times more interesting. Even if you live in poverty, there’s something about bright colors and beautiful art that seems to fill the area with a contagious, buoyant optimism.

5. Sense of Community 

Street art is important to keep urban areas and their residents energized and inspired. In some areas artists and building owners come together to foster the creation of artwork that can be viewed as beautifying and reviving a city, rather than destroying it.

In some cities independent graffiti murals are designed and implemented by artists with a personal connection to the neighborhood in which they are installed. In many of the cases these pieces are created with the permission of the building owner. This relationship can then help develop positive interactions between businesses and members of their community. It is a very cost-effective way both to keep surfaces free from vandalism and to create visual cues to residents that the place they call home is desirable.

Next time you travel somewhere, take some time to explore the street art of that city. You will undoubtedly be led of the normal tourist path, but I am sure you will be surprised by what you find.

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Pros and Cons of Travelling Solo

Cape Town, South Africa
Cape Town, South Africa

Traveling alone can be very daunting for most people and I do agree that it is not the easiest thing to do. I have been traveling solo most of the time and have learnt a couple of things through my travels. You always end up meeting lots of people while traveling alone, and I have often enjoyed a big collection of fun temporary friends throughout my trips.

Traveling solo has its pros and cons — and for me, the pros far outweigh the cons and here are some of the pros.

  • When you’re on your own, you’re independent and in control of the when and where of your travels.
  • You can travel at your own pace, spend as much time as you want browsing through shops or sitting at a cafe enjoying a cappuccino and a good book. You can spend hours in an art museum or at the market getting to know the people of the city.
  • You can do the things that interest you and dont have to come to a compromise with your travel partner.
  • You’ll meet a lot of people as you’re seen as more approachable because you are sitting there all alone. If you stay in hostels, you’ll have a built-in family and there will always be someone who would like to join you.
  • You can eat where and when you like and nobody is going to make you feel guilty about having chocolate mouse for dinner.
  • Another benefit is that your mistakes are your own, and your triumphs all the more exciting. There’s no worrying that your insistence on trekking all the way across town to a museum that was closed ruined your partner’s day; it’s your own day to salvage or chalk up to a learning experience
  •  A lovely advantage is that you can splurge where and on what you want. You can spent the afternoon looking for the perfect souveneir or bag in the market and not feel as if somebody is willing you to hurry up.
  • You don’t have to wait for your partner to pack up, which while traveling with my mom I learned can take quite a while.
  • There is no need to negotiate when to call it a day or feel guilty about wanting to take a midday nap.
  • Traveling on your own allows you to be more present, absorb your surroundings and indulge in the new culture without distractions.
  • Solo travel is intensely personal. You end up discovering more about yourself at the same time as you’re discovering more about the country your traveling through.
  • Traveling on your own is fun, challenging, vivid, and exhilarating. Realizing that you have what it takes to be your own guide is a thrill known only to solo travelers.

Of course, there are downsides to traveling alone and everything is not always roses and sunshine.

  • When you’re on your own, you don’t have a built-in dining companion. I usually spend my meals dividing my attention between my food and my book. I have found that good book,or even just postcards to write or your travel journal to jot in – are all legitimate activities at a bar or restaurant if you get to feeling a little bored/lonely/exposed, so carry one of them with you at all times.
  • You’ve got no one to send ahead while you wait in line, or stand in line while you go to the bathroom. Believe me that can be torture.
  • You have to figure out the bus schedule and train times on your own and this way end up at some very strange places.
  • There is nobody to help you when things go wrong or someone other than yourself to blame for taking the wrong bus or train.
  • Traveling by yourself is usually more expensive as you have to pay a single supplement in hotels. The supplement can range anywhere from 25 to 100 percent of the trip cost, meaning that you could end up paying twice as much as someone traveling with a partner.
  • Other things become cheaper too when you’re splitting costs, such as groceries, guidebooks, taxis, storage lockers, and more.
  • In much of the world, solo travellers – and single people in general – are seen as strange, even a bit unfortunate.
  • Sometimes, especially in more hospitable and foreigner-fascinated cultures like Egypt and Turkey, I’ve found the attention I got as a solo traveller to be a little intense. I had to learn how to say “no, thank you” in the local language, as well as “absolutely not” – plus the local nonverbal gesture for no, which was often more effective than both.
  • You are on hardly any of your holiday photos unless you ask a stranger to please take a photos of you. So definitely get a camera with a time delay setting as that way you at least have a couple of photos with you on them.

I can imagine what you’re thinking. You’ll be lonely, isolated, it’s dangerous, and only the young Birkenstock types travel by themselves. Think again.   If I can travel solo, anyone can. I’ve never been lonely, bored or felt threatened. Traveling solo is not necessarily more dangerous than going to the movies and dinner by yourself in your home town.

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10 Ways that Traveling has Changed me.

As I look back, I know that packing my life into a suitcase and leaving the safety of my home country was the best decision that I could have possibly made.

It was only once I moved away, turned my life into a journey filled with uncertainty, that I grew up in unexpected ways.

While traveling alone I faced new challenges and get to know parts of myself that I didn’t even know existed. I ended up being amazed by myself and the world around me as I learned and broadend my horizons. I unlearned certain things and start to grow in humility, and evolve. I felt homesick and i made memories that will stay with me forever.

1. The word “routine” is dismissed from my vocabulary.

From the moment I decided to move abroad my life turned into a mixture of emotions. I was constantly learning, improvising, dealing with the unexpected and surprised by what I found. There is no place for “routine” anymore as I am constantly on an adrenalin high. How can you not be? My travels took me to new places , I formed new habits, met new people and constantly had to overcome new challenges. Starting anew is terrifying, but it is unusually addictive and the thought of routine now scares me.

2. Its not Bravery or Courage to go after what you want.

Lots op people told me how brave I was to travel alone, and that they would also do it if only they weren’t so scared. But I know, it is not bravery, as I am also scared every time I move to a new, strange country. Each trip abroad shakes my certainties and brings fourth my fears. It is purely about wanting it with all your heart. From the moment I decided to live my dream I had to deal with whatever came my way, no matter how scared I was.

3. There is no more “normal” for me.

While living abroad I realiuzed that “normal” only means socially or culturally accepted. Everytime I moved and embraced a different society and plunged into a different culture, my notion of normality dwindled untill there was nothing left. I learned that there are other ways of doing things, I discovered new things to believe in and got to know myself better.

4. Things and people come and go.

I learned the hard way, that now, most things and people in my life are just passing through. I have almost perfected the right balance between bonding and letting go, almost. I had to learn to let go of things. Wherever I moved to I ended up stockpiling new clothes, new books, and even mugs. But there always comes a day when I have to pack my life into my suitcase again and no matter how hard I have tried, I can never take “my new life and things” with me. It is only now, after I have realised that you buy something for then and there,not for always, that it is easier to let go of the things accumilated along the way.

5. My languages get all muddled up.

Everytime I live in a new country I try to learn the local language. For me it is a way of embracing the new culture and getting to know the locals. This way I also soak up cultural references and unfortunately swear words from this new language. So sometimes when speaking to friends I will let a word from another language slip in. This confuses some people and sometimes instead of understanding from where I come from now, they end up teasing me. I had to learn not to let this get to me, as they might never have had the opportunity to learn a new language.

6. Be patient and ask for help.

While living abroad, the simplest task can sometimes become a huge challenge. From processing paperwork, taking the right bus to ordering something to eat can become a nightmare! There has been lots of moments of distress for me, but I found that being patient and just asking can make the worlds difference. There always seems to be someone around, willing to help you out, someone willing to explain and sometimes even someone who is willing to show you how to get back to where you live.

7. Home” is where you are at.

From the moment I squeezed my life into that purple suitcase of mine my old “home” ceased to exist. No matter how foreign each country or city is when I move there, there always comes a day when I suddenly feel at home in my new city. Home is the person travelling with me, the people I leave behind, the streets where my life is taking place. Home is also the random things in my new flat, or my local grocer who always greets me in the morning. Home is al those memories, those phonecalls to family, postcards to friends and all the photos I took along the way. Home is truly where the heart is.

8. Freedom has its price

I have always been free, but somehow fredom feels different when travelling. I had to give up a lot and make it work thousands of miles away from home. I miss out on birthday celebrations, friends weddings, family get togethers and life at home. It is not that I don’t want to be there, I wish there was a way to be in two places at once. I have this whole new world around me, filled with new adventures, new people to meet and experiences to be had. The fact that I have been able to live my dream, despite missing out on those special moments with friends and family, has made me feel like I am capable of anything!!

9. Talk about your travels in moderation

My life had been changing at a non-stop pace while I was travelling, and I couldn’t wait to share all my travel stories and those anecdotes that had been piling up. But unfortunately, at home, life’s the same as always. Everyone has gone on with their daily routines and as you overwhelm them with your stories they come to see you as pretentious about your travels. So I learnt to be careful, and to only share my journey when someone asks.

10: There is no turning back

Now that I know what it means to give everything up, what starting from scratch means it is not a daunting thing to try it again. How could I not keep on travelling, discovering and marvelling at the world every day?

How has travel changed you?

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Becoming the “Local Foreigner” in Japan

Becoming the "Local Foreigner" in Japan
The small restaurant sladh bar that became my Favourite place to eat and spens an evening

To experience the cuisine of the country I love trying out the local places. It is here that you get a true taste of the culture as the dishes are not prepared for tourists or changed according to tourist expectations. While living in Japan I came across this very quaint and small restaurant slash bar in the neighbourhood where I lived. This little place became my regular stop on Thursday and Sunday evenings.

Becoming the "Local Foreigner" in Japan
The owner busy preparing a dish at the grill

The owners were an old Japanes couple who hardly spoke any English but they were so welcoming. I would sit up front at the grill area and watch as the owner prepared all the delicious dishes. I would always have my little phrase book at hand and he would point to the dish name he was preparing and sometimes made some amendments as he would use different ingredients.

I would usually try out a new dish that one of my students had told me about but my favourite was definitely Okonomiyaki, a Japanese savoury pancake containing a variety of ingredients. The name literally means “grilled as you like it” in Japanese . Toppings and batters tend to vary according to region or city where I would try them out.

In most versions okonomiyaki is made with shredded cabbage and a pancake-like batter, but that’s where the similarities end. There are a two general styles of okonomiyaki: Hiroshima-style and Kansai-style. Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki is layered like a giant omelette and often includes yakisoba on the inside, with a fried egg on top. Kansai-style okonomiyaki on the other hand is mixed together before being cooked like a pancake. I asked the owners permission to take some photos as he was preparing this dish for me and a friend that I brought along to taste Japanese pancake for the first time.

Every now and again one of the customers would be able to speak a bit of English and would always translate questions and answers between me and the owner. He loved hearing about my home country South-Africa and I would always have loads of questions about the dishes he prepares and the Japanese food customs. I got to practice my very bad Japanese and the other customers go to practice their limited English.

This went on for a couple of weeks and one night a local walked in and seeing me seated at the grill area  gave me the evil eye and turned to the owner. He then asked quite rudely “who is this foreigner  and why is she sitting in here.”

The owner gave him a puzzled look and said: ” she is the local foreigner, so she is welcome here.”

The guy nodded and then actually turned towards me and greeted me. And just like that I was part of the local community and got invited to the local events that spring.

Yu yuan classical garden in the heart of Shanghai

China is definitely filled with beautiful temples and fabulously manicured gardens. Walking through these tranquil gardens on these hot summer days is such a peaceful experience. We spent the morning walking through this beautiful gardens enjoying the sunny weather and the cool the shade provides.

Yu yuan Garden was finished in 1577 by a government officer of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) named Pan Yunduan. Yu in Chinese means pleasing and satisfying, and this garden was specially built for Pan’s parents as a place for them to enjoy a tranquil and happy time in their old age.

In the 400 years of existence, Yuyuan Garden had undergone many changes. During the late Ming Dynasty, it became very dilapidated with the decline of Pan’s family. In 1760, some rich merchants bought it and spent more than 20 years reconstructing the buildings. During the Opium War of the 19th century, it was severely damaged. The garden we got to explore is the result of a five year restoration project which began in 1956.

Yu yuan Garden
Dragons cover the tops of the walls in the Yu yuan Garden

Yu yuan Garden occupies an area of 20,000 square meters. The pavilions, halls, rockeries, ponds and cloisters all have unique characteristics.

As we entered the garden we encountered a rockery, which is called the Great Rockery. With a height of 14 meters, it is the largest as well as the oldest rockery in the southern region of the Yangtze River.

the Great Rockery
A small temple on top of the Great Rockery

Cuixiu Hall sits at the foot of the rockery. It is a quiet and elegant place surrounded by old trees and beautiful flowers.

Cuixiu Hall
Cuixiu Hall at the foot of this rockery

Sansui Hall was built in 1760 and was originally used to entertain guests. Later it became a place to hold ceremonies for the gentlemen and bookmen. With a height of nine meters and featuring five halls, it is the largest and most commodious structure in the garden. The name Sansui is derived from the book History of the later Han Dynasty, and means ‘propitious’ and ‘lucky’.

Sansui Hall
Mom relaxing in the Sansui Hall
Yule Pavilion
Me in the Yule Pavilion

Wandering through the area of Yule Pavilion and Wanhua Chamber, we found  numerous pavilions, corridors, streams and beautiful courtyards.

Wanhua Chamber,
Wanhua Chamber

After such a peaceful morning we couldn’t wait to have a cup of lovely Chinese tea in Shanghai’s oldest teahouse.

Gritty Alleyways reveal the old Shanghai

For all its glitzy modern skyline, perhaps the real jewels of Shanghai can be found at street level, away from the hustle and bustle in the captivating back alleys. One of my favourite things to do in Shanghai is to explore the backstreets, either on foot or by bike. The narrow lanes behind the main streets are soaked with tradition and colour which offer a unique glimpse into local life.

In these narrow lanes, below masses of tangled electric wires, hanging laundry and meat hung out to dry, the slower paced life of the real people of Shanghai awaits to be discovered.

The small area around Yuyuan Garden area has the oldest type of alleyways you’ll find in Shanghai. As It feels like I have stepped back into time as I leave the touristy Yuyuan area and enter these old forgotten alleys.

A walk through these grungy streets is always filled with surprises, and most importantly unexpected encounters or finds. Though lacking many amenities, people still live here, going about their lives, brushing their teeth, hanging up laundry, chatting and chopping vegetables for dinner.

Unfortunately as the city grows exponentially, these lanes gradually get demolished, year after year, month after month. It saddens me that the unstoppable onset of modernism in Shanghai is unable to make room for the existence of alley life. Very soon, more and more high rise structures will invade the old city streets destroying a piece of what makes Shanghai so special.

Gritty Alleyways of Yuyuan
Washing, electrical wires, bicycles, motorbikes and even discarded matrasses fill the alleyways of Shanghai.

An invitation of a beautiful street is an invitation to walk within a dream!”
― Mehmet Murat ildan

 

A Taste of Street Art in Shanghai

In a city of over 20 million, I was bound to come across some street art. It surprised me that the Chinese word for graffiti is tuya (涂鸦), a word used to describe “scribble”. Traditionally, graffiti is viewed as criminal art or vandalism in China. If caught painting in non-designated areas, artists will be fined, arrested, forced to paint over their work, or possibly held in jail for a few days.

Street art in Shanghai
A beautiful mural I found in Pudong, Shanghai.

In an attempt to reverse the negative connotations of graffiti, some artists refer to themselves as aerosol artists. Also to development of graffiti in China all the materials must become popular and cheap for everyone as spray paint is a rare commodity in Shanghai.

At the moment the government allows street artists to only paint in certain designated places and are often supervised while doing so.

Street art in Shanghai
Artist at work under the supervision of the police

Despite the ambiguity of the law against graffiti the phenomenon of graffiti is on the rise. I look forward to seeing what other pieces I can find in this bustling city.

Dafu Buddha, a Chinese Masterpiece

 Mom and I in front of the Leshan Giant Buddha

Mom and I in front of the Leshan Giant Buddha

MASTERPIECE.  No matter where you are (and where you’ve been), I’m certain you’ve stumbled upon something extraordinary: a place that blows your mind; a work of art or object that speaks to you; or even a location or scene that’s special, unusual, or even magical in some way.

I thought of the Dafu or Leshan Giant Buddha that I had the opportunity to see while on my China Odyssey with my mom.

Construction on the Leshan Giant Buddha started in 713, led by a Chinese monk named Haitong. He hoped that the Buddha would calm the turbulent waters that plagued the shipping vessels traveling down the river. When funding for the project was threatened, he is said to have gouged out his own eyes to show his piety and sincerity. After his death, however, the construction was stuck due to insufficient funding. About 70 years later, a jiedushi decided to sponsor the project and the construction was completed by Haitong’s disciples in 803.

The Buddha is 71 meters tall, the largest stone Buddha in the world
The Buddha is 71 meters tall, the largest stone Buddha in the world

Apparently the massive construction resulted in so much stone being removed from the cliff face and deposited into the river below that the currents were indeed altered by the statue, making the waters safe for passing ships.

His shoulders are 28 metres wide
His shoulders are 28 metres wide

When the Giant Buddha was carved, a huge thirteen story wooden structure, plated in gold, was built to shelter it from rain and sunshine. This structure was destroyed and sacked by the Mongols during the wars at the end of the Yuan Dynasty. From then on, the stone statue was exposed to the elements.

At 71 meters tall, it is the largest stone Buddha in the world and it is by far the tallest pre-modern statue in the world.

How to Be a Mindful Traveller

I am sure that your first thought upon hearing mindful + travel joined together is that its about being hyper-conscious and conscientious about each and every little detail of everything you’re doing when you’re on vacation or out there one the road. But that is not what I mean.

I believe that travelling is not just about capturing the perfect Instagram picture, or sharing our every moment on Facebook. Before social media we travelled differently. Of course we had our cameras and captured moments, but these moments were for ourselves, they were treasured memories not staged photographs to please our followers and gain more likes.

These days it is hard to escape the feeling that everyone is travelling and perhaps we are missing out. And that maybe travel has become more shallow than before. Is travelling really only about becoming famous on social media? Or making your Facebook friends jealous? Now more than ever, we need to take time to think about how we can be a mindful traveller, an admirer of earth. How can we get back to a more simple way of travel, like we enjoyed before Instagram and social media changed the way we travelled?

1. Take Your Time

Don’t rush. If everything you do and everywhere you go is rushed because you’re in a new place and want to see everything, chances are you won’t actually see anything. Take a deep breath and think about what you actually want to get out of the experience.

How to Be a Mindful Traveller
A peaceful morning spent in the park

Do you want to see everything as fast as you can? Or do you want to have real and meaningful experiences in this new place, build relationships with people, and create memories?

Take three conscious breaths and stop dead in your tracks long enough to notice where you actually are. Take your time to prioritize your own awareness and realize the significance of each place.

2.Feel Each Step

Your body always exists in the present moment, whereas your brain can travel far from where you are. If you’re walking, notice each foot as it touches the ground, lifts and swings.

Notice the feel of the air on your skin. No need to make a big deal of it. Just enjoy the sensuality of being in your body. This awareness will help you remember how you actually felt as you travelled through a distant land, a new place, and a new culture.

3.Savour Each Moment

Eating? Taste your food. Hiking? Breathe in the fresh mountain air. Talking with a local? Really listen to them and remember what they say. Looking at beautiful sites, landscapes, and world wonders? Don’t think of it as only something to capture for Instagram or to share on Facebook.  Immerse yourself in the moment, and remember it.

4.Get Local

Don’t forget why you travel. To experience something new! The ability to go to a new place and remove yourself from your own cultural upbringing and constraints is a perfect way to practice acute awareness. Notice the subtle differences and embrace them. 

5. Relax and Rest

Put away those devices for awhile and have some time that is not governed by schedules, deadlines, and the latest news and information. Drink in something that is timeless and simply cannot be captured on a screen.


“One of the most powerful things you can do when you’re travelling is to let go and passionately wander. “

How to Be a Mindful Traveller
Beauty in the middle of the busy city

A Glimpse of Modern Shanghai

The value of your travels does not hinge on how many stamps you have in your passport when you get home — and the slow nuanced experience of a single country is always better than the hurried, superficial experience of forty countries.”
― Rolf Potts, Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel

Published as part of Wordless Wednesday

Doors in Shanghai

If you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living… Follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.

Joseph Campbell

Published as part of Wordless Wednesday

Glimpse of a Wet Market in Shanghai

A wet market is a market that sells fresh meat, fish, and other perishable goods such as live fish, shellfish, and frogs. These markets are so named because the floor tends to be wet, thanks to the live fish flopping around and the vendors’ habit of throwing water on the ground to keep the area clean.

Wet markets are a major part of the culinary exploration while living in China. Wandering through old Shanghai neighborhoods in the morning, I am sometimes greeted by the very strong smell and the lively noises of wet markets. Venturing into the small local wet markets that are dotted all around Shanghai is one of the most interesting and also shocking things to do here.

Here I have seen eels moving from bucket to bucket, live turtles trying to escape their plastic prisons and live frogs looking resigned to their fates of becoming someone’s dinner. I can never linger too long at these market stalls as the practice of keeping these animals alive in such conditions, and to sell them as food is quite upsetting for me.

Empty streets of Shanghai

There is a certain unique and strange delight about walking down an empty street alone.

Published as part of Wordless Wednesday