How to Plan a Holiday

My last week got overrun by more vacation planning and I didn’t really have time to do much writing. However, since I’ve turned my gaze once more to the fun fun prospect of organizing my next international adventure, it seemed like a great time to share my process with you.


Related imagePlan? That sounds like WORK! Isn’t a holiday supposed to be FUN? Yes, but if you want to maximize your vacation time and money, taking the time and effort to plan ahead makes a world of difference. Unless you’re rich enough to just hire someone to plan the trip for you (and even then, finding the right tour company is important too!) you need to commit to planning. The time-money-quality triangle applies to everything, even holidays. The more time you put into the plan, the less money you need for high quality results. 

Step 1: Find Your Holiday Mission Statement

Planning a trip doesn’t start with booking a hotel and flight. There are some pre-trip questions you should really think about before any web searches or bookings take place.

How do you want to feel?

One of my friends loves laying on the beach with a book for days on end, but that sounds boring as heck to me after about 3 hours. Neither of us is right or wrong, but we want different things from our holiday. It’s important to know what your goals are, it’s kind of your vacation mission statement. From then on, any time you’re faced with an option or choice you can check to see if it matches your mission statement. Much like for a business, a vacation mission statement works best when it’s as specific as possible, while still being brief.

What you want from your holiday? Leisure? Adventure? Food? Shopping? Change of scenery? Nightlife? Art? History? Be pampered? Get dirty? 

What do you want to see?

Decide if you’re having a destination holiday or an experience holiday.

Destination holidays are those where you want to see a specific place like Rome or the Pyramids. There are awesome things everywhere in the world, but there’s only one Rome. Destination driven holidays should be more focused on off-season travel to maximize savings and also to avoid the high-season crowds. 

Destination driven holidays also need to think about weather as well as expenses. My favorite Thai island is closed 6 months of the year. Last fall, I had to find a different magical island getaway. My friend wants to go to Egypt and for a minute she thought she’d go in the summer break until I showed her the weather reports that include regular temps in the 40s (C). Now we’re going in February.

Experience holidays are ones in which you first consider your time off, and then see what’s having an off season sale that you might be interested in at that time. Sometimes, you can’t help but go to the popular place at the popular time. Work and school schedules are not always cooperative, but it is worth considering what else is available.

How long do you want to go?

Long weekend? 10 days? A month? There are vacations for nearly every length of time. Bear in mind shorter times should focus on one or two main activities in a single place with minimal travel. 

The less time you have in one place, the more detailed the planning needs to be. You might be fine spending an afternoon getting lost in town or just sitting at a cafe people watching if you have several days to spare, but if you get lost on your only day to do/see THE THING you’ll be really sad.

How much do you want to spend?

There are places in the developing world where you can book a luxury resort for 300$ a week (I did that in Egypt), places where you can eat amazing gourmet food for 25$ a meal or less (China and the Philippines for sure), there are places where a beer is 0.50 cents (Prague!) and places where a beer is 8-12$, places you can get a private room for 5$ a night with breakfast included, and others where a room in a dorm (sheets not included) costs 40$.

Don’t worry about the cost of individual things at this point, just think about how much you are willing to spend per day on average (take your total trip budget, subtract airfare, divide by the number of days you want to travel)Once you know your budget, you can check it against other travelers’ experiences to see if it’s enough for the place you’re dreaming of. I find that a lot of the blogs for backpackers are decently accurate for minimal daily expenses, and that the cost of living websites are more accurate for “family vacation” style spending. Most of SE Asia is 30-40$ a day for good times and EU is 80-100$ a day if you’re frugal.

Who are you going with?

Discuss the practical things – I almost forgot this one because I’m so used to travelling alone, but it is important. Not only do you have to ask all the previous questions of your travel buddies, you also have to think about room sharing (my mother snores so loud I’m not sure how that’s going to work when we travel together), as well as age or ability limitations (meeting my friend with a 3 yr old last summer, I had to think about 3yr old human needs). Travel buddies can be great company and help save money on things like renting a car or a room when you can share, but it’s a compromise on location and activities.

Be upfront about your goals and expectations – If possible, try to pick travel buddies who share your travel goals and habits. If you can’t do that, discuss them in advance so you have a way to handle when you want different things. It is so easy for a holiday to turn into resentment when people are tired, sunburnt, hungry and didn’t get to see/do the thing they wanted. If you are travelling with people who don’t share your goals, make sure you’re both ok splitting up sometimes so that no one’s feelings are hurt when you want to do something different.

Make time for each other – I don’t just mean plan with them, I mean that they need to have a place on your itinerary. What will you share together other than the hotel room? It’s almost impossible to make another person your top priority when you’re going on a (probably expensive and unique) travel experience, but it will help if part of every day is focused on each other more than the sites, even if it’s just one of your meals or a drink before bed. This applies to anyone, not just a romantic interest or spouse, but family, friends, and acquaintances. 

Step 2: Accommodation and Transit

Wait! All that was Step 1??? Yes, but it’s not as bad as it sounds. Step one is mostly thinking, and a little bit of research to help you get the answers to those questions. Don’t skip it, though, because you’ll use those answers to shape everything that comes next.

The Flight

The flight is the biggest purchase you’re going to make and it defines the rest of your holiday. I think of it as the spine of the vacation.

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For a destination trip (or once you’ve decided your experience locations):
The flight search matrix used by Google is a great way to be able to see all available flights between to airports. Websites like Travelocity, Priceline, Expedia, and Kayak ALL use the matrix to search. It’s faster to go directly to the matrix instead of comparing 20 websites.

For experience vacations (or to narrow a list of potentials in a specific area):
You can look at a website like Kiwi.com to search “Anywhere” and see the cheapest flights during your holiday time, or you can search by country, or you can use the map function to just scroll around the globe and see where cheap prices are. I love this for wanderlusties who find themselves with time and money restraints because there’s always something awesome at the other end and discovering can be fun.

My trip to the EU was I’d say 40% destination 60% experience. I wanted to go to north Europe, I was less picky about the specifics.  I looked around at prices and noticed that CDG is cheap and convenient to fly into. I could have opted for round trip, but it would have meant making my route a circle or doing a long backtrack and I wanted to get at least one Nordic country in on this trip. I did a quick check on some sample bus prices (like Paris to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Oslo) and decided I could do it. Thus my return flight airport was decided, and I went over to the Matrix to find the cheapest flight. I got a ticket with Russian airline Aeroflot through Moscow for under 1000$. The cheapest options on flight booking websites were 500-700 more.

Conversely, my winter holiday is far more destination driven. It’s going to be much harder to find such a great deal. I originally wanted to do Morocco, Israel, Jordan and Egypt (my friend is joining me for Jordan and Egypt). I haven’t found the perfect ticket yet. Kiwi thinks it will be around $2000 to fly Korea to Morocco to Jordan to Egypt and back to Korea. It IS a lot of flights, but I hold out hope that several hours of testing options on the flight matrix will save me a few hundred dollars.

Search nearby airports – Flying one airport and then taking a bus or train out to a cheaper destination could save you hundreds of dollars. It’s worth comparing airports, and checking the price and timing of the ground transit before you buy, just to be sure. I don’t recommend this for short holidays (less than 3 days), but the longer your holiday is, the more worthwhile this becomes. In New Zealand, I flew in and out of Auckland even though I didn’t want to do anything in that city. In the Philippines, I had to fly into Manila, sleep in a little airport hostel, then fly to Bohol the next morning.

Choosing Your City/Cities

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Destination vacation people will have done this step before buying plane tickets.

Experience vacation –  “I’ll just see what’s there when I land” is not a reliable recipe for a great holiday. It’s a little like the lottery. Stack the odds in your favor and read up. Even if you think you know where you’re going, it doesn’t hurt to read about your destination on something other than Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet.

In the winter of 2016/17 my destination was “the Malay peninsula”. It looks small on a map, but it is big on the ground. I almost ended up missing out on Koh Lipe because Langkawi has been famous longer. Reading more sources gave me more options, and better information to make my decision with.

Read the blogs – Find some bloggers who share your holiday mission statement. It doesn’t do me any good to read bloggers who love to bike across Europe because I will not be doing that. Ever. I found a blog that talked about running tours of cities and nearly fainted from thinking about it.  Find unique bloggers who share real details. Mainstream bloggers like Nomadic Matt are fine for finding out the basic details and some run off the mill travelling advice, but for my taste, when I’m trying to decide where to go, I need the atmosphere, the mood, and the experiences of someone like me.

Check the local transport options – In addition to attractions, hotels and ground transit can shape your city choices. If you’re going to places with good public transit, it’s easy to land in one place for a bit and then move to another hub. If rental cars are cheap, you might consider driving around some of the rural parts of your chosen holiday spot. 

Move at least once a week – Happiness experts say that the shiny new vacation smell wears off after about 7 days in the same place. I like to change cities at least once a week, but if you want to spend your whole summer in the Maldives laying on the beach, it’s still a good idea to break it up by moving to a hotel on the other side of the island or taking a weekend to explore the mainland. After 7 days, things become a “routine” and the mental mood boosting benefits of vacationing begin to taper off sharply. Relaxing holidays will tend to move less, while exploring holidays will need to move more. How much more often than every 7-8 days you move will depend on your goal.

Finding Accomodation

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Don’t stay anywhere you don’t feel safe or can’t get good sleep. It’s not worth saving money if you’re stressed or too tired to enjoy the next day’s activities.

Do try to minimize your accommodation costs unless the resort itself is the center of your holiday (which is fine, private beaches are dreamy).

Shop around – It’s good to have a range of search options to keep your prices down. I like Airbnb and Booking.com the best, but I’ve been known to poke around Hostelworld. Sometimes I’ve just made email arrangements because I’m traveling to the back end of nowhere. Most of these places give discounts to non-cancellable reservations, but if you want to maintain flexibility, its a good idea to book places you can change later in case you find something better or change your plan altogether.

Beware hidden costs – Things to think about besides the room price: are any meals included? Do you need parking? Do you need a shuttle service? Will you need laundry service? Is it close to public transit? A great room price can be ruined if you have to pay 20$ a night for parking, if you have to walk a mile to the bus stop, or if there’s no place to eat nearby (this happened to me once in Korea and my hostess, bless her heart, fed us, but it was embarrassing!)

Location, location, location – When booking my rooms, I’m typically going back and forth between the booking site, a map of the region, and some travel blogs. Sometimes the map will show me something interesting because Google does that now. Sometimes the hotel will mention famous nearby sights to check out, and always travel bloggers will tell you about their own experiences there.  I spend ages staring at maps, reading blogs, and looking at the map function of Airbnb. It can show you the prices of a large geographical region. Sometimes I find great prices and realize I don’t really want to GO to that place so it’s useless.

Quality is subjective – Reading reviews of accommodation is tricky. If the person leaving the review has a different set of values and expectations than you, their review may not be helpful. Don’t just look at stars. Look at how many people reviewed something. A 4 star rating from 200 reviews is better than a 5 star rating from only 10 reviews. Read the things people liked, but also read what they didn’t like. Are those things important to you? Can you sleep in a room where you might see a rat to save $$? Do you HAVE to have A/C? Do you want to meet other guests or have more privacy? What is the standard in that country? I found that a 2-3 star (of 5) rating in developed countries is equivalent to a 4 or 5 star place in developing nations.

Prioritize – For me, feeling safe is #1. I don’t like to stay in co-ed dorms if I can avoid it but female only dorms are often more expensive. I also won’t stay in an Airbnb with all men (one or many, I don’t do it unless there’s a female in the house).  I’ve learned I can sleep just about anywhere for one night, but I prefer a single room, or a women only dorm in a clean place in a non-party part of town (I do not like hearing people throwing up from being drunk while I’m trying to sleep). I also look for transportation options (parking if I have a car, bus stop if I don’t).

Things like lux decorations, pools, spas, and services are less important to me, but you need to know your own priorities. If you want to party all night, stay in the party zone. If you can’t enjoy yourself unless you’re staying in the Marriott, then increase your budget or pick cheaper parts of the world where those resorts are affordable. Sharm el-Sheik in Egypt is great for that. You can stay in fancy beach resorts for a fraction of the cost of other countries.

Local Transportation

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Minimize travel time – I’ve seen tourists travel for hours to reach someplace and look for 15 minutes, take a few pics, and then get back on the bus. I don’t understand this method of travel. I think transit should be minimized. I don’t like to spend more than 4 hours a day in transit (except the flights in and out). It’s not always possible, but it is important. The comfort level of your transit is also important, as I learned in Thailand. A 3 hr bus ride in a plush comfy air conditioned seat is much more tolerable than a 3 hr ride in a cramped, hot, minivan.

Travel in your down time – In EU this summer, I traveled on Saturday so I wouldn’t have to fight weekend crowds at popular venues, and I used them as rest days where I could just relax and travel from one place to another. On shorter trips, I like to do intercity transit early in the morning or last thing at night. If you have to go a long way, it might be worth looking into sleeper cars. When we were in China (a huge landscape) we did that a couple times and skipped out on hotels for the 8-10 hour train rides overnight.

Research the details – If you’re going in the off season, you can probably buy tickets the day of your travel, but in the high season it’s best to make reservations. Look at the time tables and make sure you can get to the bus/train station on time. Compare the bus and train costs. I found that taking the bus around France and Holland was great, but that in Germany the train was cheaper.  I took a bus from Singapore to KL, but a train from KL to Ipoh.

Look at alternative travel options – Sometimes local flights can be more efficient and cheaper than bus or train. Sometimes there are even boats. Which I love. I took a ferry from Jordan to Egypt last time I was there. It was not any cheaper than flying, but it was a much cooler experience. I also had to take a boat to get to Koh Lipe and back since there are no airports on the tiny little island. Now that I’ve been, I know I probably could have bought my ticket when I got to the port, but at the time I had no idea how full it would be so I made sure to book online.

Check the reviews – In some cases you won’t have choices, but when you do it’s best to check and see if you can find a picture of the fleet that is NOT on the company website. I thought the boat to Koh Lipe would be like the ferries I’m used to where we could go up on deck and with that in mind, I was looking into a 3 hr boat ride. When I read more and realized that the Thai ferries in the region are all very restrictive and make passengers stay seated below decks, I opted for the shortest possible ride instead.

When in Rome – Not literally, but when it comes to getting around, it’s a good idea to see what locals do. I did so much research on inter-city transit to get from one place to another, I neglected to pre-research city buses to learn how to get around once I was there! It turns out, every one is different and it was a huge source of stress for me last summer.  How do you use the bus/tram/metro system? Do you need a bus pass? Where do you buy tickets? Does it cost more to buy one at a time or get a pass? Is the tourist pass worth it? Don’t assume it will be easy to figure out when you get there… it won’t be.

Step 3: The Details

Now you have your cities chosen, your hotels booked, and a solid idea of how you’ll get around. Time to narrow your focus and figure out what you’ll do in each location. Show up and see what happens is not a strategy that works for most people. It seems very romantic, but most people find they end up sitting around on Google trying to do the research they should have done before they arrived.

Brainstorm

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Write a list – Just make a list of names of all the places you can find where you’re going. Websites like Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet come in handy at this stage. They are great resources for building a basic list of things to see. They are a bit limited to the most popular tourist attractions, however, so try adding something like Atlas Obscura to your search.

Dig deeper For more unique travel opportunities, check travel blogs and Facebook pages and other types of social media from smaller voices to see what isn’t being seen by the big famous travel sites. I found a magical heated waterfall in NZ this way. I’ve learned about unique food in tiny restaurants, and the less famous but just as beautiful temple or church next to the one full of tourists. You get beautiful memories and you often get the place mostly or even all the way to yourself. I can’t provide links because each blogger focuses on different places and experiences, but if you type the name of the place + “blog” or “travel blog” you should get some decent results.

Check the map– Once you get a list written down, you can start searching for what’s near them geographically. Pull up the Google Map and see what pops up next to your famous site or on the route from your hotel to that site. Read more blogs about people who went to a famous site and see if they did any side trips. I had a side trip for buffalo ice cream on my way back from a famous site in Bohol. Local water-buffalo being milked for ice cream… that’s a unique holiday experience.

Expand your search – If your’e staying in one hotel more than 3 days (it hardly ever takes longer to see the highlights of one city, although of course you could explore a single city for years and not see everything, many people on holiday like to maximize experiences), you can look at day trips from the city you’re in. Can you do a tour to a nearby natural reserve for hiking, kayaking, fishing, etc? Can you get a bus to a neighboring city and see their sights? I found an amazing spa in Aachen Germany about 2 hours away from my hotel in Lanaken Belgium.

Read until your eyes blur – Keep adding things to your list.  Make your list as long as you like, don’t worry about all the details of each place yet, this is the brainstorm phase. Anything that sounds interesting, put it on the list.

Edit the List

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Location, Location, Location – things that are close together can be done on the same day, while things that are far away, not on the public transit line, or not near anything else cool might be cut from the list. I had the Tower of Eben-Ezer on my list, but when I realized how far out it was and that it would take me hours each way without a car, I reluctantly took it off the list. Other times I’ve gone to a place I was only semi-interested in because it was 5 minutes walk from my primary stop and had a great experience.

Timing is everything –  Check the days and hours of operation, and the price. If it’s not open when you’re there, if it conflicts with something you want more, if it costs too much, cross it off the list. Do you need to book in advance or can you buy tickets at the door? How long is the line? Many attractions have “skip the line” tickets that let you save time. When we went to the Catecombs in Paris, the line was 3 hours long. We had skip the line tickets and got in with only about 5 minutes wait. I completely failed to buy my Kremlin tickets ahead of time, and had to choose between standing in line and seeing the Kremlin or doing literally anything else in Moscow that day.

Read the reviews – Read reviews, look at pictures, visit the website. Look beyond rating and see what people are saying. Are the things they talk about important to you? Does this seem like something you’ll like? More than once I’ve declined to visit a city’s most popular tourist destination because it just didn’t seem that interesting to me.

PrioritizeYour list should be divided into “must see” and “see if there’s time”, with a side of “bad weather options”. Make sure you have no more than 50% of your list as “must see”. Even after editing out all the places you can’t get to, can’t afford, aren’t open, or aren’t interesting, the list should still be huge, and contain more things that you can actually do in the time you have because you might need to change something based on weather, unexpected closures, illness, or random acts of gods.

Step 4: The Schedule

It’s a good idea to have a schedule, as long as you know that it will change. I don’t want to spend my precious vacation time thinking about what to do each day. Sometimes I write detailed schedules down to the half hour, other times I make “day itineraries” grouping nearby activities together so I can wake up and say, ok today I’ll do itinerary 3.eu trip plan

Booking in Advance

Use your priority list and start with things on your “must see” list that require (or strongly suggest) advance reservations. Once those are filled in, you can start adding things that have variable times and things from your “see if there’s time” list.

Visit the website – Almost all of them have an English page and will tell you how important it is to buy tickets in advance. Some places don’t even sell tickets at the door. 

Don’t Over-schedule

The temptation to squeeze sightseeing into every moment of the day is strong. Avoid it. A single event or a bike/walking tour that lasts 2-3 hours is a “half day” event (2 per day). Anything more than 5 hours is an “all day” event (1 per day). I can’t make you slow down, but thousands of travelers over several decades agree that seeing fewer things, but experiencing them more fully is a more satisfying experience.

Make time for meals! Oh man, the number of times I’ve ended up not getting food because I’ve been so busy looking around. It’s a tragedy especially if you’re travelling anywhere with good food… soooo basically everywhere. Street food is awesome and should be tried, but you need to sit down and rest too.

Organize by geography – When I was in the Philippines, I had itineraries that could be done on any day, as long as the items were done as a group because they were all close together. You can sneak tiny things into a day this way. If there’s something that will take less than an hour quite close to one of your half or all-day events you can work that in without killing yourself.

Time is a Gift – You look at an itinerary like this and you think, OH we’re wasting so much time, but you are not. You are giving yourself a precious gift. Now you have time to get lost, to explore, to check out that cool thing on the way you didn’t know about, to stop for an ice cream or coffee, to meet people along the way.

Be Prepared to chuck the plan – If you travel with an open eye and open mind, you’ll also find new and interesting things along the way. Sometimes it’s meeting people who invite you along, sometimes the concierge or Airbnb host tells you about a local secret, sometimes you just walk into a wine festival in the park (true story, happened to me in Prague). You want to be able to make time for these things, and in order to do that you need things you can move around in your itinerary.

Step 5: Organize Your Documents

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Gone are the days of having to print our whole holiday itinerary and carry them around in waterproof document cases! Yes, people did that. Sometimes I still see older couples doing it. I’m not saying it’s a bad idea, and if you’re not going to be around computers or the internet, it’s VITAL, but now that we can store everything in the cloud, we can access schedules, booking details, and vouchers with our phones!

At a Glance – There are countless apps you can use to organize your itinerary, but be sure you get one that is easy to read at a glance. You’ve seen my color coded spreadsheet that shows a calendar where I put the things I’ve scheduled and bought tickets for, but I also use something like a Word.doc for the list of things I can do more or less whenever that includes addresses, websites and phone numbers I may need, and any itinerary groupings.

On the Cloud – I make a dedicated folder in my cloud storage for all vouchers and receipts for everything I bought online from hotel reservations to museum tickets for each trip. I filter all my emails related to the holiday into a dedicated email folder for easy reference. I also keep photos of my critical documents. I know not everyone is comfortable with this, but if you lose your passport or ID, it will be easier to show your Embassy a picture of your missing credentials so they can help you faster.

Offline – If you won’t have data or internet when you arrive you can also download the documents you need to the phone’s storage. Some strange places in the world are still requiring printed vouchers/ tickets, so double check when you make reservations if you can use the pdf or email as proof or not.


What is all this for?

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Planning a holiday can certainly be fun and help you build anticipation for your upcoming adventure. However, it can also be a lot of work and there are days when you’ll want to throw the towel in and just wing it when you get there. Trust me. Don’t. 

All of this painstaking work helps make sure you get to see the best your holiday destination has to offer you.

  • make sure you don’t show up to a venue that is closed or sold out.
  • minimize transit time by grouping your events together.
  • maximize your bucket list by prioritizing only one or two things a day. 
  • have enough time to do everything and a way to stop and rest as needed. 
  • alleviate the stress of where to go and how to get there while you’re jet-lagged and culture-shocked.
  • explore organically by leaving a little extra time every day that could be filled or changed as needed.

I hope your next adventure is everything you dream.

Happy Travels!

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Malay Peninsula 15: “The Worst Day” or “How I Lost My Cool”

Sometimes vacations go awry. Sometimes it’s not fun anymore. And sometimes it gets so bad you feel like that toddler in the grocery store who just can’t take it anymore and has a critical meltdown in the aisle. For me, it was the second half of my 11th day. The combination of physical exertion, dehydration, low blood sugar, frustration, culture shock, and physical discomfort from overheating and actual injuries came together in a perfect storm. The story of how things went wrong is one I hope I can look back on with humor someday, but it is also one I know I can learn from. Not only can I see where my limits are so as to better respect them in the future, I can see where my resilience is strongest and nurture that in times of strife.


When last we saw our intrepid traveler, she was crammed in the back of yet another Thai “bus” (overstuffed minivan) on her way back to her hotel in Krabi, running only an hour or more behind schedule in hopes of catching the last bus out of town across the peninsula to Surat Thani. In addition to the delay in schedule, our heroine is suffering from a wounded foot, the result of a coral scrape now chaffed by sandal straps, beaten by sunshine, splashed with mangrove water and stepped in bat guano. This is where it gets bad. If you want to preserve the illusion that my travels are all magical adventures, skip the rest of this day.

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Luckily, it seemed my guide had mentioned my predicament to the driver, because even though I was jammed in the back of the van, they stopped at my hotel first. With about an hour to catch the bus, I collected my luggage from the storage room and asked if they hotel could call a taxi to take me to the bus station. They could, of course, but were planning to charge an outrageous fee. Taking in my disheveled state and lone backpack as luggage, I think the clerk realized I was not a luxury tourist and kindly gave me directions to the nearest taxi stand where I could catch a local taxi for much less.

My foot had not fared well that day. Despite the sunscreen, I picked up my only sunburn of the holiday (mild pink, not serious). The area around my coral scrape was red and inflamed and I was sure it was getting infected. The brackish water and barefoot cave mud could not have helped (hopefully my mother skips this blog entry, I haven’t told her how dumb I was about that cut). I managed to arrange my shoe so that it dragged less on the skin, but I had to shuffle walk.

The taxi stand was a couple blocks away and around a corner, near a landmark hotel. I found the corner and the hotel, but nothing that looked like a taxi or a stand. Thailand has a serious problem translating transportation devices into English. First “bus”, and now “taxi”. As I stood there looking white, lost, and confused, searching for anything that looked like a taxi and wishing I’d taken some time to learn the Thai alphabet, an old man approached me and with the universal sign language of charades, inquired as to my dilemma. This took a moment, because we then said “what” at each other about 4 times before I finally said I wanted to go to the bus station, in English, because I did not know what else to try. It worked however, because he nodded and gestured for me to follow him… back to a little truck, the bed of which had been kitted out with benches and a sort of hard awning top.

There comes a moment in an adventure where you are so far out of your element you can’t see it with a telescope. Trusting in the goodness of humans, I hopped in the back of the truck. As we drove along, we picked up more passengers, and dropped off a couple too, who would stop by the cab window to pay the driver. I watched one passenger push a little button on the roof I hadn’t noticed before and realized it was like the bus stop button to let the driver know to pull over. It turns out “taxi” in Thai is like a tiny truck bus/ rideshare thing that doesn’t have a set route or fare. I watched my GPS and saw we were indeed headed to the bus station, and when we arrived, about half the passengers disembarked with me, so I had some time to find my money. The trip cost me less than 1$. I accidentally tried to hand the money to the passenger in the cab before realizing he was a monk! I guess ride-sharing taxis is efficient, but it sure was confusing for a newcomer.

I made it to the bus station with a little time to spare and headed over to the ticket counters to secure passage. I bought my ticket, hit the bathroom, and bought some water before sitting down next to the number where I was told my bus would arrive. I watched large buses come and go, unsurprised that my bus was not on time. I should have known not to expect anything so comfortable as a real bus. Shortly, a battered gray minivan pulled up and an old man hopped out and gestured for myself and the other lady waiting in the seats there to get in. There were no markings, not even a sign in the window. He did not ask for our tickets. The inside of the van was crammed as full as can be. I think they may have actually installed an extra row of seats. I perched on the edge (all of what was left) of one bench next to a rather large man, struggling to stuff my bag in the tiny space between my seat and the seat in front, my legs out in the space that would be called an aisle.

In this cramped and hot conveyance, I sat for nearly 3 hours to get to Surat Thani. All the research I did on Surat Thani was basically a litany of warnings: don’t go here it is not a tourist town it has no attractions. I couldn’t imagine that. In my experience, most towns have something, but regardless, I wasn’t planning to see Surat Thani, I had come because it was supposed to be the easier route to Khao Sok and because my plane back to Korea would depart from the Surat Thani airport.

Rip Off

When the van arrived, I was shuffled over to a travel agency where absolutely no one was interested in talking to me about my need to get out to Khao Sok the next day. I did manage to get someone to call me a taxi that wanted to charge me 150 Baht to take me to my hotel (for comparison, the taxi in Krabi had been 30 Baht and my minivan from Krabi clear across the peninsula to Surat Thani was 180). I felt massively exploited – white person just arrived in town, let’s rip her off – so I threw a bit of a fit. They told me it was because the hotel was so far away, and I pulled up Google Maps to show them it was less than 3km. I could have walked if my foot were not throbbing and raw from the coral injury. I finally agreed to 100 Baht, and sat with bad grace in the back of another truck taxi while the driver picked up and dropped off other passengers along the way.

The hotel may have only been 3km away, but it was quite isolated. When I selected it based on the map location, it seemed so close to the city center, however that was without any context for the city of Surat Thani. The many internet articles that advised how not-tourist friendly this town is were not kidding. The city is not pedestrian friendly, and lacks sufficient taxis, so if you want to get around, be prepared to pay an arm an a leg or rent a motorbike. But I was tired, hungry, hot, dirty. I had spent the beginning of my day in cramped minivans and the end of my day in cramped minivans, and however lovely the kayaking in the middle was, I had a seriously long day and was ready for a shower and a bed.

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the isolated side street where my hotel was, via Google street view

Travel Arrangements

My plans for the next day were to go to a family farm near to but not actually in Khao Sok, where a retired trekking elephant was cared for and had visits from the public by appointment. I had done lots of research on ethical elephant interaction in Thailand and discovered that there isn’t much of it in the south. There was a well regarded luxury elephant resort, but it was going to run about 450$ for two days and one night. The other place I found was this family farm, which seemed to be legit and well reviewed. I had been in contact with them via email and they seemed to think it would be very easy for me to get from Surat Thani to their farm on any of the vans going to Khao Sok. All I had to do was give their phone number to the driver to get directions. Since the farm was literally on the road to the park, the vans would pass it on the way.

While checking in, I noticed that the hotel offered rides to Khao Sok so I tried to ask about what it would take to get dropped off at my destination. This proved challenging as there was only one person on staff who spoke English, and he kept leaving. Protip: not everyone who advertises on Booking.com as speaking English actually does.

At first the hotel said they could not drop me off. Then they made some calls, had me call the farm itself so they could talk to them about the location and finally said ok. Wouldn’t it be a nice story if this were the end?

Cash Only

The hotel didn’t accept credit cards, and I was running low on cash. I hadn’t seen an ATM anywhere. I didn’t worry about it when I first arrived in Surat Thani because I figured there would be one near my hotel. It turned out the nearest ATM was about 1km up the rural road where it intersected the main road. I had no choice but to walk…reversing 1km of the 3km I had overpaid to be driven down… and back again, on my torn up foot. That’s right. I paid 100 baht to avoid walking 3km and ended up having to walk 2 anyway.

The heat of the day had thankfully faded, and I was allowed to leave my bag in the lobby. It was not possible for me to walk quickly. Even when not injured, my feet swell in heat and during long rides, but the coral scrape had become increasingly red and painful throughout the day. I set out on dusty road, passing half a dozen stray dogs, heaps of garbage and flies, derelict buildings filled with so much rubbish they may have well been dumping grounds. The whole thing belied the beautiful photos of the hotel, strategically taken to show none of the surrounding area. I passed the bloated corpse of a dog on the side of the road and tried hard to bite down on my disgust and judgement, reflecting that my pain, hunger and weariness were making me less tolerant, but it was hard going. I didn’t have the energy to take pics of trash and dog corpses, so these are from Google street view. They’re from February of 2016 and look a bit cleaner than the day I was there.

I made it up to the main road. The distance was not so great, but anyone whose had to walk on a foot injury knows how little that matters, and walking through trash and decay did not make the experience any easier. I found the ATM and got some money, then looked around for any sign of a restaurant, finding none. Again, I had expected a hotel to be near amenities and was sadly mistaken. I couldn’t bear to wander aimlessly around anymore, so I went into a corner store and picked up some food there: yogurt, a sandwich, a banana and a candy bar. I limped my way back to the hotel in the dark, and back to the desk to finally check in.

Change of Plans

While paying for my room and van ride, the girl at the desk who spoke only a few words of English, started giving me different information about the van ride than what I’d agreed to before going to the ATM. Something had changed in my absence, but she couldn’t explain it, so the English speaker had to be summoned once more. They weren’t going to take me to the farm, but instead their driver would take me to a travel agent in town where I would wait around for an hour or more then be taken maybe to another place where I might need to wait some more, and I could get to my location at like 10-11am. But still wake up and leave the hotel at 6am. To get to a place that was an hour away.

This was me summoning every moment I’ve ever worked in service to remind myself not to yell at anyone. I took deep breaths and tears came to the corner of my eyes. I can’t do that, I told them. My appointment is at 9am, so if you can’t take me to the farm, just take me to the park entrance where everyone else is dropped off and I’ll get farm folks to pick me up. This sounds simple, but it was more than 20 minutes of broken English, confused explanations, and me walking away to count backwards from 10 repeatedly.

Emotional Overload

I got to my room and cried. I cried about every difficult thing that I’d encountered on the holiday. I cried about every obstacle, every pain, every disappointment. Then I had a shower and ate some food and talked to a friend online. I didn’t really feel better, but I hoped that sleep would help and I was determined to make the most of my final day on holiday and visit the elephant ethically. I fell asleep around 8pm.

At about 10:30pm I was woken up by barking. Frantic get out of my house barking. I tried turning up the volume on my headphones. I tried folding the pillow over my ears to muffle the sounds. I hoped that whatever was bothering the dog would go away, but it didn’t stop. The hotel was made of shipping containers. The insides were quite adorable and well constructed, but not especially soundproof. On top of this, my window faced the street. I looked out the window and saw that a dog in one of the fenced in yards was barking it’s head off at the dogs on the street who did not give a shit. The barking dog’s owners just as clearly didn’t give a shit because he’d been barking for about half an hour by this time.

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This photo is also from Google street view, hence the daylight. I stayed in one of these container rooms. The dogs are not “cute” to me anymore.


I snapped.

Yes, somewhere in the world, there are people who have had it worse. I’m not looking for pity or comparing my experience to yours or, for example, a soldier’s or refugee’s. But I was on holiday. I hadn’t slept well for several nights, and hadn’t eaten well for all but maybe 2 of the 11 days. I had a foot injury that was starting to look infected, and I had trudged in this state passed heaps of trash and a dead dog carcass. I was so far out of spoons that I had sobbed my eyes out before falling asleep, and now after a mere 2 hours of rest, I was woken up with no sign of being able to sleep again and an alarm set for 6 am.

I Snapped

I packed my things and dressed, heading to the lobby to see if I could get a different room, away from the dogs, but the only person there was not the English speaker. She understood that my issue was with the dogs, but she tried to explain she couldn’t do anything about it because they didn’t belong to the hotel.

This conversation was nearly impossible. I was so tired I could barely express myself and she barely spoke English. I know she could tell I was upset, because I started crying again, but there was nothing we could do. Eventually I decided to change hotels.
“I’ll check out”, I said, “Call me a taxi”. But she said I couldn’t check out until I cancelled on the booking.com website. Using my phone and slow data, I managed to cancel my reservation and to book myself a room in the fanciest hotel in Surat Thani (less than 2km away).

She hadn’t called a taxi. I asked again. “What hotel?”, she asked. “Wangtai”, I said. She looked totally perplexed. Bear in mind, this is the biggest, poshest hotel in the city, and she’s looking like she’s never heard of it. I showed her the name in Thai and a look of instant recognition crosses her face. Oh, Wangtai, of course. We went through the rigmarole of refunds. I had quite honestly expected to pay for one night since I had occupied the room, but they refunded my entire amount, including the now cancelled ride to Khao Sok in the morning. It sounds simple, but everything had to be done in exaggerated sign language and triplicate forms, so it took over an hour from the time I came in with my bags to the time I got my refund. “A taxi?”, I repeated and she finally called, but by that time the taxis were “closed”.

Nuclear Meltdown

I may have turned into the worst kind of tourist here. Even writing it, it’s hard for me to convey the situation and it seems like I’m overreacting. I mean, I wasn’t quite at the awful tourist level of yelling at a coffee shop for not having a flat white, but I was loosing my mind from pain, exhaustion, culture shock and serious struggles. I’m fairly sure I raised my voice and uttered unflattering things about the city of Surat Thani and it’s taxis. I cried. I stomped. I huffed. I cursed. And while I tried to direct my rage at anyplace other than the girl behind the counter who was doing her best to help me, I am ashamed to say, I was not a nice person.

I could not bear the notion of trying to return to my room. I could hear the dogs from the lobby, though not as loudly, enough to know they were still at it. Plus, I’d already checked out. I thought about walking the distance on my burning foot with all my things. I turned once more to Google to see if there was any option, perhaps to have the other hotel come and fetch me or any kind of private transportation service.

Redemption

Suddenly, the girl at the desk said that her friend would drive me there on her motorbike. I almost collapsed in gratitude. I tried my best to apologize for my outbursts and to thank them for helping me. It’s still hard for me to believe how much they did to try and help me despite the fact that I was being a total brat.

 I had never ridden on a motorcycle before. I had my backpack, day bag, and bag of snacks and no time to rearrange my belongings. She didn’t have a spare helmet, and all I could think as I sat on the back of the bike, one hand on her shoulder and the other holding bag number 3, was “please don’t let my mom freak out about this”. I decided to close my eyes so I couldn’t see passing traffic. I thought of the things I’d read about being a motorcycle passenger, how to lean into turns and help the driver balance. The night air was soft and cool compared with the heat of the day and the ride was smooth and uneventful. When we arrived, I thanked her several more times before heading inside.

Spend the Money

The Wangtai is the swankiest hotel in Surat Thani. It’s in a reasonable location, and has a cafe, convenience store, and restaurant in the lobby, along with a massage parlor and spa and swimming pool (closed for renovations when I went ). The lobby was staffed with well dressed people who spoke excellent English even at midnight. I got checked in and settled in my suite with vouchers for breakfast and the sauna. And all of this was about 40$ US a night.

Thailand is cheap. In Europe and New Zealand things are pricier. I stayed in shared dorms that were almost the same price as the Wangtai. I traveled like a poor uni student on gap year, and I thought I should do the same thing in Thailand.  With very few exceptions (the hotel in Krabi) it’s just asking for suffering. My first hotel in Surat Thani was 11$ a night for a private room, while the most expensive hotel in town was only 40$ a night. The minivan from Krabi to Surat Thani was 6$ where a private car would have been about 45$. The point is, you can only choose 2: money, time, or comfort. If you have lots of time, then taking those 6$ minivans is great because you can recover in between adventures. But if you’re on a short trip to Thailand, I recommend to spend the money. Being comfortable can make all the difference between an awesome experience and an epic meltdown.


It’s now July and we’re finally almost to the end of my winter holidays 2017. Although I didn’t get to visit the elephant, I did have at least one more magical experience before leaving Thailand, so I hope you’ll come back to see the rewards of getting back on the horse after a fall.

Here in Korea, I’m working my way through the worst root canal ever, creating the materials for summer camp, getting ready for Seoul Pride and counting down to a brief return to the states. I’ll do my best to get everything online before stepping out, but if not, I hope you’ll be patient until my return. Don’t forget to see the holiday albums on Facebook and (almost) daily photo updates on Instagram! Thanks!

Malay Peninsula 10: When Things Go Wrong

It’s popular for people on social media and blogs to focus exclusively on the best experiences (unless it’s Yelp, then complain away). Sometimes I look at other people’s travel blogs or photos and think they must have the most perfect lives. And, then I wonder if anyone thinks that about me. My life *is* fairly magical, and I think the vacation to New Zealand was supernaturally blessed, but I would hate for anyone to think that it’s all perfect. Stuff goes wrong, sometimes catastrophically, and how we deal with that will impact the days, months and years that follow.


A Good Start

In the morning, I headed out extra early to catch that next bus and managed to get a few snaps of the famous street art on my way to the ferry terminal.

Amid the ferry terminal’s endless tiny shops selling convenience food and cheap souvenirs,  my eye was drawn to one stall that had what appeared to be handmade goodies displayed on a table. The stand was run by a husband and wife team, and the husband happily talked about his wife’s cooking until I picked out three goodies to try for breakfast. One was a flavorful potato pastry with delectable spices and what could have been pieces of dried fruit. 20170123_080706One was a glutinous rice ball wrapped in a leaf and filled with some kind of sweet coconut. The golden brown goodie was the one the husband most highly recommended: a spicy coconut bun in a wheat pastry (as opposed to rice) with a coconut filling similar in texture to the rice bun, but with a spicy kick. The coconut fillings were unique to my palate. It seemed like the coconut had gone through a ricer instead of a shredder. It was similar to vermicelli but also dried enough to be chewy without being crispy. The entire experience was delightful and I wish I’d bought 3 more!

A Scorpion in my Cocoapuffs

I left myself extra time to get to the bus station. Missing the bus would have entirely spoiled my day (although now that just seems ironic). As a consequence, I had nothing to do for about 45 minutes. The bus station in Butterworth seems well organized, but I suspect it’s a cleverly crafted illusion. As the time for my bus drew closer and closer with no sign of the bus anywhere, I began to get worried. When a bus pulled into the gate that I had been told by the ticket counter was my departure point, I got excited until the driver told me it was a bus to Kuala Lumpur. Definitely not where I was trying to go. The departure time on my ticket crept up and then past. I kept trying to get anyone to help me find my bus, but no one seemed fussed and said it should show up eventually. I spotted another traveler (the skin tone and giant backpack were clues) with a ticket that looked like mine. Trying to be friendly, I asked if she was trying to get to Kuala Perlis (my destination) too.

Allow me to do an aside on the expat/backpacker community for those who have not experienced it. It’s a tribe. And like all tribes, when we see each other out in the world there is a feeling of  “ah, one of mine”. The extent to which we aid one another or spend time with one another can vary from person to person, but most of the time when I greet another traveler, the response is friendly. Maybe they need help, maybe they can give it, maybe we’re just going to play a game of Uno or chat over a beer. Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve taken great joy in meeting both locals and fellow travelers. I’ve shared meals, cabs, directions, taken and given tips on what to do or how to get places, translated or been translated for, exchanged stories and when one or the other of us is ready to part, there’s no pressure, we just wish each other well because we all know that’s how it goes. So when I met a backpacker who was angry and mean it was like finding a scorpion in my cocoa-puffs. I was expecting something nice and got stung instead.

She looked at me sharply and asked in clipped tones where I was going. I replied that I was headed to Kuala Perlis, but before I could finish my sentence, she pointed back at the building and snapped, “ticket office”. Yes, I said, I already have a ticket, I just — again she cut me off with the single invective, “information” pointing once more at the main building. This was no linguistic barrier, her accent was natural and her tone and body language adequately communicated hostility. I was completely shocked and decided to stop trying and walked as far away from her as I could while still being able to see the bus stops to watch for mine.

I want to believe that something was going on with this woman that made her so grumpy, but the fact is, I approached her to share information (namely that the bus she was standing in front of was not the one listed on her ticket, and that the gate we wanted had changed, but was not announced yet) and she shut me down like…I have trouble even finding a metaphor of when it’s appropriate to treat another person like that. Everything I can think of is some kind of gtfo response to racism or misogyny. Even knowing now what I do about the trials and frustrations involved in traveling SE Asia, and having lived through my own travel induced emotional meltdown, it’s still hard for me to imagine what put her in the mindset that caused her to treat me so. Regardless of whether her mood was justified, it was demeaning and hurtful to be treated like that by another human being. It was made worse by the fact that I had no defenses up at all when it happened. It completely destroyed my emotional well being in that moment and for possibly the rest of the day.

The Transportation Worsens

The bus was nothing like the nice buses I’d taken up to this point. The seats were narrow and much less comfortable. The front of the bus was “normal” two seats on each side of the central aisle, but the back was divided into three single seats with two aisles between them so that passengers travelling alone didn’t have to rub elbows with strangers. I sat in my middle single seat and tried to bring my emotions back to center.

My destination that day was the island of Langkawi. I had decided after much reading on the internet that I was better off taking a bus to Kuala Perlis followed by the shorter (90min) boat ride from there rather than trying to take the 3hr boat from Penang. Initially, the idea of a 3 hr boat ride was appealing to me because I like the ocean and boats. But it turns out that all the boats here are kind of enlarged speed boats where passengers sit in assigned seating rather like an airplane and there is no access to the deck or other outdoor spaces. Since going out on deck is the number one thing to do if you get seasick, that didn’t sound great. Instead I think I just learned that the only comfortable way to travel north of Penang is airplane.

Bad Decision for a Good Reason

Nevertheless, when I got off the bus I met a couple more backpackers who made some headway toward restoring my faith in the tribe. They had opted for the bus/ferry route to save money. They were out for the whole summer taking a break from university and needed to stretch every cent. We got some lunch together and had some nice conversation, shared the ferry ride, and I was enjoying their company so I let them talk me into walking from the ferry port to our respective hotels in Langkawi. I have to say, I admire the packers who can walk themselves around with all the gear especially in that weather. I am not one of you. I should not have tried. It’s not that I can’t walk or carry gear even, but there is something horrible that happens to me in hot/humid weather. One day I will learn my lesson, and surely this experience was some very compelling evidence.

My feet were swelling from the weather, my clothes were drenched in sweat and I simply could not keep up the pace of my lunchtime companions. They never once complained about my slowness, but I still felt guilty. Then it started raining. You would think rain would be a relief in hot weather, but that is a lie. The rain doesn’t cool things down, it only increases the general humidity and makes you damper. Could this whole experience have been better if I had a different attitude? No doubt. It can be hard to maintain positivity in the face of certain obstacles – the angry lady in the morning had set my nerves on edge. The heat, humidity, and pain in my feet was eating away at what goodwill I had left. When the rain began and I realized that the ONLY event in Langkawi that I had planned to do would not be accessible, it pushed me straight over the edge into genuine misery and self-pity.

This Isn’t Fun Anymore

Google lied about the distance to my hotel. When my GPS indicated I had arrived, yet I could not see the hotel, it suddenly reset to a location another 15 minutes away. This was after I’d already been walking for 45, which was longer than the original Google estimate of 30. When I decided to go on foot, I figured I could just about tolerate 30 minutes of walking to the hotel in the heat. What I got was an hour in the heat and rain. When I finally arrived at the hotel, I discovered a man sleeping on the only bench in the tiny lobby, so I couldn’t even sit down while I waited for the clerk to show up and check me in. And he was snoring so loudly! It seemed to take forever to get checked in and get to my room where I promptly rid myself of my soaked clothes and basked in the air conditioning while I had a serious think about my options.

The Langkawi Taxi Lockdown

I do not like giving in to despair. I do not like nurturing negative emotions. I did not want to sit there and feel sorry for myself, damnit. I only planned to spend a half day in Langkawi in any case. The very next morning I was scheduled to take another boat out to the tiny tropical paradise island of Koh Lipe in Thailand. I had looked at how to avoid Langkawi altogether but it seemed like any way to go from Penang or even Ipoh directly to Koh Lipe would have involved a very long overland travel and another land border crossing, I thought at the time that shorter journeys would be better and that every place I was stopping at must have something interesting. However, I failed to take into account that Langkawi has the most bizarre taxi lock out in the world. There is not only no Uber or any other rideshare on the island, the taxis don’t stop on the street, or use meters, or bargain. They all have a set rate chart that tells them the fare from one place to another. And unlike Georgetown with it’s free bus and easily walkable areas of interest, Langkawi seems designed for package tours and resort dwellers. In my first plan I was going to spend 2 days in Langkawi and only overnight in Koh Lipe but research led me to a different notion and I had decided the most interesting thing to me was the cable car and skywalk, which being high in the mountains and made of metal would not be accessible or safe in a thunderstorm.

Give in to Self Care

As I lay in the hotel, resting and cooling off, I looked on the web to see if there was anything near by that seemed interesting, or anything even within a reasonable distance. I had wasted all my energy walking to the hotel when I didn’t need to and could not bring myself to be excited about any of the hiking or cycling options. I had no desire to go shopping since I’d taken care of my needs the day before. I didn’t want to visit a zoo or aquarium. In fact, nothing at all sounded fun, and while I was grumpy about the fact that I’d just “lost” a day of vacation, it struck me that the best thing I could do for myself was nothing at all.

Sometimes stuff happens to us on holiday and we just have to stop. I remember in Egypt I got horrible food poisoning that completely took me out of commission for about a day and half and left me weak for a long while even after I returned home. It’s not fun when you get sick on vacation, but it’s still important to practice self care. Sick doesn’t always look like a cold or an upset stomach, sometimes it can be an overdose of culture shock, heat edema, and physical exhaustion. So I took a shower, put on some clean clothes and walked all the way to next door to have some dinner and then spent the rest of the night reading in bed. I have only one picture from my entire time on Langkawi, and that was a food pic I took of that dinner for Instagram.

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Worst Day?

I told myself that every vacation has to have a “worst day” and that I was on my way to a tiny island paradise where I would see coral reefs and swim with glowing plankton and sleep on a hut on the beach and at least two of those things turned out to be true.


When I look back on my time on the Malay Peninsula, this is not one of the stories that stands out to me. At the time, it was horrible, and potentially vacation ruining, but Daniel Khaneman talks about “the remembering self” in his research, and using memory to create happiness. I choose to memorialize this day not to focus on the suffering, but as a way of reminding myself that what seemed so horrible at the time, cannot evoke strong emotion in me even 4 months later when I review and revise the experience, yet my positive experiences still bring a smile to my face. Plus, now I know what not to do the next time I travel to Koh Lipe.

A Weekend in Riyadh: Overview

Over Halloween weekend I flew down to Riyadh to attend an amazing event: an all girl gamer convention! #GCON2014. Sadly, events being Saudi in nature meant that my plans went all awry and I had to invent some other adventure instead (or maybe in addition, since I did get to see a couple hours of the Con).

I’ve been trying to write about it all week since I got back, but it has just been crazy here. Everyone got sick, including me. We had a teacher out for surgery, myself sick for several days and missing work for one day, another teacher out for a day, the admin assistant and a bunch of the students… not to mention for the first three days of the week all the students were fasting for Muslim New Year. Not a good week for all of us at Tabuk University.

So, I’ve got one and a half blog posts written out of 4 (5 counting this one), and one photo album up on the facebook page. I was trying to get them all written and post in chronological order of my weekend, but I’ve given up on this dream in favor of simply getting something out there for you all to read.

Impressions of Riyadh:

img_0546It’s really hot there. Really hot. The city reminded me a lot of Beijing. There were many strangely shaped tall buildings under construction. I even saw one that reminded me of the EMP in Seattle, which may be the strangest building I’ve seen. This picture is the Kingdom Tower, which I still think looks like Barad-Dur.

It was pretty clean in the parts that I saw driving around. And the taxis were actually much much better than in Jeddah. I ended up having a better and less expensive experience with the taxis than either Uber or Careem, but the need for a smart phone with gps and Google Maps is still very much present, since none of the drivers know how to get anywhere.

It’s a very strange blend of conservative Saudi culture and ultra modern big city luxury. The women are dressed all in black and mostly veiled, unlike Jeddah with its colorful abayas and women showing faces and even hair! But there are taxis for women to take alone, and many places that allow women to enter and dine alone not in a separate section (not something I can do readily here in Tabuk). I admit, I didn’t get to see much in only one day, but much like Jeddah, nice place to visit, kinda glad I don’t live there.

It’s continuously amazing to me how little the Westerners who live in these cities think there is for them to do other than go to shopping malls. So far I’ve managed to avoid the malls in both Jeddah and Riyadh and still found plenty to do. The National Museum park and compound alone could keep me busy for several weekends exploring everything there. I guess it’s different if you live there a long time, but I’d think they could still remember that newcomers will find these things interesting when asked for ideas. *Shrug, oh well.

Synopsis:

The convention was scheduled for Wed-Fri (remember weekends are Fri-Sat here). I couldn’t get any days off work because one teacher was already out (surgery), so I packed my bags Wednesday night and brought them to school with me so I could go straight to the airport after school. Upon arrival I battled the evil taxi army to get to my hotel and check in, then summoned an Uber to take me to the convention.

You can read all the details of the convention in another post, but for now, just know what I saw of it was pretty awesome, and the third day (Friday) was cancelled, so I only got about 2 hours on Thursday night.

I wasn’t flying back until Saturday, so I had to find something to do Friday. I ended up going to see the National Museum, getting a first class spa treatment, and a gourmet meal atop the famous Al Faisaliah Tower.  So it was still a pretty amazing weekend, despite my plans being totally derailed.

I’m working on a post for each of the adventures, but I am not going to be able to publish them in chronological order. I do hope you’re able to enjoy them vicariously nonetheless.

🙂

Links to the other posts:

#GCON2014

King Abdulaziz Historical Center

Al Faisaliah Spa

The Globe Restaurant

The Taxis: A Week in Jeddah

Taxis. Taxis are a government monitored car service that can get non driving folks from one place to another. They operate differently in every country, and most cities on earth. There’s a huge controversy in many countries as “private” services like Lyft and Uber edge in on the taxi market, and while the argument is supposed to be about how expensive it is to maintain ‘high’ standards of safety and insurance for the taxi companies, the fact is, I don’t know anyone who takes Uber because its cheaper. They prefer these private car services because they are faster, cleaner and more pleasant experiences. So if the taxis wanna get back in the market, they need to stop being dirty, late, scamming skeezers and start providing a service people want to pay for. OMG market competition.

So far in life, my favorite place to take a taxi is Beijing. This might be changing, because the last time I was there it was much harder to flag down a taxi without a phone app. But the reasons I liked them: the meter was very clearly visible and used for all short in city trips; it was common to sit in the front seat with the driver so you could see where you were going clearly; the drivers were consistently friendly, curious people who never made me feel uncomfortable or in danger; if you ever wanted to negotiate for a longer drip or a driver to wait for you, you could go off meter and negotiate.

I don’t like taxis in the US for the most part. Outside of New York and DC, you pretty much have to call one and wait around for it to show up, so I don’t use them much.

There are no taxis in Tabuk to speak of. I’m told there might be some at the airport, and the internet says there are taxi companies here, but I never see them on the road. If I want to go anywhere here, I rely on the school driver or I walk to the mall two blocks away.

I thought it would be refreshing to have access to taxi transportation in Jeddah, that it would make it easier for me to play tourist and see all the fun things. To that extent, I’m sure it is true. If I’d had to find a private driver for the week it would have complicated things. My schedule would have had to have been more rigid, and I might have ended up missing out on things or sitting around waiting a lot. So, in this respect, access to taxis in a country where I’m not allowed to drive because of my ovaries is pretty neat.

But holy howling monkies, Batman! They are complete jerks!

Understand that Saudis don’t drive their own taxis, so every one of these men is a foreigner who came to this country because he can make more money than at home. They don’t much like the Saudis and all of them are looking for a way up the next rung on the ladder. In addition, for reasons I’m still not clear on, the taxis in Jeddah have no meters. Supposedly, last fall there was supposed to be mandated meter legislation, but I guess it didn’t happen. This means that you have to negotiate a price for your trip with the driver.

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On to the stories.

The Marriage Proposal

I got picked up from the airport by someone else from our company that I had met a couple weeks earlier, so my first taxi experience was actually on my second day in Jeddah when I wanted to go to the beach. Several issues here, not the least of which was that I didn’t really know where this beach resort was. I told the driver I wanted to go to La Plage, and he said ok, so I got in. He started driving and called a friend of his who spoke English, however, as it turns out, neither of them had heard of the place. So we went back to the hotel so I could try to find it online with the wifi.

I found a place called La Fontaine La Plage, and thought that was it, so we set out again. I thought the drive was going ok, but when we finally got there, it was the wrong place. I called my buddy who lived in Jeddah and had given me the tickets to the beach and we spent the next 15 minutes or so trying to track where I was by landmark to where we needed to be. The beach, being a private resort, had no name sign or address. I thought the driver was being very helpful and patient, driving up and down the road, stopping occasionally to ask other folks for directions.

We finally got there, and he asked what time he should come back to pick me up. So far, I’d been pleased with the ride. He seemed nice, was helpful in getting me to a hard to find place, and I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to get a driver to come all the way back out to the beach, so we agreed on 7pm (also known in Saudi time as ‘after Maghrib’) and exchanged numbers in case I needed to change plans.

He called me at about quarter to 7 to say he was there, and we headed back into town. On the trip back he was much chattier. Despite the fact that he did not speak much English. He started talking about America and how great it was and something about a visa. Then came the akward part.

This is like a 50 minute drive, by the way, so I’m stuck in the car with this guy. He says some combination of English and Arabic that I’m reasonably sure means he’s asking me to marry him, but I decide to not understand. The one and only time in my life I have ever been upset about the existence of Google happens here, because on its own, the conversation might have just stopped there. However, he whips out his smart phone and opens Google Translate to try again.

This time I cannot pretend not to understand, so I laugh because my only other option is to get angry miles from another taxi. I say no, and pull out my own Google Translate to make that clear. The next 20 minutes or so is a really good example of why Google Translate won’t replace human translators. First because a lot of people aren’t actually literate in Arabic even when they speak it with native proficiency so Google doesn’t recognize the words, and second because there are just too many nuances to adequately translate all but the simplest phrases from non-related language groups.

So he tries to hit on me some more, I don’t know how you change a girl’s mind about marriage in a taxi ride, but he tried. Most of the Google translate stuff game up as complete garbldy gook in Roman letters, not even English words, just a mess, so I was at least able to go back to not understanding. I’d stare at the phone and say, “no English”.

Finally we got back to my hotel, and he tried to vastly over-charge me for the ride. I thought it was pretty darn foolish of him, after all, he’d already done the driving and hadn’t gotten me to agree on a price. Moreover, he’d been very socially inappropriate which could have gotten him in big trouble if I’d reported him. Lucky for him, I guess, I wasn’t jaded enough to be so mean yet. So I paid him less than he wanted, but more than he deserved and got out.

The touchy-feeley guy

Another night, coming back to the hotel, I got an even more outrageously skeezy guy. I had at this point decided to make sure I got the fare agreed on in advance, but I’ve only been in Saudi a month, and I’m still not in the habbit of refusing handshakes. I’m working on it, but its a lifetime reflex that I have to overcome here. Plus, in Beijing, I really enjoyed chatting with the taxi drivers, so the social reprogramming needed to cope with Saudi taxis was simply not in place.

It was a very short trip and he tried to as for way too much money, we haggled for a bit then came to 13. I know Arabic speakers have trouble with 13 and 30 from teaching them, so I checked, I repeated it, 13 and said one-three. He said ok, I got in.

The guy went through a similar chat about America, are you married, you’re so pretty, etc. At some point he either realized he made a number mistake or just changed his mind and said the fare was 30, three-zero, to which I said no. No changing the fare once I’m in the cab.

Once we reached the hotel, I gave him 20 SAR, because I didn’t have change and didn’t feel like arguing. He took the opportunity of reaching back for the money to brush my leg, and I did get upset at that point, pushing his hand away and raising my voice. He tried to ask for more money again and I refused, holding out the 20 which was still more than the 13 we’d agreed on. Then he puckered up his lips and leaned more into the back seat, trying to get a kiss. Fortunately he didn’t do anything as stupid as try to touch me again, but it made me feel absolutely gross. I pushed the money at him and got out with what I am sure was the purest look of disgust I’ve ever had on my face, then went to my room and spent like an hour talking to friends in the US to calm down before walking out to diner.

The Lazy Liar

Much shorter story, but as I began learning more about negotiating fares and how to act (or not act) in a taxi, my behavior started to change accordingly. I wanted to go to Al Balad souq for the evening and talked a taxi into a 15 SAR fare. In the most passive aggressive way possible, he took me to the very edge of what could be considered Al Balad and claimed he couldn’t get in because the roads were blocked. While the road he stopped at was indeed blocked, there were plenty of cars driving in and out of Balad, so this was a clear lie and a way for him to get more fare for less driving. Not a happy camper, me.

The Wandering Driver

So, at this point I’ve gotten to know the neighborhood and nearest landmarks to my hotel, so I can say them to the drivers. I also can pull up Google maps and show them where I want to go, because the map works pretty well even without any wifi, you just can’t get a route or directions, but you can still see the map. So I tell the driver, show the driver and negotiate a price, then get in the taxi.

After a while, I can see he’s going the wrong way, so I tell him so and show him again on the map. He starts arguing with me (I can’t understand most of the words, but the tone is pretty clear) along the lines of what the hell. I point again to the map, but I’m pretty angry by now and am only yelling in English like a dumb American that this is what I showed him before, and if he didn’t know where it was, why the hell did he tell me to get in the taxi?

When he looks more closely at the map, he then demands more money than we agreed on, which I also refuse, since I’d showed him the map before we agreed on a price and its not my fault if he didn’t understand it or try to ask any questions.

The yelling goes on for a while before he finally tells me in broken English to change taxis. Fine, I say, and open the door. He tried to get me to pay him for the ride so far, and you know, on my first day in Jeddah I might have given him something, believing it was an honest mistake or trying to be nice, but after several days of jerk drivers I’ve completely had it. On top of which, we aren’t even near any place where I’ll be able to catch another taxi at this point, so I refuse to give him any money, pointing at my map again, and get out.

I walked for several blocks of dark empty city before coming to a little strip mall area where I could catch another taxi back to my hotel. Not fun.

The Nice Guy

Lest you think every single taxi driver in Jeddah is a scamming, skeezy douchbag, there were a couple neutral rides and there was one nice guy.

I’d decided after the above experiences that I needed to wear my Hijab when taking a taxi to avoid the impression of being ‘loose’, and to lie about the fact that that I’m not married (which I hate and may talk more about another time). This did get me a couple of less unpleasant taxi rides which do not bear remarking on in any detail except that one of them commented on my hijab saying that too many American women showed their hair and he was pleased to see me covering.

I don’t know if the nice guy was responding to my behavior or if he was just nice, but it was a short ride, and I’d given in at 30 SAR even though I knew it was too much because I was tired and hot. He talked to me, but respectfully, and when we arrived at my hotel and I handed him the 30, he gave me 10 back, saying it was too much and wishing me a good evening with a pleasant smile which I was happy to return.

The Lost on a Straight Road Guy

Finally, on my last day in Jeddah, I wanted to go back to La Plage. Now I knew where it was, could point to it on a map and had a basic understanding of how much it should cost to get there. So armed, I donned my hijab, pulled up my map and flagged a taxi.

I showed him the map, pointing to an empty stretch of coastline where the private beach lay. He questioned me about its name, and I told him, knowing it would do no good, then pointed to the spot on the map again. He took some time to look at the map. Its a straight shot up a single road. The road changes names a few times, from Al Andalus to King Abdul Aziz to Prince Abdullah Al Fiasal, but its really one big highway that follows the coast around a little inlet and into Obhur. No weird turns, no complicated switchbacks. I think I could have followed it without GPS and I get lost in the city I’ve lived in 10 years.

We agree on 70 SAR which is kinda pricey, but not bad for white-person rates. He argues for higher saying that its over 40km, but we settle in the end. This is important later, that he knows its about 40 km away. Don’t forget.

He chats me up, I’m very distant without being directly rude. Talk about my “husband” repeatedly. He tells me he’s Egyptian, and women in his country don’t have to wear abaya and hijab. He asks if we can be friends, and by now I know that’s a bad sign so I politely say  no, we cannot be friends because men and women in Saudi can’t be friends. He tells me its no problem because he is not Saudi he is Egyptian. I tell him no a few more times before the message really sticks. Remember this is a long drive.

Partway there, on the long stretch of highway where there are no turn offs at all, he pulls off on the side of the road, acting like he’s lost. I show him the map again, indicating the little blue dot that is us, and the stretch of beach I want to go to that is further on the road we are on. He continues to act confused. Which is the lamest act I’ve seen in a while. Eventually a cop pulls up beside us. So he explains that he’s got this American in the car who doesn’t speak Arabic and he’s trying to figure out where I want to go.

Seriously, are maps that hard to read? Is this some magical skill my father passed on to me on our family summer road trips? Its not even a paper map, there’s this blue dot that represents where we are! He takes my tablet over to the cop car to show him the map and they talk for a while but I can’t hear them.

Finally he comes back and heads out again. He indicates that I should tell him to stop when we get there, as though that were not my plan already.

When we finally arrive, he doesn’t even pull around to get me to the gate, and he tries to demand more money, acting like he had to drive so much farther than we’d originally agreed on. The fact that our little blue dot is exactly where I pointed to before I got in the taxi, and that his original argument for a higher fare included the distance he now tried to claim ignorance of made the attempt astonishingly pathetic.

There is of course no way I’m asking him to come back to pick me up in the evening. Which leads me to…

UBER

I don’t know what my resistance to using Uber was. I think they were along the lines of I don’t have a smart phone or bank account in Saudi yet. The lack of smart phone makes using the Uber app a little harder because I would be limited to being able to use it only where there was wi-fi which is unreliable in Saudi. The lack of a Saudi bank account means that I have to give Uber my US credit card, which I don’t like because its a pain to get my Saudi salary to my US bank account until I get the bank account here set up. Not impossible, just a pain. I really wanted to use my Saudi salary to take this vacation, and I think I got a little irrationally attached to the idea.

If it hadn’t been a mere three weeks since my arrival in Saudi, these obstacles would not have existed, and I might have been spared all these fantastic taxi experiences. As it was, I finally gave up on my last day and signed up for Uber from the restaurant at La Plage because I really couldn’t handle one more crappy taxi ride.

Once I was all done enjoying my day, I logged into the app and ordered my Uber car. I got a text immediately saying my driver had been dispatched and giving me an ETA. The app itself also showed me a picture of my driver, his name and they type of car he would be driving.

Only complaint was that the Uber estimation of the driver’s eta was off by quite a bit, it took almost 20 minutes longer than expected, but I was kind of way off the beaten track, so I was surprised at the original eta anyway, and I was in a resort while waiting, so not a hardship.

I got another text when the driver was a couple minutes away so I began to wrap up in my abaya and hijab and collect my things. The driver called and I told him to look for the green door and that I would be right out.

The gate guard also wouldn’t leave me until he saw that I had a car, which was nice since its a pretty empty stretch of road.

The car was cleaner and newer than the taxis. The driver had provided cold bottled water in the back seat for his passengers, and he didn’t try to talk to me at all. Its a little sad, because I like meeting people and exchanging ideas, but the reality is, this simply isn’t possible between men and women outside very structured work or school environments in Saudi. So in this case it was a relief to be able to relax on the drive and not have to worry about where the conversation was going or what consequences I would have to deal with for rebuffing advances.

He pulled right up to the door of my hotel, and we never once had to talk about price or exchange money since Uber simply calculates the rate based on GPS, charges my card and emails me a receipt. I actually tipped this driver because I was so relieved by the entire experience.

The Uber charge was 110 SAR. I’d paid 150 SAR for the same ride on my first day, and 70SAR for the ride to the beach that morning, so while its possible I could have saved a few dollars haggling with a taxi, I feel that the security and comfort of the ride, the courtesy of the driver and the simple fact that I didn’t have to argue or haggle or anything was definitely worth a little extra cash.

I took Uber to the airport the next morning as well, and had an equally pleasant ride, similarly paying only slightly more than most people said was normal for an airport taxi.

Live and learn.

What I Learned

Women travelling alone are more vulnerable in Saudi, even in places where its not completely abnormal. I found that when I was in public spaces like the Corniche or a restaurant that I could doff my hijab with no trouble and no change in the way people around me acted toward me. However, when I was in a taxi, wearing the hijab seemed to make a measurable difference in the amount of harassment I received, even if it did not eliminate it altogether.

If you must take a taxi, make sure they really know where they are going and agree on a price before you get in the car. The drivers would say ok and gesture me to get in even when they had no idea where we were going, and then start driving and try to change prices while we were on the road. Any wiggle room that they have to say they didn’t know what you meant will be exploited, so make sure that you’re as clear as possible before you get in.

If you have a smart phone/wi fi use Uber or another car service with set fares and more accountability. Since the drivers are assigned and recorded electronically, its much easier to lodge complaints if they are problematic, so they have more reason to offer good professional service. It might cost a little more, but its worth it, and you’ll never be ripped off, since again, the route is recorded and if they try to drive in circles to get you someplace, you can show the discrepancy in the route they took and the optimum route on the map.

Never let adversity stop you from having an awesome adventure. Live life for the great stories you’ll tell later on. Don’t stay angry, but don’t let being kind make you a doormat. Be excellent to each other and party on.   🙂