Monastery Surfing – An Underutilized Accommodation Option?

“Hello Father Michael, I was told next door at the church to come here and ask for you. I’m from the United States and passing through. I’ve heard that some Monasteries may take people in for a night or two and wanted to find out if I could stay here for a night.”

“Yes, come on in, we just sat down for dinner. You can put your stuff here, Brother George will take you to your room after dinner.”

“Thank you Father.”

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That is the conversation I had with the Father at the first monastery I attempted to “surf” at. Monastery Surfing, my new term references Couch Surfing, which I use to stay with locals during my travels. While I love Couch Surfing, it’s not always an option, so outside of camping, I’ve found other ways to obtain free accommodation, such as monasteries, Red Cross’s, and random locals.

I first got the idea to try to surf at monasteries from a traveler I met in Xela, Guatemala. She was excited to meet the man who was trying to spend only $700 in 2.5 months while going through all of Central America. She had heard about me from another traveler who I had met in Nicaragua. She told me that if she was doing what I was, she would be staying at churches. Her father had always told her that if she ever got into trouble and needed help or a place to stay, to go to a church, they’re usually open 24/7.

While that certainly was never my experience, most I had seen were closed a lot, and this is still true, I liked the idea and decided to try it. I was able to hitch hike my way to Cobán, a town that I heard had a monastery and was close enough to my destination, Semuc Champey, where I planned to do some bridge jumping, to stop at. This is where the above conversation comes into play.

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After the Father invited me in, we sat down at a dinner table with three Brothers. We had a delicious meal of rice and beans, plantains, fresh fruits, and juices. I was lucky that they all spoke English very well, so we were able to get to know each other a bit. I was glad I was also able to give a bit back by entertaining them with travel stories.

After dinner, I was shown to my room. I was surprised to find that I had my own room. There were three beds to choose from, I was provided toiletries, and I had access to WI-FI in the Father’s office. It was better than a hotel!
In the morning after making my bed, I went looking for Father Michael to thank him again.

I found a maid in the kitchen and she informed me that the Father was gone for the day. She then offered me a delicious breakfast and water to fill my bladder (the one in my backpack… not like the, you know, one where it goes once you’ve drank something…) I thanked her and asked her to thank Father Michael.

After Guatemala, I surfed at two more monasteries in Belize. I found the first monastery in Santa Elena, not far into the country. I did the same approach, only this time, informed the Father that I was a bit sick, exhausted, and needed rest (Montezuma was taking his Revenge.) He informed me that they usually only let people stay for a night, but he would allow me to stay a second if I needed extra time to rest.

Again, I was provided with my own room, food, a shower, and WI-FI. I explored a bit in this town, but mostly I rested. On the second day, I met a Canadian, Father Nicholas, who was visiting from the monastery just west in San Ignacio. He invited me to come to his monastery to experience the Festival of the Patron Saint Mary that was taking place over the next couple of days.

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I love festivals, especially ones based so deep in culture and religion, and loved the festival in this small town. The first part of the festival was a parade. The whole town came out to watch as members of the Church, Brother’s, and Father’s carried the statue of Mary around the town.

After the parade was a feast. I was happy to be able to serve the masses food and give back a little after I had been given so much. Following the food were fireworks, though not the usual big, colorful fireworks. First, was a street length set of firecrackers, a constant pop-pop-pop, for a full 30 seconds. Then there were the Bombas. Bombas shoot up into the air and make a small explosion and a very loud BOM-BA sound. They are awesome to experience.

The next morning, I went to my first Catholic service. While embarrassing, it could’ve been worse. At one point, the Father welcomed the congregation to partake in the Eucharist. As a Christian, I’ve experienced Communion many times, and anyone is welcome to partake, whether a devout Christian or not.

I followed the others to the front to take the Eucharist and after watching a few people go up to the Father, say a silent phrase, take the Eucharist and walk away, I still had no clue what exactly the procedure was. I ended up in front of the Father looking like a deer caught in headlights. I was grateful when he took pity on me and gave me the piece of bread. It was only later that I found out what I was supposed to say. I also found out that the Eucharist is only meant to be taken by devout Catholics and that he gave it to this little deer out of compassion to end it’s misery.

After the festival, I found out that the Church and these great people turned out to be the gift from God that kept on giving. I was planning on hitch hiking my way into Mexico now that I had rested a bit. Father Nicholas told me that he and a few others were going to make their way to Mexico that same day and that they were making room for me in the van. Once again, I was so grateful, I no longer needed to use the bit of energy I had stored to try to catch rides.

Monastery surfing has been one of the best experiences I’ve had while traveling. The people are amazing and it’s hard to beat free hotel level accommodation that includes food. This is definitely a underutilized form of accommodation. It is a diamond in the rough and I don’t see enough people trying this anytime soon to jade the church, so it’s worth keeping in mind as an option through your travels.

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-The Travel Economist

P.S. Sadly, due to my camera and cell phone being stolen in Nicaragua, the above photos are stock and not the actual monasteries I stayed at.

 

 

 

 

 

A week in the Land of Fire and Ice

I am convinced that Iceland is one of the top five most beautiful countries in the world. It’s vast landscape varying from incredible mountains, about 130 volcanoes, to glaciers and plains of nothing. Its Hekla Volcano is the place where Director Ridley Scott chose to use as his planet in the “darkest corners of the universe” in his film “Prometheus.” I had the pleasure of spending 8 days there in early April 2015 and it was one of the best experiences I’ve had.

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I arrived at the airport in Reykjavik and it didn’t take too long before I found a local waiting to pick up his girlfriend who happened to fly in on my flight. I sat down a seat a away from him and started talking to him, told him that I was hoping to find someone heading toward the city and he said as long as it was okay with his girlfriend, I could ride with them as far as they were heading. I caught a second ride that took me into the city and started exploring.

It wasn’t long until Iceland’s weather started showing itself and there was a full out hail blizzard. For about ten minutes. Then it was decent, only snow flurries and a bit of wind. I even saw some blue in the sky instead of grey clouds. The saying goes, “If you like the weather in Iceland, wait 10 minutes,” and it’s true, ten minutes later, the hail storm was back.

I ended up staying in a hostel my first night to avoid the weather. I met a group of travelers from all over and hung out with them. We ended up being a group of five and since the beginning of April is the end of the Aurora season, went hunting for a dark spot to try to see the lights. It reminded me why I do not like traveling in groups, decisions are so slow to be made. The hunt was unsuccessful.

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Þingvellir National Park

The following night I was scheduled to couch surf with a local, Petur, and his son for a couple of nights. It was absolutely great, the Icelandic people are so kind and welcoming. He took me to a local thermal pool, a much more budget-friendly version of the Blue Springs that everyone raves about. I didn’t see the point in spending about six times as much when the local thermal pools are where the locals are. It was very relaxing, indoor and out, different pools of different temperatures, depths, it had jets and even a water slide. He prepared traditional snacks and a “filler” dinner, a kind of rice pudding that I enjoyed, but Iceland isn’t known for it’s food, so it wasn’t something to write home about. He introduced me to his vinyl collection and I listened to his album “Illinois” by Sufjan Stevens about fifty times. On my second night with him, I used his spare key to go watch the night sky in hopes of seeing the lights. The forecast was unusually high and I was lucky enough to be able to lay out under the stars and watch the Lights dance across the sky for a few hours before I became too sleepy and returned to the apartment.

Petur told me that he believed that in the country side, I could knock on a few doors and about half of the locals would open their doors to me and invite me in for a night, so after my two nights with him, I set out to hitch hike the famous Golden Ring Route and spend my nights in random locals homes. I received two rides with locals before I arrived at my first destination; Þingvellir National Park. During one of my rides, the woman let me see how the locals view nature. She told me about the mountain on the opposite side of the harbor from Reykjavik. She told me that “She” was wearing her White Dress and that she must have an extraordinary closet because throughout the year she wears so many different dresses filled with so many different colors. Many believe in invisible elves, trolls, and other creatures. It’s just another reason why I love this country.

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Here at the Þingvellir National Park is where I met Shaniece, a awesome person and the best police woman I’ve ever met. She was from Virginia and was traveling for the first time by herself. We had the same plan, so I was able to catch a ride with her. We ended up spending four incredible days together. We continued on the route and came across some Icelandic horses, stopped to try to pet them and met a couple of ladies from Los Angeles, Danielle and Laura. Danielle is the stage director of Marvel on Ice and helped produce the awesome Power Rangers Reboot while Laura is an editor at Playboy. Having been a huge Power Rangers fan growing up, I was a bit star-struck. We met up with the two again at the next stop, the geothermal area that contains the famous “Geysir” and “Strokkur,” and the four of us became fast friends. Geysir erupts hot water into the air up to 100ft every 10 minutes or so and is where our word “geyser” comes from. We continued onto our final stop in the Golden Ring, the Gulfoss Waterfall with the ladies in tow.

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Danielle and Laura returned to Reykjavik for the rest of their trip while Shaniece and I continued onto the village of Vik, population about 200, where Shaniece had booked her hotel. We spent two nights here and this is where my hopes of finding kind locals would come in. After exploring the beach and agreeing on what time to meet up in the morning, Shaniece and I parted for the night. I went knocking on the doors of the village. The fifth person to answer their door was an older local lady, Lara, she was home alone, her husband wasn’t going to be home for a few hours, but to my delightful surprise, she almost instantly said yes and showed me to the spare bedroom downstairs.

Lara was so kind. I came upstairs to ask about the bed covers and she offered me crackers and hot chocolate. She made me the best home made hot chocolate you could imagine, I had never seen anyone make it with a bar of chocolate and milk, it was amazing. We talked for about an hour. She told me about her daughter, Doctor in Sweden, her son, a fisherman, and her career as a elementary school teacher. She was retired and about to go visit her daughter. She told me that she wished she could have traveled more when she was young, but ended up getting married and having a family, so she was unable to. I felt bad she hadn’t been able to travel as much as she’d wanted to and I hope I’ll be able to make my reader’s travel dreams come true. Lara was even more optimistic about the locals welcoming spirits than Petur, she felt 3/4 people would welcome someone into their home rather than Petur’s estimate 1/2.

Sadly, at least in Vik, tourists are ruining this culture. The next night, I heard a very opposite view. The seventh door I knocked on was the home of Aran and his wife Eva, two local police officers. When I asked Aran if they would welcome me into their home for the night, he went and discussed it with Eva, and I heard her say Couch Surfing. I informed them that I am a Couch Surfer and that made them feel confident enough to invite me in. We talked for about an hour or so before it got too late. They had once had an account to host, but were immediately overwhelmed by the vast amount of requests they received and ended up closing the account. They informed me that at one point, it was true, nearly anyone would let a traveler stay with them for a night rather than be left outside in the cold, but tourism has grown so fast that it has become common for the hotel and hostel in the village to fill up, even in the off season, so many people come to their doors knocking. On top of this, tourists walk onto local’s lawns and look into their homes as if they’re at a museum. The locals are becoming jaded. We must respect property and privacy if we want to even hope for locals to be kind and welcoming.

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Shaniece and I at Jökulsárlón,

During the second day with Shaniece, we made a long trip to Jökulsárlón, an amazing glacier bay where we got to walk on the most idyllic glaciers. We got extremely lucky, during our two days in the South, we experienced really good weather for Iceland at that time, while Danielle and Laura were suffering grey skies, rain storms, and roads being shut down due to the weather. After Jökulsárlón, we finished our day off with a trip to the Skaftafell National Park to see Svartifoss, or Black Waterfall.

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Svartifoss, AKA Black Waterfall

When we returned to Vik and I found Aran and Eva to spend the night with, I was given an awesome offer. Eva was going to the local horse stables in the morning where they kept their horses and asked if Shaniece and I would like to ride. Horseback riding is a big attraction, Icelandic horses are unique, very cute, and it has been illegal for any horse to enter Iceland for over 130 years to preserve its genetic purity. That includes any horse that has left the country from re-entering. With a bit of struggle, I woke Shaniece up and off we went to meet Eva.

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On our way back to Reykjavik, we stopped at a few places we’d wanted to on the way to Vik but didn’t have time to. We went to Reynisfjara first, AKA Black Sand Beach, where there are rock formations similar to the Black Waterfall’s formations. We struggled but succeeded to find a crashed airplane from years ago that the government decided to leave. We saw multiple more waterfalls including the huge Skogafoss fall and finished off our tour with the frozen Kerið Crater Lake. The GPS took us down a wrong road and we ended up walking through woods and foot high snow to find the fenced back entrance. Someone inside told us we had to go around and pay to enter, but we decided it would be easy enough just to go through the fence, and who would know?

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After our final stops, we made it back to Reykjavik for my final day and Shaniece’s last couple. We kept in touch with Danielle and Laura and ended up meeting up with them at a bar for trivia. Danielle was meeting up with an old friend of her boss who had been living in Iceland for the past 10 years after falling in love with a local. He owned an acting school and is a radio host. He ended up winning the trivia and treating The ladies and I to drinks with his winnings. He was also a couch surfing host and ended up spending the night with his girlfriend and allowed me to stay in his home for the night. We also met another couple of awesome people and we all hung out well past the end of trivia. It was a great night.

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The next day, I started hitch hiking to the airport to catch my flight the next morning. I started going to gas stations and just ask people if I could have a ride because I was not having much luck with my signs. It took longer than I expected, but after a few rides, I finally came across a government official who was heading close to the airport. It was pouring rain out, so he didn’t think I would have much luck catching another ride, so he kindly decided to take me the final 10 or so miles to my destination. At the airport, I was dumbfounded. I had never seen an airport with signs that said no sleeping or eating in the airport, but here they were. I realized I needed to find a hidden area where no one would notice I was sleeping because I did not want to go back out into the rainstorm to try to sleep for the night. I found the restrooms and was very happy to see that the doors to the stall were from the ground to the ceiling and the stall were big enough to lay down in. I had my own private suite. Another traveler had the suite two doors down.

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Iceland was amazing and I can’t wait to go back and experience it in the summer. Being so far in the northern hemisphere, on June 21, it’s longest day, the sun sets just after midnight and rises before 3AM, so there is nearly 24 hours per day to explore this gorgeous and incredible country.

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-The Travel Economist

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First Two Days in Tokyo

I have only been in Tokyo for a couple of days, but it’s already been filled with a lot of new adventures, tastes, and people with ups and downs. When I arrived at the Narita Tokyo Airport, I decided to sleep there to get a early start hitch hiking to central Tokyo (it’s a huge city) in the morning. I went out of the airport and using Google Maps (could’ve used the free map provided at the airport,) found which roads led to central. I stood at the on ramp, because the only way to get there is by highway and there are signs that show it is illegal to walk on the highway, with my sign that said “TOKYO.” After about a half hour, a black SUV passed me and when I did not notice it stop, the driver got out and called to me. It felt great getting my first ride in Asia, and when I got in, the driver and the man sitting in the back asked where I wanted to go; this was a time I wish I had prepared a bit before coming. I decided I wanted to go to the Imperial Palace, I thought this would be a central spot with the popular area’s close by (I was wrong, it was in the boring business district with nothing around,) and to my surprise, they took me all the way there. The driver, who I originally thought was the son of the man sitting in the back, was actually the employed driver who did not speak English, so the man in the back and I talked off and on throughout the ride, and when we arrived, the man asked for a photo, which I always take anyways, but for the first time, I realized that this was likely more of a novelty for the wealthy man to show off to his friends than actually trying to help out a traveler. Although I realized this, we both got what we wanted, so I did not mind.

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I explored the Imperial Palace’s Eastern Garden and saw a woman trying to use a selfie stick to take her photo and offered my assistance. We started talking and since we were going the same direction, walked together for a while as we explored and later searched for a view of the actualy Palace (it was closed when I got there, so we could not see it.) I learned that Jackie Leila ( http://wildonfood.com) is actually an attorney turned amateur-chef-travel-food-blogger who was recently on the Food Networks reality show Chopped and will be on again on St. Patricks Day, she is also being interviewed for her own reality TV show. She was a really awesome person to spend time with, very down-to-earth, and although, self-admittedly a bit materialistic, through travel, has learned that things are not what is really important in life; it’s the experiences and memories that we create as we live our lives everyday.

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Later, after Jackie and I went our separate ways, I started walking to the popular Tsukiji Fish Market and on the way met a business man who was living in Tokyo, he told me that I shouldn’t have any trouble wild camping in Japan, cops do not really bother you if you are not from Japan and not to worry about crime; it is nearly nonexistent here due to the pretty extreme punishments – a minimum of 28 days in jail whether you actually did anything or not. With this information, I figured I could probably sleep anywhere, so after getting some ramen at a hole in the wall restaurant (I was going to play eenie-meenie-minee-moe until the man sitting next to me translated and informed me I was about to order plain noodles,) I set up camp behind a building where it seemed I would receive at least some privacy. After a few hours of sleep, at 1:30AM, my biggest worry when wild camping came true; I was woken and told by security to pack up and find somewhere else to sleep, and that I should ask the police for help finding a place. They were no help, but I found another spot and again, right after I got all set up and into my tent, was told to pack up. After 2 hours of trying to find a spot, at 3.30AM, I finally settled into a cramped spot under a foot bridge, barely large enough to lay in, on big, though somewhat smooth, rocks. I couldn’t pitch my tent, so the rain seeped through my rain cover and bug net to me. The temperature was 43°F, but felt like it was below freezing and there was a lot of traffic making noise, the night was very similar to my miserable night on the Volcano Tajulmulco in Guatemala last year, minus the noise, and I can not decide if it was the most or second most miserable night I have ever had!

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Cutting up a fish while searching for sushi

The following day turned out to be a much better day. In the morning I met a group outside the gate to the fish market, a couple of Japanese women, Michelle and Mika, and a couple of men from France, Audrick and Damien. We started talking and I told them about my trip and miserable night and almost immediately, Mika offered for me to stay at her house with her husband and the two men; the Japanese (despite not letting me sleep in peace) are very kind and helpful when they know you need help. I hung out with them all day, we walked around looking for sushi for lunch, and when we went into the restaurant, everyone ordered meals. I had already eaten and as not a big fan of fish, decided just to order a single cheap piece of fish to try, but soon my plate was full of different types of sushi, wraps, and soup because each one gave me a bit off of their plates. Yes, Japanese sushi is as good as its fame suggests. On top of that, when I tried to pay for my fish, Mika wouldn’t let me, and covered it.

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My fish before they filled my plate

Mika soon had to go home and rest, due to her pregnancy, so we agreed to meet her at 5PM for dinner. The remaining four of us went to explore the popular Shibuya area, you know the area in the movies where hundreds of people from every direction all enter the intersection at one time and becomes an incredible chaos that looks similar to Times Square.

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After exploring Shibuya, we went onto the Meiji Jingu shrine and did the traditional kind of prayer to the deities of the temple; throw some coins into the offering box, bow twice, clap your hands twice, and bow once again. The shrine was very impressive, it felt very traditional with everything you would imagine a Japanese shrine to have.

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After the shrine, we met Mika at the metro station near her home and she showed us the way to a delicious restaurant nearby. I had requested a terriyaki meal because having experienced terriyaki pork intestines in Las Vegas, possibly the best thing I had ever tasted, I wanted to find out if it even compared to the real Japanese terriyaki. I decided to order Mikas favorite, a slight variation of the most popular meal that had vegetables along with Chicken, rice, soup, and salad, along with the beloved terriyaki sauce. It was delicious, although I can not say it was as good as Las Vegas; the hunt continued! After the meal, I waited in line to pay, and when I got to the counter found out that no more was owed, Audrick had paid, so I tried to pay him and he wouldn’t accept it.

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Mika and her violin, process of cleaning her room

We went to Mika’s place and finished the night with a few games of UNO. It always amazes me how much kindness can be found from complete strangers. Not only did this group let me hang out with them, Mika let me stay in her home, the group paid for two meals, paid for a couple of subway rides, and showed me around the city, but Mika also extended her offer to let me stay in her home to when I return to Tokyo after traveling to other parts of the country. I was very happy when I started making my bed that she did not stop me and let me help her around the house for a few hours to show my appreciation (it is very difficult for her to maintain the home because of her pregancy.)

My goal of this blog is shifting; while I will still focus on extreme budget traveling and will write about travel hacking and everything that goes with it, I want this blog, this community, to be mainly focused on kindness and grace that we experience everyday. I want to invite my readers to share their stories and friends stories of random kindness and favor that they are shown by strangers or new friends while traveling, in their own state, country, or abroad. The world is full of people who want to help if you let them or ask, and it is our responsibility to show the world that there is kindness everywhere and the world is not some big and scary place!

Help me spread the word of these wonderful experiences!
-The Travel Economist

Hitchhiking?!

Ever wonder how to cut out some extra expenses while traveling? While in many countries, buses are very cheap and are the budget travel solution for many backpackers, they still cost money. If we want to cut out every expense possible, try hitch hiking to get rid of extra travel fees. We may only save fifty cents on some buses, but we could save twenty dollars or more on others, and even those fifth cent buses add up. There is a general idea that hitch hiking is too hard or too dangerous, but it can be surprising how many great people are willing to help out a complete stranger with a ride, and sometimes much more; I have been given free food, drinks, and even money during my rides. I have fallen in love with hitch hiking, it is a great feeling when a vehicle pulls over to the side of the road to offer you a ride and you have a chance to make some new friends!tmp_IMG_5252768895265-1207574808It is true that hitch hiking is not always a walk in the park, but the best experiences in life often come from a bit of struggle! I have often had to walk for hours, sometimes in the rain, before someone would stop to give me a ride. I was also robbed once, a man left me at a gas station and drove off with my backpack, but even with this, I have never experienced any real danger. “You could be getting into a car with a serial killer!” This is a true risk, but the “serial killer” is also inviting you, a possible killer into their vehicle; it is a situation that relies on mutual trust and respect. Although there are risks, use this guide to reduce the risks and increase the likelihood of catching rides from tourists, locals, and even taxi’s and buses!

Have a sign!

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This is a very important part of hitch hiking. When I first started trying to catch rides, I walked for a full day without getting a ride for more than a mile. The second day, I started thinking and decided to go to a local store and buy a black marker and some paper so that I could create a sign. I went to a traffic light on a popular road that lead to my destination and held it up with a smile. In less than a minute I heard a honk from a car stopped at the light and saw the driver waving me over, I hurried over and hopped into the car and we were on our way to my destination.

Sign rules:

1. Spell correctly

2. Make it legible and as large as possible

3. Black on white works best

4. Use popular destinations – for far destinations, use shorter destinations as mid-points

5. The sign does not have to have a destination! – Writing North, East, West, or South in the local language works well too, sometimes better than a destination, because the drivers do not know how far the destination is and will not worry about feeling obligated to go very far.

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Where to Catch Rides:

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Decent place to catch a ride – a lot of cars coming

1. Get on a road that goes straight to the destination

2. Find a busy road, the more vehicles, the more likely it is to get a ride

3. Busy traffic lights are best; drivers can read the sign and have a few moments to decide to give a ride or continue and are already stopped

4. Highways can work, but places where cars are traveling at less than 50MPH are best

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Where not to hitch hike

Dress Code: How you look is important.

1. No hats, glasses or anything that can cover our heads unless necessary – ladies, pull your hair back if it is long.

2. Clean shave is best

3. Men; short hair is best, although a crew cut is not recommended

4. Well fitting clothes are best

5. No dark clothes and make up

6. Take out facial piercings

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How to catch the ride:

1. Make eye contact with the driver

2. SMILE!

3. If walking, turn around and face traffic to follow prior rules

4. If there is another hitch hiker around, find another spot, or wait your turn

Keep in mind, it is harder to catch a ride in the rain.

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I can’t stop smiling in the back of a pick up!

Safety Rules –

I do bring any weapons with me – I prefer to trust in people and believe in God for my protection

1. Always take our stuff with us when exiting the vehicle, even if just using the restroom

2. If the gear is in the back of a pick-up truck or trunk of a taxi, leave the door open until we have our gear or do not exit the vehicle until the driver has also exited

3. Remember, we do not have to take every ride offered; if a driver looks dangerous, we can tell him/her that we will wait for another

4. It is more dangerous to hitch hike at night – it is also much more difficult if it is necessary

This guide to hitch hiking will greatly reduce the difficulty and danger of hitch hiking along with aiding in the creation of great friendships, experiences, and memories. So grab your sign, put on a smile, and go meet some new people!

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-The Travel Economist

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