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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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.

 

 

 

 

 

The Answer to the Language Barrier

It’s one of the things that people worry about most when they’re about to head into a foreign land. Language. How can we travel in countries like Japan, where outside the tourist area’s locals don’t know much if any English, or France, where they may know some English but are reluctant to use it because they feel, granted, correctly, that we should speak their language in their country. The problem is that people in many countries, especially the US, only learn their native language. So, In the US, we grow up only knowing English, and while we take a foreign language in school, most of us only memorize what we need to to get past the class and then forget the bit of the only other language we’ve ever attempted to learn. On top of that, how could we possibly learn the language of each country we want to visit when in Europe alone, there are twenty three official languages and over 6,500 total languages in the world. Can we please all just forget the our languages and use Klingon?

Make a sign, someone will help!
Make a sign, someone will help!

Okay, now maybe you can get by in most of the world without speaking any other language than English, but come on, we should at least attempt the native tongue, it makes the locals feel good and often they are much more willing to try to help if an effort is made on our part. I’ve even heard that Parisians may help if something humbling is said, like “Pardonnez mon ignorance, je ne parle pas,” forgive my ignorance, I do not speak French. Again, although we may be able to get by without speaking the native tongue, it still makes traveling a lot easier if you can speak it a bit. So outside of spending months prior to your trip studying and trying to memorize and understand how a language works or buying an expensive language learning program like Rosetta Stone, what can we do to prepare to prepare ourselves to communicate in a new language?

Trying to communicate in a foreign language can be intimidating, many people struggle to force themselves to ask where the restroom is. Did you know that there are about 250,000 words in English, but with only about 250, you can create any sentence and express nearly any idea? It’s the same way in every language, learn a few hundred words and you can become conversational. Think about that, if you want to take a language further than just getting by in a country and become conversational in a language, you could learn 25 words a week and be conversational in less than 3 months. On top of that, there are many words in nearly every language that are cognates, meaning they sound the same and mean the same in a different language. In Spanish, take any English word that ends in “tion” and change it to “ción” and it almost always the same thing, like action to acción or preparation to preparación. After the cognates, there are a lot of great apps to help you memorize new vocabulary and get you started in a new language, but my favorite by far is Duolingo. This app is fun and very interactive and rewards you for completing levels of vocabulary. You earn Lingots which you can use to buy fun lessons like pick-up lines or dress up the avatar. Once you’ve completed a lesson, there’s a memory bar and the longer it’s been since you completed that lesson, the lower it goes, so it reminds you to freshen up on it.

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This information will not help everyone, many people don’t feel they have the time or motivation to attempt to learn even some of the basics of a new language. All is not lost though, one of my favorite tools while traveling is Google Translate. It’s great because we can actually download languages for offline translation. No more do we have to carry around a dictionary or worry about having WI-FI or data for translations. Translations can also be saved and starred for a quick reference. While it isn’t perfect, in most countries, locals will be able to piece together what we’re trying to say, even if the translation isn’t spot on. Also, to translate what the other person is saying, it is required to have the keyboard for that language installed to spell and punctuate each word properly, the local can help with this. While no one wants to be stuck using their phone or tablet every time they want to communicate, it’s a lot better than nothing. If you do have data or WI-FI, Google can translate words and phrases that you take photo’s of too which is great for quick translations.

When preparing for international travel in a country that speaks a language other than our native tongue, it can be overwhelming and stressful imagining the difficulties that may show up along the way. A new language can be very intimidating, it can be embarrassing to attempt to say one thing and say something completely ridiculous by mistake. These feelings can be reduced though, if not eliminated, by spending a little bit of time learning some key words and phrases that will allow us to say nearly anything you need to. Also, by understanding that locals will appreciate any attempt at speaking their language, even if it doesn’t sound perfect, we are able to relax a bit more and not worry so much about embarrassing ourselves.

If you’re interested in learning a language quickly, check out www.fluentin3months.com, where you can learn different techniques to help you in your linguistic goals.

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Japan: Nikko

My last day in Tokyo was filled with helping Mikka clean her home for a few hours, followed by a trip to the Tokyo Skytree (it holds the world record for the tallest broadcasting tower,) where Mikka and I looked out of the thirtieth story of a building right across from the Skytree (the Tree itself is expensive to go up into, while the thirtieth floor was free and good enough,) and then had some delicious Crepe’s. Mikka informed me there that her husband wanted to pay for dinner that night to thank me for my help cleaning house, so at eight, we met up with him. We went to a restaurant down the road from their house, it was similar to America’s Japanese Steak Houses, hibachi style, but in this restaurant, they brought us the meats, and we cooked it on at the table ourselves. Here was the meal I had been looking for! Multiple types of meat, one of which nearly melted in my mouth, and dipped in the most delicious terriyaki sauce, along with a lot of salad topped with what I only know as “Japanese sauce,” a very delicious, likely ginger type dressing, and a beer. I told the owners that this was the most delicious meal I had had on my trip, possibly ever, and they were so flattered that they brought out a piece of, small, but my friends informed me expensive, beef for each one of us, on the house. My favorite remained the type that nearly melted, but everything was absolutely amazing! The next morning, I helped clean a bit more, and then set off on my, very general, itinerary of area’s to visit in Japan that my friends had helped me create.

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My first stop was going to be in a kind of small town called Nikko in the Tochigi prefecture, about a hundred miles North-East of Tokyo, and ofcourse, I was at least going to attempt to hitch hike it. Mikka helped me make a sign, written in Japanese, that stated my destination, nationality (she thought it would help,) and that any distance helps for Nikko and my next destination; Kanazawa. I had no idea how incredible the Japanese people are before I came, and like many others, it is the people who are turning this country into one of my favorite, right up there with Nicaragua! I walked for about an hour in the morning until I got to the main highway that would go about fifty miles toward Nikko and then put up my sign and stood at a few traffic lights for a few minutes each. After about twenty minutes with my sign out, a small van pulled over. I was a bit confused at first, unsure if they were going to offer me a ride, because the back was like a pool of work quipment that filled up half of the area. The two men did not speak more than a few words of English, but waived me in, they moved some stuff around and created a flat spot on top of their piles of for me and I climbed in. I downloaded the Japanese language for use offline in the Google Translate app, so I was able to communicate to the two men at least a bit, but did not realize that for them to translate to me, my phone needed the Japanese letters. We ended up, unintentionally, playing games of cherades followed by my translations to guess if I was right and then to answer their questions. I am still unsure if I actually guessed anything right. We stopped not long after they picked me up and the men went into a convenience store, I decided I would just prefer to wait with my stuff, and soon were back with snacks and coffee for each of us. A bit after that, we stopped for lunch, had some delicious, juicy, friend chicken with soup and rice. When we were finished, I went to pay for my meal, but one of the men had already paid for all of us and I was told to keep my money. A lot of people tell me that I just have a lot of luck when I am traveling, that I must have great people skills, but these things happen often when hitch hiking or couch surfing, and that is a goal of my blog; to provide stories of kindness from around the world. We continued on until a intersection only about twenty miles away from Nikko where they dropped me off, I said “Oregato gozai mas” (Thank you very much,) we said goodbye, and I put up my sign again.

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About five minutes after standing at the traffic light, a man walked over to me from the convenience store and asked where I was going, I told him Nikko and he said “Okay, come on.” I only ever expect my rides to take me as far as they are going in my direction, nothing more, maybe less, but I never expect any strangers to go out of their way for me. Again, Japan surprised me. When the man’s wife emerged from the store (he had asked her if she would be comfortable giving me a ride already,) we set off, and he told me that he would drop his wife off at home and then take me the additional fifteen or so minutes further to Nikko, and asked where I wanted to be dropped off. This was the first time a ride had gone out of their way to take me where I wanted to be dropped off (excluding the rich man who gave me a ride more as a novelty than anything,) so I was extremely humbled by this new act of kindness. The man spoke a decent amount of English, his wife very little, but we had a great time talking during the ride. I decided I wanted to be dropped off at the Nikko Central Station so that I could get some maps, tourist information, and possibly use free Wifi, and he took me directly there. The trip to Nikko only took me about five hours, so I arrived around two in the afternoon. I knew beforehand that Nikko was going to be a bit colder than Tokyo, but I had no clue that I would be arriving to beautifully snow-capped mountains. It was a very pleasant surprise.

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Once we said our goodbyes, I got my bearings and decided I wanted to go to the World Heritage Temples and Shrines area to see some, well, temples and shrines. It was a short walk up to the area and I spent a few hours exploring. There were multiple colorful temples with stone statues of deities inside along with seperate shrines for other dedications. Along with these were unexpected pagoda’s, the most popular being five stories high, it claimed to be as tall as Tokyo’s Skytree that I had visited the night before with Mikka, but I do not believe it, it was tall though. I had always wanted to see one of these, so it was really great to stumble upon such a tall one.

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Once it was about dark, I headed up a road towards the mountains, along a river, for about an hour (why am I always going up where it’s colder?) I found a open area and short trail that led to the river and followed it, there was snow on the ground, but under a tree was a large area without snow where I set up camp. Mikka had given me hand/feet warming packs that lasted twelve hours, so after I made my peanut cream and chocolate cream sandwiches and reading my book for a bit, I got into my tent, put a warmer in my sock, my coat around my feet and cuccooned myself in my sleeping bag. I woke up to about two inches of new snow on the ground and on my tent, but despite this, the night was great, the warmer worked great for my feet (thank you Mikka!)

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Once packed up, I decided to head up to the Kirifuri waterfall and highlands (again, why do I do this?) I walked for about a half hour and then at a intersection, went to a stopped vehicle and pointed to the waterfall on the map to get directions, he showed me and I continued walking. About three minutes later, the man pulled up, stopped, and waved me in; again, the Japanese going out of their way to help. He took me the rest of the way, about five minutes or so, to the waterfall parking lot and then with a thank you, we said goodbye. I walked the short trail to the viewing area of the waterfall, I enjoyed the fact that it was still early and the park was officially closed, so I had it all to myself. It seems though, all of the waterfalls in Nikko are meant only to be viewed from afar, there was no easy trail, and especially no trail that I was meant to take, down to the waterfall. One closed side trail took me down to a lower viewing area, and it was possible to go further down, likely to the base of the waterfall, but I do not know for sure if anyone is supposed to go down; no one is going down at this time of year though.

After the waterfall, I made breakfast and decided to head up again towards the highlands, where I hoped to get at least some kind of nice view, and then on the way back down, I would hopefully come across some hot springs. On my way up, I put my thumb out as a vehicle came on this deserted road and to my surprise, the man stopped and took me up to the park. This is the only country I’ve had luck “thumbing it” in, any others have required a sign. There was no view to be seen though, it was way too foggy, and the snow was way too deep to try to go anywhere outside of the parking lot even if I wanted to; I had been told that I would need snowshoes if I wanted to enter the Nikko National park, and they were right! So, I turned around and headed back down, picking up big balls of snow/ice and throwing them down the hill off the side of the highway and watching them run into tree after tree, I felt like a little kid again. About fifteen minutes after walking, a small SUV came and I put out my thumb, it stopped and I climbed in. The man, Ito, spoke a little bit of English and asked where I was heading. I told him to central Nikko and when we got about two minutes away from the central train station, at the beginning of the central area, I told him here would be fine, I wanted to walk and explore the rest of the way, so I got out, and we waived bye as he left. As soon as he passed me though, I realized I was missing my cell phone, and ran after him waiving, but he did not notice. This was the cell phone my friend in Hong Kong had let me borrow, so I worried for a few minutes, but then relaxed knowing that I could just buy him a new one (he had wiped it before lending it to me so nothing would be lost) and I still had my cell phone and the tablet he let me borrow. I strolled slowly down the street. looking at the shops and checking out prices for lunch when Ito came pulling in, clumsily over the curb, to the restaurant parking lot I was walking out of; he had went to the central station and when he did not find me, came driving up towards where he dropped me off so that he could return the cell phone to me. He then told me that the restaurant we were at was expensive, most in Nikko are, so when I asked him where he recommended, he told me to get in. He took me to a little place called Bar de Nikko, there, a young man tended the bar. He spoke only a bit of English, but was very polite and a great cook; Ito ordered us rice with melted (by hand torch!) cheese and some other toppings, the result was yet another incredible Japanese meal.

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Ice cream at Bar de Nikko with Ito

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Towards the end of the meal, the tender had become so interested in my trip and everything I was doing that he invited me back for a drink on the house that night when another tender would be there who spoke nearly perfect English. Ito told me to put away my money, he would pay for the meal, and then asked what my plans were for the day. I did not really have any plans, so he helped me come up with some, and any that we did, became his. He took me to a beautiful lake surrounded my mountains, a waterfall called “Dragons Head” because the rocks form the image of a dragon with little imagination, and another waterfall, at nearly 100 meters, the tallest waterfall in Nikko, but it was too foggy to see. At one point, I mentioned that when I had been on the phone with my parent’s, they had asked if I knew where I was going to sleep, he perked up at this and asked where and when I told him I did not know, anywhere that showed up, he offered to let me stay in his home with him and his mother, to which, I was pleased to accept.

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His home was a nice house, two stories in a smaller area of the already small Nikko, on a one laned side road with a even tighter kind of drive way, forcing him to squeeze between two fences before getting to the open area that allowed him to pull into his homes parking space. It had three bedrooms, a toilet room, shower/wash room, kitchen, and den. We spent most of our time in the den, the table in the center was at the traditional, sit on the floor, height, but with the surprise that the floor under the table was deep, making the floor like chairs. Rather than a home heater, they had room heaters and a funnel with one end at the heater and the other under the table that brought warmth to our feet and was sealed in by blankets squished between the table and the floor. The shower/bath was in the traditional Japanese style as well; wash yourself outside of the bath before getting into the tub to relax, they did this to conserve water, the bath water does not get dirty and need replacing if the bathers wash before entering. The hot water reminded me that this is far from my trip to Central America, and it felt great. I was given one of the two rooms upstairs while Ito used the other, my own traditional Japanese bed, a futon, along with heated blankets and a pillow; great unexpected comforts!

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Later that night, around 9PM, Ito and I headed back to Bar de Nikko to get the free drink and meet the other bar tender. When we arrived, there were two girls sitting in the last two stools at the end of the bar (There are only about eight altogether,) and Nikko and I sat two down from them and politely said “Konichiwa.” The tender asked what I would like to drink and I told him whatever he recommended, so he brought me a glass of traditional Japanese sake (sah-kee) and a couple of pieces of tuna. A few minutes later, two girls came in the bar and everyone yelled happy birthday and started singing; I had no clue this was going to happen, but quickly caught on and joined in. The birthday girl was completely and utterly surprised and for the two hours I was there, she rarely did not look like she was going to cry out of happiness and must have said thank you to everyone at least a thousand times. She received gifts, flowers, and a great looking creation (a mixture of fruits, creams, and cookies, that was deliciously shared amongst the six of us) from her friends. I found out that each one was twenty-three and it was the birthday girls twenty third that day and the only time that I can imagine seeing anyone as happy as she was, was when someone had won the lottery, seen a loved one for the first time in many years, MAYBE during a wedding proposal, and other similar events, but even these did not last as long as this girls excitement and happiness. It can only be described as the result of pure joy, a kind rarely seen, and it was contagious, I could not stop smiling the whole time and was disappointed when Ito informed me it was 11:30 and we needed to leave. It was an incredible night. The people I have experienced here have made Nikko one of the few places that I want to spend more than a few days in; despite having already seen most of the sites. Everyone, if given the opportunity (and everyone should if they follow my blog and the tips I provide,) should visit Japan and these incredibly kind and joyous people; meet the locals and make new friends, they alone, are worth the trip!

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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

Is Traveling Solo Lonely?

One of the most often asked questions I get when I tell people that I travel by myself is “Don’t you ever get lonely?” or some variation of this question. People assume that if I am not traveling with others, that I am alone and without friends or people to hang out with. Actually, just the opposite is true.

When a person travels by themselves, it forces them to be more active in starting conversations and meeting people. Conversely, if a person is traveling with someone, or with a group, they are more likely to stick to that group and less likely to try to meet new people and make new friends. This is a sad fact because to me, the people make the destination. If you’re not getting to know the locals, why go?

I do get a lot of alone time, which I love, it allows me to get to know myself. I also meet a lot of new people and make new friends everywhere I go. Very rarely do I feel lonely, and if I do, I can usually find someone who speaks English to start a conversation with and spend some time with.

My last night in Hong Kong is a perfect example of this. I went to Lantau Peak on Lantau Island to camp for the night. It was pretty cold and very windy, but when I got up there, there was a young group of locals taking photos. It didn’t take too long before we all started talking (English is their second language) and became friends.
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Two of the locals stayed a bit longer to talk to me and we had a great conversation, they even gave me some cake!
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After they left, I had the peak to myself for what I thought would be the rest of the night. I started reading my new book and watched the view. Then I was surprised by another group making their way up. It took a bit longer for us to start talking because I was enjoying my book and they were busying themselves with photo’s.

After a bit, I decided to break the ice, we started talking and had a great time with a lot of laughs. I found out that they were all students, half studying psychology and the others, nursing, so I, pretty ingeniously if I do say so myself, called them a “group of psychotic nurses!” But again, soon, they gave up on their photo session when it was too dark and cloudy to get the photos they wanted and had to leave.image

Once the park closed and no one was supposed to be up on the peak, myself included, I figured I had the peak to myself. I did for some of the night. At about 2AM, I woke up inside my tent in the small shelter at the peak. I heard what I thought was likely some animal trying to get into my backpack. Instead, I saw a light, and for a moment got nervous, but then a woman around my age came into the shelter, much more nervous than I was to find that someone else was on the peak than I was.

“Hi” I said when I saw her, she was stunned at first, but we quickly began talking. It was Anita’s 24th birthday and she came up in the dark (she’s afraid of the dark) by herself so that she could watch the sunrise. Her friends thought something was wrong with her, likely struggling with some mental disorder.

We talked for a few hours and then slept for a bit over an hour until 6.15AM when it was time for the sunrise. Sadly, the clouds came low and it was so foggy that we couldn’t see twenty feet in front of us. We hiked down the way I came up, opposite of where Anita came from, down Lantau Mountain to the Big Buddha in Ngon Ping. It was Anita’s first time exploring the area, and even though everything was still closed, it was nice being there without all the tourists.image
Still think traveling solo is lonely? I hope not. I hope that I have shown you that even when you think you are alone, you could soon find yourself in the company of a lot of great people at times when it is completely unexpected to run into anyone. Everyone should try traveling alone at one point or another, it is truly a great experience feeling the complete freedom.

Go, do, and enjoy whatever you want, however you want, without pressures to compromise anything from a companion. You truly get to know yourself in ways you would never be able to with others watching and judging. There are billions of people on the planet and most of them are happy to make a new friend and share some stories, with so many people to meet, how could you be lonely?

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-The Travel Economist

Annual Hipíco Festival in Cuapa, Nicaragua

Each year, cities in Nicaragua take turns holding an annual Hipíco (horse) festival, and each year, thousands of locals travel from all over the country to this festival. These locals ride their horses to these different towns or bring them in trailers so they can ride them in a parade.

When I was in Grenada, Nicaragua, my cousin told me about the festival that was coming up the next weekend in the town of Cuapa. He had been there previously and had friends who would love to meet me and show me their small town and festival.

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Meylin (left) and some of her family

I arrived in Cuapa after hitch hiking for about six hours. On my final ride, I asked if anyone knew Meylin Rey, the friend of my cousin. They knew exactly who I was talking about and took me to her house. Meylin and her family welcomed me into their home with the usual Central American hospitality – like family. They instantly offered me something to drink and eat, and showed me to the room I would stay in for the weekend.

The next day was pretty slow, except for a bit of showing me around the small town, we all relaxed around her place. The exception to the slow day was at lunch time. The day before I had told Meylin that I had been searching for “huevos del torro,” or the balls of the bull, while I was in Grenada. They helped me finish my search. I was served “sopa de huevos del torro,” or bull ball soup.

I love trying new and exotic foods, so although slightly disturbed that I was actually going to be eating these, I loved that I was able to eat them. I can not describe the taste, but they were surprisingly good. Would I eat them again? Maybe. Will I search for them again? No, I don’t regret eating it, but it’s not something I want to knowingly eat again.

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Sunday was the day the festival began. I wasn’t warned about its bang of a beginning. At 5AM, I was awakened by the pounding of drums and music of different instruments. The town was beginning the day with their annual early morning parade of local horses and music. About 100 locals of Cuapa paraded up through the town playing music and riding their horses. When the parade was over, I got ready, and Meylin’s older brother, Jose, showed up. He brought a horse to pick me up for our hour long ride up the mountain to the family “finca,” or, farm.

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This was my first horse back ride in quite a few years, so I really enjoyed the opportunity to ride again, no matter how painful to my rear! The farm was beautiful, situated in the mountains and surrounded by them, providing beautiful views. At the farm, I was greeted by Meyli’s other brother, Juan, and her father and other finca workers, along with the women in the kitchen cooking breakfast.

During the few hours I was at the finca, I was able to experience a few other new firsts. Meylin’s father took me over to the cow pen where the workers were milking the cows and showed me how to milk them. After milking one into a cup, I drank the warm, bubbly, milk on the spot. It was very sugary and delicious, but much like the bull balls, I don’t think I will be hunting cows to drink fresh milk again.

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After some time at the finca, I rode a four-wheeler/ATV back to Meyli’s house. Around two in the afternoon, about two hours later than it was supposed to start, some of the family and I climbed into a couple of cars and went over to a restaurant where the parade was beginning. Hundreds of people, locals of Cuapa and many more from other area’s in Nicaragua, rode their horses up the street into town.

They performed tricks like having the horses walk sideways and backwards or jump from side to side with their hind-legs while keeping the front hooves on the ground. Nearly everyone had cowboy boots, hats, and outfits on, and some dressed up in dresses and costumes. It was also a rainy day, so many had rain jackets and covers for their hats.

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After this second parade, we all went to the center of town where the parade led to. A couple thousand people were then crowding the streets. There were food stands, arts and crafts vendors, people selling sombrero’s and numerous other things.

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We wandered around the town center, watching the horsemen and women do tricks and show off their prized horses. Throughout the day, there was lots of music being played by locals, and towards the end of the day, there was lots of dancing to go with it!

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Meyli and I (kind of) dancing

The festival was a lot of fun and I highly recommend that anyone who ever gets a chance to go to one of these festivals, does. It is such a great cultural experience. Having the chance to immerse in a local (and not a tourist kind of local) annual festival and surrounded the culture of it all is an incredible experience!

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-The Travel Economist

My 15 Hours In Masaya National Park

I am just going to get it out-of-the-way; sometimes, I break the law. It is generally trespassing, but I can not say I have not broken other laws, especially the drinking law in the US, because after traveling and being allowed to drink, there is no going back! Now, if you want a blogger who follows all of the laws, is an upstanding world citizen, and travels in general luxury on around fifty dollars a day, then look somewhere else, because that is not The Travel Economist, but if you want a crazy blogger who travels on about ten dollars a day while having incredible and unique adventures, adventures that very few others will ever experience, adventures that you can not pay for (thankfully!) then you have found the right guy!

I had been up for two hours already (5.45AM)
I had been up for two hours already (5.45AM)

Around in the town of Masaya at around five-thirty at night and made my way over to the Masaya Naional Park entrance. I already knew that they were closed and that they have night tours, so I knew I was not going to legally get in that night, and if I did get in, I would have to watch out for the tour. The guard was still at the gate, so I asked him what time they open and closed and for a map of the park to study for the next day; not a complete lie! Then to pass the time, I walked over to the town of Nindiri to get some dinner and food for breakfast; I made it back over to the gate at 7.30. I found not one, but two guards at the gate and figured it would be nearly impossible to sneak past them, so I decided to go over and tell them the truth. I told them that I have no good place to camp for the night and if, even though the park is already closed, I could camp out there. I got the permission, and with that, I was legally in the park! But only to sleep in the restroom area right inside the gates. I figured, “no problem, they will not have guards here twenty-four hours a day!” – I was wrong! I never expected a national park to pay for guards all night long. After going to sleep in my sleeping bag at eight and waking up at three forty-five in the morning, I packed up my stuff and got ready to head into the park to reach the peak by sunrise, but right as I was leaving, the guard was coming! My heart raced and I quickly came up with a plan, I decided to set my stuff down and sit down next to it. If he asked, I would tell him I simply could not sleep, and packed up my stuff out of boredom so it would be ready for morning. Luckily, he just said, “Tranquillo?” (relaxing?) I told him, “Si” and he went on his way, an hour later, I was on my way!

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“Do Not Enter” has no meaning to me!

I walked for about an hour and a half before making it to the main crater. I walked to the left and saw a sign that read something like, “300MTS to caves, available with night tour by guide,” and headed down the road to it. There are some trails throughout the park, but most of it is a paved road. I walked down to the unmarked, but obvious, trail that led to the cave, and once I found it, followed the carved stairs into the cave created by the volcano. The photo above is not of the main cave, the main cave has a pretty big entrance and no signs, also, the trail ends at it, so it is not to be missed. After walking a minute into the cave, the only light was that of my headlamp, after a couple of minutes, I reached the main attraction – an area filled with a couple of hundred bats! This was my first experience in a bat cave, I have always wanted to get into one, but never had the chance, so this was amazing to me. I stayed in the cave, mesmerized by the bats, a bit nervous and very excited, for about a half hour before leaving due to a dying head lamp and the worry that someone would find my backpack that I left near the entrance to the trail as a precaution – if anything happened to me (having no helmet on,) then they could quickly find me knowing that someone must have taken the trail to the cave.

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In the bat cave formed by lava

When I headed back to retrieve my gear, I saw a man standing with it with a curious look on his face, and I thought to myself, “Oh no, I am in trouble.” When I reached him, he was not upset, he simply said to me that leaving my stuff there was dangerous – it was still only seven-thirty in the morning, the park was not supposed to open for another hour and a half and I did not expect anyone to show up for at least another half-hour, but he was a local, working with the cattle and horses that roamed the park and did not work directly for the park. I thanked him for looking out for my stuff and we went on our own ways; I, obviously, relieved and thanking God that he did not report me!

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I continued back up to the volcano area again, explored a bit more of the park, and at eight-thirty, started walking towards the entrance of the park. At just past nine O’clock, a van of workers passed me with the most curious looks as to why this tourist is coming down from the volcano only a few minutes after it opened, but, they did not stop. Others passed me in the same manner. When I finally reached the guard gate at just passed ten, I stepped over the chain that prevented cars from entering or exiting without paying, said, “adios” to the somewhat confused guard, and was on my way to my next destination having had free entrance into the park, and safe place to sleep, and a day of the park all to myself!

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I am not sure if this tactic is duplicable, it was difficult and relied on the main security boss’s decision to let me in and the guard at the gate being less than alert. As you can see below, there is a road that goes from thee Nindiri area following the Masaya Lagoon and into the parks camping area. I considered taking this route, but decided the distance was too far to go by myself at night and it was possible that I would not be able to get in that way anyway. The man who found my stuff along with a few others came in from the cave area, which leads me to believe that the route is able to be used to enter the park after closing and without having to worry about the guards, or by taking one of the roads from behind, such as the Panama road.

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There are two other options to having access to the park for the night; the first is to enter the park before three in the afternoon, you will then be allowed to enter because you have enough time to go to the top and back before five; while you are in the park, find one of thousands of different hiding spots to hide out at until around eight or later, the later, the better. At this time, all of the night tours and guards will be out of the park and at the main gate area or at the camping area. You then have access to the park to yourself.

The second option is to do as the first option, but, instead of hiding, register for the allocated camping area, and then, around two or three in the morning, sneak past the guard and into the park.

It is also important to note that during their rainy season, May-mid-November, often, the weather creates too much smoke in the volcano’s crater to be able to see the main attraction of the night tours – the glow of lava in the crater! I met a group who had just finished the night tour, and they could not see anything.

To enjoy the park legally;

Park opens: 9AM

Closes: 5PM

Night Tours: 5PM and 7:30PM $10

Entrance fee – non-residence – $4

So, have you had any close calls while trespassing or any similar situations to mine? Leave a comment and let me know, I would love to read about your stories!

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– 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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