Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Travel tips: Europe Inspired and Asia Acquired

Tips for the beginner backpacker

I didn't grow up traveling, but always dreamed of doing so during and after my time at university. I've added a few notches in my belt: time spent in easy going Australia, historical Europe, and exotic Asia. I'm by no means an expert, but here are some lessons I've learned along the way.

A Seasoned Traveler

My boyfriend awaiting our long overdue boat to Gili Air, Indonesia
One realization I would have loved to know a few years ago is that becoming a good traveler isn't some innate natural quality or ability, it's an acquired skill: a constant flux and an ongoing learning process with each new place visited. I assumed I wasn't the best traveler... not the most adventurous, and, as my boyfriend can attest to, hardly the greatest sense of direction. However, many skills are acquired along the way: patience for long train rides, understanding when encountering new cultures, having any idea of where to start in a new city... Traveling takes practice.

There Goes the Fear...

Feeling nervous before a big trip, or any one trip fir that matter, is normal. Fear of the unknown, simple as that. What if the flight doesn't work out..? What if I don't get through immigration..? What I miss my train...? All these problems are generally over thought before leaving, and are all solvable, worst case scenario.

To quell your worries, know that:
A) Once you leave, much of your anxiety will be left at home with the rest if your other non essentials. 
B) Although this could be your first time traveling to this particular country, odds are it's not their first time dealing with tourists like you. Far from it! Thousands have most likely come before you. Though applying for a visa or passing through immigration may seem daunting, the officials are used to it.
C) Research calms the mind. Look into the country before you leave, at least to have an idea of what to expect and to calm your nerves. What is the exchange rate? How does one say thank you, please? Where are the best hostels? Lonelyplanet.com, Wikitravel and travel blogs are great ways to start.
D) Do a checklist. Passport? Photocopy of it? Music? Sunscreen? VISA? I didn't realize until very close to my flight (days, admittedly) I would need an entry visa for China. Oops! One crazed and stressed week later, I thankfully boarded my plane with my visa safely secured in my passport. Make sure to check entry requirements before you head out!

Travel Styles

Cooking ingredients
My Balinese cooking teacher making curry
What type of traveler are you? There are many different types of activities that could make (or break) your interest in seeing the world when you go on your first trip. Do days filled with adventurous trekking, unusual culture, or relaxed days by the beach excite you the most? Keep an open mind when deciding what type you prefer. It may sound obvious, but adding new elements other than museums and beaches can add a great new dimension. In South East Asia I tried my hand at Thai Massage and Balinese cooking. Loved it!

That being said however, what works for one person might not work for you. I recently realized I don't like deserted tropical islands. Somehow the days I spent on islands in Australia, Greece and Indonesia disinterested me. Bizarre, I know. I would much rather spend my days wandering through meandering streets in a foreign town than snorkeling through coral reefs. Look for what pleases you, not what's "meant" to interest you. 

Knowing what style of travel suits you best plays a vital role in how much you will enjoy your time away. Just because you went once and didn't like it, doesn't mean you dislike traveling altogether. Maybe you need a different partner. Or museums aren't your thing. Think of things you enjoy at home. A new country's version of that activity (think translating snowboarding to surfing) could be your best shot.

Stay in Hostels

The view from a lovely hostel in Paris
A few of my friends once admitted to me that they aren't interested in backpacking because they're less than thrilled with the idea of staying in a hostel. Though I may have taken a while to get used to the idea (the word princess still lingers in my memory from a few years back...) it's well worth it. You have the opportunity to meet many more globetrotters, which is part of the joy of seeing the world in itself. They may also have great suggestions of where to go next, what to see, what to eat... 

Furthermore, not all hostels are the same. I've stayed in some less than perfect ones, but other "designer" ones too. Check out hostelbookers.com and you'll see there is a huge variety, ranging from the oh-gosh-please-don't-make-me-touch-that-bathroom-floor to the-wow-how-I-even-find-a-place-this-lovely? Read the reviews from previous guests online. It helps!

My Last Little Tip for this Post: Scents

Although I know I am slightly more scent sensitive than most (choosing a new body wash and spending an embarrassing amount of time in the drug store smelling each one brings me an unreasonable amount of joy), scents can be a great addition to tour trip. Scent is the strongest sense tied to memory, after all. Bring a favorite scent that reminds you of home when you're homesick: lotion, shampoo, perfume... I find it to be a great pick me up. And, buy a new one that you use only on your time abroad! That way, a few months later, the smell will remind you of your glorious weeks spend away from home. Such a small purchase could bring you back in a way far stronger than any selections of photos could.

Happy travels!

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Open Heart, Open Mind

Meditation and acro yoga

One of my main goals while traveling is to stretch my boundaries, expand my comfort zone. Though it hasn't always been easy (check out this post) and I have at times missed my familiar coffees and toast at home, it has been worth it. My time at the Sanctuary provided many such opportunities.

Meditation has always been something that has interested me. Be it on a spiritual level or not, the benefits I've read of behind meditation intrigue me. (Well that and Eat Pray Love... I can’t deny how much I reminisce if that book being here in Bali!) I've managed a few moments of meditative awareness on my own and through yoga, but never very seriously. So when I saw the blackboard at the Sanctuary in Haad Tien decorated with swirls and flowers boasting a six pm free meditation class, I decided this would be my shot.

From what other guests have told me, there are active and non active classes. Some are spent chanting, others sitting silently... I honestly had no idea what to expect.

I walk in, resume a savasana pose with a few others, and wait expectantly for the teacher to arrive. After a few words of welcome, he softly clarifies that we will be, along with music, spending fifteen minutes shaking, fifteen dancing, fifteen standing or sitting, and fifteen sitting or lying down.

Pardon? You want me to shake around for fifteen minutes? Just jiggle around however the energy takes me? Oh my… However as much as this may have been a surprise to me, the rest of my class is unfazed; they simply close their eyes as the calming rhythmic beats of music fill the room.  

Try as I might to let go of my inhibitions and let my body bounce around freely, I can’t help but sneak a peak at the others around me. Seeing those swaying, bouncing, jittering around me, I can’t help but want to giggle. I suppress the desire and settle for a smile instead. Tell me, why did I decide to put myself in a room full of hippies jiggling about?

Somehow that ridiculous moment frees me of my thoughts and criticism. I forget what my boyfriend, my mum, my friends would think and when the instructor chimes in that the dance portion is beginning, I let the music flow through me; however my body wants to move.

Somehow, miraculously, the dancing works for me! I hardly feel my thoughts interrupting my movements, and am actually able to calm my mind for longer than a couple minutes.  I leave feeling refreshed, centered, and much more optimistic about new ways to meditate.

I keep this newfound elation as I step into my acro yoga workshop the next day. It is literally ‘acrobatic yoga’ and involves partnering into various balancing postures. Through this has always intrigued me, I’ve never tried it; I’m not entirely comfortable upside down (especially when held by someone else) nor with someone even lifting me altogether (memories of being on of the dancers “too large to partner with” still plagues me…). Thankfully my state of mind as a result of yesterday’s meditation has quelled some of these insecurities.

Our instructor enlightens us that the two most important elements of acro yoga are  

trust and surrender. Trust your partner will carry your weight, and surrender your full body weight to them. 

Without having the time to pause and examine my apprehension over these new postures, my teacher hoists me upside down, and I’m literally dangling in front of the class. 

Breathe… breathe… breathe… 

Happily, after a few hours, our instructor has us hanging off each others feet on our hips, contorting in various bizarre postures. Very rewarding!

I read once that according to Buddhist thought, “when the student is ready, the teacher appears”. In the afternoon, I am chatting with an English girl about our travels and she tells me that when she steps into each country, she repeats the following mantra:

“Open heart, open mind”.

She’s so right. The challenges and misgivings I had in these classes represent new cultures for me: if you can let go of expectations, come in with an open mind, you can embrace what a country has to offer. Some aspects of these classes may have seemed strange and outlandish, but it has helped me to open my eyes and shed away the stereotypes.

Easier said than done, but I’m trying.