Ten random observations about Greece

While researching my travel series on Greece I noticed some interesting things that didn’t fit into any of the articles. Some of these observations may be obvious to those more familiar with Greece, but odd first impressions are one of the fun things about travel!

1. Flying low over the Aegean as we made our descent into Athens airport, I swear I saw dolphins playing in the blue waters. We were still high enough that they were only visible as dots, but there was a whole group of these dots appearing and reappearing in the water, as if they were coming up and diving. Has anyone else seen this?

2. Like many countries, Greece has a smoking ban in public buildings. It’s often ignored, especially in bars and cafes. Some places even have ash trays on the tables.

3. I always like hearing the local music, in my hotel I tuned into MAD TV, a music video station. I discovered lots of Greek stars I’d never heard of (is DEMY hot or what!?) and noticed a strange thing–cans of Red Bull appear in almost all their music videos. Even the lovely DEMY knocks one back in her latest video. Did Red Bull buy up Greek music or just MAD TV?

4. Greece is very visitor-friendly by having bilingual signs in all the touristy areas. This is a bit of a trap, however, because as soon as you get used to them and go someplace a bit out of the way, you’ll be staring at Greek-only signs.

5. Have no fear, you can always learn the Greek alphabet. Many of the letters are the same as our alphabet and you’re already familiar with some of the others. Learning the Greek alphabet takes less than an hour and you’ll discover so many words that are the same or close enough to English that the hour will be well spent.

6. Greek can still throw you some curve balls. For a while I thought “ne” meant “no” since it’s similar to so many other “no” words (nein, nyet, non). In fact it means yes.

7. Athens has a large and active Couchsurfing community. Get in touch before you go and they’ll show you some awesome nightlife!

8. Small Orthodox Christian shrines can be found everywhere. Some are the size of a mailbox with only room enough for a little icon and a candle. These are often found beside roads. Others are little buildings that can fit a dozen or so people. They’re tucked away wherever there’s room. Dealerships for these these ready-made churches look like mobile home lots.

9. I saw a lot of graffiti, especially in the smaller towns, that was actually advertising for local businesses. I’m not sure if the businesses themselves are tagging concrete bridges and blank walls or if it’s their loyal customers, but I suppose it’s a cheap way to advertise during times of financial cutbacks.

10. Speaking of graffiti, my neighborhood in Madrid is covered with the tag “farlopa”, which is slang for cocaine in Spanish. Walking through the Exarchia neighborhood in Athens one night I saw the “farlopa” tag. Same word, same style. I guess the tagger went on a road trip!

For something a bit more adventurous, check out my ten random observations about Ethiopia!

50 states in 50 weeks: A unique interpretation of modern America

What does it mean to be an American in modern times? That is the question propelling Josh Hailey forward on a mission to visit 50 states in 50 weeks and capture modern America in a visual way. The final project from the road trip will be a 100-page photography book.

The project will go further than photography, however, as Hailey plans to conduct interviews and shoot video footage, as well. He says, “I want to understand what people feel about America and what it means to be an American in modern times. Asking a series of open questions, people’s answers will be documented on camera and compiled as a film that will be both aesthetic and thought provoking and will hopefully capture a wider picture of America in 2012”.

To follow the journey, view photographic artwork, host Hailey with accommodation, leave feedback and comments, or donate money towards fuel, visit his website, Photamerica.

10 tips for planning your next trip on a budget

As someone who is constantly traveling, my friends are always asking me how I can afford to go on trips so often. Traveling doesn’t have to mean spending a fortune, and if you’re willing to forgo the 5-star hotels and Michelin starred restaurants, it can be pretty simple to have a full travel experience without going broke. Here are tips that I use to get the most out of my travels while spending as little as possible.

Exchange labor for food and accommodation

While some people may think of labor as a quick way to ruin a vacation, it shouldn’t. A network called WWOOF allows travelers to work on organic farms in return for housing and food. Don’t think that farming has to mean cleaning up after animals and pulling up weeds. Vineyards, chateaus, olive groves, holistic massage and yoga retreats, and balsamic farms can also be found on the list of WWOOF hosts. Working with a family on their property will not only save you money but will also give you first-hand insight into the local culture (now when does a 5-star hotel give you that?).Plan a staycation

Many times, people take their home cities for granted. It’s funny, because when I travel I am constantly trying to do and see as much as possible, but at home I always figure I’ll get to seeing the sites “someday”. Why not make that someday today and plan a trip without leaving home? Look up local theme parks, restaurants, museums, art galleries, historical sites, and festivals and make a “trip” out of it. And if you want a little change of scenery, you can always try venturing to a nearby town that’s drivable and do a long weekend trip.

Travel to countries with favorable exchange rates

When planning where you will go on your next trip, try to take into account the exchange rate and how expensive it will be to travel there. How far will your dollar go once you switch currencies? Are accommodations, food, and transportation costly? For example, while in some countries you can get a hostel for under $10 there are others where you will pay $60 a night for a bare bones room. Think about what it is that draws you to a certain country and then try to find a more budget friendly alternative. Always wanted to go to South America? Instead of heading to Brazil, which tends to be more on the expensive side, head over to Peru or Bolivia, which will be a lot easier on your wallet. Are you the outdoorsy type who thinks somewhere like the Outback in Australia or the Alps in Switzerland would be a fun vacation? Places like Laos (above) and Ghana also offer many outdoor experiences for travels on a budget.

Use memberships to your benefit

Are you a student? Bring your student ID with you. I’m not a student anymore but I still bring my student ID everywhere, and it has saved me hundreds of dollars throughout my trips. Better yet, if you have an International Student Identity Card you will get recognized as a student all over the globe. Senior citizen? Make sure you always carry proof. AAA Cards, Hostelling International Membership, Eurail Pass…go through your various memberships and make sure you don’t neglect the perks they can give you. For example, a Hostelling International Membership will give you special rates in their hostels as well as discounts on tours and attractions. Moreover, having a Eurail Pass will not only make train travel in Europe more convenient and affordable but will also give you discounts on buses, ferries, and attractions.

Signing up for a travel rewards program and having a rewards credit card can also work to your benefit. Personally, I use the Capital One Venture Card, which gives me double miles for every dollar spent, doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees, and includes auto rental and travel accident insurance. I also make sure to signup for the free frequent flyer programs that many airlines offer.

Travel during shoulder season

It’s amazing how much money you can save avoiding traveling to a destination during its peak tourist season. Flights, accommodation, and tours all go down in price, sometimes by hundreds of dollars. For example, when flying from New York to London in the beginning of April, you’ll probably pay around $750-$800. However, when flying the same route in the beginning of June, you should expect to pay around $1,150. Traveling during a country’s low season also opens up the possibility of taking advantage of worthwhile deals and incentives offered to try to boost tourism numbers. Another great thing about traveling during shoulder season? You won’t have to deal with the crowds, making your trip more hassle-free.

Make a list of free and budget-friendly activities in the city

No matter where you travel to, there are free and inexpensive things to do that are still fun and worthwhile. Just check out these guides on free things to do in New York, London, and Sydney, which are all cities that people think to be extremely expensive. For example, one of my favorite things to do in Sydney was to wander the Sydney Univeristy campus and its adjoining Victoria Park (shown right), which was not only relaxing but completely free. Most times, parks, beaches, public art, open-air events, monuments, and many museums and galleries are free to enjoy. Also, many cities are now giving free walking tours, such as SANDEMAN’s New Europe walking tours throughout Europe and I’m Free Tours in Sydney, Australia. And for a night out, find places that offer good happy hour specials and nightly promotions, as full price cocktails can really wreck all your saving efforts.

Try Couchsurfing

Do you want free accommodation? Try couchsurfing. Couchsurfing is a network of travelers and hosts who offer up their couches to people staying in their city, free of charge. What’s also great about this is that staying with locals helps you to see the destination from their point of view, from hidden coffee shops to non-touristy bars and restaurants to attending actual parties and events thrown by people living in the city. If you’re not comfortable staying on a stranger’s couch you can also opt to stay in a hostel, which can help stretch your dollar a lot farther than a hotel would.

Visit cities where you know locals personally

Try to think of cities where you have family and friends who already live there. This type of trip can cut costs significantly, as it can give you a place to stay as well as make traveling a bit more convenient as you’ll have someone to show, and hopefully drive, you around. Plus, access to a stove cuts down costs considerably. Doing a trip like this will not only will you get a change of scenery, you’ll get to spend time with people you haven’t seen in awhile.

Avoid the “English menus”

When going out to eat, make sure to avoid any restaurant that boasts having an “English” menu, as this usually equates to “touristy”. Going to a “mom and pop” type establishment will not only save you money, it will also give you a more authentic culinary experience in the country. When in Ghana, I loved eating at little no-name places and getting my favorite dish, Red Red with Plantains (right). If you’re staying at someone’s home or in a hostel with a kitchen, another option is to cook for yourself. Buy groceries from the supermarket or, better yet, an open air market where you can barter for your purchases.

Do less traveling while you’re traveling

All of those train trips, cab rides, flights, and cruises will start to add up. Instead of seeing ten different cities on your trip, choose only a couple you really want to see and spend more time getting to know those better. This will also help you feel less travel fatigued, keeping you excited and energetic on your trip. And, when navigating the city, try to forgo public transport and walk. You’ll get to see a lot more of the city that way and will have a better chance of discovering something you likely would have missed riding on a bus.

6 tips for dealing with culture shock

When traveling, especially internationally or to more remote destinations, culture shock is bound to happen. Sometimes it is just the smallest feeling of discomfort, and at other times can lead to complete panic and an intense longing to get on the next plane home. While it is completely normal to experience these feelings of culture shock, it is also important to not let it ruin your trip. Keep these tips in mind next time you are traveling to help turn your anxiety into excitement.

Research the destination before you leave home

If you dive into the trip completely unprepared and not knowing what to expect, you are literally setting yourself up to be shocked by the culture. Search the internet, read a guidebook, or talk to travelers who have visited the destination before. Find out about customs and etiquette, ask about what kinds of clothing locals wear, learn about greetings, read about transportation and how people get around, and, most importantly, safety. Basically, just gather enough information so that you can be prepared for your experience abroad and have a better chance of blending in.Take baby steps

If possible, I have always found it helpful to begin international trips in the more touristy areas and then work my way to the more rural regions. You could also try staying in a comfortable hotel, at least in the beginning, just so that you have an escape while you are getting adjusted to your new surroundings. As you get more comfortable, you can gradually begin to get away from these comforts and immerse yourself in the culture more fully.

Learn some key phrases

Many times, becoming fluent in another language just to go on a trip that lasts a few months or less just doesn’t make sense (although, if you have the time this never hurts). It can be helpful to learn a few key phrases, however, to at least feel comfortable making small talk and knowing what people are saying to you. When in Ghana, Africa, for example, the locals would constantly shout “oburoni! at me. If I hadn’t known better, I would have thought they were angry at me or making fun of me. However, I learned early on that this word, which literally means “foreigner”, is their way of trying to make conversation with you.

Keep a journal

While it may sound a little corny, it can be helpful to write about your experience for a few reasons. One, its generally therapeutic to share your thoughts and feelings, and writing it down in your own personal book can allow you to be completely open. Moreover, I’ve personally always found keeping a journal helpful in shifting my mindset from being nervous about my new surroundings to being excited. Getting everything down on paper and seeing just how many unique experiences you have in one day alone can help make it clear the opportunity you have to immerse yourself and learn about a new culture and place.

Try new things, even if you’re afraid

While it may seem scary, actually participating in cultural experiences abroad can show you firsthand just how not-scary it is. Try a new food, even if it is something you would never eat at home, learn how to play a local instrument, or attend a cultural festival. Even simple tasks such as hailing a taxi or asking for directions can seem daunting, but you should try anyway. For example, while in Ghana I did most of the talking to locals in terms of asking where to eat or where to go, mostly because my travel companion was terrified to interact with the locals. She really wanted to have a dress handmade in the village, and when she asked me to help buy the fabric for her, I refused, hoping to get her to talk to the seamstress herself. After a bit of begging and pleading on her part, she finally forced herself to choose a fabric and ask the woman for the price. Afterwards, she felt a lot more confident about interacting with locals and experiencing the culture.

If possible, make contacts before you go

With all of the company information, social media platforms, and networking websites out there, it makes it easy to connect with people and companies from all over the world. This could be as simple as signing on to volunteer with an NGO in your destination, or contacting hospitality companies in the area. Ask around travel forums or post on CouchSurfing to see if anyone will be in the same area as you at the same time or has ever been to that destination and can provide information and other contacts. Even if you can’t find someone to meet up with in the country, it is nice to speak with people who have been there and learn about their experiences.

In the United States? Catch a free ride with the Kindness Cab

From now up until November 13, 2011, anyone located in between Washington D.C. and Los Angeles, California, can catch a free ride in a 1985 London Sterling taxi. CouchSurfer Leon Logothetis started driving the Kindness Cab in a an effort to give back to the community as well as raise money for charity. If you’re interested in hitching a ride with him, you can click here to follow his whereabouts and connect.

Years ago, Logothetis hitchhiked from New York to L.A., relying on the kindness of strangers to get around. Now, as he re-traces his original route, he is repaying the favor. On his first day in New York, he drove thirteen hours and picked up thirty passengers. The entire journey will end on November 13, 2011, World Kindness Day.

Here is a list of where and when you can catch the Kindness Cab next:

October 31- Chicago
November 3- St. Louis
November 7- Denver
November 9- Santa Fe
November 10- Phoenix
November 11- Las Vegas
November 13- Los Angeles