Travel Tales: Catching A Ride With The Easy Riders in Vietnam

by Lindsay Shapka in , ,


There is a white, round scar, about the size of a dime, halfway up the inside of my calf. Like the tattoo on the bottom of my foot, I forget that it's there sometimes, but as soon as I catch a glimpse of it out of the corner of my eye, it always makes me smile.

My travel buddy Michelle and I had just spent a long night on a sleeper train (if you ever get a chance to sleep in a bed on a train do it, it's the coolest feeling) from Hanoi to what we thought was Hoi An, Vietnam.

Little did we know that the train did not actually go all the way to Hoi An, but stopped about an hour outside of the city.

A little disoriented, and hungry, we walked out of the station at around 8 am hoping to come upon a bus that would take us to our final destination. But, other than a few sketchy looking cars, there weren’t any options. To make matters worse, the only food that had been available on the train was half-cooked, pretty sketchy looking chicken (which we obviously did not eat) and my blood sugar was well past low and I was headed dangerously into the hangry zone.

After buying some chocolate covered wafers from the station store, we pulled out our Lonely Planet travel guides to try and figure out our next move.

That was when Hal and Mr. T saw us.

Clad in leather and denim — with tattoos and flashy jewellery to match — these two looked like members of a hardcore biker gang. Extremely skeptical, we watched them out of the corner of our eye as they left their bikes parked by the curb (these were actual motorbikes, not the scooters that take over the streets of the country) and approached us.

We were two wide-eyed, disoriented-looking white girls, backpacks and guidebooks in full sight — we looked like the perfect targets and we knew it.

Expecting some sort of proposition or scam, I was pleasantly surprised when they walked up and introduced themselves as Easy Riders.

That was a name I was familiar with.

According to fellow travel buddies — and my trusty Lonely Planet — the Easy Riders started off in the early 2000s as a crew of about 30 freelance motorbike guides that offered reasonably priced excursions all over the country.

Though some were better than others in terms of customer service, I had heard no stories of any scams, kidnappings, or worse coming out of taking a ride with these bikers.

— Looking for helmet reviews? See more here —

Clearly reading our skepticism, they pulled out dog-eared notebooks full of testimonials written by tourists that they had driven around. Written in all languages, in different writing, and from people all over the world, it was a very convincing artifact, and one that the Lonely Planet stated was a sign that they were legit members of the Easy Riders. (I know, I put a lot of faith in my travel books).

There is a certain sense of immortality that comes with travelling, and so after some consideration, and negotiation (we settled on the equivalent of $5 each for the hour ride) we entrusted ourselves to Hal and Mr. T, ready for whatever adventure our decision may bring.

China Beach, Vietnam

They strapped our massive packs to the back of the bikes, supplied us with helmets (a rarity in Vietnam), and giving each other a nervous-excited glance, we jumped on the backs of the bikes. Hal and Mr. T said something to each other in Vietnamese, and then we were off!

It was a clear, humid day, and the breeze was a welcome relief from the already scorching sun. I leaned back on my bag, stared up at the sky and smiled.

We zoomed past China Beach (where the movie Good Morning Vietnam was filmed), and through small towns where the children jumped up from their games to wave at us.

I threw my arms up in the air and wondered how I would ever go back to normal taxis in my North American life — and how could I ever explain the feeling of freedom that comes from careening down an ocean road on the back of a motorbike in Vietnam?!

It was while getting off the bike in Hoi An that I received my scar — a shoestring-travel-battle-wound and a lesson on why motorcyclists wear long pants — by pressing my leg against the tailpipe for a mere second.

It hurt like hell but couldn’t dull the feeling that came with an exhilarating new experience, and the beginning of a new adventure! 

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10 Tips For Women Traveling To Morocco

by Lindsay Shapka in , , ,


A maze of winding alleyways, intricately carved wooden doors, brightly woven textiles, the smell of wood-burning stoves in the air, and the hauntingly beautiful call to prayer all awaits you in this mesmerizing country. The architecture, the desert dunes, the Atlas Mountains, the long stretches of sandy beach — there are so many reasons to visit Morocco.

Is it safe to travel in Morocco as a solo female? Of course! 

But, like with any new country or culture that you are visiting, it is important to be aware and respectful of any etiquette and traditions that are different than your own. Whether you are traveling solo or with a group, here are some things to keep in mind when setting out on your Moroccan adventure. 

1. Be Modest in The Way You Dress
You don't have to wear a headscarf or anything, but the majority of women in the country wear long, loose clothing and some do cover their heads. Throwing on your short shorts and spaghetti straps will not only make you a target for aggressive touts and scam artists, but is disrespectful. If you want to have meaningful interactions with the locals, make sure your knees and shoulders are covered and try not to show cleavage.

2. Avoid Tons of Makeup and Wear Your Hair Up
Yes, I know that changing your appearance drastically goes against every feminist bone in your body, but the reality is that this is a culture of machismo, where men are very much in control and don't get a chance to interact with women much before marriage, making them more attentive towards foreign women who are not bound by Islamic Law. The prettier you look, the more you are going to get shouted at and noticed when walking down the street. Especially if you are traveling alone or with only females.

3. When Walking Through The Market Don't Say "Hello" to Everyone That Speaks To You
Like in markets all over the world, every person you walk by will try and sell you something or get your attention. While it may be the norm to make eye contact, smile, and say hello to the people that you pass at home, if you engage with the street vendors in Morocco, you are going to get pulled into a transaction that you may not have wanted or have been prepared for. Just look straight ahead, and ignore the calls coming at you from all sides.

4. Avoid the Henna Tattoo Women
Common at the beach and in other tourist areas, women will come up to you and grab you by the arm and try to give you a henna tattoo. While getting a beautiful temporary design on your hand may be tempting, be wary. They will usually finish the tattoo and then try and charge you an exorbitant rate, kicking up a huge fuss if you refuse to pay it.

5. Sun Tanning 101
While the warm weather and long stretches of sand beckon, be careful where you spread your towel and lay out in your two piece. Local women are still completely covered at the beach, and there have been incidents where female tourists have been harassed or had blankets thrown over them while sun tanning. Most beaches have tourist hotels or resorts at them that have a roped off area where for around $1 a day, you can rent a chair and avoid any sort of hassle.

6. Don't Wander Alone at Night or in Isolated Areas
This may seem like common sense, but as the sun sets relatively early, getting caught in the street when the sun goes down is easier than you think. There is a local understanding that "good women" are at home once it's dark, so it's best to be safe inside to avoid any uncomfortable situations.

7. No "Fraternizing" With The Locals
Islamic law rules, which means that getting caught having sex with a Moroccan man or women that you are not married to can lead to them getting thrown in jail (or worse) and you getting thrown out of the country, never allowed to return.

8. Learn a Little of the Local Lingo
French and Arabic are both widely used throughout the country, and I found that uttering the traditional Arabic greeting "As-salāmu ʿalaykum" and the response "Waʿalaykumu s-salām", was the quickest way to make a connection with the locals, as it shows a level of respect.

9. No Smoking or Drinking
Muslim women don't smoke in public, and Islamic law does not allow drinking, though many tourist restaurants in the larger cities sell it. If you decide to indulge in either, try and do it in private or with a large group of fellow travellers at a tourist bar or hotel.

10. Try These Spots if You Need an Escape
If you find yourself in a situation where you need to get away from street harassment, or just need a break from the craziness of the market, try going somewhere that is frequented by local women. A hammam is a great male-free zone as well as the top terrace of a tea house or restaurant. Hotel and public pools tend to attract groups of local men, as does anywhere that serves alcohol, so avoid these spots.

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Travel Tips: Don't Book Ahead! You Might Miss The Experience Of A Lifetime

by Lindsay Shapka in , , ,


My friends and I had spent five action-packed days in Rome and we had just arrived back at our hostel ready to pack up to head to Venice the next day. We hadn't pre-booked anything, but we knew that we were ready for a change of scenery. 

We paused at the front desk on our way in, to let them know that we would be leaving in the morning (but really to flirt with the guy working the front counter) and noticed a poster on the wall behind the desk with "FREE CONCERT" printed on it in big, bold, black letters. 

Curious, we asked for details, but other than being nice to look at, cute-front-desk-guy was kind of useless. He couldn't tell us why the concert was happening, when it started, or how long it would be. All he knew was that it was at the Circus Maximus (an outdoor, ancient Roman chariot racing stadium located near the ancient Roman forum) and that there would be A LOT of famous musicians and movie stars present. 

Deciding that one more day in Rome wouldn't hurt, we decided to stick around to check out the concert. 

We woke up early the next morning, and headed to the venue around ten, figuring the concert would probably start in the early afternoon.

It was May, a beautiful humid day, and the 20 minute walk took us through the historic city centre, and past the always stunning Colosseum.  

When we arrived, the massive green space was completely deserted except for a stage at one end and a few tech guys wandering around. Apparently we were REALLY early. 

Here's the thing about being REALLY early to a free, outdoor concert though... you end up at the very front, at the very centre of the stage. 

As close as you could get to the stage without being press or a producer  

Oh, and it turned out that half the city knew what time the concert started, cause after we held our spots at the front of the stage for a few hours, hundreds of thousands of people joined us!  

The crowd that gathered behind us — it turned out that more than 10,000 people were there.  

The crowd that gathered behind us — it turned out that more than 10,000 people were there.  

It turned out that the concert was called We Are The Future, and was a fundraiser for children who lived in high-risk areas around the world. It was raising money to provide schools, safe places to live, water and access to healthcare.

How did I find this out standing in this massive crowd trapped at the front of the stage?

Quincy Jones told me.

Did I mention that it was a concert put on by him?! 

THE Quincy Jones... in the flesh! 

Oh, and those famous people that we were promised would appear?

Take a look:  

Oh hey Oprah and Josh Groban...

The one and only Andrea Bocelli is still, to this day, one of the most amazing live performers I have ever heard 

Oh hello Miss Williams...  

Naomi Campbell strutted onto the stage

I pretty much hyperventilated when Angelina Jolie walked out on stage... I could have touched her! (But I didn't because that would be creepy)

For thirteen hours (yes, I was exhausted, starving and in pain by the end of the concert, but it was SO worth it), we watched and performances by Carlos Santana, STOMP, Alicia Keys and more!

It was an amazing experience that I will NEVER forget, but one that I would not have taken advantage of if we had pre-booked a hotel or train to Venice ahead of time.

So, the moral of this VERY long story is this:
Book what you need to in order to feel comfortable in your travels, but leave yourself room for spontaneity — you never know when a free concert full of superstars will come your way!

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Must-Visit Destination: Exploring The City of Taormina, Italy

by Lindsay Shapka in , ,


THE STATS:

Location — Taormina is a small picturesque town located on the east coast of the island of Sicily, Italy. It perches high on the cliffs above the Ionian Sea, which is luxuriously warm and has an extremely high salt content (better for floating!). 

Population — Approximately 11,000 permanent residents call this historical village home. 

Claim To Fame — Considered to be the most beautiful town in Sicily, Taormina has been a hub of art and trade back to the time when Italy was ruled by the Greeks (around the 5th century BC). Now frequented by the European jet-set, it is the type of Italian town you see in the movies, and is packed with restaurants, cafes, parks, and boutiques. One of the most stunning sights is the Teatro Greco, an ancient Roman amphitheatre that overlooks the sea and — on a clear day — gives you a view of Mt Etna. Oh, and did I mention the AMAZING beaches! 

TaorminaItaly.JPG

Orientation — The town centre is located on the top of a hill (you must take a bus or a looonnnggg walk to get up to it). The main road, Corso Umberto I, runs through the whole town. 

Getting Around — Walk, walk, and walk! This is a tiny little town so the easiest way to get around, and take in the gorgeous views, is to use your own two feet. In order to get down to the beach you will need to take a cable car OR go on a nice long steep hike (trust me, take the cable car).

Getting There and Away — If you are coming from the mainland, the easiest thing to do is to take the train. How do you get to an island on a train you ask? On a boat of course! The Italians have ferry boats that line up with the tracks and allow the trains to drive right on, meeting up with the tracks again on the island. You will need to catch an Interbus from the train station into town. If travelling around the island the best way to go is by bus.

Where To Stay — Because Taormina tends to attract a wealthier crowd, there are many expensive hotels, pensiones, villas, and rooms for rent. But, the budget conscious need not dismay, there are also a few cheap hostels and even a campground for you! Try and call ahead if you are travelling in the high season however, as you can imagine, these less-expensive options fill up fast! 

What To Do — Relax at a cafe, ride the cable car down to the beach, suntan, take in the majestic view of Mt Etna at the Teatro Greco, hike up the cacti speckled cliffs overlooking the sea, wander through the historic city centre as the sun sets, indulge in a delicious meal  at a local restaurant... REPEAT!  

How I Found It — While travelling through Italy, my travel buddies and I ended up in Taormina largely because it was the lest expensive ticket to buy at the train station. Our ultimate goal was getting to Mt Etna (a town over), but we decided to stop here in order to save some money. 

Intending to only stay for one night, we ended up adding a few more because of the chilled out atmosphere, a great hostel, and the gorgeous beach!

The Teatro Greco was once solely used for gladiator combat and was where Woody Allen filmed the Greek chorus scene for his film Mighty Aphrodite. 




Don't Touch The Pineapple! How To Get Arrested In Hawaii

by Lindsay Shapka in , , ,


If you would like to spend your time in Hawaii with a view of prison bars rather than palm trees, or if you feel like shelling out a bunch of money to the police instead of buying souvenirs, all you have to do is wander into one of the thousands of acres of pineapple fields all over the Hawaiian islands and pick one of the spiky fruits off its plant.

Though each acre of pineapple field supports about 6,500 plants, it takes nearly TWO YEARS for a plant to reach the point where it can begin to bear fruit.

Each plant will only produce 2 pineapples in its lifetime, one in its second year and one in its third.

The fruit is not considered ready to pick until it weighs about 5lbs and is unique among fruits in that it does not continue to ripen after it is picked, so the timing must be perfect.

Because of the length of time they take to grow, and how important it is that they are on the plant until ripe (and the fact that it is one of the country’s largest exports), it is illegal to pick pineapples in Hawaii. 

If you are still desperate to have the experience of plucking the fruit from a field yourself, don’t risk wandering into one of the well-monitored fields on your own and ending up with Dog The Bounty Hunter on your tail.  Avoid getting arrested by going on a ‘picking’ tour at the Dole Plantation on the island of Oahu instead OR order a pina colada at your hotel bar and ‘pick’ a piece of fresh pineapple off the side of your glass. 

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How To Protect Your Travel Funds And Become A Cash-Savvy Traveller

by Lindsay Shapka in , ,


Whether you are a penny-pinching backpacker or a traveller with deeper pockets, everyone loves a great, cash saving travel tip.

These tips will not only help you save and protect your money while you are travelling, but can also lead you to more genuine cultural experiences and — what every traveller loves to collect — some great stories.

First, lets start with a few tips to help prevent any cash-flow disasters:

Before you leave home call your credit card companies 

I can not stress this point enough. If you don’t call, there is a good chance that your card will be canceled or have a hold placed on it right when you have to pay for your hotel room or your expensive dinner.

A simple call alerting them where you are going, and for how long, will prevent any disasters. Many card companies also have toll-free numbers that you can call from international locations if you have any issues. 

Make sure you have a four digit pin number

Your credit and debit cards should work at most ATMs around the world, as long as you have a 4-digit pin number. Anything longer will not be compatible with international banks and cause issues when you try to take out money. 

Remember that exchanging money is not always easy.

It was almost impossible for me to exchange the Budapest forint once I had left the country. Unless you are planning on going back to the country you are leaving, exchange your extra pesosflorinsdrams, and riels before you cross the border. 

Do not keep all of your cash and cards in one place

Even if you are wearing a money belt the entire time you're traveling, it's important to have something extra tucked away just in case. I recommend sewing a small pocket in the bottom of your bag that you can tuck a card and some cash into, or placing a little cash under the insole of your shoe. 

And now for some tips that will help you save cash while still having some incredible experiences:

Unless you are staying in one place, don’t book ahead

Whenever I give this advice, the first thing that people tell me is that they have a limited amount of time and don’t want to risk not having a place to stay. Of course, if you are going somewhere that is hosting a huge event or in the peak of tourist season, booking ahead is definitely the best plan.

But, if you book ahead for the average trip, you run the risk of paying more (you can often get cheaper rates once in the actual country) or staying somewhere that doesn’t live up to its online photos. 

I do recommend booking accommodation ahead of time for the first city you will hit on your itinerary so you have a base to head to, but leave the rest for when you get there.

Here’s why; all hotels, hostels and guesthouses are associated with other hotels, hostels and guesthouses in other cities and countries. They will always — whether you want it or not — have a recommendation for you, and will often even set it up for you at a discount. 

The other reason I recommend not pre-booking is that if you do, you are forced to keep to a schedule. What happens if you want to stay a few extra days or leave early? What happens if you hear about an amazing free concert happening in a city that wasn’t in your pre-planned itinerary? There’s no risk of losing a deposit if you haven’t paid one yet, and not booking ahead allows you to take advantage of the best part of travel — spontaneity! 

Don’t take a tour

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule.

If taking a tour is safer (I took a tour into the Korean Demilitarized Zone for example) or less expensive than doing it yourself, it is absolutely worth it.

I’m referring to the walking, sightseeing, museum tours that, in the age of smartphones and Lonely Planet Travel Guides, are a complete waste of money for the budget traveler. Anything that these human guides are going to tell or show you could easily be discovered yourself with very little effort.

These paid tours are often affiliated with certain restaurants or shops and will usually begin or end with a visit to them where you will be forced to browse or eat in a ‘tourist friendly’, unauthentic environment. So, not only do they often waste your money, but your time as well.

Ask a local

Locals are your most valuable source when it comes to saving money. They are the people who can tell you where the best (affordable) spots to eat, party, and sightsee are. They are also great at giving you tips on how to experience the local (often free) hot spots. 

Remember that the concierge at your hotel (in a hostel, this is not an issue) is not necessarily a "local" when he is doing his job. He is paid and trained to tell you typical tourist things to do. Talk to waiters, bartenders, desk clerks and local business owners for more authentic tips. They are the ones who will be in-the-know about what is going on in their city. 

Only sit down to eat once a day

Limiting your restaurant dining can save you a bunch of cash.

Many hostels and hotels will include breakfast in the cost of the room, but if they don’t you can easily grab a piece of fruit, something cheap from a local bakery or a snack from a street stall. Street food is available all day and every country that I have visited, from Asia to North America has a version of a cafe where cheap sandwiches can be purchased as well. 

Most would pick dinner as their sit down meal, but if you are looking to save everything that you can, I suggest heading to a restaurant for lunch instead. Lunch menus are usually just slightly smaller versions of the dinner menu, and are often $5-10 cheaper. The portion size will still more than fill you up, and you will get the same experience you would if you were there for dinner —without having to worry about what to do with leftovers.

Embrace free entertainment

With the exception of travel in cold countries in the deep of winter, every place I have ever been has had constant street performances. I have seen Italian opera preformed on the street in Venice, acrobatics on the pavement in China, and Mozart played by classical musicians in Vienna. None of these shows cost me more than the donation that I chose to give, and I believe that they were just as impressive — in their own way — as anything I could have seen for full price in a theatre. 

Do a bit of research ahead of time, and you can even time your travels so that you are present for one of the amazing free concerts, celebrations, or street performer festivals that occur at different times of the year all over the world.

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Learn How To Haggle, Barter & Bargain Like a Pro

by Lindsay Shapka in , ,


In many countries, items sold by street vendors, in markets, or in small shops do not have set prices and customers are expected to bargain for their purchases. 

Aggressive bartering can seem intimidating or even pointless to travelers, especially when what you are negotiating is often the equivalent of pennies in your native currency. Regardless, this cultural interaction is one that is unavoidable, and if you do it right, can be a lot of fun and will earn you respect from the locals. 

Be Prepared

The first step to becoming an expert haggler is to arrive at the market prepared. Have an idea of what things are worth in the country that you are visiting (guide books can help you out with this) and create a cheat sheet with numbers written out in the local language so that you can understand what is being said to you. I also recommend carrying a notepad and pen with you so that if the language barrier is too much, you can write your offers down to show the vendors — numbers are a universal language!

Know Your Budget

Before you even set foot near a market, it is very important to have a set budget in mind. Once you get the hang of it, bartering can be quite a high, and it is easy to get caught up in the chaos and spend more than you intended to — usually on things that you don’t need or don’t have room to carry home (trust me, I've been there). 

Don’t Start Buying Right Away

Walk around and check out as many vendors as you can in order to get an idea of what you want and what sort of prices things start at. Items will not be tagged so you will have to ask for the price, but do not start bargaining unless you are serious about buying right then and there. 

Don't Make The First Move

When you are ready to make a purchase, always let the vendor make the first offer and expect it to be anywhere from double to ten times the price that you should end up paying for it. At this point you can ask if that is really the ‘best price’, which will usually result in a significant drop from the original. 

Now, it is your turn to make an offer. 

Never start with the price that you actually want to pay but give one significantly lower, this is not an insult; it is all part of the game. Expect whatever offer you make to result in an overly exaggerated reaction from the vendor who will act like you have literally ripped food out of his children’s hands. Wait for the fake crying to stop, and you will get a counter offer. Negotiations will continue like this until a price is agreed upon.

Bartering can be a lot of fun, and to keep it that way, ensure that you stay relaxed, friendly, smile a lot and joke around with the vendor. If they like you and you show that you are playing the game, there is a better change of getting the end price that you want. 

Don't Be Afraid To Walk Away

If you find your negotiations are at a standstill, don’t be afraid to walk away. This will often lead to the vendor chasing after you agreeing to your price, but if it doesn’t, hold strong and keep on going. The item you want will probably be around the corner at another stall anyway, and you can always try again.

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