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After two years of travel…


So much has happened in two years of travel that it is hard to give one good summary.  Here is a recap on some fun facts, a few answers to often-asked-questions, and some tips.

FUN FACTS:

  • I never planned more than one or two days at a time.
  • During the first year I would try to read up on each country a little before setting foot on it.  By the second year I would just show up and google the top things to see after I arrived.  Sometimes I would not even plan a thing and just leave things to chance.  For example in Myanmar I didn’t plan.  I just decided to follow what other travelers told me to do.
  • I started the trip with two backpacks, one with 10kg of clothes and shoes, the other with 7kg of mostly electronics (Gopro, DSLR camera, laptop, external drive, and phone).
  • I ended the trip with two backpacks, one with 11kg of clothes, shoes, and souvenirs.  The other with 2kg of a few personal items and one electronic device- an iPad.
  • I am a light sleeper so I wore earplugs 98% of the nights.  Anything can wake you up, a call to prayer from a mosque, a street vendor, street parties, animals, your roommates, someone snoring in the next room, etc.
  • I visited a total of 24 countries in this order: Indonesia, Malaysia, back to Indonesia, Singapore, back to Malaysia, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, India, Nepal, back to India, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, back to Thailand, Cambodia, China (including Hong Kong), Japan, back to China, Mongolia, Russia, Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Morocco, Colombia, Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, and back to Colombia.
  • On average I changed beds every two to three days.  I paid to stay in guesthouses, hotels, dormitories, capsule hotels, hostels, family home-stays, campgrounds, ashrams, yurts, boats, trains, buses.  And I spent the night for free on a beach (illegally), with families, and couch-surfing hosts.
  • I booked around 149 different accommodations using mostly Booking.com (92% of the time) and Agoda (2% of the time).  On Booking you reach the status of “genius” eventually; which gives you additional discounts and early check-in/check-out.
  • Average daily budget was U$40-US$50.  This included accommodation, meals, tours, and transport expenses.  Some countries were cheaper like Indonesia where I spent an average of $15-$20 and more expensive like Japan where I spent an average of $60-$80 per day.
  • I always used ATM’s to take out money using a Charles Schwab debit card; which does not charge fees and refunds ALL foreign bank fees.  I saved US$300 on ATM fees in two years.  I also used a Bank of America travel rewards VISA card that did not charge any foreign fees and gave me money back on all my travel expenses.  I carried a back-up debit card, a back-up MasterCard and a back-up ATM card.  And in case my cards did not work, I had US$500 in cash on me most of the time.  I later reduced it to US$300 as I was getting closer to the end of my trip.
  • About 40% of my money went into transportation.  This is usually what will take most of it.  I used to have exact numbers because I kept spreadsheets on everything (yes I am a nerd), but I lost everything when I was robbed, including my back-up external drive.  Doh!
  • I splurged on all the tours that I wanted to do including a 3-day jungle trek to find tigers, visiting a reserve for rescued elephants in Thailand, camping on the Great Wall of China, a 4-day caving excursion in Vietnam, a full day walk on the Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina, a 4-day open-water certification course in Jordan, Hunting with Kazakhs and their eagles in Mongolia, etc.  I would rather go cheap on accommodation and food than to miss out on this good stuff!
  • I was robbed three times, well… the third time I got away before the thief could take anything.  The second time I lost all of my electronics but I actually took the thief (a taxi driver) to the police and got him to pay me some money.
  • I was harassed by men nine times.  Yes I counted them because they were all scary and/or uncomfortable situations but thankfully nothing horrible happened.  Not such a great thing to tell but it happened…
  • I only felt lonely a few times during the trip (I can count them in my two hands).  It is so easy to meet people while traveling that it is actually hard to find time to be completely by yourself.
  • I met hundreds of new people, but made a few very special life-long friendships.
  • I did everything on my laptop and iPad (after I lost the laptop) using WiFi connections.  My favorite apps were Google translate, XE for currency conversion, Booking.com for accommodation, Maps.me for navigation, and Facebook to stay in touch with family and friends.
  • I did not use a phone for the entire two years.  I did not miss it at all!
  • I did not drive a car in two years.  I still haven’t (at the time of writing this post)…
  • I wrote in a notepad everyday to later convert my notes into blog posts.
  • I got sick from bacteria in food or water (who knows) in Indonesia, India, Nepal, and Bolivia.  My traveler’s diarrhea kit (of Ciprofloxacin and Loperamide) helped me recover every time.
  • I got my first tattoo in Thailand from a monk.  It was a SakYant or magical tattoo.
  • I got my nose pierced in India.  I always wanted to do this and I finally dared! It hurt like hell!
  • I increased my meditation practice after having spent some time in a few ashrams, a Vipassana center, and two Zen centers.  In Vipassana we had to be in silence for 9 consecutive days with no books, electronics, or exercise (except for a little walking).  It was tough but I am glad I did it.  The 10th day we could talk to others during our breaks.  We had about 10 hours of meditation per day.
  • I found love and also got my heart broken.  That is all the details I will give on this for now…  😉
  • I ate whatever I wanted and tried the local foods as much as I could.  The point was to learn about different foods.  I walked sooo much on this trip that I would burn tons of calories every day.  But I gained 3kg when I visited my family in Colombia.
  • I discovered my love for the ocean.  I knew that I wanted to get certified in scuba diving but I never knew just how beautiful and amazing it is down there!
  • I trained on Kung Fu with real Shaolin masters for three weeks in China.  They didn’t speak any English.
  • My hair was ruined in a salon in India.  The top of my head was gothic-black for a while.
  • The best days of the trip were the ones that I never planned.  When you just go with the flow and let things happen, you have a lot more fun!

FREQUENTLY-ASKED QUESTIONS:

  • What was your favorite country?  I don’t have one.  Every country had its bad and good to offer.  I tried to learn from it all and enjoy the good.  There are some categories where I do have my favorites though: best food is in India, Thailand, and Vietnam.  The nicest people are in Myanmar, Colombia, and Russia.  India is very interesting in every sense of the word (you just have to go see for yourself).  I loved trekking in the Himalayas in Nepal.  I loved traveling on a motorcycle in the northern part of Vietnam.  I loved the feel of remoteness of Mongolia.  I loved learning history in Egypt, and there are many others.  China was the most challenging country to travel for me.  Japan was the cleanest and most organized.  Thailand was always easy, beautiful, and fun.  This world is full of beauty and it is easier to travel than you think!
  • What were the biggest surprises?  How easy and cheap it is to travel the world.  How easy it is to meet nice people everywhere you go.  The more I travel, the more I realize how similar we all are.
  • How did you afford two years of travel?  I saved for a while, and I traveled on a budget, always making sure that I stayed within US$40 a day as much as I could.  I never sacrificed places that I wanted to see or things that I wanted to do.  If I had to spend money on a great tour then I would compensate by staying in a dorm, sharing transport with locals, buying food on the streets, etc.  And I actually had more fun when I did these things.
  • How much did you pack? I took a bunch of clothes that I thought I would need and about one month into my trip, I got rid of most of it.  I realized quickly that you can find whatever you need right where you are.  And things are a lot cheaper in other countries than they are in the US.  I just visited the local flea markets and got cheap clothes and shoes.  I tried to follow the rule that if I added something to my backpack, something else had to come out.
  • How does it feel to be home again? strange but good.  It is weird to just stay in one place and not have much to do.  Having spent sometime with my family in Colombia before returning to the US helped me ease into this new routine a bit.  I am definitely taking my time in finding a home, a car, and a job…   and I am already dying to travel again!  😉
  • What is the strangest food you tried?  I tried snake, frog, rat, scorpion, and drank fermented horse and camel milk.  The rat was from the rice fields so it only ate rice and it actually tasted better than the frog and the snake.
  • Are you done?  have you seen every country by now?  I will never be done!  I now know more than ever that traveling is my real passion.  There are many countries that I have yet to see, many, many, many…  On this trip I spent an average of a country per month.  For me quality is more important than quantity.  I wanted to not only see the highlights but also get a taste of the culture and get a feel for the people.  I don’t think you can do much of that unless you try to immerse a little bit.  You can do this by taking a class on something, working with locals, doing couch-surfing, volunteering, striking up conversations in cafes, etc.
  • Did you miss anything from home?  Of course, my family and friends!  I never missed any of my material belongings like my apartment, my car, my furniture, etc.  I will admit though that I missed my “good quality” underwear but after a year and a half of traveling I found a Victoria Secret in Russia where I spent a day’s budget.  Oops!

SOME TIPS:

Be open to everything:  What makes the world beautiful and interesting is its diversity.  If we were all the same it would be quite boring.  Enjoy the differences, learn from others, and accept that we don’t all think or live the same way.  Practice compassion, empathy, and putting yourself in the other’s shoes.  Open your mind to new things and you will have more fun.

Don’t sweat the small stuff:  What can go wrong will most likely go wrong.  So try to go with the flow and just let things be.  If you miss the bus, there will be another one later.  If someone is mean to you, there will be plenty of nice people willing to help just around the corner.  If the hotel sucks, cancel and book another one.  If the ATM is not working, just try to find another one or finally use your emergency stash (oh yea, have this!).

Be patient with yourself:  Becoming good at something takes time, even travel.  Don’t beat yourself up for not doing things right the first time.  If you are scammed, next time you will know better.  If you make a fool out of yourself, laugh at your own stupidity and learn from it.  And remember that nothing lasts forever, not even the good stuff.

Don’t put all your money in one basket:  Don’t rely on just one source of money, have two different types of credit cards in case the country where you are does not normally take one.  Always have an emergency reserve in cash, this in case ATM’s don’t work and banks are closed, and you desperately need money.  Don’t put all of your money sources in one place, if your bag gets robbed, at least you will have the one credit card you put in your money belt, or inside your socks, or even your pocket.  If your small bag is stolen, at least you had your cash stash in your big backpack.  Distribute your money in different places.  Leave some stuff at your hotel locked up while you go out to do site-seeing.

Mix with the locals:  Most of the time when people are staring it is because they are interested in you.  Try to speak to the locals, ask them if you can sit down and ask some questions.  Most people love talking about themselves.  Be a true listener, smile, and make them feel special.  Try to learn a few words in the local language.  This will go a long way when you need to get help.  They will see that you are trying and appreciate the effort.

Mind your valuables:  If you like your photos and videos, back them up!  I took tons of photos and videos but made the mistake of backing it all up on my external drive.  The one day that I decided to travel with all my electronics (including the external drive) inside the same bag, is when my bag was stolen.  I lost 5,000 photos and all my videos from the first year.  I learned a big lesson the hard way!  My Zen teacher in China congratulated me when I told him about this… he said that I must have gotten rid of some bad karma.  Hmmmm, I never saw it that way…

If something feels wrong, don’t do it:  Specially as a solo female traveler.  I was on an over-night bus in India.  I had men laying on my feet (literally).  The guy next to me kept putting his leg on mine pretending to be asleep.  It was dark and noisy from the strong wind blowing through all the open windows.  Anything could have gone wrong and no one would have known about it.  Something just didn’t feel right.  I was not comfortable and I felt very unsafe.  After enduring four hours (of a fourteen hour trip) I decided to get off the bus.  I put my safety and well-being first.  I made other plans to take the train the following day.  I had to spend more money than expected but it was well worth it!  Always follow your intuition.

People will always make your trip better:  If you are traveling solo, seek out others to talk and see places together.  Most travelers are pretty cool and interesting people.  If you don’t stay in dorms or do couch-surfing, then join some tours to meet people.

Being nice goes a long way:  A simple hello, a smile, a helping hand will go a long way.  Treat others as you would like to be treated, everywhere!  If you treat others with respect, they will most likely reciprocate.  Also if you want to take a photo of a local person, just ask in a nice manner.  Most of the time they will say yes.  Don’t think you are being too much of a “tourist”.  The truth is that the photo opportunity will never come again.  Just ask!  The embarrassment of the moment will pass soon enough but the picture will last forever.

Always choose quality over quantity:  Don’t try to cram everything in, and don’t try to see it all.  You will be exhausted and not enjoy yourself much.  Just pick the top three or five things that are most important to you and enjoy them.  Take your time seeing the places, immerse yourself in new cultures, get to know the locals, etc.

The best plan is NOT to plan:  My best memories of the trip were the days that I did not plan at all.  Be spontaneous and take lots of chances!

Some of the things that were on the bucket-list that got checked off on this trip:

I got my open-water certification in scuba diving.

I camped on the Great Wall of China.

I crossed Siberia on a train.

I rode camels and camped in the Sahara Desert.

I went caving in Vietnam.

I trekked to Everest basecamp.

I saw the Taj Mahal.

I saw the Pyramids in Egypt.

I experienced communal living in ashrams in India.

I hunted with Kazakhs and their eagles in Mongolia.

I stayed with local families in their gers (or yurts) in the Gobi Desert.

I rode on a boat on the Grand Canal of Venice.

I saw the Sistine Chapel.

I saw the Berlin Wall remnants. 

I walked on the Perito Moreno glacier in Patagonia.

I completed the W trek in Las Torres del Paine.

I saw orangutans in the wild in Indonesia.

I saw the skyscrapers in Shanghai.

I made it to the summit of Mt. Fuji.

I went inside the crater of an active volcano.

I traveled independently in my own country Colombia, without fear.  This meant the world to me!

I stood on THE bridge in Sapa, Vietnam.  The same one on the picture hanging in my living room wall that I promised I would find someday… 

I write all of this with the hope that some of you will be inspired to travel and learn more about our world.  Or if travel is not your thing, at least be inspired to accomplish your dreams, whatever they may be.  I truly believe that we should all COLLECT EXPERIENCES, NOT THINGS.  Remember you only have this ONE life.  Live as fully as you can!!!

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Categories: Coming home, Departure, Lessons learnedTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

8 comments

  1. Grande Cata! I loved the 2 year summary post. I think you did a great job of giving details, advice, and a feel for what it is like, and more importantly I think you are helping others who also have this dream, but struggle to make it happen! It was an absolute pleasure to meet you at the beginning of both of our trips. and keep me posted on how being back is like! big hug amiga querida

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    • hola Alejandro! Thanks for your comments, they mean a lot to me coming from an expert traveler like you! You continue to inspire me everyday with your travels! I hope we get to meet again someday. Being back feels a bit strange…great to see family and friends but not easy trying to figure out what comes next. And of course I can’t wait to travel again! ha ha! Big hugs to you!

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  2. You are truly an inspiration for all of us. I am reading your blog in Dubrovnik and checking it off my list but that list grows longer every day. Glad you are home!

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    • Thanks so much Cindy. Glad I can entertain you during your travels. You should write a blog about traveling on cruises, you are the expert now! Sending you big hugs.

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  3. Cata — there are many words that describe a woman like you, but I’ll just simply say AWESOME!!! No doubt you will embark on another world traveling adventure — in the meantime I am soooo relieved you got home safe. WOW what an amazing and unique experience Cata –worth more than any worldly material things. Continue pursuing your dreams! 💕 Martha

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  4. Welcome back Cata! I’m so impressed by all of your adventures. If you don’t mind the pay decrease I think you would enjoy being an int’l flt attendant one day. You meet new & interesting people every day and get paid to travel and stay in nice hotels.

    Thank you for sharing re: financials and the dangers of traveling alone as a female. I’m glad you are bold but cautious.

    ❤ Allison Dryden

    P.S. If you want to rock climb w/ Bob and I btw trips, let us know.

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    • hi! thanks for reading Allison! hmmm…flight attendant?! I don’t know that I am that brave to be on an airplane that much! I would love to hang out with you guys again and catch up. Rock climbing sounds great! hope we can plan something soon.

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