In the Holy Land – Israel & Palestine, Dec. ’17/Jan. ’18

Howdy folks! (TL;DR: I&P pics here!)

Emily and I spent one and a half months in “the Holy Land,” primarily in Israel, with about one one week spent in the West Bank.

This was my fourth time in this part of the world, and Emily’s first. I was eager to get back to my “first” foreign country, Emily was excited to see what the hell I had been talking about since 2012, and we were both stoked to get a break the heat and humid of East/SE Asia.

And what a break we got! The weather in Israel and Palestine made us feel like we were already back home in a California winter – sometimes wet, often windy, but sunshine more often than not. The similarities didn’t end there, but they were cheek-and-jowl with fantastic differences in food, language, culture, and history.

Emily’s write-up about our time in Israel is a fantastic read for the more emotional side of our trip there. But for some lovely pictures of Tel Aviv street life, the Old City of Jerusalem, the difficult realities of Hebron, and the gorgeous north…click on the link above.

We’re back home in California already, believe it or not, but pictures aren’t done yet! Be on the lookout for pics from Paris very soon.

With love,

E&E

 

Eat Pray Love Laugh Netflix Fatigue Travel

While Skyping with my sister yesterday, she jokingly asked me, “So are you all ‘enlightened’ now that you’ve traveled around the world?” My initial response was an eye roll and immediate assurance that I have not changed all that much; the only changes that I could think of at the time are that I’m more open to eating other types of foods (which is actually a milestone for this incredibly picky eater) and I’m more used to living each day with fewer material objects. But her question stuck in my head after the conversation ended, for a few reasons.

The backpacker life comes with quite a few cliches, both the ones that are projected upon us and the ones we create for ourselves. In the former category, there are the assumptions that we’re all trust fund kids with superiority complexes who don’t actually care about the places we’re visiting as long as they provide good backdrops for Instagram photos. In the latter category, there is a culture of self-righteousness about our amazing journeys that allow us to discover our life’s true purpose through learning from “other” (non-white or non-Western) peoples. While I have met two or three individuals who match up to these stereotypes, they are few and far between. Yes, a few of us have read Eat Pray Love (guilty) or wear loose elephant-print pants (you know who you are) or wax poetic about “life on the road,” but the majority of people I’ve met have been… normal, for lack of a better term.

Some travelers have saved money for their trip, others work on the road to keep themselves afloat. Some wear makeup daily, others have quit looking in mirrors altogether. Some haven’t talked with a friend back home in weeks, others Skype their families every day. Backpackers of all kinds spend a lot of time watching their favorite shows online, complaining about the foods they miss, chattering about their pets, comparing prices of items at convenience stores, asking for tips about their destinations ahead; there’s no singular type of traveler I’ve come across, really. Occasionally I’ve talked to others about the “reason” why they travel, but somehow it’s assumed as a given among the group – if you have the means and time, why not?

Ethan and I went into this trip with similar feelings – we both want to see more of the world, this is a good point in our lives to do it, our financial situations are stable enough for awhile. Very quickly into this trip, Ethan brought up the quote: “Wherever you go, there you are.” We’re the same individuals who left Berkeley 5-6 months ago, just with a higher tolerance for mosquito bites and snoring roommates. I don’t think either of us expected an epiphany while climbing a mountain or a realization of some subconscious goal while eating a dumpling.

Still, there’s always a nagging feeling that we’re not doing/seeing/learning/experiencing enough, that somehow we’re traveling incorrectly. If my previous statement is true, that we’re traveling not for enlightenment but because we can, wouldn’t it be more cost-effective to stay at home and study these places? I could glean more about Chinese history in a week at a desk than I could schlepping a backpack through Sichuan for two months. An immersion program at a Japanese school in San Francisco would teach me more language skills than what I picked up at a hostel in Tokyo. Removing the physical activity, social stress, and money-spending inherent in travel would certainly make learning about these cultures much easier and arguably more amusing.

When I look back on this trip – about 100 days until its end, just a bit past the midway point – I don’t think about all of the history I’ve learned or the museums I’ve seen or the souvenirs I bought. I think of it in terms of moments: watching my mother successfully coax a frightened Malaysian teenager across Taiwan’s largest suspension bridge; singing Eagles karaoke at a Family Guy-themed bar until 4:00 am in Osaka; sitting in an alleyway in Kyoto with my boyfriend at midnight, frustrated after a stressful day of switching trains and climbing stairs. I think of all of the people who I became close with because we were in the same city at the same time and spoke the same language, people who I’d love to see every week for the rest of my life, but can’t because the world is too big.

I guess I don’t travel to become more enlightened; I travel to fit more “life” into my life. And really, one doesn’t need to be in a foreign country to try new foods or meet new friends or have more fun – it’s just that travel reminds you how to do those things when your life at home feels ordinary. The most challenging part of this trip, for me, will be learning to make new adventures without a backpack on, to extend the exhilaration of novelty into a place I already know. So, little sister, get ready to get enlightened right along with me when I come home next year. We’re gonna have some fun.

Macau: Portugal in China

By Emily

I don’t remember what made us decide to visit Macau in the first place. We needed a plane ticket out of China, I think, so we hastily bought the cheapest flight we could from Hong Kong/Macau to Taiwan (yes, they’re all technically part of China, but we’ll cover that more in a later post about Taiwan), and ended up in Macau for two nights. We booked an AirBnB (cheaper than a hostel in this region) and set out from Hong Kong by ferry, no idea what awaited us on the other side of the Pearl River Delta.

While in China, I did some reading on Macau’s history and tourist spots to figure out exactly where we were headed. I was surprised to hear it had once been a Portuguese colony (my colonial history knowledge has never been stellar) and wondered whether it would remind me of the Azores at all. My paternal family is from this tiny group of Portuguese islands in the Atlantic, with the past five generations of Cardozas born and raised in San Luis Obispo county, California (losing the language along the way, but not the appetite for fish nor the desire to cultivate fruit trees). A few years ago, my grandparents were generous enough to take myself and ten other family members to visit the homeland – Pico and Faial, specifically – where their parents and grandparents were born. Beautiful in both nature and architecture, the small towns on these islands amazed me with their ornate churches and breathtaking views of the Atlantic. I was also stunned at how many of the islanders looked like they were related to me – and in truth, many of them very well could have been. We were even lucky enough to meet a very distant cousin – an older man named Manuel who had a hobby of building miniature windmills – who looked a heck of a lot like my grandfather.

Back to the other side of the planet – here’s a brief history of Macau, for anyone who doesn’t know (I certainly didn’t).

Prior to the sixteenth century, Macau was primarily inhabited by the Tankas, an ethnic subgroup in China, as well as Han Chinese people. The Tankas are “boat people” who live by fishing, with community histories in southern China and parts of Vietnam. In the early 1500’s, Portuguese traders arrived in Macau and were allowed by the Chinese government to set up a commercial center. Over the following decades and centuries, the Portuguese influence expanded: a Roman Catholic diocese took root, the Iberians formed their own unofficial Senate, and the Portuguese even defended the region against attacks by the Dutch (well, their slaves did). After the Opium Wars, China ceded Macau to Portugal in 1887, making it an official Portuguese colony.

But the world wars and rapid governmental shifts that shook the globe in the twentieth century didn’t miss Macau. Partially as a result of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Macau’s inhabitants demanded change from their Portuguese administration; and after Portugal’s own Carnation Revolution, overseas colonies began to decolonize. In 1999, Macau was officially absorbed back into the Chinese sphere of influence, making it a special administrative region (SAR), like Hong Kong.

What does all of this history mean for Macau today? Well, their official languages are Cantonese and Portuguese, despite the fact that 95% of the population is Han Chinese and only 2% is Portuguese. This actually made traveling around the city much easier – with my intermediate French and Ethan’s beginner Spanish, we were able to read Portuguese signs and navigate through the historic spots more easily. We also ran into a ton of Portuguese travelers, on their own and in groups, who were exploring the region (and a bunch of them looked like my dad and his siblings. It’s truly bizarre). Macau also has a really great infrastructure set up for English-speaking travelers, providing free walking tour maps and guides (and an app).

Aesthetically, I felt like I was back in Portugal. The black-and-white cobblestone streets with their intricate designs matched my homeland exactly; the brightly colored buildings with European flair made my jaw drop. When I walked into the São Lourenço church, all of my memories of Western architecture classes came flooding back. The older sections of the city feel like a town in eighteenth-century Europe was transplanted to the other side of the world, and China filled in the blanks. Hearing Cantonese outside the Portuguese embassy (an historic building near our AirBnB) felt dissonant, but oddly worked perfectly with the Macanese lifestyle we witnessed.

And the FOOD. Macau has its own flavor, a special mix of Chinese and Portuguese cuisines with a ton of fish and spices (and cheese. Bless my people). We were directed to a nearby Portuguese restaurant by our AirBnB host, and we were not disappointed. I’d post pictures, but we ate the food so quickly that nothing survived to be Instagrammed.

One huge part of Macau that I’m not mentioning – its reputation as the “Las Vegas of the East.” Macau has quite a few large casinos, with eastern branches of the Venetian and the MGM Grand. We didn’t end up checking out these fine establishments for a few reasons: 1. We were only in Macau for two nights and 2. The only traveler we met who had been to Macau told us they weren’t worth our time, comparing them to “shitty Vegas, with no free drinks and the stakes are higher”. Next time, I think I’ll give them a look-see, though.

I’ll absolutely be returning to Macau to learn more about its history and see more of the city. Next time, hopefully, with my family in tow 🙂

Fine China

By Emily

We’ve been in mainland China for the past seven weeks, navigating our way from Shenzhen to Chengdu, with several stops along the way. While I’ve wanted to write more about this experience, it’s been hard to find any singular topic – for me, so much of the experience has been mixed. I’ve had some of my most fun moments of travel – zipping through the countryside on an electric scooter, snuggling baby kittens, going to an incredible hot pot restaurant – as well as my least fun – mosquito attacks, losing half of our clothing, food poisoning (ugh). I’m also nothing close to an expert on China’s politics, history, and cultures, so am I even qualified to write this? Here goes:

The Negatives:

IMG_3487

“Travel Fatigue” in an image

By the time we got to Hong Kong, Ethan and I had started feeling incredibly tired. After some doubt about our own abilities to undertake long-term travel, we found that it’s not uncommon for such people to experience travel fatigue (check out articles here and here). Often, people refer to our trip as a “vacation” or something else flippant, and I begin to bristle. Sure, we recognize that we have a level of privilege that allows us to do this, but the lifestyle is anything but relaxing. And China has certainly tested the level of discomfort I’ve experienced as a Westerner.

20170812_185354

Guangzhou train station – the clouds should have warned us

The Guangzhou train station is by far the most chaotic environment I’ve ever experienced – we missed our train the first time we tried to catch it, and ended up coming back the next day (two hours early). I’ve found that many bus/train/subway stations aren’t much more organized, and that quite a few Chinese citizens haven’t embraced the concept of “lining up.” Most “tourist information centers” don’t have English-speaking staff, either. While the buses between cities are fairly regular, it’s incredibly hard to figure out where the bus stations are, as well as how to buy tickets for them.

IMG_3630

Hoping we’re on the right bus?

 

After getting spoiled in Japan, we’ve been confronted by wooden beds (without mattresses/pads), squat toilets (my least favorite thing in the world), and a lack of available drinking water. Public urination and/or defecation isn’t uncommon either, especially among young children (at least THEY have an excuse). While I was warned about all of this ahead of time, getting used to it has been… hard.

The Awkward Parts:

20170824_134058

Me showing off my sunburn – and my response to people staring, generally

You know how you felt as a teenager, that everyone was staring at you all the time and judging you? Well, that actually happens to us. I’ve never been stared at as much as I have in this country. At first, it was funny, but after people started taking my picture (or video) without my consent, it got annoying. Just ask, people! I’ve asked locals why it is that I get more stares than Ethan, and I’ve gotten a few answers – “Because you are tall” (I am usually the tallest woman in my line of sight) or “Because you are beautiful” among them. While I appreciate the flattery, it’s hard to believe that my beauty is potent enough to affect small children – who frequently point and yell “WAI GUO REN” (“foreigners”) at us. I’ve responded to this by waving, winking, or pointing at those I catch staring, which usually surprises them. Quite a few other travelers (especially women) have mentioned this phenomenon as well, and while the staring doesn’t usually lead to a come-on or even a conversation, it’s certainly unnerving.

IMG_3629

Ethan getting Civ 6 tips from a friendly 8-year-old

It’s been much harder to communicate with people as well. While Ethan is making great headway in his Mandarin practice, asking questions beyond a few words is very difficult. We’ve responded to this by typing into Google Translate and holding up the results, or using a very complicated gesturing system. Usually, Chinese speakers have a decent sense of humor about our ineptitude, but we’ve been in quite a few uncomfortable situations in which the language barrier seemed particularly acute.

20170804_190301

Ethan on a motor scooter with Xiaolo

While we have driven motor scooters and the like through the countryside, we have yet to get behind the wheel of a car. Part of this is trepidation about driving in China, where the two rules of the road seem to be “Drive aggressively” and “Always be beeping.” As a Californian, I adhere to the policy that using one’s horn for anything other than a near-fatal accident is unnecessary. But here, horns are for communication – honk when you drive by another car, honk when you’re behind someone, honk if no one is around but you feel like making your presence known. Also, lines on the road are more suggestions than rules – many of our taxi drivers have spent at least half their routes driving against the traffic flow.

When Things Are Good, They’re Really Good:

IMG_3766

Ethan plays ping-pong with the Coolest Man in the World™

Even with us lao wai (slang for “foreign”) tourists, so many people in China have been incredibly friendly. We’ve been challenged to ping-pong matches, offered free food and drinks, and generally helped by locals in every city. I’ve seen many more smiles here than in Japan, and received quite a few enthusiastic “Hello’s!” from strangers and passers-by. It’s nice to feel as though you’re in a safe community no matter where you are, and that people are aware of one another.

20170801_114914

Many Americans still think China is like this ^

To continue that, China has felt very safe the entire time I’ve been in the country. Before we left the US, one of the more common questions we got was “China? Are you sure it’s safe?” The fact is, average citizens don’t have access to guns (the local police don’t even carry them), the city streets are well lit, and since people are always outside, hanging out or walking around, you never feel like you’re going to get snuck up on or even bothered. The United States is far more dangerous than anywhere I’ve been in China (especially recently), and one of the more common questions I’ve gotten from Chinese citizens is “America? Is it safe?”

20170829_203133

Me getting ready to devour beef noodles

Let’s move on to something we can all agree on – FOOD. Every single meal I’ve had has been awesome, and I don’t regret a single one (okay, maybe whatever gave me food poisoning, but other than that…) I enjoyed Japanese cuisine, but their favorite spice appears to be salt. Here in Sichuan, every meal has at least 20 different spices thrown in, plus garlic, onions, and all kinds of flavors. We were both challenged by hot pot – in Chongqing, it’s not just a meal, it’s a lifestyle – and the traditional ingredients – goose guts, chicken feet, beef stomach. Still, we persevered, because anything cooked in a Sichuan sauce is worth eating.

Bright Lights Big Cities

Here are some highlights from each city – if it’s mentioned, it’s recommended!

20170809_165832-PANO.jpg

View of Guangzhou from Zhenhai Tower (Five-Story Pagoda)

Guangzhou

  • Lazy Gaga Hostel – One of the best hostels we’ve stayed at thus far. Excellent facilities, super clean, reliable wifi, socializing space, and even a few groceries.
  • Tristan’s Tex-Mex – We Californians were dying for anything resembling Mexican food, and we found a restaurant run by an American expat! The burritos were heavenly, and Ethan nearly cried when Tristan himself brought out Sierra Nevada and Lagunitas beer from behind the counter.
  • Sun Yat-sen Memorial Museum – Beautiful architecture houses a near-complete history of Sun Yat-sen’s contributions to the forming of modern China, as well as a history of the building itself.
  • Zhujiang New Town – Really cool plaza in the middle of the city, with gardens, art pieces, and tons of people watching. It’s especially lovely at night, when all of the surrounding skyscrapers are lit up.
  • Zhujiang River Cruise – We were lucky to be with a Guangzhou local (shoutout to Annie!) who brought us on this fabulous cruise up and down the Zhujiang River. While it was cool watching the city at night, I’d go back for the daytime cruise, too.
20170820_124104

View of our village outside Yangshuo – check out them karsts!!!

Yangshuo

  • West Street – Very touristy, but it had quite a few interesting shops and services (We had our toes nibbled by fish. Best $4 I’ve ever spent). At night, it’s PACKED with people, but that’s when the local restaurants and bars come alive…
  • Mojo Bar – A paradise for expats, Mojo is owned and operated by newbies to China. Great drinks, free video games, and friendly staff.
20170824_153551-PANO.jpg

View of one neighborhood (and neat bridge) in Chongqing

Chongqing

  • Qianximen Bridge – In a world full of phallic buildings, yonic architecture is hard to find. This bridge is visually compelling and fun to walk across – during our stroll, we watched a wedding photo shoot happening on the median while cars rushed past!
  • Three Gorges Museum – This huge museum holds a ton of exhibits, both temporary and permanent, and focuses especially on the construction of the Three Gorges Dam (a marvel or a fiasco, depending on who you talk to).
  • Hot Pot Cultural Promenade Yingbin – Just over the hill from the city, hot pot restaurants spread for miles. According to our AirBnB host (shoutout to Coco!) who brought us to this culinary delight, the locals of Chongqing celebrate everything by eating hot pot.
  • Ciqikou – An adorable winding path lined with shops and eateries, Ciqikou has been a shopper’s paradise for centuries. Today, the wares are mostly plastic (or fidget spinners), but we did come across some cool antique kiosks full of Cultural Revolution memorabilia.
IMG_3863

View of Jinjiang River in Chengdu

Chengdu

  • Giant Panda Research Base – WE SAW PANDAS PLAYING TOGETHER AND EATING BAMBOO. AND RED PANDAS. SO MANY PANDAS.
  • Jinsha Site Museum – Amazing preserved archaeological dig, plus a museum of the items found and their historical significance. The park around it is beautiful and pleasant to walk through as well.
  • Mrs Panda Hostel – Another highlight of our Journey of a Thousand Hostels, Mrs Panda Hostel is super clean, inexpensive, and all of their food is tasty. Extra points for having the board games Set and Carcassonne, which we’ve missed dearly.
  • Sichuan Museum – This enormous building houses quite a few exhibits on regional history, highlighting all sorts of arts, crafts, and more. My favorite section focused on traditional embroidery and brocade – the fabrics were incredible.
20170826_120251

Your friendly E’s of AirEandE

Ethan and I were lucky to be granted ten-year visas, allowing us to enter and exit China without issue for the next decade (for 60 days at a time maximum). And after spending a month and a half in the southwest, I can say that I’ll be looking forward to more Chinese travel experiences in the future. Though I’ll bring my own supply of DEET next time.

How We’re Doing This Travel Thing

By Emily*

This post is going to focus around a lot of the questions we get, as well as an overview of what the trip is like from a day-to-day perspective. If you have a question for us that isn’t answered here, go ahead and ask!

“Why are you doing this?”

Short answer: We both love traveling.

Long answer: After experiencing Japan for the first time during a trip in 2016, Ethan was eager to return (and add a few other Asian nations to the itinerary). I hadn’t been on a trip longer than one or two weeks since 2010. We spent a few months discussing the pro’s and con’s (mostly the pro’s) and deciding how/when we’d be able to undertake a long term trip.

A few factors in our decision to travel now, versus later: we’re both at an age/life stage where we don’t mind “rougher” living situations (hostels, walking all day, etc); we were both ready to leave our current jobs and experience something different for a while; we don’t have too many responsibilities (like mortgages, kids, school, etc) that could affect future travel plans.

“How are you paying for this?”

When we made the decision to undertake a year-long adventure, it was about a year in advance of our planned departure date. We read a lot of travel blog posts online about how different travelers budgeted for such a journey, and came up with the figure of $10,000 each for a year of travel. We spent the year saving money, adjusting for planned expenses (phone bills, travel insurance, etc) and researching cheap travel tips (as well as Workaway and CouchSurfing). Currently, we both make money while traveling via remote working – I write articles for BabyNameWizard, and Ethan advises high school students applying to college via email and Skype. We’ve also adjusted our length of trip from “one year” to “when the money runs out” – we would rather have more flexibility/comfort now than prolonging an uncomfortable trip.

“How did you plan ahead?”

Internet! It is easier than ever to find destination recommendations, cheap flight websites, and free daily itineraries in almost every language for every country. Travel blogs written by people like us (millennial Westerners without an infinite sum of money) have been incredibly helpful. We also depend a lot on WikiTravel, Google Maps, and Reddit. Being who I am, I’ve made quite a few spreadsheets to keep track of flights and hostels, what to pack, and weekly plans (when necessary).

“Why are you traveling in Asia?”

Ethan was the impetus for this decision – being an amateur scholar of Japanese history and language (#weeaboo) and working with recent Chinese immigrants to the United States sparked his curiosity to explore these particular countries. When we started researching travel plans, we found that adding Southeast Asia to our trip wouldn’t be too difficult once we were already in the “area” (continent).

While my travel experience prior to this has been in the US and Europe, I was eager to expand my knowledge on a part of the world that I’ve learned very little about. There’s also not many places in the world to which I *wouldn’t* go – I’ve got one life, might as well use it to explore all there is to see!

“What’s in your backpack?”

Probably too much. I’m currently using Flight 001 bags to organize everything, so at least it’s not all in a jumble. Here’s a quick run down:

  • Clothes: Three dresses, four tops, two undershirts, skirt, jeans, belt, leggings, shorts, pajama shirt/shorts, swimsuit, sweater, scarf, two pairs of socks, three bras, five underwears (ExOfficio is amazing!!), Birkenstock sandals, tennis shoes
  • Electronics: Laptop (MacBook Air), iPhone, mobile charger, charging cords, international outlet adapters, earbuds
  • Toiletries: deodorant, lotion (doubles as styling product), acne cream, face wash, toothbrush/toothpaste, floss, tweezers, mascara, lipstick, sunscreen
  • Medical kit: ibuprofen, band-aids, tampons (which are incredibly hard to find in Asia!!!), anti-malaria pills, antidepressants (I stocked up on a year’s worth in advance)
  • Documents: passport, driver’s license, immunization record, visa paperwork
  • Miscellaneous: quick-dry towel, sewing kit, travel blanket and pillow, tissues, pens/notebooks, reusable utensils, safety pins, lint roller, inflatable hanger, rain poncho, umbrella, mini combination locks, hair elastics, laundry soap packets

Being able to carry everything I own feels limiting in some ways but liberating in others. For example, I’m not very into fashion, but I really miss wearing more than three different outfits and putting on makeup when I want to. On the other hand, I’m always very proud when I find ways to use my limited tools to solve problems – tweezers and safety pins are surprisingly versatile!

“What do you do every day?”

It depends on the day!

  • Travel days – Going between cities usually involves either a bus, train, or plane. On these days, we pack up and check out of our hostel/Workaway, then spend a few hours schlepping our gear through turnstiles and subway stations. Once we arrive at the new location, we check into our hostel/Workaway, and usually rest. These days are sweaty and very tiring, so we don’t usually get to do much sightseeing.
  • Workaway days – We wake up, eat breakfast, and work for a few hours. Then we spend the rest of the day checking out the local sites or relaxing until dinner. Naps are often involved, as is socializing with other workers. Check out my post on Workaway here.
  • “Work days” – I usually sit in a quiet air-conditioned room and write a baby name article (with occasional bouts of procrastinating on Sporcle). Ethan will follow up with students via email or hold Skype meetings (with occasional bouts of procrastinating on news websites). We also use these days to plan travel logistics, such as buying bus/train tickets, creating itineraries for cities, or contacting Workaways we want to go to in the future.
  • Sightseeing days – We walk, look at things, and sweat. Well, a little bit more goes into it: we usually come up with a route or neighborhood of a city that contains a few sites we’re interested in. This can include museums, statues, parks, shopping streets, monuments, cool buildings, and temples. While we’re walking through it, we take a lot of pictures and usually embarrass ourselves in one way or another. We’ll also try to sample the local cuisine!

*Because this is written by Emily, some facets of Ethan’s travel experience are not included (obviously). Feel free to message him directly if you have questions for him!

The Ups and Downs of Workaway

By Emily

Today is my 76th day of travel (105th for Ethan), and I’ve been working for roughly half of it – 14 days in Nagano, 6 days in Osaka, 13 days in Kuma Kougen, and 4 days in Guangzhou (soon to be 5). For those who don’t know, part of the way Ethan and I have been keeping costs down on our trip has been through the Workaway program. Workaway connects international volunteers with community-oriented businesses, promising cultural exchange and a way for travelers to stay in areas that might be expensive or difficult to find. Businesses post about themselves on the site, and talk about what kind of work volunteers will do as well as what they offer in return – accommodation, food, activities, etc. We volunteers then email these places and apply to work for them, usually for a minimum of two weeks. Workaway puts in place an hourly maximum (no more than 5 hours a day, maximum 5 days per week) and allows volunteers to review the businesses and vice versa.

When I first heard about this program, it sounded too good to be true. Free food and lodging for hanging out at a hostel a few hours a day? (Childcare, farm/garden work, and English teaching are among the other popular opportunities). I agreed with Ethan, that this program could help us travel for a longer period of time, and help us explore these towns that we might never see otherwise. So, we decided to base our trip through East and Southeast Asia around the Workaway opportunities we could get.

37 work days later, my opinion on Workaway has changed a bit. Here’s a breakdown of my perspective on the pro’s and con’s of the program:

Advantages:

  • People: Through Workaway opportunities, I’ve met dozens of travelers and become friends with them; in countries where I can’t speak the requisite language(s), this has been a godsend. Because we’re eating, living, and working together, we can form friendships quickly based on common ground. I’ve heard stories from their home countries and their travels, gone out drinking, karaoke-ing, and sightseeing with new friends, and made connections for further travels (looking at you, Europe and Australia). Being homesick for my friends and family has been made so much easier with these new connections and new friends.
  • New Skills: While the opportunities we’ve chosen have mostly centered around cleaning and gardening, I can definitely say that I’ve learned new ways of getting things done. I can now thoroughly clean a bathroom in under 5 minutes, shuck freshly-chopped bamboo for use in meals, and make a bed in at least 4 different ways. I’m now much less grossed-out by tasks that previously annoyed me – washing dishes, scrubbing toilets, and ignoring large bugs (much harder than it sounds). If nothing else, I’ll be able to return to the US and complain less about emptying the dishwasher (this is for you, Mom).
  • Saving Money: Whether or not meals are provided with the Workaway opportunity (about half the time), staying at a Workaway location means saving money. There’s not having to worry about hostel/AirBnB fees, avoiding transportation costs, getting meals and/or drinks covered by the business (or at least discounted), and spending a few days working instead of going out and spending cash on museum visits, souvenirs, etc. For people I’ve met who are staying at a Workaway for two months or more, this is a crucial part of their budget.

Disadvantages

  • Workaway Profile vs. Real Experience: As would be expected, many businesses play up their amenities and play down the work itself in order to attract volunteers. However, in 2/4 of the places we’ve been, the work has just not been accurately advertised – one place said that gardening and painting cabins were the main projects, but when we showed up, the work was cleaning cabins and bathrooms daily. Our current location advertises itself as an “Eco-Village,” and said teaching dance and music and gardening would be our primary focus, but the last three days have been spent hacking a trail through the nearby forest in 90 degree heat. Honestly, I wouldn’t mind a week cleaning a hostel if they were clear about it on the website (and I’m really efficient at it now), but promising one thing and delivering another feels like a trick.
  • Difficult Managers: Having left my favorite boss ever at my last job in CA (miss you, Linda <3), I might have some high expectations. Two managers through Workaway have been particularly amazing (Maya!!! and Kate!!!) and wrangled dozens of wacky millennial volunteers with grace and fairness. But at the other locations, management has been… disorganized to say the least. In some instances, the volunteer managers can’t speak enough English to explain the tasks, the daily schedule, etc., and since the default language for most international travelers is English, it’s been rough. In other cases, they’ve been uncommunicative for other reasons, asked more work than was originally requested, or shown a lack of respect to the workers. One issue we’ve run into a few times is what a fellow traveler called “being a petting zoo”: Workaway staff are “shown off” to guests as exotic foreigners (while we’re working, and we’ve even been asked to show up to locations just so the locals can see us), but we’re discouraged from actually speaking to guests and practicing the language.
  • Fatigue: With a maximum of 4-5 hours work per day, I was anticipating a lot of free time to explore the cities or get some writing done. But a lot of the work has been exhausting, to the point where I’m too tired to leave the Workaway or even read/write effectively. Maybe I was naive to think that I could do helpful work in four-hour shifts that wouldn’t make me want to lay down and sleep for the rest of the day. But combining work with the stress of being in a brand-new location with a new language, having your body get used to new foods/living environments/time zones, and doing the necessary upkeep for personal and mental health (socializing, hobbies, exercise, etc) is a lot. I suppose there’s a reason many people separate travel and work!

To counteract the negatives, Ethan and I have been alternating Workaway weeks with strictly travel/sightseeing weeks. This allows us to feel like we’re doing more of what we want and still saving money. We’ve also started including “work/relax” days in our plans, without any attractions/excursions, to help us catch up on much-needed mental and physical rest. As we identify possible Workaways to visit in the future, we’re more careful to get clear instructions from businesses on what they’re looking for and how they’re managed.

Ultimately, I still think that Workaway is a great option for people who want to travel, save money, and live like a local for a bit. It definitely helps if you have energy and a sense of humor! But if you’re looking for a way to travel for a long period of time without A) being rich or B) working… keep looking. And tell me how when you figure it out!