How to Travel for Cheap - Anywhere!

I've done a lot of traveling over the last two years. In fact, all of the traveling I've done in my life has been done over the last two years! Pretty crazy, right? However, I think because I was kind of dropped into the traveling scene as an adult, I was given the chance to learn how to travel without preconceived notions of what it was supposed to be like. When you travel with your parents growing up or with friends, you feel like you need to maintain that certain rate or style of travel - because that's the only way you know how to.

When people hear about all the travel I do, two things tend to occur: they either assume that my parents are paying for everything (spoiled), or that I'm spending all my money willy-nilly (irresponsible). And while neither, or both, could be true, my response to these claims is that I've just learned to travel on a budget. I have spent hours upon hours studying the art of travel - because I love it! As a result, I can budget multiple trips into my year without spending an arm and a leg. And I want to teach you how to, too.

*Side note - I have a job that a telecommute for, so I often work while I travel to pay my way as I go. (when I'm gone for a month, I'm still making income during that month).

Getting from Point A to Point B

Use the Right Flight Search Engine. You know all those commercials you see for traveling search engines? Those like Travelocity, Kayak, Orbitz, etc.? Yes, try to avoid those. You see, although you can sometimes find a good deal on those sites, they can increase the prices on their flights because they know inexperienced travelers will pay money for them, thinking they've found a bargain. They also only look through the big airlines for flights - like United and British Airways. The only two sites I use for finding flights are skyscanner.net and airfarewatchdog.com. These search engines look for flights in EVERY air carrier, including small budget airlines that major search engines won't even bother looking at (like Ryan air in the UK and AirTran in the US). I've found some incredible flights on here, like roundtrip airfare from Seattle to Washington DC for only $262. On your next trip, try searching these two sites in addition to your regular commercial brand search engine, and see what you come up with.

Sacrifice Comfort Where You Can. Although  having a direct flight in first class would be a dream, sometimes you have to sacrifice comfort for budget. I understand that not everyone is able or willing to sacrifice as much as others, but if you really want to travel cheap, you'll have to give up some creature comforts. Find flights with multiple layovers, as these tend to be cheaper than single layovers or direct flights. You should also only purchase economy class tickets, which may seem like a given, but is something many people overlook. I got a great deal on a flight from Cairo, Egypt to Seattle, Washington by having extended layovers in Munich and Toronto. While this brought my total travel time up to around 48 hours, it saved loads of money. Additionally, you should never buy food in an airplane or airport. Unless you're truly starving or you're about to pass out, I can guarantee the $13 you pay for 6oz. of salad won't be worth it in the end. Same goes for in-flight deals on movies/tv and blankets/pillows.

Book Flights Using Hidden Cities. I learned about this trick relatively recently, and have become a big fan of it since. Hidden cities are when you book a flight where your final destination is actually a layover stop. For example, Phil and I are planning a two-week backpacking trip through Eastern Europe next December. We are flying into Munich and flying out of Instanbul. Here is our dilemma: It is cheaper to fly roundtrip to/from Instanbul than it is to get two one-way tickets to Munich and Instanbul - but obviously only one of those gets us to the proper destinations. Here's the catch: the roundtrip Instanbul tickets both have a layover in Munich. Result? We pay over $200 less by purchasing roundtrip tickets to Instanbul, and on our first layover in Munich, we simply get off and leave the airport. The only possible problem here is that some airlines will cancel your tickets for the return flight if you don't make it to the final destination, so check with your airline prior to testing this trick out.

Invest in an Air-Miles Credit Card. I would say that 50% of the flights I purchase are done so using frequent flier or credit card miles. Every time you purchase a flight, you should log the frequent flier miles you earn in that airline's user database. Although you may not get a ton for every flight, they build up over time and can save you lots of money in the long-run. Additionally, you should consider signing up for an air-miles credit card. These are credit cards that give to 1-mile or 2-miles per dollar spent, often with major sign-up bonuses. I spent several weeks researching possible credit cards (and I suggest you do the same) in order to decide which one to sign up for. I chose a credit card that gives me 2-miles per dollar on travel and food purchases, and 1-mile per dollar on every other purchase, with a 20,000 miles bonus for signing up. I make all my purchases - for everything - via my credit card and pay it off immediately. This way, I get thousands of miles for free, essentially. When looking for my card, I used these resources:
-Nomadic Matt: Picking a Travel Credit Card
-Bankrate: Review of Travel Credit Cards with Rewards
-Nerdwallet: Travel Miles Credit Cards

Bonus: my credit card has a travel blog site, where you can write 50-word stories about your travel and earn 200 miles for each. I write 1 to 2 stories per day, meaning that I earn 200-400 miles every day for writing for 5-minutes. Score!

Search and Buy Flights at the Right Time. There is definitely an art to buying flights. Here is what you need to know:
1) Search for flights on Tuesday afternoons
2) Buy flights that leave on Wednesdays
Most air carriers advertise their deals on flights on Tuesday afternoons - the slowest buying period of the week. Plus, Wednesday is the least-flown day of the week, so carriers will make flights cheaper on this day to draw in customers. Always avoid flights that leave on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, as these will my hundreds of dollars more expensive than the exact same flight that leaves on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday. You should also look for flights that leave at odd hours. Few people prefer a flight that leaves at 3:00am or 10:00pm, so you will save big money by flying these times.

Never Check Luggage. For me, cramming a month's worth of clothing and sundries into a carry-on is a way for me to spite airlines that I feel some sort of anger towards for their absurd luggage fees; I find a sick pleasure in it. Although there are a few air carriers that offer free check luggage, the majority do not, and will charge you $25-$150 per suitcase you check. Although $25 may seem easy to sacrifice for luggage and ease in an airport, that's $25 you can't spend on a snorkeling trip or tickets to a museum at your final destination. I guarantee that you will not use everything you bring in a massive suitcase if you're traveling for 2-weeks or less. I went on a month-long trip using two carry-on bags, and I still managed to bring multiple outfits, a large DSLR camera, my laptop, makeup, toiletries, books, and leave room for souvenirs on the way back. Trust me - cut your wardrobe in half, bring clothing items you can mix and match, and get creative with your packing, and you'll never need to check luggage again.

PS - you're going to need to get aggressive to be successful at carry-on packing. I mean, you need to fight for that overhead bin space! Make it work!

Keeping your Trip Cheap

Stay at Hostels and Motels. Although spending $10 a night to share a room with 6 other people isn't ideal for everyone, it is the best way to save money while you travel. I think the most I've paid for a night at a hotel - anywhere - has been $70. The goal of traveling is to get out and explore new cities, not to stay in a hotel (well, that's the goal for me). As a result, my priorities for a location to stay are: find a place in a safe or efficient location, make sure it has a clean bed, and make it under $50. As a bonus, some of the most hilarious and adventurous travel stories come from staying someplace off the beaten path, or someplace a little dirty or weird. Now I can tell people about how I slept on a bench outside the airport in Paris, or how we rented a room at a 'hostel' that ended up being someones bedroom in their apartment. Good times.

Budget Your Food. Although the likelihood of going on vacation and cooking is slim to none for most people, you don't have to rely on restaurants for your food. My top tips for cheap food while traveling are:
1) Don't eat at restaurants in the tourist sections.
2) Go to locals for authentic food.
3) Don't be afraid of grocery stores.
When Phil and I travel, we often stop by a grocery store at the beginning of our trip and buy a loaf of bread with peanut butter and jelly, and a box of plastic utensils. We have now created a means of feeding ourselves while spending less than $5 for 10 or so meals. Now, I get it. You're on vacation, and you don't want to survive off of old bread and peanut butter. What you spend on food ultimately comes down to how much you're willing to sacrifice for the sake of adventure. In terms of restaurants though - you should always move away from tourist hotspots before finding food. In Italy, for example, we found pizza that was twice as good and half the price half-a-mile outside of downtown Florence, instead of eating right next to the Duomo. People like easy food (myself included) and that extra 10 minutes of walking isn't always the most fun. The thing is though - the best food, that the locals eat, will rarely be near a major tourist destination. Ask the locals for their favorite restaurants, or just wander on the outskirts of town until you find a place that looks interesting.

Also - street food isn't boring and doesn't have to be scary. I think one of my favorite meals in Belize was at a hole-in-the-wall 'deli' that served us rice and beans with roasted plantains. That's as simple as it gets, but it was so so so good. If you're afraid of food poisoning, just eat vegetarian. It's much less likely that you'll get botulism from roasted vegetables than you will from a local meat.

Take Local Transportation. Taking the local bus or train is definitely the cheapest and most fun way to travel in the city. Phil and I went across the entire country of Belize on a bus for $5, instead of paying $150 to fly across the country on a charter plane. Granted it took us 8-hours instead of 1, but we got a taste of the local culture and saved loads of money. The other option you should consider, although not for the faint of heart, is to travel with the locals. I mean, befriend a local, hop in their car, and head on your way. I realize this isn't always safe or reasonable, but more than once I've met an incredibly kind stranger with truly good intentions, who took care of our travel needs while we were with them. Consider hiring a local as your tour guide/taxi driver, as you'll end up making a new friend and seeing things you might not see on a tour bus.

Related: avoid tour buses. These are rarely cheap and remove the entire cultural aspect of a trip. You'll spend $200 to travel around the country, but you'll miss out on so many amazing unplanned adventures you could take if you hopped on the local bus instead. Trust me - as long as you're not waving around money wearing a complete Dolce and Gabana ensemble with your diamond ring-laden fingers, you won't get robbed just for traveling local. People are kind and want to help you out - so let them!

Learn to Barter. In Asia, Africa, and Latin America, it is expected that most prices are not set and should be bartered. If you're new to the art of bargaining, it can seem strange and uncomfortable to ask to pay less money for something. However, culturally this is the way you settle a price in most of these areas, so the first price you're given is set intentionally high. You can barter the prices for taxis, souvenirs, and sometimes food - and you should! It can be fun to barter, and the locals will enjoy the banter with you (if you're being respectful). This is my general rule for bartering: take the original price, and offer them 25% of that. You'll probably end up settling for a price around 50% of the original, but you may get something less or more. Also, if you learn a few words in the local language and use them to barter, you'll probably get an even cheaper price. People respect tourists who make an active attempt to identify with the culture through language, and will often reward your work with cheaper prices.

So there you have it! These are my tried-and-true methods for traveling on the cheap, anywhere in the world. Have more questions about other ways to save? Place them in the comments and I'll happily supply answers for you - maybe even in a follow-up post. So get out there and travel already!

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Graduate School

It's official. I'm going to graduate school! This is something I've always known I would do, but it seemed so far off in the distance.
Well, it's here. At least in September it will be.
I'm going to Brunel University - in London, England - to get my Masters of Science in Psychological and Psychiatric Anthropology.
What the heck is that?!
When I tell people my degree program, they typically nod and say something like 'whoa, that sounds difficult!'. I think the problem is that most people (for good reason) have never heard of this degree or expertise before.
This specific degree was actually created by the professors at Brunel. It is one of a kind, and not available under this title in any other university in the world. They only accept between 10-15 people into the program per year, so I am one of a select few who gets to study this.
Pretty cool, huh?
So more on what it is. According to Brunel's website:

"This degree looks at psychological and psychiatric topics from an anthropological perspective. There is an overlap with psychology and psychiatry in the things we look at (identity, consciousness, cognition, mental health etc., but the approach is quite different; indeed, the findings can be startlingly different. In all cases, we explore the point of view and experience of the insider, the ‘native’, in a range of cultures; we analyse this inside view in relation to the social and cultural environment. What we seek is a dynamic conception of human nature that is true to experience as well as illuminating broader social processes of which the individual may be only partly aware.

This degree challenges standard assumptions about normality and deviance, social and personal identity, the boundaries of the self, and the constituents of experience. For those employed in the health, social and educational sectors, it will enhance professional practice and broaden understanding. But for every student it will open up new avenues."

Essentially, I'll be studying behavior and mental illness from a cultural perspective. This is EXACTLY what I wanted in graduate school, as these themes have been consistent interests to me throughout my academic career.
The program I am in runs for a full year. Yes, I get a completed Masters degree in just one year of studying full-time. I could extend it to two years and do part-time, but I'd end up spending more money that way.
From September of 2014-April of 2015, I will be taking courses at the university, working on my thesis proposal, and improving my research and writing abilities. At the end of the second semester in April, I will present my thesis proposal to the dean/my professors, and if I get approved, I'll be sent off to do my field research.
This is the most exciting part of the year for me; I'll get to go to the location of my choice (in accordance with my thesis) anywhere in the world to study a topic of psychological anthropology of my choosing. I'll spend two months on my own doing field research, come back to write my thesis, and then present my thesis in September of 2015.

After I explain the degree program to people, the follow-up question is, "well, what can you do with that for a career?"
As with most anthropology degrees, I have three general possible career choices: field research, museum work, or teaching.
I'm highly interested in field research as a career. This typically involves working through a university or other organization doing research en situ of different cultures around the world. After researching, I present a completed article on my findings, possibly to be published into different academic journals.
Museum work is something I would also be happy doing, although it doesn't involve the travel that field research does. I would work for museums/universities that study human behavior and culture. I mean, in a perfect world I would do research/museum work for the Smithsonian, but let's not get our hopes up here ;)
Out of all the choices though, my least favorite option is becoming a professor. Although I wouldn't hate the job, I know it's not my forte, and I truly hate grading essays. 

And the last question I get asked? "So what do you want to do your thesis on?"
Hello. I'm like a kid in a candy shop with this. There are SO many possible options, so many places, so many cultures I would love to study. I know my current interests lie in culture-bound mental illness, which is the study of mental illnesses specific to a certain culture. (The US has culture-bound mental illnesses; some of ours include ADD/ADHD, OCD Hoarding, and PTSD). If you are interested in this topic and want to know more, please contact me - I have tons of helpful resources I'd love to lend you!

Have any other questions about my degree, Brunel, or my year abroad in London? Please contact me! Add your question in the comments below, or email me any time. I'd love to fill you in on something I'm so excited about!

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2013 in Review

Wait... she's back?
Oh yeah! Back in black.
Except for not. I avoid wearing black, otherwise I'm a close match for Wednesday Addams.
Anyways. Here I am, and I plan to stick around for a while. But, we'll get to that later.
So, I know everyone and their brother does a post on '2013 in review,' buuuuuut, my 2013 was probably the most influential year of my life, so I feel like it's worth reviewing.
Let's start.

First on the list is certainly the most exciting thing about 2013 for me, and a tradition I hope to carry forward into 2014.

Since last January I've visited six different countries. I don't know about you, but that's kind of a big deal for me. Prior to last August? I'd never even been to Mexico or Canada. I lived in Egypt till June, then went to Jordan for a week (highly recommend that one!), made a 24 hour stop in Munich, Germany, came home to the states where I visited five entirely new states, then headed back out for eight days travelling through Belize and Guatemala.

Whew! I've been away from home travelling more than I've been nestled up in the Pacific Northwest, in 2013.

And the best (/worst) part about all this travelling? I have no plans of stopping. I'm almost in competition with myself to see how quickly I can fill up my passport. But, that's ok with me.

PS - I'm applying for graduate school now (scary), and all the schools I'm looking at are in Europe (awesome). If anyone has must-see places in Europe I should visit, pipe up and let me know!

Second up (and I'll keep this one brief): I fell in love.
*Cue simultaneous murmurs of 'awwww' and 'eewww'
Now, although I could ramble on for days about how Phil has been the most perfect boyfriend I could have stumbled upon, I'll limit it to this:
1) We travel the world together. Can it get any better?!
2) No one has ever made me laugh harder, especially during tough times.
3) I'm constantly becoming a better person because of him. 
Ok, I'll stop with this one. But, you know, you get the picture.

Alright, #3. This one is almost a given, but it deserves mentioning anyways. 2013 brought with it a group of amazing new friends that I am ecstatic about, and helped me to purge out unnecessary people and negativity in my previous friend group. I've become closer to those who help me grow, who give me inspiration, and who love me unconditionally. 
That's pretty fantastic, and not something everyone can say. 
On the top of my list are my roommates from Egypt; Mary and Sara have remained two of my best friends, even now that we're back in the states. (spoiler alert... I'm going to be in Sara's wedding this summer!). I also grew to be seriously close with several Egyptians, students and staff alike. On top of all that, I've met tons of people through my travels that I value and cherish immensely. 
All in all, my friends list rocks after 2013. 

Finally. I want to give you the top 5 most important things I learned in 2013. This one isn't the happiest, but it was important for my last year of life. I was forced to learn a lot of really difficult lessons through personal experience. On the list included:
1) Take nothing for granted (Rest in peace, my beautiful student Sandy)
2) You're definitely not perfect, or excellent at anything (even the things you THINK you're perfect or excellent at)
3) Personal growth should never be hindered by self doubt and fear
4) The more you travel and experience others, the more you realize how limited (and sometimes offensive) your own perspective is. So, start travelling already!
5) There are WAY more important things in the world than your own personal success.
Joking with my teacher's aid and student, Sandy, a month before she passed away.

Keeping all this in mind, I go into 2014, not with 'new year's resolutions', but with added vigor to improve my life and others' in any way I can.

I sincerely hope that any of you reading will consider my 'top 5 life lessons from 2013', and take advantage of them. Need a little help staying on course? Contact me!
If nothing else, I'm full of some pretty great travel tips and conversation.

Wishing all the best for 2014! Happy new year!

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There and Back Again

So in just one year, I've traveled to 8 different countries.
Oh yes, 8 in one year, and 6 of them on separate trips.
Prior to last year, I had never been out of the states.
Passport: 1, Taylor: also 1
Last week I added my most recent two countries: Belize and Guatemala.
Holy cow, what a trip.
A year ago I was in Italy, and for that trip we literally planned nothing except our hostel for the first night. We just up and went. You can read about my Italy trip here if you're interested. Or just go look at the pretty pictures.
Our Central America trip on the other hand, we put a bit more planning into. We booked our hotels for every night we were going to be there - 7 nights and 8 days - but none of the transportation. We didn't even bring a map, so... we were relying solely on the kindness of strangers for our transportation and directions.
Also local buses and taxis.
Our rough itinerary went as such:
Day 1: Belize City, Belize
Days 2-3: San Ignacio, Belize (jungle)
Day 4: Cave tubing/traveling, Belize/Guatemala (jungle)
Day 5: Tikal, Guatemala (jungle)
Days 6-8: Placencia, Belize (beach)
I made a (very rough) map of our travels, with each of the places we stopped at. Belize is a very small country, and took at most about 4 hours to get from one side to the other by bus.

Before I show any photos, I want to give a disclaimer: my camera broke. 
Yes, my beautiful Canon my father gave me for Christmas broke, and I have no clue why. I won't be able to have him look at it until I get back to Washington in two weeks.
So, all my photos were taken on either my iPhone or an old, malfunctioning waterproof camera. The latter which I only brought for our swimming, but ended up documenting some (blurry) photos of nearly our whole trip.
So, what I'm saying is, don't expect the best photos out of me for this trip. You won't be getting them.

Anyways, back to the story. Belize. Day 1. We landed around 4:00pm in Belize City - the capitol (the old capitol, I'm told?) of Belize. 
Belize City is located right along the coast, and I was expecting it to be decently large and have some pretty beaches.
You know what they say about making assumptions, right? Yeah. I was wrong.
Belize city - as I had been warned - is no where near the nicest city in Belize. In fact, it is very old and poor, with no downtown area as far as I could tell, and lots of decrepit buildings and old cars. There are no large sky-scraper type buildings, stores, or new buildings. In some ways, Belize City reminded me of some nicer parts of Egypt.
So landing there, I was a bit disheartened. We planned just to stay the night there the first night since we had 3-4 hours to travel to our nice hotel, and we hadn't made any plans. We ended up just walking to a small little grocery store, buying a giant tub of ice cream, and eating it in our (super hot) hotel room. 

The sunset looking out the back deck of our hotel onto the river; you can see what all the buildings look like here - sunbleached, and very old. The colors of the sky were gorgeous though.
The next day we woke up early (6am to the sound of church bells across the river, to be precise) and went searching for the bus station. We found an 'express' bus - one that doesn't stop for people on the road - to take us to San Ignacio, the location of our second hotel. The bus ticket cost $4.50 USD apiece, and it took us about 3.5 hours to make it to San Ignacio from Belize city. The public buses used are super old school buses, so I felt like I was back in middle school. 
But this time with a boyfriend (finally, haha).

Our hotel in San Ignacio is the most highly ranked on TripAdvisor for all of Belize - The Black Rock Lodge. I was excited, but didn't really know what to expect. It is located about 7 miles into the jungle up a dirt road, about 40 minutes away from San Ignacio. It cost $40 one-way to take a taxi there because of the treacherous road you have to take to get there. Ouch; that's almost as much as it cost to stay at the hotel for a single night!

We got there in mid-afternoon, and arrived at an open-air reception hall with a huge deck with this view:

Wow. Seriously though.
They took our bags, handed us drinks, and promptly began telling us about the (dozens) of insanely awesome adventures you can go on via their hotel.
What you can't see in this photo is that at the base of the jungle is the Macal river, which they have swimming and tubing access to.
We opted to go swimming that night (after a huge rainstorm), and weren't disappointed. We were the only ones there, the birds and monkeys were incredibly loud, and I felt like I was actually in the jungle.
Which, you know, I was. But still. It was just surreal.
The calm waters at the swimming area, at the base of the ridge under the hotel. This is the black rock which I presume the hotel is named after. It was really cool because there was a bunch of fog up near the top of the ridge; totally picturesque.

We got back for dinner which they serve family style - it was seriously good. A three course meal of food I would have enjoyed anywhere in the world. We went and spoke to one of the hotel managers after that, and booked the adventure we had settled on: A horseback ride through the jungle to a Mayan ruin site. We would leave promptly the next morning at 8:00am for the 4 hour trip.

Our horses- Zachariah and Joshua - for our trip through the jungle. This is just the start of the trail, so you can't really see the jungle part yet. It was pretty fantastic.
Xunantunich (pronounced zoo-nan-too-nich), the Mayan ruins we rode to. The hotel workers told us it wasn't too great, so I was expecting a pile of rubble and barely recognizable ruins - not this massive temple we stumbled upon. It was beautiful!
We climbed to the top, and I was terrified! It was so high! I settled for sitting near these rocks at the center of the temple while Phil went crazy running around near the edges. 
The view from the top of the temple! You can see Guatemala from here - crazy! You can see the other smaller ruins on the site grounds as well. It was a fantastic site.
Phil killed me with this one. I'm quaking in fear as far from the edges as I can place myself, and here he is dangling his legs off the edge like it's no big deal. If I could have gotten close enough, I would have punched him. It made for a cool picture at least.
Looking along the backside of the ruins, you can see some beautiful carvings at the top of the temple. I'm not sure if these were re-done in the recent past or not, but regardless, they are a good example of typical Mayan sculpture. 

There was one other couple that came with us on the horseback ride/ruins adventure with us, so we spent a lot of time talking and getting to know each other. They were also from the states, and the guy is originally from Argentina. She was meeting him for a week long vacation in Belize while he was on his way on a road trip from Florida to Argentina. I was seriously jealous.
So we kept talking and asking about what there plans were, and we asked what they were doing the next day.
His response: "Oh, well I'm dropping her off at the airport, but then I'm travelling to Tikal in Guatemala."
Us: "Oh crazy! We're going to Tikal tomorrow too."
Him: "Oh nice - do you guys want a ride?"
jkfleajfda;jfkdlsjfldksjfldskjeiowur0w9rufjikljpjdfs YES
We had been worried about how we were going to cross the border and manage to pay for the (likely) expensive travel. This was such an answer to prayer - so crazy!
We got back to the hotel, and decided to try out the river tubing the hotel has to offer. It was just the four of us, so it felt super local and awesome.
We hiked about half an hour through the jungle to get to the drop-off site, and then it would take another half an hour to make our way back to the hotel.
There are four rapids along the course, with the largest set being at the base of the lodge.
The hotel has an ongoing bet placed that anyone who makes it over the last set of rapids - the most difficult - without falling off, gets a free drink on the house.
We all set out with the goal of making it over.
Only two did.
Me and the other girl. Ha!
Although in all honesty, the only reason Phil fell off is because he was helping me to stay afloat. What a gentleman ;)

As we were floating we were talking to the couple more. They told us they had gone cave tubing - inner-tubing through a cave system with headlamps - the day before in another part of Belize. Phil and I had been hoping to do that, but we couldn't find a tour company that would take us for less than $100 a person.
Them: "Oh, you can just show up and pay $25 each for a local to take you through the caves. Do you guys want to go? We can just drop you off on our way to the airport, and then pick you back up afterwards and go to Guatemala."
People are so amazing. This is a perfect example of why I love travelling and getting to know people along the way, locals or other tourists, it doesn't matter. You make some awesome connections all over the world, and are even given some great adventure opportunities along the way.
So, we left early the next morning, were dropped off at cave tubing, and then went on our way to Tikal. So so perfect.

You had to hike through the jungle about thirty minutes to get to the caves. On the way, we spotted this wild tarantula. Now, I'm not afraid of spiders, so it was super impressive for me to see. The body alone was six inches across - absolutely massive. 
This is the entrance to the caves. The water is the most stunning shade of blue! The people pictured just finished rappelling down the cliff side, but we had the inside of the caves to ourselves. 
The inside of the caves are pitch black; Phil, our guide, and myself each had a headlamp as our sole light source for the trip. The caves were pretty impressive though. At one point we turned off all our headlamps, and you can't see anything. It was so surreal floating and not knowing where you were, not even being able to see your own hand in front of your face. 
I was practically my own light source. 
Floating through the caves took about an hour, and then our ride picked us up. We headed out for Tikal! For those of you who don't know, Tikal is the largest Mayan ruin site in the world, home to the tallest Mayan temple. It is one of 36 lost cities in the world, and wasn't rediscovered until the early 1900's. You can read more about its history here.
Or, you might recognize Tikal from here:

We stayed at the only hotel in the park, and then woke up at 4:00am to climb the tallest temple and watch the sunrise over the jungle. Pretty crazy. (The view we saw is the one pictured in the above Star Wars clip).

So, bad luck, there was a ton of fog. So you couldn't see the jungle. Or the sunrise. But, you could still hear everything, including howler monkeys and toucans. It was still an amazing trip. Plus, we went on Phil's birthday (happy belated birthday love!) so he got a pretty sweet birthday celebration out of the deal.
As we were sitting at the top of the temple (220 feet high), this little guy fell on my head! I may or may not have squealed when it happened... 

This is the Temple III - it's not even the largest temple, but it is the most exposed. 

The Temple V - one of the unexposed temples. Having been there, I can totally understand how this place was undiscovered for hundreds of years after having been abandoned. 
 After Tikal, we made a long trip back to Belize, and on to our final destination: Placencia. Placencia is a tiny little village on a peninsula at the southeastern side of the country, and is pretty much tourist free. It has stunning beaches and superb snorkeling. We met another amazing couple there who went on a snorkeling trip with us, and hung out with us for most of our stay there. At this point though, my camera broke, so I don't have many photos to share.

This is the beach access from our hotel. The beach was totally empty - maybe five people at most on the beach at one time. The water was incredibly warm and clear, and was perfect for a day of swimming and relaxing.

Our second day in Placencia, we hired a local company to take us out for a full day of snorkeling. We took a boat over an hour away from the coast, and landed on this teeny tiny little island. The colors were incredible, and we saw so many little creatures. So so cool.
Shortly after this, my camera died. So I don't have any photos to document, buuuut - I saw some crazy stuff. Two giant sea turtles, about a dozen stingrays and eagle rays, and a nurse shark. YEP. A real nurse shark, about five feet across. I may have screamed a bit into my snorkel.. We also swam with massive schools of fish, swam through a minefield of tiny jellyfish, and saw some super brightly colored little fish that are only kept in aquariums where I live. 
Our last day in Placencia we woke up early, and left for the airport via water taxi and bus. It was a very very long day of traveling, and by the end of it we were absolutely exhausted.

Pretty safe to say, this was an incredible trip. I'm not sure I could have changed much to make it better. Only problem now is... I want to keep traveling.

I'm back in DC post Central America for two weeks of hanging out with Phil. We don't have quite as many adventures planned for here - we're mainly in recovery mode. But I'm so happy I got to take this trip, and I'm already on my way to planning the next one!
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We're Back! A Dinosaur's Tale.

Well, I'm back. But if I can reference dinosaur anything, I will.
If you haven't seen that movie, you should. It is the fabric of my childhood.
So, Egypt is past and I've been home for about four months now. How time flies.
I miss Egypt. A lot. Maybe one day I'll get the chance to make it back.
Assuming the government cooperates.
What am I up to now? Good question, and the one that seems to be on everyone's lips.

Working here and there, applying for graduate school for 2014. You know, the works.
Oh, and more traveling.
Can't stop the traveling.
Turns out I've been infected with that quaint 'travel bug' that keeps me adventuring all the time. But I'm cool with it.
It's my bank account that's not.
But that's beside the point.
I'm leaving in three days (THREE DAYS) for a month of travels. This is the first international trip I've taken since I've been back from Egypt.
I'm starting with a week in DC with my boy. (Oh yes, I have my own man now. Booyah!)
Then, I'm heading south to Central America for about a week stopping through El Salvador, Belize, and Guatemala.
Then back to DC for an additional two weeks.
Suffice to say: jkfldajfoiefjkahfdkajflkdsjflkdsjfeiowjohfsafajfjlkda;jfdlaj;lf !!!

I'll be taking Due East along for all the adventures though, don't even worry. You'll get all the inside scoop, stories and pictures included. So just plan on sticking around for a while, ok?

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Seniors Rule

Last week of classes.
Say what?!
How the heck did time fly by like that? Absolutely crazy.
This week is classes, next week is finals, and the week after that is vacation time! I return home to Washington state on June 16th with my father. He is coming to visit on June 7th (just in time for my birthday on the 8th, and graduation on the 9th), after which we will take a three day trip to Petra, Jordan. 
I'm more than a little stoked about the whole ordeal.
So. What's been going on in my life?
Good question.
I suppose I should make my presence known here a bit more often.
The most exciting/notable thing to happen since my most recent update is that last Friday was a school "holiday." 
Seniors Rule the School Day.
It works exactly the same way it sounds. 
Two weeks ago at staff meeting, we were all told that on this day, we would choose one senior each to be us for the day. They would run around, teach all our classes, grade our assignments, you know, the works.
So, who was I going to choose?
Unfortunately, I don't teach many of the senior class. I am very good friends with several of them though. So, I made the decision to have Deng Pal teach for me.
Deng Pal is a 500 ft tall Sudanese bean pole that is known for his sense of humor and relaxed personality. He is one of the few seniors I have been pretty close with throughout the year, and is intimidating enough to hopefully keep my crazy younger students in line haha.

Here we are. My camera had a hard time choosing the exposure, for obvious reasons.
Deng Pal was ready for everything; he was cheerful and relaxed in preparation for the long day ahead. We started the day by grading papers (both of our least favorite activities). That lasted for a bit, before we gave up and just talked instead. My first class is psychology, which was super easy for him; all I had was a quiz, and all my (five.. haha) students are upper classmen who wouldn't give him a hard time. And they didn't. And it was good.

My second class is ESL Reading. I expected a bit of a fight out of them, seeing as they are eighteen super rowdy little boys who speak little English.
They were so good.
Tell me why I was annoyed for their good behavior? haha
Seniors Rule the School Day is kind of mutually understood as a day when the seniors think they will implement their own new rules to "improve" campus, and all the staff gets back at them by showing how difficult our jobs really are and how much they take us for granted.
When my ESL class which is normally absolute insanity to deal with acted like little angels, I felt like I was being jipped. I've struggled with them all year, and then a senior waltzes in and they are perfect? Now Deng is going to think I'm crazy for telling him my job was so difficult.
After ESL we proceeded to ninth grade writing.
Equally as good.
What the heck? Come on, students! haha
Not that I wanted Deng to struggle, but it is a good opportunity for the seniors to see how their behavior effects us, and how much effort we put in on a daily basis.
And Deng wasn't getting it.
After writing we had an all school assembly at which we always play music. Deng Pal is pro at the drums, and the students thought it was only fitting that I trade places with him and play drums.
I... don't really do that. haha
I mean, I did do that. haha. But I sucked. Terribly. Everyone laughed. 
Drums 1. Taylor 0.

So after lunch and assembly, we had my final class: ninth grade reading.
Now, the ninth graders had already been really good for Deng, so I expected their behavior to continue.
"Hey Deng, you wanna try teaching by yourself now? I'll stay here and grade?"
"Yep yep, ya miss. I can do it."
And so it began. 
I sent Deng off with the assignment, and left him to my class.
After the forty minute period ended, he reappeared at the staff room.
"So, how did it go?"
"Ahhh...man. I need a break."
At which point he fell over onto the couch, where he remained staring blankly for the next ten minutes. haha
Now, don't worry. He wasn't in any way emotionally/mentally damaged from the experience. But he finally got a taste of what my first few months were like here... everyday.
I felt (possibly not rightfully) vindicated.
We both had a good day, and although it was thoroughly exhausting, I'm glad Deng and I did our work together. He's a great kid.

On Saturday, the weather was hot, but not as stifling so as it has been for the past few weeks. 
It's been hovering around 104 for the past week or so, so the drop to upper 90's was a welcome change.
With the lovely improvement in heat, I spent a few hours outside with students.
It was so nice.
It's hitting me... only three more weeks of this.
Only one more possible Saturday to sit out on the lawn with them and chat and do whatever.

I chatted with a few of the girls for a bit, and then left to go sit in the shade with some of the guys I don't spend as much time with.
I brought my art journal, and spent some time drawing and talking.
It soon became the local interest, and students began gathering to look through it. 
Many of them wanted me to draw portraits of them, so those of which who could stand the sit I drew in my journal. Hopefully I will be able to share some of them with you all soon.

All of the trees are blooming with these stunning orange and red flowers. Sara and I commented on how beautiful we find them, and one of our eager beaver students ran off and ripped off several branches for us in an effort to please us.
We were a little less than pleased with his damaging the poor tree. 
But we didn't pass up the opportunity to play with the pretty flowers and take silly pictures. 

Sara laid one more big surprise on me.
My birthday is in two weeks, and Sara gave me my birthday present early: an Egyptian wolf shirt.
Now, we have a private fascination and extreme amusement with wolf shirts. You know, the kind of shirt with a hyper-stylized animal of some sort (typically a wolf) with a mystical moon or storm in the background. We think they are absolutely hilarious.
Anyways, Sara had her mom bring one with her from America of camels howling at the moon.
I was more than a little excited.

This week is all last-minute assignments and grading before final tests next week. Inshalla I will be able to show some of my portraits of students, but my laptop broke so I have resorted to using others. In any case, I hope to get back to writing a bit more about my last few weeks before my return home!

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That One Time I Dyed My Eyebrows Black While The Girls Danced Around Me

So many good things have happened the past few days.
So so good.
But by good, I mean incredibly funny but not actually good.
I swear, embarrassing/absurd/hilarious experiences are drawn to me. I think I attract them. Maybe its my breath?
I don't know.
Let's start from the most recent. Chronological order is for squares.
So on Sunday, Sara went with one of the girl students to a beauty salon in Gabal to get her eyebrows threaded. Now, I had no clue that there were even any beauty salon-esq places in the area. We live in essentially a third-world city, and I know there is a barber shop nearby, but I've never seen a place for women to go.
Apparently there is one. It is very well hidden, although after having been there I think I might understand why.
There is one common feature I've noticed about all of the women here in Egypt: absolutely perfect eyebrows.  Seriously, they all have them. Perfectly shaped, perfect thickness, just the right color. I have been amazed by it considering how natural it seems while I try so hard to get mine to look half as good.
So hearing about this place in Gabal, I decided to get in on the party. I figure, if they all make their eyebrows look that perfect, that could fix mine up too. Besides, if they ruin them, I already have an appointment for when I get back to the states haha.
Now, to be clear, I care a lot about my eyebrows.
A lot, a lot.
They are kind of one of my things.
You know, a thing?
Those "things" everybody has and care about a bit more than is seemingly normal, and might even be a bit strange or ridiculous.
Yeah. Eyebrows are those for me. I have drawn diagrams of what is appropriate and what is not for eyebrows for... way too many people. Not joking.
I am meticulous about eyebrows. And I find myself analyzing them more often than a normal person should. Because they are responsible for a major part of expressing emotion on your face!
Ok. Enough about me and my eyebrow thing.
So, after Sara went on Sunday and came back with perfect new eyebrows, I made the decision to go. I asked her to escort me to the salon, and we grabbed another Egyptian student to translate for us, and we were off.
So, when they do eyebrows here, they do threading. Which is a magical knot-esq loop in a piece of thread they use to wrap around groups of hairs and yank out. I've never done threading before, but I understand the process.
When Sara went on Sunday, the girls were so excited. We are the only Americans for many miles, and they were fighting over who would do her eyebrows. They ended up threading her brows, but they begged to thread the rest of her "hairy" face as well, to which she complied. They desperately wanted to dye her eyebrows too, but she denied that request.
I'm kind of up for anything.
So when we approached a little hole-in-the-wall beauty shop covered in massive photoshopped images of girls with white makeup on, I wasn't the least bit daunted.
Nor was I when a bubbling seventeen year-old girl and her friend, the two salon employees, came and grabbed us and began twittering over us like we were pets.
"Here. Sit," they said, as they pointed to a rusty metal salon chair. Sure, why not.
I took a seat as one girl came giggling over to look at my face. Soon enough, two more ladies a bit older came in from the street carrying a glass of orange juice.
Communal orange juice, apparently.
They each took a few gulps, and passed the cup to me.
"Ashrub!" "Drink!" They said to me in Arabic. I don't know what face I made, but they laughed at it. Drink, drink! They insisted. So... why not. I love germs. Took a gulp, passed it to Sara, who I think managed to get out of sharing.
The girls grouped and began twittering about us again, flitting from one side to the other of the tiny 10x10 foot room, grabbing assorted salon items.
One of them came up to me, and stood, staring at my face, from perhaps four inches away. Now, I realize that there is less of a personal space bubble in this culture, but that seemed pretty close.
The other girl started laughing in Arabic, and through giggles said something in Arabic.
"Kiss her," my student translator said.
Kiss her? Ok..
Here, like in Europe, a customary greeting is the mock-kiss on the cheek. But instead of two, it is anywhere (with no consistency)  between 4-9. Yep, and I never know how many they expect. The best rule is to just let them lead out.
So I moved my face a bit closer, hoping she would do the rest. haha
She did, but did the faux-peck not quite on the cheek, but rather just past the mouth on either side, and five times.
Whew. Good thing I keep cool in awkward conversations. Like when a strange girl tells you to kiss her.
Then they eyebrows came.
My little seventeen year old friend, who is one of the most bubbly silly people I think I've ever encountered, came up and grabbed my face with one hand, while with the other she grabbed a spool of thread and wrapped the end around her finger and in her mouth. And began the process.
Now, you would assume that as it is the same process no matter what, the pulling of hairs from the face would be equally painful no matter how you do it.
Somehow, threading is like three times more painful than waxing.
Don't ask me how or why. It just is.
She was incredibly speedy too. Which, given the pain, is probably a good thing.
Two minutes later, and it was all finished.
I look in the mirror. Boom! Perfect Egyptian eyebrows. Seriously though, how do they do that? I'm still impressed.
"Wishic kamen?" "Your face too?" they asked. What the heck, why not. She did such a good job on my brows, I'm sure my peach fuzz and soul patch could be taken care of too.
So she pushed my head to the size, grabbed a new piece of thread, and started at it again.
You know, I should have expected it after the eyebrows, but seriously! SO painful. I don't understand how a little piece of string could hurt so bad.
She went at it for a few minutes, then a pause.
Mutters in Arabic. "She says your face is too hairy. Do you want to wax it instead?"
hahaha. Of course my face is too hairy. So, wax.
I've heard and witnessed horror stories about waxing off strips of skin because it was too hot, but I figured, "hey, my nurse is with me. She knows how to treat burns."
I disregard good judgment occasionally.
"Yeah, sure, she can wax it."
No worries, no burns were suffered in the process.
Also, much less painful than threading.
You know what?
My face feels like a baby that was just dipped in massage oil.
I don't know why that would happen, but that's what I feel like.
I'm so soft and smooth! Who knew it was possible. It's like I've been saving up facial hair for years, just to get it waxed and feel this soft. I might even do it again.
During this entire process, the three other Egyptian girls as well as Sara and our student were sitting next to me, chatting and laughing loudly in Arabic.
It's almost impossible to tell if they were making fun of us, or super pleased with us. So I'm just going to assume the latter, because it's better for my self esteem.
They chatted some more, and then my translator asked me "do you want a mask?"
Ooh, a whole spa day! Threaded eyebrows, waxed face, and now a mask?
"Sure! Why not."
My girl came over with a mysterious tube full of a clear gel that smelled reminiscent of acetone, and began to smear it across my face.
She was a bit careless with it, haha. On the lips, in the nose and hairline. Oh, and all over my shirt. Didn't bother to clean it up; my shirt probably needed the mask too anyways.
It was a peel-off mask, and needed time to set. Oh, the waiting game.
Sara and I sat, awkwardly trying not to draw too much more attention than we already had, as they continued to chat in Arabic.
"You want your eyebrows dyed too?" my student translated for them.
I'm on a roll. I really don't see a reason to stop now. I gave my consent, and my girl excitedly came over to complete the color change.
"Brown or black?" Hm. Definitely brown.
She went to get the dye - a small half-dried pile of liquid dye laying on an old lid on a dusty shelf.
She used a match to dip in the dye and smear across my eyebrows. At this point Sara is laughing hysterically at the entire process of it all.
I'm not really sure how, but I definitely convinced Sara she should join in on the party too.
"Heya eyza kamen" "She wants it too" I told them.
She finished applying it on me and then asked Sara and I to trade seats, and repeated the technique on her.
I had yet to see in a mirror what my face looked like, but based on Sara's laughter I could only guess. Ha! Two can play that game. When our girl finished with the old dye and matchstick, Sara turned to me.
We looked like clowns.
We had those big, blocky, drawn-on eyebrows that looked almost black because of the dye.
There wasn't much time to laugh at our predicament, because next thing we knew the girls turned up some Arabic dance music and started bellydancing in the middle of the salon. Meaning they started dancing four feet away from us.
Now, we've experienced some of the bellydancing the girls are capable of in the dorms, but these girls were so good. They vibrate their whole body from the waist down, while their torso barely moves. I'm seriously impressed.
All of the girls were Muslim, but they seemed to be more comfortable and took off their headscarves and were showing us their hair. They were all incredibly beautiful, albeit young. One was telling us how she was engaged to be married in December of next year, and how she wants us to go to her wedding.
The chatting didn't last long, because soon enough they were back dancing again, and wanting us to join.
They would come grab our hands, shouting "come! come!" in Arabic.
We tried to warn them. We don't know how to dance. We are white Americans, and it shows.
They just didn't believe us.
Sara and I did one hip shake, before the entire group burst into raucous laughter.
They didn't object when we sat down. hahaha
After a total of about fifteen minutes (although the clock was not monitored), our girl finished her dancing and decided our brows were finished as well. She grabbed a cotton ball, and with one swoop on each eyebrow, wiped off ("off") the dye on each of us.
We turned to the mirror.
I leaned over to Sara, and whispered "Hey Sara, remember that one time we dyed our eyebrows black while the girls danced around us?"
bahahaha! Our eyebrows!
Massive blocks of color.
Don't you worry, I got photo documentation.

After promptly returning home and giving our faces and brows a vigorous scrub, we managed to return them to a more normal shade and shape.
Now, actually, I think I have the best eyebrows I've ever had. So thank you Gabal girl, you used your magical Egyptian Eyebrow powers to make mine beautiful too!

So, every year, the Student Missionaries have a tradition.
Locally in Egypt, photos are kind of a big thing. But the shops you go to get your pictures taken are incredibly cheesy. You essentially get placed in front of a drop cloth that acts as a green screen, and then fake images are edited in as the background.
So fantastic. So so good. Because they are the ultimate of cheesy pictures.
So anyways, it is tradition. Every year all of the SM's get group photos taken at a local photography shop in Gabal.
We give the photographer ultimate control to allow for the most "natural" of poses. He moves and places us, as well as chooses all background images and photoshop editing.
On that note - they make all people in pictures look like angels. haha. They make your skin look several shades lighter, super smooth, and all glow-y like you're a doll. It is hilarious.
So last Friday, we all went to get ours taken.
I don't think they need much explanation to understand the greatness they envelope.

In just about three weeks, my father will be coming to visit and I'm absolutely ecstatic! It's been too long since I've seen him - well, since Christmas - and I miss him lots. We will be spending around a week in Cairo for graduation and sight-seeing, and then will be taking a three day trip to Petra, Jordan and then spending a day visiting friends in Berlin, Germany!
I. Can't. Wait. EEP!
One month exactly from today, I'll be heading home. Crazy to think about!
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