Tuesday, December 2, 2014

8 Days in Guatemala: My Nightmare Trip and What I Learned

Me at the beginning of the trip, loving the chicken bus. I still love the chicken bus, actually.
This is a post about doing too much on a trip with too little time. Prepare yourself for a sequence of disaster scenarios which involve blocked credit cards, being shoved off a bus because you can't pay for it, and hours on a cramped bus with your almost husband where you both wish the other was dead, or at least made of 100 dollar bills.

Let us begin.

It was a simple concept: I needed to renew my six month Mexican visa. A flight to Chiapas from Mexico City was reasonably priced while a direct flight to Guatemala City certainly was not. How hard would it be to simply take a bus across the border and see a few things? In eight days? And also call it your honeymoon even though you're not even married yet? And do it without a budget and much cash at all?

Oh boy.

First, let's take a little look at the transportation we took from November 22-30, so about eight days:

Planes: 2
Chicken buses: 6 (but felt like 1000) 
Ferries: 4
Tuk Tuks: 2
Taxis: 4
Minibuses/vans: 8
Regular buses: 3
Cars: 1 (on a tour)
Subways: 2

Places visited:

San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico: 2 nights (the first and last night of the trip)
Huehuetenango, Guatemala: 1 night
Quetzaltenango, Gautemala: 3 nights (exhausted)
Lago Atitlan, Guatemala: 2 nights (please I never want to see another bus again)

Lessons Learned:

Book Your Flights With Sanity in Mind
Flying in and out of the same place when you are traveling far from your original destination = NEVER A GOOD IDEA. You will lose an entire day just getting back and you will hate yourself for it. 

The money saved is not worth your sanity, no matter how much you love San Cristobal de las Casas. You will not love it when you stumble off a 12 hour return voyage that involved little food, no money and so many forms of transportation you can't even remember how to use your legs anymore.

Make a Budget

I had this half-assed idea that I'd have enough money to cover the trip. So did my almost-husband. SPOILER ALERT: we did not have enough money. This resulted in a particularly desperate scene where our shuttle bus company dumped us off at the Mexican-Guatemalan border because we didn't have enough cash to pay them. 

The driver gave us about 5 minutes to find some money we could get on the connecting bus. Of course that was going to be impossible. We didn't have any money. Still, we both soldiered on and found an ATM a zillion miles away and tried to get an advance on my Visa. Oh. Oops. My Visa appeared to be blocked. We desperately tried to find an Internet cafe with a microphone but yeah, no dice. So calling my bank was impossible. 

Finally, after a lot of begging we managed to get a hotel to lend us their wi-fi password. I called my bank, unblocked my card, and then got out the cash. When we finally got back to the border our connecting bus had, of course, already left. We still had to cough up the cash to pay for it and then pay for another bus to get to San Cristobal so we could make our flight the following day.

Also, I hadn't eaten hardly all day, it was hot, and Miguel and I wanted to kill each other. Travel NIGHTMARE. I will never, on the pain of death, repeat this scenario again.

Don't Call a Visa Run a Honeymoon

Trying to see eight zillion things in eight days with no money is not the time to try and take your honeymoon. Ever little bump in the road will drive you insane because you are supposed to be having a relaxing, expensive, romantic trip. Not some half-assed, cold as hell, cheap as fuck, crap vacation that involves being on a chicken bus (and squished against a window for three hours because a row for four people now holds about six and maybe a child or two as well). 

You will hate yourself, your future husband and anything anyone ever tried to call romance. A trip that might have been hilariously bad takes on a grim cast when it is supposed to be the most romantic trip of your life. You will eat your feelings the entire trip. And when you run out of money and eating becomes less possible, you will stick your nose in a paperback and try to forget you ever existed on this sorry earth.

Packing Light is Amazing

Oh, this is a plus side! Yay! After my eight month trip in Asia lugging around a 60L overcrammed backpack I definitely realized that less is more. Nothing is more frustrating then trying to drag around the equivalent of a dead body in weight on eight thousand types of transportation.

So on the Guatemala trip I only brought a small backpack and the following:

-one pair of full-length running leggings
-one pair exercise shorts
-bikini
-trail running shoes
-flip-flops (for hostel showers, non-negotiable)
-4 pair socks
-1 sports bra / 4 pair underwear
-four T-shirts (two long-sleeved)
-one fleece-lined hoodie
-face cream with SPF
-toothbrush (travel-sized)
-toothpaste
-travel shampoo
-deoderant (shared with boyfriend)
-soap in a plastic travel case
-Diva cup 
-travel towel
-comb, hair elastic
-meds (including Gravol, thank God)
-scarf (doubles as pillow on buses)
-one paperback book
-iPhone
-money belt (essential in Guatemala)
-passport. cash, cards

It all fit nicely into my backpack with room to spare. I downloaded the Highlands Guatemala chapter on Lonely Planet for $5 and read it off my iPhone so I was spared a hefty guidebook. I ended up washing clothes in the sink or just re-wearing them, whatever. Cleanliness is for squares.

I could totally see taking the same stuff on a much longer trip. Having a variety of stuff to wear is completely outweighed by the need to carry said stuff. Not having to check-in anything on our flight or stow away our backpacks on buses was the saving grace of this trip and kept disaster at bay. 

**

That's my disaster honeymoon from hell. There were actually some great times and I'll share that in a seperate post. Look out for photos and less rant-y stories in the next week.

And for those of you afraid for my marriage (in less than two weeks!) we are actually going to the beach in Oaxaca afterwards with my parents and his where we will hopefully chill the fuck out and take zero buses.

What was your worst trip ever? What happened? Have you ever run out of money in a really inconvenient place? Tell me about it in the comments.

Reading List



Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Myth of the Radiant Bride: On Being a Grown Ass Woman and Getting Married

Photo by Seralyn Keen via Flickr.
Marriage. That transformative institution that makes a girl into a woman. Or a woman into a woman. Or an independent, self-supporting feminist into a girly-girl obsessed with stationary and veil lengths.

I had the good fortune to read Emotionally Engaged last year which prepared me for the roller coaster that is getting married planning a wedding. Simply put, marriage used to be a rite of passage where the bride left home and her parents to embark on a new life. Now most Western women have already left home, earn their own money and otherwise become grown-ass women when they get engaged and married. So the whole wedding hoopla with its gift registries, colour schemes and expensive gown is a way to maintain the aura of a rite of passage without, you know, it actually happening.

I feel sometimes like the whole white and lacy wedding thing is an exercise in repression so universally accepted (in the Western world) that many of us accept its trappings without examination.

There are so many facets to explore. But other than the rite of passage BS, I'm also fascinated right now by the myth of the "radiant bride." I am currently reading and loving loving loving Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth.

Women are obsessed with radiating light, a nod to divinity where radiance symbols redemption and consecration. Women can "glow" naturally and wonderfully. But unfortunately the beauty industry has co-opted this concept in a very narrow way. A way that must be purchased through highlighters, illuminators, primers, foundations, shadows, lipsticks and God knows what else. We are not allowed our own light. It is bottled and sold back to us.

I love this phrase from The Beauty Myth: "Real men are matte. Their surfaces must not distract attention from what it is they are saying ... But women of every status glint ... What women look like is considered important because what we say is not."

Women emit light in the process of giving themselves to men as brides, aided of course by a barrage of overpriced clothing, accessories, cosmetics and shoes. The package must be assembled properly so that it is soothing to the eye. The woman is a commodity, to be delivered.

She is not herself. She is to be given. She must be radiant, this grown-ass woman. Not matte. And of course she does not need to speak. Just to glow.

I know some of you are thinking, "Stop being so cynical, Bronwyn! This is your time to embrace romance and fantasy. Who cares what it all means?"

Well, I invite you all to enjoy your unscrutinized wedding fantasy in my place. For me, something is ruined when it is not scrutinized. When it is not analyzed for meaning. I want to know exactly what I'm in for. What all of these rituals and trappings really mean. What greater idea do I represent? Do I really want all of this wedding stuff or do I feel expected to want it?

I've come to the conclusion that I do not want it. I thought I did, because it was so engrained in me to. But recently I have felt very, very resistant to the idea of being powdered and polished into some glowing version of me that looks nice and quiet in photos.

The Bronwyn that my future husband is marrying is not nice and quiet. She glows for him, privately, in a way that can never be encapsulated by cosmetics and cultural ideals of "brideliness."

She is not a bride. She is a woman. Who just happens to be getting married.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Planning a Wedding in Mexico: Cue Fear of Change & Scary Life Decisions

Miguel and I, drinking to avoid thinking about the impending wedding.
A wedding is never just a wedding. It is a lightning rod for countless insecurities and fears. For me it's like the final "nail" on the proverbial "coffin" that I started building two years ago. That was leaving Toronto in 2012 to travel. Which ended up being a full-on lifestyle re-haul involving moving permanently to Mexico City, getting engaged to a Mexican guy and trying to figure out a new freelance career.

An entirely new life. Scorched earth, if you will.

It's not really a coffin. You could also say my wedding is like the final balloon that will lift my basket off the ground and take me away to freedom. But we all know I'm far too cynical for this kind of analogy.

What I'm worried about is that the wedding is a confirmation of my alienation from Canada. I really don't live there anymore. I'm far from my friends and family. Getting married to Mexico, with only my (small) family in attendance, underscores the fact that I've left my community and my ties to it are fraying, as is natural with the passage of time.

When you think about it that way all the trappings of a wedding that are supposed to excite you -- the beautiful dress, the honeymoon, the fancy dinner -- seem a little less shiny.

Happily, I'm not worried about my marriage. That's all good. It's everything else. The context. What the hell is happening with my life? How much longer will I be in Mexico? What's going to happen with my career? Am I ever going to live in Canada again?

I'm committing not just to a man but a life.

Someone give me a paper bag already...

Monday, August 25, 2014

Long-Term Travel and Romance Writing: How I Did It

I ended up traveling in North America and Southeast Asia from October 2013 to June 2014. The trip was funded solely on the steam powered by my writing.

I don't know what to say about this except that it's bloody hard to meet deadlines when you're hopping from city to town to ass-fuck-nowhere every few days. It's impossible. We all knew that, didn't we? You have to stay put for months somewhere to do any real work. I can't tell you how many times I was sitting in a cramped bus for hours on end trying to bang out my word count for the day. 

And yet, I got something done and I got paid something and somehow I am now living in Mexico. Not dead in a ditch. I did go into debt to cover the gaps between pay cheques (and to cover some unforeseen expenses, which I won't go into here). 

But all in all, I wrote, I survived and I saw all the things.

The usual question after a long trip is now what? For me it was going back to Mexico City where my fiancee was able to get a job. 

Thankfully, my trip had given me two solid contacts who have been hiring me consistently since April 2014 to write romance for hire. So that's what I do now. As a job.

Most people aren't aware of how writing romance for hire (aka ghostwriting) works so here's the deal: 
  1. You get hired through Elance.com or Freelancer.com (in my case).
  2. The client gives you a word count and a genre i.e. romantic thriller or cowboy romance
  3. Sometimes the client gives you a specific plot to work with but this is rare. More likely they will say: "OK cowboy romance trilogy. Three books. 25,000 words each. Go!" Seriously.
  4. You sign a contract saying you don't own the rights to the book, you will get paid a flat fee upon completion and you can't contact the end client or know what happens to the book.
  5. The client puts your fee in escrow.
  6. You write the fucking thing. SWEAT SWEAT SWEAT.
  7. The client will release the funds. You do a happy dance and pay your credit card and your therapist.
  8. The client will probably not ask you for edits but if they do, they are minimal. You do another happy dance because you hate extra work.
  9. The book is then self-published or sold to a publisher. You aren't allowed to know anything about that. 
  10. The end.
Question: Bronwyn, if the client just publishes the thing on Amazon or whatever, why don't you write your own books?

Excellent question, knucklehead. Because I need money now and I don't want to wait for the royalties to kick in. But I definitely want to do this in future when my income is more stable.

Question: how much do you make?

Shit. I make shit. Then again, I live in a cheap country (Mexico), I love the freedom of being self-employed and I know how to live lean. I earn $525 for a 40,000 word book. $300 for a 25,000 word book. I also write plot outlines for clients. Ten plot outlines for $150. What do my clients do with these plots? I don't know. They don't pay me to know! I just write them.

I also still occasionally do copywriting for Demand Media and various corporate blogs to supplement my income. I do not teach English anymore in Mexico. Why? Because schools pay crap and steady private clients are usually old creepy guys who think they're paying for "the girlfriend experience."

Shudder.

That's romance writing, my friends. I'm also working with an agent in Toronto who will hopefully be selling my novel to some Big Ass publisher this fall. I'm trying to work all the angles, yo.

Hit me up with questions in the comments if you're so inclined.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

RantRantRant: Foreign-Owned Hotels in Cambodia Charging Through the Nose and Hiring Foreign Staff

Footprints hotel on Otres Beach II in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, Southeast Asia
Great beach views, angry British owner. Footprints, Otres Beach II, Sihanoukville, Cambodia.
Alright, it's rant time. So I'm in Cambodia, one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia. Surprisingly, it's also been very expensive as most tourist establishments want U.S. dollars as opposed to the local currency, the riel. Not only that, but they charge U.S.-comparable prices, not the equivalent to the local rate.

Let's just stop here. I'm never going to the be dick who rants on and on about how Western tourists should always pay local prices. We can afford to pay a bit extra and usually the people in question need that bit extra (I make an exception for gouging i.e. extremely overinflated scams which is just not cool). It makes me cringe when people get angry because they refuse to pay $3 on what they think should be a $2 tuk-tuk ride. It's one thing to be asked to pay $10 or even $5 but $3? Shit.

In my two plus weeks in Cambodia I've now stayed at my fair number of foreigner-run hotels. Why? Usually because they were recommended to me and I've learned the value of a no-surprises clean hotel. For the most part, the hotels were well-run, clean and relatively well-priced. Right now I'm staying in a room at the Magic Sponge in Kampot, Cambodia with fan, hot shower and private ensuite that's clean, secure and is in a great location. It's $9 a night. NINE dollars. Can't complain there.

What gets me is that these hotels subsidize these decent and Cambodia-appropriate rates by charging through the nose for food. $4.50 for fruit salad, muesli and yogurt in Cambodia? You have to be kidding. 

Now, Cambodia is a country that could sure use some cash. Most people make under $1000 a year. So if there's a place where I would invest some hard currency, Cambodia would be it. Yet, these hotels are foreign owned. I'm basically pouring my dollars into expat hands. But you say -- he or she pays taxes, employs staff, buys Cambodian supplies. True, though I'd be a lot more comfortable giving these funds directly to a Cambodian.

To add insult to injury, I've seen a couple of these establishments hire foreign staff. Footprints hostel in Sihanoukville offered backpackers food and accommodation if they worked behind the bar or at reception. As a backpacker struggling to write to support my travels, I know the value of an accommodation/food arrangement. I've done Workaway placements in Malaysia and payed a low daily rate in Indonesia for food and accommodation in exchange for teaching at local schools. In the latter case, I worked alongside Indonesian English teachers. No one's job was being stolen.

That said, Cambodians really, really need these jobs. The backpackers probably don't, at least compared to the locals. That Canadian at reception? A good job for a Cambodian. The British guy behind the bar? Another needed local job. And the British owner who was continually and loudly rude to her one Cambodian waitress? Reprehensible.
Otres Beach II, Sihanoukville, Cambodia, Southeast Asia
While I love these little beach towns, I sometimes feel like their purpose is to
seal tourists off from the realities of local life. This is Otres Beach II, Sihanoukville, Cambodia.
Alright, so the million dollar question is: why aren't you just staying at local places, Bronwyn? Well, other than the recommendation thing I have a limited time in Cambodia so I'm hitting up the highlights where the foreign-owned quotient is probably a lot higher. That said, I do feel like I'm doing things wrong, that I should have tried harder to put dollars in Cambodian hands, that I should be getting off the beaten track and staying with and paying Cambodians.

It's so easy and yeah, comfortable, to just hop to the nearest tourist compound where some American or Brit delivers cheap beer, expensive Western food, all the English DVDs you could ever want and other comforts of home. I guess you pay for that experience, the experience of not being too uncomfortable in a strange place. But would I do it again? Definitely not.

What do you think? Am I a dick for trying to divine Cambodians needs? Do you have a different perspective?

Friday, March 7, 2014

The Time I Lost My Shit in Cambodia

Angkor Wat, Cambodia, Southeast Asia
Trip from hell so worth it to see Angkor Wat at sunrise.
I knew it was going to happen eventually. That I would lose my shit, somewhere along the line in this grand backpacking tour of Southeast Asia.

I'm not the most patient person. I'm also perennially anxious, change-avoidant and generally terrified of any stimulation stronger than reading a good book. This all makes me one of the worst travellers alive. In fact, I'm pretty much unfit to step outside my door. I've wondered many, many times during this four months (and counting) trip why the hell I put myself through this much stress.

I suppose it's because even though I hate new things I also hate stagnation. I get bored easily and I crave eating new foods, hearing new languages, meeting new people (on my own very limited terms) and experiencing things that give me that shock-awe-horror-bliss sensation that's so delicious as well as terrifying. In short, I'm stubborn despite my shortcomings.

That said, I was so sure I was going to have some kind of meltdown during the trip. How could I not? It was going to be the ultimate clusterfuck of terrifying new things! I came pretty close during our scuba diving course on Koh Tao, Thailand. The first time we approached the pool and began to don that heavy equipment I began to cry, thoughts of drowning running through my fevered brain. I made a bit of an ass of myself but I saved face by pulling through and finishing the course.

However, I was still early in my travels. Now, the last month or so has been a real test of my patience. I got a disgusting skin abscess on my leg that was dangerously deep and has kept me from swimming, diving or at times, walking. Then my boyfriend lost his passport in Indonesia. I went onward to Cambodia alone and we frantically coordinated new flights while he raced around Jakarta trying to fix all the things. It was an expensive and emotionally exhausting experience. 

Miguel finally landed in Cambodia and we got around to the business of sightseeing in Phnom Penh. But the city is under-developed and tough to love, at least for me. I'm not much of a city person, preferring the controlled stimulation of small towns with excellent wifi. Phnom Penh is busy with no public transportation, limited amenities for tourists and they use the U.S. dollar so it can be expensive. Plus, our hostel was a party place with music raging on well into the night. Not relaxing.

Ta Prohm temple in the Angkor complex, Siem Reap, Cambodia
Also worth it to see Ta Prohm, a crumbling jungle temple near Siem Reap, Cambodia.
I wanted to get out so I booked a daytime bus to Siem Reap, the city closest to the archaeological wonder that is Angkor. The hotel's prices seemed inflated so we went to a random tour office and booked a ticket through them. Big mistake.

We got to the station on time and I sent Miguel out to grab water and snacks for the five and a half hour trip. He ended up having to go farther than he thought. I loaded our bags on the bus and waited for him. Except that the driver, his buddies and random tuk tuk drivers were having none of it. They all started in on me, yelling that I was holding everyone up, that this was my "personal problem" and demanding to know where Miguel was. Like I knew. OK so I shouldn't have asked Miguel to go out, but seriously, don't yell.

I burst into tears and started crying, right there in the middle of the damn street. That's when the tuk tuk drivers started laughing at me. Laughing!

Miguel emerged and pulled me into the bus. The driver got in my face, berating me, so I lost it and yelled "SHUT UP!"

Not my finest moment. I definitely shouldn't have gone that far.

Got in the bus anyway, where I continued to sob and the guy next to Miguel started laughing as well.

It was a long five plus hours on terrible roads, plus we were crammed in the very back in tiny seats. The driver drove like a madman, playing chicken with tour buses and motorcycles alike. Gotta love the infamous "third lane" in Southeast Asia.

I learned later from reading online that Cambodians sometimes deal with uncomfortable or awful situations through humour. God knows they've been through a lot, so I get it. I didn't realize that before so there you go -- serious cultural misunderstanding.

I regret being such an ass, as much as I regret taking that stupid piece of crap bus. I guess I can now say I've had my "lost my shit moment" and be more diplomatic from here on in.

Have you ever totally lost it while traveling? What happened?

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Eighth Ring of Hell, Otherwise Known As “Sightseeing”

Elephant ride in Koh Phangan, Thailand
This is one of my favorite "I am having a moment" moments. Elephant ride in Thailand.
Sightseeing is a given when you’re traveling. You’re not traveling to a new and potentially expensive place to scratch your balls. No, you’re out in the world to refresh your worldview, to take a break from the mundane, to fulfill your societal contract to post something interesting on social media.

All right so let’s not disparage sightseeing. It’s one thing to sightsee at a fake haunted house in Guanajuato or wherever and pretend like you’re having a moment. It’s quite another to sightsee at a revered, possibly holy site such as Angkor Wat. You are having an experience, of course, you are being forced to see with new eyes. Perhaps the event won’t translate into any change in your life, it won’t translate into any good in the world. But oh hell, in that moment you saw. We deserve these life moments of wonder to refresh ourselves from the expected.

 I’m not really working while traveling Southeast Asia, unless you count spinning such crap as “How To Know If He’s Still Interested” as working. I don’t know when it happened that I thought I could afford such outlandish dignity. I cling to it, even when I really should be grateful to earn a living. But I like to think I’m an intellectual, so I scoff at the rough bread I bake to keep going. Life is just better when you’re above it.

 It’s logical then to think that sightseeing would be my “job.” Right? Every day I should get up at a reasonable hour and see things. Important things are best, though they can be padded with a few minor sights as long as I’m making the effort to fill the day. During the day I see and at night I relax, or I shift the schedule around slightly. Perhaps I relax all morning and see at night. After all, let’s not get tyrannical. We’re not working after all, no, we’re on vacation. A seeing vacation, full of importance. Full of sights. Report back the sights or they didn’t happen. Social media, quirky updates.

 I’m in Bali! Today we did x, y and z. We didn’t waste a minute, or not that you’d ever be able to tell. We saw all the top sights on Tripadvisor, plus this locally relevant restaurant and look at our inexpensive but grand hotel. We’re enjoying ourselves so much! Look at us posing. We’re little traveling monkeys, looking traveling appropriate, posed in front of whatever background we think should be there, or you think should be there, it’s all the same. 

I can't even think right now about contributing. Volunteering. That's another post, that's one where you'd really need a dose of humility. I believe in volunteering while traveling. I am writing this because to not say so would be monstrous.

Back to the subject at hand: I’ve stopped sightseeing. I’m full of anxiety because I think I’m not traveling but loafing. I’m not fulfilling my social contract. I’m not educating the masses, or myself, or lying hard enough that I’m seeing. I’m very obsessed with my little project, my traveling, and that it is important enough to be anxious over. Whether I am sightseeing or not -- this is important. This is the stuff that life is made of.

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