All posts by Melissa Ruttanai

Melissa Ruttanai (@worldwinder) is a travel writer and SEO blogger. In 2010, with a tenured teaching position at a top middle school, she did the “unthinkable”—and quit. Now on a 2-year world adventure with her husband, Melissa writes in cafes and hostels, sharing her stories in hopes that others will think outside of conventional life, and travel. Her work has been published by International Living Magazine, Escape from America Magazine, DINK Life, Weekend Notes, and Flip Key Travel. You can also find her at You can also find her on Google+
Galapagos Wildlife Cruise

A Magnificent Galapagos Cruise

By Melissa Ruttanai exclusive for Vagobond

Galapagos Cruise“There is no predation here.” My guide Rafael Pesantes swept his arm across the landscape on our Galapagos Cruise. “Animals are not aggressive because there is no need to fight.” On the beach, sea lions lounged on organic, white sand, soaking up the equatorial sun. Iguanas clustered near by. Red crabs scuttled across black rocks. In the Galapagos Islands, everything was peaceful and quiet. As I made my way along the marked path, blue-footed boobies barely opened an eye to question my presence on their nesting grounds. Animals live in diverse communities, accustomed to each other and the occasional curious human prowling through the brush. And so, I got close, real close to the wildlife.

Yellow land iguanas moseyed past me on a path. Giant tortoises mashed grass in their ancient jowls. At night on the boat, I witnessed sharks, sea lions, and pelicans swim to our ship, drawn by the white lights off the bow. Baby albatross chicks cocked their heads at me focused on my camera and red-breasted frigates puffed out their chests, enticing females around them. The Galapagos is the perfect place for tight portraits of wildlife. With a 200 mm lens, I was able to zoom in for detailed shots.

But the best scenery was underwater.

Scuba in the Galapagos“Snorkeling here is a good way to see how you handle the water.” Rafael leaned over the side of the dinghy, called a panga. To the right, a black rock promontory rose from the ocean waters. Ten-foot waves slapped against it, spraying white water halfway up the precipice. “Just be careful of those rocks.” He shrugged, and one by one people around me plunged into the choppy tide.

Even with a life vest, I was tossed against the waves. In my head, Rafael’s words rattled around: be careful of those rocks. Water swelled and dripped into my mask, slid down my air tube, and pooled in my mouthpiece. I’m a terrible snorkeler and harbor a fear of drowning as well.

But I’m also a decent actor. I kept up with the group, followed the guide into the waves, and forced sweet smiles as we saw multi-colored fish and neon coral. After twenty minutes, four swimmers called it quits and signaled the panga. Seeing my opportunity to retreat with honor, I allotted myself two more minutes before joining them.

“Come! Follow me!” Rafael said as the others obeyed and my husband encouraged me to swim on. The panga remained where it was, with four swimmers lounging in the sun. As I spotted the guide, I saw that he was leading us directly toward the rocks. I hesitated, still contemplating my escape. But then I heard: “This is amazing! It’s my favorite place!” Rafael pointed. Past the jetty of rocks, a black cave emerged from the surf.

Underwater GalapagosI hesitated. I locked up and leaned into my life vest. I’ve snorkeled in a cave before and didn’t like the claustrophobic memories. Other snorkelers moved into the mouth of the cave, swallowed by darkness. Then, Rafael was beside me. “Give me your hand.” I trusted his smile and clutched his palm. Together, we cut across the water and entered the darkness.

My eyes adjusted. Green rocks lined the cheeks of the cave. Waves pummeled stonewalls like thunderous applause. But when I submerged my head, everything muted. Underneath the surface, thousands of fish fed on the stone floor, swirling in the current and clustering in a knot of yellow tails and blue fins. Rafael released my hand. Unafraid, I floated atop the tide and swam with the fish in their underwater world.

Visiting the Galapagos
Visitors to the islands have two options: a multi-day cruise of the Galapagos Islands or an island-hopping trip.

Prices vary greatly depending on the service level you choose. The cheapest cruises, a four day trip on a tourist-class boat, start at around $1,300. Diving, sailing or luxury cruises can cost many times that.

Although most people arrange their Galapagos cruises in advance, it is also possible to arrange a flight from Quito or Guayaquil to the Galapagos and organize your trip once you arrive.

Voluntourism

Volunteer Travel in Baños, Ecuador

By Melissa Ruttanai

Volunteer Travel Makes a Difference to You Too

“We’ll sing the Preposition Song to the tune of Yankee Doodle Dandy.” My husband Neil passed out copies of song lyrics. In a tight semi-circle, twelve people from around the world congregated inside the Biblioteca Interactiva de Baños for the weekly language exchange called intercambio. A guest volunteer, Neil led the session with an activity geared toward learning English and Spanish prepositions. We introduced ourselves, practiced translating, and sang aloud on our feet without shame that we might be off key. Volunteer travel rocks!

VoluntourismEach Monday, the Biblioteca Interactiva de Baños or BIB begins its week like a well-oiled machine. Coordinators Karl and Mazz sit at the head of a large table, welcoming new volunteers and reviewing the previous week’s accomplishments.

Though technically not volunteers, Neil and I had become good friends with the staff and were invited to attend their weekly meeting. Laughter mixed with serious brainstorming as Karl eyed the clock and Mazz kept minutes. From all over the world and of every age, volunteers commit to a month of community service: running English classes for local youth, holding cinema nights, and participating in the popular language exchange. They live together, share household chores, and help local Ecuadorians learn English. International and domestic travelers stop in Baños on their way up and down the Andean Mountains, and like Karl and Mazz, many stay.

Volunteering in Baños, Ecuador

Volunteer teaching in South America

The Library in Banos

In general, Baños de Santa Agua is a major stop along the tourist trail. With hot springs and fusion foods, Baños offers a getaway from Quito and mountain retreat beside the Rio Pastaza. Package tourists soak in mineral waters and return to the capital within the week. Long-term backpackers camp out in local hostels. But BIB volunteers are different. Immersed in the community, they get to see what real Ecuadorian life is like. They read to school children and shake hands with thankful parents. At night, people wave “hola” to volunteers and often—because they know Karl—their drinks are discounted at popular bars.

Online TEFL course

TEFL courses online

It’s not easy being on center stage!

Each weekday at 3pm, the BIB’s painted shutters open and young children begin calling out for their favorite teacher. Karl knows each child by name, hugging one and rustling another’s hair. On beanbags and benches, the volunteers sit with Ecuadorian children. They read Curious George, Star Wars, and Cinderella in Spanish and English. During Halloween, they parade through town in costume, handing out flyers for the BIB’s programs. As Karl stated, “We’ve lots of volunteers, but we can’t have a BIB without the children. So sometimes we have to remind the town that we’re here.”

During meetings, I can see that each volunteer loves this program in a different way. “Listening to [the kids] read in their own language has helped me learn Spanish quicker,” said Drew, a volunteer from Massachusetts. “They pronounce every syllable carefully and it helps me too.” In many ways, volunteering in Ecuador is symbiotic. Both volunteers and students benefit. Kids receive language lessons and role models from overseas. Volunteers become part of a mission to help the local community and experience Ecuador differently than most travelers.

Living as a Volunteer at the BIB

working with kids abroad, voluntourism

In travel, it is the relationships that matter.

One multi-story building and a large courtyard comprise the BIB property. On the second and third floor, double and triple rooms line the shotgun hall. A large kitchen and living room offer common areas for reading and relaxing. On the first floor, a learning lounge opens to the street and welcomes students with shelves of Spanish and English books as well as comfy beanbags. Off to the rear, a crafts center has long tables and painted murals for art and group projects. Through a generous donation, the BIB also has a movie projection and sound system for Wednesday’s cinema night.

While living at the BIB, volunteers work together and care for the house, courtyard, and sidewalk. Each week during the Monday meeting, chores are divvied up so that floors are mopped, the street swept, and bookshelves organized. At night, volunteers enjoy each other’s company with walks around the basilica and drinks at the bars. Life is relaxed and fulfilling.

make a difference in your travel

You can travel and make a difference in the hearts and minds of kids anywhere.

During Neil’s intercambio, the atmosphere continued to be laidback and welcoming. Four Ecuadorians sang the Preposition Song and several foreigners translated phrases into Spanish. The hour and a half ran quickly as participants chatted with each other and joked about strange diction. By the end of the session, we laughed about the singing competition that turned into rap songs about prepositions. Karl closed up the BIB and we waved “Hasta luego!”

“See you in an hour.” I said to Mazz, who smiled and waved back.

“Yep, see you at the bar.” She turned to ring her boyfriend and get ready for a nightcap in town. Unlike an office job or regular internship, volunteering at the BIB is about an expat lifestyle centered on social living.

Details & How to Become a Volunteer
To become a volunteer at the BIB, applicants should contact Karl and Mazz at artedelmundo21@gmail.com with a letter of introduction and ability to commit up to 3 months in Baños, Ecuador. Volunteers do not pay for the program. However, participants are expected to pay a monthly donation for their room, starting at US$120 per month that includes bedding, utilities, laundry access, WIFI, and cookery. Accepted applicants should inquire about paying in advance in order to receive a discount. Baños de Santa Agua is located in Tungurahua, 3.5 hours south of Quito, 9 hours east of Guayaquil and 7 hours north of Cuenca via bus.

Ecuador Travel Resources
Ecuador Travel Insurance
Ecuador & Galapagos Handbook: Travel Guide to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands
Canar: A Year in the Highlands of Ecuador
The Birds of Ecuador: Field Guide
Ecuador in Focus: A Guide to the People, Politics, and Culture
Lonely Planet Ecuador Galapagos Islands

Tonle Sap

6 Southeast Asia Water Adventures

Exclusive for Vagobond by Melissa Ruttanai Photos by Neil Friedman.

In mainland Southeast Asia, adrenaline junkies and nature lovers will discover full-throttle water sport adventures. Without mandatory deposit fees equivalent to mortgage down payments, visitors trek, snorkel, raft and kayak in pristine waters. For those seeking beaches, grottos, and limestone landscapes, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam have become prime destinations. In Southeast Asia, adventure begins where the tides meet the shore. Here are 6 Southeast Asia Water Adventures.

Kayaking in Southern Thailand’s Angthong National Marine Park

Inland Sea, ThailandFor Hollywood filmmakers, billionaires, and broke college students, the Gulf of Thailand remains a draw for many waterborne adventure seekers. Northwest of famous Koh Samui Island, Angthong National Marine Park is an archipelago of 42 limestone islands carved by tide and wind. While camping is allowed with a permit, many visitors arrange tours out of Koh Samui that include swimming island lagoons, trekking trough the mountain, and eating at a local village. During the day, explore small coves and sandy beaches. Snorkel with tropical fish and survey Koh Wua Talap, the largest island in the chain, or Koh Mae Koh that boasts a green-blue inland sea called, Talay Nai. Glide kayaks across the Koh Mae’s bay and relax to the delicate sound of your paddle dipping into gentle waters while high promontories loom like grey-green sea monsters.


Boating through Vietnam’s Halong Bay

With a UNESCO World Heritage seal of approval, Halong Bay sits on the northern ridge of a limestone chain that sweeps up from the Gulf of Thailand and Angthong National Marine Park. Here, the karsts cluster into a mystical array of gray stone, verdant brush, and boats with iconic colonial sails and rudders. Meaning “dragon descending”, Halong Bay includes 2000 islands and over 600 square miles of the Tonkin Gulf, offering visitors dozens of beaches, grottos, and caves to explore. With its high salinity, bathers can jump right from the ship into waters so buoyant there’s hardly any exertion necessary. Stretching across the water surface, visitors can drift all day among spiraling crags. Visit floating houses lashed together into small villages. Or tether broadside to local fisherman, selling giant prawns and squirming squid straight from their nets. After a day caving, pull into Cat Ba Island, a favorite retreat for Hanoians escaping the city.

Southeast Asia Resources
Southeast Asia Hostels
Hotels and Flights in Southeast Asia
Southeast Asia Travel Insurance
Southeast Asia On A Shoestring
Round the World Airfare


Sailing through Daily Life on Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia

Tonle SapSix miles south of famous Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, Southeast Asia’s largest lake, Tonle Sap continues to play a vital role in the life of local Cambodians. Fed by the Mekong River during the wet season, Tonle Sap remains a major waterway for commerce and transportation. Every day, ferries carry commuters and cargo across the lake on their way to and from Battambong. For US$5, travelers can gaze through a window of life on the lake, witnessing how families live in boathouses, cooking, reading, and raising children in narrow canals. Children attend floating schools on large boats with open windows and basketball courts enclosed by high fences. Families visit floating hospitals, teetering gently in the wake. Women buy fresh fish and produce from vendors rowing along peacefully.


White Water Rafting in Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang RiverLaos’ religious and cultural capital, Luang Prabang is a town known for Buddhist temples, daily markets, and a laidback pace of life. At sunrise, monks and novices traverse the UNESCO World Heritage streets. At sunset, fishing boats shift back and forth in the wake of speedboats heading to China. On one side of the town, the Mekong River skims along, a wide boulevard of fertile silt and dependable currents. On the other, Nom Khan River sweeps in from the east, offering visitors white water rafting and kayaking for any skill level. From town, tours can be arranged with door to riverside transport included. On their second day in Luang Prabang, travelers could find themselves clad in helmet and life vest, digging hard into rushing currents. Guides lead rafters through crashing white waters and ominous rocks creating whirlpools. In the reeds, Lao children play in the shallows, making the peace sign as they splash each other. Along the river, mountains as diverse as the wildlife press up against the shoreline. Stilted houses perch on slopes growing tea. Birds cut across black rock cliffs. And women plod up and down terraced vegetable patches.

Tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos

Tubing in LaosIn the 1970’s, backpackers looked around for a convenient stopover during trips between Luang Prabang and Vientiane, the capital. From this necessity, Vang Vieng burst onto the scene, offering accommodations, meals, and more recently, tubing. On the riverside, two companies rent out massive inner tubes and drop travelers off upstream for a day of lazing on the river, listening to birds, and losing all thought to mountain peaks. From these humble beginnings, the tubing trend has become the main activity in town. On the river, bars jut out from the tree line, pulsing with Bob Marley tunes and hawking cheap mixed drinks. Bars feature ziplines, mudslides, and tug-of-war pits to keep patrons docked at their shores. On the river, meet other travelers and become inspired by how many consecutive days they’ve tubed the river. Back in town, relax on triangular pillows, enjoy the mountain air, and recharge for another day on the river.

Swimming with Elephants in Pai, Thailand

Elephants in ThailandSitting on the highway route between Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son, the little town of Pai is a major stop along the traveler’s path in northern Thailand. Here, artists absorb nature’s inspiration and Thais retreat from the bustle of metropolitan life. While there’s plenty to do on foot and motorbike, a popular activity in Pai is elephant trekking. Hotel staff can make tour reservations. In the morning, a guide escorts you to the elephant camps. The world grows quiet on the outskirts of Pai. Elephants eat bananas and throw grass into the air. The elephant trainer called a mahout helps trekkers mount the pachyderms and settle onto a thick blanket. No saddles here, riders spend the day bareback in the sun as the elephants walk through the forest. At the river, elephants suck water up their trunks, spray a cold drink into their mouths, and save just enough to splash up at their riders. Once the mahout gives a command, the elephants shake. The riders hold on tight only to be flicked like flees off the elephant’s back. Up into the air and down into the river, the riders splash, getting their cold drink too.