Category Archives: Expat life

Six World Travel Tips for Worry Warts

I know that a lot of people don’t travel because of the worries associated with it. Travel can be stressful and the media doesn’t help much by telling us about every travel disaster, terrorist event, or travel nightmare. The truth is that it doesn’t matter if you are heading to Pompano Beach, Houston, or Tahiti because the dangers are all about the same. Of course, if you are heading somewhere and really worried about it, you can always invest in some travel insurance.

Extended travel in Hawaii
Don't worry, Enjoy your Vacation!

Whether you are planning an extended stay or visiting tropical island beach hotels, the following tips will take some of the worry out of your vacations, cruises, or outdoor adventures.

International travel has always appealed to students because students are those most likely to enjoy obstacles and dangers. Being out of your familiar environment is something that can cause confusion and misunderstandings so the first tip for worry warts is about paperwork.

Worry Free Travel Tip #1 : Have your papers!

budget airline tickets and cheap hotel room receipts
World travel can involve a lot of papers

I’m not talking about your New York Times here, I’m talking about documentation. I was once asked about my birth certificate when I was getting a car hire in London. So, this is about more than just your passport. Your passport is important too. Make sure it is still valid well before you leave. Make sure it still has blank pages which can be stamped. Ensure that you have the proper visas or can get the visa upon arrival. Here are the list of documents I recommend you travel with:

* Passport – walid with blank pages
* Country Visa
* Copy of Birth Certificate
* Student ID
* Driver’s License
* Credit Cards
* Copy #1 of all the above in your luggage
* Copy #2 of all the above hidden in a coat or pants pocket or inside a different bag
* 10 passport sized photos

Two copies? Yes. You don’t want to worry right? Having copies makes a huge difference if you lose something or if you run into problems. The photos will come in handy if you have to do anything relating to consulates or embassies. In regards to photocopies of your credit cards, I recommend you blank out some of the numbers on your copies and just remember which number is blanked out like ’23’.

Worry Free Travel Tip #2 : Money without Stress

stress out over money while traveling
Stop worrying about the money, Sonny!

If money makes you crazy with worry, here is what you can do. Change a little bit of money before you leave your home country for the local currency. You’ll get the worst rate at home most likely, so I wouldn’t change a huge amount. I would say about $200 or the equivalent is enough. This is just in case you can’t find an ATM when you get there. In addition, put $100 in USD, Euros, or Pounds in a couple different spots for emergencies, these are safe currencies that you can use just about anywhere in the world.

Don’t count on your ATM working or a currency exchange being open and available when you arrive. Sometimes they aren’t.This can be especially true when you fly into airports serviced by cheap flights. Now you don’t have to worry about it. Make sure you know your PIN numbers by heart. There’s little that’s worse than having your card shut down because you used the wrong pin. It’s a good idea to have someone who you trust have your pin #s and copies of your information too.

In terms of exchange, ATMs often offer the most competitive rates. My recommendation is to forget about traveler’s checks. You lose on both ends with them and often you can’t use them in restaurants, cheap hotels, or guest houses.

Worry Free Travel Tip #3 : Dealing with Taxi Drivers

taxi driver robbers
Not all taxi drivers are crooks, but some are!

It’s true that in many cities, taxi drivers are just waiting to rip you off. This isn’t just true in third world countries but also in cities like Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Orlando too.

Use the internet before you leave home to see how much a trip from the airport should cost. Often driver’s won’t use the meter for set trips and you need to know what the cost should be. Look out for ‘special discounts’ and make sure you have local currency because they usually won’t accept foreign cash, credit cards, or traveler’s checks and if they do, they usually will gouge you on the rate. If they offer to take you around on your first day for a small tour, take their card or number and feign interest since if they think you are going to be coming back, it is unlikely that they will try to gouge you. Know where you are going to stay or pretend you know, taking taxi recommendations for hotels is usually a way for them to make a few bucks at your expense.

Worry Free Travel Tip #4 : World Travel with Kids

travel with children
Traveling with kids can be fun or stressful

If you are going to bring your children bring their birth certificates. If you are traveling in some Arab countries, single women traveling with children need written permission from the children’s father and there are other odd regulations that you should know about before embarking upon your journey. Airlines often have special promotions for kids that are worth finding out about.

Worry Free Travel Tip #5 : Lost Bags

lost bags
It's a good idea to take a digital picture of the contents of your check in bags.

There are a million travel nightmare stories about lost bags. If you pack everything you need in your checked bag you are asking for it. Have a change of clothes, your trip information, and essentials like glasses or medications in your carry on.

Most airlines will provide you with a small amount of money if they misplace your bags and most bags are found within 24 hours. Make sure that you have information about your rental cars, vacation packages, and hotel rooms with you and don’t trust that your checked bag will make it. It usually does, but why create an extra chance for yourself to worry?

For summer travel remember that you can’t carry big containers of sunscreen in your carry on. If you must bring it with you, buy a small bottle that conforms to airline regulations.

Worry Free Travel Tip #6 : Your Emergency Paper or Travel Book

emergency travel information
In addtion to rental car, hotel, and flight information, your travel book can also give you something to do while you wait. Like sketching.

While it would be nice to be able to memorize all the essential information about your vacations, this usually isn’t very practical. This is especially true for extended travel.

Create a piece of paper or small notebook with information about your hotel rooms, rental car, airline confirmation numbers, and any addresses or phone numbers you may need such as those of local institutes you plan to visit.

I call this my travel book and it is essential that it fits in your pocket. It’s also a good idea to have emergency phone numbers, consulate information, and maybe even your passwords or pin numbers inside. The way to do this is to write something that contains your passwords, looks natural, and doesn’t scream out password. Don’t write: “UBC Pin = 6767” or “Citibank Password = HungryMonkey 101” instead write something like

“6767 South Vegas Street, New York, NY” or “Places to eat in Florida – The Hungry Monkey on Route 101”, you’ll know what the pin or password is but it’s very unlikely any thieves would be able to figure it out.

It’s important to include the contact information for your banks and credit cards and the number to call if they get lost or stolen. Keep this piece of paper or travel book on you at all times.

Now, stop worrying and start enjoying your travels.

La Casa Verde: A Great Place for (Honest) Information in Baños Ecuador

By Melissa Ruttanai Exclusive for Vagobond

Maybe it’s because I’m from New York. But I hate when people try to sell me stuff I don’t need. If I ask a simple question, don’t try to sell me a package tour or pawn me off on your café-owning best friend. When traveling, I appreciate nonpartisan information that’s given through genuine honesty. After seven weeks of backpacking, my husband and I arrived in Baños Ecuador, a hot spring town cradled in the Andean Mountains. The town is small, the food is international, and views spectacular. So, we decided to stay.

Banos, Ecuador

In a tight-knit community like Baños, you have to remember that everyone knows each other, that sometimes information is shaded by personal relationships and past mishaps. This is why Neil and I chose our source of information carefully when we were looking at apartments. We turned to two expats: Rebecca and Doug Greenshields.

Expat Information in Baños
Owners of the top-ranked La Casa Verde Eco-Lodge, Rebecca and Doug have lived in Ecuador for over four years. Their son Jon was born here. Their successful hotel thrives here. They wake up in the morning to guests munching away on homemade breads and they’ve a calendar full of newcomers even during low season. They are happy and content—which makes them good candidates for travel information.

Greenshields Family, Banos EcuadorNeil and I stayed at La Casa Verde twice: once for 8 nights and then again for 2, before we moved into our apartment. Both times, we reserved rooms at this hotel. Upon check in, we received area maps, restaurant suggestions, and a tour of the lodge. Green walls and natural light filter into the entry, more lounge than reception. Recycled glass bottles create a peaceful mosaic, casting red, green and blue shades on the staircase. When we asked about tours and spa treatments, they iterated what their guests had reported without plugging their own agenda. It was a nice change up from other towns where the owner stated: “There is no tourist information office and this is the only company that goes to the waterfall.” Sure.

La Casa Verde was different and that first night’s rest was the best we’d had in Ecuador.

In the morning, the Greenshields joined us for breakfast and our barrage of questions began. How much does an apartment cost? What’s typically included? Do we bargain? What areas should we look at? Who’s the best landlord? We’d a slew of queries and they answered each with thoughtful consideration. “Start looking and know exactly what you need in the apartment,” Rebecca advised. “Straighten out your budget and have a number in your head for bargaining. And be firm.” Doug added. Even if we stumped her with a question, Rebecca would find us at dinner and report back on what she’d researched in town. Between hammering away on the new La Casa Verde extensions, Doug would chug water and offer his help. “Word of mouth still works here.”

beautiful scenery in Banos, EcuadorIn Baños, the internet isn’t a main mode of communication. The best maps are hand drawn and photocopied with scrawling notes. Business transactions can be low tech. People buy, sell, and rent through flyers in windows. “Just have a walk ‘round town.” Doug suggested. “You’ll see all the rooms for rent.”

So we strolled. We rang doorbells and inquired in Spanglish about apartments. The process wasn’t difficult. Over two and a half days of hunting, we’d visited 3 apartments. Prices ranged from US$200 to $450 per month for fully furnished, ready to go apartments.

We negotiated. We weighed options and decided on a two-bedroom flat with TV, WIFI, all utilities, and proximity to the main square. Final price (post-barter): $330.

A week after living in the new apartment, we ran into the Greenshields in town. Their son had his tricycle, Rebecca was comfortably enjoying her 2nd trimester and Doug sported a broad-rimmed hat against the summer sun. In front of Casa Hood Café, we stood and chatted like expats, catching up on the news from La Casa Verde. The extension was waiting on windows. New volunteers from San Francisco were lovely, and our open invitation to visit was offered once more. As Doug, Rebecca, and Jon walked into the café for lunch, we thanked them again for all their help. They shrugged it off in a neighborly way. “Just come visit us. You have to see the new deck!”

Introducing the Vagobaby – Aya Sophia Damitio


Okay….she’s 50 days old now and I realize I should have posted a little something here at Vagobond, but since I’ve closed down comments – it seems like I spend a lot more time over at Google+ which incidentally is open to everyone now since it went public beta yesterday (that means everyone can use it but they are still making improvements on it).

But, Google+ aside – this post is actually about introducing you to my daughter. When we got married in the Sahara during our Berber Nomad Wedding, my wife and I talked about having a family someday. We both agreed that one child would be enough. After that when we were living in Turkey, we were very excited to find out that our one child was coming.

aya sophia damitioMade in Turkey by a Moroccan and American partnership – so in discussing names we decided that we liked the name Sophia since it means Wisdom in Greek/Ottomanese and would be acceptable to the Moroccan authorities since it is one of the approved Moroccan Muslim names. Moroccans don’t typically do a middle or second name, but since Americans do, we decided to take another Moroccan approved name Aya which by the way means bird in Hebrew and soft silk in Japanese but Saint in Greek/Ottomanese and in Arabic Aya is a verse in the Quran or an example from God. The fact that the name Aya Sophia is the name of one of the wonders of the world that was the largest church for 1000 years and then converted to a mosque and then converted to a non-secular monument and that our favorite hotel in Istanbul is called the Ayasofya – well, all of that played into it to.

Unfortunately, the Moroccan authorities told us we could only have one name and Aya-Sophia was not allowed since it was the name of a Christian church so we went with Sophia Damitio. No middle name. However, it is appropriate since my given name isn’t Vago but nearly everyone calls me that and so, like me (Vago Chris), Aya Sophia has a legal name and a personal name. Our little silk bird of wisdom.

vagobabyWe had quite a big scare at about 1 month when the public hospital told us she suffered from hip-dysplacia but after a round of pediatricians and experts we learned that she is fine. We are grateful. We think she’s pretty cute but ultimately it’s my hope that she lives up to her name and becomes a creature of great wisdom. I hope she is intelligent and if she is beautiful, I hope she can be humble.

I had Arab and Turkish friends who asked if I was disappointed in having a daughter instead of a son – the answer- quite the opposite. I look around at all the young guys, teenage guys, and others and I can’t help but notice that most of them are complete fuckers. I know that I was (and probably am still) but with a daughter, I feel that we have a chance to share what we’ve learned in this life.

vagobabyHard to believe that my little girl is technically African-American and definitely Arab-American. Her little green eyes and rosy cheeks make her look like a little French lass. Along with her mom’s Arab blood she has my Scottish/Irish/French and smidge or dab of Cherokee, so she is a daughter of three continents and four continents if you count the conception in Turkish Asia.

Hard to believe that somehow I’m managing to support and grow a little family when I’m still the same guy with no job or particular source of income that left Hawaii back in 2008. And yet, with no insurance and no help – we have a nice place to live, get the medical care we need, eat great food, and even manage to travel and enjoy the world a bit. I’m grateful it’s all working.

And what does all that make her? Well, it makes her our little girl. The one and only Vagobaby.

As always to comment come on over and join me at g-plus and if you want to send a baby gift, the best way to do it is here since the Moroccan post ends up being prohibitively expensive. Thanks for all your warm thoughts and wishes.

~Vago, Hanane, and Sophia