Saturday, October 5, 2013

Tampico, Mexico

I've been a lot of places in Mexico - Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Merida, Campeche, Tulum - just to name a few and none of them was anything like Tampico. Located in in the state of Tamaulipas, this is not the Mexico you see in brochures and in glossy travel magazines. This is a city where people live and work and tourists don't often visit.

A taste of Tampico
I found myself in Tampico on a whim for a week in May to visit my mother who was teaching at an international school there and it was an eye-opening look at a totally new side of Mexico, one that I had never seen. It's drab, there are three Walmarts, the place to be on Friday nights is - I kid you not - TGI Fridays (which I sadly didn't get to) and at first glance, there isn't much to do other than hit the Walmart and then fight the crowds at the aforementioned TGI Fridays. But dig beyond the surface and you find some charm.

So if you're wondering what to do if you ever take find yourself in Tampico here are a few suggestions.

Hit the beach
Adults-only pool, Club Maeva Miramar
Miramar beach, a wide 10km stretch of soft caramel-hued sand is fantastic for walking. Food stalls line one end of the beach offering up the catch of the day, along with cold drinks and snacks. There are palapas with lounge chairs you can rent, but if you really want to relax, you can buy a day pass from beachfront hotel Club Maeva Miramar. The all-inclusive pass includes all meals and drinks (booze, too. Yay) and will run you about $56. You can also buy half-day passes. The grounds are pretty extensive with three pools, bars and a restaurant, but head straight for the adult's only area with a gorgeous infinity pool and small swim-up bar. It can get crowded but no kids means more peace and quiet. Grab a lounge chair and order up a michelada (delicious Mexican beer cocktail) and relax. The only issue is that food here isn't great. OK, it's subpar at best but you can always fill up on beer and stick to bread and cheese like I did.

Visit the market
No matter where I go in the world I love markets and always make a point to check out as many as I can. I love the chaotic nature of markets, the peek into local life, the energy and the sights and sounds (but not always the smells). Tampico's market didn't disappoint. It's loud, it's overflowing in colorful piles of produce, there are stalls selling everything from souvenirs to clothing to pet food and there's a maze of alleys just hawking tacos, tortas and other local favourites. Many avocados were purchased and later consumed. Tampico has really good avocados.

Wander the historic downtown area
Pink gazebo
While most of Tampico resembles a sprawling suburb totally void of any character whatsoever, the downtown area is where the city comes alive. Faded yet once colourful neo-classical buildings line the streets, sharing space with carts selling fruit, shoe shine stands and shops. I especially loved the Plaza de Armas, a square boasting a massive gazebo built from pink stone and looking like some sort of space ship crossed with a cathedral. It's hard to miss thanks to the distinct shade of bubble gum (or Pepto-Bismol) pink and makes for a great photo. There are two snack bars in the square selling fresh juices and light snacks if you're hungry. It gets really hot in Tampico so the juice will be welcome. The cathedral of Tampico and Liberty Plaza also worth a look but there's no need to go with a plan, just wander at your own pace. When you need a break head to Degas CafĂ© for a coffee or beer on their cute patio where you can people watch while sipping your beverage of choice (beer for me) and nibbling on the commentary snack mix.
Unless my mom was still working there I wouldn't go back to Tampico, but I'm still glad I went. It was a side of Mexico I haven't see and reminded my why I love to travel - to see what you don't expect and be surprised by what you see.

Have you been to Tampico? What did you think?

Monday, July 29, 2013

Notes On Travel Regret: Part 2

I've blogged about travel regret before, about that feeling of missing out, of not having quite enough time to see everything you want to see or do everything you want to do. The feeling of not having made the right call, for whatever reason. For some people there is no regret (logically I know regret is pointless, but emotionally? Well, that's a different story), but for others, there are places missed, cities longed for, decisions analyzed and questioned after the fact.

Off to India...or not
Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur
In the summer, around late August, my ex-partner and I (not ex at the time) were talking about going to India for two months, February and March. Up until this point I wasn't sure he was going to want to travel at all during the winter, and I was worried about this. Then he brought up India, something I'd mentioned at various other points  during the year and that he never seemed very keen on. But now, he was interested. He wanted to take cooking classes and eat street food and consume as much vegetarian Indian food as he could get his hands on. I got the Lonely Planet from the library and started reading him random facts about various cities, about places we "had" to see and what we absolutely couldn't miss. We were excited. We were united. Things were good.

And then I chickened out. For a lot of reasons, but the one I most often refer to is that I knew I would be working while we traveled (call it digital nomad light) and that I really needed a reliable internet connection the whole time or my work would suffer. (or so I believed). From what I'd read there was no guarantee of the speedy surfing I was used to in many other places I'd travelled so I panicked. In retrospect I should have done more research, asked around, reached out to people who had been there, not worried so much - but I didn't. I assumed it might just be better (safer) to go someplace else, and so I suggested Malaysia. But let's face it, I was also scared of India itself, which I'm not proud of.

The regret kicks in
Gardens by the Bay, Singapore
Don't get me wrong, two months in Malaysia and Singapore (with side trips to Hong Kong and Vietnam) was great and I had a memorable trip filled with phenomenal food and unforgettable experiences, but I regret not going to India. I can't help but equate the dissolution of my long term partnership a mere three weeks after returning with the "not going", with all of that fear. Of course there were many other issues that led to my  becoming a solo traveler, but I now equate my inability to move past travel fears with the end of my relationship. Silly? Maybe. Weird? probably, but I can't help but wonder if things would have turned out differently had I dove headfirst into a challenge rather than back away. I can't help but ask myself what it really meant when I vetoed India and switched up the itinerary. I have regret and lots of it.

I  know it will pass and I know I am not being logical, necessarily, but what happened does drive home the point that giving into fear isn't often a good thing. In travel or in love.

What are your biggest travel regrets?

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Hong Kong in Pictures

I spent three days in Hong Kong in April and I fell in love with it - the energy, the food, the markets, the parks, the mind-boggling amount of things to see and do. It's a city you can spend weeks in and still not be bored and I plan on going back at some point in my travels. Take a look at some of my pictures from the trip. 

Hong Kong Park

Electric Road Market and Cooked Food Centre (good little Indian place upstairs)

Misty Victoria Harbour

Self explanatory

Shopping at Temple Street Night Market

Tram. Loved seeing these all over the city.

Awesome fountain in Hong Park you can walk into. Obvious photo op.

Kowloon Walled City Park - a must-visit in my opinion

Entrance to the park

Aviary in Hong Kong Park (free and worth a peek)

Bruce Lee!

Have you been to Hong Kong? What were your favourite things to see and do?

Monday, July 1, 2013

5 Travel Mistakes I've Made

No one is perfect and we all make bad choices at one time or another, but there are a few travel-related mistakes I've made (or in some cases continue to make) that I'd like to avoid on future trips.

Yelling to try and be understood
Campeche, Mexico (actually a great town)
As much as I hate to admit it, I have been one of those people, who just talks louder - in English - in a futile attempt to be understood in another language (in this case, Spanish). I was in Campeche, Mexico hoping to get to Palenque that day and there was a miscommunication about buying a bus ticket. I wanted out as soon as possible (I'd been sick the night before and I wanted no reminder of where the awful stomach issues started) but I was getting nowhere with the nice woman behind the counter. It turns out she (and some of her co-workers) were trying to tell me there "might" be one more ticket available for the bus I wanted, but they wouldn't know until it arrived as some buses have the extra seats in the back and some don't. Eventually someone who could speak some English was able to explain and I did get my ticket, but not before repeatedly stating my request - in English - at escalating volume (which, by the way, never works. Don't do it). No, I am not proud of this. 

Trying to do too much in one place
Getting overstimulated as I step off a bus or train and take a look around, thinking of all the things I want to see and do in a new place can be exciting but actually doing all of those things can mean burnout. Yet I continually try and pack way too much sightseeing into too little time. There's nothing wrong with wanting to maximize your time, but I also find that the more you try and do, the less you appreciate what you're doing. You get tired and you stop really paying attention. I'd like to start streamlining my days when I travel and choosing one for-sure activity and one secondary activity. If I do one, and then the second and then still feel like I have energy to do something else, great. If not, I can relax and see where the rest of the day takes me. I would rather enjoy one thing than feel exhausted and cranky through four or five activities or sites.

Trying to see too much on one trip
Tikal (squeezed into a trip to Belize)
Just like trying to pack too much into one day can cause problems and actually hinder your experience, so too can trying to do too much on one trip. I am notorious for wanting to squeeze as many stops into one itinerary as humanly possible and I have to say, it's not the best plan. The more you try and pack into your itinerary the more rushed you're going to be and the more stressed out you're going to feel. A trip like that starts to feel like a race to cross places off a list, which doesn't allow any time to fully appreciate where you are. Not to mention, the more places you're trying to see, the more time you'll be spending in transit (on a bus, a boat, a plane or a train), which can also add to stress levels. My new goal is to try and see less, but appreciate and explore more.

Focusing too much on "must-sees"
While it's a good idea to research your destination and what it has to offer as a way to get acquainted with where you'll be spending time, I often get too hung up on the what every magazine article, guidebook, or blog post on the town or city I'll be visiting lists as the "top 10 sites" or main points of interest. Those lists are always helpful, but there is also something to be said for choosing your own adventure and putting the guide book away. You might just discover something great (an adorable cafe or bar, a really funky neighbourhood) all on your own that you never would have stumbled upon if you'd just followed a generic list of must-see or dos.

Letting a bad mood ruin a perfectly good day of travel
No one can be in a great mood all the time, every day (not even while travelling), and not every day can or should be jam-packed (as noted earlier), but letting a bad mood spoil a travel day is something I have done, but I would like to start getting better at not letting this happen. Because the thing is, more often than not, if you're in a bad mood but then do something to distract yourself (always very easy when travelling), you'll find that the bad mood has lifted. So next time I find myself feeling grumpy when I'm travelling, or like hiding under the covers rather than exploring, I'm going to put more effort into going out and doing something that has the potential to improve my mood.

Have you made any travel mistakes or have any bad travel habits you'd like to break?

Thursday, June 27, 2013

4 Important Things Travel Has Taught Me

Aside from the usual perks of travel: the excitement, the adventure, the escape from reality, there are also a few other things packing a bag and hopping on a plane can offer. I've learned a few pretty important lessons from my limited travels so far.

You get out of life what you put in
Market, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Nowhere has this lesson really made itself known, with clarity, like it does when I travel. For all the times you get to a new place and say "wow, this is incredible" without having to put any work into your enjoyment (yes, sometimes enjoyment takes work), there will also be a time where you say, "whoa, what was I thinking when I got off the bus here?!" 

When that happens you need to kick up the effort a notch, look for the good in something that on the surface isn't so great. That lesson translates easily to everyday life because life isn't always packed with rainbows and amazing job offers and surprise financial windfalls. You need to give some to get, just like you do on those travel days where you just want to go home, or you're not as enamored as you'd like to be with your newest destination.  Smile, try something new, introduce yourself to someone - you never know how even the smallest amount of effort can change your day or your path for the better.

It always pays to try something new
Little India, Georgetown, Penang
Whether it's a new food, a crazy-sounding drink, sport, activity or class, trying something new when you travel is an essential part of the overall experience. I find that even if I don't like that food or that activity, I always feel better about myself and my travels after having given it a shot. It makes me feel alive. I can't say I'm as good at trying new things at home as I am when I'm travelling, but the lesson has stuck and I know that the more I push myself, the more I put myself out there and say yes to new experiences (no matter how scary or outside my own version of "normal" they may be) the better I'll feel and the more I'll get out of life.

Planning has it's place but so does spontaneity
I've written before about how I'm more of a planner than a "let's just do it" type of person, but travel has taught me that you can be both (really). I always thought that in order to be defined as a "traveller" I needed to be more spontaneous, more willing to hop on any bus or train, or change direction on a whim, but I've since learned you need to do what's right for you, based on the moment and the situation that you're in. If you need to plan, if that's going to make your travel experience richer and you'll get to see more of a certain place with some strategies in place, then do it. But if you have the luxury of flexibility, don't feel pulled in any particular direction and are more interested in just "being" somewhere rather than experiencing specific sites, put the guide and itinerary away. It's totally OK to have a split travel personality - I do. The planning versus spontaneity rule also applies well to non-travel life.

Fear doesn't have to be limiting
Sarawak river, Kuching
Travelling is something I love, but it also scares the crap out of me. The tingle of excitement I feel when I start researching a new destination turns to a sliver of fear creeping up my back as soon as I book that flight. Yet I still get on that plane, still go wherever I've planned on going - despite that initial fear of the unknown. I used to think fear meant you shouldn't do something (and I know in many cases it does) but there are a lot of times fear is holding you back from something amazing - in my case, travel. If I were to stop planning or decided not to book that flight just based on those stirrings of fear, I would lose out. But by  acknowledging the fear without giving it power, I get to grow and experience something great.

What has travel taught you so far? I'd love to know.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

6 Awesome Things About Travelling Alone

In lieu of my recent post about shifting to solo travel, I thought it very apropos to write about the good points of travelling alone. And there are many, despite the adjustment period required in getting to that point might take.

You answer to NO ONE
Fairy Stream in Mui Ne, Vietnam
Sometimes you just want to do what you want to do, without asking if it's OK, or finding a more suitable time to do it, or knowing that the person doing it with you has no interest in whatever attraction or site you've dragged them to. Not to mention, if there's somewhere you have absolutely no interest in going (or feigning interest in), you don't have to go. It can be quite liberating to wake up in the morning and know you can do (or not do) whatever it is YOU want - and the debate or discussion stops there.

You can be cranky
Let's face it, as exciting and fun as travel is, it can take its toll on you (or at least it does on me) and when that happens, I get cranky. But when you travel with a partner, it can be tough to show your cranky side (we all do it, but how much of it you show can be the difference between an OK day and a terrible one for both of you). Travelling solo and feeling like crawling back under the covers or having a quiet day of wandering to ease the bad mood? Go for it.

There's an added element of excitement
Travelling as a couple (or with a friend) can be great but for me, it was always easier to rely on my partner to step in a make a decision when I didn't want to, to find our way when we took a wrong turn (or several), to help me feel more comfortable. But when you travel alone, everything is up to you and not having a safety net of a fellow traveller, although scary at first, is exciting. When I landed in Paris alone, when I landed in Barcelona alone, when I landed in Copenhagen alone (with no idea where I was going), I was scared but also totally exhilarated. The idea of "I can do it - alone!" is exciting no matter where you're travelling.

It can be easier to meet people
Meeting a new "friend" in Dalat, Vietnam
Though you might think that solo travellers blend into the wallpaper, being alone in a bar, hotel lobby or hostel common area can make it easier for people to approach you and for you to reach out to others. Travelling with someone makes it easy to be in your own cocoon of two that from the outside, appears somewhat closed off to people you night encounter. Whereas, a solo traveller sipping a beer on a patio, might be easier to say hello to.

It forces you out of your comfort zone
You know that scary aspect of solo travel I mentioned, it has another benefit (yes, fear can be a good thing). Travelling alone pushes you outside of your comfort zone. Lost? Find your way. Not sure where to stay or for how long? Figure it out. Feeling overwhelmed? Learn how to handle the ups and downs of travel without a safety net. That might sound harsh, but the more you accomplish on your own, the more you prove to yourself how much you can actually do.

It helps you learn about yourself
There's nothing like a solo trip (whether a week or a month or more) to teach you a few new things about yourself. When you travel alone, you're forced to think on your feet and make decisions without the luxury of someone to bounce ideas off of, which can show you new things about not only how you think, but what you  like, what bugs you and what makes you happiest. Most importantly, solo travel can teach you just how strong you can be. Of course, it can also teach you a few things you might not like about yourself, but that too, is an important part of that whole "life" learning curve that never stops.

*Note, pictures above are not from solo trips (I don't have too many of those...yet).

What's you favourite thing about solo travel? I'd love to hear about it. 

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

10 Days in Southern Vietnam

So what does one do with 10 days in Vietnam? It's tempting to want to see everything and go everywhere, but unless you don't care to sleep and don't mind spending long hours on buses traversing the country, it makes much more sense to focus on one area - in my case it was a portion of the south.

Pho! (yum)
2 days: Ho Chi Minh City
I flew into Ho Chi Minh from Kuala Lumpur and decided to spend the first two days getting to know the city. From the airport I hopped in a cab to a hotel I had pre-booked, a budget-midrange option called Elegent Inn Hotel. The place gets great Tripadvisor reviews and I wasn't disappointed. Location is ideal, breakfast is included, rooms are large, clean and serviced daily and the staff is very friendly. They can also book onward travel and many tours.

My first taste of HCMC included lots of walking, lots of pho (vegetarian pho or "pho chay") at a place called Pho 24/24, not to be confused with the chain Pho 24, and lots of general exploring of the busy, chaotic streets.

2 days: Mue Ne
Mui Ne

About a four hour bus ride from HCMC is the beach town of Mui Ne, where I decided to spend a couple of days rather than book a two-day Mekong Delta tour that I had been thinking about. Mui Ne is very walkable and consists mostly of guesthouses, tour operators, bars and cafes. While it is known as a "beach town" there is very little beach to speak of (at least where I was staying), and the water is very rough. If you like kite boarding and wind surfing this is the place to visit.

The town is also known for a few attractions, including the ferry stream and white and red sand dunes. You can easily book a package tour that lasts about three hours (in the morning or afternoon) that will combine all three. The "ferry stream" is basically a trickle of a stream you walk down while looking at some really surreal scenery, like something you might imagine finding on Mars - red sand and rock formations.

The white sand dunes are pretty spectacular and look like a vast expanse of desert - great photos to be taken here, and it's lots of fun to run down the dunes (you can also slide down them if you're so inclined). The red sand dunes weren't much compared to the white and could be skipped, in my opinion.

If you haven't booked your accommodations ahead there will be numerous touts when you get off the bus eager to show you their resort (or the one they're working for). But really, with so many options you can just walk the main street until you find a suitable spot to stay.

4 days: Dalat
A five hour bus ride from Mui Ne gets you to Dalat, a place I could have spent more time in. It's a quirky town in the hills with a very European feel also known as one of the most "romantic" spots in Vietnam. It's very popular with honeymooners and does boast its fair share of kitsch (fancy a paddle around the lake in a swan-shaped pedal boat?)

Crazy House
Other than the aforementioned pedal boating, you can catch a cable car ride over stunning views (highly recommended, unless you hate heights), check out the "Crazy House" - a surreal wonderland of wacky staircases, bridges, oddly-shaped rooms and architecture heavily inspired by Gaudi but much more playful (you need to see it to believe it). You can also book a room here. I didn't but I peeked into some and they are very cool. If outdoor adventure is your thing, you can book hiking and mountain biking tours though numerous operators. The night market is also well worth checking out for the food and happy, carnival-like atmosphere.

If you can, rest your head at the ultra-friendly, clean and well-located Thien An Hotel. The breakfast (included in the room price) is awesome. Fresh fruit, fresh baguettes, cheese, cold cuts, fresh squeezed juice (passion fruit when I was there) and eggs how you want them - it's a great way to start the day.

2 days: Ho Chi Minh City
Chaotic HCMC
Since I was flying back out of HCMC I wanted to end my stay in Vietnam there and two days at the start just wasn't enough. I booked another two nights at Elegant Inn Hotel. My time was spent heading  back to Pho 24/24 a couple of times, going to Chinatown to explore, doing some shopping at the Ben Thanh Market (I got me a hat) and checking out the War Remnants Museum, which was interesting but depressing (which is to be expected).

Have you been to Vietnam? Where did your visit take you?