11 July 2010

Part I: Becoming an English Teacher Abroad

A dream of mine for many years now is seemingly soon to be fulfilled as I dot my i's and cross all the t's of my application to teach English in Korea. This highly pursued career of all wanderlust careers is crystal clear, or it at least seemed that way. Of course one would expect the lengthy application and visa process, but who would have thought to refer to a time line of important events, deadlines if you will... wait, what are the deadlines? That's precisely what I should have asked myself many months ago when I started laying the foundation for the mental commitment to a one-year teaching contract. But silly me, I had no clue, so now it's my job to clue you in, the next potential teacher of English.

Things You Should Know

If you are planning to teach in South Korea:

The public schools of South Korea hire new teachers to begin their contracts twice a year, once in March, and once in September. From what I hear the latter is the main hiring event. Now for the time line... This means you will need to arrive in-country for orientation about two weeks prior, so mid-February and mid-August respectively. Additionally, this puts the date your application is due roughly two months before the orientation, so mid-December and mid-June, respectively. But don't let these dates fool you, if you're serious about your intentions, its best to submit your materials at least one-two months before the deadline.

What materials are needed to apply?

Well firstly, you should have or plan to get very soon, your passport. If you don't have one, this probably means you have not traveled extensively, which should not discourage you, but it will be a factor in the hiring process; the more time you've spent abroad, the better. Second, the application itself. You will be filling out a 6-8 page EPIK application. That's short for English Program in Korea, www.epik.go.kr and is the hiring team for all the English teachers in the public school system. Third, you will be asked about your location preferences. If you want to teach in Seoul, you will also fill out the SMOE, or Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education application to be considered as a teacher in the capital city. Just be forewarned, this application includes a lesson plan sample, and if it's your first lesson plan, I suggest using resources such as Dave's ESL Cafe, www.daveseslcafe.com, a site that is practically indispensable for ESL teachers around the world. And finally, your initial EPIK application requires submitting two letters of recommendation. This can be challenging for many people, even seasoned teachers, to find appropriate references, and furthermore, for these references to find the time to write something that's going to get you hired. It is perfectly acceptable to write your own draft, having your references edit, sign, and return a scanned PDF to you to include in your application materials.

What's next?

Now you simply wait for a response from EPIK. I returned my application mistakenly one week past the deadline and I heard back from them about three weeks later. I am assuming because I have a TESOL certification. Now I suppose you're itching to know about certifications? I'll leave that business to the next installment of "Becoming an English Teacher Abroad"

What about private schools?

Private schools, also known as hagwons, hire throughout the year. There are so many hagwons it may be impossible to sort through the job listings and find the one that's appropriate for you. I suggest going through a recruiter. There are many to choose from, but do your research and don't be afraid to call the recruiter and speak to a real person about the process. I also suggest reading through the teacher forums on Dave's ESL Cafe. Many people use them as a way to vent about their employers, but it is a good way to connect to current and past teachers and get your specific questions answered.

If you have any burning questions, I would be happy to respond on twitter @travelminded

06 April 2010

Urban Hiking on the Homefront

I am captivated by wanderlust, there's no doubt about it. You, in all likelihood know just as well as I do what a blessing and a curse it is to be a wanderluster. I'm not in too much debt after college, and to keep it that way, I only travel when I've got all the cash I need for the trip saved up just for that purpose. So what will us grounded travelers do, feeling trapped by the sedentary life, choked by the sessile feeling of simply being in one place too long?

Urban Hiking is what I call the thing most of us do when we travel. We explore urban landscapes on foot, all day, days on end, til we simply can take no more. When I cannot travel, but feel the overwhelming need to wander, I go for an urban hike, in my home town. I am from Portland, so urban hiking is easy. I strap on my Chacos and backpack and hit the streets. I recommend seeking out neighborhoods unfamiliar yet interesting. Look up some tips on the web, or use twitter to find events or pub crawls downtown. I know what you're thinking, but trust me, it's really not lame. I've lived in Portland for 25 years and there are countless places I've never seen but should.

Act like you do when you're away: carry a map, ask strangers for directions. Bring your camera and take some photos. Walk into an unfamiliar cafe and grab a pastry. Eat street food. Be as unbiased as you can, and you will get a lot out of your adventure without ever leaving town.

If this is still completely uninteresting to you, I have one final suggestion which may help quench your wanderlust: host a couchsurfer and urban hike with them!

05 April 2010

Kabobs and Sheesha: Istanbul on a Budget

A rare and pleasing collision of modernity and antiquity, Istanbul is a place where the lingering scent of sheesha and kabob in the morning means last night was an amazing night. The city itself is a massive force to be reckoned with; divided in half by the Bosphorous Straight, which acts like an immense river connecting the Marmara with the Black Sea. Getting to know such a behemoth is no easy task, just ask the more than 12.8 million residents who call the former Constantinople their home. And although it may pose a challenge, this bridge between continents is worth the effort to explore, a beyond fabulous destination that can easily be seen on a skimpy backpacker’s budget.

Getting to Istanbul will be your first challenge, not that flights from around the world don’t frequent the city’s international airport. It just isn’t what I call cheap. Coming from the Pacific Northwest, flights to Europe never come cheap, so I decided to make it excruciatingly long and painful to save myself a couple hundred dollars. I scoured www.kayak.com for several months, watching ticket prices fluctuate and eventually plummet from $1200 to $600 one cold rainy night at my computer. To be clear, this was not a direct flight, but rather an alternative I took that coincided well with my personal travel plans. This ridiculously cheap flight was from Portland, Oregon, to the London Heathrow airport. It came complete with two flight changes, one in Chicago, and the other in Manchester. But how could I complain? I was getting across the pond in mid June for $600! I stayed one night in London and took off for Istanbul at 7am the next morning. I had purchased a one-way ticket that cost about $150. Three days and four flights later, getting a deal like that to Turkey couldn’t be much sweeter than $750.

Arriving in Istanbul you will notice there are basically two hip spots to call home, Sultanahment and Taksim. The former boasts every historical landmark every guidebook recommends seeing on your trip, while the latter features a commercial shopping center and a raging nightlife. Here you make your choice, do I go easy on the feet sight-seeing, or take the tram to the sights in exchange for a short stumble home each night? Your priorities are important because these two neighborhoods are on opposite sides of town, and as mentioned before, Istanbul ain’t no village.

If you choose the Sultanahmet area, as I did, you won’t be disappointed by the nightlife, you’ll just be hard pressed to find a good disco to shake your tail at later on. There are a few key streets (especially Akbıyık Caddesi) that backpackers tend to stick to where they can find hostels, sheesha bars, and markets for their sundries. The tramline will take you directly from the airport to Sultanahment. You will need to purchase a visa upon your arrival for about USD 20.

Using www.hostelworld.com I found a narrow, 4 story gem in Sultanahment called “Bahaus Hostel” for around $20/night. The staff were extremely helpful (as are most Turkish people, you’ll find no shortage of “guides” on the street) and the hostel not only provided a delicious, authentic Turkish breakfast, and a big screen TV (especially for soccer games) but my favorite feature; the rooftop bar and lounge, with views of the Boshphorous and homemade kabobs for about 5 Lira (~$3.50).

You’ll need three to four days at the very least to get all the sights in while in Istanbul. I spent 7 nights and still feel slightly deprived… return trip? You betcha. Must see sights in the Sultanahment area include: Aya Sofia museum, Blue Mosque, Basilica Cisterns, Grand and Spice Bazaars, Topkapi Palace, Hammam (bath house), and a Bosphorous boat ride. The first three suggestions can be seen all in one day, the two Bazaars can be seen in a day, you will likely need a full day to view the Topkapi Palace (especially to include the Harem), and finally your boat tour day could be capped off by a relaxing hammam scrub down in the evening.

So how much is this all gonna cost you? And what about food? Before you run for the hills by the sight of my to-do list, remember two things: the Lira is slightly less than the dollar so you are instantly saving money, and two, Istanbul has a deep history. Spending time not only in the museums and historical sites, but wandering the streets and haggling with vendors may entice you to stay even longer, just as I did.

Undoubtedly, your most expensive adventure will be the Hammam. Many people may not be comfortable with the idea of a naked, full body scrub down, but, if you have the slightest inkling, I highly recommend it. Many hostels offer a Hammam deal, about 40 Lira (everything included). I declined and went for the special 300-year-old “1000 Places to See Before You Die” Hammam called Cagaloglu. The bathhouse was a stunning marble dome with hexagonal ceiling windows and Roman columns. I was treated like a queen; with a total bill around 80 Lira.

Other pricey adventures are the Topkapi Palace, Bosphorous boat ride, Aya Sofia, and Basilica Cisterns. Entrance fees fall between 5-15 Lira each. The Bazaars (and mosques) do not have entrance fees, but you may find yourself purchasing scarves and Turkish delight (absolutely delicious – beware of the nuts if you have allergies).

Although many of the museums have fixed prices, when it comes to a boat ride down the Bosphorous, prices become wide ranging as there are several different boat companies, many offer tours, but most act as a ferry system for locals. Use the ferry system if you can, it is much cheaper, and will allow you to see multiple ports within the Straight.

As for the other neighborhood of Taksim, it is good for a Saturday night adventure to the discos. Women should stick with at least one other person, preferably a man that she knows and trusts. It is not particularly dangerous, but Turkish men, especially the type that frequent the clubs, are flirtatious at minimum, aggressive at worst.

Some final tips for all you Istanbul-goers… dress more conservatively than you would at home. It can be painfully hot in the summers, so skirts and cropped pants are acceptable, but please never go out in anything above the knee, ladies you are just asking for trouble. Shoulders and arms should be covered as best possible. My backpack was delayed in Heathrow for 5 days and all I had was the tank top I arrived in. It wasn’t the best choice, but it worked fine. It is a cultural norm to be covered up, and so by showing your skin you are showing disrespect. I once saw a young woman try to get into the Blue Mosque in a tube dress and stilettos… she was turned away. Women should also bring or buy a scarf. If you plan on visiting any mosques, which you definitely should, you must be able to cover your hair entirely.

Finally, one traveling to Istanbul should do so with an open mind, as with anywhere you go. Turkish people are known for their generosity and hospitality, and they want to keep it that way. Most people who approach you on the street and offer help actually do want to help you, they are not looking for money. Street vendors and carpet dealers would love to talk your ear off, you should let them! You can learn a lot about family history and Turkish culture just by listening for a minutes.

30 March 2010

It's No Secret: Top 5 Reasons to go Backpacking

5. No Worries. So many friends of mine worry about traveling abroad for an extended backpacking trip. They worry about every detail, from language barriers to washing out their skivvies by hand. What I always wonder about worry is why people waste their time with it? You’ll never be able to predict what’s going to happen on your trip, and if you can, then why are you going? The best thing about travel is not knowing what’s around the next corner. Backpacking should be free form, loosely scheduled, and at a pace you’re comfortable with. If you’re worried about money, make sure you bring more than you think you will need, and No, your mom will not appreciate the “no smoking” shirt from Amsterdam, a photo will keep you on budget. No need to worry, our species was meant to adapt so the only worry you'll have is getting the best price on your plane ticket.

4. New Buds. You may opt to be an independent traveler, or you may be terrified of a lonely trip. Either way you are going to make friends, sometimes even when you think you don’t need to. Backpacking and hostelling allows travelers to be surrounded in a like-minded community wherever you go. Seeing a couple of tanned, Chaco-clad folks with a huge pack stacked well above their heads at the train station (you will be sporting a similar look) is an invitation to say hello. Friendships are a part of travel than not only enhance your trip, but also allows you to relive the good times when you reconnect with your comrades via Facebook upon your return. I have made friends in one city and met up with them later in a new town on the same trip. You’ll never drink alone when you’ve got your new gang of fellow hostel buddies to join the pub-crawl.

3. Affordability. Backpacking is cheap. A good attitude and a decent pair of shoes will make this trip possible with less than you imagine in your bank account. Sure, you will likely be spending the night with strangers (aka Friends, read #4) but a pair of earplugs and an eye mask and you’ll never even know they’re there. Even Europe can easily be seen on a shoestring with a rail pass and a love for gyros and coke. I stayed in a unique beachside hostel-camp in the Greek Islands for $12/night and shared the beach and the same sunset view with tourists paying ten times the price.

2. Cultural Insight. No matter what you are sure to experience a new culture, and the more keen your senses the more you will uncover. Even a stroll through a mid-week street market will let you in on cultural secrets ethnographers spend PhDs trying to describe. Often times backpacking can get you deeper than the surface, if you are willing to give it a try. Websites such as couchsurfing.org, hospitalityclub.org, and wwoof.org allow you the experience of living with locals, eating their food, and meeting their friends for a drink at their favorite pub where no tourist has ever gone before. Priceless.

1. Adventure. You never know whom you’ll meet or what you’ll run into on your own backpacking adventure. Everyone’s experience is unique. The most important step is the one you take to board the plane and set your trip in motion. The adventure will take you from there!

10 March 2010

Ever-Useful Google

Ah Google, your usefulness seems to be never-ending. Your email is outstanding, your search capabilities unmatched, and I must say, I use Maps more often than I should. One idle pastime of mine is creating maps of places I want to go, and where my friends want to go, viewing related photos, accommodations, and real estate.

My best friend Kiraney has always wanted to travel to Spain. After spending time studying Spanish in Mexico, and hearing of my travels in the country, she decided Spain was her next adventure. Not knowing where to start, and feeling extremely bogged down by work and rainy Portland weather, I decided to get the ball rolling and I created this Google Map of her potential trip, to get the juices of her imagination flowing...

View Kiraney Goes to Europe 2010 in a larger map

Each pinpoint has a brief description of what adventures she may have there, and where she's off to next. So if you're ever wishing for escape, or have a dear friend in need, might I suggest a fantasy map, to bring the journey to you, when you can't make the journey.

08 March 2010

Don't Leave Home Without This

Every guidebook in the world will lecture you on what to bring on your trip, right down to your skivvies. Well, I'm not going to even begin to repeat the list, sorry you'll just have to start from some other source. Everything "they" tell you to bring is great, bring it. Everything "they" tell you not to bring is not great, don't bring it. When they say you should bring only half of what you think you'll need, trust them, they are being serious. If your pack is hemorrhaging before you walk out the front door, something is wrong. Do not upgrade to a larger pack. Keep what you've got and work with the space you have. Seriously.

I am now going to simply emphasize a few items to make your life much, much more pleasant while on the road. Don't agree with me? Think my advice sucks? Check your Lonely Planet or Let's Go... item(s) in question will likely be there. That being said, if I went on a trip tomorrow and brought only my clothes, toiletries, and the following list, I'd be a happy camper.

In no particular order:

Eye mask and earplugs: Highly recommended for hostel-goers, the plane ride over, and light sleepers. You'll thank me in the morning.

Travel pillow, compact towel, and cocoon sleeping sack (not pictured): You may not need the pillow and sack every night, but when you do, you'll be more than happy to have allowed them extra space in your pack. The towel will receive daily use, and can be found 100% dry for next morning's shower if left hanging sufficiently.

Alarm clock and watch: I love to be completely oblivious of the time when I'm on vacation, but let's face it, I've still got a train to catch. Hostel beds often do not have night stands so I tuck the alarm under the edge of my pillow... this also reduces the noise for your hostel-mates. With cell phones these days, who needs a watch? Are you bringing a cell phone? Wanna reach in your bag each time you're curious about the time? Just wear it, its not that complicated.

Medications: Personally I don't bother with any vitamins or diarrhea meds. I always have pain reliever and Lactose pills. I'm lactose intolerant and these little beauties have saved my life, or the noses of people around me. I am forever indebted to them, and I bring them absolutely everywhere.

Shoes: Obviously the photo indicates summer travel, so if you're going any other time of year, use your own discretion, but be wise. Never bring a new and unbroken pair of shoes. Last thing you want is blisters. Whatever you'd walk the dog in is probably fine. These are my personal favorites, the Birkenstock and the Chaco. Classics. Why two? Because they wear differently, and my feet tire of one or the other after 8 hours wandering the streets. I know they are expensive, but consider this: the Chacos I bought for $7.00 at an REI used gear sale. I had to be up by 4am, but hey, I saved $90. The Birkenstocks last a lifetime and can be repaired if/when broken. The rubber flip flop is not a walking shoe, but rather a shower shoe. You must bring this regardless of all other shoe preferences... unless of course you like athlete's foot and a stranger's hair wrapped around your toes.

Camera: Duh. What I'm trying to advise is the functionality of your camera. See the little icon that looks like a video camera? Use it, it will bring much life home to friends and family who've never heard the call to a Muslim prayer or the beat of Brazilian drummers during Carnaval.

Journal and small notepad (not pictured): Self-explanatory, but extremely necessary. A journal for your deepest thoughts, or just what you did that day, a little time consuming, but well worth the effort. Remember your trip, the good, the bad, and the ugly. The notepad is handy for keeping with you to jot down details for your journal, or the names of your new travel buddies to friend request via Facebook later on.

Playing cards: Yes, my cards have a friendly-yet-creepy troll motif... great conversation piece ya know. Endless card possibilities including not only the obvious plane and train rides, but everyone's secret favorite drinking game, King's Cup, and it is known the world over, so don't be a wet blanket, join in!

Headlamp or other small torch-device: I like it because I can strap it to my head when I need my hands (carrying objects, fighting off mosquitoes, peeing in the woods). Its great for late night stumbles into the hostel, or reading a book in bed. Let there be light!

MP3 Player: No, I don't have an ipod, but what I've got is good enough. A great feature of most mp3 players that I use extensively is the AM/FM radio. It gives you a chance to hear the local favorites while on the train to the south of France. You might enjoy a soundtrack to a movie, but this little device provides the soundtrack to your travels.

Have more ideas? Please do not hesitate to add!

21 February 2010

Five Simple, No-Cost Travel Photography Enhancements

If you're like most people, you must be just like my dad. He loves his little Canon PowerShot I bought him last Christmas, and absolutely cherished its older, larger, and now retired cousin, also a Canon. He takes loads of photos, some purposeful, but most random, and never really leaves the house without his camera.

He is also the type of person to never second guess a shot, or edit shots once they have been taken. I don't blame him, because like many people, he believes that it doesn't have to be perfect, but it must capture the moment he desires to be captured, in whatever raw and/or unsightly form necessary.

I have had a lot of alone time with my camera... meaning I've spent weeks, months, and years with this thing, around the world and back, and have come to appreciate the simple things I can do to improve upon the mediocre. It's nothing special, a tiny Cannon Digital Elph, small enough to fit in my pocket, just the way I like it.

So here are a few of my simple, and non-professional tips that you might find yourself using next time you whip out the digital and "shutter" at the memory of last year's Christmas party photos...

1.Flash. The first thing I do when I switch on my camera is check that the flash is OFF. Unless I'm in a dark room in a pub, or its pitch black outside, flash will almost certainly ruin a great photo. Don't let the smarts of your camera's brain fool you, you'll get a better shot with a steady hand and no flash:

2. Angle. The angle of your shot can do wonders to enhance your photo. For example, you see an object, such as a person, or the Eiffel Tower, to snap.Instead of centering the shot, and capturing it straight-on, eye-level, try moving the object to one or the other side of the frame, maybe you could crouch down and get the shot looking up at your subject:

3. Time of Day: Lighting plays such a huge roll in the quality of your photographs. The middle of the day is generally the worst time to snap your shots because of the high light intensity, which is a bummer because it's probably the most likely time you'll be out and about while traveling. In the later part of the afternoon, the sun's rays dim down, and colors in your shots will appear more vivid versus the midday, when colors can get washed out. Photographers often call the afternoon light "sweet light". If it's nearly impossible to avoid taking midday photos, I suggest you continue snapping away, but if you can come back later in the evening, plan to retake a few of your favorite shots again, and you may just have some better photos to choose from:

4. Background: Although you don't always have a choice when it comes to your background, you can try to use what you have to your advantage. For example, step back from your subject and notice what's going on around it. Maybe you can snap it from a different angle, or maybe include more sky than ground in your shot. Always remember that your frame is larger than just the subject you are capturing.

5. Experiment: Do not be afraid to try something weird if you are not getting the photo you desire. For example, below you will see the same two images of the "famous" sunset in the town of Oia, on Santorini island in Greece. I was seeing the image on the right, a beautiful purple sunset, when my friend commented that the experience was not what she had hoped... then I realized it was my sunglasses that were creating such beauty. I simply removed the shades and photographed the sunset through my purple lens.

27 January 2010

Ever Dream of Expatriating Yourself?

If you're anything like the average travel junkie, you often dream of living abroad. Or maybe you have lived abroad, or currently are. Good, you'll love this show. It's nothing new, to the world or to me, but I realized my network of nomad buddies have never heard of this program before... how could this be? Perhaps because it's not on Travel Channel or PBS? It's actually broadcast on the Home and Garden network.

House Hunters International is the perfect quench to your expatriating thirst. How much for a flat in Prague? A villa in Bali? Perhaps a studio in the quatrieme arrondissement in Paris? Moving to Morocco? The show features a home buyer, many of which are not Americans who are moving within their own country or purchasing vacation homes, and three of their best options for home-ownership.

With each home tour, the show features points about the town or region in which the home is located. Often in obscure locations not featured in travel guides (fancy a country home in Slovakia lacking modern amenities including plumbing?). It also gives square footage (and meters!), price in USD along with a detailed home tour. Did you ever imagine yourself living in downtown Berlin for under $100k? The possibilities are nearly endless... I'm gettin' all excited just talking about it!

The show has loads of reruns so tune in often, or set your DVR for an escape to Brazil just before dinner, or maybe a French countryside fantasy with breakfast. Who knows, maybe one day you'll be seen on HGTV, touring your first flat in London. Cheers!

21 January 2010

Making a Personal Impact In Haiti

With the earthquake aftermath in Haiti just over a week old, and the news of massive aftershocks still coming in, many Americans, and for that matter, people all over the world are wondering how they can act, and make sure their contributions are effective. I understand how the world is feeling. In my generation (I am 25) I have seen some of the most horrific natural disasters decimate human life and infrastructure in what seems are poor and already in-need areas of the world.

Since I was in high school, three major natural disasters (Katrina, Asian Tsunami, and now the earthquake in Haiti) and the terrorist attacks on 9/11 have occurred. For my generation, this is the world that is shaping us, the world we are inheriting for our future. Personally, I want to help. Not only now, but I was desperate to help when the waters rose in Sri Lanka and New Orleans, and when buildings came crashing down, rubble and dust filling the streets of New York. I donated as much money a college student can spare, but still wish there was something more I could actually do.

I have been listening incessantly to NPR, trying to take it all in, somehow comprehending the tragedies people are facing there. Last week 60 Minutes reported from Haiti showing images of bloated dead bodies being scooped up by heavy machinery and dumped into mass graves. I understand the serious health concerns here, but these are people who's bodies were laid to rest by a massive dumping by machines, void of all human contact and compassion.

For all the media coverage, there is a part of me which feels that conventional media is simply not making the correct impact. From all the interviews conducted, I am only hearing the voices of American doctors or the Haitian radio employees. I wish there was someone fearless and compassionate enough to speak with the people. To listen to them and take their photograph and try and understand. Not just to look and observe but perhaps lend a shoulder. I wish there was more I could do in Haiti or any disaster, natural or otherwise to help the people on a personal level. Part of me wants to grab my camera and get down there, but how is that possible? Will that do any good whatsoever? Is it wrong to feel that just giving money is not actually the same as giving hope?