Quality of Life

Backpacks

Backpacking Basics for Expats

Posted by | Live Like a Local, Quality of Life, Traveling Tips | 6 Comments

Before I get started, let me preface this article with the following statement: there is a difference between long-distance trekking and backpacking for expats. This is not a camping/trekking article. While you need certain things for long-term trekking and camping (bedroll, sleeping bag, mosquito repellent, water bottle for example), when it comes to general backpacking as well as moving around place to place and actually living out of your backpack, it all comes down to one simple rule: less is more.

If you haven’t read 30 Ways in 30 Days, there’s a section in the eBook on Traveling Light (which is also an associated blog post for Day Four) where I cover some of the basics behind my personal recommendations for “backpacking essentials”, as well as where I drew my own inspiration. I’m a big fan of keeping non-essentials to a minimum and traveling as light as possible, and I’ve refined it down over the years to the point where I can reliably live out of a 35 liter pack…and yet still travel with a surprising amount of “things”.

Backpacking advice listed by places such as REI is meant for absolute newbies who have no idea what they are doing; this is high-quality copywriting at its finest. It’s written with a specific “incite to buy” motive behind it. The advice offered is absolutely not based in reality, and no full time traveler that I know would ever recommend such an absolutely ridiculous level of assortments + size of pack. They have one goal in mind, and that’s to get you to buy all the little extras that go along with the backpack, thus racking up a profit. Real backpackers will tell you the exact opposite: less is more.

That’s because those of us who have been on the road professionally know that there are numerous downsides to traveling with a heavy pack, not the least of which is the sheer discomfort of lugging around tens of kilos’ worth of useless gear and accessories. Instead, you should refine your list down to the bare essentials and then work your way up from there.

Me in Bogota, ColombiaThe picture here on the right is me with some friends in Bogota, Colombia. I’ve got my pack strapped on and you can’t even see it. That’s how awesome this size of bag is. I’ve got all my living essentials in there, but it’s virtually non-existent in terms of weight and size. I can hike all day and never feel it.

I’ve been on the road for going on five years  now. I have a 35 liter pack that I live out of, plus a normal backpack for day trips and my laptop bag. When I arrive in a destination I am unencumbered, I can move quickly when needed, I can keep my pack with me when I get on a bus or into a cab without having to worry about taking up enough space for a human being, and most important, it’s not something that bogs me down and has me moving like an overweight yeti trying to lumber my way through a crowd while pouring sweat and lugging 50+ kilos worth of gear.

My pack includes:

  • Three t-shirts
  • Two pairs shorts
  • Two pairs lightweight cargo pants
  • Six pairs of socks
  • Four pairs of boxers
  • Extendable pullup bar for my workouts
  • One pair resistance bands for my workouts
  • Two-part handheld blender + container
  • One sweater
  • Nike workout/jogging shoes
  • Workout shorts/shirt

And that’s it. I don’t travel from place to place with a towel (I used to, but eliminated it from my list), because it’s extra weight and I can pick one up in any city in the world for a few dollars. I don’t need lots of clothing because I like to blend in when I’m on the ground living as an expat, so I pick up local clothing when I arrive, if I need any (I had to buy an extra sweater and scarf while I was in Bogota, for example, which didn’t come back to Cancun with me). I rarely travel with creams, lotions, soap, shampoos and conditioners since I can pick those up locally, I don’t travel with shaving cream or gel since I can pick those up locally, and I’m a big fan of two dollar flip flops that I can pick up in any city in the world, so I don’t have to worry about space for shoes since I always travel with my multi-purpose hiking shoes (currently a pair of North Face that work in the city as well as countryside) and then pick up flip-flops when I get on the ground for daily walking/markets/shopping/daily life.

I can easily jog with my 35 liter pack, even when it’s fully packed. The only somewhat sluggish piece of equipment I have is my laptop bag, but that only bothers me when I’m moving from one apartment to the next, so usually only to/from the airports. I do long-term immersion travel as an expat, so I’m usually in a place for several months at a minimum, which means I have a local apartment where I store all of my things and set up a base of operations, and then I can just use my day pack for any outings I make while I’m on the ground exploring the local area.

There’s a variety of reasons I like to keep things to a minimum. First, it’s light, and I can move quickly when needed, such as to catch a bus or taxi. Secondly, I don’t have to stow my gear in the trunk of a cab, which is one of the crucial mistakes many people make when arriving in a new destination. You get there, stow your gear, arrive at the destination and find out that the cabbie wants ten times the fare he quoted when you were at the airport/bus station…and he’s got all your gear in his trunk. Instead, my gear goes into the back seat with me…or on my lap when I’m on a bus, or strapped to my back if I’m standing on a subway. Since it’s a mere 35 liters, it’s not taking up a huge amount of space like an 80 liter pack that is easily as large as another human being strapped onto your back and makes it impossible to maneuver on a crowded bus/tram/metro/train.

If I got rid of the laptop and went with a tablet I could ditch the laptop bag as well, but I still write full time and I haven’t found myself comfortable enough to only work with a tablet. However, I see the day coming when I won’t need to use my laptop anymore, and around the time this one dies I’ll probably be to the point where I won’t even need the laptop anymore and can do everything out of my 35 liter pack.

My BackpackI use the Groden 35 Liter from Deuter; I’ve got the model from a few years back, which is grey and black. This is one tough pack, plus it’s super comfortable, I love the back mesh (I’m a sweater), the straps are comfy, it’s got plenty of pockets, its own rain cover and for the money it was a solid investment, in my opinion. I’ve also never needed more than that, although the few times I travel with a towel (a rarity; usually only happens on weekend trips so I have one for hostel-outings), I’ve had the thing maxed out in terms of space, but still never wanted for anything extra as all my essentials were there.

Some of my favorite reasons for traveling with a 35 liter versus something larger:

  • You will need to walk with your pack on freely, sometimes across town or from hotel to hotel and it’s often very hot. When you do take transport, you can swing a small bag over your front and jump in a taxi/rickshaw with ease, quickly and without having to separate yourself from it. In addition, leaving your pack in lockers can be a problem if it is huge. Not the case with smaller bags
  • When you do get on little buses that stop at the side of the road – the most common way of getting around in many countries – they are normally crowded and have no luggage holds so while you get on and off you whack everyone in the face with your pack as you go past and sometimes need to buy a seat for your bag. All of these problems are eliminated with a smaller bag.
  • Your bag is your life. The smaller it is the less it sticks outs and the less vulnerable you are.
  • The smaller the bag, the more mobile you are. I’m a big fan of mobility.

These are just a handful of reasons why less is more.

At the end of the day it’s entirely up to you as to what size of a backpack you feel comfortable with traveling, but the first piece of advice I can give anyone is to never trust the big-name companies as to what types of packs they recommend. The aforementioned blog post and associated links are a good place to start (there’s a whole section in the 30 Ways in 30 Days eBook on traveling light as well), and you can always look to other full-timers and immersion travel experts for targeted advice from people who actually live out of their packs. You’ll quickly find that there are very few professional travelers who recommend anything larger than a 40 liter pack, and almost no one who recommends a backpack over 60 liters unless you are camping.

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Language Immersion

The Importance of Language Immersion For Expats

Posted by | culture, language, Live Like a Local, Quality of Life, Traveling Tips | 11 Comments

While learning the language of your host country crosses the mind of most expats at least once during their time on the ground, many foreigners continue to “opt out” because of a variety of factors. Maybe they feel uncomfortable challenging themselves with something new and don’t want to go outside of their comfort zone. Perhaps they work in an English-speaking environment so they think they don’t “need” the language skills. You can shop at the supermarket in English by merely putting things in a cart and then reading the numbers off when the cashier rings them up, so many people think language isn’t a necessity in that regard. You can also point to the picture on the menu when you aren’t sure of what something is called in the local dialect. Not to mention, when all of your friends speak English, or your community and/or work environment is an expat community of English speakers, it tends to lead to insulation where you are living in an isolated bubble of expats who never really blend into the native environment.

There are a hundred excuses that one can create as to why you aren’t learning the language, but what many people don’t realize is that learning a language is about more than simply fitting into your new home. And it’s more than just respecting the local culture. Immersion in a language is, according to Michael Byram and Carol Morgan in their book Teaching and Learning Language and Culture, a way to get in touch with the social side of a culture. In regards to this social instrument, “the feelings…and motivations of learners in relation to the target language…, to the speakers of the language, and to the culture…, affects how learners respond to the input to which they are exposed.”

In other words, through language immersion you are also experiencing cultural immersion, which makes it impossible to ignore the culture of the language you are learning. You will begin to go native simply by immersing yourself in the environment, which transforms you from just another foreigner who has no respect for the locals into a native-speaking resident who the locals respect, feel comfortable around, can joke with, and who understands the native sense of humor and cultural values by the very nature of their immersion. You become more than just another expat; you become a resident who understand the local culture and why things are done the way they are, how the sense of humor works, why certain cultural values are observed and so on and so forth.

But language and cultural immersion is more than just learning another language and culture. According to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages along with Learn NC, individuals (especially children) who immerse themselves completely in learning a language experience a number of beneficial side effects, not the least of which are increased cognitive abilities, increased intellectual growth, a better understanding of local culture, enhanced flexibility in mental exercises, increased memory, creative, greater levels of divergent thinking and higher order thinking and reasoning skills. And once you’ve learned a second language it’s even easier to learn a third because you have the enhanced capabilities from the first time around, and the fourth time is easier than the second, etc.

The brain is like a muscle in the sense that it always has the potential to learn and adapt, and the same thing that is true for muscles is true for the brain: use it or lose it. If you are continually challenging it with new things to learn and overcome, it will always adapt, leading to stronger cognitive function. The ability of the brain to continually produce new cells even in adulthood means that you can continually adapt and overcome, and there is no such thing as “you can’t teach a dog new tricks”. Given our brain’s nearly limitless capabilities combined with the fact that you can stave off cognitive degeneration while building up your own mental prowess simply by learning another language, all of those excuses as to why you haven’t picked up the local dialect fade away into the background. If you won’t learn the language out of respect to the culture, at the very least do it for your own health and wellness.

These benefits are for adults as well as children. For adults it means increased chances at job opportunities on a global scale because you can communicate in more than one way and you have increased mental capabilities compared to your peers. For children it means the same increased opportunities later in life, but earlier on it means the potential for expanding the mind at those crucial years when the mind is open to greatest amount of absorption. For example, Dr. Harry Chugani from the University of California in Los Angeles stated in Reshaping Brain for Better Future that the most receptive time in a person’s life is between the ages of 10 and 12, when the mind can absorb things at a greater rate than after it has had time to stagnate as an adult with only one singular language.

Contrary to popular belief, the English language is not the most spoken language on the planet. Mandarin has over a billion native speakers, while English only has around 500 million, roughly the same as Hindu. Spanish is around 400 million, and Russian and Arabic are both in between the 250 and 300 million mark. From there it drops off.

And while in the past it used to be the case that English was the most spoken language in the business world, this is no longer the case. As the U.S. star continues to fade, other countries are emerging as leaders of the 21st century. Graduates and skilled workers are no longer looking for job opportunities on U.S. soil Instead, they are looking abroad to emerging markets in India, China, Brazil, Chile, Colombia and beyond. This is especially true if you happen to work in an IT field or as an SEO specialist.

The English language has had a good run and about two decades of a head start on everyone else in regards to the Internet, but as more and more countries around the world catch up in the online arenas, website development, SEO management and other online-related business opportunities are cropping up…in Mandarin, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Arabic, Hindu, German, French and beyond. The online  marketplace has been saturated with English-language content and now it is the other languages which are emerging as global leaders in the online revolution.

Learning more than one language isn’t just about cultural immersion…it’s also about ensuring your ability to remain relevant in your chosen field. While jobs might be scarce in the English-speaking sector for web development and design and SEO jobs, the Spanish language market (for example) is booming as South American markets are emerging at a breakneck pace…and their businesses and websites are not in English. If you want to find the best opportunities on a global scale, you have to keep your skills on par with the change of the markets.

With globalization comes a responsibility to remain globally aware and globally competitive. And that means speaking more than just English if you want to stay on top. The most successful entrepreneurs of the modern era are not merely relegated to English-speaking markets; they have their fingers in multiple pies in multiple different markets across multiple countries with multiple languages. And as the global market continues to diversify, the ante is continually being upped as more and more language requirements become par for the course.

This post originally appeared at The Social Expat earlier in 2012 in a shortened form. It has been expanded for the Marginal Boundaries audience.

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Beyond the Hotel Zone of Cancun

Cancun, Mexico – Beyond The Hotel Zone

Posted by | Live Like a Local, Mexico, Quality of Life, Traveling Tips | 17 Comments

Cancun, Mexico. To the vast majority of U.S. travelers, it is a tropical paradise more well-known than Cabo or Mazatlan or even Puerto Vallerta. Movie stars, Spring Break parties, MTV’s Real World, close proximity to Tulum, the surrounding Maya ruins, beach clubs, turquoise waters and white sandy beaches stretching as far as the eye can see coupled with more 5-star resorts than Las Vegas, Nevada make this one of the ultimate all-inclusive beach destinations on the planet. And Mexico promotes it as such, with the vast majority of its tourist income coming from this singular city. Read More

Chalga Girls in Bulgaria

Chalga – The Seedy Underbelly of Bulgaria

Posted by | Bulgaria, Live Like a Local, Quality of Life, Traveling Tips | 5 Comments

90% softcore porn and 10% musical talent, chalga pop/folk music is empirical evidence that sex sells. Lyrically nonsensical, it is the answer to Bulgaria’s non-existent porn industry (while prostitution is completely legal in Bulgaria, pornography is not, which is why you don’t see any Bulgarian porn stars), and if you spend any time in this Balkan country than chances are you will be out with your local friends at least a couple of times a week in one of the many chalga clubs that can be found on almost every street corner in all the major cities throughout Bulgaria.

Chalga (or Чалга in Bulgarian), is the most popular form of music in Bulgaria. At it’s very core it’s nothing more than bump-and-grind clubbing music. And while salsa clubs dot the landscape across Colombia in every city you visit, chalga clubs in Bulgaria are the same way; you can’t walk more than a city block or two without running into some form of a club that is either showing the music videos on large-screen TVs or has a stage where there are nightly performances by the pop queens (and kings) of Bulgaria.

The underground culture in Bulgaria revolves around a certain social responsibility by both sexes which is played out in the music videos and chalga clubs. Men are expected to have shaved heads, bulky arms, massive chests and wear plenty of gold jewelry with unbuttoned shirts and slick, modern suits. Known as “mutra”, or “mutri” for plural, they are gangsters/mafiosos in the modern sense of the word, many of them with ties to organized crime (which still exists in Bulgaria, but for the most part will never affect the average expat or traveler, as they are only interested in politics and multi-million dollar real-estate deals and investments), although many of them simply dress that way as it’s part of the culture and it’s expected (the wannabe gangsters who just dress that way to get girls). They are the core of the male population that frequents the chalga clubs and the reason the clubs exist in the first place.

Women, on the other hand, have the same social responsibility in the club setting they have in most other parts of the world: look sexy. The men in Bulgaria like their women looking like they are ready for a three-way in a porno movie any time they leave the house. Nowhere is this more evident than in the chalga culture that makes up the underbelly of Bulgarian society. And, for the most part, it’s a tried-and-true system that’s been going on for countless millenia. After all, sex sells, and if you got it, flaunt it. How else is a girl going to get free drinks, paid-for vacations and plush, 5-star accommodations around the world with a rich man, and what better way for a well-endowed (financially) man to find amiable companionship?

Where the Latinos love their salsa and their tango, Bulgarians love their chalga. But it’s certainly not the lyrics that bring people into the chalga clubs, considering most of the them are complete nonsense and revolve around drunk people dancing around shouting “opa!” at the top of their lungs or “oi oi oi oi” or things like “take off your sailor’s shirt and I’ll show you my blue thong” or “wet blowjob” repeated over and over. It all comes down to a pound of flesh. Sex sells, and women with massive tits dancing around in skimpy clothing makes for an entertaining social outing…not to mention ample amounts (pun intended) of eye candy that brings cash-flush mutri who are eager to spend their money on plenty of T&A. It’s strip-club basics 101, and in a country where porn is illegal this is as close as the vast majority of people can get.

But it’s not just straight men that chalga targets. Although not as popular as the female variety, there are also several male performers. The most famous of these is Azis, a gypsy who transformed himself into one of the top performers in Bulgaria. He is very openly gay, and you can’t walk more than a few city blocks in Sofia without seeing a billboard with him in one of his various states of undress…usually surrounded by plenty of half-naked, well-built men. So to say that chalga is sexist and somehow mistreats or targets women would be a farce; chalga is about one thing, and one thing only: making money. Man or woman, it doesn’t matter. Sex sells. Period. There’s no exploitation of women going on here. It’s all about the cash, and both sexes are manipulating the basic, carnal nature of humanity to their advantage.

A more international and mainstream variant that audiences might be popular with is Inna, a Romanian pop princess who is currently enjoying international appeal (she was just here in Cancun a couple of months back) in clubs around the world. While her lyrics are far more mainstream than the typical nonsensical chalga tunes of the Balkan region, the style of music is still the same and it just goes to show you that even though chalga-style music might be more prevalent in Eastern Europe, it has a global appeal in the form of scantily-clad women prancing around on stage or in a video. It’s an age-old formula that has worked for centuries; from the ancient days of Pompei when penis symbols and naked women were carved into the street stones to mark the way to the nearest whorehouse, to the modern era of YouTube, sex sells.

If you plan on spending any time in Bulgaria or Eastern Europe you will become intimately familiar with the chalga scene if you opt for the immersion travel route. Sure, you can play the tourist and only visit the touristy places such as the Rhodope Mountains or the Black Sea coastal resorts, but if you want to get to the core of who Bulgarians really are and really live like a local…you’ll be spending plenty of time with your Bulgarian friends in one of the many chalga clubs that are spread out across the country through all the major cities.


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With over 1,500 copies sold, our flagship 568-page eBook is what started it all. Learn how to travel the world like I do: without a budget, with no plans, funded completely by your website and online ventures.

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Isla Mujeres, Mexico

Modern Mexico: The Real Story

Posted by | Live Like a Local, Mexico, Quality of Life, Traveling Tips | 12 Comments

If you turn on the news from anywhere in the United States you’ll only ever hear one story about Mexico: that it’s a dangerous place full of thieving Mexicans, dangerous criminals, bloodthirsty cartels and random acts of violence. You’ll only ever see Mexico mentioned when it’s in relation to some horrific cartel-on-cartel battle.

I am constantly fielding emails from people asking me about the violence in Mexico. Is it safe? Can I bring my family there? Am I going to be kidnapped? Are the cartels going to kill me?

Washington D.C. has a 31.4 in 100,000 murder rate as of 2010. That means 31.4 people in 100,000 are dying from a violent crime or murder. Cancun, Mexico, on the other hand, only has a 2 in 100,000 rate. Mexico City is a 9, which is exactly the same as New York City. On the international scale that governments use to define “dangerous”, the vast majority of Mexican cities and the country as a whole are as safe (if not safer than) the United States.

Ciudad de Juarez, the center of the cartel action, had a rate of 250 in 100,000 as of 2010. Juarez is without a doubt a dangerous place. It is one city.

Washington D.C. is without a doubt a dangerous place when compared to others. It is one city.

Neither of these cities define the rest of their respective countries.

Just because Washington D.C. has a high murder rate doesn’t make the rest of the United States a dangerous place to live or travel. And just because Juarez and the surrounding area has a high murder rate doesn’t make the rest of Mexico a dangerous place to live or travel.

The modern Mexico is a country that is slowly gaining traction and moving into the developed world. The economy is getting better, although the wages still aren’t what they could be. Thankfully, the Internet has allowed many educated Mexicans the opportunity to find work online via both English and Spanish channels, and that freedom and extra money is starting to be seen as young adults and professionals are beginning to fill the general population.

There is high speed Internet in every corner of the country. Massive plazas dot the landscape throughout all the major cities. Every major international car dealership is here. There are numerous international chain stores and restaurants. You can buy an iPad or computer anywhere. And just as there are back-wood valleys and places where rednecks and hillbillies live in places like Arkansas and South Carolina in the United States, there are plenty of undeveloped sections of the country where the Mexican equivalent lives. Simply, and without much in the way of modern amenities.

The modern Mexico is a country of great opportunity for the expat. The cost of living is extremely low, yet you can have every modern creature comfort you want, in every city. You can go from living in the mountains in places like San Cristobal or Oaxaca, or you can live on the beach in a place like Playa del Carmen or Mazitlan. Mexico City is the exact same as New York City in terms of crime rates, size, global banking opportunities, international corporation headquarters, universities, living conditions and beyond…but it only costs $12,000 to $15,000 a year to live a comfortable middle-class lifestyle compared to the $50,000 a year you need to live in NYC.

Modern Mexico is not a place to be feared. The chances of you having something happen to you are the same as they would be living and traveling around the United States. People fire guns all the time in L.A. Gangs exist. Just as they do in NYC. And Mexico City. You could point your finger at any given city or country and find something that’s “not safe” about it. The key is knowing how much is propaganda and how much is actual truth.

Mazatlan

The unfortunate reality is that most Americans have grown up thinking of Mexicans in only one light: they are the garbage-truck drivers, the landscapers and yard workers, the street cleaners, janitors, farm hands and maids of the United States. They do all the jobs that the white, entitled U.S. citizens don’t want to do for themselves because “the pay isn’t enough” or because it’s a low-skill, manual labor job. The news in the United States only ever talks about Mexicans as they are involved in violent crime or cartels and drugs. As a result, the average U.S. citizen thinks that Mexico is a den of thieves, a country of starving natives who are willing to do anything for a dollar, who are born-and-bred criminals and manual laborers. They don’t know any better because they’ve been raised on a drip-feed of just how dangerous South of the Border is. It’s ignorance by simple lack of education, no different than a starving child in Africa who’s never learned how to do simple mathematics.

Yes, Jaurez and the areas north where the cartels are warring is certainly dangerous, but not because you will be singled out. It’s cartel-on-cartel violence, and the only risk would be ending up as collateral damage if you were in the wrong place at the wrong time. But for the ordinary, average expat choosing to head to Mazatlan for a year to live with the wife and kids or for the modern poet looking to hole up in a mountain retreat in Chiapas for six months to get some writing done…Mexico is an absolutely safe and modern place to live, with everything you could ever need with a cost of living that’s very appealing and a friendly, passionate people who are full of the Latin zest for life and fiestas.

Plus, let’s face it…everyone loves mota, tequila, tacos, quesadillas, arrachera and ceviche :)

Don’t forget to sign up for our free newsletter for several-times-a-week, your-eyes-only travel and entrepreneur tips, plus receive a complimentary copy of our 85-page starter book on location independence and living abroad, 30 Ways in 30 Days.

With over 1,500 copies sold, our flagship 568-page eBook is what started it all. Learn how to travel the world like I do: without a budget, with no plans, funded completely by your website and online ventures.

The Expat GuidebookGet Your Copy Today!

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Beyond Borders - The Social RevolutionGet Your Copy Today!