Wednesday, June 22, 2011

How to Overcome: Homesickness

Prompted by recent events, I thought I would do a little post on homesickness.  Others might call it culture shock.  Use what term you like.

Once you move abroad most people experience a 2 week- 1 month high.  This is where you're excited to be somewhere new.  Everything is different and cool.  You're learning new things, and you're still in "vacation" mode.  After this you start to feel down.  These once cool, new things are now annoying and frustrating.  Instead of being wowed by differences, you wonder why things can't be more "normal", like where you're from.  You stop learning the language as quickly as before, you get frustrated you can't express yourself.  If you make it through this middle stage, you end up on the other side feeling accomplished and like a new person.  Making it through the funk is a hard part though.

Here's some ways to make it:

STAY POSITIVE- Yeah so things might not be looking so great right now.  But what you need to do is stay positive.  Remember the reasons you left.  Remember how excited you were.  Stop thinking about how much better your home country does such-and-such.  Find something to be happy about every day, and focus on that.

FIND NEW THINGS TO LOVE- Okay so maybe in your home country it is sooooo much easier to get around, but in your new home maybe there's a fantastic bakery.  Or a really great bar.  Or a beautiful beach.  Whatever it is that you really enjoy about your new location.  Find those things, and concentrate on them.

DON'T MAKE COMPARISONS-  So kind of this one and the ones above it all go hand-in-hand.  Don't sit around and compare your new home with your old home.  It's okay to appreciate differences, but you shouldn't constantly be comparing the two.  Don't try to decide which country is "better".  Both places are different and great in their own ways.  Learn to appreciate new things in your new country, and things you might have taken for granted in your old home.

STAY BUSY-  As soon as you start sitting around all day and reading your friend's facebook updates, you'll get more and more homesick.  Where if you are constantly running around busy with things you're less likely to think about missing home.  You should have something to do, be it work, volunteering, clubs, exercise, anything!

SMALL STEPS-  If you are in a country with a different language, it could be very difficult to adjust.  At first you'll learn a whole lot.  You'll go to bed and your head will hurt because you've been thinking so hard just to ask for a plate of food.  Then it starts to slow down.  You realize you're not as good as the locals, and get frustrated that you can't speak in your native tongue.  Then you might get to a point where you're "fluent" but not enough to express yourself exactly the way you want to (sort of how I am right now in Spanish).  During all of your language learning you should celebrate small accomplishments.  Maybe this time you remembered to use "por" instead of "para" when saying thanks for dinner.  Maybe you can finally understand the guy that works at your favorite restaurant.  Learning a language is a long process and if you don't pat yourself on the back every once in a while it can be quite daunting.

So there's just a few tips to help you assimilate to your new country!  Good luck!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Roller Coaster POV

Just found these great point of view (POV) videos of the coasters in Cedar Point.  Check them out!  Just add in screams of joy to each one and you have an idea of what they're like.  Of course it's much more intense and crazy in real life.  Go on one yourself!!!

Top Thrill Dragster

Millennium Force

Maverick (my new favorite)

Mean Streak (see all the bouncing the camera does? Your head does it too... ouch!)

And here's a few more I didn't mention but are great all the same!

The Raptor, one of Oscar's favorite rides

The Magnum XL-200, was one of the best back in the 80s/90s.  And though it no longer breaks any records, it still rocks my world!

The Wicked Twister, a unique coaster that I personally think is MUCH better in the very back seat.  (Though I think that about most coasters)

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Best Steel Roller Coaster in the World

I just got back from a great few days in Cedar Point!  We left on Wednesday morning when Adrienne and Kevin came and picked us up in Greensboro.  Then we had a 9 hour drive up to Sandusky, Ohio where Cedar Point is.  Luckily, I had secured a couchsurfer for the 4 of us for both the nights we were planning on staying.  I also managed to talk Adrienne out of going to Hershey, PA, since no one really wanted to go.  We got to our host's house, went to eat, and slept right away.

Already worn out the first night at the couch surfer's house.

The next morning we woke up bright and early to leave for Cedar Point, which was a short 10 minute drive away.  Oscar and I immediately went over to get a wheelchair which cost $25, $10 of which was a deposit.  After a little frustration in trying to figure out how to get a cripple like me to the coasters (wheelchairs DON'T just jump to the front like I originally thought), we finally got on the Raptor and our day of roller coaster-ing began.

Oscar pushing me in the wheelchair as we wait for a ride to reopen after a downpour of rain.

The lines were pretty short so we rode a ton of rides.  We got on the Top Thrill Dragster after a short 45 minute wait.  The wait time is usually 2+ hours so we were real siked.  Afterwards we headed for the Mean Streak, a wooden coaster that bumps around so bad I always swear I'll never go on again... yet like an Alzheimer's patient I found myself getting knocked around again this year.  Another great coaster, the Millennium Force, we got to ride twice, once with the line only taking a mere 15 minutes!  The Millennium won the award for the "Best Steel Coaster in the World".  My new favorite ride was a new one in 2009, the Maverick.  It's a launch ride (meaning it uses magnets and shoots you really fast along the track) that has a ton of flips, turns, and corkscrews.  I was truly impressed with that one.

Oscar and the Maverick, my new favorite ride!!

The Millennium, a 400 ft drop followed by a long smooth ride.

The Mean Streak, why oh why do I always get on it??!!

Top Thrill Dragster, 0-120mph in 4 seconds, followed by a 400 ft hill at 90 degrees.  Pretty intense shit.

We had a two day pass and after a full day in the sun we were exhausted as we headed to eat a quick dinner before passing out in the house again.  The second day was quicker, we left around 2pm after hitting a fun water ride and eating some frozen custard.

Adrienne and Kevin are exhausted.

After the water ride!

Leaving at the end of the day.

My Aunt Terri lives in Dublin, OH and decided to give up her house to me and my 7 friends for the night.  She took out her chameleon, Cthulhu, for us to see then bought us pizza and beer.  The next morning she made us pancakes and eggs (what a good Auntie!!!!!!!!!!!!)

Oscar and Cthulhu hanging out.

So we arrived in Greensboro a few hours ago and then went out to my favorite Mexican restaurant, Kiosko.  After gorging on totopos (Mexican slang for chips and salsa), we came home to talk about what a great time we had in Ohio.

Adrienne loves the salsa at Kioskos.  Definitely the best Mexican place I've ever been to.

Below are what I call "roller coaster portraits".  I told my friends to show me their roller coaster face.  I think they turned out pretty funny.=)









Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Butterfinger Ramblings

Really.  My fingers smell like butter.  I just put a peach cobbler in the oven that has some serious butter in it.  Yummmmm....

So school is finally over for me.  Today was the last day I had to go in.  It was a bittersweet day.  Well, mostly sweet to be honest.  I'll miss my fellow science teachers, and a few other folk.  But man I'm glad to not have to work anymore!  I was talking with another teacher who is moving to England to get her masters.  We talked about how we were too young to work full time.  It was nice to meet someone who thought like me.  I also found out that there is a teacher who worked at my school who is also moving to Costa Rica!  Go figure!

Now I am attempting to prepare for all these trips I have coming up.  I love traveling, but it's actually a little daunting for me this time.  My trips are: June 15-June19: Cedar Point/Hershey, PA; June 24-July5: California; July 15-July 31: DC, NYC, Upstate NY; August 9: Leave the country!  When in the world am I going to pack and move out of my apartment??

With that move on the horizon, I'm trying to get rid of all this stuff I have acquired over the year.  I just donated about 1/2 of my clothes, shoes, purses, etc. to a family that just immigrated from Africa.  I'm giving my car away to the El Salvadorian janitor at my school (yes, giving away.  I need some good karma...)  It seems like a kid on my mom's swim team wants all my pots, pans and dishes.  My friend wants my couch.  My mom wants my bed.  So I seem to have a good amount pawned off.

So me, Oscar, and my friends Adrienne and Kevin are all heading up to Ohio tomorrow.  I got a couch to surf thanks to my cousin Liz hooking us up.  Which is awesome since hotels there are stupid expensive.  I also called about a wheelchair at Cedar Point.  They're on a first come first serve basis, so we gotta get there early.  Oscar has agreed to push me around all day =)

Well I suppose that's enough rambling for now.  Gotta go check on that delicious smelling cobbler!!!!!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Safety while Foreign

So I currently have a lot of free time at work since I'm just administering EOCs (End of Course tests) and then sitting around for over an hour while we wait for lunch.  It gives me a lot of time to... well stare into the computer screen while the kids watch the Jamie Foxx Show.  So here's a safety post I promised.

Although I haven't done an extensive amount of traveling, I feel that I qualify as an experienced traveler.  Throughout all my travels I have yet to have any problems as far as safety is concerned.  I've traveled solo before.  And I've even done some questionable things.  There's a few very simple rules to remember while traveling to make your stay as pleasant as possible.

TRY TO BLEND IN.  Obviously you won't look exactly like the locals.  In some places no matter what you do, you'll still stick out like a sore thumb.  But if you don't see anyone wearing shorts, don't wear shorts.  If you see everyone wearing their backpack on their stomach, wear your backpack on your stomach.  It's also important to consider the culture of the area.  If you are in an area that has conservative ideals for women, you shouldn't strut your stuff in booty shorts and a halter top.   Honestly, for a woman it's best to dress conservatively no matter where you are.  Especially if traveling solo.  Notice what the locals wear, what the locals do, where the locals go, and where they avoid.  Try to do the same.

Can you spot the gringa??

DON'T LOOK RICH.  I'm not saying to wear dirty clothes and ripped jeans, but do NOT flaunt your wealth or money.  Do not wear expensive watches or other jewelry.  My tica mama used to warn me to not wear my small gold necklace to the city center.  She said people would snatch it right off your neck.  If you look like you have money, you will more likely be targeted for robbery.  If you look like you live on the streets, thieves might not be so inclined to follow you around.  As foreigners, you are automatically assumed to have money.  Keep that in mind.

Hack down some pipas with a machete and you'll fit right in in Nicaragua.

KEEP MONEY HIDDEN.  This goes hand-in-hand with the previous rule.  Don't leave your bulging wallet in your back pocket.  Keep money in either a deep front pocket, or a pocket that zips/buttons/snaps whatever.  Ladies, keep your purses in front of you and hold on tight.  My friend had her bag slit as she was walking through the city with her purse behind her.  Depending on the area, you might want to consider a "money belt".  At first I thought these things were really dorky, but I eventually used one myself when I went to Peru.  A money belt is basically a cloth baggie with a strap that goes around your waist.  You tuck the cloth bag part into your pants which makes the money/credit cards/etc hard to get to.  Honestly the only time I used one of those was when taking buses early in the morning/late at night.  I kept my debit card and my memory card for my camera in there.

Dorky as hell, but can be a good idea in "rough" areas.

DON'T DO SOMETHING ABROAD THAT YOU WOULDN'T DO AT HOME.  Would it be a good idea to go out to a bar by yourself, get wasted, then walk home at 2am in the city you live in?  Would it be a good idea to do anywhere?  Hell no.  Make sure you have fun, but take the same precautions that you would at home.  Go out with people you know, stay in your right mind, and take a cab home.

Tapas in Granada, Spain encourage copious amount of drinking.  Make sure you're with good people!

FIND OUT SPECIFIC SAFETY ISSUES IN YOUR AREA.  So it might be okay to walk around after dark in Spain, but you don't want to do that in Honduras.  Taxis are always a source of possible crimes.  Make sure you get registered taxis and it's usually best to call for one.  Food could be a problem.  Is water potable, or do you need bottled water?  Find out about weather.  Will it be really cold, really hot, a high probability of tornadoes or earthquakes?  Will you be driving, how is the traffic?  Are there strong riptides or currents in the waters of the beach?  There's a ton of things you could prepare for to make sure your trip is enjoyable.

Active volcanoes in Costa Rica are a huge tourist attraction but can cause catastrophic earthquakes.

DON'T FREAK OUT.  Please don't read the US Government advisory website.  It gives crazy information and will scare the crap out of you.  Yeah there's always the chance that something bad could happen, but the truth is that millions of people travel each year without any problems**.  You can easily avoid most bad situations by making smart decisions and following my safety rules.  Use common sense, and have FUN.  (**Statistic made up.  But you get the point.)

Meeting new friends in Bordeaux, France.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

My Dad's Hitched!

Over the weekend Oscar and I went to my dad's wedding!  (This makes wedding #4 since January!)  The ceremony was short and sweet (I'm talking less than the 8 minutes you get in Vegas).  It was great to see my family there and I also got to network since Oscar and I are heading up to NY this July.  They had a "photobooth" set up where there was a camera on a tripod with a table full of props.  I took full advantage of it, though Oscar was less impressed.  Here's some pictures!

Marie and my dad

My sister and I

My sister, me and my brother

Oscar is not Pura Vida about the photobooth

Britta and Erik

Oscar is finally having a little fun

I dragged over my Opah (I gave him the flower because he's a botanist! hehe)

Me, my grandma and my cousin

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Colones, Dollars, Euros and Cents

Wouldn't it be great if the entire world had a common currency?  (Okay people, don't go into a hissy fit over that sentence)  But the fact of life is most countries have differing currencies.  In fact there are continents that have so many countries all with their own currency, you only have to go 4 hours in a bus before you're switching from Cordoba to Lampira.  Which is exactly the situation in Central America.

Within Central America you have 7 countries (Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama) each with their own currency.  So what are travelers like us to do?  Here's some tips and suggestions about how to take care of finances while traveling, or settling down in a new country.

After traveling from Costa Rica to Honduras I had 4 different currencies in my pocket.

Cash is always extremely important to have on hand.  In more developed countries you can swipe your plastic to buy a 50cent piece of gum.  But in less developed areas credit card machines are rare and you have to have cash.  They way I usually take care of this is by using ATMs.  Depending on what it is I'm doing, I try to take out however much cash I think I'll need for a certain amount of time.  For example, when I was living in Costa Rica I would take out $300 of local currency (colones) every month.  I hid the money in my room and would grab some when I needed it.  When I travel I'll take out $70 of local currency or however much I think I'll need for the week/ 3 days/ whatever.  I do this to avoid the ridiculous ATM and exchange fees that your bank will charge you (more on fees below) every time you use your ATM/debit card.

Another thing to consider is bringing along USD (US dollars) or Euros.  In Central America USD are often accepted just as often as local currency.  You can use USD to pay for hotels, plane tickets, bus tickets, really just about anything valued over $20.  Make sure your USD are in crisp condition.  Also make sure you know conversion rates so you know you're not getting ripped off.

Finally, in less developed areas you really need to carry small local currency.  Each country will differ in what is "small".  In the USA you could buy something at a store with a $50.  In Costa Rica it's hard to buy an item with a bill worth $10.  And in Nicaragua you really can't buy anything unless you have the coin worth $1.  What does this mean?  Well, it means that sometimes I spend more money trying to break bills than actually buying stuff I want.  Especially in markets, street vendors or taxi fares, make sure to keep around small bills.  In countries where a meal costs 50cents USD, you can't buy stuff with an equivalent 5USD bill.  I would usually split larger bills ($20 equivalent in Costa Rica, $5 equivalent in Nicaragua) at grocery stores or other places where they are likely to have change.  It is a good idea to ask first if they have change for your large bill.

Our other favorite form of money.  Most credit cards will charge for both a transaction fee AND a currency exchange rate.  Debit/ATM cards will charge an ATM fee, the currency exchange rate, plus whatever the ATM is charging.  This is why I recommend to take out larger amounts of money less frequently to avoid getting hit by fees.  Check with your bank before you leave about what the fees are (also to tell them where you're going and how long you'll be gone or they might think the charges made in the Bahamas are fraudulent).   It might be worth it to switch banks or open a new account to avoid the fees.

Discover and American Express are not as widely accepted as Visa and MasterCard.  Both Visa and MasterCard charge a 1% currency exchange fee for every transaction (this includes buying something on the internet while in a foreign country).  So if you find a card with this rate, it's a pretty decent one.  Where you start getting hit is when banks add on an additional 2% or 3% plus a $5 fee.  So check with your bank!

So which cards are the best?  After doing some research today on the "best" credit card to have abroad I found a fairly unanimous agreement that CapitolOne is a great card to use abroad.  They not only do not charge you any extra, they also pay for the Visa/MasterCard fee of 1%.  So you don't get any fees using it abroad!  A lot of credit unions will do this for you too.  (Watch out for other fees-- my credit union was going to charge me $1 / month just to have an account.  That's BS)  CitiGroup also has a very low transaction fee, just the 1% from Visa/MC.

Here's a table from the year 2009 (so it could be quite outdated by now) that is helpful:

Bank of America1%$5waived at Global Alliance banks*
Citigroup1%$1.50no fee at any Citibank branch
JP Morgan Chaseincluded in ATM fee3% to 3.5%
Wachovia1%$2waived for certain accounts
Wells Fargo3%$5
Washington Mutual1%$3
US Bancorp2%$2fee is sometimes waived
HSBC1%up to $1.50no fee at HSBC branches; waived for some accounts
SunTrust2%$2waived for some accounts
National City Corp.2%$1.50

*Global Alliance includes Barclays, BNP Paribas, Deutsche Bank, Scotiabank, Westpac, Santander Serfin.

With all these numbers and names and such being thrown around, my overall recommendation is to carry both cash money and plastic money while traveling.  But please don't put all of it in your back pocket then walk down the street.  Which makes me think I should do a safety post one day...

So start early, stay patient and find the best deals for yourself!  It's worth it!