Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Packing Smart

After returning from Mexico, I wanted to share some tips on what to pack if you're planning on traveling abroad. Of course, it varies based on where you're planning on going, but I tried to take into consideration all possible climates and regions of the world :) They are in no particular order, just things I thought of at 1:30am the night I was departing to the airport haha, so hope you enjoy! Share your thoughts if there are other items you think are vital when you go travel/backpacking.

Extra money - whatever amount you plan to bring as living expenses, bring an extra $100 in case of emergencies and/or excursions you want to do! It's easy to lose track of how much money you're spending, so I literally documented 99% of every expense I made haha. I hadn't factored in costs for tourist attractions and spent more than I thought I would, but they were worth the expense :)

Is it just me, or is every other country's currency prettier than the US'?

Camera - if you're the sentimental type who will want to keep records of all the events that happen in your life, bringing a camera will do wonders. Whether it's your smartphone or a DSLR, anything to document the memories for your later years will be sufficient! I read somewhere that the more pictures you take, the less vivid the memory will be... But that's just one person's opinion, so do whatever you want!

Sneakers - comfortable shoes are so important when it comes to traveling abroad. You never know how far you're going to have to walk, and if you go on hikes or excursions that may require strenuous walks, your feet will thank you later for sneakers. In Mérida, there are a lot of buses that can take you almost anywhere you want to go at a cost of only 7 pesos ($0.50USD per ride), but the bus "stops" may be over 20-30 minutes away! Some of the other UBELONG volunteers worked at local schools and had walks that easily were over 40 minutes from the hostel, so wearing flip flops may not be ideal for these journeys, unless you like Indian burns on your feet... (and yes that happened to me lol)

Outlet adapter - this is super important! Many countries may use different plugs and the smartest, most inexpensive thing you can pack in your luggage is an outlet adapter. Most countries will sell them for an extremely low price so if you forget to bring one, don't fret! It should be available anywhere you travel :) 

Sunscreen - let's face it. Sunscreen is oily, greasy and feels uncomfortable on our skin. But the sun is always going to be there, no matter what part of the world you travel to. Some places are at higher altitudes or just closer to the equator making for warmer climates and stronger sun exposure. Your skin is the only external barrier to your body aside from your clothes, so treat it well!! A little SPF can go a long way in protecting yourself from harmful UV rays. An added benefit of using sunscreen is that you'll have younger looking skin when you're older since you're protecting your skin from drying out! 

Hat - optional of course, but when I was living in Ecuador and Mérida, the sun felt extremely strong in comparison to NYC. In Ecuador, we were at a much higher sea level than NYC, and I guess Mexico is just closer to the equator hence the stronger rays. I personally like to shield my face from the bright sun so I always used a hat when I waited for the bus or took long walks, but it's up to you :) 

Locks - this also is optional, but I like to make sure my belongings are secure and can't get stolen, whether I'm at a hotel or a hostel. Whenever you're traveling to a foreign country, keep your valuables to a minimum. You don't need that expensive jewelry to make it even more obvious that you're not a native!! Hide your emergency money where people would least expect to find it! I saw this clever tip where someone used a sunscreen bottle to hide their keys and wallet at the beach, so that's just one option, as I'm sure others have unique ideas as well. 

Insect repellent - oh man, I can't tell you how important this item is to me. If you're like me, mosquitos will follow you no matter what region you're living in the world... I thought I was coming at a good time of the year in Mérida to avoid the mosquitos, but nope!! They still managed to gravitate towards me and attack my poor body. :( even if you may not have the sweetest blood and aren't prone to insect bites, I would advise you bring some anyway as a further preventative measure from insect-borne diseases such as malaria. With that being said, bring insect bite relief cream as well! The language barrier here was difficult for me to properly describe my inflamed skin and the first pharmacy I went to gave me burn relief gel -_- completely useless when I'm back in NY, but maybe I can improvise if I ever get a sunburn... 

Miscellaneous medicines - this is super important! Whenever you go to a foreign country, you might not be accustomed to the weather, food or water. Bear in mind that your body may need time to adjust to the different climate and you might get a cold or a fever a few days into your arrival. Pack some OTC pain reliever and fever reducer, and cold medicine if you're prone to getting sick. In regards to the different food and water, it's smart to pack Imodium or other traveler's medication in case you have a weak stomach. In Ecuador and in Mexico, it's unsafe to drink the tap water (at least for people from the States) and you're advised not to eat raw, unpeeled fruit and vegetables in case they are washed in the tap water. It's perfectly fine to use to brush your teeth and take showers, and probably to wash your contact lens cases, but I played it safe and used bottled water to clean my case. 
Note: If you're traveling to a country for a long period of time, I would suggest that you get travel medical insurance. I used Seven Corners, but I know there are a lot of other options!

Earplugs - if you're living in a hostel, chances are you will be rooming with anywhere between 1 and 7 other roommates. You'll want earplugs trust me. People have different sleep and wake schedules and it's a hassle to coordinate with people and request that they be quiet haha. 

Umbrella - If you're going to travel, I think it's safe to say that you may need to use your umbrella at least once on your trip! I literally only had to use my umbrella once for light rains in Mérida, but hey, you might end up going some place that is known for frequent rains (unless you're going to the savannah or a desert haha).

Journal - this is another method you can use to document your travels! I obviously opted for the online journal blog, but if you're more traditional and like to write on paper, that's perfectly fine as well :) speaking of which... I have unfinished journals I should start using! 

Travel Dictionary - I almost forgot about this!! If you don't speak the country's native language, I HIGHLY recommend you invest in a dictionary. I bought one for $5 USD in Ecuador and it has been my savior when I was there and while I was in Mexico. It will prove to be useful when you're at the airport, at the local shops, and when you're lost and need to find your way haha.


With that said... Happy travels! Share your thoughts on what are smart items to bring with you when you go abroad!

Saturday, January 24, 2015

¡Hasta luego, Mérida!

As I take a break from packing the last of my belongings, I realize just how quickly time has gone. It feels like yesterday when I was crying, sad that I will leave my loved ones and my beloved dogs for three WHOLE weeks (yeah, I was being really dramatic haha) and be on my own once again like in Ecuador. The time away from home proved to be rewarding because of the people I met in Mérida. If it weren't for UBELONG, I don't think I would've ever crossed paths with the staff at the food bank, my wonderful UBELONG team leaders, and the other volunteers and people I met at the hostel.
My farewell dinner :'(
Mi jefe! :)
I love these people <3 Danny taught me Mayan, Nidia fed me and gave me a regalito, and they all took the time to speak to me in Spanish and help me learn in the produce section!
My experience in Mérida can't be replicated in the States, and I am super grateful to have had this opportunity again to volunteer with such an amazing organization. I mean... who can say they learned how to speak Mayan, used a machete, and ate piñuelas and mamey in NYC? Not many people, if any, I would say!!

Today I visited Izamal, the Magical Town of Yucatan! The whole town is painted in yellow, which is an interesting sight to see :) We visited the famous convent there as well as Kinich Kakmo pyramid and got a view overlooking the city, which was a nice end to my trip.

Overlooking the city of Izamal

These streets are so pretty!!

Look, even the horse's hooves are painted yellow!
I am so excited to be on a plane heading back to the US in less than 12 hours, but I'm definitely going to miss it here... Great food, great people, and beautiful natural wonders to visit! Cancun may be a popular destination for tourists, but Mérida is definitely one of Mexico's hidden treasures. I'm hoping I get the chance to visit again in the next couple of years, maybe even go to Mexico City and Oaxaca to try their insect delicacies.... :3 I intended to write a longer reflection on my time here, but I'd like the chance to settle in back home before I really think about my experience. Stay tuned for my next blog post and UBELONG video (yep... there's going to be a video lolll so nervous about how it'll turn out!).

Friday, January 23, 2015

Mercado Lucas de Galvez

UBELONG Team Leaders Leo and Martina strongly encouraged me to visit the big market that's located near the hostel and I thought, hey why not?! After walking for about twenty minutes, Hemi (my roommate) and I arrived at a local square with tons of little tiendas lining the streets. I was about to give up on finding this elusive supermarket when we finally saw the glorious sign indicating that we had arrived at Mercado Lucas de Galvez! I was so excited to see what was past the entrance since I was expecting to see a super-sized supermarket like the Soriana Supermarkets (or the Stop & Shop and Trader Joe's stores we see in America haha).

The first thing we encountered were little shops selling local Yucatecan food, toys, and other miscellaneous goods. Upon further exploration, we started to see vendors selling vegetables and fruit. I was super excited because I had an intense discussion at the food bank about the local fruit and whether it'd be possible to try them before I left Mérida. Luckily, I found vendors who sold mamey and piñuelas and jumped at the opportunity to buy some (only 10 pesos for a cup full of piñuelas and 10 pesos for a whole mamey!).
Piñuelas in their cup portions
Mamey cut to show its freshness
All of the vendors sold a variety of goods and as tempting as it was to buy a little bit of everything, living off of 600 pesos for the next couple of days forced me to restrain myself :( I did stop by a stand that sold different spices for cooking, such as relleno negro, achiote, and condiments for escabeche. My experience in this market reminded me of when I visited Taiwan and Shanghai and went to their night markets, where the "halls" of vendors seemed to never end and there was plenty of food to try!

It was quite an adventure walking through this labyrinth of a supermarket because there was no organization at all in this place; I wish I took better pictures in this place but unfortunately I didn't capture any great shots to show here! Just imagine a flea market, indoors, selling anything from household goods, spices, vegetables and fruit, to fresh pork rinds, aquarium fish, to geese, chicks, bunnies and even puppies! It did break my heart when I encountered this animal section of the market because it was the last thing I expected to see there :( I hope all of these little critters will be sold to good homes and not for food >< We explored the market for about two hours before we returned to the hostel to rest our tired feet haha.

I thought time was going to go by so slowly here in Mérida since the lifestyle is a lot more lax in comparison to in NYC, but I am returning home this weekend!! I'm excited to be going home but it's sad to say goodbye to the great people I had the chance to work with at the food bank, along with Martina and Leo :'( Tonight we'll be having a little farewell dinner with some of the staff from the food bank to celebrate my time here and wish me a safe trip home, so excited! :)

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

My Humble Hostel Abode

If any of you are new travelers such as myself, you've probably only experienced living in hotels or with family members while you're away from home. I have heard of hostels and how living in one is a new experience entirely from what one may normally be accustomed to. When I signed up to teach English with UBELONG the first time, I stayed with an Ecuadorian host family for three weeks; they were so hospitable and it was as if they were my extended family.  I learned so much while I was there since I was (literally and figuratively) immersed in the Ecuadorian culture! I was forced out of my comfort zone and practice Spanish every day while at the local schools, and come home to speak Spanish with my host family. I was even invited as a guest to one of their family member's weddings in a nearby city, and boy was that an interesting few nights haha.

My second project with UBELONG put me in Mérida helping out at a local food bank. Unlike my living arrangements in Ecuador, I was placed in Mérida's Nómadas Hostel which, let me tell you, was a COMPLETE shock the first night I arrived! I may not have shown it in front of my fellow UBELONGers, but boy was I dumbfounded by what I was to call my home for the next three weeks. Whenever I traveled with family in the past, I got to stay in nice hotels which had free cleaning service, private bathrooms, and sometimes a mini-fridge and a coffee maker. Let me tell you about what a hostel is really like...

Imagine what a hotel looks like, and what your hypothetical room looks like. Now take that image out of your head as I share with you the real details of the hostel arrangements haha. (Note: This was my initial reaction to living here, my perception of this place has changed for the better these past couple of weeks (thankfully haha)!)

  • Bathrooms and Showers: I can only speak on behalf of the girls, but I feel as though the guys have more comfortable bathroom arrangements since they have multiple stalls per bathroom! *Jealous* For the girls, you share a couple bathrooms with maybe 50-something other girls (4 outdoor stalls to be exact, and 2 other indoor ones you can use if the dorm doors are unlocked). There are 2 outdoor showers that all the girls have to share (and 2 other indoor ones you can use IF the doors are unlocked). People who know me are aware of my somewhat OCD/germophobe tendencies and can understand why I would be a little peeved out by sharing a bathroom with so many other people. They get cleaned every day, but the plumbing isn't the best here and so they request that all papers should be thrown in the garbage bins (gross... haha).
Girls' dorm and two of the outdoor bathrooms
  • Dorm Rooms: Maybe people who had the opportunity to dorm while attending college may be more accustomed to sharing rooms, but this was something that was completely new to me (somewhat). When I volunteered in New Orleans with Habitat for Humanity, I stayed at a local center which might have been a shelter. They had an enormous cafeteria-sized room with dozens of beds, so I should've expected a similar kind of arrangement here at the hostel. For the Kentucky and Wisconsin female groups, they stayed together in rooms with 6-8 bunk beds and a communal bathroom. I was lucky enough to have a single room for the first two weeks I was here, and then I got bumped into a shared room with three beds (but thankfully just one other fellow UBELONGer!)
My room for the duration of my stay at Nómadas Hostel
  • Kitchen: I was pleasantly surprised to see the kitchen here. It comes fully stocked with a fridge (that is 90% always packed and unusable lol), a two-part sink, and an 8-burner stove and a bunch of communal kitchenware.
  • Outdoor Pool: No complaints.  I love the pool. :3

  • Outside Lounge Area: This is a nice area for people to hang out to eat, listen to live music, or use the (intermittent) WiFi we have here. Normally when I traveled around, I stayed in the confines of my hotel room or followed my family around to explore the city, but here at the hostel, it's almost as if we are a community all our own. I'm not exactly the most outgoing, social person there is, but I have met some pretty interesting people during my stay. I've met someone from the UK, Australia, Russia, Canada, Texas, and Iowa!

I think staying at the hostel has been a really rewarding experience even though I was afraid I would dread my three weeks here. I purposefully choose to travel and volunteer abroad because it pushes me out of my comfort zone of NYC and makes me see the other aspects of the world that I have yet to see. I loved that I was able to meet someone who was backpacking around Central America, someone who is exploring the cities of Mexico, someone who quit his job to relax before taking on a job as an optometrist in Ecuador, and someone who formerly worked for the UN and in disaster relief. As diverse as NYC is, I am so grateful that I met these individuals who share similar interests in public health, exploring and traveling as me. Prior to staying at the hostel, it was hard running into a random person in NYC just to talk about my career goals and hear advice about graduate school and what jobs I should pursue in the future unless I specifically worked at an organization dedicated to public health. I was pleasantly surprised to talk to these strangers and be able to spend an hour discussing goals and where we wanted to accomplish in life. I have Cedric and UBELONG to thank for my experience at the hostel. As a volunteer, I am in the "Immersion Project" and I definitely feel immersed in the Mexican culture here! :)

From talking with more experienced hostel residents, they said that this hostel is one of the best ones they've lived in. It doesn't hurt that they have free yoga, live music, free salsa lessons, and affordable cooking classes (where you can eat your food!) for 25 pesos. My overall thoughts of the hostel? It's livable, even for the OCD/germophobic-types! Once you accept that nothing will change your living situation, you get used to the idea of living here and you start to grow comfortable and enjoy it.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Banco de Alimentos en Mérida, A.C.

When I decided to apply to UBELONG for another service trip, I had so many options to choose from in terms of projects and countries: forest conservation (me chopping down tough plant stalks? Not so much haha), teaching English again, caretaking, kindergarten teaching, public health, NGO support, etc. Initially, I was drawn to volunteering in a public health project in Accra, Ghana, but my mother was reluctant to send me halfway around the world, so I chose Mérida volunteering in NGO support at a local food bank.

People who know me are aware that I will be pursuing my Master’s degree in Public Health this upcoming fall, so ideally, it would have been amazing to work on a public health project! Unfortunately, at the present moment UBELONG only accepts groups for the public health service project in Mexico, so I chose the next best thing, working in NGO support, since I’ve been an avid supporter of volunteering and nonprofit organizations. Plus, a food bank is closely tied with public health in terms of healthy lifestyles and nutrition for families!

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, since I was told I had to bring a laptop to my project. I predicted that I would be working on administrative things, such as filing and typing things up, but I learned there was so much more that I could participate in. The food bank has five main departments:

  1. Collection
  2. Warehouse
  3. Nutrition
  4. Beneficiaries
  5.  Administration

My main task (since I’m a native English speaker) at the moment was to translate documents with each of the department’s descriptions as well as other miscellaneous topics (i.e. drivers and communities), which has helped me understand the many aspects that make up a food bank. In NY, I volunteered at a food pantry but this food bank is beyond any of my previous expectations.  So far I’ve worked in the warehouse sorting fruit and packing bread for the families, and met with some of the potential new beneficiaries (or recipients of nutritional packages) by visiting local communities such as Xcunya and Chablekal.

On Thursday, I followed opening department’s staff back to Xcunya to observe the staffs’ roles in the community. Applicants filled out surveys regarding their household, socioeconomic status, and physical characteristics to be determined by the food bank if they were eligible to enroll in the program to receive nutritional packages. The nutritional package program is an affordable “care package” of groceries carefully selected by the nutritionists for each respective community. The goal is to see improvements in people’s weight and health over time, and encourage a healthier lifestyle. Each nutritional package costs either 42 pesos for a weekly package (products make up at least 20% of the daily nutritional value), or 65 pesos for a bi-weekly package (products make up at least 25% of the daily nutritional value). I even had the opportunity to help out by weighing and taking the heights of the community members!


Back at the office, I’ve met such wonderful staff who teach me so many things, varying from everything regarding the food bank’s operations, to the Mayan language! When I was in Ecuador, every time I learned a new Spanish word I quickly jotted it down in my notebook to review later on, and I decided to continue this when I arrived in Mérida. I never expected to start learning the Mayan language as well, but I made a new space in my book for new frases I encountered while working at the food bank. J 

This upcoming week I'm hoping to get the opportunity to help with the social media aspect of the food bank since it will be the last five days of working here. Time has flown by so quickly which is bittersweet because I've grown to love working at the food bank, but I'm excited to get back home and sleep in my own bed and take a shower in my own bathroom!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

¿Qué haces en tu tiempo libre?

My UBELONG mentor, Cedric, reminded me prior to my service project that although I will be coming to Mérida to volunteer, I am on an immersion project which puts me in a location with lots of culture to experience and many places to explore. With hard work, we should all get rewarded with some free time and play, right?!

My first week of volunteering at the food bank was fun and very different from my experience teaching English in Ecuador. As usual, I had to touch up on my Spanish since I hadn’t actively practiced the language since my project in 2012. The people at Banco de Alimentos en Mérida, A.C., are super welcoming and supportive and, beyond the jokes about how I can’t understand some of their conversations, they are so eager to teach me everything there is to know about their culture, their language, and most importantly, about the work they do at the food bank. I’ve touched upon a little of everything so far, from working hands on with the people in the warehouse sorting fruit and packing bread, to translating documents into English! On a later post, I will talk more in detail about the departments at the food bank after I’ve learned more on the project J

In the past weekend, I spent over $80 USD on excursions in the Mérida area T_T Unfortunately, I did not budget going to these awesome sites when I packed for this trip! (Once this service project is complete, I will create another post of all the things I should’ve done in hindsight and tips for people who wish to travel or go abroad for some period of time J). From Friday to Sunday, I went to Dzibilchaltún, Uxmal and El Museo de Chocolate, and the cenotes in Cuzamá. I’m glad I went to each of these attractions in this order because each one was better than the next!

Climbing one of the Dzibilchaltún ruins
Overlooking the Uxmal ruins from the top of another ruin
At the Chelentún cenote!

For anyone who is eager to travel but is afraid they will be lost and not know what to do, trust me, I’ve felt all of your sentiments and more while on my volunteer trips. This is an amazing opportunity to meet new people (at the hostel, in the community, at local shops and workplaces, etc.) and experience cultures different from your own. Every time I visit another country, I am humbled because of the disparities I see and how people make the most of what they have. It amazes me how happy these people are in comparison to the people I see in NY (including myself, haha). The people at the food bank love what they do, although they probably don’t make a fraction of what we make at an hourly rate. Their mentality is so positive and laidback, and we can all learn a thing or two from visiting other countries and living the way they do.

Although I have less than 1,000 pesos (the equivalent of about $66 USD) for the next two weeks, I have no regrets for spending 1/3 of the cash I brought with me on the excursions. There is so much to see and do here, and I had the chance to see not one, but TWO Mayan ruins and swim in the beautiful cenotes that Mérida is known for. If I had the funds, I’d probably visit Chichen Itza, one of the 7 Wonders of the World, but the two that I visited shall do (for now!). It’s opportunities like visiting ancient archaeological sites and swimming in natural sinkholes that make exploring other countries all the more exciting ^_^.

Here’s some helpful advice: Don’t be like me and remember to pack at least $100 extra in case of emergencies and bring a debit card and credit card that won’t incur overseas charges when used!

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

¡Bienvenidos a Mérida!

Mérida turned out to be a LOT hotter than I originally thought. The humidity hit me hard and it felt like I was breathing in the precipitation in the air. I have to admit it's a lot better than being in the 20-30 degree weather that NYC is experiencing right now! :3 When I arrived at the hostel with a few other UBELONGers, it was definitely a culture shock. When I was in Ecuador volunteering, I stayed with a host family and the experience was entirely different. This hostel was pretty much like an outdoor hotel with mesh doors and huge fans and palm trees decorating the walls. The rooms where the other UBELONG teams stayed looked like an uber-dorm with bunk beds left and right. I got lucky since I was able to get a room by myself! Unfortunately, I'm not accustomed to not having AC in the nearly 80something degree weather and it was a challenge getting through the first night.

A picture of my (messy) room at Nomadas Hostel
On Monday, I spent most of the day exchanging currency, getting any other toiletries I needed, and exploring the streets! There's a Mexican Walmart here (I don't know why I was so excited about that haha). The UBELONGers and I followed Leo and Martina (our wonderfully amazing UBELONG Team Leaders!) to eat some rosca de reyes, a sweet pastry that's normally available during the holiday season.

The past two days were spent working at El Banco de Alimentos de Mérida, A.C. (pictures below). When you enter the office area, it appears as if it's really small, but once you head to the back.. there's a full-blown warehouse! They had everything from fruits and vegetables, breads, beverages, and probably much more that I haven't seen. I had the chance to ration bags of what looked like pork rinds, sort the good grapes from the bad, and start translating documents from Spanish to English. Let me tell you... no matter how good of a translation dictionary you have or how much access you have to Google Translate, translating is hard! There's no simple way to translate if you're not a native speaker since there are many frases (phrases! Learned a new word today haha) that only natives would be able to understand and use in conversation.

The BAMX Headquarters
The Produce section of the warehouse
The BAMX warehouse
Posing while sorting grapes :D
I'm looking forward to the weekend because there's a chance I'll get to do two of the three following activities: visit a chocolate factory, see the ruins, or dive into three cenotes (natural sinkholes)! Crossing my fingers that it won't rain this weekend since the humidity is pretty bad at the moment :X. The WiFi at the hostel is not so great so I can't update the blog as often as I'd like, but I'll try to keep y'all posted at least once or twice a week :)