Guest Post: The Story Behind the Work and Travel Platform Hippohelp!

My name is Leopold, and I’m the creator of Hippohelp, a free map-based online platform that connects hosts with travelers who work in exchange for food and accommodation. Today I’ll share how I got the idea of creating Hippohelp, struggles along the way, and what motivates me on working on it. Let’s get started!

How Hippohelp was born

Four years ago I landed in China, with the aim of finding new suppliers for my ecommerce business.

When I first landed in Shenzhen, southern China I could almost smell the fresh feeling. The warm climate, the tall building, and all the people, everything was so different from Sweden! I had made some plans before arriving, and after resting up at the hotel I spent the coming days running errands to and from Hong Kong (it’s bordering to Shenzhen), visiting new suppliers and making new friends.

One great obstacle I’ve run into when arriving was the language barrier. Very few people here speak English, and without knowing Chinese even the most basic things like taking a cab or finding somewhere to stay can take a whole lot of energy and time.

But somehow it’s possible to see who’s fresh, and who’s been here for a while, and since I was fresh many Chinese really went out of their ways to help me out. My first months in China would have been a whole lot harder if not for all these helpful people.

And for learning the language, it’s obviously a lot of hard work, but taking a practical approach to the learning process made it easier for me. For example, I switched the language to Chinese in my phone, spoke Chinese to my friends and wife, instead of English, and studied when commuting. I liked China so much that I decided to stay here and learn more about the culture and language.

Fast forward 4 years and I had met my wife, and also developed a small piece of land outside Guilin, a popular tourist destination for backpackers. At our small “plantation” we grow our own vegetables, and it’s a great way of reducing stress generated when working in front of a computer all day long.

Growing our own food did however require more time and work than we originally anticipated, and that’s how I got the idea that some backpackers from the area might be interested in helping us out, in exchange for getting free food and accommodation in return.

After that I searched for websites that we could use to find helpers, but found that they were either too outdated, too complicated, or way too expensive, so I decided to create an alternative of my own.

Creating the platform

I didn’t know anything about programming when starting out, so the first thing I did was reading a book about the most important programming languages, and when I was done with it I did a few test projects to put what I had learned into practice. Once I felt somewhat comfortable about what I was doing I started coding Hippohelp. Since it was my first project it took around 6 months before I could launch it.

During the development process I had to Google up a lot of answers on how to do things, and there were a lot of frustrations and errors along the way. But I was also learning a lot, and it was fun at most times, so I just kept going. At a few points I’ve had to hire freelancers along the way to help me out, and generally speaking it’s worked out, but I’ve also found that you need to be super careful when hiring and managing freelancers.

I’ve had some major issues with some freelancers that I’ve hired, and I feel that it’s very important to know enough to make sure that the freelancer is doing what he/she is supposed to do, otherwise it’s easy to get a bad result, or even worse, a result that is harmful for your business.

A freelancer could for example unknowingly do code that makes your site vulnerable to hackers, or implement a SEO strategy that gets your site penalized in Googles search results. However, there are a lot of great freelancers out there, and once you’ve found a fit it can be of really great help for your business.

Another struggle is making the platform more well-known. Since I don’t have any funds to market it I have to do a lot of manual outreach myself, and also rely on people spreading the word. When I first started mailing bloggers who write about travelling I was afraid of being labeled as a “spammer”, but many are very happy to hear about Hippohelp, and have helped me a lot in promoting the site, as well as letting me know how to make it better.

What keeps me motivated

When I first got the idea I wanted to create the platform mainly as I felt that there were no good alternatives around, so I wanted to solve the problems that I saw with the existing platforms, and also learn how to program along the way.

However, after I launched Hippohelp I got motivated for a lot more reasons. After checking all exciting projects made by real people on the platform I’ve gotten more and more interested in their ways of living. There are some people who don’t have a set physical home and travels between hosts full time instead, and there are hosts who lives more or less outside the “system”, growing their own food and living a life that suits them.

I feel like many people think that the “9 to 5” life is the only way of living, and since many of these people doesn’t seem happy about living that way I want to make it possible for them living differently. The idea about working in exchange for food and accommodation have already been around for a while, but I want to use Hippohelp to make the idea more “mainstream” to reach more people who might want to try alternative ways of living.

Another thing that motivates me is all the support I’ve gotten from people on the internet. Since the platform is free to use for all members it’s easier for “normal” people to try it out and discover new ways of travelling, and many users feel that the map-based interface is of great help since it makes it easier to find both travel-buddies and hosts by scrolling the map to a specific location.

Having to open hundreds of tabs when searching for a host is something that seems to be driving people crazy, and since you never leave the map-interface this won’t be anything you have to do when using Hippohelp. It feels very good reading long emails from users who are leaving feedback on how I can improve the site and make it more well known. I feel that these people are happy hearing about Hippohelp and it feels good making a positive impact in other people’s lives.

I hope you’ll find Hippohelp to be a helpful tool on your future travels, also, if you plan on going to China, then pan the map to the area over Guilin. Me and my wife are also hosting Hippohelpers! 🙂

How Elite Nightlife Really Works in NYC

Although this post is dedicated to NYC, the following applies to most of America’s large cities like LA, Miami, Vegas, Chicago, etc.

The High End Club

Typical table setup

To get into an elite nightclub you need to be a beautiful girl, know somebody connected or buy a bottle. Buying a bottle means paying $300 to $600 for a bottle of Goose, some shitty orange juice and a table. Or what’s known as a table, most of the time the “table” is more like a restaurant booth. Why would anyone pay $500 for a bottle of alcohol that costs $60? Is the experience really that divine?

I’ve found most of these clubs to be average at best. The music is almost always the same and the atmosphere is rarely anything to write home about. However, one thing sets apart a high end club from other venues: the promoter.

Promoter = A guy (once in a blue moon a girl) who gets paid to bring out girls to the club. When they show up a promoter will get between $400 to $800 for that night to sit at a table, drink free alcohol and party with a bunch of cute girls who they’ve brought with them. Depending on the club, anywhere from a half to a fifth of all the available tables will be reserved for the promoter.

These high end clubs can sell a bottle for $500 because the guy buying it knows the promoters will bring out lots of cute girls, whereas Jimmy’s Pub down the corner might use a calendar to keep track of how long it’s been since a gorgeous woman walked in. Whether or not a guy has enough game to snag one of the promoter’s girls is another question, but at least there’s the possibility.

Living Currency 

In this model women are essentially currency and some clubs even pay their promoters based on the number of girls that show up. It sounds crude and sexist, but the truth is that nobody forces a woman to go out with a promoter, she has her own interests in mind. The promoter is usually an attractive, high-status guy. Going out with him guarantees a girl that she’ll get into a high end club and drink for free once she’s there. At the truly elite clubs it’s routine for billionaires and celebrities to show up, the social media bragging options are endless. It’s an interesting ecosystem and whether you love it or hate it, it’s only getting more popular.

My Approach to Learning a Second Language

When I learned Russian I was lucky to live in Moscow and Kiev where I could practice with native speakers. However, I’ve since learned that you don’t have to be in that environment to learn quickly. I’ve been learning German for about 14 months and although I’ve only spent six weeks in Germany, I can already speak it OK. This is my learning strategy and it can easily be applied to any language.

1. Learn the Pronouns 

The first thing I do is learn the pronouns, like I, she, he, they, their, his, hers, it, etc. This takes longer than you might think because you lack an ear for the language and words easily slip out of your memory. Once I’ve got a good grasp on these basics I start with lessons.

2. Skype Lessons 

I find my Skype tutors through a website called Preply. I love Skype lessons because they’re affordable (I pay $13 for an hour long German lesson and I used to pay only $7 for an hour long Russian lesson) and you’re the only student. That means you can dictate the tempo, ask for explanations, and generally learn quicker than you would in a group setting.

3. Take Notes and Translate 

During my Skype lesson I write down every word that I don’t know. After the lesson I’ll go to my dictionary, translate these words, then write them down in my notebook. I also write down examples of the words used in context. When picking a dictionary it’s important to use one that has pronunciations voiced by a human, not a robot. For German I use Linguee, although I don’t know if they have human pronunciations for every language.

4. Put Vocab Words into Anki

After I’ve written down all my vocab words into my notebook I’ll go through them one last time and put every word into an app called Anki. This is a flashcard program so you can go back later and review the words. However, I don’t usually do that. I find that the process of inputting the words is usually enough.

5. Do it Again

I go through a nearly identical process week in and week out. It’s not exactly exciting but I’ve found it to be very effective. Also, an important aspect of my study schedule is that I work with the language every day. Daily study is an effective way to learn and cuts down on the time to fluency.

The Chaps Who Fly Around the World for a Living

Ben Schlappig is the world’s greatest hobbyist. While others are weekend warriors, Ben takes it seriously. During a stretch from 2014 to 2015 he flew more than 400,000 miles and spent 43 weeks sleeping exclusively in hotels. That lifestyle probably lacks appeal to most people, but to those considering themselves serious hobbyists, it’s enviable.

For most people (me included) airline miles are an abstract concept. Something that exist, but that we aren’t necessarily aware of on a daily basis. Usually you’re most conscious of them when disembarking and an upbeat flight attendant offers you a 40,000 mile bonus with your first $1,000 purchase. Is that a lot? How many fantasy miles is equal to one real mile? How many miles is Berlin from New York? 

These are a questions that someone involved with “The Hobby” could answer. A hobbyist is someone who abuses takes advantage of airline frequent flier programs to fly first class for free. They use their intimate knowledge of airline regulations to score $10,000 tickets, free champagne and a flying experience that’s way more enjoyable than what the unwashed masses suffer through.

The hobbyist lifestyle is  polarizing. Maybe it only appeals to one person in a thousand. But to that one person it probably sounds freaking amazing! I’m not a hobbyist but maybe you are? The best resource to learn more about it is Ben’s blog.

The Downsides of Traveling For a While

Travel is one of the coolest things that you can do with your life and I’m thankful for every place that I’ve visited. I talk about this all the time though which is why I should mention a few of the disadvantages. Notably, these downsides are mostly associated with longer 6+ month trips, not two week vacations.

Relationships 

Friendships are like plants, they require water. If you go abroad for a year you might come back and find out that you’ve lost your social circle. A lot will have happened and you’ll be left trying to play catch up. Also, you’ll have less in common with your friends. You spent the last two months in Cambodia driving around a used scooter and getting tan. Your friends have been up to the usual and you’ve missed it.

Also, you might find that you’re not as interested in hanging out with your old friends. You tell them about how cool Spain is, they nod and smile but there’s no spark. You say that you should all buy some plane tickets and go to Colombia for a few weeks in the winter. They look at you like you’re crazy.

Family relationships can also suffer. When you spend a significant amount of time abroad you can fall out of step with what’s happening. Cousins get married, people move, drama ensues, etc. All that happens while you’re listening to techno in Berlin, questioning whether you’ll have any hearing left when you’re 50.

Temporary Friendships 

You’ll meet cool people who believe in adventure, have great spirit and think that Colombia in the winter sounds like a blast. Unfortunately, this person who you have so much in common with is going home in two weeks and they live 4,600 miles from you. You can keep in contact but it’s damn difficult to build a virtual relationship. It’s not impossible, but for any given person the chances that a deep and meaningful relationship form are slim.

Do it While You’re Young

These things happen but screw it. I combat it with a few simple things, like making an active effort to hang out with my friends when I’m home. I stay in contact with my family and keep them in the loop. When I go abroad I always try to visit a few international friends. I’m still an outlier in terms of normal lifestyle, but I make an effort to mitigate that.

All that being said, I think the most important thing to remember is this. If you’re traveling and you find it lonely you can always come home, you’ll have the rest of your life to enjoy long relationships. However, it’s much harder to settle down, create a life and then leave it all behind to travel for a year.

South Beach vs. The Secluded Beach

I don’t subscribe to the belief that an empty beach is paradise. Given the choice between fine sand, crystal water and seclusion, I would rather be on the beach with crying children, drunk Scandinavians, and a 19 year old Puerto Rican kid listening to shitty gangster rap. Sharing a special experience with a good friend is a unique joy, and hanging out with strangers is more exciting than going it alone. Here’s why I feel that way.

Nyang Nyang Beach in Bali

Nyang Nyang beach is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been

During my six months in South East Asia I visited exactly two “brochure quality beaches” that might as well have been my own personal property. The first was in Cambodia. Me and Joanna had rented a dirt bike with the goal of exploring a national park up in the mountains. Thirty minutes deep our plans changed when we saw the beach on our left. White sand a football field deep. Close to the water palm trees were being messaged by the wind. Except for three Cambodian women, we had hundreds of meters of space to ourselves. We stayed 20 minutes.

Later I visited Bali, which is famous for its beaches. I found a guide on the best “hidden” beaches, then I rented a dirt bike and drove to Nyang Nyang beach. It was the most beautiful place that I’ve ever been. Apart from a few surfers, the place was mine. When I walked away and turned a bend, the surfers disappeared and I had half a mile of beach to myself. $1,000,000,000 couldn’t have bought a more picturesque situation. I stayed for 90 minutes.

The Tourist Beach

On the other hand you have populated beaches. While I prefer this now, I didn’t always believe that having people around is more enjoyable. Prior to visiting South East Asia I was firmly of the mindset that a beach’s quality is directly related to its seclusion. The few people, the better. But after getting what I wanted, I got came to understand that having a beach to yourself is actually rather lonely. Sand is inanimate, the palm trees don’t give a shit about you, and even though the ocean has an expressive quality, you’re not going to have a conversation with it. However, when you’re at a beach with other people, you always have a chance to meet someone exciting. I recently talked for an hour with a Russian singer I met on South Beach. We had more in common than two strangers ever ought to. I never would have met her on a deserted beach.

The chance encounters are what get me excited. On a beach with other people there’s always a possibility for something to happen. You meet new people, you see something embarrassing happen, there’s a new language to try and decipher. Humans are engaging, they’re fun to be around. A deserted beach is exciting at first, but after the shock and awe stage there’s no potential. It’s crushed up rock, some shade, and a repetitive ocean. That can be extremely beautiful, but it’s not the basis for the best stories that you’ll ever tell.

The Most Impressive Thing Ever

,

Red Square is a grenade, pushing away Moscow and leaving a crater. There’s a casual disregard for prime real estate. The square is large and inviting, and it’s easy to forget that you’re downtown in a city of twelve million, a pistol shot away from six-lane highways and the most fascinating metro system ever built. The people, the rough stones, the buildings.

The State Historical Museum

The best way to experience it is to walk past the statue of Georgy Zhukov and through the stone arches. Welcome to Red Square! Several football fields in front of you is St. Basil’s. At your back is the bristling, blood-colored State Historical Museum. To the left is the small Kazan Cathedral. Then there’s that building.. You know, the one you’re always hearing about?

Glance to your right, anywhere on your right, and you’ll be looking at the architecturally unknown, but orally famous, Kremlin. You won’t be able to see inside though, a high wall obstructs inspection. But you’ll know it’s back there. You’ll know that several hundred feet away men are drafting plans that will affect your children, and have made decisions that affected your life, and your parents as well. You’ll never know everything that’s gone on behind the burnt-red exterior, the truth is stranger than fiction.

St. Basil’s Cathedral

Returning to your walk you’ll hear cameras and foreign languages, but with so much space you won’t feel boxed in. Walk for thirty seconds, look left and you’ll be staring at the GUM Shopping Mall. A conspicuous sign of capitalism, it’s blind windows stare at the Kremlin’s ballrooms where Stalin and Lenin grew communism. On the right you can still see the embalmed corpse of Lenin, if you don’t mind waiting in line.

Walking the length of Red Square takes several minutes. However, you’ll probably stop multiple times along the way. It’s not uncommon to spend fifteen minutes in the square before you reach the exit: a graded slope five tanks wide. Descend, with St. Basil’s on your left, and you’ll be back in Moscow. Chaos compliments of battered buses and wealthy men driving modern Mercedes. Back at it, пробка и людей. But Red Square, as always, remains.

My $10,000,000 Uber Chauffeur

My last Uber Chauffeur drove a black Corolla and was worth $10,000,000. He called himself Schlomo, a Jewish name that sounds out of place in South Florida. I didn’t bring it up, but the conversation came around.

Are you Jewish?” He asked me halfway through the ride.

Nope”. 

Not everyone can be perfect” He replied, smiling at me in the rear-view mirror.

This came up after I asked Schlomo how old he was when he moved to Venezuela. So far we had talked about the history of Venezuela, the daily corruption, his son’s successful career on Wall Street, and the advantages of living in a tropical climate. I rarely seek conversation with my Uber drivers, but this time I wanted to know more. Schlomo seemed to be in good spirits for a man who lost his life’s work six months ago.

A Fallen Country

People wait hours in line to get food and basic supplies

Venezuela is one of the most violent countries in the world at the moment. 2015 saw an estimated 27, 875 murders. That’s 76 homicides every day in a country one-tenth the size of America. Most go unsolved.  People wait hours for toilet paper, eggs and bread. Inflation is so rampant that it’s impossible to exchange the Bolivar for dollars. The inflation rate in 2015 was 180%, crippling buying power and forcing people to shop on the black market. Schlomo brought this to life for me by giving a first hand recollection of how Venezuela’s out of control government has affected him.

I know Venezuela like the back of my hand. I’ve flown all over, all four corners. It’s a beautiful country and I loved living there. 30 years ago I began my company and today, if I could sell it in dollars, it would be worth $10,000,000. I had hundreds of employees, it’s a big business! I owned apartments, restaurants and property. That’s all gone. I left it in Venezuela.” 

I ask: “If there is a change in government is there any chance you could get everything back?” 

“Maybe. But there will be no change in government. Venezuela is corrupt and will not change. That’s why I’m here in America now. I couldn’t stay in Venezuela any longer. They nationalized my company, they took away everything. I had nothing left to stay for.” 

This is life in Venezuela, and if you fight you can be imprisoned or killed. That’s happening today, in a country three hours from Miami. Nor is Schlomo the only affected Venezuelan that I know. Beatrice, the wife of my friend in South Florida, had her family’s chocolate plantation nationalized. Her family lost everything in the name of an ideal that has probably never existed anywhere but paper. It’s a terrible waste and a scarily accurate example of the world that Ayn Rand created in Atlas ShruggedSo while the chances of positive change in Venezuela are slim, the chances are much higher that Schlomo will remain the wealthiest Uber Chauffeur I’ll ever shake hands with.

My Three Favorite Places

1. New York City

Beauty at its peak

A survey of Americans asked which city they would most like to live in or around. New York was number 1. The same survey asked which city would be the worst to live in or around. New York was number 1. If you like cities, you love New York. If you don’t like cities, it’s the bottom rung of hell. What sets New York apart from other places I’ve visited is the density. There’s more interesting shit in one block of downtown Manhattan than there is in my entire home town.

Not to mention the skyline. It’s fantastic, especially as seen from Williamsburg or Hoboken.

The public transit system runs 24 hours and it’s significantly cheaper than most other major cities. New York is also one of the most diverse places on the planet. If you speak a language, you’ll find someone in New York to speak it with. If you love to travel, you can live in New York and feel like you’re travelling because people come to you.

The rent may be exorbitant, but the benefits heavily outweigh the costs. There’s a level of vitality in New York that is not to be taken for granted.

2. South Beach

SoBe has one of the best beaches you can hope to find

I like Miami, I love South Beach. The shoreline is beautiful, Italian super cars disrupt the peace, and there’s a fantastic Spanish influence. I thrive in diverse places and South Beach is a meeting spot for people from Puerto Rico, Mexico, Venezuela, Argentina, Colombia, Peru, Cuba, and more. To a lesser extent you also meet people from Asia and Europe. SoBe is not a well-guarded secret.

While some aspects of South Beach are heavily commercialized (the hotels and shops selling glamorous crap), much of it still retains an authentic South Florida feeling. There are hotels and bars that look like they came out of a Scarface set. Ocean Dr. and the park that runs along the beach is pristine. So long as there isn’t a hurricane, the weather is ideal. I would be happy to spend several years here, learn Spanish, and build a nice life for myself.

3. Berlin 

Berlin is a beautiful blend of old and new

The city is modern, but you frequently encounter historical reminders. Bombed churches, holocaust memorials, and the famous Brandenburg Gate. The metro is affordable (or free if you’re a delinquent American named Sam) and will take you anywhere you need to go. That’s helpful when you need to get to the club, which is a smart move because the club scene is second to none. Berlin has the best techno in the world and you can experience it in a wide range of fascinating spaces.

Not only is the city a wonderful place to exist, but I’ve consistently found Germans to be the most enjoyable people to spend time with. They’re fun, they love to travel, and they make great friends. I get a kick out of Berlin and I warmly look forward to spending many more months there, perfecting my German and listening to techno.

Honorable Mentions

Best cheap place – Kiev

Best beach – Koh Pha-Ngan

Best place to avoid at all costs – Bangkok

Best food – Dubai

Best insanely expensive place – Copenhagen

Guest Post: Everything There is to Love About Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a country rich with bio-diversity, flora, fauna, views that take your breath away, dazzling beaches and much more.  After all the name Costa Rica translates to rich coast, the truth is Christopher Columbus gave the name thinking the land was rich in precious metals, nowadays the land doesn’t produce many precious metals but does produce a lot of good times.

better-view-of-jacoThe most popular saying that you need to know when visiting the country is “Pura Vida” The saying is used for just about anything but translates to pure life which basically sums up life in Costa Rica.  For several years Costa Rica has made the number one spot to take the reins as the happiest country in the world.  There is something that is a little different about Costa Rica, it almost feels like you are on a different planet where time doesn’t exist and the people are care free, what a beautiful life.

So what else is so great about the land of pura vida?

Clean Energy

The country has an outstanding record for running on renewable sources of clean energy.  Between June and August of 2016, for 76 days Costa Rica was running 100% on renewable energy and they aren’t far from being completely self-sufficient with renewable energy, a goal that is within sight for the country that does so much for the environment.

Good Vibes

manuel-antonio-monkeyWhether you are chilling on the Caribbean side with the Rasta’s or on the Pacific side you will feel very welcome.  The locals are extremely friendly and will always greet you with that popular saying, pura vida.  Also there is a big community of expats from around the world so not only will you have fellow travelers to compare stories with but you will have expats that know the land like experts, and can point you in the right direction to the best secret spots.

Exactly what you’re looking for

The climate has drastic differences from region to region, if you’re looking to relax on the beach in the sweltering sun you will have plenty of options to choose from including white sand, black sand and brown sand, the beaches in Costa Rica are nothing short of spectacular.  For some people the humidity and sun is a little much at the beach, those people don’t need to fret because the mountainous areas in Costa Rica are known to have the best and most moderate climates in the world.  The views from the mountains are like something from a story tail, it’s a magical sight to sit on top of a mountain taking in the scenery.  No matter where you are, at the beach or in the mountains the great thing is that nothing is far away, the cool mountain climate and the sizzling beaches are only separated by a short 30 minute to an hour and a half drive.  If you’re looking for snow, this paradise even has the cold stuff at times, the highest peak, Mount Chirripo will give you chills to the bone when climbing up to the top at 12,533 feet.

All the Activities

The variety of activities and tours has something to offer anyone from grandma to the grand kids.  For the older generation this is a bird watchers dream and don’t forget about all the other wildlife you will see like monkeys, sloths, Ocelots, frogs, crocodiles and more.  There are tons of guided tours that will have you in the care of experts showing you all the little things that your eyes will have a hard time catching.  The country is also perfect for the adventure seekers looking to get the adrenaline flowing and the heart racing.  Many people don’t know it but zip lining was actually invented in Costa Rica when biologists used cables to explore deep forests that had never been reached before.  With that being said there are bountiful zip line tours along with other tours like ATV adventures, kayaking, waterfall tours, rafting and much more.  For the guys trip the deep sea fishing is amazing and you guys can play a game of golf next to the ocean.  The surfing in Costa Rica is world famous and the country hosts several professional tournaments every year.  The movie endless summer released in 1966 is what put Costa Rica on the map for surfing.

The Food

Oh my god! Will be the words coming from your mouth when you bite in to a piece of pineapple, watermelon or one of the other exotic fruits that you won’t find at home such as Starfruit, Lulu, Passion Fruit or Cas just to name a few.  It’s the fact that everything is so fresh that makes the difference in flavor, when a meal is cooked with fresh ingredients it makes all the difference in the world.  Come try for yourself everything that this spectacular country has to offer.

Ross is an expat traveler from the USA who has settled in Singapore, Costa Rica and other countries.  Currently his website Vacation Rentals Costa Rica, LLC helps people when on vacation in Costa Rica. 

A Break from Travelling, A Vacation from Blogging

In light of my current lifestyle I’ve decided to take an indefinite break from posting new articles. This blog is devoted to travel and working online, neither of which I’m doing that much of right now. I’m living in New York City, I’ve got a full time job working as a writer and I couldn’t be happier. Every day I look up at the skyscrapers and think how grateful I am to be in my favorite place in the world. Kiev is swell, Miami is beautiful, Berlin is amazing, but there is nowhere in the world like New York. This is why I’m content to stay in one place for a while.

Will I travel again? Without a question. Seeing the rest of Scandinavia is a huge priority and I won’t consider my life complete until I’ve partied in Ibiza. Not to mention South America! But that’s in the future. In the present I’m thrilled to have an amazing job, and I’m reveling in the challenge of making it in New York.

Lessons from Travelling

A. The first thing that sprang to mind is Germans are cool. Whether meeting Germans in Bangkok or London, Kiev or Hanoi, they always struck me as the coolest chaps around. It’s a big part of the reason I’m studying German and why I blew my entire savings account on a month long trip to Berlin in September.

B. You’re capable of overcoming more challenges than you think. If you don’t go with a tour (which I highly recommend not doing), travelling is hard work. You have to buy bus tickets, find your way around, take a taxi, get directions, and function in a place where you don’t know the culture and the people may or may not speak English. However, you learn pretty quick that there’s always a solution to any problem.

C. The world works differently from where you were born and raised. What you consider incredibly strange is remarkably mundane for someone else. In Dubai there are separate compartments on the subway for chicks and dudes. In Hanoi families eat their dinner on the sidewalk while hundreds of people walk by. In Moscow people have an aversion to smiling but it’s OK to smoke on the train.

D. You can’t run away from yourself. As Seneca the Younger put it: “How can you wonder your travels do you no good, when you carry yourself around with you?” Wherever you go, there you are. If I’m in New York and I take a jet to Constantinople, I might feel free for a day or two, but I still check my mental baggage onto the plane with me. The only thing that’s changed is I can’t understand what anyone is saying and I’m out the cost of an overseas ticket. Instead of counting on travel to escape from problems that bother me, I’ve found that it’s better to get them taken care of wherever I already am.

E. People who you meet while travelling tend to continue travelling. For my old college friends, going to NYC for a few days is a big deal. Maybe even Miami for a week, but they rarely do anything “big”. However, I look at my Facebook feed and I see Americans I’ve met overseas and they never seem to be in the same place. Someone is always buying a ticket to somewhere exotic and doing something zany and awesome. This guy is in Australia, that girl is back in Thailand. And so it goes. I’m more likely to meet up with one of these people in Bombay then I am back at home.

F. In spite of the flaws, I like my own country. Americans are culturally retarded, they weigh too much, they’re on the precipice of electing a foul-mouthed liar, and they think that owning a machine gun is as unquestionable a right as breathing. Thankfully many of them don’t ever leave the country, or they might realize that people the world over are laughing at them. It’s frustrating and there is so much I would like to change. And yet America is still my home. I like how friendly people are, I like getting excellent service in a restaurant, I like the amazing pizza, I like having ice in my Coke, and I like the small towns and the big cities and everything in between. Most of all, I like being able to understand the language and know what the fuck is going on. America is flawed, but any country that can produce a place like NYC has got to have some real heart.

G. Finally, I’ve learned that I don’t need a lot of stuff to be happy. For more than a year now I’ve been living out of my two backpacks. And the longer I do it the more likely I am to keep even less stuff. However, I strive to make sure that what I do keep is only the best shit. I buy $100 jeans because they kick ass, and I have a pair of $200 German headphones that have lasted through the worst conditions imaginable. One day I’ll have a house with a living room and own a kid or two, but the lesson remains: the stuff you own ends up owning you.

And Finally

I’ve been writing for six years now. I write because I enjoy it and it’s better than watching TV. In four years I’ll have been writing for a decade. That’s exciting! And a good idea to close with. If I do post anything again before I start travelling, it will probably be stories. I tend to go through a phase once or twice a year where I get a kick out of writing short stories. Then it fades and I forget all about it and life continues. So until it’s time to scratch the story itch, I’ll leave you with a quote from Tim Ferriss, one my role models and a man whose hand I want to shake.

“What we fear doing most is usually what we most need to do”

What’s the Deal With Hungary?

I decided to take the train into Hungary because to hell with flying. I’m disgusted with standing in long security lines, stripping the belt and shoes, then getting molested by some tattooed guy who thought that eleventh grade was “really hard”. All of that and the reward is getting corrective knee surgery from the seat while a the budget airline stewardess offers to sell me a can of Coke for $6. Thanks, I’m not thirsty.

So I stayed at Watergate in Berlin till 6am, got my bags, took the Metro to the station, and got on the 9am train to Budapest. I would arrive eleven and a half hours later, well past sunset and starving. Getting off the train and walking through the station I was struck by its opulence and size. Admittedly I’ve been to fewer train stations than airports, but I’ve never seen one larger than Budapest’s Keleti station.

Stepping Into the City

Before arriving, the only thing that I knew about Hungary is that they had an influx of immigrants. Hungary is one of the first EU countries that immigrants encounter after leaving Turkey, and there are some thought provoking pictures of the result. However, by the time I arrived on the second to last day of September in 2016, the country had returned to normal.

I didn’t have a strong initial reaction to Budapest the way I did to Kiev (Love it, wish I had more than three days), London (can I afford to spend a whole summer here?) or Bangkok (Help, get me the hell out of here!). Budapest seemed sort of like Krakow, sort of like Prague, sort of like some city that you might find in Ohio that starts with the letter C. The buses are neither old nor new, the streets are well paved but there are few bike lanes, and the civilian traffic lights will nearly get you killed.

Hungarian Parliament building

The Hungarian Parliament Building.

I had a 20 minute walk from the train station to my hostel and I took advantage of that. Walking through Budapest at night felt nice enough and I appreciated the laidback vibe and lack strangers offering to sell me drugs; a serious annoyance in Berlin. As a side tangent, don’t buy drugs from street lurkers. All health and moral points aside, I came out of the club one morning and saw a guy pouring powdered sugar into a drug baggie. We made eye contact, and then he tried to sell me the bag of “drugs”. Seriously. Anyone who is this unintelligent is as likely to buy rat poison to fill up the bags as powdered sugar. Don’t risk it.

Back in Budapest, halfway to my hostel, I found a small square with several dozen immigrants, the first signs I had seen of the influx of Syrian refugees. However, it was less than fifty people, hardly a drop in the hundreds of thousands of people who have fled towns like Aleppo and Damascus. Maybe the refugees have been dispersed throughout Europe, or they’re concentrated in different areas in Budapest, but on my 2km walk from the train to the hostel I saw scant evidence of the crisis that was making the news last year.

Touring Budapest

The next day I left my two backpacks (my entire life for more than a year) and started a self-guided walking tour of Budapest. Unlike people who go on guided walking tours, I get to see more and stay longer at the places that interest me. Also unlike the people who go on walking tours, a majority of the time I have no fucking idea what I’m looking at. This can be seen in my firm belief that that Hungarian Parliament Building was actually a church.

A bridge in Budapest

Getting a good view of this bridge requires a hell of a climb.

The next thing I wanted to see was Liberty Statue, which is also on top of a large hill. The mistake is in thinking that once you’ve climbed the hill to Budapest Castle you’re done. This is not the case. To get to Liberty Statue I walked back down to water level, to this ornate bridge, and then started climbing. With the occasional rest and picture break, it took fifteen minutes to reach the top. I was sweaty but the view was worth it. Budapest was sprawled out below and Liberty Statue was connected to the sky above. I sat for a while, took some pictures and then started back down the hill. It was close to 4 and Kenny was already on the way to Budapest to pick me up.

Discovering Papa

I have more in common with Kenny than any other person I’ve ever met. We both come from one-stoplight-towns 15 miles apart, we both went to the same college and had the same Russian teacher, we both lived in Moscow and speak fluent Russian. We both love to travel, we’ve visited about the same number of countries, and we both foresee a not-so-unlikely future where we end up living in Europe. It’s like meeting a carbon copy of yourself, and naturally we have a blast together. Kenny stayed with me in New York for a few days, and now it was time for me to return the favor.

He got to my hostel around 5 and we shook hands. Then we bought some snacks, the bags got loaded, sunglasses donned, and we drove out of Budapest to the setting sun. Kenny drifted into the position of English teacher in the rural town of Papa and that’s where we were headed. Along the way it was interesting to see that with the fields and rolling hills, the countryside of Hungary could have been easily mistaken for Western New York where we grew up.

kenny-with-champagne

$2 for a bottle of champagne, it’s a good thing.

Arriving safely in Papa, we visited the local supermarket and spent $20 on booze for the weekend, including this surprisingly adequate $2 bottle of champagne. Then we drove back home, turned the couch into a bed, and popped the cork on the champagne. In the morning Kenny woke me up at noon and I scolded him for the early alarm.

Several hours and cups of coffee later we climbed the bell tower for a scenic view of the town. Then we toured the Esterházy family palace which was impressive. It’s the type of thing I would be unlikely to do alone, but was enjoyable to do with Kenny and his Hungarian friend. I admit it’s interesting to see the rich history of European towns, and to think that my own country’s most famous buildings are merely children compared to some of the structures in Europe.

Later, Kenny’s friend bought Unicum, the national liquor of Hungary, and we toasted to the final night together in Hungary. The next morning I said goodbye to Kenny, both knowing that we’ll see each other again. Then the smallest train I’ve ever seen in my life pulled into the station, I claimed a seat and was back in Budapest several hours later.

The Drinking Culture

Unless Kenny had told me, I wouldn’t have guessed that Hungary has a large “drinking culture”. Places like Russia, Ireland, and Ukraine are well known for their alcoholic tendencies. In a place like Germany, where you can drink on the street, there’s evidence all around of alcohol consumption and it’s hard to imagine the nation as one that admires sobriety over a good night of fun. But the intoxicating fact is that Hungary ranks right up near the top for per-person alcohol consumption. Depending on whether you want to believe this source, or this one, Hungary is either the 10th highest consumer of alcohol, just ahead of Russia. Or the 8th highest consumer, 4 places below Russia.

It may be tempting to blame this on the bargain-bucket priced alcohol, but that doesn’t tell the whole truth. A salary of $800 a month is considered high. So while alcohol is cheap, relative to an average salary it’s still a decent chunk of change.

What causes the drinking culture then? I think one of Kenny’s students put it well when he said “There’s nothing here for us. We all just want to graduate and move somewhere else.” Often in countries where this is the sentiment you’ll find excessive alcohol consumption. Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Belarus, and so on. There are plenty of people who would trade all the beer and and vodka in the world for an American, Australia, English, or Canadian passport.

Should we make it easier for people who want to emigrate to do so? Currently the opinion seems to be that we shouldn’t. I’m not sure whether that’s the correct decision or not, as there are so many factors to weigh. But I think it’s worth remembering that the people who have the audacity to leave their country and go struggle to establish themselves in a brand new culture, tend to be hardworking, courageous, and success orientated.

The Standard of Living

Papa is old and beautiful.

Papa is old and beautiful.

Despite the drinking statistics, as far as I can tell people in Hungary have a good standard of living. Most of the trains are modern, the roads are well paved, and the cars are on average much nicer than what you can expect to find in Ukraine or Russia. People also live in nice houses and apartments. You won’t find the behemoth, Soviet Style apartment buildings anywhere in Hungary the way you will in Kiev or Moscow. People are also more friendly and say hi to one another on the street, something that happens only infrequently in the aforementioned countries.

So all in all I enjoyed my time in Hungary. Papa, while not a sprawling metropolis, has a rich history and wonderful old buildings. Budapest is beautiful and affordable, which aren’t two adjectives that always go together. Would I come back? I don’t think so, as there are other places that I still have to cross off my list. Would I tell my friends to come? Yes and no. If you’ve already visited some well known cities like Prague, Berlin, Venice, London, Kiev, Moscow, Madrid, France or Krakow, and you’re looking for something a bit different, Budapest may be just the ticket! But if it’s your first foray into Europe, maybe you should check out some of the big names first, and then come to Budapest. The city has been here for hundreds of years and it’s not going anywhere soon.