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The B in Apartment 403

The B in Apartment 403

I loved my last apartment in DC. There were some drawbacks, like my neighbors. They either talked too loud or paced back and forth nonstop or liked jumping up and down on their mattress (a.k.a. having sex). I also didn’t like being on the first floor because people walking by could see into my apartment, but it was a huge one-bedroom in a great location.

I knew to expect that the size of accommodations would most likely be much quainter in Seoul. Most schools include housing in their contracts for foreign teachers, so that means they have the power to decide where you get to stay. And, most likely, they’re going to find the cheapest possible place. When I showed up at my school one December evening after flying halfway around the world with basically no sleep, the principal took me to my apartment, which is one building away from the actual school. After taking the elevator to the fourth floor, he punched in the door code (no keys here) while I mentally repeated “Please be big. Please be big.” I can get by in a lot of living situations, but I need to have space to move around. At my DC apartment, I could alternate laying in my bed, lounging on the couch, or sitting at my dining room table. I appreciate being able to feel like I’m different places without leaving my home or having to put on pants.

from Etsy

But, when the door swung open and I stepped into my apartment for the first time, I had to quickly face the fact that this place was tiny and I would just have to suck it up while I’m here. No one explained how the heat or hot water worked, and the apartment was as barebones as possible. No plates, no utensils, not even a pair of wooden chopsticks. So my first few days in Seoul were spent trying to figure out where to buy things for my apartment with no understanding of the Korean language. I survived on plastic plates and forks for a decent amount of time until Big Sis Melanie could hook me up with some metal utensils.

In the six months I’ve lived in this building, I still do not know a lot of things. I’ve never met my neighbors and I just learned that I have a gas bill and that I’m supposed to pay it every month. However, I do know that I live in apartment 403. Four is an unlucky number in Korea (and other East Asian countries) because the same character for “four” in Chinese is very similar to the character for “death”. A lot of places don’t even have fourth floors or they put “F” instead of “4” on elevator buttons.

from “25 Ways to be Lucky and Unlucky the Korea Way”

And I live on the fourth floor. So, I was cursed from the start.

Let’s start with the bed. Korean beds don’t typically come with sheets; they just use multiple quilts. But, I wanted sheets because they are easier to clean regularly. No sheets fit this bed though! I think it must be a twin XL or something. I had my mom bring some old twin sheets when she visited. They too small! And I can feel every crease in that mattress. No thank you. Miss you, queen size pillowtop.

The bed from hell. No sheets fit it correctly.
The bed from hell. No sheets fit it correctly.

My contract says that my apartment will be furnished with a “table and chairs”. This is what I got. A TV tray table. It also came with a shitty office chair that I hated, so I replaced it with this dining room chair that I found on the street. Major improvement.

The bed and this chair are the only places to sit in this apartment. No couch. 🙁 That also means anyone who spends the night has to sleep on the floor. So far, that’s been Nick and me when my sister spent the night.

My desk/dining room table/couch
My desk/dining room table/couch. Cute wall though.

If you turn around, you’re in my kitchen/laundry room. It comes complete with a “stove” on top of the washing machine and a fridge that can’t figure out whether it’s a minifridge or a regular-sized fridge.

My kitchen/laundry room complete with baby fridge

There was a TV in my apartment, but I couldn’t figure out how to make it work and I watch TV on my computer anyway, so I put it in “storage”.

Such a great use of space
Such a great use of space

My bathroom’s decently sized, but the downfall of that is that I don’t have a closed-off shower area. I just have a showerhead on the wall. I’m fine with that. I’ve used them before, especially when I lived in Turkey. But, it just sucks having one with a big bathroom because everything gets wet when I shower.

Where isn't the shower?
Where isn’t the shower?

So, my apartment’s pretty small. I can’t do yoga on the floor space without bumping into some piece of furniture. But, it’s been home enough and it’s free. I’ve further supplemented my meager furnishings with a cow print table, a nightstand, and some artwork, all of which I found on the street.

How much do you think this would get at Sotheby's?
How much do you think this would get at Sotheby’s?

So me disliking my apartment makes it extra fun to visit my sister’s apartment. The U.S. military apparently values its employees more than my private English academy does. Melanie has three bedrooms. My apartment IS the bedroom…and the kitchen and living room, etc. You can actually walk around the place and there is fast internet. Much better than my ethernet connection.

I can’t believe it’s already been six months since I moved into my place. But, not for much longer. Next month, I will no longer be the B—- in Apartment 403.

via GIPHY

7 Tips for Saving Money in Iceland

7 Tips for Saving Money in Iceland

Iceland had long been at the top of my list of countries to visit. Everything I saw and learned about the island of roughly 320,000 people drew me in. The country’s unique landscapes have served as the background for the popular TV show “Game of Thrones”, the movie “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (and others), and music videos for The Saturdays (my favorite), Bon Iver, and Justin Bieber.

Despite Iceland’s limited population, Icelanders are quite progressive socially. They elected the first openly gay female head of government, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, in 2009, and about one-third of the country attends the annual Reykjavik Pride events. One third!

Rainbow street in Reykjavik
A street painted with rainbow colors in Reykjavik

Reykjavik also hosts the world’s largest display of penises and penile parts at the Icelandic Phallological Museum.

Icelandic Phallological Museum

So, Iceland has a reputation for being jam-packed with sights, history, and culture. I was determined to go.

But, my main deterrent was the cost. No longer simply the homeland of Björk and Sigur Rós, Iceland has been discovered as a tourist hot spot in recent years. With that, there are many more options for people to experience Iceland. With proper planning, I was able to travel around Iceland for a week and see a fair amount while not spending as much as I thought I had to. There were also some things I realized could have saved me money had I known in advance.

This is where where I went in Iceland:

Here are my top tips for traveling Iceland on a budget:

#1 Use a budget airline (if you dare). As with anything, there are pros and cons. Wow Air, a budget Icelandic airline, had recently started flying directly from Baltimore to Reykjavik, so I bought a round trip ticket for $250. The positive of this was the dirt cheap direct flight. The cons were the additional fees for all checked bags and any carry-ons over 7 kilograms (15 pounds). It’s difficult enough to pack for a different climate in a carry-on, but the luggage restrictions can also cause serious delays when checking in. I almost missed my return flight because every customer in front of me seemed to be checking multiple suitcases and ski equipment.

Onboard the flight, there are absolutely no frills. You pay for all food and drinks and if you want entertainment, you can rent an iPad for the duration of the flight.

Wow Air’s route map (courtesy wowair.us)

#2 Travel with a buddy or two. This doesn’t always work out because people have other commitments and it’s hard to align schedules, but another person can split the price of renting a car, filling up on gas, and sometimes you can get a nicer or private room if you pool your money. Lodging in Iceland is still quite pricey so you and your travel partner(s) still might have to sleep in a hostel dorm room, but you might be able to upgrade to an Airbnb or other private accommodation. Also, if you have another driver, you can alternate resting and driving so that you are able to cover more ground during your trip. There were definitely more sights I could have seen, but I just didn’t have enough energy.

Was just me on this trip. Lots of selfies.
Was just me on this trip. Lots of selfies.

#3 Watch what you eat. I don’t mean eat less necessarily, but the difference between eating out at a restaurant and buying food from the supermarket is pretty steep in Iceland. So, if you’re on a tight budget and don’t mind passing on Iceland’s culinary scene, you can save a bunch by not eating out as much or even at all. This is extreme and I know it won’t work for everyone, but I got by in Iceland by buying a jar of peanut butter and a jar of jam at the beginning of my trip. I bought fresh bread every day to make PB&Js. It wasn’t glamorous and a bit repetitive but it did the trick.

If you stay at hostels, there is often a shelf for communal or leftover food that past backpackers either ditched to save weight in their pack or because they couldn’t take it in their carry-on luggage on the flight home. Whatever the reason, I scored some great Nutella, pretzels, and soup mixes from several hostel freebie shelves.

 

#4 Bring food with you if you can. I had planned on bringing a ton of snacks to tide me over between meals, but I had to ditch several bags of Chex Mix so that I could save room and weight in my carry-on bag. But, you may be able to bring a few snacks with you or at least stuff your pockets with Cliff bars before checking in for your flight.

 

#5 Skip the Blue Lagoon if you’re strapped for cash. I know it’s marketed as the most idyllic part of Iceland, especially for travelers on a quick stopover, but entrance to the Blue Lagoon can be pricey. The most basic entrance fee during the off-season is 40 Euros (about $45). And that doesn’t include transportation or any extras like being able to use a towel. If you’re trying to save money but still want to experience some of Iceland’s geothermal water, go to a regular public swimming pool. For 900 krona (a little more than $7), you can enter Reykjavik’s Laugardalslaug pool complex, which includes an indoor pool, outdoor pools, and some very relaxing hot pots.

If you’re renting a car, you can find hot springs that are free to use also. Try http://hotpoticeland.com/ to search for both hot pots and swimming pools around the country.


#6 Save on accommodation.
Bring your own sleeping bag. It is quite common for hostels to charge you to rent their sheets. I bought this lightweight sleeping bag that could easily fit in my carry-on. It’s not the warmest, but it was perfect for the summertime when I was there. 

You can also camp or rent a camper van. Purchase the Camping Card, which allows a family or group to camp for up to 28 nights at 41 campsites around Iceland for 110 Euros ($125). Campervan Iceland is one of several companies that rents out campervans. Their cheapest option starts at 15,500 krona (about $126) during the low season and can sleep two.

 

#7 Pay less to drink. Alcohol can be pretty expensive when you’re out in Iceland. You can save a fair amount by stopping at the duty-free before leaving the airport and stocking up on whatever Icelandic or foreign liquor you want. Or save even more by not drinking.

Iceland’s water is super clean, so don’t waste money on bottled water. Bring water bottles and fill up at your accommodation before heading out for the day.

You could drink at this bar in Reykjavik if you wanted to.
You could drink at this bar in Reykjavik if you wanted to.

Bonus: FREE STUFF!!

Many of the waterfalls and amazing scenery are accessible just by pulling over on the highway. Make sure you’re well out of the road if you stop though.

Visiting the Skógafoss waterfall is completely free.
Visiting the Skógafoss waterfall is completely free.

 

Despite it being the summer, I was able to glimpse a single streak of the Northern Lights as I walked back to my hostel after a night out in Reykjavik.

The amazing view behind this blurry photo was completely free.
The amazing view behind this blurry photo was completely free.

I also got a free pic with Bjork.

She didn’t sign any autographs though.
She didn’t sign any autographs though.

 

So, Iceland lived up to all of the hype for being a very progressive, quirky, and beautiful country that a lucky few are able to call home. Its Scandinavian prices may still prevent many from being able to afford a trip to Iceland, but the expansion of the tourism industry there will hopefully bring more budget options for visitors. Until then, I hope that these tips will help you plan an affordable but unforgettable trip to Iceland.

Mamma Mia in Korea

Mamma Mia in Korea

Carol Ann is a workaholic and not one to stray far from her daily routine. After 21 years in the U.S. Air Force, my mom now works at the Pentagon as a certified bad bitch.

However, my parents and little sister live about 80 miles away from my mom’s work meaning she commutes over 150 miles each day round trip. Between waking up at 3:30 a.m., sitting in a vanpool for 2-4 hours a day depending on traffic, working, and falling asleep in the recliner during Jeopardy, my mom has a pretty tight schedule. Because of this, I didn’t have high hopes that she would make it to Korea despite her initial promise of visiting my older sister and me.

I’ve had a handful of international adventures from high school until now and my mom has made a decent effort to try and visit me, at least during the important times. She came to my high school graduation in Costa Rica and my college graduation in Oklahoma.

She never made it to Israel, Turkey, or Armenia though. I was the most bummed about her not coming to Turkey since she had lived there before. But I had to accept that my mom is a busy lady and uses her vacation days to take my little sister to the orthodontist and catch up on her crochet projects.

As soon as I knew my work schedule here in Korea, I told my mom. Every weekend when I’d call her, she would promise to look for a ticket soon. After about a month of this and still no ticket, I had pretty much decided that she wasn’t coming. I was disappointed because I thought it would be fun for her, my sister, and me to have an international adventure.

One day I woke up and found two surprising emails: one was from a Huffington Post editor about a story I had pitched (published here) and the other was my mom’s itinerary for her trip to Korea. Exciting! But, we only had about three weeks until her arrival.

My sister and I worked together to plan our time with Carol Ann and made sure to eat at places that fit my mom’s restrictive diet of highly processed foods and no vegetables.

First, we both met my mom at the airport.

Carol Ann loves a deal so visiting Korea is see one child, get to see another one for free.

A post shared by Peter Jones (@pitajones) on

Then she stayed with my sister for a few days because I had to work. Melanie kept me updated on how things were going.

Then we traded off and my mom came up to Seoul to spend time with me.

We checked a lot of things off of my Seoul bucket list, one of which was buying and mastering a selfie stick. My mom is not the biggest fan of walking but always complied with my plans. She constantly had me check the pedometer on my phone to see how far we’d gone. Our busiest day was about 25,000 steps and close to 11 miles.

Carol Ann in Korea
Resting her feet

The highlight of the trip for me was the DMZ tour we went on. My sister had organized it through the base. I didn’t like having to wake up early but I would recommend it to anyone living in or just visiting Korea. We went to observation points where we could glimpse North Korea from across the border. We also were able to walk more than 1,000 meters down an underground tunnel dug by the North Koreans.

My favorite part was going to the Dorasan train station. It is the last station in South Korea and many Koreans hope that the line will be extended to North Korea when the Korean peninsula as a whole is reunited. I love train travel, and it’s so interesting to think that one day in the future it could be possible to travel all the way from mainland Europe to South Korea by land.

I also liked going to the Joint Security Area (JSA), a very recognizable spot in the DMZ. Conan O’Brien even stopped there on his recent tour of South Korea. We were able to technically cross the border into North Korea inside the conference room used for past negotiations. Here’s a picture of Melanie and my mom in NK.

But the other tourists in our group were complete dumbos who just stood in the way. So, by the time I was ready for my pic, we were told that time was up and we had to leave.

#clusterfuck
#clusterfuck

The next day was Mother’s Day and we celebrated by…

And just like that, our trip was over. I had to go back to Seoul to work and my mom had to catch her flight back to the U.S. It was a great trip and I’m so happy that the three of us now have many more fun memories together.

But I miss my mom.

Published Travel Writer

Published Travel Writer

I took a travel writing class and wrote my final assignment about a trip to Colombia with my friends from college, Cindy and Elizabeth. I submitted it to an English language newspaper in Colombia who published it on their website and in their printed August edition. Several other news sites (none of them major) also picked up the article, including Bermuda Triangle News and Colombia Reports.

The article is edited down, so I wanted to post my original submission. Of course, they took out my mention of “boob sweat” but published is still published. Although it’s a travel story and not a groundbreaking news report or investigative reporting feature, I’ll take it.

Here’s my original draft:

Plan-cation: All I ever wanted?

My good friends from college, Cindy and Elizabeth, were in agreement that we had to plan as much of our trip to Colombia ahead of time as possible. I didn’t feel the same way because my experience has taught me that planning leads to disappointment and should be avoided. But, rather than voice my concerns, I held my tongue and let the planning proceed. Elizabeth, a recent med school graduate, and Cindy, a graduate of both Cambridge and Georgetown Law School, seemed to know how to plan. Educated and with serious boyfriends, their accomplishments blew my 9-5 job and forever single lifestyle out of the water.

The first half of our 10-day trip passed without any major hiccups. At my friends’ insistence, we had booked places to stay for almost every night. I thought this was unnecessary because it was the off season, but it actually turned out well. We always had a guaranteed private room that was perfectly positioned at the intersection of affordable and comfortable.

On the sixth day of our trip, we took a city bus from our hostel in Santa Marta, about four hours from the colonial city of Cartagena on the Caribbean coast, over to the neighboring town of Taganga. According to our guidebook, the beachy enclave was supposed to be a hippie hangout and a good launching point for Tayrona National Park, arguably home of the best beaches in the country. When we reached Taganga late that morning and told the hostel owner our plan to head to the national park, he quickly set us straight. “It is now too late to go to Tayrona and return today. You must go tomorrow,” he stated matter-of-factly in thickly accented English. Apparently, there were limited transportation options, and since the park did not use any electricity, trying to get back after sunset would be a horror movie waiting to happen.

This put a wrench in our plan, but luckily we had given ourselves some flexibility. We made due with the gritty sand of Taganga for the day and just took it easy. It was our first beach of the trip, so we couldn’t complain.

Early the next morning, a minibus picked us up at our hostel to take us to Tayrona National Park. The shuttle took us to the tourist company office where we were expected to pay for the busride TO the beach and the boat ride back FROM the beach. The employees clearly stated that the only boat coming back that day would leave at 4pm. As Cindy, Elizabeth, and I each took turns paying in an orderly fashion, a pair of tall, lanky American guys mumbled to each seeming to formulate some sort of plan for how they were going to pay. I thought that the situation was pretty simple to understand – you give the money, you get a ticket, you get on the bus – but the two of them overthinking the process became too stressful for me to watch. And we hadn’t even left Taganga!

After piling back on the bus, my friends and I made small talk for the hour-long trip to the park entrance. We were all in good spirits and even more excited to get to Tayrona after yesterday’s delay. Once we arrived, we got to know the unprepared duo while we waited for everyone to pay the entrance fee. We learned that they were buddies who had just arrived in Colombia a few days earlier and were surviving on the one’s intermediate level of Spanish. I guess they were brave for trying and had been pretty successful if they had made it this far.

The bus drove ten minutes into the park before dropping us off at the end of the road. We had to hike through the dense rainforest to get the rest of the way to the beach. Cindy, Elizabeth, and I were excited to work up a sweat before rewarding ourselves with a day of beaching. And sweat we did. Within minutes, I was reassured that underboob sweat is not only a female phenomenon. Fortunately, this unsightly spotting was soon evened out as my entire shirt became a whole shade darker over the next hour.

But, the hike made the beach that much more enjoyable when we got there. We exchanged sticky clothes for swimsuits and jumped into the cool water of Arrecifes beach, the easternmost of the six swimmable beaches in Tayrona. From there, we hiked 10 minutes west to La Piscina beach and finally on to El Cabo San Juan de Guia, the beach most representative of Tayrona. It was also the place that our bus company had told us the boat would leave from at four o’clock.

After a quick dip, we decided to spend our remaining time in the shade at the one beachfront restaurant. Several people from our bus were also at El Cabo, and we started talking to one member of the odd couple who was by himself. The four of us exchanged pleasantries about how perfect the beaches and the weather were. Although clad in shorts, a button-down, and sneakers, he seemed to be enjoying himself. I guess not everyone needs a bathing suit when they go to the beach.

Our conversation came to a close, but before turning to walk away, he said, “The boat leaves at five, right?” “No,” I responded honestly, “It leaves at four.” The guy’s easygoing demeanor quickly became panicked. He hurriedly explained that his friend had gone to see some ruins an hour away, expecting the boat to leave at five. It was now after three and his companion was nowhere in sight. Although the friend at the ruins had both tickets, our sneaker-wearing beach bum had already decided that he would desert his friend and take the boat alone if it came down to it.

As it neared four o’clock, my friends and I lined up for the boat, discussing whether the friend would return on time and the two would make the boat. I had my money against it because I like a little drama. But, to our surprise, the pair ran up just in time, wearing smiles of relief. The 45-minute boat ride was extremely bumpy and a little wet but offered amazing views of the deserted beaches and stoic cliffs that we passed on our way back back to Taganga.

Onboard, I had to thank my lucky stars that Elizabeth and Cindy emphasized having a plan ahead of time. For me, there is a happy medium to find with planning, which includes a little spontaneity and wiggle room. I felt confident that we had incorporated enough of that to balance out the planning and avoid having a close call like our less prepared bus/boatmates. I also knew that we were too good of friends to ever leave someone behind if they missed the boat.