Some Things I’ve Done to Travel
One of the things that I really love to do is travel. However, I don’t have tons of money. So, over the years I’ve done a few creative things- and some ordinary things- to afford travel. Of course, the internet abounds with advice about how people can quit their job and travel…or how anyone can travel if they are simply determined enough. This is absolutely untrue. I can’t quit my job. My bills will not magically evaporate. I am extremely fortunate that I currently have a job that has allowed me to travel- far more than most Americans are able to. I am also fortunate that I don’t have children, pets, or anything or anyone to take care of other than myself. This gives me far more freedom to leave- and to save. I have a lot of privilege in terms of health, nationality, race, ability, etc. that also allow me to travel. So, even though I am a working class person- I have traveled much more than most Americans and most other members of my class. These are a few of the things I have done to travel. Perhaps some of them might be helpful to some people. A few make for unusual stories. And certainly, I don’t want to spread a narrative that with hard working and dedication dreams can come true. They often don’t on account of systems of inequality. Thankfully, I have been able to obtain a few of my dreams. Here is how…
(One of my favorite pictures- outside of Chernobyl Reactor 4)
1. Donate Eggs:
I discussed this in an earlier blog post, but back in 2008 I donated eggs to pay off some bills and to help save up money for a trip to Cuba. At the time, it was illegal for U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba because of the trade embargo. However, there were a few exceptions to this rule. It was possible to travel to Cuba for research (as well as journalism and cultural exchanges). So, I traveled to Cuba with Global Exchange on a research delegation. It was designed to be a research delegation centered around education. To qualify, delegates had to be working full time in an education field or a graduate student. Back then, I worked as a tutor for Americorps in a program that served homeless youth in my community. It was one of the most rewarding and enjoyable jobs I have had. The trip was rather spendy (especially considering that my Americorps stipend was pretty meager), so donating eggs helped with some of the cost (though I mostly spent that money on bills). Interestingly, I was in the midst of donating while I was visiting Cuba. Yep…so I was giving myself daily injections of Gonal-F while touring schools and universities. The highlight of the trip was a visit to the Center for Sex Education, where I learned about how Cuba approaches sex ed. Shortly after returning to the U.S., I made me third and final egg donation. I definitely wanted to donate eggs more than I did, but medical complications got in the way of that. It was disappointing, but a good lesson that you should not put all of your eggs in one basket.
2. Medical Study:
I didn’t actually do this to save up for a trip, but to cover my living expenses upon my return. So…back in 2010 I spent a semester in South Korea, followed by half the summer in Beijing and a visit to North Korea. The North Korea trip was rather expensive. At the time, there were fewer companies that traveled to North Korea. I went with Koryo tours for a ten day trip during the Mass Games (if I remember rightly). And, while I earned a small stipend while in South Korea, it was hard to survive six months in Asia without regular work. I literally had spent all of my money upon my arrival back to the U.S. Worse, a new semester was about to start and I needed money for books. For some quick cash, I volunteered for a two week medical study. Although it is closed now, there was a medical research facility in Fargo- which is about a four and a half hour drive from Duluth. Their website advertised several studies, but I tried for one that was about two weeks long because it paid a few thousand dollars. So…I went to Fargo, was screened for the study, and was accepted. The study itself involved trying out some sort of respiratory spray. Twice a day, each of the patients was administered medication through an inhaler. Honestly, it was a horrible time. We sat in a room full of hospital beds. We were not allowed to leave the beds (to go outside, exercise, etc.) and experienced several blood draws daily. It was torturous to stay in bed waiting for time to pass. Our only entertainment was an endless parade of terrible movies. I remember a LOT of romantic comedies. I wrote and drew, but was terribly restless. The days seemed to draw on forever as I watched the sunshine turn to night from a hospital bed. I also hated how regimented life was. We had to eat our meals without waste or extras. Of course, this was all to control the conditions of the experiment. And, I should also be happy that my inhaler never actually gave me any of the medication. Others complained of a bitter taste, but my inhaler didn’t have a taste. I lucked out and was probably a control subject. I made it through the ordeal, but it was one of the most boring things I’ve endured. On the bright side, I met a medical student studying in Cuba during the experiment. She joined the experiment for extra cash for visiting her family, since even though her education was paid for- she did not have money for travel expenses.
(Random guinea pig image from Pinterest)
3. Work Illegally:
While staying with my friend Rose in Beijing, I worked. Because I was there on a tourist visa, this was technically illegal. I didn’t work that much. I just did some English tutoring for extra spending money. Rose connected me with the opportunities to do a little tutoring. She also connected me with an opportunity to earn $200 by pretending to work for a school in Xian. What happened next is a long story, but it involved a very long train ride, fear that I was being trafficked, and NOT actually ending up in Xian. If you want to know the long story….well, here it is (copied from an earlier blog post). If not, read on to the next heading.
“While in Beijing, I did some English tutoring for spending money. This is illegal, as it is illegal to work on a travel visa, but it was done in private homes and at a café. Another way that some people make money is through “white face” jobs. Basically, you can get paid to be white (isn’t that the epitome of racial privilege?). These jobs are temporary positions given to white people, wherein they pretend to work for a school or company to bolster the image of the organization as more international and therefore prestigious. Rose called me about such an opportunity. All I had to do was pretend to be an English teacher. In exchange, I would be taken on a 2 day trip to Xian and paid $200. Sounds good! An opportunity to leave Beijing and see Xian, where the Terra Cotta warriors are….and get paid. So, I arrived at the train station to meet “Chuck” the head of a language school. Chuck bought my train ticket, but didn’t tell me much about the trip or what is expected of me. I asked Chuck if there will be time to see the Terra Cotta Warriors. He became quiet and thoughtful, then stated that we are going THROUGH Xian but our destination is actually Yan’an. We needed to take the train to Xian to get to Yan’an. This revelation marked the beginning of my Kaftkaesque journey.
I got on the sleeper train, which if I recall took about twelve hours to get to Xian. The additional trip to Yan’an was another five hours or so. So, after seventeen or eighteen hours on a train, I was pretty exhausted. I still had no idea what was expected of me. My only instructions were that I was supposed to pretend to be a teacher for his school. The arrival in Yan’an was hazy. We took the train there and visited a temple. However, I was informed that Yan’an was not our final, final destination. Rather, it was a smaller city about an hour away. We travelled there by car, but were now joined by an entourage of unfamiliar people whose position or relationship to Chuck were unknown to me. Chuck sped along at what seemed like a hundred miles an hour, even passing a police car that was travelling too slow for his taste. As undemocratic as China is, there does not seem to be as much policing of everyday things such as driving or littering as there is in the U.S. or this policing is less consistent. As such, not only was speeding by a police car to pass it seemingly acceptable, so is driving on the sidewalk from time to time. We arrived at our final, final destination and checked into the hotel. Chuck informed me that there would be a dinner at six.
Before dinner, I asked Chuck what I should say to his company. He told me not to worry, as none of them spoke English. So, once again, I knew nothing about my position as a fake teacher. No idea about the school or what grades I taught, how long that I worked there, or anything. Oh well. Weary from the long journey, I attended dinner. Of course, I was seated by a diplomat, who spoke English. And, while everyone else watched my reaction to the food, eagerly hoping that I enjoyed it, he asked me questions about my job. The surreal dinner, wherein I felt that I was the dinner entertainment….there to please everyone with assurances that the food is good and eat more as I am given it….stared at the entire time…continued. Only, each time I tried to answer the questions posed in English by the diplomat, Chuck answered for me in Mandarin. They conversed about my position….in front of me….in Chinese. This left me entirely in the dark about the lie that Chuck was concocting about me. It made me anxious. All of it made me anxious. The dinner went on forever. The food was actually pretty good, which seemingly pleased everyone that I ate it. On a side note, I hate feeling the pressure to eat and even more, I hate it when people watch me eat. But, I suppose we all do this when we have guests….eagerly hoping they will like what has been introduced to them.
We all returned to the hotel and I was informed that I must be up at 6 am the next morning. I talked to Chuck at the door of my room about this. He tried twice to push himself into my hotel room, but I blocked him with my shoulder and door. I really didn’t want to be alone in my room with Chuck. The next morning involved an award ceremony to celebrate the anniversary of a school. This is why so many politicians, school administrators, and important people were there. This cleared up a little what exactly we were doing there. At the same time, the two day trip had already been three days. Oh well. I assumed that we would return after the ceremony the next day.
The following day there was a ceremony, complete with children singing and dancing. There were speeches and a band. It was all a pretty big to-do for the anniversary of a school. When it was over, I asked Chuck when we will return to Beijing. He told me that it might be a day or two. He doesn’t know. A day or two?! After my very long train ride, enduring a couple of meals, complete isolation from everyone that I know- in fact, no one in the world even knows where I am, a ceremony, and now an uncertain return….things fell apart. The whole thing had been pretty uncomfortable to begin with. Never have I felt so powerless and isolated. I began to think that maybe I would not be returned to Beijing. Chuck went on to inform me that I must attend another meal with him.
I snapped. I informed Chuck that I would not eat until I return to Beijing. He said that if I don’t eat it will embarrass him. I told him that I want to go back to Beijing and can’t eat until I return. This was my only tool. A hunger strike. Chuck begged me to eat. I reluctantly agreed to at least attend the lunch. I attended the lunch, but only nibbled. The Chinese guests offered me some apple juice that was made locally. It tasted warm and fermented. More misery. However, at the end of this meal, Chuck magically produced some train tickets and announced that we would be returning to Beijing that afternoon.
17 long hours later. I enjoyed the crinkled yellow brown landscape of the Loess Plateau and the snaking Yellow River. The landscape became less like a curtain of sandy mounds and flattened. There were farms and nuclear reactors. Yan’an was the end of the Long March. I feel as though I had been on a long march of uncertain roles, awkward meals, fear, and isolation. We arrived back in Beijing. Chuck asked me if I wanted to grab breakfast with him. I said no. I took my $200 and left.”
(Image of Terracotta warriors from the Chicago Tribune. I never did get to see them…)
4. Work- Really Hard:
This heading is not as interesting as the others, but there were times that I just worked really, really hard. One of those times was…once again…when I was saving for the Cuba trip. Despite the money from egg donating, I still ended up working WITHOUT A DAY OFF from March until June. This was hellish. But, it was back when I was doing a year of Americorps service. The monthly stipend was about $800 a month after taxes. Still, going to Cuba was important to me. Everyone who I knew who had visited Cuba tended to gush about it- with the exception of Adam. He hates being warm. Travel to Cuba seems to be a leftist rite of passage. Activists often want to travel there to see for themselves what this tiny, embargoed, island nation has done in terms of healthcare and education- against all odds. So, I worked very hard that spring. I did my Americorps services on Monday through Friday, then worked double shifts at a hotel over the weekends. It was exhausting. And, there is something quite demoralizing about looking at a calendar and seeing an endless stretch of work without a day off. But, I survived it- and definitely earned that trip.
(Random image stolen from a google search.)
5. Join a Mission Trip
This is pretty embarrassing at this point in my life, but back when I was 19 I was still religious. My friend Libby invited me to join her church on a mission trip. I joined the trip more for the travel experience than any calling to save souls. Yep, so I went on a bus trip to Mexico with her church. Although I was religious at the time, I really didn’t fit in. I didn’t dress conservatively enough and had to be told to cover up more. I also wasn’t socialized into her church, so I suppose there were theological and behavioral norms that I didn’t conform to. But, we did help with some minor construction on a church and I was able to see a really awesome cave in a mountain while everyone else went to a water park. The cave was called Grutas de Garcia and was fascinating in that I took a cable car up the mountain, then entered a cave which at one time was under a prehistoric sea. Various marine fossils could be seen on the walls of the cave. The mountains were pretty and it was an interesting social experience. Still, in retrospect it was a weird thing to do, especially since it hardly seems that Mexico is in need of spiritual or religious help from U.S. missionaries. But, it was a two week trip to Mexico for under $500. It was also one of the last memorable religious activities that I was involved with (as I stopped going to church or attending religious events in the subsequent years). Finally, it was a happy memory with my friend Libby- who was my best friend since the first grade. Maybe I wasn’t the best at being religious, but it was certainly worth it to share an experience with her.
(Image from Tours in Monterrey)
6. Tax Refund
I usually spend my tax refund on travel. To ensure that I actually get a tax refund, I claim zero on my taxes so that more money is taken out of my paychecks each month. I have read that this is not good financial advice, as if a person simply saved more, they would earn interest on the savings. However, since I am not always that great at saving- having more taken out of my paycheck in taxes has resulted in much larger tax refunds at the end of the year. I think that this scheme will dwindle once I start substitute teaching and now that I can’t claim a credit for being a graduate student. But, in previous years, I usually received $1000- $3000 back in taxes. I used that money towards going to Eastern Europe and the Balkans for a month back in 2014 and the Baltic Countries/Ukraine/Belarus in 2015.
7. Second Savings Account
One of my strategies in the past has been to have two savings accounts. The second savings account was located at an out of the way bank (in an area I don’t often visit in Duluth) and did not have an ATM card. By making my money harder to access, I did not dip into the savings. It also kept the money separate from my regular savings- so the money was earmarked specifically for travel. I have since closed the second account, but I found this to be a very useful savings strategy and one that I want to employ in the future (probably a non-travel savings account).
8. Regular Saving and Working…
This is mainly what I do now to travel. It doesn’t make for a good story. Save and work. Blah. To that end, I picked up some extra shifts at work this month. I try to pick up extra shifts when I can. The other day, I worked a sixteen hour shift followed by a twelve hour shift the next day. I might try substitute teaching in my free time as well. (Though typically I only work 40 hours a week). On the saving front, I will admit that I am terrible at saving. I have too many hobbies and eat out way too much. But, I’ve been using Mint since March and find that it helps me track my spending and set saving goals. Each month I try to squirrel away money. But, it seems that once I save up enough- I spend it all on travel. So, perhaps I could add “living irresponsibly” to my list of things I do to travel, as I am definitely NOT saving up for retirement or a rainy day. My goal is to eventually become good enough at saving that I can put money away for BOTH travel and responsible adulthood.
There are probably many other ways that I could travel. I could work overseas, such as teaching English in South Korea. I could try to find work that somehow involves travel. But, for the most part, I am content right now to save, work, and dream of future trips. Provided that my current job continues to allow me to take vacations each year, I continue to travel as long as I am able to. It challenges me socially, emotionally, physically, and intellectually. While it is a selfish endeavor, it allows me to re-dedicate to activism and my work. That is why I like it and why it has been worth the effort.
I also love this photo-in Kazakhstan, since I look badass- masking the fact that I am a dorky, fearful, and unfit.