3 recommendations you need to hit up when you’re in Bogotá

I love that feeling you get when you wake up in a new place. How the sounds bleed in bit by bit—people in the street, unfamiliar cars, the clattering of wheels and feet—until they’re accompanied by smells, feelings, a flash of sunlight through a curtain.

We started our trip in Bogotá, a city about which I’ve heard mixed reviews. Some people call it cold or undifferentiated from any other capital city—a little boring or difficult to navigate.

I loved it. The local people were incredibly friendly (keep in mind, I flew in after two years in DC, so my expectations might have been low), and the food was divine—ajiaco for the win.

Our three days in Bogotá included Monserrate, the beautiful mountain in the photo that’s crowned by a chapel and offers expansive views of the city, the nearby town of Zipaquirá and its salt cathedrals, and exploring Bogotá’s colonial sectors, including La Presidencia, el Congreso, a former-convent-turned-art-museum, and (my favorite) a street filled entirely with book vendors next to the Gabriel García Márquez Cultural Center.

We also checked out La Zona Rosa, which has some very high-end shopping and restaurants. After dark, we were careful to take a secure taxi service, since the number of robberies-by-taxi in Bogotá has been growing. All in all, we felt very safe, although our hostel in the La Candelaria neighborhood encouraged us to go out with a security guard late at night (we generally declined).

In addition to the classics (Monserrate, Plaza Bolívar, Museo de Oro), here are three different recommendations from my time in Bogotá:

1. Café Magola Buendía: This adorable coffee shop is what dreams of Colombia are made of. Super chill place with super chique decorations and, of course, delicious hot and cold coffee beverages, not to mention aromáticas, sandwiches, and chocolate goodies. It’s next to the popular La Candelaria neighborhood. Free WiFi!

2. Museo Santa Clara: Located one block away from Plaza Bolívar, this museum is a former convent that now houses colonial art and religious relics. It’s very affordable ($3,000COP/person, about $1) and mysterious—nuns were cloistered for life here, and you can still check out the narrow, winding path they took to get to their confessional boxes. The museum also hosts rotating exhibits from a variety of plastics and performative artists.

3. Centro Cultural Gabriel García Márquez: This cultural center was a gift from Mexico to Colombia, which explains the big Mexican flags out front. They sell every book imaginable here and demarcate special sections of Colombian fiction and non-fiction, which, if you have a literati heart like mine, will make you very happy. Local booksellers also set up stalls outside of the center, so you can easily find bargain-priced used books.

Are you going to Bogotá? Have you already been? Hit me up with your own recommendations or questions in the comments!

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Looking for suggestions of what to do in Cartagena

I’m coming up on nearly three weeks in Colombia as I write this. Thanks to booking.com, we found a solid hotel in Cartagena with a real bed (y’all know what three weeks in hostels can do to your vertebrae) and some killer AC (because the only thing hotter than Cartagena might be Venus).

Colombia has been a beautiful country, and when I have a real computer again, I can’t wait to write all about it. It’s an interesting balance of future and past mixing in the present—the landscape is pockmarked with the trauma of a fifty-year-long armed conflict, but revitalization, rebirth, and creativity are everywhere.

It’s a little disconcerting to hear the word “marica” so much. I’ve also probably eaten double my weight in arepas, and I keep trying ice cream in the vain hope of being pleasantly surprised (sorry, Colombia—you do so many things well, but ice cream isn’t one of them).

After hitting Bogotá, the coffee zone, Medellín, Santa Marta, and San Andrés, we’re left with just a few days in Cartagena. Have you been? What should we not miss?

(Also: our hotel—Casa Ébano 967—has warm water! No more cold showers for the first time in weeks!)

The return of the renaissance woman

Once upon a time, when I was maybe five, I wanted to be archeologist. I hadn’t seen Indiana Jones, but who needs a movie to convince them to play around in the dirt and dig up old stuff?

That was followed by my wish to be a paleontologist (dinosaurs!), then a neuroscientist, then a geneticist, then a journalist. I’ve been all over the map—even as an undergraduate, I studied a rainbow of things like languages, political science, chemistry, and literature, and I’ve worked with code, consulted, edited, and taught.

My story isn’t unique. I know a lot of people around my age whose interests and careers look more like a kaleidoscope than a straight line. It’s made me think—hundreds of years after the fact, are we seeing the returning of the Renaissance Wo(man)?

Leonardo da Vinci, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, and Thomas Jefferson could have designed you a plane, taught you Nahautl, or built you a house, respectively. They were also artists, scientists, poets, and politicians (Sor Juana corresponded with Isaac Newton, which is pretty cool).

Industrial capitalism tends to broadly reward narrow specialization, however, so as factories started to emerge I think a lot of the innate curiosity of the human spirit became unequally distributed. I mean sure, once he became rich Andrew Carnegie had a lot of interests, but did his factory workers?

I wonder if that’s changing. I, and so many of the people I know, understand a little bit about a lot of things. Technology allows us to work more flexibly and also requires a broad, nimble skill set that doesn’t necessarily fit into the clock-in and clock-out mentality of my grandparents and their grandparents.

I believe in continuing to democratize discovery beyond the Andrew Carnegies of the world.

Why I travel

There is a part of me, and it’s not a small part, that’s afraid of heat death—you know, the possible fate of the universe in which thermodynamic energy diminishes so much that life is no longer possible. Sometimes, I think it could happen in my head.

Diminishing heat, diminishing energy, diminishing movement, diminishing life.

Staying in one place for too long feeds my monster of entropy. Or atrophy. Kind of like a sore—an abscess—that forms on a sedentary body.

I read somewhere that the quarter-life crisis is caused by a sudden transition from living in the future to living in the here-and-now. Like we’re cruising along a highway with our eyes fixed on distant lights when all it once—out of nowhere—we slam into the concrete of the moment. The desperate quietness of daily routine. And the drunken midnight of what-could-be turns into that sober morning of what-is-right-now.

That analysis resonated with me, but I also reject it (Walt: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes”). Because I think, at its core, asserting that we no longer live in the future kills our right to dream. What are people, anyway, without dreams?

Just a heap of chemical and biological processes.

No, thank you.

Sometimes, when I’m in a car and driving through a torrential storm or on a plane for ten hours straight with a stranger’s baby spitting up in my lap, my happiness is so great that it leaves me breathless. I actually have to close my eyes against the violence of my emotion.

Do you know what I’m talking about? Have you ever felt so tied to the earth, so connected to its strings and its people and the rock of its eons-long heartbeat, that you know—know with a knowing more physical than philosophical—that you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be at that exact second?

Happiness. A trainwreck of happiness concentrated on one pinprick of the universe.

I don’t want to overromanticize “travel.” I don’t want to put an Instagram filter on it or hashtag it or even blog it, really. What I want to talk about is that happiness—that second. That moment of unending yes.

So I’ll probably continue my quarter-life crisis of false starts and panicked stops, throwing the breaks on just because only one road, that particular road of placidity, terrifies me.

No, getting up and moving is not romantic. It’s not a love story at all. It’s something like fear and fascination. The power and the glory.

This is no epic. This is my acknowledgement of  heat death, the unavoidable cooling of all that is and will be, the frantic gesture of life.

 

Global inequality and the social dangers of adventure tourism

French tourists participate in a favela (slum) tour in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo credit: M. Chargel/AFP/Getty Images)
French tourists participate in a favela (slum) tour in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo credit: M. Chargel/AFP/Getty Images)

FOUR-THIRTY A.M. If this Jeep had ever possessed shocks, they’d given out long ago, and my bones jarred against one another as we made our way across the Uyuni salt flats in the highlands of Bolivia at some unknown speed, shrouded in utter darkness. My traveling companions slept profoundly in the back seats, emitting only intermittent snores. I bounced along in the front. My face still stung from the icy water I had used to wash up fifteen minutes prior to stumbling across our hostel’s packed-salt floors and out into the biting predawn cold.

Despite having spent only two hours skittering against the surface of sleep throughout the whole night and suffering from the nausea and surprising aches that altitude sickness brings, I couldn’t nod off myself. I stayed awake with our aptly named guide, Guido, as we cut through blackness that pressed in on all sides and was broken only by the glassy spirals of the Milky Way above.

Over our several days together on an Atacama tour, Guido had remained quiet and reserved. Cultural norms dictating space between women and men in Andean communities, I suppose, made him wary of our female-heavy group. He always ate alone, and although he politely answered the incessant questions I launched at him in Spanish, he generally made as little conversation as possible.

That’s why I was surprised when he spoke first. “How did you sleep?” He asked.

“Good.” I said.

His silence was skeptical.

“I didn’t really sleep,” I amended.

We sat quietly for a moment. Then I tried, tentatively: “Um, are you following, like, a road? Or something?”

I wasn’t really worried about accidents as we sailed along, since even the sparse vicuña that had populated our ascent to the flats had disappeared at this altitude and the only vegetation that I’d seen for over twenty-four hours was an apple I had smuggled into Bolivia from Chile. But I still didn’t understand how he knew where he was going in the darkness.

He shook his head. “Look there,” he said, signaling to the windshield.

Since I could barely distinguish my hand in front of my face, I chuckled nervously.

“No, look,” he insisted.

So I did. In the distance, miles and miles away, I made out two even blacker marks jutting from the inky night like little triangles.

“What are those?” I asked.

“It’s a pass in the mountains around the salt flats,” he said, “I’m going towards that.”

Another pause. “Do you want to drive?” He asked.

I blinked. “What?”

“Here.” His hands jumped off the steering wheel. Panicking, mine flew on.

“What are you doing?” I cried just as he told me, “Good, you’re driving.” And then, for the first time, he laughed.

“Calm down,” he said. “Just point toward the pass.”

Suddenly, I was driving across the driest desert in the world, and the awkward barriers of time and place seemed to go away. We started talking – chatting, even. We chatted and chatted and chatted. We chatted about how Spanish was a second language for both of us (his first was Quechua, mine English), we chatted about jobs, we chatted about tattoos and music and mothers.

We remained companions as the other travelers woke up and we all piled out of the Jeep to watch the sun come up on what is surely one of the most bizarre landscapes in the world. We were companions as we took photos and videos and argued about soccer. We were companions as we moved on together, all of us chortling and chirping, teaching each other strange words in Quechua and English and Spanish and German and Korean.

A few hours later, he slowed the Jeep to a halt in front of a series of holes and strange, conical mounds of salt that stretched as far I could see, shimmering and dancing in the relentless high-altitude sunlight.

“What’s all this?” I asked.

In seconds, two solid men jumped out of one of the holes, their heads and necks shielded with handkerchiefs. They carried shovels. They moved to the next hole and jumped in, shovels and all.

It was a salt mine.

In an instant, the whole scene turned from grand to garish. Other SUVs loaded with travelers from different touring companies also stopped along the mines, and white men and women emerged eagerly from their vehicles with cameras at the ready, pointing at the two dark men and shooting artsy photos of their silhouettes against the salt piles. As I watched one particularly determined woman move to within feet of the hole that the men were working in, I felt my stomach twist.

All at once the air had a thicker texture than before.

“You can go and watch them work,” Guido said to all of us, avoiding eye contact. “Just don’t get too close, they don’t like that.”

The Spanish member of our group quickly translated his words for those in the back and they uncertainly got out of the Jeep, staying close to our car. I, however, couldn’t: my legs were lead.

Like tours of Rio de Janeiro’s slums or Nepal’s sweatshops, our stop at the salt mine felt decidedly low. Guido mentioned that the tourist companies paid the workers a small sum for the inconvenience, but I imagined Instagram photos of their grimacing faces and stayed glued to the seat of the car.

“They do get paid,” Guido said again, maybe trying to dilute some of the strange atmosphere creeping around us and between us.

That was the first time that I viewed travel not as growth, exploration, and adventure, but as outrage. And in the uncomfortable silence that followed, it was the first time that I understood that visiting a country and being in the same space as a people did not itself create mutual understanding.

With each crack of the shovel against salt, with each laugh from a tourist outside and each uncomfortable cough from Guido, I tasted the horrible bitterness of good intentions gone sour. A rift in our circumstances had been exposed, and it was difficult to go back to being the two members of a boundless human community that we had been for those few hours in the icy dark.

I’ve been struggling with this blog post for months. How do you confront inequality in which you unknowingly participate? How do you understand the real damage that tourism can do? How do you face it? Are there ways to overcome it?

Every time I think back to the pointing tourists, I wrestle with what it means to be a traveler in a world dominated by markets. Here are some important points that I’ve solidified as I’ve reflected upon that moment:


1) Don’t oversimplify.

As travelers, we hear one phrase over and over again: “But they’re such an (insert good adjective here) people.” Warm, generous, kind, welcoming, hardworking – you name it, it’s said. As in, “Yes, Bolivia’s a poor country, but they’re such a nice people.”

That phrase grates against my ears like nails on a chalkboard. I can’t stand it. To me, it seems to excuse deplorable conditions by saying, “Well, they’re still happy anyway.” It rings as a phrase spoken just to make one feel better about having seen intense poverty. You can be happy and poor, or happy and poor and a stop on a tourism train, but the coexistence of positive and negative elements does not necessarily result in moral balance.

It also generalizes dozens of ethnic groups and millions of experiences into one huge cultural stereotype (“nice”). So just don’t say it.

2) Recognize your privilege.

Privilege is a finicky concept. It makes people defensive, uncertain, and uncomfortable. While I understand that it’s difficult to talk about and even more difficult to work with, you need to at least recognize it so intentionality can inform your actions.

Yes, you might be eating pasta every day for six months while you’re backpacking through Southeast Asia, but in the end, you are still backpacking through Southeast Asia. We’re part of a global elite in a world where a billion people live off of a dollar or less a day.

That’s related to my next point:

3) Learn to understand your own power as a traveler.

Be responsible and conscious. Tourism is a huge industry around the world and it generates a lot of money. It creates an environment that resourceful people enter to make a living, and your behavior has a lot to do with the rules that govern said environment.

No, the miners in Uyuni were not “victims.” Neither is the woman standing with a llama and charging a dollar for photos with tourists in Cusco or the elderly man shining shoes in Bangkok. Victimization of individuals working imaginatively to make ends meet in the topography in which they live helps no one, and reminds me of spitfire mission trips that bring unskilled Westerners to Africa with the aim of building a school, a hospital, or a church that could be locally sourced with smart investments at a cheaper cost and a bigger social benefit to the people in question.

So don’t fall into the trap of the so-called Western Savior, but do remember that your dollar goes a long way in determining where human energies are released in a specific sector.

Watch where you put that dollar.


But ultimately, I return over and over to the poem “Human Family” from the wise Maya Angelou, some of which I’ll quote here:

We love and lose in China,
we weep on England’s moors,
and laugh and moan in Guinea,
and thrive on Spanish shores.

We seek success in Finland,
are born and die in Maine.
In minor ways we differ,
in major we’re the same.

I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.


There is much that needs to be said about this issue.

How can we, as world travelers, stay true to our mission of understanding our global community and actively participating as a global citizen when we are inherently transitory and intrinsically outsiders? How can we intentionally listen and engage instead of unknowingly exploit and distort?

How can we use our travel to build bridges between home and abroad that are inclusive, open, and actually representative of communities we experience?

Do you recognize any dangers of travel tourism?

The gap year: Yea or nay?

In the United States, young people are told that our career paths should resemble a factory assembly line. A one-size-fits-all conveyor belt carries us through grade school, middle school, and high school before we move over to the college track. Four years later, we’re expected to transition smoothly into the grown-up working world.

It’s easy to see why this formula makes sense on paper: healthy societies depend on strong education leading to good jobs. The only snag? This classically U.S. model of success doesn’t reflect reality.

We should admit that finding gainful employment is rarely so smooth a venture. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 59 percent of first-time, full-time students complete their Bachelor’s degree within six years, never mind what TIME Magazine calls the “myth of the four-year degree” (it reports that in 2012, the four-year graduation rate for Purdue University sat at a mere 42 percent).

Then there are those of us who do manage to finish on time. I graduated from a prestigious private university and will soon complete my Master’s at a well-known public school. However, like the 260,000 college graduates with a Bachelor’s degree or higher that worked minimum wage jobs in 2013, I don’t feel any closer to a particular career than during my first years as an undergrad.

These statistics force us to assess our cookie-cutter “path to success” as a misguided one at best. They also push us toward making proposals to fix that path.

Here’s mine: we need to reconsider what is known as the gap year, or a year taken off from career demands (like school or work) to engage in some other activity – often travel.

In the United States, pursuing a gap year is frowned upon. We interpret “taking some time off” as “taking some time down,” and once you get off the whirlwind ride, they say, it’s hard to get back on again. But despite a general cultural disapproval of gap years, the number of people choosing to take them is on the rise. In 2013, roughly 40,000 people nationwide participated in sabbatical programs (up 20 percent from 2006). This number neglects those that took a personal year without participating in any program at all.

So what is a gap year, really?

Well, it’s hardly an excuse to sit in your parents’ basement for twelve months. One year taken off from school, between jobs, or at any stage along the way should help you build a personal vision of the world and your place in it. By breaking up the career assembly line, a gap year allows you to be intentional about your long-term decisions and goals. Statisticians at Middlebury College have even plotted a correspondence between gap years abroad and higher GPAs/faster graduation times.

The concept of the gap year enjoys wider acceptance in other countries than it does in the United States. In Belgium, for example, employees are entitled to one year of absence from their jobs per lifetime via the Time Credit System, while in Israel, it’s customary for young men and women who have completed their mandatory military service to go backpacking abroad before starting college or launching a career.

Here in the United States, there are countless groups eager to advise those considering the big gap leap. These include the Center for Interim Programs, which names itself the “first and longest-running independent gap-year counseling organization” in the country and offers a database of over 6,000 program opportunities for students, recent graduates, and mid-career and post-career professionals. Other groups, like Habitat for Humanity and World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, make financing a gap year easier by allowing participants to work for room and board.

Before you consider programs and destinations, take the time to understand your potential gap year as a deliberate experience. Virtually limitless options mean that you have to be honest about the big picture you hope to gain. Are you seeking rejuvenation? A sharper understanding of your professional objectives? The opportunity to create meaningful change in the lives of others?

Whether you want to work, volunteer abroad, or just experience new landscapes, acknowledge what you’re hoping to accomplish from the start. I’ve seen gap years include everything from employment on an Arctic cruise ship to volunteering with Ecuadorian non-profits to living for months in the solitude of Patagonia. You are the creator of your own experience, so create it to nourish yourself.

In the end, college admissions officers, graduate selection committees, and professional interviewing panels all seem to agree that gap years – when pursued earnestly – can result in fresher and more focused individuals better prepared to make enduring contributions to their communities. For more than 35 years, according to the U.S. News and World Report, Harvard’s acceptance letters have included the recommendation that students take time off before enrolling.

As the gap year gains its own devotees in the United States, I can’t help but wonder if it will one day become a common feature of an American path to professional and personal fulfillment. After all, if I could give one piece of advice to my 18-year-old, impressionable, ambitious self, it would be this:

Take some time off, girl.


Does a gap year sound right for you? Have you taken one before? What was your experience? If you’re a hiring manager or an admissions counselor, how would a gap year factor into your consideration of offering a position to a particular candidate?

Studying abroad in this economy: Five reasons why going abroad makes more sense now than ever.

Times are tough.  The economy is a mess.  Recent graduates — like myself — are facing long lines, unanswered applications, and unpaid internships.  We live in an era where four-year colleges and universities are in decline.  Simultaneously, community colleges and technical certification programs are being hailed as a practical option for young people, a possible fix that will save students thousands of dollars and send them straight into steady jobs.  Just this past week, the New York Times reported on Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam’s proposed bill, a piece of legislation that would provide two free years of community college or technical school to any state resident with a high school diploma or equivalent.

That’s great news.  Haslam’s proposal will insure a better-educated, better-employed workforce for Tennessee, as well as for other states sure to follow in Tennessee’s footsteps.

But amidst all of this talk on cutting higher-education costs and ramping up more utilitarian programs, many essential components of the educational experience are in danger of suffering.  I think the most essential of these is studying abroad.

And it’s easy to understand why study abroad is threatened by the ax.  Korea, Germany, Argentina?  How am I supposed to think about South Africa or Nepal or Australia when I’m still trying to figure out my tuition for this semester?  Or when I’m trying to get the best job available in the shortest time possible?  How am I going to learn another language?  Even if I do plan on spending years in school, wouldn’t my time be better spent taking coursework that actually means something or pursuing high-powered internships?  How will running off to another continent get me into my dream law/med/grad program?  With everything else I have going on, is study abroad even worth the effort?

Well, my answer — and the purpose of this blog — is a resounding yes.  Going abroad is worth it, regardless of what the it is (time, money, a divergence in your five-year plan).  Whether for study or work purposes, or just for good, old-fashioned adventure, getting on that plane is within your reach and it may just turn out be one of the best investments you’ll ever make.

Why?  Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’ve heard about the “fluffy” stuff: you’ll grow as a person, learn tolerance, find yourself — whatever that means.  And while that’s all true, there are some other reasons to set sail for other shores, reasons you might have never even considered.

Here are a few:

1) It’s the twenty-first century.

Hey, we live in international times.  Anyone who says differently, in the words of a beloved cult classic, is selling something.  According to CNNMoney, the hottest job skill right now is the ability to speak a foreign language.  Apple, the State Department, Amazon, the NYPD, and the Army are just some of the institutions and top Fortune 500 companies looking to hire bilingual employees.  Hospitals, schools, and courts are searching voraciously for the same.  Translators and interpreters are among the top 15 fastest growing occupations in the country; without including military jobs, the field is expected to grow 42 percent between 2010 and 2020, which is a lot.

So, basically, globalization is a real thing that has a crucial impact on today’s workforce.  And what’s the best way to learn a language?  Well, going to where they speak it, of course.

2) It pays.

There are more reasons to cross national borders than just to take classes.  Yes, there are ways to make money while abroad, and actual opportunities that will bolster up your resume so you can come back to the domestic job market swingin’ — if you don’t decide to stay, of course.

English teachers are in high demand all across the globe.  Sometimes programs require a certificate in teaching English as a second language (which can even be earned online in the space of a few months at sites like TEFL online) and sometimes they don’t.  The pay might be decent, or it might be low.  The commitment might be for two years, a year, or just the summer.  There are a trillion options to get to work teaching your native language to hungry students from pole to pole.  While you need to carefully research these options and go with an institutionally recognized program, there should be a situation out there that’s perfect for you.

Of course, teaching English isn’t the only way to put a little cash in your pocket while on foreign soil.  The U.S. State Department offers a myriad of paid international internships for citizens (mostly students) that stretch from a duration of a few months to a semester or a year, as well as many job possibilities.  Plus, there are thousands of more general opportunities to go abroad as an au pair, or a domestic/childcare assistant that lives with a local family in his or her country of choice.  This option is particularly popular in Europe, where an au pair is expected to work part time and study part time.  We should also mention the hospitality industry, another goldmine for U.S. workers looking to get into a foreign economy.

Really, though, internships or long-time work overseas can be found in just about any field, from health services to engineering to accounting.  Check out GoAbroad’s job section to keep up to date on opportunities in your area of interest.

3) Even if you don’t get paid, studying abroad can be cheaper than studying domestically.

Hey, folks, it’s a big world out there, and lots of other places approach higher education differently than we do in the United States.  While a semester at a state college or private university might cost anywhere from $10,000-$30,000, living costs not included, a semester in another country can run far under that tab — even when factoring in living expenses.  Whether you want to take classes on ecology in Thailand or international business in Chile, you can earn credits that count toward your home institution while shouldering less of a financial burden.  And that’s a fact.

Additionally, most schools have ample resources for students that are looking to take some time out of country.  Just bring it up with your advisor and be surprised by the tools he or she reveals to you.  Or if you aren’t surprised, and the tools are few, there are plenty of external resources available to you beyond the doors of your college.  Many trusted study abroad organizations offer their own scholarships and financial aid, including the School for International Training (SIT)the Council on International Education Exchange (CIEE), and International Studies Abroad (ISA).  They even have financial options for globally-minded high schoolers.  The U.S. government also funds international scholarships and fellowships, which can be found among the options listed on the Institute for International Education’s webpage.  Because these awards are linked to accredited organizations and institutions, the coursework you complete through them should count toward your U.S. degree.

4) Don’t want to work or study?  There are options for you, too.

International volunteering is a big deal, and still gets you the time on the ground you need to learn a new language and experience a new culture (refer back to today’s hottest job skill, found under the first bullet point).  What’s more, many volunteer opportunities are free or low-cost, and they come in a million flavors.

One option that has gotten a lot of attention in the past year or so is WWOOF, or World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.  And really, the concept behind WWOOF is pretty awesome: in exchange for a day’s work on a farm, you receive free board and lodging.  Assignments can range from days to years; you can even take a friend and travel from location to location within WWOOF’s reach of 53 countries.  If this sounds interesting but a little daunting, a handy guide for first-time WWOOFers is available here.

For those of us who aren’t farmers, many other international volunteer positions also cover living costs, including conservation volunteers in Australia and New Zealand and trek guides in Europe.  Help Exchange Worldwide hosts a phenomenal site that lists all kinds of organizations looking for assistance, from religious institutions to schools to farms to hostels to construction firms.  And that’s only scratching the surface of what’s out there.

5) Besides adding meat to your resume, going abroad — for whatever reason — will change your life.  Guaranteed.

This might be one of the “fluffy” reasons I was trying to avoid; sorry about that.  Okay — it definitely is.  But it’s so real that it must be mentioned.

When you go abroad, you will grow up.  Your routine will be broken, and you will feel exhilarated and sleep-deprived and lonely and wonderful and overwhelmed and magnificent.  You will be forced to rely on yourself like you haven’t had to rely on yourself before.  Even if you have been living on your own since you were 18 (or before), even if your parents haven’t contributed a dime to your education, even if you have signed your own apartment lease — all attributes which, in one way or another, you could have applied to me when I took off for South America in 2012 — you will be forced to push yourself to new heights daily.  Study, work, volunteer, tutor, chat, observe, party, take pictures, write, surf, horseback ride . . . regardless of what you participate in, stick it out and you will become more confident.  You will trust more in your own capacity to do and to think.  I’m not sure if that’s finding yourself or actually making yourself, but whatever it is, it’s worth every cancelled flight, every cultural misunderstanding, every uncomfortable night and language mishap.  These skills — confidence, determination, decision-making — will stay with you and aid you for the rest of your life.

In sum:

Whether you want to broaden your future, access new opportunities, make money, save money, or push yourself to new levels of personal/professional performance, taking that step beyond U.S. borders is tremendous way to accomplish your goal.  I hope you’ll stick beside me on Wanderwoman as we share ways to make that goal a reality: advice, experiences, dreams, and thoughts.

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Why would you go abroad – for study, work, travel, personal gratification, or some other reason that I completely missed?  Why wouldn’t you?  Have you?  What did going abroad do for you?

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