Monday, April 21, 2014

Amsterdam in Panorama

I fell in love with Amsterdam... Which I know isn't always the case for every traveller who comes to the city. I'll write more on why later, but for now I'll just leave you with a few of my favourite panoramas from our trip, which seems to be my latest obsession. Enjoy! xxx

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Varadero, Cuba in Photos

It's been a few years since I was in Cuba, but currently rainy Dublin has got me dreaming of beaches & margaritas. I'm not usually one for all-inclusive vacations, but in this case I don't regret our choice. We stayed at Paradisus Princesa del Mar Resort & Spa in Varadero. The staff were extremely friendly & helpful. The resort was more than we could ask for & our seven-day stay was ridiculously relaxed. Onto some photos from our trip.

The old school cars were one of my favourite parts of Cuba.

Just a casual game of chess.

How impressed do I look?

Shoddy photo of one of the pools at our resort during the night. I think it's safe to say I've come quite a ways with my photography.

& heaven...

I highly suggest going snorkelling &/or scuba diving in Cuba! The reefs are severely underrated.

Just a little fellow we met.

During our vacation we also ended up renting vespas (that's a whole 'nother post on its own though) & going on a few excursions, including a jeep safari one. We also took a bus into one of the nearby towns to explore the markets, which was one of my favourite days! Everything was handmade by locals, not to mention the cigars at prices we couldn't believe. 

If you're thinking of travelling to Cuba but aren't staying in Havana, a day trip is a must! I fell in love with the character of the city & Cuban culture in general. Also, the cigar factory tours are definitely worth it. 

For now these photos will be tiding me over until my next trip to sunny weather at the end of the month! Have any of you been to Cuba? & any suggestions for staying sane during the rain? If you're anything like me you're on SkyScanner. xxx

Monday, March 31, 2014

Au Pairing: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Incase you didn't know, I au paired in Paris, France when I was 18 for a year & am currently au pairing in Dublin, Ireland. While I don't consider myself an expert on the subject, I do feel as though I may be able to share some useful information for anyone thinking about becoming an au pair. 

This munchkin...

The Good
Being an au pair means a solid guarantee of a job as soon you arrive in your country of choice... There is no stress of having to stay in a hostel while looking for apartments & a full-time job, which means not having to pay a deposit either! 

You usually work less than 30 hours a week (or are supposed to), leaving you plenty of time to explore & travel, which is the main reason you're moving abroad in the first place! Also if you choose carefully, you can end up with evenings & weekends off (as I do).

If you're lucky, you can unintentionally end up with a second family. This makes being away from home (especially if it's your first time) a hell of a lot easier. You can end up establishing a lifelong bond with these people, including the kids. I still keep in touch with my French family!

One of the under looked points of becoming an au pair is the practice you're getting for when you have your own children! Or... It can also be the deciding factor in whether or not you'll have children. My au pair friends & I used to joke that au pairing is the best form of birth control there is... Haha.

Do I even need to mention the fact that you're in a new country?! In my case, European, which leads to more spontaneous weekend trips & jaunts to Spain considering the ridiculously low airline prices compared to back home.

If you choose correctly, you should end up with a family who pays your accommodation, airfare, health insurance, language lessons, petrol & car insurance (if you have to drive) & cell phone bill. Oh, also food. Enough said.

Day trip to the seaside

The Bad
Generally, there is a lack of privacy. It can be almost like still living with your parents... Except for worse, because it's your employers. Often, you can't head off to your room at the end of your shift to call your best friend to complain about the temper tantrums that were thrown earlier or the fact that you had to work late... Because your host parents will most likely be able to hear your conversation. There is no bringing boys home from the bar (if that's your thing) & hangovers are made 10X worse by the fact that you're woken up at 7am Sunday morning by children's screams, when you've just got in four hours ago from a night out. Also, you cannot hang out braless in the kitchen eating ice cream straight out of the tub on Saturday morning, which is something to seriously take into consideration! BUT, you can also end up in a guest house or an apartment of your own, as I did & there are always friends couches to crash on when it gets too hectic.

It's downright stressful. But what else can you expect when the actual life of toddlers is dependent on you? My first time au pairing I honestly didn't think I'd last, seeing as how I couldn't even take care of myself properly. It does get easier though, though it doesn't get any less stressful. Honestly, you just learn how to manage the stress. This is not a laid-back pub gig or like working in your favourite clothing store. The well-being of small humans is actually in your hands.

The children you end up taking care of can turn out to be absolute menaces, with no knowledge of discipline. Luckily, most of the time being firm, confident & never giving in will help you out in these cases. Or, you can end up being like one of my friends who called me at 8am on a Saturday morning to tell me that she was boarding a plane home for the weekend because she feared she'd have a mental breakdown if she stayed.

My hippie twin

The Ugly 
Having many friends who have au paired in various countries around the world, unfortunately I hear just as many, if not more, bad stories as I do good. If you're unlucky, you can end up being overworked, underpaid & ultimately, under appreciated... Not to mention the children. You can end up becoming extremely resentful towards your host parents & the country you're living in. Being in a situation like this in a foreign country usually makes you homesick & prevents you from having the experience you had hoped for & deserve.

Luckily, as Jim Rohn says, 'you are not a tree. If you don't like where you are, change it.' Finding a new host family is as easy as signing up on Au Pair World or discussing it with the agency you joined. Not for one second should you stay in a situation where you are unhappy, especially when you are travelling. You chose to become an au pair to learn a new language, live in a new country, make lasting relationships, immerse yourself in a culture & maybe even to find yourself. Being unhappy will lead you down the path to none of these. It may be frightening to sit your host parents down & tell them it's not working out. You may even feel like a failure because of it. Don't. 

Had to...

My Advice?
To save yourself from ending up in a bad situation in the first place, I have a few guidelines/suggestions.

  • Do not au pair if you dislike children. It's not worth it.
  • If it is your first time, do not choose a family with more than two kids. Preferably, choose a family with one & who is at least three years old, though of course the older they are, the easier (generally speaking) they are.
  • Don't accept less than 100 euro a week, or the equivalent in the currency you'll be paid in. I make double this & wouldn't accept a penny less.
  • Be picky! Do not rush the process of finding your host family out of excitement, which I know can be tempting.
  • Although it seems like a good idea at the time to choose from families spanning ten different countries, narrow it down to a maximum of three countries. My second time around I actually narrowed it down to just one & it made the process a million times less stressful.
  • Think twice about working for parents who work from home. Children can tend to act up when they're aware that the parent is home. Also, it can feel as though there is a lack of trust, even if there isn't.
  • Search for au pair groups on FaceBook, & even CouchSurfing in the area you'll be living in to see if there is a large community of them. This is especially important if you are not attending language school, as meeting other au pairs/making friends in general can tend to be harder.
  • Ask beforehand about vacation times & whether you can have friends & family stay with you. Personally, I would not au pair for a family who would not allow me to have guests. You are working for your room & board after all.
  • Do not be afraid to speak up! Miscommunication is often the largest source of unhappiness in au pair/host family relationships. Often times one party may not even realize there is an issue.
  • This goes along with being picky... Take your time & find a family where you either a) have your own bathroom, b) are in a guest house or, c) have your own apartment. Trust me, there are plenty out of families out there who offer these types of accommodation & it is worth the wait. Just be patient.
Have any of you au paired? It'd be great to hear about your experiences, good & bad. Even advice! Also, if anyone has more specific questions about au pairing I am more than happy to help as best I can. Regarding the amount of factors involved, I can say I'm very lucky to have found the two families I have & do not regret my choice to au pair abroad. Cheers! xxx

Monday, March 24, 2014

5 Days in Oslo: What I Spent

I figured before I'm off to Amsterdam next weekend I should write more about Norway. Other than, of course, what I've written about our ridiculous CouchSurfing experience. So on a lighter note, onto breaking down what I spent!

View from the Opera House

Flight: 36 EUR (Ryanair)

Bus to & from Dublin airport: 14 EUR

Bus to & from Rygge airport: 36 EUR
Thinking back, it would've made more sense to just book with Aer Lingus to save us the one hour bus ride each way. In all honesty booking with Ryanair saved us maybe 10 or 20 euro tops.

Overlooking Karl Johans Gate

Accommodation (Hostel): 30 EUR
Fortunately after being stranded my Norwegian friends pulled through for us, except for the last night which we just decided to book a hostel. Booking last minute of course upped this price, but for reference hostels in Oslo do tend to be on the expensive side. We stayed at Anker Hostel.

Transportation: 35 EUR
Basically just metro tickets. I made the rookie mistake of buying single tickets until the 4th day where I finally caved & bought the 48 hour pass, though I was reluctant to, for no valid reason.

Food: 78 EUR
Food was my biggest cost, unsurprisingly being that I'm a hardcore foodie. I only ate in an actual restaurant once though & the meal cost me about 23 euro for a pasta dish that would've cost 8 euro in Dublin. Other than that we did groceries, but since we didn't have a homebase for the trip we did end up making a few fast food runs which weren't really necessary. A Big Mac meal costs about 13 euro in Oslo, which actually makes it the most expensive Big Mac meal in the world!

Oslo Harbour

Museums & Attractions: 0 EUR
Every museum I visited I saved for Sunday, which happens to be free entry for most museums in Oslo. This saved me a ridiculous amount, though an Oslo Pass is a possible option as well & a smart one at that. You have the option of choosing 24, 48 or 72 hours. Transportation is also included in the pass.

Alcohol: 25 EUR
We bought our Jameson duty-free at the Dublin airport & I actually only bought one beer out. Cheers for duty-free is all I have to say about that.

Total: 256 EUR, or 397 CAD... Which equals roughly 79 CAD a day, including flight.

Basically our trip... Ha

Now in reality I could've spent an insane amount more. But I also could've spent an insane amount less. Considering all of the mistakes I knew I was making, I'm pretty happy with what I spent & have no complaints. Saying that...

My backpacker budget tips for one of the most expensive cities in the world:
  • Seriously consider which airline you choose, you may end up saving money by NOT flying Ryanair & flying directly into Oslo airport, saving the bus trip from Rygge.
  • Stay with friends &/or family. I would say CouchSurf but I'm not the biggest advocate of it after our fiasco. Otherwise, book your hostel WELL in advance & go during off-peak dates, during the week & from January-March are most affordable.
  • Buy either an Oslo Pass (price depends on length of pass), the 24 hour metro ticket for 9 euro, or the 7-day metro ticket for 23 euro. You can walk most places in Oslo, but it is a pretty large city & some of the cooler destinations you will need to use the metro. The Oslo metro system is one of my favourite in Europe though, being extremely efficient. Also, no matter how many zones you cross your ticket remains the same price & is usable for one hour after you buy it!
  • Grocery shop! Noodles on noodles. Or live off the hot dog stands scattered around the city... I must say they're pretty amazing when you're a starved backpacker. Also, Grønland is one of the areas in Oslo with the best prices for fresh fruits & veg. Meat too of course. If you're into markets be sure to visit here! 
  • If you don't want to spend the money on the Oslo Pass (like me), visit whichever museums you'd like to see on Sunday! Most are free. A lot of the attractions in Oslo though are honestly outdoors & free anyway.
  • Don't drink or buy your alcohol duty-free & pre-game, hard. Enough said.
I'd love to know, do you guys skip the more expensive cities or try to work them into your travels anyway? & if you do work them in, which cities?!

Frognerseteren, last stop on the metro line 1

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Why I'll Never CouchSurf Again...

I’ll just start with saying that I debated on writing this… It’s not an experience that I’d like to re-hash & I certainly do not wish for anyone at home to be worried for me, especially those like my Mum. Ultimately though, I ended up deciding that others being aware of the ‘other side’ of CouchSurfing will be worth it in the end. Onto Oslo…

It was about two months until our upcoming trip to Oslo, Norway. Our being my American friend who I met in Dublin & myself. We had booked the trip spur of the moment, much like I do everything & began CouchSurfing that very night. We knew that Oslo happened to be one of the most expensive cities in Europe & so were determined to find accommodation that wouldn't interfere with our budgets. CouchSurfing seemed like the perfect option. In exchange for gifts & cooking a few meals, we would have a place to stay & would be able to see Oslo like a local, my favourite type of travel.

After sending a few requests to members, we soon realized that Oslo was quite a popular city for CouchSurfing & many residents were already swamped. This lead to mistake number one… We accepted a request from someone who invited us. Now, of course, most members are genuine & reply to your open request with honest intentions… Most. So the chatting began. We talked to our host for a few weeks before deciding on our conclusion, that we would stay with him in Oslo & he would take us up to his Dad’s cabin to go cross country skiing. If it seems too good to be true, it most likely is. Just to mention, he did have references (though they all ended up being fake). Nothing on his FaceBook profile alarmed us, he had an average number of friends, he was into adventure sports & he even owned a company who we of course checked out, which was based around selling protection devices (ie. pepper spray & rape alarms… Aka the perfect alibi). We were pretty stoked to meet him & Oslo.

Frogner Park

We arrived in Oslo on a Friday morning & made it to his house with the help of his hand drawn maps. Specifically in his instructions, he told us to not ring the flat beside him… It was his brother’s. We thought maybe it was just because he would be sleeping, so thought nothing of it. In my forgetful nature, I rung his brother’s, no surprise there. We were let into the building & upon knocking on his brother’s, we were met with a confused & somewhat concerned face on the other side. Apologies ensued & we stepped into our hosts flat shortly after, thinking nothing of it. Even when our host received a questioning phone call from his brother minutes later, we just assumed we had woken him up & again, apologized. Little did we know that his brother actually had had no idea we were even coming... & knowing his brother's past, had every right to be questioning. In casual conversation we had found out that our host's apartment was paid for by his parent's & he seemed utterly annoyed that the location chosen was beside his brother.

We settled in for maybe 15 minutes before embarking out to Frogner Park (otherwise known as the naked park), which was literally in sight of our host’s place. Everything seemed fine, we had a few laughs & he seemed friendly enough, though slightly awkward. Gut instinct told me something was off, though I didn’t know it at the time… & so I contacted my Norwegian friend living in Oslo to see what he was up to that night. He invited us over & I invited our host to come along. My trusting nature was telling me that although our host might be weird, it could be a cultural difference & I’d give him the benefit of the doubt, but leave the deciphering up to my Norwegian friend. When it became clear later that night that our host was trying to push our bottle of Irish whiskey on us, both my American friend & I stopped drinking. We informed our host that we’d be staying at our friend’s for a few more hours & to leave without us. He seemed okay with this, but then proceeded to continuously text our friend over the next few hours. Did we mention that our friend happened to have two Norwegian cops over for drinks that same night? Thank f!@#, is all I have to say for that.

Royal Palace

Immediately after our host left, our Norwegian friend told us he had something to tell us & pulled out his iPhone. He proceeded to pull up article after Norwegian article of news reports involving our host… The jist being that he was charged with taking nude photography of underaged, unwilling girls, with the worst of it involving two victims who ended up hospitalized with knife wounds when they resisted his attempts. All reports stated to immediately contact the police if he even remotely attempted to contact you. Our Norwegian friend had known that the name sounded familiar & this was because of the fact that he had been all over the news just years prior.

Everything added up… We then recalled the nude photograph above his bed who he had stated was just an ‘old friend’... We remembered the security cameras in his living room, each directly & strategically placed to face each couch, where we would be sleeping. At the time of seeing them, we idiotically & naivly assumed they were there because of his vast collection of expensive equipment in the apartment. Did I mention that we could not see the Norwegian articles? Because they did not come up in Irish Google search results. The fact that he was CouchSurfing & preying on foreigners was the smartest thing he ever could’ve tried.

Had to add some humour into this at some point...

At this point we began to, well, freak out. All of our belongings were at his apartment… We now had nowehere to stay for the next four nights. We were in a foreign country, knowing almost no-one, not even speaking the language & with limited funds. Freak out is probably an understatement as to what we were feeling in that moment to be honest. We did settle down though & ended up deciding on the plan to go to his first thing in the morning, with the company of our two new found police men escorts. Needless to stay, we came out of this entire situation unscathed, though with zero sleep & possibly a few tears.

A this point we still have police reports to complete & ended up sleeping at different places literally each night of our trip, not knowing each day if we would even have somewhere to stay that night. Lugging our backpacks made me thankful as hell that I for once in my life packed light for a trip. Yet another lesson to be learned from all of this, am I right?!… Also, I learned to always, always, always have a backup plan, as obvious as this is to most, it wasn't to us. Oh & backup cash. Ridiculously & embarrassingly enough, I left my credit card at home in Dublin because I was determined to stay on budget. Silly, SILLY mistake that I will never make again, even if I thought it was clever at the time. Luckily though, my American friend turned out to be one of the best friends I ever could have made.

Yoga at the Opera House... Much needed de-stressing.

At this end of all of this, I just have to state how very thankful I am. I’m thankful for foreign friends looking out for me, people I’d never even met offering couches, beds & food for us the entire rest of the trip, after having heard what happened. I’m thankful for having the chance to have visited the gorgeous city of Oslo. I’m thankful that we made the very best of the rest of our time, even if we were haggard & stressed for most of the time we had. I’m thankful that my flight home landed safely, because I was f!@#ing dying to land on Irish soil… To be quite graphic, I’m thankful that my friend & I were not assaulted, raped, or hurt. I’m thankful that we learned a ridiculous amount of lessons out of the experience. Lastly, I’m thankful to be alive. It may sound dramatic, but that statement has never rung more true than it did in Oslo. Thinking about what could have happened that weekend if it wasn't for my friend's quick wit makes me sick to my stomach.

Now, after saying all of this, I honestly have nothing against CouchSurfing in the slightest. I probably should, but I don’t. I think the concept of giving something to others for nothing in return is brilliant, if flawed in its theory. I will not, however, be CouchSurfing again & I understand that this is completely personal. I would rather go on less trips, spend the money on hostels & sacrifice the chance of seeing cities as locals, if only it means that I will be safe.

My apologies for the long post, but I hope that this will provide some perspective into the other side of CouchSurfing. To disclaim, I’m not in anyway trying to deter anyone from participating, but please, PLEASE be aware of the dangers & take every measure possible to prevent something like this, or worse, from happening to you. Also… More on Oslo to come, the happy though!