Tag Archives: IVHQ

So you want to travel solo?

I realized that one of my bucket list goals was to travel solo and that I have managed to strike that off my list.  I have never actually written about what it is like to travel solo though.  The concept is not original by any stretch of the imagination.  Simply google Travel Solo and you will find 1000s and 1000s articles written by people who have mastered the art of solo travel.

Now that I have traveled solo a few times I can’t really say I am a master but I do have insight into solo travel and what to expect.   I will say that the more I travel solo the braver I get which was something that wasn’t quite expected.  Pretty sure 17 year old Jen would be shocked but 80 year old Jen is proud as hell.

The first time I traveled solo it was in January of 2014 to Guatemala.  I remembered the day before I left I was 100% positive I was going to get murdered the moment I stepped off the plane.  I was going to get raped probably shortly after I got murdered too.  In other words?  I was paranoid.

Don’t get me wrong Guatemala has a ton of violent crime, but as you can tell I was not a victim of any of the violent crime.  Guatemala is my favorite country still to this day and I think a large part of it is because of the huge self discovery I made on the trip.   That is a whole post on it’s own, but simply put when one goes on a trip to a foreign country where they do not speak the language and have to rely 100% on themselves…. you learn a lot about yourself.  You get me?

For starters, when I got off on the wrong bus stop… I had to figure it out, because no one and I do mean NO ONE in rural Guatemala speaks English… and I spoke like 10 words of Spanish at the time.   You have to learn to not panic and rely on your intuition.   In fact, I would go as far as saying that when you are out of your comfort zone with no phone to rely on your senses are sharpened.  It really is good for you.   I found my way to my destination and have lived to tell the tale.

I am often asked why did I go by myself.  The answer is simple, I got sick of waiting for people to go with me.  I have made countless trip plans with people, who would often back out the last minute.  I could rarely get anyone to commit to a lunch date let alone a trip abroad.  Everyone has their own lives and their own lives are very important to them, which I respect, but it was absolutely time for me to stop waiting around for someone to go with me.  So I went and you know what.  I do not regret it.  At all.

Anyway I feel I can share some insights into planning your own solo trip, there are 1000s of tips out there but I feel these are the ones that have been most useful to me.

If you are someone that is planning on traveling solo I would highly recommend you learn as much of the local language as you can, even if it is the basic… hello, goodbye, thank you, and you are welcome.  Any words you can learn in the local language will go a long way, believe me.   You will never regret learning the local language.  

Ziplining is turning into one of my favorite things!

Take chances with people that YOU DO meet.  I don’t think I can stress this enough, just because you are traveling alone does NOT mean you will be ALONE.   I have met some seriously fascinating people when I travel.   I have met people from all walks of life who I become connected with through my love of travel.   I have been asked to go on many side adventures and I have not regretted taking any of them.  I went ziplining through the Guatemalan jungle because I took a chance and I still think it might have been one of my favorite experiences.  All I can say is make sure you do it, I promise you will not regret it if you over hear about a group taking a local bus to a nearby town… and they ask you to go… GO.  I can assure you that not only will you meet amazing people you will come home talking about one amazing adventure.


Google safety and scams… but don’t go thinking you will be a victim the moment you step off the plane.  When I was getting ready to leave and go to Guatemala I googled safety and scams in Guatemala… Yeah.  That did not go well.  See here is the thing, Guatemala has a lot of crime but that does not mean you will be a victim of crime.   I think it is absolutely necessary to google safety and scams in the city you are visiting but more so you are aware and educated and DO NOT become a victim.    I never once felt unsafe but I also didn’t go out and party and walk down dark alleys alone.  I know it sounds silly… but this happens all the time and sadly those are often the stories you hear about.

Get an idea of local customs and dress. I have mostly traveled alone in Latin America so I know that typically the people in Latin America are likely going to be conservative and therefore I need to try and dress conservatively.  It does help with the experience if you do not stick out and getting cat called every five minutes.  When I travel I do try to blend end as much as possible so I can explore without feeling harassed.  So far, following this rule has worked.


Smile and be friendly, most people you meet are not out to get you.  If I had a nickle for every time someone told me that “They do not like American’s there”   I could book a plane ticket anywhere.  I am not even kidding.  So far I have been to 11 countries in my lifetime and NOT once have I felt like the people I meet HATE Americans… like not even in France.  Everyone has been 100% friendly and helpful.  I have never once felt like someone was being a certain way towards me because I was American in fact it is often the exact opposite most people want to talk to you about America.  They want to know what it is like to grow up in America… Texas… and whether I voted for Trump or not.  People are curious about you, just as curious you are about their country.   As long as you are friendly I am willing to bet all those nickles they will be friendly to you.

Try traveling solo… at least once.  I actually really love solo travel.  You only have to make decisions for you and that is quite pleasant.  I am getting to the point of my life that I am to share memories with someone and it would have been nice to be able and share my crazy bus rides in Guatemala with someone… but at the same time those are memories that no one can take from me and I feel like I earned a pretty awesome travel badge by going to a foreign country alone.  I met some amazing people and have met amazing people on my solo trips since.  I really think everyone should try a solo trip at least once.  I am not saying you have to go to a foreign country even, I had a friend that went on a solo trip to Disney world and loved it.  I am just saying it is good for the soul to only have yourself to depend on and spend a little time making decisions just for you.

So that is the best advice I can give you.  Just go.  Stop fretting.  1000s of people leave every single day on solo vacations and journeys and just about all of them come back home… I am not going to lie and say it will be easy every single moment of every single day, but I can tell you that I am willing to be you will not regret it.



Seriously, look at my face (or at least try) I am smiling.  I was by myself but I was loving it.  If I can do something like this so can you.  I promise you will not regret making the decision.  Stop waiting for “someone to go with you”  if you were like me and NO one would ever go with you… just go.  Stop waiting.  Tomorrow is not guaranteed… but today is the present, so treat it like the gift it is… and just go. 


Tips for staying with a host family

When I was going through my life list goals I noticed that I have never actually written about what it is like to stay with a host family abroad. I know when I get on the IVHQ forums one of the biggest concerns I read about is “What is it really like to stay with a host family?” I remember when I first set off to go to Guatemala the thought terrified me. I had so many concerns because staying with someone you do not know can be terrifying your first time believe me. Some of the questions I asked were…

Would I like them?
What if I don’t like the food?
What if I feel unsafe?
How the hell am I going to communicate with a language barrier?

Looking back I laugh at my concerns because I realize my concerns were seriously unfounded and when I volunteer abroad again I will always choose a host family.

If you are offered the option of a host family stay on a volunteer trip or vacation you should strongly consider if for many reasons.

1. It is immersion into a language and culture. One of the main reasons I still consider Guatemala my favorite country still to this day is because of my host family. I did not speak nearly as much Spanish as I do now but I was able to practice daily and I really did get to know the culture of a Guatemalan family. It was a beautiful thing and I can assure you that while traveling to a country may give you insight into a local culture, living with a local family will put you in the middle of it.

2. I was forced to try local food. Now it is absolutely no secret how I am not a foodie, when I travel I do not think about food. In fact, I am one of the most frustrating people to travel with because I am too busy trying to see every single sight I do not even think about food and simply will not eat. I will literally grab a bagel and hit the ground running and not stop. Seriously I am one of the lucky ones that will lose weight on a vacation. Anyway, I digress. Food in a foreign country is actually one of the most terrifying things to me, (TMI GROSS FACTOR COMING, I have gotten worms before, ewww I know but if you are not careful IT CAN and WILL happen) so believe me I get the concerns. I have found though home stays will often offer the freshest and most local dishes. Sure you can go to a restaurant and eat local food but going to a Central American restaurant in the states is vastly different than eating Central American food with a Central American family. Seriously, it is significantly fresher and well more authentic.

3. There is an additional safety factor. I am not going to lie to you, Antigua is not a city you go out after dusk alone. You do not do it. One night however, I lost track of time and was going to walk almost a mile home in the dark but thanks to my home stay it did not happen. I told my house mom that I would be home by dark and one night I wasn’t because I lost track of time and went to salsa classes. When she called the studio and found out I was there she drove to pick me up so I wouldn’t have to walk home at night. Now I am not saying this is something that will happen with your home stay, but living with a local will often give you added security because they know the reality of their city. They are often very proud of their city, but they get that it may not be safe.

4. You get families from all over the world. I am friends with my house momma on facebook. We are SO lucky to live in the age of facebook. Anyone you meet in the world you can say hey add me on facebook and you are friends and you can keep up with them. With the exception of a few countries just about everyone has access to the internet in some way and you will find they love keeping up with you too. They still invite me to stay with them today.

So those are just a few of the benefits of choosing a home stay when you volunteer or travel. Now let me give you a few tips for staying with a local family.

1. Practice their language. Now this one was hard for me at first. I often found myself gravitating towards the person that spoke the most English and having them translate for me. This was the easy way out, but then I learned that if I wanted to learn Spanish I was going to have to get over my self esteem and make mistakes when speaking the language. I did this with some serious embarrassing results, one time, I was trying to communicate that a dog was 14 years old… well I messed up the Spanish words and said the dog had 14 anuses. Everyone and I do mean everyone laughed so hard at that. I was embarrassed at first but then my house momma corrected the Spanish words and I now know how to say years in Spanish properly. SO dive in speak the local language make mistakes, you will find that even after a week you will easily speak 20-30 more words than you did upon arrival.

2. Bring something from your home area. Often you will find that your family is not as well traveled as you and will be very curious about your life in the United States. It is often easy to forget that while you live in the USA and know what day to day life is like, your host family doesn’t, they only know what they see on the news. I am from Texas and I tend to bring Texas Pralines and every time I do they are a hit. Mostly because the candy is very different and they have not had it before. It doesn’t have to be huge or expensive. I think I spend like $5 and I am a hit. If you don’t bring a gift buying something in a local market is a great idea. I bought blackberries once, because they were considered expensive to my local family so they never bought them, but to me they were a steal.

3. KEEP YOUR SPACE CLEAN. I put this in caps because it is so important. Now I am messy as hell and if my mom reads this she is going to laugh because my space is often a disaster at home. However, while I may be messy she did raise me to have some damn manners and respect others. So all I am going to say is, keep you space clean. Just like you take pride in your home, they take pride in theirs. Keep your space clean.

4. Be honest about your food habits. I have found that home stays are often SHOCKED at how little I eat and often if I don’t eat a lot they feel I don’t like the food and want to change my meals. Which is why I say be 100% honest about the food, if you can’t eat something let them know. Food is expensive in countries and it is more important to not waste it. Also be clear if you don’t eat a lot. I am someone that will eat more frequently throughout the day and it may take a few days but I have found that being clear about what I do like is better up front than wasting food. However, that being said it is important to understand you will likely not eat like you do at home. I have found that me just saying I really don’t eat a lot, so smaller portions with more carb heavy meals… ie rice and fruit works wonders and once that happens food is never wasted and they know I am happy.

5. Get to know your host family and do NOT lose touch. I can’t stress this enough ask questions in their language no matter how broken, find out their favorite color, what is their favorite holiday? Ask questions, communicate. When it is time to leave exchange emails or become facebook friends. I can’t stress this last tip enough. You will enjoy your stay in whatever country so much more if you get to know your family. They will be able to offer insight into the local area and even their favorite restaurants if you just communicate with them. Plus you will have a new family that you can talk about for years to come. Seriously I still talk about my home stays they had that big of an impact on me. Take pictures because if you don’t you might regret it.

Well that is all I have for tips on staying in a home stay. I hope if you are on the fence on whether to stay with a family or not this helps you decide to do it. I will never choose a hotel or any other option if I have the opportunity to stay with a house family.


Time to Raise $$$ for the Children of Ecuador

So it is no secret I am planning another volunteer adventure to Ecuador for 2015.  I have already paid my fee & booked my flight (well almost waiting to see if the prices drop!)  so now it is time to plan what I am going to bring to this project.  Not only am I practicing my Spanish, I want to donate items as well my time.

One of the things I realized quickly in my short time in Guatemala is basic resources are hard to come by in Latin America, especially books. I I went to many stores & markets and one of the things I noticed is how expensive books were.  In America, we know books are expensive.  I often roll my eyes when I pay $10 for  a book on Amazon.  So imagine my surprise when I learned that the cost of books, doesn’t really change in Latin America. $10 to me is the cost of lunch, $10 to other parts of the world may be all they have to survive on for the week.  So obviously books are a true luxury item.

So I am making it a goal to raise money to buy much needed supplies for my project.    Here is the basic list that I have obtained from past volunteers, my project booklet and my own experience.

Vitamins/Calcium tablets
Antibiotics, antiseptics
Medical family guides
Any books and/or research on health care relevant to Ecuador
First aid materials
Children’s clothing
Bubble Solution
Face Paint
Music player and some children’s music
Musical instruments
Stickers, stamps and certificates
Group games such as bingo, chutes & ladders, twister, etc
Colored drawing paper
Books (any type)
Colored pavement chalk

As you can see the list is basic.  We often take some of these things for granted.  It is about to be the holidays, and I am planning on taking part of the madness that is Black Friday.  My job does a toy drive every year and I can’t wait to buy toys for the kids of America & Ecuador.  I am going to be fighting for those $5 games so you best watch out people! 🙂

Interested in helping me with the kids of Ecuador?

I have a few fundraisers at play here if interested feel free to take part in one of them ALL MONEY RAISED IS GOING TO BUY SUPPLIES FOR THE CHILDREN OF ECUADOR  

First you can buy the bulk items I have added specifically to my Amazon Wishlist for Ecuador, the items will be shipped directly to me and I will pack them up when I go to Ecuador (or if I collect too much I will try and ship! we will see) I am taking two suitcases so let’s feel them up! I mean I don’t really need clothes while I am there 😉

Wish List for Ecuador

As I find more items these might get added, also if you think something else is more fitting let me know, I will add it! If you have been there and noticed something that might be needed please let me know!  I am going strictly on word of mouth so help me!

Second, I have started a GoFundMe account strictly for the project funds.  I am trying to buy at least $500 in supplies. You can click on the link below and you donate directly to this page.

FINALLY, you can just shop with cause. The lovely Katie Mullenix has agreed to donate part of her proceeds from Origami Owl to the cause, so feel free to shop with a cause & get some very pretty stuff for yourself, friends and family. You can shop directly for the cause here, I am pretty sure I am going buy a few charms myself

Buy Origami Owl

Also I want everyone to know that this is a great cause, that I am very excited about.  Latin America is truly one of my favorite places on Earth and I can’t wait to really try and make a difference even if it is only for two weeks.

As always thanks for reading and I can’t wait to share more with you in the future!

Don’t Think Just Go…

Today I was reading a lot of volunteer diaries on the IVHQ website, and I noticed a lot of people with fear about Guatemala.  Some have even mentioned pulling the plug on the trip. I have also made instagram & twitter friends simply because they were going to Guate and they were scared and wanted to talk to me about it.  I totally understand that pre-trip fear. 

Which is why, I feel I need to write this, because I was just like them. I feel I need to share this in order to help people understand that no matter how scared they feel, they need to go!!!!!!!

As I said in a previous post I messed up and googled Safety in Guatemala…. about 30 days before I left. My excitement for the trip changed to dread & fear.

For 30 solid days, I read 100s yes 100s of stories about kidnappings, murders, drug fueled accidents, chicken buses getting robbed & flipping over.   The week of my trip I was still debating on backing out, I was trying to think of excuses not to go.

What in the world did I get myself into?

What the heck was I thinking?

Have I lost my mind?

I am going to get (insert violent crime here)!

If I am going to be 100% honest here I even drafted an entire email to Chelsea the program coordinator (a fellow AWESOME Texan) saying I have the flu and can’t go, and would like to reschedule my time.   Yes it would have been a lie… by this time I was in a pure panic.  I just knew I was going to get murdered by some gang drug fueled person that wanted my scalp for a collection & then harvest my kidneys on the black market.

Sometimes I am a bit of a drama queen. 

Finally my 80 year old self kicked in and talked a little reason and I slept for maybe a hour, then it was time to go to the airport.

Although again if I am being honest, I still upgraded my plane ticket to first class for $75 bucks, just in case I didn’t make it back.  I always wanted to fly first class and this was a very cheap offer.  I even gave my dad all my life insurance policy information.  Again just in case. 

When I arrived to the airport, the person picking me up was stuck and traffic and not there.  I do not speak Spanish.  I had no clue what to do.  I remembered that this was a possible warning and was told NOT to panic, so of course I didn’t  did panic.

A man came up to me and asked me if I needed his phone to call some one.   I quickly called the person and was told he would be there in 10 minutes.  The man smiled at me & walked away.  He didn’t ask for anything in return. 

This would be the first of many random acts of kindness I would experience in this country. 

Once I arrived, I quickly realized I was going to have one HECK of a language barrier. 

Yet I quickly learned, smiles are universal in every language, and even though I had zero clue what my house mother was saying 99.9% of the time I felt more at home in her home than some of my co-workers homes and we didn’t speak the same language. 

I got so LOST in Antigua, that if it wasn’t for another person I would have just locked myself in my room the entire trip.  (I promise the Maximo Novel HQ is easy to find once you get that Antigua is just a giant grid)

I may have been lost but found this...
I may have been lost but found this…

I caught a cold while there & was driven to a pharmacy (where again I don’t speak the language) but the pharmacist was so helpful we figured out what I needed with no issues. It was pretty funny actually it is funny what you can communicate with hand signals and dramatic gestures. 

On my first day I found out I was going to have to ride chicken buses daily…. yes those chicken buses that I read get robbed all the time or flip over.

All I can say now is I am so grateful I experienced those bus rides… I have many fun filled stories because of the chicken bus experience. Once, I ended up in the lap of elderly man holding a baby goat.  True Story. 

Not one time did the bus get robbed or flip over. 

So here is what I am going to tell you, future volunteers.  Go.  Make your own memories, don’t be scared. 

Just go!
Just go!

Again, stuff does happen in Guatemala.  Bad things happen all over the world.  Be smart & you will have one of the best experiences of your life.  I can promise you that. 

Feel free to contact me at TheCubicleEscapee (at) yahoo (dot) com if you want to chat! I love meeting fellow travelers! Plus I can tell you many stories from my time in Antigua.