Backpacking Across Europe Step 1: Initial Planning and Overview

Now that I’ve seen most of the Middle East, I’d like to see more of Europe.  I’ve seen Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic, but I would happily go back to any of those places.  I’m planning a backpacking trip across Europe for the Spring of 2018, and I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the subject. I know it’s not good to cram, and it’s probably unrealistic to try to visit EVERY European country, but that’s what I want to do.  So for starters, as my initial planning, I’m going to do some brief research about Europe to get an overview.

Geography

Europe is in the northwestern territory of the Eurasian continent, surrounded by the Arctic Ocean in the north, the Atlantic Ocean in the west, the Mediterranean Sea in the south, and the Black Sea in the southeast. There are disputes about the number of countries and territorial lines, but it’s commonly accepted that there are 51 independent states.  However, for my own purposes I’m not including Azerbaijan, Armenia, Cyprus, Georgia, or Turkey in my travel plans since these countries are geographically and culturally similar to the Middle East. I’m also not including Kazakhstan because I plan to visit all the ‘Stans’ at once.

I’ve narrowed down the list of countries I’d like to visit to 45 and divided them into their regions. I think the easiest way for me to conquer Europe is to go region by region and assess my financial situation from there.

Regions

 

European Countries by Region

 

East North West South
Belarus

Bulgaria

Czech Republic

Hungary

Moldova

Poland

Romania

Russia

Slovakia

Ukraine

Denmark

Estonia

Finland

Iceland

Ireland

Latvia

Lithuania

Norway

Sweden

United Kingdom

 

Austria

Belgium

France

Germany

Liechtenstein

Luxembourg

Monaco

Netherlands

Switzerland

Albania

Andorra

Bosnia-Herzegovina

Croatia

Greece

Holy See

Italy

Kosovo

Macedonia

Malta

Montenegro

Portugal

San Marino

Serbia

Slovenia

Spain

https://www.countries-ofthe-world.com/countries-of-europe.html

 

The next step in my plans will be to research each region individually, and start making plans to visit.  If I can budget properly, I could try to conquer more than one region.  I think I’m going to start with the West. Got any advice for me?

Happy Trails, ya’ll!

 

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Converting a Bus: A Step-by-Step ‘Work in Progress’

As mentioned in a previous post, I’m pursuing a lifelong goal of mine: to make my home inside a vehicle. After extensive searching and shopping, I’ve decided that what I really want is a short bus or shuttle bus to be converted into my new home.  I know buying an RV with all the amenities already set up would be so much easier, but I just wouldn’t be happy.  I’m particular about how things are done.  The only problem is, I don’t really know where to start or what all I need to make my dream a reality.  

So I’ve started doing the research and I’ve developed a step-by-step “guide” (work in progress) for converting a bus into a home. However, I can only do so much research at a time.  I have to actually purchase the bus before I start the rest of these endeavors. Remember, this is just preliminary research, and I’m certain I’ll be adding and amending steps as I go.  Any feedback from those with experience is welcome!

Step 1: Buy the Vehicle

I’m currently shopping for a shuttle bus because they happen to be the perfect size for what I’m looking for.  I’ve also been told they’re relatively easy to work on and find parts should something go wrong.  I want one that’s in good condition, preferably under $5000 and has a door in the back.

Step 2: Make All Necessary Repairs

I’ll get the car checked out once I buy it. Hopefully the costs for repairs will be under $2000, but I want my vehicle to be running and in good condition.

Step 3: License, Insurance, and Other Legalities

My friend was concerned about insuring the vehicle.  This didn’t even cross my mind until I started doing some research online.

https://www.trustedchoice.com/rv-insurance/camper-rv-types/bus-conversion/

https://discoveringusbus.com/everything-about-bus-conversion-insurance/

I think I’ll talk to my insurance company in person first and see what kinds of plans are offered. It’s going to be a process getting the bus set up as an actual motorhome, so I’m not sure if I’ll just change insurance types after that or not.

Step 3: Clean and Gut

After I have the bus insured, titled, licensed, and repaired, I can begin the actual conversion process. The seats and other fixtures must be removed.  I have a friend or two who can help me with this process.  I also need to thoroughly clean out the inside and have any rust removed or grinded off.  Finally, I’ll need to apply a layer or primer or anti-rust paint.

http://thevanual.com/preparation

Step 4: Bus Layout

I’m going to need to set up the layout in order to determine where all the electrical fixtures, kitchen, etc. is going to be stored inside of the bus. I’m going to need to be able to accommodate the following:

  • A bed
  • Storage for items and clothing
  • Kitchen with mini-fridge, sink, stove top, cabinets
  • Bathroom with toilet and shower fixture
  • Any other furniture can be put in afterward

After I determine the best layout for the van I can start planning the electrical and water system which I think will be the most complicated part of this adventure.

http://outsidefound.com/2015/01/bus-layouts-revisited/

Step 5: Electrical Work

The electrical work is going to need to be done by a professional.  I’m not sure how much power I can get from solar panels, so I’ll need to check into that.

http://thevanual.com/electrical-and-solar

https://itstillruns.com/install-electricity-school-bus-conversion-7858078.html

http://bus.getdave.com/Infrastructure/Electrical/

I’m not sure how much it will cost to set up the electrical works in the vehicle, but it looks like I’m going to need a few key items:

http://www.vonslatt.com/bus-elec.shtml

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F2peKc6zXpc


Step 6: Water System: Bathroom and Kitchen

I want to have the simplest system possible to have running water, a bathroom, shower, and sink.  I know I have some options:

http://mowgli-adventures.com/camper-van-water-systems-explained/

https://kombilife.com/van-life-shower-options/

http://www.camper-van-fun.com/build-your-own-camper.html

Step 7: Insulation

Insulating the bus is important if I want to control the temperature.  Here in the Midwest we have brutal summers and brutal winters. My comfort is important to me and I’m not going to live uncomfortably

http://thevanual.com/insulation

Step 8: Flooring and Walls

I want the inside of the van to have wood paneling.  I’m going to have to find someone who knows how to install that.

http://thevanual.com/

Step 9: Furnishings

I plan on buying my own furnishings from flea markets rather than custom building furniture for the bus.  Anything I find will need to be small.

Step 10: Wifi

And finally, I have to have wifi for my job.  I hope there’s a good option for portable wifi that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.

Am I forgetting anything? Got any advice for me?

 

 

Living in a Van Step 1: Research and Planning

I recently decided to pursue one of my life-long dreams: living out of a vehicle.  I’ve been toying with the idea for years, and now that I have the funds saved up and the freedom to do so, the time has come to seriously explore the option.  I’m currently doing the research necessary to make this dream a reality, and I figured a good place to start would be to write down exactly what I want and don’t want.  If I’m going to do this, I might as well do it right.

Step 1: Overall Goal Assessment

I think a good place to start would be to assess my overall goal which is essentially this:

I want a vehicle that I can live out of independently with all the luxuries needed to live a comfortable life: bathroom, kitchen, bed, etc.  I want the vehicle to be big enough to contain everything I need for my independent lifestyle while still being as small as possible.  My comfort is important to me, so if I can’t stand all the way up inside the vehicle, for instance, or I’m not comfortable driving it, I don’t want it.  The ultimate goal is to have a place to live while saving money, so if the vehicle itself costs as much as a house, or requires hook ups and can only be parked in certain places, I don’t want it.  Are my goals unrealistic? We’ll find out.

Step 2: Type of Vehicle

Of course, I’ve always romanticized the idea of living in a VW bus, but this just isn’t realistic for what I want.  I’ve read about all the different types of RVs and other vehicles that can be converted into a home, and I think I’ve narrowed it down to one of three options: class B motor home, truck camper, or a converted minibus. I’ve chosen these three options for a number of reasons:

  • I’m not comfortable driving excessively large vehicles which pretty much rules out the Class A and Class C motor homes.  I also want to be able to park the vehicle in any parking lot without a lot of trouble. For these reasons, I need something small and accessible.
  • I don’t have a vehicle that can tow large items such as pop-up trailers, travel trailers, and fifth wheels. Plus I’m trying to keep this project as cost efficient as possible, so the vehicle itself must be drive-able.

Step 3: Start Shopping

All the other questions I have about maintenance, remodeling, upkeep, etc. can’t be answered until I’ve found a vehicle, so the shopping process begins now!  I’m definitely leaning toward a used vehicle though I know I might burn a hole in my pocket with the conversion process and maintenance costs.  I haven’t decided if I’m going to buy a shell of a vehicle and customize it or buy one that already has all the amenities and spend the extra. I know it won’t be cheap, but I’m prepared for that, and worse case scenario, I get a vehicle that will be great for road trips and nothing more.  Once I find the perfect vehicle, we can begin the next step: turning it into my new home.

Got any advice for me?  I’ve got no qualms about being slapped with the reality stick, so lay it on me!

Peace

Why I always keep a travel journal now!(my month in Ecuador)

My first long-term experience abroad was during a study away program in 2009.  I went to Ecuador with a small group of college students who were learning Spanish.  It is by far one of the best experiences abroad I’ve had. Unfortunately, I didn’t bother to keep a journal of my experiences and now I’ve forgotten half the places we saw and visited! This is what I do remember:

We stayed in Quito, and I was not prepared for the change in air pressure.  You’re so high up that breathing becomes difficult.  I didn’t realize just how out of shape I was until I tried to walk up a flight of stairs! We visited many of the main cities in Ecuador including Guayaquil, Baños, and Otavalo. Sadly we didn’t get to see the Galapagos Islands, but it’s on my list for sure.  I think my favorite experiences were white water rafting in the river and going to the equator.

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It’s hard to remember all the things we did since the itinerary was packed so full, but thank goodness I have lots of pictures!

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We had a great view atop part of the Andes mountains looking down on the city below.

 

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We visited the very wet city of Baños and played in the waterfalls.

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We saw many museums, attractions, and sites, but I think my favorite was on the equator.

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One of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in my life (which I used to have a video of but seem to have lost) was watching water being drained in a basin.  One side of the hemisphere it rotated clockwise, and just a few feet over the line it flowed in the opposite direction.  But on the equator the water went straight down. It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.

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In one city we actually got to watch a volcano erupt from a distance.

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We spent time working with a group of children in a local community.  This one enjoyed playing with my sunglasses.

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I had a blast on the train ride, but sadly I ended up leaving behind a souvenir hat that I really loved.

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One of my favorite experiences was going to the fruit market and sampling all the interesting and bizarre fruits.

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I can’t believe it’s been almost 10 years since my first major overseas experience.  I would love to go back to Ecuador someday and see what’s changed. I wish I could remember the names of the cities and museums I visited.  From now on, I’ll carry a travel journal!

Immersion is the ONLY way to truly learn another language.

I’m speaking mostly from personal experience when I say that if you want to learn a foreign language, the only real way to do so is to go to a country that speaks that language and immerse yourself in it.  Of course, I’m sure there’s plenty of conflicting research with lengthy lists of teaching methodology and the newest software programs to make you fluent in no time.

Recently, I’ve been seeing more ads for language learning programs that guarantee fluency in just a few weeks. Please don’t fall for this nonsense.  Every time I see an ad stating that you’ll be fluent in just 8 weeks after using their language learning software, I can’t help but think of the equivalent marketing scams for weight loss: “take this special pill/drink/chemical and you’ll shed the pounds in 2 weeks.”

The fact is learning a foreign language is a long and arduous process. Probably the most difficult part, at least for myself, is how slow the progress feels. I’ll learn so much and still only be able to give basic directions to a location or order food in a restaurant.  I’m functionally fluent in Spanish (though shamefully rusty) and probably a high-beginner in Arabic.  And that was after spending 3 years in an Arab-speaking country!!!

I’ve been teaching English as a second language for nearly a decade now which helps tremendously in my own learning process.  I’ve tried almost every type of language learning method out there and these are the conclusions I’ve drawn:

Traditional Classrooms

Learning in a regular classroom is great for learning about the language, not so great for speaking and interacting on a fluent-level with locals, unless of course, the class you’re attending is in a country that speaks the target language.  I studied Spanish for nearly 12 years throughout high school and college and studied it relentlessly.  However, the month I spent in Ecuador, I made more strides than I ever made in the 12 years spent in a classroom in the states covering a textbook and eating nachos on special occasions.

Textbooks and Workbooks

I’ve often perused the shelves at bookstores for textbooks, workbooks, and dictionaries for what I deem the best for learning a language.  Having a book to follow along with will definitely help you in the language-learning process, but will it make you fluent? Sadly no.  In fact, in some ways I’ve found books to hinder my progress.  They’re almost always formal language which means I don’t sound like a native speaker when I talk, and nearly always organized into what should be useful scenarios: giving directions, ordering food at a restaurant, a trip to the post office.  But just how often do you have to request more cheese on your pizza in Arabic? Not often.

Language-Learning Software

The language-learning software such as Rosetta Stone seems to be one of the newest trends in language learning.  Rosetta Stone has been around for awhile now and boasts that it’s the “natural way” to learn a language.  I used Rosetta Stone for Arabic and while it was definitely useful, I don’t think it would ever make me fluent.  And anytime I repeated phrases, my Arabic-speaking friends would giggle and proclaim “you sound so formal!”

Immersion

Bottom line, immersion is the way to go. If you can’t afford a planet ticket or a trip to another country, consider searching for a community of native-speakers who live close to you.  I’m currently trying to find my own conversation partner now that I’m home from the Middle East and no longer immersed in Arabic.

What has been your experience learning a foreign language?

Pros and Cons of Cruises

Mexico was my first experience abroad, but it wasn’t the first time I flew in an airplane since we had driven to the border.  My first time in an airplane was when I went on my honeymoon on a Carnival Cruise. The novelty of flying has definitely worn off.

Cruises are a great way to visit several different countries at once.  However, you only have a limited amount of time in each country, so it’s impossible not to cram.  You’re constantly rushed from one event to another making it difficult to relax.  You’re also at the mercy of the cruise’s itinerary, so if you like the freedom of making your own schedule, a cruise is not for you.

To really get the most out of the experience, I highly recommend doing the shore excursions. My husband (now ex) and I went on a cruise that made port in Cozumel, Mexico, Ocho Rios, Jamaica, and Grand Cayman. In Cozumel Mexico we chose to tour the ancient ruins.  It was an incredible experience.  In Jamaica, we climbed Dunn’s River Falls which is one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.  In the Cayman Islands, we were supposed to go paragliding, but the weather did not permit it.  I’m so glad we did the excursions, but that’s another downside of cruising: expect to spend more money if you’re going to really enjoy the experience.

Another benefit I’d say is how easy and organized it is to go from country to country. However, you have to wait in long lines and it seems like much of the trip is spent either standing in a line to board the ship, or standing in a line to go to dinner, or standing in a line to board the dock.  It’s hard to escape the people around you, especially if you go during a busy season.  I recommend going during the off seasons.  We went on our cruise in January and I’m glad we did.

I wouldn’t recommend a cruise to anybody.  If you prefer to make your own schedule, get off the beaten path, take your time, and make your own arrangements then cruising is not for you.  If you like having your itinerary organized for you, meals, lodging, and other necessities arranged, and seeing multiple countries for one price, then maybe it’s time you booked your first cruise.

 

What are your Thoughts on Mission Trips?

In 2002, I went to another country for the first time.  I was in my teens and quite passionate about religion.  I joined my church on a mission trip to Reynosa, Mexico.  Sadly, I have few pictures of the trip, but my favorite one is of me interacting with a little Mexican boy. From that first trip, I knew I was going to be a traveler.  I was astounded by the differences in culture, the warmth of the people there, and the foreign sights, smells, and sounds.  My Spanish was limited at the time, but good enough for me to communicate with the locals.

It’s been almost 2 decades since that first trip, but it’s still fresh in my mind. I remember going to a very poverty-stricken area of the country and seeing families with four or five young children living in cinder block houses, cooking tortillas on a fire, shoeless and thin, but happier than any child I had ever seen. The kids ran up to us and offered us food and gifts which was ironic since we were there to provide the same. At the end of our week there, we invited them all in prayer to convert.  The area was predominantly Catholic, and we were Southern Baptists.  I remember being so excited when all the kids converted, but now, nearly 15 years later, I look back on that experience, not with regret, but concern.

Would we have brought food and clothes to these people without the expectation that they follow our religion instead of the one they were brought up with?  Is it not possible to help others without imposing one’s religious beliefs on them?  Now that I’ve traveled more, my perception about religion has changed dramatically.  I view religion now as a part of culture rather than a universal truth, and while I do admire the help given by missionaries such as food, clothes, and commodities, I can’t help but wonder if those missionaries are missing out on the best thing about travel: learning about another culture without trying to change it.