Central America

Staying safe in Guatemala

Before I came to Guatemala several people and especially my parents told me that Guatemala is extremely dangerous and I shouldn’t go.

The Canadian government tells Canadian travellers to exercise a high degree of caution because of violence, roadblocks, strikes and demonstrations that happen periodically. It also mentions that Guatemala has one of the highest rates of violent crimes in Latin America.

I have been in the country close to a week now, and even though that isn’t much time, I have picked up a few tips to staying safe.

First of all, the Canadian (and probably American) government websites say never to travel on the local public buses called Chicken Buses… this is something I do every day to get to my placement in another city. The chicken bus only costs 3.50 Quetzales (about $0.45), and often I’m the only none local person on the bus. (Though I have run into other volunteers periodically). I’m glad that this is the way that I have to get to work, because it gives me a better idea of what  it’s really like to live her. But I still do several things to stay safe – I always make sure I have nearly exact change for the fare and I put it in my pocket before I get on the bus, so that I’m not routing through my bag inside. If I don’t have exact change, I make sure I never give them more than 10 Quetzales because I don’t want to show too much money. I also don’t bring more than about 60 Quetzales with me to my placement (about $7.80) and leave my passport, iPhone and camera at home. I carry a small bag and keep it on my lap and I keep my head up and stay aware of my surroundings…. so far I have had no problems.

When taking a chicken bus, there is a helper who hops on and off frequently, often before the bus comes to a full stop. Just tell him where you want to go and you’re good to go.

Secondly, I never walk alone at night… (anytime after about 7:30 p.m.). When I do go out, I again make sure I only have the bare minimum with me and keep my bag out of sight.

Another hazard in Antigua at least is trying to cross the roads. There are no traffic lights and stop signs are treated as a suggestion, but as long as you have about 15 metres between you and the car, there is time to cross… because the cars cannot travel quickly on the cobblestone. Watch out for motorcycles and scooters though… they never stop.

Most of these tips are common sense… but when I’m walking around, I’m shocked by how often I see tourists with huge cameras around their necks gawking at buildings with their bags unattended. They’re just making themselves a super easy target for robbery.

England, Europe, Travel Tips

The importance of keeping e-copies

Just a quick post to tell you all that this morning I was reminded how important it is to keep electronic copies of all your travel documents.

A few weeks ago, I booked a bus tour of the Cotswold (in England) for April 15. This morning, I was putting it into my calendar and couldn’t remember what pick-up site I had specified. So I decided to call the company.

After telling the customer service rep my name several times, she told me that she had no record I ever made a booking. (That didn’t stop them from charging me £29 for the trip.)

Now, I have booked online many times and normally the tour company sends a confirmation to your e-mail… this one didn’t.

Thankfully, I remembered that I had printed off the ticket confirmation that had popped up on my screen when I booked.

So after 15 minutes of rummaging through my desk, I eventually found the print-out.

I called them back and read them my ticket number and the tour company confirmed that, actually, they did have a booking for me.

So everything is good now.

However, I would have saved myself a lot of grief if I had just done a Print to PDF of the ticket screen, and maybe even e-mailed it to myself.

Now, I’ve learned my lesson.

Europe, Expat, Travel Tips

Cram it all in and away I go

I’m writing this post from Gate 17 of the Ottawa International Airport. My flight to London boards in about half an hour and then I’m off on my two-year adventure. I’ve promised for months to write a post with packing tips, so I figure now would be a good time to do this.

This morning, I finalized the suitcase I was bringing with me on my trip. After three tries and some emptying of things by my dad, I finally managed to get almost everything I wanted in my bag and get it to an acceptable weight.

As I mentioned before, I decided to fly Thomas Cook to London because the ticket was about half the price of the next cheapest ticket and about 1/3 the price of flying Air Canada. I’ve taken the airline before and the only problem is that their baggage restriction is 20kg. For a 20-something girl trying to move my life to the other side of the ocean, this is nowhere near enough.

Full disclosure: My dad is travelling for work in a few weeks and will be coming via London, so I’m getting him to take another suitcase with him, as he’s allowed to bring extra bags with his frequent flyer card.

Here’s a picture of everything I tried to stuff in my suitcase. (That’s a queen-size bed). I actually managed to get almost all of this stuff in, but then had to remove several items because it was too heavy. So how did I get it all in?

Fool-proof tips to cram everything in:

1) Roll!!! I’m sure you’ve heard people say this before. It’s actually ridiculous how much more you can fit in when you roll your clothes rather than fold them. I’m not sure why this is, but it works.

2) Start with your small items like underwear, socks and tank-tops and gradually work up to bigger items.

3) Place your shoes in two separate bags and pack them in different parts of the suitcase. I find that the best way to fit them in is to build up a layer of shirts first, and then slot them in somewhere in the middle.

4) Take breaks. It took me about two hours to pack everything in my bag and in that time, I spent several minutes, either sitting on the clothes in my suitcase, or just letting them settle, to get them to take up less space.

5) Give it your full attention. I was texting my entire second attempt at packing and I managed to fit about a third less stuff because I wasn’t maximizing every little space. Socks fit nicely inside a shoe, and I’ve even managed to get a rolled t-shirt in shoe. Just think of it like a big game of Tetris.

Alright, well I’m about to board. So I’ll see you all on the other side!

England, Europe, Expat, Scotland, Travel Tips

YMS VISA – Step-by-step guide

So I promised a couple of times now that I would write-up a step-by-step guide for applying to the Youth Mobility Scheme Visa to the UK. As a disclaimer I should say that I am in no way an expert on the subject. But I just applied for this visa and had it accepted yesterday, so I did something right.

So first things first – who can apply to the YMS Visa?

It’s open to young people 18-30 from Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Japan and Monaco. The YMS Visa gives you a two-year working visa that lets you entre and leave the country as often as you want. You can basically do any job except professional sports, self-employment (though there are exceptions) or doctor-in-training.

You can only apply for the visa once and you can’t extend your stay in the UK when your visa is up. Even getting married doesn’t work. One note: the age limit is actually for when you apply for the visa. You can post-date the entry date of your visa for up to three months (mine’s post-dated to June 20), so if you turn 31 in that time, it’s still fine.

What do I need to apply?

I must have read the application site for the YMS visa five times. It is definitely not written clearly.

Basically you need five things to apply: the online application, application fee, a passport-sized photo (UK passport specifications), your passport and proof of £1600 in maintenance funds (basically money that can tide you over if you don’t get a job right away.) There are several ways to prove your maintenance funds (in your own currency): a letter from your bank or credit union, three months worth of bank statements or a bank book, (each of these has to show funds from no earlier than a month before you applied for the visa.) If you are downloading bank statements from the Internet, you’ll need a letter from the bank confirming them. As an option, you can also submit an old expired passport to prove your travel history. The online application asks for a very detailed travel history.

How do I apply?

I applied from Canada. I believe the process is the same from each country. From Canada you apply online through Woodbridge services. The application is pretty easy, but you’ll need to have your passport (and maybe you’re expired passport) on hand. They ask you about your personal information, about your parents and about your past-travel history. The application fee is £160 and you’ll have to pay that online. The last part of the application is to schedule an appointment at a Woodbridge application centre to hand-in your supporting documents, including your passport. I submitted my online application on April 2 and then scheduled by appointment for April 18. There were earlier appointments available, but I wanted to be finished with school first.

The appointment only lasts about 20 minutes, basically they make you sign a document that says you won’t try to use this visa to work in the British overseas territories (Bermuda, Anguilla, British Virgin Islands, etc.) Then they check to make sure you have brought in all of your documents and a printed out version of the online application. Then they take your finger prints and a headshot (yes, another one). I had my appointment at 9 a.m. Monday and my application was accepted yesterday. I picked up my passport with the YMS visa inside at 4 p.m. today. They tell you it could take up to 15 days from this appointment day to process your application, but my application was done in four.

That’s it. I hope you guys are successful too!

Travel Tips

Creative places to hide your money and documents

When you stay at a hostel, there will likely be a locker where you can lock your valuables. If there isn’t, then think about bringing a bike-lock, or at least chain and combination lock to attach your bag to your bed. If all else fails, you can also put your bag at the foot of your sleeping bag, while you are sleeping.

If you’re staying somewhere for a longer time and you’re sharing a residence room or a flat with several people, you might want to consider hiding your belongings. While it won’t stop someone who is really determined to rob you, it’s definitely safer than having money and important documents lying out in the open.

1. Inside the lining of a padded bra (this is a good one for when you go to the bar too.)

2. Inside a tampon/condom box

3. Inside a pair of rolled socks

4. Inside the page of one a lesser used textbook (if you’re spending a semester abroad)

5. Inside food boxes or cartons. (Tip: take out the cereal bag, put the money in the bottom of the cereal box and then put the bag back in.)

6. In the toe of a pair of boots

No matter where you hide your stuff, the trick is not to put it all in the same place. You want to keep a bit in many places. If you are travelling in a dangerous place, you might want to consider putting some money in a zip-lock bag and sticking it in your underwear. This would be very important in several countries in South America, where many travellers end up in hi-jacked buses.