Hannah Goes Fishing

A Fishing (and more) Blog

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Would You Eat a Stranger’s Leftovers?

Last week I wrote about why we let strangers sleep in our home via the CouchSurfing and Airbnb programs.  To recap, we like to host and surf with these programs because:

1.) We like to participate in the traveler community even when we can’t actively travel ourselves, and
2.) We believe in contributing to a better traveler world based on trust and camaraderie by giving people a cheap or free place to sleep and playing host during their stay.

This month, we have two trips in the works – all part of our master plan to see as much of Europe as possible during our three years here in Norway.  First, we have some friends visiting from the States who want to do a weekend jaunt somewhere. Sweden? Poland (tickets are $21USD!!)? I’ll let you know next week!  Our second trip will be to The Netherlands, where I will be attending a conference and Rob will fly down to meet me so we can check out his old haunts in The Hague and Amsterdam.

While we make an outrageously good living here in Norway given our age and occupations, the high cost of living combined with our savings goals mean that we still need to travel on a budget.  Being the money grubber that I am, I want that budget to be as small as possible.  Thus, we’ve been exploring options for how to have the most ‘local’ experience possible without blowing through our cash.  To us, traveling like locals is paramount to the sort of traveling experience we desire.

So, this week I’m giving you a run down of some of the ‘communities’ popping up all over the world that let travelers eat, sleep, and be entertained like a local.

We love to check out the local food in a new place, but sometimes it’s hard to get far enough away from the typical tourist fare to enjoy something local, authentic, and easy on your budget.  It can also be lonely to eat by yourself if you’re traveling alone, or know what’s worth your time if you’re facing a huge menu all in a foreign language. 

Enter options like Bookalokal, VizEat, EatWith, and (perhaps my favorite) LeftoverSwap. These sites hook travelers up with locals who like to cook and host gatherings where travelers can book a seat and take part of a set menu meal. Similar to Airbnb but for food, Bookalokal, VizEat, and EatWith all allow you to search by meal preferences, times, locations, and prices to find an appealing menu and host where you can share a meal. While most meals offered aren’t what I would call super budget friendly, they do offer a great way to taste local, home cooked meals for much cheaper than you’d find at a restaurant.

LeftoverSwap, in a similar vein, is a downloadable app that lets people post their leftovers and travelers can claim them and pick them up.  The site is based around the idea of reducing food waste and allowing travelers to eat for cheap or free.  While we have yet to try any of these sites, I’m looking forward to picking up our first set of leftovers while on the road.

Screenshot from the Left Over Swap page. Would you eat a stranger's leftovers?

Screenshot from the Left Over Swap page. Would you eat a stranger’s leftovers?

At this point, hotels are seriously old news. There are so many options for accommodations now that are cheaper, friendly, and a neat way to sleep like an actual local. You know I’m already a big fan of CouchSurfing and Airbnb, but did you know that there are many other sites that help connect travelers with people who want to rent a room, let you crash on their couch, or housesit their home?

Check out these sites:

Sort of like a lower-tech version of Airbnb, Wimdu is very popular in Europe for finding local accommodation. We have yet to use it, but we’ve heard good things from people who have used it while traveling in European cities.

Warm Showers is the CouchSurfing for traveling cyclists (and yes, I giggled at the name too). We learned about Warm Showers while we were hosting a cyclist through CouchSurfing who is currently on his 4th year (!) of traveling the world on a bicycle. Warm Showers, it should be noted, is not intended to be for people riding to raise money, big groups of travelers, or really anything other than long-term touring bicyclists. That being said, we’ve heard nothing but good things about the community of hosts and cyclist travelers.

Another version of Airbnb, Roomorama is available all over the world. We haven’t used this site yet, but we plan to list our own space on it to improve the number of bookings we get for our spare room.

A subscription-based service, Mindmyhouse brings together housesitters (who pay $20USD per year to use the site) and home owners (free).  We haven’t used this site yet, but we plan to for some of our longer-term travel plans in the future.

A slightly more expensive version of Mindmyhouse, HouseCarers is a similar site that matches house sitters to homeowners. House sitters pay a subscription fee of $55USD per year.

With a more mid-range subscription fee for house sitters ($25USD per year), this site is pretty much the same as the other house sitting options, though perhaps their site is a little less functional.

Of course, that’s far from all of the options for local food, drink, and entertainment.  But, I hate to re-invent the wheel when Matt from Nomadic Matt has already so thoroughly listed most of these sites. You can check out the options here, where he talks about monastery stays, farmstays, homestays, WWOOFing, and even resources for seniors!

I’ll be adding most of these sites to my Volunteer tab, where I’m trying to provide a detailed go-to place for travelers to expand their horizons for food, accommodation, and adventure. But, I know there’s more out there! So, if you know of a site I missed, tell me about it in the comments.

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This Peace Corps Life – Eastern Caribbean

Thousands of Peace Corps volunteers serve across the globe continent in countries as different from one another as Alaska is from Florida. As part of my blogging goals for 2015, I hope to bring you volunteer interviews from Peace Corps countries from all around the world!  This month, I am excited to introduce to you a volunteer from Eastern Caribbean.

Kimmy Shannon – Age 29kim2

Where are you from?
Hi! I’m Kimmy. I had been living in Hawaii before I joined the Peace Corps, but I’m from the Seattle area in Washington state.
What country and program do you serve in? 
I’m serving in St. Lucia (it’s in the Eastern Caribbean which I didn’t know either until I joined). The only Peace Corps program in St. Lucia is the Primary Literacy Project. I swore in less than a month ago but had been in training for three months prior.

In my program I’m assigned two co-teachers. One is a first grade teacher and the other is a third grade teacher. We’re supposed to be teaching English literacy together. My principal also wants me to convert the resource room into a lending library.

Monday through Thursday I alternate days when I’m in the first grade classroom and when I’m in the third grade classroom. The first grade teacher lets me teach mini writing lessons while I mostly sit at a desk and observe aka Facebook in the third grade room. I work on converting the resource room into a library on Fridays.

In Eastern Caribbean I think our Peace Corps medical staff are outstanding, and my country staff would support me if I needed them for something.

What is your housing like?
I like to refer to my site as the Posh Corps or the Beach Corps. I live in a single bedroom apartment with wifi and running water. I have a microwave, blender, gas stove, mini fridge, and a fan. My landlord lives above me and often gifts me with fresh fruits and veggies from her garden.

What are some of the biggest challenges of your lifestyle?
The biggest challenge has been my loss of self. My lifestyle has completely changed. I’ve been having an existential crisis for the past few months. I used to be extremely active. I was a professional dancer and competitive surfer who hiked mountains on the weekends. Now, my lifestyle is largely sedentary. There are no waves, no yoga classes, no dance anything and no trails that I could safely hike on my own. I try to stay fit by doing workouts in my living room each day.

My diet has also changed but for the better. There is no fast food in my village so I am forced to cook for myself which I don’t mind. Sweets are very expensive so I eat a lot less chocolate and ice cream and things of that nature.

How often do you see and interact with other volunteers? 
I have nothing but love for my fellow volunteers. We genuinely enjoy each others company. I would have probably been on a plane home weeks ago if it weren’t for them. They are incredible supportive. We socialize every weekend.  Our central meeting house or office? The beach.
Kim and her intake at their swearing-in ceremony.

Kim and her intake at their swearing-in ceremony.

What are the locals like as a people? 
The process of getting to know my host-country neighbors will probably be a slow process. Women tend to stay in the house and I tend to be wary of the men here. I know they are an extremely religious people. There is no separation of church and state. Teachers pray with the students about four times daily in school.  Everyone speaks English but it is their second language. Their first language is Creole. I would love to learn it and Peace Corps would even pay for a tutor but their aren’t any tutors in my area so…
What are some of the most rewarding parts of your service?
I enjoy my time at the school.

And your greatest challenges?
I miss my independence. Volunteers are forbidden to drive so that makes getting away from the house a challenge since the buses stop running at seven. I don’t do anyone fun on weekdays since my friends and the beach are all at least two bus rides away. Saturday is my only day to get out and explore because buses are infrequent or don’t run at all on Sunday.

Has Peace Corps service met/surpassed/trampled on your expectations of what service would be like?
I had two expectations when I joined the Peace Corps: I expected to be fulfilled by my work and become a better teacher. School has only been in session for three weeks but I am fulfilled thus far. It is highly doubtful that I will become a better teacher. I’m being politically correct when I say that school is different here. I will have to unlearn a lot of bad habits when I return to teaching in the states and will be behind the curve in technology integration.

It’s difficult for me as a female in St. Lucia. I can’t walk down the street without being harassed, cat called or solicited. I’ve even been followed home. There are many places it is unsafe for me to go without the company of a man.  My male counterparts aren’t harassed for sex but for money. There seems to be a perception that white men have cash to spare.

Why did you join Peace Corps?
Long story short, I joined the Peace Corps to serve the greater good. That reason is still applicable.
Kim's classroom.

Kim’s classroom.

Has Peace Corps changed you?
Peace Corps has absolutely changed me for the better. In the short time that I’ve been in St. Lucia I have become more patient, resilient, empathetic, appreciative, #AllTheAdjectives

Do you feel like Peace Corps is still a worthwhile program for the U.S. government?
I think so.

If you had to give a piece of advice to someone thinking about applying to Peace Corps or getting ready for staging, what would you say?
I don’t regret joining the Peace Corps because I would always wonder if I hadn’t. That being said, would I do it again? No.

Any plans for post-Peace Corps?
Get married (If you’re single and grown then holler @k1m_b3rlee), and pay off my student loans.


Why I Let Strangers Sleep in My Home

Last week a woman I had never met before asked to stay the night in my home, and I said yes.

For many Americans, this is a sentence straight out of the “how to avoid ax murderers” handbook. For Rob and I, this is a request we receive almost weekly, and we usually throw out the welcome mat and put fresh sheets on the guest bed.

We are members of the CouchSurfing and Airbnb community and have signed up to host people out of our spare bedroom (and sometimes living room floor). Through these two communities, we receive an average of one request a week for someone to stay with us. With CouchSurfing, people stay for free and usually only for a night or two. With Airbnb, people rent our room for us, usually also for a night or two.  Both systems have their pros and cons, and while I’ve been hosting and surfing with CouchSurfing for years, Rob is new to both systems and so we’ve been navigating the adventure of having total strangers stay with us while balancing two schedules and two comfort levels.  So, why do we do it?

In short: because when life doesn’t give us much time to travel and see the world (as we are now with work and school), both communities give us a chance to invite the world to come to us. We regularly meet new people, hear about their adventures, and are inspired to visit new places and do things we may not have considered before. For instance, back when I was living in Fairbanks I hosted Alex Chacón, who is a world-class motorcyclist and friend. He stayed with us while biking all the way to the north slope after having started in South America. His adventures inspire me still, and I feel lucky that the week he stayed with us created a connection that will keep us in touch long after he wheeled out of our driveway.

But hosting people also fulfills another need for us. We are people who, by our nature and by choice, have faith in others and like to believe in a community of trust and goodness in others when we travel. We are, of course, not always rewarded for this faith, but more often than not we are. CouchSurfing depends tremendously on trust within the CS community (as does Airbnb to a large extent) since you are welcoming and being welcomed into the homes of complete strangers. By participating we get a chance to test our faith in the goodness of others and remain a part of the travel magic that makes traveling special. Plus, we build a network of people across the world who vouch for us on our CouchSurfing profile, and may house us one day should we ever visit their community. Hosting feels like building great karma, and surfing feels like slowly spending that karma out across the world.

That is the sort of world we want to live in – where people trust and are trusted by others, for the better – and hosting and surfing allows us to participate in creating that world, one guest and host at a time.

Of course, CouchSufing has its drawbacks. Some people aren’t great guests. Maybe they don’t communicate well, maybe they are loud, maybe they are messy, or maybe they aren’t very self-sufficient and expect you to play tour guide as well as host. Some people are hosting for the wrong reasons and don’t understand that trust and safety are what make CouchSurfing special. I’ve heard horror stories from surfers and terrible things have happened to both hosts and guests, but these events are rare.  There is also a review system that allows guests and hosts to talk about their experience, and these reviews are public to anyone who views a guest or host profile.  Because of the transparency encouraged through the review system, most potential problems that can be circumvented through experience and learning to use the CouchSurfing system well, but not every guest (or host) is perfect. That is why we also like using Airbnb.

Airbnb allows hosts to act as mini-hotels and charge guests to stay with them, most of the time for cheaper than you’d find through hotel. It’s also a nice alternative to traditional lodging since many times guests can access a kitchen, host large groups in one space, or get to know a local during their stay. When we first started using Airbnb to rent our little room, we felt weird charging money for the same room people stay in for free when the CouchSurf with us. But, after our first guest, we realized that sometimes it’s just easier for guests to have the safety and afforded distance that comes with a financial transaction.  When people rent our room through Airbnb, we feel less obligated to host them and they feel less obligated to have to interact with us if all they want is a space to sleep.  With CouchSurfing, there is much more of a human exchange, perhaps in place of a financial one, and there are more details to figure out: do we feed them? Should they tell us where they are all the time? Airbnb and the financial transaction, even if it’s small, helps remove some of that ambiguity and if a guest is less-than-great, we feel less put upon since there is a financial reward for our time and energy.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with CouchSurfing or Airbnb, let me give you a little run down.

How do CouchSurfing and Airbnb work?
Both CouchSurfing and Airbnb are free to use. Users make a profile and either offer to host or can look at people who are hosting in whatever community they are traveling to.

Screen shot of my CouchSurfing profile. This is what people see when they are considering requesting to stay with us.

Screen shot of my CouchSurfing profile. This is what people see when they are considering requesting to stay with us.

You can look at a host’s profile, read their reviews, and then request to stay with them. With Airbnb, there is a price associated with your stay that guests can view before they make their request. Typically, hosts in both programs will describe the accommodation, and what you can expect as a guest. After the request is made, the host will either approve or deny the request, and then it is up to both guest and host to arrange for entry to the house, a meet up, or whatever arrangements both parties feel comfortable with.

When I’m looking for host or accepting a guest, I read their reviews carefully and look for how long they’ve been using CouchSurfing or Airbnb. With CouchSurfing especially, I want to know if they have been surfing for a while and understand how the community works, or if they’re just looking for free housing. Reviews can tell a lot about a person.

Reviews can tell both hosts and guests a lot about the person they're going to interact with and the sleeping space.

Reviews can tell both hosts and guests a lot about the person they’re going to interact with and the sleeping space.

A good review will talk a bit about the person’s personality and demeanor. It will also mention how they behaved as a guest, and if the host enjoyed having them there. Conversely, if I’m looking for a host, previous guests might comment on the size of the space, what amenities were available, and how the host behaved.  Over time, users of both programs learn to read between the lines in reviews.

A cute space? It might be really small.
A host had an eclectic home? They might have some weird stuff hanging on the walls.
A surfer has lots of stories to tell? They might never, ever shut up about their travels (I had this one).

Both guests and hosts can leave negative reviews, but this is considered a very serious action and CouchSurfing admin typically gets involved to mediate the disagreement. As I mentioned above, reviews are a way to talk about your experience and let future hosts/guests know what to expect. It’s part of the safety system CouchSurfing and Airbnb have put in place to keep people safe.

As a woman, I especially pay attention to female reviews and try to stay with female hosts if I’m traveling alone. As with anything involving strangers, every precaution in the world can’t help you if your host or guest has poor intentions. So, safety is important and a host/guest should feel comfortable asking someone to leave or refusing to host/stay with someone if they’re not comfortable with the situation.  Both reviews and the verification system in both communities help me make decisions about who to stay with and who to host. So far, I’ve yet to have an uncomfortable or unsafe situation, though I’ve definitely had my share of experiences that make great stories later.

While neither CouchSurfing nor Airbnb are for everyone, more and more people are using and enjoying these communities every year. For travelers, it’s a great way to travel on the cheap and meet locals. For hosts, it’s a cool way to meet new people and maybe make a little extra money on the side. I highly recommend both. Next week, we’re hosting an English gentleman who has been biking around the world for the last four years! You can check him out at his website. We’re very excited to meet him!

So, check it out, and maybe next time you’re on the road you’ll consider letting a stranger show you a whole new side to travel.


What Did It Cost to Move to Norway?

Before moving to Norway, we read a lot on the All-Knowing-Internet about the cost of living in Norway. If I were to sum up the internet’s opinion of the cost of living in Norway, I would use one word: expensive.

So, it wasn’t a surprise to us when we got here and things were pricey. They weren’t quite as out of control as we expected, but it certainly isn’t cheap to be here. Food and transportation costs what it actually costs to travel and eat, minus the American subsidies and addiction to cheap everything that we enjoy without really understanding just how cheap our stuff is.

But, there were some expenses involved with moving here that we didn’t really anticipate. Today, I’m giving y’all a breakdown of what it cost us to move to Norway.

First, it’s probably worth knowing the exchange rate, even though I’ve converted all our costs into dollars. Norway uses the kroner (NOK), and $1USD is equal to (as of the day I wrote this, Sept. 12th) 8.15NOK. On Sept. 11th $1USD was worth 8.20NOK, so the exchange rate moves around a little bit.

Our expenses started when we were back in America. First, we had to book plane tickets. We searched around for a few weeks, and finally decided to buy two one-way tickets, Denver to Oslo, from Iceland Air. The website required us to purchase the tickets in British pounds, so we spent 827 GBP for two tickets, or approximately $1200USD.

Next, we had to organize our visas for legally stay in Norway. Americans are allowed an automatic three-month visa to travel in the  Schengen countries. After that, you need a visa of some kind to remain in those countries. My university actually hired me as a PhD student, giving me the rights and privileges of being a regular university employee (which is awesome, and the USA should totally pick up on this). Thus, I had a work contract and was able to apply for a ‘skilled worker’ visa to live and work in Norway. For Americans, this visa carries the price tag of 3700NOK, or approximately $453USD.

Rob, being my legal spouse, was most easily able to apply through a ‘family reunification’ permit.  His visa cost 5900NOK, or approximately $723USD.

We knew we would have to apply for permits, but neither of us had any idea how expensive residence visas are until we had to put our credit card numbers in. It definitely set us back a lot further than we had planned for. We both began to feel extremely grateful that we had savings from our readjustment allowances and jobs prior to Peace Corps.

Norwegian Krone in all its colorful and shiny forms.

Norwegian Krone in all its colorful and shiny forms.

Once we arrived in Norway, we were met by my fantastically generous and welcoming colleague (and his wonderful family). We had a place to stay and eat during our first week in Oslo, which was a huge money saver and culture shock absorber.  But, we still had to travel in and around Oslo and we occasionally ate out. Public transportation, exceptional though it is in Norway, is also more expensive than I thought it would be. Within the immediate Oslo area, a 24-hour pass was 90NOK, or about $11USD (per person). You had to take at least three rides on the metro (or bus, or train) to make it worthwhile, so we only bought the day pass once. The rest of the time, we traveled outside the metro area or only took two trips per day, but those daily trips added up quickly.  All in all, I think we probably spent about 600NOK, or about $72USD, on transportation (for two) in Oslo.

Meals were also pricey, as are most ‘convenience’ foods here in Norway. A sandwich can cost $8-12USD. A coffee, $4USD for a small latte. We probably spent $150USD (combined) during our week in Oslo exploring the city, buying a few groceries, and eating out.

When we finally arrived in Lillehammer and moved in to our apartment, we needed to purchase a few small things to round out our furniture and bedding situation. But, we have extremely kind and generous landlords who not only let us move in and live rent-free the last two days of August, but they also drove us from Oslo to Lillehammer for free, bought us new furniture and bedding (which I guess is fairly common in Norway), and mounted new lights for us. They’ve also been exceptionally kind in letting us pay the deposit (15,000NOK, or about $1,839USD) in September instead of when we moved in (so I could receive a paycheck first) and being patient while we waded through the mess of attempting international wire transfers from our American bank to their Norwegian bank just to pay our first month’s rent (7,800NOK, or about $951USD) .

Side note: American banks are so abysmally far behind in their technology and policies that it is next to impossible to wire money to an international bank unless you are there, in person, at the bank where you opened the account! We were very lucky that my parents A) still live in my hometown where my account was originally opened and B) are exceptionally kind and generous and were willing to front the rent money and wire it while we transferred money via online banking back to them. The American banking system isn’t just ridiculous, it’s also dysfunctional. /endrant.

To compound the costs, there was also the ‘wait factor’ of being new to the Norwegian system and not having all the proper numbers and documents to be able to do basic things like open a bank account or register as a student at my university. Norwegians use a national ID number (like our social security number in The States), and this number is tied to absolutely everything you do, from getting a student access card to your work building to opening a bank account. Thus, before I could get paid and cash checks, I needed to have my work permit approved and number assigned.  This is a subject for a different post, but because we didn’t have access to my paychecks until the day this post was written, we were making all our purchases from our American bank accounts.  Thus, having savings wasn’t just a nicety, they were a necessity.

So, let’s sum all of this up.

$1200 (tickets)
$453 (my work visa)
$723 (Rob’s residence visa)
$72 (transportation in Oslo)
$150 (eating out/miscellaneous in Oslo)
$1839 (rent deposit)
$951 (rent)
$5588USD (approximately)

It cost us about $5588USD to move to and get settled in Norway. While this is an approximately estimate and doesn’t include regular purchases we would have made anywhere (like the cost of my bicycle to get to work, groceries, bedding, etc.), I think it’s fairly representative of the realistic costs for two people (in our visa categories) to move to Norway.

Looking back, I realize that these costs really aren’t that astronomical considering that we moved abroad and are paying for two, but it was a lot of cash to shell out within one month while neither of us were collecting steady paychecks.

Now that we’re here and I’ve received the first half of my first paycheck (they can only pay me the first half in ‘cash’ until I have a bank account (still waiting for that ID number!), after which everything will be direct deposit), the financial pressures have been somewhat lifted.  We still accidentally spent $30 on a towel the other day when we ‘mis-read’ (a.k.a. didn’t know how to read) the Norwegian sales sign, but we’re figuring it out!

The trail and lake near our flat. Lillehammer is beautiful.

The trail and lake near our flat. Lillehammer is beautiful.

So, moving to Norway is expensive, but not unreasonably so. Still, I would caution anyone who is thinking of moving here to plan adequately for the financial realities of living in one of the world’s most expensive countries. Even if you have a job waiting for you, as I did, it can take weeks for all the proper pieces to fall into place before you can collect your paychecks. Having savings is important, and I highly recommend doing your research a little better than we did concerning visa costs, etc.

Otherwise, we’re loving our new life here in Norway. Rob is learning Norwegian with daily classes and I’m settling into my new job as a well-paid PhD student. It’s not often you get a chance to live the dream, and for us, that chance is priceless.


Calling All PCVs Again!

If this post looks familiar, you’re not crazy. This is an update from last year when I began my interview project, trying to interview a PCV from every Peace Corps country. So far I’ve interviewed people from 24 countries, and I need many more!

So, this is my call to all currently serving PCVs and all recently COS’d RPCVs to tell the world about your country of service! If you’re interested, you can reach me through the contact tab and I’ll send you a whole heapin’ pile of questions (read: I’ll send you an email!). I want to know all about your African, South American, Asia, Central American, and European lives as PCVs. This is your chance to 3rd Goal the heck out of your service.

My goal: to interview a PCV from each and every Peace Corps country!

Look at all these excellent countries!

Look at all these excellent countries! (map not necessarily to-date)

Some of my excellent and extremely attractive PCV readers have already contacted me, and so I have a list of countries in the works:

Costa Rica
Dominican Republic
The Gambia
South Africa
St. Kitts

If your country of service is NOT on this list, I want to hear from you!  Please contact me via the “contact” tab and I’ll send you directions for completing the interview. It’s painless, I promise!

So, help me catch ’em all! Get in touch, and I look forward to “meeting” you all.

P.S. As many of my regular readers know, I ET’d my service to move to Norway a few months ago. So, why am I still continuing with this 3rd Goal project? Well, because talking to and reading about PCVs from all over the world was one of the highlights of my service, and I’d like to continue my project until completion. So, help me out and click the contact link above if you want to represent your country!