Ladies! Do you really want to travel and have fun, but nobody wants to go with you, and anyway, you're not sure if you can do all the planning, keep safe and still enjoy the trip?

I'm pretty confident that you can, and once you have taken the plunge, you'll never look back and probably even prefer solo travel - imagine, being able to go wherever you want, do everything you want, whenever you want, without anybody who knows you watching or judging you.

Still not convinced? A book that encouraged me to travel on my own like no other is Beth Whitman's 'Wanderlust and Lipstick: The Essential Guide for Women Traveling Solo'. Even if you travel without lipstick, the book covers every worry that might be holding you back, and includes solid information for every stage and eventuality of your travels - from planning to packing, safety and health to language issues and making friends.

I've given a copy of the book to countless friends, so this time, I'm giving away a copy of the book to one of you, sending it from dinky Belfast to anywhere in the world where you might be. Another one of you will receive a surprise gift with goodies from Ireland, because I have recently talked to a lot of people who still think Northern Ireland/Belfast is a dangerous and sad place to visit.

What you have to do: use the tiny widget below or on the right to subscribe to the Queer Nomad's Newsletter, which will also give you a monthly email with encouraging and inspiring travel tipps, as well as updates from the world of women's and LGBT travel and much more!

The winner will be chosen between everyone who subscribes by Thursday, 5 July at 11 am (GMT)! 

I've been in Belfast for a month now, and it's been good to me. It's a wonderful city, not too big, not too small, the people are always friendly and seem happy despite the permanent rain and the fact that it's almost July but you can't leave the house without a coat. I've easily gotten in touch with new people here, and the cultural offerings are fantastic. I spent years in London with hundreds of theatres and only went maybe one a month, but in Belfast, although there are maybe a dozen venues, I just want to see everything. And can, because it's affordable and there's always time.

So far, I'm enjoying a slow, relaxing period without having to do very much, and am working on a couple of projects. Right now, even taking a bus to another part of Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland seems too much effort.

Right now, there's a part in me that thinks 'I can settle here; it's got everything I need, it's affordable and friendly. If I save up a little, I can even buy an apartment. It's easy.'

And then, something deep inside me screams 'It's too easy. There's no challenge, no fight, no being thrown outside your comfort zone. Leave!'. I've never done 'easy' - this is the first time since I was in kindergarten that something was this simple and comfy.

So, this week, I booked two trips for September, one to Hungary with a side trip to Sarajevo, a city I, like all kids of the 80s, associate with one thing: WAR, something which I feel I need to change. And a week later, another trip, to Latvia, Estonia and Finland. My family stems from the Baltics,  from Kaliningrad, a city that today is a Russian enclave which means it's hard to get there, hard to get a visa, and nearly impossible to travel on a budget. I suppose this is the next best thing.

Yet, secretly my travel plans for India are taking over my subconscience... but right now, I need easy. Until easy becomes too hard.

I have an endless fascination with Shinto Shrines, and one of my favourite parts of them are the ema, small wooden plaques that anyone can write their wishes on. Some are just plainly written, while others are real works of art. After jotting down your wishes, you hang them into a designated area of the shrine, where the kami (gods/spirits) receive them and, with a little luck, grant your wishes.

At shrines that are popular with tourists, you can often read wishes in many different languages. Everyone is free to leave an ema. They usually cost a small fee, from 200 to 500 yen (around $3-6), and depending on the shrine, you can just take one and leave the donation in a box (Japanese are honest and trustworthy), or you can buy one at the shop from one of the miko (shrine maiden). Even if you don't believe that this works, it's fun and a great way to support the shinto shrines, which are mostly family-run and in dire need of the money.

There are hundreds, if not thousands of travellers that support themselves by freelancing, whether they blog about it or not - because not everybody is a super cool trendy travel writer, and not everybody wants to talk about it in public, or maybe because they don't have the time to. 

However, I have noticed that those who do write about it tend to make this lifestyle seem way to easy - of course, since one of the basic rules of marketing is to show everything in a positive light. While I'm happy with this choice, although I'm more of a nomad who spends a few months in each place rather than a full-time traveller, like any job, and any lifestyle decision, there are cons. Right now, I'm at a point where I try to avoid talking about my work (tricky if you're constantly meeting new people), because a lot of people see you as a snobby stuck-up kid that never had to work properly in their lives. And as this is not a marketing blog, let's have a look at the darker sides:

It's a lifestyle, not a holiday

While others go out and party, there are times when you have to suck it up and stay in the hostel/your room to work. This means a lot of people will see you as a spoil-sport, and hostel/guest house/hotel staff might regard you as downright weird. The more touristy the place is, the more you'll feel this (it's the main reason why I disliked Thailand, where nobody ever stopped trying to sell me tours).

You can't get drunk every night and sleep all day, at least not if you still want to see something of the place you're staying at. When there's a deadline, there's a deadline, and while you can usually determine yourself when you work, work has to be done eventually.

It comes with all the complications of self-employment, plus some

Unless you only work on project that span several months, chances are you'll never really know how much you will earn in a month. There may be time where you have to work 15 hours a day, every day, and then there are stretches where you'll also have next to nothing to do. As long as things even out, that's cool, but it means that your travel plans are never as spontaneous as for those who backpack with a certain budget but 100% free time.

Self-employment also means you have to take care of all the things that your employer usually does: writing proposals and finding new work, taxes, insurance... and also wiggle room for actual days/weeks off and sick days.

A lot of people will not take you seriously

My grandfather now thinks I'm high and living on the dole, because he doesn't understand how you can make money working online. When I visit my family, he thinks that I should spend every waking hour with him, because 'you don't work anyway'. One of my flatmates here in Belfast constantly proposes all kinds of minimum-wage jobs to me, because he thinks I'm just pretending to work and when I say I will only stay here for a couple of months, to him it means 'until she runs out of money and has to go home to Germany' (the last place I'd consider home), while for me it means 'Until my tax return is done and I can catch a cheap flight to India'.

This is also due to the fact that a lot of people who backpack write or want to be writers, without making any money from it, so many people assume that's what 'freelancing' means, too (hint: the 'free' part doesn't mean you work for free, and sadly, there are no knights and horses involved in the lance part, either). Or due to the popularity of the book 'The four hour work week' (which I haven't read, but I just assume it's daft).

That's an extreme example, but a lot of people will be jealous and think that you're not working properly if you don't get up and go to the office at 8 am, 5 times a week. Which of course, is rubbish. Yes, often I will only work 4 hrs a day, because I'm fast and manage to get the same amount done in this time than I would have in an office in 8 hours, and also, because I get to set my own rates. But getting to decide when and how much you are working doesn't mean that you're not working.

On the other hand, others will think you're some kind of god(dess)

Some people will not get what you're doing, no matter how often you explain it to them. They have wild, romantic, unrealistic dreams and project those onto others. They will adore you and want to talk about your work all the time, while completely ignoring what you actually do.

70% of my work is B2B, commercial marketing. Which means I translate and write web content for companie's websites, brochures, blogs that I meant to be read by other companies. Yet, when I say 'freelance translator' or 'freelance, people see me playing the SimsSocial or MyPokemonWorld or whatever there is on Facebook all day, while writing the next Harry Potter and researching for the next edition of Lonely Planet Uzbekistan.

Not everybody can do it

In theory, everyone can start their own business and take it on the road. I'm not trying to be elitist and say that you need to have some amazingly special superhero skills to do it. Sure, there has to be some skill, and whether you acquired it from a university or not doesn't matter, but you don't just wake up an become a web designer, for example. I trained to be a translator and worked in marketing for 5 years - especially with translation, people get it totally wrong all the time. Just because you speak language A and B fluently, it doesn't mean you can be a translator. You're not a developer because you installed Windows 7 on your sister's computer and you're not a travel writer because you spent half a year backpacking in Central America and kept a travel blog about it.

first work, then noodles
But as mentioned above, self-employment is tough. Can get up every day and work even though there is nobody there to tell you that you have to? Can you be organised enough to keep all your paperwork and client communication in check? How good are you at marketing and selling yourself? Are you good at motivating yourself? These are just some of the questions to ask yourself. It's not so much about skill, but about your personality.

... this is not a pity-me-complaining post. Because after work, you can eat noodles/drink beer/lie in the sun or whatever you fancy, and feel good because you don't have to worry about a fixed travel budget running out. Let's not talk about the tax return.

Buenos Aires has a special place in my heart - it's a vibrant, multicultural city and probably the only place in South America I could imagine living in.

San Telmo is the main tourist quarter of Buenos Aires and features great dining, open air tango and a lot of interesting architecture and street art. However, the biggest highlight is the weekend street market, which runs all the way to the main square.

All kinds of sellers sell antiques, clothes, food and all the popular Argentine/Andean trinkets, yet I found the street performers the most entertaining part of the market:

Actually, I saw this guy in a few places all over town during my stay! He's much less impressive on a picture, since what he did is hold this position for 10 minutes and longer. A great reminder to slow down during your hectic busybody everyday life.

Mini puppet theatres, including music were also very popular and most of the time, refreshingly Tim Burton-esque:

If there was no mate, it wouldn't be Argentina:

Whenever meeting new people, whether it's in a typical hostel situation somewhere in the world or something completely different, I noticed one question that oddly upsets me. It comes in three variations: 'What is the best thing you have experienced during your travels?' - 'What is the best thing you have ever done?' and, 'What is the best place you have ever been?'. 

Now, I am particularly crap at small talk and it might be very that the person asking this simply wants to make some conversation, and/or learn more about me. But it offends me, because there is no easy answer for this, because it's partially too complex, partially too private to discuss in a party-meeting-happy times-situation.

It seems to imply that what were are doing now, in this very moment, is not fun, not good enough, not LIFE enough. Is NOW so bad? Do I seem UNHAPPY?

I once had a friend tell me that I must be 'one of those naturally happy people'. While I'm sure he didn't mean it that way,  to me, it sounded a little like he was saying 'you're such a simpleton, you need ridiculously little to be happy'. And maybe that's right, because as long as I'm healthy and free to do and go where I want to, I am.

It's also a questions only men ever ask, and on some level, it shouts 'competition' to me. It also sometimes comes as 'Tell me your craziest travel story'. I don't think getting mugged in Cambodia or a guy dying in front of my eyes in Buenos Aires is something I should boast about.

THE BEST also seems to assume that the now, the everyday is lame, and that's something that's diametrical to my life philosophy. Long ago, I decided not to waste a day in my life, not have a day where I won't do something fun and something that gets me a little further in life, even if it's just reading a page of a book that I will learn something from.

While there are countries and places I've enjoyed more than others, there is not one I would call 'the best'.

The best thing was hanging out in my flat in Germany, watching British comedy and drinking wine with friends when we were all equally broke.
The best thing was having that 'wow, I can just go places' moment when I first visited Japan (my first trip outside Europe, just a little over 2 years ago!). 
 The best thing was reading a book and drinking a cup of tea. 
Sitting in a cafe in Morocco and drinking obscenely sweet milk coffee. 
Buying bread at St George's market in Belfast and chatting with the vendor.
Waking up today and realising I can do whatever I want to, but just having a lot of coffee, write, and make Vietnamese fried tofu in tomato sauce instead.

All of those are amazing, wonderful, rich moments and there isn't one that tops the others. And it's just a random selection.

So I think from now on, my answer to the question should be:


How has your summer been so far? I'm genuinely confused by my sudden increase of time and am reacting to it by drinking too much coffee ;) 

There was no Japan post yesterday, to be honest because I was sick of sitting in front of a computer. After 3 months in which I had exactly 2 days off, it now looks like I've got some spare time and can actually explore the country I have moved to a month ago!

I started with baby steps, though, because with Irish weather, you never know what you get (most of the time, you get all possible variations of moderate weather in one day). So I went for a walk along the Lagan Towpath, which starts in South Belfast, just south of the end of the Botanic Gardens.

Just a 20 minute walk away from the city centre, you're literally in the middle of nowhere - meadows, bogland, little patches of forest... and myth has it that there even is Belfast's own little stonehenge kind of place, just 2 miles off the paved path. Which meant a total 6 mile walk there from my house. Seems reasonable enough, right?

Guess what... because it had rained everyday before, I couldn't make it there. As in, whenever I tried to get onto the path leading to it, I ended with my face in the mud. And it wasn't because of my overly stylish city girl outfit (I wore actual shoes, something I've barely done in the last year, and jeans. I never wear jeans unless I'm up for some hardcore action) - all kinds of rough-looking wellied Irishmen struggled, too.

Oh yes, lovely Irish summer. Then I got home and the Ryanair website mocked me with this:

The one thing I probably love best about cities in the UK is how well-maintained the parks are. An Italian friend of mine once replied, when I commented how beautiful Italian cities are 'Yes, but there never is any green'. And he was right – most Italian cities are filled with amazing architecture and all that, but you barely ever see a tree or patches of green.

When I think of growing up in Germany, and visiting parks in most bordering countries, most of these tend to be sad affairs that are badly maintained, grey areas where drug addicts and homeless, but not even rebellious teenagers would congregate.
In the UK, parks are a different kind of thing. In this (by European standards) very densely populated country with a long fancy gardening tradition, they are not only beautiful, but also a real living space, at least when it's not raining. People come to have a picnic, or even watch special events on provided screens together (not everywhere, but in many places). My favourite thing to do in London was to visit Parliament Hill Farmers market (back when I lived in posh quarter...) and then stroll around Hampstead Heath for a while. After I've had bad experiences with Dublin's parks (there are areas where you are not allowed to sit on the grass – which make up more than 80% in some parks!), I didn't expect much from Belfast, but the Botanic Gardens, just a 3 Minute walk from my house, turn out to be wonderful.

As they are in the university quarter, they're also full of students, but I can live with noisy drunkenness (although drinking in the park is forbidden – but come on, this Ireland after all), because this park harbours so many wonderful special features, although it's not all that big. Among other things, there is a classic Victorian Palm House, the fascinating Tropical Ravine, the Rose Garden, and of course, the Museum of Ulster.

Now in mid-June, the rose garden is in full bloom. While is looks like a perfectly British rose garden, it is actually planted in the shape of a Celtic Cross. I yet have to find a point where I can photograph it – considering the lack of hills in central Belfast, the only option to do so might be on the roof of Queen's University. There are also many playing fields where you can watch drunk middle-aged men watch hilarious British and Irish sports, one of my most entertaining pastimes I picked up here ;)

My guide book says that at the southern tip of the gardens, there's a path that leads along the river and to some celtic monuments. I'll update you as soon as I've found the time!

Do you have a favourite inner-city park? Belfast Botanic gardens are sweet, yet I think my favourite ones are Yoyogi Park in Tokyo (yes, I said it. I liked something in Tokyo), Düsseldorf's Nordpark (it has fancy fountains and a Japanese garden!), but I have to admit, the best in the world is probably Singapore's Botanical Gardens, where I made great memories, along with Lumpini Park , because both are full of reptiles!

Maybe I spend too much time in parks - does that mean I'm Britified?

How was your week? I almost forgot today is Sunday as I'm suffering the revenge of the deadlines at the moment... I managed to see a little bit more of Belfast, though. And I managed to read a book over the course of the week - yes, a real book that I bought with a credit card and that was shipped to my HOME address by Amazon. Amazing, this fixed address thing!

The book was 'Sushi and Beyond' by Michael Booth, a foodie who set out to find out, as the subtitle says, 'what the Japanese know about cooking'. He travelled in Japan for a couple of months with his wife and two young sons, and I was very pleased to find out that he did not only travel to Kyoto and Tokyo, as I guess 80% of all visitors to Japan, but covered all the islands, including Okinawa (the tropical archipelago located halfway between Japan and Taiwan), which made me very jealous!

Whether you are interested in Japan or in Japanese food, this is a great read to find out about the subtleties of Japanese food. It explains the Japanese attitude towards ingredients and cooking techniques, but also the history of many typically Japanese foods, in something I would call a typically Bill Brysonesque charming travel writer style.

While it was a fun read, and I learned many things I did not know before, in spite of having read about 5,000 books about Japanese food, there were a few drawbacks:

There were way too many typos, sometimes to a point where it was hard to find out what the author was actually trying to say. And while I believe the food parts are backed on solid research, much of the other, more general information about Japan, and some of the language used, is not quite accurate (he names Fukuoka as capital of Kyushuu, for example -  it's just the largest and prefectural capital). It also seems to specialise on Japanese cuisine in general and highlights fine dining experience while the author seems to not have gained any experience with Japanese home cooking at all.

Still, as a foodie book, it was a really fun, informative and unpretentious read!

There's this common misconception that Japanese people always wear kimono for special occassions. Anybody who's every worn a full-on kimono can see that that must be a lie, because they are a pain to put on (it usually takes 2 people to help to do it properly), they are hard to move in, and include about 500 layers (well, at least it feels like that).

In Japan, a lot of special occassions are the summer festivals. And Japanese summer is hot and muggy, so instead, people wear yukata, a light cotton kind of kimono. They are very popular with guys of all ages, too!

If you ever stay at a Japanese bath house, onsen, or traditional hotel (often even in business hotels), you will get a yukata to wear after your bath and that people at the very most gallivant around in spa towns. But the real yukatas can be just as pretty and varied as 'regular' kimonos, sans the sweating.

These are some pics I shot all over Osaka last summer - enjoy!

pretty girls, walking surprisingly fast!

ignore the police, just eat

slightly unconventional length for the second girl

bright anime hair, matching fan

would love to add more images - Blogger is a bitch today
I've been in Belfast for almost 2 weeks now, and so far the Emerald Isle and this cute city have been treating me well - I found a dinky room just off a trendy street with millions of cafes (one of them a Korean one!), restaurants, vintage clothing and second hand book shops, just a 10 minute walk from the city centre.

The weather has been glorious, people here are insanely nice (and surprised I decided to come to the North)... and, while food shopping is not quite the same as in London, there is one thing that makes up for it: St George's Market.

St George's is an old Victorian market hall, and after a lot of restauration, it functions as a wonderful, colourful, varied and surprisingly cheap market from Friday to Sunday each week. Every day is a little different - Friday, there's food and a flea market, Saturday the focus is on food, with live Irish music, and Sunday is a mix of both.

Now, I this might not seem all this special. I know that for some reason, Americans and Australians think all European markets are like this - and I can assure you, they are not. From spending a lot of time on markets in Germany, England, France and Switzerland I can tell you that most of the time, the markets are overpriced and the produce not really good.

Not so at St George's - I had planned to go fully vegetarian again as soon as I settle a little, but with fish that fresh and cheap (and really fun guys selling it), I can't see myself not eating it.

There are also always a lot of stalls at St George's that offer food that's already cooked - cakes and cupcakes, fresh Indian food, tapas and much more.

While most European markets seem quite sterile and mainly for the elderly and well-off, St George's is a lively place, that actually reminds me of the vibrant markets of South East Asia in many ways.  I can see myself spending a lot of time (and money) here and I think everyone visiting Belfast should visit this beautiful place!

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