Category Archives: Travel Tips

My Favorite Hostels in Eastern Europe

I’ve spent quite a bit of time traveling in Eastern Europe, but no matter how far I’ve traveled or for how long, certain hostels remain ingrained in my memories.  The six Eastern European hostels below stand out for different reasons: staff who go above and beyond, amazing locations, creative décor or even- in one case- an unforgettable fragrance!  When you’re planning your Eastern European backpacking or budget travel trip, try to include at least one of these best Eastern European hostels on your itinerary!

Nikita’s Homestay, Olkhon Island, Russia

Nikita's Homestay Olkhon Island Russia

Nikita’s Homestay is a sprawling complex that has grown beyond its original incarnation as a family homestay on Russia‘s Olkhon Island (in Lake Baikal) to something much more interesting.  It has a wide range of rooms (some with the comforts of the modern world, other with squat toilets in the garden) that they book as private dwellings or hostel-style, depending on the needs of their guests.  I shared a three-bed room with two other girls, and we shared two toilets and one shower with one other room.  Meals are included in your package, and you can choose from the basic canteen (with basic dishes like cabbage salad and pasta in tomato sauce) or pay a bit extra for a small, but interesting buffet with a good assortment of vegetarian foods.  Nikita’s is special because of its garden setting, the magical quality of its decorations, and its location next to the most beautiful sights in the town of Khuzhir on Olkhon Island.

Rooms with shared toilets and showers, including breakfast and dinner, start at 1400 rubles.

The Naughty Squirrel, Riga, Latvia

Naughty Squirrel Hostel Riga Latvia

The Naughty Squirrel Hostel in Riga, Latvia, stands out to me because it offered the perfect combination of social activities and independence.  On my first evening there I walked into a magic show in the social room.  To me, that’s the perfect kind of low-key way to meet other people after a long day of travel that’s left me too tired to want to go on a crazy pub crawl or something.  The Australian owner is lovely and personally led a group of us to one of his favorite bars to sample a very “interesting” drink.  Of course, if you like crazy pub crawls the option is there too, as is the chance to shoot AK-47s and other firearms on one of their organized outings.

Dorm rooms start at EUR 12.

The Hairy Lemon, Sarande, Albania

sarande albania

Every morning the staff at The Hairy Lemon hostel whip up a batch of cinnamon-spiked pancake batter, so you can make fresh hot cakes when you rise and shine.  Ask nicely and they might share the recipe for their homemade Irish Cream too.  Combine that with late-night barbecues on the nearby beach and the best views the town has to offer, and it’s likely the best hostel in all of Albania.

Dorms from EUR 10 per night.

Mama’s and Papa’s, Gdansk, Poland

Road to Mamas and Papas Hostel Gdansk Poland

It’s the mama and the papa that make Mamas and Papas Hostel one of the most special hostels in Eastern Europe.  The couple that runs this place is full on heart and passionate about making sure every guest has a good stay in Gdansk.  If you’re missing your own mom and dad, they will take you under their wing and give you a little parental TLC.  For example, when they found out that I was a vegetarian they brought a special mushroom pastry back from the market for me to try. The hostel is found just outside the city center, near an expansive park, on a street dotted with hundreds of tiny frogs!  Too cute!

Dorms start at 40 zloty.  Private rooms are 140 zloty.

Haris Hostel, Sarajevo, Romania

Haris Hostel Sarajevo Tour Bosnia

That’s Haris, and Haris Hostel is the hostel his family opened after the Balkan War to share their love of Sarajevo with travelers from around the world.  Located on the top of a rather large hill, Haris Hostel hosts panoramic barbecue dinners, offers city tours rooted in the family history, and gives guests a feel for the day-to-day life in Sarajevo today. The family also operates a tour company from their office in the historic city center, so if you have any questions you can get a quick response without the climb!

Dorms from EUR 10, private rooms from EUR 25.

Cobwobs Hostel, Sighetu Marmatiei, Romania

Sighetu Marmatiei Romania

This one is an odd addition to my list.  Owned by a man from the UK and the Romanian family he married into, at first glance Cobwobs Hostel is nothing special.  It’s located in Sighetu Marmatiei, a Maramures town that rarely makes it onto any Romania trip itineraries, and it’s in a pretty nondescript second house built behind the family home (bigger and newer than those in the photo of the neighborhood streets above). However, I appreciated the little touches (even when there were only one or two other guests) like a daily weather forecast, expansive list of things to do, and the gorgeous scent of the wood-burning stove used to heat the water for your shower.

Contact the hostel for current prices.

If you think I missed one of the best hostels in Eastern Europe, share it below in the comments!

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How to Get a Myanmar eVisa

Mandalay Myanmar

Three months ago, I had no idea that Mandalay was anything but a Bay in Las Vegas.  Today, I am the proud holder of a Myanmar eVisa, permitting me to fly from Bangkok into the actual city of Mandalay, and then to spend thirty days exploring Myanmar (formerly known as Burma).

The eVisa process for Myanmar is relatively new, and the reports I read online made it seem like it was a bit of a crapshoot… Maybe I’d get the visa, maybe I’d waste fifty dollars only to get a big SERVER ERROR message.  I was hoping it would go more smoothly than my Russian visa application last year.

The official Myanmar eVisa site is located at http://evisa.moip.gov.mm/.  Here, you’ll find some slightly-broken English explanations of the process to obtain a business or tourism eVisa online.  I had a question that wasn’t answered on the site, so I contacted the Myanmar Embassy in my home country and they responded to me within twenty-four hours (a month later and I’m still waiting to hear back from the Thai Embassy!).  Their answer confirmed that the trip I wanted to do would be allowable with a regular tourist eVisa, so I began the application process.

myanmarevisa1

The first step to obtaining a Myanmar eVisa is to disable your pop-up blockers.  If you don’t, you will not be able to progress past the first page of the application process.  Ultimately, I had to change browsers because it seemed like no matter how I adjusted the settings in my usual browser, it just wouldn’t allow the pop-ups to… pop up.

At the moment, eVisas are only offered to passengers arriving by air at the nation’s major airports: Yangon, Mandalay or Naypyidaw.  If you’re going to arrive by land, you’ll need to apply for a regular visa through an embassy or consulate.

myanmarevisa2

Next, you’ll get another pop-up blocker warning, followed the terms and conditions.  In general, applying for a Myanmar eVisa is much friendlier than applying for a Russian visa.  Note how they describe the rejection of your application as being “unfortunate”.

On the next screen you will be asked to enter your personal information and upload a passport style photo.  I had an extra one kicking around from my Russian visa application last year, so I snapped a picture of it on my phone and then sent it over to my computer.  I didn’t worry too much about the particular dimensions of the photograph (or how recent it was) as long as my face was clear and in proportion.  I did have to play with the image a bit in Photoshop to keep it under the 2 MB limit.  I also had to identify where I was staying, so I chose one of the hotels that I would likely stay at if my visa application were approved.

The next step was to process the $50 USD payment through a slightly retro-feeling payment processor, after which the infamous pop-up appeared and I received my receipt.  I did this on a Sunday afternoon in North America, and I woke up on Monday morning to find a request from the ministry to send a scanned copy of my passport.  Again, I already had one in my mailbox, so I quickly forwarded it back to them.  As promised, on Wednesday I received an email telling me that my application was approved, and providing me with a link to the PDF copy of my eVisa.

To use your eVisa, you must have a printed copy (showing it on your phone or tablet is not sufficient).  It is valid for ninety days from the date you receive it, and permits you to stay in Myanmar for up to thirty days.  Once you arrive via air, you are also permitted to exit by land at certain approved border crossings.

Overall, I found the Myanmar eVisa process to be relatively painless and very efficient.  While I would prefer to see more visa-free travel, if countries are going to require travelers to obtain visas, then this is a decent system for them to use.

Photo of Mandalay by Andres and used under a Creative Commons license.

Scuba Diving for Girls

Roatan Honduras Reef

Eight years ago I took an overnight bus to Mexico City, and then got on a TACA flight that connected me through San Salvador and San Pedro Sula before dropping me in La Ceiba, Honduras.  I spent the night in La Ceiba (where I used an internet cafe guarded by a teenager with a semi-automatic rifle) and then headed over to the island of Roatan, where I learned to scuba dive.

I took my Open Water scuba course through Coconut Tree Divers, and found it to be a transformative life experience.  For the first time in many years, I struggled to learn something.  I’ve never been very mechanically-minded, so I couldn’t understand why we clipped this tube here and turned that knob there, and once we got under the water, where I couldn’t ask any questions, I was 20,000 leagues out of my comfort zone.  To make matters worse, there were four boys in the class with me and they all seemed to master everything within seconds.  I completed the course, and then spent the rest of my time in Roatan snorkeling around the shallow waters near my hotel.

Snorkel Roatan Honduras

Unfortunately, there are things you just don’t see when you’re snorkeling.  As the years passed I felt more and more regret about not pursuing scuba diving any further, so I decided to go back to Roatan, and back to Coconut Tree, to give scuba diving a second chance.  I started with a morning refresher class, where I worked one-on-one with a divemaster to practice setting up my gear (which was always the most stressful part for me) and to feel confident under the water (that was never a problem for me, I’ll choose being in the water over being on land any day!).  Then I moved on to some boat dives with other relatively-new divers, where we took our time ensuring our gear was ready and made sure everyone gave the okay signal before we descended beneath the water.  By the end of the week I was feeling a lot more confident… but I also started to notice a strange trend.  On many of the dives I went on I was the only female, and the rest of the time the women were accompanying their male partners.  There were lots of single guys and groups of guys out diving, but I was the only girl on her own.  Where were all the girls scuba diving?

Cozumel Reef Dive

Last month I decided to take another scuba diving trip, this time to Cozumel.  I chose a shop that had great reviews, but also that implied it expected a certain level of independence from its divers.  I decided to begin my trip by taking the Advanced Open Water course, where I worked one-on-one with an instructor to learn Underwater Navigation (still not an area of strength for me!), Peak Performance Buoyancy, Deep Diving, Drift Diving and Night Diving.  I then spent the next five days diving confidently in all sorts of scenarios, and even helping other divers get into the routines of our boat.  However, I kept looking around at all the men on my boats and wondering, “Where are the women?”

When I thought about the shops I’d dived with, I noticed that women usually worked behind the reception desks, while men were out on the boats as captains, instructors and divemasters.  In the twenty-five or so dives I’ve completed, only one had another solo female on board, while the rest were exclusively men or included a man and woman diving together.  Could it be that scuba diving is the last frontier for solo female travelers?  Obviously I’m no expert, but I thought I could answer some questions that women considering diving might want answered.

Scuba Diving Turtle Cozumel

What do I need to pack?

New divers can rent everything from the shop they dive with.  There’s no need to waste valuable space in your suitcase or backpack when you can borrow it from the shop for a reasonable price.  Most shops are happy to lend you a mask and fins if you want to snorkel before or after your dive, too.  If diving becomes a passion that you want to pursue, you can build your collection of scuba gear over time.

What should I wear?

In the water, it depends on the water temperature and your personal comfort level.  In Roatan I wore a bikini under a half wetsuit, while in Cozumel I wore a bikini under a full-length wetsuit.  One-piece suits are fine too.  The shop should have rental suits available.  To and from the dive shop, and on board the boat, I recommend a pair of board shorts and a tank top, or a “long and loose” tank that you can wear like a dress over your bikini.  As it can be slippery getting on and off the boat I prefer proper water sandals over flip-flops.

What about my long hair?

There is no easy answer to this one!  While it’s tempting to slather a deep conditioner all over in hopes of fighting tangles, you don’t want your beauty products washing out into the water and ultimately harming the reef.  You can try a braid or stick with a simple ponytail, and make sure you’ve got a wide-tooth comb back at the hotel to deal with the aftermath!

Sunscreen?

I’m obsessed with sunscreen, but I’m also obsessed with preserving the beautiful underwater world.  Because most of my dives had an early start I went with sunscreen just on my face, and then tried to get into my full-body wetsuit before the sun got too strong.  If I took off my wetsuit during surface intervals (the break between dives if you’re doing two dives during the same boat trip) I would just try to stay in the shade.  If you’re not comfortable with this, look for an eco-friendly sunscreen that will be less harmful to the sea life.

What if I have my period?

I am proud to say that I am living proof that sharks don’t care if you have your period or not!  I had a few heavy flow days on my most recent trip, including during my night dive, and everything went fine.  I used Tampax Ultra tampons during all of my dives and changed them during the surface interval on the days when I was bleeding most heavily.  Our boat stopped at a dock that had public bathrooms so I was able to change my tampon in relative comfort, but I had a ziplock bag and toilet paper on hand in case I had to change on the beach (behind a palm tree?) or at the back of the boat (turn away please!).  If that sounds horrifying to you, look for shops that offer one-tank dives that will get you back to a bathroom in less time!

What if I have to pee?

Basic manners says that you shouldn’t pee in a rental wetsuit.  However, it’s totally fine to get back on the boat, take off your gear, and hop back into the water to pee (just tell the captain first!).  You can hold onto the ladder or the rope that runs along the side of the boat.  If you own your own wetsuit, pee away!

Will the guys be nice to me?

In general, I think most men are happy to see a girl scuba diving on her own.  I found that more experienced divers tended to be the most welcoming, while occasionally it was the captains and divemasters who might make a sexist joke here or there.  I recommend striking a balance between trying your best to do things on your own and asking for help when it matters (like, when it comes to safety).  If you’re out of practice then take a refresher class rather than relying on the other people on the boat to do things for you.  In my own experience, the more confident I became the more I was accepted by the male divers on the boat.  You can also look for female divemaster (like Blanca at Blue Project in Cozumel) if that would make you more comfortable.

Do you have any other questions about scuba diving for girls?  Ask below and I’ll do my best to answer (again, from the perspective of a new diver!).

How Not to Get a Russian Visa (and Invitation Letter)

You need a Russian visa to see Moscow's Red Square!

I wrote this post last spring, as I prepared for a journey across Russia on the Trans-Siberian express.  I waited to publish it until I’d returned from the trip and then forgot about it, but I thought that as some of you prepare to travel abroad for the summer, you might be interested in the process I went through to obtain a Russian visa.

I am planning to visit Russia this summer, and because I would like to learn more about the country than is possible in thirty days, I have to apply for a special category of visa.  The Lonely Planet Russia guidebook suggests applying for a business visa, and after attempting to go through the confusing business visa invitation process through Way to Russia, I decided to look into different providers of visa invitation letters.  Based on positive reviews on TripAdvisor, I submitted- and paid £97.50 for- my application for a three-month, double-entry business visa invitation letter through a highly-regarded travel agency (let’s call them HRTA, or Highly-Regarded Travel Agency) on April 21, 2015.

Here’s what happened next.

The same day I received a personal email back from HRTA.  I was very impressed with the fast response.  They said that based on my employment in a non-profit sector that relates to Russian culture, it would be better to apply for a humanitarian visa.  I agreed immediately.  The next day I went to work, scanned my passport and sent it to HRTA.

Then I waited.

HRTA’s emails to me always ended with, “You may track your order’s progress through our website, or by clicking on the following link. However, if you have any questions at any time about your application, or require assistance with travel to Russia, accommodation, transport, transfers or guides then please get in touch with us and we will be happy to help.”  However, I visited the provided link multiple times a day and it always said the same thing: no progress.

On April 30th, six full business days after I provided HRTA with my documents, I received an email that said, “Please, be informed that your visa support document has been delayed from the Russian authorities today. We are expecting to get it on the 5th May at the moment.”

I appreciated the update but wondered about HRTA’s online tracking system.  It said, “Your visa support application has not been submitted to the UFMS for processing.”  The next day (May 1st) I replied to HRTA’s email and asked about the online tracking system.  They responded on the 4th, stating that my application had definitely been sent to the Russian authorities and that they were unsure of why the tracking system was showing otherwise.

May 1st and May 4th are holidays in Russia, so I emailed HRTA on May 6th (eight business days, excluding holidays, from the date I paid for five-day service) and asked for an update.  They responded and said that they expected to receive the document that day.  It did not arrive.

On May 7th I became increasingly concerned that I might have given £97.50 to a scam company.  I emailed them again and asked for an update, because if they were not going to be able to provide the service then I would like to work with a company who could.  On May 8th they responded that the documents were still delayed by the Russian authorities.

Here’s where things get interesting.

Within a few hours of that email, I received a second email with my invitation attached.  I was so happy to have put the ordeal behind me.  The email contained the information (in English) that I would need to fill out the Russian visa application online.  Here’s what it said:

real-russia-visa-email-1

The first thing I did was head straight to Google Maps and Wikipedia to check out Khimki.  The whole visa invitation thing is just red tape, and travelers don’t really have to work with the inviting organization, but I thought maybe this would be kind of serendipitous twist of fate and my visa invitation letter would end up taking me on the adventure of a lifetime.  I discovered that Khimki (or, Химки in Russian) is a growing city near Moscow that is home to a big shopping mall, but not likely to be a life-changing destination.  Oh well, on to the visa application…

Wait.

Химки.

I have been learning my Cyrillic alphabet in preparation for this trip, and I can’t find the word Химки on this form anywhere.  I look for other words that I recognize, like Москва and Пермь, and realize that there is an unexpected city name appearing all over my invitation letter: Самара.

I quickly send an email back to HRTA, asking them to review the translation provided because I am seeing a whole lot of Самара and not a word of Химки.  They are prompt in sending me a second email.

real-russia-visa-email-2

Okay, I don’t speak Russian, and I did pay almost $200 Canadian to this company to get this right the first time, but I feel like nothing could go wrong from here.  I a start new visa application online and get about one-third of the way down the first page when, once again, I realize there is a problem.

real-russia-visa-category

HRTA has told me that I should put “business” in the “purpose of visit (section)” area.  However, when I do that, I am no longer able to follow their next instruction, which is to put “cultural” in the second “purpose of visit” field.  Something isn’t right, so I go to the HRTA website and try to connect to their live chat, but it is offline at the moment.  Almost in tears, I pull up Google Translate and start typing in the Cyrillic letters that I can make out on the invitation letter I’ve been given. At the top, I decipher these words:

обыкновенная гуманитарная

I enter that phrase into Google Translate, and it tells me that it means “General Humanitarian”.

It starts to dawn on me that once again I’ve been given a mistranslation.  HRTA had told me that a humanitarian visa would be most appropriate for my circumstances, so that must be what they applied for.  However, if that is the case, why have they now sent me two emails saying that I received a business visa invitation?

real-russia-visa-online-chat

As it was now Friday evening, I decided to drown my sorrows in a Frappuccino and sort things out the following morning, as, according to HRTA’s website, they would be available by live chat on Saturday morning to address visa inquiries.  I set my alarm for 5:00 am local time so that I could connect with HRTA during their opening hours in London.

After three tries I was finally connected to an online agent after selecting “visa inquiries” from the online chat menu.  I was then greeted by a HRTA employee who told me she could not provide visa information, and that I would once again have to wait until Monday to receive confirmation of the type of visa invitation that they had procured for me.  Monday, of course, would be eleven business days (excluding holidays) after I paid for five-day service.

real-russia-visa-tracking

To top things off, HRTA’s tracking system finally updated on Friday, May 8th.  It finally showed that their office received the documents on April 30th, which seems contrary to their emails throughout early May stating that the delays were with the Russian authorities.

On Monday morning, I received another email from HRTA.  They explained that their system was automated for business visas, and confirmed that my documents were actually for a humanitarian visa for cultural purposes.  That day, I sat down at my computer for an hour and filled in the online Russian visa application form, then printed out a few of the finished copies and got ready to mail in all of my documentation.

The first thing I had to do was glue my passport photos on the page.  Within seconds I realized I’d had my photos printed to fit a Canadian passport application, when in fact I needed much smaller photos to fit in the allotted space on the application form.  Another trip to my local CAA office and thirteen dollars later and I had a fresh new set of photos.  I glued one on the application, then signed and dated the documents.

The next step was going to my local bank to procure a bank draft.  Since I live thousands of kilometers from the nearest Russian consulate, I had to pay for postal service.  The total cost for my visa application, processing fees and postage fees was $259 CAD.  Here in Canada, all Russian visa applications must be sent to a third party (called ILS) for processing.

My next stop was back to my house, to compile all of my required documents.  I organized the visa invitation letter from HRTA, the copy of the application form with the photo glued on, my passport, a photocopy of the information page inside my passport, the bank draft and a document outlining my travel insurance policy (the last one is not required), clipped them together and headed to the post office.

At the post office I found that I could send my documents fairly quickly (with delivery in no more than three days), with insurance, and with a required signature, for a cost of about $20.  I carefully tucked everything inside the envelope (goodbye, passport!), sealed it, triple-checked the seal, triple-checked the address and handed it over to the post office employee.  For the next few days I checked the tracking information every twenty minutes, and delivery at the visa processing center was confirmed (at least via Canada Post) at 10:00 am on Wednesday morning.

Thus began the second waiting game, as I knew it was supposed to take ten days for my visa to be processed.

The waiting was particularly difficult as I didn’t have a Plan B.  I had fewer than thirty business days before I wanted to leave for a seven-week trip, and had no idea where I would go if I didn’t get admitted to Russia. Instead of using the time to investigate other options, I just kept refreshing my email and checking my phone to see if I’d missed any communication from ILS or the Russian consulate themselves.

On the tenth business day after ILS received my documents, I started to get worried.  I decided to phone my bank, who informed me that ILS had cashed my bank draft on the Friday after receiving my documents.

On the eleventh business day I decided to phone ILS.  I tried a few time throughout the day, but nobody ever picked up the phone at the office where I had submitted my application, and I kept getting rerouted to a different office in a different city who were apologetic but unable to help.  They suggested that I email the first office, so I wrote a brief, polite email requesting an update that night.

The next morning (Business Day #12) I went to work and checked my email.  No response from ILS.  I tried calling them a few times, but there was no response.  I was expecting an Amazon delivery of Moleskine notebooks that morning, so when a courier buzzed my apartment (it goes straight through to my cell phone) I let him in and he slid the notebooks under my door.  I tried calling ILS a few more times throughout the day, but my calls continued to be redirected to other offices.

When I got home from work I was feeling pretty upset, because I knew the weekend meant at least two more business days without any news.  I opened my door and almost fainted… the package on my hallway floor wasn’t a yellow Amazon envelope like I’d expected, but a white Fed-Ex envelope with HIGH PRIORITY OVERNIGHT DELIVERY stamped all over it.  I dropped all of my things inside the doorway and ripped open the envelope faster than you can say “спаси́бо”.  Inside there were two things: a simple white sheet of paper indicating that I’d paid $259 for the privilege of applying for a Russian visa, and my passport.

I picked up my passport and flipped through the pages quickly.  Nothing seemed out of the ordinary.  As I was required to have two blank side-by-side pages, I’d expected the Russian visa to be large and noticeable.  The visa I had when I studied abroad in Mexico had been made of thick paper (like construction paper) and laminated right into my passport; I thought a Russian visa would surely be similar.  I skimmed again, and still didn’t see anything.  My heart sank, as I realized I might have just paid $511 for nothing, and that I had no summer plans.  I took a deep breath and sat down on my sofa, so that I could go through the entire booklet carefully, page-by-page.

A few pages in I saw some familiar (and some unfamiliar) Cyrillic letters.  виза.  I checked the dates, looked for something to indicate it was double-entry, checked all of my personal details… everything seemed to be in order.

I had a Russian visa!

visa application 2

In retrospect, I would offer the following advice to someone applying for a Russian visa (especially if you’re looking for anything more than a standard thirty-day tourist visa):

  • Learn enough Cyrillic to identify the key words you’d expect to see on your documents (obviously Google Translate can help a lot!)
  • Start the application process as early as possible
  • Double- and triple-check everything before you send it to the visa processing service or to the consulate, as mistakes will cost you more time and money
  • Have a Plan B to lessen the blow if your visa application is denied
  • And if you do end up on the Trans-Siberian, make sure to pack these essentials!

WPC – Using Squat Toilets

squat-toilet

Ah, yes… the “hole in the floor” toilets, also known as the squat toilets.  Female travelers know them well.  I actually once did some contract work in an office in Italy where the only toilet was also of this variety.  Considering how many “how to” guides exist online, explaining how to use these toilets, I know I’m not the only one who experiences a big “oops!” when she realizes that she forgot to pee in the comfort of her Westernized hotel room.  I read one online guide to using squat toilets that suggests removing one’s pants entirely, while another recommends simply rolling them up to the knees, and a third recommended carrying a day pack with an extra pair of pants in case you pee all over yourself!  Add to the mess the fact that you typically have to have your own toilet paper and there is an entire extra layer of preparedness that is new to many female travelers.  There’s no easy way to use these squat toilets (especially when you encounter them infrequently), but rest assured that you’re not the only woman out there going “oops!” when you walk into the stall and find one!