TT: Welcome to Lisa Vinish, a world traveler who has explored Kenya, Tanzania, Southeast Asia, and is now teaching in South Korea.
Keep reading for a treasure trove of concrete advice on how to structure and launch YOUR travel adventure!
Lisa, tell us a bit about your background.
Lisa: I’m a 26 year old Canadian gal and I’ve been teaching English in South Korea since August 2010. My education background, however, has nothing to do with teaching. Although I thought about a degree in Education, I studied Political Science instead, with a focus on Third World politics. I think learning about the international political scene is what triggered an interest in traveling.
In the winter of 2008 I was officially bitten by the travel bug. As a “Congratulations on Finishing Your Degree (finally)” gift, my lovely parents bought me a plane ticket to Kenya. It was one month of incredible safaris, people, food, and culture. Basically, it was love at first sight. I was scheduled to begin a graduate program in the U.S. six months after my return from Kenya, but I wanted to get this wanderlust out of my system before the program started. So in the meantime I went on a couple “mini trips” to Mexico and parts of Canada and the US.
Unfortunately, these trips only pulled my mind further away from school. I did one semester of grad school and then bid farewell. I immediately returned to Africa (Tanzania this time) to pursue something that always interested me: teaching English as a second language. In Moshi, Tanzania I volunteered through the organization Give a Heart to Africa, which offers free computer, business, and English courses to adults. I did the English teaching portion, which solidified my desire to try teaching English for one year in Asia.
When I returned to Canada, I began searching for recruiters. I found Reach to Teach (who I highly recommend by the way) and they presented me with an opportunity to teach English in a public school in Korea through the EPIK program. Three things about EPIK sealed the deal for me: Total 18 days paid vacation time, flight reimbursement, and no paying rent for a year! I applied to EPIK in March 2010 and after nearly 6 months of waiting and the unknown, I finally touched down on Korean soil. Little did I know the real adventure was just beginning.
TT: Amazing! Tell us more about your travels!
L: As I mentioned before, I did a fair amount of traveling before coming to Korea to teach. However, East African culture is vastly different from the cultures I’ve encountered in Asia. Over my winter vacation, I traveled to Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. I did a group tour with Intrepid Travel (an amazing company!). I spent 9 days with a small group of 13 people, and then an extra 6 days on my own in Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh city. In Kenya and Tanzania I always had a friend with me, but in Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh I was totally alone. It was a bit of a shock, but I survived! Before my contract ends in August I’ll be traveling to Singapore and Malaysia with a friend from Canada. We’re sort of winging this one, which is new for me (I’m a bit of a chronic planner/ list-writer). I’ve fallen in love with Asia. It’s such a dynamic continent and I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to see so much of it in such a short period of time.
TT: So fantastic! How did you find the money to fund this travel?
L: I should be saving my Korean paychecks… but instead I only seem to save until vacation time rolls around. But that’s OK because Korea pays well! In one year, I’ve managed to pay off my student debt, visit 5 countries, and will go home with a decent enough savings. When I volunteered in Tanzania, I collected donations through family and friends. In September I’ll be returning to Kenya for 4 months, but this time as a volunteer.
The organization I’m volunteering with is called International Volunteer HQ, which supplies local non-profit organizations with short and long-term volunteers. I’ll be teaching for at least 2 of those months, and to do this, I am fundraising (which has proven slight difficult to do from abroad).
TT: Thanks for these helpful tips on organizations to help facilitate travel! Tell us one moment from your travels that was particularly powerful, interesting, or funny.
L: I’ve had so many funny, powerful, and interesting moments that it’s hard to choose just one! One that stands out in mind was my arrival to Kenya. I thought that my friend, Reshma, would be picking me up from the airport. I picked up my luggage, cleared customs, and stepped outside expecting to see her… I did not. I thought I was losing it because I hadn’t slept in about 30 hours, so I sat down and just waited and gathered my thoughts. I noticed a man standing around with a cardboard sign that read “Lissa Binish”. I thought, “That’s strange… it’s too close to be a coincidence.”
I approached him and said my name is Lisa Vinish and asked if he knew Reshma. He could barely speak English and he certainly didn’t look like he understood my question. He just nodded a lot. I asked again, and again. I decided to trust him because I was too exhausted to think. I asked if Reshma was waiting in his car and he confidently said, “Yes!” So he walked off to his car with my luggage and I waited for him to pick me up at the exit.
When his car pulled up I saw the passenger seats were empty. My immediate thought was, “Oh no. This is not a good sign.” However, being a naive first-time traveler I hopped in the car anyway. The drive through Nairobi was terrifying. There didn’t seem to be any real lanes, speed limits, traffic lights or signs. I thought I was going to die in that car, and I still had no clue who this man was! He decided to take a “short cut” through a slummy area, and because of the pot holes had to slow down to a near crawl. People were looking in the car windows at me and saying things in Swahili. I thought, “Ok now we’re going to get carjacked… and I still don’t know who I’m sitting beside.”
During this time, the man turned to me and said the most terrifying words I’ve ever heard, “We are going to go somewhere else first.” WHAT?! I was freaking out inside and could not even utter a reply. At this time we pulled into a secured, gated area and I saw the most beautiful thing in the world: one of Reshma’s friends! It turns out Reshma could not come to the airport because she was busy setting up my “Welcome to Kenya” party, so she sent her friend’s driver to pick me up, and then that friend would drive me to Reshma’s. When the man said, “We’re going somewhere else first” he meant that we weren’t going to Reshma’s, but rather we were going to meet her friend first. Oh the relief! Welcome to Africa 🙂
TT: Ha! How have your travels impacted you as a person?
L: I think my travel experiences have made me more laid back. I haven’t owned a watch since my last one broke 3 years ago in Kenya (not that having a watch is bad thing!). I don’t worry about things like I used to. I’ve also become more flexible and open minded. Three years ago I would have NEVER eaten a fried tarantula. But now I consider them a tasty snack option. I’m a lot more adventurous than I used to be. I love the rush of adrenaline you get when you barter successfully in another language, or when you’re in a potentially dangerous situation but because you keep a level head, manage to escape it. I’ve realized I’m capable of a lot more than I thought I was. I’m a lot stronger than I thought I was. When you travel you understand what true self-reliance feels like. Perhaps the biggest impact travel has had on me is the realization that we’re all the same. No matter where I go, whether it’s Bangkok, Seoul, Vancouver, Saigon, or a small village in Tanzania, I feel an instant connection with people and it’s because we really are the same. I truly believe we have more commonalities than differences. It’s a comforting feeling.
TT: So well-said. What advice do you have for other teachers who are dreaming of travel?
L: If you want to volunteer, I recommend really researching organizations. You usually have to pay a ‘placement fee’. Some organizations charge more than others, and if they do, you should find out why. Many are not transparent about this, but I think you and especially the communities you visit have a right to know this upfront. The organization I volunteered with in Tanzania is a small NGO, but is doing big things in Moshi’s communities (http://www.giveahearttoafrica.org/). International Volunteer HQ is a volunteer placement organization with very reasonable fees and excellent testimonials (http://www.volunteerhq.org/). They have placements all over the world. You can choose child care, teaching, medical services, empowerment programs, community development, sports, music, and the list goes on.
If you want to travel to work, I highly recommend teaching English in Asia. It’s quite easy to find jobs here and a lot of places will pay your airfare. All you need is a Bachelor’s degree and to be a Native English speaker. Some countries require at least a TEFL certificate (which can be done online in some cases), so do research and find out what kind of jobs match your qualifications. And research schools… thoroughly! There are MANY scams and just plain awful schools (usually the private academies). If you don’t want to apply to schools directly, you can go through recruiters. A simple google search will bring up hundreds of these. Go for the recruiters that have the most online testimonials and look experienced. I highly recommend Reach to Teach recruiting if you wish to teach in Taiwan, Korea, China, or Georgia (http://www.reachtoteachrecruiting.com/).
If you want to travel just for the sake of travel, then my advice is do it while you’re young and in good health. You never know what might happen tomorrow, next week, or next year. Life can change in an instant. If this is something you’ve always dreamed of doing, then do it now. Don’t wait. If you don’t have a travel buddy but don’t want to travel alone, I highly recommend Intrepid Travel (http://www.intrepidtravel.com/). They do tours all over the world, from 3 day to 40+ day trips. You will never be with more than 12 people, and you are given a truly local experience. I can’t say enough good things about this company. If you’re looking for day excursions, check out Urban Adventures (http://www.urbanadventures.com/), Intrepid’s partner organization. I did an Urban Adventures tour in Bangkok and it was phenomenal. Conversely, I did a standard ‘cheap’ day tour in Vietnam and it was not even worth the $5 I paid. Urban Adventures guarantees a small group (mine only had 3 people) so it’s a more personal experience. In Vietnam my group was about 40 people and it was unorganized chaos. Always pay a little more if quality is important to you… an important lesson when traveling 😉
TT: Lisa, thanks so much for your concrete, helpful, and fascinating advice, and best of luck on the rest of your travel adventures! Readers, what questions or comments do you have for Lisa?