Top 7 Challenges of Teaching English Abroad

Mark, ICALMark Johnson is an international traveler and an expert in the world of Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL). He works for ICAL TEFL, one of the most recognizable companies in the industry when it comes to learning to teach English, getting your TEFL Certification and preparing to teach overseas.

Today, Mark is going to talk about some of the challenges associated with teaching English overseas. Mark has travelled extensively in SE Asia and loves nowhere more than Malaysia. He even likes the Indian food of Malaysia more than that of India! Mark also loves learning languages and speaks French, Spanish and English.

TEACHING EGLISH AS A FOREIGN LANGUAGE CAN BE a very rewarding way to travel the world. There’s no shortage of jobs for qualified English teachers in exotic far-flung lands like Thailand, China, South Korea and Chile.

But with the excitement of a new adventure comes some very real challenges. As much as you dream about the positives, it’s important to prepare yourself for the downsides of working abroad. Here are some of the most common ones:

1: Cultural Differences

There’s no getting around the fact that the culture of your new country will being profoundly different than your home country. Not just in the classroom, but in every day society too. Culture shock is normal, and to be expected.

In the classroom, the way you interact with children may be very different to the way you would interact with kids at home. You won’t pick up all the subtleties right away, but by observing the way other teachers interact with the children, you’ll quickly learn.

globe, travel, map

2: Unusual Work Hours

Expect to be teaching at all kinds of unconventional hours. Some schools run sessions from mid-afternoon to late evening, while others have lessons on Saturdays. You might also decide to take on private tutoring, which could see you working early mornings and evenings.

If you absolutely insist on a 9-5, Monday-Friday setup, you’ll need to be targeted with your job search. Always read the contract carefully and make sure it clearly defines your hours.

3: Lack of Support

This can be the most frustrating challenge faced by English teachers. Moving abroad can be quite lonely and there won’t necessarily be a support network in place at your school. It’s likely you’ll be shown to your classroom and left to get on with it.

Some people thrive on this kind of challenge; others may prefer at least a little back-up. If you’re the latter, consider a dedicated teach-abroad program that offers that extra support.

4: Discipline and Manners

Teaching in your native country is hard enough. It gets even more difficult when you add language barriers and social differences.

It may be that discipline is very lax in some schools. Children may turn up late to class, be chatty and cheeky, or downright rude and misbehaved.

Make sure you fully understand the school’s disciplinary policy, especially when it comes to more serious misdemeanours (like cheating or bullying). Lots of patience will also be helpful!

5: Contract Confusion

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You may find that contracts are not as legally binding as you’d hope. In fact, it’s quite common for contracts to be broken and teachers to find themselves in uncomfortable situations. Additionally, fighting for your legal rights in a foreign country can be difficult and frustrating.

Prepare yourself for this possibility by doing your research, interviewing only for reputable schools and talking to other foreign teachers in the area. Only sign a contract when you’re 100% happy with the terms, and do ask to clarify anything you’re unsure about.

6: Lack of Resources

It’s not unusual for teachers to arrive at school and be expected to jump straight into teaching. Don’t anticipate any extensive training; this is a feet first adventure!

There may also be a lack of textbooks, stationery supplies and other basic resources available to you. It might be that teachers are expected to buy these out of pocket. This is when it’s time to get creative and the internet will be a big help here. You’ll find forums full of advice, lesson plan ideas and you’ll even be able to download vocabulary flashcards and worksheets.

7: Homesickness

It’s natural to miss your family and friends, and the comforts of home, especially if you’re facing some of the challenges listed above. The key to homesickness is to embrace it.

Call your parents, Skype with your best friend, catch-up with your favourite show or look through some old photos.

Turn it into a positive experience; an opportunity to hunker down for a few hours and take a break from work and sight-seeing and making friends. Just don’t forget to bring some of your favourite snacks from home, they will really help!

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This list may seem a bit doom and gloom, but teaching abroad has lots of benefits too. By being aware of – and preparing for – the challenges you might face, you will make the experience a much more enjoyable one.

The Draw of the Open Road

Agh … I’ve been back in the “West,” back home for less than 7 months now and I can’t shake that urge to leave again! I love the US and Canada (where Jess and I have been since we returned from China after Teaching English for 2 years), but now that we are back amongst the comforts of our own continent, life can feel a bit dull at times. We’re finding that more and more often our thoughts drift back to traveling adventures and excitement overseas.

The Open Road, Redwoods, National Park, huge, big, trees, windy, road

Perhaps this is just another case of the ”grass is always greener?”

When Jess and I were living in China we would talk all the time about things we missed in N. America, reminisce about life being easier back home and complain non-stop about never being understood, inefficiencies, feeling out of place and the massive differences between Chinese-American culture. There were massive pluses too though, like teaching english was a crazy-rewarding job and the ability to travel Asia in our spare time was awesome. We obviously enjoyed the adventure of traveling and living abroad, but after 2 years in rural China certain things started taking their toll and by the end we looked forward to returning home.

But now …. oh the present … Ha! How different life changes when your perspective changes! Now that we are back home we are finding that we miss some of those aspects of life abroad.

The novelties of western life certainly wore off quickly.

Life is indeed easier and more comfortable being back home, but it can also be more complicated as routine, obligations and social norms set in… It becomes hard to find a balance between working and finding time for hobbies, fun and adventure.

It wasn’t long being back home before we started thinking back to China and missing some of the more subtle parts of life abroad. At first we didn’t even admit it to ourselves … admitting it to one another took even longer. But now after 7 months of being home we have both openly admitted that we miss parts of living in Asia. The draw of the open road is upon us again!

Taken after paying for parking ... $11 to park!

… but North America is awesome, right?

Yes! obviously north america is awesome and provides a quality of life that has seldom been seen in history. There are huge opportunities and rights given to people of all walks of life and that can not be undermined.

… So why is it that Jess and I are having trouble acclimating back into society? Why is it that 2 years living in China has caused us to re-asses our own society and consider that perhaps there are better ways of doing things in other parts of the world?

Now don’t get me wrong… China is not exempt from those less-glamorous sides of capitalism. In fact their problems are just beginning when it comes to the mental, emotional & physical problems that individuals begin to suffer from working excessively long hours. In China though, we made more than enough money to live comfortably (we were in a low-cost-of-living location), people were always nice and life was simple.

I’m not sure if it’s the pace of western society that is hard to get used to again or the fact that capitalism and day-to-day life seem to buzz non-stop without coming up for air. There is something about traveling that forces you to “come up for air” and it is hard to jump back into the chaos after being gone for so long.

Re-assessing values with a focus on happiness.

In many ways, returning home after an extended absence has led me to consider my values and what I think is important in life. For me, happiness, relaxation and leisure time are more important than earning excess money and advancing within a career. (Check out a book called “The Joy of Not Working” for more on this). I mean come on … is working 50hrs/wk worth it just so I can afford a bunch of crap that I don’t need a healthy way to live? Is it really ethical/moral/right to work long hours at the expense of your own health and happiness in order to secure “future” happiness? …. what about your happiness NOW?

Anyway, I’m digressing a bit, but traveling and living abroad takes away all the social forces and influences that you are accustomed to and allows you to breathe for the first time. It gives you a chance to decide for yourself what is the best way for you to live. Jess and I have learned that Sustainable Travel is possible and we don’t need as much as we initially thought to be happy and get by in life. So maybe comfort, routine, career advancement & retirement security are less important to us than chasing adventure and living happier with less things and less security.

Chinese, American, Canadian, friends, teaching english, living, life, abroad, foreigners

Travel gives us perspective.

It’s one of my favorite aspects of travel… the ability to realize that your own country and culture may not be the best in the world. It’s interesting just how many people across the planet believe that their country is the biggest, baddest, greatest country to ever have existed! Americans are most definitely like this, we are taught that we are Star-Spangled Awesome from a very young age. China is probably even worse when it comes to thinking they are the best and the list goes on and on with countries who “know” they are the best country.

Once you travel to other places though, it becomes blatantly obvious that you’re country is not the best at everything. They may be the best at some things and they may even be the best country to live in (in your opinion), but your country is never the best at everything.

So now what?

So now what do we do? Jess and I are from 2 of the greatest countries in the world … but we continually get stuck in trying to love where we live. Nowhere is ever perfect, but we have been cursed with the so-called “travel bug.” Once you get it, it really is hard to settle down.

I suppose that all we can do is continue to plan trips to far away places and in the meantime, never stop exploring our own backyards. Being aware of our ethnocentric tendencies will help us to connect with travelers and foreigners who come to Canada and the U.S.

The draw of the open road may never go away, but we can learn to live with it and yield to it when necessary. Life can be great wherever we are. We will try to appreciate what we have at home and look forward to discovering new & awesome places in the future! 

We will be working here in Vancouver and getting by for now … at least until the next adventure!

birds, taking flight, nature, the city, animals in the city

21 Reasons Why Traveling Makes You Happy!

To travel is to live. It is to step outside your comfort zone, shed our ignorances and broaden our horizons. Traveling is one of the best ways to discover the world and discover who we are at the same time. 

For those who dare, traveling will present new ways of doing things, challenge everything you thought you knew about the world and will leave you a more optimistic and haaaaappy person! 

Experiences define who we are. Life is about the accumulation of experiences and gaining wisdom. Ultimately, aren’t we all on a journey to become the best possible version of ourselves?

Nature, City, birds, geese, taking, flight, fly, urban

In order to become our best self, we have to step outside comfort zones and challenge ourselves … that seems to scare the crap out of most people though!

Adventures don’t have to be scary though. Remember, the most nerve-racking part of a trip is getting on the plane.

So without further ado … get out there and see what the world has to offer!

21 Reasons Why Traveling Makes You Happy!

Traveling is a challenge. Traveling challenges even the most resourceful people at times. Whether it’s learning how the train works in a new country or trying to figure out how to check into a hostel after hours … there is always a challenge waiting for you on the road.

People who travel are more tolerant. Life isn’t always the same when you are abroad. The daily rhythm of life and the way people do things will encourage you to realize that there are more than one way to do things. As a result, you will find that you are more patient and receptive to other people after traveling. 

Travelers discover more about themselves. Perhaps the greatest way to discover who you really are, is to throw yourself at the mercy of another culture and see how you handle yourself. There is an interesting phenomenon about traveling in that, you will become the minority being in someone else’s country, and that gives you an opportunity to view your actions and mannerisms from a more objective viewpoint. 

the bean Chicago

Traveling recharges your brain. Every once and awhile we get stuck in a rut and stuck with in our own little world with our little habits, routines and intricacies. Going to far away lands resolutely breaks those trappings and re-sets your brain. 

Traveling is a great way to reduce stress. When you run into other travelers and chat with globe-trotters on planes, trains and busses, they usually have something in common… they are laid back, smiling and excited to be alive! A large part of that is due to the enormous weight that lifted off their shoulders the instant they began traveling.

A lot of people go to work everyday just to get by and they find themselves doing daily things as a kind of reactionary response to life … travelers typically travel solely in the moment and leave their anxieties and stress back home. 

Changing the pace of day-to-day life is important. Let’s face it, the daily monotonous grind can get irksome and tedious at points. Traveling will throw off you time-zones, alter your sleep patterns and force you to break your usual pace… this is a good thing for mental health. 

Standing on the Beach

It forces you to step outside your comfort zone. Traveling isn’t always comfortable. You will be exposed to new food, cultures, languages and ways of doing things. This is all slightly uncomfortable at first and when you get through it, you will be a better person for it. 

Mmm … delicious food awaits. What else is there to say? Delicious food awaits! 

You discover better ways to do things. It’s easy to think that your own culture does everything the right way. Spoiler Alert … It doesn’t! Asians eat with chop sticks, Europeans air-dry laundry and many tribes in Africa still carry things on their head … there are great reasons for all of these cultural differences and in many cases, they are “better” ways to do things.

Experiencing different cultures broadens your mind. Once you place yourself in a foreign land and look around, you will realize that despite the massive amount of differences we all have, there are even more similarities. Once you experience that revelation, you will view other cultures differently for the rest of your life. 

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You make new friends. Traveling forces you to interact with others and gives you unique bonding ground that you could never have if you just stayed at home.

You become more optimistic. When you are traveling your mind just melts away pessimism. Discovering new cultures and seeing far-away cities sparks the mind! It heightens the senses and you will find that you are quicker to smile and slower to judge!

Travelers tend to bring out the best in one another. If you find yourself amongst a group of travelers you will be in good company. Travelers love to tell stories, interact with other travelers and express their openness towards all cultures.

If you’re traveling … you aren’t working! Let’s just admit it … work sucks! Take some time off and take a break to travel the world!

China, Chinese, food, meal, eating, round, table

You can try things that you wouldn’t try back home. New locations offer new experiences. SCUBA diving, skiing, canyoning, photography, hiking, riding trains, eating new food, cooking new food, and so forth!

You appreciate home more. After your travels you will view home with a whole new perspective. You will appreciate the comforts of home that you used to take advantage of. All of a sudden, HOME can become more exciting after returning from a trip. 

It’s an awesome way to discover new hobbies. By introducing new experiences and new cultures, you may find that there are some un-discovered hobbies that await you.

Maybe you will realize you love hiking when you walk to the top of Machu Picchu … Or maybe you will discover you have an affinity towards learning languages on the road … Or maybe you will just remind yourself how much you love reading during the downtime of your travels.

Whatever it may be, traveling will give you new hobbies it you let it!

Vietnamese, coffee, weasel, shit, Da Lat, Vietnam

You will find what is really important in life. Sometimes, in the midst of your routine and daily life the things that are really important are forgotten, pushed aside or taken for granted. 

Traveling, has a funny way of re-setting that equilibrium and, when you return from your grand adventure, the important things in life will become more in focus. 

Detaching from day-to-day life is important for self-reflection. When is the last time you focused on your own strengths and weaknesses or areas you wanted to improve? Maybe there are some hobbies or goals that you brushed to the wayside? 

It happens to everyone because we get so engrossed in our routine and the daily grind that we have no time left to spend on ourselves.

Perhaps, disappearing for awhile will allow your mind to return back to your motivations and desires. Then work on trying to work them into your busy routine awaiting you back home.

The world becomes smaller. Once you have been to another part of the world your outlook on life changes.

Before traveling, foreign lands are thought of as unrelatable and different. “They are just a bunch of people on the other side of the water!”

After traveling though, you realize just how similar everyone is. People everywhere care about family and are concerned about their children. Education, politics and quality of life are massively important to people everywhere.

Once you have seen foreign lands, borders and cultures have a funny way of blending together and what was once unattainable and impossibly far away becomes just a flight away! 

Traveling changes your perspective on life. It should be apparent by now, but traveling is obviously going to change the way you view yourself and others.

Most importantly, traveling will help you define how small you are in the world and how exciting life can be!

Elephant Kisses

Why I Can’t Recommend Mount Rushmore

Mount, Mt., Rushmore, SD

Guest Post: By Jess Roberts

Most of you know Jess by now. She's my trusty travel companion & agreed to write about our Mount Rushmore experience. It's slightly different than other Mt. Rushmore posts ...

Let me start by making a confession. I…am…Canadian.

Yes, I said it. Whew. Now that I’ve come clean about that, I have another (not so little) secret. I love the US. Seriously. I have been obsessed with the US since I was a teenager and traveled to Philadelphia for the first time. I was pretty sure I belonged there and planned on moving across the border as soon as I could.

That didn’t work out. Turns out it’s kind of hard to move to America, and it’s a lot easier to just stay wherever you call home. But I still had dreams of seeing the things that the US had to offer. I wanted to see the Statue of Liberty, the Space Needle, the Golden Gate Bridge, and yes…I wanted to see Mount Rushmore.

Mount Rushmore always represented the epitome of American sightseeing to me. It’s faces of presidents carved into a mountain. Like really. How much more American can you get? So, as we started our journey toward the Dakotas, I was starting to get really excited.

Unfortunately, there were several factors that slowly let the air out of my proverbial tires until I came to the conclusion that I just can’t recommend going to see Mount Rushmore.

4 reasons why I can’t recommend Mount Rushmore:

1. The drive 
Mount Rushmore is smack dab in the middle of nothing and zilch. If you’re going that way anyway (like we were), then you might as well stop by and check it out. But I definitely would not suggest going out of your way just for that.

Taken after paying for parking ... $11 to park!
Taken after paying for parking ... $11 to park!
The free view of Mount Rushmore.
The free view of Mount Rushmore.

2. The price 
Technically, seeing the monument is free. But parking is $11.00.  So if you don’t bring your car and decide to start your hike up the mountain at 3 am to make sure you catch a glimpse of it before they close it down for the night, then it’s totally free.

I’m exaggerating a bit. But it felt a little like extortion to charge that much to park in a lot for 15 minutes. And they know that nobody is just going to turn around and be like “Nope, screw the faces in the mountain … that’s too gosh darn much.” Everyone is going to grumble about it and then hand over their credit card because there’s no point in even being there if not to see this monument.

A viewpoint (free) before getting to Mt. Rushmore
A viewpoint (free) before getting to Mt. Rushmore
Mt. Rushmore map
Mt. Rushmore map

That being said, on the drive up the mountain, there’s a few areas to pull off the road to see Rushmore before you make it to the place where they will ask you to empty out your life savings to pay for parking. The last pullout that you hit before the parking lot has an awesome view, and is totally worth stopping and taking a picture from there (for free) and skipping the $11.00 view.

3. Dogs aren’t allowed
This has been a problem all along and I’ve come to expect it now; but it’s still frustrating every time I see that “No Dogs” sign. You can have them outside the actual monument area but don’t even think about trying to get a picture of Fido in front of those faces.

Dog, Mount, Mt., Rushmore, cheap, free
Barney checkin' out the monument from the free/dogs-allowed spot.

4. It’s only average
The fourth and final reason why I can’t recommend Mount Rushmore was that it’s a little underwhelming. Yes, it’s a feat of human perseverance and all that. It is quite picturesque, but it’s a lot smaller than I realized and honestly…

…it’s just okay.

It didn’t take my breath away. There wasn’t a really awesome story behind it. It was fine. And if someone asked about it, “fine” is pretty much the only word that I could really come up with for the entire experience.

** A Bonus Rant!

Crazy Horse, free, photo
15 mins from Mt. Rushmore is the Crazy Horse Memorial. This picture is free if you have a zoom lens. All you have to do is get out of your car before the pay booths, snap a picture and then turn around. This little trick will save you $11/person or $22/car. Ah hahaha!!! HA! Ah ahhaha! Alright that's all.

Avoiding the Top 5 Road Trip Expenses

Oh no!!! We’re trying to do the Great American Road Trip on $100/day or less and we’re completely screwing it up!

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We are only half way through our 3 month road trip and $100 a day for 2 people and 1 dog is starting to prove difficult. Each time we go over the budget we learn something though, and we try to pass the savings on to you.

Below are our Top 5 Road Trip Expenses, broken into 2 categories:

1.  The Expense.
2.  Tips to Cut Back on Spending. 

  • Cities  
    In our first month we traveled from Montana to the east coast. We passed through bustling metropolises like Missoula, MT and Cleveland, OH! … Haha, in other words we stayed primarily in small cities and towns.

In Weeks 5 & 6 though, we went to huge cities like Boston, New York and Washington DC and our wallets felt the difference! Everything just costs more in the city and budgeting becomes more important than ever.

Here are some simple tricks that will get you saving in the city:

New York Skyline
  • Get a City Pass  
    These passes can save a ton of money and allow you to clump all the major attractions of a city into one flat-rate pass. To read more and see which cities offer these passes Click Here
  • Use Public Transportation  
    Although the US is lacking far behind Europe and Asia when it comes to public transportation, every major US city has some version of it. Learn the bus routes, subways and train systems before you get there and they will save you time and money.
  • Do Walking Tours  
    Most major cities have Free Walking Tours! They are a great way to get some exercise, discover the city and save money. Free Tours By Foot offers tons of tours in the US. 
  • Parking  
    In rural America you can park almost everywhere and not really consider parking. $1-2/hr seems about right and you go about your day without giving it much thought….

In Chicago we spent $48 to park downtown! I saw a parking lot in NYC for $21.90/30 mins! Parking is insane in big cities, and you need to figure out a plan of attack before driving into them.

Cool Car
  • Spot Hero App 
    Most of us have so many apps on our phones that the thought of downloading another one can be daunting … but this one is worth it! I heard about this app from a blogger in Chicago and it’s awesome for finding the best places to park in big cities! Download Spot Hero here.

There are 3 expenditures in the pie charts above that stand out above the others: AccommodationFood and Entertainment. These were our 3 highest expenditures:

  • Accommodation  
    This has been our biggest and deadliest expenditure during the entire trip. Staying in cities with a dog brings up some unique challenges. We can camp outside of cities, but we can’t leave Barney in a hot tent while we go into the city. So that rules out camping.

Couch Surfing is an option too, but most couch surfers don’t want to host people with dogs because either they’re allergic to them, landlords don’t like them or they’re afraid they’ll fight with their own dogs or cats.

This leaves us with one good option … staying in hotels. Ah!!!! Hotels are the fastest way to blow your budget. It is almost impossible to stay on a $100/day budget and stay in hotels. If you can avoid them do it at all costs.

  • Couch Surfing 
    Send out your Couch Surfing requests well in advance. Big cities have lots of people willing to host you, but there’s tons of people asking too. Hosts in bigger cities will appreciate advanced notice and you’ll have a better shot at staying with someone you click with. Don’t know what Couch Surfing is? Click Here!
  • Camp (outside the city)  
    Believe it or not, some cities have campgrounds close to public transportation. You’ll save a lot of money by staying at a campground as opposed to a hotel. If you have a dog, this becomes tricky though because you don’t want to leave a dog in a tent all day. 
  • Budget Hotels & Motels
    If you find that a hotel room is your only option, then pick a cheaper one and try to get outside of the city. (For example, if you’re visiting NYC then try staying in New Jersey and take the bus in.)

Some budget hotels that worked well for us are: Red Roof Inn (dogs are free), La Quinta (a really nice hotel, allows pets sometimes & has some great deals in certain locations), Motel 6 and Holiday Inn (sometimes allows dogs).

  • Food  
    The Food Challenge  is my biggest frustration of the road trip. I can’t figure out how to beat the Dollar Menu! That’s an article for another day though …

There is just no avoiding spending extra money on food when you go to big cities. If you are trying to be so frugal that you miss out on a NYC hotdog, Chicago deep-dish pizza or Cape Cod seafood then you should re-consider. Trying iconic food is a small way to experience a city’s culture and I think it’s important to try it, even if it’s a little pricier.

Bush Pies
  • Eat Before You Get Hungry 
    If you can find a reasonably priced restaurant before you are starving, you’ll be less likely to walk into the first place you see. If you aren’t starving yet, you may also eat a smaller (cheaper) meal.
  • Avoid Eating in Touristy Areas 
    Many times, you can eat that iconic meal and discover great food for a fraction of the cost, by simply stepping out of the tourist trap. Touristy areas always charge more … If you can find where the locals eat and you’ll find your savings.
  • Find Hotels with Complimentary Breakfast
    Eating breakfast is a good way to start the day … Eating a FREE breakfast is an even better way!
  • Entertainment  
    This is another one that I would recommend to “take the hit on” and blow the budget a bit. There are certain things that aren’t worth sacrificing. For example: I’ve always wanted to see a Broadway Play so I spent $101 to see “The Phantom of the Opera” in New York. I don’t regret spending that money, even though I’m on a budget, because that was one of the reasons I wanted to go to NYC in the first place. Save money, but not at the expense of the vacation.

Big cities are just going to cost more … all you can do is try to make up for it in the smaller US cities. I do have a couple suggestions for you though, to save a couple dollars on entertainment:

Phantom of the Opera
  • City Pass  
    I mentioned it above, but these passes are great to cut back on entertainment costs by clumping major attractions into a flat-rate pass. To read more about these passes Click Here
  • Broadway Box (New York only) 
    If New York City is in the itinerary, check out BroadwayBox.com for some crazy awesome deals on Broadway tickets. There’s also TKTS Booths which sell half price tickets (go to the one in the Financial District, NOT the one in Times Square – it will save you hours).
  • Research Ahead of Time  
    Just Google what you want to do with the word “deals,” “specials,” or “discount” next to it (ie. Broadway show discounts). Almost everything you will want to see has a cheaper way to see it. You just have to search for it!

Learn More, Save More!

Check out more articles like this and how to save on your next American Road Trip!

6 Ways to Discover Upstate New York

Upstate New York
– As in NOT New York City –

Elmira College
Elmira College

Well, let’s just be honest … Upstate New York has been living in the shadow of New York City for quite awhile now. It’s hard to compete with 8.3 million people, Broadway shows and the Statue of Liberty!

But …. Let’s slow it down a bit and head to the north and west of New York STATE … and see if there’s anything worth checking out! If you ever drive to NYC there is a good chance that you will drive through New York State and there are some pretty awesome things to see along the way!

Jess, Barney and I headed to Elmira, NY to visit a friend who we taught english with in China.

Here’s what we discovered:

Wine-Tasting … mmmm
New York is home to some huge wineries and all of them want you to try their wine. The Finger Lakes have tons of wineries! So get some friends together, book a limo or cab and taste your way through Upstate New York. 

Wine Tasting

Visit a Small Town
There are tons of cool little towns in New York. They all have a unique culture and atmosphere that is worth checking out. There’s an interesting blend of cultures in small town New York. People have the efficient business culture of New York City, but it is combined with the down-to-earth mentality found in small town america.
Some places to start with: Cold SpringAuroraCorning, or Skaneateles 

Niagara Falls
Niagara Falls separates the United States and Canada and it is undoubtedly an impressive site. If you have time (and your passport), swing on over to the Canadian side … it’s just better.

Niagara Falls - US side

The Finger Lakes
A group of 11 huge & narrow lakes make for a great place to go swimming, boating, kayaking, wine tasting or sailing! These lakes are a popular tourist destination and beautifully portray the outdoors of Upstate New York.
Random Suggestion:  Rent a cabin on the Lake, swim during the day and go wine tasting in the evenings. 

River

Glass Blowing in Corning
The Corning Museum of Glass is awesome! You can see over 3,500 years of glass blowing history along with some really cool shows. Corning Glass is a massive glass business in the United States and the museum shows the fascinating process of shaping and working with glass.
It costs $18-25 and kids (under 17) are free. You can see actual demonstrations and shows of real glass blowing and they even give you the opportunity to blow your own glass … it’s a pretty cool experience!

glass, blowing, corning, museum
cool, glass, display, corning, museum, beautiful

Watkins Glen
Watkins Glen State Park is as good as it gets for camping and hiking. If you are the outdoors type, plan on spending a night or two immersed in Watkins Glen … you will be surrounded by lakes, mountains and forests worthy of any outdoor enthusiast. 

A Christmas Story – Visit The Leg Lamp!

A Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock and “this thing which tells time.” That’s all that Ralphie Parker wanted for Christmas!

 And what about the Old Man ranting and swearing a stream of profanities that “is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan.”

Of course this is all from that great film, “A Christmas Story”
YOU can see it all in real life!
Cleveland, Ohio

A Christmas Story, leg lamp, house, ralphie

This house was renovated and restored to resemble the house in “A Christmas Story.”

Most of the movie was actually filmed in a sound studio, but the outside shots, back yard scenes, and the infamous  Lamp in the Window scene were indeed filmed at this house in Cleveland, OH. 

leg lamp

Tickets and Admission

Adults: $10.00
Children 7 to 12: $6.00
(Children 6 & under: FREE)
Seniors: $8.00

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During the tour, you can go into the house, take pictures and check out some of the most famous props from the movie! It was all very exciting! 

Quick Tip!  Don’t park in the lot right next to the house … it will be the one with guys waving flags and directing you into their driveway so they can screw you out of $5. Just drive 10 more seconds and park on the street … it’s free! 

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Yes … you too can take your picture next to the leg lamp in fishnet stockings!
For more information  on the house, the movie or the museum check out:

AChristmasStoryHouse.com

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A Fun Day in Chicago

Chicago, night, skyline

For this post I’m not going to give you a “Top … Things To Do” list or a bunch of suggestions of things to see and conquer during your trip to Chicago. This is partly because Jess and I are still on the road, I’m completely backed up with articles to write and … well, perhaps I’m feeling rather lazy today.

BUT!!!!! ………  The biggest reason for this lackadaisical post is because Chicago is a city that must be experienced. Chicago is a city that you can only love by walking the streets, eating pizza, meandering the water’s edge, sitting in parks and in front of fountains. Chicago must be felt!

The Bean, Chicago, self, portrait
Cloud Gate (the bean)

Chicago is the 3rd largest city in the US by population (Fun Fact: the 3rd largest by size is Houston, TX) and there is no doubt about that when you first arrive. The skyline is 2nd only to New York City (Another Fun Fact: I am writing this post from NYC) and the architecture and scope of museums, parks, fountains and buildings is overwhelming and awesome!

Chicago, America, flag, US flag flying

I love Chicago and it’s one of the few places I could almost see myself living. There’s a personality to the city that seems to almost challenge you when you get there … it’s almost like there is an invitation that hangs over you in Chicago, as if to say, “So … do you think you could cut it in Chicago?” Well if you can, it’s a city that will never stop giving!

Whew! Well that building tour was something eh?

If you want to see all those buildings check out the Free Walking Tour for Chicago! They do a pretty good job and it will give you a chance to hear some of the cool history and how Chicago burned to the ground in 1871.  It’s definitely worth learning about while you’re there.

Chicago, skyline, dog, pics, photo, stares
Nature, City, birds, geese, taking, flight, fly, urban

Alright, well now that you know next to nothing about Chicago, but you’ve seen some pretty awesome pictures!! … Let’s close with some words of wisdom from Dan:

  • Don’t Park Downtown! Holy crap it is soooo expensive, I was mad for a week about the parking downtown. Take the L-Train and avoid parking at all costs!
  • Do a Walking Tour – It’s good exercise, free and a good way to orient yourself and learn something about Chicago.
  • Go to the Adler Planetarium – I’m not going to recommend going inside, but go there for the awesome view of the Chicago Skyline. Barney is viewing the city from the Adler Planetarium (2 photos above).
  • See the Art Institute of Chicago – Whether you’re into Museums of not, this is massively famous and they have some really cool stuff in here! Even if you’re a Proud-to-be-Philistine … even you will recognize a few things here 😉
  • Eat Pizza – Chicago’s deep dish pizza really is delicious.
  • Don’t Park Downtown! – Did I mention that already? Yeah, seriously don’t do it; you’ll be mad for a week.
Buckingham Fountain
Crown Fountain

5 Things That Make Minneapolis Unique!

Searching For Your Zen’s:
100th Post!

Thanks for everyone who has followed the journey and read along … it really does mean a lot!
Today’s post comes to you from Jess (Searching For Your Zen’s biggest fan)!

Minneapolis

For this Guest Post, Jess tells us about some of the highlights of passing through the Twin Cities during the Great American Road Trip. 

Drinking From a Coconut

Leaving Montana felt like leaving a friend. It was comfortable, warm and welcoming, and I felt connected to it for some reason. We made a quick stop in North Dakota for a night to visit Dan’s brother, and then headed on to Minnesota. I was a little hesitant as we rolled into Minnesota. The midwest is often portrayed on TV and in movies (ie. Mashall’s family in “How I Met Your Mother”) as really boring, nerdy, and basically uncool.

Luckily, Minneapolis proved to be the exact opposite of that! It was lively, fun, and cool … Super cool! The people there have pride in their city, but also seem humble … as though years of TV shows making fun of them has made them feel under-appreciated.

So, here are a few reasons why Minneapolis is a gem of a city, worthy of praise, and well worth stopping in next time you’re driving through:

1. Coffee Shops, Bars and Restaurants
We only spent about a day and a half in the city, but the coffee and service at Sovereign Grounds coffee shop is worth raving about. The beer selection and board games at Chatterbox Bar are also top notch, and the fish and chips at Brit’s Pub couldn’t have been better. If only we could have stayed to try more…

Sovereign Grounds

2. Arts and festival culture
Our visit was surrounded by festivals and art exhibits. There was an India festival before we got there, an exhibit on Da Vinci’s notebook after we got there, and there was supposed to be a music and food festival while we were there (it ended up getting rained out). It seemed like no matter what time we picked to be in Minneapolis, there was something artsy and fun going on. Our couch-surfing host took us to see a silent movie that was made in the 1920’s that was scored by a live band in the theatre that night. It was a really fun experience and from what I could tell, it was just one of many events that they do in the city to try to engage the residents.

Oh, and there’s also this sculpture garden that you should go check out. It has the famous “Spoon and Cherry” sculpture among other fun and sometimes interactive sculptures.

Minneapolis

3. Bike culture
Bike culture is huge in Minneapolis. It’s one of the most bike friendly cities in the USA and I don’t think I’ve seen that many people on bikes since Amsterdam. They offer bikes for rent that can be returned to stands in many other places in the city and have made the city very easy to navigate on a bicycle.

Uptown Minneapolis
Minneapolis Spoon

4. Lakes
The lakes seemed to be the thing that residents of Minneapolis were most proud to show off. There is a chain of lakes within the city that have paths around them with tons of people walking, riding their bikes, and jogging. They also have docks that you can fish off of, and places to swim or hang out on the beach.

Calhoun Lake Minneapolis

5. Mill City and the Mississippi River
Mill City is a flour mill with a troubled past. Built in 1874, it exploded in 1878 killing 18 people. It was rebuilt, but then over 100 years later it almost burned down again. The remains from the fire can still be seen from the Mississippi River as you walk down the Stone Arch Bridge. It has been turned into a museum which runs tours Tuesday-Sunday and costs $12.00 for adults.

Mill City Museum

Bonus! 
The Mall of America is in Minneapolis, but don’t tell the locals you went there :/

Minneapolis has so many great things and a ginormous mall has a way of taking the limelight away. Check it out, but really try to experience all those other things that make Minneapolis a unique city!

Mall of America