International · Interviews · Philippines · Travel Tips

Things to Know About Couchsurfing


Sure, I’ve heard the word before and known such a thing existed, but it wasn’t until about a month ago that I took a serious look at it.

Although I no longer have a permanent home in the Philippines, I have been returning to the islands frequently and just last week I was there again before flying to the Netherlands.

With four days in Manila to sort out some business, run errands, and repack, I was looking into budget-friendly hotel and Airbnb options. Hoping to book a place with a reliable internet connection so I could still do my classes and online work, I was disappointed to find that nothing could guarantee that within the location and price range I was after.

On that account, I realized I might have to cancel or reschedule some of my classes and see what I could manage from some of the coffee shops in the area that I know have good connections such as Carpe Diem and Exchange Alley Coffee House.

It was then that Couchsurfing popped into my head: what if I could find a place to stay and make a friend along the way? It would certainly make the stay in Manila a little less lonely since I have, for better or for worse, cut most ties with my old life here.

I signed up on through my Facebook account and seeing a number of my friends were users gave me more faith in the idea. Browsing through a few profiles of potential hosts in Metro Manila, I quickly thought: these are my people.

The surfers I encountered were world travelers and world learners, swapping stories, exchanging languages, and sharing jamming sessions. I got in touch with both locals and foreigners staying in Manila and soon made friends with Rhylie Villoria, a Dutch-speaking Filipina with six (seven if the Amsterdammer who popped in for a visit counts them) rescue dogs and a drum kit living in the exact part of the city I needed to base of during my stay. She offered to host me and my first Couchsurf was made official.

To be honest, I didn’t put much into my profile–other than a few short lines and a link to my blog–nor did I bother making the payment to verify my identity. I simply sent our a number of messages and requests and posted a “public trip” requesting a host, which other surfers can see.

I felt blessed to have found such a wonderful person as Rhylie and after staying with her, she took some time to answer a few of my questions about the Couchsurfing community.

How did you discover Couchsurfing?

My Norwegian brother-in-law mentioned it; that was a year before I started hosting.

How long have you been surfing and how many people have you hosted?

I’ve been on Couchsurfing since March 2015 and I’ve hosted 21 people so far.

Why do you host?

When I started hosting, my intention was so I’d have a diversion or distraction because I’d just gone through a breakup. But after hosting a few people, I realized it was fun and I was learning more about other people’s country and culture so I began hosting as much. Also, it’s my way of paying it forward since I’ve Couchsurfed at some hosts’ places too. Another reason is that I’m raised to be kind to people in need, so whenever I see couch requests, I do my best to help out.

Tell me about your most memorable Couchsurfing experience.

When I was in Genk, Belgium, I got hosted by a middle-aged man whom later became my “uncle Dave”. He gave me shelter for three days during my first visit to Europe–Belgium being the first country. He toured me around and drove me wherever I wanted to go; I saw things and places not a bunch of tourists have seen around Genk. The hosting didn’t end there because whenever I come to Genk, his house remains open to me and he even let me celebrate Christmas with his family when I had no one to celebrate it with while abroad. When you Couchsurf, you can gain lifetime friends.

Do you feel safe Couchsurfing alone?

I feel safe given the circumstances that I take time to get to know my host and listen to my gut feelings. I don’t just choose a host; I talk to them for a while, read their references, and do a little background check on what’s available online. Being careful has a lot to do with feeling safe so I make sure I take precautionary measures as well, but yeah, once I’ve assured trust toward the host, I feel safe.

What should everyone know about Couchsurfing?

Couchsurfing isn’t just a free place to substitute pricey hotel rooms whenever you travel around a new place; it’s a community of people who are willing to help out yet not to have their kindness abused. It is a place where hospitality and kindness are the currencies and exchange rates are dependent on your faith in humanity. There are bad stories alongside the good ones every now and then but there will always be a huge percentage of people who keep upholding the true purpose of this community.

International · Travel Tips

10 Pros and Cons of Expat Life

The best and worst of living outside the borders of your citizenship.

Having recently joined a variety of groups and communities of traveling teachers, world schoolers, and expats in general, I’ve had a number of interesting conversations on the pros and cons of the expatriate-slash-globetrotter lifestyle.

I’ve been living in the Philippines, a country far from my own, for eight years now and the process of preparing to leave–whether or not for good I can’t say–was an interesting time to reflect on the good and bad elements of my life as an “expat” or, in plain English, an immigrant.

Since I’ve also lived in a few countries in Africa and many of my online coworkers live in China and otherwise all over the world, I’ll avoid centering this post on any one country or continent and try instead to include not only my own experiences but also what I’ve gathered from fellow expats along the way.

Having been raised as a third-culture kid and now being a mother myself, I will, of course, be discussing how the expat life impacts children. However, that’s not what this list is centered on.

Instead, I’m looking at the bare-boned questions of what makes an expat leave their home and what makes them miss it.


1. The Freedom

This, more than anything, is my personal number one. It’s why I will–if it’s entirely up to me–likely always live outside of my country of citizenship. It’s hard to say home because I’m not sure anymore which country I would identify as such.

When I say freedom, I’m not talking exclusively about that feeling of heading to the airport with a suitcase, walking away from what had been your life and excess belongings, feeling light as a feather and ready to explore the world.

I’m also talking about the freedom to do more or less whatever you want without the constraints of an often rigidly organized and restrictive western world.

Life in most non-western countries can be considerably less orderly, but far less restrictive as well.

(Although I should point out that some countries offer us the best of both worlds. I’m thinking of places like Taiwan, a country with excellent infrastructure where you can drink beer in public. No wonder it consistently tops the expatriation charts.)

However, excepting such examples as Taiwan, Singapore, Korea, and Japan, many less-developed countries in Asia, Africa and the Central and South Americas tell quite a different story.

Whether it’s the lack of modern infrastructure, prevalent and multilateral corruption, or perhaps that people simply don’t care about such trivial issues as whether or not one should be allowed to harvest rainwater, the tradeoff for a somewhat messy and unstructured life in a third-world country is that there are far fewer restrictions on what you can and cannot do.

When I bought a motorcycle and, having never ridden and with no lessons or license to my name, rode it home on Manila roads I basked in that freedom.

Granted, it isn’t always a good thing but it is what draws me to the expat life nonetheless–to the point, in fact, that I will likely never be able to (re)assimilate into either the Netherlands or–God forbid–the US.

Call it the travel bug if you will but for some, once we see the world, the place we had called home–no matter its size–will always be too small to contain us. Being contained, after all, is quite unbearable once you’ve had a taste of freedom.

2. The Learning Experience

This goes for you, your kids if you have them, and in some ways even your friends and family back home because the things you learn living abroad will change you as a person.

For one, your view of the world will widen as you begin to understand and grow close to people born and raised in a country and culture different from your own.

Additionally, you will pick up new languages and as you reach fluency in a new tongue you will awaken new areas of your brain and start to think in new ways.

If you travel with kids, they will pick up new languages faster than they can put away their toys and if they start speaking at a young age they will achieve near native-speaker fluency the way adults never quite can. This will give them a huge advantage and increase their options in any career path.

Finally, you will learn a lot about life in general, especially by seeing how simple and enjoyable it can be.

The things we find to stress out over and the first-world problems we create are laughable when you realize how little you need to live a happy, healthy, and fulfilling life. You don’t need many things (the less you have to pack, the better), or even much money, which leads right to a third advantage.

3. The Cost of Living

This ties right in with freedom and is another thing I’ve loved about living in the Philippines: cost of living is low. That means I didn’t have to work fulltime to make a decent living and that gave me the freedom to spend more of my time doing whatever I want.

4. The People & The Stories

The most interesting people I’ve met are travelers–ever since I was a child I’ve loved their stories–and there’s no better way to meet them than by traveling.

I’ll have to write a post one day on some of the fascinating people I’ve met and the insane stories they’ve told.

5. Being a Stranger (or feeling like a celebrity and a zoo animal at the same time)

This is at the bottom of my list of pros because in some ways it can definitely become a bit of a con. However, though we like to complain about it, I think deep down most of us expats secretly enjoy it.

The simple truth is that in most cases, being different from everyone else allows you to do things most people won’t or can’t.

For example–as a Brit living in China pointed out–because you’re already an oddball, you can go ahead and do all the odd things your heart desires. Since you’re attracting attention anyway, you might as well make the most of it.

Once you get used to constantly being stared at and talked about, it stops mattering. Well, either that or you become really good at ignoring it.

For me personally, this is a tough one because it’s a feeling I have almost everywhere, including at home in Holland. When I’m in Holland I’m not really Dutch; somehow I still tend to stand out, especially in the small village where I went to high school.

When I visited America, I did not at all feel American and found it difficult to identify with the culture. Visiting Australia earlier this year was uniquely enjoyable, on the other hand, because I felt significantly less odd than I do in most countries–probably because it’s such a melting pot of immigrants from Europe, Asia, and other parts of the world and people are generally laid back.


1. The Mess (infrastructure, bureaucracy, trash)

Whether it’s the mess of infrastructure, the bureaucracy, or the literal trash, messy is often a part of expat life, and again I put this in the first place because it’s what I find the most difficult to deal with.

By nature, I’m a fairly organized and efficient person: I don’t like messes, especially ones that result in wasted time. I also despise bad smells and stay as far away as I can from the Pasig River.

Sydney, where I am now, is such a welcome contrast from Manila because it’s so fresh and so clean. On the other hand, it is a lot more expensive.

2. Lack of Access to Specialty Items, Your Favorite Things from Home, Your Friends & Your Family

Whether it’s English tea and meat pie, any good European cheese or sausages, Canadian cheese curds, or salty Dutch haring and licorice, there will be things you miss from home that may be near-impossible to find.

But, if visiting friends and family isn’t enough, at least it’s a reason to make that trip back home every now and then.

Right. I haven’t talked about family yet.

Yes, being away from them is tough but honestly, the most difficult part is saying goodbye. After that, you go on building your life and with social media, there are a million ways to stay in touch.

I will say that when you have kids, not having family around to help you take care of them is especially difficult. Beyond that, family is important to kids: my daughter cherishes any opportunity to see her grandmother, uncles, aunts, and cousins.

However, I see missing home or family and friends in other parts of the world as just another wonderful reason to travel.

3. Health & Safety

Honestly, based on personal experience, it hardly seems appropriate to list this as a con. I have been asked over and over if living in Ivory Coast, or Nigeria, or the Philippines, was dangerous, and I’ve honestly never felt that it was. I visited Baltimore once though; there’s a city with some spots to avoid.

However, just because I’ve never experienced what I would consider a serious threat to my safety in a third world country doesn’t mean that I don’t know people who have. For some, safety is a primary reason not to travel or relocate to a third-world country. To that, I can only say: danger is everywhere.

I ride a motorcycle to get through Manila traffic and people tell me it’s dangerous. Yes, maybe it is; so is driving a car; so is crossing the street. You can either live your life in fear of danger or–with a few reasonable precautions–you can live your life.

If you’re going somewhere that might be considered dangerous for foreigners, take some reasonable precaution.

For example, if you want to shop at Divisoria–Manila’s massive and crowded commercial center–dress plainly, don’t wear expensive jewelry or accessories, and keep your valuables and/or your bag in front of you and not on your back or in your pockets.

Another safety-related concern includes health care: there’s a good chance that it won’t be on the level of what you’re used to back home.

Conversely, some forms of healthcare can be available at a high standard and more affordable prices than in western countries. Dental and optical procedures in the Philippines are an example of that.

4. The Discomfort

Whether it’s extreme weather conditions, uncomfortable transportation, or socially awkward situations, travelers and expats alike have to be comfortable with discomfort.

More so than the sticky heat and heavy humidity of Metro Manila, what tends to make me most uncomfortable is the blatant staring.

5. A Different Kind of Etiquette

Finally, the people in your new home may be intolerably polite or outrageously rude but either way, you’ll have to adjust to new social norms and a different kind of etiquette.

You may very well find after living somewhere for years that you still struggle to relate to the culture.

Conversely, you may find that you have adopted so many elements of this new culture that you experience reverse culture shock when visiting home or repatriating.

At the end of the day, I feel that the reasons to leave home and live a different kind of life–if only for a while–decisively outweigh the cons.

Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!


International · Travel Tips

5 Reasons to Love Traveling with a Toddler


I’m hard-pressed to find a more exhausting word in the English language, yet I love traveling with mine.

To be fair, she’s not a baby anymore–she’s a big girl–and she makes that clear to everyone.

She’s only just turned four and as much as she insists that she’s all grown up, it hasn’t stopped her from losing the ability to walk or talk like a human being on a whim.

Instead, she resorts to whiny puppy, clingy koala, clawing kitten, or worse.

What’s not to love?

No, seriously. There is a lot to love.


1. Everything is an adventure

Even the stressful things become adventures.

Running to catch the bus that’s about to leave without us: adventure. She will talk about it for days to come.


2. They make friends with everyone and force you to be friendly too

So I wasn’t in the mood to strike up a conversation with every stranger we encounter? Too bad.

The kid has already roped me into a dozen conversations with her adorable charm, fantastic sense of humor, and outgoing nature.


3. You’re making memories that will shape them as people

Every time we travel, she’s collecting memories and experiences that will build up her future self.

Having traveled around the world with my mother when I was a child, I cannot put enough emphasis on how life-shaping it is and I want my daughter to have that as well.


4. You get to experience things as a kid again

Everyone wants to be a kid again. At least sometimes.

Along those lines, I can recreate amazing memories from my childhood with her and, in a special kind of way, they live on.


5. You get priority treatment

This is a really cheap one, but yes, you will get some priority treatment when you travel with little kids–or a little kid.

You’ll board airplanes first, readily receive assistance when needed, and in general having a cheeky little toddler as a company will bring out the good-humored side of just about anyone you encounter.


That’s all I have for now. Unlike a day with a toddler, let’s keep this one short and simple.

What do you love about traveling with little kids? Let me know in the comments!

International · Travel Tips

Essential Dos and Dont’s for Travel: Pack Easy, Pack Light

Last week I moved into an apartment in the very south of Metro Manila and I’ll be staying here for the next three months before taking off to Australia.

As I packed for the move, I couldn’t help but think of how many times I’ve done this in the past few months.

In March, I packed for our first trip to Australia. Not long after our return in May, I began packing to move out of our house in the Philippines, which we did in the space of a few very long weeks in June.

In July, I packed for a month-long trip to visit friends in the mountains of Baguio and after returning to Manila in August we located a great little apartment in Alabang and moved there in the first week of September. That was just a few days ago so I hope you can excuse the fact that this blog has been a little dead for the past week.

What’s great, now that we’ve settled in, is that we’re walking distance from Molito Lifestyle Center–one of my and my daughter’s favorite spots in the city which I’ve written about here before.

All of this packing and moving around has inspired me to start a travel dos and don’ts series, which I’m kicking off today with packing easy and packing light.


Do pack light; don’t check luggage

Team No-Check-In for the win!

Earlier this year I packed for a six-week trip to Australia with my three-year-old daughter without checking any luggage.

How? Roll up enough outfits for a week and bring a bar of laundry soap to keep your bag smelling fresh and hand wash essentials (gym clothes!) as you go.

If you’re staying more than a week, all you have to do is find a place to do laundry.

Do roll up your outfits

To expand on this tip, I find this especially helpful for my daughter’s clothes. She likes to get herself dressed and occasionally picks some very odd and mismatched outfits.

Once she’s selected what she wants to wear, she is not to be argued with so I’ve had to be more subtle in arranging her wardrobe. Also, she tends to (or likes to) forget to put underwear on.

What I do is take the underwear, top, and bottom, fold them into each other, and roll up the entire outfit. Then I fill up a bag with these little outfit rolls and she picks out the one she wants for the day.

Do pack clothes in small plastic bags

I find it helpful to grab a pack of clear plastic bags or reuse bags from clothing shops when packing our suitcases. Packing sets of outfits in a small plastic bags ensures that they’ll stay dry and clean and keeps the suitcase more organized.

I’ll sort the bags into everyday clothes, swimwear, nightwear, park wear, etc.

Do let your kids choose their favorite (small) toy, book, and stuffed animal

For traveling with kids, let them pick one or two favorite small toys, a stuffed animal they like to sleep with, and possibly one or two favorite little bedtime books.

Beyond that, all they need are clothes. See outfit rolls above.

Don’t worry about wearing the same clothes twice

Seriously! Who cares? You’re a traveler! Be comfortable, be fresh, and wear clothes that you can do stuff in.

As long as your outfits are clean and fresh, you’re fine. Bring plenty of underwear and hand wash anything that gets stained right away. Pack outfits for a week, find a place to do your laundry at the end of the week and wear them again for the next.

Don’t pack for every single possible scenario

“I might go clubbing. I should pack a few dresses and these knee high boots, just in case.”

“I might go to a fancy restaurant or a formal function. I should pack at least one suit and a few ties.”

No. Don’t.

If such events do come up, chances are you’ll go with a friend and you can borrow something from them.

However, it is a good idea to pack at least one reasonably formal outfit that fits you well. For example, a multi-functional dress that could work for a fancy dinner and a night club. And unless you’re going to travel in those knee-high boots, pack a small pair of heels.

For men, a good sports coat will almost always do the trick and you can wear it while you travel so you don’t even have to worry about packing it.

Do pack for exercise

Yes, absolutely do pack active wear!

You can either pack a pair of gym shoes or travel in tennies, depending on what suits you.

Bring at least two sports or gym outfits so that you can handwash one after wearing and use it again a day later. That way you can exercise every day if you want to.

You can easily pack something simple, such as a jump rope or weight bands, to exercise while on your trip. Because come on, you’ll feel so much better throughout the trip if you take the time to exercise at least a little bit.

You might not be able to bring a yoga mat but I’m sure you can find a park or piece of grass somewhere. Download a few good yoga videos onto your phone and you’re good to go. How about a jog to a nearby park for some yoga stretches to start your day?

How about a jog to a nearby park for some yoga stretches to start your day?

Do layer up in your heaviest clothes on the plane

Earlier this year we went from summer in the Philippines to fall in Australia, which means it was quite cold for our standards.

To pack for the temperature drop, I had my daughter wear her biggest, warmest clothes on the plane: a long-sleeved dress, a cozy sweater, and a jacket.

In fact, I did the same: I wore my jeans and two sweaters while traveling so I wouldn’t have to worry about fitting them in my luggage.

Once in Australia, I was able to borrow warmer sweaters and for my daughter, I picked up some warm clothes at a second-hand store for a dollar a piece.

Don’t pack disposable items that you can buy on arrival

Let’s consider basic toiletries: toothpaste, shampoo, conditioner, sun block.

If you have to use particular products that will likely be hard to find, pack what you’ll need for the trip in 100ml containers and don’t forget to pack them in clear zip-lock bags.

If it’s going to be a long trip, though, there’s a good chance you can find something good on location. Just buy small or medium sized bottles to use while there; now you don’t have to worry about liquids in your carry-on.

Don’t be picky; do consider simplifying your routine

Whatever your morning and nighttime beauty routines involve, you should consider bringing them down to the bare essentials.

For me, (and most of us, right?) that’s face wash, toner, and moisturizer. The latter is especially important when traveling from the humid Philippines to any cooler, drier country. I use a completely natural moisturizer that doubles as lip balm as well, which is wonderfully practical.

Don’t let a headache or a cold ruin your trip

I would recommend bringing a small assortment of vitamin C, painkillers, cough drops, cold medicine, or whatever you take when you start getting run down.

Don’t let something silly like a sore throat make you miss out on a fun activity. Be prepared.

Generally speaking, I would recommend resting over filling your body with meds when you’re feeling under the weather but I will make an exception when I’m traveling and I don’t want to miss any once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.

You can always rest up when you’re back home. Things like this shouldn’t take up too much space in your bag and in this case it helps to have them on hand as soon as you need them.

Do get a phrase book

On a final note, I would definitely recommend bringing something to help you learn key phrases in the language of your destination. This might mean throwing a phrasebook in your carry on or simply using your smartphone.

Those are all of my packing tips for now. Anything to add?



International · Travel Tips

Eat Well, Travel Strong

Or: How to Eat and Drink When Traveling to Feel Great and Not Get Sick.

For today’s Travel Tips I’m breaking down diet into seven categories: water, breakfast, lunch, snacks, dinner, alcohol, and last but not least, mindfulness to tie it all together.

1. Water

On the one hand you should drink a lot of it; on the other hand you have to make sure it’s safe and clean.

Salads too can be your best friend or your worst enemy, depending on how the vegetables have been washed and cleaned.

2. Breakfast

Personally, I find that sticking to a fairly consistent breakfast is the best thing for my health. I’ll typically go with some kind of oats, preferably steel-cut or rolled but instant will do if it’s my only option. As always, though, the less processed the better.

Ideally, I’ll have my oats with yogurt since the probiotics are a great way to keep your stomach in good shape. Instead of sugar, I throw in some raisins for sweetness and texture.

Finally, to add protein and make the meal more filling, I like to throw in a tablespoon of peanut butter.

Typically I’ll drink a cup of black coffee with breakfast as well, but whether or not you’re a coffee drinker is of course completely up to you. As great as it is for some of us, it just doesn’t agree with others.

If you don’t have or enjoy eating oatmeal, try something else with fiber, such as whole wheat bread, with an egg or another source of protein and some dark leafies like spinach for an added super charge, if you have access to fresh greens.

3. Lunch

If you’re eating a solid breakfast with fiber, probiotics, and protein, plus drinking lots of pure water, then lunch is your time to be adventurous.

Try something new and exciting, as long as it looks like it’s been reasonably well prepared. Think about how it’s been handled and cleaned if it’s uncooked and if it’s something like meat make sure it’s been cooked properly.

Beyond that, the world is your oyster and it’s full of exotic street food. Get out there and try it!

4. Snacks

Pick up some of your favorite nuts at a supermarket, plus some dried fruit and chocolate if you care for such things, and mix it all up together. Grab some mini zip-lock bags at the store too so you can portion your DIY trail mix and toss one your backpack or purse whenever you go out.

I recommend doing this over buying pre-made trail mix because you control exactly what you put inside, your ingredients list is going to look better, and it will cost you less.

Getting hungry but can’t find a good place to eat? Don’t settle for fast food or processed snack. Have some trail mix to hold you over until you can sit down for a proper meal.

Another option is to buy seasonal fruit wherever you see it. In most tropical countries you can find fruit stands on many a roadside. Go with something that has a peel; it may be harder to eat in some cases, but your stomach will thank you when you don’t get sick.

5. Dinner

Since you’ve been snacking on trail mix, you should never get too hungry and that means you’re less likely to find yourself splurging on a heavy meal at the end of the day.

Instead, opt for a dinner that’s light and try not to eat it right before bed.

Go for a good source of protein–whether that’s animal-based, vegetarian, or vegan is up to you–plenty of vegetables, and enough minimally processed complex carbs such as red, brown, or even black rice, whole wheat bread, or pasta to satisfy your hunger.

If you’re not too hungry or you’re watching your weight, feel free to skip the carbs at dinner. Along those lines, if you must snack before bed, go with something light with protein: cottage cheese on multigrain crackers (easy to pick up at the supermarket) for example.

6. Alcohol

I like being healthy but, come on, I also like to drink. Whether you’re traveling for pleasure or business, there’s a good chance you’ll be having some drinks too. Here are some ways I (usually) keep myself in check and remember my health when drinking.

First, we’re back to water. Ideally, you’d drink a glass of water for every alcoholic beverage consumed, whether that’s a beer, a glass of wine, a shot, or a whiskey on the rocks.

This will make tomorrow’s hangover a lot easier to deal with, by the way, since a big part of that lousy headache is dehydration.

Think of drinking alcohol as the opposite of drinking water: it dehydrates you. Balance yourself out with extra water consumption and you’ll be alright.

Second, try to have at least a few nights where you don’t drink (much) so you can get up early to exercise the next morning.

Give yourself the chance to sweat out any excess alcohol in your blood and feel healthy again. As a bonus, exercising should make you want to eat and drink healthy and make it easier to keep your alcohol consumption in check.

7. Mindfulness

Generally speaking, the best approach to eating well (and drinking responsibly) is mindfulness. This means thinking about where your food comes from and how it’s been prepared or reading the label before grabbing something at the store.

It also means eating slowly, paying attention to the flavors, and savoring each bite of food. When you drink, savor each sip and be mindful of how it is affecting you before it gets ahead of you. This way, it will take fewer calories to satisfy you and less alcohol to enjoy yourself.

Be aware of your hydration levels as well. By the time you start to feel thirsty, your body is already suffering from dehydration. Stay ahead by being mindful of how much water you should be drinking and making sure you have access to clean water throughout the day.

If you can do nothing but go slow and be mindful of what you’re eating and drinking, you’ll be less likely to have digestive problems or feel bloated after meals.

That doesn’t just go for when you’re traveling, by the way: it works great at home too.

International · Travel Tips

Picking up a Language Abroad: Dos and Don’ts

Whether you’re planning a vacation, preparing for a business trip, or possibly relocating to a foreign country, here are my best tips for picking up a new language before your trip and while abroad.

Let’s start with what not to do. Having lived in the Philippines for eight years and speaking shamefully little of the local language, Tagalog (or Filipino), I consider myself somewhat of an expert on this subject.

1. Don’t be shy; own your embarrassment

I am shy and quite stubborn. Let’s be honest, shyness is usually a pride thing and I don’t like to be embarrassed. However, if you want to be successful in learning a new language the first thing you’ll need to do is get very comfortable with making mistakes, getting laughed at, and being embarrassed.

Why not be the first to laugh at yourself? You and everyone around you will have lots of fun and you’ll be learning in the process.

2. Don’t take the easy way out

Here in Manila, everyone and their mother speaks English. When I first moved here I learned how to say please, thank you, how much, and how to direct my tricycle driver to go left, right, or straight ahead.

After that, though, I didn’t actually need anything else and more often than not I took the easy route and communicated almost exclusively in English.

Chances are you will have to use a bit of English when learning to communicate in a new language but don’t let it become a habit. Keep pushing yourself to use any and every word you know, even if you’re mixing it up.

You learned the word apple in French class but don’t know how to say “Do you have?” yet, so ask if they have pommes with any French words in your arsenal, English if you must, and plenty of exaggerated hand movements.

Well, French might not be the best example. Don’t speak French in France unless it’s impeccable; you’ll be fine in Africa, though.

Anyway, you’ll learn by making mistakes and getting feedback, so start making them!

3. Don’t ignore the foundation of the language

If you’re in China, for example, you may be tempted to ignore the daunting plethora of characters and focus solely on learning to speak the language. However, you may regret that choice down the line as you will be missing an important piece of the puzzle when trying to grasp the language.

The same goes for grammar. We all know that sitting through grammar lectures will not teach you how to speak a language on the street. Conversely, picking up words and phrases as you go will not help you understand how they fit together.

4. Do learn these 10 phrases before your trip and start using them as soon as you land

  • Hello
  • Goodbye
  • Please
  • Thank you
  • Sorry
  • Can you help me…?
  • Where is…?
  • How much? (as in how much does this cost)
  • A little but I’m trying to learn (in response to “Do you speak…?”)
  • Can you teach me a new word/phrase?

As a foreigner in the Philippines, I’m always being asked if I speak Tagalog. If I reply, “kaunti lang,” meaning just a little, the Filipino conversation typically ends there and switches back to English. That’s why I’ve been trying to add, “pero sinusubukan kong matuto,” I’m trying to learn.

Saying this in Tagalog and not in English shows that I’m serious about it. Even if I have to use English after that, I’ve at least made it clear that I want as much of the conversation as possible to progress in their language and not mine.

After all, it doesn’t matter how much of a beginner you are; if people keep talking at you in a foreign language you’ll be forced to pick it up eventually.

5. Do learn some expression you won’t find in a phrasebook

–If you know what I mean.

It’s good fun and people are likely to acknowledge your effort to speak like a local and offer to teach you a few more of their favorite phrases.

For example, if you’re in the Manila and something shocking or frustrating happens, try saying: “Susmaryosep!”

In the predominantly Catholic country of the Philippines, this commonly heard exclamation is a contraction of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph and coming from a foreigner it is certain to generate laughs.

6. Do study the building blocks of the language

What you’ll want before throwing yourself into a language is an understanding of its foundation, which we already talked about not ignoring. You might be able to learn this on a useful website or app, from a friend, or with a private tutor depending on how serious you are.

The point I’m reiterating here is: find out what the language is built on and make at least some effort to understand that.

In addition to speaking Dutch as a second language, I learned some French and German in high school and since then have picked up a little Spanish and Portuguese here and there.

Something I regret is not taking the opportunity to learn Latin while in high school, as it seemed pointless at the time to learn a dead language.

However, it is the basis of at least five European languages and a source of vocabulary for many others, English included. Personally, I think a basic knowledge of Latin would have helped me advance my knowledge of a couple other languages I’ve been interested in learning.

That doesn’t mean I’d recommend studying Latin before learning, say, French or Italian. If you’re interested in learning multiple Romance languages, however, it would make sense. Regardless, understanding where a language comes from can be useful.

When learning Korean, as another example, you’ll find literal building blocks within each character. Hangul, the native script of Korea, was actually invented by an ancient King as a simplified and more practical alternative to Chinese characters, which has thousands of unique characters and 214 radicals on which they are based. All Korean characters, on the other hand, can be assembled using the 24 “building blocks” of the Hangul alphabet.

7. Do take the time to learn a little history

A language isn’t just a way of speaking: it reflects the way people think and behave. One of the most interesting ways to learn a new language is through understanding the history and culture that have shaped it.

A few interesting anecdotes on where a word or phrase came from or how it became a part of popular speech make the whole experience of learning a language more fun and engaging. Susmaryosep, am I right?

It might be interesting for someone learning English to know that goodbye is short for “God be with you.” This tells you something about the language’s cultural roots as well, which brings me to my final tip.

8. Do use language to understand the country’s culture

An Aussie will casually cuss at a friendly acquaintance and call their boss “mate”. It is, after all, a casual culture. Australian businessmen here in the Philippines are known to go to the office in shorts and flip-flops.

Many languages have special grammar rules for addressing someone with respect and/or formality, and showing such respect is fairly important in these cultures. English does not have this.

In Tagalog (or Filipino), the word “po” is added onto everything you say to an elder to show your respect for them. Respect for the elderly is, after all, a building block of Filipino culture.

Japanese is full of honorifics and formalities used not only when addressing the elderly but for talking to more or less anyone who isn’t a close friend or family member. Politeness is indeed a building block of Japanese culture.

As you make the effort to embrace these elements of a foreign language, your understanding of the people who speak it will grow and they, in turn, will be more likely to embrace you. Whether on holiday or business and staying for a short time or a long while, immersing yourself in the culture through your use of language is guaranteed to enrich your experience.


Special thanks to the yoli teacher community for their input on this post!

International · Travel Tips

Teaching English Online: Worth it or Not?

The other day we got wifi set up at my current location and it was just in time for an interview with an online English company called DaDa ABC.

All you need to travel the world these days (besides a passport) is online employment and there’s always work in language teaching, especially if you’re a native English speaker. That’s exactly what I’ll be covering today: the best online teaching opportunities!

Over the past few months I’ve been looking into and applying at various online English teaching companies to get an idea of what’s worth it and what’s not and see if I can’t garner a decent income from part-time teaching that will give me time and money to travel and do other things I love, things like writing, sports, music, and art.

In total, I will be covering eight different companies here on a variety of platforms, from online to mobile, with everything from self-managed to fixed-schedule work. I will give my evaluation of each company, along with a brief overview of the application process and time investment.


Here they are, in alphabetical order:


51Talk – depends

Students: Chinese kids

Rates: You should be able to make at least $15 per hour.

Schedule: Their peak hours are from 6-9pm (Beijing time), with additional hours on the weekend.

Pro: They offer fairly good pay and good hours (although DaDaABC has similar hours and better pay).

Con: 51Talk is probably the largest English teaching company in China and as such, they receive a lot of applicants, especially during the summer holidays. For this reason, recruiters are a little tougher on their candidates and even if you’re a good teacher, you won’t get the job without a bachelor’s degree.

Conclusion: I do not have a bachelor’s degree and therefore was not selected by 51Talk. However, better opportunities have come my way and I am happier for it. Never give up!

Apply: if you live in the Philippines, click here.


Antoree – NOT worth it

Students: Vietnamese adults

Rates: too low

Schedule: no fixed schedule; you are expected to arrange your own classes with students

Pros: Everything sounds great when you begin the application process, but as soon as you realize how little you’re going to get paid none of it is worth it anymore.

Cons: you are expected to create your own material and essentially manage your own classes with access to a few poorly organized folders of most unhelpful teaching resources. For the amount of work you would have to do to manage, prepare, and teach classes, the pay Antoree offers is way too low.

Conclusion: Unless you’re really desperate, don’t bother!


Best Teacher – NOT worth it

Students: Japanese adults

Rates: your total monthly payment is calculated based on the number of messages you have replied to and corrected as well as the number of Skype lessons you have conducted

Schedule: no fixed hours for lessons; reply to and edit messages during free time

Pros: Skype lessons can be taught from anywhere; similarly to Antoree, Best Teacher sounds like a great platform for online English teachers; however, as soon as they tell you the rates you’ll wish you hadn’t wasted all that time applying.

Con: In order to apply, you provide some basic information and take a test. The test is quite tricky to pass because it’s so riddled with errors that it’s nearly impossible to figure out which answer they intended to be correct. This, in itself, should be a sure sign that this is not the best company for teachers.

Conclusion: Don’t waste your time!


DaDa ABC – Worth it!

Students: Chinese kids

Rates: start at $13-16 with the potential to earn up to $25 per hour plus bonuses

Schedule: Class hours are 18:00-21:10 every day plus 10:04-12:10 and 14:00-16:06 on Saturday and Sunday; to get a contract you must commit to at least 2 fixed hours for two days a week and you are asked to keep a regular schedule.

Pros: DaDaACB offers competitive rates and an easy-to-use platform with materials; once you set your fixed hours you will still get paid at least half your hourly rate even if you don’t have any scheduled classes.

Cons: Depending on where you are in the world, the time difference may be an issue. This is also a tricky job to keep if you travel a lot, as you must meet Internet speed requirements and your computer must be always be hard-lined. You’ll also need a proper headset and a classroom set up with some posters, props, and teaching aids to keep the kids engaged. Finally, tardiness and absence will result in deductions to your salary; if you’re late or request leave more than twice a month–for any reason–penalties will apply.

Conclusion: if you meet the requirements and can commit to the schedule, DaDa is a great platform on which to build your teaching career. After your first six months, they will help you get a TESOL certificate and if you continue working with them for a least another year they won’t charge you for it.

Apply: To get more information or apply right away, click here.


iTutor (or TutorABC) – NOT worth it

Students: Taiwanese and Chinese, all ages (kids and adults)

Rates: regular 45-minutes classes have a fixed rate of $6, with an additional dollar or two per positive rating from each student. Classes can have between one and six students. However, many don’t rate the lesson. I was told I could expect up to $18-23 per hour, but because only one or two students attended per class and less than half of them rated the lesson, I ended up averaging only $6-7.

Schedule: You can select any hours you are available to teach on a weekly or even daily basis; you’re typically guaranteed to get classes scheduled during peak hours in the morning, evening, and on weekends (Beijing time).

Pros: You can easily fill up your schedule if you’re willing to work peak hours. You can set your schedule day by day and you don’t have to commit to any fixed hours.

Cons: Unfortunately, the pay is frustratingly low. It also takes a bit of time to get set up on the platform. For starters, you have to schedule a 2-hour training session that is unpaid. Additionally, this is not a great option for travelers as you are required to be hard-lined and wear a headset and dress shirt in front of a clean white background for every class. Finally, their platform is not great and there is always an audio lag which slows down the class.

Conclusion: Perhaps, if you were willing to stick it out with iTutor and put in the hours of low-paying classes and unpaid training, you might eventually qualify for higher-paying classes. After a month or two of teaching here and there, however, I decided it was not worth my time anymore. Did I mention that if you earn less than $500 a month they deduct a $35 banking fee from your payment? That’s basically five hours of work!


The Online Teacher – Worth it!

Students: from multiple companies; all ages and nationalities
Rates: They will work with you; for example, if you’re willing to work for $15-25 per hour, they will only offer contracts with hourly rates in that range.
Schedule: You will set your hours and they will commit to filling your schedule over time.

Pros: The Online Teacher promises to fill your schedule

Cons: You may need to be patient. You will also be charged a one-time fee of $25 per offer, which you will be expected to pay upon successfully receiving an offer. In my case, I got my first offer but I ended up not getting the job and I still had to pay this fee. However, since I didn’t get the first job I was not charged for my second offer.

Conclusion: The Online Teacher is a service to help teachers get a full schedule and stable income from online English teaching. Once you set up a profile, they will connect you will companies that are looking for teachers. All you have to do is select the hours you would like to work and wait for offers from companies interested in you as a teacher. You will have to be patient though. It took nearly two months for me to get my second offer, but it was worth it!

Apply: Send me a message and I will refer you!


Tandem – depends

Students: all nationalities; ages 16 and above

Rates: set your own

Schedule: set available times for students to book

Pros: Tandem is an app, so all you need to teach is your smartphone. If you’re already into language exchange, this may be a good opportunity to earn a little here and there.

Cons: Most people join Tandem for free language exchange and not many are willing to pay for classes, so you’re not likely to get too many classes.

Conclusion: I became a tutor on Tandem, set some available times, and chose to give a few free demo classes. However, none of the potential students who booked trial classes ended up enrolling in lessons. Again, most of them were using the platform for free language exchange and simply took advantage of the free trial option. For now, I have stopped using Tandem as I already have a schedule to manage with a few other companies that are more worthwhile.

Apply: download the app, sign up, and apply to be a tutor.

Verbling – Worth it!

Students: all nationalities; ages 14 and above

Rates: set your own; teacher rates range from $5-50 per hour, with an average of $17

Schedule: set your own hours and wait for students to book classes

Pros: It’s very easy to get set up on Vebling. You can set your own rates and schedule, create your own lessons, manage your own students, and be your own boss.Cons: 15% cut; filling up your schedule is tough; many prospective students and messages and some book free trials, but a much smaller percentage invest in purchasing regular classes. For example, I currently have 17 students but only one has purchased regular classes. At least five booked a trial class but never showed up.

Cons: 15% cut; filling up your schedule is tough; many prospective students and messages and some book free trials, but a much smaller percentage invest in purchasing regular classes. For example, I currently have 17 students but only one has purchased regular classes. At least five booked a trial class but never showed up.Conclusion: You will get a lot of messages, including spam and invitations from recruiters for other teaching companies. In fact, I got invited to The Online Teacher (see below) through Verbling. If nothing else, Verbling is a great place to set up your teaching profile and introduce yourself to the language-learning world. Of all the platforms I have tried, it is the easiest and most straightforward to set up and use.

Conclusion: You will get a lot of messages, including spam and invitations from recruiters for other teaching companies. In fact, I got invited to The Online Teacher (see below) through Verbling. If nothing else, Verbling is a great place to set up your teaching profile and introduce yourself to the language-learning world. Of all the platforms I have tried, it is the easiest and most straightforward to set up and use. Additionally, you can market yourself by creating and selling packages or five or ten lessons, you can post articles on their blog, and there are some other ways to attract students to book lessons with you.

Apply: right here.


YoliChat – Worth it!

Students: Chinese adults

Rates: 27 RMB for a 15-minute class; 54 RMB for a 25-minute class

Schedule: none; classes pop up at random, often in the morning and evening (Beijing time)

Pros: You can teach the 15 or 25-minute classes from anywhere by sending audio and text messages back and forth. All you need is a smartphone with wifi or mobile data. Furthermore, when you become a Yoli teacher you are invited into a wonderful community of teachers, travelers, and all sorts of interesting people who will become your support group!

Cons: You won’t typically get more than a few classes a day so don’t count on Yoli for a full or even part-time income. You’ll also have to grab classes on the spot before someone else gets them.

Conclusion: Although you have to go through quite a process to apply at Yoli, I would actually consider that a pro. They do a great job preparing you to teach and if you’re interested in improving your overall skills as a language teacher you will be sure to learn a thing or two from their method. Moreover, the recruiters and support staff are friendly and helpful.

Apply: Sign up here and give them my name–Florence Alcasas.


Requirements to teach differ from company to company, but if you are good at teaching and you have at least some experience of note, and you’re a native speaker you stand a good chance. It helps if you have a college degree; in some cases a Bachelor’s degree but often an Associate’s will do.

You don’t necessarily need to have a TESOL (Teaching English as a Second Language) certificate; in fact, some of the companies listed below will help you get one once you start working for them. On the other hand, if you’re not a native speaker, you can get still get great offers with a degree in teaching and a TESOL certificate.

On a final note, you don’t only have to teach English! On some platforms, such as Verbling and Tandem, you can teach any language and on Yolichat you can also teach Mandarin.

Go ahead and send me a message if you want more information on any of these teaching opportunities and I will gladly help you out.