Studies Find You Make Better Decisions When You Think About Them in a Foreign Language

I love studying foreign languages. I regularly watch movies in Spanish and play language-learning games on my phone. But I also know that as an American, I’m fairly alone in my obsession with Spanish verb conjugations and German language idioms.

Because while the percentage of bilingual US residents has doubled over the last thirty years according to the Census Bureau, the overall number of bilingual Americans remains comparatively low. 82% of people who live in the US are monolingual. In Europe, by contrast, 50% of people 15 or older are conversational in at least one other language.

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I wish the US would hurry up and jump on the foreign language bandwagon, because according to a new study published in the Journal Psychological Science, people make better decisions when thinking in a second language. Although I’ve read and written about the benefits of learning a foreign language before, I still found the study’s results somewhat surprising. You would think people would be able to make equally rational decisions no matter which language they were thinking in, but according to a series of experiments conducted at the University of Chicago, that isn’t the case. The results of the experiments found that people were able to make better decisions when they were thinking in a language other than their mother tongue. Researchers concluded that this was because thinking in your non-native language takes more effort, which causes people to approach the decision-making process in a more analytical and less emotional fashion than they might normally.

You can read more about the study here.

Pretty fascinating stuff, no?

How Not to Be Afraid to Travel

A friend recently told me that she admired me because she thought I was brave to have traveled and moved abroad on my own. And while that’s a very nice thing for to have said, it’s not true. I’m not brave. Well, at least not in the ways she and others may think.

John Wayne once said, “Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.” Similarly,  Eddie Rickenbacker proclaimed, “There can be no courage unless you’re scared.” By those definitions,  I’m not brave to have traveled the world because traveling doesn’t scare me.

I have my childhood to thank for this. I was lucky to have had parents who also enjoyed traveling,  so it was something we did a lot growing up. My parents also placed a lot of emphasis on self-reliance and independence; having my brother and I navigate our home city of Honolulu by ourselves from a young age and sending us to stay with relatives in California and summer camps in Canada. I was taking the city bus by myself by 11 and the first time I flew on a plane solo I was six or seven. It was never something I knew to be afraid of because it was just always a part of my life.

But because I get a decent amount of “I’m afraid to travel. What should I do?” emails and because fear is something I have a lot of experience with (although I’m not afraid to travel abroad, I AM afraid of flying) I thought I’d compile  a list of things you can do if you want to travel but can’t seem to get over the fears that are standing in your way.

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Guess what? I’m terrified of flying. These photos were taken during a flight I took on a tiny plane in Northern California.

See fear for what it is: a chemical reaction in the brain

When you’re afraid, the emotion can feel all encompassing; like it’s hijacked your whole body, your every thought. But if you can remove your intellectual reaction to the fear and focus purely on your body’s physical response, you may find fear isn’t more than an uncomfortable sensation. Think about it. What does the fear experience involve, physically? A tightness in your stomach or chest, an increase in heart rate, a shot of adrenaline that makes you hyper aware and self-conscious…while those aren’t pleasant sensations, they’re certainly tolerable. I find it helps to think of fear as a chemical reaction; your brain’s way of ensuring you’re alert and prepared for battle. Nothing more. If your brain is (wrongly) choosing to react towards travel by pumping fear-causing chemicals like adrenaline or the stress hormone Cortisol through your blood stream, well, so what? Your brain made a mistake, it doesn’t mean you have to make it worse by giving that fear all of your attention and mental energy. Tell your brain to cut that shit out.

Instead of thinking “I’m afraid”, think “I’m excited”

The fear emotion and the excitement or anticipation emotion are very similar. The biggest difference between the two is the labels we attach to each (fear = bad, excitement = good). When I’m feeling nervous about something – say, flying – I find it helps to reframe my perception of those feelings. Every time I catch myself thinking ‘I’m scared’, I stop and rephrase that thought in my head to ‘I’m excited’. I choose to interpret those butterflies in my stomach as excitement for my trip ahead rather than fear of what might happen during the journey there.

Arm yourself with research

We’ve all the heard this statistic: The odds of dying in a plane crash are a million to one. But it’s true. The likelihood of dying in a plane crash is 1 in 1.7 million to 1 in 29.4 million. While knowing this statistic likely won’t help, arming yourself with information about airplanes and flying, may.  When I was trying to get over my fear of flying, I took a ride an a flight simulator (the same ones pilots use) and went for a flying lesson with my friend (he’s a pilot). I had a lot of questions about the flying process that I realized were contributing to my fear. Questions like: What is turbulence? Is it ever dangerous? Why does the wing move up and down sometimes when we’re flying? Why does the plane swing back and forth slightly during takeoff? By asking questions, doing the research and learning about the flying process, I armed myself with the information I needed to overcome my fear. Sure, I’m still a nervous flier. But I’m a lot better about it than I used to be.

If you’re afraid to travel, you’ll first need to identify what about the process is scaring you most. Are you worried the country your visiting is dangerous? Research it. Are you afraid you won’t understand what people are saying to you? Study the language. You’ll still be afraid but it’ll be an informed afraid, which won’t feel nearly as bad.

Don’t think about it, just do it

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When I went white-water kayaking in Nepal, I spent five days paddling down a rocky, rapid-filled river. Towards the end of our trip, myself and my fellow novice kayakers were told we’d be facing the hardest task yet: Kayaking down a small waterfall.I was terrified. So terrified, in fact, I didn’t sleep at all the night beforehand. I was visibly shaking. And as we neared the falls and I could hear the booming water cascading ahead, I asked one of my kayaking friends: “How are you not afraid?” He was smiling and he looked elated. Totally pumped to be hurtling through level four rapids and then off a watery cliff. I couldn’t understand it.

“You have to turn off the fear.” He said.

“Huh?” I asked through chattering teeth.

“It’s like this switch in your brain…You have to turn it off. Turn off your thoughts. Don’t think about it, just do it.”

Though that seemed like a ridiculous idea (turning off your thoughts?! Who does that?) in retrospect, that would explain a lot. My friend was a daredevil – an extreme surfer,  a cliff jumper and a sky diver. If anyone had mastered the ability to turn off fear, it was probably him.

I wasn’t so lucky. Though I survived that kayaking trip unscathed, I was terrified the entire time. I nearly threw up from stress when it was all over. But I have taken his advice in the years since and have tried – to varying degrees of success – to remain in the physical moment and ignore my thoughts when I’m in a nerve-wracking situation. If I’m boarding an airplane, for example, I focus on each step of the process: finding my seat, storing my stuff, buckling my seat belt, etc. I don’t allow my thoughts to spiral into fearful thinking. I don’t let my brain entertain the “what ifs” circling my imagination. Or at least I try not to. I’m not always successful. But somehow even just the act of trying to turn off my fear can help to lessen it.

Despite titling this post “How not to be afraid to travel”, none of the content in this actually addresses how to to do that. That was intentional. I think the point isn’t to learn how to travel without fear, but rather to learn how to travel despite the fear. Or perhaps, because of it. As author and poet C. JoyBell C once wrote: “Don’t be afraid of your fears. They’re not there to scare you. They’re there to let you know that something is worth it.”

Into the Wild: Photos from My Hike at Zion National Park

Virgin River and mountains at Zion

The river was lower than normal (it’s winter) but that didn’t stop the deer from making this river their playground. I saw a dozens of them hanging out here.

I was supposed to go to New Orleans last weekend but my trip was canceled at the last minute, so I decided to go to Zion National Park in Southern Utah instead. I went by myself, which proved to be a rather emotional and lonely experience (more about that later) but the park itself was gorgeous. I highly recommend going there. I stayed the night in a motel and spent two days hiking and wandering through the park. Here’s a photo recap of my stay.

I woke up at 5:30 on Saturday morning with the plan to leave Las Vegas for Zion at 6:30am. I was on the road by 8:30am (Ha ha.).

church and village of Springdale Utah

Springdale, Utah is the closest town to the park. It’s literally right next to it. You can walk into the park from the town’s center.

Because this trip was so last minute Because I’m lazy, I hadn’t booked a hotel, so I wasted my first couple of hours there trying to find a cheap hotel room.

In honor of President’s Day weekend, the park had waived the entrance fee, which naturally meant there were tons of people in town.

By the time I had checked in and made it into the park, it was getting dark. I went hiking anyway though. It was spooky.

Tiny swamp at Zion

Zion may be located in the desert, but it’s actually home to little baby swamps like this one.

Virgin river at Zion

There’s a river that runs through the park. Being winter and all, the water was really cold. But there were people wading in it. They must have been from Canada…

The next morning, I woke up early early-ish and drove up the mountain.

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20 minutes and a large cup of coffee later, nature called.

I pulled over to the side of the road in search of a bush I could use as a potty. Because I was paranoid of running into hikers or park rangers, I wound up walking really far away from the highway. Afterwards, I hiked around these cool checkered mountains.

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I was feelin’ pretty adventurous, so I took a selfie in an attempt to capture the moment.

I was going for “mysterious adventurer” but I think I just wound up just looking ridiculous. Oh well.

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Next, I hiked a mile along The Overlook Trail.

The path takes you through a cave, across a rickety wooden “bridge” and along the edge of a cliff. I was patting myself on the back for being a daredevil until I saw some two-year-olds on the trail. Hmpf.

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It was really windy at the lookout point.

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Really, REALLY windy.

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Also, my cell phone camera sucks. The view was stunningly beautiful. I guess you’ll just have to trust me about that. Or google it. This was the best I could do:

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I was feeling great after my successful summit to the lookout, so I decided to take on a trail called “Angels Landing”.

The sign said it was only 2.5 miles. I thought: “How hard can it be?”

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Turns out, the hike was pretty intense! See that winding trail? I hiked up that. This photo was taken at the half way point.

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You can’t tell, but that’s a cliff.

Would you think I was cool if I told you I stood right at the edge and looked down? No? Okay, great. Cause I was too chicken.

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Here’s a photo of the view from near the top.

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And there you have it. I survived the hike. I did not fall off a cliff. I did not plummet into a canyon and have to cut off my arm. The scariest animal I saw all weekend was a crow. As far as adventures into the wild go, this one was pretty tame. But I’ll get another chance in a few months when I go back for a camping trip. Stay tuned for Round 2!

Tips if you’re planning on going to Zion:

* Zion is only 2 1/2 hours away from Las Vegas, so it is possible to go just for the day. But I wouldn’t do that if I were you! Lodging isn’t too expensive (my hotel room was just 50 dollars), plus there’s a lot to see. It makes more sense to go for at least two days if you have the time.

* There’s a $25.00 charge per vehicle to enter the park

* Even if you don’t like  hiking, you should still go! You can drive through the park if you’re feeling lazy and there are a lot of easy, flat trails you can try.

Las Vegas’s Oldest Bar is 101 Years Old and Sort of Awesome

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The Pioneer Saloon in Goodsprings, NV, January 2014

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Here’s what it looked like 100 years ago.

Here’s a fun fact: The oldest bar in Southern Nevada is 101 years old and located just 30 minutes outside of Las Vegas, in the town of Goodsprings, NV.

A friend and I went there last Sunday and wandered around the dilapidated old ghost town and then hung out with the bikers and cowboys in the saloon.

The Pioneer Saloon is sort of awesome for a few reasons:

  • The drinks are served in mason jars and red solo cups
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My beer and my friend’s whiskey, served in a mason jar.

  • It’s supposedly haunted. A man was murdered at the saloon and there are still bullet holes in the walls to prove it.
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Those are real bullet holes in the wall!

  • It’s got some interesting history! Gone with the Wind  actor Clark Gable spent three days there while he waited to learn what had happened to his wife, Carole Lombard. She had died in a plane crash. There’s a room in the bar dedicated to the couple.

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  • It’s got a general store next door that sells food and souvenirs

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  • The saloon is located in an old ghost town
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The road in front of the saloon

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  • But the coolest part, obviously, was this:

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Can you guess what this is used for?  Hint: It involves a live chicken…

Six Things I’ve Learned from Six Years of Travel Blogging

When I first created this travel blog back in 2008, I read a lot of articles on how to start and successfully run a travel blog.

In typical Reannon fashion, however, I didn’t follow any of the advice I read and just did what I wanted to do; to hell with everyone’s blogging tips. I was going to do things my way.

As it turned out, my way didn’t work that well. I ended up with a long and clunky URL, a blog name no one could remember and dozens of posts whose only readers consisted of my parents and a few lost Google users who found my blog after searching “Can Sandra Bullock speak Spanish?” (the answer to that, in case you were wondering, is “no”, but she can speak German).

Most of the blogging lessons I’m sharing with you now have been learned the hard way; through good ol’ fashioned trial and error. My hope, fellow travel bloggers, is that you’ll avoid future heartache and learn from my mistakes. But then again, if you’re anything like me, you probably won’t. Oh. Well. Here’s my advice anyway.

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1. A good travel blog has PERSONALITY!

Your personality is what will set your blog apart from other forms of travel guides (like guide books or magazine articles). It’s also what will keep readers coming back. Because a reader may find your blog while searching for information about a particular place, say The Great Wall of China,  but they’ll immediately bounce off your site and never return unless you give them a reason to think “Hey, this chica is pretty gosh darn neat-o.”

Here’s an example:

This post about the Kelso Sand Dunes could have been dull if it’d just been a dry review of the the Mojave National Preserve and the things you can expect to see while there. But by talking about my experience sand sledding, and by jokingly referring to the way I nearly died while climbing to the top of the dunes, I personalized the post in a way guide books and Travel and Leisure magazine articles typically don’t.

How do you do this?
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You are the star of your travel blog! If you’re uncomfortable putting yourself in the spotlight, then maybe you should start a tech blog instead. And yes, that is monkey poop in the snow next to me.

* Cast yourself as the star of each post!

Travel blogging is not for people who shy away from the spotlight. While no one wants to read every mundane detail of your trip, people want to see a destination through a real person’s eyes; it’s what makes review sites like Trip Advisor and Yelp so popular. People want personalized reviews from insiders they can trust. To Hell with objectivity! Leave that to the newspapers.

* Learn to love the selfie

It took me a long time to warm up to the idea of posting photos of myself in my blog. The practice smacked of bragging and self promotion and I worried people would think I was a self-obsessed brat. I’d see other travel bloggers doing it (to varying levels of success) and I’d think:

I’m not pretty enough to be posting photos of myself.

OR

I’m too old. Isn’t that something that only 21-year-olds do?

OR

People aren’t going to take me seriously if I do. Because, like, I’m a way serious writer.

But then I realized that while it is certainly possible to go overboard, a well placed selfie here or there can actually add value to a post. It personalizes the content and draws the reader into your writing in a way that a photo of pretty scenery can’t.

2.  Don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself!

People love to share in one another’s misery. The posts I’ve written which have gotten the most traffic and social media shares have been ones that I was once almost too embarrassed to publish.

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Like this humiliating post about how I accidentally ended up naked in a mixed-gender hot spring in Japan, for example.

Or this post about the time I misread a sign in Japanese and set off the fire alarm while in the bathtub during a house-sitting stint in Tokyo.

Or this cringe-worthy post about how I almost peed on a public bus in Guatemala.

It took me several years to get to the point where I was comfortable posting about my less-than-stellar moments. I used to worry future employers would find these posts and choose not to hire me because I appeared to be incompetent – or worse, a total weirdo. But posts like these go a long way towards humanizing you as a travel blogger. No one wants to read dozens of posts about how “great” and “awesome” all your travels were. The popularity of the blog “We’re lost and everything is dirty” is proof of that. People love juicy drama – and the more humiliating, the better.

3. Capitalize on your strengths

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Decide early on what sort of writer you are and play to that strength.  Do you enjoy writing long and beautiful descriptive prose or do you prefer writing in a style that’s direct and to the point? Or perhaps writing isn’t your strong suit at all. Perhaps you’re a visual artist; in which case your travel blog should feature mostly photos and videos.

Many bloggers start off trying to imitate the successful bloggers that have come before them. And while that’s great, this method often falls flat. Like Judy Garland once said, “Always be a first rate version of yourself and not a second rate version of someone else.”

The sooner you discover who you are as a blogger, the sooner your blog will be a success. People love authenticity. And they love passion. And your blog can only have those two things if you’re able to be yourself.

Not sure which type of writer you are? Read this: Personality Types and Blogging: How Personality May Affect Your Writing.

4. Don’t be afraid to change your niche

This blog has seen several incarnations since I started it back in 2008. It began as a blog about life in Japan but then changed after I moved to California, Guatemala and later, Las Vegas. But that’s life, right?  People change and evolve and so it makes sense that their blogs will change and evolve with them. Even the famous blogger Nomadic Matt, who swore he’d be a nomad for life, has settled down as a permanent resident of New York.

For a long time, I worried that these changes would result in my readers leaving me. And as it turned out, I was right to worry because they did! Most of the people who read my blog now aren’t the same people who read my blog when I lived in Japan or Guatemala. But you know what? That’s okay. Because new readers have since swooped in to replace them.

5. Social media and SEO are a necessary evil

Self-promoting sucks…But you need to do it anyway

I’m in introvert. I detest small talk and I hate schmoozing, especially with people I’ve never met. So when I first started blogging, I took the “If I write it, they will come” approach and mostly avoided social networking.

Yeah, I don’t recommend doing that.

Because travel blogging is such a saturated blogging niche, the only way your blog will stand a chance of competing with the 973847293872 other travel blogs out there is by networking. And networking a lot. I was lucky in that early in the blogging game, a popular Japan blogger publicly endorsed my site, sending thousands of her loyal followers my way. But she never would have endorsed me had I not regularly commented on her blog and interacted with her on social media.

Don’t think your blog is too good for SEO. Cause it ain’t

I used to hate the phrase “search engine optimization”. I was an artist! A creative soul! Getting bogged down in the mechanics of internet marketing and keyword research would just stifle my creativity, and I wasn’t gonna have anything to do with it.

It wasn’t until I started working for an internet marketing company, however, that I began to see how stubbornly naive I was being. If you want your travel blog to become successful (I.e, read by people other than your parents) you’re going to have to spend some time getting to know how the internet works. This means investing in a self-hosted site, crafting content that targets search traffic, and installing WP plug-ins that will help you optimize your site so that people will actually be able to find it. If that all sounds boring, well, it is. But it’s completely necessary, too.

6. Don’t compare yourself to other travel bloggers

I used to feel discouraged when I’d visit a new blog and see that it had 10,000 Facebook followers, especially if that blog was less than a year old. What am I doing wrong?! I’d wonder.

But then I realized I was only seeing a small part of the story. Sure, that blog may have been less than a year old, but maybe there were three or four failed blog attempts before that. Maybe that blogger had been writing – and amassing a loyal fan base – for over 10 years and that travel blog was just his/her’s latest undertaking. Or maybe he or she had outside help in the form of paid advertising or an SEO company. Maybe the only reason that blog had 10,000 likes was because those likes had been purchased.

The point is, most successful blogs aren’t born overnight. Travel blogging is a learned skill that takes practice. Lots and lots of practice. So keep your chin up! And don’t give up.

What travel blogging tips have you accumulated over the years?