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Recap of the US Phase

July 26th, 2012 No comments

Today we fly to Cancun.  With its reputation as a party outpost for the states1 it may not be the most exotic remote locale, but this step officially commences the international potion of our 16-month walkabout.  At this point it seems appropriate to reflect on the experience and lessons learned of the last three months spent as domestic vagabonds.

As an aside I’d like to point out that there’s something great about being on the cusp of leaving the country for a while: it can serve as a delightfully irrefutable reason to politely decline any manner of sales pitch.  While at the Safeway the other day I was asked by the cashier if I’ve enrolled yet to their “Deals 4U” program (or whatever it’s called).  I said no & no thanks: “Yeah, I’m leaving the country next Thursday, for… a while.  So I’m going to pass.”  This is great because not only does it curtail any push back, but it also opens up more lively and interesting dialogue between you and someone who is suddenly, magically, less of a company agent and more of a real person.  Fun (even if fleeting) conversation ensues, and it’s enjoyable enough that I’m tempted to use that line with customer service people again when I get back2.

Here’s the breakdown of how we spent our nights, accommodations-wise, since undergoing voluntary homelessness:

  • 11 nights of camping (1 + 1 + 2 + 2 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 2)
  • 37 nights of longer-stint stays in places to ourselves (8 + 4 + 4 + 7 + 14)
  • 9 nights crashing with family in Denver
  • 6 nights crashing with family around Milwaukee & Chicago
  • 4 nights crashing with friends
  • 4 nights in hotels
  • 7 nights as camp counselors
  • 4 nights of short stints at hosted AirBNB places (2 + 2)
  • 8 nights in quasi-vacation mode for the weddings (2 + 6)

The cost of our nightly accommodations has been, on average, $40.68.  Take out the pricy week in Cape Cod and it goes down to $27.60 per night.

This summer “home” has indeed been a rather vague and ephemeral concept, and fortunately that’s been a-okay with us3.  I’ve come up with an alternate construct for the concept: home for me is pretty much wherever Tracy is.  Plainly, Tracy is my home.  Is that a cute and sappy sentiment?  You betcha.  But it’s true, and in practice a quite fitting designation.

The time has largely served as a microcosm of how the rest of world tour will go: a comprehensive survey of the various lifestyles and living arrangements we’re liable to experience overseas4.  This summer has taught us that we’re way more happy to be in domestic mode than in travel mode.  For example, our days spent settled in Aurora were, on average, more enjoyable per day than touristing around in Boston5.

Domestic mode is great because it’s a break from the regular need to sort out where you’re going to stay next, you get to have a sense of familiarity with your surroundings (and with it a pleasantly orienting sensation of home), and there’s way less reliance on eating out when you’ve got unfettered access to a kitchen.  It’s also generally much cheaper per night, when you stay a while.

This suggests the question: if we like being settled into a quasi-normal living arrangement so much, why travel at all?

Fortunately the answer to that is clear: getting settled in to a living space and exploring our new surroundings is really enjoyable.  It’s fun to make that initial trip to the grocery store to newly set up your pantry and deliberately choose what you’ll be cooking and eating the next few days or weeks.  It’s fun to have novelty cause you to pay attention to (and thus appreciate more) the niceties and nuances of where you’re staying.  It’s fun to discover the features, establishments and choice walking routes of a new neighborhood.  Throw in how the whole experience bumps you out of established routines (thus freeing you to make up new ones), and you’ve got a really nice set of reasons for traveling slow and savoring the domestic aspects.  Even a short 4-day stint like ours in Granby revealed all of these positive qualities.

So we’re in a really nice position: we’re going to have a lot of opportunities to settle in to weeks-long living arrangements, and they’ll be bases of exploration in locales way more exciting than a suburb of Denver.  As I write this, our plane will land in Cancun in about 2 hours.  International World Tour begins!

Notes:

  1. To wit, many of the plane passengers “Woooo!”ed when the flight attendant said festively “Let’s go to Cancun!” just before takeoff.  Kinda like being on a party bus, really.
  2. I probably won’t since I’m a terrible liar.  Good thing I enjoyed declaring my imminent departure from the country with a completely straight face while I could.  If you’re a good liar and can cook up answers to the predictable questions that follow, you might give it a try.
  3. Any semblance of homesickness has yet to come up–not bad for nearly three months without a regular bed, and my heartfelt thanks to the many friends and family who allowed us to feel at home while saying at theirs.
  4. Minus of course the camping: amid the roughly 28lbs per person of worldly possessions that we are shlepping, you’ll find nary a tent nor sleeping bag nor other such gear.
  5. This saying a lot, because as cities go Boston is way cooler than Aurora.
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Understanding World Tour Finances

July 16th, 2012 No comments

The other night a friend was describing to me how when he describes what Tracy and I are doing to his friends, they invariably ask “How?”, usually within the first 30 seconds.

As in: how do we manage to take (what appears from the outside to be) a year+ long vacation when there bills to be paid, jobs to be worked, mortgages to be kept up with, and any other manner of life’s responsibilities1 that need to be regularly tended to during a typical sixteen months of American adulthood?

A reasonable question indeed.  Tracy and I get it regularly too, though to our faces I think people are a little more reserved and roundabout with what is, in essence, an inquiry into our personal finances.

I’m happy to share, and in the process hopefully demystify the whole thing.  Perhaps I can even convince a few that this sort of adventure is more widely attainable than it looks by making it clear that neither lucky lotto numbers nor trustafarian status are requisites.  More over, I’d love to remove at least some of the illusion that we’re “lucky” to be able to do this, and convey that this “privilege” is mostly the result of conscious choices guided by a clear intention (and, incidentally, not a whole lot of self-sacrifice)2.

There are a couple of pillars which collectively comprise the answer to “how”: a year’s worth of regular savings, elimination of carrying costs in the US, being able to work remotely, and traveling slow.

For Tracy and I a year’s worth of modest savings was relatively simple and painless: Tracy made a practice of squirreling away $200 each week into our travel fund.  We live regularly pretty well within our means, so this wasn’t hard to do.  Since we had conceived of World Tour nearly a year before it began we had a lot of weeks to rack up savings, leaving us with about $10K built up by go time.

The elimination of carrying costs in the US is probably the greatest hack that makes it all work.  I think the reason vacations feel so very expensive is that, while you’re enjoying the fruits of your plane ticket purchase and accommodations spending, you’re ALSO still paying rent, utilities, insurance, cell phone plans, and other manner of things back home which have little-to-no bearing on your vacated self.  Drop those expenses and then suddenly “vacation” (and other things that resemble it, ahem) come down massively in average daily cost.  Doing so is feasible and practical when you’ll be away for a good long while–this is an instance in which “go big or go home” is quite fitting, literally and otherwise.

A side note about eliminating carrying costs: mortgages.  If we had one, that would probably kill this step and take world tour down with it.  God I love that we don’t have a mortgage3.  No sir, in our case the end of our apartment lease marked the beginning of our adventure; no fuss, no muss.

Being able to work remotely takes the edge off the need to save.  With it, there exists the opportunity to lace out our savings, possibly indefinitely.  Here is one instance in which I grant I am blessed with a bit of luck to make a world tour happen: though they are becoming more common and will likely continue to do so, not every job can be performed with just a laptop and wi-fi connection.  Being self-employed helps too: my boss has no problem with my remote working arrangement.  Were I not self employed and without option to work remotely, it would have taken a willingness to leave a job, at least temporarily4.

Traveling slow is the last major piece of the puzzle: for many countries the cost of getting there WAY outweighs the cost of staying there.  By corollary, if we slow down and stay a while in some fun and interesting part of the world, our overall cost per day goes down relative to the pricy cost of transportation.  To wit, the accommodations for our stay in Guatemala cost $800 for the month, wi-fi and utilities included.  Contrast this with about $1100 that it would cost for round trip flights for two, and you get the picture.  (Our upcoming residence for that month in November is rather dope, by the by.)

This practice of traveling slow and settling in to the countries we visit will have the pleasant side effect of causing us to go deep into our experience of a given locale and culture, rather than quickly skim the surface and remain trapped in one tourist bubble after another.  To become a regular at some coffee shop, to cook in our kitchen with local foods bought in the market5, to discover the great little establishments beyond what is recommended in the pages of Lonely Planet.  These and more are the treats generally reserved for those with enough time to settle in.

Those are the four big aspects of World Tour’s affordability.

There are a lot of other little things that are part of the picture but don’t quite fall under those four umbrella concepts.  Here are the nuggets worth mentioning:

  1. We don’t have debt of any kind.  Again, living within our means has afforded a lot of perks.
  2. We don’t have kids yet.  Obviously that’s a huge leg up.  (For tips on how to travel the world with kids in a savvy and affordable way, check back in about thirteen years.)
  3. For the last 18 months we’ve been using a United Mileage Plus credit card for our normal expenses, and with miles accrued have redeemed about $2500 worth of flights6.  I don’t know if United’s card is the best possible one for travel miles, but that sort of rewards card is a very good fit for people traveling a lot with serious flexibility.
  4. Having people in town to store what possessions you do keep saves on the $50-$80/month storage fee.  Tracy’s parents were a boon on this one, though when I went to Argentina I had little problem striking a deal with a buddy who had a basement7.
  5. Together we possess one car and zero car payments.  This is a fine simplification, and working out a non-commercial arrangement to garage that saves around $200/month (thanks again to Tracy’s parents).
  6. Consistent with leaving our car behind, we’ve accordingly minimized our car insurance.
  7. For health insurance we’re using World Nomads, coverage at about $100/month for the both of us.  We’ll keep our plans here in tact so that we don’t risk getting screwed by a lapse in coverage, but with a way-high deductible.
  8. Our love of and savvy with cooking for ourselves is going to save us a ton relative to eating out 3 meals a day (which, travel experience shows us, gets super old quick) .
  9. VRBO and AirBNB are excellent venues to find fully furnished long term accommodations overseas.  Properties tend to give very steep discounts for longer stays (e.g. the aforementioned place in Guatemala: $120/night, $800/month), and there are even more and better deals to be found off of the well-tread path of these American-friendly listing sites.
  10. Though we haven’t landed a gig yet, house sitting opportunities listed in places like the Caretaker Gazette make it possible to live rent free for weeks if not months, provided you’re reliable for watering plants or caring for pets.  According to one woman in Panama, we represent very well on paper as candidates and would have made a great fit for her fab gig had it not already been filled a month prior8.

Our rule-of-thumb daily budget is $100/day.  For some countries we’ll be well under that.  I’ll need to do some work abroad to make our savings last, but it’s heartwarming to think that, even if I couldn’t, our setup would afford us over 3 months of slow travel.

So there you have it: that is how we’re affording a year long World Tour.  It is, I think, surprisingly affordable.  Even without the benefit of years of savings, a baller salary, or some chance windfall.

Notes:

  1. Or, “shackles”, if you will.
  2. Why do I care?  Well, if it’s luck, then this sort of adventure is just for Tracy, myself, and other such “lucky” people.  If it’s a matter of conscious choices and deliberate lifestyle design, however, then there is room for many more to play in this fashion.  The latter is a recipe for a much more interesting world.
  3. Seeing as how most people and couples that we know of with mortgages seem to feel “meh” or worse about having one, plus the fact that statistically, on average, folks are only in them for 7 years (meaning folks pay mostly interest and build very little equity), mortgages seem like such a terrible idea and I can’t wait til our generation is collectively over the con that is “buying” a home that you cannot afford.
  4. I did this when I did a month-long tour of Europe back in ’04: my employers then were willing to let me take a month-long unpaid sabbatical.  It was a situation in which, while I would be missed, if I was going to go I would be welcomed back when I returned.  May it come as good news to people with a more conventional job that that sort of rapport can be cultivated more readily than full-blown self employment.
  5. Especially in countries not “developed enough” to have some bullshit like hard, mealy tomatoes shipped in in January: you know whatever you find is going to be good, seasonal and fresh.
  6. Plus a business class upgrade to Peru: I don’t count that value towards our $$ savings since we’d never have opted to pay for it, but it is a nice perk.
  7. In exchange for 12 square feet of squatter’s rights, I gave him my fish tank.  Both of us are certain we got the better end of the deal.
  8. The Caretaker Gazette erroneously re-ran her ad, the poor gal got 56 unneeded replies besides ours.  Darling of her to give us such encouraging feedback amid such a deluge.
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On the Ranch

July 8th, 2012 No comments

I swear I didn’t throw the archery contest.

Don’t get me wrong, other happenings of the week as a camp counselor at the Roundup River Ranch would make clear that I reveled in performance opportunities.  But in the contest of counselors versus campers in archery, where having to don costumes and sing “I’m a Little Tea Pot” for the whole camp was at stake, I gave it my all with not a trace of mercy for the potentially stage-averse little ones.  I can prove it because I hit the target every time, making the maximum points on my turns.  It was thus my follow counselors who missed enough to have us down by 6 at the end of the match.

Whether or not they missed on purpose I never got really clear, but whatever their intent we suited up right after lunch that day to give a stirring a cappella exposé on how a tea pot works for the 90 odd folks gathered in the cookhouse.  One fellow dressed like a 20’s flapper complete with wig, another in a rather impressive chicken suit, and me as a banana.

And we rocked it.

At least in spirit, anyway.  I messed up the lyrics once or twice during the 4 lines, had my handle/spout turned opposite the way of my co-stars, and I’m pretty sure our entrances were sloppily uncoordinated.  But still, it had heart.

Backing up a little let me say that camp counselor life agreed with me.  On the second day shortly after the campers had arrived en mass via bus, Tracy said to me “You’re perfectly built for camp.”  I found this a strange statement, and thus asked her to clarify.  (“Darling, I agree that my tall slender frame is quite nice, but I’m not sure how that really translates to an edge in a camp setting.”)  She explained: “You love to sing, you love to dance, you’ve got drawing abilities, you’re goofy and do all kinds of crazy accents.”

Touché.

The previous day I painted a rather kickin’ portrait of Bender, the robot from Futurama, to serve a suitable target for archery (consistent with the time-travel theme for the week).  Song and dance would be invoked throughout the week after all meals when a quasi-structured line dance party/sing along was administered.  Goofiness & accents would be doled out at regular intervals in interactions with both campers and staff alike.

What really warms my heart about the dancing is the unintended consequence of my zeal.  We counselors in general have the task of setting the tone for the campers: at dance time that looks like being all out silly & involved to encourage them to do the same.  I was assigned to the cabin with the oldest boys (our gang of six consisted of ages 11 through 14), and as you might imagine for the age group they started the week out with all six just sitting at our table during cookhouse dance time.  By the end there were always at least three, sometimes all six of them busting a groove.

Our youngest camper explained it to me with all the candor and frankness that 11-year-olds are blessed with: “You dance really crazy and weird, but it’s kinda cool so it’s okay.”  That was the turning point by which I think I made dance look fun (cool?) enough to join in, and I was goaded on to lead dance-time operations for my camper crew regularly from then on.  This culminated with their earnest request to make our Stage Night1 sketch be a bit where I would dance and they would follow as one big merry troupe.  We settled on something approximating that, with me way less the focus but still helping the cause2.

Getting the kids in our cabin to warm up to public displays of dance-time silliness was the most surprising accomplishment of the week for me, and I can’t help but notice the probable significance in the fact that I never pushed for it.  I just consistently had a great time of dancing myself and curiosity to follow crept in among my campers of its own accord.  I reckon there’s a lesson in child rearing in there somewhere, methinks I’ll tuck it away and revisit it in a few years whenever personally relevant.

The natural scenery in the valley that is the camp’s setting was spectacular: pristine and delightfully isolated.  Silvery moonlit skies compelled me to sit on the grass and just stare for about an hour one night, a sort of moon meditation where the stillness and beauty of everything had me convinced of the majesty of this world (to say nothing of the myriad stars beyond), the relative and humbling smallness of me (to say nothing of my petty problems or concerns), and the profound privilege of having this world be the playground of my existence for this handful of decades.

A train track running parallel to the length of the camp was but a few hundred feet away, and trains would go by several times a day. It was rather welcome in that it made you feel like you were in a model train scene all nestled in the valley, and if you played your fist-pumping cards right the conductor would totally sound the whistle for you and fellow campers.

On Wednesday we had a serious downpour from clouds right above while the setting 5pm sun brightly illuminated it all.  One of my personal myths is that sunny rain is good luck.  (It may as well be, I figure, since it’s both pretty and rare.  I heard one of the campers had said that in her family they believe that sunny rain means the devil is beating his wife.  Since they’re both made up fictions I’m content to stick with my “good luck” theory.)  This was one of the sunniest and most intense downpours I’d ever seen: the dense droplets looked like a golden flurry of snow falling slowly against the tufted valley hills.  Amid such a gorgeous good luck downpour I could hardly be bothered to do anything stare for a while.  A triple rainbow marked the finale of our quickly passing valley weather.

On the floor in the Arts & Crafts yurt was painted these words: “Don’t just leave a legacy, Be a legacy.”  By about day three this got me thinking: how might I approach being a legendary sort of volunteer counselor, one that sticks out in memory as having been uncommonly good?  This inquiry gave me a game.  I was going to spend exactly 7 days on the ranch either way; win or loose, the aim of leaving as a legendary volunteer gave a delightful aim to my participation.  A personally motivating theme to my presence, if you will.

Relative density of high-fives given, dance mojo exuded, and laughs administered are all hard to measure, and though I held my own in all three categories I don’t think any would have qualified me legendary status anyway.  But there was one thing that might make me fit for counselor canonization.  You see, camp songs in this microcosm of culture are limited in breadth: there were maybe a dozen of them led by counselors for singalongs in repeat-after-me fashion, and reruns were in full swing by the third day3.  My act of doing something memorable, therefore, was to jump into the middle of the singalong circle4 after lunch on Thursday and lead a rousing delivery of the Tooth Decay song from Sifl & Olly, adapted for call-and-response participation with 56 kids.

It was my privately held hope that this song would make it into the regular cadre of camp songs, and I would know my intention was fulfilled were someone on staff to hit me up for the lyrics.  I got laughs during the song and the usual clapping and cheering when it was over, but for hours that day no one but Tracy said anything to me about it, as though I’d perhaps surprised and dismayed the higher powers that be for going off book.  It was only later that night I got word that it was truly liked, and indeed the lyrics were wanted for future camp use.  Legend or not, I was delighted to leave a lasting contribution on camp culture (I was also told it’s super rare for volunteers to jump in and lead a song, so that too was memorable-making).

All told it was a treat to be part of the crew enabling a fab week of camp for kids who would otherwise not be privy to such an experience, and the staff with which we worked were nothing short of fantastic.  Warm fuzzy moments abound, from seeing our cabin campers all gel into a tight group, to enjoying big smiles while unharnessing kids coming down from the zip line, to the uncannily positive energy of everyone cheering each other on during stage night (the place went nuts when one of the more reserved girls rocked out a singing of Katy Perry’s “Firework”, a most fitting song since Stage Night fell on the 4th of July–kinda made up for the fire ban which put the kabosh on any actual fireworks).

At the little root beer float party for the counselors held on the last night, us volunteers were thanked for taking a week off to do this among all things we could be doing with our vacation time.  This was a sweet sentiment for sure, but for me the irony is that this, as vacations go, was WAY more memorable and satisfying than, say, getting drunk on a beach somewhere.  Cheaper, too.  Truly time off well spent, and I wonder if this couldn’t come more into vogue as a vacation-esque option for folks with the right personality strain (i.e. amenable to camp counselor life).

Now we are back in the Denver area, laying low in our charming little AirBNB rental for a few weeks.  Our first order of business upon arrival was Naked Retreat (that’s when you spend 24 hours with your beloved and without clothing, I daresay the perfect remedy after a week of staying in separate cabins).  Now it’s all about getting some work done and tending to final preparations before we leave the country.

Notes:

  1. Think “Talent Show” but without any presupposition and/or requirement of “talent”.  Verbiage carefully and skillfully chosen to take the edge off.
  2. Our 4 minute sketch went approximately as follows.  One: all but one of the guys would start off break dancing to a Justin Bieber song, intentionally tripping up and falling one by one for maximum hilarity.  Two: I come in from stage left and see the wreck of fallen dancers, pantomiming a certain anguish.  Three: I get a stroke of inspiration for the solution, and motion to the DJ to put on “Peanut Butter Jelly Time”.  Four: I start dancing, and one by one gesture to the kids for them to magically revive and dance beside me to the tune.  To the first one I give a microphone so that he may beat-box rap to the song.  Also, he is wearing a chicken costume.  Five: from offstage runs in the last camper, wearing the banana costume and rocking out with a maraca per the bygone internet meme.  Six: we all dance our way offstage stage right, the Bieberian dance tragedy thoroughly overcome.  We rehearsed it for about 12 minutes, but for the near spot-on execution, hearty reception and big laughs, you’d swear it was at least 24.
  3. Not that I’m complaining.  I think there are very good reasons for maintaining a small set, like quicker familiarity and comfort for the campers.  Through repetition they’re quite catchy, too: I’ve had several nights since the start of camp where songs floated in and out of my head for an hour or more while winding down for sleep.
  4. “Jump in” is actually giving me a bit of undue boldness credit: I was goaded publicly to get on in there after earlier whispering into the activities director’s ear that I had a song I could lead, wondering if it would be okay for me to do so.  My thanks to her for pushing me off the ledge, making chickening out no longer an option.
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