Sunday, February 22, 2009

How Low Can We Go?

I keep thinking about those budget worksheets in The Grown-Up's Guide to Running Away from Home: Making a New Life Abroad (see my earlier post, Preparing.)

Learning to live with less. Economizing. Simplifying. These are solid, respectable themes, and they show up a lot in the expat vernacular.

But they worry me.

Exactly how much less are we supposed to live on?

In her book No Touch Monkey!: And Other Travel Lessons Learned Too Late, Ayun Halliday relives her days of traveling on pennies. She wrote the memoir from her home in Brooklyn, whiling away the time waiting for her toddler to get past the diaper stage.

Though my living-on-pennies days have been numerous, my travelling-on-pennies days have not, and I’ve always listened to vagabonding stories with a mixture of regret and awe.

I did have that funny evening in the Fes barbershop with eight Moroccans, my roommate, and a sheep’s head, but I never slept in a train station. I never cadged beers at Oktoberfest in Munich. And I definitely never went to Tanzania on my own. So, as Halliday tells her tales (and I haven’t even gotten to the monkey story yet), I feel myself getting itchy to hit the road, wanting to make up for having missed the college summer backpacking through Europe or hostel-hopping in Brazil.

But I don’t want to sleep in a hostel. Or split a beer with my husband at Oktoberfest. (I'd never get my fair share.) And I'm way past shampooing in a public sink.

So all this talk about economizing has got me a little nervous. When we get there (by now you know that “there” is still a little hazy, yes?), I don’t need a bed at the Ritz. But I do want a bed. With a good pillow that cradles my sun-bleached head. And I want to be able to tip the waiter without feeling like it’s a choice between his livelihood and my latte.

Is that asking too much?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Home Exchange for a Head Start

While you’re waiting for your 401K to come back to life, how about a little free advice for some free adventuring?

Home exchanging seems a little too Mayberry RFD for our current threat-level reality, yet sane people do it all the time.

Well-meaning friends ask “How do you know people won’t steal your stuff?” I say, “How do they know I won’t steal theirs?” Hospitality, 21st century-style.

We’re still new to home exchanging, but it’s been around for decades. While not exactly an outback expedition or Adirondack ice climb, swapping houses does require a certain amount of adventurous DNA. Flexibility comes in handy, too. Whether it’s squeezing around a queen-size bed in a full-size room, in the dark, or suffering caffeine withdrawal while fiddling with a French press, living in a stranger’s home is...strange. And that’s the beauty.

At a Christmas-time home exchange sojourn to Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C., Rick and I marvel at the life-in-miniature 500 square foot apartment we have borrowed. “Do you think it would be possible for us to live in a place this small in, say, Paris?” I ask Rick, who takes up the entire mini-couch in the dollhouse living room. “For, like, six months?”

“No. Definitely not.” says my husband, definitively. Brief pause. “Paris? Well. Maybe.”

Free travel makes for accommodating travelers.

When it’s cold out, especially, I spend hours online, dreaming about possibilities.

“We are open to any destination!” say the Moroccan owners of an elegant riad in the heart of the Marrakech medina.

An Australian attorney and his wife, a horticulturalist, have a Fulbright scholarship and want to spend two months in Washington. Their 3-bedroom penthouse overlooks Sydney Harbour.

A single mom in Guadeloupe would like to show her young sons the U.S. East Coast, and offers her oceanfront Caribbean apartment in trade.

At our D.C. home exchange each evening we wander, get to know the neighbors.

“Hey! Topiary!”

Rick laughs, shaking his head in disbelief. Sculpted tree-deer, complete with wood antlers and white Christmas lights, stand just off 24th Street. Odd choice of lawn ornament for this neighborhood. But, then, it’s an odd neighborhood: third-world embassies in regal row houses, lit by a haphazard toss of twinkling bulbs; alleyway markets with signs warning “No Beer Sales After 10:00 PM!;” pricey, candlelit wine bars. And, now, topiary.

I laugh, too; I can’t help it. I’ve never known my husband to go gaga over gardening. Getting out of town, pretending in someone else’s space, we reveal ourselves and move closer.

Not expat life per se, but a really nice jump start.

Photo (c) Rick Collier
(Riad photo from listing 37245)
(Guadeloupe photo from listing 99368)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Will We Miss You When We're Gone?

McDiver, Jolt, and my buddy Bill are all following me.

I told them about my blog, and like the great friends they are, they've subscribed. They are Shore Dive Kinda Life people.

And travel stars...

Jolt clued me in when the floor started shifting during the Oahu earthquake a few years ago, grinning like a kid with a secret when she whispered "Do you feel that??"

McDiver can sniff out a hotel deal a continent away, and he's got a lavalava to kill for.

And Bill quit work to spend 6 months on the road in countries that were far, hard, and decidedly dusty, sending blog posts that became less ironic by the week. His whole body wore a different expression when he finally made it home.

These are the kinds of friends you'd like to strap to your carry-on, but if our expat escape plan succeeds, we'll leave all of them behind.

What are we thinking??

Friday, February 6, 2009

Castles for Sale

Part of the fun of this expat fantasy is stumbling on some random picture that sends my imagination skittering over the desk, then leaping out the window to freedom, like some addlepated puppy.

Kind of like when I spotted this Castles for Sale ad.

Mmmm, castles.....

Brain solidly on hiatus, I figured I may as well complete the indulgence and drive west for a few hours, calculating palatial mortgages.

And, oops, there goes another day.

But instead of feeling lost, behind, or unproductive when I pick up the threads again in the morning, I feel full. Playing hooky in Virginia's wine country will do that for you.

Photo (c) Check out Rick's site for some great pics of the Hot Air Balloon Festival in Winchester, Virginia.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

What's Your Kinda Life?

Mine is a shore dive kind of life.

Divers: no further explanation needed, right? You totally get this.

Unscheduled. Away from the flailing crowds.

Shore diving is the surprise upgrade to Business when you’re stuck on the tarmac in an ice storm.

It’s finding the Uni-ball Deluxe in a drawer full of pencil nubs.

It’s scoring the comfy red chair at Starbucks.

It’s the Zen alternative to crack-of-dawn dive boat trips with no bathroom or sunblock.

I didn’t even know I was a shore diver until Bonaire. I thought I was a pack ‘em in, rented gear, compulsive gauge-checker kind of girl.

But then, as the next-to-last stop on our Caribbean Reconnaissance Mission, we checked into Villa Safir on the Netherlands Antilles island of Bonaire. For about $220 a day, we had a huge room with a Jacuzzi overlooking the island and ocean, breakfast as-you-like-it, a pickup truck outfitted for dive gear, unlimited air tanks, and the know-how of the inn owners, Peter and Bianca, Dutch expats who’d come years earlier for the diving.

Each morning we ate our fruit and granola and they drilled down on diving – were turtles our thing, or would a seahorse be a bigger prize? Had we been south yet, or was it time to head north?

We settled on an agenda, grabbed our gear, threw four tanks in the back, and rumbled down the road, windows open to the summer heat.

Those mornings sealed the deal for me. Hair in a ponytail. Ruts and bumps like a little roller coaster. Iquanas the size of small gators. Then a slow, relaxed suit-up at Karpata or Invisibles. We entered with the tide, timing the waves.

And as if that weren't delectable enough, the reefs! Holy moly. Right there, and I mean right there, splendid, teeming, abundant reefs, bursting with coral and fish at a time when reefs around the world are bleaching out, dying from pollution and global warming. But not there, not in Bonaire.

I am completely infatuated with the island, but I am in love with the life.

So let’s review:

  • - Sleep in

  • - Relaxed breakfast

  • - Rattletrap drive

  • - Random critters

  • - Slow gear-up
And all that before you even hit the water.

Photos (c) Take a look at Rick's site for more pics of Bonaire - both above and below the water!

Sunday, February 1, 2009


Enough ruminating - how about some resources?

The dozens of ex-patting books on my shelf will no doubt make an appearance here at some point, but let's start with a current infatuation: Grown-up's Guide to Running Away From Home: Making a New Life Abroad by Rosanne Knorr.

This second edition was published in March, 2008, so the information is pretty fresh - an important consideration when the digital world makes available in nanoseconds what used to take years to percolate out.

Knorr includes lots of technical solutions to things I've been too lazy to look up, such as how to stay in touch by phone without going broke (including things like Skype, which I know about, and Callback Services, which I don't). A section on cell phone service is a good primer, though she notes "phones and phone plans are in a constant state of flux." Amen to that.

The book is an interesting mix of personal considerations (leaving or moving with elderly parents, traveling with pets), practical tools (such as sample budgets and a packing list -"Two Bags for Six Months"), along with "duh" statements that seem more filler than anything else ("Use old dishrags to clean with, not expensive paper towels," in a section about cutting costs).

I'm not sure whether to laugh or cry when I look over the sample budgets. They range from $18K to $40K a year (to be funded by whatever means available, such as investment income - not including retirement savings, which are hands-off - social security income, wages from any local work, etc).

But I'm really discouraged when I see that none of the budgets allow more than $200 a month for dining out. Two hundred dollars?? I probably spend half that on Starbucks in a month. And the last time I lived on $40K a year, Gorbachev was president of the Soviet Union.

Granted, I lived well on that paycheck, when rent was only $450 a month and California wines were still cheap. But this time, $40K is supposed to cover the bills for two.

But...that's kind of the point, isn't it?, I ask myself. That's what getting away is about.

Streamlining. Off-loading. Shedding is how I've been referring to it, to my lovely esthetician Betty when I run into her in an elevator and feel the need to explain why my eyebrows are so shaggy.

I don't want a schedule that includes eyebrow waxes anymore.