Help Me Pack

I’m making what is hopefully our last run to REI this weekend (conveniently timed to coincide with their Labor Day Sale). I’ll probably also stop in at Target and maybe Hudson Trail Outfitters. We have most of the items on our packing list, but there a couple of things I still need to pick up. (Ex-Officio underwear at 30% off sounds like a deal to me!) Plus I just want to browse through the stores, looking for anything I might have forgotten but Lord knows I couldn’t survive the trip without. Before I head out on this final shopping expedition, however, I’d like your input. What items can you just not travel without? I don’t care if you’ve gone around the world, around the continent, or simply around the block, I want to know the one item that you never leave home without? Is it warm socks for the airplane? Photos of your family? A cable lock? Snacks? Your favorite underwear?

Leave a comment and let me know what your one (or ten) item(s) is (are). Maybe you’ll spur a thought in me or remind me of something I’m forgetting. My brain’s like a sieve these days, so I’d sure appreciate the help.

Complications with our Itinerary

You know how you have everything figured out once and for all? How things are perfectly organized? When all the generalities are in their proper order and you’re only worrying about the minutiae and detail? You’ve got the goal in sight and just have to shape the edges? And then you take one last look at it and reality sets in and you realize it’s all completely wrong …

That was us today. We went back through our general path and realized for a couple of different reasons that things are not right. First, there’s the problem we alluded to last week that we can’t easily do a round the world airline miles redemption for our original plan. And while annoying, this is the not really the problem. The bigger problem is that we are currently planning on plowing through India (presumably in a short amount of time) at the height of monsoon season. This is, so we hear, not an easy thing to actually accomplish logistically, let alone have it be enjoyable.

So given a little free time this week in our schedules, we tried to lay out some more concrete plans but have only caused ourselves more complications. We’re toying with reversing the order of Africa and Southeast Asia, but that still leaves India in between and just causes us to head to African rainy season(to be fair, not always a bad thing). We can jump ahead to India then back to Southeast Asia, but that totally nullifies being able to do a RTW ticket. Our best thought right now is to do reverse order and go South America, Africa, Southeast Asia, India.

Unfortunately, we won’t really have time to think about it for another few weeks as we immerse ourselves in finishing our respective books. I just thought I’d share this bit of panic we’ve been going through the last few days lest you all mistakenly think we’re totally organized and on top of this trip. We’re just one big circus these days.

An Ode to Our Apartment

Thanks to seven friends who offered helping hands in exchange for pizza and beer, we are all loaded up. The many hands made light work of the hauling, and their expertise in loading trucks and their knack for spatial relationships (a skill I’m sorely lacking) was much appreciated. It’s good to have friends. Leaving them behind is certainly not something we’re looking forward to. But tomorrow we hit the road, driving our 16-foot Penske truck through the western reaches of Maryland, into the cross-studded hills of West Virginia, and through the bluegrass of Kentucky to my parents’ home in Louisville.

Tonight our apartment is nearly empty, and it very much reminds me of what it looked like when I first arrived here almost exactly four years ago. Then there was not much beyond white walls and the smattering of furniture Jeff had already moved in. Now there are colorful walls, but still just a smattering of furniture, this time that which we will leave behind. Though I will be coming back here, living with just an air mattress, small table, a few dishes, and my computer for two weeks, it feels like this is it. For Jeff, it pretty much is. Maybe one or two nights post-Louisville trip, but he’s just about spent his last nights here. Four years ago, he started things out living here alone for a week or two before I arrived. Now I close things down, living here alone for the final two weeks.

This place has been good to us. It’s the first place the two of us both called home, the place we moved in together just after getting engaged. We painted the walls together, dripping blue and green paint all over ourselves and the plastic we’d been wise enough to put over the carpet. We picked out furniture and decor, aiming to have a home and not just a house. Here we planned our wedding, mulling over the guest list, picking out readings and music, making a long list of do-not-play songs for the DJ. Here we addressed envelopes and licked them close until we lost all sense of taste. Here we built the foundation of a life together.

In this one-bedroom apartment we fought over stupid things and then made up. We laughed much more often than we yelled or cried. We played Scrabble, Uno, and Yahtzee here. Here Jeff howled hysterically at my video playing skills, and I’d laugh until I couldn’t breath whenever I talked Jeff into participating in my impromptu dance parties. We cooked together in our kitchen, then watched deer out our window as we ate dinner at the tiny card table we called a dining table. We celebrated birthdays here. We had friends over for Derby parties, Super Bowl parties, Rock Band parties, game nights, and for absolutely no reason at all. We decorated our first Christmas tree here, and we figured out how to keep the tree from falling over the next year. We lived out the first three years of our marriage here.

I sold my first freelance article here. And I was here when I found out I had gotten my first “book deal.” On many long, late nights here, Jeff wrote his thesis. And it was here, over the past four years, that we schemed and saved, planned and proposed, dreamed and desired, daring to turn a vague wish to travel into the reality of a year-long trip around the world. When I close the door behind me for the last time, I expect to feel a slight twinge of sadness. But I’ll take the memories, store them carefully in a place I can access whenever I wish, and then step off into the future, in search of the next place to call home, whether it be for four years, four days, or four decades.

Oh the Horror That is Moving

In the grand scheme of things, there are, of course, many things much worse than moving, but just let me be dramatic for a moment and say that as I sit here Sunday night after two full days of emptying closets, sorting through belongings, and packing boxes, I can hardly imagine what they are. And to think that we just have a one-bedroom apartment with very little closet space. What in the heck are people thinking when they buy those McMansions with their zillions of rooms and closets large enough to live in? Those things are just waiting to be filled with stuff, and more stuff, and even more stuff. Stuff that you never see again after you put it away. Stuff that you have no idea how it got there or when it arrived. Stuff that you have no use for. Stuff that you paid good money for so that it could collect dust. I hope what they’re thinking is that they’re never moving again, and when they die the house can be razed (because pity the heir that has to go through all that stuff).

Part of my brain is telling me that I could make an excellent post here about our consumer culture, our unseemly attraction to things, the way in which the stuff we owns eventually owns us, but another part of my brain is saying “oh my gosh, I just want to go to bed,” and that part is totally winning. Anyhow, you’ve all heard that lecture before, so just replay it to yourself in your head while you look at pictures of our move in progress.

For me, the hardest part of moving is the mess that you must create in the process. I have to work hard not to let that overwhelm me. I also have to work hard not to run into things, trip over things, bang into things, and in general kill myself as I try to make my way through the mess. I begin to feel better as things again become organized, albeit this time in piles of boxes. I’m also a bit blown away by the sheer volume of it. While looking at the humongous box of clothes Jeff is planning to give away, I was both amazed by how much he was able to part with it, and flabbergasted by how much he had to begin with. But like I said above I’m too damn tired to make any educated comments. At this point, all I know is that I’ll be glad when we get the truck loaded up on Tuesday.

Flights? What?

I was wondering today, where’s my flying car? We now have all these tiny Star Trek style cell phones, we beam information through those internet tubes all the time, and yet I still can’t get a flying car! All I want is to be able to pack up my things, stick in it my flying car, and head off wherever I need to go. Oh, and since it runs on food scraps a la Back to the Future, it solves all gas issues as well. Now when will someone go ahead and build it? Anyway, it wasn’t just benign musings that got me going on this train of thought, I was trying to arrange our flights.

Taking a short break from my writing today, I called up to Continental’s round the world travel desk to ask them a few questions and maybe talk about possible itineraries. To bring everyone up to speed, we’re doing the absolutely insane thing of trying to use frequent flier miles to accomplish the major legs of our trip. Now what I learned from my friend at the desk was educational but not particularly helpful, if you get my drift. First, I learned there’s no North America to South America to Southeast Asia allowed, as that constitutes a change of direction. You have to start and end in the same city. You’re allowed six flights with only one open jaw. And you can only fly certain airlines, and this does not necessarily match up to who Continental is “partnered” with. The lady at the travel desk was not ready to help me sort through all the options at the time, but instead told me to look up the legs we want to fly on their websites, figure out what days we wanted to go, and then call back and be prepared to be *very* flexible. Oh, and we still have to cover taxes. You getting an idea of why going this route is insane yet? Yeah, it’s supposed to save us money, but (A) I’m not sure it will any more and (B) even if it does I’m not sure its worth it. As it stands now, we’ll be starting from South America (either Buenos Aires, Rio, or Sao Paolo). So we have to get down there on our own … and then we have to get back to the U.S. when we get back. So overall, this is adding a whole lot of hassle to things.

So that’s what I started doing this afternoon, trying to find flights on supported airlines between the cities/continents we wanted (anybody realize I’m a master procrastinator yet?). My good friend Kayak helped me collate everything, and I found some legs that may work. So I’m planning to call them back soon and see if any of these flights and times will actually work or if the whole thing is just a pipe dream. I get more and more skeptical every day.

[Afterword: In the end, we were indeed able to book our trip using Continental miles. Our legs were: Seattle to Managua, Nicaragua (via Houston); Managua, Nicaragua to Santiago, Chile (via Panama City, Panama); Santiago, Chile to Johannesburg, South Africa (via Paris, France); overland to Nairobi, Kenya (our open jaw leg); Nairobi, Kenya to Bangkok, Thailand (via Dubai, UAE); Bangkok, Thailand to Seattle (via Seoul, S. Korea).]

The Countdown Begins

You know that point where “The departure date for this trip will never arrives” meets “Oh my god, I can’t believe how soon we leave.” Yeah. I’m there.

Think State Farm can help?

No? Me neither. But at this point, I’m certainly feeling like I could stand for someone to jump in and lend a hand (or twelve).

I can’t even count how many days, months, and years this trip has been brewing, so to think that it’s right on the horizon now is both exciting and overwhelming. It’s also a bit unreal. When you dream of something for so long, it can seem as if it will never actually happen. But it is happening. Soon.

For us, the problem of realizing that the dream is about to become reality is the facts of our situation. In our minds—and on paper—we don’t leave for almost three more months. That’s still forever, right? Well, yes. Unless, of course, you’re actually moving out of the country a good six weeks before what you consider to be the start date of your trip.

Jeff leaves for Sweden in three weeks. (Count them–one, two, three. Not many weeks at all.) I then follow two weeks afterwards. We’ll be there for one month. We’ll then be back here for about 2 weeks before departing for Nicaragua, the first stop on the world tour. Perhaps we should have been thinking of the Sweden adventure as part of the trip, but we didn’t. For Jeff, trips to Sweden are a regular occurrence, and for me, well I just haven’t thought about it at all.

So now, I feel like we’re a bit under the gun. Though some things can be done from Sweden, a lot needs to be done before we go (or will at least be much easier to handle while we’re in the U.S.) The biggest job of all, and one we cannot put off, is the packing and moving of our entire apartment. I’ve tried to avoid thinking of this, but I’m not sure I can much longer. While I’m good at packing for trips, and I’m excellent at throwing things away, I’m always completely overwhelmed by large-scale moving endeavors. I still remember trying to pack for college, sitting in the middle of my bedroom surrounded by eighteen years worth of stuff and being practically paralyzed. I had a list. I had boxes and suitcases. Yet still I called my mom at work near tears because I couldn’t figure out where to start. Hopefully I’ve improved in the past decade, but I’m not looking forward to finding out.

And then it’s make sure our finances are in order. Figure out that route and get some airline tickets. Purchase the last remaining supplies. Make a final decision on insurance. Say goodbye to all our DC friends…

Plus there’s that very simple matter of me finishing my book (only two more hikes to go plus a little writing and a lot of editing!) and Jeff finishing his dissertation (experimentation phase now complete!). No big deal, right? Good, I’m glad we agree. Deep breaths all around.

How to Save Money When You Don’t Have Much to Begin With

It seems like finances—personal, corporate, and government—are big news these days. I can’t click over to CNN without reading some story about the current financial crisis…or the custody battle of some celebrity. Obviously both topics that require careful consideration by the American public.

But I digress, the quality of news on CNN is a topic for another day.

Today I want to talk about finances, and in particular those articles that promise to tell you how to save money and usually offer some tantalizing tidbit about how some family saved $25,000 by just making a few changes to their lifestyle. I always click open these articles and begin reading, looking for a new way to save, only to find out that the family being profiled saved that money by cutting out their $10,000 a year coffee buying habit, only buying 15 couture dresses this year instead of 20, and using their Audi for routine errands instead of taking out their Ferrari when they just need a gallon of milk.

Very wise moves indeed.

But completely irrelevant advice to me.

If I had $10,000 to spend on coffee, then I probably wouldn’t have much need to worry about how to save $25,000. And if I owned a Ferrari would I seriously even blink when gas prices skyrocketed beyond the gas pump’s meager price telling abilities? I think not. But then again, I’m not rich, never have been, and almost certainly never will be, so I don’t have any firsthand experience with how difficult it must be to swim in cash (DuckTales, anyone?).

So since I find these how-to articles so irrelevant to my life, let me share here with you five of my own tips for saving whatever cold, hard cash you can find under your couch cushions or rolling around the floor of your 1996 Nissan.

1. Spend all of your free time deep in the backcountry.
It’s practically impossible to spend money while you’re in a tent in a forest in the middle of nowhere. There aren’t any stores, and there’s no entertainment beyond the annoying people sleeping a few trees down singing loudly about pickles well past midnight. And those bears nosing around outside, they don’t want your dinero. They’d rather just have your hot dogs.

2. Develop your own special form of ADD.
See the preview for the movie. Get excited about the movie. Then remember that movies are long—two plus hours long. And during that whole, long time you’re expected to sit still and be quiet. Realize there is no way that’s going to happen and put your $10 back in your pocket (or better yet, the bank…but not all in one bank if you happen to have more than $100,000 because man, I hear those things are dropping like flies).

3. Convince yourself that coffee tastes like dirt. (Because it does.)
No one likes to consume dirt (unless you have pica, and then, really, you should get that checked out, because consuming dirt is totally not normal). If coffee tastes like dirt to you, you will not buy it. You will not spend any money (no less $10,000) on coffee consumption. When that well-meaning but budget-busting co-worker stops in your office and asks if you want anything from the coffee shop, you can say no and really, honestly mean it. Because heck if you want to consume dirt, there’s plenty of it to be had for free (see backcountry).

4. Become allergic to shopping.
Imagine, for one moment, a mall: the crowds, the racks and racks of clothes none of which contain the right size, those horrific fluorescent lights, that loud music, the perfume stench of department stores, the cookie place that looks like it should be so tasty but really isn’t. Did you not just break out in hives thinking about it? Me, I almost needed an epi-pen. You, not so much? Well then, fine, go ahead and spend your money to look trendy and cool; I’ll just be thankful that I’m still the same size I was ten years ago…and that every now and again fashion comes full circle.

5. Have no real idea how much money you make.
Remember when you were sixteen and worked at the zoo and made $5.75 an hour? Convince yourself that that’s still the case. Remember when you took the time to figure out just how many hours you would have to work to pay for whatever it was you wanted: a new paint job on your rusty old car, a Wendy’s value meal, tickets to the Tori Amos concert? Do that again, but calculate everything as if you still only make $5.75. Decide then how much it’s worth to you. When you turn 100, go ahead and check your bank account. Do a happy dance when you find out you’re a millionaire. Then spend it all like there’s no tomorrow (because, come on, let’s face reality, at 100, there’s a fairly high chance that’s true).

Computer: Check!

Finding a good travel laptop can be a difficult thing. You want something that is small, light, durable, has great battery life, and enough inputs to help you around the world. Oh, and cheap. We previously posted about trying to find a good travel laptop ever since we decided we were definitely going to take one. Well, I think we’ve found what we’ve been looking for, so take note if you’re in the same boat. It is actually a laptop we did not even consider in our first roundup (due to it not even being announced at the time and all).

Last year Asus released the eee pc, a small 7″ notebook for $400 that ran linux and basically was only good for accessing the internet. We mentioned in our previous post the myriad of reasons these would not work for us. They’re tiny, but that means tiny screens, cramped keyboards, poor battery life, no computing power. Turns out, this year companies are busy putting out slightly larger (and thus much more comfortable), substantially more powerful “netbooks.” There’s a larger eee pc, the HP Mini-Note, the Acer Aspire One, and the MSI Wind that have all come out in the last few months, and Dell is releasing one soon. They’re useful because they provide *just* enough power at a great price point, and we chose what I thought was the best of the bunch, the MSI Wind. The Wind has a 10″ screen (with 1024*600 resolution) and weighs just over two pounds (and the computer feels quiet durable), so already it fits those important criteria. Here it is lined up with my 13″ Macbook to give you an idea of just how small it is.

But its the fact that its pretty much a full-fledged computer otherwise that makes it really appealing. It has an Intel Atom processor, 1 GB RAM, 80 GB hard drive, SD card reader, webcam, 3 USB ports, and a “big size” keyboard. I’m typing on it right now and am not feeling cramped, Theresa’s small hands will probably find it perfect (I guess she’ll let you know when she gets around to playing with it). It runs Windows XP very well (and ambitious people have gotten OSX 10.5 running on it with little issues). The only downside so far is that it only comes with a 3 cell battery that lasts 2 hours or so, though there is supposed to be an add on 6 cell battery that will last 4-5 hours. Put those together and the computer should last 7 hours or so.

So we found what we’re looking for, a lightweight, long battery life computer that we can use to keep up with email, write on the blog, use skype, do light photo editing, and other odd things. The best part of it is yet to come though … the price. The MSRP for these is $499, which is way less than we were anticipating spending. This is useful both in saving money, and keeping us from over-worrying about the safety of our equipment all the time. $500 is a lot of money, but a $500 laptop is way more replaceable than a $2000 one. So overall, I’m highly pleased with what this computer can do, though we’ll have to test it out some more to be sure, and I think I’ll be even more pleased when I’m the one hauling it around the world.

So if you’re looking for a good travel laptop, take a look at these types of laptops. All of the brands I mentioned above are in the $500-700 range, they all have 8-10″ screens, and all are powerful enough for your everyday tasks. I went with the Wind because of the specifications at a lower price, but they all looked pretty useful and effective to me.

On My Way to Unemployment


Pronunciation: \‘jōb\
Function: noun
Etymology: perhaps from obsolete job lump
Date: circa 1627

1a: a piece of work; especially : a small miscellaneous piece of work undertaken on order at a stated rate
2c: a damaging or destructive bit of work
3a: something that has to be done; an undertaking requiring unusual exertion

(Excerpted from Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary)


Come August 28, the etymological root of job will not be the only things that is obsolete; my days as an editor at the Smithsonian American Art Museum will also be. On Monday, I gave notice, and boy does it feel good to have that off my chest. It’s been tough sitting in meetings about projects that everyone but me thought I’d be working on.

Am I sad? No, not really.

Much too frequently my job has been “a piece of work,” and the “stated rate” has been far too low. On occasion, it’s been “damaging and destructive,” making me want to tear out my hair or give someone a good piece of my mind (if only I were confrontational). And almost always, it’s been “something that has to be done,” not something I get excited about doing.

But of the three jobs I’ve had since I came home from Greece, it was probably the best. Being an editor is something I enjoy. I like working with words, trying to find the gem that is usually hidden inside a lot of junk and polishing it until it shines. I like working with authors and designers and publishers. I have friends at work whom I will miss. I am well-liked by my boss (which did make the notifying her of my intent to leave kind of awkward as all the “I’m so lucky to have had yous” made it feel a little too much like we were breaking up instead of sorting out my resignation). And I had the privilege of working for an esteemed institution, and I can’t deny that having Smithsonian Editor on my resume probably helped open a few doors in the writing world (and will hopefully continue to do so).

What I don’t like is the bureaucracy of working for the federal government. I don’t like having co-workers whose most common refrain is “That’s not my job.” I don’t like having to go to work and sit all day at a desk on days when there is absolutely nothing to do. And I hate that hard work isn’t rewarded while whining is.

But why linger on that? I have less than 30 working days left. Then it’s off to Sweden and then the world.

As we prepare to leave, I have no need to think of where I will end up next, but I can’t help but ponder it every now and then. At this point, I’m seeing myself moving into the world of freelance—editing, writing, etc. I’ve given the office space world the old college try, but I just don’t think I’m cut out for it. But who knows, maybe after a year of complete freedom, I’ll miss the working world. It will be interesting to see how my perspective changes over the course of this coming year. Will I come back even more determined not to return to the 9-5? Or will I long for the routine of office life? What do you think?

I’m putting my money on option one.

Seven Good Reasons We Shouldn’t Take This Trip

1. The American economy is tanking, and it’s a deep, deep pool. Where people gladly took dollars, they now sneer at our greenbacks and demand local currency or Euros. Everything is more expensive than it was just a year ago.

2. America isn’t winning the World’s Most Popular Country competition. In fact, we were eliminated in the first round, not even getting a chance to show off our star-spangled bikini. People dislike and distrust America. We’re going to have to constantly defend our country, or at least listen to a lot of criticism.

3. Jeff’s just finishing his PhD in Neuroscience and the traditional next step is to move directly into a post-doc. Some labs might not look kindly on him being away from the science world for a year. Not all science nerds understand that there is life beyond the lab.

4. I have a permanent federal job. To a lot of people in DC, this is equivalent to winning the lottery. It’s practically impossible to fire me, and if I stay in my job, at age 50, I’ll have put in enough years to get a full federal pension. And these days pensions are as rare as flying pigs.

5. I’m about to get some good projects at work and I’m up for a promotion, which I’m likely to get. Considering I haven’t so much as gotten a free cupcake at my work, this is the big time.

6. The airline industry is in shambles. We could be dealing with a lot of hassles as airlines go under, merge, and lose baggage at an even more astounding rate than normal.

7. Moving is a pain. The boxes, the deciding what to keep and what to get rid of, the driving of a monstrous truck 500 miles, the bribing people with pizza to help you carry your couch, the discovery of God only knows what under furniture you haven’t cleaned under in four years… We have a good apartment and good friends, and we’re perfectly content not knowing what lies between the counter and the stove. Staying put would be much, much easier.

But still, there’s one good reason—a reason that trumps all reasons—why we should take this trip:

Nothing but this moment is guaranteed.

We are not promised tomorrow. We are not promised five years from now. We are not promised eighty years. Hopefully we make it to all of those milestones, but I’m not going to wait and see. Instead, I’m going to live for today.

And if I do make it to 50, 65, 80, 100, then I’ll have a darn good time sitting on my front porch talking about all the adventures I had rather than dwelling on all the things I wish I had done. Unless I’m still out having adventures, which is, of course, the plan.