Archive for the 'travel' Category


Five Things You Can Lose To Make Travel Easier

Note: This post cross-posted from my self-hosted blog.

One of the questions I get asked a lot is what sort of things a person can do to make it easier to travel or lead a nomadic lifestyle. My answer is usually that the biggest change you can make is in the way you think about your personal belongings. To be a nomad, you must think like a nomad. If you look at virtually any nomadic culture, you will see that they do not generally have much. When you have to be able to carry your life around on a cart/camel/caravan, you learn to really pare down what you “need” in life. I have a separate post coming soon about how I went from having 3 truckloads of belongings to 4 plastic bins of them, but I felt I should write about some of the bigger things that can really tie you down, that you should consider getting rid of if you are interested in leading a more nomadic lifestyle. These are not easy, and they’re all things that society claims that we “need” in order to have a “good” life, so be prepared to do some reevaluating of your own values. Anyway, here you go:

  • Vehicles. Admittedly, in most places in America, vehicles are a necessity if you want to be able to have a job/buy food/go anywhere. My response to that is this: avoid those places. There are plenty of places in the US that have good public transportation systems that aren’t astronomically expensive to live in like NYC, and you should be able to find somewhere that you can live without needing to own a vehicle. The internet has made it easier than ever to be car-less; with services like Zip Car, you can now get a car on-demand if you want to head out on a weekend road trip. Why to lose it: Between vehicle payments, insurance, maintenance, and property taxes, vehicles are expensive! Not only that, but once you have one and have invested so much money in it, you’re likely to be loathe to get rid of it. If you have a vehicle and want to spend an extended amount of time abroad, you will have to either find someone to look after it for you or you will have to sell it (most likely at a loss). What to do instead: Live in a city with at least moderately decent public transportation (a good bus system will do). Invest in a Zip Car membership and a bike. If you absolutely must have a vehicle, look into getting a scooter or a small (250cc or below) motorcycle. They don’t take up much space, are often eligible for free parking, are far cheaper than a car to both purchase and maintain, they get great gas mileage (even a larger motorcycle like our 750cc Ural gets around 30mpg, and a small bike or scooter may get over 100mpg), and they maintain their value much more than cars and are easier to sell. Being “Car Free” does still cost you some money (a bike, a zip car membership, taxis, etc), but in the end it is far less than what a car would cost, and if you decide to move abroad, you don’t have to worry about having something expensive and complex to sell. In not buying a car/vehicle, you’re effectively buying your freedom.
  • A House. One of the major causes of the current recession is the havoc that has been wreaked by a largely-unregulated lending industry, with particular blame on mortgage lenders. Americans place a tremendous amount of self-worth on someday owning a nice house with a white picket fence and a swing in the front yard. This is really just social conditioning. People in most of the rest of the world do not feel the same drive to own their own housing that Americans do. Even in Europe, it is not unusual (or stigmatized) for families to rent their housing well into their 40s, and in places like Asia, many folks never own their own place. Why to lose it: Housing is one of the main assets that ties a person to a particular place. Not only are houses expensive (maintenance, fees, taxes, mortgage), but they also have a sort of magnetism that ties their inhabitants to them. Once you are settled in one place and are financially and emotionally committed to it, you are less likely to want to change your circumstances. What to do instead: Apartments are great in that you are only committed to them for a limited period of time, and even if you need to break that contract, the cost is comparatively small. Thanks to places like Craigslist, it is no longer difficult to find a wide variety of rooms, apartments or even houses to rent, and many of them can be surprisingly flexible about lease durations. If you want to be really hardcore and plan on spending most of your time on the move, rent an indoor, climate-controlled storage facility (about $50/month) for the belongings you aren’t taking with you but you really want to keep (bedding, off-season clothes, etc) and rely on the kindness of friends, family, and couchsurfers. Remember, home is where the heart is.
  • Debt/Credit Cards. One need only look at the wonderful blog Man VS. Debt to see what you can do when you don’t have debt hanging over your head. For many, this will be the most difficult to get rid of, but it is also the item likely to cause the most profound change. Society has managed to convince us that we need credit cards because we need to buy things we can’t afford in order to keep up with the Jones. Why to lose it: If you don’t have debt payments to make, you only need to make enough money to survive, and that opens up a lot of options. Also, the only person who benefits from debt is the credit card companies. Period. What to do instead: Stop caring about having stuff. Some people advise you to think about whether or not most people in the rest of the world do without your purchase, but that’s a little too detached for me. Instead, before you buy something, think about what you will do with it if you go abroad. If it’s going to have to go into storage, think long and hard before you purchase it. Also, don’t buy for the future; if it’s not something you are going to use now, you don’t really know if you need it, right? (Exceptions are off-season clothing that is on sale, etc.) If you have a lot of student loans hanging over your head, look into programs abroad that will make payments for you while you are abroad – the Peace Corps is excellent about this – or find work while you’re overseas. Another option is to sell your belongings, if you have them. It’s stuff you’d probably have to put into storage anyway, so why not make some money off it instead?
  • Pets. I know that having fido or fluffy gives you something to look forward to at the end of the day, but pets are pretty much a no-go for nomads unless you have someone who stays back home to take care of them. Believe me, I love animals – I’m a professional dog walker and I have had around 30 pets over the course of my life – but I also am acutely aware of the limitations they can place on your mobility. Why to lose it: Unless you want to put your animal through the emotional trauma of being pawned off on your friends or relatives for extended periods of time, having a pet is not a good move for a frequent traveler, nor healthy for the animal. What to do instead: Buy a plant (when pawned off on a friend, these become gifts, rather than burdens). Become friends with the dogs at your local dog park. Offer to pet sit for people. Spend more time outside your home.
  • Contracts. In particular I am thinking of things like work-duration contracts (you agree to work for them for 1 year, etc) and things like cell phone contracts. Contracts are the ultimate representation of restriction, but they hide this by often offering benefits (a guaranteed job, a cheaper phone, etc). Why to lose it: By their very nature, contracts punish you for making your own decisions. Want to leave your job early and work somewhere else? Well, you’ve broken your contract and now lost a reference. Want to get a different cell phone carrier before yours sucks? It’s going to really cost you. Contracts claim to help you, but in reality, there are generally very few benefits to signing anything that restricts your free will. What do to instead: Find a job that does not require you to work for them and only them for a specified duration, or alternatively, offer to work for a reduced rate in exchange for not being bound to a piece of paper. For things like services, find out if there is a “pay as you go” option as can often be found with cell phones.

As you can see, by choosing not to have these things, you are also choosing to reject large portions of the status quo. You know what? That’s okay. Not everyone needs a house, car, spouse, two kids, desk job, and a golden retriever. If the white picket fence isn’t your dream, then why bother picking up all the trappings? Live your own vision, not someone else’s. To do any less is to shortchange yourself at life. Do you want that? I doubt it.

In the interests of disclosure, here’s how I stack up against my own advice:

  • Vehicle: None, though I am on the title of our Ural sidecar motorcycle. I am supremely lucky in that I am able to use Marc’s car without having it be a ball and chain around my own leg. If I were not able to use Marc’s car, I would put more effort into getting our Ural running daily, or I would find a job that I could use public transportation to get to.
  • Housing: Marc and I live in an apartment now, but prior to this and prior to Korea, I lived for a year via the storage unit/couch method I described above. I had minimal costs, I was able to visit people and places I had never seen before, and I got to know many of my friends far better than I had known them previously. In an entire year, there were only a couple nights that I had to actually sleep in my truck, and it wasn’t the end of the world.
  • Debt: This is the #1 issue I still struggle with. It took me years to finally learn that I didn’t need more stuff, and thankfully this lesson has largely stuck. I still have a reasonable amount of credit card debt to pay off, but it was largely accrued while I did not have a job. But, debt is by far the largest stone I carry, and it’s pretty much the only thing that prevents me from being able to get up and go work in low-paying countries like Vietnam and Mongolia. I’d sell my belongings, but I already did that, two years ago, and I didn’t sell them, I gave them to charity. The only two valuable things I own are also the two items I need to make a living: my computer and my camera equipment.
  • Pets: Marc and I have two cats, but I would not have gotten them if I were living alone. Marc’s job does not permit him to travel with me (unfortunately), so I have a built-in pet sitter that the cats are already familiar with.
  • Contracts: My job is blessedly free of a contract, and I have a tendency to seek out work that is often temporary in nature (retail, waitressing, freelancing, etc). In Korea, I did have to sign a one-year contract (breaking it means deportation), but that’s not unusual when working abroad, and I consider that to be an exception. As for other contracts, the only binding thing I’ve signed in recent memory is my iPhone service from AT&T. I would not be able to do my job without a GPS-enabled phone, and there are none available on a pay-as-you-go basis, so this is a sacrifice I had to make. Thankfully, iPhones can be made to work in foreign countries, so it’s not a total loss.

A Book List and a Note about North Korea

So, since I spend a lot of time on buses, there is a good online used bookstore here in Korea, and Marc left me some of the books he brought with him during his visit in July, I have accumulated a decent number of books while here in Korea.  Here is the list (ones I have completed are crossed out, those I am close to finishing are in italics):

I prefer to read two books at once (keeps me from getting burned out by a book), and I think that my next two will be Frontsoldaten and North Korea: Another Country.  I need to read a German memoir or two from WWII before I go portray one at the reenactment I have in February, and Frontsoldaten seems to be one of the better ones.  As for North Korea: Another Country, well, given that the collapse of North Korea seems on the horizon, I figured I should learn a little bit more about that last relic of Soviet times.

On that note:  Last week, the Chinese moved an invasion force to the North Korean border that is slightly larger than the force that the US sent to invade Iraq.  My friends in the military (including those who are serving here) say this is very significant, if that wasn’t obvious enough already.  It has been almost confirmed that Kim Jung Il is very sick, and possibly already dead and replaced by a double, and the country seems to be destabilizing.  The reason the Chinese movement is doubly significant is that while South Korea has spies in North Korea, China actually has ties with North Korea, and they communicate regularly.  If anyone knows what’s up, it’s the Chinese.  So, the fact that they have seen fit to make such a large and sudden troop movement should be taken as a rather important sign.

On one hand, that scares the bejesus out of me.  On the other, I’m a photojournalist and an opportunist, and if shit goes down, it could be a boon to my career.  If there’s one truism about us press folks, it’s that our priorities are royally screwed up, and I am certainly no exception.


A Glimpse at my Week

My life has definitely calmed down now that I am only teaching at 3 schools instead of 7 and have been able to thus develop a routine.  I was told by many, many people that after the first 3-4 months, which seem interminably slow, that time really speeds up.  I was skeptical about this, due to the snail’s pace at which my life seemed to crawl for awhile there, but it is definitely proving to be true.  It feels like I go from Monday to Friday in about 3 days, which is good, because right now I’m just counting the days until I go back to the states for my month+ long winter vacation.  For those curious, here’s how I generally look at my work-week:

Monday:  My first two classes of the day are also my worst-behaved of the week.  So, if I can make it through those two without getting too angry, things are good.  Plus, at that school (which I will call GS), the teacher has decided that she doesn’t like my lessons, and so I’m basically a pronunciation monkey for her.  Makes my life easy, so I don’t complain.  Mondays I teach 4-5 classes, and I am usually done teaching by 2 or 3, and my remaining hours (until 5) are spent anxiously awaiting someone to upload the week’s new episode of True Blood, and then downloading it.  That evening, I go home and treat myself to one of my Belgian or German beers that I hoard when I find them.

Tuesday:  On Tuesday I am at my favourite school (which I will call US), and the students there love me and come to my desk to try and practice their English with me, which 90% of the time is cute, and not too annoying the other 10% of the time.  The students there are generally actually interested in learning English, and their pronunciation is the best on the island, in my opinion, so my job there is relatively easy.  Plus, the teachers there are generally happy, so the environment is nice.  The best part about Tuesdays, though, is that by 1:00 or so (and I only teach 2-3 classes), I get to head home, because that school is sane and releases me after I’m finished teaching, rather than making me sit uselessly at my desk until 5.  Tuesday evenings I spend either in front of my computer or out walking, or both.

Wednesday:  Wednesday I am back at GS, which is rarely pleasant as the teachers always seem very angry and stressed.  The students are my worst-behaved and their English is the worst, so my job there can be relatively stressful sometimes.  But, my afternoons I have no classes, so I spend that time working on my various websites, or on editing photos, etc.  Plus, after that day is done, I only have two days left in the week.  I theoretically have a workshop for the middle school teachers that day in the afternoon, but it only happens about half the time.  I teach 3-4 classes on Wednesday, plus the occasional workshop.  Wednesdays are cooking days, so my evening is usually a mix of cooking and cleaning.

Thursday:  Thursdays I am at GN, which is a decent school.  I love my co-teacher there, and like US, the teachers and students are generally in a pretty positive mood, so it’s a comfortable environment.  Some of my students there are good, some are bad, though the ones that are good are really good, so that’s nice.  I usually teach 3-4 classes on Thursday, and they’re almost aways all in a row, which can be hard, but I’m usually done by 2:30 at the latest, and then I go home.  I teach a workshop for elementary school teachers at 4pm at another school, and so I go home and surf un-censored internet for an hour or two before I have to head out again.  The teachers in that workshop are pretty low-level, which is a challenge, but all my previous experience has been with teaching adults, and the teachers are nice, so it’s usually fun.  Thursdays I almost invariably eat at the street-stand sandwich place in town, where they know me so well they start making my sandwich as I walk up to the counter.

Friday:  Friday is, well, Friday, so it’s almost always a good day.  Fridays I am back at US, and I usually only teach 2 classes, so I’m done by 11:30.  I usually stick around until lunch at 12:30, as a free meal is welcomed, and US has the best food of the three schools, but if I need to head out earlier to catch a bus or something, I can.  Because I am finished so early, and my days at US are so easy, Fridays almost don’t feel like a work day, which results in my weekends feeling almost like a three day weekend.

So, in short, Monday sucks, but then Tuesday goes by like a bullet train, Wednesdays suck but then Thursdays are okay and I spend them looking forward to Friday, then Friday is almost a non-workday.  So, really, it makes things go by rather quickly.  I have mostly been sticking around on the weekends, though I was going to head up to the province north of here to check out the foliage this weekend, until the weather called for rain and clouds there.  Maybe next weekend.  Sometime in November I need to make a trip up to Seoul to hit the expat store and an expat bar or two (I now have a ring I wear to fiddle with in class, and if I go to a bar by myself, I just switch which finger it’s on and the men mostly leave me alone – haha), but in general, I’m trying to stick around town more, since with the economy the way it is, I need to save my money.  I am still going to do the Trans-Siberian on the way home, but I may cut my time in Europe a little shorter than I originally planned, unless the economy rebounds.

Anyway, this entry is long enough, so I’ll stop now, especially since I’m cross-posting it to Waygook Next Door.


Some thoughts…

I do a lot of web surfing in my copious amounts of free time at work, and with web surfing inevitably comes daydreaming.

I was meandering around wikipedia and various expat blogs today and I started thinking; if Marc and I were not together, or if he were somehow able to fit into my pocket, what would I do?  Where would I go?

Before I came to Korea, I told a few people that if Marc and I were to break up before I got back to the US, that as a coping mechanism (because really, it would hit me pretty hard) I would look around for a tall ship to sign onto for a few months or so.  I haven’t sailed in years, but it’s a good way to get away from the world.  Your life is pretty much work/sleep/work/sleep/work/shoreleave/drink/sleep, and while it does get tedious, it is also refreshing in its simplicity.  Plus, on a ship, you’re pretty much cut off from the world except for your crewmates, and if you’re not socially inclined, they tend to leave you alone, I have found.

I think that path is still something I would consider, though these days I think I would be more likely to go and try to find work in other countries that I have more of an interest in.  Russia would be interesting, especially places other than Moscow or St. Petersburg, such as Krasnoyarsk or Perm, on the edges of Siberia.  Mongolia would also be neat, as would Slovakia, Croatia, or even Turkey.  I would love to work in Germany, or Switzerland, or France – countries where I know people and speak the language to varying degrees – but it is almost impossible to get jobs in them.

I get irritated with the culture here in Korea, but that is not because it is foreign – on the contrary, I love integrating myself into new cultures – it is because the culture and I do not personally mesh.  I’m sure it’s different up in Seoul (though, from reading the forum posts, only somewhat different), but down here in Jindo, I find that people are generally rude, inconsiderate, dirty, selfish, and closed.  Not everything, but if I had to characterize, that’s what I would say.  But, the cultures I have listed above are all ones I feel I would be at least moderately compatible with, for different reasons, and they are places I think it would be interesting to live for a temporary period of time.

Hopefully I will get to visit all of those places for more than a cursory glance, but I hope it will be with Marc, not without him.

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