Sunday, February 26, 2012

Why I Blog


It's been about six weeks since I left my job and I can feel that things are starting to change. The first phase of unemployment -- "decompression" -- is coming to an end, and my mind and spirit are embarking on a new journey. I feel meditative and contemplative, and have started to explore deeper questions about who I am, who I want to be, and how I can use my skills and talents to make meaningful contributions to the world. Having the time and freedom to explore my life purpose is a powerful experience. I have only started to appreciate what a gift this is, and the endless possibilities that lie ahead. It's humbling to realize that life is truly a blank slate which I can mold and shape into my dreams.

It's astonishing to look back and realize how many years I spent on a conveyor belt, moving along and ticking off achievements because that's what I was supposed to do. Why did I go to graduate school? Because that's what the other top students in my class were doing, and I couldn't be satisfied with myself unless I achieved the highest possible degree in my field. It's frightening and distressing to realize that so many of my decisions were based on logic and reasoning, without any consideration for my own passions and purpose in life. But I can't fault myself for this, as I never took the time to explore who I was and what I wanted while I was so busy achieving and accomplishing.

After all we are human beings, not human doers. -- Chopra Center

While it has taken me 33 years to get to this point, I am grateful to be going through this process now. And it truly is a process. It's exhilarating, humbling, and confusing. At times, I feel like a toddler wandering around my inner self, struggling to identify what I see, frustrated at not being able to clearly communicate what I feel, and trying to make sense of all of the new concepts I'm learning.

It's still early in my journey, but some recurrent themes are starting to appear in my self-reflections. One of my strongest passions is to share knowledge, learnings, and experiences with others. Some might call this teaching, but I think that it's more than that. It's inspiring others to learn, tackling complex ideas and translating them into meaningful, easy-to-digest concepts, and empowering an audience with new knowledge.

And this, my friends, is why I've started this blog -- to be a source of information, inspiration, and encouragement for you as stumble my way through life.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

To Everything, There is a Schengen

Europe is a popular destination for many travelers, including Americans. Whether you're tracing your heritage, exploring historical sites, or marveling at natural landscapes, there's no shortage of reasons to go. (Fresh pastries and cafe au lait are enough to persuade me!)

Fortunately, traveling to Europe is easy for US passport holders. Most European countries don't require a visa for short-term stays and, as we discussed previously, this saves valuable time and money in planning your travels.

However, if you'd like to visit Europe for more than 90 days, then you need to be aware of a slightly-confusing-yet-very-important immigration zone called the Schengen Area. The Schengen Area is a passport-controlled region that allows visitors to freely travel between its 25 member countries without any internal border checks. Think of it like the United States – you're only subject to border controls upon arrival, not when passing between individual states.

Map of the Schengen Area. From
So what's the catch? Americans are allowed to visit the Schengen Area for 90 days within a 180 day period. This 90 day limit includes all of the time you've spent within its member states. In other words, you don't get 90 days in France, 90 days in Spain, and 90 days in Italy during the same trip. Since these are all Schengen countries, you can spend no more than a combined total of 90 days in all three coutries. And here's the real kicker – once your 90 days are up, you have to leave the Schengen Area for another 90 days to reset the clock.

What to do if you'd like to stay in Europe, but have used up your Schengen time? Head to a non-Schengen country, such as UK, Ireland, Andorra, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Albania, Montengro, Macedonia, Moldova, Cyprus, Turkey, Belarus, or Ukraine. As US passport holder, you can visit most of these countries for 90 days visa-free (that's 90 days per country!) Romania and Bulgaria are currently under consideration for Schengen membership and could join as early as March 2012.

In short, if you're an American tourist who wants to spend more than 90 days in Europe, you'll probably have to keep moving every three months. That might not be a bad itinerary, as you can country hop according to the seasons. Perhaps spring on the beaches of Croatia, summer in the south of France, fall in Britain’s Sherwood Forest, and winter in Spain’s Costa del Sol? Hmmm... I think that I can find a way to work with that!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Traveling Visa-Free

Visiting your country of choice isn't as easy as it seems in the movies... dashing to the ticket counter, hopping on the next flight to Bangkok, and arriving in time to sip Siam Sunrays at sunset. The reality is that you have to deal with immigration and border control, which can be relatively simple or painfully difficult depending on where you're from, where you're going, and why you're visiting.

US passport holders are pretty lucky compared to many other nationals. As of 2011, we can travel to 169 countries visa free or with a visa upon arrival. Not having to apply for a visa ahead of time is a big deal -- visas cost money, require lots of paperwork, and can take weeks for processing.

Visa restriction index as of August 2011. From
Once you've arrived, how long can you stay in a country? The answer partly depends on why you're there. As tourists, US citizens can visit many countries for up to 90 days visa-free. We're entitled to even longer tourist stays (180 days or more) in Canada, the Bahamas, Mexico, Panama, the UK and Ireland. Do you want an option that lets you stay, play, and work as long as you want? Consider the US territories and commonwealths, such as Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands, and Guam -- you don't even need a passport to go!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Why I Travel

Some little girls dream of their wedding day. Others dream about becoming a doctor, lawyer, or mother. My dreams have always revolved around international travel. I pictured far-away lands full of ancient relics, exotic landscapes with crystal clear waters and dramatic mountain bluffs, and the adventure of meeting new people from all walks of life. I’ve always enjoyed “new” and “foreign” experiences and couldn’t wait until it was my time to enjoy them too.

I got my first taste of international travel in college when I’d visit Europe during Spring Break (fares were pretty reasonable in March!) Then, as my professional career blossomed, I took trips abroad for international conferences and workshops. But in all of these times, over all of these trips, I’ve never visited any destination for more than a couple of weeks.

Like a typical American tourist, I’ve racked up countries by the handful during each trip. Rome, Madrid, Paris – I’ve covered them all in ten days! But I’ve always longed for more. I’ve always dreamed of having a chance to settle into a place, getting to know its everyday rhythms and interacting with locals on a daily basis.

Now, after many years of dreaming and wanderlust, I’ve traded in my job, home, and most of my belongings to do just that. To have an opportunity to “alter my cadence” as Rolf Potts describes it, and take it slow. I’ve been fortunate to see many places, but I want to start getting to know them. When the motivation for your journey is the experience, the place doesn’t really matter that much. I travel for the sake of traveling, not for visiting any particular place.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Budget-Friendly Destinations

In our recent post, we discussed how your travel style impacts the cost of your trip. Depending on when you go, where you stay, and what you eat, your bottom line can vary considerably.

But not all travel costs are a matter of personal choice. Some destinations are simply more expensive than others. It's important to keep this in mind if you have your heart set on a particular travel style but are limited by a modest budget. Would you rather indulge in luxurious accommodations, fine dining, and first-class transportation in Vietnam? Or, for a similar price, would you rather stay in hostel dorms, eat street food, and ride public buses in London?

By understanding the daily costs of a destination, you can set a reasonable travel budget and keep those expectations in check. Thankfully, someone's already done the work for you. Price of Travel has compiled a Backpacker Index (2012) with daily costs for 116 cities worldwide. Prices are listed in USD and include: 
  • A dorm bed at a good and cheap hostel
  • 3 budget meals
  • 2 public transportation rides
  • 1 paid cultural attraction
  • 3 cheap beers (as an “entertainment fund”)
The cheapest city on the list is Pokhara, Nepal, which comes in at $15.83 per day. At the other extreme, Zurich, Switzerland, was the most expensive place they surveyed with a daily cost of $121.36.

You can browse the entire list on our nifty interactive map below.

View Backpacker Index: 116 global destinations for 2012 in a full screen map

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Low-Cost Travel

It's no secret that the costs of travel can vary from person-to-person, based on your individual tastes and preferences. Some of the factors that can influence the price of your trip include:
  • The time of year that you visit. Expect to pay top dollar for flights and accommodations during holidays and high tourist seasons since everyone else wants to visit too! Off-seasons can be a great bargain, but be aware that some local business may close up shop when the tourists are gone. Our favorite time to travel is the shoulder season, which offers a good compromise between affordability and availability.
  • How long you stay. You may be able to negotiate a better deal on accommodations if you stay longer.
  • Where you sleep. Do you prefer to stay in a hotel or a hostel? Campground or apartment? Generally speaking, the more space, privacy, and comforts you require, the more you'll pay for your accommodations.
  • What you eat. Restaurants aren't the only dining option. You can eat more affordably by buying groceries and preparing your own meals. Don't discount the local street food, either!
  • What you like to do for fun & entertainment. Do you like to visit museums? Attend sporting events? Go shopping? Picnic in the park? There are entertainment options available for every budget.
Knowing your travel style can help you identify the best resources for planning your trip. For example, the Let's Go series, which is written by Harvard college students, is geared towards younger travelers on a shoestring budget. In contrast, Frommers caters to a higher-end crowd by offering in-depth guides on the most popular destinations. Want to learn more? Rick Steves has got it covered. See his handy comparison of the major guidebooks here.

Do you have a favorite guidebook series? We'd love to hear your recommendations.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

10 Things We're Grateful for Now

It's been more than 6 weeks since Jim quit his job, and almost 3 since Natalie left hers. Time's been flying by as we wrap up our lives here in Phoenix and make plans for the next step. In the midst of all of this commotion, we decided to take a few moments to reflect on what we're most grateful for now.

1. Sleeping in as late as we want to. We love staying up late, so it's great to be able to sleep 'til the double digits every day.

Please do not disturb.
2. Eating more fresh fruits and veggies. We're glad to be eating a healthier diet these days. We cook most of our own meals, eat very little meat or processed foods, and are losing weight. Win-win, if you ask us!

So colorful and so tasty!
3. Rediscovering our passions. This is a biggie. Jim's been mountain biking several days a week and Natalie's broken out the colored pencils and has started drawing again.

Ready to shred the gnar.
4. Exploring new hobbies. Who said old dogs can't learn new tricks? Natalie picked up crochet over the holidays and has enjoyed putting her skills to use by making brooches, scarves, blankets, and hats. Jim has been learning about everything else.

Homemade gifts for friends and family.
5. Living within walking or biking distance of everything we need. After we sold our home, we made a point to find an apartment that's close to a library, park, and grocery stores. It's been a great way to save money on gas and get some exercise!

Have basket, will haul groceries.
 6. Reconnecting with family and friends. While we were working, we didn't do a very good job of keeping in touch with the people we love. Now we're back and more chatty than ever!

That's good craic!
7. Playing at the park. The park has become our backyard now that we're living in an apartment. Getting out and seeing the sunshine is good for the soul.

Playing ball with Mylo at the park.
8. Day dreaming about our adventures. We spend a lot of time dreaming about where our travels will lead us. It's fun to fantasize about the all of the amazing things we'll see, the people we'll meet, and the things we'll do along the way.

The property we'll be taking care of in Provence.
9. Taking advantage of our local library. We can't say enough good things about the Phoenix Public Library. They've got an impressive collection of books, eBooks, and DVDs that can be checked out for weeks at a time!

10. Spending more time together. 'Nuff said.

A bicycle ride for two.