Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Holidays Away from Home

I never knew how much holidays meant to me. I mean, I've always  had a penchant for cutesy holiday-themed treats, but this runs deeper than that. I miss the tradition of celebrating with friends and family. I miss the fireworks, the pumpkin carving, and the holiday lights. I miss the intoxicating smell of the Thanksgiving turkey cooking in the oven, sneaking a taste of prime rib before it's served on Christmas Day, and drinking green beer on St. Patty's Day. There's a strange void when these events vanish completely.

Gobble, gobble!
Today is Halloween and it's one of my favorite holidays. I've been surprised to see a few costumes pop up in stores here in South Africa, as well as special features like "Nightmare on Elm Street" showing on TV. I could certainly go buy a pumpkin at the grocery store, carve it, and display it on the doorstep, but it doesn't have the same impact when you're the only one celebrating!

Violence is never the answer. Not even for zombie nurses.
We have another big holiday coming up during our stay in South Africa: Thanksgiving. Jim and I are hoping to find a turkey (we haven't seen one yet!) and host a proper feast for our neighbors. We'll probably be making the stuffing and pumpkin pie from scratch, as I don't think they're going to be available in a box or pre-made. And the cranberries? I guess we'll have to improvise. They seem to be a New World thing!

The good news is that we'll be home for Christmas. That's right, we're coming back to Phoenix in December! As you can see from our travel map, it's going to be a long trek back across the Atlantic. We're breaking it up with a stopover in Europe (more time in Croatia!), and will arrive in Arizona at the beginning of December.

Have we decided to quit traveling? No, not yet. Our trip to Phoenix is only an extended visit. After the New Year, we want to change course and head south for a while. We've got an urge to flex our Spanglish muscles... and we miss tacos and hot sauce.

We are both very excited to be coming home to Arizona. It will be so wonderful to be surrounded by a comfy, familiar world again, full of awesome friends who we've missed hanging out with! So mark your calendars, and let us know when you're around. We can't wait to see you!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Lessons from France

It's been nearly 2 months since we left France, and I think it's finally safe to say that enough time has passed that most of my negative feelings about the experience have passed -- at least my blood doesn't boil at the first thought of it anymore! So I figured that now's a good time to start talking about what happened.

While it was clear from my posts that I wasn't exactly into the country life, the larger issues ran much deeper than just our physical location. They had to do with two key aspects of life: mixing business with pleasure and personal insecurities.

I've always found it challenging to do business with friends. This experience hasn't come up often, but when it does, it sets off some inner turmoil. To me, business is very cut and dry, matter-of-fact, durable and efficient. (Perhaps that's my German heritage speaking!) It's usually easy for me to distance myself from interpersonal feelings and make rational decisions when it comes to business. Does this make sense? Is it the most effective use of resources? How can we do this better?

The struggle occurs when there's personal relationships involved. While I've always enjoyed being friends with my co-workers, if we're especially close outside of work, then it's tough to balance the needs of a business with sensitivity towards the person. How can you remain unbiased when someone you care about might get hurt?

In France, Jim and I didn't see eye-to-eye on our roles and expectations as housesitters. I felt that we were overextending ourselves beyond the original expectations, and wanted to establish clear boundaries with all of the parties involved (the homeowners, rental agency, guests, etc.) But the catch was that Jim and I didn't necessarily agree on those boundaries. It's hard to put up a unified front when one half isn't committed to the same cause.

We were able to make compromises on smaller, everyday occurrences. For example, the needy local rental agent once asked us to put together a gift basket for the guests on behalf of her company ("just sign the card with my name and I'll pay you back"). The thought of doing this, for free, on behalf of a paid employee sitting at a desk 15 minutes away from the property (who's earning a nice commission thanks this arrangement) seemed completely ludicrous. When I found out that Jim had agreed to do it as a favor, I flipped... and that's putting it mildly.

Clearly, this wasn't a time when I was willing to sit back and let it go, and Jim realized that too. He quickly called her back and explained that we weren't going to be able to help her out.

What's the lesson in this? It's that sometimes, depending on the situation, it's vital to put your relationships before business. Jim may never understand why that gift basket was such a big deal to me, but he sure could tell that it was more important to respect how upset it made me rather than do a favor for the local agent.

So what were the bigger issues we faced? A lot of them boiled down to our individual thoughts on being "fairly compensated." I tried desperately to keep my responsibilities in line with what I thought was fair, whereas I felt that Jim gave way too much for way too little in return. In the end, as much as it pained me, I was forced to let it go. I wish I could say that I did this gracefully, but avoiding battles led to a lot of sulking. It was hard to overlook what felt like an unjust arrangement. All I could do was manage my own circle, and let Jim be. I was only causing more distress by being upset for him.

The second major hurdle that I faced in France was a very old demon: my own personal insecurities. As part of our housesitting commitment, I had agreed 6 hours of weekly cleaning. This included 2 days of "tidying up" (making beds, picking up towels, wiping down the sinks) and helping the housekeeper turn over the rental on  Saturdays, our change over day. I had absolutely no problem with doing this work; I willingly accepted these chores, and didn't have any resentment over some light housekeeping.

The guests treated me pleasantly, too. Since we had already interacted several times before I'd pop into the house to clean, I was never really labeled as "the maid." Except for one unsavory guest, who demanded that I make him coffee (not a chance, buddy! I've worked with surgeons and attorneys, you don't intimidate me!), most of the time the guests went out of their way to keep things tidy and would tell me not to bother with fussing over the bed pillows.

So if I didn't resent the work, felt adequately compensated, and was treated well by the guests, why did I feel insecure? It was all in my head.

For some reason, I felt very compelled to justify that I chose to do this work (i.e., I chose to be an unemployed housesitter and travel the world) and, more critically, that I was an intelligent person.

I am by no means implying that someone who cleans isn't smart or even well-educated. But to me, the worst feeling in the world would have been to be mistaken as a flake.

I have a t-shirt that perfectly captures this sentiment. It's baby pink and features a '50s housewife, apron strings and all, with her hands in the air, exclaiming, "and to think I have a Ph.D."
From Cafe Press.
I really wish I had brought that shirt with me to France. While it seems like a lighthearted poke at filling a traditional female role (despite being overeducated), it also serves another purpose. In my mind, it screams, "I am a smart, educated, and independent woman, and am doing this activity because I choose to do it! I can even make a joke of it!"

While you may not find the humor in this slogan, I'm sure you can agree that it's broadcasting another message: it advertises proudly that I have a Ph.D. Little did I know, that's really what I was looking for in buying this shirt.

Once I finally realized why I felt so insecure about doing housekeeping, it brought back a stream of emotions related to why I went to grad school in the first place. It was what all of the top students were doing. I had to do it because I wouldn't be satisfied with "only" a Bachelor's degree; I had to get the highest degree in my field. Earning a Ph.D. would clearly establish that I was an intelligent person. Wow, I sure spent a lot of years dedicated to supporting my ego. Now that I wasn't getting any recognition for it, I felt vulnerable and exposed.

So now what? I'm not quite sure. But it's clear that I need to start taking pride in things besides my academic achievements. I've heard that defining yourself in terms of your job is a very American concept. Maybe our continued travels will open my eyes to things that other cultures regard as valuable. Perhaps the first step is not being so hard on myself and taking pride in trying to be a good person every day. Sounds smart, doesn't it?

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

West Coast Wildflowers

We arrived in South Africa just in time to catch the annual wildflower season (remember, it's spring here in the southern hemisphere!) The Western Cape has designated Flower Routes for budding floriculturists to enjoy nature's colorful display.

We combined flower viewing with a visit to West Coast National Park, located about 75 miles north of Cape Town. Spring flowers are a lucrative attraction for the park; they open a special section for two months of the year and double the cost of admission (88 Rand per person, or 10 USD).

Only a limited palette of orange and yellow flowers were still blooming during our visit, but, to be fair, it was the very last day of the season.
DCH, these made me think of you!
Does this scream Claritin commercial or what?
Thankfully, the wildflowers weren't the only eye candy in the park. There were also some nice panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean.

But I'd have to say that my personal favorite was catching a glimpse of the local wildlife!
Mountain zebra
Springbok, like the rugby team!
Another highlight was our lovely lunch at Geelbeck Restaurant, which is located inside the park. The restaurant is housed in a historic Cape Dutch building built in 1744. The brochure advertised "traditional South African fare prepared by local Malay women," so it sounded too good to pass up!

I had Cape Malay Chicken Curry and Jim had Bobotie, a spiced meat casserole with an eggy topping. They were both delicious! Our meals were served with local veggies and homemade pumpkin pie (apparently that's not just an American thing!)
That's bobotie!
No antelopes or zebras were harmed in the preparation of our lunch... at least we don't think so. But we did pick up a nice animal hide as a souvenir! Just kidding! We only brought back photos, I swear.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

To Catch a Tortoise

After 30 minutes of running in circles around the backyard, Jim was able to capture a few pictures of our tortoises! Those little guys are surprisingly quick!

What do you think? Are they cute or what?

Monday, October 15, 2012

Driving Backwards

During our time here in South Africa, we've had the privilege of using the owner's car. Here it is:

Blast from the past!
Is that a 1984 Volkswagen Rabbit? Why no, it's a 2006 Volkswagen Citi! The Rabbit was produced in South Africa from 1984 to 2009 with minor face lifts here and there (The Internet, 2012). Apparently, there is a little problem with car theft around here, so while it doesn't have power steering, power windows, or airbags, the Citi does have the most obstinate factory car alarm that's ever been installed. The unlock button disarms the alarm for approximately 1.3 seconds, in which time you must enter, sit down, and shut the door before it re-arms and detonates. Once we're in, we sit in fear of touching anything lest we set off the alarm. Don't touch the radio! It's rigged!

Driving the car is a whole other matter. Here in South Africa, they drive on the left side of the road. I think they started doing this in the '60s when The Beetles were really big (The Internet, 2012).  Before arriving, several people told me, "Don't worry about it. Driving on the opposite side is easy. Five minutes and it will be totally natural." After experiencing it, I have come to the realization that these people are either:
  1. Supremely gifted ambidextrous drivers.
  2. Total liars with good intentions.
  3. BSers who have never driven on the opposite side of the road in their lives.
As it turns out, driving on the opposite side of the road in a backwards car is wicked hard! Something that I can normally do in my sleep (but try not to), has become an experience that ranges from mentally exhausting to completely terrifying. If I manage to get into the car on the correct side, I reach over my left shoulder for the seat belt, but it's not there. Then, I grab the window crank with my right hand and try to shift. Once I realize that the gear shift is on my left, I grope for it blindly until I'm convinced that it's gone missing.

The fun doesn't end there. Once we've made it out of the driveway, it takes me about 30 minutes to realize that the rear view mirror is on my left side, not the right. Also, much to Natalie's dismay, the left side of the car doesn't exist to me, making for a thrilling passenger experience. So far, I've managed to run over several obstacles on that side. Cyclists and traffic cones, beware! I have also manged to hit the brake pedal instead of the clutch. That would wake you up if the brakes weren't complete rubbish...

Hover over different parts of the picture to learn more!
Then, there is the mental challenge of driving on the "wrong" side of the road. I live in fear that cars are coming from every possible direction, because they are! I can't take a right-hand turn without looking over my right shoulder in the unnerving belief that someone is coming up behind me. If someone isn't in front of me at a red light to guide me through an intersection, I just aim for anything that isn't headlights. In other words, nothing is automatic. If it is automatic, then it's a good sign that I'm driving into oncoming traffic.

Like most travelers, I generally strive to fit in and avoid drawing attention to myself. Well, the other day, every one of the aforementioned challenges clearly outed me as the guy who's "not from around here." We stopped for gas at the petrol station where the local fishermen were refilling their boats and exchanging fish stories (cuz that's what fisherman do (The Internet, 2012)). While the attendant filled our tank, the car determined that more than 1.3 seconds had elapsed without engine operation and re-armed the alarm. When I started the car to leave, the alarm detonated, blasting the horn and flashing the lights. I tried pushing the disarm button, but to no avail. In my panic, I turned on the windshield wipers, which up to this point I'd never learned to activate (or for that matter, to deactivate). As I fumbled around, I could sense the annoyed looks of the fisherman penetrating through my freshly cleaned windshield. Thinking it would be best to leave the scene and deal with this down the road, I bucked and lurched the car out of the station with horn blaring, lights flashing, wipers wiping, and driving down the wrong side of the road. I'm pretty sure that no one noticed.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Lazy Days and Long Walks on the Beach

We've become quite lazy here in our South African beach house. There's something about this place that instantly puts us at ease. Maybe it's sound of the waves, the sea breeze, or the laid-back atmosphere of this small fishing village. It's all wonderfully relaxing.

Even the internet connection is reminding us to take it slow. For me, this has resulted in endless games of Mahjong while I wait for webpages to load, whereas Jim has really embraced his inner bookworm. He's reading anything he can get his hands on, from Nelson Mandela's autobiography to how-to manuals.

One of our favorite pastimes has been taking long walks on the beach with our two favorite blondes, Pella and Biscuit. We thought you might enjoy a few photos of our stroll along Pearl Bay, the local beach.  I already have that I'm-gonna-miss-this-place feeling...*sigh*

That's Table Mountain in the distance!

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Expense of Travel: September

Well my friends, the month of September cost us a massive $3,820 and broke our streak of frugal living! So what happened?

First off, we bought flights to leave South Africa in late November. We're far from pretty much everywhere that isn't Africa or Antarctica, so it cost $2,100 for both of us to arrive at our next destination. At least we'll get a couple of frequent flier miles out of the deal.

So what about the other $1,700? How did we go from spending $700/month on daily expenses one month and then rack up $1,700 the next?! Simple.We went to England...and rented an apartment near London. In 12 days we went through $1,040. To put that into perspective, the same amount would have lasted us 40 days in France! The other $700 went to expenses once we arrived in South Africa. We stayed a few days in Cape Town where we paid for a guesthouse and did touristy things (the aquarium was pricey, but I'd still recommend it. They have a shark tank.). We also had to buy groceries and other sundries to outfit our new home. The first grocery shopping trip is always a big one.

So there you have it. As a result of September, our monthly average increased to about $1,200/month. Still under our original $2,000/month estimate and sure to subside as we house sit for the next two months. As always, I present to you the monthly expenses chart for all the time we've been on the road. We spent so much on September lodging that I had to move the title block!
For a better explanation of the categories, go here!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Our New Digs in South Africa

We've just finished our first week as housesitters here in South Africa. Things are starting to fall into place (we've found the grocery store, unpacked our bags, and have even done laundry!) and we're feeling a bit more settled in our new home.

It seems to take us about 2 weeks to get our bearings. I think that's pretty good, considering each move constitutes a change in not only living arrangements, but also countries, languages, and currencies!

The house we're staying in might best be described as a beach cottage. That's not to say we're roughing it here -- this is a proper year-round home with modern amenities -- it's just a very simple, relaxing, and homey place that makes you feel like you're on vacation. It's even close enough to the ocean to hear the waves crashing on the beach. How wonderful is that?

Our backyard, with native fynbos vegetation
We also have our very own pet menagerie: a pair of lovable Labrador Retrievers, a savvy kitty, and countless tortoises (who've unofficially taken up residence in the backyard).
Mugwa the cat and Pella the Lab
Old man Biscuit, whom I've affectionately dubbed "Brutus"
All in all, we're feeling really great about this housesit. A laid-back beach town is just what we needed!