Monday, November 26, 2012

Gute Nacht from Frankfurt!

Sunday morning started off with a panic. I had a rough night’s sleep due to my ever-growing list of things to do before we left for the airport. Do laundry. Collect our VAT receipts. Take a shower. Pack away our carry-ons. Stuff our backpacks. Send last-minute emails. Return the vacuum to our neighbors. Sweep up the dog hair. Strip the bed and collect our towels. And, most importantly, spend at least 5 blissful minutes savoring the sweet afternoon sunshine whilst listening to the ocean on our back patio.

I’m pretty sure that the pet menagerie knew something was up, as they’ve never seen me rush around so frantically before. Pella hid under the coffee table, her trademark “you can’t kick me out and leave if I’m here” move, Biscuit looked up at me sadly with his big brown eyes, not even bothering to ask for a belly scratch this morning, and Mugwa the cat just got the heck out of my way.

Five hours later, we finished the list. “Wow! You’re done really early -- nearly an hour to spare!” Jim exclaimed. (Given my notorious history of last-minute packing, this actually was a pretty remarkable achievement.) “Yes, but I knew it was going to be a big push today. I haven’t been this stressed in months!” I remarked.

Before we knew it, a bare-footed bear of a man (the incoming housesitter, who somehow maintains his imposing build on vegetables alone) was at our door to take us to the airport. We rushed through check-in, VAT refund, security, passport control, and currency exchange with just enough time to arrive at the gate for “boarding.” I use quotation marks because while the airport monitors said “boarding,” passengers at the gate were clearly *not* boarding. A few minutes later, the monitors refreshed, indicating a 2-hour delay…

About 2 hours and 30 minutes later, people were starting to get restless. We could see the plane on the tarmac, so knew that we weren’t waiting for another flight to arrive. It also couldn’t be the weather, as a Lufthansa flight had just recently departed for Munich. “The flugzeug fliegt nicht,” I told Jim. Then, moments later, the captain and co-pilot appeared at the gate and approached the boarding desk. A crowd gathered around, and the captain began to speak:
“Guten tag, hindelkassen wergarhdtsstadf kndergrautenze flugzeug scweischertrschlizt groschlisnghaus mechanisch gwentwizerbosch…[5 more minutes of indecipherable German]… Danka.”
(I have only completed Unit 1 of Rosetta Stone German, which thankfully includes a lesson on basic greetings and a boy sitting under an airplane.)

The captain then said,
“Oh, is there anyone here who doesn’t understand German?”
A handful of Anglo passengers sheepishly raised their hands.
“I will repeat for you the interesting parts. The flight is delayed. We have booked accommodation for you for tonight. You will get a slip of paper under the door of your hotel room in the morning with information on our new departure time.”
Many hours and several German-only announcements later, we had collected our bags, were corralled through immigration, and hopped charter buses en route to our hotels. While I had hoped to return to Cape Town someday, this wasn’t exactly what I had in mind.
Southern Sun Hotel in Cape Town
The next morning, the front desk gave us an early wake-up call to inform us that the buses were leaving at 8 AM. Not wanting to push our luck with German punctuality (have you ever ridden their trains? I swear they are timed to the second!), we hurriedly packed, showered, and scarfed down a gut-busting breakfast with our new German freunden.

Back at the airport, we repeated the check-in process (except this time it was performed en masse with 300 passengers) and claimed our usual seats at the gate. Finally, after a 17-hour delay, we boarded our flight from Cape Town to Frankfurt.

But weren’t we headed to Croatia? Yes, we were (and still are) heading to Zagreb. But we arrived too late in Germany to catch a connecting flight. This means a second night at a hotel on Condor’s nickel. Not ideal, but it’s much nicer to sleep in a bed rather than a cramped economy seat or an airport bench.

Sheraton at Frankfurt Airport
I may have jinxed us on Sunday by proclaiming, “Next stop, Zagreb!” in my Facebook status. So, this time, I’ll just say “Guten nacht from Frankfurt!”

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Low-Down on My Favorite Travel Gear

It's packing time again! We will be back at the airport in a few days on our trip back to the States.

After 7 months of travel, I've got a better feel for which items I couldn't live without, which ones were missing from my initial packing list, and which things I should have left at home.

I've listed the highlights below, along with links to websites (such as where you can find out more information. You should know that we're a part of the Amazon Affiliates program, which provides a small commission for any sales that come through our links. It doesn't cost you any extra; it's just a perk that provides for referring customers to their site. I'm describing these products because I like them, not because I'm trying to rack up the advertising dollars.

The 10 Most Useful Items in My Backpack
Most of these items aren't specific to long-term or international travel, but they're all compact, multi-purpose and helpful if you're trying to save on space.
  1. A mini power strip. 
    One gadget that we can't live without is our Monster Outlets to Go Powerstrip. It's a 4-outlet extension cord with a compact design (less than 5" long). When you're traveling internationally, it's really nice to be able to charge multiple items on only one outlet. Then you only have to worry about bringing one travel adapter!
    Monster Outlets to Go Powerstrip with 4-outlets and a wrap-around cord, about $9
  2. Amazon Kindle e-Reader. 
    Even though I'm not a big reader, I still love my Kindle. We have one of the lower-end models with WiFi but no keyboard. What makes this product so great? It's really light (under 6 ounces) and you can download books on the fly. This is particularly helpful when you're in a non-English-speaking country, as your book selection can be limited. Between's Kindle eBook Store and the Phoenix Digital Library, we can usually find whatever we're looking for. Make sure to download free samples if they're available; it's nice to flip through a book before you buy it!

    Kindle with WiFi and 6" display, around $70
  3. A USB memory stick. 
    A USB stick is another highly versatile device for travelers. We use our USB stick to backup photos, keep electronic copies of important documents (like scans of our passports), and transfer files between computers. If you're going to keep personal information on one, make sure your drive is encrypted or password protected.

  4. A multi-tool. 
    I have a tiny Wenger Multi-Tool that I carry with me on my travels. It's about 2.5" long and has scissors, a file, a small knife, a toothpick, and tweezers. For more heavy-duty fixes, Jim swears by his Leatherman New Wave Multitool. Just remember to pack these items in your checked luggage!
    Wenger Multi-Tool, around $20
  5. A plastic, legal-size envelope. 
    Call me old-fashioned, but I like to carry around hard copies of my boarding passes, hotel confirmation, itinerary (if I have one!), and important travel documents. I highly recommend buying a snap-closure plastic envelope for organizing and protecting your documents. I prefer a legal-sized envelope since A4 paper (used in Europe) is larger than the standard 8.5" x 11" used in the US. Also, a snap closure is neater than Velcro, which always seems to collect lint and fuzz.
    Plastic Snap Closure Envelopes, set of 12 for $24
  6. Pens and a notebook. 
    This might sound obvious, but I find that it's always useful to have a stash of pens in each of my bags. Why? Because when you're traveling, there's no shortage of forms that need to be filled out. Bring some paper too, preferably in a notebook with removable pages. When faced with a language barrier, it can be easier to give your cabbie a piece of paper with an address, ask a local to draw you a map, or have a cashier write down prices rather than rely on only verbal communication. I also like to take notes on things like must-see attractions or local delicacies.

  7. A jacket with removable layers. 
    I'm crazy about coats and jackets, but when you're traveling, it's not really practical to bring along a pea coat, a fleece, a down jacket, and a windbreaker. That's why I love my Marmot component jacket. The inner layer is snuggly and warm, while the hooded outer layer makes a great windbreaker. Wear both layers together, or zip them apart and wear each one separately. It's 3 jackets in 1! I usually bring my jacket on board the plane for use as a spare pillow or blanket (and to save room in my luggage!)
    Marmot Madison Component Jacket, available from Second Ascent for around $200

  8. A travel-friendly cardigan and skirt. 
    I decided to bite the bullet and invest in a really nice black cardigan and travel skirt by The North Face. Normally, I don't believe the hype of specially-designated travel products. However, in this case, it was important to me to find something that could be easily washed by hand (if needed) and could withstand a lot of wear. I chose black since it's easy to dress up or down. Both pieces are comfortable and conservative, which means that I don't mind wearing them multiple days a week and can wear them just about anywhere.
    The North Face Crystal Wrap, available for $65
    The North Face Abby Skirt, available for $22
  9. Stretchy tank tops in neutral colors. 
    I just love my Gap Pure Body tanks. They're stretchy, soft, and maintain their shape after many rounds of wash and wear. I like layering these tanks under t-shirts, wearing them as a nightshirt, or using them as a coverup at the beach.
    Gap Pure Body Tank, available for $14.50

  10. Too Faced's Glamour-to-Go makeup palette. 
    While I wear makeup, I am not a big makeup person. The Too Faced Glamour To Go compact palette suits me just fine. It has more eyeshadows than I need, a bronzer, blush, and several shades of lip gloss. It's incredibly convenient to have all of these items packed into one set. But be sure to pack your own makeup brushes, as they're not included!
    Too Faced Glamour to Go II, available for $15

Stuff That I've Bought Along the Way
Forgetting to pack something isn't the end of the world, as you can usually buy it at your destination. But if you're particular about style or price, keep in mind that your options might be limited during your travels. It can also be tricky to figure out your international clothing or shoe size!
  • Jeans. I resisted bringing jeans because they can be a real pain to wash on the road. But there's few pieces of clothing that are as comfortable and versatile as a great pair of jeans. Do yourself a favor and pack your favorite all-around pair.
  • Small purse or daybag. I thought it was totally impractical to bring a purse. How could I pick just one to suit every occasion? Instead, I should have put more thought into a suitable day bag to carry our wallets, camera, GPS, and other small items. I recommend that you avoid tote bags with an open top, as they offer less security against pickpockets. I like one that has an interior zippered pocket (for my most valuable items) and can be carried in front of my body.
  • Travel-friendly microphone and earpiece for my laptop. We make a lot of calls via the internet. To improve call clarity, we purchased a wired headset that's similar to the hands-free devices that are sold with cell phones.
  • More t-shirts. I only brought 2 t-shirts with me. This wasn't enough! I wanted to wear t-shirts every day! The trick is to get t-shirts that are generic, as in, they don't feature prominent labels or words on them.
Things That I Shipped Home
Packing for longer trips is an art; bringing just enough stuff to stay comfortable, but not too much to be burdened down by extra gear. The following things never made it out of my backpack, so I shipped them back to the States.
  • iPod. I really like listening to tunes while I'm strolling along snapping photos, but I haven't used it very much on this trip -- I'd rather talk to Jim! If we want to listen to music at home, we just stream it over the internet.
  • Dresses. Dresses are great because you just throw them on and get out the door, right? True, but it's harder to re-wear them multiple days in a row. I preferred having separates that I can mix-and-match.
  • Belts. Never really wore 'em. Most of my shirts were long enough to cover my belt loops, anyways.
  • Jewelry. There haven't been many occasions where it was worth the trouble to sport earrings, necklaces, and bracelets. I recommend a few cheap pairs of earrings that you can wear with many outfits (and won't be devastated if they get lost along the way).
So that's the highlights! What items are on your must-have list?

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Monday, November 19, 2012

Countdown to Departure

We still have a week to go here in South Africa, but I've already checked out!

Our housesit in the Western Cape has been good to us. We've been enjoying some down time, hanging out with laid-back, lovable pets, and meeting lovely, interesting locals. But I can't help but get excited about what's to come. We have quite an adventure planned as we make our way back to Arizona for the holidays.

We decided to break up the long trip back to the States with a stopover in Europe. Where are we going? Croatia, of course! We loved our earlier visit to Croatia so much that I can't wait to go back. This time, instead of visiting the coast, we'll be spending a few days in Zagreb, the capital. It should have a completely different vibe than the sun-drenched shores of the Adriatic. Think cafes, museums and an Austro-Hungarian influence. I just love an urban atmosphere and am already salivating at the thought of getting out and exploring the city on foot. The only hitch is that the weather might be a shock to our systems: the average highs for November are in the 40s (5-10 C).

We might be picking up a pair of these at the airport to stay warm!
After Zagreb, we head west  to Las Vegas. We got a smashing deal on Condor Airlines, which offers several non-stop flights from Frankfurt to the US. I think that Vegas makes a great landing spot for our return to the States. (If you're gonna get in the pool, might as well dive into the deep end, right?) Actually, practically speaking, Vegas is a really convenient stop-over city. The airport is only 5 miles away from a slew of competitively priced hotels and, as an added bonus to jet-lagged travelers, the city is open 24 hours a day. This is a good thing when you're coming off of a 10-hour time difference!

We're spending a night in Vegas to recuperate from our long day of travel. Then, we'll drive back to the Valley (rather than take the 45-minute flight) so that we can move at our own pace. When you add in the check-in time at the airport and pick-up at the other end, it's pretty much a wash anyways!

Once we arrive in Arizona, we expect the time to pass quickly... too quickly! After 7 months of travel, being in a familiar place is about as awesome as putting on your favorite pair of slippers. Knowing how to get around, where to eat and shop, and having friends and family to hang out with will be a real treat. Oh, and everyone will be speaking English. Not South African English or Franglish or British English, but American English! It will be music to our ears!

We're also working on our travel plans for 2013. There's still a few more details to arrange, so stay tuned for our big announcement!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Happy Feet at Boulders Beach

During our travels, Jim and I have naturally fallen into some designated roles. One of the things that I enjoy doing is coming up with a short list of must-see sights... then it's up to Jim to get us there! (Do two people really need to endure the challenge of learning to drive on the left-hand side?)

Some of my top picks for Cape Town have been viewing the spring wildflowers, visiting Stellenbosch (a famous wine-growing region), admiring the view from atop Table Mountain, and sticking my toes in the Indian Ocean. We've been slowly chipping away at my list, usually taking one day trip each week.

The dramatic mountain views and vineyards in Stellenbosch.
You've probably heard of South African wine, but did you know that they also have an indigenous penguin population? Once I caught word of this, I just had to see them for myself.

The Boulders Beach penguin colony was established in the 1980s. It's part of the South African National Park system, charging 45 Rand (about $5) per person for admission. Worth every penny, if you ask me!

I must say, these penguins have some pretty sweet digs. The beach is surrounded by massive granite boulders, dramatic mountain vistas, and La Jolla-style luxury homes. Oh, and the Indian Ocean's not bad, either.

The African penguins themselves are relatively small, only coming up to your knee caps. They were formerly known as Jackass penguins due to their distinctive call... do they sound like a donkey to you?

There's just something mesmerizing and inherently charming about watching these little guys toddle around. The penguins were swarmed by a paparazzi of international tourists, myself included. I must have taken over 100 photos of them.

What did Jim think of the visit? All he said was, "I can't wait to tell our friends that this is what we were doing while they were at work."

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Expense of Travel: October

When it comes to saving money, house sitting is a close second to moving back in with your parents! The final numbers are in for October, and while it wasn't our most frugal month, it cost us a meager $747. The only surprising thing about this result is that we're spending as much here as we were in France. Our expectation was that South Africa would be a price break compared to Western Europe, but that hasn't turned out to be true in our case.

Last month, we spent $100 more on groceries than our monthly average in France. I guess the food here is more expensive (reports of us eating more are unconfirmed). I've started making pasta because it's priced like caviar in the stores. We've taken out a home equity loan on our house sit so that we can afford instant coffee. Decaf is out until one of the dogs sells, so I'm typing this twice as fast as usual. 

Now, I've been wondering for a while if we're really coming out ahead with house sitting. In other words, does the amount that we're saving in housing expenses offset the added cost of flying around every few months? After crunching the numbers, the answer is YES! Even though we paid for apartments and hotels between house sits and spent $4,600 on flights, we'll still save about $5,000 compared to our old cost of living. In fact, by the time we finish this house sit, we will have spent about $16,000 less than if we had stuck with our day jobs and lived in the townhouse! Based on this result, the next logical step would be to move in with our parents...

As always I present to you the graphical representation of our tabulated expenses to date.