Switching Gears: Consequences of Intentionally Shaking Things Up

am 1As of today, it’s been exactly one year since we packed up and left for our travel around the world. We named the blog, Switching Gears: Disrupt Routine, with the goal(s) of shaking ourselves out of the grind each of us were experiencing. Sarah used the opportunity to shift away from a 20-year career in teaching, Max sensed he might learn more from traveling than sitting in a classroom for a year, and I needed to gain new perspective on work as well as learn how to better enjoy life in general. Once back in MN, the constant change we experienced while traveling hasn’t stopped. Things we set in motion well before the trip continue to play out in all kinds of ways…. in ways I never could have imagined a year ago.

The trip and the time away were absolutely what I needed to get my head set in the right direction. I’m mentally healthier than I’ve been in at least a decade and feel as if I’ve adapted many new tools to keep me better centered as new work and life stresses come at me. I’ve worked hard over the years to be a solutions-focused kind of guy. Time away has also allowed me to better my efforts to also be far more positive and even try to be more fun while I’m at it. The trip and, more importantly, the time away were exactly what I needed and I will be forever thankful for the opportunity we had for the eight months away from Minneapolis.

One of Sarah’s additional goals, not stated in the blog, was to see if she and I could better come together as a couple. We had done a good job of being parents, partners in life, and a team on hundreds of projects through the years, but we had lost the spark needed in a relationship. To use an American football analogy, the trip was Sarah’s 3rd and long. We came up short on the outcome we were looking for and she needed to punt. Despite trying hard not to, she fell out of love with me.

fallsWe’ve decided to separate and are working toward dissolution of the marriage. It is what it is. As much as I struggle with it, her comments of not wanting to look back later in life and have any regrets leaves me with nothing but admiration for the incredibly tough decision we are making. We have the opportunity to work through it and continue to be the best people we can for each other, for our son, and for our families and friends. In almost 25 years together, we’ve racked up a lot of amazing mutual acquaintances. We desperately want to be the ex-couple that people don’t think twice about inviting both of us to a party for fear of it getting awkward.

 

Going through this family hardship tops the most uncomfortable experiences we felt during our recent world travels. I’d do a 30+ hour bus ride, a sleepless night in a mosquito infested room, or being held under a wave for seemingly minutes over this experience any day. We’re both pained in our own ways, but we’ll get through it. On the plus side, we continue to be incredibly fortunate in life….we both realize this change could be so much more difficult than it is.

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      Everything is relative. Half-empty wouldn’t be so bad.

We already own two properties, we’re both “relatively” young, and our son is practically an adult (entering his senior year in HS) – soon heading off to college.

I’ve come to recognize that the trip wasn’t the journey unto itself, but rather a necessary step to see if we could keep our relationship together if we cleared our minds of the many life stresses we were experiencing. We gave it our best shot and it still wasn’t enough. If I could rewind time and do anything different, would I? No, I’m glad we traveled and pushed through to the other side, regardless of the outcome. I have no regrets. None, everything happens for a reason. That trip and the need to constantly adapt to challenges better equipped us to handle the change in our lives we now face.

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Take Aways

 

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We traversed over 56,000 miles via 31 flights, 13 ferries, and countless trains, buses, taxes, and other vehicles. Saw 39 countries on five continents. It was rewarding, tough, fun, and painful. I’m grateful on many levels that we had the opportunity to pull it off. There were some takeaways for me:

 

 

Travel Stuff

  • I missed biking, drinking out of faucets, and eating salads whenever I wanted. I really didn’t miss much else.
  • Travel is hard and wouldn’t recommend it for everyone.
  • Incredibly thankful to friends and family who hosted us while traveling and amazing people who we met along the way.

Me Stuff

 

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Beach Restaurant, Gili Air Island, Lombok, Indonesia.  NOTE: beautiful wife and always appropriate awesome teenage hand gesture

 

  • Turning “it” off for 8 months is something I would recommend for anyone who can pull it off. “It” being able to take a break from the nonstop work and stresses of life in the U.S.
  • It was amazing to turn off the cell phone. No calls and texts for 8 months was heavenly and liberating.
  • Likewise, being cut off from my work email was a luxury. Thank you to the City of Lakes Community Land Trust Board of Directors and work colleagues for making this happen!
  • Learning a bit more about what makes me tick will give guidance to me setting some work rules for myself moving forward.
  • I feel better for the perspective I’ve gained and am far more comfortable with “being off-balance” and with “change” after traveling.
  • Incredibly thankful to friends and family who hosted us while traveling and amazing people who we met along the way.
  • While it sucked losing Sarah (wife) when she returned to the States in early February, I will forever cherish the 2 ½ months of solo travel with Max (16 yr. old son). A phenomenal opportunity that few dads have….I’m hopeful he’ll come around to thinking it wasn’t a drag.

 

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Avoiding the sun and thousands of people. Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia

World stuff

The world is increasingly smaller and we (all people of the world) are far more similar than different.

The United States is far more racially, culturally, and ethnically diverse than most of the world. Sure…we have huge pockets of homogeneity, but by-in-large we are so much more diverse than the rest of the places where we traveled.

Likewise, the real struggle and pain we are experiencing with racism here in the United States feel like they are unfortunately decades ahead of the rest of the world. Unfortunately, yes…unfortunately, it felt like much of the world would like to pretend racism isn’t an issue, but it was easy to see it playing out daily while traveling.

It’s ok to be constructively critical of our shortcomings in the United States. We have significantly slipped as a nation and need to seriously look in the mirror to see how we can improve.

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Waiting for a shuttle bus. Auschwitz, Poland

Standouts

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Iceland, Sweden, Germany, The Netherlands, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Austria, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Greece, Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Ukraine, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Columbia, Panama, Costa Rica, and Guatemala. These visited 39 Countries in total over 7 ½ months traveling. While that is a pretty large list, it only represents 20% of the 195 countries of the world. We skimmed over a few of these countries and didn’t get to know them as well as some of the others, but here’s a list of some of the memorable ones:

Most beautiful: Iceland. While increasingly full of tourists and fairly expensive, the road trip around the island was amazing and highly recommend it as a destination…especially given how relatively easy it is to travel to from the U.S.

Most exciting: Vietnam: The country, it’s people, and it’s culture constantly kept me on my toes. From a shop lady screaming at me and chasing me down a street (still have no idea why) to museum exhibits that put the U.S. aggressions and atrocities front and center in their exhibits to millions of scooters running in all directions nonstop, my senses were on overdrive while there. Columbia would come in a close second.

Most likely to change: Albania. Albania still feels raw in comparison to Croatia and Greece, but one could get the sense it wasn’t going to stay that way and would soon be much more touristy like it’s nearby countries of Croatia and Greece given its natural beauty. Likewise, the island of Lombok in Indonesia felt like it was on the cusp of turning into its neighboring tourist island of Bali. Additionally, given the global pull toward religious isolationism, I’m concerned these two countries will run the risk of becoming tougher to travel to in the future. Roughly 80% of Albania and 87% of Indonesia residents are Muslim and I’m fearful that religious divides will make future travel more difficult.

The country where I could see myself living: Spain. Great geography, weather, pace of life, culture, and people. It’s such a large country with so much to offer on many fronts.

The country I would like to visit again: Columbia. We visited Cali, Medellin, and Bogota, but felt there was so much more to get to know this interesting country. I heard great things about its coastal regions as well as the more rural areas of the country while there.

Countries where reality just didn’t meet expectations: Costa Rica and Australia – both for differing reasons. Costa Rica. While serving in the Peace Corps in Honduras 20+ years ago, I had always wanted to visit Costa Rica because of the positive reviews of its beauty and great lifestyle (“Pura Vida”), but I was never able to make the trip back then. Costa Rica was on the “must see” list for me on this trip. While beautiful, Costa Rica was very expensive (relative other Central American countries) and the people/culture portrayed an aura of apathy toward tourists. There was a “take it or leave it, but still pay at an inflated price” attitude.

Several Australian cities are perennially on the “Best places to live” lists. I’ve met many wonderful people who are from there and know many people who’ve traveled there and stated they had amazing experiences. It was almost always sunny, there were beautiful beaches, serene hill country, and there was an insane “workout” culture on the Gold Coast and in Sydney. It was nice and very glad we were able to spend time there…it just didn’t “wow” me the way I had hoped and suppose I had erroneously built up unrealistic expectations of Australia.

 

 

Incongruent Nation

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If you’ve been unfortunate enough to have followed my rants and ponderings over the past 7 months, you’ll know that I skew my writings toward housing and community development topics while we travel. As numerous travelers have noted, they often think about their own community as much as the lands they are visiting while they travel. Something has been nagging me for months and I haven’t been able to put my finger on it until recently. I started writing this weeks ago, but it wasn’t until I was forwarded this Economist link discussing national well-being that I felt a bit more confident to put this out there. I still don’t know if it will make total sense, but I’m going to give it a go. Here it is…

While serving in the Peace Corps in the early 90’s, there was a significant push to change the vocabulary from using the term “3rd World Country” to “Developing Country”. I had understood that “3rd World” was a derogative term and “Developing Country” was a much more politically correct term to use. The use of “3rd World” made me want to understand the meaning behind the terms “1st World” and “2nd World”. These terms were essentially created as we were entering into the cold war era. 1st World was used to define the capitalist and/or allied nations. 1st World nations are described as having a functioning democracy, rule of law, capitalist economies, economic stability, and a high standard of living. 2nd World was used to describe the Soviet block countries and Communist nations. Surely, first and second were nomenclature determined from our imperialistic perspective. Essentially “3rd World” was the term used to describe everyone else, which also aligned with mostly economically challenged countries with residents primarily made up of people of color. It stuck and moving forward when someone said 3rd World, they mostly thought of African, South/Central American, or several South Asian Countries.

I suppose because we wanted to feel better about our labels and there wasn’t a “4th World” level, we started using “Developing Countries” to describe these previously known “3rd World Countries”. Through time we also better defined what it meant to be a “Developing Country”. They are now described as less developed (infrastructure), less industrialized, have a low HDI (Human Development Index – a tool that looks at life expectancy, per capita income, and education rates).

This little trip around that world has allowed me a chance to get a slight glimpse of the world, but more importantly, a good pulse on the United States of today.  Overall, I have a greater appreciation for what we have in the United States than before we left on this journey. The United States is truly an amazing country and we have a lot going for us. That stated, I find myself much more realistic and practical in my thinking about our nation. Given the decreasing quality of life for an increasing number of U.S. residents, I can no longer see the U.S. as a country that should be labeled 1st world. There’s probably room for a new term…say “Incongruent” Country. This might better describe where we are as a nation. Essentially, it increasingly feels like we are a country that is unable to live up to many of the minimal standards we established for ourselves.

The standard of living and quality of life for an increasing number of low- and moderate-income families and individuals is in many ways worse than the base levels seen in many of the “developing countries” we visited in our travels. Our state of health care, housing, transportation, food, and education are arguably worse or significantly worse for an increasing number of U.S. residents than they are for the average resident of many supposedly less-developed countries. This isn’t the end of the world for us. It is what it is. As I see it, we have three options:

  1. Accept it and continue on (most likely scenario) with regressive priorities that run counter to striving toward a high quality of life for all residents. If we go this route (unfortunately, most likely of paths), I would only suggest that we change our label of “1st World County” to something more appropriate, like “Incongruent” County to recognize that we no longer can align with standards we set to be a “1st World” Nation. Again, it is what it is. Let’s call a spade a spade.
  2. Reprioritize our funding and policies to strive toward ensuring a high quality of life for all U.S. residents. Not so sure this will happen under the current President. To be fair, this slide in our First World Nation status has been happening for decades and through numerous Administrations.
  3. Embrace our struggles as a “1st World” country and work with what we have to get us back into some alignment. I actually think this is the most practical approach we can take because much of it can be achieved through regulatory and policy changes….many at the local government level. Just a few examples of this, which are common practice in “Developing Nations”, include:
  • Housing regulations that support higher occupancy of dwellings, multiple housing units on a parcel, occupancy in a basement/attic w/o egress.
  • Un-subsidization of gas. This would certainly create more incentive for better public transit, which would ultimately create more cash in pocket for low- and moderate-income household and would serve as an incentive for more walking/biking as modes of transportation leading to better health.
  • Decreasing the liability risk. Making it more difficult to sue would allow people and entities to what was necessary to get by vs. worrying about potential liability risk.
  • Un-subsidization of wheat, corn, sugar beets, and soybeans. This might create an incentive to grow more nutritious food in the U.S. and more of a disincentive to manufacture processed foods. Again, may lead to better health.
  • Limit or do away with standardized testing. Let teachers teach to the student vs. teach to the test.

I’m quite certain there are thousands of regulatory change examples that could be made that would make life better for low- and moderate-income families in the United States. I realize that this lessening of regulations and policies would more than likely create negative consequences. The loosening of standards could increase death, injury, and illness rates that would put the United States on par with less developed countries, but it seems like that is a luxury we can no longer afford as a nation.

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Based on what I’ve noticed traveling thru 40-some countries and reflection of our situation in U.S. of A, I think we need to lower our expectations of ourselves and our standard(s) of living. We in the United States can no longer afford the luxury of many of the regulations and rules we’ve grown accustomed to in the past. The current guy holding the position of U.S President is pretty hell bent on decreasing corporate and foreign trade regulation to increase the U.S. economy. I’m not talking about this type of regulation, but rather the mostly state- and local-level government imposed rules that supposedly have led to a better quality-of-life for many U.S. residents. By this I mean it doesn’t feel like we are able to responsibly play by the rules we’ve put in place because the economics no longer can support it.

We’ve set the bar too high. Tipping point for WWI, leaning into the depression, and peaking post-WWII through technological and economic dominance, the U.S. had the clout and foundation to establish lofty quality of life goals for its society. For a plethora of reasons, our economic caste system and indifference of others, we’ve allowed it to be politically and socially acceptable to lower the average citizen’s quality of life standards in the United States. It’s probably easiest and most practical to look at ways to become more lax in our regulations and policies that are impossible for us to responsibly keep as a society. We’re already seeing this in subtle ways…with pushes to change housing codes in NYC so that basement space is deemed an acceptable living unit and rural communities letting paved roads revert back to gravel. The new question for us should be, “if we (government, individuals, families) don’t have the money for it, what policies or rules could we eliminate to make it easier to survive in our lives?”

The alternative, of course, is to look at where and how we are funding our priorities. We have the option to increase revenue to better these areas where we are lagging in the quality of life factors or to reallocate the funds we already have as a nation. Nowhere have I read that a 1st World Country is defined by a strong military.  Without question, the military might and spending of the United States are superior to the rest of the world. Military spending in the United States has long been the nation’s priority and it seems as if we could easily achieve a better quality of life standard for the average United States citizen if we just applied the same principle to this spending line item…”How much do we need to spend on “defense” spending to just be the strongest military in the world (vs. a military that spends more than the world’s next 10+ strongest militaries combined)? The U.S. spends over $612 billion a year on defense spending, which is more than Russia, China, India, Great Britain, Germany, France, Israel, Turkey, South Korea, Japan combined! Can’t we just be the best military vs. the bestest-by-far military? We could easily take $450 billion a year from our defense budget and still be the best military in the world!  These dollars could be invested in housing, health, education and other quality of life indicators that would lead to the U.S. being viewed again as a “1st World Country”.

 

SE Asia, Australia, and New Zealand – What it’s costing us…..

 

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The two of us above La Paz, Bolivia

 

Hi y’all. Three months or so ago, I did an analysis of our spending over the first three months of our travel, which also coincided with our Europe leg of the trip. At that time I had shared that we spent $23,298 for the three of us to get to and travel through Europe for the first 90 days of our travels. That figure equated to $258.87 per day, $7,766 per person, or $86.29 per person/day.

We arrived in Bangkok on December 1, 2016 and traveled through Thailand (22 days), Laos (3 days), Vietnam (8 days), Cambodia (3 days), Indonesia (23 days), Singapore (2 days), Malaysia (2 days), Australia (15 days), and New Zealand (12 days) for a total of 90 days. During this leg, we took a total of 15 flights, 7 ferries, and 3 longer train trips. We also rented a campervan for six days, a rental car for 2 weeks and took numerous buses, subways, and taxis along the way. We stayed in hotels/hostels for half of the 90 travel days and the balance was in AirBnB’s (35 days), relatives (5 days),.and the camper (5 days). We ate in restaurants for approximately 80 of the 90 days, but many of the hotels/hostels had breakfast included in their costs.

For this second 90-day travel segment, we spent a total of $18,265 for the three of us. This figure equates to $202.95 per day, $6,088 per person, or $67.65 per person/day. Overall, the second 90 days of our travel were approximately 20% less costly than our first 90 days.

As Australia and New Zealand were significantly different than SE Asia, I decided to break out the costs further. The total cost by category and region are below:

Region Flights Other Trans. Lodging Food Other Total # of Days Average per Day
Europe $2,313 $7,098 $7,429 $4,330 $2,128 $23,298 90 $258.87
SE Asia $3,949 $1,394 $4,301 $2,236 $993 $12,873 63 $204.33
Aus-NZ $1,191 $1,157 $1,494 $824 $726 $5,392 27 $199.72
TOTAL $7,453 $9,649 $13,224 $7,390 $3,847 $41,563 180 $230.91

After looking at the numbers I realized I needed to retro-adjust the allocations of the Europe flight column to better compare the costs. I had previously lumped the Europe campervan rental cost of $5,298 into the Flights category. I’ve since decided to back that cost out and divide it equally between the Other Transportation column and the Lodging column. I’m sure it’s not an exact allocation, but can reasonably justify it.

I found it interesting that the allocations between the various costs didn’t fluctuate much over the regions. If Flights and Other Transportation are added together, they consistently represented approximately 40% of the cost regardless of region. Lodging represented 28-32% of the costs, Food represented 15-19% of the costs, and Other represented 8-14% of the costs regardless of where we were traveling.

Overall, the costs seem straight forward for this second 90-day leg of our travels. As shared in previous posts, Sarah headed back to Minneapolis on February 2. While this had an influence on costs for our travels in Australia and New Zealand, the cost wouldn’t have been more than an additional $500 for the entire month. We had already booked all the transportation and the lodging costs wouldn’t have increased by adding the third person. The only costs that would have been impacted were that of food and other costs.

As shared above, this second 90-day leg of our travels was approximately 20% less costly than the Europe leg. I suppose I had hoped that it would have been even less costly for us, especially SE Asia. By this point in the travel, we knew enough about our thresholds…especially on lodging. In Vientiane, Laos (a costly city) we stayed at what we thought was an average hotel for over $50 night and found it to be a total dump. I state this as I’m sure other (read more adventurous and/or younger) travelers could shave costs by staying at less costly accommodations than we found during our travels. In the other categories, I’m sure more frugal travels could have found cheaper alternatives, but think we did pretty well. Flights were often as cheap as taking the buses or trains in SE Asia. Renting vehicles was cheaper than flying in Australia and New Zealand. We spent only $35.12 per day on food (less than $12 per person/day), which isn’t bad. Some of the costs in Other Costs included over $250 in surfboard rentals (plus a $200 damage fee!), purchase of running shoes at $150, and some gifts. The food and lodging felt less costly in SE Asia compared to Europe, but the transportation felt relatively more expensive even though that wasn’t necessarily the case.

One interesting thing to note is how relatively inexpensive New Zealand was for us. New Zealand ended up costing us a little over $2,000 (average of only $173/day) for the 12 days we were there. Granted, only the cost of the flight from Sydney to Auckland is included in this figure, but still inexpensive. This truly demonstrates the impact of friends and deals while traveling. While New Zealand was arguably the most expensive country we visited on this leg, it turned out to be the least costly for us due to being able to stay with relatives for 5 days and borrowing their car for a couple of those days.  We were also able to take advantage of a campervan relocation deal that ended up costing us less than $70/day (travel, fuel, lodging) while allowing us to see most of the country. Lastly, I suppose it’s necessary to share our ridiculously cheap food find at Pizza Hut of New Zealand. For only $3.70, one could purchase a pizza. We would complement this with greens and drinks from the grocery store and eat ridiculously cheap for the bulk of our trip. Yes…I know…the bar was lowered significantly on the food, but use it as an example of being able to get by inexpensively if needed…especially where even the most basic meals run $20 per person.

Our ambitious goal was to be able to travel for 9 months for less than $50,000 (all in cost). At the end of 6 months, we had expended $41,563. Clearly, we aren’t going to meet that goal, but I don’t think the added the damage will be too horrific. As we are now traveling through South America, the costs for Max and me seem to be holding at about $5,000 month. We’ve also mutually agreed to land back in the States earlier than initially planned. Like Sarah, he’s a bit tired of traveling and homesick. These factors, along with only two of us traveling this last leg will keep the overall costs down. I look forward to doing a final analysis once we finally return. Let me know if there is interest in seeing the Excel spreadsheet where I’ve been tracking our costs along the way, I’d be happy to send it.

San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni – 3 day

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White Lagoon, near Chile/Bolivia Border – Day 1 of 3

I was intending to finally write up the financial summary of SE Asia, but now feel compelled to highlight some takeaways from a pretty spectacular 3-day trip that we took from San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni. One of the places I knew I wanted to visit on our travels were the high plains of Chile, Bolivia, and Peru. The travel popular 4×4 trip from San Pedro de Atacama, Chile to Uyuni, Bolivia seemed to promise spectacular views along with providing a practical way to make our way from Northern Chile to Cusco, Peru. Essentially, it’s three days of 7-8 hours of driving per day over mostly rough dirt roads through some of the most incredible landscape imaginable. Views include geysers, snow-capped mountains, high plain deserts, flamingo-filled lagoons, and incredible rock formations. The opportunity for incredible vistas is non-stop. Nights are spent in relatively Spartan accommodations at altitudes of approximately 4,500 meters and 3,600 meters.

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One of many volcano mountains ~6,000 meters

Given this trip is increasingly popular with travelers there is quite a bit of information on Trip Advisor with comments all over the board. Additionally, there are some good blogs that others have put together that really do a great job of providing an overview of the trip. One in particular that is very descriptive, has great photos, and is recently written is this one at Lady and the Tramper.

I thought it might be interesting and helpful to try to come at our experiences and observations of the 3-day trip from some alternative angles. First and foremost, I was pretty blown away by what we saw and experienced over the three days. It was simply amazing and strongly recommend it to anyone who is traveling in that part of South America. Carve out the time and make it happen.

Tour Operators

I read review after review on Trip Advisor on the numerous tour providers and sphinctered-up with fear that I might make a bad decision on selecting one of them. We ultimately arrived in San Pedro de Atacama without having made reservations. The reviews are all over the board for all the trip providers. That stated, if one stands out for you as a good option on the internet, I’d say book it and go into it with an open mind. Here’s the deal, anything can happen while you are out there. The 4×4’s could break down (regardless of year/make), the weather could turn sour, you could be placed with some goofballs in your tour, and the food won’t probably be exactly as you would like it. If you can mentally prime yourself for some unforeseen discomfort, I guarantee you’ll enjoy the trip.

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One of the smoother and straighter stretches of Bolivian road

We ended up going with Cordillera Traveller, ultimately because the owner (Francisco) of La Casa del Pueblo Hostal (nice hostel in a great location) recommended it to me. When I went to book the trip, in addition to the typical technical questions most probably ask of the tour operators, I asked her why she though Cordillera Travel was the best operator.

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More typical road traveled

She said it was because it was a family business based in Bolivia and they owned/operated all the lodging along the way instead of contracting the services. That seemed to be a good, practical, honest enough response for me. We later found out that many of the drivers and staff were also family members. They worked long days, communicated well and managed our expectations. Cordillera used Toyota LandCruisers and they were solid vehicles over some pretty tough terrain. Their vehicles were their babies (they individually owned them) and cleaned and prepared them every evening prior to the next day’s drive. There were minor car issues (slow leak in our tire, electrical issue in another vehicle), but they never made it our problem and resolved the issues quickly.

The three-day tour cost was $185 per person and it included everything except the park entrance fee (about $25 per person), water (we had to bring), and any snacks. We brought two gallons of water for the two of us and a couple rolls of cookies. We ended up not even using one of the gallons of water and didn’t need the snacks, but they were nice to share with others during the long drives. One drawback that turned out to be a bit of a pain in the ass was that Cordillera was unable to accept credit card payment, so I had to pay in cash. Not a huge deal, but I was only allowed to withdraw a maximum of $200 in cash per day from the ATM. That wouldn’t have necessarily been an issue except for the fact U.S. Citizens also need to pay $160 per person in U.S. currency for a Bolivian visa at the border. It all worked out in the end, but something to plan for. Overall, without hesitation, I’d recommend Cordillera to anyone taking this trip.

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Lagoon below volcano – day 1 of 3

A plug for the SPA (San Pedro de Atacama) to Uyuni vs. Uyuni to SPA related to the Salar

You’ve been traveling rough roads for two days and wake at 4 a.m. on the last morning to be carted out to the Uyuni Salar (salt flats). The vehicles leave the dirt road and drop into shallow (1-2 centimeters deep) water and drive for several more kilometers. It’s surreal as its still dark out and one can only see the water spray coming off the other vehicles via headlamps.

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Photo of another 4×4 from our group, only a couple of kilometers of MANY on the Uyani Salar. Early a.m. of day 3 of 3.

The sun begins to rise and passengers get out of the vehicles to begin taking all of the beautiful and corny pictures on this amazing incredibly shallow lake. You have breakfast out there and everything is mystical. Everyone gets back into the vehicle and continue to drive toward the endless salt flat horizon. And you drive. And you f$cking drive. You end up driving another 2.5 hours at 20-30 kilometers an hour due to the water spray coming off the vehicle. It was incredibly mind-numbing after three days of the trip. Ironically, for me, the real appreciation of the Uyuni salt flat is having to endure the painful drive to truly understand how incredibly huge it really is. I think it would be a very different 3-day experience if traveling the other direction and the awe of the salt flat would be lessened with anticipation of seeing other views on the trip down the road.

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Photo captured once the sun rose – standing in 1-2 cm of water about 10 km from “shore”.

When we finally arrived at the other side of the flat (near Uyuni) we passed several other tourists who had driven out 1-2 kilometers from the other side and were experiencing the views and photo ops. While I’m sure their photos will be as good or better than ours, I don’t think they’ll ever experience how incredibly impressive the flats really are because of the limited experience.

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Train graveyard outside of the town of Uyuni, Bolivia – day 3 end of trip

Travel companions are a critical component of the experience

Cordillera Travel, the group we selected, takes 18 clients per trip. From the San Pedro de Atacama to the Bolivian border (about an 1-hour drive) the clients are riding in mini-buses as the road is still asphalt. Once at the border, the 18 clients are divided into three groups of six to travel along with the driver into three Toyota Land Cruisers for the 3-day journey. Unless one is traveling with five others they already know, groups are selected by a mixture of tour guide matching and a bit of self-selection.

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Bolivian immigration/customs “office”

Max and I joined a couple from Santiago and another father/son (son was older at 22 years) pair from Amsterdam. Our driver, Eddie, was Bolivian. I couldn’t wish for better travel mates and one of the greatest aspects of this trip was getting to know Oscar, Catalina, Ard, and Tom over the three days. There were great conversations had while driving, but also long periods of silence when we were all taking in the landscape. There was good group dynamic in that regard. We shared meal tables with them and slept in the same dormitory room as them. That stated, as we were traveling in a caravan with two other vehicles, we also had the opportunity to get to know the other 12 travelers at stops, over meals, and in the evenings at our lodging stops. After getting to know the other 12, I feel confident we would have also been as happy had we been placed with another group of travelers. Everyone was wonderful and we were really fortunate to have a very diverse group of travelers from all over the world with us. Japan, Brazil, England, Netherlands, Switzerland, and Chile were all represented.

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Our 4×4 vehicles at the lodging for 1st night somewhere in SW Bolivia

While our comrades in travel were one of the most positive aspects of the trip, I could also imagine situations where group dynamics could destroy the experience for someone. There is really no way to avoid this unless you can cough up a private tour experience or travel with a group you already know and are comfortable with. Regardless, I think it’s worth the risk either way as the travel companions make up a huge portion of the Uyuni Salar experience…for better or worse they’ll contribute to the stories afterward.

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Snow-capped Bolivian range from desert alto-plains
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Our vegetarian dinner option.  Nah, just some cool desert moss
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Flamingos in a high altitude lagoon

Weather and conditions

While with many travels, I could honestly state that given that I’ve seen them once I wouldn’t need to see them again. This tour over three days provides too many variables that I know would change each and every time traveled. Our first days was full of perfect blue skies. Our second day started nice, but the afternoons gave us a hail storm, amazing lightning shows, and picturesque cloud movements over mountains.

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Clouds over the mountains – this system created ground-covering hail storm

Similarly, the Uyuni Salar had 1-2 centimeters of water for the entire 80-kilometer distance during our passage. If we were to travel in the Andean summer, the flats would have been a bone-dry, cracked surface. We also learned that the flats can become impossible for travel after huge rains when water levels exceed 50 centimeters. All I guess that I’m saying here, is that while I would have initially thought there were ideal conditions to travel the 3-day tour, I’ve know come to realize that if I did it again tomorrow I would be equally and differently blow away by the landscape in very different conditions.

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Uyuni Salar (salt flat) from about 10 km from “shore” – where we had breakfast from the back of the Land Cruiser watching the sun rise

San Pedro de Atacama and Uyuni are rapidly changing

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Typical street in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

One could feel how the towns at either end of this trip are rapidly changing due to tourism. The roads in San Pedro de Atacama are still dirt. Uyuni still is a town that happens to have some tourists passing through. I know, things change…and possibly maybe even for the better. That stated, part of the reason people travel is to get away from the stuff they already know. After traveling through over 30 countries on this little journey, I can say the much of the world feels more familiar to this U.S. Citizen than not. It’s just not the McDonald’s, Pizza Huts, and Starbucks evident in most major cities globally, it’s also the clothing, language, and customs that all start to feel a bit homogenous.

Lithium

Tied to the change referenced above, we learned that somewhere between 60-70% of the world’s lithium reserves are located in the Uyuni Salar (or salt flat). We also were told that some pretty significant mining and processing factories will soon be lining the shores of the vast Uyuni salt flat. For me, seeing the random piece of trash in the flat was disheartening. It’s even more depressing to have to imagine the site of huge industrial buildings and machinery lining the shores in the near future. Lithium is too important to the world at this point for this not to become a reality and I’m glad we had a chance to see it when we did.

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Mountains over another lagoon – other 4×4’s traveling desert in the distant

Overall, we had amazing three days. I think Max had a good experience interacting with great folks from around the world independent of his dad. I’ve really come to appreciate his willingness and ability to jump into conversations when his father (and/or mother) aren’t dominating conversations. For me, it’s right up there as one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

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Me and my main travel compadre and kick-ass photographer 

 

Quick take on Australia and New Zealand

IMG_5674After leaving Indonesia, we headed to Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. While we only spent three days in each of those cities, we felt like we gained a pretty good sense of both of them. They were unique and served as a good transition from the rawness of Indonesia to the familiarity that we would feel once we landed in Australia. As Sarah noted in her last post, she had grown a bit weary of travel and was homesick for our farmhouse in Wisconsin. We said our good byes at the Kuala Lumpur airport and she returned to the United States as Max and I carried on to Australia for the next leg of our trip.

We took a redeye flight to Sydney and spent two days wandering the large city. We checked out the harbor, walked across the Sydney bridge, and traveled their metro system. It was nice and I can understand why it’s often rated as a great city, but wasn’t “blown away” by it. Sometimes we misalign our expectations of things and I did that with Sydney. One of the blessings and curses of seeing a lot of places is that you are exposed to so much and at the same time one becomes a bit callous to it all. Had we just arrived in Australia after a daylong flight from the United States, I’m pretty sure I would have been more impressed with the city. It just didn’t give off as much energy as Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore. The lack of racial diversity was also very noticeable to both Max and me.

From Sydney we re20170220_182733.jpgnted a car and headed West to the Blue Mountains region for two nights. We did some smaller hikes and some swimming. We then drove the “bush” route (vs. the coastal highway) north for over 1,000
kilometers to the Gold Coast region located in Queensland. It was a pretty amazing drive and we were impressed with the diversity of landscape. Once on the Gold Coast, we stayed in the beach town of Palm Springs at an AirBnB unit ;pcated in a residential neighborhood a couple of blocks off the beach. We rented surfboards and ended up surfing (or at least trying to) every one of the 9 days that we spent there. It was fun exploring much of the 90 kilometer beach coast looking for places that would suit our aspiring surfing capabilities, but often the waves were way too large for us or nothing at all. It made us appreciate the decent surf we had while we were in Indonesia. We then spent the last two days heading back South to Sydney via the coastal highway to catch our flight to New Zealand.

I’m glad we had the opportunity to see and visit Australia. Had we not traveled there during this adventure, I think there always would have been a part of me feeling like I missed something. It’s a huge country and it would take some serious time to cover and appreciate more of the geography. That stated, I’d still feel pretty comfortable recommending many other destinations around the world to others before suggesting Australia. In many ways, it felt much too like many parts of the United States. It was an easy place to travel and there were not too many things that surprised me. Driving on the left, picking up on quirky terms used, impressive workout culture of the Gold Coast, and the seemingly constant beautiful weather were all positive takeaways for me.

Though I might not have been able to give Australia a fair shake due to the fact that we didn’t go as deep as we could have, I think we did a pretty good job of digesting as m20170221_120221.jpguch as New Zealand as one can in under two weeks. We landed late in New Zealand and were picked up by Sarah’s distant cousins who live in Auckland. Stan and Justine graciously allowed us to stay with them for 5 nights in the North Shore area of Auckland. With them as guides, we saw numerous city sites (Auckland Museum, naval fortress, and gardens) and got a much better sense of Kiwi culture. We also spent a day ferrying out to Waiheke Island to visit with two of the four wonderful travel mates we met while in Vietnam. Liz and Anna were spending some time at guest cottage with family and warmly hosted us there.While there, we enjoyed somehiking along an outdoor art installation along the coast, great lunch and some time on the beach. It was great to catch up with them and look forward to crossing paths with them soon. The city of Auckland and surrounding islands in the bay remind me very much of the Seattle area, but with much more sun.

Stan and Justine lent us one of their cars and Max and I did a three-day driving tour of the region north of Auckland on the North Island. We spent a night in the town of Paihia on the Northeast Coast and then a night in Dargaville near the Eastern Coast before heading back to Auckland. The stops on incredibly remote, desolate beaches will forever be a memory for us.

20170227_092010We spent the night in Auckland, but woke the next morning to pick up our campervan. Yep, campervan. I was pretty sure I would never drive another campervan after our 75-day, 12,000 kilometer, 18 country journey through Europe, but somehow we were back at it. Actually, it was a no-brainer decision once Justine made me aware of the opportunity to do a campervan relocation. In New Zealand and Australia (and the United States to a lesser degree), campervan companies are constantly needing to get campervans to other parts of the country for future rentals. For $1/day plus the cost of fuel, we had 6 days to drive a campervan 1,500 kilometers from Auckland to Christchurch. It truly was a great and cost effective way to see the parts of New Zealand. In between driving, we rafted the Kaituna River that took us over a 6-meter waterfall, hiked 18 miles on the Tongariro crossing, crossed from the North Island to South Island and a picturesque ferry ride (the $340 ferry cost was reimbursed as part of the relocation), swam in several rivers and stopped at a few more beaches. The drive across the Arthur’s Pass was one of the highlights for me as I started to get a sense of what the balance of the South Island must look like. We arrived in Christchurch and flew back inexpensively to Auckland in time for our departure flight to Buenos Aires the following day.

New Zealand is far away. Food and lodging there are expensive. Those items stated, it is one of the most picturesque places we’ve traveled.  Different, but almost as awe-inspiring as Iceland. Thanks to our gracious hosts (thanks Stan and Justine!) and the campervan relocation, and given we were already halfway around the world, New Zealand ended up being less costly than just about every other country we’ve visited. While one could easily spend several months getting to know both islands, it sure feels like 3 weeks in a campervan would be a great way to take in the majority of the island and not break the bank while doing it.

Singapore – Below the Surface

20170129_163558Singapore has one of the better subway systems that we’ve experienced, but I was much more impressed by what I learned about the city-nation that seemingly is also initially under the surface. The more one learns about Singapore’s short history, the greater appreciation for what has developed there in such a brief period of time. When most people speak of Singapore, they rightfully speak of its strong international economy, the rapidly ascending skyline, draconian rules (no chewing gum), and punishment (caning) for breaking them, but once one learns a little about its history it all starts to make a bit more sense.

The area where Singapore now rests has been a major shipping port for the majority of modern history. It wasn’t until European countries began colonizing the far East that the prominent location on the southern tip of Malaysia become the more defined area known as Singapore. The British colonized Singapore in the early 1800’s and it grew even more as a key colonial outpost and shipping hub from that point forward. It remained under British control until the Japanese took over in early 1942. Key to note that the Japanese attacked northern Malaysia a day after the Pearl Harbor attack. It took the Japanese less than two months to work their way down the entire length of the Malaysian peninsula and take Singapore. The British, consumed with the war in Europe, essentially had to let Singapore fall.

It seems that Britain’s failure to care more about Singapore during WWII was the impetus for the rise of the new, independent nation. Singapore remained as a colony of Britain following the war, but steps toward breaking away as an independent nation had begun. By the late 1950’s Singaporeans tried their hand as a territory of Malaysia for a few years, but by the early 1960’s there was quite a bit of civil unrest between Malaysian and Singaporean factions. In 1965, Singapore became its own self-governing nation. That was only a little over 50 years ago!

Before I go all gaga over Singapore, it’s important to note what anomaly it really is. It’s only one of three city-nations in the world…meaning the city is the country and the country is the city for all things related to government, infrastructure, and economy. The other two such examples in the world are the Vatican City and Monaco. Singapore has a land mass that is only 719 km2, which is smaller than Las Vegas. That stated, it is one of the densest cities in the world with close to 8,000 residents per square kilometer for its total 5.7 million resident population. For comparison sake, Minnesota’s population is 4.6 million. The city -nation of Singapore is almost 4 times more dense than the Twin Cities metro and more than 300 times more dense than the state of MN.

What I’ve found to be the most amazing thing about Singapore’s history is how purposeful and future-thinking Singaporeans were about how to establish their new country. There has been much said about the impressive actions of our forefathers in writing the U.S. constitution and the establishment of the United States, but the intentionality and follow-through via policies are what really makes the Singapore stand out. Singapore is cited as “the” definition of meritocracy. For me it was tougher to pick up on the meritocracy attributes of the country in just a few days of visiting, but was easy to see the cultural and economic wealth that appeared to benefit the vast majority of the city-nation. It was also evident that Singapore set out on building a nation using a “growth with equity” framework that I’ve now seen referenced on several occasions.

Before becoming its own nation, it was a hodgepodge population up of people who self-identified as Singaporeans, Malays, Indians, Chinese, Brits, and other Southeast and Pacific Islanders. The country knew that if it was to be successful, it needed to create something that everyone could buy into in order to succeed. One aspect of this vision included housing its population.

One of my geeky goals while visiting Singapore was to visit the national public housing museum created by the Housing Development Board (HDB). I dragged Sarah there one early Monday morning only to find it was closed due to the Chinese New Year. Most people would probably have taken it as a sign that it wasn’t meant to be, but I was obsessed with better understanding this seemingly, perfect city and encouraged a repeat visit in the following morning. The museum itself seemed a bit more self-congratulatory and less history/policy focused than I had hoped, but the fact that there is a public housing museum is powerful in its own right. The museum was housed in the basement of a 20+ story office building north of the central business district. The bulk of the floors of the office building served as the headquarters for the HDB, the city-nation public housing authority that was established when the country birthed in 1965.

In the Singapore of the 1960’s, 1.3 million of its 1.9 million resident population lived in squatter shacks. These shacks were constructed out of corrugated zinc metal, sticks, cardboard, and anything else the household could get their hands on to build their makeshift homes on land they didn’t own. It was a place with some rich people and a whole lot of poor people. With the birth of the new nation, the HDB was established by (and supported by) the government to replace the “unhygienic slums” and “overcrowded squatter settlements” with better living conditions. With intensity and intentionality, they created 21,000 new living flats within 3 years. The growth of publically developed and supported housing continued to grow exponentially and the city now boasts over 1 million units of publically developed and supported housing units across the city-nation. Over 82% of Singaporeans now live in publically developed and supported housing today. And….90% of its residents are homeowners. While visiting the National Museum of Singapore, I saw a placard with the following quote related to their housing policy efforts:

Homeownership was considered the key to nurturing political stability so that every citizen would feel he or she had a personal stake in the country.

Homeownership is often (and wrongly) associated with wealth building, but in this case, the Singaporeans purposefully set up homeownership as a means for nation building. I’ve long understood that the value of homeownership is the stability of mind and place for the individuals and families who own their own homes. I had never given much thought about it as an intentional instrument of nation building. So what makes what has happened in Singapore so great?

Singapore economy is incredibly strong and the housing market is great. A quick search of 2-bedroom condos for sale in Singapore demonstrates how wicked expensive housing is in Singapore. Costs to purchase are consistently well over $2,000 per square foot in the downtown areas of the city and it’s tough to find a unit anywhere selling for less than $1 million. The HDB is able to sell these units (with financing, grants, and restrictions) for $200k-$300k. To say that housing there is expensive would be an understatement. Yet, this is a city-nation that is seeing huge immigration relative to the U.S. or Europe and they are somehow able to continue to house their people.

Singapore is a “land bank”. Similar to the ability for central governments to control monetary value by withholding or releasing currency, Singapore still holds a lot of undeveloped land. Instead of divesting or giving this land away to corporate interests, it releases it with the idea that affordable housing will be released to the community. This creates a de-commoditization effect on land values…to a certain degree and assists in keeping housing values in check.

The Singapore government established funding for funding – both housing development and residents. Along with the creation of the HDB, Singapore set up the Central Provident Fund (CPF). The CPF funds the development of new housing, reinvestment in existing housing, grants funding for lower-income households to purchase homes, and finances low-interest mortgages. This is now coming in at an annual investment of approximately $2 billion a year from the government.

Singapore views housing as infrastructure. Singapore sees its decisions made on housing infrastructure as important as its role as a banking center, international trade, shipping, economy, and overall success as a nation.

Singapore requires ethnic quotas in its housing. All of the housing developed and sold by the HDB has ethnic quotas for Chinese, Malay, and Indian populations to encourage mixed communities and discourage ethnic segregation. I realize some reading this may have an adverse reaction to racial and ethnic integration policies, but it works. I’m sure it doesn’t work perfectly, but it seems to work as well – if not better – than what I’ve seen thus far in my travels. From what I’ve seen in our own challenged situation of economic segregation and displacement in the U.S., I think there are some learnings that we could take from Singapore.

Singaporeans seem to like it. 82% of Singaporeans live in units developed and supported by the HDB. A recent survey demonstrated a housing satisfaction rate of 95%. For all of the Singaporeans together, the home ownership is 93%, which is the highest in the world.

Singapore allows access to self-financing by borrowing from pensions. Residents are able to borrow from themselves – without penalty – to purchase their homes. While this comes with some drawbacks (below), it does allow Singaporeans to borrow from themselves at zero interest to assist in the financing of the purchase of their housing unit.

Singapore housing has built-in resale restrictions. Those who know me realize I wouldn’t let an opportunity to expose the great and forward-thinking nature of these restrictions go without notice. There are several provisions within the initial sale of the HDB housing that restricts future sales prices. This keeps housing costs within relative reach of the incomes of the majority of the population.

So everything is perfect? Nah, there definitely are challenges in Singapore. What’s refreshing to see, however, is that the country acknowledges there are emerging issues. More importantly, they seem to be taking steps to address these emerging challenges vs. just talking about them like so many other nations.

Singapore’s changing demographics. Like much of the world, they are getting older, more ethnically diverse, and household makeup is changing. They are adapting by changing floorplans and square footages of new housing development. They are also making policy changes to make it easier to incent older populations to move to smaller units. They are also looking at the ethnic quotas on the housing as they’ve realized that more than just Chinese, Malays, and Indians live in Singapore.

Singapore’s housing costs are skyrocketing. Despite their best efforts to control costs in the development of housing and future costs through resale restrictions, the HDB is losing the battle with housing value increases. The economy and desire to live in Singapore is still pricing people out of quality housing. The country still has some tools in its toolbox such as additional grants and land, but it will only go so far and new strategies will need to be developed in order to keep its growing population housed.

Singaporean’s need for more rental options. Housing costs, changing demographics, and the realities of a more mobile world have made the HDB realize they need to invest in more rental options for Singaporeans. This realization has probably occurred later than it should have, but given the HDB has control interests in over 1 million plus units, they also have the ability to convert some of the ownership units to rental over time as well as can develop new rental options for the country.

The ability to tap into retirement pensions has some drawbacks. While this is an innovative way for residents to fund their home purchase, many Singaporeans now are regretting this use of funds as they near retirement. While investing in themselves, they missed the opportunity for the compound interest to grow their retirement funds and now have to work longer than they initially thought.

I’m not a socialist but definitely lean in a “pragmatic-socialistic” way of daily thinking. I think the people need be more of the drivers of the decisions made in society. I think Singaporeans have more of this ability than many other countries in the world. Already in my life, I’ve seen far too many private sector failures addressed with band-aid public sector short-term regulatory fixes that only result in unintended negative consequences. I suppose I would be ok with it if I felt I had a say in the matter. I believe the majority of the populous in the U.S. feels the same way. I can’t believe I’m stating this, but believe we need a greater public sector involvement in housing policy in the United States….with the explicit caveat that it is driven by populous….and not by the real estate and banking industry. I realize all of this it difficult to achieve mid-stream vs. the birthing of a nation like Singapore, but do think we have to afford ourselves the ability in the United States to hit the “reset” button because our housing policy is broken, getting worse, and no one is calling the question, let alone fixing it. When is the right time to create populous-centric housing policies to look as much to benefit housing households of tomorrow as well as the population of today?

MAGA (Make America Great Again)

 

magaSince traveling the last five months, I’ve been asked well over 100 times in conversations where we are from. In an attempt to sound casual, my first response has always been “we’re from the States.” No less than 95% of the faces of the questioners has yielded a dumbfounded look, which has required me to clarify with “the United States.” This, in the vast majority of responses, does nothing to better the situation. At which point, I either elaborate further and state “the United States of America” or just simply “America” and see the lights go on and the gears finally churning in the mind of the person who asked the question. I realize a handful of other countries technically have “states,” but none of them refer to themselves as the United States.

Regardless of where we’ve traveled (29 countries thus far), I’ve consistently needed to use “America” as my awkward response to this question. Perhaps my Peace Corps experience allowed me to understand early on that Honduras was also a nation of America, or Central America specifically, and Sarah reported the incredulous response Ecuadorians have if someone from the U.S. suggests they are “American.” I’m not looking to correct anyone or preach, but America, or Americas, are defined as the entire land mass that spans from the Nunavut Territory of Canada to Cape Froward in Chile. Within this mass, there is South America, Central America, and North America. Canada, Mexico, and the United States make up the region of North America. I know many people know this already, but referring to the United States as America still seems pretty weird to me…especially in light of the recent use of the slogan, “Make America Great Again!”

imagesThere have been several articles and blogs commenting on the “Great Again” portion of the slogan with some folks asking how it was great in the first place and others demonstrating that it’s always been great. I’m a bit more perplexed about the “America” aspect of the slogan. If we agree that America is really made up of a total of 55 countries, then I think our current President is facing a bit of a quandary in his mission of “Making America Great Again.” If Mexico (and presumably the 52 other countries south of it) require a wall, shouldn’t we also maybe (tongue in cheek) consider walling off pesky states like California or the annoying urban sanctuary cities? Conversely, wouldn’t people from the other 54 countries of the Americas also be considered American by this definition? Would deportation of undocumented people from those 54 other American countries still be considered deportation?

Why is it that we and so many people from around the world use “America” to describe the United States? I believe it’s probably because Hollywood dominates the majority of the world’s entertainment. They’ve somehow reinforced the imperial notion that the great U.S. of A is the same as “America” or “the Americas” (the bulk of the western hemisphere or half of the world, depending on how one looks at it). I’d like to think this was unintentional, but when leaders of our country refer to the United States as “America,” I think we not only do a disservice to 54 other countries of the Americas, but also to the United States. It’s important to note here that both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton had used the term “Make America Great Again” before the current President.

Another plausible reason we refer ourselves as Americans is because we haven’t been able to come up with a term for ourselves. I’ve heard “Gringos,” “Imperialists,” “Yankees,” and “Infidels” used to define people from the United States, but it sure seems like we could have come up with something on our own better than “Americans.” Seems lame and lazy on our part. Perhaps we could just refer to ourselves as “Greats” and kill two birds with one stone. “Hi, I’m John Smith and I’m GREAT.”

shirtI’m making light of this slogan in part because I find it an incredibly ignorant on many levels. Since traveling, I realize we of the good ol’ U.S of A have a lot of good things going for us despite our many flaws. Without a doubt, we should be striving to make the U.S. of A better on race discrimination, economic equity, a stronger economy, education, housing, less dependent on fossil fuels, ensuring everyone has a chance to achieve the United States of American dream, etc. We’ve never been GREAT before on all of these things. We’ve been good and may have been #1 at some of these things at one point in time in history, but not all of them all of the time.

Not only do I feel we are dismissive of the other 54 countries in the Americas by referring to the United States of America as “America,” but also think that we are unintentionally dismissing many of our accomplishments by not taking pride in what it took to become the United States. It took a lot to create this nation, and in many ways (especially in light of Brexit), it takes much more to maintain it. I would think that our current President would have monopolized on this notion in light of his nationalistic and isolationistic vision by focusing more on the United States part of the country vs. the America part of his campaign.

I would like to think that dissecting MAGA in light of changes in the United States of America and perceptions that that world has of us is timely. Traveling is providing me a new perspective and I love the opportunity to observe new things, from different angles, and question how we got here.

https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/06/what-does-american-actually-mean/276999/

 

Planning Ahead

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In reference to Jeff’s last post about the luxury of thinking about tomorrow, I have been doing lots of thinking about my own future. The whole idea of this world tour was to break away from a twenty-year routine that was taking its toll on our relationships, health and sanity. Extensive travel would give us the opportunity to reflect and hopefully provide some insight as to what our next steps in life would be. Being away from our normally grueling lives would give us the headspace we would need to come home and create a more balanced existence for ourselves.

Four years ago we bought a piece of property I lovingly call, “The Farm.” It is a place an hour outside of the Twin Cities Metro area that once was the homestead of a Swedish Immigrant family who arrived in these rolling hills the late 1800s. Originally, the property was a 150-acre parcel with enough fields for hay, food crops and grazing. It sits above a heavily wooded ravine providing shelter for deer, wild turkey and all variety of woodland animals; the trees were there for the taking for lumber and heat. The Quist family built a big dairy barn, a granary, chicken coop, and dug a well for their home, a lovely three bedroom white lap-sided shelter for a growing family. They were successful farmers who, until 1986, lived and farmed the property.

In 1986, Joel and Dora Quist, descendants of the original Swedish homesteaders, could no longer manage to live here and so decided to sell. The fields were gobbled up by nearby conventional farmers who every year hope to add acreage for mechanized corn and soybean crops, and 15 acres, including the house, outbuildings, and wooded ravine was surveyed off to be included in the sale of the homestead property. As Joel and Dora were very tidy farmers, the property sold quickly to a young couple looking for just enough land to have horses. That young couple raised a daughter on this property, had some horses and eventually, moved on. That’s when we stumbled on this little slice of heaven.

By 2013 when we bought the farm, it was in a shambles needing some TLC to bring it back to life, but that’s how Jeff and I like our properties. By the time we bought this place, we had already renovated three of our own homes that others told us they would consider “tear downs!” We have found that we like junky properties with good bones because they sell cheap and we can completely gut them without feeling like we are wasting anyone else’s hard work and bad taste. We gut and rebuild them exactly the way we want. We’re big on maintaining the home’s historical integrity, so tend towards simple, neutral and classic. Our formula seems to work as selling each of our previous properties has never taken more than a few days.

I should note here, for those of you who don’t know us, these extensive home renovation projects took place while also holding down regular full-time jobs and raising our son, Max. People call us ambitious. In retrospect, I now see that teaching never gave me enough opportunity to enjoy the creative, hands-on results of projects like this. I think renovation and rehab are my drugs of choice – I get such enormous satisfaction and joy from the finished product. I actually HATE all the mess and physical pain of renovation, but when it is done and clean and beautiful…there is nothing like it! The check received at the closing table is pretty nice, too!

However, the farm was a property we knew we would keep. This one would be our country home – a place to escape from the rigors of city life and provide a creative outlet. This place would give years of building projects – a new barn, sugar shack for maple syruping, a summer kitchen in the granary, an outdoor pizza oven, a guesthouse or two and gardens everywhere. We began renovations in the house – removing all the old carpeting, rustic pine woodwork, and broken windows and doors. We added a new kitchen using all recycled cabinets from other old properties and painted everything in a simple farmhouse style. About a week into working on this property, I found myself looking out the windows over the rolling hills and valleys and felt a deep sense of peace. Another week later I was smitten and a trip back to the Cities felt burdensome. Each moment in the city that I was away from the farm I felt a pull. That feeling of only wanting to be at the farm grew and grew and grew.

I began to fantasize about starting a farm business so I could stay permanently at the farm. The second summer we were here I grew a gigantic garden with enough veg to feed fifty families, I began to explore options for starting a CSA. Friends came to visit and I served them “Farm Lunch” from the bounty of the garden, we had big parties on the weekends and small gatherings during the week. Jeff invited his bike crew out for some 80-mile fast rides around Lake Pepin and I fed them when they returned. I found that this place is not only healing for me but healing for others. Lots of people love our farm and I love hosting them.

Before leaving for our world tour, I fretted about what to do with the farmhouse – my pride and joy. I reluctantly decided to rent it to friends and family for a nominal fee – just charging enough money to keep the bills paid on the place while we’re away. I built a website to promote it and reservations started pouring in. Nearly every weekend since we left, the farm has had visitors, many of whom have reported falling in love with it just like I have! Our farm neighbor down the road says he thinks I’ve found my calling as the owner of a farm stay rental!

I have known since shortly after buying this property that I want to live on the farm permanently and turn it into some sort of business. I want to host guests either as day visitors who come to learn about permaculture gardens, buy vegetables or eat lunch. I want to provide guesthouses for those needing to get away from the city. I want to share this space with others because when somebody says, “This place is so beautiful! Thank you for sharing it with us!” I feel such enormous satisfaction and pride – I feel like I have a purpose in life.

Every day while traveling, my mind goes to the farm. That pull that I felt when returning to Minneapolis from the farm only increased while on our world tour. Every guest house we stay in gets compared to the farm, all the farms we saw in Europe gave me ideas for mine, I studied tree planting and pruning, orchards and vineyards all with the idea to bring what I was learning home. And, when travel was boring or hard, all I wanted was to return to my farm.

Yes, travel is hard and I suffer the first-world problem of travel being boring. Travel involves enormous amounts of decision-making – the kind of decision-making that allows no time to ponder. Do I go right or left…I need to know now! To avoid the stress of all the instant decisions needed, planning time is required before venturing out, so reading reviews, articles and maps should be considered fun. It turns out, I don’t much care to put myself in the position where I have to make on-the-spot decisions that affect others and I HATE reading about travel! When planning where to go on the next leg of our trip I would find myself veering back into the internet land of farms, permaculture gardening and guesthouses. Traveling the world has made me realize more clearly that I just don’t like traveling all that much. Jeff calls me a homebody – a label perfectly suited to me. I love my home, I love the life I am creating there and I want to go back.

So, traveling indeed has given me perspective and insight, but not about next steps when I return to the States. Instead, traveling made me realize that I am really not happy anywhere other than at “The Farm.” I knew that before leaving, but it is clear to me now that I need to be on the farm because all I want to do is develop my business. Traveling is taking me away from moving in that direction. I realized that I left behind an unfinished project that has a very strong pull. Travel is lovely for someone needing to slow down, but for me, my mind is churning – full of ideas and planning next steps for the farm. Being away from my project, and in the stressful, slow world of travel is stopping dead a creative flow that needs an outlet.

Last summer I put in half a garden because we were leaving in September so I didn’t plant many late season veggies. All summer I was sad because I had half a garden. This year, I would also have half a garden as the trip wouldn’t bring us home until May meaning I wouldn’t have been able to start my own seeds for tomatoes, peppers and all the flowers I love to start early. If you are well-versed in the use of grammar and tenses, you likely know what I am leading up to – I just can’t be away from the farm for another minute! I can’t bear that Spring is right around the corner and I won’t be able to start seeds and get garden plans underway. Projects at the farm are pulling me away from any desire to travel the world, so I have decided to come home. Max and Jeff are quite content with their adventures – hiking, rafting, exploring and surfing, but this homebody needs to be done. Five months on the road was enough to feel well-rested and clarified!

For those of you with farm reservations, don’t worry. I will continue to rent the farmhouse on the weekends through Jeff and Max’s return in May. Your staying at the farm gives me the opportunity to catch up with friends and family. I guess in a way, I will complete my world tour in the U.S.

Travel over a long period of time is very enlightening, but I am glad to be heading home.