A few months ago, while Skyping with my sister, Danielle, I commented that it was time to move to a new country within a few weeks, so we were busy prepping for it. She asked, genuinely curious, “So what does that mean? I assume you each have one backpack, so you pack it up and leave. What else is involved?”
It was a good question, so I made a quick list, in no particular order:
A. Buying plane tickets. This can be more complicated than you might think, as we know very little about the countries we visit. I compare it to flying into New York: how do you know whether you should pick LaGuardia, JFK, or maybe even opt for Newark? We had this problem in Italy: was it better to fly into Italy (and if so, which northern city was cheapest and closest to the climbing area we wanted to visit?) or maybe a flight into southern Austria was more practical. In Turkey, we knew which city, but Istanbul has 2 airports, one of which is usually cheaper to fly into but is also 60 miles out of the city, so ground transportation is frustrating and expensive. It takes time to figure distances, cost, and transportation to our lodging. This process often takes weeks of intermittently researching and checking airfare.
B. Car stuff. Thankfully, in Africa, we bought a car and will avoid dealing with Expedia for 15 months. The trade-off is mostly KC’s when he performs routine maintenance before we drive to another country. Most recently, he spent countless hours driving to the two nearest cities (an hour away in opposite directions) searching for the correct oil filter and other miscellaneous parts for a Toyota that’s not sold in South Africa. Eventually, after 2 cities, numerous auto part stores and Toyota dealers, and 5 weeks of waiting for parts (including incorrect models twice) to arrive from various warehouses in Johannesburg, he finally replaced the air filter (a $16 part at home) for $62.
Because of our work demands and the sheer number of languages we’ll encounter over our travels, I gave myself permission to not study any one language in depth. But – in my opinion – you should never enter a country without knowing how to count to ten and say Hello, Goodbye, Please, Thank you, I’m sorry, How much, and Do you have. So it’s another daily chore to make a few flashcards or lists and drill each other in the weeks before we leave.
We also like to find a translation app for our mobile devices. If you’re “connected” there are some excellent online translators that we’ve used successfully with landlords who don’t speak English, but they require wifi. For offline situations, there are usually basic dictionary apps in a particular language that can be downloaded. I usually take an hour or two to review and download the one I like the best.
This is the worst. I dread it, and once it’s settled, my stress level drops by about 80%. Perhaps the reason lodging is so important is that we can’t have any downtime in our work schedule, so we have to hit the ground running in each country. If the internet is not as promised or the place is infested with cockroaches, we don’t have the luxury of taking another week to find an appropriate place. So we have to get it right the first time, from thousands of miles away – or even from another continent.
The process we’ve devised to find housing is usually included in the postings under the “Las Casas” category in the blog with a brief description under “How We Found It.” Some cities have been easier than others. For example, Florence hosts thousands of university students on a semester abroad or artists spending a year to soak up Michelangelo’s vibe, so there are many sites for short-term, furnished apartments. Namibia, on the other hand… well, let me ask you: has Swakopmund ever been on YOUR bucket list?!
In the end, it’s usually a couple of weeks of evening online investigations, contacting owners, negotiating dates, rates, and amenities, and then losing a morning of work schlepping off to a Western Union to send a deposit.
Like all good residents, we live in a place and say to ourselves on a regular basis, “we need to check out that museum before we leave!” Then we find ourselves down to the final 3 weeks and realize we’d better start scheduling our activities. Sometimes this means working on weekends and in the evenings so that we can visit museums during business hours or rent a surfboard on the first sunny day after 2 weeks of rain.
We have a standard budget, but because we use a different foreign currency every few months, I never quite get over that feeling that I’m living with Monopoly money every day. To keep a handle on our spending, one technique we’ve devised is to figure out our weekly spending allowance and pull it out of an ATM every Monday. So part of my departure prep is to familiarize myself with the conversion rate and make a little chart for myself about how many pula…euros…wons we’re allowed each week.
6) Mail stuff home
I would generally describe KC and myself as “not big shoppers.” HOWEVER… You may recall we sold virtually everything before we left the US, and for some reason, this makes us feel as if we’ve been given carte blanche to redecorate our future abode from around the world. (I hope you visit us when we re-settle; it’s going to be one eclectic place!)
If our blank walls aren’t enough temptation, we’ve seen the impact of tourist spending in the regions we visit. While some travelers support local economies by eating at restaurants, staying in hotels, or taking guided trips up Kilimanjaro, we really enjoy supporting artists that we meet along the way. So we accumulate art and send it home or share it with family members for birthdays and holidays.
As departure day nears, finding the packing materials is the first time-suck: in Italy I packed everything in a used box and when I got to the post office learned that only “official” Italian postal boxes can be used. In Turkey it took most of 6 weeks to find an art shop where poster tubes are sold. And in South Africa I had to have a custom box made (!!) because they just don’t sell the size I needed.
Once the items are snugged away in their packaging, the post office itself is a daunting task in any foreign country, and to be honest, I put it off until the last possible days. One of my more memorable days in Istanbul involved the Turkish Post (read about it here) and ended with me in tears, not to mention I’d waited so long that when the clerk refused to mail my envelopes, I only had 24 hours until our flight to find another branch with more accommodating employees. Whew!
Without a car, we can pack our bags in under 45 minutes. With a car and all our camping gear, bicycles, and even a desk and chair, we now allow two days to prep and sort our stuff, shop and fill the cooler with road trip food, clean the house, and pack the car. Sigh…
Somehow, the list gets done and we leave, ready or not. (Remember that final panicked day of work before your last vacation??) As you read this, we have wound up our last-minute To-Do list. We are making our way from South Africa through the extraordinary Namib Desert toward the Atlantic coastal city of Swakopmund, Namibia, a former German colonial city where we intend to eat oysters and hike the massive red sand dunes. See you on the other side!