How do we afford this: FAQ’s about life on the road.

We’ve been at this for almost a year now – this life of being unhoused and on the move. What we have discovered is this: your former life tends to follow you around – you bring yourselves along for the ride. If you were a worrywart or a neat freak in Canada, chances are you will be that same person in Dubai or Duluth. Being a neat freak at home is easy – you hang up your clothes, wipe down your counters and organize your paper clips and elastics in one drawer. Being a neat freak on the road means you will be pointlessly rearranging your backpack and double-checking your reservations – you’ll need an outlet for those organizational skills.

Life on the road requires tons of organization. We are always looking ahead – to the next night, the next week, the next year. In less than a month we will be in India, but six months after that, we will begin a several-months North American odyssey – travelling as far north as the Arctic Circle and as far south as Baja. India is top of mind, but we’re also checking out the Dempster Highway. Right now we have family with us for the Christmas holidays, which involves daily planning. We look at all this as being a pretty great part-time job.

What we’ve discovered so far: we LOVE the open road. Road Trip – two of our favourite words, especially when they are used together. Who knows where the road will lead you – we never get tired of wondering what is just around the bend.

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So, let’s cut to the chase – the most important factor in choosing to be unhoused is knowing you will be able to return to your former life one day without having left your savings on the road. We don’t mind being unhoused now, but we don’t want to be homeless in the future. A number of our friends have asked us how we afford this lifestyle, and we are happy to share.

Finances

1. We live on our combined pensions and have set a monthly budget which allows us to both spend and save. We are far from wealthy, but a combination of careful money management, modest lifestyle and good luck has worked in our favour. Stephen has a couple of pensions from work, and we both collect CPP (Canada Pension Plan) and OAS (Old Age Security). Stephen has an interest and ability in self-investing and our savings and our home equity are securely invested.

2. We don’t live anywhere, which means we don’t pay mortgage payments, property tax, home insurance, cable, internet, heat, hydro or other utilities. We don’t have maintenance costs or replacement costs. We don’t have to buy a snow shovel, or paper towels or potting soil.

3. We still have to eat. But…because we don’t have a kitchen (most of the time), we don’t have the expense of a fully stocked pantry and fridge, and we waste very little. We buy small quantities and when we eat out, it might be a $4 bowl of noodles on the street.

4. We have a car, but when we are travelling overseas, our car is on storage insurance, with zero operating expenses.

5. We don’t buy stuff. We don’t buy new towels, or cute little vases, or fresh flowers. We don’t have gym memberships, or magazine subscriptions. Our only clothing purchases are items that can withstand heat, cold, rolling up and getting wet.

How We Live When We’re Not Travelling

We live in British Columbia six months of the year, in a variety of ways. We house and pet sit, which works out really well. We get to stretch out in a normal home, see our friends, reciprocate with dinner and lunch visits, and hang out with someone else’s dogs and cats. Like grandparents, we enjoy the pets and then hand them back.
If we don’t have housesits lined up, we rent short-term though Airbnb. If we are on the move within Canada, we camp or stay with friends and family.  

Expenses on the road

When we’re travelling, our expenses are accommodation, transportation and food, all of which vary widely, depending upon where we are. In Mexico, SE Asia and India, we set a daily budget of $110, which averages out quite well.  We still treat ourselves. We stay in clean, comfortable hotels like this one, that cost about $50.

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We eat, drink, stop for coffee, buy snacks off the street, pay admissions to museums, art galleries, plays, movies, concerts and special exhibits. Even a family-style restaurant in Vietnam feels exciting to us – every day brings a new adventure.

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Maintaining our health on the road

First and foremost, we never travel without health insurance. We take out insurance with  a fairly high deductible to keep costs lower, and with the intention to cover catastrophic events, such as serious illness or accidents. Our illnesses so far have been the unpleasant, but fleeting GI variety, and in most countries we’ve visited, we opt for “pay as you go” – doctor’s visits and medicines are so affordable.

In developing countries, we drink only bottled water and we drink two to three litres of water daily to avoid dehydration. We brush our teeth with the tap water –  the theory being that by introducing trace amounts of local bacteria, our guts may be less likely to react negatively to our street food forays. Speaking of street food – we have never had a problem. The trick is to go where the crowds are eating and choose something that is fully cooked. We’re a little more careful with salads and cut fruit – we only purchase fruit that still has its peel.

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As for ongoing health maintenance, while we are back in B.C., we visit our doctor and have annual checkups. We go to our dentist and have our glasses updated. Blood tests, mammograms, suspicious moles, updated shots – we do this all while we’re “back home.”

Sanitation – Since many bathroom facilities are less than pristine, or involve aiming at a hole in the ground,  we never travel without toilet paper and wet wipes. As a friend in Mexico once said, “the day I can’t squat is the day I can’t travel.” If this all sounds too off-putting – look at it this way: forget you are in a festering hole with flies and germs and smells. Pretend you are wilderness camping…with fresh mountain air and a lake nearby. Same act – different surroundings. I’ve become quite OCD about hand-washing and try to curb my unconscious habit of touching my face. So far, so good.

Exercise – we’re still wrestling with this one. Sure, we walk for miles and we swim and in many cases, we climb three flights of stairs carrying our luggage, but none of that produces the same effect as having a regular exercise routine.  We carried a couple of resistance bands in our bags last year, and used them not even once. Maybe this is the year I will follow my zumba routine in my hotel room. Stephen, who is known for swimming when the ice first leaves the bay, will always be found leaping into bodies of water.

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Personal grooming – Although most products are widely available in most places, I try to bring enough of my favourite moisturizer and lipstick to see me through. Everything else can be substituted. Getting a haircut can be interesting – I have emerged from a top salon looking like an old lady and from a hip barbershop feeling pretty pleased with myself. Not being able to go to my regular hairdresser is one drawback – it is almost impossible to maintain the same haircut. On the other hand – getting a mani-pedi in Vietnam costs about $10-$15.

Buying things while travelling –  Since we have no home and we are travelling with only what we can carry, shopping has become a true spectator sport.  The world is full of beautiful things and they can be mighty hard to resist. How do we walk by markets filled with handwoven scarves, intricate carvings, rustic pottery? Even the idea of bringing back gifts is impractical – we simply don’t have enough room in our bags. So…for now, we admire, enjoy and know that one day we will be bringing back mementos.

Clothing and footwear – So sad – my days of owning really beautiful shoes are over, at least for now.  I look for good tread, wide toe box and waterproof materials. I schlep past local women in their heels and feel distinctly dowdy, but it can’t be helped. Our clothes must be easy care, able to sustain the rigours of a local laundromat, and not require an iron or even a hanger. “Does it wick?” are three little words that until recently, were not a factor in my clothing decisions.
Also, I’m tired of my clothes. Really bored with them. I look forward to buying some bright colours in India.

Hobbies – when you give up your home, you give up your hobbies, unless they are small and portable. While we are on the road, I will not be planting, weeding or tending to a garden or cooking at more than a basic level. I won’t be picking blackberries and making jam. I won’t be sewing or knitting. I won’t be refinishing furniture, or haunting garage sales and thrift shops. I won’t be attending classes, or learning a new skill.

What I can enjoy is reading, writing and photography. I can visit some of the most important museums in the world and learn things I would never otherwise know. I can practice Spanish. I can talk to someone who lives in a different culture and really see our differences and similarities.
We exchange one set of interests for another. As the Vietnamese are fond of saying, “same-same, but different.”

Friends and family – and therein lies the rub. We cannot bring our circle of loved ones with us, and the longer we are away, the less connected we are to everyone. Oh yes, everyone is happy to see us, but their lives no longer include us. We don’t know the minutiae of our friends’ lives, and the small moments that create and sustain the intimacy of close friendships. Of course, we meet people on the road, and make new friends along the way, but even with Facebook and emails and phone calls and this blog, we no longer have the same community. That is the biggest price we pay for our way of life, and we can only hope that we are able to keep picking up the threads.

Stephen and me – do you like and love anyone well enough to be with them 24/7? As it has turned out, yes, we do. We have had our moments, of course, but probably less than if we lived in one place and had a stable life. We may be together all the time, but we are also being bombarded with experiences and stimulation and challenges that keep us engaged and on our toes.  We laugh until we cry almost every day – either a sign that road fatigue has kicked in, or that we have the same sick sense of humour.

Future plans – We will be in India until mid-April, and then back in Ontario, and British Columbia to see family and friends. Beginning next July, we will be travelling by truck and trailer all the way up north, possibly as far as Tuktoyaktuk on the new road. Back down the Pacific Northwest all the way south to Baja for a couple of months next winter. Up along the Gulf states and the Eastern seaboard – back to Ontario. Back into the U.S. again – to Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.  Up into British Columbia again and then …plans TBA.

So many places to see – Peru, Ecuador, Guatemala, Argentina, Tanzania, Sri Lanka, Portugal, Malta, Morocco, Greece, and our always favourite Italy. We look forward to picking a place and staying put – living in a small village for a couple of months. We’ve never been to the U.K, never raised a pint in Ireland.

We look forward to more situations like this one – sharing the path with animals who may or may not be friendly.

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We had set our sights on living without a home for five years.  When we talk about possibly settling somewhere and still travelling extensively, we both react the same way. “Not yet, not ready for that yet.” This life is still suiting us very well.

If you have any other questions,  please feel very free to ask. We highly recommend this way of life, but we know it is not for everyone. If you are intrigued, let us know. We’ll hold your hand and talk you through it.

We’ll be in India on January 2 – see you again soon after that.

 

 

 

 

 

How to do nothing in Hanoi

By the time we leave for Canada on April 16, we will have spent a total of 10 days in Hanoi, interrupted by two trips away – one to Halong Bay and one to Sapa. We are halfway through our final week and the best advice we received was from a Travelfish article called, “Do nothing and see the best of Hanoi.”

Of all the places we have visited over the past few months, Hanoi is one of our top contenders for “most favourite.” Parts of the city are 1000 years old. The streets are narrow and chaotic, with alleyways leading to what? Opium dens? Are there even such things as opium dens any more? Hanoi feels slightly seedy and illicit in parts – we may not partake, but it’s fun to know it’s there.

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We have been to a few museums, but we think you’ve had enough of the guided tours. We know we have – we want to stick to the street theatre.

In Hanoi, the action is all in the street. Most people live in small places, so the sidewalks and parks become an extension of their homes. We’re close to Hoan Kiem Lake; a city treasure that is encircled by trees, gardens and benches. If I was so inclined, I would get up at 6:00 am to join the tai chi exercises on the lake, but I’m not, to we have enjoyed our afternoon and evening strolls and people-watching instead.

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It is very common to see people of all ages wearing pyjamas at all hours of the day and night. Women wear loose two-piece outfits, usually in a small floral print. They may call them something else, but they’re jammies.  The older gents can’t be bothered to pretend.

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You don’t often see Asian men with long white hair. Cell phones, on the other hand, are everywhere. The poorest vendor will be texting while waiting for business.

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No need to be stuck away in the kitchen while everyone else is having a good time.

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Also a common sight – a tiny matriarch guarding her turf. This woman was barking out stern instructions to a young man trying to park his scooter. He listened.

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Why not make a joyful noise at 9:30 in the morning? Karaoke rules in Vietnam – we’ve often run across wannabe singers in stores and markets.

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Dogs rule in Vietnam as well. Most of the cats we’ve seen look starved and matted, but some of the dogs live at least as well as their owners. They ride on scooters, they eat yummy leftovers and they get their hair done.

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There is no shyness around private ablutions and personal grooming right on the street. We’ve seen many men peeing, small children squatting down in parks, and our favourite – the public cleaning of  teeth with toothpicks. I think it gives the men something to do – sit on a park bench for hours and pick their teeth, punctuated by spitting on the ground.

Picking lice out of hair is another thing we often see – one woman bent over another woman’s head, carefully picking through with tweezers. It makes sense – quarters are cramped, buildings are old, it is hot and humid, and bugs thrive.

With few exceptions, the Vietnamese people have lovely feet. Their heels are smooth, their toes are uniform and their nails are well-tended.

A travelling pedicurist, complete with a small fan for the customer’s comfort.

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If you were walking down the street, and suddenly realized your hair needed a trim, you’d be in luck. There are plenty of barbershops and hair salons, but you have to admire the resourcefulness of anyone who sets up a chair and mirror on the sidewalk. (And the bravery of their clients.)

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Shopping in Hanoi is mind-blowing. There are day markets, night markets and street vendors. There are gift shops and fake North Face stores by the hundreds. Luxury boutiques showcase tiny perfect dresses in their windows.

Even the vendors tend to specialize. If you want feather dusters, this lady has you covered.

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The Old Quarter in Hanoi has a section called “36 Streets” – a carry-over from the old guild days where specific trades and crafts had designated streets. You can go to the shoe street, the silk street, the basket street, etc. – a very logical shopping process. Or, you can come across a business that mixes it up a bit. This men’s clothing store also sells rice by the pound.
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The war may be over, but you never know when a hankering for camo will strike.  Don’t- mess-around gear, or fun outfits for the whole family – your choice.

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We stumbled upon a mannequin street. At least a dozen stores devoted to the sale of mannequins, which prompted us to wonder about the business plan of setting up such a shop. How many mannequins does one need to sell to pay the rent, and what is the demand?

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It’s not all low-brow fun though. We passed by a very fancy white and gold shopping centre, complete with uniformed doormen, shiny tile floors and  elegant brass trimmings.

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Home to the likes of Louis Vuitton, Ferragamo and Cartier, this was a look-don’t-touch excursion for us. We’re pretty sure these precious items are not knock-offs. The mall was almost empty, but possibly 8:30 pm on a Monday is not the optimum time to shop for a $2,000 handbag.

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It was a pleasant change to escape the traffic and heat and stroll through air-conditioned luxury for a few minutes, and I did spritz my wrist with j’adore on the way out.

Hanoi is also all about the food and street food is everywhere. A lot of the typical Vietnamese eating happens on tiny plastic stools on the sidewalks.  There is usually just one selection, so you squat down and eat what’s put in front of you. You will also need to change your attitude about hygienic conditions, but it’s best to stick to places that are crowded.

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On the other hand, you want to keep a few standards – what works for a Vietnamese tummy might not work for you.We would not eat anything that came out of this little hole-in-the-wall. It’s probably fine, but I can’t help but wonder where the rats are. Btw, I saw my first city rat last night – running down the lane leading to our hotel. I discovered a talent for high jumping I never knew I possessed.

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Last September, Anthony Bourdain took President Obama out for dinner in Hanoi to one of his favourite no-frills restaurants – Bun Cha Huong Lien. By all accounts, the locals were beside themselves. Obama is a hero to many Vietnamese and the fact that he sat on a plastic chair and slurped soup in a working-class neighbourhood joint was beyond.

Naturally, we made the pilgrimage. This is a place that could best be described as “modest.” See the four items pictured on their sign? That’s the menu. The restaurant was well-known before for their bun cha – the Hanoi speciality of fragrant broth, slivers of tender grilled pork, tiny seasoned pork patties, and noodles, served with a heaping plate of buttery lettuce and fresh herbs. But Barack and Bourdain have made them famous and now they’re packed every night.

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This is not date night – service is brusque, turnover is quick, the tables are sticky and the floor is dirty. Walls are unadorned except for a few photos of Obama.  In less than an hour we had finished our dinner of bun cha, a skewer of grilled meat and a couple of seafood rolls.  The food was outstanding and set us back $10, including two beers.

“I’ll have what Obama had” – no doubt the first time the girls heard that from a tourist.

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Banh Mi is another Vietnamese staple, and there are a number of variations. This one was a baguette served warm and crusty, spread with rich pate, then filled with thinly sliced grilled pork, an egg omelet, cilantro, cucumber, shredded carrots, pickles, tomatoes, lettuce and chili sauce. Washed down with icy beer.

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Hanoi  coffee culture is a huge deal – cafes  are on every corner and four to a street. They all have their own atmosphere, but what they have in common is exceptional coffee.

Coffee drips from a metal press into a small cup – it takes about 2 or 3 minutes, but is worth the wait. Vietnamese coffee (ca phe sua da)  is served cold, in a glass filled with ice, a 1/2 inch layer of condensed milk and topped with strong coffee – highly addictive. Neither of us ever take sugar in our coffee – this has changed everything.

Hanoi has a few other coffee specialities – coffee with whipped egg white on top (like drinking creme brûlée), coffee with frozen yogurt on top, and my new favourite – coconut coffee. Coffee with condensed milk and coconut milk mixed into a slushy on top. Oh, you have no idea how delicious that is – coffee and dessert rolled into one.

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I thought I would leave you with something sweet! I will get another quick blog posting out to you in a couple of days. There are so many more images and small stories to tell.