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.

 

 

 

 

 

Mountains, mist and H’Mong: the ethereal appeal of Sapa

Sapa town was founded by the French in 1922 as a hill station and colonial holiday spot. This view from the lake is serene. Possibly this is how Sapa looked almost 100 years ago.

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This is how Sapa looks today.

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Like most of Vietnam, growth in Sapa is an unstoppable force, especially with the construction of new hotels. Roads are ripped up to install updated sewers, and every block has some sort of reno or rebuild. Two doors down from our hotel is an old-school construction, complete with workers in flip flops and ball caps.

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We knew Sapa was not a sleepy alpine town, but we were surprised by the number of tourists and the accompanying hubbub.  The main part of town is quite small, very walkable and crammed with hotels, guesthouses, hostels, restaurants and stores selling minority handicrafts and fake North Face products. Restaurants are mainly mediocre and same-same. Someone must have taken a survey about Western preferences and come up with spaghetti, chicken cordon bleu and T-bone steaks; those stalwarts of the ’70s appear on almost every menu in town.

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Ethnic minority tribes, mainly the Hmong and the Red Dao, live in villages around Sapa and walk into town to sell their wares. Their villages are part of the attraction of Sapa – the backbone of the trekking excursions that take tourists out of town and into the countryside.

We booked a one-day, 13-km. hike through our hotel, led by a Hmong woman, Mei. She picked us and a young German couple up at the hotel and we set off, followed by another three Hmong women who joined us along the way. Through town, down a side street and down, down, down, until we were surrounded by fields of vegetables and herbs.
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The massive mountain range, of which Mount Fansipan is the highest in Indochina at over 3000 metres, is almost always at least partially covered by fog this time of year. While we never got clear skies, we were rewarded with tantalizing views through the mist and comfortable walking temperatures.

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Now I don’t want to blame my (almost worn-out) Keens on my struggles to stay upright, but I was having a few challenges finding steady footing on the narrow, slippery red-clay steps and rocks. The young Germans skipped ahead like the nimble gazelles they are and Stephen was doing just fine but I was lagging, so one of the women took it upon herself to rescue me. I grabbed her dry, cracked little hand and safely made it down. All the women kept an eye out for me. At one point Stephen fell down on his backside and they didn’t even look back. It’s a woman’s world out there.

Mei, our guide in green, (who walked 7 km. from her village to Sapa before we began our trek), and her buddies. The lady second from the right was my trekking assistant – have a look at her footwear. These women just walk and walk, sure-footed and uncomplaining.

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The famous and photogenic rice paddies are a marvel of human construction. Mei didn’t know a lot about them, other than to say that the area families built them a long time ago.  It is impossible to fully appreciate what a feat that must have been, as each step looks to be about three to four feet high , and the surrounding terrain is unforgiving.

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The rice paddies are punctuated by stands of massive bamboo, which for some reason inspired Stephen to strike a beefcake pose.

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Strolling along the trail.

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We left the trail and hit a paved road to come to our first village. As we turned the corner, a stonemason’s home was perched right on the edge of the road.

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Further down, a mama and her chicks.

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We met up with some other trekkers on the way to the village.

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A typical village home. The minority tribes are very poor. They grow vegetables and rice and raise animals for food, but for better or worse they have come to depend upon tourism dollars to supplement their incomes. (more on that later).

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One of the shops featured what appeared to be authentic hand-made textiles. The hills are filled with indigo plants – the natural dye used in many of the fabrics. This lady was busy sewing when we walked through and displayed none of the mercenary sales tactics of her fellow Hmong in Sapa. She barely looked up.

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Mei pointed out a marijuana plant as we walked along. There are fields of hemp plants for much of the cloth that is used here for clothing and blankets, and most definitely marijuana plants as well, although we have no idea on what scale they are grown. The woman selling water and coke at our rest stop also had “happy tea”, which we declined. I figured I needed all my wits about me just to keep walking.

Back on the trail and heading for our second village for lunch. See the basket on that woman’s back? Oh yes – you guessed it, the hard-core sales pressure was coming.

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Once we reached our lunch stop, Mei told us the women were leaving and it was “time to shop”. Out of the baskets came pillow covers, small bags, scarves and bracelets and rings.

We suspected all along that these three women were not walking for three hours just to enjoy our company, but the transformation from our laughing trekking pals to hard-sell street vendors was astonishing.  Not buying was not an option.

Nothing in their baskets appealed to us, plus it was all over-priced. The other couple bought two pillow covers and out of desperation we bought a small bag and a little purse. The little lady who had helped me down the hill was now very angry with me for being so cheap and I’m quite sure we were roundly sworn at in Vietnamese. It was upsetting as the whole point of our trip to Sapa was to trek and enjoy the scenery, not be coerced into buying factory-made junk.

Anyway, on our way to the restaurant, our attention was diverted by the strenuous efforts of several men and the frantic squealing of a pig. I thought we were about to witness a slaughter, but Mei told us they were holding the pig down to pierce his nose.

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This was the one trekking day we had but there were a number of options. We could have stayed in a homestay in one of the villages and signed on for 2 or 3-day treks, but we were unsure about what that entailed. We walked by the homestays and saw that  many of them were purpose-built for Westerners. We had imagined living in a rustic home and sleeping in the family’s only bed (which I’m sure is also available), but homestays have turned into a small industry now. Maybe next time.

A final shot of us on the trail.

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While the mountainous countryside around Sapa is its raison d’être for tourists, the town itself is pretty and is worth alloting some  extra time to explore.

One of the attractions is the Ham Rong Mountain Park, which is accessed by a series of stone stairs leading up to several viewpoints along the way.

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Stunning gardens throughout the park.

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One of the shops rented ethnic costumes for photo ops.

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Which brings us to the complicated side of Sapa’s exploding popularity with tourists – the unintended consequences this may have brought to the ethnic minority people.

What happens when people are regarded as a tourist attraction? There is no denying the appeal of the colourful clothing and head dresses, especially when worn by an adorable four-year-old. But that four-year-old is no longer spending her days in her village; she is now carrying her baby sister in a sling on her back while tourists snap photos. She is spending hours squatting down in front of a blanket of trinkets – identical scarves and bags and toys that are being sold by the next vendor and the next and the next. When she is a bit older, she is taught to hassle tourists with toss-off lines,” Hello. Where you from? What’s your name? Buy from me?” She is taught not to take no for an answer and to pursue tourists, even as they try to walk away.

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The Vietnamese children we have seen in the rest of the country are bright and happy and curious; these children are dead-eyed and sad. The older ones are hard-looking and cynical. It might be said that tourist dollars have brought them a revenue stream they didn’t have before, but I don’t buy that. Their lives were poor before but they’re still poor, only now they are captive to the lure of money that only trickles down in a meaningful way to a few.

Government signs are posted throughout the town with “Rules of conduct” for visitors – asking us not to buy from street vendors, but there does not appear to be any enforcement and certainly the tourists aren’t paying attention.

We suspect we are regarded by the Sapa town residents and the ethnic minorities as a necessary evil. We strolled though a number of stores looking for North Face jackets – almost every store carries the identical products, so competition is fierce. One woman called out to me as we entered her store and when I replied I wanted to look, she spit out, “Madam looking. Madam just looking” with such venom it felt like a slap.

The scenery around Sapa is so magnificent that it is worth making the trip. Being on the trails is like no place I’ve ever visited before; it is an essential part of the Vietnamese landscape.  But I do wonder if our interest and curiosity has created a monster.