Trip Report: My Trans-Siberian Adventure

I just got back (read: still totally jetlagged) from my 19-day trip on the Trans-Siberian/Trans-Mongolian Railway, and it went better than expected! I had really wanted a group tour situation, but I had trouble finding such an option so I went with a well-organized but independent program with The Russia Experience, the 17-day No-Frills “Classic Eurasian Experience” with an upgrade for Mongolia because DamnitIWantedToStayInAYurt!! For $3000, I got 7 nights on a train in 2nd class, 2 nights in a yurt, and 7 nights in budget hotels plus some meals, a guided walking tour of St Petersburg, pick-ups at airport and train stations, and some other thoughtful details. I flew United BusinessFirst class to St Petersburg and from Beijing on air miles, woohoo! Loving that hobby!


Getting the visa was the worst part – it was such a clusterf*** that most people trying to get one were contemplating cancelling their trips. But St Petersburg is a real jewel, followed by my first overnight on the train to Moscow, where I shared a compartment with a Belgian-Russian couple who clearly knew how to take the trains. Then I had a fantastic time in Moscow with my Russian travel roommate from last year’s South Africa trip. She insisted that I try foods from the assorted former Soviet states, and drove me around Red Square and prime examples of Stalin era architecture and monuments. It was so cool to see her again!

The train to Ekaterinburg took about 27 hours and was my least favorite part of the whole trip. It was overly warm, I got stuck with an upper berth, and the people with lower berths kept them made up as beds all day which means I couldn’t sit normally…so I planted myself in the cool, empty restaurant car with a notebook and Kindle for about eight hours, drank a ton of tea, did a lot of writing for work, and chatted with a pair of Russian soccer fans desperate to practice their English. Ekaterinburg itself is rife with Romanov history, which made for a great day trip, and my second day was a “depression day”, where I didn’t do much of anything. Eh, it happens, and I don’t think I missed out on much.


It took three solid days and four nights to get from Ekaterinburg to Ulaanbaatar, and those were fun! I had it in my head that the restaurant car was a fairly social atmosphere, but what I found was that Russians don’t use it at all. So it turned out to be a great way to meet my fellow travelers. A pair of German grad students dragged me off the train at one stop and made me eat “platform food” (which involved blinis filled with mystery meat), and I met two other folks – a Dutch woman and an Australian man – who, it later turned out, were with the same outfit I was, and we ended up all together at the yurt/ger lodge and onward train to Beijing. The Mongolia leg was fully escorted (Buddhist monastery, city center, Genghis Khan monument, etc) and the yurt was beautiful. Someone sneaked into my tent every morning and night to light a fire in the stove and warm things up, we really pulled in the other guests for a more social atmosphere, the main horseman was in the midst of his 3-day drunken birthday celebration, it was just wonderful ūüôā


I’ve never been to China and feel it’s worth its own trip to visit, so I only had one full day here while I waited for my scheduled flight. I didn’t expect to like Beijing, but I was pleasantly surprised. I stayed in a little budget hotel in the traditional alleys (hutongs) of the center, took an excursion to a jade factory and the Great Wall, and the next day met up with my new Dutch friend for a taxi to the airport. Oh, did I mention that the new Dutch friend lives in the same neighborhood as I’ll be staying in Amsterdam this fall? Funny how that happened…

April Travel-Money Tidbits

I’ll just do the quickest possible rundown for what I did in the month of April to further my new mile-mongering hobby and pre-existing since 6th grade travel addiction.

New Credit Card: US Airways from Barclay’s

USAirwaysCCThis card has zero fee the first year and you get 35,000 US Airways miles after first use. I bought a pizza for $8.50. Ensuing years will be about $89/yr for the fee but that gets you a 10,000 mile renewal bonus. 10,000 miles is worth $150-200 to me, so it’s worth it. However, the main reason I got this card is the merger with American Airlines – the program will disappear with the airline, and the miles are expected to become AAdvantage miles. What will happen to the card remains to be seen, but I got my 35,000!

Buy Low Sell High isn’t just for stocks

To boost my miles balance so I’ll never starve, I started applying my trusty “coupon ninja math” skills to buying bargains that earn me a lot of points, and sell them through Fulfillment by Amazon. So far so good! In the month of April, I sold 5 small kitchen appliances for a profit of $94 and 5000 airmiles. I don’t really expect that profit to stick – sooner or later someone is going to return one as ‘broken’ even though it’s fine, and I won’t be able to sell it as New. My frugal loins are girded for this eventuality.

Screwing up with Starbucks

StarbucksFrappyI bought some Starbucks cards at a bigger discount than usual with the intent of reselling them through a second-hand gift card site. So far, all transactions have gone off perfectly, no funny business. However, I didn’t answer the due diligence questions from the gift card reseller when they surprised me with a phone call one morning, and now I’m working my way through an abominable amount of coffee credit (but not by drinking it!). Alternative resellers offer a lower % of the value and that puts me at a slight loss. Four friends have stepped up so far to get their hands on some discount mochas at break-even, which is awesome all around (yay Athena¬†& Erika!). Oh, why did I get into this, you ask? To meet minimum spend requirements for the new credit cards. This isn’t something I’ll be doing again. The goal was to make miles and not lose money, and I’m probably going to drop $50-$100 on this mistake. Hissss.

Day-Oh! Montevi-Dayyyyy-Ohhh!

MontevideoI’m a total dork. I kept singing the capital of Uruguay to the tune of the banana boat song the whole time I was on the unexpectedly quiet streets of Uruguay’s capital the second week of April. I snagged an awesome fare on American Airlines that I had completely covered by gift cards from my customers (totally unrelated to the above fiasco). I proceeded to earn 1380 miles for 7 nights in a nice, cheap 3-star hotel and 11,000 airmiles on the actual airfare… plus a 1500 mile apology deposit from AA because their entire computer system crashed the day I returned. I came home to have a friend-of-a-friend for a houseguest, and we hit Brother Jimmy’s BBQ during 1/2 price appetizer happy hour and earned me a 1000 mile bonus as part of the American Airlines dining program.

As for the trip…meh. I’m still figuring out this whole depression thing and should stick with either an activity-based vacation or an organized tour for the time being. It didn’t help that I caught a cold and pretty much slept for the last 3 days of the trip.

The Awesome Cost of Becoming an Aunt

Aunt Katie, my clothes don't fit and my mom hates SNAPS!

My clothes don’t fit and my mom hates SNAPS!

10 days ago, my sister gave our mom her first grandchild and he is such a bundle of perfection that his dad is having a fit about going back to work today after a week’s paternity leave. Our mom flies out to see little Calvin and to calm down my stressball sister (it’s just the way she is), reassuring her that she’s doing a great job. Because she is! She’s just got new-mom nerves.

I’m not rich-rich, but I’m Amazon-rich!

My sister lives an hour from the nearest Target and Costco, and buying locally is hideously expensive. I’ve got this wonderful combination of a big fat Amazon gift card balance and Prime 2-day shipping.¬†See that adorable picture to the left? That’s the first picture of him in clothes rather than baby blanket togas because 0-3 month outfits are too big on him. At the same time, my sister realized that her ideal of never using baby wipes and only warm washcloths was both impractical and icky. Two days later, she was happily washing 8 brand new zippered sleep-n-play suits (she found all the snaps on onesies to be a huge pain) and using Seventh Generation wipes for diaper changes. Not bad for -$60 off my credit balance.

Then over the weekend I saw a deal on Burts Bees baby wash on Amazon – a 3-pk of 12oz bottles for $15.50. My sister is trying to use as much organic or natural products as possible, and I know she’s a Burts Bees fan. I also got a great deal on Aveeno baby products back in January, so the timing is good for a “refill”.

Impressed by how fast things got delivered, she texted me this morning about getting him some new bottles because his lip is getting very red. Yeah, breastfeeding didn’t work out for her – she had massive reduction surgery 15+ years ago, so her odds were not good to begin with. Anyway, I have a feeling that the redness she’s seeing is pretty common and not avoidable, but who cares – she needs bottles anyway. I overnighted the 5-bottle gift box from Amazon for an additional $3.99 and the rest will get there in 2 days. Another -$55 off my balance.

This is why I didn’t go crazy with big shower gifts. I sent little practical things as deals arose on Amazon and will continue to do so as she finds her way to the right balance of what’s good for the baby and what works for her. I’m also blatantly trying to “buy” the first invitation to visit, since she’s barely tolerating my mom – pregnancy turned her into a germophobe. Harumph.

Working the Travel Angle

My sister unfortunately lives in Aspen, and the only airline that has consistently served that destination is United, and so there are rarely any “deals” to fly there. Luckily, they have the best frequent flyer program, and I’ve got my account stocked with 72K miles and another 55K hitting next month. That’s 5 free visits to hang with my little nephew, with one checked bag free ūüôā ¬†Oh yeah, I’m workin’ it alright.

How have I managed that many in a month? Well, a friend of mine shops for her family at Walmart and spends at least $100 every week…so I buy a $100 gift card for her every week and she PayPals me $100 cash for it. That’ll be worth about 5K miles per year. I earn 5 miles/points per dollar spent on cell/phone/cable/internet – that’s 1050 miles a month for me. I’ve also put my mom’s plan on my bill and she pays me instead of the cable company, boosting my miles by another 850/month. Those are just the easy things I normally pay for and that I’ve arranged with people I can trust. That’s worth a Calvin visit each year ūüôā ¬†Yes I’m doing a lot more than that to beef up the miles, but even if I lose interest in this new mile-mongering hobby, this will tick over painlessly for one ticket a year. Yay!


Credit Cards That Fit My Life

After a couple of weeks of dithering – which is both symptom of my Brain Cloud and my fear of making financial mistakes – I pulled the trigger on getting new credit cards. I suppose this means I technically have four now, and here’s why:

OLD: Citibank Dividend MasterCard

I’ve had this card since 2001. Would be 1989 if I hadn’t tried some other card of theirs for a while, which apparently counts as something totally different. I get 1% cash back, and for the first time ever I opted into their quarterly 5% bonus categories…which is a load of crap, it should be automatic. Anyway, it’s nice this quarter because it includes drug stores and I had that plague-flu. The interest rate on this used to be good pre-2009, but now it will never be less than 17% or something like that – doesn’t matter because I pay it in full every month. No annual fee. This card had a limit of $7800, which I just had lowered to $4000 in preparation for getting new cards.

OLD: Bank of America Signature Visa

I have a really low prime rate-based interest rate on this card, no annual fee. I got this card in 2000 because my brother’s tuition from 1995 had been sitting on my previous Citibank card at 17% interest, with my mom making the payments. Then a year or two before declaring bankruptcy in 2004, my mom used it to for a $3K car repair. Since bankruptcy, this has been my mom’s card for big stuff, like flights or helping out with my sister’s wedding expenses, and she always checks with me before using it. I don’t mind because having a card that carries a balance with 5-7x the minimum paid each month probably makes me look like a more profitable customer than I otherwise am with my pay-it-off-immediately habits. Two weeks ago I took my $12K limit down to $3K, sparking one of the funniest displays of fake sobbing from my mom about cutting her credit off.

NEW: United MileagePlus Explorer (Chase) Visa

ChaseExplorerI got this card for a few reasons, all related to United Airlines. First, it gives me 50,000 airmiles if I spend $1000 in the first 3 months, plus an additional 5000 for adding a second card holder. A friend of mine had her washing machine die completely the day before my card arrived in the mail, and I put her new one on it – $1290. I’ve already received a check from her for half, and the other half will arrive in a couple of weeks when the billing cycle closes. DONE. Second, it gives a free checked bag on United flights. United is the only airline servicing Aspen at the moment, where both of my sisters live, plus I have a “niecephew” due next month. There will be at least two visits to Aspen this year. Aspen is a VERY expensive domestic destination, rarely less than $540 roundtrip. This is by far the best use of airmiles because of that. The annual fee is $95 but waived the first year, and we’ll see how this card suits me between now and the fee coming due for 2014. I was given a limit of $15,000, which I promptly had reduced to $5000 when I activated it because I was initially rejected for…

NEW:  Chase Ink Plus Visa

ChaseInkNot 100% sure I have this, because there have been a few hoops to jump through. First, they said I had applied for too many cards, when I had applied for the above one (personal) and this one (a business product). So I called the reconsideration line and answered their probing questions; I was submitted for approval with a $5000 credit line. Then someone called me two days later claiming the previous representative didn’t ask me enough Patriot Act questions. So I scanned and emailed copies of my EIN number and bank statement. I’m waiting to hear, but since I am legitimately incorporated and that’s not even a requirement, it shouldn’t be a problem. To get the 50,000 Ultimate Reward points (which I’ll convert to United airmiles), I need to spend $5K in 3 months. Right now I’m holding off on about $700 in purchases so that I can put them on this card as soon as I get it. Why do I want this one? Well, the airmiles – duh! – plus you get 5 points per $1 for phone/internet/cell services and office supply stores. I can juggle my spending habits to earn 1500 miles per month on like $250 of stuff I buy anyway. I like! I anticipate this will be a card worth keeping and paying the $95 fee for.


I was going to get rid of the Citibank card because the BofA one is older, but it now looks like the average age of your credit card accounts is what gets recorded on your credit report rather then your oldest account. Am I right? So if I keep them both, the average age will be 6 years and that seems okay to me. Since applying, I realized there is another more appropriate Chase card for me that I might swap out the United one for next year…we’ll see. And yet another card that delivers some awesome cashback for my spending habits, though no cool intro offer (well, at the moment).

MoneyMate >>> TravelMate?

Hey, personal finance readers. I used to love what I call “micro” finance blogging, but I’ve suddenly gotten very nervous about having my money info out there for the world to see and possibly use against me. Bear in mind that I’ve had an IRS audit pending for the past 7 months or so, and an absentee CPA making it difficult – so difficult that I now have a docket number in tax court and a list of sliding scale tax attorneys. Ugh, my grandfather was one of those back in his day, and he was a crotchety geezer. But I digress.

Those of you who follow me on Twitter¬†know that I’ve been battling a “brain cloud” of severe clinical depression, which became quite debilitating in September. I’m still not out of the woods, but it’s no longer completely paralyzing. There are some costly ramifications from those months of being a complete wreck and unable to deal with the IRS audit (up to $10K in taxes and fines), a lab bill from September that got sent to collections before I was capable of attempting negotiation (they want QUADRUPLE what they accept from Blue Cross for the same stuff), and loss of income from being in no state to work some days.

Blog Re-Focus

GlobeTrotting1In November, I went to South Africa for three weeks and…it saved me. Yes, bungee jumping off a 700-foot bridge got me out of my head so successfully that I got some clarity and peace that had been lacking for years.

The only thing that has, without fail, made me happy to do or even think about is, unsurprisingly, TRAVEL.

This doesn’t mean I’m not still doing a little Rite Aid couponing or shoving money into my Roth IRA or savings accounts – I am. I’ve been financially responsible all my life and that won’t change. But from now on, I’m going to write about spending/saving for what makes me happy. So there will be a lot of travel focus – where I’m going, why I want to go there, how I’ll live, different things I do to make it affordable, that sort of thing. I hope you all don’t run for the hills.

Image courtesy of

Travel Mishaps Don’t Need to Cost – Time OR Money

I just read a very rational description of how one stranded traveler in Heathrow¬†thinks flight delays should be handled, and it’s hard to disagree. Twenty years ago that’s how it went…I remember getting a free hotel room in DC due to severe storms in 1995, but price pressure has its casualties. That level of service only comes with a first-class ticket these days unless you have a little freakish cattle-class luck.

Now, you can choose to stick to the notion that you are owed this service and you may indeed get it eventually – but you’ll lose many hours and alternatives in the process, with questionable results. Or you can step up and make something happen your way. I have to remind myself sometimes that the experience comes before the money (admittedly it depends on how much), but sometimes you don’t even have to make that choice….


I landed in Denver on my way to my sister’s for Christmas a couple of years ago, and all connecting flights were grounded. If I had stood in line like I was told to reschedule everything, it would have taken me 2 hours and I’d have ended up in a hotel in Denver, my dime. I called the airline’s customer service and asked their policy on reimbursing v. rescheduling a cancelled flight and googled up the bus schedules while I was on hold. I made the last bus to Aspen with 5 mins to spare and got reimbursed for that leg of the flight. By the way, they wouldn’t have gotten me rescheduled until TWO days later, which was Christmas Eve.

My brother missed his connection in Istanbul on his way to meet me in Africa – totally his fault. While he was busy rescheduling and talking them out of the $500 ticket change fee, I was on my laptop in Tanzania finding him a room for the night – $50, 4-star boutique hotel next to the Blue Mosque because I knew where to go in Istanbul if you only had 24 hours. He texted that there was a ton of people at lost luggage, I told him he didn’t need anything for one night, just go to the hotel (as I suspected, his bag had gone on to Nairobi without him). I think he cried in the airport but he swears he didn’t…in my mind he’s still 6 years old, not 38. The hotel settled him into a comfy armchair with tea, he had his free little toothpaste/toothbrush kit from the airplane, he went out on the town that night and did a morning bus tour that ended up at somebody’s uncle’s carpet shop. I think he spent 7 out of his 9 days in Africa wishing he’d never left Istanbul, and now he knows where he wants to go for his next Euro trip.


If I’d waited behind 100 other stranded passengers in Denver to see what could be done, I’d have been out $200+ in room and food costs with nothing to do for 2 nights, when instead I spent it exactly where I was supposed to. Even if the airline hadn’t reimbursed me $80 for that leg of the flight (the exact price of the bus ticket), it would have been worth it on every possible level.

If my brother had waited for luggage that wasn’t there, he’d have just become more distraught and panicked after several hours and spent the night at the rather expensive hotel at the airport, never seeing Istanbul at all. It would have cost him more money and a great, unexpected experience in a country he’d never even thought about visiting.

How would I have handled the Heathrow hassle differently? I’d have gotten the airline’s 800 number, found a public phone, and had them make arrangements. For everything. Because they can do pretty much the same things by phone that they can at a busy or elusive customer service desk. If nothing else I’d have gotten the name of the hotel they normally put stranded travelers at, hopped the bus or train into London and sorted it out at the other end. Then I’d have hit the town with a lot more than an hour until last call at the pub, just as the blogger with the customer service advice had hoped to do. I might not have gotten my $15 back for the ride to the hotel, but adding 3-4 hours to my “bonus day” in London would have been worth a lot more than that.

Serengeti Safari: What you really need to know

I’m writing this from my flight back to NYC (unsure when I’ll publish though), listening to Toto’s Africa on Turkish Airlines audio entertainment selection. Honestly I’m too overwhelmed by my experiences of the past month to write more than just a lite post on how to pick a Serengeti safari for anyone with half an inclination to do such a thing. Guidebooks for this part of the world are only updated every 3-5 years and it’s glaringly obvious that they don’t check much – some of their listings have been out of business for many years, and half the websites no longer exist.

African safari companies and hotels are the worst marketers on the planet. They change their URLs and are for some reason completely ungoogle-able beyond that old address. They rarely check email. For the most part, I took a chance and showed up hoping they had a vacancy – and then I’d see their new web address posted somewhere on the premises. Pretty f***ing useless. Emails change almost as often. Overall, 60% of email inquiries were ignored, 20% bounced back, 20% replied.

Don’t book a safari before you go. You will pay 50-100% more for the same quality.

My brother & I got on a scheduled (meaning anyone can join) 7 day/6 night budget camping safari covering Serengeti – Ngorongoro Crater – Olduvai Gorge – Lake Manyara – Tarangire for $1280 each (over half of that is the fixed game park fees-on-top-of-fees and campground charges). Very few safari company websites display info on that option and expect you to email or fill in a form, which they may reply to in a week or not at all. Okay, enough of my bitching about that…sorry, but it’s so frustrating! Anyway, it turns out no one else booked onto that week’s trip so it was an *awesome* deal for two. From what we could see, other people had the exact same tents, same meals, etc. though maybe a newer Land Cruiser. I got the info 4 days before our intended departure date and booked it 1 day before.

TOUR OPERATORS:¬† There are different ways the safari company is likely to be operated. For some, the guide and cook are hired and the company provides the equipment and program, so they’re employees. For others, as was the case with mine, the guide is freelance and everything (tents, vehicle, etc) was his, so the company I booked through essentially subcontracted, and we got very lucky.

My tour operator & guide: The company was Planet Kenya Safaris and our guide was the wonderfully deadpan Bariki – 10 years experience, neither too quiet nor too chatty, great English. It’s pretty obvious he’s well-connected on the Serengeti circuit, and he knew his stuff. We saw things no one else did, from the elusive black rhino to a kill (lion took down a zebra not 15 feet from our truck!!), and he’s great at spotting the unusual, like a dead¬†impala draped over a branch by a hungry leopard.

Other tour operators I observed:¬† I noticed that Explore used the local operator Leopard Tours, and Good Earth Tours had newer, taller tents – most operators¬†have standard tents¬†with a dome of about 5’6″ in the middle, which worked fine for me. We did not see any operators that used camping cots (though I wouldn’t be surprised if Good Earth did).

VEHICLE:¬† The Toyota Land Cruiser is by far the most popular safari vehicle you’ll see. Ours was 20+ years old on the outside, but the parts were frequently replaced and maintained – our driver topped up tire pressure often, checked for loose bolts and stuff underneath, and all kinds of stuff daily. he also had cushions and slipcovers on all the seats. Our main concern was that it had a pop-top that stayed overhead as shelter – about 10-20% of the vehicles we saw did not and we cringed at the lack of protection from the equatorial sun. Note that things can get really stinky in the truck because the parks require you to remove your own garbage. So…you get the wafting aroma of your food garbage decomposing in 90-100 degree heat. Throw in a cook that didn’t shower all week, and you’ve got quite a bouquet going on.

CAMPING:¬† We did the budget option, which is different from “tented camps” – very luxurious¬†and add $100-300/day to your costs (which is not a terrible idea if you’re traveling as a couple instead of with your brother who uses half of your supply of baby wipes to futilely clean his fingernails, grrr). Bring your own sleeping bag. Check that the operator you use supplies foam mattresses – they’re about 2″ thick and really help a non-camper like myself. We stayed at the Panorama Campground (great scenery and a bar!), Seronera Campground on the Serengeti (eh…but then I can’t compare it to any other options), Simba Campground on the crater rim (the only one on the rim so it’s pretty lively), and I forget the name of the one near Tarangire.

What the guidebooks have wrong: The campgrounds now have showers and electricity! They actually ship in water by the truckload, so be conservative because it does run out. And many people recharge their cameras and cell phones in the very limited supply of power strip outlets in the dining hut. Apparently both of these amenities are less than 2 years old, and boy were they welcome!

FOOD:¬† It’s not fancy but it’s decent, and it can often be too much food when you’re doing little more than sitting in a truck for 9 hours a day. Breakfast is usually omelet (just egg, occasionally with veggies in it); sometimes “sausage”, which is really a hot dog; toast (jam, margarine, peanut butter offered for spreads); a rolled up large pancake that I suspect is called a chapati there. 3 days you’ll get a boxed lunch, which are pretty consistently: chicken leg, boiled egg, veggie samosa, small hard poundcake-like muffin, triangle sandwich with a strange shredded carrot spread, mango juice, tiniest banana ever. Dinner and the other lunches start with soup and will have an abundance of either noodles or potatoes; meat is sometimes canned ground beef doctored up or a hot dog stir fry with the usual peppers/carrots/onions. Bear in mind there’s no way to get fresh meat once you’re on the Serengeti, though I think they buy meat from the Masaai who farm around the Crater area sometimes. Coffee is instant and tea is pretty good – milk comes powdered.

TIPPING:¬† I overheard a fair amount of debate on this topic, and we struggled with it too. All of the guidelines I read referred mostly to Kilimanjaro treks, which have more staff. We went with the $5-10 per day per staff member: $10/day for the guide and $7/day for the cook from each of us. I didn’t let the fact that our guide was an independent contractor affect tipping. And by the way, that’s about double what the Europeans tip them.

OTHER TOURISTS:¬† I’ve done some pretty adventurous trips like this in the past and noticed that, unlike past trips to Peru and Jordan, groups seemed to keep very much to themselves, and Americans were noticably ostracized by the younger groups. I found that really upsetting. I’d like to attribute it to crankiness from the heat, jetlag, and sever culture shock – I suspect many of the younger ones hadn’t travelled enough to be “ready” for Africa. Americans made up maybe 10% of the safari tourists we met, and in the rest of my travels I met a total of one (an ophthalmologist working at a Dar es Salaam rehab hospital for 3 years). Huge quantities of Scandinavians everywhere though, and boy do they stand out with their white-blond hair and Nordic paleness in Africa!

ARUSHA:¬† Arusha is the city (I use the word city loosely here) where most Serengeti safaris leave from. I stayed at 4 different hotels that ranged from $8 to $110/night because the $8/night place, the Arusha Backpackers Hotel, had two fatal flaws: the unbelievable amount of street noise 21 hours a day, and the showers. They always ran out of water by 7am and wouldn’t refill the tank for hours – which sooo sucked for the folks leaving for Kilimanjaro that day (no shower for a week). The Impala Hotel looks nice on the surface but their internet is a pain in the ass and doesn’t work in-room, their bathrooms look fantastic but most have flooding problems, and quite honestly for $110, they should have a/c. The two places that ran $50-60/night for a single/double with breakfast didn’t feel like they were worth $45 more than the $8 place for what I needed some of the nights I was there, but if you’re a light sleeper, it’s necessary. They were Le Jacaranda and Outpost Lodge¬†(the Outpost was one of the main offenders for defunct website issues). Both had good restaurants. Outpost had fans¬†and a pool, Jacaranda had better internet and was much closer to the main road if you felt like going anywhere…which wasn’t fun because of all the con “artists” – literally guys selling you paintings on canvas or batik for 4x what you’d pay in the airport. I preferred the Outpost, which has a really great restaurant with fancy coffee drinks if you’re jonesing for something other than instant.

Go ahead and ask any questions in the comments below… I’ll be writing about the volunteer experience in Bagamoyo next, so hold off on that.

Help me turn Expulsion Lemons into Life Lemonade?

Some of you already know I got expelled from my course at the R0lf Institute – but if I jump through a lot of hoops and humbly grovel, I will be allowed to complete my course. I refuse to get into it here because I have no expectation of privacy and things have a way of coming back to bite you in the assets.

My African Dilemma

Of course I didn’t get the boot until AFTER I bought my ticket to Nairobi for 7 weeks in East Africa for Jan-Feb 2012 (another post on that will follow – but I’ll be helping out here for 4 weeks). In order to fulfill the requirements I need to mentor for 12 consecutive weeks. I can’t even manage 12 split weeks before the March course. So now I’m looking at June and this means being stuck in Boulder until August. First – to put it kindly, Boulder doesn’t resonate with me. I have little in common with the people here. Second – summer and early fall are the most competitive months to find an apartment and being self-employed, I don’t need that handicap. It will translate to more hits on my credit report (never good) and up to $10K in additional security.

Possible Silver Lining

I’m really trying to swallow this bitter pill and it’s just not going down without a fight. I’m trying to find something positive about this situation but I keep coming up empty-handed. So I need to create a silver lining and came up with this: I could go away for 10 weeks after the next course ends on August 3 (assuming they truly do intend to allow me back). That’s long enough to live somewhere for awhile. I could end up back in Africa but…

Should it be Italy?

I have a BA in Italian and I haven’t been to Italy in 12 years. My language skills are appallingly basic for a degree-holder. Maybe…maybe I could find a small furnished apartment for a couple of months and bring my awesome Vonage unit so I can work as normal. I could have some fun developing “habits” – coffee, riding a bike everywhere, gelato (hence the need for a bike!), weekend excursions, maybe entice friends and co-workers to visit, take a class of some sort.

Any Exotic Ideas?

But…I’ve been there before. Five times for a total of 13 weeks (I’m no Chris Guillebeau, but hey- I’m no slouch in the World Traveller stakes!). So maybe I need a corner of the earth to explore, one that offers a lot to keep me interested for 10 weeks and also has reliable high-speed internet. I have both American and British passports. So – got any ideas? I’m dead serious about this.

Back in NYC – but not for long

“We all have big changes in our lives that are more or less a second chance” ~ Harrison Ford

During my 6 weeks¬†of “beginner rolfing” training, it came up more than once that things inside me are very sticky – my colon sticks to my psoas muscle, my pericardial sac to the lining of my chest cavity, a neck nerve to a brain membrane, all of my lumbar vertebrae to each other…the list goes on. It would appear that my body is¬†freakishly in sync with my¬†spirit – I’m STUCK. Have I tried to “unstick”? Of course I have – more than once and in more than one way. But things haven’t improved. [Warning: Possible overshare coming – skip to next paragraph if you’re not¬†comfortable with¬†that.] I am still alone and afraid of personal connections, I am still overweight, I am still¬†taking Rx happy pills, and I’m still a semi-hermit. I am also still a massage therapist and still in New York City. Well how about changing three of those things completely and seeing if the others fall into place?

So I’m giving up the apartment that has been my home for 7+ years (they were raising me $75/month anyway). I’m walking away from my gasping massage practice. I am moving to Boulder in about 5 weeks and will remain there until I complete my certification – I’m guessing December. And I’m starting a rather bizarre diet plan in 10 days.

Now for the financial nitty-gritty behind all of this…

My Home Trade-down: I have a place in mind that’s available to move in next month on the 23rd. I’m trading my $2200/month (new rent that I refuse to pay) including utilities studio apartment for an $830/month + utils one-bedroom. I’m getting my current place inspected next week so that they can tell me what they think I’m responsible for and give me a chance to defend or fix without having it hit my deposit. Oh that’s right – new deposit is $300 and I’m hoping to get back my full $2125 security on this place.

The Move:¬†¬†I’ll by flying either Frontier Classic or Southwest in order to get 2 x 50-lb bags checked free. I have gift cards for both from my non-massage job. One of my classmates has offered to come in with her pick-up truck and drive around getting furniture for free or cheap off Craigslist – ideal – because I am not bringing my things. My friend-sublettor is moving back into his place and doesn’t have a stick of furniture, so he’s more than happy to use or store whatever I want to keep for my return (bed, couch, trunk, massage table). The apartment complex I’ve got my eye on has offered me $200 off my first month’s rent if I sign on the dotted line by March 25. The plan is to furnish the place on that budget…yeah it might suck but it’s only 8 months. And I’m moving in at the same time the colleges break for summer…could work for a few of the things I need. Probably not a bed though…eww.

Income:¬†¬†I won’t be hanging out my shingle for massage work. I will stick to my other job which should be just fine. I anticipate grossing $3K a month while needing $1700 for “bare bones” costs. I’m budgeting $300/month for self-care, which leaves me with $1000 to put towards tuition and that burdensome whole life policy. And if my half-plan comes off I’ll be working in Manhattan again in a year, earning the market rate (nearly double what I charge for massage now) and inching towards a healthy 6-figure income.

Tuition:¬†¬†my last post mentioned having $9K out of $18K saved. Well I’ve paid up the $4K for the first part and it turns out I had $2K more set aside in my savings account than I thought, and I’ve added to it. So I’ve got 2/3 of the remaining $14K¬† tuition¬†saved – and I’m getting that security deposit back to add to the pot. As much as I’d like to keep it set aside for my return, it’s a timing thing.¬†I need it when I need it and I’ll earn & replace.

Couponing¬†& Shopping:¬† I will be living around the corner from a Rite Aid – yay! And there’s a Safeway supermarket across the street from Rite Aid, which I believe is a good one for couponing.

Transportation:¬† I’m within walking distance of everything I need except the school, but I’m located right on the bus line. I hope my sister meant it when she said she’d lend me a bike – could use the exercise and Boulder is very cycle-friendly.

Possible Glitch:¬† This would actually be desirable. If I get bumped from the waiting list and onto the course that starts in a few weeks, I’ll be paying for my Manhattan apartment for 2 weeks without using it. Ouch. And flight prices could be as high as $450 for a one-way ticket – but Greyhound is feasible ($120), and after being subjected to¬†sanctioned sexual battery by the TSA last week (thanks for the cameltoe-inducing enthusiasm, bitch – and no I’m NOT exaggerating), 44 hours on a bus with very strange people doesn’t sound awful.

And so it begins…the second half of my life. I have no idea if what I’m doing is right or wrong for me, but if it’s a mistake I’m the only one who will suffer – and pretty minimally at that. What’s the worst that can happen – I don’t like Boulder and quit the course? So I’m out a few bucks and a few months of my life. I’ve made much bigger mistakes (divorced from a crossdresser, remember?). This would be so much easier if it was a more dramatic change – I’m oddly wired to¬†do that well (Japan, Scotland).

Dear NJ Transit: You get an F in Math

I’m a little bit pissed – no, a lot pissed – at NJ Transit for their recent fare hikes. As if it wasn’t bad enough that they increased their standard peak adult fares by 25%, they eliminated the off-peak fares entirely. My $20 ticket RT ticket to visit my mother on the weekend¬†has now leapt to $30. That’s fifty-freaking-percent! And I’m talking about commuter routes, not intercity Amtrak-type stuff, which prices itself to balance between bus fares and airfares.

Let me tell you how this has affected me personally… My mother’s 60th birthday is next week, and I suggested a slumber party for 6 at my place as a Plan B if the Hershey Park idea (hers, not ours!) doesn’t pan out for whatever reason. She said, “that’s $150 in train fares for us to come in, that seems kind of stupid.” She’s totally right.

If NJ Transit was looking for a justification for¬†cutting off-peak services, then this was a really smart move – the natural atrophy of their customer base.¬†However, if they were thinking “if they pay $20, they’ll pay $30”, well, I doubt my little family unit is the only one changing their mass transit habits.

Tell me if I’m wrong …¬†I always thought of public transportation as being economical, efficient, ecological, and really damn practical. In fact, I enjoy learning my way around the systems in other countries, even ones with alphabets I don’t know. It’s supposed to cost less and take less time than driving. Now, to drive round-trip from where my mom is in NJ ($14 gas), pay for the tunnel ($8 toll), and cough up for 8-12 hours¬†in a¬†parking garage ($22)… that’s $34. To take the train and the subway is… $34. That math also applies to commuters. A zero sum game like that is going to completely defeat the purpose of having a mass transit system.

So, NJ Transit, you fail some pretty basic math. And you also fail in serving the purpose for your existence.

Rant over.