Success by Accident

I’m actually a planner by nature – not a Type A level planner, but still a very practical, troubleshooting type (and I’m SICK TO THE BACK TEETH of people telling me that my troubleshooting = negativity). But Chris Guillebeau’s blog post today about starting a small business while working a full-time job made me realize how all of my successes as an adult came by accident. I did things in a weird, unconventional way that just worked out.

Some of you know I fight the natural tendencies of a single, overweight, not terribly young New Yorker to become jaded and neurotic. Sometimes it’s a very conscious battle, and I’ve done things like give up my home of 7 years and move cross-country and chill-out (sweat-out?) for a month in Tanzania just to shake things the hell up. I guess you could say that at the core of it is this belief:

Life Is More Interesting When You Say YES

I’m not afraid of the unfamiliar. Just because I don’t know anyone who has ever done something first – emigrated not once but three times, started a per-min phone business, resolved a fat chunk of depression through hypnosis, etc – doesn’t stop me from doing it. If an idea seems a little odd, I go straight to “what’s the worst that could happen, and how will I feel if that’s the case?”… and then I say yes if it’s tolerable. Sometimes I lose, but those are short term and make great conversation fodder while the wins go on for ages and create further opportunities.

I won’t even tell you the odd path that got me into bodywork because it really wasn’t smart (get your mind out of the gutter – in was unsafe, not shady), but somehow it has gotten me all the way to certification in a very unique and bizarrely effective method that will soon be my primary income. I think. Honestly, a lot of damage was done when I got kicked out of class and told to try again after $2000 of private remedial instruction, and my neck gets all stiff just thinking about my training. See? That’s what I get for planning, lol.

A Family of Nay-Sayers

I don’t know where I got this “character flaw” from. Why flaw? Because I come from a family where everyone automatically says no to anything new and unfamiliar, which is pretty much everything I’ve ever succeeded at. Of course their minds have started opening up when they see how many of my “crazy ideas” work out. I was a difficult teenager but not in the classic way – I was quiet, studious, babysat excessively to save for college, not at all social (bullied in 7th-8th grade), never wore make-up/drank/dated. But I wanted things that made no sense to them, so my parents weren’t quite sure what to do with me. They got stuck with an oddball, though I’ve made up for it with great presents funded by my successes. Heh.

What I’m Saying YES To Now

I just took an unusual apartment situation that brings looks of fear and anxiety to others – except Manhattanites, who pat me on the back for getting such a bargain. I pay 25% below market for a 1BR/1.5BA furnished duplex (in NYC, that means an apartment with an upstairs and downstairs) because the owner uses the other bedroom (it’s really a 2BR, but we have no access to each other’s room) one weekend a month and some holidays with his family – during those visits, I am not here at all, there is no overlapping. I sacrificed personal style for the ease of not moving my furniture around for a short time, and before that sounds like no big deal to you, I HATE FUTONS. It works very well for my current situation and I save a disproportionate amount of money!

I’m also saying Yes to truly developing the per-minute sideline into something pretty spectacular so that, if I do decide to pursue the career I just invested 17 months and over $20,000 in training for, I’ll have a sizable passive stream of income and a maximum return on the reduced amount of time I’ll be devoting to it.

What I doubt I’ll say Yes to is… doing my own IRS audit (suggested by a non-tax CPA friend – the insanity!). They hit me with that nugget of joy & happiness a few weeks ago and I see my delightful CPA (whom I’d kinda fired 9 months ago) on Wednesday to discuss. And my envelopes of receipts from the years they’re auditing are missing. Either I gave them to him to scan and keep electronically, or they’re hiding in a box somewhere I haven’t discovered from my many moves in the past 18 months. Neither of those looks good.

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….

THE TRAVEL MISHAPS

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.

TAKING MATTERS INTO MY OWN HANDS

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.

Business Plan, Step 1: My Health

A few days ago, I moved back from Colorado, the healthiest state in the US – but not for me. The stress of suppressing  forcing myself to fit into an unnecessary mold for 2 months took one helluva toll – daily migraines, back acne, weight gain, daily hiccup attacks, upper back pain, poor judgment, inability to stay asleep, and in the final stretch, heart palpitations. It was scary how I could feel myself deteriorate on a weekly basis. I spent over 5 months not knowing if there was an agenda to block my completion of the course, and in the end all I had was pure stubbornness to keep me going. This has left me in the worst physical condition of my life just as I’m supposed to be kicking off a career in alternative health.

Priority #1: Get healthy!

I can’t ‘sell’ health if I’m huffing and puffing while working on someone. I just can’t, it would be blatantly hypocritical. So my #1 priority for the next few months is to get below my “critical weight” (when my joints don’t hurt), which is about 20 lbs away, and build some core strength to make my future work easier on my body. I will still be chubby, but I’ll be stronger, more vital and a lot less self-conscious once my body is more manageable. As for the other aspects of my damaged health, I got nerve & fascial work from one of the top practitioners in the country 3x in 2 weeks, received acupuncture weekly for 5 weeks, and graduated. Everything but my weight is either gone or back to pre-Boulder levels.

But what about those expensive new skills??

To keep my new $19,000 skillset from withering away and to build some confidence in my actual skill level before I hang out my shingle, I’ll be taking two friends and maybe one family member through the 10-series – you know, people I can huff-and-puff over while I get back into fighting form. I’ll see some former massage clients, but I won’t be seeking out new massage business.

Sub-Priority: Find a new home

My bigger problem is where to live. I make great money at what was originally my side hustle, more than most of my classmates will make as structural integrators. But I can do that anywhere with high-speed internet, I don’t need to be in a $3K+ apartment in Manhattan. So the big question is, where do I live for the next few months that will support my health goal? I’m no doubt better off avoiding the nightmare that is the NYC real estate market in high season (May-Oct) because I’m a non-standard (read: self-employed work-from-home) tenant. Bearing in mind that I need privacy and quiet for both of my professions, I’ve come up with the following possible solutions:

  • Sublet in NYC – Upside: No moving furniture! Downside: Apparently very few places are legit AND not a dump, or cost more than they’re worth.
  • Apartment Share – Find someone with an apartment who lives there a few nights a week, so you never overlap.  Upside: Furnished; short-term commitment. Downside: It would never feel like home; seeing 4 massage clients a week might be problematic; where do I spend the other 2 nights.
  • Apartment on Wall Street – Upside: Possible clientele on my doorstep; 20% cheaper than midtown. Downside: The neighborhood is dead on weekends and after 4:30pm, it’s not convenient to the rest of the city; would need to deal with furniture moving, which I hate.
  • North Jersey – Upside: commutable to NYC in 15 mins ; no need for a car. Downside: a 1BR apartment is still $1500/month; no friends or old massage clients will visit. And it’s JERSEY.
  • Join a phone co-worker in London – Upside: short-term is fine, she knows what I do for a living, England is cooler in summer. Downside: Will it really further my goal to get healthy – to be in the country where I first developed a weight problem? And I’m not sure if the offer is real.
  • Live with Mom for a while – in a house that reeks of damp and old cigarettes? Where any route I pick to walk will be sidewalk-less for at least half the trip? Where my mother treats me like I’m a disorganized 14yo? Hrrmmm.

How are you going to “get healthy”?

WALK WALK WALK for the first 1-2 months – it’s truly all I need at this low level. Look for my #pfworkout tweets if you follow my Twitter feed! Then we’ll see where things are at come July and I might join a gym or add yoga for my crumbling core. As for diet, I’m going to focus on nutrient-dense foods and see if that keeps me from reaching for the empty calories; if not, I can do something else. My Starbucks addiction would involve a 700-calorie walk to get a 300-calorie drink…we’ll have to see how that turns out. So far, it’s a bit painful – not enough shade, and crossing the local highway feels like playing Frogger (I know, my 80s are showing).

So wish me luck – I’ve been back for a week and it’s been weird not having my own home or a scale or a whole bunch of other things I’m used to having control over.

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.

Tip on the WHOLE bill

I’ve recently started a habit of patronizing Buffalo Wild Wings on Tuesdays, when wings are 45 cents each. I eat about a dozen, and the bill for me and my “wing wingman” usually comes to about $20 for food, drinks, tax. Now I know when I go any other day of the week, that bill is closer to $30…so I tip $5-6. I know people who work at chain restaurants that have deals like this, and a lot of them don’t like working on days with specials like that because the tips are lower, so they’re working a lot more for the same money at best.

I didn’t used to think like that. But now I work for a company that puts on promotions for its customers and takes on 100% of the expense. My rate of pay is completely unaffected – in fact, I tend to make more because of the increased business. Personally I think restaurants should pay staff the *real* minimum wage those days (well, actually all days, but that’s a whole other battle) – it wouldn’t entirely make up for the difference, but is certainly a gesture in the direction of fairness. However, I’m pretty sure the CEO of Buffalo Wild Wings, TGI Friday’s, etc. want to hear this.

2011 in Review: Too much uncertainty

I definitely lead an unconventional life and have a higher tolerance for change than most (especially given how long-in-the-tooth I am now), but it has definitely been a rough year. I’ve recently picked up on reading Chris Gillebeau’s blog, which does a great job of making me think constructively while also reminding me of how travel has always fed my soul. Anyway, he does a very in-depth annual review at the end of each year, and the first step is listing what went right and what went wrong. Know what really stands out? That I have another category with about as many things in it: the “Jury is Still Out” column. It’s not that I’m leaving room for a silver lining to appear – I just truly don’t know if these things are good or bad yet. So…here it goes.

What went RIGHT in 2011

– I enacted my plan to become a Ro1fer, completing 2 of the 3 units with greater openness and progress than anticipated.
– Found my own niche and secret to success at my phone job, including a stream of passive income.
– Underwent some intensive hypnotherapy to deal with some pretty old stuff and despite my skepticism, it has helped phenomenally. And I found a way to pay for it without it costing anything out of my pocket!
– My support network in times of stress has expanded.
– I have lost and kept off 20 lbs (probably more like 15 with the holidays…sigh).
– I made 2 new friends, which pretty much doubles my total. And it turns out my friendship means more to a few of them than I realized.

What went WRONG in 2011

– Got expelled from the third and final part of my Ro1f training. I’m allowed to try again, but I’m very worried about a hidden agenda and lack of student support. I am prepared to hire a civil rights lawyer if I am blocked from taking the March course.
– I had to deal with bedbugs and a lazy-cheap extermination plan that took 8 weeks to work. It overlapped with the second part of my training course, and I had to keep that stress entirely to myself.
– My best friend since 1988 cut me out of her life two days after I got expelled. She did this once before, a few months after my father died. I don’t think she realized how hard it was for me to be friends again two years later. The likelihood of being friends again is negligible.
– I may weigh less than I did a year ago but I do not have a good grip on this aspect of my health.

The Jury Is Still Out

– I left NYC in April. I think it was right at the time, but now I feel like I’m being kept away. I hate this place and love it at the same time, and as long as I’m living in this country, this is where I come closest to ‘belonging’…in a city full of sharks and misfits. My two visits since moving away have been eye-opening. Damn, why does it have to be the highest-rent locale on the planet??
– I have a roommate who is very optimistic and calm, but whose life is rather full of drama. On the one hand there’s her psycho ex-to-be who got her fired from her job and repossessed her car. On the other, there’s her utter lack of depression or even a tendency to wallow.
– Last week I *think* I had an offer of a semi-relationship – the first such offer from an unattached man in a decade. I don’t know what to make of his motives, but if it’s a real offer and still available in May (which was certainly his indicated timeframe), I’m going to take it.
– I shortened my trip to Africa from 7 weeks to 4 and coughed up $350 for the ticket change to make the March course at the institute happen. Of course, I could get excluded from that by the powertripping teacher and I’m not due back until 6 days before the course starts. I can see it now…me on the Serengeti borrowing my brother’s satellite phone to hire a free speech lawyer.
– I ditched my health insurance.

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.