10 Affordable Gifts for Travelers (All under $30!)

Hi Everyone,

Christmas is closing in! Are you doing some last minute shopping for friends? Need some good ideas for inexpensive but nice presents for the travelers in your lives? Here are ten things we love having and would recommend in a heartbeat. The links are mostly affiliate ones, so if you click on them (the pictures are the links, by the way), we stand to earn a few cents (which would be really nice, since who doesn’t like having a little bonus cash turn up now and then)? Naturally, you don’t have to pay a thing for clicking and exploring. Anyhow, without further ado, check it out.

10. Passport Covers. International traveling is fraught, so why make it harder than necessary to figure out whose passport is whose? Get a different color for everybody and no more hassles keeping track.  These are great stocking stuffers. The style options are truly endless:
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There are some fantastic handmade options on Etsy as well.

9. Travel Organizer. Ever get tired of trying to keep all the little things from getting lost in the bag? Enter Grid-It organizer. The elastics of different lengths allow you to create a variety of ways to store everything from a phone charger to a point-and-shoot camera to that pesky lip balm that keeps getting lost.
8. Wall Poster Maps. Every traveler loves maps. They make great gifts for lots of reasons,  not least of which it’s fun keeping track of where you’ve been and where you’re planning to go next. Plus a nice map on display at home makes for a both a nifty decoration and a fabulous conversation piece. One of our favorites is this entertaining scratch-off map.

7. Samsonite Backpack. We’re big fans of Samsonite luggage, thanks to high quality and solid warranties. Keep it affordable with a Classic PFT checkpoint friendly backpack; not only is this pack inexpensive and durable, it’s styled in a simple, elegant fashion, and is quite compact (which makes it a great daypack) while offering lots of ways to organize your things. The laptop compartment makes it a snap to pull out your MacBook when you’re hurrying through airport security.

6. A VPN Subscription. Express VPN is the best choice for anyone who will be going to China (and would be perfect anywhere else that the internet is restricted, too). How else can you guarantee you’ll be able to use Skype, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook? Also, VPNs make it so you can access the same streaming video services you’d use back home, which otherwise aren’t necessarily available outside of the USA.

5. Travel Journal. Travel journals can be had in all forms and varieties these days. If you can hardly cram in time to jot down any notes or otherwise chronicle your travels, maybe thanks to your adorable little ones, try one of these:

If you are a fan of lists, check out the Listography one:

And then there’s the good old Moleskine:


4. Universal Travel Adapter. These are as convenient as they claim to be. They’re a great gift for international travelers, as pretty much all your bases are covered.

3. Solid shampoo and conditioner. If, like us, you tend to travel with carry-on only and packing those tiny bottles of liquids has gotten to you, do consider solid shampoo and conditioner. We swear by the ones Lush makes.

2. Snap tray. This little tray folds down flat and takes virtually no space in your bag. We bring it with us whenever we’re traveling for a longer period of time. It helps keep things organized and adds a bit of homeyness to wherever we are.

1. A power bank/portable charger. We have come to rely on our phones so much these days, what with lack of paper maps and such, that a dead battery can cause some serious stress. Give yourself some peace of mind. Just remember to charge the charger!

There you have it! Hope this helps give you some ideas. As always, let us know what you think. Are there other things you’d include on a list of sub-$30 gifts for travelers you know?

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Ten Must-Have Gifts for Traveling Families

Hi Everyone,

Jenia and I were sitting down and browsing through some random lists of “must-have gifts” for the Christmas season a couple days ago (it was a rare moment when the kids were both asleep). We saw lots of really expensive stuff, and lots of silly things that nobody really needs. So what would we recommend for families who love to travel? Not that anyone has actually asked, but here we go–we’ve found each of these things incredibly nice to own as we’ve been exploring the world with our kids for the last five years. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say we’d consider then must-haves. The most expensive thing on the list is about $150, and the least is only a few bucks. Some of the links are affiliate links, which won’t cost you anything to you click on, but could make us a few pennies, and others aren’t. All the pictures are links.

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10. Boba Air baby carrier. Who wants to cart a stroller around everywhere they go, especially if international travel is in the cards? A carrier makes packing for big trips, not to mention navigating in airports, much easier. Why is the Boba Air on our list of must-haves, though, instead of some other brand? Well, because not all baby carriers are created equal. Boba makes a great product which they stand behind with fantastic customer service and an outstanding warranty. The Air is the lightest, handiest of their products, weighing practically nothing, and it collapses and zips into a self-contained bag the size of a ladies’ clutch. It can go anywhere easily, and it makes toting the tiny one as convenient as can be.

Our Boba Air has been to over 24 countries, simplifying our lives greatly. For a child over 2, however, you’ll need something stouter. See number 9.

9. Tula Toddler carrier. The Tula Toddler will accommodate a toddler weighing between 25 and 60 lbs (11-27 kg) in comfort, and it offers good padding for the parents’ shoulders, as well. Our 4.5-year-old still enjoys an occasional ride in his Tula. These carriers come in a variety of colors and patterns and maintain their value like crazy.

8. Trunki Boost-A-Pak. The Trunki is a backpack which doubles as a booster seat for kids weighing between 33 and 88 lbs (15-36kg). It’s the perfect solution for families with little ones who are out of baby seats, but who still need a booster. There is a surprising amount of space inside, meaning your child can help carry part of the load, and when it comes time to catch a cab, it converts into a booster seat in a flash. There is a built-in seatbelt regulator.

7. Cloth high chair attachment. Quirky, but oh-so-helpful in those off-the-beaten-path eateries that have no high chairs. Light, simple, and useful. What’s not to like?

6. Silicone cups, straws, bowls, and covers. Practically indestructible, these can be washed and taken anywhere. We are particularly fond of these straws (they are wide enough for smoothies and come apart for easy washing)

and these cup lids (they fit virtually any cup thanks to the 3 different rings on the inside that stretch/grip the cup’s rim)


5. Water bottles: come on, they’re useful. How about this funky collapsible one?
It consumes no space when empty, making it a nice choice for dropping into a small day pack.

As for traditional water bottles, we are a Contigo family 🙂

Jenia loves the Addison bottles:

Shon prefers the Grace bottle:

and the kids drink from the Gizmos: 

4. City Maps 2 Go. Pay for it and download maps that can be used offline.

3. iPad dongle. Sounds silly, but this means that photographer in your life can download pictures from the SLR to the iPad, and he or she no longer needs to lug the laptop around.

2. Non-tangle headphones, plus a headphone splitter. Some airlines don’t even provide headphones anymore, so a good pair of quality headphones is a solid choice for anyone flying. The splitter means anyone can share a viewing or listening experience easily.

1. Toys & Games. The possibilities are endless. For toddlers, we always recommend Water Wow! (reusable water-painting activity pads that come with a brush) or a handmade I Spy game. For older kids (and their parents), looks into these:

If you pack light, Memory game and the Magnetibook may be too large but they are great for road trips.

There you have it. Let us know if you agree that these are great items for families and what things you would consider for your list of must-haves.

Noise.

Big city life is noisy, right? So is country life, but in its own way, you might say. And you’d be right. I never knew how many weird noises cows make before moving to rural Georgia, after all. Big city noises are different, though. The unceasing clatter and din of human beasts. Traffic. Construction. Demolition. Reconstruction. Jackhammers.

In Shenzhen, there’s hardly a day goes by without the obnoxious racket of a jackhammer. There is a construction site adjacent to our residence–everyday for months they’ve been excavating there, cutting and drilling and slamming out rock so they can erect another skyscraper. Are you familiar with that process? Huge hydraulic breakers are employed to do the job, mounted on large crawler tractors. They repeatedly send a heavy chisel point into the rock. Eventually an excavator comes along and digs out the debris, whereupon a dump truck hauls it off. As you can imagine, it’s a loud and drawn out process.

Last week, a crew started demolishing the vacant Longzhu Hospital which is just across the road on the other side of our domicile. Now the clamor of jackhammers and breakers echoes off Tanglang Mountain from that direction, too.

There’s no relaxing outside in the beautiful fall weather because it’s so loud all the time. Even relaxing on the balcony is unrealistic. Luckily, after 6:30pm all is quiet.

Unless, that is, the road is being torn up so a sewage line can be replaced. Or they’re paving the other road.

Bearing all this in mind, when Jenia and I spent the night at the fantastic new Hard Rock Hotel in Longhua, some 45-60 minutes away, I was delighted that it was located in Mission Hills, where a posh golf course exists, and where things must surely be quieter.

Imagine my dismay when I was awakened on the 15th floor by the noise of what appears to be a metro line under construction. The entire median separating the highway was a big work zone. Curses.

But that’s all part of the deal with Shenzhen. It is a really big city, after all. Much of the construction really does make life better, ultimately, but it’s a drawback to living here as well.

About Visiting Hong Kong

As we’ve rhapsodized about before, we love having friends the world over as a result of living and working abroad. Last week was one of China’s Golden Week holidays–a time when holidays coincide to allow an entire week off from work. We called up a friend (okay, we didn’t even do that, we just used Facebook messenger to get in touch) who lives in Hong Kong, a mere 30 miles away. This is a pal we met while working in Russia. She now resides in Hong Kong, and it seemed like the Golden Week might allow us the chance to get together. As it happened, though, she already had travel plans. So when she went on vacation to Japan, she set us up for the week in her lovely studio apartment.

#HongKong #MyView #RandTravels

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This meant we had a chance to explore Asia’s world city in a whole different manner than we’d have done if we stayed in a hotel.

Here’s the funny thing–after a week there, neither of us were blown away. We’d expected a place significantly different from Shenzhen. Don’t get me wrong; in Hong Kong you’re less likely to see a toddler popping a squat beside the road, but I did witness a kid taking a leak into a bottle his mom was holding while we visited a children’s science museum. There are signs posted all over the city forbidding spitting and littering, as well as stipulating mandatory fines for those behaviors. Indeed, before arriving in China, I’d heard horror stories about mainland Chinese people constantly spitting everywhere–and that maybe true of second tier cities, but I’ve only seen a few people hock up loogies during the seven weeks I’ve been in Shenzhen. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen, but it’s not a big problem I’ve encountered. Now, was HK cleaner? Maybe somewhat, but there was still plenty of grunge. In actuality, there are parts of Shenzhen which are cleaner (as well as dirtier, to be fair). Shenzhen shines in some respects, and even compares well to its much more famous neighbor. Let’s take the subway system, for example. SZ’s is nicer–cleaner, larger, better illuminated. While HK has a truly admirable network of public transportation, the electric buses in SZ are much quieter and represent a significant contribution to Shenzhen’s urban environment.

One of our friends here described Hong Kong as “China with a veneer of money,” if I recall his turn of phrase correctly. That’s accurate, although not everyplace in HK is wealthy. Regardless, HK represents a more picturesque place to spend time in than Shenzhen, with stunning cityscapes visible from Victoria Peak and Victoria Harbor.

It’s a big city, so there’s a ton of people. And with tons of people come huge crowds. Sometimes I wanted nothing more than to get away from the crowds. But then, that’s the same in Shenzhen. Now and again, popular places just get too packed for comfort.

We made a day trip to Repulse Bay, and found ourselves on a nice beach with pleasant scenery. It was relatively uncrowded, although there were bunches of people, often Filipinas enjoying themselves very loudly, occupying all the patches of shade. That was fine with us, as getting some sun is part of the reason we like going to the beach, but getting a tan is anathema to most folks occupying this neck of the woods. It was interesting watching the people and groups. There was a church conducting baptisms and singing praise and worship tunes. There was a 60 year old American man and his brother with a gorgeous 25 year old woman of Asian lineage (she was probably American, too, going by her accent) popping the cork out of a bottle of champagne. There were myriad women dressed up and striking poses while their spouses or friends snapped pictures, each doing their best to look like a model. And it must be said, the water was perfect for swimming.

During our days exploring via the cheap and fabulous Star Ferry, the famously creaky double decker trams, and also on buses and our own feet, we covered quite a bit of territory. For the most part, we took in all the touristy things on Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, while skipping Lantau Island, since we can get there easily enough another time. One day we walked more than 7 miles, and others we covered 5 plus. That was tiring, since Hong Kong Island is something like San Francisco in the sense that it is very hilly. In fact, there are even a series of outdoor escalators to help make life easier. The sidewalks are also there one minute, and all but gone another, depending on where you happen to wander, which makes life interesting.

#RepulseBay

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#VictoriaHarbour #HongKong #StarFerry #Skyline #Cityscape #HK #myhongkong #China

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#thetravelingzoo says "hello" from #hongkong #365 #lifewithkids #travel

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Some things we enjoyed seeing included Hong Kong Park, nearby the hugely popular Victoria Peak Tram (pro tip–go before 9:00 am), and the Zoological Park, which had a lot of monkeys who were very animated–except the humongous orangutans, who were more interested in lounging around with head coverings they’d fashioned from leaves than anything else. We found some of the temples, including Man Mo (which is in the process of being refurbished, by the way) interesting. Man Mo, for example, is named for two gods–the god of literature and the god of war. The customs observed by worshippers inside are very similar to those we observed when we visited a local Buddhist temple in Shenzhen (incense being burned, respect being paid, food and drink sacrifices being offered).

Lots of #steps lead toward #VictoriaHarbour

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Here’s something we learned about traveling to HK from SZ–it’s necessary to fill out an immigration card when leaving China (yes, HK is part of China, but it’s treated as if it isn’t), and there weren’t any signs or forms to indicate that. So if you’re waiting in line to leave China and there aren’t any immigration forms at hand, go to an immigration officer and get some. It’ll save 10 or 15 minutes and the necessity to step out of the queue, because they want the forms all filled out before you get to the desk. Hong Kong wants forms, too, and they give you a little 1-inch square piece of paper with a stamp on it you’ve got to keep, too, so that’s a slight annoyance, ’cause man, it’d be easy to lose.

Make friends, visit them, or at least visit their apartments. Build some good relationships with fine people and enjoy their hospitality when the opportunity arises. It is something which helps develop and expand horizons, and it also can provide entirely new options for exploring the world.

 

 

 

Exploring Shenzhen’s Nanshan Neighborhood: Tang Lang Mountain

Today my 4 year old son and I hiked a mountain. That is, we walked on a nicely paved road and granite stairs. Tang Lang Mountain overlooks our residence, and it’s been beckoning me since we arrived. Since Jenia won’t be talked into scaling its heights, such as they are, I dragged my boy along instead. Wowzers! We left at 9 in the morning and got back after noon. By then, my shirt was soaked and so were my shorts–soaked with sweat and nothing else!

Typhoon Hato caused, according to today’s headlines, no major damage when it came through yesterday. The threat of serious damage was enough to lead to school cancellations and the like. What we ended up with, however, was lots of broken tree branches and that is about it.

When we headed out on foot this morning, it was humid and there were many maintenance people out and about cleaning the sidewalks with straw brooms. They were sweeping leaves and other debris into piles along the sidewalks. It’s only a couple of blocks to Tang Lang Mountain, and there were lots of people cleaning up there, too. If you’ve worked in the UAE, you might have heard a couple of jokes about how dish washer and street sweeper aren’t appliances or what have you, but are actually careers–that might fit this area too. There were lots of guys (and ladies) out there sweeping the curving road along Tang Lang (which is, by the way, restricted to pedestrian traffic except for a few odd autos) with brooms. It’s got to be hard work in this heat.

Making the hike wasn’t easy. I’m told there are actually trails along Tang Lang, but I didn’t notice them. I did see sections of stairway, and those were too inviting to pass up. Going up the stairways is hard, I admit. Coming down them isn’t at all bad, however.

Since I had a 4 year old in tow, I had snacks and water for the trip. Those were magic–whenever things seemed too hard, a treat showed up, a pause along the way ensued and strength to continue was summoned forth.

We were rewarded for our climbing prowess (or rather, our hard fought tenacity) with splendid views out over Shenzhen and the bay. This is quite a place.

Should I mention the mosquitoes which enjoy the shadier places we found? Nah. Let’s just say the attraction was not mutual.

By the time we returned, dripping with sweat, Jenia was wondering if we were in fact coming back, and we were both ready to be off our tired feet. Traveling by foot with a four year old isn’t a particularly speedy proposition, and we’d also stopped at a shop to purchase a couple drinks on our way back, our water supply having dwindled. Notably, I recognized when the clerk said “Seven quid” in Chinese! It was a proud little moment! (I only just learned how to say seven yesterday, you see).

Days like this hot one really drive home how far we are from…well, home. Climbing the mountain provided a different view of the city, quite literally, and helped me feel like I am actually exploring the area. Tang Lang Mountain’s network of trails offer a little respite from the constant noises of city life. It’d be easy to forget that there are 15,000,000 souls not far off, were I not so unaccustomed to the area. It must be said that lush Shenzhen is nothing like rural Georgia, and even less similar to arid Utah. I look forward to my next hike.

Getting a Chinese Work Visa

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Waiting outside.

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The queue at 8:30.

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Nondescript surroundings.

As we are approaching the end of summer, we are trying to cram in visits with friends and family members we haven’t seen before we ship out to China. When they find out we’re headed for the Middle Kingdom, lots of people ask me (Shon) questions about the preparation process. The usual conversation sounds a little like this: “Wow, you’re going to China! How did you get that job? What do you have to do to work in China? A lot of paperwork? You need a visa? Wait, what’s a visa?” Actually, not many people ask what a visa is, but sometimes young people do–students, for example, who haven’t garnered much, if any, experience traveling the world.

In regards to a visa, it’s the documentation for your passport which legally authorizes you to visit a foreign country. There are different kinds of visas, with the most basic ones being simple stamps which indicate an entry date, and with multiple-entry business sorts taking the shape of complex documents affixed to entire pages in your passport. This Rex fellow’s blog post about visas is humorous and informative in the event that a visa is a new concept to you.

Anyway, China has a number of visas which travelers can apply for. The Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C. provides a handy list for reference. As I’m going to be working there, I needed to apply for a Z visa and provide all the necessary supporting documents. While the list of documents is easily accessible through the Embassy’s website, it amounted to this for me: three pieces of paper, each related to the other, issued from the Shenzhen government and my employer in Shenzhen, which amounted to an invitation to work. We also needed to provide copies of our passport’s info page, our marriage certificate, and the children’s birth certificates. That’s it.

Getting said invitation, however, took time and required jumping through all the hoops that I did for the UAE back in 2012. I know I’ve written about this step before, but for the sake of having things organized well, here’s what went into that: I needed a recent state police background check, a notarized (specifically as an unaltered copy of the original) copy of my highest degree, a notarized copy of my marriage certificate, and then the kids’ birth certificates. These things had to be authenticated (the steps for which are mapped out easily right here, thanks to Georgia’s efficient state government) at the state level and then the national level. It might be worth mentioning that since the children were born overseas, they have Consular Report of Birth Abroad certificates, which are a national level document, and therefore don’t require authentication on a local level. After the authentications were all in hand, I had to send original marriage and birth certificates to the Human Resources folks at my employer’s in Shenzhen, and email scans of the other documents. Ultimately, of course, I’ll take all of the originals and provide them upon arrival in China. I also had to send along copies of my teaching certificate and letters of reference (which had to be in a fairly specific format), my resume (again, typed in a very specific format), and scans of our passports. All of that sounds pretty simple, but ends up taking quite some time to gather, so if you are going to take a job overseas that requires this stuff, get it done sooner rather than later.

We chose to hand deliver our visa applications rather than using an agent this time around. Why? Well, D.C. is half way to Maine, and as you may know, we have family in Maine, so it gave us a legitimate reason to go spend some time up north. Stop in Washington, spend the night, run our errand to the Embassy, and then finish the trip to Maine. The money we would have had to pay an agent (ProEx charges $170 for their courier services, after all) covered our gasoline for the trip, and so we could justify a hotel stay. Also, by the way, we have been booking hotels in the States through www.hotels.com, and they give you a free night’s stay after booking 10 stays. That’s just an aside, however–what matters if you’re going to go to the Embassy and submit your application in person is this: make sure you have all the supporting documents necessary, get the pictures done in the correct format (just go upstairs to the visa service place, it’s quick), and be sure to type your application. This is important; if it is handwritten, it’ll be rejected immediately. Oh, and what about the location of this visa office? It’s not in the Embassy; it’s on Wisconsin Avenue in a nondescript office building. And it’s pretty busy, so be forewarned. On the way to Maine we showed up around 11:00 am and had to wait forever. On the way back from Maine, when we just needed to pick up our completed visas, we arrived at 8:30am, parked in the garage downstairs ($10), and then joined the queue waiting outside. When the doors opened at 9:30, we entered in an orderly fashion and the security guards gave us numbers in the order we’d been waiting in line. It took just over half an hour. The nice lady at the counter took our payment, then sent us one window over to pick up our passports. We were able to pay with our Visa card (they’ll only take MasterCard or Visa if you’re planning to use a credit card–we saw a woman who had American Express get turned away), and we were good to go. Speaking of which, the total for the four of us was $560. We inspected the visas to ensure that passport numbers and names were correct (they were), and I noted that I received a Z visa and my spouse and children have S1 visas.

The visas we have in our passports are now good for entry until October. Immediately after our arrival in Shenzhen, we’ll have to apply for a residence permit and visas that will be good for an entire year.

Well, this brings us up to date. That’s the extent of our experience thus far, and hopefully this helps provide an idea of what exactly goes into getting the visa. It’s not extraordinarily difficult, but it is time consuming and requires a great deal of care, as you might expect.

 

 

 

Alpine Russia

This post is a bit late. A few months late, in fact, as I’d intended to write it and post it almost as soon as returning from our trip. But life intervened, and it’s been hard to find the time.

Spring break for my school fell during the last week of March, and Jenia and our little family were finally able to travel–something we have very much missed doing throughout most of our time in Kazan, due to having a new baby, passport hassles, and the like. We didn’t schedule an international trip, however; we opted to go somewhere within the vast country of Russia–somewhere little known outside the realm of the former USSR, but which was once a thriving vacation destination during the USSR’s existence: Kislovodsk, a place situated in the Caucasus.

The only thing I remember hearing about the Caucasus before moving to Russia involved Chechnya and people dying. There might have been knives involved, but I don’t know for sure. Anyway, what with separatists and gunfire, things I’m sure I remember, the Caucasus seemed a good place to avoid, not unlike, say, Afghanistan, a place about which, as far as I can remember, I’ve never heard any good news.

Russians, however, take a different view. The Caucasus ridge runs through the southernmost extremity of Russia, with Sochi and the Black Sea basically on the western end of the ridge, and the Caspian Sea on the eastern end. Just over the dramatic mountains lie Georgia and Azerbaijan. This region has long been a true destination for Russians seeking a retreat. In fact, there are four towns (pitifully small ones, with populations hardly over 100,000 people) clustered quite closely together which are known for their resorts–with Kislovodsk being first and foremost, and it even bears the slogan “Resort City” plastered on signs at the entrance to town. Kislovodsk is noted for its mineral springs, the waters of which offer a number of medicinal properties, if you believe it.

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A map from ABC News’s website.

We spent our time in Kislovodsk in an Air BnB-sourced apartment (which was great, even though a cat fell through the ceiling one day). We explored the town, finding it quite run down except for the city center, but with all its hills and the expansive Kurortny Park lined by some beautiful sanitariums (not like insane asylums, by the way–maybe I’ll write about them later), still pretty. It was also delightfully inexpensive. We took a train to nearby Piatigorsk one day, a town which figures prominently in Russian literature. Piatigorsk is a bit less run down and more populous, and with its own springs and parks, a nice place to visit.

However, it took a vehicle tour with Caucasus Voyage Club for me to realize the true extent of the area’s diversity–according to our tour guide and driver for our day trip, a wonderful guy named Rasheed, there are no less than 35 totally different languages spoken in the Caucasus.

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Another map from newroute.ru. Kislovodsk is near Piatigorsk.

I learned a lot of 20th century Russian history from Rasheed, as well, as he detailed the spread of communism, “The red virus,” throughout Russia and the toll it took on the once-wealthy region. While Jenia was aware of the brutal treatment of the area’s ethnic groups under the hand of the communists, it was new to me. Rasheed told of the disenfranchisement of the locals to communists from the north, the theft of their properties, and their resistance against their unjust rulers. The might of the Red Army was against them, though, and the locals could not win. Interestingly, when Hitler’s forces swept through the area with orders not to harm anyone unless they were met with resistance, things improved for the locals. The wartime occupiers were actually better masters than those whose country they belonged to. Of course, after the German army withdrew, Stalin made sure to exact revenge for the locals’ cooperation with the invaders. People were rounded up and herded onto trains bound for Kazakhstan, where, if they didn’t die on the way or after arrival, they spent 17 years. After the tremendous tragedy of Stalin’s death, they returned to their country, and things have been more or less normal since then.

Rasheed, wearing a long beard, looks every bit the typical Muslim man, and so he is. He’s nice, open, and friendly. As we learned from him, 60 percent of the population of Kislovodsk is ethnically Russian, which corresponds with the Orthodox church, and the other 40 percent are Muslim, as corresponds with their ethnicities. “How are Muslims treated?” Jenia asked at one point. “I know it was not easy to be involved in a mosque for a while here,” referring to a time of heavy suspicion in Russia toward Muslim people about 10 years ago. Rasheed mentioned under-cover intelligence men in the area, but was not angry about their presence. He said that the climate has changed now, and it’s not bad.

Our tour took us over the Caucasus ridge, where the towering twin peaks of Elbrus were concealed in the dramatic clouds, and where water runs from one side downward to the Black Sea, and from the other to the Caspian Sea; we continued past the Sintina Temple, the earliest Christian monastery in the area, established in the tenth century, along a sparkling shallow river, to the tiny ski-resort town of Dombay and its cable car up the towering mountain I thought was also called Dombay, but which it turns out is actually known as Mount Mussa Achitara. Sunlight had vanquished the gray clouds by the time we arrived, and there was a perfect, deep blue sky. There wasn’t much to Dombay other than the ski slopes–but wow. That mountain, and those slopes. What a place. We only ascended about two thirds of the mountain’s height (2,277 meters), as we didn’t feel like taking the toddler and baby on a chairlift, which was the mode of transportation from there to the top (3,200 meters), but nonetheless, the views were like something from the Swiss Alps. There was a peculiar little hotel that looks as though it just arrived from outer space. There were men with with yaks (wanna photo with ’em? Only a hundred rubles). There was pine cone jelly and sunglasses and hats for sale. The walkways were slippery and covered with snow and ice. It was a giant lawsuit waiting to happen, but it was fantastic. We ate some delicious, fresh bread in a restaurant, then went outside and frolicked as best we could with a baby in a carrier and a toddler in tow. We managed to get sunburned, too, although the temperature was right at freezing.

On our ride home, Rasheed put the pedal down a little bit, not needing to explain so much about the countryside. Speaking of which, we had marvelous views from the ridge when we crested it again–this time Elbrus revealed just how much taller it stood than the surrounding mountains–and at 18, 510 feet/5,642 meters, it is an imposing sight indeed. A little trivia for you–Europe’s tallest peak is the tenth highest in the world, and a dormant volcano, too.

Once again, I’ve discovered that the reality of a place can be drastically different from what we hear about on the news. While it’s true that Rasheed did have a knife (it’s a tradition! And we got to hold it!), there was no blood spilled, nobody shot, and nary a separatist in sight; the Caucasus turned out to be wonderful. While I’m not ready to go to Afghanistan to see if things are really crummy there or not, I’d venture to say that any trip to the resort town of Kislovodsk would be well worth it, and I’d happily go back.

Money Monday: 4 Years in

It’s been almost 4 years now that we’ve been living the expat life, experiencing life overseas and away from home. Regular readers know that we’ve found this to be a challenging, but generally wonderful period of our lives. We’ve had children, we’ve traveled to corners of the globe we once only day dreamed about, and we’ve mingled with lovely people from all sorts of places we’d have never been blessed to meet otherwise. That said, one of the major stressors in anybody’s life, except maybe the privileged few from the one percent, is finances. Living abroad carries its own stressors, of course, especially after moving to a new location, but we’ve sought and found employment that allows us to significantly allay our financial stresses, and that’s a big deal.

Going rent-free and enjoying the reduced expenses of life in the UAE allowed us to pay off my student loans in 2 years, a task that seemed Herculean, though not impossible, in the USA; the best aspect of working in the UAE was that I, Shon, generated the income (if you subtract taxes) that it took 2 of us to make in the States. The income was one of the redeeming elements of the job, along with the shorter work days.

So where do we stand at this juncture, approaching 4 years into our adventures in ordinary life abroad? How are we faring financially? We are doing alright, I’m glad to say. We’re not wealthy, by any stretch of the imagination, but we’re able to put back a healthy nest egg, a significant portion of which came in the from of the 3 years worth of bonus pay (not really bonus, given that it’s contractually obliged) from working for ADEC; and we’ve been building the savings account nicely.

Besides the savings account, in 2014 we opened a couple of Individual Retirement Accounts and started contributing to them–only to discover that, as we should have known from reading about them, but failed to notice, IRAs are meant to be contributed to from taxable income only, and we would be looking at a significant tax penalty every year we had no USA taxable income (and, of course, one of the main advantages to working in Abu Dhabi was that we weren’t being taxed). So, with the assistance of our Edward Jones financial advisor, we shifted the money into an American Funds mutual fund which Edward Jones manages. That meant no tax penalties, happily. That was about all I could say about it–the mutual fund, called Capital Income Builder, which goes by the ticker CAIBX, had generated a reasonable return for years, and it seemed like a solid enough choice, given that neither of us knew much about investing. Whatever fees we incurred through using a financial advisor was of no consequence, because the advisor was, after all, being paid to help us navigate waters we didn’t know anything about.

However, during the last six months or so, I’ve been learning a great deal about investing, and I’ve discovered that our Edward Jones mutual fund account is probably a financial mistake, since there are plenty of other Electronically Traded Funds (ETFs) which perform better, and cost a lot less to purchase. Not only that, but 2015 turned into a terrible year for CAIBX, and instead of the upper single-digit return it had been generating, it turned -8.5%, making our ongoing investment into that fund seem like a bad choice. Not only that, but taxes on an actively traded mutual fund are higher than a more static ETF, and the fees that it once seemed reasonable to pay Edward Jones (which, by the way, are among the highest of the investment firms, at least according to my research), now don’t seem like such a good idea. After all, the waters of investing are evermore familiar to me at this point. We haven’t yet closed our Edward Jones account, but we will; we’ve reduced what we put into it, however. We will close it, though, and transfer that money into other funds in the near future.

Besides having a savings account and a mutual fund, we’ve also opened up a Scottrade account to manage our own investments with. Scottrade has low brokerage fees and has an excellent program called FRIP, wherein dividend payments are reinvested for free into stocks of your choice. We’ve established a portfolio there with a small number of stocks, and will be expanding it over time, confident that we can do better than -8.5%.

What brought on the interest in investing, you might ask? My friend read The Wealthy English Teacher, penned by a blogger with numerous years spent teaching abroad, and he recommended it to me. I found the book very relatable, and then perused the author’s blog. I’ve also discovered, again, thanks to my friend, blogs like Go Curry CrackerDividend Mantra, and many others, all of which helped show me what’s possible to achieve without much more effort than we were putting into being frugal anyway, and prompted me to get serious about my own investing.

So there you have it. I’m happy to say that we’re doing rather well for ourselves at this point, especially considering where we came from with quite a bit of debt, and we’ve learned a lot about investing our hard-earned cash for ourselves. It’s nice to actually have a net worth these days, and we have every reason to believe that it will continue to expand.

Aya-Falla-What?

Ejofallajokull, which sounds like aya-falla-yo-kull. Or something like that. You’ll remember it. It’s the name of the big volcano that halted air traffic over Iceland for what seemed like forever in 2010. That’s when Iceland got a lot of press. Yeah, well, anyway, we’ve been there now. We’ve seen Eja-falla-whatsit and gotten a whirlwind tour of a fair portion of southern Iceland. It’s a pretty cool place.

You know us. You know we like to maximize our travels and explore new places as much as possible. So naturally, on the way home from the UAE for the summer, we booked ourselves a layover in someplace we hadn’t been before.

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If you haven’t been to Iceland, which is attracting a growing number of tourists, you might like to check it out. Courtesy of Icelandair’s attempts to promote the country with stopovers on the way to other destinations, there are some interesting deals available allowing you to have a look around Reykjavik fairly cheaply and easily.

The country is showing up on the silver screen and the ones in your living room with increasing frequency.  Its intriguing landscape served as alien planets in the films Prometheus and Interstellar, and if you watched the Ben Stiller version of Walter Mitty, you saw it take a starring role, as well.

We found Iceland to be sort of Europe light, regardless of whether the country considers itself part of Europe or not (it does). Everyone we encountered was fluent in English (yes, yes, we mostly met people in the hospitality and tourism industry, but not exclusively), while that might not be the case in, say, Italy, or France. It’s also easy to get around without needing to worry about changing money. Credit cards are accepted everywhere, quite literally, to the extent that we didn’t even make an ATM withdrawal once. Right. We were there four full days, buying food from supermarkets, picking up the odd souvenir, and so forth, and we never had Icelandic cash in our hands.

The island is an absolutely fascinating place to visit. The landscape is otherworldly. It’s often beautiful, and surprisingly delicate. The Suderlandsvegur, highway 1, departs Reykjavik and goes south. Before long, there is a hillside rising up on the right hand side of the road. It has a phrase carved into it. The words were, it turns out, put there by a boy scout troop having fun some 50 years ago, and the vegetation they destroyed hasn’t recovered yet. This might give you an idea of the difficulty that Icelanders face when it comes to farming the unfriendly soil. If not, consider that the waterfall called Skogarfoss is named for a forest (“skogar” means forest, “foss” means waterfall). Even though there is no forest there, because the original Norse settlers chopped the trees down to make room for their animals to graze, some 1100 years ago. The trees have never really returned.

For most of its years as a nation, Iceland has been extraordinarily poor. Only after WWII did the island start to develop into a reasonable economy. Now, standards of living are high. Costs of living are, too, with food being very expensive (much of it being imported, of course), as well as most everything else. Heating and electricity, at least, are affordable. It costs one guy, a tour guide we had, about the price of a large pizza to heat his home for a month. It’s so cheap because water is heated naturally geothermally (Is that a word? Autocorrect doesn’t think so) and stored in huge tanks for the city. This is completely renewable and sustainable. Electricity is also generated through entirely sustainable means.

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There are places we’ve visited that we agree we’d love to live. Iceland isn’t one of them. The weather is too oppressive. It’s not severely cold–surprisingly, temperatures hover in the middle-50’s F much of the year, and don’t go very far below freezing most of the winter–but the thick, grey clouds hang claustrophobically low, and visibility is often minimal. “The tallest mountain in Iceland is right over there, across the water,” said a buddy who was showing us around one afternoon. “But you can’t see it now.” Indeed, I’d have never suspected. When the clouds finally parted on the last day of our trip, what a sight we were treated to. The view across the bay was nice. The scenery was extraordinary, in fact. We’d love to go back and spend more time in Iceland, getting farther beyond Reykjavik than we did, but we’d never live there.

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Ejafallajo…right, the volcano, anyway, probably helped Iceland to emerge into the consciousness of the average person in the States. Hollywood continues to explore the place, and I’d recommend that you do, too. Despite not being a place I’d like to spend years, it’s fascinating, and I’d love to have more time there.

Racism, the Rebel Flag, and the USA

Racism is front and center in the American consciousness right now, judging by the amount of media coverage that the subject has received in the last few months, as well as the current kerfuffle involving the rebel flag flying over the South Carolina state capitol.

My perspective on the rebel flag is one colored by spending the first part of my life in the American North (Maine), and more than half in the South (Georgia). Simply put, I never witnessed racism in Maine (mind you, it’s probably there), but I sure saw a lot of it in Georgia. I saw racism from, God help us, church people more than once. As time went on, I saw it reciprocated from people white and black, crossing any type of racial divide.

We all know about the history of the southern freedman after the Civil War–a burst of great freedom and triumph followed by startling, ugly repression and the emergence of Jim Crow, and of course the struggle for meaningful freedom that followed for years afterward. As for the flag–most people in rural Georgia explain that they fly the rebel flag not out of hatred toward black people, not out of a spirit of rebellion toward the Union, but as a means of remembering the conflict that spilled so much blood on the red clay. Some might say it’s simply a symbol of the South, as well, which certainly does have a different culture from other regions. I accept those sentiments to an extent, but if we’re going to acknowledge that the confederate battle flag isn’t always flown in a spirit of malice, we must also acknowledge that the flag exists because it was spawned by a treasonous segment of the USA, a segment in open rebellion, a segment which sought to preserve its power and wealth based on the exploitation of an entire race. Given this, it isn’t even remotely appropriate to fly the confederate flag over a state capitol. Fly it over graves of Confederate soldiers. Fly it at museums and memorials to the Civil War (and incidentally, isn’t the flag in South Carolina actually at a memorial, not over the State House?); these are places where it’s appropriate. Fly it on your own private property, for whatever reason you want–you might have honest-to-goodness noble reasons, and it’s your right, anyway. The Georgia state flag that flew from the 1950s until it was replaced in 2001.

Confederate flag controversy sure isn’t new in the South. When governor Roy Barnes got rid of the Georgia state flag that prominently featured the confederate banner in 2001, that was a change for the better. Why South Carolina still flies the flag on State House grounds, God only knows. Or, actually, history tells us quite clearly. I’ve been googling. It is because people hate change.

After all, we cling to the familiar, often unreasoningly, just like an immature little child. But we must develop. We must grow, getting wiser along the way, adapting, broadening, always getting better. And change we have. Look at the Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage. Say it’s about time, or say it’s the end of the civilized world as we know it, say what you want about that, but change is upon us. It’s the only thing truly inevitable in life.

The world is evolving. Trade, travel, and communication are easier now than ever before, both on a local and worldwide scale. You can buy goods made in Malaysia, whip our your handy dandy iPhone that was assembled in China, and Skype family members or friends all over the globe, literally seeing what they’re up to, as long as you have an internet connection.

Speaking of the internet, the wealth of information at your fingertips also allows you to find out more about a place or culture than ever before, quick as a wink. I can chat with an Indian and find out religious views (“We compartmentalize our gods, but you have just one,” said a guy named Sharma). I can find out about the history of any nation or obscure military conflict I wish. As I read more and interact more, I discover a simple truth. There isn’t any reason for racism to continue. By now we should recognize how very much alike we all are. No matter where we’re from or what skin tone we’re endowed with, we have the same basic desires and the same basic needs; by the same means, we should understand that people and cultures are naturally different. Those differences are what make the world an interesting place. Everyone doesn’t need to be like us, and we don’t need to be like everyone else.

Earlier I said travel is easier now than ever before, and I’ve been doing my best to take advantage of that. Having touched the ground in 30 countries or so, I’ve discovered another truth. Racism isn’t an exclusively American problem. It’s worldwide, y’all.  I’ve observed Russian people look down on Indians. I’ve seen Chinese people turn up their noses at Malaysians. I’ve watched Arabs treat Pakistanis like they’re dirt. Obviously, it’s very human to view yourself as better than someone else. You might say that the fires of hatred are easily stoked. You’d be right.

Even so, racism isn’t pervasive. For every hateful, bigoted, racist person I’ve ever met, I’ve met six, eight, or twenty times as many who aren’t. I’ve encountered more kind, honest, good-natured, helpful people than I can count.

The USA doesn’t need to make first steps in solving the racial problem, since those were made long ago. It needs to acknowledge that there is a lingering problem, one which needs to be dealt with in a meaningful way. If removing a flag is all it takes to make a move in the right direction, then why shouldn’t that be done? If we can stop adding fuel to the fire, and instead be part of a solution to the larger issue, we’re remiss not to.