Monday, November 30, 2015

A Journey Toward Owning Nothing

In my post about How I Travel Indefinitely I offhandedly mentioned in the summary that I have come to an understanding that material possessions do not bring me happiness. It has been a slow road to this conclusion and I thought I would share it.

Housing

'Round about the year 2000 when the end of the world was nigh, I vividly recall my search to purchase and furnish a home of my own. I had been a professional business person for 7 years and it felt like time to own a home because...well...because renting is for losers, because renting is like throwing your money away. This is what we were told before the 2008 economic collapse. I mean, my younger sister had bought a place of her own and I was older than her so surely it was time for me to settle down and become a homeowner. Time to fulfill the American dream of owning my own piece of land, for what else would I do with my shotgun and rocking chair and propensity to yell at neighbors "Get offa ma property!"


And settling down. We were all expected to settle down.

I had a mental image I wanted to fulfill of a hip bachelor pad in an up-and-coming, soon-to-be trendy part of town. Of course I didn't want to live in the place that was already trendy at the time, because that would be like selling out. I wanted to live in the place that 10 years later people would say "Wow, you moved here before it was cool. I wish I were as much of a barometer of hipness as you are".

I believe there were a few drivers of this desire:

  1. Desire to display my hipness and sense of style
  2. Desire to meet a woman who would appreciate me for my hipness and sense of style
  3. Because I was just more comfortable living in such a place, just as for many years I was truly & honestly more comfortable wearing snap-up western style shirts (which allowed me to better relate to goths)
And I did it. I bought a sweet condo in a historical building that was being refurbished in the arts district two blocks from the river. It was the first such building in St. Paul and 2nd or 3rd including Minneapolis that was part of the urban condo renewal trend. I spent a lot of time and money finding the right furniture and right paint combinations and right kitchen utensils. It's interesting to look back on that time and realize how important all those visual details were to me. I used to walk by gorgeous, old houses or cool condo buildings and be a little envious because I wanted to live in each and every one of them. I wanted to experience their keen design first-hand.

For close to ten years I lived in that condo in St. Paul, MN. The neighborhood got more popular, just as I'd expected. And I sold it twelve years after I bought it for exactly zero profit. So much for riding the never-ending upward wave of real estate.

I still have that great admiration of beautifully designed things, but now I've become more comfortable just appreciating them and not desiring to acquire them for myself.

When I lived in an 1100 sq ft apartment in Bozeman I realized that I spent all of my time either in bed, bathroom, kitchen or sitting in my favorite chair. Looking back on my Kaizen corporate days and spaghetti diagrams, I realized that 80% of the space was simply waste. 80% of the space I had to walk through to get from the chair to the kitchen or the bed to the toilet. Sure, there are aesthetics like the gorgeous huge window that allowed me to look out to the Bridger mountain range. But still the space just felt too big to me.

Books

My bookshelves were full of books, most of which I had read. How many of those books did I actually read a second time, necessitating a dedicated shelf on which to store them for future perusal? Only a handful. But I distinctly remember being proud of my book collection primarily in order that other people might see it and get a sense of who I was. "Ooh! He reads Steinbeck and Thoreau and travel guides to Kyrgyzstan. Sexy!".

Books were extremely difficult for me to part with until the advent of the Kindle. I was always good at donating old clothing, but books and furniture and records had their grip on me. Records still do to some extent. Year after year I clung to my books, perhaps donating one or two. Each year a novel or reference material would no longer feel as much a part of my identity or else it didn't fit in well visually with the rest of my collection. Only those could I part with.

After years of donating a book here or there, I realized the Kindle was the tool I needed to rid myself of this burden of displaying my self. This decision was also probably encouraged by the fact that in the prior few years in Bozeman, MT my bookshelf was, due to apartment design, not able to be displayed as prominently as in St. Paul. I could unload all of them, purchase a Kindle, and any that I still absolutely had to have I could buy on the Kindle.

Out of a couple hundred books there were exactly two that I re-purchased on the Kindle and I still enjoy re-reading them.

Furniture

More difficult for me than books was furniture. I appreciate thoughtful design and it was only days before departing for long-term travel that I came to grips with the idea of allowing another person to appreciate pieces that I have had the pleasure of appreciating for 40 years.

These two chairs and the lamp were purchased by my parents in the '60s and have been a part of my solo home for the past 15 years.


I loved those chairs and lamp. Not only are they beautifully designed and comfortable, but they were a type of family heirloom. Prior generations of my family considered silverware and table place settings to be family heirlooms. For me it was these chairs.

But why should I be the only person to be able to enjoy them? And why should I keep them to myself for another 50 years and then expect my heirs to keep them forevermore? Why not allow them to be enjoyed by other families?

That was the conclusion I eventually came to, encouraged by the fact that I also didn't want to pay to put them in storage where nobody would even see them for who knows how many years.

The lamps (the one pictured has a partner) were the last thing to go because they were the only light source in my Denver studio apartment. Nobody wanted to purchase them on craigslist. A good friend took the chairs and the lamps went to Goodwill.

#vanlife

This whole process of simplifying my life and de-cluttering was greatly aided by the summer of 2014 which I mostly lived out of my van, Whitey. 
Whitey helped me realize that I could be extremely happy with only the simplest of living conditions, so long as I was parked in a beautiful place and had a friend to share it with. Again, I entered into this arrangement slowly and with great deliberation, unsure of how challenging it would be to live in a van and if the hassle of such a small space with few amenities would be worth it. It needn't be said that it obviously worked out for me just fine.

Spending time in the van made it easy to move into a 400 sq ft studio apartment for the first time. It was positively palatial! 

Conclusion

My journey toward owning nothing was taken in baby steps, first by getting rid of only a couple books that I thought I could maybe possibly live without. Each step became more and more freeing as I realized what is truly important in my life -- friends, beauty, and options.

Friday, November 27, 2015

How I Can Travel Indefinitely

Last night I was out for dinner with four new friends, one each from Austria, Germany, Switzerland and Holland. They were shocked to hear that I have saved enough money to be able to live/travel on $1500/month for the next 10 years. Their ages range from approximately 30-35. It is my understanding that two of them have professional careers similar to what I was doing at their age, and they may not have been as shocked as the other two.

It got me to thinking: how exactly did I get to this point and why do people find it so odd? I've done nothing extraordinary and I made less money than most of my close friends from home who had similar upbringings and education.

One of my new friends (Dutch) noted that the four of them likely pay higher taxes in their home countries than I do in the USA. After all, her university was paid for by the government and my Austrian friend is actually getting paid by his government to study Spanish language in Argentina. So I imagine it to be true that they pay higher taxes than me, and it is definitely a factor, but this post is not going to get in-depth on international tax policy.

Let's examine the various factors that helped lead me to this life of long-term travel.

1) Upbringing

When I was growing up it was my expectation that I would (1) go to college, (2) get a good job at a big company, (3) work my way up the corporate ladder, and (4) retire at age 65. So when I went to college I majored in both math and economics -- math because I liked it and was good at it, and economics because of reasons (2) and (3) above.

Until I was about 40 I continued to live out my obedient childhood where I mostly did as I was expected (except for getting married and making babies) and gained favor from my parents, grandparents and other older relatives. I believe my parents raised me as they did because they came from strict households headed by 1st or 2nd generation Americans who lived through the Great Depression and passed on to them the values of duty, diligence and obedience. Their upbringing was probably not too dissimilar from the stereotype we are familiar with today of Asian-American households, many of which are headed by citizens who survived the Korean or Vietnam war and have made large sacrifices for the benefit of their children.

2) Income

With my double major from a well-respected liberal arts college I achieved an initial salary of $18,000 at an entry level job with a Fortune 500 company who sold life insurance and financial planning. I worked hard and for three years I received promotions until I decided to become a ski bum at age 26 and live in Utah for two years where I earned minimum wage of around $6-$8/hour.

Do you remember Y2K when the world was going to end because computers were not originally programmed to handle the year 2000? Because I had a math degree I got hired back by the same financial services firm after my ski bum years. They paid me $40,000 plus a $5,000 signing bonus. Awesome! This was a huge surge in my income and I can attribute it to (1) math education, (2) crisis in the market, (3) my willingness to learn new skills, and (4) good relations I had built up at that company.

1998-2005 was a good time to be a computer programmer because the field was exploding and, with it, demand and salaries. I hung on for the ride and it was the longest I would ever work in any one discipline. Every day I was being challenged and learning and seeing visible growth/results. The instant feedback provided by computer programming was great. I could change code, re-run the program, and instantly know if I was on the right track or not. This was valuable for my happiness.

But I didn't see a future for myself in IT management. I wanted to be in Marketing because I identified more with the personalities I saw in management positions there. I knew, though, that I needed a bridge job to get into Marketing because I had zero experience in that field. So I got a job in Internal Audit which allowed me valuable face time with Marketing management, something I knew would help me in the transition.

It worked. After two years in Internal Audit I got the hip, innovative job I wanted. I would be helping to develop new startup business ventures under the safety of the corporate umbrella. I got to work for a startup with with very little personal risk. My salary rose with it until several years later when I moved to Montana in order to better align my lifestyle with my personal values (i.e. living fully in mountains and skiing frequently). I had gotten a taste of management and it wasn't for me. I was prepared to make less money but live a lifestyle more in line with my personal values, which I had spent time cultivating with help from my longtime employer.

And make less money I certainly did. I became a financial rep selling life insurance and mutual funds and made far less money. Then I took another financial step backwards when I quit that to buy a small business hair salon franchise in Colorado. I lost money as an entrepreneur, but I'm glad I gave it a shot.

3) Saving & Expenses

Aside from the last five years I was always pretty conscious of my expenses. Spend less than you earn seems so simple, but it eludes many Americans. After the 2008 financial debacle President George W. Bush urged us all to go shopping in order to help the economy.

When I got my first job out of college making $18,000 I immediately purchased a brand new car for $12,000 even though I already owned a perfectly good car in good shape with very low mileage (but it wasn't very good looking). Can you imagine buying a car that is valued at 2/3 of your annual income, even though you know it loses 30% of its value the minute you drive it off the lot? Perhaps you can. Many of us have done it. This photo is not my actual car (same make and model, though), but you can see why I wasn't too enamored with it as a suit-and-tie wearing, upwardly mobile 23-year old. Or maybe you are envious of me and my sweet set of now-vintage wheels.

Saving

In my 20s and 30s I always spent less than I made (see: Upbringing) and at age 29 I thankfully succumbed to the programming of working for a mutual fund company and finally began saving. For the next 12 years I maxed out my IRA contributions and put 20% of my salary into a 401(k) which was partially matched by my employer. I even put a little more into non-retirement mutual funds.

From ages 42-45, however, I earned about zero dollars and only lowered my spending by a little. As you can see via the above graph I was putting a significant dent into my savings.

College Expenses

In the United States it is not uncommon for parents to pay for as much of their kids college education as they are reasonably able to, at least among my peers. It is fairly normal for parents to try to pay between $10,000 and $20,000 per year for each of their child's 4-year college education. In many European countries they are essentially paying the same, but they do it through taxes. Or probably they contribute less in taxes because the expense is more equally shared among all the population, not just those with children. Since I never had children I don't pay this expense either directly or indirectly. However, since I do still value education, most years I donate a small sum to my alma mater.

When I was in college I believe it was less common for parents to pay for their children because college wasn't nearly as expensive back then. But I was fortunate that my grandparents paid for my college, so while some of my peers paid first for their own college and then paid again and paid again for each of their children, I paid never.

Transportation

The average American spends $8000 per year (data here is a few years old) for each automobile they own. I always owned fuel-efficient, practical vehicles and ever since 9/11 preferred to ride my bicycle to work and to errands around town as much as possible. In the years before that I always took the bus to work. I don't know my annual transportation expenses, but they were significantly less than the American average. I also chose to live in central locations which helped minimize this expense.

Health Care

Some countries have extensive government sponsored health care and the people pay very little out-of-pocket to the doctor. Of course they still pay it, but they pay it in taxes. USA did not do this and the fact that I am a healthy person means I pay very little in health care expenses. I pay less for health care than non-healthy Americans and probably also less than many healthy Europeans because I don't pay as much to support others in ill health.

Current Expenses & What I Need to be Happy

I'm quite happy owning only what I can fit in a carry-on sized backpack, bouncing from hostel to volunteer farm to hostel over the next several years, and keeping my spending low.

Chance

On the income/expense graph at the top of this post you can see that I was doing quite well financially for myself until age 42 when I decided to scratch my entrepreneurial itch. The past three years I spent much more than I made, which took a big chunk (>$100K) from my savings. However, it just so happened that, after losing my mother to cancer in 2001, my father died of cancer this past April barely three months after diagnosis. From him I inherited almost exactly the amount I had lost the prior few years.

Which brings me to now.

Summary

So how can I afford to travel for about ten years on $1,500 per month?
  1. I got a good education for free
  2. I was obedient enough to work hard for 20+ years in jobs that, while I wasn't passionate about any of them, paid me a reasonable wage
  3. Kept myself healthy
  4. Took calculated risks that sometimes worked out (IT career) and sometimes didn't (entrepreneurial career)
  5. Save, save, save. Didn't get caught up in consumer culture.
  6. Lived in a lower tax nation (compared to some) that allowed me more control of the money I earned
  7. Understanding that material possessions do not bring me happiness
  8. Fortuitous timing
Last night's conversation sparked this analysis and it's been beneficial to me to write this. I look forward to more discussions with new international friends in order to better understand the world and myself.



Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Staying Healthy While Traveling

So far in my new world of travel I've been doing a good job of staying healthy. Historically when I'd travel for a week or two it made for an easy excuse to go out drinking every night and eat gelato and fried street food daily. But if this is to be more of a lifestyle then I can't be doing that. For long-term traveling to be a sustainable lifestyle for me I need to be more conscious about what I'm putting in my body and also about what is coming out of my wallet.

Eating & Drinking

Around town there are many little markets selling fresh fruits and vegetables so I've been picking up apples and bananas and kiwis to carry around with me as snack food. The hostel has a kitchen for residents, but I'm still really not a fan of preparing food so I'm not sure if I'll use it. Yesterday I found a little bakery near the Spanish school and had a tasty veggie quiche kind of deal for lunch - $3. Today is my fifth day and I still haven't drank any of the famous wine (quality vino can be had for $5/bottle) or eaten any of the legendary steak ($10 for the best steak of your life, I'm told). Tonight might be the night for yoga followed by steak and wine, however.

The hostel breakfasts have been disappointing health-wise, but I bought some granola at a grocery store last night in order to spice up the thin yogurt that they serve along with bananas, bread and sugared cereals. The below photo is my breakfast this morning and I imagine it will be for the better part of the next month. The tea is matte and, after vino, it's the national drink of Argentina.

Yoga

Last night I went to a yoga class and it felt great. In fact I'm much more interested in doing more yoga and not even partaking in the whole tango scene. Tango dancing is a deep part of the culture in Argentina and I feel like I should do it because of that, but I really don't care much for dancing and would rather spend a couple evenings a week doing yoga. Over the past year I've really learned to enjoy yoga and prefer it to working out at the gym or going for a run.

Yoga isn't quite as expensive in Argentina and last night was also a good way to meet some other foreigners. The class I attended was recommended by a German student in my Spanish language class and also acted as an impetus to get me on the subway (crowded like Tokyo at rush hour) and out to a charming neighborhood that's about an hour walk from where I'm staying. After class I walked home in the dark and was refreshed by the cooler evening air.

Related

In other news, first day of Spanish class yesterday was great. There are just 4 of us in the class -- me, a guy from Chicago, a woman from Germany and an Austrian gentleman. Good folks, all, and the four hours of class went by surprisingly rapidly.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Arrival in Buenos Aires, Argentina

Travel from Denver to Buenos Aires, Argentina (via Toronto and Santiago, Chile) went smoothly, with the only challenging leg being the final one via taxi from the airport to my hostel which took close to 2 hours due to congestion caused by traffic accidents. 

During the long, slow drive I was excited to see wonderful bicycle conditions including many protected bike lanes and even bike-specific traffic signals. When the little dude on the bicycle is green, that means go.


Alas, my joy of a bicycle paradise was short-lived upon realizing that Argentina suffers from the same struggles as the United States -- motorists enjoy parking their automobiles in the "dedicated" bike lanes. Perhaps we are not so different after all.



The hostel I'm staying at is quite nice and I have a private room w/ simple breakfast for about $16/night. I'll stay here for a month while I'm taking 20 hours of Spanish language lessons each week. My room measures 7' x 11' so, yes, it is slightly smaller than a sheet of writing paper. But it's bigger than my camper van so it feels palatial to me. Not pictured to the viewers left is a little wardrobe where my clothes are hanging.

The hostel has a very nice common room with couches, a pool table, a bar selling very reasonably priced wine and beer, and usually has several other travelers lounging around all staring intently at their personal electronic devices.

So far I've yet to meet another native English speaker. It turns out many of the visitors here are from other South American nations like Brazil and Ecuador, but I did chat in English last night with a couple nice German frauleins.

Take a Walk

Yesterday I went for a walk to check out the surrounding neighborhoods. If you look at a map Buenos Aires is situated on a small inlet of the Atlantic Ocean and just across the bay is Uruguay. There's an ecological preserve along the ocean a short walk east of my hostel so I headed there to enjoy the lovely weather -- 70s and sunny every day so far.

It turns out that Buenos Aires kind of turns its back to the ocean because the shoreline is actually quite marshy. The seashore has always been more utilitarian and a port was developed in the 19th century to service ships. But the original port was decommissioned over 100 years ago and moved down the coast. In the last 20 or 30 years some infill was added to allow for the new condominiums that you see here. This photo was taken from the eco preserve looking back across the marsh toward those flashy new condos on the edge of the city.


This flower struck me as being particularly pretty. Wouldn't you agree? It's springtime here now and this flower is on a tree and appears to have been the first one to bloom. Hopefully the tree will be full of them soon.

About a mile into the eco walk I got to the beach. It's a little rocky and actually many of those rocks you see are worn chunks of concrete (some with visibly jutting re-bar) that once made up the port here. Many people were hanging out and there are a number of benches under lovely trees, but it's not exactly a beach for surfing and sunbathing.


That's it for now. Tomorrow I begin my Spanish lessons and I'm excited to get started and meet the other 5 or 6 people in my class.


Thursday, November 19, 2015

Rebirth

Today is the first day of the second half of my life. Like the day I was born, I own zero keys and only the clothes I carry on my back.

Today I depart on a one-way ticket for Buenos Aires, Argentina where I will spend a month studying Spanish and exploring the city. After that I expect to fly down to Tierra del Fuego and begin slowly making my way north. I expect to be traveling for at least a couple years and have no definitive plans to return to America (though I'm sure I will at some point).

I accidentally deleted the photo of everything in my backpack that I was going to put here, but here's my carry-on size, 46-litre backpack, the Osprey Porter:


Rebirth
What is it like in life to have zero external obligations, zero commitments, zero dependents? In one way there's a level of freedom that feels amazing because I've thrown off the shackles of jobs and bills. In many ways it feels to me like an achievement, and I feel good about that. But there's also a high level of the unknown, which is always slightly unsettling. I think slightly unsettling is good to have in our lives, though. It keeps everything fresh and exciting.

I used to pretty much know how every day was going to play out -- wake up, get ready, bike to work, eat lunch with the same crew at one of a handful of different places, anticipate going home, go home, hang out or go out, sleep, repeat 5 times until hallelujah the weekend.

Of course I still have internal obligations -- be a better listener, eat healthier to combat hypertension, find love -- and those tug at us just as strongly as the external. So perhaps it's not that the burden has lessened so much, but there are fewer pieces so it's easier to navigate and make sure I stay true to my north star.

Departure
And so I take a big leap towards what feels to me like the most KIRK I can be -- traveling, learning, understanding, helping, discovering.

I'll continue to share my thoughts along the way. This blog is not to be confused with a travel blog (i.e. one where the goal is to provide a modest income in order to fund perpetual travel). It is and always has been merely a record of my thoughts and experiences that is foremost for my own benefit. We've all been told that journaling is healthy, right? Secondarily I hope some people enjoy reading about what I've been up to, perhaps even becoming inspired to take a similar leap. Life is too short to know how every day is going to turn out.

Travel is fatal to prejudicebigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime." 
                  ― Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad/Roughing It.
I'm looking to achieve much of what Twain describes in the above quote and I know that it cannot be gained by "vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime". I want to kill my personal prejudice and bigotry and broaden my mind. The recent terrorist attacks remind me that progress comes from the bottom up and we are all responsible for building bridges between cultures.

Request
If you have any friends who live in different parts of the world, please make the connection if you think we would enjoy meeting each other. Gracias.


Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Kirk's Travel/Life Plan

Kirk's Travel/Life Plan

  1. See the world
  2. Don't make a plan


In a little over a week I fly one-way to Buenos Aires, Argentina. I'm 45 years old and it's likely that my life is about half over. Much of the first half was spent being a good boy and doing as I was told. The last several years, however, were spent asking questions about what is important to me. The last several years were spent stripping away much of the cultural baggage I grew up with and trying to understand myself from a broader perspective.

It is easy to see many benefits in the way I grew up. I received a very good (for it's time) formal education for free (thanks Grandma & Grandpa!). I was taught the value of planning for the future. 

The future is now.

Financials

Money is obviously a reality of travel. As stated above, I was taught early on that saving money was a good thing. Then I had a 20-year career in the financial services industry where I was similarly brainwashed that saving for retirement (whatever that means in the 21st century) was critical. 

I am thankful for those lessons.

If you look at a map of the world, 80% of the land mass includes places that are quite inexpensive compared to the USA. Aside from the US, Canada and western Europe, a solo traveler can pretty easily live on $1000-$1500/month. That would be just my bill for gasoline and auto insurance if I was road-tripping around North America in my old VW Eurovan.

Planning

I've always been a planner, but I'm putting those days behind me and taking a leap. Do I have enough money saved up to completely retire and travel the world living in exotic locales for the next 45 years? No.

But do I have enough money to travel the world for the next several years while keeping my eyes and ears open to potential future income streams? Yes, but I'm only interested in income streams that will be mostly enjoyable instead of mostly a grind. 

I've always been jealous of people to have careers that they actually enjoy. It was pretty cool for me to work for a not-for-profit that gave to charity over $1 billion during my tenure. But still, virtually every day on the job I would have rather been doing something else.

The Plan

Right now my plan includes formally studying Spanish 20 hours per week for a month in Buenos Aires. After that it's up in the air, though I do have an outline of what things might look like. 

A likely scenario is that after getting a couple semesters worth of Spanish in me I'll fly down to the southern tip of Argentina and work my way north at a leisurely pace. I'll do some trekking in Patagonia and take my time winding up through Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. I could spend days or months in any of those countries. Then I'll make my way through Central America, the whole time looking for opportunities to do extended bicycle touring along the way.

The one constraint I have is that I want to get to China while my buddy Mike is still living there, so sometime in the next 2 years or so. Perhaps when I hit Mexico City is when I'll fly to Shanghai.

When will I be back stateside? I honestly don't know and don't care. At this point I have no plan to come back to the US. We'll see how the reality of long-term travel matches up with whatever is in my head. I'm sure I'm romanticizing large portions of it, but also have read the blogs of many people who are happily living the sort of vagabond lifestyle that I'm envisioning -- stay put in cool places as long as I want and move on whenever I please. I can certainly see myself at some point having a home base from which to launch long-term jaunts, but that home base could be in any number of nations that are less expensive than here.


Travel is People

If you have any friends in any of these places that you think would be fun for me to meet, please let me know. The greatest benefit of travel is connecting with and learning from all sorts of different people in all sorts of different cultures.