Planning for My Financial Future

I’ve been fortunate over the past few years. I’ve managed to get out of debt, quit my day job to write full time, build substantial savings, and am now able to do what I want when I want. I still work hard, of course, but I do so on my own terms. I’m a lucky man.

Next year, though, is going to be a year of changes. For one thing, my income might actually decrease. (And if it doesn’t do so in 2012, it will almost certainly do so in 2013.) At the same time, for a variety of reasons, my expenses are going to increase. I’m in no danger of deficit spending — I refuse to live beyond my means! — but this does mean I’m going to have to be more conscientious about budgeting.

Practicing what I preach
Because I’ve done relatively well over the past few years, and because my expenses have stayed low, I’ve been able to buy the things I want without much worry. There’s a reason I preach the virtues of conscious spending. If I don’t, I often find myself making spur-of-the-moment buying decisions. Well, I feel like it’s once again very important that I weigh every purchase before I make it. I’ve created a fine lifestyle; I don’t want to jeopardize this lifestyle through silly spending.

As a result — and this comes as a shock even to me — I’m swearing off comic books. (Mostly.) The thing is, it doesn’t even really feel like a sacrifice. Right now, there are other things in my life that I value more highly. Most of you know about my expensive gym membership and how important that is to me. But there are also my Spanish lessons, which I’ve been taking since June. I’d rather pay for one-on-one meetings with my tutor than to buy comics. I get more enjoyment from learning the language. (The truth is, I’d even forego my Portland Timbers tickets to continue with Crossfit and/or Spanish. Fortunately, that’s not yet necessary.)

Soon, I’ll probably also give up my office. It’s been nearly three years since I worked from home, and I think my work habits have changed. If I can find the discipline and focus to write from the living room, that’ll free up $335 a month that I can use for other things. (I won’t know if this is do-able until the middle of the year, but it’s something I definitely want to try.)

But perhaps the biggest change in my future is that I’m finally becoming interested in non-profits and charities.

Thinking of others
For years, I’ve taken a lot of crap here at Get Rich Slowly (and deservedly so) because I donate very little to charity, and I rarely volunteer my time. I was raised in a family that didn’t value charity, and as an adult I’ve been unable to find any cause I feel passionate about.

Lately, though, that’s changing and in a variety of ways. We’re hard at work planning next year’s World Domination Summit, for instance, and we’d like to tie a service theme to this leadership conference. I wasn’t that interested at first, but now I’m on fire for the idea. I think it would be awesome to recruit the power of 1000 attendees to do some good for Portland — and the world.

But on a more personal level, I’ve discovered there are causes I’m passionate about. My trips to southern Africa and to Latin America have helped me understand better the important role education plays in improving people’s lives (and especially in improving the lives of women). I find that I’m willing to donate both time and money to improve education around the world. (I’d love to find the time to work with an organization like Edge of Seven, for instance.)

In fact, I’ve realized that it’s possible for me to tie my passion for learning Spanish directly to this goal. There are several Portland-area organizations that work to provide educational opportunities for low-income Spanish-speakers in the community. In March (after I return from next trip to South America), I plan to volunteer with one of these groups, such as Adelante Mujeres. In the meantime, I’ve offered my services to one of my friends. She teaches a Spanish/English blended second-grade class, and she says she can use my help twice a week for two hours at a time. I’m both excited and nervous about this new adventure — the second-graders are going to mock me for my miserable Spanish!

Other plans
I have other smaller financial goals, as well. After my upcoming trip to Chile and Argentina, my travel fund is going to be completely empty and will need to be replenished. And since I’ve borrowed from my new-car savings to make these trips happen, I’ll need to boost account too. Plus, I’d like to find one or more small sources of recurring income — another magazine column perhaps?

My financial life continues to be rosy, largely because I follow my own advice. (Especially my own advice about finding ways to make more money.) But I don’t want to rest on my laurels. I don’t want to become complacent. I want to continue striving toward a brighter financial future — and I want to bring you along for the ride.

What about you? How was your 2011? Did you improve your financial situation? Did you earn more? Spend less? Or were you less successful than you’d hoped? And what are your plans and goals for 2012? What do you hope to do with your money?

Animals in Peru

I’ve been home now for 72 hours. Three days ago, our plane from Lima landed in Portland, and ever since, I’ve been trying to adjust.

In a way, it’s good to be home. The trees are gorgeous this fall. I’ve enjoyed eating at some of my favorite haunts, and it’s been good to be back to the gym and back to Spanish lessons. At the same time, though, I miss Peru. I don’t want to be here — I want to be there. (Although perhaps while transplanting some of my favorite things about the Pacific Northwest…)

There’s still lots to write about my six-week trip. I have many photos and stories to share. Today, though, I want to talk about one small part of Peru that I miss most: the animals. One of my favorite differences between Peru and the United States is the way that people treat animals. (And children, but that’s another story.)

I’m an animal lover. I have a (near-dormant) blog about animal intelligence in which I’ve written some about my respect for the emotional and intellectual lives of the creatures around us. But one thing I regret about animals in the U.S. is how removed they are from our lives.

Pepe kisses a dog
Animals need love, too.

Yes, many people keep animals as pets. (I have five cats!) But often these pets are indoor-only, and when they go outside, they do so on a leash. Our animals don’t lead very natural lives, even on farms. Instead, it’s like we’ve created a pocket universe where they’re insulated from us and we’re insulated from them. I’m not sure why this is the case.

Market dog
The marketplace in Ollantaytambo is a fine place to eat and sleep. (Photo by Laura Bullock.)

In Peru, however, it’s different — at least outside of Lima. In Peru (and in Bolivia), animals are everywhere. Cats and dogs roam the streets, as do llamas and burros and more. In the countryside, the livestock is unfenced. It’s herded or allowed to roam free. The net effect is that people and animals have integrated each other into their lives.

Rae talks with Julisa (and her lamb, Laurita)
In rural areas, it’s not uncommon to have farm animals for pets. Julisa has Laurita, her lamb.

This means you might stay in a hotel where the cats wander freely from room-to-room, including the lobby and the kitchen. Or you might encounter llamas wandering in the streets. And everywhere you go, you find dogs of all shapes and sizes. These animals all interact with each other, and with the people, and with the traffic. It’s like a parallel world.

A hard day
Dogs go about their business, which often includes sleep, on the streets of Cusco.

I think the most prominent example of this is the way dogs roam the streets of Cusco (and other cities in the Sacred Valley). Dogs run free in Cusco, without leashes or collars. They respect the people and the traffic, and the people and traffic respect them. Everyone — man and beast — follows certain rules, and everyone is happy. It’s fun to see a dog (or a group of dogs) trotting along on some sort of canine agenda. It’s also fun to see the animals sitting or sleeping on the sidewalks and steps around town.

Patient Dog
Though the dogs roam the streets freely, they know and respect their limits.

I love seeing a society that allows the animals to create their own network of social interactions, one that lets them eat, sleep, and go about their business. To me, this is vastly preferable to the way we treat animals in the U.S.

Quechua woman outside Ollantaytambo
This old Quechua woman outside Ollantaytambo had a cat and a dog for companionship.

My wife and I have always allowed our cats to go inside and outside at will, which has drawn criticism from some friends and readers. We’re unfazed. The cats are clearly happier when they can roam freely, just as you would be too. Visiting Peru has only reinforced my belief that it’s healthiest for the animal live an unfettered life (or at least as unfettered as possible).

Cats in Parque Kennedy (Miraflores, Lima)
In Parque Kennedy (Miraflores, Lima), cats roam free.

I’ll leave you with a few more photos of the animals I met in Peru. And then I’ll walk home along empty streets — streets that could contain cats and dogs and horses and burros and lambs and llamas…but don’t.

Shy Pup
Puppies need to learn the rules and sometimes are wary of strangers.

Ferry Pup
People take their dogs with them everywhere — here on a ferry in Bolivia.

Black kitten
Cats aren’t as common as dogs (or not as visible, anyhow), but they’re around.

Bird dog
This old dog felt it was his duty to keep Aguas Calientes safe from pigeons.

Camp dogs
Even in rural areas, dogs are common — especially where there’s food. (Photo by Laura Bullock.)

Hotel cat
This cat (and his brother) roamed freely at our hotel in Ollantaytambo. Even into the kitchen.

A Boy and his dog (Urubamba)
Most homes seem to have at least one dog and sometimes several.

A Culinary Tour of Lima, Peru

I love food. This is no secret to those who know me. (I’ve struggled with my weight all of my life.) Fortunately, I’ve found a sort of fitness equilibrium, because since arriving in Peru a month ago, I’ve been eating like a king.

I knew Peruvian food was good before I started this trip, so I had some warning. (One of Portland’s best restaurants is Andina, where I’ve dined many times.) But I wasn’t prepared for the constant quality at every meal.

Un alfajor
Un alfajor (with ice cream) at Las Brujas de Cachiche

During the first three weeks of my trip, while I was trekking, I managed to eat several fantastic meals in Cusco and Ollantaytambo. I discovered ají de gallina (a sort of Peruvian curry), chicha morada (a sweet soft drink made from purple corn), cuy (roasted guinea pig), chicharrón (fried pork), and oh-so-many delicious soups. (Peruvians, at least those in the Andes, seem to love their soups.)

My wife joined me in Lima a few days ago, and since then we’ve been enjoying the Culinary Peru excursion from Gap Adventures. To start, our host Andrés took us to the Surquillo market, which is something like a supermarket except that it’s filled with individual vendors who mostly sell fresh meat and produce. For instance, here’s a stall with strawberries (for a dollar a kilo!), bananas, lúcuma, apples, avocados, passionfruit, and more.

Al mercado de Surquillo
Fresh fruit at the Surquillo market: strawberries and more exotic fare

We bought a bunch of fruit to eat that afternoon. In fact, we bought too much fruit. Two days later, we’re still munching on it. (Not that I’m complaining — I’ve become addicted to maracuyá, the passionfruit.) Yesterday for breakfast, we ate the chirimoya, a fruit unlike any I’ve ever encountered. (Andrés described its taste as “like eating cotton candy from the mouth of god”.)

Chirimoya
Chirimoya: “Like eating cotton candy from the mouth of god…”

After shopping at the market, we headed to Kennedy Park. At El Parquetito, one of the chefs gave us a lesson in how to prepare ceviche, that Latin American answer to sushi. Some fresh fish, a little lime juice, ample salt, ají pepper, and strong red onions combine to produce a delicious dish, one I enjoyed by ordering the first beer in my life. (Not kidding. I’ve never ordered a beer before this.)

Ceviche
The ceviche we helped to make

That beer was just the start of our drinking. Next, Andrés took us to downtown Lima, where we visited two of the bars that claim to have invented the pisco sour, which has become the emblematic cocktail of the country. Pisco is a colorless grape brandy common in the Andes; a pisco sour mixes pisco, lime juice, egg whites, sugar, and bitters. Over the next couple of hours, we drank three pisco sours.

Pisco Sours
Our tour guide, Andrés, with our second round of pisco sours

At our last stop in Pueblo Libre, we decided to take the edge off the alcohol by grabbing snacks at one of Andrés’ favorite bars, Antigua Taberna Queirolo. The jamón sandwiches and papas rellenas (stuffed potatoes) helped, but what I really enjoyed were the picarones I bought in the nearby plaza. Picarones are like donuts, but they’re made from a pumpkin and sweet potato batter, and they’re drizzled in sugar cane and fig syrup.

Picarones
Picarones made fresh at a plaza in Pueblo Libre

Yesterday, our culinary tour of Lima took us to Las Tejas, where one of the chefs gave us a personalized demo of cooking lomo saltado, a sort of Peruvian stir-fried steak and potatoes dish. (Lima has a strong Chinese influence, which can certainly be felt in its cuisine.)

Making Lomo Saltado
Making lomo saltado at Las Tejas

Lomo saltado was fun to make, but it was even more fun to eat.

Lomo Saltado
Lomo saltado, the finished product

After lunch, we stopped next door at Senora Buendia for some actual tejas. A teja is a Peruvian “sweetie” (as Andrés called them) made of a sugar shell filled with dulce de leche and fruits or nuts. They’re small, cheap, and delicious.

Note: Though Peruvians eat plenty of Snickers and Sublimes (a local candy bar), traditional treats like tejas can be had if you know where to look. Andrés also took us to a local bodega (the ubiquitous corner store, very much like a U.S. minimart) and asked for un beso de moza (literally: “a kiss from a young girl”), which was a chocolate-covered marshmallow.

Our official culinary tour ended here, but my unofficial exploration of the country’s food will continue for the next ten days. (And for the rest of my life, I imagine.)

Last night, for instance, we walked from Miraflores to the heart of the Barranco neighborhood to find Sóngoro Cosongo, which Andrés had recommended for anticuchos (beef-heart kebobs) and picarones. Today, we’ll stop by Punto Azul, which he suggested for ceviche and seafood. And I still haven’t tried chifas, which is supposed to be a delicious Peruvian twist to Chinese food.

And, best of all, after nearly a month in the country, I’m finally ready to relax and try street food. I heard enough horror stories about food poisoning that I was reluctant to dabble in more informal delicacies at the start of the trip. I didn’t want to ruin my treks by having to be confined to bed — or the toilet tent. Now, though, I’m willing to take more risks. That means plenty of snacks from street vendors.

With nearly ten million inhabitants, Lima is a big place. And Peru is bigger still. There’s no way that a quick 48-hour tour can fully cover the rich culinary tradition to be found here. And though I’ve eaten broadly over the past month, there’s no way that five weeks is enough time to sample the complete range of the cuisine either.

That’s okay. I’ve enjoyed the food I’ve tried. And besides, this gives me an excuse to come back for more, right?

Note: My favorite Peruvian food by far? The humble maracuyá. The passionfruit.

Saving and Spending in South America

¡Hola, todos! For the past month, I’ve been on the road — first at a conference of financial bloggers in Chicago, and then trekking through the Peruvian and Bolivian Andes. For most of this time, I’ve been without an internet connection. It’s tough to blog about money when you’re trekking to the top of a 5350-meter (17,650-foot) mountain!

The adventurous part of my trip is over. I’m back with the ten million residents of Lima, Peru, and my wife will soon join me. We’ll spend a couple of weeks doing the tourist thing while our brave housesitter herds our five cats.

Now that I’m back in the world of reliable telecommunications, it’s time for me to share a few of the things I’ve seen, to give a glimpse of what life is like in this corner of South America.

Constant Chaos
Peru graffitiFor me, the most difficult adjustment has been coping with the constant chaos. As Kris will attest, I’m not the most ordered and organized person in the world. But I am American. As Americans, we’re used to schedules and systems and routine. Those notions don’t always work here. Sometimes they don’t work at all. I’ve had to relax and just go with whatever happens. (Our guides often joke about “Peruvian time” — schedules are approximate.)

The most obvious chaos is the traffic. I’m sure there are traffic laws in Peru and Bolivia, but they’re not really followed. Instead, there’s a complex dance between cars, buses, and pedestrians. It’s frightening at first, but exhilarating once you surrender and join the fun. But that’s not the only chaos.

For instance, on the night before we crossed from Peru into Bolivia, our guide came to me. “I have bad news,” said Pepe Lucho. “Americans need a visa to enter Bolivia. That means you need to fill out some paperwork. You also need passport photos. And $135 US. We leave at 7am.” It was 9pm.

No worries. I grabbed one of my new friends, and we headed into Puno’s crowded streets. Though it was a Wednesday evening, the local university students were parading through town, beating drums, blowing trumpets, and dancing. We never figured out why, but the celebration lasted for hours. Stephen and I threaded our way around the throng of partiers to find a bank machine. We also located a place that would take passport photos. Using my rudimentary Spanish — I’ve only been learning since the middle of June — I paid seven soles (about $3 US), climbed a rickety staircase, and had my photo taken in a closet. Five minutes later, we were back at the hotel ready to go.

But the next morning, Pepe Lucho had more bad news. “Your photos are on a white background. The Bolivians want them on a red background. It’s crazy! But we don’t have time. Let’s just use these and see what happens.”

What happened was that the men at the border post didn’t even want the photos. The shack was crowded and people were pushy and they were frustrated with my Spanish skills (or lack thereof). Muttering to each other, they took my money ($140 US — no change), ignored my photos, and rushed me through the visa process. What we had feared might take an hour only took three minutes. I’m fairly certain that things weren’t done “by the book”, but I’m not complaining. I was in Bolivia, on my way to the Condoriri Real.

Having Enough
By U.S. standards, much of Bolivia and Peru might seem poor and unkempt. It’s easy to lapse into judgements based on our own cultural values, but I worry that’s a mistake. Yes, trash litters the streets. Yes, there are lots of unfinished projects everywhere you look. Yes, the work ethic is different. But different doesn’t mean wrong.

“The Aymara people are not lazy,” cautioned Freddy, our Bolivian guide, as our boat motored across Lake Titicaca. The Aymara are an indigenous group predominant on the Bolivian side of the lake. “They don’t live like this because they’re lazy. It’s not that they don’t want to work. They live like this because they have Enough.” I grabbed my pen and notepad and began to write.

El Mercado Rodriguez, La Paz, Bolivia
A banana-seller en el mercado Rodriguez de La Paz, Bolivia

 

“If you go to a market and try to buy all the fruit from the vendor, she won’t sell it to you,” Freddy explained. “She’ll say, ‘If you buy all of this, what am I going to do for the rest of the day?’ There’s more to the transaction than money.”

“Plus, the Aymara hold onto what they earn. They save. Sometimes they’re called the jews of the Andes. You’ll see an Aymara work with basic tools and what looks like very little wealth. But then they go to the bank and they have a lot saved. In fact, often they work for months, living with nothing, in order to spend extravagantly for four or five days. They’ll spend all their money quickly on a fiesta, to throw a party for friends and family.”

“Why?” asked somebody in our group. “Why do they spend it all at once?”

“Why?” Freddy said. “Because if you’ve drinked, if you’ve danced, if you’ve loved, all of that is yours. Nobody can take it.”

Note: “Are you a journalist?” Freddy asked me later. “I noticed you took notes about what I was saying.” I told him that I’m a professional blogger, and that piqued his interest. Freddy was a journalist for many years, and even wrote a satire about Bolivian history. Now he writes blogs of his own to document life as a tour guide.

 

Cost of Living
Wages are low in Bolivia, but so is the cost of living. People are poor financially, especially when compared to countries like the United States, but they eat well. “For the cost of one glass of Coca-Cola in a Swiss restaurant, I could buy twelve liters here,” Freddy told us at lunch one day.

And there’s no question that the cost of living is different. At the moment, the exchange rate is roughly 6-2/3 Bolivianos (Bs) to one U.S. Dollar. That’s fifteen cents per Boliviano. Or, as I liked to think of it, 20 Bs to $3. And twenty Bolivianos goes a long way.

Here are some examples:

    • One morning, I bought a bottle of Coke for 1.5 Bs (about 22 cents). I had to drink the bottle right there and hand it back to the vendor, but it was worth it.

 

    • I purchased a glossy news magazine for 15 Bs (or about $2.25).

 

    • I got a meticulous shave and haircut for 50 Bs (or about $7.50).

 

Haircut and shave in La Paz, Boliva
Getting a haircut and a shave in La Paz, Bolivia

 

    • In a typical cafe, a cheeseburger costs 25 Bs or 30 Bs (about $4 or $5) and a soft drink costs about 7 Bs ($1). (At one cafe, the owner came out to chat with us. He was from New York, and owns several restaurants in La Paz. When he heard I was from Oregon, he raved about how much he loved the state.)

 

    • On our final night together, we had delicious 400g Argentinian steaks for 85 Bs (about $12.75).

 

    • And one afternoon, we stopped to indulge in the two-for-one ice cream deal at a popular store where the locals were queued under the hot sun. For 9 Bs each (about $1.35), we came away with gigantic bowls of ice cream and cookies.

 

  • My favorite: I can buy Bolivian comics for 5 Bs to 10 Bs each (between 75 cents and $1.50).

Here’s another example: While wandering the markets of La Paz, my new friend Stephen found a woman weaving small bracelets with individual names on them. “I want to get one of these for my son James,” he said. After waiting twenty minutes and paying five Bolivianos (about 75 cents), Stephen had his hand-made bracelet.

The Cost of Travel
Our Bolivian guide had done some traveling of his own. Freddy has been to England, Denmark, Switzerland, and Germany. “With the money I spent on travel, I could have bought a new car here in Bolivia. But I bought a used Volkswagen instead,” Freddy told me as we walked to the top of Isla del Sol in Lake Titicaca. (There are a surprising number of old VW Bugs floating around the country.)

“I think that was the best investment I made in my life. By traveling, I learned many things.”

And while some of you will groan to hear me sing this song once again, I agree. Though cheap relative to my Africa trip last February, my South American adventure is still costing me $150 a day — not including airfare. To me, this is a bargain. The past three weeks have been pure magic.

Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu, one of the wonders of the world

 

In October, I’ve walked more than 120km across beautiful Peruvian mountains, over the high plains of Bolivia, and through vibrant cities teeming with people. I’ve chewed coca leaves, sipped corn juice, and eaten alpaca. (And guinea pig — guinea pig is delicious!) I’ve traveled with a group of intelligent, hilarious Australians. I’ve had conversations with other travelers from around the world.

Right now, at this point in my life, this is money well spent.

Sure, I could stay at home and read about these places. I could look at photos on the internet. But sometimes photos aren’t enough. Sometimes words aren’t enough. Sometimes the only way to experience a place is to experience it. It’s not enough for me to just read about travel. I want to do it.

I write a lot about conscious spending,about how to track your financial health and maintaining your credit report also about cutting back hard on the things that don’t matter so that you can spend on the things that do matter. This notion may seem tired or mundane. It’s not. The deeper I get into the third stage of personal finance, the more I realize that conscious spending is what it’s all about.

Learn what you love. Manage your money so you can spend on whatever this might be. Ignore everything else. Do this, my friends, and you will have all the wealth you need.

Crossing the 4950-meter pass near Salcantay
Crossing a 4950-meter pass near Salcantay — chewing coca leaves

 

Reminder: You can read more about my adventures at Far Away Places.

 

Trekking in Peru and Bolivia: A Beginner’s Guide

Before I left for Peru, I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into. Three weeks of trekking sounded fun — but what exactly is trekking anyhow? “Is trekking just like hiking?” I asked my friends, but nobody seemed to know.

Turns out that trekking is just like hiking — except that you do it hour after hour, day after day. Trekking is walking cross-country all day, camping at night (though some treks do use lodges for accommodation), and reveling in the natural environment.

Let me explain how my trek worked.

Note: This article is text-heavy at the start, but I promise there are plenty of photos at the end.

High Andes and Altiplano Trek
Because the dates fit my schedule, I selected the Andes and Altiplano Trek from a company called World Expeditions. This 22-day adventure cost $3420, which included a week of trekking in the Peruvian Andes and four days of trekking in the Bolivian altiplano (or high plains).

On our hikes, all of our meals were provided. (They were simple meals, but nourishing.) Tents and sleeping bags were provided, and so was a warm jacket for the evenings. For $3 a day, we could rent a Thermarest mattress.

About half the time, we were not trekking. Part of that time was spent moving from one place to another. But most of it was spent doing standard touristy things: exploring Cusco, marveling at Machu Picchu, shopping in La Paz. Except for the final hotel in Bolivia (which was very nice), most of the accomodations were standard. (And that was fine — after all, we slept in tents for half of the trip!)

A Typical Day
On the trek, a typical day might go something like this:

  • At 6:30, the assistant guides go from tent to tent, waking the trekkers. They offer hot tea or coffee, as well as a bowl of warm water for bathing. (There are generally a few early risers like me who are up well before 6:30.)
  • At 7:30, breakfast is served in the mess tent. There’s plenty of hot water for coffee and tea, and there are rolls and/or cold cereal (with powdered milk). The cook provides something hot: eggs, porridge, etc.
  • At 8:00, we begin the day’s journey. Those who are sick ride horses. Everyone else spreads out, with the faster people following the main guide at the front of the pack. Slower folks (or those who want to chat or take pictures) lag behind. One assitant guide brings up the rear, and another assistant guide roams the line to be sure everyone is okay.
  • Every hour or so (depending on the difficulty of the hike), the group stops and gathers together for a short break. Sometimes the breaks are longer, and we all eat and drink.
  • At about 13:00 or 14:00, we stop for lunch. During our morning walk, the cook and his staff have passed us with their mules. They prepare a hot lunch, which generally includes soup and something else (with the “something else” often being pasta). Sometimes there’s time for a nap after lunch. Sometimes not.
  • The afternoon hike is generally much shorter — often just an hour or two.
  • We reach camp at about 16:00 or 17:00. We take off our hiking boots, change into warmer clothes, and gather in the mess tent to wait for dinner. While we wait, we chat and play cards. (I spent some of my time pestering the assitant guides, Darwin and Tina, to teach me more Spanish.)
  • Dinner is served at about 19:00. (Unless the Peruvian national soccer team is playing a World Cup qualifier against Chile. Then dinner is served at 20:30.)
    The evening meal starts with soup before continuing with protein and a starch.
  • People are finished eating by about 20:00 or 20:30. Most folks head straight to bed, though some hardy souls linger for more cards or conversation.

That’s the routine. Every day, we hike for six to eight hours, covering up to fifteen kilometers over mountainous terrain. The elevation rises from 3400 meters to over 5000 meters — and then falls away again. (And it’s because of this elevation that trekking is difficult. At high altitude, it’s important to move slowly and steadily.)

There are variations every day, of course. We might stop by a rural school, for instance, to visit with the teacher and students. We might explore some Incan ruins. We might encounter a local farmer and buy a wheel of cheese from him. And so on.

Sounds like fun, right? It is. But the fun doesn’t come without costs.

The Costs
Some mornings, trekking looks like this:

Early morning trek

But other mornings, it looks like this:

Trekking to the top

Or worse. When you’re walking from mountain pass to mountain pass at high altitude, the air can be cold. Freezing, even. And if the rain and wind come, life gets miserable.

In camp isn’t any better. Here’s where you live:

Grace's tent
Grace gives a tour of her tent

Since your tent is too small to do anything but sleep, most of your time is spent in the mess tent:

Mess Tent
Your kitchen while trekking: powdered milk, chicken soup, and pasta

And what about when nature calls? Well, when you’re in camp, you have a place to go, though it’s not always pretty:

How to take a crap while trekking
At least there were rocks…

When you’re on the trail, you go behind a bush. That’s easier for men than for women, of course, though both genders suffer when it’s time to take a crap. Especially if you’re sick.

Yes, people get sick while trekking, and yes people get hurt. In our group of sixteen, nearly everyone became sick at some point. Altitude sickenss and food poisoning are the most common problems, and they strike indiscriminately. You can be the fittest athlete in the world and altitude sickness can still lay you low. To protect yourself, it’s best to exercise caution: go slowly, drink lots of water, and don’t eat foods that you know will cause problems. (I avoided eggs during the entire trek, for instance, and limited my dairy intake.)

Crossing the stream
Grace is sick and has to ride the horse

And if you want to clean up after all of this? If you’re lucky, you can get a bowl of warm water to wash up once you reach camp. Several of us preferred to brave the cold in order get even cleaner:

Luc bathing in the stream
Luc needs a bath after a week in the wilderness (photo by Stephen)

As you might imagine, all of this work can be draining. It’s no wonder many folks needed ten or eleven or twelve hours of sleep per night.

These are the costs of trekking, but what about the rewards? Well, the rewards are spectacular.

The Rewards
For being willing to rough it, trekkers are treated to spectacular scenery across a variety of terrains.

Nigel (and the Red Mountain)
Nigel and the red mountain (for which I have no name)

Trekking through the marsh past Salcantay
Trekking through the marshland near Salcantay (photo by Laura)

After eight hours of walking, it’s a huge psychological lift to see the camp come into view.

Our most difficult day dawned cold and clear. We were camping at the base of Salcantay. As we began the 600-meter climb to the pass, the wind and the rain began. It was miserable work. Once we cleared the top and descended, our spirits raised some (and chatter increased), but the rest of the morning was still cold and wet. As we neared our campsite in the mid-afternoon, the rain ceased. The sun came out. Our moods soared.

Welcome Campsite
The rains have ended, and camp is in sight!

And some of the campsites were truly spectacular. People would pay big bucks to have views like this.

Salcantay
Camping at the base of Salcantay — does it get any better than this?

In the evening, the cameraderie offers another reward. Our group played cards, told stories, and shared photos. It was cozy and familial.

Laura and her father, reading
Laura and her father try to indentify a bird

But I think the top reward for me was simply being outdoors, being close to nature. There’s just something about being ouside in the world that city living cannot provide. Standing on a mountaintop for ten minutes recharges my mental batteries.

At 5350 Meters
5350 meters above sea level in the Bolivian Andes (photo by Grace)

And, of course, there’s one final reward. When you travel, when you trek across mountain valleys, you get to write about it — and to share your journal with others. Here, for instance, is the travel diary of Carl, the man I met in Aguas Calientes. He’s walked thousands of kilometers this year, and he’s documented his journey:

Carl's travel journal
Carl shows me his travel journal

Trekking is hard work, but it’s worth it. For me, anyhow. I know it’s not for everyone. I doubt my wife will ever join me for an adventure like this. Sleeping in a tent and shitting in a hole are costs that are too high for her. That’s fine. But for those of us willing to put up with these discomforts, trekking is a great way to see the world.

Our guides
Our guides: Lidia, Darwin, Ernestina, and Pepe Lucho. Thank you.

Exploring La Paz, Bolivia

Hola, todos! For the past week, I’ve been traveling in southern Peru and northern Bolivia. While not quite as intense as the first part of my trip (about which, more details will follow as time allows), it’s still been a hell of a lot of fun.

Yesterday morning was our final leg of trekking in Bolivia, a gentle 90-minute walk to the mountain town of Botijlaca, the entire economy of which is based around the hydroelectric plant (one of many that dot the valleys of Bolivia). Botijlaca has a fun mascot: a smiley face with a light bulb for a nose.

Botijlaca
The basketball/football pitch in Botijlaca

We stopped briefly in Botijlaca for a mid-morning snack: salteña, a traditional Bolivian food eaten between 8am and 11am. Salteñas are pastries filled with meat and vegetables and maybe a little bit of gravy. They’re delicious.

Salteñas
Salteñas — traditional savory meat pies eaten mid-morning in Bolivia. Photo by Grace.

As we were eating our end-of-trek treats, a shy boy peeked from the edge of a nearby building. Our local guide, Freddy, called the boy over and gave him a salteña. He ran off. Before long, he returned with a couple dozen of his closest friends. We happily handed out fruit and candy and other food, which the kids shyly accepted.

Botijlaca Kids
Three shy girls, waiting for handouts in Botijlaca

Our bellies filled, we piled in the minivan for the three-hour drive to La Paz, the capital of Bolivia. Though this wasn’t the worst ride of our holiday (that honor goes to the journey from Copacabana, Bolivia to the start of our Condoriri trek), this ride wasn’t without adventure.

Camino Sinuoso
Warning: sharp curves ahead…

Steep mountain road
…don’t say I didn’t warn you!

This time, however, we were prepared. Everyone took motion-sickness pills (thanks, Anita!). Besides, the riotous ride wasn’t without its rewards, such as these views of Huayana Potosi:

Huyana Potosi (and dam)
Huayana Potosi and dam (this photo was taken near the refugio)

Miners graveyard (with Huayana Potosi)
A tin miners’ graveyard outside La Paz, with Huayana Potosi in the background.

After arriving in La Paz, we took much-needed showers. Then, in true adventurer fashion, we gathered in the hotel bar to drink the local beer (Paceña, which isn’t as good as Peru’s Cusqueña) and swap photos. We also compared travel journals:

Travel Journal
Laura’s travel journal (with Laura sorting photos in the background).

We went to bed relatively early — it’s tough to break the habit of being in the tent at 20:30 and waking at 06:00! — and woke early too. This morning, Freddy took us on a three-hour walking tour of his home town. He took us past the San Pedro prison, where the scent of onions filled the air. Then he led us up to El Mercado Rodriguez, where old women sat in their stalls eating pan (at 0.40 bolivianos per roll, or about a nickel a piece) and sipping coca-leaf tea.

Note: I love coca. It’s used as a flavoring everywhere in Peru and Bolivia. You can have coca tea, coca candy, coca drinks, coca everything. Many people chew (or suck) on the leaves during the day, especially the morning. I’ve actually picked up the habit myself. But I’d better get my fill while I can. I’ve been told I can’t take anything coca back to the U.S., which is a shame. There’s a big difference between coca and its derivative, cocaine.

El Mercado Rodriguez, La Paz, Bolivia
A woman selling plátanos (bananas). You can’t see it, but she has bread and coca tea by her side.

La Paz pharmacy signs
Signs painted on the wall outside a pharmacy in La Paz

Next, Freddy showed us el mercado de las brujas, the witches’ market. (Or, more aptly, the tourists’ market.) As we were walking up the street, we met a group of grade-school kids who were out greeting foreigners as part of a “tourist appreciation” program. It seems a little absurd, but it was fun to hear them chant, “Welcome to La Paz, bienvenido a La Paz.” Their teacher asked me to pose for a photo with the class. I had him take one with my camera too.

School children welcoming tourists in La Paz, Bolivia
These kids gave drawings to some of our group. I got a photo instead.

Eventually, we made our way to Plaza Murillo, which was filled with pigeons and protestors. The pigeons flocked to whomever was the most likely food source, which was often children. Anita, one of my fellow travelers, is frightened of pigeons (though she’s fine with other birds), and had to be led through the swarm.

Pigeon on a boy in Plaza Murillo, La Paz, Bolivia
I couldn’t tell if this boy liked the birds or not, but he liked having his photo taken.

The protestors were disbanding after days of occupying the plaza. Television and radio crews were interviewing them about the successful outcome of their complaints. (The President of Bolivia, who campaigned on a pro-indigenous peoples platform, had managed to piss them off because he’d pushed through a trans-Amazonian highway. Apparently he backed down recently, and the highway won’t be completed.)

Protestor in Plaza Murillo, La Paz, Bolivia
The protestor’s flag reads: “For dignity, for unity, and life.”

After parting ways with Freddy, Stephen and I wandered around on our own. He picked up some gifts for his son. I let a barber talk me into a shave and a haircut. We carried on an awkward but amiable conversation in Spanish. He wanted to talk about the news, but my vocabulary just wasn’t up to it. Besides, I’ve been in total media isolation for nearly a month. I have no idea what’s going on in the world.

Haircut and shave in La Paz, Boliva
A shave and a haircut in La Paz, Bolivia — photo by Steve

After my 50 boliviano ($7.50 US) grooming, Steve and I headed back to el mercado de las brujas. We stopped in a shop so that he could buy several charms. While he looked around, I struck up a conversation with the proprietress. She was pleased that I spoke Spanish — or tried to. She asked us where we were from, what we were doing in La Paz, and where we were going. She asked about the magazine I was carrying around (Zumate): where I bought it and how much I paid. She even borrowed it for a few minutes, flipping through the pages while Steve finished his shopping.

We said good-bye — and the woman wished us safe travels — and returned to the hotel. “You know,” I said, as we neared our destination. “I like La Paz. I almost think I could live here.” I know it’s silly to judge a city after only 24 hours (and after only seeing a few square blocks), but I like the size and scope of this town. It almost feels like home.

Zoe concert poster
Concert posters for Zoe, one of my favorite Mexican bands. I love their song “Soñe“.

Simple Pleasures

Helado (ice cream) is very popular in La Paz. After lunch today, some of us waited in line (under the blazing sun) at Bits & Cream, which offers two-for-one specials on Tuesday. For 18 bolivianos (just under $3 US), we were able to buy two gigantic ice cream sundaes.

We ate our helados in the hotel lobby. But after weeks of small portions, I couldn’t possibly finish mine. It was huge. I offered it to Steve. “You sure, mate?” he asked.

Claro,” I said. I was sure.

“I could eat ice cream all day,” he said, digging into my sundae. “If there were some sort of contest for ice cream eating, I’d win it. What sort of food could you eat all day, J.D.?”

“Bacon,” I said. “Definitely bacon.” I was thinking of the amazing bacon I’d had with my llama steak last night — the best bacon I’ve ever had. Salty and smokey and delicious.

“I could eat ice cream all day, too,” Anita said. “But I’m lactose intolerant.” Stating this aloud seemed to make her think twice about the giant sundae she was working on. She passed it along to Steve too, who happily accepted.

“What about you, Grace?” Steve asked. “What food could you eat all day?”

“Corn,” Grace said without a moment of hesitation. “Seriously,” she said after I laughed at her. “I could eat corn all day. You just boil it up and yum!” And here she made a motion like eating corn-on-the-cob in the classic typewriter style.

Ice cream, ice cream, bacon, corn. For some people, it’s the simple pleasures.

Seven Years of Fiscal Responsibility

It’s mid-September as I write this, and I’ve been spending the past few days scrambling to prepare for my trip to Peru. I’ve been packing, of course, but I’ve also been editing reader stories and writing blog posts for my absence. While bustling around, I stumbled across an old document. I’ve shared this before, but it’s been a while. Since it’s an important part of my financial history, I’m going to share it again today.

In the beginning
As most of you know, I struggled with debt for more than a decade. When I graduated from college in 1991, I had the start of a credit card problem. By the time my father died in the summer of 1995, I’d managed to accumulate over $20,000 in credit card debt, most of which came from spending on computers and comic books and other frivolous things.

In 1998, I transferred my credit card debt to a home equity loan. I destroyed the cards and closed the accounts. This was a smart move in one respect (because it helped me kick the credit card habit), but it didn’t prevent me from finding other ways to take on debt; I took out personal loans, and I borrowed from family members. By the summer of 2004, I had accumulated over $35,000 in consumer debt. And when we bought a hundred-year-old house, I finally felt stretch past the point of bursting.

It was at this time that I decided to get serious about money. Instead of paying lip service to getting out of debt, I started to read about how to really do it. Friends loaned me books; I read them. Slowly, I put the ideas from these books into practice.

The debt snowball
One of the first books I read was Dave Ramsey’s Total Money Makeover. In this book, Ramsey advocates a different approach to debt repayment. While most experts recommend repaying debt from highest interest rate to lowest interest rate (because, of course, this minimizes the total amount of interest paid), Ramsey ignores interest rates completely.

“Forget math,” Ramsey seems to say. “If you were a math whiz, you wouldn’t be in debt in the first place. Math isn’t the problem. Psychology is the problem.” He recommends starting with the smallest balance first and working up from there. He calls this method the debt snowball.

I took this advice to heart. Mostly. Based on the debt snowball, I sat down and drafted a plan for paying off my debt. Here’s what it looked like:

This is the actual spending plan that I drafted at the beginning of my quest for financial responsibility.

As you can see, I didn’t follow a strict debt snowball. Instead, I tweaked the order of repayment to consider interest rates a little bit. (I put off the 3% loan from the box factory and prioritized business-related debt.) Adam Baker at Man vs. Debt would call this method a debt tsunami. I don’t care what it’s called. All I know is it worked.

Finding financial stability
After drafting this spending plan, I continued to read personal finance books. I subscribed to personal finance magazines. And I started sharing my progress on this blog. There were ups and downs — no doubt! — but from the point I drafted this, I made progress.

In fact, I consider this one text document to be the key to my entire financial turnaround. Its forecast proved surprisingly accurate. “In December of 2007,” I wrote, “after fifteen years of debt, I could be debt-free.” And I was. On 02 December 2007, I said good-bye to nearly 20 years of debt. It felt amazing.

So, today is a sort of personal holiday. It’s a time to remember where I used to be, and to be grateful for how far I’ve come. In a way, it’s fitting that I’m far from home now. (If all has gone well, I’m on Lake Titicaca at the border of Bolivia and Peru. If all has gone very well, there are updates on my trip at Far Away Places.) My travel is physical manifestation of the financial journey I’ve made. And it makes me happy.

It’s my hope that you, too, have made (or will make) a similar journey.

Can you point to a similar turning point in your own financial life? Was there a time you hit rock bottom? Did you create a written plan? What did it take to make you become fiscally responsible? (Or were you born that way?)

One Day in Peru

Hola, todos! After more than a week of roughing it, I’m back in Cusco, where I have my own computer and a reliable internet connection. Tomorrow I head back out on the road — this time for Lake Titicaca and trekking in Bolivia. Eventually, I’ll share details of our trek around Salcantay in the Peruvian Andes. For now, I’m going to share my adventures yesterday in Aguas Calientes (near the base of Machu Picchu).

Note: So far, I’ve uploaded just a single photo of our trek: Crossing Incachiriasca, the 4950-meter (abnout 16000-foot) pass near Salcantay. More to come later.

Yesterday may have been the best day of the trip so far, but it didn’t get off to a good start. I woke to a second day of diarrhea, which prompted me to start on the Cipro. (I only have six pills, so I’d been holding it in reserve for an emergency. I decided this qualified.) I’ve been lucky so far. Nearly everyone else in my group has suffered diarrhea or vomiting or altitude sickness of some sort. My problems waited until we’d returned to the land of indoor plumbing.

Note: I know this probably grosses some of you out, but getting sick is a part of traveling. It happens. And because it happens, it’ll be a part of this blog. (Just not very often, I hope.)

Our group of fourteen rose early to catch the bus to the top of Machu Picchu, the ancient Incan city set high on a mountaintop. We were treated to a dry three-hour tour of the ruins. (A guide with personality can make such a difference!)

Machu Picchu is beautiful, but to be honest, I think most of us found it to be a little anti-climatic after a week of trekking through the Peruvian Andes. The natural beauty we’ve seen has left us numb to man-made wonders. Still, there’s no mistaking the wonder and immensity of these ruins.

Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu — or a part of it

After a quick snack, I decided to walk down the roughly 500-meter mountain instead of taking the bus back to Aguas Calientes. The pathway is steep (and hurt my aging knees), but the entire trip only took 55 minutes (as opposed to 20 minutes by bus).

Back in town, I sat on a bench in the main plaza, watching the world go by. After a few minutes, the fellow sitting next to me struck up a conversation. He introduced himself as Carl, a traveler from Antwerp, Belgium. Carl has been traveling on-and-off for the past five years, and continually since May of this year. For ninety minutes, he and I talked about walking (he’s walked all over Europe!), traveling, journaling, relationships, and more.

At one point during our conversation, we were approached by three children: Sanaís (?), Alis (or Alex), and Dulcea. They wandered over to our bench and started talking to us, taking our woeful Spanish in stride. Because each of them were just two or three years old, we got along just fine.

Kids in the main square at Aguas Calientes
In this photo: My travel journal and Spanish dictionary, Carl’s arm, the kids (with Sanaís wearing my sunglasses upside-down), and the main plaza in Aguas Calientes

The kids climbed on the bench and looked through our stuff. “Bebida!” they told Carl, demanding to drink from his water bottle. When they grew tired of us, they ran back through the pigeons in the plaza to their parents, who were watching from the steps of the nearby church.

After chatting with Carl, I met my group for lunch at El Manu. I had a limonade (made with limes in Latin America, of course) and the causa limeña, which is mashed potatoes stuffed with tuna fish. It was quite tasty. (The potato originated in Peru, and the Andes produces thousands of varieties, though globalization is killing this diversity. Stop buying Yukon Golds, people!)

Causa Limeña
My lunch, the causa limeña

As we ate, the restaurant’s TV played a concert from the group Alborada, which hails from Cusco. They blend traditional Andinan musical forms with modern instruments. They sing in both Spanish and Quechua (the latter being the language — or family of languages — spoken by nearly ten million people in Peru. I only know a handful of words, including “michi”, or cat.) I loved the music. Here’s a representative song from Alborada:


Ananau by the group Alborada

Lunch ran late, so we had to rush to catch our train from Aguas Calientes back to Ollantaytambo. Despite the rush, I had time for a few photos.

Cats in Aguas Calientes
Cats (“michi” in Quechua) in Aguas Calientes

In the mercado near the train station, I was waylaid again by children. (Not that I minded.) They were playing with bugs. I squatted to look closer. “Qué es eso?” I asked one girl.

Mi mano,” she said, indicating her hand. I laughed.

No,” I said. “Los insectos. Cómo se llaman?

Mariquitas!” the kids said in unison, and they held up their arms to show me the ladybugs. Then they started putting them into the palm of my hand, counting them off: “Uno, dos, tres, quatro, cinco.

I laughed again. “Gracias,” I said. “Me gusta, pero estoy muy tarde. Debo salir.” I smiled and waved as I stood to leave. They waved back.

Mariquitas
Niños playing with mariquitas in the mercado of Aguas Calientes

I expected the train ride from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo to be a dull affair, but it wasn’t. Looking out the windows and consulting a map, our group picked out the places where we’d walked along the Urubamba River. We talked about future plans and enjoyed the on-train entertainment, which included music, dancing, and a fashion show (!!!).

Entertainment on the train ride from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo
The dancing…payaso? (clown)…that entertained during the fashion show.

When we reached our hotel in Cusco at about 19:30, we experienced our first real glitch of the trip. After two weeks on the road, we were all eager to do some laundry, and our guide (Pepe Lucho) had arranged for a laundry woman to meet us at the hotel. All well and good, except our bags weren’t waiting for us. We were all carrying small daybags, but the bulk of our possessions had been separated into two other bags, and most of the dirty laundry was missing.

After half an hour in which we all imagined wearing the same stinky clothing for another ten days, our bags finally appeared. We sorted the laundry, then headed for a fine dinner at Pacha Papa, which we’d enjoyed during our first stint in Cusco. I had the ají de gallina (a sort of Peruvian curried chicken) and two maracuyá (passion fruit) sours.

It was a fine ending to a fine day.

What made the day so special? I’m not sure. For one, little was planned. Everything (except the tour of Machu Picchu) happened spontaneously. For another, there was tremendous variety: the natural beauty of the mountains, the splendor of Machu Picchu, the strenuous walk down the hill, the lengthy chat with Carl from Antwerp, the interaction with the kids, the delicious food, the enchanting music, the surreal train ride, the problem with the luggage and laundry, and so much more. (I haven’t even mentioned the wild van ride from Ollantaytambo to Cusco over the dark and dangerous Peruvian roads!)

This entire trip has been amazing, but I think yesterday was my favorite day so far. And now it’s time for me to stop writing. I want to go out and see Cusco. I want today to be amazing, too.

In Praise of Wool: Fabric of the Gods

In the spring of 2010, my neighbor — a retired shop teacher that I’ve dubbed the real millionaire next door — invited me to spend ten days with him on his boat in Alaska. To prep for the trip, I bought some warm clothes at REI, including a green long-sleeve Smartwool shirt, which basically looked like a piece of long underwear or pajamas.

Because the shirt was so warm and comfortable, I wore it every day. As we cruised around the Inside Passage, I wore the shirt while we fished, as we hiked, and as we worked on the boat. I wore the shirt to bed, too. Basically, I wore this shirt all day, every day.

Mac, my traveling companion, made fun of me. “Dude, surely that shirt stinks by now,” he said after a few days.

“I know,” I said. “I keep expecting it to reek. But it doesn’t. Here — smell.” But Mac wouldn’t smell my shirt. (Not that I blame him.)

The truth was, my wool shirt didn’t stink. Not at all. Strange but true. In fact, after ten days of wear, the shirt had only a faint, musky scent.

When I returned home, I raved about the shirt to my wife. “It was amazing,” I told her. “I have no idea why it doesn’t retain odors, but it doesn’t.”

“It’s the lanolins,” she told me. “The waxy stuff in the sheep’s wool. It’s the same stuff that repels water. It’s probably repelling your sweat, too.” Whatever the case, I filed Smartwool away in my brain. I needed to learn more about the stuff.

Icebreaker
Later in 2010, I was at REI again (I love that place), shopping a clearance sale. On the rack, I found a merino wool t-shirt from a company I’d never heard of: Icebreaker. I like the shirt’s style, and it was in my size, but the thing cost $40, even on clearance. Could I rationalize that?

Then I remembered that the Smartwool shirt I’d taken to Alaska had cost me $70. It had been expensive but worth it. I decided to take a chance. I bought the Icebreaker t-shirt.

When Kris and I went to France and Italy last September, I carried with me five t-shirts: one cotton, three synthetic, and my new Icebreaker wool t-shirt. I liked each of the shirts, but I found myself wearing the wool shirt over and over, while the other shirts fell into disuse. Why?

  • The wool t-shirt was more versatile. When I wore it on cool days, it kept me warm. When I wore it on warm days, it kept me cool. The other shirts only seemed to work in one direction. (The cotton kept me cool, and the synthetics kept me warm.)
  • The wool t-shirt didn’t retain odors. The synthetics were stinky after only a few hours of wear, which is about what I’d expected. They’re good for exercise, but not for long-term wear. The cotton t-shirt needed to be washed after a day of wear, too. But the wool t-shirt? I washed it only once during our month in Europe.
  • The wool t-shirt was more stylish. I’m not really a stylish guy — far from it — but because I’d lost about 30 pounds in 2010, I was beginning to look for clothes that were at least a little flattering. The wool t-shirt just fit better.

By the time we returned home from France, I was sold on wool. I wanted more. Instead of packing give t-shirts to travel, I figured I could pack just two. For an entire month. (Maybe three, if I took my long-sleeve shirt.) Sure, the shirts were more expensive, but I figured they earned their higher cost by being more versatile and useful, and by the fact that (in theory) they’d last longer because they didn’t need to be washed as often.

Warehouse sale
At a World Domination Summit planning meeting last fall, I raved about my wool shirts. I expected people to laugh at me, but they didn’t. In fact, Sean Ogle chimed in with his agreement. “I took an Icebreaker shirt to Thailand,” he told me. “I wore it all the time. I’d wear it for a run in the morning, and then wear it again after I’d showered. It never retained odor.”

“I need to get more of these shirts,” I said, “but they cost a small fortune, especially if they’re not on sale.”

A few days later, Sean forwarded an e-mail from his girlfriend, Tate. It was a notice for an Icebreaker warehouse sale here in Portland. I cleared my schedule for that day and went. It was awesome: racks and racks of wool clothing for bargain prices. My $80 t-shirts were marked down to $10 or $12 or $20. I bought a $400 wool jacket for $80. I bought wool socks. Basically, I stocked up on wool.

J.D. wearing wool
Here I am, wearing wool on a summer hike at Lake Louise.

In love with wool
Except briefly in high school, I’ve never been a guy who cared about clothes. Yet here I’ve just written 1000 words about wool t-shirts. I love them that much. They’re a staple not just of my travel kit, but of my daily wardrobe. I wear them when the temperatures are below 0, and I wear them when it’s 40 degrees outside. (I wore them around Zimbabwe, for instance, where the temperatures were around 35 and the humidity was “melty”.)

Wearing wool in South Africa
Wearing wool in Cape Town, South Africa

I’m in Peru now and my pack is filled with wool. I brought five pairs of socks — they’re all wool. I brought five t-shirts. They’re all wool. I brought my long-sleeve wool shirt that I first wore to Alaska. My main jacket (or is it a sweater?) is a wool hoodie. And I’m sure I’ve forgotten something.

Plus, you can use wool to soak up formaldehyde! I don’t recommend it, though. Instead I suggest you wear the stuff. And love it. Just like I do.

Note: I was delighted to find another member of my group here in Peru is also an Icebreaker fan. Nigel too is carrying several pieces of Icebreaker clothing, and he loves them for the same reasons I do.

North Korea Tourist Photography

As much as I’d like to visit every corner of the Earth, I’m well aware that’ll probably never happen. Unlike a certain friend of mine, visiting every country in the world is not one of my actual goals. Because I’m more into travel for the romance of it all, I’m going to have to visit some far-off places vicariously, living through the eyes of others.

Take North Korea, for instance. I’m fascinated by the place, but I’ll never go there. I’ve read a couple of books about this insular nation, watched a handful of documentaries, and eagerly devour each new article I find.

Recently, Jason Kottke pointed to a photographic portfolio of North Korea by Sam Gellman. Some of these images are stunning:

Mass Games, North Korea -- photo by Sam Gellman

From Gellman’s description on Flickr:

This shot was taken at the Mass Games, a 100,000 person choreographed performance of simultaneous dancing and gymnastics on the field of Pyongyang’s May Day stadium. The image in the background of the mountain is made up of 30,000 “pixels” which are constantly being changed into new images, each pixel by a different Korean kid. Each time they turn the page to create a new giant picture, they cry out, mixing the shout with the noise of thousands of pages turned at the same moment. A 3-second exposure.

Others capture scenes Americans might more typically associate with North Korea:

Women soldiers marching -- photo by Sam Gellman

From Gellman’s description on Flickr:

Women soldiers practicing their marching. For all the soldiers in North Korea, it’s strange that there’s really no war at all. Still the country has one of the largest militaries in the world. And they spend much of their day marching and chanting anti-American and anti-Japan songs. There seemed to be about as many women as men in the army, though that was just observation. I think for a 18 year old, it seems there’s not a whole lot else to do.

But I think my favorite photos from Gellman’s North Korea trip are those that show everyday people doing everyday things, the ones that demonstrate that people are people wherever you go. Like this one:

Soldier bumper cars in Pyongyang -- photo by Sam Gellman

From Gellman’s description on Flickr:

Not much of a shot for image quality, but playing this bumper car game with the DPRK soldiers was one of the highlights of my trip to North Korea. Went head to head with them, nothing but laughs. A few were with their kids in the same car. Good times had by all.

You can view all of Gellman’s North Korea photos on Flickr.

Though I doubt I’ll ever visit North Korea myself, I do hope to visit southeast Asia in the next couple of years. But first, I have a couple of dates with South America! (I’m hiking through the Andes from Cuzco, Peru to Machu Picchu as you read this.) And maybe in 2012, I’ll even visit Turkey and (fingers crossed) Antarctica.

Further reading: Gellman’s travel photography is beautiful. You can see more at his website or in his Flickr stream.