Monday, December 9, 2013

I'm lazy

So if you have any interest in what I'm thinking about or want to see pictures or links to cute pictures of dogs I found, add me to your circles on Google+. Yes, I hate it too, but my life has been so absorbed by the Google Borg that I've submitted. I'm lazy. It's easier.

(I love that I found this image by searching Google Images for "google hate".)

The other way in which I am lazy is that I rarely feel like writing a full post, but I can type 3 sentences and link to something on Google+. If it turns into Facebook I will delete my account. Seriously. I will delete my e-mail and revert to an AOL e-mail account--I'm not afraid to do it. But for now, the fight is gone from me and I've given in.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Why I Love Checks

Yes! Checks. Those historic relics that are unnecessary because we can do everything electronically now.


Consider these recent experiences I had transferring funds from one of my accounts to another:

Attempt 1:  I wrote a check to myself from one of my accounts; went into bank and deposited it into another account. 

Result 1:  Funds were posted to the deposit account immediately and deducted from the paying account when the check processed a couple days later.

Attempt 2:  Set up online transfer of funds from one account to the other online.

Result 2:  Funds were deducted from the paying account the day after requested.  Funds disappeared into the abyss and still haven't appeared in the deposit account 5 days later. I did notice a note when I checked online status that the funds would be there by Nov. 1 (for a transfer requested on Oct. 25).

So, where did my money go? I can only assume it has been compounded with other funds in some transfer account somewhere where for 5 days it is earning interest of the sort that only ever benefits or is available to financial institutions.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Tipping

I HATE tipping. I wish it would go away forever and be replaced by the revolutionary idea that servers are entitled to decent salaries with benefits and that we all can pay a slightly increased price for our food and drink (which honestly probably wouldn't cost more than a decent tip). I personally see tipping as a subsidy that passes off costs to customers disproportionately to the services received.  People say tipping is about service, but I think most people tip based almost entirely on other factors. At regular sit down restaurants I tip a fairly regular 20%, and more if we got a deal on food or drink or if the server did something really special for us. You have to really screw up and make no efforts to correct the errors to get a much lower tip from me, though indifferent service will get rounded down a bit. I do this because it's easy to calculate and the amount usually works out to something fair based upon the food costs, and I recognize it as part of the cost of dining out--not an "extra".  I am actually more willing to tip a much higher percentage at really inexpensive restaurants (like a diner or cafe) when the service is good because 20% of a $20 bill isn't much and those guys bust their asses. 

I don't like the weird fake confidential relationship that sometimes arises between you and your server. You both know you'll be judging the performance and leaving money accordingly at the end of the night, and it always feels kind of dirty to me. I really never took the time to articulate why I feel this way. But recently I read this insightful article about tipping written by restauranteur Jay Porter who has experimented with no-tipping policies and I think he gets it bang-on:

Observations From a Tipless Restaurant, Part 5: Sex, Power and Tips

 
If it's TL;DR for you, what it boils down to is that tipping is in some respects another way in which society can dehumanize women and treat them as sex objects. The author has observed essentially that our societal perceptions of women's roles make it OK when your server flirts with you if you are tipping her at the end of the night, because you are essentially paying for it. If the salary/service charge is set however and she flirts with you then our societal values make her a slut. It's pretty specific to female servers/male customers, but as the author reminds us, 70% of all servers are female. And you can't deny that in fine dining restaurants there is still the assumption that the male at the table holds all the power, and if there are multiple males, then the oldest--the alpha--holds the power. The whole series (and the blog in general) is a good read. 

I don't understand why it's such a foreign concept in America that servers should just do their jobs well, and their employers pay them appropriately, and charge accordingly for services and products. To some extent I blame restaurant owners who are comfortable with being able to just pay minimum wage (or half in some states) and let their employees work out how to get the rest of a living salary. This can be to the restaurant's detriment as there are some bars and restaurants where the employees give away the store to increase their tips. But not all restaurants do things this way and not all governments let them get away with it. When San Francisco decided to force restaurants to provide some sort of health care coverage for their employees, the outrage would have you expect that all the storefronts in the entire city should be boarded up right now.  But it is no easier to get a good reservation on a Friday night now than it was 10 years ago, and the number of restaurants has exploded. Yes, the strong bubble economy of rich tech jerks (and some nice people) certainly has helped that.

Tipping isn't just for sit-down restaurants anymore, though.  How much (if anything) do you tip at walk-up counters, coffee shops, and fast food restaurants?  I'm clueless. For me I feel guilty if I don't at least throw my loose change or a buck in the cup. The fast food restaurant addition is new to me--I hardly ever patronize these types of places. Last week I dropped in to get a couple burritos and, confronted with a tip line and tip jar when I went to pay, I was like--"Aha! That's the reason why the girl rolling the burritos up was eye-fucking me!" One taco stand at the San Pedro Market even has a nifty little button you push yourself to give a 10%, 15% or 20% tip without having to do the math. I'm still not sure what this one was for--after all the girl taking my order didn't bother flirting with me at all. The cooks could have at least given me a wolf whistle or something if they wanted 20%.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

The two Silicon Valleys: a rant about living in San Jose.

We spent much of yesterday discussing things local and housing related in the area which inevitably led to a discussion about how little the money gets spread around in this allegedly affluent area.  The big rental property management companies around here might as well just be printing money as rents have jumped almost 100% in the last 10 years.  New apartments are going up all over the area and developers are greedily rubbing their hands together with visions of the insane rents that I'm sure they expect to keep going up and up. This is in large part being powered by huge numbers of tech hires, many (most?) of whom are moving in from other states and other countries.  At these jobs, interns earn nearly 6 figures.  And by the way, the new development is only happening because most of the affordable housing requirements have expired, so don't expect any breaks on the [artificially inflated] market rents at these new properties.



See the Business Journal slide show of new overpriced cookie-cutter developments coming soon to San Jose.

Meanwhile, those who have service jobs in the valley are unlikely to have seen any raises in the last 4 - 5 years and have probably lost benefits while their employers cried "We can't--the economy!" The pay gap is enormous. To be clear, "service" now encompasses many jobs in office buildings that were previously considered white collar.  People I know who work in banks, as admins in traditional business sectors, property management, etc. are lucky to make even $20/hour, which is less than half of what the average non-productive employee is making in certain fields.  Employers whine that they are doing more than they should have to do because people in the middle part of the country would love to get paid $15/hour.  But how can you afford $2000/month for a 1 bedroom apartment on that wage?  You can't.  If you aren't making close to 6 figures, you probably have no business even considering paying that level of rent.

I'm really disgusted and depressed.  The number of homeless on the streets is higher than I can ever remember before.  It seems inevitable that without any form of rent control and with really weak/useless low income housing many people will be forced out of the area. That will make things even harder because it's hard to find a job that doesn't require you to have a car, but it is nearly impossible to pay for a car on a retail salary.  Good luck getting around on our ridiculous public transportation.  I hope you have plenty of time and nothing else you need to accomplish during your day than work and get to/from work.

Meanwhile, those who work at the highest paid jobs have retained full benefits paid by their employers and continue to have more and more of their living expenses taken care of by their employers.  Too cool to live in the valley?  That's OK because a bus will pick you up in SF and drive you to work every day so you don't have to pay the $20 roundtrip fare on Caltrain.  Breakfast? Lunch? Dinner when you're working late?  All covered for free at the employee cantina. Gym? Dry cleaning?  Social life? They have you covered.  Meanwhile, if you work at Starbucks you will have to pay for a car on your $12/hour because the stores open before public transport starts running and your lunch is on you during your timed 30 minute lunch break.  Yes, they have health insurance, but expect it to take a bite out of your take home pay and if you actually want to use it, you will also have to pay a deductible and a large co-pay. 

At least you can take solace in the fact that these highly paid workers are doing the really important work in society, like streaming movies and selling your personal data gathered from your Facebook page.  The people who feed us, teach us, and fix our leaky faucets in our apartments aren't doing anything we really need.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Going it alone

It has been just over a year since I decide to leave the relative security of full time employment and strike out on my own. Being my own boss has so far been an easy transition. Aside from the occasional panic attacks that there is something I should be doing that I haven't done (typical lawyer stress in every field), that I'm doing something wrong (another typical lawyer stress), or that no one else will ever want to pay for my services (again experienced by most lawyers, but most acutely by the self-employed), it's been a pretty stress-free ride. It has changed how I think about "work" and made it more difficult to talk with other people about work related things because my experiences are just no longer the same. So this post is my attempt to explain why I chose to start working for myself and what I have learned from doing it.

When I decided to go to law school, I really never intended to have my own practice. I held basically the same assumptions as all my friends and family around me--that I would give the best years of my life to some employer hopefully in exchange for enough compensation to provide a comfortable living and a reserve for retirement. When I finally got my first "real" job out of college, I was a bit disillusioned. I struggled financially and constantly feared that I would lose my job. I had a second part time job for over a year just so that I would have some cushion if something happened. Nothing felt permanent, even though that's what my parents and their friends told me you were supposed to get from a full-time job--permanency, a path for advancement, and ultimately lifetime employment. I couldn't see any of that in my position. I started a retirement account and didn't know what I was doing, so I saw my account value increase exponentially and then dwindle to almost nothing with the stock market. There was no upward mobility to speak of at this company, so over the three years I spent at my first real job, I created my own path for advancement by teaching myself new skills. But where to go from there? I started interviewing for other jobs and although I had some decent offers, the positions seemed expendable. I needed real skills, and I wanted to do something with purpose, so I decided to go to law school. I originally wanted to be a public defender, actually. I believe that PD work is some of the most important work done by attorneys in our country. Ideally, the effort of public defense attorneys help keep the system honest and protect those in our society who have the least--supporting true American values in my opinion. Well, nothing inspired by idealism ends as expected, and my story is no different.

I knew two lawyers when I applied to law school. They both worked for big firms, had a ton of money, and never talked about their work. I knew so little about the legal field that I couldn't possibly have even known what questions I could have asked them that would have given me the information I needed to decide if law school was even right for me. Was law school a good choice? Ultimately it didn't matter because of the events that unfolded. Also, once you become a lawyer, there is truly no going back; you're stuck. But I had this idea in the back of my head that I could always go back to my prior career if things didn't work out. My backup plan went to shit one month after I started law school when my former boss moved his company to Sacramento. One month later the dot-com crash happened and he started laying everybody off. People with my pre-law school skills were mostly unemployed and a dime a dozen. There was no back-up career for me and definitely no job to go back to.

With no back-up plan, I took out loan after loan to keep going. I thought maybe I should focus on trying to just get a job--any job--that would pay better than a public servant starting salary. As I went through school I developed a better understanding of the history of the practice of law and how this whole idea of the big firm is a fairly modern concept. A license to practice law is a license to do your thing without having to work for someone else. Ostensibly a lawyer should never be unemployed because a lawyer doesn't need anyone but a client to work for. But I had never considered not working for someone else before, and I was clearly going to leave law school flat broke (ahem, make that in six-figures worth of debt) and without any business skills, so I focused on finding a job.

To put it mildly and simply, the job search sucked. My self esteem plummeted. Fast forward through a bunch of crappy temporary gigs, part-time jobs, a crazy solo, a nice solo that I disappointed because I didn't know how to be an associate and he didn't know how to train me, and I landed at the only opportunity I could find at the time--a job 40 miles from where I lived for less pay than I had made at the job I quit to attend law school.  I did make attempts at following my dream (?!) of being a PD, but it turned out that there were few openings and those who found the time to do volunteer work were the natural choices to fill any paid positions. Besides, I had become disillusioned with indigent defense work during my time at the Criminal Clinic, but that's another story.  Mostly I  felt like I couldn't work for free when I had $100k in student loan debt sitting and accruing interest.  So my career path was determined by me having taken any and every paid position I possibly could.

I found myself about 7 or 8 years after graduating from law school driving for 2.5 hours every day to get to a job that wasn't so bad, but also wasn't leading to anything better, and I just felt ridiculous. On days when I didn't have a court appearance or something to get me out of the office, I would sit at my desk for my 8 - 9 hours and sometimes I wouldn't even see anyone else but the secretary. Why was I wasting so much of my life and money in and on my car?  I would sit on the freeway and look at all the other people around me and wonder how many of them actually needed to be at their desk to do their job.  It just seemed so stupid.  I didn't even get that elusive benefit of face-time most days. When I asked to work remotely, things just never seemed to be set up so I could get anything done, or it would be during a slow period and I wouldn't have much to do, so my boss naturally assumed I was just slacking off. I started to get pissed at this point--why did I need to drive 80 miles to sit in my office and twiddle my thumbs? Particularly when hardly anyone else was ever there? It was like he just wanted to make sure he was controlling my life. It was stupid and the countdown started to the time when I wouldn't possibly be able to put up with it any longer. But what was I to do? I couldn't imagine myself being an associate for some other crazy attorney again, and the potential partners I knew had already gone off and done their own thing. Anyway, I didn't have the capital to set up a full-blown firm. I knew the only real option was to work for myself.

Without realizing it, I had already started developing some skills helpful to going it alone. You see, I had never made all that much money, and it occurred to me about 4 years ago that unless I got some cushion in my budget, I was never going to have any options. So I learned to budget, learned to limit my expenses, and started paying off bills like crazy. I learned from the ERE people, though I didn't take things to that extreme. I also started stashing money into savings. It took a couple years, but I finally whittled my debts down to just student loans. When I got to this point, I did the math and figured that if I put all available resources towards my loans, it would take at least 3 more years of suffering to pay them off. This was no good. Surely I would end up getting fired or killing someone if I had to last another 3 years. So I decided I could live with the student loans for a while (mine have fixed interest rates and really aren't so bad compared to what most recent grads are saddled with). Instead, I increased my savings rate and set a goal. My intention was to quit and work for myself when I got there. I reached that goal around Christmas of 2011, but I was still too nervous to make a move. I recalculated my goal to set myself up with enough cash so I would be OK even if I had NO income for 6 months (or longer), and a couple thousand dollars to put towards my start up costs. I neared my goal in the next couple months, and decided that I would be gone by mid-summer.

When I put in my notice in June of 2012, I invested about $1000 into software, online services, a virtual office plan, office supplies, and a fax/scanner/printer. I passed up the high end items like new computers and the priciest legal software. I found alternatives that were cheaper and decided to make good use of the law library that's less than a mile from my house. I knew it was going to be a while before I even thought about a brick and mortar office or employees, and I wasn't sure I was even interested in that. I didn't immediately buy malpractice insurance, but I did shortly after and this was the most expensive single item for me (over $2k).

At this point I had clients encouraging me to separate and go out on my own and potential clients who were being referred directly to me by friends and other attorneys, so I knew I would have some income. It was also easy to work out a decent arrangement with my former boss over the clients I was in the midst of representing. I didn't want to create an all-out war by taking them and running, and he had an incentive to be fair with me in the fee division as he knew some of the clients would inevitably come with me if he tried to cut off our relationship entirely.

I left at the end of June and had 10 or so clients to finish up with my former boss and three of my own new clients. I started working and I have never looked back. I have found the "business" side of things not so difficult as I was used to keeping good track of my money already and it was easy to transfer my budgeting skill to bookkeeping for my business.

So when do I "work"? When I have things I need to do! It can be frustrating how long it can take to get business-related stuff done. I have to do my own office supply shopping now. If my printer stops working or my network goes down, there is no one to call but myself. It has taken me at times a full day to get a stupid envelope printed. It takes me at least one full day every month to send out bills and do my trust and operating account reconciliation. When I'm not busy, I think about all the marketing I should be doing for myself, think about how I never know if I will have any money coming in 2 or 3 months from now, and sometimes I spend time on that but sometimes I go to the pool. I move seamlessly in and out of work related items as needed but I do have some boundaries. I don't do anything work related on Sunday, I stop working when my husband comes home from work (if I haven't stopped already), and I try not to schedule things on Fridays unless I need to because that is my husband's day off.  But when someone asks what hours I work, I usually pause and stutter and say something like "whenever!"

How do people take me seriously without a dedicated office space? I struggle with this one. Like the other assumptions I had about work, I grew up with the assumption that a professional has a dedicated office outside his/her home.  But I don't need one right now and the expense is huge.  It would also turn me into something of a self-employed commuter.  True I could control the commute, but that contradicts some of what I gained from quitting my job to begin with.  Maybe someday, but not yet.  True, there are some things that would be easier with an office, and some people who just won't take me seriously without one, but there are even more potential clients who don't care and even see a potential financial benefit to them by my reduction of overhead.  I find that the generations following mine are even more disillusioned with this traditional concept of work than my generation has become and they don't see a need for any of the traditional trappings of work as long as you can do what you're paid to do.  Also, an office can be a disadvantage.  When I worked for other attorneys, no one ever just walked in the front door without making an appointment who did anything other than waste my time.  A serious client will vet you and make an appointment first.  Someone who walks in the front door is trouble (even with existing clients).

What about retirement benefits? Well, I did lose my employer's matching contributions, but I still only had an IRA.  If you are lucky enough to have one of the very rare jobs that still offers a pension, hold onto it.  Save money in other ways, too, because those pensions are no longer guaranteed.  But as someone who spends a lot of time dividing up retirement benefits I can attest that most 401ks and IRAs aren't worth jack compared to even a modest lifetime pension. I've never been blessed with such retirement benefits, so if I have a good year I can put far more money into my retirement account than I ever managed to before even without the matching funds. But my change in work style has changed my attitude about retirement. I don't want to wait until I'm 65 to enjoy life, and that is one of the reasons why I struck out on my own. I am trying to balance my current enjoyment and lifestyle with the knowledge that one day I won't be able to work at all and arrange my life thus. I'm not quite there yet, but then again I've only been working on this for about a year.

But I'm a lawyer, so surely I have a big house and a Lexus, right? Hardly. The only way I was able to achieve this comfortable of a work/life balance was to manage my expectations and lifestyle. Of course I have materialistic tendencies like most Americans. Mine are focused on travel, food, and wine. Sometimes I think that people must look at my Honda Civic and assume I couldn't possibly be a very good lawyer or I'd have more money. That is the type of judgmental materialistic thinking I'm trying to eradicate in myself, though, so I realize that I need to not worry about what other people think. I have mostly lost the drive to compete with material possessions that is so glamorized in our culture, and I kind of feel sorry for the people who are wrapped up in that. I live comfortably and I have more than most people in this world for sure. I was lucky enough to be born into this country in a middle-class family, so I am somewhat trapped like everyone else with bills (and don't forget those student loans I haven't paid off yet). But I usually live within my means and I prioritize. I would rather take my budget trip to Africa than buy a new car. The amount of money I spent on that trip to Africa wouldn't even have paid for a Kia anyway. And there's nothing like a trip to the third world to slap you in the face and tell you to stop feeling sorry for yourself for not having as many nice things as your neighbors.

Would I encourage other people to try working for themselves? Yes and no. Having a profession made it logical and relatively easy for me to transition. I sense that as a society we are moving more towards a model of workers as independent contractors rather than employees in general. Many workers have had and will have no choice in this transition. It couldn't hurt for anyone to work on developing business skills, learning how to price yourself and the work you do, talking about money upfront, and budgeting. These skills can help you even if you work for the same employer for the rest of your life. I have known so many people in the last few years who have been unceremoniously dumped by their employers or worked nearly to death until they waved a white fag in defeat and quit. Companies are adding and dumping departments quicker than ever or merging with other companies and getting rid of divisions. New industries seem to be created and die out faster than ever before. So having something going on on the side is never a bad idea; it's almost imperative.

At this point I sometimes enjoy the management of my business more than the actual legal work. I worked in databases in my previous career and I just know that I could design an awesome database that would fit all my business accounting needs, but it would take me a month to do that and produce no income, so the legal work is more important for now.  But I'm constantly looking for a way to develop my business to bring in a stream of income that isn't dependent on my ongoing labor. So if you've got a good idea and think we could work together on something--e-mail me! Money is not my priority but like everyone else I'm always interested to maximize income with minimal effort.

I still do value PDs, by the way. Everyone should watch Gideon's Army and have a little respect for the only people whose increasingly difficult job is to try and protect the few remaining rights we have as Americans. I'm glad I didn't go into it for myself because I feel like if I entered this field I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I made any mistakes whatsoever. I have a hard time living with mistakes generally, but when the consequences are merely financial and not someone's freedom, it's a lot easier to get over it.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Blogger Mobile App still buggy

Sorry about the garbled posts!  Turns out that the Blogger App for Android works fine if you post and never change anything, but if you go back to edit, the HTML gets all messed up.  I fixed the ones I found and will do better in the future!

"Juice"

This juice box was in my trash which was curious to me because we never drink this stuff. It smelled exactly like an apple Jolly Rancher so I took a gander at the ingredients. Definitely not 100% juice like this brand sells itself on.

True, there is no added sugar, but keep in mind that is because the rotting fallen apples they use for juice are usually overripe already. Most of the nutrition from the fruit is lost in all the processing so they add ascorbic acid to increase the vitamin C content.

I can't believe people feed this crap to their kids and think it is healthy.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Visiting my folks in New Mexico

I've been in Las Cruces for the last couple of days visiting with my parents who retired here a few years ago. Life is slow down here, but in a nice way. I always find it relaxing to spend a few days here doing not much more than reading, watching movies, having a drink on the patio, and trying to win the approval of their newest dog, Lucy. I suppose it doesn't hurt that my mom insists on waiting on me while I'm here.

I always like the dry desert air. The evaporative coolers keep the temperature manageable in the house but not freezing cold like central air tends to do. It's partly because you can (and should) keep the windows open while the coolers are on so there is always a nice breeze.

Their house is up against the Organ Mountains, a small but very dramatic mountain range made up of the remnants of an ancient volcano. There's not too much to do in Las Cruces but we managed to find some decent wine tasting and a good pub.

Living out here is more about the peace and quiet you get living nearly off the grid combined with the comfort of still being relatively close to a city. Wildlife still wanders through their property frequently and hiking and true wilderness are only minutes away Like most developments on the outskirts of town, it doesn't look like the peace will last forever. The area is developing, but thankfully pretty slowly. It seems like some people move out here only to decide they don't want to deal with the spotty cell service, indigenous insects, dust storms, flash floods, and occasional rattlesnake you will inevitably experience in the desert. So perhaps it will never turn into a full-on suburb. There's also the matter of the military bases encroaching on the other side of the mountains. For now it is still a nice retreat from city life.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Videos!

Here are some short very amateurish videos we took on our trip for your amusement.  The first is Victoria Falls with a cameo by Steve at the end:



This one I've titled "Hungry Hungry Hippos". We were on a Chobe River Sunset Cruise at the time.  No sound for the hippos--we usually provide our own soundtrack when we watch the video. I did pick up a lot of (sometimes amusing) background conversations from the boat:



This one is elephants swimming, which is amazing to watch.  The background conversation on this one is actually hysterical.  I have been watching it over and over.





Thursday, May 2, 2013

Jozi

We arrived in Johannesburg Sunday night where we were dropped unceremoniously at an airport hotel. Fortunately there was an Irish pub there so we got a pint (and Steve got to watch some Wrestlemania) before we located a ride to our b&b in Rosebank. This is one of the northern suburbs of Johannesburg and walking distance to one of the biggest mall complexes I've ever seen. Johannesburg is still hung up on malls and it's where most of the restaurants are located. Our first night we were exhausted and so we ordered in some bunny chow, drank a bottle of pinotage, and called it a night.

We booked a Soweto tour on Monday. We visited Nelson Mandela's house and the Peterson museum in addition to a couple other stops. It was interesting.  This is a messed up country but the history isn't so different from our own.

On Tuesday we joined the double decker hop-on hop-off bus with intentions of visiting the Apartheid museum and the SAB world of beer. We also stopped at the "tallest building in Africa" for a 360 view of the city. Joburg has other redeeming qualities but it is not worthy of a 360 view. I think they know that, though as the charge to go up was an apologetic $1.65.

The Apartheid museum was everything you would expect. The design made it difficult to navigate and there was so much information you could spend hours there without realizing it. We had beer to drink, though, so we hopped back on the bus after a couple hours and headed for the SAB world of beer.

Excitedly arriving at the Disneyland of beer, we were denied. In traditionally African style, they just decided not to open up on that Tuesday not withstanding the sign clearly stating they should have been open 10 to 6. The staff at the restaurant downstairs saw our disappointment invited us in to have some beer. Their food was pretty good, but they had nothing on tap so it was disappointing.

Afterwards it was a bit of a race to get back to Rosebank, grab our bags, get back on the Gautrain, and to O. R. Tambo airport to catch our evening flight. (In case you didn't know--I certainly didn't--the airport is named for Nelson Mandela's former law firm partner and fellow activist who was also instrumental in the struggle to rid South Africa of apartheid.) Steve got a facial at the airport and about 25 hours later we were getting our luggage at SFO.

We are back now! Thanks for following us on the ride and if you are interested in seeing more and better pictures, keep checking back as I will post more pictures shortly as I transfer them from my camera.

Pictures: breakfast pint on our layover in London, Apartheid museum, Joburg graffiti, and our B&B in the northern suburbs where everything is a gated community.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Okavango Delta and the close of our tour

After Chobe we headed to Maun and set off for 2 nights in the Okavango Delta by mokoro, which is a traditional dugout canoe with a poler standing in back pushing the boat through the narrow waterways. It is very relaxing except for occasionally getting smacked in the face with reeds. I actually fell asleep for the last 20 minutes. Unfortunately I have no photos of this on my phone because I took my nice camera and didn't want to have to protect too many electronic items from falling into the water. But I will post photos and videos later. There weren't all that many animals to see, but we did have a close encounter with a hippo on the way in, and there obviously were animals all around us because their poop was everywhere.

For 2 nights we had no facilities. We brought cooking items with us but all cooking was done on the fire. The toilet was a hole dug in the ground. The head poler told us if we filled it up he would dig another but it didn't get to that point; I think it's likely we had some backed up people on the return ride. :)

There was little to do but take nature walks, swim in a former hippo pool, read and sleep. No one in our group braved the pool but another group on the island was more adventuresome. The water was pretty nasty and my prissy Virgo nature can't stand getting muddy unless I'm at a spa. Between walks and sunset mokoro rides we napped and read a lot. It was very relaxing. Just when we were becoming bored out of our skulls we returned. Anastasia's new group and ours had been on the same path up to this point. Upon return we said our final goodbyes before they headed to Namibia and we headed toward South Africa.

Our next stop was Planet Baobab which seemed like an awesome place and had the awesomest pool of anywhere we have stopped. Unfortunately we arrived after 5 and left before 6 so there was no time to do anything other than set up camp, eat, shower, sleep, tear down, eat again, and leave. Well, you all know us--we did manage to squeeze in a few beers at the awesome bar. And Steve took a refreshing dip in the pool. When we went for a p.m. shower we were surprised to find the showers were completely open air and unlit. No lights whatsoever, only the mostly full moon to assist. That was the only bad thing about this place. So Steve and I ignored the gender segregation and set up all our headlamps and other lights in a shower on the ladies' side and took what felt like a candlelit shower, except less romantic. The water was hot but still it was cold outside. Also, because the lack of roof allowed leaves to fall into the shower, the drain backed up pretty bad and we had to get in and out quickly.

The next day we rushed to Camp Itumela in Palapye where due to the dropping temperatures no one opted to camp. If you want some amusement, check out the TripAdvisor review we are writing about this place that will be posted in about a week.

From here we set off on our final game drive in the Khama Rhino Sanctuary. It did not disappoint - we saw about 10 or 12 white rhinos! They are probably the most impressive animals I've seen in Africa so far. As a bonus we got to see some ostriches preening and dancing because it is mating season. We also saw some wildebeest which we hadn't seen previously. Returning back we had our last dinner and last drinks with the group. Well, the drinkers consisted of me Steve and one Dutch girl, Sunna, but the three of us did a farewell shot of Amarula mixed with Kahlua - Amarula is the Bailey's of Africa.

After another mostly sleepless night (again, check out that review when you get a chance) we got up at 4:30 to repack and head off on our final long drive to Johannesburg. It certainly has been an experience and the closer we get to the end the more I wish it could continue.

Pics: post-delta goodbyes, ready for our last game drive!, sunrise, our neighbors at our last camp, and ostriches!

*Also after seeing how kick ass I look in wire framed sunglasses I'm thinking I need to pursue a new career in law enforcement upon return :)

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Chobe

Upon arriving at our campsite we immediately upgraded to a room because Steve wanted some AC and a bed before heading into the Delta. I didn't complain. The room was comfortable and the nicest we had since Zanzibar. We relaxed the first night and chatted with another (drunk) African tour operator. Since the first part of our tour ended and the original group split up our new group is only 7. Steve and I are now the partiers of the group essentially because none of the Australians are joining us on the last leg. We even had an Italian couple join who turned out to be teetotalers. Surely this violates some Italian law or another.

The next morning was an early game drive in Chobe and an evening boat cruise.  Upon entering the park at 6 a.m. we immediately got to watch three hyaenas taking off with the remnants of a warthog. Close behind was the female lion whose kill they had stolen! Dramatic start! The rest of the drive was not nearly as eventful. Our guide gave us some excuse about the animals being "wild" or something like that. Sheesh! If you want a bigger tip just say so.

We did get to see warthogs (living ones too), buffalo,  hippos, crocodiles, lots of birds, jackals, and another 4 female lions. Oh, and a bunch of big cat snacks too - i.e. impala, waterbuck, and kudu. We did not get to see any of the thousands of elephants that Chobe is famous for because it was too cold and they were hiding. At least according to our guide. But I ask you - where does an elephant hide? Steve and I are now convinced that male lions and leopards are completely fictional creatures.

We napped until our evening boat cruise down the Chobe River. This time we got to see lots of elephants eating, frolicking, swimming, and doing all manner of cute elephant things. We also got to see hippos grazing in the water and in case you were wondering, it looks EXACTLY like Hungry Hungry Hippos.

We were treated to another spectacular Southern African sunset and then we headed back to camp to drink Windhoek beer on tap and watch VH1 classic on the bar TV. Tuesday is another early rise and long drive to Maun where we will sleep over before heading out for our Okavango Delta mokoro adventure!

Photos: Chobe River in the morning (Namibia is on the other side!), big boy, lions resting in the shade, elephants in the river, fantastic Chobe sunset, and our packing list for the mokoro trip.

Victoria Falls

On Friday we had a  very long drive with few stops except for bathroom breaks. We actually got a rest stop pay toilet this time before Lusaka and I wish I had taken my camera in. For the bargain price of 2 kwacha you got a clean western style toilet in a club atmosphere - blue lights and piped in music as you waited. I think they even had soap and hand dryers which have been largely nonexistent in Africa.

We made it to Victoria Falls in the early evening and got a bed for 2 nights. The fan sounded like a helicopter all night long but it was nice to have our own shower and get some laundry done. We went out for a farewell dinner and then headed to a backpacker lodge for a beverage. The scene was a bit hectic (and young) for Steve and Anastasia and me so we headed back to the lodge to retire early.Other (younger and crazier) members of our group had a much better time out and remained unaccounted for as of breakfast the following morning.

It was recommended that we do "activities" on Saturday because entrance to the falls would be paid for us on Sunday. But we are not adrenaline junkies so no bungee jumping, and I am fearful that the various animal encounters on offer are probably not in the best interests of the animals, so we went to Victoria Falls anyway. It was amazing and completely lived up to my childhood expectations. We got completely drenched, but it was worth it.

On Sunday we returned to the falls with the group and I was glad we had gone the day prior. Although it was not as wet, the position of the sun in the morning reflected off of the mist creating an awful glare that completely obscured the falls in places. We also bid farewell to Anastasia Sunday morning, but not fully as our tours will mostly mirror each other for another couple days and we will see each other again before finally heading off in different directions.

After a couple hours at the falls, we continued on into Botswana to stay for 2 nights in Kasane just outside Chobe park.

Pictures: Steve and I in front of the statue of Livingstone who "discovered" the falls, Vic Falls before it got too wet and I put my phone away, and sunset at Thebe River Safaris looking out on the Chobe River.

Friday, April 26, 2013

What is an overland tour?

If you are reading my blog you are probably a friend or relative and therefore American and you may have never heard about overland tours. We had seen a few on offer through the big tour companies but didn't really completely understand how it worked. They exist in other places too but in Africa overlanding is a huge part of the tourism industry and almost a right of passage especially for young travellers visiting the continent for the first time. It's also the only way most people will get to see Africa if they are too scared to go it alone and aren't made of money.

Travel is overland (as you might expect) in a custom made rig. Passengers (about 24 max depending on the truck and outfit) sit in back in bus like seats but you won't mistake this vehicle for a bus once it gets going. The ride is exactly what you would expect out of riding in the back of a freight truck over some of the worst roads in the world. There is storage for cooking equipment and tents on the bottom and lockers to hold personal belongings and bags in the back. Things break on the trucks frequently. We are on our second truck now. The first actually had reclining seats that gradually broke one by one during the first part of our journey. That part of the tour was much fuller - 17 people as opposed to 7 for the second part - and everyone inevitably ended up in one of the bouncy broken seats at least once every couple days. This truck has stationary seats and fewer of us so overall it's more comfortable, but the compressor blew on the freezer so keeping food fresh is a challenge.

The crew cooks us three meals a day generally and we take turns helping prep and doing the dishes. Every day we go somewhere new we have to set up camp. The food is fine but repetitive and very heavy in meat and oil. Because of the long distances we often pack up before the sun comes up and we often have to put up tents at night in the dark. It feels like a great luxury when we get to stay somewhere for more than one day. On consecutive travel days it can often feel like all we are doing is driving, setting or striking camp, and eating.

None of this is a huge problem because I have experience with such camping trips but the gear is not the best or easiest to deal with and it can be frustrating to have no control over the itinerary or meals. Frequently Steve and I (and others) would have much preferred to just eat something along the way and save some time, but the guides usually insist on pulling onto the side of the road and setting up a full lunch spread which reduces the time we have for any other stops we might make.

The camps we stay at vary wildly. All have some form of accommodation besides camping, but it's often very primitive and very expensive compared to what you would get for less money in other parts of the world. Some of the tent spaces are grassy comfy and spacious. Others are sandy pits with one tent on top of another. Some bathrooms are clean and well tended to. Others are filthy with only a trickle of lukewarm water for a shower. And pricing is not reflective of what you get. The owners of these places are often former overland operators themselves and when you meet them they don't always seem on the up and up (or concerned about the quality of their product). As Anastasia put it - they seem like they are on the lam. The camps always have a bar and sometimes offer great prices on beers. Some have been incredibly scenic and well tended-to, such as Wildlife Park just outside South Luangwa. I would stay there again in a heartbeat. But when you are traveling with an overland tour you are limited to camps with facilities for the trucks. Even if it says you will stay in a city on your itinerary you will be outside town with nary a hope of finding transport into town to get a meal or catch a feel of the place.

The advantage of overlanding is that you get access to places that might otherwise be prohibitively expensive to access. For example, on this trip in addition to South Luangwa, we got to do game drives  in Chobe, Khama Rhino sanctuary, and Mikumi Parks and we got to visit Lake Malawi and spend 3 days taking mokoro rides and camping in the Okavango Delta. All wonderful. The downsides are that you get a fairly superficial view of the places where you are traveling, it's not a very comfortable way to travel by any stretch of the imagination, and the long rides and repetitive meals and constant setting up and tearing down grow tiresome. The group aspect could be a pro or a con. You can met a lot of interesting people from different places, you can get stuck on a truck where no one speaks your language, you can end up on a truck with a spring break feel, or some combination of the above. As with anything else in life some people are nice and some people suck.

We have learned that if you are considering trying it out, you are probably better off starting with the Cape Town to Victoria Falls route; there is a reason why it is the beaten path. East and Central Africa are best saved for after you have gotten your feet wet. We dove right into Tanzania not fully realizing the sweltering heat, cratered roads, long drives, and trickles of warm water that pass for showers we had in store. But now we do and as wonderful as it has been, we're not sure we would do another overland tour. But at least now we have an insight into overland tours and the alternatives.

Other suggestions for wanna be overlanders:

- If you are camping take a very warm sleeping bag and a light sleep sack because you will probably experience a variety of climates.

- Take plenty of things to amuse yourself on the long drives to avoid annoying the hell out of your tour mates.

- Take twice as much hand sanitizer, baby wipes, and tissue/toilet paper as you think you will need because toilet paper, soap, and hand towels are all exceedingly rare.

- Start working out your thigh muscles because you will be using a lot of "bush toilets".

Pics: pausing on the side of the highway for lunch, the truck during a bush toilet stop, and everyone on board.

Friday, April 19, 2013

South Luangwa Game Drives

We did morning and evening drives our second day in camp. In the evening we had a tracker with a lamp assisting in spotting animals. The truck was exactly like the cars on the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland. We saw: impalas, kudu, waterbucks, giraffes, elephants, lions, genets, water buffalo, a civet, a porcupine, hippos, crocodiles, tons of baboons (the campsite was also lousy with them), but no leopards.

That night the hippos weren't as active but there was a very loud pack of lions in the area. We didn't see any of them though they woke almost everyone.

The Rest of Zambia

The next three days consisted of nothing more than long drives on bad roads and shorter drives on awful roads. We visited a village and got the song and dance show, which was fun, and then they took us to a textile factory where items are made for a very high end export market. Nothing of any quality stays here and most of the "traditional" textiles they wear are imported and made in China.

The camps have also been nothing special and usually right off the main highway. The long drives and constant toiling to set up and take down camp combined with no stops of interest has worn on us. Vic Falls ahead! I'll probably be there before I get an chance to post any of this.

Picture: our nonstop scenery for the last 3 days - bush and livestock.

Lilongwe and into Zambia

Lilongwe was uneventful. Long drive on horrible roads then a tour of a wildlife sanctuary, which was kind of cool but mostly just a zoo. Then one hour to look around town. Unfortunately they dropped us at a mall. We camped out at another one of those outskirts of town camps that reminds me of a KOA - which is to say nothing special or interesting.

The next day we crossed the border and stopped in a dusty little border town where we discovered that money would be difficult to come by for us. None of the ATMs would work for us. We ended the day at Wildlife Camp which was by far the nicest campsite we have seen to date. It had a gorgeous view of the Luangwa River right outside our tent flap. The next day we had two game drives to look forward to. We retired to the scenic bar with a view of the banks of the river and took particular note of all the tracks coming up from the river directly towards the camp. As the sun went down, the hippos emerged for their nightly grazing. They were coming closer and closer to the camp as we retired.

Sure enough at 2:30 am we were awoken by very loud grazing right next to our tent. The hippo closest even nuzzled the side of our tent as s/he was sniffing around. I had to pee but decided I could make it through another couple hours until we had to get ready for our game drive!

Pictures below: successful bush toilet break, sketchy bridge we crossed in Malawi on the way to Lilongwe, male circumcision campaign in Zambia (to reduce HIV transmission rates), and not just any chips but SUPA chips!

The Kande Beach Boys

Leaving Chitimba we headed to Kande Beach, another stop on Lake Malawi. On the way we stopped at a coffee shop selling fair trade Malawi coffee. The smallest bag they had was half a kilo so we couldn't get any unfortunately.

At the beach we upgraded to a bungalow with an en suite bathroom for the 2 nights - a little bit of luxury for $40 a night. We took a tour of the local village, which seemed like mostly an opportunity to fleece the tourists. They took us to a school and a hospital that were both highly suspect. The school had notes from a meeting held 8 years ago on the wall and the hospital had no patients. Both had directors who were the sharpest dressed men I have seen in Africa so far. They both wanted donations of course.

We were followed around the whole time by young men trying to sell us carvings and paintings, also known as the beach boys. Steve and I were both easy marks (though I'm sure he will claim it, was just me) and we spent a bunch of money on crap we didn't really intend to buy. Oh well. They were slick. They separated us and chatted us up about all manner of things before telling us how they needed money for university even though it is mid April and we were far from any colleges. Then came the sales pitch for the picture or carving and of course the up sell. Sheesh! Hopeful they at least gave some of the money to their mamas before spending the rest on getting high ;) Pot is all over Malawi and they tried to sell me some of that too.

We had the rest of the day at leisure to do whatever activities we wanted. The wind was high though and the water choppy so there were no snorkeling trips or boating expeditions to be had. So we got some local women to wash our dirty clothes and drank some beers at the bar. Carlsberg is actually a local brew here. They have a brewery in Malawi, so beer was just $1 a bottle even at the tourist camp. The camp catered to overland tours. We pretty much had the place to ourselves the first night but they had space for at least 5 or 6 trucks at one time. I'll bet the place is wild during the high season. On our second night we were joined by a shiny new Intrepid/Geckos truck and we looked jealously on.  But as one of my fellow campers pointed out, it won't look so nice after a couple trips across Africa!

That evening we had paid for some locals to to roast a whole pig for us for dinner. It was a little gruesome but incredibly tasty. Steve and I made an early night of it after dinner and got plenty of sleep for an early start off to the capital city Lilongwe the next morning.

Chitimba Beach Lake Malawi

Even arriving after dark it was still hot and humid as we set up the tent and I was sure I was going to melt. It was hot enough that Steve and I nearly killed each other for the 8th or 9th time in 3 days - love you honey) and we both started feeling awful again to the point where we didn't even want to eat dinner. But like has happened so many times since we arrived in Africa, we relaxed, let it go, eventually accepted we could not change anything, cooled down, and felt better. Much better, actually. After dinner we ended up joining our fellow campers for a beer at the beach campfire and the evening ended on a high note. Besides, we made the decision to upgrade to a room at the next stop and the concept of a roof over our heads that we didn't have to put up and take down (quite possibly in the rain) for 2 days got out spirits up quite a bit. I actually slept soundly for the first time so far on this trip.

We have had a chance to get to know our fellow campers on this trip and have become friends already with several of them. You spend so much time together that not getting along is really not an option unless you want to be miserable for the entire trip. But anyone who undertakes such a journey is bound to be easy going and interesting.

But of course things change in an instant and it again started pouring down rain and we were again hurriedly packing up filthy wet tents and steaming in the truck. Oh well. On to a room of our own!

First game drive, Iringa, and into Malawi

Before leaving, we had an opportunity to do our first game drive. Mikumi is not known as one of the better parks for game viewing, but we got to see giraffes, elephants, zebra, impalas, warthogs water buffalo, hippos, gazelles, a crocodile, and many impressive bird species. Not bad! After the drive we got back on the road to Iringa.

Our camp for the night was a charming place with lots of space to pitch your tent. The facilities were African "long drop" toilets (read: pit toilets) but they were spotless and didn't smell. My father would have appreciated this campground with his weird pit toilet obsession I remember from my youth when he used to purposely seek out the most primitive campgrounds he could on our road trips. We had a Masai dinner at a lovely atmospheric cafe they had set up--traditional African style thatched huts lit solely by hurricane lamps. They even made a cake for both Steve and Anastasia. We ambled off to bed.

Unfortunately disaster struck twice that night--first when dinner did not agree with us in a violent manner (thank you Dr. Kodani for sending us off with plenty of Cipro) and second when it started raining at 4 a.m. I know because I was at the toilet for the third time that night when it started. We had to leave early that morning and the rain got harder as we packed up all our wet gear and then our wet selves. Taking off I  the damp heat with all the windows up I felt I was steaming like a Chinese bun.

Our second day was our longest driving day--they estimated 10 to 11 hours but I think it was over 12 when all was said and done. We passed through heat and cold in and out of the rain and I started to feel awful. The weather changes, the stomach issues, my lack of sleep, and dehydration all caught up with me. Steve wanted to take me to the doctor. A few hours, some time laying down as best I could, and a liter or so of water and I was back to my normal self and in high spirits.

Unfortunately it took too long to cross the borders and navigate the awful Tanzanian roads and we didn't get to our next camp until after dark. Setting up in the dark again!

Pictures: Steve and I in front of the Mikumi park entrance on our morning game drive, a giraffe hanging out, and a common sight all along our drive--loads of sunflowers planted everywhere!