Home Ownership Lessons

We bought a house! How exciting!

Our house! The front already doesn't look like that though. We had to dig up the lawn for foundation repairs, and the stairs were falling apart so we're in the process of replacing them with a deck.

Our house! The front already doesn’t look like that though. We had to dig up the lawn for foundation repairs, and the stairs were falling apart so we’re in the process of replacing them with a deck.

I think I’ve returned to my pre-backpacking weekly routine as well: work 8:30am-ish to 9pm-ish then pass out on the bed/couch/floor, spend off-day 1 staring at a wall, moaning about how exhausted I am then spend off-day 2 cleaning and running errands. I really wonder how people with kids do it. There just aren’t enough hours in the day or enough energy in one body to go around.

But anyway, despite it all, we’re mostly settled in. There are still a few things we need to buy for the house to make it presentable but it appears that backpacking for two years, then getting married, then buying a house leaves you on a pretty tight budget. So we’re getting the house ready one step at a time. One day we might even have a guest room!

Instead of going into details about our house-buying adventures, I figured I’d go with a different format, one of listing wisdoms we discovered the hard way.

1- If you’ve never bought a house before, find a good realtor.
I didn’t know anything about realtors before we accidentally stumbled across ours. He ended up being our guide, our teacher, our house-hunting manager, our advocate and even my therapist whenever the process became overwhelming. I have no idea what we would have done without him. Maybe you won’t be as lucky as us, so call around, interview a few people and find yourself a realtor as awesome as ours.

2- Get a mortgage broker. I didn’t consider one because I was afraid of the word “broker”. By the time I realized the error of my ways, I was knee deep in banks guilt-tripping me for my business. Between foreign investors and a struggling economy, the housing market is tough in Canada and apparently not-too-awful buyers (like me) are a hot commodity. I can’t say no to people, and the tug-of-war between the bank I’ve been with forever (and who was awesome to me while I was overseas!) and the friendly mortgage specialist bank in town ripped me apart. Then there was the difficulty to deliver on our deadlines, the communication breakdowns, the misunderstandings… ALL WHICH COULD HAVE BEEN AVOIDED WITH A MORTGAGE BROKER. I will, never, ever, ever make that mistake again. The mortgage-induced holes in my soul will forever haunt me.

3- House shopping advice sometimes seems silly in a small town. The one that keeps getting to me is “shop around for a home inspector and don’t use the one your realtor recommends“. Um… and how many home inspectors are there? Our town has one. I suppose if you don’t like him, you can ask the next closest one to make the 5-hour round trip to your house. Shopping around for a house inspector! How quaint! (Luckily, though, our local house inspector is great. He’s thorough, explains really well and makes nice, detailed reports for you. He also got the report to us without an hour of doing the inspection.)

3- A buyer’s market does not mean a cheap market. The average provincial house price in July (when we bought) was 403 666$ (SOURCE: Canadian Real Estate Association) and the median price for our town was 372 000$ (SOURCE: Canadian Real Estate Magazine – can’t make the link public since my town is small, but if someone really wants proof, I haz link). Keep in mind that like 1/4 of the listings for our town are in the various trailer parks, which charge rent comparable to that of an apartment and the roads are so bad you need 4 wheel drive. We wanted to stay under 300 000$ and avoid any condo-type properties that had maintenance fees over 150$/month. Which left us with about 5 houses to choose from. Those houses (and even some of the ones above our budget) all needed at least three of the following: new roof, new windows, new water tank, water damage repair, extensive drywall repair, new retaining walls, new floors, fixtures that don’t date back to the 80s. I remember how much work my parents had to put into their house before they put it on the market. Here, it seems like people neglect their house for 40 years and still expect to sell it for 10X what they paid for it! We ended up finding a house within our budget that had modern fixtures (was flipped about 6 years ago – cheaply, but it’s pretty if you don’t look close and the roof and windows are good), 900 sq feet, 60 years old, 2 bedrooms and an office, 2 bathrooms with nice tubs, gorgeous big open-concept kitchen (clearly the selling point!), small but acceptable yard and 10 min walking distance from my work (yay!). Still, by the time we’re finished the necessary repairs and upgrades to bring it to code, I estimate we’ll have spent about 10 000$ extra.

Our lovely kitchen. Sorry for the ultra-shit photo quality. I've been using my old phone since my modern one died and I took the pictures quickly to send to relatives who helped us afford our house. One day I'll get around to taking pictures with a proper camera.

Our lovely kitchen. Sorry for the ultra-shit photo quality. I’ve been using my old phone since my modern one died and I took the pictures quickly to send to relatives. One day I’ll get around to taking pictures with a proper camera.

4- There’s a lot to learn about home maintenance tools. A power drill? How complicated can shopping for one be? A lawn mower? I know how to mow lawns, I can buy a mower. Vacuum cleaners? Can’t you just buy one for 40$ at WalMart? …I feel like during our first few weeks in the house, we went to a hardware store every. single. day. Getting our power drill took at least 6 trips alone. My parents, who are accomplished DIYers, also picked that time to go sailing to the middle of nowhere, so we were on our own. As time consuming as it was, though, I learned a lot and I’m super excited about my cordless mower and embarrassingly fancy Miele vacuum cleaner.

5- Furniture ends up being very living-space specific. My old apartment was big and empty so I bought a lot of bulky furniture. Getting it to fit in our little house was quite the challenge. It felt like every room was about 1 foot too small. Our bedroom is 1 foot too small for my dresser (we crammed it in anyway, the door just doesn’t open all the way anymore), the guest room is 1 foot too small for a full sized bed (I think we will squeeze one in anyway…who needs closet access?), the living room is 1 foot too small for my couches and desk (again, crammed it all in, it’s, um, cozy) and the office is 1 foot too small to comfortably fit a nice chair between the futon and Ed’s desk (which is actually my kitchen table that we didn’t manage to cram anywhere else). I’m getting used to it now but moving in day was quite flustering.

6- You realize how times change and that your kids won’t have the same experience as you growing up. For barely more than the price of my down payment (not taking into consideration inflation, of course), my parents bought a long bungalow on a half acre lot with 3 bedrooms on the top floor and a basement that they eventually finished to create 3 more rooms, a den and a large playroom. Growing up, we had so much space to play and run around! There was even a forest behind the house to build forts in once we were old enough. My kids won’t have that. Yes, I know, for over a year I was around people who spend their lives in one-room houses with 3+ generations of their families. However, those kids have entire neighbourhoods or villages to run around in, here you can’t let kids outside without supervision until they’re too old to run around. Plus, people in one-room house cultures tend to watch a lot of television (at least the ones who have electricity). Really, a lot. The minimalist fantasy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

I’m noticing that my narrative is getting more and more negative. I think, though, that it’s less me being a downer and more me coming to peace with the fact that home-ownership for me won’t be what I observed with my parents 30 years ago. There are advantages to the small house – cheaper utilities, less maintenance and cleaning, less urge to buy stuff. Even once we have kids, perhaps having them play in the main room will be a good thing. It’ll be easier to supervise and clean up after them. Maybe living in close quarters will bring the siblings closer together (though that never worked on my brothers when they shared a room). We also have a super nice park not even 300 meters down the road to give us something to do as a family several nights a week. Plus, we’d like for our kids to attend bilingual school (English and Chinese – I figure it’s best they learn Chinese as early as possible so they don’t have to spend all their money on language schools in Taiwan like me) which means we’d have to move to the city in 5-6 years anyway.

The best thing about having our own house, though, is kitties! Ed’s cat Rock seemed lonely. I know you’re not supposed to project human emotions on cats, but he loved my parents’ cats (and by loved, I mean loved to torment) and shows interest cats outside as well as friends’ cats. So once we were settled enough, we adopted a kitten. He seems a little confused, I suppose it’s the first time he meets a cat who isn’t afraid of him, but they seem to get along ok. They take turns playing with toys and chase each other up and down the stairs in the evening. One time I even saw him let the little one give him a walk-by grooming lick.

Here they are, sharing a window.

Here they are, sharing the front windows.

Posted in Having a house | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

The Journey to Being an Adult

With youthful wandering around the world completed, it’s been time to grow up and start adulting.

So I found a job.

Then I got married.

We haven't received our official photos yet so I stole this one from someone's Facebook.

We haven’t received our official photos yet so I stole this one from someone’s Facebook.

Then I packed up and moved across the country (or back home, depending on how you want to put it). I switched car registrations, insurance, all that good stuff.

Now I’m looking to buy a house.

Honestly, the transition from overgrown-quarter-lifer to lives-like-a-grown-up happened so naturally that I didn’t even notice it until the other day, after a morning and afternoon of talking with my bank, sorting our car stuff, visiting houses and playing with my wedding ring, it occured to me that, man, I’m a long way from lugging my backpack to Australian surf camp. Before I know it, I’ll be doing something even more adulty, like researching day cares and stuff (no, don’t worry, I’m not pregnant!)

On Getting Married

It’s funny how Ed and I spent like 14 months putting ourselves in bizzare, stressful situations in exotic, far-away lands, yet planning a wedding was way more testing on our relationship. Maybe it’s just that we had lots of time to figure out how to backpack together but by the time we felt we understood how to wedding plan as a couple, it was over.

Neither of us are big party type people, so we originally just did it to please our families. In the end, though, I think it was worth it. It was special, after all, to have our families and some close friends with us to celebrate saying our vows and taking this step in our relationship. Plus everyone (except my parents and the people helping out) came from out of town (Ed’s brother came all the way from Taiwan!), so it was a solid three days of shuttling people to and from the airport and partying till all hours of the night. Going to bed at 4 am and waking up at 8, too excited to sleep any longer. Looking back, the days before and after are blurry but happy, and the wedding itself was a lovely evening.

After planning a wedding, I think I understand the meaning of tradition. Tradition is for when you don’t care enough about something to come up with a personal way to go about it, so you have something to fall back on. For example, you don’t care about the structure of the dance portion of your reception. So you look up traditions thinking “well, what will everyone expect?” I’ve never been one for traditions, but I’ll admit they helped us poor non-big-party-people a lot with the stuff we couldn’t make up our minds on!

Also, in case anyone is wondering, our outfits are authentic. Ed is wearing my family’s kilt (and socks). The rest of the outfit was rented from the kilt maker’s shop. My dress is a qi pao (pronounced chi pao – I have no idea of the tones), made by a professional dressmaker in Taiwan. It was the best wedding dress shopping experience ever. I showed up without warning at an artist’s tiny workshop in Taipei. The seamstress took my mesurements, asked a few questions about my preferences and took my money. Three weeks later I had a gorgeous custom-made dress for my wedding. (And if anyone was wondering whether we felt any glee at the thought of perhaps upsetting some disturbed internet slacktivists by appropriating each other’s culture, the answer is, yes, yes we did.)

On Moving and House Hunting

Once the wedding was over, well… once I recovered enough from my pwvs (post-wedding-viral-syndrome – where after being exposed to germs from all over the world while your body is way too exhausted to use its immune system, you get really, really, really, REALLY sick), we packed what belongings we had with us into our cars and drove for 8 consecutive days. I had planned to camp along the way, but I was still too sick from my pwvs for that to be an option. Even in warm, dry motel rooms, my constant, violent, barking cough seriously interfered with my sleep. The worst thing, though, about being sick during a cross-continent drive? Not being able to sing in the car. Now that’s torture.

Otherwise, the drive wasn’t too bad. We had to do it in seperate cars (which, given how badly I was coughing, was probably a blessing to Ed), but we had walkie-talkies to stay in touch.

Nova Scotia has a lovely but not scenic highway. New Brunswick had awful roads, AWFUL, but the drivers were pretty nice. Southern Québec was perfect. From Montréal northwards, the scenery was great but the other drivers were assholes. Like, they go out of their way to be assholes. Northern Ontario was boring as heck, empty one lane highways through the woods with speed limits of 90 km/h. That’s really freaking slow.

Around Thunder Bay, the scenery gets better. We had to spend an extra morning in Thunder Bay getting Ed’s windshield replaced. Luckily, the company we found was awesome. Like, highlight of our trip awesome. Epic customer service. Thunder Bay as a whole was a pleasant surprise. I’d always been prejudiced against that part of Canada, but everyone was so outgoing and kind, and the areas surrounding the city are so beautiful that I’ve definitely realized the error in my ways.

Then once you hit Manitoba, the highway opens up to two lanes per direction, the speed limit rises to 100 and it’s smooth sailing. Regina has shitty traffic and poor highway layout, Saskatoon had sketchy speed limit changes (we were super careful but we’re still fearing photo-radar tickets showing up in our mailboxes) and Edmonton’s roads are all ripped up for construction, but outside the cities the drive is boring but simple. Also the stretch of highway between Regina and Saskatoon is unexpectedly pittoresque.

Since arriving in town, we’ve been living at a hotel. Everyone takes pity on us, although it’s actually pretty nice. We get big, seperate beds so that I don’t bother Ed while coughing up my lungs at night, someone cleans our room every day, breakfast is served in the morning, I get unlimited baths and the shower is fantastic. However, the costs aren’t exactly conducive to saving for a house…

The house shopping, to my greatest surprise, has proven to be extraordinarly fun. It was intimidating at first because we were worried about saying the wrong things, offending someone or getting ripped off, but as we figured out how the game worked, I discovered I loved playing it. It’s so exciting to visit homes and discover what you like and don’t like about potential living arrangements. We also visited a few owners selling independantly, which was a great learning experience, and, as I found out, a lovely way to meet interesting people (sadly, though, these people are moving so we’ll probably never see them again). After visiting a few of different price ranges and, um, levels of habitability… we fell in love with a house. So now, it’s the pre-approval waiting game with the bank to find when we’ll be able to make an offer.

On Looking to the Future

Soon the next step to live as an adult is starting work. I’m nervous, but looking forward to it. After two years without commiting to a regular schedule, I’m ready to get back in there and try again. I’ve taken extra courses and read up on potential projects so I’m quite eager to jump in. I’m also really looking forward to getting involved in the community. I’ve already resumed hanging out with dogs and cats at the SPCA (and dragged Ed along with me!) and I’d like to volunteer at the local Learning Center with ESL students. Maybe actually get some use out of that TESOL!

Posted in Not drunken ramblings | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Returning from an Epic Journey

It is done. On March 19th, 2016 at about 10pm local time, after almost 20 months of happily wandering the world, I crossed the border into Canada. The following evening, I reached my parents house. I’ll be calling it home until I go back to work.

VIew from the bedroom. Mother Nature had to pick the day of writing a blog post to be ultra shitty. When the sun is shining, the view is way nicer.

VIew from the bedroom. Mother Nature had to pick blog post writing day to be ultra shitty. When the sun is shining, the view is much nicer.

Since last time, we backpacked through Cambodia, which was great. The country is really just one pleasant surprise after another. We saw so much awesomeness and potential there. Like in every developping country we visited, I was continuously frustrated at how all these good people are stuck with such shit, corrupt governments. (If there’s anything I picked up on the trip, it’s a deep, deep hatred for corruption and poor ressource management. I know there are a lot of factors at play in why some countries fall behind in development, but I feel like the obvious common denominator is that there’s a handful of greedy, incompetant assholes who have all the power. Reduce corruption at the top, develop solid way of distributing ressources and quality of life will improve dramatically.)

After Cambodia, we spent 10 days in Tokyo. Amusingly, our digestive tracts HATE Japan. We travelled carelessly through so many unsanitary developping countries with only rare discomfort, yet ultrahygenic, superclean Japan had us clutching our bellies and howling in pain for the entirety of both of our visits there. I was less affected so I loved Japan anyway, but Ed made me promise to never let him go back.

Shibuya Crossing! The light was red, which is why there aren't that many people. But other than commercial hotspots like this one, I found Tokyo to be actually quite calm. (Granted, it WAS the dead of winter!) Our neighbourhood in Sumida even had a small town feel. If you arrived there blindfolded, you'd never guess you were in the most populated metropolitan area in the world.

Shibuya Crossing! The light was red, which is why there aren’t that many people. But other than commercial hotspots like this one, I found Tokyo to be actually quite calm. (Granted, it WAS the dead of winter!) Our neighbourhood in Sumida even had a small town feel. If you arrived there blindfolded, you’d never guess you were in the most populated metropolitan area in the world.

On our flight back to the US, we were able to stretch our layover in Hong Kong out a few days. To me, Hong Kong looked like Singapore, if Singapore let itself go for, like, a decade. It seemed like the city was build up in the 20ish years following WWII, and then never touched again. I was still fascinated and would have happily stayed for a week. We were rushed, trying to explore the city, learn about its history and eat its famous food in just two days. It’s expensive, though. Even the cheapest, shittiest rooms were above 40$CAN (and Hong Kong shitty is shitty. Probably safe from crime and pretty clean, but in scary, decrepit buildings, with rooms so small you can’t even get the door open.) Our interesting discovery in Hong Kong is that locals like foreign food so much that it’s actually hard to find traditional Hong Kong restaurants, and even harder to find ones you can afford. After it was too late, an avid traveller friend of mine explained that the good places are like on the 10th floor of an unmarked building, so if you want to taste Hong Kong, you have to ask the locals.

The view from Victoria Peak is really nice, although not exactly representative of the bulk of the city! Stingy traveller tip: avoid the silly overpriced tram and viewpoint, take the super cheap city bus and get your photos from the shopping mall's free observatory.

The view from Victoria Peak is really nice, although not exactly representative of the bulk of the city! Stingy traveller tip: avoid the silly overpriced tram and viewpoint, take the super cheap city bus and get your photos from the shopping mall’s free observatory.

After walking around all evening trying to find a Hong Kong restaurant, we settled on McDonald's Hong Kong exclusive meal, the Crunch McPepper. It was even Kung Fu Panda themed! Unfortunately, unlike most region-specific McDonald's foods, this one wasn't quite as good as it looked.

After walking around all evening trying to find a Hong Kong restaurant, we settled on McDonald’s Hong Kong exclusive meal, the Crunchy McPepper. It was even Kung Fu Panda themed! Unfortunately, unlike most region-specific McDonald’s foods, this one wasn’t quite as good as it looked.

And on March 1, we arrived in the US. The flight was uneventful. Cathay Pacific was a comfortable airline with excellent in-flight entertainment. Between watching the full 10th season of Friends and drifting in and out of sleep, I didn’t even notice that I was crammed into a plane for 15 hours.

In my mind, my time in the US was going to be boring and relaxing (to me those words are often synonyms), but it really wasn’t. We had Ed’s immigration and move to worry about, and wedding planning, and my job hunting. I did get a lot sleep in the beginning, but the days were full of researching stuff, making invitations, visiting friends, packing up belongings, shopping for things we couldn’t get in Canada, and fulfulling obligations to Ed’s family. It was pretty fun, I really can’t complain! But it certainly wasn’t boring! The closest I’ve come, even now, to picking up gaming again is catching up on silly Farmville-style phone games.

In my down time, I've been hanging out with the cat. He got kinda fat while we were gone (just like us!), but otherwise, he seems alright. Even the 3 day drive from Ed's parents' house to mines followed by an introduction to two new cats didn't ruffle his feathers too much.

In free time, I’ve been hanging out with the cat. He got kinda fat while we were gone (just like us!), but otherwise, he seems alright. Even the 3 day drive from Ed’s parents’ house to mines followed by an introduction to two new cats didn’t ruffle his feathers too much.

These days I’m still working on the job hunting. There isn’t a huge rush on it yet since I don’t want to start until after the wedding (it would be bad form to ask for a week off to get married within the first two months of a new job), but I would like to know where I’m going so I can start planning the move. The main ideas right now are up North (my first choice – it’s a unique adventure, but the jobs are rare and the move will be annoying), begging for my old job back (great location, great team, great money, lots of improvements since I left, but no new experiences) and hospital job in rural Newfoundland (not the Arctic, but still an experience I’d enjoy, easy to drive to from where I am now and I really want hospital experience. The pay cut is steep, however, more than half of my previous income. It would be fine if I was 15+ years into my career, but after travelling for two years, I feel like I have to save back up before I can stop thinking about money.)

And then there’s wedding planning. It was really frustrating while we were on the road. I didn’t want to think about decorations, caterers, cakes or even colours! But things are slowly coming together. It’s an ultrasmall (pretty much immediate family only, so dear friends, please don’t be hurt), nontraditional ceremony and reception, which helps with the last minute stuff (getting food and accomodation for 30 is infinetely less complicated than for 300!), but I feel until we have everything squared away, I won’t rest easy. All of our guests (besides my parents and the hired help) are from far away, so I want to make sure they have a good time. And, as adverse to traditions as I am, I have to admit that I am excited to party with our families.

Posted in Globe Trotting | Tagged , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Back to Backpacking

In the last 10 days, we’ve said our goodbyes to our friends in Taiwan, filled up our backpacks again and have been making our way through Cambodia.

We decided to come to Cambodia instead of flying straight home because, well, I have to admit it, I had a ton of malaria pills to use up. I’d originally planed to include Cambodia, Myanmar, Indonesia and Timor-Leste (all malaria endemic countries) in the epic journey, but ended up with a much needed extended stay in Taiwan instead. Given that Malarone isn’t cheap, I felt heartless letting it go to waste. So I insisted we add another country to our journey. Out of our options, Cambodia was the most appealing, and so here we are.

I knew a little about the country before researching it. Incredible ruins, recent genocide, little development, beaches. Then I read some. Good forests, good rivers, good islands, more ruins. Fantastic! I love nature! (Ed, on the other hand, is picky about his nature, but perhaps added exposure will get him more used to it?) I booked our plane tickets and started researching a place to say in our first stop, Phnom Penh.

I didn't get any pictures of Phnom Penh proper, so here's the entrance to the National Museum.

I didn’t get any pictures of Phnom Penh proper, so here’s the entrance to the National Museum.

Discovering the Rumours

Reading accommodation reviews, however, had somewhat over a sobering effect. It seems like every guesthouse or hotel had at least one review along the lines of: “our bags were snatched/we were robbed and this is how they handled it….

Um, what?

One thing we noticed early on about South East Asia is that, despite widespread poverty, theft is pretty rare. We never heard any direct stories of thefts, only the occasional “friend of a friend of a friend with bad luck in Kuala Lumpur/Manilla/Bangkok”. In fact, we were stunned at our first bus station in Thailand to see locals plug their phones into a wall of the waiting area and leave it as they went to the bathroom. On occasion we saw ladies leave their purses on benches and walk away too. Over the next few months, we saw plenty of tourists leave their cameras on tables, wave big stacks of bills or walk around with their wallet/phone/passport hanging out of their back pocket. While we would never do or recommend doing such things, it seems that taking what doesn’t belong to you isn’t really part of the general mentality.

It was crushing to read that Cambodia sounded far riskier than anywhere else we’d been. The more I researched it, the scarier it seemed. Bag snatching reaches epidemic levels, everything’s a scam, local rich kids pick fights with everyone, drinks are drugged, the expat community is comprised solely of drunk, violent pedophiles, etc. We were starting to regret our decision!

The Reality

We landed, terrified, in Phnom Penh and rushed into the first taxi we saw, not remembering the fixed price. We were too unsettled to worry about overcharging! I did looked it up after. Our driver actually didn’t overcharge us, and he did a great job.

Our guesthouse was in the central part of the city, but on a small side road. It was quiet and the shady common area had tropical design, comfortable seating and gorgeous plants. The building was secure and guests lounged about happily. Not a bad start.

The first few times we explored the city, we jumped at everything, constantly looking around for bag-snatchers on motorbikes. What we saw, however, were plenty of tourists walking with their phones out, their massive cameras and their flimsy, easy-to-grab purses. Never one to wish misfortunes on others, I was still reassured by the thought that if opportunists head our way, they’d be distracted by these giant targets.

And in the end, really, our fears proved to be greatly exaggerated. The city had beautiful architecture (I think Manilla has really made me appreciate other South East Asian cities), service was pretty good and people felt genuinely friendly.

Sunset dinner cruise on the Preak Piphot River

Sunset dinner cruise on the Preak Piphot River

10 days in, it feels like we’ve been hopping from relaxing place to relaxing place. I happily chilled for a few afternoons in the common area at our Phnom Penh guesthouse working on my TESOL papers, while Ed was recovering from a meal his stomach didn’t agree with. Even though we lazed around a lot, we still managed to see everything we wanted in the city. Then, without much effort, we found ourselves remote village of Chi Phat, enjoying the river, admiring farm animals, sleeping the afternoon heat away in hammocks and sipping delicious yet cheap cocktails. And now we’re in Sihanoukville, in our ultra comfortable hotel room, enjoying the fantastic service and tasty food. Shortly, we’ll be heading to our bungalow on a deserted Koh Rong beach.

In past countries, backpacking felt like an endless circle of get on the bus-get off the bus-find our guesthouse-go to the park-go to the museum-get back on the bus. Cambodia, on the other hand, has been more like smooth drifting from place to place.

I suppose a difference is that the country is relatively small and has relatively few cities (and, for the museum junkie that I am, relatively few museums!). By now, we’ve also had a lot of experiences (we’ve been to spas, we’ve visited rustic villages, we did the resort thing, we’ve learned about textiles, UXOs, tea, we’ve ridden in tuktuks, songthaews and overcrowded vans, we’ve seen temples, mosques and churches), so my urge to “SEE ALL THE THINGS” doesn’t overwhelm me like it used it.

While I am ready to get back to real life, I feel like this calm, relaxing backpacking journey is the perfect last hurrah before the hectic grind awaiting back home.

Posted in backpacking, Globe Trotting | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

It’s Christmastime and I’m not leaving the house any more than I have to

I’ve always loved Christmas.

Two childhood memories stand out in my mind.

The first is about the colourful lights strung outside my window as a child. They were just bright enough for me to sneak in a couple extra chapters of my book before sleep. Being a child who sucks at sleeping also means having parents who enforce “sleep hygiene” (aka strict, strict bedtimes) with the zealousness of a determined drill sergeant, so the few weeks around Christmas were special to me as I huddled by my window squinting at words in the blue, yellow, green and red light.

The second is on Christmas day. In our family living room, the mountains of new possessions, paper, cloth (as an ecologically-minded family, we used home-made reusable cloth bags to wrap our presents to each other) and boxes around the Christmas tree were matched by the mountains of cookies, chocolates and candies on the shelves and coffee tables. After stuffing myself with treats from my stocking, I asked my mom if I could have a fancy German chocolate (my Omi in Germany was still alive at the time and spoiled us every year) from the treats serving tree. My parents were as strict with food as they were with bed times, so my delight was immeasurable when my mom gave me a warm hearted “yes”. From then on, whenever my primary school teachers asked us to draw our favorite thing about Christmas, you can be certain that I drew mountains of sweets.

There are some other good ones – waking up Christmas morning to a beautifully lit and garnished tree, curling up against the wall in my flannel nightgown opening presents, the year where I spend the few days after Christmas binging on the Harry Potter books we’d received (I think they were up to book 4 that year), the lovely dinners with my parents and brothers, digging my way through the snow to the swing set in the backyard to enjoy clear Christmas weather and listen to Christmas songs on my tape player…

My first Christmas away from home, I was kind of a mess. I spent Christmas Eve on Skype with a WoW guildie who was hiding from his overbearing family and in the morning, a really kind couple from my town (who’ve experienced a tragedy and thus prefer to be with others over Christmas) took me out to brunch. It wasn’t the magic of my childhood, but it was still a lovely way to spend the day. Perhaps one day, I’ll be able to pass the favour forward to someone else who’s spending her first Christmas away from home.

The second, my middle brother visited so that was nice. No one gets traditions like family. The year after that, I brought Ed home. My parents had sold the house I grew up in, though, and had built a new one so it just wasn’t the same. Then I was in Australia. I wasn’t sad, but it was a little weird to spend Christmas morning lounging by the pool and making sure the kids don’t drown. For Australians, Christmas is about summer vacation, grilling food and swimming so they must think it weird that to me, Christmas is a lights and winter solstice festival.

This year I’m in Taiwan. It’s winter here, but not the same kind of winter. Temperature kind of hangs around 15C, but the other day it was almost 30 out. It’s my second not-white Christmas. (Australia was my first.) Christmas is celebrated a little. Lots of businesses have lights and trees and there’s an entire street by Main Station that specializes in Christmas stuff during December. On Christmas Eve and Christmas day, you see people and families bugged down with bags, hurrying from shop to shop or from gathering to gathering. (Some guy wrote about how he thinks that English schools in Taiwan should have Christmas off. I read it, then laughed a little when I remembered that even in Canada, I didn’t get Christmas- or any other holiday- off work. My dad also worked almost every Christmas in Canada. It’s not like it’s a big deal to work over Christmas. I actually kinda liked it because the pace is slower, customers and coworkers are nicer and you have a reason to stirr up your routine.)

Christmas picture at the mall with some people from my Chinese school (me on the far left). Taipei has tons of (changing) displays in random locations for people to take their pictures at.

Christmas picture at the mall with some people from my Chinese school (me on the far left). Taipei has tons of (changing) displays in random locations for people to take their pictures at.

The weeks following up to Christmas were just as busy here as back home. I scrambled to write Christmas cards (I NEVER know what to say!), get presents bought and shipped (if applicable) and decorate. There’s been stuff going on (Christmas and not) almost every night and even though I don’t have a lot of commitments (8 hours of Chinese school a week should be manageable!), I treasure every moment I can spend on the couch with my phone or a book, wrapped up in a blanket.

I managed to find an Advent Calendar! (About 3USD at Ikea. Also saw it for about 5USD at a specialty supermarket.)





I didn’t make it back to the Holiday street to buy a cheap tree, but I did get some lights. So now our apartment looks like a cross between a Christmassy place and a college dorm common area.

All the pretty colours

All the pretty colours

On Christmas day itself, I filled stockings for Ed and his brother (who is also our roommate) using a pair of Ed’s socks. When they found out what I had planned, they snuck a pair of my socks to fill with treats. Only their family doesn’t have that tradition, so they weren’t sure what kind of gift goes into a stocking. They tried really hard, I loved it. We did a little gift exchange and opened the presents my parents sent us. I spent the rest of the day doing my Building a Better Response course (I’ve always been really interested in the topics of disaster relief and community development and this trip has only strengthened that. If I wasn’t so adamant about starting a family, I’d begin planning a career in the field.) That night, while I would have loved to just cozy up at home, I got together with a good number of expats for a potluck/fun present stealing game. The expat community here is both huge and friendly. They really stick together. I think that if you can’t be with your family over the holidays and you’re the kind of person who gets lonely, it’s much more cheerful to spend Christmas here in Taipei with the expats than alone with an empty tree back home.

And today was pretty glorious. I bought some plane tickets and finished my BBR course. Ed’s brother has some kind of all day/overnight event so we had the place to ourselves. I only left the house to buy a meal from 7-11, then came right back home. It’s not quite as satisfying as being housebound in winter, but I’ll take it.

Oh, and I’ve been drinking this:

Swedish festive drink! About 1USD at Ikea. (Non-alcoholic, tastes kinda like watered down root beer with a hint of fruit)

Swedish festive drink! About 1USD at Ikea. (Non-alcoholic, tastes kinda like watered down root beer with a hint of fruit)

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and all the best in the New Year to all of you out there! I shamefully admit that I forgot people might actually read this, which is why it didn’t even occur to me to add well wishes until afterward. I genuinely wish everyone a safe and fun holidays (along with a safe and fun all year round!) with friends and/or family and tons of cheer.

Posted in Globe Trotting | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Comforts I Miss From Home

It’s fitting, I suppose, that right after writing a long spiel about colds and flus and about how important it is to get a flu shot, I should get sick with a nasty, mystery respiratory illness. I made it to class every morning last week, but I head straight to bed when I got home. Was a shame, really. I was just starting to get blogging momentum going again when I was suddenly too wrecked to focus.

I’m finally feeling better. The slimy nose and the baggy eyes take a little longer to clear up but I can’t complain too much. I’m maintaining my track record of not having to see doctors abroad. (Dentists don’t count.)

So, for the post, I long pondered what kind of topic would let me whine about being sick for an introduction. Then I thought, well, often when you’re abroad and you’re sick, you just want your home and your mommy (having moved beyond driving distance to home a decade ago, I’ve sort of gotten over that personally, but I remember how I felt the first few years), I figured I’d do a post on the biggest comforts I’ve missed since I started travelling.

Of course, each of these is definitely a first world problem and I realize I’m pretty spoiled, even by first world standards. I also wouldn’t trade the past year and a half for anything on this list. This post is meant to be taken lightly, and perhaps for me to remind of myself of everything I take for granted when I am home.

1-Air popped popcorn from my home air popping machine

That’s right, it’s not just any popcorn! I can get movie or microwave popcorn pretty much anywhere, and while they are better than nothing, they’re pretty weak substitutes for the delicious, fluffy, melted margarine and salt covered goodness that I used to make…oh…3 times a week? Seriously. My last machine broke shortly before I left on my trip and I told myself I’d just go without from then on. Yeah. Less than a week later, Canadian Tire found me frantically pacing their aisles until I was clutching a shiny new popper.

I’ve faced a few challenges since being on the road these past 16 months, but nothing like not having freshly air popped popcorn whenever I want.

2- Not living like a student

I was a full time student until the age of 26, almost 27. I was an expert on living on student allowances that barely covered my rent. Then I got to experience the exhilaration of having an income. Weekend trip to Seattle? To New York? To LA? Horseback riding lessons? Spending 4 nights in a row in a fancy hotel? Ski trips to Banff? Craft beers several nights a week? It was all in my reach!

I was pretty good about saving (hence how I’ve managed to support two people while travelling and barely working for 16 months and counting), but I was obviously far from depriving myself.

Then, after 3 years of living like a SINK (not as good as a DINK because single instead of double, but the next best thing), I’m back to counting my pennies, to wearing my 3 shirts until they fall apart (then crying because then I only have 2 shirts) and to walking until my feet bleed because I’m too cheap to take a bus. Every “luxury” purchase, be it book, a song on iTunes, a toiletry that wasn’t snatched from a budget hotel or (this actually happened early on) a 3$ broom from Tesco, is discussed at length between Ed and I, with the goal of stretching my Epic-Journey-Travel-Account out as long as possible.

Sometimes I can’t take it anymore and I slip… Man, buying those Puzzle and Dragons stones for the Final Fantasy Collab was satisfying!

3-A good night’s sleep

I’ve always been a terrible sleeper but the first month and half in Australia was brilliant. I slept like a rock. Then my bad sleep starting creeping up on me again. Finally, when I got to Thailand and met up with Ed, I felt like I stopped sleeping altogether. Curled up with a book in the corner, I’d read, waiting for the sun to come up. Some nights were better than others, but I never got much sleep.

If I were back home, I’d have access to melatonin (maybe it’s just placebo, but it works great for me about 9 times out of 10), which I can’t seem to find abroad. If that failed, I could go to a doctor, have my sleep checked out, maybe get some meds if absolutely necessary.

While travelling, though, you just suck it up and accept that the nights will be long and the days will be blurry as you fumble around like a zombie.

4- My cooking

I’m often asked by the people I meet if I miss Western food. I don’t. I’m not a big fan of Western food and I love East/South-East Asian food. What I do miss, however, is my cooking. Now that we’re living in Taiwan, we do have a kitchen and Ed cooks a few times a week. But since we’re missing an oven (I’m SO lost without an oven!), the ingredients that I use are too expensive compared to Asian ingredients and no one but me really likes my cooking style anyway, I haven’t eaten my own cooking since Australia a year ago. And I miss it.

Along the same vein, I also miss having my own kitchen, stocked with the stuff I like and a tad more counter space than the no counter space at all we have in Taiwan.

5- My living room

The image of my past life that follows me around the most is one of me, wrapped in a blanket, curled up on my round couch (not exactly mine, but close enough), having a beer, eating popcorn (see #1) and watching TV shows, playing on my XBox or reading while snow blows against my balcony window. Around this time of year, the image also contains my Christmas decorations, lights and tree. I love Christmas lights.

And if I’m not in my chair, I’m at the computer desk that I set up in the corner of the room, chatting with Ed, playing World of Warcraft or League of Legends or Mass Effect.

My job back then was stressful, but coming home to my living room was nothing but bliss.

6- Edmonton

When I first moved out West, I got a lot of “Oh, your moving near Deadmonton?” and some “Deadmonton? LOL! Really? Why?” from people. And early on, I sort of believed it.

It grew on me though, and by the time I was in Australia, Deadmonton Edmonton was the benchmark by which I judged all other cities.

Even though I lived 3 hours away, my trips to Edmonton were always cram-packed with visits to friends, to my favorite food places, to my favorite beauty places and to the local theaters to see my favorite local actors. You wouldn’t expect it from a freezing city in the middle of nowhere and you do have to dig below the surface (and ignore the asshole drivers – I swear Edmontonians are the nicest people ever, until they get in their cars), but there’s a lot going on. The people are diverse, fun and active. The arts scene, especially the theater, is second to none. There’s great food (though you have to drive around to get to it), great shops, great parks…

Not sure if I could get into being a city pharmacist after I go home, but Edmonton would still be on my top 5 places to go home to.

7- The Rocky Mountains

When I first saw the Rocky Mountains pop out of nowhere at me (it’s not just a cliché, they actually do that), I thought “this is home“. If that’s not cliché enough for you, I’ll assure you that I also considered changing my email and all my internet handles to something along the lines of RockyMntsGurl99. Like, that’s how hard I fell for my (that’s right, MY) mountains.

All the mountains we’ve been through, in Laos, in the Philippines, in Thailand, in Malaysia, they’ve been pretty. They have nice, cool weather, all kinds of rare ecosystems, inhabitants of many cultures and good locally grown vegetables. BUT THEY DON’T EVEN COME CLOSE TO THE ROCKIES OKAY? ROCKIES #1 DAMMIT.

I miss the hiking and the skiing. And the bragging. Yes, yes, these more exotic mountains, sort of get me more bragging rights, but showing them off just isn’t as satisfying as showing off my mountains.

* * *

And there you have it. The biggest things I could think of when pondering what I miss from home. In the future, I should make a post about the things I don’t miss from home. (I feel like not having to go to work every day would be a big #1, but the list should be much longer than that.)

Posted in Globe Trotting | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Cold, The Flu, The Stomach Flu: Keeping them Straight

I see A LOT of confusion about this. Just this morning, I had to seriously restrain myself when I read the following on Reddit: “you couldn’t have known it was gastroenteritis and not the stomach flu”. And the other day, during a class observation I was doing for my TESOL, the teacher was doing a presentation on colds and flus and was insisting on nausea and diarrhea as the main symptoms of the flu (and disregarded suggestions of “muscle aches and pains” and “fatigue”).

So for the sake of clearing up misinformation, here’s the run down on the three VERY DIFFERENT yet so often confused ailments. I”ll add some links too, in case you want to read more or, as a good critical reader, you want to make sure I’m not writing out of my ass.

The Common Cold

You know you have it when: You had a sore throat for a day or more, which slowly turned into a running nose, which eventually turned into the Niagara falls gushing from your nostrils. You might have a mild cough, a low grade fever and some light headaches, but you’ll feel better in a week, maybe two.

You caught it because: You were exposed to a cold virus. Perhaps you were a bit more tired than usual, perhaps not, but you definitely met a virus.

You can treat it by: Letting your body do its thing. There’s nothing you can do to make it go away. Lots of rest and water will help you fight it faster and feel less shitty. If the symptoms are getting in the way of your life, you can take some cough and cold meds from your pharmacy but make sure you read the instructions and follow them carefully! A lot of medical incidents are caused by misused cold meds. Have a chat with your pharmacist if you need help.

You should see a doctor if: You’re still having heavy symptoms after 10 days. Or your symptoms are way more intense than expected for a cold (think fever, thick gooey mucus, chest pain, severe fatigue, severe sore throat that doesn’t go away after a few days). Also, if you didn’t have a sore throat, your runny nose is persistent but the intensity changes with the time of day, maybe you don’t have a cold, maybe you have allergies.

Clearing up myths:

You won’t get a cold for sleeping with wet hair or going outside without a hat. (Though going outside without a hat in intense sun or cold might cause you other problems.) We get more colds at times of the year where we’re indoors and in close contact a lot, which is fall to spring for temperate climates and rainy season for tropical climates.

There’s no miracle cure for the common cold, or you’d know about it. Antibiotics can’t help you since you’re being attacked by a virus. The highly-publicized herbal products might have a slight effect if you take them every day for months and month before you get sick (like, your symptoms might last a few hours less) but up to you whether you think one less cold over X years or colds that last 2 hours less are worth the 100s of $$$ and risks of adverse reactions. Better time management, lots of water and good sleep is cheaper, safer, more effective and you’ll feel better all around.

Where can I read more about the Common Cold?
Mayo Clinic – The Common Cold
Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety – Common Cold
CDC – Common Colds: Protect Yourself and Others

The Flu

You know you have it when: You’re inhaling fire, you feel like you were just put through the blender and you’re completely exhausted even though you’ve done little but sleep the past few days. You might also feel hot or cold (or both at the same!) if you have a nasty fever.

You caught it because: You were exposed to the influenza (“flu”) virus. You probably didn’t get your flu shot, or you were exposed to different a strain than the ones you were vaccinated against.

You can treat it by: Getting a lot of rest. If you see a doctor and are diagnosed early enough and/or are considered “high risk” (very young, very old, has a breathing condition, has a suppressed immune system, or other) you might be given antivirals.

You should see a doctor if: You are “high risk” (see above), you’re having a lot of trouble breathing, your chest really hurts, you’re confused or suddenly dizzy, you’re throwing up a lot for a long time or you were starting to get better when your symptoms returned with a vengeance. If you’re concerned about a child, refer to this list by the CDC.

Clearing up myths:

GI symptoms (in scientific terms, puking and liquid poop) are not typical of the flu. They occur in certain strains or populations, but the flu is primarily a respiratory (breathing) infection.

Antibiotics won’t do anything for the flu, because they don’t work on viruses. You might get antivirals from your doctor, they’re not the same thing.

The flu is serious. In 1918, the Spanish flu killed about 50 million (MILLION) people worldwide and 675 000 in the US. In 1956-1957, another flu killed 69 800 people in the US. The CDC estimates that between 1967 and 2007, between 3000 and 49 000 people in the US die from the flu each year (the numbers vary a lot depending on how aggressive the strain is that year) and an average of 200 000 people are hospitalized, with the number going up each year. The very old, the very young and the already sick tend to be the most affected, but there have been years where there were the strains were particularly fatal to young, healthy adults. While you don’t have to running to the doctor if you catch it (in fact, we’d rather you don’t spread your germs around a clinic if you don’t have to), do take the disease seriously. If you take a turn for the worse, seek medical attention. And get your flu shot before you get sick.

Where can I read more about Influenza?
Mayo Clinic – Influenza (flu)
Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety – Flu versus a pandemic flu (Also has a good comparison chart for Flu VS Stomach Flu VS Colds)
CDC – Flu Symptoms & Severity
CDC – The Flu: What To Do If You Get Sick
CDC – Key Facts about Influenza (Flu) & Flu Vaccine
CDC – People at High Risk of Developing Flu–Related Complications
flu.gov – Pandemic Flu History
CDC- Disease Burden of Influenza
CDC – Seasonal Influenza-Associated Hospitalizations in the United States
CDC – Estimating Seasonal Influenza-Associated Deaths in the United States: CDC Study Confirms Variability of Flu

The “Stomach Flu”

I hate the nickname “stomach flu”. It’s terribly misleading.

The “stomach flu” is the colloquial term for gastroenteritis, an inflammation of the stomach (“gastritis”) and the intestines (“enteritis”). Stomach flu, gastroenteritis… THEY ARE THE SAME THING (though, after research, it seems that stomach flu generally refers to the viral form of gastroenteritis, only it’s kinda hard to identify the offending germ without lab work). When I was a kid in Quebec, we called these unpleasant afflictions “gastros”, which, in my opinion, is a more accurate nickname.


Now back to our regular format.

You know you have it when: You feel kinda queesy, think it might be something you ate, then the next thing you know, you’ve got liquid rushing out of one or both ends.

You caught it because: You were exposed to a virus (usually a norovirus or a rotavirus), a bacteria or a parasite. You could have caught it from something you ate or from another person. Gastroenteritis can have non-infectious causes as well, but they’re less interesting common.

You can treat it by: Drinking lots of fluids to prevent dehydration. Mild cases resolve on their own as long as you keep replacing the water you’re expelling. In a more serious case, you might want to upgrade to electrolyte formulations (Pedialyte, for example) in addition to water, especially if you go long enough without eating. In persistent cases, an antiviral, an antibiotic or anti-parasite medication, depending on the offending germ, might be needed. Listen to your body, get as much rest as it requests and eat what it will tolerate (mainly bland stuff like crackers, bread and bananas. Save the coffee, the steak and the spicy exotic stuff for a few days after your recovery.)

You should see a doctor if: You’re really dehydrated. The warning signs are usually lightheadedness and dark urine. You should also see a doctor if the throwing up is particularly severe or doesn’t stop on its own after 2 days. Same goes for the diarrhea, if it’s bloody or continuous or sticks around for too long (give it maybe 5-7 days), you’ll want medical help. Severe stomach pain or a high fever (Mayo Clinic suggests 101F/38.3C) or a change in mental state (aka confusion or saying weird things or fainting) also warrant a doctor’s visit. If you’re concerned about a child, please read here.

Clearing up myths:

The main point is, as you probably know by now, the “stomach flu” has nothing to do with the flu.

Another myth is that your gastro is caused by the last thing you ate, or the last restaurant you went to. In reality, it can take anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of weeks for the little critters in your food to knock you on your back. So, unless a lot of people who haven’t had other contact with each other get sick from eating at the same place around the same time, it’s almost impossible to know where you picked up your germs.

Where can I read more about Gastroentritis?
Mayo Clinic – Gastroenteritis: First aid (Best page I’ve found.)
Mayo Clinic – Viral gastroenteritis (stomach flu)
NHS Choices – Gastroenteritis in adults (This looks like the UK Government Health Website. I’m not too familiar with it, but from a quick overview it seems legitimate.)
CDC – Foodborne Germs and Illnesses
CDC – Diagnosis and Management of Foodborne Illnesses (This one is intended for physicians and is very technical, but if, like me, you’re a microbiology enthusiast, there are lovely tables describing the different causes of foodbourne illnesses, their incubation period, their typical clinical presentation and more.)

Hopefully that clears up some of the confusion around these three super common illnesses and will lead you to pass on the information to others. If you have questions, know of other myths that need clarifying or have found wrong information here, feel free to let me know.

Also, be a responsible citizen and get your flu shot.

Posted in Pharmacy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment