How to Travel With Someone You Love

Good times on a Bangkok bus...
Good times on a Bangkok bus…

Let me start this post off by saying this:  Traveling for a year with my wife, Jammie, has been the most exciting, enjoyable and fulfilling thing I have done in my life so far.  Despite anything I might say below in terms of cautionary advice, my core message is this:  Travel is one of the best things you can do with people you love.  It brings growth like no other experience.   I wholeheartedly recommend it.

That said, travel can make or break a relationship. We’ll be the first to admit that there were sensational highs and angry lows on the trail. We are a lot wiser relationally than we were a year ago.  Here’s what we learned:

Trust your partner’s travel strengths – Jammie and I each have some key things we are good at when it comes to travel.  She is great at budgeting.  I trust her and she keeps us from overspending.  It’s a little frustrating to be told that we can’t afford something like my pre-trip habit of doing most of my blogging from coffee shops (now I do most of it for free from home!).  But ultimately, Jammie’s skill in this area and my decision to trust her has kept us out of trouble.

Pre-trip prep is stressful – There’s no way around it: pre-trip planning is a stressful process.  There are so many details, you are sure you’ve forgotten something and there is never enough time.  Shut up and get stuff done.  Don’t let the fatigue and pressure make you crack.  Jammie and I have done this right and we’ve done it wrong.  When we have let the pressure make us snap and get mad at each other, a lot of the magic of travel is lost.  So we’ve learned to anticipate the stress and deal with it better.

Share dreams on road trips – Long journeys are great for planning.  As mentioned in prior posts like this one, Jammie and I have a road trip to Reno that we take every year in order to make plans for our lives.  We made sure we took it this year too – right before Christmas.  We talked about 2014 and beyond and actually wrote down our plans  so that we could hold ourselves accountable.  I am not sure what it is about traveling that lends itself so well to planning but I suspect that, like a corporate retreat, travel takes you out of the environment of the daily grind and sparks your creativity on a different level.

Yelling is for kids – Travel is a lot of fun but it is also super stressful at times.  When something goes wrong with your plans (lost wallets; unexpected cancellations; no sleep due to yapping dogs; horrible weather, etc.) it is tempting to take things out on the nearest person.  Don’t do it.  Especially when that person is someone you love.   It never works.  Nothing is fixed.  Nothing feels better.  Learn to bite your tongue and get through the difficulty rather than stamping your little feet.

Sometimes you just have to laugh – Laughter works far better than yelling.  Recently, Jammie and I thought we had booked an amazing deal when we flew to Kuala Lumpur for a two-night visit from Bangkok.  Both the flight and hotel were included for a very reasonable price.  Well, the hotel turned out to be an unbelievable dump, complete with cockroaches, loud guests and completely non-existent insulation that ensured that we got play-by-play updates from the teenagers next door as they hooted and hollered about video game victories under their clueless dad’s non-supervision.  At times like these you can laugh or cry.  We laughed.  And then we left the room.

Be careful with finding accommodation – Let’s talk a little more about accommodation.  Don’t screw this one up.  Jammie and I found that accommodation basically colored our entire experience in the different cities we lived in.  We absolutely loved Berlin, for example, because we found a spacious, well-lit, highly functional artist’s apartment in a cool part of town.  It worked out great.  Our apartment in Buenos Aires, however, was cold, dark, damp, cramped and ridden with random maintenance issues that required constant attention.  We hated it with a passion.  It put a damper on our entire experience in what, to be fair, is one of the world’s most fascinating cities.

Find alone time – One of my favorite things to do in each of the locations we visited was to go on long walks (in Bangkok my average daily walk was over 10 miles).  Jammie, on the other hand, it not into urban hikes.  So my walks allowed Jammie to catch up on writing and personal projects while giving me some exercise and thinking time.  This allowed us alone time to process our thoughts and brainstorm solutions individually.  I frequently stopped in my tracks and entered ideas into my iPhone while on my walks because I recognized this alone time as the most creative part of my day.

Volunteer together – At first glance, the idea of sorting old shoes in an ill-lit Berlin basement sounded like a downer.  But it actually became a fun ritual for Jammie and I since we had chosen to help sort these shoes for the homeless.  Volunteering together felt great and ended up being really entertaining as we joked about the absolute un-sexiness of our service project.  Wherever and however we volunteered around the world, we always left feeling recharged.  It was great to be able to share that feeling with someone else.

Admit when you are lost – This holds in a strictly literal sense (you’ve just led you and your partner on a wild goose chase for a famous pastry shop that seems to have disappeared from the face of the earth) or metaphorically (you are at your wit’s end and have no idea how to face a challenge).  Either way, travel as a couple works better if you are straight up as soon as possible. Don’t try to be a hero, be honest when you don’t have a clue.

More tips to come! – As with any journey, you learn more the further you go so I’ll keep you in the loop on future thoughts.  For now though, let me end where I started: traveling with someone you love is one of the best things you can possibly do together.  Whether you are a new couple, starting out in your shared life or an established couple looking for adventure, do yourselves a favor and try it out!



Our Biggest Mistakes in 12 Months of Travel

Wearing this hat combo almost made the list...
Wearing this hat combo almost made the list…

It’s embarrassing to write a post like this.  As much as I like to focus on the positive in our year of travel and service, I would be lying if I said we did not make our share of major mistakes.  I thought that sharing them might help prevent CultureMutt readers from also making them so here are some of the biggies:

Travel Mistake # 1 – Buying a round-the-world ticket – At first it seemed like such a good idea: save money through buying a round-the-world ticket.  So we hunted down a well-priced offer and bought our tickets.  At first we congratulated ourselves on “thinking ahead” and “being bold”.  That was stupid.  We ended up losing thousands of dollars in the end because we had to abandon the last leg of our world trip: Mumbai (more on why later).  We now stay away from buying any long-haul tickets far in advance and, instead, buy them the day before our flight. Airlines often drop their prices right before the flight to sell empty seats.

Travel Mistake # 2 – The Buenos Aires apartment – There are limits to perks of “artsy”.  Joy at finding a quaint, polished-red-brick-interior, low-ceiling artist cove in San Telmo (one of the trendiest Buenos Aires neighborhoods) turned to absolute misery as soon as colder weather arrived and the place turned out to be an ice box.  It was unbearable.  Plus the bathroom was a nightmare (leaking toilet and unreliable hot water supply) and the WiFi sucked.  The lesson?  Don’t rent the first place you visit on Craigslist no matter how fun it looks.

Travel Mistake # 3 – Not Being Touristy Enough – In our zeal to “live like locals” and shun tourist traps we actually got complacent about going out to see the local sights.  This became obvious when visiting friends starting asking us to go places in various cities that we didn’t even know existed.  We were great at meeting locals and getting involved in the community, less so at seeing all the monuments.  We would be more proactive in this department if we were starting over.

Travel Mistake # 4 – Eating Badly – One of the most tempting things about traveling is sampling all the exotic food.  Well, we definitely did a lot of sampling (I got food poisoning twice).  There wasn’t enough balance in our meals.  To be fair, our worst excesses of bad eating were in Bangkok at the start of the trip where we didn’t have a kitchen and therefore ate out almost all the time.  Not smart.  We ended up consuming way too much fat, salt and sugar as a result.  We knew we had to improve on this so we insisted on having kitchens in Buenos Aires and Berlin.  Things got better but the temptation to buy a quick, super-cheap cake slice was often too much to resist.

Travel Mistake # 5 – Skimping on Research – Let’s get back to the Mumbai mess.  On top of being putt off by multiple negative news stories about violence toward women, we simply waited too long to do our homework on how to get into India.  By the time we realized that we needed to apply for an actual visa, it was too late… Our pre-purchased flight was scheduled to leave before we could reasonably have expected to receive our papers.  So we lost the tickets (there were no refunds).  Needless to say we felt more than a little sheepish.  We learned to make the best of the situation though and headed back to Thailand to work on the details for our 2014 experiment (12 months in Bangkok).

Alright, now that we’ve been vulnerable with you, what are some of your travel mistakes?  Feel free to share what not to do in the comments:)

A final word… Anyone can tell you that mistakes when traveling are inevitable.  If we hadn’t made the above mistakes we would have made others.  The key is to prepare for a trip and then GO.  Don’t let fear of mistakes and imagined disaster keep you from the life-enhancing experience of seeing more of the world.  The biggest mistake is staying at home.






How We Paid for 12 Months of World Travel

This is NOT how we did it!
This is NOT how we did it!

“How could you afford to travel for an entire year?”  I’ve heard this question asked in a hundred different ways this year.

I held off on answering partly because I wasn’t sure if our plans would work.  We are not wealthy people.  I secretly feared that we would have to come back early. Luckily, things worked out more or less to plan. Here are the main takeaways:

Plan your prison break carefully – I’ve said this a lot but it bears repeating: we planned our leap well in advance.  We decided that cutting back on expenses was totally worth the effort it if it meant that we would be able to quit our jobs and have the freedom to do exactly what we wanted to do.

So we saved money by living in a one-bedroom, rented apartment instead of giving in to peer pressure and buying a house.  We cut back drastically on eating out and entertainment.  We drove older cars with no payments. We canceled subscriptions.  I bought most of my shoes at thrift stores (good thing too, as I had a thing for cowboy boots and they only cost $20 at Goodwill instead of $200 new).  We competed to see who could contribute more of their pay check to the travel fund. No cost saving measure seemed too much when compared to the absolute liberation that awaited.

Relocation not constant travel – Rather than opting for constant travel, our goal was to experience real life in different countries around the world.  So we opted for a series of 3-month relocations instead of country hopping every week.  This is critical.  It saved us a lot of money.  It was also more enjoyable than the stress of constantly being on the move.  By choosing the 3-month relocation model, we actually felt part of the various communities we lived in, we were able to make friends, lend a helping hand to various meaningful charities and have a deeper understanding of the place we visited.  It also meant that we could live in these exotic world cities for an average of $1000/month.  That was very little compared to what we were spending at home.

Sell all your stuff – I sold my car and most of our furniture within the span of a week right before we left Chico, the Northern Californian town we lived in prior to our trip.  I didn’t make a killing but we made enough to pay for our rent, groceries and entertainment for the first few months of our adventure.  Not bad for a ’99 Jetta and furniture we had paid less than $500 for in the first place!

Make friends - In each of the countries we visited we either made new friends or reconnected with friends that we already had.  Apart from the awesome social value of having friends to hang out with, these amazing people were generous with their time, networks and ideas.  The result?  We were hooked up with safe, affordable living accommodations, we were shown where to shop and eat out to save money and were (frequently) directly or indirectly offered income-generating opportunities.  This made a big difference financially.

Identify all possible revenue streams (even small ones) – In stark contrast with the traditional rat race model where you work your tail off for one company or organization (which then has a lot of power to control you), we learned that freedom on our travel year had a lot to do with diversifying income streams.  We decided that we were not going to hitch our wagon to one single employer (even if we were offered an opportunity to do remote work).  Instead we worked hard on identifying and growing multiple income streams.  We ended up with the following kinds of work:  blog ad revenue, various freelance writing gigs, consulting and other jobs that we picked up on the way.  This meant a lot more freedom and the ability to walk away from organizations we did not like.

Don’t buy crap - We stayed away from buying tourist trinkets for at least two solid reasons:  1)  They were a waste of money  2)  They took up too much space in our luggage.  This tactic alone freed up cash to pay for more important things like groceries.  In the end, we found a very low cost way to bring back souvenirs for friends and family: right before Christmas we bought non-perishable snacks from a few of the countries we visited and gave them as Christmas presents.  That was a lot more cost effective (and tasty) than buying random, made-in-China plates with “Kuala Lumpur” stamped on them…

Buy cheap tickets – Despite a few big mistakes in this area (like buying a round-the-world ticket and having to abandon the final, Mumbai leg), we eventually learned a lot about buying cheap air tickets and saving money that way.  The winning formula ended up being this: 1)  Buy your long-haul tickets on a reliable, third party discount site like Priceline  2)  Buy your short-haul flights from low cost carriers like EasyJet / Ryanair or Air Asia in Europe and Asia respectively and 2)  For long-haul flights, buy the day before your flight (you save BIG by doing this because the airline realizes it will make nothing on empty seats)  3)  Buy tickets leaving Tuesday – Thursday because these are less popular travel days and therefore cheaper.

Live like a local – We decided that there was nothing ritzy about going into debt by trying to live above our means and living above local standards.  So we lived in fairly humble living conditions, never stayed in expensive hotels and almost never splurged on over-priced restaurants that catered to wealthy expats.  As mentioned above, we learned that if we lived like locals we not only saved money but we also got a much more authentic feel for what life was like in the countries we visited.  For example:  we both wanted to see great tango performed in Buenos Aires but instead of dropping $100 on an over-produced tourist show, we accepted an invite from a friend to a fundraiser milonga (community tango dance) held at a local vocational school.  The experience was great and we got to help support a worthy cause.

Always have a safety cushion  – We did not want to lose our new-found freedom by having to return early to the US or having to return hat in hand, asking for donations.  So we decided that, regardless of the fact that we had saved up quite a bit for the trip, we were going to leave a healthy financial cushion for future expenses.  This allowed us to travel with more peace of mind and also allowed us to be more selective when crafting our professional plans for 2014 and beyond.

What are your travel budgeting tips? - We have learned so much from listening to the advice of others.  How have you budgeted for world travel in the past?  What has worked?  What hasn’t?  Leave a comment and give the CultureMutt community your best advice.



How to Change Everything with One Bold Decision

In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, about 12 months after the decision that changed our lives forever
In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, about 12 months after the decision that changed our lives forever


What is one decision that would change absolutely everything about your life?

I am not talking about some flimsy resolution to change breakfast cereals.  I am talking about the boldest kind of decision.  The kind of call that makes you shudder at its potential impact.  The kind of decision that few make but that, once made, completely changes your life.

In the fall of 2012, Jammie and I made one such decision.  It was to quit our jobs to travel the world and do service projects in 2013.  Our lives have never been the same since.  Here are some of the biggest changes:

Action = Liberation! – A year of travel and service is easy to talk about.  We know.  We talked about it for years and did nothing about it. It was just too scary.  Taking action involved quitting our jobs; uncomfortable conversations with family and friends and diving into the unknown.  But we finally decided that we simply could not put off action any longer.  When we, at last, quit our jobs and set our plans into motion we learned that bold action is one of the most liberating things in life.

Risks are less scary once you take them – Less than three months into our year we realized that we had been foolish to fret so much about the risk we had taken in opting to reinvent our lives in 2013.  We were offered jobs; we made friends thousands of miles from home and began to see life-changing opportunities that we had never before noticed.  The risk we had taken in leaving behind the old turned out to be not very scary at all.  It was exciting!

Relationship magic – A lot of people say that travel is the ultimate test of relationships.  Both Jammie and I say that we grew closer in 2013.  Travel taught us to handle disagreements better and gave us a LOT more time to spend together.  We had conversations about things we simply had not talked about in our first year and a half of marriage when we had been stuck in the rat race, running faster and faster for lack of a more healthy perceived alternative.  This year we learned to appreciate each others’ qualities more than ever.  Quite simply, we are better friends than ever.

Seeing the value of  money- 2013 taught us to be frugal.  We had planned carefully for 2013 financially but even so, the fact that we were living off of reduced income streams and savings meant that we learned to be more careful.  Little savings tricks really helped.  One I use a lot is converting prices into Thai baht (there are about 30 Thai baht to 1 US dollar) and reminding myself how much I could buy in Thailand with what I am about to spend on, say, a Starbucks Frappaccino in Los Angeles (I can eat out for two days in Thailand for the $5 I would spend on that one drink).

Learning the limits of money – Even if our financial planning was a big reason that we were able to do what we did in 2013, we have noticed some very clear limits to what money can provide.  What good is money if you spend your every waking hour in a dreary office trying to accumulate more?  I’m not knocking hard work but living in the illusion that postponing real enjoyment of life for some nebulous future “retirement” is dumb.  You have absolutely no idea how your health or closest relationships will look by retirement.  Find ways to enjoy the benefits of retirement (time with loved ones, travel, service and personal growth) using your current budget.  It is probably not as expensive as you think.  For example, living in a place like Bangkok for a month can be done for less than $500.  Don’t have a month?  Start with relocating somewhere for two weeks.  Even two weeks of completely unplugging in a new environment can do wonders for your outlook.   If you really want to see me get on this soapbox, read this: Retirement is fool’s gold, live your life now!

Leaving the United States makes more sense than ever – Growing up outside the US, I was always convinced that America was the land of greatest opportunity.  That may technically still be the case but the magic seems to be fast evaporating.  On the flipside, the pace of progress in Asia and other fast-developing parts of the world makes even a bustling city like Los Angeles feel like a sleepy backwater.  I’m no hater, just stating facts.  Dare to think bigger than life in the US.  Trust me, you will thank yourself.

A quick word to my American friends: this is NOT about being unAmerican or lacking patriotism.  Surely one of the best things about American thinking is the pragmatic, no-nonsense pursuit of opportunity.  You are not being a bad American by pursuing opportunities outside the country.  What do you think the future pilgrims lives would have looked like if they’d stayed in the Old World?  Moving East is to the 21st century what moving West was to the last five.

We see more options than ever – Even if I theoretically knew that I had options in life, I was too jaded to really think about them before we took off in 2013.  Whenever layoffs took place at either my workplace or Jammie’s, I would get really worried.  What would happen if we lost our jobs?  How would we survive in a weak economy?  I would let such concerns influence my decision making and my overall happiness.  I grew much less adventurous and assertive.  I put up with things in the day-to-day that I should not have.  Looking back at 2013 and the improved work and life opportunities we now have, I wish I had been bolder before our trip.  There were always better options.  Fear blinded me to them.

What is the one decision that would change everything for you?  A new year is approaching.  You’ve got it in you to make a decision that would change just about everything for the better.  What is it going to be?  Investing in a relationship?  Completely changing what you eat?  Firing a bad boss?  Traveling the world?  Please don’t waste time the way we did before making our life-changing big decision.  Boldness now could mean a world of difference.



Our Next 12-month Experiment

Enjoying a $0.67 Thai lunch:)
Enjoying a $0.67 Thai lunch:)

What’s next?  What happens after your travel year? Everyone’s asking us the same question so I figured it was time to answer it.

Now that we have sampled a series of 3-month relocations around the world in 2013, we’ve decided to test living in one of them, Bangkok, for longer.  What’s “longer”?  Well, another 12 months, of course!

Here’s why we picked Bangkok for 2014:

We can’t stop now!!  –  2013 was hands-down the best year of our lives so far.  Jettisoning the predictable grind of our Northern Californian lives and taking off on the adventure of our lives was the most invigorating thing either of us had done.  There is something about intentionally designing a new life in a new place that is extremely fulfilling.  Previously we had basically accepted the default life options that were right in front of us.  When we decided that was a dead end we took off on our 2013 world service trip.  We have not once regretted it.  We are going to continue rather than return to the old.

Meaningful service opportunities - Intentionally taking out a year of our lives for service has only given us an appetite to do more of it.  In the last few weeks we have hunted down a whole range of volunteer activities for next year.  In addition to our original Bangkok projects (orphanage and prison visits), we may be adding visits to refugees in their homes, volunteer journalism projects and high school teaching.

Unbeatable continued travel options - We are definitely not done traveling.  The only thing that is changing is the model.  Bangkok is the ideal hub for discount flights anywhere in Asia (and, coincidentally, anywhere in the world) because of its popularity as a tourist destination.  In 2014 we plan to make Bangkok our base but be able to visit other parts of Asia on a frequent basis.  This may actually end up meaning more travel than we did in 2013.

A job offer I could not refuse - I’ve said in previous posts that this year has brought a lot of really interesting job opportunities our way.  I want to say a big thank you to all the CultureMutt readers that have gone out of their way to provide us with these opportunities.  You guys are amazing!  We really appreciate your looking out for us!

There was one offer I simply could not refuse: Business Development for a US-based educational company.  More details on this job will have to come in another post but for now I will say that it is a dream come true and will allow us to make a solid living during our 2014 Bangkok Experiment.  Thanks for this opportunity goes to yet another CultureMutt reader.  You know who you are.  Thank you for sharing our vision and appetite for service and global adventure!

Quality of life for a lot less.  Nowhere we have lived (or heard of) allows you to live as well as you can in Bangkok for so little. The extremely low cost of living in Bangkok allows you to save more easily than anywhere else we’ve lived.  In a world where it is hard to get a job and often even harder to make ends meet, let alone save, working in Southeast Asia offers an amazing alternative.  If you have a degree from a Western country and a little bit of work experience under your belt, the job possibilities in a place like Thailand are endless.   Thousands of Westerners live and work in Bangkok for this reason.  There is more work, you can often find decent pay and your living expenses are (even conservatively speaking) a third of what you were spending on scraping by in the US or Europe.  I have gone over actual dollar figures and why it makes a lot of economic sense to live in a country like Thailand before but if you want a brief recap, check out “Things I wish I’d known about long-term world travel before I quit my job”.

The future is Asia.  The writing’s on the wall almost everywhere we look: there is absolutely no place on earth that can match the pace of progress in Asia.  Yes, there are also risks, of course.  Those who follow the news know that Thailand is not immune to political turmoil.  But the fundamentals of life and work availability have not really changed in decades (no matter what set of politicians is ousted).  And foreigners are generally safer living in Bangkok than they are in most American cities.

No other part of the world that we visited in 2013 can match the frenzied pace of progress and the giddy optimism of Asia.  Everywhere you look, there is construction.  There is an obsession with education and advancement that absolutely blows the US and Western Europe out of the water in comparison.  It may upset some to hear it, but it is true:  the 21st century is the Asian century.  The balance of world opportunity, wealth and influence has shifted East.  For Millennials it makes a lot of sense to follow this trend and go where the opportunity is.

More updates to come.  We are home with family in Los Angeles for the holidays and head back to Thailand in January.  Do you have any tips for us as we tackle our first longer term relocation?  Hit us up in the comments.



Change of Plans

Sooooooo, we’re not in India.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted, so bear with me as I take a rather circuitous route to the explanation.

September and October were rather busy months for us, travel-wise. For my birthday, we took a little trip down to Milan, Italy, because hey, we were nearish (actual reason: I wanted to try real Italian gelato and pizza. Yes, a separate blog post is forthcoming.)

We flew back to Berlin for about 3 days, and then we headed out again, this time to Berrien Springs Michigan, U.S.A. for about a week as Bjorn had a speaking engagement at his alma mater over the weekend. I was excited as this trip was my first to the Midwest and I had the chance to see some really related relatives (Filipinos understand) and snuffle some very cute kids. (Post is coming, blah blah blah.)

We returned to Berlin, Germany, but only for 2 days. Then we were off to merry old England.

V is for visa problems
Now before we left Berlin, it had come to our attention that we needed visas to get into India. Between my American passport arrogance and Bjorn’s smugness in his Swedish one, we had blithely assumed that we would either get a visa waiver like we had in
Bangkok and Berlin, or could just pay a fee at the airport, like we did in Buenos Aires.

Nope. Turns out if you don’t have a visa, you can get deported. Some people said they were sure we could probably bribe our way through the airport. However, as we didn’t know the language or anyone there, I didn’t want to take the risk, especially after reading about the Indian prisons in “Shantaram,” which some well-meaning friends had loaned to me. And you know, all that stuff about bribing being illegal and immoral.

Instead of an hours-long layover in London, we decided to stick around and try to get our visas in England. Unfortunately, we lost the last leg of our round-the-world ticket as British Airways couldn’t seem to comprehend that we wanted to leave later, nor would they give us any credit for the flights we didn’t use (why British Airways, why??)

It was Oct. 2. We set about the task of getting our visas to India from England, only to discover that we had to mail our passports in and it would take 15 working days to get them, not including mail processing and delivery time. This proved to be a problem, as we were attending a wedding in the United States (in Georgia! My first time in the South!) and were planning to leave on Oct. 17.

We decided not to apply for the visas in England after all, as we didn’t want to chance mailing our passports in and then not having them for our trip to the States.

We spent a few pleasant weeks in England with Bjorn’s family, taking brisk walks which did nothing to mitigate the vast amounts of food we were consuming. Then we were off to Hotlanta! (Forthcoming post, yadda yadda yadda.)

After a spectacular time in the South that included copious amounts of Coca-Cola sodas and a wedding assistant marveling at my multiple plate, double-fisted eating style at the wedding buffet, we jetted back to England.

Looking for a shortcut
We had learned that it only took 6 days to get a visa to India from Bangkok, Thailand, so we bade a fond farewell to England and arrived in Bangkok around the end of October.

We went to the visa office the very next day, after spending two hours filling out forms online and another hour and a half spent in getting our visa photos and traveling to the office.

The very first thing we were asked: “Have you booked your hotel and flights already?”

Well, no. But we did have the numbers for the flights we would like to take and the details for the hotel we would book when we got our visas.

But it wasn’t good enough. We countered with, “If we book our flights and hotel tonight and come back tomorrow, can you guarantee that we will get the visas on the sixth working day?”

Well, no, she couldn’t. In fact, she couldn’t guarantee that we would get a visa at all.
If we did get one, she told us it might take up to 10 working days.

If we booked our flights and hotel with the 10-working days timeline In mind, it meant that Bjorn and I would only be in India for a week before we had to catch a flight back to Bangkok and England.

By this point, we were plenty fed up with all the hurdles and hassles, and couldn’t see how we would be able to find and do meaningful service projects in that amount of time. Why not stay in Bangkok where we had connections and could pick up where we left off on our previous service projects?

So we did.

The best-laid plans…
Our plan to live in four world cities that begin with “B” is ending up more like 3 1/2 cities (I have to give Bracknell, England, props as we did spend a good amount of time there), but one thing I’ve learned about international living and travel: You have to be determined enough to move, but flexible enough to stay.

Besides, there’s a Little India here. Maybe that will be close enough. (I’m kiiiiidding. Relax.)

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“Missionary” needs a facelift

Above is the video of my favorite public speaking gig so far this year – the September 27 University Vespers at my alma mater, Andrews University, for Homecoming, 2013. About 700 students, alumni, faculty, staff and community members attended. I dedicated this speech to giving the idea of missionary work (which so often elicits negative reactions) a facelift.

The speech was actually an extension of one of the biggest goals of our trip around the world this year: to rethink how we can best live lives of international service. For Jammie and I, faith and service are very closely linked so we were also very keen on experimenting with how to live out our faith more tangibly through acts of service.

CultureMutt readers are a diverse bunch so whether or not you come from a Christian background, I would love your comments on how you think faith communities should reinvent the approach they take to sharing their messages around the world.

For now, here’s why I think the term “missionary” needs a facelift:

“Missionary” sounds oppressive.  Historically, missionaries were often backed by the military might of oppressive colonial powers. Religion was often forced on unwilling converts.  Today, centuries later, the bad taste is still in the mouths of many.  In many cases, those that go out as missionaries have more material wealth and education than those they are trying to reach.  This often results in an unhealthy dynamic where people convert to the beliefs of these missionaries more in order to gain access to these resources rather than because they are sincerely convicted of a religious ideology.

“Missionary” sounds kooky.  I grew up as the child of missionaries. We lived with other missionaries, a good portion of which were straight-up weird.  You got the feeling that they were working abroad, less for noble, save-the-world motives and more because their cult-like dress sense, odd social behaviors and blanket rejection of anything in pop culture that brings a smile, simply would not fit in back home.

“Missionary” sounds out-of-touch.  So often missionaries are only effective in distant lands but would be of no effect back home.  Often they are able to leverage their status as expats (typically from more developed countries) to gain a platform abroad and in the process, much of what they transmit ends up being thinly-veiled Western cultural ideas as opposed to any genuinely helpful spiritual insights.

“Missionary” sounds fundamentalist.  I’m not sure why it is true but so often, people that opt to work as missionaries have an extremely narrow definition of faith.  They cling to dogma for dear life and are rarely able to see the big picture.  The faith that gets transmitted is therefore very narrow and close-minded.  It is not a generous, accepting faith but rather an unhealthy VIP list for spiritual gold diggers who think they are the only ones headed for sublime bliss in the afterlife.

Being a missionary need entail none of the above.  Alright, here’s where I’ll get on my soap box:  It’s time for a new generation to redefine what it means to be a missionary.  There is nothing wrong with sharing authentic faith.  It’s actually a good thing. There is nothing wrong with telling your friends about the ideas, stories and truths that have had a life-changing effect on you.  There is a way to be an enthusiastic believer without stooping to the unfortunate depths of many a missionary gone before.

Start the facelift in the comment section!  There are going to be different takes on this one but to me personally, missionary work should be about what I call “savvy, global do-gooding”.  It should not be about forcing ideology but more about an open discussion about how to improve the world around us, fused with practical acts of service that actually help our fellow human beings.  I am convinced that, at the very least, this is where all so-called missionaries should start.

I would love your input and ideas.  Leave a comment below on what you think modern missionaries should be doing.  Be as open or as controversial as you like, this is about conversation, not about one right answer.



Service — The truth

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For the past few weeks, I have been enjoying the use of a thin, black vinyl raincoat. I never thought I would like an item of clothing this much, but it has provided a warm, dry shelter more times than I can count already, and it doesn’t look half bad on me, if I do say so myself. Besides being useful, stylish and indispensable, it was also wholly unexpected.

Here’s how I got it:

It was the last week of our donation sorting project at Stadt Mission. We had finished pairing and sorting the mountain of shoes the week before. As you may recall (but if you don’t, here’s a handy link), this project had not been one of my favorites. It was dirty, nasty, hot, isolated work and I was beyond relieved that we didn’t have to do it anymore. Instead, we were given the task of sorting coats that were to be given to the homeless and/or needy.

Surprisingly, the job was not so much about sorting as throwing away. Apparently, the organization receives so many donations that many of the coats had to be removed to make room for the new ones.  We were given very specific instructions. Coats with buttons (when you’re really cold/old/disabled, it is harder to button than zip), coats that didn’t look modern, and anything that had the slightest stain/rip/deformity was thrown into trash bags.

We must have filled at least 20 bags. At first it seemed like a huge waste of clothing. But the more I thought about it, the more I was touched by the thoughtfulness inherent to the instructions. Not only did they provide for the physical needs of the homeless/impoverished, but they also aimed at preserving their dignity.

During our break, the other workers called us into the main room for  drinks and snacks.  A rack of beautiful, real fur coats was in the room. I am defenseless against soft, furry objects and couldn’t help moving over to it to pet the sleeves.

One of the head volunteers (the donation sorting is run by a mother-daughter team) noticed and said, “As a goodbye and thank-you gift, we would like to give each of you one item of your choosing.” We could choose from anything they had down there. They literally had tons of stuff of every item imaginable. Not to mention those fur coats, which were worth at least 100 euros each (and that was the discount price they were to be sold at, not their original ones).

The offer was tempting but we balked. It just felt wrong. We had been doing this service project to help others, not ourselves.

We vigorously protested and hit upon the fool-proof argument that because of luggage restrictions, we couldn’t take anything. They kept pressing us to take something, at least one of the coats. We countered that as we were going to India, we wouldn’t need them.

Finally, the other head volunteer produced two new, black, weatherproof jackets. She pressed them upon us and we couldn’t say no to her (she is a Mom, after all). They were thin and light enough to refute our luggage concerns, and she said, we would need them.

She was right. Since we received our jackets about 3 weeks ago, the weather in Berlin has turned from sunny to rainy, from warm to chilly. That jacket has become my go-to outerwear item.

But I cherish that jacket not only because it protects me from the elements, but because it also serves as a reminder to me. When I see it, I don’t just see its color and shape, I see the kindness of the gift, that people wanted to take care of me despite my protests. I see that people were looking ahead into my future and trying to provide for my needs. I see that people literally fought to show their appreciation for me.

When I look at that jacket, I see the truth about service: When you serve others, you help yourself more than you know.

Self involved

In light of the above statement, some may conclude that service is inherently selfish; because you receive so many benefits from helping others, it is not truly selfless. From there it’s a hop, skip and an insanity jump to thinking  that you must make yourself miserable so that others can be happy.

I reject the notion that in order to perform real service you can not be as happy as the person you performed the service for, that you must make them happier than yourself. First of all, who can measure such a thing? If I am smiling and they are smiling, how do I know whose joy is greater?  If I am laughing and they are smiling, is it not condescending and incorrect to think that their joy is not as great as mine?

And why must there be a monopoly on the peak of happiness? Is it fair or even logical to think that because I or someone else is at the peak of happiness, no one else can be?

(Although if at the end of “helping someone” you are bubbly and cheerful and they are miserable and crying, or vice versa, I would say it’s a good bet real service did not occur. Real service does involve empathy.)

Real service: The enigma within the paradox within the swirling vortex of confusion

I believe it is possible to do good things for bad reasons. By that I mean: doing things to help others because your end goal is really about helping yourself, whether to curry favor or to look good, etc. But in the end, that is not real service.

Real service is about taking the focus off yourself, and doing things because you are truly thinking about others’ needs and how to  help them. In doing so, you can’t help but improve yourself as well.

It’s a paradox that still manages to surprise me. I guess because it seems so oxymoronic.

The message of society today that is subtly and not-so-subtly enforced seems to be: If I put others before me, I will suffer. It’s dog-eat-dog. Everyone must be in it to win it — for themselves.

Most everyone says: Of course you should help others! But the real subtext is: Help others—but only to a point, don’t let them get ahead of you and definitely don’t do it if it causes you discomfort in any way.

But Jammie, some might say, isn’t it possible to do good things for the right reasons and just wear yourself out? To be so attentive to the needs of others that you neglect yourself and end up feeling and being worse off than before?

To that I say, if you were truly trying to serve others, you would know that a mentally and physically healthy you is in the best position to help others. If you are working yourself to death, I would suspect there are other motivations fueling you. Real service spurs you to grow and to improve.

Common good

Many, many people have told me they admire what Bjorn and I are doing and that they could not do it themselves. But the truth of the matter is that everyone can.

Real service is not all big projects in exotic, foreign locations but the quiet acts performed in the details of daily life.

Real service is empathy and action based on it.

At the heart of real service is doing for others what you would want done for you.

So I guess those people who say that service is not self-less are correct, in a way. Your self must be involved.  You must give yourself to others to perform real service. You must involve your love, your concern, your time.

But in return, you get more than you thought possible. While gaining happiness for yourself should not be the end goal, it is a hallmark of real service.

Truly, a life of service is the life best-lived.

Lost for words

Flat Natalie and I stand at the border of the "American Sector" in Berlin, Germany, but English is spoken throughout the city.
Flat Natalie and I stand at the border of the “American Sector” in Berlin, Germany, but English is spoken throughout the city.

In Bangkok, I learned how to say numbers, greetings, “Thank you,” “Yes/No,” “No meat,” “How much?” and the names of my favorite dishes in Thai (although if you asked me  to say them now, all you would get is a puzzled stare).

In Buenos Aires, my Spanish improved to the point where I could have very basic conversations with people (it especially helped if those people were under the age of 10).

In Berlin,  my German vocabulary has topped out at “How are you?” “Good-bye,” “Excuse me,” “Yes/No” and “Breakfast” (yes, I wake up too late most days to technically have this meal, but I just like saying “frustuck” (frouh-stook)).

While I firmly believe it is important to respect the language and customs of your host country, my desire to become a polyglot is still stuck at desire rather than actual polyglot-ness (maybe because I use words like polyglot-ness). Besides, I have heard that learning German is not the easiest of tasks. When I ask people who are actually enrolled in German classes what it’s like to learn the language, the answers have ranged from “hard” to “very hard” to “I want to die.”

Before this trip, I had hoped that simply being around a language would make it more familiar to me or easier to pick up. But I have discovered I am no sponge to foreign phrases or strange syllables. My language acquisition device only kicks in when necessary.

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but it turns out she’s also got a part-time job as the coat-check girl of language learning. By that I mean she’ll check in a few words at a time at an outrageous cost. She’ll begrudgingly hang them up in the closet of my mind, but doesn’t seem to notice or care when they fall to floor and become dusty and rumpled.  When I try to retrieve them, she makes me wait a long time and there’s no telling what may be missing  when she hands them over.

I feel kinda bad that I haven’t learned more German, but I’m impressed that I haven’t had to. I’d say it’s almost a guarantee that anyone under the age of 35 in Berlin will speak English fairly fluently, and most everyone else will have an inkling of what you’re saying.

In fact, I have found that in Berlin the most reliable indicator of English proficiency is someone saying, “My English is not good.” These words tend to preface intense, deep conversations on topics from  psychology to politics; they crop up again when the speaker is trying to remember words like “oscillate” or “synergistic.”

Plus, sometimes you don’t need words at all to communicate.

Late one night, I stepped into a kebab place for a doner (meat shaved from a vertical spit and served on flatbread). I wanted to know what type of meat was being used, but the man facing me across the counter was an older gentleman who didn’t speak English. No one was around to help translate. After I said, “Hallo,” I was at a loss for words.

I frowned.

He frowned.

Stepping closer to the counter, I pointed at the rotating meat and said loudly, “Mooooo or bawk-bawk-bawk?” (Complete with arm-flapping movements, I might add.)

He tucked his hands into his armpits and literally bent over laughing. He straightened up, shook his head and said, still laughing a little,  “Moooo.”

He then proceeded to shave one of the largest piles of meat I have ever seen onto my flatbread.

And it was, as they say around here, sehr gut.







Quit your job: Hatred for it not necessary

Razwana Wahid
Razwana Wahid

Since Jammie and I quit our jobs and took off on our 2013 world service tour, we’ve heard a lot of feedback from people that have either done something similar or are contemplating dong so.  Today’s guest post is by my friend and très cool Paris-based blogger, Razwana.  She is about to quit her job to become an entrepreneur.  She writes this post as motivation to herself and those in similar situation to make the jump and work for themselves.  All yours Razwana!”


I love my job.

It’s the best one I’ve had yet.

It’s perfect balance of my three non-negotiables for a job – the location, the people, and the work itself. It’s perfect.

Or is it?

A few weeks ago, I was talking with a colleague. Let’s call him….Burt.

I asked Burt why, even though it’s technically possible for me to work from anywhere in the world (with internet connection), I couldn’t work from a location of my choosing?

Neither Burt, nor his coat of infinite wisdom could give me an answer that made sense.

When he stopped looking at me like I’d asked if it was OK to work in the office butt naked since it’s particularly warm out, he finally mumbled something about how ‘that’s just the way it is’.

That’s just the way it is.

The illusion of the perfect job shattered in 2.2 seconds.

And that’s when I realized The Pattern I had been living.

See, I get like this about a year after I work in a job. It’s peachy perfect at the beginning.

Then the newness fades away, the shiny surprises stop coming and all that is left is this big, fat, stop-staring-at-me empty space that yells ‘WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS? AGGAAAIIINNNNNN?????’

Because I hate being told what I can and cannot do.

So The Pattern must be broken.

I’ve always wanted to work for myself. No time like the present, right?

But wait!

What if this is the grass is only greener effect? I mean, the grass is only greener when you’re looking at it with envy. So what if I am just running away from something that otherwise serves me rather well? Nothing is that perfect, is it?

What if the business idea I have doesn’t work? (See also:  fear of failure)

What if my market research is a lie?

What if I run out of ways of making money?

What if I make ZERO money after I quit my job and have to go grovelling for it back again?

What if my fear of winding up on the street, living out of a box and wearing plastic bags as shoes becomes a reality?

But the biggest what if of them all?

What if I stay in this job and never know what life is actually like on the other side?

And that is one scary “what if”.  It’s the ‘what if’ that keeps me awake at night. It’s the’ what’ if that creates an urgency to do something about this situation.

It’s the ‘what’ if that I really, really, really don’t want to experience.

So the time is now.

Time to stop dreaming of tomorrow – and start living it.

Time to stop saying what I will do – and actually do it.

To stop thinking of what I am capable of – and start believing it.


Razwana Wahid writes at Your Work Is Your Life, a service dedicated to making your writing work

better – to sell, to convert, to connect.  Read more at or follow her

on Twitter: @razwanawahid


Savvy, global, do-gooding