How to Travel Solo and Fall in Love With It

RIshikesh, India, Parmarth Ashram, www.bartnikowski.com
Rishikesh, India, Parmarth Ashram, http://www.bartnikowski.com

Myth: it costs a lot to travel.

Yes it does if you stay in $400 a night hotels like I used to do.

It was fun.

The truth is I love to travel solo.

I don’t have to wait for a friend to break up with her lover, leave their job, or save enough money to go with me.

When I want to go to Nepal, Colombia, or Sardinia I put on my Van sneakers and go!

I can sit in a fancy pants bar/restaurant like I am now and write. And enjoy a superb glass of red wine and be at ease and comfortable.

You never have to negotiate where to go based on money.

I was backpacking in the Himalayas solo in 2009 in Sikkim, India and realized I was spending less money per month than I received for renting out my apartment in Palo Alto, California.

I was spending less than $300 per month to stay in guesthouses eating home made Tibetan soup and momos, traveling by share jeep in the Himalayas, and having a blast.

I came home from that 10-month trip with money in the bank.

Advice.

Don’t go over your budget on lodging. Yes you can splash out for a few days. But you can also get budget accommodation and live it up at the upper crust lounge/restaurant like I am now.

Secret: you can often work/write in 5-star surroundings enjoying the incredible views and then go back to your Airbnb room, campsite, or rented home.

You’ll discover that having a set amount to spend on lodging will keep you kosher.

I often times suggest a lower price on a room when the price suggested is too high.

It’s called rich foreigner tax. Many countries, like India, have no set prices on their rooms, the price is whatever they can get.

So haggle wisely, you’re still most likely paying too much.

Freedom!

One of the best things I ever did was travel twice around the world with no itinerary buying one-way plane tickets along the way.

If I felt like staying in Bali another month I could, no discussion.

If I wanted to explore Burma for a month, I went.

First time I went round the world I spent $2900 on plane tickets, the 2nd time I spent $1800. No I didn’t buy a RTW ticket, it doesn’t give you freedom on your journey.

For example I decided to stay in Cambodia for 4 weeks when I couldn’t stomach the thought of leaving.

I was falling in love with Siem Reap, where Angkor Wat is located and so I stayed.

No heated arguments. I found an incredible local guesthouse: Rosie’s guesthouse. And another one, Ou Malay where the Cambodian owners and I had a love fest of laughing and daily camaraderie.

It was $7 a night, no wifi but so what?! We loved each other!

Cambodia, Ou Malay Guesthouse Siem Reap, www.bartnikowski.com
Cambodia, Ou Malay Guesthouse, Siem Reap, http://www.bartnikowski.com

You meet so many people!

When you’re solo, there’s no one to listen or talk to. You can be alone with your own thoughts and then Bam! you meet someone seriously interesting who lights up your world and you wonder how you ever would have met them if you were with someone.

This has happened to me more times than I can count. And I’m still in touch with many friends I met traveling from Spain, Korea, Australia, Nepal, India, Germany, and Argentina.

They shook up my world and invited me into a new portal of love and friendship. I never would have met them if I wasn’t solo.

Being solo you have to reach out. It can be intoxicating.

Traveling solo, I mention my thoughts to whoever is standing by, I don’t take offense if they don’t respond, I’m simply radiating aloha which means, I’m spreading good will and happiness which is what the Dalai Lama advises but I didn’t realize until living in Hawaii that this means Aloha.

Pay attention. You might meet your soulmate, best friend ever, or meditation master around the next corner.

Suddenly you’ll be in a new world that you had no idea even existed.

Burma, Shwe Dagon Pagoda, Yangon, www.bartnikowski.com
Burma, Shwe Dagon Pagoda, Yangon, http://www.bartnikowski.com

Safety.

Yes you can be safe but you have to trust your gut. Don’t negotiate with the red alert warnings your instincts tell you. Pay attention.

Your body knows before your mind. Listen.

And while you are at it: don’t tell people you’re traveling solo. Don’t advertise your solo status by flagrantly drinking and carousing. Really.

Do make friends with families and women. Volunteer with humanitarian foundations that are educating and changing lives. Don’t be afraid to talk to people and smile.

A smile is universal. Yes it works in every country. Try it. It works.

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Two Years

IMG_2228Two years ago yesterday Brett, our three daughters and I arrived on Kaua’i to start a new chapter in our lives.

Two years ago our daughters did hold back and let us know again and again how angry and miserable they felt about our move. They left behind everything they knew, including life-long friends, boyfriends – everything – to come live on an isolated little island out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. They were profoundly unhappy with us, but Brett and I did our best to reassure them. “Give it time,” we said, “and then see how you feel.” We explained over and over that it had been time for us to make our move.

Last week, at dinner, as we were talking about some topic I don’t remember now, WenYu said, “I hope some day I can raise my children in a place like Kaua’i.” She went on to say how much she has grown to love our little island, its calmness, beauty, and friendly people. She said that moving here had been the best thing that happened to her. She still greatly missed her Portland friends, but coming here pushed her out of her shell and challenged her to take chances both academically and socially that she would not have taken back in Portland. She said she didn’t think she would be going to Wellesley College if we had stayed in Portland.

YaYu has blossomed here as well. She has made many friends, is doing very well academically, and is also taking chances that she doubts she would have taken back in Portland. Brett and I believe the move was harder in many ways for her than for her sisters, but YaYu now says she too is thankful for the calm and beauty of Kaua’i, and is glad we moved here. She has relied heavily on WenYu these past two years for company and support, but says she is ready to step out from her sister’s shadow and spread her own wings.

Meiling has built a solid independent life for herself back in Oregon, and is doing better than either Brett or I ever expected or hoped for. She did not want to stay on Kaua’i, and it was with great sadness and misgiving that we let her return to the mainland. She has told us though that she doubts she would have become as strong and independent if we were still in Portland, where she could have (and would have) called us to “come fix it” if things were not going well. We talk and text with her frequently every week, and offer advice when it’s asked for, but are so very proud of our daughter these days and the independent path she has chosen.

It has been a good move for all of us. Brett and I are more relaxed and far less stressed than we were back on the mainland. We worry less, hustle less, and let things happen as they will. We’ve made friends here, and are recognized more frequently as kamaaina, residents versus tourists. I absolutely love being called “Auntie.” With a couple of exceptions, we moved just the right amount of stuff along with us, and every day we appreciate our simple life more and more. We’ve figured out where and how to shop here, to find the best bargains, and we focus more on need versus want. We still get to travel. To know that the girls are now happy too about our move to Kaua’i is just the icing on the cake for us. While there is still lots for us to learn about our new home, we have a wonderful life here, and we are content. Our son has sometimes hinted that he wished we had moved to Oahu because of the medical facilities there, but both Brett and I are so glad we decided to settle on peaceful and less congested Kaua’i. It’s a great fit for us.

I’ve read that two years in Hawai’i marks a turning point (believe it or not, most new residents don’t last a year). If you can make it here for that long, then it’s said you’ve truly adjusted to the island way of life and will most likely stay forever, or at least for a very long time.

I know we’ve crossed that threshold. Kaua’i is home, and I can’t imagine being anywhere else.

Kaua’i Shave Ice Review #1: Ono Ono Shave Ice

The girls and I decided to give ourselves a little challenge this summer: review as many shave ice vendors on Kaua’i as possible and see which one we liked the best. Tough work, I know.

Ono Ono Shave Ice Stand
Ono Ono Shave Ice Stand

Shave ice (NOT ‘shaved’ ice) is the quintessential Hawaiian treat. Unlike a snow cone, where ice is crushed, with shave ice the ice is actually shaved, creating a fluffy, snow-like consistency. The sharper the blade, the fluffier the ice. As a result, a shave ice is much bigger than a snow cone, and you eat it with a spoon.

Flow chart for upgrading your shave ice
Ono Ono’s flow chart for upgrading your shave ice

There are different ways you can upgrade your shave ice. You can ask for ice cream on the bottom – vanilla or macadamia nut are the most common flavors. Sometimes the ice cream is included in the price, other times you have to ask for it. Most shave ice vendors will allow up to four different flavors at no extra cost, and there’s plenty of room for them. If you really want to go all the way, you can ask for a ‘snow cap’ – sweetened condensed milk (sometimes flavored) is added over the top. Locals often ask for li hing mui (dried Chinese plum) powder as well, but it’s an acquired taste.

So refreshing on a hot day!
So refreshing on a hot day! The girls’ (in front) have ice cream underneath the ice, mine (in back) doesn’t.

We began our Summer Shave Ice Challenge at Ono Ono Shave Ice in Kapaa Old Town, one of the girls’ favorite places for this treat. Ono Ono only serves one size of shave ice: BIG. The ice they hand you is easily five inches across, and just as tall or taller. They have loads of flavors, and a nice menu of special flavor-combo options. I ordered the Kaua’i Sunrise: mango, pineapple, passionfruit and coconut syrups, and Brett got the Rainbow: vanilla, pineapple and strawberry. The girls ordered their own flavor combos, with vanilla ice cream on the bottom (they forgot to ask for the snow cap). Ono Ono’s price is right too – $3.50 for a basic shave ice, with added vanilla or macadamia nut ice cream only $1.00 more. Snow caps are free. On the down side, they don’t offer any natural flavor syrups, and according to the girls, their shave ice is not the most aesthetically appealing either. Ono Ono also serves halo-halo shave ice, a Filipino variation made with evaporated milk and other various ingredients. It’s served in a tall glass versus a cup.

Brett's rainbow shave ice from Ono Ono's - you can see how big they are!
Brett’s rainbow shave ice from Ono Ono’s – you can see how big they are, even without ice cream underneath.

Ono in Hawaiian means ‘delicious.’ We’re pretty sure the first Ono in the name refers to the Ono family that runs the restaurant next door, but it could just as well mean ‘doubly delicious’ shave ice. They are!

How Do We Do It?

budget-travel

How do we manage to save and pay for travel? How did we manage to afford a week’s vacation at the Grand Canyon, or our upcoming getaway to Oahu? How can we even think of taking a trip back to Japan next spring?

Aren’t we retired and living on a fixed income? Don’t we have two, soon-to-be three, children going to college? Aren’t we living in one of the most expensive places in the United States?

The answer to all the above questions is yes. We do live on a fixed income. We will have two, soon-to-be three, children attending college. And the cost of living here on Kaua’i is higher than many places back on the mainland.

How are we able to afford to travel as much as we do and afford all of the above?

Here’s our big secret: We live below our means.

We have three sources of retirement income: 1) Brett’s military retirement, 2) our Social Security benefits, and 3) a pension Brett receives from the last company he worked for (I rolled my retirement into an IRA). WenYu and YaYu also currently receive a monthly dependent benefit from Social Security, but that ends when they graduate from high school, and we are required to provide proof that the money is used to support them (the cost of which is considerably more than what they receive from SS each month). All of it isn’t very much, but it’s more than adequate for our needs.

We live simply. We rent a small but comfortable house, less than 800 square feet. Although the rent is slightly more than we’d like to pay, it is what it is for Kaua’i. We are very careful with our energy use, and keep our utility payments low. We actually use and pay less here in Hawai’i for gas and electric than we did in Portland, but we don’t have heating bills any more, we cook outside more, and use the slow cooker more, rather than heating up the stove or oven. We dry much of our laundry outside. We’re conservative with water use. We have basic cable/WiFi, but mainly watch TV on Netflix or Amazon, and we still use the low-cost family phone plan we had on the mainland. The girls don’t have data plans for their phones (Meiling does, but she pays for it herself). We fix things when we can rather than replace. Clothing expenses here are less compared to what we spent back on the mainland because we don’t need as many clothes. Entertainment is free – we go to the beach, we go watch the sunset, Brett hikes, we get books from the library, and so forth. The girls stay busy with school clubs, sports as well as community service projects.

We don’t have any debt other than my student loan. We use our credit card to earn rewards, but pay it off every month.

We own one four year-old dependable car that gets great gas mileage, a 2012 Honda Civic sedan. We bundle errands so that we’re not driving all over the place (which is hard to do anyway on this island). Our monthly gas expense has also turned out to be less than it was back in Portland, even though gas prices here are higher.

We eat well, but we do it on a budget that we have been able to bring down by several hundred dollars a month since we first arrived here. We’re able to get great prices on produce at our local farmers’ market, and save by bulk shopping at Costco and Amazon Prime, and occasionally Walmart, buying just a few fill-in items at the local, but more expensive, grocery stores. Other than our weekly visit to the farmer’s market, we shop just once a month, and only step in a store otherwise for things like milk or eggs. Brett makes the girls a lunch every day; they often take leftovers. We rarely eat out, and if we do it’s usually at small “local” spots where we can get a good meal at a low price. If we do go to an upscale restaurant for a special occasion, we let them know we’re kamaaina (local) and usually receive a discount.

We take advantage of the benefits Brett receives because of his military service, which include low-cost car and rental insurance, military hotels and recreation services, and low-cost health and dental insurance. We don’t pay premiums or for prescriptions, but have to meet a deductible and pay a percentage of other costs. Brett is enrolled in Medicare, and I will join him next year; the military insurance will stay as our supplemental. We also have a less than negligible tax burden here in Hawai’i because of our income sources and because we rent (we still pay federal taxes though).

But wait! What about all those college expenses? Surely we have to be hiding something or scamming the federal government or someone in order to cover our children’s educational costs so we can spend our own money on traveling.

Nope, there’s no hidden wealth, no secret stashes of money, no undeclared or unreported income. Believe me, we have provided more financial documentation to the federal government and the colleges the girls applied to than we ever did for any mortgage. The total amount of federal financial aid both Meiling and WenYu will receive next year will be less than $4000, around 4% of their combined total college costs. They were both eligible for much more, but are turning it down because they won’t need it. All three of our daughters have known for many years that they would be responsible for their own college expenses, and they have worked incredibly hard (and are still working, in YaYu’s case) to earn scholarships to pay for college. Both Meiling and WenYu were awarded scholarships and grants by the colleges they (will) attend as well as outside scholarships, and Meiling currently works 20-30/hours week to pay for her room & board. We take care of some of their expenses (dorm room needs, luggage, clothing and such), as well as the girls’ travel between college and home, mainly using the frequent flyer rewards we have saved. Their brother pays for their books.

We budget and save for travel because it is important to us – we value experience. We would rather travel than buy things or live in a bigger house or own a home right now or drive a fancier car or go out to eat all the time. We put away money every month for travel; it’s a line item in our budget. It’s not a lot but it adds up month after month. If we spend less than our monthly budget amount in other areas, the leftover goes into our travel fund as well. We save all refunds and gifts, we use rewards from our credit card, and all those $1 bills and the change we save (about $1000/year) goes toward travel too. And, when we take a trip, we do it on a budget, and we stick to it.

That’s how we do it. Living below our means, and saving and taking advantage of the opportunities we have earned or been given allow us to get up and go somewhere else a few times each year, to see family, friends, and eventually, we hope, more of the world.

Sweatin’ To the . . . Everything!

imagesIf I had to pick the one thing about living in Hawai’i that I can’t handle it would be the humidity. I don’t mind the insects, frogs, chickens, geckos, heat, storms, tourists and high prices, but I have still been unable to make peace with the moist tropical air here. During the winter it’s not too bad, but during the summer and into early fall the humidity levels have just three settings: bad, even worse, and downright awful, and there is no off position. There are days where it feels like you’re living in a ball of hot, wet cotton.

Why is it so bad?

  1. We don’t have air conditioning (nor do most houses in Hawai’i, actually). The humidity is bearable if the tradewinds are blowing or it’s actually raining, but if not it gets miserable fast in the summer, and fans, ceiling and otherwise, can only do so much.
  2. One humid days I sweat. Not perspire – sweat. And, once I start sweating it’s like a switch has been flipped and I can’t stop. It takes hours for my body to reset its thermostat. I stay hydrated, minimize my activity and do my best to stay cool, but once it gets humid enough the sweating starts, even if I’m doing nothing more vigorous than reading a book, and just doesn’t stop.

I don’t know if all this sweating is just because I’m older or if it’s purely a Hawai’i issue. I’ve lived in humid areas before and don’t remember being this bothered by it. Other older women here have commiserated with me and seem to suffer more here as well, but others seem to deal with the humidity without problem. Maybe it’s just taking me longer to acclimatize then it did in the past. Brett and the girls are very physically active and sweat heavily when they exercise, but they take a shower, change their clothes and are good to go. I take a shower and I’m still wet and hot and miserable. And, if I do something too active when the humidity is bad, it literally zaps the energy right out of me, and takes me ages to get any of it back. I’m not doing much these days in the way of exercise, but thankfully haven’t gained any weight (so far) because I have been extremely diligent about limiting the amount I eat.

It doesn’t help matters either that our kitchen sits on the west side of the house, which is unprotected from the fierce late-afternoon sun. It’s bad enough cooking in there when it’s merely hot, but add in some humidity and it can be pure hell. I’ve gotten good about making sure the fan is pointing at me while I work in there, but even then I still usually come to the dinner table a hot mess and not in the best of moods, even if all I’ve done is cut up some cucumbers for a salad.

I know, I know – I am living in Hawai’i. It’s beautiful here, it’s paradise (really), and I feel blessed to be here. The humidity isn’t actually bad all the time either; the winter months are wonderful. I also love the way my skin stays soft here. I rarely need to use lotion these days unlike the buckets I went through back on the mainland. Here it would just be overkill (although I still wear sunscreen).

But when the humidity is bad, it’s very bad. I am so tired of sweating so much, but we still have a couple more months of “summer weather” to go. And when I’m miserable, well . . . lets just say I do my best not to make everyone else miserable. Word is that the humidity here this summer is the worst it’s ever been, and I can believe it. We’re all crossing our fingers that it doesn’t last as long as it did last year, and I’m already dreaming of November’s arrival.