31 May 2012

Chinese Bus and New York Pizza

We boarded "The Chinese Bus" at 8pm last night at a Chevron gas station near downtown Atlanta. There weren't many people on the bus, which was good, since the ride would take approximately 14 hours.

The Chinese Bus

Before we got out of the Atlanta area Dude was fell fast asleep. AlphaPoppa and Zane played iPad and Nintendo games while I cuddled up and slept with Dude. The ride was loooong. We woke up and fell back to sleep many times. The bus made several stops and changed drivers a few times. By the time we arrived in Maryland it was clear that we'd arrive in ChinaTown,NYC 3 hours later than anticipated. AlphaPoppa started getting uncomfortable from sitting for so long, but the boys found ways to play across the seats to stay busy. We all stayed in good humor though.

Dude and me in the front.  Zane and AlphaPoppa in the back.
As always when you are on an adventure something out of the ordinary must happen. This trip was no exception. Have you ever been pulled over by a cop while riding on a bus? Thanks to the New Jersey Police Department we now can say we have! To make a long crazy story short our driver was ticketed for driving in the left lane and for having a tail light out. This angered on of the passengers so much that she approached the front of the bus and cursed out the driver for getting tickets then cursed him out for not knowing enough English to understand her insults! Lady, this bus is known by all as "The Chinese Bus" did you expect it to be operated by Australians?! Zane was so excited to hear new curse words from this lady. For some reason polyglot children love profanity more than their monolingual counterparts. We don't curse at home do when he hears them in public or on TV, his face lights up like Christmas. Whenever I tell the story he say,"Don't forget to tell them that the lady said bullshit!". He mouths the last word.

Riding through the Holland Tunnel

Zane said,"Wow this is the longest bathroom wall EVER!"
It took us a moment to realize that he was referring to
 the tunnel's tiled wall as bathroom walls.

Finally after 7 states, 2 tickets,13 naps, about 90 stops, and a bag full of snacks we finally made it to NY. For $60 I'd do it again. AlphaPoppa says the bus "gave him arthritis" and will catch a flight with Delta Airlines for his return trip, because Delta wouldn't have gotten pulled over. I find that funny and true. The kids enjoyed the ride and were in awe over my home city.

As soon as we arrived to my sister-in-laws apartment in Brooklyn we ran to the nearest pizza joint for lunch. Zane and Dude devoured their slices and declared that NY most certainly has the best pizza ever! I knew they'd love my city, I can't believe that I'd stayed away so long.

Tomorrow we leave for Berlin so we must rest. I am, however, plotting for a NY adventure after we trek across Europe. Stay tuned my friend, stay tuned!

30 May 2012

Apps for easy travel

Here are the free apps that I plan to use on our trip.

The usual suspects:

Twitter (follow me @Global1Echo)
Wells Fargo Bank
Worldwide news apps (CNN, BBC Mundo, etc)
Flashlight app
Find My iPhone- for both my iPhone and the kids' iPad

First time use apps:

After working many years in translating and interpreting I'm always sceptical of electronic translators. They usually suck and are far to literal.  So far, we've been playing around with this app and we like the audio component so we can actually hear the correct pronounciation of the words.  We try to say the phrase/ words on our own at first, then we laugh at ourselves once we hear how ridiculous our version is compared to the iTranslate voice's correct pronounciation.

EasyJet is a low prices European airline that takes your from country to country for as little as $30 one-way.  We will use them to get to Paris.  Unless we get an amazing last minute deal EasyJet is much cheaper and faster than Europe'a Rail Way System, The Eurail.

I have not used Instagram yet, but this has been highly recommended to me by my students and other bloggers.  I'll use whatever down time I can get to figure it out.  I'll keep you updated.

Berlin Metro
This app gives you subway directions while in Berlin.  Perfect for sight-seeing on a budget!

Guide Metro Paris
This app works off line and, according to the description, if online it will automatically detect the closest metro station to help you start your journey.  I look forward to using this app.

New York Subway Map
Just like the Berlin and Paris apps above this will help use get around during our short stay in NYC.

Currency app
This will help keep me up to date with the exchange rate and also help with budgeting.  Currently The EuroZone is experiencing high unemployment and political turmoil, two things that may affect the currency value.

This is a vacation home rental app hosted by the website airbnb.com.  I mentioned this website in a previous post and I'm happy that they also have a free app to support the website.

I'm having a good time playing with my new apps and I hope they are still useful in my times of need.  I also hope to visit European cities other than Berlin and Paris guided by apps to make that visit more enjoying.  As a search for, find, and use these apps I'll keep you updated.  After all, you will need useful information for your upcoming trip to the same cities ☺

What's in the bag?

My bag (left) Zane & Dude's bag (right)
I spent all day washing clothes and packing.  I put much thought into what to pack.  Our trip to Berlin and Paris will be quite different from our recent trip to Panamá.  Europe is much cooler this time of year, we will visit at least two countries this time, and we will stay in a combination of host families, rental apartments and god knows what else.  Our packing needs are definitely different this time around.  I think I did pretty well for 3 people for 1 month of travel.  So, let me cut to the chase, here's what's in the bag:

For me:

A bunch of underwear/ 2 bras
a few pair of socks
one pair of cute heeled shoes/ one pair of flip flops (I'll wear my sneakers on the plane)
2 pair of jeans
4 pair of crock pants
1 pair of black tights
1 pretty red wrap dress
2 short summer dresses
7 fitted shirts
1 light sweater
1 pair of pajamas

I packed mostly gray, blue, and cream colors that can be mixed and matched and can be worn many times.  I did, however, add in a few colored shirts to jazz up my small wardrobe.  I was able to fit all of this in a small carry-on size bag along with some toiletries that I will list later.

For the boys:    Zane 8 years old & Dude 3 years old

2 sleeping bags
5 pair of shorts (per child)
2 pair of jeans (per child)
a bunch of socks and undies
1 pair of pajamas (per child)
7 pair of short sleeve shirts (per child)
2 pair of long sleeve shirts (per child)
swim trunks

All of the boys belongings fit into one medium size suitcase.  The sleeping bags were bulky and if not for them I could have used a much smaller suitcase.  Since these are all children's summer clothes they take up less space and made up for the puffy sleeping bags.  We will also bring Dude's stroller, it travels free and we plan to do quite a bit of walking.

I could have packed a third bag since each child is allowed a free bag but I decided against it since the flight from Berlin to Paris charges for checked bags.  As for our carry on bags I packed a lonely planet guide book "Europe on a shoestring", phone chargers, camera, pull-ups for Dude, passports, e-tickets.  I will also pack a few things to keep the boys busy on the bus and plane.  I'll allow Zane and Dude to pack their own carry-ons and of course AlphaPoppa packed his own bag which will probably be a very simple guy duffel bag type deal.

Our toiletries are packed mostly in my bag:
toothbrushes (non-electronic)/ small toothpaste tube
child Motrin/ Amoxicilin (in case of child illness)
allergy meds for my hay fever (just in case)
nail clippers/ tweezers/ safety pins/ ponytail holders
lotion/ sun block
wash cloths/ towels
eyeliner/ mascara
dental floss
pillow cases
clothes detergent capsules

Some of these things can be used for multiple purposes.  If I need to hand wash underwear or other clothes the dental floss makes a good clothes line.  Pillow cases can be stuffed with clothes from the suitcase to serve as a pillow.  One of the most important things I packed is an electric chord adapter.  The plugs in Europe of different from the plugs in America, so to keep our many electronic devices up and running adapters are a must.

Adapter, passports, Lonely Planet guide book,
soon-to-be unloaded BlackBerry, iPhone 4
Speaking of electronics, I will be trying something new (for me) on  this trip.  I recently upgraded my cellphone to an iPhone 4 (AT&T refurb discount) but I am still in possession of my BlackBerry Torch.  AT&T is in the process of unlocking my BlackBerry so while overseas I can get a European sim card and phone number to make keeping in touch this family and friends in the US a lot easier.  For those of you unfamiliar with what it means to unlock a cell phone, it means that a restriction is removed from the phone allowing it to carry service from any carrier, including international cell phone companies.  While my BlackBerry can be used for calling home and contacting future friends in Europe, my new iPhone 4 will allow me to Skype, blog, upload to Instagram, etc. to keep in touch with my loyal blog readers. 

I called my bank earlier and alerted them that I will be traveling in Europe.  They made sure my card will not be blocked and that I will have access to money while in Europe.  I contacted our Berlin host and checked to make sure all bus and plane tickets are in order.  We've done all we can do to prepare now all that is left is to get a good night's rest and let things fall into place.

Did I miss anything?  What do you think will be useful to have in our bags?

29 May 2012

Not rich

With less than a week before our trip I'm still counting pennies and finding cheap, safe living arrangements in Berlin and Paris. Despite all the planning I'm doing, people seem less interested in what I'm doing, and more interested in a certain question that I've been hearing over and over:  How are you able to afford this, are you rich?

It takes all I have to not roll on the floor laughing at this question. The answer is absolutely not! We are solidly middle-class, but not rich in anyway... what-so-ever... at all.  And if you haven't noticed middle-class ain't so middle anymore! In order to make these trips happen we live a minimalist lifestyle, we save our money, buy cheap plane tickets, and we do not stay in expensive hotels.  Please allow me to break down each of these things for you.

Live below your means
This is the most difficult part for most people to grasp, but it is very natural for us.  We live in a house we can afford, we don't eat out often, and we drive used cars.  We purchased our home based on just one of our salaries and we did not go for the 5 bedroom house that we qualified for.  We instead decided on a smaller 3 bedroom house that did not have the high ceilings, walk-in closets, granite counter tops, and large bathrooms that most Americans go crazy for.  Our house is cute, practical, and lived-in.  We also do not hold car notes.  Im currently driving a 1988 Grand Marquis.  Yes, you read that correctly 1988!  The car cost us $500, is in great condition, and surprisingly good on gas.  Living a minimalist lifestyle takes a lot of guts, especially in a city like Atlanta.  People look at me in my car as if I've broken the golden rule of conformity.  Many people reading this have experienced what it is like to live beyond their means but have not taken the leap into living with what they need as opposed to what they think will impress others.

 My old school car

Cheap plane tickets
There are many ways to purchase cheap plane tickets.  Personally I just stalk all ticketing websites.  Lately I've been finding the best deals on cheapoair.com.  We are also open to taking lower-priced mutli lay-over flights or red-eye flights, which is actually helpful for jet lag and traveling with sleepy kids.  I know some travelers that make all of their purchases and pay all of their bills with their airline reward credit cards, which allows them to earn points to go toward plane tickets.  Some travelers also take-on part-time jobs with airlines that offer free-flight benefits for the whole family.  We are currently looking for an airline to sponsor the flights for our blog... I thought I'd just put that out there! ☺

No hotels, no resorts
After purchasing airline tickets your biggest expense will be living arrangements once you get there.  To cut back on these cost we have several tricks.  One option is to stay with family or friends who live in the place you are visiting.  My family is very international and we have friends or family on every continent.  We always buy groceries or chip in financially in some way while staying with them. If you don't have friends or family abroad find some!  You may have a co-worker from Korea or a neighbor from Italy who has a ton of family back home that can use a little extra money for hosting you and will gladly show you around their city.  You may have international contacts right under your nose and you didn't even know it.  A second option, is to find host families.  To do this you can look on websites like homestays.com or just do a google search for homestays.  The website will find the host families for you, and the arrangements can even include breakfast and dinner.  Not having to search for food is a huge help while traveling.  When I'm traveling with my students usually I find a local language school that offers packages for language lessons, homestays and tours.  This is a great option for people who want to learn a new language and meet new friends. 

Host student in Nigeria- found on google images

So many people tell me that there is no way that they are living with "strangers".  From their perspective I see how that can be a scary thought, but from my experiences I see a missed life changing opportunity.  I have stayed with 8 host families around the world and each and every one treated me with love, kindness, and respect.  I've never felt unsafe and each house has been comfortable and clean.  I actually feel safer living with local families than in isolated hotel rooms.  Local homestays are the ultimate intercultural exchange, it introduces you to new foods, new customs, a new language, new friends, the list goes on and on.  When I visited the British Virgin Islands 13 years ago, I found a local friend who later introduced me to AlphaPoppa... need I say more?!☺

This will be our first time using couchsurfing.com and the most amazing website ever airbnb.com. Couch Surfing has become very popular among travelers who are looking for a free and authentic traveling experience.  Once you join this online community you offer a space in your house to travellers for free.  That space can be anything from a couch to a whole room.  Your membership also makes you eligible to be a guest in the homes of other members, for free.  First, you create a profile about yourself and simply search your travel destination for available couches and send requests.  Before sending a request I highly recommend reading your potential host's reviews.  Airbnb.com on the other hand is a website that allows you to rent a room, private apartment, or house for a day up to a month or more.  You can pay anywhere from $10 a night to $9,000 depending on your destination and budget.  The apartments and rooms on this website are so cute that I often get stuck on here for hours ooh-ing and ahhh-ing.

There is a huge misconception that traveling requires a big budget.  Travelling is more a matter of faith than finance.  I have had people plan and save to travel with me only to back out at the last minute.  They get afraid and find an excuse as to why the trip will not work out.  Fear is a bitch and if you don't watch out it will sneak up on you and paralyze you.  When you travel you must go into it knowing that something you planned will not go your way, but things will still work out just fine, often times better than your plan.  You may be uncomfortable at times, but in safe location.  You will be scared sometimes, but that fear is usually from something imagined and not based in reality.  I'm an optimist to my core and in my mind things are perfect at this very moment and something amazing is always waiting for me around the corner.  If things don't go as I planned that OK because an opportunity for something better is now available.

Take a leap of faith

I hope you find these tips helpful and I hope you take a moment to reflect on how you can save money on flights and live below your means.  If you live above your means I'd also like you to reflect on why and if a desire to impress others causes you to over-spend.  Please also think about fear and opportunities that you've passed up because of fear.  Are you ready to get out of your comfort zone? Ya know that is where the magic happens...

22 May 2012

It's official.... I'm crazy

I'm crazy.  I am. I really am.  Let me tell you how I know this.  I'll start from the beginning.  Last summer we started saving for a "BIG TRIP" (or two) for this summer. Trip #1. Visit my cousins in Liberia, Africa. This trip offers a great set up; very expensive plane tickets $1,200 each (times 4 for me, AlphaPoppa and the boys) but free room and board with my family.  We would, of course, chip in and buy food, etc. to off set the cost of hosting us.  Trip #2. Tokyo, Japan to visit AlphaPoppa's brother, his wife, and baby.  Once again trip #2 offers a place to stay with family, we can chip in to off set costs, etc.  However, both trips slipped away from us.  The airfare to Africa went up to nearly $2000 each and that would be way over budget.  My brother-in-law in Japan, a sailor in the Navy, is out at sea with my sister-in-law just starting a new job.  Even though both trips fell through we knew we wouldn't be content staying home all summer.  The urge to be on the move flows through our veins, so we decided on New York City.   I'm originally from The Bronx, I have many childhood friends there, a bunch of cousins, friends, and AlphaPoppa's sister is there.  This seemed like the best bet.  We can use all the extra savings for Broadway, The Bronx Zoo, Handsom cab rides in Central Park, etc.  I found a $60 bus ride from Atlanta to China Town, New York on what is known as the "Chinese Bus".  It leaves Atlanta at 8pm and arrives on Canal St. in Manhattan at 10:30 am, I figured that this will also be a good way for the boys to sleep the whole ride.

Atlanta to New York City route

Now, the story is not crazy, yet.  Not until a series of spontaneous events happened on Saturday night, 2 nights ago.  I had this very bright idea that perhaps we could catch a cheap flight out of NYC to Paris.  Zane's school is having a meet up there for the Japanese-French immersion students and even though he is not in that program it's a small school and few families were planning to get there.  So I checked the prices. Getting into Paris was running about $1,600 a person.  Nope, not possible.  So then I figured as long as we can get into Europe we can just take the Eurail Train System into Paris.  So I started checking other European cities.  Madrid, nope. London, nope. Rome, nope. Berlin? What?! $500 round trip from NYC to Berlin?! $676 after taxes?  Impossible!  Nope it's possible.  I immediately called AlphaPoppa and asked, "Hey, you want to take the kids to Germany in June?  The tickets are cheap."  He says," Sure, what dates.  I can only be away from work for a week". I say,"Me and the kids will stay in Europe the whole month of June.  I'll book your ticket for the beginning of the trip."  I then chose June 4th- 29th for me and the kids and I BUY THE TICKETS!!!! Just like that no hesitation, nothing... CRAZY!  Once I get my e-mail confirmation I look things over and see that I accidently chose June 1st NOT the 4th. OMG!!!!  I call the hubby back and let him know what happened, I'm in a panic now.  June 1st is less than 2 weeks away.  I know it's only a 3 day difference from what I intended, but I'm freaking out by this point.  He tells me, "leave the dates and don't worry about it, we'll figure something out."  I then nervously book his ticket from the 1st to the 8th.  FoxyMama reassures me,"Darling, you did not book those tickets for June first by accident. There are no accidents."  Mom, this is not the time to go Kung Fu Panda Buddhist on me!

There are no accidents.

Now that we have tickets. I guess a plan is in order. We are so freakin' backwards!  The plan is that we will land in Berlin, Germany on the 2nd find somewhere to sleep for a couple of days then head to Paris on a train, hook up with the school parents, then AlphaPoppa will "find his way back" to Berlin to fly back to NYC then get back to Atlanta.  I couldn't sleep saturday night.  I've traveled under much crazier circumstances before but never with the kids.  Am I being irresponsible?  Have I lost my mind?  Why can't I be like other people and just be happy buying things, sleeping in late, and watching reality TV? When I tell Zane about our trip I'm going to be in BIG TROUBLE!  He's the most conservative member of the family (at 8 years old) and I'm not prepared for the series of questions that he will ask me. "Mom, do you speak German?" "Where are we going to sleep?" "Do you know anyone in Germany?" "How much money do you have for this trip?" etc. etc.  All my answers will not be to his satisfaction.  Europe is expensive and this travel on a shoestring budget has been reduced to traveling on a dental floss budget. 

Berlin, Germany- Paris, France

I'm always telling others to step out of their comfort zone.  Traveling to Germany is out of mine and I'm nervous.  I don't speak German and I've never been there.  The only person I know there is my old roommate that I lived with in France 10 years ago.  I have her address but I haven't spoken to her in 10 years! My many trips to Latin America and the Caribbean have been like visiting home for me.  I know the cultures and languages so well that its a part of my own individual identity, most definitely inside my comfort zone.  As nervous and unsure as I am I refuse to cancel or adjust our new tickets.  I have 10 days to make this make sense.  Fortune favors the brave so Im putting on my courage cap and about to make some miracles happen. Yikes!