Store, Sell, Give, Toss, Take

Friday, February 27, 2009

Soon - alarmingly soon - every single one of my physical possessions will have to be assigned to one of these categories:

1. Things to store - These items will be put into the smallest storage container possible, in Winnipeg. I'm hoping that this storage space will be about 5' wide x 10' long x 8' high. I think at some point I'll actually have to mark out that space in the middle of my living room and see how much will fit in it.

2. Things to sell - I'm gradually trying to sell some "bigger ticket" items through online classifieds like Kijiji. Everything else in this category will be put on offer at a giant garage sale, probably held on a Saturday in May, 2009. (Mark your calendar. Friends who come help with the sale get first dibs!).

(Note/Warning to My Generous Friends and Family: If you come to my Garage Sale and discover an item that YOU GAVE ME being sold for ten cents on the dollar, please don't be offended. It's not that I didn't like your gift, or appreciate it, or use it and love it every day. It's just that, well, I had to make some hard choices. It doesn't mean I don't love you.)

3. Things to give away - I figure there are some things that belong in a new home without me having to try to get a few bucks for them. For instance, Henry's old kennels and other small dog accessories will be going to the great people at Blackjack Bassets, where I got him from in the first place, and who really were Henry's other family. It's nice to think that future generations of basset hounds will benefit a bit from this. Also, I imagine there will be lots of stuff that doesn't sell in the garage sale, so I may be calling a charity to come and pick it up.

4. Things to toss - If it's not worth storing, or selling, and nobody wants it, and no charity will take it... well all I can say is I wonder why I owned such a thing to being with.

5. Things to take - the smallest category of all. Everything I take will have to fit into one carry-on sized bag, not including the clothes I wear.I know there are some really hard decisions about stuff in my future. I know it's all just stuff, but a lot of it is stuff that's important to me, or at least I think it's important. Emblematic of this whole struggle is my couch. I love my couch. It's the first piece of grown-up, non-futon-based furniture I ever bought. It's leather, but not that poofy marshmallow style of leather couch. And it's comfy. And it was expensive (at least to me) (at least at the time), and it would be expensive to replace. It may not look too special but it's... well, it's mine.

Then again, I have no idea where I'll be living when this is all over. I may end up in a small bachelor apartment where the size of the couch would be comically out of proportion. Maybe I'll store it for a year, at great expense, and then have to sell it anyways.

Here's a related post on the subject from Nomadic Matt:

Selling Your Stuff - Get rid of it all! When you come back you’ll find you have a new appreciation for simplicity and you’ll be amazed at how much stuff you had that you didn’t really need so sell everything. Many times people go away and end up staying away. Better to get rid of what you can than worry about... You don’t want to be in Nepal and thinking “I hope my TV is ok.”
Maybe Nomadic Matt is right. Maybe when I get back after living with so little for so long I'll end up opening up my 5' x 10' x 8' storage space and think, "What am I going to do with all this stuff?" But part of me also thinks that I really like my couch and I want it to be there to come home to. I've pretty much decided to let it go - I even have a friend who may be interested in buying it - but it continues to tug at my heartstrings. It's like a big leather reminder of what I'm leaving behind.

2 Mini Gear Reviews: Cutlery and Headphones

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Here's a look at a couple of small bits of gear I've accumulated that don't really warrant a whole post on their own, but that I've now used enough to have something to say about:

GSI Halulite Cutlery Set:

Another bit of gear recieved for Christmas, this set of lightweight cutlery is basic but handy. The pieces are made of some kind of metal alloy, and they come with a little carabiner clip to keep them all together. The finish on the metal is a bit weird - it's a dark grey matte treatment that feels different than traditional smooth stainless steel cutlery. It takes a bit of getting used to, and seems particularly attractive to melted parmesan cheese, which welds onto the finish with surprising tenacity. The fork tines are a bit on the stubby side, and the knife isn't actually sharp enough to cut anything - it's like a dinner knife. This is good though, because I've been able to put the whole set in my carry-on on 5 different flights now, and haven't had a problem.

So some of this sounds negative, but really these utensils fulfill their primary function - to convey food from dish to mouth - perfectly well. I used the fork and spoon a lot while on my recent 2-week trip to Calgary and Montreal, and it felt really good not to have to use disposable plastic cutlery all the time. Two thumbs up for the Halulite cutlery set.

Creative EP-630 Headphones:

I've always hated earbud headphones, mostly because they never fit in my ears, which are unusually small (though I prefer to think of them as "dainty and shell-like"). I wanted to like earbuds - they're smaller, lighter and more sturdy than anything with a headband or ear clips, making them perfect for traveling. However, too many frustrating experiences with the standard iPod white earbuds (and every other earbud I've tried) left me cold. A recommendation from the ever-helpful Phonella steered me to these Creative 'phones, and she even let me try hers out, so I knew what I was getting. The nice thing about the Creatives is that they come with three different-sized interchangeable squishy bits that go into your ears. The small ones worked for me, and because they squish right into your ears the headphones have noise-isolating qualities, which is nice on airplanes, and means you don't have to turn the volume up as high as with external 'phones. They've also turned out to be good for running, though they can pop out if they get extra sweaty (and I've discovered that my left ear seems to get extra sweaty. Curses!).

I'm really pleased with these headphones. For me the only thing that would make them better is if they had a built-in volume control or a mic for Skype. What they do have though, is a 9mm Neodymium magnet transducer and a gold-plated 1.2m Oxygen-Free Copper cable. They also have spleem-induction sub-drivers with extra wide florff-snorters and a 37.3 micro-flog whifflesnip for optimum M.O.R.G. response. Or something like that. I got 'em on eBay for $12.37, including taxes, exchange and shipping.

The First Goodbyes

Saturday, February 21, 2009

My trip is still months away, but I'm already saying goodbye to people I won't see again before I leave. I've spent the last two weeks in Montreal - I'm usually here two or three times a year doing freelance teaching work, and I'm at the end of my last visit. I also had a quick trip to Calgary, and I've got friends and history there too.

I lived in Montreal for 4 years from 1989 to 1993, and I've been doing freelance work in the city since 2000, so I've got a lot of close friends here. When I'm here I usually make time to see them for dinner, or to drink beer and watch the Habs, or just to connect somehow. Last weekend at the end of a fun evening of talk and tacos I left realizing that I really didn't know when I would see those people again, and it was a shock.

I feel like I've been shedding layers of myself since I first conceived of this plan. First I had to get used to the idea of leaving a job I've been at for more than ten years. Then I broke up with my boyfriend (Ok actually, inexplicably, he broke up with me. Seriously? I'm still not sure what happened there.) Then Henry got sick, and now he's gone too. In January I gave my notice at work, and they posted the opening, so the job is actually really gone. Soon - within weeks - my house will be on the market. But now the really hard stuff starts - saying goodbye to all the important people who are part of what makes me me. Calgary and Montreal are just the beginning.

I've got a lot of goodbyes ahead of me. I know that I'll see these people again, and I know that a year is a short amount of time, and it will go by incredibly quickly, but it's still scary. Soon there will be nothing extraneous left. No relationship, no dog, no job, no house, no friends, no family. It'll just be me and my passport and it will be really interesting to find out who I am then.

Running Tours

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A recent issue of Canadian Running Magazine featured an article about a trend that seemed tailor-made for me, the traveling marathoner. Apparently there are companies around the world that provide running tour guides for visitors to an area who want to go for a run and see the sights at the same time. The companies provide a well-trained guide runner who takes you for a spin around the city. As the website for City Running Tours says, the concept is "Ideal for the business traveler who is tired of running on the hotel treadmill, the marathon runner who is training for a race and is looking to continue or spice up their regular routine, or the recreational runner who wants to explore new and interesting routes."

I really like this idea. Of course the company that interested me the most when I read the article is the one that operates in a city I'm planning to visit - Sight Jogging in Rome. I checked out their website, and they seem to mostly employ foreign running guides, with just a couple of Italians. Still, it seemed like this would be a really fun way to see some of the city, and to get to know some good places to run. Since I'll be deep into training for the Athens Marathon during the time I'm in Italy, I was keen. Then I looked at the prices:

Yikes! 84€ an hour! At current exchange rates that's $103.71 CDN. That's more than half of my daily budget for everything in Italy - accommodations, food, sightseeing - everything. As much as I'd love to go for a run around the Coliseum with Javier or Paolo or Jorge, I think it might be way more cost effective to try and connect with a local runners through a local store or online, and see if they offer group runs. Obviously, these running tours are targeted at the more well-heeled traveler. The owner of Off'N Running says their tours "cater to business travellers who needed to get a run in but didn't want to be stuck on a treadmill." And Mike, of Mike's SightRunning in Berlin admits that he has "assigned priority to cooperations with Berlin's five-star hotels". Five-star hotels. Harumph.

However, for those of you in the hostel-challenged category, here are links to the different tour companies mentioned in the Canadian Running article, along with the prices for their basic services. (Naturally, the one company I'm interested is the most expensive.)

Quebec Jogging Tours (Quebec City)
- Three fixed routes available, $30 for the 6km tour, $60 for 9km, $68 for 11km

City Running Tours (New York, Chicago, Washington D.C., Austin, Charleston, San Diego)
- $60.00 for the first 6 miles, $6.00 for each mile thereafter

Off'N Running (Los Angeles)
- Tours up to 4.5 miles, $60 per person, per tour

SightRunning (Berlin)
- 60€/hour for one person, as low as 20 €/hour for 4 runners together

Sight Jogging (Rome)
- 70€/hour for one person, as "low" as 60€/hour for 4 runners together

Running tours may not be for the budget traveler, at least not every day. But it still sounds like a great synthesis of two of my top activities: seeing and running. Heck, that's 40% of the whole plan!

This time next year - February 13

Friday, February 13, 2009

Continuing in the basic west-to-east, mundane-to-exotic theme of my itinerary, today's TTNY destination is CHINA!

It's a bit ridiculous to expect I can sum up such a large, diverse and populous country as China with a few hundred words and some photos cribbed from a hasty Google Image search, but apparently I'm going to bodge something together anyways, so let's see how it goes.

The most populous country in the world, China's climate ranges from tropical to temperate; southern regions are at the same latitude as Mexico, and northern areas are around the same latitude as Montreal (which I can say from current experience is quite chilly this time of year. If I head that far north I may need to invest in some woolly socks). China borders Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam to the south; Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to the west; Russia and Mongolia to the north and North Korea to the east.

China has an incredibly ancient and accomplished culture, with civilization arising there around the same time it did in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Wikitravel notes that:

For centuries China stood as a leading civilization, outpacing the rest of the world in the arts and sciences. Paper, gunpowder, the compass and printing (both block and movable type) for example, are Chinese inventions. Chinese developments in astronomy, medicine, and other fields were extensive. A Chinese tomb contains a heliocentric model of the solar system, about 1,700 years before Copernicus. In mathematics, "Pythagoras' theorem" and "Pascal's triangle" were known in China centuries before their Western discoverers even lived.

Not only that but Europeans, through Marco Polo, were first introduced to paper money, coal, and window glass by the Chinese, who were also responsible for the blast furnace, decimal fractions, fireworks, playing cards, the collapsible umbrella and the bristle toothbrush, along with hundreds of other impressive and useful things. However, despite its impressive history, and its current status as a rising economic superpower, the majority of China's population - around 800 million people - still live in rural areas, farming with manual labour.

And now, a brief detour to recommend a bit of reading. "The Bridge of Birds" and "The Story of the Stone" are the first two books of a trilogy set in a semi-fictional ancient China, written by Barry Hughart (spoiler alert for those who haven't read the 3rd book in this series, like me, who didn't even realize there was a third book, and who read the Wikipedia article linked above and had a nasty shock about the end of the trilogy). The subtitle of the first book in the series is "A Novel of an Ancient China that Never Was", so the books aren't slaves to the exact history of the region, but they give a great flavour of the time and the people, and I heartily recommend them.

I'm hoping to be able to spend at least 3 or 4 weeks in China, though that seems an absurdly short amount of time for such a large place with so much to see. Of course I plan to hit the classic historical sights like the Great Wall, the Terra Cotta Warriors, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. There are also great scenic areas like Tiger Leaping Gorge and the Yangtze River, and impressive (if controversial) engineering feats like the Three Gorges Dam project. I also want to see the Bird's Nest Stadium, the iconic image of the 2008 Olympics which has apparently lost some of its shine, but none of its popularity with the Chinese people.

(In case it wasn't apparent from this post, I am a bit of a fan of engineering on a grand scale, so you may find that in the course of my travels I skip a few museums or galleries in favour of bridges, dams, aqueducts, skyscrapers, domes, tunnels... or things like that.)

China is also another one of those places I may consider doing a package tour of some kind - this will depend a lot on how much I've enjoyed the tours I've done to that point, how intrepid I feel by the time, and how the budget is holding up.

So, if any of you have an urge to go for a run with me along the Great Wall of China, meet me there some time in February, and bring woolly socks.

P.S. Apologies for the gap in posts this week, especially to anyone who might actually have noticed and appreciated that I was trying to keep to a Tuesday & Friday posting schedule. I'm in Montreal working and haven't had a lot of time for blogging or trip prep stuff. Consider this a preview of what it will be like when I'm in darkest Africa or some other place where internet access is dodgey or non-existent. Or possibly a preview of the general course of events when I'll be busy actually DOING the trip, as opposed to just blogging about it.

Random Realizations, The Sequel

Friday, February 6, 2009

Two more of the same, in what may be a series:

Random Realization #4:

I've noticed a small change in my behavior since I started planning this trip. Actually, it has less to do with the trip and more to do with contemplating moving out of my house and packing my life into the smallest space possible.

I have always been a pack rat, and I like to be surrounded by stuff. My desk at work is cluttered with books, binders, papers, toys and office supplies. My basement has lots of boxes of old documents, letters, schoolwork, cards and mementos. Even though I never go down and look at this stuff, I find it hard to get rid of. In a similar vein, my cabinets upstairs are often full of stuff I'm "saving for later". Bars of tiny hotel soaps, fancy jams and jellies received as gifts, extra cans of soup or boxes of cereal or rolls of plastic wrap... it's there if I need or want it. It's not like I'm surrounded by teetering piles of newspaper, towers of scrubbed-out yogurt containers and a ball of elastic bands the size of a Volkswagen. And I have no box labeled "Pieces of String Too Small to Save"; I just like my stuff.

Since I've started to realize that EVERYTHING in this house will need a new home in just a few months, I've been a lot more liberal in my use of these "saved for later" things. It just doesn't make sense to keep things around anymore. So I've been enjoying having the freedom to use up all kinds of stuff: those tiny soaps, the fancy super-rich hot chocolate from a Christmas at least 3 years ago, bits of lumber and sheet materials in the basement, ziploc bags of homemade pesto in the freezer, even bottles of wine received as gifts that were being saved for a special occasion. Heck, a few weeks ago I opened a bottle of red wine just for myself, on a Monday night. It was great!

Random Realization #5:

If you've been paying attention you know that I'm a long distance runner, and though it can be an inexpensive sport, one of the things you really can't cheap out on is shoes. Wearing cheap, inappropriate or worn out shoes is a quick way to get injured. I try to replace my shoes when they've got about 500kms of mileage on them, and I always like to run big races in new-ish shoes, so I go through a lot of them. If I'm going to run the marathon in Athens in November I'll need to do a fair bit of training before that - probably around 800kms in the 5 months of traveling leading up to the race. That means the running shoes I start the trip with will be dead dead dead by race day. For a long time I had grand schemes of stockpiling shoes with a friend in Winnipeg and having them mailed out before race day. Then I had an epiphany:

  1. People run all over the world.
  2. Therefore people need to buy shoes all over the world.
  3. Therefore there must be places to buy running shoes all over the world.
  4. Therefore I can just BUY SHOES WHILE I'M OUT THERE!
Suddenly I made what seemed like a big leap - it's not just running shoes I can buy "out there". When I need a fresh t-shirt, or a new notepad, or batteries or whatever, I'll just go to a store and buy them. In fact, there actually are stores in the rest of the world! I suppose there will be things I can't get, but there are things I can't get in stores in Winnipeg either, and I've managed to survive here for 12 years.

Then I made an even bigger leap: I should stop thinking of it as "out there", and I should stop thinking of myself as someone who lives in Winnipeg, or Canada, or North America. Once I sell my house and leave Winnipeg, I'll need to find a way to make anywhere I am my home.
"Travel is a state of being homeless; we should welcome the opportunity it gives us to live nowhere."
- from "Halibut Woman" by Barbara Sjoholm

Gear Picks: Eee PC 901

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

I am in LOVE with the Eee PC 901. It's tiny, it's functional, it's fun, it's connectable, and it's got brilliant battery life.

Let's get some details out of the way first:

  • Operating System: Windows XP Home
  • Display: 8.9"
  • Wireless Data Network WLAN: 802.11 n
  • Bluetooth: YES
  • Memory: 1GB (DDR2)
  • Storage: 12GB Solid State Drive (a speedy 4GB for programs, and a separate, slower 8GB for files)
  • 20GB Eee Storage (a free online storage space that seems pretty handy, free for 18 months)
  • Web Camera: 1.3M Pixel
  • Digital Array Mic
  • Battery: 8 hrs (not really, but pretty close)
  • Weight: 1.1 kg
  • Dimensions: 9” wide x 7” deep x 1” high

(And that's the obligatory photo of the Eee PC and my hand, to illustrate the incredible tininess of computer, or possibly the bizarre giganticness of my hand...)

The Eee PC falls into a very new category of computer that they're calling "netbooks". Their prime function is to be very portable, and to connect easily to the internet. Screen sizes are between 7 and 10 inches (measured diagonally of course, in that cheater way they measure TVs and monitors and stuff). Storage space is limited and the keyboard size is cramped, but that's the trade off for such extreme portability. They also have built in wi-fi, an ethernet connection, a bevy of USB ports, and solid state drives, though some are now made with a conventional spinning hard drive for higher storage capacity.

My first experience with a netbook was the Asus Eee PC 2GB Surf - which astute GSRED readers may remember was a promotional freebie from the Royal Bank. (Note "Asus" is pronounced "Ah SOOS" as in "One Theodor Geisel".) I got that unit so I could test out the whole netbook concept, and to see if I liked the Linux operating system that many netbooks come equipped with. It was the most base model available, with a mere 2GB of drive space, 75% of which was used up by the operating system. As well, the 7" screen was a bit small for comfort when viewing web pages (side-to-side scrolling is just a pain), and the battery life was on par with my laptop - about 90 minutes.

Mostly though, I wanted to test drive the Linux OS and see if I could live and work with it. The big advantages of Linux are that it's small and light compared to Windows, and it's almost completely virus proof. It's also open source, which is a nice idea, and one I'm be happy to support when I can. I really wanted to like the Linux, but in the end I decided to go with Windows XP. Windows might be the devil, but at least it's the devil I know. I'm a person with just enough computer knowledge to want to make everything exactly how I want it, but not enough knowledge to be comfortable mucking around with the Linux (sorry Tim Shel!). There was some software I wanted that just didn't seem to be simple to deal with in Linux (like iTunes), and as a friend put it, I didn't want to have to make maintaining my computer a hobby on it's own.

So here are the big things I knew I wanted:
  1. Windows XP operating system
  2. The smallest form factor possible that still had a screen at least 1024 pixels wide (to eliminate side-to-side scrolling for most web pages)
  3. A solid state drive (for maximum hardiness in the face of being dropped of the back of, say, an elephant)
  4. Really really good battery life (Who knows how long I'll have to go between charges?)
I did a fair bit of research and eventually decided that the Asus Eee PC 901 (Windows version) was the best choice for me. It seemed to fall right in the sweet spot between size and battery life like no other choice out there. As I write this (on the Eee PC), the battery meter is showing 61% battery life left, which translates to 3 hours and 17 minutes. Compared to my laptop, which gets about 90 minutes at 100%, this is fantastic and incredibly liberating.

I was irked that the Windows version of the 901 comes with a mere 12GB of solid state storage, whereas the Linux version comes with 20GB, but decided that I'd put up with the smaller drive for the convenience of not having to wipe Linux off the 20GB one and install my own copy of Windows (which I'd have to buy). To partially alleviate the drive space issue I bought a 16GB flash card that will live in the card slot whenever I'm not downloading photos from my camera. I hope my iTunes library will live on the flash card, leaving a generous amount of space on the SSD (solid state drive) for other files. I also got an 8GB USB drive for Christmas that's already been really handy.

I was really pleased to find a "recertified" 901 advertised on for about $500, and put in my order in a few weeks ago. The Eee PC arrived in time for me to have a week and a half to play around customizing it before my trip to Montreal, where I'd have a chance to put it to the test on the road. It even came bundled with a decent soft sleeve/case thingy.

Thanks (again) to Phonella, I was able to install some really good virus protection, and to jettison a lot of the useless crapware that comes bundled on Windows machines. The Eee actually came with a few decent applications preinstalled, including Skype and Star Office (a version of the open source suite Open Office that includes a word processor, spreadsheet, database, publisher and Power Point thingy). To these I added the following:
  • Firefox (though I'm still considering Chrome)
  • iTunes (like it or not, I think it's the best software out there for catching and managing podcasts, though I am keeping an eye on Songbird)
  • (a free image editor that I have no idea how to use)
  • Rocketdock (for a sexy desktop experience)
  • Taskbar Shuffler (because the buttons HAVE to be in the right order)
  • Flickr Uploader (for prepping photos to upload when I don't have an internet connection)
  • Foxit (a small and light replacement for the bloated and update-heavy Adobe Acrobat Reader)
  • doPDF (a free PDF creator)
  • CCCP the Combined Community Codec Pack (which has something to do with making the device play all kinds of different media files properly... the Asus support guy recommended it, and it worked, and that's all I know about it)
After clearing out the crapware and installing what I wanted, I've still got about 475MB of breathing room on the 4GB portion of the SSD dedicated to system and program storage. I also moved the "My Documents" folder off the 4GB drive, which helped a lot.

I've been enjoying watching video files on the device - when played full screen they look great, and the speakers are good enough that I could listen to the CBC radio morning show from Winnipeg while I was knocking around my hotel room in Montreal. I haven't tried the webcam yet (actually I haven't even figured out how to turn it on...). I also haven't tried the Skype yet either; the 901 comes with a built-in mic, but I suspect I'll want a real microphone of some kind to really get the most out of Skype.

A few caveats:
  • I had no trouble at all connecting to my wireless network at home, or to the networks at the hotel in Montreal, or my workplace in Montreal. However, I've had no luck at all connecting to the hidden networks at my regular job here in Winnipeg, which is frustrating and kind of worrying. I'm still working on how to fix this problem.
  • The battery that came with the original shipment from Asus was a dud. After the first charge (overnight) it only showed 56%, and when I ran it down and tried to charge it up again it only charged to 15%! Maybe this had something to do with it being a "recertified" device, though to all appearances it seemed brand new. Regardless, I called Asus service, and they sent me a new battery really quickly, and that's the one that's been giving me great life.
  • If you're not prepared to be smart and lean with what you install and store on the computer, then 12GB of drive space will fill up really fast. I'm finding it a bit cramped, but I think it'll end up being fine.
So really, this has just been a long-winded way of saying what I started out saying in the first place: I am in LOVE with the Eee PC 901. It's tiny, it's functional, it's fun, it's connectable, and it's got brilliant battery life.

And it's sooooo cute.