Banking on the Road

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

I've been a Royal Bank customer for many years - they were the ones I turned to when I first moved to Montreal for school in 1989. I had all my "start-up" funds in a certified cheque that I deposited with a local credit union, where they promptly held the cheque to verify the funds, leaving me broke while trying to set myself up in a new apartment in a new city. (Note to Caisse Populaire: "It was a freaking certified cheque. The whole point was that it shouldn't need to clear! It was CERTIFIED!!!" And yes, I'm still bitter about this 20 years later...) So I marched down to the Royal Bank, and they were very nice to me, and facilitated getting a lump of money sent from home very quickly, and I've been an RBC person ever since.

But when it comes to international travel, RBC leaves a lot to be desired. If I were to use my Royal Bank ATM card while overseas, I'd be shelling out $5.00 every time I used it to withdraw cash from an ATM, not including any fees charged by the bank associated with the machine itself. This seemed perfectly usurious, so I was looking for another option.

Thanks to a recommendation from Jason and Gillian at One Giant Step... Is All It Takes, I've signed up with Citizens Bank. (In a very 21st-century, URL-friendly way, they've omitted the possessive apostrophe. Or maybe the name means "bank of many citizens", as opposed to "bank owned by a citizen", in which case there would never have been an apostrophe to begin with.) (And maybe you didn't even notice, and don't care at all about this grammatical side-trip.)

Citizens Bank is based British Columbia, and was founded in 1997, but doesn't have bricks-and-mortar branches; it's all internet-based. They apparently have "boutiques" in Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto, but those aren't really branches, they're just store-fronts for people who want to find out more because they aren't comfy banking on the web without having dealt with someone in person first.

For us globe-trotting types, the great advantage of Citizens Bank is their Global Chequing Account:

No Citizens Bank ATM fees worldwide!

With a Global Chequing Account, simply use your Access Card to withdraw cash in the US or internationally in the local currency as you need it. You pay the current exchange rate with no additional fees.

  • no fees for Canadian, US or international ATM withdrawals*
  • no monthly fees or minimum balances
  • no fees for debit card purchases in Canada or US
  • free bill payments, transfers, cheques and balance inquiries

All the benefits of a regular chequing account, none of the extra charges. This truly is a no-fee Global Chequing Account

Signing up was very easy - it's all done on the Citizens Bank website (of course). Once the application is received, you call in and get an account number and access code to sign in online. You also have to mail them a personalized cheque from an existing bank account, so they can verify something or another**, and then the amount from that cheque is deposited into your account and you're ready to go. I'm still waiting to receive my ATM card, but I'm sure it will be here soon.

One of the things I found interesting was the security process involved when you first set up the account online. My RBC account simply requires me to enter my bank card number and my password. My Citizens Bank account has an account number and a password, but there's another layer of security involved too. I also had to pick a "security picture" and a "security phrase" that are displayed every time I log in to my account. The set-up page shows a grid of 6 icon-like pictures in a number of different categories, and you get to cycle through page after page of these until you see one that you like.

Then you also enter a phrase that will be displayed along with your picture of cavorting kittens (or whatever), so you know that you've signed in securely. It all seems to be a step beyond what I'm used to, which is reassuring.

As a company, Citizens Bank also claims to have some pretty impressive corporate ethics. Of course they offer (even encourage) paperless statements, but that's nothing revolutionary. What's a little more interesting is their no-fee Visa card that donates $0.10 to Oxfam Canada every time you spend $20.00, and one that donates the same amount to Amnesty International. They're apparently the first North-American-based bank to be carbon-neutral, and Citizens Bank employees have helped with Habitat for Humanity builds in B.C., and they donate blood to the Red Cross and help clean up urban green spaces. They probably also spend their coffee breaks rescuing kittens stuck in trees and helping old ladies cross the street. Ok, I'm kidding about that last bit, but check out this Youtube video and you'll see I'm not far off. These folks really seem to be doing some good.

We'll see how things go when I'm actually out on the road, but for now I give Citizens Bank two thumbs up.

* You still have to pay the fees charged by the bank that owns the machine, but that's true locally too.

** The email I got actually says: "Your signed, personal cheque is used for identification and signature verification, as required by federal law"

Gear Picks - Kwikpoint Translator

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Kwikpoint Translator falls into the slap-on-the-forehead simple-but-smart category. I found the website ages ago through a recommendation in the "Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World", and tucked it away for later. Last month I finally decided to surrender my credit card number, and I'm now the happy owner of the Kwikpoint International Translator (laminated passport size). Total cost, including exchange and shipping - $35.51, via Paypal.

The handy card folds out to about 22" x 11", and lets you communicate when you don't know the language and have to get a message across. With Kwikpoint, you just point at the pictures that show what you want.

Looking for a room for the night? Point at this:

How about a cup of coffee?

Want to know how much the coffee costs?

In fact, it seems you can get across some fairly complex ideas by stringing together a series of pictures. For instance:

"Waiter, I'll have the deep-fried chicken heads please, with LOTS of ketchup."

And imagine the mayhem MacGyver could get up to if someone actually understood his request for this:

The Kwikpoint has a big section for food (with dark and light, draft and bottled beer), shelter (which differentiates between western style toilets and squat toilets), work (lots of office-y kind of stuff), activities (including running!), travel (even by helicopter), emergencies (fire, police, ambulance, etc...), and a few key phrases in 9 different languages (including the all important sentence "Point to it!").

Kwikpoint translators are available in several categories - mines falls into the travel category, which also includes a larger sized version with the same information, and a pared down wallet-sized version. In fact, I got the wallet-sized version as a free bonus for completing an online survey, but it's pretty basic (It doesn't even have the chicken head... what fun is that?). It looks like Kwikpoint also does a lot of business with specialty products for medical and law enforcement, and even have whole categories of translators for the military in Afghanistan and Iraq (and those are some alarming little pictures...).

And there are a LOT of little pictures on these things. Many more than I suspect I'll need. However, I find it a bit annoying that the Kwikpoint people squandered 4 whole pages on cover art, unnecessary instructions, testimonials and advertising. Consider how much they crammed onto this half page:

Imagine what they could have included in the space wasted on ads and stuff? I'm sure with another 4 pages I'd be composing sonnets with this thing.

My other quibble is with the astronomical shipping costs. The Kwikpoint is basically a folded bit of paper, mailed out in an envelope. The thing itself cost $14.99 USD, but the shipping was another $13.00! For that kind of money it should have come on a velvet pillow borne by winged monkies. Ridiculous. These are pretty minor quibbles though - overall I'm very happy with this product, and can't wait for the first time I really need it, instead of just playing with fun combinations... like this one!

"Could you please direct me to the waterskiing goats?"

This time LAST year - Boston

Monday, April 20, 2009

Non-runners may not realize this, but today is a very special day. Today is the day of the 113th running of the Boston Marathon.

On this day LAST year, April 21st*, 2008, I ran the 112th Boston Marathon. I didn't know it at the time, but I think qualifying for and running Boston was one of the things that lead me to embark on this big adventure.

I started running in the spring of 2003, and in the winter of 2004 I decided to try and run a Half Marathon. I took a clinic at the Running Room, and dutifully showed up every week to run with the 2:00 hour pace group and the listen to the evening's clinic topic. Usually the talk was about some really specific running thing - shoes or hydration or stretching or something like that - but I remember one night we talked about goals. The leader of the clinic asked people to share their running goals with the rest of the group. I don't really remember what the other people said, but I remember what I heard in my head when he asked the question. At that time I hadn't even completed the half marathon, but the world that popped into my head when I thought about running goals was this:


The Boston Marathon is the world's oldest annual marathon, and is probably the best known running event in the world. For many runners, it has a special significance. Most marathons are open to anyone who pays the entry fee, but Boston is different. You have to qualify to run Boston, meaning you have to run another marathon in a specific time, which varies according to your age and gender. Because entry is restricted, qualifying for Boston becomes a life goal for many runners. And for me, even though I'd never done a marathon, the idea of running Boston was a powerful one, and it really got its hooks into me.

The lure of Boston was enough to keep me training hard and running marathons for all the years following that fateful clinic night at the Running Room. My first full marathon was in Regina, in the fall of 2004. I finished that one in 4:34:53. The next summer I ran a 4:12:45. Then 4:06:30, then 3:54:59. I had a rough time running in the spring and summer of 2007, but on December 2, 2007, I ran the Las Vegas Marathon and beat my previous personal best, finishing in a time of 3:41:09. That was enough to qualify for Boston with 4 minutes and 50 seconds to spare.

So one year ago, on April 21st, 2008, I toed the line in Hopkinton, Massachusetts and ran with about 25,000 other people for 26.2 miles to the most famous finish line in marathoning, on Boylston street in downtown Boston. And it was GREAT. Actually, the race itself was really really hard, but the whole Boston Marathon experience was totally freaking awesome! It was something I'd worked towards for so long that I'd really built it up in my head, and I'm happy to report that it exceeded even my expectations. (So much so, that I wrote a book about it, but that's another story.)

And then I came home, having achieved a really big goal, and with a sort of an emptiness starting where that goal had been. It wasn't long after that when I first had the idea for this big trip, and all the life-changing stuff that goes along with it. So in a way, those steps I took after crossing the finish line on Boylston Street were the first steps in my next big journey. In fact, while I was poking around through my photos to find ones to add to this post, one leapt out at me as being particularly prescient. At the trade show in Boston last year, they had a large wall covered in little blue disks on which runners were meant to write inspiring or funny or meaningful messages about why they run. Here's what I put on mine:

It seems unbelievable that it was only a year ago that I was in Boston running the marathon, and the idea of a trip like this hadn't even occurred to me. I can't imagine what my life will be like a year from now, on the day of the 114th running of the Boston Marathon. Maybe I'll be watching the race from a hostel in Hanoi.

And to any of my running buddies who are toiling through that tough, hilly course today - run hard, have fun, and savour the day. You earned it.

*The actual date of last year's race was April 21st. This year it's on April 20th, since the race is traditionally held on Patriot's Day, the 3rd Monday in April.

** And thanks very much to Phonella for taking that amazing picture of my Boston Marathon medal.

Volun-tourism, Part Two

Friday, April 17, 2009

Ok, how does this sound for a cool way to spend two weeks of your life?: Volunteering on a Dolphin Research project in Kenya!

Volunteers will conduct dolphin research from a surface vessel and have the opportunity to snorkel to observe turtles. Full training is provided by GVI's full time research staff allowing volunteers a hands on and invaluable contribution to the preservation of these majestic animals. Volunteers will live and work in the beautiful Shimoni Archipelago, off the coast of the Indian Ocean on the border with Tanzania, a world class location for dolphins as well as other wildlife. Many exciting opportunities exist for weekend side trips as well as joining other GVI projects in the nearby area.

GVI stands for Global Vision International, a non-religious, non-political organization that "promotes sustainable development worldwide through responsible volunteering programs." They claim to offer volunteers "the chance to participate in projects and expeditions around the world, make a genuine in-country difference, and contribute to work in the field."

GVI has a whole website of really interesting looking projects, like the Turtle Conservation Program in Greece, which is unfortunately not on my radar screen because of scheduling - apparently the turtles only need to be conserved between June and September. There's also a very interesting Wildlife Conservation Program in South Africa where you learn how to track and monitor wildlife like lions, leopards and hyenas. The website is set up really well, and lets you search for programs according to duration, cost, region or "focus" - that's whether you want to do marine conservation or teach English, or build schools, or do community work or whatever.

But back to the dolphins! The project is intended to support the Kenyan government's efforts at marine conservation, the ultimate aim is "the self-financing of conservation through regulated ecotourism and resource use." Participants help in collecting population data on a number of marine mammals, but the main focus is on examining the population ecology of the dolphin species inhabiting the Shimoni area and the Kisite-Mpunguti marine protected area, near the Kenya-Tanzania border. There's no special training required, except that you have to take a swimming test when you first arrive (an unaided 200m surface swim, followed by a ten minute float in the open sea environment). Accommodations are provided in a shared housing arrangement, though other parts of the website mention camping so I'm not sure exactly what the conditions are, except that they're rustic. There's limited electricity provided by solar panels (no blogging!), and washing is either by bucket-showers, or in the ocean. Meals are provided "on a rotational basis" (which I assume means people take turns cooking, not that you only get fed every other day...)

Volunteers come for a two week stay and the cost for that two weeks, including all the solar electricity, bucket showers, and rotational meals, is $1590.00 USD. Not cheap, but on par with Habitat for Humanity, which has far fewer dolphins.

And speaking of Habitat for Humanity - I finally got a response from them about my question of how their "faith-based" nature plays out in day to day life on a project. In fact, the reply I got was from the Global Village Program Director and was a long, thoughtful and considered response to my question. Here's an excerpt:
While Habitat is a “Faith Based” organization its mission is to work with people of all faiths and beliefs in pursuit of its mission to provide simple, decent, affordable housing… for everyone... worldwide. Part of working with people of all faiths and beliefs is being respectful and accepting of everyone, not just the folks who are like you and so Habitat for Humanity is welcoming of all people, in the family selection process for homeowners, in its hiring practices for its staff and in the recruitment of its volunteers. In fact, I would say that the majority of volunteers and team leaders on our Global Village trips, would not associate themselves with a particular religion or faith.
That sounds o.k. to me, so H4H is still on the table, which means so far we've got Houses vs. Dolphins. Stay tuned for Buddhists and Farmers. Perhaps I'll see if I can figure out how to create a poll and y'all can cast a non-binding vote on what you think I should do.

This time next year - April 14

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

I'm playing fast-and-loose with the TTNY schedule these days because at this point it's really all just speculation. My itinerary is now in version 3462937.1 or so, but what the heck, let's forge ahead! Maybe I should start calling these posts STNY (Some Time Next Year)...

Laos is a small, mountainous, land-locked country in southeast Asia, sandwiched between China, Vietnam, Thailand and Burma (or as it is referred to in news reports: "alsoknownasMyanmar"). The population is just over 6 million and the currency is the engagingly named "Kip", though apparently there are not nearly enough Kip for all those 6 million people, because Laos is one of the poorest countries in the area. With its proximity to backpacker favourites like the beaches of Thailand, the temples of Cambodia, and the phở of Vietnam, Laos is southeast Asia's forgotten destination. That's exactly why I'm looking forward to visiting, and may even forgo some of those hotspots to spend a bit more time in Laos. Laos was also featured in the Fall 2008 issue of Verge, so I'm all keen on it now.

The official language of Laos is Lao, whose written alphabet is quite beautiful. Here's the Lao national motto ("Peace, Independence, Democracy, Unity and Prosperity") written in script:

Isn't that great?

Luang Prabang is the former capital of Laos, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site (noted as "Louangphrabang" on the map above). It's got 66 temples, half of which are still in use, lots of traditional Lao wooden houses, and bits of European architecture from when Laos was a French colony. Also, the whole place is positively crawling with Buddhist monks, many of whom are young novices (or whatever a trainee Buddhist monk is called). To give you an idea of the pace of life in Luang Prabang, one of the big tourist activities is to line the streets to give alms to the monks who walk silently through the town at 6 am, with alms bowls around their necks. (In fact it's the Buddhist villagers the monks really rely on, the tourist are just there, well, being tourists). I'm going to direct you once again to Jake at "around the world", his post on Luang Prabang makes me want to go there. Now. Probably you should skip reading the rest of this post and go read Jake's stuff because he was actually there, and I'm just cribbing from Wikipedia. And here's a photo from that same post:

Moving out of the city, let's talk about another site in Laos that seems just fantastic. In fact, it's actually many sites, know collectively as the Plain of Jars. And that's just what it is - more than 400 sites of gigantic carved rock jars, ranging in height from three to ten feet, and weighing up to 13 metric tonnes. Archeologists are not really sure why they're there; some think they were funerary urns for cremated human remains, and some speculate they were for collecting rainwater for passing travelers, since many of the jars lie along a possible trade route. I like the Lao legend that a race of giants once lived in the area. There's also a story that an ancient king, prevailing in a long fought battle over his enemies, used the jars to brew enormous batches of rice wine to celebrate his victory.

Unfortunately most of the clusters of jars are not open to tourists, or anyone else, because they're surrounded by thousands of unexploded bombs. Apparently, the Laotian Civil War in the sixties and seventies "included significant participation by the North Vietnamese Army, American, and South Vietnamese military forces" and they left a lot of stuff behind after massive bombardments. Jar sites one, two and three are open to visitors, but it seems the funding to clear any other sites has run out. This means that Laotian efforts to have the Plain of Jars declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site are stalled, and makes it difficult to conduct any more scientific analysis of the area.

How is it that I can be a reasonably well-educated person and never even have heard of this whole Plain of Jars thing before I opened up the Wikipedia article about Laos? Seriously - an entire area of gigantic stone monoliths of unknown origin and purpose? It seems like the Plain of Jars should be up there with Stonehenge. How many other fantastic and unknown-to-me things will I stumble on while I'm out there? The mind boggles.


Friday, April 10, 2009

It's done. My house is sold. If I still had any doubts about whether I was really committed to this whole venture, they have to be gone now. As of May 31st, I'll officially be unemployed and homeless.

The sale process was pretty painless and quick - exactly according to plan, in fact. Showings started last Friday, with an Open House on Sunday, and a call for offers on Wednesday night. Between the pre-arranged appointments and the open house about a hundred people came through, and my agent worked really hard for me. In the end all those showings generated two offers, and two is all it takes for one person to get nervous and dig a little deeper, and that's what happened. I ended up getting just a little bit more than my asking price, and the sale comes with no conditions, and a very convenient possession date. In fact, the buyer even wants to know if I'd be interested in selling any of my stuff too, which could be quite handy for both of us.

I was really pleased to learn that the successful offer came from a first-time home buyer who is reportedly really excited about the house. I like this because this was my first house, and I put a lot of work and a lot of love into it, so I want it to be special for someone else too. It's a great house; I hope he appreciates it as much as I have.

It's bittersweet though. On one hand, I'm happy and relieved that it's over and I can now concentrate on prepping for the trip instead of spending all my spare time with sawdust and cans of paint. On the other hand, it's my house. I've loved it and cared for it and worked on it for 11 years now, and it will be really really sad to let it go.

It's another milestone, and they're coming fast these days. There's still a lot to do, and I think these last two months will go by incredibly quickly. At least now I can get on with some of the fun stuff like actually buying a plane ticket!

More endings

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Those are my hockey skates, hanging up both literally and figuratively.

I played my last game as a Hockey Bag on Sunday afternoon (a team name I did not choose, but which - I have to admit - has grown on me). It was a tough game - we played really hard and really well, but the end was bitter. The officiating was odd all game - many many more borderline penalties were called than we're used to, but we killed them all. Then, with my team leading 2-1, there was an extended scrum in front of our net. It was the kind of play that's normally whistled down quite quickly so that's what we were expecting. Instead, the ref let things continue until one of the opposing players poked the puck in over the line. It was the game-tying goal, and we felt really ripped off about it. And because of the way our league structures playoff games, we weren't even allowed the usual 5 minute sudden death overtime period. It was a frustrating and maddening way to end the season.

Despite the ending, though, it was a pretty good year for the Hockey Bags . It was our third winter playing together, and we finally managed to win a few games and have a bit more fun doing it. None of us is being scouted for the Canadian Women's Olympic team or anything, but at least we didn't end the season at the bottom of the lowest division in the league again. I don't feel like I had a great year - since I started running hockey has taken a back seat a lot of the time. And this year I've been distracted by the trip planning and all the work that's going in to that. I managed just 7 points in 21 games, and a lot of the time I had trouble getting motivated.

And that's it for me and hockey until don't know when. It's another ending, and more good byes. It feels like everything these days is don't-know-whens and last-ofs and endings and goodbyes, and I know this is going to keep up for the next two months.

Good things are happening too, but they're all kind of abstract and most are still in the future. What dominates my life right now are monumental life-changing things like the hiring of my replacement at work, and my house going up for sale. These go along with the smaller, but still significant things like the last hockey game, and it's all a bit overwhelming.

Anyways... is anyone in the market for some extra-sweaty, 15-year old hockey equipment? Going cheap! My lovely purple-and-teal socks and Hockey Bags jersey will go back to the team, to be passed on to whomever they deem worthy to fill the skates of #9, but if you're looking for a beat-up red helmet or half a roll of sock tape, let's talk.

And to my fellow Hockey Bags, here are a few things to remember:

  • Look where you're passing.
  • It's never a bad idea to shoot.
And of course, in hockey as in life:

"Keep yer stick on the ice!"

Hashing Around the World

Friday, April 3, 2009

Ah, hashing... by which, of course, I mean "participating in a run with the Hash House Harriers", so drag your minds out of the gutter. I am lucky/crazy enough to count myself a member of the Winnipeg Hash House Harriers, one of hundreds of similar chapters of the worldwide "drinking club with a running problem". Here I will borrow from Wikipedia, which has a quite excellent and exhaustive entry on the whole business, well worth a visit.

Hashing began in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 1938, when a casual group of British colonial officials and ex-pats would meet after work on Monday evenings to run through the environs of Kuala Lumpur, to get rid of the excesses of the previous weekend. They took the name "Hash House Harriers" because as bachelors they were billeted in a club known locally as the Hash House due to its monotonous food.

Their runs were patterned after the traditional British paper chase. A hare was given a head start to blaze a trail, marking his way with shreds of paper, all the while pursued by a shouting pack of "harriers." Only the hare knew where he was going...the harriers followed his clues to stay on trail. Apart from the excitement of chasing the hare and solving the clues, reaching the end was its own reward...for there these thirsty harriers would find a tub of iced beer.

Hashing died out during World War II after the Japanese invasion of Malaysia, but started again shortly after the war. However, it didn't really take off until 1962, when the phenomenon started to grow, spreading through the Far East, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as Europe and North America. Hashing experienced a large growth in popularity during the mid-1970s.

By the end of the 20th century, there were thousands of Hash House Harrier clubs in all parts of the world, with newsletters, directories, and even regional and world hashing conventions.

I'm particularly fond of the philosophy of the original Hash House Harriers, quoted here from a 1950 KL city club registration card:

  • To promote physical fitness among our members
  • To get rid of weekend hangovers
  • To acquire a good thirst and to satisfy it in beer
  • To persuade the older members that they are not as old as they feel
It's probably not a good idea for me to go into the minutiae of hashing here - the arbitrary and bizarre "rules", the funny nicknames, the politically incorrect songs... let's just say it's loads of fun to get together for a completely unstressful run, a cold beer (or six), and a round of silly songs once a week. I've made some new friends, grown closer to others I already knew, and generally had a great time.

But what, you ask, does this all have to do with traveling around the world? Good question. As I mentioned in paragraph one, this is a WORLD-WIDE organization. In fact, it's likely that there are Hashes in every major city on my itinerary. Lots of really big cities have more than one group, with each one running on a different night of the week. What this means is that I can hook up with hashers and go for a group run basically everywhere I go. In fact it's quite common for traveling hashers to contact the group in the city or cities they're visiting, and for them to run and drink with these local hashers. Also, hashing seems to be a predominantly English-speaking practice. So it's not just that I'll be in contact with a group of local runners, I'll also be in contact with a friendly bunch of English speakers with lots of local knowledge and predisposition to accept me as one of the gang. I think this could prove to be both useful and very very fun.

On On to the World!