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There and Back Again: Travel Notes

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Sep '11

Managing Financial Paperwork from the Road

Packing up for one month in Cambodia was much the same as for my eight month trip. I’d like to share some ways to manage your financial and practical affairs from the road. They’re all simple, but you need to allow enough time before you leave.

What’s in your wallet?

Open your wallet and find everything with an expiration date. Check your car registration and passport too. Will they expire while you’re travelling? Make arrangements to renew them. The US State Department reports a 4-6 week processing time for routine applications.

When you depart, take unneeded cards out of your wallet and — this is key — put them someplace easy to find when you return. I left sensitive items, like credit cards, with a friend. The library and shopping cards stayed in my car. I’d forgotten I put them there, and was delighted when they magically appeared at my first trip to the supermarket.

Your Guardian Angel

If you’re going on a long trip, you need a trusted person back home to be your agent on the ground. Tim and Jessica coined the term “Guardian Angel”. I had two: my parents, and my best friend.  My parents stored the documents too sensitive to leave in storage. My friend opened mail, scanned an occasional bill, and (very generously!) stored my car.

Your job is to lighten your Guardian Angel’s load as much as possible, and bring an extra-extra-nice present back from your travels.

Paying Bills Online

Most companies encourage to go paperless. Fewer dead trees, and less paper for the Guardian Angels. The most difficult part is finding a bill with the account information. Some companies, especially utilities, require that you enter a security code printed on the most recent bill to complete signup.

To simplify, I centralized my bills on my bank’s bill payer service. I prefer to have them all in one place, and to send money on my schedule rather than authorizing withdrawals by the companies. My bank even has a feature to view bills and statements from the bill payer screen, so I don’t have to log in to site to check my balance.  ING Direct’s eBill demo explains it all in more detail, and has a great Peanuts-style soundtrack.

Online statements is another step that may take a billing cycle or two to be fully established.

I set up an automatic monthly payment to my credit card companies for the minimum amount due. I remember to do bills once a month, but each company has a different due date. The automatic payment ensures I never pay a late fee.

It’s best to start migrating to online payment three months before departure. Gather up all your bills as they come in the first month, and do a marathon setup session. In the second month, confirm that all payments were received, and add the paper bills that you missed. Confirm everything is working smoothly in the third month, and enjoy peace of mind.

If your primary bank doesn’t offer these services, you can open a second account with one that does. I use my credit union for the things I need to do in person, and ING Direct online for everything else. If your bank does this well, feel free to mention them in a comment.

Moving Money: Checks and Transfers

Sometimes you need to send a check.  ING Direct will send a paper check or electronic payment to a person.

You may also need to send money to your Guardian Angel. Electronic fund transfer usually requires an account number and bank’s ABA number, just like direct deposit. I prefer not to send that information in email, so it’s another to-do before leaving.  Once transfer is set up you can repeat it with a click.

Tax Preparation

Will you be on the road during tax season? How will your W2s, bank interest statements, and other tax documents be delivered? If not online, make a plan for how you’ll get them.

There are always some items I have to look up when I fill out my return. I dug out the information when I packed my filing cabinet, and put it in a spreadsheet on my laptop.


You may  need to sign and return a document. Your tax return, for example. I wound up doing this the usual way: print it out, sign, scan it, and email it. It’s a drag. Despite all the signs promising fax services, none of the Internet cafes in Siem Reap had a working fax. Afterward, I was stuck with a hardcopy of my tax return and no shredder on hand.

In a happier example, my awesome insurance company got my car back on the road the week before I returned to the country. They  reregistered my car, reinstated my auto insurance, and mailed  my new license plates for arrival the Friday before a holiday weekend. I was able to visit friends and family immediately. I had to sign the policy quote to make the magic happen. 

Ernest Svenson, an attorney, has written several articles about how to make a digital signature. (He’s a lawyer, so he should know, right?)

The steps boil down to scanning a paper version, editing it in Photoshop , and inserting it into a Word or PDF. It’s not always possible, but it’s a start.

OSX Lion has added signatures to Preview, their PDF reader.

There are several iPhone apps that let you sign PDF documents. I’m curious to hear your experience with them.

Timeline Recap

ASAP: check your passport and renew if necessary
3 to 1 months ahead: switch bills to online payment. You can do it at the last minute if you’re organized. If you’re doing it at the last minute you’re probably not an organized person, so be kind to yourself and start early.
8 to 6 weeks ahead: check expiration dates on credit cards, car registration, license, etc. and order replacements
4 to 2 weeks ahead: collect tax information as you pack your filing cabinet
2 weeks ahead: set up money transfer with your Guardian Angel
< 2 weeks ahead: you'll be too focused on packing.

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Sep '11

On the Road Again

Back to Siem Reap for a month. I’m in pretty good shape for 26 hours of travel and an 11 hour time zone shift.

I couldn’t follow Daniel Pink’s recommendations for jet lag. The darkened cabin on the trans-Pacific flight was too soporific to resist. I was more successful when I shotgunned movies on the Seoul to Siem Reap leg.

I heard several familiar sounds while I sat on the Bloom Garden Guesthouse balcony this morning:

  • the George Jetson spaceship putt-putt-putt of tuk-tuks
  • the honka-honka rubbish collector
  • two kinds of ice cream vendors: the tinny recorded jingle from the Nestle moto, and the mild, old fashioned ding-ding-ding-ding of the pushcart bell
  • monks, way off in the distance
  • the rooster next door

It’s good to be back.

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Aug '11

Visit Your Local Library From the Other Side of the Planet

You already knew the library has travel books and guides to sabbatical planning. Did you know you can still use the library while you travel?

Many Massachusetts libraries offer downloadable books and audiobooks to their patrons through Overdrive. Visit your local library’s website to find out how to join. You’ll be able to check out materials from anywhere in the world with an Internet connection. Remember to write down your library card number before you go! You’ll need it to log in.

You don’t have to live in Boston to have a Boston Public Library card. The signup policy says “Anyone individual who lives, works, attends school, or owns property in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and is at least 13 years of age may register for an eCard.” See the BPL website for registration instructions.

If your library doesn’t offer electronic delivery, you can purchase an annual membership to the Philadelphia Free Library for $35 per year. Since you have to mail in a check and registration form, be sure to take care of it before you leave.

Ebooks and audiobooks were a sanity saver while I traveled. Most of the English books I found while I traveled were expensive, even the used ones. The ebooks and audiobooks worked with my laptop, iPhone, or Zen MP3 player. The audiobooks aren’t as compatible with iPhones as I’d wish, but the selection is improving. Overdrive, the vendor that powers this service, is partnering with Amazon to release books in Kindle format later this year.

But wait, there’s more! Many Massachusetts libraries have subscriptions to the Mango and Rocket Languages. Card-carrying patrons can access these services from home – or anywhere else.

It’s just two more reasons to love your local library.

Aug '11

Meet, Plan, Go 2011

I’m honored to be on the panel of Boston’s 2011 Meet, Plan Go. MPG encourages people to take career breaks. They host an annual nationwide in the autumn, and free local meetups through the year. MPG’s 2011 event will be held on October 18. Several cities will squeeze in at least one local meetups before the event.

The first Meet, Plan, Go was held two weeks before I left for Siem Reap. The reality of leaving the country was sinking in, and I needed a dose of encouragement. Between the panel and the audience, there were travelers from a huge variety of backgrounds and motivations. As a final boost, there was a raffle drawing for all the attendees. I won the monthlong Conversation Corps France homestay prize courtesy of sponsor GeoVisions.

As I collect my thoughts for MPG I’ll post suggestions for my fellow travelers.

Jul '11

Dive! Dive!

My shiny new PADI card arrived in the mail.  Now I’m left with the same dilemma I started with – where should I dive in New England?  The water is cold and gray here.  I say that with love.  Brrr.

I took the Open Water Diver class in Cambodia, where it’s much warmer and the water is blue. I knocked off the classroom part in Scuba Nation’s Phnom Penh office while I was there for meetings.  The pool section and open water trip were held in Sihanoukville.

People have asked me about Sihanoukville. To tell you the truth, I barely saw it.  When I was on dry land, I was exhausted from a day in the pool.  We were at sea for the other two days. The ocean and islands were beautiful, though.

There were about fifteen of us on the boat: eight students, four instructors, and three boat crew.  It was a mini-UN. Among us, we were from America, Cambodia, England, Australia, the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, and France.   Four of us were in the newbie class.  The others were taking more advanced courses, which  included a night dive. It was strange to watch their flashlights moving under the water.  We stayed on board and drank beer.

Marija, our instructor,  had an amazing knack for radiating calm. She managed it even underwater with her face hidden by equipment.  That’s a handy superpower!  Maybe it’s something they teach in instructor training. All of my group was in a constant state of low-grade freakout.   There’s a lot to get used to, from the physical discomfort of the equipment to resisting the instinct to bolt for the surface. The material is structured in small chunks so you can adapt without being overwhelmed.  Each dive got easier.   Still, I look forward to the first dive where I relax and enjoy the pretty fishies.

Do we have pretty fishies in New England?  I may have to go somewhere tropical.

Jul '11

Everything Old is New Again

What a pleasure it is to wear different clothes after nine months of the same things.  Everything in my suitcase is on an extended time-out.

My favorite clothes got packed away last when I left, which means they’re the first to be unpacked.  As I go through the bins, there’s a steady refrain of “I love this shirt! Oh hey, these jeans are great!”  It’s like Christmas for free.

The same thing has happened with household stuff. My landlords turned the cottage into a B&B over the fall. I left many things out for use, and they added some more for ambiance.  Now I’m sharing the place for a few weeks while some family members close on their new house. I’m never quite sure who an object belongs to.  Several times I’ve admired something only to realize it’s mine. Sweet!


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Jul '11

Back in Boston

It’s wonderful to be home. I grinned like a fool when I  heard a Logan employee with a Southie accent.  Ten steps beyond the luggage pick-up I passed a Dunkin Donuts.

There have been a few double-take moments as I readjust to the States.

  • I was upset to be swarmed by mosquitoes. Then I remembered there’s no dengue fever*  in Boston, and relaxed.
  • I understand the entire conversation at dinner.
  • Per good French manners, I say hello to the clerk when I enter a store.  The clerks are startled and think I need help.
  • Per good Khmer manners, I use both hands to offer money or a business card. Halfway through I catch myself and try to look casual, but the whole thing looks awkward.
There was no readjustment to driving. The Cambodian traffic rules, which are like the rules for downhill skiing, stayed behind with my bicycle. The roads of Boston are safe.
* Note: If you stumbled on this entry because you’re planning a trip to Cambodia, may I ask that you consider donating blood while you’re there? 2011 is a bad year for dengue fever, and they need blood donations to get patients through it. Blood donations are done with the same sterile equipment and procedures as in the West – new, single-use equipment unwrapped before your eyes, and a snack and thank-you t-shirt to send you on your way. Your gift will be much appreciated.
Jun '11

Outside the Louvre


In the Louvre courtyard there are five granite pillars.  The natural inclination is to stand on one to have your picture taken.  It was like watching planes land at a high-traffic   airport.  As soon as one was free, another person took the spot.


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Jun '11

Madam Bouton

Do you recall the Malcom in the Middle episode where Dewey is left home with babysitter Bea Arthur while the rest of the family goes to the water park? Dewey and Bea don’t get along. The turning point comes when Bea sorts her button collection. She catches Dewey chewing on a button. When she asks why, he says it’s his favorite in the collection. Turns out it’s hers too, and a mutual respect is born.

I have a big tin of buttons, mostly from the extras that come with new shirts. I rarely use them, but there’s something satisfying about them.  I was delighted to discover Madam Bouton in Montmartre.


An entire store of buttons!  Every wall is covered.  The tubes are arranged  by color and material with the elegant rigor of the periodic table.  It makes me happy that there is such a place in the world.

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Jun '11

Sunday Morning Markets

There are many outdoor markets along the rivers in Lyon.


The farmer’s market is on one bank…

… opposite the Sunday art market, on the other bank.

Nearby was a book market.

A few minutes later I passed a stamp collectors’ swap.

It was a nice way to people watch and enjoy the weather.