Monday, July 30, 2012

Travel Tales: My blog is Traveling Without Me!

I have always assumed that my Travel Tales would be about my travels to various places around the world. Now it seems like my blog has taken on a life of it's own. It is traveling all over the world without me!

Blogger has a feature that allows me to track where my audience is - where people are when they read my blog posts. I always assumed that my readers would be from the US and Mexico. After all, that's who I have in mind when I write. But, boy, was I wrong! Who knew when I started this blog six months ago that I would have an amazing international audience in such a short time?

Here's the list (in alphabetical order) so far:
  • Australia
  • Belgium
  • Brazil
  • Canada
  • Czech Republic
  • Ecuador
  • France
  • Germany
  • Guatemala
  • India
  • Indonesia
  • Lithuania
  • Malaysia
  • Mexico
  • Netherlands
  • New Zealand
  • Russia
  • South Africa
  • Spain
  • Sweden
  • Switzerland
  • Taiwan
  • Ukraine
  • United Kingdom
  • United States

I've only been to nine of those countries, plus a few others, so my blog has officially traveled more than I have. And it is possible that there have been readers from other countries. If I don't check every week, I might miss them.

I love to travel. But, just as much, I love learning about cultures other than my own. My college degree is in Multi-Ethnic Studies. I loved every minute of my classes and continue to learn more on my own.

What I would really love is to hear from my readers. Are you natives of those countries? Or are you Americans who happen to read my blog while visiting abroad? Or maybe you are expats like I am.

Whatever your answer, please use the comment feature here to tell me a bit about yourself and how you found my blog.

And, as always, thank you so much for taking the time to read what I write.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

How Simplifying My Life Helped Me Retire Early

It was 20 years ago, when I was 40, that I decided what I really wanted to do with my life was to retire as early as possible and move to Mexico. I was a recently divorced college student with two teenage daughters still at home. I was also preparing to start a business which I expected would probably bring me more enjoyment than money.

I owned my car and was buying my home. I needed to find a way to live that would not use up what I had salvaged from my divorce settlement. I also wanted to make sure that I taught my children how to live on a limited budget, since they had not yet experienced that kind of life.

Simplified Banking

I had learned in my early twenties how much it can cost to bounce a check. The last time it had happened to me was because someone else had written me a bad check. By the time I knew it was bad, I had bounced five smaller checks. Those charges were pretty painful.

I contacted my bank to find out what I could do to avoid any charges to my account. It turned out that if I kept a minimum balance of $1000 dollars, I could avoid monthly service charges. If I kept that money in a savings account attached to my checking account, it could be used as emergency overdraw protection, just in case.

That minimum amount is higher now, but that habit is one I will never give up. I have never allowed my account to drop below that minimum in the past 20 years. I don't even consider it to be spendable money. I wonder how much it has saved me over the years?

Simplified Credit Cards

I simplified my credit cards by not using them! I've always had a Visa card, but I have it for emergencies only. I live by the rule that I can only buy a thing if I can afford to pay for it. If I can't pay for it this month, I will have to wait until next month. Interestingly, I often decide that I don't really want or need it by the time I have the money to pay for it.

These days, I do use my Visa card to purchase plane tickets and for occasional Internet purchases, but I always go online the same day and pay the bill off completely. I think many people have no idea how much extra they pay for charged items by the time they've paid the interest and, often, late charges.

Simplified Shopping

Sticking to a budget can be so difficult when living in the United States. There is just too much stuff to buy, and it is all displayed so nicely and advertised so enticingly. It is almost impossible to get away from those ads; they're on TV and the radio, in the newspaper and magazines, on the Internet, on billboards, even in sports stadiums. They are all trying so hard to convince you that you really need their products.

My hurdle was trying to stay away from offers that were such a good deal that I'd be crazy to turn them down. You know what I mean - the stuff that is on sale or has such a great coupon price that you want to buy it even if you don't need it. I continued to clip coupons (and I would still if they used them here in Mexico), but only for products that I normally used regularly. I just forced myself to stay away from the great deals on stuff I didn't need.

Simplified Housing

Any time I found myself with extra money for any reason, I paid that extra money toward my mortgage. When my older daughter went away to college, I decided to move from Boise to Bremerton, Washington. I found out that housing was much cheaper there. I was able to sell my house in Boise and use the equity to pay cash for a house in Bremerton. 

The house was the same size, but I lost two bedrooms and gained a large quilting studio. I was able to work from home and also avoided paying rent on a commercial space. Suddenly, I was able to put a huge amount of money into savings each month.

Simplified Transportation

Soon after my divorce, I had traded in my fancy Trans-Am and bought a minivan. It wasn't nearly as much fun, but it sure was useful. I was constantly amazed at what I could fit in that van. I also found a retail space for my business that was only a mile from my home, so that cut down on the gas expenses. I could even ride my bike or walk to work sometimes.

Twelve years later, I inherited my mother's Honda Accord and gave the van to my daughter. This fall marks ten years since my mom bought the Accord. It's looking a bit beat up, as most cars do in Mexico, but the interior and engine are in great shape. I only put a few thousand miles on it each year and I'm counting on it to get me around for many years yet.

Living a Simplified Life

Living simply really has changed my life in many ways. There is so much more to it than I've mentioned here - too much for one blog post. I've decided that this topic is worthy of more time and space, so I plan to add some regular Simplify posts every week or two. I hope I will be able to share something that will make your life easier, too, both before and after retirement.

Thanks for reading!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Travel Tales: to Market, To Market

One of my favorite parts of international travel is visiting the markets. I'm not talking about malls or large grocery stores. What I really like are street markets. The closer I get to the person making or growing an item, the more I like it. But there are so many different kinds of markets.

In Japan, I loved going to the "Temple Sales", held at Buddhist temples on the weekends. The temple grounds fill with booths covered by plastic tarps protecting mounds and mounds of old kimonos, books, antiques and food booths. I bought up kimonos - from antiques to a few years old - to use the silk fabric for quilts. I bought way too many, but where was I to draw the line? There were so many and they were all so beautiful and so inexpensive.

In Provence, my mother and I visited an antique market in Nimes, and I remember a wonderful booth in Nice with huge long tables covered with colorful French cloths and flat baskets piled high with every spice you could imagine.

But I didn't understand the wonders of street markets until I'd spent some time in Latin America. Here, every little village has it's market day. It may have a community market where vendors can set up or there might be a street that is blocked off and covered with plastic tarps to protect the goods. I would much rather shop at the local street market than at the large grocery stores.

If a town gets lots of tourists, there will be a artisan market area just for the handicrafts that tourists want to buy. But there is always another area where the locals can shop for their everyday needs.

This woman in Antigua, Guatemala, carries her own set of scales and sells beans and produce from her garden. She probably travels to a different village each day to sell her wares.

Next door, there is a permanent market set up with handicrafts for the tourists. It is divided into hundreds of tiny booths, many selling the exact same merchandise. Most of it is made in people's homes or in small factories in a little village somewhere.

Once I bargain my way down to the real price, I am usually shocked at the small amount the artisan gets paid for the work. But paying the "dumb gringo asking price" does not mean any of the extra money will make it's way to the artisan. That is one reason why I prefer to deal directly with the artisan.

In the village of Santa Catarina Palopo, near Panajachel, Guatemala, many of the women spend their days weaving cloth. They set up their work space right at the side of the road.

They all dress in the traditional clothing of their village - turquoise wrap-around skirts and coordinated blouses called huipils. It is easy to tell which village a woman comes from by looking at her clothing.

I have purchased many of their weavings. I often can't figure out what to do with them, but they are so much more special when I've met and talked to the weaver.

And it's so hard to say no when I see how much work they do for so little money.
The main street in Panajachel is lined on both sides with vendors. Very few of them are selling their own work. The stuff they are selling is made somewhere else and they are hired to sell it.

Unfortunately, many of them get very pushy. The worst will walk right up to a tourist and stand in front of them, blocking their path, to try to coerce them into buying something.

When we visit there, we walk the same street every day (we have little choice if we want to get around.) The same vendors approach us day after day, no matter how many times we have said no.

Although I love going to Panajachel and Lake Atitlan, I've come to hate the vendors there because of this.
Thursdays and Sundays are market days in Guatemala's Chichicastenango. It is insane!!! But Thursdays and Sundays are also the only days to go to Chichi.
Booths are packed in the area surrounding the church and the walkways between the booths are so packed with people that it can be hard to move.
It can be a pickpocket's paradise, so shopper's beware! But it is worth going because vendors walk for miles with their goods to sell at the market in Chichi.
The best deals can be found at the end of the day as you are sitting on your bus waiting to go back to wherever you came from. I'm usually tired and shopped out by then. I don't even care if I buy anything else, so it is easy to say no. The vendors know we are leaving and this is their last chance. All of a sudden the prices drop to almost nothing. They'd rather practically give it away than carry it back to their village.
When we were in Panama, I was very disappointed that we weren't able to make it to the islands off the east coast where Kuna Indians live.
I had been looking forward to buying Molas, the reverse appliqued cloths they make into blouses. I already owned a few, but I'd bought them far from Panama and had paid too much money for them.
I was excited to find Kuna women selling the Molas from booths they'd set up in Panama city. The assortment was amazing and the prices were less than half what I'd paid in the past.
This lady is holding the piece that I bought from her that day. Later I also bought some cloth that is used for their traditonal skirts that coordinates with the Mola piece. One of these days I will make a bag or something from the Mola and the fabric.

In Cuenca, Ecuador, I fell in love with the flower market on the small plaza in front of the Church of El Carmen de la Asuncion. Every time we walked through that plaza, I wanted to buy all the flowers. But I had no place to put them.
I watched the women picking off any fading petals and throwing them into a big box. I finally had to ask what they did with the petals. One of them told me that they put them in the bath water used to bathe the babies. That seemed almost like a fairy tale to me. I wanted to have had all those flowers to bathe my children when they were small. Now I wonder if they just say that to dumb gringa women who ask too many questions.

Although I did see a few street-type markets in both Spain and Italy, most of them weren't very impressive. I guess it was because they sold everyday things rather that handicrafts. The exception would have to be in San Gimignano, Italy, because of the beautiful produce and flowers we saw there.

I ran into a huge plaza full of a market selling postage stamps in Madrid. It was interesting, but did not inspire vast purchases.

But what I really loved in Spain were the bars, restaurants, and stores selling Serrano ham.

The hams were hanging everywhere - even over the bars - with little cups attached at the bottom to catch any juices that might drip out.

Both Spain and Italy had wonderful stores selling meats and cheeses and breads and wines. What more could a person ask for?

If I lived there, I would probably do most of my shopping in that kind of store. Well, that plus a produce market.
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Celebrating 10 Years of Retirement!!!

Today marks ten years since I retired back in 2002. Over that ten years, I have traveled to more than ten countries, including living in two of them. I learned to speak a little (or a lot) in five languages. I've met so many new friends that I could never count them. I've picked up new hobbies and put others aside for a while. I lost (and kept off) 35 pounds and learned so much about health and fitness. And I found someone with whom I want to to spend the rest of my life.
It seems to me that I have made a pretty good start to the second half of my life!

Yes, I do consider my retirement date to be about the half-way point of my life. My maternal grandmother lived until just short of her 99th birthday. Living to says I might live to be 106.

US female life expectancy at age 60 is another 24 years of life. But 25% of 65 year-olds in the US will live past 90, and 10% will make it past 95. I'm going for the long run. At least, that is the way I'm planning my life.

Financing a Longer Life

Although I knew that I might have to come up with some sort of income some time in the future, I thought I had everything all planned out. I had a couple of annuities to support myself until Social Security kicks in at 62. I thought I might be tired of traveling and ready to settle down after ten years. If that were true, the Social Security would be enough to support my Mexican lifestyle for the rest of my life.

It turns out, though, that I have no intention of settling down and staying home any time soon. So a few months ago I started looking for ways to supplement, or even postpone, those small Social Security payments. This is what I can up with:
  • I can sell something I make.
  • I can sell something I own and don't want anymore.
  • I can rent out my casita (guest house) through or similar services.
  • I can teach something I know how to do.
  • I can publish my writing.
  • I can find cheaper ways to live.


So Here's the Current Plan...

The final item on the list is the fall-back, if-all-else-fails plan. It's a possibility, but I don't even want to think about it at this point in my life.

I'm a retired quilt artist, and I have lots and lots of quilts I can sell. 

It seems like no matter how much stuff I get rid of, there is still more that I don't use and probably never will. I'd rather give it to someone who needs it rather than dealing with selling it, but that is always a possibility.

I like the Airbnb idea. My casita just sits there empty for 50 weeks of the year. I've been having fun painting and decorating it so it will look appealing in the photos when I'm ready to advertise.

When I made my list, I assumed that the thing I might teach would be quilting classes, since I have so much experience at that. But - surprise, surprise - in five weeks I will begin my new job: tutoring college writing students via the internet. It will pay enough to allow me to postpone accepting Social Security until I'm older and the monthly payment will be higher. AND, it's only eight hours a week so I still have lots of free time, and I will be able to work in my jammies right from my own home here in Mexico.

Finally, I've discovered just how easy it is to self-publish these days through So now I am in the process of following through with various writing projects started over the past ten years. 


Growing Old in Mexico

One thing I was excited about this year is that, at 60, I qualify for Mexico's DIF and INAMAP cards, which show that I am eligible for all kinds of "old people's" discounts.

Most of the discounts are for stores and businesses that I would probably not use anyway, but the part I like is the discounts on travel in Mexico. Some airlines are offering a 10-15% discount on fares, but the big one is the 50% discount on long-distance buses.

Mexico has very nice long-distance buses (much better than Greyhound.) They travel all over the country. The fares are very reasonable, but now I can pay just half price. For example, I will have to pay only about $35US for a round trip ticket to the US border and back. I'm ready to hit the road!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

No, I Do Not Have Cancer!

I discovered last night that a few people have actually been Googling "Does Kathy Sterndahl have cancer?" I would hope that If I ever do, Google willl not be the place I find out about it. I decided to address the matter here so that the correct answer will come up if anyone ever Googles it again.

I Do Not Have Cancer!!!

I have an autoimmune disease called Alopecia Areata Universalis. For some reason, my immune system decided that my hair was something foreign and attacked the hair follicles all over my body. It started with a nickel-sized bald spot in about 1996. That one went away, but another one showed up about a year later.

It went on this way until about five years ago when I suddenly had multiple bald spots that began to enlarge rather than go away. I wasted about a year trying to fight it with Rogaine, prescription lotions, painful shots to my head. Nothing worked.

I finally decided that the (unsuccessful) effort toward a cure was much worse than just giving in to the disease. During a trip to the US, I bought three wigs - brunette, blondish, and redhead. I thought if I have to go through with this, I might as well have fun with it.

Blonde? Redhead? Brunette?

By that time my hair was so thin that I just shaved the rest off. When I returned to Mexico, I was wearing the brunette wig, and everyone thought I'd just gotten a great color and cut! I couldn't believe that no one realized it was a wig, but I decided to go with the flow and just thanked anyone who commented. And since they thought the first wig was my own hair, I put the other two away.

I wore that wig whenever I went out in public for the next six months. I kept it ready right by the door so I could quickly grab it if company showed up. The problem is, wigs are very uncomfortable on a bald head!

I realized immediately that I could not stand to wear a wig when I was at our beach house; it was just to hot and humid there. So I began to bear my baldness the two weeks of each month that I was there while still wearing the wig while at my home in Chapala.

Going Natural

While some people were quite rude, many more were very supportive. A few of our friends also travel back and forth between the two places. They saw me bald and got used to it and generally kept my secret back home. Until one of my best friends "outed" me on Facebook by posting photos of us all at the beach!

By that time, I was so sick of the wig that I found myself not wanting to leave my house rather than wear it. The Facebook "outing" was just what I needed to give up the wig completely. I made sure that I explained to as many people as possible so that the truth would get around (hopefully) faster than any rumor that I had cancer.

Three+ years later, no one remembers what I look like with hair. My friends all swear that they forget that I am bald. One of my best friends actually turned to me once with a hairclip in her hand to ask if it was mine before she realized how unlikely that would be.

Will It Ever Grow Back?

Considering that I have the most radical version of Alopecia, there is very little chance that it will ever grow back. And you know what? I don't care! Can you even imagine how much money, time and effort I save being bald? No haircuts. No shampoo. No conditioner. No washing. No drying. No styling. No shaving. No waxing. Do I need to go on?

For a few months, I didn't even have eyebrows or eyelashes. I really hated that part! (A girl's gotta draw a line somewhere.) And that may happen again. If it does, I'll deal with it.

Now that you know my story, I hope that you can be understanding when you run into someone who is bald. Don't automatically assume cancer. Curiosity is OK. Asking questions, too. Staring, not so much. Of course, these days it might just be a "lifestyle choice" as one young woman in Portland thought