February 2012


For most nomads, or travelers in general, the thought of “settling down” can be a scary one.  It’s far more exciting to see yourself gallivanting around the globe, darting from locale to locale, and going wherever the wind takes you.

That was my life for awhile, and I loved it.  From Europe to Asia to South America, three years of indulging in every travel whim one could imagine flew by.  To be sure, a few “dream destinations” were left on the list to leave room for future adventures, but overall the attitude was to travel as much as possible.

While many friends and family members were focused on finding houses, taking out mortgage loans, finding stable employment, and putting money away into retirement funds, those things were the furthest from my mind.  Sure, bills had to be paid and travel funds needed to be saved up, and thankfully I enjoyed my work experiences overseas (which did add skills to the resume and money into the bank account).  However, more long term concepts like mortgages and retirement accounts were not that desirable.  They were downright scary.

But, as happens to most nomads, the day does come in which one begins to think of the overall picture of the future, instead of the next travel adventure.  At least, it did for me.  Things began to change when I moved to D.C. three years ago, met my almost-husband two years ago, and started to think about putting down some roots.

With the wedding quickly approaching, Leon and I began to discuss whether or not we wanted to look at purchasing a home in the D.C./northern Virginia area.  After a lot of prayer and discussion, we both felt like the D.C. area was where we wanted to be for the indefinite future.  We spent hours researching the home buying process, looked at properties, and tried to find a suitable place in our price range (after getting over the shock that a property in D.C. costs the same as two properties in Texas or Colorado).  We found a realtor, met with her to discuss the process, and spent a lot of time perusing housing listings before finding a property that we felt was a good fit for our needs, fit within our budget, and didn’t require a two-hour work commute for either of us.  If the contracts go through, it looks like we might officially be first-time homeowners soon.

Amidst the process of trying to find a home, Leon asked me if I felt okay with the commitment.  After all, having a mortgage means being anchored to same place, at least for awhile, and means giving up the nomadic freedom to spontaneously relocate at a moment’s notice.

Quite shockingly, however, the transition feels very natural.  Travel is still a passion, and will always be.  The difference is that, as I’ve learned recently, it is possible to aim for a balance.  It’s possible to save up for another travel adventure in a faraway land, and to maintain a sense of wonder and curiosity for all things international, while also striving to provide stability for future children and planning for a healthy retirement situation.

Of course, it’s more fun to hike through the Cambodian jungle than look through housing contracts, but it is exciting to think that those housing contracts signal the beginning of a new chapter.

When I heard that Mercer Consulting had published its 2011 “Cost of Living Survey,” I thought for sure that either New York City or D.C. had made it in at least the top twenty.  I think that most Americans who have tried to rent or buy property in either city (myself included) would agree; my little one bedroom apartment in D.C. costs the same as a nice house in Texas.

Needless to say, I was surprised when I saw the rankings.  New York City did make the list, but it was ranked as #32 and was the only city in the U.S. to break the top fifty.  I was even more surprised, though, when I saw the world’s #1 most expensive city.

According to the list, Luanda, Angola, takes the cake (a very expensive cake).  I wanted to know why a city in sub-Saharan Africa ranked above places like Tokyo (#2), Moscow (#4), and Osaka (#6).  I’ve been to Tokyo, Moscow, and Osaka, and they are indeed expensive.  I remember buying a “cheap” lunch at a Tokyo version of 7-Eleven for what a nice lunch at a swanky D.C. bistro would cost.

After doing some research, I found out why.  According to a February 2011 Economist article, while the high prices in Luanda are slightly related to the country’s oil revenues (Angola is sub-Saharan Africa’s second largest oil producer), overall they are a byproduct of the country’s experience with limited supplies during the civil war there that ended in 2002.  Apparently local retailers enjoyed being able to charge exorbitant rates so much that, even after the civil war ended and supplies became less scarce, they kept the prices the same as when the country was at war.

After dealing with expensive real estate prices in D.C., I was shellshocked to read that an apartment in Luanda can cost between $10,000 to $15,000 to rent and over a million to purchase.  The Economist article also told the story of a Frenchman who was forced to pay $100 for a melon (one single, normal melon).  He was so angry that he took a picture of the melon and marched that, along with the receipt, to a court and promptly sued the store.  It was too bad for him though–the judge dismissed the case because he had eaten the melon, and therefore the original evidence was gone.  Literally.

So, if you’re planning a trip to Angola, you might want to check out the rural areas (which are way cheaper).  And if you do make it to Luanda, you might want to take some extra currency.

To the chagrin of many, and the delight of others, Valentine’s Day is next week.  In case you hadn’t noticed all of the red hearts filled with chocolate lining your local grocery store aisles.

February 14th marks the day which some anticipate with breathless excitement, which some dub “Singles Awareness Day,” and which others brush it off as a “commercialized, fabricated holiday” meant to boost retail sales of florists and candy shops.

Depending on what stage of life you’re in, Valentine’s Days over the years can have many different faces.  As a kid, Valentine’s Day was exciting for my friends and me–our parents would take us to buy little cards and candy hearts at the store and we would all exchange them during the school day.  There were years when Valentine’s Days meant going out with a group of fellow single girlfriends to see a chick flick and “people watch” individuals who had the misfortune of being on awkward dates that evening.  Those were always fun.

There were also some not so great Valentine’s Days.  Like the one where the guy I was dating cooked a great dinner for me (apparently out of guilt, or so he told me when he broke up with me a week later).  Or the one when a guy I had been out with a few times called to tell me that he was boycotting Valentine’s Day because it was a “useless” holiday, and he was going to go to the gym instead.

Thankfully, recent Valentine’s Days have been much better.  Valentine’s Day 2008 was spent with my mom in Rio de Janeiro, the same week when we somehow ended up caught in the middle of the Carnival parade near Ipanema Beach.  On February 13th, 2010, pre-Valentine’s Day, I was reintroduced to my now-fiancé.  One year ago, also on February 13th, Leon proposed, and we celebrated our engagement with friends on the actual holiday.

Americans, in general, tend to treat Valentine’s Day as a pretty big deal.  One only need to turn on the TV this week to see a jewelry store advertisement, for instance.  American culture overall seems to uphold certain traditions for Valentine’s Day, namely, nice dinners, flowers, chocolates, jewelry, cards, and candy.  In its purest form, it’s a day to show love and appreciation for loved ones, especially a spouse, and to take a step back from the hectic pace of life to rekindle any dimmed sparks.

Celebrations will also be rampant around the rest of the globe next week.  In Mexico, for instance, Valentine’s Day is also known as the day of “amor y amistad” (love and friendship), and apparently anything red and heart-shaped is a popular gift.  In Western Europe, from what I saw, it seemed like flowers and chocolates were the most common gifts.  An interesting article I read recently talked about how, in Africa, Valentine’s celebrations mainly happen among affluent residents, but because so much of the world’s cocoa bean supply is grown on the continent, Africa is permanently tied to the holiday.

In South Korea, they do things a little differently.  I remember being surprised to hear from my Korean friends that February 14th was a day when girls would give gifts to boys, and then one month later on March 14th (also known as “White Day”) the guys were supposed to “step up” and bestow gifts upon them (to note, in Japan they do the same thing).  The Koreans also go one step further–another month later, on April 14th, single people are supposed to eat jjajanmyun, wheat noodles smothered in black soybean sauce.  To add insult to injury, April 14th is also called “Black Day.”  I remember seeing many depressed-looking Koreans out and about that day.

Then there are some places that don’t allow Valentine’s Day celebrations, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, where things like the sale of red roses are outlawed.  Militant Hindu groups in India have also called for bans on Valentine’s Day, namely because St. Valentine is a Christian figure.  From some research I did, however, it sounds like some clandestine celebrations still occur.

This year Valentine’s Day falls on a Tuesday, and it will be interesting to see what is happening around D.C.  (Last year the holiday fell on a Monday, and I remember cringing while watching men in suits and ties fight over the last bouquets of roses at the local CVS).  This year, besides spending time with Leon, I’m planning on gaming the system a little bit; I’m going to wait and buy chocolates and candy the day after Valentine’s Day.  When they’re on sale.