Mongolia Part 1: Among Nomads

After 17 years of living in Asia, we decided to go to Mongolia.

Mongolia, we heard, was hard on small children and wanted to put off the long, overland travel times until Ava had turned 7 or 8. Some friends of ours did self travel with real little ones (ages 3 to 7), and they paid the price. Let’s face it, the littler the child, the more they need entertaining.

We met our guide ‘Saagii’ and our driver ‘Tugsuu’ who took us to some temples within the city limit of Ulaanbaatar. We were fortunate to walk in during a buddhist ceremony that was like anything I’d ever seen. In the main room, there were about 30 monks seated, 15 in two different groups facing each other with a head monk officiating the ceremony in the center with two assistants behind him.

In unison, the monks would chant in a deep droll and guttural sound (some from memory, some reading scripts) and between verses, the head monk would pour water from an elaborate vase onto a silver collection tray. Chants would be punctuated with cymbal crashes and horns blown from large sea shells. Half way into the ceremony, the monks unrolled tendrils of a long interwoven textile which made its way back to the parishioners. The head monk was the sort of base of this tree, and the 30 ‘branches’ of the textile unfolded and unrolled out into the crowd of devotees, landing on our shoulders. We inferred it was meant to channel some of his power to us. After, we walked around the interior of the temple in silence, not to take attention from the spectacle. I then noticed Lisa crying in silence.

What’s the matter?” I asked.

I don’t know. I’ve never felt like this before.

Into the Steppe

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Passing time on long drives.

Just before noon, we had a long drive out of the city. Ulaanbaatar or ‘UB’ as locals call it, is known for its traffic. Soon, the central business district gave way to the industrial outskirts, and eventually buildings dried up and we were in the Steppe. Mongolia has roughly 3.3 million people and 1.5 million square kilometers. To give you a better feel of that, it’s the size of Sweden, Norway and Finland put together, but with the population of the US state of Iowa.

Apparently, Mongolia has been experiencing a marriage divide. Boys will drop out of school as soon as they’re old enough to master basic reading and writing to help their parents with the tending of livestock in the countryside. Girls however, will stay in school, often going on to secondary education and the university. Some may have the means to study abroad where they meet and marry a spouse, leaving their under-educated suitors back home. Usually this gender role is reversed in developing countries.

We drove to ‘Hustai National Park’ and spotted wild horses, marmots and many birds of prey. Along the way, we went over some of the worst roads of my life, and that’s saying a lot. Tugsu took us over a snowbank that got the better of us, forcing him to back up and rock the van back and forth to give us the traction we needed to escape the slush. At one point, the van had a 20 degree sideways tilt and I was certain that we were going to tip over.

Ava, are you sure you’re buckled up?

Daddy, you already asked me that.

Our First Ger Camp

We drove through the park and ended up at a Ger homestead owned by one of the park rangers. He had two daughters, 14 and 7 whose names were ‘Enkhjin’ and ‘Zolboo’ respectively. Ava and Zolboo hit it off instantly.

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Their happy place.

Despite the language barriers, they had no trouble pantomiming suggested activities. From mock bouncing a ball to riding a bike, both Ava and Zolboo communicated effortlessly and spent long swaths of time up on top of the roof of the truck pointing at the countryside, laughing and joking. God knows what they talked about.

Ava had brought a doll on the trip that she offered to Zolboo to play with after Zoolboo had taught her how to ride her bike. We suggested to Ava that it might be nice to ‘give’ her doll to Zolboo permanently to say thank you for being such a good friend. When Saagii translated this to the little girl, her eyes lit up beyond belief.

Next, I tried my hand at aerial goat herding which I’m sure will be an olympic sport in 10 years given our current pace of technological innovation. The herd was spread out into two distinct groups and I was asked to get them into one group and move them back to camp. With a bit of maneuvering, I got the two herds into one with the bee-hive like hum of the Mavic pro. I sweept it along the outer perimeter flanking the herd in order to push them back to our camp. The closer the herd got to our camp, the denser the herd became. It was as if they were unwilling to go the final distance, or perhaps they knew that an inevitable slaughter would befall one of them.
Success was dashed at the last moment. With 5% percent battery power remaining, some members of the herd bolted to the north east and the others followed in tandem creating even more work for this family of herders.

“NNNNOOOOOO!” shouted Zolboo who was monitoring my work.

“Wow. You said that in perfect English!” I responded kindly.

Powerless, I landed and retrieved the Mavic. After powering down, Zooboo approached me with her hands on her hips and a curt foot stomp, shaking her head in both disbelief and pity. I offered to help them retrieve the herd after dinner, but they told me I had done quite enough.

Mutton Dumplings

Food was pretty basic meat dishes. Our family taught us to make mutton dumplings which we made in a soup for dinner that night. Families could feed on a single goat for a month, but with guests, had to kill one every couple of weeks. We dined at a basic pop up table and retired early to bed. At night, I walked out of our ger after the moon went down and saw one of the clearest sky full of stars in my life which was a nice consolation as I realized that my future as a goat herder looked as bleak as the Mongolian countryside.

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Full Moon over our Russian RV

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Mongolia Part 2: Among Riders

Mongolia Part 3: Among the Holy

3 Expert Tips for Booking a Cheap Airline Ticket

Booking Sites

Google Flights: Start with google flights to see when the cheapest days are. Google flights will highlight fares and how they change throughout the month.

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Google flights highlights prices on different days.

Skyscanner: After we have dates, we will compare Google Flights with ‘Skyscanner’. Skyscanner compares fares across a number of websites and also allows you to select multiple airports.

Change Your Country of Origin with a VPN. 

Many people don’t know that airlines price their tickets differently for citizens for different countries. They do this, as they know that they can squeeze more money from affluent citizens, but need to make tickets more affordable for developing country nationals. Often websites will have this feature within their platform, but it will not change the price of the ticket; merely it will give quick customizations for language and currency.

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Browsing ‘Skyscanner’ through a Vietnamese VPN.

To work around this, use a VPN or ‘virtual private network’. A VPN will let you browse the internet from another country.  Whereas this doesn’t always have cheaper fares, occasionally it does and I have often shaved a hundred dollars off a ticket by booking this way. Simply install your VPN (We use express VPN) and play around with the country of origin. I also find that fares are generally cheaper to book on a Wednesday or Tuesday verses the weekend.

Utilizing Travel Rewards Credit Cards

A couple of years ago, we opened up a ‘Chase Sapphire Reserve‘ credit cards which gives us 3 points per dollar spent on all travel related expenses and restaurants. It changed our life. Just last week, I booked $3,000 worth of tickets for Christmas and $1,200 worth of tickets for spring break which netted us 12,600 points which are then transferrable to airline and hotel partners.

The card also gives a $300 annual travel credit and Priority Pass Access for 1000 airline lounges around the world, so it’s saved us a ton of money!

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Transferring points to travel partners will get you cheap tickets. Here, tickets from Seoul to Hong Kong are only $25 a person and 20,000 miles within United Mileage Plus.  

The real guru of this is ‘The Points Guy‘ but through him and following others, we’ve been able to utilize lucrative sign up bonuses, and get beautiful (and free) hotel stays in Seoul, Rome, Palm Springs and Singapore just in the last 2 years.

Check it out!

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Portland: Quite possibly the best priority pass destination!

The Cat Conundrum

I think I just figured out a solution to one of our biggest problems leading up to this trip.

What to do with our cats while we’re away for a year has weighed heavily on us. Specifically, it was problem number four following money, storage and getting a job along the way.  Many international school teachers simply ‘give’ their pets to another family as the country they’re moving to won’t allow a four legged friend. However, in our case, our two cats are like family members. Not with the same rank or status as, say, a child, but definitely that of a mascot. Mascots, who routinely pee and crap all over the place.

Despite their misgivings, we love them. They’re affectionate. They’re well behaved. More importantly, serve as surrogate siblings for our daughter Ava. And with that love came the responsibility of imparting them on a family for a year.

My first consideration was to give them to another teacher family here in Seoul at our school, who I would then fly back to visit in order to pick up a year later. I thought this might be awkward to ask for our pets back, from someone. What if they got attached to them? What if the hosting family didn’t want to let them go? In my head, I viewed our cats as low level foreign exchange students, eventually going home to their true family after an adventure abroad. The roles were reversed in our case- we would go and they would stay…somewhere. With that, families that host foreign exchange students often put their best foot forward and children may learn that their original family is more dysfunctional then they originally thought, and take a new shine to their gracious hosts. “Do I really have to go back to them?” I imagine many students saying after a 5 month stint. (Reality checkAs I write this now, our family is lounging around the apartment in our underwear, trying to keep cool in the muggy, Korean heat of August. Any sensible visitor that walked in the door might think less of us and unfit to own a pet, much less raise a child)

In the end, our loving parents offered to watch them. This would work out well as we’d finish our trip in the states sometime in June 2020 before going to our next teaching post. Still, how would we get them there?

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Image courtesy of Creative Commons

Enter Asiana Airlines

Lisa suggested bringing them back with us for Christmas 6 months before. Doing so would allow us and the cats to spend time in their new environment with their new caretakers. A number of airlines do allow pets on flights, although I learned that this is only for certain legs of a trip and also on certain aircraft types. Asiana, one of Korea’s flagship airlines had a direct flight from Incheon Airport to LAX which allowed pets in the cabin and we got the last two seats that allowed them. All in, our three tickets were $2,956 and each feline would have a 200$ surcharge that we’d pay at the check in counter. Naturally, there is a gauntlet of forms, vaccinations and trips to the vet this fall, but we were locked and loaded.

How would the passengers react?

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Portland: Quite Possibly the Best Priority Pass Destination

Portland: Quite Possibly the Best Priority Pass Destination!

That card is awesome.” Our waitress told us while sitting down to eat at ‘Capers Cafe Le Bar’ at Portland international airport, PDX. “I’ll do my best to help you get your money’s worth.”

Utilizing credit cards for their rewards has been a big part of our travel over the last few years and saved us a ton of money. The Chase Sapphire credit card reserve gives you 3 points per dollar spent on travel and dining and the points are transferrable to a number of airlines and hotel chains for free stays and flights. The $450 annual fee puts some people off, but after you spend it, you are reimbursed for $300 of travel expenses so you’re left with $150 of an annual fee. The fee pays for itself as you’re given a priority pass which gives you access to 1,000 airline lounges with free food and booze so if you travel a lot, it’s a no brainer.

Portland Stop Number 1: Lunch

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Craft beer, Salmon risotto and a lamb gyro at ‘Capers Cafe Le Bar’

In addition to lounge access (PDX does have an Alaska Airlines lounge) the priority pass will compensate you for $28 of your total bill per person at a number of restaurants at PDX. As my wife, daughter and I sat down to lunch, we had $84 credit and our waitress told us she’d help us utilize it all. With an appetizer of oysters on the half shell, a couple of beers each (my wife and I, not my daughter) and entrees, the total bill was $82.35, completely free of charge. I did leave a $15.00 tip.

Portland Stop Number 2: Snacks

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Some of the snacks offered at ‘Capers Market’. (Child not included)

With food in our bellies, and our daughter hanging out with our parents at the gate, my wife and I then made the short walk to concourse ‘D’ to visit ‘Capers Market’ which sells pastries, wine and beer. Like before, priority pass members and their guests are entitled to a $28 dollar credit each, so my wife and I stocked up on snacks for the plane.

We got chocolate covered hazelnuts, brownies, granola bars and a host of of other goodness. (Who knew dried fruit would go so well with chocolate?) In the end, our total was $52.75 altogether, (just under my wife and my $56 limit) and we paid nothing. I was half expecting to hear security guards shouting, running towards us as we tried to make our getaway to gate A9.

Portland Stop Number 3: House Spirits Distillery

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The cocktails flight.

If the above wasn’t good enough, we decided to really get our money’s worth at the ‘House Spirits Distillery’ which serves flights of hand crafted cocktails and locally distilled whiskey.

We sat back and enjoyed two $28 dollar whiskey and cocktail flights for free. The Portland ‘mule’ and ‘Spring fling’ were extremely refreshing and the distillery sells all the ingredients if you want to recreate your favorites for your hosts you’re on your way to visit. We bought a nice bottle of whiskey for my father in law, but don’t tell him-it’s a secret.

All in, we got $56.00 of free drinks without swiping a credit card. 

The Bottom Line

If you’re a frequent traveller, this credit card pays for itself. Altogether, we got $191.10 of food and snacks for the price of a $150 annual fee. As many US carriers don’t provide complimentary food and snacks, the priority pass is great not only for eating at the airport before a food-less flights, but also for grabbing a snack or two to get you through to your destination.

One caveat- the ‘Points Guy’ wrote about this in 2017 and at the time, all arriving guests could utilize this feature, as when you arrive at PDX, you walk through the departures terminal on the way to the baggage claim. However, it’s since been discontinued and only guests with boarding passes for same day flights can take advantage of this wonderful perk.

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Untangling Branding and Social Media

I read once that 50,000 new blogs are started every day.

Most languish on the vine after a few months. People get an idea that the world is just aching to hang on their every word, only to learn later that they are a speck in an infinitesimal sea of people just wanting to be ‘liked’. Garrison Keillor once said: “In the future, everyone will have a blog with 6 readers- 4 of them family members.” I may not have the quote correct, but I doubt GK will dispute this as he’s quite busy contesting his recent sexual assault allegations.

This is my fourth blog. My third, “Teaching Ahead of the Curve“, was an Edtech blog that once was in the top 500 educational blogs in the world and in its heyday, provided 4-6  posts of a month. It tapered off after 5 years of trying to keep up with ever changing trends and edtech tools that were saturating the market and becoming obsolete in a matter of years, sometimes months. It was like trying to shovel the driveway while it was still snowing.

Still it begs the question-Why do some people have so many followers and others have so few?

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The importance of branding. Image courtesy of CC

 

A Customized Logo

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Two days ago, my wife and I bought ‘Nomadic Edventures’ for a two year premium subscription on ‘wordpress’ for $180. The name was catchy, but we decided to buoy the name with a custom logo which we bought for $19 on ‘Logo Crisp‘ which we could use for our site’s favicon (Little icon on browser tab), our site’s logo next to the header, and also for our profile pictures on instagram and youtube. A logo might seem like an innocuous detail, but the logo brings recognition as users navigate to your content.

Instagram, Twitter and Facebook

We’re seeing a shift in social media use. Many younger users seem to be moving to Instagram and Snapchat and leaving Facebook and Twitter. With so many overlapping features, here is some of their highlights:

  • Instagram has an emphasis on quality images and less on the text. Posting, be sure to add half a dozen hashtags to share beyond just your followers. I use Instagram for my ‘edgy’ personal life and follow tattoo junkies and fitness freaks, like me.
  • Twitter has more of an emphasis on the text, less on the images. Like above, add half a dozen hashtags to your tweet to reach new followers. I use Twitter primarily for my professional learning community. Google + is also a great one for this.
  • Facebook posts can be public or private to friends. I use Facebook with my friends and family and is primarily used for personal posts.
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Image courtesy of CC

Sharing, Re-sharing and Re-sharing

The above is meant to sound redundant, because all the great content in the world will get lost in that sea unless you make it stand out. Just because you have spent hours making a video or blogging, if you publish content to the web, share it often. Re-share it when you have a not posting day and re-share it over and over. Just when you start to get sick of it, someone is learning about it for the first time.

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What’s in a Name?

What’s in a Name?

“What should we call it?” My wife Lisa asked.

A few years ago, my wife and I had an idea. Not to sleep in separate beds or anything, but to take a trip around the world as a family for a year. I don’t know what prompted it. Perhaps it was the ever increasing audibility of our knees as we lifted ourselves off the toilet, christening the onset of old age. At 42 and 47, we’re definitely in the middle age bracket, but not quite ‘near elderly’.

The planning would be no small feat, but with enough time we were confident that we could figure it out. Some of the big questions that we have had to answer are:

  1. How to save up enough money to finance a year’s travel?
  2. What are we going to do with all our ‘crap’ for a year? (We are living in Korea at the time)
  3. Who is going to take care of our two cats?
  4. How much will health insurance cost and can we get an affordable plan that gives us enough coverage?
  5. Could we blog about it? (and what would be a good name?)
  6. How will our daughter receive recognition for her learning on the road as a fourth grader so she’ll be able to enroll as a fifth grader?
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Our two cats, ‘Georgie’ and ‘Cutie Soft Paws’

If you’re still reading this, like me, you probably already have a headache. Trip planning is supposed to be fun, isn’t it? Why bog down a perfectly good vacation with responsibility?

Except it wasn’t. A vacation that is. This was to be our new way routine with a finite amount of money, with the objective of delivering an educational experience for our daughter with a broad world view. Simple, right?

We plan to begin our trip in June of 2019 (when our teaching contracts expire) and we have started to cobble a bucket list of destinations together on a spreadsheet. As I write this, we are currently under a year away, it is now the time to kick our planning into high gear. With the above questions going unanswered, we needed to get something done, so we settled on a wordpress blog to chronicle the experience. The first step in setting up any blog is to give it a name, because once that’s done, it can’t be changed.

“Any blog name should be somewhat short and sweet, but catchy and easy to remember if you’re telling it to someone in passing.” I replied back to her.

“We’ll be writing about travel destinations, tips for traveling, but also the education and the learning angle”. We came up with the following list:

  • Schooling around the world
  • The world is our school
  • Learning about the world
  • Bucket list family (we found this was taken)
  • Worldschooling Ava (too pretentious)
  • Worldly schooling Ava (Tips on how to emotionally abuse your child)
  • A kid, a swimmer and a techie go into a bar…
  • Small steps in a big world
  • A family that travels together
  • Our traveling family

“How about ‘Nomadic Edventures?'” My wife offered.

And with that, the list got a little bit smaller.