Let’s talk money!

linhas de mocambiqueI am known for being a jet setter for reasons that are only partially attributable to me. Frankly, all of my recent voyages (for the last 5 years) can be 90% attributable to my profession. When at 19, I signed up for a career I didn’t really understand, I certainly didn’t realize the impact my career choice would have on many aspects of my life. My last thought was how it would affect my finances. I mean, I was excited about stable income, since I was a hustling nanny trying to live in New York City. So, now, it’s almost a decade later, and reality is settling in. What the Facebook pictures don’t say is that I am a glorified postal worker. I get to scan the world while doing, largely, menial tasks. But, when I walk out of my office to find myself looking at the sunset on the Indian Ocean, I’m reminded that this is what my 19 year-old self signed up for. The travel adventure!

But this isn’t about silver linings. And I can’t eat adventure. Let’s talk money.

People really don’t realize how financially stressful it is to live a constantly oscillating life abroad. Let me explain: When you have no idea where you’re going to live 2 years from now, it certainly makes keeping a budget difficult. I can’t talk to financial planners, because they want me to budget my groceries and stick to that level forever. They treat travel as a luxury, instead of a source of income. They want me to keep a log of my spending habits, but I struggle to keep track of the currencies and exchange rates. How much is South African Rand in dollars today? And the Indian rupee last year this time? They don’t understand what it means to have to travel to another country to get cheaper groceries – do I add in the cost of 2 tanks of gas and tolls to my grocery bills? My situation is abnormal, but not unusual. Just ask my military friends – they get it! Anyway, my world is one of feast and famine.

I am recognizing the patterns of my travel transitions. I arrive in a new country. I spend 6 months going places, buying things, traveling with new friends, and paying for it all on my credit card. Mind you, I have no clue what this funny money is really worth and I’m working like a dog during the week. I tell myself I have to enjoy this. I, You, WE only live once! Who knows when I’ll be back here again? And, did I mention, I’m working like a dog during the week? Let’s call this a 6-month feast of fantasy. At some point, I wake up and realize that I’m over my head in credit card debt and that something has to give. Usually, I find some finance clean up book (think Suze Orman, The Budgetnista, Personal Finance for Dummies, I could go on…), steal some tips, get a plan together, work all 7 cylinders for about 1 year to get my act and my credit together. Great, so now there’s 6 months left in this country of my career’s choosing and I want to take full advantage. So, I hit the bucketlist – hard! I depart for the continental United States with what seems like a reasonable amount of debt for a woman of my age and station in life.

But now I’m back in America, where my job forces me to NOT work for a month. LOVELY! Finally, one Congressional mandate I believe in. I’m not used to living on my mom’s couch for 30 days straight, so I travel for about half of it. (Add up the cost of these plane tickets and “I’m back in Amurikah” spending sprees). I end up back in Washington for light work before I leave for the next destination. In Washington, I’m paying for expenses I’ve forgotten exist. Yoga classes? Gym membership? Cellphone bill? I’m not even sure how to use these services, but its nice to have the option again, so why not? Can you hear the happiness of my credit card companies growing? Oh! I forgot to mention that I took a pay cut for coming back to the U.S. of A., even for this brief respite. So, I’m spending like a princess, but my salary is that of an entry-level trainee at McDonald’s. This goes on for about 6 months or so. I tell myself that when I go to my next country, I’ll be able to catch up.

I get to the next new & exciting place. Trailing behind me are all the debts I’ve wracked up from leaving the last amazing city and floating my broke, overspending ass in DC for 6 months, and I still want to spend the next 6 months going places, buying things, traveling with new friends, and paying for it all on my credit card. You see this vicious cycle growing out of control? Well, I sure as hell do! And I’ve decided to stop this shit. Really!

How exactly? Basically, by going into my 7-cylinder year clean up sooner in the cycle. Why wait a whole 6 months before I realize that CapitalOne is milking me like a cow? And, by realizing that spending money is something I do, but I have to do more purposefully and carefully.

One thing that always worked for me when I was in college is the reminder that money is just a form of currency. It’s meant to move. It doesn’t grow unless it’s given and received. Life isn’t about hoarding – cash, experiences, or possessions. So, every time I needed my income to grow, I did something counterintuitive. I took it upon myself to give. I gave to charity, to the guy on the street I normally walked right past, to the kids raising money for their basketball team. Sometimes it was just a dollar. Other times more. But, it reminded me that not having money was never my problem. Having it and spending purposefully, instead, has been a life long struggle.

On this, my latest trip across the Atlantic Ocean, I decided not to wait for a whole 6 months or even a New Year to resolve to make a change. It’s time for me to go back to giving, rather than spending. And when it’s not purposeful or meaningful, it’s time for me to go on a fiscal fast. Oddly enough, most people don’t know what my fasts look like. And that’s part of why I’m sharing this lesser known part of my journey.

I don’t take travel out of my budget, because for me it’s not a luxury, it’s a fact of life. But, that’s my reality. In times like these, I’ve turned off my cable all together. I only put $20 of gas in my car and made myself make it work each week – to/from work only. I bought only fresh vegetables from the local market, rather than going to the overpriced supermarket with lots of variety, but imported packaged prices. And as I say it now, I know some people are saying, “what kind of fast is that?” The point here is that my fast is my fast. I have to do what works for me, not the cookie cutter budget from a book for people who lead a more predictable life than mine. Being a nomad is how I make my daily bread, but it’s up to me to decide how I slice it and if I can afford to butter it.

“So what’s the point of this long rant?” you may ask. Well, it’s 2 fold:

1 – I’ve found myself in many conversations lately where money was a topic. Particularly in Mozambique, people count your money for you. They ask what brand you’re wearing. They would rather travel to South Africa for an afternoon to shop for food than to spend the night on the same trip and see a nature park. It’s all about letting people see what you have, not about enjoying 1) what you have, 2) who you are, or 3) what your money can afford you. In this space (and even my hometown in New Joizey) being humble doesn’t translate. And no matter how honest I am, people always I assume I have money – lots of it. Let’s be honest. Since I’ve become a career woman, I’ve become part of the working middle class, who – once you actually count their incoming/outgoing cash flow – is actually cash poor. BUT my profession provides the basics in fabulous fashion. Read: Don’t be fooled. If you walk into my house, none of this shit is mine!

A lot of people’s self worth is tied to how much money they have and how much money others think they have. We are all victims and perpetrators. But, this is my latest attempt to shake myself free. This is my attempt to remove the veil that social media and distant allure perpetuate. Remember? My McDonald’s sized paychecks are provided by the employer that let’s me be a glorified postal worker in cities you’ve never heard of. It’s as simple as that.

Financial freedom is an individual road that we can all travel. Mine has taken me to two countries on the edge of the Indian Ocean, but yours may take you just down the street. Both are valid. Either way, walk your own path and be honest in that truth. Cash rich, debt free, and all the ebbs and flows between.

2—I haven’t been giving like I should. I haven’t been giving, in any real sense of the word. I’ve been spending. And it’s time to make a change. I thought about doing this in 2014, but somehow my own wants got in the way. But 2015 is a different time and yet another opportunity to be better than I’ve ever been. Each month I will give $25 to a different charity in honor of or in support of people/causes that have touched me. Let’s be clear, I’m declaring this publicly not show off (or even inspire, frankly), but to hold myself accountable to a group of peers and family members whose opinion of me I value. Sometimes declarations said in silence are all too easily forgotten. A la 2014. So listed below are the 12 charities that will receive a donation from me next year.

1- Whitman-Walker Clinic, DC

2- Community Foodbank of New Jersey

3-Livro Aberto, Children’s Literacy in Mozambique

4-Newark Arts Council

5-The City School, Boston

6-The Susan G. Komen Foundation

7-Deepalaya Foundation

8-The Newark Museum

9-Harlem Children’s Zone

10-Children’s Aid Society

11-American Civil Liberties Union

12-Common Good City Farm

In 2015, I’ll be sure to send you a monthly update reminding you of the month’s chosen charity AND the connection I have with its cause.

Here’s to keeping me honest (Maybe that’s something else I can attribute to my profession) and showing the reality behind the passport stamps. May my journey be one you grow context from and one you see as a source of ideas. And may my every day as a public servant jet-setter continue to be as fun and exciting as the 19-year-old in me had hoped it would be.

Here’s to toasting up Martinelli’s instead of Moet… for at least another year.

Food Mubarak!

Fasting has a way of resurrecting old foodgasms. I find myself thinking about iftar very early on in the day. Often I oscillate between wondering how I can avoid spending my whole paycheck on a fancy dinner and wondering how fast I can make microwaveable oatmeal. But there are glimpses in the middle of great food experiences of yesteryear, which then lead me to wonder where I should go to break my fast. There are many places to choose from, but I’m drawn to locales where the food is delicious, the prices are decent, and the portion sizes are disciplined.

Today’s musing led me to list my favorite restaurants from around the world. I’ve tried to be as inclusive as possible of all my travels but, so as not to taint your experience in any way and also not to get too hungry too early in my fast, I’ll give you recommendations and reviews from others. Happy global hunger hunting!

chefette

Barbados: 10 Best says “Chefette is a small fast food chain, and there are 14 locations all over the island. It’s not particularly fast, but the prices are reasonable and the food is quite good. Tasty chicken and chips is the staple offering, but the “broasted” chicken sandwich and the various rotis are also satisfying. Several locations have drive-throughs and playgrounds for the kids, and some also serve pizza, barbecue or ice cream.”

framboise

France: Creperie Framboise in Paris really got me to appreciate crepes for their decadence. Before this they were just thin pancakes with nutella inside:  -_- (boring face). After Framboise, I see crepes and I smile. 

escale caraibe

L’escale Caraibe on Rue de Guerre was a delightful treat for me, someone who believes I know Caribbean food. Trying the cuisine of Martinique & Guadeloupe was a culinary pleasure of awesome proportions. Yum Yum!

el perro

Germany: Leave it to me to find an awesome Spanish restaurant in the middle of Munich. But, hey, que será será. El Perro y El Griego is as good as I say it is.

 

 

grenada-chocolate1

Grenada: This isn’t a restaurant review. Grenada produces two good food items – nutmeg (who uses nutmeg though, really?) and thee best chocolate I’ve had in all the world. Don’t take my word for it!

 

 

sanchos logoIndiaSancho’s is in Mumbai, and here’s what the good folks at Zomato have to say: “Bandra rather Mumbai has its fair share of Mexican restaurants, but not an overwhelming amount, fading in comparison to the number of Chinese, Sports Bars and Sea Food institutions in town. Broadly speaking, Sancho’s falls firmly in the “Awesome” category. More specifically, the food is “Delicious,” albeit generally a bit too hyped given the prices.”

sant lucias

Santa Lucia is in Fort Aguada, Goa and my mouth is watering just thinking of their Goan fish curry. Check out the reviews here.

 

 

mashua

Netherlands: Mashua in Amsterdam has me reeling from great cocktails to Quinoa Risotto. Oy vey! Gianguido says, “It is Peruvian fusion food. The menu is quite short, which I actually like it. Ample choice of whine.. which I also like 🙂 I went for Ceviche as starter… it was nicely prepared with all the whistles and bells…. I could feel a bit too much the lemon for my personal taste, but over all well done. My main course was a great boneless chicken leg prepared with cumin crust/sauce with wild spinach and young potatoes. it was really delish!” Need I say more?

 


tongue thaiThailand:  Tongue Thai in Bangkok had me with the vintage pics, the jazz music and the authentic food. I went back twice in three days.

 

 

The Corson Building picnic

United States: The Corson Building in Seattle is exactly how I’d want to run a restaurant, if ever I wanted to run a restaurant. Read up for yourself. And here’s what 50 Shades of Delicious has got to say…

 


sala 1 9

Sala One Nine is my favorite restaurant in New York City, which means its probably my favorite restaurant in the whole wide world. Zagat says 90% of people like the restaurant.

 

 

And with that, I’m famished. It’s time to head off to the Blue Nile for some injera stuffed goodness. Ramzan Mubarak!

Social consciousness disclaimer: Everything I’ve had to say about Trayvon Martin trial/fiasco has already been said.

Hey, You. Yea, YOU! Aap ka swagat ho! (Did he just call me a ho?)

A word of caution: If you do not like Indians, do not (I repeat: DO NOT) come to India.

You must talk to your inner xenophobe before you board that plane.  Are you kinda annoyed that every liquor store in your neighborhood is owned by an Indian; and yet you haven’t seen a liquor store of any kind in an Indian neighborhood? Do you get upset when you pay the Indian cashier and she puts your change on the counter, not in your hand?  Does a tinge of jealousy well up when you want human hair extensions and the most expensive pack reads ‘100% Indian’?  I could go on and on… you call Citibank in the middle of the day and you reach Ritu instead of Rita.  That little person inside of you that harbors these negative thoughts needs to have a frank conversation with your educated self before arriving in India.  Why?

…because all of India is not the Taj Mahal.  It is not those pictures in the Incredible India! ads that show empty forts in Jaipur at dusk.  It is not a country-wide ashram where only well intentioned, professionally misguided, singles struggling with relationship demons go to fine tune their Om and to realign their Chi.  Trust me, Elizabeth Gilbert should rot in a special chamber of literary hell for all the non-glamorous parts of India that are mysteriously missing from her novel “Eat, Pray, Love.”  I’d like to make sure that you, tourist, are made aware that you are not that special and Indians don’t really care about you.

Do you really think they have made a special place in their hearts and minds just for you, tourist, who is on your search to ‘find yourself’?  Let’s be clear, you are one of many in a long line of generations who come believing that there is wisdom and enlightenment in poverty and destitution (self proclaimed or imposed).  You will pay 10 times the local price to get into tourist sites that someone told you should be on your bucket list – but really, be prepared to get touched in private parts to see the dusty, hazy, pollution filled view.  You will, most likely, not know the difference between a Swami and a Sardar-ji.  You will assume that Sikhism is a different religion from Hinduism.  You will want to take pictures in places that you really shouldn’t even be allowed to enter.  You will fear street food like you were trained by Pavlov’s dog to eat cyanide laced ice cream sandwiches at the sound of every car honk.

You will quickly realize that all the things your inner xenophobe fumed over back home are simply par for the course – but multiply it by 1,205,073,612 and there you have your tourist reality.  Be frank with yourself.  You’re only here because you think these Indians (yes, the ones living in India) are like your weed smoking second-generation American college roommate.  Maybe you think you’ll meet Apu from the Simpsons. Even better, you’ll be able to do camel pose with Bikram Choudhury.  If Indians in the U.S. are more than what stands between your stereotypes and their prototypes, then snap out of it stupid and get real about what India must have in store.

Let me explain, xenophobe. I mean, tourist.  India is full of people. Over one billion of them. (It is mathematically impossible to take a picture at any historical site without getting a Nagalakshmi or a Balaskandan’s head in your picture!) While you may think, “if I’ve spent years mingling amongst the 2,843,391 Indians in America, how different could India be?” I’m here to tell you that India is, rightfully, a gazillion times different.

At home, India gets this exotic wrap.  It’s being played up as this country on the verge of some modernity meets traditional bastard child called the future.  And I assure you, it is on the verge of something alright.  But, whereas at home you get to choose Indian-ness as a taste of an ethnic ‘other’ (Read: “Honey, I’m so tired of pizza. Let’s try something different and not so boring. C’mon be adventurous. Why not, Indian?”) there is no alternative when in the motherland. (Read: “Paneer? Again?!”)

Honestly speaking, you will find some people in India to be just as genuinely unpleasant as you found some Indian Americans.  But what do you expect?  By virtue of there being so many damned people in India, you will come to love and loathe individuals much more poignantly.  You will notice the difference between a Gujarati and a Punjabi. Why? Because Indians in India differentiate amongst themselves and you will soon learn these complexities in ways that the united Indian front in the U.S. will not allow foreign penetration.

Tourist, you will pay attention to rich Indians, because the things that are unpleasant to you tend to be unpleasant to them too – and wow have they learned to un-see all the negatives around them.  Who needs to build a wall to keep out undesirables?! I have seen rich Delhites pass by hungry children in the streets and not bat an eye while ignoring the poor girl screaming really loudly (really actually annoying as all hell) “Hellllooooooo! Hello didi!” while she bangs on the car door. But because you’re in a mood to question your Western standards, the xenophobe in you may forgive rudeness in India, but be less forgiving of your half and first generation Indo-American compatriots.

I’m here to say that before you board that way too expensive, very long, and very cramped flight with soon to be (very, very) drunk uncles and some Frida Kahlo-esque Sardarnis, you have to forgive your fellow (Indo-) Americans.  Forgive. Forgive with all your soul.  You will soon find out that some of what you mistook as rudeness, directed specifically at you, is learned behavior that has nothing to do with you at all.  Sure, the acts remain unpleasant and you have the right to be offended.  You probably have every right to be offended.

Yet, some things that you assumed to be a general disdain for Black culture, for example, you will come to see are really part of a caste system carry over that not only divides North and South Indians, but also fuels a whitening cream industry that is very vibrant in Indian households all over the world.  What you thought was just a generally horrendous disposition towards women may actually be a generally horrendous disposition towards women.  More than just that though, it reads into these South Asian and conservative religious narratives of the faithful wife (Sita) – who really is valued when she quietly, but visibly martyrs herself – and these bhakti motifs that posit male-male friendships as foundations for pious communities (see Manas Ray’s Nation, Nostalgia and Bollywood).

Your inner xenophobe has to be ready to let it all hang out, because you’ll need to check your assumptions and pick your battles.  For there will be many, but some more worthy than others.  Maybe it’s not because you’re White – maybe it’s because you’re not Jain.  Maybe it’s not because you’re not Indian, maybe it’s because you come off as a young upstart with no respect for hierarchy.  Maybe it’s not because you have a foreign passport, maybe it’s because the military guard at IGI airport has been standing outside in a military uniform, in 115F degree heat for the last 7 hours holding an M-16 made on the first day of the Cold War.  Maybe it’s just because it’s not an auspicious day.  Or, of course, there’s the option that it is you…

But, you’ll never, ever, ever know for sure.  If you spend all your time worried about the dingbats you meet, perhaps you’ll lose sight of the really brilliant Marathi tour guide of the Elephanta Caves and how she saved you from being pickpocketed.  You might miss out on the opportunity to learn from a Malayali how you can take a house boat from Cochin to Thiruvananthapuram – rather than wading out to sea for days heading nowhere except to a malaria clinic if the right mosquito picks you to be her tall drink of water.  The road from Delhi to the Taj is 4 hours filled with people, on the roadside, in the village, in the dhaba and in your damned pictures!  There’s no way around it, so you should get really friendly with some people who will forgive your inner xenophone just as much as you forgive yourself for thinking those xenophobic thoughts in the first place.  Be prepared to confront, head on, every ill thought, assumption or misunderstanding you’ve ever had about India or Indians.

It’s either that… or, I hear Thailand is great this time of year.