Tuesday, February 24, 2015

How and why we housesit

Cat sitting.

Why do you do it?

Housesitting fits in beautifully with our desire to live a nomadic life. We like staying in places rural or urban, living like locals, trying on different lives.

Many of the gigs involve taking care of pets. Because we travel so much, we don't have pets of our own. We enjoy being the loving babysitters of an array of dogs and cats--and in one case, ducks, geese, turkeys and rabbits.

Housesitting is appealing, too, because it's act of service. The owners can leave home and enjoy their travels without worry.

Walking the dogs in Port Townsend.

How do you get your gigs?

Facebook has been a good way. Several times I've posted a status update about when we are free; that's how we got two different housesits in Santa Cruz.

We belong to two housesitting websites: Trusted Housesitters and House Sitters America. To be a sitter, you create a profile with description, pictures, references and video if you like. You can go to any police station with your ID and ask for a background check, which you can provide to homeowners as a bonus. I include a link to this blog so they can read about our lives and feel pretty sure we aren't murderous thieves.

Trusted Housesitters has a lot of traffic and charges about $100 a year but you can get 25% off with this link. New listings appear daily from all over the world. Through this site we got a two-month stay in Port Townsend, Washington and an upcoming month-and-a-half gig in Chicago.

At $30 a year, House Sitters America focuses solely on U.S. listings. That's how a couple in West Hollywood found us.

I peruse these websites daily, passing by anything that doesn't float our boat, like taking care of someone's rental properties or tending to horses or milking goats. Still, I get a kick out of seeing all that variety out there, the multitudinous ways people live.

Farmer Dave

Do you charge?

No. Although if anyone requests housesitters pay for utilities (which some do), we don't apply. We would consider asking for a fee if the job required unusual or time-consuming tasks.

The advantage is a free place to stay. And if we have vacation renters in our place in Mexico, we come out ahead.

A golden opportunity.

What's it like?

When someone is interested in us, we handle the details by email, phone, or Skype. It's good to prepare a list of questions, such as what the house and environment are like, if there's WIFI, what they expect of us, what their animals are like, and so forth.

Now that we've been doing this a while, homeowners are requesting us. Once we were offered what sounded like a fun urban adventure with a cute little dog, whom we met along with the owners via Skype. However, during the call, the woman said she didn't want us to leave her dog longer than two hours at a time--nor to take the dog in the car, to the beach, or other unfamiliar places. Not enough freedom for us!

The experience in Washington was the opposite. The owners called us and offered us the gig based on our profile. We didn't even Skype, just handled the details by email. They explained their usual routine with gardening and dog care, but they said we could do it however we wanted. When we showed up, they gave us their keys and said if we wanted to take their gorgeous Golden Retrievers anywhere, we should use their truck. They also handed over the keys to their RV and said we were welcome to use it too!

Abbondanza in Santa Cruz.
The house was a custom dream in the forest. Their garden was filled with fruits and veggies that we lived on for six weeks (as we did in the Santa Cruz mountains). We loved the dogs dearly, and enjoyed taking them to the beach. Yet there were challenges: they were very strong males who, on leash, could pull you out of your shoes! We both got a little beat up. And washing them after a day at the beach was a workout in and of itself. Still, the overall experience was great--and we feel like we made new friends in the owners. When they arrived home from their trip to India, we shared a meal and conversation.

When we drove away the next morning, tears came to my eyes. It wasn't easy saying goodbye to the dogs and the awesome Pacific Northwest. And yet, it felt freeing to let go, to move onto the next thing.

Housesitting is a great experience for nomads at heart.

Yoga with Duke, in West Hollywood.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Year of Living Drinklessly: Week One

up on the roof

My Facebook account blew up when I posted that I'm taking a year off drinking.

Tons of "likes." A few playful "unlikes." I was surprised to discover that a number of my friends have quit drinking or regularly take breaks.

One of my good friends stops drinking every February for a post-holiday cleanse. (She likes that February is the shortest month!)

Another takes what she calls "drinking sabbaticals." She's a very social person and enjoys having people over for dinners where the wine flows freely. Her wineglass is often filled with sparkling water. A non-drinking couple who attends these dinners brings their own pitcher of iced tea.

Some friends told me they experimented with non-drinking and never went back. Others did go back and are happy about it. One said she's always drunk sparingly, treating alcohol "like a spice."

I received several private messages. One guy said he hasn't had a drink since September. He stopped because he was rewarding himself with drinking. Without changing anything else, he lost 14 pounds. He said it's fun to go to parties, drink a virgin drink, and watch his friends "get looped."

He said he didn't want to comment publically because people might accuse him of having a problem. It says a lot about our drinking (and recovery) culture that someone who chooses not to drink is hesitant to say so. In my mind, whether or not one has a problem with alcohol is personal. And there are gray areas and slippages that only we can make sense of in their own lives.

I have friends who have thrived in various recovery programs. I have friends who've never drunk much, and others who drink a lot every day. Clearly they want to or need to for whatever reason, and I have no judgments. Many of them are happy and ongoing, others not so much, but whatever--we all get to decide how we're going to journey on this planet.

Most people who contacted me said they chose to stop (or take a break) not because they felt they'd hit bottom. It just felt good to cut back. Some enjoy the challenge. In my case, I'm thinking of it as an adventure. What will a non-drinking life be like?

I haven't spent more than a few months without drinking since I was a teenager. And now that I'm looking at a year off, I'm experiencing unusual sensations. It's as though I'm living someone else's life, that of a non-drinker. And it makes me kind of giggly, kind of off-kilter. Like I'm getting a drug high from abstinence!

Sounds weird, I know, but that's not all. The other day in yoga, I felt floaty, light, like my bones are a bird's. Maybe that's because I've been thinking for a while about quitting--and now that I have, it's a relief. Of course, it's always my choice to drink or not drink. But having created this arbitrary space of a year off feels like I've built a happy boundary.

I'm noticing that a desire for a drink often pops up in me around 4 p.m. Happy Hour is in my genes. An herbal tea or a smoothie later, the desire wanes.

I'm realizing I equate having an alcoholic beverage with doing something "special." I've found a special non-booze drink: limonda con agua mineral, a ton of fresh lime juice and sparkling water. You can get it with or without sugar; I prefer it without (sin azucar). Tastes similar to a margarita. I don't like tequila anyway.

I'm seeing how much I associate pleasure and relaxation with drinking. When Dave and I are on the roof watching sunset, I think about how a nice glass of cab would accentuate the experience. Then I turn toward myself and ask, "Why?"

It's a habit. It helps me relax. Wine's ruby color in a glass is an aesthetic pleasure.

So how can I get those things another way?

I inhale the ocean air, nestle into Dave's embrace, and watch the electric orange spread across the sky.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Casa sweet casa

The road to home.

It's strange that we own a house. How did this happen? Last I checked we were living on the road, homeless by choice.

Oh yeah, we bought a casita sight unseen over a year ago. A house in Mexico, in a part of Baja neither one of us had been to. It's a long story...but we were running on pure instinct.

In November when we landed here, I wondered if our success jumping off cliffs had run its course. I was totally overwhelmed by our empty place. We had to make it livable...in a country where we barely spoke the language. The first few nights we slept on a leaky air mattress on the cement floor.

I know a lot of people have a blast flipping houses, decorating, remodeling, landscaping, shopping. That stuff isn't really my bag. The kinds of projects I like usually involve words, like writing and editing books. Or exploration, like traveling to India and Sri Lanka.

It's funny how I've done some pretty major things in my life, such as retiring early and undergoing brain surgery, but the idea of tackling an empty house in a foreign country freaked me out. The place didn't even have cabinets, just empty spaces below the counters.

New cabinets.
And now, three months later, that emptiness is a hazy memory. Today the workers finished our cabinets. Our place is fully furnished, including a day bed on the roof. It's beautiful. My vision of creating "uncluttered color" has come to pass.

How did we do it? First, I had to get my head right. I consciously decided to enjoy the process, to be thankful for our fortune, to enjoy the beauty of the area--even if that meant gazing through the windshield at the turquoise sea as we drove to the store.

Finally some landscaping around the outdoor shower.
We shopped primarily in Todos Santos (10 minutes away) and Cabo (an hour away). We'd go out with a long list and come back exhausted, with just two or three items marked off. I used Google translate to look up key words before we ventured out, tucking the notes into my purse. My sister and our new friends helped us out, suggesting places to go, making referrals, and giving us stuff (an electric kettle, a slow cooker). Our friends from L.A. brought a suitcase full of things we had a hard time finding here. We got plants from a nursery down the road; others were pulled out the desert ground.

Day bed

A few things--like a BBQ and day bed for our roof--we ordered online and sent to a warehouse in San Diego to be trucked down. After trying to sleep on a pillow-top Mexican queen mattress (which is six inches shorter than an American queen), we broke down and bought a Temperpedic knock-off and had that delivered. If we've learned one thing, get a good night's sleep.

It all happened little by little, poco a poco. And now, it's done. Well, as done as a house ever is. There are always tweaks, things to move, things to discard, things to add.

Making our house a home has provided me with another reminder to trust the process. Did I really need another reminder? Apparently so.

Grilling on the new bbq!


Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Year of Living Drinklessly

I didn't have a drink yesterday but was offered a beer, a screwdriver, and a glass of red wine.

Living in beach paradise, as we do here in Baja California Sur, it's easy to get caught up in the It's-Another-Tequila-Sunrise Lifestyle. So many people in our little villa love to party. And who can blame them? They are on vacation or retired. Whoo hoo!

I have nothing against getting wasted away again in Margaritaville. God knows I've had a lot of fun over the years doing so. It's just that recently, booze has stopped being my friend. A few drinks at night is a surefire ticket to insomnia, migraines and malaise.

Maybe booze has always affected me like that. Perhaps it's just that in my 50s, feeling like crap bothers me more than it used to.

On my beach walk today, this idea came to me: How about an experiment? Not drinking for a year. The Year of Living Drinklessly (after one of my favorite films, The Year of Living Dangerously).

But wait a minute. Who will I be without drinking? When I'm offered a margarita, can I really say no? Isn't that rude? Won't I be a drag? Won't I be a buzz kill, a party pooper?

What will happen when I meet my sister's new boyfriend, who owns a winery, and I tell him I'm abstaining from the passion of his life? That doesn't seem very nice. (Then again, many people I know have never read my books.)

Most of my friends drink. I heard one--wine glass in hand--say: "I decided to stop drinking wine, but after a week I realized it made me really boring."

The non-drinkers in my circle tend to be pot smokers. Maybe by the end of my experiment, I'll be a stoner. Maybe I'll gain 100 munchie pounds.

I doubt it. I don't care for weed. Once I ate some pot candy and sat, a catatonic marble statue, for four hours on a friend's boat. I felt immobile and silent as a rock. I finally understood why they call it "stoned."

Booze has always had the opposite effect for me, making me bubbly and social and happy. Well, for a few hours. And then if I want to stay awake to keep dancing and chatting, I need coffee.

Maybe giving up booze is just the next level of shedding. In the past two years, I've shed my job, town, house and possessions. Oh, and a brain tumor the size of a walnut.

No, my husband and I are not ascetics. We love a fat steak and Tempurpedic mattress as much as the next guy. But we are experience junkies. We like to fling ourselves into life and try new things. Right now we have two more months in beachside paradise before we leave for more adventures in California, New Orleans and Chicago.

Oh my god. Am I really going to be boozelesss at JazzFest?

Well, that's hardly an epic act. People do it all the time. I'm just not usually in that group. In fact, the last time we were in New Orleans, I had a sore throat--so I drank ginger tea rather than beer, and I still had a great time.

This experiment could be an epic fail. Someone could put a Pliny the Elder in my hand tomorrow, and I could unthinkingly and happily suck it down.

But it helps if I frame the story like this: The Year of Living Drinklessly is an adventure. I'm not giving something up. I'm leaning into my curiosity about living a different way. I'm going to learn a lot. I can already think of a bajillion things I want to write about on this topic. So stay tuned.
(Originally published Feb. 16 on another blog, but I've decided to merge them. It's all ONE life after all!)

Friday, February 13, 2015

Baja Life


El Pescadero is on the Pacific. The wild Pacific. There are only a few beaches in Baja Sur that are advisable to swim in--and one of them, Cerritos, is a short walk from our place. The water is clear and shallow for a long way out.

Still, some days the waves are too high, fast and furious for swimming. And there can be a strong current. When the big waves come, they are amazing to watch. They shoot straight up then pause--like a still-shot--before crashing down.

On those days, we play Frisbee or kick back watching the daring surfers. We can usually wade in a bit to get cooled off. Or we just come back to the villas and swim in the pool.

"The Villas" sounds so lah-dee-dah. But it ain't no fancy resort. Yet it's quite charming. To get here requires driving a ways down a bumpy dirt road. If you have a problem with dust, Baja is not your place. Yes, it's beachy and feels tropical, but it's also the desert. Dramatic, dry, sublime.

Baja California Sur sunset (credit)

The Villas property includes an open-air restaurant (that usually opens around 4 or 5), pool, Jacuzzi (that's usually hot) and palapa, under which yoga classes are taught. The residences include a three-story tower housing large condos surrounded by bungalows, studios with palapa roofs, and one-, two- and three-bedroom casitas. 

Our casita, a one-bedroom, is 800 square feet of indoor space (double that outdoors). With the sliding glass doors and rooftop patio, it's very much indoor/outdoor living. We can take an indoor shower or an outdoor shower; the latter waters our palm tree.

Some people live here full time. Some vacation here. Some rent out their places. This means we are always meeting travelers, which we dig. The regulars are mainly Canadians and Americans who, like us, have sought out another way to do this thing called life.

The dwellings are close to each other, and because our windows and sliding glass doors are usually open, at times we hear others' conversations or music. It's communal living, where people drop by for a conversation or drink.

As I mentioned in my last post, living here works best when you flow. You either go crazy or learn to be patient with the laid-back mañana vibe. Making international phone calls with internet apps can be spotty. Mexican cell phones are cheap, but I still haven't figured out how to use the voice mail! Water has to be trucked in, and sometimes we have to go a half day without water. But that's nothing compared to what can happen to others in Mexico--including the small town of Todos Santos ten miles away--whose water and electricity go out more regularly.

Americans living here have to detox from the I-expect-it-all-yesterday-and-fast approach.

Streets of Todos Santos (credit)

It's sweet to have the Pueblo Magico of Todos Santos nearby. That's where I go to take my Spanish classes. My teacher is a young woman with a vibrant nature. She's a divorced, single mother and is writing a memoir about what that's like in Mexico. She has us discuss Spanish readings about Mexican history, the most recent being a biography of Miguel Hidalgo. He sparked the fight for Mexico's independence from Spain, working to end the oppression of indigenous peoples.

We do some grocery shopping in Todos Santos. We can buy a surprising array of relatively inexpensive stuff at local markets. And there are stands that sell organic produce. Meat, fish and poultry tend to taste very good--maybe fewer hormones? Maybe more local? For larger shopping excursions, we head to Cabo, an hour away, where there are box stores and big supermarkets. We are now experts at "the big buy" every couple of weeks, loading perishables into an ice chest for the drive home.

Dave with the horses that wander around Playa Las Palmas.
We often grill meats and veggies, wrapping them in fresh corn tortillas; we buy a thick, hot stack for a few cents at the tortillarilla downtown. I've been into making coleslaw, finely chopping green and purple cabbage, tomato, cucumber, pepper--whatever's in the veggie bin--and soaking it in oil and vinegar (balsamic and apple cider), sprinkling it with pepper and onion salt. I make other green salads and just did a potato salad, thrilled that I found pitted black olives and pickles at the store! You can never be sure that an item you love will be there next time. So when we finally found peanut butter without added sugar, we piled our cart high.

Talk about fresh fish: our friends make ceviche at the beach.

We mostly eat at home, but sometimes we get an oven-fired pizza, pasta and salad at the villa's restaurant, Pizza Napoli. The pizza is European style with thin crust, savory sauce and thinly-sliced toppings. Dave loves it. (But being a weirdo, I mean lactose intolerant, he orders it without cheese. I'm a cheese fiend, the only chink in the armor of our amour). I like the Greek salad and spaghetti carbonera. Prices are good (about $6 for a medium pizza), especially since the two other restaurants within walking distance are pricey. Then again, they are right on the beach.

Todos Santos has a crazy number of great restaurants. Chefs from all over come here. They aren't super cheap, but they are less expensive than comparable restaurants in the states. Our favorite is Tre Galline (Caffe Todos Santos during the day). It's Italian but in the true European sense: beautiful salads, steak in a salt crust, freshest of fresh fish, that kind of thing. It's magical eating dinner on the outdoor cobblestone patio amidst dark trees draped in twinkling lights.

Mac with Euva, the owner of Mixtica, an eclectic Todos Santos boutique.
There are many more restaurants we have yet to try that people tell us are fabulous. Our favorite place to eat is Bahia: a collection of six plastic tables on the sidewalk outside a pescaderia (fish market). There we get super-fresh fish tacos in soft tortillas and smoked marlin tostadas for just a few bucks. Out. Of. This. World.

que rico!
We also enjoy indulging now and then in pan dulce, sweet baked goods. My favorite panaderia in Todos Santos is in the front room of the baker's house. Kids and the grandma hang out in the living room or on the porch when you go in and pick out a few bakery items.

Todos Santos has lots of art galleries; every month there's an art walk. And there's a yearly music festival in January, spearheaded by Peter Buck, of R.E.M., who's a local. The festival is at the famous Hotel California on the outdoor patio, where we rocked out to the Old 97s with my sister and a friend of ours who just happened to be here from L.A.

Sisters at the music festival.

There are a lot of writers here too, and several writing conferences. I recently dropped in on one of the events, a talk open to the public at Casa Dracula. It earned its name because its former owner was a cruel sugar cane magnate who "sucked the blood" from his workers. Or maybe because of the bats that flew around the abandoned building before it was reclaimed and reopened.

Cerritos moon

There are also numerous opportunities to volunteer for the community, for example at the Palapa Society and Hogar del Niño, an orphanage. I have new friends who do everything from teach English, play music, hang out with the kids, and make food for these organizations.

For some reason, Baja has incredible sunsets. At night, there are a lot of stars, and the moon seems extra bright. When I wake up in the middle of the night, crickets and crashing waves serenade me back to sleep.

Maybe we are crazy to think of leaving here mid-April to wander around, as is our way, for months on end. Especially now that a cat named Mango has entered our life. She's kind of a communal cat, having gravitated to this side of the villas due to conflicts with another cat. And she likes our patio because we are one of the few casitas without a dog. Plus, Dave feeds her. We know she'd be fine without us. But a cat makes a house a home. Are the nomads home?


Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Perfect Timing (Tiempo Perfecto)

There's a certain looseness here. When you walk on the beach, you see it: leash-less dogs, perhaps a few horses wandering around. Someone might drive his truck or ATV on the sand, after having bumped down dusty dirt roads.

Playa Las Palmas
Sometimes we even see a guy in an ultralight airplane land on the sand.

Don't get the wrong impression, though. All of this is not happening at once! The beaches tend to be uncrowded--although weekends bring out lots of families, and good waves bring out lots of surfers.

Boats launch by rolling into the water from the beach. When they return, it's spectacular to watch them blast full speed ahead to the land, bumping right onto the sand.

Fishermen landing at Punta Lobos.
This laid-back quality permeates most of life here. "Mañana" has two meanings: "tomorrow" and "some unspecified time in the future." That's pretty much how things roll. One day at a restaurant you might get really fast service. Another day, a "quickie lunch" might take two hours.

As Laura Fraser writes: "Mexico is a good place to practice patience. Whenever someone is an hour or a day late, I try to think of it as an opportunity to step out of my constant sense of urgency, to relax."

For example--and this is just one of many--we'd been waiting for more than a month for a delivery that was supposed to take 10 days. I was even to the point of thinking we might never see the stuff. I consciously decided to not worry about it.

Then this morning my cell phone rang. The woman on the other end told me she had four boxes for us, but she didn't know how to get to our place (even though I'd sent a map and directions).

We realized we could have gotten the call on a day our patio was torn apart. Or the other day when workers were here installing our cabinets. Or when we were in Cabo or on the beach or out of cell reach.

We arranged to meet at the gas station down the street. She followed us down the dirt road to our casita. Her worker nimbly unloaded several unwieldy items, hauling them to our rooftop patio. As he did so, I realized I'd been imagining that to get furniture up there would be a big project. Nope.

Sunset from our rooftop patio.

The driver was all smiles. We hung out by her truck, chatting. She told me she loves her job. I said, es una vida dulce and she said, absolutamente! When she found out I'm una escritora, a writer, she said she wants to write her autobiografía. I asked her if she's lived an interesting life (¿tiene una vida interesante?) and, grinning, she again enthused, absolutamente! I encouraged her to go for it.

"There is," writes Laura Fraser, "a mindfulness to day-to-day encounters in Mexico, an attentive cordiality, that is contagious. You see it in the politeness people pay to one another ... People take the time to greet one another, with no sense of hurry. There is endless Mexican patience for things that can always be a little late, go a little wrong, but will work themselves out tomorrow."

I guess I'm saying if I'd not been in the laid-back Baja state of mind, I might not have had such a great human connection. I was happy to talk to her. I was happy see our stuff, even if it was late. Actually, it wasn't late. It was right on time.

La Playa Punta Lobos