Thursday, December 19, 2019

Housesitting All Over the World

"How long are you on vacation?" That's a question we get a lot--most recently on a snorkel boat in Molokai. When we answer that we aren't on vacation, people get curious about our nomadic lives--especially when they are on the islands for a week and we've been there for six months, five of them housesitting

The minute we mention housesitting, we are barraged with questions. I reached out to my Facebook friends who posed questions as well. Here are my answers:

Housesitting in Malaysia

How do you get into housesitting with no experience? What are the actual steps you need to take to begin doing this type of housesitting--actual, emotional, financial?

I have written about these issues in my book and this article and a lot in this blog. When we looked at our lives and asked ourselves what we really wanted, our answer was freedom

That meant living off of our retirement income and savings for a while, doing what we wanted to do, before it was too late. We wanted to travel, rather than being in debt and tied to one area. My mindset was that the void is fertile. 

In other words: letting go of things we held onto meant discovering new possibilities that we couldn't have otherwise seen. One of our discoveries was housesitting.

Rancho Palos Verdes housesit

There are several housesitting websites, but our favorite is Trusted Housesitters. Dozens of new sits come up every day all over the world. Many are a month or longer, although they range from just a few days to a year or more. No money exchanges hands. We care for others' homes and pets, and we have a free place to stay. It's an act of service because people can travel without worry.

We started by developing our page on the site, including references from friends, and paying a bit more for the optional background check. As we do sits, homeowners write reviews. You can get reviews more quickly if you apply for short housesits near where you live--for instance, a weekend in San Francisco if you live in the Bay Area, before you branch out.

Because we are now known as housesitters, people often come to us; as a result, we have done gigs for friends and acquaintances as well.

Describe the weirdest or wackiest task you've been asked to do.

Get up at 6 a.m. to feed the 40 ducks, chickens, geese, turkeys and rabbits. 

Farmer Dave

What kind of budget do you need to have if you do that full time?

This varies greatly depending on the person. We don't housesit full-time because several months a year we stay at our place in Mexico. We live on a small amount of money per month compared to many Americans, approximately $1,500-3000, based on how much travel we are doing. In addition to discovering housesitting, I've learned that a digital nomad is a thing. Some of our income now comes through the writing, editing and coaching I can do wherever we are. We also rent out our little place in Mexico on Airbnb. And as we travel, other opportunities arise, such as the year I spent teaching in China, and the writing workshop I developed with a guy I met in Thailand.

What also helps support our lifestyle (in addition to no rent or mortgage, and no utilities while housesitting) is that we don't buy a bunch of stuff--because our small house in Mexico has little storage, and the rest of the time we're living out of a suitcase. 

It's a mindset--not that we're doing without, but that we're rich in what we love in life: travel experiences, nature, meeting people, time with friends and family, writing, reading, music, and enjoying animals.

Hiking with Freckles on our housesit in Long Beach, Washington

How do you avoid surprises in this process? What are the dos and don'ts for both parties related to screening for the engagement? Have you ever said "no" after a Skype?

There are always surprises--and we have learned to become more and more adaptive and flexible. However, creating a list of questions can help. I think of our Skype with homeowners as an interview that goes both directions. If I haven't seen many pictures of the house online, I might ask for a video tour. I like to know what size bed we will be sleeping in--and if we have full access to the house. Some homeowners want you to sleep in the guest room, which is fine as long as the bed is a queen or bigger, especially for a housesit longer than a few days.

We like to ask a lot of questions about the pets: Has the dog ever shown aggression? Are any of the animals incontinent? Not that we can't handle these things, but we want to make an informed choice. We also ask about the animals' routines, the neighborhood, and use of a car, which is important for longer housesits when car rental would be prohibitive...although sometimes we have our own car with us, if we've driven it up from Mexico. In our current housesit in San Diego, we are even using the homeowner's RV! She encouraged it because her little dogs love camping. Reviews are posted on hosts' pages, so you can see what other housesitters thought of the experience.

Lulu and Sammie (siblings) enjoyed RV camping with us.

And yes, we did say no to a sit once after a Skype--because the cat was so old and feeble that the homeowner thought it might die on our watch, which we could (sadly) handle but she seemed nervous about the whole thing...and she wanted us to sleep in a double bed, even though the master bedroom had a king. Most homeowners, though, are very generous and kind. We have made good friends this way.

Longest gig? And most peaceful?

Our longest gig was four months on the Big Island of Hawaii. That was probably our most peaceful, a remote, rural area with a sweeping view of the ocean. We cared for one dog and enjoyed our daily long walks with her.

And a bonus in Hawaii: huge fruits and veggies picked in the yard.

Our nearly three months in Forest Ranch in Northern California was very peaceful as well. The dog could be walked off-leash on the trails right out the door.

Forest Ranch property

Are there options out there for those allergic to cats and dogs?

Occasionally you will see a gig that doesn't include animal care, but those are rare. Some, though, include non-furry animals, like fish or birds. And some involve feeding animals that live outside only. For instance, our sit on Maui required feeding three outdoor cats.


What have been the best and worst of your experiences?

Each place has had its good aspects and drawbacks. For instance, my favorite dog we cared for was a sweetie in Australia named Gem. She and I just clicked. However, overall we weren't too fond of the area and its very windy weather. So we focused on what we liked: the dog, nearby hot springs and movie houses, and the lake we walked around every day that had more than 100 species of birds.

Another example is our housesit in Malaysia. You can't argue with this view:

But we were disappointed when we learned the beaches in Penang aren't swimmable. We'd envisioned a tropical paradise experience. Usually we research a place beforehand (highly recommended!) but in this case, we hadn't. We did love the adorable dog, though, and the amazing Olympic-sized swimming pool. And in our month there, we met some great people. 

Basically, we have learned to relax into wherever we are, rather than focusing on expectations being dashed. And living in other places is helping me get clearer and clearer about what I like about home and place.

What is the hardest part of housesitting that people might not realize when they jump into it? 

For us, it's the transition time into a new gig. After the often tiring experience of traveling, we arrive in a home to spend hours, and sometimes a day or two, with the owners who orient us to the pets, home and area. It's a lot to take in. But it's also fun and exciting to get to meet new people and animals.

Max and Levi in Port Townsend, Washington

How do you get used to a new place? Seems like it would take a toll on your system.

We are getting better and better at this, becoming more adaptive with each experience. My biggest issue often is figuring out where the light switches are! And finding place for my stuff in the freezer. People's freezers are usually packed, although thoughtful homeowners make space for us in the fridge, drawers, and closets. Getting our personal effects organized helps a lot. But, yes, it does take a toll, which is why it's important to make sure we allow ourselves some rest the first few days--after we have shopped and oriented ourselves. Having a sweet dog or cat to cuddle with helps.

My writing spot at our houessit on the big island of Hawaii.

Have you ever broken anything? How did that go?

Nothing major. Once I broke one of my host's favorite mugs. I quickly went online and found similar cups and had them mailed to her. At a housesit in Washington, a chimney fire flared up. A neighbor, who happened to work for the fire department, noticed and came by. He told us how to handle it--but we were unnerved. It's hard to imagine something worse than burning down a host's house! When we told the homeowner, he said it had happened before, that the wood burning stove wasn't a good design. So now we can add to our list of questions: "Ever had a chimney fire?"

Dave and Ely at our Tahoe housesit.

What are some common forms of etiquette that both sitters and hosts do for each other? Like leave flowers upon arrival or departure? Is tipping a thing on either end? 

Even though we aren't paid, people have given us some cash at times as a "tip"--or to cover any unexpected expenses. They have also left us gifts, the most elaborate being at a Seattle housesit: a box of handmade chocolates, two bottles of local wine, and a gift certificate to their favorite restaurant. Often, they pick us up at the airport and take us out to eat.

On our end, if we spend some time with the hosts we cook a meal or two. If we are there when they come home, we will have dinner ready. While they are gone, we regularly update the hosts, sending them pictures of the animals and telling them what we've been up to. Even though many of the hosts have house cleaners who continue to come while we are there, we make sure the house is spic-n-span, often cleaner than when we arrived--including all towels and bedding washed. If there are flowers to pick in the garden, we might bring some in. And if we have finished books that we brought, we leave them behind.

How does it feel to be intimate with a stranger's stuff, place, bed, things?

It kind of reminds me of when I used to babysit...although I'm less nosey now than when I was a teen! My favorite thing is to walk into a house that has shelves crammed with books we can read during our time there. For a day or two, it might feel a little awkward to be in someone else's space, but soon we settle into our temporary home.

Our month on Maui, thanks to a housesit.

Do you get attached to the place, house, pets you care for? Is it hard to move on sometimes? Do you get the urge to nest?

We always nest wherever we are: cooking, doing yoga, reading, etc., in what is essentially our home for the time being. Often the homes are very nice and have all the comforts that make for great nesting, from nice furniture and beautiful kitchens to pools, gardens, views, and hot tubs. 

Saying goodbye is bittersweet. Living this life is an ongoing lesson in non-attachment. The pets are great teachers about living in the moment. When we are leaving, I think about how happy they will be to see their owners, and that helps. 

And then I focus on the part of me that's ready to relinquish responsibility--and that's excited about the next adventure. Basically...we've stumbled into a lifestyle that fits us well.

Saying goodbye to Gem.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Healing in Hawaii

Last night we were sitting on a lanai with more than a dozen other people who were singing and playing guitars, a bass, keyboards, harmonica, percussion, a banjo and the humble ukulele (me). It was a gentle, rainy Hawaii evening. Dave and I gave each other that look--you know, the one that says "wow, this is a great moment."

This moment is pretty special, too. I'm writing in the living room. Dave is reading a book, and the dog, Snickers, is snoozing. Out the window I see bright green lawn, trees shimmying in the breeze, and a gray-blue sea rimmed by a line of white foam.

View from our home for 4 months.
Each moment matters. I'm especially feeling that these days, having come out of a dark place in my mind. When I was told I don't have cancer--after having been told I did--I was ecstatic, of course. But dealing with the after-effects of thyroid surgery was rough. For weeks, it felt like someone was strangling me and rocks were lodged in my throat. I couldn't project my voice or sing. Strange numb and tingly sensations erupted in my feet and thighs.

I didn't know if my body was merely healing and adjusting to synthetic hormone replacement or if something was going wrong. My mind kept weaving stories: Your voice will never return. You might have to have another surgery if your scar is affixing. Your throat will never feel normal again.

I was also struggling with the idea that I'd have to take a pill every day for the rest of my life. But soon I realized it was my ego that was pissed off. It didn't want to identify as a person reliant on a pharmaceutical. My identity as independent and free and not a pawn to Big Pharma was threatened.

I had to laugh. Okay, universe, another lesson about not freaking out about change, I get it. And that lesson was hammered home when we arrived in Hawaii for our four-month houessit. The homeowner, the woman who picked us up at the airport (and along with her husband, draped fragrant leis around our necks) had the telltale throat scar. So small she had to point it out. Her cancerous thyroid had been removed years ago. She is one among several people I know who've taken this tiny pill for decades.

The thyroid is shaped like a butterfly...
a friend gave me this gorgeous scarf before my surgery.
Also, I was able to connect with a number of women who've undergone this surgery and learned that my physical sensations were pretty normal. These conversations helped put things in perspective. I was lucky to avoid cancer treatments that sometimes resulted in an array of troubling side-effects.

My ego had let go of the pill thing but was now clinging to the idea that I was supposed to be a fast healer. When I really listened to my body, it was telling me to take long baths and naps, massage the scar lightly, breathe deeply, stretch a little, take gentle walks, read good books, and watch funny videos. And now two months out from surgery, my throat is slowly improving.

Our bodies teach us a lot.

In the past year or two, my body has been telling me--shouting at me--to nourish it well. I wasn't listening. After finding a golf-ball sized mass on my thyroid, my doctor told me to stop eating dairy. I have always loved all things milky and cheesy--but the minute he said it, something clicked in me. My intuition told me he was right. When I got home, I pulled the half-and-half and cheese from the fridge and gave it to a neighbor.

Three months later, I have done a lot of research (like this book and this book and this book and this film and this film and this website).

It's fun to cook again! 
There is ample evidence that eating primarily plant-based whole food bolsters immunity--and helps us avoid (and sometimes cure) many chronic illnesses. And damn, it sure makes me feel great! In just a few months of eating this way (fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts, seeds, no oil, few processed foods) Dave and I have noticed some incredible things going on with our bodies:

* More cardiovascular endurance
* Weight loss
* Waking up feeling alert and well-rested
* Bowel regularity (and then some!)
* Significant reduction in heartburn/acid reflux 
* Fewer aches and pains/less joint stiffness
* Clearer skin
* Less plaque build-up on our teeth and better breath
* More evenness/emotional balance--less likely to be "hangry"
* Fewer food cravings
* Sharper sense of smell and taste
* Dave's sinuses are clearer, and his persistent toe fungus is healing

We had thought that getting weaker and gaining a few pounds was an inevitable part of growing older, and while that may be true to some degree, clearly nutrition is significant. We both breathe more easily while exercising--and on our recent walks we have been jogging a bit. I used to love running but assumed I just couldn't do it anymore in my fifties. I am already dreaming about doing 5Ks and 10Ks again. Even though I am still recovering from surgery, I feel stronger than I have in years.

blueberry torte: no oil, flour, processed sugar...pure delish
Another benefit is that I am enjoying cooking! At times it used to feel like a chore. I was stuck in a food rut, bored with my eating habits. Now we are enjoying more tasty variety. When I'm cooking I feel I'm channeling my inner curandera who heals through food, herbs, and spices. Food is supposed to make you feel good. And it's nice when the process of making it does, too.

Bananas galore
Just as we are focusing on eating primarily whole fresh fruits and vegetables, we are plopped into this housesit on a property where we can pick papayas, mangoes, pineapples and bananas and pull veggies from a thriving garden.

salad days
We are also exploring. While we've spent time on the big island of Hawaii in the past, we'd not seen much of this southern area. It's beautiful, peaceful, and isolated.

Volcano National Park

At the southernmost tip of the U.S. with Snickers, our roomie.

King Kamehameha festivities in Hilo

green sea turtle at the black sand beach
We are just one month into this four-month houessit. It's sweet to settle into the domestic rhythms of cooking, gardening and animal care--and to enjoy the musical neighbors. I'm grateful to have the time to focus on healing and writing. To soak in each moment I am given. Life has given me a lot of material. It's time to weave a book.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Holiday Living

Playa de San Pedrito, my favorite walking spot

We have landed back at our casita in Baja California Sur, Mexico after six months away. Friends here ask, "How was your vacation?" They see us as having come back home. It feels more and more that way to me, too.

Yet "vacation" is such an odd word. We don't vacation, we live a traveling life. Life-as-vacation has a nice ring to it. If life is short, why not make it a holiday? The word "holiday" comes from "holy day." So perhaps living with a vacation mindset--alive, fresh, and new--makes every day holy.

I started thinking about life in this way years ago, when I was still teaching. My New Year's resolution seven years ago was to do something new every day. New route, new conversation, new food, new book, new teaching approach...anything big or small, didn't matter. When you travel, everything is new. So living that way in my own town made me feel like I was on vacation. I now see that experiment as a seed planted that blossomed into this very life Dave and I live today.

Not to say it's all-paradise-all-the-time. No matter how you live life, there are bumps in the road. But when you're living how you really want to, the bumps can be easier to navigate. We had both been struggling a bit our last few weeks in Australia--getting over colds and dealing with bizarre weather like hot wind that set my skin on edge--that landing in California felt extra sweet.

Each time we come through California we face an ever-dwindling but persistent pile of things at our friend Mark's house. Dave decided it was finally the moment to divest himself of all of his Silicon Valley work clothes. He donated them to a men's shelter, which will use them when they send men out on job interviews. One man's ending, another's beginning. 

And then there were our beloved bikes that we'd ridden many miles along the ocean cliffs in Santa Cruz, and taken on a ski lift in Big Bear to ride down the fire roads, and ridden up a mountain in Zion National Park to watch the sunrise, and cruised around Portland. These were not the right bikes for what to do with them? That thought was on our mind when we went to visit our friends Debbianne and Tony, who happened to mention they wanted to buy bikes for the great trails of their new hometown. Dave and I looked at each other and blurted out, "We have bikes for you!" I love knowing our lives are entwined through those bikes.

Hanging out with Debbie and Tony in Monterey
This was part of a flow of giving and receiving: When a friend discovered we were renting a car, she loaned us her extra one. We gave our snow tires to a stranger. An old friend gave us free passes to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I gave a friend feedback on his poems. And another invited me to a concert because she had an extra ticket. This movement feels like breathing, like waves. It seems related to all the strangers who let us stay in their beautiful homes in exchange for caring for their pets. In fact, we did a housesit in the Bay Area, in Walnut Creek where we enjoyed a darling golden retriever (and I got a lot of editing work done).

Button and Jasper
Turned out, around this time our first great-niece was being christened, so we were able to meet her and hang out with Dave's family. 

Dave, brother Milt, Milt's son James (holding Madeline), sister Sue
And then, at the housesit, we found a book about the history of the area. We opened it up to a page that featured Dave's great-grandfather! 

For years Dave had told me that his ancestors co-founded a Bay Area town, which by toss of a coin was named Clayton rather than Rhinesville. So we drove over there and walked into the museum. The place was filled with people chatting, holding tea cups, and snacking on cookies. Turned out an event was going on called the Camelia Tea. When Dave revealed his last name, people went crazy like he was a celebrity. The beautiful old home is filled with pictures and artifacts of his ancestors. It's mind-blowing to think how his family coming from Germany (among the first Jewish settlers in the area) led to a moment where we held his great-niece in our arms.

We also spent time with my family and were able to celebrate my niece Hailey's 18th birthday at a restaurant in Pleasanton. After our meal, she hopped onto a red-eye to NYC, where she hung out with friends she'd met last summer in Bali (where she'd traveled and done community service). Yes, my niece has a desire to see the world, too, and I couldn't be prouder of what a wonderful human being she is.
Evan (20), sister Crystal, Hailey (18), auntie Kate, Jenna  (16)
And lucky us, we got to care for a furry family member, my sister's dog Coco, for a week. I mean, really, she's as adorable as they get. 

Coco came with me to visit my friend Candice and her dog Darcy.
And then there are friends that feel like family...many of whom we were blessed to see.

Tung, Luc & Daisy. 

Mark, Jackie & Todd

Paul, in town for work, came by.

I also got some power-women time, including a hike, concert, dancing, meals, and attending my friend Laurie's spiritual center to listen to her sing in the choir.

In Santa Cruz with Stacey & Laurie & Junebug
That's another thing about this lifestyle: We don't stay in one place so we can't take for granted our time there. Our connections with people, our explorations, are all imbued with a sense of the reality of passing time. The holiday of life.

Yes, these are holy days.