Saturday, August 6, 2011

Saving as Earning

I've slowly been making my way through a seemingly endless list of travel and expat blogs, just to see what is out there. Some I know I'm not likely to ever visit again, others I find interesting and could spend hours just reading through the posts, and others inspire me in a variety of ways. Friday evening, P-daddy and Pooh went to bed early and I had the living area all to myself (with the exception of our sweet puppy Elvis, who was curled up next to me), and I decided to check out some blogs. In the midst of it, I came upon a blog that I'm sure to refer to numerous times: Down to Earth appears to be a wealth of posts on simple homemade goods written by a woman in Australia. While the wealth of topics she covers is enough to make the blog great, this line caught my eye and completely convinced me that her blog *must* go on my forever list:

A saved dollar is 100 cents; an earned dollar will have about 30% tax removed, so it really is only 70 cents. I prefer now to spend time doing things that will save us money instead of working to earn it. Cooking from scratch, shopping wisely for groceries, growing food, making our soap and laundry liquid, using green cleaners - all these take more time to do but they save so much money and give much better quality, it's worth the effort.

This attitude is one that we are fully in support of. Learning to make the most of what we have, and do better with what we have, and produce simple alternatives to many consumer goods is part of our goal as we prepare to move away from the US. While yes, part of our reasoning is the lack of availability and expense of imported items in El Salvador, the pure pleasure we get from doing it ourselves is enough to make us want to continue!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Pets and Preparation

P-daddy and I are animal lovers. While I've always been more of a cat person, he is a true dog lover. And they love him too. We've talked about getting a dog, but we have concerns about shedding, about how the dog and Pooh will get along, and about the possible size of a pet in our fairly small house. As we consider moving internationally, pets raise other issues - if we don't take them, will we be able to find a good home for them here? If we do take them, how will they adjust to the move, not just the travel and possible time in quarantine, but also just to the difference in life in general? Despite having traveled extensively, neither of us has dealt with carrying animals across country, and certainly not across international borders. We'd love to hear about this from anyone with experience!

But, we want Pooh to grow up loving dogs and being comfortable with them, so we want to start getting him used to them now while he's still young. His daycare provider has a large older dog, who is very calm, lovingly referred to by Pooh as "Casey Dog". They get along great, with no problems. We'd love big dogs around, but Pooh is currently only about 30 pounds, and while he's pretty sturdy for a little guy, he's no match for a 70-pound furball! We are not convinced that all dogs will be as calm as Pooh's beloved Casey Dog.

Our current solution: fostering puppies for a local animal rescue group. Our city animal shelter euthanizes dogs and cats when they've been there over 30 days, or whenever the shelter is full. So they have EU lists going several times a week. We figure that by fostering puppies, Pooh will learn how to handle dogs and be comfortable with them, especially if they grow with him. This is Midnight, the first dog we fostered:

He's a mix of Lab and German Shepherd, and is super-smart with a great personality. We hoped to keep him for a while, but he was snatched up at the very first adoption event we took him to, about 10 days after we got him. P-daddy was quite sad and upset, since he'd been hinting (without my realizing it) that we should just adopt him ourselves. But too late, he's moved on (to a great home with a big yard and 2 boys ages 4 and 6 to play with).

This week we got our second pup, christened Elvis by a shelter volunteer. Can you tell why:

He's a Lab mix too (are you sensing the beginning of a pattern?) and is pretty sweet as well! He'll be even better once he's potty-trained...

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Homemade Yogurt, anyone?

One thing I noticed last time I traveled in Central America was the lack of availability of some things that I eat regularly. One general category of lacking items was fat-free dairy. Especially fat-free yogurt, which I eat regularly. It might be available, but in the huge Paiz/Walmart I was in, I was pretty shocked that there was none. Nothing. Nada. I opted for some low-fat variety, but it was disappointing.

Hmmm...I don't really want to switch to eating full-fat or even low-fat yogurt, so lucky for my fat-free dairy habit, yogurt is super-easy to make! I've done it already on a couple of occasions, and our entire household is convinced that the homemade stuff is better than the store-bought. Look at this yumminess:

Here's what you need:
1/2 gallon of milk (I'm using fat-free, but use whatever you want)
1/2 cup yogurt w/ active cultures (this is your starter, can be homemade or store-bought)
cooking thermometer (might be optional)

Here's the super-easy (but not quick) process:
Heat the milk to 180 degrees (almost boiling), then let it cool to 115. Add in the starter, wrap in a towel, and set in a warm spot (in the oven with the light on, or on the counter if it's a pleasantly warm day and you don't have AC) for about 8 hours. Unwrap, and YUM! Serve alone, with fruit, or in anything you choose. We like to make a fruit/yogurt/granola parfait, kind of like this.

Some additional notes: For me, the thermometer is the easiest way to go. I want the milk to get hot enough to kill anything I don't want living in there (that's the 180 part), but I don't want it to be too hot to kill my starter (that's the cooling to 115 part). Some people can do this without the thermometer, but every time I've tried I haven't made any yogurt. But if you have a crockpot, and a house that's not too cold, I understand that you can heat the milk in the crockpot on low for about 2.5 hours, turn the crock off, and let it sit for about 3 hours. Then you can just wrap the crock and you are ready for incubation. If you try it without a thermometer and it works, lemme know! We used the crockpot, but also the thermometer.

A final note that a dear friend of mine in Guatemala used to just make hers by testing the temp on her arm like you do a baby bottle. I'm just not that confident. But perhaps the lesson to be learned from that is that yogurt-making is *not* an exact science! If the milk reaches close to boiling, it's probably good, and the range at which the culture will grow is not tiny (I've read 105-120, but have not experimented with that).

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The garden is growing!

As I mentioned yesterday, P-daddy and I have been experimenting with recipes for convenience foods that we can make wherever in the world we are, even El Salvador. One thing we've made real efforts at is gardening. I find this pretty funny, as will many all of my former roommates, as I have quite the black thumb. Luckily, P-daddy's thumb is much greener, and we're actually having some luck! Here's our Meyer lemon tree:

Behind it you can see some lemon grass, an avocado shoot, and a few other items. We are also trying out some peppers, having good luck with mint and basil, and see some shoots of ginger and green onions, but right now our triumph is with melons. P-daddy just took all the seeds out of a cantaloupe, dumped them in a shallow hole, covered and watered. This is what we got:

I've been anxiously waiting ever since the blooms started, and this past week, I saw this:

I know, it's pretty tiny, but that was taken on July 25th, and it looked like this by July 31st:

I don't even really like cantaloupe and I'm so excited about this that I can hardly wait to try one! Hopefully by the time we are ready to leave we'll have identified some easy-to-grow items that we'll be able to cultivate no matter where we end up!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The importance of doing it yourself

P-daddy and I have been working for a while on being green and doing what we can to best utilize resources. We Reduce-Reuse-Recycle all the time, perhaps excessively. We have a gorgeous collection of yogurt containers (that we refill with homemade yogurt at times), have been known to wash and reuse gallon-size ziplocs (to put homemade pancakes in for freezing), and make our own laundry detergent (with a lot less waste, and it's handily stored in one of those previously-mentioned yogurt containers). In addition to yogurt, pancakes, and laundry detergent, we make our own bread, except when it's 100+ degrees like it is right now. There's a place in town where we can get wheat in bulk for pretty cheap, and I've been lusting after a good grain mill for a while - supposedly freshly ground grains make homemade bread even better. So this morning, I was quite excited to see that Halee the Homemaker is giving away a grain mill! I've gotten a few entries in, and plan to do a few more, and I'm sharing it here for you to get in on the goodness. I'm pretty sure that something like that grain mill would be a perfect addition to our list of must-takes!

How so, you ask? What does a grain mill have to do with becoming an expat? Well, believe me when I say it does. Anyone who has lived for long at all in Central America knows that the cost of imported American convenience foods is as high - if not higher - than in the States. But salaries in Central America are significantly lower, and we expect that when we move, we'll be making significantly less money than what we make now. So we need to be able to cook from scratch as much as possible, and create our own convenience foods rather than purchasing them. We've got a start on that, as you can see from our packed-to-the-gills freezer here:

Just a quick glance shows me that we have pancakes, baked oatmeal, pinto beans (yep, in the yogurt container), veggie patties, french fries, and sorbet. As time goes on, I'll likely be posting recipes for many of those, as well as lots of other DIY projects and must-haves that might come in handy as we get ready for The Big Move.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Where's the best place to live in El Salvador?

Despite having visited different parts of El Salvador, there's not a specific place that stands out as the one place I'd really love to live. I think this is partially because I didn't visit with the idea in mind of living there, and the best places to vacation aren't necessarily the best places to live!

This part of the decision-making process will take a while, and will likely require time spent in each place after we've done the initial research. We have to think about things like safety, comfort, affordability, education, and opportunity for business. So we've been checking out some different places. So far, we all have different ideas.

For me, my current top choice, based solely on what I've read, since I've never been there, is Suchitoto. It sounds like Antigua, Guatemala, without all the tourists, and I think it's somewhere that will attract tourists in the long run. My biggest concern is a place that I *want* to live, not a place that I have to settle for, and Suchitoto might fit the bill.

For P-daddy, the concern is more business-oriented, so he wants somewhere relatively close to the airport, with already established tourist appeal. He's thinking somewhere along the Costa del Sol.

Even Pooh has an opinion! We've been playing the "where do we want to live?" game. His choice...

Santa Tecla?! Well, we'll consider it!

Sunday, July 31, 2011

So where should we go?

Once having made the decision to go, many questions have arisen, the first of which is "Where to?". For me, I want to make sure that we all have some exposure to, if not fluency in, the language, plus we want to be able to adequately plan for business, education, lifestyle, and many other factors.

So what'd we decide? perhaps this will give you a hint:

That's a towel that I bought once on vacation, never thinking it might have any significance in my future. But it's become our go-to map (I know, it's really not a good map at all, but it's so easy to use!) since we think that El Salvador is likely to be where we end up. After minimal discussion, P-daddy and I had agreed that Latin America, specifically Central America, was a good choice. Here's our thinking on that and on El Salvador in particular:

1) Proximity: all of my family is in the US, as is the majority of his. Living in Central America will allow cheaper flights and better access than lots of other places if we were to need to return to the US quickly. I also have friends and colleagues in Guatemala, so we would be able to visit and network easily.

2) Familiarity: I lived for 4 years in Guatemala, traveled extensively around Central America while there, and got a good feel for Latin American culture. Obviously, things will be different in different places, but the familiarity I already have with life in Central America puts us in a good position to start with.

3) Personality: I've visited El Salvador on several occasions, and loved each and every visit. The people were always so nice and open, and I've often thought that if I ever returned to the expat life, El Salvador would be a good choice. In addition, the laid-back lifestyle common in Latin America appeals to us.

4) Economy: El Salvador uses the USD as their currency. That's all I know, but perhaps P-daddy will weigh in on this issue, since this is one of his main factors in the choice.

5) Communicability: I'm a semi-fluent Spanish speaker, Pooh is getting exposed to Spanish here in Texas, and P-daddy is willing to learn whatever language he has to. Having at least one of us already able to converse effectively means that we can travel there now with less trouble than we might have in other places. Plus it's easy to find Spanish speakers here that we can practice with (we've already joined a local meetup group for Spanish conversation).

6) Possibility: El Salvador appears to be the least popular Central American tourist spot at this point, but we think that may change in the future, so it's a good place to buy/go now and plan for growth.

There are certainly lots of other factors to consider, but this is where we are for the moment. Feel free to direct our thinking in other directions!