Tag Archives: Group activity

Travel the World without Leaving your Hometown

(Where Paul explains how we experienced our China and Colombia travel adventures without leaving home…)

In a couple of hours, I’ll be joining a group scavenger hunt on the nearby subway line.

I’ll be teamed up with Peter, a young immigrant father from Guangzhou in southern China, and together we’ll follow the English clues, hunt down items, and perhaps win the prize!

The afternoon event is a creation of our local immigrant services society, a non-profit organization that helps immigrants and refugees adjust more quickly to life in their newly adopted country.  The society offers classes in English as a Second Language (ESL), as well as practical information on “how things work here” for everything from applying for a driver’s license to networking for jobs and business opportunities.

Guangzhou street, about 1919.

Guangzhou street, about 1919.

My involvement started when I signed on as a “settlement mentor” a little over a year ago.  It seemed a great way to volunteer my services, and at the same time satisfy the travel bug during times we were unable to travel.  It’s done that and more.

Last year, I started my assignment with Wei, another young father from Guangzhou.  My commitment was to meet weekly with Wei, and come up with activities we could do together that would help Wei with his English, and learn something about his new hometown.  Over the course of the next six months, he joined us for a Labour Day barbecue, a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, and some family Christmas-season fun.  Of course, it wasn’t all one-way.  Wei and his friends invited us to a fabulous authentic Harvest Moon dim sum lunch at a fabulous restaurant, home-cooked several lavish Chinese meals for us, and even taught our boys how to cook a couple of spicy Sichuan specialities.

Wei must have valued the interaction, because he soon asked whether he could invite a friend to join us.  Over the next few weeks, the circle grew to include Mannie, Meng, Laureen, and Sonny.

Some of the family, and some of the mentees, posing with the Thanksgiving turkey & stuffing.

Some of the family, and some of the mentees, posing with the Thanksgiving turkey & stuffing.

Searching our city for opportunities to visit with the new immigrants took some doing, but it was a novel way to look at familiar territory in a new light.  We discovered interesting things together, including an elaborate traditional Halloween Haunted House that centered on the exploits of the famed 7th-century Chinese detective “Judge Dee.”  My new friends also marveled at an exhibit in the local city museum, featuring some of the stories and living conditions of Chinese immigrants from the 1800s.

We in turn learned a lot about China, some of it surprising.  One of our friends went back to China for New Year’s and came back divorced.  Apparently, a divorce in China is just a matter of signing the proper forms.  We also learned that many of these young people had very little sense of their ancestry.  During Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s, a concerted attempt to erase ties with the past had extended even to destroying family pictures.  Some of our young Chinese had no idea what their grandparents had looked like.  One of those grandfathers had been a well-known stage actor;  the government had burned all of the silk costumes of his profession, so not even heirlooms remained.

A poster from the Cultural Revolution, featuring an image of Chairman Mao, and published by the government of the People's Republic of China.

A poster from the Cultural Revolution, featuring an image of Chairman Mao, and published by the government of the People’s Republic of China.

Even more surprising were some of the things we learned about life for these new immigrants here in our country.  All of them had come from professional or business backgrounds in their home country:  small and mid-sized business owners, accountants, wholesale sales reps, and the like.  Here in North America, their professional experience and credentials meant nothing.  What’s more, without a certain level of English skills, acquiring similar experience here would be very challenging.  All of my charges were highly desirous of improving their English;  they saw it as the key to whatever success they would ultimately achieve here.  They were highly appreciative of even the few hours we could spend conversing.

For a new immigrant, it can be very easy to settle into areas of town where others from your background are living.  The downside is that, for larger communities, it’s possible to live a reasonably normal life without forgoing your native tongue.  You can shop in stores run by your compatriots, work in an immigrant business, socialize with fellow new arrivals, and perhaps even attend churches or temples populated by fellow-speakers.  One of my adopted mentees was a single mom who had left China when her marriage broke down.  In her early years here, struggling to get by and raise her son, she had little time to devote to English.  Now her son, having learned English at school, was losing interest in speaking Mandarin to her.  I talked to her about how hard it must be to have lived here for several years, and yet still feel like an outsider and be unable to work in anything approaching her level of professional training.  What’s more, English-speakers often subconsciously assume that others with minimal English skills are less educated or even less intelligent.  As we spoke, I could see written in her face a deep sadness over how life hadn’t gone quite the way she had hoped when she left the comfort and safety of her birth land to seek opportunity for her son in the West.  She was seriously considering moving back to China.  It was at that moment that I really realized how much of a difference I could make in their lives by simply spending a few enjoyable hours together doing simple things.

A traditional Chinese cake, made with rice, almonds and rose water, was an offering at one of Wei's visits.

A traditional Chinese cake, made with rice, almonds and rose water, was an offering at one of Wei’s visits.

I’ve grown to admire the bravery of these new arrivals to our shores.  My new friend Peter actually placed his two teenage sons in local homestays for six months so that they could learn English faster.  They only saw each other weekends.  Having arrived here with her husband and knowing no one, the young divorcee has now set out on her own, and is taking every opportunity to practice her English.  The young single mother has chosen to stay, and has found new employment.  She and the divorcee have become friends.  Meanwhile, Wei and his newly arrived family decided to move away from the familiarity of their ethnic community so that they could live in a neighbourhood where they only hear English.

We stay in touch with some of last year’s troop, while this year I’m just getting to know Peter.  He’s asked if I’d like to visit the local Chinese Buddhist temple with him one day soon.  Sounds interesting.  And we have several invitations to visit families in China, make some new friends, and no doubt get a unique perspective on the country.

If this account has you interested in doing something similar, you may have to do a little research.  I don’t know what organizations might exist in your community.  Start by searching “immigrant services” on the Internet.  Here, we have a wide variety of non-profit groups that provide these services.  There are also initiatives within the local governments.  If that doesn’t produce results, try contacting some broad-based community groups such as the YMCA.

Dancers entertaining at the volunteer recognition night.

Dancers entertaining at the volunteer recognition night.

A more low-key way to start out might be to join a language group in your town.  Here we have a wide selection that can be found via Meetup.com – try searching ESL, or “English Conversation”.  If there is a prominent language group in your area, then try that, e.g.“Spanish” or “Mandarin”.  Mannie joined a local Mandarin Meetup, and now trades talk time with a local Anglophone who wants to learn Chinese.

Or just keep your ear to the ground.  In our part of town, Spanish is uncommon.  When I ran into a family of cyclists speaking Spanish, I struck up a conversation.  Next thing we knew, we were trading visits, hearing new Latin music, and trying out the favourite drink of Colombia.  Unfortunately, our friends from Bogotá were not able to transfer their professional skills, and when their daughter graduated from high school, they returned to Colombia.  By that time, the political climate there had improved, and things have since gone well for them.  They hope we’ll visit some day.  As do we!

Adventures in Our Back Yard

“Hey, this isn’t so bad!”

It was our first hike in our second season with the local outdoor club, and we’d just made it up to the top of a pretty big hill.  A mountain, in my lexicon.  (Technically, it was our second hike of the year, but we didn’t think the popular New Year’s Day “hangover hike” counted.)  Coming back down proved to be our undoing.  We limped around the house for three days, helping each other up the stairs.  By the next weekend, however, we were ready to try a higher peak.

The 'higher peak', seen from the 3/4 point

The ‘higher peak’, seen from the 3/4 point

Joining a local outdoor club was another of the fortunate steps we’ve taken lately as we try to replace our dwindling old communities … with surprising benefits.  Cheryl and I had been casual hikers, casual cyclists, and infrequent paddlers for years.  Fair-weather adventurers.  Our last camping experience – when the boys were young – had us wrap up the soggy tent after three days of rain, and buy a last minute special to Mexico.  We thought of ourselves as reasonably fit … “for our age.”

We did like to get out for shorter hikes with a few friends.  Now the years were taking their toll on our circle – with injuries, operations, and just plain lethargy.  At times, we couldn’t find a single person to accompany us on a weekend hike.

With some trepidation, we found and joined a local Outdoor Association and booked ourselves on one of their upcoming outings.  We fully expected to be the “slowpoke seniors” in a group full of energetic youths.

Hikers at Windy Ridge, overlooking the Mt. St. Helens crater

Hikers at Windy Ridge, overlooking the Mt. St. Helens crater

Much to our surprise, we found ourselves among the youngest on the trip – although it took us a few hikes to get past the “slowpoke” part.  As we’ve continued to do hikes and bike trips with members of the group, we’ve met close to 100 of the 250 members, and almost all of them are our age or older.

So many of these hikers and cyclists are inspirations!  It’s quite something to spend six or seven hours hiking up and down mountain terrain only to discover the septuagenarian we’ve been struggling to keep up with has two titanium hips or knees.  The senior hard on my heels has just done her 100th marathon.  Some members in our club, often retired for decades, have medical conditions that would keep most people chained to their easy chair – instead, they’re using a bit of chain to get past a few feet of scree on a mountainside.

A club cycle ride usually has 10 to 20 participants

A club cycle ride usually has 10 to 20 participants

So we’ve been inspired!  We’ve done a number of hikes we would never have done on our own.  We cycle 40 miles or more on a Saturday ride without giving it a second thought.  We’ve been camping again – so far just tailgate camping, with folding cots in the tent.

The surprise was how we fell into a new community of people in our stage of life, either retired or contemplating retirement.  Not a retirement of slowing down – instead, one of taking on new challenges and adventures.  Many we’ve met share our passion for “back roads” travel, and many of those have found creative ways to finance their lifestyle.

We’ve also been reintroduced to travel in our own part of the world.  In search of new horizons, volunteers in the club have put together multiday hiking or biking adventures in locations from the Mexican border to Alaska – plus the occasional one overseas.  Much as we’ll continue to visit other continents, we now foresee more travel close to home.

A happy wanderer, overlooking the North Cascades

A happy wanderer, overlooking the North Cascades

We’re also seeing that we won’t have to settle for being “slowpoke seniors” – we’ve got lots of counter-examples all around us, and we’re starting to catch up.  At this year’s “summer camp,” Paul read over “Younger Next Year,” and has started this program, using the burst of summer hiking as the “kedge” to jump-start his program.  Today, we head out to a four-day kayak camp.

For next year, we’re looking for a hike or cycle route that we’d feel confident leading.  That would be a first for us.  We’ve also found a some members who are interested in joining us on our next year’s European bike trip: a solution to the dilemma posed by our Provence trip earlier this year.

Exploring Mt. St. Helens beyond the Visitor Center

Exploring Mt. St. Helens beyond the Visitor Center

What can you do if you want to find a similar group to get you moving instead of slowing down with each passing year?  There are many options, but it may depend where you live.  We have no idea whether other outdoor clubs tend towards an older membership – ours didn’t advertise the fact.  The club is 40 years old and perhaps the membership has aged with it.  Still, retired people often have more time for such pursuits, and a stronger sense of “use it or lose it.”

We found our group by doing Internet searches for “hiking club” and the like.  It turns out there were quite a few in our City, including special interest groups like “dog-friendly hikers.”  We picked ours primarily based on the region it served.  We’ve since discovered that many members belong to more than one group, so finding one quickly leads to others.  Many states and provinces have umbrella associations for various outdoor groups, and often publish directories.

The view from the top always makes it worth the slog

The view from the top always makes it worth the slog

Another way to locate groups for outdoor activities is though Meetup.com (which we wrote about in our last post.)  In our experience, the Meetup groups tend to be looser, and some members are frustrated with a lackadaisical attitude towards event planning.  (Our own club is well organized, with a full executive, plus sub-committees for hiking, cycling, snowshoeing, and paddling.  Experienced members volunteer to plan and lead individual events, while newcomers learn the ropes.)

However you do it, joining an enthusiast group of active hikers or cyclists will get you out there when you just “don’t wanna.”  Try it out.  And see you on the mountain!

“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Dylan Thomas (1914-1953)

Meeting Up

As described in our last post, Cheryl and I are looking at our options for finding or building a community to live in.  While working on that, we’ve made some progress in more limited community aspirations.  Here’s one of them.

Last year Cheryl and I decided to form a local Meetup.

Meetup.com claims to be “the world’s largest network of local groups.”  As the company advertises, “Meetup makes it easy for anyone to organize a local group or find one of the thousands already meeting up face-to-face.”  (Meetup’s mission is to “revitalize local community and help people around the world self-organize.”)

A beach bar at Las Terrenas in the Dominican Republic became our Meetup emblem

A beach bar at Las Terrenas in the Dominican Republic became our Meetup emblem

Paul had been attending Meetups related to his profession for several years.  Last year, we decided to investigate groups more in line with our hobbies, travel, and retirement plans  Since then we’ve joined about ten communities related to travel, travel writing, outdoor activities, photography, foreign languages, and small-business networking – in fact, so many that we have yet to actually meet with some of them.

There was one topic we had trouble finding, and that was the theme of creative retirement around which this blog is centered: “adventurous financial independence without waiting for a net worth of two million dollars.”  We didn’t have a lot of friends who wanted to investigate these kinds of ideas so we decided to form a local Meetup for just that purpose.

A year and a bit later, with very little direct publicity, our Meetup has over 100 on its mailing list, and – pretty much every month – some 15 to 20 of them get together in an informal venue for presentations and discussion.  We’ve covered topics such as Collaborative Housing, Financial Independence, Life Transitions, Making Travel Pay, Financing a Travel Lifestyle, Planning a Round-the-World Trip, and various other travel secrets.  In addition there have been social nights and photo nights with no set agenda.

Our AirBnB evening was at an official accommodation

Our AirBnB evening was at an official accommodation

Meetup.com has been a helpful platform for organizing, advertising, and managing these events.  By means of a suggested $5 donation at a member’s first meeting of the year, we have covered all expenses, including site fees, with a small contingency fund carried forward.

Along the way, we made several discoveries.  One thing we learned was that most of our peers were not familiar with Meetup.com.  Many of our new members had never joined a meetup prior to ours.  As such, they are sometimes hesitant in coming out to their first event.  We’ve found that pre-screening new member profiles and requiring pictures helps put people at ease.  (Before we started pre-screening, we did have one or two incidents involving inappropriate spam from new members.)

Another surprise was how far people were willing to drive to attend a meeting.  We’ve had participants from as far away as a 90-minute drive – and return the next time!  For Cheryl and me, a 90-minute drive usually leaves us scanning AirBnB for overnight accommodation.  There is clearly a real hunger for this kind of face-to-face connection.

Writer Darlene Foster introduced members to the joys of travel blogging

Writer Darlene Foster introduced members to the joys of travel blogging

The most pleasing discovery was how well people fit together.  Our Meetup members coming together around a common theme seem to feel relatively at home, and open up quickly.  Many of our meetings have the flavour of old friends coming together, even when half the participants are first-timers.  We’ve been able to schedule events with no agenda and expect that good conversation will develop.

Of course, it takes some effort on our part to make sure new people feel welcome, and are introduced to others when they arrive.  We also make sure that everyone has name tags – a helpful icebreaker.  A realistic program and agenda helps manage expectations.

Thankfully, we’ve had several members offer to host meetings.  Most of our events have taken place in private homes, or sometimes in apartment common rooms – although we have rented rooms for larger events.  As the number of members continues to increase, we expect to investigate other venues such as area restaurant meeting rooms.  We know of some that only have a $5 minimum per person for such uses.  For now, we can usually squeeze 18 or 20 into most of the living rooms in the area, even if some of us are on the floor.

Even more important, most of our presenters are “home grown”.  While we have brought in outside experts for some topics, many have been ably handled by members.  Often we’ll have two shorter presentations in one evening.  We’ve attracted an eclectic mix of people in various stages along the retirement path, and many of them have complementary skills or learning that they are willing and able to share.

One of our speakers described a tiring retirement project

One speaker described a tiring project

For our minimal troubles, we’ve met a collection of interesting people – and get together with some of them on a regular basis.  We’ve learned some very helpful information about traveling cheaply and making money on the Internet.  We’ve had a chance to reflect on some of the deeper issues of ageing and retirement.  We have a sense that we’ve helped others expand their retirement horizons.  All at very low cost, and with a good helping of fun.  In the future, we envision  joint travel opportunities, and maybe some long term friendships.

Starting a Meetup was definitely a good idea.  We’d definitely recommend joining one or two – or a dozen – and if you can’t find what you’re looking for, then why not start your own?

Meetup:  “using the Internet to get off the Internet.”

Let us know how it goes.

Why Live Alone

A few years back, we learned of a successful experiment in communal retirement living pursued by some old friends of ours in Australia.  They had joined with two other couples, and built a special home to their requirements.  While each couple has private sleeping quarters, they share most of the 3500 square-foot house.  They love it!

Collaborative retirement household featured in "A group solution to growing older", Sydney Morning Herald, June 3 2013

Collaborative retirement household featured in “A group solution to growing older”, Sydney Morning Herald, June 3

What first caught our attention was the possibility of saving money, retiring sooner, and traveling more.

However, the more we looked into it, the more we discovered that the real value of their arrangement was the new community that came with it:  something equivalent to a new family.

As we approach the next phase of our lives, we can feel our old communities slipping away.  Our kids are preparing to leave home – we think.  When we retire from our current jobs, we will quickly lose touch with former colleagues.  Our friends are beginning to retire and move away – some to the countryside, some overseas.  We ourselves plan to move out of the City, and expect to spend more of the year abroad.

We watched what had happened to our parents, aunts, and uncles.  Many of them ended up living alone for the final years of their lives.  Some of them were shepherded into assisted living complexes when living alone became too uncertain.  Even for those who managed to stay independent – often with the help of several nearby grown children – the solo years struck us as missing something.  Was there a better way?

The tranquil view from our former island cabin - too much solitude now?

The tranquil view from our former island cabin – too much solitude now?

Cheryl and I have valued our privacy over the years.  We started our family in a development of five and ten-acre wooded lots.  We later enjoyed spending time with our boys at our off-grid island cabin.  Our retirement dream at one time included a 40-acre spread of wild countryside.

Now our perceptions are changing.  Selling the island cabin may have heralded this change;  we thought it would be too isolated as we got older.  Our experience with our own parents was pivotal:  we would probably live longer than they did, and – like most boomers – we have fewer children to rely on, children who are unlikely to live in the neighbourhood.  The same demographic shift likely means that the cost of assisted living will escalate while the quality of life in those complexes will decline.

Our reading has also underscored the importance of community.  The declining birthrate worldwide will make it harder to replace the old networks of support we are losing as we transition into the next phase of our lives.  Initiatives such as Blue Zones have shown how critical maintaining community is to our health and happiness as we age.  This aligns with advice on nurturing your communities in books such as Flourish and Younger Next Year.  We have all read by now how we can keep our brains younger by engaging in mental activity such as language skills and problem solving.  Living with other people is one way to ensure that kind of mental workout.

We recently joined an outdoor association, and were surprised to find so many retired or almost so.

We recently joined an outdoor association, and were surprised to find so many retired or almost so.

We’re now in the process of realigning our personal tradeoffs between privacy and community.  Can we construct a future for ourselves that replaces the communities we are losing?  We’re taking steps to reach out and join or create new communities for various activities.

What about collaborative living?  Is there a solution that will work for us?  Our friends in Australia had known their housemates for many years before moving in together.  When we took inventory of our own circles, we found very few possible candidates – when we broached the subject with some of those, they soon announced they were moving out of town.  Coincidence, we’re sure!

Can we find new partners for such a venture?  Perhaps.  It’s not a trivial exercise.  The householders and our friends call themselves The Shedders – primarily because of the physical and emotional baggage they had to “shed” in order to make living together work.  Will our circumstances dictate a different form of collaboration?  How far are we willing to go in trading our privacy for community?  We are grappling with now with these questions.  We’ll share some of what we learn over the months ahead.

Solitude or community - in the Marais district of Paris.

Solitude or community – in the Marais district of Paris.

Here are some of the sources that have influenced our journey.

  • Shedders:  This is Heather Bolstler’s personal blog about the journey to their collaborative retirement home.  The earlier entries are now available in this eminently readable Kindle eBook.  The Shedders are by no means the only ones to have made this work.  “My House Our House” profiles a group of three women who turned a preexisting house into a collaborative housing venture.  With an ageing population and lingering economic malaise, we predict a lot more of these in the coming decade.
  • A quiet home on a private acreage no longer the ideal?

    A quiet home on a private acreage no longer the ideal?

    Our own recent experience – such as our recent cycle trip in Provence – has underscored our own need for community.

One of our reasons for starting this blog is to reach out to a wider circle in our search for community.  We’d love to hear from you on this subject.