I have to confess, visiting home isn't something I really look forward to. Not that I don't love seeing my family and friends, or eating until my appetite for nostalgia has busted my gut but, holy Hannah, it's just...a lot. The time in transit, the planning, the unexpected expenses, the self-imposed sense of obligation to see people, the disruption of daily routines, the jet lag, the reminders of unresolved business/interpersonal issues, the "to-do" and "to-buy" lists...it all adds up. I have to say though, I think we're starting to get the hang of it.
This trip home was great, so I thought I'd share some things which were key to saving me time, sanity, and energy...
1.) MAKE a "to-buy" list ahead of time, and sort it by store
Throughout the year, I kept a running tab of things I needed to buy from the US. With the ever increasing availability of imported items at places like Nature's Basket, Royal Dry Fruits, Dorabjees, I've gotten good at finding just about everything we had in the US right here in Pune, but there are still some things that can't be got, things for which the Indian equivalents are just not up-to-muster, and things are INSANELY expensive due to the importation cost.
On my list this year: calorie-free water flavorings, Quest Bars, Reynolds Aluminum Foil, Glad Cling Wrap and Ziploc bags, solid stick deodorant/antiperspirant, gym/casual/dressy clothing, bikinis, Yankee Candle Tarts, Neosporin, Aleve, Bulk Supplements, Frontline for Stella, a gas grill (yes, seriously).
I probably spent four whole days just shopping, and having my lists sorted by store helped me out a lot. Also, I chose to shop where things would be cheapest, in Florida, as opposed to NYC, which was a total strategic win for us.
2.) Take an empty suitcase, even if you don't think you'll need it.
There will be shopping, there will be gifts, and you will leave with more than when you arrived. We made this mistake twice now and this time it cost me having to buy a new suitcase...next time, we'll get it right! Let my blunder be a lesson to you!
3.) Try to keep a daily routine.
I am an introvert who loves having a structured daily routine, and I am happiest when I am either solo or with just a few people at a time. I found that during our trip home, keeping certain daily routines provided me with a sense of normalcy and structure which allowed me to recharge my energy, get some solitary space, and enjoy my time with others much more. For me, this meant getting up every morning around the same time (usually before everyone else), eating my regular breakfast, and going to the gym. And as silly as this might sound, I made an extra effort to stay hydrated and keep my nutrition in check, which my body thanked me for again and again!
4.) Buy a SIM card online.
Being the forward-thinking, time-saving genius he is, my partner bought us two T-Mobile SIM cards on Amazon and had them shipped to our house in NY. It only cost us about USD $50.00 for both, which is half the price we paid when we walked in to Verizon last time for the same exact thing. All we needed to do when we arrived was register the cards online and we were set up within minutes. With jet lag setting in, this was one less irritating thing we had to check off the list upon arrival.
5.) US expats, prepare for sticker shock. Rental Cars are NOT $23 a day.
One of the most annoying things is having an unanticipated expense pop up. In my case, this came in the form of car insurance. Because we live outside the country and do not have a car or a car insurance policy, we needed to take the extra insurance from the rental car agency. So instead of costing the advertised rate of $175.00 per week, we ended up spending closer to $600.00 after taxes and fees. Our credit card company did provide some insurance, however, it wasn't nearly full coverage so we needed to opt-in for the additional policy provided by the rental agency. Eep!
6.) PREPARE TO CONSUME.
I've gotten pretty serious about taking care of my body over the past year (we only get ONE, after all) but I knew that while I was away there were certain things I was absolutely going to eat no matter what.
To pass the time while I was on the plane and reduce the likelihood of going on a full-fledged free-range-graze-a-thon, I made a list of all of my favorite foods and committed to just splurging on those. Things from my childhood, things that I couldn't get in India, favorite restaurants and brands. Once I arrived in the US, I stocked up on all of my usual staples at the grocery store so that I could keep my nutrition on point while enjoying the feel-good stuff too. I had a lot of fun tracking down all the delicious things and devouring them...
6.) Splurge on a business class ticket.
It's a long way from here to the US. By the time we drive to Bombay, take the midnight (or later) flight out, connect at another international airport, arrive, clear customs and drive home, it usually takes two to three days. Since we only do this trip once a year, we decided that comfort on the journey was worth the extra expense. And in reality, we were SO RIGHT. Large, lie-flat seats, priority boarding, the business class airport lounge, and healthy airline food made the long flight much more bearable.
7.) Limit planned activities.
We love our family and friends, each and every one of them, but being so over-scheduled last time was awful. This time we basically just told people where we'd be, welcomed them to join, and then just played it by ear when it came to planning our days. It took out a lot of the headache and left us time to actually enjoy ourselves. We were able to go on a few dates, spend un-rushed days at the beach, linger over dinners at home with family, and even have an impromptu picnic in Central Park...like I said, we're getting the hang of this!
8.) Choose a NON-holiday with favorable weather to travel
Reasons for this are two-fold. Firstly, when living in the US, I loved visiting family during the holidays. But as an expat living thousands of kilometers away with the busy airlines, stressed out families, and jacked up holiday pricing on virtually everything I have to say that choosing a random two week period at the end of the summer and into the autumn was the way to go. And since our "homes" in the US are in popular tourist locations, it was nice to be there after the tourists left.
Secondly, and this is so super selfish, traveling during cold weather or "it-might-get-cold" weather means packing extra clothing and shoes (the worst, so heavy and clunky!), which means less luggage space on the way home. If you go when it's warm, you'll have to pack less and you'll get way more empty space to fill with treasures to take back!
9.) Take some alone time and visit the places that bring YOU joy.
The fact that this was my vacation could have easily gotten lost in the shuffle among the people to see and things to do, much as it did last time. During this trip, I made it a point to put in a few buffer days by myself. I could get into my [stupidly expensive] rental car, drive to my heart's content, sing to my favorite songs, stop at Starbucks whenever the mood struck me, take all the side trips I wanted to see and do alllll the things that make me truly happy. Being able to drive myself without coordinating with anyone else in itself was a really gratifying experience.
10.) Bring snacks from your country to share with folks back home!!!!
I stuffed our suitcases with yummy goodies from India when we went to visit. They started some fun conversations, and people enjoyed them a lot more than I thought they would! The big winners of this trip home were: Brittania Packaged Cakes, Bourbon cookies, Parle G biscuits, Hing Jeera Peanuts (and any spiced nuts, in general), and bakarwadi...too bad I couldn't bring any Vada Pav home...