Friday, January 22, 2016

I'm very lucky -- Day 86

I’m very lucky.

Sometimes it’s hard to remember that, in the face of some challenges that we have, but then I sit back and think about all of the people that have told me that they wish they could be doing what we’re doing. And you know what? They’re not wrong!

We’ve had a marvelous last two weeks, punctuated by two interesting events, The Grey Water Flood and The Data Crisis.

First, I want to emphasize how wonderful this experience has been, generally speaking. We have had lots of family time, made some interesting road friends, and gotten to feel a level of freedom that a lot of people can’t imagine. We found a really cool campsite at Riverside Park in Victoria that was both inexpensive and had a wonderfully tree-filled disc golf course, meeting the needs of just about everybody. Zoe made friends with some carnival vendors that were staying there prior to their tour, and she helped out around their campsite so much that they gave her two turtles!

“There is nothing more expensive than a free pet” ~ Sensei

Luke and Leia are red-eared sliders, and despite their steep odds of survival, they are now part of the family. I have to admit that I was not initially excited about the idea of adding two more sets of needs to our already interesting list. These turtles, particularly at their young and vulnerable age, were not going to be making much of a contribution, from my perspective. But then, when you see your child’s face light up in that special way that you know means you have done the right thing, there is no better reward. As to their odds of survival, I quote Leia’s film husband, “Never tell me the odds!”

Our second week we spent in Live Oak Park in Ingleside, TX, and it’s the most awesome place EVER. If and when I do make another list of our favorite places, this one will definitely be at the top. First, they have TWO 18 hold disc golf courses, one of which is Championship rated. Secondly, they have two playgrounds, and lighted tennis courts. But the best thing of all: it was FREE. For five days a month, you can stay in a campsite with electricty and water hookups while spending absolutely zero dollars. For some perspective, the average Texas State Park will charge you $20 per night, and the private park that we stayed at just down the road from Live Oak was $38! On the meeting needs scale, this place hit homeruns. Aptly named, Live Oak Park was filled with trees. There were hooting owls at night, and soaring vultures during the day. I played so much disc golf that I got tired of it. Literally. I think I quit after 132 holes.

The only downside to this magical place was the lack of a dumping station, which led to The Grey Water Flood.

For those of you that don’t know anything about RV systems, all of the water that you use is captured into holding tanks. The “black” tank is toilet water, while the “grey” tank is everything else. We typically don’t stay in a place longer than a week, and often will dump our tanks after just three or four days, if the facilities are available. We thought that we were going to have the opportunity to dump at Live Oak (these are things that I typically scope out on the way in) but what we thought was a dump station turned out to be something else. Since we were planning on leaving after 5 days, we figured we would be ok. But my math was bad …

I’ll spare you the nasty details, but we did lose a couple of storage boxes that were in the shower stall where the grey water had overflowed. The realization that we were flooded prompted a swift exit from Live Oak and a late night run back to Victoria, where we knew there was 24-hour access to dumping facilities. Day saved!

Two days later we hit The Data Crisis.

For a little background: we are very heavy data users. When we were living in an apartment, we didn’t have cable TV, opting instead for Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and YouTube. When we moved out, it was a challenge to try to stay connected. There didn’t seem to be any mobile plans available that weren't prohibitively expensive. But Needs Must Be Met. So we supplemented our 10Gb mobile data plan with trips to parks that had WiFi. One of the things that we discovered was that it is really difficult to find a park that actually has WiFi that is fast enough to watch streaming videos. It would seem that they are figuring on an audience that is more reliant on cable television and sattelite for their entertainment needs.

Then from the darkness came a light, and it was called KarmaGo. A fairly new company, offering an unlimited data plan, capped at 5Mbps for $50 per month. Seeing the awesome potential, we opted in for an entire year, paying up front for a 20% discount. It arrived just in time for Christmas, and Zoe could not have been happier. It actually freed us from having to stay in expensive WiFi enabled parks, which completely justified the $600 cost. We blew through 100 Gigabytes of data in the two weeks (which, if calculated against based on our phone plan, would have cost us $1350!) There were some minor inconveniences, such as only being able to log three devices in at a time, and no compatibility for the PlayStation, but in the big picture: we had good, fast internet.

The bait. The switch.

After those glorious weeks of amazing internet, we received an email from KarmaGo informing us that too many people were using the device for “unintended purposes.” They didn’t realize that offering unlimited data meant that people were going to be streaming Netflix, or backing up hard drives to the cloud. What planet do these people actually live on? So their solution was to throttle the speed down to 1.5Mbps, which actually still worked for us, albeit more frustratingly. About two weeks after that, we received ANOTHER email from them informing us of the NEW structure of the “unlimited” plan which was going to be 15Gb of high speed data, followed by an unlimited of data at 128kbps. Which basically means that we would have two days of normal use before the speed was too slow to do much of anything.

Cue the panic.

I know that we are lucky to live in a place that even HAS mobile internet, and there are whole regions of the country where you can’t get a cell signal, much less have google at your fingertips. But I purposely don’t go to those places, because I love my phone. I’m always on my phone. I’ve gotten in trouble at work for being on my phone too much. And if we had never had the KarmaGo, it probably would have been better than this four week tease. The worst feeling is the powerlessness, because you know the multi-billion dollar telecom corporations really don’t care about the little guy, and are trying to maximize profits instead of service. They know that we will pay lots of money for these phone plans, so they charge us lots of money for these phone plans. I’m disgusted, but an active participant.

Exercising my priveledge, I took out my frustrations on Twitter. KarmaGo, AT&T and Sprint all responded to my situation, with apologies, investigations, and temptation respectively. Essentially, KarmaGo said, “Sucks to be you, but you can have your money back, if you want.” AT&T promised to look into my “situation” which they then followed up with a retention call, offering steep discounts on their published plans. (Because they can afford to charge you less, but they don’t.) Sprint offered to make me happy with promises of unlimited data, and money to pay off our old plans.

We needed at least to get Zoe up and running immediately, so we went to the closest Sprint store to see what they were actually talking about. As it turns out, they were ready to give us a plan that worked out to unlimited data for all of us, plus new phones (!) for the cost of what we were paying AT&T and KarmaGo. We had only planned to do the one line, to sort of test the waters before giving up the AT&T yoke that I had born for over a decade, but Sprint offered even MORE money if we switched all three lines. I’m a sucker for a good upsell, so we took the plunge.

And now, I’m so happy! We all played with our new phones late into the night, personalizing, streaming, and enjoying the new freedom of not worrying about data consumption. Crisis averted!

Back to enjoying this very lucky life that we have.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Happy New Year! -- Day 75

Been a while since I sat down to write, and so many things have happened! I almost don't know where to start. I guess I could go chronological since my last post, just to catch up.

So the last time I wrote we had just pulled in to Independence Park in Gonzales. It was the last week of the year, and we hadn't decided where we were going to spend New Year's, but there was a disc golf course that I wanted to check out there, and the park was really cheap. We ended up liking it so much, we stayed 10 days, which is actually a record length for us. The disc golf was fun and challenging, and the park was peaceful with plenty of trees and a playground that Zoe loved. A storm came through, so we figured it was better to hunker down and ride it out, rather than hope that the next place we would drive to would be as good.

After the first, we needed to hit up a place that had nice showers. We have a shower in the rig, but it's barely adequate for some basic cleaning, and it doesn't get the job done when it comes to washing the dreads. So we consulted our various maps and tools and finally decided that we wanted to hit the town of Victoria, about 60 miles away from Gonzales. Most people laugh at the way our "road trip" works, but then we aren't in a huge hurry or trying to set some kind of distance record. We're mostly trying to stay warm, and have as much fun as possible.

Victoria is a bigger town than we've been in for a while. There are lots of RV parks to choose from, and we did a lot of online research before selecting the promising sounding Crossroads RV Village on the north side of town. Before checking in, we stopped off at the local Wal-Mart for a much needed resupply, having depleted much of our reserves while staying in Gonzales for a week. Pulling into Crossroads was disappointing, as it really looked like a storage parking lot than a "village" and after talking to the manager we discovered that they didn't even have showers! To add insult to injury, they wanted $35 for the single night that we planned to be there. We spent the first few hours researching where we were going to be spending the NEXT night, because we knew we weren't going to be staying at Crossroads any longer than necessary.

The next day we drove to the very creatively named RV Park of Victoria, and I confirmed that they did indeed have the showers that we so desperately needed. The guy behind the desk looked like Yoda's dad, but he was cool enough to let us park right up front for the single night that we were going to be there. It seems there is a huge market for people wanting to stay for months at a time, and those Winter Texans make it tougher for us rag tag vagabonds to find a crash pad for a single night. But the hot shower was glorious, if the setting did look a bit like a horror movie or perhaps a prison. I should have kept the picture that I sent to my friends on Snapchat, you would have laughed.

That night it rained so hard that I thought surely disc golf was going to have to be canceled the next day, but the morning brought sunshine and smiles all around. Everyone was fresh and clean and ready to see this Riverside Park that I had been telling them about. As we were driving, we saw an Academy sporting goods store and felt compelled to stop. I had been needing shoes for a while, and this was probably going to be the best place to shop for them that we had seen in a while.

Walking in, I was drawn to the disc golf stuff and impressed with their selection. I don't really need any new stuff, but it's always fun to look. Zoe and I had fun playing with all the toys while we made our way back to he shoe area, where I found some really decent kicks for $25. Gotta love it when the inspiration strikes, you know? Anya joined us shortly after and as we were all walking toward the check out, I steered us back around to the disc golf area, since Anya could use some additions to her bag.  That's where we met a young man that was a new player to the game and he was seeking some guidance. I helped him select a disc that was suited to his skill level, and he asked if we had played the local course. Coincidentally, they were on their way to play there today, too!

I'm not going to bore you with a review of Riverside Park's disc golf course (but if you're interested, it can be found here.) But what i wanted to relay to you is the wonder of kismet, coincidence, fate, destiny or predestination -- whatever you want to call it. We saw the young man again, once we got to the course. They arrived a little while after we did. I got to see him use the disc that I helped him pick on a huge birdie that probably made his whole round. I know that it made mine. But if I hadn't listened to that still small voice that suggested we stop at Academy, and if I hadn't happened to steer Anya over to the disc golf stuff, we would have missed out on that opportunity. I don't know what you believe, but I love to make the world a better place, even if it's just something as simple as helping someone get better a disc golf. I believe that if you are faithful and diligent in the little things, then the big things will be just as simple.

Are you listening?