Category Archives: Living Abroad

Onward and the Revolution

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Learning things about yourself is different as you get older. When you’re young you are learning these things for the first time, and you embrace is eagerly as if you have finally found the answers you were seeking in some conclusive fashion. It is truly self discovery, you are blazing trails into the unknown and shedding light on things that have never been seen before and it feels glorious.
As you get older, though, it seems to change. It shifts from self discovery to self revolution. We are re-shaping the things we thought we already knew about ourselves, and it’s a much slower process, I think. More difficult all around. We are trying to change the paths of things that have been flowing through us like relentless rivers in the bedrock for sometimes many years, and it’s daunting. It’s not the exciting, painless process it used to be…but rather tortured. It’s a struggle to accept these sometimes radical shifts in our self-perception.
This is all to say: I am discovering I might not be as nomadic as I thought, and it’s an unpleasant revelation.
This week I have been struggling with a dark cloud as my time here in my apartment between the mountain and the sea draws to a close. I have such an exciting itinerary planned for the next few months and then on to more exciting things in my business world…but I find I can’t enjoy these prospects properly because I am dreading leaving this place here. My home.
As I swept the flurry of termite wings off the balcony this morning and made my coffee, the notion crystallized. I have left tiny pieces of my heart in every place I ever lived. I loved them all, to varying degrees. I certainly miss a few more than others, though, and this one will be one that will stick in my craw with a pang of regret and loss for many years to come. I will miss my mornings out there on that tiny balcony, swatting mosquitoes away and watching the water for divers and dolphins. I will miss the cackle of the chacalacas and the noisy rush of water over the cliff after a hard afternoon monsoon.
I will miss the sunsets most of all. My daily dinner companion.
How could I love somewhere else more than this? I could count one hundred ways in which it’s lacking, but I’ve been here just long enough to accept its flaws the ways you come to accept the shortcomings of a lover. The seventy-two steep and lopsided stairs that leave me bathed in my own sweat by the time I reach the top; the land crabs clacking under the bed at all hours of the night; the tarantula guarding the stairs with some imagined ferocity; the long ride into town and those infernal late night waits for the last bus home…They all somehow endear me to this concrete box.
I suppose I’m just a sentimental sort. I spend a lot of time in my home and I develop a relationship with the places I inhabit. In a way, they inhabit me too, taking on personalities all their own and becoming, somehow, so much more than just a place to lay my head. I know this is not an unusual way to feel, but I am not sure it is common for those who have spent only six months in a place. I guess I fall hard and fast in this regard as well.
Today is soft and gray and cool. A welcome change from the muggy sunshine typical of the season. The butterflies are furiously grooming the pollen off of the flowering vines that have wrapped themselves through all the trees and the ants are busy sweeping up whatever carnage they can glean in the aftermath of last night’s storms.
I have laundry to do and errands to run and only one week left to be in love.

Extreme Adulting Day 2: Clarity

Clarity is a funny thing. You can go through life doing things blindly without understanding why, or even realize that you are, until…wham. One day you’re confronted with proof positive that other people think the same way you do on certain matters.
It’s kind of an amazing thing.
Recently, I’ve read two books that have done that. These two confirmed to me that I was on the right path on matters I’ve felt compelled to invest myself in without really knowing why, or even realizing there was a subconscious method to my madness. Goodbye, Things and The 4 Hour Work Week are not necessarily groundbreaking reads…unless, that is, that these happen to cover issues that pluck a chord.

  • Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism was actually a quick and easy listen via Audible. It was really helpful in clarifying some of the ideas and philosophies behind minimalism that had already made it appealing to me and reaffirmed my interest in maintaining as few belongings as possible. One particularly memorable passage discussed the link between excess belongings and anxiety. The author, Fumio Sasaki, absolutely nailed the scene that would play out nearly every single day back in Alaska—waking up in the morning and feeling so overwhelmed by your to-do list, largely revolving around the various and sundry maintenance of “stuff”, that it became incapacitating and the day would be wasted under the weight of indecision. This happened to some degree every single day I had off. All of the days, in other words, that didn’t command a specific starting point to the day’s activities.
  • The 4-Hour Work Week has a long-established cult following and more or less is the authority, and perhaps the inventor of, ::dun, dun, dun:: lifestyle design. First published in 2007, Tim Ferriss uses the book to outline a lifestyle I’ve been kind-of sort-of striving to achieve without his guidance for quite some time. Most of the information in the book is nothing new to me, but I enjoy the anecdotes and the organization of the information. It, too, is reaffirming in that it assures me I’m not the only one who thinks it’s ridiculous to willingly work harder rather than smarter. Clearly I haven’t mastered any of his crazy money generation methods, but being confronted with the potential of a lifestyle I’m already largely living is…motivating. And confusing. It makes me question whether or not it’s actually something I want and whether or not I want it for the right reasons. (The answer to the former being boredom and the latter being no.) At any rate, his weekly e-mail, Five Bullet Friday, was also part of what inspired me to work on this—my bastardized version of bullet journaling. (It also reminded me that I used to do very similar things on Pulp Faction and it was awesome then, so why not.)

In Other Bullets:

  • Pesos Spent: $220 for mineral water and cheesy beefy quesadillas. $18 for bus fare. $238 total for dinner on the beach while Porkchop played. ($12.75 USD)
  • TV watched: Zero! I watched enough yesterday for the entire damn week.
  • Books Read: Also zero, but I’m putting together my Epic Mexico Summer Reading List, so stay tuned.
  • Homework Done: Not enough. Deadlines Sunday and Monday.
  • Spanish Studied: Argued with the bus driver about letting the dog on, and spoke only Spanish to my waiter. (It’s the small things.)
  • Pitches Sent: Officially, one. Several contacts were made for collaborations, and I researched several outlets for my work. Also made arrangements to write a band bio and press release for a very interesting up-and-coming Memphis act.
  • Beverages Consumed: Alcohol, zero; Caffeinated, lost count; Water, only about 60 ounces. (Sad.)
  • Weather: Chilly with a chance of rain? IE; 76 degrees, 6 mph winds, 85% humidity, overcast with the tails of Tropical Storm Beatriz churning our way across southern Mexico, but apparently little to no chance of getting rain from it.
  • Shared: The National Institutes of Health reveals a study that links autism to an increased incidence in heavy metals in baby teeth. The study covered a small sample size, but is particularly interesting because it utilized twins who would (presumably) have the same nutrition en utero at the stage in which some of the significant differences in heavy metal levels between autistic and non-autistic children were noted.
  • Shared: An 18-year old from Oaxaca was crowned men’s world champion surfer in France yesterday.
  • Shared: KFC reveals a pizza utilizing flattened fried chicken as a “crust”. Earlier I asserted that I was fine with this. That was before dinner. It is a natural next step from the “double down” thing of whatever that was in which they used two pieces of fried chicken breast in place of bread in a sandwich, but this is a food evolution that is just…not ok.

How to Move Abroad on a Whim (And Not Regret It)

There are a lot of variations on the idea that if you sit around waiting for everything to be perfect, or waiting for the right time, or even waiting for Mr. Right, you could wind up waiting forever. Don’t get stuck on waiting to move abroad if that’s what you really want. The truth is that things will probably never suit our idea of the “the perfect time” since life rarely cooperates, and the best we can hope for is a felicitous series of make it work moments that actually work.

Taking all of that into consideration, I’ve been thinking about a few guidelines to smooth the path for such a large transition as a move abroad. These are based on my own experiences and countless conversations with others who have successfully made the transition and lived to not regret it. They are very general and could be applied to a move to just about any country, in my opinion, but you may need to make some changes. (Visa requirements of other countries might make this list very different, for example.)

For reference, I personally decided to move to Mexico in mid- to late-December 2016, remotely signed my lease and put a deposit down on my apartment on January 1, and landed in Puerto Vallarta on February 10, 2017. So…being generous we’ll say it was a two month turn around. This may not be enough time for many, but for others who maintain relatively light existences, I believe this is adequate.

So, based on these factors my best advice for successfully Running Away to Mexico follows.

BYOJ (Bring your own job)

This is the number one thing that makes picking up and moving abroad possible. I always pause when people ask about what the job market is like around here because, honestly, I don’t know and it really shouldn’t matter. If you aren’t bringing a skill set that can’t be filled by a local or filling some other in-demand niche in the local work force, I kind of feel it’s unethical to head to another country and take work away from someone who’s already there that needs it.

Furthermore, in Mexico specifically it creates a lot of other problems for picking up and relocating on a whim. For example, instead of coming in on a tourist visa you’ll need a temporary residential visa, which requires considerably more time and paperwork, or you’ll need to locate an employer who will sponsor you and they can only do so if you fit the description I list above. (IE; nobody in the local work force can do the job you’re being hired for.) It is possible to find work under the table here, but again—ethics.

There are tons of options available for working remotely and finding your niche. Developing a career online totally frees you up from all of these pesky legal considerations and enables you to be much more mobile with virtually no cap to your salary.

Find a Launch Pad

Everyone has a different vision of paradise when imagining their ideal new home abroad, but I’d recommend suspending nirvana in favor of necessity for a moment. Your perfect paradise might be in some remote place with little to no “expat” community because, after all, you aren’t moving to another country to spend all your time with folks from home, but there are a lot of reasons to start off in a city or town with strong immigrant infrastructure, regardless of where you ultimately want to live.

Doing just that has been easy for me to get the hang of things here and feel comfortable because the local immigrant community has been extremely supportive in helping me learn the ropes. Furthermore, my clumsy Spanish is not a total roadblock in daily interactions (but I still have plenty of opportunities to practice,) it was relatively easy to find housing, and because of good public transportation I have had all the access to mobility that I need. All of these factors are important to help make a comfortable transition and keep you from feeling like you made a mistake and they are things that aren’t readily available in many smaller towns with fewer or no immigrants.

It might also be prudent to consider that if you are not yet ready to establish a residency visa, that you will need easy access to an affordable way to exit the country every six months. For me, Puerto Vallarta was perfect because they have affordable and fairly direct flights to most of the places I want to travel to in the U.S.

Divest Yourself of Earthly Belongings

Ok, that was cheesy but it’s totally true. Getting rid of all your stuff can be really hard and I’ve written entire posts on the subject before, but there is a certain sense of freedom that comes with owning very few things that you just can’t beat.

People are always asking what they should bring with them when they move here. I get it. You feel like a pioneer, you are heading into the unknown and you want all of your known creature comforts to accompany you. But the reality is that you probably don’t really need most of the stuff filling your house and your life, and those things that you do need be acquired here.

So get rid of everything that doesn’t fit into your suitcase allowance. Or, if you can afford it, put all of that stuff you just can’t quite let go of into storage and revisit it when you make a visa run in six months. If you’ve found yourself missing anything in particular, bring it back with you, but get rid of everything you haven’t needed or missed or already replaced.

People most often seem to ask about their kitchen stuff. For some reason folks are especially attached to kitchen stuff. Even I went so far as to mostly fill one of my totes with kitchen things, and I look back now and realize how silly it was. The only two items I brought that couldn’t be replaced here for a few pesos were my stovetop espresso maker and my cast iron skillet. Everything else was a waste of space. (Granted, I generally abhor small appliances but even if you’re a fan, you can probably find replacements here.)

Realistically, in order to make a big move like this and enjoy it you’re going to have to find some way to detach from all of the stuff we tend to accumulate. This is more than a physical process, it’s a mental one, too. It’s going to take some work to let go, and how much varies from person to person, but the better you accomplish this the more freedom you will have and the fewer regrets you will harbor.

The Nuts & Bolts

  • Forget the residency visa. For Americans and Canadians traveling to Mexico specifically, plan on coming in on a tourist visa and leaving for a vacation or a visit home in six months. This requires no additional paperwork before your trip, relieves the pressure of commitment, and gives you time to consider your options as well as time to emotionally separate from whatever you may have left at home. For U.S. citizens considering other countries, here is the list of visa requirements around the world.
  • Find your launch pad. Don’t be a stranger to Facebook. It has been the single best tool I can recommend for connecting with the immigrant and expat communities abroad. Search for groups for expats an immigrants in the town you are considering and make friends. This is helpful in every possible way, and if you get in there and ask questions and interact you might just be lucky enough to have a solid network of friends waiting for you when you land. You can also inquire about housing in the Facebook groups as offerings on AirBnB and Craigslist can be slim and overpriced.
  • Get rid of your stuff. When I moved out of my house and into my friend’s house in Anchorage, I grouped all of my belongings into very broad categories. Stuff to donate, stuff to trash, stuff to keep, and stuff to sell. I hate dealing with a lot of people and abhor hosting garage sales, so the “stuff to sell” wound up in two or three different lots on Facebook buy-sell-trade groups. They were auctioned off to the highest bidder, winner MUST take all, and if the winner didn’t show at the designated time with help to load and cash in hand, I was prepared to go to the next person on the list. This didn’t net the largest profit, but it resulted in the least amount of headache. After donating and trashing the rest, I found my “stuff to keep” pile getting smaller and smaller as well. Something about getting rid of stuff is addictive, and once you bite the bullet and start the process it gets much easier to whittle your belongings down to, say, a couple of suitcases and a couple of Rubbermade totes. (Which is what I brought, and later realized was far too much.)
  • Work remotely. This is a daunting topic because there is absolutely a glut of information out there. My best advice would be to consider your skill set and think about how that translates to the online economy. Many industries are now beginning to offer full- or part-time remote employment in everything from teaching to customer service and your usual coding and data entry, etc. Others have found that working for themselves is a better route and they choose to freelance as writers, designers, coders, marketers, and more. If you’ve somehow managed to get to this point without any skills at all that translate to online work (doubtful!) then the world is your oyster and I’d recommend looking into starting from scratch to learn coding or some other marketable skill that appeals your own interests. This is definitely a topic that deserves further and more detailed exploration, so I’ll be working on a piece about that in the coming weeks and update here as soon as it’s done.

A Few Personal Notes

Things that made it possible to drop everything and move quickly:

  • I had already divested of a large portion of my belongs and was renting a furnished room.
  • Not married and no kids.
  • I already had a couple of online marketing accounts to start me off for a steady source of remote income.
  • I had a very good bartending gig which allowed me to save a chunk of money in a short amount of time after I identified a goal.

Things that proved to be challenges:

  • Finding a place and traveling with my dog in cargo in February from Alaska to Mexico was nerve wracking.
  • I still had a lot of stuff to get rid of, including my truck, and other things I needed to put into storage.
  • I had managed to misplace my passport and with such a short amount of time and the rush on the passport offices at the time, I was worried about this. (Proved not to be a problem as I got my replacement back in less than a week with expediting it.)

Always remember that there truly is no time like the present. I don’t want to get all “inspirational poster” about things up in here, but if you have the privilege of being from a place like the U.S. or Canada, can wrap your head around working online and living light, and know how to play nice and make friends—the world is your oyster. Dropping everything and moving abroad doesn’t have to be a unachievable dream, even if you have a family. It just takes a little motivation and knowing where to start.
Good luck!

RELATED: Seaside in Puerto Vallarta for $800 Per Month

Seaside in Puerto Vallarta for $800 per month.

I had started considering a move to Mexico long before the November 2016 election forced my hand. When I looked around where I lived in Alaska and any other place I wanted to live, I found one thing over and over again—life was expensive. It was expensive to such a degree that if I were to move anywhere I would enjoy being, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy it much at all because I would work all the time just to make ends meet. I don’t know about you, but that’s not a good life to me.

I needed somewhere I could have a better quality of life at a more affordable price, and as much as I searched I couldn’t find my slice of paradise by the sea in the United States. So Porkchop and I moved South. South of the Border, to be precise. Puerto Vallarta in the state of Jalisco in Mexico welcomed us with open arms and now three months in I’m settling into the place, making friends, and enjoying the quiet as the tourist season dies down for the summer.

A lot of people ask me how expensive it is to live here. I’d say as a general ball park average it is easily half as expensive as my last home in Anchorage without even trying to stick to a budget. With any effort at all, it could be considerably less.

A post on Facebook got me thinking about the details of all of that and how my budget and hers compared. She also lives in a beach town, but on the East coast in Progreso. She is also single, but has a baby instead of a dog. We both live in studio apartments, but hers is half the cost of mine. Somehow we still come out at the same $800 per month budget as a comfortable figure at which to live. We both agreed, as well, that a couple could easily live for approximately the same budget (Still under $1,000 per month) since the biggest chunk goes to rent and that wouldn’t increase. It’s also important to note that neither of us have listed health insurance for ourselves in our budgets and for similar reasons—we live below our means and pay out of pocket for the affordable care here as need arises. That being said, we admit the need to look into insurance for emergencies and are doing so.

Here’s my break down lately, and a few notes to help you figure out how things might fit into your own lifestyle and situation.

Housing

My rent is $400 per month for a small but new studio apartment directly fronting Banderas Bay with no one below me or crowding me from the sides. It is a simply appointed situation that includes basic furnishings and all utilities, including unlimited internet and cable. (The latter of which I don’t use as a TV wasn’t included and I don’t care to buy one.) I was specifically attracted to this place because it was sparsely furnished—most units are unfurnished or OVERLY furnished and generally not to my taste. I lucked out by finding this place on Craigslist, but it is very difficult to find good deals online. Anyone with the ability to post on Craigslist or other known English language site is instantly able to command a higher price because their listing reaches a wider audience, and the ones that don’t jack the price up get snapped up quickly. Best bet to pre-lease an affordable place is to track down local expat groups for the area and make friends. Puerto Vallarta: Everything You Want or Need to Know was my gateway to life in Vallarta, but similar groups seem to exist throughout Mexico with varying amounts of activity. You might find people “on the ground” willing to keep their eyes peeled for you, otherwise the best bet is an Air BNB or temp situation while you explore for yourself and call the numbers posted on the sides of promising buildings.

Admittedly, my place is small at about 200sf but I am a single girl and a minimalist so I’m quite comfortable in a studio about the size of a hotel room. There is just enough room to pull out an air mattress for a friend as I discovered this past week, but obviously, it’s tight quarters for more than one. My apartment is seven stories down a cliff to the water’s edge, and the stairs are my workout taking the dog for a walk each day! I have happily accepted these compromises for the view.

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The first photo I took from my balcony upon waking up early in the morning after my arrival the night before. At night I can see the lights of Banderas Bay from Yelapa in the South to Punta de Mita in the North with all of Vallarta sparkling in between.

A few things:

  1. The best rates for 6 month or, more often, 12-month leases. Short term leases tend to shoot up exponentially because they target the tourist market and you’re back into the $1000+ USD per month range.
  2. If living cheap is important to you, don’t expect all the bells and whistles. In fact, many people find a place they like at a price they like and expect to go in and paint and do repairs before moving in.
  3. The best prices will be unfurnished and without utilities. To me, it wasn’t worth dealing with these things so I am happy to pay a little more to only pay one bill per month.
  4. In Puerto Vallarta proper there are many things that can make rents low, so if you find an exceptionally good deal be sure to check around as to why. Street noise, loud music, barking dogs, fireworks and other noise issues are VERY common, but also keep in mind how a place might be in both the hot dry part of the year and the rainy muggy part of the year—not only the long pleasant winter months. Open air living is common, and so are bugs! Ceiling fans and air conditioners are important commodities that you will likely want to add if they are not present.
  5. Many places in the older and more picturesque parts of Vallarta have a LOT of hills and/or stairs. Depending of the severity of these factors, it can send the rent prices plummeting, but they often have the best views and are worth it if you’re up for the daily hike.
  6. How low can they go? I have seen studios the size of mine reportedly for rent for as low as $50 per month with no furnishings, utilities, or amenities included. I have also seen three bedroom houses for a couple of hundred dollars occasionally with the same caveats.

Transportation

Because I live South of Puerto Vallarta between the small towns of Mismaloya and Boca de Tomatlan, I pay eight pesos each way to and from Old Town PV. I generally stick around that area and can take care of most of my weekly business there and so 50 pesos (less than $3) per week is a safe estimate for me. Buses in Puerto Vallarta are plentiful, affordable, and quite easy to get the hang of quickly but they can be in poor repair and are sometimes quite an adventure. Taxis, if needed, are another option and also generally plentiful and affordable. When I have an extra large grocery run or miss the last 11:00pm bus to Boca it will cost me up to 350 pesos to get back to my house, which is about $19 at current exchange rates and still not bad for a 30 minute plus cab ride.

Groceries

Honestly, this is the budget area I have tracked the least. My grocery estimate is about 500 pesos per week on average. (About $27.) This includes generally lots of fresh fruits and veggies, rice, tortillas, sweetened condensed milk and coffee, beans, chicken, cheese, salsa, eggs, etc. In other words, mostly whole foods which makes a big difference and drops the budget significantly. I love cooking and working with Mexican ingredients so this is no worry at all and often I feel I eat as well at home as when I go out.

Porkchop the Dog generally eats some dog-friendly variation of my own food since local brands of dog food seem to be very poor quality and the import stuff is expensive, and inconvenient. I think he is happy with this arrangement and seems exceptionally healthy lately. The food he used to eat is available here from Costco but because of my small space, bus transport, and many stairs, getting a 40lb bag of food around is not feasible, never mind the fact that it would become a major chunk of my grocery budget. He mostly gets a bit of rice and veggies before I add seasoning, plus a portion of whatever meat I have (he likes the parts I don’t like when I buy a whole chicken, for example,) and an egg. He’s only about 30lbs so not a huge eater but he seems to enjoy the variety and I think it’s probably better for him than eating the same dried up crunchy stuff every day anyway. It is also possible to make connections with a butcher shop or fish market for lots of good bits and pieces for a raw diet for a few pesos, but so far I have found it easier just to feed him what I eat. (One of those things where I could easily save more money with a little effort.)

I plan to track the grocery expenses more carefully in June and will update then, so stay tuned!

Entertainment

Obviously, based on the above my necessities are quite manageable at a modest $520 per month including housing, transportation, and groceries. If you’re going to have budget problems, you’ll have them on your entertainment spending. There are just so many things to do and each of them, though quite affordable, seems to add up quickly and the sky is the limit. There are ways to go out and enjoy things on a budget, however. A great meal from a street vendor will have you full to bursting for less than $3, and there is literally a happy hour somewhere in town going most any hour of the day. In fact, one of my favorite swanky places in town for a treat is Joe Jack’s Fish Shack right near my bus stop on Basilio Badillo and I’ll drop about $15 usd with tip for the most delicious serving of poke and fried wontons you’ve ever had and two-for-one mojitos to wash it down with. (Joe Jack’s also has delicious all you can eat fish and chips for under $12 on Fridays, and they’re a great example of how it is possible to eat at even the spendier places on a budget if you know where to look. More on that later!)

Aside from this potential for endless entertainment, my monthly bills in this category are at $15 for Netflix and Hulu and $80 for my AT&T phone with unlimited data and calls. (High because it also includes the payment for the phone itself.)

Recap

So, in case you weren’t keeping tabs, that’s $615 per month in regular expenses with $185 left over for entertainment to keep me on this modest budget of $800 USD per month.

While Puerto Vallarta is far from the cheapest city in Mexico, it suited my needs as an affordable coastal community with an international airport and enough English-speaking infrastructure to get me started while I learn Spanish.

It is also important to remember that you could always go cheaper if you must, as many locals do, but as I moved here in search of a better quality of life I was looking for a sweet spot between budget and lifestyle and I think I’ve found it. This is not bad for my own little place on the water with two sandy beaches within walking distance and a beautiful and vibrant cultural center a short bus ride down the road.

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