Some of you may know that I really love a good rant every once in awhile, so here’s one that’s relevant to travel. When you put yourself out there and tell your friends and family about your plan to live and work in a foreign country, the skeptics will begin to come out of the woodwork. It’s very annoying for several different reasons. But if you are an American, a citizen of a country where only 35% of the population has a valid passport, brace yourself, asinine questions are coming.
And no, I don’t mean reasonable questions that people ask out of general curiosity, such as “What currency do they use?”, “What types of dishes do they eat?”, or even “What countries are nearby?” I’m talking about questions salted with doubt and incredulity at the notion of ever setting foot out of this grand land of opportunity that ranks 37th in the world for healthcare, 49th for environmental performance, and 27th in general safety. Yes, I know I’m unpatriotic for simply pointed out actual flaws that actually exist within America.
There’s another annoying group of skeptics that will seem to question your decision to leave the status quo of graduate - find a job - find a wife - buy a house - die. They act like you haven’t done any research at all, and you suffer the stigma of the ‘naive, unsettled traveler.’ You’re more likely to get a pat on the back from these guys for landing a sales rep job than doing anything interesting in another country (that isn’t related to missionary work). Let’s look at these two groups a bit closer.
“Why are you going to China? That’s just too different for me.” Oh, so it’s supposed to be too different for me as well. And, anyway, I’m sure you’ve done your research to find out the differences and arrive at an informed opinion to stay in America. Or maybe it’s the fact that they’re just commies and that’s enough for you. I will grant these types some leeway, mainly because China does not have the greatest track record for human rights, environmental policy, and food and health regulations, in addition to manufacturing statistics that suit their communist agenda. China can be a scarier country to move to for a while.
But I experienced the same and similar conversations before I went to Sweden and Iceland! Sweden and Iceland of all places! These two countries are, as is all of Northern Europe, doing markedly better than the United States in so many areas it’s not funny. Really, it isn’t, and the fact that we don’t care to admit it and try to emulate some of these things is really depressing. It’s pretty bad when people tell you they’re too scared to go to your country because they’re afraid they’re going to be shot up. I’m an American, not an Afghan, and I understand their fears.
You fear what you don’t understand, and most Americans have a poor understanding of the world around them. Why else was there a 1600% increase in violence towards not only muslims after 9/11, but Sikhs and Buddhists as well? They just don’t give a shit. You have brown skin and you’re not working on my lawn, so you must be gawddarn muslim and I’m scared of you. And while I’m at it, I’ll just throw up my shields against all foreigners. I realize this is not true of all Americans, but is an issue that can’t be ignored.
Almost everywhere else in the developed world it is quite common to take a gap year to work or simply travel abroad. If you happen to be an American and want to do this, you’re perceived as not keeping in line. Come on man, stick to the plan! The American dream is at the end! Keep talking about the dream all you want, but in a country where 22% of all children belong to families living below the poverty line, I think I might consider other options. The dream is dead, and has been for awhile ever since Reagan basically instituted social Darwinism as a socio-economic policy.
These people will mask their true feelings on your decision to work abroad with genuine concern, but really they feel threatened that someone is abandoning ship. If you’re in a room doing the same thing per the same guidelines for years and years, and suddenly a few people stop, stand up, and walk out of the room, you begin to wonder if you’re doing the wrong thing by staying. Anyone who doubts your plan secretly wants to go with you because, yes, traveling can be quite glamorous. But they can’t go (really they could) and they would rather you stay because of that.
Some Real Gems
I’ve heard plenty of weird, critical, and simply ignorant questions over the years about the different countries I have visited so far, and I’ve already heard some pretty great ones about China. Here are a few that I won’t forget anytime soon.
‘Can you bring me back some of their chocolate and cheese? Are you going to go skiing?’
Um, I think you mean Switzerland. Same difference to some Americans.
‘You know they don’t go to church very much there.’
And…? Well, to be fair this person didn’t know that I consider that a GOOD thing.
‘You know they’re socialist, right?’
Yep. Should I be concerned?
‘Oh! I’ve always wanted to go to Ireland!’
No matter how many times I said ‘Iceland’ she wouldn’t let go of Ireland. The only logical conclusion was that she was not aware of Iceland’s existence.
‘I didn’t think there was anything in Iceland.’
That you know of you. Or maybe you meant Greenland.
‘Anthony Bourdain went there, he had a pretty bad time.’
When will people learn that experiencing a different country is completely subjective?
‘Kate Middleton, Kate Middleton, Royal Family, blah, blah, blah.’
I really don’t care about the royals, and there are so many other reasons to visit England.
‘Your girlfriend’s name is Kate? Just like Princess Kate!’
Very astute. You have no idea how many times I’ve heard this.
‘Are they different from us?’
I know the whole speaking English thing probably threw you off, but yes, they are different.
‘Are you going as a missionary?’
When I said no, she responded with ‘oh’ and complete disinterest in anything else I had to say.
‘Them Asian countries different from us.’
Very good, and they’re also different from each other. I’m just glad you supressed your urge to say ‘Oriental.’
‘There’s something about hearing a white guy speaking Chinese that freaks me out.’
Okay… I guess you would shit yourself if you heard him speak Farsi or Arabic.
‘I hope you know what you’re doing. You’ve got a good job here.’
Just because it pays well doesn’t mean I like it, and just because I’m not settling for it like you doesn’t mean I’m doing something wrong.
‘You’re going to be next to North Korea? I don’t know man, I don’t know…’
Know what? That China is North Korea’s biggest ally and its chances of being attacked are slim to never?
‘Are they going to pay you?’
(In reference to my teaching English there) No, I’m voluntarily going there to be treated like shit.
Isn’t it Ironic
The ironic thing about the China situation is that some (I know not all) Americans are almost repulsed by hearing any tongue other than English, yet I’m not hearing any praise for going to teach the freedom language. Shouldn’t you be glad that I’m teaching the little Chinese kids your language so you don’t have to feel scared or threatened by Mandarin in the future?
The Big Deal
Why do I get so bent out of shape over this? On a personal level, it really undermines all of the research and the resultant leap of faith I’ve made to relocate somewhere and be vocal about it. Instead of encouragement I get concerned looks and second guesses. By now, it’s something I’ve learned to deal with. It will always happen, and most of these people are simply too ignorant to realize that their fears are baseless. However, these attitudes could be very damaging to anyone that is considering to take a risk and go abroad for the first time. The doubts could be just enough to make some people stay, and I really hate that.
These doubts are a good indicator of the willful ignorance of geography and world events (not to mention how those events actually affect America) that pervades this country. People ask you questions with wary looks, you answer them the best you can, but don’t kid yourself thinking they’re going to spend even a mere five minutes Googling that country when you get home. America is all they need, and in today’s rapidly globalizing world, they threaten any type of cultural awareness and mutual understanding that are keys to going forward peacefully.
I’ve been enjoying getting people to do my work for me lately, and in keeping with that trend, I made my girlfriend (Kate Anderson) write a post about her recent visit to America similar to my reviews of Iceland and Sweden. A long time self-loathing American, I really needed someone more objective for this post. Amidst all of the hiking, Mexican food, and creationism, this is what she found.
I hear a loud ‘HEY HOW ARE YOU?’ and answer the parking attendant with a genuine ‘I’m not too bad thank you, I’ve just arrived’. Seth looks at me with a face that reads oh Kate and I realise that when people ask ‘how are you?’ in the South, they basically mean ‘hello’ and don’t want a heartfelt life-story in return.
As we leave the airport car park, I get that familiar rush of excitement at arriving in a new country and not knowing what’s what. Although I was following my heart to North Carolina, the most surprising thing about this trip is that it felt like good ol’ character-building, life-changing travel.
I’ve been to America before on a family trip where I found myself in a casino on the Gulf Coast with a Mexican uncle I never knew I had (a story for another time). Still, I’ve always had this attitude that I know about America and it doesn’t have much to offer me as just another western country. I guess my previous travels have been based on trying to find some place that is the most different to, or least alike, where I am from.
When I was 18 and ready to quench my thirst for travel for the first time, my aim was simply: get the fuck away from the city (London) and all those God Dam McDonalds. Of course since actually spending time abroad in India, Iceland and parts of Europe, I know that travel is much less about escaping your own reality than it is about embracing someone else’s. In this case Seth’s. So like any other country you visit, there’s some good, some bad, and some downright ugly.
The Appalachian Mountains mark 2,400 km along the East Coast of America; a great smudge of tectonic beauty with a trail crafted specifically for the purposes of recreational walking, completed in 1937, and aptly named the Appalachian Trail. Seth and I were at the North Carolina section, staying in Boone (a breath-of-liberal-fresh-air town next to the Blue Ridge Parkway).
These were the mountains I’d heard about in Fleet Foxes songs or in Band of Horses lyrics. Yet there I was looking out over vast vistas of mystical mountains, rounded by 270 million years of elements and covered in a misty, blue haze that made them seem both peaceful and ghostly. It was a couple of weeks before the spring bloom so there was still thousands of bare tree trunks pricking up all around. From a distance, they reminded me of sporadic hairs on a pubescent male’s chin. Compared to the daunting volcanic scree mountains of Iceland, these were gentle, commanding and wise trails that guided you slowly up and up and up.
Seth knew where to take me - from a 20-minute stroll to the perfect star gazing spot Beacon Heights, to a 12-mile hike that wove between the borders of North Carolina and Tennesee up to a 360-degree view of blue balds. You can never underestimate how good you feel after a hike - trust me there really is no better place for conversation (or for being silent, now that I come to think about it).
It was great going with someone who knows the ins and outs of the AT, as it’s colloquially known, and I would recommend finding out as much as you can from the locals wherever you travel. Some of the wisdom I learnt was:
The white blaze rectangle is symbolic of the Appalachian Trail (two white blazes means there is an incoming side-trail or an obscure turn); a blue blaze marks water sources, alternate routes, and shortcuts. Trail magic is food that locals leave out for long-distance hikers who are glad for a fizzy drink and a crisp apple. I found out that you have to purify the water from streams as it contains the parasite Giardia - a good light-weight solution is LifeStraw.
Then there is the famous what to do if you see a bear question. The answer is to puff yourself up to look as massive as possible and shout as loud as you can. It makes you wonder what noise would actually come out of your mouth in that situation. Roarrr?! Some more sinister but useful knowledge is that ‘pink blazers’ is a term for sleaze bags who walk the AT to scout for girls, and that it’s best not to camp near a road – local opposition to hikers and vandalism can be a problem.
Whenever I met someone in North Carolina, I was thinking in the back of my mind ‘how religious are you’ and ‘do you know that the earth IS actually more than 6,000 years old?’ Whilst the overt friendliness of most locals was a breath of fresh air, I always felt I had to steer clear of any religious chatter to avoid having someone look at me with eyes that said ‘you’re going straight to hell’ when you tell them that you’re agnostic. For me, all religion can be alarmingly pervasive, not just Islam as the media would like us to believe.
I attended a Sunday service while I was in Greensboro and as a person who is not usually exposed to religious preaching, I was shocked by the pastor’s rhetoric and the sense of indoctrination that goes along with it. When he told a story of how 30,000 people died in an earthquake in Armenia and that one child was “found by Jesus” in the rubble 4 days later, I couldn’t help but laugh as Seth whispered in my ear ‘what about the other 29,999 people that god didn’t give a shit about?’
I appreciate that people find hope, community and a sense of purpose through religion. That to me is a positive. However, having studied Karl Marx’s view of religion as a subset of capitalist alienation and Hume’s refutation of the Design argument, I find it all too hard to accept any religion as the overriding truth. It is more that we perceive there to be a god in human experience, rather than any ontological man with a white beard in need of a good trim!
I could easily rant about the usual catastrophic problems in the U.S - obesity, crime levels, and consumerism (all of which are issues in the UK). I do agree that there are way too many fast food restaurants and I have some serious doubts on how socially desegregated America really is.
For me, the most annoying thing was how clearly these problems manifest themselves on a day to day basis and the level of political disconnect this has with some people and politicians. This is, again, similar to the UK. A homeless guy asked us for money after a long story about how his brother died going over a dam and that he wants to change the rap game in his brother’s memory. The equivalent of this in London is someone asking ‘can I have 20p?’ The point is there is little attempt to address the poverty cycle and provide the support needed to get them back on their feet in Republican-run North Carolina.
We know there’s increasingly shocking levels of gun crime in America. Yet if you want too, you can pop in to Walmart to buy a gun, come home and watch FOX News that teaches you how to use a gun, and then you can be sure that if you develop mental health problems there won’t be any state help to stop you from walking into a school and using that gun.
These contradictions go on. Organic and fresh food is twice the price of a buy-one-get-five-free Poptart deal, even though diabetes and heart disease are the number one killer in the US. All this is wrapped up in sinister reality TV shows like To Catch a Predator and pharmaceutical adverts that spend more time listing lengthy side effects than saying what the product actually does. It’s a hard conundrum, as I enjoyed watching The First 48 (a programme that follows the first two days of a homicide investigation) because it plays on an in-built human fascination with death and violence. For me, it all creates a disconcerting picture that we should look at with a critical eye, even if we do all enjoy eating Reese’s Pieces from time to time.
Overall, I was seriously impressed by how friendly and carefree people were in North Carolina. Boone is a lively university town where everyone just seems…well…happy. The shops were my idea of outdoor gear paradise, brimming with SmartWool gems and Seth’s favourite (and slightly odd) running shoes. Of a day, you could pop over to the Appalachian State University study area that has strategically placed water features to sooth you through the stress of pretty much anything, or you could just relax in any one of the hipster coffee joints where the staff are way too cool to be friendly and leave you to your own devices. I would highly recommend Boone for anyone who loves beautiful scenery, good beer, and some insightful conversation about whatever takes your fancy.
I’ve been falling down the Apple hole lately. I bought my MacBook five years ago as a college freshman, and it was a whole new world compared to years of Windows XP. It was love at first sight, probably at the edgy video intro where it says “welcome” in a bunch of different languages. My palms were sweaty before I even made it to the incredibly utilitarian OS X.
Apple has since brought this same functionality to the iPhone first, and now the iPad, in the form of iOS. After my HTC Droid Incredible crapped out on me, I decided to give the iPhone 4S a try - the iPhone 5 had just debuted, so of course it was much cheaper - and I love it. Now that my aging, faithful MacBook is starting to come down with computer dementia, coupled with the fact that someone recently broke my Kindle, I decided to try to recoup these losses in the form of the new iPad Mini.
As with all things, I was initially skeptical about the iPad Mini. True, I was amongst those ridiculing the original iPad when it came out, calling it an oversized iPod Touch, which at the time was basically true. But things have changed; processing power has been contained into much smaller chips, there are several thousand more apps, and now the iPad is a genuine productivity tool that’s on it’s way to rivaling many laptop models in what it can do.
But this was the iPad Mini, and essentially just the iPad 2 in a smaller package with an improved camera. Surely Apple is just making it smaller in hopes that the drooling masses will pounce on it for that novelty alone, quickly increasing their profit margins. But no, this is Apple finally targeting the market that Amazon and Google have been breaking into with their 7” tablets. Keeping that in mind, the Mini is pretty awesome.
This is the main reason I picked up the Mini. My MacBook has one foot in the grave, and running Adobe Creative Suite on it for various design projects is all the strain it needs right now. I now limit my Netflix binges and unintentionally long YouTube sessions to the Mini. In fact, I actually spend more time on YouTube now than I did before, so clever and intuitive is the app’s layout. The video quality is good. If you want superb, you’ll have to drop $500 for the new iPad with Retina Display. The take-away message is that instead of having my laptop nuke my bits while I’m laying in bed hungover and watching Spartacus reruns on Sunday mornings, I can now hold the very light and non-invasive Mini.
Watching/reading the news and digesting current events is a big hobby of mine; yes this is life as a dork. In particular, the NPR News and Slate apps flow very easily. I was glued to them during the crazy events over the last two weeks in Boston. Part of my consumption includes YouTube-based shows such as The Young Turks and Secular Talk Radio, both of which are informative and hilarious.
Although my Kindle is done for, all of my books that I bought on Amazon remain in the cloud, and I can access them through the Kindle app for iPad. While you’ll never beat the Kindle’s electronic ink, I don’t have a problem reading on the Mini, and at 8” you can take in an inch more of Westeros at a time than you can on the Kindle Fire or the Google Nexus. I’m talking about words, not penises by the way.
Sometimes I’ll just leave the laptop at home and whip out (there we go again) the iPad Mini and my old Bluetooth keyboard at the coffee shop. Although I have no issues with the fluidity of switching between, say Google Drive and WorkFlowy, the fact that I actually have to touch the screen makes me less likely to leave my keyboard, and therefore less likely to watch crazy Russian dash-cam videos in the middle of writing something. If you’re a writer on the go, the Mini and Google Drive are going to make you very happy.
The Bottom Line
Okay, I’m not even close to attempting to write up a massive review to rival something on cNet that will satisfy you technophiles out there. Simply put, if you want an e-reader/personal entertainment center/productivity tool that fits in a small and light enough package to be perfect for travel, then this is for you.
Check out the product website for more details and tech specs.NOTE: Currently, I am not affiliated with any of the companies who’s products I review and do not receive incentives for reviews. Whenever I find a product that makes travel easier and lighter, or if it’s terrible and I don’t wish it on anyone else, I review it.
My travels have not yet taken me far from the frozen north. That’s about to change. Instead of yet another Nordic country, my next destination will be the middle kingdom in the East: China. It’s a pretty huge cultural leap from anything I’ve experienced so far, and that excites me. I feel that I’ve been pretty safe so far in regards to culture shock. This time I’ll be going somewhere that is allegedly as different from America as it gets. We’ll see. Anyway, I talked about preparation earlier this month, so it seems prudent to show you how I’ve applied that formula to this opportunity so far.
I won’t be tackling such a transition alone. Kate and I are going together, and I’m sure this will offset some of the shock for both of us. A couple of months ago we were trying to figure out how to bridge the 4,000-mile gap between us. If Kate wants to work and live in the US, then an employer with a proper license would have to prove that no American is qualified for the job before she has a chance. It would essentially be the same for me if I wanted to move to the UK. So what’s left? Marriage. That’s not happening quite yet. So much for the land of opportunity.
The other option was to move somewhere else together. Already a teacher assistant in America, I had flirted with the idea of teaching English abroad after hearing many stories from a friend who taught all over Southeast Asia. I did a little research, and bingo, this was it. We could teach for 6-12 months, live in an apartment provided by the school, and save tons of money in the process.
My Primary Source
My best friend, Dylan, has already taught English in Vietnam, Thailand, China, and could be going back for more with the Peace Corps later this year. I knew he would be a wealth of firsthand knowledge based on both his own and his network of other teachers’ experiences. He just got back in the states about a month ago, and we immediately had a long coffee together to catch up. Just as I suspected, he was able to point me to echinacities, where he found his China job after sending out a mere two emails. In addition, Dylan gave me some pretty useful info on visas and what to look for in a school.
Research, research, research.
1. The Country - China is a bit different from America (really?). It’s not every day you read about 16,000 dead pigs turning up in the Mississippi River. Nor do I have to wear a mask to filter out ridiculous amounts of pollution on my daily commute. But when you get past the weekly health and safety scares, you have the amazing food, and a country rich in interesting history. Although China is definitely not doing the best it can to preserve it, it’s full of natural beauty as well. I can’t wait to experience it all, both the good and the bad.
2. The Work - The quality of the experience is really going to depend on the school. Some will handle a great deal of your visa stuff for you, while others will lie about getting you a work visa. The maximum weekly hours range from 20 - 30 (the norm is usually closer to 20), and includes both lesson planning and teaching. The age groups are pretty varied, and range from kindergarten to university students. A Chinese teacher assistant is usually in the room to help out with any sticky situations. I’ve seen some schools advertising more than $2,000/month for 20-hour work weeks. Even China has more respect for its teachers.
Following Dylan’s advice, I browsed echinacities. There were plenty of opportunities, as there’s crazy demand for native speakers of English to teach. It was kind of hard to know where to start. I began asking questions in the “Answers” section of the website. Eventually someone sent me a private message saying they were going to have a lot of openings for the next term, and that both my girlfriend and I were welcome to apply. 2-bedroom apartment included, the proper work visa, and expert’s certificate, health insurance, only 20-hours/week, and $1,200/month (living expenses would be $150). Okay!
Getting my papers ready.
1. On the employer’s end - As it stands, we have both sent in our application packages, which include a CV, copy of our degrees, copy of our passports, photos of ourselves, and reference letters. The photo thing. Yeah, that’s a little weird, but of course they do things differently in China. Dylan tells me they are making sure I don’t look weird, and more importantly, that I look like a white foreigner. It’s a different country. Moving right along, after all that’s in order, we’ll have an interview. Assuming that’s successful, we’ll submit a medical form and criminal background check in exchange for an official invitation letter, which brings us to the government…
2. On the government’s end - Invitation letter from the school in hand, we would now be ready to take that to the Chinese embassy - Washington, DC for me and London for lucky Kate (she lives there) - along with a Z-visa application form, passport, photo, and a $130 fee. The Chinese embassy’s website claims that the visa is processed on average in just 4 days. My Swedish residence permit took 3 months, so I’ll believe it when I see it.
Maybe So Maybe No
So usually I don’t mention any of my potential journeys until I’ve applied to whoever and been accepted. I wait until it’s a certainty that I’m going there to write about it. It’s completely possible that we don’t get hired by this particular school, but I feel comfortable about posting on the process because if we fail, we will just do it all again.
Failure is something you have to take into account when you try anything. If you apply somewhere and it doesn’t work out, don’t let the blowback of failure waste your time. Immediately start searching for another opportunity with the same determination, hope, and anticipation. Anything less will snap you right back like a bungee cord to where you’re trying to get away from.
This week I’ve decided to do something a bit different and interview one of my longtime friends who is far more well-traveled than I, Dylan Waller. He’s spent a good chunk of the last few years in Southeast Asia, and I’ve asked him about his adventures there, as well as a few things to do with traveling in general.
Spartan Wanderer: Why did you start traveling?
Dylan Waller: Traveling was something that my parents valued, and they wanted to make sure that we were exposed to as many things as possible since we came from a really small town. They took us on vacations to Puerto Rico and Costa Rica when I was in middle school. They wanted to make sure we didn’t get stuck in a small town, and didn’t realize the full magnitude of the effect that these trips had on us. As a result of this, I am planning to live and work abroad for at least three more years, and most likely for the indefinite future.
SW: You’re very lucky to have cool parents that aren’t afraid to venture outside of Rockingham County, NC. What made you choose Southeast Asia when you began traveling on your own?
DW: Everything started with India, which led me to continue exploring southeast Asia. When I was a sophomore in college I received an email about a new study abroad program in India, and discovered that they were giving out grants. I had this strong gut feeling about it and went through with it, which led to an amazing semester in Bangalore, India. I was determined to go back to visit after I graduated, and also wanted to continue travelling and working abroad. After I graduated from Appalachian, I returned to India to do an internship for an NGO, volunteer teach, and travel across the country to visit some friends. I knew that I would have to leave India and stay out of the country for 2 months because of my visa, so I went on a summer study program with my college to Vietnam and Thailand. I loved those areas just as much, and decided to stay, teach, and continue travelling.
SW: It sounds like you came down with the bug pretty hard. Did you have any preconceptions that were proven wrong?
DW: I did not expect to get sucked in as much as I did. I thought I would go there, study for a semester, have an amazing time, and then return home, business as usual. Everyone tries to prepare you for all the shocks you will experience when travelling someplace new, but no one focuses on the challenge of reverse culture shock experienced when returning home. I never thought I would be more successful thriving in another country than in my home country. I may or may not continue to travel and live in other countries the rest of my life, but the fact I am strongly considering and pursuing it now proves that travelling has been “life changing.”
SW: What is the craziest thing you’ve seen or heard of in your travels?
DW: I was in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam talking to some backpackers about their visit to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where they saw the Killing Fields. I had heard beforehand that it was possible to arrange to shoot cows if you had enough money. One of the backpackers told me he was approached and asked if he would like to shoot a cow, with an added shocking twist. After he refused to shoot the cow, the man whispered “how about a person?”. Apparently, families can sell off their sick or disabled members to be shot by tourists in the Killing Fields. Pretty much anything is possible in Asia if you have money, and unfortunately things like this result.
SW: That is pretty shocking. I think that’s what Hostel was based on actually. In an effort to save the mood, what was the best, most fulfilling moment you’ve had abroad?
DW: I have always loved living and thriving in rural areas of Southeast Asia, as they are the most challenging and rewarding, and provide the deepest form of cultural immersion. I’d have to say my most fulfilling moment was staying in Manipur, India, where I volunteered at Northeastern Children’s Home, spending time teaching English and music to kids from the school and orphanage. The strong concept of community there was extraordinary, and I was blessed to be able to experience it and take part in it through feasts, weddings, and ceremonies for people who passed away in the village.
SW: Obvious follow-up question: what was your most miserable experience?
DW: Teaching English in Hohhot, China. This was one of the first times, after having spent over a year travelling in Asia, that I moved somewhere new and did not thrive. I decided to teach kindergarten, and soon realized that this job was not for me, and also that I was locked into a contract for the semester. I taught at six different schools, which meant that some days I could spend 4-6 hours commuting (some days I spent more time commuting than teaching). I was in a large city, and sometimes I would go for a walk in the park to try to discover the peace I felt in the rural parts of Southeast Asia, only to have my thoughts interrupted with “Gangnam Style” blaring from a local shop’s speakers. I stuck it out for four months, started to enjoy things more towards the end, and got to take an amazing trip to Mongolia after my contract was done. China wasn’t my cup of tea, but I am still very open to giving it a second shot.
SW: So of all things, “Gangnam Style” still isn’t banned in China. What made you decide to start teaching English abroad?
DW: Money! I knew that I wanted to stay in Southeast Asia for as long as possible, and this seemed like the easiest way to do it. I completed a 80-hour online TESOL course before leaving the United States and then spent 6 weeks volunteering as an English teacher in India to make sure it was something I would actually enjoy doing. There’s something very empowering about knowing you can pick a random country in the world, show up, and have a job.
SW: That is empowering, and I wish more people knew that it is possible, no matter how rooted they are in their current life in the US. So, how do the kids in Asia compare to the kids in America?
DW: The kids that I have taught in Asia have more respect for teachers. That’s not to say that they are always perfectly disciplined, but the respect is there. When the teacher enters a classroom in India, all of the students stand up and say “ Good Morning Sir”. There is a similar routine that takes place in Thailand and can not be avoided. Most of my jobs threw me around between different schools and I never stayed with a single class long enough to really start to understand the students.
SW: Big surprise. It seems like kids anywhere else in the world value education more than our little ingrates. Any embarrassing moments in front of all those kids?
DW: I was on my way to teach kindergarten at the worst of the six schools I taught at, when I recieved a text from my teacher assistant that she was going to be very late because the buses were running late. So, I showed up to teach a class of 30 students on my own, and they all just went crazy on me. They were running around the room, grabbing and hitting my guitar, knocking over chairs, etc. I chased them around the room, yelled, and finally got class started, although it was still a little bit chaotic. I was faced with the same situation a month later, and the class was absolutely perfect, in fact it was one of my favorite classes of the semester. That’s the consistency you get with kindergarten.
SW: Yeah, kindergarten is fun. I think any type of biological clock I have has been set back a few years since becoming a TA. Completely unrelated; what is one piece of gear you’d never travel anywhere without?
DW: Quick-drying boxers and shirts. I spent a week hiking on the AT (Appalachian Trail) with Seth, and discovered that my biggest mistake was bringing cotten. Since then, whenever I hike, camp, or travel I always wear quick dry boxers and shirts. In addition to being an obvious better choice of attire for Southeast Asia, they also allow you to minimize your possessions.
SW: You’ve mentioned a few of your interesting methods regarding personal health and well-being in the past. Is Southeast Asia as scary and disease-ridden as we think it is?
DW: I don’t think so. I have always drank the water, ate street food, and not taken malaria medication when travelling in Southeast Asia. I have never had anything serious happen to me. I usually get extremely sick when initially arriving, and then after that I am free to eat or drink anything I want without suffering any consequences. People in India always joked with me and told me that if I got sick in India and ate all of the crazy street food like they do, then I will not get sick anywhere else in the world. A year after leaving India, the worst illness I have encountered has been in the United States. I’m planning to go to Africa next, and that will be something that I can not approach with the same carefree attitude as I do in Asia, lest I actually get malaria or some crazy disease. I’ve always felt safe and have never been in a dangerous or threatening situation in Southeast Asia. I remember China and Thailand being extremely safe, and I always felt free to roam around the city at night. I’ve never had anything happen in India after spending a year there, but I have always been surrounded by local friends.
SW: You’re insane. But I’m sure it’s not nearly as bad as we’re meant to believe it is, as with most things from abroad that are relayed to us collectively xenophobic Americans. What’s your favorite place you’ve been to? Why?
DW: I would have to say Muang Ngam, Thailand, although Rengkai, India is a close second. It’s one of the most peaceful places I’ve lived in, and one of the few places where I have been extremely content and had little or no desire to travel. I lived in a secluded, peaceful environment that was an hour away from two main cities, and I was right beside one of the local beaches. I thought I was the only foreigner in the area until one day I saw another foreigner riding his bike and yelling “farrang” (Thai for foreigner) at me. I am planning to live there again in a couple of months, and will hopefully be able to get a bike and explore the countryside.
SW: What’s the biggest DO you’d recommend to people traveling in that area? The biggest DON’T?
DW: My best advice is to find ways to stay in rural communities, and not to limit one’s Southeast Asia experience solely to backpacking. I think that the two go hand in a hand for gaining a holistic cultural experience, but I have personally found my time spent in rural areas to be more valuable. Simply moving from country to country in short spans of time, only visiting the major cities doesn’t fully cut it. I have just finished reading Gregory David Roberts’ novel, Shantaram, and I think this quote sums it up:
“Every city in the world has a village in it’s heart. You will never understand the city, unless you first understand the village.”
If possible, try to study in the country, work there, and then use this as leverage for other travelling opportunities. I started out in India studying for a semester, and this provided me with a volunteer teaching position in a village and an internship with an NGO. If this isn’t possible, then check out volunteer programs that provide cheaper alternatives than backpacking and allow. Unfortunately, many volunteer programs charge ridiculous fees, although there are a few volunteer programs that charge little to no fees, and may even provide you with food and/or housing. Two of the best volunteer programs that I know of are WWOOF for organic farming and Goodwill Globetrotting which contains a network of NGO’s looking for volunteers.
Try to get the most out of every country, and stay as long as possible. I pride myself off of recently maxing out my passport, but take even more pride in the opportunities I had to stay in rural areas for extended amounts of time. The two days I spent in Siem, Cambodia were pretty amazing, but the year I spent in Southern and Northeastern India was bar none.
A couple of posts ago, I listed a few ways that the average person could travel sustainably long-term. Everyone should be aware of these escape routes that can lead out of the office and into a different culture. Once you decide to pursue any of these or other opportunities, there’s loads to be done. Research, visas, communication, packing, etc… How much thought and work you put into these things could define your entire experience.
I know that it’s a common romanticization of travel to roam as free as the wind with no planning, and then a lot of awesome stuff happens. Fair enough. Go overstay your visa on this notion; being trapped indefinitely in a Thai prison would make for a good story, to be sure.
The thing is, there’s governments, borders, laws, bureaucratic red tape, and all sorts of stuff that must be researched and honored when we want to go somewhere. It’s a part of travel. If you want to live out of a tiny backpack, that’s awesome and I applaud your minimalist choice. But please, for the love of god, don’t be willfully ignorant of things that really matter for the sake of your “we live in a world of imagined borders” philosophy. You WILL pay for it in the end.
Now, with that lovely, albeit very heartfelt preface, let’s talk about preparation.
Determine your goals.
What do you enjoy doing? Where do you want to do it? If you’re simply looking for a drastic change, then you might not need to be so specific. Think of a place you’d like to go to and start checking out the job scene there. Where you’d like to go…hmm. Now that’s a conundrum in itself. There’s a huge world out there and a lot to choose from. It really depends on your personality, and what you’re looking for.
Find a primary source of information.
Not the ones you will find in the library for your research paper, but a person who has done what you want to do, preferably in the country you want to live in. Most everyone usually has that one friend who’s been doing crazy stuff abroad. Talk to them. If not, go through your roster of friends and see if you can find a friend of a friend who is “that guy.” They will be able to tell you just how the process works and how intensive it is. You never know, you may find an invaluable inside track or even a wealth of contacts abroad that could fast track you right into the position and country you’ve been hoping for.
Research, research, research.
1. The Country - The first thing you should look at is the place you’re considering living and working in. You may think you’ve found an awesome opportunity, but is the political/social climate worth the risk? If you’re a woman, would you be willing to endure being treated as a second-class citizen in the Middle East? What about the food? WHAT?! You can’t get booze here?! These are important things to find out BEFORE you get there.
2. The Work - Yeah, you should probably look into a few things relating to the thing you’ll be spending 20-40 hours a week doing. Definitely look for stories, both of success and horror. There are many resources online for this. For instance, if you plan on teaching English, there’s an actual blacklist of schools that have treated foreign teachers terribly after selling that cushy job so hard to them. Resources like this could potentially save you a lot of headaches.
Find an opportunity.
If you don’t already have something in mind, start searching online. It’s the solution to everything! We may have traded out a paper substrate for an electronic one, but the good old-fashioned classifieds still exist out there. Start with echinacities and ajarn for teaching English in Asia, and helpx for work stay projects all over the world. EasyExpat also carries global classifieds, job listings, and expat guides. Search these sites, but don’t limit yourself to the classifieds. It’s possible that you could find that golden opportunity simply by asking a question in the forums.
Get your papers ready.
1. On the employer’s end - At the very least, you’ll have to do an application of some sort for almost any opportunity abroad. Be quick about it, because it’s probably the first of many hurdles to come. There’s typically different stages when dealing with your potential employer or organization. First you apply, maybe sending in your CV, copy of your passport, etc. If all of that checks out, you could be interviewed. And on it goes. You will probably need to get documents from them in turn, to show to the government. Then the fun begins.
2. On the government’s end - This will depend entirely on where you’re going, what you’re doing there, and for how long. Visa applications to some countries are quick and painless. Others require a plethora of documentation - visa application, passport, invitation letter from an employer, criminal background check, fingerprints, photos, proof of funds, etc - before a long wait as all of this is processed. Read the directions carefully on the embassy website of the destination country, as well as the accounts of others who have been through the process. Double-check everything!
Once you get to a point where nothing has to be mailed or emailed, all the essentials for the journey are waiting to be packed, and you’ve been poked innumerable times to ward off scary jungle diseases, the waiting begins. You may even still be at your old job. Don’t let it get you down and keep your gaze forward. Keep researching your destination. Find a news site for it and get a feel for it’s sociopolitical pulse. Read some good travel writing to get you in the adventurous spirit. Live vicariously through others until you can do it yourself.
Throw out your expectations.
You’re going to be working in a different country, so you can’t really go there expecting the same workplace culture as in your country. You will be disappointed fairly quickly. Go there with no expectations to weigh you down and you can take the experiences as they come. Embrace some new ways of thinking and doing things, while rejecting the ones that just simply do not fit with you, for moral reasons or otherwise. It’s okay to filter; just don’t go in with a forcefield up. Culture shock is fun.
The amount of people who would like travel, but are too discouraged by any number of reasons compared to those who do manage to uproot themselves and go somewhere else must be staggering. Some have kids, something I have no experience with. But others are too afraid to leave their jobs, financial uncertainty manifesting itself as a scary enough spectre that will keep a person stuck in a job that they detest. Another sample of the population might even be willing to leave their job, if only they didn’t have a house and all the stuff inside of it to worry about leaving behind.
All of these things are solvable. First of all, there are plenty of long-term opportunities abroad that are either affordable or will even pay you. Don’t let a paycheck tether you to a situation and a place you don’t want to be in. Last month I talked about decluttering, deobligating, and desocializing in order to more easily cut ties and become mobile. So for those of us who feel rooted to the spot by stuff, I suggest starting there to learn about a future with less shackles and more freedom of movement.
For those of you with a foot rooted in your current life and the other kicking the door down, here’s a few options for sustainable, long-term travel that you can allow to ferment for a while:
You may not get paid, but several organizations will cover costs for food and accommodation. Oh, and you have that nice warm and fuzzy feeling that you get from helping people. I would advise you to avoid the hell out of programs that charge a huge fee for you to travel and work for free. How very altruistic. Search long and hard, and you’ll find a program that will appreciate your free work. I highly recommend the Iceland Conservation Volunteers. You will travel all over Iceland, working in some of the most beautiful and remote locations, all on the government’s dime. They provide accommodation, food, and transportation around the country. The only thing you need to worry about is a flight to Reykjavík and your holiday week in the middle of the program, so it’s a sweet deal indeed. Matador Network is always a wealth of info on volunteering abroad and all things travel.
The Peace Corps
Yes, you too can be that lone, fluorescent white face in the photos you send back home to mom. For the more independent types out there, the Peace Corps will place you in a community of a developing nation, all by your lonesome more often than not. For two years, you will work toward developing that community in whichever specialization the Peace Corps deems you best at, based on your application. It could be teaching, business, infrastructure, health, what have you. Your accommodation is usually provided, although you could be living with a host family, which would surely result in some amazing cultural experiences. The Corps gives you a stipend equivalent to the average middle class wage of your area that will allow you to live comfortably while also giving you more appreciation for the things you may have previously taken for granted. They will also do other cool things, like defer your student loans!
Teaching English Abroad
Want to live in a different country making decent money while saving most of it? Then teach English in Southeast Asia. The requirements are surprisingly minimal. In an increasingly globalized world, English is at a premium, and native speakers are in high demand for the classroom. So much so that they may ignore the fact that you have no relevant skills or experience to teaching provided you have a degree in…well, anything really. The low standard of living in these countries will allow you to make a decent salary while spending very little. But don’t let words like “squat toilet” scare you away. Many schools provide teachers with surprisingly modern apartments for free (the norm in China). Primp your CV and start the job search on eChinaCities for China and ajarn for Thailand.
For those that are absolutely dying to get their hands dirty after working in a cubicle (work coffin), there are an unbelieveable amount of opportunities on farms all over the world. Just a few minutes of browsing helpx will convince you that the world is out there for the taking. In exchange for helping out on a farm, the owner(s) will put you up with food and lodging. The work varies. Taking care of animals, working in organic gardens, pruning vineyards, helping out in lodges or B&B’s, and blazing trails on acres of land are just a few job descriptions. Living and working with your host will be a great opportunity for an exchange of culture and friendships.
Lower the Standard
If you can afford it, why not knock about and do nothing while you travel? You can wander around India for six months on 2 grand. Sounds like money well spent to me. Want little responsibility and a lot of freedom? Simply travel around the developing world. Obviously there’s a price for these low prices, and that is a lower standard of living that you will have to adapt to. Living in these conditions and meeting the people that live in them will open your eyes to the greater population of the world. You never know; the rapid beat of humid heat, poor infrastructure, and street food roulette may be right up your alley! Vagabond Journey and Matador Network are full of tales of bumming it in the third, second, and even first worlds, and provide some insightful guides on how to bum.
Leaving everything behind to travel long term is hard work, but it’s work towards achieving some semblance of self-actualization rather than the meek acceptance of a paycheck that enables a march to the beat of mundane life. Not that that’s a bad thing. If you enjoy your life, then that’s great. But for those who feel trapped, whether by job or by country, there is an escape. The world is full of places to escape to. I’ve listed a few possibilities just to get you thinking.
Next week I’ll outline a process of preparation that could be useful to anyone who’s latched on to the idea of leaving everything behind for parts unknown. Preparation can make all the difference between a comfortable transition and things eventually falling through, which can be a hard pill to swallow if you have your hopes up for something different. I’ll tell you how to get your ducks in a row while still embracing mindful uncertainty and spontaneity.