10 Years of Living Abroad

Has it really been a decade since I got on that plane?

I remember the day in snippets, most of it blurred. But there are moments that are so crystal clear in my mind, they could have happened yesterday.

My parents brought me to the airport.

I had a huge suitcase that my mom was lending me (which I have never returned to her), I had a backpack with snacks for the long journey, and I had a one-way ticket to Auckland, New Zealand.

I checked my bag and lingered near security with my parents. My mom was holding my hand and we weren’t really talking much. My dad adding commentary about what Cathay Pacific might be serving for dinner on the flight.

We could avoid the inevitable no longer. I hugged my parents and my dad, through watery eyes, told me that he was so proud of how adventurous I was being. I felt tears forming, my sinuses burning.

I showed my ticket and passport to the woman at security. She smiled, seeing my parents behind me, and said, “has anyone ever told you your father looks just like Robin Williams?”

I laughed, breaking the tension of the moment and looking back at my dad.

“All the time,” I told her and walked over to have my bag scanned.

***

backpacker backpack
Ready to travel the world! (or at least travel New Zealand)

I moved abroad ten years ago, only three months after I graduated college.

While all of my friends were spending the last semester of our senior year going on job interviews and visiting the careers office to get their resumes critiqued, I was checking flight prices and applying for a Working Holiday visa for New Zealand.

I didn’t exactly move abroad because I wanted to experience culture or explore the world, although those desires were born out of my travels later on.

I moved abroad because I met a British boy while studying abroad in Switzerland during my junior year of college and I was tired of Skype calls and emails and not actually seeing each other. We were moving to New Zealand because we wanted to be together.

My plan was never to live abroad for a decade. My plan was to spend six months living and working in New Zealand. We thought we would be able to save up enough money to then spend six months traveling the world.

Anyone who has ever been to New Zealand knows that can’t happen.

New Zealand isn’t exactly the ideal place to live as a 22-year-old if you want to save money. A block of cheese cost me more than an hour’s work. We had to choose between beer and bell peppers and the bell peppers never, ever won.

So we stayed for a whole year.

We got jobs in Christchurch and made friends and went on date nights to Burger King when we found coupons in the newspaper. Saturdays were for partying at the local bars and ending up at random clubs before walking home with a cup of KFC chicken poppers to share.

Then there was the earthquake that changed everything

We made the difficult decision to leave Christchurch, a place that felt like our home and where we’d built a community of people that we cared deeply about. 

We traveled the south Island for a month before settling in Nelson, a small city on the northern tip of the south island. It’s the sunniest place in New Zealand, which made it sound like a pretty good place to spend the winter.

sleeping in the back of our car as we traveled New Zealand!

Our visa was only for a year, but we applied for an additional tourist visa extension so that we could stay to watch the rugby world cup. New Zealand won on home soil and the day of the parade we stood on Queen Street in Auckland and watched the players wave to us from the back of pickup trucks.

A few days later, we flew to Australia. 

We found a downstairs room in an apartment in Fitzroy North, a suburb of Melbourne. There was an Italian grocery store across the street and on payday, we’d head over and buy a nice cheese, a tiny container of olives, and a loaf of freshly baked bread. 

We had literally no money when our friend who lives in Sydney asked if we wanted to meet him there for New Year’s Eve. He had booked a boat that would take us out into the harbor to watch the fireworks. 

It would only cost $275 each. For both of us to go, it would mean sacrificing almost an entire month’s rent. 

So we did the most logical thing we could think of. 

We quit our jobs, ended our lease early, bought flights to Sydney and stayed in the most disgusting hostel I’ve ever been in my life. The top bunk in the dorm room had visibly dirty sheets and beer bottle tops on it. In the middle of the night, our fellow dorm-mate came in, turned on all the lights, and tried to chat about life with us. But it was cheap and we were in Sydney and we weren’t going to miss the best New Year’s Eve celebration of our lives (this fact still remains true).

on a boat in the sydney harbour for new years eve
Spending New Year’s on a boat in the Sydney Harbour remains one of the most amazing nights of my entire life.

I bought a black dress from a market stall in Chinatown and Luke got himself a button-down shirt from some chain men’s clothing store that was having an after-Christmas sale and we handed our friend $550 Australian dollars as we hopped on the boat with cheap bottles of sparkling wine.

“How you spend New Year’s is how you’re going to spend your year,” they say. 

It seemed true at this point: totally broke but having the time of our lives.

In January, we found a cheap place to live in Ultimo, an inner suburb of Sydney filled mostly with students and backpackers back then.

We were both jobless and watching our remaining dollars tick down until there was only $50 left. I went on at least three job interviews a day and continued to hear nothing back.

Luke began working part-time, but payday was still a few weeks away.

We had to ask our new landlord if we could pay her a week late. We couldn’t afford to get internet installed yet, so I spent my days job-searching at the nearby library. 

We talked about what we would do if we ran out of money. We made a worst-case scenario plan and prepared ourselves for phone calls that we really didn’t want to make.

Living in Australia

Then I got a call from one of the jobs that I’d interviewed for, one that I actually wanted. I would start the following day. 

And just like that we started creating a life in the city by the sea.

Sydney pulled us in like no place ever has before or since. I fell in love with my daily walk through Darling Harbour, around Barangaroo, past the Harbour Bridge.

We made enough money to move into a better apartment and go out on Friday nights to Kings Street Brewery or the Australian Heritage Hotel for $5 schooners. 

On Saturdays we walked along Blackwattle Bay or we took the bus to Cremorne Point to look back at the Opera House and Harbour Bridge. My personal favorite was Camp Cove, one of the last bays before the harbor opens back up to the sea. We saw whales swim past once.

On Sundays, I would wake up at 4:30am, change into my running clothes which were always left right next to the bed the night before, and I’d catch the bus to meet my running group for 6am.

We made a life in Sydney and when it came time to leave, we mourned it like a lost loved one.

We stayed for two years, but we longed to stay forever. We tried different visas, we tried getting sponsored, we studied at local colleges, and eventually we ran out of money and options. It was time to move, ready or not.

We needed a new option. We knew at this point that life in a different country was the life we wanted most. We wanted nothing other than to see more countries and cultures, to meet more people, to have more experiences.

We also knew that we were tired of running out of money and counting coins and choosing between beer and vegetables.

So we moved to South Korea to teach English. We got everything we’d wished for and so very much more.

teaching english in korea
Living in Korea was a huge growing experience

I’ve written on and off about my experiences in Korea on this blog. About how we got our visas and how we found jobs teaching English. I’ve even talked about how the experience changed the course of my life.

It was an incredibly challenging and wonderful year. I hated and loved my job and I learned that I actually really like kids (something I used to vehemently deny).

We traveled the country seeking out different hikes, foods, and temples. We learned to read and speak Korean to a decent enough level considering we only studied one hour a day and barely spoke it unless ordering food at a restaurant.

When we left, we’d finally saved enough money to take that trip around South East Asia that we were supposed to do five years earlier. We spent two weeks in Japan, a week in Taiwan, and 10 days in the Philippines before flying to Vietnam where we wouldn’t get on another plane for four months.

We spent a month each in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos. Not to sound dramatic and cliche, but sounding totally dramatic and cliche anyway, it was nothing short of life changing.

vietnam itinerary

It was 2015 and we didn’t have a smart phone or any phone for that matter. The one we had in Korea didn’t work outside of Korea, so we traveled with nothing other than a Samsung tablet which only worked when connected to WiFi and a Lonely Planet guidebook with actual paper maps. 

In those five months of traveling, I filled up three notebooks, two memory cards, and our entire Dropbox account with memories. There was a creative spark in me that I hadn’t felt in years and all I wanted to do was write and travel and write and travel.

We spent most nights drinking a cold local beer, eating food from a night market, and talking about what we wanted our lives to look like. We were 27 and free from responsibilities and we still had plenty of savings in the bank from our jobs in Korea.

Save money to travel by riding bikes

We wanted to change our lives.

We wanted to find a place that was as packed with culture as Korea, with jobs we loved as much as our jobs in Sydney, where we could build a community of people that we loved like we had in Christchurch.

When Luke took a job in Mexico a few months after we finished that trip around Asia, we didn’t think Mexico was going to be that place.

We went because it meant Luke could do a job that he loved and we could live somewhere (finally) that was cheap enough for me to dedicate myself to my writing and as an added bonus we wouldn’t have to suffer another winter.

Earlier this year, we celebrated living in Mexico for four years. I haven’t lived anywhere this long since I was 18. 

This, of course, was never our intention. 

We thought a year of living in the sun and eating tacos in Mexico City would be a good way for us both to get our foot in the door of our respective industries and we could then move somewhere else. 

chichen itza tour

But life was just so good.

We had jobs that made us happy and fulfilled. We were living in a city that we both absolutely loved. We could vacation for cheap to the beach or the mountains or to other equally cool cities around the country. We could pop to Costa Rica or Belize without much forward planning.

Somehow after four years, here we are. Still living in Mexico.

Sort of like how two turned to four and then eight and now it’s somehow been an ENTIRE DAMN DECADE since that woman at the airport told me my dad looked like Robin Williams. 

We may not have all of the things we dreamed about when we were planning our lives out on that hammock in Laos, but maybe it’s even better than what we’d pictured.

4 thoughts on “10 Years of Living Abroad”

  1. Great story, and you’ve only just begun! My wife and I (married 39 years this December) are looking forward to visiting QuerĂ©taro for about 3 weeks this month. Then Ocean City, MD for a few months while she obtains her paperwork for Italian citizenship (her life dream). Once we are allowed to travel into Italy, we’ll spend some time there. Not sure what we’ll do after that.

    Left Texas in 1996 to spend 20 years in the Pacific Northwest, teaching, raising kids, and recording music. We’ve been knocking around the States for the last 6 years. Living on a boat in Marina del Rey for two years, Las Vegas for two years, then Chicago and D.C. for another 20 months. Actually, I quit an online Professor position to take my dream job as a flight attendant in 2019 (youngest daughter was my inspiration for that move). Alas, COVID-19 put a crimp in those plans, but…

    Now, I’m lucky enough to help with my wife’s dream and take advantage of stand-by flight benefits for a couple more years. Hope to get a little online adjunct coursework to supplement the budget.

    You and Luke are living your best lives…and that inspires everyone!

    @draw123z4 IG

    Reply
  2. The end of this made me sob! I, too, popped on a plane to New Zealand when all my peers were doing something very different (in my case, they were firmly embedded in their US homes after a decade of 9-5ing). My life since then has taken such a winding and unexpected path, and I treasure every experience. I’m currently sitting in a hammock in my hometown, feeling more stuck than ever before, trying to figure out what our lives will look like once we can travel again. We’re hoping for big things! Thanks for sharing this.

    Reply
  3. Thanks for the lovely story. Good for you and Luke and I hope your adventure continues for years to come.

    Your story about your departure reminds me of when I set off on a long, round-the-world trip many years ago, with just my little backpack. When I left, my mom gave me the longest and tightest hug ever–so sweet and a wonderful memory.

    Reply

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