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A Little Thought…On Why I Left to Travel, How I Pay for It, and How to Work as an Expat

Mythology and story, new cultures and finding just the right way to describe what it feels like to watch a new day begin as the the sun warms the streets of an unknown city…these are the things I usually think about when writing new posts. How can I transport other people into a new place? Since many people won’t make it on a rickety bus rocketing through the dry deserts of India, I share that with words and photos. It’s those travel moments that compelled me to keep up travel blogging–the want to share the experiences and the stories along the way.

What I rarely talk about, though, is a bit less glamorous and a lot more personal. More pointedly my work. I’ve mentioned my work a handful of times, but not in much detail. And I don’t do this for the mysterious factor (seriously, I am not that interesting) but because the topic rarely crops up outside of the emails I receive a few times a month from questioning travelers wondering how the heck I afford nearly four years of travel (and how they can do the same).

Now, I finally decided I have something to say to the countless travelers and dreamers asking me how to go digital, how to work online and build their dream lifestyle.

Watching Titanic in 3D in Phnom Penh

The three of us found a theatre playing Titanic in 3D and yes, oh yes, we went to see it!

Try on life as a true expatriate.

I drafted this post in back in April, when my niece and I stayed with Anna Jura, a traveling expat friend living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia who works in the public health sector and navigates the ins and outs of finding expat work abroad. As an aside, having Anna (my friend) and Ana (my niece) share names made for a fun week of confusion and I often elicited raised eyebrows pointed in my direction since the dynamics of talking to an 11-year-old are a far-cry different from talking to another adult! :)

Anyways, Anna opened her door to us with a spare bedroom, opened her evenings to us with wandering rants about local Cambodian politics and culture, and with enthusiasm she showed us the tastier eats around her city.

More than that though, she showed me what it is like to truly work abroad an expat in a city you’re in because you like both the city and your work.

cambodian foodA simple veggie fare for lunch...not really Cambodian, but delicious!

Chalk it up to lack of critical thought on the subject, but in my narrow world, it hadn’t fully occurred to me to encourage people to find work in their field of study. To actually take their University degrees and apply for work abroad. Over the years, I have given a lot of advice in emails encouraging people to embrace digital work. I wrote to one questioning traveler: “Think about all of your unique skills and leverage those into remote-based consulting.”  And to another I emailed that she could “build up freelance gigs in one of her skill-sets or consider teaching English abroad.”

breakfast

My niece and I cooked a thank you breakfast on our last day for Anna and her neighbor!

All of this is good advice if you want to work from a computer;  and that is my primary frame of reference. I have said it before in places on this website, what differentiates me from many round the world and gap-year travelers is that I worked the entire time. In the past six years I have only truly taken two long breaks from my SEO consulting work, my freelance online work, and the weekly upkeep on this blog. One break was in 2009 on my RTW trip for a ten-day Vipassana Meditation course in Nepal; I spent ten days in complete silence and they locked all our gadgets and notepads in the center’s storage areas for the entire ten days. The other break was in Burma earlier this year; I knew the internet was intermittent in the country and welcomed three weeks offline, only checking in once or twice to make sure there were no fires to squash.

wifi cafe thailand.

My “office” is usually a wifi cafe much like this one…and the best cafes have fellow blogging friends gracing their tables like Jodi of Legal Nomads and James from Nomadic Notes!

It’s worth noting that I left back in 2008 to travel knowing this was my reality, knowing I wouldn’t have the same freedoms of other 20-something backpackers who had spent years saving up, then quit their jobs and traveled unhindered and free to indulge in each travel moment. It’s a great story, the quit my job and traveled story, but it’s not my story. I have no regrets, and the fact that I can work remotely regularly makes it on my daily gratitude list.

My Backstory, or Rather, How I Pay my Bills: Then and Now

For a season of my life I worked at the New York Film Academy in Los Angeles. I do believe those three and a half month qualify as my only “real job” after college. Well, the only 9 to 5 I’ve ever worked I should say. I took the NYFA job to help myself transition between Florida and California. I moved to LA just after graduating college in 2006, and, like so many other young actors, ambition, naïvety, and likely a hint of narcissism fueled me through the move. But, even back then, I had lucked into fully online based work through a series of happenstance connections shaped by the people, professors, and friends I met while studying at University. So, I took a location-based job. And I did it simply to meet new friends and find an instant community in a town where finding a community is the only way to survive the crushing anonymity of living in a city with nearly four million inhabitants.

Graduating college in 2006

Graduating university and just a month before I decided to pack up and spontaneously move to Los Angeles, California to pursue acting and continue my online work.

I had worked with NYFA on their annual summer program in Orlando, Florida, so they were a logical choice when I wanted part-time work. It was a three-day-a-week job that necessitated a blouse, skirt, and super cute heels. The outfits were the best part of that job. That’s not to say anything about the company, my colleagues welcomed me, the NYFA students were bright and passionate, and the work was challenging.

But I hated the lack of power, the oversight of a boss when I’d only previously justified my time-management on projects to myself. (I hear this is a common symptom of Gen Y). And lest you think I simply didn’t like work and skated trough University on a trust fund, I got a full merit-based scholarship to the University of Central Florida, and I waited tables, bartended, and nannied to pay for the other costs; each of these was a job I loved aspects of, though the former two were jobs I swore I’d never return to again once I graduated.

Back to Los Angeles. I found myself in the routine, packing my lunch each day, the same smiles, the same jokes with friends, and after-work exhaustion, or happy hour on a good day. And it didn’t feel like me. There was a restlessness stirring inside of me, fighting the constraints in the daily routine.

So I quit. Okay, not quite like that, I finished the project … my fancy title was the Assistant Director of New Programs, and what it boiled down to was me co-writing an application to grant MFA degrees from one of the NYFA programs. With the project finished, rather than stay on, I gave a cheery goodbye ( still on good terms). Then I went back to my online work, nannied for two families in LA, and spent another year and a half toiling through life as an actor in Los Angeles.

I had an epiphany of sorts, in a conversation with my dad … I told him how I was itching to move again, and since I had enough SEO consulting work I was thinking of moving to Boston for a change of scenery. He said “Well, you can pretty much work from anywhere, so I say do it.”

And to this day my dad maintains that he never imagined the sorts ideas that conversation would spark. Within two weeks I had embraced the concept: I bought a one-way ticket to Australia, gave notice to my landlord, and decided to leave acting behind for a while and instead travel and work.

hollywood sign, los angeles

My last day in the US back in 2008, just before leaving Los Angeles to Australia for my RTW trip. I hiked Runyon Canyon with my friend Lisandra to say goodbye to the Hollywood Sign (in the far background)..

I left just five months later, in November of 2008, with a conservative sum of money I gained from: selling my belongings, my modest savings, and extra work I crammed in the last couple months. To fund the full year of travel I had planned, I knew I needed to bill about 25 hours a week on average for most of the trip, and slightly more than that once I arrived in Europe, where the cost of living is higher than in Asia.

Since that time, I have continued many of the same jobs (still doing SEO, online marketing/SEO consulting, freelance writing, and this blog), while also diversifying my work and income (I have a volunteer site in the works and a book publishing later this fall … more on that soon!). Through it all though, I have always and will continue to work remotely, from my laptop, for the foreseeable future.

Back to the Present: Living Abroad as a Working Expat

From my background and experience, I have given career advice in countless emails to steer people into working remotely. And in some responses I noted that you could find work abroad, but I never really understood all that it can mean to live as an integrated expat until I lived with Anna Jura for a week.

I am disposed against “real” jobs, ie. office jobs with bosses and clocking in, but that’s just me.

Some people thrive under the structure and work 9-5 on projects they love. This is not a novel concept to most of my friends, who love their homes, love having evenings off, and love a structure giving them weekends free of work concerns…

But maybe I finally get it. Anna and her roommate both clock into “real” jobs each day.

By choice.

Given the option to switch jobs with me, they’d choose their job.

Sunset phnom penh palace

Sunset over the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia from one of the walks Anna took us on around the city

Every expat I met through Anna while in Phnom Penh was highly educated, most were specializing in development work of some sort, though some in marketing, or business, and all were content with their work and life as an expat in Cambodia.  In the past, I’ve met disgruntled expats, those frustrated or with their jobs and ready to take the money they earned working abroad, do a last hoo-rah of travel until it ran out, and then move home. But the community I met in Phnom Penh changed my perception; these people found a place for their specializations, for their college degrees. Beyond that, the prospect of living and working in this particular foreign city excited them. Their work is not a means to an end as it often is for those teaching English abroad or some such (the end usually being traveling). These are jobs for the love of working in a subject field, and, ultimately, professional work satisfaction.

So much of the travel community is “rah, rah travel, rah, rah save up and take a massive trip…or work remotely and travel perpetually.”  That’s just one option. There are also opportunities abroad for those with wanderlust and a wish to have a home-base, set-up shop, live, raise a family, and truly enjoy life as an expat abroad.

Small Thatched Cottage, Ireland

The thought of living in this thatched cottage, cozzying up with a daily up of tea, finding new friends and settling into a new rhythm makes Ireland’s rural Western coast appeals to me if I ever want to go off the grid as an expat :)

That’s my new advice. Try on your University degree and see if it fits abroad. Or try consulting and build an online business. Or save up a chunk of money, travel, and return to home-base. My point is, I heartily support travel and think anyone with the opportunity and inclination should take it…and think outside the advice anyone might give you and follow your own path to that end.  :)

Resources for Finding Work Abroad

I’ve never worked for a traditional company abroad, but I did some research and rounded up resources and other articles that go into how to find specialized expat work from people who have done it. I would love to flesh this out, so if you used a site and loved it, or if you know of any other blogs, organizations, or resources, leave them in the comments and I’ll add them to the post! 

International Organizations/Databases

  • Interaction.org: Really wonderful interface, the organization is an alliance of US-based international NGOs. Use the site’s member directory to search for a company that may need a skill you have.
  • Going Global: Though part of the site has paid services, the country profiles are wonderfully detailed, list out organizations, business profiles and a huge range of useful information.
  • ReliefWeb: Start here for many development jobs all over the world–it’s easy to search and full of opportunities in many fields.
  • InterNations: A huge global community. I haven’t participated, but I know they host events and have active forums.
  • Cool Works: The site’s tagline is “Jobs in Great Places” and there are a lot of sorting options–seems like a good place to peruse.
  • Go Workabout: Seasonal jobs for foreigners in Australia; it’s a great database.

Information Sites

  • Expat Focus: A good starting point, you will find yourself lost in this site for hours as you start plotting and planning a move. Though there is a free membership part to some of it, you can search through country information without logging in.
  • Expat Finder: A full service site that has information on every part of the move.
  • Expat Exchange: A robust site with information on a wide range of countries.
  • Expatica: Nice all-around resource for every side of the process, it has job boards, community forums, tips articles, and is a well-trafficked site and it looks like there is pretty dynamic content!
  • Four Ways to Become an Expat: A few paths you can look at for finding jobs and a type of work that will take you overseas.
  • Transitions Abroad: Dense with information; I didn’t like that they don’t link out to other job boards and that such, but has a range of possible topics covered.
  • Expat Women: Inspirational and full of information, I liked this site and it seems like a good community for women pondering the transition!

Articles and Stories

  • The Big Mac Index: The Economist’s fairly brilliant chart of how much a McDonald’s Big Mac costs in various countries–this is a really good indicator of cost of living and currency valuation of countries you are considering!
  • 10 Types of Expats: A tongue-in-cheek look at the various types of people motivated to move abroad.
  • The New Global Student: Interesting interview with an author about living abroad with her four girls who are now grown and employed.
  • How I’ve Been Traveling Since Graduation: Edna, an expat shares her story of various jobs and work…along with tips for people wanting to take a similar route.

Cheers and thanks for reading this far…and good luck finding a job you love, where ever and however that happens! Keep me posted on your successes thus far, thoughts, and feedback.

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  • http://twitter.com/UShouldFeelGood Katie Feel Good

    My partner Mark and I are on our first backpacking round the world type trip with an intent to possibly digital nomad or at least change our way of life. We are happy to stop and work and actually are kind of missing an income and a purpose so would probably quite enjoy it for a bit. One of the things we find that is a hindrance with getting ‘proper’ work is age. I’m mid 30s Mark is over 40 so all those opportunities for the usual year long work visas aren’t open to us which is a shame. With the dollar being so strong in Australia it was super expensive to us and so we had to leave much quicker than we would have liked despite loving it there – the annoying thing was that there were contract jobs available in our field but without the work visas it was too complicated. It’s not impossible, of course, just not easy and I think we’ll need to be clearer of a destination we want to be in for a while before we try and find a way of staying there. Thinking maybe Singapore or Hong Kong as they are hubs to Asia and our work is quite specific and only likely to be found in big cities. The funny thing is, when we left we were keen to leave our previous jobs but now the idea of doing it again is kind of appealing and would definitely be worth while to extend travelling!

    • ShannonOD

      The Aussie age requirements are really strict about the ages, but I think you’ll find more success in the Asian market for your skills in the bigger cities — there it’s more about degrees and skills than
      specifically qualifying for a work visa…I think the big cities are more accustomed to organizing the work visas for the right candidate than Australia, where the student work-visa culture is so prominent. Anyhow, the idea to work for a time sounds like a great way to extend/deepen your travels, and I wish you a lot of luck! :)

  • Dillon

    I truly enjoyed reading this:)

  • worldwideadven1

    Hi Shannon, that was read that makes me think again, and read again – a fresh perspective on ” How to travel for wanderlusters”

    • ShannonOD

      Glad to hear it resonated with you! Let me know if you have any questions or if there is any way I can help :)

  • http://ohheyworld.com/ Drew Meyers

    When are we meeting up again somewhere in the world for wifi work session at amazing cafes? for realz..

    • ShannonOD

      Sooon Drew, we really need to make it happen sometime this fall or early in the new year :)

      • http://ohheyworld.com/ Drew Meyers

        I am so there. I’m free after Sept 1. Will be in Bali, willing to fly just about anywhere…

  • Sonia

    I don’t have a bachelor and never really put much use to my AS degree in computer networking administration (after becoming a mom on survival mode), but I would like to try to find a way to do online work related on doing account receivable, OR sell some of my photos as art, I already have one photo that was part of a exhibit in a public library for a month, I got several interest/inquires with a full moon shot (I still have a look away to go before I build up a portfolio of some sort). Thanks for the post.

    • ShannonOD

      Congratulations on having your work exhibited Sonia, it’s a thrilling achievement to have others begin to acknowledge your art. I don’t know much about selling artwork online, but have you tried some of the crafty communities like Etsy? (http://www.etsy.com/category/art). So much good luck on your venture, and if there is ever anything I can do to help as you go down this online path, let me know :)

  • http://backpacking-travel-blog.com/ Samuel & Audrey

    Lots of great info here Shannon! Hopefully I can join you in an internet cafe soon with Audrey as we plan to hit the road indefinitely next year :)

    • ShannonOD

      Congrats on your upcoming trip — and keep me posted on if we cross paths, I would love to grab a coffee, conversation, and wifi somewhere in the world :)

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