Gabi’s Side of the Story
Our sneakers have gathered the dust of Angkor Wat’s temples and climbed the ancient steps of Machu Picchu. Our Tevas have waded through knee-deep floodwaters in Varanasi, India, and hiked along rivers in Hoi An, Vietnam. Our flip-flops have splashed in kayaks in the Galapagos Islands and waited on shore for us as we splashed in the warm waters of the Perhentian Islands in Malaysia.
We’ve learned how to live in the extreme heat of Cambodia, handle altitude sickness in the Himalayas and Peruvian Andes, and deal with bugs, vermin, and dodgy bus drivers in developing countries around the world.
The lifestyle we chose almost five years ago is unpredictable, often exotic, sometimes uncomfortable, and always filled with adventure—a far cry from our comfy, oceanside existence in Marblehead, MA, which used to be our home. Both in our 50s, we traded in our house, stuff, and lifestyle for a world of travel, experience, and learning. And we’ve never felt so alive, so fulfilled, so stimulated…so happy.
The seed for this radical change was planted during our honeymoon in Thailand in 2007. We spent the early part of our stay in the Northern Triangle—along the Thai-Myanmar-Laos border—and were struck by how calm and relaxed we felt. The spiritual energy of the country and its people resonated with us. One Friday night in Chiang Mai, Skip asked a question that changed our lives: “Do you think we could live here?”
The answer, for both of us, was an immediate and resounding “Yes.”
Returning home, we became focused. Before going into work every day, Skip spent hours on the internet, searching for places, ideas, and opportunities for us to move to Southeast Asia. Our new life began to take shape. There were dozens of steps and countless decisions over the next two years involved in making such a change.
The first was to complete a full financial review (on the right) to help us create a personal financial plan. Next, we sold our house, got rid of most of our possessions, and downsized to a two-bedroom rental condominium. Hours searching for the perfect volunteer opportunity brought us to Volunteers in Asia (VIA), a small organization based in San Francisco that places people in positions throughout Southeast Asia. We applied online, made our way through the interview process, and, a couple of weeks later, were accepted and offered posts working with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, a country neither of us knew much about.
The final stage of simplification came next. We sold our cars, found a home for our cat, and sold or gave away most of our possessions. What remained went into a nearby storage unit. Skip quit his job as senior vice president at Business Wire, a Berkshire Hathaway company, I closed down my home business, and in June 2010, we found ourselves at the Boston airport with two one-way tickets to Phnom Penh.
It was a new adventure for both of us. And as we said farewell to friends and family, neither of us had any idea when—or if—we’d be back.
For Skip, it meant extricating himself from a life in Massachusetts. He’d raised two daughters (the youngest of whom finished college the year we left), had run newspapers throughout the state, and worked in a high-profile job for many years, surrounded by family and lifelong friends. His roots ran deep.
As for me, I had spent most of my life moving around the world. I was raised in Bahrain (the daughter of a British mother and Maltese father), worked as a journalist in South Africa, and traveled extensively since I was a child.
We met at Business Wire, fell in love, and were married in 2006.
Although we both loved to travel, nothing prepared us for life in Cambodia. Phnom Penh was dirty, smelly, and chaotic. Our home for the first few weeks of orientation was a no-frills $10-a-night guesthouse. We spent our days struggling to learn Khmer, the native language, a task that made our heads spin, and our nights trying to make sense of it all. Everything felt unfamiliar, strange, and uncomfortable.
Within months, we found a three-bedroom apartment with a sweeping balcony on a quiet tree-lined street near the Royal Palace and started to fall in love with our adopted home. We got to know SomOn, our tuk-tuk driver, who became our first Cambodian pal. (A tuk-tuk is an auto rickshaw, most commonly a motorcycle with a cabin attached in the rear.) Through him and our colleagues at work, we made personal connections with local people who taught us more than we’d learn in any program on cultural awareness. We observed how people who had nothing were always willing to give. And we marveled at how a population that had been persecuted and abused for decades always seemed predisposed to laughter.
Meeting friends in our new country was easy, since we were all in the same proverbial boat, adrift in a new land. Our circle included people from Australia, England, the U.S., the Netherlands, France, Italy, and New Zealand. Many of them were half our age. Taking advantage of Cambodia’s low cost of living, we dined out often, usually choosing hole-in-the-wall, local cafes over Western-style establishments. We spent time with Tony, our other tuk-tuk driver friend, in his one-room, un-air-conditioned home rather than frequenting upscale expat spots.
Our lives became immersed in the unfamiliar. We ate snake and roasted crickets, rode rickety buses on potholed roads, hiked up a mountain at dawn to watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat, and learned how to speak a language little of the world knows.
But our lives weren’t completely dust and grit.We also ate freshly shucked oysters, listened to world-class jazz in a plush cocktail lounge, and savored cupcakes better than any we’ve ever found. Nothing was missing, other than our family and dear friends from home. In fact, our lives were fuller and more complete than ever, at a fraction of the cost.
While we were now halfway across the world from our loved ones, Skype, Facebook, and email kept us connected, and we’d often call family members directly from our knockoff Nokia phones using Cambodia’s reliable and inexpensive mobile phone network.
We spent our days working for NGOs on a volunteer basis (with a small stipend). Additional work opportunities arrived unexpectedly, mostly in the form of writing projects for me and business consulting projects for Skip, which supplemented our income while opening doors to new circles of friends and opportunities.
Outside work, our lifestyle included dinners out most nights, exploring Phnom Penh’s fascinating neighborhoods, and constant trips to other parts of the country and throughout Southeast Asia. At home, we enjoyed air conditioning, reliable and fast internet, Wi-Fi, and cable TV. We entertained frequently, featuring tasty meals that Skip whipped up in our tiny and hot, yet perfectly functional, kitchen.
We grew to love the Cambodian people and their simple way of life. Gone were the stresses of monthly bills (Cambodia is a U.S.-dollar-based, cash economy) and traffic (we traveled by tuk-tuk, and it took no more than 20 minutes and $3 to reach any destination in the city). We were surrounded by gentler, kinder attitudes, open-minded tolerance, and acceptance.
After living in Cambodia for three years, we decided to pull up anchor once again, and spent four months traveling in Asia—a month in India, a month in China, three weeks in Vietnam, and three weeks in Thailand. We then started house sitting in Europe (through www.TrustedHouseSitters.com and www.MindMyHouse.com).
Since December 2013, we’ve “lived” in England (twice), France (twice), Cyprus, Italy, and Greece. We’ve taken care of prize-winning Persian cats in Oroklini, Cyprus, had a houseful of rescue animals in Comigne, France, become best friends with a woolly golden retriever in Lewes, England, and hung out with a feral cat in Gialova, Greece.
Culture shock hits hard when we visit the U.S., and we now have little use for the fast pace, enormity of choice, and widespread edginess. We crave simplicity and the unpredictability of exploration. Since we’re both writers, we chronicle our experiences on our blog (www.themeanderthals.com) and we’re completing a book about our experiences and those of others like us who have chosen a different way of life.
We’ve learned a lot in the past four years. We often prefer being with people who don’t speak English. We’d rather ride in a tuk-tuk or a bus than drive a car. We need very little stuff (our possessions fit into two suitcases and two backpacks), and we’d rather spend time with local people in local restaurants than in upscale establishments.
We’ve discovered you can communicate with everyone—no matter what language they speak—with a smile and a camera. And we’ve learned that there’s magic everywhere. No matter what may appear on the surface, all you have to do is dig a bit to unveil the wonders of the world.
Skip’s Side of the Story
I’m the practical side of Team Yetter, the planner (Gabi’s the dreamer) and worrier (she’s the trust-the-universe-and-so-it-shall-be part of the equation). Hard as I’ve worked to shed my Type A skin, there are some practical details I attend to as we pursue a postwork life of travel, choice, adventure, and learning.
Capital Appreciation—Our journey began five years ago with a thorough review with our financial planner, including long-range investment forecasting, income projection, and estimating our annual expenses and cash needs. Thanks in part to a bull market with long legs, after four years, our holdings are pretty much the same as when we left the U.S.
Tip: Complete best-, worst-, and likely case scenarios for both expenses and investment returns to give yourself the highest sense of confidence in a sustainable life outside of work.
Health Insurance—Our volunteer gigs through VIA (www.viaprograms.org) included great health insurance for our first three years off the grid. Since then, we’ve purchased short-term catastrophic insurance from World Nomads (www.worldnomads.com) and paid for incidental healthcare costs out of pocket. World Nomads offers flexible, cost-effective programs that will suit any budget and need.
Tip: Be sure to fill in the “no coverage in the U.S.” gap by buying short-term U.S. health insurance. We do so every time we’re back in the states so we’re not exposed to the absurdly expensive U.S. healthcare system.
Banking—I got a rude shock when our financial advisor’s compliance department got wind that we were living overseas and abruptly canceled our sole credit card, claiming that rules of the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) prohibited credit card use by non-U.S. residents. We had to scramble to find another bank for credit card use and switched our other cards to debit cards to provide access to our cash.
Tip: If you don’t have a U.S. home of your own (we sold ours), keep a toe in U.S. waters by maintaining a U.S. bank account that sends statements to your post office box or to a relative’s home. That will help retain access to your money while satisfying the compliance folks.
Keeping in Touch—Buy an unlocked phone (I bought a Samsung in Phnom Penh that’s served me well for over three years) and prepaid calling service from local providers in the countries you visit. I collect SIM cards like I collected bottle caps as a kid, and I’ve found that prepaid plans in other countries are cheaper, more flexible, and offer more reliable service than anywhere in the U.S.
Tip: Keep your old SIM cards in case you crisscross unfamiliar lands more than once. In many cases, you can just reload them with a few pounds, euros, soles, or lira without having to sign up anew. That way you can call friends and family direct and easily gain internet access while you travel.