Thursday, July 31, 2014

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Where I'm Coming From

Here is a little bit about me.
This is the driveway of our cabin in winter.
The front of the cabin looks out over a beautiful lake.
I was born and raised in Northern Ontario, Canada. My home town has only 600 people. We don't even have a stop light. It's a lovely little place right on Lake Huron, but not much going on.
I am the middle of three daughters. Yup, I'm trouble. :)
Both my parents were elementary teachers, now retired.
Both my sisters each have a set of twins! My older sister has a boy and a girl; my younger has a daughter, and then two girl twins. I have no kids, but I tell everyone that's okay because my sisters have extras. :)

When I was a wee lass, my Dad built a log cabin in the woods. Like, even MORE in the woods than where we were already living! We dubbed it The Great Escape Inn. It is my "Happy Place". I will probably miss Camp more than anywhere else in Canada.  (I've had some confused comments about me using the word "camp" to describe our cabin. Some people call them "cottages". In the North, it's a camp because they were usually hunting camps, not places to vacation. Here's a website of some neat Canadian slang.)

I attended the University of Guelph and received my Bachelor's of Science degree in Biology in 1994.
Soon after I graduated, I spent six weeks touring Europe. Best time of my life!

I wandered about Ontario living in various cities and changing jobs frequently for many years. I hated working and hated offices and hated bosses and hated schedules and hated getting paid by the hour.
In 2008, I quit my office job and started working from home as a transcriptionist. The pay is crap but I absolutely LOVE it. I love working from home in my PJs with Willow to entertain me.

At the time of this blog post, I am living in Barrie, Ontario, Canada, which is about an hour north of Toronto. (That's another Canadian thing apparently: describing distances using travel time instead of kilometers. Huh. Never noticed until someone pointed it out.)
I have a very small one bedroom apartment. It's like 33 square meters (355 square feet). It's nice. I don't really need more space. It's just me and Willow, and Bert sleeps over sometimes.

I have a beat-up 1995 Toyota Corolla that I have named Daisy. She's falling apart, the poor thing. We're trying to cobble her together with duct tape and epoxy until we can leave to Guatemala. Then we'll sell her to some punk kid who will be soooo excited to have a car, even an old jalopy like her. :)

On the wall of my apartment is a map of the world that I took out of a National Geographic magazine when I was a kid. I've kept it all these years. It used to have pins in all the places I wanted to go. You can still see the holes. I had such an adventurous spirit as a child. I hope I can recover at least some of that now in my middle age. Guatemala is a start!

Monday, July 14, 2014

No Hablo De Nothing

So it appears that Spanish is the language of choice for my travels. That's cool. I learned a bit when I went to Cuba, and I know some French, which is similar, so that might help with feminine and masculine words and stuff.

I've started with Duolingo. Fun and free! But I'm finding that the exercise are kinda... hmm, how do I say it? Useless? Random. Confusing.

For instance, I learned, "Los caballos beben leche." = "The horses drink milk."
Say what?? What kind of crazy horses am I gonna find in Latin America? (Bert says, baby horses!)
Another good one: "¿Quién soy?" = "Who am I?"
I mean, really? Am I going to be speaking a foreign language when I get hit on the head and forget my own name? Or do you think I'm going to ponder philosophical conundrums in Spanish? Nah, I'll stick with English for my existential crises, thank you very much. (Or should I say muchas gracias!)

I also got Rosetta Stone for Latin American Spanish. Eeks! It's intense. There is no English. It's supposed to be complete immersion, like the way little kids learn. But I have to confess that I cheated and copy/pasted some things into Google Translate to figure out what was going on! Still, it's excellent and a good add-on to DuoLingo.

I've also tried Fluenz a little bit, although I find it very, very slow. I just got frustrated really quickly with it, especially when my microphone refused to work. I've heard it's much better for learning proper pronunciation and common phrases that are useful to travellers.

I have one big pet peeve with the Spanish language. What is with the Bs and Vs and Hs?? It's almost better to NOT look at the spelling of the word and just listen to it. Trying to read the words gets me all mixed up.

For example, the word "huevo" (egg). How would you think that's pronounced? Hoo-ay-vo. Nope. Not even close. It's way-boh. HUH?? Where is there a W or a B in that word? If I was applying crazy made-up Spanish rules to English pronunciations, I would say "egg" as "hay-jee-gee". :D

I know, I know. English is even harder to learn. You can read all about our messy language here. I'm just saying that I think I would prefer to learn with my ears, and worry about the spelling later. Not like I'm going to be reading and writing in Spanish much. I just want to learn enough to be able to buy food and not get ripped off.
"¿Cuanto cuesta? ¿Qué? ¿Me estás tomando el pelo?" (Thanks, Google Translate!)

To sum up:
Duolingo, FREE, awesome and fun and easy but maybe not entirely correct, my fave!
Rosetta Stone, $$$, harder and very visual and more intuitive so maybe it will stick with me more
Fluenz, $$$, excellent for learning traveler phrases, but really really slow, FREE, good for translating stuff
Fluencia, (from SpanishDict), only partially free, wasn't interested in signing up because I have the others, FREE, great for looking up lists of things, like days of the week, and for getting in-depth on verb conjugations

Friday, July 11, 2014

Introducing My Other Travel Companion

Willow, aka The Fluffinator
This, dear readers, is Willow. She has been my furry friend for, hmmm, lotsa years now. I should look that up, shouldn't I?
Her full name is Pussy Willow. She was named after the pussy willow plants that grow in Ontario in the spring. The buds come out as soft grey fuzzy things that look like kitten toes.

I adopted her from the OSPCA, where she had been causing trouble for almost a year. She was not a friendly cat. She bit everyone who tried to touch her. She bit me the first day I met her. But I knew she was the one I was going to take home. Something in her eyes begged me to get her out of there.

Because of her lengthy stay in prison and the shady past that got her there, Willow is not the kind of cat you just pass off to someone else. Plus, I'm of the firm belief that pets are for life. They are not throwaway toys. She and I are in 'til death do us part.

For these reasons -- plus the fact that I freaking love her and need her soft fur to soak up my tears when I'm sad -- I am planning on taking her with me to wherever it is I'm going. Yeah, crazy. I know.

Here is what I have learned so far about taking a pet to another country:

  • She needs to get a rabies vaccination and a certificate of health from the vet.
  • There are only certain airlines that take pets. I will probably go with Delta. 
  • Some airlines will let her be in a crate with me inside the plane. Others, she will have to go underneath in a special pressurized baggage compartment, which is not available on all flights.
  • Some people have suggested that the underneath option is better because it is dark and safe. Plus her meowing and/or pooping won't disturb passengers. (Much like babies! Too bad we can't stick them underneath, eh?)
  • Certain "snub-nosed" breeds of cats (and dogs) are not allowed on planes (Persian cats, pugs)
  • Customs will take longer due to having to wait for a vet to come and inspect her. 
  • Bringing her back to Canada in the future is pretty much the same thing, only backwards. There are no quarantine periods if you can prove rabies vacc and general good health. 
Here are some helpful links I've been using. 
Canadian Food Inspection Agency - The certificate you need for your pet plus lots o' info
Delta Airlines Pet Travel - great info and tips, plus customer service has been very helpful - good info, but remember to always confirm directly with your airline

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Why I'm a Good Expat Candidate

  1. I'm Canadian, and a stereotypical one at that. I'm polite, open-minded, and tough as nails. Plus, people like Canadians. :)
  2. I grew up in a town of 600 people. I'm used to smaller places, and won't miss the city. I'm accustomed to planning ahead with supplies because the city was far away. 
  3. I also grew up in the woods. My dad built a log cabin in the middle of nowhere and we spent every spare minute there. I'm cool with boiling water, washing in the sink, gutting my own fish, using an outhouse, and being grubby. (In fact, I prefer things that way!)
  4. I'm optimistic. Sometimes too optimistic, but that's what Bert is for. 
  5. I love travel. I love new places. I'm moderately adventurous, but not foolish. 
  6. I love to learn languages. I'm a great mimic and love challenging my brain with language. I'm notorious for reading the French on food packages out loud at the table! (My little nieces love it!)
  7. I work entirely online. I have very few monetary obligations. I'm used to doing my own taxes.
  8. I don't mind being poor. I'm not materialistic. I don't care about stuff or getting ahead or being successful. I won't miss all the junk I've collected at home. In fact, I've already started donating stuff!
  9. I'm meticulous. I love planning trips and researching locations. I've planned a bunch of trips with my ex-boyfriend all over Canada and the U.S. and to Cuba. I'll be well prepared for this!
  10. I don't have kids, or ailing parents, or tons of family obligations. I love my family, but we're all pretty independent and do our own things. My younger sister lived in England for two years, and my older sister moved to B.C. for many years. My family is used to everyone going their separate ways and not seeing each other often. However, when we do get together, it's a blast! 

Why none of the above really matters:

  1. Because I'd rather try and fail, than never try.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Pondering the Options

Where to go? Where to go?
I have the whole world at my toe tips. Where should I go?
Here's the thought process of ruling things out.

The first Google search I did was: best countries to run away to.
This came up with strange results about "countries without extradition", "how to erase your life", and "escaping the law". Um, yeah, not quite what I was looking for. :)
But buried in those results were a few that said something like, "best places to retire". Hmm, let's check those out.
That line of searches led to International Living's Best Places to Retire 2014. I have used this list as my guide for places that are worth really looking further into. I like their ratings and the thoroughness of their research.
International Living's Best Places to Retire 2014
The first thing I noticed about that list was that it was split between South/Central America, Europe, and Asia. I immediately ruled out Europe and Asia because of three reasons: the distance, the newness, and the time difference.
If I'm working online with North American countries, I need to be somewhat in the same time zones, not five or six or 12 hours off!
"The Newness" means "I've been there, done that." I traveled around Europe when I was in my 20s, so moving to Europe doesn't have the same appeal to me as other places. But "newness" also means, "I don't want to go someplace TOO new," which rules out Asia. The language and culture barriers are too damn high!
The distance factor is just me thinking that it's too far to fly to Europe or Asia. Somehow going over an ocean changes everything.

So we're down to Latin America. Here are my top of mind thoughts as I went down the list. Some are completely untrue, but it's interesting to look at my prejudices.
Panama: full of American developers who just want it to be a little U.S.
Ecuador: beautiful, full of nature, top pick, though I didn't think people moved there, just vacationed.
Costa Rica: to live? Um, isn't it all jungles and monkeys? Nice place to visit, not live.
Colombia: NO. Drugs. Drug cartels. Cocaine. NO.
Mexico: Boring. Too mainstream. everyone goes there. Also, drugs.
Uruguay: Where is that?
Nicaragua: Gosh, no! Didn't they just have a war or something? Isn't it full of guerrillas that kidnap people? Or Rambo? Not a safe place. Also, drugs.
Honduras: Hmm, that's another one of those little Central American countries, isn't it? I don't think it's a safe place either.
Guatemala: Mayan ruins, yay! Don't know much about this place.
Brazil: No, too much soccer. Too expensive. Too metropolitan. Also, drugs.
Chile: Sounds boring. Don't know much about it.
Belize: Ooooh Belize!! I've always wanted to go there on vacation! Pretty pretty pretty.
Dominican Republic: That's a tourist place. And an island with no escape if shit goes down.
Bert made an addition to the list:
Peru: Machu Picchu! No clue what it'd be like to live here though.
Strange perceptions of foreign places, eh? I wonder what the locals there would think of my preconceived notions? Anyway, that was my starting point in my head. From there, I spent hours on Google to find out the truth and to blast away my ignorance!
As I researched, I learned a lot of cool stuff. I found out where Uruguay is, that all Latin American countries seem to have a drug problem, and that almost all countries have volcanoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, landslides, drought, and strange diseases. Hmmm. Dangerous destinations, to be sure.
I learned that tourist travel restrictions range widely, but most have an easy way around if you want to overstay your visa. I learned that South America is HUGE and has immensely varied climates and geography. I learned that I'm pretty dumb when it comes to the world. :)

So Bert and I talked back and forth and did tons of reading and really thought hard about what is important to us. We thought about what we needed, what we wanted, what we could live with, and what we couldn't live with.
Need: inexpensive, excellent climate, Internet for me to work, easy visa requirements
Want: safety from crime and natural disasters, easy to have pets, possible for Bert to work
Can live with: some natural disasters, isolation, poor plumbing, boiling the water
Can't live with: too much heat, big cities, getting stabbed
So now here's the revised list with results!
Panama: Maybe. Good climate, few natural disasters, excellent expat community
Ecuador: Maybe. Great climate, but difficult visa restrictions (three months)
Costa Rica: No. Getting expensive, too hot, bad hurricanes
Colombia: Still NO. Drugs. Drug cartels. Cocaine. NO.
Mexico: No. Will vacation here but not live.
Uruguay: No. Actually has become quite pricey. Also very far south.
Nicaragua: Nope. Still not a safe place to live.
Honduras: No. Hot, unsafe, natural disasters.
Guatemala: YES. This is our top pick right now. Easy visa renewal, great climate, nice expat community, smaller cities to live in that are safer, although Guat. City is scary-scary
Brazil: No. Too expensive.
Chile: No. Bad weather, too far.
Belize: No. Too expensive, hurricanes.
Dominican Republic: Nope. Touristy, next to Haiti, and hurricanes.
Peru: Tempting but no. Too far, hard to find a city we could agree on, kinda boring.
As it stands, we are heavily researching Guatemala, especially La Antigua and Panajachel on Lake Atitlán. Super excited! Tons of emails and texts flying back and forth with Bert, and many late night conversations. Sometimes it feels overwhelming because there is so much to consider but I always keep in mind that I really only have two main priorities: make money, learn Spanish. The rest is just details!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Bert and the Obvious Opinion

Bert is my boyfriend's nom de plume, his alias, his Witness Protection name. Well, except I just gave it away. Whoops, my bad.

Bert is awesome. He makes me laugh every day. He is smart and funny and irritating and cute as hell. And, unbelievably, my cat loves him. She has loved him since the first time she met him. Go figure.

Bert's feelings about this adventure vacillate between eagerness, skepticism, impatience, giddiness, and anxiety. The fact that he didn't laugh in my face and call me "Nut Job" when I seriously proposed that we should move out of the country has awarded him with a bazillion boyfriend points... to be redeemed at a later date (wink wink nudge nudge).

Here is my favourite Bert conversation this week. To get the full effect, you'll have to read my sections in a hyperactive bubbly girl voice, and his in a matter-of-fact deadpan male voice:
Me: "Where do you want to go? Ecuador or Guatemala? Or should we think about Peru again? I don't know. They all sound good and bad. What do you think?"
Bert: "I just don't want to get stabbed." 
What? Here I am frantically Googling information on everything from Yellow Fever vaccinations to overstaying your tourist visa to the best Internet provider in Guatemala, and he's sitting around worrying about something so mundane as getting knifed in the street. Pfft!

I'm kidding, I'm kidding. Bert's opinion is very valuable to me, even as obvious as his statement appears at first glance. I mean, of COURSE no one wants to get stabbed! (After hearing him say versions of this sentiment a few times over a couple days, I actually offered to stab him just to "get it  over with." He declined. Smart man.)

But seriously, safety in a foreign country is a big concern, especially in some of the places we've been pondering. I'll probably do a whole post on it later, but for now you can just chuckle along with me at the awesomeness that is Bert. :)

Thursday, July 3, 2014

It Begins With An Itch

Welcome to my blog! :)
This is the first post, and it's not going to be that interesting. Why? Because I haven't gone anywhere yet!
See, it started with an itch. Not in my foot, although that happens quite often (story for another day), but an itch in my head. An uneasiness in my energy or my heart or whatever mystical bull-poop you wanna call it.

Quite simply: I wanted to run away.
A lot of people get this feeling, don't they? But the difference with me is I think I'm going to act on it.

How? Well, I am very fortunate and very proud to work entirely from my home office. It took a lot of gumption for me to get here, to the point where I work entirely online. I took quite a big paycut to have the luxury of working in my underwear with my cat at my side. I love it.

But to be quite honest, it doesn't pay diddly squat. After moving to a new apartment and being knocked over by an insane heating bill, I felt frustrated and depressed. Did I need to go back to work in an office to make more money? Could I take on more clients and work harder with my online business to afford my increasing bills?

After a few weeks of just feeling like crap, a humiliating trip to Simcoe Country Housing Services, and a foray into dumpster diving, I texted my boyfriend and joked, "Wanna run away?" He replied, "Gosh, yes!" (His job was not going so hot either.)

Well, later that night I was sighing deeply as I received yet another bill, and something just clicked inside me.
Why not?
Why not run away?
I became very still. The idea swirled inside me, gathering force.
Could I? Is it possible? Do people do that? I'm sure they do, but could I do that?
Questions began flinging themselves at me.
Where would I go? How would I pay for it? How could I bring my computer so that I could keep working?
No, you can't do that. That's crazy.
But but but... you could!
My inner mad woman was cackling gleefully.

So here I am a few days later with 72 bookmarked webpages on being an expat, and one huge headache.
But oh boy, am I ever smiling!