It had finally happened. I was burned out.
In the last few years, I had moved, switched jobs, witnessed the after-effects of a tragic accident, lost a friend to cancer, lost my grandmother, and found myself in and out of the ER with the medical bills to prove it. I was working multiple jobs trying to pay for said medical bills while also attending community college into the early night hours. I knew there had to be a better life out there just waiting for me. One where I was not just working to survive and pay for health insurance while suffocating under the weight of all the things.
I had been diagnosed with multiple illnesses due to all the stress. While I had already been on a journey back to health, I never wanted this to happen again.
While freelance life abroad is often shown with a laptop sitting on tan legs by the beach in some exotic place, my journey has been far different from that.
I started researching exchange programs and living abroad advice. There it was. A little city in the Andes Mountains of Ecuador that apparently was a top retirement destination for people wanting to change countries. I was intrigued.
I shared the info with my mom. After all, she was working even harder than I was. And had been for far longer.
I had traveled out of the country before on a mission trip to Africa at the end of my high school years. I had met people from all over the world but did not have a ton of travel experience, and my mom had even less. Still, we were brave or crazy, and off we went.
Photo Credit: Lori Hil
Here’s what I learned from the living abroad and freelancing journey…
Do your own research
Stereotypes and common assumptions are not always true. And I heard a lot of them starting out. My family thought I had really lost it. People who have never been to a place may think they know what it is like but really don’t. And how could they?
For instance, this post may be titled It’s “A HOT Freelance Life” but not all of Ecuador is hot. At the coast, yes. But, I live down in a valley surrounded by the Andes Mountains, and I rock the jackets and the sweaters often. Sometimes even the scarves and the gloves and the boots. But when it is hot, wow that sun is intense.
Many people think it is hot everywhere here, it is a jungle, and that they eat spicy Mexican type food. None of which is true. Do your research online, and then research some more. But remember not everything you read on the Internet is the real deal.
Remember this one:
“The problem with quotes on the Internet is that it is hard to verify their authenticity.” Abraham Lincoln (source: the Internet)
It is a good idea to join some online groups and chat with some expats that actually live in the place where you want to move. Again, this is not a perfect solution, as everyone who moves abroad has a different experience even with the same place. Some good and some bad. Take the information you gather and weigh it for yourself. Try to get both sides and make your best judgments while also staying open.
Keep in mind that some move-abroad publications are trying to make money. They hire writers who have just visited a place as a tourist once or twice to write about what the cost of living is and what it is like to live there. This is often not an accurate depiction and can set you up for disappointment if you rely on this too heavily.
I read things like “paradise,” “no bugs,” “spring-like weather all year round.” I’m not sure anyplace is a true paradise. We have ants, flies, other crawly things, and even the occasional scorpion. And remember that I mentioned the jackets, scarves, and boots. The weather is fairly mild compared to many states in North America. But springlike all year round? I think not.
Of course, every place has good points and bad points. Just beware of headlines like, “This Is the New Undiscovered Paradise. Move Now!”
Photo Credit: Lori Hil
Take an exploratory trip
After I did my research online and found a place that looked like a good fit, my mom and I decided to take an exploratory trip together. My mom was running her own business at the time while also in public work, so getting away was hard. I was working too. So we had less than a week, which was not much time. My mom ended up flying a bit sick, and got even sicker by the time we arrived at the airport on the coast of Ecuador. Then there was the four-hour bus trip up the mountain. She looked like she was going to pass out, and neither of us knew the Spanish language. We had no idea what we were getting into. And it was scary.
Here we were with people we did not know, that we could not talk to.
But the views were spectacular. And, finally, a city appeared and we made it to the hostel. The hostel was noisy and the street we were staying on a bit crazy. My poor sick mom. We ended up moving to a hotel on a quieter street for the rest of our stay. We gained the help of a translator and we got my mom to a doctor. We saw a specialist cheap and got antibiotics cheap too. We thought this was great, only they didn’t work and my mom remained sick. Still, we got out and did some exploring, and I explored some on my own too. It was a nutty introduction to what life could be like abroad, but we learned some things and decided to move. Both of us.
Some people pack up and move abroad sight-unseen. But if you can take an exploratory trip first, do it. I know it takes time and money to do this, but I highly recommend it. Word of caution though, spending a short time in a place as a tourist is completely different from living there.
But, it still helps to get a feel of what you could possibly be getting into — and to check that so very important internet speed. When we first moved to Ecuador my internet was so slow I expected to here those dial-up tones of an era gone by and “You’ve got mail.”
Just learn what you can and know there will be lots more to learn when you actually move… Like how expensive computer parts can be; how you catch all kinds of viruses and infections that your body is not used to fighting off; how you may have trouble sleeping at a higher altitude, not at first, but actually years down the line; how hard language learning can actually be for some people; and that all that paperwork may never end.
Photo Credit: Lori Hil
The selling and the packing
We decided to take the plunge and move together, my mom and I. From the time we started selling all our things and packing up the rest until time to leave the country, we had nowhere to live. We were in limbo. And for the first time in my life, I was homeless. A friend let us stay in his stainless steel movie theatre building with no windows until the day of our flight. I slept on a mattress on the floor.
We were working during the day, finishing up the last bit of time at our then jobs. Trying to spend as much time with family and friends as possible and trying to sort through all the massive amounts of paperwork required to move abroad while packing and still eliminating things at night. To say it was stressful would be a massive understatement. I remember sitting in the middle of the floor, trying to whittle down my lifetime of belongings to three precious suitcases, in tears overcome with a wide range of emotions.
Photo Credit: Lori Hil
The beginnings of a freelance career
As I finished up my job, I knew I would need a new one. One I could do anywhere. I was told in college that I was a pretty good writer. Maybe there was something I could do with that. Again, Google and I become BFFs. “Work from home jobs,” “work abroad jobs,” “work anywhere jobs” — the search engine sped away with all my requests.
I landed on freelance writing and social media management. I had no idea what I was doing and unfortunately did not know about the awesome ClearVoice community back then. But, a new career began. One step at a time. It was overwhelming. I learned fast that you need a lot of help growing a freelance business.
Imagine learning all that freelancing can entail — websites and funnels and email marketing and social media marketing, and personal branding — while simultaneously trying to learn a new language and culture, and bus routes, and city. My brain was in overdrive. I made a lot of mistakes.
I was lost a lot both metaphorically speaking and for real. Like, “Why do none of these streets have names?” and “How am I supposed to find food?”
I lost weight in the beginning because I was mostly just eating bread, eggs, and bananas. No one seemed to be able to direct me to the supermarket, and those were the things I could get from the little tienda across the street from our tiny shared apartment. I was also walking a lot because, well, I was lost. I carried some change and my address with me for a long time in case I got on the wrong bus or got lost walking and needed to get a taxi. I could take my chances and show the driver the address card.
It’s a few years later now and I’ve stayed. Life looks a lot different than those scary beginning days. It is less exciting, but I’m ok with that. I know when I get on a bus at least the relative direction I’m going nowadays. And if a bus does take an unexpected detour, I know how to make my way around this city. I know where the supermarkets are and the pharmacies. I am able to enjoy the rivers and the natural beauty without fear of being lost. And my Spanish is a little better. A little.
I have grown myself here, volunteered here, attended my first writers’ conference here, got married here, and adopted a couple of rescue pups. I have learned a lot of new skills and moved many times since that first small apartment. While I still miss my family and friends back in the States like crazy, I’m settled and I’m still my own boss. I cannot imagine it any other way. I feel blessed with this life.
And you need to prepare before you dive in. You will likely feel lost, out of place, and lonely at times.
People, including your family and friends, may just not get it. And completely misunderstand what being a freelancer really means.
Would I do it all over again? Yes. The adventure has been worth the growing pains for me. Once you get it figured out, life can be simpler abroad. So if you are brave enough for an unconventional life and you have a lot of patience to learn, I may just meet you abroad one day.