In this space, you will find content from other Expats whom I met while traveling.
As Expats, we all had many experiences. Some were great, others not so good. I’m interested in the ongoing character/perceptual changes we undergo/make as we travel.
Change often comes as result of encountering challenges and overcoming them.
These can be anything from difficulties caused by the language barrier, a dfference in work environment, cultural concepts, etc. Trust me, living abroad has it’s share of challenges just like everything else. Whether we win or lose, there’s always a takeaway.
What do I aim to accomplish in doing this?
Well, it’s simple really. I want to show the realities of Expat life are, on a personal level. I’ll try to include people who have been abroad for several years and who are based in different countries. I’ll also try my best to include people who didn’t do well abroad and couldn’t overcome some of the difficulties they encountered, ultimately causing the to abandon their decisions.
I will look to answer qusetions such as what drove them to consider life abroad, leaving friends and family; I’ll ask them to elaborate on their individual process of assimilating in a foreign culture; and I will ask questions about finding work abroad.
Each Wednesday, I will share someone else’s story.
If you’d like to contribute by sharing your own story, feel free to contact me.
I know it’s been a while since my last post but getting situated in Hanoi was more work than I anticipated!
As some may already know, most expats living in Southeast Asia take to teaching as their primary gig. Unless you speak Vietnamese or are a musician, artist, or work remotely, there isn’t a lot else. Although I wasn’t too thrilled with the idea of teaching kids, having no experience and always supremely hating speaking in front of groups, I knew I’d warm up to it with practice.
My first job was with Ms. Vân’s Outdoor English Club (OEC), which is a pretty sweet gig.
She was a good boss– fair– who really cared about learning outcomes. Having studied abroad in Cambridge University herself, she had good command of English, real expectations, and had a constant stream of ideas. I would meet kids enrolled in the program at local parks, museums, and other outdoor getaways where I’d then lead a mix of games and crafts. The objective was simple: get these kids interacting with and using English in a fun environment, outside of the classroom. For me, this was great because I could build confidence interacting with kids and parents without the pressures associated with a classroom. Despite finding full-time work at a private school a few months later, I’d remain working with Ms. Vân until leaving Vietnam, almost two years later.
While working for OEC for 8-10 hours per weekend was nice, I began to run into some difficulty with the cover classes I’d get all over town.
For those who don’t know what a cover class is, it’s simple. Say you work teaching at a center but are sick. There’s a group set-up and ran by expat teachers; post in the group with the information, lesson plans, and materials, as well as the hourly rate. Boom! Now you, the permanent teacher, have just set up a cover class for another expat. Basically, you’re a substitute. If anybody remembers how we treated substitutes in America, you can maybe see why it isn’t so fun. What I I found was that because of the money involved in English centers and ESL in Vietnam, a lot of centers are at-home, give little regard to true learning outcomes or objectives, and don’t provide the necessary environment for positive outcomes.
Working in “bad” centers can quickly suck the life out of you and cause you to dread going to work.
Because these centers don’t have no concern for learning outcomes as long as the cash keeps coming, I quickly found myself feeling more like a babysitter than a teacher, lacking the framework for success. In Vietnam, they have a name for that: “monkey teachers.” It started to wear me down and eventually developed into a low-grade depression.
In fact, I contemplated taking the meager amount of money I had already saved and continuing on as a backpacker.
I told myself that I would wait it out, keep hunting for a good job– one that cared, regardless of their ability to pay the high wages typical of Hanoi (+20USD/hour). I told myself to ride the waves and reminded myself that life consists of ups and downs; all things arise, exist, then expire.
So, what I did was submit my application to as many centers as I could, refusing to settle until I found one that worked for me. Eventually, I found an English center in Vân Quan, Ha Dong district. My demo lesson went well, the kids and staffed liked me, and the feeling was right– I could see myself working their. After a few weeks, I was offered to take on two more classes.
One year later, I’d find myself there in the capacity as Head Teacher working full-time and earning $25 USD/hour.
Below is a break-down of my biggest expenses:
Rent = 3.125 million VND/month+ 1 million VND for utilities (Roughly $190/month)
Motorbike = 300,000 VND/week or 1.2 million VND/month ($55/month)
Stay tuned for an in-depth breakdown of my costs in each of the four countries I visited.
When getting to Hue, they yelled at me to wake up, shouting”Hue! Hue!” while poking my shoulder. The other passengers laughed and in a sing-song manner, semi mocking the Vietnamese music they played throughout the entire ride, I reiterated “Hue! “Hue!” as I got out of my seat and grabbed my bag. They dropped me off at a gas station, opened the compartment and put my bag on my ground as I struggled to put my boots on. Before I even accomplished this, the guy ran back to the bus, which had already started moving and hopped inside. I looked around and realized I had no idea where I was in Hue and had no battery on my phone…
This is a continuation of the following post:Pakse ⇒ Hue
As we all began to rise with the sun, I stiffled a laugh at the absurdity of the bus ride thus far.
Perhaps I should’ve saved my laughter for later though because as we approached the border via bus, I piece together the driver’s broken English infused with exagerrated gestures. It seems that he wants me to leave the bus, leaving all my stuff stored in his compartment space, to go get stamped in. He points somewhere in the distance, maybe a kilometer away: “Walk there, I pick up.” I was cautious yet hopefull that they weren’t about to run off with all my stuff. All in all, I’ve proven to be a good judge of character and this time was no exception. Still, I took a small bag with me (laptop, camera, expensive stuff) and left the big bag.
The border was easy, taking me ten minutes. In line, I was entertained by four UK travelers who showed up drunk on motorbikes just before I did. They didn’t have the right paperwork and it was barely 7:30 in the morning. Oh, and they were driving motorbikes. The guy in charge let me go ahead of them and ushered me into Vietnam as he stamped my passport.
The driver was waiting where he said he would be, standing outside with my bag.
He communicated that I would now change buses and get on the sleeper bus. We said our goodbyes. I made it a point to shake his hand and wave to the ladies. Overall, I left that bus feeling quite alright, tired physically but invigorated mentally.
The sleeper bus was nice and I thought to myself, “here’s the VIP I had expected.”
Realizing the situation, I couldn’t help but laugh again: out of the twenty-odd hours I’d travelled, my last hour and a half would be spent in comfort. I knocked out, wondering if I had been scammed after all or not? I still don’t really know! In Hue, they yelled at me to wake up, shouting”Hue! Hue!” while poking my shoulder. The other passengers laughed and in a sing-song manner, semi mocking the Vietnamese music they played throughout the entire ride, I reiterated “Hue! “Hue!” as I got out of my seat and grabbed my bag. They dropped me off at a gas station, opened the compartment and put my bag on my ground as I struggled to put my boots on.
Before I had the laces on one boot tied, the bus had already raced away.
I looked around and realized I had no idea where I was in Hue with no phone and no indication of where the train station was. I asked the guy at the gas station where the train station was and he motioned behind the shop. Confused, I walked to the back and found nothing but a filthy toilet. Continuing my walk in search of the trains, I fended off a constant stream of motorbike taxis trying to give me a ride, telling me the train station was far, etc. I embraced what I was doing and took my chances. Within 15 minutes of walking I sighted the train station, bought a ticket to Hanoi (another 13 hours), and proceeded to find a way to spend the next four hours until departure time.
I killed time by taking a moto-taxi to Ho Thuy Tien, an water park project that was abandoned due to being grossly over budget.
The size of the place, which was pretty much empty of any other people, game me a slight chill– the same I experienced in the city-wide blackouts in Brazil– a sureal, unnerving feeling. The park’s center-piece was a dragon that stood towering over the park as if keeping guard; a spiral staircase granted one passage through his throat, to his mouth, which served as a viewpoint. Checking my watch, I realized I should probably get going to the train station.
For the next 14 hours, I shared a room with three young, female monks.
They were an absolute joy and we laughed and interacted despite the language barrier. After waking up from a few hours nap, they were inviting me to do something but I couldn’t figure out what. Then they showed me a packet of Ramen Noodles, beckoning me to go with them. Finally, one of them just takes my hand and we all go to the employee area to heat up the noodles. As we ate, we showed each other pictures of our lives.
At five in the morning, I arrived to a rainy Hanoi clueless yet again as to where I’d go next.
I stopped at a a Circle K to use Wifi and see if there were any hostels nearby. There were three and, eager to rest, I walked to all three of them only to find them locked and unnattended. So, I went back to the Circle K and had a strong coffee as I postponed finding accomodation until the sun was up and the rain gone.
As morning came about, it hit me: I made it to Vietnam!
My legs were cramped. I really needed to stretch! Thanks to the rice bags, my own bag, the women’s bags, and bus driver who was sleeping on the floor along the walkway, stretching was literally impossible. So, I ended up falling asleep with my legs on the top of the headrests of my own seat, upside down. To anybody who saw, specifically the lady to my left, I looked insane…
On my way to Vietnam from Central Laos, I wasn’t sure if I’d make it or expire on the way.
So far, this trip was most difficult. However, I had already preppared myself based on the information given to me by an expat and long-time resident of Pakse. He owned a motorcycle-rental shop and sold bus tickets to tourists. I asked him how much to get to Hue, Vietnam, and he laughed a cynical laugh practically right in my face. He told me that the trip from Pakse to Hue was notorious for being absolute shit in every way imaginable. The only thing worse than the buses and drivers going on 14+ hours on the road, he told me, were the roads themselves.
After handing him 220,000 Chickens (Kip) for the ticket, he bluntly told me this is probably going to be the “worst ride” of my life.
Holding my gaze, he went on to say that he’d rather not even sell tickets for this route but that if he didn’t somebody else would. I told him it’s fine and thanked him for the words. In my head it didn’t matter much as long as I made it alive. After all, it would just add to the experience.
Having spent the past week on an island showering with Mekong Riverwater and swimming in it daily, I eagerly took to finding a shower in a hostel where I’d stayed previously.
After eating, I played with his little daughter before hopping on a tuk-tuk to the bus station. As I approached my “VIP Bus,” two phrases came to me. First, the famous Thai mai pen rai, the Thai equivalent to “it’s OK” in English; in Laoatian, the corresponding phrase is bor pen yang . As I approached the the bus, those two phrases reverberated in my head like a bird flitting about in a box. I was the only person on the bus and four hours later, hanging in a hammok I put up in the back of the bus, I would find out why.
As I hopped on, he motioned to me, implying that I should eat as he told me the bus leaves at eight– it was five.
At this point, already aware of scams in the area, I knew I was in it and had to find a way to dismantle the situation, figure out what’s what. . The guy who sold me the ticket from downtown Pakse said the bus left at 5:30. As the scam goes, you pay for a VIP bus and instead you get…what I got. An old, broken down bus outfitted to be stuffed with cargo. I walked around, asking the ticket booths and other bus drivers which bus was going to Hue. They all pointed to the scrap heap. I asked everybody I could and did everything short of calling a spade a spade to their face. I sucked it up, wondering what kind of experience I was about to have. I walked back, drank a beer and had some soup to regroup.
Getting on the bus, I perked up, realizing I could make better use of the seats by avoiding them altogether and stringing up my hammock in the back area of the bus.
The driver laughed at me with a snort when he boarded and saw me suspended in a bright-orange hammock at the back of his bus. Crazy foreigner.While the hammock was great, swinging back and forth with the sway of the bus, it was short-lived. Our first stop was just forty minutes from the bus stop, whereupon the driver and few guys filled up the entire back of the bus with goods. I was asked to move to one of the six empty seats. For an hour they loaded hand-woven baskets, red bags, blue bags, and green bags– oh, and bags filled with charcoal, which left a dark mist in the air after a bang would land on the floor. Within the next six hours we made five more stops, each to pick up more goods. I had no idea a bus could be packed so tightly. The bags contained flour, sugar, and rice. Mind you that each time they stopped to load the bus, I was asked leave and wait outside. For a lack of better English, the driver would wake me up, loudly exclaiming “You! You!” Yes, that was my signal to get up so they could load. Mai pen rai, I told myself.
By the end of that last stop, I was practically in a permanent squatting position.
There were bags in between every seat and under every seat, in every compartment including the roof, and my seat no longer had space to recline–or space for my feet below.We slept for a few hours on the bus just outside the border, waiting for it to open.
Everybody’s worried about time / But I just keep that shit off my mind / People living on twenty four hour clocks / But we’re on a ride that never stops.
For two days we went by boat along the Mekong River.
On the 29th of January, I crossed over into Laos. The route that began in Chiang Khong, Thailand, near Chiang Rai, stopped at Pak Chong, continued to Pak Beng, then finally let us off in Luang Prabang, Laos. I realized I knew nothing about the country. The Dutch group with which I travelled was quick to point out that “kip,” the currency used in Laos, is the Dutch word for chicken. Amused, we referred to money as chicken during our time there.
While one or two were made nauseous, others were just as easily coaxed into a deep sleep by the soothing sound of the boat as it loudly tugged along the Mekong.
Most people played drinking games, took pictures along the riverside as the boat passed through, or chatted with the others. You can see the view from the boat along this path by visiting my other site, Mr. Chido.
As we stopped in Pak Chong, night was beginning to fall. As the boats unloaded, ranks of people quickly started their way up the ten-minute trek uphill, towards the hostels and guest-houses. The locals knew the drill, of course. The tourism from the boats provided them a steady supply of eager consumers. Consequently, we knew the drill, too– be at the front and get the better rooms. Delaying the search for accommodation can sometimes lead to interesting situations based on what’s left over.
I broke off from the Dutch and British I was with on the boat and found my way with another group.
We were coaxed into sharing a room after the owner of a hostel approached us, offering us some rice wine while advertising his private rooms. We accepted the drinks and took a look at the rooms. Satisfied, we gave him the money and laid in our beds for a while, drinking and chatting. After dinner everybody who still had some energy left converged at the one bar in town, which I forget the name of. It had a jungle/island atmosphere, L.E.D. lights and locals selling weed, opium, and offering both for the curious tourist. Although I would later try opium in Vang Vieng, Laos, I wasn’t up for the task yet.
At the bar, the two British lads and I were invited to some girl’s, where we would later get locked in by a barbed-wire fence.
When one of the girls pretended to cook traditional Laoatioan food in the kitchen, waking up the owner, I realized things were getting sloppy. The owner was becoming increasingly present, often appearing to do a visual check on us or the girls, or her property. I later learned this was probably because pre-marital sex is extremely taboo here. After sometime the owner went back to bed and dissapeared. Three hours before our boats loaded up and left, we decided to leave; the girls were already asleep. We were chatting outside, feeling the breeze. As we left the building, it locked us out. To our surprise, the barbed-wire fence that once had a gap to let us in, was now locked. After forty-five minutes scanning the perimiter, we found a weak spot in the soil where we could lift the gate up enough to shimmy out.
By 7am, everybody was already up to check out and make our ways to the boats and continue the last leg of our ride to Laos.
I would never have guessed that I’d be convincing myself about rock
ergonomics, embracing my newly-acquired backpacker lifestyle while knowing that–whatever the challenge– I could do it. Three hours later I wake up as damp as the grass around me, freezing.
My travels continue. To see how my first two days went, see previous post.
While staying at Some Rest Hostel in Bangkok, I connected quite well with a Chilean brother and sister. I met the brother in the morning. I laughed to myself while I sat on the top bunk as he kept getting up to go to the bathroom; I remember wondering whether he had made a poor choice in the food he ate the previous night, like I had on my first day in BKK. As we exchanged words and made light conversation, I learned that he was still filled with beer from the evening. We laughed and spoke in Spanish, waiting for his sister to wake up. A few minutes later she hobbles down the stairs, clearly having a hard time putting weight on her feet. Working in a fish factory in New Zealand, where the pair had spent the previous three months, the shifts were long– standing. Her feet were still swollen.
The fact that I spoke decent Spanish allowed us all to connect quickly. In fact, I don’t think anybody else in the hostel spoke or understood Spanish. Being sick the entire day before– alone– I welcomed their company. Speaking Spanish after having just been in Mexico (pictures here) allowed things to flow easily. The dynamic between the two of them, so characteristic of the Latin-America siblings, was one of familial love. They worked well together. They reminded me of my own siblings who were going about their lives in Brazil at that point in time. I must say though, Chilean Spanish tested me; everything was called something else. It was almost like a different language. Growing up in Los Angeles and San FranciscoSpanish was the second most spoken language but it was the largely Mexican or Guatemalan. We made due and truth be told, it made for some pretty funny moments. They mentioned going up North to Khao Yai National Park and invited me. The South was hit by deadly floods. I feigned hesitation but, having nothing planned and relief from the food poisoning, I accepted, eager to explore.
Khao Yai was as beautiful as any national park. There was lots of wildlife, including alligators and elephants, although we only saw monkeys and the occasional bird. We did hear a lot more animals than we saw. Several parts of Danny Boyle’s film The Beach, which featured a young Dicaprio, were shot here. We stopped a taxi driver outside to ask if he could give us a lift to bus station. Admitting it was a slow day and he needed some money, he offered to drive us all the way to the park for practically the same cost of the bus fare for the three of us. With the sister’s feet still swollen, the brother hungover, and my stomach churning in the heat, none of us argued. Thanking him, we hopped in.
About two hours later, just after entering the entrance to the park, it began raining. The roads were quite steep and slick. While swerving around monkeys in the road, his car started to have increasing difficulties making it up the stretches of pavement as the rain continued to pour. Removing our weight and giving the car a push, the brother and I continually hopped out to ease the car up. After the fourth time doing that, his car started smoking and he pulled over, clearly distraught. I don’t know much about cars and the language barrier prevented me from understanding what was actually wrong with it. It’s possible even he didn’t know. Despite being at a loss, far from his Bangkok, he was apologetic. After insisting on taking us and tempting his engine one more time however, he conceded and flagged down a passing car, explaining the situation and sending us off towards the camp-sites.
Stuffing ourselves and our large packs among camping equipment and boxes, we sat on the rainy floor of the pickup and began our two-day hitch-hiking excursion in and out of Khao Yai National Park through refreshing fits of tropical rain durin the day.
As we got closer to the camping areas, we realized that it was quite full. Still hitch-hiking in the pickup truck that intially picked us up, the first two sites were at capacity. It was the weekend. We had no tents and relied on rentals. Of course, the rental people spoke absolutely no English and were clearly unsympathetic to the fact that we spoke no Thai. It was unclear whether they had no more rental tents or what. A kind Thai man in front of us, who spoke English well, told us that if we waited there items would likely be returned by campers who were leavin. HE was right. But, only one tent surfaced before it was getting dark. One, two-person tent.
As you can imagine, the night was rough– more for me than the siblings, who had each other to lay on. The brother and sister slept like rocks, quickly and easily. I was amazed. My siblings fall asleep just as fast. Living with them in Brazil, I would listen to their breath, jealous of them and anxious for sleep. There I was, crammed against the side of the tent with a rock poking me in the back. It was hot and none of us had showered. But most of all, I just didn’t have space and the brother was in the middle, between us. Knowing there weren’t many mosquitoes out, I gave up and decided I’d rather sleep outside.
As I walk outside, looking for a spot, I realized tha the dew has made every outside surface damp and wet. As I walked around weighing my options my stubborness got the best of me. I masked the stubborn attitude by telling myself it was under the banner of self-reliance and adventure. I ended up sleeping a flat, cement bench whose surface molded quite well with my body, ever so slightly. Three hours later I wake up as damp as the grass around me, freezing. With no choice, I squeeze back into the tent and nudge myself in the corner. As usual, I was the last to sleep and the first to wake.
During the day, the brother and I trekked for some hours, moving through the jungle-like terrain running parallel to a river. The trekking was nice. By that time, my ability to understand and respond in Chilean Spanish was compromised and my travel partner noticed. Whenever we talked, to practice, I spoke in Spanish and he in English. We laughed about it and admitted how exhausting different languages can be when we are not wholly proficient in them– his English was worse than my Spanish. We spent the rest of the day hitch-hiking from different trekking and view points while his sister rested her foot at the camp. By three, we packed up camp, returned everything, and flagged a car to get us out of Khao Yai towards Pak Chong, where we planned on taking the train. A group of older female teachers from Northern Thailand picked us up. We stopped, ate lunch together, and continued on our way. It was raining again, which made the ride in the pickup more of an experience and, somehow, more enjoyable. We arrived in Pak Chong and waited a few hours until the train left, drinking beers and playing cards.
We purchased tickets for the commuter train, a local train. We had no idea what to expect. The train journey, however, will be left for a future post.
Please, subscribe and stay tuned for the next part of my trip!
Perhaps that look inwards is another goal in travelling to the more remote parts of the world.
Catching me off-guard, a stranger I’ve only known for two days noticed a sadness in me that goes unnoticed back home.
I was straddling a ledge on the roof of our hostel, smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer. The main street created a corridor that framed the sunset along the town’s main street. I think it’s normal to feel highs and lows in life. I just get like this sometimes, I told her, throwing in a dumb joke about how I wouldn’t jump. She laughed and admitted that even if I jumped, the wires would brace my fall and I’d probably be alright. She left and I finished my beer. Strangely, I felt like crying.
Despite having so much time to myself while backpacking, I still experience many of the same negative emotions that I did back home.
Realistically, I feel these negative emotions are arising pricesely because I have so much time to myself. There is no distration to make me forget, to weed to numb the uncomfortable feelings I feel sometimes.
In an environment without television, internet, or other distractions, one really has nowhere else to look and starts to look inward.
Perhaps that look inwards is a subconscious goal of travelling to remote parts of the world. With that increased inward gaze, one starts to be aware of things that was previously suppressed with distractions. Traveling in Asia has no shortage of distractions to the foreigner should they welcome it but can be equally distraction-free if you design your trip that way (no portable movie players, ipods, etc). This isn’t a 12-hour trip to distract yourself during, it’s something you need to interact with as much as possible and in as many ways as possible. In doing so, your interactions with travel will, in reality, be interactions with the self; the decisions you make, the people you seek out, and the way you hold yourself.
If at any time things get tough or heavy, realize a fundamental truth: All things arise, exist, and expire. Nothing is permanent. Things come in and go out. The thing that is liked just appears for a moment, exists, and expires.
It’s January 24th, 2017. I arrived in Bangkok twenty-two days ago. The twenty-hour flight was my longest to date and was facilitated by a mind-numbing number of movies watched. The fifteen-hour time difference was a curious string of thoughts I kept having. The act of moving through time lead reminded me of Interstellar, a movie in which time travel causes hours in one place to be equivalent to years in another, much farther off place. I’d imagined myself in that situation as my plane was being escorted. Imagine coming back home and everybody was twenty years older. Then I remember it’s Thailand, not another galaxy. The time difference is just fifteen hours.
That same night I questioned my first few decisions since arriving in Bangkok’s Khao SanRoad. Immediately, the scorpions I ate come to mind. That could’ve done it. Perhaps it was one of the dishes that I never even got a name for. My fun-half denies that it was the beer, while my rational-half isn’t buying it; the ice-cold towers of Chang were tall, after all. It was none of those things. After fifteen hours of puking and sitting on the toilet, I had plenty of time to contemplate. By the time I was good enough to get of the hostel’s top-bunk and walk into the furnace that was Bangkok during the day, I had pinpointed the culprit: a casual pad thai stand. There, I had my first meal: chicken pad thai. It was over-priced, I would later find. However, for me, the financial cost of the meal was the least of my troubles. Until then, I believed that my time spent in Brazil had granted me some sort of immunity, making me at least less prone to illnesses. I opted out on any shots, medications, etc.
Those first forty-eight hours in Bangkok were as tiring as they were exciting.
Between my dorm at Some Rest Hostel and the dirty alleyway to Khao San Road was a house filled with ladyboys. I don’t know if it was just a living situation, a brothel, both, or something altogether. One of them helped me find the hostel but beyond that our interactions weren’t many. It was in that hostel, bordered by a ladyboy house and Khao Son, that I met several people with whom I connected. I I was surprisingly tired from the food poisoning, time difference, and heat. I spent an odd amount of time in the hostel, in the AC, determining what my next move was, where I’d go, how I’d get there, what to bring and what to leave, etc. I ended up connecting with the owner of the hostel and going out with her friends that night. While out and about, I realized two things that didn’t affect my future travel decisions as much as I expected them to. First, drinking in Thailand will drain your money faster than anything else. A large, 500ml beer is double the price of a delicious, mouth-watering Pad Thai. Second, I was not here for this. It got me thinking about the question many of you asked me. “What am I actually doing here?” I thought. Was this a sort of spiritual quest or just a fun travel adventure? All I knew is that there were many paths to explore here, whether spiritual, social, or otherwise. Perhaps I just wanted to see the world a bit.