Planning ahead

My stay in Mexico is almost up. My job ends in about a week. After that, I’ve got a week in Mexico City where I’ve planned some day trips. Then to the US to take care of some business and visit friends in Atlanta. (For my ATL friends: It’s my first trip back in 3 years! I’m going to post a restaurant where we can meet up, probably Saturday, July 22nd, from 6-8p, somewhere in downtown Decatur. SAVE THE DATE!)

I start my new job in Peru on August 1, but will arrive a week earlier to get settled in. I’m ready for the next adventure!

Peru is only 6 months, though, at most. Visas are limited and it’s tough to make plans until I’m positive of the length of the stay. But I can dream now! I’m making a list. If I’m lucky I can do many of the things I want to do.
The following list probably seems aggressive to most people, but I’m still in good health and have a lot I want to see. Also, I’m not getting any younger and hiking is only for those with good knees (So far; so good!). I’m lucky mine have lasted so long. And, let’s face it, life is short. Here are things I’m considering over the next two years:
  • Taking a tour of Peru in January 2018, before I leave the country. I’ve found one that will let me see Machu Picchu and the Amazon, but still get me out of the country before my visa expires. I have a few short breaks in my teaching schedule while in Peru and should be able to do some touring, but nothing this extensive. One of my mistakes in Mexico was not taking a full country tour before my visa runs out. In the future, I’ll try to get a full country tour before I start a new job. It will give me a better orientation to the country and besides, it’s a shame to live in a country for a year and see so little of it because you work 6 days a week!
  • The Annapurna trail in Nepal. It would be best for me to do this in February 2018, just as I’m returning from Peru, since I’ll be more accustomed to high altitudes. Altitude sickness and hiking is a poor match and I’m very susceptible to it’s affects. I’ve had an interesting email exchange with a trekking company and I feel really good about this possibility.
  • Taking a teaching job in Ecuador. (This is likely i​f​ the next adventure doesn’t work out) They like new teachers to start in January or May of most year​s (Remember they are in the opposite cycle of seasons to the USA), but most seem to only allow 6 month assignment​s. It’s an interesting country and I can probably continue my Spanish learning and see the Galapagos Islands.
  • I’ve applied to The Peace Corps to work in Madagascar. My odds are probably low, but my application has been accepted. If it works out, I’d go in June​ ​2018 for 27 months. ​This is a long shot, but who knows!​ I find my life is more exciting if I have a few odd possibilities in my future. And some of them even happen! If successful, obviously, my life is planned out for quite some time (at least by my standards!). Not getting my hopes up. The worst part is that I probably won’t know until December 1 if I’m accepted as a potential candidate, and will still have to pass various physical exams, learn the language and more.

Author’s note 6/29/2017: I applied to The Peace Corps 3 months ago, but today got a note saying that the starting date for the position I applied for (they only let you apply for 1 at a time) has been pushed back. It is now listed as “indefinite.” My application is being withdrawn. If I want to try again, I have to reapply from scratch. Again. This is the 2nd time a program has been blocked like this. Additionally, 2 programs (in 2 completely different countries) were announced in a press release last year. I was very interested both. These should have posted in January, but they haven’t. When I inquired I was told that these also had indefinite start dates. I assume this means the programs are on hold or have fallen through.

The current administration isn’t too crazy about helping its own citizens (the health care program, cuts to various social programs etc.). Perhaps The Peace Corps anticipates budget cuts and/or a reduction to the countries it will support? All I know is that an organization that makes promises and doesn’t follow through isn’t a good place to risk a couple years of your life on. I hope it will gain stability again, but this just doesn’t look like a good time to enter The Peace Corps. I tried not to get my hopes up, but am sad and disappointed by today’s email. 

  • An African safari (photos only, of course). I’m very interested in Kenya. A couple of my favorite books are West With the Night by Beryl Markham and Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen). Both are based in the former British East Africa.
  • The Mountain to Sea trail in North Carolina.
  • The Coast to Coast trail in the UK. I’ve practically memorized Pride and Prejudice and they talk about the wonders of The Lake District. This trail goes through it. I could see the United Kingdom in a way few people do.
  • ​One of the nicest teachers here has a (remote) possibility of a short term teaching job in China (maximum 3 months), living in an apartment one of her family members owns. ​In a perfect world, we’d get lessons in Mandarin as part of the rent. If she decides to go, I might be able to get a job there, too. It’s another long shot and we really just discussed it in passing. Still, sounds exciting. I’ve avoided teaching in China because they have a reputation for violating their contracts, offering substandard housing, and because of the limited internet (a.k.a The Great Fire-Wall of China). If I had secure lodging, a short time span, assistance with the language and a friend, it could be a great adventure.

OK, so it’s a lot. But what is life without our dreams!

I’m featured on Teaching Traveling!

I’m famous! OK, not exactly, but I’m honored to be interviewed for Teaching Traveling–a blog focused on teaching professionals who want to use travel experiences to enrich not only their lives but their classrooms. The entire article can be found here.

Putting this article together has really given me a chance to review the last three and a half years of wandering. While I’m happy with my choices, from a financial standpoint I’ve made some mistakes. For example, I basically paid to work in Russia, because the exchange rate was so bad, and fell sharply after I’d agreed to go. If I didn’t have money in the States to fall back on, I’d be in trouble! (And the fact that my first retirement starts in less than 2 years gives me a margin of safety, too.) I put away a lot of money before I started this new life, and I’ve had to use some of it, too. Most of my expenses are actually between jobs or setting set up for a new job. (And my hiking excursions don’t pay at all, but what’s the point of a traveling life if you can’t do some exploring?) Most people need to make enough money while traveling to cover all their expenses. That’s not been my experience. My teaching jobs only cover day to day expenses while in country. I dip into savings to get from one country to another, adventures between jobs, and setting up in a new country. Not everyone can do that. In the article, I briefly explore ways I could make more money while traveling.

One more thing I really should have added to the article is that you need to be comfortable being alone for long periods of time in order to enjoy this kind of life. I spend most of my time at a school being the “new” teacher. I’ve never taken a job that lasts more than a year. Making friends gets harder when you get older. Sometimes just as I’m really meeting people, it’s time to leave.

Here’s the text of the article (but it has some of my photos, too, which I won’t add here):

Let’s meet Beth Robinette of WanderForLife, a woman from Atlanta, GA, who is currently living and teaching in Mexico. Beth, tell us about yourself.

Beth: I’m 58 (58? How did that happen?) and originally from the mid-west. I was in my 40’s before I traveled outside the US, but I quickly got hooked. At this point, I’ve been to over 30 countries. I even had to get a new passport a couple years ago — not because the time limit was up, but because I had run out of pages! So far, I’ve lived and taught English in 5 countries outside of the US.

I’m a person who likes to change her life up every decade or so. I get bored easily. I’m in my third major career. First I worked in radio/TV, mostly as on-air talent in news and weather. It it didn’t pay well because I worked in small markets. Let’s just say that Jane Pauley wasn’t looking over her shoulder, afraid I’d take her job. I was dependable, but not major market material. It was interesting work, but also depressing. “News” is all bad news.

At 30, I went back to college and got a degree in Chemical Engineering, mostly so I could support myself “in a manner in which I hoped to become accustomed.” It let me get a pension and a retirement portfolio (which I’ll need someday). I also saved money to take “early retirement” to the current “job” I have now: international English Teacher. The pay is much worse, but I have a rich life!

T: Love it! Tell us more about your travels. 

B: I left my cubicle job in February of 2014. First I hiked 1,405 miles of the Appalachian Trail (that’s only about 2/3’s of the trail). Then, I began teaching English internationally.

I started in Vietnam for 5 months — and got to see Ankor Wat in Cambodia during a border run to renew my visa. I lived in Istanbul, Turkey for a year (with side trips to Athens, Paris and Belgrade). Istanbul is an amazing city with enough history to keep you busy for a lifetime, but it might not be the best option at the moment due to current events. It was a good time go… and to leave.

Next I did a one month volunteer job in Valencia, Spain, before hiking 450 miles of the Camino de Santiago, an old pilgrim’s trail that takes you across Spain, east to west. Then I took a two month summer job in Nahodka, Russia with a side trip to Moscow.

Right now, I’m living in San Luis Potosi, Mexico. I’ve managed to see several nearby towns and am surprised at the diversity in the culture. I’ve had to join the gym because the food is so good! In July, my one-year work visa will expire, so I’ve already made plans to move and work in Arequipa, Peru. Machu Picchu is on my list to see while I’m there!

TT: I am so inspired by your adventures. How do you find your travel opportunities? 

B: I’m mostly looking for work — not just travel opportunities. I have a job placement agency, through the school where I got my TEFL certification, but they’ve not been as helpful as I’d like. I usually find my own jobs, often through the internet. I also ask other teachers about their past schools.

TT: Brilliant. How did you find the money to fund your travel? 

B: I work in the countries I live in, but find that a teacher’s salary will only cover my day to day living expenses — rent, food and transportation around town. Not much more. I put away a lot of money before I started this adventure. I frequently need to dip into my savings to fund side trips, flights and get established in a new country. I also keep travel insurance, and my salary doesn’t cover this, either. I’m essentially a volunteer with room and board.

If I had not been able to save money before I left, I would have focused on countries that pay better — the Middle East (especially Saudi Arabia), South Korea and some parts of China. Unfortunately, these countries are not attractive to me personally and/or it’s difficult to get a work visa in these places if you are over “a certain age.”

I’d also seriously consider an English teaching position with The Peace Corps, since the do pay minimally and help you financially with transitioning back to the States. I may still do this, in fact. (NOTE: Consider this a hint!)

I could also make more of an attempt to monetize my blog, write more and promote my e-books, or find travel writing assignments. It’s difficult for most people to totally fund their travels through these methods, but they can help substantially.

Something I’ve been trying here in Mexico is being a live-in tutor (not an au pair). I live with a family and teach them English in exchange for room and board. I work evenings and weekends at a school for money. My salary goes a long way since I have few expenses now.

This situation is working out extremely well, but I’ve been lucky to find an amazing family. To make this successful, you have to have clear boundaries and responsibilities. Without these, you may think you are there to teach English and they think you are a combination maid/babysitter/cook.

(NOTE: for those who read my blog, you’ll notice that this didn’t end so well. )

TT: Interesting! Did you have a mentor or role model to help make your travels happen?

B: I have to say that the lack of role models was an issue for me. I probably put away a much larger nest egg to fall back on than I would have if I’d had someone else’s example to follow. Plus, my family was NOT happy about my career choice. It would have been nice to have someone I could point to and say they had done this successfully. I had to figure it out on my own. And I’ve made mistakes.

The biggest thing is that what I thought would be difficult, wasn’t. Sure, I get lost and I have translation issues. Of course all the food and the culture is foreign to me. Yes, I had to learn how to teach, and each school has different priorities and schedules. But that’s not what has been difficult. You can figure those things out.

What’s been the most difficult is, in my experience, all schools have stretched the truth. (NOTE: When I wrote this I used the word “lie” instead of “stretched the truth.”) Just because you’re promised a year contract, a minimum of hours, regular pay schedule, holiday pay… the rules may be different once you get there. Be emotionally prepared for that. This isn’t your home country, so you aren’t in a position to sue or even complain much. You have to decide if you can live with the changes or not. You can (respectfully) complain, but that’s no guarantee anything will change. You may not be able to count on them for much assistance, either. If they will pick you up at the airport, show you where the school is, orient you to their teaching program and help arrange a reasonable living situation, that’s solid. Any more is gravy.

TT: That’s frustrating! What tips do you have for potential English teachers abroad to deal with shifting school promises and situations?

B: To mitigate the situation, I suggest:

1. Before taking a job, get the email address of someone who has worked at the school for several months. Preferably talk to someone in your age group (at my age, I’m not interested in the night life or dating scene). Ask them how it really is at the school. Specifically ask about pay/hours/living situation/curriculum. Also ask about the number of unpaid hours you’re expected to work. Lesson prep and grading is never paid, but if there are weekly meetings, massive paperwork, office hours and extensive “training” that’s unpaid, you should re-consider. In theory, your placement company (if you have one) should help you with this, but mine is not very reliable and I suspect others are even worse.

2. Decide what’s most important to you. Don’t complain about everything. Pick your battles. Only sit down with the manager/owner for things that are really important. For example, when I moved to Mexico, getting Spanish training was very important to me. I was less concerned when I didn’t get the number of teaching hours I was initially promised or that holidays weren’t paid (though they were promised). When I didn’t get the Spanish classes I was promised, I sat down with the owner and explained the situation. I got the classes.

3. Learn to be self-sufficient and remind yourself that this is an adventure. Remember that you are probably seen as a commodity by the school — a resource that won’t be here long, so they won’t put a lot of time and energy into you. You’re on your own. Besides, if everything went smoothly, you’d have no great stories to tell later. Great stories almost always start with things going wrong.

4. On the other hand, you need resources and it’s important to make new friends. I’ve gotten a tremendous amount of help from my students. This can help them practice their English speaking skills, so it’s good for them as well. I often set up an hour at a coffee shop nearby once a week where I tell my students I’m open for free conversation. I come prepared with questions about the culture, things I want to find and know. If I need a new apartment or a second hand bike, I ask for their help. I learn a lot and they get a benefit too. If you do this, you’ll often get invited to parties, family meals, day trips or cultural events.

5. Learn to live within your means. I’ve got a blog post on How to Live Frugally as you travel. It’s very common for schools to pay a day or two late. Have back up money/credit cards/ATM cards. I’ve made it a rule that if I’m not paid for 4 days after a payday, I won’t teach. I don’t say it as a threat, but I tell them this the first time I’m not paid on time. I had to do this in Turkey and it kept them paying me, where other teachers would end up being owed lots of money because they were afraid to speak up.

6. Have “walking away” money and a Plan B. If they simply stop paying you or they don’t get you the work visa they promised (a problem I had in Vietnam), you may have to leave.  So far, Vietnam is the only school I left before the end of my contract, but I came close in Russia. On arrival, the hours were double what I’d been promised and the schedule was very different from what we’d agreed to. I was willing to give on the schedule (though I was very unhappy about it), but not the total hours since I was being paid a flat fee for the summer. I said that this wasn’t what we’d agreed to.

Their response was that the situation had changed. I simply said that I was sorry this wasn’t going to work out, and I’d just get a taxi to the airport and leave right then.  Since they had a full schedule of classes starting in 3 days and they’d promised a native English speaker to teach, they re-negotiated my pay. I was never able to trust them again, of course, but I’d made the situation something I could live with for the summer. I wasn’t that great at work negotiations when I started this, but I’ve gotten a lot of practice.

7. Be blameless. Always be on time and prepared for class. Do a little extra. Be nice to the staff. Be positive, especially when speaking about your school to students or potential students. If something goes wrong, you need to be above reproach. I was just in a situation where a large amount of money was missing and I was a suspect. There’s nothing worse than being accused of a crime when you’re a foreigner and don’t speak the language well! I was terrified! I was able to demonstrate that I didn’t take the money, partly because I had always been reliable and honest.

The next adventure

I moved into a boarding house in the last week (see previous post), and we decided to have a cookout Sunday night. From left to right, Paula and Christine (both teachers at English Unlimited) and Ricardo, who lives downstairs. This gave us all a chance to practice our Spanish.

I’ll be leaving San Luis Potosi, Mexico in just over 2 weeks. I’ve got a week in Mexico City, where I plan to take several day-trips to see some things I’ve missed in my year here. Then I’m off to the USA for a couple precious weeks with dear friends in Huntsville and Atlanta. I won’t get to see any family this trip, unfortunately, but it’s my first trip back to Atlanta in 3 years. I hope to see many friends!

And then I’m off to the next adventure: Arequipa, Peru! I’ll be working at the Extreme Learning Center, a private language school. I hope to continue learning Spanish and to see Machu Picchu before I leave. Based on visa restrictions, it looks like this will only be a 6 month adventure. I’ve got a few ideas for what I want to do after this one, but we’ll see what actually works out.

The chefs! Richardo (int he back) and Rico (who manages the boarding house and built the new grill). We have lots of left over chicken and grilled veggies to eat, but I notice all the beer was consumed!

As I prepare to leave, I’ve gone through all my belongings, giving away things I can’t take with me and throwing out things no one needs. When I fly to a new country, I only have room for a purse, carry on (usually a day pack), and I check two bags (a large backpack and a suitcase).

If you’re interested, here’s a short video on Arequipa.

Plus, I’m sharing some assorted photos.

A note from one of my Saturday, Level 17 students. Awwwww!
“With bread, the pain is less.” Must be a Spanish phrase that is new to me. “
My level 24 students graduated!

There are lots of religious symbols and paintings on the street.
Notice the “benefactor” is pictures in the lower right corner of the painting. That used to be popular in the medieval period.

It’s been a tough year

I really hope the next half of the year will be easier. First my mother was diagnosed with cancer in January, then she died much faster than expected in March. We had a difficult relationship, so it’s a lot to deal with.

Seems like that would have been enough trauma for one year. The universe had other ideas.

The last week has been so bad, that it’s colored my entire year here in Mexico. It’s made me question whether I ever want to return. I hope that with time I’ll gain some perspective and be able to see the good with the bad, but I doubt I will ever set foot in San Luis Potosi. My memories are ruined. Sadly, I’ve found my belief in people has fallen greatly since I’ve become a vagabond.

Starting in January, I’ve been living with a family as their personal English Teacher in exchange for room and board. Since the hours at school were so unreliable, this was a good situation for me, especially since I really loved this family. I did lots of things with them and felt that I was a part of them. Clearly, I was wrong.

Friday night, Meliza came to my room and told me they were missing a lot of money, 7,000 pesos (about $385US), that belonged to her mother. As they continued to check, other items turned up missing, too: an iPad, jewelry and some kitchen things. I was told that they suspected the housekeeper, which made sense to me. I checked through my things and found I had even more money missing than them! There’s at least $500US plus more than 2000 pesos, all in cash, plus a few items of jewelry. Someone would have to dig through my things to find that money, too. It wasn’t just lying around. I felt terrible about the whole situation and Meliza said that Ivan planned to confront the housekeeper Sunday morning.

I don’t know what changed, but by Sunday morning, I was a prime suspect and was fingerprinted along with the housekeeper! It was a total shock. And Ivan, Sr. was very clear that I wasn’t fingerprinted to rule me out, but because I was a suspect. I was terrified! How could they believe I would steal from them? They invited me to live with them; I didn’t ask. I couldn’t stop the nightmare I was having: A foreigner, accused of a crime, with no citizen’s rights, locked into jail with little legal recourse and poor language skills. There isn’t even an embassy nearby.

By Sunday evening, I got them to agree that I didn’t take the money. Or at least I got Meliza to agree. I wouldn’t have wanted any of the trivial things that were stolen, the money came up missing only after the new housekeeper was there and I’ve recently inherited money and don’t need to steal theirs. So at least Meliza believed I was innocent and apologized. Ivan said nothing. I don’t know what he thought/thinks, nor how he will proceed. (Also, I found it interesting that they thought the housekeeper was cleaning my room every week and doing my laundry. NOT!)

But here’s the problem: I had more money taken than they did and I didn’t suspect them for a moment, not even their two teen-aged sons. I didn’t accuse them of theft. I didn’t have them fingerprinted. I trusted them, but they didn’t trust me. It’s been my experience that once someone stops trusting you, you can’t trust them. You need to do what you can to prove your innocence and then extricate yourself as quickly as possible. Once trust is gone, the friendship is gone, too. Loosing their friendship was far worse to me than the money.

So I packed up everything and moved into a hotel for the night. Most of my cash had been stolen, but fortunately, I had a credit card as a backup. I spent three (expensive) nights there before I could arrange a room for the remaining 3 weeks of my time here in San Luis Potosi. It took all the cash I had to pay for the new accommodations, and I missed a couple meals until I got paid on the 15th.

I shed a lot of tears this week.

People are alike everywhere you go. And that’s not always good. I’ve had things stolen from me in every country I’ve lived in. I’ve been lied to in all of them. And I’ve been accused of things I didn’t do.

One of the issues with being a traveler is that you never get time to establish a track record with anyone and build up trust. Working hard, doing your best isn’t enough in the short term. Everything seems fine, until something goes wrong. Then, you are the outsider and the first person to be suspected of a crime. You are never going to be a trusted insider, one of the family. If they are forced to choose, they won’t choose you. And you don’t know who to trust, either. I’ve made a few costly mistakes with new friends (especially in Turkey).

And my week hasn’t improved. I’ve used the time to go through every item I own and reduce my stuff before the next series of flights. I tried to ship a box of items ahead to my next teaching job (Arequipa, Peru). I lugged the package to FedEx (8 blocks!), but the woman at the counter had to open it and go through everything. Then, after weighing it, she gave me a price of roughly 1000 pesos to ship it (about $50US). Fine. But the price kept going up, with no explanation. Suddenly it was almost 4,000 pesos, more than the cost of the items inside! It seems even more suspicious since she suddenly had to have cash, no credit card. The person in front of me had used a card. It’s true that I have trust issues at the moment, but I suspect the box would never have arrived. She would have stolen anything she wanted from inside, and my money, too. I called her a liar (mentiroso), grabbed the box and left. I took the package at the Centro branch (downtown) of the school and gave the items to the staff who happened to be there.

And just to add insult to injury, on the way home, I went to an OXXO (local convenience store). Two men pushed ahead of me in line. When I said something, they laughed. An employee saw the whole thing and wouldn’t intervene. She just shrugged her shoulders.

Maybe this isn’t such a good country for me.

Visit to my hometown of Bloomfield, IN

My new favorite photos of Stacey, my sister-in-law. I can’t express how good she made me feel on this last visit home. Bless you.
Oh, and don’t let this girl be your bartender unless you want a generous pour of wine!

I went home last month for my mother’s Celebration of Life event last month. I’ve been sick basically since the second day I got to the old farmhouse and today is the first day I’ve felt well enough to consider looking at the photos. I don’t think I’m allergic to the USA, but I might be allergic to something at my mother’s old house. That damp basement just might be the cause!

It’s completely unlike me, but I barely took any photo. I have no idea why. I wanted to and had my phone with me. I didn’t get a single photo of one of my brothers, nor my much loved niece. I didn’t even take photos when my niece and I walked out into the pasture. What’s wrong with me? I think I was in a daze the whole trip.

My brother Rod. This was taken at the restaurant at Boggs Lake, where the Celebration of Life event was held. My brothers had wanted to start outside, but the weather in springtime just doesn’t always cooperate. Rod’s girlfriend provided the lovely flowers from her own garden.
This was actually taken by my friend.

Trips home are disorienting, but honestly, this was the best trip to Bloomfield in my adult life. Despite the sad occasion, it felt very welcoming to me. Here are the few photos I took. So sorry to be such a bad chronicler.

Front of welcome poster, by Adia
back of Welcome poster, from Adia.
Front of the old covered bridge. It used to be called the Old Scotland Road, but is now Baseline South. Matt took my friend, Jean, and I on a trip on the four wheeler around the area. Such a treat. Then a small bonfire. And maybe a little too much wine. I love alcohol. It does not love me back.
Side view of the covered bridge. I used to ride the school bus over this bridge everyday. OK, I officially feel old. And I wish it were painted red again, though I’m very grateful that someone has saved this lovely old landmark.
This is from an old cemetery near the family farm, well south of Bloomfield. The church is no longer there, but the cemetery still is. I always loved this and used to ride my horse here. 
I’d made this stained glass lily for my mother. A peace offering, really. We always had a difficult relationship. This didn’t end up helping much.
This is a doily made by my great grandmother, Janet Fletcher. I think she died in 1970? I had this made for my mother.
I used to draw and paint. Why don’t I do that anymore?