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 I’m application has been accepted. If it works out, I’d go in June​ ​2018 for 27 months. ​This is really 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 and more.
  • 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. I have a dear friend who lives near the trail and might help me get started, if I ask her really nicely (Kate?).
  • 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.

Guanajuato City, Mexico

The view of Guanajuato from high on the hill. I really enjoyed this town and if I come back to Mexico to teach again, I would strongly consider this city.

Easter weekend, we visited the city of Guanajuato, the capital of the state of Guanajuato. It’s beautiful and there is lots to do there. If I come back to Mexico, this is a city I will strongly consider.

Dinner outside with the family in one of the town squares. Left to right: Hugo, Ivan Jr., Meliza’s father, Meliza and Ivan Sr. The weather was perfect, though there was a brief shower.

Guanajuato was the site of the first battle of the Mexican War of Independence between insurgent and royalist troops at the Alhóndiga de Granaditas, which you’ll see below. The city was named a World Heritage Site in 1988.

There’s lots of history here. According to Wikipedia” “The Alhóndiga de Granaditas (Regional Museum of Guanajuato) (public granary) is an old grain storage building in Guanajuato City, Mexico. This historic building was created to replace an old granary near the city’s river. The name translates roughly from both Arabic and Spanish as grain market or warehouse. Its construction lasted from 1798 to 1809, by orders of Juan Antonio de Riaño y Bárcena, a Spaniard who was the quartermaster of the city during the Viceroyalty of New Spain. The building received World Heritage listing as part of the Historic Town of Guanajuato in 1988.”

The family from the base of the statue, El Pípila. This is a great hero of Mexican independence.

According to Wikipedia: “El Pípila is the nickname of a local hero of the city of Guanajuato in Mexico. His real name was Juan José de los Reyes Martínez Amaro (1782–1863), son of Pedro Martínez and María Rufina Amaro. Word for a hen turkey, it is said his nickname stands for his freckled face (similar to that of a turkey egg) or his laughter resembling the bird’s peculiar gargle.”

“Pípila, became famous for an act of heroism near the very beginning of the Mexican War of Independence, on 28 September 1810. The insurrection had begun in the nearby town of Dolores, led by Miguel Hidalgo, a criollo priest born in Pénjamo. He soon moved to the city of Guanajuato, Guanajuato, where the Spanish barricaded themselves–along with plenty of silver and other riches–in a grain warehouse known as the Alhóndiga de Granaditas. The granary was a stone fortress with high stone walls, but its wooden door proved to be a shortcoming.
With a long, flat stone tied to his back to protect him from the muskets of the Spanish troops, Pípila carried tar and a torch to the door of the Alhóndiga and set it on fire. The insurgents–who far outnumbered the Spanish in the warehouse–stormed inside and killed all the soldiers and the civil Spanish refugees. Some accounts say that Pípila was not alone but went accompanied by other indigenous miners ready to fight for their freedom from the Spanish, but as the story is told today in Guanajuato, Pípila stood alone to break through the door.”

The view from El Pipila.
From Wikipedia: “The stone monument of a muscular man, holding aloft a flaming torch, towers on a hill at the edge of the city. Visitors can ride on a funicular to and from the monument, or they can walk up one of several steep stairways to the top. At the base of the monument, a series of broad stone plazas provides plenty of space for the numerous camera-carrying tourists and young lovers. From the foot of the monument, they have a fantastic view of the whole city of Guanajuato.”

If you look at the top of the mountain in the distance, you can see the statue of El Pipila. Below, you see an entrance to one of the many tunnels below the city.
This was Easter Sunday.
As you can see, the city is in a valley, but has extended up the sides of the nearby mountains.
Lots of street commerce, but I really enjoyed the street performers and the many folks dressed in costume. It was very busy, but then this was Easter weekend. I wonder if there’s much going on during a normal weekend?
This city is a rabbit warren of intersecting tunnels, plazas, circles and narrow streets. With the mountains, there’s no grid pattern. Learning to get around would be difficult.
The entrance to the Universidad de Guanajuato. According to Wikipedia: “The Universidad de Guanajuato (in English, the University of Guanajuato) is a university based in the Mexican state of Guanajuato, made up of about 33,828 students in programs ranging from high school level to the doctorate level. Over 17,046 of those are pursuing undergraduate, masters, and doctorate degrees. The university offers 153 academic programs, including 13 doctorates, 39 masters programs, and 65 bachelor’s degrees. The university has schools in fourteen cities throughout the state of Guanajuato.”

In front of the University.
So many balconies and plants.
Much better signage than most Mexican cities, particularly considering this isn’t quite as touristy as Mexico City or San Miguel de Allende. There’s lots to see and we only had about 24 hours.
This is the Templo de la Compania. According to a sign in front: “It is said that the miners worked day and night to complete the building. The Church of the Company of Jesus was one of the largest constructions by the Jesuit order of New Spain. The Jesuits first sited a hospice here in 1732, while building on the church began in 1742 and was completed in 1765.
The project was overseen by the Bethlehemite friar Jose de la Cruz. The design is centered on a single tower which the mater of works, Felipe de Urena subsequently decorated with its present facade in the ornate Currigueresque style consisting of three doors and a series of niches for Jesuit saints. A large part of the building’s atrium, which served as a cemetery, was lost in the 19th century.”

We stayed in a Holiday Inn, way too expensive, but very nice. This is the view of the pool from the 5th floor.
….and a view of the dining area. Breakfast was included and was quite good. The hotel was quite a ways from the downtown area, so if I’d been alone, I’d have never stayed here. It’s OK if you have a car, but parking is pricey downtown, too.

Mummies of Guanajuato

The mummies (momias) of Guanajuato

Over Easter weekend, the family I live with let me come along on a trip to Guanajuato. I don’t think anyone else in the family was interested, but I wanted to see the mummies and they humored me. Nice folks!

But before you think Egyptian mummies, these folks were not prepared for becoming mummies. There’s no linen wrapped bodies or pyramids. Most weren’t even embalmed. These folks, or the people who prepared their bodies, certainly didn’t expect the bodies to be put on display. No, these corpses are only about 150 years old (or less) and come from a nearby cemetery. They weren’t buried in the ground (with one exception), but entombed and simply dried out. The air is quite dry here, the soil alkaline and the tombs isolated the bodies from the elements and many organisms,. Unfortunately, their tombs had been rented, not purchased, so when the families couldn’t pay, or couldn’t be found, they were put here, in Museo de las Momias de Guanajuato.

By US standards, this is pretty gruesome, but Mexicans have a different, more familiar and accepting view of death. Somehow, I feel slightly guilty about my visit, though. Can you say voyeur?

This woman died in childbirth and the fetus was nearby.

According to Wikipedia: “The first mummy was put on display in 1865. It was the body of Dr. Remigio Leroy. The museum, containing at least 108 corpses, is located above the spot where the mummies were first discovered. Numerous mummies can be seen throughout the exhibition, of varying sizes. The museum is known to have the smallest mummy in the world, a fetus from a pregnant woman who fell victim to cholera. Some of the mummies can be seen wearing parts of the clothing in which they were buried.”

This woman (?) had an almost clown face and quite a bit more hair that most.

More from Wikipedia: “The mummies are a notable part of Mexican popular culture, echoing the national holiday “The Day of the Dead” (El Dia de los Muertos). A B movie titled Santo vs. The Mummies of Guanajuato (1970) pitted the well-known Mexican professional wrestler Santo and several others against reanimated mummies.”

Don’t worry. This person wasn’t buried alive. The jaw naturally drops open like this after death. There is one mummy, however, on display that researchers believe was buried alive–her hands and body are out of place, not as would be placed after death. Since there was no embalming, bodies weren’t kept around long and entombed quickly. It was possible to declare someone dead when they were only in a deep coma. Can you imagine anything worse?
According to Wikipedia: “It is thought that in some cases, the dying may have been buried alive by accident, resulting horrific facial expressions. however, perceived facial expressions are most often the result of postmortem processes. One of the mummies who was buried alive was Ignacia Aguilar. She suffered from a strange sickness that made her heart appear to stop on several occasions. During one of these incidents, her heart appeared to stop for more than a day. Thinking she had died, her relatives decided to bury her. When her body was disinterred, it was noticed that she was facing down, biting her arm, and that there was a lot of blood in her mouth.”

“Author Ray Bradbury visited the catacombs of Guanajuato with his friend Grant Beach and wrote the short story “The Next in Line” about his experience. In the introduction to The Stories of Ray Bradbury he wrote the following about this story: ‘The experience so wounded and terrified me, I could hardly wait to flee Mexico. I had nightmares about dying and having to remain in the halls of the dead with those propped and wired bodies. In order to purge my terror, instantly, I wrote ‘The Next in Line.’ One of the few times that an experience yielded results almost on the spot.‘”

While most bodies were without clothing, the shoes were usually left on. I suppose the feet are quite fragile and this was easier.

“To conjure a morbid and eerie atmospheric opening sequence to his film Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), German director Werner Herzog used footage he had taken of several of the mummies.”

Infant mortality was quite high. Lots of hair on this little guy, so he probably wasn’t a newborn.
This woman drowned. Another was listed as a stabbing victim.
There was surprisingly little information with each corpse–only a handful have a name or date attached. While the mummies are interesting, I would have liked to know more about the people they had been.
OMG. I fear this is what happens when fat women dehydrate. I may never eat again.
Honestly, they could have kept a few pieces of clothing on the bodies. The private parts are almost non-existent in most cases. It’s harder than you think to tell male from female. And I didn’t really want to look THAT closely. But I really never thought about how much pubic hair would remain. It will take me weeks to get that picture out of my head.
The infants were often dressed up as angels or saints.
Above the babies were photos of seated mothers holding their (clearly) dead infants, often with older, much more lively siblings standing nearby. Photos of the death were common in the mid-1800’s and since the time exposure was long, they made excellent subjects.
If you’ve lost a child at birth, this is not a good place for you to visit, I suggest.

There is glass between you and the mummies, but I’m told this is a recent addition.
This infant is dressed as a saint. It’s a way to dedicating the soul of the child to the care of a particular saint.
The fat make poor mummies. Cremation sounds better all the time.
One of the few with her coffin.

One of the few fully clothed, in a nightgown.
There’s surprisingly little written info, though it is in both Spanish and English. There’s a short introduction video, which looks quite interesting and informative, but my Spanish just isn’t good enough to understand more than a few words in most sentences. I really thought I’d be better by now.

Finally, a man in a suit!