Every so often I pass through my hometown and abuse the hospitality of old friends, sleeping on their sofas and telling tales of whichever exotic corner of the world Ive been living in lately.
As I describe a house on the tropical beach I rented in India or the atmosphere of a mountain town in Mexico, the response is almost always the same:
Nice life if you can get it.
All right for some.
How on earth do you afford it?
Ill be the first to admit that living abroad isnt for everyone. Some people cant handle the change of food, language or climate and others are necessarily tied to one place by their family or job.
But just about anyone else could be living on that beach or mountain town for at least half the year, if not forever. You dont need to be rich, multilingual or even especially talented you just need the creativity to imagine a new life for yourself and then the courage to follow through with your plan.
Plan? What plan?
There are those who say that moving abroad takes a good deal of planning. You need to investigate the visa conditions, get all your immunization jabs, buy adequate travel insurance and possibly learn the national anthem of the country youre heading to.
The truth is, you just have to jump on a plane and see what happens. Living in a new country begins the moment you actually arrive there, not before.
But if you are a planning kind of person then you could do well to check out www.travellerspoint.com -- a site where you can ask people around the world practical and cultural questions about where they live. www.expatriates.com is also a good place to find jobs and apartments although youll probably do better by picking up a copy of the local newspaper and checking the classifieds section.
Yes, I hear you asking "But can I afford to live abroad?"
If theres one fear thats common to us all, its of ending up broke. Our finances are a precarious set of scales that promise material happiness on one hand and begging for spare change on the other.
Were encouraged to invest in health care plans, pension funds, invest in markets or property and yet few find the time to really enjoy their lives while they can. Moving abroad would seem to be the riskiest move on the table, abandoning security to chase an exotic dream.
But somethings wrong when I hear 19-year-olds in America saying theyre too scared to travel as that blank space in their resume might damage their career prospects
No better time
The truth is, theres never been a better time to relocate to another, cheaper country. The advent of the Internet means that writers, designers, coders, artists, video producers, translators, journalists or webmasters can work from anywhere they choose.
When you earn First World wages but you only pay $100 a month for your hut on the beach, you can actually end up saving money. A freelancers dream.
An American passport is welcome in almost every corner of the planet youd ever want to visit and your dollars go a long way in most of the warmest countries in the world. A GSM phone means you can always be reached and the cost of a call home has been reduced to a few cents via Skype. Pack your laptop and a toothbrush and youre ready to go.
Even before the Internet came along I managed to spend most of my time in beautiful places.
I soon realized that if I worked somewhere like Japan for a few months and lived as frugally as a monk, I could save enough to relocate somewhere exotic like Thailand or Guatemala for half a year. Even there I lived modestly, for sure, but it made me laugh when an advertising executive from New York with a 6-figure salary asked me how I managed to get so much vacation time.
So, remember, the next time you spend $100 on a piece of clothing or a night out on the town, the same amount could pay your rent for a month somewhere south of the border.
So where to go?
At first sight, the world seems like a huge place. But once you rule out the godforsaken places, the conflict zones (check to see where Bush plans to invade next) and the countries that are just as expensive as America (forget about Norway and Switzerland), the options narrow down a bit.
In addition, you might want to think about the language if youre linguistically challenged then you might not want to move to the outer reaches of Mongolia but try somewhere like Belize or India where people speak English.
An effort to pick up the local lingo will be the best move you ever make though as you get to make new friends, connect with the culture and haggle like a demon for that pineapple in the market.
For most people the main consideration will be the cost of living abroad and work opportunities.
Although the travel industry has convinced people that leaving the US involves selling a kidney to pay for everything, the reality need not be that costly. Cheap flight tickets can be found on the internet and you can live comfortably on $500-$1,000 a month in most of Latin America and a good chunk of Asia, too. Sure, you wont be staying in a villa with room service but then how many people live like that at home?
And while pay in poor countries tends to be unimpressive, you could move somewhere like South Korea where English teachers are paid a fortune. Or if you do choose to make the beaches of Nicaragua your new home, youll be able to employ skilled Nicaraguans to help you with your project or business for a fraction of what it would cost back in the US.
The last consideration is cultural and theres no real way to work that one out before you get there. In 2003, I spent a year in Brazil, attracted by the beaches, the samba dancers, the cheap cost of living and the happy-go-lucky people.
It was one of the most miserable years of my life.
While it all looked good on paper, the fact was that I just didnt groove with Brazilian culture. Although I spoke Portuguese, I was more in the mood to philosophize in the small hours of the night than dance to the dawn. The Brazilians couldnt understand how I was such a boring old fart at the age of 26.
Even if youre in love with the culture of your new home, the small differences can drive you around the bend. A power cut just as youre about to send an email. Tiny stones in the rice that break a filling. The plumber who deliberately fixes the pipes so that theyll break again a fortnight later.
Its at these times that the honeymoon period ends and you have to ask yourself if youre cut out for living abroad. Just as you have to decide if a loved ones habit of gargling toothpaste is cute or annoying, so, too, youll need to make your peace with the culture and quirks of your host country.
To this end, many people who retire to warmer climes tend to choose spots where other expatriates gather it makes it so much easier to get over the frog in your bathroom when you can bitch about it with another expat in the evening.
Places like the Yucatan in Mexico, Bangkok in Thailand and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil are classic examples of thriving expatriate scenes.
Hanging out with expats is a two-edged sword, however. While theres definitely strength in numbers youll get tips on places to live, jobs and invites to dinners and parties you can end up spending more time with foreigners than with the locals. As you avoid contact with the local language and customs you might ask yourself, why did I leave home in the first place?
Becoming a local
So how do you integrate into another culture?
The first thing to accept is that youll always be something of an outsider. However much you speak and dress like the locals, youll never become one. But theres no need to. Moving abroad doesnt mean you need to abandon your roots. In fact, in many places youll be considered exotic yourself and find that the locals are just as curious about you as you are about them.
For some people (i.e. good-looking women), meeting people and making friends is a piece of cake. They walk down to the beach in the morning and have half their address book full by lunchtime. For the shyer types it will help to go to yoga classes, take coffee in the same cafes until you get to know the clientele, volunteer time in charitable efforts and to always but always carry your cell phone in case a new acquaintance rings.
When I lived in Israel my favourite trick was to leave my possessions with the hottest girl on the beach each time I went swimming. When I returned it was the perfect opportunity to strike up a conversation.
Another quick fix is to get in touch with members of the Hospitality Club (www.hospitalityclub.org) and see if someone wants to show you around town and clue you in on the cool jazz club or second-hand book shop that youd never find on your own. Sometimes it just takes one good contact to open up a whole social scene for you.
It's not easy
Emigrating is never an easy choice, despite the conviction of your friends and family that your life has become one big vacation.
There will be times when you feel alone and lost, confused and frustrated. You might feel like jacking the whole thing in and jumping on the first plane home.
Thats when its time to break out your favorite chocolate from home, a book or movie from your childhood and embrace a little escapism. Your work and personal projects might keep you going and if all else fails, invite an old boyfriend/girlfriend to come and share the experience with you. A comforting hug goes a long way when the local electricity surges and burns out your new Ipod.
Our new home will never be perfect but if you can make it through the first couple of months youll learn to chill out. Sure, maybe the Internet has gone down for the third time that week but its a great day for the beach or a mountain stroll one thing you dont want to pack with you is the stress and rush that became second nature back home.
So if by now youre feeling inspired to hit the road and relocate, hold off on telling your boss to get lost and bid eternal farewells to friends and family. The one thing you dont want to do is burn your bridges you might well end up returning home after a few weeks with your tail between your legs.
The first time I went to India I was sure it would be for the rest of my life. Hey, I was 18. And though the 6 months I spent there were enough to change my life forever, by the end I was desperate to escape the heat, the noise and the crowded streets. I longed for whole wheat bread, clean parks and a beer with old friends. Fortunately, they had the grace not to tease me too much about my vows never to return.
The bottom line is that theres no point in emigrating because your life at home has gone to hell. Whether you move to the hills of Sicily or the beaches of Venezuela, your problems will pack themselves into your suitcases and follow you wherever you go. Believe me, Ive tried it.
But for all that, the old saying about regretting the things you havent done rather than those that you have holds true. Imagine waking up in the morning not to an alarm clock but the sound of lapping waves. Or looking out of your window at mountains rather than concrete buildings.
So what if everyone back home does call you Peter Pan?
Tom Glaister is the founder and editor of www.roadjunky.com - The Online Travel Guide for the Free and Funky Traveller.