As the economic crisis deepens and Americans everywhere are facing the prospect of unemployment, a steady source of income would seem hard to come by. Employers are pessimistic, competition for new jobs is tough and small businesses are struggling to turn a profit. Meanwhile the rent is still high, the bills are coming in and the banks are in no mood to talk about loans.
So why not just leave?
When I hit the road at the age of 18 and announced my intention to travel forever, my friends and family just laughed: "How do you expect to make a living?" they asked.
I had no idea but I reasoned there were a million jobs out there waiting for me. Since then I've taught English, run a jewelery stall in the street, exported incense, been a tour guide, translated documents, sold hammocks on the market, taught guitar, worked on festivals and currently run niche websites and write freelance articles.
Working abroad allows you to live somewhere exotic, get to grips with another culture in a more meaningful way than a vacation could ever allow and generally help you expand your horizons. You can make good money while living cheaply and when you come home your resume will look just that much more interesting than the rest.
You might think you lack the skills to get a job abroad but the chances are that if you're reading this you're already qualified — become an English teacher! All across the world there's a huge and growing demand for native English speakers to come and teach in schools and kindergartens. Globalization means that the ability to speak English is increasingly considered essential for anyone in places like Asia and Latin America who wants to get ahead.
The big money teaching English is in South Korea and Japan, the former being so desperate for English speakers to come and conjugate verbs that they'll even pay for your flight and sometimes provide an apartment. Both countries require that you have a college degree but it could be in industrial design for all they really care. At the end of the day all they really want is a certified American, Canadian or Brit to convince the students it's worth handing over the course fees.
Having said that, there's no harm doing an English teaching course before you go and you might even get a better job as a result. Most TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certificates aren't worth the paper they're printed on, however, and only a Cambridge/RSA CELTA or Trinity TESOL qualification will open doors to high-paid positions in universities and the like.
Most English teaching in East Asia, though, is based around crowd control — the chances are you'll be teaching kids. The work ethic in places like Korea, Japan and Taiwan is so intense that parents fret about their children falling behind at the age of 5. To make sure they stand every chance of winning the rat race they send their kids off to "cram schools" after regular school hours to be terrorized by hairy white foreigners in cheap suits.
I lasted 3 days in the Taiwanese kindergarten that hired me on a trial basis. There were 30 infants in the class, half of whom cowered at the back with one eye on the door, others still ignored everything I said and gazed out the window with one finger up their nose while another 3 or 4 brats screeched out the answers before I finished each question.
My colleague, Matt from Ohio, had a class full of adolescents to deal with. When I asked him how he managed to keep order he just grinned.
"If they give me any trouble I just make 'em do push ups."
English teachers can find work pretty easily also in Thailand, Cambodia and, closer to home, Mexico and Costa Rica. You can check out job postings and advice on the spectacularly useful www.daveseslcafe.com.
If managing classes of screaming Asian kids isn't exactly your dream job, you can always make the most of your new expatriate status to run your own tour company. Sure, you might not know much about your new country but if you can pick up enough of the language and make some local friends to actually do the work for you then there's a living to be made looking after folks on vacation.
When living in Rio de Janeiro a few years ago, I set up www.anythinginrio.com, where I pretended to have an established package tour company. I offered to meet clients at the airport, find them apartments, take them around town to see the sights and then show them the best of the Rio nightlife. The beauty of having a website is that the clients imagined I ran a busy office with secretaries and fax machines rather than just being a scruffy expatriate who checked in a couple of times a day at an internet cafe.
As it happened, by the time the site began to really pick up traffic I had already left Brazil but my Brazilian ex-girlfriend was happy to play the role of tour guide. She had a car and knew the city like the back of her hand and ran all the tours for me. I asked her how much she wanted for each custom package and then added 25% on for myself, making my cut through a few emails.
If you have some business savvy but can't be bothered setting up a website and dealing with tourists, then there's always the import/export route. Head somewhere like India or Indonesia and it's jaw-dropping how little things cost. Labor is so cheap that it's almost free and you can get your own range of clothing designed, package your own brand of incense or, if you know what you're doing, buy quantities of merchandise to supply the shops back home. Just remember that it's far easier to buy than sell.
On my first trip to India I had a few hundred bucks set aside to invest in an export enterprise and my eye settled on a handicrafts shop with the words Professional Exporters written above the door.
"Aha," I thought, "This is the place for me!"
I walked in, bought 30 pounds of beautiful clay pots, ashtrays and pipes, instructing them to sculpt marijuana leaves on each to increase their market value back home. Although eager to please, the Indian craftsmen didn't seem to know the difference between a cannabis leaf and a branch of sage but time was running out and so off to the post office we went.
This is the first time I've done this! the owner merrily confided in me as we attached over a couple hundred 10 rupee stamps to the parcel, making sure each one was rubber-stamped so they wouldn't get stolen en route. The seeds of foreboding sewn then were confirmed 2 months later when the postman arrived at my doorstep back home with a box full of shattered clay. While the professional exporters had thoughtfully included a sheet of newspaper between the pots as a protective measure, it might have been better had I packed my investment myself.
I could fill an article with the disasters of my successive export plans over the years but I hung around enough with successful merchants to learn the basics: either you buy lots of something cheap or, if you know what you're doing, a few specialty items at a high price— get stuck in the middle and you'll fill your parents' garage with your unsold stock for years to come. And whatever you do, don't buy gems — the 'sell a tourist an emerald' scam is the oldest in the book.
For those looking for a little more adventure with their travels there's always a steady demand for fruit picking. While in America it might be considered the domain of Latin immigrants without papers, in Europe and Australia itinerant workers can make good money by working 12 hours days for the fortnight or so it takes to pick the crop. There's nowhere to spend the money you earn and you should make enough to pay for the physiotherapy sessions you'll need afterwards.
While farmers couldn't generally care less about whether you're legally entitled to pick fruit in their country, there are other risks; friends in Australia told me that the tedium of picking plums was fortunately offset by the constant paranoia of encountering a poisonous red-back spider. Fruit-picking is also pretty hard work which is why the closest I've ever come was clipping marijuana in California — but the less said about that the better.
If you prefer not to get your hands dirty you might prefer a glamorous job like being a trip leader, visiting the most beautiful sites in the world with a group of colorful travelers in tow as you astonish them with your vast repertoire of anecdotes from the road. Or so you might think.
Ha, being a trip leader is an uncertain cross between guide, organizer, baby sitter, nurse and entertainer, a friend in the profession laughed at me. Yes, he was paid to run trips to Peru, Tibet and Paris but he also had to wake up at 2 a.m. when his clients needed to know how to make a long-distance telephone call home or plug in an adapter for their digital camera.
A tour leader needs to be an efficient person capable of getting 20 retired holiday makers into buses, restaurants, hotels and around tourist sites without anyone getting lost, having a nervous breakdown or getting ripped off. The pay would seem to be miserable (averages at $30 a day) but all your expenses are taken care of and there's always the chance to make commission on the restaurants, theaters and hotels where you steer your clients.
Less lucrative but more rewarding are jobs working on yachts. In harbors across the world there are rich people with yachts who need help sailing around the world or who need their boats delivered across oceans while they take the plane. Naturally, it would help if you knew something about sailing but that didn't stop a friend of mine from New Jersey who landed in Sydney, Australia and just started chatting up yacht owners at the harbor.
It was only once we were out at sea that I had to ask how to tie knots, my friend grinned, Then they'd swear at me a bit and show me what to do. I learned in no time.
For the next 6 months he worked taking out tourists on yachts to see the whales that were mating not far off the coast.
There's no real limit to the jobs you can find abroad. If you've got some initiative and a positive attitude you can always find a way. Like a girl I knew who made a fortune in London going from office to office giving shoulder massage. Or a guy I met in Mexico who bought silver rings and necklaces in Tasco and then sold them on the beaches of Cancun making $100 a day.
And if you're not in it for the money, there are a million places where a little enthusiasm and good will can make a huge difference. From kids in orphanages who need someone to organize activities, to families in refugee camps who need to learn English, volunteering abroad can be one of the most fulfilling things you could ever do. And you really will be saving the world — one world at a time.
Idealist.org is a good place to start.
And if you do manage to make some money abroad in whatever job you eventually find, the profits can pay for months of lying on the beach living on $8 a day somewhere in the tropics. At least that's pretty much been my strategy for the last 14 years and I've only had to work jobs 13 months in that time as a result.
Which means that the next time I do find myself in need of employment I'm going to have to get really creative with my resume.
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