Playing Twenty Questions: Life as Expats, Life as Travelers, Life in Lagos, Portugal – Part One
Life is full of milestones and dates that mark important events and this month, we celebrated a significant anniversary. On September 11th, 2012, we locked the door to our house on Padre Island for the last time, turned over the keys to a property manager and set off in an entirely new direction. With the exception of our house (which we sold a couple of years later) and a safe deposit box, everything we owned was
crammed neatly packed in our suitcases. We each had a carry-on and a 24-inch suitcase plus a mid-size backpack when we set off for our first destination in Mexico. Not more than two months later, we ditched the carry-ons and left a pile of clothes and extra shoes behind. For the three-plus years that we traveled full-time, we carried everything we owned in the remaining two suitcases and backpacks.
A few months into our travels, while we were house-sitting for a friend in Antigua, Guatemala, we started our blog and, just as our travel style has evolved over the years, so has our blog. And, while the main focus of our blog is still on our travels, we’ve also begun to write about life as expats in Portugal: the conundrums, the inexplicable differences between life as we knew it in the US and life as it really is in Portugal and some lessons we’ve learned – sometimes the hard way, sometimes the expensive way.
Which brings us to a major update and tweaking of our FAQ page – the questions that we get in our comments section, Facebook and emails and our answers: hopefully helpful, accurate and probably neither pithy nor profound! Here’s our version of Twenty (pertinent) Questions.
THE BIG WHY?
20) Why quit your jobs, leave a home you love along with friends and family and start all over in a completely new direction?
Clichés become clichés for a reason and the phrase “Life is short” seemed to be beating a drum in the year 2011. We’d reached the age where gradually, a few of our friends and close family were battling chronic illnesses and life-threatening diseases. Living the “American Dream” had increasingly lost its allure as the things we owned gave us less pleasure and we started thinking about how to restructure our priorities. In short, although our lives were okay, we were mired in routines that no longer mattered and we missed the anticipation of the ‘What’s next?’ part of living. Having more time to do the things we’d put off for ‘someday’ assumed a greater importance. Instead of waiting for a someday (which might never come) we decided we were ready for a lifestyle reset now.
LIFE AS TRAVELERS AND EXPATRIATES
19) But what did you do with all your stuff?
Imagine the unthinkable – getting rid of everything you own. Selling it, donating it, or gifting it to friends, family and charities. It took us a year to do it but that’s exactly what we did. We passed on family heirlooms to other family members, digitized treasured photos onto DVD’s and uploaded them to our computers and the cloud, figured out what to do with our art collection, became Craig’s List experts and held two garage sales. We leased our house and eventually sold it the third year of our travels.
Tip – Read a book or two on minimizing/simplifying and start slow. It takes time and a major mind reset to let go of your stuff. Two books that we read and recommend are Simplify by Joshua Becker and The Joy of Less by Francine Joy.
18) How do you support your travels?
The question everyone is thinking and no one wants to be rude enough to ask, right? Richard receives a social security check each month (Anita is not too far away from the time she can double that income) and we withdraw savings as needed to allow for a comfortable lifestyle. We’re not about to go bare-bones but we don’t live extravagantly either.
Tip – Either set up a budget or track your daily expenses to be more mindful of where your money goes. It helps us to keep in mind the ‘want versus need’ conundrum.
17) How do you access/transfer your money?
After some research on how to avoid the high foreign transaction fee costs, we decided that the Capital One credit card and Charles Schwab debit cards would work best for us. Capital One has no foreign transaction fees and Charles Schwab reimburses all transaction fees, both foreign and domestic, at the end of each month. Bank of America has a traveler’s plan with no foreign transaction charges also and we use their credit and debit cards as our backup plan in the event of a damaged, lost or stolen card. Richard’s social security is directly deposited into the Charles Schwab account and ready to access by ATM. Also, it’s easy to transfer funds online between Bank of America and Charles Schwab as needed.
Tip – We use our credit card sparingly and for large purchases only to avoid possible credit card fraud. (This might be an example of being too cautious since that leads to the loss of credit card points we could use for future travels.) We withdraw the local currency from the ATM and use that for day-to-day expenses.
16) But how do you get your mail and make/receive calls?
We use a family member’s address (a big shout-out to my sister, Kari, who acts as our fairy godmother) as our official address which allows us to keep a near normal presence in the US. Whenever possible, we opt for the ‘paperless’ route and pay our bills online. Since we’ve been gone for 5 years, the mail is dwindling although apparently, junk mail never dies. We can review our bank transactions, pay credit card bills online, file our taxes and conduct other business as needed. We have a US Skype number that allows us to receive and place phone calls. In short, unless we tell them, no one really needs to know we’re out of the country.
15) How did you deal with your medical needs and emergencies while traveling full-time?
For years we recommended buying an annual policy from Global Medical Insurance (IMG) with a very high deductible to cover us in case of a catastrophic accident or illness. We both had to submit medical records and ended up with different plans with one of us receiving coverage worldwide including the US (as long as we spent at least 6 months outside the US per year) and the other obtaining coverage for any country with the exclusion of the US. We never filed a claim and the costs increased each year at exorbitant rates until we finally dropped the plan. BUPA and CIGNA are also in the same cost bracket. We found that going naked (or without insurance) might be an option to consider as we paid out-of-pocket throughout our travels for all our medical, dental and prescription needs. Healthcare (doctors, dentists, labs) is very reasonable once you leave the US and we’ve been pleased with the professional and knowledgeable people we’ve encountered so far. Of note, our costs for doctor’s visits and prescriptions were ridiculously (but not in a funny way) less than what we were paying in the US for insurance premiums and copays.
Tip – We’ve had several friends recommend World Nomads which is much more affordable.
14) What do you do about your prescription medications?
We each have a list we update regularly of our medications with both the brand and generic names, strength and the condition the medication is treating. This includes vitamins, over-the-counter meds for nausea, cold symptoms, pain and fever, etc. In Mexico, Central and South America as well as many of the Caribbean islands, we didn’t need a written prescription to refill our meds. European countries, too, will allow you to buy a variety of medications without a prescription. Our advice is to stock up on those prescriptions that you can and check at a pharmacy when you arrive to see how to refill what you need. If you need a written prescription, you can get recommendations for a doctor from expat groups, hotels and the local pharmacy.
Tip – Brand and generic names may vary from country to country. Some of the names may be similar to their US counterpart or you may find that a medication you take is not available in another country. Almost all of the pharmacies that we’ve been to have internet access and will look up the medication name and availability if you ask. Sometimes they can order a medication for you, obtain it from another pharmacy or substitute it with a similar medication.
As we guessed, we’re way too wordy so we’ll continue our ‘Twenty Questions’ countdown in Part Two starting with some of the upsides and the downsides of full-time travel and then getting into life as Expats and Residents of Portugal.
By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash