Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Financial Meltdown and Island Living

For many of us, the decision as to whether or not to 'expat' ourselves may very well depend on the next few months.

The world financial system a ppears on the verge of collapse, egged on by a housing bubble and an excess of borrowing. Already in the United States, major investment banks Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers have collapsed, and the large insurer AIG and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have effectively been nationalized by the federal government. It appears many more bank failures are yet to come, and the turmoil threatens to cut off credit and send the U.S. into a major recession.

As they say, if America sneezes, the rest of the world catches the flu. If the United States economy falters further, it will have global repercussions. Many countries depend on exports to the U.S.- a major economic slowdown could be triggered in those nations. Countries like Venezuela and Russia, which have counted on high oil prices, could be hard hit as demand for energy products drop precipitously.

And small islands, which depend on tourists with disposable income, could be hurt very badly.

Why am I mentioning all this? I think a cataclysmic economic event like the one we face could cut both ways. On the one hand, escaping to a small country might be a great idea. Instead of losing one's job and watching one's assets being drained, dollar by dollar, maybe this is an ideal time to cash out now and wait the crisis out. Live on coconuts and fish until the world crisis plays itself out.

On the other hand, if you, like me, own a house, it may be difficult to escape from America or Europe. It is very difficult to sell a house quickly at a profitable price. Furthermore, if your money is tied up in equities, you may want to wait until prices rise again before liquidating your assets.

Further compounding problems is guaging the effect the world economic crisis could have on the country of escape you have chosen. No one wants to live in a part of the world where people are suddenly starving. It is sad to watch and is conducive to an unsafe environment for foreigners.

For right now, I counsel keeping eyes open, and being ready to pick and move on a moment's notice. The coming weeks will give us all more insight on what our next steps ought to be.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Tragedy in Las Bocas del Toro

A confession: I sometimes act dismissive toward my wife when she tells me some of the beaches are not safe in her home country of Mauritius. My pledge is to not act this way again, after reading this article:

A fisherman off the northeast coast of Panama found the body of a Santa Monica High School English teacher Sunday, three days after he was swept off a beach and drowned, his friends said Sunday…

The article goes on to explain how this particular beach did not have any warning signs posted: Apparently, the local government in Bocas del Toro thinks giving people fair warning might hurt tourism.

May Mr. Lutz’s soul rest in eternal peace and I wish to send my personal condolences to his family. There is nothing more devastating than the loss of a child, and one can only hope the Lutz family will have their pain healed through time and whatever spiritual resources available to them.

But this should be a stark warning to all of us who travel to or wish to live on an island. Read as much as you can about the country you are visiting, and get to know what the dangers are. If you find an isolated beach that looks appealing, perhaps it’s better to ask the locals about it first. And never ignore a posted warning no matter how calm the ocean may look calm at the moment. All it takes is one wave to sweep a person out to sea.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Offshore Drilling Insanity

Normally, I plan to steer this blog away from politics. This journal is specifically intended for discussion of individual lifestyle and worklife planning and, as such, is meant to appeal to an audience of broad political and social views. However, occasionally policy collides with the world of offshore telecommuting, and where it does so, I will not shy from expressing my opinions.

The recent crisis related to rising gas prices has once again ignited the debate about so-called “offshore drilling. The practice was banned for certain protected areas in American waters by the U.S. Congress in the 1980s, which was later supplemented by an Executive Order from President George H.W. Bush. The oil companies, with the help of the Republican Party, the Bush Administration and Presidential candidate John McCain, have turned the public in favor of revisiting the issue. In an election year, even Democratic candidate for President Barack Obama is starting to waffle. The debate has begun anew: with skyrocketing gas prices, should currently protected areas be re-open to drilling for oil and natural gas?

The crazy thing about this 'debate' is that it seems to be completely disconnected from the real world. The U.S. government believes that there are about 18 billion barrels of oil in the areas in question, which amounts to about an extra two million barrels of oil for 25 years, and even that amount would not be forthcoming for another five to ten years.

With current global oil production approximating 85 million barrels per day, the extra two million barrels would increase supply by a paltry 2.4%. In other words, all this new drilling near some of the most scenic coastline in America, at best, will lower prices by a few pennies.

Oil companies and politicians that support offshore drilling claim that there is only a minimal danger to the environment. Perhaps they are right. If so, the debate really ought to be about the potential damage to the environment and economy of the states affected, versus the very small decrease in gas prices which might be realized a decade or more from now.

But that’s not what the discussion is about. It is about a fantasy in which supporters of offshore drilling imply,, that gasoline prices will drop by large amounts immediately. Take this recent quote from John McCain: "“We’re not going to pay $4 dollars a gallon for gas (when I am president) because we are going to drill offshore and we are going to drill now. "

So why, as an expat wannabe, am I so greatly concerned about the potential damage to American oceans and beaches? Two reasons: One, I am still an American and will always patronize beaches in the States. Secondly, the offshore drilling madness will surely not be isolated to the United States. Watch out as some of our most pristine island getaways feel the pressure to allow drilling near there shores.

My hope is that rationality will finally enter this discussion. If the public wants to support the policy being proposed by Bush, McCain, and Obama, it should only do so knowing the potential gas price decreases are minimal. Unfortunately, the U.S. media coverage I have seen so far does not give me much hope that the people will be given the facts.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Mental Preparation for the Offshore Life

Getting your financial and health safety net in order is only part of getting ready for the big leap into the unknown. Just as important is mental preparation: Pulling up stakes and moving abroad is not an easy step for anyone. Having realistic expectations and bracing oneself for the inevitable culture shock, loneliness and sometime physical hardship is essential to making the experience pay off. As an ex-colleague of mine, whom I referred to in my first post, stated:

Island life is often terrific, but it is not 100% paradise that we all experience when on holiday.

Though I often throw around the word ‘paradise’ loosely, the truth is that moving from the bustling big city to a tranquil, tropical location is often about trading one set of problems for another. In New York sources of stress may include the hyper-paced lifestyle and the constant traffic jams. On the other hand, stress from an island paradise may be induced by not speaking the local language, not understanding the customs or, even worse, a hurricane or other natural disaster.

I am not trying to discourage anyone from getting motivated to making an ex-pat move; on the contrary, I am working hard to make such a move for myself. But I have already had a small taste of this life- I spent six months in Honduras in 1995. And the one lesson I learned, above all, is that if one is going to make a move like this, it is better to dive in with eyes wide open. That way, when tough times come, as they inevitably will, you will be prepared to minimize the chances that you’ll be discouraged enough to prematurely end your international living experiment.

To prepare one, I suggest the following:

Read reports and testimonies from those who have gone before you. Understand the types of ordeals that can happen and how others have dealt with them. Ingrain in your own mind to expect these problems, so you won’t be unduly shocked when they come along

Concurrently, enjoy your life to its fullest as it is now. If the ex-pat life will not be perfect, do not spend too much time discounting the everyday joy of living where you are now.

The biggest mistake is to waste excessive hours dreaming about how your life will be perfect when you are lying on the beach with a drink in hand. There are things to enjoy here and now that you will miss once you leave the U.S.

If your ex-pat move is done right, it will endow upon you very great benefits. But there will be inevitable moments when you wonder, “Have I done the right thing?” Realistic expectations and preparation can minimize those moments and make your move a transformative experience.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Plan, Plan, Plan

For those of us fortunate (and hard working) enough to have millions in the bank, deciding whether or not to live as an ex-patriate in our favorite country of choice is rather simple. There is little need for debate, just a decision to take action. And should things not work out in Bocas del Toro or Palau, there is always a nice cushion of funds to ease the way back home. It also goes without saying that for ex-pat millionaires, there is not necessarily a need to find a job in the country of one’s choice: the interest from the bank will do quite nicely, thank you.

However, for most of us, the decision to pick up everything and move abroad is quite a painful one. It can require a leap of faith that feels much too dangerous. Most of us will go wobbly, and ultimately, keep putting the decision off.

The reasons are obvious. Pulling up stakes and going to another country can risk our careers and our health. The prospective ex-pat may consider going to Mauritius to open a motor scooter rental shop, but what happens if the business fails and he quickly runs out of money. Then what? How easy will it be easy to find another job back at home?

For American ex-pats, the dilemma is even worse than for Brits, Aussies or citizens of continental Europe. The United States is one of the few countries without universal health coverage. For people who have health insurance but have a chronic, pre-existing condition, the risk of losing coverage is a huge impediment. A failed American ex-pat faces the prospect, if her or his relocation, does not work out, of coming back to the States without a job, or health care coverage, or any kind of social safety net.

As a youth, I made a crazy leap of faith once that taught me a lesson. Even leaps of faith must be backed by proper planning. I quit my government job at the age of 23, believing I was going to write the great American novel. A year later I was serving coffee and muffins and trying to find my way back to an office job. And no, I did not publish a thing.

Following your bliss is essential: but so is planning for contingencies. What if things don’t work out? What if you get sick of the island pace of life after a year? What if you run out of funds? What if you or a family member gets sick and feels the need to return. These are all contingencies that must be thought out.

The danger is that, in planning for contingencies, you can talk yourself out of the move all together. While I don’t advocate pulling up stakes and moving without a plan, neither do I think one needs to get oneself in a tizzy over ‘what ifs…’. The happy medium is to have a plan, and plenty of money, to get back home, if need be. Don’t be foolish, but don’t be a coward either. I have a friend who has quit his job at least three times in his life to go backpacking around America. Each time, he has landed on his feet, with no problem at all.

The first piece of advice is: don’t burn any bridges. Give your boss plenty of notice, and leave on good terms. If you can’t work out a remote work arrangement before leaving, at least make sure there is the possibility of returning to your old job. My second caution is to have enough money in the bank- and this is money you cannot spend in your new country of choice- to live for six months without a job. Finally, there is health care. If you can at all afford, it try to keep your health insurance while you’re trying your new country out. Of course, you’ll have to have a physical address on record (that is where friends and family come in handy).

Draw your plan out. Figure out how much money you will need to live a year in your new country, how much it would cost to move there and back, and how much money is needed to maintain health care. If you don’t have pre-existing conditions in the family, you might be able to skip the last part. If, after all that planning, you don’t have at least six months worth of money to live off of, seriously consider waiting and saving.

These are not hard and fast rules. Each person must build his or her own plan. But please, please, don’t just leap out there without any idea of contingency. Every leap of faith needs a safety net below.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Some Useful Links

This has been a busy week for me, which means little time for writing, so I will use today to provide useful links for telecommuting and ex-pat living.

As far as I am concerned, the best web site for learning the expat leap is Escape from America. It has tons of articles on issues ranging from dealing with tax issues to advice on running your own motor scooter business, and has good country specific information on many of the most popular ex-pat hideaways

Another very good site is from the author of the 4 Hour Work Week, Tim Ferriss. One of these days I plan to do a review of the audio book, which I listened to on my mp3 player. Ferriss has lived in destinations from Taiwan to Argentina, and he definitely talks the talks when it comes to demonstrating how one can live and work remotely from just about anywhere in the world.

In terms of telecommuting/teleworking, the best blog I have discovered is Telecommuting Journal, run by someone known only as Lisa. Lisa scours the web for the latest articles related to telecommuting trends, and has several good articles on the challenges and opportunities brought about by the information age. Best as I can tell, Lisa works from a fairly remote, somewhere in Rural U.S.A.

If anyone knows of any good ex-pat blogs, please send me the links. I have been unable to find any other good telework blogs besides Lisa’s.

A decent public interest groups that advocates expanded telework is The Telework Coalition. If you want some good original research on telecommuting, go to Undress4success.com.

I will post more links as I think of or come across them.


How could I forget Transitions Abroad?

And I have found a couple of good expat blogs: one in Caye Caulker and one in Seychelles. I will keep looking for more.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Death of Coral Reefs?

Anyone interested in living in, or traveling to, a tropical paradise, should be depressed by this news.

A third of the world’s coral species are threatened with extinction, according to an international study that revealed rapid and alarming deterioration in the state of coral reefs over the past 10 years.

Many will have disappeared by the end of the century unless global warming, pollution and over-fishing are curbed, warned scientists in the most damning and definitive assessment on tropical corals yet delivered.

This is a very alarming development. My gut reaction is to blame global warming as the primary cause. However, it appears there may be another culprit that could cause even more death among coral species:

But they warn that all of these may be eclipsed by the threat of rising ocean acidity caused by increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide, which could eventually dissolve the calcium carbonate skeletons of reef-building corals.

Of course, reducing CO2 emissions is also a solution to the global warming crisis. I will have more to post on this disconcerting issue in the not too distant future.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Technology Services in Paradise

Although my personal tropical getaway will not likely be the country of Belize, sometimes I wish it were.

I visited the former "British Honduras" in 1994 and 1995 and had a fabulous time. On my first visit, a buddy of mine, Scott, and I flew into Cancun, and then took a bus up to the border. From there we went to the interior of the country, a place called San Ignacio, where we had a fabulous time traipsing through the jungle and taking a small skiff down the river.

The following year, I met my mother and some of her friends for a trip to Caye Caulker and San Pedro. This was also quite relaxing: the signs read ‘No Shirts, No Shoes…No Problem”. I especially remember “the Split” in Caye Caulker, and I recall a local resident telling me about a research biologist who had developed “chronic fatigue syndrome” and decided to do all the writing up of her studies from the safety of her hammock in Caye Caulker.

The beauty of Belize as an Expat destination is easy to see. You get the best of many worlds…the island life for beachcombers and scuba divers and plenty of jungle hikers and campers. Furthermore, the native language is English (even though the local version may be challenging to understand at times) and the country is sparsely populated, meaning very little traffic and few crowds Finally, Belize is blessed with a stable political democracy, unlike the surrounding countries in Central America, and is friendly to ex-pats and foreign investment.

The only negative about this wonderful country, at least at the time I visited, is that the capital, Belize City, is regarded as crime ridden and dangerous compared to the rest of the country. For what it’s worth, I wandered the streets of the City for a day or two and never felt threatened, though I did get a couple of surly looks. But fortunately, the rest of the country is nothing like the capital, so you can avoid most of the problems of this country simply by staying away from Belize City completely.

Even though I probably won’t expat myself in Belize, the place I am planning to live in shares many similarities. Therefore, I am interested to find out how American expats are doing in Belize. My first discovery was the aforementioned Pat Stiley. Now a Google search has uncovered another American that has made a successful transition to Belize.

Alex and his wife decided that life was too short to be stuck in big city traffic. After visiting Belize for several years, they moved to Caye Caulker in 2005.

Way to go Alex and wife! Although they are not technically telecommuting, it’s probably the next best thing. Hopefully, one day I will be able to have a short interview with Alex and see if he has any tips for those of us who wish to follow in his footsteps.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Toiling from Belize

I did a quick Google search to see if I could find a good example of someone in the real world who has mastered the "island commute". Although the article is from 2000, I have found a good example:
Pat Stiley is a workers compensation and criminal-defense lawyer who has a practice based in Spokane, Wash., but lives in Belize. He uses the Internet to do legal research and also relies on cyber cafes and e-mail. Clients have met with him over the phone; Stiley still won his cases while arguing them in Superior Court via phone. "Except when interrupted by hurricanes, I'm usually online at least once a day," he says. "Not sure what my partners and employees think of all this, but I rather suspect they like having me out of their hair."

I did some further research to find out Mr. Stiley lives in San Pedro, Ambergis Key. Not bad.
I traveled to Belize in the mid-90s and absolutely loved it. Mr. Stiley, it appears, is definitely finding the lifestyle many of us only dream about.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Not Living in Paradise Yet...

I am setting up this blog for anyone (especially, myself) who is currently working in a typical nine to five job with two weeks vacation time but wishes to design a new life. It is for people who desire to take advantage of modern telecommunications advances to work remotely from the location of their choice, including foreign countries.

The inspiration comes partially from my recent listening of the audiobook Four Hour Work Week , but mostly from the reality of my personal life: My wife hails from a tropical island that is very far away from the United States, and my and I are constantly wrestling with the idea of moving there, or at least finding a way to visit there more often. Jini misses her family and frankly, I've always dreamed of living close to the beach. Yet, at the same time, we are aware that paradise is not always paradise.

As an ex-coworker of mine who already telecommutes from an island wrote to me in a recent email:

..island life is very appealing from some perspectives (slow pace, relaxing, friendly people and sea at your doorstep), but on the other hand, it can also make you crazy (sporadic services, lack of infrastructure, no customer service, unkept appointments, maintenance, getting parts, etc).

Thankfully, modern technology opens up new possibilities and it's not necessarily an either or situation. IP technology and endless amounts of bandwidth means that, at least in theory, many if not most office workers can do their work from anywhere on the planet with a high speed connection. I say in theory, because the reality still exists that some bosses want their employees to be where they can keep an eye on them, or at least close enough so that they can call the occassional impromtu face-to-face meeting.

In the coming weeks and months, I hope to explore various challenges and opportunities in telecommuting and ex-pat living. And my hope is that the world without borders will become a reality not just for me, but for many others in a similar mindset.