For today’s interview, we have Amanda from Backpacker Hub — a seasoned traveler with lots of great stories to share.
In 1993, Amanda decided to stop wasting money on university and instead went on a trip to Europe, where she got hooked on travel. When she got home to Vancouver, she immediately began saving up for her next trip. For more than 10 years, Amanda repeated this cycle of traveling and working at home to save up. In 2008, she decided to settle down in Vancouver, but now she has itchy feet and is saving up to take off again!
Amanda has taken on many different jobs, both at home and abroad. She has taught English in various countries, gone drinking with Japanese businessmen and translated menus in exchange for free meals.
This is a long interview, but also one that’s jam-packed with information. So brew a cup of coffee and enjoy!
To start with, here’s a rough timeline of Amanda’s travels. (Click on image to view the full size.)
From 1993 to 2007, I was a meandering soul. I would save up and go abroad until the money ran out, return home, work/save and then go again. For some trips, I worked abroad so I could stay longer and immerse myself in the local culture.
What was your first trip like, Amanda?
In 1993, I had just finished my first year of university and knew I didn’t want to go back. I was bored and dissatisfied. I figured that for what I learned, I could have paid $2 for a library card rather than shelling out over $6,000 a year on tuition, books and living expenses. I wanted to see famous paintings and sculptures firsthand rather than having them projected on a classroom wall and I wanted to learn a new language in its native environment, not from a book.
So I left university, moved back in with my parents and worked two jobs for four months — a camp counselor by day and a busser at a fancy German restaurant by night. By the end of August 1993, I had about $2,000, a one-way ticket to England and a UK working holiday visa. I didn’t have any work lined up; my cousin had just returned from the UK and advised me to simply show up and scout the local papers or agencies for positions.
After a week in London, I met an Australian woman who was on her way home after leaving a job as a nanny in Milan. The spot was vacant, I interviewed for it and the next thing I knew I was on a plane bound for Milan.
For the next four months, I lived with an Italian family, went to an Italian school for foreigners and visited different cities during my time off. I spent another few months traveling down the coast and over to the westernmost point of Sicily, then took a ferry to Tunisia.
Tell me more about the jobs you held in Vancouver from 1993 to 2007.
After coming home, the first thing I wanted to do was land back on my feet again quickly — gather enough funds for the next journey.
Some of the jobs I have had include:
Line worker in wetsuit factory
Mind-numbing repetitive work. I folded, tagged and packaged wetsuits for shipping. The plus side was working with an incredible group of Sikh ladies who shared their culture with me—from sampling food and recipes to showing me the latest dance moves in Punjab. Hell, I was getting my eyebrows threaded (a typical break-time activity) before threading became popular.
I worked at a café during the day and a restaurant in the evenings. And because I wanted to teach English overseas, I began volunteering at language classes run by a non-profit organization for new immigrants to Canada.
I was home to sort out visas and wanted something fairly short-term. I got a job in a greenhouse — watering plants, moving trays around, replanting etc.
After gaining ESL experience for two years abroad, I was hired by a Vancouver ESL school as an activities coordinator and teaching assistant. I was in the classroom helping out with lessons in the mornings and then in the afternoons planning after-school activities for the students.
Eventually, I worked my way up to an ESL instructor and from 2001 to 2005 I was teaching classes. Having a class of international students fed the travel bug.
What about the jobs on the road?
In Australia, I worked my way up the west coast: a café in Fremantle; a fast food chain in Perth; fruit-picking for a few days near Katherine; and I was a server in Darwin.
On my first trip to Japan, I worked as hostess. On my return to Japan, I worked as an ESL instructor. From there, teaching English stuck and allowed me to head to Colombia and Korea on contracts.
The most interesting job was being a hostess. All the girls who worked at this club were native English speakers. Basically it was a place where businessmen would come, chill out, have a few drinks, sing karaoke and practice their English. (Yes, I have heard of other clubs that definitely have more extreme activities, but this wasn’t one of them.) I lived with seven girls from work. Each night, we were shuttled to the club and got paid to drink and chat with our customers. Our days were free, as were our Sundays, so we had time to explore the surrounding areas like Osaka, Kyoto and Nara. I met some incredible people and had fun doing it. It never really felt like work.
Throughout Indonesia, I would exchange services like editing and creating a proper English menu for meals — a quick and easy way to ease the pocketbook.
Many people would like to teach ESL abroad. What are some of the best resources for them to get started?
A good starting point is Dave’s ESL Cafe. There are job boards and external links. I would suggest looking at what qualifications are required for the job postings. Some want a TESL/TESOL/TEFL certificate and/or degree. Others may not be so stringent.
I would advise taking a TESL/TESOL/TEFL course. Just because you are a native speaker doesn’t automatically qualify you to teach it. There are so many grammar rules and exceptions that we use naturally. Perhaps we haven’t thought about those rules or how to explain them to students. A course will definitely give you background and confidence. If you are lucky, there will also be a job search component in the curriculum to assist with landing a job before you leave.
When was the lowest financial point in all your 20 years of travel?
I have been really fortunate and never gotten into a destitute situation — stupid situations, yes, but never one of despair.
One of my stupidest moves was when I left Indonesia. I had about $10 worth of rupiahs. I was heading to Kuala Lumpur, so I handed it over to my Indonesian friend. I figured I could hit the ATM once I landed in KL. As I went through immigration, I was told I overstayed my 60-day visa by a day (stupid mistake #1) and that I would need to pay a fine. But I had no cash left (stupid mistake #2).
I was taken into the office, where I told them my story, begged to catch my flight and then started offering anything valuable — my watch and my Walkman — so they could let me go. In the end, they never took my items and escorted me in a mad dash to catch my plane. Every passenger was seated patiently waiting for me.
The passenger next to me, a lovely Indonesian businesswoman, saw me flustered and asked what happened. I told her the story. As we got off the plane, she asked how long of a layover I had. It was about two hours. She had a similar wait and suggested I join her. I figured we would walk around or chat in the waiting area, instead she took me to a little airport restaurant. In a matter-of-fact way, she said, “If you don’t have money, you can’t buy lunch. Now, what would you like to eat?”
What I love most about traveling are those unexpected moments of pure kindness and compassion from strangers along the way.
How do you stay within your travel budget?
Before I leave, I have a rough idea of a daily budget, but it isn’t set in stone. I think when we become so focused on being frugal, we miss opportunities.
For example, if there is a chance to take a bike tour down the side of a volcano, I will do it as I may never have this chance again. But the next day, I will eat simpler or find simpler accommodation.
In 2008, you got a full-time job in Vancouver. How did you land this job?
From 2002 to 2004, I returned to school to study communications/public relations. After I graduated and saw the job market in PR wasn’t that great, I debated my next step but worked as an ESL teacher to save for another journey.
As fate would have it, an opportunity presented itself to teach in Colombia. A new language, a new culture and a new destination. Three weeks to prepare and I was packed up and gone.
I returned to Vancouver in 2006 for a few more weeks and started job searching again in PR, but still not much was out there. I was offered a three-month teaching opportunity in Korea — of course I took it.
Once the three months were up, I came back to Vancouver in late 2006 and started teaching again, all the while taking trips when I needed to recharge (a month in Croatia/Italy/Hungary and two weeks in Mexico).
It wasn’t until early 2007 that I figured I would try to grow roots. By late 2008, I had found a job and focused my energy on that.
Looking back, I think I was tired of bouncing around. All my belongings could fit in my backpack and a cubic-meter storage locker. I needed to stretch out for a bit.
I hate to say it, but I think I also caved into societal pressures to grow up and settle down. It wasn’t as common then as it is now for females to set out on continual journeys. I mean, look at all the groups on Twitter or blogs that are available today. There is so much more support and dialogue now to foster this wandering tendency.
But after being “grounded” for the past 7 years, I am definitely plotting my next moves to pick up where I left off in 2007. These past 5 years have allowed me to gain some great skills and realize that I am far more comfortable in a wet suit than a wool suit.
How do you balance your limited time with your wanderlust?
I have 15 days of paid vacation each year, and trust me, I use each and every day for travel or local-ish escapes. Over the course of 5 years, I have spent three weeks in Belize, three weeks in Indonesia, two weeks in Grand Cayman and several week-long trips to Mexico, Jamaica, Dominican Republic and Cuba, as well as some extended weekend trips to Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and around BC and Alberta.
I try to use my vacation time to coincide with national holidays. For example, taking vacation during Easter gives me an additional two days where I am not using standard vacation time; sandwich that with a weekend and it’s like having four free vacation days. I also try to get away every four months or so. Something else that helps me stay sane is to do more things locally — be a tourist in your hometown — on the weekends.
I’ve also started a travel blog and have developed a workshop curriculum for new travelers titled Backpacking from A to Z. I have delivered this workshop twice now through Trade School Vancouver and so far, it has been a great success.
Vancouver is one of the most expensive cities in North America. How do you save money?
It is tough to live in Vancouver and maintain a healthy social life while attempting to save. With the vibrant culinary culture in this city, it is easy to use 15% of my income for monthly entertainment. If I were to put my mind to it, I could reduce this by half without too much effort.
I have been slowly putting things into play. Last year, I downsized my apartment and am paying slightly under-market rent but it still eats away about 26% of my income. In July, I got rid of my cable (a $50/month savings). My student loan is almost paid off, so that will be another $130/month that can be thrown in the travel piggy bank. It really is about mapping out a better budget and sticking to it.
(If you’re saving for travel, check out this page for ideas to maximize your savings — no budgets required!)
I am also starting to toy with the idea of looking at different freelance opportunities or tutoring on the side.
How do you balance saving for travel and for your future?
My employer offers an RRSP (Canadian retirement savings plan) matching program. So each month, the contribution is taken off my pay cheque, matched and placed in my portfolio. I don’t see the money, which is good — one less thing for me to worry about.
I also throw money in my TFSA (tax-free savings account) every quarter or contribute additional amounts into my RRSP.
Whatever is left goes in the travel piggy bank, but that pig is awfully skinny. It is time for me to buckle down with the finances and fatten him up for some travel slaughter.
Has your travel style changed as you travel the world for 20 years?
I have always traveled simply. But now, having more disposable income, I am not forced to bunk in a hostel; instead, I will opt for a private room in a hostel. I will typically choose a modest bungalow or quaint cabana over a shiny hotel complex. For longer travel, I like to find my own accommodation and mix it up — from budget to splurge, as long as the budget balances.
However, my week-long escapes to the Caribbean have landed me in all-inclusive resorts. From a financial perspective, it can often be a similar price to finding your own flights, accommodation and meals. And honestly, if I only have seven days, I want things to be easy. But unlike a lot of all-inclusive guests, I will get off the compound as much as possible. I will pass on the buffet dinner to find local road-side taco shacks or escape into Havana for a few nights and rent a room in a casa particular.
I prefer local transport (with humans and chickens) over air-conditioned tour buses and street meat cooked on an open spit. I think this gives you a better chance to mingle with the locals and provides a far richer experience than zipping from one destination to the next via a fancy tour bus.
I am a backpacker at heart and won’t trade the pack for a wheelie suitcase!
What are your travel plans now?
I am definitely plotting an escape. The idea is to take at least a year off. I will start in Mexico and either head south to Central/South America or jump around the Caribbean. I guess it will depend on the season, which way the winds blow and what opportunities present themselves. Know anyone that needs crew on a Caribbean yacht?
(End of interview)
I don’t know about you, but I for one learned a lot from Amanda’s experiences. If you like her stories as much as I do, head on over to Backpacker Hub or Twitter to connect with Amanda. And seriously, if you know a Caribbean yacht that’s looking for someone, let Amanda know. ;)