Guys, I see you.
I see you landing on my site after Googling, “how to move to Roatan”. “How to move to another country”. “How to work as a dive instructor in another country”. “How much do divemasters make”. (That one is easy. Not much.)
I feel ya dudes. I did those Googles too. And about 755,000 more.
I know what it’s like to look around your office and see people who have been there longer than you, and thinking, “is this all I have to look forward to in my life?” I know what it’s like to be in a soul-sucking job that you struggle to get through every. single. day. Living for the weekends and your measly two weeks of vacation. It fucking sucks, and I know that. I lived in one of the most expensive cities in the world (this post has almost the exact breakdown of my expenses there, sit down before reading), and I could barely afford to take my shitty two weeks of vacation, never mind saving for a home, emergencies, a car, retirement, etc. And I was working as a paralegal, guys – I had a well-paying job!
I get so many emails from my readers who find my site and write me to tell me they are inspired (blushing!!) and want to leave their job and do their own cubicle throwdown, whether it’s diving-related or some other passion they want to pursue (some of them are eager to follow my exact footsteps on Roatan and have successfully done so – love ya Lauren!!). I remember that eager feeling and it comes blasting through in their emails and I love it.
They tell me all about their jobs, their lives, and what they are hoping to break free from. They confide their hopes and dreams to me, and lay out their fears or things they think might hold them back. And after they do all that, they drop the bomb.
“So, do you think I should do it?”
I get to this part of the their email, and every single time my heart drops. I instantly feel pressure mounting. What if I give them the wrong piece of advice and they blame me? What if, after reading about their life/situation, I actually don’t think a cubicle throwdown is a great idea for them? Or what if I send them off on their merry way and they hate their new life? I can help you with questions like “which dive shop on Roatan should I do my divemaster training at?”…but I can’t help you with whether or not you should do it.
(Yeah, I know these are adults and they’re responsible for their own lives and blah blah blah. But I feel a sense of responsibility when they are reaching out to me for help.)
So – here’s what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna write out HOW and WHY my throwdown worked for me (and what DIDN’T work) and what I’ve learned so far through my own, and watching hundreds of others do it on Roatan. You can read it over and decide how to apply it to your situation. And then you’re gonna have to think long and hard, and be honest with yourself, and decide if that’s something you want to do. At the end of the day, this kind of decision isn’t something that someone else can make for you. I don’t know you! (As much as I would love to get to know you all!) I don’t know the intricacies of your soul, your personal quirks, and your levels of adaptability and flexibility (PS. those levels need to be 100% if you’re considering this kind of leap). You might not either, until you test them out yourself. Your job is to gather information rather than advice, apply that information to yourself, and then make your decision.
So you want to move to Roatan? Or somewhere else? Read on for my cubicle throwdown guide.
1) You will need money. Probably a lot.
You really need to research this field long before your departure date. When I decided to move to Roatan, I had to budget how much money I would need to do all my dive courses, buy a full set of dive gear, buy a scooter, live for the three months during my dive training with no work, and a 4-month cushion of living expenses in case I couldn’t find work right away. You can read the 2012 archives of my blog if you want to hear about me riding the struggle bus trying to come up with all this money while I was still working and living in Vancouver, which wasn’t cheap. I ended up having to sell tons of my belongings, my car, and worked two full time jobs for six months to save the money. I needed around $14,000 for everything. That’s a ton of money! But I figured it out, worked hard, saved it, and I had a (financially) stress-free first six months on Roatan, because I had planned properly for it.
Figure out what you want to do where you’re going, and find out how much money you will need for it. Don’t cheap out, because you could shoot yourself in the foot with that down the line if things don’t go as planned. Always have a cushion!
2) You will need a plan with a timeline, but let it be subject to change.
Are you wanting to leave forever? Do you have a year’s sabbatical? Do you just need a break for a couple months?
You also need to consider how long you’re allowed to stay wherever you are going. If you’re not working and you’re on a tourist visa, those aren’t indefinite! You’ll need to factor in the cost of visa runs or heading somewhere new every time your visa runs out.
Think about realistically how long you want to go for and plan appropriately. Things like being a dive instructor are usually not a ‘for the rest of my life’ plan, even if you really love it. It’s hard on your body physically, and the pay is terrible. Do you really think you’re going to work on a Caribbean island as a divemaster from age 21 until your retirement? Can you even save money for retirement that way? Maybe you want to gain some working experience and move into owning a dive shop, or becoming a course director. Or maybe you just want to have fun for a few years. Plan out your timeline. I knew I wasn’t going to stay in Roatan for the rest of my life, and I planned my time there as ‘a few years’, ie. less than five. It worked out that I was ready to leave after four, which was perfect. I seem to move every four years to do something new, so this was in line with my timeline and what I usually did in my life. I’m sure yours will be different, but the way you prepare and plan for before, during and after your throwdown will be determined by your timeline.
3) You will need to deal with your shit at home before you leave.
When you ask an expat on Roatan what their #1 piece of advice is for someone wanting to move there, it’s “Don’t sell the farm!!!” Everyone recommends living on the island for a year first before buying a house or committing to starting or buying a business. You would probably be surprised how many new expats with stars in their eyes end up going home, defeated, before that first year is even up. That’s ok – it happens sometimes. But if you sold everything you had in your home country and cut all your ties and you end up back there in six months, that’s a lot to start over again.
Before you leave, you’ll need to think of things like: what are you going to do with your home or car, if you haven’t already sold them? What are you going to do with your belongings – are you taking up room in your mom’s basement for something that was supposed to be temporary? How can you get your dog from your friend’s place to your new home? How long should you pre-pay your storage unit? Where are you going to get your mail sent if you live on an island like Roatan with no mail service?
The nitty gritty is boring, but it needs to be dealt with prior to takeoff.
4) You will need to research and research and research.
Public service announcement: Do not move somewhere because you went on a cruise there one time and liked it. Do not move somewhere because you vacationed at an all-inclusive resort there for a week and never left the resort but it was, like, soooo awesome. Jesus, people. I saw tourists doing this on Roatan all the time. Are you fucking crazy?
North Americans, gonna chat with you for a second here. Just because you want to live and work somewhere doesn’t necessarily mean they want you. You are not entitled to a job in a destination just because you want to live there. You need to look into work permits, residency, etc. and figure out a way to do things legally. Even if you are in a place where everyone works under the table, first – are you prepared to be deported or face fines if you’re caught? and second – it’s a fucking slap in the face to the citizens of that country. (And if you’re an American who talks badly about illegal immigrants working in your country and then you turn around and do exactly that in another country… I can’t even start with you.) You better hope you’re somewhere with chill people and you don’t make any enemies if you’re going that route.
In Roatan there were locals constantly talking shit about the gringos working illegally and threatening to call immigration on people they didn’t like – and sometimes they did it. I can personally attest that an islander called it on me, and it was not a fun experience (told you guys I had some good stories for you once I was out of there!). I smartened up after that, bit the bullet and got my residency so I was working legally and no one could say anything to me about it any more, but it cost me thousands of dollars and took a long time. You need to think about if you really want to put that much money and effort into something that allows you to make next to nothing and live in a third world country. Is it worth it? For some people yes, some people no.
5) You will need to honestly assess yourself.
Can you handle it? Do you have other experience living abroad? Can you be away from your family and friends without being a homesick mess? Can you deal with missing out on babies being born, funerals, weddings, etc.? Are you okay with the fact that your friends lives will go on without you there, and some will drift away? Can you speak the language? Can you handle living somewhere where you don’t speak the language? Are you flexible? Are you moving somewhere else expecting it to be just like your home and are you going to complain in every situation when it’s not? BE HONEST with yourself. Too many people overestimate their ability to adapt and be flexible, and their level of patience with things different from their norm.
I have seen too many gringos screaming at incompetent bank employees on Roatan – yes, it’s terrible customer service, the line ups are shameful, the rules change every day, and it’s the most frustrating thing in the world. But they employees do not give two flying fucks. They just don’t. And screaming at them isn’t going to make you any friends there. Vent with your expat friends every once in a while, sure…. but you’re a guest in that country no matter how long you’ve lived there, and you need to respect the fact that it ISN’T your home country and they’re not going to do things the way you’re used to (even if it would be five million times more efficient for everyone if they did). Some people on Roatan complain non-stop about everything… if literally everything is actually that terrible and frustrating for you, it might be time to check out.
6) You will need to think about your main goal and check it it frequently.
Is it retiring somewhere hot? Is it becoming a dive instructor and working as one? Is it taking a time out or a sabbatical for a year? Is it running a business in paradise (hint: 99.9% of the time, not as great as it sounds)? Is it traveling non-stop for six months? Is it volunteering at an NGO?
Once you figure out what it is, make sure you check in with yourself frequently once you get there to make sure you stay on track with whatever it is you wanted to do. Make sure you know your ‘next steps’ to keep progressing. Don’t get stuck just because everyone around you is stuck. If your goal has changed, change your ‘next steps’ as well.
7) You will need a backup plan.
I lost track of how many people I met on Roatan who came down on vacation, went home and sold their homes, businesses, etc. and moved down there to open a bar on the beach. Once they got to Roatan, they realized how fucking difficult it is to successfully run a business there, and that being a business owner usually means you’ve got your hands dirty 24 hours a day. You normally do not spend your days drinking mai tais on the beach while your staff run things. There are very few businesses on Roatan where the staff can successfully run things without the owner’s constant supervision. (Also, we don’t drink mai tais on Roatan, FYI.)
So you didn’t listen to me, or everyone else who told you not to sell the farm just yet and to rent/live on the island for a year before committing to buying a home or a business. And now you’ve failed, you’re stressed, and you’re in the hole financially. Did you make a backup plan? Don’t assume your original idea is going to work, and make sure you have a backup to either make something else work there, or have a plan to move back or move on. Plan for the worst-case scenario, and then anything that happens better than that is a bonus.
When I realized I wasn’t making enough money as a dive instructor, I took a job managing a hotel for a season. I barely got to dive and my job was stressful, but I learned a ton of new skills, made amazing networking connections, and I now know that in my future, I would like to run a hotel again (not that one though, haha). I would have never done or known any of that without going to Plan B, and I’m glad I had one, otherwise I would have had to leave before I was ready.
8) You will need to know when to make a change.
Don’t be the bitter old lady at the bar who stayed just because she came.
Just because you spent a lot of time and money making your jump doesn’t mean you need to stick with it if it’s not working for you. Going home doesn’t mean giving up. And giving up doesn’t mean going home – maybe it means it’s time for the next place or the next thing. When I just wasn’t diggin it in Roatan anymore, I knew it was time to do something else. I don’t know if it will be forever or for a while, but I knew I had to change it up before I got shitty about it. So I’m headed to Japan now. Who knows if I’ll be on the island again? I might or I might not, but in the meantime, I’m moving on because I knew it was time.
9) You will need to really, really think things through if you’ve got “extras”.
Extras are all the things I didn’t have when I did mine, so if you have them, I can’t give you advice on that because I don’t know. When I left to pursue this, I didn’t have a boyfriend, kids, a dog, a car, a student loan, a mortgage and a house, child support payments, ailing parents, etc. It’s certainly possible to do a cubicle throwdown with some of these things, but I don’t know how to do it because I didn’t have any of them. You might have to structure your throwdown differently, or have a finite timeline for it if you need to come back and deal with things after taking a break. You might need to figure out how to bring kids or a cat along with you.
Any extras are going to bring a layer of complication – you will need to figure out if this is something you can deal with or not. If not, it’s not the end of the line. Think outside the box. Maybe you don’t travel non-stop for a year, but pick two or three places to settle in long-term. Maybe Europe is not the best destination if you have large debt payments to make – maybe you look into cheaper places like SE Asia. Maybe you need to spend an extra six months working at home before leaving so that you can afford to live in a more expensive but child-friendly community in your chosen expat home, or to fly your dog with you. There is a solution to nearly everything, but you are probably going to have to compromise in some way or another.
10) You will need to look in your heart and see if you’re running toward something or running away.
One of the best quotes I ever heard when I was struggling on Roatan was, “Everywhere you go, there you are”. You can’t run away from yourself, and if you’re actually the source of the problems in your life, they will follow you even if your circumstances change. I had the same problems on Roatan with my friends and my relationships that I had in Vancouver, because even though my life was different, I was the same person. While I got better at waiting in line ups, had a different job, lived in a different style of home, and had new surroundings… I was still a sarcastic bitch who let shitty people into my life way too easily and let them stay there. I had terrible relationships with the same kind of men that I had before, although they had different nationalities and backgrounds. I had a whole new host of vices to get into that were not good for me, though they were different from the ones I had in Vancouver. Even though I was a dive instructor or a hotel GM instead of a paralegal, I still tended to overwork myself, never said no, and took on more than my job description and then got frustrated and stressed when I wasn’t promoted, recognized, or compensated fairly for it. These are the exact same problems I had in my life before Roatan, just with a different cast of characters – because I was still me and hadn’t changed anything about myself. Everywhere you go, there you are.
I saw this constantly on Roatan, this is not a unique problem to me. Everyone has a story – a foreclosed house, a failed marriage, a bankrupt business, a criminal record – and they think running away from their location to a new one will solve all their problems and they will finally be happy. Well I have news for you folks, and take it from the horse’s mouth – happiness does not magically exist in a place. It doesn’t live in a new job, a new girlfriend or a beach view from your bedroom. While these things can give you moments of joy, they can’t change your personality and soul for you – that’s your job to do, and no person, place or thing can do that work for you. Now, it might be easier to work on your happiness with a beach view, I can’t argue with that. But the view will not change your life for you, that’s up to you. Don’t show up somewhere with the expectation that everything there must create happiness for you. You’re gonna have to do that yourself.
If you’re running away from something rather than running towards it, I hope you have good shoes because you’re going to be running for a very, very long time.