What it’s like to go from making $400 a day to $400 a month abroad
One word: Terrifying.
It wasn’t until I sauntered into Jimmy Choos in the Soho Mall in Panama City and casually glanced at the price tag of a rhinestones encrusted pair of stilettos that it hit me: I ain’t ballin no’ mo’. I no longer have the disposable income to spend a few zeros on a pair of shoes I may or may not wear simply because of the momentary joy they gave me at first sight.
I won’t lie to you, I may have started hyperventilating in the store. The sales clerk may have glanced at me in concern, trying to decide if he should call security or the paramedics.
I may have wondered why I quit a soulless career path that would guarantee me a salary that put me in a high income bracket, a nice apartment in an exclusive neighborhood, and dinners at five star restaurants without ever thinking about the bill.
I may have wondered how I’d reconcile my love of freedom for my propensity for Italian leather shoes and French handbags.
The New Yorker got in their usual high-browed jab last week at those who’ve followed their wanderlust out of their cubicles to Cuba, those who left desk jobs to find their destiny, those who rather count the stars than count their vacation days. There is a stereotype that those of us who left the rat race behind are rich and spoiled. For most people, however, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Although I saved up to move here, I had to look for work as my savings dwindled. When I was made an initial offer to work part time for $400 a month (with free housing included), the number barely registered in my mind at the time because- I say this simply to emphasize the disconnect- I have dresses that cost more than that. To be brutally honest, it had been years since I'd dealt in hundreds and I had grown unaccustomed to placing value in small bills.
However, I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth. I’ve been working since I was 15 years old and minimum wage in South Florida was still $5 an hour. I have not forgotten the hollow ache of hunger pains when I had to choose between books and groceries during college. I slept in a friend’s living room and lived out of a single suitcase during my first internship out of grad school because the stipend the organization offered me wasn’t even enough to cover the astronomical rent in D.C. I’m no stranger to what I’m sure would be referred to as “character building” situations if there will ever be a poorly-directed after school special about my life.
I put those Jimmy Choos that I didn’t need down, left the mall, and went back to the fine art of hustling. Now in a country where the average salary is about $800-1000 a month, I’ve had to re-familiarize myself with maintaining multiple streams of income in order to have access to all my basic necessities. I have my job, I tutor professional clients in English, and I make additional income from writing for certain publications. Those small bills have value to me once again.
There are days when the multiple demands on my time can feel stressful, yet I’ve never gone hungry here. My eyebrows are still waxed and my nail polish is never chipped- you know, the important things in life. I have not yet had to call my mother and ask for money as I so vividly remember doing when I studied abroad in Paris almost a decade ago. I've had to learn to continually sell myself to create opportunities where none are initially presented. I am now acutely aware of the meaning of the saying "closed mouths don't get fed".
I suppose it ruins the façade of carefree-ness and ease that is presented by most travel blogs- and the falseness of our carefully-curated social media lives- to say that life isn’t just beaches and bikinis. I have to make money as well. Few bloggers will admit that the whole "sell all your stuff and travel" theme comes with a tinge of fear of failing so publicly, that you have to become more than just your resume in places where you're not automatically a Somebody, and that it's hard to shake the American norms of being defined by your salary, title, and material possessions. It can be a lesson in humility.
Thus, the question that even I have asked myself is, if I’d known that life would continue to present me with challenges even when I’m abroad, would I have stayed in my comfort zone in D.C.?
The answer: I would not have done anything differently! I would have left D.C. with the same amount of fanfare. I would have pursued learning Spanish with the same foolhardy gusto. I would have moved to Panama simply based on the way the country made my heart feel light on a brief trip here years ago. I would have let all the same men whisper sweet nothings in my ear. I would have laughed boldly and shared secrets with all the same fascinating strangers. I would have danced the night away with the same amount of reckless abandonment of one that doesn’t have to have all her creativity confined within a windowless cubicle in the morning.
Life is beautiful.