See the World!

by Rachel Muller


Do you ever dream about living, working, or just travelling abroad, but think it's out of your reach financially? It might not be as impossible as you think.

When our three daughters were all still in diapers (we had twins and then a third baby less than two years later), my husband and I talked a lot about saving all our money for a trip around the world. This was an extremely ambitious dream, considering that at the time my husband was still a university student, I was delivering newspapers every morning to pay for our groceries, and our only real asset was a 21-year-old Volkswagen van! But, we were young, naïve, and still believed we could do anything.

Everyone had told us that we were crazy when shortly after discovering we were expecting our first children, my husband quit his job as a salesman to go back to university to become a teacher. But somehow we'd managed. We firmly believed that if we wanted something badly enough, we could work hard and achieve it. I think our 'anything is possible' attitude came in part from our immigrant parents. My parents immigrated to Canada from California when I was two, with little more than what was in their own Volkswagen van. Thirty years later, they're both professionals, leading very fulfilling lives. My husband's father immigrated to Canada from Germany in the 50s. He too arrived nearly penniless, worked hard, and made a comfortable life for his family.

The years passed quickly and my husband graduated and found a teaching position in a small community near my hometown. The frugality that we'd practiced as students continued to help us to realize our dreams; we were able to come up with a down-payment for a house (a fixer upper of course) and pay off our student loans within just a few years of my husband's graduation. I chose and was able to stay at home with our children until our youngest daughter entered school full-time, two years ago. As we settled into our new community, we still continued to fantasize about taking a year off and travelling around the world. Time was flying by, and our window for undertaking such an adventure while the girls were still young was getting smaller. We were still many years away from the $100,000 or so (Canadian!) that I estimated we would need to purchase round-the-world airline tickets and live in youth hostels and other cheap accommodations for a year. But we didn't give up; we simply revised the plan.

We still wanted to take our children abroad, to allow them to see a different part of the world, to experience life in a different culture. But financial matters aside; we were beginning to have doubts about the 'around-the-world-in-a-year' plan. We realized that the reality of being homeless for a year, travelling from place to place with little more than the packs on our backs, was probably a lot less glamorous than we had originally imagined. Instead we began to give serious thought to applying for a teaching exchange. This would be infinitely cheaper, give us an income while we were abroad, and give us both a home to settle into and a base from which we could travel further a field. It would also allow us to really get to know a culture, to move into and become a part of a community for a year.

It was amazing how quickly things fell into place once we'd made our decision. We could have applied directly to an exchange agency, but before we got that far, we chanced upon a letter to the editor in our local paper from a teacher in Northern Ireland who was looking for an exchange partner. We began corresponding by e-mail, and when we were mutually satisfied that we would be compatible exchange partners, we applied formally to the exchange organization with which she was already registered. And two years from that initial contact letter, here we are, having the time of our lives!

Obviously a teaching exchange will only work for teachers, but there are lots of other possibilities that can make travelling abroad more affordable, from short-term house exchanges to working and/or volunteering abroad opportunities. The advantages of exchanging or working abroad go far beyond the financial savings of course. Actually living in a community allows you to participate in a culture in a way you simply couldn't if you were just a tourist. But remember, while exchanging or working abroad is significantly cheaper than travelling exclusively on your own resources, you need to be aware of the hidden costs. Application fees, visas, passports and official photos cost our family of five more than a thousand dollars. And of course airfares for five from the west coast of Canada to the British Isles weren't cheap either. Shopping around both among travel agents and on the Internet did save us a few thousand dollars.

If you are interested in exchanging your home or working abroad, the Internet is a great place to start gathering information. For short-term house exchanges, the Global Home Exchange site at http://www.4homex.com/ is an excellent place to start. For international employment listings and all kinds of helpful information for people interested in working abroad, try http://international.monster.com/. If you're a teacher interested in going on an exchange, you might want to visit www.angelfire.com/ca/zael/. Happy travels!


Rachel Muller is the former author of two weekly newspaper columns, one on frugal-living and the second on grass-roots environmental issues. She is currently accompanying her husband and kids on a yearlong teaching exchange in Northern Ireland.

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