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may 22 2007

How I wound up living overseas

The following post is from our guest-blogger, Steve Jackson, who lives in Granada, Nicaragua.

I had my mid-life crisis early.

A decade after leaving college I found myself on the back slump of the turning-30-blues. I was in a good job but didn't want to stay there. At the same time there was nowhere I wanted to work.

I decided to travel. Actually I decided to quit work but traveling seemed the only way of justifying it to myself, my family, and my friends. I would see the world, or at least as much of it as I could afford.

I snorted at the idea of "finding myself." That was for the tie-dye brigade. I was going for the sun, the swimming, and the sleeping till noon.

That is essentially what I did. Like virtually every other budget traveler before me I stayed in dilapidated beach huts and lived off banana pancakes. I observed the unofficial "one task a day" rule that pervades all backpacker haunts.

"What you going to today?"

"Ah,...got to do my washing." (This involves putting it in a bag and handing it to reception.)

Later that day...

"Hey did you manage to get your washing done?"

"Nah, maybe tomorrow."

Traveling did open my eyes though. Not least that I could survive developing countries and their food, weather, traditions, and toilets.

However, like many who do that "get it out of the system" year out, I only succeeded in being bitten by the bug. I never settled back in an office job again.

But what could I do? You can't just travel for ever. This time I couldn't justify it to anyone, least of all, myself.

A friend, seeing me floundering at home, suggested volunteering, specifically Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) -- the program that was the original blueprint for Kennedy's Peace Corps.

I sneered. Volunteering? Wasn't that for rich gap-year students? How could anyone afford to volunteer?

Only later did I decide to look up VSO on the web. I was surprised by so many aspects. Firstly you were more likely to get picked if you were older and experienced in your profession. Secondly they actually paid you a wage. A genuine, honest, if-a-little-tight, living allowance. Not to mention health care, travel, and training costs.

I applied online right there. Six months later, following an initial interview, a medical, two weekends and a weeks training and after I had sold and emptied my home and distributed my possessions, I was in Hanoi, Vietnam.

It still seems amazing to me that I did it. I even ended up extending my two-year posting to 25 months to finish my project. Leaving broke my heart.

While there were times that were miserable there were so so many more that just lifted my heart. I wanted to bellow my love for that place to anyone who would listen.

Zipping around Hanoi on the back of a motorbike, I felt cool. Like who wouldn't want to be me? Like I wouldn't swap my life for anybody's. Honestly I didn't want to be anyone in the world but me.

I had never been so happy. It sounds trite to say it but I didn't even know it was possible to be that happy.

I had a reason to get up in the morning. I had people who relied on me and the experience I had gained in my office jobs back home, actually helped people.

I documented my whole love affair with Hanoi, Vietnam and my wonderful employer, KOTO, here. As a result, I still hear from people who have volunteered as a result of reading my words. That makes me even happier.

Tomorrow, I'll tell you all the reasons that while traveling is fantastic but, for me, volunteering is a million times better.

See pictures of Steve's life abroad by clicking here. See Steve's blog post from yesterday, "Meeting the Chavalos," by clicking here. You can find Steve's blog at OurManInGranada.com, where he talks about life, love, and his work as a fund raiser for a non-profit project called CafeChavalos.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

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