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Looking back at my career, the most important decision I’ve made so far –– the one that would set me up for practically every job I’ve held over the last five years –– was to turn down a job offer after college. We were just beginning to feel the heat of the Great Recession, and journalism jobs were few and far between. The flagship paper in my home state just laid off half its staff, and the entire business looked like one big dead-end.
Somehow, I wound up with an offer from a local newspaper anyway. It was a good one, too, one that would surely keep me fed and with a roof over my head while I launched my career.
But I was antsy. I wasn’t ready to throw myself behind a cubicle and commit myself to the 9 to 5 grind just yet.
It was with careful consideration and great regret, I wrote in an email to the editor, that I would be turning down the job offer.
Then I booked a flight to Chile and never looked back.
I worked my way through college and almost always paid my rent with a cold sweat running down my back and a massive sigh of relief.
With some meager savings and checks cashed from graduation gifts, I had about $1,000 to work with. After spending $400 on a one-way flight, I had $600 left.
For five months in Chile, I estimated I could scrape by with about $420/month (way, way too low, in retrospect) for a total of $2,100.
I took a summer job at a local library that paid $8/hour, freelanced for a local newspaper and spent my weekends pet- and babysitting for whatever I could get (about $100 if I was lucky). At the time, I was still paying $400 in rent and about $100 on car insurance.
By August, I had successfully added another $1,500 to my bank account.
It was go time.
When I told my 16-year-old brother all I had waiting for me in Santiago was an unpaid internship at an obscure website, he told me the truth: 'You're out of your mind.'
Maybe he had a point, but there were two things I that knew for (almost) certain:
1) Reporting from a foreign country would give me the kind of experience a hiring manager would appreciate in a budding journalist.
2) And that grassroots publications are far more likely to give writers freedom to cover what interests them ---- something I'd have trouble finding as a beat reporter.
Anyone who's traveled through South America will tell you it has one huge advantage over Europe ---- the lower cost of living. Unfortunately, Santiago is one of the more expensive cities on the continent, and if I wanted to live in a safe neighbourhood, my dollars weren't going to stretch as far as I'd hoped.
I stayed with a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-college-professor for my first two weeks, but after that I set out to find something more permanent. I managed to find a decent apartment for $180/month ---- less than half what I would have spent back home. For that, I got a room in a three-bedroom doorman building and a roommate who let me come and go as I pleased.
If you're ever looking for digs in Chile, here's the site I used: http://www.compartodepto.cl/
Santiago is home to one of the largest fresh air markets I've ever seen in my life ---- el Mercado. There, I could easily stock up on vittles for less than $10 per day, or occasionally sit down at one of the many cafes on site and treat myself to a $4 plate of fish and rice.
I also learned how to haggle. Chileans speak a jarring mix of Spanish and slang that I found nearly impossible to master, but I would walk through the market and study everyone's lingo as they negotiated prices on everything from avocados to tennis shoes.
Pro tip: Don't let the vendors hand you produce themselves. They'll take from the back of the pile, which is usually bruised or in some state of general nastiness.
In four months, I traveled up and down Chile's coast, hopped over to Argentina and Peru, and I never once paid for lodging, all thanks to Couchsurfing.org.
Not only did the site help me find free lodging, but it was also a nice way to make friends. I didn't know a soul when I moved to Chile, and, trust me, you can only do so much soul searching before you get sick of yourself.
I lucked out big time in Santiago, which has a very well-organised group of CouchSurfing hosts who love to organise special tour groups. I went on a bike tour around the city, took a guided weekend trip to nearby port city Valparaiso, and went on a camping trip to the mountains that blew my mind ---- no travel agent needed.
Since I worked most days from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the internship, that left little time for a side gig. I decided to put out the word among friends that I was offering English tutoring at night, and within two weeks, I had a few interested students.
As it happens, most Santiago university students are required to pass an English class, so they're all looking for tutors. I taught a trio of law students for $60 per session twice a week, and one of my neighbours asked for biweekly sessions for $20 a pop.
I was no professional and had no teaching certification to speak of, but the Web is full of teaching resources for tutors.
Soon after, I seized an opportunity to move up at my internship as an editor –– and started getting paid.
I'm still surprised I pulled this off, but about two months into my internship, I walked into my editor's office, pulled up a chair, and told him to start paying me or I'd quit.
At the time, I was not only cranking out three stories a day, but he had asked me to start helping out after our news editor decided to pursue marketing.
I knew I could do the job, but like anyone running a grassroots business, my editor wouldn't pay me unless I forced his hand.
It worked, and I started taking home $100 every two weeks. It certainly wasn't much, but it made a huge difference at the time.
Honestly, all you need to explore a new town is a good map and a bicycle.
I never once spent cash on tour buses or any of that nonsense, and I had a richer experience for it.
If you can borrow a bike from a friend or host, then that's all the better.
It goes without saying that I used public transportation (Santiago's metro system is simple and efficient), but I also relied heavily on domestic and international bus lines.
When it comes to getting around South America, you're almost always better off using charter buses. Station setups are pretty much the same wherever you go, so once you've done the dance a few times, you get the swing of things.
Pro tip: Sleep with your valuables close at hand, and never leave the opening within reach of pickpockets.
I'm a sucker for a flea market on a sunny day, but I really had to rein in my shopping habit in Chile.
That meant leaving cash at home if I knew I'd be tempted by the ubiquitous open-air markets that flanked the streets on weekends. Not only would it eat up my funds, it would also only make my luggage that much heavier to tote around.
And of course, when I couldn't pass something up, I haggled.
In retrospect, perhaps 'thumbing' my way up and down the Pacific coast wasn't the wisest way to travel in Chile, but it certainly was the cheapest.
With a friend to help me along, we were able to hike 354 km from Santiago to the coastal city of Constitucion in less than 7 hours.
We had planned on staying with a friend in town, but when he went MIA, we headed for the coast to camp. By happenstance, we stumbled upon a campsite staffed by a friendly family who let us have a cabin for about $8 USD per night.
I'm pretty sure I spent $30, total, for a four-day trip I'll never forget.
Obviously, there's no point to travelling if you're too broke to experience anything the whole time, and sometimes, it does cost money to have a good time.
I was extremely judicious in choosing when to spend on 'experiences.' For example, I passed up an expensive trip to Easter Island and Torres del Paine in favour of ending my trip with a hike to Macchupicchu in Peru.
Also, by leaving the big trip until the end, I knew I wouldn't blow through my funds too early, and I was counting pennies at that point. I landed back home in the states with ---- I kid you not ---- exactly $16.24 in my bank account.
The most fulfilling aspect of my time in Chile was the fact that every step of the way, no one but me had a say in where I would go or how I would get there.
It's the kind of freedom you often hear millionaires talk about finding after they've made a fortune and can afford to play by their own rules.
But the truth of the matter is that you can travel ---- and travel well ---- without a banker's salary, or any salary at all, for that matter.
Once you set your destination (and a budget), there are no limits other than the ones you set for yourself.
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