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From Washington, D.C. to San Salvador: La Vie Overseas

07 March, 2013 09:25  Erin Erin

natasha La Vie OverseasHola! I'm Natasha, a Washingtonian (DC) turned expatriate currently residing in San Salvador, El Salvador.

1. Why did you move abroad?
I’d like to say it was an impulsive decision made during another late night at the office in an effort to escape the corporate-ladder climb that was my life, when I spun a globe, closed my eyes and by chance placed my finger on El Salvador … after which I packed my bags, bought a plane ticket and arrived in my new home country. But that would all be a lie. In truth, I moved abroad because my husband is in the U.S. Foreign Service. He launched his career while we simultaneously began our life as a married couple. So I had lots of time to plan.

2. How do you make a living?
I recently (at the beginning of the year) started working as the communications director for a local NGO that brings the public and private sectors together to provide education and health programs to underserved communities in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. My background is in journalism and public relations, so the position is a great fit for me. Prior to landing a full-time gig, I was exploring some freelance writing and communications consulting opportunities, but nothing that was close to full-time in terms of hours or pay.

I feel very fortunate to have found a local job, as employment options for spouses of Foreign Service Officers are often hard to come by. There are many positions available at the embassy, but they are competitive and don’t always fit one’s career background/goals. And while it’s not impossible to find work outside the embassy, besides teaching, there aren’t a lot of professional opportunities that companies are willing to “outsource” to foreigners (particularly knowing that Foreign Service affiliation means the potential employee will be leaving in two to four years). So I’m incredibly lucky!

In addition to being a great job, professionally, working for a Salvadoran organization also has the added benefit of exposing me to more Spanish (speaking, hearing, reading and writing) and to more of the country – both its people and places (particularly off-the-beaten path places that I wouldn’t visit under normal circumstances as a tourist). I wrote a blog post recently about the pros & cons of being a working Foreign Service spouse.

3. How often do you communicate with home and how?
I communicate with home regularly by email and Skype/FaceTime and, to a lesser extent, text and Facebook. My husband is much better about maintaining regular communication with his parents (daily emails and a weekly standing Skype call), whereas my communications are more sporadic, maybe emails to my parents and sister once or twice a week and FaceTime calls with them every other week. Sometimes my best girlfriends and I will talk via Google Hangout, Google’s video chat service that allows up to 10 participants. That’s fun because we’re all “together” even though I’m in El Salvador and the rest of them span the U.S. from D.C. to L.A. I like to think of my blog as a form of communication with home as well, albeit on a less personal scale.

4. What's your favorite thing about being an expat in El Salvador?
Living in a hidden gem of a country seemingly unspoiled by tourism. Don’t get me wrong – tourism is great, both for the tourists traveling and for the country’s/city’s economy hosting said tourists. But while it has its many upsides for a country and for locals (economic growth, increased security to protect said economic growth, a greater variety of shops, restaurants and other businesses), there are downsides as well. And I’m not just talking about traffic and congestion at historic sites, national parks, beaches and other places, but the way that tourism changes a place: By promoting its culture, tourism also strips that culture away by forcing local businesses and residents to adapt to tourists, whether it be by altering menus, speaking more English (or other language) over Spanish or otherwise.

Here in El Salvador, many people speak English. Probably the majority of people does speak and understand English, but Spanish is still the preferred language of communication everywhere – from offices to restaurants to the supermarket to hair salons. Rather than forcing the culture to adapt to tourists/foreigners, tourists/foreigners (expats included) are forced to adapt to the culture. For me as an expat, it’s both a humbling and incredibly valuable experience.

5. What’s the worst thing about being an expat in El Salvador?
The lack of mobility due to security issues. Having lived in Washington, DC for a number of years, I am very used to being able to take public transportation and just walk around without any real fear for my safety. I didn’t have a car for many years and was able to commute to and from work, go grocery shopping and take care of most things by relying on the bus, Metro and walking. I’m a runner so I could just wake up, throw on some running shoes and head out the door – by myself, at any time of the day. In that sense, it’s very different here. For foreigners it’s generally not advisable to take public transportation, it’s not a pedestrian-friendly country in terms of sidewalks and safe spaces to walk/run and, due to high rates of crime and violence, there are very real safety concerns with being out in many public spaces.

6. What do you miss most?
Other than my family and friends, the freedom to just walk and run around outside as I described above. That and Target! But El Salvador has many American chain stores/restaurants and products available – it might just take a little more work to find it than it would in the U.S.

7. What did you do to meet people and integrate in your new home?
Being affiliated with the U.S. embassy helps tremendously. We had an immediate network of people – including an office dedicated to facilitating the transition to Foreign Service life/life abroad. But in an effort to get outside the embassy “bubble” (and also fill my time while I was figuring out my career situation), I joined the American Women’s Association, a charitable/social group that introduced me to local people (expats and Salvadorans) and connected me to service opportunities in the community. I’ve also attended events organized by the American Society of El Salvador – so there are expat groups out there to help connect people. Finding a job has helped El Salvador feel more like “home” as well.

8. What custom/ habits do you find most strange about your adopted culture?
I would say adapting to driving and Salvadoran driving habits has taken some getting used to. I find that drivers are more aggressive here than they are in the U.S. (at least in the Washington, DC metropolitan area) and the way Salvadorans treat traffic circles is different than anything I’ve seen in the U.S. Here, the middle lane of the circle has the right of way, and if you’re in the outside lane, you are expected to be exiting at the next spoke of the wheel: People in the middle will just merge across a couple lanes without warning because those in the outside lanes aren’t supposed to be there anymore! Tenga cuidado, that’s what I’d say.

9. What is a myth about your adopted country?
I know I mentioned El Salvador’s high rates of crime and violence (not to scare anyone, but El Salvador has the second-highest murder rate in the world, with 71 murders per 100,000 people in 2011). Yes, this is true; yes, this is serious; and yes, one’s safety is more at risk here than say, Northwest Washington, DC. But in El Salvador, just as in Washington, DC, you might get mugged or your car might get broken into. Also in El Salvador, just as in Washington, DC these risks can be mitigated. Here, don’t take public transportation. Don’t walk around alone. Don’t wear expensive jewelry or display expensive electronic devices out in public. Keep your car doors locked and windows rolled up. Etc.

These won’t necessarily eliminate any risk or completely guarantee one’s safety, but the targets of most of these violent crimes generally are not expats or foreign tourists. I think hearing these statistics and seeing things on the news sometimes scares people from traveling to El Salvador but it’s not the whole picture.

10. Is the cost of living higher or lower than the last country you lived in and how has that made a difference in your life?
I would say the cost of living is equal to if not slightly more expensive than the cost of living in the U.S. (at least in Washington, DC). The cost of most goods is equal to if not higher than the cost in the U.S.: groceries, restaurants, meals, clothing, household products, etc. A trip to PriceSmart (Costco’s Salvadoran sister) can put me out $150. I bought a 12-pack of paper towels for something like $20!

But services are cheaper, so we can enjoy luxuries like household help and salon services for much less than what we’d pay in the U.S. It hasn’t made a huge difference in my life, other than that here I don’t need to work to earn a living whereas in the U.S. it would be much more difficult to live as a married couple on a single income (in a major city). But for maintaining a certain quality of life and enjoying travel opportunities, it’s nice to have the extra cash.

11. What advice would you give other expats?

If possible, marry a diplomat! Just kidding. Sort of. I should emphasize that my experience as an expat – being married to a U.S. Foreign Service Officer – isn’t the typical expat experience. But I guess that’s the thing about being an expat: There is no “typical” experience.

Seriously, though, my advice for expats – no matter your circumstances – is to be patient with yourself. Give yourself time to adjust to being in a new place, learning a new language, finding your way around a new city, navigating a new culture. In some countries (El Salvador, and many others I imagine), things just take longer to get done. I’m from an East-Coast mentality and a deadline-oriented career background, so adapting to the slower pace of Latin American life has been both a challenge and a blessing.

When I first moved to El Salvador, I gave myself the small goal of accomplishing just one thing a day – whether that was going to the gym, practicing Spanish, going to the grocery store or applying for a job. Eventually I raised the bar a little but those first few weeks, when it still felt like I was living someone else’s life and couldn’t really believe I lived here, far away from home, from family, from friends, I tried to cut myself some slack and just celebrated little achievements each day.

12. When and why did you start your blog?

I launched my blog in April 2012, just before my husband and I got married, as a way to document our adventures living abroad. Even though we didn’t actually move abroad until September 2012, those pre-move months were an important part of our story. We had some pretty major life changes take place: marriage, switching careers, learning a new language, moving abroad. And there was a lot going on as we prepared for those, like planning a wedding in five months. Granted, these things may not be as exciting as actually living abroad, but they’re part of our story nonetheless.

Although we’re only four months and some change into our first post abroad, I’m hoping to La Vie Overseascontinue this blog for as long as I can, as a way to keep in touch with family and friends back home, provide useful travel-/expat-/Foreign Service-related information to people who are looking for it and to chronicle our adventures, sort of like a digital scrapbook.

Blog LinkNatasha's blog, La Vie Overseas

 

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