Moving Internationally: Choosing a Destination

This post is the first in a series of responses to questions I received from my previous post “How I Quit My Life“.

How to choose a specific destination

In my post “How I Quit My Life”, I listed out some basic criteria we used when considering where to live. A common question we are asked is why we chose Cozumel specifically.

I’d say there were two primary factors why we chose it.

First, I visited Cozumel in 1996 on vacation with my parents and brothers. In the 20+ years since then I thought of it regularly. The sight of unimaginable blue water burned into my brain and I wanted to live there since first seeing it. The image of the island was my “happy place”.

To be fair, the island is different after two and a half decades, but the water is still one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.

Second was learning a friend of mine had lived here as an expat. When we discussed it as a destination, he talked about a lot of things which appealed to us. Things like the people, the food, the water. Knowing it was doable for someone I knew personally was a big factor. In addition, hearing how much he loved it reminded me of how much I had always wanted to live there.

I know those scenarios are specific to us. But I’d offer these tips for picking a destination:

  1. Decide what you consider important to have when redesigning your life
  2. Think about places which made you happy before
  3. Bonus points if someone can confirm it’s a good choice before you move!

Managing expectations

People ask me regularly if living here has met our expectations this year.

This is a hard one to answer. In light of a global pandemic, I don’t think anything has met anyone’s expectations this year. So instead, I’ll answer the questions based on the half year point before the world turned upside down.

I have three responses:

  1. There are things we expected and were right
  2. There are things we expected and were wrong
  3. There are things we never knew to expect but have been pleasantly surprised!

Things we expected and were right

Here are some things we expected and were not only right, but have loved.

More time as a family

We moved out of a busy city and away from commuting life. A primary reason was wanting more time together as a family. I am happy to report this has been our experience! I will never be able to overstate how amazing this has been or how much every member of our family has treasured this.

My wife and I are on an adventure together with our children. Yes, we do boring normal life like work and school too. But doing it the way we are has brought us together in unexpected ways. From learning how much one child loves snorkeling to discovering how another child is fearless in ways we never expected.

Knowing that we get the best part of each other’s days now is priceless.

Going to the beach regularly

Coming from a city where the nearest beach was a day’s drive away, it’s fantastic living where the beach is a short drive from your house. You don’t have to cram a full year’s worth of expectations into a vacation trip to the beach.

You go for a few hours and leave…without the sunburn you get from cramming it all in at once!

The kids love playing in the water almost as much as I do. And my wife loves when the kids and I play in the water (and she gets to relax on the beach in peace and quiet.)

The joy and satisfaction of redesigning our life

What we did was big and scary and met with a lot of opposition. But when it all comes down to it, we altered the course of our life based on choice not repetitive momentum.

This has brought so much confidence and satisfaction. Knowing we didn’t have to live the same life as everyone around us has given us confidence to consider other crazy things. Sure, we might fail…but we might succeed too! And sharing that adventure together and with our children has given deeper meaning to our lives.

Things we expected and were wrong

You can prepare for years (we did) but you’re still going to have some expectations that aren’t met. You’re going to guess some thing incorrectly. And you’ll have challenges that are complete surprises.

Shopping is difficult

We moved from a major city where we could order things on Amazon and have it at our house in 30 minutes. That is no longer our experience.

We didn’t expect shopping to be easy. We knew there would be adjustments, but we didn’t realize how difficult it would be. Cancun is an hour away on the mainland; if we lived there shopping would be much easier. It’s a city with malls and furniture stores. There is no mall on our island of 100,000 people. The closest we have is the tourist strip which sells souvenirs to cruise ship tourists.

Living here has made purchasing things much more difficult. Finding furniture or a washer and dryer is a multi-day affair. Things we took for granted in the States because of endless options are difficult to find here.

Shopping is possible, but it’s often difficult, more expensive, and the options are limited. Consider this when moving somewhere small or where the geography makes commerce challenging.

Produce is subpar

Many people assume the produce here is superior to the produce in the States as it is closer to where a lot of it is grown. This is not true and it’s a big disappointment.

We’re not sure if the produce is lacking because we are on an island and shipping here is more expense or if the best food is shipped to higher paying destinations. Either way, the produce is ok at best.

Housing options aren’t great

Specific to where we are at, you can either live dirt-cheap or expensive; there is almost no middle ground between the two.

There are many dirt cheap options for individuals or couples. Rent as low as $150 USD per month. But the lower the rent, the worse the accommodations. It’s possible to find some gems, but most are lower quality than what you might be accustomed to if you are coming from a middle-class US lifestyle.

Then there are the expensive options. For the most part, many of these are just average to nice apartments with an ocean view.

We have lived in two different places. The first was an expensive condo just outside of town with a stunning view. Sadly the condo itself was garbage (this will be it’s own cathartic post one day).

The second place we lived was a rare, middle price range house in town. We liked it and the landlord was great, but there’s nothing special about the house itself.

One of the promises I hear repeated about third world and developing nation destinations is that the housing is a steal. I can only speak for where we’ve lived (which is a tourist destination) but I wouldn’t call it a steal. You get what you pay for here.

Tip: Find a real estate agent you can trust to help you find the right place. They are worth their weight in gold!

Things we never knew to expect

The Expat community

There’s something different about you if you’re the type of person who quits their life and moves to another country. But thankfully not so different that there aren’t others who’ve done it!

We felt so alone when we were making the decision to quit our life, but once we got to our destination, we discovered other “crazy” people who had done the same thing! And they were quick to accept us and bring us in to their lives.

This is rare to find in the normal version of life. But expats all over the globe tell me this is common once you leave the normal life.

Find the other expats. Join their community!

Friends come from unexpected places

In addition to the expat community, you’ll make friends in unexpected ways.

Since I spend a large chunk of my day at a desk, I wanted a nice desk. I found a carpenter and hired him to build a desk for me. Through our interactions in designing and building the desk, we became friends. Now my wife and I regularly go to dinner with him and his wife. We even celebrated our birthdays together this year (his is one day before mine).

Similarly, I became friends with our real estate agent. I enjoyed his company so much while we were looking at places to live I asked him to hang out after we had moved into our place. He’s now my best friend on the island and I can’t imagine living here without knowing him.

I think this experience boils down to two aspects about being “crazy” enough to move internationally:

  1. You develop the kind of courage to ask random people to be your friend
  2. You have a story people find interesting and want to be part of
My desk!

What does it all mean?

Picking a destination for an international move is an art, not a science. If you’re waiting for a formula to use and make sure you get everything right, you’ll never do it.

No matter how much you research, there’s guesswork in picking the destination. You discover quickly some of your expectations will be spot on, but many won’t. That’s not even counting all the things you never thought to consider.

The good news is that once you move you realize you can move a second time even easier. The hard part is the initial uprooting from “normal”. Once you’ve done that, the next move is easier. Whether that’s moving from a condo to a house or one country to another.

If you made it here, I’d love to hear from you on Twitter @DavidCrandall_W or feel free to send me an email. 😁