I Moved to the Third World for a Better Life
In the 1600s, Penelope Kent boarded a ship from Holland to the New World with her new husband. Their ship wrecked off the coast, but still, Penelope and her husband made it to shore.
There, they were attacked and tortured by the natives who lived on the land. By the time the natives were done with them, Penelope’s husband was dead. Penelope was still alive, but partially scalped, with her stomach sliced open. She took shelter in a hollowed out tree.
Days later, some other natives found Penelope. These natives were fortunately friendly, or at least enterprising.
They sewed shut Penelope’s wounds with fishbone needles and vegetable fibers. What happened next depends upon the source you read. By some accounts the native tribe released her to New Amsterdam — now New York. By other accounts, they sold her into indentured servitude.
Somewhere way up my family tree, Penelope was my first ancestor to come to America. Given all she went through to make it to what would become the United States — a hundred years later — it’s astonishing that I would ever leave the U.S., in search of a better life. In fact, I moved to the so-called “third world.” Sorry, Penelope.
In 2016 I sold my possessions and moved from the United States to Colombia, looking for a better life. Four years later, it’s safe to say that I’ve found that better life.
The irony isn’t lost on me: Centuries ago, my ancestors moved to America for a better life. And in the twenty-first century, I moved to the “third world” for a better life.
I use air quotes for “third world,” because I recognize that the designation of some countries as “third world” is passé and even offensive. I also recognize that many parts of Colombia — even parts not far from my doorstep — are very much “third world” by most people’s standards.
Finally, as many Colombians have pointed out to me, if I were Colombian, I’d probably want to do the opposite: I would want to move to the U.S. for a better life. I appreciate my blue-passport privilege more than most Americans I meet, and I know that the U.S. has a lot going for it.
I don’t write this article to gloat. This is not going to be about me working on a laptop on the beach, failing to mention the Malaria-ridden mosquitos that snuck under my bed net while I slept last night. I write this to offer some perspective: That if you’re clear about what you want in life, that you can often get those things — as long as you’re also clear about what you don’t want or, more important, what you can live without.
First, why did I think that Colombia was the place where I could find a better life? My primary motivation for moving was to double down on my career as a writer and podcaster. It wasn’t just that the low cost-of-living in Colombia would provide me with the financial runway that I knew I would need, I also knew that the lifestyle that was possible in Colombia would support the habits and routines I needed to build in order to make it as a creative.
Medellín, the Colombian city in which I live, is a popular destination for digital nomads. They spend the six months they are allowed on a tourist stamp — depending on their nationality — then they move on to other hotspots such as Bali or Budapest.
While plenty of people have described me as a digital nomad, I don’t consider myself one. I’m committed to building my life in Colombia, if for nothing else, because I’m more productive staying here than I am scrambling around the world. I haven’t even visited many of the digital nomad hotspots, but the friends I’ve made who live that lifestyle all agree that Medellín is a fantastic place to build a consistent work routine.
You can rent a furnished apartment for less than the price of an unfurnished apartment in most major cities, you can get just about anything delivered — even a haircut — for a fraction of the price of delivery in the U.S., and the temperature steadily stays at around room temperature year-round (In fact, Medellín is known as “the city of the eternal spring.”)
One friend who was visiting commented that Medellín isn’t so much about seeing anything in particular, but rather witnessing the laid-back lifestyle. The cafes in the upscale Poblado neighborhood get packed at 3 p.m. every afternoon. A high ratio of the people are there talking to each other, rather than escaping into their devices. Colombians place a high value on spending time with family. They want everything to be tranquilo (peaceful or relaxed). If you’re taking a cab home after dark, there’s a good chance your driver will wish you to descansar (to rest, literally, to “un-tired” yourself).
Designing my life around consistent writing
About a decade ago, I got my first book deal, with little experience as a writer. I discovered through that process that writing is hard. I found that the more consistent I could be, the better my writing was.
At the time, I was living in Chicago, where consistency is nearly impossible. If I could pick one word to characterize living in Chicago as a writer, it would be “friction.” Everything gets in the way. The rent is cheap for a major American city — in fact, I moved to Chicago from San Francisco for that very reason — but it’s still expensive for what you get. The public transportation is infuriatingly unreliable, and then there’s the weather.
Don’t get me wrong: I love Chicago, and visit frequently. It’s just that, for what I wanted to accomplish with my life, Chicago got in the way. On one hand, there are lots of things to do, and bustling arts and startup scenes. On the other hand, there are lots of things to do, and bustling arts and startup scenes. There are lots of opportunities to distract yourself, and you pay for those opportunities with traffic, high prices, and lots of noise.
After I escaped the worst months of a couple of Chicago winters — a practice I call “mini lives” — I found myself looking back at the work I had done while hiding away in Medellín. It was my best work. So, I moved.
I love my “third world” health insurance
By choosing the things that I wanted in life, I also had to make a lot of compromises — what I call the principle of “good enough.” A good segue into compromises is healthcare. One of the things I like most about living in Colombia is having affordable healthcare.
As a 40-year-old single male, I pay less than $140 a month for the best health insurance money can buy here. I suffer from chronic health issues — part of the reason I’ve chosen writing as a career — and I have gotten a ton of diagnostics. I rarely have to pay anything more than my monthly premium, and when I do, it’s like $9. I’m covered worldwide — for stays less than a few months — and pre-existing conditions are accepted, with a few major exceptions.
Being a self-employed writer, getting health coverage in the U.S. is prohibitively expensive. One 30-year-old digital-nomad friend told me he investigated the minimum coverage if he moved to New York State: nearly $1,000 a month, and he’d have to pay the first $10,000 of any health expenses throughout the year.
It wasn’t until I visited the doctor several times here in Colombia that the mental effects of having health coverage really sank into me. For the first time in my decade-plus self-employed career, I felt secure from a healthcare standpoint. If I noticed a symptom, I didn’t have to debate with myself whether it was worth a $300 visit to the doctor. If the doctor recommended a diagnostic, I didn’t have to decide whether to shell out $1,000, or play Russian Roulette with my prospects of having a serious illness.
How many of us apply 80/20 to our lives?
Healthcare is a good topic through which to introduce one of the key principles that make my life in Colombia a “better life.” That principle is the principle of the “good enough.”
In the United States, we’re obsessed with making things “better.” We want faster cars, more convenient apps, nicer restaurants, a drug for every symptom under the sun, and faster service. This leads to lots of truly useful innovations — innovations that the rest of the world can then easily implement for a fraction of the cost.
But the problem with “better” is that it’s not always worth it. Sometimes, something that’s 20% better costs 200% more. If you can carefully pick and choose the 20% less good — the “good enough” — you can design a life where you get more of what you want, and less of what you don’t really need.
The idea of the 80/20 principle gets a lot of lip service these days: Do the 20% effort that will get you 80% of the result. But when it comes to our lives, few of us apply the 80/20 principle, or the “good enough” principle. We can’t have the 80% mobile phone — we need the 100% new iPhone. We can’t have the “good enough” clothes, we need the 100% most fashionable brand.
We strive for the 100% healthcare, because so much is at stake, but maybe we’d be better off with the 80% healthcare? The healthcare I get in Colombia is great, in that I can afford it. Yet in many ways, it’s also merely “good enough.” Sometimes it’s hard to get an appointment. Instead of seeing the same doctor every time — a doctor you build a relationship with — you see whatever doctor is available. Prescription drugs are much cheaper in Colombia — but sometimes they can be expensive, and you have to pay for them out-of-pocket.
If you’re unlucky enough to end up with a rare disease that calls for a cutting-edge experimental treatment, Colombia is probably not the place to get that treatment. But established treatment protocols for common conditions are available, and affordable.
My girlfriend’s mother had a heart attack a few years ago, and needed a quadruple bypass. This event, which would financially ruin many American families, cost this middle-class Colombian family — which would very much be lower class by American standards — essentially nothing. Today, my girlfriend’s mother is alive and well, toasting arepas, frying up empanadas, and playing with her grandchildren.
The 20% that gets me 80% in Colombia
Extend this principle of “good enough,” and you can see why my life in Colombia is a better life. There’s no Whole Foods in Colombia, but you can get organically-raised vegetables for a fraction of the price. Every zucchini isn’t the pristine green torpedo you’ll find at Whole Foods, but it’s “good enough.”
If you need to buy something, Amazon (the website, not the river) is not the first place you’ll look. You have to go to a mall, and see what they have. It’s like a scavenger hunt. If it’s “good enough,” you buy it. If it just won’t do, then you order on Amazon. It will cost you 30% extra in shipping and import taxes, and will take two weeks to arrive. That’s not two-day (or same-day) Amazon Prime shipping, but it’s “good enough.”
Just managing to stay in Colombia, as an immigrant, is sometimes extremely difficult. I had a visa rejected twice, and am in the throes of an apartment search with maddening requirements for foreigners. It can be a real productivity killer for periods of time, but in the end, it’s worth it for me.
Isn’t Colombia dangerous?
Most people’s first question about Colombia is about safety. They’ve watched Narcos, they’ve heard the horror stories about when Pablo Escobar and his henchmen ruled the streets of Medellín, and FARC ruled the jungles of Colombia.
I won’t tell you that Colombia is a crime and violence-free utopia, but I will tell you that it’s “good enough.”
This is an area where people are easily deceived, and I think it has to do with our perception of risk. When Americans do gain the courage to visit Colombia, they are amazed. “I never once felt unsafe,” they’ll say. Even expats who have been here a long time will say, “been here for twenty years. Never had a problem.”
In actuality, Medellín has a homicide rate a smidge higher than my former home of Chicago. And the robbery rate in my neighborhood is fourfold that of Chicago as a whole. I’ve had at least one terrifying robbery attempt, as shared in episode 216.
Things you do that are more dangerous than visiting Colombia
So, yes, living in Colombia is more dangerous than living in most places in the United States. However, the risk isn’t much higher than many risks that Americans take on a daily basis.
According to data.world’s crunching of State Department data, in the seven-plus years between October 2009 and June 2016, more than eight-and-a-half million U.S. citizens travelled to Colombia, and twenty-five were killed. That’s 0.29 deaths per 100,000 U.S. travelers.
Contrast that with traffic deaths in the U.S. They aren’t 0.29 per 100,000 — they’re almost 11 per 100,000 inhabitants, per year. More than thirty times the rate.
If you assume that the average person travels 10,000 miles in a car each year, that makes traveling to Colombia as dangerous as riding in a car for 266 miles. Traveling to Colombia is about as dangerous as driving — one time — from Boston to New York City.
The U.S. government doesn’t want you to know you could find a “better life” (or maybe they’re just clueless)
Interestingly, when data.world crunched this data, they found Colombia to be one of the countries with outsized travel warnings. Some countries that people travel to, the State Department issues travel warnings that are about on-par with the actual danger of traveling to that country. Pakistan, Philippines, and Honduras, for example, are dangerous places to travel, and travel warnings are issued for them accordingly. Colombia, by contrast, gets about as many travel warnings as those countries, but is maybe one-tenth as dangerous.
Sometimes I wonder if it’s a conspiracy: Scare people out of discovering that they can have a good life somewhere else, keep the U.S. economy chugging along.
Then again, maybe it’s just blind hubris that the American government thinks Colombia is such a bad place. My girlfriend — according to Colombian law, my spouse — has been rejected for a visa just to visit the United States twice. (And no, it’s not a Trump thing. She was rejected during the Obama administration as well.) Each of these attempts, by the way, is a thousand-dollar roll of the dice. We have to hire a lawyer, pay the application fee, get on a plane and fly to Bogotá and stay in a hotel.
The reason they reject her: She doesn’t make enough money. They think, “surely, when you see how much money you can make in the U.S., you won’t go back home. This is clearly more important than the job you have, the property you own, the businesses you’re invested in, and even your relationships with your friends and family.” Give me a fucking break, America. If you’d stop blowing yourself and look up for a second, you might be surprised what you see.
What can you get that’s “better,” if you’re willing to accept what’s “good enough?”
Living in a place like Colombia does carry some small extra risk. And repeated exposure to small risks can add up to big risks. Consider the fact that the average life expectancy for a man in the U.S. is 76 (women live longer: 81). Yet if you’re a 76-year-old man, what are your chances of dying in a given year? Only about 4%. It’s not being 76 that kills people, it’s repeated exposure to those small risks, which add up over time.
But, that repeated exposure to small risk is part of my equation. I have things I want out of my life. I’m willing to forego certain luxuries to get those things, and I’m even willing to expose myself to other risks in pursuit of the things I want.
Think about this for yourself. What do you want out of your life? Are there ways you can have those things, if you’re only willing to sacrifice other things? If you can settle for “good enough” in some places, and even take risks in other places, you can ultimately build a “better life”, not by “first-world” or “third-world” standards, but by the only standards that really matter — your standards.