“If you want to feel rich, just count the things you have that money can’t buy.”
June marks six months as a WorldTeach volunteer in Barranquilla, Atlántico and I’m finally familiar with the bliss and the burn of being in this life-altering world experience. The bliss is in the work I do: I love my students, I’m grateful for every day with them (even when they make me crazy), I adore my school and I’m honored to be working with the Alcaldia of Barranquilla. The burn is in my pocket: my challenge with personal finances that, no matter how I carefully manage them lately, somehow seem to flow as fast as the arroyos when it rains.
No matter what cultural benefits, redeemable qualities or warm-and-fuzzy, heart shaped words you use to describe it, volunteer means the same thing in every language: work for free.
vol·un·teer [vol-uhn-teer] noun
1. a person who voluntarily offers himself or herself for a service or undertaking.
2. a person who performs a service willingly and without pay.
I prepared for this journey about six months in advance by selling all my possessions and receiving generous donations from family and friends. I still remain grateful for the support of so many people who helped me reach my goal of $5,500 for 2014. While WorldTeach provides volunteers with a monthly stipend of around $250 US, it is based on the exchange rate at time of payment, which means it often fluctuates.
(That’s right, I’m living off $250 US a month. Think about that for a minute while you sip your third $5.00 Starbucks coffee of the week…)
These days, my personal entertainment and dining options lead to creative stretching of the Colombian peso that would make Policarpa Salavarrieta blush.
One thing I occasionally cannot avoid, no matter how I try, is the Gringo Price (GP). Travelers and locals alike will all attest to this phenomenon, when the price suddenly increases because you are a gringo/a.
After living in México for a year, I learned a few ways to avoid the GP, including
1. being with a local at the time of purchase and having them pay or negotiate the price for you
2. making sure the shop owner knows you as a local by frequenting their store and getting to know them
3. stating clearly, “soy gringa, pero soy local, sí tu vendeme del precio normal o me voy a comprar de un otro mercado.”
Usually I went with option 2.
“The art of living easily as to money is to pitch your scale of living one degree below your means.”
– Sir Henry Taylor
Still, Colombia has its share of GP’s and ways to experience them. Already, I have stories worth remembering long after I leave. While many have ended by spending more than budgeted, some have just been too hilarious (and obviously scam-tastic) to resist. As I work on a way to express these stranger-than-fiction recollections (through a book or web page), their clever subtitles include:
– Chorizo is not Carne
– Parque Price of a View
– Next Vendor Over
– Circle the Block
– ¡Dame tu Plata!
– Barco Barato
– You Asked for It
– No Me Gusta Fotocopias
June has begun and my budget finally has a solid presence, with the necessary purchase of the month being a new pair of shoes. That’s necessary as in need. Not want. Not “Don’t match my purse” or “would look cute on Saturday night” need, but really, truly need, as in I only have three other pairs: sad sandals, kitten heels and all-purpose tennis shoes. Have you ever needed and had to wait to buy a pair of shoes? It’s a weird feeling after many years of work with pay, and being able to buy what I want as well as need.
“Don’t tell me where your priorities are. Show me where you spend your money and I’ll tell you what they are.”
– James W. Frick
Recently I was asked what I thought my true purpose was in being here. While this loaded question remains unanswered, one thing I know is I am learning more than just teaching English and how to not get lost on the bus. I’m learning value, gratitude, generosity and humility, as well as how to live within my means. I’ve become skilled at prioritizing and tracking where my money comes from and where it really goes; if that’s not a life-altering world experience, I don’t know what is. As I prepare for summer break, traveling to Ecuador and Perú, two things are constant in my mind: how to have the best time possible spending the least amount of money, and – most importantly – how to avoid paying the Gringa Price.