American Expat in Santiago, Chile - Interview With Phoenix

Published: 24 Apr at 9 AM
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Filed: Interviews,Chile
"Why am I here?" This is the question that Phoenix set out to answer late 2012. Now, he is on a mission to explore the world for five years, and at the end of his journey, he will decide where to call "home". Along the way, he has discovered the answers to many other important questions, such as, "Who am I, really?", "What do I want from life?", "Argh... how do you say that in Spanish, again?", and (with distressing frequency), "How on earth did my underwear get there??". Phoenix recounts his misadventures every day in his expat blog Five Years Abroad (see listing here).

Meet Phoenix - US expat in Santiago
Meet Phoenix - US expat in Santiago - 'Whatcha doin' Phoenix?' 'Oh.... (say it with me now) just hanging around....'

Here's the interview with Phoenix...

Where are you originally from?
I am originally from the United States — most recently the Dallas/Fort Worth area in Texas, although I also spent a significant amount of time in the Midwest as well.

In which country and city are you living now?
I was living in Asunción, Paraguay up until very recently, and I was planning on staying there for at least a year. After just a few weeks, though, I came to realize that Paraguayan culture isn't the right fit for my personality and goals. Plus, I had a rather creepy experience at the house I was renting and had to get out of there ASAP.

I'm now back in Santiago, Chile and will be here for the foreseeable future!

How long have you lived here and how long are you planning to stay?
I've spent about 3½ months in Chile in total so far, and I absolutely love it here. I will be living in Santiago for at least a year, possibly longer.

For the first 150 days or so of my adventure, I was traveling very frequently, living in a different city each month. It was a great experience, and I learned a lot about myself and what makes me happy. Now that I have a better handle on who I am, I want to buckle down for a bit and focus on my long-term projects, which means establishing myself somewhere tranquil with a low cost of living.

At the time, I thought Asunción would have been a perfect fit for my needs; it's off the radar, very inexpensive, and I have a few friends in the city who are very well-connected, so I hopped a bus and made my way into Paraguay.

However, it didn't take long for me to realize that it just wasn't working for me there. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I never really wanted to leave Santiago in the first place. I love living in this city, and I was excited to come back!

Why did you move and what do you do?
So, late November of 2010, I was what you might call (statistically-speaking) a typical US citizen: I didn't have a passport, and I assumed I'd live my entire life inside the US. My work was in the States, my investments were in the States, and I figured that maybe one day I'd take an international trip or two, but I would have been just as happy to visit Hawaii. I mean, it's such a big, scary world out there! (laughs)

Then one day I discovered a website called Sovereign Man, which talks about strategies for internationalizing your life — offshore bank accounts, dual-citizenship, that sort of thing. Basically, it's designed to help people who want to move certain aspects of their lives to other countries. I started reading the articles on the site... and it blew my mind.

It made me wonder: Was the United States really where all the best opportunities were for me? I mean, I'd been living there for the past 26½ years... and if you were to ask me why, the only honest answer I would be able to give you would have been, "Huh... I dunno."

The following February, Sovereign Man was holding an Offshore Tactics Workshop in Panama City, so I bought a seat and flew to Panama. The conference was fantastic — there were residency consultants, bankers, trust attorneys, and hundreds of experienced expats to network with. Of course, I didn't get a single thing done while I was there (laughs), but it was incredibly inspiring!

It became obvious to me pretty quickly that there was a ton of opportunity out there that I had never exposed myself to because I was limiting my perspective to such a tiny part of the world.

And so, while sitting in my hotel room in Panama City, I made a promise to myself. I promised myself that by the end of 2012, I would be living outside the United States, and I would continue to live abroad for at least 5 years: 2 years in South America, 2 years in Asia and Oceania, and 1 year in Africa and Europe.

And at the end of 5 years, I will decide which country (or countries) I want to call home... or if I want to remain a permanent traveler.

As for what I do.... Well, read my blog and find out! (laughs) Right; what I do work-wise. My last year in the States, I left my full-time job as a software engineer at an ad agency to found my own software company. I also do a little freelance software development on the side to pay for all the fun stuff.

Oh, and I have the blog, of course. But I just do that for the groupies. (laughs)

Did you bring family with you?
Almost none of my relationships from the United States have survived this transition. I've grown an incredible amount in such a short time, but everyone back where I came from... really hasn't.

Thankfully, there was very little drama. One day I started discovering rifts forming in most of my relationships with friends and family, and over time we just continued to drift further and further apart.

But I've been forming amazing new friendships over the course of my travels, and hopefully one day I will find the right person to start my own family with!

Obligatory 'buying food from a street vendor in a foreign country' photo.
Obligatory 'buying food from a street vendor in a foreign country' photo.
How did you find the transition to living in a foreign country?
Ok, so let's go back to the beginning. Day 1 of 1827. I land at José María Córdova airport in Colombia at 11 o' clock at night and take a taxi out to Medellín, which is about 40 km away. The ride lasts a little over an hour along a foggy, windy road through the mountains — it feels like I'm literally traveling into the unknown.

Finally, we get to the neighborhood where my hostel is located, and it's... well, I mean, it's not a bad neighborhood exactly, but it is definitely different from what I'm used to.

So here I am, in a foreign country, with a foreign culture, where I don't speak the language, having just traveled for the last hour into completely unfamiliar territory, I'm in a shady-looking neighborhood in the middle of the night...

... and my taxi driver can't find my hostel.

It was at that moment that I realized exactly what it means to be free. I can do whatever I want... but I am also 100% responsible for everything that happens to me.

And that's pretty much been my experience at every country I moved to so far. Wherever I go, I have tremendous freedom to shape my life and experience of the country, but ultimately I'm the one who has to make it all happen.

For me, it's a fantastic feeling, but it was very painful at first to realize just how unfree I was in my former life back in the US. And I don't mean that in a political sense; I think I would have experienced this no matter what country I was born in. I just never understood how much of my life was shaped by the culture and physical environment that I was living in.

And then, when I ripped myself out of that mold... well, it's kind of like opening a tin of biscuit dough; there's no way you'll ever be able to stuff it back into its original container.

Oh, and we did eventually find my hostel; the driver just got confused because of all the one-way streets.

Was it easy making friends and meeting people; do you mainly socialise with other expats?
That really depends on where I happen to be living. For example, in Santiago, it's incredibly easy to meet people and network with other expats who share my personal and professional interests. There is a massive expat community, and there is a ton of interest in entrepreneurial and professional pursuits among the people who come to Chile. I've met so many amazing friends and professional contacts here!

In Asunción, it was a lot more difficult for me to integrate myself into the expat community. Paraguay is much more tranquil and "off-the-radar" than Chile, which makes it attractive to a different type of person than I normally mesh with. Not saying that it's better or worse; it's just not the right fit for me. And that's great, too; I mean, that's why I'm doing Five Years Abroad, right?

One of my favorite tactics is to get on a site like InterNations or find a local Facebook group and start making friends before I've even arrived in the country. That makes it so much easier to get established and avoid problems once I get there.

So far, I've met a good mix of expats and English-speaking locals. My Spanish is still very limited, so I only have a couple of friends who don't speak English, but I am working on that!

When you get lost in a foreign city, you might as well make the best of it.  Santiago is an incredibly beautiful city, especially at sunset.  Now where the heck is Avenida Presidente Riesco?!
When you get lost in a foreign city, you might as well make the best of it. Santiago is an incredibly beautiful city, especially at sunset. Now where the heck is Avenida Presidente Riesco?!
What are the best things to do in the area; anything to recommend to future expats?
Santiago is an incredible place for tourists; the sheer variety of places to go and things to do in the area is phenomenal.

There's a ton of stuff to see and do in the city, of course. But you also have wine country less than an hour to the west, and if you go just a little further, you can visit Pacific beaches in Viña del Mar and Reñaca. Meanwhile, the mountains lie a short distance to the east of the city. If you want to invest a little extra travel time, you can fly up to the Atacama Desert to the north, or if green is your thing, explore the southern regions of the country. Or hop over the border and check out Argentina; Mendoza is only 9 hours from Santiago: 6 hours of driving, plus about 3 hours waiting at immigration.

In short, if you run out of things to do while you're here, you're not trying very hard!

What do you enjoy most about living here?
The people here are phenomenal. I've created more incredibly valuable connections in Santiago in 3 months than I did in the entire US in 26 years.

There is a huge amount of opportunity for work here, too — especially if you work in the tech sector. I remember at one point, a friend asked me what a mid-level web developer could expect to earn in Santiago, so I posted on findinchile to find out. Within about 15 minutes, I received a handful of messages from people asking for my friend's résumé.

How does the cost of living compare to home?
It's pretty comparable. Rent and utilities are a bit less, but most everything else – food, public transportation, prepaid mobile, etc. – costs right around what I was used to paying in Dallas.

It was a bit of a shock at first, actually. After spending a couple of months in Colombia and Paraguay, I got used to saying, "What... US$5 for dinner? What am I, made of money?!" Then I arrived in Santiago, and my first meal here cost a little over US$8. Ugh.

What negatives, if any, are there to living here?
You know, I haven't really discovered anything "bad" here yet. There are a few things that have been difficult to adjust to, but that's mostly just because the culture is so different in South America relative to what I was used to in the US.

The language barrier is a bit tricky at times; you can get by with just English in some of parts of Santiago, but you'll have a much easier time of things if you learn at least some basic Spanish. Chilean Spanish has a bad reputation for being difficult to understand and full of slang, but honestly, I haven't had too much difficulty picking up on it — I actually found it harder to understand the Spanish in Paraguay!

As I mentioned, as far as South America goes, Santiago is pretty expensive. If you're willing to live outside the city though, there are some places you can go that are quite inexpensive. For example, I spent a week in Talca late November, and when I arrived, I had lunch at teeny restaurant near the bus terminal: A plate full of meat and rice, plus bread and a soft drink for about US$4. At the time, I only had a 20 luca note on me (about US$40), and the restaurant owner had to go find somebody at the bus terminal to make change for it!

Although I've heard that living in Talca is actually a lot more expensive than being a tourist there, so maybe that's not the best example! (laughs)

If you could pick one piece of advice to anyone moving here, what would it be?
Get connected! Join InterNations Santiago, join the findinchile Facebook group. Go to Spanglish Party events. Go to meetups. Make friends and connections!

Heck, meet up with me while you're down here, and I'll introduce you if you want!

Living in a foreign city can be incredibly difficult if you go it alone, but if you have the right people in your life, it makes things so much easier. And it ranges from small comforts like meeting up for coffee with someone who speaks your language or getting a local perspective on the best places to buy produce... all the way up to getting a great deal on an apartment or getting help navigating the legal residency process.

Settling in for a productive afternoon with a gourd of mate (pronounced 'MA-tay'), a traditional South American infused tea that makes you feelwhoaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhh......  Nah, I'm just kidding.  Actually, its effect is closer to that of a vitamin boost.
Settling in for a productive afternoon with a gourd of mate (pronounced 'MA-tay'), a traditional South American infused tea that makes you feelwhoaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhh...... Nah, I'm just kidding. Actually, its effect is closer to that of a vitamin boost.
What has been the hardest aspect to your expat experience so far?
At times, it can be incredibly lonely. One of the reasons I love Santiago so much is that it's so easy to meet awesome people here, but it's not been like that everywhere I've lived.

I spent last December in Viña del Mar, and it almost drove me insane. Now, Viña del Mar is a beautiful city, and to be fair, if my Spanish were better, I actually could have made it work for me. But I wasn't able to meet enough English-speaking people, and I ended up spending most of the time sequestered in my room. I became really depressed because of how isolated I felt.

But then I came back to Santiago, reconnected with my network here, and life was amazing again.

I'm actually glad all that happened, though. Even my experience in Asunción – which was, by all accounts, an utter disaster for me – was still incredibly valuable. My main goal is to explore the world and discover where I fit, what place I can call "home". So if you were to ask me now why I'm in Santiago, I could tell you exactly why.

And why is that?
It's hard to explain. (laughs)

Honestly, I could list off all the positive factors that Santiago has, but it really comes down to a feeling. When I'm in Santiago, I feel... comfortable. I feel like I'm home, like this is where I belong. When I was in Asunción, I got homesick for Santiago.

That's not to say that Five Years Abroad is over already; I still have a lot more of the world to explore! But for now, I am happy being here.

When you finally return home, how do you think you'll cope with repatriation?
Okay, I'm going to share a little secret with you. Well, I guess it's not really going to be a secret for much longer, is it? (laughs)

I only picked "5 years abroad" because I needed a goal. I knew that if I didn't commit to a minimum length of time, I might go to... say, Thailand for a month... and then come back. And then I might go to Chile for a few months... and then come back. And then I wouldn't really be living abroad; it would be more like a series of extended vacations.

And that I would consider to be an even worse failure than if only made it to the 6 month mark, got too homesick to continue and returned to the States.

So really, "5 years" is a pretty arbitrary goal. The truth is, I knew even before I left that it would be a lot longer than 5 years before I returned. And candidly, there's a pretty good chance I might never come back – not even as a tourist.

After just 6 months in South America, I can already tell you unequivocally that the United States is not the best place in the world for me. And I've still got Asia, Oceania, Europe and Africa to explore!

Oh, and Antarctica, but I don't think I'll be applying for residency there. (laughs)

What are your top 5 expat tips for anyone following in your footsteps?
Number one – and to be honest, I think this is important enough that it could easily be the first five just by itself – is that there are no external obstacles that are preventing you from living abroad.

So many people tell me that I'm living their dream; that they are so envious of what I'm doing; that they wish they could do it, too.

And I have to be honest; when I ask them what's stopping them, the excuses I get are so... well... silly. They don't have enough money. They won't be able to find a job. They don't speak the language. They're afraid the foreign government is turning into a dictatorship — considering the nationality of the person who told me this one, I thought that was particularly ironic.

Really? That's it? That's what's stopping you?

Now it used to be, when people told me about these problems, I did something really dumb: I tried to help solve them.

- Not enough money? Here's a dozen ways to make some while you're living there... and don't forget, you don't have to leave tomorrow, you know; you can save up for a year or two first.
- Need a job? I know a dozen people who are looking for someone with your exact skill set; want me to put you in touch with them?
- Afraid of the government turning into a dictatorship? Have you watched your local news lately? Why haven't you left already???

I really thought I was helping them... but you know what was really funny? After I got done shooting down every single objection, they were still convinced they couldn't do it.

- I would explain to people a thousand ways to make money while living abroad... and yet they were still convinced that money would be a problem.
- I would offer to get people in contact with foreign employers who were practically begging me to send their résumés... and yet they were still convinced that nobody would hire them.
- I would show people a dozen examples of how the foreign country is actually freer than where they're living now... and yet they were still convinced that they were safer staying put.

I couldn't understand what on earth was going on... but I really wanted to solve this problem because living abroad gave me so many incredible opportunities for growth and discovery, and I wanted to be able to share this amazing experience with others. So I gave it a lot of thought, and I think I finally figured it out.

I thought about my own experience. And I think I realized that I had the same problem that everyone else did.

I was afraid.

I was afraid of stepping out of my comfort zone. I was afraid of having to rely on myself and not having my friends and family around to help me out. I was afraid of facing the unknown.

I was afraid that if I put myself to the test, I would fail.

But as long as there was at least one roadblock – some obstacle that was completely out of my control – I could hang onto the hope that I would someday overcome my limitations — without having to take the risk and responsibility of actually following through on it.

Deep down, though, I knew what was really going on. And I decided that was not how I wanted to live.

So I took the first step.

It's a little different for everybody. In my case, I paid for a subscription to Sovereign Man Confidential. Once I had put some money on the table, I knew I was really serious about this, and then I was able to make it happen.

And when the big day came... when I left behind everything and everyone I had ever known and set off alone into the unknown... when I finally stood and let myself be tested...

... I discovered what an incredibly smart, capable, creative, resourceful and strong person I am — in ways I had never known nor even thought possible before!

So, my advice to anybody who's thinking about moving to a foreign country is this:

If you haven't started following your dream yet, take a good, long look in the mirror and ask yourself what you're afraid of.

And then take that first step.

Like I said, it's a little different for each person. The first step is most likely not getting on a plane. Maybe you open a savings account and set up an automatic monthly transfer. Maybe your first step is applying for a passport. Maybe you send your résumé to an international recruiter.

Whatever it is, drop everything and do it. Right now. You already know what you need to do because it's the one thing you're the most terrified of doing.

Take that first step.


Thank you; that concludes my TED talk today. (laughs) Shoot; and that was just tip number one. Man, what am I going to follow this up with? (laughs)

You know, I think that one is enough. Honestly, everything else you're going to need, you already know. And if you don't know it, you'll be able to figure it out. I truly believe that. You're only going to be interested in living in a foreign country if you're already the kind of person who's capable of making it happen.

When you get right down to it, Five Years Abroad is basically just a collection of 1827 variations of this scenario.
When you get right down to it, Five Years Abroad is basically just a collection of 1827 variations of this scenario.
Tell us a bit about your own expat blog.
You know, I never really wanted to be a blogger. (laughs) But when I first told people I was going to live abroad for 5 years, they all said the same thing: (mocking voice) "Ooh, take lots of pictures! We want to live vicariously through you!!"

Ugh. (laughs) Ok, I'll tell you what. I'm not going to do a blog, but I'll do... I'll tell you what; I'll do a Facebook post each day. Just sort of what I did that day and how I'm feeling. And maybe I'll post some pictures. If I feel like it. But no promises!

Well, I got started. Day 1, as soon as I checked into my hostel, I pulled out my laptop and made my first post. And you know, it was actually kind of fun. I mean, I wasn't a very good writer back then. At all. (laughs) But I was kind of digging it. It was pretty cool to share what was going on, and I really tried to give people more than just "I did x today." I included something I learned about the culture, or a weird traffic law I had discovered, or an interesting fact about Spanish grammar... you know, little things that actually contributed value to my friends' lives beyond just entertainment.

And I kept it up. Every night before I went to sleep, I would write about what happened and what I had learned that day. I didn't take that many pictures at first, but then I even started getting into that a little bit. I downloaded an HDR app for my phone and really had fun with it. Before I knew it, I had a lot of content!

Around day 30, I realized that Facebook wasn't going to cut it anymore. I was starting to receive friend requests from people I didn't know – like, at all – but somehow they had heard about my posts and wanted to follow them. This was getting serious.

Ok, well, I figured if I was going to have a blog, I might as well... you know, have a blog! (laughs) So I shopped around for domain names, and I found Hey, that's catchy. I set up a free Blogspot account and stayed up until about 3 in the morning importing all my content from Facebook and getting the design just right.

And that was the official start of

Now I'm coming up on Day 200. Barring unusual circumstances, I've kept up my daily ritual, and even if I miss a day because I'm traveling... or completely smashed (laughs), I still keep notes and put up posts for the missing days as soon as I have internet access again.

And I will continue until Day 1827.

(laughs) I honestly have no idea what will happen when I reach Day 1827. Maybe I'll end up changing the domain to! (laughs)

Actually, I probably will continue to blog even after I hit five years. I love having the blog; I would still do it every day even if nobody read it. It's such a great way of recording my accomplishments and improving my writing skills. In fact, when I do my weekly review, one of the steps is to go over my blog posts for the last 7 days and recall everything that happened that week. It's fantastic.

How can you be contacted for further advice to future expats coming to your area?
Awesome! I would love to hear from my readers! If you're planning to be in my area, definitely, let's meet up! If you've got questions or if you just want to tell me what you think, that's great, too!

If you want to get in touch with me relatively privately, I think either Twitter or Facebook are the best ways to do that. My username on both sites is – conveniently – fiveyearsabroad:

- Twitter:
- Facebook:

Is there anything else you want the readers to know?
Seriously, if you're thinking about doing this, please, please, please do it! Make it happen. You will grow so much as a person! You will learn so much about the world and the people in it. You will learn so much about yourself.

I wish I could show you everything it did for me, what it did for my all of my expat friends... I think it is one of the most valuable and important things you will ever do during your life!

Safe travels!

Phoenix blogs at which we recommend a quick visit if you haven't been already. Five Years Abroad has an listing here so add a review if you like! If you appreciated this interview with Phoenix, please also drop him a quick comment below.
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Comments » There are 6 comments

Phoenix wrote 11 years ago:

Thanks Polly! I really like your blog; it's super inspirational for me. In about a year and a half, I'm going to be switching to Asia/Oceania, and I'm really curious to see what it's like to live in Russia, too (:

Making a hard commitment like I did can really helpful, depending on what you're trying to accomplish. When you know that you can't go back, it totally changes your mindset, and I think it helps you live your experience to the fullest.

Crystal Goes To Europe wrote 11 years ago:

Thanks for sharing! I really enjoyed your interview and am very impressed by what you are doing. I originally left Canada for 8 months abroad in France. I wanted to do another ESL teaching experience after that (was thinking seriously of Japan), but I met a French guy a month after arriving, and well, you can guess the rest. Travelling and living abroad teaches us so much about ourselves and the kinds of relationships we want and need (and don't need!) in our lives. Deciding to break out of your comfort zone, try new things, and make new friends is certainly daunting at times, but always definitely worth it :) Wishing you the best in your 5-year (or more!) life plan.

Polly wrote 11 years ago:

Great article! I've lived abroad (rather unintentionally) for about three years with small breaks in-between. I would love to try out your method -- making a commitment to stay abroad sounds much more intense/exciting!

Phoenix wrote 11 years ago:

Hey Crystal. Thanks so much for your thoughts and encouragement! I think you're absolutely right... meeting a French guy changes everything! Also, taking yourself out of your comfort zone is one of the most amazing ways to learn and grow as a person (: I was just reading your article about how Pinch saved your relationship (and the rest of France!) after your accident. That was an incredibly touching story! It reminded me how much I wish I had dogs in my life (and maybe a cat... maybe) — I love animals! (but don't ask me to say that in Spanish; the last time I tried that, I accidentally announced my love for Germans [alemanes], instead of animals [animales] :P)

Mateo wrote 11 years ago:

Awesome interview! We knew Phoenix before his big 5 years abroad adventure began and have been following since the beginning. It's been great to watch him travel and get into "sticky" situations that are not often discussed in the "international" forums, keep it up man!

Axel wrote 10 years ago:

Greetings from Santiago, This is Axel. My gf & I just arrived 5 weeks ago. I am here on an investor visa exploring opportunities. I also lived previously in Dallas, where I worked for Sun Oil as an exploration geophysicist. We just read your interview on expat blog. It was quite good and you seem very interesting. I have travelled all my life and know more than 60 countries. I have a residency in Paraguay, Uuguay and now working on Chile. I live part of the year in Philippines with my gf, which I highly recommend!I mean Philippines , of course. I would like to know people and make friends here in Santiago. I hope we can communicate & meet soon. Axel 82387740

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