Beginner’s Guide to Budgeting in South Korea

If you’ve landed a job teaching English in South Korea, congratulations! It can be a confusing process–you’ve passed the first hurdle. You may not be thinking of you finances just yet, but it is always good to have a plan! You will need a budget if you want to make the best of this situation financially. Because a lot of your expenses are covered, you may think budgeting is unnecessary. But with so much potential to pay off debt or save money, it’s good to have a general idea of where you want that extra cashflow to go. Follow my guide to budgeting in South Korea and tweak it to meet your own personal needs!

Everyone’s job will have a slightly different pay scale. For the sake of averages, I will say that you are starting with a 2.2 million won budget.  If you happen to make more than this, congratulations! You can follow my budget plan and put the remaining money into various categories depending on your needs. I recommend adding anything extra to debt payments first, then an emergency fund, then investments. It’s easier than you think to save over 50% of your income while in Korea.

Something that’s important to remember when making your budget in Korea is that you should always pay yourself first. What does that mean? It means you should put your budgeted amount of money “away.” This will look different for everyone, but for everyone it means that you cannot easily touch or spend this money. Do not leave this money in your normal checking account. Depending on your situation, this could mean putting aside 1 million won, paying 200,000 into your savings account and 800,000 towards your debt. Maybe you already have a solid emergency fund and you want to put the whole 1 million towards your debt.

You will, of course, be able to include fun in your budget. Part of the reason you went to teach abroad in the first place was because you wanted to enjoy a new culture, experience a new country and travel to surrounding countries. You should definitely allot a certain amount of money per month for these kinds of expenses because if you travel all the way to South Korea to sit in your apartment for one year spending no money, having no fun, and never experiencing the culture around you–you’re definitely missing out on something important! It’s the kind of investment that isn’t monetary.

Kimbap! Cheap, delicious and filling.

 

That being said, I was able to pay off $23,000 in debt, save about $6,000 and travel to 8 countries. I also traveled all around South Korea and regularly did fun things in my city with friends. I went out, had drinks, ate all the food and visited almost every province. If I can do it you can do it too!

Because in most cases you’re not legally allowed to have a side income while you’re working in Korea, you’ll have to rely on one source of income when making your budget. This makes it pretty simple and straightforward. I’ve created a sample budget below. Keep in mind that I’ve simplified everything for the sake of example. This would have been one of my more extreme months when I lived on only about 500,000 won. Your numbers will look different than mine because you’ll have different goals and interests.

 

How I Paid Off $23,000 Teaching English in South Korea

I paid off $23,000 in student loan debt teaching English in South Korea for two years. Not only that, but I put a nice chunk of money into an emergency fund and savings account too!  I’ll break it down for you here to see how easy it could be for you to do the same.

 

A palace you will see when teaching english in south korea

 

 

My Background

I graduated university with about $40,000 in student loan debt–some from a private lender and some from the US government. During the four years following my graduation I worked really hard in multiple jobs. I was trying to both pay my monthly bills and pay down a bit extra each month on my debt payments.

As an “Urban Studies” major who graduated at the age of 20 (side note: who lets 18 year olds take $40,000 in loans for a random liberal arts degree??), I really had no idea what to do next. I had always believed what I had been told–a college degree would make my life better and more financially stable. Now, I didn’t choose the most logical degree. Even though I loved what I studied and it really opened up my mind–there’s a lot of instrinsic value in that–I just couldn’t afford it. But, lenders told me I could, so I did. My degree was not a financially lucrative one, as anyone could’ve guessed. There was no specific career path for me to take, and so began my four year streak of “a little bit of everything.”

I worked as a caregiver, a nanny, an office cleaner, and a barista and a server in the Alaskan wilderness (more about that here!). I did office work, delivery driving and bartending. Most of the time, I was juggling two to three jobs at once. All of this work was an attempt to cover my bills and pay a little extra each month towards my student loans.

Something needed to change.

Teaching English in South Korea

A series of life events led me to decide to become TEFL certified and apply for EPIK, the government program for teaching English in South Korea. About a year after making that decision, I was on a plane!

After buying my ticket, I only had about $1,000 to my name and about $23,000 in student loan debt. Over the previous four years, I had worked hard enough to pay off $17,000. It had, though, been extremely stressful and I had overworked myself to an extreme degree. And, having a “net worth” of -$21,000 doesn’t exactly feel good.

But all of that changed in Korea. I won’t say the job itself was easy though, especially at first. Nothing could have prepared me for the culture shock, confusion at what my role in the schools I worked in exactly was, or the cockroaches in my government provided apartment (the landlord brought in pest control, but it was a bit horrifying for awhile!). But I am so thankful for my experiences and the financial freedom that teaching English abroad provided me with.

The Numbers

Now, for the fun stuff! At least, as a budgeting nerd, I find it fun!

How Much Can you Make in a Year Teaching English in South Korea?

Pay varies depending on what job you have and where you work. Most native English teachers will make about 2.2 million won per month. I will base the bonuses received on my own. Again, for reference, I worked for EPIK in a provincial office of education from 2016-2018.

  1. Paycheck – Deductions: 2.3 million won/month (approximately 27 million/year)
  2. Entry Allowance: 1.3 million won
  3. Settlement Allowance: .3 million won
  4. Severance Pay: 2.2 million won (equal to one month’s pay – extras)
  5. Exit Allowance OR Renewal Bonus: 1.3 million won (if you renew, you’ll get 1.3 mil at the end of your first contract and .7 at the end of your second)
  6. Pension Refund: 2.5 million won (Pension refund is only available for teachers from the USA, Canada or Australia I believe)

Yearly Total: About 34.5 million won  (~$30,615 USD)

Consider Your Expenses

You won’t be paying rent, vehicle expenses (unless you choose to buy one) or extremely high health care costs like you might be at home if you’re American. These numbers will vary from person to person based on your values. But if you are considering just the necessities along with a bit of fun, this will apply to you. Here are some expenses you can expect to pay while teaching English in South Korea.

  1. Utilities: This includes electricity, gas and maybe an apartment complex maintenance fee. It should be around 50,000 won.
  2. Cell phone: Again, depends on your plan. Plan on about 40,000 won for a month to month plan.
  3. Food: Groceries and eating out combined, I spent about 300,000 won per month on food. If needed, you can definitely go the “rice and beans” route and cut back on this!
  4. Transportation: Getting to work and back by bus costed me about 70,000/month. Add 30,000 won/month for traveling around Korea for a monthly total of 100,000 won.
  5. Fun/Stuff: This can include anything you like to do! Some people are into drinking the night away or going to clubs. Some are into shopping (though I would discourage doing this on a regular basis if you want to pay off debt or save–things seem cheap in Korea but add up SO quickly!), some people are into a hobby, and some people like me are into visiting every cute cafe in every city and drinking all of the coffee. Everyone should make the most of their time in Korea by exploring the country–it’s so easy to get around and there is so much to do! We’ll allot 200,000 won/month for this to be safe.

That brings us to a total of about 700,000 won per month (8.4 million/year), plus maybe an extra 1-2 million won per year for traveling or other expenses. Let’s say you’ll spend 10 million won/year.

Yearly Total: 10 million won (~$8,875 USD)

What’s Left?

The answer is–a lot! About 24.5 million won (or more) per year if you play your cards right. That’s about $21,740 USD! Even if you end up spending more than I’ve allotted for expenses, you should still be doing pretty well.

What can you do with that $20,000 USD? Anything you want! Pay off your debt, save money and travel the world. You can do it all as a result of diligently following your budget.

I worked in Korea for two years and paid off the last couple of thousand I had left with the pension lump sum I received after finishing up my contract. The rest of my savings have been invested, saved or are sitting in my emergency fund for peace of mind.

I can’t recommend teaching English in South Korea enough to any native English speaker with student loan (or other) debt to pay. If you love to travel the world and save money, give it a try! What do you have to lose except your debt?

Girl happy with teaching English in South Korea

 

Reflections: Two Years in Korea

Today is the first day of 2018! Time flies, as they say. This past month, as I’ve finished my last full month of teaching for the school year, I’ve been reflecting on all of my time here.  Two years ago I arrived in this small town in rural South Korea, knowing next to nothing. I was nervous out of my mind and filled with self-doubt. I couldn’t stop thinking…how is it possible that they hired ME to teach a bunch of middle school and elementary school kids who speak a different language than me?

goodbye 2017

From the moment I stepped into my first classroom, nothing was what I was told it was going to be. Nothing could have been farther from what I had imagined it was going to be. Before I moved here I thought I would be teaching cute little elementary students every day and working at the same school at least most days of the week. None of these things were true. I taught at five different schools, one different school each day. Middle school was especially a challenge for me as I hadn’t expected to be teaching that age group at all and I just do much better with younger students in general.

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For my first three months, I barely slept at all. My coffee addiction jumped off the charts. From finding the right buses to get me into the countryside at the right time to planning twenty unique lessons a week to trying to understand the social norms of a new culture and society and the stress that comes with starting a new job in general…I was a mess, to say the least.

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Despite all of the madness, I ended up staying a second year.  This was partially due to all the work I had put into my first year–planning lessons and figuring out life here, and partially due to the fact that I actually started to (gasp) LIKE it here.

My friends here like to joke “If we can make it in this job, we can literally do ANYTHING.” And I really do feel like I can do anything now. Everyone’s job in Korea is different due to different school settings and different coworkers, but generally we all share the “WHAT IS HAPPENING” feeling at the end of the day. To my friends here…we made it through the year. Congratulations, you’re amazing.

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Last year, I made some New Year’s resolutions on this blog, so I thought I’d revisit them to check in with myself, and see if it’s even worth making new ones this year (haha).


  1. Hike 3 Korean mountains.

  2. Intensify my Korean language studying. Finish through TTMIK Level 3.
  3. Yoga Revolution! And a continued exploration of yoga throughout the year.
  4. Visit 3 new countries. (I’ll start with Hong Kong in January!)
  5. Blog once a month, rather than sporadically as I have been.
  6. Stick to my new budget and pay off my last student loan.
  7. Choose to be happy and light in the everyday madness.

Well! It wasn’t so painful after all. I hiked, I studied Korean although I took an online class rather than continuing my self-study (I plan to continue that once I get back to the US and have a lot of time on my hands). Yoga! Always saving my life, one breath, one asana at a time. I visited Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan this year as well as (kind of) North Korea on the DMZ tour. Does that count? I DID pass the border underground. As far as my student loan goes, it’s not quite finished but will be in February(!)

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I can’t say I chose to be happy and light EVERY day, because, you know…I’m human. But I felt a definite weight lifted this year…a weight of caring too much what people think and worrying about small things. I feel a lot more in tune with what I need for myself and open to the continued search for all things true and light in the universe. In that sense, life has been lighter.

2018 should be an exciting year. I will visit northern Vietnam in January, finish up my contract in Korea in February, and travel around China and Japan in March and April before heading back to the USA.

travel

In the US, first I’ll visit my mom in Colorado, head to Minnesota to see the majority of my family members and then head to the west coast to visit friends and my little sister, who is having a BABY! That’s right. I’m an auntie now. I have no words for how exciting this is. After that, who knows! I predict more exploration of myself and the world around me and even more freedom as I finally move about the world debt free! (Wooo!)

If you have read this far, thank you for following along on my journey. Thanks for being a part of my life, or if we don’t know each other, thanks for existing and fulfilling your beautiful part of the fabric of the world. Here’s to the new year, lovely people!

peacelovehappy

 

 

vacations of an efl teacher

My first year contract is complete! Well, it will be in one week…during that time I won’t have much real work to do, though.  So, essentially, it’s done!  I can’t believe it.  I also can’t believe I signed the contract to stay here another year, but I did.  School schedules are a little strange in Korea, there is a winter vacation for the month of January and during that time most teachers will teach at least one winter English camp.  The first week of February is this weird week of classes and graduation before the real end of the semester.  The new school year begins the first week of March.

Working in Korea as an EPIK teacher, I get two chunks of vacation time, 8 days in the summer and 10 in the winter (you also get 5 extra days if you renew your contract).  This is one of the really nice perks of working here.  Although I’m not a fan of deskwarming when the students don’t have school, I am thankful for my chances to travel.  And deskwarming isn’t so bad anyway.  It gives me a (forced) opportunity to make cooler lesson plans, study Korean, catch up on the news (oh, wait, that’s super depressing these days) or even better, to sit down with a cup of Korean instant coffee and write.

Summer vacation in August was rather busy.  After teaching 3 summer camps (so much work!), I flew off to meet my lifelong friend Mary in Thailand.  I was excited to finally travel with her after all of our years traveling separately and to see another new country. Thailand is great, but 9 days is definitely not enough.  It’s not long enough to really get a good feel for any country that large.  Even so, it was nice to get away for awhile and not think so much about waking up early and getting to school and lesson planning.

Our itinerary looked like this:
Day 1: Bangkok.  Coffee, Thai massage, Food
**Thai massage. So good. Holy wow.**
Day 2: Bangkok. Temples, Palaces, Coffee, Food
**Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace are stunning to see, but go early in the morning to avoid massive crowd sizes**
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Day 3: Day train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai (8:30am-7:30pm. A seriously long train ride)
**I recommend flying from Bangkok to Chiang Mai to save time and energy.  Some of the views on the train were nice but to me I would’ve rather been out of a train doing something.**
Day 4: Chiang Mai.  Coffee, Food, Thai cooking class
**Take a cooking class in Thailand! You’ll be amazed at what you can do**
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Mary and I at Siam Rice Cooking School (Highly recommended!)
Day 5: Chiang Mai.  Coffee, Temples, Worked on lesson plans at coffee shops (yay), Food, Amanda’s illness begins…
Day 6: Chiang Mai. Sick. Chiang Mai Ram Hospital Visit.  Felt like death.
**Chiang Mai Ram Hospital is a nice for foreigners because their level of English is good enough for communication among all of the staff.  There are probably other good ones in Chiang Mai but I can’t speak for them**
**Also, dear Mary, thank you for accompanying me to the hospital when I felt like death.  Having sick friends on a trip is the worst, because you feel fine but you also want to help but you don’t want to help because you’re on vacation and you want to do stuff! In any case, your sacrifice will ever be remembered.  If your friend takes care of you on their vacation, you’d better be damn grateful!**
Day 7: Chiang Mai.  Sick. Feeling less like death after medication. To a spa for facials.
Day 8: Flight from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, Taxi to BKK Airport, Waited forever for flight, One last Thai massage in the airport.

If I got the chance, I would like to go back to Thailand.  I was so worn out from the year that I don’t think I was much fun to begin with (sorry Mary), and then I got seriously sick in Chiang Mai and missed out on a lot of natural wonders that would’ve, I’m sure, made the trip much more full.  3 full days while traveling is a lot of time out, sadly, so I missed out on hiking in some beautiful natural places and hanging out with elephants and eating a lot of delicious food.  (Sidenote, I’m convinced food poisoning is the closest a human can get to feeling death while still managing to stay alive).  All in all, I’m happy I went, and I was glad to travel with Mary (finally) but I don’t feel like I had enough time in the least bit.

In January I was able to take all my vacation at once.  EPIK teachers are allowed 10 days in the winter for vacation, and then if you are renewing your contract they give you a bonus 5 days.  I combined my vacation days with the Lunar New year (설날) and had a nice chunk of time away from teaching.

For 10 days, I was back in the US visiting family and friends.  It was good to be back to see the people I love, but honestly it also felt strange.  I had this weird feeling that I was foreign in my own country, even though I certainly also feel foreign in Korea.  Maybe the concept of “home” is just lost on me.  I went through my old things and went past my old apartment and drank coffee at my old regular places.  But it was different.  Or maybe it’s me who is different now.  One thing is for sure, though…it felt amazing to breathe such clean air again.  A “cold” that had been lingering for months suddenly went away after spending a few days in the Minnesota air.

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Snow and Sunshine in Minnesota

 

I was also able to participate in a sister march for the Women’s March on Washington.  I saw women (and men) of all backgrounds and beliefs come together to support and fight for women’s equality in a way that is accessible to all.  I won’t get into the politics of it all here, but I will say that I do believe now is a very important time for women to stand together peacefully and make our voices heard.

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Before going home (to my Korean one, that is) I went with Riza to Hong Kong and Macau.  Hong Kong is small, and the 5 days and 4 nights we spent there was pretty perfect.  It would’ve been nice to have about 2 more days to move a little more slowly and visit a few more cafes, but all in all I was not disappointed even with less than a week.  I was pretty rested after my vacation at home and I was ready to go all out and do things all day, so we were able to pack it all in.

This trip’s itinerary:
Day 1: Arrived around 10am, ate probably the most delicious wonton soup of my life, lost Riza’s passport, found Riza’s passport, took the train into the city center (Tsim Sha Tsui) to drop off our bags and freshen up.  Visited: Kowloon Park (lovely!), Garden of the Stars, Coffee Academics (cafe)

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Bruce & Riza

Day 2: Took the MTR to Tung Chung Stn and the bus to Ngong Ping Stn to get to the Tian Tan Buddha on Lantau Island.  This was probably my favorite place of the trip..it felt so peaceful there and the Buddha is beautiful and massive.

Went to Victoria Peak on the tram, visited the ladies market in the Mong Kok neighborhood (scored my only souvenier of the trip…a denim bag with a cat on it…)

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View from Victoria Peak

Day 3: Day Trip to Macau! Took the Ferry from the Kowloon ferry terminus to Macau.  It seems very easy to just buy tickets when you get there.  We used TurboJet.  It was so warm in Macau! Saw the ruins of St. Paul, Senado Square and headed to the Venetian Macau.  I think  my favorite thing about Macau were the pretty blue street signs with both Chinese and Portugese.  And the egg tarts…oh, the egg tarts.  Ferried back and slept for about 12 hours from exhaustion.

chinese and portugese signs macau에 대한 이미지 결과

Day 4: Hiked Dragon’s back (so windy, but so lovely!) Then we rested before watching the Chinese New Year parade.  It was huge…people were waiting hours before it started to get a good view.  The parade consisted of several floats and performances by groups from all over the world.  A little crowded, but cool to see.

Day 5: Eggs Benedict at Urban Coffee Roasters Tsim Sha Tsui (highly recommend for food and espresso…best flat white I’ve had in Asia thus far), packed our things, chilled out a bit and headed to the airport.

Pro-tips for Hong Kong (not sure I can call myself a pro, but…): Get an Octopus Card for the MTR (rail transport) at one of the customer service centers in an MTR station, go to the Lantau Island Buddha early in the morning (preferably on a weekday) for lovely views and less crowds…same goes for Victoria Peak (another tip, don’t get your hopes up too much for Victoria Peak as it mostly felt like a tourist trap to me despite the nice view).

I love love love vacaion time.  I’m already trying to hold myself back from planning my next one.  I’m thinking Taiwan or Japan next, or maybe Indonesia or the Phillipines.  Or… okay, enough for now.  Teaching abroad is not only great for the experience of living in another country, but you’re also given time off to explore nearby countries.  Now excuse my while I re-open my other tab…the flight search engine…

Year One in Korea: Reflections

Another year has passed on the solar calendar.  On this lovely Saturday morning, I am lounging lazily on my heated floor mat, sipping my coffee and reflecting on the year gone by.  In February, I packed a few suitcases and flew across the world to teach a bunch of Korean kids who might have actually thought I knew what I was doing.  I did try to come sans expectations; still, I could’ve never imagined what this year would be.

new-year

Starting a new job is intense as it is; starting a new life in a foreign country is next-level. I can say with confidence that I’ve never been this challenged in my entire life.  Looking back at my journal entries from around the time I arrived, I was asking myself questions like, “uh, what did I do?” “why am I here?” and “the most ridiculous thing happened to me today…”

whyinkorean

I did NOT think I’d be remotely interested in sticking around for a second year, yet two days ago I signed another year of my life off to this country.  Why did I decide to stay?  Basically, I put in a lot of hard work this year.  When I first started, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.  I was working all day at school, then going home and trying to make my lessons better all night.  This is partially because I struggle with an unobtainable desire for perfection and a bit of performance anxiety (I wanted my lessons to be super great all the time and for all my students to love them–ha), and partially because I just had no clue how to be a teacher.  For a few months, all I did was drink coffee and lesson plan (and sadly, most of my lessons still sucked).  I’ve heard rumors of some elementary school native teachers in Korea having very little work, but this couldn’t have been farther from my reality.

coffee

At this point, I know what works for my students and I have a whole stockpile of back-up games and lessons in case things fall apart.  Basically, most days now I actually feel like I (kind of) know what I’m doing, and I’ve almost totally given up on trying to please everyone with my lessons.  I rarely bring work home now.

Anyway, I worked hard to get to this point, and all my lesson-planning work for next year is essentially finished.  Apart from minor tweaking, I just have to show up and teach!

My other reason for staying another year in Korea is my life here.  I genuinely like Korea.  I’m happy with my lifestyle and I also don’t want to go back to paying rent and car insurance (ha).  Though friends come and go in the foreign community, I’ve made some really close friends and there’s always someone to enjoy my time with.  Also, Korea is a naturally beautiful country, and I have many more mountains to climb before I leave.  Also, makgeolli.

makgeolli

 

In the spirit of New Year’s Eve, here are my 2017 goals.

  1. Hike 3 Korean mountains.
  2. Intensify my Korean language studying. Finish through TTMIK Level 3.
  3. Yoga Revolution! And a continued exploration of yoga throughout the year.
  4. Visit 3 new countries. (I’ll start with Hong Kong in January!)
  5. Blog once a month, rather than sporadically as I have been.
  6. Stick to my new budget and pay off my last student loan.
  7. Choose to be happy and light in the everyday madness.

What are your goals?  I’m curious.  If you don’t have any physical goals in mind, I would encourage you to try yoga with me in January (click the link above).  It’s free and in your home and it will make you feel like a new, refreshed human being. It doesn’t matter how old or young, or in or out of shape you are. If you can breathe, yoga will improve your life if you let it.  (Basically, I’m a walking infomercial for Yoga with Adriene, just ask my friends. I’ll stop now, though).

Lots and lots and lots of love~~~

Amanda

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updates and reflections from the great plains

fargo, the city I know so well.  the city of dreams… dreams of summertime in the midst of long winters, that is.  dreams of mountains and oceans, dreams of air that doesn’t hurt to breathe.  the weather’s getting a little warmer around here and people are stripping off their winter parkas, feeling slightly uncomfortable in their relative nakedness.

my new little apartment is just my size.  it feels a bit naked as well, with its lack of furniture and other people.  i like to think of the emptiness in terms of extra room for yoga and late night (or early morning) solo dance sessions.  my cat makes it feel like home though, and i am eternally grateful for her incredible listening skills.

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my new job also has cats, and one of them sits on my lap sometimes.  i can look out big windows at trees and my coworkers are beautiful and there is a limitless supply of coffee so i’m quite happy there.

i’ve now finished a class to become tefl certified (teaching english as a foreign language) so as soon as i turn my final papers in, i will be qualified to teach english overseas, which i hope to do next year.

today I was daydreaming a bit…remembering my first day in belgium on my most recent trip.  being so tired and out of it, it didn’t register how ridiculous it all was.  want to hear a story?

I was up late in dublin with my couchsurfing hosts and several of their friends.  we went out to a bar and had a few hot ciders and mulled wines and laughed and I listened to their beautiful french speech and talked to a new spanish friend about writing and cats.  as we walked home that night, my two lovely couchsurfing host ladies and I found a stray cat wandering the streets of dublin.  we spent about an hour earning its trust and eventually coaxed the poor lost kitty back to the apartment with us.

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three hours later, i was in a cab on my way to the dublin airport.  the sun shone through the windows brightly during my descent to brussels, and needless to say I was exhausted and totally unprepared to enter a new country.  but, i entered a new country….right into a total public transportation strike.  now, if you know me, you know I travel on a budget.  I did not have a taxi budget, and although there was room in my funds for emergencies, a taxi into brussels city center would have costed me about €50…that’s something like $75.  when your budget is 50 USD per day, you fret about that kind of cab fare.

staring out at the emptiness in the underground area of the airport where the trains usually run, i looked up at the dingy ceiling and whispered a little “help” to God.  “help,” I said, and a young belgian gentleman suddenly appeared at my side.  “you know the trains aren’t running, right?”  he said to me.  i nodded sheepishly, “I thought I would come down and check, just in case.”  “yeah, me too.  i’m from here.  i’ve never done anything but take the train.”

“are you headed to the city center?”  he asked.  i nodded again.  “want to share a cab?”  he asked.

now, before i left home, i made no promises to anyone except one:  the promise to my father to not share a cab with anyone.  too many sequels of “taken” had come out for him to not give me this sound advice.  so, dad, this is a disclaimer for you: please forgive me.  but know that my intuition is strong and my general rule in life is TRUST NO ONE.

so, i followed this man to the taxi line, where we were going to pay our €25ish each to get to the city center.  he suggested we try to catch an uber taxi instead.  i seemed to be doing a lot of shrugging and nodding that day, and this i did again as we climbed over the fence together and headed upstairs.  we wandered around trying to find the one that showed up on his phone, finally found it, and met the man who would be our taxi driver.  the taxi driver only spoke french, and in this moment i had to turn on my body language reading skills to understand their conversation and see if this was still a wise decision or not.  i could tell the driver’s french was broken, and the two men did not know each other.  being unfamiliar with uber prior to this, i wasn’t expecting an unmarked minivan…but i noticed the driver’s uber keychain as well as his kind and gentle demeanor.  i sensed that he was new to belgium and that he had young children.  i could sense his fatherliness and compassion for humanity in general.

so i handed him my torn and crinkled piece of paper with the address to my hostel and hopped in the minivan.  we first dropped off my cab-mate who wished me good luck in my travels and explained to me in english that we were not far from my hostel.  after he shut the door, the driver, who had shown no sign of speaking any english, asked with some embarrassment, “can i try english with you? sometimes i am afraid of english.”

i laughed and told him his english sounded good, and he let go of a little fear.  he told me how he had always wanted to visit the united states, because he had family in california.  he told me about his children and about how he drove the uber taxi as a second job because he wanted his wife and children to have nice things.  he thanked me for letting him practice his english and proceeded to drop me off at my hostel, where he told me my first uber ride was free and gave me coupons for more free uber rides. thanks for the help, God.

collapsing onto my hostel bed, i thought i was going to avoid any socialization and instead sleep for a whole day and a half.  that was before i met my sole hostel-mate.  she entered the room smelling like vodka and carried an air of the belief that she used to be lovely when she was young.  she ignored me at first.  an hour or two later, we began a conversation that would last deep into the night.

she was a french speaking woman, homeless, and full of regret.  she carried photos of her young daughter who was doing well in school and was being raised by another family.  a few hours later we were both sitting on the floor telling each other our stories; she was drunk on vodka, i was drunk on lack of sleep.  we exchanged bits and pieces of our lives with each other in english and spanish.  “i used to be young and beautiful, like you,” she reminisced.  “i never thought this is what i would become.  please do not become like me.”

“there is still hope for you,” i said.
“that’s what i believed when i was your age,” she replied.

a pain in her back had persisted for years.  she said she had seen many doctors who rejected her because she was a crazy homeless woman who had no money to pay.  the only reason she was able to stay in the hostel with me, she said, was because the homeless shelter had paid for it after she had broken a glass over a man’s head when she had had enough of his sexual advances towards her.  “what i want more than anything is for my daughter to love me again and for this pain in my back to be gone.”

now, my spiritual journey at this time was one of pure confusion and aimless wandering.  what compelled me to ask her if i could pray for her, i am not sure.  i hadn’t prayed in my own head for a long time, and to hear myself talk to God out loud felt foreign on my lips but it also felt like the right time for a prayer.  i put my hand on her back and prayed.  we cried together that night–she cried because no one had touched her in love for years; i cried because my dry soul felt the water of communication with the divine once again.  “i used to know God,” she said between swigs of vodka.  “i used to know that he loved me.”

we cried together that night–two women whose souls hurt for very different reasons, two women brought together and connected by humanity.  two women who would then go to sleep, and wake up to say a short goodbye and never see each other again.

and that….

was my first day in belgium.

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