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International Living: New Beginnings for Foreigners in enchanting Southeast Asia

“I Appreciate the Friendship, Natural Beauty, and Community Spirit”

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Name: Joey Stanton
From: New York, New York
Living in: Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka

“Sri Lanka, with its simplicity of life, easy-going people, and rich culture, all combine to create a magical, inexpensive, mesmerizing country,” says Joey Stanton.

A native of Queens, New York, Joey worked in the finance industry before he found his perfect retirement spot in Hikkaduwa, a resort town in southwestern Sri Lanka that’s famous for its beaches and surfing. “Living here, I have to pinch myself. But I made it happen. My only regret is that I wasn’t able to do it earlier,” he says.

“I worked as a currency trader for nearly 30 years. I lived a fast-paced, complicated life,” Joey explains. “I was on call 24/7. The only people I ever saw were my work colleagues, I never met anyone else. It cost me my marriage, and I became estranged from my two daughters, and to top it all, my mother was diagnosed with dementia. It was during these terrible times I watched a movie from the late 1960s called The Endless Summer. It was about surfing, and I became obsessed. It kept me going. A few years later, Mom passed and I was free to live the life I truly wanted. All I had to do was find a country that fit my desired criteria.

“First, I needed a country where my money would go a long way. I wanted a place that had sun and surf, and where English was widely spoken. Then I saw a documentary on Sri Lanka, and I was immediately sold. When I told my colleagues, they thought I was crazy, but to be honest, the cost of living, the visceral politics, and rising crime had spoiled any dreams of retiring in the U.S.”

Joey keeps a photo of himself from his trading days. It shows a portly-looking salaryman in a charcoal suit, short-cropped hair, and a sad, stressed face. Nowadays, he’s tanned and trim, his long hair sun-bleached and a shark’s tooth necklace hung around his neck. This is a man reborn.

Rent for a one-bed villa with a plunge pool… $335 a month.

“I keep that photo to remind me to never go back. Surfing was all I thought it would be and more. My surf instructor goes by the name Mowgli, as he looks like the boy in The Jungle Book. He took me to a beach near the historic town of Galle, where the waves were small and easier to learn on. I’ve surfed every day since.

“It’s spiritual; you’re at one with nature, every wave different as a snowflake. These waves have traveled 4,000 miles to get here; it’s humbling. I would recommend it for anyone at any age, it’s never too late to learn. It keeps me fit but it has also been instrumental in improving my mental health.

“My typical day comprises a dawn surf when the waves are usually at their best. After that, I’m always starving. I’ve developed a passion for a vegetarian curry breakfast made at a family-run restaurant. Healthy, delicious, and inexpensive, my breakfast also comes with fruit, yogurt, and coffee, and costs only $3. Then I head back home and spend a couple of hours studying the latest currency fluctuations—I still dabble a little. I’m considering setting up a currency blog and already have a few potential advertisers.”

Joey was 53 when he arrived in Sri Lanka five years ago. Today, he lives in a small community of four one-bedroom villas with a shared plunge pool (and a cockatoo that thinks it’s human and refuses to leave). The community is situated on Narigama Street, Hikkaduwa’s main thoroughfare. It’s lined with delicious restaurants, fun bars, and mellow cafés. Plus, the villas are only a seven-minute walk from a two-mile white sandy beach.

A magical, inexpensive, mesmerizing country.

“I spend the equivalent of around $1,200 a month all up,” he says. “Hikkaduwa is a long-established tourist town, so you can get your waffles, pasta, pizza, and burgers. There’s a great sports bar called Sam’s that shows all international sports on a Sunday. I often go to an English pub called Asian Jewel. It does a great English roast lunch for $10. With regards to rent, I pay $335 a month plus utilities. It’s never more than $400 in total. Getting around is easy; just jump in a three-wheeled tuk-tuk—you’d be hard-pushed to spend over a couple of dollars around town.”

Affordable living extends, in Sri Lanka, to free healthcare for all its citizens. Local services are basic, but good.

“Last year I cut my leg and needed 20 stitches,” Joey recounts. “The no-frills treatment was excellent and cost me $35. The cost of a visit to the local doctor is under $10. There are several excellent private hospitals, mainly in Colombo and a bit more expensive, but wonderfully equipped. The drug stores are well stocked, and you seem to be able to get most drugs over the counter without a prescription.”

It all seems a million miles from Queens, and Joey agrees. “It’s so different from New York, where no one speaks and people are even wary of looking at you. I never fail to appreciate the friendship, natural beauty, and community spirit. Yes, the electricity regularly goes off for a couple of hours. And there are sometimes shortages in the stores. But for me, that’s a cheap price to live in paradise.”

“Coming Here Saved My Life, Gave Us a Fresh Start”

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Names: Angelina and Jimmy Norton
From: Detroit, Michigan
Living in: Ubud, Bali

Jimmy Norton worked in the auto industry from the age of 18, and was delighted to take early retirement at 53. However, the reality was not the ideal that he and his wife, Angelina, had hoped for.

“Jim was lost when he stopped working,” Angelina explains. “Let’s just say he was becoming close friends with Jack and Bud, his blood pressure was off the scale, he couldn’t sleep, and he’d ballooned to over 260 pounds. I knew a drastic change had to be made. I spent my first 10 years growing up in Australia, with family vacations to Bali. Jimmy reluctantly agreed to a 10-day trip to Bali—the clincher was when I told him a beer was 90 cents.

“Those 10 days revitalized him, and I secretly started looking for villas to rent for a longer stay…

“We returned to Michigan and languished in the freezing winter, dark nights, and the COVID outbreak,” Angelina says. “When the Indonesian government eventually lifted the travel restrictions, we were on the next available flight to Bali. Initially, it was just for one year, but we’ve fallen in love with the place and now it’s our permanent home.”

They settled in the town of Ubud, in the middle of the island. Often called the “heart of Bali,” it’s a bohemian and arts center—a place where you can attend yoga retreats, go vegan, and capture your inner designer at a jewelry-making class.

Here in Bali, we’re alive… not just existing.

Jimmy continues the story: “The villa we rent is near the center of town. Surrounded by lush tropical foliage, it has a great little pool, is amazingly peaceful, and completely private. It also has an outdoor kitchen with a gas stove, a large refrigerator, and a breakfast bar. We pay $690 a month, which includes all utilities. I sleep like a log. The only sound we hear are the wind chimes when the breeze blows, and birds. We looked at other options—some were as cheap as $320 a month. One place we liked was $520. It had a shared pool, but we have gotten used to our private pool and feel so settled here that we’re staying put.”

It’s not just lazing around, though. Jimmy and Angelina are working on a business venture to bring in some pocket money, sending back jewelry, paintings, and sarongs to their daughter who lives in California. “Her friends loved them, and now she is planning to set up an online site to sell what we send her. We made a grand profit of $280 last month,” Angelina laughs. “But it’s a start.”

“We find it so much safer here than in Detroit,” Angelina continues. “There is minimal crime, and it’s a different mindset, culturally and socially. With regards to the practicalities, there are a couple of good supermarkets, and there’s a chain called Coco’s that sells a lot of Western items.”

While it’s nice to be able to get hold of some home comforts, Angelina and Jimmy aren’t holding on too tightly to their old ways.

“Our lifestyle here couldn’t be more different,” says Angelina. “In the winter in Detroit we’d just hibernate. Now, every day we get up at first light and walk in the cool of the morning. We go three miles a day through the rice fields. We stop half way at the Pomegranate Café for a pot of Balinese coffee. It costs the equivalent of a dollar. Then it’s back home for a breakfast of tropical fruit, which we buy from a fruit seller on the way (we generally pay no more than $2). We have it with yogurt or freshly squeezed lime. We eat out almost every night. A meal with a healthy fruit drink will cost no more than $8 a person, but sometimes as little as $4. The same meal in the U.S. would cost $30.”

Bali’s healthcare is high quality and affordable, with Western-trained dentists and doctors. “Siloam Hospitals is an international brand throughout Asia,” says Jimmy. “You see a lot of Australians coming here as medical tourists, especially for dental work. Medication at the pharmacy is a third of the price compared to the States. If anything serious occurs, Australia and Singapore are only two hours away. We took out medical insurance, which was $370 each for the year.”

In terms of visas and residency, Jimmy explains their setup: “We’re on what’s called a Retirement KITAS, which is a five-year visa with annual renewal. The initial payment was $800 each, and there’s an annual fee of $600 each. We got an agent to procure our visas. Never think about doing it yourself—it costs more in the long run, not to mention the time and frustration.”

Jimmy has become far healthier than he was back in Michigan. “He’s found a terrific gym called Massa’s, and it costs $2.50 a visit,” Angelina explains.

Both of them are invigorated by the move to Bali. “I now have all the time in the world to do the things I want,” says Angelina. “I don’t even have to do laundry. There’s a place nearby that charges $4 for a weekly load. I have a massage at least a couple of times a week, which costs $6 for an hour. I’ve taken art classes, completed a Balinese cooking school, and I’m really into my watercolor paintings. Outside of rent, our total monthly expenditure is between $600 and $800.”

Jimmy concludes, “I feel like coming here saved my life and gave me a fresh start. Here, we’re alive, not just existing. I hate to think what place I’d be in right now if we hadn’t made the move.”

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