Who are you?
Hello! I’m Alex Jaton, a world traveller, book and language nerd (I speak six languages), dog lover, “serial expat”, and co-founder of Ubindi. I was born in Brazil, grew up in Switzerland, and I’ve lived in seven countries over the last 20 years, and eaten more airplane peanuts than I care to remember.
Where, when and why did you move abroad?
My first move abroad was to the UK in 2002, just after finishing university in Lausanne, Switzerland, where I grew up. The main reason for the move was because I wanted to work in publishing (I love books!), and that was virtually impossible in Switzerland, where it’s a very small industry. Also, I wanted to have an adventure, to go work and live in a different country, in a different language, and just to see a bit of the world. I didn’t leave with a huge plan, but more in the spirit of trying my luck and seeing where things take me. Turns out things took me a long way from home! I ended up staying in the UK for six years. I lived in Edinburgh, Oxford and London, making my way in language learning publishing.
After I met my husband (and now co-founder) in 2008, we travelled around the world for one year. We then lived in Boston USA for three years, Chiang Mai Thailand for seven years, and in a small village in the south of Spain for two years. How and why that all happened is a looooong story, but basically we followed some opportunities, and sometimes ‘just the wind’.
More recently, during the pandemic, we got stuck in Chile, where we went to take part in the Startup Chile program with our company Ubindi. As soon as it became possible to travel again, we crossed the border into Argentina, where we are now – in the glorious town of San Carlos de Bariloche, in Patagonia, at the foot of the Andes.
What challenges did you face during the move?
Apart from the usual travel logistics, visas and work permits, my biggest challenge was to travel with my dog. I adopted a street dog when we lived in Thailand, and when we decided to leave the country to go live in Spain, it was just impossible for me not to take her with us. There was a truly insane amount of paperwork and expense involved in exporting a dog from Thailand to Spain, and then two years later from Europe to South America. I did it all by myself, without ‘pet relocation services’, and the whole process was extremely stressful. But it was all worth it, of course! I didn’t for a single second envisage leaving my dog behind, but I do wish that travel with dogs wasn’t made so complicated — it really doesn’t have to be that way.
Did you need to obtain a visa, residency permit or work permit? What was the process like?
In most places no, because I’m lucky to have several passports. I had to get all the papers and permissions to live and work in the US, and also in Thailand. The process in both countries wasn’t too bad, but you have to be patient, armed with endless smiles and nods … and some money. In Thailand, there are agencies that help expats with visas and setting up companies, which is definitely the way to go, because the language and processes can be really difficult for expats who plan to stay there beyond the allowed tourist visa limits.
In Argentina, where we are right now we didn’t need any paperwork, because I have Argentine nationalitly, which made it easy to get residency for my husband too. In general though, Argentina has one of the open immigration policies, so there are many expats living here.
How does the cost of living compare with your previous country?
Right now, in Argentina, the cost of living is extremely attractive for foreigners who can earn their living in USD. The economy is in a state of total collapse, and inflation is out of control. There are two dollar exchange rates: the official one, and the ‘blue dollar’. At the moment, the blue dollar is near 330 pesos, which basically makes life here 10 times cheaper than in the US or Europe.
Is it easy to open and use an account with a local bank?
If you have residency yes, it’s easy. But interestingly, we don’t have one, nor do we plan to get one. Argentine banks have really lost their credibility, and you don’t actually need a bank account to live here. Argentina is a rare beast: a cash economy. People, shops, restaurants and pretty much everywhere prefer (and will give you a cheaper price) if you pay them in cash. For expats, there are great ways to bring your cash in using Western Union and converting it into the local currency at a great exchange rate. I don’t actually know many expats here who have a bank account. For online purchases, there two sites called Mercadopago and Mercadolibre, which are respectively the equivalents of PayPal and Amazon for Argentina (and other Latin American countries). To use these, you don’t need a bank account.
How did you find somewhere to live?
On a Facebook group for expats living in our city. There are lots of great expat groups on FB for Argentina, where people really help each other. And that’s where we found the lovely house we’re currently living in.
Are there many other expats in your area?
There’s a good amount of expats in the Bariloche area, and people organize get-togethers etc. There’s a very fancy co-working space where some expats work and where digital nomads hang out. So basically, you can meet expats in Patagonia!
What is your relationship like with the locals?
It’s great! One pre-requisite is to speak Spanish (which I do) or to be willing to learn. Most people here don’t speak English (or only very little), but even if your Spanish isn’t great, they will appreciate and encourage you if you make the effort to speak to them in their language. I love the friendliness and openness of the people we meet here on a daily basis. Perhaps we’re still in the ‘honeymoon’ phase with Argentina (we’ve been here a year and half) or maybe it’s because I go around with a huge smile on my face, but I haven’t met anyone here who was unfriendly or unhelpful. I do think that you always get back what you put in, so being friendly certainly gets you friendly back.
What do you like about life where you are?
I love the sense of community where I live. Neighbours know and help each other. In a way, it’s a bit like living in the past, before people became suspicious of each other. Because of the economic meltdown the country is experiencing, there’s also a very strong entrepreneurial drive in people who are making their own tiny businesses and creating micro-economies. Where we live, you can buy almost anything from a neighbour (food, clothes etc). People are proud to have their small businesses, and the people who buy from them are really happy to support them. It really takes ‘shop local’ to a whole new level.
There’s also a fantastic attitude of ‘make do and mend’ that I’ve not seen anywhere else in the world. There’s a good phrase in Argentina “Lo atamos con alambre” which literally means ‘we fix it with a piece of wire’ — but that typifies the spirit of making it work somehow! It’s great to live in a place where things get fixed, rather than just thrown away, and most importantly where people have the skill to fix things. With the economic downturn that’s coming at us all, I think it’s a great attitude to have.
What do you dislike about your expat life?
Having to start from scratch. When you get to a new place, figuring out where to live, how things work, how to get around, what the good places are, what to eat, where to hang out, making friends… it’s all terribly exciting, but if you’ve done it more than once, it can get pretty exhausting too. It takes a while to not feel like a total tourist, and for people not to see you like a tourist… The upside is that you get really good at it, and not much phases you in terms of logistical challenges. You also learn to travel light!
What is the biggest cultural difference you have experienced between your new country and life back home?
The biggest culture shock for me was Thailand. The language, culture, pace of life and customs are so different from what I was used to essentially as a European. It took me a while to feel that I was understanding what was happening around me. There was of course a big language barrier, but many people took the time to explain Thai culture to us. Once you’re sensitized to a new culture, it’s interesting to watch other foreigners and tourists and realize that, like them, you used to be inadvertently very rude or insensitive.
What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?
Just go! The world is so big and interesting, and it’s waiting for you to explore it a little. You don’t need to have a big plan or lots of money (I was broke a lot in my travels). The more you plan, the more disappointed you’ll be when your plans don’t materialize. There’s so much to learn from traveling, and it’s hard to condense it without sounding cliché, but to me it’s really important to get out of your “mind-village” and to let go of the illusions of control and safety.
I would also really encourage people to start their own online business. Without that there’s no way my husband and I would have been able to live and work in all the places where we did. Having your own business is tough, but it gives you freedoms and possibilities that nothing else does.
What are your plans for the future?
Ironically, the plan is not to travel for a while! My husband and I have been on the road in one way or another for the last 20+ years. We’re super happy that we’ve found in Patagonia a place that we could potentially call home. Our plans are to keep growing Ubindi, to become the best admin and booking platform for independent teachers, and to stay put for a while. We also have a dream to have our own small farm one day … but that’s another story…