Who are you?
I’m Stephanie DeLaGarza, a citizen of the United States having grown up in Northern Virginia and then moving back to my hometown of San Antonio, Texas for college.I resided there until I decided to leave my 20+ year career in the I.T. field and sell all of my worldly belongings to follow my heart to Central America. I always dreamed of working with wild animals and did just that in Costa Rica and Panama for a year before heading to the bottom of the earth. I felt that my “true” life began after making this life altering decision.
Where, when and why did you move abroad?
I left the States in 2013 and volunteered for a wild animal rescue center on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. Animals are my passion and I wanted to change my career path, so this is how I started. I had been traveling to Central America for about 20 years and loved the people and the land – I felt it was where I belonged. I was taken away from the animal rescue to do a long term house sit in Turrialba, near an active volcano. I lived as the only expat in the small dairy farming town for six months and loved it. From there, I went to Panama to learn how to raise butterflies and help an American couple start a butterfly tourist attraction.
After a brief stint back in the U.S. to visit family and do another house sit, I decided to just travel the world and mark off places on my bucket list. The most logical place to start was New Zealand. I had obtained a house sit/B&B management position but it fell apart shortly after my arrival, which left me in limbo with nowhere to go. I was thankfully taken in by a family who needed help on their sheep farm on the South Island in the middle of nowhere. I stayed for almost three months before heading to Australia.
However, during a house sit in Blenheim, near the top of the South Island, I met a man whom I ended up coming back to stay with after three months in Oz and we formed a relationship. I was able to get a year’s visitor visa which paved the way to gaining residency in New Zealand.
What challenges did you face during the move?
Unbeknownst to me that I would actually be staying in New Zealand, one of the main challenges was the weather. When the south wind blows, it’s coming from Antarctica. I’m a jungle girl and don’t do well in cold weather. The problem with Kiwi houses is that they aren’t well insulated and most use a wood burning stove for heat. At night, it gets dampened so there is no heat in the house except for your electric blanket. It’s a brutal cold and not something I’ve ever had to endure. I recall waking up and being able to see my breath lying in bed! This isn’t something that has ever changed so I now go to bed pretty much fully clothed in the winter and have to wear multiple layers throughout the day INSIDE the house.
Another issue was the cost of living. Food is expensive, as is fuel and household items that I used to take for granted. It’s not an affordable place to live. The average house price in Auckland is now a million dollars. Just about everything is imported so we end up paying for the cost of transportation. There isn’t much innovation taking place here and service can be shoddy with jobs not being well performed.
On the positive side, Kiwis are quite friendly, helpful and polite. They say “thank you” a lot. During a single transaction at the grocery store, for example, you can expect no less than 3 thank yous from the clerk as you pay. It’s generally a safe place to live and many people (tourists) hitchhike around the country. This could also be because it’s expensive to travel within the country as well.
Are there many other expats in your area?
We have just recently moved to Hawke’s Bay on the North Island from the South. We are in a town of about 4500 people. I haven’t run into any Americans here, but there are Indian and Asian expats present in just about every single town in NZ.
What do you like about life where you are?
In this new town, I love being able to look out the balcony toward the mountain range and the rolling hills. The sunrise and sunsets are spectacular. It’s quiet at night and the stars are amazing. I’m close enough to a main city where I can go to “get away” and do some real shopping when I need to, unlike Blenheim where the closest larger town was about 2 hours away. I’m currently 40 minutes from Hastings.
I appreciate the lack of pollution (in regard to trash on roads), however there is an air pollution problem in all of NZ due to the wood burning fires. Major cities have tried to crack down on this, but don’t seem to enforce it with fines of any type.
I’ve learned the value of growing my own fruits and vegetables. NZ has many fruit, nut and citrus trees which comes in handy since grocery store prices can be a little overwhelming.
I like that NZ has some of the best wine growing regions in the world, with many labels to choose from… almost all of them are exceptionally good.
I also love the remoteness and the small, but unusual wildlife here like the tuatara lizards, the only flightless alpine parrot, the kiwi and other heavy bodied flightless birds. We have penguins, seals, dolphins and whales. The old trees are amazing to see and the coastlines and rivers are always beautiful, with the bluest waters I’ve ever seen. It can be quite a magical place, with postcard picture scenery.
What do you dislike about your expat life?
I miss not being able to have certain foods that I grew up eating (and not being able to reproduce them easily or successfully). I sometimes miss the fact that I can jump online and order something and have it show up within a few days. Amazon and Ebay don’t exist here! I also miss that I’m so far away from my friends and family and that it’s very expensive and time consuming to get anywhere from here.
It can be frustrating waiting for people to get back with you on things or jobs and the workmanship that goes into it. I was warned at one point to set my watch back 50 years if I wanted to stay here and I can absolutely see why that is. Internet is some of the slowest in the world (thankfully we now get 18Mbps connection). You’re nickel and dimed for things like parking, disposing of trash (good luck finding a trash can in any park or beach), bank fees, credit cards and other things I took for granted in the States.
Overall though, I’m happier abroad than I was in the States. You’ll always find something to complain about, no matter where you live.
What is the biggest cultural difference you have experienced between your new country and life back home?
People will actually take the time to chat with you or try to help you out if you’re in trouble. We once had an accident on a windy road in the mountains with no cell phone reception and couldn’t drive the car. Within minutes, someone hauling a large boat of all things, actually pulled over and gave us a ride into the next town. I like that people are a lot friendlier here, which is obviously due to the lack of population. There’s something to be said for going from a city of 2 million to a town of 4500!
What do you think of the food and drink in your new country? What are your particular likes or dislikes?
There is absolutely nothing special about the food in NZ. People love their savoury pies and sausages, which I often think is the main staple of many households. Every bakery produces the exact same things (which drives me crazy). Eating out is expensive and you don’t get ANYTHING for free. In the U.S., you’d get bread before a meal. Here, you pay between $8-10 for that privilege. A typical Indian or Chinese meal at a restaurant for two with an alcoholic beverage will set you back about $70-80. Ouch. You’ll find Indian restaurants in every single town here, which wasn’t something I had ever tried until I came over here (and am so glad I did).
The wines, on the other hand, are terrific. I don’t drink much though, but when I want a glass of Sauv, I know it’ll be a good one.
What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?
Do it! Don’t wait and don’t make excuses because you’ll just put it off forever. Explore different countries and cultures by actually living somewhere (not just vacationing there). You’ll learn so much more about yourself than you ever thought possible. I learned more about being an American by becoming an expat than I ever would have if I had stayed in the U.S. Often, it’s not a pretty thing to discover, either. It could have you seeing your fellow countrymen in a very different light.
What are your plans for the future?
We would like to live in Australia eventually. NZ is just too limited for us and the weather, animals and experiences are much brighter up there. Other than that, I just fly by the seat of my pants and try not to make too many plans. I found that by letting life take me where it wants is a better way of living, as opposed to trying to plan ahead.
You can keep up to date with Stephanie's adventures on her blog, Out On A Limb.
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