I don’t think mine and Colleen’s paths have ever crossed despite her starting off in the same place as I am now – teaching English in Hat Yai, Thailand. However, while I have spent the past almost-18 months statically living and working, Colleen has gone through a transformation that I could only dream of; from a sometimes-blogging TEFL teacher to a fully-fledged writer in her own rights, now residing on Koh Samui.
Colleen has visited 29 countries and lived in 4, giving her more than enough qualification to have her own website, Write Around the World, dedicated to traveling stories, tips and tricks. It’s not all about her own experiences either, with her fortnightly feature (this fortnight featuring moi…) Tuesday Tales looking at the experiences of her fellow travellers.
I asked Colleen if she would allow me to share her inspiring journey, and this is what she had to say;
I’ve always thought of myself as responsible. I was brought up well, I always paid my bills on time, I had a vision of my future which involved having a good marriage, a nice house and taking my annual vacations somewhere sunny.
So what possessed me to resign from my job, sell almost everything I owned and decide to travel around the world, and start writing?
Well, let’s start 5 years ago. I was married, had a lovely 3-bedroomed home and lived in a quiet countryside village in Cambridgeshire, England. I’d been married for 8 years, had a good job and even though we were experiencing a rocky patch in our marriage, I really thought we could work through it. Suddenly, we both lost our jobs and because of the way the company operated, we were given the option to move to Germany and apply for another job. We decided to move to Germany.
Four months later, we split up, six weeks after that, I was packing up the house ready to move to Germany. I said a traumatic goodbye to my cats, my friends, my house and my life in England. After it was all done, I flew to Germany and started my new job the very next day.
I didn’t speak German. I didn’t know anyone. I was raw from the last few months and threw myself into learning German and giving my everything in my new job.
After 2 years, the inevitable happened. I collapsed at work and was eventually signed off with burnout and told not to move out of bed for at least a month.
So what do you do when you’re confined to bed? You think. A LOT! You re-evaluate your life. You decide what you want from life, what’s important to you, what you want to achieve and what you want to see. I discovered that ‘working harder’ wasn’t on my list but living my dream was.
I didn’t even know what my dream was back then. All I could think about was working 16 hour days and getting reports delivered on time. But I DID know that THAT wasn’t my dream. So I thought it might be a good idea to get out into the world and start trying to find out exactly what it was.
And that’s when it all kicked off…
After my month at home in February 2011, I resigned in April giving my three months notice. My boss was shocked. I started writing a blog, just to experiment with writing, to try and make sense of my feelings but quite soon after, it became a platform for sharing my countdown to the end of my time at work, my travel plans and how my life was changing.
I sold almost everything I owned. My furniture all went and most weekends I would have an open house with post-it notes stuck on everything that was for sale so people could just come in and buy whatever they wanted. Each week, my apartment got emptier, my excitement grew and my travel plans materialised.
Finally at the end of July 2011, after many farewell parties, I left my job, my apartment and Germany, and travelled back to England where I used the spare bedroom in my brother’s house as a base. Writing more and more on my blog, I was now starting to research other travellers who had made similar moves, leaving their corporate lives behind. I offered guest blog posts on other travelling blogs offering to tell my story and started writing free articles for various tourism websites or anywhere I had visited. I contacted companies like Cheapflights and Flight Centre and asked to write for their websites. Surprisingly they agreed and, motivated a GREAT deal by this, I contacted more and more. Yes, sometimes they refused, but mostly they agreed.
I had already travelled quite a bit but during this time, I visited France, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, South Africa, Canada, America and Iceland (I’ve visited 29 countries in total now). I discovered that there was a whole world out there that I could never have seen if I’d continued to work as I had. My blog was growing and I was now starting to develop online friendships with other travellers, sharing stories and tips. Facebook, Twitter and my blog became big parts of my life as I started to realise the power of social media.
I started writing regularly for Pink Pangea, a website geared specifically for woman travellers. I shared tips, stories and other useful bits of information. This was unpaid work, I might add, but it gave me a taste of ‘writing to deadlines’ and dealing with editors.
I also discovered affiliate advertising which allowed my blog to make money. However, it was by no means enough to retire on, so in April 2012, I started to look for other ways to make money while still travelling. I ‘happened upon’ a contact in LinkedIn (a website which offers GREAT opportunities to connect with other writers and editors). She was originally from South Africa (like myself), and a writer but she lived in Thailand. Curious, I contacted her and discovered that as well as a writer she also ran a TEFL school (Samui TEFL) on the island of Koh Samui in Thailand. I’d heard of TEFL and teaching English so after some questions and answers, I enrolled.
This was a pivot point for me. I didn’t know anyone in Thailand and it was the first time I’d visited a country in the East. I also knew nothing about teaching and hated children (don’t laugh, it was true) so thought I could just teach adults.
I can quite truthfully say, the TEFL course (and Thailand) changed my life. It made me dig deep and I rediscovered my fun side which seemed to have been lost in those 16 hour days. I learnt a lot about myself and what I wanted to do. I realised I had a deep desire to help people and somehow teaching satisfied that need. I also discovered that Thai children were incredibly cute and respectful and I left the course armed with a job in Hat Yai in the south of Thailand teaching primary school children. What followed in the next few months, was that my childlike, fun side completely resurfaced as the children wormed their way into my now happy, childlike heart.
I had also started writing for a South Thailand newspaper called ‘The Southern Times’ having been recommended by the TEFL school owner, since she was a writer too. This was the first time I was actually paid for my writing – a whole 2ThB ($0.04 / £0.04 / €0.05) a word. I was also loving the teaching and looked forward to seeing my students every day (well almost every day!)
The blog slowed down as my time was taken up with writing weekly for the paper, creating lesson plans and reading everything I could get my hands on about teaching and having fun lessons. I took countless pictures of my little students and would look forward to the hugs that I’d get from some. They’d make me cards, call me Teacher Colleen and just be altogether amazing.
I started to make a list of everything I’d had published and put it in one place on my blog so it was easy to refer editors and potential employers to. This made life a lot easier and has consistently proved to be very useful.
But I wasn’t happy in Hat Yai. The feeling crept in gradually over a few months but I stuck with it. I loved the teaching and I loved the kids. I’d also signed a contract and was committed to stay until the end. I even had a nice group of friends, but I just wasn’t happy.
Then, while holidaying in South Africa for two months in Mar and Apr 2013 (Thai school holidays are great!), an opportunity popped up writing for a publishing company on Koh Samui – a full time writing job. I eagerly applied, was asked for writing samples which I was now easily able to supply by pointing them to my writing page on my blog. I waited for two agonising days before I was emailed back asking when I could start. To say I was happy, would be the understatement of the millennium.
My teaching agency was disappointed, but supportive and in May 2013, I returned to Hat Yai, packed my things and moved to the island of Koh Samui, where I now live.
It’s been an incredible journey filled with countless lessons and experiences along the way, all for which I’m truly grateful. It’s made me the person I am today.
I’ve been living here for just over 6 months now and not a day goes by when I don’t pinch myself. Pristine beaches, palm trees, fancy resorts, hundreds of restaurants and the most amazing people – this is my life now. Each month I get a list of ten writing assignments which consist of interviewing resorts, chefs, property developers, or general managers and sometimes I get to write about water sports, waterfalls, fruit, fish, and many other interesting topics. I get free food, free drinks and offers of free overnight stays. I am truly blessed.
My advice to everyone?
- Don’t be afraid, you’ll never know until you try.
- If you want to become a writer, start out writing for free. It’ll give you an opportunity to build a portfolio, develop your style (and start having more and more web links pointing to your name, blog or website – it works, trust me. Try googling ‘Colleen Setchell’)
- Take a chance with your writing. Email some big names in the industry and offer to write for them. The worst that can happen is that they can say no and you’ll be no worse off.
- Don’t be afraid (yes, I know I already said that – I want to be sure you read it first time)
- Work hard but make sure you always enjoy it.
- I know its a cliche but you only get one chance at this life. Do you want to look back and remember yourself being stuck at a desk working for someone you don’t like? Or do you want to properly experience this incredible world you live in? I know which I’d prefer…
- Don’t be afraid. Yup, I know, 3rd mention. But don’t … don’t be afraid. This is YOUR life. Grab it with both arms, hug it with all the passion you can muster and then get out there, find your dream and conquer your world!!!!
I hope you were all as inspired by Colleen’s story as I was – it just goes to show that with a little perseverance and a lot of determination, you can achieve your dreams.
If you have an inspiring story that you would like to share please get in touch. Teachers, writers, explorers – all welcome!