Making a Living Overseas

I wanted to stay in Argentina, and at first I lived off saving and freelance writing. Then I figured out a way to make money by selling local crafts in the U.S.

by Maryann Ullman
how to fund adventurous overseas lifestyle
Maryann Ullman fell in love with Buenos Aires' unique mix of European and Latin American cultures.
Photograph: International Living

We’ve all gone on vacation and fallen in love with a place that’s hard to leave. You promise yourself you’ll come back and visit… But you really wish you never had to go back home.

Well, you don’t. You can figure it out. I did….

For me the place was Buenos Aires, Argentina. I love its unique mix of European and Latin American cultures, the cafés in the sun-dappled shadow of French and Spanish colonial architecture. On any given day I can go to a French bakery and a Bolivian market in the same afternoon. In spring and summer I can sit in one of the many parks or botanical gardens, and there’s something to do at any hour of the night…live music, theater and tango (I don’t dance much, but I love to watch!).

I arrived on vacation and was seduced into staying. You see, I figured out how to hemisphere-hop for free. This way I get two summers a year plus the snowy New England Christmas I couldn’t give up. I’m not a true expat. I’m a cheater.

At first I lived off savings, and then pieced together an income from freelance writing and editing. By earning in dollars and living on Argentine pesos my dream of living off writing (and working in my pajamas) started to come true. But writing enough to pay for trips back home wasn’t easy.

So I devised a plan. I began to export fair-trade crafts from Argentina to the U.S. Suddenly every journey through the skies became a profit-yielding opportunity. I could support communities in Argentina, see my old friends and family twice a year, and find new friends and new travels.

I source fair trade crafts in three ways: buying from established non-profits, approaching artisans at local street fairs, and heading out to small towns and simply asking around for artisans and cooperatives.

When I want a break from Buenos Aires I book it out to the mountains, hiking to isolated Kolla villages in the northern province of Jujuy. Over a lantern-lit meal of hearty vegetable stew, spicy empanadas, freshly baked bread and goat’s cheese, I arrange an order with an elderly couple for llama wool hats, scarves and shawls to be shipped by burro and bus to Buenos Aires.

Venturing out to find artisans in rural communities is fun, and I’m bringing the market to people who have less access to it. I try to choose unique crafts and carve out my own non-competitive niche. The most popular products are quirky hand-painted wooden animal masks made by the Chané tribe in northern Argentina—each jaguar, marmot, and parrot face has an original character and style.

I assess what’s practical to carry in my luggage. Jewelry and textiles are the easiest to transport, while beautiful palo verde wood platters are heavier and occupy more space, but are still worth it.

It’s all trial and error—you have to work out the kinks and make the best of things. I fell in love with a style of rustic black pottery from the Diaguita tribe in Tucumán. But not only was I charged an overweight fee for my bag, there were also heavy casualties. Making the most of it, I used the pottery shards and some sand for a creative display around my wares and shoppers flocked to my table.

I have to consider if I can sell for a fair price. I do a quick calculation in my head: one third—fair price for the artisan; one third—pays for my plane ticket; and one third—proceeds to Cultural Survival, the non-profit that organizes the bazaars where I sell my wares.

At customs, U.S. citizens are allowed to bring in up to $800 of merchandise without paying a duty. After that, it’s 3% import duty. Whenever I source a new craft, I buy a small amount to take back with me and see how well it sells before committing to bulk orders. I also vary my inventory to cater to both budget-conscious shoppers and high spenders.

I market the crafts in three ways: directly to friends and at parties, at a shop by consignment, and at crafts bazaars. The holiday bazaars are cozy and festive, while the summer bazaars are held outdoors in destinations around New England, often near beautiful beaches.

First Published November 7, 2011

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