Reinvent Yourself Abroad

Living (and making a living) in another country may sound like a dream. but these six women dropped everything to make it come true.

By Nicole Blades
Photograph: Photo by Andrea Fazzari.

A Boutique in Cambodia: Elizabeth Kiester

Siem Reap

Former job: Global creative director at LeSportsac, New York City, and, earlier, fashion editor at Mademoiselle, Marie Claire, Jane and YM.

What she does now: Owns Wanderlust (wanderlustcambodia.com), three shops selling handmade clothing (which she designs), jewelry and accessories made by local artisans.

The backstory: For years, the glamorous international fashion world was all Kiester knew. The lifestyle was manic. “I ate a lot of dinners in the back of taxicabs, not knowing what time zone I was in,” she says. “I was constantly jet-lagged.” Three years ago, she faced divorce and her mother’s illness. The onslaught left her hungry for more depth and balance in her life, so she signed up with Global Volunteers. On her second tour, in Cambodia, with an organization called Globe Aware, she helped build water pumps and paint orphanages. Though she was there for only 16 days, Cambodia thrilled her. “There’s a sense of hopefulness and a creative spirit that resonates the minute you get off the plane,” she says. “It’s magical.”

The inspiration: Kiester was invited to a party and had nothing to wear. “I couldn’t find anything in town other than very fancy silk garments that weren’t really me,” she says. “It got me thinking about other Westerners living in the area and where they shopped.” When she learned that many of the women went all the way to Bangkok to buy clothes, she knew she had to return to Siem Reap to build a boutique, a business and a life.

Making it happen: Back in New York, Kiester did extensive research about Cambodia and applied for a business visa and license. She opened Wanderlust’s doors in October 2008, investing $30,000 of her savings and later securing investment from friends. “The goal wasn’t just about starting a business. It was about giving other women opportunities to own their own business and work with me, not for me,” she says. “I subcontract six local seamstresses, and the income they make from Wanderlust is enough to pay for a motorbike, have a nice place to live, support their parents and children.”

Recently Kiester hired more than 30 women to make a new line of dresses and accessories for Madewell (an offshoot of the megabrand J.Crew). “It was a total Cambodian enterprise,” she says. “And so many people were sustained because of it. I can’t tell you how proud and happy it’s made me.”

Surf Haven: Tierza Davis-Eichner

Mal pais, Costa Rica

Former job: Account manager for a San Francisco Internet advertising company.

What she does now: Owns a surfing school and yoga retreat, Pura Vida Adventures (puravidaadventures.com).

The backstory: After eight years in the dot-com business, Davis-Eichner was laid off in 2001 and never wanted to see another cubicle. “The fluorescent lights, the 60-hour weeks—I knew I couldn’t do that for the rest of my life,” she says. Instead of diving into a job search, she headed for Central America’s beaches for an eight-month surfing vacation.

The inspiration: She fell in love with Mal Pais, a small coastal community on the southeastern tip of Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula. “I was drawn to the area because of its natural beauty,” she says. “Life here is mellow and tranquil, and the sunsets are incredible. People appreciate what they have. They like themselves and letlife flow. Plus, you can surf everyday!” By the end of her stay, she thought, I’ve got to get back here—somehow. Recalling that as a novice surfer, she’d wiped out countless times until a professional instructor transformed her experience, she decided to start a surf camp for women.

First Published February 10, 2011

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