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November 4, 2010 10:43 PM   Subscribe

What are some weird ways to live?

I'm on the brink of being another twenty-something-wandering-between-American-cities, and while the impulse to do something brash/random/weird feels very high school to me (I mostly read punk zines and dreamt of trainhopping), I would love to widen my exposure to possible jobs/adventures/projects/etc I could take part in over the next several years. How have you lived? What did you learn, and would you recommend it?

I'm applying for the JET program in Japan right now -- that's my big bid. I wwoofed very briefly and loved it, so there's that too. But I want to think bigger than liberal artsy adventures and just get a vibe check of all the diverse ways there are to live (fishing rigs in Alaska? entrepreneurship? Iceland documentarian) and hear from people who've lived that way. Yes there's a certain amount of priveledge functioning in this question, but we only live once, so might as well do it artfully/bizarrely! I've lived communally, scraped by with little money, etc. I have some writing chops & training in radio. Hmm. Thanks in advance for your stories/suggestions!
posted by elephantsvanish to Human Relations (39 answers total) 126 users marked this as a favorite
I met a guy last year who had worked on fishing rigs in Alaska for 5 years, saving all his money, then he bought a yacht, and now spends his life sailing around the Pacific - island-hopping, working odd-jobs to pay his mooring fees, and sailing off into the sunset whenever he runs out of money.

He doesn't seem very happy, but it's an adventurous life, that's for sure.
posted by lollusc at 10:47 PM on November 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

I know a woman who spent a season in Antarctica as part of the temporary support personnel program (examples of current openings through Raytheon Polar Services). Your chances of being hired would depend on your skillset of course, but if you're accepted it would be the opportunity of a lifetime.
posted by amyms at 10:56 PM on November 4, 2010 [5 favorites]

There are real people who join circuses. You could be one of them.
posted by oreofuchi at 10:58 PM on November 4, 2010

A few weeks ago I read on Reddit about a person's experiences working as a tree-planter in Canada, planting zillions of seedlings for paper companies — really hard work that gets paid well, mostly done by young people. It was interesting to learn about.
posted by dreamyshade at 10:59 PM on November 4, 2010 [3 favorites]

I know a few people who are long-term volunteers and/or participants in work-study programs at ashrams and retreat centers.
posted by chicainthecity at 11:04 PM on November 4, 2010

I dunno if this is considered weird or not, but I live in a 1975 18' mini motor home that's parked on my college campus parking lot. I have no electricity, no running water and no propane. It's like living in a big, wooden tent. I'll be here until I get my degree then my and my motor home are going to where the money is (read: wherever I can find a job).

I love it. Even when I'm freezing my buns off (like tonight).
posted by patheral at 11:08 PM on November 4, 2010 [16 favorites]

Teach in Korea instead of Japan, because you'll be able to save more money. Then with your savings go to Thailand for a few months to study massage therapy or attend a Muay Thai training camp. Then, spend a few months on a kibbutz in Israel and learn how to farm or tend animals. While you're there, take a few long weekends in Jordan and the Red Sea area of Egypt, where you can get your SCUBA certification for pennies on the dollar.

But I haven't done the Thailand bit yet; I have to figure out how to do that with a family and $69K in law school loans staring me down.
posted by holterbarbour at 11:12 PM on November 4, 2010 [8 favorites]

JET is pretty good if you can get it. It's pretty solid money, and you might even get rent free housing. It can be a pretty decent way to live in Japan, get involved in the lives of normal Japanese people, and learn Japanese.

On the other hand, I'm not so sure I'd recommend Japan (says the guy living here). The economy sucks, and there are a good number of places more pleasant to live (like, say, Thailand), or with more agreeable cultures for a youngish westerner. It is still pretty good, and there are a lot of great experiences to be had. It is really, really easy though, to end up in a normal, day-to-day existence devoid of the special wonderfulness that you found when you got here.
posted by Ghidorah at 11:24 PM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have a friend who left her high flying finance job to start up a charity specialising in sustainable low income housing in Guatemala. She now spends her days in a third world country raising money, teaching kids about being eco friendly and building sustainable housing in a radically different environment from where she was before. She loves it.
posted by Jubey at 11:28 PM on November 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

Have you considered the Peace Corps? My brother spent two years in Africa and then bought a small motor bike and tooled around several countries for a while. Life changing experience for both you and the people you help.
posted by HMSSM at 11:32 PM on November 4, 2010 [4 favorites]

I lived on a Buddhist Stupa for a summer exchanging labor (a few hours a day painting, sanding, etc.) for room, board, and an amazing experience living in a tent in the Rocky Mountains. I got to experience being far from civilization, immersion in another culture, and an awesome sense of community. A mule deer lived under my tent. There was snow on the mountaintops the same weekend we lazily shot off fireworks for the 4th of July. It cost me literally nothing but the travel money to get out there. Specifically, I went to this place, (and I don't mind bragging that I helped to build that gorgeous structure) but I'm sure if you poked around similar opportunities abound.
posted by troublewithwolves at 11:34 PM on November 4, 2010 [3 favorites]

A friend of mine from college did the Alaska fishing thing. He's still living up there.

Another friend did 4-5 years as a project manager, saved his money, bided (is that a word?) his time, and then gave it all up to go be a scuba instructor in Costa Rica.

I spent two years during college living and working as part of a residential arts collective in an industrial neighborhood here in New York.
posted by Sara C. at 11:35 PM on November 4, 2010

Some very famous writers who would likely have been trainhoppers in a different era have been fire lookouts. Often super-remote, which has a weird-life quality all its own.

I have known people who worked as tree-planters, wildland firefighters, and as hands on fish-processing ships. Commonalities: grueling physical work, long hours, little sleep, remote, variable down time.
posted by gingerest at 11:39 PM on November 4, 2010

My girlfriend spent a year as a fisheries obvserver in British Columbia. Spend three weeks a month on commercial fishing boats making sure they comply with regulations. Apparently pretty easy to get the job, make decent money, and meet interesting people.
posted by auto-correct at 11:48 PM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

After my college years, I jealously listened to a friend describe his summers working in a national park during the summer. I can't give you details about it, but apparently you can get work in national parks around the country doing various duties, from fire lookouts to tree planting to cooking and cleaning in park restaurants to working in retail gift shops. Probably not very good pay but you meet a lot of college aged kids and it's just an overall good experience.

(BTW, I live and work in Japan as, essentially, an ALT, what you would be doing with JET. Some people come over and love Japan, as I did. Some people come over and flip the fuck out and bug out after a week or so. The culture shock can be too much, and some people are expecting a lot more hand-holding. You'll most certainly be dropped in the middle of nowhere, which has its good points for sure, but you can feel very isolated if you don't speak the language. Read up on the good and bad of JET and ALTing before you decide. (But Japan rocks! Come on over!))

Whichever you decide, good on you. I think every young person in America should do this when they are young.
posted by zardoz at 12:02 AM on November 5, 2010 [3 favorites]

Two fantastic resources:

The Back Door Guide to Short-Term Job Adventures

The "classic" short-term adventure, from what I've heard, seems to be working as a river rafting guide somewhere warm and beautiful.
posted by danceswithlight at 12:55 AM on November 5, 2010 [7 favorites]

I worked and lived for a few years in a ghost town out west. My job included giving tours of the old mining district and sometimes shooing away invading cattle. I recommend such an experience heartily.

You might try doing a term with the SCA, which funds internships in state and national parks and preserves all over the country. You don't get paid much (just a crappy living stipend) but you can get lots of AmeriCorps money for student loans, and it's a fantastic way to live somewhere new, strange, and beautiful. I did it a few times and had a great experience.
posted by cirripede at 1:13 AM on November 5, 2010

Grandson of a friend got a six month job in Costa Rica counting and protecting turtles and their eggs on a remote beach there. Lots of camping out, surfing too, as well as work. He did this right out of college. Now he has a job in New Bedford MA that involves going out with the fishing boats and cataloging the kinds of fish caught and making sure they are within legal limits. I think he majored in environmental science. He really enjoyed both of these gigs.
posted by mermayd at 3:23 AM on November 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

An interesting experiment might be to make yourself a nomad within a defined area. For example: Move to a large city. Metro-hop neighborhoods every two weeks to a month. Don't leave your new neighborhood for any reason during your stay... breathe, live, and work in the same smattering of blocks.

Or you could rent your life out, like the rad Chinese girl in this thread.
posted by fritillary at 3:54 AM on November 5, 2010

French Foreign Legion?
posted by Harald74 at 5:42 AM on November 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

"What are some weird ways to live?"

Gosh guy no offence, but considering that almost 80% of the world's population lives on less than $10 a day1 (surging to an eye popping 95% if we consider only developing nations) I'd respectfully suggest that you are already living in a "weird way".

Go live in a developing nation. Help those folks any way you can; teach English, teach people how to read or just add some sweat equity digging ditches and the infrastructure necessary to help them have clean drinking water.

This will give you the perspective you clearly seek. All that other stuff mentioned upthread is adventurous, yes, but it won't change lives.

This will.

1Ravallion, M., Chen, S., Sangraula, P., 2008, 'Dollar a day revisited', World Bank, May 2008 [ .pdf ]
posted by Mutant at 6:18 AM on November 5, 2010 [17 favorites]

I took my experience in industry (mainly retail industry and supply chain management related consulting) and found that the latter in particular is a massive growth area in the humanitarian sector at large right now, so I left a jet-set six-figure lifestyle in Corporate America and moved to Africa to do what I could to help here. I've worked in about 15 countries here and lived in at least 2, or as many as 6-7 depending on how you define it (I spend months at a time in some of the countries I work in).

Given the nature of my work with my organization, I work exclusively in countries with some of the very lowest development / humanitarian indicators (things like infant mortality rates, average life expectancies, % population HIV infected, etc.), and some where outright war / conflict / rebel activities are still very much a reality of daily life (Uganda, DRC, etc.).

Its been a fascinating way to live, I've been exposed to countless different cultures and perspectives on life. I suppose that's been the most interesting part: perspective. I saw this in my browsing last night and it just resonated. By rough guesstimation of their facial figures, hair, etc. I would guess that the kids in the picture are Ethiopian, a country I'm typing from right now and my organization does massive food relief programmes in when food security gets tight (an annual occurance).

Does my brother complaining on FB about having to stay up late cramming for a final or something like that make him a "bad" person? No. But it isn't the whole picture. Can everyone uproot their lives and go help starving children? Are people "bad" because they don't have the opportunity to get the same exposure I have? Not at all.

But with each day that passes, I get more and more confident on what my new perspective is and how radically different it is from almost everyone's in the developed world. So many of my views have completely changed - I look at entire industries and almost shake my head in disbelief. Fast food: Americans have the luxury of literally eating themselves to death. Health care: many Americans actually have it (sure I'm disgusted by the system as is anyone with a grasp on reality - but again, perspective). Even the idea of a 3 car garage is a bit beyond me at this point. The examples are endless. My parents tell me about this "Tea Party" thing I keep hearing about on the internet and I shake my head in disbelief that there are Americans out there who want lower taxes - who have absolutely no connection with the reality that America has been living for many decades with the expectation of a quality of life better than most of the rest of the world, and finding ways to defer payment, rather than gratification. Honestly I'll never look at the world the same way again.

I suppose that's one weird way to live.
posted by allkindsoftime at 6:27 AM on November 5, 2010 [16 favorites]

Do you like to ski/snowboard? I worked for three years at ski resorts - 1 in Squaw Valley and 2 at Big Sky Ski Resort in Montana. Ski resorts are the easiest places in the world to get a job. Just show up a couple of weeks before the season starts. Generally, you get a free ski pass - or at least real cheap. Some resorts have dorms for employees so living is cheap and you live right on the mountain. Try for a night job - I bartended and cooked - so that you can ski during the day. Most resorts have two seasons, summer and winter. Summer is more geared toward conventions and such. But if you are able to save a little money you have about 1.5 months off between each season to travel. A lot of people even go on unemployment during those times. Plus the areas are beautiful - Montana and Tahoe. Learn to fly fish on the Madison River in the summer in Montana.
posted by joyride at 6:31 AM on November 5, 2010

Mutant's suggestion is great.

In a less-humanitarian vein: I have an uncle who lives on a boat and spends all his time sailing around the Caribbean. He is accompanied by a rotating cast of nomadic twenty-somethings who function as his crew. If you know how to sail (or, failing that, if you're physically strong and a quick learner), maybe you could find a place as a crew member, either on a little houseboat owned by an aging eccentric, or on some rich person's enormous private yacht.
posted by kataclysm at 7:37 AM on November 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

All that other stuff mentioned upthread is adventurous, yes, but it won't change lives.

Do you have a similar organisation to VSO in the US? They place people working voluntarily overseas, and I believe living expenses are covered in lieu of payment. If you speak other languages it would be a bonus.

I wasn't in a position to do this at your age and, as I now have ties, am not in a different way. Go, have fun, make sure you don't just hang out with a bunch of other backpackers when you do it.
posted by mippy at 7:50 AM on November 5, 2010

You should read Into the Wild for an interesting account of somebody who wanted out and followed through. Everyone knows about the part where Chris McCandless struck out into the Alaska wilderness on his own. But before doing that he spent a few years bumming around all over the country basically looking for the same kinds of things you are. I found that the part of the book to be the most compelling.
posted by ekroh at 7:56 AM on November 5, 2010

Friend of mine was a blacksmith/stone work apprentice in an intentional community for years out of college. He ended up being perfect for restoration work and lives as a kind of free-lance Can Repair Art dude.
posted by The Whelk at 9:02 AM on November 5, 2010

Howard Tayler left his 6 digit job at Oracle to be a full time cartoonist. He's not a 20-something but seems to be doing well at it.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 9:05 AM on November 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Koinonia Farm - these people lead the most interesting lives of anyone I have ever met. Try them out, they'd probably be glad to know you.
posted by SkylitDrawl at 9:39 AM on November 5, 2010

I used to live and work on private yachts >150' with crew of 8-16. Yacht owners, family and friends were the usual guests on board. I worked on several boats and traveled the Med, Adriatic, Carribean, New England, Great Lakes, Bahamas, and East Coast. Pay was very good along with no rent no food bill. I saved little. Partied every night. We usually had all meals prepared for us by the chef. I worked on the deck and we had greatly varied responsibilities.
posted by bravowhiskey at 10:25 AM on November 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Man a lighthouse?

Apply to be the caretaker of a historic home?
posted by foursentences at 10:37 AM on November 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Live on a commune.

Teach English overseas, moving to a new country every few years.

Couch surf.
posted by mintchip at 11:16 AM on November 5, 2010

If you can get on JET, the working conditions and the pay are much better than in Korea.

However, I don't think it's wise to embark on JET as "an experience", because at the end of the day you are there to teach. JET participants who focus on teaching first, and the "experience" second usually have a much better time. In short, if you're not particularly interested in teaching, then don't do JET.

One of the more interesting things you can do in Japan is volunteer on organic farms. Hell, I'm pretty sure that if you had the right visa you could find farm work.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:38 PM on November 5, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for the thoughtfulness (& fascinating life histories!) everyone. The perspective on JET is quite helpful -- I actually studied abroad in Japan this spring and summer, and know that I want to return to frenetic trains and peacefulness in shrine hikes. I also wwoofed briefly up north with ex-tokyoite hippies (makeshift oil drum onsen and psychadelic jam sessions, I miss) and would consider stringing together more of those experiences, as well.

To the comments about volunteerism & third-world epiphanies -- I appreciate the perspectives, and think it's a great counterpoint the concept of solo adventuring solely for personal fulfillment/etc. However, I'm wary of the NGO apparatus as a way to 'improve' the world by smothering so much of locality, and the also the idea of changing lives & achieving zen-of-understanding-desperately-poor-people as being suitable objects of pursuit. I think there's another path (middle way, ha) between adventurism and changetheworldism, and that's committing to love everyone you meet, take whatever opportunity you encounter, and trying to understand and celebrate people in their own right and for their own sake. As I said (and misspelled) in the OP, there is a degree of privilege in throwing oneself into transience; however, the world is full of colliding possibilities, movement, ideas, suggestibility.. I think there's something of deep value, potentially, in following that natural kinecticism.

I would hope that everywhere I go, there would be opportunities to make people happy, and don't feel any particular pressure to over-formalize that process -- that's one way to put what I'm saying, I suppose.
posted by elephantsvanish at 7:19 PM on November 5, 2010 [3 favorites]

I have a cousin who worked as an assistant to a National Geographic photographer for a while, and the most memorable task she ever told us about was when she spent an afternoon throwing snakes out of a plane. Yeah, really.

Apparently they were photographing a type of tropical snake that could propel itself from one tree to another, and the snakes weren't leaping properly. So they hired a small propellor plane and flew as low as possible over the jungle while my cousin threw snakes out of the plane and the photographer took pictures. This all took place sometime in 2002, way before Samuel L. Jackson got in on the business.

Anyway, it sounded like an interesting gig. It's a way to travel around working for an interesting company, but without having to be a genius photographer.
posted by colfax at 10:56 PM on November 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

One "weird way to live" that intrigues me would be to actively seek out to worst, seediest, most undesirable jobs on the underbelly of a chosen profession, do it for a couple of years or so, taking detailed notes and keeping a journal, then writing about it. There are vast, unexplored fields of misery in every major industry that goes essentially undocumented because the workers are so desperate and transient. I've thought it would be interesting to seek out the absolute worst jobs in my profession (law) but it could be applied anywhere ... The underbelly of Silicon Valley (24 hour support desks for obscure software companies, etc.), the hospitality industry (bouncing among jobs at various airport hotels and conference centers). The attitude you would bring to the table is that the more punishing and miserable the job is, the better, because the stories would be better.
posted by jayder at 7:18 AM on November 7, 2010

The next time there's a disaster, hop a bus or hitchhike there, and offer to help.

While most folks are concerned with themselves, their family, their houses, having a few extra sets of hands only concerned with helping can go a long, long way.

Or start taking jobs that suck, that you'll love, and get a story out of.
posted by talldean at 6:04 PM on November 7, 2010

I've had two noteworthy jobs besides this "work from anywhere" MetaFilter job which has allowed me to travel substanitally and also support myself and live in rural New England which is something I wanted.

1. I was a caretaker at an Odd Fellows Hall in Seattle [not the big one in Capitol Hill, the other one in Ballard]. This gig came with a free apartment and a small salary. I had to lock and unlock the building for the groups that met there [from fraternal orders like Loyal Order of the Golden North to social groups like Girth and Mirth] and keep the place clean. I also was the booking agent for other people who wanted to rent the place. It also meant that *I* could use the place for my own events which I did frequently. It was a great gig for the time that I had it but it meant keeping odd hours and being a little married to the building. It also meant that all the Odd Fellows were my bosses and one of them turned out to be a bit of a headache for me [a little too into my business, around ALL the time so I got very little privacy]. Whenever I left town I had to find someone to cover for me and someone fucking up at the job. I couldn't really have another serious job though I had a lot of random side jobs. I enjoyed it but utlimately was happy to move on. Caretaking work is fascinating stuff and you might want to look into the Caretakers Gazette [worth the money] if this sort of thing interests you.

2. In 1994-1995 I moved to Romania with my thn0husband hwo had gotten a job with teh Civic Education Project [think somewhere between Fullbright and Peace Corps] teaching political science to Romanian college kids. We got a free apartment, he got paid and I got a "wife job" working at the Freedom Forum library in Bucharest and we got to live the life of academics in Eastern Europe. His work wasn't that hard [in fact sometimes it was a little too easy since Romania hadn't totally transitioned to a more Western style of education post-Ceausecu] and mine meant I got to travel (we lived eight hours north of Bucharest) and we got to learn a lot about the culture, learned Romanian and basically were ethnic if not cultural minorities in another country. We were caucasian but everyone thought we were Jewish (I am, he wasn't, but had a pointy beard...) so we got a lot of ridicule and random aggression. I enjoyed my year there but was happy for it to be over. It gave me some good perspective on America and also on do-gooder donor organizations trying to export capitalism to post-Socialist states.

Both of these thigns were things I was really glad to do in my twenties, I'm not sure I'd be able to roll with the same situations starting from where I am now. Feel free to ask if you have any questions.
posted by jessamyn at 12:13 PM on November 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

The next time there's a disaster, hop a bus or hitchhike there, and offer to help.

I know people who did this, going down to Biloxi, MS after Katrina to found Hands On Gulf Coast (since absorbed into the AmeriCorps/Hands On networks), and I say it's a great idea if there is infrastructure--HOGC basically took over the parish hall of a local church and ran a completely volunteer-built recovery operations center using community donations--but I think anyone involved in the Haitian post-earthquake recovery will not hesitate to say that if you can't provide for yourself, you're just another mouth to feed.
posted by kittyprecious at 7:59 AM on November 12, 2010

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