Like so many Americans, I had never travelled because surely international travel was only for the well-to-do, or so I thought.

My husband Clyde, a career firefighter and paramedic in Corpus Christi, Texas for 30 years had always dreamed of retiring early. But with the high cost of US healthcare and an ex-wife who would receive a big chunk of his pension, it seemed impossible. Determined to find a way, Clyde did some research and discovered that many Americans opted out of their pricey US lifestyles to enjoy more affordable, healthier, lives abroad. One day he asked me, “if I can find a country where we could live comfortably on my small pension would you be willing to go?” I said, where are we going, and when?

Clyde took his last call as a firefighter in 2011 at the age of 57, when I was just 51. We said adios to our grown children and moved to the tropical, jungle haven of Panama. Over the next five years, we bought a house near the beach community of Coronado, made friends, and studied Spanish. Every day in Panama was an adventure but life was good.

Then one day a friend mentioned that she had just returned from a Mediterranean cruise in Europe with ports of call in Spain, France, Turkey, Greece, and Italy. My wanderlust flame ignited and I immediately told Clyde that I wanted to visit Europe. Thinking that this would be our one and only trip ever to Europe, I wanted to make the most out of it and added a side trip to Paris. But when I presented the plan to my dear husband, he looked at me like I was utterly insane.

“Europe,” he said. “And Paris?” “People like us don’t go to places like that, only rich people do.”

Credits: Supplied Image; Author: Terry Coles;

Persistent as I was, eventually he gave in to my travel plans. We spent one month trekking through Europe and returned to Panama as changed people. Europe had infiltrated our souls and we fell in love with the idea of travelling more or perhaps even living somewhere else. But, with our small budget of around $2,000 per month, how could it be possible?

House Sitting

Then one day a friend suggested we try house and pet sitting. Various house-sitting websites serve to connect potential sitters with pet owners who need them. In exchange for free accommodations, house sitters agree to care for pets and the home as if it were their own.

Intrigued by the concept, I signed up for one of several house-sitting websites and created a profile. Since we were still living in Panama, we opted for sits in Latin American countries first to give it a try.

“Retired Firefighter and his wife want to travel the world; one house sit at a time.”

Within a few weeks, we were offered our first sit in Mexico with a cat, the following month was spent in Ecuador with a dog, and our third sit was in Costa Rica. We were hooked! House sitting was fun and would provide us with an affordable way to travel.

We decided to sell our home in Panama fully furnished and gave away everything, except what would fit into two carry-on sized suitcases each!

For the next two years, we lived rent-free in Thailand, Kenya, Egypt, England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Fuerteventura, Italy, Spain, France, Switzerland, Belgium, Austria, Germany, Portugal and more.

Credits: Supplied Image; Author: Terry Coles;

Our only expenses were flights, food, and the occasional car rental. In between sits, with the money we had saved by not paying rent, we could afford to visit nearby countries like India, Hong Kong, Cambodia, and Israel. Since we lived free in Kenya for six weeks we could afford to splurge on a private safari in the nearby game reserves. A gorgeous villa on the Red Sea was our home for several months in the resort city of El Gouna, Egypt. Following the sit, we were able to explore Cairo and the great pyramids and cruise along the Nile River.

Back in Europe we landed a sit in Portugal, fell in love with the country and decided to make it our next home. We have lived full-time in Portugal now for almost six years, continue to travel as house and pet sitters, but always look forward to returning home to Tavira.

My life may seem like a whirlwind of exotic travel and early retirement but there is so much more. I was rescued by a firefighter from a bad relationship, lost half of my body weight and have managed to travel extensively with little money, but a lot of desire.

The full story of how I turned my life around from miserable to amazing can be found in my first book, Rescued & Transformed, available in paperback or Kindle from Amazon in the links below.


Terry Coles has been writing about living and travelling abroad since she left the US in 2011. She and her husband have lived in Panama and now reside in Portugal. 

Terry Coles