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Finding Community, Creativity in Cambodia
Retired nurse spends her retirement living and teaching in Southeast Asia.
Story by Rebecca L. Bennett
In late 2011, El Paso County Hospital District Nurse Supervisor Sally Meisenhelder was preparing to wrap up a long nursing career and christen her impending retirement with a 6-month trip around the world.
Then, a friend threw a “serendipitous” wrench in Sally’s plans by securing Sally a job teaching English in Shijiazhuang, China, just south of Beijing. After completing an English-teaching course, Sally took the leap.
“I loved it,” she says. “The people were the most hospitable in the world. I ended up staying a year and a half until I could no longer get a work visa.”
When her visa expired, Sally traveled across China and Central Asia before another teaching opportunity surfaced — and then another. “A friend would say, ‘Hey, come teach here,’ and then another friend would say that too,” she explains. “It’s been kind of free-flow.”
Sally toured Angkor Wat during the COVID-19 pandemic. Usually crowded with tourists, Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world.
A second home
Eventually, Sally landed in Cambodia, where she taught English and joined an international organization that supports education projects and the health and wellness of Cambodian women and children.
Sally now feels inexplicably “tied to the community” and considers Cambodia her second home. She normally spends fall and winter in her Cambodian apartment and returns to New Mexico for spring and summer, which can be very humid in Cambodia.
“Some things about Cambodia remind me of my youth,” she says. “It’s a largely rural country and much is done like it was 50 years ago. Every day, I see something interesting, funny or creative.”
Cambodia also provides Sally with a launching-off point for world travel. So far, she has visited 38 other countries in her retirement, with her favorites being China, Turkey and Portugal.
Sally and her son on a group tour in India.
“I love travel because it opens your mind to different ways of living and doing things,” she says. “I’ve walked along the Great Wall of China, walked the Camino in Portugal and visited the Galápagos Islands. I’ve seen Komodo dragons and looked into live volcanoes in Indonesia. I visited lots of beautiful beaches with great snorkeling and went on wildlife tours in India and the Australian outback.”
The Komodo in the room: How she affords it
Sally hangs with Komodo Dragons on Komodo Island, Indonesia.
Sally knew she needed an effective financial plan to fund her globetrotting lifestyle in retirement. Her financial advisor helped her develop savings goals and establish multiple income streams by rolling all the retirement funds she had earned with other hospitals into one 401(k).
Now, Sally lives off her 401(k), TCDRS benefit and Social Security, and maintains a healthy emergency fund. Cambodia’s low cost of living stretches Sally’s finances, allowing her to “treat herself” to nicer restaurants and weekend trips around the region.
Health care, however, can be a huge expense, since Sally often needs to travel to Bangkok or Singapore to receive adequate treatment. When borders closed due to COVID-19, Sally returned to the U.S. to ensure she could access care and receive a safe vaccine for her age group.
Before she left, Sally made sure to help local volunteers get set up to provide consistent food relief for Cambodian families who were negatively impacted by the pandemic.
Now fully vaccinated, Sally hopes to return to Cambodia as soon as possible, but the country is experiencing a major COVID-19 spike that may lead to more lockdowns. “I miss my friends there,” she says. “I’m hoping for the best.”
Leah Golden contributed to this article.
Cover photo: Sally at the Great Wall of China. All photos courtesy of Sally Meisenhelder.
Get more information on why TCDRS is a model plan when it comes to retirement.