What Living Abroad Has Taught Me

In many ways, I consider what I’ve been doing the last couple months more of living abroad, than traveling abroad. Sure, I’ve been traveling, taking trips to Nicaragua and other parts of Costa Rica, but for the most part, I’ve been in one general place. I have a mailbox, my own cab driver, and a regular watering hole where everyone knows my name. My very own Cheers. Last night as a gringo was playing a very bad rendition of Dave Matthews’ Crash Into Me, I had a moment of inspiration. I pulled out my notepad and started writing down what living abroad has taught me. Within just a couple minutes, I came up with 8 things, of which most were different than the piece I had done on what traveling through Central America had taught me. It’s not the typical 10, or 5, but just 8, because that’s what I came up with and I’m not going to fish in a pond there aren’t any fish in.

1. Long-term travel or living abroad isn't for everyone. While I'm not a fan of labels, it's a little bit harder to put one on what I'm doing. Backpacking, vagabonding, digital nomad, expat, and long-term traveler are just a few you could probably assign to me. However, I think we often get caught up in these and let the terms define us, rather than letting what we do define us. While there's been a big movement toward long-term travel, I've come to understand that it's not for everyone. While I love what I'm doing, I won't do this forever. However, it's important to respect and encourage other travel styles, whether it's just two weeks a year, a season, or longer.

2. Living and traveling abroad teaches me more than textbooks ever did. There are some days that I'll have a conversation or observe a situation in a culture and I'm just awestruck and it will keep me thinking all day and sometimes all week. I never had such a feeling when studying cultures and history. Travel seems to bridge that gap between reality and what we've read and heard. It's almost like a sixth sense.

3. I'm not in college anymore. College is often referred to as the "good 'ole days" isn't it? As much fun as it was to stay up until 4 a.m. and sleep until noon, I just can't and don't want to do that anymore. While the first couple of weeks in Costa Rica were spent going out most nights and meeting new people and drinking cheap rum, it become weary, not to mention expensive, even in Central America. Don't get me wrong, I love going out and having a few drinks and a good time, but I'm realizing that travel and living abroad is so much more than that and there's nothing wrong with a traveler's night in when I can read a book or watch a movie.

4. I'm a work in progress. While "The Thinker" rested his chin on his arm, I rub my forehead when deep in thought. So if you see me rubbing my hand on my forehead, it means something is going on up there. There have been a few times in Costa Rica when I've done this and said to myself: "Maybe that wasn't the best idea." I'm learning so much about myself and the world around me on a daily basis. I hope I never get to a point in life that I consider myself to have "arrived". I'm growing on a daily basis as a person, traveler, and writer, and living abroad has brought that to the surface even more.

5. Living abroad is not an escape. It would have been easy to go abroad last year at this time when life hit the fan. However, I was resolved to not do anything spontaneous for at least three months. It's one of the best decisions I've made in the last year. I meet people daily who are living abroad because they're running away from something. This isn't a generalization, but conversations I really do have regularly. If you decide to live abroad to "find yourself", you're going to be disappointed. Living abroad is life changing, but don't expect it to be an extended vacation in which life and what comes along with it stands at the terminal window waving goodbye as you fly to another country.

6. I'm not an expat...yet. I can't tell you how many people asked me if I would end up staying down in Costa Rica before I left the states. The answer to that is "no". In all honesty, I don't know if I'll even ever return to Costa Rica. However, this trip has continued to reveal the notion that the expat lifestyle is very attractive to me. Ever since spending a summer in South Africa I've thought about being an expat. Will I become one? I have no clue. If I do, it'll be that one place I travel to that I never want to leave. South Africa and Ireland were close, but the road beckons.

7. It's perfectly alright to keep some moments to myself. Our boat came to what can be described as a screeching halt while going down the river in Palo Verde National Park. It was a rare sight in Costa Rica, but one of the most beautiful: 3 Scralet Macaws. One of the most recognizable and famous birds in the world, three of them sat perched in a couple trees above the river. "Well aren't you going to take a picture", one of the tour guides asked. Mesmerized, I paused for a moment and replied: "Not this time." I didn't tweet it, flick it, post it, stumble, or dig. It was an awe-inspiring moment of beauty. I can't stress enough how exhilarating it has been to unplug and be selfish with my time, experiencing the world around me on my own terms.

8. Listening is seeing. Doesn't make any sense does it? I know, same thing I said, but it's so true. I've spent a lot of my time on this trip just listening and watching people. Part of that is because my Spanish isn't great, but I'm also learning the importance of listening to people. My father was a teacher and my sister and I writers, so it's easy to want to put my agenda on people, but I'm learning that listening and watching is the foundation of communicating with others; especially when living in a place that's unfamiliar to you.

As you probably guessed it, not all these photos are from living abroad, although they are all from being on the road the last several months. Also, photo number one is courtesy of photographer Kirsten Alana.

17 Comments on “What Living Abroad Has Taught Me

  1. I’m quite a big fan of both lists of 8 and living abroad, so this is right up my alley.
    #6. If you choose to live outside of your native country, whether you settle in one place or another, you are an Expat. Enjoy it, thrive in it.
    #7 I like this one. I keep noticing while I travel how much the moment is about capturing it and storing it away (usually as a picture) so that the moment itself is not enjoyed. I even do it, I attempt to enjoy something, and take a picture, turning away as soon as the camera clicks; almost more interested in the captured form than the reality. Good on you. I’m working on it.

    • Thanks Andrew. 7 is always the hardest for me, but I like what you said about we often become more interested in the captured form than actual reality.

  2. You always write these awesome deep posts and they make me stop and apply the lessons you are learning to my own life and travel experience! Great list and thanks for making me stop and take a moment to think! :)

    • Annie,
      That made my day! I try to do just a little bit of that. I presume if I’m experiencing and going through them while on the road, there might be others who are as well!

  3. What a post… Inspiring actually. I am currently working a cover letter in which I am attempting to put into words that which is gained through experiences of living in diverse environments. I lived in Prague in the early 90’s and in Dublin, Ireland… The lessons learned from these two experiences are great, but finding words for them is quite the challenge. I loved being abroad and living within the cultures and the communities to the extent possible… and if I have the chance to do it again, I will, without doubt. (Italy here I come) That said, I ache also learned that living in the US can be a travel experience within itself; It just requires more awareness perhaps… living in the moment, staying open to the changes and the opportunities; and taking life as it comes over living schedules etc. I suppose it is turning into a traveler in your own country… a change of mind set.

    Stay amazed

    • Thanks! I agree about traveling in the U.S. can be an experience. I’ve done a couple cross-country road trips and they were like visiting another country!

  4. Great post – we can relate to a lot of things that you’ve listed. Btw – surprised to read that you’re not sure if you’ll ever return to Costa Rica!!

    • Thanks girls! Yeah, I’m a little surprised to see it. If I had the chance, I wouldn’t turn down an offer to return, but I just haven’t had a moment like I did in South Africa and Ireland that made me really want to come back. Don’t want that to take away from the experience though.

  5. I’ve always been of the belief that travel is life’s greatest teacher. Looks like you’re learning some invaluable things being in Costa Rica. Thanks for an inspiring and insightful read!

  6. “I didn’t tweet it, flick it, post it, stumble, or dig. It was an awe-inspiring moment of beauty. I can’t stress enough how exhilarating it has been to unplug and be selfish with my time, experiencing the world around me on my own terms.”

    I love this. There have been so many times I’ve returned home and been annoyed that I didn’t have a photo of such-and-such to use in an article or blog. But then I remember the reason I didn’t take the picture was because I was so caught up in that moment. And then, I remember how wonderful that moment truly was.

  7. This is so great!! Thank you for the shout out. I love all of the first few images (from our RT). And most identify with #5 right now at least.

  8. Listening. This is a great skill to develop. Traveling alone in a country where you don’t speak the language definitely teaches you to listen an observe carefully. Great list.

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