One of the things to know about living abroad is that life is going to be different, so you should be open-minded and non-judgmental about it. We're flipping sides here. We're going from being in our comfort zone, in a place where everybody looks like us and we’re going to be the minority in the new country. We're not going to fit in 100%.
I was actually having this conversation the other day with somebody who owns a very big blog about living abroad. They're saying that, once you leave, you aren't going to fit in a 100% in a country that you're going to. You’ll always a little bit of a foreigner - an outsider. And when you come back, you aren't going to 100% fit in America or the country that you're coming from, because you have changed. You have opened your eyes. You have had an experience that is not the norm and you have evolved. You’ll change in ways that you can't really expect but it's always in a good way.
(Pictured to the right and above: teaching orphans to surf in Costa Rica.)
So you just kind of end up with maybe one foot in Ecuador and one foot in America or wherever you're from. You're never going to fit in 100% in one place. That's okay. People might not even notice when you come back to America, but you don’t notice. They'll start to notice the way in which you're different and you'll start to appreciate it more.
Another thing to know about moving abroad relates to planning. It's really actually quite good to have somebody on your team to help plan, because one of the most common things that happens is when you don't have clear plan when you move, a lot of well-meaning people will try to help you, but also a lot of people try to take advantage of you. You might attract situations and people that don't have your best interests in mind. For example, if you look different and you're moving from a different country they might assume you have money. You don't want to just take advice from the first people that you meet when you get to your new country. Sometimes, even on forums, people have their agendas in mind and their best interests, not yours.
You want to get an objective perspective. It could be anybody who has experience in that country that you're moving to and has positive reviews. That's really important because I can't tell you how many times I’ve been on an airplane and heard someone sitting next to me or behind me or in front of me, talking very loudly, giving advice to someone who's coming to Costa Rica or Mexico for the first time. The person giving the advice seems always to be a foreigner who's been there for maybe a year or even less. In some cases they've been there like 3 months or 6 months. In any case, they are giving really bad advice and very wrong information to an unsuspecting person who's sitting next to them on a plane. That's where it starts. It starts there and it doesn't end while you're in the country. People want to share their information with you but you can't be the judge of whether or not it's good or bad information.
(Pictured to the right and above: working in Punta Pacifica, Panama City, Panama.)
When people move to a new country, they tend to be very much more trusting than they would be at their country of origin. In a normal day, when we go to work, for example, we get in our cars, we drive to work and then we go off to where we work and we see all of our co-workers. We don't tend to ask any strangers for life advice or any type of advice on the side of the road or inside of a restaurant or just anywhere. What happens when people go abroad is they don't have any close connections; friends, co-workers or any family members so the first people they meet become their comfort zone. You want to be able to have some selection of who those people are and not just the first people you meet.
For example, a lot of people move to Costa Rica, for example (and this can happen anywhere) and then they want to have social gatherings, so they might invite people to come over to their home who they met in the first month or so or even in the first year that they've been living in a place. They invite a lot of the locals, like local surfers, used to tell me that these people are their friends. They come down every year for a few months and they tell me that they see them every year. Even if just one of those people is not well meaning that person could tip off somebody that you have a flat screen TV or whatever you have that has a value in your house. Somebody could break into your house and know exactly where to go to steal something because one of your acquaintances told them.
This is true especially if you're going to a country where the income is low, in Nicaragua for example, where their per capita income is one of the lowest in Latin America, just above Haiti. When you make more in a day what they can make in a year, they could be really good people but they could be in such a desperate need that they would steal or something like that to get by.
I wish I could tell every expat moving abroad, just keep a little bit of that filter and barrier and self-awareness. Before you invite people to your home and take people's advice, you really need to get to know them. If you can come from that approach where you know that these other things are possible (even though they are not necessarily going to happen to you but has happened to other people), then you can choose your friends and your inner circle with more care. If you do this, you'll end up having a more positive experience and you might even end up realizing sooner rather than later, these people are not really nice friends.
(Pictured to the right and above: overlooking Mayan ruins in Mexico.)
Your caution should extend to other foreigners as well. There are foreigners who have been in the country for a long time. Maybe they are business people. They might also be there for the wrong reasons or not have your best interest in mind when there’s a business deal, real estate transaction, or other similar events. You have got to think like this and take caution wherever you go.
In Nicaragua, Mexico or Ecuador, you’re probably not going to be able to depend on the local justice system for anything when something goes wrong. It's not realistic in most cases. You really have to be your own judge of everything. I don't want it to seem like a dire warning but I have seen people who move abroad completely drop everything and just want to be friends with everybody at the same time and make decisions that they would not make back in California or Colorado or New York City. I would just say, keep your head on and stay smart.
On the other side, you should enjoy the place you’re moving to. Wherever you go, get to know your surroundings very well. A lot of people, because they do research on the Internet, will pick one place, move there, and then end up in their daily routines. That's great, but then they miss out on a lot more of the country. Take advantage of where you are. Usually the cost of traveling is lower once you get down there. I when I lived in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, I think that I literally drove all around the country multiple times. I don't know if there's any stone I left unturned. And I was surprised at how few of the locals or foreigners had ever been to most of the places I visited, and how people tended to just go to the main places. You really get to see the local culture and the beauty when you go off the beaten path.
In Nicaragua, for example, I went to most of the beaches between San Juan del Sur and the tip of Nicaragua, up by El Salvador. And then, one day in 2008, (I had a driver at the time that I paid US $100 per month) I decided to explore some of the towns in the towns in the mountains. I was in a little town called Aposentillo, about 45 minutes north of Chinandega. I drove from there to Estelí, Jinotega, Matagalpa, and many very small, mountain towns. Some of them didn’t even have hotels.
Along the way, I got to see a lot of beautiful pottery. Some of the towns didn’t even have a restaurant, so instead of eating at a restaurant, I remember eating at someone’s house. The locals were very surprised, even though I speak fluent Spanish. They wanted to know who was this blonde haired, 25 year old girl, driving a blue Xterra, coming into our town to walk around and visit. It was really cool. I love doing things like that, and have done similar things in every country I go to, even, for example, in Thailand, from which I just returned. I highly recommend expats do it as well.
Slow travel is better. If you can, I recommend that you go somewhere for several months or even a year and really explore the entire country and then decide where you want to live. In my experience and the experiences of my clients, that is the way you’re going to find where you would feel most at home.
Take advantage of being in a new place. You will be surprised. You’ll end up going places that aren’t really on the tourist map.