Thirty years ago I was an immigrant in a foreign country, the US. Two years ago I was an immigrant in Costa Rica and this year I am an immigrant in Belize. You’d think I’d have this ‘moving to a different country’ gig down by now, but the realities of moving abroad are the same in every instance.
Getting to know a new place, much less a new country, is exciting. Everything is NEW! There is so much to see and explore. New activities, new people, new culture. Although most of the time it is a lot of fun, daily life in developing countries can be frustrating at times.
Moving Abroad vs Vacationing
Living somewhere is nothing like vacationing there. One or two weeks of vacationing does not provide a perspective on the daily realities of living in a foreign country. We still have to work and entertain a 3 year old and 1 year old. And we cannot spend money like we are on vacation. We need to watch our expenses, which limits us on all the activities directed towards vacationers.
Vacations are a break from your everyday life, they are not your everyday life. And although the lifestyle of living abroad can be very appealing from the hum-drum of your everyday life, there are lots of conveniences that you will be giving up. In exchange for the conveniences, you gain experiences. Currently, we love living on the Caribbean Ocean in Belize. Living a slower paced life, playing in the waters and watching the palm trees sway are worth the trade off.
The first few days to 2 weeks after moving to a new place are like being on vacation. There is so much excitement about being somewhere new and just seeing all the new places, people, and things. But once the honeymoon of being in a beautiful new place has worn off, the reality of day to day life often sets in. Unforeseen difficulties and feelings of unfamiliarity creep in. We no longer know where to buy certain products, where to meet other people, where to go for walks or fun, and many other scenarios. Familiarity is what makes somewhere feel like home and the absence of it can be daunting.
Experiencing the Differences
Everyday life in more developed countries like the US and Canada is very convenient. There are many choices of where to shop, what type of products are offered and services to fill your every whim practically at all times of the day. Life in other countries can be quite different, but that’s why people move.
Here is a list of our experiences that moving abroad has provided us:
- The pace of life slows. This is the #1 reason most expats have moved abroad: a slower, less stressful, simpler way of life. This has its advantages, until you want or need to get something done in a timely fashion. That’s when your patience has to kick in.
- Product selection can range from okay to dismal. One of the things we struggled with the most is not having the selection of fruits and vegetables we were used to in the states. However, most fruits and vegetables available are locally grown and once you appreciate them, they are more than you need. This also gives us the satisfaction of supporting the local community and doing our part to lower our consumption of products that require a great amount of energy for production and transportation.
- The convenience foods you were used to at home will probably be 2-4 times the cost. That favorite cereal, cheese, or fruit is something you may need to sacrifice day to day and only have as a special treat once in a while. Other convenience items like dishwashers are rare. Plus, dishwasher detergent is usually very expensive so we wash dishes the old fashion way even when we did have a dishwasher.
- Customer service can be really spotty. So far in our Central American experience we haven’t encountered the consistency of good customer service that we were used to in the United States. Most people are accommodating and there have been many exceptions to this, but NO customer service is pretty much the norm. For example: In Costa Rica I tried to send back a chicken dish at a restaurant that was so dried out, my jaw hurt to chew it. I was told “That is the way it is cooked” and my request was denied. Oh, they would have taken it from me but still charged me for it. Another time, in Belize, we went to renew our visas, a simple 5 minute affair, but we had to wait for the officer to make coffee as our children were screaming (we let them scream hoping it would encourage him to attend to us, but no luck, coffee was a priority). Also, most stores don’t have a return policy, so caveat emptor and check everything you are buying for broken pieces and expiration dates.
- In the US, things are what they say they are and you can rely on it. Not so in Central America. If you see a sign that says something like hours of operation, bus schedules or items on sale, you should still ask because it may be an old sign that hasn’t been changed.
- The infrastructure in most developing countries isn’t as advanced as the US. By comparison standards, the US seems to be a clean paradise with smooth roads and unseen garbage. Infrastructure in developing countries, such as sewage systems, garbage disposal, water drainage and roads can be iffy. Garbage and bad roads seem to be everywhere and the public workers are also taking advantage of the slow paced lifestyle.
- Bureaucracy, and loads of it. Sometimes getting the simplest things done in a foreign country can seem like an insurmountable experience. Welcome to waiting for nearly everything.
Frustrations with the above situations may have you wondering why anyone would choose to move there. Once you adjust and acclimate to your new surroundings, life is pretty darn pleasant. Low key, less stress, more enjoyment, more simple.
Every single move, either from state to state or country to country comes with it’s own mixed bag. There is frustration in finding the good restaurants, the good produce vendors, a good social network. K loves the hunt. I, on the other hand, could do without.
The Hunt for the Right Stuff
The fact is that there is a lot of disappointed in the hunt. It can be exciting and I do enjoy it sometimes, but it takes a lot of wrongs to find the rights. Most of the restaurants that we’ve been to have been mediocre to very poor with just a few good surprises sprinkled in.
I’m the first one to tell you that disappointment only comes when you expect things, and that we should all try our best to not expect things, but I am human and yes, I do have expectations. Many are low and some are high, depending on what we are talking about or, more importantly, how much I’m paying for it.
It’s all part of the initiation or the hunt: Most of the time we have to experience the wrong places, the wrong restaurants, and talk to the wrong people before we find what works for us.
But, after about a month of living in a new location, we start to feel comfortable with it. We’ve got a few reliable places under our belts now, we know where to go for certain items and where not to go, and people and faces are starting to become familiar.
We love meeting other expats wherever we go. People’s stories are really interesting and we love sharing with them. Upon meeting or being introduced to new people we encounter skepticism as to whether we can ‘last’ or ‘make it’ in our new home.
The expats have a little squint in their eyes to see if you have ‘what it takes’ to live here. It happened to us in Costa Rica and the same in Belize. They should be skeptical. Over 50% of people that move abroad return back to their home country within the first year.
Many times we’ve been introduced to people with the following: “They’ve lived in Costa Rica for 1 1/2 years, they’re fine”. Essentially saying “Hey, they’re okay…they’ve lived abroad before and they can make it here.”
As soon as we explain that we are perpetual travelers, whatever guard they may have had falls and the conversation flows.
Feels like home
Eventually, our new country starts to feel like home.
Remembering that our new home offers a whole list of brand new opportunities helps keep perspective of why we moved in the first place. So, if it looks like we’re having fun in paradise…it’s because we are and we wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Currently, playing near and in the ocean is what drove us to be in Belize. It helps refocus and reenergize us to have the strength to carry on through the frustrations of everyday expat life. Most everyday we think we hit the jackpot and wonder why people live such stressed lives when this could be their life. Many people talk about moving abroad, but few actually have the courage to do it. Not everyone dreams of living abroad, but for those that do, like us, it’s such an awesome experience that enriches life, whether or not you stay permanently or for a few months.
The only way to really know if it’s for you…is to go. Why not? Life is beautiful. Live out your dreams before they turn into regrets. If you want it bad enough, you will make it work.
We’d love to hear your stories, good & bad of the realities of moving abroad.
“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you’ve imagined.”
Henry David Thoreau