When I told people of my plans to live abroad in South America for a year, the most common response I got was: “I wish I did that when I was your age.” I’m in my mid-twenties and as my departure date got closer and closer, this response became more and more normal for me to hear from those ten or twenty years my senior. In the months leading up to this adventure, I became accustomed to hearing “I wish” over and over again and though I never asked, I usually silently thought to myself: “Well, why didn’t you?” That question was one I genuinely wanted the answer to. By the time I was headed to the gate with my boarding pass in hand, I had a good feeling I already knew the answer. I had just said goodbye to my family, friends, job and home and it felt like I had gone through several breakups in a condensed period of time. Six weeks later, I still suspect that many of those people didn’t bother because hitting pause on life and travelling away from home is so damn uncomfortable.
This is the first time I’m giving the whole living abroad thing a shot and I’ve never felt more vulnerable in my life. The past month and a half has been great yet at the same time, I’ve been well outside my comfort zone almost every time I’ve left my apartment. I see why many opt not to do this, but after spending weeks fumbling through conversations, getting lost and feeling very, very new in town, I’ve noticed a few things that are likely true for those who do book that one-way ticket. Below, a few realizations I’ve had through the chaotic times.
Many people will genuinely want to help.
My first assumption was that Spanish speakers and Colombian people would surely think of me as an idiot tourist. I expected looks of judgement or for locals to simply overlook my struggles when, say, ordering a coffee or navigating the subway. That has not been the case. Rather than judging, most people want to see others thrive. Here, locals are quick to switch to English if they speak it and when I got lost during my second week, more than one person on my bus kept an eye out for my stop.
The definition of intimidating changes.
A great way to make small problems go away is to replace them with larger ones. I’ve noticed that my definition of intimidating has changed immensely since arriving in Medellin in late February. Before I left, intimidating would have meant going out for dinner alone in Toronto on a Friday evening. Now, that pales in comparison to last Friday’s plans which were to navigate the metro system to get across the city to meet up with strangers to then go on the most exhausting hike way up in the mountains. Afterwards, I then went out for dinner alone… and had to order in a different language. Dining alone in Toronto? Yeah, not so bad…
Small gains become victories.
I had no idea about all the small things I took for granted back home. Basic conversational skills, being aware of my surroundings and having many friends willing to meet up for a spur-of-the-moment beer are all examples. Once in a totally unfamiliar place, the smallest accomplishments seem massive. During my first week, that meant being able to successfully buy three empanadas. Now, I’m still happy with minor things like making a new friend or constructing basic sentences in Spanish.
Consider lifelong interests a fallback plan.
While I’m away from family, friends and all things familiar, I’m finding that my hobbies and interests have been my way of feeling grounded. For example, I write almost every day and as an active and outdoorsy person, I’m enjoying mountain terrain and working out regularly. Knowing your interests and committing to the things you actually like certainly enrich the travel experience.
Personal comforts are way too easy to come by.
It’s easy to be fooled into thinking that the secret to acquiring a cozy household is to first blow hundreds of dollars at Bed Bath and Beyond and consult with hygge gurus to get everything just so. I arrived to my new home with nothing but a (very stuffed) MEC duffle bag and have found that I’m able to find comfort in the objects I have. Like the cards from my mom, sister and best friend, my favourite sweater, a bottle of mint essential oil and a calendar of prints from an artist local to my hometown. I’m making do without favourite beers and comfort foods and all the items that made my bedroom the perfect chillout zone. Surprisingly though, that hasn’t been that hard.