Think about your first day of kindergarten. Can you remember how you felt when your parents drove off after dropping you at the front gate? Or when they waved goodbye to you as you looked out the window of the big yellow school bus? Were you excited, scared, elated? Nervous?
Moving abroad to a new country is a lot like your first day of kindergarten. Conflicting emotions are running wild and expectations are unknown. There is only so much research you can do before having to physically be there, in the moment.
When I moved to Nicaragua, there were a lot of question marks. I had visited Nicaragua for a full-immersion “Spanish/Medical Experience Learning Trip” a couple of years prior with a college group, but this was different. There were a lot of details that I didn’t necessarily piece together beforehand. Mostly because I didn’t know what to do next. During my school trip, I had 3 guides who knew the country fairly well. Transportation was sorted before arriving and meals were pre-arranged. We didn’t have to take a dollar (well, a córdoba) out of our pockets.
From my first trip to Nicaragua in 2010.
In 2012, the plane ride down to Nicaragua was not for a 2-week getaway, but rather a permanent move. What I didn’t realize was that the next 18 months were going to be a learning experience that had more real-world value than most of what I learned in the college classroom.
The cycle of life abroad is like the ebb and flow of a wave. There are highs and there are lows.
In the beginning, you’re typically on the high, as you reflect on, “WOW! I actually did it.” We call this the “honeymoon phase.”
Then the lows come, after some time, when you begin harping on the things you miss from home, things you didn’t realize were of any importance to you until they were gone. Like, “Why are there no Trader Joe’s in Nicaragua?! All I’m craving is a pack of Go Raw trail mix!” (If you have a Trader Joe’s near you, you probably know the convenience of these little snack-sized packets!)
Then come the highs again, as you pick up the language and start to get in tune with the culture.
Then, at some point, as you get more comfortable, the ebb and flow become more consistent and predictable. This is the point when you can logically reflect on the time you have spent in your new country and really understand what you’re going through.
A weekend trip to Las Isletas in Nicaragua with some of my local friends!
It took me a bit of time to really wrap my arms around this new life abroad. My lows came and quickly went. More often, they came when I was perusing social media and examining what everyone else was doing back home. I realized this pretty early on and ditched social media for a while. I made friends, both locals and other North Americans, and began doing things with them regularly. Even if it was hanging around a pool for the weekend, I was getting out and interacting with others.
I spent a relatively short time in Nicaragua, about a year and a half. Towards the end of my time there, I reflected on why it was that I wanted to relocate in the first place, and also what I learned from being in Nicaragua. Internally, I felt like a different person, even though my friends from college would say I was the same.
When I really thought about it, I realized there were 3 things I picked up during this time that helped me to grow. These 3 things are not something I learned in the classroom. And as much as my parents tried to instill them in me at home, I couldn’t truly absorb what they meant at the time. I needed the experience. The experience of being out of my comfort zone and in situations that I couldn’t control.
The 3 things I learned were:
- Having Patience
- Being Flexible
- Trusting My Gut
When people say, be patient, what does that mean? How long is one supposed to be patient for? Especially when we’re coming from a place where we don’t need to be patient for a long time, mostly because there are options. Think about it. If you wanted a hoagie and the queue at the deli was out the door, then you’d probably go to the deli just a couple of blocks away. Right? Why wait in line when you don’t have to? As we become more and more used to quick conveniences, patience is a hard thing to maintain. Think about “Alexa.,” the Amazon robot that lets you order more paper towels just by telling her to order more. It cuts out having to hop in the car, go to the supermarket, wait in line, and then drive back home. Now that’s convenient.
In many other parts of the world, life is just not as convenient. We still have to wait in line to get a hoagie because there are no other delis around. And we still have to hop in the car to get paper towels, because Amazon doesn’t offer free 2-day Prime delivery to that part of the world. I was first introduced to Nica Time after waiting 90 minutes to get picked up for work because the traffic was so bad, and my ride didn’t have enough phone credit to let me know. I sat outside, in my typical waiting spot, just hoping that they’d arrive. After about 30 minutes, I went back inside to get my computer and work on some projects.
Five years later, and the virtue of being patient has saved my sanity in many situations. Just give yourself plenty of time and accept that you, and no one else, run on your own specific time.
The boat heading to Little Corn Island from Big Corn Island. We were packed in like sardines, along with luggage, chickens, and other materials being transported to the island.
Flexibility truly is key. Circumstances will change at the flip of a dime. You plan to visit the beautiful, unspoiled Atlantic beaches of San Blas, Panama, during the dry season? The Indigenous people will close the road and you won’t be able to get there. Then on your way to the Pacific beaches, it will pour and pour and pour. The rain will be so bad you’ll have to sit on the side of the road for hours as it passes. Yes, this happened. And that is just the beginning of the stories.
Being flexible is probably applicable for many of us already, and it will be very beneficial to adopt when you’re in a new situation, especially abroad.
Recently, I read a book that talked about the nature behind trusting your gut. It went into a spiritual understanding of intuition being linked to energies. Basically, it said that we all emit an aura, or energy. Our auras either connect or don’t connect based on who we are as an individual. For example, you’re an ethical business(wo)man looking for a new CFO, interviewing possible candidates. Some of them are great, others aren’t, and there is 1 who just didn’t sit well with you. You look him up and find out that he stole tons of money from a previous employer. Your intuition knew something was off before you knew the facts.
This may sound a bit abstract or crazy to some folks, and I’m not asking you to believe the theory. But do think about the times you trusted your gut and it turned out to be right. Sometimes we’re a bit off, and that’s OK. But trusting your instincts when abroad will help guide you to where you should be.
Hipicas parade in Nicaragua with my colleague and her friends.
Spending time in another country is truly life-changing. If you’re considering a move, whether permanent or temporary, do remember that it will be different. Different in many ways that you may not be able to imagine. And hopefully, you will grow from each of the experiences.
If you’re not able to go abroad yet, self-growth and improvement can be accomplished just by putting yourself in new situations. Wait in the long line at the deli instead of jetting off to the shorter line. Why? Because you’ll work on your patience. It’ll come in handy later.