Realities of Moving Abroad

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

Beach Paradise has its tradeoffs

Beach Paradise has its tradeoffs

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.

Jumping into Costa Rica

Jumping into Costa Rica

 Our Experience

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.

Expat Skepticism

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.

On the beaches of Belize

On the beaches of Belize

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.

Sunrise over Ambergris Caye, Belize

Sunrise over Ambergris Caye, Belize

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

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12 Responses to “Realities of Moving Abroad”

  1. Mary December 17, 2011 at 10:03 am #

    How funny, just 2 hours ago I posted an article very similar in nature! The expectations vs. realities can sometimes be a tough hurdle to get over. No matter where you are but I think it’s easiest to romanticise a true vacation spot like Costa Rica, Belize or Thailand!

    • S King December 17, 2011 at 10:17 am #

      How funny we were thinking the same way at the same time. It must be the reflection and perspective we gain from being 1 month into a new journey. Cheers to your family in Thailand!

      • Brandon Pearce December 22, 2011 at 9:33 am #

        I’ve been thinking some of the same things lately, too. I guess we’re all getting over the one month hump of the new place. lol. I didn’t think to blog about it, though. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Even with all the ups and downs, I wouldn’t trade this for the life I had before. At least not until I’ve had enough. By the way, some of the problems you mentioned are more specific to Central America, I think. Selection and service don’t seem to be a problem here in Malaysia. One example: I recently had a credit card compromised, but American Express sent me a new card and I got it in just four days!

  2. Surendra and Carolyn December 18, 2011 at 8:10 pm #

    Great Post.

  3. Lisa Wood December 18, 2011 at 8:16 pm #

    If you had of asked me a few years ago if we would be happy travelling Australia (without a time frame) and not knowing where we are going to be next year, we would have laughed at you! I am such a “Home” person yet in the last 12 months I could so easily go explorin overseas with back packs! Not sure what that is about….but I want to show our boys the “Real” world.
    Love how you are living abroad because you want to follow your dream!


    • S King December 19, 2011 at 2:21 am #

      I’m a ‘home’ person as well, but love adventure and new experiences. That’s why our ‘slow travel’ lifestyle that we are creating works well for us. We can be home and still be away at the same time experiencing new experiences. It works especially well with a 3 & 1 year old that still require naps and tend to slow the pace of travel naturally.

  4. Amanda Kendle December 18, 2011 at 9:38 pm #

    A very well-explained post! I’ve lived in a few different countries and now feel I could probably find my way to fit in nearly anywhere, but it did take a bit of getting used to and I had to learn a lot along the way. I wish you and your family well in Belize.

  5. Jennifer Pearce December 18, 2011 at 9:46 pm #

    I find the first few weeks in a new place both thrilling and overwhelming at the same time. It’s an interesting mix of emotions. It seems like the welcome changes and tricky adjustments arrive hand in hand to greet us.

  6. Rebecca December 19, 2011 at 12:16 am #

    The squinty eyed thing? I still get it 5 years in… Love the sunrise thru the palm trees. Might have to try to rip off that technique!

    • S King December 19, 2011 at 2:22 am #

      Thanks Rebecca.
      If anyone wants to know what is going on in San Pedro, Belize…Rebecca’s blog is where you’ll find it!

    • Terrie December 19, 2011 at 6:05 am #

      when moving from one village in the UK to another (just down the road) i got ‘the squinty eyed thing’ for at least 5-6 years. I’ve been reading through various blogs and i think there GREAT. It is also hard to follow a dream to move abroad when you have family ties in your own country. how do people cope with this?

  7. lisa|renovating italy December 19, 2011 at 3:51 am #

    We made the move to Italy from Australia when our children were one and three. It was an amazing adventure which became a way of life. We stayed two years before returning to Australia.

    Funnily enough we are now moving back to Italy for good this time, we have another home to reno in Liguria and look forward to life slowing down.

    You are so right about the first few months being a holiday, after that it was difficult to start living our everyday life in a new country. Even though my husband is Italian and can speak the language fluently it still was some time before we settled in.

    ciao for now

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