The value of living abroad is more than simply enjoying a different culture. The deeper value lies in the lessons that we learn and the ways in which they change us. I have put together a few lessons learned from living in Hispanic America.
During the first few weeks of living in another country, we are no different from tourists. Wide-eyed and marvelling at everything that is different. The traffic is not a problem, yet, and the language barrier is still fun.
However, as we settle down, our new reality starts to refine us. Like a lapidary, who produces a diamond from a dull, shapeless stone, our host country polishes us to produce an improved version.
Different souls learn different lessons. Nevertheless, one thing remains true – we will all be part of this learning process.
Lessons learned from five Hispanic American countries
I have asked four people to join me in this article and to share their experience.
I will start with the country we call home for the moment: Panama.
Panama has been our host and home for almost two years. Immediately upon arrival, we started the process to acquire residency. We completed the process without any hickups, then we went a step further – we got our cédulas!
The lessons we have learned to date will certainly stay with us, and we hope they will make our future travels even more meaningful.
When we left our home country, we did so with everything we owned in four pieces of luggage. We adopted minimalism sometime before we departed and achieved our goal of being able to carry everything we own!
Having less stuff is helpful, especially if you move around a lot. Nevertheless, the lesson hit home when we settled in Bocas del Toro. For us, going minimalist was a conscious decision and personal challenge. We had to let go of the emotional attachment to many possessions.
Living amongst poorer members of the local community, we realised that for many, minimalism is not a choice. It is their reality, with little opportunity for improvement.
That realization fosters gratitude.
The next lesson was a pleasant surprise and a strong antidote for the ego: nobody cares about your past!
People would ask where we are from and what we plan to do in Panama. They are neither fussed nor impressed by whatever we previously did, or did not do. They are interested in us, as people.
So one of the lessons we learned from living in Hispanic America, is that your LinkedIn profile is not as important as you think it is. (And I have deleted mine)
We arrived in Panama with very limited knowledge of the Spanish language. One of the words you quickly learn is “mañana” which translate to “tomorrow.”
However, the lesson is slightly different. It is about service, or the lack thereof. Mañana does not really mean tomorrow, it only means not today. And tomorrow, it will mean the same.
If you have ever wished you could acquire the virtue of patience, come live in Hispanic America.
A previous article about culture shock explains how experience can improve us. Part of the solution to overcome culture shock is to assimilate into the local culture.
The lesson we have learned is that assimilation does not happen just because we like a culture. It happens when we make a decision to be part of it.
It happens when we put in the hours to learn the language. When we observe the custom, learn to cook some of the local dishes and participate in the festivals.
In 2005, I built a house in Costa Rica. The marketing slogan here is “Pura Vida,” meaning “pure life.” It’s also a way of life and is responsible for Costa Rica being named one of the happiest countries in the world.
The Ticos (Costa Ricans) use this term as a greeting, to say goodbye, everything’s wonderful or life is good. They don’t stress over things the way most Americans do.
They look at life in a relaxed, easy-going way: Don’t worry, be happy, don’t get upset, don’t stress out about little things, live in the moment and don’t worry about either the past or the future. Above all, be grateful for what you have.
As my house neared completion, the contractor told me that I could expect to take occupancy in about ten days. Tiling the bathrooms and installing sinks and toilets were the last things to be completed.
The day I was supposed to move in, I went to the house with my suitcases and several bins of household items. The contractor and I were standing in the doorway of the master bathroom as one of the workers wiped down a recently installed tile. I looked at the contractor and said sarcastically, “I don’t know how I can move in here today when the toilet hasn’t been hooked up!”
He looked at the wall and sure enough, the toilet was not hooked up to anything. My first instinct was to be furious that such a stupid mistake happened, but my contractor just shrugged his shoulders. At that moment I said, “Pura Vida!” and we both laughed because ”Pura Vida” also means “shit happens” and it’s almost never the end of the world.
Contributed by author Trisha Spinelli
I have been living a location independent life in Colombia for over two years now, and their culture has affected me in ways I never expected.
I’ve learned to be less selfish. To anticipate the needs of others. To think of ways I can help solve problems (either personally or through a connection) without expecting anything in return.
In the US, it seems like people just care about themselves (or maybe that was just me)…
Oh, you are lost and need directions? I guess I can point you in the right direction quick (as long as it doesn’t take too long). You need help moving to a new house? What’s in it for me?
Have a problem and need a personal connection? That sucks. Your problem doesn’t really affect me, and to contact my network would take time, so…I’ll just give you some fake sympathy.
In Colombia, it is different.
When lost, I have asked strangers to point me in the right direction—only to have them happily stop whatever they were doing, and accompany me several blocks to make sure I found what I needed. (Sometimes even asking other people for directions to help me).
When moving into my new apartment, my “uncle-in-law” offered to help, without me asking. He not only let me use his truck but also spent half his Saturday driving through crazy traffic jams to help me move my things, expecting nothing in return.
When I got sick and didn’t have health insurance, my girlfriend called her friend, who called a colleague, who knew a cardiologist, who agreed to squeeze me into her busy day for free. I was blown away.
I’m not saying that this never happens in the US, but it’s definitely not the norm. So, to sum it up – the Colombian culture has made me a better human being. It has taught me how to care for others.
Contributed by Mitch Glass (Project Untethered)
I have been living in Buenos Aires for nine years now, and the experience has taught me so much. Argentina is not the easiest country to live in. The economy fluctuates like a heart monitor, organization is rare and efficiency doesn’t exist.
Living here has taught me patience and to live with less (in the best way possible). There is a gadget for everything in the US (where I’m from), and you can have it at your house in mere hours if you order it on Amazon.
In contrast, in Argentina, older shoes are taken to the cobbler to be given a second life. I’m no longer so quick to toss things in the bin and focus a lot more on the “reuse” bit of that old Reuse, Recycle, Reduce slogan.
I have also learned to focus on family and friendships here. Families get together every Sunday for a BBQ and we even have an official “Friends Day” that is far more popular than Valentine’s Day.
Relationships are a priority, far more than work. I love spending time with friends and family here because no one is looking at their phone making plans for later, this is the plan. Lunch will go on for hours, likely until the sun is setting.
Life is slow in Argentina and if you’re patient and prioritize the right things, you will love living in Buenos Aires just as I do.
Contributed by Erin Mushaway (Sol Salute)
I am a digital nomad in Hispanic America with residence in Peru. I met someone who lives here, was without an official residence for two years and had the opportunity to apply for a temporary visa in Peru by setting up my own company.
Peru, its culture and history have fascinated me for a long time, so it seemed a good fit. For a while, I thought that I could actually live in Lima. Well, I’ve learnt that the continent matters but the country doesn’t.
I love to be in Hispanic America but I prefer to continue living a nomadic life. Being a resident in Peru probably increased my feeling of not belonging anywhere, as weird as this may sound. I also learned that the concept of nationality matters less and less to me. I’m not assimilated in the Peruvian culture and society at all and that’s perfectly all right for me.
On the other hand, I have met many expats who have a very negative attitude towards the country – which I don’t like, either.
I’ve been a solo traveller for more than 30 years and being an introvert, I like spending time alone. Peru taught me to be comfortable with that.
I don’t mind living in Peru for six months a year but I can’t imagine settling down here. As soon as I have my permanent residency or citizenship, I am very likely to spend most of the year in other Hispanic American countries. There are so many places to explore and I guess I will always be a gypsy at heart.
Contributed by Daniela Fries (Digital Nomads Peru)
“When I was young and wild, even the devil on my shoulder shouted: “What the hell?” Now I am older and a little slower, and he is wiser – he simply responds: ”What the hell, why not, we will probably learn a lot on our way!” – Travel Hippi
I would love to have your thoughts about the lessons you have learned while living abroad.
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