My husband and I and our four small children have been traveling together since our oldest was four and the youngest was 2 months old. We’ve travelled to Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Nicaragua, and we’ve lived in Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic.
People from home often ask my husband and me, “Why do you live abroad, especially with little children? Isn’t it just scary, uncomfortable and inconvenient?”
While I must admit there are a few ‘luxuries’ from home that I long for, like a library (I really miss that), the convenience of online shopping, and a well developed infrastructure, the benefits my family and I garner by living third world can’t compare to what we’re ‘giving up’.
As a family, we’re driven to live abroad. It’s a part of who we are. Every single day the zeal we feel for this lifestyle is reaffirmed with everyday encounters.
1 – Experience
Growth comes through new experiences. A baby learns at an exponential rate, in part because every experience they are having is new to them. New experience = learning = growth.
As adults, our rate of development and expansion decreases, because the number of new and unique experiences we encounter plateaus, or even declines.
Living abroad supplies new experiences every day. Eating becomes a thrill as you relish in new flavors and tastes. Driving becomes a challenge as you encounter new rules and conduct (or livestock) on the road. A trip to the supermarket introduces new sights, colors, customs and culture. Even cooking and cleaning become an adventure as you’re faced with new surfaces (tile vs. carpet), appliances (smaller, or unavailable) and supplies (like hard dish soap).
While living in Costa Rica, a favorite family activity was to go to Hypermas, the big grocery store in Escazu. It was like going to Wal-Mart, except that it wasn’t. We bought drinkable yogurt, milk in a box and brown eggs off the shelf and there was an entire aisle just for sardines! That’s what made it so much fun – it was foreign (well, really we were the foreigners).
When you’re abroad, the everyday things of life that you scarcely take notice of suddenly become a novelty.
2 – Culture
Culture to me represents the social thinking or conditioning of a group of people. It includes customs, food, group psychology, traditions, clothing, language and habits.
At home, you’re surrounded by a culture you’re familiar with. You know the food, the customs, the language, the social norms and traditions – what and when to celebrate, whom to worship, how to dress.
When you take a vacation to another country, you’re briefly inserted into a totally new culture. You notice the differences, but then return home to your well known life.
But when you live abroad, you are submerged into an unfamiliar culture, and then have learn to live with the dissimilarities you encounter. Sometimes this leads to frustration (why can’t they do it the way we do it in _______?), once in awhile humor (where did they ever come up with that?), perhaps annoyance (I’m sooo tired of potholes), but always it leads to reflection, which can help you analyze why you do things the way you do.
During the time that we were living in Costa Rica I had several different maids. ALL of them believed that you could NOT get your hands wet after ironing. Period. If you did it would cause major aches and pains in your hands and arms and lead to arthritis and other problems for the rest of your life..
I thought this was a rather absurd thing to regard as true, and was sometimes bothered by the fact that they could believe something so asinine. On various occasions I tried to prove them wrong, but to no avail. They firmly believed that’s how it was.
Over time, I realized it didn’t matter if that’s what they believed. The more important lesson was that I analyze what I believe, and make sure I wasn’t convinced a certain thing was true, only because I grew up believing it, just because I’d been conditioned to do so (do dogs really choke if they eat chicken bones?). Who knows, maybe they’re right about the ironing.
You begin to realize that some people do things one way, and others do it another. One way is not right, and the other wrong. They’re just different. And that’s good.
3 – Inspiration
Inspiration may come from a breathtaking landscape, beautiful architecture, a magnificent World Wonder or an incredible sunrise.
Or it might arise out of a particular experience, one that rouses within you the yearning to take the next voyage or to lend a hand to humanity.
I’ve had a desire for several years to begin a literacy program that would give people in poor communities the resources they need to educate themselves and their children. But it’s only while I’ve been living among the people I want to help that I’ve had the biggest inspirations about how to accomplish it. Living abroad, rather than simply visiting, provides me the opportunity to really absorb a place and receive all that it has to offer, in natural beauty, cuisine, customs and culture.
4 – Challenge
Living abroad removes you from your comfort zone. It places you face to face with new, and often uncomfortable, situations. Be it communicating in a language you don’t know, adjusting to different living conditions, or adapting to new customs, you’re challenged in entirely new ways.
While living in Las Galeras, Dominican Republic we had to adjust as a family to cold showers (at least we had running water) and washing our laundry by hand. It was difficult, but one of the most rewarding and unifying times we spent together. My husband and I grew closer, faster during those four months than at any previous time during our 8 years of marriage.
International living (especially in 3rd world nations) introduces you to world conditions that you might be uncomfortable with or psychologically disturbed by. Things such as extreme poverty, sanitation (or lack of it), sex trades, drug abuse or inhumanity. But with the challenge comes opportunity for personal change, which can ultimately lead to world change.
5 – Change
Ultimately the greatest repercussions of international living is the change it affects upon you as an individual.
I love living abroad because of who I have become as a result of doing it. Mark Twain said that “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.”
I have become a kinder, less judgmental and accepting human being. I’ve seen my views broaden and my mind expand, and more importantly, I see those attitudes reflected in my children, the next generation.
I think about the story of Robinson Crusoe. From an early age he had a yearning to travel, and though he was warned by many of the difficulties he would encounter if he pursued such a course, he followed that desire anyway.
The result was he did experience a lot of trouble, as he saw it. He was captured as as slave, shipwrecked, and ultimately lived alone on a deserted island for many years.
But those ‘troubles’ were exactly what made Robinson Crusoe. If he had followed the life of ease and comfort, he would have lived free from the struggles he encountered. But he would not be who he is, an icon of human strength, resolution and individual potential. If he had not followed the course he did, he would be unknown to us, just like everyone who chooses to take the well-traveled road.
When enough of us experience positive, personal change, positive world change is inevitable.
Living abroad has altered our family. It has provided us with enriching, rewarding exposure to life, in all its varieties. It defines who we are, but it has also made us who we are, and that’s why I choose “the road less traveled.”
Read about author Rachel Denning and check out her other BootsnAll articles.
All photos by Rachel Denning