“We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next to find ourselves”.  – Pico Lyer.

I’ll go ahead and say it: books can’t teach it all. Neither can universities or your job or your parents or even – brace yourself – our dear oracle, The Internet.

Here’s what I believe: if you focus on it within the big picture, you’ll see that learning is like breathing – it often happens through the natural course of life. But one factor has the power to bump it up a notch: surprise.

Why is surprise important? Simply put, it can get us interested in something – even at an early age. According to Jesse Singal, babies learn more when something surprises them. It turns out that curiosity sparks an increased ability to learn.

Isn’t that amazing? Let that sink in for a moment: surprise sparks curiosity, and this makes you able to learn more.

In those unpredictable moments of surprise, you’re not seizing the day – quite the opposite, actually. The day seizes you. Having your world flipped upside down can be delightful and terrifying. Sure it can. It can also be life-changing.

At least, that’s how it was for me.

Before I had children, before my days revolved around little surprises like pebbles in pockets and watercolour rainbows, I welcomed a mega surprise into my life.

It was, hands down, the best teacher I’ve ever had.

It was delightful and terrifying and life-changing, indeed. It also inspired wonder.

In 2011, I quit my job, packed up my things and moved to Guatemala. I was 35 years old. You can read about my big move here.

As I sat down to think about the surprising things I’ve learned from living abroad, I realized the list could go on and on. To make sense of it all, I asked myself what key elements were: a) most important to me and b) most useful for you.

Here, then, are 5 key things I learned from living abroad:

1) People are kinder than you think

I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned about kindness from living in Guatemala. Imagine your heart warming inside your chest – that’s what it’s been like for me.

That’s how transformative and revelatory my experience with local people has been. Over and over, people who can’t afford to buy soap, shoes or even salt have offered me food.

Me! A Canadian with Dove in my shower and Clarks on my feet. Blows me away.

While in some circumstances it’s good to beware of strangers, and by all means stay safe, we are often scared of trusting people. But in my experience, we’re more alike than we are different. If you reach out to locals in your travels, chances are they will respond with kindness. Heart-warming loads of it.

2) Everything is relative

I don’t know who coined the term “first world problems”, but I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately.

We all have very real troubles, and this post is not at all meant to depreciate them in any way. Yet most of us take it for granted that our floors aren’t made of dirt and our roofs aren’t made of corrugated metal sheets.

Yes, it’s unfair that some people are born with easy access to food, education and clean water, while so many others aren’t. I don’t understand it.

But I do understand this: we need to remember to be grateful for the basics. You can try, like Panda Elder did, to replace sorry with thank you. I didn’t quite grasp this concept when I was younger, and tended to not think of gratitude because it made me feel uneasy.

But now I get it! Gratefulness is something I write down in my planner, something I think about before falling asleep, something I remind myself of when I’m feeling down. Being grateful is a choice.

3) We can live without a lot of stuff

Oh, but stuff is so pretty. I know! I know. In my experience, stuff falls under two general categories.

It’s either soft/shiny/beautiful or practical/useful/handy.

But the next time you reach for that shiny, practical bottle opener that can pour wine without opening the cork, ask yourself: Do I need this?

Do I really need this? Can I be satisfied with the stuff I already own?

After spending six years without easy access to the latest gadget, I’ve come to realize that I can be happy without it.

When I first moved to Guatemala, I dived right into life with minimal commodities. I washed my clothes by hand and took (lightning speed) cold showers.

Not having hot water or a washing machine for two full years was irritating, sure. Still, when I think back to those early years in Guatemala, the lack of things is not what stands out for me.

What does come to mind are the significant moments, such as meeting my future life partner, or the way the wind whipped through my hair when I rode in the back of a pickup for the first time in my life.

When you’re in the golden years of your life, looking back, what will you remember?

4) Non-linear thinking is fascinating

Step into a developing country and you will understand that our perception of time is completely relative. As North Americans, we like timelines, milestones, goals. We like straight lines and destinations. We are linear thinkers.

Not everyone, I’ve discovered, is like that.

Circular thinking has been one of the most intriguing discoveries I’ve made while living abroad. For many rural Guatemalans I’ve met, conversations are an end to themselves.

Such conversations are all about the journey. It doesn’t matter why the chicken crossed the road, you see. The other side is there, but it’s not the main focus. As for the clouds of dirt kicked up along the way – well, now you’re talking.

5) It’s worth it – and here’s why

Why, you’ll say, would we choose the unexpected? Why even go there in the first place?

We do it to disrupt our circumstance. To discover the beauty that can only be found in the unknown. To see the world through a new lens, one we didn’t even know existed.

And when travel sparks a desire to prolong the experience, when we find ourselves not wanting to board the plane, it can lead to a mega move, like mine. Living abroad is its own form of commitment to the unexpected.

Some would say living abroad is like falling in love over and over again – full of wonder and discoveries and racing heartbeats. It’s definitely challenging, sometimes irritating.

And always, always, surprising. Just like any great teacher should be.


p.s. I quoted Pico Lyer at the beginning of this essay because he is such an inspiration. If you’re interested in traveling, I highly recommend his work. The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere (TED Books) is a good one.


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