33 Things I learned from 5 years living abroad

 

I spent five years living a life that previously would have been beyond my wildest dreams. Ghana, South Africa, Mexico and Cambodia were my bases but I made it to a further 15 countries in between. I worked in various capacities for volunteer abroad organisations and spent my free time travelling as much as my vacation allowance and bank balances would allow. Now I’m back in the UK I’m finally appreciating some of the many things those years taught me, like…

  1. All dreams are achievable (except for becoming a unicorn).
  2. How to open a can of food with a knife
  3. …and to always buy a can opener when you move into a new house.
  4. How to communicate non-verbally in a range of unusual situations (like when you need to buy soap from a market in Cambodia and no one in the vicinity speaks English).
  5. I am stronger than I think I am. I went ahead and tried out a lot of things that I wasn’t sure I was capable of, and succeeded at pretty much all of them. I was right to try, those opportunities lead to some of the most memorable experiences.
  6. I am also braver than I think; I never would have believed I would have had the guts to take the plunge and bungee jump off Victoria Falls…but I did.
  7. #5 and #6 taught me to say yes and challenge myself at every opportunity because you will always regret things you missed out on more than those you tried and didn’t enjoy.
  8. The depth of the friendship has absolutely nothing to do with its length.
  9. You need far less ‘stuff’ than you ever knew back home.
  10. How to cook ‘creatively’ with fewer ingredients, poorer facilities and less equipment.
  11. To say hello and thank you in 10 languages (these are after all the most important things to learn in a new place).
  12. Navigational skills (tip: when you leave your hostel to explore for the first time, always take note of which way you went, and maybe carry their business card, just to be safe).
  13. To eat (aka stomach) curry, or really anything spicy or unusual for breakfast (don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it, chilli comes a close second to caffeine for great ways to kick-start your brain in the morning).
  14. My way around the world’s most unusual and unsanitary bathrooms, and how to pee in the woods (or on the side of the highway when there’s nowhere else).
  15. That every now and then you just need a day off, with a movie and a plate of cheesey pasta, and that is perfectly OK.
  16. If you are travelling, take much less stuff than you think you need (that’s why hostels have laundry facilities) and leave room in your bag for souvenirs.
  17. If you’re moving to a new country, pay for excess baggage and take more than you think you need, because after 3 months you’ll just wind up having things sent over or buying extra’s because you’ve worn the same pair of shorts every day for the past 3 weeks.
  18. Put down your phone and speak to someone. You’ll get much more pleasure from the friends you meet as you travel than by reading about what everyone who isn’t there is doing on social media.
  19. Take lots of photos, they will become valuable memories.
  20. Document the small things that make you happy so you can remember them later: write a journal or a blog, keep tickets and receipts or Instagram memorable moments.
  21. You can buy soap and shampoo pretty much everywhere so stop carrying excess kilos in toiletries.
  22. Makeup will just melt off in the heat and make you spotty, give it up.
  23. Hair straighteners make you sweat, go natural.
  24. You will want to look nice from time to time, so you know, bring a nice dress to throw on once in a while.
  25. High heels…hahaha why bother. Flip flops are the god of shoes, unless you’re going somewhere cold.
  26. To research the weather before packing, no matter how many times people told me it would be cold in South Africa I only took two jumpers.
  27. Budgeting is important, but don’t limit your experiences to save money, there is a line – just try to find it.
  28. It’s OK to treat yourself every once in a while, whether that means a bottle of wine, your own room in a hostel, a nice dinner or an expensive ‘experience’, you don’t always have to justify it.
  29. Souvenirs will be great memories, don’t overload your backpack but do pick up a few of your favourite trinkets on the road.
  30. It’s all about the journey, not the destination – savour the small moments as they happen; dance, smile, connect.
  31. Go into the woods, or up a mountain, or to a remote island…get out of the hustle and bustle for a different kind of experience.
  32. Your trip = your choice. It’s OK to change direction, cut your time short or lengthen it, follow your heart and do what you want to- no one can make those decisions for you.
  33. Finally, go home. Not forever, not at any pre-designated intervals…but go home when you feel that the time is right, because the journey doesn’t actually have an end…it will continue for as long as you want it to.
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Just the good, no bad, no ugly: Coming home, 2 months on

If I told you that I had been in the UK for 2 months, after spending 5 years and 2 months overseas, and you asked me ‘how’s it going?’, you might expect me to rattle on for hours about the weather, feeling tied down, the amazing things I was doing 1, 2, 3 and 4 years ago today… We spend too much time dwelling on what we had and what might have been, and not enough time appreciating our own decisions. There is no need for justification, but there is a need to celebrate the highs and be grateful for our circumstances. So here’s to the good, the reasons that I am glad I made this decision.

  1. I have the means to put my own needs first. This ties into the freedom that comes with having a less demanding job (of my time specifically), and the amenities that the UK holds, like supermarkets that stock a huge range of vegetables and a gym 5 minutes walk from my front door. 2017 is all about being healthy and healthy means happy.
  2. I am achieving the things I hoped to. Even just 2 months in I can see myself progressing towards my goals. These are not new aims, but things that were always sidelined by work or play. Life abroad is demanding of your time in so many ways, and I have no regrets for seizing (almost) all the opportunities that crossed my path, but they came at the expense of my time. For me, a huge goal for this year is to write as much as I can, and here we are, January 19 and I have already gotten articles published on 2 websites that I haven’t previously featured on.
  3. I enjoy work, but I have more separation with my home life as well. I am no longer living and working and socialising and everything with the people I know. I am suddenly finding that I can spend holidays with uni friends, weekends with family and vacation with travel buddies. That’s balance, and it’s good.
  4. I can travel to the places that have been lingering at the top of my bucket list for years. I am centrally located, less restricted by my financial situation and well located for Heathrow airport. It’s time to check off some of the long pursued, dream destinations.
  5. I have a home. I have a base that is not just a temporary rest stop but a permanent home, somewhere I plan to be for some time. I can lay down roots without questioning their worth and buy useful things like a can opener without wondering if it is worth it.
  6. I can see the future and all of its possibilities. Although I don’t know where I will end up or what path I will take, I can see a range of opportunities and I am so excited by my options.
  7. I can try all kinds of new things. I can take classes in the evening to develop my writing, my Spanish or practice yoga. I am in a place where there are so many things to try like trampolining dodgeball courts and ninja warrior classes, and I finally have the time and the resources to give some new things a go!

Coming Home: 6 weeks on

So my adventures ended, after a quick jaunt around Inle Lake, a trip on the road to Mandalay and a final feast at the Little Rangoon Teahouse in Yangon, I was on a plane to Bangkok, spent my last 4 hours in the amazing LubD Siam hostel and jetted back to Manchester via Helsinki (where it was snowy and I was in cropped leggings and a hoody).

After 5 years and 2 months of amazing adventures; 4 jobs on 3 continents and a total of 17 countries visited, I made the decision to move back to the UK ‘permanently’ in March of last year. It was a decision founded on a number of things, the need for stability, both financial and social, the need to focus on different aspects of my life and the desire to be closer to family and friends. Most importantly, I had so many goals which were overlooked because I was working long hours, didn’t have the means or simply, geographically, couldn’t fulfil them. I wanted to create a new life, with more focus on me and less focus on work, to spend a couple of years pursuing other goals to see where I would end up.

So I quit my job, the position that had failed to satisfy me through a lack of challenge and a weight of responsibility unmatched by the rewards. But I wasn’t ready to dive onto a plane to the UK, I travelled, in Cambodia with my Mum, and then through Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar, which you’ll know all about if you have read my blog before. During my adventures I was fortunate enough to secure a job in the UK ready for when I got home.

Coming back to the UK has been a learning curve all of it’s own, it is so long since I have lived here that I struggle with basic things like how to manage my utility bills or decipher all of the different broadband package options. It hasn’t been smooth sailing, I struggled to settle on a flat, although eventually ended up in a place I am comfortable, I drowned my new iPhone just weeks after getting it (although it fortunately made a full recovery), setting up a new place with limited funds hasn’t been easy either, but I am getting there now.

What’s next is the pursuit of those goals and dreams, the need to start realising elements of my dreams to make this choice worthwhile. As we enter 2017, I am in a new place, creating my own reality and no longer limited by the complexities of my work or environment. I enjoy my new job but I leave it in the office, and come home by 5pm to take time for me. I am excited about what lies ahead, and certain it will involve as many trips and adventures as possible along the way.