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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