At the Volunteers Colombia orientation in Bogotá, we were given a lesson on culture shock and how most people supposedly react to living in a new culture. It included a snazzy graph that looked something like this:
While that may describe many people’s experiences long-term, having been in Colombia for six weeks now, my graph, so far, would look much more like this:
(You can see why I’m not a graphic designer, but hopefully you get the idea.)
When reading other people’s travel blogs or looking at their Instagrams/Facebooks/whatevers, it can seem like moving abroad is a non-stop parade of mountaintop vistas, exotic meals, and dance parties. The reality, of course, is much more complicated.
Since I’ve been here I’ve had many amazing moments, but also many moments where I felt unbelievably lost and homesick and wondered what the hell I was thinking when I decided to leave home. Usually I have many of these moments, both good and bad, every day.
In no particular order, here are some of the things that make moving to a new country both so difficult and so awesome.
- Sometimes I’ll find myself doing something relatively banal (successfully giving directions to a taxi driver; ordering a coffee from my favorite tinto vendor and having him recognize me and know my order), and I’ll realize with amazement that I’m successfully navigating life, in Spanish, in Colombia – at least for a moment. It makes me feel like I’m on top of the world and can do anything.
- Seeing, doing, trying new things (duh!). Seriously though, it sounds cliché, but living in a new and foreign place just makes me feel more alive. Sometimes I feel like I’ve taken some kind of drug that heightens all my senses (I haven’t, I swear!). Every day I get to see and do new things, try new foods, practice a second language, and talk to people whose lives are completely different from my own. I feel like I learn more every day here than I do in a month at home.
- Constantly feeling like I stick out, both because of how I look (if being rather pale doesn’t give me away as a gringa, being 5’10” certainly does), and because I often don’t know how to do even basic things, like buying a bus ticket or figuring out where the heck the bus is even going. I feel like I’m constantly bumbling around and making a fool of myself, and sometimes I just want to find a cave to hide in and never come out.
- Having too much time to think. Due to a combination of SENA’s summer vacation schedule and some disorganization around scheduling classes, since I arrived in Medellín almost a month ago I still have not been given a single class to teach. While I feel like I shouldn’t complain about being paid to basically be on vacation in Colombia, having so much free time gives my mind way too much time to wander, which most often ends with me questioning what the hell I’m doing with my life and worrying about the future.
- The isolation. Moving to a new place alone, no matter where in the world you are, is always hard. Since coming to Medellín I’ve had to really push myself to go out and find ways to meet people – and sometimes I fail. In some ways, it’s easier to meet people abroad: local people are often curious about about me and want to talk (and in Colombia, at least, people are really friendly), while other foreigners are often in the same boat and looking to make new friends too. However, it is also more difficult in a lot of ways. It can be hard to figure out how to meet people in a new country, especially if you want to make local friends (which I do). There is also the struggle of the language barrier: when speaking to people in Spanish, which I’m only OK at, I have to deal with the constant frustration of never fully understanding what anyone is saying and never being able to make myself fully understood. Sometimes I feel even more lonely when I’m struggling to speak with people in Spanish than I do when I’m alone. No matter what, for a while everyone you meet in a new place is a new friend, and though it’s nice, it’s not the same as spending time with old friends or family with whom you can just relax.
In the end, despite the difficult times, I’ll take a life full of highs and lows and learning new things over one that is merely comfortable any day. And even in my worst moments, all I have to do is remind myself that I could be sitting in the gray cubicle in New York where I used to spend so much of my life – and suddenly I feel much better.