Today I was looking at the calendar and thinking about my placement in Sucre. I was thinking “wow, it’s been over 3 months”, so I looked it up and realized that it’s been exactly 100 days since we first stepped foot in this new city! Time really flies when you’re in a new place, because you’re always trying new things, learning lots, and meeting new people. So, I thought I would write a post about what I’ve learned about myself (and about moving to a new place) during those first 100 days. Here are the top 10 things that I realized during the last 3 months of my time is this cute, new, little city of Sucre, Bolivia!
- Making Friends Can be Difficult
When you accept a post in a new country, you have the organization to hopefully help you get to that city, find a place to live, and figure out your job responsibilities, but that’s about it. Once you’re settled in, you’re kind of on your own – and that can be quite lonely. In many place, there are already networks set up (of expats or locals) that you can join to simplify the process of making friends. Unfortunately, Sucre is not really once of those places, and you have to make friends one at a time. Also, many people in Sucre are just passing through, tourists who are in town for a week or a month at a time to practice their Spanish. These people are very friendly, and always down to check out something new in/around the city – but it’s hard to form lasting bonds since you know they’re going to be leaving soon. It’s something I’m still working on, since many of my previous friends have continued on their adventures through South America…
- Starting a New Job is Always a Bit Tricky
When you apply to a job, you read the description of the position before you apply. However, often when you arrive you expect a lot more instructions and guidance to actually figure out what you’re supposed to be doing on a daily basis. Most of the NGO world is very passionate about their cause, and trying their best to do great things for the communities they work in. Unfortunately, most NGOs are also underfunded, and hence understaffed, meaning that management tends to be extremely busy, with little time for guidance of their new volunteer. This problem is only exacerbated by joining an organization which primarily speaks a different language and has different cultural expectations. You definitely need initiative, patience, and flexibility to work in this world, where your job description may change quickly and frequently, and you must go with the flow to make sure that both you and the organization are happy with your placement.
- Learning a Language is like a Roller-coaster
Learning anything is tough, but a language is even more difficult because it’s necessary for every facet of your life – work, making friends, shopping, or taking a bus. When you picture learning something, you often think of your knowledge increasing steadily over time. For some reason, it’s not really like that, it’s more like a roller-coaster with a lot of ups and downs. Some days you feel like a rock-star, and the next day you feel like you don’t know a single word! It takes a lot of patience and determination not to give up, and to keep trying even when it’s hard.
- It’s Really Easy to Become a Recluse
When you don’t speak the language or have a lot of friends, it’s really easy to stay home and be lazy. It’s even easier for me because I live with Steve, so I don’t actually feel all alone, even when I’m being anti-social. It takes a lot of effort to put yourself out there, research events in the city, and try to constantly make new friends – and it can be exhausting! In Ottawa, I’m a busy-bee. I have a lot of networks for finding out new events in the city, and seeing a lot of friends of Facebook saying they’re interested in attending those events makes me excited when I think about going to. I’ll often have something on every single night of the week. But here it’s not the same… I don’t have those networks, and even when I hear the fireworks in the Plaza I have no idea what’s being celebrated. There have definitely been days when I’m happy to put on my PJ’s at 5 pm, flick on Netflix, and make some Kraft Dinner that’s in my stash of food from Canada….
- A Reliable Internet Connection is Amazing
There are a lot of things you take for granted in Canada (or any developed/western country). You expect the power to be on unless there’s a huge storm, you expect clean water to come out of our tap (unless you live in Flint, Michigan…), and you expect to have a reliable internet connection everywhere you go. In many countries, these things simply don’t exist. Although you can buy a generator for power, and a tank to store extra water if you have a lot of money, you can’t buy your way to better internet in a country where there is no capacity for it. Now, Sucre is definitely not the worst internet in the world – I can even watch Netflix or Skype sometimes. The problem is mostly that it’s not reliable. It can be working perfectly one minute and not at all the next – for no apparent reason. Even when writing this blog I couldn’t publish it right away because there wasn’t enough of an internet connection to upload pictures until a few days later. If using the internet is an important part of your work, you should definitely make sure that you can have access to it in the city where you’ll be living.
- Being a Trailing Partner is not as Glamorous as it Seems
I have always moved for work on my own, but since I work in international development, these moves happen quite frequently. I’ve been with my boyfriend Steve for 3 years, and it’s always been really hard leaving him for 6 months at a time and doing the “long-distance thing”. This time, since my position is longer, Steve decided to come with me, and I was so excited! I helped him pack, get his visa, figure out how to tell his parents, and everything else I had learned from my years of travel. It was going to be an exciting adventure – a good chance for us to examine this lifestyles and see if it was a good fit for us. He was excited to see a new city, learn a new language, and find his own volunteer/work opportunities. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to be travelling for someone else, and not having your own niche to settle into. It’s hard to find a job or make friends without knowing Spanish, and it’s hard to learn Spanish. But he started taking Judo classes and volunteering with a local childcare centre, so at least he has something to do during the day while I’m at work. I’m really happy that he decided to come, and I think it’s really brave to uproot your life to move to a new country. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t do it – but you should definitely recognize that it’s not always easy for your partner.
- It’s Really Nice to Have Quiet, Privacy, and Your Own Kitchen!
In many “developing countries” it can be quite difficult to find your own place, especially a furnished one. It’s even more difficult when you’re only going to be living in a place for a few months, since most leases can be for 1-2 years. Landlords also tend to favour locals for renting, and hence tend to require huge down-payments in advance. For example, our current apartment required paying 6 months of rent up-front – totally bonkers! Therefore, a lot of NGO workers end up living in shared accommodations like a hotel or hostel, where the meals are made for you, or you have to share bathrooms and kitchens with all of the other guests. I learned very early on that this was not the lifestyle for me. I’m perfectly happy to live in a shared accommodation for short periods of time, but if I’m going to live somewhere for a year I need my own space. It may be a bit more expensive, but it’s so nice to have a place to call home where you really feel comfortable, have some space and quiet, and can cook meals at any time of day.
- It’s Fun to Set Up a New House
Moving to a new place can be stressful, because you don’t always have a support network to help you with things. You don’t know where to shop, or how much things should cost. But setting up a new place to live really gives you an opportunity to explore the city. Thankfully, our house came fully furnished, but that didn’t mean that it was completely finished. There was a lot of little things we needed to buy to be comfortable for the year. We had a set of bedding, but wanted an extra set for when we were doing laundry. We had dishes, but wanted bigger glasses than tumblers. We had outlets, but needed some power bars and adapters to accommodate all our foreign electronics. Since we were forced to go find all these things, it gave us an opportunity to explore the markets, practice our Spanish, check out new areas of the city, and make fun choices about what would be great for making our house really feel like our own.
- Side-Hustle is Difficult to Start
Many people who work for non-profits, live as digital nomads, or travel often for work need a side business to keep things stable financially. Since I know I want to travel, but I’m never sure where my next job will be, I started looking into digital businesses I could join as a side-project. So far I’ve researched a bit about being a VA (Virtual Assistant), freelance writing, and online tutoring. However, all of these jobs need a good internet connection (which isn’t guaranteed in Bolivia), and most of them need some sort of time commitment each week (which isn’t always possible with my schedule). It’s also really hard to know how much time to dedicate to each part of your life. How do you prioritize everything you think is important? How many hours do you put into your primary job, secondary job, keeping physically healthy, being social, having down-time, writing a blog, being romantic, exploring your new community, and practicing a new language? I’m still trying to figure that out – since it never seems like there’s enough hours in a day for everything I feel like I SHOULD be doing…
- Frequent Mini-Vacations Keep Me Sane
Since I live in another country, people tend to think my life is one giant vacation. But when you’re living somewhere for more than a month it begins to feel like home, and it becomes a bit mundane as you develop routines. I’m also a bit of a Type-A person, so it’s difficult for me to relax and not feel like I should always be checking off items from my to-do list. For this reason, once I’m settled in a new place I like to take mini-vacations to nearby cities every month or so. For just a few days (usually a weekend since I’m working and don’t have many vacation days) I try to go to a new place. We take a bus, stay in a cheap hostel, and explore all the activities in a new community. This allows me to get out of my head and relax, and also gets me a terrific opportunity to explore my new area without breaking the bank.
So, what have you learned when moving to a new country or city? What’s the hardest part for you? What’s the best part? I think the experience is a little bit different for everyone!