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5 Reasons Why Living Abroad is Better Than Visiting

Living abroad: An invitation too alluring to miss
An invitation too alluring to miss.

My wife and I arrived at our new apartment in Moscow at around midnight, and by the next evening we were officially evicted, with our bags abruptly repacked for us and piled up at the door when we got home from work. In the living room, our school-appointed liaison to Russia was standing in tears as two thick-bodied people, later identified as Mr. and Mrs. Landlords, cleaned the place. She couldn’t really explain what was happening, but she did manage to state the obvious: “We need to leave now.”

It’s moments like these, and there have been many more over the years, in which I’ve questioned our decision to live in such-and-such a country. Emma and I have been robbed at gunpoint, picked up by Central American border police, tear-gassed during May Day riots, and once had to watch — keeping in mind we are vegan — as our Korean colleagues delighted in killing an octopus tableside and ingesting the legs as they continued to writhe. In Moscow, we were evicted again about four months later when the new Mr. and Mrs. Landlords sold the place we were renting mid-lease.

The funny thing is that I’d never want to live in Moscow again, but I could not imagine my life being as fulfilled without having lived in the country and having to overcome such obstacles. I would likely lack the stories. I would likely have a mortgage, car payments, and satellite TV package, which, while they do have their purposes, are not the exactly in the same class as starting a story with, "I was at the hardware store but had no idea how to say plunger…"

1. The Marvelously Mundane

Crowds on the amazing Moscow Metro
Crowds on the amazing Moscow Metro.

It sounds silly and maybe it is, but looking for a plunger, such a mundane and even undesirable task, is exactly the kind of thing that makes living somewhere so much better than just visiting. It provides interesting challenges. Such experiences push us — or at least Emma and me — to the boundaries of our ability to function within a new culture. From the daily unknowns, we learn how capable we can be when necessity, e.g. a clogged toilet, calls for a solution. In addition, there are little things — the daily commute, the daily or weekly shopping, the basics of language — to which we have learned to adapt that baffle visiting friends and family.

As a result of these experiences, when I travel now, I do so with much more confidence and calm. I’ve stoically faced and mastered a dozen mysterious public transport systems, even learned to appreciate the idiosyncrasies of each. I’ve shopped on weekly basis in vegetable markets from Moscow to Quito, sometimes with little more than the use of charades and pointing to communicate what I need, and always walked away well fed. While seriously long-term traveling can provide some of this out-of-sorts swagger, nothing compares to forging a full-fledged life abroad.

2. The Extraordinary Extras

View from the kitchen at home in Nicaragua
View from the kitchen at home in Nicaragua.

On the complete opposite side of mundane come the remarkable things that every place has to offer. As tourists, we are tempted to blitz through the highlights, checking off top ten lists and guidebook write-ups. As residents, there is no rush, but more importantly, there is always the option to revisit at our leisure when the mood strikes. I traveled to the Rome for a few days, and have pictures of me in the Vatican, at the Coliseum, and around the city. I wandered the streets, developed specific and wonderful memories, and would happily return. However, in the cities in which I’ve lived, experiences become more uniquely mine.

In Istanbul, where I lived for 10 months, I found a regular spot in Sultanahmet where I stopped for lemonade and hookah every time I went, knew the schedule at the Blue Mosque, and could aptly navigate the Grand Bazaar. I lived a couple blocks away from Istiklal Cadessi, the famous pedestrian street full of street performers, specialty restaurants, and ancient architecture. I took the ferry to Princes’ Islands about once or twice a month, with a routine of getting a breakfast simit (kind of like a sesame pretzel) on the way, and a cup of tea from the vendors on the boat. Such familiarities, or personal rituals, are specific to my own existence in such places that attract millions of travelers every year.

3. The Beautiful People

Teaching "the Chicas" to play Cornhole at Earth Lodge in Guatemala.
Teaching "the Chicas" to play cornhole at Earth Lodge in Guatemala.

Interacting with the locals is generally among most people’s top five reasons for traveling abroad, satisfying that intrinsic curiosity about how life is over there. As engaged travelers, we attempt a bit of the local language, we go off-the-beaten-track in search of real exposure to another culture. Many of us even engage in short-term volunteering to learn more about what people’s lives are really like (and how we might help). All of these activities are important and wonderful, and a big part of every trip I take. Sometimes I even develop friendships that defy the brief time meeting and getting to know another human being, yet somehow resonating and enduring as a real connection.

Currently, though, I’m living in a rural village in Guatemala for the third time. I have friends here. I’ve attended weddings at the village church, at some point taught nearly every child between the ages of eight and eighteen, and can’t walk down the street without being greeted by name. The people here are the indigenous Mayans. The women still wear traditional trajes every day and carry bundles of firewood on their heads. The children can handle machetes better than a child-safe pair of scissors. However much I may remain an outsider, an affectionately regarded gringo, I am a recognized cog in the community because they know I’m more than just another traveler passing through. Such acceptance is incredibly special and difficult to achieve without spending a serious length of time in a location.

4. The Lure of a Local

Playing backgammon in Istanbul
Another round of backgammon at our "Local" in Istanbul.

My wife is British, and she always refers to our regular pub, wherever we are, as our “local,” i.e. the close-to-home spot where our faces are recognized (like Norm at Cheers, for those familiar with the American TV show). Granted, most of us travel abroad to broaden our horizons, to get out of the rut of frequenting the same places at home. We want to see new things, taste exotic flavors, and find something better than the same old stool. The truth, however, is that traveling often leads us to hostel bars, sandy beach cafes, or clubs filled with other travelers out to discover the vibe of some popular city, while eating at tourist restaurants that serve similar pizza, burgers, omelets, sandwiches, and fried potatoes. After a while, such places and activities abroad while traveling become a blur—the same cleverly packaged getaway that eventually feels like a cliché.

I’m not saying these places are somehow unworthy of my patronage (many times our "local" is a tourist haunt), but I am saying that the experience is different when in a tropical lakeside town in Panama. The staff, foreign and locals alike, know who you are. Conversations are more apt to drift into things beyond where you’re from and how many beers you will be drinking. Often, when living abroad, the people at the "local," the smiling woman at the market, the friendly cashier at the nearby convenience store, become friends and their places feel something more like home. The four walls of a "local," or the many regular places we grow to love, the menu or product selections, become highly personal rather than general impressions of a location.

5. The Festivals and Foods

Otavalo Market in the eastern part of Ecuador
Tuesday’s Otavalo Market in the eastern part of Ecuador.

Nearly every country has a customary celebration for New Year's, and many have adopted Christmas in some form or fashion, be it secular or religious. Typically every country celebrates some sort of Independence Day, except for England, from whom so many colonies won their independence, as my wife points out... There are traditional dishes we’ve tried back home: falafel, fish and chips, Thai curry, Indian curry, borscht, kimchi, pupusas, and tapas. As a tourist, all of these holidays, if timed correctly, can be experienced, and all of the accompanying food specialties are available to enjoy. Yet as a resident, the festivals are endless and enlightening, progressively explaining more about the people around us, the way they celebrate, and the importance of moments that are often sacred rituals to the locals.

In Korea, in 2005, Emma and I became an official item after a Christmas Eve celebration. At that same celebration, I learned that Koreans of a similar age as us, the 20s in that decade, partied away Christmas but really celebrated New Year’s—a long-running tradition—much more solemnly with their families. On New Year's, Koreans receive gifts from their grandparents and eat a special soup called ttoekguk, with sliced rice cakes, while turning one year older upon the meal’s completion. Another unique element of the celebration in the culture, as my wife loves to tell, is that all Koreans are one when they are born and turn one year older on New Year’s Day—so theoretically, if a Korean were born on December 31st, he or she is two years older the next day.

The point is that foods, festivals, and foods at festivals are often the most intimate and even sacred connections an outsider can have with a location, and the longer the residency the more profound the sense of place.

Writing at our lakeside work-trade home in Panama
Writing at our lakeside work-trade home in Panama.

As with any look at a culture or way of living, it’s easy to scarcely scratch the surface. Traveling, by its fleeting nature, only reveals a tiny fraction of the nature of a place, just as this article, with its word limit, can only express a fraction of what a life abroad really means and involves. Hell, living somewhere for a year honestly only reveals a fraction more, but it’s in these incremental fractions that we can find a world in which we all share lives with surprising similarities and defining differences. I am all for travel if traveling is what you can and want to do. I say live abroad if the time is right. Only our innermost selves and external circumstances can determine which option is best, and only we personally can make the most appropriate decisions.

What I can say without hesitation is that living abroad is an experience that has forever changed and continues to change me, one so intoxicating that I’ve have not moved back “home” since leaving over 10 years ago, now a place so distant from my reality that it feels like I’m tourist every time I return. Ironically, I’ve appreciated and seen the U.S. more as a visitor than I ever did as a resident, and I’m much more aware of who I am as a person based upon the simple fact of where I was born and raised. It has both distanced me from and connected me with my past, my history, and my country. It has done more for me, as a person, than seemed realistic when I embarked on my odyssey.

A life abroad is not something to take lightly; rather it is a path from which more things become possible, the planet bigger than boundaries, people greater than national heritage, and existence more than predictable.

 More Articles by Jonathon Engels
How to Stay an Expat Indefinitely: 10 Tips from a Decade on the Move
Top Jobs Abroad for Long-Term Travelers: How to Extend Your Journeys

Jonathon Engels Jonathon Engels earned an MFA in creative writing. He has lived, worked and/or volunteered in seven different countries, traveling his way through nearly 40 countries between them. His many interests include permaculture, veganism, and ways to live sustainably.

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