Travel writer Ben Groundwater has lived all over the world. Here, he argues that moving to a new country, getting a job, and doing as the locals do might just be the best ‘travel’ experience money can’t buy.
They say you never really know a place until you’ve lived in it. And it’s true. You can’t appreciate a city or a country until you’ve taken the time to get to know it, discover its quirks and its eccentricities, its secrets and its lies, its passions and its desires. You can’t know the world until you’ve stepped out of the travel bubble and experienced normality.
And the only way to do that? Live there.
You have to pack up everything you own and move yourself to a foreign land. You have to learn to survive far from home. You have to make friends and make a life for yourself in a strange and wonderful place.
That’s what living abroad is all about. I have a friend who calls it ‘traveling without moving’–the idea that instead of taking a series of short holidays to different parts of the world, you should instead commit yourself long-term to just one place, to learning the language, learning the culture, getting a job and an apartment, and just being there.
That’s still a travel experience. In fact, it might just be the ultimate one.
Think about it. Instead of existing as a tourist, carting around your camera and your daypack, skimming across the surface of the world, gathering small chunks of memories to take home as souvenirs, actually living in a new place forces you to go deeper. You have to consider the realities of a destination: how to find a house there, how to find a job there, how to converse with locals, and how to fit into a culture that might be markedly different from the one you’re used to.
It forces you to fight for survival. It also makes you realise that you can put up with a lot more than you ever thought possible. It makes you realise you can leave behind your family and your friends and everything you’ve previously known and start again—and be successful. It changes your life forever, even when you go home.
Living abroad is the ‘slow food’ of travel. It’s the desire to take your time, to appreciate a place for what it is, to learn about it and grow with it over a long period of time.
I understand far more about that beautiful, funny, crazy country than I ever would if I’d just gone as a tourist.
Some people take baby steps when they decide to move overseas, perhaps living in a place that’s culturally similar although still far from home. They might move to England to work in a bar, or the US to work at a summer camp, or Australia to work in a hostel. It’s a way to ease into a new life, to make new friends, have a bit of fun, and see how things work on the other side of the world.
Others take a far deeper plunge into the unknown. They enroll to work in aid or development, attempting to make a life in a developing country, such as Cambodia, Mongolia, Ghana or Guatemala.
I chose Scotland for my first experience of living overseas. I left home in Australia, took some money, (and some warm clothes), and moved to the north of the country to pick fruit and see what the world would throw at me. I’m still friends with some of the people I met on that trip, and I understand far more about that beautiful, funny, crazy country than I ever would if I’d just gone as a tourist.
I lived in the USA next, flipping burgers at a ski resort. I learned that the American healthcare system is terrible. I learned that being a 19-year-old in the USA is not much fun when you’ve been going to pubs, legally, for a year or so back home. I learned that there’s a brand of cold in Colorado that seeps into your bones—and doesn’t let go until spring.
I lived in the Netherlands too, discovering the contradictions of that amazing little land, that a people can be so liberal and yet so conservative at the same time, that no one really smokes pot there, and that Dutch toilets are the weirdest things in the world.
The reality, though, is that it doesn’t matter where you choose: the experience will be similar anywhere you go.
It will be hard at first. You’ve left behind everyone you know, and in many cases everything you know. That’s tough. Finding a home can be hard. Finding a job can be hard.
But it will get better. So much better. You’ll meet people who will change your life. Maybe there will be others like you, people who’ve shared your experience, people who want to make new friends and go out exploring every night and live every day like they’re on holiday. Travelling without moving. Or maybe those friends will be locals, who give you the insights into their country and their culture that you could never gain as a tourist.
And gradually, slowly, inevitably, you’ll feel like you belong in this new place. That’s a feeling of achievement that will stay with you for your whole life.
Moving to a new country is a travel experience, and it’s a life experience. It’s also something everyone should do at least once.