What does an 800 kilometer hike across the north of Spain have to do with living abroad?
The lessons learned during a hike like this parallel what an expatriate might learn while living and working in a new country.
I hiked the Camino de Santiago in the summer of 2010. It was one of the most important experiences of my life.
Today I want to share the four key lessons that I learned on the Camino and how they can help you in your experience living abroad. Just remember, these are my experiences and my observations. I think these points can help you too but if you don't agree, feel free to move on to your next destination in the blogosphere!
Living Abroad: 4 Key Insights from the Camino de Santiago
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1) Accept that people in our lives come and go:
On the Camino we are basically on our own.
Even if we have decided to do the journey with a partner or in a group, we eventually hit a moment when we realize that we are alone.
It's not a feeling that we have to fear if we open to it.
We realize that our pace on the Camino is never the same as others. We follow different patterns and rhythms. We take breaks at different times.
When we first realize that our partner walks at a different pace, we might cling to him and ask him to slow down or speed up so that we don't have to be alone.
But if we can relax and let him go, we find a sense of peace, a sense of being ok with walking alone.
In our life abroad we hit a similar moment. We are faced with a choice. We can cling to people from home or we can let go.
We can attach ourselves to them even if they are thousands of miles away and we can stay safe in our own little world using Skype, email and text messages.
We can recreate our home culture by living with people from home, speaking our native language and eating food from our home culture every day.
That might work for a while but we also have another option.
Just like on the Camino, we can open to the sense of being uncomfortable. We can walk alone for a while and see what happens.
2) Focus on inner growth
On the Camino: How many pairs of shirts and shorts do you think you could fit in a backpack like this one?
The Camino is a 6 week, 25 kilometer per day journey where you carry your backpack the entire way.
What happens when you hand wash the same clothes every night and wear the same clothes every day?
You start to turn your attention away from things that don't matter, like clothing trends and designer brands. You start to focus on things that really do matter, like figuring out who you are without those expensive brands on your back.
"It's funny, at home you look different from the outside with each new day, yet on the inside you stay virtually the same. Here you're always the same on the outside, but on the inside, you change by the hour." -Hape Kerkling (on the Camino de Santiago)
In our life abroad: How many suitcases can you take with you when you move abroad before you start paying massive fees to the airline?
You can't take very many things with you when you move abroad.
In my opinion, the fewer possessions that you take with you when you move abroad to live and work, the better.
Why? Just like on the Camino, when you live abroad, you have a chance to stop defining yourself by your possessions and start taking a deeper look at who you are when all of that is left behind.
You become free to see a new side of yourself, your abilities, your potential and to take a closer look at what you really want in life.
My advice? Leave the ten pairs of shoes at home and bring two pairs. Trust that what you have is enough and that you are enough without all of your possessions.
3) Remember that pain is temporary
On the Camino: When you walk 25 kilometers a day, every day for 6 weeks, you experience pain.
It might be a torn muscle or ligament for those who didn't train for the journey. It might be an intense sunburn for some. It might just be exhaustion and the overwhelming feeling, after the first week, that you will never make it to Santiago. For almost everyone, it will be blisters.
Dealing with pain and discomfort is part of the experience.
But it will not last forever. The successful hiker takes the rest that he needs, treats his body with compassion and keeps moving.
In our life abroad: Moving to a new culture is not supposed to be easy. It isn't supposed to be smooth.
It should challenge you.
When you move abroad, you will experience pain. You might feel isolated or lonely if you don't speak the local language.
You could become easily frustrated when things don't work the same way they do at home. You will probably experience boredom and a sense that things aren't quite right but you're not sure what's wrong. You might also experience culture shock.
The important thing is to have compassion for yourself but also keep pushing yourself forward. Don't back down from the challenges that living abroad presents to you. Find someone to speak with and then accept the challenge.
This is a chance to grow. Don't shy away and hide from it when it gets tough.
4) Know that your mind is your biggest obstacle
On the Camino: When the hiker passes over the Pyrenees, through Pamplona and enters the Meseta, he encounters the ultimate test.
Is his mind strong enough to endure 8 hours of hiking per day, under the intense Spanish sun, with no shade and few opportunities to stop and refuel?
This is where the hiker meets his mind.
Often, he doesn't like what he finds.
Without the distractions of daily life, we are forced to deal with the restless mind. The restless mind is constantly scanning the horizon for a distraction- someone to speak with, a view to take in or a picture to snap.
The mind never seems to accept the present moment.
After about a week in the Meseta, the hiker has either started to calm his mind and has found a way to deal with boredom or he has given up, caught a bus and gone home, deciding that the Camino is not for him as soon as the green and white peaks of the Pyrenees gave way to the intolerably plain, hot, dry and dusty landscape of the Meseta.
In our life abroad: Sometimes life abroad is just like the Meseta. Some Interculturalists call it the end of the "honeymoon period" but it doesn't happen at the same time for everyone.
When you first move abroad, you might experience a sense of euphoria. You might say, "The people here are so nice!", "The food is so different and I can't wait to try everything!", "I want to visit every museum in this city!", "We are so lucky to have the chance to live here."
You go out every weekend. You explore. You have the adventure of your lifetime.
Then the euphoria stops and you hit reality.
You start to realize that this move isn't a short-term vacation. You are here for a year or two. You get bored and restless.
You start to criticize the local culture, the people, the ways of life. You seek out your home culture and feel the need to reject anything new.
Who is in the driver's seat here? It's not you. It's your mind.
Find a way to understand your mind and remember that even though your life seems crazy in your new country and you often feel overwhelmed and stressed, it is possible to find inner peace while you are on your assignment abroad.
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